Sunday, September 14, 2014

Behold the Life Giving Cross


Growing up one of my favorite comic strips was “Peanuts.” Perhaps some of you remember sometimes that Lucy would play psychiatrist. She would set up shop with a sign proclaiming, “The Psychiatrist is IN.” Recently I was reminded how One day she says to Charlie Brown, “Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?” “You know what your problem is? The whole trouble with you is you.” The whole trouble with you is you.

I’ve thought a lot about that this past week in the midst of the groundswell of response to the video of NFL player Ray Rice, seen physically assaulting a woman who is now his wife. First we wonder what the NFL knew and why they didn’t do more. And much condemnation of his behavior has been heard. But then his wife’s decision to stay and stand by him received just as much recrimination. Maybe even more. Why would she do such a thing? It’s foolish! Why are we so focused on chiding a victim?

Then again, I’ve thought about Lucy as we have another week of gun violence here in the city including the death of a man just blocks from here and the neighborhood concern about the shooting which seems to center around getting these people out of here more than concern for those caught in the midst of it. Shootings are bad, killing is wrong, but we can be quick to judge- I wonder if anyone has thought instead of judging, about how to help those caught in these places live?  

These kinds of violence seem to be always around us. The groundswell of opinions are just one example of how we approach problems in our world- we bounce between saying we need better laws or policies all the way to the other extreme which is we need victims to be stronger. We need better policies about guns or people, or we need more guns with the right people to be safe, or we need to uparmor police even in places like schools. I saw a picture this past week of an artillery vehicle repurposed for a school. Shocking.

Unfortunately the conversations we have are only about what people should stop doing or about doing better things. And while it is about us, somehow it’s not. It’s about issues and how to fix them. As though the issues and the people are separate. It’s not about life.

Today on this Holy Cross Sunday we ask what the cross means for us in this life in the world. And we first hear about the people in Numbers who are being plagued by a different kind of death- they’ve been traveling in the wilderness with Moses and serpents are biting people who are then dying. They beg Moses to do something and he goes to see God and begs for an answer.

God tells him to take a serpent and put it on a pole for the people to look at, but when they look at it they will live. The bitten will live. The image helps them see and live, but… it takes trusting in who’s behind what the image represents.

And then we fast forward to the gospel where we hear about Jesus on the cross, born into our humanity and put up on a pole for people to see. (Brian Stoffregen) One writer noticed that there is a parallel here. Serpents on the ground kill, serpent on the pole brings life. Jesus as human on the pole in our human world brings life. So what must the problem be?

Lucy is right. Jesus is on the cross because the problem with humans is humans. The problem with us is us.

So often we can see that there are problems like domestic abuse and gun violence but the way we address it is to separate the problem from people. Better policies or laws, or better victims might bring some kind of salvation-ish kind of thing. But that kind of salvation has nothing to do with Jesus. It either doesn’t need him or reduces him to a model of behavior. Yet so often we turn not to God or the cross but to these other avenues.

And we keep getting bitten by the same old problems because of who we are. We are sinful. Sin hurts. But the cross changes that conversation. And we really do need that cross.

Because just as those surrounded by biting serpents everywhere needed to be grounded to survive, so do we. What grounds us is not just the image of the cross, but a belief in the relationship it represents. That God is a God who is involved, and healing, and forgiving. The cross shows us a God who loving, and longs for us to seek life. But we have to believe.

We hear this is in the gospel- you must believe. But I want to be clear, I don’t mean in the sense of “believe or you are damned.” Though this is often how some interpret today’s gospel. That’s not what is being said.

Believe… because life giving starts now. In this cross and this relationship. There's real life.
Belief is a key concept in the gospel of John Over and over the stories flow forth “so that you might believe.” And in coming to believe might keep on believing in the God of the cross.

Believing in what and who the symbol represents.

If you’ve ever noticed the abundance of ribbons, and wristbands and slogans, it’s proof we will believe in a policy, slogan or symbol as the next great hope with very little proof.

Believing that the cross is more than that. It's a symbol that points to a real relationship and identity. And those words “to believe” are a continual invitation to keep on.

When we look at the cross our belief is renewed- it not only shows the cost Christ paid, but also the life giving promise Christ assures us. We’re reminded that relationship is forged in baptism when we join in what that cross made on our heads menas, and stays with us all the way to the end of this life’s journey and beyond. Not just at the beginning and end, but along the way.

And along the way, we are continually invited into life. To come to believe again and again so that we are not perishing, or condemned, or being judged or feeling separated.

The good news is that while the serpents in our world still want to judge us or have us judge others, we don’t have to buy in. We really don’t.

In fact, the cross shows exactly the opposite. The cross is the place that shows us that we cannot be our own salvation.

