Innkeeper, street vendor, wool weaver: all sleeping. Traveler, road watcher, bread baker: all dreaming. Carpenter, brick layer, clay potter: all dozing. Cold shepherd, star gazer, wise midwife: wide awake.
Young soldier, wise rabbi, landowner: all abed. Census staff, messengers, young children: all snoring. Important, powerful, the “normal”: they miss it. The outcast, the restless, the strange ones: they hear first.
Heartbroken, discarded, pushed away: still awake. Broken souls, groaning ones, frightened folk: open eyes. Mourning lives, empty chairs, lonely ones: let them see Christmas comes first for those who need the hope’s light most.
No tinsel, no label, no price tag: love comes down. For the lost, for the sad, for the hurt: love comes down. Through the tears, through the dark, through the grief: love comes down. Emmanuel, Prince of peace, Savior: Love and Light, Meet us here where we wait, wide awake and in need.
Rev. Robert Dean, Composed December 15, 2022; First Shared at Trumansburg UMC’s Blue Christmas Service December 21, 2022;
Verse 19 compares the feelings of homelessness and affliction to being poisoned to the brim with bitterness. I understood those feelings as I consider my past. I remember more than the feelings that came about in the first days after I filed for divorce. I remembered tears from a broken heart behind closed doors, sodden pillowcases, and the bitter feeling of knowing that promises made at the altar meant nothing. The shame, the guilt, the uselessness, and futility still come to mind easily even after time has begun to heal my wounds.
After all of this comes to mind, does Jeremiah give up hope? No, instead the very pain in Jeremiah’s soul transforms from a place of broken doubt to a place of stubborn waiting. The grief and loss do not translate into a faithless existence but into a spirit that will steadfastly wait for God to act. This! This is a feeling I know! “Waking” after sleepless nights, pulling on my boots, and stepping into my role as a minister with all of the confidence I could despite my own sorrow. This I know!
Helping church members say goodbye to loved ones with the compassion that comes from knowing what it is like to come home to an empty home! That was an act of faithful waiting! Sharing communion with people with the understanding that comes from knowing what it means to share a “meal” with others when you eat alone the rest of the week. That was an act of faithful waiting! Listening to the troubles of others knowing what it is like to have nobody at home to listen to my struggles. That was an act of faithful waiting!
Even now, I wait. The poem I wrote is as much a prayer for God to act as it is a piece of poetry inspired by this passage. I hope it is helpful and brings to mind the reality that brokenness does not mean that healing is beyond you.
"Homeless and poisoned in my inmost soul"
I ponder the broken and sleepless nights.
Endless tears fell into fathomless hole
as I thought of all of my stolen rights.
Future empty and present in shambles,
hopeful words called out from the ancient past
before wounds left me with frothing rambles:
that place where only ashes seem to last.
I remember the hope flickering faint.
I beheld the light that would not go out.
Even shattered, the call to be a saint,
not of perfect life, but one lived through doubt.
I remember and still I sit and wait
for the Just One to come bearing our fate.
October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.
Okay, so this one is going to require a stretch of one’s imagination. This morning I was working through Genesis 1:1-2:3 out of the Common English Bible as a part of today’s reading with our church’s DISCIPLE Bible Study group. In my reading of this passage from the Common English Bible today I found the text to be replete with words of plenty. We noted in our study this week that the mindset of the reader, the context where the text is read, and other variables affect the way we approach scripture. Today I must be feeling very open hearted and expansive as the words that I read were filled with expansive imagery.
As an example I would point out how in Genesis 1:14-15 God speaks expansively of the lights in the dome of the sky. These lights are signals and signposts of the passage of time, the coming of seasons, and invite creation into sacred times. Keeping in mind that I take these portions of the scriptures as sharing truth born of wisdom rather than concrete facts born of the scientific method, I was the heavens brimming with lights pouring forth after the divine word. Letters from divine words arcing out from the divine mouth before shifting into stars, moons, and the special star known as our sun. In such ways, God speaks and the world and universe are transformed from chaos into creation.
When God speaks of humanity, even the Common English Bible uses words of mastery, but I did not read words of domination into the creation account today. Humanity masters the world not for domineering or destructive purposes but for the cause of caretaking. Humanity takes charge of the fish, the birds, the animals, the plants, and all of the wandering and stationary lifeforms that cover the globe for the purpose of creative caretaking. God spoke into the world words of life and humanity is invested with the divine image in order to continue to work in the divine image as caretakers and agents of blessing to help keep the world from slipping back into chaos.
The story is quite beautiful when read with an expansive and generous mindset. What does any of this have to do with Domestic Violence or Domestic Violence Awareness? In the end, the connection I made in my mind is a very delicate one.
If we are called to treat creation with such care and respect, how can we live lives where we exert our will violently on each other? If we are called to be caretakers and agents of blessing, how can we decide to turn our backs on this divine call to love in order to strike out at the people in our homes? If the very core of our creation narrative revolves around humanity existing for the purpose of blessing, how can we curse the people we live with day by day in such abominable ways?
To be certain, if I were to read this text as a text inviting domination, a case could be made, but the whole of scripture is wildly biased against such views. While there are certainly stories of domination in our scripture, the whole of the Bible is thrown from such ways of thought by the person of Jesus.
In John 8, Jesus was offered an opportunity to dominate another person and to stone to death a woman who committed adultery (in the context of a society where that was legal, which was a different context than our society where such punitive behavior is illegal, immoral, and labeled as absolutely wrong by both church and state). Even though it was permissible, legal, and in accordance with the religious rules of Jesus’ day, Jesus refused to engage in such brutal acts. This is just one example of many where Christ taught love in situations that invited brutality.
I cannot see Jesus approving of domestic violence taking place in our homes. Even if we could read words of domination into scriptures like those found in Genesis 1:28, I cannot see Jesus approving of such behavior. Passages like those in Genesis can be read with different eyes than those of a person seeking to dominate or subjugate others. If we can read such words with grace and plenty in our minds, then we can consider the idea that we were never meant to dominate, demean, or subjugate the people who share our slice of the garden in this life.
October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.
Sermon: “A Letter to God” Preached; October 10, 2022 Scriptures: Luke 17:11-19; Psalm 111 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Holy Christ, I wanted to write you an open letter this morning for a few reasons, all of which you already know. The fact that you know the contents of this letter is one of the fun parts about writing a letter to you, but I am fairly certain you do not mind my sharing this letter with your congregation.
One reason I chose to write you a letter this morning is the very real tiredness which comes from attending Annual Conference for several days in a row. Preaching a sermon while looking people in the eye and focusing on body language is a bit much after several days of long meetings. Such a presentation might be beyond me this morning, but presenting a letter is within my capacity.
Another reason is the very real challenge that comes with the subject matter. You know the subject we are speaking around is very near and dear to my heart as a person. I wanted to choose my words carefully around this touchy subject, so I chose each word in advance this week.
So, dear Lord, let me get to the heart of why I wanted to write to you today. The scripture reading that we just read included a psalm from the Hebrew Scriptures around the work of God and a story from Christ’s life. The psalm shared how your goodness and majesty are embodied within the earth. You are described in words with words like majestic, glorious, righteous, and honest. In covenant, you are revealed as faithful, trustworthy, merciful, and compassionate.
Now, you know what I do for a living. As an Elder in the United Methodist Church I am called to a ministry where I share the Word, offer the Sacraments, invite others alongside the community into a life of Christian Service, and Order the church life through acts of administration with ordained authority. While I live out my ordained role within the community I perform wedding rites, counsel and encourage individuals and couples in relationships, and help to advocate and work towards ensuring that the churches I serve are safe places for children and vulnerable adults. I am in ministry with elder saints, married adults, single adults, adults in relationships, with teenagers, and with children. To put it in Methodist terms, since “the world is my parish,” I am called to minister to all parts of the community and not simply the people who walk through the doors of my church or who officially enter church membership..
I enjoy what I do for a living. I derive comfort from helping others. I enjoy sharing in deep conversations about you (God) and about what life can be like while living with you. If it were not for paperwork, there are very few days where going to work feels like drudgery, but that does not mean that it is always easy or painless.
In those moments of both joy and pain, I rely on you both as the One who walks with us and sets an example for us. You, Lord, are all the things described in our psalm. When I marry people, I share with them about the way that Christ models a healthy way to live in love with a spouse. When I confirm students into church membership, I ask those students point blank about their relationship with you, their divine parent and Savior. All of these conversations use relationships as a simile for our relationship with you. God, you are like our Parent. God, you are like our spouse.
So, what am I supposed to do when I come across places where spouses hit spouses? Didn’t I just say that a loving relationship with a partner is like a loving relationship with you? Do such analogies work after a spouse bruises a spouse? Do they do more harm than good after such moments? In a similar vein, what do I say when a teenager tells me that their parent or parents tear them down? What do I say when a child tells me that their parent does not love them? What do I say when a child mentions one parent hitting another?
The other day you know that I had Chinese for lunch on the first day of the Annual Conference. You know what that fortune cookie told me. The cookie stated in bold fashion that “Fate loves the fearless.” You know that I read that fortune and thought of this moment in this letter to you. You know the questions I wanted to ask after reading that short little proverb.
It is nice to think that people who are unafraid have a place to live in this world. What of the others? Who favors the fearful? Who favors the frightened? Who favors those who have felt pigeonholed into places of darkness and doom?
We know as a people that domestic violence is not okay. The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church affirms that belief when it shares on behalf of the church the words: “We recognize that family violence and abuse in all its forms—verbal, psychological, physical, sexual—is detrimental to the covenant of the human community.”
We understand that domestic violence is not acceptable and harms the covenants within our community. We understand that God cares for us deeply and does not want us to suffer in such ways, but these actions happen in spite of our best intentions and desires.
So what do we do, Lord? Where do I point as a proclaimer of the Word? If people see you as their divine parent and their example of a parent is violent, then how do I share that there’s a difference between what the worst of humanity shows us and the way you want to care for us? Where can I point? Where can I tell a hurt person to look?
Of course, you know the answer to that question. I already know the answer to that question. A lot of people who have spent time in church know where I should invite people to look. Where do I point people who have such questions, concerns, and fears?
I point them to Jesus. When they need to see a person whose life is marked by compassionate love rather than impassioned hatred, I point them to Jesus. When they need to see a person who does more than say pretty words, I point them to Jesus. Jesus not only spoke about love and nonviolence, but went so far as to heal the ear of a soldier who was hurt by Jesus’ disciple when that soldier came to arrest Jesus on the night before his crucifixion.
