Tuesday, June 11, 2013

May Our Hearts Stand Up!

This past Sunday during our children's message, I took a page from the excellent site- "Worshipping with Children" and we talked about the word "compassion." "Com" meaning "with" and "passion." Which got a couple snickers from the adults so I could chide them about not THAT. Our working definition was "caring a lot." The kids and I talked about who we cared a lot about and named people. And then we talked about how Jesus saw a woman whose son had died and he had compassion. He cared a lot about her but she was a stranger. God wants to us to care a lot not only for people who we know and like but everyone who need to know God's love. Then we used our candy basket to show "compassion" with Tootsie Pops. Because when someone cares for you it makes you smile, it is sweet. Knowing that the kids did not know all the grownups - they were strangers, we could praise them showing caring here and to receive caring in return. It is so easy to show caring when it is something like candy. But there is more to compassion than just that. Here is where the sermon went:
Years ago, a man was on his way to work, driving on the highway when he came upon an accident that had just happened. Cars had scattered and he saw a car with a woman sitting in it, and she was unable to get out.  Her car was smoking and sparking, and catching fire. No one else had stopped, but he did and without thinking about it, he jumped out of his car, and raced to hers, pried the door open and pulled her out of it just before the whole thing went up in flames. He saved a total stranger. When he got home later, and his wife found out what happened, especially as she noticed his banged up hand, she was astounded, articulating what perhaps many of us might-“What were you thinking?! You could have been killed! What about OUR family? Did you think about that?” Well, no, that’s just it, he hadn’t really thought- he had seen something he could not ignore, a matter of life and death and he just responded with a gut reaction. Sometimes compassion looks like that.  

Or there is a phrase from a book about a young girl in a small village in Africa who was moved when she learned about starving people in New York City in the Great Depression. She said, “My Heart Will Not Sit Down.”  The girl lived in a small village in Cameroon in western Africa and when she learned about people even poorer than herself, she kept asking the grownups about it. And I can imagine that as she pestered over and over, they probably told her to leave them alone and “go sit down.” One of the things we say when we don’t want to deal with something. But she kept asking because her heart would not sit down. And eventually she led the people to gather the small amount of money they had- that they could be keeping for their own families, and sent it to help others live. And they did so saying- OUR HEARTS STAND UP FOR THESE PEOPLE. When we heard, our hearts could not sit down. Our hearts stood up.

This is what compassion looks like- in ways both heroic and small but faithful. Ways when we see our hearts cannot sit down, we respond. Whether you describe it as a gut reaction, or that feeling deep inside, or a heart that cannot sit down- it’s those moments when you cannot help but respond. When the very stuff of life is on the line.

This is what we hear today with the widows. First we meet the widow with Elijah. And there is a back story that we don’t hear today. God has called Elijah as a prophet and tells him to go find this widow and of all people she will feed and care for him. So he goes and finds the widow and says- make me something to eat. Pretty bold. She responds by basically saying, “Are you kidding? I am gathering sticks to make a fire for one last meal for my son and I with the last flour and oil I have and then we know we will die of starvation. Elijah convinces her to do what he says and when she does they manage to live each day with enough- it never runs out! But then one day her son dies. And Elijah, shakes his fist at the sky crying out “REALLY, GOD?!” But then is empowered to act. Sometimes compassion is like that for us too. We can shake our fist and wonder why, but then be empowered by God to respond.

And then we hear of Jesus and the widow today in the gospel. Imagine it-he’s on the highway headed into town and so are a lot of others when they encounter this widow. Perhaps a lot of others would have kept walking. After all, seeing a widow or even a burial procession were not unique, almost as commonplace as a car pulled off on the side of the road today. But there she is and she is trapped. People are all around her, and the mourners are wailing as her son’s body is slowly carried. And unlike today there was no beautiful urn or elaborate casket to make it all look good- it is just a lifeless body on a stretcher. And even though she is surrounded by all this activity, she is alone and life is on the line. Because without a husband and a son, a woman alone will have no money, or ability to earn it, no home, no clothes and no food. She is a woman waiting to die.

