Recognizing Jesus

“Recognizing Jesus”

Luke 24 road-to-emmaus-rembrandt

Luke 24:13-35 (24:16, 26) – April 26, 2020

Have you ever run into a good friend you haven’t seen for a while, and not recognized him or her? That is, at first? Exactly that happened to my son earlier this week, at a store near our house as he picked up a few things. He wore a mask—as is appropriate. About six or eight feet down the aisle was another young man, wearing a mask, too. The other man bumped something off the shelf and said, “Oh, no!” My son recognized his friend’s voice! But, the masks they were wearing kept them from recognizing each other—at first.

Something similar happened after the Resurrection, to two disciples. The two even heard the witness brought to them by the women disciples, that their Rabbi Jesus’s body was gone from the tomb! But, these two disciples couldn’t quite accept the women’s witness. (Apparently, the other men disciples had a hard time believing the women, too.) We don’t know why they decided to leave Jerusalem a few days after the crucifixion, but they did.

Perhaps the two disciples were nervous, or anxious. Their leader had just been arrested by the authorities and condemned to death! What if the authorities started rounding up the friends and associates of this radical, rabble-rousing Rabbi? Why else might they have left? All of the disciples were grieving. The loss of such a wise, strong, loving person like the Rabbi Jesus must have been devastating! And, different people have different reactions to grief—reactions all over the board, from anger to depression to desperate tears.

I think everyone is grieving right now. Who is not missing things from their life before the lockdown? What about school? School children miss their classmates, teachers miss their students, and parents miss the structured, ordered classes. What about adults who cannot go to work? What about closed businesses, blocked services, rules against close proximity, and—most of all—the lost income? The economic impact? What about the desperate isolation and loneliness some people experience now, with the widespread lockdown? Not to mention the grief of having loved ones in hospital and care centers, much less dying from serious illness?

These are just some of the losses and griefs countless people are experiencing right now!

Wasting no time, the two disciples hit the road early in the day, and who did they happen to meet? We know, since our Gospel writer Dr. Luke tells us: the resurrected Jesus Christ. The risen Stranger begins to walk with them, and they fall into deep conversation on the way about all that had happened in the past week or so in Jerusalem.

What about us, today? How much would you give to have Jesus take a walk with you and tell you all about Himself? What would it be like to hear about the witness of Scripture from the author of all that is holy, the Living Word, Himself?

Dr. Luke tells us that the two disciples were kept from recognizing Jesus during that whole journey from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus, about nine miles down that dusty road. Their eyes may have been closed through fear and anxiety, which certainly can cause a great deal of upset and disturbance inside. Trauma, too, which we now see as a very serious thing, indeed. The disciples might have been confused and off kilter. Death of a dear friend or loved one can do that to you! I know. I’ve experienced it. I suspect you have, too.

What about us? Is there anything keeping us from recognizing Jesus? We have already talked about grief, which is a huge thing in some people’s lives—especially now in this time of pandemic. But, other strong emotions can keep us in a fog. Living in a constant state of fear can disturb our thoughts and even our brain function. People who study the effects of trauma tell us so. What about confusion and bewilderment? Anger and frustration? All very valid reactions, and all very human feelings, too.

Any one of these can keep us from recognizing Jesus, and if two or three are going on at once, our distress is that much greater. Our distancing grows, and some even start walking away from Jesus. Believe me, it happens much more often than we realize.

I see Jesus being gentle and straightforward as He walks and talks with these two disciples. He lays out all the truths from the Hebrew Scriptures for these two men. We don’t know for sure, but they might have been like Thomas; we looked at him last week. These two disciples may have needed to hear the Truth from the ultimate Source of Truth, Himself.

At the end of our narrative, Jesus is finally revealed to the two friends at dinner. When Jesus takes and breaks the bread, the disciples see, recognize, and realize that it is indeed their Rabbi come back from the dead, the risen Christ sitting with them at the table.

And then—Jesus disappears! The two friends look at one another, saying, “What just happened?” “Was that truly Him? Really and truly?” They finally recognize Jesus for what He was. The encounter changed their lives. I wonder—when we recognize Jesus, does that encounter change our lives, too?

When we recognize Jesus—I mean, truly realize what He means in our lives—it cannot be just a casual greeting, a mild how-do-you-do and then we merrily continue on our way, without a thought more about Jesus and His Resurrection. Jesus means much more! We need to recognize all that He is, all that He means, and all that He offers freely. Resurrection! Life everlasting! And, Himself as our brother and best friend.

Praise God, Jesus can walk by our sides even now, through trouble, grief, pain, fear and anger. He has promised never to leave us nor forsake us, wherever we may journey in life. And, that is a sure and faithful promise from our resurrected Lord and Savior. Amen! Alleluia.

@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!

Godly Weeping

“Godly Weeping”

John 11-35 Jesus wept, rain

John 11:1-45 (11:35-36) – March 29, 2020

Who has ever grieved for a loved one when that loved one has died? All of us can remember times when we grieved a close relative or a close friend. Such a common response. Whether outwardly or inwardly expressed, it is difficult to deal with mourning and grief.

When Lent started this February, not many people expected the corona virus to become so serious, so quickly. So many people becoming sick, hospitalized, and even dying. Imagine the helplessness of relatives, friends and other loved ones when someone so abruptly falls ill. Added to that, what do friends and loved ones do when they are not allowed to see patients in the hospital, in intensive care, even on a deathbed? It’s a difficult complication to grief.