Look at our story! Jesus is confronted on the road by ten people with skin diseases which were identified by translators for many years as leprosy. There are ten lepers on the road who need help. They are unclean and by both religious law and cultural tradition they had to keep their distance from Jesus and his disciples. From a distance they cry out for help.
Does Jesus berate them? Does Jesus throw things at them? Does Jesus mock them? Does Jesus ignore them? Does Jesus tell them to go somewhere else? Jesus does none of these things.Jesus heals them. All ten of them. Nine of them are healed, but apparently have their own plans about what to do next. The nine walk away, but one returns.
Was this person a rich person? We don’t see that in the text. Was this cleansed person a person of importance? We don’t see that in the text. What we do see is that this person was that there was more going on with this person than just a skin disease. This person was a foreigner from outside the Jewish people. Beyond unclean, this person’s entire being was outside of the people God called and sanctified in the desert.
So, Jesus was nice to this leper when there was just a disease and the leper was one of many. Perhaps now Jesus will reject this person as a distraction, a nuisance, or an outsider? Perhaps now Jesus will strike the foreigner, mock the foreigner, or just ignore the fact that they have returned.
Jesus doesn’t do any of those terrible things. Jesus does not strike out at this person physically, verbally, or even culturally. Jesus invites this person to go forth as a person who has been healed. Even though the praise of God comes from someone other than a child of Abraham, Jesus welcomes the praise, accepts the thanks, and sends this person out with a blessing. There isn’t even a touch of cruelty shown to this person. All that remains is love and kindness for a person who needed help.
This is the kind of example that I point to when I tell people to love their partner like Jesus. This is the kind of behavior a loving parent should show their child, should model in their home, and should ideally invite their child to share with someone else one day. Do I expect that anyone can live this kind of a loving life 24/7 without divine help? No, but this is the ideal.
The love shown by Christ when shared between two people is holy and good. It does not harm or hate. It does not mock or denigrate. It does not tear down or destroy. It is good, holy, and kind. This is the love I want people to share with God. This is the kind of love that I pray will fill the lives of the people who stand before me when I perform a marriage. This is the kind of love I pray will anoint every child and every adult that I baptize. This is love incarnate.
Of course, I know that trust is hard, especially after the wounding that can take place when people face domestic violence. Here’s what I propose. God, if we do our best to trust that you are kind, loving, and graceful, will you help us to believe? Will you meet us in the moment we are tempted to see you in the same light as the broken parts of humanity we may have seen? Will you help us to believe in you when the worst criticisms of all come from within?
Truthfully, although this letter addresses domestic violence as a major issue, I hope that you will meet people who struggle to believe in a loving God in other situations. Some people live life with happy parents, loving children, and without a cloud in the sky of their home life while still struggling to believe. Will you meet them too? Right here and right now, will you meet them if you ask for help?
I trust you will meet everyone who turns to you in these moments. I trust you will help people to come to know love deeply, to understand hope intimately, and to cultivate faith in the internal garden they share with you.
Likewise, I trust that the people who hear me read this letter to you or who read it later on their own will understand the message that should not need to be said. The Book of Resolutions teaches after the passage we read before that:
“We encourage the Church to provide a safe environment, counsel, and support for the victim and to work with the abuser to understand the root causes and forms of abuse and to overcome such behaviors. Regardless of the cause or the abuse, both the victim and the abuser need the love of the Church. While we deplore the actions of the abuser, we affirm that person to be in need of God’s redeeming love.”
¶161.ii.h. “The Nurturing Community, Family violence and abuse” in the Book Of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2016
If someone who reads these words needs help, we are called to be a place where help can be found, whether they are the victims or perpetrators of domestic violence. All people are called to the redeeming and redemptive God of love and we will do our best to walk with each person who comes in need of help. Taking it a step further theologically and philosophically, as a church we will work with you through the Spirit so that we can do better than our best in such moments.
In the end God, for me the journey towards healing begins in trusting in You. Whether we are recovering from abuse, facing abuse, living out destructive patterns of abuse, or walking with others who face such terrors, we are called to trust in Christ. Like the foreigner long ago, we can choose to walk away even after Christ works in our lives. We can also choose to come back in faith.
It is only in returning to Christ that the cleansed person found welcome. It is only by stepping towards God in faith that the foreigner was sent forth with a blessing. In stepping towards Christ an example was set where blessing came from drawing near even after all was made right in that person’s life.
I would end this letter with a straightforward prayer: Holy God, help us to draw near to you. As someone who has faced such circumstances, help me to offer words of hope to others as a minister, an advocate, and as a Christian. Help each Christian to stand for a world where abuse fades in the light of love. Teach us to advocate for redemption in the lives of the least of these as well as healing in the lives of those they have abused. Help us to treat them like we would treat Jesus. Let that light of love shine in dark corners and help to bring hope into the darkest of places. We ask for your help in Jesus’ name. Amen.
October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. Don’t give holy things to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls in front of pigs. They will stomp on the pearls, then turn around and attack you.
Matthew 7:1-6, CEB
One of the hardest things for me to accept along the path I have walked was my own need to have perspective. Along life’s journey I had come to believe that it was judgmental to look critically at someone else’s actions, especially if I knew that I was imperfect. I have had to learn to have perspective.
I am a trained Biblical scholar who has spent over a decade teaching other people to take the scriptures seriously. One of the largest tools in my toolbox is to model a response to scripture by considering deeply how the scriptures affect my every day life and living in light of those considerations. In particular, I have felt compelled by both belief and position to move past being judgmental to a place of loving acceptance of other people.
As a result when things happened that were unacceptable, I did my best to look for the log in my own eye. When I was yelled at for fulfilling a basic need, the assumption I immediately made was that the thing I thought I needed was the issue. Many times over the years I had wanted things that were less than necessary, so I thought that the needs I had in the those moments must now must also be unnecessary.
Over the years I spent a lot of time looking for the log in my own eye. I thought that all of the problems my family faced were my fault. I listened to the words over and over until I agreed with my partner when she stated that everything wrong in our life together was my fault. If I wasn’t so broken, things would be great. If I wasn’t so needy, she wouldn’t yell. If I could do a little better, she wouldn’t need to laugh at me.
In hindsight, the relationship was toxic to the point that I really did start having a problem that needed fixing. The primary problem was not that I fell short in many ways, although I still had shortcomings and still have shortcomings. The problem was that I took the good life that God had given to me and kept handing it over to someone who would stomp on what was good in me, turn, and attack me.
To be absolutely clear, the problem was not that I was too judgmental and should immediately stop to find out what was wrong with me. The problem was that I valued myself so little that I forgot one of the most holy tenets of my faith: that God loved me and cared about me deeply. While this was happening, I taught others that God was not okay with such behavior out in the world. The things I taught did not line up with the life I lived.
In practice, I forgot that God was not okay with the mocking laughter or the verbal abuse inside my marriage. Even as I taught that others should never hit their spouses or partners, I continued to forgive the pain of what I considered brief but forgivable moments throughout the years. I had all the grace I could muster for others but accepted no part of that grace in my own life.
I didn’t deserve such behavior and I should have asked for help. If you are going through something similar, you don’t deserve such treatment either. Years later, I am working hard to get to a point where I can look in a mirror without hearing the words that I should never have accepted in the first place. It hurts to admit it, but I can’t look at the good person in the mirror without hearing how I’m “pathetic.”
Being forgiving is a wonderful and noble thing. Humility is an important and powerful gift of the Spirit. Neither forgiveness nor humility make Domestic Violence acceptable. From my perspective as a Christian, I believe that each one of us have been given gifts that are holy and good. We should never throw them before the swine of the world that will trample them and attack us for sharing our lives.
October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.
In my house there is a set of wooden blocks that all of my children have played with over the years. During a recent visit, the blocks were pulled out and I had a chance to play with my youngest. At one point she asked if her castle was beautiful. I told her that it was an amazing castle.
The bricks are not fancy bricks. As you can see, they’ve been written on, worn down, and in some places have started to chip and splinter away. While we have always made sure they are safe, they’re simple blocks. They don’t make sounds, they don’t scream out in bright colors, and they are extremely simple. They also have been the favorite toys of all of my children at one point or another, probably because I can’t help but play alongside them.
In the devotional today, we read the story of a man with a withered hand being healed by Jesus in Luke 6:6-11. Here was a man whose hand was wounded, whose wellbeing was considered less important than the Sabbath rules, and who was used as bait to trap Jesus. In other words, he was only useful in this moment as a tool rather than as a person.
Jesus loved the man and brought healing into his life. Where other people might see woundedness and assume it was a punishment from God, Jesus saw a person in pain. Where others were happily using the opportunity to find dirt on Jesus, Jesus saw a chance to do something wonderful for a man in pain. If this man was a toy, it would have been a pretty sad toy. Jesus restored rather than rejected. Jesus loved the man despite the consequences.
Jesus loved this man and healed him. In my life, I sometimes feel like the old bricks that might be ready for retirement. It is easy to dismiss your needs and value as unimportant or insignificant. We really should think twice before we try to throw our own self-worth out with the bath water. Jesus loves us even if we only see the worn edges or the lack of bells and whistles. Jesus loves us dearly as the people we are right now.
My photo for today is a picture of a single leaf that I found fluttering besides a walkway in the Sapsucker Woods north of Ithaca. I walked through the woods last fall and saw this life. As I contemplated how the leaf sat on the end of the branch alone, I found a kinship with the leaf as it fluttered alone.
Is it better to laugh than to cry? Not always. It is certainly better to come to a place where you can laugh with Jesus rather than laugh at Jesus. Grief is a powerful thing and can cause a great amount of pain and disorientation. Would the parents laugh in the same way if Jesus had arrived before their child passed away? Often grief blinds us to the possibilities in front of us. The parents in the story with Christ were clearly in a place where they could not see beyond their grief.
I chose the picture of the leaf for “enough” for several reasons. First, the leaf was a beautiful leaf. As lonely as it seemed, it was still lovely. I am also enough even when I am alone. You are enough even when you feel lost or alone.
Second, I chose the leaf as an affirmation of the fact that last fall while I was on an afternoon walk there was enough goodness in the world that I was shaken out of my thoughts. I lay on the ground to get this photo from this angle. Would I rather have been somewhere else? Yes, but even when I was disoriented and somewhere I did not want to be, there was enough beauty in the world that goodness shone through my own sorrow.
Third, I chose the leaf as an affirmation of the fall. What I think is permanent today will one day fade away. My life is that of a leaf. One day it will be done. God willing, one day another leaf will fill my place in the world. I hope you have such a hope as well.
While it can be difficult to come up with a connection between the Lenten Photo-A-Day and the theme of the day, today was an easy selection for me. I know of the perfect present that has taught me about a hunger that goes deeper than just a craving for food.
