Out of the Mouths of Babes…

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Late last week I was waiting at the bus stop for my daughter.  The bus stopped on the corner and the neighborhood kids streamed down the steps of the bus and into the afternoon light.  One of the students, a young girl who goes to my church, started talking about something that had happened in her family earlier that week–her mother and her grandfather had gotten into a heated argument about the election.  She recounted how her mother had discovered that grandpa was going to vote for Trump, and how she lit into him.  “I can’t believe my grandpa is that stupid,” she said.  “How could he vote for that man?”

Now, I have my own personal politics, but I was stunned.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing this young girl speaking this way about her own grandfather, a person she adores, whom I see her snuggle up to in church every week, because she knows that he cares deeply for her.  “Come on, now,” I said to her.  “Your grandpa isn’t stupid. He just disagrees with your mother.  We can’t go around calling everyone who disagrees with us names.  We need to find ways to talk to one another.”

The words had barely escaped my lips when another young girl, whom I don’t know as well, started yelling at the top of her lungs, “I hate Hillary! I hate Hillary!” Why?  “Because she’s a liar!  She lies and lies and lies!”

I have been thinking about this moment at the bus stop ever since.  These girls were on my mind as I voted on Tuesday, and as I watched the results come in.  As people expressed fear, doubt, joy, and every other emotion on social media, as newspapers have covered the post-election climate, I find myself returning to this moment.  Pondering these young ladies in my heart.

I find myself wondering what exactly our children are learning from this election.  That people with whom we disagree are losers?  Bigots? That people we don’t like are liars? Criminals? Sexual predators?  I’m not trying to diminish the harsh realities of this election, but I can’t help but think that our children are paying far more attention to us than we might realize.  These two young girls at the bus stop have internalized the polarization of this climate in a way that surprised me.  They sounded just like a lot of adults I happen to know and love.  People who are struggling to speak compassionately to those with whom they disagree right now.

I recently spent some time in the company of other pastors, resting and reflecting on our call to ministry. One of the pastors told a story about a dark time in his ministry, when he was going through a divorce.  He shared that he preached some very angry sermons in those days, and not a lot of grace.  And he shared how there was this one church lady named Lois who always dressed in her Sunday best, with her hat cocked just right.  And how she always told it to you straight.  One day, after one of those angry sermons, she walked right up to this pastor, looked him dead in the eye, and asked him, “Who went and licked the red off your candy?”

I can’t help but think that this country has had its fill of angry sermons this year.  For so much of our public discourse has been rooted in anger, in fear, in distrust of those with whom we disagree.  We have lost sight of grace, lost sight of the fundamental humanity of our neighbors, and in the process we have created a culture in which there can only be winners and losers.  We have made it near impossible for those whose party lost the election to see the light. And that is a tragedy.

I’m not trying to say everything is going to be okay.  The truth is that any government is a profoundly human institution.  Some of them will be better than others, some will be kinder and more compassionate than others, but all of them fall short of the Kingdom of God. And there is no President, Senator or Congressperson who can live up to the standards set by our Lord and Savior Christ.

But here is some truth that I do think bears remembering: the overwhelming majority of people in this country want to make America a better place for all of us.  As a Democrat, that means I must acknowledge that my Republican neighbors are doing what they think is best for all of us, even when I disagree with them (and I often do). I would hope that they believe the same of me.

And as a Christian, I must remember that my identity in Christ is not tied to my political affiliation. My identity in Christ is rooted in something deeper, some far more important than which party is listed on my registration.  And when my party fails to live up to its own ideals (because it will), I must be willing to confront those failures in love, too.  I must be willing to work to make that system become more just, peaceful, and loving. Because nothing will get better until we demand it.

