Where Are You God?
SLIDE 3: FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
On the first Sunday of Advent we are ready for Christmas Carols, decorations, holiday trees, parties and the Christmas Story – a baby in a manger, shepherds, Wise men, angels, Mary and Joseph keeping watch over the Christ Child. People have put up their Christmas Trees and all of the stores have been playing Christmas music since before Halloween. But that is not the way the Lectionary works. Advent is the time of preparation for the coming of the Messiah and so the Lectionary takes us to the Psalms – Psalm 80 specifically – a Psalm of Asaph.
SLIDE 4: ASAPH – WHERE IS GOD WHEN WE NEED HIM?
Asaph is credited with the writing of Psalm 50 and Psalms 73 to 83. He was a musician and worship leader in the Temple, and in several of his Psalms he laments the absence of God. Where is God when we really need him? Israel enjoyed a brief Golden Age during the time of David and Solomon, but new archaeological studies have thrown some doubt upon just how “golden” was that age – more like bronze or even lead – just a cut above stone age. The Israelites were always a small nation surrounded by large and powerful neighbors who delighted in beating up on and extracting tribute from small poor countries like Israel.
Occasionally the Great Empires of the Fertile Crescent would fall apart in civil war and for brief periods the Israelites could flourish. The first Temple was built during the reign of Solomon. King Ahab accumulated considerable wealth and had many horses and chariots, so that the Northern Kingdom of Samaria was a force to be reckoned with. But then a major power would arise like Egypt, or Assyria and then Babylon and all of the little Kingdoms were squeezed by their more powerful neighbors.
SLIDE 5: SPEAKING POWERFULLY OF THE ABSENCE OF GOD
We don’t know exactly when Psalm 80 was written, but Asaph’s lament sounds like Jerusalem was under siege. How long must we suffer O Lord? Where are you when we really need you? The Psalms are not all full of sweetness and light with God appearing every moment to reassure us and give us hope. No the Psalms often speak most powerfully to the absence of God. Maybe that is why Jesus on the cross turned to the Psalms: Psalm 22: 1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
SLIDE 6: LEARNING TO WALK IN THE DARK
God is not always present. Sometimes when we are in the depths of illness, grief and pain, God seems very far from us. In the words of Jesus on the cross, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” As the title of our study book says, sometimes we are left with “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” The prophet Habakkuk received a vision in response to his complaint: I’ll climb to the lookout tower and scan the horizon. I’ll wait to see what God says, how he’ll answer my complaint.
SLIDE 7: WAIT – IT WILL COME AT THE RIGHT TIME
And then God answered: “Write this. Write what you see. Write it out in big block letters so that it can be read on the run. This vision-message is a witness pointing to what’s coming. It aches for the coming—it can hardly wait! And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait. It’s on its way. It will come right on time.”
SLIDE 8: REMEMBER WAITING FOR CHRISTMAS?
But waiting is so hard, especially when we are in grief or pain, or suffering depression. Waiting is also hard when we are children waiting for some anticipated surprise. Remember what waiting for Christmas was like as a child? The anticipation, the excitement, the anxiety of waiting for presents, gifts, wonders. Would it really be there under the tree? Remember trying to go to sleep on Christmas Eve? Of course, the world has changed. I was at the Mall and saw a little girl climb into Santa’s lap, and the store Santa asked her the classic question: “And what would you like for Christmas?”
The little girl stared at him open mouthed and horrified for a minute, and then gasped: “Didn’t you get my E-mail?” Even Christmas has changed.
SLIDE 9: TWO BEDROOM PARSONAGE
Beth and I started married life with three children ranging in ages from 9 years to 2 – talk about brave and clueless. We were living in a tiny two bedroom parsonage about two blocks from the church. We managed to survive by turning the what had been intended as a study into a bedroom for Beth and I. We had no closet. The house was so old the two upstairs bedrooms did not have closets, and there was no place anywhere in the house to hide presents before Christmas. The garage had bats, so we couldn’t store a car there much less Christmas presents.
SLIDE 10: CRAWL SPACE BEHIND THE FURNACE
The kids were pretty sneaky too. They took great pride in trying to discover their gifts before Christmas. So Beth and I began hiding the Christmas presents in the scary crawl space full of spider webs behind the furnace at the church. East Main United Church of Christ had an 11 p.m. Christmas Eve Service. So, we didn’t get home to begin putting kids to bed until 12:30 p.m. Jennifer fell asleep during the Christmas Eve Service, but Leah and Geoff didn’t settle down until at least 1:00 a.m., and only then could I go back to the scary crawl space and begin transferring presents from the church to the house. I don’t know if it is still true, but in those days almost every toy needed a battery or two or three or four.
