9/27/2015 Sermon – Struggles #4: “The Search for Compassion”

stained glassFor the past few weeks we’ve been talking about “Struggles.”  There are huge challenges that come our way, and there are people here who can tell you stories about how faith got them through the worst of times.  God used the struggle to teach you something you never would have learned any other way.  There may have even been something about that struggle that helped you find a way to contentment; let’s say that God used that experience to help you adjust your priorities.  Certain things became less important, other things more important.  There is something about being in a struggle that helps you value your relationships in a new way.  It’s in God’s church that God uses us in each other’s lives to get through the struggles together, and to make a difference in a hurting world.

This morning, I want to show you how God struggles.  You don’t think that the almighty, omnipotent God of the universe struggles?  Let’s start with this story from Luke:

Luke 10:25-37.  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

The path near Jericho, on the way to Jerusalem. 2011 - CN.
The path near Jericho, on the way to Jerusalem. 2011 – CN.

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Palestinian shepherd on the hiking path from Jericho toward Jerusalem. CN - 2011.
Palestinian shepherd on the hiking path from Jericho toward Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

A lot of people think they don’t know much about the Bible, but they know what a Good Samaritan is.  It’s someone who helps people at their own expense, just because it’s the right thing to do.  Helping someone you don’t know makes you a Good Samaritan.  I’ve seen orphanages, hospitals (lots of hospitals), and even animal shelters named after the Good Samaritan.

There are organizations named after the Good Samaritan.  I think that volunteer ambulance companies could have “Good Samaritan” printed on the side of their vehicles. They help anybody in trouble.  They get a call and they go; doesn’t matter who it is.

On the Sagamore Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal there is a sign that says, “Feeling desperate?  Call the Samaritans.”  (This is a high place that people might try to jump from.)  I don’t know who these Samaritans are, but they have a “hot line.”  March 13 is supposed to be a national “Good Samaritan Day,” when acts of kindness happen.  But there are a bunch of things going on in that Good Samaritan story.  What was Jesus trying to get across?

First, I need to offer up a warning.  This passage hits me in a vulnerable place. Like a lot of people, I have favorite parts of scripture that can make me feel encouraged and give me strength.  The Lord is my shepherd….(Psalm 23:1)  if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…. (Romans 10:9)  Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.  (Philippians 4:4)   And I do feel like God is my shepherd, and I do feel like the resurrection of Jesus has saved me, and I do feel like rejoicing because of that.

But when I hear Jesus tell this story, and why he is saying these things, I feel… convicted.  I feel the gaze of Jesus.  And so, I might become… less objective than I’d prefer to be.

In the story, Jesus is talking to a religious person who knows his Bible, his Torah.  You want eternal life?  No problem.  ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’  We know those words too; I quoted them last week.

So, let’s quickly run through the characters:

Religious Types.  In this story, we’ve got religious types.  People who know their Bible, who know the words of God, who have resources, who have some head knowledge of the right things to do, but might just walk by situations that are inconvenient or unpleasant.  They might walk by people who are struggling.  Have you ever felt this way?

Struggling People.  For three weeks, we’ve thought about people who struggle.  Maybe you can think of a time when you were wounded and abandoned by the side of the road, or you felt that way.  It’s a fact that we live in a world of struggling people.  Have you been one of those people?

It’s a paradox.  We’ve got the need and the answer to the need on the same road together.  The need and the resource to fill the need are together in the same place.

The Samaritan.  Then we have the Samaritan.  He’s got a sketchy racial background and a strange religion.  The Jewish religious types avoid him too.  What’s ironic is that if the wounded man wasn’t wounded, assuming he was Jewish, he might actually avoid this Samaritan who’s giving him help.  The Samaritan has no reason to be the good guy in this story, except that something gets triggered in him that will not allow him to just walk by.  He steps in.

When you do a search for “compassion” in the Bible, you will read good stuff:

Psalm 145.9  The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. 

