Sunday, December 27, 2015

Luke 2:22-40

If ever there was a holiday that was surrounded by and tied up in rituals it is Christmas.
From the cutting and decorating of the tree, to the lessons, carols, and candles of Christmas Eve, to the opening of gifts, to the seating at the family dinner, to the taking down of decorations, ritual or tradition enters in at almost every step. In the home where I grew up we couldn’t even discuss Christmas until the Thanksgiving dishes were washed and put away, (a tradition I tried without much success to instill in my children.) The midnight Christmas Eve service was a requirement, and then, on Christmas morning, we lined up outside the living room, in order from youngest to oldest, and waited for my mother to finish her coffee before we could enter and see what Santa had left us. There was a particular order in which the Christmas dinner passed from one family of cousins to the next. The menu was always turkey and the trimmings, but certain side dishes and deserts varied from home to home--at our house there was always plum pudding with hard sauce.

What are the rituals in your house? Do you open gifts Christmas Eve, or wait for Christmas morning? Is your tree already down? Or do you leave it up until Epiphany? Who opens the first gift? Who passes them out? We all have our Christmas traditions or rituals.

The church is also a place of rituals. We have an order to how we worship…entrance and praise, prayer and proclamation, response and thanksgiving. The year unfolds in a cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and the season after. There are rituals for the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. We have the ritual of Holy Matrimony, the Ash Wednesday Imposition of Ashes, and even rituals that have nothing to do with worship--regular pot lucks, annual bazaars or rummage sales, Shrove Tuesday pancakes, church cleaning days, Lord have mercy on the poor new pastor who doesn’t know about the way we always do Mother’s Day!
Rituals are important to us. They give us a sense of continuity and security. (Yes, there are times when the rituals get in the way, but that’s another sermon.) without rituals the important events in life would go unmarked, unnoticed, and unremembered.

Rituals were also important for Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. In today’s gospel reading Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph perform two religious rituals required by their faith tradition. When the boy was just 8 days old he was brought to the temple to be circumcised and given the name the angel had given him before he was even conceived: Jesus. Then, when he was forty days old, after Mary’s purification from giving birth, Jesus was again brought to the temple: this time for presentation, consecration, and redemption.  “ you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD's. 13 …Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem.” These ceremonies, small though they may be, were important as ways in which God was praised and honored in all aspects of first century Jewish life. For Mary and Joseph, this was one more way to show their praise and gratitude for the blessings God had given them.

Picture the scene, if you will. Here are Mary and Joseph, carrying their baby into the temple where he will be presented to God. They stop at a merchant to purchase the sacrifice that will redeem their son in accordance with the law. A lamb would have been the preferred offering, but, because the long, hard trip to Jerusalem had exhausted them both physically and financially, the acceptable alternative of two turtledoves would have to suffice.
As they continue into the temple with Joseph holding the doves in a cage and Mary holding Jesus close in her arms, they are accosted by an old man who reaches for the child. Mary tightens her grip and steps behind her husband to shield her child. Kind of like when But then the stranger explains that for years he has watched parents bring their firstborn sons to the temple while he waited for this, particular child. God had promised him that he would see the promised one, the Messiah, before his death, and here he was.

Gently taking the baby in his arms, Simeon praises God with the prayer we have come to know as the nunc dimitus.
29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: 30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
[Luke 2:29-32 (KJV)}

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. {Luke 2:39-40 (NRSV)}Like babies before and since, Jesus grew up. The baby in a manger became a wandering rabbi who was ultimately crucified as the redemption price for all people--the light that lightened the gentiles and the glory of Israel. But think about this, the Lamb of God, the one who would redeem us from slavery to sin and death, was redeemed at the minimum acceptable price! The one who paid the highest price for us was purchased for the cost of two doves.

Two doves and a death on the cross stand between us and sin. Two doves and a death on the cross have lifted us from the ways of he world to the ways of the Kingdom. Two doves and a death on the cross have given us the right to become “children of God!” Two doves and a death on the cross have made us truly free.
You have been redeemed at the highest cost. The one who was redeemed for two doves has paid for you with his life blood. You ARE forgiven. You are offered the honored position as a child of God. Claim the promise, claim the honor as we rise and sing together...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent Angels, Part 2,

It's a day I will remember as long as I live. My division, the descendents of Abijah, was on duty in the temple. That morning they drew two names to burn the incense in the inner temple. Because there are so many of us priests, they have to do it this way, and most of us die without ever having served In the inner temple. When they drew my name I just stood there in awe. Incense was burned before and after the daily sacrifices to purify the temple. My name was drawn for the morning burning.

I entered the inner temple, and stood before the altar for a few minutes, just taking it all in. Then, here, in the holiest place in all of the land God had given us, I prayed again for my wife. She was heartbroken and hurting because, in all our years of marriage she had never borne an child; and now, even though the two of us were far beyond the years of childbearing, she still grieved her barreness. I asked God simply to give her comfort and inner peace.

I turned around, lit the incense, and uttered the prayer: May the God of mercy enter the temple and be pleased to accept the sacrifice of his people.” Then it happened.
The incense seemed to almost explode, as a huge ball of the aromatic smoke appeard at the right side of the altar. and then, out of it he came. I don't know how to describe him. He was the most intimidating being I have ever seen. He was huge and had a face that seemed almost, but not quite human. I froze, and fell to the floor in fear. Had I just looked at the face of God? Was I about to die? I was so scared, I couldn't even tremble!

Then the thing spoke: “Don't be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayers. Your wife Elizabeth will have a son, and you must name him John. His birth will make you very happy, and many people will be glad. Your son will be a great servant of the Lord. He must never drink wine or beer, and the power of the Holy Spirit will be with him from the time he is born. John will lead many people in Israel to turn back to the Lord their God. He will go ahead of the Lord with the same power and spirit that Elijah had. And because of John, parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to. That is how John will get people ready for the Lord.”

In spite of the thing's instruction to not fear, now I was not only afraid, I was stunned,
what was this thing saying? Elizabeth can't have children, she's way beyond that part of her life, and so am I. Was this a vision from the Satan? Was I being tempted? I didn't know what to do, or say. I asked the thing how this could be. How could my wife and I have a child at our age?

Then the thing identified himself. “"I am Gabriel, God's servant, and I was sent to tell you this good news. But you have not believed my message, which will come true at the right time. Because you have not believed, you will be unable to speak; you will remain silent until the day my promise to you comes true." And at that very moment I was struck mute. Try as I might, I could not speak. The words my brain so carefully formed, would not come out of my mouth.

When I finally came out of the temple, people were asking me what happened? Why had I taked so long to burn the incense? Had I seen a vision? The more they asked, the more I couldn't speak, even if I could have described what happened.

When I got home, Elizabeth could tell something had happened. Again I tried to speak, to tell her about the visit from the angel, but, again, all that came out of my mouth was silence. But that angel was right. A couple of months later Elizabeth, almost in a state of shock, told me: “I know you won't believe me, but I think I am with child. Although I smiled, hugged her and kissed her, I could not speak to tell her: “Yes! I believe you! It's what the angel told me!

About 5 or 6 months later, we had a visit from Elizabeth's cousin, Mary. Mary told us that she, too, had been visited by the angel Gabriel; that she had been chosen by God; and that she was going to have a baby boy who would be the Messiah, the new David, the one whose birth all Israel awaited. Elizabeth leaped up and said in a loud voice, "You are the most blessed of all women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” and Mary, took exalted and praised God. Later my wife told me that the child in her jumped for joy when Mary said she, too, was going to have a child from God. Mary stayed with us about three monhs, and then returned to her home, and her fiance', Joseph.

Shortly after Mary left, Elizabeth gave birth to a fine baby boy. The whole village rejoiced with us. And on the eighth day, when he was to be circumcised, they were ready to name him Zechariah, after me when Elizabeth insisted: “NO, his name is John.”
“But there is no John in your family.”
“His name is JOHN!” my wife repeated.
When they made signgs trying to ask me, I still couldn't speak, so I asked for a tablet and wrote on it: “The child's name is John.” At that minute, my speech returned, and I, of course, began praising God.

