Monday, October 28, 2019

Sermon: Mercy Luke 18

            When I hear the word, Mercy, it seems to take me back to when I was a kid and arm wrestling.  As we arm wrestled, we would try and twist and turn until the other person would yell out Mercy, or sometimes it was: Uncle.  Which ever word we used, the object of the game was, basically, to cause enough pain to the other person that they had to admit defeat, surrender, or give up so that you would stop hurting them.  I don’t think I ever volunteered to play this game, I think it fell into the whole sibling rivalry thing, but I do remember always being the one that had to cry out – Mercy. 
            Mercy: is it a word of defeat?  Is it a word of surrender?  Is it a word of giving up, allowing the other to be the winner?  Yes and No.  In the childhood game of arm wrestling, to call out mercy is to say, I give up, but it is also to say, you win and please stop hurting me.  Please stop doing what you are doing.  Please stop having power over me.  Please stop being the dominate one.  From Wikipedia, the definition is:  compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.  So in arm wrestling, the stronger person is in a position of power over the other and can cause harm, but is willing to have compassion on the other when he/she admits defeat. 
            So, when we think of the word, there are at least two opposing sides: one has power and the other does not.  One can punish or cause harm, the other will receive the punishment or harm.  Mercy can be asked for by the weaker or it can be given by the stronger.  Please have mercy upon me, or with compassion he had mercy on the other. 
            Parents have to pick and choose when to punish children and when it is a time to show mercy.  There does need to be consequences for behaviors and punishment can help teach a child how to make better choices in the future.  If we lean on the side of mercy all the time, our children might learn that they can always get away with bad behavior and then we will really have our hands full as they get older.  Reading through the variety of definitions for mercy, it does involve taking a lenient form of punishment rather than a harsher form of punishment. 
            What does mercy mean to you?  Often, in church, we seem to use mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion as synonyms.  I will often begin a prayer especially the prayer of confession with Merciful God.  Merciful God:  in these two words, we are naming God as having power over us and we are asking for compassionate treatment or forgiveness over us.  Another definition I saw mentions not just having power over the other but being in the position of care over the other.  When we think of God and mercy, we could be saying that God has power over us, but we could also be saying, God, we are under your care. 
            So, turning to our scripture passage today, I was originally going to focus on the ways in which we can pray since this is a parable of two people praying.  But the question formed for me – what is the tax collector praying for?  He is asking for one thing.  His prayer is calling out to God asking for mercy, asking the one that has power and care over him to be compassionate and forgiving with him. 
            This past Monday night, one of our small groups met and the discussion question was:  What do you long for in your life, what do you long God will do for you in your life?  Have there been things that you long for?  Things that you have turned to God in prayer and asked for?  We can long for marriage, or children, or grandchildren, or getting into our top choice college, or getting a job, we can long for getting the lead role in the play, or our sports team to win the top level of play, or making the Olympics.  Oh, I longed for this for so many years of my life.  We can long for things, goals, achievements, relationships, healing, and we can pray to God to make these things a reality. 
            In this parable there are two people praying, but only one is naming something that he longs for in his life, he longs for God to show him mercy.  The other man is praying, but he seems to long for nothing.  He names all of his accomplishments, all the things he has done right, he is good at following the rules, but there is an absence of longing, an absence of asking God to do something in his life.  This absence is magnified when he points out the faults found in others and is grateful that he is not like them. 
            What do you long for God to do in your life?  Do you long for God’s mercy?  Do you long to be shown compassion and forgiveness by God?  Do you think of yourself as someone needing forgiveness?  The tax collector was in deep pain, he felt wounded at the very core of his being, and he cried out to God for help, for healing and wholeness.  What burden do we carry? Perhaps it is shame, or guilt, or a form of addiction, or greed.  Perhaps we have a short temper or find ourselves closed minded or unable to adapt to the changing world.  Could these be places that cause spiritual pain within our beings?  Could these be issues or concerns that we could turn to God in prayer, seeking guidance, help, comfort, seeking healing and wholeness, could we ask God to continue to shape us into the people that we know we can be? 
The tax collector did not feel fulfilled.  He had a great job but something was not complete and so he turned to God, naming what he felt he needed spiritually, he needed God’s mercy.  He needed God’s care over him.  He was acknowledging that he was a child of God and as God’s child, he needed the parent, the creator, the mentor, the one that had power over him, to be involved in his life.  There is a song called:  Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord.  As I worked through this text, this song come to mind over and over.  Humbly thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he, and he, will lift you up, higher and higher, and he and he will lift you up.   

