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God Listens.

There is so much pain these days, and so many tears need tending to. People need to be heard.

The Burning Bush, by one of the Morton Church children

A Sermon on Exodus 2:23-3:12 (With allusions to Mark 10:46-52)

Moses had no plans to go back to Egypt.  He had left the pain behind.  He had left the whole situation behind.  A fat lot of good it had done when he reacted impetuously to the brutality he saw all those years ago.  It had forced him to flee for his life to Midian.  Now he was well into middle age with a good family, a good job, a good life.

But God never left the suffering and the suffering people behind.  God heard every cry for help and pitied every groan.  God saw everything, knew everything.  And God remembered God’s covenant with all the ancestors of the people.

We do not know how many generations the Israelites endured trauma upon trauma.  Genesis 15 says the oppression lasted 400 years.  Year succeeded year with no relief in sight, and it impacted people’s psyches, shaped their outlook, shaped the lives of their children and grandchildren.  I am sure their cries echoed those that are collected in the Bible in the Book of Psalms, cries like: Are you listening, God?  Have you forsaken us?  How long must we bear this pain?  Is there no one to help us?  When it feels like those cries have not been heard, not been heeded, the pain is multiplied.

But God was listening, and when a new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt, God saw an opportunity to take action.  However, God needed at least one human partner to help.  With his life story, and with his passion for justice, even though it had gone dormant, Moses was just the person God wanted to work in, with and through.

One ordinary workday, God caught Moses’ attention out in the field.  And when Moses came nearer to see what was going on with that bush, God spoke to him.  “I am the God of your ancestors,” God announced.  Then God poured out what was in God’s heart.  “I have seen how miserable my people are,” God said.  “I have heard their cries, and I know how much they are hurting.  I know what slavery is doing to them.  So I have come down here to do something about it, to get them out of there and take them to a fertile place where they will be safe and free.”  Then God repeated, “I have heard their cries!  I have seen what the Egyptians are doing to them!”

Moses’ heart must have stirred with the memory of what he himself had seen.  It certainly was about time God did something!  “And so,” God was saying, “I am sending you to speak to Pharaoh and bring my people out of Egypt.”

“Oh, no,” Moses groaned inwardly.  “Who am I to do that?” Moses exclaimed to God.  And thus began a long argument between Moses and God.  Moses steadfastly maintained he was not the person for the job—no way!—until he finally said flat out, “Lord, please send somebody else!”

There were a lot of reasons why Moses was reluctant to say yes to God’s call.  One objection he raised was his difficulty in speaking clearly.  But God had an answer to that objection and all the rest.

I’m thinking one reason was that if Moses says yes to God’s call, that means Moses will have to see and hear and know what God sees and hears and knows, and I can’t blame him for not wanting to get close to all that anguish and hurt again.  It is not fun to witness people’s distress.  It is distressing to hear people cry.  It can leave you crying, too.  How perfectly understandable if Moses wanted to shield himself from such things.  It’s uncomfortable.  And sometimes people’s cries strike others as a nuisance, even offensive, as Bartimaeus’ loud cries annoyed the people around him.  They wanted him to hush and not interrupt their time with Jesus.

How tempting it is to try to say something to make the hurt stop, like telling an anguished person all the reasons why the situation isn’t all that bad, or that they are overreacting, or explaining that a tragedy is God’s will.  The unspoken message is, “Be quiet.  Move on.” The suffering person is left feeling unheard.

Being unheard, not being taken seriously, especially if it happens again and again, adds to the trauma and leaves lasting effects.  I’ve shared this experience with you before, and thank you for bearing with me as I relate it again.  Surgery is traumatic in general, but it holds special distress for children.  I have vivid memories of surgery and hospitalizations.  When I was nine years old, I went in the hospital for surgery, one of the less invasive ones.  It was the Monday after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.  That night I didn’t sleep well at all.  I was so nervous I had to get up and go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes.  The next morning I had to wait a long time because the surgery was towards the middle of the day.  Then they took me down to the surgery suite too early and left me waiting all alone on a stretcher out in the hall for what felt like a very long time.  Finally I just couldn’t stand it any more.  I was grieving the whole situation and dreading the sickness I knew was coming on the other side of the operation.  I lost it, and I started crying.  In the operating room, a man in a mask, a doctor I guess, said to me, “If you don’t stop crying, I’m going to slap you.” 

It took me a long time to heal from the damage that did to me.  I never told anybody about it until I was an adult.  I was in my twenties before I told my mother.  I thought it was my fault, that something was wrong with me because I could not stop my tears, that my tenderheartedness was a weakness.  

I don’t think that any more.

My next major operation was at age 12.  That time I didn’t cry.  But I got sick at my stomach before I even went to the operating room.

If that is my small experience, what about people who have been through so much worse?  What about the Israelites who couldn’t stop crying then?  What about people now who cannot stop their tears?  People grieving huge losses.  People afraid for themselves and others.  People for whom fresh news of justice denied or justice delayed rubs more salt into wounds that go way back, memories of thousands of episodes of justice denied or justice delayed, of many, many small cuts, cutting remarks, cutting looks. People who have been told time and again just get over it already, just be quiet.  Disappointed people, angry at the way their lives have turned out, angry that they haven’t been taken seriously.