It’s also the place where Jesus turns to those who have killed, robbed, beaten, and denied and says, “You’re forgiven and today you are with me.” Forever. Not just for us, but for those we are sure are not us.

It’s foolish to believe but there it is.

Good news for all the places where the painful, the poisonous, and the life-taking things surround us. Holy Cross day reminds us to behold the life giving cross, to look upon Jesus and remember not only the cost but the promise God in Christ assures now and forever.

Again we are invited, “ Come, believe, and continue to live into believing the power of our God.”

 Because the cross is not just a symbol, it's a relationship.

Take it in and believe.

This is what we celebrate here. And what when we come here we help each other believe.

This is what we share when we lift that cross high in our world

So that when the next discouraged person comes along saying, “Ouch! I just got bit!” We don’t point in judgment and say “ How could you be so stupid to let that happen?”

But instead proclaim with all our heart, “ Let me help you see the One who will help you live.”

Monday, August 25, 2014

Not Chaff


For a week at least, the animals have been trampling the gathered grain and the threshing floor has hummed with activity. Tossing up the harvest, so the grain falls to the ground, but the wind carries the chaff away. No one keeps the chaff, no one wants it. And in the world each in some way, Ruth and Naomi and even Boaz carry something of the chaff about them.

They are not desired- Ruth, carries the chaff of being a foreigner whose marriage must not have been blessed since she had no sons; Naomi, the chaff of the widow whose husband and sons are gone, not blessed. Boaz, the chaff of being older and alone-without a companion, and hardly the object of the eyes of the young.

But God is on a rescue mission.

Even for the people of Bethlehem who this year are blessed. On average, out of a ten year harvest cycle, seven of those years, one could hope to have enough to get through the winter, and into the spring. In two or three of those years, one could count on drought or famine. And they knew those times. But this year, this year was blessed- a harvest of abundance! And they’d all worked to bring it in, and to thresh that grain and scatter the chaff. To praise God’s faithfulness. Because it is God’s hand that has done this.

And then they celebrate. For in Deuteronomy, after the harvest was a week long festival. In fact, God commanded it- “Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows residing in your towns. Seven days…you shall surely celebrate…with whatever you desire.” And so of course there was eating and drinking, and the settling in of pleasant fatigue- the kind you know when you have worked hard, but good has come. Where you know you are blessed.

 

And it’s a great thing to see that God loves the people enough to bless them with the harvest, and with a command to celebrate together- everyone. Which makes sense in light of God’s command to leave part of the harvest for the foreigner, the orphan and the widow. And God’s command to love the stranger, “for once you were strangers in Egypt.”

How often perhaps we forget the love in these laws of God. The beauty of the story of Ruth is what happens when God’s loving faithfulness reaches out through people rather than staying stuck on a page. Where we see God’s never ending rescue mission come to life.

So there we are, and the party was great and the last of the revelers are finally asleep. There on the floor with all that grain. Which at first makes no sense in our silo world, but in the day, it was first important to harvest, and then to celebrate, and thank God, but at the end of the celebrating, the men slept there with the grain. Each in a different spot, forming a circle round it, to protect it for everyone. Sleeping head in, feet out just in case thieves came.

That’s how it is. No wonder Naomi told her to Ruth to look for where Boaz laid down if you had to wander around in the dark looking at feet. She’s cleaned up and looking her best and she has come and laid down and she touches him.  And at some point her presence startles him. And he could have mistaken her for an intruder. Or a prostitute. Neither of which end well. There she is at the very edge of the harvest, just reaching out, hoping for something. But what follows is not what we expect.

He wakes up startled asking, “Who are you?” And she tells him they are kin. When really he wakes up, she proposes marriage! Suggesting she is not chaff that should just blow away in the wind of no concern. She proposes that she instead be gathered. “Spread your cloak over your servant-you are next of kin.” If she as a foreigner has married an Israelite, she has become kin. When she became a widow, there was no obligation to still see her as such.

But she bound herself to Naomi, and now asks Boaz to honor her with the same treatment a daughter of Israel could expect. Don’t cast me off like chaff. I ask to be treated like the law demands.

Because God’s law provided that a widow be married to another member of the family in order that she be provided for. That too was the law. So widows would be rescued. “Spreading a cloak was not only an invitation to a marriage bed, but a symbol of being gathered under the protection of his wings. And Boaz said yes. And there on that threshing floor, they exchanged the equivalent of marriage promises.” (Rolf Jacobsen)

And God’s love was at work as Ruth was gathered in, not cast to the wind.