Finally, I take heart that the Gospel is always calling us forward, out of the various camps that divide us, and into the light of Christ.  And today I especially find encouragement in the words of Rev. Steve Holmes, who reminds us that our discipleship requires a different kind of witness to a world that sorely needs hope:

“Do not be afraid to live among people who love the sword, who speak with iron hearts. You have been sent to make gentle this wounded world, to live in peace among those who are afraid, to bear healing to those who are captive to the spirit of pride and violence. Do not despair because of the oppressors, those who judge and despise, who will not listen, who do not know how to join with neighbors. Rejoice, for you have been given to them, to shine light into the darkness of their world. The Holy Spirit sustains you, so that you may dwell as healers among fearful men.

Bear your outrage lightly; do not cling to it. Let it lead you toward compassion, not anger. Pray that you may not be defeated by vengefulness, eaten by the appetite for power, destroyed by the spirit of destructiveness. Anger is not your weapon; it is your enemy.

The spirit of violence seeps into the world. But you radiate Good News, you breathe gentleness into the air that all others breath, you establish trust on the earth. Be broken hearted. And through the cracks let light shine…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

After Election Day…

I had the honor of writing this letter, which was signed by nearly 45 area clergy.  It represents our hope and prayer for our country in the days following the election on November 8th.

On November 9th, we awake to the results of an election that has bitterly divided our nation.  It is tempting to proclaim winners and losers and to treat this election cycle like a sporting match where one party has emerged victorious at the expense of the other.

But to do so would be a grave mistake. In the aftermath of such an election season we will all need to work diligently to repair the damage done. Those who founded this country believed that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us. The candidates who celebrate victory on election night must rise in the morning prepared to govern for the good of all people, including those who voted against them.  To forget this is to forget the history of this great nation, to forget the ideals and the hope of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

We are leaders of faith communities that, for centuries, have had many disagreements.  And yet, we believe that what is more important than those things that divide us are those things that bring us together.  In that spirit, our prayer for our community and for our nation is that we might set aside the rancor and bitterness of the campaign season in order to remember that we are Americans together. Together, we pray for the wisdom to remember the challenge of Isaiah: that our life together depends upon our ability to turn the swords and spears of hostility and division into the plowshares and pruning hooks of peace and unity.

May God be with us all, and the wisdom of the Divine guide those who lead the people, this day and every day. Amen.

 

Rev. Bruce Ballantine Morrisville Presbyterian Church

Rev. Wendy Bellis Morrisville United Methodist Church

Rev. Kyle Benoit Greater Grace Community Church

Rev. Josh Blakesley Warminster United Church of Christ

Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy Congregation Kol Emet

Rev. Catherine Bowers St. Andrews United Methodist Church

Rev. Luky Cotto Casa del Pueblo Latino Ministry of Lehman Memorial UMC

Rev. Dr. Nancy Dilliplane Trinity Buckingham Episcopal Church

Rev. Chris Edwards Northampton Presbyterian Church

Rev. Susan Fall Forest Grove Presbyterian Church

Rev. Laura Ferguson Newtown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Joshua D. Gill Doylestown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Bailey Heckman Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church

Rev. Debbie Heffernan Morrisville Presbyterian Church

Rev. Doug Hoglund Woodside Presbyterian Church

Mary Dyer Hubbard Pastoral Counselor

Rev. Lynn Hade Church of the Advent

Rev. Keith Ingram Bucks County Seventh Day Adventist Church

Rev. Stacey Jones-Anderson First United Methodist Church Bristol 

Rev. Catherine D. Kerr Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

Rev. Nathan Krause Redeemer Lutheran Church

Rev. Bill Lentz Lehman Memorial United Methodist Church

Rev. Nancy Ludwig Lehman Memorial United Methodist Church

Rev. Joe Martin Fallsington United Methodist Church

Rev. Sam Massengill Newtown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Dr. Kari McClellan First Presbyterian of Levittown

Rev. Mary McCullough Trinity Episcopal Church Ambler

Rev. Dorry Newcomer Newtown United Methodist Church

Rev. Jake Presley Bux-Mont Baptist Church

Rev. Eric Reimer St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church

Rev. Keith Roberts Doylestown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Michael Ruk, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, New Hope

Rev. Janet L. Saddel St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Warrington

