“Sacrifice” and the Bridge

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day word of the day is “sacrifice.” It is a somewhat difficult thing to balance the idea of sacrifice with this week’s theme of hunger and fullness. The challenge does not rest in making a connection between these two ideas, but in making a connection that is not overly personal.

In the fairly Christian culture of my teenage years, there was a common description of what Christ does through the events of holy week. Christ makes a bridge between our lives and eternity. The idea behind the analogy is that there is a massive gap between our lives in this world and the life we were created to live. We can jump as far as we want, be as righteous as possible, and we still won’t be able to leap the distance.

What happens without Christ? We fall into the gap which can be described as torment, hell, or death. Instead of leaving us in this position, Jesus came for us, died for us, and created a way for us to reach the other side. Christ is our bridge.

The photo I selected for today is of a rickety bridge over a tributary to the Cayuta Creek. I found the bridge on a walk last fall while trying to think through some personal struggles. I found the bridge and to be honest, I really wanted to see what was on the other side of the bridge; however, at least in my head, there was not even the slightest possibility that the bridge would have supported my weight. The bridge appeared rickety, broken, and frightening.

One of the things I have come to understand in my own walk with Christ is the fact that my relationship with Jesus is a relationship that is founded on love and respect. God doesn’t force me to walk over the bridge to life. There are places in my relationship with Christ where I am offered life, but even as Jesus builds a bridge to life, I must choose to step out in faith.

Jesus’ sacrifice brings life and light into my darkness, but I must choose to step out in faith. It can be really frightening to trust Christ. Occasionally the bridge looks really frightening. Sometimes, we need to face our fears and step out onto the bridge even when it is scary. Christ sacrifices for us and sometimes we must choose to sacrifice our fears in order to choose life.

“Good” and the mystical faith

Our devotional reading for today begins with the line “Christianity is a mystical faith, but not a magical faith.” Depending on the version you are reading, there is unfortunately a typo in that line which makes it read “Christianity is mystical faith…” .Even now, my editing program is having a conniption over that phrasing and it makes me wonder how I missed it when reading the devotional through multiple times while searching for errors and typos.

Christianity is a mystical faith that connects the practical physical reality with something beyond normal understanding. In the scripture reading we read of thousands of people eating a shared meal after one child came forward with five loaves of bread and two fish. The story is amazing, but it is not the only story of how people have seen the wondrous happen without the blessing of incredible wealth.

Soldiers from two different nations stopped during the first World War for a day of shared peace on Christmas. The peace could not have been bought or sold, but it was shared freely with people who shared the same faith on different sides of a war as they remembered the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all.” Victims have forgiven people who have committed atrocities against them simply because God asked them to forgive others. A sailor engaged in human trafficking came to a point of conversion and decided to stand against the very practices he once engaged in for a living. As an abolitionist, he both advocated for the dignity of the people he once harmed and sang about the amazing grace that changed his life.

Often without a world of riches at their command and often against the expectations and desires of the wealthy and powerful, people have dug into empty pockets and found that they were far richer than it looked on the outside. God has a way of showing up in a miraculous way to provide for those in need, whether it be through a changed heart, a call to forgiveness, the same hymns sung in different languages, or even the willingness to share found in a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “good.” I am blessed in many ways, but being a parent has often stretched me beyond the ends of what I thought were my limits. I have cried for my children, held them while they are sick, prayed over them at a distance, and now regularly wake up in the middle of the night to wonder where they are and how they are doing at that moment.

I have not always been the perfect parent, but that is not the fault of my children. I often feel like a poor father and I cannot give them everything they want in this world. Somehow, I have still been considered worthy enough by God to be their dad. I love them deeply. They are good, even when I pray for a way to be a better father. On some days, I even allow myself to believe that I must be good if I have been entrusted with such amazing kids.

My eldest during a time when life was challenging. I have always believed with all of my life that my eldest is good and I am so grateful to be his father.

“Awake” and seeing around us

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.”

“Glory” and Sacrifices

We were directed to Matthew 9:9-13 in our devotional today. In the New Revised Standard Version, Matthew 9:13 has Jesus telling a crowd of religious leaders that they need to “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

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.

Smoke on a BBQ Saturday at Trumansburg UMC

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.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

“Dazzling” and the Beatitudes

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day Challenge for today revolves around the word “dazzling.” When thinking about the word dazzling, a lot of images come to mind. My thoughts are filled with vibrant, bright, and amazing concepts. A starry night can be dazzling as can the sunshine pouring through stained glass windows.

