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. 

 

 

Bread for the Soul

Philippians 2: 1-13       Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

World Communion Sunday              October 1, 2017

“… for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Prayer:  Please feed us, O God!  You give us the food we need for our souls.  Amen.

 It’s World Communion Sunday, praise be to God!  Both Pastor Fred and I love this Sunday!  Just look at the beautiful fabrics and decorations at each of the communion stations he did.  All this beauty expresses the distinctiveness of people living in different countries around the world.  Thank you, Pastor Fred, for sharing your creative gifts!

  And, as we’ve experienced already, our printed liturgy, our printed prayers, and some of our music come from church liturgies and worship styles from around the world.  The words we share today reflect the uniqueness and diversity of western Christians, eastern Christians, Christians everywhere.  Thank you to Jackie Page on Worship Team C who did the research and compiled the variety of liturgies for today’s worship.

Of course, there are also the varieties of breads we have for today.  Four different kinds of bread remind us of people around the world: people who have different backgrounds, people who add to the beauty, richness, and diversity of the human race, people who are communing along with us.  Four different breads call attention to the truth that God’s grace and love know no boundaries.  Such grace and love span across land and sea, transcending borders of countries and nations.  Four different types of bread even helps ensure that those who are wheat sensitive can commune without fear of getting ill as we have two gluten-free stations for communion.

 Don’t you love all this diversity?  I say “yes” to the beauty in all this variety.  I believe we exhibit strong spiritual integrity when we highlight, cherish, and lift up the diversity and uniqueness of God’s people around the world. 

 And yet, we have unity. We have unity in that every person has God’s image.  Every person has some form of God’s love and life within.  So, I believe that God welcomes every human individual.  And every individual is welcome to come to the table and receive the bread of God, because the bread is God’s food for every. It is right and good that we celebrate World Communion Sunday with different breads and different fabrics and by affirming and working for unity within our diverse human family.

 However, in our society, we continue to struggle with what accepting this diversity means, it appears.  Cultural moments, like marches for white supremacy, test our resolve to affirm and work for unity in our diversity.  Moments like when monuments or flags are taken down and an uproar occurs… moments like when protests are waged by athletes who kneel during the national anthem and some agree with them and others call it disrespectful... moments like when religious groups make statements asserting that marriage is only between a man and a woman, moments where some want a preemptive first strike against North Korea because there’s a belief in such a thing called preventive war.  These cultural moments and issues and others like them challenge our spiritual integrity and put our moral conscience to the test.

When wrestling with moments like these,  it becomes imperative, I believe, to double down on our faith… to look at these kinds of cultural moments through the lens of who we are as people who trust in our living God.

That is what Paul tells the Philippians to do as they dealt with the cultural issues of their day. Small groups of Christians surrounded by the Jewish.  These issues tested their brand new faith.  He tells them that it’s awesome that they have hung onto their faith in Christ in the midst of all those who are trying to destroy it.  Paul advises them to keep their integrity of faith by following his teaching and wisdom, and by having the same mindset that Jesus had.  Jesus was faithful to God in the face of great opposition.  God was at work in him, and God used him to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

When we are faithful to God in Christ, God gets to use us for God’s good pleasure.  When we share in the bread that God gives, it is bread for our souls, yes, but in a larger sense, I think it is bread for others to eat through us, I think.

Knowing God through Christ enables the Holy Spirit to transform our inner lives so that love can flow from us.  Compassion and sympathy and humility become us.  True character, which is something one is rather than something one has, forms in us as we take Godin Christ into our lives as the bread for our soul.  In those moments,  God, I think has us as a prime instrument God can use to feed others.

 It’s like this… in 2013 there was a young college student named Derek Black who is the son of Don Black.  Don Black is the brains behind a major white nationalist website called Stormfront.  Derek’s mother, Chloe, had been married to David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, who is Derek’s godfather.  Some white nationalists considered Derek the heir to leadership of the white nationalist movement. 

