Weekly Sermons

November 19, 2017

Thoughts and Prayers

Mark 5: 1-20
5They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

It is almost time for the seasonal binge of “A Christmas Story”, the tale of Ralphie and his quest to get a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas.
One of the characters in the movie is Ralphie’s nemesis, Scut Farkus.
The one with the yellow eyes!
Farkus is a bully who terrorizes Ralphie and his friends, twisting their arms up behind their backs until they say “uncle”.
Later in the movie, Ralphie gets hit in the face with a snowball thrown by Farkus.
Ralphie has finally had enough and does something Farkus does not expect.
He attacks.
He puts Farkus on the ground and wails away at him until Ralphie’s mother comes and pulls him off and takes him home.

My initial reaction to the scene when I watch it for the 1,000th time is:
Good.
Nice to see the bloody nose.
Farkus deserved it.
I think that is a pretty common response to bullying.
No one likes a bully.
Whether they be playground bullies or bullies of the more sinister or aberrant kind.

We have read about a lot of such bullies in the recent past.
These bullies do not twist arms, but obtain an automatic weapon and open fire.
These bullies take advantage of an imbalance of power to impose themselves on, violate, assault or humiliate another person, physically or emotionally.
We send “thoughts and prayers” to the victims.
Which is good, because they need it.
That is what we did last week here when we prayed for the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas.
We could have and should have offered our thoughts and prayers for the victims of abuse and humiliation and harassment we have heard about so many times in the past week.
Those folks need it, too.
But such responses have been criticized because of what is missing.
Action.

We need to do something, too.
Our knee jerk reaction is primitive.
We want someone to strike back, like Ralphie.
We want to see these bullies knocked down and bloody.
We praise the First Baptist Church neighbor who pulled out his own gun and shot the Sutherland Springs murderer.
Good.
He deserved to get shot.
And maybe we should applaud that neighbor.
He acted on the spur of the moment and might have saved some lives.
So that’s one response.

Here’s another.
Had the murderer survived and been arrested, we would certainly want him punished – and severely.
The problem is, that these responses alone are not enough.
It is too late.
It is reactive but not preventive.
We need to do something to prevent these bullies from doing their damage.
What can we do to prevent such things?
Does Jesus offer any advice?

Well, in today’s scripture, Jesus runs into a bully.
As Jesus gets off the boat, a man runs out of a local graveyard, rushes up to confront him.
Who is this guy?
A man who has been cast out of the community because he is dangerous.
The townspeople had unsuccessfully tried to restrain him with chains.
Then he was banished to live in the tombs.
In Matthew’s version of the story, he comes from the tombs and attacks folks passing by on the road.
He’s unsafe!
A bully.
You can feel the prospect of violence in the air.

But Jesus does something unexpected.
Jesus asks him his name.
In this context, asking someone their name is more than just for identification.
It is a request for a personal history that defines him.
And explains what he does.
The man responds that he is “legion”!
Multitudes life events that make him do what he does.
Jesus exorcizes what he does and the past events that make him do it, and leaves behind the man in his right mind.
The people are safe from him now.
Jesus prevents this man from doing any more damage to the folks in the town and on the road.
Jesus is peace making.
Jesus says this event is blessed.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
You know, the ones who don’t want to fight.
Who don’t want to retaliate.
Who want to seek solutions that prevent future bullying.
Jesus is not saying that people who “mind their own business” turn away are blessed.
He says that peace makers are blessed.
Peace makers are called children of God.
People who seek solutions!
That is life in the Kingdom.
A life that imitates Jesus.
And that is why peace making is blessed.
What does that look like?

