Meditation on the Sower and the Seeds (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

While hiking through the northern part of Palestine’s West Bank in 2011, our little group began taking “short cuts” through fields and groves of trees.  There came a point when I realized that we were walking through a place that illustrated exactly what Jesus was talking about when he gave the “Parable of the Sower.”  Here’s what it looked like…

And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. ...this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. …this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. ...this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. …this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’ ...this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’
Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen! …this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

2/24/2013 Sermon: “The Holy Potluck”

John 6:29  Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which* comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

1 Communion Bread & Cup

1 Corinthians 11:23  For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for* you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.   

Whenever I’ve asked church leaders to describe their churches and their communities, there are a couple of things they always say.  The schools are exceptional.  This is true no matter where you go.  What is it Garrison Keillor says?  Lake Wobegon is, (Manheim is) “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”  And, the people of our church make great food.  We love to eat.  Isn’t that also true here?  Think about the last time you ate wonderful food at a church gathering.  My favorite church food is…. (talk among yourselves!)

Once upon a time, I helped organize a youth group exchange that brought about 30 adults and teenagers to a church in Eastern Germany, and then their group came to visit us.  All we had to pay for was the plane tickets.  It was a beautiful exercise in hospitality.

One Sunday, after we had worshiped with our hosts in their stately brick Lutheran church building, suddenly, the seats cleared away and tables were set up in the middle of the sanctuary.  And everyone sat down to an amazing German meal, in honor of our fellowship and our mutual relationship through Christ.  In the sanctuary!  That kind of meal has a connection to our scripture passages for today.

The Holy Potluck.  As much as we like to eat, especially those church breakfasts and suppers, food in our life together as a church may not have the same kind of significance it did many years ago, when our ancestors were figuring out how to be “church.” The Hebrew people of the Old Testament and in the time of Jesus would come together several times a year for feasts at the Temple in Jerusalem to remember special times in their history.  They would make sacrifices of meat (and other foods), cook it, and eat together.  Feasts usually lasted for several days. They would also gather privately with their families at times like Passover for symbolic meals.  Passover food, like unleavened bread, helped them think about their escape from Egypt.

Our communion, or Lord’s Supper, tends to be like a Seder, like a Passover meal in that it’s a sparse, symbolic meal that helps us remember the body and blood of Jesus, the lamb who was sacrificed for us, the one who leads out of slavery to sin.  But the early Christians in Europe celebrated the Lord’s Supper differently – they made it into a feast.  Like Thanksgiving!  Like a huge church potluck!  The reading from 1 Corinthians is addressed to a group of Christians in the Greek city of Corinth who had some problems with their Lord’s Supper feast.

Corinth is in the middle of the mainland of Greece and in Paul’s time, it was a major city.  Corinth was a commercial crossroads with all kinds of people from many places traveling through, and had a reputation as a kind of Las Vegas or Atlantic City.  At that time, loose living was called “Corinthinianizing.”

The Greek poet Horace is quoted as saying: “non licet omnibus adire Corinthum“, which translates as “Not everyone is able to go to Corinth“, and what he was talking about was the expensive lifestyle of the people who lived there.

Opulent, Extravagant.  Fancy.  Expensive.  Exclusive.  There was a Corinthian style of architecture, which is still known to us in “Corinthian” columns, which involve very ornate carvings at the top.

2 CorinthCorinth was famous for the temple prostitutes of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, whose clients included wealthy merchants and powerful people living in Corinth or traveling through. They are said to have had the ability to charge huge fees for their services.

Paul came to Corinth to preach about fifteen or twenty years after the time of Christ.  His letters to the believers there are some of the earliest writings in the New Testament.  When God the Holy Spirit started the church there, it’s an understatement to say that Paul had lots of competition from the pagan temples in Corinth.  Preaching a risen savior, the Jewish Messiah,  who had been executed by Romans on a cross in Palestine, on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, was just….  foolishness.

Shanghai. CN – 2007

Ancient Corinth is in ruins today, but if we were to translate the culture to our time, maybe it would look more like this…

This was not an easy place to begin a ministry, but, God specializes in impossible things, and there were Corinthians who responded to Paul’s preaching with faith.  The church grew and became spiritually strong.  But these believers had trouble keeping the pagan religious culture out of their Christian lives and Paul was blunt with them about it.  If they were doing something wrong, he let them know.  At this point early in his ministry, Paul could be harsh; he mellowed as he got older.

If this letter we are reading is difficult to understand, it’s because we are eavesdropping on a personal conversation between a minister and his church, in a culture that’s somewhat foreign to us.  But this just makes it more interesting!