Rev. Michael Saunders Crossway Community Church

Chaplain Susan Sciarratta Counselor, Insight Christian Counseling

Rev. Barbara Seekford Chalfont United Methodist Church

Rev. Stuart H. Spencer Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church

Rev. Doug Stratton Hatboro Baptist Church

Rev. Mark Studer Neshaminy-Warwick Presbyterian Church

Rev. Jim Sutton New Britain Baptist Church

Rev. Bill Teague Langhorne Presbyterian Church

Rev. Lorelei K. Toombs Willow Grove United Methodist Church

Rev. Sarah Weisiger Ivyland Presbyterian Church

Rev. John Willingham Doylestown Presbyterian Church

 

Lift Up Your Hearts

dae3cf3c6d9ba07b89803a8df2d4e60cSo, you may not be aware, but earlier this year I joined the Board of The Young Clergy Women Project.  It is a super honor to serve there, and I was delighted to join the Editorial Work Group, a team of dedicated clergy women who source, edit, and publish an online magazine called Fidelia.  I am editing a column that we have titled “Lift Up Your Hearts,” which focuses on how the ministerial vocation integrates with the personal life, and how our personal and professional lives speak to and inform one another.

And I am delighted today to see our first piece published.  It’s called “Small Town Listening,” and it was written by my dear colleague Jessica Crane Munoz, who reflects on what it means, for her, to serve as a small town pastor.  She reflects on the intersection between public and personal life, the tensions between politics and the personal, and the calling to be in community.  I am so delighted to have helped her bring this column to life, and I hope you will take the time to read it.

In other news, I promise I will try to post more here in the coming weeks. It has been quite the adjustment adding a new baby into the family, and I will admit that I have struggled to find the time to load work that I have been working on. But I will get there. I promise.

Theology 101: Idolatry

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

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Politics and Religion.

Those are the two things that are off limits at my mother’s dinner table. You can burp the alphabet, tell an off color joke, you can come to dinner dressed in the clothes you woke up in. But you start talking about religion or politics, and You. Are. Done.

Perhaps this is because my mother is a good southern woman who was raised to keep conversation polite.  Here’s what I think: it is because these are the two topics that are most likely to start an argument. Because we don’t all think the same things, do we? In my family, we are all across the map—Baptists sitting next to atheists, sitting next to Republicans, sitting next to whatever Bernie Sanders people are calling themselves these days. So the potential for conflict, when it comes to religion and politics, is high. And once the door is open, everyone has an opinion. Better to keep the door closed. Better to keep things safe.

Which makes for some really polite, but incredibly boring dinner parties. Because let me tell you, the dinners I remember best aren’t the ones where everyone behaved themselves. I bet you know what I am talking about. In my family, there are some pretty epic stories about individuals who broke the rules, resulting in some pretty heated conversations.

Luke’s Gospel this morning describes one of those “memorable” dinner parties. One of those parties that didn’t exactly go as planned. Because Jesus showed up.

Who knows why the Pharisee invited Jesus to his dinner party—maybe he was just trying to be friendly, maybe he was curious about the new rabbi in town. Maybe he figured this new guy would play it safe, stick to the rule-book, not ruffle the feathers.

Maybe he figured that, just like we do, Jesus knew what the rules were and cared about them. Because that is what we all really want right?  When I have a dinner party, I expect people to behave. And when I go to a party and don’t know everyone there, then I try my best to behave too. I stand quietly in the social area. Maybe I say hi to a few folks. And if we get to talking, we stick to “safe” conversation: “What do you do?”” Where do you live?” “Tell me about your kids.” You get the picture.

Not Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus is “that guy”—you know, the guy at the dinner party that everyone can’t stop staring at, or listening to, because he is making a scene.

A-Woman-With-DropsyIt all starts with a sick man. There is a man at the party with Dropsy. Anyone know what dropsy is? It is severe edema. Probably caused by severe heart failure. The man is swollen up like a balloon. Makes you wonder what he is doing at a dinner party—edema can be incredibly painful, and was essential as slow, painful death sentence in Jesus’ Day—people who suffered from it slowly drowned in their own bodies.

