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The Opposite of Worry

Deuteronomy 8:7-18
Matthew 6:25-33

 

6: 25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25-33, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God, in your Son Jesus Christ you richly bless us with all that we need, bread from the earth and the bread of heaven, which gives life to the world. Grant us one thing more: grateful hearts to sing your praise, in this world and the world to come. Amen.

 

The world has changed a great deal since the time of Jesus. Think of all the technology we have that the people of biblical times did not, electricity, heat and air conditioning, cars and air planes, smart phones, the changes are too numerous to count. Other things have changed as well like our understanding of poverty, wealth, and life expectancy are much different today than they were over 2000 years ago.

 

One huge difference in our time and biblical times is the media. We are constantly bombarded with images and messages that encourage us to consume.  Buy this car and have a better life, buy this food and feel this good.  These messages define our sense of happiness.  On the flip side, these messages can make us feel unhappy with the actual life we have in the hope that we will buy and consume more.  Our media age can also show the harsh reality of our world.  We see everything today.  We live in constant fear of terror attacks and violence across the world.  As a result, we live with conflicting messages and concerns that distract us and divide our loyalties.  We seek security and stability but we can’t help but be worried about our future.

 

This current state of affairs causes a degree of pause when we read a passage like this one from the Gospel of Matthew.  Here, Jesus tells us not to worry about our life.

 

When someone tells me not to worry or to relax it usually doesn’t help, in fact it mostly makes it worse.   So, on this Thanksgiving Eve it is easy to hear Jesus words as a nice little self-help message, “Don’t worry be happy!”   Worry and anxiety are serious and no joking matter.   How do his words help?  Don’t they just heap guilt on us?  Of all Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, this is one of the more difficult ones to understand.   Jesus’ words seem so out of touch with our world and our time.  The implication of Jesus’ message is that the material aspects of our lives, ought not to be taken so seriously and all of life can be completely entrusted to God who loves us and cares for us. It is much easier said than it is done.

 

Worry may be the signature human condition, and its evil twin anxiety is a hallmark of our time.  Current research estimates reveal that 40 million adults in the United States are afflicted by some form of anxiety and that 12 percent of those people are debilitated by their anxiety.  Anxiety is the sign of our times…so, Jesus words about worry hit home but do they take the problem seriously enough?

 

I don’t think that Jesus is calling us all to abandon our lives and move to the desert to join a monastery or to empty our savings accounts and cash out our 401(k)s.  Instead, Jesus is addressing the basis for excessive worry and anxiety that can result from a life separated from God.   He is suggesting living by a different set of values.  Excessive worrying about ourselves and our lives takes us away from our relationship with God.   It just exacerbates that feeling that it is all up to us.   We do feel alone and lonely and overwhelmed so we worry and worry some more.   Just prior to this discussion about worrying, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.”  You can’t serve God and wealth.”  And, you can’t serve God and worrying.  Worrying becomes the all-consuming idol who takes all our energy and focus.  When we spend so much energy worrying about the things we worry about, we are taking away from our faith and trust in God.

 

When Jesus says don’t worry about your life, he is basically saying that we have two options for the way to live.  We can choose to worry about all the things that might happen and worry ourselves silly.  Or we can choose to trust that God is in control and put our lives in God’s hands.  Again, I know it is easier said than it is done.  But we all have to figure out how to remind ourselves over and over that God is in control.  So, Jesus reminds us that life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.

 

Joe, was a worrier. He worried about work and money and providing for his family and educating his children.  He worried a lot. Joe became sick. Feeling anxious over the poor state of his body compounded his illness and annoyed his family members.  Joe was consumed in a black cloud.  One day wife, Karen suggested that he get out of himself and do something for someone else.  And soon he forced himself to go local retirement home to visit some people.  Overtime he began to worry less and even though his illness got worse his worry didn’t.  He began to see each day as a gift. A strange thing happened the sicker he became the more grateful he became.  At his funeral, his family said that his life changed when he began to see life through the lens of gratitude.  He was grateful for all God had given to him and the blessing that each day was.

 

Gratitude does not come easily, especially when we are caught in the grip of worry.  Looking a life through a lens of gratitude is not a sudden conversion.  It comes through a slow turning, turning away from worry by intentionally looking for something, anything, to give thanks to God.  In the midst of worry, it can be a real stretch.  Jesus understood this.  So, he gives simple and common examples: a bird, a flower, a blade of grass. Anything will do: a breath of air, a friend’s hug, a child’s laugh, a dog’s loyalty, a glass of water. It is the small step of moving out of self to notice something or someone beyond the self that matters.

 

This small step leads to huge results.  It leads to finally getting what Jesus is trying to tell us: everything is God’s, and God is eagerly waiting to give us more and more – if only we would allow it.  Jesus wants us to notice what is in front of us, to believe that God is present and to be thankful.  Gratitude, the opposite of worry and fear allows us to see God’s abundance. Look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field. Jesus wasn’t being idealistic; he was being practical. God will take care of you and me.  Happy Thanksgiving! Amen

Sheep and Goats, Oh My

Ezekiel 34:11-24
Psalm 100
Matthew 25:31-46

 

25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Shepherd of Israel, hear our prayer as your Son heard the plea of the criminal crucified with him. Gather into Christ’s holy reign the broken, the sorrowing, and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

You may be surprised to learn that in some cases it is really hard to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.  Really, now they both make different sounds, Baa-baa-baa and nea-nea.  But from a distance it is hard to tell them apart. So, how are a sheep and a goat different?

 

There is a website called “the difference between” and it says: the easiest way to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat is to look at their tails.  A goat’s tail will go up (unless the goat is frightened, sick, or in distress).  A sheep’s tail will hang down and are often (docked) cut off for health and sanitary reasons.   The next difference is that they don’t look much alike.  A goat has hair and a sheep has fleece.  A goat is more slender of the two animals.  In the west people eat sheep meat but in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent people eat goat meat.

 

Jesus, however, can tell them apart because he says when the Son of man makes judgment it will be “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  The shepherd, in this story is Jesus and he can tell at a glance which is which even at a great distance. The shepherd is watching, and he will make judgment.

 

Like it or not, this parable is about judgment.  Judgment is a fact of life.  We are judged in every aspect of our lives: our work, our play, when we go to the grocery store, when we walk down the street, we are judged.  How we look, what we wear, what we say, what we eat, what we drink, where we worship, if we worship.  We simply cannot escape judgment in life. So, Jesus is talking about something we know very well – judgment.

 

But this parable is about more than daily judgment, much more than superficial judgment – it is about final judgment.  Jesus is warning his followers of God’s judgment to pay attention to how do we live, how do we love, how do we treat others?   This parable raises the tension between obedience and disobedience. Do we listen to Jesus and follow his teachings or not?

 

So, are you a sheep or a goat? I know you are thinking and wondering. So which is it?

 

What is interesting in this text is that both the sheep and the goats are in the flock. The shepherd cares for and watches over both the sheep and the goats.  Also, notice that both the sheep and the goats are unable to see in the King in “least of these.”  So, the shepherd declares that he has been watching both the sheep and the goats and he is fully aware of their actions and their blindness.   Then the shepherd chooses which to bless and which to curse.  Then, the shepherd judges them using the criteria of their works of compassion.  Pretty harsh.  But there it is in black and white, the Word of God.

 

Now, for this Presbyterian pastor this is a tough biblical text. I preach and teach week after week about God’s free grace.  It is grace that saves us apart from anything we can do to save ourselves.  It is grace that forgives us.  It is God’s grace that says I love you even when you are unlovable.  That is the Jesus I worship, the Jesus I love.   But this parable reveals a much different side of Jesus, this Jesus is on the throne giving out judgment and honestly it is hard to take.  On a good day when I have felt compassionate toward my fellow human beings I might be able to accept it, but there are other days when I know I haven’t cared enough.  It is then that this parable hits me right between the eyes.  And I want to scream, “But I thought it was all about grace, I thought it didn’t matter what I did, that you still loved me and saved me.”

 

And that is the tension of the Bible, the tension of being a Christian.  Yes it is about grace.  And yes it is about works.  It does matter how you live.  It is as if Jesus is saying to us, “You think it’s all free grace?  You think you can live anyway you want?  Remember the story of the sheep and the goats?  You aren’t off the hook so easily.  I see you and judge you on how you treat others!”

 

This parable is often interpreted as our way to earn God’s favor by our “good” works and it often evolves into a guilt ridden moral appeal for us to get out there and do “good” things.  The problem is that this parable is really not about our good works.  It is about “seeing.”  Jesus is not judging the virtues of the sheep or the faults of the goats, but, rather, he is pointing out the hidden-ness of the King in the “least of these.”  Neither the sheep nor the goats saw the King in all the misery around them.   So, Jesus points out what separates the sheep from the goats.   It is not that the sheep are better able to see Jesus in the misery of the world but, it is that the sheep treat everyone equally; they treat them as their brother, their sister, their fellow human being, and not as lower class citizens or useless human beings – they may in fact be the least, the last and the lost, but they are still children of God.  So, you see neither the sheep nor the goats were able to see Jesus – and neither can we so the message is this – treat everyone as if they were Jesus himself. Because you never know when it just might be him!