But from that same time, our neighbors treated us differently. They were always cautious around us, speaking and acting very carefully, as though they were afraid of us, or our son. As old as we were, parenting was not easy, but John grew up in body, mind, and spirit until the day he left us to go live in the desert. And no one heard from him until he came out of the desert preaching repentance and baptizing for the forgivness of sins. He even baptized Mary's son, Jesus, who invites you to the feast he has prepared. Come, celbrate, and give thanks. AMEN.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

If Mary Had Said "No"

Luke 1:26-38

This morning"s gospel lesson is a story we all know well, and I hope, that as you listened, you heard this familiar story in a new way, and, perhaps, even heard something you hadn't heard before. A month after Zechariah lost his ability to speak, the angel Gabriel pays a call on Mary, a virgin engaged to Joseph, a descendent of King David. The angel tells her that she is truly blessed and will have a son.

“Hold on a minute!” says Mary. “I can't be doing that. I'm still a virgin.”
“Nothing is impossible with God” the angel tells her. (Luk 1:35) "The Holy Spirit will come down to you, and God's power will come over you. So your child will be called the holy Son of God.”

And, of course, Mary says: "I am the Lord's servant! Let it happen as you have said." It's the answer we've heard all our lives. It's the answer we expect to hear. It's the only answer Mary could have given. Or is it? What if it had been different? What if Mary had said: “No way! I'm not risking my marriage, my future, my life! Not for you! Not for anyone!”

We don't think of Mary as having a chance to decline, but she did. God always gives us the option to say “yes” or “no.” Eve could have said “yes” to God and “no” to the serpent. Adam could have said “no” to Eve, and yes to God. Abram could easily have stayed in Haran. Moses (Exo 3:11) actually said, "Who am I to go to the king and lead your people out of Egypt?" “What if no one believes me?” 'I'm not a good speaker.” All in an attempt to say “no.” The Scribes and Pharisees said 'No” to Jesus, as did The rich young ruler. When God told Ananias to cure Saul's blindness, (Act 9:13) Ananias replied, "Lord, a lot of people have told me about the terrible things this man has done to your followers in Jerusalem. (Act 9:14) Now the chief priests have given him the power to come here and arrest anyone who worships in your name."
(Act 9:15) The Lord said to Ananias, "Go! I have chosen him to tell foreigners, kings, and the people of Israel about me.” God gives us the opportunity to say “no,” or to say “yes.” It is, ultimately, our decision to follow or stand back.

So what if Mary had said “no?” Paul tells us that (Gal 4:4)when the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him.” So it's possible that if Mary had said “No” we might be singing:
“What child is this, who laid to rest,
on Cynthia's lap is sleeping.”

We can say “No.” But, like Abram, Moses, and Ananias, (Luk 1:38) Mary said, "I am the Lord's servant! Let it happen as you have said.

The Bible is full of stories of impossibilities. It was impossible for Joseph to escape the Egyptian prison; It was imposible for the Hebrews to escape slavery in Egypt; it was impossible for David to defeat Goliath; it was impossible for Naaman to be healed; and this, too, is a story of biblical impossibilities. But, what about the impossibilities in our world? Peace in our world. “Impossible! No way! Won’t happen!” True justice for all? “Impossible! Never happen.” A cure for Malaria? “Keep dreaming.” Our church reaching our surrounding community and making our world different? “Impossible!” What in your life, is “impossible? Restoring broken relationships and healing past hurts? “ A relative or friend entering a relationship with Christ; Breaking an addiction; forgiving and ex? Relief from pain? Healing from a chronic illness? All of these can be seemingly impossible, and yet they happen every day.

The truth is God expected, and God received a “yes” from Mary. When God calls us, Like Mary, we may say to the angel: “How can this be?” Like Mary we find ourselves pondering and wondering over the impossible. But as with Mary, God expects us to answer “yes.” So maybe the question isn't so much “What if Mary had said “no” as it is “What happens now that Mary said “Yes?” The real question for today is “How can the impossible become possible?” C. .S Lewis wrote that “God seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye.” So, like Mary saying yes to the angel, the first step in overcoming impossibilities is for us to say “Yes” to God. For with God all things are possible, but nothing is possible without God.

When I was about 10 years old, someone told me that I would probably be a pastor when I grew up. I just laughed it off, because if there was one thing I knew it was that I was nowhere near good enough to be a pastor. The years went by, and every now and then I would feel a nudge, but I was able to ignore them. Then the time came when I simply couldn't ignore the nudges. God was calling me to the ordained ministry, but there was no way. I had a wife and child, a mortgage, I was 37 years old, and still had at least 3 years of seminary between me and ordination. There was no way. But the more I objected, the more God kept nudging. Remember the parable Jesus told about the widow and the judge?
Luk 18:2-5 In a town there was once a judge who didn't fear God or care about people. (3) In that same town there was a widow who kept going to the judge and saying, "Make sure that I get fair treatment in court." (4) For a while the judge refused to do anything. Finally, he said to himself, "Even though I don't fear God or care about people, (5) I will help this widow because she keeps on bothering me. If I don't help her, she will wear me out."

I began to feel like that judge, so I did what scripture says we should never do: I put the test to the Lord. I said to God: “OK, here's the deal. I will apply to one seminary, and one only. If they accept me, and If they offer a financial package I can live with, I'll go. Do I need to tell you what happened?

It doesn't matter how impossible we think a task may be, there is nothing God cannot do. In the face of terrorist threats, there are still those working for peace. A cure for Malaria is closer than ever as vaccines are tested, sleeping nets distributed, and new ways are being found to prevent mosquitoes from spreading the disease. The only thing preventing our church from reaching out to our neighborhood and changing the world around us is us. Hurt lives are being healed and relationships are being restored. Churches sponsor groups like AA and Celebrate Recovery that are conquering alcoholism and addictions. The hungry are being fed and the lonely are finding friends. And through it all, The kingdom is growing as people reach out and embrace Christ.

There is nothing in your life that is impossible with God. No matter how many times you've said “no,” you can still say “yes.” Mary said “yes” and changed the world. Won't you join her and let your “yes” change the world? Come. Let your “yes” ring clear as we stand and sing together #206 I Want to Walk as a child of the light. The One who is the light, the One who makes all things possible is waiting for you. AMEN.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thankful? For What?

Joel 2:21-27
Upper Rogue United Methodist Church
November 22, 2015

It was early on in my journey as a pastor, but it's a comment that could just as easily be made today: “Pastor, looking around at the way the world is I don't really feel like there's anything to be thankful for; people are out of work, hungry, cold, and lonely. Bombs and missiles are raining destruction, the rain forest is being depleted; what's to be thankful for?”

It's also a comment that could have been made by the Israel of Joel's day when, as he puts it:
Joel 1:6-10 An army of locusts has attacked our land; they are powerful and too many to count; their teeth are as sharp as those of a lion.
(7)They have destroyed our grapevines and chewed up our fig trees. They have stripped off the bark, till the branches are white.
(8) Cry, you people, like a young woman who mourns the death of the man she was going to marry.
(9) There is no grain or wine to offer in the Temple; the priests mourn because they have no offerings for the LORD.
(10) The fields are bare; the ground mourns because the grain is destroyed, the grapes are dried up, and the olive trees are withered.

It should be easy to be thankful when things are going well, but, like a dissapointed child who didn't get everything on her Christmas list, we too often focus on what we don't have, rather than what we do have. And that kind of negative focus leads us to a life of ingratitude and selfishness.

