Believe It or Not, God Answers Prayer

1 Samuel 1:9-11 New Revised Standard Version

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

1 Samuel 1:19-20 New Revised Standard Version

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

1 Samuel 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

2 Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2  “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.

3  Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

4  The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

5  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

6  The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

7  The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

8  He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

9  “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.

10  The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king,     and exalt the power of his anointed.” 

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Have you ever played Monopoly?  We did, my brother and sister and I.  I don’t know how old we were when we received the game, probably for Christmas.  We choose playing pieces, threw dice and tried to accumulate properties.  The best part of the game was passing “Go” and collecting $200.  I was seldom able to buy property, let alone put on a house or a hotel.  

The original game was invented by Lizzie Magie in 1903 as a way to demonstrate that an economy which rewards wealth creation is better than one where monopolists work under few constraints. It makes me wonder what Mrs. Magie would think of our government’s current sweetheart deals with corporations.  

The system that the board game illustrates is a closed system.  Once the money is gone, it’s gone. There is not enough for everyone; some players end up with piles of pastel-colored money and some end up bankrupt. 

Hannah lived in a closed system.  The only way to be a real woman, to be a good wife, to have someone to take care of you when you lost your marbles was to have children. Hannah sadly had a closed womb in a closed system.  

In some ways she was blessed; her husband loved her and he had been able to have children through his other wife, so he had, metaphorically, passed Go, and collected the $200, that is, he had children who would care for him in his old age and who would carry on his name. But Hannah was not part of that.  She was without property and sentenced to the jail of barrenness and abandonment.

Have you ever been closed off from a system, from people, from happiness, through no fault of your own?  Have you ever been prevented from reaching your goals, from using your talents to the best of your ability? 

That prompts three more questions

Did you turn to God in prayer?

How has God saved you, helped you, encouraged you?

And—how have you thanked God?

Hannah turned to God in prayer.  She gave birth to Samuel. And, in thanksgiving, she turned Samuel back to God, so that Samuel could grow up to serve God in full devotion. Samuel did, in fact, serve God his whole life, as one of the prophets who led the Israelites into the greatest years of their nation. Samuel anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.  David became the ancestor, the great, great ad infinitum grandfather of our own Savior, Jesus.

God answers prayer. The answer is not always apparent to us. Hannah probably died before Israel became a monarchy. She did not know that a Messiah would someday arrive, directly descended from her womb.  

God answers prayer by making us the bearers of Good News.  

We do not always know how God uses us. Sometimes we can reflect on our lives and see where we touched someone with kindness, when we inspired someone, how we changed someone through what we thought was simply doing the right thing. Give God some credit. Just as God opened Hannah’s womb, God opens our hearts to make  God’s Kingdom present in the lives of our communities. Sometimes we serve within our own communities, with a helping hand, with a friendly conversation.  We never know how much good we do. A helping hand can allow the good deed to be paid forward. A friendly conversation can lift a person out of despair and banish their loneliness. Sometimes we serve beyond our communities, by our personal choices, such as choosing leaders who build God’s kingdom rather than their own, by making decisions that protect God’s creation or God’s people. 

As the recipients of God’s greatest gift, God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we are freed from the bonds of sin to stretch our abilities and talents and even our timid inclinations to bring others into the Kingdom. 

Let me reiterate: Hannah turned to God in prayer.  I don’t know how prayer works.  I don’t know why God doesn’t answer every prayer the way we thing it should be answered. But I know that God answers prayer in such a way that God’s Kingdom is established here and now, where it is most needed. The Kingdom isn’t needed in heaven—-everything is perfect there already. The Kingdom is needed here and now, the blessings of the Kingdom, the gifts of the Kingdom are needed in our own time, in our own place. The hungry need to be fed NOW.  The oppressed need to be freed NOW. The homeless need to be sheltered NOW. The hopeless need to be inspired NOW. The ugly, the disgusting, the losers need to be loved NOW.  That is what the Kingdom looks like.  Our forefathers wrote the Declaration of Independence with a kind of kingdom in mind. The second sentence reads : 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness can not be pursued like a goal. Happiness is established not by the individual, but by the community. That is how we Christians operate: in community. We call that community the Kingdom. 

Hannah had only one earthly resource to help her achieve happiness, her husband, Elkanah.  He did not have the ability to give her the much wanted child, Samuel. God did.  Hannah turned to God in prayer. God answered not only Hannah’s prayer, but the prayer of salvation for all God’s people. 

Let us turn to God in prayer, not to ask for what we think we need but for what God needs. Let us ask God to make us instruments of peace and plenty.

I learned this lesson from my father.  Everyday he would rise early, get dressed, go out the back door and face east.  Everyday, he prayed, “God, what do you have for me to do today?”

That is how the Kingdom is established, by each of us praying, daily, in our own way to be the workers in the Kingdom that God is building. That Kingdom is possible because sin and death have been vanquished by the greatest answer to prayer ever, the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation of God on earth, we have the privilege and the power to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. How? Take it to the Lord in prayer. Amen.  

 Imago Dei—  in the Image of God Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Genesis 1  New International Version

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said,| “Let us make |mankind |in our image, in our likeness,|so that |they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

27  So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

2 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

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The most important verse in the Creation story is the verse about us: the creation of human beings.

26 Then God said,| “Let us make |mankind |in our image, in our likeness,|so that |they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

I ran across an article that breaks that verse down into six parts and I want to focus on that today, because we are very aware that humans have a part of the Creation in so many ways.

Breaking Down the Key Parts of Genesis 1:26

#1 “Then God said,”
The whole creation was built by the Word of God from the mouth of God. God created the rest of the universe in the first five days, and, “Then God said…”

God creates by speaking. God is always speaking.  God spoke to Adam and Eve. God spoke to Noah, to Moses, to Elizabeth, to Mary, to Paul. God speaks and something happens.

God speaks and the universe moves, changes. God speaks and we move and change.

#2 “Let us make…”
Up until this point, God had said, “Let there be…” There may be some significance to the way he pronounces this decree. It at least means that he is addressing himself for the purpose of illustrating what he would mean by making man “in our image.” Certainly, nothing created up to that point was made such.

“Let there be light.” 

“Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 

 If God says, “Let US make, who else is present?  

John 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  

This is the proof text that Jesus was present at Creation. Jesus was not created by God. Likewise, the Holy Spirit was not a latecomer to the Trinity. God has always existed as a complex, multi-dimensional Being from before the beginning of Time.  

#3 “mankind…”
This word, generally translated “man,” does also mean “mankind.” Men and women are in view here.

One of the problems with the Bible, for women at least, is that much of what God spoke was written down by males who recorded and wrote based on their own, male point of view. They were observant of the world around them, of the traditions and practices of the culture and society in which they lived. Bits and pieces of those observations have been used to exclude women from Scripture. The most notable exclusion has been that of Mary of Magdala, the first person to see the resurrected Jesus.  By the time I reached confirmation age, I had learned that this first witness was not a disciple, but a prostitute.  I didn’t even know what a prostitute was, but I learned that she was sinful and evil.  Since then, since I’ve “taken the Bible seriously,” I’ve learned that she was as important as the dozen men glorified by the Church.

