Great Faithfulness, Indeed!

“Great Faithfulness, Indeed!”

Lam 3-23 faithfulness, clouds

Lamentations 3:19-26 – October 6, 2019

About twenty years ago, I attended a church with a pastor who preached very powerful sermons. This pastor would occasionally mention that he prayed his preaching “would comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That sounds very like the Bible book we read from this morning. The little book of Lamentations was written at a complicated time in the history of the nation of Israel, and the prophet who wrote it was conflicted at the time he wrote.

I wonder, can anyone here relate to being sad, troubled and conflicted, sometimes? Does anyone here have bad or sad or troubling things happening in their lives right now, either in their lives or the lives of their loved ones? I know many people do have all kinds of things raining down on their heads.

Perhaps it’s health concerns. At countless hospitals, chaplains or nurses or doctors can tell us about patients with very serious health concerns like heart attacks or strokes. Or, what about continuing health conditions like kidney disease, COPD, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease? I am certain that everyone here today knows at least one friend or family member who suffers from some difficulty, disease or condition like these.

Let’s look at some other concerns, like lack of finances. Loss of employment can certainly affect not only individuals, but whole families as well. What about floods or hurricanes? How many lives in the United States have been devastated by these horrible happenings, just in the past two or three months? The number is astronomical.

Add situations such as “your house has burned to the ground,” or “your family member is getting a divorce.” In these situations, what kinds of things would be going through your mind? What are the feelings of the people in these situations?  What are some of the things these conditions make you want to say to God? What are some of the questions you’d like to ask God about these situations?

That is exactly the problem our prophet and writer of Lamentations has. This little book is a series of laments, asking God about the serious situation the nation of Israel is in, asking—in a word—why? That is a question that so many people are asking!

We know the prophet Jeremiah, the probable author of this book, was no stranger to despair.  Consider how he opens in verse 1: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people” (Lam. 1:1). His city—Jerusalem—has been ransacked by the Babylonian army and left for dead. It seemed God’s very purpose and people had been abandoned. [1]

As commentator Carolyn Brown tells us, many places in the Hebrew Scriptures have “people talking back to God.  These are deeply hurt, terribly sad, and totally angry people, and they are willing to tell God so.  We talk to children often about telling God the happy things, confessing our sins to God, and asking God for help.  But, we also need to give them permission, even encourage them to tell God when they are angry, when life seems unfair, when it looks to them as if God isn’t doing God’s job the way it should be done.” [2]

I would like to stop right here, and let us consider this particularly important task of allowing, of permitting children to grieve. We all need to grieve and mourn, from time to time. Grieving is an important thing to do. We as adults do, indeed, need to model for children our way of dealing with difficulties, problems, even catastrophes. Otherwise, many more people would pull their heads into their shells, like turtles, to escape from these serious difficulties.

And yet—and yet—amid all of this sorrow, suffering and despair, the prophet writes of how blessed he finds the present difficult situation.

What a contrast! What a puzzle! How can this be? Great question!

Commentator Steve Godfrey goes further, “From the depths of his despair Jeremiah turns to something he has come to know well, the loyal love of God.  The Hebrew word used here, hesed, is a constant theme throughout the Old Testament.  It is sometimes translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘faithful lovingkindness.’”  [3]

What a marvelous thing to have faith in! After so many awful descriptions of horrible things during the past poems of distress, the prophet gives us a ringing endorsement of faith in God’s steadfast loving-kindness in chapter 3 of Lamentations.

Commentator Steve Godfrey has more than the usual difficulty with sad or disturbing things. He has low-grade depression, and he would like for us to know about his occasional mental condition. “As someone who has managed low-grade depression for 31 years of his adult life these are words that encourage profoundly. They don’t minimize or avoid the issue….

“These words don’t mean that Christians should never get depressed.  The Prophet Jeremiah got depressed and I’ll put his character up against depression deniers any day of the week!  The beauty of the gospel is that it embraces both anguish and hope.  Paul had a thorn in the flesh; low-grade depression is mine.  By God’s grace I manage it through diet, exercise, medication, and counseling.  It’s something I inherited through genetics, and that’s okay.” [4]

Praise God for such a constructive attitude. I doubt very much whether I would be able to maintain such a positive attitude and expression. Knowing that God is there with me, through it all, is so helpful to me when I am going through difficult, even traumatic times. I can share a testimony of God’s presence, of God’s chesed, “steadfast love” or “faithful lovingkindness,” with those who are also having difficulties in life.

But, let us shift our focus from our reading today to why we gather this morning.

We celebrate World Communion Sunday today. This sacrament has been celebrated in good times and in bad, during war and during peace, during times of turbulence and trial as well as times of great joy. Communion has also celebrated by many different people groups in many, many different places throughout the globe. Whether we call it the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist or Communion makes little difference. The unity between various, diverse ministers leading and coordinating observances of this meal our Lord Jesus commanded us to observe is a wonderful glimpse of what this world can be.

Whether we are glad, mad or sad, whether we have only a little or have a lot of goods in this world, whether we are in good health or not-so-good, our Lord Jesus bids us join together in this meal, to be unified and one body, celebrating our diversity. He welcomes each of us to His table, no matter what.

