Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ordinary 21C -- August 25, 2013

“Healing From The Outside In”

Luke 13:10-17

10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

This is a very strange time of year, isn’t it?  Summer is not quite over, the leaves on the trees are still deep green, the temperatures still hover in the mid 80’s, yet the calendar is relentlessly beckoning us toward September. 

For those of us still ruled by the rhythm of the school year, this is the season in which we launch our children back into the classroom.  I drove Rachel back to Ohio last week before classes began so she could receive training as a teaching assistant for one of the freshman history classes.  I can’t believe she is a senior this year and has supposedly learned enough to be a source of wisdom for new kids entering her college. 

David enters sixth grade, which is even more mind-blowing to me.  And, I admit, his return to school is weighing heavily on me this year.  Because my beloved son is about to enter that swirling whirlwind of toxic hormones otherwise known as middle school.  When I was 12, we called it junior high, but from what I’ve observed with Rachel and my nieces, the particularly miserable rite of passage otherwise known as adolescence hasn’t changed much in 40 years.  Because David is autistic, his ability to navigate social situations is challenging even on a good day.  So I’m not sure how well David will cope in the wild world of middle school where the social hierarchy and terms of engagement can change on a daily, if not hourly basis.

We’ve done our best over the past few years to prepare David for his larger world.  David goes to therapy and has access to all kinds of help at school.  David is one of the lucky ones; he is a very bright kid and he has parents who love him beyond belief and will do whatever it takes to support him.  But no matter his intelligence or how much we support him and love him, David will never, ever be entirely “normal” by conventional standards.  We cherish him exactly as he is, but he will never be able to navigate social situations as well as other kids.  David will very likely never be healed of his autism.  It just is what it is.  Worst of all, perhaps, he knows it and sometimes I can see that knowledge weighing him down like a Sponge Bob backpack filled with bricks.

Our story in Luke today is about a woman who is also weighed down by a heavy and burdensome spirit.  She is given no name in the text – history has already named her, judged her and labeled her by her appearance.  She is the “bent over woman,” identified only by what is wrong with her.  As she is introduced to us in the gospel, we get the sense that she too has become accustomed to living life as it is, bent over with her eyes focused on the ground, cut off from the larger community around her.  No clue is given in this text about why she is the way she is.  We do not know if her physical condition is caused by illness, injury or disease.  But she had clearly been hobbled by something or someone somewhere along the line.

Luke tells us it is Sabbath and the people have gathered in the synagogue.  Jesus is teaching, the men are gathered in the front of the room, and the women are in the back – a standard practice in 1st century Judaism.  And we can imagine the bent over woman quietly making her way to her seat, perhaps coming in a little late so she will not be noticed.

It must have been so difficult for the bent over woman to come to the synagogue.  I wonder why she keeps showing up.  She must have great faith because synagogue could not have been the most hospitable environment for someone like her.  She cannot see Jesus speaking.  And with her eyes continually cast down toward her feet, she cannot see the pity-filled faces of the women around her.  Or perhaps she has been that way for so long that the other women no longer pity her. Maybe they do not even notice her at all.  Perhaps the bent over woman has become invisible to them.  After 18 years…well, it just is what it is. 

But, for some reason, Jesus notices her. Jesus sees a small female figure way, way back in the synagogue and calls her over to him. He lays hands on her and she is able to stand up straight for the first time in 18 years.  And her response is to praise God. 

This is no metaphorical healing.  It is a healing real enough to get the attention of the people, particularly the ones in charge.  This is not the first time Jesus has stepped over the line and pushed the boundaries of Jewish law.  Jesus has touched and healed “unclean” people before – lepers, bleeding women, dead people.  And Jesus healed on the Sabbath before – the man with the withered hand and man possessed by a demon. 

What happens next is what usually happens when Jesus is around.  And the reaction of this leader of this synagogue is pretty much the same kind of reaction Jesus has encountered before.  The leader is ticked off because Jesus has broken the RULES.  There are rules, Jesus.  This woman has been crippled for 18 years!  You couldn’t wait another day to heal her? 

It’s a good question, isn’t it?  Why does Jesus keeping breaking perfectly clear rules?  And why does he keep breaking rules so publicly?  Why does Jesus deliberately walk into situations and do things that will only get him in trouble?