For our Scripture reading today, we have the raising of Lazarus from John 11. The apostle takes us through a series of scenes. Jesus and His disciples arrive in Bethany after several days, and Lazarus has already died. Lazarus was a dear friend of Jesus, along with Lazarus’s sisters Martha and Mary. Several days before, the sisters urgently sent to Jesus, begging Him to come and heal their brother, Jesus’ friend. Then, Lazarus was dead, in the tomb. Mary and Martha were devastated, and their community gathered around them, to grieve with them.

What about dying, mourning and grief today? “When someone dies it is generally publicly acknowledged. Friends and family gather, life is celebrated, love is celebrated, the bereaved feel supported while their community gathers. Healing begins in time, and the lives of the ones that are living go forward still carrying the grief. Grief out of loss is validating, our society tells us that it is right and acceptable to experience anger, sadness, depression when a loved one dies.” [1]

We note specific mourning and grieving practices in the first century. The Gospels mention funerals and grieving several times when Jesus performs miracles. Like, for example, right here. Mary and Martha’s friends, acquaintances and community gather around, even four days after the burial of Lazarus. They come together to mourn with the sisters, and weep.

As I have been meditating on John 11 this week, I see that Jesus wept. He wept in company with Mary and Martha, He wept because He mourned Lazarus’ passing, and He was surrounded by people who were grieving. Added to that deep emotion was the anger from some who thought (or openly said), “This Jesus could have come back a couple of days ago, before Lazarus died! Jesus healed others…why couldn’t He heal His good friend?”

Anger, yes. Sadness, depression, hopelessness, even paralysis. All of these are expressions of grief. But, grief can come from many different things, many different losses.

Today, vast numbers of people are grieving. “Disenfranchised grief comes when we experience loss that is not associated with a death. Many in our community are grieving the distance between family and friends and sometimes that distance is as much as a house or a few blocks away. Disenfranchised loss comes when our loss we are experiencing is not validated by our community, when it is not publicly acknowledged. Grief many are experiencing in light of COVID 19 can easily be dismissed because we have all had to give up the running of our daily lives, in whatever capacity that involves.” [2]

Jesus truly, deeply grieved with Martha and Mary. Reading along, we see that He wept. Those around Him said, “See, how much the Rabbi Jesus loved Lazarus!”

When I was a hospital chaplain for almost ten years, I worked nights and weekends. I would be called to emergencies in intensive care, cardiac care, end-of-life care, and thrust into heartrending situations where I scrambled to be present with grieving people. I needed to come alongside of traumatized loved ones at the absolute worst times of their lives. It is a humbling, devastating experience. But, I never had to be a hospital chaplain in the face of a pandemic.

Do we remember that Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” before He wept with Martha?

He goes on to say, “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Martha makes that great statement of belief, “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Even at the grave of her newly dead brother, Martha makes that ringing statement of trust. Even in the face of desperate losses from loss of a job, or loss of a spouse, loss from a disaster, or loss of a sense of home and of place—can we echo her words today?

But, this is not the end of the story. After Jesus weeps with the sisters, sharing their grief, He performs another mighty miracle. Jesus tells Lazarus to come forth, out of the tomb, and Lazarus does exactly that. Alive!

Jesus conquered grief, mourning and loss. Both here in John 11, with the raising of Lazarus, and in the Resurrection, when Jesus triumphed over death once and for all. Praise God, we can believe Jesus. Praise God, we can trust in Jesus, and although we may weep and grieve for the present time, our weeping will ultimately turn to joy. Amen.

[1] Jess Swance, meditation on “Disenfranchised Grief in Our Communities” (personal article)

[2] Ibid.

(I would like to thank Jess Swance. For this sermon, I have used several quotes and ideas from a personal, unpublished meditation she wrote. I appreciate you, Jess!)

@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!

Our Redeemer Lives

“Our Redeemer Lives”

Job and his friends - Ilya Repin, 1869

Job 19:23-27 – November 10, 2019

Have you ever thought that God is just not fair? Look at the world today. With natural disasters, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, torrential downpours, and flooding, some insurance policies still today list “acts of God” as a factor in their settlements.

Many people throughout the world live with debilitating illness or long-term disabilities. We may know several of them, personally. We may even be some of them, with illnesses like multiple dystrophy, polio, lupus, fibromyalgia, ALS, and complications from AIDS; not to mention the disabilities we see Jesus healing on a regular basis—people who are blind, lame and mute, to mention just a few.

Yes, there is a whole lot of bad and awful going on in the world. Many, many people think—and outright say—that God is just not fair. Do you ever feel that way? I know I have.

Job definitely felt that way; he expressed his feelings openly in the book named after him, in his discussions with his friends as well as his discussions with God. This book squarely brings up the question: is God fair? I ask again: is God fair? Job wanted to know. I think, so do we.

If people want comfort, they turn to the Psalms, or the Gospel of John, maybe parts of Isaiah, or the encouraging sections from the letters in the New Testament. Not the book of Job.

Perhaps you only know Job as a character in the Hebrew Scriptures who was very rich, and then through a horrific series of circumstances and through no fault of his own, had everything taken away. How many here know the basics about Job? And…that is about it? Oh, there is a sort of postscript to this book, where Job gets all of his wealth returned to him, plus additional children are born to him and his wife, but that does not come until the very ending of the story—a real happily-ever-after ending.

In the middle of Job’s disputing and arguing with his friends, the middle of his traumatic loss, paralyzing grief, and horrid debilitating physical condition, Job is really hard-pressed by his circumstances.