SLIDE 11: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
And then there was that euphemistic phrase, “some assembly required,” which meant you needed a minimum of 12 – 24 credit hours in mechanical and electrical engineering and at least two days to put the toy together. Beth and I didn’t finish getting all the toys ready until 5:30 a.m. Christmas morning, when we fell into bed exhausted.
SLIDE 12: WAITING EVEN FOR GOOD SURPRISES CAN BE DIFFICULT
And what was the chance we would be allowed to stay in bed after 6:00 a.m. on Christmas morning? We had just fallen asleep, when three faces appeared at our bedroom door proclaiming that Santa had come and they wanted us to get up, so they could open their presents. Waiting even for good surprises can be difficult.
SLIDE 13: WALK IN THE DARK AND WAIT FOR GOD
The purpose of Advent is to teach us how to walk in the dark and wait for God. Think of all the people who have stared out into the darkness of oppression, pain, suffering, depression, and injustice who have waited for God and longed for a glimpse of the light. The purpose of Advent is to teach us about hope – hope that can sustain us in the long wait for God. The kind of hope that kept Martin Luther King going. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
SLIDE 14: HOPE
“I have climbed to the mountaintop and I have looked over and I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that as a people we will get to the Promised Land.” Hope that could foresee God’s promised deliverance even without him.
SLIDE 15: HOPE IS NOT EASY
We might be tempted to think that the hope of a Martin Luther King was easy. But there were times when he suffered deep depression. Sometimes driven by the threats to his life, the stubborn resistance of racism, and his own internal contradictions King would go to bed exhausted and be unable to get out of bed for days. Hope in the darkness is not easy for anyone. Advent is to teach us never to despair and to wait, to wait in faith.
SLIDE 16: THOSE BRAVE ENOUGH TO TRUST
Tony Robinson one of the Still Speaking Devotional writers offered an insight this week: “Years ago, during an especially challenging time in my life, a lovely older friend gave me a three by five card with these words written on it: ‘There is, in the universe, a power forever on the side of those brave enough to trust it.’ I think she was telling me, despite all, keep showing up just as fully as you possibly can. And even when it’s hard, even when you feel you are crippled in some way (aren’t we all?), keep on trusting wildly in God.”
SLIDE 17: KEEP SHOWING UP AS FULLY AS YOU CAN
I believe for churches this seems like a dark time. Attendance all over is down. Money is tight. Young people seem to have abandoned the church, and spiritual but not religious sort of means the institutional church is in trouble. So this Advent let’s remember these words: “When it’s hard, keep showing up just as fully as you possible can. And even when you feel crippled keep on trusting wildly in God. For there is in the universe, a power forever on the side of those brave enough to trust it.”
SLIDE 3: ETERNAL PUNISHMENT FOR PEOPLE LACKING COMPASSION?
The troubling question our Parable raises this week is would a good and compassionate God consign people to eternal punishment, because they had failed to show compassion? Personally I am all in favor of seeing Christ in one another, especially those who are in need, but I have trouble with this God who is always going around punishing people. Oh, I know there is a kind of wishful thinking in this idea that people get their just desserts. Sort of like the Hindu concept of Karma. What goes around comes around, and eventually comes back to bite us in the butt. There needs to be some kind of accountability, right? Rather than consigning people to eternal punishment, however, I sort of like Ann Schoup’s view of judgment. Ann Schoup was here a couple of Sunday’s ago, when United Church serving as a neutral pulpit. I knew Ann as part of a clergy support group in the South Suburbs of Chicago twenty years ago.
SLIDE 4: VIDEO TAPE REPLAY OF OUR LIVES
Ann’s vision of judgment is that each of us is invited to sit with Jesus and watch a video tape replay of our lives – talk about punishment. And I can imagine sitting with Jesus embarrassed as all get out watching me pass by people in need and Jesus saying, “You know Bob I was really disappointed when you did that. That was me you didn’t help.” But beyond that kind of accountability I just can’t buy the ending of our Parable this morning: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink’”. . . . And they will go away into eternal punishment. . . .”
SLIDE 5: A LITTLE BIT OF GRACE
I don’t know about you, but I’m with Snoopy on this one. Maybe there is accountability, but maybe we reap what we sow, but somehow, “I’d like to see a little more margin for error!” — a little bit of grace.