But then, Derek was outed and revealed as an anti-Semite on his college campus.  And, sadly, most of the students on campus ostracized him.  A few months later though, another college student, Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew on campus decided to reach out to Derek.  Matthew invited Derek to the Shabbat dinners he hosted in his apartment with an eclectic mix of Jews and non-Jews.  “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” recalled Stevenson. Surprising everyone,  Derek, uninvited to any social event following the big reveal, acceptedMatthew Stevenson’s offer.  Believe it or not, Derek attended the dinners regularly through the end of the school year, and his new friends began to nudge him to leave behind the white nationalist ideology.  With their encouragement, he began to slowly deconstruct the intellectual arguments for racism, and to take classes on topics like Jewish scripture and Islamic civilization (http://forward.com/news/352094/shabbat-dinner-helped-turn-around-this-ex-white-supremacist/ retrieved September 29, 2017).  I feel and hear God at work through Matthew Stevenson and now through Derek Black.  Do you?

That story is not so much about a person moving from a wrong way of living to a right way...it is not so much about saying one way of living is better than another.

It is much more, I think, about understanding that we can grow into an instrument God uses as we dedicate ourselves to God’s spirit. God can move us from wherever we are on our journeys to what God desires we become.

 It is for us, I think, to dedicate ourselves to letting God use us so that we become broken bread and poured out wine for others, helping them to share in the bread that is life for all our souls.  It is for us, I think, to use Jesus’ faith as our model example, taking increased devotion to the cause of living and sharing God’s love with all others—affirming and working for this unity in our diversity.  It is for us, I think, to take on Paul’s words of encouragement, so that we can both will and work for God’s good pleasure—so that the whole human family can take part in the bread for the soul.  May God help and bless us in this holy work.  Amen.

 

Extravagant Provisions

Exodus 16: 2-15           Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Matthew 20: 1-16              September 24, 2017

 “I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you.”

Prayer:  Lead us, O Holy Spirit, to truths that are greater than our own.  In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.

 Anyone ever heard of a business entrepreneur named Wilmot Reed Hastings?  [show of hands?]  Me neither.  Never heard of the guy.  Well, let me tell you a little story about him.  In 1997, Mr. Hastings rented the movie called “Apollo 13” starring Tom Hanks.  After he viewed it, he was going to return it to Blockbuster the next day… but he forgot.  Then he misplaced VHS cassette video.  Six weeks later, he found the cassette, took it back to Blockbuster and was charged a $40 late fee!  The next day, he went to the gym, and decided that the gym had a much better business model.  You pay $30 or $40 bucks a month work out as little or as much as you wanted.  Reed Hastings wondered if such a model would work for people who wanted to rent movies.  And, right then, an idea for an online video subscription service was born.  On August 29, 1997, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph founded Netflix.  You pay a flat fee and you order and watch movies, as much or as little as you want.  No late fees.  Unlimited due dates. The company started by sending DVDs by mail.   In 2013, Netflix expanded into film and television production, as well as online distribution.  Today Netflix specializes in and provides streaming media and video-on-demand online and has almost 104 million subscribers worldwide, including 51.92 million in the United States (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_Hastings, retrieved September 22, 2017).  Any Netflix subscribers here?

But, here’s the kicker—if you invested $1000 in Netflix shares back in 2002 when it first went public, your $1000 investment likely could be worth almost a half a million dollars today, if you held out as the stock split and bought shares when they were low, and so forth.  We understand that’s SOP for capitalism—standard operating procedure.

We also understand capitalism in the sense of labor, too, our economy.  We want a fair wage for the work we do, and we want to be paid the correct amount for the precise amount of hours we put in.  After all, that’s SOP for our economy.  It is built on this premise, and our livelihood depends on it.

So, is it any wonder that Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard is somewhat offensive to us?  We feel the unfairness of the parable.  We struggle with the landowner’s philosophy because he is not operating by our SOPs!

And maybe that’s a huge takeaway… Jesus is teaching, not about our SOPs, but he is revealing God’s Standard Operating Procedures.  He is describing the way God acts, the way God thinks, the essence of God’s nature.  And in God’s economy, the SOP for God is based on God’s abundant, extravagant generous provisions.