Isaiah 49.13  Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!  For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 

When you search for “compassion,” you mostly find God showing compassion or people searching for God’s compassion.  But very rarely will you find people showing compassion for other people.  And this is where I think God struggles.  Sometimes, I think God weeps. And if you had to paint a picture of God, it might look something like that Samaritan, the person who stops and cares at his own expense when nobody else will.

I started taking groups on mission trips about 30 years ago.  In fact, I learned that St. Paul’s (the church I serve currently as pastor) had gone to Biloxi, MS, (in 1986) just after I had been there myself.  I’ve been privileged to be part of groups having one-week experiences all over the place from Florida to Maine to the Caribbean.

I’ve been in orphanages in China, Africa, South America, and Palestine (I even hiked through the area where the man in Jesus story was robbed!).  God has blessed me to see a lot of things, and in some ways those images have also been a burden.

After some years, I learned that I could become distracted by a single moment.  This was a long time in coming, because God knows, I’m not real quick on the uptake.  The caption under that photo is always the same:  “Don’t expect me to just walk by that and not do something.”

DR 1 (2)

In 2013, when we arrived in a Dominican village to build a house, a group of kids wanted to show me their bedroom in one of the houses next door. The house was beginning to cave in on one corner of that room.

Don’t ask me to just walk by that and not be affected.  I don’t think you would either.

But I’ve also learned that you don’t necessarily have to travel to get these images in your head.  They are here in Manheim (or your town).

This is the part when I want to encourage you take part in St. Paul’s Mission Trips, to “not just walk by” the need in your own town.  Make a plan to help out with Habitat for Humanity over a weekend.  Make a plan to participate in a project next summer.  This when our churches will show the compassion of God to our neighbors.

birthday party
Cuzco, Peru. CN – 2015.

There might be someone here who is more adventurous, and next August, I’m offering to take a few missionaries to serve for a few days in an orphanage in Peru (above). This is open to any age student over 14, and adults. Serving the poor in places outside of our country gives a different perspective on the world that simply can’t happen here.

It’s experiences like this that change lives, and that makes me want to offer a few warnings about embracing your inner compassion:

It interrupts.  Compassion has a way of not fitting so neatly into your schedule.  The Samaritan had to be willing to give time.  You’ll be walking along, going about your well-planned life, and suddenly, there’s something that God needs you to do.  It seem to me that the best ministry is the inconvenient kind.

It costs.  The  Samaritan paid for the wounded guy to stay at the inn for two days, and it probably wasn’t in his travel budget.  It’s not just on us as individual Christians to watch for these opportunities, it should be a practice of the church to take some responsibility for the needs of the world it lives in.

It changes lives.  The people who embrace their inner compassion are changed.  They cannot look at their world the same way again.  They cannot live in their world the same way again.  The compassion of God infects them and takes them to a new level of faith.

At the end of the movie “Schinder’s List,” the Jewish refugees give Oskar Schindler a gold ring (made of the gold fillings taken from some of their teeth), which has an inscription:  “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.”

“He who saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Who are our neighbors?  Who are the wounded strangers?  As we pray, ask God to show you their faces and give you a vision for what we should do.

Prayer

O God, we see neighbors everywhere.  We see them in our cities and towns.  We see them on the news.  We see people lying by the side of the road every day, wounded and helpless.  We are frightened because we know that with a slight change in the circumstances, it could be us.  Forgive us for slipping into denial and walking by.

Give us the wisdom and the foresight to know when our own needs have been met so that we are free to take care of somebody else.  Help us understand how much we need you and how much we need each other.  Help us know in our deepest places that we can’t afford to play it safe and not get involved. Through your Spirit, teach us how to take care of each other.  Through the power of your love, show us how to love through Christ, whom you sent to save us and in whose name we pray.  Amen.