SLIDE 6: ANGRY PUNISHING GOD NOT CONSISTENT WITH THE LOVE OF JESUS
In my mind a good and compassionate God may still insist on accountability but punishment not so much. Now I am open to argument on this point, but the angry punishing God doesn’t seem consistent with the love of Jesus.
SLIDE 7: ARNOLD ABBOTT
And that brings me to the news. Arnold Abbot a 90 year old Florida resident, has been arrested with two local pastors in Ft. Lauderdale Florida for feeding the homeless. This has been all over the internet so you have probably already seen the story, but if you haven’t let me bring you up to speed.
Arnold Abbott grew up in Massachusetts, and entered the University of Pennsylvania as a pre-med student before the World War II. After Pearl Harbor he volunteered for the army and served as a combat infantryman in North Africa and Italy. After the War he attended the University of Pennsylvania where we earned a degree in journalism. He also became interested in politics and he helped to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 convention, when the regular Mississippi delegation walked out of the convention, because the credentials committee wanted to seat two African American delegates with them.
SLIDE 8: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR FUND
In 1970 Arnold and his wife Maureen moved to Florida. Maureen was a hunger activist who cared for the poor and homeless. When she died in 1991 Arnold established the “Love Thy Neighbor Fund” an interfaith charity that reaches out to the poor and homeless in Broward County, Florida, as a living memorial to his wife. For twenty-three years the “Love Thy Neighbor Fund” has reached out the homeless offering food and opportunities to get off the street including a chef training program to help the homeless become employable. Many formerly homeless and addicted persons have testified that the programs of the “Love Thy Neighbor Fund,” saved their lives.
In 1999 the City of Ft. Lauderdale tried to stop the twice a week public feedings in the parks of the “Love Thy Neighbor Fund.” They were afraid the presence of the homeless in public places was bad for tourism. Undeterred Arnold Abbot took the City of Ft. Lauderdale to court and won an injunction. Early this year the Ft. Lauderdale passed a series of ordinances designed to drive the homeless out of the City, “People are restricted from camping, panhandling, food sharing and engaging in other ‘life sustaining activities.’”
SLIDE 9: FEED THE HUNGRY ANYWAY
Arnold Abbott says he will take the City to court again, but in the meantime he will commit civil disobedience by continuing to feed the poor in public spaces. Since then Arnold and two local pastors have been arrested and finger printed three times for feeding the poor. As Arnold reported one of his arrests this way: “One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” recalled Arnold. “It’s man’s inhumanity to man is all it is.”
SLIDE 10: THESE PEOPLE ARE MY PEOPLE
Why does Arnold insist on feeding the poor and homeless? In his own words, “Because these are my people and they deserve to be fed. These are the poorest of the poor. They have nothing. They don’t have a roof over their head. Who can turn them away?”
SLIDE 11: I’M NOT AFRAID OF JAIL
On the prospect of going to jail for breaking the law Arnold says, “I’m not afraid of jail. I’m not looking to go, but if I have to I will. I appreciate all of your concern for my safety, but I have faced the Klu Klux Klan on many occasions, and I have no fear of spending the night in the Ft. Lauderdale jail. I thank you all, and I pray that we all stay strong. We shall prevail!”
SLIDE 12: DOING FOR OTHERS IS DOING FOR OURSELVES
Now like the Jewish carpenter we all claim to follow Arnold is Jewish. And like Jesus Arnold believes we are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves even the poor, difficult, dirty, and mentally ill neighbors. When we feed our poor homeless neighbors we are feeding ourselves. As Jesus added in our Parable even though you do it for one of the least of these you have done it for me. And when we can begin to affirm that we are all part of God, we do it for ourselves.
SLIDE 13: WOULD A COMPASSIONATE GOD PUNISH?
Now I would like to return to the troubling question our Parable has raised this week: “Would a good and compassionate God consign people to eternal punishment, because they had failed to show compassion?” I think Arnold Abbott’s story contains a clue to an answer for our question.
SLIDE 14: DROP THAT PLATE RIGHT NOW
The first time the City police intervened to stop the public feeding of homeless people, four police cruisers, and six officers showed up and one of the officers shouted, “drop that plate right now,” as the other police picked up trays of food and dumped them directly into the garbage with lines of homeless men and women looking on.
SLIDE 15: I THINK THEY FEEL A LITTLE GUILTY ABOUT DOING THEIR JOB
The second time the police intervened, Arnold applauded the officers from being more courteous in their enforcement of the law, and while issuing a citation, Abbott and his two ministers in crime were allowed to continue feeding the homeless. As Arnold said, “The police were very gentle this time. I think they feel a little guilty about doing their job.”