At each turn in this story, the question is – will she be scattered or gathered? “Through Boaz living out the law, God was at work, rescuing Ruth from a marginal life of gleaning as a foreigner. But through Ruth, God was at work rescuing Boaz, who apparently was alone, as love moved into his home. Boaz recognized that Ruth could have approached a younger member of the relation. But by choosing the older, and more loyal Boaz, Ruth also secured a future that rescued Naomi. God’s steadfast loving kindness shows up in everyday ordinary, even unremarkable people. As Ruth leaves at dawn, returning home perhaps wondering whether that promise in the night will hold up in the light of day. With yet more steps of faith to come.

Would Boaz honor his promise? Would the community live as God intended? Would God still be faithful?”

When she comes back to Naomi, we hear the question “What happened?” But in the Hebrew, it is the same question Boaz asked her- “Who are you?” Who are you now? Ruth responds by showing what she has received- grain for today and a promise she hopes is true- that she is rescued.

The chaff does blow away but it is the chaff of the labels- widow, foreigner. But the grain- the heart of who she truly is as God’s child remains.

There we are too. We who wonder if the labels of our world define us, we who are those who have received the promise that is not yet fulfilled. Wondering whether the hope is for real, whether the promises will last.

We too walk by faith in the promise that Christ is not only risen but returning again. That we share in the greater feast to come. That we will be gathered not scattered. That God’s abundance, faithfulness, overflowing love are for us. We are not only rescued, but desired by God who promises not only salvation, but more to the story.

Until then, we, just as unlikely people, gather and share in the grain of the meal of this day, believing it is a foretaste of the feast to come. When the celebration has no end and that God’s desire is to gather us in until all are fed.

 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Can We Make That Journey Together?


Here in Reading, the Lutheran Churches function as a cluster called “The Reading Lutheran Parish” which was first described to me as being about the fact we each have our own individual congregations but that we collaborate in some areas and the pastors and leaders gather for Bible study and support. Within the last year or so, we as the leaders began to see a possible vision of more deeply collaborating in a specific project that would be a Reading Lutheran Parish project, as opposed to being one congregation’s effort that others supported. One of the questions we’ve been asked is how we as leaders will build “capacity,” in other words, how will we deepen the commitment to a collaboration beyond just the intentions of the leaders- how will the people of our congregations get invested and become active in what we are dreaming. We have dabbled at a RLP wide picnic, and at pulpit exchanges or having a couple people from each congregation go to another for worship and then gather to talk about it.

While these things have scratched at the surface, the depth that we hope will be achieved will take more building. In my part of the city, the congregation where I serve, Holy Spirit, is located about a mile from the next, Hope. We are not far from each other, although our two neighborhoods have some differences, and we are far enough to be located near two different elementary schools in our city’s school district.

We each draw folks from our geographic neighborhoods as well as people who drive in to the city to come to the “home church.” We each have folks who could more easily worship at the other. We both provide resources to kids and families in need in ways that dovetail each other well. We each have large old structures that take a lot of us in time and resources to maintain and heat and insure.

And because we are distinct enough, we stay that way- cordial and supportive, but distinct.

Until the other day when Hope Lutheran experienced a problem with their building that meant they would not be able to worship there on Sunday. Which when I shared it with my leaders, immediately one of leaders who lives here in the city, said instinctively-“Invite them to come here!” And we did.

Yesterday, in addition to our regular folks, and a couple visitors invited by others, we doubled in size for worship. Because the Hope folks, carpooling with the church van and personal cars, or biking over, joined us.

Not a couple folks participating in a well orchestrated “exchange”- a congregation joined ours. We sang together in ways we don’t usually, and we prayed together, and we walked together through sharing bulletins to ensure everyone had one. And we showed grace when the grape juice ran out, and the juice box backup was almost impossible to open. We paused to let an older worshipper be communed in his seat even though it interrupted the “flow” of communion traffic. We blessed each other- actually literally- making the sign of the cross on our neighbor’s foreheads and proclaiming them a blessed child of God. And we shared the peace in a way that if replicated would end conflicts everywhere.

And after communion, the bread crumbs looked like confetti on the ground. We had indeed, however cautiously at first, celebrated Christ in our midst together. And people were smiling in contentment- and it was good. It was that mystical combination of realizing this is sacred and it is a celebration. I felt like we were a part of a moment that demanded, “take your sandals off, it’s holy ground.”

And I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. And arguably “capacity” was built, because God accomplished it. God did not make Hope Lutheran’s building problem, but I do believe God’s Spirit interceded and answered the prayer of people who were saddened at the notion that the only option they might have had was to put a note on the door and just been “closed.”

So I wonder, where might God lead? What we experienced was incarnational community- Christ centered, Spirit led community. Because in a crisis moment, all that could be done was to get beyond ourselves. No worrying about if there is the right display at the coffee table, and who sat where. No worrying about whether we will like the hymns today, or if the pastor leads worship the right way. No worrying about whether we know in advance who is coming. Or whether when we say we have transportation to church, anyone will use it. We all got beyond ourselves. And got to experience what God might be trying to get us to see but where so often we are too busy being “Us” to see it. And it was a blessing.