So of course, Jesus draws their attention to this man, whose suffering is on full display while they eat and make merry on the Sabbath. He asks them—if your child or your ox was drowning in a well, would you save them on the Sabbath? What about this man, who is drowning in his body? Is there a difference?

But Jesus isn’t done. He just can’t help himself. He moves on to the guests themselves. All of a sudden we are getting advice from the Rabbi about seating assignments and guest lists. He is like the ancient Jewish version of Ms Manners, only none of these people asked him for advice.

Whenever they ask prospective presidents who they would like to meet someday or have a meal with, and they say Jesus—I think of this dinner party. Because clearly, Jesus isn’t interested in playing by anybody’s rules. Jesus isn’t going to behave and be polite. He is going to speak truth. To the poor and the sick, and to the wealthy and powerful. Doesn’t matter who you are, Jesus is going to say what needs to be said.

And what is the truth that needs to be said?

Perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.

Let me explain. A friend of mine was sharing this week that she HATES this text, because Jesus seems to single out all of these people based on their social statues or health status. For her, this just seems wrong. Aren’t we all just people, she asks? But of course we do this all the time. If we are really honest with ourselves, we are constantly sorting ourselves against the people around us, ranking ourselves based on who seems to have the most, or the least; whose life seems better or worse than our own. And if we are honest, most of us would prefer to find ourselves, if not at the top of our pecking order, at least above the median.

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Why? Because many of us have been raised to believe that these are the things that define us. That our job, our house, our stuff, even our health are the things that matter. That our worth is roughly equivalent to our investment account or the appearance of our home. A fellow clergy person shared with me recently that when he was young his dad raised him to grow up and take care of his family. So he did. He got a job, and he lived at his job. Barely saw the family that he was trying to provide for. He was just doing what he had been taught.

And perhaps you may notice as well that these are things that we think we can control. We decide what we do, where we live, what car we drive, whether we work on at the gym every morning. And if we can control them, it can be tempting to believe that others can too. So we judge the poor, the unemployed, the sick. Can’t you just get a job? Can’t you stay out of trouble? Can’t you just take care of yourself? How quickly grace evaporates when we think we have control. We do this. We do this.

But not Jesus. Jesus will have none of that. For Jesus, dinner tables aren’t just dinner tables. They are practice grounds for the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom of God, everyone is invited to the dinner party. All of our jockeying, all that sorting that we waste our time worrying over, none of that matters in God’s house. If we are honest, those things can be a weight around our necks, pulling us down and away from what really matters. And what really matters? Paul perhaps said it best when he said: let mutual love continue. What matters is the community that gathers at Christ’s table—not where we sit, but that we are there. Together. What matters is that the Jesus who sat at that table and pissed off the Pharisees didn’t preach anything he didn’t also do himself—for Jesus built a ministry out of welcoming the lonely, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, whether those people had everything or barely enough to get by.

And guess who we worship?

Not success.Martin-Luther-idolatry.jpg

Not money.

Not comfort.

Not power.

All of those are false idols. False promises of a secure life.

We worship Jesus, who entered this world poor and weak and small so that he could teach us about a love that doesn’t rank or divide, or exclude.

We worship Jesus, who doesn’t care who you are or what you have—he just bids you come.

We worship Jesus, whose table is open to all of us, because whatever we have, we all get hungry and thirsty, and God would feed us.

We worship Jesus, who is the same today, yesterday and forever.

We worship Jesus.

And that is enough.

Theology 101: Sanctification

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

12549095_1192425460786857_4723051213432493191_n.jpgWe had a great conversation in Pub Theology recently–we were talking about God, and who God is, and what it means to us when we talk about God.

Now, one person mentioned during our conversation that they thought of God as perfect. They didn’t know what perfect looks like, but that was something that they understood as fundamental to who God is.

Another person struggled with perfection as a definition for God—“look at the world around us,” they said. “Can you really say that God is perfect?” They were looking at the way God’s creation has consistently screwed up, and they struggled to see how creating fallible, sinful, broken people could have possibly been the intention of a perfect God.