 

That is what Jesus is talking about here how we treat everyone because you never know when Jesus might be “the least of these,” because we will never be able to discern Christ in our neighbor. That is not our job to discern which person is Jesus and which one is not!  No, our calling is to believe that Christ is already there with them.

 

It is clear in this passage from Matthew that what Jesus wants us to do in response to God’s grace is to have compassion for the least of these – to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned.  There is simply no way to wriggle our way out of that expectation.

 

Yes, God is a God of grace and love and it is free and undeserved, but there are clear expectations with that grace and the expectation is to love.  The expectation is to open our eyes real wide and see Christ in everyone we meet, especially the hungry and the thirsty and the sick and the imprisoned.  Jesus wants us to treat everyone we meet as we would treat him.  He wants us to see the worth and the dignity of every person.

 

It is not natural.  Naturally we want to turn our heads at the ugliness of it.  We want to hold our noses at the stench of it.   We want to close our hearts to the horror of it.   Jesus calls us to respond differently to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to see him in those in need.

I love the fact that this is the chosen text for Christ the King Sunday, highest of high days where we crown Jesus Lord of Lords and King of Kings, where we sing, “Crown him with many crowns…” But yet, we aren’t reading a text about a King in our sense of royalty.  We are reading a text where Jesus can be found in the least, the last and the lost and that makes him the greatest King of all.

 

When Jesus comes and tells us we have fed him and clothed him and welcomed him we might say, “When was that?  I don’t remember seeing you.”  And Jesus will smile and say, “Every time you showed compassion and treated someone with respect and kindness that was me.  Every time you lifted your hand to help someone up, I saw, and he says, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

 

Let us pray: O God, the good Shepherd, hear our prayer that you would open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to respond to those in need; the broken, the grieving, those filled with sorrow, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the imprisoned and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

No Time to Sleep

 

Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
Matthew 25:1-13

 

25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:1-13, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God, you let us choose, between you and the false gods of this world. In the midst of the night of our lives, wake us from our slumber and call us forth to greet Christ, so that with eyes and hearts fixed on him, we may follow to eternal light. Amen.

 

Have you ever overslept? If you have then you know that horrible feeling of chaos that happens when you have to be somewhere at a certain time and you realize you’re late.  If you haven’t experienced oversleeping then you have probably at least dreamed that you have overslept.  It is a very common dream that people have; you dream that you have a huge test in school or an exam in college, and you wake up and realize that you are late.  You run and show up at the classroom but the test is either already started or it is completely over.  In a variation on that dream I often dream that I oversleep on Sunday morning and worship has been going on for twenty minutes or so and I come rushing in and all of you all are here but you are only wearing your underwear.  Now, that is a nightmare!

 

In the Gospel lesson all ten of the bridesmaids have fallen asleep and they are woken up as the bridegroom is on his way.  In the midst of their disorientation as they try to wake up and get in place for the bridegroom’s arrival, we learn that some of them were prepared and some were not. It is their preparation or lack of preparation seals their fate.  At first reading this is a scary parable about the Kingdom of God.

 

Thank goodness this is not the only parable about the Kingdom of God that we have to base our faith on, because if this was the only parable about the kingdom of heaven and God then the Christian Faith would be a pretty depressing business.  I much prefer other parables, such as the parable of the lost sheep where Jesus, the good shepherd goes to whatever means necessary to find that one lost sheep.  Not this parable where if you are a little late to the party the door is slammed in your face as Jesus says “I do not know you.”  It’s a pretty scary picture but it is one we must pay attention too.

 

This parable flies in the face of what I believe about faith, and about God.  We hear this parable and it is telling us to always be prepared.  Prepare yourself for the unexpected.  Get your life insurance, your savings account, and your financial plans all in order because you just never know.  Part of me is ok with that mentality because I like organization and preparation.  I respect people who are on time, who do what they say they are going to do, who plan and organize and prepare for all of the what-ifs.  I get frustrated with people who don’t.  So a part of me likes that these unprepared bridesmaids seem to get what they deserve.  They should have brought more oil, they should have been more prepared, so good for you Jesus, lock them out and throw away the key.  But I know in my heart of hearts that that is not what Jesus is saying.  I know in my heart of hearts that our organization, our preparedness is not what the Gospel is about.  It is not about us, it is about God.

 

It’s very difficult to read just one snapshot of a scripture.  You have to look at it in context.  This parable comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus has already ridden into town on the donkey, he has overturned the tables in the temple in a rage over the moneychangers.  The Pharisees and Scribes question him and try to trap him.  Then Jesus condemns them for the way they speak the words of faith but don’t live their faith, the way they lay burdens on others without any sacrifice of their own.  The disciples can tell that something big is about to happen but they are slow to catch on but even they realize that something is going on with Jesus.  “Tell us Jesus what is going on, what will be the sign of the end?”  Jesus answers, “Nations will rise against nations, there will be famine and earthquakes and all of this will just be the beginning of the birth pangs.”  He goes on to tell about persecutions and suffering and sacrifice.  Pretty heavy stuff.  Then Jesus starts talking about the kingdom of God.

 

So, digging a little deeper this parable is pointing toward the reason that the wise bridesmaids came prepared.  They came prepared because they were so excited, they couldn’t wait so they got all their ducks in a row so that they could be there willing and waiting when the bridegroom showed up.

 

My brother-in-law is a huge University of Alabama football fan and has season tickets.  Two of his sons are in school there.  He gets so excited for each home game they play.  Monnie said that he prepares for each home game weeks in advance.  He has a routine, he gets up early on Saturday morning, leaves the hotel and gets to the stadium for a day of tailgating. He doesn’t want to miss a thing so he prepares, he is present and he can enjoy everything that is going on.  It is like the five prepared bridesmaids they were ready because they were excited.  If only people got as excited about Jesus as they do a football game or a new TV show or the ballet or other major event in our lives that we care about.

 

Jesus is not telling us that the bridesmaids who were organized are the only ones getting into the kingdom.  No, because this parable is about more than that, it is about joy and expectation.   Joy at meeting the bridegroom and joy over following Jesus.  Jesus is saying these bridesmaids were so excited about meeting the bridegroom that they brought all their oil with them.  They didn’t want to miss anything.  The other bridesmaids were only partly excited.  They didn’t care quite so much.  They sort of, kind of cared and sort of, kind of wanted to meet the bridegroom but not enough to bring all their oil.  They brought just enough, they brought the bare minimum.

 

So, this parable is doing so much more than just trying to get our attention.  This parable is much more than a message saying you better fill up your lamp because Jesus might lock you out or you better stockpile oil and save enough for yourself.  Jesus is saying the kingdom of God is so great, so magnificent, so exciting that you want to bring your all, all your gifts, all your talents, all your oil with you because you just can’t wait to meet the bridegroom.

 

Jesus tells this parable about a wedding.  Weddings are always joyful and full of life and hope and love.  So the bridesmaids should come prepared. Prepared and excited to meet the bridegroom.  And so this is our message, to come prepared.  Not out of fear but joy, joy for the gift of the bridegroom, joy for the future, joy for the life changing presence of Jesus.

 

Beethoven said that Jesus is the joy of man’s desiring.  Henry Van Dyke later put words to Beethoven’s music in the familiar hymn:

“joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love.  Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.  Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the gloom of doubt away.  Giver or immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.  Joyful, joyful we adore thee.”

 

How often are we startled out of our sleep and respond with joy?

 

How often do we experience our faith as unending joy?

 

Joy is a feeling, an emotion that you can’t really explain or write about or fully express, you are just overcome by it.  Joy is something felt and experienced.  It can’t be captured or bottled up.  It can only be lived and enjoyed.  And it’s not trite.  Far from trite and superficial.  Joy is real and deep and meaningful.

 

So, the parable is about our response to something grand and glorious, something life changing and transformative – Jesus— the son of the living God.  He comes full of life and hope and love.  So let us be ready prepared to meet the bridegroom with all of our gifts and talents and joy.  Joyful, joyful we adore thee.  Amen.

Free to Give

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Romans 8:31-39
Matthew 22:34-46

 

8: 31”What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Lord of life, we worry about the things we do not understand and cannot control. Remind us today to look to your Word for peace. So, that we may be reminded of the great joy in Paul’s words, that you will not let anything come between you and us. As we wait for that glorious day when you call us home, may we wait with joy filled hearts. This we pray in Jesus name. Amen.

 

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday.  And I had a sermon all prepared for today but then life happened….I was going to talk about how great it is that we have surpassed our budget and that we are overflowing with money, so much so that we have given our abundance to the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the sick. And that out of our abundance we have ended homelessness in Cincinnati, we have fed every hungry child in Hamilton County, Butler, Clermont and Warren Counties, and that all the hospitals in our region are empty because illness and disease are no more.  But you know I can’t preach that fantasy because we all know reality, and we know that life happens…

 

So this week, life happened and as you have all heard the Bishop has announced that we are ready for the next step in our life as a congregation and that Reverend Anne Wrider who has served us well. First as our Interim Episcopal Priest and for the last four years as our Episcopal priest—in—charge. We learn this news with mixed emotions; excited that we are healthy and prepared for the next step in our life as a congregation to embark on the process of seeking our next rector.  We are grateful for Anne’s service and leadership.  So life has happened, while this news is a shock to the system, it is something we must deal with.