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

sermon: Chopped

Our final game show this summer is on the Food Network and is called Chopped.  I thought something food related would be fun on this Labor Day weekend.  This show pits four chefs against each other as they compete for a chance to win $10,000.  At the beginning of each round, the chefs are each given a basket containing four mystery ingredients and are expected to create dishes that use all of them in some way.  For example:  the Appetizer ingredients consisted of watermeloncanned sardinespepper jack cheese, and zucchini. The chefs are given unlimited access to a pantry and refrigerator stocked with a wide variety of other ingredients, and each chef has his/her own stations for preparing and cooking food. Each round has a time limit, typically 20 minutes for Appetizer, and 30 minutes each for EntrĂ©e and Dessert.  At the end of each round, the judges have sampled the dishes and decide which chef will be chopped.  They reveal the loosing dish by having it under a serving dish and lifting up the cover. 
            I do have to remind myself that these are chefs, when I watch the show.  To watch them just come up with an idea as to what to do with these ingredients and just run with it, no recipe, I find myself rather amazed.  Watermelon and Zucchini are definitely in season right now, and most people will probably have a watermelon or two at their Labor Day picnics, but to add cheese and some sardines into the mix – what would your family and friends say? 
            Baskets of food, this is how our worship service started today with the call to worship.  As the Israelites make their way through the wilderness they will one day arrive to a new land.  And when they do, they are gather a basket of the first fruits of the land, their first harvest, and they are to bring their baskets to the priest, and they are to remember their past and give thanks to their God for bringing them to this new land.  Baskets of food, perhaps food that is completely new and different to them.  Many of them only know the manna and the quail of the wilderness.  What are these mystery ingredients, these new foods that they will learn to love?  They will collect grapes, figs, dates, and olives.  On this first harvest, they might just have the most basic of ingredients. 
            But before they get to this new land, their baskets are pretty much bare.  Each morning they have manna to collect and eat and each evening they have quail to eat.  The people complain against Moses, they are ready to have him chopped, as they remember the good foods they had back in Egypt.  They are struggling with an important question:  is it better to be oppressed but still have food to eat, or is it better to be a free people with a very limited diet?  If I could only eat two food items for the rest of my life, I know my body would crave foods of my past.  And although their baskets are never empty, the monotony of the food feels like scarcity. 
            But then, we have this other story.  One with a basket of just a few items, a couple loaves of bread and a few fish.  Ingredients very similar to manna and quail, and yet there are no complaints this day.  This day those very limited ingredients multiply and feed the thousands.  What seems like scarcity is transformed into abundance.  Whereas the people wanted to chop Moses, Jesus moves on to the next round.  Interesting how similar ingredients can be received so differently depending on who the judges are. 
            God gives us all our own baskets, filled with a variety of fruits, fruits of the Spirit.  Sometimes we look at our basket and wonder how to use some of those fruits.  There are definitely a handful that are familiar, easy to incorporate into our lives, But there are times when we almost have to force ourselves to embrace them.  Just like forcing ourselves to use sardines with watermelon.  And there are times when we know we just didn’t manage to be our best self.  But the thing is, even when the chefs are chopped, they are still chefs, they gave that situation their best effort, they took risks, and they hopefully learned something new.  We too, are like those chefs, there are going to be moments when we feel as if we have been chopped, but we are still children of God, learning, growing, taking risks, and always given the opportunity to be renewed in God’s love. 
So, as we take the simple basket we have before us today of bread and juice, God is able to transform these ingredients into a holy meal of grace, forgiveness, renewal, spiritual sustenance, and love.  The contestants on chopped know who the judges are, they know to whom they are preparing the meal.  To often we forget who the judges are, we allow the world around us to be our judge instead of realizing the only judge we have before us is God.  Just as a chef prepares a meal for the tastes of the judge, we too should be preparing the meal of our life, they way in which we live, for our loving and grace filled Creator. 
,  love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