I would say that if there is any statement in Jesus’ parable that doesn’t offend our sensibilities, it’s the one that acknowledges that God is keeping faithfulness to what was agreed upon in the contract.  “Friend, I am doing you no wrong,” says the landowner.  “Didn’t you and I agree to the daily wage?”  Yes (sad face).  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”  I guess so (more pouty face).  “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.”  But, but, but… “No buts.”  Jesus is teaching that God practices faithfulness in ways opposite our SOPs.

Which leads to a second takeaway…  perhaps we are to learn more about God’s SOPs and practice them ourselves?  Is it possible that God sees the person in need and invites us to tend to and provide for that person appropriately?  Might it be that God knows where something is unjust and invites us to make the situation just, even if it means going to extravagant lengths?

 The 2014 film, The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon, is about several orphaned “lost boys of Sudan.”  The film follows them as they adjust to life in the United States after growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp.  In one scene, one of the lost boys is having a difficult time getting used to his new job working in the produce section of a supermarket.  The store manager has instructed him to carry a box of slightly old, bruised fruit out to the dumpster.  There he sees a homeless person trash-picking, and offers him the food.  The manager chastises him, telling him that’s forbidden.  Then, this dialogue takes place: “What are you doing?”  “It is a sin not to give to those in need.” 

“According to who?”  “Jeremiah.”  “And who is that?”  “Me.  My name is Jeremiah.”  He takes off his apron and hands it to the manager, quitting his job (Homiletics, September 2017, p. 34).

On the one hand, Jeremiah is putting his life at risk by quitting his supermarket job—no money now will come in.  On the other hand, he is acting on faith believing that at times it is more important to be just and merciful, trusting in God’s provisions afterwards, than it is to be employed and stuck in the bondage of guilt and selfishness.

Which leads to another takeaway…  God wants our faithfulness.  God desires, I think, for us to trust in God’s extravagant provisions that might seem unconventional to us, especially when we are stuck in the wilderness with no clear way out.  When we encounter difficulties in life.  Family crises.  Job problems.  Busted relationships.  Circumstances that cause us pain.  Struggles that threaten to undo us.  Anxieties that seem to make everything secure come unwound.  Loved ones who venture toward death, both physically and emotionally. And when death does occur, the grief that comes.  It’s easy for us to complain to God about all that.  It’s easy to let the struggle consume us.

 But, I invite us to say in faith, in fear, in the heat of the struggle, in the height of anxiety, “Why, God knows all about my problems!  God, you’re fully aware of my circumstances.  You know what I need.  You know what I want.  You know the difference between the two.  I trust in your wisdom.  And, I trust that what you provide, no matter how unconventional, no matter how extravagant it might be, now matter how much I don’t understand it, I trust that it is good and fulfilling.”

 The deeper, faith-filled challenge I think is for us to remain focused in the middle of the wilderness… in the middle of what we perceive as unfairness.  In the middle of our crises.  Remain focused on the living Spirit of God that is within each of us individually, and then when we are together, like today, collectively as a church.

This is where I feel my journey of faith is leading me… and I feel called to lead us as people of faith… I invite us, I call out to us, I encourage us… remain focused on the life of God in you.  In God’s extravagant provisions…let us believe powerfully that God is providing for you…for me... for all of us… that as we move forward as a church,  God’s standard operating procedures of reaching out to all, all-inclusively, and at work through us... That God is creating a just world for all by working through us.

Because God, as the landowner, knows that everyone in God’s realm has basic needs.  Everyone has a basic need for food.  Everyone has the same basic need for shelter.  Everyone has the same basic need for health care, the same basic need for spiritual support and upkeep… it doesn’t matter what time you started working, it doesn’t matter when you showed up to the party, it doesn’t matter what kind of theological understanding you may or may not have… it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, Jesus says that God’s SOP is to be generous and extend the same grace to the least and the last as God does to those who came and worked first.