In Budapest, a man goes to the rabbi and complains, "Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?"
The rabbi answers, "Take your goat into the room with you." The man in incredulous, but the rabbi insists. "Do as I say and come back in a week."
A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. "We cannot stand it," he tells the rabbi. "The goat is filthy."
The rabbi then tells him, "Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week."
A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, "Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there's no goat -- only the nine of us."

Joel could have focused on drought and deprivation by locusts that had consumed the land. The grapevines and grain had been chewed to the ground and the trees, stripped of leaves, bark, and fruit stood naked to the sky like a burned over forest. There was no seed to plant and no water to nurture the earth. All that lay ahead was famine. There was not even grain, wine, or animals for the sacrifices. There was no foreseeable future for Joel's people.

But instead of focusing on the calamity around him, Joel called the people to repentance and looked to the day when God would restore the land. That God would restore the land was a given, not a wish.

For Joel, the plague of locusts and the accompanying drought are both a judgment on Israel for years of sinfulness and a foretaste of the Day of the Lord: the time of judgment, and of of salvation when “the arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted...”

In calling the people to repentance, Joel says: Joe 2:15-17 Blow the trumpet on Mount Zion; give orders for a fast and call an assembly! (16) Gather the people together; prepare them for a sacred meeting; bring the old people; gather the children and the babies too. Even newly married couples must leave their homes and come. (17) The priests, serving the LORD between the altar and the entrance of the Temple, must weep and pray: "Have pity on your people, LORD. Do not let other nations despise us and mock us by saying, 'Where is your God?' "

If they do so, Joel assures them, the Lord will restore their fortunes. So there is no need for the land, the animals, or the people to fear; only reasons to rejoice.

Rejoicing and giving thanks when things are bleak does not come easily I am reminded of the Scottish minister Alexander Whyte, who was known for his uplifting prayers in the pulpit. He always found something for which to be grateful. One Sunday morning the weather was so gloomy that one church member thought to himself, "Certainly the preacher won't think of anything for which to thank the Lord on a wretched day like this." Much to his surprise, however, Whyte began by praying, "We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this."

As we prepare to feast with friends and family in the wake of UCC, Paris, the Syrian refugees, and other tragedies weighing on our hearts, it may seem, like it did to that person in my first congregation, or to many in Joel's time,that there is nothing to be thankful for. But if you are still breathing, if you have a roof over your head, if you have food on the table, if you have friends and family around you, you have more to be thankful for than many. When I was in Africa, 20 years ago, working with refugees from the Rwandan massacres, one of the students at the school told us her family was out of food. While we sat around trying to decide what we could do about it, her teacher, who was also there, quietly left and returned with a bag of beans—probably about 5 pounds. “Here,” he said, “I wish I could give you more, but this is half of what we have at our house.”

Amazed at this act of generosity, one of our number asked: “I you just gave her half of the food your family has, what will you do when you run out?” Without hesitation the benefactor replied: “God will provide.” That God would provide was, to him, a given, not a wish. True gratitude and true thankfulness come from faith and trust in God. The same God who called the land, the animals, and the people to rejoice and give thanks. May we answer that call with lives of gratitude and thankfulness. AMEN.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The End of the World


Anybody here remember the millinium bug? The millennium bug was a computer problem that threatened the operations of corporations, utility companies, finance industries, government agencies and even science. On the stroke of midnight between 31 December 1999 and 1 January 2000, the fear was that all computers had the potential of shutting down. This led many people to stash years supplies of dehydrated and preserved emergency rations; purchase and keep in their homes large quantities of gold; and, of course, weapons and ammo. Many even moved to remote areas and set up fenced and armed compounds. The world ended,and I missed it!
In the last century Pat Robertson prophesied that 1980 would "be a year of sorrow and bloodshed that will have no end soon, for the world is being torn apart, and my {God's ] kingdom shall rise from the ruins of it."
The Great Tribulation would begin in October or November 1982, following an invasion of Israel by Russia There would be a worldwide economic collapse in 1985
Jay Rockefeller would be elected President of the United States in 1996.
After his prophecy of 1982 failed to pass, he changed it to 2007, because 2007 is 40 years since the Six-Day War[wp] and 400 years since the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The world ended, and I missed it!

In the early 80's, billboards appeard in Portland announcing the end of the world on a specified date that came and went. The world ended, and I missed it!

And, of course, as we all remember, on December 21, 2012 the Mayan calander ended, and along with it, the world. For at least the third time in my life the world ended, and again I missed it!

The end of the world has always been near. At the turn of the year 1000 (which was celebrated on at least 4 different dates depending upon what part of Europe you lived in, some folks sold all they had and gave the proceeds to the church; others prostrated themselves on church floors in fervent, fear-inspired prayer, while flagelllants beat their backs to a bloody pulp in anticipation of the end. In the 1840's the Millerites built their churches without roofs because they knew the end was coming and wanted nothing to impede their rapture.

Jesus' own time was also filled with apocalyptic expectations. This was the time, said many, when the Messiah would come riding in on a white horse, throw off the yoke of Roman oppression and restore Israel as the power she had been under David. Surely these prophesies were known to, and on the minds of the disciples.

As this exchange with his disciples opens, Jesus has spent most of the day arguing with the Pharisees and Sadducees. The debates have left him tired and ready to eat and rest. Then one of his disciples looks around and seeing the massive stones forming Herod's still under construction temple comments on the size and strength of the structure. Sort of like we might comment on the size and strength of the Grand Coulee Dam, or the big church next door. Jesus, however, does not seem to be impressed. Mar 13:2 Jesus answered, "You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down." That was quite a prophecy. The temple had been under construction for over 40 years. Some of the stones were as big as half a semi trailer; covering the top of Mt. Moriah, it stood some two hundred feet above the ground and cast an image of dazzling whiteness and blinding fire from its marble stones and golden dome. Jesus statement silenced the disciples with unbelief. Yet just a few years later, in 70 A.D. The Romans would mercilessly crush another Jewish revolt and tear down the temple leaving only the foundation, and what is, today, known as the wailing wall.

Resting on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, like so many today, want to know when this will happen. Jesus doesn't really answer them, but, instead, promises that Mar 13:6-8 “Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, 'I am he!' and they will fool many people. (7) And don't be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away. Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come. (8) Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another. There will be earthquakes everywhere, and there will be famines. These things are like the first pains of childbirth.”

“Don't be troubled” he says, and yet we are. Eschatology (the study of the end times) is big business. Countless would be scholars and prophets pour over scriptures and other ancient texts, apply the rules of numerology and astrology and develop complex algorythms to determine when the end will come. But all to no avail. I am no eschatological scholar, but it seems to me that if Jesus, himself, said: Mar 13:32 “No one knows the day or the time. The angels in heaven don't know, and the Son himself doesn't know. Only the Father knows. “ Then the chances that I, or anyone, can correctly predict it are somewhere close to nil.

And that is exactly the point. The angels don't know, Jesus doesn't know, and we don't know when: we only know that. When Jesus told his followers (33) “So watch out and be ready! You don't know when the time will come.” they took him seriously. The disciples and the early church lived in expectation of the imminent return of Christ. But as the years turned into centuries, and the centuries into eons, The church, and Christians, became, for the most part, complacent.

But the truth remains: we don't know how much longer we have; individually, or as a planet. Seedtime and harvest could continue for eons; or climate change and polution could slowly cause the planet to cook in its own juices and boil away; We could blow ourselves up in a nuclear holacost, or be crashed into by a life destroying asteroid or comet. It is not our task to determine the when or the how. Our call is to
Mar 13:33-37 Be on watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come. (34) It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch. (35) Watch, then, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming---it might be in the evening or at midnight or before dawn or at sunrise. (36) If he comes suddenly, he must not find you asleep. (37) What I say to you, then, I say to all: Watch!"


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray my Cuisinart to keep

I pray my stocks are on the rise

And that my analyst is wise

That all the wine I sip is white

And that my hot tub's watertight

That racquetball won't get too tough

That all my sushi's fresh enough

I pray my cordless phone still works

That my career won't lose its perks

My microwave won't radiate

My condo won't depreciate

I pray my health club doesn't close

And that my money market grows

If I go broke before I wake

I pray my Volvo they won't take.

