What Then Are We To Do: Micah 6:8 1.10/2011

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AUNTI EM CONFRONTS MISS GULCH DOROTHY TOTO FROM THE WIZARD OF OZ:

…….I’D LOVE TO GIVE YOU PIECE OF MY MIND. BUT BEING CHRISTIAN WOMAN…

……..THOUGHT TRIVILAIZED CHRISTIAN FAITH. TOO POLITE TO EXPRESS ……..ANGER

……..CHANGED MY MIND. MAYBE TRUE EVEN IMPORTANT HOW EXPRESS ANGER

……..BEING CHRISTIAN SHAPES HOW I SPEAK TO MY NEIGHBOR, EVEN STRANGER

MAN SAID: I THINK BEING CHRISTIAN IS STARING TO MAKE DIFFERENCE

……..IN PARKING LOT. CHILD IN CAR NEXT TO ME SWUNG DOOR INTO MY CAR

……..SURPRISED MYSELF: ALL I SAID WAS THAT’S OKAY. ITS ONLY A CAR, FINE.

……..NOT TO LONG AGO I WOULD HAVE HAD A LOT MORE TO SAY. NOT SO NICE.

……..WAS ANGRY MAN. JUDGMENTAL. NOW SLOWER TO ANGER OR TO JUDGE

……..WAYS THAT SURPRISED HIM, HE WAS CHANGING. FAITH MADE DIFFERENCE

QUESTION: WHAT DOES GOD EXPECT OF US AS PEOPLE OF FAITH?

……..WHAT ARE THE MARKS OF A CHRISTIAN LIFE? EVIDENCE OF MY FAITH?

………HOW WOULD YOU ANSWER THAT QUESTION? HOW DO YOU KNOW?

QUESTION AT THE HEART OF MICAH 6:1-8

……..INTERESTING PASSAGE. COURT ROOM. GOD BROUGHT ISRAEL TO TRIAL

……..HAVE BEEN UNFAITHFUL TO GOD. VIOLATED COVENANT. SO MANY WAYS.

……..PEOPLE DO NOT PLEAD INNOCENT. ONE QUESTION: WHAT IS IT YOU WANT?

……..BURNT OFFERING? 1000 CALVES? RIVERS OF OIL? MY FIRST BORN CHILD?

……..HOW CAN WE APPEASE YOU? WHAT SACRIFICES OFFER MAKE YOU HAPPY?

……..IMAGE OF GOD AS AN ANGRY JUDGE. WHAT IS THE PENALTY? WHAT FINE?

………SO WRONG. THIS IS NOT WHO GOD IS OR WHAT GOD IS ABOUT. NEVER WAS

THEN PROPHET EXPRESSES WHAT IT IS THAT GOD IS LOOKING FOR

……..YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS THAT GOD EXPECTS. NEVER BEEN SECRET

…….NEVER A MYSTERY. NOT REQUIRE DEGREE PHILOSOPHY OR THEOLOGY

……..WHAT LORD REQUIRES: DO JUSTICE, LOVE KINDNESS, WALK HUMBLY

……..SUMMARIZES 613 COMMANDMENTS: JUSTICE, KINDNESS, FAITHFULNESS

FIRST GOD EXPECTS PEOPLE OF FAITH TO BE PEOPLE WHO DO JUSTICE

……..PEOPLE OF INTEGRITY DO WHAT IS JUST & RIGHT IN ALL RELATIONSHIPS

……..PEOPLE CAN BE TRUSTED NOT TO LIE, CHEAT, STEAL FROM, MANIPULATE

……..I WILL NOT TAKE OR KEEP WHAT IS NOT MINE. GIVE OTHERS WHAT IS DUE

SIMPLE THINGS: NO QUESTION IF GIVEN TOO MUCH CHANGE, RETURN IT

……..IF I FIND SOMETHING THAT SOMEONE LOST: I WILL RETURN IT.

……..FINDERS KEEPERS, LOSERS WEEPERS IS NOT A BIBLICAL PROVERB

……..FRIEND FOUND $300 IN PARKING LOT. PEOPLE THOUGH CRAZY TO RETURN.

……..IN SCHOOL: DON’T CHEAT. GRADE I NOT YOURS. NOR POSITION IN CLASS.

……..AT WORK: I WILL DO MY JOB. HONESTLY. WELL. BE PRODUCTIVE. EARN

……..I WILL NOT EARN MY LIVING FROM THAT WHICH HARMS OTHERS.

……..GOD HATES UNBALANCED SCALES: TO CHEAT OTHERS IS ABHORENT TO GOD

……..EMPLOYER: FAIR WAGES. GOOD CONDITIONS

THERE IS FAR MORE TO BIBLICAL JUSTICE THAN PERSONAL INTEGRITY

JUSTICE & RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD: MORE JUDGE-PUNISH-REWARD

GOD WILL SET ALL THINGS RIGHT. DO JUSTICE: SHARE THAT WORK

………JEWISH: TIKKUM OLAM: JOIN WORK OF GOD IN REPAIR OF THE WORLD

……..SOMETHING BROKEN: FIX IT. FIND SOMETHING LOST: RETURN IT

……..FIND SUFFERING: RELIEVE IT. IN EACH OF THESE: SHARE GOD’S WORK

……..JESUS: LUKE 4 AND MATT. 25. SET FREE OPPRESSED. FEED, CLOTHE, VISIT

……..JAMES: TRUE RELIGION IS TO CARE FOR WIDOWS & ORPHAN IN DISTRESS

……..RESPOND TO CHILD WHO IS HURT. SO JUSTICE ATTENDS TO MARGINALIZED

……..DO JUSTICE: THIS IS NO LESS THAN A COMMITMENT TO THE POOR,           ……..OPPRESSED, AND POWERLESS IN A SOCIETY, PEOPLE WHO HAVE NO VOICE

TO LOVE KINDNESS: GRACEFUL, GENTLE, CARE FOR OTHERS

……..GOOD NEWS THE GOD WHO DEFINES JUSTICE AND EMBODIES KINDNESS.

……..PSALMIST: IF YOU HELD OUR SINS AGAINST US, WHO COULD STAND?

……..NO ONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT ONE, BUT IN YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS: FORGIVE ME

……..JESUS: BE MERCIFUL AS GOD IS, WHO SENDS RAIN UPON JUST & UNJUST

……..FORGIVE & IT WILL BE FORGIVEN. TURN OTHER CHEEK. GIVE GENEROUSLY

……..JESUS: THOSE WHOM OTHERS REJECTED FOUND KINDNESS IN HIM.

