The Life We Hold Fast: Forgetting…Remembering

tree of life cross

I don’t know about you, but I feel like we are always caught in the tension between forgetting and remembering.

Every day there are so many tasks, so many details, and so many moments worth recalling, and I want to hold on to them. So I have experimented with keeping a journal, sometimes I’ll post stories and pictures to social media as a way of keeping a record, sporadically we even print photos and affix them into albums, as old fashioned as that may be.

But at least for me, even while I am trying to remember and hold onto as many details, tasks, and moments as I can, there is an ever-present sense that I am almost certainly forgetting something important.

The image that comes to mind of what it feels like, is a game from the Winter Olympics. Not the Winter Olympics that continue this week in Pyeong Chang, but the Epiphany Youth Group Winter Olympics that took place a few weeks ago in Price Hall.

This year we added a new event that was masterminded by one of our teens called “Hungry, Hungry Humans.” It’s played a lot like the board game Hungry, Hungry Hippos, but its bigger.

Here is how it’s played: You break into three teams that are each positioned around the perimeter of Price Hall facing the center where there was a pile of maybe 100 tennis balls. Each team lines up in a straight line. The person at the front of each line is given a skateboard and asked to lie down on their belly on the board. They are then given a laundry basket and pointed toward the tennis ball pile at the center.

On “GO” the teams point the person on the skateboard toward the tennis balls, shove them off, and cheer them on as they use the laundry basket to scoop as many tennis balls as possible. There is a long rope tied to the back of the skateboard and when they have their tennis balls, they are pulled back to their team. In the course of 2 minutes, the team with the most tennis balls wins.

Of course, none of us remember who won, we just know it was a good time. We probably should have been wearing helmets as we crashed in the middle of Price Hall and sent tennis balls flying.

But that’s what I think its like. It’s like we’re on a skateboards with a laundry basket in my hands, trying to grab hold of as many of the things I’m supposed to remember as possible. Trying to capture the moments of life that are slipping away. Feeling like some tasks are certainly wedged like a forgotten tennis ball, unseen and unreachable.

As people of faith we are called to remember God’s faithfulness to us, to remember who we are and whose we are, but we often forget how God has provided for us, how he has brought us through challenges and struggles, and how he has rescued us from suffering that seemed unendable.

We live in the tension between forgetting and remembering. But we probably think God could never be found occupying this same space with us. How could the One who imagined all things forget anything?

But today the psalmist pleads, “O Lord, remember your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting,” in a way that makes us think God remembering is not necessarily a given.

And the psalmist continues his request, suggesting that if the Lord can forget, that he would “remember NOT the sins of my youth and my transgressions.” Instead the psalmist asks, “remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness.”

The account of Noah and his wife, his sons and daughters, in the Ark is a story about God remembering.

This morning we hear the end of that well-known story, but earlier in the story, in a passage which is nearly always left out of children’s Bibles, shows us God occupying that space with us between forgetting and remembering.

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. The earth was filled with violence. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth and it grieved him to his heart…and God said “I will blot out all that I have created,” but then Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.
It seems very much like the Lord nearly forgot his love for us…but God does remember.

And so God chooses Noah and his family and gives them directions to get belly down on their skateboards, laundry baskets in hand and scoop up wild and domestic animals of every kind, and seeds and plants, putting them all aboard this saving boat.

God remembers and God saves.

And at the happy conclusion God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

God remembers, and chooses to continue to remember, by setting down his bow in the clouds as a sign, ending the flood of watery arrows. He lays down his bow to remind himself of his covenant.

This bow is like a warplane ungased and parked forever at a museum….a reminder that the clash has ended.

This bow is like a wedding band around a finger…a reminder of renewed faithfulness.

This bow is like a tattoo in the skin of the world…God has marked the occasion on which he has remembered his compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.

Perhaps Jesus remembered this story of Noah on the day he was baptized.
There are a lot of things that could’ve called the old story to mind for Jesus.
Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days just like Noah had rain falling up above on the pitch roof for 40 days.

Jesus was with the wild beasts, just as Noah was with the wild beasts in the boat.

Just as Noah’s dove found the dry ground and brought an olive spring back to Noah in his beak, so the dove descends on Jesus finding the solid ground on which we build our life and faith.

I wonder if Jesus recalled the story of Noah and Flood as he is flooded by the Spirit sent out to be tempted, and then on to preach and teach and bring in the Kingdom of God.

At Jesus’ baptism, God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And this voice reminds Jesus of his identity and drives Jesus on in faithfulness, all the way to the obedience of the cross.

Because we have been baptized and because we have heard God’s voice claim
us as his own, we know and remember who we are and to whom we belong.
The same Holy Spirit that was poured out on Jesus is given to us in our baptism to accompany us when we face the wild beasts and the deserted places of our lives.

We have been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection and now we live in him, and we can recall our baptism. We can remember God has claimed us in the water and the word.

A few weeks ago I was with the “From Conflict to Communion” Class in the chapel, we opened with a get-to-know you question:

What do you remember or know about your baptism?

Some of us who were baptized as infants didn’t remember anything of the event, but one person in our group was baptized a few years ago as an adult here at Epiphany.

“What do you remember?” we asked

He said it was Easter Sunday and two children – an infant and a girl of about two –were baptized at the same service.

We said, “What is it like to be baptized as an adult?”

He said, “A lot like when a baby is baptized but the pastor didn’t carry me down the aisle.”

Whenever and wherever we baptized, we remember that we have all been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.
We belong to God. God remembers his love for us.

The Lutheran way of baptizing – sprinkling has its benefit – it communicates that it’s not the amount of water that is used that matters but the words Father Son and Holy Spirit that claim us and mark us.

But some traditions still baptize by immersion, as Jesus was baptized. The benefit is that you can see what baptism means. You can see that we die, we go under, into the grave, our old sinful self dies and we are reborn in God.
On Wednesday many of us gathered with Christians from around the world to worship and to receive an ashen cross on our foreheads as we heard the words God spoke to Adam on his exit from the garden, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Our failing to remember God’s love and faithfulness is a tragedy. And it leads to our death. All God wanted to do was to love us and live in friendship with us. But the cross is a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Just like the bow in the clouds reminds God of his covenant, so the cross of Jesus standing against the dark and cloudy sky of Calvary reminds us of God’s covenant of love and faithfulness.

God gives us signs to remember.

God gives us the Eucharist – his body and blood – so that we can remember.
God gives us the words of scripture so that we can remember.
God gives us our baptism so that we can remember.

And God gives us the community of faith so that we can remember…in the times when it is so crucial to remember.

This past Wednesday a 19-year-old boy opened fire on Stoneman Douglas High school killing 17 people and wounding 14 more. It was Ash Wednesday. And our young men and women in school are wondering if their school is safe and what to make of these ongoing tragedies. And every parent I have talked to, and every teacher I know, and every person who works in school administration or as a school staff person is grieving and wondering what we can do.

One of the images that came out of Parkland, Florida on Wednesday, was of two women holding one another for dear life in grief and one of them has a clear, dark ashen cross marked on her forehead. These two women look to be mothers waiting on news of what has happened.

It is tragic.

When we have the cross traced on our forehead, we know what it means: the ash reminds us of our mortality and the shape of the cross reminds us of God’s love in Christ. But when we are reminded of our mortality we might not suspect that today would be the day tragedy visits us.

But these two women embracing, are embracing one another as if they are holding one another up. If not for the other, they would fall to the ground. They are embracing one another in the way we hold onto the promise of God, and the way that God holds onto us.

This time of lent is a reminder for us; an invitation to refocus; an invitation to renewal; a time to remember the cross, and to look to the cross remembering that it is empty. Jesus does not hang on the cross because Jesus is risen, and we will live again, and we will be made well and be made whole.

