Enriched by Grace

Isaiah 64: 1-9   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

1 Corinthians 1: 3-9              December 3, 2017

“… in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind ...”

Prayer:  O God, ever present on our journeys with us, please open our inner spirit so we may receive the gifts you offer.  In the name of the Christ-Child, whose birth we prepare for.  Amen.

 May I have a drumroll, please?  [drum roll]  Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year.  So, “Happy New Year!”  C’mon… you know the church always marches to the beat of a different drum played by a different Drummer, right?  So, it’s no surprise that the church would have its own calendar and its own New Year’s Day. Today.

And, it’s no surprise that the drum beat marches the Church right into Advent with some ideas that society and our culture say sounds strange and abnormal.  [With the beat of God’s holy Drummer, Jesus Christ (not to be confused with the “Little Drummer Boy” of the Christmas carol), the Church marches right into the darkest time of the year, and calls it sacred.  The Church marches right into Bible readings of Advent that are anything but sweet and cuddly and all about a baby.  Bible readings that call upon God to act in powerful ways like God did in the past, readings that make us view our own ineptness and unfaithfulness, readings that tell us to keep working for God but to watch for God’s arrival again in our lives.

 As Christians, as followers of Christ, who is the Holy Drummer, as people who call him Savior and Redeemer, we march to the beat of his drum, which of course, calls us to love when culture says it’s easier to hate We’re called to include others when society and some churches says exclude those who are different.  We’re called to forgive when the routine practice is to seek revenge, or hold a grudge.  We’re called to keep “Keep Christ in Christmas” (to use a well-worn phrase) instead of letting the secular celebration reduce Christmas to little more than shopping and family festivities. We’re called to live out God’s shalom with others, which is living with this sense of peacefulness, well-being, justice, have love for others and practice grace with others instead of staying suspicious, wary of motives, and always guarded when it comes to other people. 

When we march to the beat of God’s drum on this journey through life, we’re called to look at life a little differently, aren’t we?

Our theme for this Advent season is “Alleluia Journey!”  ‘Alleluia’ is a Greek word that means “Praise the Lord!’ in English.  ‘Advent’ is a Latin word that means “important arrival.”  So, our Advent theme this year can mean that we’re on a journey praising God because we are expecting an important arrival—the arrival of God’s Drummer, Jesus Christ.

That’s pretty good.  We can use the arrival of God’s Drummer right about now, couldn’t we?  We could use a resurgence of the birth of Christ in our souls and in our world.  Because the reality of humanity’s waywardness and faithlessness is all over the news.  We hear of the threat of nuclear war.  We hear of accusations of misconduct, acts of violence, racism, alienation, brutality.  We are enslaved to fear. And yet we’re called to praise the Lord on this journey.

 Are we praising God because we know that the “important arrival” can come and fix our problems?  Don’t you wish sometimes that God would “tear open the heavens,” and come right here, like God did in ages past?  Do we secretly hope that God would come and take the side of those who gladly do right and follow God?  And finish off those who do wrong?

That is sort of the psalmist’s mentality: “Listen to us, O God!  Act on our behalf!  Save us, redeem us.  Get us out of this mess!  You did amazing things in the past; you brought Israel out of Egypt.  But, they still grew unfaithful and wandered away.  Still, O, God, have mercy and do amazing things now!  Let your Chosen One be blessed you.  Strong by you.  Your Chosen One who saves us!” (see Ps. 80: 1-7, 17-19).

 Both passages from Isaiah and the psalmist seem to suggest that the people were starved for God’s involvement in their lives.  They hint rather strongly that God’s presence was scarce, that God’s grace was withheld due to lack of faith.  The cries of the people come from that scarcity, not from an abundance of God’s presence.

I think we can be and often are tempted to cry out to God from a sense of scarcity instead of abundance, from sensing God’s absence instead of God’s presence.

I suggest to us that Paul offers a different approach.  He starts his letter to the church folk in Corinth affirming that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ IS present.   That’s for us! God fully enriches our lives with grace.  Paul writes, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…”

What an amazing thought!  We are enriched with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In spite of circumstances that we face making it difficult to believe that.  In spite of sometimes crying out to God because it feels like God is scarce.  We have every spiritual gift we need to flourish in this world, in this place, in this time.  God is faithful and asks only that we faithfully respond to the grace we’ve received in our particular time and place and with our particular gifts we have.  I think we can remember that we live in and with God in this life, so new energies and possibilities are always coming to us as we live and move and have our being in Jesus, as we share those gifts with each other. God is not scarce; God is within us.