 

Change happens all the time, some change we celebrate and other change we resist. It happens in every aspect of life and it happens to all of us, so what is important is how we respond.  How we get up and dust ourselves off and move on with the plan, the mission, and life.

 

So, my first I thought oh no, not today!  This isn’t the best day for stewardship…but then I realized it is an ideal day for Commitment Sunday.  It is about our response to God for all that God has done for all the world and more specifically for each of us in our lives.  By extension Stewardship is our response to life when it happens…The Bishop sees what is good and healthy here at Indian Hill Church and he witnessed that first hand on his visit October 7. So there is something good, strong and healthy going on here, it is a time to respond by be thankful. Thanking God for our health and strength.

 

I want you to know that our response to this change begins with the incredible staff we have in place and have the pleasure of working with. Karen, our church secretary, offers her warm and caring presence to visitors and others doing business here at the church.  Her calm and caring voice offers support to people who call the church looking for help or support.  We are blessed to have Brenda, such a talented and gifted musician as she serves us as our Music Director and Organist. Music is so important to worship and we are blessed to have Brenda to lead us and direct the choir in our worship and praise of God.  Barb, keeps our financial records and books and she faithfully monitors our financial situation. She pays the churches bills and keeps our pledges and giving straight each and every week.

 

The enthusiasm and energy around our children and youth ministry is so much fun to witness.  We are so blessed to have Michelle and Jennifer. Last week we held our first re{Discover} where parents joined with their children in Confirmation Class to dig deeper into matters of faith. Our children’s ministry is exploding with children and were are so blessed to have Jennifer coordinating and leading this vital ministry for the life and well-being our Church.

 

So, our response to change is to keep on doing the mission and ministry that God has called us to do and be the hospitable and caring congregation God has called us to be and to give thanks for the ways in which we see God at work in our world.

 

The word steward comes from the Greek word, “oikos”, which means house.   The concept of stewardship is to take care of the house, the things of household, whether it is money, worship, the building and grounds, the music, our people, the people of our community, the people of the world, the health and well-being of the earth.  God has entrusted all of these to us.

 

As God’s people, we are called to take care for these gifts are from God.  We are called to support God’s church and its ministry.  In the Old Testament scriptures, Israel was to give a tenth (“tithe”) of their income to support the ministry. This practice still continues within the church today as a baseline for giving.

 

Giving to the church is a commitment. Commitment is an investment of oneself.

 

Commitment is what this text from Romans 8 is all about. The Apostle Paul tells us how committed God is in this relationship: If God is for us, who is against us?  It may be the most comforting passage in the bible.  It is the one I turn to whenever life happens and change comes. It is the one I turn to in good times and bad.  It is the one I hang my faith on.  Nothing, nothing in all of life or death can separate us from the love of God.

 

Now that is commitment. God is committed to us no matter how sinful and broken we are.  He will not let anything in life or death come between us and him through the love of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Not our commitment but God’s commitment to creation, to you and me.  Commitment is another word for a pledge or promise; engagement; and involvement.

 

The Bible is full of God’s promises.  First, God promises to be there for us in times of trouble.  We can count on God being there to strengthen us and carry us through difficult times.  God doesn’t promise to keep us from difficult times, but God gives us the strength to endure, to triumph, to be more than a conqueror over those things which would otherwise defeat us.

 

The second promise of God is that God is with us. In the midst of all the troubles, we can be sure that God is with us. We live in that hope and that expectation that no matter how dark it may seem, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that God will bring something wonderful to pass.

 

The third thing that God promises, in addition to being there in times of trouble, God promises this: he promises that he will never stop loving you.  No matter what you’ve done, no matter what mess you’ve gotten into, God will not stop loving you.

 

Paul has been giving us different examples of God’s commitment to his people through relationship with us. Paul lifts up Christ as the ultimate example of God’s commitment.  God sent his only begotten son, Jesus, to save the world.  Christ humbled himself even to the point of death, death on a cross, so we might have life.  Now that is commitment!

 

How will we respond to God who keeps his promises, who is fully committed to us? God who promises, “I will be with you. I will be your refuge and your strength.” Even in the midst of all the terrible things of our lives, all the heartbreak, all the suffering, God is with us and God will bring something good out of the tragedies, out of the pain, out of the sufferings, out of the darkness.

 

What will you give in gratitude to God?

 

Let us pray: Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us. We thank you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.  And, we pray, that you will give us an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may respond with praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Come and See, part 2

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 66:1-10
Matthew 21:23-32

1Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;

2sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise.

3Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.

4All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.”

5Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.

6He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him,

7who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations— let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah

8Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,

9who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.

10For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. (Psalm 66:1-10, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit, that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; this we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Well it is that time again, Stewardship! This year the Stewardship season will end with Commitment Sunday on October 26. Over the next several Sundays you will hear from your fellow church members about why they give and what the church means to them.

 

It is fundraising time.  It is all around us.  You hear it on the radio, with WXVU and NPR just wrapping up their Pledge drive.  I have gotten phones calls and letters from the schools I attended all wanting me to remember them again this year, and I bet you have too.  And then you come to church and we are asking for you to give.

 

We often think of Stewardship Season as the time when the preacher gives his or her best “fundraising” sermons to raise the money for the next year’s church budget.   The preacher, if he or she is good at it, is supposed to preach these fundraising sermons like a good dentist.  The dentist first gently puts in the right amount of Novocain to numb the pain and then he or she goes on and does the tough stuff in your mouth and on your teeth and hopefully you never feel it.   Well it is now time to lie back, relax and breathe deep, because this won’t hurt a bit…But no pain pill today, no hiding behind Novocain. We putting it out in the open. It is Stewardship time here at Indian Hill Church. And that is actually an exciting, joy filled time.

 

Stewardship is not about raising money.  It is a response.  It is our response to God for all that God has done for all the world and more specifically for each of us in our lives.  Stewardship is our response to God for what God has first given to us.  Our response is to thank God and enjoy those gifts and blessings and share them with others.

 

This is something the Psalmist knew and expressed in our text for today.  The Psalmist invites the people of God to come and see what God has done and how God has blessed them in so many ways.

 

The Psalmist invitation is to see the blessings of God and the first blessing is the gift of life itself.  Yes, life has its ups and downs, most of the time we are immensely grateful for the opportunity to be alive.  There is so much in life to enjoy – beautiful sunrises, good food, friendships and the joy of human love.  God gives us everything in life.   Best of all, God gives us the promise of love, God’s presence and the gift of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.

 

God’s life-giving and life-sustaining power that sustained the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land is precisely what the psalmist wants the whole world to Come and see. The psalmist declares, “Come now and see the works of God, how awesome are God’s deeds toward all people.” The psalmist recalls God’s “awesome deeds” of transforming the Red Sea into dry land and permitting God’s people to cross the river into the Promised Land without getting their feet wet.

 

The Psalmist is so excited and grateful, he wants to shout it from the rooftops. “Come and See” how great God is. Come and See what is going on in life with God. Come and See what abundant life feels like and looks like.  Stewardship season is a time to take stock, to look at our lives, our faith, and our church.  It is time to look at what is important to us and what we want to do and where we want to go.

 

We have so much. So many gifts, so much to be thankful for. And we can do more. We can help more, reach more, and love more. We can give more.

 

Look at this incredibly beautiful sanctuary, as you leave today notice the glorious grounds around us which still amaze me when I walk around and see the grass and trees and flowers and hear calmness of nature around us. Notice the exciting things going on with our children and youth, listen to these spectacular voices, join with your fellow church members who are giving their time and talents with MEAC, 20/20, IHN, IPM, etc.  See we have so much to be thankful for.  We can be like the psalmist and stand on the rooftops shouting, “Come and See…what God has done and is doing.”

 

I hope that we can all see that stewardship, tithing, and giving has a strong spiritual benefit: when we give with joy and generosity, we do so in response to God who gave it all for us.  When we give with joy filled hearts we begin to think and live more faithfully.

 

We don’t give out of guilt because that is not what life or faith is all about.  And we don’t give out of obligation, but instead we give out of gratitude and thankfulness for all that God has done for us and to us.   It is a mindset, a way to live, and a way to live out our faith.  It is a fact that generous people actually are happier than less generous ones, so generous people tend to focus on the spiritual rewards of giving.

 

You are people with a whole lot of choices to make.  You are starting your family, paying your mortgage, putting children through college, caring for parents, and saving for retirement, providing for your family. You have bills to pay and obligations to meet.

 

Each of us has many worthy opportunities asking us to give: our beloved college, the American Heart Association and Cancer Society, the Hospice that cared for a dying parent, or the art museum, symphony or the Reds and many other things that have touched our hearts and moved our souls.