One of their problems had to do with food sacrificed to pagan idols (see 1 Corinthians 10).  You see, one of the ways you worshiped a pagan god was to eat a meal in the god’s presence; a dinner party; a feast.  People would take the leftover food and either sell it or eat it at home.  This was only a problem if those around the table knew it had been sacrificed to some pagan god.  In this way some were still carrying on the pagan worship by eating it.  Paul told the Corinthians they needed to cut that out.  Get away from the idols!

As Christians, the Corinthians (really, all Christians) have new lives and new traditions that bring us closer to the Christ who is saving us.  The Corinthians adapted the feast idea; they made the Lord’s Supper into their own feast (they are Greek after all).  Instead of, or in addition to, the sparse, symbolic Passover meal, the Corinthians had a banquet; a dinner party in honor of Jesus.  Imagine that for a moment.  Coming to church on communion Sunday for a three course meal.  I know that idea is not hard to imagine in Manheim.

It seems that the Corinthian Lord’s Supper feast for them was something like a potluck, a huge, holy potluck.  The problem was that the more well-off members of the church weren’t sharing their food with poorer members.  They were being exclusive.  To Paul, this was a slap in the face of Christ, who sacrificed himself for the world, young and old, rich and poor, and then told us to remember his sacrifice through this meal.  It was an insult to Christ in another way; all believers are his body, and this kind of behavior is directly opposite of the work the Holy Spirit is doing in bringing us together to minister to each other.  The Spirit of God brings us together in spite of our differences.  This meal is meant to be absolutely inclusive.

So, Paul wrote to the Corinthians to set them straight and in the process, set down in print some words the church has been wrestling with ever since.

11:27-29  Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.  Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.

Those verses leave questions.  What should our attitude be when we take communion?  How can we keep the Lord’s Supper pure?  How do we “discern the body?”  In some early Reformation churches, there was actually a fence across the front of the church to keep “just anybody” from coming forward and taking communion.  The minister was supposed to know who was worthy.  Churches over the centuries have tried to protect the Lord’s Supper in one way or another.

These are some of the most misunderstood verses in the bible.  What is eating and drinking in an unworthy manner?  It’s not about making sure that all your sins are confessed or that your life is pure (as if that’s possible!).  Paul says, “discern the body,” that is, we need to see the family of God around us.  Do you see body of Christ?  We need to understand that the communion table here represents Christ with his arms wide open, ready to embrace all of us, no matter who we are.  Do you know what an altar call is?  The Lord’s table is God’s original altar call!  Then though this meal, we become the embrace that God wants to give the world.  Communion is for everybody who understands that they need God; who understands that Jesus died for them – no matter how old they are.  It is not a special privilege you earn.  It’s an expression of God’s grace, God’s love for all of us.  Eating and drinking in an unworthy manner is taking part in the meal with prejudice in your heart toward another person whom God loves.

Maybe there’s someone in the room who needs forgiveness, or needs an expression of friendship.  If you thought you needed that from someone, you are probably the one who needs to be reaching out!

Where the Lord’s Supper in concerned, we need to take down walls.  Are we treating everybody in the church – near and far – fairly?  Do we see the body of Christ?  In this room, at this moment, we may not have a problem.  But what about our attitudes toward other Christians?  Are we really welcome to all?  How welcoming are we to each other?

Here’s a welcome I picked up from a Catholic Church bulletin:

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no hablo Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

‘We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

‘We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

‘If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because grandma is in town and she wanted to go to church.

‘We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!”  (Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community – I don’t know where that is)

Communion helps us remember that Jesus is saving us and the Spirit working among us.  It is a monthly invitation to those who may not be here, so we need to think more about the people we want to invite to the party that is St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.  When we serve the Lord’s Supper, we should be picturing Jesus walking up and down the aisles, offering himself to everyone here, and then looking around to see if he missed anyone, then stepping outside to offer it to anybody who happens to be walking by.  We are his body.  He invites the world to follow – through us.

Prayer

We thank you for one more opportunity to serve you through our worship  Forgive us for our inability at times to see beyond ourselves, forgive us for becoming closed or thinking that there is only one way to do things.  We pray for openness to all people of all types, all ages, all colors and all cultures.  Give us opportunities to include them whenever possible.  Help our relationships grow, and help us learn the power of living that comes from being together with you and sharing the meal that reminds us of your love for us.  Amen.

 

 

2/17/2013 Sermon: “Instant Satisfaction”

Mt. of Temptation Monastery, near Jericho, Palestine.  CN - 2011.
Mt. of Temptation Monastery, near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.

Today’s scripture story is about the temptation of Jesus.  Like so many of the stories in scripture, there are actual places where these things happened, and traditional places where these things happened.  This is the “traditional” spot where the temptation of Jesus took place.It’s on a 350-foot rock face and it’s a difficult climb to the top, along a narrow path.  Or you can take a cable car.

