“God Changes Things!”

Mark 4:26-34 (4:30-32) – June 13, 2021

            When my children were small, they loved reading time, every night before bedtime! I read them all kinds of stories. I remember reading some lovely illustrated versions of Aesop’s Fables. These taught children (and adults) some moral or practical lesson, wrapped up in engaging storytelling. Who doesn’t remember the lessons of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” (slow and steady wins the race) and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (honesty is the best policy)?

            The Rabbi Jesus also was a master storyteller, like Aesop.  Jesus used a different method. He regularly told parables. Parables are not quite the same as fables. Jesus told many parables to help people learn what God is like and how God wants us to live. “Parables are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult, whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe.” [1]

            In today’s Scripture reading from Mark chapter 4, Jesus tells two parables, both about seeds. Parables can be seen from a number of different viewpoints. Children can view a parable as a simple retelling of people planting seeds. As we age and grow, our understanding ages and grows, too. As I would sometimes tell my children, these Bible stories – or parables – are thinking-about stories. We think about them, ponder them, and ruminate over them.

            Parables, as pastor and writer Eugene Peterson has said, are in this sense like narrative time bombs. “You hear them – tick – wonder about them – tick – think maybe you’ve got it – tick – and then as you walk away – tick – or over the course of the next day or so – tick – and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home – boom! – almost overwhelming you with its implications or … blinding you with its vision.[2]

            Both parables Jesus relates talk about sowers and seeds. I was drawn to the second one in my study for this sermon, the parable of the mustard seed. How many people here today have ever seen a mustard seed? You can often see them at a produce market or ethnic food market, in the spice section. A fairly large tree will grow from that tiny seed, half as small as an apple seed!

            Children especially really like the idea of a tiny mustard seed growing into something big. Children are small, much smaller than adults. Yet, they can see a tiny little thing like a mustard seed growing big and bigger, and indeed taking over the garden, if we don’t watch out. Small children intuitively appreciate this story about something small having great influence. And perhaps, grown people who feel as if they don’t ordinarily have much influence also appreciate this parable about tiny things becoming big, grand, and having influence after all.                

            Aren’t we amazed that such a tiny seed can turn into a small tree? What is more, seeds germinate and grow when hidden under ground – hidden from everyone’s sight. As Jesus said, every small thing we do can make such a big difference. 

But it does not stop there! One little mustard seed doesn’t just produce one bush. Mustard bushes are what many people consider weeds. One quickly becomes several and several soon take over the whole field. Understanding that about mustard trees tells us something else about God’s Kingdom – it is unstoppable. It is going to fill the whole world.

Here in suburban Chicago, we are now into the beginning of June. Many gardens are starting to grow, producing flowers, and the beginnings of fruits and vegetables. Our Lord Jesus relates a number of parables about sowing seeds, and these parables have multiple meanings, and can be viewed from different points of view.

When the sower first sows seed, the plant has not started growing yet. But, there is potential for it to grow! As we sow good seeds in this congregation, these seeds have the potential to grow, too. Are we going to tend these tender young plants carefully? With love? Or, are these plants going to be left alone, and allow the weeds take over the plot of ground?

As we prayerfully consider this beloved congregation, a change seems to have come upon St. Luke’s Church, accelerated by this past year of Covid-tide. (as some church folk are now calling it) It is true that St. Luke’s Church is no longer the church it used to be, 20, 30, 40 years ago. St. Luke’s Church has changed, and the world has changed, too.

Do we – faithful believers in Christ – know what is coming next? Frankly, I do not. Our church leaders do not, either! Do you? This is a waiting time, an expectant time. A time when seeds can be sown, and nurtured, and a time when God may bring forth unexpected growth and exciting events! Are you eager to see what happens next? I know I am!

We know what happens when a caterpillar goes into a cocoon. The caterpillar gradually turns into a chrysalis, and after a time, a beautiful butterfly emerges. But – that is from the point of view of a human, watching over the chrysalis. What about the caterpillar? Did you ever think about the caterpillar’s point of view? I suspect the caterpillar has no idea of what is happening to it all the while it is in the chrysalis, transforming into that butterfly. That is where we are, now!