Jesus has been drifting in and out of synagogues throughout much of Luke.  In fact, he began his ministry in his hometown synagogue where things also didn’t go so well.   But it doesn’t seem as if he’s going into synagogues to find people to heal.  He doesn’t need to go to the synagogue to find sick, blind and crippled people.  Those people manage to find Jesus just fine on their own everywhere he goes. 

When Jesus goes into a synagogue, he seems to have a different sort of healing in mind.  Jesus seems to be trying to heal the synagogue itself by calling out its institutional addiction to ritual and religiosity.  Especially when that addiction to following rules comes at the expense of vulnerable people way back there in the back row, hiding in the shadows.  And if following Sabbath law means ignoring the human condition that comes hobbling into the midst of the community, not only does Jesus want no part of it, he also will call out the leadership clinging to those laws for they are.  Hypocrites.

Yup.  That’s what Jesus calls them and it certainly seems appropriate. After all, Jesus says, don’t you treat your animals well on the Sabbath?  Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey and give it water on this holy day?  What better day than the Sabbath to set free this woman, this daughter of Abraham, who has been suffering for eighteen long years, right here in your community, right under your noses?

Now I know what you’re thinking.  The leader of the synagogue is a jerk, right?  At the very least, he is certainly a poster boy for insensitive church leaders.  He certainly doesn’t care about the healing of this daughter of Abraham, does he? 

Yet many of us in the church have a similar stake in keeping disorder out of our orderly sanctuaries.  Whether we mean to do it or not, we feel the need to keep things safe and tidy and predictable.    

Because, after all, once you start making exceptions for this reason or that reason, pretty soon nobody is keeping Sabbath and it’s lost all its meaning.  And it’s not just the Sabbath, is it?  If you keep making exceptions, doesn’t the 10 commandments become something more like the 10 suggestions? 

But notice what Jesus doesn’t do when he is in these holy places of worship.  He does not compliment the synagogue leaders for running a tight ship.  He does not compliment them on their excellent music or beautiful flowers or flawless preaching.  What Jesus does is seek out what is most broken in the community because that is the only way to reveal the brokenness that was so well hidden.  The only way to heal that brokenness is to reach out to the margins and pull the hurting, the lonely, the least and the lost back into the center where they can no longer be hidden or ignored.  With that single move, Jesus deflates the status quo, but t a fresh new wind begins to blow through the community.  Those who were burdened are released.  The broken are healed.  Community is restored. 

This is the way it always seems to go with Jesus.  Jesus heals from the outside in, when he stands with the unclean, the undesirables, people at the very edge – to shame everyone else who has a stake in pretending everything is ok as long as they keep the rules.  Jesus is not a Sabbath breaker, but he is the One who demonstrates what Sabbath means, who God really is and God’s deepest concerns. 

When Jesus does that, the leaders are terrified because suddenly everything they stood for is pulled out from under them.  The leaders are terrified because Jesus shows they might be wrong about what matters most in their faith.  And worst of all, for this particular synagogue leader, he is shamed in front of his whole congregation.  Nobody likes to be shamed in front of other people.  That is a very big ouch.  Who does this itinerate rabbi think he is?

It is so easy for us to hammer the poor synagogue leader, and all of other pompous, arrogant, and smug guys who react to Jesus with fear and anger.  But then again, are we really so different? 

It is not that we do not see the one still bent over – the poor, the stranger, the widow and orphan. And it’s not so much about whether or not the healing of the bent over woman can wait until tomorrow.

The question is if we can recognize Jesus right in front of us today, offering us freedom from everything that weighs us down.  Freedom from how the world wants to define us.  Freedom to live into identities as children of God – all of us, sons and daughters of Abraham.

Do you remember the law about the Sabbath? There are two versions of the ten commandments, remember – and in the version given in Deuteronomy 5 we hear the instructions given to the people regarding Sabbath:

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Remember you were a slave.  Remember that the Lord your God has freed you.  Remember that God has given you this day as freedom from the bondage and oppression under which you once lived.   Remember that this gift is for everyone.  The Sabbath is not about what is restricted.  Sabbath is a gift of freedom. 