Plus, Job’s so-called friends are ostensibly there to try to comfort and help Job out. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down! Essentially, his friends wag their fingers in Job’s face and tell him to confess his secret sins. He is repeatedly, verbally beaten up by these three.

Poor Job slogs through his desperate life, one day at a time, one hour at a time. He goes through all manner of crap, from his circumstances, his health, and the people around him. Can we blame for saying, “God is not fair!”

Coming closer to home, we might consider the holiday tomorrow, Veteran’s Day. This day is set aside to remember veterans, and honor all veterans everywhere for their duty and sacrifice for our freedom. As we remember the horrors and deprivations of armed conflict throughout the world, what can you and I do about it? I feel powerless, puny and insignificant in the face of such things as conflicts and wars. Maybe you do, too. We also might say, “God is not fair!”

Seriously, I know I have thought God isn’t fair, sometimes. I suspect you have, too. Or, one of your loved ones has, or one of your close friends. If we assess the world today, it is enough to make even a sensible person throw up their hands and walk away, shaking their head.

Earlier in chapter 19, Job says that he repeatedly cries out to God, but God just doesn’t answer! The commentator James Limburg has the heartrending paragraph: “Job’s further complaints: and it is all God’s fault! Job says his life is miserable. He finds no support from family or friends (verses 13, 14, 19, 21). Even little children do not like him (18) and his wife finds him repulsive (17). Job is certain that God is behind all of this (13, 21, 22).” [1]

If we are looking for a poster child for miserable, suffering humanity, Job is definitely a finalist. But, wait. In the midst of all of Job’s cries for help and his complaints to his friends and to God, we have this shining jewel of verses in 19:25-26. What does Job say? I will read it again, so we can all savor the words: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;“ I’m amazed at Job, having the gumption and the perseverance to make this proclamation. What a statement! James Limburg says about these words that this is “Job’s declaration of faith: I know that I have one who will rescue me from this mess!” [2]

We all agree that Job complains! He kvetches and complains to his friends and to God. Yet—Job does not quit. Some people we know may very well feel like quitting, and Job certainly was a candidate for throwing in the towel, yet—Job makes this shining declaration of faith.

In this unexpected verse he talks about a Redeemer. In Jewish usage, this term might be used for buying back a field or a person sold into slavery. Perhaps in modern terms we might “redeem” a musical instrument or piece of jewelry from a pawnshop. This same Hebrew word (go’el) is used in Exodus for God redeeming God’s people from slavery in Egypt, or in Psalms for God delivering an individual from death. God is the Redeemer! God will save Job! [3]

We might feel captive to our debilitating illness, or our desperate continuing situation, or shattering emotional state. It might seem like no one could ever reach down and help us out of the deep, dark pit we are in. Just like Job. Yet—God can reach down. God can save us. God is our Redeemer, just as God was Job’s Go’el, Job’s Redeemer.  

I would like to quickly add: Job was a realist. Job came right out and said he might die first, because he said his skin—his body—could very well be destroyed first before he was redeemed. Nevertheless, Job had the confidence to say “yet in my flesh I will see God.“ As James Limburg says, “Job expresses his conviction that there is One living who will eventually rescue him from the suffering and mess his life has become. As that One once rescued Israel, or the exiles, so the Redeemer will one day put Job’s life back together.” [4]

Does anyone doubt that this Redeemer can put our lives back together, too? In part three of the well-loved oratorio Messiah, the soprano soloist begins with Job’s words “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” I fully agree that the other Scripture passages Handel used in this part of the Messiah explain Job’s words so well.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.  
(I Corinthians 15: 20)  
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  
(I Corinthians 15: 21-22)  
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  
(I Corinthians 15: 51-52)  
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.  
(I Corinthians 15: 52-53)
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  
(I Corinthians 15: 57)  
If God be for us, who can be against us?  
(Romans 8: 31)  
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.  
(Romans 8: 33-34)  

Where part three of the Messiah began with Job’s words “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” is there any way more fitting and more glorious to close this meditation on Job’s shining declaration of faith than the way Handel finished his oratorio? The words of Revelation 5:12-14:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.
Amen.
 
(Revelation 5: 12-14)  

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=735

Commentary, Job 19:23-27a, James Limburg, Pentecost 24C Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.

(Many thanks to James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN, for the use of his excellent commentary article on this passage from Job 19.)

@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!

Prayer: Powerful and Effective

“Prayer: Powerful and Effective”

James 5-16 prayer of righteous, words

James 5:13-20 (5:16) – September 30, 2018

If anyone has been following the news in the past weeks out of Washington, you know that journalists have been trying hard to get as much information as possible about the people and the situations involved. Journalists always are on the lookout for reliable information. They want to answer some basic questions: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. If you can answer those five questions clearly, you will have a good, solid news story.

The past two weeks have been a roller coaster for many people. With the nail-biting news about the Supreme Court nomination, many people across the United States have been sitting on the edge of their seats. While I am not going to play politics or tell anyone which Washington politician or opinion is right or wrong, as a pastoral caregiver I do pay close attention to people’s emotions and reactions.

What I have seen in these past days are the overwhelming number of people with heightened emotions and reactions to anxious, even fearful situations. As someone involved in pastoral care and trained as a chaplain, I notice these things. In our scripture reading today, we find the apostle James talking straight about how to pray, and thus deal with things similar to these: heightened emotions and reactions to anxious situations.