What if we kept intentionally mingling? Back and forth between our two neighborhoods and in our ministries which are compatible in many ways.

Will we allow ourselves to move from being a place where one group “let” another join, to a place where the words we speak and pray and sing each week, come to life?

Interestingly enough, at Holy Spirit, I have been preaching on the Book of Ruth, and I cannot help but hear Ruth’s words to Naomi in a new light. We know nothing about their relationship as mother in law and daughter in law before the men all died. It may have been cordial, and supportive, but probably distinct. Not unlike our churches. But when the crisis moment arises there were two choices- close the door on it all, or figure out what to do together. And so it is for us, perhaps. We can bemoan the high costs of caring for our churches, and keeping leaders. We can feel like strangers in a strange land and long for another day, or place. We can.

Or we can live into what Ruth speaks to Naomi: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16).

There is bitterness of Naomi in her losses, but that’s not the whole of the story. Not even when after Ruth has been traveling with her and she still stands and wails that she is no longer able to be called “pleasant” only “bitter.” Ruth still stands with her.  Each step of the way, could lead to a "yes" or "no." Ruth's ability to journey shows great faith.

Ruth’s loyalty and love for holds the promise of something more, as does the final verse of this chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi is empty (1:21), but faithful Ruth is right beside her, and the harvest is coming.

We live in an area whose population is not shrinking, and whose people long to be filled- not only with food, but with the good news that life doesn’t have to be empty. There is much to be done for the sake of the gospel.

Knowing just a glimpse of the feast, can we make that journey together?

 

 

Living Blessing


One thing I miss about living in Lancaster County is Gleaner Season. Where we used to live, at the edge of a town surrounded by agriculture we lived in awe of the Gleaner. It would come through town to get from one field to another. A massive machine that took up the whole road and shook the windows of the house as it drove by, it was so powerful. It was designed to get ALL of the crop from the field.

Smaller scale harvesting left things behind. The Gleaner kept that from happening. The field is stripped bare. I find it ironic that then a huge percent of the harvest never makes it to the store because it’s not pretty enough but that’s another sermon.

I have a friend who grew up gleaning the traditional way. In a poor family whose parents used to drop them off at various fields to pick, not around the edges- in the middle where you can’t be seen. She grew up thinking that everyone did this. Only in adulthood she discovered it was trespassing and theft. It was the neighboring farm. I don’t know if the farmer knew and tolerated it, or if it was lucky for her they were never caught or found themselves at the other end of a shot gun and someone else’s understanding of the law. Getting caught in the wrong part of the field is like being on the wrong part of the street. Either way, I am sure they would not have been blessed by the landowner.

In Ruth’s day, gleaning was a part of culture for many, actually provided for in the law. But just like not everyone drives the speed limit, not everyone obeyed the law about leaving part of the harvest behind for others. Not everyone was as charitable- and in our reading, did you catch the little phrase about wondering who this person was, followed by an assurance you will be treated well?

It suggests that not everyone treats gleaners well, or maybe not everyone treats foreigners well- that maybe what some can get away with others cannot. And that maybe people think that the problem of those other people is just not their problem. Ruth and Naomi are widows hoping for enough to survive, counting on gleaning in the harvest season to eat. And Naomi has been bitter and skeptical, with frankly, good reason. Ruth goes out determined and frankly a little fast and furious. She’s going to glean as long and fast as she can.

Ruth works fast, because it may not last. She asks no questions, and bothers no one. And no one bothers her. She’s tolerated. No one so much as offers her water in the midday sun either. In our story today, there are not only Ruth, and Naomi and Boaz, there are all those other people in the field, just doing their thing. But Ruth is not connected to them.

When Boaz shows up, he gets personal which is what living out God’s law looks like. He shows up and blesses his workers. How many of you when you show up for work are blessed by your employer?

He blesses them, and then he notices Ruth.

We perhaps want this to be about how he “notices” Ruth and sexualize the story to give him a motive for generosity. But there is nothing in this encounter to suggest that. Rather, he seems to be the sort who notices others. After all, Ruth is hungry, she’s traveled far, and she’s a foreigner. That suggests dirty, smelly, scrawny, not Hollywood beauty. We’d feel better about the times we don’t notice others if we give Boaz a motive.

Boaz, takes a personal interest in Ruth-because their paths have crossed. He doesn’t have to. He could ignore her and truthfully say what a ridiculous decision she made. She could’ve stayed where she was. She chose to follow this Naomi and put herself at risk. Why should anyone care if she’s that foolish not to take care of herself? Indeed today, I wonder if we would think that Boaz is the brave one, letting some foreigner glean on his land.  She shouldn’t be our problem. In a world where every needy person or person who is “not like us” is now viewed as an intruder, or an assault.

