Encourage Each Other

“Encourage Each Other” – November 8, 2020

1 Thessalonians 4:15-18

            Today’s lectionary Scripture readings show us more about the times to come. Or, some say, the end times. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we hurried up and got to the end of days and met the Lord in the air? That is exactly what our Scripture reading describes today.

            Here the apostle Paul calms the fears of his Thessalonian church. His former church members are mourning the deaths of some of their congregation, and they wrote to Paul to ask what happened to their friends and loved ones. Where did they go after they died?

            That is a great question! As a hospital chaplain, I was sometimes asked that very question. What happens after we die? Sometimes I’d be asked by a loved one, sitting by the bed of a dying patient. But, sometimes the patient – who had just received the worst news you can possibly receive – would ask me that question, in all sincerity. With all their heart.

            When we are talking about life and death matters, many other things pale in comparison. I have walked the halls in the intensive care unit, or cardiac care, late at night or early in the morning. I have seen loved ones keeping vigil next to patients’ beds. I have hesitated, not wanting to disturb their intimate time with their precious family member. Yet, Paul’s words go straight to the heart of this vital question. What happens when we die?

            Considering our Bible reading today, commentator Scott Hoezee says, “Probably the Thessalonians did not know Jesus’ words from John 11, but if they could hear Jesus telling Martha that ’anyone who believes in me will never die,’ they may have heard that as confirming this idea that being a Christian meant not dying.  Ever.

“And then members of their church started dying.  Funerals were being held after all.  A cloud of painful questions arose: were these people not Christians after all?  Had they had inadequate faith?  If so, how can any of us be sure we are good and faithful enough?  Paul had said it was all faith, all grace, all Jesus.  But is it?  Or, far more darkly, was Paul just wrong?  Is the Gospel a hoax?  Is there no true victory of life over death?[1]

            Again, Paul reminds us: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”

            As I write this sermon, the nation is still on tenterhooks, wondering who the next President of the United States will be. This nation is more divided now than in any time I can remember in recent history. Whoever “wins” will have an extremely difficult next four years in office, with all of the upheaval and dissention in this country. How will we manage to bridge such a cavernous gap? “Regardless of what we read in the headlines, whether or not it goes the way we hoped, how it brings discord, how can there be a place of peace in us, even in the midst of upheaval?” [2] How can we continue to live Godly lives in such a turbulent time?

            Are these not similar to the serious questions that the Thessalonian congregation brought to their pastor Paul? Paul brought words of encouragement and comfort to his former church. Yes, and words of great hope, too! “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

            I am not minimizing the turbulent times we are living through, right now. This past week. These next weeks and months ahead. Yet, I am taking Paul at his word. He tells us to encourage each other with these supremely hopeful words to the Thessalonians.

Yes, we are living through times of great distress and tumult. Yes, many may feel like the mountains are crumbling and falling into the sea, as Psalm 46 tells us. I preached on Psalm 46 just two weeks ago, and we found hope and encouragement through that sermon. This precious psalm also grounds us, always giving space to both feel the turmoil and to have a center of peace, unshaken by the headlines and the prevailing news of the day.

This center of peace is not a forced peace brought on by force of arms or oppression, but a peace that grows from the very nature of the One who rules with justice and joy, our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the peace that passes all understanding, God’s peace that knows no boundaries, no divisions, no human separation or dissention.

Let us visualize, for just a moment, God’s peace that passes all understanding. Now, God’s hope that fills our hopeless and helpless lives and hearts. And now, God’s love that is so all encompassing, it can fill the whole universe. That is one mighty and powerful God.

Yes, Paul tells us to encourage each other with these words.

Alleluia. Amen.


[1] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-27a-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, Illustration Ideas, 2017.

[2] https://www.missioalliance.org/a-nation-waits-seeking-a-center-of-peace/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+missioalliance%2FEQtW+%28Missio+Alliance%29

@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!

Becoming—Like Christ

“Becoming—Like Christ” – November 1, 2020

1 John 3:1-3 – All Saints Sunday

            Simple words go straight to the heart. Words can echo and re-echo deep within. Have you experienced that? The elderly apostle John uses simple, straightforward words to communicate deep, eternal truths. Like, right here, in our Scripture reading today.

In today’s reading, John urges the Christian community to hold fast to what we have been taught, persevere in leading a moral life, and love one another.

You do know that you are God’s beloved child? Yes! Each of us has been chosen by God. We are the Saints of God! Not only in the eyes of this church on this corner, but in the eyes of all churches that observe All Saints Day or All Saints Sunday.

Today is All Saints Day. It is a special day in the life of the Church. A day to remember those who were persecuted, and those who died to keep the faith. And, a day to celebrate the living saints: you and me.

Sometimes, you and I may not feel especially saint-like. Yes, the age-old problem of sin does creep into our lives, and cause some disruption. Sin can make us feel far away from God, and like everything is turning topsy-turvy.

            Can other things happen in our lives, other kinds of disruptions make us feel like we are unworthy of God? Absolutely. All kinds of circumstances, trouble, losses of various kinds, calamities, and all manner of tumult can strain our nerves, our bodies and our souls to the very breaking point.

            The pandemic is also a perfect opportunity for Satan to turn our lives topsy-turvy. Churches closing, isolation from our communities; with fear and anxiety, we become afraid of the stranger. We end up not setting aside time for regular worship and prayer.

            Perhaps the apostle John did not have a pandemic to worry about. However, John would have seen the passing of many believers. John wrote this letter of encouragement because Dissenters wanted to lead astray the community of faith. Maybe these troublemakers were even trying to convince John’s followers to forsake Jesus Christ and throw their lot in with someone or something else. He was witness to many people leaving the faith, because their own beliefs had changed.

As believers in Christ, we know who we can depend on. The Lord has called us children of God. We can always turn to our heavenly Parent – or, heavenly Father, as John says.

Yet—today is All Saints Day, a day for us to remember our loved ones, who we miss and mourn. Yes, the Lord is our heavenly Parent. But, everything here on this earth seems to be turned upside down.

The Rev Janet Hunt reflects on her church’s traditions of All Saints Day. At her church, this has long been a day for gathering together. This is a day “which begins with the resounding strains of ‘For All the Saints’ and ends with the dancing percussion of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In…’  And in the middle, we read the names, sound the bells, light the candles one by one by countless one until the whole place is alight with palpable memory and almost tangible hope. And it, along with so many precious rituals which help to tie us to all who we have been and all we will one day be, will simply not be ours this year. At least not here where the COVID-19 numbers are rising.” [1]

             Do as John tells you: turn to our trustworthy God. What marvelous love our God has extended to us! John reminds us that God has already called us children! We have already been adopted into God’s family, [2] We can be hesitant, or disbelieving, or fearful. The Lord still loves us, and has already called us God’s children, without any pleading or whining, without special offerings or mystical midnight services on our part. This gift is already ours. John affirms so, right here.

            This is the extravagant welcome that God provides. God so loves the world. Period.

            We all have places where we fall short, where we sin in thought, word and deed. Places where we are not Christ-like—yet.

            John says, “What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him.” Each of us should strive to become more and more Christ-like. Do not surrender to the evil world of the pandemic. Seek help if you are struggling. God is here. I am here. Call, write, e-mail, pray.

            What a glorious gift. What a marvelous hope. We may not see our Lord Jesus now, but that glorious day that is quickly coming. We shall see Jesus in glory – just as our loved ones, saints in Christ who have died, are seeing Him right now. And, that is a promise that is faithful and true. Alleluia, amen!


[1] https://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-day-2020-blessed-are-those-w-ho-mourn/

[2] https://wordpress.com/posts/pastorpreacherprayer.wordpress.com 

Commentary, 1 John 3:1-7, Nijay Gupta, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015. 

@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!

Through God’s Strength!

“Through God’s Strength!” – September 19, 2020

Philippians 4:12-20 (4:12-14)

When people have food, shelter, employment, and money, it’s easy to be content and happy. Isn’t it? Or, is it easy to be poor, hungry, unemployed and homeless? What would the apostle Paul’s answer to that question be?

This is our last sermon from Philippians. We are looking again at the apostle Paul, in prison, in a really awful situation. Shackled to a Roman soldier, 24 hours a day, with no privacy, in a cold, dank, drafty stone cell.

For the past eight weeks, we have considered Paul and his words to his friends from Philippi. He wrote this thank-you letter to the Philippians congregation, and it was one of the most joy-filled letters we have, included in the New Testament.

Do you know how much it means for a friend to send a message, an email, a card or letter, especially when you are downhearted and close to giving up hope? That is what Paul’s former congregation in Philippi did. They showed “a love and concern that led them to help Paul. The most significant gifts often cost us very little—sometimes nothing, except a few moments to say a friendly word or the make a telephone call or send an email, the stamp to post a letter or a card. What matters is that someone has been remembered with affection and concern.” [1]

Paul says he knows what it’s like to be poor, and he knows what it’s like to have abundance, in verse 12. I know there are many in the United States who may consider themselves to be poor, but I wonder whether you realize quite what Paul was talking about here.

We could drill down to find out more about economic, educational and societal poverty worldwide. For example, according to the United Nations latest report on poverty in 2019, 23 percent of the world population – that’s 1.3 billion people – lived in abject poverty worldwide. Just to give you an idea of how little money we are talking about, that is living on approximately $1 a day, or less.

Paul did not mean just economic poverty. He also was talking about poverty of spirit, poverty of emotional wherewithal, poverty of humility and ability to persevere.

We all know something about that. Who has not felt the pinch of poverty of spirit in the past six months? In the past six months, who has not had their emotions shredded raw, like raw vegetables on a kitchen grater? Never mind about humility, who has felt their ability to persevere stretched very, very thin? I know I have. And, I suspect I am not the only one, by far.

 Paul could have been in despair, being in prison, charged with a capital crime. He was facing possible death. Yet, he wrote one of the most joy-filled letters in the New Testament. What was his secret? How did Paul keep his chin up?

He tells us, right here. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul says, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Yeah, right, Paul! Easy for you to say!

As one of my favorite commentators J. Vernon McGee says, “Many of us think that if things are going right and if we are in the right place, then we will be contented. That means that we depend on the circumstances of life for our contentment….But Paul had learned to be content regardless of his state. There were times when he had nothing, and he was content. There were times when God had given him an abundance, and he had learned how to abound.” [2]

Paul “is able to meet the circumstances of life head-on in the strength of Christ. Paul does not depend on his own strength or ability, rather he relies on the sustaining help of Jesus.” [3] Our Lord Jesus will sustain us with his strength. Alleluia!

Paul does not share his dire circumstances in order to twist the arms of his friends to send him more money. No! He thanks his Philippian friends for both their financial gift as well as their messenger, Epaphroditus, and this letter is so, so much more than just a simple thank-you card. Paul also communicates the fact that – over his years of serving the Lord – he has learned to be content, no matter what. Either contentment with hunger, as Jesus did in the wilderness, or “contentment with abundance, without being caught up with the desire for more. He has learned to rejoice in the lean times and does not feel compelled to change his circumstances. He leaves that to God.” [4]

This sounds like it flies in the face of everything we might hear from those television evangelists who preach the health, wealth and prosperity Gospel. But, isn’t it consistent with what many people in the Bible – both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – experience on a daily basis? Paul tells us right here that it is not the outer trappings of wealth and plenty, or the circumstances of life that count to God. No, it is the internal attitude, the Godly mindset, the inside job that truly counts.

Praise God that our internal attitude is what God finds truly valuable. May we all, like Paul, be filled to overflowing, well-supplied with the strength of Christ Jesus our Lord.   


[1] Hooker, Morna D., “The Letter to the Philippians,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 2000), 548.

[2] McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible, Vol. V (Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, 1983), 326.

[3]  “The Power that Christ Gives,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources   http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday28aee.html

[4] From the series: To Live Is Christ: A Study of the Book of Philippians

https://bible.org/seriespage/13-give-and-take-phil-410-20

@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!

Were Not Ten Made Clean?

“Were Not Ten Made Clean?”

Luke 17-18 rembrandt

Luke 17:11-19 – October 13, 2019

Sometimes, I talk with people in recovery—alcoholics and addicts who are not drinking or using substances, one day at a time. I used to do this more often, when I was regularly facilitating a weekly spirituality group at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab unit at a nearby hospital. One of the suggestions for staying clean and sober one day at a time is to keep a gratitude journal. You know, a running list of things we are grateful for.

A writer for the Hazelden/Betty Ford Clinic, Michael G., tells us “The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius famously said that our lives are what our thoughts make them. In other words, by simply changing the way we think and our focus, we can change our lives. Bearing this in mind, choosing gratitude can have a huge impact on your life.[1]

What on earth does a gratitude journal have to do with our Gospel reading today from Luke 17? To better understand that, we need to look at the background of the situation. Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. The time is growing nearer for Jesus to enter into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday—very near, now. While on the road on the border between Samaria and Galilee, Jesus is met by ten lepers—ten people with various sorts of skin deformity.

Can you see this scene? On the road at the outskirts of a town, Jesus and His disciples are walking. Perhaps, entering the town, hungry, thirsty, wanting a place to rest. When all of a sudden, ten lepers interrupt Jesus while He is on His journey. They stand some distance away, but they still make themselves heard—“Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

Have you ever had the unexpected opportunity to meet someone special, someone important, perhaps interrupting them on their journey? That is exactly what happened.

These ten men, the men with serious skin conditions, were living a very lonely existence. They could not have any direct physical contact with any healthy or “clean” person, for fear of transmitting their skin condition or illness. Even touching a person who had leprosy or touching something they touched might be dangerous—might get someone infected.

Whenever someone developed a serious skin condition centuries ago, they had to be separated, and go live outside of their community. In the Law of Moses, the book of Leviticus devotes a whole chapter (chapter 13) to that situation, and is quite specific. ““Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”

How horrible! Imagine never being able to hug your children, spouse, parents, or brothers and sisters again. Imagine never being able to enter the market or the house of worship you regularly attended, much less being banished from your home. This was life, in an ongoing and sad reality for these ten lepers. How incredibly lonely!

Especially to an observant Jew, the religious and spiritual separation must have been awful. As Dr. David Lose tells us, “That disease made them ritually unclean, which meant that they couldn’t participate in the Temple services and rituals at the center of their faith. And not able to practice their faith, these men stood on the outside of their community as well, likely feeling alone, abandoned, and desperate.” [2]             But, there is unexpected hope. I don’t know which of these lepers hears that the Rabbi Jesus is in town, but Jesus had been healing people throughout Israel and Galilee for about three years by this time. Wouldn’t you ask for healing, if you unexpected met the Rabbi Jesus?

As I considered this reading during the week, I wondered how addicts and alcoholics felt. Are they considered “Unclean!” and ostracized? Shunted aside? Ignored? Does their disease of alcoholism or addiction cause them increasingly to live alone and isolated, in poorer and poorer health?  These two situations from Luke 17 and the condition of addicts today do not line up completely, but there are some close parallels between our Gospel reading and the sad, lonely, debilitating condition of countless people who are afflicted by the disease of addiction.

I want us to begin to understand the hopeless, helpless sense of these ten lepers, ostracized and isolated, suddenly and unexpectedly getting hope for the first time in a very long time. “The Rabbi Jesus! Coming to our town? I’ve heard about Him! Isn’t He the Rabbi who heals the blind and lame? And, didn’t He raise that widow’s son from the dead? And—and—that Rabbi has healed some lepers. I know, I heard the stories. Maybe—He might heal me!”

Hoping against hope, you know what happens. Jesus does stop, and He does talk to them. He says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” That’s puzzling, at first hearing. But, not if you are someone living by the Law of Moses. When a person was healed from illness, they were routinely supposed to go to the Temple or to the priest and show themselves. In today’s terms, the priests were similar to physicians’ assistants in the role of certifying people’s return to good health. Jesus told the lepers to go even before they were healed. And as they were obedient and started on their way, a miracle happened. They were healed, cleansed, and their skin conditions were totally gone. Imagine how excited and delighted those former lepers were!

Here’s where the problem is: ten were healed, but how many came back with thanks to Jesus? How many were truly grateful? Yes, ten lepers left Jesus, and along the way to the priests became clean, healthy, and whole. Only one ex-leper truly recognized the incredible healing and gave thanks to the Rabbi Jesus. In giving thanks, he became what God had intended all along.

That is the answer. That is the secret to life: gratitude. “Noticing grace, seeing goodness, paying attention to healing, stopping to take in blessing, and then giving thanks for the ordinary and extraordinary graces of our life together. This is the secret to a good life and the heart of saving faith.” [3]

I started off this sermon quoting from an article on recovery. I’ll end it the same way. Michael G. says, “When I first came into recovery more than 30 years ago, my sponsor told me to buy a notebook and write down 10 things I was grateful for, and then add three things to that list every day. I stopped numbering my list when I got to 5,000 items.

Why did I write a gratitude list? Because I didn’t want to be miserable, and if being grateful was the solution, then that’s what I would do. And importantly, a grateful heart doesn’t drink. I learned very quickly that the struggle stops when gratitude begins.” [4]

I don’t often end with a challenge, but I am today. This is for me as well as for you. What practices ought we undertake, with what stories might we surround ourselves, with what rituals might we allow ourselves to be shaped, so that we might respond to God with gratitude and joy?

Dear Lord Jesus, help all of us to search for the answers to these sincere questions, and follow Your way in our daily lives, perhaps even writing a daily gratitude list.

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/sober-dad/gratitude-early-recovery

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2019/10/pentecost-18-c-the-secret/

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/sober-dad/gratitude-early-recovery

@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!

Hope and Wholeness

“Hope and Wholeness”

Mark 1-27 Jesus-the-divine

Mark 1:21-28 (1:27) – January 28, 2018

A common saying is “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” How true that is! A close parallel is beginning a new position. A great deal is riding on that first impression, the first few days or weeks at a new job, the first major thing or statement a prominent person does or says.

Our Gospel reading today from Mark chapter 1 happens at the very beginning of the Rabbi Jesus’s ministry. Jesus is beginning this new position as an itinerant rabbi, traveling around the countryside, preaching and teaching. What else does Mark include here? This is a narrative of an important first thing that this prominent person Jesus says and does, setting the tone for the rest of Mark’s Gospel. I’d like to thank bible commentator Paul Berge for his fictional first-person account, which is a narrative adaptation of this first miracle of Jesus.

“Were you at the synagogue in Capernaum today? I wasn’t sure I saw you and so I will tell you as clearly as I can what happened. I can only explain that something occurred that has never, yes, never ever happened before in our hometown synagogue where our people “gather together.” What took place is unlike anything our rabbis have instructed us in over the years. This was far beyond their teaching and authority.

“Shabbot worship started out like a routine, very normal gathering. We all came with the usual expectation. Now, don’t get me wrong, our rabbis are faithful interpreters of the Torah as they instruct us in the Word of the Lord, but their teaching does get to be routine. Everything was progressing as usual, the prayers, the Psalms, the reading of the Torah, when a newcomer “immediately” entered the synagogue and began teaching and instructing us, dare I say, with a new “authority” (Greek, exousia). His authority was not as our scribes. When I use the word “authority” about his teaching, you know that the word also includes the power to “exorcize” demonic spirits.

“I am still in shock as to what happened next. “Immediately” a deranged person screams out. No one in the synagogue had a clue as to what brought forth this outburst. It appears an unclean spirit had identified this rabbinic-like teacher as one who had authority to exorcize and called out to him by name: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The voice was a shrill demonic-like scream. How did this spirit know the name of the rabbi from Nazareth? Did the voice really assume that this teacher has the authority to exorcize demonic or unclean spirits?

“The scream continued with words of blasphemy using the name of God: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” With this a hushed silence came over the entire synagogue as these words were spoken. The rabbi named Jesus from the hill country of Nazareth sensed the offense of these words, and the identity of the Holy One of God. Jesus addressed the possessed man and rebuked him with exorcizing words which likewise silenced the entire synagogue, “Be silent, and come out of him.”

“What occurred next was a demonstration I have never, ever, witnessed before. The man was writhing on the floor like he was in conflict with the spirits possessing him. Then the voice of a demonic spirit cried out with the same shrill demonic-like scream. The unclean spirit came out of him and the man appeared to be calm. He stood up and in his right mind looked as normal as any of us.

“Needless to say, we were all overcome and amazed and kept saying to one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority he exorcizes a demonized person!” What took place we saw with our own eyes that he commanded even a host of unclean spirits and they were obedient to him. On my oath, this is what took place on this Shabbot. I can’t explain what came over us, but it was like we gave witness to the rabbi from Nazareth as our praise to the one, holy and righteous God in our midst. We have no other experience like this to compare. We have since heard that what took place in our synagogue “immediately” spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” [1]

Do you hear what Jesus did? He cast the unclean, evil spirit out of the man, and made him whole again. Gave him a new lease on hope and wellness. Gave the man the gift of emotional, psychological and mental wholeness, of abundant life itself.

Not everyone believes that Jesus casts out evil, unclean spirits from people, in the spiritual realm. Some people are very skeptical about this kind of miracle. But, I would like to remind everyone that belief in evil spirits has been a common, widespread belief for thousands of years. It does not as much matter that many people of the 21st century don’t believe that Jesus did this. The point is that the people of New Testament times did believe in the power and authority of the Rabbi Jesus. Power to cast out unclean spirits.

For thousands of years, society has dealt with different kinds of mental, emotional and psychological issues in individuals. Sometimes, these issues and illnesses have been called spiritual and demonic. From what we now know, these conditions can be medical. These people with illnesses and issues sometimes seem to be held hostage to internal, powerful forces only recently understood.

Regardless of whether the illness or issue was emotional, physical, psychological or spiritual, Jesus came alongside of this man with an unclean spirit. Maybe Jesus was the first who had approached the man in a long time. Jesus, with holy power and authority, ordered the evil spirit out of the man. And, immediately, the man was cured.

Was it really and truly an “evil spirit?” In this case, as in certain other situations in the Gospels, My opinion is, “yes.” There are a great many situations which are spiritually energized, throughout the world. Both positive and negative, concerning good and evil spirits.

But, that is not the only thing. No, there are negative tendencies, urgings, and thoughts people get in their heads, on their insides. An explosion of anger, over and over. A suicidal impulse or thought. An intense jealousy, suddenly flaring. A wild sexual fantasy that returns again and again. An overwhelming feeling of depression and dread, creeping into the deepest places inside. We, as human beings, are keenly aware of these unwelcome, unclean spirits in our hearts and inner thoughts. We often wonder where these “unclean thoughts” come from and why we can’t get rid of them. It is as if they are part of our inner nature as human beings. [2]

It does not matter whether our issues are psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, or some combination, Jesus can come alongside of us. Jesus has the power and authority to take care of the situation and restore hope and wholeness. Yes, in this situation in Mark’s Gospel, with this troubled young man. And, yes, in a multitude of various situations, today, too.

Today, you and I are often ashamed of individuals such as this troubled man. We tend not to speak of it. We fear the misunderstanding or the judgment or avoidance we expect we will surely see in the eyes of others. Or, hesitate to choose to whom we dare to entrust that which hurts us the most. [3] Whether we name it evil spirits, mental disturbance, emotional instability, addiction, or something else, Jesus can overcome. Jesus can provide healing, hope and wholeness, whatever the situation. Yes, in Mark’s gospel, and yes, in all of our lives, today.

(A big thank you to Dr. Paul Berge, who wrote the adapted first-person account of this Scripture reading from Mark 1:21-28. Thank you for this writing, and for your excellent insights from your Gospel commentary!)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1122

Commentary, Mark 1:21-28, Paul S. Berge, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[2] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_hunger_for_healingGA.htm  “Hunger for Healing,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/out-in-the-open-casting-out-unclean-spirits/ Janet H. Hunt.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Keep Watch!

“Keep Watch!”

Matt 25-12 I know you not

Matthew 25:1-13 (25:13) – November 12, 2017

Just two weeks ago, St. Luke’s Church had its big fall Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. This dinner took quite a bit of planning and preparation. Just ask anyone who worked on planning, preparing, serving, or cleaning up. And, another big thank you to all of those who planned, worked, or ate at the Spaghetti Dinner. It all was much appreciated!

I am a person who is not naturally a planner. Or, rather, I was not the person who would be so very prepared. You know that sort of person. They always plan way in advance. They always bring more supplies, buy plenty of food, and especially are always there in plenty of time, for any occasion. I admire these people. Over time, I have learned how to copy certain aspects of their planning and preparation. However, I am not naturally one of these super-prepared people.

To recap from our scripture from Matthew 25, there are a bunch of young women—strictly speaking, the text calls them “virgins.” They are to accompany the bridegroom and the rest of the bridal party as he travels to the bride’s home, picks her up, and they all go to a large banquet hall to celebrate the ceremony. This was a common feature of weddings in that part of the world, and still is in places around the world, today.

Jesus’s parable from Matthew 25 is all about being prepared. Doing some advance planning. And, at face value, it seems really unfair.      As Dr. David Lose (one of my favorite commentators) said, “All the bridesmaids brought oil, all waited, all fell asleep. And the decision about who gets in comes down to who anticipated the bridegroom would be this incredibly late and so brought more oil. Okay, so maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty darn certain that I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids.” [1]

Oh, Dr. Lose, I relate so much! I fear I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids, too! I am afraid I may not be welcomed to the wedding banquet, either.

I have a confession to make. I have never preached a sermon on this parable before. I have always been leery of it. Or afraid of it. I wrestled with the idea of preaching on this parable, and felt convicted by God. So, I decided—with God’s help, when this reading came up as a lectionary Gospel reading that I would definitely preach on it.

Let’s pull back from this brief parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is sometime midway through Holy Week, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s a big reason why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

Jesus “lets them know that there will be signs, terrible signs, that will give people clues that the end is coming, encouraging them not to listen to idle rumors, but to trust His words. The parable of the bridesmaids compares the listeners to [bridesmaids], entrusted with a role,” [2] while waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Preparation and planning are often mixed up with waiting. Sure, we can plan the menu for a big dinner, and purchase the food for the big event. We prepare everything for the festive table, and get the table centerpieces and flowers and everything else. But sometimes, waiting is somehow involved in this process. Waiting for God to show up. How long do we wait? That was just what the disciples were anxious and worried about. That was one big reason why Jesus told several parables in this particular discourse.

A story one commentator told happened several years ago. Dr. Karoline Lewis relates: “My father-in-law was a World War II veteran and he died a year ago this past April at the age of 96. In the twenty-three years I have known my husband, it was only in the last few that Sam [my father-in-law] ever talked about the war. The last time I saw him was at his bequest to have as many of his grandchildren present, not necessarily for a final goodbye, but as you know, people can sense that death is soon. Of course, that truth elicits its own sense of what waiting is like.

“That day, Sam talked about the war. He talked about the waiting. You see, he had been selected, singled out, not to be sent to the front, but to stay behind. Why? He was good in math. He showed us his notebook in which he had calculated multiple ballistic measurements. And as he worked on his equations, he waited for his fellow soldiers, his friends, to return. Some did. Some did not. He could not understand how he was spared. Yet in the waiting and the wondering he knew God was there, and there was nothing else he could do but trust that truth.” [3]

I wonder how many of us can trust God when we are waiting and wondering? I wonder how many of us continue to have faith in God when things just don’t seem to make any sense? Like in the case of difficult scripture passages like this one, this parable from Matthew where the bridegroom—Jesus—sends the five foolish, unprepared bridesmaids away, not allowing them in to the wedding banquet?

All these bridesmaids were waiting. (As do we. We wait for Jesus to return, and we—the church—have been waiting for centuries.) Five of these bridesmaids were prepared, and had enough oil. Five did not. We can compare that to having extra batteries for your flashlight, like I told the boys during the children’s time before the sermon. But today’s parable does not highlight a shortage of oil for the lamps. No, the oil is plentiful. There is more than enough oil. However, the five bridesmaids forget they are going to need the oil. [4] I sometimes forget I need oil—which God bountifully supplies. Do you sometimes forget, too?

I want to highlight verse 13, where Jesus says “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Yes, there is pain, suffering, loss, grief, sickness, anxiety, and all manner of other difficult things in this world. We are not certain when God will show up. Yet, we can glean some words of advice from this parable: Be prepared. Plan. Watch. Keep awake. And, wait.

“If only we will remember that we have a steady supply of precious ‘oil’ to help light our way. For we have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return.’ We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.” [5]

We all have been called to lift our lamps—our lights—and lift them high, shining as signs of promise and hope in a dark world with little hope or brightness or light in it. The oil is provided for us. Jesus encourages us to lift our lights in an often dark world.

Indeed, isn’t this what the world needs most of all?

 

(A big thank you to David Lose, Liz Milner, Karoline Lewis and Janet Hunt for their helpful writings as I wrestled with this challenging text from Matthew 25.)

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/  “Hope and Help for Foolish Bridesmaids,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1534-my-bad-dream  “My Bad Dream,” Liz Milner, Journey with Jesus, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3413  “How To Wait,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[4] http://dancingwiththeword.com/oil-for-our-lamps/  “Oil for Our Lamps,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.  November 5, 2017

[5] Ibid.

@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 Light of the Lord

“The Light of the Lord”

isa-2-5-teach-me-to-walk-in-the-light

Isaiah 2:1-5 (2:5) – November 27, 2016

At this holiday and homecoming time of the year, some people’s thoughts turn to those who are traveling. Those who will be coming to a gathering, a party, a meal. Have you been waiting for someone to arrive at a gathering? A meal, perhaps? At this time of year, the sun sets early. People often put the porch light on to welcome the traveler, in hope and expectation. That is the situation we have here, in our scripture passage from the prophet Isaiah.

And, what a grand porch light it is! Let’s read from Isaiah 2, verse 2: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”
But, what of Isaiah’s audience? What about them? Times in the nation of Judah were uncertain, to say the least. Spirits were low. The Israelites were in fear for their lives. The Assyrian armies were closing in. The nation of Assyria was a major world power in that time, conquering nations, kings, and vast areas of land right and left. (This was several centuries before Jesus Christ was even born in Bethlehem.) What about today? We can look at our times, too. A great deal of uncertainty, everywhere we look. Uncertain times here, locally, in the immediate community. On a nation-wide scale, as well. What about internationally? However—Isaiah brings a word of hope to people of his day, and hope to people of ours, too.

The prophet gives a prophetic announcement in these verses. It isn’t a hymn of praise, but instead words to let people know that God is not absent or unable to help, but instead a very present help. A hope, in times of uncertainty and need. The very promise of salvation, to not only the people of Israel, but to anyone who hears these words. We can see that from the mention of “all nations” streaming to the mountain of the Lord.

Many people in Isaiah’s time frankly doubted God’s power and faithfulness, with the Assyrians breathing down their necks. These were uncertain times, indeed. Can you imagine, a huge army right on our border, and not very much in between? Imagine the fear, anxiety, and conflict for those people of Judah! Even though, today, we here in the United States are not in such dire straits as little, puny Israel, we face uncertainty and times of conflict, too.

What does the prophet have to say about that fear, that anxiety? He brings words of hope and expectation to his listeners. Listen to verse 3: “Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us His ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” So, God will begin a time of learning, a time of pilgrimage! “A purposeful journey to a holy place.” [1]

Again, we see that the prophet tells us many, many people will come to God’s house! Remember, this proclamation refers to all nations, all peoples, and addresses all who have open ears to hear.

All this will occur “in days to come.” Sure, the prophet is not specific; this is an indefinite time, but there also will be a radical transformation! Listen to verse 4: “[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Can anyone read these verses and not long for peace? And not have keen hope and expectation for this coming time of peace and concord? The Lord God will sit as a judge or arbiter for many, many people. And—this is fascinating—the nations, themselves, shall willingly lay down their weapons. Many nations shall cause their weapons—their swords—to be turned into something radically different. To rephrase, “God promises that there will be a time when everyone gets along.  It will be so peaceful that people won’t need swords and other weapons anymore.  So, they will turn them into garden tools.” [2]

It does not take a brilliant student of current events to tell us that this prophecy is not here, yet. We regularly hear about wars and rumors of war today. We see for ourselves that nations are at each others’ throats, bickering, sometimes fighting, and even committing acts of mass destruction and death. What is to be done?

The prophet brings these words of hope and expectation to a fearful and anxious people, at an uncertain time centuries ago. Is the situation much different, today? Our time is filled with conflict. Fearful, anxious, and uncertain, too.

The prophet’s message holds out hope and expectation, true. But hope would be empty if we did not have a situation where we needed God’s help. We have to see our desperate need first, in order for us to realize that we are sunk without God. This whole mindset of conflict, fighting and resistance to any kind of peace certainly registers as a time of great need. The prophet was calling to the nation of Israelites just as much as he is calling to us.

“God is taking us somewhere we cannot go on our own, not because of our righteousness, but because of God’s goodness. The coming peace is God’s, but it is promised to us. And thus, like Israel, Isaiah calls us to act in the meantime as though the promise is ours.” [3]

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. We have the reminder of our hope set before us, in this Advent wreath. Today, Carl and Irene lit our first candle, the candle of hope. Yes, both scripture readings this morning spoke of expectation in the Lord’s working, in different ways. Yet, how does this work show itself?

Practically everyone here is familiar with the need for light. If we have a dark closet or a dark basement corner, bright light is so useful and needful to shine in and reveal our needs.  What about dark news? Dark times need light, too. The prophet talks about hope and expectation of nations turning tools of destruction and war into tools that will help us to grow food, and to provide nurture and healthfulness. Isn’t this a promise of light? And wonderful things to come?

Can we “compare lighting the Advent candles to putting a candle in the window?  [This is a way] of saying we are ready, you are welcome, come in. Often we turn these lights on while we are setting the table, sweeping the floor, and cooking dinner.” [4] Isn’t this a way to use common, everyday things to work with God to bring God’s light into the world?

In Christ’s kingdom, we have the opportunity to tend with everyday garden tools to cultivate and grow the peaceful, loving ways of God rather than using swords and spears—and bombs, tanks and guns—to cultivate wayward humanity’s own ways of conflict, fighting and war. Truly, may we all be faithful, anticipate God’s light and expect it in God’s peaceful ways, and not our own. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

[Thanks for several ideas to Gene M. Tucker and the The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 6, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39), (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000)]

[1] Gene M. Tucker and the The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 6, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39), (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000).

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-first-sunday-of-advent-also-sunday.html ; Carolyn C. Brown, Year A – First Sunday of Advent, Also the Sunday after Thanksgiving in the USA.

[3]  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=7

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-first-sunday-of-advent-also-sunday.html ; Carolyn C. Brown, Year A – First Sunday of Advent, Also the Sunday after Thanksgiving in the USA.

 

Reconciled to God

“Reconciled to God”

2 Cor 5-19 God reconciles the world

2 Corinthians 5:17-20 –September 13, 2015

Last Friday was a typical day, in many ways. People had a normal day of work. Since it was the second Friday in September, for most school children it was a normal day of school. Except—it wasn’t quite a normal day here in the United States after all. Friday was September 11th. 9/11. A day that will remain in the forefront of many people’s memories.

I wanted to depart from the Sermon Series on Acts I’ve been preaching to bring a message about this serious and sobering day of remembrance. Yes, we remember the fateful day, fourteen years ago. The horrific happenings in Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. And, we will remember the bravery of so many who served so selflessly, and gave so willingly.

As I prayed about this service and what bible passage I ought to preach on, I thought of several Scripture verses. Yes, I could focus on the past, and preach for those thousands of people who died on September 11, and who since have died as a result of injuries or challenges they experienced on that day and in the aftermath. We can remember. We ought to remember.

However, I also want to hold up a vision of hope. I try to keep my personal outlook on life and living firmly on hope and hopefulness. Even when looking at terribly sad events, even horrible situations, I earnestly try to see where God might have a place. Even in the worst situations, God is there. Hope is there. Somewhere.

That’s the situation we all find ourselves in. We all sin. Some sins are worse than others, and more visible. Some people sin a lot! Some people have particularly hard hearts, and they walk all over others. Hurt them, and do even more callous things to them. Did you know that Jesus came into the world for them, too? Jesus died on the cross for the people in and out of jail who have committed three, four, five and more felonies, just as much as Jesus died on the cross for the people who have not been to jail.

I’m getting ahead of myself. We need to take a closer look at this paragraph from the second letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in the town of Corinth. In verse 18 of chapter 5, Paul tells us that God was reconciling us to Himself. Wait a minute! That sounds like making peace and harmony. Reconcile? That is not a term for a mean, angry God, one who just wants to smite anyone who gets in the way!

Do you know a bookkeeper? Has anyone here ever reconciled accounts, or financial statements? I mean, taken two separate and different lists of numbers, and make them compatible? See that both are in agreement? That’s another way of thinking about reconciliation. Our accounts, the deeds that we’ve done, the words spoken, the thoughts that go through our heads? The long lists of those things on our accounts are reconciled to God’s accounts.

I want to be up front and clear. I am a sinner. I freely admit that. I am stained with the dark stain of sin. But God—but God removes that stain. Through the provision of God’s love, through the coming of Christ into the world, through His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, the stain of sin has been taken away. And, I am reconciled to God. Do you hear? The sins, the awful things I have done, have been cleansed, and taken away.

That’s not only me, but it’s you, too. All of you. All of us!

I am going to talk now about some disturbing things. If anyone wishes to leave, I will not be offended at all. I wanted to let you all know before I spoke about it. It is terribly upsetting.

I’d like to take a detour, and tell you about a woman. Eva Mozes Kor. Eva and her twin sister Miriam—born in 1934, and their family were from a small village in Romania. They were the only Jewish family in their village. Shortly after the Nazis took over that area of the country, Eva, Miriam and the rest of their family were taken to a Jewish ghetto in a larger town and they lived there several years.

In 1944, their family was shipped to the Auschwitz death camp. The twins’ parents and older sisters were immediately killed. Since Eva and Miriam were identical twins, Dr. Josef Mengele wanted them as human guinea pigs for horrific medical and genetic experiments. He and his team abused approximately 1500 twins; that’s 3000 children and young people.

Eva and Miriam were among about 200 children liberated from the camp by the Soviet Army in January 1945. Almost all of these were twins abused by Mengele.[1]

Eva spent years working through her deep-seated feelings and emotions about being in the death camp. She finally came to the place where she made a decision to forgive those who had harmed her, because she needed to take this critical step for her own, personal mental health and well-being.

It did not happen overnight. It took a long while. But now, she has forgiven those who harmed her, her family, and those she loved.

What I am wondering: does God need to do deep thinking before God forgives people? When I sin against God, and knowingly do things displeasing to Him, how does God feel? Now let’s multiply that times all of the people in the state of Illinois. Make that all the people in the United States. No, let’s up that to all of the people alive today. Does God need to do deep thinking, working through deep-seated feelings and emotions, before God forgives the world?

Consider verse 19: “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” God satisfies God’s anger, enmity and displeasure through Jesus Christ. Jesus and His mediation—He steps in between and takes the burden of sin for us. Jesus restores the world—that’s all of us—to God’s love, nurture, caring, and favor.

In the original language of Greek, the word “reconcile” has the meaning “obtain the good favor of” or “lay aside enmity.” That is exactly what God does for us. But God justly ought to be filled with righteous anger at us. At all of us! We sin. We go against the things we know very well that God wants us to do or to think or to say. Or, we go out of our way to do or say or think things that out and out displease God very much! But God forgives us. God reconciles us to Himself through Jesus and His death on the Cross.

Eva Kor and her forgiveness of those who hurt her and her sister as well as those who killed her family and others she knew is one way for us to begin to understand the huge amount of forgiveness and reconciliation that God has accomplished on our behalf. That’s all of us! On all of our behalfs.

Eva Kor not only is “a Holocaust survivor and a forgiveness advocate, and public speaker. Powered by a never-give-up attitude, Eva has emerged from a trauma-filled childhood as a brilliant example of the human spirit’s power to overcome. She is a community leader, champion of human rights, and tireless educator.” [2] She has founded a Holocaust museum in Terra Haute, Indiana, and my friend Josh Thomas who started and maintains the Episcopal website www.dailyoffice.org had Eva as their Daily Office retreat speaker several weeks ago. She has a brilliant and straight-forward definition of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is a way of healing oneself from pain, trauma and/or tragedy.” I’m including her further explanation on the hand-out in your bulletins.

But what does Eva and her words about forgiveness have to do with me? Or with you? Great question! I’ll read verse 19 one more time: “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And God has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Did you hear? Paul says this in a little different way in verse 18: “God reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

So, God’s forgiven me! Amen! God’s forgiven you, too! Amen, again! But wait—there’s more! God has also given us—that’s you and me, and all of us—the message of reconciliation. The ministry of reconciliation.

What a wonderful way to show people the power of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. We can show people love, caring, nurture, and forgiveness. Each of us can reconcile ourselves to one another whenever we go astray. Or whenever anyone says a mean word, or does something unkind. Is there any way more powerful to show God’s love and care? I don’t think so.

Yes, this is really hard, sometimes almost impossible. It is so difficult to show love and caring for those who have hurt us, and have been mean to us. And have been uncaring, unkind, even cruel and heartless. Like Eva forgiving those in the death camps. Or, for those who have been enemies in war. Or even for murderers or terrorists. That’s why we can go to God. We can ask for help to show God’s love. God’s forgiveness. God’s reconciliation.

So, help us, God. Amen.

[1] From the website http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org/about/eva-kor.htm

[2] From the website http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org/about/eva-kor.htm

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!