Praise God, what a welcome! Our Lord bids us, come! Thank You, Lord Jesus.

[1] https://churchintheworld.com/2013/09/30/navigating-depression-2/

“Navigating Depression,” Steve Godfrey, Church in the World, 2013.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2010/09/year-c-27th-sunday-of-ordinary.html

Worshiping with Children, Ordinary 27C (World Communion Sunday), Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2010.

[3] https://churchintheworld.com/2013/09/30/navigating-depression-2/

“Navigating Depression,” Steve Godfrey, Church in the World, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Love Your Enemies

Matthew 5:43-48 – February 19, 2017

matt-5-44-love-enemies-pray

“Love Your Enemies”

Rules are good things. Rules help us to know what are good things to do, or prudent actions to avoid. Rules—or laws—or commands give us guidelines for how to behave, and what is or is not acceptable. You all know the rules of the road, and traffic laws we need to follow. We have codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for different professions. All of these are rules, laws, codes. Commands.

Moses talked about commands, too. The Ten Commandments, and an elaboration of the big ten, too. That’s what we have for our Old Testament reading today. We used a modern translation, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, to give us a fresh understanding of this important part of God’s rule book, or God’s guidelines for living.

There are 613 laws—or rules—or commands—in the Law of Moses, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the last few weeks, our Gospel readings have Jesus starting with a big law from Moses’s Law Code, and then elaborating on it. Not reciting the law by rote, like some child at school, but much more than that. Jesus transcends the Law of Moses, every time.

Like last week. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:21? “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” He quickly followed with Matthew 5:22—”But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Transcending the Law of Moses, with additional information. Jesus was talking about the inside job, about how people’s feelings translated to their outward actions. Today’s reading from Matthew 5 goes even further. How does Jesus begin? In verse 43: “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that.”

We all know how children scuffle and argue together. Imagine a playground or the park in your mind, with a group of kids. Two of them start arguing. The argument escalates. Soon they are name-calling, first one, then the other. Then, they start pushing one another. They push harder, and more vigorously. Before you know it, punches start flying. Maybe the friends on both sides get involved, and we have an outright brawl on our hands.

What did Jesus say, again? “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that.” And then, Jesus goes a step—or three—further. He adds: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer.” This may well be the hardest thing that Jesus ever told us to do.

We can tell, from specific examples in the surrounding verses, that Jesus was thinking about the occupying Roman forces. He gave several examples of how His listeners ought to act when confronted by Roman soldiers, and made some recommendations on how to respond. Positively, courteously, and not in a retaliatory way! Turn the other cheek; don’t hit back. Give the soldier your cloak, and the shirt off your back, too.

Jesus said—in extremely plain language—we are not to retaliate. Not to escalate things, or make things bigger, or worse, or to blow things out of proportion. Jesus said “Love your enemies.”

Here is the parallel passage from Luke 6:32-33, where Jesus is also preaching. “27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.”

I know this may be difficult for us. But—what part of this rule do we not understand? Or, is it just really, really challenging for us to live up to this particular command of Jesus? This is part of God’s rule book. This is the ultimate. The pinnacle. This is the last of the laws from the Law Book of Moses that Jesus quotes here, and then goes even further in His interpretation.

We sit, in our safe, warm church, looking back at the first century. We consider Jesus, talking about the occupying Roman forces. They had the whole nation of Israel under their collective thumb. But, we aren’t under occupation, being crushed by enemy forces or living under martial law. However, the nation of Israel was. What’s more, Jesus knew it, very well. Even more than that—Jesus gave these commands, or rules, for believers to follow, with full knowledge of the land of Israel being under occupation.

One of the commentators I consult regularly had this example listed for the Gospel reading today. Carolyn Brown describes a children’s book called The Christmas Menorahs: How A Town Fought Hate, by Janice Cohn. She tells us, “A hate group threw a rock through the bedroom window of a Jewish boy in Billings, Montana.  There was a menorah lit in the window.  In response, the children of the town drew menorahs to put in their own windows.  The local newspaper printed a full page menorah for other families to color in.  It was the community’s way of standing up to a bunch of bullies.” [1]

Thus, a loving, non-violent, empowering way of standing up for someone being bullied. Of loving one’s enemies, just like Jesus said.

“The book includes the legend about the King of Denmark wearing a yellow star when the occupying Nazis decreed that all Jews must wear a yellow star.” [2]

I remember what a dear senior friend of mine told me, who grew up in the hilly region of France not far from Switzerland. She was a child during World War Two. A number of unaccompanied Jewish refugee children were being housed in their small town. A very devout, Christian town, let me add. The occupying Nazi forces demanded that the Jewish children wear the yellow stars of David, indicating they were Jewish. My friend’s mother sewed yellow stars for every child and young person in that town. They all wore the yellow stars, every day, whether Jewish or Christian. That is how they combatted the Nazi occupying forces, using peaceful, non-violent means. (And, they saved the lives of every Jewish child in that small town.)