sermon: name that tune

Today’s game show is: Name that Tune or rather - we are going to play, Name that Hymn.  I had a lot to debate with this one.  We could play, name that scripture.  Many of our hymns are based on scripture passeges.  It is truly amazing how inspired people have been throughout the generations to take scripture and compose lyrics and music to God’s word.  As we sing each Sunday, we are lifting up God’s scripture. 
            Name that Tune was first aired in the 50’s and had many variations to the game throughout the next several decades.  The goal of the game was either to be the first to identify a song correctly, when played with two contestants, or in the individual round, to identify a set number of songs correctly in 30 seconds.  So, today we are going to play our own variation – you, the congregation are the contestants – when you think you can Name that Hymn: yell out the name of the hymn.  Here we go:
Amazing Grace
Joy to the World
Thine is the Glory
I've Got Peace Like a River
Great is Thy Faithfulness

Music connects to people at every age of our life span.  When we are infants our parents sang to us lullabies as they rocked us to sleep.  We learned the alphabet through song.  And as we grow, we learn Bible Stories through song.  That is one part of Vacation Bible School that I just love, learning the new songs and having them become a part of me at least for the next month or so.  Do you ever get a song just stuck in your head?  Many couples have their song.  And sometimes when we hear a song it reminds us of a specific time of our lives or a special event.  Be Thou My Vision was my seminary class song for graduation.  My father had the lyrics framed for me and I have kept it in my office for years now.  I can’t remember much of what I learned in school academically from middle school but I still seem to know every word to every song. 
God desires for us to embrace God’s teaching into our very being the same way we do with song.  Psalm 98 – Sing a new song to the Lord.  The Lord has made salvation know to us, let us sing with Song – Joy to the World.  At one point in time, that was a new song.  I can’t imagine Christmas without it, but just a few hundred years ago, it was none existent written in 1719 by Isaac Watts.  Sing to the Lord a new song.  Name that Tune – each of us has a way to create music to our Lord. 
Psalm 98 lifts up that not just will God’s people sing a new song, but all of creation sings forth a song to God.  If we listen carefully, we can hear this new song on a daily basis.  From the Grand Canyon to the Grand Tetons to the Jersey Shore; from birds to crickets to dolphins and whales, God’s creation sings forth beauty and awesomeness.  Joy to the Word the Lord has come, let earth receive her king.  And heaven and nature sing.  Each of us, whether we are gifted with musical talents or not, can live our lives as a song to God. 
There was a children’s show called Jack’s Big Music Show – and there was an Orchestra episode showing all the different instruments that come together to make one song.  In a very real way, this congregation and all of its ministry teams are an orchestra to God.  Each ministry has a song to sing, sometimes one group has a solo, but most of the time, we are playing together in unity, lifting up our gifts and service to God.
Paul is trying to connect this idea of all parts working together for the whole when he writes to the church in Corinth.  People are identifying themselves with Apollos and with Paul, creating division.  Paul reiterates how important it is to remember human tasks versus God’s tasks.  Paul plants, Apollos waters, but God makes things grow.  No matter what song we sing, no matter what church we build, Paul reminds us that the foundation that we build upon is Jesus Christ.  In all ministries of our church, we seek ways to build people’s lives upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.  Whether we do this through Sunday School lessons, Bible songs, mission opportunities, each of these exists as an expression of creating community, fellowship, and a foundation for faith growth and development.   
Sing a new song to the Lord, we are so blessed in this place to have so many opportunities in which we can build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.  Together, we are God’s orchestra and together we are building upon the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, and as we build and as we grow each of us is a holy temple to God.  When I think of a holy temple I think of a place of worship and when I think of a place of worship I think of music.  Name that Tune – name the song that your life sings to God.  Claim the new song that you will sing to our loving God, whether it be through singing in the choir, volunteering at the Habitat build, helping with fellowship time, or studying scripture, and remember that your song joins together with the entire orchestra of God’s people.  Amen.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sermon: A Minute to Win it