What about the Israelites, and all God’s children with tears they cannot stop?  God never leaves suffering people behind.  God is listening.  God hears every cry.  God heard my cries that day, and many more since.  God hears your cries.  And God is enlisting partners to do something about it.  

The other day I read a quote from a theologian named Paul Tillich.  He said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”  Amen and amen.  Being still and quiet enough to hear people out is a form of love.  It is a way to humble oneself and take up the cross, to see with God’s eyes and to listen with God’s ears.

God says: I see, I hear, I know the pain, and I have come to do something about it, to take people to freedom and safety.  And so I am sending you to crying children, to struggling children everywhere, to people whose bodies and souls ache, to the anxious and frightened, to those whose wellbeing is precarious for any number of reasons, all of whom need to be listened to well.  Help me get them to a place of freedom and safety!

God said, “I’m sending you, Moses.  Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.”  So Moses went to his father-in-law Jethro and said, “I have to go back to Egypt.”

AMEN.

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Wise Disciples

Jesus said that people who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven are like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. That is what Jesus does, and what he invites his disciples to do. What new treasures will emerge as the church follows God through the COVID-19 pandemic?

A Sermon on Matthew 13:51-58

At the end of a series of parables about the kingdom of God, Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you getting all this?” They replied, “Yes”—though like all of us they still had lots to learn.  Then he added another twist with another parable about treasure.  “Every expert in the law who becomes a disciple, a learner in the kingdom of heaven, is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasure as well as old.”  Notice that Jesus mentioned the new treasure first.  Cherished treasures can be old, like a family heirloom, a family tradition, memories, and stories.  But treasures can also be new, like a precious new baby that God has brought into the family, a new tradition, a new song.  Wise disciples cherish the new along with the old.

Bringing out new treasures along with the old is what Jesus himself was doing.  “I haven’t come to abolish the old tradition, the law and the prophets,” he declared early in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount.  “I have come to fulfill them.”  Jesus cherished the old tradition, but he also brought new treasure to add to and fulfill it.  Through Jesus, people could now see deep into the merciful heart of God in a new way. 

Not everybody was open to the new treasure, though.  Right after Jesus concluded that particular teaching session, he went home to Nazareth to teach in his home congregation.  You’d think family and friends would be bursting with pride and welcome what he had to say.  But what was their response?  They were offended.  “Where is this youngster getting this quote unquote wisdom?” they complained.  “What gives Jesus the authority to speak a new word from God?  We know Moses, and he’s no Moses.  He’s just the carpenter’s boy, Mary’s boy.  We’ve known him since he was a kid. Who does he think he is telling us that we need to look at things in a new light?”  Tragically, Jesus’ hometown folks hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching.  Thus they closed themselves off from the powerful good new things he might have done in their midst.

Hard-heartedness can prevent God’s people from recognizing and embracing new treasure.  I can’t help, for example, thinking of all the treasure that people miss when they refuse to consider that God might speak a word or shepherd a flock through a woman.  And how often has the church forgotten that the old treasures, like favorite old songs and old programs like Sunday school were once brand new?  Sunday school as we know it didn’t originate until 1780, and believe it or not, people in the church resisted it.

Hard-heartedness certainly prevents people from recognizing new treasure, but so can broken-heartedness.    That was the case for God’s people in exile.  Painful memories and guilt and shame hindered them from seeing and latching on to the new treasure that God was offering them.  “The prophets were right,” they confessed.  “We were arrogant and greedy.  We didn’t pay attention to God’s cries for justice for the poor and the widowed and the orphan and the alien.  No wonder God didn’t stop the Babylonians from crushing our homeland. We might as well get used to it,” they concluded.  “We will never see a golden age like the Exodus or the time of King David again.  And even if the Babylonians did decide to let us go home, there’s a huge desert between us and Jerusalem.”  God’s people lost their ability to dream.  If you don’t dream of new possibilities, then you won’t get hurt when they aren’t realized.

That didn’t stop God from dreaming, though.  The people were resigned to life in Babylon, but God was already fashioning new possibilities and doing new things.  “Remember what you saw me do in the past?” God said through Isaiah.  “Well, that’s nothing in comparison to what I am about to do.  Watch for the new thing I’m going to do.  It’s already underway.  Where there seems not to be a way, I am going to make a way home for you, and you are going to sing a new song of praise.”

In the years that followed, some people dared to dream and go with God, and some didn’t.  Some sang new songs of the wonders of God, and some didn’t.  Some welcomed God’s new thing, and some didn’t.

According to Jesus, wise disciples cherish the old treasure and open their hearts to the new.  They give thanks for and draw from the old, old story, but they also get ready to sing a new, new song in response to the living God who is even now up to something new.  

We aren’t in exile in the same way as God’s people in Babylon, and yet we are experiencing an exile.  COVID-19 has exiled us from the church building, and from gathering closely together.  It is challenging us to find new ways to do many things in our families and as a congregation.  Right now it is especially challenging for our families with school children, and their teachers, persevering through a lot of trial and error and ironing out technical issues as they try to keep learning going.  Necessity is definitely the mother of invention.