Lent is a time to hold onto one another, to support one another, to encourage one another. To ask, what good can I do for the community with the days I have been given.

Now is a time to remember that God holds us in the tension between forgetting and remembering. He is there with us too. And he remembers.

God remembers.

So, we can keep a journal, hold onto pictures, and try to remember all the tasks of the days we have been given, but we know so many details, and so many moments to the days that we can’t remember them all, and we can’t hold on to them all.

But thanks be to God, we know the One who holds us all, who remembers us all. Who saves us and keeps us. Who remembers us according to his steadfast love and for the sake of his goodness.

He is faithful and he has open arms for us, for all flesh, and for all creation, and he remembers his covenant, his promise, and his love.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Oh, hear the call! Come one, come all!

 

This coming Friday afternoon, nine of our seventh and eighth grade students, four of our college students, four of our adult leaders and a pastor will be getting ready to leave home and to go on a retreat called Lost and Found.

Five days from now, each of us will have packed a bag with warm clothes, sturdy shoes, a Bible and a pen, a flashlight, a sleeping bag, snacks, candy, money for food and anything else we think we might we need for three days away from home, and we will all meet up in the Target parking lot of Short Pump to ride to Lynchburg together.

There are lots of places in Short Pump that we could meet up, but we meet at Target because someone will inevitably forget something, and Target sells everything. Let me be clear, more than half the time I’m the one who has run into Target. But that’s okay. That’s why we meet there.

So, after we’ve made any purchases that we need to make, we will gather in a circle and we will ask our youth, “Are you ready?”

Of course, we will be asking if everyone has their money and their pillow and all their stuff, but we’re also asking: Are you ready to have an experience with God?

We will say to these 7th and 8th grade students: God is calling you to this experience and it doesn’t matter if you forgot your toothpaste (because you can borrow some), and it doesn’t matter if you forgot to bring candy (because there will be enough to share), and it doesn’t matter if you forgot your flashlight (because someone will walk in the dark next to you). But be ready to meet God, because God is ready for you and ready to show himself to you this weekend.

God is always ready to meet us…always calling us to prayer…calling us to forgiveness…calling to us through Word and Sacrament…calling us through intentional Christian community… through acts of service for the sake of the world.

All of our texts today – Amos, Matthew, and Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians – are about how it is we are to be ready for God to show up, and how we are to be ready to meet God in the world.

The Prophet Amos, who is writing to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, 800-years before Christ, tells about the Day of the Lord’s coming. The prophet envisions a day of darkness and lists the Israelites many sins – particularly their worship of Canaanite deities and their oppression of the poor. This is the evidence, the prophet says, of why they deserve punishment.

Amos criticizes the people for empty religion that overlooks the needs of the neighbors and oppresses those who are already helpless.  Amos has fire in his belly as he preaches with language that is meant to wake the people from their apathy – and is meant to wake us from ours.

The parable Jesus tells today is also meant to get us in gear. To wake us up!  The story he tells invites us to prepare ourselves for the ways God shows up in our life.

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like ten bridesmaids who are waiting for a bridegroom to come and get them and bring them into a wedding.  But the groom is delayed.  Maybe he’s paying the photographer or talking to a caterer – we don’t know exactly – but he is more than a long time in coming.

When he arrives, we discover all the bridesmaids have lamps to light their way as they travel out in the darkness towards the wedding celebration, and five of them have brought more oil to fill their lamps back up since most of the oil burned away while everyone was waiting on the groom to show up, but the other five bridesmaids foolishly did not bring a reserve of oil.

They ask the bridesmaids with oil if they can borrow some, but they are refused and sent to Target to buy more oil.

In the meantime, of course, the groom finishes up with the vendor in question, arrives to pick up the wise bridesmaids, and they’re off to the venue, into the party, and onto the dancefloor…leaving the foolish bridesmaids far behind, all dressed up with nowhere to go, locked out of the party.

It feels terrible to be left out. Its miserable to be excluded. It hurts to have the door closed in our face.

And this is true for all of us any time in our lives. But particularly for teens, it seems the stakes are higher, when you see some of your friends posting pictures of themselves on snapchat having the time of their life and you’re not there, or posting selfies at the big weekend party that you weren’t invited to.

Jesus tells this story because he doesn’t want us to miss out on the big party of God’s love.

On the cross, Jesus literally opens his arms to all, pleading with us to accept his Father’s forgiveness and mercy.  But Jesus tells to help us see how urgent it is to be ready to see God in our lives NOW. Today.

There are many things we can procrastinate about, but our relationship with God is not one.

We are implored to keep our lamps burning:  To read the Word, to share in the supper, to encourage one another in our faith, and to continue above all things to live for the return of our Lord.

He is delayed, but he promises to come to renew this world.  And he promises the world as we now see it is not all there is:

The Lord promises us that the suffering we endure is not the end of the story…radiation treatments, and the harassment of women and children and the powerless, and shootings at concerts and during church services is not the ultimate destiny of humankind.

The Day of the Lord will come, Christ will return, and then this world will be renewed.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians includes a beautiful image of the Lord calling us to meet him in the air. If this seems strange or otherworldly, we might remember Paul is imagining the Lord’s reappearing through the lens of life in the Roman Empire in 50 AD.

At that time, when a mighty general would rout an enemy, news would travel home faster than the army could. In the village that had been spared, the people, hearing the news that their city was safe, and that the enemy had been defeated, would greatly anticipate a chance to celebrate.

So when their victorious general and his army could be seen on the horizon coming home with heads held high, the whole city – anyone who could run, walk, or be carried, would go out to meet them. They would run to greet the victorious general and his army and then accompany them as they all marched into town celebrating all the way.

Paul imagines that when Christ appears on the clouds we will go out to meet the one who has brought us victory over sin, death, and darkness, and – crucially — Christ will not carry us away to some other world, or some heaven faraway, but we will accompany him as he victoriously descends to this world that God created and sustains and loves, celebrating all the way.

God loves this world and promises to redeem and restore it.

And because God loves this world and is intent on redeeming it, we are called to work for the life and health of this world as well.

In the same way that our adult leaders will ask our middle school students if they are ready for this coming weekend at Lost and Found, it is good to ask ourselves if we are ready to see God in our everyday life in this world… not only in Word and Sacrament and in this gathered community, but our and about among our friends and colleagues, our work and in the small and large tasks that make up our days.

Martin Luther was shocked when other reformers of his day asked if they should continue to teach that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Martin Luther is reported to have said, “Christ is truly present in my potato soup, how could he not be truly present in Holy Communion where he has promised to be?”

God calls us to be ready to see his presence in the potato soup of our life… In the people that rub us the wrong way… In the committee meeting that drags on… In the inconveniences that may be God asking us to take a second look.

God calls us to be ready for him like the wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ story.

So are we like the wise bridesmaids — Do we have enough oil to last?

Listen to this: When you were baptized, and washed in God’s love, the pastor marked your forehead with oil. As you heard the words, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” oil was placed upon your head.

And that oil never runs out.  That’s what counts.

So when you forget something, and have to run back into Target…Don’t sweat it.

Confirmation Sunday

confirmation 2017

One summer, when I was 25 years old, I had an invitation from my grandmother to come and stay with her for a week in Hickory, NC.

She had recently renovated her home for the first time since they had moved into this house in the early 1960s. Part of what they did in the renovation project was take down the huge wallpaper mural that was on her dining room wall. The image on the wallpaper was of an enormous oriental-styled tree growing on a rocky hillside. Her family had eaten under this tree for Thanksgiving and Christmas and every time they gathered for 40 plus years and Granna thought it didn’t seem right for it not to be there so she asked me to paint the tree back on the new wall as closely as I could to the original.