We need rules, we need order, we need a time for this and a time for that.  But if rules blind us to the grace of God we are lost.  We won’t see how Jesus is working on behalf of those who do not ask for anything anymore because, well, it’s been that way for so long and it is what it is.  But when we are on the outside looking in, perhaps even when we are trying our best not to be noticed by anyone at all, we will be called out by Jesus and all at once, there will a word for us that we did not ask for. (1) And that word is not law, but grace pure and simple.

The law is important, but it must always bow to mercy. The law helps us live better, but grace is the source of life itself.  Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together.  Law keeps us in a safe space within the line, but grace beckons us to push against the margins to see just how far the Word can travel. (2)

For above and beyond all the laws ever received or conceived, the only absolute law that we dare not break is love.  That’s what Jesus said.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  Love God by loving your neighbor.  That’s all there is.  For me.  For you.  For middle school kids with autism and little old ladies with arthritis.  Love is all there is.  If we let it, love will heal us.  And love is always enough.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

1. Tom Steagald, "Preaching Journal", Lectionary Homiletics, August 22, 2013
2. David Lose, "The Law of Love," Working Preacher, August 18, 2013

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ordinary 20C, August 18, 2013

The Trouble with Gardening

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

The longest running show in musical theatre history is not “Cats,” or “Phantom of the Opera,” or even “Les Miserables.”  The longest running show in musical theatre history is a charming off-Broadway piece that opened in 1960 and ran for 42 years and 17,162 performances.   That show is “The Fantasticks.”  And unlike big budget  Broadway productions I’ve mentioned, “The Fantasticks,” has a simple set, only five main characters,  sparse musical accompaniment (a piano, a harp and drums), but a familiar, irresistible story line.  Boy meets girl.  Boy and girl fall in love.  Boy loses girl.  Boy and girl get back together.  “The Fantasticks” also launched the career of Jerry Orbach from “Law and Order” fame, as well as the popular song, “Try to Remember,” which is just about the most beautiful song ever written.  Listen to Jerry Orbach sing “Try to Remember” the original cast album, and you’ll understand why the show lasted for 42 years.     

But there’s a another song in The Fantasticks that came to mind when I read today’s text from Isaiah.  In the second act, when the boy loses the girl, the fathers of the estranged couple try to think up a plan to reconcile the estranged lovers.  As it happens, both fathers are enthusiastic gardeners so they sing a song about how raising vegetables is a far easier task than raising children.  They sing:

Plant a radish.
Get a radish.
Never any doubt.
That's why I love vegetables;
You know what you're about!

Plant a turnip.
Get a turnip.
Maybe you'll get two.
That's why I love vegetables;
You know that they'll come through!

They're dependable!
They're befriendable!
They're the best pal a parent's ever known!
While with children,
It's bewilderin'.
You don't know until the seed is nearly grown
Just what you've sown.

There’s the same sort of parental bewilderment and disappointment in the song we hear today in Isaiah.  This is a love song sung by gardener who has put his heart and soul into his fledgling vineyard.  He sings about how he painstakingly dug up the soil to make it rich and fertile.  He sings about how he carefully picked out every rock.  Once the ground was prepared, he planted the choicest vines.  He put in hedges and walls to protect the vineyard from every kind of intruder and built a high tower so he could keep constant watch over the vines as they grew. Anticipating a generous yield of wonderful fruit, the gardener even prepared a big vat for the wine the grapes would produce.  All of this pleasant planting and careful tending would surely yield exceptionally delicious fruit.  How could this vineyard possibly fail?.  The gardener did everything right.

But like all those country songs about love gone wrong, this song from Isaiah takes a sad, sorry turn.  The beautiful grapes the gardener anticipated never grow.  For his trouble and toil, all the gardener gets is a few wild grapes that are gross and bitter and utterly useless. 

At this point in the song, the gardener turns to his audience and asks that sad, sad question, “What more could I have done?”  We all know the answer – nothing.  Nothing.  There’s nothing more the gardener could have done to get the good grapes.   

And indeed, that’s how it goes sometimes.  In gardening.  In raising children.  In careers and relationships.  Sometimes, you do everything right and despite your very best effort, you wake up one day to find yourself with a bunch of bad grapes on your hands. 

This was supposed to be a love song, but it is a love song without a happy ending.  But the love song quickly changes into something quite different because the gardener doesn’t just walk away, but gets really ticked off.   Angry.  Furious.  He will rip down the protective walls and hedges, plow the whole thing under and let the plot go back to seed and weeds.  That’s what the gardener will do.  It’s what the vineyard deserves for letting him down. 