Steve Farrar, Family Survival in the American Jungle, 1991, Multnomah Press, p. 63.

When we think of wealthy, most of us think of people like Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, or Warren Buffett. We certainly don't think of ourselves! By the time the tax man, Social Security, the mortgage, the power bills, the car payments, and the doctor are paid, we may even wonder if we can get to next payday without a visit to the food bank. We're a long ways from wealthy. But then consider the Syrian Refugees in Europe, or the person who greets you at Wal Mart, or the family who picked the coffee you had this morning and things look a little different. If you slept under a permanent roof in a real bed; If you had breakfast this morning; if you drove or rode to church; if you watched TV or listened to the radio; if you spoke with family or friends on the telephone, then you are far wealthier than most of the people on this planet. A typical supermarket in the United States in 1976 stocked 9,000 articles; today it carries over 30,000. How many of them are absolutely essential? How many are just “stuff”? I'm reminded of GK Chesterton's assertion that “There are two ways to get enough: One is to accumulate more and more, the other is to desire less.”

The rich farmer in today's lesson had worked hard all his life. The crops his land produced didn't just pop up and grow on their own; he had plowed and prepared the land, sowed the seed, pulled out the weeds, and driven away the creatures that would have destroyed them. And now, all his work had paid off, giving him a new problem. What to do with his crops. After some thought, he came to the same conclusion many of us would: Can you put your car in your garage? Do you rent a storage unit?
Luk 12:18 (The farmer) said, 'I know what I'll do. I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones so that I can store all my grain and goods in them. Luk 12:19 Then I'll say to myself, "You've stored up a lot of good things for years to come. Take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself."'

The problem wasn't that the farmer had a good crop. The problem wasn't even that he planned to build bigger barns to store it in. The problem was that, like so many people today, he took all the credit for himself, and totally forgot that God was behind his success.
Many years earlier, Deu 1:1 in the desert east of the Jordan River, on the plains, near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and near Laban, Hazeroth, and Di Zahab. Moses warned the Israelites: “Deu 8:11-14 Be careful that you don't forget the LORD your God. Don't fail to obey his commands, rules, and laws that I'm giving you today. (12) You will eat all you want. You will build nice houses and live in them. (13) Your herds and flocks, silver and gold, and everything else you have will increase. (14) When this happens, be careful that you don't become arrogant and forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.

Forgetting God has been a habit through the ages. Many years ago, as the story is told, a devout king was disturbed by the ingratitude of his royal court. He prepared a large banquet for them. When the king and his royal guests were seated, by prearrangement, a beggar shuffled into the hall, sat down at the king's table, and gorged himself with food. Without saying a word, he then left the room. The guests were furious and asked permission to seize the tramp and tear him limb from limb for his ingratitude.

The king replied, "That beggar has done only once to an earthly king what each of you does three times each day to God. You sit there at the table and eat until you are satisfied. Then you walk away without recognizing God, or expressing one word of thanks to Him."

It's easy for us to call on God when things go wrong; when we are confronted with a crisis, a deadly illness, death of a loved one, loss of a job; but once things turn around, we seem quick to forget God and brag about how good WE are doing. The rich farmer, and the lords and nobles in the story of the king's banquet all suffer from Spiritual immaturity. Infants do not always appreciate what parents do for them. They have short memories. Their concern is not what you did for me yesterday, but what are you doing for me today. The past is meaningless and so is the future. They live for the present. Those who are mature are deeply appreciative of those who labored in the past. They recognize those who labor during the present and provide for those who will be laboring in the future. Contact, Homemade, December 1984.

The story of the rich farmer reflects a truth Moses set forth when he warned the Israelites: Deu 8:17-19 You may say to yourselves, "I became wealthy because of my own ability and strength." (18) But remember the LORD your God is the one who makes you wealthy. He's confirming the promise which he swore to your ancestors. It's still in effect today. “

Isn''t it time we grew up? Isn't it time we give credit where credit is due? The farmer learned the hard way what happens to those who claim for themselves what belongs to God. The land is God's. And it follows that all that the land produces is God's. In caring for the earth we not only insure the harvests, we honor God. Failing to be thankful to God, failing to care for the earth, invites disaster. We are seeing that as we watch the ice caps melting. Melting glaciers and land-based ice sheets also contribute to rising sea levels, threatening low-lying areas around the globe with beach erosion, coastal flooding, and contamination of freshwater supplies. Rising seas will severely impact the United States as well. Scientists project as much as a 3-foot sea-level rise by 2100. According to a 2001 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, this increase would inundate some 22,400 square miles of land along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, primarily in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and North Carolina.

The rich farmer learned the hard way what happens when we don't honor God. We have a choice; we can , like small children claim everything we can get for ourselves and watch the destruction of the world, or we can grow up, give God the glory and start being the stewards we are called to be. God has given us a wonderful world. The question is: what will we do with it? AMEN.

What a Day!

What a day! Nothing like it ever happened before. If I hadn't been there, I don't think I would believe it...and I probably wouldn't blame you if you have trouble believing. But it's true. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. Oh, I guess I should introduce myself. I am Samuel, Son of Benjamin. I live in Jericho, and I have a small booth selling wine and bread just outside the city walls on the southeast side, along the road to Jerusalem. Most of my customers are travelers to and from that city. Like all travel based businesses, for much of the year I barely keep body and soul together, but just before and after the Passover, when the crowds are flocking to Jerusalem, I make most of my profit for the year. It was the week before Passover the year Jesus was executed. There were large crowds passing through, and business was brisk. Then we heard the rumor: Jesus was coming. This was good news if it was true, for wherever Jesus went, crowds went, and crowds meant business. The murmuring of the crowds got louder as more and more people spread the story. Even the beggars, who sit in the field across the road seemed anxious. Those beggars are the bane of my business. I work hard to provide good bread and wine at a fair price; but they sit over there on their blankets with pathetic looks on their faces, siphoning off the coins that should be used in my stall. Besides, they're dirty, and they stink. And they're so ugly...some are missing an arm or leg; Some have noses and ears missing, some are twisted and gnarled, and some, who are disfigured by leprosy, have to sit way away from the rest because they are unclean. And then there was blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus. Somewhere he'd gotten a hold of a bright multicolored cloak that he sat on to call attention to himself and his plight. Every day he sat there, third row back, in the center, and waited for travelers to toss him a coin. I don't know for sure, but I think he was born blind...though he comes from a good and righteous family. Then, suddenly, there he was. Jesus himself! Surrounded by his disciples. He seemed to be telling them something..I couldn't catch much of it, but it sounded like he was talking about the Son of Man coming to serve and die. It didn't mean anything to me, and I was too busy with my customers to pay it much mind. Then Bartimaeus did it! He started shouting. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And when I say shouted, I mean he was screaming. He knew better than that. The beggars weren't supposed to say anything, except a polite blessing to those who tossed a coin their way. To shout out at a passer by was rude, crude, and boorish. That kind of behavior was giving our city a bad name. Several of us merchants, and even some of the other beggars tried to shut him up, but he just cried out all the louder; “JESUS! SON OF DAVID! HAVE MERCY ON ME!” The more we tried to quiet him, the louder and more insistent his cries became. Then Jesus did the totally unexpected. He stopped dead in his tracks and said: “Tell that man to come here.” It took a while, because Bartimaeus was still shouting. Finally they got him to quiet down enough that they could tell him: "Don't be afraid! Come on! He is calling for you." Immediately Bartimaeus leaped to his feet and ran, stumbling and tripping over the other beggars, until he fell at Jesus' feet. Jesus just stood there looking at him for a minute. Then when he spoke to blind Bartimaeus, I couldn't believe what I heard. "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him. What kind of question is that? I mean, what do you think he wants? Duh? Of course he answered: “I want to see.” But you know, later, as I thought about it and talked to Bartimaeus, I realized maybe that wasn't such an obvious question after all. Think about it. Bartimaeus was blind for as long as anyone could remember. He had no wife, no children, no family, and the only way he knew to make a living was to beg. If he gained his sight, how would he live? He didn't even know how to pitch hay or pick grapes. But like he told me; he did know he wanted to see. And I guess Jesus understood it too, because he said: Mar 10:52 "You may go. Your eyes are healed because of your faith." Immediately Bartimaeus could see, and he went dancing down the road with Jesus. I didn't see Bartimaeus again for a couple of months. We heard stories from Jerusalem about how the temple leaders accused Jesus and riled up the crowd to have him crucified. And every now and then a traveler would come through with a story about Jesus coming back from the dead and appearing to his followers. But I didn't give those stories a second thought...not until Bartimaeus returned and told me what he'd seen with his new vision. He's seen Jesus' arrested. He'd been in the crown in front of Pilate's castle when Pilate condemned Jesus to death, and then washed his hands. Then, 50 days later, he was outside the house where the twelve were when folks from all over the world heard them speaking in their own languages. Bartimaeus was a changed man. It wasn't just that he could see, it was that he could see with more than just his eyes. And when he shared with me what he'd seen, what he'd learned from and about Jesus, and what Jesus' followers were doing, I wanted to be a part of it. So one day me and my family went down to the river and Bartimaeus baptized us. I have never known such a sense of peace; nothing seems to worry me; I am absolutely convinced that God does, and will continue to provide for our needs. Bartimaeus works with me, now. And both of us share with our customers the story of Jesus and what he's done for us. And while Bartimaeus probably gives away more of our merchandise than he should, it's OK, because there's always more than we need. That's the way it is, with Jesus. AMEN.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