A man by the name of Will Malambri received a fellowship when he was 22 years old that allowed him to travel worldwide.  He started with the Philippines, but very soon, he was in an unsafe hostel.  After a couple of weeks, the loneliness and culture shock made him suspicious of everyone.  He was wary, and alone.  He wanted to go home.  After getting out of that first hostel, at the next one, he started to meet people who demonstrated faith and joy even as they helped out after  the devastating effects of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption.  In Thailand, he met a Buddhist monk who opened an AIDS hospice so that people could die with dignity.  Will wrote in an essay, “Wherever I went, life was better and more fulfilling when I was sharing it with others and focused on something besides me.  People who embodied Christ’s teachings and the Sprit's leading turned my wilderness of self-absorption into the promised land of community” (Malambri, Will, “Wilderness,” Christian Century, Nov. 8, 2017, p. 22).

Like Will Malambri, it can be easy for us to think we have no one, that God is not present, that God’s grace is scarce.  But we are enriched with God’s grace. We’re on an “Alleluia Journey!”  And, God is faithful.  God enriches us with grace—we have it.  It shows up in faithful people around us.  It shows up in the gifts we have, not what we don’t have.  It shows up in our prayer time and Advent devotional time.  It shows up as we march to the beat of Christ’s drum, as Christ’s Church, as people of faith.

May I have a drumroll, please?  [drum roll]  Amen!

 

Gifts from our Sovereign Shepherd

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24              Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Ephesians 1: 15-23              November 26, 2017

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you...”

Prayer:  Holy God, we are your Church, gathered together to worship you and to feel empowerment by you.  May we know the blessings of both.  In your name we pray, Amen.

 One of the most delightful and heartwarming moments in every Sunday’s worship is when we sit and chat with our kids during the Children’s Moments, don’t you think?  All of us secretly look forward to what comes out of their mouths because they often make us laugh.  They also make us look at ourselves sometimes.  They can teach us with their candid and innocent remarks.  They truly are their beautiful selves sitting up here.  And, we love it!

We also can expect that whenever either Fred or I ask our kids a question about faith or theology or life in general, we know that we can expect one word answers like “God,” or “Jesus” or “Love.”  Those are the top three, no matter what the question is.  And, they’re a pretty good bet as answers go, because mostly all answers eventually come back to God, Jesus, and Love, right?  But, on a deeper level, it is wonderful that our kids are getting a sense that at the heart of faith, theology, or life in general is God, Jesus, and Love.  We’re doing alright when they get that into their hearts!

 For today, our one-word answer is “Jesus.”  And the question is, “What is THE gift from God, our Sovereign, Creator?  God who is our Provider?   God who is our Deliverer and Redeemer?  God who, like a Shepherd, feeds us spiritually, and cares for us, is concerned about us, and wants us to come back from the places where we’ve drifted… the places where we’ve gotten pulled in by society’s glitz filled with false promises… the places where we worship things that are not of God’s realm… places where we lift ourselves up as numero uno in our lives.  What is THE gift from God to help us?  THE gift is Jesus, our Sovereign Shepherd who reigns with God and the Holy Spirit forever. Amen!

Ezekiel prophesies are amazing!  He says that none other than our Holy Creator, the God of the entire universe will be our Shepherd!  And that’s what we get in Jesus—one who is like a shepherd to sheep, the one who shows human beings the way to God, and more… he actually shows God in human form.  It takes faith to believe Jesus is that.

 Jesus no doubt studied and knew Ezekiel’s words when Jesus said, “I am the good Shepherd” (John 10: 11).  The basis for several of Jesus’ parables have the themes found in Ezekiel: “I will feed them with good pasture.  I will seek the lost.  I will bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak.”

We believe Jesus is the one Shepherd whom Ezekiel knew was coming… and not just Ezekiel, but Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Zechariah, and Micah, and several other prophets.  It takes faith to believe that Jesus is the Christ foretold by the prophets.  He is THE  gift from God for the whole human race.

 Paul tells the new Christians in the Church at Ephesus that he thanks God for the faith they have in God’s gift of Jesus as the Christ.  They accepted God’s gift and Paul is grateful. Paul also thanks God for the love that they show to all those who believe in Christ.

In addition to prayers of gratitude, Paul also tells them that he asked God to gift them with the spirit of wisdom and revelation.  That’s an amazing thought!   Having faith in Jesus Christ creates in us a spirit of wisdom and revelation.  More specifically, deeper insights into God’s ways of health and wholeness, of spiritual well-being and justice are revealed into a sharper focus with faith in Jesus Christ.