Jesus knows. After the burial, the crowd will turn and head back into the city, and from here on she will be alone and trapped by this accident of death. Left only to hope that someone might see her and surround her with care. But this is all we know. Don’t you ever wish we knew more about people like her in the Bible?

We don’t know how long she was widowed, or what her husband did. Or how he died. Whether he was a good man, or a drunk, or a criminal. We don’t know if her son was a good boy who knew when to go sit down or whether he was one of the ones who always found trouble. We don’t know if she was a good mother, or whether the family was likeable, or irritating. We don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if it is easier to have compassion for total strangers, because when we know the details we are more or less likely to have compassion.

The past of the widow is a mystery, but we know the future for her without Jesus. Jesus knew exactly who she was, really. The fact WE don’t suggests it is not important. Which is good news for her and for us. What is important is that God in Jesus has a heart that will not sit down. Jesus was moved and called to the boy to stand up. Because God has come to help God’s people. All of them. This is the message embodied in Jesus. That God’s continual call in Scripture to care for the sick, the dying, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the hungry, and those in prison takes on flesh. Compassion takes on flesh to redeem and rescue the lives of sinners and enemies and show that no one is a stranger to God. As God continues to reach out to those who have no one following them, or surrounding them.

This is compassion embodied in Jesus for us, and this is our work as God’s people- to listen to God calling us in our hearts and to stand up and meet those around us, no matter who they are-to be compassion in the flesh. To see others, to listen, to stand up with them and to care for them with God’s heart. Whether they are halfway around the world or right here in Centre Park.

We do this in many ways- one way takes a page out of the story from Africa. In our Change for Change Sundays we have we have provided over a thousand dollars to various ministries beyond our doors in the last year. And I look and see many of you here and know you volunteer in all kinds of places and give thanks for your compassion.

But another way we care for total strangers in the Pastor’s Benevolence Fund where people who find they have no home, or food, or way to hang on, get help and direction to the right places. Last week I shared that I was down to $100. Thanks be to God there is now $300. I would like to triple that amount. If we really intend to be compassion with flesh, it will take more. I am asking you to stand up and respond. And in all these ways I pray that together we will continue give thanks for God’s compassion, hear God’s calling in our sisters and brothers in our hearts,  and stand up!
Post script- our tiny flock responded and we now have 5x what we started with that day! Even the visiting organist gave! Thank you, Jesus!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Lean Out

“Faith”- there’s a word that is used a lot, but is the subject of what Paul would call the “wrong gospel” just as often as it is used helpfully. For Paul, the “wrong gospel” was that there were certain rules and rituals the early church insisted upon in order for someone to be allowed to be even be in the room for worship- circumcision for men, rules about food and other things. And he reminded that those considerations were not at all about faith or God’s grace. But there are other ways we as Christians can take up the “wrong gospel.” One comes from a misreading of the gospel today. The centurion is a man of faith. His slave is dying and he believes Jesus can heal him. And Jesus praises him for his faith. “Never have I seen such faith!” But one of the expressions we can hear today is “you just have to have more faith” as though if our faith were stronger our lives would be different or better. That is the wrong gospel. It’s another way of focusing on ourselves. Another equally disturbing message comes from beyond the church, but can be one we take up as well. It is demonstrated in the recent story about Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook who has written a book to inspire women who want to be successful in business, entitled “Lean In.” In response to the fact that many women still find it difficult to navigate the corporate ladder, Sandberg encourages them to be ambitious and grab power, to “lean in” to situations because she says” No one listens to the person on the edge of the room.” You have to lean in. That is a message that sometimes makes itself into our world as we wonder about the present and future of our church and where the people are. But “lean in” is not good news. In fact, I would suggest that our lessons from Scripture would suggest exactly the opposite about what it takes to be “in the room,” How God acts and how we should respond. God leans out.