The maleness of the Bible has been a stumbling block, noticed mostly by women, and accepted as natural by men. But God did indeed create women with equal purpose and love, even if it was the loneliness of the male that prompted the creation.

#4 “in our image, in our likeness…”
We are not to create idols, that is, images of God to worship. But God did create an image of himself. The same word for idol is the one used here. We are like God as reasoning, loving, creating beings. God intended for man to show the rest of creation what God was like.

We are to show the rest of Creation what God is like!  That is asking a great deal of us, is it not?!?!?!   Think of all the psalms and hymns that portray God as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing.  I don’t know about you, but most of the time I don’t feel remarkably powerful.  I, for sure, don’t know it all.  And I don’t see everything, even with my eyes wide open. So how do we show the rest of the world what God looks like?

One of the first songs I learned to sing as a toddler taught me that: Praise Him, praise Him, all ye little children, God is love, God is love. 

That’s it!  God is love.  So simple. This all powerful, magnificent God is ultimately not about power, about control, about rules, about condemning, about sorting out the good from the bad. God is LOVE.  That’s it.  God is love.

Have you ever loved someone? Of course you have! Has anyone ever loved you? Of course!  That is because God created us in God’s image—-and that image is LOVE! 

#5 “…so that…”
There was a definitive purpose in the way that God created man. He created the world for his glory. He created man to rule that world in his name.

God created us with purpose. As God’s creation, as the ONLY part of God’s creation that is created in God’s image, we are created to live out our lives with God’s purpose in mind.  God did not create sunsets or dinosaurs or flowers or mosquitos or waterfalls or volcanos in God’s image. God created US in God’s image.  

#6 “they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
While mankind has first place in the creation, they must rule with humility, love, and justice. If we are truly ruling the earth in God’s name, we will have proper limits and take a holistic approach to the business.

Again, if we are created in God’s image, we must rule with LOVE.  

Let’s think about what love is and isn’t.  Love is not greed. Love is not the same as wanting.  I love blue cheese on my steak. Love is not the same as being able to buy whatever I want. The love of God is not the same as loving what someone else has.  I love your new car.  Love is thinking beyond ourselves. Love is caring about all of God’s creation as God created it.  Love is about respect for each living, breathing package of DNA that shares Creation with us.

If you had your television on yesterday, you observed love. You also observed hate.  Those pilots did not crash those planes into the twin towers because they loved the people inside.  

I’ve always wondered about why Al-Qaeda hated the United States. I found out a few things about the attack:

Al-Qaeda hoped that, by attacking these symbols of American power, they would promote widespread fear throughout the country and severely weaken the United States’ standing in the world community, ultimately supporting their political and religious goals in the Middle East and Muslim world.

But why do they hate the United States? First of all, I need to remind me that only a minority of Muslims hate our country. Most are not extremists.

What is an Islamist extremist?

“Islamists” see Islam as a guiding ideology for politics and the organization of society. That is, they believe that strict adherence to religious law should be the sole basis for a country’s law, as well as its cultural and social life. While some Muslims believe this, many do not. Islamist extremists believe violence is acceptable to achieve these ends. Al-Qaeda is one of many Islamist extremist groups.

Interestingly enough, I can replace “Islamists” with “Christians” and the definition fits many people in our country. 

“Christians” see Christianity as a guiding ideology for politics and the organization of society. That is, they believe that strict adherence to religious law should be the sole basis for a country’s law, as well as its cultural and social life.

How many people do you know who believe that?  And what is wrong with that? That kind of Christianity operates out of hate and fear of anyone who is not created in their own image, shaped by their own view of Creation, not God’s view.  It operates out of love for power, not love for people. 

The image of God is always the image of love of God’s people.Remember the fruit of the Spirit? 

Galatians 5: 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.

We are created. Yes, we have evolved, but we exist because God spoke. We were created to be unique, not just separate from animals and plants, but each of us different from the other, each of us with our own unique DNA signature. Unique though we are, we are far more alike than different. What we have in common is our Creator.  We are created for a purpose: to love. So, let us love one another. Let us love the earth.  Let us love the universe.  Let us love God.  Amen.

ENDNOTES

1. Natalie Regoli  https://connectusfund.org/genesis-1-26-meaning-of-let-us-make-mankind-in-our-image?fbclid=IwAR2vr-0YAh3gZqZ5ooU6N9qDYFe4IO0GUnnQA_DSIQ-vIRDQktt9Y1KxL_E

2. https://www.911memorial.org/911-faqs

Evidence

Galatians 5: 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, andself-control. 

Mark 8:33-35 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

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I attended a lecture the other day, given by a Professor of Ethics from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.  His focus was on how a famous German theologian was influenced by a year of study at Union Theological Seminary in New York, just as Germany was falling under the leadership of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, also known as the Nazi party.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, follower of Jesus, lover of justice, is a man I have long admired.  The professor, Dr. Reggie Williams, wrote an article in 2018, entitled, “Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment?”  

I took that question to heart and it has been like a neon sign in my brain ever since. 

What is a Bonhoeffer Moment?

Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who resisted his government when he recognized, very early and very clearly, the dangers of Hitler’s regime. His first warning about the dangers of a leader who makes an idol of himself came in a radio address delivered in February 1933, just two days after Hitler took office.

Despite an abiding Christ-centered peace ethic, a desire to study nonviolent political resistance with Gandhi, and extensive writing about loving one’s enemies, Bonhoeffer eventually became a member of a conspiracy that was responsible for a coup attempt against Hitler. Twelve years after he became one of the first voices in Germany to offer public opposition to the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was executed by them, as a traitor.

This particular article was aimed at the political situation in our nation, but this question can be asked every day of our lives.  Is this a moment when I risk what is good for me and mine to follow Jesus for the sake of the whole world? 

This summer, we have contemplated the fruit of the Spirit: Love. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Generosity. Self-control.  We looked at each of this topics individually, wondering how we could practice them as followers of Jesus.

They became a kind of checklist. Today I will be patient. Tomorrow I will show love.  This weekend I will concentrate on self-control.  It is not wrong to focus individually on each of these traits; each requires a good deal of effort, especially in challenging circumstances. But we need to revisit the entire passage and especially take note of the word “fruit.”  

These are not called “fruits” (plural) of the Spirit. They are referred to as “fruit” (singular).  This seems like a typo, a mistake in the spelling, an aberration of grammar.  Nine different characteristics can not be one thing, can they?  And yet, the word in Scripture is without a doubt, singular—one fruit.  How can we make sense of that?  

At this point, the fruit of the spirit becomes more than a series of exercises.  The point of the passage is not that we pick and choose how we act as followers of Jesus. The point is that we manifest all nine of the fruit at all times.  

This multi-faceted fruit is not so much a tool as it is evidence that we are Christians.  