5 Mount of Temptation monastery

 

 

There is a Greek Orthodox monastery part-way up.  The monks live in small cells.  In this place you can contemplate the temptation of Christ with the other tourists  …and have an ice cream.  Or a large frothy pomegranate drink in the restaurant.

 

 

Luke 4:1-13. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”, 
11and
“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

When I say the word, “temptation,” what do you think of?  We use the word temptation in worship every week.  The Lord’s Prayer has us asking God not to “lead us into temptation,” but a better translation of those words is, “keep us from the day of testing.”  God, please protect us from the Day of Judgment – and Jesus is the answer to that prayer.  The things that would make us vulnerable to judgment are the things that died with Jesus on the cross.  So that prayer is being answered – and God does not lead you into temptation.  We lead ourselves into temptation perfectly well.

The dictionary defines temptation as “the act of tempting or the state of being tempted, especially to evil.”  Synonyms are: allurement, bait, come-on, decoy, enticement, inveiglement, seducement, snare, trap.”  I think we know what temptation is.  An invitation to be distracted from God to become something less than what God wants you to be.  It’s different for everyone.  It could be a thing, a person, an emotion, a substance.  It’s clear from scripture that one of the things that makes us human is that we can be tempted and give in!  We’re all in this together!

If you’re open to it, the gospel story from Luke can give you some help as you follow Jesus through his own temptation.

v. 1  Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

 Jesus has just been baptized and he is full of the Holy Spirit.  He’s on a spiritual high as he heads into the wilderness, which is not a forest.  He’s going off to live in a cave somewhere in Judea.  No people except for a few shepherds.  He knows when he goes into this place that he won’t come out for 40 days – a symbolic number that means journey, and cleansing, and salvation.  Coincidentally, that’s about how long it takes for most people to develop new habits.  For most of 6 weeks, he’s with God, himself, and the devil.  In the middle of nowhere.

He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

There were no ice cream coolers or juice drink vendors in this place, just in case you missed the irony.  So he’s on a liquid fast and is… famished.

This is the word I want you to key in on.  Famished.  It’s the first ingredient of successful temptation for the evil one.  Tired, hungry.  Famished.

 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 

The devil has a logical idea.  Make bread. And Jesus refuses.  Most preachers would have you see that Jesus quotes scripture when he refuses.

Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

He quotes scripture, and that’s important.  Knowing the Word is a good thing in so many ways, but maybe you heard that the devil also knows scripture.  But the key thing Jesus does is not to turn the rock into bread.  He simply refuses to do what the devil suggested.  It’s not about resisting the temptation to do a cheesy parlor trick, not about resisting the temptation to feed himself with his power.  It’s about refusing to allow the evil to control anything he does – even when he is physically weak.

The evil will come to you and try to control you when you are tired and hungry.  When you are famished.  A UCC Conference person once told me that he had seen a study of clergy misbehavior which revealed that those who got into moral trouble often made their first mistake on a Monday.  Think about that.  I suspect that all of us have a vulnerable day.  I think what God is trying to communicate is: think carefully about your decisions on that day.  Might be best to save the decision for a time when you are not famished.  I wonder how many bad decisions have been made by us when we were famished.  All Jesus did was say no.

Katrina watch
Hurricane Katrina debris. CN – 2006

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’

If you were a Jewish person in that time, standing on the Mount of Temptation, you would looking back in the direction of slavery.  I realize it’s a symbolic thing, and maybe it’s a stretch of the imagination, but that’s what you’re looking at from up there.

All the kingdoms of the world, the glory, the authority, the things that look so great from a distance, are over there where slavery is.  And it’s a lie.  None of this stuff is the devil’s to give.  It’s all about control.  And those things are a mirage.

The reason the Jewish people continue to celebrate the Passover tradition, the Seder, is that this simple meal reminds them of slavery.  Each year in the spring, the hidden question is, “Do you really want to go back to Egypt?”  You see, they were saying, “Back in Egypt, we had food, shelter, a schedule, security…”

But it was slavery!!!!  Do you get it?  Chosen people, don’t forget what you escaped from.

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ detail - 1480-82
Botticelli, Temptation of Christ detail – 1480-82

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here [and he quotes more scripture].

And once again, Jesus refuses.  But this time, the devil makes it personal.  He goes after the spiritual core of Jesus.  On top of the Temple – come on Jesus, show the Chosen People you can fly!  In the middle of the most holy place, among God’s people, do the least helpful thing.  Do the thing that draws attention to you for no good purpose.  Get everybody’s mind off of God and what God wants.  The devil has saved the best for last.

In contrast, when Jesus is finished with this episode, he begins his ministry by preaching…

 18 ‘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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

Here’s the takeaway:  The evil will come when you are full of the Spirit – and are famished.  Plan on it.  In an instant, you will be shown the wonderful things that will turn you into a slave.  You will be challenged to make your faith life about you instead of about God and the people God loves.