I’m reminded of the many times people have said to me, “Oh, I don’t need God.  I don’t need the church.  I don’t need faith.  I just have to be a good person.  Don’t treat others badly.”  But, in a crisis, in life and death moments, in moments of nagging depression or uncontrollable anxiety, very often they also say, “Why is this happening to me?  I’m a good person!  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know which way to turn.”   Folks like this are living their lives kind of out of focus...  Like watching our projector screen when it’s all blurry.  Objects can be seen, but they are fuzzy and hard to make out.  It’s hard to know what’s really on the screen.  But as soon as you learn to adjust the lens on the projector, clarity happens.  Having faith in Jesus Christ is like that.  Having faith in Christ starts to snap God’s ways

into sharper focus.

And, when clarity happens and God’s ways are known more fully, part of what God reveals is a new hope that we can hang on to.  The hope our Sovereign Shepherd gives us enables us to sense that there is promise for the future.

 A video that has gone viral recently features a young man Josh Paler Lin going up to a homeless man and giving him a $100 bill.  All of this is planned and viewed by a hidden camera.  The homeless man is astounded by the generous gift and repeatedly asks the Josh if he really is giving him the money.  It’s truly his.  Josh leaves and joins his camera man who is still filming the homeless man.   The homeless man gathers up all his belongings in a big bag and heads over to the liquor store.  I know what you’re thinking.  Josh was thinking the same thing.  Several minutes later, the homeless man come out of the liquor store and walks a good distance and ends up in a city park.  Josh and camera man follow him undetected.  The homeless man goes to other homeless folk and pulls out of his bag… bread and sandwiches and chips and water bottles.  Now Josh is astounded.  He decides to approach the homeless man and tells him how moved he was… how much hope he now has.  The man tells Josh his story. Josh proceeds to give him another $100 just because of the new hope he feels.

 Another part of the spirit of wisdom and revelation is that God gives us an understanding of a glorious inheritance.  We think this refers to eternal life with God.  It does, but it’s more than that.  I think our inheritance is God with us now, and in the life to come.  What’s most important is God with us in our lives every day, in every circumstance.  We can ask ourselves, “What do we expect of God now?  What new thing is God doing in our lives?”  Sadly, we expect very little of God to do much of anything in any of our circumstances.  We seem content to leave it this way, too.

God is present with us and knows of our challenges in life.  God gives us the inherited gifts of presence and power, no matter how big the mountain feels.   Paul encourages people of faith to place total reliance on God’s presence and power.  We are in a partnership with God… a covenantal relationship with our Sovereign Shepherd who is with us always!

If, as Paul says, God put power to work in Christ, why  wouldn’t God put the same power to work in us?  In our church? In our lives? In our prayer life?  We work together with God.

It’s like the little boy saying his bedtime prayers with his Mom.  “Dear God, bless Mommy.  Bless Daddy.  And thank you for this day.”  [pause]  AND GOD, I’D LIKE A NEW BICYCLE FOR CHRISTMAS!” to which his mother said, “Honey, God’s not deaf.”  The little guy said, “I know, but Grandma is in the next room and she can’t hear too well!” (www.trughtbook.com/when kids pray, retrieved November 24, 2017).

The boy knew Grandma needed to hear his prayer to God.  He wanted her cooperation.  God is our great gift giver, giving us wisdom, hope, inheritance of presence, and power and love.  It’s what we do with the gifts God gives that matters.  God wants our cooperation.  For we know that when we work together with God, God can do whatever God has in mind through us when we have faith.

 A well-know praise and worship song called “Awesome God” has this as the chorus and is a fitting ending.  “Our God is an awesome God, who reigns from heaven above; with wisdom, power, and love, our God is an awesome God!

These are just some of the gifts from our Sovereign Shepherd who reigns in our lives as our Awesome God.  Amen.

 

Wise Mind...Stagnant Heart

Psalm 90:1-8, 12

Matthew 25:14-30

Rev. Dr. Frederick A. Young

Pastor of Youth, Education and Outreach

Prayer:  God of abundance, open our hearts, souls and minds to experience your presence all around us and within us.  Amen.

_______________________________

            The mystic and philosopher, Howard Thurman tells the story of his grandmother, an ex-slave and deeply devout woman, who never learned to read the Bible she grew so deeply to love.  She relied upon others to be her reader.  She loved the Psalms, the Prophet Isaiah and of course the Gospels.  But never, the writings of Paul, except for the 13th Chapter of Corinthians, steeped in love.  After years of reading the Bible to her, Thurman finally asked his grandmother why she shunned The Apostle Paul.  She told her grandson:

During my days of slavery, the master refused to let the Negro preacher preach to us slaves, but always insisted upon a handpicked white preacher, who invariably chose something from Paul, the favorite, “Slaves, be obedient to your masters..., as unto Christ.”  The preacher would go on to show how slavery was God’s will and to insist that if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.  I promised the good Lord that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible again. “There’s book learning and there’s soul learning.” 

