Sunday, June 30, 2019

So Many Excuses

June 30, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 9:51-62

People are really good at making excuses. We make excuses for everything, including why we can’t make it to church on Sunday. The kids play soccer on Sundays. I was up late on Saturday night. It’s the only day I can play golf, or fish, or hunt, or sleep in. We had company, and I had to fix a big dinner.

Now, I make plenty of excuses too. I have even made excuses for not making it to church on Sunday. But there is more to following Jesus than just going to church. Following Jesus is a way of living, a way of being in the world that makes the kin-dom of God into reality. Following Jesus means seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, all the time.

We heard some excuses in the skit earlier. Maybe you haven’t been the best person you could be. Maybe you feel unworthy. But God loves you anyway. When you follow Jesus, you can learn to be kind, honest, trustworthy. You can learn to welcome people who are different. You are good enough to follow, and by following you become something more. Don’t let your past mistakes be an excuse for not living into your future.

Maybe you have tried your best. You have participated, you have done the work, you have brought some hope and peace to others. Take that experience and build on it. Discipleship is not a destination. Don’t let complacency be an excuse for not doing the more difficult work of seeking justice.

There are times when it is good to follow Jesus. We love one another and learn from one another, and it is joyful to follow Jesus. Don’t let business be an excuse for not being kind. But this isn’t a fairy tale either. Don’t let sentimentality be an excuse for walking away when following Jesus gets hard.

We see people all the time who claim to be Christian, but fail to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the outcast. We see hypocrites who point to the bible as they ignore the commandment to love. Don’t let the behavior of others be an excuse for not following Jesus yourself, and living as a better example of what it means to be a disciple.
And really, it’s a difficult life sometimes, being a Christian. There is no simple way to be a disciple. It means truly dedicating your life to loving others. There are so many excuses. I want my family to come first. I want to be a Christian, but I’m not yet ready to make a commitment. I have something else that I must do first. I keep looking back at what I had before I started out on this path. And gosh, I’m just so tired.

The excuses are where we get into trouble. I yelled at the kids because I didn’t want to take the time to listen, to explain, to manage my own anger before trying to manage theirs. I was mean to the waitress because I just wanted things to be perfect, and I didn’t want to think about separating my disappointment from the person just trying to do her job.

Jesus reminds the people along the road: this is not a fun adventure. Especially at this point in the narrative, because “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This is going to be hard. I know someone who seems to function by the adage, “That’s good enough.” For any task, they will do what is expected, but rarely will they do their best. Most things just seem to reach a certain point where they stop and say, “That’s good enough.” Well, it isn’t. There are times when good enough isn’t. 

After college I worked for a bank. In the check processing department, the checks would get run by the thousands through these huge, high-speed machines. Sometimes the machine couldn’t read the numbers and it would reject the item. When each batch was done, there would end up being a stack of rejects, and the report printed out at the end of the job would show that the balance was off. There was a room of ten or so people whose main job was to take the rejects, print out a new number strip that would get glued to the bottom, and check that all the items were accounted for. Good enough wasn’t good enough there. Everything had to balance at the end of the day.

More is expected of us as Christians that just being good enough. That is just one more excuse. More is expected of us, especially when we identify ourselves in some way as being Christian. If I wear my cross necklace on the outside of my shirt, and then I’m disrespectful or hurtful toward another person, that is what they will think Christians are like – selfish, hypocritical, heartless. More, and better, is expected of us if we profess that we love our neighbor as our selves, that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

You know who it is that has called us to follow. You know what God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do. If we are really going to be the people God wants us to be, then we can’t let excuses get in the way. We can’t worry about where we’ll rest our heads at night. We can’t get stuck in the past, focused on what might be lost rather than on what might be gained. We can’t put a hand to the plow and look back.

Wouldn’t it be better if we worked on finding reasons? Instead of excuses why we can’t follow Jesus, why we can’t be who God is calling us to be, what if instead we focused on the reasons why we can.

I follow Jesus, not because I’m afraid but because I’m brave.

I follow Jesus, not because I want to go to heaven and avoid hell, but because I want to bring the kin-dom to this life.

I follow Jesus, not because I need to protect myself from the fear of death, but because I need to protect the vulnerable from the oppressors.

I follow Jesus, not because I think I’ll get health or wealth, but because I want to bring joy and hope to others, even others who are very different from me.