I spent last Thanksgiving with my brother and his wife. For the first time in years, I did not spend Thanksgiving with my wife and it was the first time in 13 years that my eldest was not around complicating things. It was a heartbreaking experience that I know many others have experienced over the years.
After Thanksgiving, I had an opportunity to visit with my kids. In a red folder, I received a picture from my youngest. She had colored a picture of a turkey and wanted me to have it.
I practically ran to hang it up in my bathroom. When my kids are around, they see the turkey hanging there and I remind my youngest that I love it. I truthfully tell her that I say a prayer for her each time I notice it, whether it is the middle of the night or first thing in the morning.
Once upon a time, we had so many pictures come home from school that it was hard to choose. When my eldest was in second grade and my middle child was in kindergarten, our refrigerator was practically a battlefield when we had to decide what picture would go where. My refrigerator was “full” of pictures.
Now, the pictures are few and far between. I am hungry for pictures from my kids. I never realized how lucky I was to have all of those pictures filling my fridge. Like almost all parents, but not in the same way as most, I went from a full nest to an empty nest overnight. I long for the days when the kids are here in our house. I long for those moments when I could hug my kids after school and celebrate their pictures.
In the devotional, the very heart of what I am trying to get across is found at the beginning of today’s reading: “One of the greatest challenges of using the beatitudes found in the Gospel of Luke is that they use slightly different language than those found within the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.” The hunger listed here is not qualified by a connection to righteousness like in the gospel of Matthew. As it says later today: “As we look at hunger throughout this week in Jesus’ teachings, we will notice that it relates to questions around wealth from the previous beatitude and to questions around sorrow and laughter in next week’s beatitude.”
I know that I hunger for something that is connected with both sorrow and an impoverished heart. As we go through the devotions this week, I hope everyone finds a place of connection. I also hope that they find safe spaces to express any sorrow that they feel while on this journey.
Our devotional points out hard words from Christ today. In the New Revised Standard Version, Luke 5:39-40 says: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Throughout the season of Lent, Sundays are “mini-Easters.” Traditionally, Sundays are moments of celebration in the midst of a somber season. The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt acknowledges this by having every Sunday until Easter be the same theme: “Celebrate.”
Even with that prompt for celebration, I feel called to celebrate out of a place of testimony today. My photo is of a flower that was blooming in the nearby Henry Smith Woods in the heart of Trumansburg. It was one of the first flowers of the season and I found it to be beautiful both in its vibrance and in the way it has a wonderful blossom that reminds me of the Trinity. What minister wouldn’t love a flower with three petals on one blossom? Well, one who doesn’t enjoy oversimplification, but it is still quite a flower!
So, what does the scripture bring to mind today? It reminds me of the fact that I am in recovery and that recovery has been a challenging road.
A few years ago I had the bright idea of running on an elliptical everyday as a fundraiser for the church. It was going wonderfully until one day I had the audacity of trying to pull up my pants after running too hard. A trip to Urgent Care, multiple visits to my doctor, and months of physical therapy followed.
I am the child of an alcoholic. I have had a gastric bypass surgery which means that once something goes down my throat it doesn’t come back out, Both of these are reasons I should never drink. I was so desperate to get rid of the pain that late one night I tried mixing alcohol with my medication to make the pain go away. It worked for a while, I got in a habit of soothing the pain until that soothing didn’t work anymore. Like many people who have been ensnared over the years, I drank to get rid of one problem and found a lot more waiting for me including the very thing that once “helped.”
The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that life has become unmanageable and that you are powerless over alcohol. My goodness, things grew out of hand quickly. Things kept getting worse until the day that I, as a minister who had helped others to do this very thing, had to hit my knees in prayer. I came to a point where I had to tell God that I had not only made a stupid mistake but that I needed help to get out of my brokenness.
“Pastor Rob, didn’t you realize what was happening?” No. I just wanted the pain gone. “Pastor Rob, were you helping other people deal with literally the same issue while you were struggling?” Yes, but this physician couldn’t heal himself. “Pastor Rob, do you feel ashamed about the fact that you did something so stupid?” Yes, although I have come to realize that there were bigger things going on than just that one mistake. My life was unmanageable for a number of reasons, none of which are unique to me. There are ministers who become addicted and there are ministers with family problems. I’m not unique in either of those things.
The words of Jesus still strike me hard: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” For so long I believed in Jesus, sought through the scriptures, and even shared the testimony while refusing to come to Christ in this one area of my life. I chose secrecy instead of honesty, hiding brokenness instead of admitting struggles, and even offered hope while refusing to accept it for my own brokenness.
The flower I share is like me today. I am watching my petals spread every single day, have new growth reaching out after years of dormancy brought about by fear, and have even started making new friendships after a long period of feeling as if I did not deserve something as simple as friendship without my family’s approval. I used to feel as if my heart was locked in a cage like a silent bluebird but am increasingly feeling like I am rising on the wings of a phoenix.
Even if you have had moments when you have refused God’s love and help, it is not too late. Friends, trust me when I say that God loves you deeply and truly. If you need help, there’s help out there. There are places where you can walk through the door and they won’t judge you for needing help. A lot of them are filled with wonderful people who will bend over backwards to make you feel welcome and help you get your life back in order. Don’t hide in the shadows: the light is okay.
There is a way to freedom. It may not be easy, you may stumble, and you may want to give up sometimes. Don’t give up. You can find freedom with help. Don’t give up.
On a spring day of last year, I was out and about with my camera when I noticed something in the nearby woods. It was May and the weather was beginning to warm up. Life was blossoming everywhere and it seemed like everyone (including the animals) had places to go and things to do.
Cars drove by, birds flew overhead, and this deer ran down the side of the road. As I contemplate the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt of the word “Awake,” I wonder if this is the only image of this deer in existence. Does anyone think of this particular deer today? If I hadn’t opened my eyes to see the world around me, would there even be a trace of this one deer in the world?
If still wandering the roads, I hope this deer is doing well. If not, then I pray what was good and holy in this deer is kept safe and well in the hands of the One who brought it into being. As I cannot know, I am simply grateful that I was awake enough to see when this momentary blessing came to pass when our two paths through this world crossed.
In our devotional today, while reading Luke 21:1-4, we see that Jesus was also a fan of being awake enough to notice the world around. As Jesus sat in the temple, a widow with two small coins gave all of the coins that she had to live on to the temple treasury. She had only two coins to live upon and she had the audacity to give both of them for God’s work.
Jesus noticed this moment when a woman with very little put everything into the offering plate. When we read this story in church, I often think about those words from the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, for they will have the kingdom of heaven. I pray that those words are true because of faithful people like this widow that offer everything to God out of a place of poverty.
As a clergy person, I have to say that it humbles me to think that some people give their last coins to God and I live off of a salary drawn from those offerings. It is humbling and challenging to think that I have food because of someone’s offering. Such offerings made to God certainly cause me to think twice about how I spend my paycheck. If Christ was awake enough to notice the two coins offered by this widow, I cannot imagine ever being comfortable abusing or misusing my paycheck.
I think clergy, especially clergy with any amount of affluence, should see such stories and understand the phrase “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
What a powerful thing for the visible incarnation of the invisible God to say about people! For years the temple in Jerusalem had been filled with both those who appeared righteous and those who appeared “broken.” Sacrifices were brought in thanksgiving by those who were right with God and brought in repentance by those who had broken the covenant laws. The faithful and the sinners worshiped in the same space with two very different purposes.
When God did come to fulfill ancient promises of blessing, you might assume that God would have come to bless the people who looked righteous on the outside. If you believed that God had been willing to bless the faithful with abundant crops, fruitful families, and wealth, then it makes sense that God would come to bless the righteous. God might help those who had asked forgiveness, but it seems like common sense that God would first bless those who had been faithful and apparently blessed by God.
For Jesus to say that he came to call sinners and not the righteous was quite shocking to many people. The smoke that rose from the temple day after day in an attempt for people to honor God and gain divine favor might be lovely, but in the end, Christ was more interested in sharing mercy with those who were hurting instead of increasing the number of sacrifices.
In choosing an image for today’s #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day challenge, I chose an image of the sun pouring down the closest thing we get to a burnt offering at our church. It did take place outside the church, but the meat was neither burnt nor offered as a sacrifice. The sun was pouring down through the smoke of a chicken barbecue.
The prompt was the word “glory.” I chose the image because it was a pretty amazing and glorious sight to see the sun pouring through the smoke. It is also glorious that God no longer requires us to keep bringing fowl, cattle, sheep, and goats for burnt sacrifices. Jesus came out of a love for mercy and God’s mercy covers us through the love of Christ shown through Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and exaltation. I believe that Christ’s merciful love will be seen again when Christ returns in what will likely be a different type of cloud than the smoke that comes from a bbq.
The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Protect.” The scripture reading in our devotional today is a story (found in Luke 6:6-11) of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. The individual had a hand that is described in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as being “withered.”
While the daily prompts have generally fit nicely with our devotional, today’s prompt is a bit challenging. I do not always do yoga, but I have been known to stretch ideas when necessary. Hopefully I will not stretch the idea of protecting too far.
What an interesting thing it is to see Jesus love someone and have compassion despite the fact that other people did not see his actions as being holy or righteous. The healing Christ performed on the Sabbath may have been fine on another day, but to violate the Sabbath commandments to avoid work seemingly struck them as a violation of the law.
At one level, I have to admit that I find the reaction of the religious leaders to be an understandable reaction. Their reaction might even be seen as admirable if you consider the extent of their commitment to their faith. While their heart was clearly in a different place than Jesus’ heart, it is understandable that there might be a push towards a very strict faith. The people in our story were living in a world that seemingly had turned against the people of God through the powerful forces of foreign empires and armies. They believed fiercely in their faith because they were likely concerned about losing their way if they loosened their grasp.
Still, as admirable as their tenacity was in such circumstances, they still missed the point. Jesus saw an individual who was hurt and who needed compassion. The people were so focused on the rules that they lost their perspective. I wish I could say that this was a problem that has disappeared over the centuries, but the modern church has often struggled with compassion and love when confronted with hurt people who are easily labeled as “sinners.”
In choosing a photo to portray this point, I went through my old photos and found a picture of my dog Lily standing underneath the trees in one of our favorite spots on the Interloken trail in the Finger Lakes National Forest. Lily looked so noble while looking around to make certain that everything was safe and that we were alone in the fields.
I still do not know how to tell a dog that we are sitting in the middle of a pasture that is fenced in on every side. There are no predators in the field. On that particular day, there weren’t even any cattle in sight. We were in an empty field and there was no reason to be anxious.