Let me tell you a story.
A good friend of mine has a daughter who is a heroin addict.
This young woman did what addicts do.
She preyed on her parents for money and when they did not give her any, she stole it from them.
She would show up at their front door screaming for money, food, a car, any kind of support.
Her parents were afraid that she was going to end up dead.
That was her power over them.
She bullied them.
There are those who claim that the best response would be to banish her.
But that does not bring peace.
They decided on a different way.
Her mom asked me to help perform an intervention.
And we did.
We had a professional counselor help us through it.
It was something that is hard to describe.
It was very uncomfortable.
When we confronted the daughter, I felt like I was in Gerasene.
As soon as she realized what was going on, she freaked.
She screamed.
She cried.
She threatened.
She accused.
She denied.
She attacked.
She bullied.
It was like she was possessed.
She was possessed by her addiction.
Over the course of about 4 hours of this, we convinced her to go to rehab.
She left immediately with the counselor for rehab.
How did we do it?
We asked her questions.
We probed her feelings.
We tried to discover her motivations.
We confronted her misperceptions.
And we convinced her that her life would be better if she were clean.
Like Jesus, we cared for her and about her and sent her on a road to exorcize her demons, which were legion.
There was peace.
That is an intervention.

Can this work in other contexts?
Maybe.
But we have to ask some questions.
Why do people become bullies?
There are lots of theories.
Their parents are bullies.
They feel powerless.
They feel invisible.
They feel entitled.
They lack empathy.
These demons make them become violators of others.
What is interesting about all these things is that they can be fixed.
If we can find out their motivations, and why they feel the need to violate others, they can be taught to “exorcize” their “demons” that make them think their conduct is somehow allowed and somehow sanctioned.
With my friend’s daughter, it was a problem with a lack of self-esteem and a feeling of powerlessness.
It led to addiction.
And bullying.

Which brings us to the murders of 26 people in Sutherland, Texas.
Could this have been predicted and could there have been an intervention?
Maybe.

Here is a bit of interesting information.
A recent study found that of all the mass murderers in the recent past 54% were involved in domestic violence.
And the number might be higher because it does not include violence between people in relationships who are not married.
Why is this important?
If 54% of the murderers had been identified before the murders, there might have been an opportunity for intervention.
This guy in Sunderland Springs was an abuser of his wife and family.
That was well known.
For years.
An intervention years before might have made a difference.
Jailing him was appropriate, but that was a temporary fix.
What if someone had acted when his aberrant behavior first started?
How many lives could have been saved?
Find out what is going on and then do … something.
An intervention.
Like with my friend’s daughter.
And this is hard.

When Jesus intervened in Gerasene, they threw him out of town!
When Jesus intervened in humanity’s conflict with God, he got crucified!
So, what can we do?
We are struggling to find a solution.
Mental health care is inadequate.
Social services are insufficient.
Law enforcement does not take bullying seriously or is not given the tools it needs.
Folks don’t want to get involved.
But we have to find a way.

The Jesus way.
We need to pay attention, educate ourselves and seek solutions.
We can support addiction services, like Sojourner House.
We can support social services and nonprofits that offer interventions.
We can promote action!
We need to find a way to be peace makers.
To intervene, stop the aberrant behavior and point to a better way.

We aren’t there yet, but we need to keep trying.
It is what we are called to do.
To be peacemakers.
To be blessed.
To be children of God.