SO PEOPLE OF FAITH ARE TO LOVE, EMBODY, VERY KINDNESS OF GOD

……..MEANS, BEING PATIENT, WATCHING HOW WE SPEAK. BUILD OTHERS UP

…….BE HELPFUL. BE COMPASSIONATE. BE HELPFUL. BE GOOD TO BE AROUND.

……..REMEMBER SOMEONE’S KINDNESS? BE THAT KIND OF PERSON FOR OTHERS

HESED WHICH HAS A DEPTH MEANING HARD TO CAPTURE IN ENGLISH ……..COVENANT FAITHFULNESS, COMPASSION, LOYAL LOVE, LOVING

……..GOD WHO FREED ISRAEL FROM SLAVE HOUSES OF EGYPT, FROM EXILE

……..SHOULD A MOTHER FORGET CHILD ON HER LAP: I WILL NOT FORGET YOU

……..BIBLICAL STORY: WE ARE UNFAITHFUL. FORGET GOD. VIOLATE COVENANT

……..BUT GOD DOES NOT. DOES NOT LET US GO, SAVES, REDEEMS, FORGIVES

MIRACLE: GOD OF UNIVERSE ENTERS INTO COVENANT RELATIONSHIPS

……..BINDS HIMSELF TO US. REMAINS FAITHFUL. EVEN TO CROSS. SUCH IS GOD

……..SO WE ARE CALLED TO BE: HESSED, FAITHUL, LOVING & MERCIFUL

……..INVITATION TO RICH, BEAUTIFUL, MATURE, COMMITTED, RELATIONSHIPS

……..FRIENDSHIPS, FAMILY. WITHIN COMMUNITY. LOVE, VALUE DEEP KINDNESS

TO WALK IN HUMBLE FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD: FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD

……..NOT ANGRY JUDGE, QUICK TO PUNISH, MUST BE APPEASED

……..BUT GOD OF HESED, WHOSE BEING IS LOVE, WHOSE DESIRE IS FRIENDSHIP

BEGINNING & END: CHERISH, NURTURE, REAL FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD

……..THIS IN ITSELF WILL BE FOUNDATION OF RICH LIFE WORTHY OF LIVED

……..KNOW FROM THE CENTER OF WHO YOU ARE: SACRED WORTH TO GOD

……..INVITED TO DANCE WITH SPIRIT. WALK WITH GOD WHO WALK WITH YOU

LEE: NOT WILLINGNESS BUT EAGERNESS. NEXT STEP: ACTION; DO IT

……..FAITH IS MORE THAN FEELING OR ATTITUDE, OR ACCEPT CERTAIN DOGMA

……..WAY LIFE: COMMITMENT TO JUSTICE, KINDNESS, FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD

TO TALK FAITH: BETTER THAN TO ASK HOW MUCH FAITH OR FEELING

……..THIS DAY: WHAT HAVE I DONE BECAUSE I AM A FOLLOWER OF JESUS?

……..WHAT HAVE I NOT DONE?

……..TO DO JUSTICE? TO EMBODY KINDNESS? TO GROW FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD?

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The Longest Night: 12/21/10: John 1:1-5

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One of the oldest and most universal symbols of hope is a candle shining in darkness. How many of us have had the experience of being home at night during a storm, and suddenly there is a power outage. All the lights go off. We rush around looking in drawers and closets to find a flashlight or a candle. When we light it, the light of even one candle pierces the darkness. We know everything will be okay. One candle in a dark room restores hope. We know we are not lost. We will find our way again.

The central symbol of Advent, the Advent wreath, has its roots in this ancient symbol. Before Christianity the Germanic people would create wreaths decorated with candles during the dark and cold month of December. They lit the candles to remember that the sun would return.

In Scandinavian countries a wheel decorated with candles would be used as a symbol of the turning of the seasons. People  would pray for the return of the sun. By the Middle Ages, Christians adopted the practice as a way of preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, the light of God who comes into the world. The wagon wheel became an Advent wreath.  (http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0132.html)

In the same way, the Longest Night Service has its roots in an ancient yearning for the return of the sun. In Celtic regions, during the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, greenery would be brought into the house, holy and ivy. Pine cones would were brought in as symbols of new birth. Yule logs would be prepared and burnt in fireplaces. All of this served as a source of celebration, and a reminder that the sun would return, the days would lengthen, spring would return. In Celtic worship, the Winter solstice became a night to remember that Jesus was born to bring light to all of us especially, in the darkest days and hardest of our experiences. (http://theoldbill.typepad.com/thebackroom/2006/02/celtic_worship_.html)

Today Christmas has come to mean so many different things. We decorate our churches, and more people come to church. We get together as family and friends. Families have their own traditions. We see relatives we have not seen all year, we give gifts to each other; perhaps we remember to give back a bit to people in need. We serve at a soup kitchen, or give food baskets etc.

We can get carried away. We spend a bit too much. We eat a bit too much. But I do think, even though we get carried away, and we can get a bit too materialistic, that it is good. It is good to have this time for celebration, for family for generosity. We hope that the day is a special one, even magical, especially for children.

But there is an important side of Christmas that we can easily forget, or leave behind. One that is deeper and perhaps even more important than all of that. One that is best symbolized by a candle shining in the darkness: in our yearning and need for God, God comes to meet us.

We often forget that the passages we read from the prophets during Advent and Christmas were first spoken to people during a period of great loss and devastation. It was a time of exile. Israel had come through a period of overwhelming violence. Jerusalem had been destroyed by its enemies. Its walls were torn down. The Temple burned. They were forced to live in exile in a foreign land.

It was when all hope was gone, that the prophets began to speak a different word:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor, you have broken…For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Isa. 9:2-6)

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not grow weary…He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted, but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isa. 40:18-31)

These were words spoken to people in a time of desperation and need. They were spoken to people who were experiencing grief and loss. They were spoken to people who had lost all hope.

Then the prophets brought a different word: God had not abandoned them. God would be with them. God would strengthen them, carry them, redeem them, restore them. Precisely to those walking in darkness, in the most difficult time in their lives, God’s light would shine most brightly. It is in the darkest of nights that the stars shine most brightly.

Christians discovered that what the prophets pointed to was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ.  The symbol that best speaks to the meaning of his birth: A candle shining in the dark:

John 1:4: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John 8:12: “Jesus said to them: I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

So it is that on the Winter solstice, the longest night of the year, we remember that He is our light, he is the light of the world. The darkness of night cannot and will not overcome his light.

And this light shines very clearly, and perhaps most brightly, for those who are walking through darkness, those who are feeling some loss, perhaps some grief.

