Sunday, August 24, 2014

Desperate times/ desperate measures

Exodus 1:8-2:10/  Romans 12: 1-8
Jacob is desperate.  His family is starving in their home country and there seems to be no end in sight to the poverty that surrounds them.  What crops they can grow, no one is buying, and the rain won’t seem to come. The crops, the livestock, everything they need to live is wasting away right in front of their eyes.  The only way to survive is to ask for help.  So, they travel to a nearby country which has plenty of resources to share.  They are welcomed at first because a family member helped pave their way and because they are willing to do the work the people in the new country don’t seem to want to do.  They work hard in this new place, helping their new countrymen and women keep food on the table, and clothes on their backs, they cook and clean, work in the fields and garment shops, take out the garbage, build homes and help the economy of the new country grow.  They are an asset in this new place and life seems like it will all work out. 
As generations pass, Jacob’s family grows larger and larger but their ally in the government is long gone and the countrymen and women begin to fear Jacob’s family.  What if they are secretly terrorists, plotting with their enemies, eager to fight against them from the inside if there is a war?  What if there is another famine and there isn’t enough resources for everyone? We don’t have enough doctors and midwives as it is- how are we supposed to keep up with all their children?  Instead of welcoming them as equal citizens and teaching them to care and provide for themselves in this new place- they are treated as less than human and with fear and disdain.
The country is torn- they like that Jacob’s ancestors work so hard and do all the jobs no-one else wants to do.  They like what they contribute to society but yet at the same time they are afraid.  They want them to stay but only on their conditions and only if they can oppress them and beat them down so that they know their place.  They don’t want them to get any grand ideas that they might have a say in how this country is run, how they are treated or that they may be able to change things. So the new country decides to put laws in place that oppress Jacob’s family.  Families are separated because husbands are forced to work in other cities away from their wives and children.  They are humiliated, grossly underpaid for their backbreaking work, beaten by their bosses while the authorities look the other way or join in, some are even killed. 
Trials, tribulations and oppression only make Jacob’s family stronger. But new threats emerge.  No longer do they only have to fear the abuse and neglect of the adults, but now they fear for their children too.  The government has given its citizens free reign to murder their children without any reason- other than their race.  Even the ones who are healthy and will work hard in this new land are killed – thrown into the river to drown. 
Mothers pray desperately to have daughters- hopeful that they will be spared.  One mother’s prayer isn’t answered though and she gives birth to a son.  She sees him and loves him but knows his future is dim.  She cherishes every moment she has with him until she can no longer hide him.  The gangs will be after him soon.  They will ransack their home looking for the illegal and now vocal baby.  She is desperate and while she knows she can’t bear to watch her son die, she hopes and prays that someone in another country or land will find him, and love him as much as she does.  So, she places him in a basket and teary eyed- sends him into an unknown fate.  Praying earnestly for a future that she knows he can’t get there. 
Maybe it seems like I have just re-told our Old Testament lesson through a more generic/ modern lens and I have; but this is a story that happens over and over around the world every day.  People from one country flee to another because of religious persecution, poverty and violence. People flee not only wars of international significance but drug and gang wars that spread well beyond their local community.  In some places they are fleeing groups of citizens who claim religious superiority and vow to kills those who don’t believe the same way- leave, convert or die is the mantra.
Others seek an escape from poverty resulting from unequal international trade.  Maybe the only job someone can find in their home land is working long days for little to no pay making cheap clothing in sweatshops, or they lost the family farm which provided for them for generations because now it is cheaper to buy corn from another country than to grow it themselves.    Some emigrate as refugees, in need of asylum but others, escape secretly in the dark of night seeking safety, believing that anywhere is better than their current situation.  Many are willing to risk their own lives for safety and the opportunity for a better life.   
You can hear the modern day parallels of the global immigrant in our story of the beginning of Moses’ life.  His ancestors- the Israelites, decedents of Jacob, sought refuge in Egypt during a time of famine and poverty.  They too did the work that Egyptians didn’t want to do.  Contributing to society but hated because of their race and their religion. Today’s immigrants around the world continue to do the jobs the people in their host country don’t want-the hot, dirty, backbreaking and humiliating jobs. They are often underpaid and mistreated because their bosses know they don’t have a voice to speak.  While immigrants only make up a small percentage of the population in any country- 13% here in the US- many still fear them.  Instead of embracing their culture and the positive things they can add to society they are feared, labeled, oppressed and subjected to years of fear and uncertainty. 
The story of Moses has a happy ending.  Moses’ mother’s prayers are answered.  He is found by a woman who goes against her own father and the rule of the land to willingly take him in, adopt him into her family and raise him as her son.  It could have ended differently. Pharaoh’s daughter could have been just as cold hearted as her father and simply turned the basket over allowing the infant Moses to drown. 
Recently it has been all over the news about unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in our country… Mothers desperate to be reunited with their children or desperate to help their children escape the known violence and poverty in their home countries…I can only imagine the torment, pain and pure desperation these families feel when they place the fate of their children in the hands of strangers. 
Who will they find when they reach our shores?  Will they find people willing to welcome them in and love them as their own or, people who simply want to turn their baskets over as they are forced to return to the places where they are escaping poverty, persecution and certain death?
I fully acknowledge that the problems we face in this world are multilayered and difficult.  It is often overwhelming to even contemplate how this world could or should be different.  Maybe, you like me, hear these stories and think it is too big of a problem for me to make a difference but we are called by God to make this world a better place, to help usher in God’s Kingdom in this world. Maybe you are called to be a missionary- to help make other countries safer and help reduce the poverty and violence they experience.  Or are you called to become a foster parent to children in this community taking in a child who needs a warm, loving and stable home?  Maybe you are called to offer respite or emergency housing to foster children a few days a month. Maybe you are called to speak on behalf of a child- helping the courts decide what is best- through the Guardian ad’litem program.  Or are you called to write your congressperson to influence the decisions our government makes?  Maybe you are called to speak for those who don’t have a voice in our system to advocate for humane treatment of all people, no matter their race or nationality.  Me are all called to pay those who work for us a living wage and to treat all those we encounter not as “others” but as God’s children, created in God’s image, just like you. 
Our scripture from Romans today reminds us to not be conformed to the patterns of this world.  The status quo is not how it should be.  It may be uncomfortable or unpopular to do what is right but it is our sacrifice to listen and follow God’s will- whatever that may mean to you.  There is no “us” and “them” there are no people who are “better” and some who are “less”.  We are all part of the body of Christ, equally valued, equally useful, even though we act and look differently.  And when one part of the body of Christ cries out in pain- we all are affected.   How can we seek to mend the broken heart of Christ, our broken heart? Through love, mercy and compassion.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


