Sunday, October 27, 2013

Looking Forward To All Saints Sunday

Join In The Celebration – All Saints’ Sunday

Next Sunday, November 3rd, we will celebrate All Saints’ Day.  All Saints’ Day invites us to remember those whom we love that have gone on through the gates of larger life.  In some mysterious way we are gathered, now, with all those who have gone before, with those we love who live in different parts of the world, as well as with those in the room with us. From the earliest days, the church has taken this opportunity to celebrate and you are invited to join in the celebration of resurrection.

On Sunday, November 3, we will mark All Saints’ Day with a special liturgy and prayers of thanksgiving for those saints who are dear to our congregation.  Please think about those saints you would like to be named and honored on November 3 during worship. The names can be those of family members, friends, or people from other times and places whom you have never met, but have inspired you in life.  Email the names of your "saints" to Susan or bring the names with you to worship on November 3.

Friday, October 25, 2013

What Being Homeless Means

In our adult Sunday school over the past several weeks, we've been talking about poverty and hunger, as well as homelessness.  I stumbled upon this blog post by Hugh Hollowell, who is director of a ministry in North Carolina that serves the needs of people without homes.  It is truly an eye-opening piece as we think about the needs of people in poverty and what the church can do to help.

Click on the link below to read Hugh's piece:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ordinary 29C, October 20, 2013

Staying Connected

Luke 18:1-8

 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus’ parables can occasionally frustrate me beyond belief, but these quirky stories are still my favorite texts in the Bible.  And I don’t know if it has something to do with the way my mind works, but every time we get to a parable, I am almost always fascinated-bordering-on-obsessed by the supposed villains in the story.   Perhaps I am just being deliberately contrary, but I’ve spent enough time wrestling with these characters in the parables to know that they can bear multiple interpretations in which a reading that seems sort of obvious suddenly isn’t.

Because parables aren’t about revealing a single, simple moral statement that can be slapped on a bumper sticker.   Parables are about truth – hidden, unyielding disruptive truth.  It is as if the gospel writers have deliberately constructed an open space in these stories so that readers are pretty much forced to grapple with the mystery of what it means to be in relationship with Jesus and in relationship with other human beings.  And the human part of that equation is what always trips us up when reading the parables. 

For example… in today’s parable from the gospel of Luke, we just KNOW that we’re supposed to be more like that persistent widow, right?  We just know when we read this parable that we are supposed to model our faith on the example of that plucky, scrappy little widow who keeps going and going at that judge like an Energizer bunny.  We are supposed to be tireless advocates for justice, railing against powers and principalities to receive vindication for our cause.  We are to pray every single minute of every day and keep the faith and never lose hope that through our single-minded tenacious dedication to prayer, we’ll somehow wheedle our way into a reluctant God’s super-good graces and get exactly what we want. 

But we know better.  You know better.  Faithful people have worked and worked for justice for centuries, yet there is still so much brokenness in the world.  Saints and mystics and other good people have prayed faithfully and well, bugging God on an hourly basis to bring justice to a situation or a person or a group of people and despite all of it, justice remains out of reach.  When bad things in our lives drag on and on despite a whole lot of patient, passionate prayer, we begin, in our heart of hearts, to feel a little bit resentful, a wee bit cheesed with God, and sometimes we just give up.

If we cannot bear to blame God, we blame ourselves.  We feel guilty and obsess about that one hour or that one day when we were distracted by something else and forgot to be a good prayer warrior. And now everything is falling apart and we’re pretty sure it’s all our fault, which we know is complete nonsense, but we still carry the awful burden of feeling like we didn’t do enough. We didn’t pray hard enough.  We weren’t as plucky and persistent as that widow, so our prayers have failed and everything is ruined.

This is a rare parable in that for once, Jesus tells his followers right upfront what it’s about.  Luke writes, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  I think we need to take Jesus’ statement seriously.  But what we also need to do is imagine what the purpose of “praying always” actually is.  Is it to get what we want?  To get the justice we think we or another person needs?

