Shock value- Jesus' 100 percent rule

Mark 10:17-31

            It’s been a hectic and full past month, in both my personal life and in the life of our church. Between Andrew’s resignation and Kimberly’s surgery, the already typically busy period of September and early October has only gotten crazier. I am grateful for the congregation’s support for our family, before, during, and after the surgery. We celebrate the good news of Kimberly being cancer free this week, and it was so powerful, mostly because it was not surprising to feel the love and support from the congregation. As I said to Kimberly’s parents on her surgery day, it felt like a cloud of witnesses was uplifting us. We felt your presence and your peace that day.

            These types of life moments offer opportunities to clarify what is really important and what is not. That’s humbling. Whether it’s simplifying our possessions or taking news fasts or connecting more with friends or less with the annoying little parts of life, a moment like this provides clarity for who we are and who and what we surround ourselves with. I’ve heard that clarity from some of you as well, especially those who had a health scare or are bravely in the midst of or survived a journey with cancer or some other serious disease. It’s not that the details and debates of life aren’t important any longer. Those will always be there. It’s just that some things become more important. And it’s often those things that remind of who and whose we are, and what we value most.

            I think of that lesson in the context of this text from the Gospel of Mark. So often when we hear this text and series of stories, we make the primary lesson about money. And fair enough, Jesus has his say on the dangers of money in the context of faith. So it’s clear that money is an important part of how we reflect on our relationship with God and with one another. But I also think there’s a bit of what we would today call ‘shock value’ in Jesus’ words and example here. That shock value is directed towards money in these texts, but in reality, it’s more about priority. What do we prioritize in our lives? What do we put ahead of the things that are most important? What do we put ahead of God?

            All of this is relevant because in today’s gospel reading, a would-be disciple — identified only as a rich man — approaches Jesus. He’s interviewing to join Jesus’ group of 12. He has an impressive resume. Jesus looks at this guy – let’s call him Jake -and likes him — a lot. In fact, the text says Jesus loved him. Jesus would love to have him join the team. And why not? Jesus would be smart to add this discipleship candidate. He’s young. He’s reverential (he knelt before Jesus). A background check reveals that he has no rap sheet and is an upstanding citizen. He follows the Law of Moses, so he’s religiously observant.

And — best of all — he’s a potential angel investor, a man with standing in the community and financial resources to fund Jesus’ mission for a long time!

So Jesus gives Jake the good news: he can be a disciple. But first, Jake must give 100 percent of his possessions to the poor. Not 10 percent or 20 percent, but 100 percent.

After Jake has disposed of his possessions, he can then, and only then, return and follow Jesus. The Jesus team will then be known as the Thirteen instead of the Twelve. But Jake is “shocked.” He felt he had done enough to be a disciple already. He wasn’t prepared to do it all. He’s genuinely disappointed. But he can’t do it. He turns away and we never hear of Jake again.

So what do we see here? Is the issue Jake’s money or is it his priorities? He’s willing to do a lot, but is money still the most important thing to him? Six things jump off the page:

1.    Jake wants to inherit eternal life.

2.    Jesus gets a little touchy about being called “good.” Why?

3.    “Entering” the kin-dom of God is all about what we do — not what we believe.

4.    Jesus says it is difficult for the wealthy to get into the kingdom of God.

5.    Jesus doesn’t really explain this comment, but only says that “for God all things are possible.”

6.    Jesus says that “many” (not all?) who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

This sounds pretty stark for anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus, whether then or now. Our American affluence makes us understandable unsure and uncomfortable about how to apply this type of teaching to our lives and to our faith. If we were to take this text literally, there would be few of us in Fort Wayne who live up to the standard Jesus sets here. That’s why it’s important for us to view this text in the context of other teachings of Jesus.

Jesus offers a similar shock value statement when the disciples bring his mother and siblings to him while he’s teaching. He tells the crowd that his biological family does not receive any favorable treatment or perks. In fact, his true family is those who embody the type of discipleship he describes in today’s text. Pick up your cross and follow me, says Jesus.

So what is Jesus saying in these two examples? Many of the teachings of Jesus, these two included, point towards spiritual wholeness. Not spiritual holiness. Spiritual wholeness. So what does that mean? To Jesus, it means living a life with God at the center. Often, humanity falls into the same trap as Jake, and makes that quest into a ‘to-do’ list to check off, rather than a way of simply being in the world. I don’t think Jesus wants us to do any of these things he cites in this text in a formulaic, ‘check the boxes and you’re on the way’ to spiritual wholeness type of discipleship.

It’s much deeper than that. It’s about how we live, even more than what we do or even what we believe. In these texts, Jesus encourages us to examine our lives. Our very lives. What are our priorities? What is most important? And once we discern and name what is most important, the follow up question is equally challenging. Do our priorities point us towards a life of spiritual wholeness with God?

 I found an unattributed quote that captures this sentiment well. ‘Perhaps the most ‘spiritual’ thing that any of us can do is to look through our own eyes, see with eyes of wholeness, and act with integrity and kindness. Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly. It’s not something we achieve. It’s something we must simply become.’

Next weekend, I’ll be traveling to Elgin, IL on Saturday and Sunday to participate in a presentation to the denominational Mission and Ministry Board on behalf of the Supportive Communities Network of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. In talking with Carol Wise of BMC in preparation for our presentation, we noted that one of the often overlooked and unexpected blessings of the journey towards inclusion is that it is also a journey towards authenticity and wholeness. Loving a neighbor as ourselves means something differently when our definition of neighbor expands. As we have resided with those whom society has pushed to the margins, we surprisingly or perhaps unsurprisingly, find ourselves at the heart of the Gospel, exactly where Jesus himself resided, exactly where we are called to be. Our congregation sought to be more inclusive, but we have discovered so much more – what it means to be authentic people of faith, offering a spiritual place for everyone, seeking to make our lives filled with wholeness and meaning.

That’s what Jesus is demanding of the rich young man. That’s the core of the lessons he offers his disciples. And that’s at the core of what he invites and challenges us to embody today as his followers. Nothing more or less than being authentic people of faith sharing lives of spiritual wholeness together. Amen.

Who do you say that I am?

Mark 8:27-38

Who do you say that I am? That Jesus question is one that we confront over

and over in life. It’s a question of identity. Not self-identity. Perceived identity by

another. This question strikes at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, at the heart of his

relationship with his disciples. It doesn’t start that way. Jesus is gathered with his

disciples at Caeserea Phillipi. That should give us a clue right away. This place is

one where the great Roman Caesars, Julius and Augustus, are both deified as

gods. Or as god. Or as Messiah.

It seems fitting that this would be the place where Jesus is asked this

question. Who do you say that I am? That’s not the first question he asks,

however. He begins with a more generic approach. Who do people say that I am?

It’s a strange question in some respects – it almost reminds me teenagers acting

catty and wanting to know what others think of them. Who do people say that I

am, especially as we gather in this place where Caesar is proclaimed in Christlike

ways. It may have been particularly dangerous to even ask that question in that

place, but the Bible is filled with symbolism, with location playing a huge role.

So, who do people say that Jesus is? John the Baptist? Elijah? One of the

prophets? People don’t know. Which is in keeping with Mark’s gospel to this

point. The importance of this text is especially clear for Mark’s version of the

Jesus story. Prior to this story, the Markan Jesus is masked in secrecy. Peter’s

declaration of Jesus as the Messiah marks a shift in the narrative. After this text,

Jesus becomes bolder and clearer in his identity. He’s more open in who he

proclaims himself to be.

Given the next part of this text, it’s interesting that Peter is the one who

answers Jesus’ identity. Author Eugene Peterson notes, ‘Among the apostles, the

one absolutely stunning success was Judas, and the one thoroughly groveling

failure was Peter. Judas was a success in the ways that most impress us: He was

successful both financially and politically. … And Peter was a failure in ways that

we most dread: He was impotent in a crisis and socially inept. At the arrest of

Jesus, he collapsed, a hapless, blustering coward; in the most critical situations of

his life with Jesus, the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the vision

on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said the most embarrassingly inappropriate

things.