9/20/2015 Sermon – Struggles #3: “The Search for Relationships”

stained glass - CMAA couple of weeks ago, we began a series called “Struggles.”  When I ask you if you’ve had struggles in your life, times when life was challenging, you’d probably first think about those moments when you were overwhelmed by something that was happening to you, or somebody you love.  Of course, you’ve had struggles.  It was a struggle to move through the chaos, when life seemed out of control.  Or, maybe it was a time when you simply had to put one foot in front of the other to get through a situation.  It was a struggle; maybe it’s a struggle now.  It can be hard to know, but God is with you in that moment.  God is teaching you something that you could not have learned any other way.  Why?  You are being prepared to help someone else in their struggle.

God has given us a way to move through a time of struggle; you’re sitting in it.  If you are a believer in Jesus, God is present with you in the most intimate way; you know deep within you that you are not alone.  But that’s not all.  God has given you some gift to make a difference in the life of someone else, and they might be in the room with you today.  That’s kind of awesome if you think about it.

Someone here has a gift for you.  And you have a gift for someone else.  What could that be?  I’m picturing some huge secret-Santa-type gift exchange.  Maybe you need a big box of forgiveness.  A bag of encouragement.  But these are gifts that can only be given by you.  It was God’s creative ingenuity, the genius of God, to live in us and then to give us to each other.

We are in a search for meaningful relationships.  It’s one of our most basic human needs.  And our culture does not do a great job at helping us fulfill that need.  But your personal contentment can have a lot to do with how you are living with others, especially your brothers and sisters in the church.  None of these gifts are exchanged if we don’t work on our relationships.  If God’s Spirit is going to work in any meaningful way, if our faith has any value to God and to the world God loves, we have to get our minds off of ourselves and on to the needs of others.  The love of God has to flow, and it flows through us.

If you can find a New Revised Standard Bible, turn to John 13:34-35 (and keep your finger there).  We’re going to let Jesus show us how that works.  Here it comes:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’  John 13:34-35 

He’s told us we’re doing something new today; that was a new commandment.  Did that seem new to you?  I’m pretty sure there are songs using those words.  I might have used them a few times at wedding ceremonies.  I don’t know about you, but I want to be part of a group that’s doing what Jesus is talking about.  Let me show you something about those words that might give you a new way of looking at them.

A New Commandment.  The moment when Jesus said those words, that commandment to love, he was in the middle of the Last Supper, that final meal he gives to his people to help them remember the sacrifice he’s about to make for them.  In that 13th chapter (p. 982), you see that those verses come toward the end, and the subheading says “A New Commandment.”  Now look at the beginning.  The chapter starts with…

Jesus Washes the Feet of the Disciples.  Have you ever had your feet washed? Jesus gives his little group of friends this intimate gift, and they weren’t entirely comfortable with it.  He was their leader, and here he was being the lowest kind of servant. He’s showing them that authentic relationship, this love he’s about to command, calls for servant-hood, and allowing yourself to be served.  Immediately after Jesus does this…

Jesus Foretells His Betrayal.  Sitting at the dinner with him is the one who is about to turn him over to be tried and crucified, and Jesus knows it.  Jesus has just washed his feet.  There is tension and dissension in the room.  The people following Jesus are coming to a moment when they will turn away from him and turn on each other.  This is what gives that new commandment its power.  Jesus washes feet, foretells his betrayal, gives the new commandment to love, and then…

Jesus Foretells Peter’s Denial.  Peter was supposed to be the strong “alpha dog” in this group, and he will fold when Jesus needed a friend the most.

Right in the middle of betrayal and denial, that’s when he says…

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’  John 13:34-35 

Jesus didn’t give these words to enhance some warm emotion, or lift our moods.  The love that Jesus wants to lead us into happens when things are at their lowest, when relationships have been strained, when forgiveness and tolerance are hard.  The secret to a strong marriage is not so much constant demonstrations of love (although it might not hurt!); it’s a constant willingness to forgive, adjust, and seek forgiveness.  The love Jesus is talking about is defined by patience and forgiveness.