This pandemic is challenging emotionally and financially, and in so many other ways.  It has also pulled back the curtain that for so long has allowed our nation to continue to look past big inequity, inequality, injustice.  What other nation with the kinds of resources we have, for example, continues to allow a situation where millions and millions of people are only one illness away from bankruptcy?

What could God be up to in the middle of this mess and uncertainty that is causing pain to so many?  What God said to the exiles in Babylon God says now: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.  Even now it is springing forth.  Do you see it?”  God never stops dreaming and fashioning new possibilities, and God is still in the business of making a way where there doesn’t seem to be any way. 

What’s emerging among us at Morton? What new treasures are on the way to us in this “necessity is the mother of invention time”?  I am looking forward to seeing how God is going to take the new skills we are learning and use them to help us share the old story of Jesus and his love near and far.  Now people can participate from afar.

Building or no, the essentials are getting done.  Prayer?  Check.  Worship and the word?  Check.  Sacraments?  Check.  Caring for the wellbeing of others inside our fellowship and beyond?  Check and check.  What other possibilities await as we live as active citizens of the kingdom of God?  God says, “Behold, I am up to something new.  Do you see it?”  Maybe not yet, but we’re on the lookout.

Thanks be to God for precious old treasure.  Thanks be to God for new treasure, challenging and hope-filled.  Wise disciples cherish them both.  AMEN.

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Treasuring Wholeheartedly

This week Morton Church and I are celebrating thirty years of ministry together.  I am thankful.  This congregation is a luminous pearl in the kingdom of God.

A Sermon on Matthew 13:44-46

There was one occasion when Jesus urged people to count the cost of following him.  But not here.  “Picture the kingdom this way,” he said.  “It’s like a farmhand working in the field.  And when his hoe strikes something hard—surprise!  It’s not a rock.  It’s a treasure so great that with joy he quickly reburies it, hurries off, liquidates all his assets, and uses the money to buy that field.”

“Or picture the kingdom this way,” Jesus went on.  “It’s like a merchant constantly on the lookout for fine pearls.  And one day he finds the most precious pearl he has ever seen.  He hurries to sell all his assets, and uses the money to buy that pearl.”

When these men realized what they were looking at, they were ready to put everything they had on the line.  The treasure was so valuable, the pearl was so luminous and beautiful that they didn’t hesitate at all.  They let go of everything to have something that meant everything.

In parable form, Jesus was calling for the same kind of commitment, the same kind of total life reorientation that he later asked directly of a rich man who came to him looking for the way to eternal life.  There Jesus put it plainly: “Sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

To participate in the kingdom of God, to know its precious treasure, Jesus calls us to be ALL in.  Wholehearted commitment to Jesus and his way, living by kingdom values and kingdom priorities.  It means putting all that we have and all that we are on the line, like the surprised field hand, like the persistent pearl merchant who put their all on the line, treasuring something far greater.

But Jesus isn’t asking anyone to do something he himself has not done.  If anyone knows what it means to be all in, it’s God.  God knows what it is to cherish a treasure so much that God would give anything to have it.  What could mean that much to God?  Human beings.  People are the treasure that is so precious to God, and there is no length to which God will not go to embrace this treasure.

God pours out God’s own life in Jesus Christ, loving each and every one of us with all God’s heart.  Jesus is all in for us.  In Jesus’ eyes, each and every one is worth opening his arms wide on the cross.  Each and every one is worth the effort he made, worth the pain, worth dying for.  Our Savior longs to rescue us all from the sin that kills our love for God and each other.  Our Savior longs to rescue us all from death, and so he gave his all.  Beloved, you and I mean everything to our Savior.  We are his treasure.

Knowing that is who we are is itself precious kingdom treasure, for there are so many voices in the world, even within ourselves that tell us we are not worth it, that we are only worth what we can do, that our flaws and weaknesses, and mistakes render us worthless.   In the kingdom of God, all are beloved.  In the kingdom of God, love is the purpose of life, and that love is lived out as we seek life with peace with justice and wellbeing for all.  In the kingdom of God, the wondrous will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven.   The kingdom of God and what God is up to in it are bigger than the earthly span of our lives, but our lives don’t stop mattering when we die.  We rest in the love of God through Jesus on earth and in heaven, here and now and then and there in eternity.  We are safe and saved, treasured forever and always.

Again and again Jesus calls us to let go of lesser treasures and stake our lives on this one: abundant life in God’s kingdom forever and always.

Life together in beloved community is certainly one of the precious treasures of the kingdom of God.  It is luminous, lovely, holy.  I understand the joy when the field hand discovered the treasure, and when the merchant discovered the beautiful pearl.  When I met you all for the first time, when John and I spent that first day here with your search committee, we recognized the loving presence of God here right off the bat.  That afternoon in the sanctuary I preached to the committee about the four friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  Then we sang “Blest Be the Tie” together.  Back around the table in the fellowship hall, the committee made it clear that it would not matter to you all that speaking clearly is an issue for me, and that folks might have to listen harder to understand my speech.  That meant everything to me.  Before we left, Peggy threw her arms around me.  When we got in the car to head home to Richmond, I said to John, “I think this might be it!”  I rejoice in this treasure that I found, and that found me.