God’s SOP is to welcome everyone to participate in the bounty of what God owns, which is everything. “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1). The realm of God is everything we see outside us and everything within us… it’s the bounty of knowing Christ, who is the most extravagant provision of all… it’s the bounty of God’s extravagant provisions which are always available and always are offered to everyone!

The bounty and beauty of God’s realm is that God affirms the dignity and worth of everyone.  Maybe we’re called to invest in the expansion of this realm, this vineyard, this kingdom of God, working toward a world of greater justice, fairness, and mercy for all?

 Would we see high returns?  Yes, if what we mean by high returns is a world where God’s way of love, mercy, and justice prevail, where early on workers rejoice in the good fortune of workers who come late… where we celebrate the generosity of God’s extravagant provisions… because the over all goal is a healthy, productive vineyard for everyone!

Let us be quiet and reflect upon this message.  Amen.

 

Fired Up to Deliver

Matthew 16: 21-28       Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Exodus 3; 1-15              September 3, 2017

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them...”

Prayer:  Holy One, our eternal companion and Friend, please open our minds and hearts to hear what you are speaking to us in this your Word.  Amen.

It’s good to be back with you!  I wanted to share with you how I experienced my sabbatical, and I promise, I will tie my project in a bit later.  For now though, let me first speak how we respond to people’s needs, and the energy we have to do that.  We’ve seen it again and again, haven’t we?  And thankfully so… there’s nothing like a natural disaster to fire up our resolve to get in there and help out, right?  After Katrina hit in 2010, people nationwide rallied and put together truckloads of supplies for the needy in New Orleans.  For years afterwards, many weeklong mission trips brought thousands of people to the disaster areas, helping folks rebuild.  The same took place for Hurricane Sandy.

And now, throughout the country, people are energized to help those homeless and stranded in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  We see the devastation on the news.  We hear the cries of people suffering.  We listen to their misery.  And something within us kicks in.  Complacency evaporates.  Compassion and empathy take hold.  We rally.  We get fired up to pitch in, ready to help deliver relief.  TV stations, restaurants, and churches like us and helping organizations like the American Red Cross are all raising money to help relieve the suffering.  Truckloads of water, clothing, shoes, and other supplies are heading down to Texas.  We hope that the resources we give will assist those victims suffering from the disaster, helping them to get back to normalcy… back on their feet… helping life get restored to the way it’s supposed to be, even if it takes years to recover.

Let it be said: God is listening to their cries.  God hears their misery. God is acting… through people everywhere helping out.  Through us.

Our story from Exodus metaphorically illustrates the same thing. God was listening and God heard the cries of the Israelites held in bondage.  According to the story, their Egyptian taskmasters were brutal.  Terrible working conditions existed.  No pay.  No rest for the weary or the elderly.  They were beaten with whips and rods.  They were trapped.  Brought low.  Pressed down by a dictator Pharoah.  They were in misery.  Their cries went up to God (Exodus 2: 23).  Biblical commentator Gerald Janzen wrote “Every cry, and every individual throb of suffering it expressed went not on deaf ears, but went to the heart of God,” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).

God was listening.  This was not the way God intended life for people to be.  God remembered the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  So, God brings Moses up the mountain and shares a plan with him… a plan for Moses to be the one to liberate all of God’s people out from under the Egyptian oppression and suffering.  God needs Moses to do this.

But, Moses is reluctant.  He resists at first by asking a bunch of questions.  God answers all of them.  Still, Moses didn’t get on board easily.  God even has to get mad at Moses and say Aaron was going with him before he agrees do it. But when he does Moses gets energized.  Moses saw God’s fire in the burning bush, and now a fire was lit in him.  He was fired up to deliver Israel out of bondage.  And, Moses became the greatest liberator in the time of ancient Israel’s history.

Fast forward, sixteen hundred years later, or so, God was listening to the cries of people suffering under the oppression of the Roman government.  But, mostly they suffered from of a broken covenant.  They struggled because of failed religious leaders who were more interested in jamming the religious rules down the people’s throats instead of nurturing their faith.  Life became so distorted economically, politically, and spiritually that people were like sheep without a shepherd… cut off from God, their source of life and love.