Photo by Loryn Pinney
Photo by Loryn Pinney
DSC_7861
New York City soup kitchen. CN – 2009.

When you do a Google search for friendship, you find a lot of images that look like this (above – people holding hands while the sun sets on a beach).  But the love Jesus was talking about looks more like this (right) – people working though a hard time together.

So, he said, by this, everyone will know you are my disciples:  “If you love me and talk about me whenever you get the chance.”  No, he said, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” When hatred and intolerance and un-forgiveness and dissension are at the door, everyone will see the miracle: you love one another when that doesn’t seem possible.

What is the “golden rule?”  It starts with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-39)  These are actually quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, so when Jesus was giving the “golden rule” he was giving an “old” commandment.

In this “new commandment,” Jesus is calling us to take love to another level. He says “love one another” and attaches a string:  “…as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  So says the foot-washing servant who forgives his the huge faults of his friends as he is about to die for them.

But the end of that story is pretty amazing.  Their sins die with him on the cross, and yours too, if you believe.  He comes back to life, and brings all of us a new kind of life when we believe.  When he calls us to a new kind of love, we don’t have to do it on our own; he’s with us.  Really.

Until that time when we are finally with Jesus, we work at our relationships, realizing that there are forces trying to pull us in a different direction.  Rudeness, anger, and violence have become normal.

But I think that maybe the biggest enemy is apathy.  This week, I was reading an article about the decline in youth church participation, and it went like this:

If they don’t like something, then they’re over it. If they don’t feel like doing something, they find something else to do. If they get a text they don’t like, they avoid it. If it’s hard work, well, there had better be a good incentive. Most teenagers… 

  • struggle to engage in deep relationships,
  • have a hard time with conflict resolution,
  • are weak face-to-face communicators,
  • lack discipline, and
  • are unable to slow down in life.

Solution: Teach them depth, and focus on relationships. If you think you can keep your teenagers entertained better than the rest of their culture, forget it! Your students have more than enough content to fill a lifetime. But what none of these distractions can give them, you can—real relationships. Nothing substitutes for the love and care of a real human being. Jesus reminded us that nothing is greater than love. He created us for community and formed us for friendship. There’s not a student on the planet who doesn’t need to be loved, seen, welcomed, encouraged, challenged, built up, and prayed-for.  Jason Carson – “Here I Am Not to Worship”  (Group Magazine Summer 2015 issue, pp. 26-27) 

That’s what we all need.  In our relationships, God doesn’t just want to know whether we” click.”  Kids, the Christian faith, lived the way Jesus called us to live it, isn’t for sissies.  It involves some hard work at times when it would be tempting to just walk away.  Just to pull it together, here’s a way to think about your relationships:

Time.  All relationships need time, expanding outward from your own households.  Make time for at least one small group in the church.  The folks I’ve known who never got much out of church also never took the time for relationships.

Tolerance.  If you never have to forgive anybody (or ask forgiveness); that’s awesome. But the deeper relationships we all need are only possible when forgiveness is at work on both sides.

Tribute.  Think for a moment about a relationship that’s requiring some work right now.  If it’s hard, maybe even painful, it’s because you care.  Lock into something positive that you really appreciate about that person.  Tell them.  Even better, tell somebody else about that thing you appreciate; give them a tribute.

God is recruiting believers, and nice church buildings don’t necessarily do the job.  Effective, well-planned church programs won’t do it.  The church faith statements and rules won’t create that love.  But the love of Jesus, living in real ways among believers, will have folks waiting in line to get in.

Prayer

O God, we don’t think often enough about your love for us. You have done more to care for us than we will ever realize.  You worry about us.  We do things that bother you – a lot.  We probably keep you up at night.  And in the morning you are there for us, forgiving us, no matter what we’ve done, or how we have betrayed you.  But you still have expectations, and your love for us can be tough.  Now help us be loving families and help us be a loving family.  Through your spirit, give us patience and forgiveness.  We have a world to change, and only your kind of love living through us will make a difference.  Amen.