“Time, of course, has reversed our judgments on the two men. Judas is now

a byword for betrayal, and Peter is one of the most honored names in the church

and in the world. Judas is a villain; Peter is a saint. Yet the world continues to

chase after the successes of Judas, financial wealth and political power, and to

defend itself against the failures of Peter, incompetence and ineptness.”

Peterson’s observation reminds us that the disciples have their own

identities. Beyond Judas and Peter, there’s doubting Thomas, there’s Nathanael

who believes nothing good can come from Jesus’ hometown, and there’s James

and John, the sons of Zebedee, who tried to be the top dogs among the disciples.

We develop these identities for this biblical figures, because there’s little more we

know about them.

If Mary Magdalene were to ask us the question, ‘who do you say that I am?’

we would often hear the answer of prostitute. But the Bible never specifically

names her as such. If Nicodemus were to ask us the question, “who do you say

that I am?’ we might say he was a typical Pharisee who was skeptical of Jesus.

And we would forget that he was believed to be one who provided the tomb for

Jesus’ burial and resurrection. If the Apostle Paul were to ask the question, ‘who

do you say that I am?’, depending on when it was asked, much of the Jewish

Christian world would call him a persecutor of Christians, while the Gentile world

later might call him the founder of the church.

This question becomes even more potent when turned to us. What if Jesus

were here and asked it? Who do we say that he is? I attended a conference

several years ago where it was noted that there were countless terms and

phrases for Jesus in the Bible. The person leading the discussion was going to start

naming many of those phrases and asked us to raise hands or stand for the one

that was most meaningful for us.

He started with the usual suspects – Messiah, Lord, Savior, Son of God. But

quickly he moved to others – Light of the World, Prince of Peace, Son of Man, the

Living Water, Bread of Life, just to name a few. I could see on the faces of other

participants that many wished they could raise their hands more than once. We

so easily get stuck on these common notions of Jesus’ identity that we miss out

on the deeper reflection of what these titles say about Jesus…and about us. What

does it mean to us for Jesus to be the ‘light of the world’ or the ‘living water?’

What does it mean to us for Jesus to be ‘Lord’ or ‘Savior?’ What does it means to

us for Jesus to be ‘Son of God’ or ‘Son of man?’ And how do we define the

difference between those two?

Too often, in a complex world, we may answer Jesus’ question in a fashion

more complicated than we need. In a tongue in cheek turn, author Timothy

Merrill sarcastically writes, ‘And Jesus said unto them, “But who do you say that I

am?” They replied, “You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the

split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the

theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the

ground of all possibilities. You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your

children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming roughness in the

midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness, in the contiguity

and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships. You are my Oppressed

One, my soul’s shalom, the One who was, who is and who shall be, who has never

left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed

struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.” And

Jesus replied, “Huh?”

As the text continues, Jesus calls together the crowd with his disciples and

says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and

take up their cross and follow me.” That’s key to understanding who Jesus is: to

follow him. And this, unfortunately, is something the church hasn’t done a very

good job of teaching people to do. “A good church upbringing will do many

marvelous things for you,” write Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their

book ReJesus. But one of the unfortunate things it does is “convince you that

Jesus is to be worshiped but not followed.”

Think about that. The church does a better job teaching us to worship Jesus

than to follow him. But when you read the gospel of Mark, you discover that Jesus

is less concerned about people pledging allegiance to him than he is about people

following him. Frost and Hirsch continue, “Jesus never once said, ‘Worship me.’

He said, ‘Follow me.’ One of the cleverest ways to avoid following someone is to

worship him. It really works; it’s very clever. You just put him on a pedestal, you

make God out of him and you pay all kinds of homage to this God figure, and then

you don’t have to do what he did.”

Who do you say that I am? In this text, we are trained to think of that

question in the context of Jesus. But what if we turn the tables and ask that of

ourselves? Who would ‘people’ say that we are? Who would Jesus say that we

are? I have thought about those questions a lot these past weeks, as the saga of

the Supreme Court justice vote has unfolded. There’s so much that has been said,

and everyone has their own opinion of whose account is most credible or

trustworthy, between Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh, myself included.

Yet I also wonder what Jesus would think in this situation? Who would

Jesus say that we are, in light of this tragic episode of civic discourse? Would Jesus

say that we are a people who treat women with dignity, respect, or empathy?

Would Jesus say that we are a people who even know how to publicly disagree

without severing families or friendships? Would Jesus say that we are even able

to discern truth anymore, among the proliferation of alternative facts and fake

news? Who would Jesus say that we are?

That’s the basic question Jesus confronts us with daily. Who do you say that

I am? It’s not directed solely towards Jesus. It’s also directed towards us. When

we act rudely, who does Jesus say that we are? When we respond with

compassion, who does Jesus say that we are? When we follow our worst instincts,

who does Jesus say that we are? When we choose love, not hate, and gratitude,

not fear, then who does Jesus say that we are?

Believe

John 12:35-37

            This past summer, I attended a continuing education conference led by Diana Butler Bass. Butler Bass is a theologian and professor of Christian Education at a seminary in the Washington, D.C. area. The conference was focused on gratitude, the title of her new book, and I’ll be sharing more with you about some of her thoughts and reflections on gratitude in two weeks, as part of our Pledge Sunday focus.

The first part of the conference, however, focused on spirituality, religion, and belief. Specifically, she focused on the changing trends in American religious life. Those of you who attended the Sunday school class earlier this year on the ‘End of White Christian America’ were exposed to some of these trends and patterns, but Butler Bass elaborated on them through the lens of a Christian educator, which was equally helpful.

She began with a question, the same one I ask you now: ‘What is the biggest religion in the United States?’ No religion at all. To be fair, that’s not entirely true, as the survey she cited divides Christianity among Catholicism, Protestantism, and non-denominational evangelicalism. Taken together, Christianity is still larger, but as separate categories, no religion was the largest.

As supplemental evidence, she cited a different survey, where 31% of all respondents identify neither ‘spiritual or religious,’ 29% identify as both ‘spiritual and religious,’ 22 % identify as ‘religious, but not spiritual’, and 18% identify as ‘spiritual, but not religious.’ In this dialogue, she asked ‘what is OUR – the church’s – identity in this shifting cultural pattern? She observed that the beauty of our traditions and what we think our language in church communicates just isn’t being communicated any longer. She encouraged each person present to reflect upon what it is that we love about being who we are. And then to reflect on what do we believe? And, what is it that we love about what we believe?

Those are interesting questions, aren’t they? What do we love about being who we are? What do we believe? What do we love about what we believe? We’re going to take a few minutes during this worship time to discuss these questions together. Find two or three people sitting nearby to you and discuss those questions for five minutes. The questions are on the bulletin insert and will be on the screen. Please write any thoughts you’d like to share on the insert and put them in the offering baskets when they come around, and we’ll include the reflections in an upcoming church newsletter. A new song will call you back from your groups and then I’ll continue the sermon.

Question time – 5-6 minutes

Believer – Imagine Dragons – 3 minutes

In a setting like a continuing education conference, it’s perhaps easier to analyze why people do or don’t believe than it is to discuss why belief is important and how do we gain greater depth, breadth and clarity in what we believe. Jesus did both. Belief was important to him, perhaps the most important thing. He was an advocate for the marginalized, a healer of the ill, an effective teacher for many, and the primary example of God’s love. But his core mission was focused on belief. In many of his interactions, that was the point he circled back to.

Frequently, when Jesus performed a miracle, he didn’t dwell on the miracle, even though those around him did. He pointed back to God, to faith, to belief. His constant refrain to them – ‘Go, your faith, your belief, has made you well.’ He told Thomas after the resurrection – ‘Because you have seen, you believe. Blessed are those who believe without seeing.’ And in conversation with a man asking for his son’s healing, Jesus says, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’ In response, the man says, ‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.’

Isn’t that the challenge many of us face? Help me overcome my unbelief. This text from the Gospel of John, ironically, is one where Jesus speaks profoundly of belief in the context of his own death. He moves from the previous direct speech about his death to a metaphorical description of his ministry. He never speaks of himself directly here, but instead cloaks everything in the metaphor of darkness and light. He gently reminds his listeners to actually listen to him, because they won’t have him physically among them for much longer.