 

            Today’s passages are both challenging and inspirational.  There is risk and promise. Possibilities immerge when justice is practiced and risks are taken.  For me, judgment and punishment come most harshly from within, when we recognize missed opportunities to make a difference.  These ancient words are meant to turn us from scarcity to abundance, from fear to action.  The Gospel lesson is a reminder that opening to divine possibility, even when it means risking the new, awakens unexpected blessings.

            For Matthew’s community, the church was not a static institution but rather a dynamic movement.  Church was not contained within a building or sanctuary, it was out among the people, present in the world, sheep among the wolves.  Jesus’ parables describe the ethical behavior necessary to live life eternal, behavior, which did not resemble the Law the leaders of the religious community held dear.   

            What is so refreshing when reading the Gospels is that, as within Matthew, observing the ancient law is not essential for salvation, instead we read how ‘Doing’ the will of God sets us free.  With this type of rational, how then, can we still think that our differences separate rather than join us together?  God wants us to flourish and to use our resources, great and small, private and public, for the well-being of our communities.  Today’s message reminds us of our responsibility to promote and support God’s work in our world. 

            When I read the intensely unpopular parable of the talents this week again, it was like reading it anew, I saw things a bit differently than the scholarly commentators and traditional view of the talents as money, gifts, or worldly goods. Often our minds have no trouble jumping right to the stock market options and consumerism it may imply. I want to suggest instead, that we interpret the talents entrusted to the three servants as representing the Light of God. We have been entrusted with God’s love and light and ours is the task of multiplying such love, not hoarding it from others, not burying it for another day.  The Spirit of life within us is like a seed that needs care.  It grows, transforms, and bears fruit when it is freely shared. In doing so, we come closer in serving God’s path of justice, healing and reconciliation.

            In her 2003 commencement speech at UC Berkley, Anne Lamott told those graduating:

Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued.  Whether you’re going to live it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it, and find out the truth about who you are. 

            Who are you in this life?  How are you showing forth Love and Light?  Earlier, we heard these words in Psalm 90, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  The ancient psalmist asserts that life is short.  We can find wisdom in focusing on what matters; our relationships with God and with one another.  We are to delight in our creativity and wonder.  Adventure is risky, as we learn to count our days; we need to keep into perspective how such risk opens us to new gifts and horizons of possibility.   

            The 25th Chapter of Matthew contains three parables focused around judgement.  They all seem to be about justice and consequences.  The story right before the Talents tells about the ten bridesmaids, apparently 5 were wise and 5 a little unprepared with the oil for their lamps.  We read this tale and assume Jesus is the bridegroom they await, but I recently heard a pastor ask in a sermon, “What if Christ is the Light in their lanterns, that when shared, continually burns?”  Within the parable following the Talents, we hear about separating the sheep from the goats, how helping the least among us, aids Christ as well.  The linking theme of judgment, in all three, is not about one’s religious involvement as much as it is about how able and willing one is to recognize the presence of God. 

            These are the last parables Christ teaches his followers.  Jesus is headed for a bit of change himself as he embarks on his own risk-full journey to the cross.  He is preparing to leave his disciples, knowing that it will be sometime before they see him again.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells them, “Do not fear,” as a way to soften the blow of his departure.  But as the time approaches, and those who surround him seem to still not believe that he has to leave them, his language gets a bit more challenging and harder to accept.  Jesus wants them to understand that although he will no longer be with them, he has already equipped them with everything they need to carry on without him.  It is possible, but it will take work on their part.

            Newspaper columnist and Author, Erma Bombeck, had a way of weaving bits of wisdom throughout her humorous writing.  At the end of a newspaper column in 1987, she wrote:

I always had a dream that when I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a higher court, it will go like this: “So, empty your pockets.  What have you got left of your life?  Any dreams that were unfulfilled?  Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left?  Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?” And I will answer, “I’ve nothing to return.  I spent everything you gave me.  I’m as naked as the day I was born.”

What would you find if you emptied your pockets right now?  Any unused talent?  Are you hiding your light in there?  Oil for our lamps and talents as payment for our labors were common elements understood by Jesus’ listeners.  What would it take to impress us today, when even a “Trillion Dollars” has lost its impact?  Many generations could have lived off the talents in this story. Can you imagine how it would feel to bequeath your entire life to another?

            Illiteracy may have stopped Howard Thurman’s Grandmother from reading the Bible, but it did not impede how she lived out the words she heard. She did not have to ignore her experiences or suppress her own good senses in order to experience the God of the Bible.  She knew good theology when she heard it, and recognized a good God when she met one.  When read to her, she did more than merely hear, she experienced the sacred text, allowing herself to be transformed in heart and mind by what she heard.  