One of the strange and wonderful things about being a minister is that people ask me to pray for them all the time.  All sorts of people, many of whom seldom or never set foot in a church.   Some of the people who ask me to pray for them are very much like the judge described in the parable – they do not have a particularly close relationship with God and their human relationships are fractured.  I think of them as sort of “disconnected” people.  In fact, I often imagine the world not as “saved” and “unsaved,” but rather “connected” or “disconnected” people, and many of us can drift back and forth between those two categories on any given day.   I know I do and I can identify it when it is happening. When I am living as a connected person, I can find beauty in difficult people, grace in terrible situations and patience in frustrating circumstances.  When I am in period of disconnection, I am angry, irritable, lethargic and prone to despair.   

When I receive a prayer request from a “disconnected” person, it is almost always because their back is up against a wall and they don’t know what else to do.  But I always honor their request and pray on their behalf.  And I have realized what prayer does is connect that person to me through God, and connects that person to God through my prayer, even if that person has lost heart and cannot pray for themselves.  Prayer creates this holy connection, stronger than Super Glue, more powerful than the most souped up Energizer Bunny. 

The person who asks me to pray for them may imagine I will hold them up to God and say, “Fix this!”  And in a sense, I am doing that.  But that’s not all that’s going on when we pray.

Praying creates a holy connection and I am forced to pay attention to and become involved in what God is already doing.  That is not to say that my prayer will get anyone a job or cure the cancer or fix someone’s marriage.  The church is not an employment agency or a hospital or a counseling center.  It is a sacred space, a sacred gathering where we connect with one another and connect to God through prayer.  The more we pray for one another, the more connected we become to the suffering of one another, and the more connected we become to suffering, the more connected we become to the living Christ among us through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Maybe this parable is not about our persistence and that’s a good thing.  You don’t have to live very long to realize that counting on inconstant human beings is always a gamble, even on a good day.  Maybe we are all disconnected judges who walk around without a clue, and perhaps the persistent one who keeps bothering us with cries to pay attention to a broken world is God.  Maybe we are finally worn down by a persistent God who longs for justice and won’t ever give up on getting us into the hard work of being connected to the persistent longing of our Creator and the deep needs of one another.   

Fred Craddock says that being pursued relentlessly by God is a process by which a person is being hammered through long days and nights of prayer into a vessel that will be able to hold the answer when it comes.  And if you think that sounds way too painful, you may not want to hear this little tidbit of information from folks who are much better translating the original Greek of this text than I am.  Those smart people say that what the judge was really worried about was the widow punching him in the face and giving him a black eye.  Even if we wind up worn out and even a little bruised in our spiritual hide and seek with God, the answer to prayer always comes, even if it’s not the answer we wanted.  And that answer can hurt a little, or maybe a lot.  But it is God’s answer for us and God will not leave us alone until we get it.

For Luke’s community who received this parable, 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, this image of a persistent God and constant prayer and not losing heart was crucial for a group of people who were, frankly, feeling a little scared about this whole being a Christian thing.  I can just imagine those poor souls praying, day and night, for safety, security, protection from those who would persecute them.  Mostly they prayed for Jesus to hurry up and come back to them.  And if you know anything about those early Christian communities, you know they didn’t receive any of those things. 

But through their prayers, the early Christians stayed connected – to God and to one another – and through those connections, they received the strength and resilience and fortitude they needed to stay alive, against considerable odds.   It’s easy for us to see how that all worked out in retrospect, but I’m sure the point of praying always was not entirely clear to Luke’s community.

Jesus tells this parable knowing it is incredibly hard to stay connected when things are falling apart.  Jesus knows the anatomy of our stubborn human hearts well enough to know that sometimes it takes the joys and sorrows of an entire lifetime for the hardness to soften and melt.  Jesus knows that we get scared, discouraged, tired and stupid.  Jesus knows that our human experience includes crushing disappointments, crippling betrayals, unbearable pain and grief. So it is small wonder that the parable ends with Jesus looking around at the disciples and Pharisees and all the broken people following him around, shaking his head and saying out loud: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Given what we know about human beings and looking at the wreckage of human history, the answer I’d give Jesus right now is that it doesn’t look very likely that we will be any further along when he finally gets back here than we were 2000 years ago.