The apostle James was a practical kind of guy. We can see that from this short letter, the only letter he wrote, included in the New Testament. He gives some practical advice to his readers on how to live a faithful and effective Christian life: how to live faithfully with others in society, how to control the tongue, how to turn away from evil and towards God. Here, in the fifth chapter of James, he turns to prayer. As we look at this passage, James tells his friends how to pray, in very practical terms, almost the same way as a news reporter might tell it.

Here are the first verses of our scripture reading, from one of my favorite modern translations of the Bible, The Message, by Eugene Peterson. “Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.”

James covers the bases here. People who are hurting, happy, sick, sinning. In other words, he tells us Who ought to pray. Anyone ought to! Anyone who needs God’s help or anyone who has received God’s blessing ought to pray. That means anyone—all of us.

What is the next question? What should we pray about? Anything, and everything. That is the wonder and power of prayer. So many things to pray about, but James gives some great descriptions. He tells us what kinds of situations, in just a few words.

When should we pray? Anytime is a great time to pray. When we are hurting, or feeling great, or sick, or sinning? In each case, we are invited by James to bring everything to the Lord in prayer. Whenever we are in trouble, or in need to healing, or for forgiveness from sin? That is the time for prayer. Anytime.

Where are we to pray? Absolutely anywhere. This is one that James does not directly address, but we can see James tells us we are able to pray any time we need help from God. So, it just makes sense that you and I can pray anywhere we happen to be. Wherever we are, God is with us. God is everywhere.

The last question is, Why should we pray? The simple answer? Because God answers prayer. Verse 16 tells us “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Did everyone hear? “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Except, I have been hearing from a large number of people during the past two weeks. Such difficult and traumatic events are extremely hurtful, especially for people who have had similar things happen to them. Psychologically speaking, the mention of a similar traumatic event can very well cause someone else to vividly relive their personal experience, no matter how long ago it happened. Trauma is imprinted on the brain in a unique way. It’s like the brain flags the specific memories as super-important. Those flagged memories can surface or re-surface at unpredictable times, when someone reminds you of something traumatic that happened. Like, for example, this serious discussion in the news of harassment and assault.

During the past two weeks, calls to rape and sexual abuse help lines have skyrocketed, anywhere from doubling to running four times as many as in a similar time period. Online, in social media, and personally, I have heard more people tell of harrowing incidents of rape and sexual abuse, and the horrible responses received when these actions were reported. Plus, I have both read and heard of situations where no one ever reported these horrific acts—until now.

Though I don’t who or what you believe, I think all of us can agree that as God’s people, we all need regular repentance and soul-searching, no matter what. We are also all in need of healing, personally, and certainly communally. Isn’t that what James tells us here?

When I was a chaplain, working in critical care units like the Emergency Department, Intensive Care, and trauma support all over the hospital, my primary job would be that of compassionate listener—even before prayer, and also as a heartfelt part of prayer. I suggest for all of us to consider a heart of compassion and a gentle hand of mercy. It’s time to put our defenses down and instead experience the vulnerability of listening to one another.

“If someone has a story to tell, the greatest gift you can offer is simply to listen. You don’t need to have answers or wisdom. You probably don’t need to say anything except, ‘I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry you experienced that.’ In the compassionate version of the world I yearn for, we offer one another solidarity, a listening ear, and a tender heart. “ [1]

As this letter tells us, the apostle James was practical. He also had quite the reputation for prayer. We all know the familiar saying “Listen to what I do, not what I say.” That was James. He would not tell his friends and followers to pray if he didn’t follow Jesus in prayer himself.

Through the power of prayer, total personal and communal healing can occur. James was following the example of Jesus who taught his disciples to pray and showed them that people can be healed through prayer.” [2] James spent so much time in prayer that he had the nickname “Old Camel Knees,” since his knees were so hard and callused from staying on them in prayer for hours on end.

As one commentator said, “we must be active participants in the process. Whether it is the healing touch of the laying on of hands or a simple hug from a sister or brother in Christ or the potent power of prayer or the relief of corporate confession, active participation in the Body of Christ is preventative medicine at its best.[3]

What are we waiting for? “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Amen. Alleluia.

 

(My sincere thanks to Charles Kirkpatrick, for his Object Lessons & Children’s Sermons, Coloring Pages, Puzzles. Sermons4Kids.com. https://www.sermons4kids.com/5Ws_of_prayer.htm  I borrowed freely from this children’s activity for this sermon.)

(What follows is the Response our church had after the sermon. Instead of a Prayer of Hymn of Response, we had the following activity.)

Amidst the prescriptions James prescribes, the anointing of the sick is one that we do not do enough of, and one I want to offer to this congregation, to this family of faith during the worship service.

We read again these verses from our scripture passage from James chapter 5: “Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.”

Come, let us worship God, and claim our desire to be made whole – spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

And if anyone is just sick and tired of the current state of the world, come and be prayed over and be anointed with oil, a sign of the possibility of healing, inside and out.  

 

In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, be strengthened and made whole, filled with God’s grace; may you know the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Dear Comforting God, thank You for hearing and answering our prayers. Help us to remember that You want to heal us when we are sick, help us when we are in trouble, forgive us when we sin, and rejoice with us when we are happy. In the healing name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2018/09/30/time-for-compassion/

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster (Sue) is the pastor of the East Woodstock Congregational (UCC) Church in CT.

[2] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=52

Commentary, James 5:13-16, Christopher Michael Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2008.