At first glance, the idea of something being dazzling stands a bit at odds with the devotional reading for the yesterday. We read through the beatitudes in Luke 6 yesterday (which will happen often during this Lenten season with the beatitudes). We are asked by our devotional this week to consider how Jesus views both poverty and wealth.

What does it mean when Jesus says that the poor shall have the kingdom of God? What does it mean when Jesus says that the rich have already received their consolation? How does this reversal of how wealth is commonly seen affect our understanding of Christ? How does it relate to what is truly dazzling?

At Trumansburg through this season we are nailing words to our cross on Sundays. Yesterday we nailed both wisdom and foolishness to the cross. After the service someone came up to me and asked why we nailed both to the cross. Why would surrender wisdom to God on the cross? It was a great question and the simplest answer is that we are nailing our understanding to the cross.

To put it simply, we tend to have an upside down understanding. We think someone is doing well when we see someone with an expensive car, nice clothes, and money to buy anything they want. When someone walks through the door of the church with dirty clothes, an unwashed face, and a gurgle in their stomach, we sometimes wonder what is going on with them. We assume one is blessed and the other is struggling.

Jesus states that the poor will one day have the kingdom of God and that the rich have already received their blessings. In light of eternity, we can understand why Jesus says that we should be wary of becoming and even be sympathetic for the rich who seem to have everything but one day may have nothing compared to those who are suffering now. Even if you do not like this interpretation of the scriptures and wish to shift to language like “poor in Spirit” to shift away from a glorification of poverty, it is hard to get around Jesus’ warning about being rich in Luke.

Sunrise during the first week of 2022

So, what photo did I pick when I wanted to think of something dazzling that had nothing to do with having riches? I wanted to share a photo of something that not only was available to everyone and was likely to be seen only by the people who woke up early to put their nose to the grindstone, woke up early due to restlessness, and generally only seen by those who were either up late working or at least not sleeping in late. It is imperfect as some people work odd hours, but I have faith people can understand why a sunrise is something that is both dazzling and available to the rich and poor alike.

“Pray” and True Wealth

Throughout the readings from our devotional for this week there is an exploration of wealth. What does it mean to be truly wealthy? For Jesus there was a difference between having things and being truly wealthy. One could reasonably argue that a woman who has two coins that she can afford to give to God should be seen as being richer than a person with a wallet bursting at the seams while struggling to let go of the tiniest sliver of their fortune.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt is the word “Pray.” In selecting a photo for today, I pondered through a great number of photos. In the end, I selected a beautiful flower standing out from the green leaves.

The flower blossom is quite beautiful. The stamen of the flower are outstanding in beauty and quite literally standing out like yellow hands that are waiting to shake an insect’s hand. The purple petals are an inviting shade that contrasts nicely with the green leaves and stems that surround them. If I had to choose what part of this plant to be, it seems like it would be lovely to be this blossom. You could say it seems like it would be a rich experience to be so bold, beautiful, and vibrant.

At the same time, true wealth might rest in being grateful to be whatever part of the flower you might be in this life. You might not wish to be a green leaf or a tough stem, but what an amazing gift it might be to experience the joy of being green or woody.

Many people spend their lives wishing that they were someone else, own something else, or have more of what they already have in this life. People scrabble, hoard, and envy the people around them in lives marked with competition, jealousy, and striving.

What would it look like if we prayed less about having more and prayed more about being grateful? What would it look like if we prayed to have what we need and were grateful for those blessings? What would it look like if we prayed less about having riches and prayed more from a place of gratitude for what we have in this life?

I may never be a vibrant purple flower, but I might be an amazing woody stem. If I can find the richness of having a gruff exterior with a tough hide, then I will be truly wealthy even without the yellow highlights.

“Celebrate” and Quiet Prayers

There is a question repeated several times with several different phrasings throughout the reading from our devotional for today: “What is in the closet of your heart today?”

The phrase itself refers back to the reading from Matthew 6:5-6. In that passage, Jesus teaches that when people pray they should seek to pray in secret. In the NRSV, Jesus says. “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

As we pray, what is waiting in the closet of our hearts? When we go to pray, what are we sharing with God inside of our hearts and souls? As it is Sunday and a day of celebration, it is fitting that the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt is the word “celebrate.”

Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Scones

Like many people, I find that it is great to celebrate with a treat. A few months ago, my kids and I were celebrating time together when we decided to make scones for breakfast. We wanted something sweet, but money has been tight.

We dug through the freezer and cupboards and found the ingredients for scones. My middle child found the chocolate chips in the back of the freezer, I found the right type of flour, and my youngest happily knew where we store the butter in the fridge. We put everything together, rolled out the dough, and baked the scones.

What is in the closet of my heart when I think of the word “celebrate?” My closet is filled with hopes and dreams. What does my prayer look like as I think about celebrating? It is full of joy for the celebrations of the past and pleading for celebrations in the future.

Does the prayer mean less because I do not lift it up in church during the prayers of the people? Does the church have a magical microphone that enables God to hear those prayers better? On both counts, the answer is “no.” If anything, the prayers I pray in my heart are likely all the more sacred as they dwell between God and me alone.

Whatever your prayer life is like today, I pray that you know that God hears our prayers. We do not need to stand on a street corner or have a microphone to be heard by God. To be sure, it is a powerful thing to pray together. It is great to be encouraged by praying with others, comforted by sharing prayers with others, and blessed by being invited into prayer for others. Still, the prayers of our quiet spaces are just as sacred to the God that calls us to come and pray in secret.

“Protect” and the Withered Hand

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.”

Lily the Dog watching over us

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.

A Lunch Reflection

“Self-made people, and all heroic spiritualities, will try to manufacture an even stronger self by willpower and determination–to put them back in charge and seeming control. Usually, most people admire this, not realizing the unbending, sometimes proud, and eventually rigid personality that will be the long term result. They will then need to continue in this pattern of self-created successes and defenses. This pushy response does not normally create loving people, just people in control and in ever-deeper need for control. Eventually, the game is unsustainable, unless they make others, even their whole family, pay the price for their own aggression and self-assertion-which is the common pattern.”

BREATHING UNDER WATER: SPIRITUALITY AND THE TWELVE STEPS, RICHARD ROHR

I’m reading through Richard Rohr’s “Breathing Under Water.” I was just sitting down to a grain bowl for lunch after church and read this passage.

I would love to point out where I’ve seen this be true, but I’m not trying to be the kind of person who enjoys such efforts. Instead, I was more struck by the fact that the heroic spirituality pointed to in this paragraph is the very personality the church has tried to groom in me as a minister for years.

Be beyond reproach, be an attractive leader, dress handsomely, lose weight to attract more people, bring your kids to church, start a youth group, have lunch with the other ministers, do this, do that, and above all do everything while being humble yet confident.

I’ve bent over backwards thinking that I should be one way so many times. Maybe my back hurts from all of the spiritual contortions that I have put myself through time and time again.

“More than a Building”

If you stop to look
more than a mere glance
It is more than a building.

It hides itself well
with the bricks so fine
but this is not just a church.

Real lives change here
when people listen
and find a kind place with hope.

We may not fix things
when the world breaks stuff
but we listen with our hearts.

We share words of home
We offer safe space
for people who are adrift

Not just a building
we are a free pier
for all who sail on life's waves.

Building, dock, or church
This sanctuary
is offered freely to all

I am so grateful
and laugh here with joy
for this is not just a church

In this place we feed
those with a hunger
both in body and/or soul

It is a garden
for all of the "bees"
who need some nectar or rest

It is a warm inn
on a wintry road
when people need safe shelter

It is a rare place
where death comes quite near
but nobody runs in fear.

It is where goodbye
is shared with a hope
that goodbye is "just for now."

It is where we wash
the soul with water
and ask the Spirit to come.

Full of miracles
stories with wonder
defy explanation here

It is made of brick
but is more solid
than just a sacred building

It is a place to find grace
It is a place to belong
It is more than a building
Video, photography, accompianment, and poetry all composed/captured/performed/written by me

A Sad Realization about a word…

I was listening to the news this morning when the NPR podcast that helps me get ready for the day shared a frightening statistic: nearly 40% of Republicans seemingly approved of the use of violence to defend what I will call the “American way of life.” I was a bit upset, so I did some digging. The actual source of the survey reported, “Nearly three in 10 (29 percent) Americans completely or somewhat agree with the statement: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.”

