Friday, June 24, 2016

Someone to Lean on

James 1:12-18, 1 Peter 5:7-11, Psalm 23, Half Truths by Adam Hamilton

God won’t give you more than you can handle
Have you ever had one of those days, weeks, years or maybe even decade’s where Murphy’s law seems to be the rule of law?  Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.  Nothing seems to be going as planned. Sickness, job loss, divorce, bankruptcy, natural disaster, cancer, suicide, mass shootings, or something that seems to rock your world happens over and over again.  It seems like you just can’t catch a break, one thing after another and you find yourself struggling to keep your head above water. 

Most people have experienced something like this on some level or another.  Maybe not to this extreme but hardships and difficult times are part of living.  If you have ever found yourself thinking this, you have probably had someone with kind intentions and a sympathetic voice say something to the effect of “Don’t worry honey, things will get better.  God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Maybe you have even whispered these words to yourself as a way to gain courage at a particularly difficult moment.  And, sometimes this works.  Some people do find true comfort in the belief that God knows our limits and will intervene somehow before it gets too difficult. 

But for others; when they hear these words, instead of gaining comfort, it makes them want to haul off and smack someone!  They feel like they have been given more than they can handle!  They just can’t do it any more, they see no light at the end of the tunnel and in fact the tunnel just seems to take them deeper into the abyss instead of out to safety. 

The reason this can get such a harsh response is because it assumes that God is in fact the one placing these burdens on our lives.  Somehow God is using these situations to test our faith, our resolve and our willingness to rely on God.  This is not an idea that draws us closer to God but instead is something that can push us away from faith.  It causes us to ask the question- what kind of God would do that? Maybe that is the question you find yourself asking as the events of this past week have unfolded. And as we remember the events at Emmanuel Church from one year ago where 9 people were killed during bible study.

What kind of God would send a deranged extremist into a place of joy to murder 49 random people? What kind of God would allow an alligator to snatch a child while playing in the water at Disney World the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth”?  What kind of God would cause depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and other mental illnesses?  What kind of God would cause cancer? 

The problem with the phrase: God won’t give you more than you can handle is that it isn’t God who does this at all.  The scripture which we read from James today tells us; God does not test us.  God is not tested, nor does God test.  It is life that tries, tempts and it is our own sin that often puts us in difficult positions and makes us believe we should be able to do it on our own.  It is part of what it means to live in a broken world.  It is part of what it means to live in community with broken people, fear, uncertainty and stress.    

In Bible Study Tuesday night we talked about how sin has proliferated the world we live in.  We discussed how our desire to be the best, buy the cheapest food or clothing and win no matter the cost, leads to dire, evil and usually unintended consequences. 

It is a side effect of what it means to live in a world where more emphasis is placed on individuality and self-sufficiency than community and interdependence between individuals and even between cultures and nations. 

Even this line of thinking can lead us down a spiral of despair.  O poor pitiful me.  Look how hard my life is.  Look at everything that has gone wrong and there’s nothing that can be done about it! 
If you can’t beat ‘em, Join ’em! Right?

But the word of God is never intended to tear us down and leave us there.  There is always hope when our focus is on Christ.  We are reminded in scripture not only in 1Peter but also in 1 Corinthians, Psalms and even in the life and presence of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us that we are not called to face this world alone or without hope. 

The most beloved Psalm, Psalm 23 brings us comfort by reminding us that even when we face difficulty, we are not alone, God is with us, walking through the valley of darkness with us, facing the trials of life with us.  Not causing them or preventing them but walking with us through them and being our light in those dark moments. 

The letter of 1 Peter as well as Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians 10 both tell us that nothing happens in this world in isolation.  There is never a trail, a temptation or a sin that is new, that someone else hasn’t faced and overcome.  We are to look to them for guidance, learn from others mistakes and successes, reach out and ask for help.  There is no shame asking for help, for a listening ear, for support and comfort as you face the trials of life.  We all need a help from time to time in life and we aren’t called to suffer through it alone.

Although we live in a world that says to buck up, deal with it and just get over it- God tells us to lean on one another, support one another and love one another.  It is why groups like AA have proved to be so effective- the participants know they can’t do it on their own.  They need sponsors and peers who have been through it before and have the tools to help someone else navigate the world of sobriety.  It is why cancer support groups, smoking cessation groups and weight loss groups are more successful than trying to do it on your own.  We need each other. 

It is why we have church.  Sure people can go for a hike and experience God but a tree or a mountain vista won’t help when you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to drive you to your chemotherapy appointment.  We need to be reminded that we have a God who loves us, is there for us, watches over and protects us.  A God, Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that he chose to live among us- to experience the heartbreak, physical and mental illnesses that life brings.  We have a God who loves us enough to walk beside us, give us strength and encouragement when life gets too hard, and a God who sends people to walk with us and be there for us when the weight of the world gets too heavy to bear. 

God sends these people to us, but God also sends us to be these people.  Last week after the shooting in Orlando, the outpouring of love and support was amazing.  We heard stories of people who helped pull the injured to safety and keep them comfortable until help arrived.  We heard stories of people pouring out to donate blood for the victims still being treated at local hospitals.  Stories of the Employees at Chick-fi-A who came in on their Sunday off to donate food to those at the blood banks.  Churches near the club opened their doors all hours of the night for prayer, worship and counseling. Letting people know that it didn’t matter who they were, they were loved by God and were not alone in their suffering. 

This is one of the reasons you give to the church- so that the church can be there for those in need- to buy groceries or pay a power bill, to visit in the hospital, to help someone who lost their home to relocate. To meet not only your spiritual needs but the spiritual and physical needs of those in the community too.