Coincidentally, Granna’s younger sister Terry happened to have come up from New Orleans for part of the time that I was there working on the mural.

During the day I would paint, and at night we would sit in the kitchen and drink coffee and talk, and they would tell stories of growing up together in Lucy, Louisiana, a small town that no longer exists, which was overtaken when New Orleans grew and absorbed the little town.

One evening as we sat in the kitchen, Granna told the story of leaving home for the very first time. She had been accepted to nursing school and she was going to get there by riding the train.

The day came for her to leave and so Granna said goodbye to her mother at home, and her Dad took her in the family car, with little sister Terry tagging along, to the train station. Granna and her father were very close and so she rode in the car that day with a dread of saying goodbye to her father. Terry remembered sitting in the backseat and thinking about how she would miss her big sister.

They arrived at the station and they were on the platform and it came time to say goodbye. Granna began to cry, Terry began to cry, but their dad was composed, matter-of-fact, and Granna remembered, he even seemed distant.

Granna said she had been hurt in that moment and that it had hurt her all the years since, because their dad died a month later and that was the last time they had seen each other, and her Dad hadn’t cried.

And Terry looked at Granna across her kitchen table and said, “Well, Ethel, what do you think Daddy did all the way home?”

All those years, Granna didn’t know that part of the story.

She didn’t know the whole story.

There is so much we can’t know about the love of our parents.

Confirmands: (and as I want to say now to other youth in middle and high school) I imagine you may sometimes wonder about your parents. There are probably things your parents do or say that seem like they don’t make any sense. What is it all about?

We may never know, but understand this: You cannot know the whole story of your parents love for you yet.

You can’t understand how much they love you; how much they cherish you; and how proud of you just for being you; just because you exist.

Our relationship with God is the same way.

There are things about the life we’ve been given that we don’t understand.

We might like to ask God about why we have to go through hard times. We might like to ask: why do people in the world suffer? Why did you make me with a particular trait that’s a constant thorn in my own side?

We don’t understand everything about the way we’re made, or the world around us, and there’s a lot we won’t know completely until we see him face to face.

But we do know he loves us with a Father’s love. He won’t leave us alone. He won’t leave us orphaned. He has given his Spirit to guide us and we can trust him.

Confirmation is not a day when we say, “I know the whole story.” But a day on which we say, “I believe that God made me in his image; I am precious in his sight; and that, in Jesus, God has come to show us what love looks like and how he would like us to live and treat one another.”

For our confirmands, today is not about saying: “I have all the answers.” But a day on which you say: “I want to continue in the relationship that God initiated with me in my baptism into Christ.”

It is a profound moment in your journey faith, it is a profound moment for your families, and a profound moment for our congregation’s journey of faith.

We are proud of you and we know, it can be hard to be a young person today.

I just spent yesterday and the day before at an overnight retreat in Waynesboro with the Kairos planning team. We are in the process of preparing for the week-long Synod youth event, which will happen in June. And part of the process is asking the youth: What is going on in your life? And they say judgement and being judged is oppressive. You are judged by how you look, how athletic you are, how smart you are, who you have in your friend group, and everyday all this judgment feels like a burden to carry.

Paul says to those the Athenians and to us: God will judge the world in righteousness. Jesus’ resurection is the assurance we’ve been given that he also has the power to judge.

Christ sets us free from the burden of thinking other people’s judgments matter.

The truth is we’re not as smart, athletic, aesthetic, or perfect as we want to be. But that’s not why God loves us. God loves us because of Jesus. And this love – the love which created us and will receive us at the end of our life, is the love that matters now too. This love from God is what gives us our identity and our worth.

If you are a young person, there may be days you feel like your parents don’t understand you… Days you might feel like your friends have sold you out… Days when you might feel like the whole world is against you.

At some time in your life you might feel absolutely, completely all alone.

You are not alone. God is with you. God is in you. And you are in God. As close as your breath. As close as the beating of your heart. As real as the words of Jesus you hear me speaking for him: I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.

A song that has meant a lot to me is a song called “Orphan Girl,” written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

It is the first song on their album called Revival.

It is song from the perspective of a young girl and in the folk tradition, I won’t try to change the gender of the speaker, but speak it from her perspective.

Jesus tells us he won’t leave us orphaned as he sits around the table with his disciples on the last night of his life.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” he says, as he breaks bread and passes a cup of wine…

When he calls us, we will be able, to meet our family at God’s table…Here in this community where each of us have a special place.

Our Epiphany family eats at a table, under the image a tree. Every time we gather, we are gathered under the image of the tree of the cross, which tells us the depth of God’s love for us, and tells us who we are.

We don’t know the whole story…like my grandmother on the train, there are things we don’t know…like her father, there are things we want to say to each other that we can’t figure out how to say.

Parents and adults may not want me to tell the children and youth among us out secret: that we don’t know the whole story either. We are also trying to figure it all out.

What we do know is that God walks beside us each day.

He is and will forever be our mother and father and sister and brother. We are not orphans, but sons and daughters: accepted, beloved, cherished…

Sent out to accept, love, and cherish one another.

 

If Doors Could Talk

Image result for knocking at the door image

 

In the little doorway between our kitchen and dining room we are making marks which capture a bit of the way in which time changes things.

Every so often we stand the kids up against the door jamb with their back flat to the frame and we make a short little pencil mark above their head and write their name out to the side of the mark. 

The lines we’re penciling-in there on the door jamb are slowly inching up the wall little by little, and later on in life, these marks will remind us of how our family has grown.

This doorway in our kitchen does talk – it tells the story of how time changes things.

 

There is a door that tells us how God changes things.

Early on the first day of the week, the disciples come to the tomb and find the door of the tomb where Jesus was buried standing open.  Peter and John run inside and see the folded graveclothes.  They believe!  And they run out to tell the news:  Jesus is alive!

This door to the tomb stands open in the garden where Mary weeps tears of bitterness until Jesus appears to her, speaks her name, and turns her tears of bitterness into tears of joy.

This door, a stone rolled away from a grave, speaks, and tells the story of God’s love which shines light into the darkness of death, and makes a way where there was no way.

 

When we pick up the story in today’s gospel reading, it’s the evening of the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Earlier in the morning, Peter and John saw the empty tomb and Mary saw Jesus but now as night falls the disciples are in the house and the doors of the house are locked in fear.

But Jesus comes and stands among them and says, “Peace be with you.”

Just like the door to the tomb couldn’t keep Jesus in the grave, this door can’t keep Jesus from entering into the bunker of sadness and regret and disappointment where the disciples have quarantined themselves.  

Jesus comes through the door to bring Easter to them – He comes to bring the peace of God, the Holy Spirit, and the gift of forgiveness.

And the gift of forgiveness in this moment is poignant.

If these disciples had any regret about how they treated Jesus…  (We don’t know for sure exactly how they felt, but you almost have to imagine they did)…  If Peter had any guilt about having betrayed his friend – it’s all gone when Jesus appears to them. 

They see their forgiveness standing in front of them.  They see Jesus and they rejoice!

 

We weren’t there, of course.  We only hear this story.  But we can imagine the relief. 

 

And then there is Thomas.  Like us, he is not present the first-time Jesus appears to the group, and Thomas has the reaction that some of us may have had at some point in our lives to the news of Easter.

He just is not completely sure he can believe it.  He needs to see some evidence.

 

So, a week later Thomas is with the group when Jesus again passes through the door, again stands among them, again gives God’s peace, and this time, invites Thomas into this incredibly intimate moment: Jesus invites Thomas to touch the marks of the nails in his hands and asks Thomas to put his hand in his side. 

Having touched Jesus scars, having felt the warmth of his flesh, having been given encouragement from the familiar voice of his fried, Thomas cries: My Lord and My God!