Does God make mistakes? Are we a mistake?

Really this is a question about Free Will—what does it mean that we have free will?

Jeremiah gives us one answer: in our text this morning, we learn from the prophet that God is perfect, that God believes that we are perfectly made, that we are just the way we were meant to be. That God formed us in the womb. God gave us everything we need to flourish.

But there is one thing that God didn’t give us: he didn’t create us to be machines, robotically doing God’s bidding. Instead, God gave us freedom to move around in the world.

Which creates problems, of course. Wouldn’t we all prefer that the people and animals under our control were perfectly obedient all the time? Wouldn’t it be great if our kids never fought with us, our friends always laughed at our jokes, and we never stuck our foot in it? Wouldn’t it be awesome if your dog never chewed up your favorite shoes and your cat never peed in your suitcase?

Wouldn’t it be great if we were always completely confident that we could achieve whatever goal was set before us?

Of course, we aren’t. And the reality is that, while we might prefer that the world bend to our will, when it comes to us individually, we treasure our freedom. There are very few people in this world who enjoy having every decision made for them. And God made us like that on purpose. For all of its confusion, that, too is a gift from God for the people of God.

Because it means that we have the freedom to choose God back. We have the freedom, like the prophet Jeremiah, to find the words to speak. The freedom to discover that, for all of our weakness and vulnerability, God has the capacity to fill us with a life of purpose and meaning that we can choose. The freedom to walk the path of justice and mercy because we wish to, not because we have to.

That freedom—the freedom to choose—is expressed in our tradition as sanctification. Sanctification is the practice of choosing holiness, and as followers of Jesus, that means using our freedom in ways that bless not just ourselves but the world that God has made. Choosing kindness, and mercy, and justice, the things of God for the people of God, over everything else that calls to us.

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There is a great example of what this might look like in an ancient story called the Odyssey. The Odyssey follows the journey of its hero, Odysseus, as he fights his way home to his family. This is his only goal. And there is this one point in his story where he must pass by a stretch of the ocean that is known for shipwrecking captains. Here, the irresistible song of the sirens lures men into the waters and the rocky shores, where they inevitably perish. And so Odysseus, who wants to go home, directs his men to plug their ears with beeswax, and to tie him to the mast. No matter what he says or how loud he begs, he remains on that mast. Until they are safe. Until he can remember what is truly important.

Of course, Odysseus isn’t the only ancient person who sought to protect his freedom by binding his options. This is what the law of Moses was and is intended to do—it creates limits around the people of God so that they can honor their choice to follow God. Like Odysseus, the Jewish people bind themselves, in this case, to a covenant that governs their behavior and ensures that everyone is taken care of.

Except for when they aren’t. It turned out that sometimes, the rules and the values come into conflict. In Jewish tradition, these conflicts are explored in something called the Midrash—in midrash, great rabbis like Rashi and Akiva try to resolve the problems. And in our Gospel today, Jesus steps right into the middle of that conversation: if the rules are meant to help us follow God, what do we do when it seems like God is asking us to break the rules to help another person? Jesus answer is that there is no conflict—freeing a crippled woman from her bondage on the Sabbath, a day of freedom for God’s people, is precisely the intention of Sabbath to begin with. But not everyone agrees.

Because they have a different vision of holiness.

I can relate to that. Don’t we all, if we are honest, have an idea in our minds of what perfection looks like? If we could have the perfect life, your idea of what that looks like would probably not look the same as mine.  Some of us might bring to mind a place that seems perfect, or people that we would surround ourselves with. Because we all have different ideas of perfection.  Just like the people in the bible.

But here’s the thing. Jesus is asking us to consider the possibility that holiness, that perfection, isn’t about you or me or what any one person thinks. It is about us. It is about the community, and we aren’t perfect until all of us are free. We aren’t perfect until the lame can walk, the blind can see, the sick are healed, the widow and the orphan are provided for, the prisoner is visited, and the lonely are embraced. Only then are we perfect. And so he heals on the Sabbath. He breaks a rule. Because he has looked at the bigger picture—God’s Dream of the Kingdom of God—and he saw this woman left behind. Not all rules are the same. (it may surprise you to learn, by the way, that most rabbis agree with him).