But what Jesus is doing here goes even deeper than that. He is asking them to delve into what his listeners truly believe – about God, about themselves, and about him. His absence from there brings those elements of belief into stark relief. It’s one thing to ‘know’ God when the divine son of God is among them. It’s another thing to ‘know’ God when Jesus is gone. That’s our reality – to ‘know’ God, to ‘know’ Jesus when they are not tangibly here, but we still experience them nonetheless.

Richard Rohr offers some thoughts for us on this dynamic. He writes, “You cannot know God the way you know anything else; you only know God or the soul of anything subject to subject, center to center, by a process of “mirroring” where like knows like and love knows love — “deep calling unto deep”. The Divine Spirit planted deep inside each of us yearns for and responds to God — and vice versa. The contemplative is deeply attuned and surrendered to this process.

We are not so much human beings trying to become spiritual. We’re already inherently spiritual beings and our job is learning how to be good humans! I believe that’s why Jesus came as a human being: not to teach us how to go to heaven, but to teach us how to be a fully alive human being here on this earth.”

            How to be a fully alive human being on this earth. Our belief in God, in Jesus, in one another, these guide us in our quest to do just this. Belief is not something we can plan or build. It is something that is. It is something that does not emerge because of us. It is something that grows because of time we spend in relationship with God. To move towards spiritual peace and well being. To identify our meaning and purpose for life. To live in a state and expression of gratitude for God’s blessings. And to experience awe and wonder for the minute details and the grand designs of God’s creation.

            There have been so many influences on what I believe – more than I can count. I imagine the same is true for many of us. Reflections and conversations with family, friends and perfect strangers have moved me and challenged me. Places I have been where I have witnessed the beauty of God’s creation or the profound wonders of ancient and modern art and architecture have inspired and grounded me. The Christian church has offered a formational foundation for what I believe. This church has impacted what I believe and how I proclaim those beliefs in the world.

            Belief is a state of mind, body, and spirit. Belief invites investment and passion, in whatever inspires its formation. Investment and passion form the core of our stewardship and generosity. We give our time, talent, and treasure to the church, and to other parts of our lives, because we believe that doing so will be beneficial to us, to our families, to our community, and to the world. There is a symbiotic relationship that bears similarity to our relationship with God. Because our belief in God creates positive associations with other parts of our existence. Belief grows upon belief. Belief leads to powerful experiences of faith formation. Belief helps us to become who God calls us to be. Amen.

Sacred spit- Challenging our prejudices

James 2:1-8, Mark 7:24-37

            Colin Kaepernick. Some of you may know that name. Some of you may have heard it, but don’t remember its significance. Some of you may never have heard of him. But if I told you Colin Kaepernick was the professional football player who knelt like this – kneel – when the national anthem was being played, you probably knew whom I was talking about.

            This simple act, ironically held as an act of respect before royalty and humility in religious prayer, has caused a firestorm of debate over the past two years. The National Football League has struggled to declare a position, even though nearly everyone else has. Interestingly, standing for the national anthem is not a law or a requirement in most sports, but is a cultural norm, one of those traditions we do because we’ve always done it.

            I understand the anger and frustration of those who feel that the flag, and by extension, the military and country, are being disrespected by Kaepernick’s action. I do worry about the fragility of the country when one act of civil disobedience, and an exceedingly mild one at that, causes such rancor and divisiveness. Wouldn’t it be actual disrespect if Kaepernick and other players were yelling loudly or turned their backs or talked on their phones during the national anthem? I’ll add here that I have seen paying customers in the stands do all of these things at sporting events, and yet there’s no outcry.

            It’s equally unfortunate that the outcry over kneeling threatens to obscure what Kaepernick was kneeling against – excessive acts of violence against people of color, in a number of instances, but not exclusively, by white police officers. It’s unclear to me whether the number of incidences has grown or just our awareness of them, but there should be less question of the issue of implied bias that permeates American culture. The data is sobering and the stories are heartbreaking. Clearly Kaepernick and other athletes felt that not enough was being done and not enough awareness was being raised, so the acts of civil disobedience began, to make all of us see what only some of us experienced before.

            This is another situation where it’s easy to make quick judgments about whether a person is right or wrong. These past two years have given us numerous moments such as this to challenge our prejudices. We all have our prejudices. It’s part of our instinctive nature. The word itself means to ‘judge before learning.’ In the natural world, prejudging allows animals to survive. A deer doesn’t wait to see if a pack of wolves is friendly, after all. It sees the wolf, and based on its instinct and experience, responds accordingly.

            But what makes us different as human beings is our ability to reason, to use our frontal brain, rather than the instinctive part of our brain. What makes us different is our ability to move past our prejudices, whatever they are, and engage one another to determine the person’s quality on the inside. That’s a lesson we teach our children. It’s a lesson we continue to master throughout the course of our lives. It’s a lesson with which humanity has struggled for thousands of years.

            Our scripture texts reflect lessons on prejudice. The two stories of Jesus are mirror images – in one instance, Jesus appears prejudiced against the Syro-Phoenician woman, and in the other, Jesus heals a deaf man who the rest of the religious establishment has abandoned. Likewise the James text offers another tangible example that prejudice is a part of the human condition.

 I find it interesting that these two Gospel stories are back to back. In one, Jesus is the one who challenges and in the other, Jesus is the one who is challenged. There’s widespread debate over whether Jesus was testing the woman or his disciples, in his response to her. We can’t know what his motivation was for how he acted towards her. All we can do is interpret the behavior and in this instance, the behavior isn’t the loving and accepting Jesus we have come to expect.

With this woman, Jesus is curt and more than a bit rude. He calls her a dog and asks her why she should receive the same blessing that the Hebrew people does. By his words, and his words alone, Jesus is prejudiced towards the woman. Why is he rude? She is neither Jewish, nor is she from Judah or Israel. She is an outsider, a stranger in a foreign land. Ultimately, he ends up giving her what she wants, so our interpretation of his behavior is more nuanced and complicated. But we’re still left to struggle with his seeming prejudice all the same.

And then we arrive at the next story. With this healing story, it is easy to marvel as Jesus’ sacred spit and the randomness of this act in the midst of Jesus encountering another outsider – this time a man who was deaf. We know nothing more about the man than that. We know of no connections to anyone – the disciples or temple officials or Roman authorities. The main difference was the power imbalance. The woman took the initiative herself to come to Jesus, whereas the disciples brought the man to him. That implies that the man, in spite of his infirmity, was likely Jewish and was more sympathetic to the disciples than the woman, who was the wrong gender and the wrong nationality.

One biblical scholar notes another hidden dynamic that adds to the societal complexity. Jesus’ response to the woman may be an acknowledgment of the hardship of Jewish farmers, who often saw the fruits of their labors used to feed Gentile cities like the one that the Syro-Phoenician woman likely came from. This is another reminder of how real are the barriers that divide people. It would not be easy either for a Gentile woman to approach a Jewish teacher for help. But she reached out. Her love for her child had brought her across boundaries of gender, religion and ethnic origins. Even before she met him, she believed that the Jesus who would heal her child would never turn away those who seek help.

And yet, the discomfort caused by these stories, even in the midst of their healing nature, challenges us to examine how we treat the Gentiles in our midst. Similarly, James has a direct reminder to not judge on the basis of wealth. This was a particularly important issue for James, the brother of Jesus, who was known for his generosity, humility, and moral compass for the early church. James named power and privilege, not for those who already had it, but for those who did not.

For the church, whether in James’ time or in ours, a key part of the mission is to bridge the barriers that separate, in whatever form those barriers are made. Whether by gender or wealth or infirmity, we witness examples in these texts of God’s love overcoming human made constructs of prejudice and the imbalance of power. This is not an easy task for the church. And sometimes the church gets in the way of itself as it strives to do this work. We all have our prejudices that need to be overcome.