            About nine years ago, a new game show aired called: A Minute to Win it.  As soon as I saw the first ad, I knew this show would produce fun ideas for youth group games.  I believe we even played a few at the church mission adventure a few weeks ago.  Basically, when the game show aired, it had sixty games, all using regular household items.  A contestant must complete ten of these games, each one within a minute, in order to win the million dollar prize.  For example, in a minute, the contestant has to pull all the Kleenex out of the box, one at a time, or use a pizza box to fan three eggs across the stage into a marked circle on the other side. 
            A minute to win it.  If we are going to look at possible scenarios within the Bible, the following would be the ten I would identify for the game. 
1.  Moses and the Hebrew people crossing the Red Sea.  A minute to win it for Moses to let the waters crash back in and drown the Egyptian army. 
2.  Queen Esther appearing before the king.  Queen Esther has not been summoned by the king, to summons the king herself could mean immediate death to her.  Esther stands strong and appears before the king and he grants her favor to listen to her request.  A minute to win it for Queen Esther.    
3.  Elijah replenishing the flour and oil.  This is a story of the prophet Elijah encountering a widow.  He asks her for a piece of bread and a cup of water.  She tells him she only has a small amount of flour left and she is returning home to make one more meal before she and her son die.   As this story continues, the widow’s son dies and Elijah brings him back to life.  A Minute it to win it for Elijah. 
4.  the walls of Jericho.  In this story, the people march around the city of Jericho for six days.  On the seventh day they give a loud blast of the trumpets and the city walls collapse.  A minute to win it for Joshua. 
5. Daniel in the lion’s den.  Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den for worshipping his one true God rather than worshipping the king.  Now, Daniel is in the lion’s den for more than one minute.  He is in there all night, but those found to have falsely accused Daniel are thrown in and devoured before their feet hit the ground.  A minute to win it for Daniel. 
6.  David and Goliath.  David is a young boy who takes five smooth stones and his sling shot and in less than a minute takes down the mighty warrior Goliath.  A minute to win it for David. 
7.  Jesus turning water into wine.  Jesus is at a wedding feast and the wine runs out.  In order to prevent shame and embarrassment for the host, he asks for the ritual water jugs to be filled with water.  When they are poured out they contain wine. 
8.  the fishermen pulling up so many fish the nets break.  The fishermen have not caught anything during their time out at sea.  Jesus sends them back out and tells them to throw out the nets which become so full of fish the nets begin to break. 
9.  the feeding of the 5,000.  This is the well known story of Jesus taking five loaves of bread and two fish and feeding the masses with baskets of food left over. 
10.  walking on water.  Jesus has gone off to pray and has sent the disciples ahead of him in a boat.  He walks on the water to catch up with them.  When Peter sees him coming he gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards him, until he gets scared and begins to sink.  Jesus reaches out his hand and pulls Peter to safety.    
            So, throughout the Bible we have numerous stories of God working through people in moments of quick action to win victory over enemies, moments to show how God’s power can transform normal everyday items into something new, or how God’s work can overcome human doubt.  And fortunately enough, we did not have to win any of these events, let alone all ten, in order to win God’s favor.  Like Peter, when we are in a situation where we begin to sink, when we fear, when we doubt, we have the hand of Christ reaching out to us to pull us back up.  As contestants, we do not play any of these games alone, we have God make known to us in Jesus Christ to assist us. 
            This past week, I was at a conference sponsored by Presbyterians for Earth Care.  Much of this conference focused on climate change, climate change not in something that is going to be happening in the future, but something that is already happening.  As I reflected on our passage today of David and Goliath, the modern day Goliath that is looming in front of us is climate change.  I wish it was as easy as picking up a smooth stone and that it could take just a minute to win it against the destructive impact we have had on our fragile earth.  It is going to take a whole lot more than a smooth stone and a minute, but we have to face the giant before us. 
            During the conference, we took time to move through lament, the grief many of us feel for parts of God’s good creation that we have already lost and will never get back, such as animals that have gone extinct, and the mass death of our coral reefs.  But we ended the conference with hope, with faith, with the promise that God reaches back into creation and offers healing. 
One group went on a walk: from death to life and visited places in the area that were poisoned, where the soil was contaminated, and then they visited places that had once been polluted and are now healed.  Although I did not do this walk, it made me think of the site down the road from here where the Habitat homes are being built.  It took a good two years to remediate that land, the soil was heavily contaminated, and now, it is healed and able to offer space for twelve families to live.  We need to pray for Lake Hopatcong, for the damage done to it this past year, another Goliath before us, needing a David to come forward to defeat the causes for why this lake had such a horrible algae bloom.  But, with the work of the people, with dedication and commitment, these damaged places can be healed. 
Other places of hope were lifted up as images of reforestation were shown, of cities being creative with urban landscaping and greening of buildings.  Churches around our country our using solar panels on their buildings, and are paying more attention to their carbon footprint.  But, if we don’t choose to use this minute, these minutes before us, to make healthier choices for the earth, each minute further down the line only creates a bigger and stronger Goliath.  Our time, our minutes are now, we may not have a minute to win it, but we do have a minute to create sustainability, a minute to slow things down, a minute to lean into God and discern what God is calling us to do.  David does not go forward to slay Goliath without spending time with God.  David has a deep faith, and a deep trust, and he takes God forward with him into battle.  We too need to take God forward with us as we engage all the choices we have each and every day, between what we eat, what we buy, what we throw away, and what energy we consume. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