Thomas believes.

Thomas opens the doors of his heart to Jesus.  Thomas doesn’t look through the peephole of his heart, or latch the little chain-thing they have in hotel rooms and open the door to Jesus part of the way.

Because he has seen convincing evidence, he throws open the door to his heart and lets Jesus come all the way in.

 

Jesus wants us to throw open the door to our heart and let him all the way into our life.

On Sundays, and on Mondays, and every day of the week.  At work, at school, at home; everywhere; all the time.

Jesus comes to us to give us evidence of his love: in bread and wine, in water, in forgiveness, in the community where we have the words, “Peace be with you” spoken to us as flesh touches flesh.

Here Jesus comes to us to renew our faith and send us out into the world to be witnesses and as evidence of his Spirit alive in the world.

 

There is a famous image of Jesus knocking at the door.  If you’ve never seen it you can google it.  Jesus stands in front of a door, his fist raised, ready to rap away.

For many people this is a powerful image of the way Jesus comes to knock at the door of our life, asking us to let him enter all the way into our heart – to take up residence in us – in our thoughts, our hopes, our inner monologue, our friendships and families and relationships.

 

Another way to think about this same image of Jesus knocking at the door is to think about the way in which Jesus knocks at the door of our life and invites us out into the world, where he already is. 

Jesus invites us out of the bunkers of fear we create for ourselves, out of the bunker of sadness and regret, out of the bunker of our own safety…Jesus invites us out into the world to be a people who tell of how we have been forgiven, and to grant forgiveness to people who wrong us, and tell about a God who mercifully offers forgiveness to all.

 

Thomas, who was slow to believe, Peter who betrayed him, and all the rest were invited out from behind the door of fear to be witnesses in the world of what they had seen.

They were called to be evidence of Jesus’ resurrection and they were.  These same fisherman, tax collectors, and peasants who were complete failures before Easter, after Easter took the message out in the power of the Spirit so that communities of faith sprung up in cities and towns and by the side of the road and today, when we confess our faith, we know that we do so with 2 billion other people on this earth.

 

And today we are still sent out to live as evidence of God’s presence in the world.  And let me tell you:

 

A young girl in our congregation was sitting at the lunch table with friends this past week when the group of friends started talking about what they had all done over spring break.  “What did you do?” someone asked.  “Well,” this young lady said, “We went to DC and because it was Easter we went to church.”

The other young girl said, “My family believes in God but we don’t have a church.”

And so this young girl from our congregation has made note of it and is wondering how she can invite her friend to church.

 

There is a woman in our congregation who talks about the Holy Spirit, openly, at work, to the team she leads.  A colleague on her team is an atheist and has started joking with her, “Are you gonna say that was the Holy Spirit again?” …but he gave this woman an angel as a gift which shows the respect he has for her and, I think, the importance of their relationship to him, and that kind of relationship of mutual respect is the kind of relationship where I believe the Spirit can work to create faith.

 

There is a man in our congregation who says that at work he tries to take what he heard or saw in worship the past Sunday and work it into conversation to see if he gets a nibble… so he can expand on it and tell people more.

 

But as you go about your life – in your service and work and study and friendships – you are a witness. Sometimes people might just look at the evidence in your life through a peephole, or they might keep the slidey-thing on their door hooked and just peek out a little bit…or sometimes the Spirit may blow the door open as it did on Easter morning.

As the Holy Spirit sends you out of these doors today, the forgiveness of the risen Christ and the peace which surpasses all understanding be with you, guide you, and strengthen you.

In the Eye of the Storm

This is how we go through life:  Praying day after day for a family member and hoping for the gift of healing, bearing the broken relationships in our lives which we cannot or will not repair, carrying disappointments with ourselves and with others.

We carry all these things with us out into the world each day as we go about the work that makes up our vocation, our family life, and our civic responsibly, even as we’re aware of the larger world around us:

Hunger in own city and in far-away lands like South Sudan, military strikes in Syria because of chemical warfare perpetrated by that nation’s government, and we watch (perhaps feeling helpless) as our congress descends into greater and greater dysfunction.

Our whole world seems to be in a storm of chaos and then our own lives are often confusing and complicated, and more out-of-our-control than we like to think or admit to ourselves.

Throughout Holy Week, we will see and hear Jesus as he walks through a storm, which a gathering force.

This storm of confusion, chaos, and complication is churning all around Jesus as people’s conflicting desires and anxiety about his fate, their distrust and their fear and their carefully laid plans; their chance meetings, miscommunications, and fear meet the cries of celebration and tears of heartbreak.

And Jesus walks – the eye of the storm.  He is calm and at peace.

All around him there are the Temple priests, who in their jealousy, are looking for a way to kill this troublemaker.

There is Judas, who has grown tired of this Revolutionary who has shown his hand as a prince of peace, leaving Judas with no option but to try to get some kind of payout for his wasted years as his disciple.

Peter, for all his best intentions, promises to stand with his friend but when the time comes – he chokes.

The disciples sit around his table and watch as he breaks bread, but they will be paralyzed in fear when the soldiers come.

The Elders of the People and the council are complicit with the soldiers because they can’t or won’t understand Jesus’ claims.

Pontius Pilate knows the man brought to him is innocent, but he can’t be bothered by the inconvenience of standing up for justice because of the possible uprising if he did let Jesus go free.

There is Barabbas, who just happens to be in the right place at the right time, and in the midst of the scuffle, gets away with murder and slips out the back door into the crowd…

As the people who sang: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor to you redeemer King!”  And who cried out with praise prayers and anthems, change their minds, and yell: CRUCIFY!!

They will get their way.  And Jesus will carry his cross to Golgotha, with the help of Simon of Cyrene, who by happenstance is called to help – past women who weep for him, doubters and haters who heckle and shout insults, until he is nailed to the tree between two criminals who are crucified with him – one who heaps contempt on him and another who pleads with him – while below, soldiers mock him and gamble for his clothes.

Darkness falls, and the bitter day finally comes to a close, as we hear what sounds like even the Temple rending her clothing in heartbreak.

As we hear this story of our salvation this week, there will be a cacophony of voices and sounds: questions, accusations, and opposing claims; but the most confusing part is that the same voices that celebrated Jesus – our own voices – will call for the cross and for him to be crucified.

But Sisters and Brothers, keep your eyes on the One in the Eye of the Storm.  Keep your eyes on Jesus.

Look at his calm.  His steps are intentional and deliberate.  He trusts in his relationship with his Father, confident in his mission, which continues to be what it always has been – He points people to the truth, he forgives, he heals, and he reassures.

On his face, we see a quiet confidence and certainty. He is in control as he walks through the chaos, confusion, and complication churning all around him.

He walks on, showing us that he will bear the very worst that we as people can inflict on one another – suffering, betrayal, rejection, cruelty.

And he will give his life.  He has come for just one reason: to die for you and for me for the whole multitude of creation.

Listen.

Underneath all the sounds piling up, calling for Jesus’ destruction, Jesus’ own voice persists:

“This is my Body which is given for you…Father forgive them…today you will be with me…”

Listen to him, until finally he cries out with his last breath, in a loud voice, with his last words.

Jesus’ cry from the cross is God crying out to us to tell us he knows the weight we carry and more, and he knows the darkness of our darkest moments of despair.

Jesus’ cry from the cross is the voice of all the millions of people in this whole world who have suffered  – and who suffer today – of hunger, warfare, and sickness – it’s the cry of everyone who has ever felt forsaken by God, or life, or the world, or their loved ones, or themselves.

His cry from the cross is God calling us to be with those who suffer and to live in solidarity with those who are alone, hurting, or forgotten.

His cry from the cross is God saying to us: Remember.

Remember.

Remember.