The reason I follow Jesus is because I want to be happy. Happiness for me means inner peace, control over my passions and desires, life lived fully in this moment, joy in remembering what God has done for me, acceptance of what is and courage to change what must be changed.

I follow Jesus because when I do, when I seek to live as he might have lived, when I treat myself and others with respect and compassion, when I care for not just myself but the world and every living thing in it, I am happy.

When I seek to live my life – even when it is difficult – in the way that Jesus lived, with patience, with kindness, with love even for those who abused and then killed him, I find the joy and love of God.

I follow Jesus because Jesus knows me, knows the excuses I make, and still calls me to follow. And perhaps the best reason I should, I must follow Jesus, is that the Kin-dom of God needs me.  Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Give Us Wisdom

June 16, 2019, Trinity Sunday
Saint John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8

A woman once went into the marketplace, looked around, and saw a sign that read, “God’s Fruit Stand.” “Thank goodness! It’s about time!” the woman said to herself. She went inside and she said, “I would like a perfect banana, a perfect cantaloupe, a perfect strawberry, and a perfect peach.” God, who was behind the counter, shrugged and said, “I’m sorry. I only sell seeds.”
Who am I that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, would be interested in me? I’m not royalty. I hold no elected office. I’m not a movie star. I’m certainly no saint, spending all my days in the poor places of the world, healing the sick or comforting the afflicted. Well, who are any of us, really, in the grand scheme of things? We’re small beings on a small blue ball orbiting a relatively small star on the edge of one galaxy out of billions.
And yet, God is interested in us. The Psalmist tells us that God cares about us. It might not feel that way when things are not going our way, but it’s true. God crowns us with glory and honor (touch head). I don’t feel anything up there. Do you see anything? Maybe it’s meant to be metaphorical. We’re made a little lower than God. Wow, that’s powerful stuff. I certainly don’t feel all that powerful. Maybe my problem is that I mostly look at myself with my own eyes. I see things from the perspective of my daily needs and issues, my problems, memories, and hopes. I think if I’m going to understand what Psalm 8 is talking about, I need a new perspective.
If I step back from myself a bit, I can see more. I can create. I can take objects, combine and shape them into new things that serve a new purpose. I can create food from raw ingredients. I can make a sandbox out of pieces of wood. I participated in creating other beings, a family. I can create music with my voice, my hands, and instruments that others have made. I can communicate with other beings and with them shape the world around me.
If I move back further, I can see other human beings. We have created cities, farms, monuments, and nations, and even touched other worlds. If we move back even further, we can see the world that we inhabit together, and here my perspective really changes.
“The Overview Effect” is a phrase coined in the book of the same name by Frank White. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space.[1] From space we see that the Earth is “a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.  From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.  Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!”[2]
From space we can see some of the impact that human beings have made upon the earth. It is obvious viewing the nighttime side of the world, with all of the lights that shine. More subtle effects can be seen, such as the Mississippi River Delta, where the brown waters of the river mix with the blue of the Gulf of Mexico, and agricultural runoff and industrial pollution are changing the ecosystem. More striking were scenes of burning oil wells, set on fire following the first Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.
God made us human beings with incredible abilities and gave us dominion over the works of creation. In the words of Carl Sagan from his novel Contact, “[We’re] capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares.” And without wisdom, we tend to drift more toward the nightmare side of our nature.
The mystery of God, sometimes called “Wisdom” is the personification of God’s presence and activity in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. The term used for her is feminine - hokmah in Hebrew, sophia in Greek, sapientia in Latin. She is depicted as sister, mother, beloved, chef and hostess, preacher, judge, liberator, establisher of justice, and a myriad of other roles in which she symbolizes transcendent power ordering and delighting in the universe. She is that presence which pervades the world, both nature and human beings, interacting with them in an effort to lure them along the right path.[3]
“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1). Any astronomer can tell you what an incredible coincidence of factors have made the Earth such an ideal place for life to develop and flourish. There is a delicate balance in the distance from the Sun, the size of the planet and its gravitational force, and even the moon which collects meteor impacts that might otherwise hit us. Surely wisdom was at work in the act of Creation. The first of God’s acts, according to Proverbs, even before the creation of light, was the creation of wisdom. “Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (Proverbs 8:23). Wisdom was there, rejoicing in the creation of the master-builder. Yet it seems that somewhere along the way, we lost her. The influence of wisdom on human beings seems as fragile as the world itself.
We need a new perspective. We need wisdom. We need the guidance of our Sovereign to keep us from going astray. Bette Midler sang perhaps the best-known version of “From a Distance,” a song about seeing the world from a different, perhaps wiser, perspective.
From a distance there is harmony;
and it echoes through the land.
It’s the voice of hope; it’s the voice of peace;
it’s the voice of everyone.
It’s the voice of the wisdom of God. Wisdom often requires distance. Wisdom can be defined as knowledge and experience tempered by time. The distance of time can alter our perspective. When we have reflected on our experiences, we gain deeper understanding. “Time heals all wounds,” the saying goes. Though that may or may not be true, time does give us a different view of things. Taking a step back from ourselves helps us to see a bigger picture. And seeking the guidance and advice of others can give us a different way of processing our world. And that is a vital task of the church, this fellowship of beings on the journey of life together, sharing the wisdom gained through generations of experience.
We need to recognize, however, that transforming knowledge and experience into wisdom is not easy. It takes openness to the idea that we might be wrong. It takes a willingness to learn, and grow, and change.
Wisdom is a seed that is planted in all of us. It is there, but it needs tending and nurturing in order to grow. Like seeds in a garden, we need to devote time to tilling the soil of our life experiences so that that wisdom can sprout and grow. It can’t be rushed.
Our mistake, like the woman looking for “perfect fruit” is that too often we want something that is finished - a completed project. But God is not finished with us and creation is far from being complete. The divine energy of creation did not end with Genesis. Be patient, God isn’t finished with you yet! We are called to grow, continually. There is always a call forward. None of us is there yet. We are seeds swelling toward ripeness; a ripeness never quite achieved but still in the process of becoming, growing from the seeds of God’s fruit stand. In this moment, in every moment, whether you know it or not, you are being lured into life. Give us wisdom, God, and let it grow within us all of our days.  Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Translators for God