A pastor, Rev. Bruce Epply, talks about the Christmas in which he experienced this most powerfully. I share his words with you:

Three years ago, I spent Christmas Day in Georgetown University Hospital’s chemotherapy ward.  My only child was being treated for a rare form of cancer.  On Christmas morning, we walked, father and son, the four blocks from his home to the hospital, carrying a fruit and pastry basket for the nurses who chose to work on Christmas Day.  For six hours we sat together in the chemo ward, hoping for good news through modern chemistry, while my wife, mother-in-law, and daughter-in-law prepared a meal that my son could digest. There was celebration that Christmas in 2008, but it was tinged with anxiety and fear, and the realism that life can be difficult.

But, make no mistake, this is the world in which the Christ-child comes — the world of grieving spouses, homeless families, frightened immigrants; a world of care and uncertainty.  This is precisely where “we need a little Christmas” — not false hope or a good-time God, but an all-season spirituality, grounded in a love that embraces the dark night & the joyful dawn. (http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Joy-and-Ambiguity-of-Christmas.html)

Christmas is a hard time of the year for many. We are surrounded by bright colors, carols, all the advertisements and Christmas specials in which everyone is happy and every problem is solved.  Yet we feel the sadness of loss or grief. Recent or in the past. Everything around us can make it feel worse.

Tonight we take time to remember that Christ is born even, and especially for these times. His light is there for everyone. For each of us. No one is to be left out or left behind. Remember that his light shines in the darkness and the darkness, the sadness cannot overcome it.

May the peace of Christ reign in all of our hearts and homes this Christmas.

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10/10/10: Live Long and Prosper: Jer. 29:1, 4-7

 

Nimoy as Spock giving the salute.

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All you Trekies out there will recognize the Vulcan salute and blessing. Mr. Spock would raise his right hand, fingers spread in the middle, thumb extended.

Some contend that the hand sign represents the Hebrew letter “Shin,” which is the first letter of the word Shaddai. El Shaddai is one of the names of God in the Old Testament, roughly translated “God Almighty.” If so, then we have a unique crossing of cultures, and a blending of benedictions. One web site suggests that this was a hand sign used by ancient Hebrew priests, although I do not find it in the Bible.

(How to Do the Vulcan Salute | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/how_5024821_vulcan-salute.html#ixzz11ttzOstU)

Lifting up the gesture Mr. Spock would offer the Vulcan salutation: “Live long and prosper.” Occasionally he would say “Live well and prosper.” After having come through some adventure, some struggle against evil, Spock would affirm the reason for the struggle: that we might live well, that life might be good.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks God’s intention for the people of Judah during their time of exile in our reading this morning from Jeremiah 29. It is from a letter written in the beginning of the 6th Century, B.C.E. to the first wave of people sent into Exile by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. Jeremiah writes:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the god of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jer. 29:4-7

As Mr. Spock wishes for others, so we find Jeremiah proclaiming to people in exile: Raise families. Grow gardens and eat the produce. Build houses. Work and pray for the welfare of the cities in which you are resident; in the welfare of those cities you will find your welfare. Live well and prosper!

Even in the idle of the most difficult circumstances we discover the intention of God: Life is not meant to be a test or a trial, but a gift. It is an extension of God’s blessing of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. There is God’s original blessing on all living things: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Gen. 1:22, 28) What does God want for us? It is clear. Life should be lived, rejoiced in, celebrated. God desires that we build communities, raise families, rejoice in the goodness of life, and give thanks.

What is remarkable about this passage from Jeremiah, is that it is written for people who are experiencing great struggle and hardship. It is not written to those for whom life is easy and for whom circumstances are good. It is written for people in the going through difficult and even tragic times.

Babylonia had cracked down on political dissent in Judah. A minor rebellion that took place in 597 B.C.E. was crushed. The leading citizens, artisans, even the King were taken from their homes and forcefully relocated to cities in Babylonia. They were forced to live as refugees and exiles in a foreign land. In the middle of their fear and grief, they wondered what would happen now? Had God abandoned them? Would they survive at all?

There were different responses. One false prophet named Hananiah predicted an early end to their time of exiles, proclaiming that it would be just s few short years. They were not to worry; things were not as bad as they seemed. Jeremiah denounced that as a denial of reality and a false promise, a hope that would fail them. Rather he said that the exile would go on for a long time. They were to prepare to survive what would be an extended ordeal.

But Jeremiah also proclaimed to them that life was to go on. They were not to give in to despair, or give up on life. Rather they were to live and thrive where they found themselves. God would be with them carrying them through the struggle. Life was still worth living. God would see them through.

The amazing result of this was that the people of Judah and Israel were able to survive the destruction of their land and the periods of exile. Their culture, their identity, their way of life as God’s people is one of the very few ever to survive these kinds of harsh and destructive periods of history.

We do live in a time in which many people are experiencing something of their own periods of exile. The economic recession is continuing. High levels of unemployment will continue for a while. People have lost their homes. Many people over 50 have lost jobs and are beginning to think that they may never find work again. People in their 20’s are wondering if they will ever be able to find employment or earn enough to live on their own. We find ourselves in difficult circumstances that we did not choose, and wonder if there is hope of return to a normal way of life.

Some in our congregation have left their home countries to settle in the United States. Some by choice. Many because of circumstances. Some have come from West Africa, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, some from Vietnam, driven away by the violence of civil war. Some came with little or nothing except a few suitcases, wondering what would happen, or how they would survive. They tell remarkable stories of how they clung to the hand of God, who was their source of strength and hope. They praise God that life did become good. They did manage, with God’s help, to continue, to go on, to survive and even flourish!

Some of us go through other kinds of exile, experiences in which we know everything has changed. For some it involves the loss of a loved one, or the breaking up of a family, an illness, and accident. In the middle of the pain and grief, we wonder if life will return to normalcy. We wonder if we will find real joy again.

What do we do in those times, those periods of struggle and exile? How might we

come through them well and whole?  When I reflect on this passage from Jeremiah, and what I have learned from those who have survived periods of exile, there are a few suggestions come to mind.

First, denial is not a good survival strategy. The false prophet Hananiah was very wrong. The struggles, the difficulties, the dislocation, the pain, the grief, the fear, are all too real. We cannot, and should not minimize the reality we face. There may be a brief period in which what has happened is too much to accept or absorb all at once. That is true and okay. But at some point we need to acknowledge what is real. This is where we are. This is what things are like. This is where we find ourselves.