[3] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2012/09/rx-for-broken-lives-and-faltering-faith/

“Rx for Broken Lives and Faltering Faith,” Sharron R Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2012.

@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!

Love Drives Out Fear

“Love Drives Out Fear”

1 john 4-18-perfect-love-casts-out-fear.

1 John 4:7-8, 13-19 (4:18) – September 16, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When I was in grade school, I remember a story I read where a boy was punished very severely. He was beaten, and sent to the barn without any supper. I don’t remember where the story was from (probably in one of my textbooks), but I do remember my gut reaction to the moving and evocative words that described the boy and his situation. Sullen, lonely, filled with anger, but at the same time torn with some remains of love for the brutal father who had beaten him and turned him out of the clapboard house on the frontier into the cold night.

What kinds of fear do you remember? If not fear that you experienced, fear and anxiety of someone close to you? Those feelings, emotions and experiences can be so traumatic. I know, because I dealt with many painful, fearful, anxious situations while a hospital chaplain. And, sometimes, I was completely helpless to do anything to lend a hand.

Is there some fear or anxiety that even now surfaces from deep within? If so, I am so sorry to remind you of that painful experience. Except—in this sermon, in this scripture reading today, the apostle John deals with God’s love, and with personal fear and punishment. We can relate to John’s moving words.

To back up, in this letter John talks a great deal about love. God is love. Love is of God. We love, because God first loved us. Simple words, yet profound ideas. In our reading today, John continues with more of the same: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Yet, you and I know that we cannot love all the time. Because, we are human. We get angry, and lonely, and fearful. Sometimes we back away, isolate, or even snap back at others. All of us do at times. Mile-deep emotions and mile-wide feelings come upon so many as we live our day-to-day lives—in the first century, as well as the twenty-first. Awkward situations and traumatic experiences choke out the joy and delight of living in community, of life in the family of God. What can we do about these complications of living, and of loving?

The apostle John knew very well about this dilemma. He was the youngest of the disciples. He was identified as “the disciple Jesus loved.” He lived the longest of just about any of the direct witnesses to Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. He wrote this letter late in his long life, a life full of hardship and trauma, full of persecution and anxiety. Yet—he was able to write moving words such as these: “Dear friends, let us love one another.” Matter-of-fact presentation of a simple yet profound concept.

John communicates God’s unconditional love to us in this letter, even in difficult circumstances. He shows us Jesus and His love through these simple words.

John understood very well what kinds of horrible things the persecutors could (and probably would) do to any Christians they got in their clutches. From the writings and letters of the second century, we know that John had personal experience with the persecutions. He was finally exiled to a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea called Patmos.

So, what does John have to say about fear? We are talking about gut-wrenching fear. Remember, he was well-acquainted with fear, and its close cousin anxiety. Verse 18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

The word for “fear” John uses here is the Greek word phobo, or the run-of-the-mill word that is found in the suffix “-phobia.” Many of us are familiar with all kinds of phobias, from fear of heights or enclosed spaces, to fear of spiders or snakes, to fear of the dark. Could I remind us of a certain phobia that Charlie Brown had, in the Charlie Brown Christmas special? He was frightened of everything. He had “pantaphobia.”

Perhaps the apostle John “does mean something closer to Charlie Brown’s depression-inducing pantaphobia in which fear becomes a general way to go at life.  John yokes this fear that has no place in perfect love specifically with a fear ‘of punishment,’ which may be an indication that what he is talking about is the fear of still being punished for our sins.” [1]

What a fear, indeed! Being afraid that God probably will not forgive me, no matter how much I do, no matter how hard I try to gain God’s acceptance. That unfeeling, unforgiving attitude from God would break my heart. Sort of like the attitude of an uncaring, unfeeling, even brutal parent. Not at all like Jesus, like the God whom John knew personally.

After this life is done, we move into the life to come. Common questions many would ask: “’How can I be sure I did enough for God to love me?  What if God plays all the sins of my life on some giant screen for all to see?  How will I ever live down the humiliation of that?  How do I know there is grace sufficient for even me?’ This is clearly the kind of fear of punishment John is pointing to.  And it is a miserable thing to have dangling over your head” [2]

Again, we get full assurance from John. And, John intimately knows Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, the Messiah, the creator of all the universe, the Logos, the Word. John is the beloved disciple, the one close to Jesus’s heart. John lets us know that “perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Yet, what are the next words from John? “We love, because He first loved us.” John circles back to this simple yet profound truth.

Commentator Judith Jones says, “God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to die for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us.” [3] That is the presence John is a witness to. That is the presence John is willing to suffer for. John loves, and through extension, we all love, because Jesus loves us. Unconditionally, fully, and with all His heart. Jesus loves us. Period.

So, it does not matter what our creaturely, very human selves tell us about phobias. It does not matter what Charlie Brown and his fear of everything whispers to our insides. John’s witness is that Jesus loves us, period. Jesus’s perfect, unconditional love drives out fear. Not only fear about everything on the outside, about fighting, hardship, and persecution, but about illness, loneliness, and sorrow.

Most importantly, His perfect unconditional love drives out the fear that I won’t measure up, that I won’t be able to do enough, be enough for Jesus. We love, because He first loved us. Period. John is a faithful and true witness to Jesus and His perfect, unconditional love.

Do you believe that? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” John tells us so, right here in this reading today. Receive the Good News of the Gospel. Jesus came to save sinners, of which I am chief.