June 9, 2019 – Pentecost
Saint John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Acts 2:1-21

God’s Word transcends all human barriers – language, nationality, race, ability. By the time Jesus walked the Earth, the Hebrew people had already migrated throughout the ancient middle east, encountering people who spoke a myriad of languages. The biblical scriptures were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. As the Jews and the Christians spread out from the middle east, and began to speak other languages, so the stories of God were told in many tongues. According to Wycliffe[i], as of 2018, the Bible has been translated in whole or in part into more than 3,300 languages.

We hear in this story of Pentecost that people from as far away as Rome, Egypt, and Arabia were gathered there as the disciples spoke about God’s deeds of power. If we think outside of human communication, other passages encourage us to imagine and enact God’s Word moving through all of creation, in the stones, the trees, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and all the creatures of the Earth.

I read a reflection on this passage written by James McTyre[ii]:
God’s voice came through a great wind. Listen. Can you hear it now? Listen to the sounds of the wind. Listen to the beating wings of birds. Listen to the rustling trees. Listen to the creaks and groans of building floors. Listen to the pops of expanding woodwork as your house breathes in the warmth of summer. Listen to mountain streams carving their way down a hillside. Listen to still lakes wrapped in morning mist. Listen to the gravel beneath your car wheels. Listen.
God’s Holy Spirit is speaking to us, not just in our own languages. Humanity does not sing a solo. The Spirit speaks to the world, to the universe, in languages beyond our knowing. Yet, the Spirit also speaks to us in our own language. Through the words of our scriptures, through the stories we tell one another, through the ways in which we share our joys and hurts, our struggles and triumphs with one another we speak of God. Through the work that we do with our hands, writing, building, cooking, creating, we share the whispers of the Holy Spirit.

Learning to communicate is hard. It takes months, even years before children can form words and complete sentences. Learning to communicate in another language, or another culture, is even more difficult. Learning takes time. To learn to communicate takes focus, attention, and good listening. To listen, really listen, and seek to understand another is a holy act.

When the Holy Spirit filled the disciples that day, and they began to speak, they were translating God for the people gathered in that place. When we share our stories with one another, we too are translators. We are the translators of God’s Word as it has been spoken to us. Translation from one language to another requires great effort. Years of disciplined practice are essential to acquire fluency. Communicating clearly and precisely across languages requires nuance and mental agility. This is also true of the translation of God’s word through us to those around us.