 

Boaz not only shares he blesses Ruth! Boaz instead notices her and praises her loyalty to her mother-in-law. And then shows generosity, and blesses her.  “May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD… under whose wings you have come for refuge.”

Boaz represents what loving kindness looks like-  abundance, protection, hospitality, blessing.  

No wonder Naomi is astonished. Aren’t we all?

Naomi had decided to just be bitter, now she has hope. The hand of God she thought was against her is not. She’s quick to name God as the source of blessing: The Lord whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!"

Naomi’s hope isn’t found in remembering that everyone recognizes that gleaning is the law and everyone follows it, but because in spite of human nature, a good thing has happened where you can see God’s hand in it. That’s what she teaches Ruth and us-that while God has spoken in large miracles, like speaking from burning bushes, or dividing the sea, God is far more likely to be seen acting through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. Like you and me. God’s blessing happens through us.

Our world and our lives are full of places about more than just physical hunger-there is real hunger for many, for more than just food. Hunger for dignity, for generous hearts, hunger for compassion, hunger for justice that laws be used rightly and enforced the same for all. A hunger that our lives actually touch others, a hunger for blessing.   Ruth shows up hungry, striving, struggling to find hope. Wondering if that emptiness can be filled. Maybe you have too.

And we’re met by God’s blessing, that’s God’s desire-lovingkindness, and mercy and grace not judgment or scorn or rebuke.

That’s the gospel for all of us as Jesus spoke this day-telling us, his followers, to live out our God created identity.

Live as God lives toward us- Don’t condemn, don’t pick on people or jump on their failures. Show mercy. That’s how God already sees it. That’s what Jesus reveals. That’s what God wants for us, and what God wants us to share. That our lives do touch and that blessing and grace overflow.

So today we’re going to do something else we probably don’t do much- bless each other. You’re the end of the sermon.  

I invite you to turn to your neighbors, and remind them of that blessing made most clearly known for us in the cross. It’s time to get personal.

Make the sign of the cross on their forehead and say, “you are a blessed child of God.”

I wish you could see yourselves- you’re all smiling! You’ve been blessed! That’s the gospel – the blessing we experience here we’re called to take out into our world!

Amen

 


 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Take Heart, You're Not the Miracle

This past Sunday I served as supply pastor for the congregation of one of my colleagues who is recovering from an accident. Her recovery has taken longer than any of us would want and it is so obvious that her people adore her as their leader. And her love for them is profound. They know it will be longer still.

I was told there would probably not be kids but about 6 showed up and so I decided we would sit together and sing "Jesus Loves Me" which when someone asked, included the sign language. I asked that the first time we sing that verse with the word "me" but the second time with the word "us."

Which means that we ended up singing- "We are weak, but he is strong."
I think that was just a little hard for us sing, but important to hear as we remember why we gather as the church and where our power and strength come from.
We heard in our lessons in the Psalm to listen to what the Lord is saying, and in Romans to remember it is not our own heroic efforts that matter. And of course, Jesus and briefly, Peter, are walking on water.


I have to confess that I would have been a horrible disciple. For one thing, I get seasick. No one in their right mind would’ve wanted me in their boat. And there were way too many boat trips for that to go well. But I think the even bigger reason why I would not have been a good disciple is that I can be impatient. Not only were there all those boat trips but in Jesus’ day, it was a very different matter. There were no motors, no GPS, no technology. They were at the mercy of the wind, and the waves and the weather. Like we hear in our gospel today.

This is actually the second boat story in Matthew. In the first, the disciples are in the boat and they hit a serious storm, and the boat is literally about to capsize, and they fear they will drown. And Jesus is asleep in the boat with them. They wake him up screaming perhaps trying to save him or maybe hoping he’ll do something. And he calms the storm. And they wonder if he could more than a great rabbi- maybe he’s the Son of God?

This time around, Jesus has just finished a major miracle in their presence, the feeding of thousands, and he has sent them on ahead of him because he wants time apart to pray. He has sent them to cross the Sea of Galilee but as we hear, the wind is against them. The waters are choppy, and it is a rough go. If you’ve ever been on a rough boat ride, you know, that trip seem to take an eternity.

They left in the evening, and now it is early morning. They’ve been up all night trying to navigate, and they’re battered and frazzled and tired. It’s been maybe close to 12 hours and they should be there by now. But they’re not. They’re still far from where they want to be. And they are NOT with their leader.

They just want to get where they’re headed but they are somewhere in between feeling kind of helpless.