I have noticed over the years that we often get our hackles up and prepare to defend ourselves and our faith from threats that really aren’t threats. At the best of those times, we look like Lily being overprotective in an empty field. At the worst of times, we end up causing or threatening real harm to people who have done nothing more than have a withered hand on the Sabbath.
Personally, I plan to spend some time today thinking about the fact that there may be places in my life where I am dead set on protecting something and possibly missing the forest for the trees. I know that my dog isn’t the only silly creature in my home.
The #RethinkChurch word of the day for the Lenten Photo-A-Day challenge is “Tempted.” Oh, what a prompt for the contemplative practice of Visio Divina. Oh, what wonderful things I look forward to seeing as I wake for the day, post my photo on my Instagram, and then pick a photo to contemplate before waking up to face my day today.
I wonder what I will see today. Will I see muffins or cookies? Are people already regretting following the tradition of giving up meat on Fridays when a steak would be delicious? What is tempting? Will there be acknowledgment of love and temptation despite the nature of the season?
As I read through the devotional today, I find myself contemplating the nature of Jesus standing in his hometown of Nazareth. Everyone has their own expectations of Jesus, but my ongoing understanding is that Jesus was not, is not, and never shall be a person who simply does what everyone around him wanted, wants, or will want. Jesus was an individual who came to do the will of God and not an individual who simply came to do what other people always wanted.
Still, the temptation must have been amazing for people. Here is the carpenter’s son who has been doing all of these amazing things. What will he do for us? How quickly the temptation must have been to switch to “What should he be doing for us?” or “What do we deserve from him?”
I have no idea if the paintbrush of the Biblical narrative is fair to the people of Nazareth, but I can say that I often feel tempted to think less about others and more about myself. I am often tempted to grab onto life and to take a hold of what I want and what I think I deserve. I have moments where I want to take, take, and take some more.
So, what photo ties these ideas together for me today? This photo of a mushroom was taken last year in the Finger Lakes National Forest. It looks lovely, doesn’t it? It is also highly poisonous. If you see it, I would imagine that you also might think that it looks like a candy mushroom or something Alice would eat to gain some marvelous transformation. Do not eat it: this mushroom is extremely poisonous. It is a temptation, but not every temptation falls under the scope of the adage “You should try anything once.” or “How do you know you don’t like it unless you try it?” This temptation might kill you and will definitely make you ill, so don’t give in!
There are lots of temptations that come through life. Not all of them are healthy, even if you can justify the temptation in your head. Some of the temptations might kill you if you give in. Feeling like you deserve something does not mean you should have it. Thinking that something would be incredible and great does not always mean that you should have it, do it, or take it.
I am grateful that Jesus was generally a man of peace. I am grateful he did not respond to the frustrations of the people of Nazareth with some of the responses other people might be inclined to enact on people being unreasonable and aggressive. I hope that I can have such self-control when I face temptation.
So, in preparation for a writer’s retreat this fall, I’m working through “One Day I Wrote Back: Interacting with Scripture through Creative Writing” by Jane Herring. Today I worked on interacting with the story from 2 King 5:1-16 and was invited to retell the scripture from the perspective of the nameless Hebrew slave. I rewrote it in a modern context from my own experience as a grocery store cashier after college who was struggling with debt. I borrowed a few details about practices like using fake names from colleagues who dealt with a lot of sexual harassment from customers while earning minimum wage. I hope you enjoy and remember: creative writing occasionally takes liberties with the source material!Special credit to “Dave” from Trinity Church, Grand Island, who always gave me extra strong coffee when I’d show up 2 hours early for church! What a saint!
I work the weekend swing-shift at the grocery store. A few years back everything was going well until my car broke down on a cold winter’s day. Now I bag groceries, deal with drunk customers, and clean off registers while the day shift sleeps.
My name is Sara, although I wear a nametag with a different name to keep the customers at a distance. If they see me on a different day, I will know who they are if they call out for “Jackie.” I learned my lesson early after one of the Saturday night customers walked up to me on a Tuesday to try and sweet talk me as I tried to eat my lunch in peace. It is bad enough having people stare at my body while I work. I don’t need more of it on my own time.
Sometimes, my job makes me want to scream, especially when the bills come in. I pay minimum balances but the paycheck doesn’t stretch. I’ll never save up enough to get out of here. I’m drowning in debt, cannot afford a car, and will probably live my whole life in walking distance of the store where I spend my evenings and nights. It sucks.
Sunday mornings are the worst. I go to church after my shift and drink enough free coffee to get me through until the service begins. I do my best to stay alert and attentive, but it is very hard when the warm air from the heater hits me after the seemingly endless days of going to bed at sunrise and waking up after twilight. It’d be different if I weren’t swinging my sleep schedule back and forth, but it is hard when the church is full of safe people that remind me of home, the air is warm, and the music is peaceful. Thankfully, I sit by the couple who have grandkids that work retail. They wake me gently with a smile before the offering if I fall asleep. It is hard to sleep with an usher handing you a plate, you know?
So, yeah, I still go to church. I try my best to live out my faith, but it is not exactly easy. So many people come in hammered on Saturday nights. They act as if they are having a great time, and here I am working to just cover the bills for minimum wage. It sometimes feels like I’m the biggest sucker around, but I believe. My faith is at the core of me.
My manager and I talk about it sometimes. She can be nice when things are going well. On quiet nights we sometimes talk for a few minutes after she comes and buys something for her break. Her husband is sick. I feel like she talks to me because she just needs to talk.
It isn’t surprising she talks to me. I’m often alone on the front end as she manages the stocking of the shelves. It can be hours between when we see each other and I’m the person who smiles and does her work quietly because the alternative is… just standing here staring at the clock…
There are nights I am done by 2:00 AM despite my best efforts and those are the worst. Talking with anyone on a slow night is a treat. When anyone interrupts me on those nights, I am happy to see them. I don’t need cajoling to work, smile when she comes up, and I’m not surprised she doesn’t mind talking with me. I’m her easy “no-drama” employee who clocks in on time.
I guess her husband is pretty sick. It has to be rough. All of those medical bills, all of those appointments, and absolutely nothing to show for it. She’s so weighed down by it that it is just painful to see at times.
Back in my hometown, we had this service once a month where people would go to pray for their illnesses and lives. I have been looking for something like that near here, but there was something different about that service back home. It was a holy space: the way the community gathered and prayed together. Even the air felt different in that sacred space of prayer. I only went once for myself. I was heartbroken and didn’t know what to do. When the minister and the church prayed over me, it lifted my soul. I still think about that feeling of peace as their hands hovered over me. The air sparkled with care and… the only way I can describe it is grace. It was a merciful, blessed, holy space.
Perhaps I will tell my manager about the service this weekend. There’s another one coming up pretty soon: last Sunday of every month as it has been forever. Maybe her husband will want to make a trip of it. I’d go with them, but I work Sunday nights. I’ll still be sleeping during the service, hopefully thinking of anything but straightening magazines and finding warm meat stuck behind candy because someone couldn’t be bothered to give it to their cashier.
Our reading today focused on Luke 4:14-30. The passage speaks about the proclamation of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus reads from Isaiah. Jesus proclaims that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:18-19, NRSV, where Jesus references a portion of Isaiah 61:1-2
The reason we are looking at this in our devotional is a perceived connection between the proclamation from Isaiah and the radical words of the Beatitudes. The poor are blessed and here Jesus proclaims that the blessing is good news. In the original reference which Jesus is references, Isaiah also points out that the mourning will be comforted.
What’s interesting to me is the way that the Nazarenes are frustrated that the blessing will not begin in their midst. Their community has sheltered Jesus’ family, despite Jesus’ colorful birth narrative. In this gospel in particular, Jesus is effectively born under taboo circumstances. Jesus is not conceived in a culturally acceptable time-frame. They are pleasantly shocked the carpenter’s son is able to surpass the traditional role of a carpenter’s son until Jesus proclaims that they will not receive preferential treatment.
Interestingly, there’s a very common word in modern circles that describes what the people are experiencing. The people of Nazareth feel entitled to be blessed first for having a role in Jesus’ life. They are expressing a sense of privilege. Surely, Jesus must bless them first, right?
I have three daughters and one of them is still getting used to the idea of clothes. In particular, she wants to dress herself or wear nothing at all. The other day I captured the perfect image of her point in life.
Yes, that’s my child trying to put pants on over her head. I am aware that there’s a pants trick going around the internet where you put your legs in one side of the pants and your body through the other side, but that isn’t in her wheelhouse right now. She was genuinely confused about why the pants weren’t working.
The people of Nazareth are genuinely upset about what is happening. Jesus is not supposed to act this way as a child of the community. What Jesus is doing in saying he will not go out of the way to bless his hometown is beyond the pale of proper behavior for the people of Nazareth. They feel a sense of privilege which does not find this acceptable.
Yesterday, we talked about how the call of Lent is to “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Many individuals find themselves in the midst of a slog of a pit in their lives. As a minister and as a Christian who has engaged in evangelism on regular basis before entering into ministry as a professional, I came across many people who effectively said that their regular attendance at church, their being a good person, or even their family’s devotion meant that God should immediately bail them out of the tough parts of life.
To be brutally honest, there are times in life when that kind of belief is simply not consistent with how the spiritual life works. There are situations we face where we have to do more than notice we’re in the bog of life. We are called to repent of what led us to this place, turn towards God, and believe the gospel. Occasionally that belief is best manifested in honest attempts to step forward with faith despite the difficulty.
There’s truthfully moments where God will walk with us, but we must let go of that privilege. If you’re addicted to some substance or behavior, you may need to believe while you choose to not engage in that behavior or entering into dangerous places. If you’re struggling with mental health concerns, you may need to believe while regularly taking medicine to help your body function. If you’re grieving, you may need to believe while understanding there are stages of grief you may have to experience.
Sometimes, we each need to understand that the pants go on our legs despite our belief that they’ll work the way we want them to work. The humility that comes with a lot of Lenten practices can be an excellent place to practice what may become necessary on your journey.
May God bless us today as we ponder what we each might take for granted in our spiritual journey. May God help this to be a fruitful day.
Hello friends, I have not fallen off the face of the earth. I have been focusing on working on longer works lately. One of those products has finally come to fruition.
I recently created a Lenten Devotional based around the teachings of Christ on the Beatitudes. It isn’t perfect, but my first attempt at publishing can be found on Amazon as both a Large-Print Book and as a Kindle ebook. The book is called: “In the Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Devotional.”
I hope that it can be a blessing to folks who want to spend some time reflecting on the teachings of Christ during the season of Lent. The devotional has daily scripture readings, a reflection, and journaling/discussion questions for personal growth.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
Let us pray:
God, give us the strength to approach You. Help us to be bold and to choose to listen to what you say to us. Bless us and keep us both now and forever. Amen.