All of this was upsetting, but it bothered me on another level that this was listed under the religion section of NPR. 0https://www.npr.org/2021/02/11/966498544/a-scary-survey-finding-4-in-10-republicans-say-political-violence-may-be-necessaR and the included snippets of an interview with the head of the agency (American Enterprise Institute) that performed the survey, the director Daniel Cox connected what was labeled as the White Evangelical church and really questionable beliefs. Cox shared with NPR: ” ‘As with a lot of questions in the survey, white evangelicals stand out in terms of their belief in conspiracy theories and the idea that violence can be necessary,’ Cox says. ‘They’re far more likely to embrace all these different conspiracies.’ ”

Now, I’m white and I believe in the Good News (the “Evangel”), but I do not agree that there is any necessary use of violence in this nation’s politics. I believe in being evangelistic and in the act of evangelism, but the word “Evangelical…” I think that word has been dragged through the mud so often that I cannot connect myself with it in good conscience.

I am thankful for this snippet from the actual survey’s release: “However, although a significant number of Americans—and Republicans in particular—express support for the idea that violent actions may be necessary, there is a notable lack of enthusiastic support for it. For instance, only 9 percent of Americans overall and only 13 percent of Republicans say they “completely” agree in the necessity of taking violent actions if political leaders fail.”

I believe 9% is too high. The church has a lot of work to do, especially when such a large swath of the church has what I see as a troubling relationship with the very political violence I believe we should oppose. Blessed are the peacemakers…

Preparing for a “Love Feast”

I finally have internet at the house again! We have been settling into our new community slowly. Boxes are slowly thinning as we settle a bit more each day. Today is a technology heavy day as we had internet installed and i have an afternoon of finding various wires and devices ahead of me!

July is practically here and this Sunday is my first Sunday at the Trumansburg United Methodist Church. We are celebrating a new appointment and I am planning on celebrating with a digital “Love Feast.”

There’s a lot of information out there on Love Feasts. This tradition is tied to United Methodism through John Wesley’s exposure to the Moravian Church. This tradition is one of my favorite traditions because of the simplicity, the beauty, and the communal nature of the Love Feast. I also enjoy the Moravian tradition of sharing a hot beverage or chocolate milk with holy conversation.

A written reflection on the history of the Love Feast can be found through the United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries website, but I enjoy this video from the General Commission on Archives and HIstory due to the emphasis on the relational nature of the Love Feast.

The relational nature of the Love Feast is why I am excited to connect this ancient practice with worship this weekend. We may not be gathered in person, but sharing testimony and blessing with bread and hot cocoa seems like a wonderful plan!

Enthusiasm for today…

Empty streets below skies
blotted by ashen hued puffs.
No voices carry on cold wind
As footsteps seem noisy intrusions...
This is a still place...

Listen within. 
My soul breathes,
heart beats:
life.
This is a still place...

Yesterday it rained a lot here. From morning until evening, the skies were filled with rain and the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing. The few walks that I took with my dogs and children were taken on streets drenched in rain. The streets were mainly empty, which is pretty normal in quarantine. The cold rain only made the walks chillier, the yards emptier, and the entire area’s mood more somber.

For the last few weeks of quarantine, I’ve been slowly reading through Richard Rohr’s “Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.” I say that I’m reading it slowly because the price of Kindle books has taught me the wisdom of rationing books during this time of stillness. My personal budget for books has not grown even as the time to read them has increased…

The book is interesting. I do not always agree with Fr. Rohr’s writing, but thankfully my beliefs do not require me to agree with someone’s entire belief structure to glean wisdom where I find it. Let’s take this idea from Fr. Rohr which strikes me as particularly interesting on page 96:

If contemplation teaches us to see an enchanted world, cynicism is afraid there is nothing there. As a people, we have become cynical about ourselves, our world, our future. Some rightly said, “The problem is no longer to believe in God; it’s to believe in humanity.” We’re tremendously under-confident about what it means to be human. For many secular people today we live in a disenchanted universe without meaning, purpose, or direction. We are aware only of what it is not. Seldom do we enjoy what it is. Probably it is only healthy religion that is prepared to answer that question. Healthy religion is an enthusiasm about what is, not an anger about what isn’t.

Richard Rohr, page 96 of “Everything Belongs”

Yesterday, the world was empty, wet, cold, and windy. The weather outside was fairly to quite miserable. The news on the radio was not very warm and cuddly. I could have easily chosen to be angry about the world. I could choose to embrace anger, anxiety, fear, or despair.

