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Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 7 of 8: Where to Find Power

Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 7 of 8: Where to Find Power (audio)

Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 7 of 8: Where to Find Power

Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church

April 23rd, 2017

Mark 1:4-11

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.  John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

All right, a show of hands, how many of you are scared of the dark?  You don’t have to lie, you are in church.  It’s okay.  I’m scared of the dark and I avoid darkness.  I’m fifty years old; I’m scared of the dark.  I know; I know; I am fifty.  That’s the big mystery. [laughter]  Actually it started as a child, I can tell you that story another day.  We put night lights around the house mostly so the Legos wouldn’t find us.  You find with your feet in the night and they are sharp and you talk to Jesus in that moment.  That gave way to shoes being left around and then over at your feet when you step on because they’re soft and but they sure can get your feet wound up and the ground comes up awful fast when it’s dark.  That’s not really what I’m scared of the dark though.

I got a call this week, one of our neighbors that live down the street — don’t really know them — think I’ve seen them at one of the HOA gatherings and that was about it.  They said we heard you are a Methodist pastor.  We both grew up Methodist.  We meant to find a church; we haven’t.  Our child is at hospice; can you come?  Their child, nine years old, is dying.  Can you come?  I went.

I’ve been a pastor for a lot of years and not very often do I find myself in over my head.  I was in over my head.  Standing in the dark halls of hospice, in my memory they are dark, not because there’s not enough light.  They are well-built buildings, there is plenty of  light.  But in my memory, they are dark because darkness makes it easier to see the lights of the world.  And driving. wondering why did they call me?  What do they hope I can bring. I have not completed medical school or a residency.  They are not looking for medical advice.  Hospice has its own janitorial service are not asking me to come clean the room.  What do they hope that I’ll bring?  They must hope that I’ll bring a word.  What word is there that is sufficient when a nine-year-old child is dying?

There are a few people that I do believe have been given the gift of having the right word to say.  I believe this because the words do not come from them.  It is not their words; it is not like they have a book of words.  Jennifer Hagerman has that gift; David Wilkinson has that gift; Cynthia Kirk has that gift.  There are others and I strongly believe this — think it is best not to name names — who believe that they have developed in their mind pastoral words to say to comfort people in difficult times.  One of them told me rather vociferously: in moments like this someone has to speak for God.  I’m a trained theologian in biblical interpretation.  I’ve been doing this for a lot of years.  I get really nervous when someone says I’m speaking for God, especially when they put on their pastoral voice and begin to speak like this.  I believe God is very capable of speaking for God’s self.  I believe God has spoken, and I believe the church has done a faithful job of offering and remembering those words for us.  I’m also quite clear that I have not received that gift.

What I’ve received, my gift, and I truly believe it is a gift because it does not come naturally for me.  My gift is the freezing of my mouth in moments of darkness.  I have a very clear understanding that in times of waiting for light to come into our darkness that talking is a way of controlling the moment.  Talking and doing and being busy and filling the silence and lighting the darkness with our own words and filling the emptiness with their own words.  Don’t just stand there do something.  That’s the voice that comes naturally into the back of my mind.  Be helpful, be useful, be insightful, be profound; puts me right in the driver seat.

But then I remember the story of Mary and Martha, Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus had died; Jesus comes to their home.  Martha makes herself busy in the kitchen.  Martha makes her so busy I can hear the flap of the rag that she is using to wipe the table.  Mary sits at the feet of Jesus.  I’m natural tendency is to be like Martha, make myself busy but I’m very aware that I will miss what Jesus has to say.  So I’ve tried to become better at being a lot more like Mary: sitting, listening, waiting.  Don’t do anything; just sit there.  That’s the voice in the front of my mind.

I don’t know if you notice in our text today.  John was the preacher and he was not a kind preacher.  He’s proclaiming; he is baptizing; he’s hesitant to baptize Jesus, but he does and for all the ferocity in John’s voice when he’s proclaiming the gospel message for all of the importance of his personal holiness and social holiness; I don’t know if you noticed but after the baptism we don’t hear from John the Baptist again.  He’s right there.  He is the preacher.  God sends a dove, the dove descends onto Jesus and John has the sense to remain quiet.  Maybe he knew that anything he might add to the moments would take away the meaning of the moment and point back to him.  When God is moving, perhaps it’s best for us to be still.  I think we come to church sometimes because we are looking for a word.  We are trying to get a handle on the parts of our life that are not in our control.  Birth and baptism, and death and funerals are right at the top of that list of where we feel most out of control.  We started by talking; I was telling you about a nine-year-old and hospice.  In that moment in the darkness of hospice, the only words that I could find, the only words that came to me are not my words.  What came into my mind was an awareness of the prayer ministry here at church.  Persons who set aside time each week to be useless to the world.  Say that with me: useless to the world.  To the busyness of the world: useless.  To the likes of the world: useless.  To the fears of the world: useless.

People who pray are so ordering their lives.  They are setting aside time to engage in a different kind of power.  I’m not talking about the power of prayer to overcome all challenges.  I told you before I don’t believe in the power of prayer.  I find prayer to be very disempowering.  I’m talking about a different kind of power that comes with being useless to the world.

I thought about this power as I looked on a nine-year-old.  Do you realize how small a nine-year-old looks in a hospice bed?  Thinking about this didn’t make me smarter; didn’t make me more insightful; didn’t make me helpful, didn’t make me taller or stronger.  In the United Methodist Church we celebrate two sacraments: baptism and communion.  Some people asked me: why don’t we have more sacraments in the United Methodist Church, like last rites.  We should have last rites.  Well we do.  Most people don’t know it though.  Baptism is a sacrament of dying.  Most people don’t know that.

And so baptism at the beginning of life is baptism into dying, dying to the ways of the world.  But it’s even deeper than that – let me help you understand this — in our text today, Jesus is baptized.  At his baptism three things happened.  Number one: heaven is torn apart; the spirit of the Lord descends on Jesus like a dove; and a voice from heaven proclaims that Jesus is God’s beloved son.  We go to the end of the gospel of Mark, at the moment of his death, the temple curtain is torn apart.  Jesus breath’s out his spirit.  And a voice of the world, a centurion, declares Jesus to be God’s son.  Jesus’ baptism is like Jesus’ death.  Jesus’ death is like his baptism.  Baptism and death are the bookends of life.