I have spent the last week seeking wisdom. A few weeks ago an idea started spinning up in multiple people’s minds and spirits. I have been praying through not whether I should listen to God’s calling but how it will look in my life.
I read through a book by a church leader named Paul Nixon that was called “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.” I heard bold words about leadership, following God’s calling, and changing church culture. I dreamed through what it meant that my heart was warmed by Paul Nixon’s set of choices on how a person approaches leadership. Could I choose to be bold over being mild? Could I choose to ac kkt now instead of later? Could I choose life over death? As a leader, I have always had a calling, but this felt deeper.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the words in your bulletin that we read. He wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He wrote it to a group of white clergymen who insisted that Dr. King’s actions in Birmingham were unwise. Dr. King insisted that the oppressed must demand to call for their own freedom. He insisted that the people rise to claim their freedom.
I pondered these words as I thought about our world. Dr. King was talking about a far more insidious and evil problem, but the words still kept filling my head with thoughts and dreams.
I identify as a millennial and my generation is very spiritual but divided from traditional organized religion. I have had many conversations with people my age who have said “Church is boring,” “Church is hypocritical,” and worst of all “Church doesn’t bless me–all it does is hurt me and people I love.” I have also had these same conversations with disaffected people both younger and older than my generation.
The thing is that I know these things may be true for some people, but only because the church has often forgotten the mission or left it behind to be more comfortable. This reality is tragic.
Look at what the Colossians are told: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
When I think about what I was taught about Jesus Christ as a child, I remember being taught that Jesus loved me, that Jesus cared about what was going on in my life, and that I always had a place in God’s house. When I was a teenager, I gave my life to Christ because the Church had taught me that when everything went wrong, I had a Friend and Protector in Christ Jesus.
When I accepted that love, when I placed my identity in that strength, and when I learned more about Christ, I was thankful. I abounded in thanksgiving. Why? I abounded in gratitude because Jesus Christ’s love was closer than my right hand. When Paul says continue in the love the church taught me as a child, I see a love that means the world to me. There have been times in my life when I would rather have been separated from my arm than separated from that love.
People in my generation and people in general are oppressed by misinformation–the misinformation they have about God does harm. They do not understand how powerful God’s love can be for their lives. It hurts my soul to think people do not learn of this love because they think church is boring or irrelevant. This kind of good news brings joy and meaning to life! It breaks my heart to think people would come to church and see the church as some place harmful rather than some place beautiful. Such things are holding people in my generation down. Such things are breaking hearts and causing pain. Such things should not be.
I thought about the quote from Dr. King, I thought about what I was reading, and I wondered. What would it look like if we took the parable Jesus tells as a story with a message for us? If we were to believe that Jesus cares for our neighbors and if we were to ask God to lead us through breaking through those barriers, do we believe God would not answer? Would a parent give a child a scorpion instead of an egg for breakfast? Would a parent leave the door unanswered if their small child knocked on the door asking to come in? Of course not. I love my kids, I may love sleep, but if they came asking for something they needed in the middle of the night, I would get it for them. The same holds true for my friends–I may wish to stay in bed, but if they needed help, I would get up and help.
It is my belief that God wants to help too. As I have listened to God, respected friends in the church, and my own soul, I believe that God is preparing us for something new and exciting. I think we are facing multiple challenges and that obstacles are being thrown in our way, but I believe these are attempts to put something in the way of those who call out from the edges. I hear their cries: “Love me!” “Welcome me!” “Welcome my kids!” “Welcome my parents!” “Welcome my brokenness!” “Welcome my weirdness!” “Welcome me!”
It has become such a call in my thoughts that I am asking a question of myself: Who is knocking? Am I knocking on the door asking for help of God? Is God knocking on my door to ask me to pay attention to the least? Are the people knocking because they need something better?
The thing is that the things we believe divide people from the Jesus’ love aren’t there. Are they too loud or too lax compared to what they should be? Well if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they drinking too much at the bar or spending too much on clothes? Well, if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they unlike the people we knew growing up in church? Well, if that’s a sin, that has been nailed to the cross.
One of the amazing things about Paul’s words is that the act of forgiveness described is always listed in the past tense. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well you were forgiven at the same time that people 200 years ago were forgiven. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well, the people down the street were forgiven at the same time. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well the people who haven’t been born yet, haven’t done terrible things yet, and haven’t asked for forgiveness were forgiven at the same time as us. We have all been buried with Christ and resurrected with Christ.
When Paul speaks of not being taken captive by false ideas and puffed up ways of thinking, Paul is encouraging the Colossians to think of what Christ has done. People were telling them that eating non-Kosher foods would damn them, but Paul tells them to stop believing the lies. People were telling them that there were Sabbath rules that had to be followed, but Paul told them to stop believing the lies. Their salvation did not rest in the rules but in Jesus Christ.
I went to church as a young man at my father’s church on Grand Island. I grew up believing that I had to wear the nicest clothes, sit quietly, and always behave perfectly. When our church launched a contemporary worship service, we started to attend worship with a bass guitar, clapping during worship, and with people who led worship in jeans. It was weird and I kind of rebelled against it for a long time as I tried to come to grips with the differences. I had come to my own faith in Christ, but could worship take place in church with guitars and clapping? Wasn’t that a youth group thing for when the adults were all off having coffee somewhere and couldn’t stop us?
I came to realize that worship wasn’t about sitting perfectly still or being perfectly dressed. Worship was about God. I knew God loved me as who I was, but it took me a while to realize that the Sabbath laws of Sunday morning church did not make me a good Christian. Only God’s love made me a Christian in a first place. All of my salvation came down to the actions of Jesus Christ, the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and the love my Creator. When Paul tells me to continue my life as I was rooted and built up in Christ, I find my own roots have strength not in tradition or historical accuracy. I find my roots only have life where they are connected to the love of God.
What is God calling me and others to do? Honestly, we’re still discerning what that looks like, but one thing is clear: If it will succeed, it will only be because it is founded on God’s love. How does that old hymn go?
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus' blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.
On the second day of the Whole Life Challenge (WLC), I was sneaky. I am on my last day of vacation and did not have to lead worship. I wanted to visit a colleague’s church down the road. Our church has coffee hour after worship. My colleague’s church has a meal before worship. We arrived exactly on time and missed the meal. My kids were disappointed, but I didn’t have to walk past the donuts.
I am wondering about next Sunday when I return to church. Most food that is served in churches fits the mold of casseroles, jello, cookies, cakes, and other goodies. We rarely have fresh vegetables or fruit in any significant quantity. As the pastor, I am generally the last person through the line after greeting everyone and answering questions.
If I want some fresh vegetables, hummus, cucumber slices, or other goodies, I may need to bring enough to share. It may seem silly to be concerned about such matters, but what will that look like if I provide that food every Sunday? What if this is a “lifestyle” change? How do we change a church culture that loves cookies and other sweets?
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says: “…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
How do we change how we eat in church? Perhaps it begins by realizing our bodies are temples. I have much to ponder as I chomp on these cucumbers.
Message: “The ‘Stone’ comes with praises” Date: April 14, 2019 Scripture: Luke 19:28-40 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Luke 19:28-40, NRSV
We are entering Holy Week this morning and we hear that strange story of the palms and cloaks on the road into Jerusalem. We find Jesus entering Jerusalem and being hailed. We find angry religious leaders, excited disciples, and exuberant children of Israel. Today is a day of excitement and joy. We have been building up to this day since Jesus’ last liturgical appearance here. Jesus is born and enters the temple. Wonderful words of prophecy and hope. Going forth from next Sunday, we will see a new faith born out of the events of this week. There’s a reason this is called Holy Week. Holy Week is pivotal to the Christian faith.
This week is pivotal not only in terms of church tradition but also it how it forms us. These stories change how we understand God. One of the reasons we encourage kids to attend Holy Week events is because they can change the way we see God and these stories in both their beauty and their sorrow teach us about the love of God.
Growing up, we were required at the Trinity United Methodist Church to go through a long confirmation process before we were offered membership. We were not alone as members of the church of all ages had several month process of education before you could join the church, but confirmands had to go through the whole Christian year together with their leaders before joining the church. We began in the fall during “Ordinary Time,” walked through Advent where we helped with Christmas programs for younger kids, took a retreat together in the season after Christmas, helped the church through Lent by taking part in helping lead Holy Week services, and finally entered membership on Pentecost.
The whole process was quite an experience, but in my memory this week was the most formative one. I remember trying to get my head around how you could receive such lavish praise one day and be crucified a few days later. When we stop to ask that question, there are a million and one reasons it might have happened.
Was it a jealous religious leadership acting maliciously?
Were the wrong people in Jerusalem the day Herod brings Jesus before the crowd?
Was Herod sick and tired of dealing with the locals and literally washed his hands of them?
Were Jesus’ teachings being heard by ordinary folks who realized they required a lot more than a welcome parade?
These ideas a few ideas of many and it may have been a combination of these things and more, but I remember looking on these moments of extreme difference and being puzzled.
I grew up near Buffalo during the years of Jim Kelly’s leadership of the Buffalo Bills, so I knew how fickle fame could be. Scott Norwood was a villain, Frank Reich was a hero, and the week before Norwood missed the kick during the Super Bowl he was awesome and the week before Reich led one of the greatest comebacks in history, he was riding the bench. I know that fame can be fickle, but this was more than that level of fickle behavior.
Something happens during Holy Week I have spent decades trying to figure out. In many ways, the curiosity and awe inspired by Holy Week led to me becoming a minister. I want to draw your attention to another passage. In Luke 20:17-19, we find these words:
“What then does this text mean:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.
Luke 20:17-19, NRSV
Now, context matters, so this passage immediately follows a parable Jesus tells about the owner of a vineyard who leases out the property while he goes on a long journey. The owner sends to the people leasing the vineyard a servant after many years away. The tenants will not pay. They beat the servant and send him away. They beat the next servant who comes. Finally, the landlord sends his son. The tenants kill the son to try to benefit from the son’s death.
The religious leaders understand that Jesus is telling a story about them. They are furious and that upsets them, but what’s interesting is that old quotation. It comes from Psalm 118:19-22:
Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
Psalm 118:19-22, NRSV
The religious leaders object to Jesus being given such praise on the day we now celebrate as Palm Sunday. The religious leaders question him and he refers to a coronation psalm. Jesus, being questioned about the goodness of his deeds and teachings, tells them that the gates should be open, that God’s salvation is near, and that the very thing the builders have rejected will become the chief cornerstone upon which salvation will be built.