            Contemporary UCC Pastor and Author, Molly Baskette once declared:

For decades, in our mainline churches we have settled for something less than total truthfulness.  We have not always asked each other to do hard things, like give generously, or serve sacrificially, or reveal our wounds.  But if we don’t ask each other, and ourselves, to do these hard things, we will never find out what we’re made of.

            Are you ready?  Right now, from this sacred place, we have the opportunity to invest our talents and show forth God’s light and love in new and vibrant ways.  When you think about who we already are as this body of Christ, the work of this church in the world, its not a new concept, but an ongoing growth of our branches, an overflowing harvest of our nurtured fruit.  My friends, now is the time for us to look at all we have been given.  To stretch our talents and fill our community with light.  Now is the time to empty our pockets of all we have been, so we can be all we will be. Amen.

Works Used:

Baskette, Molly.  Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession.  The Pilgrim Press.  Cleveland.        2015.

Spong, John Shelby.  Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.  Harper One.  New York. 2016.

Weems, Renita.  Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey through Silence and Doubt.  Touchstone.  New       York.  1999.

 

Hearts Bending Toward Love

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III Matthew 22: 34-46   October 29, 2017

 “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Prayer:  O God of our ancestors, God of the reformers, and our God, we worship you.  May your Spirit of reformation continue in us as we hear your word.  Amen.

The story goes that on October 31st, 1517, five hundred years ago this coming Tuesday,  German Catholic Monk Martin Luther went to the church cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, and vigorously nailed his 95 theses on the church door intentionally trying to ignite a powder keg that would start the Protestant Reformation, Christianity’s most famous of all schisms.  Actually, that sounds more dramatic than it probably was.   Luther likely came to the church, matter-of-factly posted his document on the door as an invitation for all the Catholic church leaders to come and discuss these statements with him.  And if they couldn’t attend, they were to correspond by letter.  Like good postings, the document listed all the topics to be discussed at the gathering.

Legend has it that no one showed up to debate the issues with him, but little did Luther know that others would follow-up and read the document, and with the advent of the printing press,  300 copies would be made very quickly, and lo and behold, the powder keg ignited!

The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central ideas, that  God intended believers to seek repentance,  and that faith alone, and not works or deeds, would lead to salvation.  The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the Pope’s practice of collecting indulgences, supported first two theses.  Simply put, in old Catholic doctrine an indulgence is a payment you could make for the remission of sins, even in the after-death world of purgatory.  The practice was widely abused in Luther’s day, unjustly saddling the poor with heavy burdens.  In fact, thesis number 86 asks, “Again: Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers [acquired from indulgences] (https://www.christian-history.org/95-theses.html, retrieved October 27, 2017)?  Luther was saying, “Answer that!”  And you thought we had problems!  Wow!

The Reformation was truly a ground-breaking event because many Protestant ideas came from it.  Ideas such as Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, not the Pope.  Only scripture is the central authority and guide for life, not church doctrine.  As Paul says in Ephesians, “4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4: 4-6).

Martin Luther wanted to debate the issues plaguing the church.  But, what happened was a major push to reform it.  And, since then, instead of the universal church reforming, new churches got started.   Truly, one of the four historical pillars of our own United Church of Christ is the German Reformed Church, a direct ancestor church of the Protestant Reformation.

What the Reformation helped us realize though, is that the church is always in a reforming process.  I wish that the word “reformed” didn’t have the “ed” on the end of it… and had “...ing” on it because we are always in need of God’s power to re-shape and re-form us into becoming the church God wants and needs us to be.  We are always needing to be the Church that pleases God, first and foremost.

In my mind, the reforming Church that pleases God is the Church that is filled with people whose hearts are bending toward Love, specifically, the Law of Love.  The three great loves… love of God, love of neighbor, and the love of self.  Similar to the 95 theses, The more we reform our ways and practice those three great loves, the more we see that all other laws make sense in light of those first two, meaning that all lesser laws are to meet the standard that these two set.  In any give situation, even the uncomfortable ones, the law of love is to influence our hearts causing us to share love with others.

Take for example, the conductor on the cable car as it approached a crowded stop in San Francisco.  The car slowed down, and the conductor leaned from the platform and called out, “Six only!  There’s room for six only!”  The cable car stopped.  He counted six passengers, rang the bell, and then, as the cable car moved off, he called out

sincerely to those left behind: “I’m so sorry, there’s plenty of room in my heart for you—but this cable car is full.”  And everyone standing there left behind smiled and waved.  Somehow, that loving comment made the fact that they were left behind a little more palatable (adapted from The Friendship Book of Francis Gay, 1977, “Friday—August 5” [Pseudonym of Herbert Leslie Gee (1901–1977) http://www.quotegarden.com/kindness.html, retrieved October 27, 2017). The law of love is to influence our hearts.