Evangelist John Van Gelderen explains it this way: 

If you think you have several graces[fruits[ down, but you need to work on several others—you don’t have any of them. What you think you have are fakes. When you access Jesus by faith, the Spirit imparts the full life of Jesus. This is the fruit of the spirit of Jesus. He is consistent.

Imitation fruit may look real on a table, but if you take a bite, it’s not the same as the real thing. The Christian life is not a matter of imitation—unsaved moralists can do that—it is a matter of impartation. As you abide in Christ, the Spirit imparts the character of Christ to you and through you.

The fruit of the Spirit is one—it cannot be separated and sorted into bits and pieces to be used as needed.  To walk with Jesus is to be like Jesus, who was always patient, kind, joyful, loving, disciplined, generous, gentle, peaceful, faithful.  Think of a piece of cake: can you cut a slice and then separate it into baking powder, eggs, flour, vanilla, sugar, shortening?  It’s all or nothing.

Yet, we try to separate our Christian lives into parts and pieces.  A year ago, I was asked to participate in a political commercial, to help a friend win an election.  I asked our church council if they would be against their pastor appearing in a political commercial.  The answers ranged from “Of course not!” to “What you do on your own time is your business.”  That is the church in a microcosm—we compartmentalize our lives into little boxes, some of which belong to God, some of which belong to other parts of my life.  What I do on my own time is my business. It is not related to what I hear in church on Sunday; it is not related to what decisions I have to make regarding family, neighbors, thoughts, words, deeds.  

Bonhoeffer, rather accidentally, ended up attending a black church, that is, a church attended by people whose skin was much darker than his. It was not just the color of their skin that was different; their basic life expereince was different from anything he had previously encountered. He found a very different kind of church, a church full of people who needed Jesus because the country in which they lived needed them only for their cheap labor. In Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, he found people who looked to Jesus for hope because there was no hope in the systems under which they lived. Bonhoeffer saw, by contrast, that the churches populated by white people had compartmentalized the suffering of black people and had been able to ignore the injustices of the dominant laws of the land.  

What should have outraged Christians was easily dismissed as “that’s just the way they are.”  

I know a woman who sees injustice in her city and works to get others to address it and correct it. She cannot understand why people are not outraged at abuse of privilege, abuse of calling, abuse of the very people they are hired to help. She cannot understand my attitude of “that’s just the way things are.  Sure, I say, it’s awful, but what do you expect? That’s what happens when—-” and then I shut up.  Why am I not outraged that living in a certain part of town means that you’ll automatically be assigned to a special education class/Why am I not outraged when the board of supervisors wants to build more jails for children rather than pre-schools?

I distance myself, I remain neutral, I ignore the suffering of others because I’m helpless to change anything.

But am I?  If I truly manifest the fruit of the Spirit, what power might that give me?

We have studied the pretty, nice verses of Galatians 5 this summer.  Perhaps, we should have studied the not so nice verses: 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.  

Maybe we need to see WHY we need to intentionally cultivate the fruit of the spirit.  The fruit of the Spirit does not feed those who are already satisfied. The fruit of the Spirit feeds those who are hungry, thirsty, suffering.  

We are called to be the fruit, not to feed ourselves, but to feed others.

It may seem irrelevant to address communities of people who mean nothing to us. How many friends does any of us have who have reason to fear leaving their own homes? How many people do I personally know who depend on the laws of the land to keep them housed and fed? How many people do I know who are being evicted from their homes this month?  How many people do I know who cannot afford the medical care that will give them the physical strength to hold down a job?  How many people do I personally know who have learned how to cheat the system to have what I have? How many people do I know who expect their kids to end up in jail?  It is so easy for me to put “those people” in compartments and ignore them. When I ignore them, I ignore their suffering.  When I ignore their suffering, I ignore Jesus.

Jesus didn’t come for the happy, the satisfied, the “right” people. Jesus came for the unhappy, the hungry, the “wrong” people.

About halfway through that lecture on Friday, I asked myself,  “Do we need faith if we are happy and everything is going well?  Do we need Jesus if we have all our ducks in a row?”  

So, what are we to do?  We can’t change the laws, we can’t change attitudes, we can’t change what has been put in place by four hundred years of history. We can’t recruit people of color to move into our neighborhood, to attend our churches, our schools.  

But, maybe, we can be outraged.  Maybe we can let our outrage be known.  Maybe we can stop blaming the victim and accept that the systems that serve us so well are the same systems that support evil in other places.  

We are given the fruit of the Spirit, not as food, but as evidence of our love for Jesus.  Let our prayer be that our love for Jesus is evident to the whole world.  Amen. 

Gentleness Luke 18: 15-17

Luke 18 15 People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. 16 But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

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Gentleness, like much of the fruit of the Spirit, is deceptively strong.

When we thing of gentleness, we think of softness, quiet, tenderness.  But behind the softness, the quiet, the tenderness is the strength of love, of intention, of caring.

Think about picking up a baby bird or a kitten.  We do not grab the bird and squeeze it; we hold it in our cupped hands, barely touching it.  Even   thought picking up a kitten means being scratched with tiny claws, we cradle it until it snuggled up against us.

Jesus and the disciples had different reactions to the children brought to him.  The disciples were treating the children like all children were treated. Children in the first century had no rights or influence.  Jesus was too important and too busy, according to the disciples, to be bothered with children. 

Once more, Jesus turns the status quo upside down. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them;”  

Well, they are cute. 

But then Jesus turns religion upside down:”for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. “

 What Jesus commends is the way in which the children ‘receive’ or ‘welcome’. Having no rights, influence or power, they are open to what is given. It is this attitude that the disciples need embrace to experience the Kingdom of God in their midst. (Sr. Kim Harris in “Pray as You Can”)

Children accept what is given at face value.  They don’t look for motives.  When they open birthday presents, they aren’t thinking about who gave them the present or why the present was chosen. They are simply excited about the present and nothing else.  The only thing that matters is the present.  They don’t notice the expectant look on the face of the giver.  They don’t notice the parent thinking about one more toy to pick up at the end of day. They don’t notice brothers and sisters wishing they were opening presents. It’s all about the present.

So it is with the Kingdom of God.  We don’t need to worry about why God gave us this gift, although much of our religious practice encourages us to think long and hard about our guilt and the greatness of God’s gift of Jesus. 

But, for all our worship words, for all our sermons, our Bible studies, the only thing required is an open heart, willing to receive God’s gift, willing to cherish it and love it, for as long as it lasts.  This gift lasts forever. 

Children take everything literally. When Laura and Miriam were about four and six, I told them we were going to go to cousin Sue’s shower.  Imagine what they must have envisioned in their literal minds: giving our adult cousin a shower, complete with soap and towels. 

When their brother was born, we brought him home from the hospital, but had to take him back to the hospital because his bilirubin count was too high. Laura and Miriam thought we were taking him back because we didn’t like him.  They loved him more than they had ever loved anything in their young lives, and they were traumatized, thinking they had lost him.  Fortunately, we brought him back home. They could not keep their hands off of him when we brought him back home.