 

So, God, his mission and the Church, are in a long list of organizations and things that are competing for our time, talents and money.  But I would challenge you that giving to God is the core of our faith. Come and See, Come and See and GIVE and be grateful, grateful to the God who gave you everything you have and provides for all your needs.

 

People give to vision, not to budgets.   So here is step one of our vision: we are invited to open our eyes and see how God has blessed us and how God has provided for us.

 

As children of God we do count our blessings. When we realize just how we have been blessed then we give thanks to God.  The way we give thanks to God is to share the gifts we have.  Putting your offering envelope in the plate is one way of saying, “Thanks to God.”

 

Let us pray: Dear God, open our eyes and hearts to the signs of your activity in our lives that we might live in hope. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Congregational Hospitality: The Risks and Rewards of Hospitality

 

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Acts 10:23-48
Matthew 15:21-28

 

10: 23The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’ 30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” 33Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’ 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’  44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:23-48, NRSV)

 

 

This is the third sermon in the series on Hospitality.  Today we have a couple of long readings form the New Testament.  This sermon will focus on the reading from Acts and more specifically the movement that takes place in this scripture passage.  Peter moves from Joppa to Caesarea, he also moves from clean (Judaism) to unclean (Gentile), he moves from guest to host and from risk to reward.  Cornelius, another character in this story moves from a position of power to a position of powerlessness, from host to guest and from outsider to insider.  There is also another much more subtle movement that is deeper and behind this story; it is the movement of God.  As we have seen throughout this sermon series God is active and on the move throughout the Bible and the world.  God is active and on the move spreading his love, grace and mercy through individuals and communities and through the offer of hospitality.  Specifically in the book of Acts we learn that the gospel spreads from the Jewish world into the Gentile world and on to the ends of the earth. God’s activity continues today and sometimes it happens through our sharing hospitality.  We the church bear witness to God’s hospitality when we share God’s welcome with others who may be new to us.

 

Let us pray: Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, you heal what is wounded, and you gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to hear your word and to live it out so that all may be welcomed and all people may be blessed. Amen.

 

Darla and her daughter were living in their car, because they had been evicted from their apartment.  They came to the church for worship one Sunday, and they were welcomed and respected and a relationship was started.  Without going into all the details of how it transpired, and it took several years for the outcome.  Darla became an active member of the church, she sang in the choir, she has a job and home.  No one person did all of this, but rather a community of people extended the hospitality of God and together with the work of the Holy Spirit, Darla and her daughter found a church home.

 

Mike and his wife and daughter were new to the church.  Mike was raised in the faith but never really “bought into” the church and its teachings.  Over time he became more inquisitive and, through what can only be the work of the Holy Spirit, he recently asked to be baptized.  Again it is hard to quantify how this transformation happened in his life.  But I cannot help but point and affirm the work of the Holy Spirit and the hospitality of the congregation in sharing the transforming love of God with Darla and Mike.

 

These are but two examples, among many, of how hospitality changes lives. The lives of both the ones receiving it and the ones extending it.  The point of hospitality is to invite others to experience the living, welcoming and transforming God.

 

But sharing God’s gracious hospitality is not without risk.  I shared two positive stories of sharing hospitality but I could share more stories than I care to count of hospitality being extended in honest, faith filled ways, and the outcome not being so positive, happy, and fruitful.

 

Some of these outcomes were rejection. “What if we offer a warm welcome and hospitality, and it is rejected?” “What if they don’t come?” Jesus own life and ministry was an invitation to new life, and it ended on the cross in the ultimate act of rejection by those he came to serve.  Another risk of offering hospitality could be we get no return on our investment? “We did all of this work, and we have gotten no new members?” There is a danger of seeing hospitality as a means to gain new members or more “pledging units,” and we miss the point of God’s hospitality all together.  Another potential risk could be our gracious hospitality works and it works well but we have welcomed “the wrong type of people”? In the biblical sense this is what I believe God’s hospitality challenges: a welcoming of all. “What will we do with those who don’t fit in?”

 

Offering hospitality or inviting someone into your life can be difficult.  It is much more than what we think of today as having family or friends over for a meal or hosting guests in our home for a night or two.  Luke, the writer of Acts, and the other writers of the New Testament, had a very different understanding of hospitality.  The ancient custom of hospitality revolved around the practice of welcoming strangers or travelers into one’s home and providing for them provisions and protection.  Hosts were also obligated to meet their guests’ needs by supplying them with meals, water for cleaning their feet and with new clothes if they needed them.  When the guest was ready to leave the host would also “send them off” with enough provisions for at least a day’s journey and where possible they would provide a guide to accompany the guest until the guest traveled safely out of the region.  Over time, this biblical understanding of hospitality has become skewed.

 

In the Greco-Roman world, citizens lived with a great fear that the stranger requesting help on their journey could be Zeus, the god of hospitality, in disguise presenting himself as a test of one hospitality.  There was also a strong desire to create political alliances with others by offering them hospitality on their journeys.

 

In Hebraic and Christian contexts, however, the motive for hospitality more often grew out of the desire to please God by showing love toward a fellow worshiper. The Jewish and early Christian followers of God showed their love for God and others by extending hospitality to complete strangers.  Then in the New Testament we read of Jesus turning the concept of hospitality around as he commissioned his followers to minister to their host families and communities. Rather than merely receiving provisions and protection, the traveling missionaries were to meet the needs they encounter along their journeys and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

 

In our passage today from Acts, Peter accepts the hospitality of Simon the tanner in Joppa.  This is quite remarkable because tanners work with leather, animal skins.  Tanners were thought to be extremely unclean and one would not interact with them.  For Peter, a good Jew, to stay in the home of a tanner was unheard of.   Then when Peter is invited by messengers to come to the home of Cornelius Peter extends hospitality to them.  He accepts their invitation and travels to stay at Cornelius’ home.[i]

 

Once Peter arrives at Cornelius home he explains the good news of Jesus Christ to him and the gift of the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles gathered there.  Through this wondrous act of God Cornelius and the members of his household who are also Gentiles asked to be baptized.

 

These stories of hospitality become the vehicle through which God acts to open up the church to the Gentiles and from there to the ends of the earth. Hospitality throughout the book of Acts functions as the bridge through which Jewish Christians are able to see Gentile converts in a new way — no longer as “profane or unclean,” but rather as partners in the community of faith.  If ever so slowly the extension of hospitality is the bridge that covers the gap between people of different regions and cultures and their being integrated into the life of the Church.

 

So what does this mean for us, here today?  We do not find ourselves in the same situation as the early Christians, nor do we have as many barriers but we still very much live in a world of insiders and outsiders. It is vitally important for us today to offer hospitality to one another.  We must keep risking, even when all signs say it won’t make a difference.  We must share hospitality not because we will be able to get new members or because God will smile upon us or because we will get another pledging unit.

 

And we don’t do it to put another notch in our belt of conversions or increase our number of baptisms. No!

 

We offer hospitality because it is who we are as Christians.  We do it and we trust in God because it is God at work in and through our lives and our hospitality. Sometimes it won’t work.   People won’t respond to even our best efforts.  But sometimes it will.  But not because of us for we are mere mortals, but because of God, the creator of heaven and earth, and all that is, God is the one who can change hearts, transform lives and even raise the dead! So let us trust in God and share God welcome because you just never know what might happen.

Thanks be to God.

 

Let us pray:

 

[i] Reverend Dr. Andrew Arterbury the Ancient Custom of Hospitality, the Greek Novels, and Acts 10:1-11:18. Reverend Dr. Arterbury is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Congregational Hospitality: The Welcoming Church

August 10, 2014 (Proper 14/ Ordinary 19)

Isaiah 56:1-8
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22,45b
Matthew 14:22-33

 

56:1Thus says the Lord:

Maintain justice, and do what is right,

for soon my salvation will come,

and my deliverance be revealed.

2 Happy is the mortal who does this,

the one who holds it fast,

who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,

and refrains from doing any evil.

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;

and do not let the eunuch say,

‘I am just a dry tree.’

4 For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off.

6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant—

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.

8 Thus says the Lord God,

who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them

besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:1-8, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Eternal God, you have called us to be members of one body. Join us with those who in all times and places have praised your name, that, with one heart and mind, we may show the unity of your church, and bring honor to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

This is my second sermon in a series on Christian hospitality, one that I hope will inspire us all as a church reflect on the task of welcoming and including visitors.  Hospitality is not just a good idea — it is a core Christian practice, and one that our divided world needs now more than ever.  Our scripture passage from Isaiah speaks of the act of welcoming and the deep significance that such an act has.  The extension of welcome to another person is one of the primary understandings of hospitality.  God wants the church to be a house of prayer for all people.  So when we welcome a person to our church, we are in a sense welcoming Christ himself.

 

Those are the standards of hospitality for the church: welcoming in the same manner as Christ has welcomed us.  But as we all know it is not easy to do.  Especially today, in our fractured and polarized world.  Where we divide up along race, religion, politics and economics. So, it is a real challenge that is set before us from the book of Isaiah.  The Lord does not want us to divide up into segregated communities in which Republicans worship with Republicans, Democrats pray with Democrats, liberals study the Bible with liberals, and conservatives go on mission trips with other conservatives. Instead, as the prophet Isaiah states “a house of prayer for all peoples” that gather together and overcome boundaries to worship God.