9/13/2015 Sermon – Struggles #2: “The Search for Contentment”

stained glassThe worship theme for this month is “Struggles.”  We all experience pain and disappointment.  Last week, we explored the fact that everyone struggles at some point, maybe regularly, maybe continuously, and none of us is immune.  In this room, every time we gather here, I promise you, there is someone who is struggling.  Everyone has those moments when they are in a painful crisis, and when you are in the middle of it, that’s all you can know.

It might have been very hard for you to come here this morning; you really might not have felt like it.  But this is exactly where you should be.  The Spirit flows through God’s people when they are together and can bring awesome healing, even with a simple, “How are you?”  This is where you find out that God is with you in your chaos.  It’s with God’s people and it’s in these times of worship that you begin to get perspective and you start to see a way through the hard times.

This mornings, we’re going to look at how God speaks to us through the church and how God uses the Holy Spirit to lead us toward contentment, and how God can use us in each other’s lives as we struggle.  I believe God created the church to bring joy, happiness, contentment, and peace into each other’s lives.  If you are a believer in Jesus, your personal contentment can have a lot to do with how you are living with others.  This is what God says to us through the Apostle Paul:

 

Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

I imagine that you just heard some words that were familiar to you.  I hope you found some encouragement, just from hearing God speak through that little piece of scripture.  I think a lot of people take those words very personally, and I’d like to dig a little deeper into what Paul was saying to that church and to us.

 

Nelon Mandelas cell in the Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. CN - 2009.
Nelon Mandela’s cell in the Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. CN – 2009.

Paul was obviously close to the people in Philippi (northern Greece) and the first thing to know about the words you just heard is that Paul wrote them from prison in Rome.  What his prison was like, we don’t know, but his situation was terminal.  He may not have lived long after writing these words:  Rejoice in the Lord!  Do not worry about anything!  I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me (I’ve seen that on a lot of t-shirts!).  Really positive stuff; great encouragement for people who might be struggling, from someone who had great reason to be struggling himself.

Through the power of God, Paul was able to achieve contentment above his circumstances and I think that the key is in those first four words:

Rejoice in the Lord.  In the Lord, you can rejoice.  It may be a process, it may not happen overnight, but you can get there.  With faith in Christ, with a personal surrender to Christ, you will be able to get to rejoicing. Contentment is possible with Christ at the core of you.  I’m not talking about illogical, baseless happiness.  In the middle of the struggle, you really can know that the sun will come up again. There is hope.  You are not alone.

Paul was writing to a group of people who knew how to worship and pray together, a group of people who really cared for him.  The church Paul was writing to knew how to care, I think caring happens at St. Paul’s and in Manheim, and just as a fun example, I’d like to show you another kind of church where caring happens.

Before Kathy and I moved from Connecticut to Pennsylvania a couple of years ago, we had never met Amish folks and didn’t really know who the Mennonites were.  But we had known some people who were pretty close.  If you know old order Mennonites, you might find this interesting.

Up in the northwest hills of CT, not far from us, there was a Bruderhof (place of brothers).   The Bruderhof is an intentional Christian community (check out www.bruferhof.com), a small movement that started just after World War 1, a group of people devoted to peace who chose to live together, and eventually were driven out of Germany by the Nazis (a small community went back after WW2.

There are 23 of these communities, mostly in this country and 5 other countries on 5 continents with 2,700 members.  Each group might have 20-350 members.  Some of the local Bruderhof folks would visit our church and I used to take the youth group to visit them (that community transplanted to upstate New York a few years ago).

The basic idea behind the Bruderhof is a description of the early church in Jerusalem from the Book of Acts which goes like this:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. (Acts 4:32) 

What we all should hear from that little description is that from the very first moments of faith among the first believers, there was a sense that things were better when everyone was sharing, with a goal of making sure everyone was okay.  Economic and social balance was a spiritual instinct.  This can only come from a very basic attitude of humble generosity.