Perhaps you too in the absence of your beloved pastor feel that way. She should be better by now and you should be together moving on in the journey of wherever ministry is headed.

It’s no small wonder the disciples don’t recognize Jesus when he comes, given what they’ve been through. And really, who had ever seen a human walk on water. What can this be? Jesus says, “Take heart, it’s me.” And that’s miraculous.

But if it’s a miracle, Peter leaps to the conclusion he wants to be a miracle too- command me to do that! I want to walk on water!

And Jesus, ever patient, tells him to “Come.”

But Jesus didn’t command Peter to do it first. That was Peter.

Years ago there was a book written called “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Gotta Get Out of the Boat.” And when I was younger I loved that thought. Inspire people to get up and do something miraculous. Baloney. It can be easy to step out in faith, but a sustained faith takes more than us.

Peter steps out in faith but can’t sustain that faith by his own heroic efforts. He gets distracted- first by believing he is the miracle. And then when he blinks and realizes that while he is walking, the wind and the seas are still rough- he loses his nerve when we remembers the world around him. He takes his focus off of Jesus and that’s when he begins to sink.  

And Jesus could have let him. Jesus could have proclaimed this is Peter’s epic fail. But instead when Peter cries out, “Save me!” he reaches out his hand and puts him back in the boat. Take heart- the seas are calmed. Because I am here. And this time the disiples say- truly Jesus is the Son of God! And they’re further in their journey.

My Mom works as a hospice volunteer, and one of the things she talks about is the heart to heart hug. It’s a hug that focuses on the fact your heart and the patient’s heart touch in that hug that calms fears, and anxieties and shows love. I kind of imagine as Peter is hauled into the boat again, there is that moment where he gets a heart to heart hug to reassure him. As Jesus does what he always does- reaches out a hand- the hand that feeds, blesses, heals, saves and forgives.

I take heart that the disciples are a group that seem to have moments that they seem to grasp just who Jesus is, and then a whole bunch of moments where they clearly don’t, and then another moment where they clearly see God and then even colossal failures where they don’t. Because I think we are that way too.

But in all of those moments where we struggle to see Jesus in our midst, Jesus continues reaching out and meeting us and touching our hearts. Restoring, encouraging, saving us.

And I think as ever it’s important for us to remember that we are not the miracle. It is not up to any of us to be the miracle. Christ is the miracle in our lives. Who calls us to also remember that our focus should be upon Jesus and staying in the boat together as the church.

We don’t know the timing of the journey. And there are times we struggle to see God at work. But this gospel reminds us that the God who is powerful enough to command waves is also a God whose never ending desire is to continually reach out a hand and save us. A God who sees us through the tough times and promises there is more to the story.

May you take heart and be strengthened in hope that God will bring you to the next moments in ministry together.

 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gloom Despair and Agony on Me


Growing up as a child, and especially with family in the South, we used to watch of a lot of a show called Hee Haw. It was a variety show depicting life in a fictional town of folk in the country and their shenanigans and their sorrows. And at some point in the show they’d cut to a scene of guys in their overalls and their moonshine jugs, lamenting their troubles and singing  a song that went like this-“Gloom, despair, and agony on me, deep dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair and agony on me!” And they all wail.

That’s pretty much how the Book of Ruth opens

The first chapter of Ruth sets up the story that follows starting with a time “In the days when the judges ruled” which refers back to the time of the judges, a time of chaos and disobedience in Israel. At the end of the book of the book of Judges it reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. (Judges 21:25). {Katharine Schifferdecker writes) Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible; and, indeed, the book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel.

God regularly raises up "judges" -- military and political leaders -- to save Israel from their enemies, but they fall back into mayhem every time. The book of Judges, which comes right before Ruth, ends with inter-tribal conflict and these ominous words: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes"

Doing "what was right in their own eyes" is a direct denial of the Law given to Israel, those words for life we studied earlier this summer.  The Law is given to promote life, life with God and life in community. Israel, in the book of Judges, fails to fulfill that Law and so falls into chaos.

And this is how we end up with the women in the story today.

Famine hits Bethlehem. Literally the city who name means “house of bread” has none. Naomi and her family migrate to Moab. There, the deaths of her husband and two sons leave Naomi bereft, empty. They left Bethlehem, the house of bread, because of a famine, she and her husband and sons. And at first it seems it went well, but then she lost her husband. And under the law of Israel, this meant that her sons must provide. And she probably wasn’t exactly delighted that they married foreign girls, but the bigger problem is that those marriages produced no children. So when after ten years, those two sons have also both died, these women are stuck. Naomi and Ruth and Orpah are stuck. And they’ve now given the land they had to pay bills and survive, but whatever they had is all gone.