 

You might wonder why the prophet Isaiah shares this vision from God with the people. Before the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel were considered to be God’s chosen ones, and the purity code of Deuteronomy was very clear about who was in and who was out and it was especially excluded two particular categories of people: eunuchs and foreigners.  Deuteronomy 23: 1-3 says that no one who has been castrated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  And “no Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  In short, the common community that existed in Israel was made up of like-minded Israelites — it was a congregation of people who shared the same ideas of what was pure and what was not.

 

Then the prophet Isaiah shares a new vision of community, one in which all people who honor the Lord in their actions are to be included.  Speaking through Isaiah, God said, the community of faith was not limited to people of the same nationality or political party.

 

Throughout the Gospels, we read that see Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners, he welcomed children, he spoke with women, and he healed those who were considered unclean and outcasts. Jesus practiced a ministry of hospitality that truly welcomed strangers into the community of faith. He embodied hospitality.

 

My definition of biblical Hospitality: is a life of openness to the presence of God and, unconditional openness to every human life.  This understanding of hospitality is a thread that weaves its way throughout the Bible.  It is the recognition that the presence of God is in the world, and that God may come to you and me at any moment.  To be truly hospitable, we must live in an open readiness to experience the presence of God at any moment, and in any human life.

 

Most congregations want to welcome and hospitable — unfortunately, it takes more than just a willingness and aspiration to be welcome visitors. It actually is a skill and it takes practice to accept visitors.  It is more than just inviting them to have coffee and cookies after worship.   So, as a first step let’s take a look at our hospitality here at Indian Hill Church.

 

Do you remember the last time you felt particularly uncomfortable somewhere?  Maybe it was the office party where your spouse works.  Or at your child’s back-to-school night.  Or the first day on a new job.  Or your first visit to a new dentist?  Usually, we feel uncomfortable either when we don’t know many of the people around us or when we’re not sure of our role, our place, or what is expected of us.  We’ve all been there – feeling left out, alone, out of place, unsure of the way things go, just plain unwelcome. It’s not an enjoyable feeling. So unenjoyable that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it.  We come up with lots of reasons not to go or get involved. So it is much easier to just stay home.

 

Now, imagine for a moment feeling that way at church.[i]

 

Each and every week, there are people sitting in our pews, who feel unwelcome or left out or lost.  Maybe they are listening attentively to the sermon, maybe they just mouth the words of the hymns, going through the motions of the prayers and liturgy, and they don’t feel at home here or at any church for that matter.  What is really sad is they feel like outsiders.

 

This fact may be hard for some of us to imagine, but it’s true: a whole lot of people don’t feel particularly welcome or comfortable at church.

 

Now, I am not beating us up, the Indian Hill Church.  It is any church, it is every church.  But because this is our church, where God has called us, you and me, to worship I am particularly interested in the ways in which we are and are not practicing hospitality.

 

No one is to blame because it is not any one’s fault.  Nobody in our congregation sets out to make people feel unwelcome. Much in the same way the co-workers at your spouse’s office party, or the parents of our children’s classmates, or the date we just met, or the new dentist we go to and the colleagues at our new job – they don’t get up in the morning and plan to make us feel unwelcome. It just happens. Instead of trying to place blame let’s see what we can do about it.

 

Who knows why people feel unwelcome.  Maybe they’re here because they have to be – people who would much rather spend their Sunday mornings another way if they weren’t made to come to church.  Or maybe they feel unwelcome because they don’t understand the language and liturgy or why we do what we do at church.  Or maybe they had some bad experiences at church in the past and it’s hard to ever feel comfortable. Or maybe they just don’t believe in this whole biblical-story thing and just wish the pastor would talk about something they are interested in.   Or maybe they’re intimidated because all the “regulars” seem to know what they’re doing and they don’t know the “secrets”.  Or maybe they have a hard time believing that we would really accept them here if we really knew them and the problems they have. Or maybe….it is something else?

 

But that’s the point.

We don’t know.

And we won’t….

…Unless we ask.

So, I am asking!

 

I invite you to take a moment and fill out the questionnaire that you will find as an insert in your bulletin – it can be anonymous or you can sign your name, then I invite you to put them in the offering plate when they come around.  The questions are:

 

1.         Do you feel welcome at this church?

2.         What in particular helps you to feel welcome?

3.         What in particular has been a hindrance to your feeling welcome?

4.         What do you most love about being here?

5.         What do you like least about being here?

6.         How can Indian Hill Church improve on being a more welcoming congregation?

 

One quick example of a small thing that one congregation did to meet the needs of a visitor. A small rural church of about 100 people in attendance at worship.  This church is primarily an older congregation and all of the sudden a young single mother started to attend with her baby. The folks of the church could tell that the young mom felt very self-conscious whenever her baby started to fuss during worship, like any infant will do.

 

So, some of the leaders in the church realized how uncomfortable she was and they decided they had to do something. To show support for her, they bought a comfortable, well-padded rocking chair and placed it behind the last pew of the small sanctuary so she could rock the baby and still participate in the worship service. Their solution is not all that radical.  But what they did is they paid attention to the needs of a visitor in order to welcome her in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

It makes me wonder what are the barriers or issues that keep people away from joining us in worship or participating in Sunday school or other educational programs, ministries and mission of our congregation.  Is it the stairs to the Sunday school classrooms?  Is it the closed sense of the congregation that makes it difficult for visitors to “break in” and feel included?  Is it economic or racial or employment differences?

 

I believe the issue of hospitality is one of the great opportunities that you the Indian Hill Church are already doing — because you are a welcoming people — I know, because I have experienced it myself.   But we often miss things that are right in front of us.

 

So, the challenge for us is to practice hospitality and welcome so intentionally that every person walking through our doors experiences it. I challenge every church member and every leader here at Indian Hill Church to give it a try and to practice welcoming others and offering hospitality, even more than you already do. So that we may be a house of prayer for all people.

 

Let us pray:

 

 

[i] This section of the sermon comes directly from David Lose and his blog post, “All Are Welcome,”

Sunday, August 07, 2011  http://www.davidlose.net

 

Congregational Hospitality: God’s Welcome

August 3, 2014 (Ordinary 18)

Genesis 18:1-16
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Matthew 14:13-21

 

18: 1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

16Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. (Genesis 18:1-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Did you notice in the midst of the story of Abraham and Sarah receiving news that they will have a child that something else was going on?  It is often overlooked. Abraham and Sarah may be the first example of offering hospitality in the bible. Standing at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day he sees 3 strangers walking toward him and he and Sarah offer them hospitality.

 

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, hospitality to strangers is never a random act.  Ever since we human beings became wanderers, we have had to rely on the goodness of others for survival.  We have had to learn to be both guests and hosts to one another providing for and receiving from others the necessities for life.

 

Throughout the Bible, story after story teaches this practice. Beginning with Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden we have been a wandering people. Then Abraham and Sarah, then their descendants, then the Israelites who moved from being slaves in Egypt to their long years of wandering in the wilderness. The biblical story is one of a journey and in this journey the people of God had to rely on the hospitality of each other for survival.

 

The New Testament is much the same as Jesus and his followers were dependent on the hospitality of others for survival.  Story after story as the disciples traveled they were welcomed and nourished by the goodness of others. But perhaps the most important act of hospitality took place on the night of Jesus’ betrayal when he was gathered in the upper room with his disciples and he invited them to share in his body broken and his blood shed.  The ultimate act of hospitality Jesus gave of himself so that we might have life.  So, we, like the disciples, are still invited to receive the hospitality of Christ.  But times have changed.

 

Hospitality is no longer a necessity in our world.  We seem to believe that we can live on our own and get by on our own strengths and abilities.   So much so that this biblical sense of hospitality is lost on us and it has been replaced by a whole industry that makes money and lots of it off of offering hospitality to those with the means to afford it.  This became clear as I began putting together this sermon series: our common conceptions of hospitality are something very different than what the Bible describes as hospitality.

 

There are so many different images of what we call hospitality.  There is a whole cottage industry built around our concept of Hospitality from popular magazines devoted to home and garden, food and drink, and even television networks like HGTV and the cooking channel that pump up or sense of hospitality.   They display homes that are beautifully decorated, with everything tastefully chosen and perfectly in place.  The tables are stunningly set, the cuisine exquisite, and the wine a perfect complement to the meal.  The gardens are lush and colorful. These are the images that fuel our current definition of Hospitality.  Our definition of hospitality been taken over by fine food and furnishings that it is impossible to live up to such high standards. No longer can a simple meal, on a plain table, served with loving hands, and a genuine heart, be a true representation of genuine hospitality.  Hospitality has become so over the top.  It must surely have some deeper dimensions than what we see on the front cover of Southern Living Magazine or I guess I should say Mid-West Living or when we are welcomed at Wal-Mart by the greeter.

