Great Faithfulness, Indeed!

“Great Faithfulness, Indeed!”

Lam 3-23 faithfulness, clouds

Lamentations 3:19-26 – October 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

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

All the Children of the World

“All the Children of the World”

jesus loved-children-clive-uptton

Mark 10:13-16 (10:13) – October 7, 2018

Today, the first Sunday in October, is World Communion Sunday. Today, we celebrate the holy practice of Communion, along with the millions of Christians in thousands of churches and gathering places all over the world. I know I asked already about the many different Communion services we all have been to, in different churches. I would like to go back further, before the Passion Week, before the time Jesus instituted Communion at that Passover dinner.

We have a little, short Gospel reading today. This situation is not long before Palm Sunday. We are not exactly sure how long. A number of days perhaps, or a few weeks before Jesus and His disciples enter Jerusalem for that last week, that Passion Week.

What is the Rabbi Jesus doing here? Teaching, as usual. Also, arguing with the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses. These smart guys were always testing each other, to see whether each of them could give wise answers—and correct answers. A lot of the Gospel writings were responses of Jesus to these questions. He had just finished one of these verbal duels with the Pharisees when this particular situation with the children came up.

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have Him touch them.” Both in the first century as well as in later centuries, it was common for parents to bring their children to rabbis for a blessing. This was a very common thing, often done. However, the disciples here rebuked the parents. “Children should not be allowed to disturb the teacher and his students.” [1]

They considered themselves more important. Rabbi Jesus was doing very important teaching, teaching His Very Important Students, the disciples. We can see they just did not get it. The disciples completely missed the point of Jesus and His ministry. Again.

We have one group of men—the disciples of Jesus—and another group of men—the Pharisees—bickering and arguing about who is right, and who is more important, and who gets to listen to the Rabbi. Then, we have a third group, probably mothers and maybe grandmothers, bringing small children for a blessing from the Rabbi Jesus.

Let’s come at this from a different point of view, and look at the feelings, emotions and the power struggle going on.

A snooty, self-important group of Pharisees have been asking Jesus challenging questions, again. As is always the case, Jesus answers their questions well. The beleaguered disciples are probably relieved that they have finally gotten rid of the Pharisees, and finally are able to sit and listen to their Rabbi’s teaching by themselves, for a change. Some women with small children in tow come to the door of the house, tap-tap-tapping. They would like a blessing for their young kids, if it isn’t too much trouble. Can you see the picture?

A couple of the disciples poke their heads out the door. “What? Now? Come in and bother our Rabbi? He just got done with the Pharisees, and He’s doing some important work right now. Get lost. Take off. The Rabbi doesn’t have time for you, anyhow.”

But, Jesus finds out. I don’t know whether He overhears the disciples, or what, but Jesus gets upset with them.

In English, we usually need to use special words for emphasis or to show something is really important. The language the New Testament was written in, Koine Greek, has specific verb tenses, the aorist active imperative tense. Jesus uses one of these verbs right here: “Let—or, permit—the little children to come to Me.” Jesus was particularly urgent and intense, here. He caught His friends in the middle of turning these moms and kids away, and publicly rebuked the disciples. In front of the women and children. Jesus really meant what He said!

What is more, in the act of shoving away the unimportant folks Jesus capped that rebuke of the disciples. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

The view of children in the first century was radically different than today’s view. Modern readers or listeners of this Gospel lesson often romanticize children. Oh, how innocent! Oh, how accepting a child is! However, “ancient societies lacked such romantic notions of childhood. Jesus directs His comments to adult male disciples who are shoving away the ‘non-persons.’” [2] The child in ancient culture was not even considered a “person.” Children belonged to their father, and were dependent and subject to him even as adults.

Do we understand how radical the words of Jesus are, yet? If we see the children of the first century as totally dependent on their father, we can take His words one step further. Jesus tells His disciples they need to become like children—become totally dependent on their Father in heaven. The disciples—and by extension, the followers of the disciples, that is, us!—must understand we are totally dependent upon God’s grace and care and welcome.