SLIDE 16: SERVED THE FOOD BEFORE FINGERPRINTING
On the third occasion the police issued Abbot and Pastor Black a citation, they were allowed to serve the nearly 100 homeless who had gathered at Ft. Lauderdale Beach. The Police recorded the act of charity with video cameras and then escorted Arnold away from the crowd to fingerprint him and issue a third citation. Wary of public backlash, however, the law enforcement officials decided not to place Abbott and the two pastors in handcuffs and haul them off to jail again. Now maybe it was the presence of cameras and reporters, but the Ft. Lauderdale police have been less aggressive in their enforcement of the new laws, and Arnold Abbott has filed suit for the court to uphold its 1999 injunction against the City of Ft. Lauderdale.
SLIDE 17: IS THERE ENOUGH EVIDENCE TO CONVICT US?
I don’t believe a good, loving compassionate God needs to punish the Ft. Lauderdale police or City Council. They are doing it to themselves. This also puts a new light on the old question, if we were charged with being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us? I truly hope so, and we all need to think about that as the mercury in the thermometer is dropping. The City of Huntsville, First Stop, Grateful Life Community Church, Foodline, and United Church through Alix’s ministry all make an honest effort to reach out to the poor and homeless. Right now Alix is collecting blankets and other warm clothing to distribute in the homeless camp.
SLIDE 18: WE ARE ALL ONE IN GOD
As Jesus said, “God is One, and we are to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. Maybe together we can all recognize that because we are all one in God, what we do for others we are doing for ourselves.
SLIDE 3: PARABLE OF THE TALENTS
What’s a Stewardship Season without the Parable of the Talents? I’m sure you have all heard this Parable used as an exhortation to return your pledge card. The Parable, however, is not primarily about money, although we might consider worldly wealth to be one of the gifts that God bestows upon us. Our God is bountiful and generous. Most of us have more than we need. And the talents in the Parable are not primarily our secular aptitudes, though clearly God gives us special abilities for singing, dancing, drawing, mathematics, physics, engineering, philosophy. No our Parable is about the spiritual gifts Jesus imparted to his followers to use in proclaiming and sharing the Commonwealth of God.
SLIDE 4: SPIRITUAL GIFTS
Jesus said, “The Commonwealth of God is here and now,” whenever we gather at the Sharing Table of Jesus. Whenever we overcome the divisions of race, class, politics and beliefs that separate us, and gather to share what we have at God’s table, then Jesus is with us to strengthen us and bless us with spiritual gifts of amazing power. Jesus shared the restoring power of God freely with all those who came to him seeking healing. People reached out to him in faith and miracles happened.
SLIDE 5: JESUS TAUGHT FOR FREE
When I was a freshman at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut the Trustees announced a dramatic increase in tuition for the following year. When I look back now tuition was nothing then in comparison to what colleges are charging today. A group of students gathered outside the administration building to protest the sudden and what they felt was an unwarranted increase in tuition. One of the students was holding a sign that read: “Jesus taught for free.” Well not only did Jesus teach for free, he also healed for free. And while I don’t expect Doctors and health care workers to work for free, and I admire those who dedicate themselves to the healing arts, I believe there is often more to healing than Doctor’s visits, medications and hospital stays. The prayers and support of the community of faith can also help to activate the spiritual energy the body needs for healing. Often when a cure is not possible, the love of the community of faith can still be spiritually healing. We should not ignore the blessing of a peaceful death surrounded by loving community.
SLIDE 6: CHANGE THE WORLD – SIT DOWN AND EAT TOGETHER
I also want to point out that the Parable of the Talents is not about entrepreneurship but about bringing people to God’s Table to share in the spiritual benefits of the transformed life. Don’t get me wrong, entrepreneurship, when it is pursued in an ethical manner and the benefits of that business enterprise are equitably shared with all of the stakeholders is wonderful. Entrepreneurship provides meaningful work, and useful employment for most of the rest of us. At its best entrepreneurship provides goods and services to meet the needs of other people. But the principle meaning of the Parable of the Talents is the invitation to bring other people to the Sharing Table of Jesus and that is indeed an extravagant opportunity. God says, “Here is how you can transform the world. Reach across all barriers of race, gender, class, culture, social group and invite other people unlike yourself to sit down and eat together, and listen really listen to one another.