Second, and this is not from the passage, but is important: get the help that is needed. Find and build a network of support. Accept the help of friends, family, church. If the issue is medical: get ye to the doctor. If emotional or family issues are involved, perhaps counseling is necessary. Asking for and getting help is a sign of strength, and not weakness. We do not come through these times alone. We do it together.

Third, this is included something rooted in Jeremiah: remember to live! Even though things may not be as we wish, even though things may be difficult and hard, remember that life still is good. Even though things may never be exactly the same, even though we may not be where we want to be, and may not have chosen to be where we are, joy is still a possibility. We are still called to raise our families, plant our gardens, build our homes, and contribute to the well being of the community in which we find ourselves!

There is an old story about a monk who found himself being chased by Tigers. He ran and ran until he came to the edge of a cliff. The tigers still came after him. He climbed down the cliff to a small ledge and sat there. The tigers were above him snarling. He then looked down and saw more tigers circling below him. He was trapped. He also noticed that there was a strawberry bush on the ledge from which grew one luscious strawberry. The question is: what should he do? What would you do?

The answer: eat the strawberry! Even in the most difficult circumstance, there are strawberries to be picked. We are more than our circumstances and there is more to life than the struggles we face.

The loss, grief, sadness, anger are real, but they do not define us. They do not own us. There is more to us. There is more to God.

It is as someone else has said: “Christian maturity means putting one foot in front of another, remembering God is no less present in darkness than deliverance.” (http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20071008JJ.shtml)

And we do not know the good that God may build even from the stuff of our struggles.

I knew a man who was a self-employed painter. One day he fell while on a job and broke his leg in several places. He had no medical insurance. He had no salary coming in. He did not know what would happen to him or how he would get through it. I remember sitting with him in the hospital wondering what would come next. Well, a neighbor, a lovely woman, stepped in to help him out. She helped with meals, with cleaning. She sat with him watching television at night. Finally, they fell in love, got married. Now they are delightfully happy, running two small and successful businesses. We never know what may develop. We often do not know what God good God can build even through periods of exile.

Jeremiah has even more to say to those who were in exile. A little further in the text Jeremiah offers powerful words of hope from God to those in exile, and to us:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).

This is what God has in mind for all who look to God, and perhaps even fro those who do not yet know how to do that. God’s dream, Gods vision for life, for us, is that our lives be fruitful. God’s intention is for all life to flourish.

What is God’s word to those in exile: as we draw near to God, live, flourish, embrace life! And contribute to the welfare of those around us; for we are in this together.

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9/19/10: How Then Shall We Live? Luke 16:1-10

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Luke 16 begins with one of the more interesting and probably most confusing of Jesus’ parables. It goes something like this:

A certain steward worked for a rich man who had heard that he was doing his work poorly, squandering his money. The rich man decided to do an audit, and asked the steward to account for what he had been doing with his money. The steward realized that his days of employment were quickly coming to an end. We hear him talking to himself as he tries to figure out what to do. He knows that he cannot dig ditches, so work as a day laborer will not work. He is too proud to beg. Then he develops a plan. He decides to reduce the debt that each customer owes to his master, collect the debt, and pay the rich man what is due him. By doing this he hopes to gain some friends who will either hire him or help him out what he loses his position.

He then carries out his plan. He calls his master’s debtors one at a time. He has them rewrite their bills. One he bill he cuts in half. Another he reduces by 20%.  Imagine if the person who sold you your car appeared at your door and said, “I know you have three years of payments left on your car loan. Just go ahead and rewrite the bill. Make it two years.” Clearly, the debtors are pleased. They have paid off their debts and save a significant amount of money.

One of the surprises in this parable is that the rich man rather than becoming angry or upset at what this steward did, is pleased by it. We read that the owner commends the steward for the shrewd way he conducted his business.

It is helpful to know a bit about how business was done in the first century in order to appreciate the parable. In Jesus’ first century world, the amount charged to a customer who purchased on credit would include three things: the price of the product, the interest charged by the owner, and the commission to be earned by the steward. The steward, the person who handled the transaction, could add whatever commission he thought he could collect.  That was his profit. It was how he would have made his living.

Some biblical commentators argue that the steward was simply reducing his commission, and perhaps some of the interest added to the loan. The rich man lost no money and probably made a decent profit. The customers were happy. The steward had given up some of his profit, but he gained much more: an enhanced reputation, some friends, and some security.

So it is that the rich man commends the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. The steward responded well to a very difficult situation. With some creativity and people skills he created a win-win situation. Everyone came out ahead, including the steward himself. So the rich man commended the steward for his shrewdness.

Minion Verdell shared with me a very interesting reading of this parable. She suggests that the one gift or ability that this man had was his shrewdness. He can’t do construction work. He isn’t up to begging. The one thing he is, is a shrewd businessman. He has people skills. He understands his business. He can think his way through the situation and is able to make some good deals with and for his customers. Even the rich man has to admire what he has done.  He uses well the one gift, the one ability he has. He is shrewd.

Another odd thing about this parable is that Jesus uses this manager as an example from which we are to learn something about how we are to live our lives before God. Jesus concludes the parable:  “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”

I hear an important challenge in this parable.

Jesus points to the ingenious way that this steward went to work applying his one skill, his shrewdness, in order to avoid having to do manual labor and protect himself. He then says that people like this steward are care more about, and are more committed to what they are doing in the world of business and commerce, than people of faith are committed to doing the things that honor and please God.

The challenge is: if this is what we do to earn those things that are temporary, how much more should we be doing for those things that count for eternity?  If this is what we do to please our bosses, our teachers, should we be doing at least as much, if not more, to please God?

I read awhile ago about two travelers who toured the great European cathedrals. One traveler remarked: “These cathedrals are magnificent. People don’t build cathedrals anymore. I wonder why we don’t build cathedrals today?” The other traveler responded: “They had convictions about God. We have opinions. Opinions don’t build cathedrals. Convictions do.”

I hear a challenge in the parable: do we have enough conviction about our faith and the importance of serving God that we would put as much heart and soul into our faith as we do into the many other things that we do?

I so admire good entrepreneurs.  I recently married a young man who has started his own software development business. He has employs two people: himself and a friend. He writes programs that analyze information on the web for marketing purposes. His friend does sales and customer relations. They have been fabulously successful. I admire the skills that are needed, the willingness to take risks, and the heart and energy and creativity it takes to establish and build up that kind of business. I know I couldn’t do it. But these two young men do it, and do it well.

The challenge the parable puts before us: will we put that same kind of love, energy and creativity into building up the church and into the things that are to serve God?