This is what happens at the Bruderhof: they live together, work together and play together (there was a basketball court in the center of their complex).  Nobody has private property.  Nobody has money of their own.  They live simply, but differently than you might think.

 

The Bruderhof near us ran a children’s furniture business that was completely computerized and used state of the art machinery.  When they met, they used an audio-visual system that makes ours look primitive and included a satellite hook-up with other Bruderhof groups so that they can worship together at the same time.  None of members have televisions, but sometimes they will use projection to show movies for the entire community – movies the leaders think will be uplifting.  They have a great website.  They had fleet of vehicles and designated drivers.

Most of us have such private, unattached lifestyles, this might seem very strange, but they are not a cult.  They are not closed off to the outside world and people can leave.  They have their own schools, but participate in local town activities.  They work on hunger and justice issues with global organizations like Heifer International.

 

These are devout Christian people who choose together to live this way.  Not everybody can do this, and they will admit it takes discipline and hard work to make it successful.  There are leaders who meet every few days to organize the things that happen there and work out problems.  They are the first to admit that whenever you have that many people living and working together, there will be problems and there have been critics.

 

I believe that what I saw in them was a culture of contentment.  Maybe you have known people like this and learned from them.

There has never been a church (or Christian organization) that didn’t have problems between people of one kind or another. When you look around the room, you have to realize what a miracle it is, given all the different interests we have, given all the personalities, given all the gifts and levels of spirituality, that we can be together.  But the Holy Spirit makes it work.  It really is a miracle of God.  Those who live the Christian life are different because they have access to a supernatural power that is beyond them – and within them.  They forgive and build each other up.  And if we allow God to use us, a church like St. Paul’s can be a great source of contentment for all of us together.

But there has to be more than that.  If we are okay, our spiritual health allows us to make the world a better place for others.  God calls us to do our part to make things right in a hurting world.

Right now, I’d like to reinforce some simple habits that can lead to contentment in the midst of struggle.

 

Breathe.  Stop what you are doing and be silent enough to hear yourself breathe. This will calm you down and begin to give you perspective.  Just stop and breathe.

Pray.  To start the day and at meals.  Even the briefest prayer can center you and keep you connected with God.  I think of reading scripture as a kind of prayer exercise.  Even just a little allows God to speak into you.

Act.  Do something simple for someone else that is not an exchange.  In other words, do a good thing without expecting a reward.  Find a group that’s working on a justice issue you believe in. There is strength in numbers and especially when we act as a church, we can be an amazing force.

Prayer

God, we confess that much of the time, we are not content, prone to drift toward the kind of selfishness that separates us from you.  Help us live lives of contentment.  Teach us to have a small degree of the compassion, the love, the acceptance, and the forgiveness that you have shown us.  Help us break cycles of violence.  Help those around us know that you are real through the peace we find in our relationship with you.  Make us the examples you need of healthy relationships.  Give us the courage to love in sacrificing ways, for the sake of Christ, who gave himself for us.

9/6/2015 Sermon: Struggles #1 – “Living Through Chaos”

stained glass - CMAThis month, we’re starting a series called ”Struggles.”  We’re going to think about life’s challenges, life’s chaos, and get some perspective from Jesus.

Ever have a bad day?  Of course you have.  There are bad days, really bad days, and then life-altering bad days when something happened and you really struggled to get through it.  And then sometimes, those days drag into weeks and months or maybe years.

It might be very difficult to hear right now, but God is there in all of it, ready to hold you and make you strong again.  Maybe you needed to hear that today.  God might even be preparing you for something you need to do.  God is teaching you.  C.S Lewis once said, “God allows us to experience the low points of life to teach us lessons that we could learn in no other way.”  I believe that’s true.

