No Longer Orphans

“No Longer Orphans”

John 14-18 not leave you

John 14:15-21 (14:18) – May 17, 2020

When I used to read lots of fiction novels, especially when I was young, a favorite theme was making the protagonist an orphan. Sometimes abandoned, sometimes ignored, sometimes desolate, this setting provided a rich background for the author’s writing.

Today’s Gospel reading from John 14 seems especially pertinent in these uncertain times of pandemic. Here Jesus promises the Holy Spirit’s coming to be with us. The Holy Spirit now is present with believers, both with them and in them. Jesus says He will not leave us all alone, the way orphans are left all alone.

When some people think of orphans, they think of children, huddled in orphanages, housed in drafty attics, or in poky little rooms. Imagine Orphan Annie at the beginning of the musical “Annie,” or Harry Potter in the first few chapters of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Just thinking about orphans in that way feels desolate.

Except—most of us are orphans, too. We lose parents to many things: to cancer, strokes, diabetes, or accidents, among others. Most people are at least half-orphans. I was—my dad died when I was in college. In July, it will have been forty years since I lost my dad, and became a half-orphan. At least I had my mom until the early 2000’s. But, that loss of my father to cancer was a sad blow. I missed my dad very much, and now I miss both of my parents.

When Jesus said to His disciples “I will not leave you as orphans,” I would imagine that Jesus’s words were comforting to many if not all of His disciples.

Death and sickness were everyday facts of life 2000 years ago. I don’t read very much about the individual disciples in commentaries and other reference books, for the main reason we are not told very much in the Biblical record. But, I do know the human condition, for people in the present day, and other common situations many people are familiar with.

Thinking again about the human condition, and people we encounter every day—whether in person, on social media, or in the news—what is their situation? What are they dealing with?

We are all sadly familiar with people dealing with financial trauma, job loss, physical illness, spiritual desperation, emotional isolation, instability, want, disrupted relationships, abandonment, violence … the list goes on and on. These elements of the human condition are bad enough. But, when we add our current emotional and psychological climate, especially in this unprecedented time of pandemic, individuals can feel overwhelmed. Whole communities can be disheartened and desolated, particularly in hot spots affected by the coronavirus. Interesting that Jesus uses the word “orphaned” in this week’s text, as it is such a potent metaphor for what he was about to do, which was to leave his beloved disciples and go and die. [1]

Jesus just got finished promising the coming of the Holy Spirit. Many people love this promise, and grab onto it with both hands. Yes, it is a marvelous reality in believers’ lives.

But—sometimes—especially in uncertain times like right now—individuals can feel like orphans! Isolated, alone, disheartened, even desolated. I am particularly thinking of seniors I know who are in fragile health, confined to their homes or apartments. I shop for two households of seniors right now, in this time of shelter-in-place in Illinois. A senior couple, and a widower. Two of my relatives are both seniors, both living alone in Chicago. I’ve heard expressions like squirrelly, stir-crazy, isolated, even though we live in a time of computer access and social media connections.

Is this what Jesus was thinking of?

Jesus, I want to be able to communicate to people some hope, some feeling of togetherness, some kind of kindness, compassion and coming-alongside.

I know, the promise of the Holy Spirit may sound like an empty promise if you’re locked down and in quarantine. But, perhaps one way the coming of the Holy Spirit can be expressed is when we look at the words and actions of Jesus’s followers. Maybe another way to look at the work of the Holy Spirit is a way that animates and encourages people to reach out to one another.

Before I came to St. Luke’ Church, when I was a hospital chaplain, I was a listening ear to patients or loved ones or staff. I came alongside of these people in difficult situations – like a Paraclete, in a similar way to the Holy Spirit coming alongside each of us in difficult times.

In a practical sense, the way the Holy Spirit sometimes works may be the kindness we extend to each other. Yes, the Holy Spirit is with us and in us. And, yes, in these times when many people find themselves desperately alone or lonely, the Holy Spirit moves or sends others to be God’s hands and feet, God’s listening ear, the person who shows up at your door delivering groceries, or the volunteers who drop off baked goods or canned goods at a food pantry.

I am blessed with a pleasant smile – it just happens. I was told a number of times by patients and loved ones that my smile lit up a hospital room. Could your smile, your kind words, your compassion and helpfulness be the Holy Spirit’s working in all of our lives?

Listen to Jesus—God will give us another advocate to help us and be with us forever— the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit indwelling each believer. The Holy Spirit works through each of us, through all of us, sometimes at the most unexpected times.

Are we called to be the hands and feet of Jesus? Is God pleased when we spread kindness and help others? As we show love to each other, we show love to Jesus. And, the Holy Spirit bears witness within. What a wonderful promise from Jesus. What a wonderful opportunity to do God’s work. Go, and do likewise.

[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/orphaned-anna-hosemann-butler-05-20-2014.html

@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!

“Generous With Our Possessions”

“Generous With Our Possessions”

fish, bread and wheat photo credit - Jerry Bridges

fish, bread and wheat
photo credit – Jerry Bridges

John 6:12-14 – March 8, 2015

A memorable picture book I dearly remember from my childhood is called “Stone Soup.” I remember reading it to my children, too. This story is about a small village in Europe after the wars, several hundred years ago. The villagers are frightened of strangers. As a result, they are tight-fisted, and keep their precious food to themselves. They hide the food, until coaxed to bring it out; be generous and share it all together. And then, all the village has a wonderful feast.

Our Gospel reading today from John 6 has a similar sort of idea. Someone is generous, and food is shared. Jesus blesses the food, multiplies it, and all the people end up having a wonderful feast.

In today’s Scripture reading—which appears in all four Gospels, by the way—we see Jesus and His disciples traveling far away from town, to pray. Far away from a ready source of food. Yet, here comes a huge crowd of people, pursuing Jesus!