Years ago I read about an article about a man who was considered to be the “shot doctor” in the NBA. He was not a player, but he could take the most skilled professional, and improve his shooting percentage. The title of the article was “Take 10,000 foul shots and see me in the morning.” That is what it takes to become a great shooter in basketball: 10,000 foul shots a day.

A singer was approached by a fan who said: “I just love how you sing. I would give anything to sing like that!” The singer said: “Okay. Are you willing to make you life about your singing? Are you willing to practice six, eight, ten hours a day to perfect your technique? That is what I give to singing. What are you willing to give?”

We know what it takes to be successful at work, in school, in sports, to be a musician, an artist. We give so much of ourselves to these things, and we should.

The parable challenges us: how dedicated are we to growing spiritually. How much time energy love and commitment are we willing to give to serve and honor God?

There are many examples of people who chose to use their skills and abilities, their work, in a way that would honor God.

In 1708 Bach declared his ultimate purpose in life was to create “well-regulated church music to the glory of God.” Bach initialed his blank manuscripts before he began to compose “I.N.J.” (In Nomine Jesu–“In the name of Jesus“). When the manuscript was done, he initialed “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria–“To God alone, the glory“) Handle did the same. (see: http://www.eadshome.com/FaithComposers.htm)

Bono, the lead singer from U2 is committed not only to making good music, but to using his voice to advocate for the poor and to eradicate poverty.

The challenge of the parable is not just for exceptional people like Bach and Bono. It is also intended for very ordinary people, like you and like me.

Years ago in a bible study a minister asked the group a question which is probably one of the things that led me into ministry. He asked: What would you do right now if you were to use the gifts and abilities in a way that glorified and honored God? What would you be doing?

At that time I worked as a manager for the Post Office, and I had done a lot of public speaking. I thought: I would probably go into ministry, and use my skills for the building up of the church.  So here I am.

That was my way of responding to the question. What might your response be?

We all have different skills, abilities, gifts. Someone is just good at making people feel at home, and receives great joy from applying this gift of hospitality. Someone else is a writer, another knows how to care for buildings, another teaches, another prays, another cooks. We all have these gifts. We know what it takes to develop them and use them. Are we willing to use them in a way that serves and honors our God? What would that mean for you?

I challenge you to take a few minutes to do three things:

1. Write down the gifts, the skills, perhaps the passions that God has placed in you. What are they? You know what they are.

2. After writing them down, think about how you might use them in a way that above all glorifies and honors God?

3. Ask yourself: are you willing to commit to doing just that?

The title of the sermon is a question. It might be a fourth question.

4. “How then shall we live?” If we are people of faith and conviction, the question is one we need to ask ourselves.

If you have taken a few minutes to respond those three questions, you have already begun to determine your response to the fourth.

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8/12/10: Lost & Found: Luke 15:1-10

A lost sheep, behind Rosemary plants, Catalonia

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One day, many years ago, I was shopping in a mall with one of my sons. He was four or five at the time. We were in the mens’ department at one of the department stores. I was crowded. I had been holding his hand. For one moment I let go of his hand to search through the clothes racks. I was pushing the pants apart, reading labels. I looked down to see my son. He was gone.

I looked up and down the aisles. I didn’t see him. I walked around the racks. I couldn’t find him.  I began to feel that sense of urgency rise up in me. I started to panic. If you have ever lost a child you know the feeling.  Then he popped his head out from inside a rack of pants. It was one of those circular racks. The center of it formed a perfect fort and hiding place for a five year old. He was laughing. He had a grand old time hiding from me! I did not know if I should kill him or hug him. He kept laughing. I hugged him and gave him a stern warning: do not ever do that again!

If we are to understand something about who God is, and what God desires, what God wants, we need to get in touch with what it is like to lose something precious, and to find it again.

We also need to remember what it is like to be lost, and then found again.

A friend of mine, Jack, who retired from ministry a few years ago tells a story from his childhood. He was old enough to go to the movies by himself. His father gave him a quarter and sent him off. It was long enough ago that you could get in for a quarter, see a cartoon, two features, and get popcorn. It was late in the afternoon. His father told him to stay for only one viewing; it would be getting dark early and he did not want him walking home in the dark.

Sure enough, he stayed for two viewings. When he left the theater it was dark. The walk home was scary. It was very dark. There were large shadows everywhere. And he knew he would be in trouble when he finally got home. So he walked slowly and with some trepidation. Then from around a corner a huge man stepped out. He couldn’t see his face in the dark.  He started to panic. Then he recognized that the man was his father. Now he really began to panic. His father spoke: Hi Jack, I thought you might like some company!

Jack says that in this moment he began to recognize how good it is to be loved. He also says that this has formed his understanding of God. When we get ourselves lost, into hard and difficult places, God is the one who comes to keep us safe. God is one who finds us, and leads us home.

In our reading from Luke this morning, Jesus teaches this to a group of religious leaders who did not understand him or his ministry. More than that, in their desire to be religious, to be pleasing to God,  they had forgotten what God is like, and what it is that pleases God.

Luke 15 begins by noting that sinners and tax collectors were gathering around Jesus to hear him.  There was something in what he taught, the way he spoke of God, something in his presence, in his ministry of healing, in the way that he spoke about forgiveness that touched them. In him they found someone who received them, even more, who welcomed them. Twila Paris has a song in which she sings about his eyes, eyes that choose to forgive and never despise.  In his eyes they discovered redemption, hope, grace. So they came like the deer longing for water. They gathered around him.

There was another group around him that day, a group of religious leaders, Pharisees. Pharisees were actually good people, whose sincerest desire in life was to honor God. They dedicated themselves to that. They were determined to honor God in every aspect of their lives: the way they worked, prepared food, ate meals, the way they worshiped. There were Pharisees who followed Jesus, listened to him and learned from him.

But Jesus also struggled with many Pharisees. Sometimes the desire to be righteous, to live well, crosses a line and becomes self-righteousness . It is easy t shift from an honest desire to please God, to thinking that somehow we are the good people, the righteous, that we set the standard of righteousness, and we are the judges who get to say who is and who is not acceptable to God. We get to say who is in and who is out.

The Pharisees who were there that day were like that. They began to define themselves as the righteous. They watched the sinners and tax collectors gather around Jesus. They began to grumble: this man receives even tax collectors and sinners. Not only does he receive them, he welcomes them. He eats with them. He is friends with them!

It would be fine with them to call sinners to repentance, to remind them that they needed to change their ways, to preach to them. But Jesus got too close to them. He liked them. He entered their houses. He welcomed them into the circle of his disciples. Even prostitutes came to him and he welcomed them. This was more than they could take. This violated their understanding of what holiness and the religious life were about.  A rabbi is to set himself apart from sinners, not party with them.