In hospice, looking on this nine-year-old and looking into the faces of parents and grandparents, two sisters, a brother.  The only words that I could find in that moment of darkness came to me from the light.  Through the sacrament of baptism we are initiated into the body of Christ.  We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation.  We are given new birth through water and spirit.  All of this is given to us without price and we placed our hands on this nine-year-old and then I said you were baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit.  Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation.  All of your life is gathered into the body of Christ.  All of your life is redeemed.

I stopped talking and a few milliseconds later, the child’s father said these words.  Just as the feet of Jesus were baptized by tears and dried by the hair of a grateful person, we have gratefully been placing our tears in your hair, on your hands and touching your feet.  You are so loved.  And in that moment, I think we all knew that the love of God was not enough to make it bearable to lose a child.  But that in the long run, the love of God would be enough.  And so we were able to say something like: it is with joy and thanksgiving that we send you before us into the presence of Christ.

I tell you this today to encourage you to begin and if you’re already doing it to deepen and strengthen your practice of being useless to the world.  Trust the presence of God.  Trust that God will get done what God needs to get done.  I tell you this because I want to make sure that you know the meaning of baptism is mostly about what God is doing in life.  It is also about what God will do at the moment of death.  I tell you this today so that when it’s your turn to be present in the dark, you will know how to bring light.  Be thankful for your baptism.

2017-04-16 Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 6 of 8: The Whole Truth

Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 5 of 8: Half-Truths (audio)

Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 5 of 8: The Whole Truth

Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church

April 16th, 2017

Luke 10:26,37

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’]”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.   The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

I know some of you have your children sitting with you and I want to talk to you for just a moment and I want to say to you: this is the place for your children to be.  We have left the aisles open so that when your child needs to run, they can do it in the house of God.   If you cannot have fun in the house of God where can you have it?  Let me follow by saying, if you are an uptight kind of person who tends to look down your nose and purse your lips, you are in the wrong place.  It’s just us; we help one another along.  If your children need to stand to see, that chair is for that too.  If you need to bring a drink — coffee or water — and you spill it on the floor, added to the others; it’s okay. [laughter]

We hear our text today and we come at it from our position of strength; we like this story.  We hear the text; we are walking in God’s way when we are the Good Samaritan, compassion that costs us something.  We don’t usually like things that cost us anything but we do like compassion, especially when we can come at it from our position of having.  We give of our excess; it costs us something and we call it good.  We are the Good Samaritan.  That is how we should hear this story unless we are the ones in the ditch.

Have you ever been robbed and beaten?  Have you ever had something that was yours and yours alone taken from you?  You may have tried to fight back or you may have realized that there’s no chance to fight back.  I think that if we are following Jesus and we want to get to Easter then we have to approach Easter the same way Jesus did.  This last week, we have watched Jesus come up from Jericho to Jerusalem where he rode into town on a donkey, not his own.  He has been seized, stripped, beaten and left among the dead.  I actually think people who really get Easter are folks who been beaten, stripped and left along the road, bullied on the playground, laughed at in the locker room, mishandled by adults, held down and pounded, labeled as the problem, abandoned, screwed over, sold out by a former friend, stabbed in the back, left at the altar, embarrassed, criticized, humiliated, derided, denied, tormented, attacked.  Easter is not for the winners in life who just a little bump to get over the latest speed hill.  You have to lose, all in, where tired was months ago.  Exhaustion has now set in and you’re going through the motions.  You know that you’re going to need about three weeks of good sleep before you can feel tired again.  You have been served.  You have been dumped.  No, you’re not wanted.  You don’t know where to go.  You don’t know what to do.  You do not know how to cope.  People who are motivators, who want to motivate you with words like: just imagine, believe, achieve, be stronger, be smarter.  After you stop wanting to slap them you mostly just feel queasy because there are really no words that rightly describe how you feel, how you are coping, how you are getting along.

Hang in there, people say.  Those people you really want to strangle because they are shallow and syrupy and slapping just isn’t enough.  Truth of the matter is you can hardly breathe.  Beaten is a good starting word; half-dead comes a lot closer.  And your jaw just aches from clenching.  My suspicion is that everyone here has either been in that place, been close to someone who was in that place, or is currently in that place right now.  We know enough; we’ve seen enough; we are smart enough; we are insightful enough to know that the wheels of life turn and it will come around again.  And it might not have been for us last time, but maybe it will be for us next time.  Suffering finds us and anybody that tells you otherwise is lying.

This is the church and this is where we practice for everything that comes with life.  We come here on Sundays and we practice dying.  We come here and we practice grieving; we come here and we practice hanging on; we come here and we practice grace.  We do a lot of grace here; we are people of grace.

So today I actually just want to tell you a story.  I was a freshman in high school in the fall of 1981.  There were four of us that ran together.  We were in the same scout troop.  We ran together.  We had gone to the same junior high — there was only one junior high in town — and we went to it and we ran together, and the reason that we ran together was we were all tall and had big heads.  Dorky guys, right?  Four dorks: Anthony, Dave, Chris and me.  Dave and I and Chris all had homeroom together.  Our names began with the right letters, so when they grouped us we all ended up together, which worked fine for us and we figured out pretty early on that if we talked a lot we would get separated.  So we didn’t talk a lot, we passed notes, elbow jabs and looks.

One day, fairly early in the fall, there was a new kid in homeroom.  His name was Sam; our homeroom teacher introduced him to us.  He was in first hour too in English class, first hour.  Then he was in PE second hour.  We saw him in the hallway and then in third hour, science, right before lunch, Sam was in that class and the teacher assigned Sam to the lab table with Anthony and myself and Dave.  He didn’t say much but he seemed to get the project and we all did fine; filled out our paperwork and handed it in.  After class the three of us walked to the cafeteria: Anthony and Chris and I.  We kind of noticed but tried not to that Sam was walking with us.  He had a lunch ticket so he came thru the lunch line and we all got our food on the trays and then we went to sit down at our table.  You know our table?  You do not sit at our table.  There were four of us and five chairs and only three of us who went through together at this time and Dave would come along later.  We all sat down at the table and Sam came and sat with us.  The three of us looked at each other like: dude!  This was the early 80s and we had not discovered that word yet, I think it was more like: man!  That assignment to be in our group was just for science class but none of us said anything.  When Dave came and joined us at the lunch table, Anthony introducing Sam like he was an old friend and we been expecting him.

Just to prove to you to you that we really were dorks: in the coming weeks the big problem for us was not how to include Sam, it was how to explain Dungeons and Dragons to him. [laughter]  Sam only spoke a little bit of English.  We found out that he was Laotian.  Sam was not his full name; it was an abbreviation that had been handed to him, so he went by Sam.  Laos was a neighbor to Vietnam which Vietnam had invaded following America leaving Vietnam.  After a few days we noticed some things about Sam, one of which was that every day he talked about his Mom.  How she was going to come get him; how she was going to take him away.  This was a conversation in which his English was remarkable.  He was waiting for his Mom to show up and to take him.  In the course of the conversations we asked questions – probably didn’t ask them the best way – we asked him how he ended up in America with genuine interest.  He kept saying a word that we did not understand: umcar, umcar, umcar.  What is that word?

Our town, Keokut Iowa, was on the Mississippi.  A lot of families had boats.  Lake Keokut, which was right above the dam, filled up with people and boats.  So our group talked it over — Chris Dave and Anthony and I – we talked it over and we said: Sam should come with us some time.  One afternoon after school — you know how teenagers talk all at the same time and they don’t stop to let each other talk they just keep talking – so in one sentence three or four voices we ask Sam three questions all at the same time.  We asked him if he wanted to go with us; if he knew how to swim; and if he had a swimsuit, pretty much at the same time.  All of the blood went out of Sam’s face.  I don’t know if it went to his major organs or to his feet, but I do know that was in his face was a look of wide-eyed abject terror.  When he could talk again: he said my family swam in the Mekong River to survive.

We sat down at a picnic table out in front of our high school and he began to tell us that he and his family had entered the Mekong River to float down river trying to survive.  In the river was where he had lost his Father and his two Sisters, not to crocodiles but to bullets.  He and his mother had become separated in the current in the dark and that he hid in the reeds along the river where he heard soldiers up on the bank and that he then heard his mother get captured by those soldiers in the dark.  She cried out to him to run and to hide.  He heard gunshots as they shot out into the darkness trying to hit him.  Those robbers seized from Sam what was his and his alone.

You do know that my Father is a United Methodist minister, right?  I think he is serving an appointment near here. [laughter]  If you don’t know my father retired and he is now at Sun Lakes has an interim pastor there for them.  In the fall I went with him to a funeral of someone we knew from church.  There at the funeral home I saw Sam.  I said Hi; we talked just a little bit and it turns out that Sam had a weekend and evening job around the funeral home.  Then he told me in very practiced English, umcor got me out of Vietnam where he had been in a refugee camp.  UMCOR is the United Methodist Committee on Relief.  I know what UMCOR is.  It turns out that he had continued down the river with other people from his village and the surrounding area to a refugee camp.  It was an UMCOR refugee camp.  UMCOR had helped him and now he was living in Keokuk.  His sponsor family was an older couple from the other Methodist Church in town.  I don’t know what Sam’s faith was; we never talked about it.

Time went by and Sam talked about his Mother: how strong she was, how beautiful she was, how he wished that he had been brave so that he could have defended her from the soldiers.  He was forgetting that their guns have bullets.  Then one day, it was early December, that he announced to us that he would not see us anymore after Christmas break and that he would be saying goodbye to us because he knew that his mother was coming to get him over Christmas break.  Now there is faith, Scripture tells us that faith is hoping for things to come and then there’s fantasy and we knew — even though we were 15 years old — we knew that Sam didn’t know where his mom was; didn’t know what had become of her; didn’t even know she was still alive.  And as Christmas break drew closer, we all noticed a change in Sam.  Then we tried to get near Sam and just hang on to him.  I look back at it now and I recognize it as a tentative balance between crushing depression and rational denial.  When Sam was not thinking about his Mom, he was depressed, he was broken inside.  And if she was mentioned, often times by him, he would light up as if she had just walked in the room and given him a hug and kissed him on the forehead.

The depression and the weight of this got so bad the Sam just started punching things.  He would punch doors, bleachers lockers, sophomores. [laughter]  We had a few conversations.  We seriously thought Sam was going to lose it.  Then right before Christmas break he said goodbye to us and shook each of our hands and thanked us for our friendship.  I am not sure that my parents knew that I had an Asian friend in High School, not that it would’ve been a problem; not that it would’ve mattered.  But because Sam had an after school and evening and weekend job, he never came over to the house and he never went out of the river with us.

My mom in the late 70s and early 80s was finding her voice.  My mom is of that age.  She got married and she said those age-old words I will obey him.  And so my mom was a women’s libber in the late 70s early 80s and that she worked very hard on the Equal Rights Amendment and she worked very hard for the National Organization of Women.  She wrote checks about once a month to NOW.  She thought it was so cool when Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate.  I remember one afternoon it was raining and so we got picked up from school.  My mom picked us up and she’s driving and she said wouldn’t it be cool if Mondale gets elected and dies. [laughter]  A lot of people felt that way.  She wanted to do something; we boys were getting older and we didn’t need her so much.  She started the conversation, with herself and with us, about wanting to do something else.  Now my Mom’s profession was teaching English as a second language to people who were immigrating to this country.  Dinners at our house oftentimes had people from all over the world and I count that as wealth in my childhood.  I had a rich childhood because I got to sit and listen to people who saw the world very differently.

So it was no surprise when my Mom was excited, she found this program where she could sponsor someone to come to this country.  I remember helping her to set up the apartment for when they came in.  I remember the evening and my Mom was going to drive to Des Moines and meet the plane and bring this family home with them.  It was just my Mom because there were four people in the family.  My mom grew up in the morning and actually it was important for her.  She wanted to do this and so they came upon Banh Keit and Nyung and their two children came to America.  When I got out of the car I was waiting to help them with their bags.  It was late in the night.  They didn’t need my help because everything that they owned fit in a single box.  The whole family, everything that they owned fit in that box.  They showed us a picture that had been taken a few years before of Banh Keit and Nyung and their three children.  Now they had two.  I never asked and they never shared what happened to their third child but along the road of life — Banh Keit and Nyung — something very important was taken from them.  They were beaten and bleeding by the side of the road.   There were very reserved, very quiet people.

Banh Keit had attended medical school and had been a physician in Laos.  But his medical degree was not recognized in the United States and so he and Nyung and their two kids took a job as janitors at a local United Methodist Church.  They vacuumed, they dusted, they wiped things down, they swept, they mopped, they mowed, they shoveled snow.  It paid.  Then my Mom ran across another job for them cleaning the office of a dentist in the evening.  They were able to get a car and a better apartment.  One afternoon Banh Keit stopped in another business looking for cleaning work and the owner said, I’m so sorry we don’t need any help right now, we’ve got Sam.  The owner gestured and by Banh Keit of course looked over his shoulder where the owner of the business had gestured and it was the funeral home where Sam worked after school.  Banh Keit looked at Sam for a moment and then quietly in native tongue asked him: which province are you from?  It turns up that Keith and Sam’s families were from two villages about five kilometers apart.  Both families had swum in the Mekong River and both had come through the same refugee camp.  Banh Keit may very well have treated Sam for dysentery in the camp.

A little while later, Banh Keit was able to tell Sam that the soldiers did not keep prisoners.  It was in that moment — Sam told us even later — that it was when he realized the bullets he thought the soldiers had fired into the darkness after him had been the bullets that had killed his Mom.  It was Banh Keit who caught Sam when his knees gave out in grief.  In the journey of his life, Sam finally recognized something very important had been taken from him, stolen and he was now able to be by the side of the road, beaten and bleeding.  And it was there he could be found.  It was only a few more days before Banh Keit and Nyung invited Sam to move into their apartment.  They adopted him in all sense of the word.  I think he was okay after that, as okay as he could be.  And I think it restored them a little bit too.  The next summer, our family moved away.  I know just a little bit more.  Sam did complete high school and then he went to college.  All three on Banh Keit and Nyung’s kids went to college.  During college Sam fell in with a gang of Quakers. [laughter]

They got Sam into medical school and the last that I heard Sam was working as a medical missionary in Southeast Asia in the border between Laos and Vietnam.  You came to church on Sunday; what is the word of resurrection that you need to hear?  Is the word of Malachi, the Lord, whom you are seeking will suddenly and unexpectedly come to you.  Is it the word of the Psalm when the Lord restored our fortune it was like a dream and we were filled with laughter, and we sing with joy.  We planted in tears, but we harvest with laughter.  The Easter message that I have for you is that our God is in the healing and the restoration business.  There is nothing you can lose that God cannot restore.  There is no beating that you can take that God can’t heal.  Though it will not come in the time that you expect and it will not be the way you expect.  God has a way of bringing the people into our lives that we need in our lives; it is true.  There have been people who come into our lives, they looked at us and our injury and they passed us by.  But God is always bringing someone else down the road.  Thanks be to God.




Weekly E-news for April 19

The weekly e-news is ready!
This week’s news features VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL — Hero Central which will be held June 19 – 23!  Get your power on and sign up TODAY!!!
Also, find out more about Chandler United Methodist Church’s meetings/gatherings such as:
United Methodist Women programs and bible studies and the Adult bible study groups (Spirit Seekers on Sunday and L.I.F.E group on Tuesday).

Check it out by clicking the link:  041917

2017-04-09 Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 5 of 8: Half-Truths

Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 5 of 8: Half-Truths (audio)

Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 5 of 8: Half-Truths

Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church

April 9th, 2017

Luke 10:26,37

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’]”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.   The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

I got asked that same question this last week.  It was Tuesday morning.  It was too early in the morning, but my doorbell rang and there they stood representing some church; I don’t know what.  They asked me the same question.  The text question is: what must I do to inherit eternal life?  The question they asked me is: do you know where you’re going to go when you die?  But they didn’t have an answer for me.  I said to them: please tell me where am I going to go when I die?  [laughter]  The answer they offered didn’t sound like this about: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor likewise.  No they wanted me to pray a believer’s prayer that someone had made up and make it into all about me.  There’s no neighbor in what they were offering.  And so it bothered me and it’s been under my skin.  It bothers me when people take Scripture — and even with good intentions — pervert it and make it into something it is not.  It is not about me.

Our gospel reading this morning is one that is quite familiar to us.  It’s one we all recognize.  Even the most secular of us know the story of the Good Samaritan.  We can surely tell it from memory if you give us just a moment.  It is about a man going from Jerusalem down to Jericho who was attacked by robbers who stripped him robbed him of his clothes and beat him, leaving him half dead.  There are a couple of highly religious people who pass by.  They are absolutely no help whatsoever.  Jesus implies they did the wrong thing or perhaps he would say they missed the opportunity to do the right thing.  Somehow their inner dialogue told them that fulfilling ceremonies and image — don’t be seen with damaged injured people, don’t be with a beaten man – and being on time was more important to God than compassion.  That was their inner dialogue and so they pass by being no help whatsoever.  But then along comes a Samaritan.  Samaritans and Jews were diametrically opposed to each other.  This Samaritan who has every reason: political, personal, historical, to walk on by notices this man lying by the road, places him on his own donkey and provides care for him that costs something.

This is the lesson we learned in Sunday school as children.  We have a responsibility for injured strangers even when they are foreigners to us.  And we are very clear that we are to be the Samaritan in the story; we are to be good neighbors.  We are to do what we may not want to do, may not like to do, we are constrained to even do what scares us.  The Samaritan is good because he is acting in the ways of God.  We are on level one, great insights even small children grasp, like how to be a good neighbor.

Would you believe me if I told you there were two more levels to this text?  Ways for us to hear it, ways we must hear it because we are adults.  Would you come with me into the elevator?  It’s a big elevator.  We will go up a level.  Now we are on the level of the big picture view, thematic understanding of biblical messages and adult insights; welcome to level two.  The story of the Good Samaritan falls toward the middle section of the gospel of Luke.  In this section of Luke begins right before the story of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus sends out in ministry seventy-two people to teach, to heal, to preach.  They experienced great success, lives are changed and they come back and they do what we do when everything goes well; they start congratulating themselves.  They feel pretty good about themselves and they are in the process of putting together the inner dialogue, the inner narrative, the story that they are going to tell about what happened and why they were so successful.  Well it was our good decisions.  That’s why God chose us; we are righteous people.  We are smart.  We are smarter than most.  We must be; God chose us.  God placed this important ministry in our hands.  Lucky for God that God could call on us.  We are brave enough to go out and talk.  We had the right words that we spoke.  We are unique.  We are justified in our ministry.

Jesus overhears this formation of their inner dialogue that they are having between themselves and Jesus interjects into the conversation.  He says: the great triumph is not your authority over evil but God’s authority over you.  It’s not what you do for God that is important here. It is what God does through you.  That is the agenda for rejoicing.  Be glad your names are written in heaven.  While that’s a bringer downer, right?  It is no longer all about you.

I’m thinking this lawyer overheard Jesus say: be glad your names are written in heaven and his mind went squirmy.  You ever get squirmy minded?  Your mind starts squirming and he started wondering how do I get into that club?  Maybe for you it happened in junior high and you want to be one of the popular kids.  How do I get into that club?  What do I have to do?  He asks the question of Jesus: what must I do to inherit eternal life?  Luke offers a little bit of commentary about this man.  Luke says he was trying to justify himself.  Wait a minute; if I said that word in Greek, some of you are going to make the connection.  He’s trying to justify himself.  This is a word we know: justify.  Justify in Greek is dikaioó.  Is that ringing a bell with anybody?  The word for righteousness in Greek is dikaiosuné.  The word justify is dikaioó.  Dikaiosuné, the word for righteousness — we know — this is the wonderful word from the royal court meaning that you have been gifted with access to the king.  We also know from our conversation about the dikaiosuné that you must never presume you have earned access to the king.  It is always, always, always a gift.

So this man is trying to justify himself.  He’s trying to declare himself as righteous, having earned access to God.  Now begins the middle section of the gospel of Luke, from Luke 10, ten chapters all the way through Luke 19 is the theological answer to this squirmy minded question: what must I do to justify myself?  Tell me please, I’ll do it.  Please, please.  You look like you’re familiar with what I was just doing, squirmy minded wondering.  Soon after this Jesus encounters two sisters: Martha stays in the kitchen and wipes the table clean enough for Jesus.  Mary comes in and sits down at the feet of Jesus and listens.  Mary is praised.  Martha is not; Martha is trying to justify herself; she misses out.  There’s a run in with the Pharisees and teachers of the law where Jesus said such terrible people; you make others justify themselves.  You put on their backs loads of things that they must do to make themselves good enough for God.  You are terrible people.

Then Jesus tells the story about a rich fool who builds bigger barns to store his stuff.  He’s done everything to secure himself and he has justified comfort in his own eyes.  God calls him a fool.  Then Jesus invites his hearers to ponder the lilies of the field and the birds of the air; your existence does not have to be justified.  Then Jesus talks about settling with your opponent.  We don’t always have to be right; we don’t always have to be in charge.  Being right or in control of other people does not justify us.  Jesus tells about a party, a man comes to the party and presumes he is important and he sits in a high place and he is terribly embarrassed when the host of the party comes over and whispers into his ear: you need to move to a lower place.  Being important, presuming importance does not justify oneself.  And then Jesus starts in on the big three; this is the gospel within the gospel.  This is Luke 15, the story about sheep, the story about a lost coin.  If there is a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost the sheppard goes looking.  If there are ten coins and one of them gets lost, the woman goes looking.  If there are two sons and both of them are lost, the father goes looking.  Who is the hero of the story?  Did the sheep find itself; get back, clean itself up and make itself worthy?  No it did not.  God is the hero; the shepherd is the hero, found the sheep and had a party.  Did the coin find itself; shine itself up and get all valuable back in with the other coins?  No it did not.  The hero of the story is God the woman of the home.  Did the son in the far country find himself and come home all fixed?  No, he did not.  He was as lost as ever when his father found him at the end of the drive way.  Did the older son who never left the house, he would not allow himself to be found by his father and he remains lost.

I would invite you to pay attention to the speeches in the stories of Luke 15.  The speech planned by the younger son to justify himself to his father.  The powerless impotence of this planned speech to justify himself.  He is already seeing through.  What he says is not going to make a bit of difference.  The father makes it clear: I have already justified you, stop talking and coming to the party.  The older son, the speech of the older son in his anger to justify his anger, the ineffectiveness of the angry outburst, the moralizing judgment of his brother to justify himself is quietly endured by his father.  Maybe listen to, maybe understood, but it doesn’t make a bit of difference.  The father is already decided.  Justification has happened.

This thirst, this desire to belong drives us to justify ourselves and now it gets worse because it goes where our money is.  This section now turns to the attraction of money as a means of justifying ourselves.  There’s the parable of the dishonest manager trying to be the big man in town who gets himself in debt way over his head and has to be let off the hook by his debt holders.  The rich man who accumulates and enjoys his leisure and feels justified in his own eyes, looks at his own life has its own judgment, says: I must be doing something right and then he dies and goes to hell.  Ten lepers are healed by Jesus; nine of them feel justified in simply walking away as if they deserved what they got.  One of them comes back and offers gratitude, knowing he received a gift. Two men go to the temple to pray, one of them is a Pharisee, keeps all the rules, knows all the ceremonial practices thanks God: oh God, thank you for making me not like others, like these sinners.  The other man who went to pray that day was a tax collector who said God I am in need of your grace every day.  Guess which one went home justified?

Jesus said, let the children come to me for too such as these belongs the kingdom of God.  Children who trust that what they need will be provided for them.  And then there’s the parable of the rich young ruler who asks the same question that started this section.  What must I do to inherit eternal life?  How do I get into the heaven club?  And Jesus gives him the impossible.  Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, leave your home and come follow me; because it is not possible for us to earn our way in.  And then there’s the story of short, conniving Zacchaeus who is just sure that his accumulation of wealth will in the end justify him as being important and necessary and worthy.  It’s clear from just the few descriptives that Zacchaeus is alone and unhappy.  We don’t know what Jesus says to him that day.  But what we see in Zacchaeus is the relief of no longer having to play the game of trying to get into the club.  I’ll buy my way in was the way he lived his life and he is released from that and he says I’m then give away half of this monstrosity and if I’ve defrauded people I will pay them back four times over.  The problem in all of these texts is when we start associating our life successes with our own goodness, our own efforts, our own triumph over evil and things are going well and we are just off on ourselves.  We are just sure that God is blessing us real good; that we are just God’s blessing to this earth.  And God wants us to have and to consume and to accumulate because this is a measure of our worth.  We have an easy time believing that those who are not as successful as we are simply just not as hard working, they’re not as talented, they’re not as good, they are not as persistent, they are not as blessed by God as we are.

What do you suppose Jesus would say to us about that?  I mean after he stopped throwing up.  Tying our worth to our income is dangerous.  Oh and let things fall apart for us up.  Let the economy shift a little bit.  Let us get laid off from our job.  Let our company be downsized.  Let us get fired.  Let us be less effective than we like to be in business, in our marriage, as parents.  Let us receive unwanted health news and we turn on ourselves with a wicked judgment.  We are just sure that we screwed up; we’ve done something wrong and this is our payback.  We have fallen and God is cursing us for what we’ve done and there is crying and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  What have I done to deserve this?

You don’t have to justify yourself; you cannot justify yourself; you must not try to justify yourself.  God’s unmerited love is a gift.  You are in, you belong.  Who told you that you weren’t?  I bet it was someone trying to get a buck out of you.  You don’t have to justify yourself.  Toward the end of this section, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees.  They swagger up to him and they say: you talk about this kingdom of God, when is the kingdom of God going to come?  Show it to us.  And Jesus says to them: the kingdom of God is not coming in things that you can observe, nor will you be able to say, look, there it is; come see it.  The kingdom of God is among you, it’s how you treat people.  Then he lowers his voice and he turns to his disciples and he says the days are coming when you will long to see my kingdom, but it’s going to get really hard to see it.  Others are going to proclaim there it is, come look, we got the kingdom right here.  Don’t go.  Do not set off in pursuit of what they offer.  Those who try to secure their life will lose it.  Those who lose their life for my sake will keep it.

We are almost to the end of this middle section on the futility of trying to justify yourself in God’s eyes, trying to justify yourself in your own eyes, in the eyes of the world.  This section started with the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He was seized by thieves; he was robbed and stripped; he was beaten and he was left half-dead.  Religious people were no help whatsoever.  But one came down the road who was representing the way of God.  He placed this beaten man on his donkey and he interceded life at his own expense.  This section, ten chapters on the futility of trying to please the world ends today with Jesus entering Jerusalem and today we waive palms in a parade for this man who came up from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Today he’s riding on a donkey that is not his own.  A little bit later this week he will be seized and robbed and stripped and beaten.  And to be honest we can’t quite distinguish the thieves from the religious folks.  They will not miss the opportunity they have to get the job done.  They will not leave him half dead; they’ll get it done.  They will end the week thinking that they have spoken the final word.

I forgot to tell you were on level 3 now.  The power of people like Jesus, who know they are justified by God; recipients of God’s grace who live a different kind of life, who without fear or concern can associate and provide care for — well, you know — the wrong people.  People of grace who simple presence sets free others from the burden of the world.  And this section ends with the echo in Jesus of words spoken back at the beginning of this section: the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God’s authority over you and God’s presence with you.  The great triumph is not what you will do for God, but what God will do through you.  That’s the agenda for rejoicing.  Be glad your name is written in heaven.  Who told you it wasn’t?  Today in Jesus we see two promises and we will see them even more clearly as we go through the week.  God’s first promise: I will be with you as you go through your life trying to live my way.  God’s second promise — after the world is done with you — I will speak a final word.  Jesus trusts God’s promises and offers his life that we might see.  This is a great expense for him.  For us, and today we hold our palms and we wait for the one who will come down the road and intercede life.   Thanks be to God.


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2017-04-02 Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 4 of 8: Facing Storms

Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 4 of 8: Facing Storms (audio)

Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 4 of 8: Facing Storms

Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church

April 2th, 2017

John 6:1-21

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.   Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples.  The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”  He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there).  Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted.  He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over.  Let nothing be wasted.”  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum.  By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.  A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.  When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened.  But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”  Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

So we have been working through this series on how we handle the heavy things in life.  And we talked our way through some things that weigh on us that we are not even aware.  Today it’s a little more blunt and — well — here we go.  I hope you came with high expectations and I believe our text will fulfill them.

I don’t think that we should let young children receive communion because they don’t really know what it means.  This young woman had raised her hand and said these words in a class and another student in the class raised their hand and said: who knows exactly what communion means?  I can tell you; I can use words to say that communion — one of our sacraments — means everything that a meal means: hospitality and refreshment and conversation and the offering of what one person can do for another, sacrifice, love of neighbor.  Above all, the message is: You Belong Here.  The Eucharist means all of this in the presence of Jesus.  This is where our words peter out and the mystery we experience at the Lord’s Table becomes too much for words.  Holy baptism is similar — the other Christian sacrament that we celebrate — baptism means everything that water means: refreshment and play, also drowning, diving deep to explore and have an adventure, and finding yourself too deep and not able to breathe and instantly wondering as your heart starts pounding in your ears will I make it back to the surface and then making it to the surface and breaking the surface, gasping the breath of life again.  Baptism means all of this in the presence of Jesus.  I am all for instruction.  I’m all for education.  I’m also carefully unfolding and contemplating the understanding of our experience at church.  But there are limits to our ability to get words around the presence of Jesus, made known to us.  It is a mystery.

And so now we have these two stories of Scripture and the people who wrote them had the same problem.  How do we talk about this Jesus with words?  The first text that Rob read for us; Jesus is being pursued by a large crowd.  It’s the Passover season.  Jesus is gathered his disciples to teach them.  The crowds are pressing in on them because they heard what Jesus has done for others.  The problem is at hand.  How are all these people going to be fed?  The word is there’s nothing available except well this small boy has got a few loaves and some small fish.  The other gospel writers don’t tell of this boy.  But John does; John has a message.  The message is very clear: when we share what we have people get fed in more ways than we can tell.

One way that our culture has dealt with the mystery of this text is by presuming that Jesus does a magic show and multiplies loaves.  And I suppose if that helps you; I’m okay with that if you’re seven years old.  But most of us are adults and it’s time to behave and talk like adults and think like adults.  And Jesus is not a magic show.  The deeper way that this text invites us to think about this is what is being demanded of me in the presence of Jesus.  And we say: that is a mystery and we stop thinking about it.  Or we let Jesus do magic and nothing is asked of us in the presence of Jesus.  But that is not what is in text.  What is in the text is when people see a child share everything the child has their hearts are changed.  And I see people reaching under their cloak, touching the bread that they brought for themselves and secretly pulling it out to share.  Before this, the disciples had asked: does anyone have bread, does anyone have fish, can anybody share?  But once one person said: no, no, I’ve got nothing.  Then everyone became afraid that if they shared what they had, there would not be enough to go around and the bread wouldn’t make it back to feed them.  Sure I’d like to share but this is the real world.

Jesus approaches it differently.  A child who doesn’t have the experience and the fear yet to hide what he has shares it and he is recognized as the one representing God, a child of God, a child of the light, a child gathered doing God’s work.  The message is very clear.  You have tried hoarding, you have tried keeping; it does not work.  What if you did what you are scared of doing: share what you have and trust it is enough that you too will be blessed.  Jesus commands them to distribute the food and not only is the crowd fed but there are twelve baskets full of leftovers.  Once generosity begins it overtakes everyone.  Remember this as you think about the offering you just made.  And as you think through this week about the offering you will make next week.  The people are amazed — of course — hailing Jesus as the prophet who has come.  Some people might say: Pastor, Jesus did perform a magic trick and multiplied loads.  And you are reducing Scripture; you have taken away the mystery.  I would say I think exactly the opposite.  To not examine the nuances of the text and let myself off the hook of anything being asked of me violates the presence of Jesus as we know him.  It is a simpleminded approach; Jesus multiplied loaves; we all got fed, yeah!  But where else in the text do we see that Jesus asks nothing of those who receive?

To ponder group dynamics and Jesus’ ability to change the outlook of an entire crowd; it is no easy thought.  And he manages to move everyone in the crowd from observer to participant.  That’s the miracle and it affected them all and made the gospel real for every one of them.  Some of you who tithe know this and some of you who don’t tithe are scared of this.  I have wondered, maybe we should offer tithing as our third sacrament based on its ability to change a life.

That evening Jesus goes to pray and his disciples launch out in a boat to cross over the sea.  There is a storm; there is wind; there are waves and they are scared.  It’s dark and they are holding on in the rolling in there trying to get where they want to get.  They want to be on solid ground again.  They see Jesus walking and coming near the boat and they are terrified.  I know some of you have been in a storm like that.  We sat together in the hospital waiting room.  We sat together at hospice.  We set together at the funeral home as water ran off our faces.  We went over the swell of the waves that were hitting us and then we went down the other side into the trough and there were moments there where we were pretty sure the bow of the boat would just keep going down into the depths of the water and we would’ve been just fine with it.  We gritted our jaws because we were trying not to throw up.  I know some of you have been in a storm like that because we sat together in the morning after the decision was made to divorce.  We had a hard time standing up because the currents were moving the boat in such a way that balance was no longer an option.  All we could do was hold on tight until our hands hurt.  I know some of you have been in the storm like that because we sat together the day after you were informed that you were no longer be employed.  We looked into the darkness and the fog and we couldn’t see what was in front of us and we couldn’t see what was behind us and run back to it.  I know some of you are acquainted with a storm like this because you’ve watched your brothers, your sisters, your children, your grandchildren walk through days or weeks or months or years trying to find their way; hoping to find some purpose; looking for something that will give them peace and meaning, and there’s nothing for us to do.  There is no respite for feeling helpless.  The powerless of worry has our face in a stronghold.

Here we are — all in the same boat — trying to cross over to the other side of this chaos; seeking safety over there on solid ground as disciples of Jesus.  And to terrified disciples Jesus comes saying: I’m with you; do not be afraid.  We hear that first part: do not be afraid, and we nod out heads and say: OK, no more fear.  And we stop reading.  But the text is interesting after this.  The text says they were willing to receive him into the boat and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.  Are you seeing this?  One of two things has happened, either this is another magic trick.  The disciples are in deep water and they take Jesus into the boat and somehow they are magically transported to the shoreline where they are headed.  Or the disciples are so lost in their terror and their storm that they don’t even realize where they are.  And Jesus getting into the boat and calming their fear help them realize that they were already there.

It was an old movie trope.  We’ve all seen it.  Back in the silent movie days it was pretty popular.  Someone falls into the water and begins thrashing about and screaming: I’m drowning, I’m drowning, someone please come help me.  And someone does come up on the shore and say: stop drowning, stand up!  And they do and the water comes up to about here [mid-chest].  Maybe Jesus was simply standing on the shoreline and they couldn’t notice because they were in their storm.  But the message is pretty clear: you suffered fear, you put down you head, you’ve grabbed on to what seems solid in a chaotic moment and it’s not working.  What if you did what you were scared to do?  What if you lift your head and look around and see how far you’ve come.

These are wonderful stories.  Storms lose their power when you’re on solid ground.  This story about being on the water in the chaos of the sea is like the first story, the story of feeding five-thousand, stories about putting God first.  When we put God first, God’s ways first, resolution seems to come.  We don’t need to be afraid of the storms around us.  This is not the first time we heard this right?  We were fairly acquainted with this, we might not be aware that we were acquainted.  So we tell you how acquainted we are with is in his first public sermon.  Jesus tells us about how to respond to a storm, Sermon on the Mount.  He begins with the Beatitudes.  I think that’s a miss label.  I think it would better be labeled how to respond to a storm.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  What’s the storm?  The storm is the belief that you should have it all together.  Jesus says: no it’s okay you can be poor in spirit.  Jesus says blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.  What’s the storm?  The storm is the belief that you shouldn’t have to mourn.  Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.  What is the storm?   The storm is the message of the world to us is those who lack strength are losers.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.  What’s the storm?  Well the world justifies violence as a sign of power.  Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.  What’s the storm?  The storm is using our poor experiences as an excuse for poor behavior.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.  What’s the storm?  The storm is the attraction of power and pride and making war.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of things against you because of me.  What is the storm?  The storm is thinking it’s your job to please people who have made the decision that they will persecute and accuse and insult as a means of asserting control over you.

The message here is very clear.  We’ve all suffered these things and we’ve all tried all manner of solutions until finally we give up.  We put our head down and grab on to what seems solid in chaotic moments.  It doesn’t work.  When the ways of the world get a hold on you, what if you did what you are scared to do?  In the face of power and pride and war; we work to be peacemakers.  In the face of justified violence, we find ways to make peace.  Did you see the pattern here?  If you’re looking for God’s way, look for what scares you and consider doing that.  And then Jesus goes through a whole litany of things that the world does to control us.  He gives us alternatives.  Do not let anger run your life.  Don’t retaliate instead love people and pray for them when they exclude you.  Don’t make a show out of having your faith.  Do not let fear determine how you act.  Don’t discard people and are no longer convenient to you.  Do not speak about evil as if it’s far from you.  Do not pass judgment on others and if you really want to measure a life, pay attention to the fruit that life bears.

And then Jesus goes on and makes it worse.  He says: so you love those who love you, big deal, everyone does this!  Then he says: do what scares you: love those who hate you.  Are you seeing a pattern?  And it just gets worse, because a little bit later Jesus is going to command us to forgive.  We have confused this, we think this means reconcile, that is not what he is commanding us to do.  Reconciliation is something that happens when two people have a relationship and they both agree: we have a problem; we can resolve it; we make a new commitment to a new relationship and we go on.  That is reconciliation.  Jesus encourages that.  But Jesus commands us to forgive so forgiveness must be something that each of us can handle on our own, seek in our own control.   Well, what do we know?  We know that forgiveness is the putting away of anger and bitterness, desire for revenge and destruction of the other person who hurt us, which — if we think about it for a moment — puts the person who he is hurting us out of power over what we do and say.  To forgive is to say: I’m no longer granting you the power to cause me to expend my energy to react to you.  No matter how you act, no matter what you do, I will not lash out in frustration.  I will not respond in anger.  And I’m not going to spend the week being depressed.  That’s why the notion of turning the other cheek is not a weakness; it is power.  You can hit me, you can hit me again, but you cannot force me to react; that is forgiveness.

Forgiveness leads to utter difference toward the person or persons who hurt us.  Forgiveness helps us to say: the only person I can control is me.  If you practice it you know how powerful it can be in your life because you simply don’t jump anymore.  And if there’s one thing missing in our world, it is the power of forgiveness.  It would be easy to dismiss this after church.  Well it sounds nice, but this is the real world.  But seeing as how we’ve tried all manner of other things that haven’t worked what if we tried this thing that scares us.  There is a lot packed into doing what scares us as disciples imitating Jesus.  Don’t forget the mystery.  Because I know there have been times for all of us when we were really sure that what we have is not enough but we offer it anyway.  And Jesus blesses and breaks and we find ourselves reassured and standing on solid ground.  Or when we have tried everything the world offers because we found that we were angry for about five years.  Then we start cultivating words like peacemaking and humility and meekness into our internal vocabulary and we find ourselves forgiving those who have hurt us.  Suddenly we are at peace and really empowered over how we feel and how we act.  This Christian faith is the mystery of us being met in our fear by Jesus.  Doing what scares us and he finds us and he blesses us reassures us and we are fed.

Can I tell you why I stayed in the church my whole life?  You know that I’m a scientist, right?  You know that all the developments in evolution and thought they would make it easy to walk away.  You might say: well you’re the pastor; well I can find a new job.  And you might say it is warm fellowship of the church.  That’s nice.  It’s the encouragement you get in Christian living from great people, well that is nice too.   The profoundness of Scripture that find you is sermon preparation is pretty cool too.  I stayed in the church because this is where I meet Jesus.  Not every day but enough to keep me fed.  I have found that following Jesus, putting God first means facing what scares me.  And there is no better place to bring what scares me than to church.  Little patterns in my behavior that I’ve lived with my whole life have suddenly needed my attention.  Little things that I’ve made peace with suddenly I have to speak up about.  I found that God provides exactly what we need, exactly when we need it and not one second sooner.  Sometimes it is bread.  Sometimes it is a risk.  Sometimes it is a storm that is calmed.  Sometimes it’s an unseen way to go forward, but it is always, it is always always a mystery in the presence of Jesus.  This is where my words come to an end because what I’m pointing at is too deep for words.  So I am going to let communion do the talking now.