 

So, I would like to go back to our scripture lesson for today as Abraham and Sarah welcome these three strangers and offer them Hospitality.  It will set the foundation for what I see as a biblical definition of hospitality.  My working definition of biblical Hospitality: is a life of openness to the presence of God and, unconditional openness to every human life.  This understanding of hospitality is a thread that weaves its way throughout the Bible.  It is the recognition that the presence of God pervades the world, and that God may come to you and me at any moment.  To be truly hospitable, we must live in an open readiness to experience the presence of God at any moment, and in any human life.

 

Most of all of the stories of biblical hospitality take place in ordinary places with ordinary people.  Abraham is at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Lot is sitting by the city gate in the cool of the evening when two strangers arrive.  Gideon is at work in his wheat fields when a man sits down under a nearby oak tree.  The mother of Samson is sitting in the field when an angelic man approaches her with a message.  These stories begin in ordinary places, but end with extraordinary messages that ordinary people need to hear from God who enters into these ordinary scenes.  What the biblical sense of hospitality insists is that God may come to us at any moment in our lives.

  • Who knows when you may come upon someone who is bearing a message from God for your life or mine?
  • Who knows what experience may be a revelation of God in my life. All of this, sounds wonderful, such pious sermon speak and spiritual terminology, but how do we do it?
  • If we are to treat every person we come in contact with as if they are God in disguise, isn’t that going to be exhausting?

 

So what does this mean for the church the gathered community of faith? Does this mean that every person who walks through the doors and into the sanctuary is God in disguise? I sure hope not.  What are we to do with the undeniable truth that every church is made up of all kinds of people, some of who are impossible, others are just plain odd, or weird, others are pure phonies, and many of them you don’t really want to be friends with? Do you? How are we supposed to be hospitable to people like that?

 

I recently read the words of C.S. Lewis, written in 1942, from his essay entitled, The Weight of Glory, in which he talks about how we should live our lives with this Biblical understanding of Hospitality in mind.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may be a messenger of God…It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the alertness…that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our play must be of that kind which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption…Next to the (Blessed Sacrament) Holy Communion itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

 

There are no ordinary people. Because of God’s love in Jesus Christ this is true.  Every life has extraordinary possibilities because of the presence of Christ in our world.  True hospitality, unconditional openness to every human life is based upon that truth and, once we accept that truth, the world will become full of opportunities where we can encounter the divine in each other.  At any moment, something wonderful may happen.  Carry that truth with you into the week ahead.  Let the truth of God’s welcome transform your life, your home, your friendships, your work, our church, and our world.

 

We are a month away from kicking off another church year, September 7, with Rally Day it is a wonderful opportunity to invite someone to church and practice our hospitality. I remember you just never know who you might be welcoming.

 

Let us pray: Life-giving God, heal our lives that we may welcome your wonderful deeds and offer hospitality to those we meet. We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Details, Details, Details

 

July 27, 2014 (Ordinary 17)
Genesis 29:15-28
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

13:31 “He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us. Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us, melt us mold, shapes us use us. Amen.

 

I heard a story this week about a colleague in ministry who is serving a church in Southern Middle Tennessee. He was telling about his call to ministry. He had a sense of being called into the ministry while he was in college. When a professor he had said to him that he should consider a call to ministry.  My colleague said it really meant a lot for him to hear that affirmation from a professor, someone he looked up to and he respected but it wasn’t the moment that he felt called. His story continues a year later while he was on a short-term mission trip to New York City. He and other college student were working with the homeless and the hungry and the least, the last and the lost.

 

One evening he was riding on a subway going to meet a friend for dinner and he was very sad and hopeless. He was overwhelmed by the massive needs of the people he was working with. Overwhelmed by the fact that he felt so helpless and useless by all of the suffering around him. He looked across the aisle of the subway car and his eye caught the eye of a homeless man, who was staring at him.  When the homeless man said to him, “What’s happening?”

 

My colleague responded, “Nothing, nothing is happening.” That was what he felt in light of the overwhelming needs all around him. The homeless will continue to be homeless, the hungry will still be hungry, and so he felt that nothing was going on.  The homeless man replied, “Well make it happen!” Then the subway car stopped and the homeless man got off and the door closed. My colleague said that was the moment he was called to ministry.

 

Jesus was a good story teller. This particular story or parable is a shocking one – the parable of the mustard seed would have caused his listeners to drop their jaws. It would have been one of those stories that those who heard it would have been desperate to tell others, it would have been one of those stories that they would begin by saying…“did you hear what that man said?”

 

It is just a story about a mustard seed, a harmless little seed.  Well, it is a parable, a metaphor that was a direct contradiction of part of sacred Jewish law.  In the book of Leviticus there are some farming rules and one of them is that, on pain of death, you must not sow more than one type of seed in a field.

 

The purpose of the law was to protect crops but it was also an acknowledgment that in those days grain was absolutely precious – and back then, what you grew was your very means of survival.  So to give the grain the absolutely best chance of survival, weeds or competing crops were not allowed. The mustard seed was actually the seed of a shrub that was considered a weed and next to useless.  So, the thought that the farmer would have allowed it first to grow and then to actually continue to grow until it reached the size of a tree would have been unheard of – and in fact could have got the farmer into a huge amount of trouble.

 

But there was something else. Since the time of Leviticus something else had happened. The Romans had invaded – and conquered their land. The Romans were ruthless. They taxed everything – including crops and at least fifty percent of everything that a farmer grew was taken for the benefit of the Rome. So, for a farmer to deliberately allow something to grow instead – especially a useless weed like the mustard seed was an act of sedition – it was stealing from Rome. So, it would have been shocking to the hearers of the day to hear this story.

 

Jesus has been upping the ante in each of his descriptions of the kingdom.  For three weeks now we have heard Jesus describe the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Matthew, the thirteenth chapter. We have heard about the gardener (the sower) who extravagantly throws seeds out on all types of ground. Last week Anne preached about the wheat and the weeds and how there is good and evil in all people and it is not our job to judge. And then we have today’s passage. Jesus is no longer telling interesting stories, it is almost as if he gets into a hurry as he in rapid succession tries to explain what the Kingdom of heaven is like:

  • A mustard seed
  • Like yeast
  • Like a buried treasure
  • Like a fine pearl
  • Like a net cast into the sea

 

Bam, bam, bam. One after the other without time to think in between. What is Jesus trying to tell us? The parable begins small, “the smallest of seeds,” and ends up growing bigger.

 

So, Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed?  Yes, mustard plant is an invasive species, dreaded by farmers in the same way today’s gardeners dread kudzu, or crabgrass and other weeds. The mustard plant is a weed that was against the law to sow it in a garden, but that it is foolish to do so.  Because it would germinate very quickly and then grow out of control. And before long it has taken over your yard, your garden, your field.  The mustard plant is an annual, which grows wild and can reach four feet in height. Once it has been sown it is nearly impossible to get rid of it.

 

Yeast was much the same, when added to flour it would take over.

 

And Jesus is comparing the kingdom of Heaven God to a malignant weed and pollutant? Because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined, infiltrating a system and taking it over.

 

It is an odd parable, the seed starts small, it ends not in glory, but with a suspicious, often rejected weed, despised by the farmer.  The farmer does everything to try and kill it but can’t. Might God’s kingdom be like that – far more potent than we’d imagined and ready to spread to every aspect of our lives?

 

God is at work in people, events, situations we regard as insignificant and God’s actions have results wildly beyond our expectations. God is at work in people, events, situations widely regarded as subversive of the status quo and counter to standards of worldly success. Like my colleague on the subway, he was so caught up in his own sadness and hopelessness that he could not “see” that God was at work in him, around him and with the homeless man. Silently, ever so slowly, growing, changing, working, and transforming the world. That is what the Kingdom of God is like.

 

So look closely— at the tiny mustard seeds in your life— they may be God planting something in your heart that is going to grow into something beyond your imagination. Listen for the small things…

Look at the insignificant events….

Pay attention…

For God the creator of all that is is at work in you and in me and in all the world brining about his kingdom.

 

Let us pray: Seed-planting, fish-netting, bread-baking, pearl-hunting God, you shape us into living parables. We pray that your spirit would fill us so that we may understand our experiences as healing metaphors, and become creative and abundant stewards of the environment you entrusted to our love. Amen.

God, Dirt and the Church

July 13, 2014 (Ordinary 15)

Isaiah 55:10-13

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

13: 1 “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, NRSV)

Let us pray: Generous God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable unto you O’ Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

By this time in the summer, you should know if the seeds you planted back in the spring have produced.  Way back last spring when you put the little seeds into the wet, dark soil of the earth you did so with such hope.  Hope that those little tiny seeds might actually burst out of the ground and grow into something.  Some of those seeds looked like what they would produce once they matured, like the beans, while others look nothing like what they grow into like the heads of lettuce that come from the tiniest of seeds.  Planting a seed or growing a garden is such a profound gesture of hope.  When you put that seed into the ground it is a small step in the belief that it will follow the natural order of things and that it will grow into the plant, a flower, grass, or the fruit that it is supposed to be.  To be a gardener one must also be full of faith.  A gardener plants seeds in faith and hopes for all things to turn out good for those seeds to grow into plants that produce vegetables or trees that produce fruit or flowers that bloom is – well a small miracle.