Jesus hears their grumbling and responds by telling them two stories. “Which of you, if you were a shepherd with 100 sheep in a pen, noticing one is lost, does not leave the 99, and go in search of the one that was lost? And when finding them does not the shepherd put the sheep over his shoulders and carry the lost one home, rejoicing? Or a woman, having ten coins, finding one missing, does not begin to sweep the floors, look under the furniture, and search until the lost coin is found, and then rejoices when it is? So it is that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who need no repentance.”

Two simple stories, yet they present God is a way that is radically different. Jesus does not speak of God as if God were a harsh judge sitting on a bench waiting to condemn someone. Rather he teaches that God is like the shepherd who wanders over hills, searching through bushes, going to the places where a lost sheep might be found for the purpose of bringing the sheep home. Or like a woman with a broom sweeping the house, moving furniture to find what is lost. God delights in finding, saving, bringing home. Never in casting off, letting go, or condemning.

Notice: the lost sheep hasn’t come looking for God. The lost sheep has not had some religious awakening. The lost sheep is just lost, helpless. The shepherd seeks the sheep because that is what the shepherd does. Not because the sheep are particularly worth. And the shepherd rejoices when the lost one is found.

God does not wait until someone good enough to love is found. God’s love finds what is unlovable, and makes the unlovable good.

I heard a story told by a minister who did a lot of visitation to hospitals. One day the staff asked her to visit a man who had no visitors. He was dying of AIDS. She agreed to visit him. After taking with him for a while she asked him if he felt abandoned by God.  His response was remarkable. He told her how his life had fallen apart. How he lied to his friends and family, to his church, and even to himself. He said that everyone eventually left him. Gave up on him He became disgusted at himself. Hated himself. Gave up on himself. But God never did! Alone in this room, this hospital room he felt God’s love wrap around him. The one thing he is sure of is that God never stopped loving him! God never left him!

God, is not looking for reasons and excuses to exclude people from the kingdom. God is seeking and searching to find each and every lost soul to bring them home.

Many years ago I would help out at Gene Webster’s soup kitchen in Atlantic City. The homeless street people would come there for a hot lunch and dinner. They held a prayer service before each meal. One day the speaker was a woman who had been hooked on heroine and a prostitute. She gave one of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard.

She said: “I know what it is like to be in the street sticking a needle in your arm praying Lord help me. Take this needle from me. I know what it is like. Don’t give up! Keep praying. Turn to God. I know your family does not want to talk to you. Will not answer the phone. But God will not turn you away! God will be there. God will give you strength.”

What was true for her is true for all of us. It’s like the hymn: “Something beautiful, something good.” (UMH 394)  “He made something beautiful of my life.”

Our faith, our religion, is not about trying to be good enough so that God will love us, but rather opening to God whose love will make us good.

Our work is not to check out who comes to church so that the pews are filled with good people, but to keep the doors open, so that all who might need to be here can find their way inside. Someone let us in. We are to do the same for others.

More than that, we are to join the shepherd as he goes and searches everywhere to find the lost and bring them to safety. Not with our inappropriate judgment, but with the good news of an amazing love that leaves no one behind.

We need to remember that we are here, not because we are good, but because God is good.

It is only by his grace, his tenderness, that we are here.

Let us remember that. Let us celebrate the love of God who loves us back to life again and again.

And as someone said, the opposite of sin is not goodness, it is love. Goodness turns back on itself. Love reaches outward. Let us love others as we have been loved. Receive others as we have been received. Welcome others as we have been welcomed. That is the way to honor God.

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8/5/10: In the Potter’s Hands: Jeremiah 18:1-11

Potter at work on potter's wheel.

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Jeremiah was a prophet in the 6th century B.C.E.  He spoke for God to Israel some 3,0000 years ago, 600 years before the birth of Christ. He was called to be a prophet during one of the most difficult periods in the history of Israel.

To understand the prophets it is necessary to know something about the history of Israel and the context into which they spoke. So, a little biblical history is helpful here.  Israel was a small nation, about the size of New Jersey, surrounded both to the north and south by larger and more powerful nations. For a brief period the nation flourished. It went from a loose federation of tribes, to a monarchy under Saul, then David, and flourished under Solomon. But after Solomon things fell apart. As a result of internal struggles and political violence, the nation divided into two kingdoms, northern Kingdom of Israel, and the southern Kingdom of Judah.

In the eight century B.C. E. a powerful nation, Assyria, conquered and destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel. Its cities were destroyed and its people into exile. Then In the sixth century, the time of Jeremiah, Babylonia was growing in power, devouring smaller nations, and was threatening to invade Judah.  As did Assyria, Babylonia would destroy cities, ruin the fields, and move entire populations, sending them into exile into foreign lands. People of Judah lived in fear, wondering if they would be next, if God would protect them.

That is the climate in which Jeremiah receives his call to be a prophet, and in which Jeremiah 18 begins: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come down to the potter’ house and there I will let you hear my words.”  So I we down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.”

We are fortunate this morning to have a potter’s wheel right here with us in the sanctuary. I have done some work with pottery, but not with wheel thrown pottery. I worked with hand built pottery. We made pinch pots, coil pots, and even did some slab work. But I never did get to work with a pottery wheel. So it is a treat to get to sit here at one.

It is very much like the wheel that the potter would have been using when Jeremiah visited a potters house back in the 6th Century B.C.E. At the base of it is a large circular stone. I can spin the wheel with my feet. There is also a small motor that will rotate the wheel.  A shaft rises up from it. On top is another circular table. Clay is carefully centered here. The wheel is spun. Of course, that would not have been there. The potter then works the clay to form whatever it is the potter chooses to make.

In the day of Jeremiah the wheel was similar. There would have been two circular stones.  The bottom one would be rotated by hand (no motors). I am told it was a heavy stone, and it took some strength to get it rotating. A shaft connected it to an upper stone.  Clay would be placed carefully in the center of it, and worked into a pot by hand.

It takes a lot of skill and practice to make wheel thrown pottery. If the clay is not centered properly, or the hand pressure is not right, the clay can collapse on itself. I hope one day to give it a try.

We read that Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house and begins to watch the potter work. While he is watching the vessel the potter was making was spoiled. It begins to tilt, to get out of round. So the potter reworked it into another vessel. Basically, he broke it down and started over again.

The word to Jeremiah became clear: the nation of Israel was like clay in the potter’s hands. God had called the nation into being, created it with a purpose in mind. Just like clay on the potter’s wheel.