CSI: Jerusalem

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“Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

The words of this hymn are well known and well loved, but you may not know that the man who wrote these words was John Newton, an English sailor who served in Royal Navy and was a slave trader carrying women, men, and children from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean in what was called the middle passage. Thankfully, that’s not where his story ends.

When he was 25 years old, his ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Ireland and almost sank. Newton woke up in the middle of the night and, as the ship filled with water, he called out to God.

Incredibly, the cargo shifted and stopped up the hole, and the ship drifted to safety. Newton marked this experience as the beginning of his conversion to Christianity. He would go on to become an abolitionist and work to end the slave trade.

His hymn, Amazing Grace, is powerful to many people because it recalls the ways God has given us new ways of seeing in our own lives and promises that he will continue to give us eyes to see the way forward.

The story of the man born blind in the ninth chapter of the Gospel According to John tells us Jesus has the power to heal, but even more this is a story about how Jesus gives us a new way of seeing.

There are things that can prevent us from seeing God’s presence in our lives and in the world clearly, but Jesus is always coming to us and coming to the world so that we might see who we are and who we belong to.

The man in the gospel story was born blind and I think it’s hard to begin to imagine what that must be like, but imagine that you have never seen your parents’ faces. You have never seen you own face in the mirror. You’ve never seen the face of a friend or stranger or any of your loved ones. You’ve never seen the spectrum of colors from red to violet. You have never seen the blue ridge mountains or the James River tumbling by. You’ve never seen sunlight streaming through the swaying trees and making shifting prisms in the grass…You‘ve never seen anything!

And so, imagine you have been begging all the days of your life. You have nowhere to go, and nothing to do, and the crippling boredom isn’t nearly as bad as the hopelessness of just being stuck, standing by the roadside, begging day after day for just enough bread to eat to keep you going.

Imagine this and you have the life of this man born blind.
And now imagine in the dark of your blindness, this man called Jesus comes up to you, speaks kindly to you, puts mud on your eyes, and tells you to go wash. And you go and you wash. And as the mud comes dripping off of your face the blindness comes with it. You see the world drenched in light for the first time and it is so bright it hurts. All these shapes, and all these colors, and all this specificity comes flooding into your mind through these eyes that can SEE! You come back from the pool of Siloam, where Jesus told you to wash…

But what happens next for this man? We might think people would be happy for him and rejoice with him, but Instead of people saying: let’s go see your parents and celebrate; come with me I want to show you what the clouds looks like, come this way and see what the grasses and flowers looks like; let’s walk through the city market and look at all brightly colored clothes, and foods, and spices, and drink in what they look like, the neighbors and the people who know you are skeptical. They have questions. They want answers.

All of a sudden, it seems as if this man born blind is thrust into an episode of CSI: Jerusalem. That’s where this is all happening, and it is as if this man has found himself to be the central character of a Crime Scene Investigation.

No one is happy that he can see. No one stops to marvel at this miracle. Instead, everyone is on the case: asking questions, taking notes, comparing data, formulating theories; cross-examine him, they bring in his parents for questioning, they ask him what he knows about this man Jesus. They ask him to repeat his story. But no matter what he says, they won’t believe. Ironically, they are the ones who cannot see what has happened.

So, they put the man out of the synagogue. He has been healed but it’s come at a heavy price: he has become an outcast in the community.

In an episode of CSI, at the end of the story, you find out what really happened and how it happened, and just like an episode of CSI, at the end of this story we find out what really happened:
On the day this man was begging beside the roadside and Jesus came and healed him he was sent, still blind, to wash his eyes clean. Now, at the very end of the story, Jesus hears that no one has believed the man and that he has been driven out, and so he comes and shows the man his face. This is the first time the man born blind has seen Jesus’ face. And when he sees Jesus face to face, he sees the source of his healing and health.

All of a sudden, the man realizes and we realize we don’t have a crime scene investigation. We have a Christ scene investigation.

The man is healed because Jesus is the light of the world that defeats the darkness. Jesus is the truth of God that illuminates our blindness. In the end, we get the answers everyone wanted so badly: The healing didn’t come from the mud, it didn’t come from the spit, it didn’t come from the special water of the pool of Siloam, it came from Jesus. Jesus is God’s healing touch – for this man, for you and me, and the whole world.

Christ is alive in the world today and if we do some investigating we can see him turning up in or lives again and again.
Yesterday, many of us gathered at Hebron Lutheran Church in Madison around Pastor Chris and Terry Price and Megan and Robbie and Stella. We gathered to support the family, and to remember and give God thanks for Katie Anne Price and for her life.

At the service, Bishop Mauney gave us a message from Pastor Price. He said people had asked him wasn’t he mad at God? And Pastor Price said no, that just the opposite, he and his family have felt God’s presence in the many prayers and cards and the love expended to them though the saints and angels of God. When we wonder how on earth they could even stand up and get through that day, they wanted us to know that is because of the love of Christ and the love of Christ extended through the community, through all of you, and your love and prayers.

Christ is alive in the world today, and it didn’t take too much investigation to see him living in the lives of our Lutheran youth this weekend at the Hunger Rumble. In Norfolk, youth and adult leaders gathered for Bible study and singing and fellowship, thinking together about how God calls us to be aware and attentive to those in our community who are hungry.

I have seen people, and you may have, who look a lot like what the man born blind must have looked like, standing on the side of the road begging, sometimes holding a sign, asking for help. I admit I often don’t know what to do. Our youth know. This weekend they made bags to give out to people – bags which include socks, snacks, sunscreen, and lip balm. And inside each bag is a note which reads, “May the Lord’s face shine on you and be gracious to you.”

We can see evidence of Christ at work in the world through our whole community collecting supplies for school bags for Baker Elementary, in serving at Crestview Elementary at their Spring Carnaval, and in giving blood this morning.
Today at this table, Christ comes to us, to heal us and to forgive our sins. He comes to us in a way that we can see and taste and touch, so that we know God is real and God’s love for us is real.

While we receive communion today, we will sing “Amazing Grace;” the words of John Newton that point to his close-encounter with God and the new way of seeing he received as he began to have sympathy for the African slaves.

Later he published a pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade,” in which he described for the first time the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage. He apologized for what he called “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

He had copies sent to everyone he knew and the pamphlet sold so well that it swiftly required many reprintings, and contributed to passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, which finally abolished the slave trade.

Jesus gave John Newton a new way of seeing, and we will sing words these words that celebrate John Newtons’ new sight, the man born blind’s new sight, and the new sight Christ gives to us.

Come to our Lord’s Table today and see the healing Christ given for you.

Come to our Lord’s table today we and see we have been given a community to celebrate with, which stands together in the times we cannot stand on our own.

Come to our Lord’s table today, and look up and see the cross of Christ, which is healing for you and for me and for the whole world.

Living, Busy, Active

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Yesterday the park nearest our house was full of children running, climbing, sliding, shouting, fighting, singing, and swinging with the level of energy that can only be built up over the course of entire week of quiet indoor activities done while waited for the sun to come out.

 

When the clouds opened up, the children descended upon Crump Park. They were outside!! And their parents and grandparents were trying their best to keep up.

 

In the midst of the fray, there was a father and daughter at the tallest slide.

 

High up above him this three years old girl with a furrowed brow and a very unsure look in her eyes.

 

It was pretty clear, part of her wanted to slide down the slide, but she was still trying to make up her mind. You could tell she was physically big enough and strong enough, but maybe she hadn’t done it before, or maybe this slide was bigger than others she had gone down.

 

Whatever the reason, her dad stood at the bottom of the slide and you could tell he wanted so badly for her to come down the slide.

 

He knew she could do it.

 

But she was unsure.

 

The little girl said, “Daddy, I can’t do it.”