If the book of Judges is largely about the people of Israel not keeping the Law, then Ruth is about people going above and beyond the requirements of the Law. Ruth, a foreigner, a Moabite (a fact we're reminded of often even though she is living in her own land in the beginning, is not required to follow the laws of Israel. She has married an Israelite, but when he dies, the expected thing is that she will return to the home of her parents. That's what her sister-in-law, Orpah, does. That's what Naomi, her mother-in-law, urges her to do.

And we don’t know what kind of relationship they had, whether her mother in law was kind or friendly before this. But Ruth chooses to demonstrate faithfulness, lovingkindness, covenant love instead. She chooses to enter into the covenant of Israel and Israel's God, saying, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (1:16).”

Ruth chooses to join her story to the story we've been hearing the last several weeks; she chooses to enter into Israel's covenant with God. She chooses the life of being a stranger in a foreign land. To leave all that she has known and to go to a place she's never been, with no assurance of security.

And it might not turn out well. No one is looking for a childless widow to marry. Certainly not one who in 10 years had no children.  A childless widow in ancient Israel had to rely on the kindness of those around her. In this story, Naomi relies on Ruth, and Ruth herself has to rely on the kindness of strangers.

If we stay focused on the gloom and despair, Naomi, we don’t appreciate Ruth. But Naomi is arguably the main character in the book. In some way we may know the pain of her loss and disappointment, her grief and bitterness. She speaks honestly. We too know places like that.

Naomi knows that these foreigners will not provide for her. She also knows that even going back to Bethlehem she has only the slightest of hopes. Because only if the people follow the law God gave to care for the widow can she live. And remember they aren’t doing that- the people are doing what they please. The reality is that most such women died of starvation or of the consequences of prostitution, their only other way to survive. Orpah is sad, but can go home and hope for the best from her tribe. Ruth could as well. But Ruth chooses two things that we shouldn’t expect. She chooses to stay with her kvetching mother in law, regardless of what their relationship was like before, and she chooses the God and people of Israel.

The bitterness of Naomi is not the whole of the story.

We don’t know anything about the journey in between but we do know that poor Naomi, now has a traveling companion and indeed a partner for whatever may come. Yet when they reach Jerusalem, my heart breaks for Ruth for a moment, because after all this Naomi wails to her own people and says, “just call me Mara”-

Bitter. And stands there with Ruth at her side and proclaims her life is empty and she has nothing. Wow! Really?

Sometimes we do that too. We are Mara. Perhaps…where ever that place is for you, God is speaking. We claim we are empty or the people around us aren’t who we want them to be.  

Ruth goes above and beyond what the law would ever expect of her, a law she doesn’t have to be bound by. To show the heart of God and of the law- God’s heart of steadfast loving faithfulness.

Our God loves us steadfastly- even when we sing of gloom and despair and discount the ones around us, God clings in love and won’t let go. And promises the story goes on.

Ruth’s loyalty and love for her mother-in-law holds the promise of something more, as does the final verse of this chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi is empty (1:21), but faithful Ruth is right beside her, and the harvest is coming.

And the harvest coming whether Naomi is bitter or not.

The harvest is coming still. May God fill the places of emptiness in our hearts, and open our eyes to see the wonder and faithfulness of those around us in God’s story of love.

 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Touch as Many as You Can


On Sunday we started church with the readings from I John and the Gospel of John.

After I finished reading the gospel where Jesus speaks of joy being complete, I invited some of our kids/youth/and my daughter who works at Camp Nawakwa up front to help me have complete joy.

Because one of the things that gives me joy is “The Hippo Song” that we know from Day Camp or other camp experiences. And we did the Hippo Song and I promised that not only was my joy complete, that I would get to why later. And the congregation was experiencing joy too. I personally think that moments we get to be a kids again are essential.

Just in case you are not familiar with the lyrics-
In the Beginning God made the seas,( hands make a wave gesture)
 and the forest filled with trees. (hands moving up and down like tall trees 
God built the mountains up so high,( hands moving up like to steps of a mountain)
 above it all God placed the sky. ( arch your hands up from the sides to make a big circle) 
God's fingerprints are everywhere just to show how much God cares.
( run around and touch your fingers on everyone's arm or shoulder- get as many as you can)
In between God had some fun, ( stomp) made a hippo just for fun! (jump and stomp)
Hip hip hippopotamus ( stomp in a circle)
hip hip hooray God made all of us! (spin and wave arms wildly)

But then I transitioned us to the sermon:

That moment of togetherness was such joy. But the writer, Simone Weil once wrote about two prisoners in solitary confinement cells next to each other. Their cells are divided by a stone wall. Over their long captivity they figure out a way to communicate with one another with taps and scratches on the wall between them. “It is the same with us and God,” Weil said about this story. “Even in separation there (was) a link.” A colleague of mine said that when she read this she began thinking of love as “the taps and scratches on the walls of our existence that mediate a direct face-to-face experience of God. The wall is hopefully not has stark or impassable as the wall of a jail cell, but essentially we live in a cell that is defined by what we can perceive with our senses and our experiences.