And, God was listening.  This was not the way God intended life for people.  God remembered the promise to send a Messiah to redeem humanity and make the covenant new again… God sent Jesus.  God needed Jesus for this.

But, when Jesus shared God’s plan of redemption which included

him suffering in Jerusalem, Peter resisted.  He was like ‘This plan must be wrong!’  Peter’s mindset was set on a human perspective… that somehow Jesus was going to be the Messiah who would overthrow the Roman government and restore Israel as a nation.

But Jesus knew that God’s plan of redemption meant that he WAS the Messiah, but that he was to restore humanity’s relationship with God, not to restore Israel to national power.  Jesus would show God’s abundant life and redemptive love the way it was supposed to be lived—in covenant with God and with others.  He would show total commitment and faithfulness to God and God’s plan, even when it cost him his life on the cross.

I don’t know about you, but when Jesus heard Peter’s rebuke, I think it fired Jesus up!  He had that little intense argument with Peter telling him basically to get on board with God’s ways.  Then I think, still frustrated, and with maybe some intensity in his voice, he says to all his disciples, “Listen!  You want to be my follower?  You’ve got to give up all your personal interests and identify with mine.  You’ve got to take up your cross which is the same as my cross.  You’ve got to get on board with me!  You must want the same thing I want… I’m restoring a relationship with God, a life the way God intends life to be!”  I think in this moment Jesus was fired up to deliver God’s redemptive love.  And Jesus became humanity’s great Redeemer for all time.

Fast forward two thousand years or so, to today.  As I said, I believe God hears the cries of people in Texas dealing with the aftermath of Harvey’s fury and devastation.  And, I believe God is using people nationwide to help restore life back to somewhat of a normal state.  God needs people to do this.

But, let it also be said that God hears other cries where people are hurting or feel the oppressive pain of exclusion.  God feels the pain, I believe, of those who suffered in Charlottesville, a few weeks ago.  God is listening to the cries of those who struggle because their loved one died of cancer while a loved one in another family survived.  I think God hears the cries of those penalized, or lose their jobs, or are excluded from common privileges all because of their sexual orientation.  God I think hears the hearts of those who don’t have full basic human rights.

Thankfully, God has us.  Because of God’s redemptive work done through Jesus Christ, a new covenant with God was made, I believe.  The essence of God’s life and love exists within us, and that is the part of us that responds to the cries of those in need.  As I see it, God works in our hearts and our actions .  God uses us to help restore a life that God intended for people to have all along, no matter how big or small our efforts may be.

“Former President Jimmy Carter collapsed while working on a Habitat for Humanity building site in Winnipeg, Canada last July.  After spending the night in the hospital, he was back on the job the next day.  President Carter is showing his age at 92: he walks gingerly and with a slight stoop.  He admitted that the Winnipeg doctors told him to take it easy.  But he said, “Just building houses, just hammering a nail or putting in a screw, or sawing a board—in a way, that is our small contribution… to human rights” (Christian Century, “Century Marks,” August 16, 2017, p. 8).

Even though President Carter’s aging body is putting up some resistance, he still knows that he is needed to help restore the kind of life that God intends for people to have… the kind of life where human rights are upheld.  The kind of life where God’s all-inclusive love is manifested through him, shared, celebrated, affirmed, and no one is ever left out from it.

And this, of course, is where my sabbatical project fits in.  I believe that as people living in a new covenantal and restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ, God needs us fired up to deliver a church that thoroughly welcomes everyone.  I invite us to boost our already existing sense of all-inclusivity by developing some best inclusive practices.  Some of these best practices might include, officially declaring we will not exclude anyone in our church, no matter what.  No matter what viewpoint you may have, no matter if you’re conservative, or liberal, or traditionalist or contemporary, no matter if you are physically able, or not, no matter if you like the big screen or not… no matter if you use certain language about God and others use a different language, I invite us to move toward the best practices of all-inclusivity more than ever before.