sermon - Elijah and the Gerasene

Elijah –

Today, we have two passages where a person has sought solitude.  As we begin with Elijah, Elijah has fled to this cave for fear of his life.  Elijah is not your average person, he is a prophet of God.  And he lives in a day and age where people have turned their worship to the false gods of another nation.  Perhaps you have heard of Jezebel, or at least the term Jezebel.  Jezebel was the queen but she was from a foreign land and she brought her gods with her and had much influence on the nation in turning people to worship the gods of her country.  Over and over Elijah spoke out against this false worship and by doing so, he has greatly angered the queen to the point where he goes into hiding.  And so, here he is, hiding in a cave, seeking guidance from the God that has called him to be a prophet.  And he waits. 
As he seeks to hear from God, the word of the Lord came to him and asks him:  What are you doing here?  Wow, seems like a strange question to me, doesn’t God know why he has fled and is hiding in a cave.  The queen is trying to kill him.  So, Elijah responds.  And then he is told to go and wait some more, for God is about to pass by. 
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 
What I like about this passage is that it shows the reality of what it is like trying to listen for God.  Will God speak, such as in Pentecost, through the loud wind?  Or through the rumble of an earthquake?  Or like the burning bush, through fire?  Or will it be through sheer silence?  One of the last people committed to following God, committed to teaching others about the one true God, has to wait and discern where the voice of God will speak to him.  Elijah had to remove himself from the chaos of life, from the stresses, the responsibilities, he had to re-center himself, and find the time and space to listen.  When the same question comes to him:  What are you doing here?  So he gives the same answer.  And this time, God tells him to go, to return, to continue his work.  This time he will anoint a new king for the northern kingdom and anoint a new king for the southern kingdom, which is an important task for a prophet.  And God gives him a promise, that God will leave 7,000 others that will remain faithful.  This is probably not the answer Elijah wanted to receive, but he listens and he acts.  God is always leaving a remnant, a small group of faithful people that will continue the work.  And the work continues on.  People continue to remember stories that share what we value, stories that continue to guide us as a people of faith.  Remembering that God can work through a small group of faithful people from generation to generation can inspire us and give us the assurance of hope that God is still with us, still calling us to do the work that we are called to do. 