Fear is done with, banished, gone. Jesus came into the world to love us, unconditionally. That is truly Good News.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-5b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2448

Commentary, 1 John 4:7-21, Judith Jones, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

@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!)

Jonathan Encourages David

“Jonathan Encourages David”

be not afraid, words

1 Samuel 23:14-18 (23:17) – July 1, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Running for your life. Always in hiding, always on the look-out. It’s what psychological specialists in trauma and similar mental challenges call hyper-vigilance. I suspect, if we think about it, we can come up with a situation where either a person we know or people who are familiar to us have been worried, afraid, looking over their shoulders, if not on the run.

This is similar to the situation David was in, for many months, on the run in the wilderness of Judah.

But, let’s back up a bit. The strong, young David—charismatic leader of men—was the hero of Israel. Young, good-looking, he had walked onto the field of battle and won in single-handed combat with the mighty warrior Goliath the Philistine champion. Everyone in Israel praised David, up-and-coming rising star in the court of Israel. Men looked up to him, women adored him. (Apparently, he was really attractive.) His name was on everyone’s lips. What was not to like about David?

We must not forget about the other important part of David’s story. He been anointed while still a teenager to become king by the aging prophet Samuel. That means, David would take the place of King Saul. Except, King Saul was still king. Awkward!  

At first, King Saul thought David was a good guy to have around the palace. Plus, David had some skill with the harp, so he could soothe the king when the king was depressed and out of sorts. Then, to add to all of this, David and Jonathan, King Saul’s oldest son and heir, became close friends.

Imagine your best friend. I mean, your best-best friend, closer to you than even the closest members of your own family. That was David and Jonathan. Best friends forever.

King Saul probably had some uncertainty and insecurity in his life, even though he was the king of Israel. We can read about the several times that the king displayed his irritation and even outright hatred for David. Eventually, middle-aged King Saul’s anger and jealousy at the younger, good-looking, charismatic David boiled over. He sent his loyal soldiers after David. Yes, to kill him.

So, the powerful king of your country is seriously jealous, and hopping mad at you. What do you do? Run, of course. Make yourself scarce.

We see several reasons for people to be on the run from powerful leaders. Yes, politics may play a part in this. War and conflict might also figure in. Power and control are also important possibilities in any severe disagreement. And with Saul, his violent anger against David was definitely more personal.

For several chapters in 1 Samuel, we can read about the adventures of David. Life-and-death adventures, too. If Saul’s soldiers had ever caught up to David, the situation would mean death for David.

Sure, David had been playing cat-and-mouse with the king’s soldiers for months.           As commentator Bob Deffinbaugh said, “David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. …The full weight of Saul’s pursuit and its implications seems to bear down on him. Perhaps weary in both body and spirit, David is greatly distressed to hear that, once again, King Saul is nearby, fully intent on killing him. There is ample evidence to show that if given the chance, Saul will do so.” [1]

We see that King Saul decided to go out into the wilderness and eradicate David once and for all. We also know that David and Saul’s son Jonathan are best friend, even though it had been many months since they had seen each other. What a wonderful friend to have, even taking his life in his hands. That’s what it meant for Jonathan to risk visiting David, in the wilderness.

What kind of stress and trauma must David have been going through? Let’s read from 1 Samuel again: “While David was at Horesh in the Desert of Ziph, he learned that[a] Saul had come out to take his life. 16 And Saul’s son Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God.”

This is one reason why it’s so important for us to see how Jonathan encouraged David, even though both friends must have felt extremely pressured. David had been on the run for many months, and his psychological state could only have been one of extreme trauma!

When these two dear friends finally meet, what the first things Jonathan does? Helps his dear friend to find strength in God.  If you are alone and struggling to keep your head above water, no matter what challenges or difficulties are coming your way, having a dear friend come alongside of you to encourage you can make all the difference.

Of course, David was in extreme difficulty. Running for your life from the king’s best crack troops must have been both mentally and physically exhausting. Having the king’s oldest son and heir as your best friend must have added a layer of challenge to the whole mess.

What does Jonathan lead off with? “Be not afraid!” He reminds David that all Israel knows that the prophet Samuel has anointed him to be king after Saul, and says that he—Jonathan—will be his right-hand man. All of which must have been a great comfort and encouragement to David. They two dear friends renew their covenant, and then Jonathan has to leave. I suspect David has to continue to elude the king’s troops, too.

Our situations and challenges today are not as dire as David’s horrible predicament. However, God continues to speak. God continues to encourage and lift up hearts, even through great trials and tribulations. Are you having troubles and difficulties in your life today? God is there, and ever present help in times of trouble and need.

Just as David’s best friend Jonathan was there to encourage him through the deep dark times, God can bring friends alongside of us, too. Friends can speak words of encouragement and trust to us, like “Be not afraid!”

Are you someone’s best friend? Is your best friend going through difficulties, pain, even trauma right now? Can you come alongside of your friend and encourage their hearts today? Consider your part. The Lord might be calling you to be that friend, today, or tomorrow.

What a ministry, that of being an encourager. What a kindness, and what a service to others. Whether you are the one who could use a friend, or whether you are the one called to be such a friend, remember David and Jonathan. Best friends forever. An encouragement, finding mutual strength in God.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/20-friend-indeed-1-samuel-2315-29 Bob Deffinbaugh 

@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!)