John 8: 2-11/ Psalm 103: 1-14

Forgiveness.  That is probably the hardest thing we are called to do as Christians.  However it is one of the most important parts of our faith journey.  Forgiveness is what allows us to be a full member of the family of God and what allows us to experience the healing power of Jesus and share in the wholeness we desire most, as followers of Christ.
Christians want, more than anything to be in a full, unencumbered, unadulterated and all-encompassing relationship with Christ.  That is what makes the idea of heaven so wonderful- not that there are streets of gold and mansions or the weather is always perfect and everyone is kind but that we can finally see Jesus and be uninhibited in our relationship with him.  If all we want is a nice house we can get that here- plenty of people live in big houses.  If all we want is good weather- move to the tropics.  No- it is the relationship with Christ which we need most.
We struggle to experience that relationship fully in this life because of sin; our own and the sin of others.  People do us wrong, we feel betrayed and our feelings are hurt because we feel we are being taken advantage of.  People make mistakes, make poor choices and the people we love are hurt, families are divided, hearts are broken, and the pain is all too real. 
Then there are the pains we cause.  It isn’t just that we have to put up with the faults of others, we sin too.  We cause pain, we do things to hurt others and ourselves.  We make mistakes- sometimes on purpose, sometimes not but either way we let people down.  We let ourselves down.  We know we can do better but we fail.  Not only do we lose trust in others but we lose trust in ourselves.  Not only do others struggle to live up to our expectations but we fail to live up to our own.
Even the Apostle Paul famously says “I do what I do not want to do.”  Even he, struggled to live up to the standard he had set for himself.
Then there are the parts of life that cause us pain.  We get angry at God because someone gets sick, we age and our bodies won’t do what we want them to do, a natural disaster destroys our homes or the company we work for goes out of business.  The pain is real; the realities of the world and the choices people make have consequences.  We try to forgive and forget but that is a whole lot easier said than done.    
On Facebook this week, I asked why forgiveness is so hard and if anyone had been truly successful.  While a few had some good strategies for working on this most did not feel they were very good at forgiving themselves or others. 
I was able to relate with one friend of mine who talked about how sometimes she thinks she has been able to let something go- she thinks she has forgiven someone or some wrong in her life but when a similar situation arises that requires her to trust and act freely- the feelings of pain quickly surface all over again. Maybe we bury the feelings without really dealing with them. We think- out of sight, out of mind, which may work- until we are reminded of it again and it all comes flooding back into our minds. 
Or sometimes we think it is just easier to not forgive.  We believe that remembering an old pain and betrayal somehow protects us from being hurt again. Sometimes we think that somehow the person that hurt us is affected by our negative feelings when in all actuality the only person we are hurting is ourselves.  The anger eats at us from the inside and we are never really able to heal as long as we hold on to these pains.
It is a lot like picking at a scab.  I know that is kind of a gross analogy but it is something we have all experienced.  We ask God to heal us, help us forgive others and forgive us when we have wronged and so the scab begins to form. 
But then we think about it, we dwell on it, we wonder what if, we look at the friends we have lost, the damage to our bank accounts, we worry about what future damage will be done and how long we will have to live with the consequences and as we do that we are picking, picking, picking at the emotional scabs and the wound is re-opened and the healing that Christ offers struggles to take root because we won’t leave it alone. 
Jesus calls us to let it go- and let it heal, and as most parents do, God tells us, her children, to stop picking at it.  There is work involved in that.  It takes a lot of self-discipline and effort to acknowledge and address the source of the pain and if necessary, leave the person or situation that is causing the injury. 