What treasure to talk together all these years about the God we know in Jesus, getting to know him more deeply and learning to trust him more and more.  We have prayed oceans of prayer together in Jesus’ name, through many joys and sorrows and everything in between.  What treasure that the Holy Spirit has been among us faithfully, challenging, comforting, and sustaining us.  What treasures are the people that God has brought together through the years, the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses.  We have learned so much from one another about many things—faithfulness, forbearance, forgiveness, and more.  

Our quest continues, to lift up Jesus together, to tell the story of Jesus and his love whenever, wherever, and however we can.  For all this is too wonderful to keep to ourselves.  It’s the nature of kingdom treasure.  When we embrace it with all our hearts we can’t keep it all to ourselves, because we long for the time when all will know Jesus and his love, when all will find healing, wholeness, salvation, when all will find their place and their purpose in the kingdom.  We love to tell this story that we have loved so long.

Jesus, the king who embraces us wholeheartedly, calls us to embrace the kingdom wholeheartedly.  We are called to treasure wholeheartedly the one who treasures us, and to treasure wholeheartedly the way of the one who treasures us.  For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.  AMEN.

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Going Viral

A sermon about mustard seeds, yeast….and viruses.

Going Viral

tiny size of seeds inside of a jar

Photo by Castorly Stock on Pexels.com

A Sermon on Matthew 13:44-46

Some of Jesus’ parables are short stories, complete with characters and a plot.  The Good Samaritan story is a famous example.  But other times, Jesus simply sets an image before his listeners, a snapshot of a common item or situation, like a mustard seed or a pinch of yeast, and we have to think about the picture for a while.  “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that sprouts and grows,”  he said in today’s reading.  “It is also like yeast that a woman mixed into a batch of bread until the whole thing was leavened.”

Mustard seed and yeast may sound like ordinary, harmless substances to us, but that’s not how people saw them in Jesus’ day.  Jesus might as well have told them that the kingdom of God is like a weed.  The yeast is an even more surprising example for Jesus to use.  Why?  Because every other reference to yeast and leaven in the Bible is negative.  Leaven was thought to be a symbol of corruption, rot, and sin.  To this day, Jewish Passover rules instruct families to get rid of every last speck of yeast in the house, and then to eat unleavened bread for the duration of the holy feast.

These associations would have given these two parables extra punch to those who heard them.  Who could forget?  To imagine a parable packing that kind of punch, imagine Jesus putting one before us that goes like this:  The kingdom of heaven is like a virus that someone breathed in.  It invaded a cell, where it tricked the cell’s DNA into churning out copies of the virus itself.  The new viruses invaded more and more cells until the whole body was infected.  The person breathed out more viruses, and then they went on to infect other people.  Pretty soon there was an epidemic, then a pandemic.

How can the kingdom of God be like an invasive weed, or like multiplying yeast, OR like a spreading virus? (more…)

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Sower2

Sowing Seeds of Faith

 

God does not reserve God’s goodness only for those who respond in the way God hopes…

The Foolish Farmer
A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, with allusions to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Sunday, July 26, 2020

Farmers can’t control every variable, but there are things they can do to make a good harvest more likely. This time when I went home my brother Charles and I talked a lot about soil management at the farm, crop rotation and such. He was filling out reports on what he has planted in every field this year. We also talked about what he and his co-worker have been doing to condition the soil more deeply. It gets compacted over the years, and it has to be loosened.

One strategy that Charles has used, though not this year, is to plant giant radishes in a field between the crop seasons. These radishes grow to the size of baseball bats, and they push deep into the soil and break it up. Eventually they decompose, adding organic matter to the soil.

A farmer went out to plant, Jesus said to the crowd, and it quickly became apparent that this farmer was not like the wise farmers we know. There was no strategic plan, no soil analysis, and no soil preparation. Instead he threw seeds willy-nilly everywhere. Some landed on the path, where the soil was hard and needed something like the giant radish treatment to break it up. Those seeds never germinated. Birds quickly got them. Some landed where the soil was too thin to support the emerging plants, and they withered. Some landed in the weeds, and the weeds choked the seedlings. Thank goodness some seeds landed in promising ground, where they germinated, grew, and brought forth an abundant harvest: thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold.

What foolishness is this? What true farmer has seed to waste? Not in the real world. It’s clear Jesus is talking about a different world here. Jesus is inviting his listeners into the parable zone, where deceptively simple little stories challenge our usual assumptions, where the values and priorities often turn out to be different, and where worldly wisdom sometimes gets turned on its head. In the parable zone, for example, workers who get hired at the eleventh hour get paid the same as those who have toiled all day. In the parable zone, wayward sons who have thrown their lives away get treated like royalty. In the parable zone, farmers foolishly broadcast seed any and everywhere. “Let those who have ears, listen,” Jesus said.

Those who do listen and walk around in the parable zone, who wrestle with the strange things they see there, learn something about the kingdom of God, where God is in charge, about the great farm where God is the farmer in charge. They learn the strange wisdom of God.

God the great farmer isn’t worried about wasting seeds. The seeds of God’s great faithfulness, mercy, and love truly are unlimited. God is determined to sow good seed everywhere whether it is well-received or not. It is the great farmer’s nature to sow the seeds of love broadly, reaching out to all. God does not reserve God’s goodness only for those who respond in the way God hopes.