Can you see it? Feel it? St. Luke’s Church is on the threshold of a new thing! The sower sows the seed, and it goes into the ground, where the growth happens unseen. Something new is coming. “The Kingdom Jesus proclaims has room for everyone. It creates a new and open – and for this reason perhaps a tad frightening – future.” [3] Maybe Jesus is telling us God’s best dream for us – for St. Luke’s Church – is like that. Once God’s love gets planted in us and starts to grow, it changes everything around us forever. Sure, the next thing might be a bit frightening, from the caterpillar’s point of view, but I’m excited to see what is coming next! Aren’t you? I know God will be right by our sides, no matter what. And, it will be all right. Truly.

(Thank you to David Lose for his commentary “Preach the Truth Slant,” from “In the Meantime” in 2015. I took several extended ideas from that article. And thanks to Illustrated Ministries for their lesson for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost from Mark 4, from their 2020 Summer Children’s series.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/06/pentecost-3-b-preach-the-truth-slant/

“Preach the Truth Slant,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Blessed Are We

“Blessed Are We”

Matt 5 beatitudes, word cloud

Matthew 5:1-12 – February 2, 2020

This Thursday afternoon, my husband and I are taking a short trip to St. Louis to see our daughter. Before we leave the house, we are going to print out some maps on our computer. Lots of journeys begin with a road map. There are signs to follow and road maps we can consult, just in case. We have landmarks we know along the way. I wonder, when you are on a journey, do you have a road map to follow?

In the previous Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 4, our Lord Jesus gives a summary statement of the message He wants to get across to everyone. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That message is—in brief—a headline for the whole of the next three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters tell the world what God wants them to do, how to act, even what to say.

Today, Eileen read to us the first twelve verses of Matthew 5. These verses have a particular name: the Beatitudes. In these statements, our Lord Jesus tells us about His followers’ road through life. In other words, Jesus gives us a road map which will guide us to the kingdom of heaven. (In other parts of the Gospels, this is identified as the kingdom, or the reign, of God.)

This is great! Isn’t it? We have a road map to heaven! If we follow the signs and landmarks that Jesus describes for us here in the Beatitudes, we will make it to heaven, for sure! Won’t we? Or, will we? How easy is it to follow the signs and landmarks that Jesus tells us about?

Hold on just a minute. Following Jesus is more than just a pleasant walk in the park. Let’s take a look at who benefits from being selfish, who gets the lion’s share of attention, and how the faulty, selfish world wants people to act.

In case you and I haven’t noticed, there is a huge difference between what God wants and what the selfish, self-centered world wants. This is the first detour we are going to take from the road God means for all Christians to take.

Let’s look at a topsy-turvy, cynical, worldly view of the Beatitudes. In today’s faulty, selfish world, things are good for the rich, they can buy whatever they want. It’s good for the strong, they can take whatever they want. They will also make the team. Things are good for the winners, they get all the prizes. It’s good for the smart, and the smart-alecks. They get straight A’s, go to the best colleges, and get great jobs. It’s good for the beautiful. They will get their pictures in magazines, on social media, and get to be in movies. Things are good for the important people. They get to make all the plans and all the decisions. [1]

But, is that the way God wants people to live? Is that what Jesus tells us here, in the Beatitudes? Is that how God wants us to live? If you and I live in that selfish, self-centered kind of a way I just described, will we be traveling on the road to the kingdom of heaven?

We know the selfish, self-centered world rewards the powerful, the wealthy, the attractive, the ones who push others out of the way and trample the weak and poor and sick ones.

Now that we have figured out the topsy-turvy, twisted detour way of looking at the Beatitudes, let’s look at a second detour some might take when they consider the Beatitudes.

Sometimes, certain people think that only super-holy people can possibly follow God’s way to heaven. You know, only real saints of God. People like Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Augustine, or Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The rest of us cannot possibly measure up to such a high standard. I am sorry, but you and I are only going through the motions. Some say we are much too weak and sinful to ever be able to follow God’s high and lofty recommendations in the Beatitudes.

Now, this detour around the Beatitudes is a bit closer to the true road map that God marks out for us, but still not quite on target. God wants all of us—each one of us—to have an opportunity to walk more closely with the Lord, and to follow God in each of our individual journeys through life in this selfish, self-centered world

But, wait! Does that mean that you and I need to follow each of these items on the road map of the Beatitudes, to the letter? We have already seen how selfish, self-centered people often live, disregarding all of God’s recommendations. How instead would Jesus want us to fit into His world and His kingdom?