Repenting Hearts

“Repenting Hearts”

Jer 17-9 heart deceitful, script

Jeremiah 17:5-10 – July 31, 2016

I just came back from my study leave at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. Wonderful conference, again. (It always is!) I sat in bible class, and mission hour, and morning and evening meetings all week, learning about the marvelous ways believers are reaching out, locally and all over the world.

However, I also learned about many, many places in the world where believers are persecuted and in danger. Where the government has tight control, or where different groups are fighting. Where believers, especially church leaders, have been imprisoned, even killed. Countries like Syria, Egypt, South Sudan, Iraq; parts of Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. One of our bible passages for the morning is from Jeremiah 17. It tells us: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Humans can be particularly inhuman, sometimes. Human hearts can be deceitful above all things, sometimes.

We are continuing with our summer sermon series from the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission. I am sad to say that the sentence of the week is: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called and commit ourselves: To repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death.”

Natural humans without God can be inhuman. They can treat each other abominably. Not only through evil deeds like fighting, destruction and war, but also through general chaos and death—just as our sentence of the week from the Statement of Mission says. Many people want power and control. Many people strive to maintain power and control at all costs. They trust in humans’ own strength, and Jeremiah says their hearts turn away from the Lord.

What an awful thing! To have people in control—police, mayor, other government officials—whose hearts are completely separated from God. These people are controlled by the forces of evil, of chaos and death, according to the prophet.

Yes, these verses contain poetic language about humanity. As one commentator says, “To ancient peoples, the heart was not only the center of emotions, feelings, moods and passions, but also of will and motive power for the limbs. The heart discerned good from evil; it was also the center of decision-making. Conversion to God’s ways took place in the heart. In verse 9, it is said to be where evil begins.” [1]

At the mission conference this week, we had a chance to put our words into action.  Interested people had the opportunity to sign a petition to request Secretary of State John Kerry to intercede on behalf of the people of South Sudan, and to allow humanitarian aid to come in to the regions of the country under conflict and war. That is a concrete way to come up against the forces of evil, of chaos and death, and to show the love of God in a tangible way.

Evil. Chaos. Death. Just what the sentence from the Statement of Mission for today says. Natural humans—humans without God—have deceitful hearts, hearts that turn from the Lord. Our scripture passage for today tells us: “That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.”

Well, I am not a deceitful person, an evil person. I know God. In fact, God lives in my heart! Where can I go wrong?

One problem there: according to our Statement of Mission, we are to “repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death.”

You mean, being silent can be a problem? Maybe, even a sin? The statement tells all of us to repent. That certainly sounds like sin language. What is more, the statement mentions “all of us.” Not “some,” not “most,” but “all.”

            Albert Einstein said, ““If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.” Can anyone relate? Horrible things happen every day. People who live next door, or down the street, or other places nearby find themselves in a difficult situation. They can be seen as vulnerable. Observers can turn out to be ostriches, hiding their heads in the sand. Hoping against hope that the problems of domestic abuse and its connected trauma might just go away.  Or, when there is racial tension in your side of town, to do nothing. In fact, to say nothing, to look the other way, and to stand on the sidelines with your mouth shut.

            What is wrong with that picture? That kind of behavior telling us what the sentence from the Statement of Mission tells us. The deceitful people who actively do terrible things to others? Are they at all like the quiet people who shut their eyes to injustice, or pretend that violence, bitterness and inequity never happen…at least, not in my world. Not on my block. Not in my part of town. Something to think about.

            This past week, I had the joy of learning about mission aspects of the Lord’s Prayer from a coworker for the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Rev. Jen Haddox. Yes, the Lord’s Prayer is prayed all over the world. In a multitude of languages, and numerous settings. This prayer can cross boundaries—just like believers. Believers can, with God’s help, cross the boundaries of unbelief and of chaos. Believers can bring the love of God into an evil and traumatic situation.

            Jen Haddox spoke about areas of Vietnam, where the government has tight control over everything—both everyday life in the villages and towns, and over the house churches and Christian leaders. And, some believers live in fear of government oppression and even prison. Yet, as Jen said, believers in Vietnam have a joy and a freedom that overcomes the forces of chaos and death.

            In both bible passages this morning, both passages give us the good news from God. Both passages have a compare and contrast section: natural humans, without God, and humans who strive to follow God. We can see what can happen when God intervenes.

Yes, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, just as the Statement of Mission says. And, yes, we can pray for believers throughout the world, as well as in our backyard. We can pray for South Sudan, for Vietnam, for other areas of war and conflict. Remember, conflict and trauma can be anywhere. Not only physical conflict, but psychological and emotional, too. Here in the Morton Grove area, and in Chicago, as well as far away in large parts of Africa and Asia.

The prophet says: “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him.” We can bring that blessing to those under the forces of chaos and death. Yes, we need to repent our silence in the face of evil. We can tell God we are sorry for our silence, and strive to bring words of blessing and peace into situations of trauma and chaos.

What an opportunity to strive to become believers who transcend boundaries! Praise God for the chance to spread the love of God into lives of people near and far. Through prayer for faraway places, and through tangible means like food from the Maine Township food pantry for those who are nearby.

Won’t you join in the mission of God? Let’s all strive to pray, go, and do, in the name above all names, the name of Jesus. Alleluia, amen!

[1] Chris Haslam, Anglican Diocese of Montreal. http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/cpr06m.shtml

Confront Evil, Love Enemies

“Confront Evil, Love Enemies”

Luke 6-27 love your enemies

Luke 6:27-28 – July 17, 2016

This week in the news has been difficult, to say the least. Thinking of two situations: the truck rampage in Nice after the Bastille Day celebrations, and the attempted coup in Turkey. Horrific situations. The loss of life, the horror, grief and trauma. Localized in the case of Nice, France. Widespread, in several regions of the country in Turkey.