We hear of such miraculous growth in this parable from Jesus. The familiar parable goes like this: A sower scatters seed everywhere. As a result some fall on the beaten path and birds eat them; some fall among the rocks, they sprang up quickly but soon they wither in the heat of the day; and some are choked out by thorns and weeds. And some of the seeds fall on good soil and produce at various rates.

We hear Jesus telling this parable and we think of the soil. We think of ourselves and which type of soil we are. There are four types of soil in this parable and each of us must be one type or another. You might even be concerned about what type of soil God thinks you are.

–        Are you hard ground with no chance for seeds to embed themselves and grow?

–        Or are you rocky soil with little nutrients to feed the seeds?

–        Or are you surrounded by thorns that choke you out?

–        Or are you one of the lucky ones, like good soil where seeds will flourish and grow?

So which is it?

What type of soil are you?

When we realize that we just maybe hard or rocky soil and wonder how we can change our soil type. How can we move from being rocky soil and become rich and fertile ground?   I have heard sermons on this text and may have even preached a few encouraging the congregation to become better soil.  You can become good, rich, nutrient filled soil that God can use if you just pray more, or read your bible more, or tithe.  While most of us naturally go in this direction when we hear this parable, wondering about ourselves, I am not convinced that this was what Jesus was pointing too.

As I have been living with is the parable and discussing it with others and after discussing it with my PRG on Wednesday morning I had a new thought.  Instead of thinking about the soil, how about we focus on the sower, the one who threw out those seeds.

Now, this is not your typical gardener.   No this parable is about a really, really, really bad gardener.  Just think about any gardener you know.  The first thing they do before they plant is they prepare the ground.  They till it, they weed it, and they plant the seeds with great care and purpose.  It is not the way our sower acts in Jesus’ parable.  Our sower just throws out handfuls of seeds without so much as a glance at the ground where they will land.  Just walking along indiscriminately throwing out the seeds. It is really a great image that Jesus is presenting. The sower, God, is joyfully tossing out handful after handful of seeds in each and every direction. Tossing them with seemingly reckless abandon not concerned with where they land and no worry of running out of them.  The sower is just extravagantly tossing the seeds here, seeds there, seeds going everywhere, assured that some of them will take root and thrive and produce. There is an extravagance in this parable that no gardener could ever imagine, but it is the extravagance of God.

The Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way:

“The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of the maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into the seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of God’s truth.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, p. 26).

That is how God is. He tosses his word out over all people, happily broadcasting his seeds over and over and over again.

This parable is a great image for the church and for what is happening right now.  It is happening right here, right now with you and with me.  Each week in church we join Christians across the world as we gather for worship.  You come here with all kinds of things going on in your lives, good, bad and ugly.  Some of you are tired, like the rocky soil, because you couldn’t sleep, your mind racked with worry about the week ahead, the meetings, the appointments, the challenges, and the financial details.   Others of you come empty, like the hard soil, empty because of health issues, illness of a loved one, grief, and depression over a recent death of someone you loved.   Others of you come with the best of intentions, eager, willing and ready, only to have the thorns all around you choke your willingness out.   Some of you come, often with no rhyme or reason, with different emotions and different needs, and somehow, some way, God’s seeds of love take root and take hold in your life.   And some of you come fully expecting to hear God’s good news because you are like the good soil, rich and full of nutrients ready to receive God’s seeds of grace and mercy.

And I, because I am human, do the same. Some weeks I come excited to preach, eager to share the good news of the gospel and other weeks not so much. I am tired, a bit slow or concerned by the worries of life and still other weeks I offer a sermon that does not come easily and doesn’t connect with the congregation. But as this parable says, the work of the church, the preacher, the work of Anne and me is to stand up in the pulpit with fear and trepidation and with the help of the Holy Spirit and proclaim God’s Word.

And all the while with you coming to worship as you do and me coming to church like I do, we have this sower, right here with us, tossing out seeds on us all. As the words come out of my mouth, the sower tosses them out to you and out to me.  Sometimes they fall flat.   Sometimes they land on hard soil, other times they hit a rock and other times they are choked out by thorns and weeds.   And then there are the times that they take root, they grow, the flourish and they produce fruit beyond our wildest imagination.

This thing we do each week, this gathering together we call worship, the task God has called Anne and me to do each Sunday with you, preaching, is so much more than we can ever understand.  You see if it were just up to us then it would never be very fruitful and it would soon wither and die.  Because you are human beings and so am I and between us there is humanness, weakness, sinfulness and the stuff of our lives that constantly get in the way.  So, you see there is something much greater at work here right now. It is the work of the sower, patiently, joyfully, extravagantly throwing his word out to you and out to me.  So, this parable is a word of good news to the church that it is not just up to us and our hard work that there is a real miracle going on as God tosses out seeds.

Seeds here.

Seeds there.

Seeds everywhere.

So what do we do in response to this extravagant sower? We put ourselves in his field, we live, we trust, we hope.  All the while realizing that when we do find ourselves on good, nutrient rich soil it is not from our doing. It was God, it is God and it will be God who loves the world so much that he just keeps tossing out seeds.

Seeds here.

Seeds there.

Seeds everywhere.

Let us pray: O Great God, our teacher, give us ears to listen. In your patient and determined way, teach us about your radical generosity and the power of your word so that we might “bring forth grain” in the world you love so much. Teach us such generosity, that the fruits of our spirits and the works of our hands may be used for the building up of your kingdom. Amen

To Welcome and Receive

“To Welcome and Receive”

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Matthew 10:40-42

 

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes

me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the

name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a

righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of

the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these

little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose

their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Faithful God, your love stands firm from generation to

generation, your mercy is always abundant. Give us open and understanding

hearts, that having heard your word, we may seek Christ’s presence in all

whom we meet. Amen.

 

It has been two summers now since my last trip to Guatemala. I have

been to Central America a half a dozen times on mission trips in the last twenty

years. One of the most important things that I have learned about travel to Central

America is the all-important packing and information list. It is usually a one page

piece of paper that spells out some vitally important survival tips for the trip. For

example, how much to tip the people who handle your luggage, how to make your

trip safe, what is the appropriate attire, even though it is hot, shorts should not be

worn because it is a sign of disrespect. Make a copy of your passport in case you

lose it. Where and how to exchange money. What immunizations you will need.

Malaria pills, insurance, and liability forms.

 

The packing list includes all kinds of items: ear plugs, hat, motion sickness

pills, flash light, small battery operated fan, rain poncho, water bottle, camera,

water shoes, sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above, mosquito repellent, antiseptic

hand wipes, an extra pair of shoes in case one gets muddy, snack food, and several

other items I won’t bore you with. But if you were going you’d want to know about them.

 

I am extremely grateful for the detail of the “what to pack” list for

Guatemala. But I can’t help but compare that list to what Jesus tells his disciples

earlier in Matthew chapter ten. He tells them to “Take no gold, or silver, or

copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”

(Matthew 10:-9-10, NRSV)

 

Jesus’ disciples don’t have the luxury of such a packing list. Jesus simply

says “Go to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Proclaim the good news that the

kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers,

and cast out demons.” He tells them what to do and where to go but gives them

no packing list. He simply says you will rely on the hospitality and kindness of strangers.

 

This is played out in our two verses of scripture from our gospel reading for

today. And there in our short passage is this one line: “and whoever gives even a

cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell

you, none of these will lose their reward.” It is such a little thing, don’t you think,

of all the things Jesus says, it is so simple; to give a cup of cold water.

 

We often hear Jesus’ call to discipleship as an impossible mission. We

imagine it requires a huge sacrifice, and yes, sometimes discipleship is a huge

sacrifice. But this time, Jesus seems to say, it’s nothing more than giving a cup

of cold water to one in need. Or offering a hug to someone who is grieving. Or a

listening ear to someone in need of a friend. Or offering a ride to someone without

a car. Or volunteering at the local food bank. Or making a donation to an agency

like IPM or MEAC Or…you get the idea.

 

Discipleship doesn’t have to be heroic. It can be small and simple.

Discipleship can be any number of things: acts of devotion, tenderness, and

forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but they keep our relationships healthy and

alive. You see the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures and

simple acts. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything

done in faith and love has great significance for everyone who is involved and thus

it impacts the world that God loves so much.

 

You probably have heard as many times as I have Loren Eiseley’s famous

story of “the star thrower” – the one about the guy tossing starfish after starfish

into the sea. When asked why, he replies that if they don’t get back in the water

soon, they’ll dry out and die. Looking at a beach strewn with thousands of starfish,

the other person responds that he can’t possibly hope to make any difference. To

which the guy says – “To the ones I throw back, it makes all the difference in

the world.”

 

Exactly. Because Jesus has promised to return to redeem everything in

love, to fix all that is damaged, heal all that is broken and hurt, and wipe the tears

from every eye, in the meantime we are free to devote ourselves to acts of mercy

and deeds of compassion small and large. We don’t have to try and save the

world – that is what Jesus has promised to do! – But simply being aware that even

the smallest act of care and kindness for another person can change everything!