SLIDE 7: ACCOMMODATING OTHER PEOPLE’S DIETS
The sensitivity and respect required to sit down to eat with one another is extraordinary: Kosher for Jews, Halal for Muslims, no alcohol or caffeine for Mormons, no beef for Hindus, vegetarian for strict Hindus and Buddhists, vegan for Jains. Accommodating other people’s theology is easy in comparison to trying to accommodate other people’s diets: vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, nut free, onion and garlic sensitivity, no red die, sugar free, alcohol or caffeine free, diabetic, organic, and the list goes on. On Thursday nights not only do we try to welcome everyone to the Sharing Table regardless of their politics, theology and points of view, we also try to accommodate a wide range of diets, allergies and food preferences. When we say, “You are welcome here, we really try to mean it.”
SLIDE 8: BRING OUR GIFTS TO THE TABLE
In the Parable of the Talents Jesus invites us to bring our gifts to the Sharing Table. No one person has all of the abilities we need to help the community of faith to thrive. We need people who can teach both children and adults. We need people who have that special compassion to visit the sick. We need people who can lead small groups. We need people who have a special calling to reach out to the poor and the homeless. We need people who are gifted in building maintenance and repair. We need people who have the very special gift of managing finances and administration, especially when there are more needs than there are dollars – the sort of perpetual condition of churches. We need everyone to come to the Table and share.
SLIDE 9: FEAR
But now allow me to address a significant issue I have with the Parable of the Talents – fear. The servant who was only given one talent was so afraid he might lose it, he went off and buried it. “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” Motivated by fear, so many of us bury our talents. We are afraid of being laughed at, messing up, being blamed. That is one reason why I keep asking of myself and other people the perennial question, “What would you do, if you were not afraid?”
SLIDE 10: WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE NOT AFRAID?
Unfortunately the Parable as written re-enforces our fears. Listen again to the Master. “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.”
SLIDE 11: THAT MASTER IS SCARY
Hey, that Master is scary. Better not go to work for him. No wonder people don’t want to volunteer for anything in the church! “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness,” doesn’t exactly inspire me to step out and take a risk. Tell you what. God gave us the scriptures, but God also gives us permission to make Midrash out of the scriptures. Let’s try re-writing the ending to this Parable a different way.
SLIDE 12: YOU ALLOWED YOUR FEAR TO DOMINATE YOUR SPIRIT
The one talent person gives back the Talent, and the Master says instead. “Oh my, I am disappointed. You have misunderstood me, and allowed your fear to dominate your spirit. Let’s try this again. Here is the talent I am trusting to you. I want you to use it, invest it do something creative with it, anything you want, do what you would do, if you were not afraid.”
SLIDE 13: DO WHAT YOU WOULD DO IF YOU WERE NOT AFRAID
Do what you would do if you were not afraid. Maybe go off and adopt twin boys, or go back to school, or make a significant volunteer commitment, or maybe even fill out your pledge card. What would we do, if we were not afraid? And the secret Jesus wants to share with us is even though we are afraid we have to go ahead and do it anyway. Was Jesus afraid in the Garden of Gethsemane? You betcha! We can never know going into a major commitment, if everything will turn out alright. Should I go to school, should I get married, should I take that job, should I join that church, should we have children?
SLIDE 14: CELEBRATE WITH TOM AND JENNIFER
Today we are going to celebrate that Tom and Jennifer have had the courage to trust God and go ahead anyway. They went to China and they made a major life commitment to Nathan and Zachary who needed a Mom and a Dad. Tom and Jennifer have many challenges ahead. And we are going to promise to walk with them in the adventure of raising two boys. Friends, we can never know going into a commitment if everything will turn out O.K. Life is messy. But God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. So, pray, take a deep breath an
Tending God’s Light
SLIDE 3: JESUS WOULD RETURN IN GLORY
Most members of the early church believed that Jesus was going to return in glory any day to create a new order, a heavenly Kingdom on earth. When Jesus came back, he would right all wrongs, the hungry would be fed, the poor and downtrodden would be lifted up, the sick would be healed, and all the nations of the earth would come to Jerusalem, where they would be taught the Way of Jesus. Swords would be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nations would no longer make war on other nations and the whole earth would be at peace – the great Shalom of God.
SLIDE 4: THE BRIDEGROOM WAS DELAYED
But as the parable this morning says, “The Bridegroom was delayed.” And the delay in the return of Jesus was a devastating disappointment when he failed to show up to relieve the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Romans brutally crushed the City crucifying thousands of its residents outside the walls and slaughtering men, women and children, after they broke into the City. If there was ever a time, when Jesus should have showed up with an army of angels, coming to relieve the siege of Jerusalem would have been the time. But he didn’t, and many Jewish Christians began to lose faith.