But like the plucky, persistent widow, God doesn’t give up pursuing justice and goodness.  God keeps God’s covenants with God’s people no matter how reckless and feckless we become.  God does grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.  God will not delay long in helping them.  The evidence of God’s unyielding truth are all around you.  These brothers and sisters in this community of faith are our answered prayers.  Those beautiful and broken people we call our family, friends and co-workers are our connection to divine grace.  The ministries and missions to whom we give Hungry Jack casseroles and chunky soups and money and time are how we receive God’s mercy.  All of these are evidence of how God grants justice and mercy to us and equips us to do justice and mercy for others.  It is through ordinary experiences and people that God pursues us and helps us, day in and day out, through connections that just won’t let go of us no matter how hard we try to stay distant.  The Holy Spirit practically shoves us into places where we cannot stand aloof like the unjust judge and be unaffected by the need for justice for those around us or uninvolved in God’s healing of everything that is broken.  Prayer is the thread that connects us to one another and stitches our whole lives into the crazy quilt of God’s tender love and mercy.

That is why, I think, Jesus says all those really outrageous things like, “Pray for your enemies.”  Because when you pray for the enemy, the prayer reminds you that God created and loves that person you cannot stand, and you learn something about grace in the process.  And it reminds you that you are someone else’s enemy – I guarantee that you are -- and you are just as needy when it comes to forgiveness and healing.  If you can capture an image in your mind of that person you’ve hurt in prayer for you, you can catch a glimpse of what God’s grace really, really looks like. 

This kind of connection in a world of western individualism and alienation is really, really hard.  I think that is part of the reason that there are so many people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.”  They sort of want the connection to God, but they do not want to complete the circuit in dealing with the difficult work of being in relationship with God’s people.  Or the even more difficult work of praying always and going to church and trying to be a good person, and still not having a shiny, happy life.

I read about a pastor who conducted new member classes in a way that made the leadership of her congregation really, really nervous.  In addition to telling potential members that a healthy faith community requires a significant commitment of people’s time, energy and money, she also said that although this totally wonderful church seems so awesome to them right now, eventually something will happen to completely disillusion them and they will lose heart.  Sometime, somebody at church will say something inappropriate, hurtful or offensive.  A decision will be made by leadership, which they will find unacceptable.  Or they will begin to feel spiritually bored or uninspired and begin to imagine the church down the street has greener grass and nicer people.  She said that her church is not shiny, perfect place, but as broken and human as the people gathered there.  The church is not God, but a messy and fully human place where fully human people gather in expectation of God’s presence and where God sometimes actually shows up.

Do not lose heart.  Pray always.  Stay connected to the source of all justice and mercy.  Jesus’ voice, filled with love and grace, reaches into our troubled hearts and scattered brains.  We are called to do this work, and given all we need to do it for the sake of the world.

When I am too beaten down to pray, I do not lose heart because your prayers keep me connected.  And when you are falling apart, the prayers of your brothers and sisters will your stitch your weary heart back together and lift you into the light of all healing and mercy and justice.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ordinary 28C, October 13, 2013

Thank You Notes To God

Luke 17:11-19
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Today we have a story about 10 guys who find themselves bound together not by blood or religion, but by something far more powerful.  Disgust.  People were disgusted by these 10 men who suffered from a skin disease the Bible refers to as “leprosy,” but was likely any number of skin diseases that would cause someone to look at these men and say, “yuck.”  Their families and friends were so disgusted by their appearance that these 10 guys were thrown out of their homes, relegated to living outside the village, disconnected from family, friends and their faith communities. 

As I was thinking about these 10 men in Luke, I remembered that Rachel went to high school with a young woman named Hunter Steinitz who has a skin disease called Harlequin ichthyosis.  A couple years ago, Rachel and I were in JFK airport, getting ready to fly home and Hunter walked up to us in the gate area to say hello to Rachel. 

To call Hunter’s physical appearance startling is really an understatement.  Hunter’s face is bright, bright pink and has the appearance of someone who had been severely burned.  Her skin is covered with thick, dry scales. Her hairline is constantly receding because her skin follicles on her scalp grow over every time a hair falls out, so she has trouble re-growing hair.  The places on her skin that aren’t flaky and dried out are downright slimy because Hunter has to apply a strong moisturizer every two hours just so she can move and even breathe. 