Jesus stepped out to sow God’s love in this way. He sowed his word and his teaching generously everywhere. He shared God’s gifts of love generously, everywhere, even in places and with people that some pious onlookers believed Jesus shouldn’t be wasting his time on. Often it was the outsiders, people who could not hide the pain and mess of their lives who were the most receptive. They turned out to be the most fertile ground for Jesus’ message.

Unfortunately, some of the religious leaders who knew the scriptures best turned out to be the least receptive. How dare Jesus be so soft and loose on the law of God! How dare he throw grace and forgiveness around so willy-nilly! Jesus ought to get tough on sinners, which is what they themselves decided to do: get tough on Jesus. By the middle of Matthew 12, just before the array of kingdom parables we are now exploring, this powerful contingent of scripture experts was plotting to destroy Jesus, like he was some kind of noxious weed. (more…)

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Come to Jesus

Our congregation feels the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic and the weight of the suffering and strife in our community, nation, and world.  We are still worshiping via Zoom as cases of the illness continue to rise in North Carolina.  We shared communion today after we reflected on Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:25. The video below is a rendition of Sylvia Dunstan’s hymn, “Come to Me, O Weary Traveler,” a loving invitation for these hard times.  (Video from the First Congregational Church of Houston.)

Come to Jesus

A Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30

One translation of today’s gospel lesson reads: “Come to me all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads” (Common English Bible).  We get it.  We know what it means to shoulder up heavy loads:  Struggling with worries and pressures and illness in ourselves and others.  Shouldering responsibility for loved ones who are helpless or frail.  Feeling the weight of the pandemic and the unrest in our country.

Jesus always saw clearly what was weighing on folks.  He recognized the yokes they wore.  And on that particular day in Matthew 11 what he saw weighing on so many was the burden of being unable to measure up religiously, being spiritually second class, at least in some self-appointed religious experts’ eyes. Jesus took special notice of them.  He called them “little ones,” as opposed to the “big shots,” the experts who thought they had God and God’s ways all figured out.

Whereas God had meant for the sacred law to be a gracious, guiding yoke for humanity, these wise in their own eyes experts had turned God’s gracious law into a heavy yoke that was hard for ordinary people to shoulder, and downright impossible for many.  Later in Matthew 23, Jesus puts it this way, “They make up heavy loads and pile them on people’s shoulders, but then refuse to lift a finger to help them carry these loads.”

These little ones were the people who couldn’t get everything right in the eyes of the big shots.  They were too poor, or too sick, or too disreputable to be able to get with the spiritual experts’ “program.”  Some had bodily conditions that rendered them perpetually unclean according to the purity laws.  And if they were unclean, they could not come into the house of the Lord.  Some made their living at occupations—such as shepherding—that made it impossible to comply with all the rules.  Some didn’t have the time, or the strength, or the money to do what the experts said the law demanded.  Grace was their only hope before God, and they knew it.  Jesus saw these little ones were in the crowd that day, and he said, “Come to me.”

“Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest,” he said.  “Put on my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in spirit, and there you will find a resting place for your souls.”  The yoke Jesus is picturing is one that yokes two together to pull as a team.  The yoke he offers is his own, the one he himself is already in.  “Come be yoked together with me, and I will give you rest.”

“Come away from the ‘get it right or else’ crowd,” Jesus called.  “Come away from those who take the focus off God and put it on the rules.  Come away from endless efforts to try to please or appease an angry God.  Come to me, get in the yoke with me, and through me, come to the God who loves you.  Learn from me.  I will teach you what burdens you can let go of.  And I will help you carry the ones you do have to carry.”

Jesus recognizes the loads people labor under.  He knows all our burdens.  He knows all our worries and fears.  He knows we cannot carry them alone.   “Come to me, all of you.” 

“Come to me,” Jesus calls to all the sick, to everyone who is hurting in body, mind or spirit.  “Come to me,” he calls to the poor and hungry, to the outcast and the rejected, to all who are seen as little in the world’s eyes.

“Come to me, little children, let me take you in my arms.”  Jesus  knows children carry heavy burdens in their bodies and in their hearts, too, things that make them sad and afraid. 

Jesus always sees the loads we carry, and he says, “Come be with me, all you who carry heavy burdens, who struggle, who need relief, and I will help you.  I will give you rest.”

“Come get beside me in the yoke, and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls.  Come join me at my table.  And you will find food for your souls.  

I will give you rest.

I will give you life.

AMEN.

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When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36.

A Sermon on Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 9:35-10:1

Remember that time when Jesus wept?  He was so moved by the pain he saw in his grieving friends Mary and Martha that he cried.  And then he did something about it.  He raised their brother Lazarus to new life.  The gospel lesson we read today makes it clear that Jesus was often deeply moved when he saw people’s pain and struggle.  When he saw the crowds, it says, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

The English word compassion does not do justice to the Greek word that is used there.  The Greek word is much more powerful.  It means to be moved deep in one’s guts.  It’s similar to our English idea of the heart breaking, but an even closer equivalent might be to say he was torn inside.