So if you are asking yourself—what does this mean for me? Perhaps you would do well to hear what Jesus often says to those who pose that question: “Go and do likewise.” We who would call ourselves Christians are called to respond to Christ by seeking to be like him.

To refuse to settle for a shallow faith. To look for the big picture : ask yourself, “Does my life make room for others? Have I remembered the poor, the sick, the lame, the lonely as much as I have remembered myself? Have I used my freedom for the glory of God? Or only for myself?

Unknown.jpegOur tradition has another name for this. John Calvin called it “putting on God spectacles” so that you can see the world the way that God sees it.   Because when we really listen to what God is saying in the Scriptures, it changes our vision. We see the world differently. And that can make all the difference.

 

 

Theology 101: Faith

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!


Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

IMG_6087.JPGA gardener decided to plant a garden.

She started the fall before, picking the perfect spot—for days, she watched the suns daily movement across her land, until she knew the pattern of light well enough to know that that patch, over there, past the oak tree, near the dam, would get the best morning and afternoon light. She tested the soil and squealed with delight to find it rich and nourishing, perfect for what she had planned.

Only then did she set to work—tilling the soil within her plot, pulling out stones, removing the roots of distant trees snaking beneath the soil, digging up those intrepid volunteer weeds that would not be able to share this space with what she had planned.

And then, because she knew there were plenty of foragers who might be tempted by her garden, she laid a fence. No scavengers or menaces would be welcomed here. She buried it a foot into the ground to keep out the groundhogs and rabbits, and hoped that the four feet would be enough to deter the deer that year.

As the winter frosts set in and the sun retreated earlier and earlier into the night sky, she began to plan—poring over seed catalogues, planning out the garden of her dreams on paper, plotting each plant to ensure the best possible yield. She ordered seeds—tomatoes and corn, beans and lettuce, beets, potatoes, cabbage and celery, herbs upon herbs and FLOWERS—And then she waited for the mailman to bring her treasures to her front door.

In February, her garden lay frozen beyond the oak tree, but she continued to work for her garden, starting the tiny little seeds in unassuming flats of soil on shelves in her basement. Every morning, she checked the grow lamp, water levels, tended to her babies as though they were her most precious possession. She counted the days until the final frost had passed, sowing carrots, peas, beets and lettuce in neat rows of dark, damp loam.

In the mornings, she began to sip her coffee on the porch and laughed at the rabbits as they hopped around the fence, unable to find their way in.

In late spring, she brought her little babies out of the basement and set them on the porch—seeds that had become tomatoes and eggplants, peppers and cabbage, herbes upon herbs and FLOWERS—and she laid them in their plots. She put cages around the tomatoes and built trellises for the beans and the cucumbers, piled the dirt upon the beginnings of potatoes and corn, and when all was finished, she sat back on her porch, tired and satisfied, and waited for it to grow.

She waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In June, she started to get worried. The plants were growing, alright, but they weren’t setting any fruit. Her carrots were spindly, and her lettuce was as pokey as could be. What was wrong with the garden that she had planted? There were no pests to be found—the rabbits, the groundhogs, even the bugs had left her patch to itself. Only the bees zipped around, seeking in vain for the flowers that refused to emerge.

In July, she got angry—not even the hint of an eggplant or a tomato to be seen. All of that labor was threatening to yield nothing more than a few sparse salad greens and whole lot of frustration. She had a stern talking to her plants, and then retreated to her porch, stewing as the sun set in the sky.

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What then, do you suppose she should do in August, when nothing has changed? She has done everything right, and these plants she had tended lovingly, they have refused to do the one thing that ought to come naturally to them—they have refused to bear fruit. Would we blame her if, in her frustration, she gave up entirely? Ripped out the plants, the fence, the trellis and the tomato cages, plowed under the garden and let the grass overtake it once more?