Pushing the idea further, the church that is filled with people whose hearts are bending toward love is also the church that realizes that love is the highest form of justice.   That’s what the late American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said (http://www.mit.edu/~jrising/webres/love_justice.pdf, retrieved October 27, 2017).  When we see or know of unjust situations, hearts bending toward love encourages us not to be silent about the injustice, but to speak out, calling attention to it, calling for reformation.

 I think deep down that’s what’s happening at the heart of the “#Me, too” movement on social media.  It’s not just calling attention to the huge nationwide injustice of how women are treated, not just in the entertainment world, but also in the wider world in varieties of settings, it’s also giving voice, I think, to the love of and the need for healthy, loving human relationships.  Not relationships that are without love dominated by powerful people.  Such relationships are abusive.  Harvey Weinstein, take note!  The “Me, too” movement I think at its core is calling for deep and pervasive reformation toward responsible, healthy loving human relationships.  Hearts bending toward love as the highest form of justice demands this change.  Now.

 The Church, I think, is God’s instrument in the world that puts into practice love that demands justice, and love that reshapes and reforms us.

To do this, the Church always has to be in process of reforming.  Here we are in the church.  The Church is us.  Let us continue to find ways to reform our hearts, bending them toward the love of God, of our neighbors, and ourselves. May God, our great Redeemer guide us as we love.

And, I think God is pleased.  Amen.

 

Celebrating the Banquet

Isaiah 25: 6-9   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Matthew 22: 1-10              October 22, 2017

“… everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

Prayer:  O God, you are our God!  Your gifts are abundant!  Thank you.  Amen.

Let me ask you—How do you understand God?  What do you believe about God?  Do you talk about God with your friends, hearing out their thoughts? Sharing Yours? Does Jesus’ parable for today deepen your thinking about God and what God is like?

Stories have power, and Jesus’ parable is no exception.  It depicts God as a tyrannical king who gets all bent out of shape when invited guests do the unexpected and turn down a wedding invitation given to them (kind of like when some folks get all bent out of shape because football players do the unexpected and kneel for the national anthem?).  The king gets so bent out of shape that troops are sent in to kill the offending guests and burn down their cities, and NFL owners are told to fire the offending players.  Taken from that standpoint alone, Jesus’ story has power to push us away from God, if God is indeed like that.  Or to push us away from support for the king, if indeed the king is indeed like that.

It’s hard to reconcile because we don’t believe God is like that, do we?  We want to believe in God who is all about love, right?  We want to believe God is about preparing this banquet for us, this feast of goodness and joy.  We want to believe in a God who doesn’t get angry and violent.  So, this story is difficult to reconcile.  What on earth is Jesus saying?

On the one hand, could he be describing God as kind of like Aslan, the great lion from The Chronicles of Narnia?  Aslan is described by C. S. Lewis as a wise, compassionate, magical authority who guides the human children.  But, it is noted many times in the book, “that Aslan is not a tame lion since, despite his gentle and loving nature, he is powerful and can be dangerous” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org, retrieved October 13, 2017).  God in Jesus’ parable, despite loving his son enough to throw a wedding banquet for him, is not a tame God, but one who can be dangerous and vengeful.  Is God really like this?

On the other hand, could Jesus be describing not the way God actually is, but the way people frequently want God to be?  I wonder if Jesus offers this parable to show his listeners, “them” as the text says (who were the Scribes and Pharisees) just how ludicrous their depiction of God really was.  Maybe he’s holding up the mirror to them… to see how they, the leaders of the synagogue and supposed shepherds of the people, from their positions of privilege and power, view God and want God to be—ruthless with deviants.  Judgmental with anyone whose reasons for not attending the banquet don’t add up.  Inflexible with anyone who makes excuses.  Maybe Jesus is calling out the Scribes and the Pharisees for their ungodly, legalistic behavior as they lord it over the average citizen?

Taken that way, does the parable make us look at our view of God?  Maybe we want a God who is ruthless and cracks the whip?  Maybe we would like a God who doesn’t listen to reason?  Because if God is like that, then doesn’tthat gives us permission to be that way ourselves?  If God is like that, then maybe our leaders are justified by not hearing people out, and wanting to shut down their freedom of expression and speech.  Maybe we can rationalize one group having privilege and power over another group.  Maybe bullyingbecomes an OK way to wield power.  Maybe flexing military muscle is the only way to deal with nations that go rogue—after all, God does it in Jesus parable, right?

