Come, Lord Jesus Mark 13:24-37

No one knows the day or the time.

When these words were written down for the first time, probably one or two generations after Jesus death and ascension, the followers of The Way expected Jesus to return, in person, at any minute.  Two thousand years later, we’ve become complacent, if not oblivious, to the Second Coming. It has become the domain of novelists and crackpots who try to predict a specific date.  It no longer serves to keep us on our best behavior., as it die for the earliest Christians.

The advice that that Paul gives in his letters must be read through the hermeneutic or lens of Jesus’ imminent return. For instance, in Romans 13 he connects behavior to Jesus’ return:

11 You know what sort of times we live in, and so you should live properly. It is time to wake up. You know that the day when we will be saved is nearer now than when we first put our faith in the Lord. 12 Night is almost over, and day will soon appear. We must stop behaving as people do in the dark and be ready to live in the light. 13 So behave properly, as people do in the day. Don’t go to wild parties or get drunk or be vulgar or indecent. Don’t quarrel or be jealous. 14 Let the Lord Jesus Christ be as near to you as the clothes you wear. Then you won’t try to satisfy your selfish desires. 

We still strive to “behave properly,” but our religious rational is that Jesus gave us a couple rules to follow, and furthermore, there is an understanding, realistic or not, that we follow those rules because we love Jesus.  We do not love God and love our neighbor because it’s the law.  The modus operandi of the entire Universe of Jesus is love. Likewise, we do not act a certain way because we’re afraid we’ll get caught gossiping or swearing or cheating just as Jesus rides into town. When I was a child, I was sure Jesus would show up just as I smacked my sister.  Picture a ten-year-old smacking a six-year-old, then looking over her shoulder to see if Jesus was standing there with flashing eyes.

Does it matter what motivates us to follow the Love Rules?  Anybody can be nice, kind, generous.  Christians don’t have a corner on charity.  In fact, the non-Christian media often portrays us as selfish and judgmental.  Do we ever get points for the good deeds, the kind words that we share in the name of Jesus?

I can’t keep myself from thinking about a little town in Missouri that has been big in the news since August.  I plastered myself to the television Monday evening, November 24.  Finally, the district attorney made his announcement, and as the media had predicted, some people got carried away in expressing their disappointment. I find it ironic and disgusting that every network searched diligently for some form of violence…and all they could find was one police car on fire and fifteen or twenty people in the street. I can’t help thinking that the media set up the destructive looting and fires of the following days.

I was especially distressed by the media coverage because while the media was showing a handful of lawbreakers in isolated locations, in churches all over St. Louis were hundreds, if not thousands of people praying.  The only thing they set on fire were candles. I bet if you had looked carefully, you could have seen the flames of the Holy Spirit hovering all over town! I can tell you this with confidence because I had friends in the midst of those protests. They are the true protestors, the people who are protesting injustice and misunderstanding. They have been protesting, peacefully, yet visibly since August.  I am proud to say that my daughter and her friends were among the protestors in October.  She marched with a specific group.  They did not loot or burn; they walked, prayed, and sang.  That is how the majority of the people are reacting to the failure to indict the policeman.

The cool thing, and the reason this current event speaks to me is that those protestors, the ones who haven’t attracted much attention, are working and giving and praying in the name of Jesus.  They are not operating out of the goodness of their hearts or because they are politically motivated.  They actions are based on those two old commandments, Love God; Love your neighbor.

And that brings me back to the return of Jesus.  As a child, I feared the return of Jesus, plunging out of the sky with thousands of angels, ready to throw me into a fiery eternal hell.  (I was an awful child…according to my Sunday School perception.) As an adult, I really don’t care if or when Jesus comes back, because I believe that I have a lot more to worry about than my life after my death.  I live in a world that is racked with pain.  I live in a country where one out of four children is not “food secure.” This is a relatively new term that is shamefully necessary:

Household food security exists when all members, at all times, have access to enough food for an active, healthy life.[4] Individuals who are food secure do not live in hunger or fear of starvation.[5] Food insecurity, on the other hand, is a situation of “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways”, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

There are, of course, lots of other problems that overwhelm us…starting with chid abuse, continuing through illness and lack of health care, all the way to the threat of nuclear war. But hunger is a good place to start. Have you noticed that it’s one way even our little congregation can act in the name of Jesus? (We have a nice stack of food ready to go to the food pantry.)

The gospel writer says, “No one knows the day or the time.” That’s one of many things we don’t know about Jesus.  But we know enough to follow him.

At one time, these words referred only to the return of Jesus Christ to this earth to collect his faithful followers. Now we have lots of other days that may catch us off-guard.  No one knew the date or time of December 7 or September 11. No one knows the final date when the balance of climate change is irreversible. No one knows the date of the next launch of a nuclear bomb. No one knows the date of the next fatal car accident or the next heart attack. We don’t know much, but we do know Jesus.

We know Jesus and we follow Jesus.  We are not as expectant as the first and second century Christians, but we are nonetheless cognizant of the power of Jesus.  In my wishful thinking mode, I want Jesus to come right NOW! and fix everything.  In my realistic mode, I know that my presence, my action, my intention is the best way to get Jesus on the ground here and now.