I didn’t know anything about Hunter or her skin disease when Rachel and I met up with her at the airport.  But I am ashamed to admit my strong visceral reaction to her.  I cannot tell you if I shook her hand or not when I was introduced, but I can tell you with all certainty that I didn’t want to.  Instead, I experienced that very primitive, feeble-dinosaur brain reaction of disgust. I probably tried to hide it, but I suspect Hunter scoped it out immediately.  People like Hunter are never fooled by people trying to hide their disgust.  Even at the age of tender age of 15, I bet Hunter could probably spot disgust at 20 paces.  As we were flying home, Rachel told me about Hunter and what a hard time kids gave her at school about her disfiguring illness, but that Hunter was actually a pretty cool and talented kid.  All of which made me feel even worse about how grossed out I had felt when I met her.

Coincidentally, when Rachel and I got home to Pittsburgh, there was a front page article in the Post-Gazette about Hunter which explained why we had met up with her in New York.  She had just finished making an appearance with National Geographic on a program about extraordinary human beings.  What made Hunter extraordinary was not just the severity of her disease, but her courageous commitment to NOT hide away from her peers but to educate people about herself and others like her with disfiguring skin diseases. 

That was three years ago.  This week I found out that Hunter is now a freshman at Westminster College studying theology and planning to become a Presbyterian minister.  She says she is going into ministry to teach people that everyone is as God intended them to be, and she believes her skin is going to be a vital part of that work.   Go Hunter.

It is not at all surprising that Hunter might see her skin as part of her call to ministry because the Bible is filled stories about people who are suffering from any number of physical conditions that make their existence a living hell.  Jon just read the story from 2 Kings about Naaman, the mighty warrior who seeks out the prophet Elisha’s help to be healed from his skin disease.   And it seems that a fair number of people with skin diseases manage to run into Jesus, including the 10 men we meet today in the gospel. 

Unlike many of the ostracized people we see in the New Testament who deal with their misery on their own, these 10 men in today’s text have formed a mutual support system on the outskirts of a village.  We know that one of them is a Samaritan and the rest of them are probably Jewish, which is a somewhat odd pairing. But it seems that their shared disability has broken down the barriers that would normally exist between observant Jews and Samaritans – a group of people most Jews would have considered to be unclean and downright disgusting heretics. 

In the meantime, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, wandering near territory that most observant Jews would also avoid, which is Samaria.  On a map, it would seem that Jesus might just be taking a short cut, but Jesus’ location seems to be a deliberate attempt by Luke to tell us something important about where Jesus is.  And Jesus is in no man’s land where no good Jew should be. 

There seems, in fact, no rhyme or reason to the way in which Jesus is traveling as we move with him to Jerusalem in Luke.  Which reminds us again that we can’t read the gospels as travel diaries or precise historical accounts of Jesus’ movements.  Jesus’ movements are more like theological journeys of heart, soul and spirit.  Jesus’ geography is theology; where Jesus is located helps us understand what Jesus is up to, particularly when he ends up in a surprising location like this in-between place, a region between Galilee and Samaria.  That geography tells us what is most true about Jesus – he crosses every boundary, even that seemingly uncrossable boundary of disgust that is still at the root of so much human misery. 

We don’t how the 10 men know Jesus as he comes toward them, but they do.  They know it is Jesus, but they also know the Levitical law that says that people in their condition must stay at least 50 yards away from any healthy person.  But instead of calling out, “Unclean, unclean,” as would be customary, they cry out for Jesus to show them mercy.  And Jesus, without a second thought, tells them to go to the priests and present themselves.  

I really think Luke wants us to notice all these details. Jesus is not disgusted by the men.  Jesus acknowledges their need immediately.  And Jesus invites them back into the community of God’s people by sending them straight to the priests – the most direct path to social acceptance in Jesus’ day.  Jesus doesn’t just heal their skin – he heals their lives by sending them on a path back to the community from which they have so long been excluded. 