November 12, 2017

Practice What We Preach
 
Matthew 23: 1-12
23Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Several years ago, I read a book by A. J. Jacobs called “The Year of Living Biblically”.
It chronicled a year in his life where he tried to follow all the rules of the Bible, both Testaments.
Listen to this part of his introduction:
As I read [the Bible], I type into my [computer] every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice I find …When I finish, I have a very long list. It runs 72 pages. More than 700 rules. The scope is astounding. All aspects of my life will be affected – the way I talk, walk, eat, bathe, dress and hug my wife.
He points out that some rules are incomprehensible, others seemingly random, and many would be crimes today.
Like killing magicians and sacrificing oxen.
And on his first day, he realized that he is not allowed to wear clothing with mixed fabric.
He also had trouble with the admonition that unruly children be stoned … because he sort of likes his often unruly son.
So as Jacobs proceeded through the year, he found it virtually impossible to do all the things he was called to do.
You get the picture.
Following the rules is basically impossible.
We can’t be perfect.
So, are we called to be perfect?
Only if we require it from others, according to Jesus.
Let’s look at today’s scripture.
Jesus is in Jerusalem.
It’s Tuesday of what we call Holy Week.
He is in the Temple preaching.
Scribes, the Temple law interpreters, and Pharisees, the Temple morality interpreters, are looking on and listening.
Jesus points to the scribes and the Pharisees and tells the people that these are the folks who occupy “Moses’ seat”.
They are the teaching and administrative authority over the people.
Then Jesus describes a problem with them.
These scribes and Pharisees impose virtually impossible rules and requirements for holiness.
Not because they think anyone can follow them, but because they say they, themselves, follow them, but don’t.
What they do is give the appearance that they do.
They walk around literally wearing their faith with scripture boxes on their arms and foreheads, long prayer shawls with really long tassels to show off their religiosity.
Oh … but they were pious sounding and looking!
Why did they do these things?
Because they were devout?
Not according to Jesus.
Jesus said they did these things because they wanted folks to notice them and respond accordingly.
They were to be given the best seat at the table.
They wanted to be called Rabbi or Father or Teacher.
Their goal was not Godliness, but adulation and acclimation.
But then Jesus says something we have all heard or said at one time or another.
A warning.
Do what they say, not what they do.
Because they don’t practice what they preach.
Jesus says they are hypocrites.
They impose rules, clothe themselves with their religiosity, and demand undue respect for one purpose.
Self-exaltation.
That is what makes them hypocrites.
As the politicians of today say:
They were all hat and no cattle.
And so, we disciples of Jesus must not be hypocrites.
But we get smacked over the head with accusations of hypocrisy, too, right?
Brennan Manning was a former Franciscan priest who became an itinerant preacher and speaker and wrote the book “The Ragamuffin Gospel”.
His fans, those who have heard him speak or read his book include U2, Eugene Peterson and … well … me.
Something he said came to mind when I read this week’s scripture.
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
We proclaim rules to live by, then we don’t – or can’t.
But we don’t do this because of piety, but to claim we are better than those who don’t follow those rules.
Such folks act like scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus says, don’t do that.
So, what do we do?
Well, Jesus does describe ways his disciples should live.
But the Jesus way is more an attitude than a list of do’s and don’ts.
He says this:
11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
We can understand what this looks like in other parts of Matthews’ Gospel.
This passage is it is part of Jesus’ last sermon to the people.
The criticism of self-adulation contrasts to Jesus’ first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount where he describes the actions of the folks God exalts.
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Not a lot of personal exaltation there.
Just a bunch of humility and kindness and hope.
It foreshadows Jesus’ final description of the exaltation of people who care for others and so care for him.
Jesus says be servants.
Be humble.
For such these people enter God’s Kingdom.
But all this is hard, too.
A. J. Jacobs found that out!
We want to follow Jesus all the time, right?
We try to follow Jesus, right?
But we don’t.
We can’t.
But does that make us hypocrites?