Over the years, I have never really wrapped my head around all the events of Holy Week. I believe part of the Christian walk is this ongoing attempt to contemplate, ponder, and meditate over these days. I understand this though: today we celebrate the entrance into Jerusalem by Christ. Christ is who the people need and not who the people want. Jesus is the foundation of the future they need and a breaking from what the people imagined.
On this day, we celebrate Jesus entering a city built upon generation after generation of people doing their best. Jesus will enter a temple of ornate stone and beautiful worship. Jesus will smell the scents, see the people, see the abuses of the temple, and will teach. The very person the people need will be the one who is rejected. The very stone upon which the future will be built must first be rejected.
If this sermon seems like only a bit of the story of Holy Week, it is because this is only one part. As we enter Holy Week, I want to challenge you to come back to church before next Sunday. Come Thursday night and ponder Holy Communion over a meal. Come Friday to hear the story and empty the sanctuary. Come by yourself and read the gospel stories during one of the quiet days when Wide Horizons is on break and you’ll find Teagen and myself working away in our office. Interrupt me to ask questions. I promise I won’t mind as I may be pondering the same things myself. Grab your Bible and take a long walk with it. I invite you to enter further into the story.
Take time this week. Meanwhile, contemplate this: We often never know what we need until the moment is past. Like those people long ago, we may believe Christ is coming into our lives to do what we expect. If Holy Week teaches us one thing, it is that Christ comes and will be Christ. Let us welcome Christ into our lives. Let us pray…
Message: “Settling the Space” Date: April 7, 2019 Scripture: John 12:1-8 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ “
John 12:1-18, NRSV
This season we have been looking at the Lenten journey as a journey into our own wilderness. We have explored the fact that Jesus found something out in the wilds when he fasted for forty days and we have joined in that journey. We have explored the idea the fact that there are frightening things out in the world when we look at our own hearts and at the world around us. We have looked at how we must sometimes clear out the broken parts of ourselves with God’s help. It has been quite a journey.
Today we continue that journey with an honest question: What happens when we walk into that wilderness and find our home? What does it mean to settle into that land? When the woods are cleared, the crops are planted, and we find a place to lay a foundation for our heart’s home, what does that look like for us today? We’ll take a look at that question through the lens of our passage from John, but first let us pray:
Holy Christ, we are less than two weeks away from Holy Week. Next Sunday the journey towards the cross intensifies as we read how you enter Jerusalem for that final week before the crucifixion. Be with us today as we go into this scripture which is our scripture for this moment. Give us wisdom and clarity. Give us peace and patience. Help us to understand what you might be saying to your church. Amen.
The Didache was one of the earliest writings and contains, among many things, a picture of how the early church functioned. Most interestingly today, the DIdache included a description of how to go about serving communion in church.
In the early church communion was vital to the community life. It was seen as a commandment of God to embrace this holy meal whenever the church gathered. As you will see, the service is short and straightforward. The responses are far more prevalent after the meal is served than before, some elements we use today are missing, and other elements seem eerily similar to parts of our own service.
Why engage in this service today? There’s a very simple reason. We are gathered towards the end of Lent and Holy Week is coming. We have been seeking our way through this wilderness and we are using this very old service as a way of reminding ourselves of a very important truth: “There’s a place for us at the table.”
Nearly 2,000 years ago the table was prepared for the people. With chalice and bread the church was drawn to God. These truths have not changed. The table has been open for God’s children for nearly 2,000 years. This truth existed long before we were born and will be true long after we have passed on from this world.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we see our space at that table. Do we see how we belong to God in this world? Do we have eyes open enough to recognize that place in all of us which belongs with Christ? To use the wilderness analogy, do we open our eyes when we see that clearing besides the still waters of Psalm 23? Do we recognize the gift of the divine in all of our lives: the opportunity to belong without question to and with Christ?
This question is quite serious. It can be very easy to turn our eyes from God and forget our place with Christ. Can we recognize how easy it is to be blinded by the goods and things of this world? Is it possible that even our comfort in this world can blind us to our place with Christ?
In our scriptures we see that temptation. Judas looks at the table before him in Lazarus’ home and sees waste. The scriptures tell us that he is a thief from the common purse, but there’s something even more fiendish going on in this place. Judas’ greed has drawn his eyes to Mary’s gift and in his quest to satisfy his desires Judas tries to come between Mary and Jesus.
Judas’ eyes are not on Mary as a person in grief. He does not see that she is coming from a place of love and possibly of grief. All he sees is what is in front of him. His lust for wealth has blinded him to God’s purposes. While Judas will serve a purpose, he has lost his way.
Strangely, while it appears that the disciples are continually ignorant of what will happen, Mary seemingly understands things are about to go terribly wrong. Mary’s eyes are not on the perfume and her thoughts are not on the cost of the perfume. Mary’s eyes are on Christ, who is right in front of her. Her eyes are focused on Jesus.
In Luke 18 Jesus shares a story of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. The tax collector prays for forgiveness to God with humility while the Pharisee stands around thanking God that he is better than everyone around him. The Pharisee has his eyes on the world around him, but the tax collector is focused on God and asking for mercy. Jesus says in Luke 18:14: “I tell you that this [tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When you read this story, who do you think goes to sleep that night justified? Is it Mary who comes to anoint the feet of Christ with love or Judas who keeps his eyes on the costly perfume? Who do you believe has a place at Christ’s table? In my opinion, Mary definitely has that place at the table.
Mary has suffered more than most. Scriptures tell us that Mary and her sister send a message to Jesus when Lazarus is about to die. They live through the grief when Jesus does not arrive before his death. They live through the shock of Lazarus’ resurrection. For that matter, even before this took place, Mary’s own sister chastises her in front of Jesus for learning from Jesus rather than diving in to help with the housework. Mary and Jesus have a rich history, but here in this place we find Mary understanding the truth that she has a place with Jesus that allows her to be intimate with her savior, she has a place with Jesus that allows her to expect Christ will protect her from those who might see these actions as too intimate (which is really important in a world where an adulteress can be stoned to death), and she has a confidence that she will be welcomed by Christ.
She knows her place. We who wander through the wilderness of Lent can forget that this is a season of practice. In our darkest moments and in our greatest triumphs, we never lose our place in God’s love. The spot at this table, the “bread spread over the hills,” and the juice in this chalice is meant for us. We have a home in the wilderness because when we wander into the wilderness we can find Christ, and once we enter into that love, nothing can separate us from that love in Christ Jesus.
We are using this old liturgy because it reminds us that this table has been open around the world for a very long time. Saints of old gathered to share their praises and eat this bread. The cup has been passed to people of every nation and people. The table is here for us as it has stood for all of God’s children for generation upon generation.
I invite you to prepare your heart for this feast. God comes to share with us again today. As we break bread, as we share the cup, and as we open our arms to each other in love, we do these things as a people who are welcome. Let all who need to ask forgiveness, come before God in the moments ahead. Let all who need to ask for courage, come before God in the moments ahead. I invite you into an attitude of prayer as we approach the throne. Let us enter into silence and then prayer…
Sermon: “Foraging Hope” Date: March 31, 2019 Scriptures: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 (lectionary) Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them…”
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32, NRSV
We’re in the midst of the season of Lent. This is a season of contrition, soul searching, and personal discipleship. As we have gathered in church during this season we have focused on looking at our approach to this season as being like a journey into the wilderness. Today we come across one of the more famous parables in Jesus’ teachings. What could this story have to do with a journey into the wilderness? How can it inform our journey? Well, let us look at these words to find a way into both the text and the season. Before we begin, let us pray:
Life-giving God, You are Parent to all of us. We come to today’s scriptures and find Jesus telling a story about a father. As our Parent, these words can teach us about You. Open our eyes and our hearts to Your wise Spirit as we approach these texts. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Friends, this is a season of contrition and redemption. We come across a story today of Jesus spending time with the least of the least. Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, is spending his time with tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors worked for the oppressors of the Jewish people. The sinners were the people who did not obey the laws and teachings of the religious leaders.
We find Jesus being grumbled about by the Pharisees and the scribes–the people who taught the religious laws and the people who copied the texts. The people grumbling were the people who should have known God as well as anyone could know God. When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, this is the group of folks who will spearhead the events of Good Friday.
Here in the season of Lent we find ourselves facing Jesus’ worst critics. We found ourselves in a strange place because Jesus responds to their criticism with a parable containing three perspectives. There is a selfish son who finds redemption, a loving father who is forgiving, and an elder brother who seemingly will not forgive and accept his brother home.
It begs a question: Who are we supposed to be paying attention to in the story? This parable, known as the parable of the prodigal son is further complicated by the evolution of the word prodigal over time. Prodigal once meant abundantly generous but has shifted since the phrase “prodigal son” was written into the title of the parable to mean either wasteful or errantly wandering.
We could focus our attention on the younger son. His story is a story of redemption which fits well into the Lenten narrative. He has gone off into the world, made mistakes, and comes home with contrition and humility. This message is a good message for those of us who have been wandering the wilds of our lives in need of redemption.
We could focus our attention on the father. He waits at the road, sees his son coming from far off, and runs to meet him. He is a loving and forgiving father. He celebrates the return of his son. Surely, as Christians we should see this as teaching about the way God meets us on the road. Perhaps we even see the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday in grief, only to be met by the resurrected Christ who breaks bread with them. Surely, this would be a great message.
Either of those would be wonderful messages. I would ask a question with you: should we not stop to ask why this passage points out those grumbling religious leaders? Why are they here if the parable has such an obvious application?
Did you ever stop to wonder why the elder son was upset? The text stops to mention he has never even been given a goat to celebrate with his friends, but have you ever stopped to think about his frustration? The father has given his brother his share of the inheritance and it has been squandered. The father has reason to be mad. The brother has wound up in one of the lowest of the low places for a good Jewish boy–longing to eat the food of something shunned by his people. His brother has lost everything including his self-respect. What is making this elder brother upset?
We could say something to the effect of “being welcomed home means he will now receive another portion of the inheritance.” That might be true. We could also say the elder son is offended on behalf of his father. That also might be true. Both are reasonable responses and if that is what you wish to take away, please do so with my blessing.
I wonder if the issue is one of a scarcity mindset. If we are on a journey through life, I think we can all say we have had days when it feels as if we have barely made it through. I have had difficult days when it felt like I only made it to bed crawling on my knees. In fact, there have been days when I have only made it to bed that way when my back went out or was sick.
There are days when we go through the wilderness of life and finding it a bleak place. We look for figs on fig trees like the gardener in last week’s sermon but there is no fruit. We look for fish in the streams and we find nothing. We look for sustenance and it feels like we barely make it through.