I know of a church that received a tangible lesson in prejudice during its worship one Sunday morning. The pastor was preaching on this text and had asked for one of his members to dress in disguise as a homeless person and come to the church for worship the next Sunday. This was a small congregation, located in a suburban town just outside of a large city, and prided itself on being welcoming to anyone who came in its doors. The woman took the assignment to heart, and was so convincing in the changes to her hair, clothing, and persona that no one initially recognized her.

She came in, and only one or two people approached her. She entered the sanctuary and sat in a pew alone. It wasn’t until halfway through the sermon that the pastor asked her to reveal herself. Several members of the congregation suspected her disguise, but most were surprised. It was a valuable lesson for that congregation, to remember that we never know who is among us, in our midst.

How we confront our prejudices, as individuals and as a faith community, is crucial in ground ourselves in sharing God’s love with others. We may believe we don’t have prejudices, but they tend to surprise us in unexpected moments. Even in our advocacy for marginalized peoples, we are called to not to be prejudiced against those who actively work to marginalize others. For a congregation like ours, that may be the most difficult task.

Extending grace with justice, love with peace, is something that Jesus was remarkably good at, and even he struggled at times. The good news for us is the same as the challenge – to recognize our prejudices, not let them dictate our motivations and actions, and continue to serve the world, just like Jesus. Amen.

Mind the gap

Ephesians 5:15-20

            Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas. Those of you who speak Spanish will understand that phrase, but may not understand its context. Those of you who speak Disney will understand that context, but may not understand the phrase. As a child, my family of origin’s big vacation every 4-5 years was a trip to Disney World. We have lots of memories of the place, but also of the preparation for the trip. It was fun to plan the trip with my parents, to count down the days until we left, and to pack the car. Well, maybe not packing the car. But even the trip down to Florida from Virginia, over the 17 hours as it took, was filled with familiar landmarks that meant we were getting closer and closer to our vacation.

            Like many familiar family vacations, the place holds memories, but the family memories hold traditions that are even stronger. Little things stand out, that have little or nothing to do with the theme parks at all. It was the experience of being there with family, several times over our respective childhoods, that built those experiences that we still talk about, even as my siblings and I have our own families and my parents are several years into retirement.

            One of those fun traditions was the Spanish phrase I mentioned earlier. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas. It means ‘Please stand clear of the doors.’ It’s the friendly warning that is repeated every time that one of the Disney monorails is ready to leave a station, which means it is a phrase that is repeated quite frequently. So frequently that as a child and teen who only spoke Sesame Street Spanish, I was determined to learn and mimic the phrase for my family whenever we rode the monorail. My parents got sick of it, but my siblings loved it, so much so that they still mention it from time to time. ‘Please stand clear of the door. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas.’

            Another example is the infamous phrase that accompanies the London subway, also known as the ‘Tube.’ Clearly, at some point when the subway trains came into use, people must have tripped, fallen, or gotten stuck in the space between the train and the platform. In a typical, understated British fashion, the term ‘mind the gap,’ became a constant refrain whenever the doors of the subway are set to open.

            We encounter these types of friendly warnings frequently, more often that we likely notice at first glance. ‘Watch for falling rocks,’ ‘Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.,’ ‘High voltage – keep out,’ and ‘Watch your head’ are just a few. Likely, each of you can think of others. These signs serve a dual purpose – while they don’t prohibit a person from entering explicitly, they do clearly inform a person of a dangers in those areas. The signs encourage us to exercise caution and to be more mindful of our surroundings.

            This text in Ephesians 5 is Paul’s version of a friendly warning, his way of telling the Ephesians to ‘mind the gap.’ To understand this text better, we first need to be more aware of the dynamics faced by the church in Ephesus. The city of Ephesus is in modern day Turkey. Ephesus was a major port and trading center in what was then known as Asia Minor. With its proximity to the Middle East, Ephesus was a constant stop on each of Paul’s missionary journeys, a place he traveled to and through while also going to start and visit churches in other parts of modern day Europe.

            So what’s happening in Ephesus that causes Paul’s friendly warnings in this text? Much like other places where early Christian church emerged, Ephesus was a place that fluctuated between dismissive toleration and outright hostility towards Christians. As such, Paul’s writing was filled with these types of friendly warnings. In fact, if you compare this section of Ephesians with part of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, you’ll see nearly identical emphases. And it makes sense, as Paul has formed a mentoring relationship, a teaching relationship, with these churches, so they are looking to him for guidance on how to function as a faith community.

            But it gets more challenging than that. Nearly all of the early churches established by Paul are in non-Jewish or Gentile areas. For the Jewish Christian churches, the disciples used the communal and worship structure of the Jewish synagogue as a framework for their emerging congregations. But the Gentile Christian churches had no such framework. Paul was literally helping them to not only learn about the teachings of Jesus, but also the history of Yahweh and the Hebrew people that was the foundation of the Christian way they had chosen to follow.

            The church in Ephesus, like many others, had no framework for ‘church.’ The religions of those regions were cultural, but not communal. They were polytheistic or had many gods, not monotheistic, with only one god. Humans are communal creatures, so it is highly likely that the Ephesians and other Gentiles gathered together for mutual advantage. But they likely did so for growing and gathering food or for business or for family functioning, not for faith expression or religion. These letters from Paul must be read with that important caveat in mind.

            So what does this text mean for us today? That’s part of the challenge we face here. Are Paul’s friendly warnings intended only for the Ephesians and others who face similar struggles? Or are these friendly warnings expected to be used by the future church as dogma, doctrine and commandment? Or is it somewhere in between? This challenge is not new. In fact, it’s one that we encounter repeatedly, as we grapple with ancient texts that are between 2000 and 6000 years old. Some scriptures reflect the culture in which people lived. Some scriptures reflect the specific dynamics that people faced. And some scriptures hold timeless truths – or at least truths that have lasted since their inceptions – with wisdom and faithfulness that continue to serve us today.

            In my estimation, this text contains both. Clearly, part of Paul’s warning can be summarized as ‘don’t call attention to yourselves.’ That’s good advice for any of us when we are in uncertain or potentially unsafe situations. We see that in Paul’s focus on living as wise, rather than unwise people. So what does that mean? Again, the details matter, but so does the context. The challenge is that we get stuck on behaviors, rather than motivators. Truthfully here and elsewhere, so does Paul. Parsing through those behaviors to determine what is and not allowed, and more honestly, who and who is not allowed, is where Paul’s encouragement on wisdom falters due to the human tendency to judge one another.

            Yet notice where Paul ends in this section of text. Not on what shouldn’t be allowed, but on what the community does together. Notice that his description of singing songs and giving thanks to God points back to the church being a formative community, which, as I mentioned earlier, these people had no religious experience with. Also notice that Paul’s encouragement is based in love, as part of that community building experience.

            Paul points the church back to Jesus. Jesus points his followers towards love and towards God. More specifically, that we love God and we love one another. That we revere God and we respect one another. That we honor the being of God and we honor one another. This is the criteria for determining which of Paul’s friendly warnings still apply to us today. When we read them, do they point us in the direction of love, reverence, respect, and honoring one another? Or do they point us in the direction of judgment, division, confusion, or uncertainty?

            Perhaps this visual demonstration will help further. As I mentioned earlier, the church in Ephesus face dismissive toleration at best and outright hostility at worst. Because the church members never knew what they were going to face, they had to be covert in their public greetings and encounters. When they greeted one another, they marked the dirt or pebbled ground in front of them with an arc. The person they were greeting, if also a Christian, reciprocated with an arc. The arc formed the shape of a fish, a symbol of the early church.

            This greeting was a way of showing honor and respect to a fellow Christian, of demonstrating public faithfulness wisely, and of encouraging community with another believer. It was a way of sharing their mutual love of Christ, of living their newly form faith, in solidarity with each other. If someone came up to you and offered a gesture like this today, it would be confusing and meaningless. But to the Ephesians, it meant something important.

            Similarly, if we told First Century Christians to ‘mind the gap,’ they would be confused. If we told them to ‘watch for falling rocks,’ they might turn that into a requirement of faith and a form of division. If we told them that ‘objects in a mirror may be closer than they appear,’ they may be unclear about what a mirror even is. Similarly, our context for interpreting the scriptures may not be how the church in 100 or 500 years interprets or understands them. All we can do is our best in this moment. And to use love, reverence, respect, and honor as a benchmark for understanding what these scriptures mean to us, and how they point us more clearly towards a relationship with God. Amen.