Does that make us scribes and Pharisees?
I don’t think so.
It just makes us human.
Broken folks who need a savior.
And are humble enough to realize it.
Listen to Quaker writer Brent Bill:
“When someone asks me what kind of Christian I am, I say I’m a bad one … I see myself as a pilgrim – traveling the faith path to the destination of being a good Christian – and into the eternal presence of God.”
But that does not mean that we stop trying.
Which is why we need to practice what we preach!
What does that look like?
It looks like Jacob’s book in a way.
We read the Bible, consult each other, and do the best we can.
That is what the disciples of Jesus did.
They walked with him, listened to him, learned from him.
They made many mistakes, admitting their shortcomings, but continued the journey.
They relied on God’s grace and mercy – trusting Jesus – for the rest.
That gives me comfort.
And that is what Jesus asks of us.
Over the journey of our lifetimes, to try.
To listen to Jesus and learn from him things others might not and to realize there are always new things to learn.
To make our own mistakes, and learn our own lessons from them.
To admit our own shortcomings and that we ourselves don’t deserve more acclaim than any other of God’s image bearers.
To look for God’s grace and mercy in our own life experiences along the way.
Krista Tippet in her book Becoming Wise says this:
Faith is evolutionary, in every culture, and in any life. Even a person who could proclaim “I believe in God” or “I trust in prayer” would fill those words with endlessly transforming memories, experiences, connotations. … Mystery lands in us as a humbling fullness of reality we cannot sum up or pin down. Such moments change us from the inside, if we let them.
That is practicing to be a disciple of Jesus.
That is practicing what we preach.
But now I need to digress.
This past week we encountered, again, a moment in time that sends us reeling.
I left me shaken.
Angry.
Sad beyond words.
Southerland, Texas.
Twenty-six people killed while worshiping God.
Another in a long line of mass murders of innocent people.
How do we respond to that?
What would Jesus have us do?
What do we practice what we preach in this particular instant?
This, I think.
We mourn.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
What does that look like?
To Jesus, mourning is something one does at a time of death, great loss or great injustice.
When there was a death, the relatives of the dead would tear their clothing and put dirt or ashes on their head.
They would then sit Shiva a week-long period of mourning.
They would experience their mourning.
They would be mindful of it.
As painful as that was.
Jesus says there is a blessing in this.
That blessing is our community as the Body of Christ in the world.
Standing beside those mourning.
Simply being present.
Entering into the pain voluntarily as an act of solidarity.
Listening.
Crying.
Waiting.
It is humble, kind and hopeful.
That is how we should respond to the grief of the surviving members of First Baptist Church.
But when Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted, he means more than the comfort of neighbors.
He means comfort from God.
God’s presence in the midst of our pain.
That is the blessing and the comfort.
Listen to Psalm 30:
1 I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.*
4 Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul* may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Jill Duffield, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook offered a prayer for Sutherland, Texas this week and I want to offer this as our prayer.
But before we pray, I know that many think this insufficient – mere thoughts and prayers.
Is that enough?
For today, as we sit Shiva with them, it is all we can do.
For today, it is enough.
Come next week and we will talk about what we as disciples of Jesus should do next.
But for now, let’s pray.
How long, O, Lord? How long will we keep killing each other? How long until sanctuaries are truly sanctuaries? How long until shootings stop and peace prevails? God of grace, as we rend our hearts in grief, dismay and despair, hear our cries, comfort those who mourn, galvanize us to do whatever needs to be done to bring healing, reconciliation and a loving way of life together.
Our groans mingle with those of our brothers and sisters in Sutherland Springs. We hurt with the part of the body devastated in south Texas. We reel with the reality that those who went to worship this morning were met with violence. As the congregation of First Baptist and the people of Sutherland Springs huddle in prayer, may they know that whole communion of the saints embraces them and will not leave them alone in the days, the months, the years ahead.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.
Amen.