The gardener finally commands the clouds to hold back rain and it becomes clear this isn’t just a story about a good vineyard gone bad.  We know what Isaiah is getting at in this text.  Duh.  This is not a song about an ordinary gardener, but a song about YHWH.  And this is no ordinary vineyard but the beloved children of the LORD of hosts, which is the house of Israel, and its vines are the people of Judah.

And YHWH expected more from them.  YHWH had always expected more from these people.  These were YHWH’s chosen ones, the people YHWH had loved and tended for generations.  YHWH expected mishpat (justice), but instead the people produced mishpach (bloodshed).  YHWH sought expected a harvest of tsedaqah (righteousness) but the people created tse’aqah (cries). 

Anyone who has ever poured his or her heart and soul into a relationship only to have it crumble into dust knows that punch in the gut feeling .  And sometimes it is a healthy thing to do what the gardener is doing here -- just step back and let things be, let the relationship lie fallow for a season or two, and try to resist the temptation to try to change a situation that has yielded nothing but bitterness. 

But stepping away does not mean the end of love.  I think God does sometimes leave us to our own devices, to stew in our own juices a bit, as my grandmother used to say.  But God’s love does not abandon us, nor does God’s love ever end.  It is always there, beckoning us back to life.  God’s love is as steadfast as God’s longing to see us yield the kind of fruit we were meant to yield.  Even in the darkest shadows of Isaiah, there is always a time of soothing healing.   After a time of  desolation, there is always tender and gentle consolation.  And after the deepest loss and darkest grief comes the light of hope. One small flicker at a time.  The light always comes.  God’s love does not end even in exile.

It always helps me to remember to whom Isaiah is speaking.  These are the people of Israel, more specifically the people in the south of the country, of the tribe of Judah.  And the history of Israel is all about a God of possibilities who somehow saw great promise in a group of people.  That God would choose the Hebrew people certainly proves Paul’s point that God loves to use the weak, the lowly and the foolish things of this world. 

Only God could see the possibilities in a rag tag group of people who began as a group of runaway slaves wandering around the desert, led by a stuttering shepherd.  Only God would continue raining down manna and quail on a group of people who never stopped whining and seldom said thank you for not being left on their own to starve to death.  Only God would bring the Israelites back from the brink of  what was often their self-inflicted disaster.  Again and again and again.

Even after they reached the Promised Land, this group of refugees never did become much of a super power.   Instead, they often found themselves kicked around and beaten up by a seemingly endless series of regional bullies.  Oh they had their moments of triumph, to be sure, and somehow these foreign nations never quite managed to absorb Israel into their empires.  The story of God’s people is that they survived against all odds.  In fact, I have Jewish friends who begin every holiday dinner with this somewhat flip but wholly accurate saying:  “They tried to kill us.  It didn’t work.  Let’s eat.”

In fact, it is safe to say that this little group of chosen people had only one thing going for them -- that God saw something in them that wasn’t at all apparent to anyone else.  God saw their potential – and sees our potential -- to become a people of justice, of righteousness, a light to the world, a people of peace.  In fact, God never has abandoned the vineyard.  In fact, God doubled down and entered into our overgrown, weedy garden in the human form of Jesus Christ.  And with that stroke of divine optimism, we have been cut down and set free to blossom.

See, I believe that every person who is born holds holy potential.  You, me, all of us.  Each one of us comes into the world as God’s choice vines, planted in the rich and loomy soil of love.  We need to stay connected to the nurturing power of God’s care and attention to grow into something more than our puny minds can imagine,  We need the nourishment that comes from our relationship to God and to one another.  We need to be fed with the living bread that does not perish and the font of living water, which never goes dry. 

I can’t help but picture God as this wildly optimistic gardener who goes overboard in lavishing care upon each one of us, fretting over us, hoping for the best of us but never really knowing what might grow.  And when we mess up – and yes, we do mess up -- Jesus and the prophets tell us that there will be pruning and fire and all sorts of trials that will be painful and all too real. God doesn’t abandon us in those moments, but suffers with us.  And when the smoke clears, God sees that there is always more potential in us to keep growing.    