The followers of Rabbinical Judaism taunted their Jewish Christian cousins, “If this Jesus was really the Messiah like you say, where is he now, when we really need him?” And indeed, that is still one of the principle arguments Judaism offers for dismissing messianic claims for Jesus.
SLIDE 5: THE WISE AND FOOLISH MAIDENS
In response to the disappointment of Jewish Christians, remember the gospel of Matthew was primarily written in a Jewish Christian context, Matthew developed the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens. The Bride Groom has been delayed so we need extra oil for our lamps, so our faith will not fail. Now it is very possible the story of the maidens was original with Jesus. Apocalyptic thinking was very prevalent in the century before Jesus’ birth and the century after his death. Jesus may have been responding to the question why does God delay bringing justice and mercy to the Jews? If John wasn’t the Messiah, when will the messiah come? We don’t know whether or not the Wise and Foolish Maidens was original with Jesus, but Matthew certainly gave the story his own unique twist in response to the destruction of Jerusalem.
SLIDE 6: GIVING UP FEAR BASED MYTHOLOGY
Just as Matthew struggled with the failure of Jesus to return, so modern Christians must also wrestle with the failure of Jesus to show up. Two-thousand years have come and gone, and a return of the Messiah, where God intervenes in history from the outside to set everything right just isn’t going to happen. Those people who continue to look for the rapture, are going to be disappointed. Oh there are still religious groups who preach an apocalyptic end of history, where Jesus will appear to save all those who believe in their predictions based upon the Book of Revelation, and then leaves everyone else behind in a cataclysmic destruction of the earth. But I think it is time for mature followers of Jesus to grow up and reject that kind of fear based mythology.
SLIDE 7: FEAR SELLS
A member of the Monday Bible Study pointed out that any group that uses fear as their primary motivator is a cult. Fear sells. Just look at the news: Isis, Ebola, War in Syria, drought, flood, earth quake is all fear used to sell news. Churches that prey upon people’s fear of dying offer salvation as the way to get out of death free. Yes I believe that God is always with us, but in the end each one of us will have to offer up our lives to God. No one gets out of this life alive. What lies beyond that we must trust God, and God assures us we do not need to be afraid. So, let’s put away our fears and instead focus on how to live. For indeed, life is a wonderful gift, and we are intended to enjoy it in gratitude with all of our might. Let us live so that we only die at the end of our lives. So how do we answer the question of when will the Messiah return?
SLIDE 8: HENRI NOWEN
I like a story, a piece of Midrash, I first heard from Henri Nowen, the great pastoral theologian who taught at Yale and Harvard. But first allow me to tell two stories about Henri that will give some perspective on this bit of Midrash.
SLIDE 9: DAY BREAK
The first story is about Henri’s decision to leave Harvard at the peak of his career and take up residence at a community for severely developmentally disabled people, Day Break in Toronto, Canada. Later Henri explained his decision this way. After writing over 40 books and lecturing at Harvard, Yale, the Vatican and all over the world he was famous. Everywhere he went people fond over him. “Oh so you’re Henri Nowen! Will you sign my book!” “Oh, Professor Nowen I love you are so profound!” Stuff like that.
“My name is Joe. What’s your name?”
“My name is Henri.”
That’s when Henri knew he had found his home. He was in the right place, a place he needed both for his humility and his spirit. He was at peace with himself and with God.
SLIDE 10: THE WORLD STILL PURSUED HIM
Even though Henri had left the world to live and work at Day Break, the world still pursued him. People would come from all over the world to visit him at Day Break to ask him to speak to them. This next story is an Institute for Clergy Excellence story shared by the Executive Director Larry Dill.
SLIDE 11: HIGH STEEPLE CLERGY
A group of what Larry describes as clergy from “high steeple churches,” journeyed to Toronto to visit with Henri Nowen. They were a rather self-important group who were hard driving pastors, whose schedules were very important.
On the day they were supposed to meet with Henri Nowen they arrived at Day Break, and they were told that Henri could not meet with them that afternoon. He was caring for one of the residents. They were encouraged to take a look around and meet some of the residents and come back the next morning.
The group of pastors was somewhat taken aback. They had traveled a long way to meet with Henri Nowen and they were being asked to wait. Well they had traveled all that way, they agreed to come back the next morning.
The next morning they came back to Day Break, and they were told that Henri was busy, he apologized, but he would be unable to meet with them that day, and would they please come back the following morning. Well now the pastors really were angry. Who did he think he was keeping them waiting? But finally after much discussion they agreed with each other to remain one more day and come back the following morning.