The words translated “harassed” and “helpless” carry more of a punch, too.  Among the meanings I discovered for those words in Greek are dispirited, confused, scattered, aimless, bewildered, distraught, and distressed.  Jesus saw so much pain and lostness.  He could see the brokenness.  Many were sick or coping with disabilities.  Many were poor.  Food insecurity was a big problem in Jesus’ day.  They were at the mercy of forces they could not control, while the religious and political leaders, the shepherds who could have made a difference were preoccupied with securing and maintaining their own power.  Taxation, for example, fell heaviest on those who could least afford it.  What did they get for their tax money?  They got a king named Herod, the latest in the rapacious Herod family, who were not above murdering each other to get and maintain power.  Herod was a developer.  Their tax money went into Herod’s big, expensive building projects.  And they could not vote this man and his cronies out.

On top of that, their tax money paid for their own oppression.  It went to maintain the Roman Empire and the Roman army that was stationed everywhere.  Roman soldiers regularly strung people up on crosses to reinforce the message: don’t you dare dissent.  Don’t you dare get out of your place.  Don’t you dare resist.  They couldn’t vote these people out, either.

Think of what all this did to people’s souls, not to mention their bodies.  But many of the religious experts spent a lot of time finding fault with others who did not agree with them, or who could not practice the faith the way the experts said it must be practiced.  They did not ease people’s burdens.  They acted like “sin police.”  From almost the very beginning of his ministry, they were finding fault with Jesus.  One example is in the passage immediately before the one we read.  Instead of rejoicing when Jesus set a man free from a demonic spirit, these experts complained that Jesus must be doing this by the power of the ruler of the demons.  Lord, have mercy!

As Jesus gazed at all these shepherdless sheep, his grief echoed God’s grief in Ezekiel’s day when God’s people were being so poorly shepherded politically and spiritually.  Many were already scattered into exile in Babylon, and a second deportation to Babylon was on the way.

When God gazed on the wreckage of the community of God’s people, God was moved to the core, and God poured out blistering critiques of the nation’s leaders through the prophets, like the one we just heard in Ezekiel.  Here’s a sample:

“Thus says the Lord: you have not fed the sheep.  You have not healed the sick.  You have not bound up the injured.  You have not sought the lost and brought back the strayed.

“Instead you ruled with cruelty.  You led my people astray.

“Worst of all, you ate the sheep entrusted to your care!”

The pain of people today moves God to the core.  What must God be thinking as God surveys the flock now?  What, for example, must God be thinking about how the political and spiritual shepherds of our American flock are handling things now that we have the pandemic putting us into exile in our homes, on top of the usual struggles of life?  The current crises have pulled back a curtain so that we are forced to look at ugly realities in our life together as a nation and at wounds that remain unhealed.  Like scattered sheep without a shepherd, we Americans can’t seem to work together to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.  We are doing stuff like fighting over wearing masks.  God has got to be shaking God’s head.

The critique God would deliver through Ezekiel today might sound something like this:

(more…)

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Picturing God

God is love. That is the central message of Trinity Sunday.

A Sermon on John 14:1-7, 15-21

The Ten Commandments warn against making images of God.  No image can do God justice because God is always so much more.  There is the danger that people will focus so much on these partial images of God that they think they understand God, and there’s nothing more they need to learn.

And yet, imagining and picturing things is often how our minds work.  As a child, I think I did picture God as an old man up in the sky.  Where did that come from?  I’m not sure, but it did make sense.  In order to be our creator and to be over everything, God must somehow be high above.  God must be old, because God has been around forever.  And people referred to God as he, so it was a picture of a man.  

One common way of picturing God is of a mighty king sitting on a high throne.  Often this king has a stern face, and he demands perfection from his subjects.  Their purpose is to serve and please him.  In medieval times, people elaborated on that picture and envisioned a great top-down chain of being with God at the top, down through angels, then humans, then animals, then plants, then non-living things at the bottom.  Sometimes they subdivided each level, so for example, humanity got ranked from highest to lowest.  Human kings were on top of humanity, and they saw themselves as God’s lieutenants.  Power and authority went from the top down.

But the picture of God that Jesus suggests in the Gospel of John is very different.  At the last supper Jesus talked long into the night preparing his disciples for what was coming with his death and resurrection.  From John 13 to 17, five whole chapters, Jesus talks in circles.  He makes the same points again and again in slightly different ways. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he repeats, and he also keeps talking about the relationship between himself, and the Father, and the Spirit, and his disciples.  He keeps talking about being with each other and in each other: I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

In the passage we read this morning, Jesus speaks of it in terms of a place: he will take us to that place to be with the Father, but also he will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with us in this place.  That doesn’t sound top down, from king down to peon to me.  It sounds more like a family dwelling together.  It sounds more side by side.

It sounds more like the picture of the Holy Trinity that I sent out in the bulletin.  I will try to put it up here on the computer screen as well.  This painting is an icon, which is a picture that is meant to help people pray.  It was painted by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev around the year 1410.   To me, this is one of the most profound pictures about the nature of God in existence.