Jesus says that in His kingdom, it’s good for those who know they do not know everything. They belong in God’s world. It’s good for those who are terribly sad. They will be comforted. It’s good for those who obey God. They will be in charge, according to God’s way. It’s good for those who don’t get justice now. Sooner or later, they WILL get it—God says so. It’s good for those who forgive and care about others. God forgives and cares about them. It’s good for those who are pure in heart. They will see God. It’s good for the peacemakers. They will be praised as God’s own children. It’s good for those who are hurt because they stand up for God’s ways. They will be called heroes and heroines. It’s even good for you and me when people come after us in anger because we follow Jesus. We will be rewarded by God in heaven. [2]

Some people will scoff. How do any of Jesus’s suggestions work properly? If I do any of that stuff, I’ll be laughed out of my workplace! People will taunt me and ignore me, or even worse. Well, I think that is just the point. Our Lord Jesus said these things might happen. In fact, Jesus tells His followers, point blank, that these kinds of things will undoubtably happen. And, Jesus also tells His followers which people are His precious ones, His dear sisters and brothers.

There is a kicker—a high point in this section of Jesus’s sermon. When you and I follow the road map Jesus shows to us, He calls us blessed. This is our Lord’s description of every single Christian. In each Beatitude, everyone who follows God is declared blessed.

Are you mourning for a loved one right now? Jesus said you are truly His sister, His brother. Are you poor, and especially poor in spirit? Jesus says you are really on the road to heaven. Are you meek and humble? Then, the world will be in your hands—in this world or the next. And what about those who work for peace in our neighborhoods, our cities, our country? What a wonderful thing to be called God’s children—God’s daughters and sons. And, God promises to abundantly bless us as we journey with Jesus.

This road map of blessing, this road map to the Christian life, shows us a God who delights to create, bless and redeem. May we always remember that we—all of us—have been abundantly blessed with the Beatitudes, for now, and for always.

 

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-fourth-sunday-after-epiphany.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-fourth-sunday-after-epiphany.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God Is Working Things Out

“God Is Working Things Out”

Luke13-6 fig tree, medieval

Luke 13:1-9 – March 24, 2019

Mother Teresa is sometimes quoted as saying, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” Oh, I am often pleased and proud that God gives me such weighty things to be in charge of! But, I sometimes wish God would let someone else be so responsible!

Can you relate to Mother Teresa’s wry comment? I know I can, sometimes. Sometimes, life sneaks up on us and tackles us. Life can overwhelm us. Work gets beyond hectic; family problems can pile up. And, what about health? A friend of mine is in college, and her father had a sudden catastrophic health reversal earlier this week, and was rushed to ICU. As Katya Ouchakof said in her recent blog post, “The underlying idea is that life gets hard sometimes – almost to the point of being unbearable.” [1]

If we turn to our Gospel reading for today from Dr. Luke, we might scratch our heads, at first reading. We seem to have come into the conversation in the middle of things, and there is seemingly no continuity. Jesus bounces around from topic to topic. From the suffering Galileans, to the eighteen victims of a tower collapse, to a rather stern parable.

Wait a gosh darned minute, Jesus! I know our Lord’s sayings and parables can be deep and sometimes difficult to understand, but this section today is just plain random. Isn’t it? Is there anything that can tie these disparate segments together?

These topics Jesus brings up may seem random, it’s true. Just as random as life catching us unaware, and biting us on the tail. Say, a random downpour flooding your basement and ruining all the boxes—decades of photos and papers you have stored down there. Or, worse, a loved one falling on cement and seriously breaking a dozen bones. Or, worst of all, your favorite relative getting a terminal cancer diagnosis when they were previously the healthiest one in the whole family.

What gives? What on earth is going on? Why me? Why them? Why not someone else?  

Let’s look at the reading from Isaiah 55, verses 8 and 9. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

At first glance, if we add these verses from Isaiah to the random stuff we read from Luke, we may come up with absolutely nothing. “Hey, God! You don’t make any sense! I can’t figure You out, no matter how hard I try!”

Jesus Himself said it. “Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” Again, later in this reading: “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jesus Himself said it. God does not work in a quid pro quo fashion. It is absolutely not “if I do good stuff in my life, God simply has to give me good health, good family, lots of money, and long life.” Isn’t that the “Health, Wealth, and Happiness Gospel?” That is unscriptural, plain and simple. If we think and act this way, we make God a vending machine in the sky. God does not want to be expected to perform like some performing seal or dolphin! An immature understanding like that just will not work. When we do seven, or seventy-times-seven good deeds, God does not “have to” give us anything.