 

The dad said, “You can do it. I am right here. I’ll be right here at the bottom. I can even hold your hand while you slide. “

 

And you could see her thinking about it, weighing her options, trying to decide if her dad really knew what he was talking about.

 

And just like that little girl at the top of the slide, the disciples need a little encouragement.

 

Unsure of what to do, standing at the top of the slide, they are weighing their options and wondering if they can do what Jesus is asking of them. Can they trust him completely?

 

Because he is asking them to leave everything behind:

 

“Whoever does not hate their father and mother, spouse and children, brother and sister, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

 

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

 

And now Jesus says this they must even leave their pride behind; leave “being right” behind.

 

He says: “If someone sins you must rebuke them, and if there is repentance you must forgive them. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent,” you must forgive.”

 

Like the little girl at the top of the slide who is unconvinced, they say, “We can’t do it!”

 

But Jesus, like a proud and enthusiastic dad, stands with them, willing to hold their hand, knowing that while they doubt their own ability, they can do it.

 

Jesus, like a dad trying to coax and encourage his child says, “If you just have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can do it. You could even say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey.”

 

Jesus says, “If you’ll just let go, and trust me completely, it will change the entire landscape of your life and I’ll use you to change the entire landscape of history!”

 

Perhaps we have all been there at the top of the slide wondering if we can trust Jesus.

 

Maybe we let Jesus have control over parts of our life but we don’t want to, or we can’t seem to, let him into every part of our life.

 

Do we keep Jesus at arms-length at school, at work, when it comes to thinking about our future; in our finances?

 

Perhaps for many reasons, we wonder: Can we trust Jesus, completely, with our whole life?

 

We all struggle with our faith and when we struggle with our faith, sometimes we must rely on others.

 

Paul, writing to Timothy says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your Mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”

 

Timothy’s grandmother and mother brought him up in the faith and their faith stood in for his when he needed it.

 

This week I visited a woman who has dementia and is grieving the loss of her memories. Her daughter called to let us know she is getting worse.

 

As we visited, the mother said, in tears, “I am ready to leave this world, but I am so worried about my children and grandchildren. I just want them to be alright.”

 

The daughter said, “Mom. We will be okay. God will take care of us and we will take care of each other because you taught us to take care of each other.

 

We prayed together and celebrated Holy Communion.

 

And when we came to pray the Lord’s Prayer, this woman with dementia prayed every word with us.

The mother was having a difficult time in her faith, wondering if God would provide for her family, and the daughter believed for her.

 

The daughter shared her faith with the mother who had first shared faith with her.

 

When we cry out to God, “Increase my faith!” and when we struggle with our faith, this is the very best place to be.

 

Here in this place, this congregation will sing and pray for you when you don’t have a voice with which to sing and pray…and I will hope you will sing and pray for me when I do not have a voice with which to sing and pray.

 

We all cry out for more faith, and perhaps as a congregation we have at times cried out for more faith.

 

There is nothing wrong with asking God to increase our faith!

 

In fact, there are two wonderful things about it:

 

When we ask God to “INCREASE OUR FAITH!” we acknowledge two critical things:

 

One is that faith is a dynamic thing. It is like a seed in the ground, like a child playing at the park, like a friendship, faith isn’t just a head-trip or a feeling in one’s heart but faith must become action or its nothing.

 

Jesus says it’s like a slave serving dinner to a master. It’s an active thing, and the slave does it because the master deserves it.

 

But Jesus didn’t say faith is like thinking about food, or thinking about serving food to someone, or talking about serving food to someone, but faith is like serving someone dinner….it is active.

 

Faith is like a father making dinner for his family, faith is like a mother taking her children to volunteer in a food pantry, faith is like a grandmother fixing her grandchild a snack.

 

Faith is like going to work and building up ones’ co-workers, faith is like serving on the PTA, faith is like voting.

 

Faith is like preparing the altar on Sunday mornings, faith is like teaching Sunday school, faith is like praying for the people on our prayer list.

 

Faith is, as Martin Luther said, a living, busy, active, mighty thing.

 

And the other critical thing about faith is where faith comes from.

 

Faith is from God. We do not muster or conjure or invent faith on our own, but it is given to us.

 

Jesus Christ is the mercy of God for us. A perfectly free gift.

 

And, in the end, our faith doesn’t save us, Jesus Christ saves us.

 

The truth is: we don’t stand on our faith, we stand on the faith of Jesus.

 

Whether or not you believe in Jesus, Jesus believes in you. Jesus believes you are worth living for and worth dying for. Jesus believes you can love others. Jesus believes you can forgive. Jesus believes you can serve in his name.

 

Like a dad with a love-swollen heart, Jesus looks at you, and believes in you.

 

At the park yesterday, the little 3 year old girl laughed with delight when her father caught her at the bottom of the slide.

 

For her it was a surprise.

 

For her dad, the outcome was never in doubt.

 

He knew she could do it.

 

And she was able to go down the slide because her father was there.

 

Her father knew it would be okay, and her father believed for her.

 

Thanks be to God, Jesus has caught us in his arms of love.

A Tough Nut to Crack

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Jesus says a lot of things that take a lifetime to understand, and perhaps this story can be included in the collection of his sayings that are just a tough nut to crack.

A rich man, Jesus says, receives a report that one of his middle managers is squandering his property, so he calls the manager into his office to hear an account of what has been happening, he relieves the manager of his post, and he demands an audit of his books.

So the manager goes home upset and distressed, trying to think to himself: What in the world can I do to fix this situation?

I have got to figure something out!

Is there some other job I could do?

Is there someone I know who would be willing to employ me?

Perhaps I could go back to school?

But in the pit of his knotted-up stomach he knows that none of that is going to work.

He has got to fix this right now, so he thinks and thinks and he makes a rash decision.

He decides the only thing he can do is to cook the books.

So he goes to the people who are in debt to the rich man, one-by-one, and sits down with them and says, “Okay, what do you owe my boss?”

One person says, “100 containers of wheat,” so the manager says, “Reduce your debt by 20%.”

Another person says, “100 jugs of oil,” so the manager says, “Cut that in half.”

His desperate behavior shows that the manager is hoping that maybe these people will remember the favor he is doing for them and take care of him when he no longer has a job.

NOW JUST IMAGINE for a moment:  your cell phone rings. You recognize the number. It’s your mortgage lender calling and a representative says,

“Everything’s legal and on the up and up.  Don’t worry about how.  You don’t need to know all the details but I’ve moved some things around to work it out.  All you need to know is that when you get your next statement in the mail, it will show you owing half of what you currently owe.”

Now, how would you feel?

Do you think that you’d tell anyone?

You might say it in a whisper, afraid that what you’ve been told is too good to be true, waiting anxiously to get that next statement from the bank to see for sure, but if it is true you’d probably couldn’t help yourself from telling people your good news.

And when you hear that this guy has lost his job, and that he did this generous thing for you on the way out the door, might you call ask him if there is anything you could do to help?

BUT NOW imagine this same scenario from the rich man’s perspective.

If you are the boss and this manager comes to show you his accounts and you see what he has done and how he has slashed the amount of money owed to you, how do you think you would respond?

Probably not like this boss!

But, Surprise!

When the boss in the story calls the manager back into his office and hears what the manager has done with his assets, he throws his head back and laughs.  He just shakes it off!  In fact, we’re told he congratulates him!

Listen, now, I’ve never had a business class, I’ve never worked in the corporate world, and I relish my role as an associate pastor, who almost never has to weigh in on financial matters concerning our work together, but I do know that the ending of Jesus’ story is NOT the way things work!

We expect the boss to call his lawyers, to bring the hammer and the pain, and to make this manager pay.

But he laughs and gives his manager a pat on the back.

And maybe we can laugh at ourselves a little too.