           

Divine innovation

Psalm 111

            "Great are the works of Yahweh," says the writer of Psalm 111, "studied by all who delight in them.” We could say the same thing about innovation, couldn’t we? It’s difficult to imagine our world without our cell phones or the internet, yet while those technologies are several decades old, the innovation that led to their widespread use is less than 20 years old. Think about that for a moment. Some of our church’s young people, like Olivia, Zoe, Garrett, and Brady, who are just going off to college this month, were born in a time when a smart phone was cordless and the only way to connect to the internet was dialing through your phone. Not your cell phone. Your land line.

            We witness those types of innovations in the highly utilized, highly publicized types of industries, but we also see them in products that suddenly seemed to just appear on our shelves, without even realizing the stories behind them. Brownie Wise, for example, was a secretary at an aviation company in 1947. She began to sell brooms at parties in private homes to make a little extra cash. Soon she began to offer a product called Tupperware, and her "party plan" sales technique took off. Today, party businesses like this are everywhere, offering everything from jewelry to candles to animated Bible stories.

In 1974, Art Fry was working as a project developer at 3M. He wanted a better bookmark for his church hymnal, so he and Spencer Silver, a colleague, invented Post-it Notes. The 3M company now sells 50 billion of them annually. Lonnie Johnson was working as a nuclear engineer in 1982, and he invented an environmentally friendly heat pump. But guess what? It was also a very cool water toy. Known as the Super Soaker, his water pistol sold 200 million units in its first 10 years.

Great are the works of Brownie, Art and Lonnie. Without them, we wouldn't have Tupperware, Post-it Notes or Super Soakers. Our leftovers would spoil, our bookmarks would fall out and our summer picnics would be much less fun. Drier, perhaps, but less fun. Of course, it may be that you are not a big fan of these particular products. Fair enough. But the point is that they were all startups -- small projects that quickly became very, very big.

Much the same process occurs in Scripture, as small innovations turn out to have huge implications. Psalm 111 is a song of praise for God's wonderful works, a celebration of the spiritual projects that have touched and transformed our lives. The themes in this Psalm offer nothing new, but the intimacy and familiarity of the Psalmist’s words invites us into new understandings of them, into new ways of exploring our faith. Call them God's startups.

The Righteous Startup. The psalm begins by speaking of God's "righteousness," which endures forever. Righteousness is one of God's most innovative projects, beginning with the people of Israel and continuing with the Christian church. Job, one of the Hebrew prophets, was one of the first examples of a righteous man, "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”. In the book of Acts in the Christian scriptures, we encounter a righteous woman named Dorcas, who was "devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

These two were not self-righteous -- holier-than-thou, self-satisfied, smug. No, they were righteous, which means being in right relationships. A life of righteousness includes treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated, neither oppressing them nor being oppressed. It means that you strive for a right relationship with God, and put energy into good works and acts of generosity. A righteous person who follows the teachings of Jesus is not judgmental or focuses on the rules, but instead focuses on love, and on sharing the love of God with others.

Of course, none of us can achieve righteousness on our own. We need help. We need one another. We need the example of Jesus. We need God’s forgiveness when we make mistakes. We need a forgiving spirit when we are wronged by others. We need to let the relationship lead, in most instances, rather than the offense. This concept leads to the second startup theme in Psalm 111.

The Covenant Startup. Psalm 111 also speaks of "covenant.” A covenant is a promise-based relationship, one in which God promises to be our God and we promise to be God's people. You might think of the covenant as being God's "Like" button, a divine version of the button that we push on Facebook when we like something.

Speaking of which - Did you know that the "Like" button itself was a startup? In 2007, a team of Facebook developers and designers built a working prototype of what they called the "Awesome" button. A couple of years passed before CEO Mark Zuckerberg approved the "Like" button, and then it quickly took over. The covenant is God's eternal "Like" button. All through the Hebrew scriptures, God renews the covenant and calls people back to faithfulness. Then, in the story of Jesus, God makes a new covenant.

Those are the words we use whenever we take bread and cup communion – we join together as a community to honor and recognize the new covenant of God in the person and life of Jesus. God's faithfulness becomes a model for our faithfulness, especially as we try to honor our commitments in the covenant of marriage and other important promise-based relationships. And that leads to the last startup.

The Praise Startup. The last of God's startups from this Psalm is praise. Praise is at the beginning and ending of this Psalm. It fills the psalmist as she or he directs our thoughts towards righteousness and covenant. Notice that the only action involving the psalmist is the expression of intent to give public thanks to God with the whole being. This complete dedication of the self to God is the essence of praise.

And even though it may not appear like it, when we encounter a phrase like ‘the fear of the Lord,’ it is also rooted in praise. Praise is part of a posture towards God that includes gratitude, obedience, and love. While ‘fear of the Lord’ clearly involves the expectation of performance and practice as part of our whole being obedience, the Hebrew equivalent for ‘fear’ in this context does not have the same cowering meaning as our English word conveys, but instead offers a more nuanced definition that is geared more toward honor and respect. We praise God for the ways that we have received God’s love and we honor and respect God for the great works that God has done.

Righteousness. Covenant. Praise. These divine startups have become very big, growing beyond the people and places in which they were first introduced. They have exploded like the tutoring provided by a hedge-fund analyst named Sal Khan, who started out by helping his cousin with math via Yahoo. Then he moved his instructional videos to YouTube. Now he runs an education nonprofit called Khan Academy, and his videos have been viewed 1.25 billion times.

Even bigger than Khan Academy are the works of God, studied by all who delight in them. When we ground our lives in the wonderful works of God, we learn that God's innovations are the key to a life of righteousness, one in which we can enjoy right relationships with God and with each other. When we study God's startups, we discover that covenant-keeping is the foundation of solid marriages, family relationships, friendships and Christian commitments. When we marvel at God's innovations, we realize that praising God with our whole beings fills us with a spirit of gratitude and love that spills over from our worship of God to our relationships with others.

Case in point – I believe it is nearly impossible for someone to be filled with authentic praise for God and to engage in bad relationships with a friend, co-worker, child, spouse, family member, or stranger. Rooting ourselves in praise of God, connecting with God with our whole selves, makes it much more difficult to cast blame at others for the very same behaviors we engage in ourselves. God knew this, from the beginning of relationship with humanity, and charted a journey  filled with righteousness, covenant, and praise to give us what we need when challenges arise and when the way forward is unclear.

We often hear anecdotes about divine intervention in life. But perhaps what we need more often is to reflect on these types of divine innovation – the gifts offered to us by God that make a lasting difference in our lives, in our faith, and in our world. Amen.

The Jesus invitation

Matthew 19:13-15

            Let the children come to me. It’s a statement of mission and purpose from Jesus, but also a statement of faith. It is a statement that reflects that type of openness that we believe Jesus offers. It is a statement that resonates deeply with how we hope God’s love is embodied. It is a statement that is invitational, one that emerges repeatedly, in subtle acts and not so subtle teachings, in private homes, in the synagogues of multiple towns, and on the lakeshore and countryside of the region of Galilee.

            Let the children come to me. While we reflect periodically on how revolutionary this type of Jesus invitation was to his hearers, it is understandably easy not to ponder its impacts more deeply for the people to whom Jesus was speaking, and how that reflects within our culture today. In a society where status was important, where the have and have nots were clearly defined, Jesus sought to connect his ministry primarily to the have nots. In doing so, he also challenged the haves to consider their own reflection on God’s teaching and extension of God’s love. We witness that dual challenge to the have’s repeatedly throughout the Gospels, symbolized in the places where Jesus spent his primary ministry – almost completely outside of the holy and political powerful city of Jerusalem – and to the people Jesus shared his primary ministry with.

            Previously, Matthew’s gospel had used children as symbols of the ‘little people,’ those who are often forgotten or marginalized by first century Jewish society, similar to lepers, women, eunuchs, and those who were considered to be ‘demon possessed.’ In this text, however, Jesus is concerned with the actual place of children in church life. In contrast to contemporary Jewish and pagan religious life, the Christian community encouraged participation by the whole family. Matthew’s version is different from the Gospel of Mark.