We do not know if their skin cleared up on the spot.  The text says that, “as they went, they were made clean.”  It would have taken them several days to get to the priests in Jerusalem, so perhaps the healing process was a gradual one as they went on their way.  Perhaps it took time for their skin to smooth out.  All we know for sure is that those nine disconnected men were given a second chance.  Not for a perfect life, but a life in which they had at least a decent shot at being reconnected to the community of faith that had once excluded them. 

But I think that the nine who immediately ran off to see the priests will always be missing something. They will only believe in their healing when someone else believes it.  They are the kind of people who seek acceptance from others.  And we know from our own experience that acceptance can takes time.  Even if the nine men now have skin as smooth as glass, there will always be people won’t forget how disgusting they used to be.  Maybe even some in their own family will not be able accept them.  Ask a recovering alcoholic, an ex-addict, someone just being released from prison – all of them will tell you how difficult it is to re-enter a society that had pretty much given you up for dead. 

Only one of them, the Samaritan, recognizes the full extent what Jesus has done.  Only he pays enough attention to recognize the astounding presence of God.  He pays enough attention to feel gratitude and thanksgiving and praise.  Only one of the ten men doesn’t take the healing for granted as something he deserved or earned or entitled to after years of suffering.   Only one of the ten men turns around and says, “Thanks.” 

In our midweek study this week, Jon Stellfox said that his father taught him to always look closely at questions in scripture.  Always look at the questions Jesus asks and you’ll begin to unlock the meaning of the text.   I think that approach is particularly wise in approaching this story because when I began really looking hard at the Jesus’ questions, I realized that I really stink at this gratitude thing.  Because so many of my prayers focus on what I do not have, or what others do not have, or what this church does not have, instead of being grateful for what we do have.  I realized I would probably be one of those nine guys running away with whatever blessing I can get, fearful that it will not last.  Too often, we end up in the 90% who forget where the good stuff comes from, as Jesus so astutely observes when he wonders out loud about what happened to the other guys.

In fact, we live in a time when it is much easier and maybe even cooler to complain than be grateful.   And there are a whole lot of reasons for us to be straight-up crying for mercy most of the time.  A grid-locked Congress and a shut down government.  Too much unemployment and too few good jobs.  Not to mention so many challenges we face in our own congregation and in our own family situations.  Despair is definitely the theme of our age.  And I am willing to wager that 90% of the prayers we utter on any given day have more to do with wistfulness for what we want rather than thankfulness for what we have.  And there’s nothing wrong with being honest with God about how lousy things are and how much better things should be.  Just like the 90% did nothing wrong by doing exactly what Jesus told them to do. 

But the ones who left missed out on the best part.  Just as certainly as we miss out, every day, by not taking the time to see Jesus at work, healing and restoring the most hopeless situations.  We miss out when we become so wrapped up in our despair that we forget to give thanks for every single blessing that falls on our worried heads. 

I mean, can you imagine how good the Samaritan felt when he turned around and saw himself in the eyes of Jesus as a whole, healed and beloved child of God?  He was blown away.  For the first time in his miserable life, he wasn’t an outsider anymore.  He was no longer a beggar on the street, wrapped up in anxiety and fear.  In that moment of sheer grace, the man who gave thanks knew exactly who we was and whose he was.  For the first time, he was beautiful.  What else could he do but give God thanks and praise?  I don’t know about you, but I would much rather be in the 10%, knowing exactly who I am as a beloved child of God,  than waiting around with the other 90% for someone to accept me.

Our gratitude has nothing to do with getting what we want or getting rid of what we don’t want.   Gratitude is acknowledging how blessed we have been through our whole lives, how blessed we are right now, and the promise of God’s blessing into the future.  Gratitude has the power to make life richer, deeper and more joyful than we can possibly imagine.  The practice of gratitude makes us whole human beings. 

God is not some heavenly egomaniac, waiting around for a thank you note.   God doesn’t need our praise.  God doesn’t need our thankfulness.  In truth, God doesn’t need our money.  God can do anything God wants to do because God is sovereign, God is Lord, God knows exactly how to get things done.  God will always be generous -- giving and providing and healing because that’s just who God is.  Because we are made in God’s image, I suspect we are created to be generous too.