True Leadership, True Success

True Leadership, True Success Mark 10:35-44 Upper Rogue UMC October 18, 2012 It's a common story that crops up in many cultures: The monarch is challenged to consider the poor in the kingdom who have sometimes been forgotten. So one day the monarch decides to see what it is like to live as a poor commoner. In disguise, he spends time walking among the poor, seeing what it is like to live under the sometimes oppressive laws of the government. Returning to the palace, the king is changed by the experience, and the state becomes more friendly to those under its rule. Why has this tale been so popular in so many places for so long? I guess people just want those in authority to know what it's like to live under that authority; an understanding we don't see very often; whether it's at home, at work, in politics, or even in the church. Two brothers, followers of Jesus, came to him to ask a question. Mark puts this story in an interesting place - after a couple of chapters in which Jesus has predicted his passion three times and has set a child in front of these same followers as an example of humility. Perhaps we're to see the brothers as waiting, biding their time to ask Jesus this question. They are so interested in what they want to ask of Jesus that they have failed to listen to what he's been saying. "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you . . . Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (Mk 10:35, 37). They had in mind, of course, some earthly or heavenly palace, a throne, a couple of extra scepters, a great deal of authority where they would reign as benevolent yet firm co-leaders with their Lord. They would be sitting at the head table, the seats of honor. They would be the center of attention. They would be celebrities. Not exactly in line with Jesus' idea of fame and celebrity; Jesus echoes Cato the Elder, who, upon observing statues being set up in honor of others, remarked: "I would rather have people ask 'Why isn't there a statue to Cato? than 'Why is there one?'" Of course the other ten followers, who had been watching and listening to this conversation, became angry with the two brothers, and Mark, who was writing a gospel of hope to a persecuted church, almost certainly chose this moment to insert Jesus' teachings about leadership and authority. Don't be like those worldly rulers you see around you, Jesus told them, and thy knew what he meant. They could see Herod's palace, the governors, and even the priests who did not consider those over whom they had authority. I'm sure that every one of the Twelve, like every one of the Republican or Democratic presidential candidates, honestly believed they could be better rulers than those they saw in power. If they had authority, they'd use it wisely, take care of people; they'd be benevolent rulers. But for Jesus, leading goes far beyond benevolence, and success goes far beyond wealth. A benevolent ruler waves from the rooftop to adoring crowds. A benevolent ruler sends servants to care for important invited guests. A benevolent ruler hopes that people will be fed. A benevolent ruler sees that laws are applied as fairly as possible to as many as possible. A benevolent ruler may even give up something for others. But a benevolent ruler is no closer to Jesus' ideals than the conductor on a train about to leave a large railroad station. As the conductor began to take tickets, looking at the ticket of the first passenger he remarked, "Friend, I think you're on the wrong train!" "But," replied the man, "the ticket agent told me this was my train." After a little discussion, the conductor decided to check with the ticket agent. Before long, it became clear that the conductor, like the would be benevolent rulers, was on the wrong train! For Jesus, leadership is not about authority and success is not about money, but both are about service and sacrifice. Rather than wave to the crowds from the rooftop, Jesus was in their midst, where a hemorrhaging woman touched him and he felt the healing power leaving him to change her life. Instead of sending servants to care for important guests, Jesus invites in the poor, the oppressed, and the powerless; and washes their feet himself! Instead of hoping the people will find food, Jesus feeds the crowd with a young boy's lunch. Instead of enforcing the law for as many as possible, Jesus fulfills the law, bringing grace and mercy to those who have never known them. Instead of giving up some of his wealth and power for others, Jesus gave his very life. Not what we think of when we think of leaders. Jesus calls us to be servant-leaders, but what does that mean, and what does it look like? In 1878, when William Booth’s Salvation Army was beginning to make its mark, men and women from all over the world began to enlist. One man, who had once dreamed of becoming a bishop, crossed the Atlantic from America to England to enlist. Samuel Brengle left a fine pastorate to join Booth’s Army. But at first General Booth accepted his services reluctantly and grudgingly. Booth said to Brengle, “You’ve been your own boss too long.” And in order to instill humility in Brengle, he set him to work cleaning the boots of other trainees. Discouraged, Brengle said to himself, “Have I followed my own fancy across the Atlantic in order to black boots?” And then, as in a vision, he saw Jesus bending over the feet of rough, unlettered fishermen. “Lord,” he whispered, “you washed their feet; I will black their shoes.”(K Hughes, Liberating Ministry From The Success Syndrome, Tyndale, 1988, p. 45.) Jesus gives us the key to true esteem, true success, and true leadership. Don't act like them the rich and powerful you see in the world. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others. (44) And if you want to be first, you must be everyone's slave. It's a rough road, but it can be walked. A young man who had been reared on a farm decided to be a doctor in order that he might be of greater service to mankind. He felt that he could do more good and help more of his fellow men if he practiced medicine, than if he stayed on the farm. The years in medical school were strenuous ones. There were many sacrifices on his part, and plenty of work and study. His father and mother entered into the sacrifice, too. They went without many things in order that the boy might stay in school. Finally he was graduated and served an internship, then went into a large city and began his chosen work. Things did not go too well. He didn't have many patients, and his income was not all he had expected. Evidence of his discouragement must have crept into his letters to his parents, for his father decided to go to the city to see his son. His visit was a pleasant surprise. "Well, son," he asked, "how are you getting along? How is your courage?""I'm not getting along at all, dad. I am not doing a thing. Maybe I made a mistake." The father tried to say something which would encourage the young doctor. He had helped him before, maybe he could do something now. So he did his best. Later in the day the father went with his son to a free clinic, where the young man spent several hours each day without any remuneration. Twenty-five suffering patients were cared for as carefully as if the doctor were to receive a large check from each one. He spoke words of cheer, and left each one feeling better. When they were alone again, the old gentleman said, "I thought you told me you were not doing anything. If I had given as much help to as many persons in a month as you have in a few hours this morning, I would thank God that I was good for something." "But there isn't any money in it, dad," the boy replied "Money!" the old man said, with a tone of scorn in his voice. "What is money in comparison with being a help and a blessing to your fellow men? Forget the money. Don't let it worry you. I will go back to the farm and work the rest of my life to help support you, for in that way I shall be a blessing, too. I shall be happy by day and sleep soundly at night in the thought that I have helped you to help your fellow men." C. L. Paddock. Source: Signs of the Times, Copyright (c) January 30, 1951, Pacific Press, With permission from Dale Galusha . Following Christ is not about fame or fortune, it's about service and sacrifice. It's about being first by being last, and being the master by being the servant. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it's what he said. He said in in Mat 20:26 “But don't act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others.” again in Mat 23:11 “Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others.” He said it in today's reading from Mark: But Jesus called the disciples together and said: You know that those foreigners who call themselves kings like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over the people they rule. (43) But don't act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others. (44) And if you want to be first, you must be everyone's slave. And he said it again in Luk 22:26 But don't be like them. The most important one of you should be like the least important, and your leader should be like a servant. That's really all there is to it. AMEN.