It is more definitive and less ambiguous. It moves from a passive ‘touch’ to ‘lay hands on to pray.’ That may not seem significant to our ears, but Jesus’ followers would have recognized the shift and stark contrast. Laying on of hands is a typical act of blessing from a revered teacher. While it is likely that the practice of the Matthean church is reflected in this text, one in which children are welcomed into the community as equals alongside everyone else, this additional break with cultural mores did not happen without objection.

At the beginning of our text for today, we hear that familiar phrase that is a part of this story, where the disciples sternly rebuked those who brought their children to Jesus. This was Matthew’s way of highlighting the existence of the cultural tension that still was being debated by the early church about children. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus did not simply tolerate children. He did not have a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ mentality. He did not create a second class citizenship for them. He welcomed them, fully and completely, as part of the blessed community, alongside the disciples, leaders, and other marginalized groups who were part of the early church.

Moreover, Jesus emphasized a special place for children in his ministry by naming that God’s kin-dom not only belongs to children, but to any persons who are ‘such as these.’ We may overlook that phrase as the culmination of Jesus’ instruction and assume we understand its meaning without context. But this is an equally important concept that Jesus seeks to convey to his followers. Jesus is noting here that anyone who receives his blessing and instruction like children are heirs to God’s beloved community.

This is the quintessential Jesus invitation that we see in the Gospels and in select verses in Paul’s letters. Those who are blessed and receive God’s love do are those who are able to do so without presumption or self-justification. Think about that for a moment. How well has the Christian church fared on that mark? Too often in church history, we have witnessed Christ’s church placing barriers between God’s people and the reception of God’s love and blessing. Most of the wars fought over the past two thousand years were centered in disputes over how the message of Jesus was to be interpreted and offered. And too many Christian churches today presume a posture of exclusion or propriety over the teachings of Jesus that Jesus himself never would have countenanced.

Earlier this week, I saw a form for a Christian school in Northern IN. On that form was a set of 15 doctrinal statements that the congregation of which the prospective student was a part, if it was not the church affiliated with the school, had to agree to in order to insure admission. The statements were extremely conservative/fundamentalist in theological expression, and I counted only one that we would agree to without qualification or objection. To be fair - there was room for the pastor to craft statements that would express difference with the school’s doctrinal views, but it was unclear how those differences would be factored into the prospective student’s admission. And so I wonder how a school or church with those types of doctrinal beliefs would read the words of the Jesus invitation to ‘let the little children come to me,’ without presumption or self-justification.

Sadly, this type of experience is more the rule than the exception. And I also believe the church of Jesus Christ suffers for it, far more than those who are denied blessing or acceptance because of those views. God’s love and blessing through Jesus are not denied. Those blessings still flow through. Unfortunately, it’s in spite of, rather than because of a portion of Christ’s church that those blessings are received.

This is another place where we can look to our children for guidance. As Jesus himself notes, the children not only receive the blessing and love of God through him, but it’s also vital for his followers to note the manner in which the children come to Jesus – without presumption or self-justification. Children learn both of those traits soon enough, it seems. But there is a sincerity to how children learn about God and receive God’s blessing that those of us who are adults can learn from and model.

In our congregation, there are times when the children at Beacon Heights, including my own, engage in what I will categorize as ‘bodily exuberance.’ Sometimes they run to the front for the children’s time during worship or are very active in their play after worship or during congregational activities or find other motion filled acts of being together. Part of our role as parents, grandparents and adults responsible for the care of our children is to help them to be mindful of their own body space and how to be respectful of the body space of others, both peers and adults. That’s important.

And yet, it’s also clear that our children generally see their church as a safe space, as a place to which they enjoy coming, and a space where they actively desire to engage in activity and relationship with the whole congregation. I hope that never changes. Not only because their energy and vibrancy is one of the best sources of the Jesus invitation we have for new families with children who come to Beacon Heights, but it also serves as a model for the adults of Beacon Heights for how we engage our own faith lives. Our children love their church and the relationships they encounter here. That is a gift and a blessing. They are a gift and a blessing.

One final story about our children. Many of you may remember the activity earlier this year when children and adults were invited to make new welcome bags for first time guests in worship to Beacon Heights. It was a successful and fun activity, one that I hope we will repeat again when the number of welcome bags run low. But it is what happened afterward that was unexpected to me. Participating in the creation of those welcome bags gave our children ownership over when and to whom they are given to. I have seen several of our children welcome a new friend or family to the church on a Sunday, and following worship, go out to the north entrance area where we keep the bags and make sure the new family has received one.

Isn’t that a powerful act of welcome and faith modeled by our children? To such as these belong the blessing and love of God. From such as these do we see modeled and highlighted the Jesus invitation. Amen.

Innovations in eating

John 6:24-35

            Over the past century, huge changes have been made to the way food is prepared and delivered to us. From drive-thru restaurants to driverless cars, our eating and drinking have been transformed by innovation. Food delivery began in 1922. Telephone-based food ordering started at a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, and spread rapidly. Now, delivery is a $43 billion business in the United States, involving apps such as Grubhub and Postmates.

Drive-thru restaurants first appeared in 1948, when In-N-Out Burger allowed people to order and pick up food without ever leaving their car. Today, up to 70 percent of fast-food sales are drive-thru, and even businesses such as Starbucks and Chipotle are in on the act. The McDonald's system was created in 1955, using consistent preparation methods and a dependable supply chain. Now, almost every fast-food restaurant develops a similar system, with a newcomer called Just Salad bragging that its employees can toss a salad every minute.

Molecular gastronomy was developed in 1987, when a microbiologist made ice cream with liquid nitrogen and invented the popular treat Dippin' Dots. Similar innovations, such as cooking vacuum-sealed food through a process called sous vide (pronounced sue-veed), is being done at Panera. Then, Instagram appeared in 2010, establishing a new relationship between food and photosharing. Now, we don't only eat food, we send and receive pictures of it!

And finally, in 2017, robots became the latest innovation in eating. Chowbotics is a salad maker, Cafe X is a robot barista, and Domino's Pizza has announced that it will be testing delivery via self-driving cars. "Customers grab their order from the back," reports Fast Company, "no human interaction necessary."

That's kind of odd, isn't it? No human interaction necessary. At the same time, the history I just shared does clearly point in that direction. American culture has changed the nature of sitting at table for a meal. No longer is the table necessary, is the human interaction necessary, is the knowledge of where the food came from necessary, or is building of human relationship necessary. Or is it? Like much of the rest of our society, eating has a tendency to be viewed as utilitarian or transactional, rather than relational or foundational.

I think back to my childhood. It was important for our family to sit down to eat dinner every evening. Because my mom was a piano teacher, she had a limited time frame in which to serve and eat dinner – typically only 45 minutes from the conclusion of her afternoon lessons to the start of her evening lessons. I remember that some of my parent’s biggest sources of tension were when my Dad had to be late coming home from work, and missed part, most or all of dinner with Mom and we kids. Having family dinner was important, a priority, foundational. And yet because of the brief time frame for that dinner, dinner was not a time when we spent hours talking together, building deeper relationship together. My parents made dinner a priority time and did the best they could with their schedules, but I do think we lost something by that hurried meal time.

Those child hood experiences of sitting at table are deeply foundational to who we are as people, how we eat, and how we spend time together at table. So, for the next five minutes, I would invite you to join with a person or two sitting near to you to talk about your experiences of sitting at table to eat family meals at children. Talk about any reflections, memories, or priorities from those experiences, and how those impact you today. Be thinking of one or two words that define your experience with eating meals, either in the past or present. I’ll call a close to that time when we reach five minutes. Turn, and talk with your neighbor in community.

I’d like to hear some of those words you discerned about eating a meal together. Share them aloud, and I’ll try to repeat them.

Jesus was a true innovator in the world of eating, but he always had a human touch. In all four gospels, we find the story of Jesus feeding thousands of people by the Sea of Galilee. The numbers of people differ and the amount of food varies from gospel to gospel, but the general idea is the same. With just a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish, Jesus creates a meal in which everyone gets as much as they want, and all are satisfied.