God requires our praise because God knows we need to praise.  God wants our thankfulness because God knows that thankfulness makes us more able to see Christ at work in the world.  And God wants us to give generously because giving to God reminds us where all these good things came from.  In giving, we acknowledge that everything we have, everything we are, and everything we will be is all God’s gift to us. 

I know a lot of people who live as if they are dying.  And I know a lot of churches that live that way as well.  Those ten guys hanging around outside the village were living like ones who were dying until Jesus showed up and they recognized the source of all life standing right in front of them.  All ten of them received healing.  Nine of them took new life and ran with it, which is probably what most of us would do.  But one saw new life as the incredible gift it is.  Only the one man -- the outsider, the foreigner, the Samaritan – only he received a second blessing, the complete healing that comes from simply saying, “Thank you.” 

Let us pray:
You are the giver of all good things.
            All good things are sent from heaven above,
                        rain and sun,
                        day and night,
                        justice and righteousness,
                        bread to the eater and
                        seed to the sower,
                        peace to the old,
                        energy to the young,
                        joy to the babes.
We are takers, who take from you,
            day by day, daily bread,
            taking all we need as you supply
            taking in gratitude and wonder and joy.
And then taking more,
            taking more than you give us,
            taking from our sisters and brothers…
                        taking because we are frightened, and so greedy,
                        taking because we are anxious, and so fearful,
                        taking because we are driven, and so uncaring.
Give us peace beyond our fear, and so end our greed.
Give us well-being beyond our anxiety, and so end our fear.
Give us abundance beyond our driven-ness,
                        and so end our uncaring.
Turn our taking into giving…since we are in your giving image:
            Make us giving like you…,
                                                giving as he gave himself up for us all,
                                                giving, never taking. Amen.
                                                -- Walter Brueggemann

(Read more about Hunter Steinitz in this 2010 Post Gazette article:

Monday, October 7, 2013

Ordinary 27C, October 6, 2013

Making Mustard Seeds Out Of Mountains

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

We have a house rule that really only applies to my son David who is a lottery aficionado.  I don’t know where he got his lottery fervor as neither my husband nor I are gamblers by any stretch of the imagination.  But I once made the mistake of letting David buy a $1.00 scratch off ticket and, wouldn’t you know it, the kid won $5.00.  After that big win, every trip to the Giant Eagle involved a lengthy lecture from Mom about the terrible odds against winning the lottery, and how he’d be much better off buying a pack of gum or a candy bar with that $1.00 because at least he’d have something to show for his investment instead of just a worthless piece of cardboard. 
But this is my son we’re talking about, a kid who isn’t easily dissuaded from anything, so I came up with this house rule to end the quibbling in the check out line: if the Power Ball jackpot reaches more than $250 million, I will buy one ticket. One. And every time the Power Ball has risen over $250 million over the past couple years, I buy one ticket, and then I ask David what he would do with the money.  After a while, I realized that the child really has no idea what he would do with all that money; he just knows he wants to be rich.
So today’s sermon could well be dedicated to my dear son David. In fact, this sermon is dedicated to all of us who imagine that all that we need in order to become super duper Christians is that one winning ticket.  We long for the jumbo jackpot of faith to fall into our laps.  If we only had more faith, everything that is terrible in our lives wouldn’t be so terrible.  If only we had more faith, we could move that proverbial mountain without breaking a sweat. Our super duper faith would be an irresistible beacon of light shining high on a hill, attracting hordes of people to fill our church pews and offering plates.  And if all of us had giant faith, we’d be able to set right a world that seems to be spinning out of control.  We could glide through our days with our faith as a Teflon shield to deflect those horrible hobgoblins of fear, dread and anxiety nipping at our heels, tripping us up at every turn.
Some of us decide that the way to increase our faith is to embark on a spiritual strengthening program. So we pray more.  We read more scripture.  We go to church every Sunday and show up for bible study or Sunday school as often as we are able.  We listen to Christian music and read Christian books.  We do all of that, thinking that our good efforts will deliver the faith fitness we seek, and we measure our progress in those endeavors by how good or how lousy our lives seem to be. If things go well, we figure we have the faith thing nailed.  If things fall apart, we think we’re just not doing enough or doing enough right, or maybe we’re doing our spiritual fitness training with the wrong people at the wrong church.
Well, scripture suggests that this approach may be a bit off the mark.  Spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, and study are all good things that are worth doing.  But you’re not going to get more faith by doing any more or any less of those things.  No matter how hard we try to increase our faith, we won’t get what we want. The pews in our churches will still be empty, the world will still spin out of control, fear, dread and anxiety will still grip us and, the last time I checked, there are not many mulberry trees bobbing around in the ocean.  There is no magic ticket, no secret faith formula.  We can’t will or work or talk ourselves into having more faith.
It seems to me that this realization is hitting the disciples hard as they follow Jesus.  As we move through the gospel of Luke, we can see that they have been really working at this discipleship thing. Their patience in trying to untangle the words and teachings of Jesus is beginning to wear thin.  And understandably so because the Jesus we see again and again in the gospel is demanding and frankly, a little difficult to deal with.
Jesus’ stories and teachings are so not what the disciples want or expect to hear, and I can understand why they might feel that Jesus is just messing with them.  Jesus keeps insisting on taking everything the disciples believe, and turning their understanding upside down.  The first will be last, the greatest will be the servant, and shameful people like lepers, tax collectors, beggars and youngest sons who blow through family fortunes will receive the highest honor.  People who never cracked open a Torah or set foot in a synagogue seem to be hogging all of Jesus’ attention and getting all the winning tickets.  The disciples feel like they have given up everything, yet Jesus tells them that following him means giving up even more -- close family relationships, all their possessions, and even a comfortable place to lay their head at night.
Then, right before today’s reading, Jesus says, oh wait…here’s one more thing you need to do: forgive and forgive and forgive everyone who sins against you, even if the same person sins against you seven times a day.  And it seems like that notion of radical, repeated forgiveness is what finally blows the disciples’ minds.  The disciples essentially say to him:  “Whoa there, Jesus.  If you want us to do that forgiving thing, we definitely need something more from you.”
I love how the disciples say all the mostly stupid but totally human things we would say if Jesus were standing up here today.  We would give our list of issues to Jesus including everything that’s messed up in the world from our own family situations to our lousy health to the wars raging in the Middle East and budgets crashing in D.C.  We would cry out, “Jesus we want more faith,” as if faith is a power we can control or manipulate, or as if our lack of faith is the only explanation for why the world is so screwed up and we can’t do anything about it.
The disciples in the text today want more faith because it has become all too clear that this discipleship thing is really hard.  Following Jesus is extraordinarily difficult on good days and almost impossible on bad ones.  Living up to the expectations of Jesus is made even more complicated by the fact that Jesus keeps speaking in parables and never seems to answer their direct questions.  The disciples need something from Jesus that will keep them from losing it entirely.
We WANT more faith because we have decided that whatever faith we do have isn’t nearly enough to deal with the reality of our lives in this world.  Which is why I think we spend so much time hoping that our faith will at least be enough to get us into the next world, because it sure doesn’t seem like enough faith to fix this one.
But Jesus won’t let us off the hook.  Jesus says that faith no bigger than a mustard seed is enough to do everything we are called to do. That our itty bitty teensy weeney faith is more than enough to carry us beyond what we think achievable in the right here and the right now.
I’m not sure we really know exactly what we would do if our faith increased 250 million times over night, any more than my son would know what to do with $250 million dollars.  We just have this nagging feeling that we somehow don’t have enough of something to do the things that seem to need doing.  Faith seems as good an answer as anything to our feelings of Christian inadequacy.

Over the past several weeks, I have been serving on two different presbytery committees assisting two different churches.  One of the churches is very, very small with extremely fragile finances.  I mean seriously fragile finances.  It is possible that this church is just a few weeks or months away from closing their doors and dissolving their congregation.  At the same time, I am working with another church that has plenty of members, a huge endowment, and every material resource to do ministry for a long, long time.