And, after Jesus gives this stinging rebuke to His disciples, Jesus then turns around and blesses the small children. He takes them up in His arms, and holds them. What a picture! Can you imagine holding a little one in your arms, perhaps smoothing back their hair, smiling back at them, maybe even tickling their tummy—and then blessing them? That is what Jesus did. He cared for them. He blessed them. And, probably blessed their moms, too.

Children were considered “non-persons,” not yet adults, not yet important like the Pharisees or rabbis or priests or teachers of the Law. And, certainly similar to the status of women, who were often considered “non-persons,” at best second-class citizens, if that. Not males, not the important ones. Who might be considered “non-persons” today? Would the handicapped be considered “non-persons?” What about the mentally ill? What about the homeless, or the street people? Are they all “non-persons?”

All of these individuals are important to Jesus. He reached out to children, to women, to lepers, to the blind and lame, to foreigners, to ritually unclean people, and the mentally ill. Jesus was not exclusive, but radically inclusive. Jesus raises the social standing and the self-worth of all individuals. His welcome transcends all barriers, all boundaries, all colors, all separations of class and language and ability.

What a marvelous welcome each of us has on this World Communion Sunday. Our Lord Jesus bids us all come. All are welcome here.

Amen, alleluia.

(Postscript)

  • The image of Jesus gathering up the children has me imagining Jesus gathering up those most vulnerable among us — particularly now those whose memories have been rendered raw by the necessity of reliving their most traumatic moments in these last days. Who among us most needs the safety of that divine embrace? And what does it look like, what does it mean for you and me to extend it in Jesus’ name?
  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline number is 1-800-656-4673. If you have need of it, use it. If not, pass it along. Indeed, may we continue to hold close in prayer those whose suffering is ongoing. And may we keep on seeking to shape a world where such a hotline is no longer necessary. [3]

[1] Perkins, Phemie, The Gospel of Mark, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 647.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/jesus-gathers-the-most-vulnerable-into-his-arms-then-and-now/  Pastor Janet Hunt has served as a Lutheran pastor in a variety of contexts in Northern Illinois. Currently she serves as pastor at First Lutheran, DeKalb, IL.

@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!

 

Faith Begins at Home

“Faith Begins at Home”

2-timothy-opening-page

2 Timothy 1:1-5 – October 2, 2016

Today is the day we celebrate our children’s first communion. What a happy day! We all join together in praise for Claire, Edward and Noah. They learned more about the why of it, the beginnings of Communion yesterday, in the choir room.

We went through the events of that Passion Week two thousand years ago, and concentrated on that Maundy Thursday evening, that Passover seder our Lord Jesus and His friends celebrated. We talked about the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus. Then, we talked about how Jesus ascended into heaven and is in heaven right now. And, that Jesus gave us the practice of communion—of the Lord’s Supper—for us to remember Him and to join together as a congregation of believers in Jesus and what He did for us on the cross.

Another really important thing we talked about was how Jesus forgives us for the bad and angry words we say, and the bad and wrong things we do. That is another important part of communion, too. We need to confess our sins before we come to the Lord’s Table. Then, just as I remind us all in the Assurance of Pardon each week, God will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Believe the good news! In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

These are central foundations of our faith. The Christian faith. That’s the same faith the Apostle Paul talked about in our Scripture lesson today, from 2 Timothy. Paul says to his protégé Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.”

This same faith, in these same things. Except, everything was very recent. There were still a number of people living who had actually seen Jesus and the events in Israel. (Can you imagine that?) So much more immediate.

Timothy was one of the first Christians brought up in a believing family; he received sound teaching about God from his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. Yes, Paul was very close to Timothy, a young man whom he took under his wing. But we see here that Paul gave credit where credit was due: Paul raised up Timothy’s careful teaching from a believing family, and the sincere faith of both his grandmother and mother.

Eunice, Lois and Timothy were Jewish. As in any careful Jewish home, the mother and grandmother had a good deal to do with teaching the children. The Hebrew Scriptures are careful to tell faithful people to share about the ways of God within the home. Deuteronomy 4:9 reminds us, “Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” Worship services in the Temple were not sectioned off, with a separate place for babies and toddlers, and a junior Temple, and then Temple for adults. No, there were multiple generations present at all worship services. What a great way to celebrate the family of faith, the larger faith community.