We see three figures around a table.  The Father is in gold on the left, the Son in blue is in the center, and the Spirit on the right is in green.  They are the same size, their clothes are similar, and their faces look alike.  Their eyes look gentle and humble.  They slightly bow their heads towards each other.  Christ and the Spirit turn towards the Father.  We could draw a perfect geometric circle around them.

There is a strong connection around this table, and even though the image appears still, something is definitely going on.  Something is moving.  What’s moving from one to all the others and back again is love.  This is an image of a living community.  This is a picture of communion.  This is a glimpse of what is going on in the very heart of God: love is alive and flowing among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, among Creator, Christ, and Spirit.  This is what Jesus is getting at when he repeats I am in my Father, and my Father is in me.  The very nature of God is loving community.

And it’s an open community.  Look at the icon again.  There is a place at the table, ready for someone else.  The three figures are all turned, open towards us as we look at them, and the Spirit’s hand is gesturing towards the empty place at the table.  Not only is there room at the table for us, but the triune God wants us there.

Notice that square hole in the table at the empty place.  There are remnants of glue in that spot indicating that at one time there may have been a mirror attached to the table so that people gazing at this painting would literally see themselves in the picture and at the table.  (See Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance. London: SPCK, 2016, p. 30.)

This is what the Trinity means for us: God’s very being is living, powerful, flowing love.  God is love. This love is so big and so active that it spills out.  This love is big enough to call the whole universe into being, and every single creature in it.  This love is big enough to cherish each and every one. 

Just like Jesus said, there is room for us in the picture, not down below God’s feet, but at the table with God.  The Trinity tells us this very basic truth:  God IS love.  The Triune God is the great source and generator of love.  The Trinity is the power of love.  We come from this love, we are healed and saved and sustained by this love, and we are cherished forever in this love.

Friends, there is room for you in this picture of love.  Your place in God’s love and at God’s table is there, ready for you.  Let God welcome you into the fellowship of the Trinity.

Join the Holy Trinity in welcoming others to the table.  The love of our three in one God is so great that there is always room for one more, and another, and another. 

Holy, holy, holy, God in three persons, blessed Trinity!  AMEN.

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Keep Breathing, Beloved

A Sermon on John 20:19-22, with allusions to Genesis 1:1-5 and 2:4b-8

 

Pentecost

Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes like a mighty blast of wind, as in the Pentecost story that we remembered earlier.  But more often, the Holy Spirit comes like a gentle breath, as in the gospel lesson we just read.

I don’t think Jesus’ disciples could have taken a mighty blast of the Spirit that night behind locked doors.  They had heard Mary Magdalene’s testimony that she had seen Jesus, but they were still traumatized.  They didn’t know what to make of what had happened on the cross two days earlier, and they were afraid that the authorities might be coming for them next.

What Jesus did that night was true to God’s character.  God always takes into account what is going on with God’s people, and comes to them in ways that fit the situation and address them where they are.  Jesus came quietly and stood among them, and the first thing out of his mouth was a word that they so badly needed to hear:  Peace. Sweet, sweet healing peace in the middle of turmoil within and without.  “Peace be with you” Jesus said, and before they had a chance to reply, he showed them his wounded hands and feet.  It truly was Jesus, and he wasn’t just a figment of their imagination.

“Peace be with you,” he said again, and then he added, “Just as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Jesus’ mission was now their mission.  They would love as he loved.  They would do as he did.

And then Jesus was silent.  All they could hear was the sound of his breathing.  Jesus breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

It was so quiet and gentle and low-key, and yet this was nothing less than a new creation.  Just as God breathed over the face of the deep at the first creation, and just as God breathed life into humanity in the beginning, the risen Christ now breathed new life into his followers and into his church, overcoming hopelessness and despair.

It is so disheartening, with people we love contending with difficulties that go on and on, without any good resolution in sight.  And when will the time when we can embrace come again, when we can gather without fear of making each other sick?

This has been such a disheartening week.  It is discouraging how badly people treat each other, how little regard they show for other people’s wellbeing.  Some people are refusing to do simple things like wear a mask to help protect others, and insisting on doing things that put others at risk in the name of their own rights.  The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and all the aftermath is heartrending, and even more so because it points to great unhealed wounds in our nation.  Sometimes the kingdom of God seems further away than ever, and all our efforts to practice and teach the way of Jesus’ love seem not to make much difference.

The picture of Jesus’ disciples huddled inside, disheartened and afraid really speaks to me now as we flawed and fearful disciples navigate these troubled times.  This story invites us to be quiet, quiet enough to hear Jesus speak the word of peace to us.  Quiet enough to hear him renew our call to mission.  Quiet enough to hear him breathing.  And in the breathing to find the strength we need to go forward.

Sometimes in the midst of pain and distress you can almost forget to breathe, or to breathe deeply anyway.  I remember when the ambulance was on the way to take me to the hospital before Laura was born the doctor was talking to me on the phone line, and he said, “Keep breathing.”

The living Christ is among us, breathing into us the very breath of life, the Spirit of healing, the Spirit who makes things new, who overcomes hopelessness and despair.  Remember to breathe, beloved.  Help one another remember to breathe.  Breathe deeply, beloved, and receive the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

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Between the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus’ followers sat together in uncertainty.  The promises Jesus made to them hold for us in this uncertain time.