What we see here is that food is important, but so is community. The food is not sustenance, but a way of connecting people to one another, to him, and to the message he sought to convey. Remember that these were many of the same people who the disciples ministered to when Jesus sent them out into small towns around the Sea of Galilee. Clearly, the disciples had shared the message of their teacher and the miraculous nature of the teacher himself. These people wanted to have a look and a listen, but also were in need of a taste of food, in order to hone their focus on Jesus.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Food helps us to function. There was a term that emerged a few years ago – hangry. It’s a combination of hungry and angry. Truthfully, there are times when we all get hungry, and sometimes there hunger causes our bodies to get irrationally angry. Then, once we’ve eaten, the food gives our bodies the equilibrium it needs to adjust. Whether hangry or hungry, Jesus wanted the crowd to be physically fed, so they would be spiritually fed by his words and by the cohesive community growing around them.

Following the feeding of the crowd, Jesus uses the bread as a metaphor of their growing relationship with him. God gave their ancestors manna, which molds and withers, but Jesus is the bread of life that will sustain them forever. It’s a simple metaphor, but with a powerful and complex application. How do we imagine a person as sustenance? It’s clear the crowd is also confused, as it takes Jesus several times to explain his meaning. It’s not his body, his flesh and bone that he means. It is his teaching. And these teachings are not intended to be solely for each person individually, but as a collective. It was a challenging concept, then as now. It was innovative, and yet traditional; cutting edge, and yet timeless. Much like Jesus himself.

I think Jesus recognized that sharing a metaphor so closely connected to food, to eating, something we spend time and routine on each day, would offer powerful kinship for us. Eating is something we do daily. Pursuing our connection with God is also something we are meant to do daily. It’s much the same relationship as spirit with breathing. These functions of our bodies allow our minds and souls to ponder the nature of God’s creative force and love more deeply.

That takes us back to how and what we eat and with whom we eat. As a culture, I think we miss the mark as our innovations in eating lead us to faster meals with less human interaction. As a contrast, take the slow food movement, which began in Italy, but has spread quickly around the developed world. Italians pride themselves on locally sourced ingredients, like those we will be sharing at table following worship today. They also pride themselves on savoring those foods, enjoying their flavors, enjoying the company with whom they are eating, spending as much as three hours or more in the simple act of sitting at table together. It’s a reminder that food is not fuel, but an invitation, a catalyst, for relationship with others and by extension, with God.

Food is about community. We know that whenever we have a potluck here at the church. We know that when we see initiatives, like one that my spouse Kimberly is involved with, that uses relationships and eating together to foster discussions across racial and ethnic barriers. There’s a reason why bread loaves, ice cream containers, and watermelon are all so big. They are not meant to be eaten alone. They are intended to be shared in community.

Which is exactly what Jesus had in mind. A few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. No one in their right mind would think that would feed a dozen people, and honestly, it didn’t. It fed thousands. It would have been easy for Jesus to just feed his disciples with those meager portions, but he didn’t. He intended these common provisions to be shared in community, and not only were there leftovers of food, but I suspect there was an abundance of community building that happened as well.

Food is about community. Jesus is about community. Any innovations we bring to either are at their best when viewed through that lens. Earlier, you reflected on your childhood dining traditions. Following worship, you have the opportunity to enjoy a locally sourced, organic food meal with this congregational family. While you enjoy the feast that will be before us, I invite you to share your hopes for how we can create new innovations in eating in community here at Beacon Heights. Amen.

The gift of goosebumps- moving from 'ah' to awe

Psalm 66:1-12

Imagine the scene – We emerge from an underground subway
tunnel, slowly moving up the escalator and this scene comes into view –
the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, one of the most amazing cathedrals in
the entire world. Begun by Antoni Guadi in the late 1800’s , this cathedral
is still under construction. That’s because of the intricate sculptures that
depict scenes from nature and from the Bible, along with beautiful
stained glass windows that create an ethereal glow of color on the
interior of the building. It’s an amazing place that defies explanation,
whether by words or by picture. It simply must be experienced.

Imagine the scene – every color of the rainbow competing with one
another in the sky at sunset for dominance, creating a breath taking light
show nearly every night. We spent three weeks at a Tuscan farmhouse
last summer during our sabbatical, which meant that nearly every night
was spent on the front patio of our apartment or by the swimming pool
simply gazing with awe and wonder as the sun slowly and deliberately
dropped behind the Tuscan hills, causing even more colors to dramatically
burst forth. To experience that over and over again was a gift for the
mind, body and spirit. It was simultaneously relaxing and exhilarating.

Imagine the scene – Trekking through the streets of Florence, the
cradle of the Renaissance. Coming around a street corner and glimpsing
Brunelecshi’s Dome on the cathedral or entering the great hall of the
Academia where Michelangelo’s famed statue of David stands or moving
from room to room in the incomparable Uffizi Gallery to bear witness to
works of art that are not only deeply spiritual and transcendent, but also
mark the evolution of the Christian world from the Dark Ages into the Age
of Reason, Beauty and Science. Florence is a relatively small city in Italy,
but simply by visiting it, by soaking it in on its own terms, one grasps the
story of humankind in its futility and its triumph.

Connect the dots and what do you get? A sense of awe. A sense of
wonder. Each of these places has the power to give us goose bumps. Awe
comes from being overwhelmed by greatness. We feel it when we stand
on the rim of the Grand Canyon. When we try to be calm in the basement
during a severe thunderstorm. When we rise to our feet during the
"Hallelujah Chorus." When we look up at the Milky Way on a clear,
lightless night or when we witness the birth of a baby. We feel it when we
are inspired by the rhetoric of a Barack Obama, by the steadfastness of
an Abraham Lincoln, the love of a Mother Teresa or the charisma of a
Nelson Mandela.

When we feel awe, we may get goose bumps. Our body is telling us
that we are standing in the presence of greatness and seeing something
we've never seen before. Unfortunately, we're not experiencing a lot of
awe these days. Many of us find our current political leaders to be awful
-- and quite ironically, that does not mean that they fill us with awe. We
spend more time looking down at our smartphones than gazing up at the
stars in the sky. Our ears are filled with the noise of daily life, which
drowns out the notes of beautiful music that can surprise us, delight us
and lift our spirits. We want the gift of goose bumps. But it is harder and
harder to find.

As an antidote, the writer of Psalm 66 points us to God, the most
awe-inspiring of all powers. "How awesome are your deeds! Because of
your great power, your enemies cringe before you.” This psalm correctly
identifies another component of awe -- fear. Did you know that most
nonhuman mammals get goose bumps when they face a threat. In the
presence of a predator, the muscles surrounding their hair follicles
contract. We humans get goose bumps when we are scared, but also
when we experience awe. Fear and awe are very closely connected.

Because God is both mighty and good, the reaction of God's people
is to stand in awe and offer worship. "All the earth worships you,"
proclaims the writer. "They sing praises to you, sing praises to your
name.” Psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner describe awe as "that
often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that
transcends our understanding of the world." In the face of something vast
and all-knowing, we feel moved to offer our praise.

This kind of praise is not limited to a worship service. We praise the
Golden State Warriors for winning their 73rd game to set a record for
most wins in a season. They played 82 games and lost only nine. We
praise the American women’s gymnasts, who achieved near-perfection
this summer in Rio. We praised Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the
back of the bus and advanced the Civil Rights Movement. Some of us got
goose bumps in 1989 while watching on a fuzzy television transmission
the unknown student protester who stood in front of a battle tank in
Tiananmen Square in Beijing. We praise such people when they amaze us
with their athletic and artistic skills, or awe us with their political
courage. Adoration is a very natural reaction to an act that we have never
seen before, something that transcends our understanding of the world.
Praise is our response to the gift of goose bumps.