This isn’t rosy, pie-in-the- sky optimism about suffering.  This is the stuff of life.  If you’re a gardener, you know the cycle of creative joy and misery.  You plant.  You prune.  You dig up and move a plant that’s failing in the hot sun and try it in a spot with a little more shade.  You trim when a plant is overgrown.  Sometimes you let a plot lay fallow to give it a chance to recover.  God does the same with us…God keeps coaxing and challenging and moving us forward.   

I was reading this week about the wildfires that have plagued the western states over the past several summers. On Colorado’s Front Range, near Colorado Springs, a wildfire last year burned more than 116,000 acres of forest, destroyed more than 600 homes and killed six people.  It was a terrible, devastating event that has, unfortunately, been repeated this summer in Colorado and other areas of the country.[1]

But two months later, on the scorched forest floors of Colorado’s Front Range, new aspen trees began sprouting up like crazy.  This is extremely good news as aspen trees in Colorado had been dying rapidly over the past ten years due to severe drought which was at least partially responsible for uptick in forest fires.  Aspens are an important part of healthy forest because they are not as dense as pine trees and firs, and tend to open up forests to light.  And when forests are more open, they are less likely to produce the sort of super fires are difficult to control. 

The cool thing about aspen trees is that their roots are incredibly deep.  Really, really deep.  So deep that even after a super fire when the soil becomes too damaged to support other kinds of trees, aspens are able to grow naturally once the fire is gone.  Even in the midst of a totally burned out forest of ashes and soot, brand new little aspen shoots just take off and grow like crazy.   All those dormant aspen roots needed was a little space, a little light.  It sounds terrible to us that it took a crazy, awful wildfire to give those new trees what they needed to grow.  But once they begin growing, those little aspen trees will be the basis of a healthy, beautiful forest into the future.

I think that is what we are to be as people and as a church.  Every life has dormant times in which we lay low, waiting for the light to lead us into something better.  In those times, we are to remain so deeply rooted in the love of God that we can withstand even the worst wildfires of life that hurt like hell, yet somehow hold deep within the potential for new beginning. 

Toward the end of “The Fantasticks.” the narrator, played by Jerry Orbach, steps into the center of the stage.  As a spotlight shines on him, he says simply:

“There is a curious paradox that no one can explain.
Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born from winter's laboring pain?
Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?
I do not know the answer
I merely know it's true”

We do not know why bad things happen.  We do not know why the fire comes or why the harvest fails.  We do not know why our hard labors sometime result in precious little, or why we suddenly find ourselves with blessings that seem to effortlessly fall into our laps. 

But we do know that death is not the last word and never will be.  Resurrection is good news for gardeners everywhere.  Resurrection is good news for parents and friends and lovers and children.  The reality of God’s love is good news for all of us unlikely, ornery people that God has planted in this time and this place, for the restoration of God’s whole garden, which is the whole world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] “Sunlit Sprouts Emerging from Colorado Burn Areas,” The Denver Post, accessed August 15, 2013.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ordinary 19C, August 11, 2013 -- Guest Preacher: Alan Olson

No Jesus, Know Fear; Know Jesus, No Fear

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
1The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
3Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
4He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5“Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah
7“Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.
8Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.