Come, Lord Jesus, come, in the form of my hands, my words, my love for You.  Amen.

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24 In those days, right after that time of suffering,

“The sun will become dark,
and the moon
will no longer shine.

25

The stars will fall,
and the powers in the sky
will be shaken.”

26 Then the Son of Man will be seen coming in the clouds with great power and glory. 27 He will send his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the earth.

28 Learn a lesson from a fig tree. When its branches sprout and start putting out leaves, you know summer is near. 29 So when you see all these things happening, you will know that the time has almost come. 30 You can be sure that some of the people of this generation will still be alive when all this happens. 31 The sky and the earth will not last forever, but my words will.

32 No one knows the day or the time. The angels in heaven don’t know, and the Son himself doesn’t know. Only the Father knows. 33 So watch out and be ready! You don’t know when the time will come. 34 It is like what happens when a man goes away for a while and places his servants in charge of everything. He tells each of them what to do, and he orders the guard to keep alert. 35 So be alert! You don’t know when the master of the house will come back. It could be in the evening or at midnight or before dawn or in the morning. 36 But if he comes suddenly, don’t let him find you asleep. 37 I tell everyone just what I have told you. Be alert!

“Baaa” Matthew 25:31-46 11/23/14“

I grew up on a farm that included a flock of sheep. Along with chicken chores, sheep chores were for the beginner, the novice, Livestock 101.   So Sunday School stories about sheep getting lost or caught in a bush made perfect sense to me.  They were stupid.

But I also loved cuddling the lambs and feeding them and watching them play–no animal plays better than a lamb in spring.  The thought of Jesus being the Shepherd and me being the cute little lamb was a comfortable fit.  But as an adult, being compared to a stupid sheep makes me cringe. Goats are smarter than sheep. I’d almost rather be a goat. Almost.

You see, we had a goat, too.  Goats are good to have with a flock of sheep, because they scare away dogs and coyotes.  Our first goat was Ruby, a nanny, and she served us well.  When she passed on, we acquired “Billy”  a young billy goat.  Billy was not interested in the pastoral delights of grazing.  He loved adventure.  And he was really too young for the job.  There are no child labor laws for goats.  So Billy would run and jump.  Billy would run and jump over the fence into the neighbor’s pasture where he enjoyed the company of horses and cattle.

Unfortunately, the horses did not enjoy Billy, so they chased him, and Billy, being the smart young goat that he was, ran and jumped the fence back to his own job site.  That was fine.  What wasn’t so fine is that the neighboring cattle would see Billy running, and, being not much smarter than sheep,  follow him, likewise running and jumping–over the fence. While Billy and the sheep were in the right pasture, the cattle were in the wrong pasture.

The end of that story is that the neighbors got tired of hauling their cattle out of our pasture.  Consequently, Billy moved on –to the sale barn. So really, I don’t want to be a goat.  Especially if they aren’t going to be welcomed into heaven.  And this is where we turn from this story to Matthew’s story which is much more than an animal story.

By now, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his imminent death. This entire chapter in Matthew speculates about life without Jesus on earth, about what happens next in the story of the Messiah. Jesus had told the story of the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the talents and now he tries one more version of his message.

He wants them to understand not only how to act but why.  He wants them to understand that the way he has treated people should continue among them. But who is going to hold them accountable when Jesus in no longer walking the dusty roads with them?

He uses two images to help them understand.

First, he uses the everyday picture of sorting sheep and goats for market.

Then he reminds them of the way they have treated him.  Let’s explore that idea first.

Have you ever thought about how the disciples acted around Jesus?  Did they fight over who got to sit next to him?  Did they look in the markets for the most luscious piece of fruit for him?  Did they make sure the water he drank was the clearest?  Did they give him the most comfortable spot under the tree or in the boat?  Did they speak in whispers when he was sleeping?  Did they make sure he was out of the wind in a drafty dwelling?  Did they try to protect him from beggars when he was tired?

They probably did. But what difference will all this special treatment make when Jesus is gone?  Will someone else come to take Jesus’ place?  Or do they put those good deeds on hold until Jesus returns?  Will all those kindnesses disappear?

Jesus is telling them that they are to continue these special kindnesses in his absence. Remember that all along Jesus has been bringing a new message–really, starting a revolution in how people are to respond to each other.  Love one another instead of narc on one another.  Love God above all else.  How can Jesus keep this revolution going?  He has to depend on his disciples, but they are not exactly the  Einsteins  of that generation.  If he’d wanted intellectual giants for disciples, he would have surrounded himself with Pharisees.  But he didn’t.  He has the C+ students.  He has the ordinary guys, the ones who took care of themselves and their families and tried to do the right thing.  How can he keep this going when he’s not in the middle of everything, the center of attention?  How can he lead when he’s not there?

So Jesus makes this very personal for the disciples.  He uses their love for Him as the model.   He says to them: you know how you treat me, always give me the best seat, the best piece of fruit.  You need to do that for everybody.  That’s how you get to be with me.  That’s all you have to do.  You know you can do it.  I know you can do it.  Because you’ve already done it.  Just keep feeding anyone who is hungry.  Give clothes to anyone who is cold.  It’s so simple.  No complicated ceremonies; no down payments. No tests to pass.  No legal fine print.  Just visit people.  Just be decent.  If somebody is wanting, and you take care of the need, you’re in.

On the other hand–and here, just to make sure they get it—he warns them. After all, we all respond to fear. You people will be divided into two groups.  One group goes with me, the other group does not.   If someone is hungry, bruised, cold, neglected, and you let them starve, bleed, freeze, suffer–you have hurt me and you have lost your ticket.

Well, no questions there which group they wanted to be in.  And no question for us either, because, of course, we are disciples, too.  That’s where this story goes for us.  What?  I don’t get to go?  Where do I get my ticket?  How do I get my name on the reservation list? Save me a seat!  What do I have to do?

Let’s review that part of the reading: 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.[Matthew 25]

That’s quite a list Jesus gives us.  Feed everybody, clothe everybody, visit everybody. Right.  That’s how many billion people?  But put yourself back at Jesus’ feet, in the room, on the boat, in Caesarea, in Jerusalem, in Calamus, in Lost Nation, in Wheatland, or Grand Mound or Lowden.  Put yourself right where you are, right now.  Is there anyone who could use some fresh vegetables?  Is there a child who isn’t getting enough milk to drink?  Is there someone who can’t pay the light bill?  Is there someone who is both busy and lonely?  Is there someone who is imprisoned in his or her home without transportation? Are there parents who get home from work with barely enough energy to throw together some macaroni and cheese? Are there people working two jobs who can’t afford to buy enough antibiotics to get over a bout with bronchitis?

We can feel bad about it. We can commiserate. But Jesus pushes us beyond that.  Jesus is asking us to pretend it’s him we’re feeling bad about.     So, if Jesus showed up on Christmas Eve without a coat, what would you do? … That’s too easy.

How do we as a congregation show that we know what Jesus was talking about?  How does this congregation feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the suffering?

What about the times when you’ve given somebody a ride, to church or to a doctor’s appointment?   What about the times when you’ve invited someone for lunch or coffee? Think of how far your hands have reached in the name of Jesus!

Those of you who receive e-mail probably receive lots of “forwards”–something written by some anonymous person which gets sent from mailbox to mailbox.  Because I am a pastor, people always think they should send me any of these pieces that are religious.  More than a few are just a little irritating.  They imply that if I don’t forward this particular piece to everyone I know, then I’m not a true Christian, that I’m ashamed of my faith.  Even worse, many say that if I do send the message on to 10 people, something good will happen to me and that if I don’t, something bad will happen to me.  That is hocus-pocus, not faith.  In truth, I don’t forward too many of them, because their theology is more schmaltz & sentiment than scripture.   I received such a letter on Thursday from a young friend.  It made a lot of good points, but it didn’t go far enough.

Here is the e-mail the way I received it.

  •  Hands!
  • A basketball in my hands is worth about $19.
    • A basketball in Michael Jordan’s hands is worth about $33 million.
    • It depends whose hands it’s in.
  • A baseball in my hands is worth about $6.
    • A baseball in Roger Clemens’ hands is worth $475 million.
    • It depends on whose hands it’s in.
  • A tennis racket is useless in my hands.
    • A tennis racket in Andre Agassi’s hands is worth millions.
    • It depends whose hands it’s in.
  • A rod in my hands will keep away an angry dog.
    • A rod in Moses’ hands will part the mighty sea.
    • It depends whose hands it’s in.
  • A slingshot in my hands is a kid’s toy.
    • A slingshot in David’s hand is a mighty weapon.
    • It depends whose hands it’s in.
  • Two fish and 5 loaves of bread in my hands is a couple of fish sandwiches.
    • Two fish and 5 loaves of bread in Jesus’ hands will feed thousands.
    • It depends whose hands it’s in.
  • Nails in my hands might produce a birdhouse.
    • Nails in Jesus Christ’s hands will
    • Produce salvation for the entire world.
    • It depends whose hands it’s in.
  • As you see now, it depends whose hands it’s in.
    • So put your concerns, your worries, your fears, your hopes, your dreams, your families and your relationships in God’s hands because…
    • It depends whose hands it’s in.

The e-mail goes on to say:

This message is now in YOUR hands. What will YOU do with it? It Depends on WHOSE Hands it’s in!

And then it stops. A couple of clicks and it’s out of your hands.  You’re off the hook.

Today’s gospel says it’s not enough to e-mail 10 people something that you didn’t even write.  Today’s gospel says you have to get your hands dirty.  You may even get your hands slapped.

Jesus worked miracles with his hands.  He healed people.  He fed people.  He restored people.

Jesus did not intend for the miracles to stop after his ascension.  That’s his point to the disciples: you have to do what I have been doing.

If someone is hungry,thirsty, do it for me. That’s the thing I want to remind you of, that I want to preach  to you.  When you do these things, remember why you are visiting the sick, why you are dropping off canned goods for the food drive, why you visit members who are homebound, why you forgive those who have made hurtful choices.

We don’t do it because we’re church people.  We’re don’t do it because we’re goody-goodies.  We don’t do it because we ought to, because we should, because we have to.  We don’t do it to prove anything. Anybody can do a good deed. Christians don’t have a monopoly on charitable works. What separates us from the rest of the world, from the rest of the population? Faith. We do good works because–simply because–only because– we love Jesus.    If you think otherwise, then examine your faith.

Like that e-mail says, “It depends on whose hands it’s in.”

Matthew gives us  a pretty story about good deeds. But the pretty part is framed fore and aft by a not so pretty part…the sheep and the goats will be separated.  That’s  what the disciples need to understand.

Did the disciples get it?  I think they did, if we look at the stories of their lives in Acts and the Epistles.

Do we get it?  God knows our hearts.  I hope that God sees in me a sheep who follows and not a goat who goes wherever there might be adventure.

I can be a dumb sheep …because I love my Savior.  And maybe the sheep aren’t so dumb after all.

Let us pray.  Remind me daily of the love I have for  you, my Savior.  Remind me when I am generous. Remind me when I am selfish.  Whatever I do, I do for you, to you, in your name.  Amen

Risking Abundance Matthew 25:14-30

14-18 “It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

19-21 “After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

22-23 “The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

24-25 “The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

26-27 “The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’

++++++++

Whom would you be?  Would you be one of the guys who doubled the owner’s money or would would you be the guy who played it safe? Would you invest somebody else’s money, play the stock market or take it to the boat?  When is there ever a sure return on an investment?

I would have been the the third guy, taking no chances.  I might have put it in the bank at 1%, but I sure wouldn’t have risked anymore than that.  I don’t know how the other two guys managed to double the investment, but I don’t believe there’s every been a sure way to double your money.  And playing with someone else’s money?  That’s crazy.  Especially if the guy is the jerk that is described in vs. 24: The servant who had been given one thousand coins then came in and said, “Sir, I know that you are hard to get along with. You harvest what you don’t plant and gather crops where you haven’t scattered seed. 25 I was frightened and went out and hid your money in the ground. Here is every single coin!”

The third servant acted out of prudence.  He was practical.  He didn’t lose any money for his boss. He didn’t steal it.  So what’s the boss’s problem?  And, worse, why did Jesus side with the two gamblers?  Why did Jesus throw the cautious guy into the darkness?  Why did Jesus condemn and abandon the guy who used common sense?

This parable is scary if you’re not a risk-taker. At the point where I have to choose between whom to emulate in this parable, I’m uncomfortable.  It’s not just that the first two guys doubled their money.  It’s the knowledge that they couldn’t have done it with any confidence or assurance that they wouldn’t lose it all.

Let’s cut to the chase here.  What is Jesus telling me?  Take chances?  Throw caution to the wind?

It’s coincidental and ironic that the word “talent” is the Greek translation for a unit of money.  The word in the original parable has nothing to do with “America’s Got Talent” or “Dancing with the Stars.”  Talent, as used in the parable, is simply another word for a unit of measurement, specifically for a unit of metal, such as gold or silver.  When this parable was first shared, it would have taken nine years to earn just one talent.  So, it would have taken 90.000 years to earn 10,000 talents, at least for the average worker.  That gives you an idea of how wealthy the boss was.  Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and the Koch brothers rolled into one.  And then double that.

Since none of us will ever have that many talents, let’s play with the magic of language and think about the talents we do have.  It makes this story a little more plausible.

So, what are your talents?  I’m good at networking,  cooking in large quantities, organizing, smiling, and wasting time on Facebook.  But which of those are gifts that have been given to me?  Networking has been a gift because I’ve had occasion to meet lots of interesting people and I’ve been given jobs to do that allow me to connect those people to new situations.  Cooking is a gift that was nurtured in me when I got my first job as a dietary aid in a nursing home. Organizing is gift that started back in my church youth group when we were in charge of the annual ice cream social.  The great thing about be able to smile is that it is contagious.  Wasting time on Facebook…even that is good when someone tells me how helpful they find my posts.

But it doesn’t stop with using my gifts.  It is very, very clear that using my gifts is not enough.  If I just use my gifts when it’s convenient, I might as well sign up for Gnashing of Teeth 101.  Jesus gives us THREE examples and the TWO examples who are praised are the TWO guys who take risks.  Is there a reason that he has TWO examples of risk takers?  Is there a point there?

Let’s look at these two guys.  One guy has more talents; one guy has fewer talents.  But both guys double their money. Now, play with the idea of talents, meaning ability or skill: some people have more skills than others.  Some people have more potential, due to aptitude or situation or luck. But, if we really plaster this parable on to “real-life,” then the point is not about the amount, but the doubling of the amount.

What’s next?  We’re back to risk-taking.  There is no way that any talent, whether it be measured in gold or good deeds, can be doubled without taking a chance.  What good would it be for me to have the ability to cook for thirty people if I didn’t, at some wild and crazy point, say, “Sure, I’ll cook at the Chancery five days a week, two meals a day for six months,” even though it had been forty years since I had cooked in a commercial kitchen. That is crazy!!! I had no business saying that.  My children would have starved if my husband hadn’t prepared supper every night.  What ever made me think I could cook on a regular basis?  Looking back, I blame it all on the Holy Spirit. But how did I double my investment?  Well, I got a pay check, which was nice. But I also made lifelong friends, made connections that helped me with other projects, like the Rural Ministry Conference and DeWitt Academy for Theological Education and on and on.  I understand this all in hindsight now. I couldn’t have told you two years ago that I was purposefully taking a risk, purposefully investing my talent into something that would pay off later.

That’s the thing about risk taking.  You don’t know if it will pay off. Sometimes you take risks and you lose.  And the greater the risks, the harder the losses.  I”m thinking about the risks we take with people.

 Investing in people is very risky and often as not, the rewards are not there, or at least not visible.  I think about all the social workers and fireman and policeman and nurses and doctors and teachers who every day take chances, hoping for rewards, for progress, for improvement. I think of all the schemes, all the legislation, all the good intentions to lift people out of poverty.  The rewards are few and far between.  And yet people keep choosing to work as firemen and policemen and social workers, knowing that their investments in time and compassion and dedication seldom break even. In fact, one of the terms in our class discussion yesterday was “compassion fatigue.”  Not only is there no return in the investment, but the investment itself is lost.

And yet, what is the reward for playing it safe?  Utter darkness.  No meaning.  I think of Mother Teresa, the most famous Sister of our time.  After she died, her writings revealed that she had “grave doubts about God’s existence and pain over her lack of faith:”

Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness … If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul … How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, … What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.

She was, as far as I can tell, a perfect example of the first servant with the most talents, giving the most, reaping the most benefits, the most returns, using the gifts she had been given.  Yet, the benefits were not hers to enjoy. The benefits, the interest gained, was enjoyed by those whom she helped. What is the lesson there?

Perhaps we do not always benefit personally from taking risks.  Perhaps the benefits are given away.  Perhaps our good deeds, our attempts to use our talents to the glory of God may seem like a waste of time. What good does it do to hand someone room and board day after day, year after year?  What good does it do for policemen and firemen to answer the same calls day after day?  What good does it do to teach students who don’t want to be in school?  What good does it do to provide health care to people who don’t care for themselves?

When I don’t see any benefit to taking a risk, why should I risk anything? Sure, I can do this or that, but if it’s a waste of MY time, why bother?  When I think of Mother Teresa, when I think about social workers who are afraid to go into a home for a visit, and yet risk it anyway, I realize that my perspective is limited. Then I see that what is a waste of time for me is not a waste of time for the person who is helped.  I think of children who continually disappoint parents or teachers. Even what seems like wasted time for one party is a god-send or a life-saver for the person who receives that investment.

One of my favorite real life examples of investment started in 2004 at Central Community High School.  One member of the class died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  His parents chose to invest in his classmates as a memorial to him.  Like many risks, it has blossomed into something much bigger than was ever imagined.  Cory’s parents came to the Awards Day Assembly–the day when all the scholarships are given out and the whole student body celebrates the graduating class’s accomplishments, even it’s only surviving 13 years of institutional education.  Cory’s parents gave each senior a ten-dollar bill.  Their challenge: do something good with this $10.  That was ten years ago.  The class of 2004 eventually took over the fundraising so that this challenge became a tradition.  Here are a few stories inspired by those ten-dollar bills:

  • I used my $10 to buy a homeless man dinner in downtown Chicago while on a mission trip with my church. The man began to share his story, and it turned out he was from Clinton. He was very grateful and encouraged to meet kind people with the same “roots” as him. This was my first meaningful interaction with a homeless person, and it truly changed my attitude toward the disadvantaged.

  • I used my $10 to buy gas for a lady whose debit card was declined in front of me at a truck stop. She was really upset about it and so I just offered to pay for it and she was very grateful.

  • I held my $10 for a couple weeks trying to find the right thing to use it towards. I drove my mom to a doctor appointment and dropped her off. This was right before she was diagnosed with MS and she went Dr to Dr trying to determine was was going on. While she was in her appointment I ran to a flower shop and bought her a bouquet of flowers to help make her feel better! It was amazing to see her face light up when I gave her the flowers!

  • Another graduate spent her $10 to buy a children’s book for Ekstrand Elementary School in DeWitt.

  • Another recipient knew of a widower who had a tree blown down in a city where he once lived.  His $10 went to help clear out the limbs. The $10 didn’t go far, so he recruited others to get the job done.

  • The $10 gifts have gone to buy seed for bird feeders and phone cards at nursing homes. One $10 recipient ran across a down-on-their-luck family who needed money for gasoline. He gave them his $10 and more.

  • Another spotted a homeless-looking guy on a highway holding a sign saying that he was broke. The graduate gave him the $10.

Those kids did not keep that $10.  None of them received any interest in return. But did they double the worth of that $10?  Did they risk anything?  I count talking to a stranger as risk-taking. I count giving away the money as risk-taking.  What would the practical person have done?  Put it in the bank.  Spend it putting gas in their own car. Go to a movie.

The more I study the words of Jesus, the scarier it gets.  What am I afraid of? Taking risks.  What does Jesus do?  Every time he opened his mouth, he was taking a risk. He didn’t play it safe.  If you want sweet and simple, sing a few verses of “Jesus Loves Me.”  But if you really want to follow Jesus, if you really take this whole Christianity, church-going thing seriously, then you are asking for trouble.

It would be great if we could be like the first two guys and double our money, see our efforts rewarded.  Jesus doesn’t mention a fourth guy who took a chance and lost every thing.  He should have. Because sometimes that’s how it works.  And that’s why we think the third guy was pretty smart for not losing any of his money.  But Jesus-smart is seldom world-smart.

Let us pray.  Sweet Jesus, if only we could just sit in the pew and follow you.  But no, you make us get up, walk out the door, and risk everything you’ve given us.  Thanks a lot.  Amen.

1 CEV

2 Wikipedia,  ^ “Sermon – Some Doubted”. Edgewoodpc.org. 19 June 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-28.

Show & Tell or Go & Do

18  You look forward to the day when the Lord comes to judge. But you are in for trouble! It won’t be a time of sunshine; all will be darkness.

19  You will run from a lion, only to meet a bear. You will escape to your house, rest your hand on the wall, and be bitten by a snake.

20  The day when the Lord judges will be dark, very dark,without a ray of light.

 +++

21  I, the Lord, hate and despise your religious celebrations and your times of worship.

22  I won’t accept your offerings or animal sacrifices—not even your very best.

23  No more of your noisy songs!
I won’t listen when you play your harps.

24  But let justice and fairness flow like a river that never runs dry.

++++

I want to start with a poem by Phillip Larkin, “Church Going.”  Imagine an abandoned church. Imagine, if you want to be dramatic, a world or a country where organized religion no longer exists; what remains are abandoned churches, crumbling buildings that attract the curious.

Church Going

Phillip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

=====

What do you think about people who don’t go to church? Every Sunday we have room for quite a few more people.  Some of you could recite the names of people who once sat in these pews but who are now someplace else, in another church, still in bed, working, traveling….

So, what is your opinion of the people who aren’t here?  What is your opinion of people who don’t ever attend church?  What do you think of people who only show up on holidays, like Christmas and Easter?

Amos is not talking about those people. He’s talking about us.  People like us.  People who have a favorite spot, who know everybody’s name, who put money in the plate. We are an elite group, are we not?

My concern is this: do we think going to church makes us special?  Does going to church make us better? Does going to church make a difference? to anyone?

If we are special, what is special about us?  If we are better, how do we know that? If our church attendance makes a difference, how is that manifested?  Who notices?

These questions float around in my head like floaters in my eyeballs.  Sometimes they are downright distracting.  Sometimes they are merely annoying. Other times, they seem to disappear.  This passage from Amos has made those questions unavoidable.

Amos was one of the earliest prophets. He was writing about two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. He is prophetic in the traditional sense of the word: he sees what is coming.  And he sees why.  As a good prophet does, he warns the people. Unlike some prophets, he doesn’t have a cheery epilogue that promises God will come riding in at the last minute to save the nations.  It’s all pretty much bad news, with a little advice half-heartedly offered, not so much in a spirit of hope as in a spirit of delayed inadequacy.

Perhaps I am still a little grouchy after the results of the election. Perhaps the quarrels that I hear about are demoralizing.  Perhaps Amos brings out the cynic in me.

I, too, wish there were more people joining us each Sunday.  Sadly, we’re on trend with mainline American Christianity.  Sixty percent of Americans say they attend church, but only half of those attend regularly.  That means that on any given Sunday, 60%-70% of Americans do not attend church.  Ironically, in a recent survey 75% of the those surveyed responded that the United States would be a better place if people were more religious.  So…do the math—75% say we need more religion, but only 30% are active church goers. Does that mean that 45% think everyone but them should go to church? Or do they mean that religion is about something besides church attendance?

Yet, how do we keep our records of who belongs to a church?  As far as I can tell, in mainline Protestant churches there are three criteria: attendance at worship; financial support; and participation in the sacraments. Since we only have two sacraments and baptism is good for life, that means attendance at Holy Communion. If you can’t meet those criteria, you are out of the game. Of course, we each have our own criteria, like my great-grandparents founded this church, so I’m good for life, or I taught Sunday School for ten years, so I’m good, or I serve on this committee or that, even though I can’t be bothered to show up on Sunday morning, so I’m good.

Let me put on my cynical face and suggest that Amos was writing about a  primitive culture, a tribal society, an unsophisticated economy. He was writing about a very limited number of people who did not live up to his expectations. What would Amos know about the 21st Century?  My cynical side says that we try too hard to make the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament relevant to the complex, sophisticated, demanding world in which we live.

But the Holy Spirit comes swooping in, bats me with her soft, sweet feathers and shows me that I am neither sophisticated nor complex.  I am human. This is when I am reminded that “We are all created in the image of God.” Starting with Adam and Eve, if you want to start with mythology, or starting with the children of Abraham, if you’re more convinced by history.  Is it not amazing that human nature has not changed very much in 4,000 years?  Is it not amazing that the same commandments passed around in the desert still apply directly to me and everybody I know?

So, Amos, even though you knew nothing about Jesus or Christianity, you knew something about the connections, strong or broken, between people and God. And the words that the Holy Spirit has rubbed my nose in are the words about worship.

Of course.  My own claim to fame.  My own hubris.  I lead worship.  I choose the texts, the prayers, the interpretation.  I choose what everyone else has to say or hear.

Amos quotes God with some alarming proclamations:

21  I, the Lord, hate and despise your religious celebrations and your times of worship.

22  I won’t accept your offerings or animal sacrifices—not even your very best.

23  No more of your noisy songs!
I won’t listen when you play your harps.

Does this mean the Israelites should stop worshipping? Does it mean that all the  connections that worship provides to God are worthless? Fast forward to our worship–are our attempts at worship displeasing to God?  Are we just going through the motions of what somebody hundreds of years ago created?

Frankly, I wonder why anyone would come to worship with us, if we just offered worship and nothing else.  Same old, same old, Sunday after Sunday.   Words, words, words.  And if you don’t like to sing, a lot of down time waiting for the music to end.  Biographies of people long dead who screwed up worse than Sami on “Days of our Lives.” Confusing stories from a  famous guy who is supposed to have all the answers. Epistles that are about as clear mud, written by people who can’t agree on anything.

However [thank you, Holy Spirit] for many of us, worship wraps us in a cocoon of comfort and holds us for awhile, safe from the rest of the world. Worship restores our souls, heals our relationship with God, and gives us enough strength, logical or not, to get us through another week.

But just in case you’re feeling comfortable, Amos explains WHY worship is not the be-all and end-all of God’s expectations.

Perhaps we are no less immune from God’s judgement than the Israelites.

18  You look forward to the day when the Lord comes to judge. But you are in for trouble! It won’t be a time of sunshine; all will be darkness.

19  You will run from a lion, only to meet a bear. You will escape to your house, rest your hand on the wall, and be bitten by a snake.

20  The day when the Lord judges will be dark, very dark,without a ray of light.

Is there any escaping our fate?  Amos has one sentence for the Israelites:

24  But let justice and fairness flow like a river that never runs dry.

That is Amos’ only good news: justice and fairness.  It is too late for the Israelites. Is it too late for us?  Amos is not irrelevant.  He is ancient.  But the humans he worried about, condemned, scolded were probably not much different from us.  What can we do with Amos? My suggestion is that we take up his challenge. What have we done about peace and justice? Is it enough to belong to a  denomination that claims to have the monopoly on peace and justice?  Is it enough to approve of the efforts made by local, national, and international organizations in the name of justice?  How do we keep that river of peace and justice flowing?

Is this congregation only a worship center–or would Amos let us off the hook? We all know about asking ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” We all know, “Jesus loves me.” We all know, “Jesus saves.” But today, I’m trying to figure what Amos would say about us.  Are we singers of noisy songs or bearers of justice and fairness?

Amen.

Who’s In? John 6:35-51 November 2, 2014

John 6:35-51Contemporary English Version (CEV)

35 Jesus replied:

I am the bread that gives life! No one who comes to me will ever be hungry. No one who has faith in me will ever be thirsty. 36 I have told you already that you have seen me and still do not have faith in me. 37 Everything and everyone that the Father has given me will come to me, and I won’t turn any of them away.

38 I didn’t come from heaven to do what I want! I came to do what the Father wants me to do. He sent me, 39 and he wants to make certain that none of the ones he has given me will be lost. Instead, he wants me to raise them to life on the last day. 40 My Father wants everyone who sees the Son to have faith in him and to have eternal life. Then I will raise them to life on the last day.

41 The people started grumbling because Jesus had said he was the bread that had come down from heaven. 42 They were asking each other, “Isn’t he Jesus, the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother? How can he say that he has come down from heaven?”

43 Jesus told them:

Stop grumbling! 44 No one can come to me, unless the Father who sent me makes them want to come. But if they do come, I will raise them to life on the last day. 45 One of the prophets wrote, “God will teach all of them.” And so everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him will come to me.

46 The only one who has seen the Father is the one who has come from him. No one else has ever seen the Father. 47 I tell you for certain that everyone who has faith in me has eternal life.

48 I am the bread that gives life! 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, and later they died. 50 But the bread from heaven has come down, so that no one who eats it will ever die. 51 I am that bread from heaven! Everyone who eats it will live forever. My flesh is the life-giving bread that I give to the people of this world.

+++

What is the bread of life?  Does it have yeast?  Is it gluten-free? Can it be sliced?  Can you make a sandwich from it?

What is more basic than bread?  Think of what you can do with a loaf of bread or even a slice.  Add peanut butter or lunch meat or cheese, a little mayo, and you have a sandwich.  Soak it in egg and milk and fry it and you have French toast.  Cube it, season it, toast it, you have croutons.  Dry it and grind it and deep a piece of meat in it and you’re on your way to deep-fried or chicken-fried deliciousness!  Mix it with celery and onions and broth and butter and herbs and you have stuffing. Or break it into little pieces/cut it in little squares and you have the Eucharist, the body of Christ.

Why did Jesus choose bread as a symbol of life, of satisfaction, of contentment? Keep in mind that he is not talking yet about bread as the symbol of his body.  That would come later, when he lifted up the wine as a symbol of his blood.  Perhaps the writer of John had that in mind, in hindsight, but Jesus is talking about sustenance.

It was perfect for the crowds gathered around him.  Considering their poverty, their desert environment, they were probably hungry and thirsty most of their lives. When you are really, really hungry or thirsty, what do you think about?  Your job?  Politics? Economics? Theology?  When you are really hungry, you think about food.  When you are really thirsty, you think about water. It’s hard to get the mind to focus on anything else when those basic needs are not being met.

Have you noticed how important school breakfast and lunch are?  Comments from a  survey conducted among teachers in 2012 indicate how powerful hunger is:

“I have had students who have come to school with lunch the previous day having been their last meal,” one elementary teacher from the Northeast reported.  Another teacher from the Midwest said, “The saddest are the children who cry when we get out early for a snow day because they won’t get lunch.”

Overwhelmingly, teachers say students have trouble learning when they’re focused on their empty stomachs. Hungry students, they say, lack concentration and struggle with poor academic performance, behavior problems and health issues.

Jesus says: I am the bread that gives life! No one who comes to me will ever be hungry. No one who has faith in me will ever be thirsty. 36 I have told you already that you have seen me and still do not have faith in me. 37 Everything and everyone that the Father has given me will come to me, and I won’t turn any of them away.

Jesus struck a chord with his audience when he proclaimed himself as the bread of life. But I wonder, why did this kind of bread appeal to them?  Other than feeding a few thousand at a couple picnics, Jesus was not pushing a cart full of groceries.  They had probably heard about how he fed 5,000 people with real food, real bread and fish; maybe some of them had been here.  Maybe they were hoping for a repeat of that miracle. But how could they have even understood what kind of hunger Jesus could satisfy?

LIsten to vs. 48-51 48 I am the bread that gives life! 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, and later they died. 50 But the bread from heaven has come down, so that no one who eats it will ever die. 51 I am that bread from heaven! Everyone who eats it will live forever. My flesh is the life-giving bread that I give to the people of this world.

The bread on the table, the bread given to the wandering Hebrews, the bread served on the hillside satisfies for only a short time. It is not a guarantee of anything beyond today, beyond one meal. Jesus calls what he has to offer “bread,” because it gives sustenance, it defeats death.  The bread that Jesus brings is a promise of love, of loyalty. Jesus did not come to earth just to check out the human condition. Jesus offers something that provides some comfort, some hope beyond the misery and uncertainty of daily life.

38 I didn’t come from heaven to do what I want!  I came to do what the Father wants me to do.

It is God’s love that sent Jesus to earth, not God’s abstract love as a symbol of existence, but God’s real love for each of God’s people. Jesus is following orders. Sometimes I forget that.  I think of Jesus as autonomous, as choosing his own path.  But nobody would choose the path that Jesus chose.  His birth, his teaching, his grief, his pain, his death were a part of God’s plan…and that plan had only one purpose: salvation for God’s children. Jesus was caught in the middle. God’s love is the force behind the whole Christian narrative.

Jesus emphasizes:

He sent me, 39 and he wants to make certain that none of the ones he has given me will be lost. 

Instead, he wants me to raise them to life on the last day.  40 My Father wants everyone who sees the Son to have faith in him and to have eternal life. Then I will raise them to life on the last day.

The bread of life that Jesus offers is too big to be held in the hand.  It is held in the heart.

Earthly bread requires labor, on the part of the farmer, on the part of the miller, the baker, the distributor, the grocer, the buyer.  Work, work, work.  and Money.

The bread that Jesus gives us requires nothing from us.  It is free, a gift from God. Depending on your personal theology, it is free to all God’s children.  Who are God’s children?  We, sitting in this room, claim to be God’s children. Can anyone else be counted as a child of God?  Of course, you say, all the people in all the churches.  Anyone else?  Well–anyone who has been baptized.  Can you stretch it further?  Does God keep a list like Santa Claus, checking of who’s in and who’s out?

37 Everything and everyone that the Father has given me will come to me, and I won’t turn any of them away.

Jesus makes it clear that his followers, who are the people who believe his teachings, who accept him as a Savior, who believe that he is the one sent directly from God, will receive a kind of nourishment that outlasts the earthly body, the earthly life.

Jesus feeds a different kind of hunger. It is a hunger that we don’t always acknowledge, but it is satisfied only by coming to Jesus, turning to Jesus. Because we have the benefit of years of study, the benefit of understanding the vocabulary of the Scripture, the benefit of modern psychology, sociology, and anthropology, we know that humans need more than physical security to be complete.  We also have minds and hearts and souls that hunger in a way that is similar to our stomachs.  But we feed this mystical hunger with words, with ideas, with beliefs.  As Christians, we feed our hunger with worship, with prayer, with love for each other, with the sacraments. If we are still hungry, perhaps we need to get closer to the table; perhaps we need to consume the Bread of Life on a more regular basis.

We are tempted to feed our hunger with substitutes, like television or shopping or politics…the world offers a generous menu of ways to fill our lives.  As Christians, we try to avoid the junk food and feast only this mystical gift of love and salvation. Bread of life…it’s about life, now…and forever.  Amen.