But, God is not like that!  And those ways are as shallow as the day is long.  That’s why I paused so long when I got to the ending of the text.  That’s why I think it’s possible Jesus shifts the meaning and the emphasis in the end.  The enraged king of Jesus’ parable is not like the God we know and love.  I think the ending reveals that Jesus showing that the king really is like God who makes everything ready and invites everyone to the banquet.  The God Jesus loves and our God wants his servants to go out and get everyone they can find, the good and the bad to fill the wedding hall.  If the king really wants the good and the bad folks, why kill off the bad-behaving guests?  Jesus describes God inviting everyone to come and celebrate the banquet.  God prepares it for all people.

Jesus describes the God Isaiah describes.  God who promises a

feast of epic proportions.  God who promises a banquet of food and drink.  God who promises to remove the disgrace of people.  God who promises to wipe away tears from all faces.  God who is a refuge for the needy, a shelter from the rainstorm, a shade from the heat.  God who removes the shroud of death and swallows up death forever. for all!

For us, we know these metaphors of the feast and the banquet point to the gifts that God gives everyone.  It’s a feast that we share in of God’s presence, love, and grace.  With God in our lives, we feel God’s comfort when we get distressed by seeing things we don’t agree with. We receive spiritual food for our journeys when culture feeds us with food that doesn’t feed us.  We receive life itself.  And through Jesus Christ, we receive from God the full table of forgiveness that restores our stature in God’s presence by God’ grace and mercy.  So before we start making judgments about those whom we think deserves to be on the guest list, who we think should be welcome at the table, let’s remember that it’s only by God’s grace and mercy that we ourselves are included among those good and bad guests at the table who celebrate the banquet God prepares for us.

The only way to celebrate the banquet is to choose to come to it.  God never forces us to do that.  Everyone gets the invitation.  Everyone must choose the life God offers, or not.  But, like Joshua said to the people, choose life!

A chapter in Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, is entitled: “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.”  Her son Sam, then seven years old, is the only child among his group of friends who goes to church.  Sometimes he doesn’t want to go, but she doesn’t let him get away with that.  Here’s why: “I make him go because I can.  I outweigh him by nearly 75 pounds!  But that is only part of it.  The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.  Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.  They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith—people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights.  They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Anchor, 1999), p. 100. https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040848, retrieved October 13, 2017).

To choose to be part of something beautiful with God is celebrating God’s banquet.  To choose God’s involvement with us and our involvement with God, helping to determine what happens next, working alongside the Spirit to shape the world is celebrating the banquet God has prepared.

So, we know what God is like.  The banquet is prepared.  It is for all of us.  The good news is that you can come to the banquet knowing that it’s not your reflection or your righteousness that gets you a seat at the table, but your lack of it.  It’s not your fullness, but your emptiness.  It’s not that you earn your seat at the table, but you have a seat precisely because you can’t earn it.  The good news is also, that if you are good and righteous and you’re full of God, doing fine, you get a seat, too.

Mostly, celebrating the banquet means living in a world where who we are and how we love matters far more than how much power we wield or how many times we turn down the invitation to the banquet, or even feel like we didn’t receive an invitation.  God still invites us to celebrate the banquet.  You and all your friends.  Amen.

 

Commands or Compassion?

Prayer:  God of love and glory, teach us how to love each other, show us how to be neighbors, instill in us the desire to do both daily.  Amen.  

 

 

            I have never been one to accept that everything happens for a reason.  Many times, I gasp when I hear someone telling another, “Oh, God doesn’t give you more than you can handle!”  In our time and culture of picking and choosing scripture to enhance one’s personal viewpoint and opinions, it can be easy to establish a personal theology.  With that being said, I am going to do just that this morning.   Throughout our Exodus journey we have been hearing about Moses’ life, leadership and ministry.  Most of which is spent wandering with very tired, very cranky people.  Folks who rejoice in a God who rescues, and who just as easily forget about that same God when their needs seem to go unnoticed. 

           

            On their journey out of oppression, the Israelites faced trial after trial, obstacles that obscure their vision for the future and temptations that take them away from their restorative God.   When you read about these experiences in Exodus, you hear things like this from chapter 15:

There the Lord made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he put them to the test.  He said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians. 

 

This is a hard Divine concept to grasp.  For me, God does not place anyone in danger.  God is the God of everyone.  Reading ancient words favoring one people over another, does not describe the God I know and love.  But, what comes directly after these verses makes me rejoice:  Exodus 15:26b claims:   

            “For I am the God who heals you!” 

 

That, I can understand.  These are words I will pick and choose and hold close. 

            “For I am the God who heals you!” 

 

            These words, for me, are at the heart of all of God’s commandments.  Often times the difficult work of appropriating biblical texts for particular causes within our modern context goes undone and many remain under oppression.  But when we live our lives knowing and believing that God is the God whose healing balm touches not only us, individually, but everyone equally, the work of Greatest Commandment begins. 