Then we see them in the distance. The other people. We have scraped and saved while they have spent money, more money, and more money. We have fought to keep our family together and they party it up. We have tried to raise our children, have a few close friends, and maybe have enough to go get goat curry with our spouse every now and again when they come waltzing through the wilderness.
We see them in the distance and there may be part of us that jumps to judgment. We see them in the distance and we may wish to lash out. What are they doing here? Who do they think they are coming here? This is my house, this is my community, this is my church… We see them in the distance and it may tempt us to rush to grumble.
The Pharisees and scribes are often set up in Christian stories as terrible people, but let me ask you: should we always identify with the prodigal son? Yes, we may sit here as a forgiven people, but should we always connect with that part of the story? Should we identify with the forgiving father who forgives? Perhaps, sometimes we should. Is it possible we are being asked to connect with the elder son?
A little authorship note for those of you who may find meaning in this fact. Luke and Acts are often considered to have been written by the same author. If they were written about the same time, we have learned something important. The scribes and Pharisees are a part of a Jewish people. The Jewish people who came to faith in Christ became one part of a multicultural faith that had begun to spread over the world. Acts records the apostles heading out into the world and they do that quickly. Some people note that apostles reach out to the ends of Asia, throughout Africa, and out into Europe. The entire eastern hemisphere is beginning to hear about Jesus.
We look at the scribes and Pharisees and we see bullies, but by the time this book is written… Scholarship tells us Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans, the Pharisees and scribes are effectively homeless, and the Jewish faith is going through a massive re-envisioning. What if they are not the bullies? What if they are not the only ones who do not understand?
The thing about the elder brother we rarely notice is that he has his own story. He sees his brother go, he sees his brother come, and he is upset. Has he ever known deprivation? Chances are he has never had to suffer intensely. You only have a fatted calf if you can afford to have a fatted calf. He and his father are not living in a place of famine like the land where his younger brother travels. The younger son has been humiliated but when he shows up, there are extra robes and rings just waiting for him. If you can afford to have such luxuries lying around in an agrarian or farming culture, you are not in want.
The older brother is furious, is standing outside the circle of blessing, and is grumbling in the fields. All that the father has is his elder son’s, but the story ends with the father pleading for his son to come home to celebrate. The scribes and Pharisees may grumble in this moment, may celebrate as Jesus suffers, but by the time this book is written… They must find their own way.
A few years ago a movie came out called “The Passion of the Christ” and one of the great fears is that it would stoke anti-Semitism. It was a powerful portrayal of the crucifixion story which took liberties, but one reality is that texts like the statements before this parable have been used for anti-Semitic purposes. People see it and say “Look! They’re grumbling! They must hate Jesus.”
I think we miss something here. The elder son has his own story to live out. By the time this book is written, there are likely sections of the church who look at the Jewish people with all the scorn they see in the actions of the scribes and Pharisees: “They had a chance! They could have done better! What a bunch of fools! First, they kicked us out of synagogues, sent out people to arrest us, and now their temple is gone and now they’re the ones who have no place to go.”
The thing is that throughout Christian history, we have often forgotten that the gospels were recorded not just as histories and not just as teachings, but as living stories. We miss warnings in plain sight. Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV) says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
By the time these stories were collected, the Christian people are the ones who have begun to have their own communities and belief. By the time the church gathered to formalize some of their theology in 325 at Nicea, the Jewish people have been without their temple for nearly 180 years. By today, it has been almost 1,950 years since the temple fell. If we look at this text and we find a reason to justify anti-Semitism, we have failed to learn the same lesson offered to the elder son. We have failed to understand love, compassion, and grace.
The challenging thing is that the faith is still growing. United Methodists, some of our struggles come out of the fact that our faith is growing in places with different cultures with different values. Do we stand there grumbling in the fields? I know it is more complicated than that generalization, but we still should ask ourselves if we are standing in the fields.
Friends in the UCC, your denomination has been battling for inclusion and openly aiming to welcome LGBTQIA+ folks to the table. You are battling racism and seeking equality and justice. What of the conservative voices and people who do not understand what you are talking about? Do we stand in the field when they come home to God both dazed and confused? As the culture shifts around, are there times when you realize the doors have not been as open as they should be or the welcome not as exuberant?
Progressive Methodists, we should ask the questions I pose to the UCC folks. Conservative UCC friends, we should ask how we stay in ministry with those of a radically different culture or mindset from your own. Not a single one of these questions is not a question I do not ask myself.
It has been nearly 2,000 years of life for the Christian Church. We have had rough moments but there has always been food out there in the wilderness. We may not have always received the goat to celebrate with our friends, but our faith, our community, and our kin-dom has survived through thick and thin. We are a people who have been blessed for generation upon generation. Can we throw open the doors to the next generation? Can we be so bold as to see each other in the wilderness and have faith that there is enough hope out here for us all? Let us pray…
All people have rough days. Ministers are no exception. Today has been a difficult morning for me. I have wept, I have prayed, and I have reached out to friends. One friend recommended I read two psalms, so I did the natural thing: I turned to a completely different psalm. I am, if nothing else, predictable.
I spent time in Psalm 127 trying to get my head back on straight. The following poem is inspired by the first two verses. It is a rondelet, which is my favorite syllabic poetry form outside of the various forms of Japanese Haikai.
Find rest with God. Anxious thoughts do not give life birth. Find rest with God. There will come no bread from poor sod: Unless the Creator brings forth There will come nothing of true worth. Find rest with God.
“Find rest with God” Rondelet (inspired by Psalm 127:1-2) by the Distracted Pastor, 2019
Message: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood” Date: March 24, 2019 Scripture: Luke 13:1-9 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Luke 13:1-9, NRSV
Friends, we are in the midst of the season of Lent. This entire season we have been comparing our own spiritual journey to a journey into the wild. In this Lenten season we have faced some difficult passages and today’s scripture is no exception. Difficult passages can lead to messages that difficult to both preach and hear. Let’s enter these moments prayerfully.
Holy God, one of the early Desert Monastics named Abba Pambo said “If you have a heart you can be saved.” Give to us your saving grace this morning. As we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, give us the wisdom to hear what you are saying to the saints. We ask this blessing in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
What have you found during this Lenten journey? Have you found wild things in your hearts? Did those things frighten or exhilarate you? This morning we continue looking at Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. There’s tough words here and some difficult theology.
Jesus challenges the people to think about the world and their own lives. In our text Jesus hears words of great tragedy. The ruler Pilate has executed some of Jesus’ people and then treats them barbarically. The story has a sense of being older than time as a hated public figure has done something terrible and it upsets the people. I am certain we can all think of figures who have done awful things in our day and age.
Jesus questions one of the oldest theological misconceptions. Jesus attacks a theology which says that bad things happen to bad people, so if something bad happened to these Galileans it is because they are bad people. Just like the people who died when a tower collapsed in Siloam, the people are looking at these Galileans and asking why God let this happen. If they are good, wouldn’t God have spared them?
Jesus starts off essentially teaches the same lesson as the Book of Job. Bad things can happen to good people. Jesus takes it a step further and points out that all of the people have sin in their lives. WHen Jesus says “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” we find ourselves reading uncomfortable words. The words are very uncomfortable.
Jesus is teaching a truth though. Any journey into the heart like Lent will reveal a lot about our hearts and souls. There are wild parts of us we may encounter, there are dangerous things within us, and there’s also something else in there. Like every wooden wilderness, there are places where the trees are dead, the branches are broken, and the ground is covered with brambles. It is uncomfortable to say it, but there are places in all of our lives where we need to repent.
For me, there are places in my heart where there are broken bits. I grew up in a house where I experienced physical abuse as a child. When I wander through my woods, I occasionally come across parts of my heart that are deeply troubled and angry. There are parts of my soul where I need to repent because I can grow furious when those parts are touched, poked, and prodded. There are places in my life where these words are true. I need to clear out those brambles, get rid of the deadwood, and tear through the thorns.
Do you understand what I am saying? When I hear these words I don’t hear words of condemnation. I hear Jesus saying that all have brokenness. I hear Jesus seeing a group of people trying to say these Galileans must have been sinners while turning a blind eye to their own problems. To use another part of Jesus’ teachings, I see Jesus looking at a people with logs in their own eyes judging other people for having what may have been splinters.
I am glad the parable follows this passage because I think it elucidates what Jesus is trying to say. The people are like a fig tree without fruit. The owner of the garden keeps coming to get figs and finds nothing. The owner wants to tear the tree down, but the gardener asks for more time. The gardener will fertilize it with manure, break up the ground so the roots can spread, and watch over the tree for another year. The gardener is doing everything possible to save the tree.
It bears saying that we are reading this in Lent and the Lenten journey ends at the cross every year. The people are broken in deep ways and on Good Friday Jesus will do everything possible to bring life to the very people who will stand around jeering and taunting him. It is important to remember that Jesus is acting like this gardener and will do everything for these people.
When Jesus says unless we repent, we will perish the words are very hard to hear. In honesty though, there are parts in all of us we know should not be there. There are broken places in our lives and they need to go. Our hope is in the fact that Jesus tends the garden in our hearts, and with Jesus’ help we can tend to our broken places. When we pull down the thorn bushes, it is with Christ’s hands and our hands. When we chop down the broken branches, we do not swing an axe alone.
Also, sometimes there are places in us which we cannot deal with ourselves. In those moments, we have one we can turn to hoping God will bless us with all we need. Yes, we have to repent, but if we turn to God with honesty, we can find our way through even the most challenging of circumstances.
Will you have the courage to repent this Lent? Will you find your broken places and turn them over to the gardener? Will you let God break the soil of your heart, fertilize what is good, tend to what is hurting, and remove what needs to be taken away?
For the season of Lent we have been focusing on two scriptures each Sunday at the Maine Federated Church. The second scripture is the scripture that primarily informs our message and liturgy. The first scripture we read is read after our prayer of confession. For the last two Sundays we have focused on passages out of Epistles.
This Sunday we are drawing on Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:11-17. In the New Revised Standard Version that teaching is described as a parable by the text. I honestly see it more in the realm of practical teaching.
When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 14:11-17, NRSV
The basics of this passage are pretty apparent. Do not fight over places of honor, but instead sit in places marked by humility. For some reason, this passage always reminds of Thanksgiving as a young man at my aunt and uncle’s house. If you’re invited to a meal, offer to sit at the kids’ table if there are not enough seats at the “adult” table. As an adult I have come to realize that sometimes there is more fun at the kids’ table anyway.
If this is practical advice why connect it with the prayer of confession? Here’s my rationale. Jesus is trying to teach the guests at this meal a lesson about humility, but the issue is not actually where they are sitting. They are jockeying for positions because they believe they are more important than other people at the table.