Here’s another thought about the children who were brought to Jesus by their parents.  He welcomed them all.  He took them in his arms. He sat them on his lap. He probably ruined the disciple’s schedule for the day. This reminds me of campaigning with a friend of mine.  She never turned anyone away.  She would knock on the door, and instead of handing the person a flyer and heading quickly on to the next house, she would be invited in, sit down at the kitchen table and hear the person’s story. Everyone who had a story to tell was heard, no matter how trivial, no matter how hopeless.  

Jesus hears everyone’s story and offers the same gift to everyone. Salvation is not like the sweater comes with a gift receipt. It cannot be returned for the correct size because one size fits all, because there is no way to improve on this gift.

Is it not amazing that we don’t have to die on a cross to receive salvation? Jesus died on the cross and, without us doing a thing to deserve or earn it, through the power of his death and resurrection, he forgave our sins, and welcomed us into the Kingdom which has no end.

It is our human nature to want to understand exactly how Jesus’s death could accomplish so much for us.  So we ask questions; we doubt; we discuss. We create classes like Systematic Theology—”a discipline of Christian theology that formulates an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the doctrines of the Christian faith.” Systematics is interesting and challenging, but Jesus doesn’t require us to understand his gift.

Again, isn’t it amazing that this gift is given with gentleness, just as we give a gift to someone we love. We never give a gift with threats or scolding; a child would not want a gift that was given in such a spirit.

When a child opens a gift, they only need to play with it.  Likewise, we only to need to believe that Jesus is our Savior.  No detailed instructions, no scolding, no threats—just a gentle expectation that we will receive the gift.

Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Jesus is gentle.  Many harsh acts have been committed in the name of the organized church, but Jesus is gentle. As children, we take him at his Word.

Amen.

Faithfulness 1 Samuel 1

1 Samuel 1: 1-28

1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

21 The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. 22 But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.” 23 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him. 24 When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. 25 Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. 26 And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. 27 For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. 28 Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.”                                                                                                                                                    

She left him there for the Lord.

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I can’t even imagine leaving my child, after waiting so long for that child,  I can’t imagine leaving my child, at any age, in the care of others.

But it happens every day.  My daughter and her husband are foster parents. But that is so different. The children they foster are there because their parents are overwhelmed and cannot provide good enough care.  The care foster parents provide is meant to be temporary. The goal is to get the family back together.  

Hannah’s situation was entirely different. She had a good marriage, a good home, for Samuel. He could have been raised by his parents all the way to adulthood.

But Hannah kept her promise to God. 

Hannah’s extreme actions are not the point of the story. What we must understand is her extreme faith.

Faith is more than choosing which religion to follow.  Faith is more than subscribing to a particular belief system.

Faith guides how we make decisions, how we set priorities, how we think about our lives.

Sometimes we think of faith as the yardstick by which we measure church membership.  The more active you are in your congregation, the greater your faith. That is not entirely appropriate.  Those are all things we can control.  Hannah recognized that God could respond to the things that she could not control.  She could not control her barrenness. She could not control Peninnah’s mocking. Her faith allowed her to  trust God to do what she could not do on her own.

 I find it interesting that we humans conduct our lives by trying to control that which cannot be controlled.  That is not always a bad thing. Think of all the results of science that have improved our lives. I watched my kids build a ramp in our garage yesterday.  I’m claiming that it’s for me to practice skateboarding in a safe place. However, me on a skateboard would never be safe.  Our family is at a place in our life where we cannot control much of our lives.  Walking is a real challenge for Bim; steps are impossible; hence, the new ramp. My kids can’t control his body, so they’re doing the next best thing: controlling how he gets in and out of the house.  In fact, we had a huge family pow wow Friday afternoon, trying to decide how to face these new challenges.  I am ashamed to say that never once, in that heart-felt meeting, did I gather us in prayer.  We, guided only by our human nature, tried to control the situation.

Maybe we were’t desperate enough. Hannah was desperate. Not having a child made her life meaningless because that was her major expectation as a wife: to have children.  Not having a child made her life miserable because Peninnah flaunted her own fertility in Hannah’s face. Not having a child made her an object of pity rather than of pride in the eyes of her husband.  Hannah could not take matters into her own hands. She turned everything over to God.  God heard; God acted.

You may think that Hannah became pregnant because of a fluke in her body chemistry. But this Scripture tells us that God answered prayer. 

Now, this is not the end of the story of Hannah. Her baby, Samuel, went on to be one of the great prophets of Israel.  The story does not end, but continues, Hannah shows us that faith, first of all, expects a response from God; but that is not the end..Faith requires a response; Hannah’s response was to dedicate her son to God’s service.  

As people of faith, we need to be concerned about  how God’s grace to us can be given back in service to God. Hannah literally gave Samuel back to God so he could serve God in the temple. 

Faith is not passive.  Faith is more mental than emotional.  Faith requires trust.  Faith requires audacity—the audacity to ask for what you cannot provide, for what you do not deserve. Faith is stubborn—faith does not give up.  Think of Paul in prison—imprisoned for the actions of his faith. His faith only strengthens his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah.  

There is a story that a government official in Washington, D.C., stopped going to church, because he couldn’t stand to hear people’s spoken prayer requests. His comment: he didn’t go to church to hear people spell their guts. But that’s the kind of courage faith gives—and that is the strength of being in the community of a congregation—-we can spill our guts—to God and each other, and know that prayers will be answered. Sometimes, we ourselves provide the answers to prayer. Sometimes God’s answer is a mystery.

The books of Samuel chronicle the most formative and dynamic years of the nation of Israel. But the story starts with a barren woman who has audacious, stubborn, illogical faith. She is a given a child and she gives back, as a faithful response, her son, to serve God. That son, Samuel, served God through his service to Israel, guiding the nation through being a scattered bunch of tribes to a nation equal to the nations around them.  That son, Samuel, anointed the first king of Israel, and challenged that nation to maintain their faith in God.

 We gather here, in this space, because we have faith in God. Our response to receiving God’s grace is to praise God. That is why we worship.That is why we look for ways to serve God in the community beyond us.

 God began Israel’s transformation not with great men and events, but with the distress of a barren woman. Such a a beginning reminds us of the unlikely paths God’s grace often takes, and it signals to us that the coming kingdom itself is to be understood as the gift of divine grace. 

Hannah’s response was to put her son, still a little boy, into the service of God. How will you respond to your gift of grace?  Amen.

Patience Galatians 5: 22-23

 Ephesians 4 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

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Patience is something we wish other people had.  

When I was a child, I thought my parents were terribly impatient.  I couldn’t do anything without them scolding me.  Or so it seemed.  Looking back, my parents probably thought I was terribly impatient.  They could never fulfill my wishes or demands well enough or fast enough. 