SLIDE 12: SERVING THE LEAST
The following morning Henri did show up to meet with the pastors, and several of them really lit into him for keeping them waiting. Henri listened and then asked them, who did they think they were that he was supposed to put their wishes before the needs of the least of God’s children. As Christian pastors, weren’t they called to serve the least and the lost, and aren’t the greatest among you to be the servants of all? How could they follow in the way of Jesus, if they were too busy and self-important to make time for the developmentally disabled people of Day Break?
They talked for a long time, and several of those pastors said that encounter with Henri Nowen changed their lives. Now as one of the pastors confessed later on, they suspected Henri had kept them waiting on purpose. They needed an experiential parable to see themselves in a new light.
SLIDE 13: THE MESSIAH IS DELAYED
Just as Henri was delayed in his meeting with the pastors, so too the messiah, the bridegroom in our parable of the maidens has been delayed. And that brings me to one last piece of Midrash, and story I first heard from Henri Nowen.
A young person went out into the wilderness to visit the cave of the Great Rabbi Akiba, and he asked the Rabbi, when will the messiah come?
And Rabbi Akiba answered him, “The messiah is already here.”
The messiah is here? The young man asked. Well then where is he?
“You will find him at the City Gate,” replied the Rabbi.
SLIDE 14: THE SUFFERING AT THE CITY GATE
So the young man journeyed back to the City, and when he arrived at the gate, there were all manner of beggars, poor, blind, lame in ill health but no messiah. Finally, the young man noticed one individual among the mass of suffering, who would stop and offer comfort and help to others. So the young man went up to this person who seemed more able than the others, and he asked, “Excuse me, Rabbi Akida told me the messiah was here at the City gate. Have you seen him?”
The man straightened up and responded, “I am the messiah.”
Incredulous the young man started in, “Well if you are the messiah, why aren’t you feeding the hungry and healing the lame and the blind, and establishing justice in the land. If you are the messiah, what are you waiting for?”
SLIDE 15: I WAIT FOR YOU
“I wait for you,” is the answer to the wise and foolish maidens. The bridegroom is delayed, because God is not going to do it for us. The world will be transformed, when we are transformed. The world will change, when we change. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” The world waits for us. Let us embrace the Way of Jesus. Walk the Way of Jesus. Serve the least and the lost, and the world will be transformed.
Partners In Service
SLIDE 5: SYNAGOGUE CAPERNAUM
At first the followers of Jesus considered themselves to be Jews who believed that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus. As the years went by and more and more Gentiles converted to the new faith the Roman Empire began to recognize the Christians as something apart from the Jews. In the Northern Galilee about 50 years after the death of Jesus between 80 and 90 A.D., the Synagogues began to expel the followers of Jesus from their fellowship. In the wake of this bitterness the church and the synagogue began to define themselves over against one another – “We aren’t like them.” Jews and Christians began to emphasize what separated them rather than their common heritage. As time went by both church and synagogue became caricatures of themselves and in many ways both of them lost touch with their true spiritual roots to the diminishment of both Judaism and Christian Faith. Perhaps the only authentic words of Jesus in our scripture this morning are in verses 11 and 12: He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
SLIDE 6: LIBERAL PHARISEE
Perhaps if we are humble enough we can find our way back to the roots of our faith. For Jesus was and understood himself to be a Jew, a child of Abraham. In the rich mix of early First Century Judaism he was probably considered a very liberal Pharisee in the mold of Rabbi Hillel. He believed that at the heart of the law was compassion and love. He opposed the use of the law to create a religious caste system in Israel with some people being more holy than others and relegating many of the poorest and less fortunate people to the status of outcaste. Many of the women plying the trade of prostitute in Jesus’ day were simply divorced women or widows who had been left with no other means of support.
SLIDE 7: JESUS OPPOSED THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
Jesus opposed the commonly held beliefs of his day that if someone was prosperous they were blessed by God and poverty or ill health was an automatic indication that someone was spiritually unworthy. Jesus would be diametrically opposed to the prosperity gospel. Jesus also opposed the wealth and privileges of the priestly families and the profiteering and the collaboration of the Temple administration with the Romans.