Monday, October 12, 2015

What's It All About, Job?

Job 23:1-9 10 11 15
Upper Rogue UMC
October 11. 2015

I remember the first time I had to prepare a sermon for a child's funeral. “Read Job” my friends told me. “Job explains why bad things happen to good people.” So I read Job, and it didn't help at all. All Job says about the existence of evil is that God's ways are different from ours. So, tell me something I didn't know.

Truth is, Job is not about why evil things happen at all, although a lot of bad things happen to Job. No. Job is a counter-argument to a theology prevalent in ancient Israel, prevalent at the time of Jesus, and still with us today. It's the theology Jesus faced in the Rich Young man who ran up to him. He knelt down, and asked, "Good teacher, what can I do to have eternal life?" (18) Jesus replied, "Why do you call me good? Only God is good. (19) You know the commandments. 'Do not murder. Be faithful in marriage. Do not steal. Do not tell lies about others. Do not cheat. Respect your father and mother.' " (20) The man answered, "Teacher, I have obeyed all these commandments since I was a young man." This young man, we learn, was very rich, and like many Jews of Jesus' time probably believed that his wealth was a reward for his good living. It's what I call the “health and wealth” gospel. This theology, present in many churches, and across the landscape of religious broadcasting, teaches that if you are faithful enough—often defined as sending me enough money--God rewards you with health and prosperity....on the other hand, if bad things are happening to you, it is because you simply do not have enough faith and do not live righteously. It is this teaching that led the disciples to ask in John 9, “Teacher, why was this man born blind? Was it because he or his parents sinned?"

This teaching finds its source in passages such as Psa 58:11 Everyone will say, "It's true! Good people are rewarded. God does rule the earth with justice." Pro 13:13 “Whoever despises God's words will pay the penalty, but the one who fears God's commands will be rewarded.” And Isa 3:10 “The righteous will be happy, and things will go well for them. They will get to enjoy what they have worked for.”
But the teaching twisted the scriptures and taught: Only good people get good things, and bad people only have bad rewards. If you are healthy and wealthy you are a good person; if you are unhealthy or poor, it is obvious that you are a bad person.

The writer of Job realized from experience that not only do good things happen to bad people, but bad things also happen to good people. Good and evil are part and parcel of our lives, regardless of our righteousness. How many multimillionaires have garnered their riches at the pain and expense of others? CEO's outsource jobs, destroy viable companies, and exit with million dollar golden-parachute benefits.
Millions lose their homes to predatory mortgage purveyors who not only escape jail, but keep the millions they've bilked. Meanwhile good people labor 12 hours a day just to keep their families fed, only to be diagnoses with debilitating and deadly diseases.

The story of Job opens with: Job 1:1-3 “Many years ago, a man named Job lived in the land of Uz. He was a truly good person, who respected God and refused to do evil. (2) Job had seven sons and three daughters. (3) He owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pair of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a large number of servants. He was the richest person in the East.” It would be perfectly clear to the purveyors of the health and wealth theology that only good things will follow Job. But then the writers of Job begin their attack.
Job 1:6-11 One day, when the angels had gathered around the LORD, and Satan was there with them, (7) the LORD asked, "Satan, where have you been?" Satan replied, "I have been going all over the earth." (8) Then the LORD asked, "What do you think of my servant Job? No one on earth is like him--he is a truly good person, who respects me and refuses to do evil." (9) "Why shouldn't he respect you?" Satan remarked. (10) "You are like a wall protecting not only him, but his entire family and all his property. You make him successful in whatever he does, and his flocks and herds are everywhere. (11) Try taking away everything he owns, and he will curse you to your face."

It is important to realize that “Satan,” as used here is not Satan, The Devil, the Evil One, as we use the name. Satan simply means “adversary, and the Satan was a member of the heavenly court whose function was to identify evil persons and accuse them before god. He was, in a sense, the prosecuting attorney. And here, he accuses Job of not being as good a person as God may think...that his righteousness is merely a shallow response to the good things he has received. “Take away what you've given him ans see what he does?” the prosecutor challenges.

And so he does. As more and more suffering is dumped upon poor Job, his friends come to “comfort” him. Beginning with his wife, they all tell him to confess his sin and die with a clean conscience. “But I have done no wrong!” Job replies over and over again. Perhaps his most contemporary plea comes from chapter 19:
Job 19:7-14 Though I pray to be rescued from this torment, no whisper of justice answers me. (8) God has me trapped with a wall of darkness (9) and stripped of respect. (10) God rips me apart, uproots my hopes, (11) and attacks with fierce anger, as though I were his enemy. (12) His entire army advances, then surrounds my tent. (13) God has turned relatives and friends against me, (14) and I am forgotten. But even from the pit of his suffering Job realizes: Job 19:25-27 I know that my Savior lives, and at the end he will stand on this earth. (26) My flesh may be destroyed, yet from this body I will see God. (27) Yes, I will see him for myself, and I long for that moment.

“Of course you have sinned. Why else would all these bad things happen if you were truly righteous?” they respond, spewing out the teachings of the health and wealth movement.

And so it goes, back and forth for 30 some chapters until God speaks from out of the storm:
Job 38:2-6 Why do you talk so much when you know so little? (3) Now get ready to face me! Can you answer the questions I ask? (4) How did I lay the foundation for the earth? Were you there? (5) Doubtless you know who decided its length and width. (6) What supports the foundation? Who placed the cornerstone,
Job 38:12 Did you ever tell the sun to rise? And did it obey?Job 38:28-35 Who is the father of the dew and of the rain? (29) Who gives birth to the sleet and the frost (30) that fall in winter, when streams and lakes freeze solid as a rock? (31) Can you arrange stars in groups such as Orion and the Pleiades? (32) Do you control the stars or set in place the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper? (33) Do you know the laws that govern the heavens, and can you make them rule the earth? (34) Can you order the clouds to send a downpour, (35) or will lightning flash at your command?

In times like this, with the images of Roseburg still haunting us, we cannot help but ask, as did Job: “Why?” Job 21:7-10 Why do evil people live so long and gain such power? (8) Why are they allowed to see their children grow up? (9) They have no worries at home, and God never punishes them. (10) Their cattle have lots of calves without ever losing one;” and, like Job, we seemingly face only silence from God.

If Job doesn't tell us why there is evil, who does? I wish I knew. The only answer we have from scriptures is from Isaiah who tells us: Isa 55:8 "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways," declares the LORD.