Notice that the praise of Psalm 66 is connected to both God's
character and God's accomplishments. "Come and see what God has
done," says the psalmist. "God is awesome in deeds among mortals. God
turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There
we rejoiced in the One who rules by his might forever" These acts of God
are what inspire the greatest awe and praise. God created the world out
of nothing and said that it was good. God liberated the Hebrew people
from captivity in Egypt, turning the Red Sea into dry land so that they
could escape. God came into the world in human form, as Jesus, so that
everyone could learn from him what it truly means to have life and life
abundant.

But the most surprising benefit of being part of a group that stands
in awe of God: It makes us better people! Awe is the ultimate "collective"
emotion, according to research reported in The New York Times(May 24,
2015), because "it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater
good." The many activities that give us goose bumps, from music to
worship, "help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the
interests of the group to which we belong." Researchers have found that
people who experience more awe in their lives are more generous to
strangers. They also cooperate more, share more resources and sacrifice
more for others -- behaviors which enhance our life as a community.

So exactly how does this work? One answer, according to
researchers, is that "awe imbues people with a different sense of
themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something
larger." Even brief experiences with awe "lead people to feel less
narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity
people share with one another." Awe reminds us that we are all
individuals, part of a larger whole. It makes us more humble and
connected to a larger God and a larger Christian community.

So crank up the "Hallelujah Chorus." Take a walk in Pokagon State
Park under a starry sky. Read a book that inspires you. Your awe won't
make you feel awful. Instead, it will turn you into a better person. "Our
culture today is awe-deprived," write Piff and Keltner. "Adults spend more
and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with
other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in
favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events --
live music, theater, museums and galleries -- has dropped over the years.
This goes for children, too."

Their solution: Experience more awe. Seek out what gives you goose
bumps, whether it is looking at trees or listening to great music. As
Christians, our challenge is to "make a joyful noise to God" and to
remember the awesomeness of God's deeds (vv. 1, 3). As we do this, we'll
become less materialistic, more focused on others and more generous as
well. Our songs of praise will give us the gift of goose bumps. But even
more importantly, they will give us the gift of a better relationship with
God and each other. Amen.

Fruits of the harvest- ministry in action

 I Corinthians 12:4-11

A number of years ago, the city of Chicago was searching for a
community slogan, something to boost civic pride and tourist appeal. As
part of that process, city officials invited suggestions from the public.
One newspaper columnist at the time made an observation that perhaps,
sadly, is as true today as it was back when he wrote it. Given the tenor of
the times, the challenge of matching the city’s needs with its financial
struggles, and the stressors of racial tensions and income inequality, he
suggested that the best choice for a city motto should be, “Where’s
mine?”

Where’s mine? Indeed, that often seems to be a question that
haunts our humanity. Whether explicitly named or implicitly assumed, we
succumb to that mentality far more often than we care to admit. Where’s
mine? Whether with a spouse or a friend, a child or a co-worker, a public
servant or a service or skilled laborer, we encounter various forms of that
question. Where’s mine? Not only in terms of what we receive financially,
but also what we receive spiritually.

Our scripture from I Corinthians 12 today is one that is not usually
used in the context of stewardship or of encouraging generosity. It’s often
used in the context of our spiritual gifts, of noting the talents, skills, and
abilities that God has given us or has honed within us through years of
training and practice. This text is often used in the context of
encouraging others to share time and talents with the church and the
broader community. Indeed, that is an important role of stewardship that
we often uplift when we preachers don’t want to only seem like we’re
asking you for money.

Even though this text is often used in the context of sharing our
spiritual gifts, it’s important to understand the background of what the
Apostle Paul was trying to emphasize. Paul has a distinctive problem in
Corinth. It is a problem generated by those who misconstrue the riches
and abundance manifest in this wealthy port city, and, in turn,
misconstrue the same impact of the Holy Spirit on the Corinthian church.
It’s almost as if Paul is writing to a faith community that keeps asking,
‘Where’s mine?’ as the Corinthian church is filled with schism, division,
and controversy.

And so Paul works to remind the church of Corinth that their
diversity is a strength, their giftedness is a strength, their gifts and
wealth are a strength, but only if they recognize that all of these are
grounded in the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that binds them all. He has to
remind them to distinguish healthy diversity from schisms. He has to
encourage them to recognize the beauty and the gifts in each other.
Often, we miss the larger point. Paul is not surprised by the
difference among believers. He sees these differences as being inspired
by the Holy Spirit and enriching the beloved community. Moreover, there
is an implied awareness that different persons have different life
circumstances, different callings, and different gifts. All of these
differences are appropriate to God and were, in fact, inspired by God.
That we are different from one another does not trouble Paul, nor does
Paul believe that it troubles God. Paul becomes concerned only when
those differences are taken as status indicators or when they lead to
discrimination within the community.

Paul called this problem, the inconsiderate treatment of the ones
who have nothing. Today, we call that the abuse of power and privilege.
In both instances, it reflects a scarcity mentality, one that proclaims that
what I have is better or greater or more important than yours. It’s a
‘where’s mine?’ mentality, a mentality that exalts the privileged at the
expense of the humble or meek. We witness this mentality repeatedly - in
our homes, in our churches, in our communities, in our nation, in our
election rhetoric. It’s a mentality that is destructive. It’s a mentality that
is not of God.

Paul notes that there are many gifts, but the same Spirit, the same
God who creates and inspires them all. This same God does not speak a
language of scarcity, but of abundance. It is a language of extravagance.
It is a language of faithfulness, of God to us and of us to God. God
lavishes upon us spiritual gifts, gifts of the heart, gifts of God’s presence.
We read in the Bible of God’s abundance, in the lives of the Hebrew
people, in the teachings and stories of Jesus, and in the poetic writings of
Paul. But we also experience God’s abundance in our own lives, in
moments of God abides within us, God provides for us, and God inspires
our faithful service. It all comes back to whether we have a scarcity,
‘where’s mine’ mentality or an abundance, ‘many gifts’ mentality.

One of my favorite stories begins with a family who was moving
from a distant land to a new village. As the family approached their new
home, they saw a farmer working in a field and asked him about the
people in the village. The farmer wisely asked in response, “What were
the people like in the place you just left?” “Oh, they were the worst sort
of people. They were greedy and hateful, always trying to get what they
believed was theirs. I’m so glad to be rid of them.” “Well,” said the
farmer with sadness. “I’m afraid that’s the type of people you’ll find in
this town, too.”

The next day, another family was arriving in the village to call it
their new home. As they approached the town, this family came across
the same farmer and asked him the same question. Again, he asked,
“What were the people like the place you just left?” The response this
time was different – “Oh, we were so sad to leave them. They were the
most amazing people, filled with life and generosity.” “Well,” said the
farmer with a big smile. “I’m pleased to tell you that you’ll find people
just like that in this town, too.”

This all comes home to stewardship, of course. We are called to a
stewardship like God’s that is an expression of extravagance. Underlying
all acts of stewardship is not a God who is cheap or thrifty, but instead a
God who flings love passionately and widely across the human landscape
with abandon. A tidy, nice and considerate God would prudently
distribute spiritual gifts and tangible wealth. An accountant God would
make notes of how gifts are given and returned like financial indicators
on a spreadsheet. The extravagant God of the Bible, however, keeps faith
with a thousand generations and flings open the bounty of gifts to share
liberally and abundantly with us all.

Good stewardship, then, is not a call to turn from prudence to
waste, but instead from the kind of destructive waste that people do to
the kind of holy waste that God does. The late theologian Paul Tillich
once wrote, “Faithful stewardship is the history of men and women who
wasted themselves and were not afraid to do so. They did not fear the
waste of themselves in the service of the new creation. They were
justified, for they wasted all this out of the fullness of their hearts. They
wasted as God does. People are sick not only because they have not
received love but also because they are not allowed to give love, to
waste themselves.”

Sisters and brothers, I’m going to say something that is distinctly
un-Brethren. Let’s practice holy wastefulness. Let’s be spiritually
extravagant. Let’s spread the love of God through our ministries with
abundant abandon and see where that journey takes us. Let’s offer our
fruits of the harvest this day for the glory of God and our neighbor’s good.
For we have a God whose love is never exhausted, whose compassion is
never ending, and whose generosity is never depleted. Thanks be to God.
Amen.