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Photo by Christopher on Pexels.com

This Time In Between

A Sermon on Acts 1:1-14, with Allusions to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Jesus’ followers were like people on a long journey, wondering when are we going to get there.  Since the resurrection Jesus had been coming to them and patiently instructing them about the kingdom of God.  But when was something going to happen?  Finally somebody got up the courage the ask the “Are we there yet?” question.

“Lord, is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Jesus’ followers were imagining that this journey with Jesus was going to take them back to the golden years of the kingdom of David, a time they remembered as the high point of the nation’s history.  No more Roman oppression! Freedom and self-determination at last.

But Jesus made it clear that there would be no return to the way things were.  What’s more, the timetable is God’s alone.  They could not know how much longer this in between time was going to last.

Nobody knows how long this in between time is going to last.  Many are anxious to get back to normal, but nobody knows what the timetable on this virus is.

Time itself feels somehow different.  My sense of time is really off.  I don’t have a good sense of what day of the week it is.  One day is pretty much like the next.  There’s almost nothing on the calendar.  One of biggest questions for me right now, and I imagine you, too, is not just what our steps towards safely gathering in person should be, but mainly when.  How will we know when?

We don’t know that time yet, but there are some things we can say about this time.  For some it has literally been a time to plant, and it is a joy to see gardens coming along.  We look forward to harvest time, which is also sharing time.  For others it has literally been a time to sew as they work hard to make sure everyone is equipped with a mask.  It’s a time of preparation for the baby who is joining us in September.  Now the the official school year is ended, students and their families must figure out what to do with this time.  One parent in our congregation said the other day, “It feels like summer is already half over.100515881_10152332401219999_6715839918926462976_o

This is definitely a time to refrain from embracing, except inside our households.  It is also a time to mourn with deaths in the United States approaching 100,000, almost a third of the world’s total.  This morning’s New York Times is covered with the names of 1000 of the victims, along with something about who they were.  So Lord, when are we going to get back to something approaching normal?

Jesus’ followers asked, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”

Jesus replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.  Instead, you must stay put in Jerusalem and wait.  Then you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and then you will be witnesses for me everywhere, starting at home, and moving out to the very ends of the earth.” With that, Jesus was lifted up from their sight.

Jesus did not give them a detailed timetable, but he did give them a promise and a mission.  Wait patiently: the Holy Spirit is surely coming to you, giving you power.  And then you will take action.  

The Holy Spirit will give them the clarity and the power to take their first step towards the ends of the earth.  But for now, they had to wait.

Jesus’ followers returned to Jerusalem and spent a lot of time sequestered together in the Upper Room, perhaps the same room where they had experienced the last supper.  The roll call of those gathered included the apostles, along with a number of women, perhaps those same women that followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him along the way; plus the roll included Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers.

They didn’t just twiddle their thumbs while they waited.  At the top of their agenda was prayer.  They also took care of people’s needs, and the needs of the congregation.  The Apostle Peter took the lead and recommended that the fellowship choose someone to fill the place among the twelve that had once belonged to Judas Iscariot.  When the Day of Pentecost arrived, it found the church faithfully, prayerfully, actively waiting, just as Jesus had instructed.

As we wait, we cannot safely assemble in person inside, and yet we surely are together in heart and mind; and we’re not twiddling our thumbs, either, as we wait.  Morton Church is not closed.  We’re just not in the building.  There’s a bunch of praying going on.  As always prayers flow on in loving support of people in need, and of a world in need.  But our prayers are also searching, questioning, opening to what God will say to us and teach us in this time in between.  We listen with our minds, our sense, as well as our hearts.

During this time in between, we have the time to think about what we want a new normal to be like.  A writer named Dave Hollis put it this way, “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”  (On Being Newsletter The Pause , May 23, 2020.) The pandemic makes our society’s problems even more glaring.  I don’t want to go back to a normal where millions and millions of Americans cannot afford health and dental care.  This is a moral issue.

Between the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus’ followers sat together in the uncertainty, but they weren’t passive.  They waited prayerfully, expectantly, for the Spirit to show the way and empower the way.  Maybe they weren’t out in the open, but they were most certainly open: open to God through the Spirit.

On Friday one of my colleagues, Ed McLeod, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh posted this reflection:

Our church is already open. 

We are open to the Spirit’s leading.

We are open to new opportunities for mission.

We are open to the stirring challenge of the call to discipleship.

We are open to anyone who wants to join us on the journey of faith.
We are open to learning new ways to tell our old story.
We are open to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.
We are open to criticism when we fall short.
We are already open.
We just happen to be worshiping in our homes, for now, as a way of promoting safety and mitigating risk, as an expression of the love we have for our neighbors, and as an acknowledgment that any reckless behavior on our part could have a devastating effect on others. And we are grateful for the technology that makes this possible, aware that we are richly blessed.
But we are already open. (Ed McLeod, facebook post May 22, 2020.)

Open to the Spirit and wait patiently, beloved.  You’re doing a good job.  Hang in there.  The Holy Spirit is on the way to give us clarity, to show us the next steps ahead, and to give us the power to be Jesus’ witnesses.  It will come in its time.  It will come in God’s time.  

AMEN.

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