October 29, 2017

Thanks Giving
 
2 Corinthians 9: 6-15
6The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
 
In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu hears a bell ring on the family Christmas tree and says this:
Teacher says, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
In the year 1517, there was a different phrase.
“When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
And this one:
“Place your penny on the drum, the pearly gates open and in strolls mum.”
These were the words of Johann Tetzel, an infamous 16th century seller of church indulgences.
What is an indulgence?
We need to start with purgatory.
Purgatory was the place where unforgiven sins of the dead were purged before the sinner could get into heaven.
These poor folks did not accumulate enough grace in their lifetimes.
Some did not go to purgatory.
These were the saints.
Saints were people who accumulated so much grace during their lifetime that they went straight to heaven.
And likely did so with grace in excess – unused grace.
What happened to that unused grace?
It was kept in the church’s treasury like a commodity.
It could be, and was, sold off in the form of “indulgences”.
The Pope could grant a portion of that grace (an indulgence) to anyone whose stay in purgatory he wanted to shorten or eliminate altogether.
But it was not free.
There was a cost.
A coin on the coffer.
A penny on the drum.
For a price, someone could get a friend, loved one, relative or herself, out of purgatory and into heaven.
That was how indulgences worked.
This was medieval church fundraising.
It was in response to this sale of God’s grace that on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of St. Anne’s church in Wittenberg Germany.
All 95 theses were a protest against the sale of indulgences.
Luther took the position that Paul taught.
We are saved by grace alone through faith as a gift from God.
We cannot buy our way into heaven.
Luther’s challenge to the sale of indulgences was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
It is the 500th anniversary of that event we celebrate today – Reformation Sunday.
It is coincidental, but also perhaps providential, that we celebrate our break from the Catholic Church on the same day JMPC receives our commitments of financial support for our ministries and missions for 2018.
Times certainly have changed!
In 1517, money was given to the church in return for a shorter stay in purgatory.
In 2017, we give our money to the church in gratitude for the grace God has already given us for free.
That is what Paul is talking about in our scripture reading this morning.
Some background to this passage is helpful.
Paul writes this letter to the Corinthian church from Macedonia.
Paul’s purpose is to encourage the Corinthians to take up a collection for the Jerusalem disciples, who were financially destitute and desperate.
Paul’s mission was to take the money he collected in Macedonia and what he hoped to collect in Corinth to Jerusalem.
But Paul knew the Corinthians and knew they would ask a particular question:
Why should we?
So, Paul tells them:
11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
What Paul is saying is that their contribution will enrich them, not in wealth or worldly objects.
They will be enriched in gratitude.
Gratitude to that God will grow exponentially by their providing for others.
An God will be glorified!
Which leads to the next question.
Where will we get those resources?
Paul tells them:
8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.
God has already provided.
God has given them an abundance.
More than they need.
And it is out of that abundance that they can contribute.
Paul anticipates the next question.
How much do we give?
Paul provides some guidance.
7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
They are to decide what to give thoughtfully, willingly and cheerfully.
To give as much as they can afford and still smile.
And there is an expectation that everyone will give something.
And then Paul says something profound.
…[Y]ou glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Contribution to our faith communities is an “indescribable gift” – not from us – but to us.
What do we get?
The longings and prayers of those we have helped.
In other words, we get the same response God wants from all of us.
Thanks!
An overflowing of thanks.
And that is the great gift we receive when we share with others out of our abundance.
Note what their contribution does not do.
It does not get them into heaven.
It does not bestow grace.
Because their faith has already done those things.
Their contribution is a grateful response to that.
So, what does that mean to us today on this consecration Sunday?
When we contribute to our faith community, JMPC, we are following in the footsteps and teachings of Paul.
We know God has given us an abundance of grace.
We glorify God with our generosity when we share out of that abundance.
We serve God by partnering with God to care for each other and so increase thanksgivings to God.
It is our mission statement and it is what we do.
What does that look like?
Worship.
Education.
Youth.
Mission.
Fellowship.
This church allows us to participate in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, providing water to the thirsty, giving hope to the hopeless, and bringing peace to the troubled.
We care about and care for each other and those in the world around us.
With the abundant resources God has given us.
And when we do it, we smile.
All this reminds me of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.
Near the beginning there is a conversation between Scrooge and Marley’s ghost.
Scrooge asks about the ghosts who will visit him that night.
“But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world … and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!

My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house … in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole…
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge …
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Marley spent his life trying to find contentment and fulfillment by hoarding what he had.
But he never did.
Marley was never prayed for and longed for by folks who received generosity form him.
Marley sowed sparingly and so reaped sparingly.
He did come back to warn Scrooge.
And Scrooge learned that lesson.
He learned that humankind was his business.
That the common welfare was his business
That charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all, his business.
Having learned that, Scrooge approached a gentleman who had tried to obtain a contribution for the poor from Scrooge the day before.
The gentleman is surprised.
“Mr. Scrooge?”
“Yes,” said Scrooge. “That is my name and I fear it might not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness …” And here Scrooge whispered in his ear.
“Lord bless me,” cried the gentleman, as if his breath had been taken away. “My dear Scrooge, are you serious?”
“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back payments are included in it, I assure you.” … “Thankee,” said Scrooge. “I am much obliged to you. I thank you fifty times. Bless you.”
Dickens understood Paul very well!
Scrooge learns that to have the ability to give to others was an extraordinary gift – to Scrooge.
One he is thankful for, in the end.
Scrooge blesses the gentleman who had given him the chance to give out of his abundance.
Scrooge began to sow bountifully and from that time on reaped bountifully.
It is the attitude Paul wants from the Corinthians.
It is the attitude he wants from us.
That is why we are here.
Today is the day we decide what we will contribute to God’s mission.
We do it thoughtfully, willingly and cheerfully.
And give as much as we can and still smile.
Most have come with Estimate of Giving Cards that we ask you to put in the offering plate.
Others come with a number in their heads.
Others with just a hope and desire to give what and when they can.
And today we consecrate all these things.
We consecrate them to the work of God in which we are called to and fund.
We do this with gratitude to God for this opportunity, knowing that the impact will be far greater than we can imagine.
All to the glory of God.
We will be enriched in every way for our great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
Through the testing of this ministry we glorify God by our obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of our sharing with them and with all others, while they long for us and pray for us because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given us.
 
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
 

October 22, 2017

Not Enough Miracles
 

Luke 4: 16-30

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
 

On Saturday mornings there was a radio show on NPR called Car Talk.

The hosts of Car Talk were brothers

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers

.

They would take calls from people with car trouble and give advice on what the problem was and what would fix it.

A recurring feature was “Stump the Chumps”, in which they revisited a caller from a previous show where they were particularly unsure of or disagreed about the problem with the car.

They had been stumped, basically guessed and wanted to see if either one of them had guessed right.

Usually one was right, which stands to reason because they are the experts.

But it was always entertaining to hear experts truly baffled.

I have “Stump the Chump” experiences often.

I had one this week.

I had someone in my office who was distraught about the terrible state of the world.

Houston, Florida, Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, and now Louisiana and the Gulf Coast … again. …

Catastrophes.

Can you guess what’s coming?

Where is God?

Did the people who were affected by these events deserve this?

If not, why does God let these things happen?

These of course are the events we hear about in the news.

There are many others we never hear about which are even worse.

Plus, there are the systemic catastrophes.

The poor.

The captives.

The blind.

The oppressed.

The indebted.

Almost all completely unknown to us.

Invisible, often.

But no less catastrophic in effect and in nature.

And then there is us.

Our jobs are intolerable.

Our children worry us.

Our parents need us.

We are sick.

We get lonely.

We have no joy.

We are overwhelmed.

And we do not know why it is happening.

And we ask that same question.

Where is God?

Why does God not protect us?

Some folks get miracles!

Why not me?

Why are there not enough miracles?

These are not new questions.

There is even a theological term for them.

Theodicy.

Why do bad things happen in a supposedly redeemed world?

This question is older than the Bible itself.

The Greek epicureans asked this question:

If God is all good and God is all powerful, why is there pain? If God is all good, he would eliminate pain. If God is all powerful he could eliminate pain. Because there is pain, God is either not all good, or not all powerful, or neither all good nor all powerful, or does not exist at all.

The Bible itself raises this question many times.

It never backs away from it.

If you read through the Psalms, you will find the Psalmist asking God over and over:

“Why do the good suffer and the evil prosper?”

Read Job, if you dare, which is the story if a man who suffers just so God can prove the man’s faithfulness.

So the epicureans ask a really good question.

Which brings us to today’s scripture.

Jesus announced that he came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This was messianic talk.

He was here to change everything.

He was healing the sick and feeding the hungry all over Capernaum.

And his Nazareth audience wanted to know what miracles he was going to do for

them

.

And Jesus gave them a bit of bad news.

Not everyone was going to get a miracle from him.

Jesus was not going to heal

all the sick, lift up all the poor, free all

the prisoners in a way all could see or experience.

He would choose some and not others.

And he points out that God has always acted this way.

Elijah was a great prophet who could work miracles but he saved only a particular widow.

Elisha was a great prophet who could work miracles but cured only a particular leper.

And worst of all neither the widow nor the leper were Jews!

God chose to work those miracles to make a point.

To demonstrate God’s power and mercy.

And sovereignty.

Jesus would be no different.

Jesus used his miracles to do the same.

To demonstrate the power of God and God’s mercy.

And sovereignty.

So, it comes down to this.

Not everyone gets a miracle.

Not everyone gets physically, emotionally, financially, healed.

Some, perhaps virtually all, have to wait to see the grand miracle in person.

The one where they find themselves in the presence of God.

The place Jesus calls paradise.

But that does not really answer the question.

If God is good and powerful and merciful and sovereign, why does God let these things happen at all?

Simply put, God does not.

God is not the cause of catastrophes.

Catastrophes were not part of God’s plan for creation.

In God’s plan all creation was “good”.

Humanity was good as well.

But God also gave humanity a choice.

The choice was a simple one.

Love God or go your own way.

If you love God and do what he says, you will experience perfect harmony.

If you go your own way, you will live hard lives and then die.

Humanity chose to go its own way.

And still does.

And the harmony of creation is broken!

Order has become chaos.

Life is hard and then we die.

Catastrophes happen and people’s lives are destroyed.

Not because anyone deserved it, but because creation has become a dangerous place.

Lives are destroyed in natural disasters.

Others at the hands of other humans.

Others from disease.

Others by accident.

Kind of random.

Just like God predicted.

Sometimes God will intervene with a miracle, but only when it serves God’s purpose.

And that does not happen often.

But God does act.

He sends us.

A couple of years ago, Wayne Fast, Nancy Page, Emilee Little and I went to Andrews, South Carolina to rebuild homes damaged in the floods from a 22-inch-in-one-day rainfall.

These were people whose lives had been catastrophically disrupted.

I expected to hear that question:

Why us, God?

But we didn’t.

What we heard was this:

We needed a miracle.

And God sent you.

Lives were being rebuilt by many who came with tools, money or just themselves.

We were the miracles.

These damaged lives become opportunities for people to love each other by lending a hand at times of need.

Jesus taught us about that.

Jesus came across a man born blind.

Here was a man who was the victim of a catastrophe.

Blindness.

In those days his only hope was the generosity of others.

The disciples, like good humans, wanted to assign blame.

Whose fault was this?

Jesus says no one’s.

This man did not deserve this tragedy.

But … his blindness gave Jesus the opportunity to show him compassion and empathy by giving him his sight.

Something Jesus did to teach the disciples about compassion and empathy.

And Jesus directs his disciples to go and do likewise.

Not give sight to the blind, but to show compassion to those whose lives have been broken in a broken world.

If there were no broken lives, there would be no opportunity for compassion and empathy and assistance.

No opportunity to live the Jesus way.

So this man born blind, these victims of all these disasters, are used by God for good.

Through us.

And we learn about God – God’s power and God’s mercy.

There it is.

Undeserved misfortune is a means for God’s love to be demonstrated.

By us.

If we are to be like Jesus, we must be compassionate on those in need, from any misfortune, whether catastrophic or individual, regardless of fault.

When we do this, God’s love erupts out of nowhere.

We become the helpers.

We tell God’s stories.

And everyone is touched.

The kingdom is very close.

But we can be paralyzed by the thought that we cannot “save” everyone.

But there was another thing we saw.

Abandoned homes.

Closed businesses.

People who were not getting a rebuilt life.

There were not enough miracles for those folks.

We are overwhelmed.

So many people.

So much need.

But we should remember that even Jesus did not give everyone a miracle.

He does not expect that from us either!

In the story of the sheep and goats, Jesus tells us what we are to do.

 ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family [the ones who are sick, hungry, thirsty, oppressed, captive, poor, blind, used up} you did it to me.

Jesus describes acts of individual charity, not global reconstruction.

We are called to do what we can.

Jesus seems to say that when we demonstrate compassion to just one person in need we are living the Jesus way.

And when we act like him, we glorify God.

The people of Texas, Florida, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and all victims of catastrophe, are like the man born blind.

It is not their fault that catastrophe struck.

They are just the victims of a dangerous and broken world where bad things happen to everyone.

Even good folks.

So how does God respond?

Most often, he sends us.