The devil wasn’t done.

13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

*Sell All.  A student came to the teacher with a question.  “When Jesus told the man to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, did he mean everything?”

The Teacher answered with a story:  “Once there was a man who listened to the scripture.  One day, he heard Jesus quoted as saying to the rich man, ‘Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven.’

“The man stiffened.  This was a word to him for he, like the rich man, was seeking salvation. First, he sold his car.  After he gave all the money away, he listened again, and heard Jesus say, ‘Sell all!’

“Next, he sold his house.  After he gave the money away, he listened again and heard Jesus say, ‘Sell all!’

“All that he had left was his Bible, which he sold for a few dollars.  When he gave the money away, he again listened, This time he heard nothing.”

The student said, “Teacher, I don’t understand this story.  Why did the man hear nothing?”

The Teacher answered, “He heard nothing because he sold the one thing that brought him the voice of God.  We are not asked to rid ourselves of the things that draw us close to the heart of God.  Jesus told the man to sell everything because his possessions were an idol.  We must rid ourselves of whatever stands in the way of God.  Now you must decide whether the things you own bring you close or separate you from God.  Do the things you own own you?”

*Wm. R. White, Stories for the Journey (Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), p. 102.

Prayer

O God, we might think we know our hearts desire, and we set out minds on lofty goals.  But our priorities are less than perfect.  Teach us what is truly important.  Help us know how to fill our souls.

And so we pray, God, that you give us good vision and open hearts to see exactly what is happening when we hear other voices calling us to walk down paths where we should not go.

Help us help each other.  Fill us with yourself; give us strength.  In the name of the one who resisted temptation and lives inside us now through faith.  Amen.

2/13/2013 Meditation for Ash Wednesday

Plettenburg coast“The Wounded One” by Henri Nouwen.  Isn’t it true that the people whom we love the most and who love us most are also the people who hurt us the most?  Think about parents, friends, spouses.  Those who are closest to us cause us the deepest pain….  It is our father, our mother, our brother, our sister, our spouse, our closest friend, our co-worker, our neighbor who can hurt us most and be hurt by us.  It is with good reason that counselors and therapists always deal with these primary relationships.  That is where we are most loved and most wounded.  That is where our greatest joy and our greatest pain touch each other.

Why do those who love us wound us so much?  It is because they cannot fulfill our desire for complete communion.  the first love, the love of the One who calls us the Beloved and offers us that complete communion, does not wound us.  God’s love is unconditional, not limited by needs and unfulfilled desires.  It is a love that freely gives without strings attached.  By claiming that first love as real, and not just as wishful thinking, we can begin to live in a world where love is, and only can be, offered to us in a limited and conditional way, even by those who love us most.

Here we can catch a glimpse of the great mystery of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is made possible by the knowledge that human beings cannot offer what only God can give.  Once we have heard the voice calling us the Beloved, accepted the gift of full relationship, and claimed the first unconditional love, we can easily see – with the eyes of a repentant heart – how we have demanded of people a love that only God can give.  It is the knowledge of that first love that allows us to forgive those who only have a “second love” to offer.

I am struck by how I cling to my own wounded self.  Why do I think so much about the people who have offended and hurt me?  Why do I allow them to have so much control over my power and emotions?  Why can’t I simply be grateful for the good they did and forget about their failures and mistakes?  It seems that in order to find my place in life, I need to be angry, resentful or hurt.  It seems that these people gave me my identity by the very ways they hurt me.  Part of me is “the wounded one.” It is hard for me to know who I am when I can no longe5r point my finger at someone who is the cause of my pain!

But what if we realize that we are the Beloved long before anyone can wound us?  What if we are the Beloved long before any person accepted or rejected us?  What if our true name is not the name given to us by those whose love was so limited they could not avoid hurting us?  What if our true home is not the house we live in, but the sacred place in the unconditional love of the One who is pure love?  Would there be any reason to cling to our negative feelings?  Wouldn’t they disappear like snow in the sun?  Wouldn’t forgiveness be the most spontaneous and even the easiest response?

This perspective does not underestimate the importance of exploring how and why we got wounded. It is important to understand our suffering… But there is a step beyond the recognition and identification of the facts of life…  It s the step of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.  We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others.  We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour – unceasingly.  That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.

~From “Forgiveness: The Name of Love in a Wounded World” by Henri J. Nouwen (quoted in Alive Now, March/April, 2013, pp 1-11)

How God Spoke to St. Francis through Brother Leo.  Once St. Francis and Brother Leo were staying together and found that they had no prayer book with which to say the evening devotions.  Francis decided to improvise and said so to Brother Leo.  He said, “I will say like this, ‘Oh, Brother Francis, you have done so much evil and sin in the world that you deserve hell.’  Brother Leo, you shall answer, ‘It is true that you deserve the very depths of hell.’  It is very important that you repeat this phrase without changing a word.”