 

This is one of the most moving of the African-American spirituals because it illustrates the way in which the enslaved tried to encourage those who were feeling especially weighed down by the burden of their captivity. 

           

            This is the description for the hymn; “There is A Balm in Gilead” on page 553 of the New Century Hymnal.  The hymn Carole played for us earlier.  We sing:

 

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole,

There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin sick soul.

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,

You can tell the love of Jesus, who died to save us all.

 

            We need these words today more than ever before.  To an alien of this world, humanity must seem like it is in shambles.  I can’t even begin to imagine what God is thinking.  We need to get it together, otherwise our journey through this wilderness is only going to become more cloudy and harder to travel.  We need restoration for our sin sick souls.  We need to remember Christ’s answer to the lawyer’s question: “Which commandment is the greatest?”

 

“Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself!”

 

            In her book, Standing Naked Before God:  The Art of Public Confession, the Rev. Molly Baskette, recalls this story from a member of her congregation, First Church, Sommerville UCC.  Heather May says: 

 

I heard this analogy during a recent TED Talk: 

If someone told you that someone you loved was dying from a disease with no cure, you wouldn’t simply do nothing.  “Eh, terminal brain cancer, whelp, guess I’ll go update my Facebook status.”  No, of course not, because love dictates that you will do everything in your power to change the course of those events.  And then he asks the question, “Do you have that kind of love?” 

 

I found myself thinking about it days later.  A voice, and it wasn’t mine, was asking, “Do You have that kind of love?”  I believe I have that Love when it comes to immigration reform, gun control, about saving our planet… I have that love… what I lack is the action. 

Luckily for me when I come here to church, you people, have THE LOVE, and many of you have the action to back it up.  I need to back it up myself, because I have that LOVE too and the world needs my action. 

 

“For I am the God who heals you!”

            Many of us have been "raised in the faith," and perhaps haven't stopped to think about it as a gift that transforms our lives, or even to think of our lives as needing transformation. Nevertheless, this is what the scriptures teach us.  Although today we may not always follow the 10 Commandants, we know them.  Which is why when tragedies like Las Vegas happen we are left questioning how and why?  What does our faith tell us about a person’s motives?  How can we live out Jesus’ plea for us to love each other?  In moments such as these we should ask ourselves:  do we think of faith as something we have or hold or live with, or do we think of ourselves as being held by God, as being grasped by Christ, as being Christ's "own"?

            Anne Lamott, the matter of fact author and theologian, captures these faith questions as well as life’s transitions when she claims:

Reading maps can change a life, a person, returning us to dreams, to our childhood, to the poetic, to what is real.  They can move us forward to what we didn’t even know we were looking for.  The point of life, a friend said, is not staying alive, but staying in love, and maps give us a shot at this, taking us to the wild brand-new, the old favorite and back home.

 

On a trip Lamott once took with a close friend to Japan to visit the place her father spent most of his childhood, she laments about a scene they happened to stumble upon in Hiroshima:

 

I waited for Tom to catch up, and we headed down to the river.  And there we saw something that shocked us into joy, full presence, into blown-away: a dock full of Hawaiian folksingers, in aloha regalia and leis, slack-key guitarists and small children, all singing to the people of Japan. 

These first Americans attacked by the Japanese had been welcomed by and were singing to the first people in the world whom Americans had bombed with a nuclear weapon.  It stopped me.  It gentled me.  This is one meaning of meek, as in ‘Blessed are”…

 

“Love your neighbor as yourself!”

“For I am the God who heals you”

 

            Where do you see such faith and forgiveness in your life?  How is God Still speaking, encouraging you onward?  How are you doing Faith, living out the Greatest Commandant, Loving your neighbor?  I close with this poem by Kathleen Norris who searched the Gospels for parallels to the Exodus’ Commandants.  She writes:

 

Look at the birds consider the lilies.

Drink you, all of it.

Ask.

Seek.

Knock.

Enter by the narrow gate.

Do not be anxious.  Judge no one: do not give dogs what is holy.

God:  be it done for you.

Do not be afraid.

Maiden, arise.

Young man, I say arise.

Search out your hand.  Stand up, be still

Rise, let us be going.

Love.

Forgive.

Remember me.

 

 

For I Am the God who heals you!

 

Amen.

Resources Cited:

 

Baskette, Molly.  Standing Naked Before God:  The Art of Public Confession.  The Pilgrim            Press.  Cleveland.  2015.

Lamott, Anne.  Hallelujah Anyway:  Rediscovering Mercy.  Riverhead Books.  New York.  2017.

Norris, Kathleen.  “Little Girls in Church”  Spiritual Formation Bible.  NIV.