Praise God for families that strive to live for God, and to raise children in the nurture and fear of the Lord. Wonderful opportunities to learn more and more about God in a familiar setting, and how to walk in God’s ways and will.

But—what if a person does not grow up in a believing family? What then? Can someone be raised in a secular family, or a non-Christian family, and still come to know God?

I did. I grew up in a home where there was no mention of God at all. When I was a preschooler and into my primary grades, I don’t believe I ever when to church at all. Maybe, once. (A vague memory.)

I’m the youngest of six children, and I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. My parents were both raised in Catholic parishes in Chicago, but they stopped attending the Catholic church while they were in college. And, they never renewed their acquaintance with the church.

It was a combination of things that started me attending Christ Lutheran Church in Chicago when I was in elementary school. My older sisters sometimes went to the youth group of that church because their friends attended there. The church also had a volleyball team, and one of my sisters loved to play. They would occasionally go to church, and my mother pushed me out the door to go to Sunday school with my sisters. I found I liked it. I really liked it, more than anyone ever expected.

That congregation became my family of faith. I not only attended Sunday school and youth group, but I learned all about the Christian faith while at that church. The pastor, Pastor Wold, was a faithful and conscientious teacher in confirmation classes. I remember attending confirmation every Wednesday afternoon for almost two years after school, and we carefully went through Luther’s Small Catechism.

Just like Timothy, with a sincere faith living in him passed down from his blood family, so I had a sincere faith living in me. It was passed down to me through faithful Sunday school teachers and youth leaders. I remember with gratitude people like Pastor Wold, Mrs. Pabst and Mrs. Smallman. People who carefully taught me how much God loved me.

Here, at St. Luke’s Church, we have the opportunity to teach our children about the Christian faith. Not only Miss Karen teaches our young people, in Sunday School, but all of us do as we gather together in worship, sing, pray, repeat the stories of our faith. Even sit together in silence. All of these are ways we come together as a family of faith, before God. We all have the opportunity to learn from each other on a regular basis, when we gather for worship.

Today is a special day. Yes, it is the first communion of Claire, Edward and Noah. Praise God! We do rejoice with them! But, it is more than that. Much, much more.

Please take out your bulletins. Look at the front page. What does it say on the bulletin? World Communion Sunday. “World Communion Sunday (originally called World Wide Communion Sunday) is a gift of the Presbyterian Church to the larger ecumenical church.  The first celebration occurred at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1933 where Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr served as pastor.”

“World Communion Sunday grew out of the Division of Stewardship at Shadyside. It was their attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information, and above all, to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is interconnected one with another.” [1]

So, not only are families interconnected by blood ties. Not only are congregations connected as families of faith. But, a multitude of congregations, of churches, are interconnected with each other. All over the world.

This celebration of the Lord’s Supper—called in different places Communion—or the Eucharist—is as different as are the many varied cultures where the Lord’s Supper is commemorated today. Some people today will meet out of doors, under a tree. Others will meet in a plain structure with only a roof over their heads. Some will meet in a fancy, ornate sanctuary, while still others will creep away by ones or twos to a hidden place for fear of being arrested, or worse. All of these are remembering our Lord Jesus as He instituted this holy meal, this sacrament.

We meet each Sunday as a family of faith. And, we meet today as fellow members of the family of Jesus Christ. Praise God for friendship, for fellowship, and praise God for the marvelous diversity of the families of faith throughout the world, in cities, small towns, rural churches, across denominations, transcending barriers and dividing lines, all through the power of the love of Christ. Truly, our sisters and brothers, all around the world.

 

[1] http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/special-days-and-emphases/world-communion-sunday/  John A. Dalles, a PCUSA pastor who has researched the history of World Communion Sunday notes this in his blog entry, reprinted from the October 7, 2002 Presbyterian Outlook.

@chaplaineliza

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