Because God needs us, I believe.  God needs us fired up to deliver God’s all-inclusive message with the same fire Moses and Aaron had

when they went to Pharaoh and said “Let my people go!” Let my people go, out from the oppression. Let my people go, out from under the thumbs of bondage and slavery. Let my people go, to come to me. May we be fired up to deliver our message of God’s all-inclusive love so that no one will ever feel the oppressive power of exclusion here.  Amen.

 

“Now What?”

Romans 10:5-11

Matthew 14:22-33

Rev. Dr. Frederick A. Young

Pastor of Youth, Education and Outreach

 

Prayer:  God, Give us courage, strength, peace and Faith.  Amen. 

 __________________________________________________

            When I arrived in Cape Cod in July with a friend of ours, Michael to meet up with Kara and Michael’s husband, Scott, it was mid-day and after settling in, the four of us went to dinner, and then off to evening worship at the Craigville Colloquy where Kara and Scott had spent their week.  The theme for their gathering of pastors and theologians surrounded the leap of faith of Martin Luther, celebrating the 500th Anniversary of a Rebellion that would turn into a Reformation. 

            Later, the four of us returned to the cottage we shared together, tea was set on the stove to steep, and we sat talking about their experiences.  The conversation turned to Kara and Scott’s own brush within an impending watery grave earlier that week.  While on the beach, both decided to swim out to a small platform about 25 yards from shore.  It seemed close enough.  The waters seemed calm enough.  As they ventured out, the waves began to get stronger and the force of the water kept them from reaching their short destination.  What appeared to be a brief swim to a relaxing sunbathing spot, turned into a battle to survive.  When they reached the platform, both clung to it, out of breath and barely able to move.  The jerky movement of platform on the water only added to their nausea and exhaustion.  They eventually made it back to the shoreline, bruised and spent. 

            Artist and Theologian, Jan Richardson beautifully depicts our Gospel, especially within verse 31, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him,” within her poem entitled:  Blessing that Bears the Wind, the Wave

That we will risk the drenching
by which we are drawn
toward the voice that calls us,
the love that catches us,
the faith that carries us
beyond the wind, the wave.

            What rocks your world?  What in life leaves you asking, “Now what?”  Often it is in the midst of the most challenging times that we see God’s presence most clearly.  Why is that?  Do we only seek God when we need the Divine’s touch or help?  Perhaps these moments of distress remind us that our faith is built on knowing, no matter what, God is there.  That our God not only wants to be in relationship with us, but invites us, draws us closer with every breath we take. 

            The first disciples, those tossed about passengers, knew all too well that it was not always easy to be in relationship with Jesus.  When we define our faith as being in relationship with Christ we too, like those early followers, aren’t’ certain where things are headed, and are often confused and unsure about the future.  One of my heroes in ministry, Pastor Mark Yaconelli, has shared:

If this was the experience of those closet to Jesus, why should we assume our experience of the Christian life would be any less ambiguous?  In response to the disciples’ misinterpretations and doubts, Jesus continually told them to “listen.” Repeatedly Jesus told his friends and followers to turn their attention away from their own fears and plans in order to focus on what he was saying and doing. 

            So it is with our scriptures today which point to chaos in some way.  Paul informs the Romans that they have dismissed Christ all together as the ultimate law, and Jesus defies the laws of nature, gliding his way across the stormy sea.  Both passages speak of faith as a verb, not a possession to acquire.  Faith is an action, not a jewel to be worn around the neck. 

            Within the handbook for the mentors of our confirmation program, here at Christ Church I have written the following:

The church is the place where we come to a realization that we are not traveling through life all alone.  Young people need the chance and a time and place to be able to investigate the mysterious territory of faith, but before they don detective hats, youth need to be able to express what they believe right now.  A wonderful place to begin this research is to take a closer look at what their congregation claims they believe. 

What is that we claim we believe as a church?  What is that we claim about our faith?  We would all like to believe that faith lives and breathes in the community that encompasses us.  Right here.  Right now.  But in order for that to happen, we need to own what we believe. 