I can relate to her—for years now, I have been tending the roses in the back yard of the manse, willing them to flower. And I have done everything I could for these plants that I did not even choose—when we moved here, Sean Pope helped us cut down the weed trees that choked out the light. We weeded, we mulched, we fertilized. When Japanese beetles and rose slugs and aphids emerged, I picked them off, sprayed them with garden soap, smothered them in a bucket of soapy water. Most of the roses have responded gratefully, and this spring their blooms were overwhelming and received with joy.

Except for one. One sickly, spindly, leggy rose in the corner by the nursery has flat out refused to flourish. Despite my best efforts, it has produced little more than a handful of pale pink blossoms on the end of sickly, leggy, stalks. Nothing I have done for it has worked.

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And so, it will go. This fall, three summers into this rescue mission, it will go the way of all ungrateful plants, and make room for something that will do something with the plot of land that it has been given. There just isn’t room in our yard to be wasted on roses that refuse to bloom.

Am I sad? Of course. I didn’t plant that rose, but I tended to it like it was my own. It received the same attention and care that I gave to everything else—the dahlias and Echinacea, tomatoes and tulips that grace the earth. But unlike them, it didn’t seem to care how much time or attention I gave it. And so, I will save my efforts for those corners of my garden that show promise. They haven’t given up on me, and I won’t give up on them.

Of course, this was never really about a garden, was it? In our first lesson this morning, Isaiah speaks in metaphors—and when he speaks of the garden, we know that what he means is the people of God. That God is like a gardener who planted his people, who gave them everything they needed to flourish. And in our text today, perhaps we find ourselves threatened as God tears down the walls and leaves his garden to perish. Or perhaps we are intimated by Paul’s list of all of the faithful gardens of the past, whose examples seem impossible to follow.

But there is another way to read these lessons. Perhaps we can take heart in the knowledge that God has given us absolutely everything that we need to flourish. That if we are God’s garden, we have amazing potential. We have been given the same care and attention that God gave to the Israelites in the desert, to the judges and the kings, the prophets and the martyrs, who at the end of the day were ordinary people who trusted that the Gardener would stand with them in extraordinary times.

The truth is that the garden that is Ivyland Presbyterian Church could produce the most amazing fruit—enough to feed everyone. And like any good garden of the people, we have so many different gifts to share. Spiritual tomatoes and corn, potatoes and eggplant, peppers and celery, herbs upon herbs upon herbs and FLOWERS! And none of us isn’t important. We all have a purpose. Remember, the tomato and the corn may seem like the king of the garden, but they are stronger for the carrots and marigolds and beans that provide additional nourishment, deter pests, and encourage the bees to take a visit. And the herbs—they provide so much flavor to our communal life with so little.

I could beat this metaphor into the ground, of course, but the point is this: when we see ourselves as the garden that God made us to be, then we see that what comes naturally, what we would call faith, is the work of learning to live together. That what comes naturally is supporting one another, encouraging one another, loving one another, because together we are far better than we are alone. Together, we have everything we need. Together, we make the most beautiful garden you have ever seen. A garden of justice, of mercy, of kindness, and righteousness.

And that, my friends, is what faith looks like. It looks like a garden of people, planted by God, filled with the goodness and promise of harvest. People doing what they were made to do, because they trust in the Gardener who made them and who tends them still. And that, brothers and sisters, is pleasing to God.

 

This Place Could Be Beautiful

1 Kings 19:1-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”-for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Mem Park

“Where is God?”

That is a question I have been hearing a lot this week.  In the newspapers, on Facebook, in private conversations and pastoral visits:  “Where is God?  You must know, pastor.  Isn’t this your specialty?”

It is a very real question.  In a world where 50 lives can be snuffed out in one evening of violence, where toddlers are dragged into lakes and idealistic politicians are gunned down by angry citizens—where is God?

I look to Scripture and am reminded this week that the people of God have been asking this question in the midst of their suffering for as long as there has been breath.  Sitting on the ash pile, scraping his wounds, Job cries out into the abyss and wonders—where is the Lord?  Elijah, running for his life, hiding under a broom tree in the desert and waiting for Jezebel’s army to find him, despairs—where are you God?  Can you not come and end my misery?