The truth is, all our righteousness, all our good works, all our ritual cannot and doe not protect us from the attacks of evil. Like the rain, good and evil fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike. There is evil in the world because the world is not, and never has been perfect. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, .
Gen 1:31”... God saw everything that he had made and that it was very good.” Not perfect, but very good.(the words translated good and perfect are from two different Hebrew words.) Now God could have created a perfect world, one where there is no pain or evil (and, in fact he has, but it isn't this world) but in so doing we would have been robbed of free will...we would be simply automatons worshiping and serving God not from choice, but from genetic demand. In short, like good, evil is part and parcel of our lives, and ourselves. We cannot eliminate evil and violence from our world, but we can, and must, eliminate it from ourselves...and when we eliminate evil and violence from ourselves we weaken the hold of the evil one and strengthen the grip of God. Proverbs reminds us: Pro 25:21-22 If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat. And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. (22) This will be the same as piling burning coals on their heads. And the LORD will reward you. A verse cited by Paul when he tells the Romans: Rom 12:19 Dear friends, don't try to get even. Let God take revenge. In the Scriptures the Lord says, "I am the one to take revenge and pay them back."

When faced by seemingly insurmountable evil, the Biblical admonition is to cling to your faith and stand firm...holding tight the promise that in the kingdom to come Rev 21:4 He will wipe all tears from our eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever.

Peace be with you.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Esther Made Easy

The story of Esther is ten chapters of scripture. Fortunately for us, Jeanne Steig, in her delightful book The Old Testament Made Easy, has mercifully shortened it.

High-handed Haman, Esteemed by the King,
Did an evil, ignoble,--nay damnable thing.
He proclaimed, “We have too many Hebrews by far.
Let them therefore be slain, in the month of Adar.”
When the news reached Queen Esther, she shivered a bit,
Then cried: “I say, down with this scrofulous writ!”

She invited her husband, and Haman to feast.
When they'd guzzled their fill, and their chins were well greased,
Said King Ahasuerus, “Dear lady, bravo!
gift shall I give you, what trinket bestow?
What prize will you claim for those tasty ragouts?”
Said she, “Save my life! And my people---the Jews.”

Who threatens my queen? What despicable hound?”
Esther pointed to Haman, who fell to the ground.
King Ahasuerus was horribly wroth.
His eyes were afire, his lips were afroth.
Very little remains of this story to tell.
Horrid Haman was hanged, and his ten sons as well.

The feast of Purim, which Hebrews observe,
Commemorates Esther,--her cunning, her verve.
They dress up in costumes and sing jolly tunes,
And eat hamantaschen, a cookie with prunes.
Jeanne Steig
the Old Testament Made Easy
Farrar-Straus-Giroux, New York 1990

Actually the story has a few more twists and surprises, and I urge you, especially if you like stories of power and palace intrigue , to spend a hour or so reading Esther this week. It's not only a good story, it's also a commentary on power; who thinks they have it, who really has it, and how God can and does intervene on behalf of God's people.

(I am told that when, on the Feast of Purim, the Jewish people tell this story, it is customary to cheer at the mention of Mordacai, and to Boo at the sound of Haman's name. I invite you to do so during this sermon.)

King Ahasuerus (more recognizably known as Xerxes, thought he had power. He was, after all, the sole ruler of an empire that stretched from modern day India to the Balkans. And while he quite likely liked to think he ruled with an iron hand in this story it's clear that he wasn't as in charge as he liked to think he was. He did almost nothing without the advice of his seven closest consultants, (who, in reality, controlled the empire.) As the book opens, a well intoxicated King demands that his trophy wife make an appearance so that he can show her off to his underlings. When she refuses, he asks the seven what he should do. Their advice, which is an affront to modern American thinking, reveals much about the King and his advisers.
Est 1:16-19 Then Memucan told the king and the officials: Your Majesty, Queen Vashti has not only embarrassed you, but she has insulted your officials and everyone else in all the provinces. (17) The women in the kingdom will hear about this, and they will refuse to respect their husbands. They will say, "If Queen Vashti doesn't obey her husband, why should we?" (18) Before this day is over, the wives of the officials of Persia and Media will find out what Queen Vashti has done, and they will refuse to obey their husbands. They won't respect their husbands, and their husbands will be angry with them. (19) Your Majesty, if you agree, you should write for the Medes and Persians a law that can never be changed. This law would keep Queen Vashti from ever seeing you again. Then you could let someone who respects you be queen in her place.”

And it was done. Queen Vashti was banished from the King's presence, and a nationwide beauty contest was held to find a new trophy wife for Ahasaurus. A contest that was won by the Jewish maiden, Esther. (Although, because she was one of the Jewish exiles did not reveal her ethnicity.)

Meanwhile, for reasons the story doesn't reveal, Ahasaurus promoted Haman to be his highest adviser. To say that Haman was a bit of an egotist would be an understatement. He required that those at the palace gate ow down whenever he passed. This was a decree that Mordacai, Esther's uncle and guardian, (who had previously warned the king about a plot against him) would not obey. As a Jew, he could, and would, bow only to God. This affront enraged Haman. Thus was it that Haman, like a modern day racist, Est 3:8-9... went to the king and said: “Your Majesty, there are some people who live all over your kingdom and won't have a thing to do with anyone else. They have customs that are different from everyone else's, and they refuse to obey your laws. We would be better off to get rid of them! (9) Why not give orders for all of them to be killed? I can promise that you will get tons of silver for your treasury.” The king, who trusted Haman, Est 3:10-11... handed his official ring to Haman, who hated the Jews, and the king told him, (11) "Do what you want with those people! You can keep their money."

Like his other advisers, Haman manipulated the King into not only getting rid of the people he, Haman, hated, but also potentially making him a very wealthy individual. And it seemed so easy. But those who wield power surreptitiously are prone to falling victim to their own machinations.

Est 4:1 When Mordacai heard about the letter, he tore his clothes in sorrow and put on sackcloth. Then he covered his head with ashes and went through the city, crying and weeping. Est 4:4 When Esther's servant girls and her other servants told her what Mordacai was doing, she became very upset and sent Mordacai some clothes to wear in place of the sackcloth. But he refused to take them. So Esther sent a messenger to her uncle, (who could not enter the palace). Mordacai sent her a copy of the decree for the annihilation of the Jews and urged her to use her influence with the King to save her people.

The prospect of going directly to the king caused Esther to fear for her life. The law was that no one could approach the king without invitation and the king hadn't called for Esther in a month. So it was, that with the fate of her people resting on her shoulders, Esther approached the king without invitation. Est 5:1-4 On the third day of her fast Esther put on her royal robes and went and stood in the inner courtyard of the palace, facing the throne room. The king was inside, seated on the royal throne, facing the entrance. (2) When the king saw Queen Esther standing outside, she won his favor, and he held out to her the gold scepter. She then came up and touched the tip of it. (3) "What is it, Queen Esther?" the king asked. "Tell me what you want, and you shall have it---even if it is half my empire." (4) Esther replied, "If it please Your Majesty, I would like you and Haman to be my guests tonight at a banquet I am preparing for you."
After an evening of food and wine, Esther invited Ahasaurus and Haman to another feast the next night. Convinced everything was going his way, Haman bragged to his family that he was the only one in the kingdom to dine with the king and queen, not just once, but to be invited back the next day. He celebrated by ordering a 75 foot tall gallows on which he would hang Mordacai.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Est 6:1-10 ... the king could not sleep, and he had a servant read him the records of what had happened since he had been king. (2) When the servant read how Mordacai had kept Bigthana and Teresh from killing the king, (3) the king asked, "What has been done to reward Mordacai for this?" "Nothing, Your Majesty!" the king's servants replied. (4) About this time, Haman came in to ask the king to have Mordacai hanged on the tower he had built. The king saw him and asked, "Who is that man waiting in front of the throne room?" (5) The king's servants answered, "Your Majesty, it is Haman." "Have him come in," the king commanded. (6) When Haman entered the room, the king asked him, "What should I do for a man I want to honor?" Haman was sure that he was the one the king wanted to honor. (7) So he replied, "Your Majesty, if you wish to honor a man, (8) have someone bring him one of your own robes and one of your own horses with a fancy headdress. (9) Have one of your highest officials place your robe on this man and lead him through the streets on your horse, while someone shouts, 'This is how the king honors a man!' " (10) The king replied, "Hurry and do just what you have said! Don't forget a thing. Get the robe and the horse for Mordacai the Jew, who is on duty at the palace gate!"
What a downfall for Haman! Having to show such honor to the one he hated above all others. Later that evening, Est 7:1-10 The king and Haman were dining with Esther (2) and drinking wine during the second dinner, when the king again said, "Esther, what can I do for you? Just ask, and I will give you as much as half of my kingdom!" (3) Esther answered, "Your Majesty, if you really care for me and are willing to help, you can save me and my people. That's what I really want, (4) because a reward has been promised to anyone who kills my people. Your Majesty, if we were merely going to be sold as slaves, I would not have bothered you." (5) "Who would dare to do such a thing?" the king asked. (6) Esther replied, "That evil Haman is the one out to get us!" Haman was terrified, as he looked at the king and the queen. (7) The king was so angry that he got up, left his wine, and went out into the palace garden. Haman realized that the king had already decided what to do with him, and he stayed and begged Esther to save his life. (8) Just as the king came back into the room, Haman got down on his knees beside Esther, who was lying on the couch. The king shouted, "Now you're even trying to rape my queen here in my own palace!" As soon as the king said this, his servants covered Haman's head. (9) Then Harbona, one of the king's personal servants, said, "Your Majesty, Haman built a tower seventy-five feet high beside his house, so he could hang Mordacai on it. And Mordacai is the very one who spoke up and saved your life." "Hang Haman from his own tower!" the king commanded. (10) Right away, Haman was hanged on the tower he had built to hang Mordacai, and the king calmed down.