This is the only way to work on rebuilding your life and giving new relationships a fresh start.  This begins with prayer, being honest with ourselves and with God about our role in the choices we make, and being willing to truly give it over to God so that healing and wholeness can result.  Not giving it to God for a moment and then taking it back but leaving it at the foot of the cross and walking away.
The good news is that forgiveness is readily available to us and God is ready and willing to help us on our journey to forgive others.  Our Psalm today reminds us that God is able to remove our sins from us- as far as the east is from the west, that God forgives your iniquities and redeems your life from the pit.  We don’t have to wallow in self-pity or shrink away in the corner afraid or ashamed. God gives us strength and courage and we are reassured that God understands our humanity and deals with us not as we deserve but with love and mercy.  God loves us and is willing to have patience with us and compassion for us.
Our gospel lesson is an example of the beauty of God’s love and willingness to forgive.  The woman in our story, has obviously committed a sin.  She and her partner have caused harm to their families and the community where they live.  There will be consequences for the choices they have made but the Scribes and the Pharisees want to be the ones to dole out this punishment so they bring her to the Temple to be judged and sentenced.  While “this woman” may have just seemed like another sinner to the Jewish leaders, Jesus sees her as much more than that.  The accusers may have never even known her name, but Jesus sees her, sees her heart and has compassion for her.   
As Jesus thinks and writes, the tension grows, the men insist that Jesus pass judgment and he does.  Barclay says that one of the things people suspect Jesus may have been writing in the sand are the sins of each of the men accusing the woman that day.  Whether or not that is true, Jesus does call them to self-reflect- take the log out of their own eyes before attempting remove the speck from this woman’s eye.  As they do, they realize they are just like her.  They have all sinned, they have all had the desires that she had, whether they acted on them or not, they have all had challenges and faults that deserved judgment.  In their quest to insist that Jesus pass judgment on her, they themselves are judged. 
Wrapped up in this one story, Jesus expresses many of the little tidbits of direction we are given throughout the New Testament.  We are told to do unto others as we would have them do to us.  If we wish for others to show us mercy when we mess up, we have to be willing to show others mercy when they mess up.  We pray each week- forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  We pray for God to pardon, forget and wipe our slate clean and we are to do the same.  We pray that God will have a short term memory when it comes to our short comings and long term memory when it comes to the things we do well.  We want God to have mercy on us and we see, believe and trust that the love and compassion God has for us is true and unwavering but this does not come without responsibility.  As with the woman caught in adultery, she wasn’t just simply forgiven.  The forgiveness Jesus extends to her is only the beginning.  He instructs her to go and do not sin again. 
Use the opportunity God gives you for a fresh start.  Make amends where necessary but begin again, in a new life with Christ.  Allow God to heal your wounds, accept the wholeness we find in Christ and live accordingly. 
God knows we aren’t perfect and that although we try we will most likely mess up again but with repentance God will be there with open arms and the opportunity for continued healing.  Extend that same grace which you receive from Christ to yourself and to others.  Ask Christ to help you forgive and heal your broken relationships, broken hearts and broken trust so that nothing can stand in the way of living a full, loving and healed life.   Amen
Go into the world, knowing you are loved and forgiven and sharing that same love you receive from Christ with all you encounter.  It will be worth the risk to experience full healing.

Beginnings by Andy Langford and Mark Ralls is the jumping off point and provides some of the illustrations used.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Lost and Loved