SLIDE 8: RESIST FOREIGN OCCUPATION WITHOUT RESORTING TO VIOLENCE
Jesus was also trying to help his people resist foreign occupation without resorting to violence. He advocated passive resistance against Roman oppression: Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
SLIDE 9: ROMAN MILE MARKER IN CAPERNAUM
If you visit Capernaum, the headquarters of the Jesus ministry, you will see a Roman mile marker not far from the synagogue standing in the middle of the village. I can imagine Jesus sitting outside the synagogue responding to some question about what Jews should do in response to a Roman solider demanding that they carry his pack. You see it was Roman law that any soldier could demand that a civilian carry his pack for him for one mile – one mile only. So Jesus said, prove that you are a child of love and carry the pack for two miles. Perhaps if the Jewish people had followed the way of Jesus Jerusalem would not have been destroyed and the Jews subsequently scattered throughout the Roman Empire.
SLIDE 10: GOD IS IN THE MIDST OF YOU
Jesus was a good Jew trying to help his people understand that the Commonwealth of God is in the midst of you, when you stop exploiting one another, fighting with one another and begin sharing what you have with each other. In the feeding of the multitude Jesus was trying to help his people understand that when everyone is welcome at the Sharing Table of God with no discrimination based on class, gender, or religious rules then God is present to us and among us.
SLIDE 11: PARTNERS IN SERVICE
Jesus is saying to us even today we should all be “partners in service.” That is why the Interfaith Mission Service here in Huntsville is such an important opportunity for all of God’s children white, black, Protestant, Catholic, Pagan, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim to cooperate in service to our community. I hope many of you will attend the Interfaith Mission Service event “Exploring Faith Intersections” tonight and tomorrow. The event tonight is free to the public, and the theme is serving together in justice and charity – partners in service.
SLIDE 12: LIGHT BULB JOKES
At the risk of alienating almost everyone, I found a whole bunch of interfaith light-bulb jokes. For instance,
Q: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Well, it should require about five committees to review the idea first. If each is staffed with half a dozen members, that’s what … 30?
Q. How many Zen Buddhists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. Two, one to screw it in and one not to screw it in.
Q: How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb.
Finally, Q: How many members of United Church does it take to change a light bulb?
A: All of us for no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey your light bulb is welcome here.
SLIDE 13: DON’T TAKE OURSELVES TOO SERIOUSLY
Sometimes it helps to poke fun at ourselves, so we don’t take ourselves so seriously. The problem with so much religion is people believe they are right and they are unwilling to consider the truth other people or other faiths may have to reveal. Believe me God loves us, but God doesn’t take us too seriously – like Snoopy.
SLIDE 14: WE ONLY SEE DIMLY
So how can we hold true to the truth we find revealed in our own faith, and also open ourselves to different visions of the truth that may be revealed by other faith traditions? First we can remember Paul’s words in the famous thirteen chapter of the Letter to the Corinthians: 12 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us!
SLIDE 15: WE SEE GOD WITH A HUMAN FACE
We see God through the reflected light of the incarnation of Jesus – we see God with a human face. But other faiths can offer us other views of the truth, for God is beyond all human attempts of understanding. Look up in the sky and breathe in the wonder of the Universe. We are so small so insignificant we cannot even begin to understand the awesome extent of the physical Universe much less the creator who transcends all that has been made.
SLIDE 16: OM AT THE HEART OF CREATION
From Hindu culture I have come to appreciate the vibration, the energy, the “Om” at the heart of the Creation.
SLIDE 17: AWAKE TO LET GO
From Buddhism I am learning to become awake and to let go.
SLIDE 18: HUMILITY AND OBEDIENCE
From Islam I am summoned away from my arrogance to embrace humility and obedience.
SLIDE 19: TOUCH THE EARTH LIGHTLY
From the Native Americans I have learned to attune my spirit to nature around me – the cycle of the seasons the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars – to touch the earth lightly, and to seek to restore the environment all around us. From Judaism I have learned the grace of Shalom, the roots of our faith, the religion of Jesus, the wonder of Midrash, and finally an appreciation of Sabbath.
SLIDE 20: OUR HOPE IS NOT FOR THIS LIFE ONLY
On this day of Remembrance I would also note that all of these traditions help me to understand that our hope is not for this life only. When one day we let go and lay down this life, God is still with us, we are not alone. Thanks be to God. And so today we remember in hope and not despair. We let go and breathe through our grief and look forward to joy.
SLIDE 21: GOD IS COMPASSION
Jesus revealed to us that God is love, God is compassion, and we are intended to walk with all of our neighbors in peace. Faith is not a competition, faith is a way of life, and we are called to be partners with all people in service to help restore the earth, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, provide for the sick and the elderly, care for the mentally ill and the homeless.
SLIDE 22: PARTNERS IN SERVICE
He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Let us all endeavor to be humble partners in service.