Remember what Jesus said in response to the question: “But, who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Jewish people could not stand the Samaritans! Jesus knew that! Yet, that was just His point.

Is it difficult to show love to our enemies? To those who hate us? Yet, this is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. This is right up at the top of God’s rule book, right next to “Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Including our enemies. Including whomever is a Samaritan to each of us.

Yes, loving our enemies is difficult, and challenging. It’s difficult for me, and I suspect it’s a challenge to a number of others here, too. But, God will help us. All we need to do is ask God for help with loving others who are difficult for us to love.

Listen to the words of Jesus, finishing this Gospel passage: “48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.” We already know what to do and how to live. Let’s go out, and live like it.

Alleluia! Amen!

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-seventh-sunday-after-epiphany.html Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 7, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-seventh-sunday-after-epiphany.html Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 7, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

The Call of Wisdom (Repost)

(I was away from the pulpit and St. Luke’s Church this morning, so I did not preach a sermon. However, here is a sermon from some years ago. This uses the Old Testament text for today, Trinity Sunday: Proverbs 8:1-4.)

“The Call of Wisdom”

Prov 8 wisdom better than rubies

Proverbs 8:1-5

One of my very favorite movies is “The Wizard of Oz.” In it, three of the main characters are personifications of qualities within each and every person. I’m sure you remember the Tim Woodman, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow. The Tin Woodman wanted a heart more than anything, because he wanted to be able to love. The Cowardly Lion wanted courage, since he was such a scaredy cat, he was afraid of his own shadow. And the Scarecrow wanted a brain, because he wanted to have good ideas and to think deep thoughts.

Here in this passage we just read today from Proverbs, we have another personification. Wisdom is seen as a woman, and not just any woman. Wisdom is seen as a giving person, as an open-handed person. She is at the crossroads, or important intersections, and at the gates of the town, where the town business takes place, calling like a herald. She is waiting and willing to give out wisdom and understanding to anyone who comes by!

If anyone is simple, or needs instruction, prudence or understanding, Lady Wisdom freely offers the gift of wisdom to anyone who will stop and accept it.

Which of us lacks intelligence sometimes? Which of us stumbles and makes mistakes every now and then, or sometimes even more often than that? Here, Lady Wisdom makes her offer of understanding and intelligence to anyone. “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

There’s a complication, though. I’m sure you’ve known people who seem to know simply everything. Know-it-alls, that’s the only name for them. You can’t tell them anything, they won’t listen to anyone, they aren’t in the least teachable, and they go their own way. They wouldn’t even have the slightest interest in Lady Wisdom’s offer of wisdom, mostly because they’re so busy dispensing what “wisdom” they think they have to other people who haven’t even asked for it.

Let’s face it. It’s not only the know-it-alls who could use some wisdom from outside. Many of us today lack wisdom, and don’t even know it. Humanity’s situation is almost like a horse, wearing blinders. From what I understand, a horse is perfectly happy wearing blinders. Blinders don’t hurt a horse, but they very much restrict what a horse can see. That’s awfully limiting!! Not being able to see the whole picture, but forced to see only what’s straight ahead of you!  Not even knowing that I lack wisdom, or prudence, or understanding is a really tough situation. But it’s a real situation, one that many, many people are in today.

Let’s look at what the book of Proverbs says about foolish people, as opposed to wise people. Here’s a representative list from the first several chapters of the book: fools are called lazy, sluggards, lying, dishonest, ignorant, knowing nothing, complacent, and ignoring wisdom.

That description is pretty negative! Even mean and nasty! That’s one thing about the book of Proverbs. It doesn’t pull any punches. When the authors of Proverbs see something the matter, they name it. They call it as they see it, to use a baseball analogy. There’s nothing ambiguous or wavering about the word picture drawn by Proverbs.

What can be done about this situation? Is it hopeless?

The Epistle of James sheds some light on the subject of wisdom. Looking at Chapter 1, verse 5, let’s listen to the words from the Apostle: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” So here, in the book of James, we have God making the offer of wisdom, again!

So, not only do we see a personification of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8, waiting for us, urging us to reach out for wisdom, but here in the book of James, God wants us to ask for wisdom! God is more than willing to give it. The Apostle James says that God gives to all, generously and ungrudgingly! That’s good news!

So, even when we’re faced with new, unknown circumstances or a different kind of puzzle, we do have somewhere to turn. We can go to God, pray to God for wisdom and understanding, and God will come through! He will not leave us alone and helpless, struggling in a pool of foolishness.

Can any of us imagine the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” NOT asking for a brain? That’s one great thing about that character! He wasn’t afraid to ask. He wasn’t shy. And neither should we be. We can certainly step right up and ask! And God gives to all, generously and ungrudgingly.

This free, gracious offer of wisdom can serve as a guide through difficult and puzzling cirecumstances. We can see that God is with us, and will be there for us through thick and thin, through the good times and the not-so-good times.

Whenever we’re uncertain, puzzled, in need of wisdom, God has made us the best offer of all–the offer of His wisdom. Praise God we have such a good and generous God, Who so willingly and lovingly gives us generous gifts and guides us along every winding road.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)