There are plenty of examples in our Scripture of impatient people.  Abraham and Sarah were impatient for children. God had promised them many descendants, but when Sarah sailed right past menopause without a single child, they took matters into their own hands and tried to make Hagar, Sarah’s servant, the answer to their prayers. The problem was, their answer was not God’s answer.

Sarah’s twin grandsons, Esau and Jacob, were likewise impatient. 

Genesis 25. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Later, Jacob stole that birthright with the help of his conniving mother, Rebekah, by disguising himself as Esau.  

Jacob did learn patience after he fled for his life to live with his uncle.  The first thing Jacob did in his new refuge was to fall in love with his cousin, Rachel.  Uncle Laban promised him that he could marry Rachel if he worked for him for seven years.  However, upon waking up after his wedding night, he discovered he had married Rachel’s older sister, Leah, so he worked another seven years to marry his beloved Rachel.  That is patience—-working for fourteen years to marry the love of your life.  

Patience is not just sitting around waiting for something to happen. Patience is not passive. Patience requires an intentional attitude. Patience is anticipation of something good.  Patience denies anger or irritability when we have to wait for something.

Patience is something that can be practiced. As I’ve mentioned many times, my father chose, in the last years of his life, to practice the fruit of the spirit one by one.  At age 93, he chose patience.  I wish I knew how he practiced patience.  Did he give my mother more time to answer his calls for help?  Did he listen to my sister’s instructions relayed from the doctor with the purpose of following those instructions more carefully?  We never talked about how he strove to be more patient. But I know that his patience with us let him enjoy our presence.

What could you do to be more patient?  What does patience feel like to you?

I have, in the last year or so, discovered the rewards of being patient. Being patient slows me down. I am able to appreciate each moment, instead of being in a hurry to “get things done.” I am able to focus more on the person who requires my patience. I find that my caring becomes a pleasure instead of a duty. My patience helps me to appreciate the ordinary moments, the ordinary actions of our lives.  Instead of performing tasks like a robot, I appreciate each tool, each action.  I think about the marvelous abilities of the human body.  I think about the cleverness of the human brain. Who invented the first cheese slicer, that little Y-shaped piece of metal with a wire run across it, so that we could slice cheese smoothly, into even pieces?  Who invented the whisk so that we could whip air into eggs?  Who discovered that soap cuts through grease so that we can use clean dishes over and over?

Where do we need patience in our lives?  Think about Mary, unmarried and pregnant.  Think about Paul in prison. Think about the prophets. Surely the most frustrating command ever given in Scripture was the first set of instructions God gave to Isaiah: 

 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’

10  Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”

11  Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate;

12  until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

And Isaiah did exactly that. His life is a life of “what could go wrong?”  Everything! And yet, he perseveres, trusting God.

Patience requires trust, doesn’t it. We trust that what we are waiting for really exists, is really going to happen. We trust that the reason we wait patiently is not an empty guess.  We wait patiently in line at the grocery store, paying attention to the people around us, focusing on our thankfulness for what fills our grocery cart, finding a smile for the stranger in front, planning kind words for the cashier. 

We wait patiently for the electrician or the well-driller, knowing that they come with the intention of helping us.  We sit patiently through television commercials, knowing that they are the reason we have a program to watch.

Patience allows us to step back, consider the situation and allow the Spirit to bring out the good in us.

Our culture does not teach us patience.  Our culture cultivates our impatience.  We are constantly encouraged to try new products that save us time, we are constantly encouraged to work more efficiently, get more miles to the gallon, make our dollars stretch farther. Our culture teaches us to be impatient and it shows in how we treat each other.

Rudeness becomes the norm; road rage becomes more common. Instead of celebrating what we have in common, we rant against what we perceive as differences. We use values to condemn others rather than to connect ourselves through common values.  We don’t want to take the time. 

Patience requires time.  But it’s not just time.  Patience requires thought. Patience requires caring.  Patience requires appreciation. Patience cannot exist without seeing beyond ourselves to those who are “in line” with us.  Patience is a people-skill. Patience is a way of loving our neighbor.

And patience has its rewards. Paul writs in Colossians 1:10-12

10 …so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

 The greatest stories of patience in Scripture show us the patience of God. God created us in God’s perfect image, but we, in the freedom God gave us, chose to be our own gods, follow our own desires and from the beginning of humanity, we have used our freedom to hurt each other, from  Cain killing Abel to all the wars that have ever plagued us.

God could have given up on us.  God almost did—but instead chose a few samples of creation and put them on ark to spare them from total destruction.  God led the people out of slavery and listened to their complaints as they wandered in the desert; they did not starve to death; God sent food and water.  God could have let us be the victims of our own sin, but instead God sent a Savior.

Paul writes to Timothy:  “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16)

We have all benefitted from God’s patience with us. Likewise, the fruit of the Holy Spirit enable us to persevere, to share our fruit with all those whom we encounter, to be the people God created us to be

 Ephesians 4 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Amen.

Peace Galatians 5: 22-23

                                                                       

The word “peace” appears in the Bible 340 times. 

Jesus birth is announced with a declaration of peace.

Luke 2:13-15 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Jesus promotes peace in his sermons: 

Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Jesus offers peace in his farewell discourse to the disciples:

John 16:32-33 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

Paul, from prison, on the road, in his preaching proclaims peace.

Romans 5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  

Ephesians 6:23Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Why is peace such a magic word?

 Do we only value peace when we lose it?  Do we only crave peace when it seems impossible to achieve?  Is peace simply a panacea, a salve, a temporary cure? Is peace simply the absence of conflict, the absence of confusion and frustration and fear?

For Jesus, peace is a way of life.  Peace is a way of thinking.  

John 14:27  New Revised Standard Version   27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

For those Hebrews who had been waiting for a Messiah, peace meant destroying the Roman occupation and creating an independent Jewish nation. 

Jesus was not that kind of Messiah.

Jesus had to reframe peace because the world cannot offer peace. The world, its inhabitants, its governments, is at best about keeping a tenuous, temporary peace, a truce that is merely an effort to stop doing what people do—take from each other to have more for themselves. 

Jesus did not come to bring “world peace,” that nebulous wish of naive beauty pageant contestants. Jesus did not come to turn humans into zombies or robots. Jesus came to us where we are, as sinners, as people who succumb to fear when threats are physical or emotional or intellectual.  Jesus came to each of us. It was not Jesus’s purpose to wave a wand and take the world back to the Garden of Eden.  

Instead, Jesus came to each of us, one by one, individually.  Jesus offers us what the world cannot: peace within chaos, peace during war, peace that conquers fear.

Jesus could say he had conquered the world because he conquered what the world could not conquer: death.

It is not just the memory of Jesus, passed down through generations, that gives us the power of peace.  It is not just words from scripture that can bring about true peace.  God sent us help in the form of the Holy Spirit.  In Jesus’s words” 

John 14:16 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, gives us the spiritual strength to stand up against evil, against fear, against pain.

Jesus used the word “peace” often in his conversations.  

Mark 5:33-35 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.