Our second story also takes us to a cave or tombs, this time inhabited by a man tormented by demons.  Instead of being a man of God, the people view him as the opponent to God, a demon.  He also lives on the other side of the lake from Galilee, in the land of Gerasene.  He is a foreigner.  But Jesus comes to him.  Jesus gets in a boat and travels across the lake and finds this man.  This outcaste.  This person who has also fled to a cave to seek solitude, solitude from a society that does not know what to do with him.  But I am sure, with the torment with which he is living, he has not found any solitude. 
As Jesus encounters this man he commands the unclean spirit to leave the man, and the man roar backs:  what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the most high God?  This man, this man with the unclean spirits, this man who has been tormented and lives amongst the dead in the tombs, has encountered the Son of God.  He seems to be the exact opposite of Elijah, and yet, they both have this sacred experience one in silence the other in extreme torment.  Or perhaps, as the unclean spirits leave the man, he finally has a moment of clarity, a moment where the noises in his head stop, where he finally experiences peace, and the only way that could happen is if God was present with him. 
And then Jesus asks him, what is your name?  What a powerful and important question.  To be known, to have an identity.  To not just be known as the demonic that lives in the tombs, but to have a name.  But the man has been truly lost to his demons and can only identify himself by the identity of his illness.  And he responds:  Legion.  It would be as if Jesus asked us our name and we responded:  cancer, diabetic, bi-polar, addict, broken.  But Jesus wants him to have a name and he wants him to be made whole and he wants him to be in community.  And as the man is healed, he desires to remain with Jesus, to join the others and follow him.  But Jesus responds:  Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.  There is work for him to do in his own community.  His healing can bare much witness to the power of God to the community in which he belongs. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Sermon: Dads and Grads