22“Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

Luke 12:32-40
32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

            When I was selecting texts for this morning’s lessons, I had a difficult choice to make. One of the other Old Testament readings in the Lectionary for this week is from the first chapter of Isaiah, and it includes verses 10-13:
1:10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
1:11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
1:12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more;
1:13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
God strikes the same tone in Psalm 50, acknowledging the frequent sacrifices made by Israel, yet rebuking them all the same. The main charge against Israel is that the people are not making their offerings with thanksgiving. Rather, they are just going through the motions—sacrifice is an empty observance and God is not satisfied by this. The people of God have forgotten God; the price for this forgetfulness? God has the right to tear Israel apart. And the ending for today’s reading from Isaiah is about the same, as God says to Israel, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” That’s pretty scary stuff.
            This language of charges and rights and judgments almost seems to be borrowed from the courtroom. In fact, this is a common device in the Old Testament. Biblical scholars call this form a covenant lawsuit. God is placing the people Israel on trial for not living up to their obligations. Another place where you may have noticed this is in the Book of Micah, chapter 6, verses 1-8. In that passage, God lists many of the things that God has done for Israel, and then God demands that Israel answer for its shortcomings. I mention this because the answers to the charges that God raises against Israel are remarkably similar. In Micah 6:8, the prophet exhorts Israel to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Similarly, Isaiah instructs Israel to: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
            It sounds easy, yet Israel seems to have trouble living into these instructions… and so do we. I think part of the problem, which is reinforced by these scriptures, is that God offers us heaping helpings of fear. Fear can be a great motivator, but sometimes it motivates us too well; it distorts the larger picture. For centuries, the Church has taught us that our main purpose here on Earth is to get into Heaven when we die. And if we obey what we’re told in the scriptures, and we live right, then we’ll get in. That’s it! Oh, and we should also be scared of going to Hell. Really, really scared. Fear helped to keep us in line.
            And then some crazy people came along and challenged some of these teachings. Crazy people, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who didn’t believe in works righteousness, the idea that you or I could work our way into Heaven by doing good deeds or perfectly observing all of God’s commandments—if such a thing were humanly possible. Don’t worry. It’s not. Don’t worry.
            This is how Jesus begins this morning’s lesson from Luke: “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Jesus begins by dialing down the fear: “Do not be afraid, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Wow, that’s really happy and hopeful. Then, instead of telling us to be afraid, Jesus tells us how we should live, and that’s truly frightening: he tells us to sell all our possessions. Sell all our possessions!
            I can’t believe that none of you jumped up and ran out of here. You’re all going to wait to sell all your possessions until after church, right? Yeah, me, too.
            And this is where the widows and the orphans and the thankfulness come back into the picture. What Jesus is talking about, what Isaiah is talking about, what Micah was talking about, and what the Psalmist was talking about was living in a right relationship with God. To do this, we must thank God for the love that God has shown us, and then we must love one another—completely and unconditionally—just as God loves us. We call this agape love. I’m sure you’ve heard this term before.
            A great example of this can be found in Mark 12:29-31, when Jesus answers the scribe’s question, which is the greatest commandment: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
            Caring for the widow and the orphan, providing for the poor, advocating for the homeless, feeding the hungry, these are acts of love for our human family. We all talk about doing these things, and some of us do these things . . . some of the time. So let me ask you the uncomfortable question: When is the last time one of you sold an extra TV set, or an old car, and gave the money to charity? When’s the last time you went out to a restaurant and ate a really expensive meal? Could you have opted for a less expensive mean, and then, maybe made a donation to your local food bank?
            Before you start squirming in your pews, do not be afraid. I am not here to condemn you. I am no holier than any of you. I have also missed countless opportunities for acts of charity; I have failed, time and again, to live into that right relationship with God. And God loves me still, just as God loves each of you. Do not be afraid.
            Jesus is not calling for each of us to sell all our earthly possessions, though he is calling for us to let go of our greed and give freely of ourselves. Greed is an easy trap to fall into. Anxiety and fear can lead us to believe that we won’t have enough: enough food, enough money, enough love. So we hoard them when we can find them. This is a problem. The Apostle Paul might call this idolatry; at the very least, it seems that we are putting goods in the place of God, and in our hoarding, we disregard the needs of others.[1]
            In our disregard for the needs of others, we fail to practice agape love. Our failure works on another level. If our desire to hoard comes from a fear of scarcity, then we are also failing to fully trust in God. We’re not alone in this. Think of the Israelites, wandering through the desert. God led them out of Egypt, sent them manna, yet they complained about the accommodations on the trip. Even worse, they worshipped a golden calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai. They were not willing to trust completely in God. I think it’s safe to say that fear can interrupt a healthy relationship with God.
            Yet God did not let the Israelites perish in the desert. As many times as they turned away, God welcomed them back. What’s more, when the people of Israel continued to have trouble living in a right relationship with God, God entered the world in the person of Jesus. God’s only son was sent to teach us how to restore our relationship with God. What an amazing act of grace!
            And that restoration begins with prayer, as we were taught by Jesus. Let’s look at the language of the Lord’s Prayer. I do not ask God to provide for me. No. Collectively, we ask for God to provide for us just what we need—and nothing more! We do not ask for an abundance of resources; we ask for our daily bread. Our daily bread.
            It strikes me that the Lord’s Prayer is also a prayer of trust. By voicing this prayer, we are saying that we trust God to feed us, to take care of our needs. We ask God to provide for everyone; sometimes we are the instruments by which God provides for others, it is part of the cycle of trust and agape love. We trust that God loves us enough to provide for us, and we reflect that love and trust to those who cannot care for themselves. All the time, Jesus reminds us, “Do not fear.” This is the grace of God. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace,” in the person of Jesus, “my fears relieved.” And with deepest thanksgiving, I say, thanks be to God! Amen!