That we will risk the drenching
by which we are drawn
toward the voice that calls us,
the love that catches us,
the faith that carries us
beyond the wind, the wave.

What is it that leaves us standing in this sanctuary, dripping wet from that which draws us?  What do we claim as we walk out the door and into the streets, that changes not only us, but also the community around us?  Do you hear the voice calling?  Are you listening? 

            You know, it is true that God is with us in the difficulties, responding to our fears and cries for help.  God’s presence is there offering reassurance, hope, and grace.  But just as Jesus called Peter out of the boat, hoping his faith would keep him afloat, God has hopes and dreams for us and for this community of faith.  God calls us to whole-hearted lives of courage and hope. 

            I asked you last week to take home the image of the loves and fish.  I hope that you were able to identify all of the ways you witnessed God using you or someone else to care for the needs of another.  If you remembered to bring them back today, I invite you to place them in the baskets during our time of offering.  What were some of the things you discovered about how God is using you? 

            (Allow time for sharing)

 I would imagine that these were moments in all of our lives when we needed to step out in faith and up for someone else.  These examples and our scripture passages today do not only speak about ourselves, but tells us a little bit about our God.  No matter what it is that reminds us of our need for God, God still responds with compassion and support. 

            Consider these words from Pastor and Teacher, Matthew Skinner who once said:

When Peter steps out of this boat, he enters a tumult.  His motive isn’t to escape from threat, for he goes into a situation where the threats will now look different, into a place where Jesus is defying and reordering the assumed boundaries.  Isn’t this what history’s most faithful people have demonstrated?  Sometimes the most turbulent places are also “thin places” where God breaks through.  

            My friends, we are here because God called us here!  If the disciples were in the boat in the first place because of a Jesus’ plea, then we in Christ Church because God has called us to be here.  Have you ever thought about it like that?  You are a part of this congregation not because you shopped for us, and found that Christ Church meets your needs, but because God has called you into ministry with Christ Church. 

            Do you remember what I shared last week about the identity of Christ?  That Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us!”  Jesus’ compassion emulates God’s love for us.  That Christ’s healing and miraculous deeds represent the character of God.  This story about Jesus un-conventionally joining his companions is no different and indeed highlights what kind of God he represents. 

            English Author A.A. Milne best known for creating the Winnie The Pooh series, wrote of two favorite characters…

“Piglet crept up to Pooh from behind.  “Pooh?” he whispered.  ‘Yes, Piglet?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand.  ‘I just wanted to be sure it was you.’” 

As the Messiah, Christ is charged and empowered by God to shepherd and care for God’s people.  What is it then that makes us turn our attention and our hopes to other things and other assurances?  Perhaps you feel caught at times, between faith and doubt.  This story reminds us that FAITH speaks of realities that are beyond what we can see and touch.

            Again, I ask, what is it that we as a church believe?  What is Jesus asking us to do?  How is the Still Speaking God gathering disciples together in the life of this congregation, to have faith with a focus on Christ? 

That we will risk the drenching
by which we are drawn
toward the voice that calls us,
the love that catches us,
the faith that carries us
beyond the wind, the wave.

Amen.  

 

 

Prayer for Peace….

Gracious God.  At times, we lose track of who we are.  We forget that you are the God of everyone!  Our church buildings are a comfortable place for us to worship you, but like Peter, there are times that, you motion us to come nearer to you, to leave our own security for the sake of another. 

This is one of those times, God!  We want to stay within the familiar, but hatred and violence has erupted, and once again, you beckon us to respond. 

This is 2017, and in our time and place, there is no room for intolerance, injustice, or inconceivable hatred toward anyone of your children.  What gives us the right? Certainly not you, and definitely not your Son, Jesus, who you sent to us once before to put an end to such separation. 

We pray God for those in Charlottesville who had the courage to stand in opposition of hatred and we pray for those who felt to need protest.  Where do we go from here, God?  How can your Realm be seen through us as we are called to action in your world. 

Remind us who and whose we are! 

Amen.