Once upon a time, over the course of a day, God taught me something.  I know there might be a few people here who would say “Maybe you should have more days like that!” But it was a little unusual and I’d like to share it; I don’t remember it clearly, but it went like this:

I had gotten a phone call to visit a family because something bad had happened.  They had gotten some bad news and they just needed to get through the moment with a prayer.  So I went and spent some time with them.  Later in the day, I went to a meeting, and at the meeting was someone who was also having a bad day.  I can only remember that it involved an expensive sweater and something had spilled on it.  And there was more emotion in that moment than I’d seen with the struggling family.

Now, you can make a judgement as you compare those situations, but the fact was that the emotion was very real in both places.  That’s what I learned: when you are in the middle of chaos or a crisis, sometimes, big or small, that’s all you can know.  You know you’ve been there.  It doesn’t necessarily matter what it is.  Sometimes, we are stronger in the big, difficult situations that the small surprising ones.  In any case, we are having anxiety about something.  Over time, if we are open, God toughens us with perseverance and endurance to recognize what the appropriate level of emotion is necessary for the moment.  When someone says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” well, your small stuff is probably different from mine.

And in the moment, we are calling out for help, with waves of real emotion washing over us and asking:  God, are you punishing me?

 And then with a little more time to think, we ask, “Why do these bad things happen?  God, why?”  That’s the question behind the story in the gospel reading this morning, and Jesus has an answer to at least part of it.  Maybe it’s better to say that he has a perspective.

Luke 13:1-9.  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 round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

This is not a hard conversation to be a part of.  We’re sitting around after dinner in the evening, everyone is relaxed, and we’re talking.   You could change the stories to fit so much of what you’ve seen on the news.  Lately, it seems to be non-stop.  So many terrible things – wars, shootings, natural disasters.  Just in the last few weeks, I’ve seen some photos that are hard to get out of my mind.  Maybe you’ve found yourself asking – can it get any worse?  It’s disturbing, to say the least.  Is it possible to put yourself in the place of some of the people affected by these things?  This sort of concern isn’t new.

Jesus has gotten into discussion about some really awful things that had happened.  Some people coming to worship at the Temple had been murdered by the Roman governor Pilate, and some others had been killed in a construction accident.  Two awful moments that affected real people.  It’s not hard to translate them into today’s news.

What did these people do to deserve this?  That’s the question they are asking, and Jesus knows it.  In the mindset of these folks, anything bad that happens to you, whether it’s an accident, or something intentional, somehow, you deserved it.  God is not happy with you.  Standing on the outside of that little story looking in, we think, “Silly Bible people.”  But you know that at some point you’ve asked the same question of yourself.  God, are you punishing me?  No, really, something I did?  Were these people worse sinners than other people?  Jesus says “No.”  And he says that to you too.

Whether it’s happening in the news right now or a couple thousand years ago, these things might seem a world away to you, but each of us, each of our families, has a story of huge loss and enormous pain.  If it didn’t happen to you, it happened to someone in your family.  It’s true for all of us.  We all have this story.  And whether you knew it or not, God was walking with you.  The stories may turn into history, but they don’t stop.  God may even use the memory of bad times to motivate us to ministry.  A little picture of what I’m talking about:

CN standing next to ruins in the village of Sourides on the Greek island of Samos.
CN standing next to ruins in the village of Sourides on the Greek island of Samos.  August, 2000.

In a tiny village on the Greek island of Samos are these ruins.  Ruins are pretty common in that part of the world, but these aren’t ancient.  During WWII, German planes bombed the village and destroyed all the houses.  We’ve heard gut-wrenching stories of those times.  This house belonged to Kathy’s grandparents.  They had come to the United States long before the war.  The house was never rebuilt because the people in the village thought they would come back to take care of it, but they never did.  They found better times in the United States and stayed in Cleveland.  But a few years ago, we went and met people who remembered them.