Brother Leo, who was as simple and pure as a man could be replied, “All right father.  Begin in the name of the Lord.”

St. Francis began, ” “Oh Brother Francis, you have done so many evil deeds and sins in the world that your deserve hell.”

And Brother Leo answered: “Go will perform so much good through you that you will go to paradise.”

St. Francis was quite upset.  “Don’t say that, Brother Leo!  Answer exactly like this: “You deserve to be placed among the damned.”

Brother Leo replied, “I will do as you say.”

Then, beating his breast, St. Francis cried, “Oh my Lord, I have committed so many evil deeds and sins against you that I deserve to be utterly damned.”

Brother Leo answered, “Oh, Brother Francis, God will make you such that you will be remarkably blessed among the blessed.”

Francis was visibly angry. “Why don’t you answer as I have told you?  Under holy obedience, I command you to say, ‘You are not worthy of finding mercy.'”

Meekly, Brother Leo said, “Go ahead, father.  This time I will say just what you tell me.”

Kneeling down and lifting up his head, St. Francis prayed sadly, “Oh, Brother Francis, do you think God will have mercy on you, for you have committed so many sins?”

But Brother Leo answered, ” God the Father, whose mercy is infinitely greater than your sins, will be merciful to you and give you grace.”

St. Francis was even angrier and said to brother Leo, “Why have you dared to go against my wishes and to answer the opposite of what I told you?”

Brother Leo spoke gently and humbly, “God knows, dear father,  that each time I resolved in my heart to answer as you told me, but God makes me speak as it pleases him and not as it pleases me.  Dear father, try as I do, the only words that God gives me are of grace and forgiveness.  I can’t say anything else because God is speaking through my mouth.”

~Wm. R. White, Stories for the Journey (Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), pp. 49-51

2/10/2013 Sermon: “It’s All About Image”

View from the top of the traditional Mt. of Transfiguration near Nazareth, Palestine.  CN - 2011
View from the top of the traditional Mt. of Transfiguration near Nazareth, Palestine (CN – 2011).  “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Exodus 34:29  When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30  And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31  But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32  And afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33  And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34  but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35  the people of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone; and Moses would put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Luke 9:28  Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29  And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. 30  And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, 31  who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32  Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.

33  And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” – not knowing what he said. 34  As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35  And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36  And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

Self-Image.  Have you ever noticed how concerned our culture is with how we look?  If you believe what you see in the media, most of us just don’t look quite right. Take hair, for instance.  It probably isn’t clean enough, so there are all sorts of ways to wash it.  If your hair isn’t the right color, you can change that (I suspect that some people in this room have altered their hair color!).  If it isn’t the right texture, you can change that. If you are losing your hair, through the mail, you have a number of options, including spray-paint hair.

But then you might have to deal with your skin, and the makers of Clinique moisturizing cream say that they sell a bottle of their stuff every four seconds.  But, maybe there’s a problem with the way you dress.  Even if you look okay, you might not be the right weight, and there are plenty of ways to fix that, and all sorts of clubs you can join.

The Bible shows another way to have your appearance changed: get close to God.  But getting close to God means that God might change more things than how we look, or how we think we look.

The scripture readings today are about getting close to God up on a mountain.  Up on the mountain, people have close encounters with God.  Close encounters with God are both pleasant and not so pleasant. To put it simply, we are human and God is God.  The closer we get to God, the clearer that becomes.  And the closer we get to God, the more God will change us.

God-Image.  In the first scripture, the story from Exodus, Moses had just come down from Mt. Sinai for the second time.  The first time he came down, he found the people whom he had just helped save from the Egyptians worshiping a golden calf.  In his anger, Moses smashed the tablets, destroyed the calf, and punished everyone who didn’t swear allegiance to God.  Then he went back up the mountain and begged for forgiveness on behalf of the people.

When he came back down, he had new copies of the covenant, what we think of as the Ten Commandments.  Most of us know what the word “covenant” means.  It is a pact between people.  It’s a binding promise.  It’s more than a contract, which is an agreement to do a particular thing.  Usually a contract is about providing a service or a thing (like a house or a car) in exchange for money.

A covenant is about a relationship.  When people join the church they enter into its covenant, and there are certain things we agree to do together.  In the case of the covenant between the Hebrew people and God, it was also a treaty.  Scholars have found that the form of the ten commandments was typical of the treaties kings and countries would make between each other around 1000 B.C.   Up to this point, you could tell where God was by looking for a pillar of fire.  But with the covenant written on tablets, God was trying to be understood in human terms, to make a connection.