“Go in peace”—and that broken, bleeding woman could go in peace because she was freed from the shackles of a broken body.  Jesus didn’t say, “Go in good health.”  He said go in peace.  

Peace can triumph over what seems unconquerable.  

Do we not take peace for granted when we are safe from harm?  Jesus brings us peace when we’re not safe, when we are surrounded by chaos and uncertainty, when we are threatened by political systems or physical symptoms, the Holy Spirit can help us find peace by helping us to see beyond to what lies within.  It doesn’t make sense does it?

And yet some how, humans know that possibility of peace exists.  

How many people practice forms of meditation?   Yoga.  Mindfulness. Transcendental.  Visualization.  Guided. 

How many of us try to find peace through other means?  Working our selves to the bone.  Drinking ourselves to forgetfulness.  Escaping through running or gardening or sewing?  

None of those methods are wrong in themselves, but they seek to use our own human power, rather than the power of God, to restore us, to calm us, to help us find freedom from frustration and helplessness.

God has sent the Holy Spirit to give us what we cannot achieve on our own: Peace that passes all understanding.  

 Philippians 4:6-8  6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Who can hear these words without laughing, except with the knowledge that it is possible to not worry when we are possessed with the power of the Holy Sprit? 

 Peace is an expected characteristic of the Christian: 

Romans 14:18-20 18 The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. 19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. 

So,  I leave you with these words today: 

John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Amen. 

Self-Control Romans 7: 15 -25

Romans 7: 15 I do not understand my own actions. 

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 

16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 

17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 

18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

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Years ago, there was a television show, The Flip Wilson  Show. The star of the show, Flip Wilson, provided us with skits that made us laugh.  One of his characters was Geraldine, a woman whose outrageous behavior was funny because it was shocking. Often as not, Geraldine excused her behavior by saying “The devil made me do it.”  

When we recognize our own bad behavior, we have equally compelling excuses.  “I wasn’t’ thinking.”  “If you knew what I know.” “That’s just the way people are.” “He made me angry.”  “She had it coming.”

The Devil made me do it.

There is within us a tendency to sin.  Even though we are created in God’s image, we have been born into sin and we are as susceptible to sin as flowers are to wilting.

Paul puts it this way: 

19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So, do we leave it there?  Is it good enough to acknowledge, as Paul puts it, that we are slaves to sin? Then, is the next logical step to give ourselves over to sin and not be concerned about the effects of our sin? No. 

Even though our sins are forgiven, that is after that fact,  we are still held accountable by our community for the sins we commit. We are not free in this earthly life from the consequences of our sins. We cannot take back an unkind word, a careless thought, a harmful deed. When I sin against a friend, my friend remembers that and trusts me a little less.  When I sin against my neighbors, my reputation is tarnished. When I sin against God’s creation, I have left my mark, like litter in a ditch. When I ignore injustice in a system that benefits me and hurts others, I am sinning by allowing injustice to continue for those who mean nothing to me.

How can one embrace self-control in a world that encourages individual freedom to do as you please?

“I’m sorry; I can’t hear you over the sound of my freedom.”

“Double the guns; double the freedom.”

“I believe in free speech, unless it offends me.”

“If it feels good, do it.”  How often does sin feel good, not because it gives us pleasure, but because it is so easy to sin.  Self-control requires strength and intentionality. Sin doesn’t use any muscles or brains at all. 

This brings up the very basic difference between following Jesus and following everybody else. Who is the boss of me?  I am free to listen to anything I want to, but I ams also free to accept or reject any idea I want to.  

One of the fruit of the spirit is self-control.  Self-control is not automatic. It is a conscious decision, it requires an active mind and a strong faith.  Notice in our verse from Galatians that self-control, like kindness or generosity, is not the cause of our faith; it is the result of our our faith. Faith itself is not something we create ourselves: faith is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, there would be be precious little fruit and precious little faith.

We are slaves to sin, but the Holy Spirit, always present, gives us strength to reject sinful choices and gives us what we need to control our sinful impulses. 

Can we be happy if we’re always on guard for sin?  Think about all the sins you’ve committed. Would you be happier if you hadn’t committed them?  In my case, yes, I think I would have had less to worry about, less to try to correct, less to apologize for, less trying to make up for my mistakes. It takes a lot of time and energy to clean up after ourselves. 

It’s interesting that we see ourselves possessed by sin, but not by goodness. When someone does something good, we don’t say they are possessed by an angel. We like to take credit for our good acts and blame our bad acts on anything but our sinful nature.  The devil made me do it. 

On a roadside sign along Highway 20 is a sign that reads in bold letters, “The wages of sin is death.”  It was put out there years ago by some well-meaning person or congregation, as a warning to all of us driving by, that sin has consequences.  The ultimate consequence is death. My reaction is, “So what?”

After all, death is unavoidable.  So, what’s the point?  The point, which is not introduced in that sign, is missing.  Read the rest of the verse: Romans 6:23For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (KJV) 

The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Whoever put that sign up left off the most important information. The wages of sin is history for us sinners.  As Eugene Petersen puts it in The Message: [If you]Work hard for sin your whole life [and ]your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.

We do not have to give ourselves helplessly over to sin.

 Phillipians 4:12  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

1 Corinthians 10:13  “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

How can you tap into this self-control that the Spirit offers you?

1 Corinthians 15: 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

We are in charge, only because we have been blessed with the fruit of the Spirit. Thanks, indeed, to God who gives us the strength to overcome our own sinful inclination and who rescues us when we can’t rescue ourselves.  Amen.

Generosity Luke 7

Luke 7: 36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

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Generosity.  To be generous.  

How do we recognize generosity? My favorite example goes back to my elementary school days.  Each August, we would get a list from the teacher. On the list were the titles of textbooks the we needed, along with a few supplies like pencils, scissors and crayons  The list called for a box of 24.  My mom bought me the box of 64!  I will never forget that luxury, that extravagance. That was generous—more than enough.  

In a time of fear and uncertainty, it is hard to be generous.  When we don’t know what the future can bring, when we can no longer count on how the economy and the government can work, we react by hoarding, by keeping, by  saving what we have, just in case.   (I know of at least two men who panic if the toilet paper supply gets down to nine rolls.)

How can I be generous when I only have enough for myself?   

I can only be generous if I have more than I need.  Then I can share what I don’t need.  Isn’t that how generosity works?  How can I be generous when I only have enough to get by? 

Generosity and self-protection are not mutually exclusive.  

I think of Corrie ten Boom, imprisoned by the Germans, along with her sister.  Corrie had with her a small bottle of medicine. She could have used it only for herself and her sister, but she used it on anyone in the prison camp who was ailing. Surprisingly, the medicine never ran out. That is being generous with a precious possession.

I think of my Great-Aunt Edna, who ran a mom-and -pop corner grocery store with my uncle.  As a little kid, I thought they were very rich; in fact, they had little to spare, but when I spent a week in the summer with them, I was treated to every good thing I wanted from the store, including banana popsicles. That is being generous with whatever is at hand.