Let’s take a trip back to our Old Testament lessons where Solomon has gathered the people of Israel for the dedication of the new temple. Thirteen years in the making, and a symbol of God’s glory. A place God would be said to be found, and God’s name would be praised and glorified. Massive wood carvings, lots of gleaming bronze and gold and silver. After all of the sacred objects were placed in the room, Solomon said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel. You have fulfilled the promises you made to my father, King David, and to our people. There is NO ONE like you. And I have built a magnificent temple for YOU.”  The same attention to beauty and detail has gone into the magnificent cathedrals around the world. And our own worship space is known for its beauty. We built this for you, God. But the real point is that it is a place where we come to encounter God. God who comes to us.

Meanwhile, back to Solomon. He begins to pray, for a L-O-O-O-ON-G time. Talking about the promises God had made and asking God in each and every circumstance to hear the prayers of God’s people in this place. Our lectionary skips these verses, about twenty of them. But what is being said there is important. Here is what we miss. “Lord, God of Israel- there is no God like you anywhere. You keep your promises of love. Let what you promised my father be true…   I know that no building can contain you, no space can contain you. Lord God, hear my prayer.

And when your people come to this place to pray – hear their prayer.

When they have wronged someone and they come to be forgiven-hear their prayer. When enemies have defeated them, hear their prayer. When there is a famine and they hunger, hear their prayer.

When they have judged others wrongly, hear their prayer. Hear them, forgive them and act- be God with your people. In this place. Hear our prayers. And just about when people have stopped listening,  at the end, he shifts-

“Oh, and God? About the foreigner…”We’re praying for people who are not us, and not here? “When someone who is not your chosen people prays, someone who cannot even be in the room, but turns toward this place, toward you, because they have heard your name? Hear their prayers too. When people turn to you God, no matter where, hear them. So all may know your power and your name. This is unexpected. This prayer is about more that Solomon and the people of Israel- it is leaning and stretching out into a broader vision of how God acts and who God is. This is faith. Stretching beyond what seems supportable by our system. Because of who we sense God is and where and how God will act.

This is where we find the centurion today, a man who is not at the edge of the room, he is not even in the field of vision. He is wealthy and powerful, and he can lean in because of these things. The leaders of the synagogue know well that he built their synagogue. They owe him. And as a leader of an army unit of the government oppressing them he’s in charge. And this is how the leaders respond- that Jesus should do as the centurion asks because of these things. Not because of his faith. But at the same time, the centurion is also the foreigner, not even in the room. In fact he and Jesus never meet directly. He is the foreigner who turns toward God in prayer because he has heard of Jesus’ name. Hear my prayer. And the centurion is the one who gets who Jesus is and grasps God’s power. While the leaders are saying he is worthy, he sends messengers to say – I am NOT worthy. But I believe in who you are and what you can do. He realizes that his own power cannot control death, and that Jesus is the only one who can.  In faith he turns.

And Jesus responds by leaning out. This is how God acts. God of the outstretched arm. God who came in the person of Jesus to enter our world to reach out. And to show God’s power and God’s love. Because it’s not about us trying to lean in, or prove we are worthy. It’s about God leaning out. And we who have received the love and grace of God, then continue this work and this movement. Leaning out in faith even when it seems to be beyond what our world says our systems can support.

Faith it’s not about our beautiful building, or focusing upon whether people are doing the right things to be in the room. And it’s not about hoping people will lean in so then we can meet them. The age old  question has become- “we’re here, why aren’t they?” I think God, is calling to us in faith with a different question-“ they’re there, why aren’t you?” It’s scary, and gets us beyond our comfort zone. But this is the place of faith.

Calling us beyond this place, to look and to listen for all of the people who are longing for forgiveness, and healing, and an outstretched arm and love. Who have heard God’s name but are not in the room. To lean out. Lean out, reaching to others- and we’ll meet God together there.