Remember that there were two tablets?  Usually, you think of 5 commandments on one and 5 on the other.  But according to the tradition, one tablet was to go inside the temple, inside the Ark of the Covenant, the gilt box with symbolic carvings on it, and the other was a reference copy for the people that stayed outside.  One copy for God, one copy for the people, so the people would know the rules themselves and remember that God hasn’t forgotten the covenant either.  So, the two tablets were probably were identical.

The first time Moses came down the mountain, the only thing the people could see on his face was anger.  The second time, his face was shining.  The root of the Hebrew verb for “shining” is the same as the word for horn.

The Latin translation of the Old Testament (the Vulgate) translated the phrase as the “horned Moses.”  This is why older paintings and sculptures of Moses show him with horns (re: Michelangelo’s sculpture for the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome).  In any case, he looked different.  He had been with God and he didn’t look the same.

In the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” Charlton Heston had white roots in his hair and a kind of glazed expression on his face, and that’s a little weak.  But how do you portray somebody who has been with God?  God had “rubbed off” on Moses, and according to the reading, Moses felt the need to cover himself. In scripture, people can’t see God face to face and live.

There was something about him that was apparently a little scary. Could it be that he was self-conscious?  Could it be that he didn’t want to look too different from them?

But people knew – he was shining.  He knew he was just an average guy, but they knew he’d been with God.

More than a thousand years later, Jesus takes three of his closest disciples up a different mountain to pray.  While they are there, Jesus takes on a different appearance and talks to Elijah and Moses.  They have this ecstatic experience.

Only this one happens right before their world falls apart.  Jesus had been warning them repeatedly that he was about to be crucified and then rise from the dead.  They had no idea what that meant until weeks later.

The part of that story I like best is when Peter offers to make shelters for everybody, obviously not knowing what else to say or do.  Jesus doesn’t try to explain what’s going on, and the voice out of the cloud doesn’t either.  All God says is, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Good advice for all of us.  Peter, relax; just listen to Jesus.

Why does God do things like this?  What is the point of these stories?  People come close to God and God changes them.  In both stories, God comes to people who don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do; people who are confused.  You’d think that God would have the good sense to give these revelations to smart, together people.  Instead, God comes to people like us.  Rebellious people – people who might just worship a golden calf if we had the opportunity; people who might just deny Jesus when the unbelieving world we live in puts a little pressure on.  The worst can happen: we might just make that golden calf and Jesus will get crucified.  Life might take one huge turn for the worse and the place where you are on life’s journey gets impossible to walk – for you.  But not for God.

God’s going to give us a new set of tablets and Jesus is coming out of the tomb alive.  The end of our story is in God’s hands if we’re willing to have faith.  And if we have faith, if we are willing to trust God and be with God, God will change us.  We may even look different.

What needs to change about you?  You’re never too old or too young.  What needs to be different?  Maybe the first thought that came to your mind is what the culture tells you.  Maybe you think you need a makeover.  But what do you think God wants?  If you embraced God’s image, if you made yourself more open to what God wants, if you were willing to say, God, I will take a step in the direction you want me to go.  I give myself to you.  If you trusted God with your image, would you have…

More boldness or more silence?  More talking or more listening?  More enthusiasm or more patience?  Less fear and more trust?

Here’s a good question: Why did God pick mountaintops for these visions, these strange experiences?  Climbing up a mountain is hard work.  You get to the top and you’re out of breath.  If you’re not in shape, you hurt.  Climbing down isn’t so easy either.  Maybe God wants to know what we’re willing to go through in order to have a vision.  Up on the mountain you can see where you are, and you can see where you have to go.  And that’s where God is.

We all need to change. You may be preoccupied with the problems other people are causing, but the stuff that probably needs to change the most is inside you.

The Heavenly City.  (an old Jewish legend) There once was a poor man who grew weary of the corruption and hatred that he experienced every day.  He was tired of the constant injustice that his people experienced. Life was simply not good.  His family and friends listened as he spoke passionately of his deep desire for a city where justice was honored and peace was experienced by all.  Night after night he dreamed of a land free from conflict, a city where heaven touched earth.  He could see this place.  It was so real.

One day, he announced to everyone that he could wait no longer.  He packed some food – granola bars and a Nalgene bottle full of water.  He kissed his family goodbye and set out for the perfect city of his dreams.  He walked all day, and just before sunset, he found a place to sleep just off the road, in a forest.  Just before he went to sleep, he placed his shoes in the center of the path, pointing in the direction he would go the next day.

That night, as he slept, a sly fellow walked that same path and found the traveler’s shoes.  Unable to resists a practical joke, he turned the shoes around, pointing them in the opposite direction, the direction that the man had just walked.