Proverbs 8:  Wisdom
At The Crossroads
            Today’s scripture reading is about wisdom, something I thought was rather fitting for dads and grads Sunday.  For all of our grads out there, whether you have finished 8th grade or just received your masters, I sure do hope, you have gained some wisdom through your education, your studies, your classes, your social experiences, and your extra curricular activities.  Wisdom is all around us, and in the Biblical sense, it is more than just gaining knowledge, wisdom, or hokma, is something we equate with the Holy Spirit.  Last week was Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus and empowering them to go into the world to share God’s message of love, compassion, and reconciliation with all.  But the Holy Spirit existed before this moment, it has existed with God since the beginning.  In this passage from Proverbs we hear that wisdom was with God when God laid the foundations of the world. 
            Wisdom, aka the Holy Spirit is with us when we learn, when we think, when we make choices.  Cartoonists like to use the illustration of an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other shoulder.  When at a cross roads, when making decisions, what do you listen to?  Do you listen to your values, your faith, hokma:  the Holy Spirit, or do you listen to what we call peer pressure, or your own self interests even if they seem in conflict with your values?  Whether you are a dad or a grad or anyone else, throughout our lives we come to these places that Proverbes calls the cross roads.  For our graduates, it is more pronounced.  You have finished one major life accomplishment and you are ready to move into something new, perhaps even different, it could be further education, it could be seeking a job, it might involve moving to a new place, it might mean taking an incredible risk.  And dads, you are right there with your children, perhaps empowering them to make their own decisions, or supporting them in the process, maybe even offer your own life experience as guidance.  And at the cross roads, wisdom desires to be a part of your life, of your decision making, or how you process your choices.  In the church we call this spiritual discernment. 
            Now, for those that are ready to go out into the world ready to find a job and make a living, the following might just be a challenge:  Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels.  Wisdom is better than jewels.  Our culture tells us that wisdom, knowledge, education, is what we need in order to be self sufficient, it is what we need to make money.  Go to college so you can get a good job.  That is what culture tells us.  Hopefully, alongside our education, we hold tight to our morals, our values, the things that we believe in and are passionate about.  If environmental studies are near and dear to my heart and my faith tells me to care for God’s good creation, but I am offered a very lucrative salary for a toxic chemical company, am I embracing wisdom?  And sometimes life seems to push us into places that we might not want to be.  What if you are seeking employment and the only thing that seems to be available just does not sit right with you?  Do you take it because it is a job?  Because you need it?  Or do you live into your passions, your true spiritual calling, to the place that you feel your gifts and interests and values fall into place?  Wisdom, the Holy Spirit, is better than jewels. 
            I have a doctor that shared with me that one of the reasons she wanted to become a doctor was so she could use that expertise in mission, in ministry, in outreach to those that did not have access to medical care.  As she graduated and realized the reality of her debt and other family obligations, she would have to go into a local practice.  Now, all of these years later, her children are grown, her debts are paid, she finally has the financial freedom to do what she originally set out to do.  She has been able to partner with another doctor and go oversees to provide free medical care for short term mission.  She never gave up her dream, her passion, it just took a much longer time to come to fruition than her original vision.  And she has shared with me how meaningful these mission trips are to her.  How spiritually fulfilling they are.  How much they have enriched her life.  She has embraced hokma, wisdom, the Holy Spirit, and has found the spiritual wealth it offers which may not pay the bills but truly does give life a richer meaning. 
            Dads and grads, life gets in our way.  We get so caught up in the daily grind that we can easily forget the bigger picture.  Wisdom is a part of God, and a part of us, make sure you have some sort of passion, some sort of issue or value that you hold near and dear to your heart and even if you cannot make it a part of your career, find a way to carve space for it somewhere in your life.   If you care deeply for the homeless, find out what the local needs are and perhaps make a monthly donation of laundry detergent to the shelter.  Or donate a can of food each week to the local food pantry.  But make whatever is near and dear to your heart a spiritual practice that is not left and forgotten until a distant time down the road. 
            When ever we are at the cross roads, God is with us, wisdom is with us, the Holy Spirit offers us the ability to reflect on our values, our beliefs, our morals, our passions, the things of life that we hold the most near and dear.  Cross roads can be scary places of uncertainty but they can also be places filled with possibilities.  We don’t always have to take the road less traveled, but whichever road we take, we should prayerfully ask ourselves the hard questions of what it means to us, and what it means to God, and what it means to our spiritual connection to our Creator and the gifts and passions instilled within us.  Amen. 