So, our cell is… made up of the creation around us that we sang about… and the people in our lives, and everything we can see, hear, taste, feel, and smell. (That is our reality).

The reality of God is that God is outside the wall of what we can experience with our five senses. God is bigger than what we grasp. But God chooses to tap and scratch.

God chooses to try to communicate from the other side of the wall of our cells, and God desires that we will communicate back through taps and scratches ourselves. Love is these taps and scratches.”

And contrary to popular opinion sometimes, God’s primary form of communication is love. Not judging and not hating. Not wall building. Love. A love that God says nothing should ever separate us from.

When we engage the stories of Jesus, we can see this love. Where the wall was totally down and in the flesh Jesus embodied what all those taps and scratches looks like lived out. The person, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus is what the writer of 1 John points to. Jesus touched a lot of people. And tore down a lot of walls. Because after all, in the beginning of all that creating of everything including hippos God said, it was not good for a human to be alone. All the way from the beginning God intended love.

And I wonder for us gathered here whether we get a sense of God’s love for us, and that love reflected through others. So  

I invite you to close your eyes as I ask a couple questions. And I want us to close our eyes so everyone feels they can risk being honest.

Not counting spouses, has anyone told you they loved you today? Have you told anyone?

Has anyone told you they loved you in the last week? Have you?

And now I wonder, have you felt God’s love shown to you through us here?

You may open your eyes. Some people didn’t raise their hands and it’s because I think there are some walls we don’t realize. And I know this is Berks County, but with so many folk coming here who live alone, we need to hear those taps and scratches and see and sense that touch of Jesus.

And maybe we need a dose of the Hippo Song. It’s the exact opposite of wall building. I told you I’d get to it.

The other week I was at Camp Nawakwa to talk about being a pastor, and showing some early elementary school kids my pastor gear. I talked about what I did. One girl was most impressed with my hospital badge that I said let me go places other people could not to care for people. And she said she wants to be a pastor so she can have a cool badge with that power. My husband, Michael was there talking about being a judge. And people liked banging the gavel. Toward the end, I mentioned that we all have jobs we do that are how we God’s work with our hands.

And suddenly this one little girl got wide eyed and said “God’s fingerprints are EVERYWHERE!” It’s from the Hippo Song. And I was thrilled because she connected what we do with what God has done. “God’s fingerprints are everywhere” happens to be a line from the Hippo Song. The song is about creation, and how God made hippos for fun. But in the middle, the song says- God’s fingerprints are everywhere just to show how much God cares.” She got it!

The Hippo Song has hand motions, and at that point the kids are encouraged to run around and touch as many people as they can before the song goes on. And because they have no sense of limits the kids go wild. But the message is the gospel-touch as many people as you can.

We have been raised to be less exuberant, and yet the love Jesus embodied, is the same love we are called to as brothers and sisters in the family of God.  The same love called upon when the resurrected Christ asked Peter “do you love me?” If you do, feed and care for others. You can’t just love God, you have to love people. Eugene Peterson’s translation of our I John passage says- If anyone boasts, “I Love God” …but won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see?”  Touch as many people as you can.

Today we have a baptism that I think is just the most recent example of love in the life of our community. Michael first came here needing community service hours.

And was paired with Robert as his supervisor and co-worker. They have not only worked the 15 hours Michael needed, they have gone on to do more together. One easy way to see is to look at the fresh coat of paint on the outside of the church office and 423 Windsor. But that is not all, they have worshipped together here, and when Michael wondered about baptism, Robert answered some of his questions. Touch as many as you can.  

And Robert came here a couple years ago first looking to hang out under the shade of our trees in a hot summer. But then began to come here to worship and be a part of our community. And has become a volunteer at the Doves Nest and more. Little by little- the message of love gets carried and lives are touched. And it could have just hit a wall. Thank God it didn’t.

We are Christ’s gathered community called to be the taps and scratches and touches of God’s communication for others, and we are gathered to give thanks for those moments when we recognize the love we receive within creation, God’s taps and scratches touches to us.

They tell the story of an abiding love, dwelling love, love that will not let us go, especially when we feel the wall of separation our world offers. We are given God’s abiding presence and love. A love that reaches its goal in relationships of love. In the abstract, love falls short. In human love by the power of the Spirit we see the love of God.

So touch as many as you can with the fingerprints of a God who dwells with us and gives us the chance to live in this love- to receive and to give those around us what it means that actual people who see, hear and experience the sharing of God’s love because Christ first showed us. AMEN