Early the next morning, the traveler woke up, said his prayers, ate a granola bar, and started his journey, walking in the direction that the shoes pointed.  He walked all day long, and when the sun was about to set, he saw the heavenly city off in the distance.  It wasn’t as large as he expected and it looked familiar somehow.  He turned down a street that looked so much like his own – t was eerie.  He knocked on a familiar looking door, and greeted the family that he found there. They embraced, and he lived happily ever after in the city of his dreams.

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Through your faith in Christ, God will help you be the change you seek.  John Wesley used to say, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

Prayer

O God, you take us out of our safe places and up on top of this mountain.  It’s a little scary up here.  It’s just you and us.  You have things to show us about you and about ourselves.  Standing next to you, we know that we have needs only you can fill.  Show us where we are and where to go.  Remind us whom we belong to.

Off in the distance we hear cries for help.  Give us the strength to find out who is in trouble.  Through us, make the good news of Christ a clear message to that hurting world down below.  Through us, help that world know that there is good news: you have come to us through a manger, a cross, and an empty tomb.  Make our faces shine because we have been with you.  Amen.

2/3/2013 Sermon: “A Love Story”

DR Hands (2)

John 15:12  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

1 Corinthians 13 (as a Responsive Reading)

Leader:  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

People:  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 

Leader:  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

People:  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Leader:  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

People:  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Leader:  Love never ends.

People:  But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

Leader:  For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

People:  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.

Leader:  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

People:  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Love on the Web.  I think you’d agree with me that 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose ever written about love.  We know that God wants us to love each other; we heard that in the gospel reading (John 15:12-17).  Jesus commands us to love each other.  God is big on love.  This is the book (Bible) that tells us God is love (1 John 4:8).  It’s interesting (to me) that Jesus never uses the word “command” with the sacraments, baptism and communion.  He simply says, “Do this.”  And in the early church those things became ritualized, part of life as usual for believers.  But love is something he commands, and more than once.  So we do well to think for a little while about God’s love.

Here’s a little test.  Read that 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians again.  This time put your name in the places where the word love appears.  Maybe that helped us see how God needs to work in our lives.

________ is patient; ________is kind; ________is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

________does not insist on its own way; ________it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 

________bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

For Paul, authentic love is connected with faith and hope.  Real love, which I think we all want, means taking hold of the hope for your relationships – you can see them in the future – and then having the commitment to walk in that direction.  That’s faith.  We do that first with God, and then with the Spirit of God in us, we have this healthy love relationship with each other.  The kind of love Paul is talking about it impossible without the presence of God that we have through faith.  Forgiving, sacrificial, putting-myself-aside caring is what God looking for.  A love that includes a strong sense of justice, doing the right thing, whatever that is.

I think most of us understand that our culture has a kind of skewed understanding of what love is.  Especially with Valentine’s Day coming up.

At my computer last night, I typed in the word love and did a search.  I came up with love horoscopes, love cards, love poems, romantic love poems, love quizzes, love tests, love advice.

There was a “Love Calculator.”  You just type in two names and get a result.  Chris Nichols + Kathy Nichols = 85%.  Then an analysis:

“Dr. Love thinks that a relationship between Chris Nichols and Kathy Nichols has a very good chance of being successful, but this doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work on the relationship. Remember that every relationship needs spending time together, talking with each other, etc.”

Duh!  Here’s a little trivia:

Q: Why are wedding rings traditionally worn on the third finger of the left hand?

A: The custom of wearing the wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand may have originated from ancient Egyptian and Greek beliefs that the primary vein of that finger (the vena amoris, meaning “love vein”) was directly connected to the heart.

I clicked on the love test.  It had a lot of questions you’d expect, like, “How important is commitment in your view of love?”  At one point, the test asked, “Is your relationship in person?”  Wow.  What an interesting question.  Some people begin their relationship through meeting over the Internet and maybe for a while, they meet don’t face to face.  If you’ve been reading the sports news, you might have come across the football player who was apparently the victim of an online hoax.

The Search for Love.  I think we’d all agree that the world needs more love – the kind of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.   “Agape” love.  Putting-myself-aside sacrificial caring. I’d say the world, right now, is desperate for that kind of love.  I’d say that we all, each of us, have a deep inner desire for that kind of love, and we’re on a life-long search to find it.  This love comes from a deeper place than you’d see reflected in the results of a web search.