Instead, I smoked a turkey that we froze in our freezer last fall. Earlier in the week I brined the turkey with a homemade brine. We thawed the turkey in a brine for five days. We brought the brine to a boil before cooling to room temperature prior to submerging the turkey. We smoked the turkey with cherry wood chips with brine in the water pan. With three hours left, we put potatoes underneath the turkey to smoke and to be flavored by any drippings falling from the turkey.

The turkey three hours before dinner. Confession: I forgot to take a picture when finished due to the busyness of the moment.

The day could have been thoroughly miserable, but there was opportunity to find joy even in the midst of a dark world. We cannot choose the world in which we live. We can choose how we try to approach the difficulties. Sometimes there are neurochemical challenges which require medical help, patterns of habits which are detrimental, or a propensity towards anxiety, depression, or fear; however, we still can make a choice.

Last night, we had smoked turkey with smashed smoked potatoes. The turkey was moist and flavorful, the potatoes were tasty, and the inevitable cranberry sauce was devoured. We have enough leftovers for the next few days today and turkey broth cooking in the slow cooker. Even these moments can be beautiful if we choose to find a reason for hope and joy. Perhaps you’re not a cook or have nobody to cook with, but this day is still the day we have for today. We can choose to be enthusiastic about what is rather than angry about what is not.

Brine Recipe: For every five pounds of turkey: 1 clementine sliced into wedges, 1 tsp prague powder #1, 1 tsp peppercorns, ¼ c brown sugar mixed into a brine made with enough water to submerge the turkey)

“People who are in good health don’t need a doctor; sick people do.”

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Today we’re reading through Matthew 9:9-13 as a people. In Matthew 9:12 of The Inclusive Bible, the words which comprise the title of this post are spoken by Jesus. Jesus states freely that people who are in good health don’t need a doctor, which leads to a question: If Jesus is in the process of bringing life into the lives of poor, then why is the “Doctor Jesus” spending time with people who could objectively be seen as rich?

In my opinion, there’s a common misconception about church. People believe that church is a place for people who have everything together. It is common to find people who find church people to be self-righteous, judgmental, and hypocritical. Interestingly, Jesus did not seen to spend his time with the people who had everything together.

People could objectively look at the scriptures Jesus and see a hypocritical teacher who says a blessing will fall on the poor while spending time with the rich., but is that truly the message we should take away from the story? Jesus does not say the rich are healthy. In fact, Jesus implies the people who he is sharing a table with are not healthy. Wealth does not equal spiritual health in Jesus’ eyes. The tax collectors and notorious sinners are ill: the doctor has come to make a “house call.”

Throughout this week, Jesus will stretch our understanding of what it means to be wealthy and who is in need of blessing. May God give us wisdom in a world that glorifies riches and sometimes isolates on a pedestal the very folks who need loving and healing community the most.

The “Jesus problem” is noticed…

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Today we are looking at Luke 6:6-11, which contains the story of Jesus healing a person with a withered hand. The story is an interesting one and certainly lends into the story of Lent. The last verse of our reading indicates that the religious scholars and Pharisees left the synagogue on that day looking for ways to do something about their “Jesus problem.”

The Lenten journey is one which ends in the events of Holy Week. There is no Lent where Jesus ends the season without suffering on the behalf of the people God loves. The desire of individuals to take care of this Jesus problem increases as the season progresses.

What’s interesting to me about this approach to Lent with the Beatitudes is that we see how a portion of Jesus’ teaching affects both Jesus’ life and potential the lives of the people who hear his teachings. Jesus offers healing to a person with a withered hand and the people walk away with sinister thoughts in their hearts.

I wonder how the person felt whose hand was healed upon that day. If it were me, I am doubtful I would have walked away grumbling about what Jesus had done. I would likely celebrate the unexpected blessing that came into my life.

This Lent, God may have something for us. God may give a blessing into our lives which we may not be expecting. God may give a blessing to us that we do not believe we deserve. God may bring a piece of radical healing into our lives, especially if we find ourselves struggling to find our place in this world.

I pray that God is with us all tonight and into tomorrow as we prepare to enter into worship. May God add blessing to our lives and may we celebrate it together in worship tomorrow.

“What have you to do with us?”

Today is the first Friday of Lent. As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Our reading today focused on Luke 4:31-37. The passage immediately follows our passage from yesterday. In the passage Jesus of Nazareth is approached by a person who is “possessed” while in nearby Capernaum.