So what does this story tell us? I think we can mine several lessons from Esther.
First: If you are going to wield power, be sure it is yours to wield Haman thought he was the second-most powerful man in the land, but soon learned otherwise.
Second: Choose your advisers wisely. Those who advised Ahasaurus were more interested in their own welfare and advancement than in what was best for the empire.
Third: Even when confronted by overpowering wrong, call upon God and stand firm for that which is right.

God is power, and all power comes from God. As we enter into a year of political disceptation and hokum, let us not fear to dig through the folderal and detritus to seek out that which is true, and that which is right. To do otherwise is to betray the faith we claim.
America Bless God.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Traditons on trial

Mark 7:1-23
Upper Rogue UMC, August 30, 2015 
Rituals are important markers of the times of our lives. For 64 of the last 68 years, my October 6th has begun with a Bisquick coffee cake. A tradition that began on the day of my birth, when my mother , who was preparing that recipe for Sunday breakfast, had to abandon her efforts and leave for the hospital to give birth to your pastor. Every year during my childhood and youth, my birthday celebration began with The coffeecake. The tradition was dropped when I was in the service, but one of the wedding gifts my mother gave Fay was the recipe for THE coffeecake. And the tradition continues.

Can you imagine Halloween without costumes and “trick or treat?” Thanksgiving without turkey? Christmas without a tree? These kinds of rituals and traditions connect us to one another, anchor our past and propel us into the future. This is especially true of the traditions and rituals of the church. Just a few weeks ago John Cox led us on a trip through the seasons of the church year. Baptisms, weddings and funerals mark important places along our spiritual journey. Baptism celebrates our birth into the family of Christ. Weddings mark the pledge of fidelity; the faithfulness of love; and the formation of a new family. Funerals bring us face to face with our mortality as celebrate the lives of the faithful and the promise of eternal life. The customs and traditions that surround our life events serve to unite us as a culture, as family, and as the church. Holy Communion, Crismon trees, “giving up” for Lent, Easter Sunrise services, just to name a few, are important and valuable traditions of today's church.

If traditions are so important, why does Jesus seem to condemn them? When some Pharisees noticed that his disciples didn't always wash up prior to eating they asked Jesus why? Mar 7:6-13 Jesus answered them, "How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! You are hypocrites, just as he wrote: 'These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. (7) It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!' (8) "You put aside God's command and obey human teachings." (9) And Jesus continued, "You have a clever way of rejecting God's law in order to uphold your own teaching. (10) For Moses commanded, 'Respect your father and your mother,' and, 'If you curse your father or your mother, you are to be put to death.' (11) But you teach that if people have something they could use to help their father or mother, but say, 'This is Corban' (which means, it belongs to God), (12) they are excused from helping their father or mother. (13) In this way the teaching you pass on to others cancels out the word of God. And there are many other things like this that you do."

Jesus doesn't condemn traditions in and of themselves. What he condemns is the misuse of traditions, and the following of traditions for their own sake. Traditions are at their best whey they are meaningful symbols of a spiritual truth. The tradition of hand washing dates to the days of the Exodus, when God commanded: Exo 30:19-20 Aaron and his sons are to use the water to wash their hands and feet (20) before they go into the Tent or approach the altar to offer the food offering... clean hands, and clean feet represent pureness of heart, without which we cannot hope to enter the presence of the Holy. The Pharisees had twisted this symbol, making it a law that folks had to wash up before eating. Now, as your mother told you, washing up before meals is a good idea...but it is not a substitute for humble obedience and sincere worship. It is said that when Edward VI, the king of England in the 16th century, attended a worship service, he stood while the Word of God was read. He took notes during this time and later studied them with great care. Through the week he earnestly tried to apply them to his life. That's the kind of serious-minded response to truth the apostle James calls for in today's Scripture reading. A single revealed fact cherished in the heart and acted upon is more vital to our growth than a head filled with lofty ideas about God.

Just as the laws of cleanliness had been twisted, the laws of giving had been perverted to allow a person to declare his possessions “Corban,” or dedicated to God. This, in essence, made one a trustee of his own estate, allowing them to care lavishly for themselves, while ignoring the command to honor their parents. They had not just twisted the intent of the law, they were using it to justify sin. A colleague tells of a parishioner who came to her complaining about his widowed mother who was sharing living quarters with a man in order to stretch her meager Social Security check. “It's not right!,” the son complained. “she's living immorally and setting a bad example for my children.”
“What are you doing to help her? Do you honor her?” my colleague asked.
“Of course I honor her. I try to live the way she taught me. I've always been an obedient son.”
“But are you providing for her? That's what the second commandment is about. Honoring our parents means being sure they have the basic needs of life: food, housing, medical care and so on.” Like the pharisees, my friend's parishioner had lost sight of what the second commandment really means.

What the Pharisees missed, and James reminds us is that (Jas 1:27) What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.
When we try to replace pure hearts and sincere worship with lip service religion and empty rituals, we become modern day Pharisees; modern day hypocrites.
Deeply immersed in meditation during a church service, Italian poet Dante Alighieri failed to kneel at the appropriate moment. His enemies hurried to the bishop and demanded that Dante be punished for his sacrilege. Dante defended himself by saying, "If those who accuse me had had their eyes and minds on God, as I had, they too would have failed to notice events around them, and they most certainly would not have noticed what I was doing."

Faith is not a matter of simply going through the motions. (James 1:23 If you listen to the word, but do not put it into practice you are like people who look in a mirror and see themselves as they are. (24) They take a good look at themselves and then go away and at once forget what they look like. (25) But if you look closely into the perfect law that sets people free, and keep on paying attention to it and do not simply listen and then forget it, but put it into practice---you will be blessed by God in what you do. Stanley C Brown tells of A young boy, on an errand for his mother, he had just bought a dozen eggs. Walking out of the store, he tripped and dropped the sack. All the eggs broke, and the sidewalk was a mess. The boy tried not to cry. A few people gathered to see if he was OK and to tell him how sorry they were. In the midst of the works of pity, one man handed the boy a quarter. Then he turned to the group and said, "I care 25 cents worth. How much do the rest of you care?" Words don't mean much if we have the ability to do more.

Are you simply going through the motions? Or is your faith part and parcel of who and what you are? John Wesley said we are to do all the good we can, wherever we can, to whoever we can for as long as we can. That's our challenge for the days ahead.