I think of a friend, who when she hears of kids being mistreated, reacts with fury. The rest of us, me included, just say, that’s life. Bad things happen. Get over it. She says, “Do something!”  That is being generous with one’s heart.

The woman in today’s Gospel lesson is generous. She spends an inordinate amount of money on a very expensive perfumed oil. She doesn’t pour it on everyone. She doesn’t just massage a few drops into Jesus’s hair. She pours the entire contents onto Jesus. Why? Because she loves him. Because, perhaps she, better than the twelve male disciples, intuits that he is facing danger and death.

In those days, anointing with oil was used as a way to welcome guests, as a way of offering hospitality.  Notice that Jesus points out Simon’s lack of hospitality; he didn’t even offer to wash Jesus’s feet,, which was also standard hospitality.  Remember the most famous washing of feet? Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, a chore usually done by servants.  

In an article, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,”  Walter Brueggemann relates God’s generosity, beginning with Genesis. “…it pictures the creator as saying, “Be fruitful and multiply. In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God’s creator spirit.”  God doesn’t stop with one of everything, two of everything…God wants multiples of everything.

Being generous is not about what we have and don’t have. We can be generous even when we don’t have enough for ourselves. Being generous is not just about material goods, like money and food. We can be generous with our time. Generosity, you may realize, is “other-directed”—that is, we use our generosity for the benefit of others. 

We can be generous with our talent.  We can use our talents   to please ourselves, or we can use our talents to benefit others.  A good example is a bake sale. Think of all the bake sales ever held in school gymnasiums, at ball games, in church basements.  The bakers were generous with their time, their talent and their ingredients.  No one ever brings a pan of cookies to a bake sale, expecting to be paid for the ingredients. 

Think of teachers who spend evenings and weekends reading  and grading papers and preparing lessons.  They are generous with their time so that their students may continue to learn. 

In times of uncertainty and fear, it is easy to be greedy and selfish, to look out only for oneself. Perhaps it is hardest to be generous to people who disappoint us, who puzzle us, who anger us.

I see comments from time to time about poor people. The assumption is made that people are poor because they are lazy. Then the logic follows, if they are lazy they don’t deserve help. They need to get a job.   

Generosity ignores why people need help. Generosity just helps. Generosity does not judge. Generosity does not analyze the situation. Generosity does not see reasons or excuses. Generosity sees need.  

God is generous. God ignores our sinfulness. God just helps us.  God does not judge us. God does not analyze our sinfulness. God does not wait for us to confess or repent. God saw a need: a  need to free God’s creation form the evils and dangers and consequences of sin. God sent Jesus; Jesus died, a very human death, was buried, and conquered death. Through Jesus, we too will conquer death.

Let us accept God’s nonjudgmental, life-giving generosity by showing it beyond our four walls. Thanks be to God for giving us more than enough. Amen. 

Kindness Acts 27: 21-44; Acts 28: 1-10

Acts 27: 21-44; Acts 28: 1-10

21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. 22 I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we will have to run aground on some island.”

27 When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of Adria, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. 28 So they took soundings and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they took soundings again and found fifteen fathoms. 29 Fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. 30 But when the sailors tried to escape from the ship and had lowered the boat into the sea, on the pretext of putting out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the boat and set it adrift.

33 Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” 35 After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves. 37 (We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.) 38 After they had satisfied their hunger, they lightened the ship by throwing the wheat into the sea.

39 In the morning they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned to run the ship ashore, if they could. 40 So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea. At the same time they loosened the ropes that tied the steering-oars; then hoisting the foresail to the wind, they made for the beach. 41 But striking a reef, they ran the ship aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the force of the waves. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44 and the rest to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

28 After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.

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When Henry James, American author, was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, he said something that the boy never forgot. And of all the labyrinthine and impenetrably subtle things that that most labyrinthine and impenetrable old romancer could have said, what he did say was this: “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

What is remarkable about those simple statements to me is that Henry James did not usually write short sentences or repeat himself.  As I recall from the reading I was required to do, his sentences were usually about a page long, riddled with punctuation marks and required constant rereading to remember what the sentence was saying.

Be kind.  It’s easy enough. 

It’s our normal modus operandi, isn’t it?  We automatically do nice things for those we love; we respond to others with kindness.  

Kindness is especially easy to reciprocate.  You do something nice for me and I feel like doing something nice for you.

This story of Paul being shipwrecked shows kindness in times of stress. 

First, God is kind to Paul and the people on the ship by sending an angel with a plan: 23 For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 

Then Paul shared the plan with the 276 passengers and crew:

34 Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” 35 After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.

 Paul was being transported as a prisoner, so his life was not so precious to the crew. They thought that they would just do away with any prisoners, but the centurion’s kindness and concern prevented that:

 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan

Once they were safely on land, they experienced the kindness and hospitality of strangers:

28 After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. 

Paul and the others received kindness from a prominent citizen of the island. Paul returned the kindness.

7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.

We are given opportunities to be kind every day. I posted a question on Facebook: “What is the kindest thing anyone ever did for you?”

Some people found the question overwhelming and could not name a single instance, but several people shared cherished experiences.

From M: Gave me their kidney.

From B: Someone I have great respect for made a complementary comment about me when I wasn’t there, there was probably no way I should have ever heard about it but it was relayed to me months later by someone that was there.

From J: Told me if I truly wanted a better life and better relationships I had to own my responsibility in my own pain.

From C: Friends of ours took our daughter in last minute when her housing for the summer in another town fell through. They aren’t letting her pay rent and are including her in their family life.

From L: Kept me as family.

From D: Lent us the use of their second home when we had a medical emergency in another state. They would not take a cent for anything, such good kind people, God bless them.

From K: A kind note and a $50 bill to treat us to dinner out when our kids were all 10 and under. Found between our doors on Christmas morning.

From F: I was a single parent. My daughter was not quite two, I lost my job, a kid hit my car and totaled it. I had an opportunity to go to college, but needed a car. A wonderful person sold me an orange Ford Pinto for $800 and let me pay $40 a month. Getting my degree changed my life, and it wouldn’t have happened without that person’s kindness!

I will say that it is not easy to be kind if we are ill or distressed. I remember in 8th grade, I had one of my spells of depression. I was standing by the water cooler crying.  Our teacher sent in the two nicest students to try to comfort me.  I threw water on them.  My personal experience is that depression distorts all perceptions and makes me strike out like a rattlesnake when help is offered.   

I share this with you as a warning to be conscious about choosing kindness over selfishness, over meanness, over anger.

It is easy enough to be kind when we are in neutral situations where there is not threat.But sometimes, kindness is not our first impulse. We want to punish or get even with someone who hurt us or someone whom we don’t like. 

One of my daughter’s classmates died at the age of 32. The funeral was packed with her classmates, both from high school and college.  One of the attendees seemed out of place.  This young man, John, had not been in Jessica’s circle of friends or in any activities with her.  Jessica’s mom thanked John for coming and he revealed that his presence was prompted by Jessica’s kindness to him when he was a student.  John was the kind of student others either bullied or ignored.  Jessica went the other direction and showed him kindness.