When we come for forgiveness to God, we are invited to come with hope, confidence, and faith; however, we do not come with the assumption that we deserve forgiveness more than our neighbor. We are called to a place of honest humility. If we come with repentant hearts, the response is always “Friend, move up higher.” If we come with a sense of arrogance or superiority, then we have perhaps missed the point of this teaching.
Another piece of early Christian writing called “The Didache” says this in part 1.3: “Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with persons of eminence, but choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.” If we are indeed called like the early church to cultivate the companionship of the honest and humble, then it would seem that humility and honesty are traits we should seek to emulate with our lives. Perhaps there is no better time to practice these traits than when we come before God seeking forgiveness.
Message: Wildness Date: March 17th, 2019 Scripture: Luke 13:31-35 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Today we’re headed further into Lent. This season we’re looking at the season like a trip into the wilderness. We established last week that the wilderness is not always a place of deprivation. There is wisdom to be learned out there in the wilds.
Today we are looking at one of the harder realities of wandering into the wild. In the real world, the wild can be a dangerous place. In our own hearts we can come across some frightening things sometimes. What does Jesus’ journey teach us about those moments? Hopefully, we will glean some wisdom this morning, but first let us pray a prayer that is most appropriate for today. This particular version is from a book called “Irish Blessings” which I purchased in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is one of the many versions of St. Patrick’s Breast Plate. I invite you to pray it with me:
Christ be with me, Christ be within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
We are looking today at the concept of wildness. I live here in the town of Maine and I have been walking around a lot praying recently. I am not walking as a part of my Lenten devotions. I have simply had a lot to pray over with the events of the world and in my denomination.
At least several times a week, I don my trusty hat, head lamp, grab a couple of plastic bags to attend to my dogs’ needs, and head out around the block. Normally we go around three times: once for each dog and once by myself.
I sometimes wonder if the dogs get bored with smelling the same places, marking the exact same spots, and being forced to sit on the cold ground each time a car comes by in the dark. I wonder if they tire of the same dogs barking desperately from the same yards, but we keep on walking the same path.
Why? I would love to head up into the hills, but I have been warned. When I first got here, there were stories of wild cats up in the woods above town. I do not know about that, but there are hungry creatures out in those woods, and my sheltie would be an easy snack for most of them. He isn’t the most vicious of creatures. Let’s be frank: the dog is a pushover.
We stay in the valley because it is fairly safe. Besides the occasional loose dog, car driving a bit fast, and that one rabbit that keeps driving my dogs crazy, the valley is a fairly tame place. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we were to go off into those hills.
I pondered this as I read this week’s text. We’re looking at the season of Lent as a journey into the wilderness. We are not talking about the wilderness outside ourselves. Lent is a journey into the wilderness of the soul. Just as Jesus wandered into the wilderness for forty days, we set aside these forty days to wander into our wilderness.
Here’s a simple truth: a journey into the wilderness will lead to personal challenge and difficult things. There are places in our souls that are often well worn, safe, and generally familiar if not routine paths. When we intentionally step out of our comfort zone, there are wild parts in all of us.
Let me give an easy example from my own story. Friday night I lay awake in bed. I am following John Wesley’s example and fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays this Lent, although I am doing a partial fast. I do not eat chicken, beef, lamb, rabbit, or pork on those days. I also try to eat a little less than usual on those days.
Friday was a long day, and I found myself laying in bed dreaming of hamburgers. I lay in my bed with my phone and found myself googling recipes for potted anchovies to put on crackers. I was that hungry! I had eaten a few slices of cucumber as a snack only a few hours before bedtime. Surely that should have been enough, but my stomach growled. I wanted meat, and I wanted it right then. Enough of fasting, I wanted protein and I wanted it now. I was ravenous. I was hungry.
When we wander off of our normal paths by doing simple things even as small as cutting back, we find ourselves to be far wilder than we expected. If that’s what cutting back on a little extra food does to me, can you imagine how hard it can be when we come across the parts of ourselves that growl in our wilderness.
What happens when we come across a place in ourselves that needs to forgive? If a little of hunger can come across as an angry little sheltie barking at me for sacrificing something so small for Christ, what do you think the wolf of anger looks like as it slobbers in our wilderness? It takes a little more than saying “I need you to let it go” when those sharp teeth start slobbering.
The journey into ourselves will bring us across parts of ourselves that are not easy to deal with on our own. I am reminded of the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg. Carl Sandburg wrote the following poem called “Wilderness:”
“There is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
There is a fox in me … a silver-gray fox … I sniff and guess … I pick things out of the wind and air … I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers … I circle and loop and double-cross.
There is a hog in me … a snout and a belly … a machinery for eating and grunting … a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.
There is a fish in me … I know I came from saltblue water-gates … I scurried with shoals of herring … I blew waterspouts with porpoises … before land was … before the water went down … before Noah … before the first chapter of Genesis.
There is a baboon in me … clambering-clawed … dog-faced … yawping a galoot’s hunger … hairy under the armpits … here are the hawk-eyed hankering men … here are the blond and blue-eyed women … here they hide curled asleep waiting … ready to snarl and kill … ready to sing and give milk … waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.
There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.
O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.”
There is a wilderness inside all of us and the Lenten journey can bring it out. In the terms of Carl Sandburg, we run the zoo inside ourselves. To be honest, one of the reasons I believe that Lent is an important season is that it brings us into contact with that wildness inside us all. Lent teaches us about ourselves which is important because of a simple truth.
Everyone in the scriptures from Eve and Adam, to Sarah and Abraham, to Job, to Ezra, to Nehemiah, to King David, to Elijah, to Deborah, to Esther, to Paul of Tarsus, to Simon Peter, to Timothy, and even Jesus all faced moments where they had things go terribly wrong. We do not have records of all of those moments, but they all faced their challenges.
Deborah the Judge had to lead a nation unaccustomed to women in leadership. Esther was faced with decisions that could cost her life in order to save her people. Peter had to deal with shame after running after the cock crowed. Paul had to deal with the fact that he came to faith in Christ and was nearly shunned by his newly beloved family which he had harmed deeply. Each had moments where everything went wrong and it was by faith that each found their way through. Let’s be clear, sometimes they did not make it through without failure. King David clearly didn’t do well with women or the husband of one whom he sent to his death.
If the people of the Bible struggled with their own wolves, bears, and tigers, shouldn’t we expect the same? Lent is a season when we begin to explore the wilderness of our souls because sooner or later we will come across events that will shove us out of our valleys. When we come across the hungry wolves in our hearts, it can literally be life saving to have taken time to practice and learn our own strengths and weaknesses.
So, how do we go about facing those challenges? I believe the first thing we must do is to stick to the course. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSV) that: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
Our challenges, whether they be yappy shelties that want something to eat or wolves of anger–there is nothing so wild that it is unique to our lives. Some of the things we face may seem beyond our capability, but ask yourself this: What if Paul is right? What if you can overcome? What if we all could overcome?
Look at what Jesus is facing in today’s scripture reading. The Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him that Herod, the local king, wants him dead. They tell him to flee. First off, let’s be clear. This is coming from the Gospel of Luke and in Luke 23:8 we are told that Herod had long wanted to see Jesus so he could perform a sign. He and his soldiers mock Jesus along with the scribes and Pharisees, but Herod does not seem to want to kill Jesus at all. The Pharisees are lying to Jesus.
Jesus says he cannot die outside Jerusalem, mourns for Jerusalem, but still continues on his way. In the gospel of Luke it will be a long time until he reaches Jerusalem. He has a journey ahead of him, is already facing opposition, and will need to walk right into it.
One of the key truths passed down by the church is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. What that means in this case is that Christ is experiencing a human life. Do you believe that Jesus would not have faced his own worries in these moments? Do you wonder if he wouldn’t like all that power offered as a temptation in the wilderness when the very people he loves are trying to deceive and threaten him? As a human, I know I’d want that power in that moment. The wilderness temptation would ring in my ears like a gong.
So, here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t give in to desire or fear. He continues on his way. If Lent is the season of following the footsteps of Jesus, then we should note a few things about where Jesus’ journey goes from here:
First, Jesus remains committed to love. Even as he knows Jerusalem will be his end, Jesus is depicted as loving that city. She will be his end and yet Jesus longs to cradle her like a mothering hen cradles her chicks. Jesus does not react to those who will harm him with anger. Jesus responds with love.
Responding with love to a broken world is hard. When we go on our Lenten journey there are places where we will come across parts of the world, our neighbors, and even ourselves which seem dead set to foil us. Jesus responds with love. Should we seek to do anything less?
Second, Jesus goes forward despite the challenge: he doesn’t give up. There is a good deal of his journey ahead of him. He will face more trials and more tribulations. Despite the fact the pharisees threaten him, Jesus doesn’t give up on them. In chapter fourteen, the very next chapter, we find Jesus going to share a Sabbath meal with one of the leaders of the Pharisees. Jesus does not surrender to his fear but stays the course.
Third, Jesus remembers his journey isn’t a journey that he takes alone. Jesus walks the path with his disciples, who are not a perfect bunch of people. Jesus makes the journey with a community of faith and that is important for us to remember. The journey of Lent can often seem a lonely journey, but that is a misconception. It is easy to give in to the temptation to feel alone, but we are called to remember that we were called into community.
It seems strange to say, but one of the most important things we can do as a community during the season of Lent is to be together as a church. I am not simply talking about being together Sunday morning. Sharing a cup of tea with the person from another pew, praying for that neighbor who is struggling with cancer, or even stopping by the church office for a cup of tea with your pastor. All of these things can be important things we experience on this journey of faith through Lent.
I advise us all to remember that one of the worst things we can do on this journey is to cut ourselves off from others. I have seen many beloved family members in Christ either disconnect from community, become apathetic about remaining with their spiritual family, or “pick up their toys and go home” when life or community becomes difficult. Those approaches have almost never led to anything good for either the community or the individuals. The spiritual life is far better in community. As Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NRSV) reminds us:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NRSV
Now let’s be clear, this is a season where we find the wild parts of ourselves, but the wild will come into our lives even outside of this season. These simple ways of following Christ’s example can be lifesaving ways of being even outside of these moments. So, even after this season, when the challenges of life snarl in your direction:
Don’t react with panic–as much as possible respond with love.
Stay the course despite the challenges
Don’t isolate yourself: remain connected to God and church.
We all must face our own challenges. To go back to the source of our opening prayer and reference a likely apocryphal story, we may find ourselves in a land full of snakes. Like St. Patrick we are sometimes asked a question: Will the snakes drive you out of your island or will you drive the snakes out? As beloved children of our Creator, as followers of Christ’s example, and with the good counsel of our Advocate, the choice is before us.