Even a cool cup of water can change the world to those to whom we give it and,

according to Jesus, such acts have endless consequences.

 

Can you imagine that, that each and every act of welcome, hospitality and

kindness is filled with Christ’s love for the world, a love we can share anytime and

anywhere with gestures that may seem small and insignificant but are vital in the

lives of those to whom we offer them.

 

The good news is that many of you are already doing this. You are already,

in countless ways making this world God loves so much a little better, a little

more trustworthy, a little more joyful through your gestures of love, mercy, and

compassion. You see, there is no small gesture, no small act of kindness, no

insignificant welcome and it is precisely through these small acts, the cups of cold

water, hugs, helping hands, and listening ears that you are caring for the world God

loves so much.

 

So, I change you, as we leave this sanctuary today and go out into a thirsty

world and offer a simple cup of cold water, a genuine smile, to a lonely stranger, a

heartfelt prayer to a hurting friend, a warm casserole to a grieving widow, a $20

bill to a hungry person, a second chance to someone who made a mistake, a

listening ear to a confused and unsure neighbor. You get it. Now go and do it.

Let us pray:

The Journey to the Cross, step seven: The Glory

April 20, 2014
Easter Sunday
Matthew 28:1-11

 

28: 1After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:1-11, NRSV)[i]

 

Let us pray:  Holy and immortal God, from earliest times you have named us
and called us into discipleship. Teach us to follow the One who conquered death and opened the gates of life everlasting. In the power of the Holy Spirit, raise us with Christ that we, too, may proclaim healing and peace to the nations. Amen

 

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

 

Easter is a magnificent day to bear witness to the glory of God.  It is the moment of God’s glory.  Glory… in the Old Testament there are twenty-five different Hebrew words that can be translated to mean our one word Glory.  In Hebrew the word glory, means weighty, heavy, significance, important and essential while in the New Testament the word Doxai, meaning glory is not used very often except for the Gospel of John where it is a big word.   Jesus speaks of his glory, the hour of his glory and when he is to be glorified.  Perhaps the most famous glory statement in the New Testament is in John 12; “the hour has come for him to be glorified.”[ii]

 

The Season of Lent is a journey from Ash Wednesday to this very day, it is a journey of emotions from the cradle to the cross and we reached the cross on Friday, the day that Jesus was put to death. That was three days ago, today he is risen, no longer dead – but alive, we call it Easter, it is his hour, his moment of Glory, his time to fulfill the Promise of the Old Testament Prophets who told of God’s plan. So here we are to celebrate in Christ’s glory!

 

Easter is a day of tradition, families gather together for church, children come home from far away, spring clothes, Easter dresses, hats even.  Sunrise services, egg hunts, flowered crosses, glorious music, reading of the familiar story of the empty tomb.   Most every branch of the Christian faith celebrates this most holy of days with these same traditions.   Familiar, recognizable, well known, time honored, tradition, Easter worship.

 

Now there are some traditions in the Christian faith that are a bit different concerning Easter worship and celebrations.  One such tradition comes from the Eastern Orthodox Church.  It is an ancient one that tomorrow the day after Easter, is set aside as a day of humor and laughter.  The Eastern Orthodox Church is bound by tradition but tomorrow the people will gather in their sanctuaries for worship, and to hear the priest tell jokes – not just religious jokes but all kinds of jokes all to let the congregation laugh.  Why jokes you may ask? – Because of the joke that God played on Satan on Easter morning.  I’ve never been to such a service but it sounds fun.

 

One of my favorite preachers is Fred Craddock and he tells of a time that he served a small congregation in the mountains of rural East Tennessee.   On Easter Sunday the day began with a sunrise service, then a breakfast, followed by Sunday school and worship and afterward the congregation went home.   Later that evening they came back to the small sanctuary and moved the pews up against the walls. Then they threw corn down on the floor and they had a square dance.  Yes, dancing, in the church, on Easter no-less.  Can you imagine, Bow to your partner, Bow to your corner, Circle left, Swing your partner, doe-see-doe, circle heel to toe, round and round we go, Promenade Dr. Craddock asked why they did this and they told him that Easter was a celebration and they were dancing on the devils grave because Jesus defeated him, sin, and death when he rose from the grave.

 

Now, I am not suggesting that we adopt these traditions but it got me thinking about the message they send of laughter, dancing, celebrations!  Easter if it is nothing else is a celebration.   It is a surprise, a reversal of the world’s expectations.  God changed everything on Easter morning.  God reversed the order of things.  God’s reversal of fortune is a biblical theme as well.[iii]

 

As we have focused on this Lenten Season and our journey to the cross God reverses things, God surprises people, and God changes the world.  Remember from the beginning, Adam and Eve in the garden God surprises them, by continuing to love them in spite of their sin.  God reverses expectations when he establishes a covenant with Sarah and Abram, and tells them that they will be the parents of a new people who will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. This was a huge surprise because they couldn’t get pregnant.  When their baby boy was born, they named the child Isaac, which means, “He laughs.”  Our God, a God of surprises, is always taking our expectations and upending them.  And nowhere is that more true than in the life of Jesus.   God became one of us, a human is surprising enough but think about the human life he chose – a boy raised by a poor carpenter and his virgin wife, who grew up and had no home – God changed the world through him!

 

When Jesus recruited his disciples, he didn’t get the best and the brightest. Instead, he brought together a rag-tag group, each one was chosen not because of their skills but instead for their willingness to follow him.  The disciples were not royalty, military leaders, rich or powerful, yet God choose them, these normal men to spread the good news of his love unto all the world.

 

The people in power in that time of the world, the folks who didn’t want things to change because they liked how things were, they were determined to stop Jesus.  When they couldn’t find any other way to stop him, they killed him on a cross.  Only God was not through reversing expectations, upending the order of things. Easter is the ultimate surprise, the ultimate punch line, the reversal of our history it is God’s story, God’s glory, God’s love, the greatest transformation of all.[iv]

 

I can just hear the conversation at brunch in a little while: “Did you hear the preacher today he talked about telling jokes and dancing in church on Easter.”  But hear me out.  If our story ended with Good Friday, it would be a tragedy. But Friday is not the end because God’s story has a surprising ending.[v]

 

So we celebrate this day, in response to God’s surprise on Easter, but we also celebrate God’s triumph over sin, death and Satan.[vi]

 

Over the last several days we have had solemn worship services.  There has been no celebration.  There was no place for it.  It would have been a sacrilege.  There was no celebration at the Maundy Thursday meal and communion service, as we took our place at Jesus’ Last Supper and remembered the ways he was betrayed by his disciples. There was no celebration at the Good Friday service, and remembered Jesus’ agony and death.  There was no celebration at any of those services.  It would not have been appropriate.  It would have been out of place.  It’s not proper to celebrate in the face of tragedy.[vii]

 

But today is different. One of the reasons that celebrating and laughing are considered appropriate in Eastern Orthodox Church or why they will dance later this evening in the rural Mountains of East Tennessee is because of the reversal God pulled off  in the Resurrection.  Sin didn’t win after all.  Neither did Satan.  And Death thought it had won, but it celebrated to soon, because God reversed everything, God transformed the world, God claimed victory and raise life from the grave.

 

So as you gather around a table for Easter brunch, may I suggest that it is appropriate to offer prayers of thanks and praise, but I also encourage you to share a joke or two, maybe dance a jig – but for sure celebrate because God has changed the world.  And let your celebration, remind you of the triumph of the God we worship here, through the Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

They came to the tomb expecting a corpse, to their surprise, God isn’t finished yet.  God reverses their expectations.  They didn’t expect a Risen Lord. God changed everything.

Empty Cross. Empty Tomb. Risen Lord. Alleluia! 

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Glory be to God. Amen.

 

 

[i]Matthew 28:1-11, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Revised Common Lectionary © 1992 the Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.

[ii] Reverend Dr. Will Willimon, Reflecting Christ’s Glory, podcast found at his website.

[iii] The Reverend Dr. Martin B. Copenhaver, a sermon entitled, “Laughter at Easter” based on Matthew 28:1-10 preached at Wellesley Congregational Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts on Easter Sunday 2007, found in the Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, pages 15-18.

[iv] The Reverend Dr. Martin B. Copenhaver, a sermon entitled, “Laughter at Easter” based on Matthew 28:1-10 preached at Wellesley Congregational Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts on Easter Sunday 2007, found in the Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, pages 15-18.

[v] The Reverend Dr. Martin B. Copenhaver, a sermon entitled, “Laughter at Easter” based on Matthew 28:1-10 preached at Wellesley Congregational Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts on Easter Sunday 2007, found in the Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, pages 15-18.

[vi] The Reverend Dr. Martin B. Copenhaver, a sermon entitled, “Laughter at Easter” based on Matthew 28:1-10 preached at Wellesley Congregational Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts on Easter Sunday 2007, found in the Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, pages 15-18.

[vii] The Reverend Dr. Martin B. Copenhaver, a sermon entitled, “Laughter at Easter” based on Matthew 28:1-10 preached at Wellesley Congregational Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts on Easter Sunday 2007, found in the Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, pages 15-18.