I want to try a little exercise with you. I received this in a daily devotional from a priest, Richard Rohr.

Begin by finding the place of loving kindness inside your heart (Christians might call this the indwelling Spirit).

Drawing upon this source of love, bring to mind someone you deeply care about, and send loving kindness toward them.

Now direct this love toward a casual friend or colleague, someone just beyond your inner circle.

Continue drawing from your inner source of loving kindness and let it flow toward someone about whom you feel neutral or indifferent, a stranger.

Remember someone who has hurt you or someone you struggle to like. Bless them. Send them your love.

Gather all these people and yourself into the stream of love and hold them here for a few moments.

Finally, let the flow of loving kindness widen to encompass all beings in the universe.

Fr. Rohr says that “The quality of loving kindness is already within you, but if you don’t practice daily and deliberately, it is unlikely that a year from now you will be any more loving.”  He suggests that “As you move into the world, find ways of extending loving kindness to yourself and others in practical ways. Remember that love is the very foundation of the universe. You are simply a conduit for the inflow and outflow of love.”

In other words, don’t let kindness happen as an afterthought. Seek out ways to be kind. Be alert to opportunities.

Let me share one other response to my Facebook question.

From D: Forgiveness of my sins.

Is that not the kindest thing anyone has every done for you, for me?  Jesus experienced life as a human, with all its joys and sorrows, with all its pleasures and discomforts. His kindness was surely one of the reasons he was so popular. But the ultimate act of kindness was doing something for us that we cannot do ourselves. He forgave, he forgives our sins. 

We can easily snap at someone, scold someone, or accuse someone. Let us practice kindness, even when we are challenged, in the name of our kindest Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

JOY Philemon 1: 1-7; 1-Matthew 28:1-10

Philemon Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.  I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Matthew 28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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Galatians 5: 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.

As we contemplate the fruit of the Spirit, it is interesting to note what didn’t make the list: thriftiness, cleanliness, independence, seriousness, success, wealth, work ethic. Yet these are values by which we are judged by the world. 

The fruit of the Spirit hold us to a different standard.

Joy is rooted in our being human and in our being created in God’s image. Joy is not the same as happiness. Frederick Buechner says that happiness is man-made, that it is something we try to make. 

How often have you tried to make someone happy? Have you ever tried to cheer up a friend? Have you ever given a friend a gift that you knew would delight them?  Have you ever denied your own happiness to make someone else happy? Happiness is something we can conjure with some extra thought and effort. Perhaps it is easier to make someone else happy than to make ourselves happy.  But we try.  How many people have found ways that provide a temporary fix?  Shopping for the fun of it. Eating because it feels good.  Running because it energizes us. Playing cards or hanging out with friends.  Going to ball games and concerts.  All of these can provide happiness, when we make the effort.  

Joy, on the other hand, appears without warning. Joy is not the result of trying or doing, but of knowing, of recognizing. Joy is deeper and can appear even in times of hardship and sorrow.

As you listen to me, I want you to multitask.  Let memories of your own moments of joy come to you as I share mine.

We feel joy when a child is born, even in the midst of worry and pain.  We feel joy when a child accomplishes something for the first time.  Let me give you an example:

My grandchildren visited me, along with their parents, for a couple days this past week.  One of the traditional activities is to spend the night in a tent in our backyard.  Aunt Mo had bought a new tent and she left it by the front door.  Charlie unpacked the tent, carried it down the stairs to the backyard and put the entire tent up all by himself. I felt such great joy in my heart watching this not-so-little-anymore kid do something so complicated.  He only paused to ask for a hammer and a glass of water. He methodically pounded all the anchors into the ground and did whatever else made it possible for him, his brother and his aunt to sleep under shelter for one night That brought me joy.

A year ago, we were in the midst of a pandemic that we didn’t understand and that frightened us in so many ways. I put together a mask-making “business” simply by asking for donations and volunteers.  I ended up with 240 “business partners.” Some donated fabric, some donated time, some donated prayers, some cut or sewed—we found a dozen ways to volunteer to make sure that the people who most needed masks would be able to have them.  My front porch became a workshop, my dining room became a warehouse and our Facebook page became a community. The joy that project brought to me still resonates every day. When I think back to last summer, it’s with joy that strangers came together as a community to help people they would never meet. I feel joy that I have new friends who have added so much to my life, who are still my friends today.  Truly, the joy from the project that was born out of panic and fear will never leave me or, I hope, those who participated.

I am telling you these personal stories because joy is personal. 

That’s one of the amazing things about God—God is not remote.  God is within us. 

Psalm 139 expresses this beautifully: 

7  Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

8  If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9  If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10  even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If God is within us, if the Spirit is within us, then the fruit of the Spirit are within us, waiting to be recognized at the right moments.

Joy might seem contradictory to the stereotype of a Christian: serious, always concentrating on the Ten Commandments—You shall not this, you shall not that.  It might seem that worship is a time to be serious, solemn. No smiling, no laughing, just concentrating.  Yet think of the joy we feel when we gather together. Think of the depth of that feeling when we could see each other, even if it was only on ZOOM. And the joy of being together in person—it is electric. There is something in the air that lifts us out of the ordinary and into another realm.  That is joy.

The texts I chose today, from Philemon and from Matthew, give us two different settings of joy.

In Matthew, we experience with the two Marys the joy brought about by great love and knowing that the object of that love is alive. How often have we experienced a similar joy when a loved one recovers from an illness or returns after a long absence, when we can once again embrace without fear of losing that person.  

In the letter to Philemon, we would not expect to find joy.  Paul is writing from prison. Roman prisons in the first century were underground, hot, and dark. The prisoners were chained together. Prisoners depended on family and friends to bring them food. Yet Paul writes: I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love.

Paul writes about the joy he feels, even in these horrid conditions.  That is the thing about joy—it supersedes pain, hardship, and injustice. 

Have you ever participated in a Black worship service or watched a video of one? Most evident to me, as I watch Black people worship, is the joy expressed in the music, in the praying.  Frankly, I haven’t seen that kind of joy in the worship services of my experience.  How is it that Black people, who leave that church to go back into a world that shows them more hate than love, how is it that they can so openly express joy?  Is it the Spirit? Is it the fruit of the Spirit, embraced openly and eagerly?  

We white folk do find joy in worship. I think music and singing brings us the most joy. The prelude, the hymns heighten our sense of the presence of God and the community of saints.  

Jesus encourages us to see the rules of the world as secondary to the rule of God,  the rule of Creation.  It’s not that we are encouraged to break laws. We follow manmade laws to protect ourselves and others. Ultimately, however, we are subject to and beneficiaries of the laws of Love: Love God. Love everybody. When we love, we receive joy.

Now, let us sit quietly and dwell on our joy. When, like Mary and Mary, have you been surprised by joy? When, like Paul, have you found joy in the midst of misery? Amen.