Compare the eighteen people killed by the collapsing tower in Jerusalem and the verses from Isaiah 55. At first glance, this does not seem like a very reassuring message. But, both of the passages are communicating to us that God’s ways are incomprehensible to us. God’s ways are so far beyond our ways, we cannot even comprehend the workings of the mind of God. Sometimes, we just do not understand why, or why not, and that is okay.

The sentence from the Lord’s Prayer we are highlighting this week is “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Or, as Eugene Peterson says in his modern translation The Message, “Do what’s best—as You do above, so do here below.”

We are to ask God for God’s kingdom to come—as Eugene Peterson puts it so well, we ask God to “do what’s best.” This is important! We don’t have to have our fingers in every little aspect of every little situation. We do not need to micromanage. I am not God, and I am very glad of that!

Reminder: the next thing we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” In Peterson’s modern translation: “as You do above, so do here below.”

If you look at it another way, we do not HAVE to figure out why eighteen people were killed by the tower of Siloam falling on them. I love how commentator David Lose explains this: “in case they miss his meaning, [Jesus] adds his own story of recent calamity and repeats his point: tragedy is not a punishment for sin. Good news. Sort of.

“Because some calamity is a result of sin. What if the wall Jesus references was built by a fraudulent contractor (my guess is they had those back in the first century too)? There are all kinds of bad behaviors, in fact, that contribute to much of the misery in the world.”

“But notice that Jesus doesn’t sever the connection between sin and calamity. He severs the connection between calamity and punishment. “Do you think they were worse sinners than all the others? No. No worse than you.” [2]

Yes, some tragedies are intensely sad, sometimes incomprehensible. I think of things like shuddering earthquakes, massive floods, raging wildfires, and blinding blizzards. People are perpetually caught in the cycle of poverty. Children get terminal cancer. My friend Pastor Joe had a congenital eye disease, and now is completely blind. Jesus reminds us that people are not “punished” through these catastrophes. However, countless people mourn their losses and lament the passing of loved ones and strangers, alike.

Figuring out those catastrophic things is just not in our job description. It’s beyond our pay grade. We don’t need to worry about that kind of stuff. Worry and concern applies to many situations and problems in our lives. Or, rather, NOT being worried or concerned. Maybe it’s us recognizing what is beyond our control, and that is ultimately a beneficial thing.  

Remember the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Perhaps it is best for us to return to the sentence of the day from the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Or, to be more understandable, from Eugene Peterson: “Do what’s best—as You do above, so do here below.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Ultimately, even if we do not understand stuff, God has it handled. God is working everything out. Everything is in God’s hands, and that is the very best place to be—in this world, and the next.

[1] https://revgalblogpals.org/2019/03/19/revised-common-lectionary-beyond-understanding/

by Katya Ouchakof, March 19, 2019

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2461

“When Bad Things Happen,” David Lose, Working Preacher, 2013.

@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!

Compassion and a Rich Man

Mark 10:17-27 (10:21) – July 16, 2017

Mark 10-21 Jesus-Christ and-the-rich-man

“Compassion and a Rich Man”

If we turn on the television, read a book, or listen to a podcast or talk radio, sometimes we might hear experts giving advice. These knowledgeable experts are often from well-known places.  This week I am thinking about advice on how to live the “right” way. That’s sometimes thought to be a fruitful life, or a healthy life, or a spiritual life. Wouldn’t you be interested if you heard a radio program with a noted author or well-known expert in just this subject?

That’s the case with Rabbi Jesus, today. In today’s scripture lesson, we get just a hint of what our Lord Jesus had to deal with much of the time. Can you see this situation? I love St. Ignatius and his suggestion to put ourselves into the narrative. Let us imagine ourselves being there, right with our Lord Jesus the itinerant Rabbi, and His disciples.

Mark tells us that Rabbi Jesus (and some others) are about to leave on a journey. Can you see the hustle and the bustle as they get ready to leave? Maybe several of Jesus’s friends are concerned about last-minute details. Perhaps they have already contacted someone in the town they plan to go to, to find some kind of lodging, some kind of food and board.

I would imagine Jesus being calm and self-possessed, amidst all of this rushing around. Just like our scripture reading today says, someone runs up to the Rabbi and asks Him a parting question. After all, you don’t get an expert in religion and spiritual life coming to your town just any old day. The Rabbi Jesus was a widely acknowledged wise person, an expert in the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law of Moses and in lots of things associated with religious and spiritual life.

Looking at it from that angle, of course this young man would rush up and try to get the ear of the wise Rabbi just before He and His followers left their town.

The Gospel writer tells us: Jesus was beginning a journey when a man ran up and knelt in front of Him and asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?’”

Do we hear what this man says? He wants to know how he can get God’s approval. What is more, we can watch this man kneel humbly before the wise Teacher and Rabbi when he asks.

Let’s continue with St. Ignatius and his suggestion to imagine ourselves there with Jesus. Perhaps as one of the disciples, maybe as one of the crowd, watching and waiting to hear what the Rabbi was going to say. And, we are packed into a small area. A good amount of people usually gather around when Jesus is talking in public.

The Rabbi Jesus makes an unexpected response to the young man: “Jesus asked him, “You’re calling me good? Only God is good. You know the commandments: Don’t kill, don’t betray, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother.”

This is a straightforward, traditionally Jewish response that many Rabbis would give, in answer to such a question. This is the way you gain favor with God: keep the commandments. In fact, Jesus even gives a little recap of them, a “highlights” list, just in case anyone forgot.

We look to the young man, who says. “‘Teacher, I’ve always obeyed all of these, ever since I was a kid.’”

I am sure we all know someone like this. Some goody-two-shoes who always follows the rules, straight as an arrow. Pious and earnest. Always trying his hardest to win God’s approval, as well as the approval of his parents and other grown-ups.

We return to our Lord Jesus, and listen to what He said. “Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Then Jesus said to the man, ‘There’s one more thing: Go sell all your stuff. Whatever money you make, give it to the poor. Then you’ll be rich in the things of heaven. And then, come follow me.’ The man was really surprised by what Jesus said, and really sad. He had a lot of stuff, and he really loved some of it. He walked away, still upset by what he’d heard.”

Now, we are learning additional information. This is not just any young man. No, this is a rich young man. I wonder whether the rich young man was aware that all of his stuff could act as a barrier between him and God? That’s why Jesus tells him to sell all of his stuff.

Dr. David Lose said about this point in the reading, “what Jesus really meant was that we needed to unburden ourselves of whatever might be keeping us from relying on God.” [1] Yes, the rich man had a great deal of difficulty hearing these words of Jesus.

Let’s face it: these are difficult words for many people to hear. We love our stuff, don’t we? Or, if not most of our stuff, at least some of our stuff. I would really have difficulty giving up my computer and my car. I think I am not the only one in this room today for whom that is true. Others might have difficulty unburdening themselves of whatever might be keeping each one from God.

This is a huge lesson for all of us from this Scripture reading today. And yet, it is not the only lesson. Remember our sermon series? Our sermon series on compassion is continuing with Jesus having compassion on this rich young man. What does our Gospel writer say? “Jesus looked at the man and loved him.” Jesus loved this young man—this rich young man.

Dr. Lose wonders: “whatever [the young man’s] appearance on the outside, whatever his faithful and pious life, he’s still missing something, something important, something that matters, something that’s a matter of life and death.”[2]

What about us? What is our reaction to Jesus and the rich young man?

Turn it around. Imagine we are friends of the rich young man, standing right next to him, meeting Jesus. We have a lot of stuff, too. Jesus is asking us to give it all away. We may want so badly to follow Jesus! We want to travel around with Him everywhere He goes. But, since we have so much clutter, so many things, we just can’t uproot ourselves and follow Jesus.

Can you relate? “The man was really surprised by what Jesus said, and really sad. He had a lot of stuff, and he really loved some of it. He walked away, still upset by what he’d heard.”

Just as much as Jesus loved this young man, that’s how much He loves each of us. Jesus loves you, me, and every person on the face of this earth. Even when we don’t do what God has asked us to do, God still loves us. Does everyone feel God’s love for us? And, not only us as a group, everyone in this sanctuary, but also for each one, for every individual.

And, the capper for this interaction between Jesus and the young man? “The disciples were amazed at his words. Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, ‘It is so hard—can you even imagine how hard?—for someone who has so much to come to God’s kingdom.

It’d be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.’”

In other words, really, really hard. All of our stuff gets in the way between us and God’s kingdom. All of this clutter and distraction in our lives keeps us at a distance from God. We know what Jesus has asked us to do, just like this young man did. When you don’t do what God has asked you to do, how do you picture God responding to you? Do you imagine God looks at you—at us—with loving compassion like Jesus did in this story?

We might not be able to follow Jesus completely, all at once, but we can make steps in that direction. We can make small steps toward doing what pleases God. I encourage all of us to choose someone or something and be kind. Be compassionate towards them What’s more, we all will see how all of our “small steps” in loving and giving combine to create a beautiful impact of compassion in God’s world.

And, maybe, just maybe “God’s gift of salvation can actually free us to do something: to love each other, to care for God’s people and world, to share the good news…right here, right now, wherever it may be that God has placed us.” [3]

God willing, we can all show love and compassion, every day. Amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/pentecost-20-b-curing-our-heartsickness/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@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!)

Terrified!

Matthew 17:1-9 – February 26, 2017

imandoa001p4

“Terrified!”

When my children were young, I would always read them a bedtime story, every night. That was part of our process of going to bed. Sometimes I’d read chapters from books like Winnie the Pooh or the Wizard of Oz, and sometimes storybooks or fairy tales from the library. Some of the stories would have some really scary things in them! A little like the Gospel reading from Matthew, today, where the three disciples were terrified on top of the mountain! There are certain things that scare us almost to death. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

In many of the stories we know, some people often like to find a character they can relate to. A sympathetic character, or one who displays some qualities each of us might have. Who hasn’t been frightened, like Piglet, or puzzled, like Pooh Bear, or excited, like Tigger? In today’s Gospel reading, we have several characters. Is it possible to find some similarity in one of these characters, some characteristic that each of us might share, or be able to relate to?

In today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus, and we have Peter, James, and his brother John. Jesus takes them up a trail on a mountain, up to the top. There, they have a stunning, supernatural encounter.

That day does not start that way. That day was probably like many other days among Jesus and His group of followers. Hectic, a bit crowded, perhaps even some people already waiting in line to see the Rabbi, have some prayer, even hoping for a healing. Unknown to everyone else, Jesus slips away with the three disciples.

Remember how we often choose a character from a story and try to relate to them, or find some similarity with a characteristic of theirs? I thought one of the commentators on this Gospel passage had some excellent points. Alyce McKenzie said: “If you know what it is like to be tired, to have people seeking you out for what you can do for them, and other people criticizing you and working against you, if you have ever been filled with dread at what lies ahead, you have a little something in common with Jesus. If you know what it’s like to feel those things as a direct result of serving God, then you have even more in common with Jesus.” [1]

While this little group is climbing the mountain, I suspect these three disciples are a bit proud that their Rabbi Jesus has singled them out, amidst all of the other disciples and followers. Wouldn’t you be proud? Perhaps, even congratulating yourself that you are a confidant of Jesus?

After the four people reach the mountaintop, something happens. Now, remember, Peter, James and John are not used to watching television or movies. They do not know anything about fancy costumes that look like they come from outer space, or special effects with light and fireworks, or super sound systems like we have in the United States, today.

Just imagine people like Peter, James and John, having no concept of any of these modern things. Next, I invite you to close your eyes. Try to put yourself in the company of the three disciples, on top of the mountain, in your mind. Are you there? “There was Jesus, transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”

I can think of at least a dozen supernatural encounters—right off the top of my head—in both the Old and the New Testaments. You know, where people come face to face with angels, or hear the voice of God, or see the burning bush. Here on top of the mountain, these three disciples already knew that Jesus was a man from God. Only a few days before, Peter had even testified to that fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised One of God.

In all of these supernatural encounters throughout the Bible, angels always say “Don’t be afraid!” to whomever they meet. I bet when the angels break in to the everyday, ordinary world, that must be the scariest thing those people have ever seen! Even though Peter, James and John had walked with Jesus, learned from Jesus, and lived with Jesus for many months, by this time, I suspect they are scared at the events that are happening!

We have Jesus—transfigured, or literally translated from Greek, metamorphoomai, the verb “to undergo a metamorphosis.” We are not quite sure exactly how Jesus looked, except that we are told He glowed with a glory reserved for angels, for things from heaven. It’s as if a switch were flipped, and Jesus was lit from the inside with bright, white super-sunshine.

Is it any wonder that Peter started babbling, and said the first thing that came into his head? “Um, Lord, it is good that we are here. Look, look, I’ll put up three booths, or tents, so we can worship You and Moses and Elijah right here!” Good old foot-in-mouth Peter. Sure to speak before he thinks, letting his mouth run away with him. (Does that sound like anyone you know? Is that a situation in this story that you especially relate to?)

The bright and shining Jesus was talking to Elijah and Moses. Remember Moses, and how he had led the people of Israel for forty years around the wilderness? Yes, “Moses, who had seen God face to face on Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Revelation, and whose face had shone.” Dr. Alyce McKenzie tells us “that Moses hadn’t wanted to be a prophet in the first place and had made excuses to God to get out of it. (If you know what it’s like to make excuses to God, you have a little something in common with Moses.)“ [2]

But, wait! There’s even more! “While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” If you thought the appearance of Jesus in radiant form wasn’t enough, imagine the stentorian voice of God booming all around! This is it. Right here.

Can you imagine Peter, James and John even more afraid than they were before? Absolutely terrified? They fall on their faces at this heavenly voice. It isn’t even a sound system, with squawking speakers all around, but instead the resounding voice of God from heaven.

And then—everything supernatural goes away. It’s all over. Only Jesus remains, in His normal, everyday clothes.

I can tell you how Peter remembered this awesome, terrifying experience, several decades later. He writes to his fellow believers in a letter, “18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” But then, Peter couldn’t stay on the mountaintop forever, worshiping the Lord. Peter—and James, and John—needed to come down into the real world, into the mundane, every day. And, do the real, sometimes difficult, work of God’s kingdom.

Remember what I said about characters in a story, and about us finding some similarity in one of these characters, some characteristic that each of us might share, or be able to relate to?

Whether we are up on the mountain today, with the bright shining, heavenly Jesus, or down on the earth in a sad or difficult place, the love of Jesus shines in our hearts. Jesus remains.

He is with us, just as He promised. Not “maybe,” not “I wish so, or “I hope so.” But, Jesus promises to be right by our sides, always, through thick and thin, through good times and bad. “In Him we behold what we want to become. In us Jesus lives as a presence that empowers us to become what God would have us become.” [3]

And for that, we can surely say “alleluia, amen!”

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

[3] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

@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!)

Thy Kingdom Come

“Thy Kingdom Come”

matt-6-10-thy-kingdom-come-illustrated

September 4, 2016 – Matthew 6:10

Here in the United States, most advertisers on Madison Avenue tell us every little girl wants to be a princess. We can see this in many cartoon movies made by Walt Disney. Princes, princesses, kings, queens. Living in a kingdom, with happily ever after figuring significantly in the ending of the stories.

When you mention “kingdom” to people, that is often the first thing they think of. But—what did Jesus mean when He talked about the term “kingdom?”

We have for our Scripture passage this morning a portion of the Lord’s Prayer from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6.  This is one of the most familiar portions of the Bible. A huge multitude of Christians of a vast number of denominations and faith traditions know these words by heart. I ask again: what did our Lord Jesus mean when He said these words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

To be frank, this subject of the kingdom of God is something I have struggled with for decades. Yes, I now have some understanding of what Jesus meant here in the Gospel of Matthew. And yes, I will try to help us all to understand better what it was that Jesus was saying. And, why He wanted us to say—or pray—these words.

Jesus was considered a Rabbi, a teacher, by all who knew Him. He was learned in the Hebrew Scriptures, and must have been quite skilled in rabbinic discussion and debate. That’s why I think He knew all aspects of the Old Testament understandings of the Kingdom of God.

There are several aspects of the Kingdom of God. But, important: God created the world, and everything in it. (I think God took great joy in creation, too!) By default, everything and everyone is under God’s authority and power. So, yes. Everything is part of God’s kingdom.

However, something happened after God created everything. Sin happened. A cosmic rejection, rebellion and separation from God happened. As the Apostle Paul mentions in Romans 8, the whole creation has been groaning in agony ever since.