And then there are those who have perhaps given up on God entirely.  The possessed man in Luke’s Gospel this morning does not cry out for a Savior, at least as far as we know.  Scripture is silent on the issue. Living in the land of the Gentiles, far from the land of the God of Israel, he is utterly and completely forsaken.  By his city. By his family. He lives in the land of death amongst the tombs.  Beyond hope, beyond redemption. He doesn’t pray for a Savior, either because he doesn’t believe he is worth saving, or doesn’t know the possibility exists.  He doesn’t even know his own name.  He has been completely and utterly possessed by the dark and sinister Legion which has left him unclean in the eyes of his family and his community.  There is no one more forsaken than he.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ journey to meet this man?  Just moments before, Jesus had been preaching and teaching amongst his own people, when he suddenly decided it was time to get on the boat and sail across the lake from Galilee into foreign territory.  And so they go, away from home and through the stormy seas, not to a city filled with people but to a cemetery.  A land of the dead.   Where he is encountered by a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  In his blog on preaching and the lectionary, David Lose points out that this is an interesting designation, reminding us that there are a variety of spirits, some life giving, some not.   And from the story, we are meant to know that this man is a danger, not only to himself but to others, rendered religiously unclean both by his possession and his location amongst the dead.

According to Lose:

It would seem to be the very last place we would expect to find Jesus.

Which, when you think about it, is where God usually shows up.  At our moments of profound doubt, grief, loss and defeat.  And—and this is the one that often surprises us—among those who may to this point have little interest in, let alone relationship with, God.

Remember, this man has no reason to think that Jesus would come for him.  And yet, here he is.  And given Jesus’ abrupt return to Galilee after his healing has been accomplished, it seems quite possible, probable even, that Jesus made that long trek across the stormy waters for the sake of this one man.

All of which suggests that there is absolutely nowhere God is not willing to go to reach and free and sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.

We find reinforcement for this interpretation when we look to the story of Elijah—this prophet who has stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, who now hides under a broom tree in the desert waiting for God or Jezebel to end his life, finds instead that God will sustain him.  That even the desert is not beyond God’s power to heal and restore. There is literally no place that God cannot find us, and bring us home.

It is as though the Word of God needs to remind us, on this week in which the suffering of the world is so near to us, in which our frailty, our weakness, our brokenness is so on display, that there is no place on earth that is God-forsaken.  Whether we dwell in the desert of despair or amongst the tombs of the dead, God is with us.  And as Lose is quick to point out,

We are reminded that there is no person who is God-forsaken.  Unclean. Outcast, Abandoned, Unpopular, incarcerated, unbeliever.  No one is left out.

Consider that the man in the tombs is no Jew, and there is no indication that he becomes a Christian.  And when he begs Jesus to let him come with him, our Savior sends him back home with one instruction: “Go and tell what God has done for you.”

And that is, I think, the essence of the Gospel.  This is what we are meant to teach to our children.  That there are no conditions to be met to receive God’s love.  That there are no categories more deserving of God’s grace, no groups of people who are more favored.  You don’t have to have believed your whole life, or have come to faith recently, or perhaps have any faith at all.  Jesus will seek us all out just the same.  And the most faithful response we can make to this reality is to Go and Tell what God has done for us.  To share the Good News of the Gospel with the world, whether they are in the tombs, in the desert, or living a life of relative comfort.

Good Bones (Maggie Smith)

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

In a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

A thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

Fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

Estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

Sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

Is at least half terrible, and for every kind

Stranger, there is one who would break you,

Though I keep this from my children. I am trying

To sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

Walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

About good bones: This place could be beautiful,

Right? You could make this place beautiful.

May we make this place beautiful by our love, by our witness to Christ, by our unfailing hope in the Father, who will go to the furthest reaches to remind us that we are not alone. That we are loved. And that we are  called to do likewise.  Amen.