Monday, June 3, 2019

Sermon: Ascension Sunday

            When I was a child, there was a tv show called Dallas.  I was too young to watch it, but I do remember at the end of one season there was a cliffhanger and the question asked was:  Who shot JR?  All these years later, I still have never watched Dallas, and perhaps I learned who shot JR but I don’t remember, all I remember is the cliffhanger – the question.  Good writers want to create suspense, they want to leave the audience engaged and eager for more.  Cliffhangers are great to create the suspense for the audience to come back, I think that is why we have now have the term binge watching.  We don’t have to wait week to week or the entire summer, we can watch an entire series in a few weeks.  But eventually, the series has to come to an end.  Just recently, two big shows had their final episode:  Game of Thrones and the Big Bang Theory.  Although I have never watched Game of Thrones, this chatter about the show ending was all over social media and even made the news.  An ending to a story or a movie or a tv series can never please everyone, and the reviews from Game of Thrones are all over the place.  Big Bang theory – well it offered one surprise but really offered a sense that everyone was growing up, their goals were being met, and their lives were going to be alright. That’s what we seem to expect from good endings, all the loose ends are tied up, the boy gets the girl, good conquers evil, and the lost has been found.  I personally, like endings that you never saw coming, but those seem to be far and few in-between. 
            So, why all this talk about cliffhangers and endings?  Because the Ascension of Jesus is the end of the story.  Jesus was born, he lived, taught, healed, performed miracles.  Spoiler alert, he was killed and talk about a great cliffhanger, three days later he rose from the dead.  For many, wouldn’t this be a good enough ending?  I mean really, did you see that coming?  The disciples sure didn’t.  I guess the twist in this story is that what seems like a good ending is not yet the ending.  The risen Christ, after appearing several times to his disciples, is not going to finish out his life to an old age.  Even though he has conquered death and has risen from the dead, his time is still limited.  And so we get this event, that only appears in one other place in the Bible, of him ascending into heaven.  Elijah, the prophet, also ascends into heaven.  Our stained glass window, here in the sanctuary is of that event. 
            I, honestly, cannot give you an explanation of the ascension.  It does make me think of a literary term I learned in high school freshman English:  Deus ex machina, (Latin: “god from the machine”) a person or thing that appears or is introduced into a situation suddenly and unexpectedly and provides an artificial or contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.  This is a difficult situation, how does Jesus return to heaven?  How does the one who has conquered death end his earthly life?  He can’t die again can he?  So, if he has already overcome death, he must return to God in his earthly form, and so the disciples watch him being lifted up, out of their sight, into heaven.  I’m too scientific for a literal understanding of this text.  I believe our souls go to heaven, but not these physical bodies.  But since Jesus is the son of God, I believe part of his teaching to his followers is this final miracle, his showing them that now he is returning to his Father, to his Creator, to take his place in heaven, to reign with God. 
            I guess the disciples were a bit baffled as well, or at least amazed and awed by the sight.  The text tells us they were standing around, looking up into the sky, I assume watching Jesus until they could no longer see him.  I had the chance to see a launching of the space shuttle, and that is what we all did.  We all stood there, eyes fixed on the sky, watching until we could no longer see it. 
So, what do you think of this ending?  Does it tie up the loose ends?  Or does it just create a whole lot of new questions?  This is the kind of stuff theologians love, they love to debate whether this is a literal ending or a symbolic ending and they use all kinds of big words to support their theories – but maybe we are not suppose to get stuck in the details of the text.  Sometimes, by getting stuck, we keep ourselves from the real meaning behind it.  So, perhaps Luke is telling us something important about Jesus' departure: that it is both an ending and a beginning.  Since this event happens at the beginning of the book of Acts, we know there is more to come.  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  I attending a conference a few years ago and this was the theme scripture.  Does it feel like maybe we, as a denomination, or as the church in today’s world, are stuck?  That we seem to be looking to heaven, asking God – what do we do?  How do we fix this?  I know I am constantly praying for inspiration:  God show me the way to be the church in today’s world.  Is the ending, just the beginning?  Was the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus just the first season of the show, and then the book of Acts – season two?  And if so, what season are we?  I kind of feel, we are in a cliffhanger, except not everyone is interested in staying tuned.  We seem to have lost our audience. 
Why do you stand looking toward heaven?  Rather, there is work to do.  Jesus instructed his followers during his lifetime, and in his resurrected state he instructed them again, to follow his teachings, to care for each other, to love one another, to feed his sheep.  And the book of Acts is just that.  It is the continuation of the story, season two, of the disciples going out, teaching others about Jesus, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, seeking the lost and sharing God’s love with them.  And the Good News is, we are not yet at the final episode of the show.  The Holy Spirit has poured out upon God’s people, and upon God’s church, and people of faith are still investing their lives into the work of Jesus, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, sharing God’s love and forgiveness in a chaotic world.  We can stand around wondering what to do, or we can act.  We can continue God’s story, leaving the symbolic or literal interpretation of the text behind, but rather engaging in the simple teaching of Love one another as I have loved you.  Amen.