The prophets understood the history of Israel that way. God had created the Israel. The future of the nation was in God’s hands. The children of Abraham were oppressed slaves in Egypt, with no future and no hope. But God send Moses to redeem them. God led them into the desert, nurtured the. God gave them the law, Torah, which was to form them into a people, a nation. God established them in the land of Canaan . It had been clear that all the nations belonged to God, but Israel was called into being as God’s people to serve God’s purpose.

Israel was chosen not for privilege but for service. They were to be a nation through whom others would come to know the way and the beauty of the living God. They were to first of all be people who worshiped. They were to be people of mercy, justice, and compassion, and above all, of peace.

They were not redeemed from slavery to become people who enslaved others. They were to be different. They were to be a light to the nations. They were to make visible God’s care for all people, especially the poor, the orphans, the widow’s, the aliens residing among them. Through them, by their obedience to Torah, others were to see what justice, mercy, and compassion looked like. That was their role, their place, their calling.

Jeremiah, like the prophets before him, was painfully aware of the reality: the nation had failed to live up to its calling. Instead of worshiping YHWH, who called for these things, they turned to the worship of foreign god’s who promised power and wealth.  Arrogance, greed, violence and injustice became common. The poor were pushed off the land. The leaders became more concerned about their own wealth, power and position, than about justice and compassion.

Jeremiah watched as the potter remake the vessel on the potter’s wheel.  The potter would break it down and begin again. The potter would rework and remold the vessel until it became the beautiful thing its creator had in mind for it.

Jeremiah then spoke God’s word to Judah: you are like clay in the potter’s hands. You can now choose to become once again God’s people. You can begin to live the way God has taught you to live. If not, God will remake this vessel. Babylonia would overrun Judah. But after a time, God would rebuild it once more.

it would be Judah’s decision to choose either obedience or disobedience that will determine God’s response. Judah’s future lies in God’s hands. But Judah herself will determine which course of action the divine potter will take.

So it is that we read and place Jeremiah into his historic context.

Now, as we sit before this pottery wheel this morning, the question is: what is the word we hear directed toward us?

To begin, we need to hear this today, not as a word primarily directed to a nation, but to the church, and to us as we gather here for worship.

Jesus said to his followers you are to be a light to the nations, and salt to the earth. The disciples, those who followed him were to serve the purposes that God has given to Israel along with Israel. It was the purpose of their calling. It was the reason he had gathered them to himself. It was the reason he would send them out into the world. Soon Christian communities were found in major cities in every nation. They were to be light and salt for the nations.  They were to be ones through whom the love and grace and way of Christ would become visible in the world.

Just as the potter takes clay into his or her hands, and works the clay into a vessel for some purpose, so God is still at work in and through those who love God, and who are willing to be like clay in the potter’s hands.

Whenever I read this passage I read it less as a threat and more as an invitation. Am I, are we, willing to become like clay in the hands of the potter? Are we willing to let God get a hold on us, to shape and mold us, so that we might be people who can be God’s servants in the world today?

What does it look like? Remember John 13, in which Jesus took off his robe and washed the feet of his followers, and said I have given you an example. As I have done so are you to do. The church is to be a community of people engaged in generosity, hospitality, compassion, and peace, doing the work of servant love for the world.

Jeremiah 18 invites us to allow God to go to work in us as people, as a church, to make and mold us into people who can bring the love of Christ into the world.

The potter is intimately engaged with the clay. The potter sinks his hands into the clay. So God would go to work in us. That does mean breaking off t the sharp edges, it means reshaping things, restructuring them.

Where I am not as faithful in my relationships, God will go to work there.

When I find that I am more committed to money that to people. God will go to work there.

When I am judgmental and angry, holding on to past hurts, refusing to forgive, God will push back.

When I get prideful, God will break down my pride.

God will work on this clay, making each one of us into a person capable of bringing Christ’s love in the world.

That really is what it is to be a Christian. It is not to be privileged in some way. To get a ticket into heaven, to be protected from the struggles that are a part of life. It is to surrender to the love of God in Christ, and to bring God’s love into the world. It is to allow others to see Christ alive in you.

The church is to be the Body of Christ. The church is created and called to continue the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ in the world. Just as Christ brought the healing, forgiving, life giving presence of God wherever he went, so the church is to do today.

The primary problem people seem to be having with the church today is that they see too little of Christ in it.

Over and again I read that people, particularly younger people are leaving churches, refusing to join churches, not because they have rejected Christ, but because they do not see enough of Christ in the church. That is a tragedy.

Jeremiah 18 is an invitation and a challenge to us as a church: will we be like clay in the potter’s hands?

That is the challenge I hear when I sit here at a potter’s wheel and read again Jeremiah 18.

Are we willing to do that? Are we willing to let God go to work like a potter in the life of the church? Our church?

The purpose of the church is not to serve us or make us comfortable, but to glorify and serve God, to be the Body of Christ, opening up and making very real the love of God and the way of Jesus Christ here and now, 2010.

Are we willing to do that?

I think we are. I think that really is what we want to do.

And God will work in and through us. That is what God does.

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8/29/10: Radical Hospitality in an Unfriendly World: Hebrews 13:1-2; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Both of our readings this morning speak to us about relationships. Jesus is at a dinner party hosted by a Pharisee, a religious leader. He begins to talk about who we should invite to dinner and why. The writer of Hebrews bring the letter to a close by speaking to the church about the kinds of relationships they are to enter into, and the quality of those relationships.

This week I came across some lovely letters by children addressed to God about relationships. I thought I would share a few of them with you.

Nancy writes: Dear God, I bet it’s very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.

Peter pleads: Dear God, please send Dennis Clark to a different summer camp this year.

Larry offers some advice: Dear God, maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they each had their own rooms. It works out okay with me and my brother.

I love what Joyce writes: Dear God, thank you for the baby brother but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up.

Leo Buscaglia was once asked to judge a contest designed to find the most caring child. He remembers one story that touched him.  It was about a four year old who had an elderly neighbor who had just lost his wife. One day he saw the neighbor sitting on his porch crying. The little boy went over to him, climbed up into his lap, and just sat there for awhile. When he came home his mother asked him what he had said to the man. The boy replied: “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”

http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040332

Wisdom beyond his years. I am reminded of Paul’s instructions to Christians: “weep with those who weep. Rejoice with those who rejoice.”

One thing that is true about what is to be human is that we are social beings. We are made to be in relationships and the way we relate to others, the quality of our relationships, reveals something about us.