I know, as sure as I am standing before you today, that many people are traumatized. The deaths, hospitalizations, shootings. Not only affected and grieving people in localized areas, but people throughout the region. Maybe even the world.

I chose this particular passage a week ago to discuss our sentence of the week from the United Church of Christ Statement of Mission. This week’s sentence: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to name and confront the powers of evil within and among us.”

I searched the Bible to find verses and passages which dealt with evil and confronting the powers of evil. Yes, I could have chosen verses by the Apostle Paul that dealt with powers and principalities, institutional evil and great wickedness. Or, I could have gone with generalities, and centered on sin. I can think of several passages from both the Old and New Testaments that deal with sin, both individual and corporate sin.

However, a week ago, I chose chapter 6 of the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus talks about enemies and how His followers ought to treat their enemies. This was before the attack in Nice, before the attempted coup in Turkey, and before the Black Lives Matter protests here in this country. Jesus had some pointed things to say about enemies. Some surprising things, too.

Karen read this passage to us, a few minutes ago. I will read verses 27 and 28 one more time, to let us hear the words of our Lord, again. 27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Another way of saying this comes in verse 31:  “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Wait a minute. Maybe, more than a minute. Enemies do bad things to us. They speak in mean and calculating ways, and sometimes act viciously, even heartlessly. Enemies are sometimes evil, through and through. That is exactly what our sentence of the week from the Statement of Mission talks about, too.

When I think of evil, sometimes I think about something that slithers or sneaks. Something that hides in the shadows, creeping along in the darkness. Occasionally, evil acts blatantly, coming right out in the open, swaggering around all over the place, like someone who curses and cusses a blue streak. But, I would like to concentrate on evil that sneaks around secretly, even unnoticed. Spreading its poison, insidious in its grasp.

What can we do in the face of this kind of evil? When these kinds of enemies continue to rise against us?  

These words of Jesus are challenging words. Some might say hard words. Even, impossible words. But, think about it. The whole focus of evil and of enemies is to get us to retaliate. To be just as evil in return, if not more so. “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi said. What good is that to anyone?

Not only individuals, but groups also can be sucked right in. Groups—often with the tribal mentality—can be drawn into a cycle of evil, even violence. Is that what Jesus advocates here? What about when He says “Do to others as you would have them do to you?” What do you think He meant here? Did Jesus want us to retaliate and do evil acts? Say nasty and mean things? Or, did Jesus want us to try something radically different? Unusual? Counter-cultural?

I would like to tell you about a town in Denmark. Middle-sized town, generally peaceful and harmonious. Except, in 2012, the police received calls from a number of concerned people, including some parents. Several guys in their late teens or early twenties left their homes, their town, and all that was familiar, to go to Syria. To work for Muslim terrorists.

The two police officers, Aarslev and Link, are police specialists with a role in crime prevention. This article featuring them and their idea appeared Friday on the National Public Radio website. “They usually deal with locals who are drawn to right-wing extremism, or gangs. The landscape of global terrorism was completely new to them. But they decided to take it on. And once they did, they wound up creating an unusual — and unusually successful — approach to combating radicalization.”

“The rest of Europe came down hard on citizens who had traveled to Syria. France shut down mosques it suspected of harboring radicals. The U.K. declared citizens who had gone to help ISIS enemies of the state. Several countries threatened to take away their passports — a move formerly reserved for convicted traitors.”

“But the Danish police officers took a different approach: They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.”

“Their program came to be known as the ‘Aarhus model.’” [1]

This program, this way of treating enemies reminds me a lot of Jesus. Let us listen to our Lord’s words from Luke 6, again. “27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Isn’t this knowingly being kind to those who wish to do us harm? Who hate us, curse us, and wish to mistreat us? Correct me if I am off base, but I think these police officers are very much following the commands of Jesus.

These are challenging words which we find in Luke 6:27-36. I suggest re-reading this passage with an open mind and open spirit, and then ask yourselves (and myself, too—I always preach to myself, as well!), “What would Jesus do?”

As Father John Dear says, “Jesus wants us to break the downward cycle of violence by refusing to practice further violence. Violence in response to violence will only lead to further violence, he teaches, so do not retaliate with further violence. Break the chain of violence.”

Father Dear goes on to say, “Does that mean sitting back and do nothing in the face of violence? No, quite the contrary. Jesus also forbids passive resignation or indifference to evil. Instead, he demands an active, creative nonviolent response that will disarm our violent opponent without using their violent means… Through our nonviolent resistance, we insist on the truth of our common humanity, until… he repents of his violence and agrees to treat us with respect as human beings.” [2] As the Hutu and Tutsi tribes reconciled in Rwanda, as whole groups of people of all colors, classes and races reconciled in South Africa.

Is it difficult to follow the commands of Jesus? YES. Yet, I strive to do this very thing. Imperfectly, yet I strive on. I remember the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

I invite us all to seek the ways of Jesus, and search out an active, creative nonviolent response to evil, to enemies, and to violence. Will you join with me in striving to follow Jesus, today?

@chaplaineliza

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

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/15/485900076/how-a-danish-town-helped-young-muslims-turn-away-from-isis

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dear/an-eye-for-an-eye-makes-t_b_8647348.html