All relationships require patience, familiarity, and care. Relationships can only function if there is good communication. So it is with our relationship with God and with one another. This is why we take this time each week, on Sundays at 9:30 on Jefferson Street in Union, to gather and listen, and speak with one another. We seek to connect with God’s Holy Spirit that can be found within each of us. The words may come from the pastor, the one who reads scripture, the musicians, or the ones sitting beside us. We hear the words and seek to understand what God is doing in our lives and the lives of those we know and love.

Translation is not magic. It took effort on the part of the disciples to convince people that they were not drunk, but truly sharing the Word. It took patience on behalf of the listeners to discern the truth in the words they spoke. But at the end of that day three-thousand persons were added. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

On this Pentecost day, we pray that our translation may be pleasing to God. We ask for the Holy Spirit to help us raise our voices in solidarity with all of our neighbors, and with all of creation, for it is of the mighty deeds of God that we speak.  Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

So That They May be One

June 2, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 17:20-26

I wonder how the disciples felt, after supper, listening as Jesus prayed for them. He had washed their feet, a surprising thing for their master to do, demonstrating through this act that they were to live as servants to one another. Judas had left, though they did not yet know why. They had to understand that something big was about to happen; Jesus had told them he was leaving the world and going to God. He had given them a new commandment, that they love one another as he had loved them. And he had warned them that the world would hate them, and told them that they do not belong to the world.

They may have felt like their world was about to be upended, and I’m sure they were a little afraid of what was to come. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells them, and he prays for them. I did what I could to teach them, to love them, and to prepare them. Now that I am leaving, I give them into your care. They will be sent out into the world, a world that will hate them, and they will need one another like they never have before. Jesus prays for their unity, “that they may be one,” as Jesus and God are one, and that they may be included in that oneness. 

This is what Jesus prays for them, and also for us. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” The prayer of Jesus for the disciples, a prayer for the people of God, is a prayer that all of us need to hear. And in that prayer, we are included with the twelve, with the first followers of the Way of Jesus, with two thousand years of Christians. We are included in the love with which God has loved Jesus.

Jesus began by turning the tables of the disciples’ lives upside down, and nothing would ever be the same. But after that supper, after all Jesus did and said in that moment, they must have felt that everything was about to change again, and this time they would lose the one for whom they had left everything behind. The disciples were facing a liminal time, a time of change and transition between one way of being and the next. They were uncertain of their future and the changes that would come.

I find it encouraging that the disciples experienced that liminal time. We, too, are facing change and uncertainty, a time when decisions will be made, new paths will be chosen, and we will need to trust one another. You have a new pastor in me, and I have a new family to love, a new history and community to learn. In our time together we will seek to open a new door for people to join this community of disciples as we seek to live out the gospel of Jesus. And, as always, we’ll have to figure out how to do it all within budget.

It is natural to want to cling to what has been, even as we realize that things are no longer what they were before. It is only human to be anxious when we are going through change. But we can take heart that other faithful people have been here before us. We can be encouraged when we remember that we abide in Christ, and we are the people for whom Jesus prays.

“I made your name known to them,” Jesus prays, “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, remembering that day when the disciples were all together in one place, and the Holy Spirit came like the rush of the wind, resting on each of them like tongues of fire, and they were filled with the Spirit. That same Spirit fills us as well, giving us joy, love, and holiness.

Holiness is not the striving for perfection and righteous piety that we might think. Rather, to be holy means to be “set apart.” We are not “set above” or made better than anyone else; instead, we have been given a particular calling to love one another and serve the world, this world that God loves, this world in which we are children of God, loved by God even as God has loved Jesus.

So, as a people set-apart, we gather to tell the stories of Jesus, to seek his presence in the bread and cup, to support one another in fellowship, and be reassured that Jesus will always be with us. And then, as a people not of the world, but sent into the world, we are called go out from our gathering to live a life dedicated to God, loving God with all that we are, showing love and compassion for others, making hard choices and trusting that we are not alone. God watches over us. We are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield fruit in its season, and our leaves do not wither. In all that we do, in love and in service, we prosper. We are the people that Jesus prays for, a set-apart community, uncertain of our future, but moving ahead as one, one with each other, and one with God.  Amen.