Sometimes our relationships bring out the very best in us. Other times we discover things about ourselves we would rather not admit are true. I know I used to think I was a pretty good guy, easy going, easy to get along with, seldom getting angry. Then I had children.

It is also true, although not always recognized, that our relationships with others reveals something about our relationship with God.

I love what 1 John says about this: “those who do not love the brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 John 4:20-21)

Sometimes it is a lot easier to love humanity than it is to love the person who sits next to us in the pew each Sunday, or the coworker in the next cubicle. But the word from scripture is that we are not just to love humanity in general, but we are to learn to love the very real people who live next door to us. That can be much harder.

Both in what Jesus teaches, and in our reading this morning from Hebrews, we see that the quality of our relationships, the way we relate to other people, is of deep concern to God. The quality of our relationship with God becomes visible in the way we relate to each other, and particularly in the way that we treat strangers.

Hebrews 13:1-2 begins a final set of instructions to the Christian community that brings the letter to a close. Here are the instructions that the author wants to be certain cannot be missed or forgotten. It begins: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality to strangers.”

Sometimes knowing a little New Testament Greek is helpful. This is one of those times. There is a play on words in the Greek that we do not see when the text is translated to English.

The word which is translated “mutual concern” is philadelphia. It is a compound word, made up from two words. One is philos, which is a particular kind of love. It is an unselfish kind of love directed toward others. It seeks nothing in return. It refers to acting toward others in a way that builds them up, supports them, helps them flourish. The second word is adelphos/ia, which is the word for brother or sister. philadephia, then translates brotherly or sisterly love.

(And yes, Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love)

The first instruction is to let philadelphia, brotherly/sisterly love continue. The foundational command for the Christian community: do not neglect to love each other. Jesus taught that this is how his disciples will be recognized: by their love for one another.

The word for hospitality next verse is also a compound word. The first part of the word is again philos, a word love. The second word is xenias, which is the word for stranger. The church is reminded to continue phialdelphia, and not to neglect philoxenia, the love of strangers.

The church is never to become a kind of cult that cares only for its own people, or those who are like us. Hebrews is clear: “Do not neglect philoxenia, hospitality to strangers.”

One of the remarkable things about the early church was the way that people cared for each other.  The first Christian community is described in Acts 2:42-47. People came together who would never have been together before: rich, poor, men, women, people from many different nations, who spoke different languages. And we read that they held things in common and took care of each other. If someone was in need, those who had resources provided for the one in need. They even sold property to provide for others. The practices continued for a while.

Those around them took notice that something remarkable was happening. In a world that could be very cold and harsh, the Christians were known for the way that they received and cared for everyone and anyone who came.

There is a letter from a Roman official who persecuted Christians, but also was perplexed by them. He wrote that not only do they care for their poor, but they care for ours! By the end of the 2nd century, the churches in Rome had a list of over 1,500 poor people that they were taking care of.  (Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, W Publishing Group, 1997. 85)

The hospital system in Europe began with the Christian communities in the middle ages. Monasteries in particular, considered hospitality to strangers to be essential to their identity and to their mission. In a very harsh world, in which there were few places to go to for help, churches and monasteries remained open to receive travelers, to care for their sick and for the poor.  Monasteries were the very first community hospitals. And they did not ask about medical insurance. (Francis Schussler-Fiorenza, The Works of Mercy: Theological Perspectives, in Eigo, Francis A., de., The Works of Mercy: New Perspectives on Ministry,Villanova University Press, 1992. 37-38.)

Wherever the church is alive and vital today the same thing is true. In a world that can be hard and demanding, the church is a sanctuary. Christian people are those who care for one another and extend that hospitality to the stranger, the outsider, those struggling on the margins of society.

What we read is not a command that we should always be touchy feely with each other, feel warmly about each other and the stranger, although that would be nice. But that is not what Philadelphia and philoxenia is about.

It is less about how we feel, and more about what we do, how we conduct ourselves, the way that we treat each other and especially how we treat the stranger, the outsiders, the others. The command is rather that we should be ready to care for each other and the stranger, to build each other up, to help and support each other.

The clear understanding is that our love and caring is not to be extended just toward our friends, those whom we have a greater affinity for, but toward all the members of the church, and to the strangers whom God places in our midst.

One of the reasons we take the time to pass the peace and greet each other on Sunday morning is to make sure that everyone is welcomed and received on Sunday. Whatever is going on, whatever is happening in our lives during the week, when we enter here we are family. The hand of fellowship is extended. That is true for everyone who walks in the door: for members who have been a part of this church from the beginning, and for someone who walks in the door for the first time.

There is something disheartening about walking into a church for the first time, and have no one notice or say hello. Someone has something happen, some need, something, and decides to come to church hoping to hear some word from God, something that might help. They walk in hesitatingly. And the first word they hear is “Hey, you can’t sit there. That is my seat.”

The most important person coming to church on any Sunday is the person who has never been here before. Not because we are hard up for members. But because that is the person whom God has sent to the church.  Because they are entering God’s house and not ours. Because the way we receive them represents the way that God would receive them.

It is in our caring for each other, in our welcoming and receiving of each other, in the way that we welcome respond to the strangers, the outsiders living in our communities, that the church comes alive.

The challenge is to continue that caring beyond Sunday. So we visit, send cards, make phone calls, bring meals, help with child care, and more. We are to let mutual love continue, to be known for the quality of our caring for each other, our philadelphia.

 

And with that we cannot fail to remember philoxenia, hospitality, love for the stranger. So we send letters, make phone calls, give small gifts. And are prepared to respond to the needs of the strangers, the outsiders, those who are different, who live in our communities. We care for the homeless, establish food pantries and soup kitchens. Become involved in social justice issues.

Jesus pushes this even further when he says to the Pharisee and to us: When you hold a dinner party do not invite those who can pay you back. Rather invite the sick, the lame, the poor. Then you have a reward that is great. He says much the same thing in Matt. 25.

In our culture today in which we are experiencing a rise of Xenophobia, Greek for the fear of strangers, it is important once again to hear the biblical command that the Christian community, the church, is to practice philoxenia, not xenophobia. We are to care for one another, and not neglect love for the stranger, the outsider, the one who is different.

In a world that is anxious, fearful, and becoming more so, the church is to be known for its radical hospitality, for its caring relationships, not only for its own members.

The test for the quality of our love for God is how we treat and respond to those on the margins, the most vulnerable, the outsiders, those often overlooked or pushed aside.

Will that make us vulnerable? Yes it will. But that is the way of Christ, whose love for us lead him even to the cross.


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