And ask if we may sometimes take ourselves a little too seriously.

We work so hard.

And we stay so busy, thinking all the while, “What would happen if I wasn’t around to do my job?  Everything would fall apart!”

Maybe…for a few weeks…or even for a couple of months, but things would probably straighten out.

This story is tough nut to crack because it’s about grace…

And God’s grace is so hard to really accept.

t’s not so hard to sing about.  Last week we sang: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound!  Oh and it does sound sweet, doesn’t it?

But sometimes the tough nut to crack is our hearts.

Our hearts are hard and we don’t want this ‘grace’ business to get too close to the way we really live.

We want people to earn things.

We want people to get what they deserve.

We don’t want people to believe that things should just be handed to them.

And that’s what’s so uncomfortable and frustrating about this story!

These people who were in debt to the rich man haven’t done anything to deserve to have their debt reduced, but the manager did it!

And the manager deserves punishment and hasn’t done anything worthy of reward, but he is commended!

We don’t know for sure because the text doesn’t say:

But I wonder if the way in which the manager was squandering the owner’s money in the first place is that he was keeping it all for himself.

We don’t hear anything explicit about how the manager has squandered the rich man’s property, or what that looks like that he is squandering the rich man’s property…

But what if the rich man was angry with the manager in the first place because of his lack of generosity towards the people whose debt he was managing?

What if the way the manager was squandering the rich man’s property is that he wasn’t relieving the people in debt of their burdens?

And if the rich man in this parable would have the same word for us:  That if we keep our money and our things all for ourselves, that they’re as good as squandered.

Christ has made the church the place where we learn grace.

God hands us things that we don’t deserve all the time:

A body and soul, eyes and ears, hands to work, home and children, daily protection and guidance, the gift of reason and mental faculties, shoes and clothing and homes, and food and drink, mercy, forgiveness, and love.

All of this is given as a perfectly free gift…because God loves you.

The meaning of Jesus’ parable, at least in part, is that we are not the owner of our wealth, but the managers, and without God’s generosity toward us we have nothing.

And so God deserves our faithfulness and God desires for us to be good stewards of our blessings…relieving burdens, taking care of those in need, sharing what we’ve have been given to manage.

Our wealth is a blessing and a tremendous responsibility.

How do we do what’s right?

How to keep from having our property and possessions take over our hearts?

When Jesus teaches us to pray, he instructs us to ask God:

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive everyone indebted to us.

You see, that’s really the issue:  On the cross Jesus gave up everything he had to free us and he wants us to be free.

He wants us to be free from the burden of our wealth, and the stress it can bring…

He wants us to be free to receive generously from God:

God’s mercy and forgiveness are for you, not because of any good you’ve done but because God is gracious.

And Jesus wants to teach us grace…

Abundant. Surprising. Grace.

Let us pray then, that when God audits our books, he will find much forgiveness, much of us giving to people better than they deserve, and that there will be a lot to laugh about.

Crumbs of Mercy

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Anyone who ventured online or caught the news this week saw the photo that stopped the world in its tracks.

The picture was of a little boy…just three years old…on the beach…his lifeless body resting in the sand…

We saw him, with dark wet hair…lying on his cheek in the waves… clothed in a tiny red t-shirt, jean shorts, and tennis shoes any mother or father could have pulled out of the drawer to put on their own child.

The little boy on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey, was named Aylan Kurdi.

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His family (his father, mother, and brother) had been desperate to escape the terror of Syrian civil war raging around them…

And so even though they knew the risk of trying to pass through the relatively short, but very dangerous waters of the Aegean Sea…

they felt there was no alternative… and so they crammed onto a small rubber boat headed for Greece.

When the boat capsized on the rough sea, Aylan’s father tried to save his family…but the waves were too much for him and the deep took his wife and his boys under.

This heartbroken father, the only survivor of his family, buried his wife and two boys in the dusty ground of their hometown in Syria, and said he would stay there for the rest of his life. He could not leave them behind even if it meant living in a war zone.

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God weeps with this father…as a Father himself who saw his only son abandoned, ridiculed, and crucified…

God weeps with all these Syrian refugees leaving their home in search of peace….as a Father who remembers his chosen people who were made prisoners by the Babylonians, exiles by the Assyrians, then occupied by the Romans, and systematically murdered by the Germans…

God weeps with the refugees of every time and place… as a Father desiring a safe home for every human, all of whom he has created in his image.

God weeps.

God weeps for US and WITH us when we suffer.

God promises to restore and heal us and today we hear this promise in the words of the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah first spoke to the Hebrews captive in Babylon; those men and women and children whose homes the mighty Babylonian army had destroyed and who had been marched to a distant land, watching helplessly, as many in their families and community died on the journey.

But these words of Isaiah, are also words for all refugees and those who have no home,

AND words for us …here today:

Isaiah says, “Be strong and do not fear.  God will come with vengeance and will compensate and repay your loss.  God will come and God will save you.

God will come and God will save you.”

The testimony of the Scriptures is that God is faithful. God will execute justice for the oppressed.  God will set the prisoners free.  And God will bring the way of the wicked to ruin.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, tells us the scriptures are clear: that God has a “preferential option for the poor.”

God plays favorites.

God favors the orphan, the widow, the poor, the weak, the sick, the outcast, the blind and deaf, the hungry, the oppressed, those who suffer, and those who are strangers in foreign lands.

All these hold a special place in God’s heart and God promises they will not always suffer.

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The scandal of God’s favoritism is clear in Jesus’ words to the syrophonician woman today.

This woman comes to the Lord because her little daughter has an unclean spirit. She comes and bows down at Jesus’ feet and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

And he says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

These certainly sound like harsh words coming from a savior sent to share God’s healing touch.

But what may sound harsh… is simply… the truth.

God, mysteriously, did choose the Hebrews to be a light to the nations and an example of the covenant relationship God intended for all creation.

God did give himself to Israel (the children) FIRST…but importantly… God’s plan included (from the first) to ultimately, also include the GENTILES.

Jesus is severe to this Syrophonician woman (simply a Phoenician woman from the Roman province of Syria) but the very fact that he would speak to her is remarkable.

In the first century the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles were very real and very serious.

Jews did NOT talk with gentiles.

Firstly, This woman is not a Hebrew. (Strike one!)

Therefore she is from a people of polytheistic faith. (Strike two!)

Therefore she is unclean. (Strike three!)

The fact that she is a WOMAN and she has a daughter who is inhabited by an unclean spirit and is therefore unclean herself are strikes 4 and 5!

Yet for all these supposed boundaries, Jesus enters into relationship with her. He demonstrates God’s mercy towards her, and heals her daughter.

Jesus performs a miracle… in healing this woman’s daughter but the real miracle is that Jesus ignores the prejudices of everyone around them and knocks down the boundaries that people think should exclude this woman from God’s mercy.

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The Syrian sects who are at civil war: The Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, Hezbollah, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are killing one another and killing civilians – because they want to declare who is clean and who is unclean – who is favored and who is not favored – who is right and who is wrong.

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In Jesus, God crossed the boundary line between creator and creation to bring peace to the world by suffering and dying on the cross.

God longs for these factions to see, and for the whole world to see, for you and for me to see that there are no boundaries between people.

The boundaries we imagine to between ourselves and our enemies: people who have slighted us, who disagree with us, who have hurt us…these boundaries have been knocked down in Jesus.

God has brought down every dividing wall. God invites us to open our eyes and see we are all one human family.

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In the two healings Jesus performs, this syrophonician woman’s daughter and then a man who is deaf and who cannot speak, we see that God’s healing is truly for everyone…

In the first instance he heals a child…in the second an adult.

The child is healed of a spiritual problem…the man is healed of a physical problem.