So maybe it’s interesting in a historical kind of way, but in that place, there’s a different kind of story unfolding.  It’s not far from the coast of Turkey and if the news stories are correct, 800 refugees are landing on Samos every day, on the beach just down the hill from “our” village.  I don’t know if you were here in June when Christine Baer from Church World Service spoke, but she told us that some Syrian refugees are coming to this country and coming to Lancaster County, maybe to Manheim.  So this isn’t as far away as you think, geographically or personally.  They are coming from that village to this one; maybe to a street near you.  Are we being called to help?

We each have a story and there are many stories.  When the bad things happen, even when death comes, is anyone a worse sinner than anyone else?  Jesus says no.  Life is terminal in so many ways, but does any person’s pain or death mean that they were a worse sinner than someone else?  No.  Not in God’s eyes.

But then Jesus says something that seems totally contradictory:  “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  I hate it when he does that.  This is so hard to understand, and he says it twice.  Unless you repent, unless you repent.  You know what that word means, right?

Change!  Unless your life changes.  Ah!  God is not so concerned with the death you die.  That’s what happens to everybody eventually, at some point, in some way.  God is much more interested in the life you live.  We’re these people being punished somehow?  No. Are we?  No.  God is much more concerned about the life you live before you die. What’s awesome is that the change God is looking for is something that God does, not you; all Jesus is looking for is faith in him.  The change that God begins in us when we believe can transform our lives, our households, the places where we work, the streets of our community… we are all missionaries to our world.  If you have suffered, it’s possible that God has used that moment to shape, you, to prepare you for some ministry that God will need you to do.

2015-06-01 20.35.52That’s why Jesus wraps it up with a story about a tree.  The man who owns it wants to tear it down and throw it away.  The person taking care of it says, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”  The ultimate destiny of the tree depends on whether it bears fruit.  You realize that we are the tree and Jesus is the gardener, pleading with God to give us a little more time.  “God, give them a little more time.”  Let me do some pruning and throw on some fertilizer.  Let me work with them.

So, we have today, and maybe tomorrow.  And we don’t know what will happen.  These days are gifts from God.  They are opportunities.  Many times, the people who realize this most are the ones who understand that tomorrow may not come for them.  They are the ones who realize that tomorrow is a gift from God.  Another chance to know God.  Another chance to give God’s love to someone else.  Another chance to help someone meet Christ.  Another chance to love, another chance to bring peace, another chance to offer forgiveness, another chance to bring healing, another chance to work for a cure, another chance to feed a hungry person or offer safety to someone. Another chance to build a house.  Another chance to save a refugee.  Another chance to be Christ’s house, the Body of Christ.

Another chance to not react, and by not reacting, stop a war.  Another chance to be with someone else in their suffering and bring Christ to them.  In other words, another chance to  bear fruit.  What kind of fruit do you think God is growing in you?  This year, what can we do to make a difference as a church, to bear fruit?

Why do bad things happen?  They just do.  It might be better to ask “Why do we feel pain?”  Because God created us to feel pain.  God feels pain too.  The only other choice is the kind of life that I think none of us want to live.  A life completely free of suffering is also a life free of joy and love.

Through Christ, God has given us special tools to overcome and to help each other overcome.  God has raised up St. Paul’s United Church of Christ to bear fruit, to be a force for good.  If you have believed in Christ, God has given you a mission.  You do realize that most of that work happens outside of this room.

Prayer

O God, give us all a vision for tomorrow, as mothers and fathers, as children in your family, the church.  Live through us and give us the power to overcome the discouragements we see in life.  In spite of what we see around us, the evil, the bad things that happen, help us remember that you are with us, that your mercy surrounds us, even when we forget about you.  When life feels like a tomb, help us remember that tombs are only temporary for you.

We pray with faith, because we know that your son Jesus overcame death, and leads the way ahead of us. We pray with hope, because we know that you are already changing us into the people and the church we should be.  Amen.