You would think that these two churches in very different financial places would be facing different sets of problems.  But the leadership in both churches use almost the exact same language in describing their fear, dread, anxiety about the future.  And it has occurred to me that what both churches need is not more faith or more hope, or even more or less money.  
What they need is more Jesus. What we need is more Jesus.

We need the One who not only leads the disciples to a place where they will see his suffering and death on a cross BUT also the One who will lead them from death to resurrection.  We need the Jesus who will lead us not only to the edge of the cliff where things look awful, dark and scary, but will jump with us into the pit and stay with us while we try to figure a way out.  And it is that same Jesus who will lift us out of the ditch, dust us off and set us on the path to new life.  There are no spiritual short cuts.  Only Jesus.
To that end, perhaps the only other thing we need more of is that very Jewish concept –  chutzpah.  Chutzpah comes from the Hebrew word that means “audacity” -- to look in the face of things that are difficult and things that are hard and say: "We can do this. We can do what we need to do not because we have super awesome faith, because we have Jesus.  We can do the hard work of living and loving and staring death in the face without allowing the hobgoblins of fear, dread and anxiety to send us into a panic."   
In that sense, this quirky parable about the slave who just shows up, does the work and expects nothing in return makes a little more sense.  The parable reminds us who we are -- servants of the servant – following Jesus who came to serve, not to be served.   Like Jesus, we are to do the tasks given to us not because we will receive the thanks of more members, more money, more security, but because our actions are our obedience to the One who cares for us in all things, the One to whom we belong in life and in death, the One in whom we move and live and have our being.
Maybe, just maybe, this faith stuff is a matter of having chutzpah -- the outright audacity to get up every morning and tend to what is right in front of us.  Maybe it is trusting that we have been equipped to do every task God gives us, and that everything we do has a huge impact in the way the kingdom of God measures things.  Which is entirely opposite of the way in which we measure things in the world.  In the kingdom of God, small is beautiful and powerful and capable.
So maybe what we need is not more faith.  Maybe we just have to stop making mustard seeds out of the mountains of faith we’ve been given. 
We look at ourselves and see smallness and scarcity. Jesus looks at us and sees power beyond our imagination.
We think what we do is unimportant, mundane and maybe sometimes dull.  Jesus celebrates every small kindness we do and every genuine act of love as a giant step toward the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
Deep down, we doubt that we are worthy of love or forgiveness.  Jesus loves us as we are and forgives us as we are.  In fact, Jesus is crazy about us in the way a parent is crazy about even the most rebellious child and would do just about anything to help us see ourselves as the miracle we are.
We grieve for a church that we think is dying.  Jesus rejoices over a church that he alone is transforming. 
We believe we live in a world in which there isn’t enough, and if we give away too much, there won’t be enough leftover for us. Jesus invites us to live into God’s vision of a world in which there is more than enough for everyone.  Even enough for second helpings. 
If you do not believe me, I invite you to come to this table today where we are assured that the grace of Jesus is sufficient, God’s promises are sure, and that our fear, dread and anxiety are nothing – NOTHING – compared to God’s generosity, abundance and love.  On World Communion Sunday, we gather around this table with Jesus’ disciples of this age, in every place around the globe, to share this simple meal.  We gather because what we really need – what we really hunger and thirst for – is to stand close to one another and closer to the One who has promised to walk with us through this age and in ages to come.  Here are stuffed silly with God’s love for us.  It is enough.
Beloved, it is time to relax and shake off those hobgoblins of fear, dread and anxiety. Come to the table.  Eat.  Drink.  All has been prepared.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

After the sermon, the Emsworth U.P. congregation sang its first new song from the new Presbyterian hymnal, "Glory to God."  Here is a beautiful version of the song we sang: "Your Are Mine" by David Haas. 

I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near

I am hope for all who are hopeless
I am eyes for all who long to see
In the shadows of the night,
I will be your light
Come and rest in Me

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

I am strength for all the despairing
Healing for the ones who dwell in shame
All the blind will see, the lame will all run free
And all will know My name

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

I am the Word that leads all to freedom
I am the peace the world cannot give
I will call your name, embracing all your pain
Stand up, now, walk, and live

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine