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.”

+++

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.

+++

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. 

+++

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.

+++

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.”

+++

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.

+++

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.”

+++

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.  

Nicodemus John 3: 1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 

He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

+++

Today is Trinity Sunday.  It’s an awkward “holiday,” as it isn’t based on a  Biblical event. It is based on a concept and is the result of many men over many years trying to define God.     

For much of our belief system, we have to use figures of speech. Metaphors: Lamb of God. Similes:  God is like a mothering hen.  Adjectives: God is omnipotent. We define God using the same language system we use to define ourselves.  It’s all we have.  Truth be told, I’ve played with the idea of a Quadrinity, adding Sophia—Wisdom.   And we could keep adding “inities” because God is multidimensional. 

The passage about Nicodemus is chosen for this Sunday because in it, Jesus references all three manifestations of God.

16 “For God so loved the world —God the Father—that he gave his only Son, —God the Son. .

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.—God the Spirit.

Have you ever wondered how the writer of this Gospel knew the content of this conversation?  After all, Nicodemus came at night, after everyone else had retired for the day, all safe inside their homes. There is no mention of anyone else being in the room with Jesus.  So, from where did this information come?

The only source I can think of is Nicodemus himself.  

Nicodemus was a scholar, a Pharisee, who knew the Scriptures as well as anyone. What had the Scriptures promised the Jewish people for centuries? A Messiah.  Nicodemus came to Jesus with hope and with questions. Instead of answering his questions, Jesus forced Nicodemus to ask more questions. In fact, Jesus and Nicodemus used a popular form of discussion, the Socratic method.  The Socratic method is a cooperative way of discussing a topic. The participants, instead of lecturing each other, ask and answer questions about the topic. Two of the advantages of the Socratic method are that it inspires new ways of seeing a subject while revealing assumptions that may or may not be accurate. 

Nicodemus had to see being reborn in a new light.  Jesus pointed out that we are not just flesh and bones; we are spiritual people.   One of my favorite quotations is from French Priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: 

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

That is, we are more spiritual than human. Our bodies simply provide a space for the “real us” to reside. 

Yet, our real bodies often lead us into temptation and sin. And for that reason, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Notice that God loved the world, the whole of creation—not just humans. We are a part of what God created.  If there was ever a call to protect the earth, that is it. But that digresses from Nicodemus’s story.  

This conversation was so important to Nicodemus that he shared it with other disciples. Jesus had already made a great impression on Nicodemus; otherwise he would not have risked meeting Jesus in person. He took the precaution of leaving his home after dark, making his way to where he thought Jesus was staying, risking being seen even in the dark. But he had to know. Perhaps he had prepared questions in his mind: Are you the Messiah? Can you prove to me who you are? 

He didn’t even get a chance to ask his questions before Jesus presents him with new questions.   “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus takes the conversation in an unexpected direction, not with the purpose of defeating Nicodemus in argument, but with the purpose of helping him to understand this totally different concept of the purpose of the Messiah.

We know that Nicodemus continued to follow Jesus. In John 7, at the time the temple police were being instructed to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up:  50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, 51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  and he was brave enough to assist in Jesus’s burial: Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. (John 19:39)

Nicodemus walked a risky line between his position as a prominent temple authority and as a follower of Jesus. He was challenged to rethink his entire religious education and practice. His conversion was as drastic as Paul’s, as fraught with conflict as Peter’s. And he had to learn to think in terms that ignored the obvious, everyday state of his existence: that he was flesh and blood, merely a body and a mind, working against the odds of common knowledge to accept a Messiah. 

We know that he accepted this Messiah, who defied all the expectations of a Jewish nation hoping for a political revolution. Instead, the revolution was one of the spirit, one unseen, like the wind.The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

As humans, we depend on our senses.  Nicodemus was using his senses to understand Jesus: no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus dismisses the signs: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  He dismisses the miracles, the acts that have made him famous, as unimportant.

How can we apply this to our lives?  It’s a matter knowing whether to put the horse before the cart or the cart before the horse.

One of my father’s favorite quotes was from Martin Luther. ““Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.” 

James says in his epistle: 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

We must first have faith.The Spirit inspires us, strengthens us, gives us courage. The Father creates us. The Son redeems us. We cannot walk in faith without acknowledging that our God is complicated, multi-faceted, and always available in ways that we don’t even know exist.  

The creeds and much of our language uses a chronological order to describe the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. First, Second, Third. But in fact, there is no order, no numbering, no quantity, no quality that distinguishes Father from Son from Holy Spirit. 

Like Nicodemus, we must examine our assumptions and continue to refresh our knowledge of God. Perhaps it is safe to take God for granted—until we forget God and let the sinful ways of the world dictate our thoughts and actions.  Unlike Nicodemus, we do not have to seek God when no one is looking. We do not have to worship in secret. May God protect those who do have to worship in secret.  

How can we emulate Nicodemus?  I think his greatest example to us is his curiosity. May we also continually ask questions, not because we doubt, but because we want to learn more.  May we have dialogues that teach us what we know and what we can learn. May we see God’s words as still living, not only in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but in our own lives.  Amen.  

Fruit of the Spirit Galatians 5: 13-26

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 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. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

+++

Today, Pentecost, is considered to be the birthday of the Christian Church. After Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples—the twelve and all the rest who followed him—were in limbo.  They could not go back to their former lives—their lives had been forever changed by Jesus.   As Jesus had ascended into heaven, two angels had appeared and instructed the discioples to wait for Jesus to return.   11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

So, they stayed together, waiting for Jesus. Imagine the anticipation, the hope that bound them together, waiting for Jesus. But ten days later, the return of Jesus was in a very different form. God appeared again, but not in the form of God’s son. This time, God appeared in the form of the Holy Spirit. That changed everything.  

If I had been one of the disciples, I would have expected Jesus to return in person, and I would have expected that we would all get back to listening to Jesus preach and teach.  Back to what was familiar. Back to what we had enjoyed and valued so much—the physical presence of Jesus. That’s what I would have expected.

In fact, the return of Jesus was not a return to the good ol’ days.  Instead, the return of God in the form of the Holy Spirit turned the world of the disciples upside down. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, they became the preachers and teachers. They became the leaders. The Holy Spirit blew through that room, lifted them beyond their own limitations and carried them out into the world.  And here we are, still being blown by that same Holy Spirit.

Where has the Holy Spirit blown you? What flames have appeared on your head that changed your life? How have you been transformed and inspired to leave the safety of your surroundings to be a disciple, a leader who leads others to Jesus?   

Pentecost is a good time for us to consider what the Holy Spirit calls us to do.  I have been fortunate enough to be called to serve as your pastor. I cannot emphasize enough how marvelous this calling is. But we cannot all be pastors. How does the Holy Spirit push you out into the world? How has the Holy Spirit empowered you?

Today’s text tells us what we have to enable us to be witness to the world. 

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

Love.

Joy.

Peace. 

Patience.

Kindness.

Generosity.

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self-control.

This is a nice list, isn’t it. And how often we give ourselves credit for loving, for being patient, for being kind or generous. How often we pride ourselves on our self-control. But Paul lists them after he lists their opposites, which, when faced with adversity or contradiction, we often revert to:

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.

Fornication—that is sexual sins

Impurity 

disregard for the law

love of money, love of power

trusting in good luck or our own judgement

holding on to feelings of hate or jealousy

unresolved anger

holding on to grudges and quarrels and biases

wanting more than we need

partying to escape

Paul holds up the fruits as the opposite of these tendencies, these temptations.  Because of our sinful nature, because it is often so much easier to sin than to resist, accepting the fruits of the Spirit takes effort. 

To seek love over desire takes effort. 

To seek the deepness of joy over whatever amuses us takes effort.

To seek peace over convenience takes effort.

To offer kindness instead of judgement takes effort.

To offer generosity over jealousy takes effort.

To remain faithful takes continuous practice and attention.

To be gentle requires seeing each person as a child of God.

To have self-control—to think about the consequences of our actions—takes effort. 

Wouldn’t it be nice to automatically feel love for each Child of God?

Wouldn’t it be nice to automatically experience deep joy, the contentment that comes from recognizing God’s gifts to us?

Would’t it be nice to feel peace instead of anxiety every time we are challenged with change?

But we are not robots.  We have feelings and emotions. We are able to, we are wired to make decisions. The fruit of the Holy Spirit are the tools we have to be the people God created. God loves us. God finds joy in us.  God brings peace. God is kind and generous and gentle. Why else would God send the Son he loved as much as any parent loves a child to save us—each of us a mere blip in the population of humanity. God makes manifest in us those fruit, if we are willing to use them.

My father chose, in the last years of his life, to focus on one fruit each year. He practiced, in consecutive years, love, generosity, patience. He was at a time in his life when he could devote himself more intentionally to his faith and to Scripture. The last year of his life was marked by patience and he taught us how to be patient, too.

I have always admired that practice of his.  There are many ways for us to practice our faith. Some choose to read the Bible straight through from beginning to end. Some choose to worship at church every Sunday. Some choose to pray before every meal.  Some choose to witness to their friends and neighbors.  I would like us, as a congregation to choose a focus for a period of time.  I thought about each of us choosing our own fruit, but I think the power of the Holy Spirit would be more evident if we share the same goal, the same fruit, the same practice.  For seven years—or even seven weeks—we could put our energy into love or joy or patience, as a group. This will take some planning on my part and some engagement on your part.

We are not helpless; we have the strength of the Holy Spirit to carry us forward. We don’t have to invent love or joy or patience. God has provided these fruits, these tools, these realities to us. 

On this day a couple thousand years ago, God appeared in a form that has carried the church forward and has made the love of God the strongest force in the world. We see much evidence of sin in the world and we sometimes wonder why God doesn’t step in and abolish sin.  God has defeated sin in its most ugly and terrifying manifestation. God has defeated death. In the meantime, we, individually and together, defeat sin one person, one thought, one word, one act at a time, when we share the love of God with those who are missing God’s love. Sometimes it is we ourselves, the people in the pews, who lose sight of God. That is why God gives us community—to always be strengthening each other. 

In this space, we know that we can find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and, yes, even self-control. Let us each be carried away by the power of the Holy Spirit to bear fruit in the world, ugly and frightening as it may be. May we be the ones to bring beauty to the earth. Amen.