I am not certain why they are coming after Him. Perhaps it’s because the Rabbi Jesus has been healing so many people. Perhaps some of these are disabled, deaf, or sick. Maybe some of them are poor, and want to hear what the great Rabbi has to say. Maybe some are wondering whether this charismatic rabbi could possibly be a Messiah, a political leader!

Can you see the hungry crowd? Can you hear their hungry cries? Can you understand the hunger—yes, immediate and physical, but also spiritual! I suspect that Jesus knew all of these reasons, and all of these expectations. I know He understood the deep hunger of their souls.

Jesus sees the crowd, too! The Gospel has recorded an exchange He had with his disciples Philip and Andrew. Jesus asks Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” I can just see Philip, serious and earnest, rapidly trying to figure out how on earth they are to feed several thousand people on a moment’s notice! I can just hear what he might say: “This feeding thing? Much too expensive! We couldn’t possibly afford it!” Or, perhaps, “This feeding thing? We don’t have enough volunteers! And the budget won’t stretch that far. Not by a long shot!” And what about even, “Not again, Jesus! You are setting a negative precedent with this kind of free hand-outs.” I don’t want to diminish Philip’s practical concerns, at all! Quite valid, and absolutely understandable.

When you and I are uncertain, anxious, or afraid about practical concerns, what is our response? What would we say if we were asked a similar question? “Where shall we buy bread for this huge crowd of people to eat?” Would we get uncertain or anxious? Are we overwhelmed by the massive size of the crowd? Would we freeze up? Perhaps even get angry, or bluster about? Jesus asked Philip—and us—a great question!

Turning to Andrew, he also responds to Jesus. Andrew has gone outside of the safe constraints of the well-intentioned church budget to uncharted territory. He has found a boy with a bag lunch, and the boy has offered his food to Jesus, to share.

Let’s step back and take a look at our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the book of 2 Kings. The prophet Elisha is called upon to perform a miracle of feeding. There are obvious parallels, too. Someone comes up with a small offering of food. A bag lunch, again. Barley loaves—what a poor person might eat—is the bread in question. Even the question from Elisha’s disciple and Jesus’ disciple is similar: “How far will they go among so many?”

How many times are we overwhelmed with the problems we face today? Anxious because of the lack of resources, volunteers, or finances? We see so many today striving to get enough to eat. Unemployed people and their families lining up for food at the food pantries—like Maine Township Food Pantry. We realize God promises us abundance and generosity repeatedly in the Scripture. How on earth will this be accomplished? We ask—what is Jesus going to do?

We can praise God! Jesus knew very well what He was planning to do. He accepted the boy’s gift of the bag lunch. The boy was generous! And he willingly gave his food to Jesus.

Just a minute! Richard Niell Donovan poses the question: “What if the boy were unwilling to share his lunch? What if he were to say, ‘I need this for myself’ – or ‘My little bit won’t make any difference’?” (How many times have we uttered these words to ourselves or to those with whom we serve in ministry? Or, in Church Council? Or in the congregation?)

The unnamed boy here turns his food over to Jesus. I can just see him, giving Jesus the little lunch, perhaps wrapped in a cloth by his mother that morning. He empties the food from his hands into those of Jesus. Jesus turns around, blesses the food, and miraculously multiplies it to feed thousands of people.

What about us? Are we frightened and fearful, like the villagers in the picture book “Stone Soup?” Are we hesitant to share our food, our resources, our money, time and talents with Jesus? Jesus can take what we offer and turn it into such abundance! Just as the boy was generous and turned over his lunch, look at what a marvel Jesus did with that!

We don’t know what happened to this boy afterwards, either. Can you imagine this event becoming the defining event in his life? Imagine, the Rabbi Jesus took his lunch and multiplied it into enough to serve 5000 men! Plus women and children? I suspect that once this boy has seen Jesus work a miracle—perhaps right in front of this boy’s very eyes!—that this boy’s life was never the same.

Jesus transforms the bag lunch, the little bit that was generously offered, into the more-than-enough. Biblical commentator William Barclay writes, “There would have been one great and shining deed fewer in history if that boy had refused to come or if he had withheld his loaves and fishes. The fact of life is that Jesus Christ needs what we can bring Him. We may not have much to bring but He needs what we have.”

As Jesus’ followers today, we are also invited to be generous. To see God’s abundance, and to stretch our hearts, minds, and hands. Not like the disciples, who were constrained by practical problems, economic and logistical drawbacks. They couldn’t see that God wants people to be open to God’s working, and willing to serve. Willing to be generous with whatever they have to offer.

Suppose I took a one dollar bill. Here. ( holds up bill ) Suppose each one of you were to donate one dollar to the food pantry. We would have a pile of ones collected after the service. That’s something. Now, suppose I were to take a five dollar bill. Here. ( holds up bill ) Suppose each one of us were to donate five dollars, and we took a collection for the food pantry. We would have a large pile of fives after the service, and a nice freewill donation for the pantry, besides!

Everyone has something to offer. If each of us gives our little bit, and we gather it all together, it turns out to be a whole lot! Not only food, but time. Talents. Money, when possible. In addition, what about prayer? Some of us have the gift of praying. too! We can pray for those who are hungry. Pray that they may know God’s abundance—through our generosity, as well!

All life and all good gifts come from God. Jesus comes to open our hearts, our hands and our minds to those around us, especially to those in need. We can do that only because Jesus also comes to open our hearts, minds and eyes to His own presence in our midst. May God increase our generosity! And may God increase our love and caring for all who hunger after the abundance that Jesus offers.

Thanks to the friends at the website “Radical Gratitude,” www.umfnw.org, Stewardship Emphasis, and Tanya Barnett for several ideas that I have interwoven into this message.

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)