I believe people are drawn to the church because of an inner desire to experience God’s love.  And they need to find it here.  We might be imperfect at practicing God’s love, but without it, everything we do is just an empty exercise.  In the English version of the bible we use in our church, the New Revised Standard, the word “love” is used at some point in every book of the New Testament, in 58 out of all 66 books, a total of 532 times.  God’s love and the love God wants between people is a dominant theme of the bible.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” (vv. 4-6)

It’s amazing that after so many centuries, these words still have the power they do.  When I use them at a wedding, this is about the time the hankies start coming out of purses and pockets.  Sometimes, as I read those words, I see the bride or groom squirm a little.  “Love is patient and kind,” etc.   I always sense that the people in the room are listening closely to what is being said.  In reality, I sincerely doubt that the Apostle Paul envisioned these words being used in wedding ceremonies.

Like so many other scripture readings, this is just a piece of a puzzle.  By themselves, these words are nice, healthy, profound thoughts about love, but they are the conclusion to a series of things Paul had to say to the church in Corinth that don’t sound very loving, at least in the way we are comfortable thinking about love.  You see, he knows these people.  They are his friends.  And he is very blunt.  He loves them.  And if you don’t read the rest of Paul’s letter, you won’t fully understand “Love is patient, love is kind…”

Between Paul and this church, there was a struggle with just about every problem you can have in a relationship.  Paul wrote this letter to them because they had so many problems in themselves and with each other.  As their leader in the faith, they had tested his last nerve.

To bring healing to the church in Corinth, Paul has three things he needs to say to his friends.  We need to hear these words as much as the Corinthians did.

1.  You all need each other.  Do you remember the readings from the last  two weeks?  You are all parts of one body, and Christ is the head.  No one is more important than anyone else. (Chapter 12).

2.  Love, and all it means, especially personal discipline, tolerance, and forgiveness are the things that will bind you together (Chapter 13).  Please grow up and do this (I thought like a child…)  Do it through your worship (14:26).

3.  This love – and your relationships – are based on the resurrection of Christ (Chapter 15).  Faith in the death and resurrection of Christ is what will give you the power you need.  The cross and the empty tomb are the event that the church stands on – they really happened.  Faith in what Christ has done for us is what will change us into the people we should be; this is how God works.  This is how God brings people together to become the church.

The church in Corinth was a pastor’s nightmare.  When Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, it sounded like they worked out most of their problems, but at first, it was not easy going.  The story goes that after he wrote his first letter, they made Paul leave and would not let him come back for two years.

So, love does not always feel nice. Working things out is what you do in a loving relationship and it does not necessarily feel good.  Sometimes love feels so awful, it’s right to say, “If this is love, then why do I feel so bad?”  Sometimes love means crucifixion.

True worship is letting the love of God fill you and letting God’s love flow out through you.  God’s love cannot be contained; it has to flow.  It has to be shared.  It means commitment.  It means justice.  It means forgiveness.  It means faith.  It means hope.

The Magic Ring.  A woman once asked the Teacher, “Which is the true religion?”  The Teacher replied:  “Once there was a magic ring which gave the one who wore it the gifts of grace, kindness, and generosity.  When the owner of the ring was on his deathbed, each of his three sons came separately and asked for the ring.  The old man promised the ring to each of them.

“He then sent for the finest jeweler in the land, and paid him to make two rings identical to the original.  The jeweler made them and before he died, the father gave each son a ring without telling him about the other two.

“Inevitably, the three sons discovered that each had a ring, and they went to the local judge to ask his help in deciding who had the magic ring. The judge looked at each ring carefully and couldn’t tell them apart.  Then he said, ‘Why does anyone need to decide now?  We will know who has the magic ring by seeing the direction your life takes.’

“Each of the brothers then acted as if he had the magic ring by being kind, thoughtful, and honest.”

The Teacher then finished the story by saying, “Religions are like the three brothers in this story.  The moment people neglect striving for justice and love, we will know that their religion is not the one God gave the world.”

Let’s each think about conflict now, and pray that God’s love is applied to it like medicine, like a vaccination.  Think about a conflict in our country (like the recent election) and pray for tolerance.  Think about a conflict in our church and community and pray for a greater sense of trust.  Think about a conflict that you might experience personally, and pray for forgiveness in that relationship.  Someone just needs you to let it go.

It seems impossible, but we have a God who specializes in doing the impossible.  The stakes are high, especially for our children.  I believe it was St. Francis who said, “The only bible most people will read is you and me.”

Prayer

O God, we know our story is not done yet, and we have nowhere to go but to you.  There are so many things we need to say to you; there are so many things we need to say to each other.  Bring us to the place where we will understand that our most basic need is you.  Help us empty our lives of the distractions that keep us from you and ruin our relationships with each other.  Forgive us and fill us with yourself.  Work a miracle: Make it our nature to be patient and kind.  Through your Spirit, give us the courage to face our weaknesses instead of avoid them.  Help us learn.  Help us all grow up.   Make us transparent, so that the world will know that we just human beings, just people – growing people who belong to you.