The first healing is performed in public…the second in private.

In the first instance the woman is persistent in her demand for healing…in the second the man doesn’t even ask!

Jesus touches the man he heals…but doesn’t even see the little girl who is at her home.

The circumstances of these healings are dissimilar but the mercy of God is the same. God cares for all who are desperate and breaks down the barriers that separate us so that we might receive his mercy and be healed.

When Jesus says to the woman with a sick daughter, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” she doesn’t bat an eyelash.

She answers him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

She can see in Jesus’ face one who loves her and so she persists in her request. She knows that crumbs from the feast that this man sets will be more than enough… and her faith is rewarded.

With a meal of mere crumbs, at this table today, God creates a community where there are no divisions and no dividing walls.

Here we touch the love of our Father who is heartbroken at the death of Aylan Kurdi and his family, and of all victims of violence…

Here we are given faith in God’s promise to come and save us…

Here we are given the Holy Spirit, which trusts the promise of a new creation where we will no longer be fed on the crumbs of the Bread of Life,

But we will sit at the Feast Which Is To Come and see God face to face.

May all our hope be built upon these promises from our God who is good indeed, who rules throughout the generations.

Einstein Never Failed Math Class (or God Can Work With Failures)

What is it about the failure of others that makes us feel a little bit better about ourselves?

It is probably as simple as it sounds.

We know our own failures so well, we have relived them, and we haven’t been able to shake them, so that when someone else has a hard time, we know we’re not alone. Especially people who seem to have it all.

For example, I remember once I brought a report card home from school with a math grade that wasn’t so hot, and tried to reason with my parents, “Well, you know, even Albert Einstein failed math in high school!”

I thought this little reminder made my “C” look pretty good, but, of course, they weren’t buying it.

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We‘ve probably all used the one about Einstein in high school math class at some point. The only problem is it’s not true – Einstein never failed a math class, but people keep telling the story, because it sounds good, and it gives us strength and courage to know (or even to think) we’re not alone in our failure.

The witness of the entire New Testament is that Jesus failed at reaching his own people.

In his hometown of Nazareth he could only lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them – he couldn’t do any real deeds of power because of their unbelief.

His closest followers often didn’t get him and seldom really got what he was trying to say.

And when he was executed on a cross, in what was essentially the garbage dump outside of town, he was all alone except for a couple common criminals who were crucified with him.

THE THING that turned the whole world upside down, and the reason we’re here today in celebration is that God can work with failures! God can make a new creation!  And God chooses to give new beginnings!

When a child is baptized in our church, the parent (or guardian) holds that child in their arms, surrounded and supported by the community of faith, and makes promises. They promise to raise the child in a particular way:

to live with the child among God’s faithful people,

to bring her to the Word of God and to the holy supper,

to teach her the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Comm., the Creed,

to place in her hands the Holy Scriptures,

and to nurture her in faith and prayer.

The parent makes these promises because God has particular hopes for how this child’s life will unfold.

First, God’s grace is freely given to the child in baptism. But God also hopes that she will receive grace upon grace.  God hopes she will also learn to live fully and vibrantly in his grace.

And so the parent promises to give the child instruction in faith, to expose her to the Story of God’s love for us, and to raise her in the community…and God’s hope and our hope is:The child will learn to trust God,

learn to proclaim Christ in word and deed,

learn to care for others and the world God made,

and learn to work for justice and peace.

This is the life of a Christian: trusting God, proclaiming Christ, caring for creation, and working for justice and peace.

As I look at the children and youth of our congregation I have particular hopes for them. Those of you who have been parents – or grandparents – longer than I have been a parent may have particular hopes as well to add to my list, but as a start, I would say:

I hope our children would grow to have a strong sense of self-worth and a strong sense of the worth of every person,

a keen sense of judgment and a knowledge of how to make good decisions,

an appreciation for the beauty God has created and a passion to take care of this world,

a drive to be an active force for good in the community,

an ability to articulate their faith and why they believe what they do,

that they might find a vocation which makes use of their skills, which helps others, which gives them a sense of fulfillment….

AND I hope our children would learn to take their failures in stride. Because there will be failure for all of them as there have been failures for all of us.

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As Christians, it gives us strength and courage to know Jesus was not immune to failure!

We remember the time he went to his hometown synagogue to teach and astounded everyone. They said “Wow! What teaching!  What wisdom!  What deeds of power!”

But just as fast others say, “Wait! Hold on! Are you talking about Jesus from high school? The one in our homeroom?  Oh no, no way.  I know him.  I know his mom and his brothers and sisters.”  HE is not somebody special.”

They are offended by him, because they know him – OR they THINK they know him…and it must have been hard for Jesus to be rejected by people he grew up with, people he knew well, and people with whom he had been very close.

If this did hurt Jesus’ feelings, to be rejected by his own hometown, maybe this is why he gives instructions to his disciples that prepares them for the possibility of failure.

He sends them out saying, “If any place will not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet as you leave.”

Our little league coach, Lou Persuiti, was an Italian man, used to always say after we had struck out, “shake it off, kid” which was a way of saying, don’t worry about it, you’ll get ‘em next time. Keep your head in the game…

Both Jesus and Lou were saying, Sometimes you fail…but don’t stop…keep going.

Just like those disciples, we are sent out by the Lord to live our baptismal life: to trust God, proclaim Christ, care for creation, work for peace and justice.

But most of us will not be uprooted in the same way as those first followers. Some of us may be called to seminary or to mission work in other county, but most of us are called (and will be called) to trust God, proclaim Christ, care for creation, and work for justice and peace where we already are.

We’re called to be an influence in the friendships and relationships we have already been given, and to share the gospel here in the Richmond area.

But Jesus advice to his first followers is good advice for us too.

Shake it off!

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It’s an incredibly freeing word. The Lord says we can (and should) pray that our work will have effect, but we’re called not to worry too much.

Keep working. Keeping praying. Keep going.

Most of the time we probably won’t know what our work for the sake of the gospel accomplishes anyway. The Holy Spirit is mysterious like that.

Charles Swindoll, who is a writer and lecturer tells the story of lecturing to a pretty good sized crowd over the course of a week at a conference. Everyone was respectful and attentive but this one man in the audience kept falling asleep all week. Swindoll says he was so angry he could hardly stand it.  At night he would think about the man and wonder how he could have the audacity to fall asleep in his lecture.

On the last day of the conference as everyone was leaving, the man who had kept falling asleep came up with his wife to talk with Swindoll and Swindoll couldn’t believe it! That this man would dare to approach him!

To his surprise the man thanked him heartily, and when he walked away the wife said, “My husband is terminally ill. He is on medication that makes him so drowsy and it’s hard for him to stay awake, but he loves your work so much, and one of the things he had to do was come and see you in person.”

Sometimes we know when we have succeeded in proclaiming the gospel and our words and actions have nurtured faith in another. Often we do not know.  So we try our best, we pray, and and leave it up to the Holy Spirit.

God can work in our successes, and God can also work through our failures.

Certainly God brought about the joy of the resurrection through the failure of the cross.

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Certainly we have confessed our failures before God and have heard the good news that God forgives us and still chooses to work through us:

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new! In Christ you are a new creation: your sins are taken away and you are made new.

God can work with failure and make something new.

By God’s grace, we are a community in which one can make mistakes and still be treated with respect and acceptance, where we can admit when we’re wrong, forgive one another, and take care of one another…

By God’s grace, we are a community that knows we depend on God for everything, and so we proclaim in our living that the Lord is good beyond measure!

So brother and sisters, be sent out today by the Holy Spirit to live the baptismal life to which you have been called – trusting God, proclaiming Christ, caring for creation, and working for justice and peace.

This is the one mission to which we have all been called and the LORD walks with us!

Amen