[1] Fred B. Craddock. Luke. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990.

Ordinary 18C, August 4, 2013 -- Guest Preacher, Keith Mihelcic

Identity Crisis

Colossians 3:1-11
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
But now you must get rid of all such things--anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices
and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."
But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you? “And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. “Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? ‘Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. ‘But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

When it comes to picking a topic for a sermon, there are essentially two types of preachers out there: there are the ones who, when they write a sermon like to choose their own texts. Perhaps they feel called to preach on a certain topic, or perhaps they decide to preach on a theme or a series that they have come up with. Then there are the others, like myself, who rely on the lectionary to suggest to them what to preach from.
I, myself am not as imaginative or as hardworking as the first group! I would say once, maybe twice, I have selected my own texts to preach from. I prefer to have the lectionary just throw me a few verses to choose from.
Now this has led me into trouble before. Two of the hardest sermons I ever researched and wrote, I preached here, at Emsworth UPC. The first one was on that Presbyterian staple, the highly confusing, sometimes controversial, yet always fun, predestination. The second was even worse. It was on that wonderful, wonderful Romans passage in which Paul speaks of the hate of God. That is always a fun verse to try to wrap your mind around.
Yet, after initially reading the texts for today, I immediately had one thought pop into my mind: mistaken identity. It is a much bigger problem than most of us would like to think. Mistaken identity has almost reached epidemic-like levels in this country, in my opinion. Also, this is not something new. As we will see mistaken identity has been an issue for thousands of years, from the time of Adam and Eve in the garden, to this very day. This may seem a bit of a stretch, but hear me out.
Let’s start with us, the body of Christ. Do we suffer from mistaken identity? Do we really know who we are? If we are just a bunch of loving compassionate people following Jesus, why don’t we always act like it? Why don’t I always act like it? What it comes down to, in my opinion, is faith and belief. Many of you, I am sure, have heard the analogy that goes something like this: I believe that this chair will support my weight. I honestly do. Well then, why don’t I turn that belief into faith and have a seat?
Jesus was very clear on the way we are to live. However, just in case he was a little ambiguous with his words, the Apostle Paul clarifies them for us. We know how we are to live. We have been given the perfect example in Jesus Christ.
When I was younger I would behave badly and my Mom would ask me “How old are you?” When I would sheepishly answer she would then say “Act like it!”  I guess we can rephrase the question. Whenever we find ourselves falling into all too familiar traps and patterns we can ask ourselves “Who is our Lord and Savior who died for our sins?”
Jesus Christ.
Then perhaps we should act like He is. Perhaps we should act like Him.
The term Christians means, literally, “little Christs”. Are we? Do we act like it? Well, we are.
We should act like who we are. No matter if we like it or not, we are called to, and hopefully compelled to, live and act a certain way. Paul gives us a fantastic list of things that we need to get rid of or “put away”. Granted there are some nasty things on that list. I won’t ask for a show of hands but I bet the majority of us can point to one or two of those things on this list, maybe more, that we are guilty of. Maybe even recently. This month perhaps? This week? week. Maybe even today.
I know that in my own life it seems like I put on anger when I get into my car.  I get angry sometimes when I drive and people are not driving up to my expectations. I get frustrated and think bad thoughts when the cashier at the store is having a bad day and taking for-ev-er to check people out. Come on, lady. Hurry up. Don’t you know who I am? Do I know who I am? Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. Jesus would weep, I think.
Now an interlude…… and a confession.
When I write a sermon the first thing I do is come up with a general theme. After that, or sometimes right around the same time I usually come up with a title. Then I will write an outline, do a little research, and then I actually get down to writing it.
With this sermon I did all of that and I was just to that line, (hopefully you remember it!) where I said “Jesus would weep”. After that point, it seems my inspiration dried up and my motivation left me. Yes, I still had an outline that I could have worked from and I tried a few times. Yet nothing that I came up with sounded good to me. It just didn’t feel right. Now, I know that most folks who write, or paint or do “creative” things have a moment when they look at something they are working on and think “This is total garbage. What am I doing here?”
That is how I felt every time I decided to go beyond that aforementioned sentence.
I will be honest; I have had a rough couple of weeks. Tore a calf muscle, (it is almost healed), my Mom went into the hospital in very dramatic fashion, (she is doing fine now, see?) my Dad had to go to the ER with an issue the other night. Add on to that the stress of work and my boss being on vacation, so I am running the show, and customers complaining, and people in my department coming in three hours late, on and on and on…all this stress, at times. All this business. All this living.
At one point on Friday, in the midst of all the chaos, I sat back in my chair at work took a deep breath and it came to me. Or should I say, I heard a still small voice inside my head. I knew why I was so blocked when it came to this sermon.
I had forgotten. It wasn’t so much as mistaken identity; I was having an identity crisis. Forgetting who I am, I had spiritual amnesia so to speak. I think that this is an issue that many of us have and live with from time to time.
As Solomon wrote “There is nothing new under the sun”. Nothing. This kind of identity crisis and the spiritual malaise that comes with it has been going on for a long, long time. Think of all the people of God in the Old Testament. Now think about the faults that each one had. Murderers. Adulterers. Drunks. Cowards. People with breath-taking anger management issues. People a lot like us.
People who were blessed by God, saw God work and move in their lives, yet people who still did not get it. People who still clung to their old ways. Isn’t that us?
I know it’s me. From time to time I get this way where I feel just so overwhelmed, and you would think it would force me to my knees, and maybe, at first, it does. But I get up and try to take it all on again myself. Alone. Of my own accord and power.
I forget who I am in Christ. Or maybe sometimes I do not fully realize who he is. Jesus got that a lot. Look at the guy in our Gospel lesson. He thinks Jesus came to solve family disputes over property. Sure, rabbis back then were often asked to settle disputes, but that is not why Jesus came. Jesus plainly through his parable tells this man you are worried about the wrong things. Your priorities are way out of line. I am not here to be your lawyer.
Believe it or not, I am beginning to think that perhaps Jesus does not care about my financial well being. At all. I believe Pastor Susan said it in a sermon a few weeks ago, something to the effect of, “when you have absolutely nothing - THAT is when your true character comes through.
That is what Jesus wants. The TRUE “us” to come out. Ever notice that people in poor countries who are Christians are so joyous? They have so little, yet they rejoice so much. We have SO much and we sulk. We want more. WE are driven by our consumerism and our selfish desires and fleshly lusts, to what end? Why?
I went out and got a new phone the other night. I didn’t really need a new phone. The one I had was working just fine. It was old and it did not have all of the bells and whistles that some of the newer ones have. Also, my contract was up, so technically the phone was free. I paid a small “upgrade” fee. Whatever that is.
You know why I needed that phone? So that when I pass away, when I see Jesus in heaven I can say Jesus, check out my new phone! Isn’t it great?”
But wait.
I can’t take that with me, can I? None of us can take anything with us? So what will I have with me when I meet Jesus face to face? Nothing. None of my stuff?
No. It will be just me as I am, and as I was meant to be. I will be standing there before Jesus in all his glory.
I am not trying to make anyone feel bad this morning. Not at all. That’s not my job today. I am preaching the sermon I felt called to write and deliver. If you have any feelings at all about anything I have touched on this morning, I encourage you to think about it. To pray long and hard about it. I know I will.
The thing is, as I was writing and thinking about this sermon a thought kept crossing my mind. I think I may be the one person in here who needs to hear this the most. In turn, instead of preaching to the choir I am preaching to myself.
However, I think that God wanted me to share it with all of you.
For we must remember our identities. For our real identities, when we strip away all the things, and all of the sins of the flesh that cling to all of us, our real, authentic identities come out when we stand before Christ. For as we heard today we have been risen in Christ. THAT is our identity. Our lives, our REAL lives are hidden with him. Our lives our not in the sins we commit or the things we own. Although, those things can overshadow and threaten to eclipse the lives we are called to lead.
Our identities became one with Jesus when we gave our lives to Him. We need so desperately to remember that. We should not remember this like we would some random fact or piece of information. We need to remember this as we live out a strong, vibrant faith. As we live out our identities, identities that I pray will never be in crisis. Amen