Jesus is asked two questions: What does Jesus have to do with them and has he come to destroy them? Jesus frees the person of their condition, but the questions remain. What has Jesus come to do?

This Lent, that’s really the question we all must ask before we dive into the matters found in the beatitudes. What has Jesus come to do? Jesus’ teachings can radically affect the way we interact with the world. What has Jesus come to do in our lives?

One of the things I am appreciating about both using this devotional and writing this devotional is that it approaches Lent from a completely different angle than most Lenten studies. It is my hope and prayer that spending time in less traditional scriptures might help us to see things differently this season. What has Jesus to do with us? What might Jesus want to do in our lives?

Only time will tell how things will look, but I believe Christ has come to bring grace into my life. Things I have done may need to be discarded, patterns in my life may need to be destroyed, but I believe that at the end of this journey and Lent I will find myself alive in Christ.

Nazarene Privilege

Today is the first Thursday of Lent. As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” Today is the last day that the devotional is free on a Kindle, on the Kindle Cloud Reader, or both.

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.

This is not how pants work…

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.

Ash Wednesday

Our church is beginning a journey along with many in the greater Christian Church today. Several of our members are gathering with our neighboring churches to begin the Lenten journey with an ecumenical service in a few hours. We will sing, pray, and reflect on our lives as Christians.

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” Through tomorrow the devotional is free on a Kindle, on the Kindle Cloud Reader, or both. Writing a devotional for a season is a new experience for me, but I found the practice of putting in the work to be fruitful for my own spirituality.

Today’s entry focuses on the passage which lies behind the majority of the devotional. The passage we read together today is Luke 6:17-26 and the focus of the devotional is a phrase out of the United Methodist Book of Worship. The liturgy for the Ash Wednesday service uses two distinct phrases during the imposition of the ashes.

The first is very traditional: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This phrase has a lot of depth, especially as it is echoed in the traditional words during many memorial services. There is a direct correlation with the phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The second phrase is also traditional. Our devotional is focused on the words of this phrase. “Repent, and believe the gospel.” When using this phrase, the Lenten journey begins with two instructions. We are called to repent. We are called to believe the gospel.

Photo from Chenango Valley State Park in Chenango Forks, NY

Often, the call to repentance is a major part of Lent. Repentance is not simply a matter of feeling guilt. The call is not to live in shame. Repentance is the process of recognizing your failings/shortcomings and turning towards God onto a better path.

In truth, there are many places in my own life where I feel as if I were walking through a field like the one in my picture. I walk along while looking at the sky until I find myself tumbling into the freezing cold waters below. Sometimes I know there’s a pit nearby, but sometimes I wander into the murky freezing water without any warning.

Repentance is about more than simply acknowledging that there’s a problem. Repentance is often about realizing that the only way out of the pit that we find ourselves standing in is with the help of God. Many people who have found themselves dealing with anything from an addiction, grief, depression, or chronic anxiety might tell you the ONLY way out of that pit is often with God’s help.

The reason I love this particular phrase on Ash Wednesday is the idea that we are called to believe. The photo I showed you is a desolate one, but did you notice the birds? There’s life down in that pit of freezing water. The water is cold, the situation would be miserable if you were trying to climb out the opposite side, but there’s still life.

The call on us today is not only to repent on this journey, but to believe in the gospel. Jesus Christ can work in our lives this Lent. The Holy Spirit can guide us through the darkest of our days throughout the years. Our Creator can create life in the midst of our lives. Let’s repent, and believe in the gospel.

Lenten Devotional!

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.

Blessings!

Sermon: “The ‘Stone’ comes with praises”

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.

“Palm Sunday in Spain,” 1873
by Jean-Georges Vibert French
Public Domain Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

  1. Was it a jealous religious leadership acting maliciously?
  2. Were the wrong people in Jerusalem the day Herod brings Jesus before the crowd?
  3. Was Herod sick and tired of dealing with the locals and literally washed his hands of them?
  4. 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…

“Foraging Hope” Sermon

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.

The Prodigal Son, ca. 1496
Albrecht Dürer
Public Domain courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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…

Poem for a rough day

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

Sermon: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”

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.

“The Tower of Siloam (Le tour de Siloë)” by James Tissot

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.

Thornbush by Les Hatfield, used under Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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.

The Good Shepherd statue at the Malvern Retreat Center in Malvern, OA

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?