Let’s return to Madison Avenue, and advertising. Television commercials. I can see several young, smiling people, outside. Having fun. Maybe skiing, or hiking, or sailing. “Go for all the gusto you can!” says the voiceover, on a beer commercial. These young people are on the top of their game, not a care in the world. They are not even thinking of sin, rejection, rebellion and separation from God.

I want to tell you a secret. Well, not really a secret. The fallen world and the fallen people in this world do not want to acknowledge God at all. They are separated from any idea of following God’s life, light and love. From being a part of God’s kingdom.

This is a sad reality. Jesus knows it is. That is why Jesus tells us to pray this way. “Thy kingdom come.”  Yes, the whole world is separated from God. When we pray this prayer, Jesus wants us to commit to opening ourselves to God’s kingdom. We can help fulfill God’s kingdom in this world.

I found a fascinating bible study on the Lord’s Prayer online, released by the Salvation Army in Great Britain. When I examined this part of the study, it concentrated on another scripture passage from Luke 4. This section of Luke does not mention the Kingdom of God, but it might as well. This passage is where Jesus tells the people in the synagogue in His home town of Nazareth what His message is, in chapter 4. Jesus “found the place where it is written: 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”

This is Jesus’s Kingdom announcement! Remember, a few weeks ago, I spoke of where Jesus preaches His first sermon. It is quite a bit like political campaigns. The various candidates all try to have their position distilled down to a simple message. What they stand for. What they will strive to do. And, in both the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke, Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom of God. What it means, and how Jesus expects to bring it. How Jesus wants His followers to bring the Kingdom themselves. Proclaim the Gospel. Share the Good News.

There are many, many commentaries, theological books, and bible studies written on this portion of Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer. The phrase we are looking at this week, “Thy kingdom come,” is considered to be a central phrase in this prayer. Some say the most important phrase. That would mean “the Kingdom announcement … is the focal point of Jesus’ entire ministry. This prayer, then, can only be understood in the light of how Jesus ‘lived the Kingdom’ while He was here on earth. Bringing the Kingdom of God to earth was Jesus’ great task.” [1]

Here is this message, this announcement of the Kingdom, again. Jesus teaches His followers to pray with a model prayer. The Lord’s Prayer. Just like Jesus does repeatedly in the Gospels when He preaches, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom in this model prayer—except He wants us to proclaim it, too! And, to do it. To bring the Kingdom in.

One thing I love about the Salvation Army: their emphasis on service, on proclaiming the Kingdom of God through concrete, hands-on means. Following their lead, we can “look at how Jesus lived His life, get involved in the things that He thought were important, and understand what Jesus meant by the term ‘Kingdom of God.’” [2] Bring relief to the poor. Visit those in jail. Heal those who are sick. Alleviate the suffering of those who are oppressed. That is what Jesus was saying in Luke 4.

With this week, we come to the end of our Summer Sermon Series from the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission. The last sentence of the statement: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to discern and celebrate the present and coming reign of God.” (Or, the present and coming kingdom of God.)

God’s kingdom is here and now, and God’s kingdom is future tense. Like Jesus preached, God’s kingdom is among us, within us. We can share that kingdom with others, today. Plus, God’s kingdom is a future thing. At the end of all time, the fullness of God’s kingdom and glory will burst upon the whole world, the whole creation, in awesome majesty and glory.

What a series it has been! Each week, we have delved more deeply into each sentence of this mission statement. St. Luke’s Church was founded by this vital, missionary association of churches almost 70 years ago. Each week this summer, I hope we have discovered more about this wonderful denomination. It is my hope that we now see many connections where we can fit, and serve, and grow—as a local congregation, a fellowship of believers, and as a sister church in association with the great variety of churches in the Chicago Metropolitan Association.

God’s kingdom is here and now, and God’s kingdom is future tense, too. This is something to celebrate, like the Statement of Mission says! God is building God’s kingdom within each one of us now. It is our joy and privilege to share the Good News, to tell other people about Jesus and His love for each of us.

But, that is not all. By no means! The future part of God’s Kingdom is even better. I think most people here are familiar with George Frederick Handel and his oratorio Messiah.

The text for this chorus comes from our second reading today, from Revelation chapter 11. The Hallelujah Chorus from the end of the second part of the Handel’s oratorio Messiah says, “and He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” This is a joyous proclamation of the coming kingdom of our Lord.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

[1]http://www.usc.salvationarmy.org/usc/prayer/24-7/24-7_UK_Bible_Studies..pdf

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

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