Luke 15: 11-24/ Jeremiah 31: 1-9

Being lost and found is a pretty common theme throughout the bible.  As children of God, we repeatedly get lost, move away from God and then God seeks us out and leads us back to a relationship with God. 
This week, our biblical characters don’t even know they are lost at first.  Jeremiah has spent his career as a prophet calling the Israelite people back to God.  They are wandering through life, and while they know things are bad they think that’s just life.  They don’t realize that many of their challenges are a result of their rejection of God.  God has been using Jeremiah for years to help them find their way out and remember the blessing of following God and being in a right relationship with God.  The prodigal son also doesn’t realize he’s lost at first.  He’s been given his inheritance early, he is living it up while he is still young and nobody is going to tell him what to do, or how to spend his money or live his life!  He has turned his back on the source of his livelihood and he is living in blissful ignorance. 
When he asked for his inheritance early it was a slap in the face to his father.  One of my clergy mentors, Dr. Stowe once explained it this way.  In those times, asking for inheritance early wasn’t like someone today getting an advance to buy a house or pay off bills.  He was, in essence, telling his father- “I wish you were dead!” This wasn’t some heat of the moment rebellious teenager’s empty threat meant to hurt his father’s feelings.  This request said- you are dead to me and I don’t need or want you in my life.  Imagine how hurt and betrayed the father felt.  He had done everything in his power to provide a good life for his children with everything the son could have ever wanted; extravagant food, nice clothes, a home, servants, security and a wealth which could sustain him and his family.  He was building an inheritance that could provide for them for generations not just so he could squander it away on temporary pleasures and short sited goals. 
Maybe you struggle to relate to these characters.  Maybe you were always the good child who did everything your parent said.  Maybe you never said a cross word or rebelled and sought independence.  Maybe you have never felt betrayed the way this father does.  Maybe your teenager never said those dreadful words- I hate you! Maybe they never ran away from home, stole from you or lied to you.  You may not know that that feels like but God does. 
God has given us all we need to live a happy, healthy life with gifts, grace and the opportunity for a relationship with Jesus Christ.  But, every time we go against what we know is right.  Every time we break a promise to God and each other, every time we purposefully step away from the life God has given us- God feels betrayed.  God weeps every time we decide we are in control and we don’t need God.  Every time we use the gifts God has given us to hurt ourselves and others God’s heart breaks. 
We often, like this son, may not even know what we are doing.  We are seeking after what the world says is so wonderful.    It is the playmate that tells us to steal the candy, they will never miss it, or the co-worker who convinces you to fudge the numbers on our time-sheet and check out early so you can get a head start on the weekend- no one’s going to know! Or the credit card company who so diligently temps us to buy that thing we want but don’t really need- you can pay for it later- it is no big deal- who cares if it will take you years to pay it off!  It is the seduction that leads you to cheat on your spouse or the friend that convinces you to stay at the party a little longer- one more drink won’t hurt. 
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt but it is hard to convince someone of the dangers when they are having so much fun and it seems there are no consequences.  We are traveling down the road, driving around and around in circles and we don’t even know we are lost.  That is how the prodigal son felt, until the money ran out at least.  It was only after hitting rock bottom that he realized he was lost.  When the consequences kick in- that’s when we finally realize we are lost- you get arrested, lose your driver’s license, your job, your spouse, or file for bankruptcy because we can’t pay the credit card bills. It is then that we feel convicted that we have lost our way, maybe we can’t do it on our own after all.  But where do we go from here- all of our bridges have been burned, haven’t they? 
The son, repentant of his mistakes decides to go home; willing to do anything to make it up to his father, unsure if he will even take him back, but he has nowhere else to turn.  To his surprise, the father welcomes him back with open arms.  Although the father was heartbroken by his son’s choices, he never once stopped loving him, and even watched and waited for his return daily and not just waiting but willing to run to him, embrace him and return him to full family status. 
The father never stopped loving his son.  Never stopped watching, waiting and hoping for his son to come home.  It was a choice the son had to make on his own but never the less; the father was more than willing to welcome him back to the family.  God loves us the same way.  Even when we stray, even when we have done things that cause God’s heart to break or feel betrayed- we are still loved.  Even when it seems all our bridges have been burned, God is waiting with open arms to welcome us home. 
The authors of “Beginnings” the bible study used as a jumping off point for this message points out that we don’t know what happened next.  Jesus doesn’t tell us if the son stayed and became a dedicated and loyal member of the family or if once his stomach was full and his needs met he returned to his old habits and rebellious ways.  We don’t know the rest of the story and maybe there is a reason for that.  It doesn’t really matter.  Jesus loves us no more and no less.  Jesus wants us to know that no matter what we do; we are always loved and always have a place in his family if we want it.  God also calls us to love others in the same way.  Even when we feel hurt or betrayed we are not to remove our love and compassion, even if we don’t feel like they deserve it or because we doubt their change of heart is sincere.  We are called to love with the same unconditional love God gives us.  
We love because God loves us and because God’s love does not come with conditions, ulterior motives or even a way for us to earn it or pay it back.  God loves because God is love and we are to do the same- rich or poor, strung out or sober, unemployed or working over- time, Christian or not.  Our only job is to love them the same way Jesus loves us- warts and all.

Jeremiah 31:3 says:  I have loved you with a love that lasts forever- how amazing is that!  Holy Communion reminds us of this deep and abiding love.  We are reminded that Jesus loves us so much that he was willing to die so that all eternity could be saved.  This is the symbol of God’s never ending love for us.  Come to the table, remember God’s love, and then go into the world sharing that same love with others.