As we encounter people who are facing difficulty, the response God is calling us to give is not: I am praying for you- I know God won’t give you more than you can handle- but instead- I am praying for you and what can I do to help.  It maybe something as simple as filling up a gas tank, picking up a gallon of milk or washing a load of laundry or it could be a hug and a listening ear.  We don’t have to try to offer solutions and fix someone’s problems.  Some times what a person needs is just someone to be present, to hold their hand and cry with them. 

This is the message of Jesus and the true message of scripture.  You are not alone.  God is with you, and we are called to be there for each other. To be the physical presence of the peace of Christ in a troubled world.  As we face this world and all its ups and downs together.  We are not alone and you don’t have to handle it on your own.   God give us the strength to face this day, the courage to ask for help when we need it and the willingness of offer true hope to others in their times of weakness.  Amen

Monday, June 13, 2016

work and pray

Luke 10:25-37 and 2 Thes. 3:6-12 and Adam Hamilton’s “Half Truths”

Although Ben Franklin made the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” popular in the US it is a phrase that has existed since at least early Greece, there are many who believe this is actually a reference to scripture.  According to Adam Hamilton’s book, some think this is one of the 10 commandments, but it’s not.  It is nowhere in scripture.  So why do we treat it like holy writ? 

Often times it is out of a sense of self preservation and practical advice.  We know nothing in this world happens for free.  And we also know that the harder you work, usually the better off you are.  It also stems from what I believe is a desire to help people be independent, stand on their own two feet and be able to meet their own needs instead of depending on others. 

And, to some extent this attitude is scriptural.  We read things like this in Proverbs.  Prov. 10:4 says “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.” Then there is the scripture we read from 2 Thessalonians.  Paul is concerned that there are people in the Christian community who are so resigned to the anticipation that Jesus will come again sooner rather than later that they have quit their jobs, stopped providing for their families and became fully dependent on the Christian community to house and feed them.

All they want to do is pray and wait- but even people who pray and wait still get hungry. 

So, Paul tells them- if you don’t work- you don’t eat.  Plain and simple.  Don’t be lazy and expect everyone to take care of you.  And there is truth in that.  We often put so much stock in the prayer “Ask and ye shall receive” that we forget to participate in the process of God’s answer to the prayer.  We are called to work and pray:  not just one or the other.

One day while having lunch with a single friend of mine, she state that she had prayed God would send a tall, handsome Asian man to her doorstep to sweep her off her feet.  Well, that is a nearly impossible request for a woman in rural North Carolina.  And she laughingly blamed God’s failure to answer her prayer for why she was still single.  But she never made any effort towards finding a husband either.  It was easier to blame God than put herself out there and be vulnerable. 

The same goes for a person who prays to God for a job but never finishes their resume, doesn’t fill out any applications or shows up late and ill prepared for the job interview.  God gives us opportunity but sometimes we have to meet God ½ way.  We still need to do our part.  Yes, pray for opportunity and ability but also do what needs to be done. 

This is all well and good for most people, but maybe you have also heard the phrase “you can’t pull yourself up by the boot straps if you don’t have any boots.”  There are times, people and situations in which we can’t simply help ourselves.  There are so many stories in scripture which reflect this understanding too. 

Many of us are familiar with the woman whom Jesus saves from being stoned to death for adultery.  There was nothing she could say or do that would have saved her life that day.  Jesus was her only hope.  All the varieties of the stories of how Jesus fed the multitudes reflect this as well.  There was no food, there was nowhere to purchase food, all they could do is take what they had and give thanks to God for it.  

Then we have the story of the Good Samaritan which we have read this morning.  This man who has been robbed, cannot help himself.  He is dependent on the compassion of strangers to meet his needs, care for him and get him on the road to recovery. 

There are people in our own community who are in a similar situation.   Consider the young mom of 2 small children.  She has a good, steady job that she has held for several years now but still she is struggling to get on her feet.  She has made some poor financial decisions in her past, and as we all know it is much easier to get into debt than it is to get out of debt.  Several years later she is still trying to dig her way out of debt.  What compounds this is that she spends most her income on rent.  The only places she can find to rent are too expensive or not safe for her children.  She struggles to make ends meet much less get ahead and instead of investing in her own future-she is padding the pockets of her landlord.    

Or, think of the homeless Vet suffering from PTSD, who constantly feels like the walls are closing in and yet the outside world isn’t a safe place to be either.  After the trauma of combat and residual pain of battlefield emergency surgery he has become addicted to pain pills.  He doesn’t have the strength, ability or resources to rebuild his life on his own. 

In these situations, it is often easy to fall into the trap of playing the blame game.  If the woman caught in adultery hadn’t been promiscuous, she wouldn’t be in this situation.  The people Jesus fed should have thought ahead and packed a picnic.  If he had managed his money better, if she had taken advantage of the VA hospital when she first got home from war, if she had learned where babies came from she might have the resources to take care of herself. 

We come up with all kinds of reasons not to help someone, blaming the victim is only one of them. 

This same game could have been played with the man in our scripture lesson today too.  Maybe that is what the priest and the Levite were thinking as they passed by:  He got what he deserved- who would travel down this dangerous road by themselves?  He must have done something wrong to bring on the wrath of these robbers.  He should have had a weapon for protection or maybe he shouldn’t have tried to resist. 

But in this story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan never asked whether or not the victim deserved to be helped.  He never asked why the man was robbed or what he did to deserve to be beaten up and left for dead. He didn’t judge if the person was good or bad.   What he did was see a person in need, realize he had the resources to help and show mercy and compassion. 

The Samaritan’s efforts in effect gave the man boots with bootstraps.  He helped him out of the proverbial ditch and put him back on the road.  Sometimes we need to help a person meet our immediate needs so we can have the strength, ability and opportunity to get on our feet.

We are reminded throughout scripture that God is a God of mercy and compassion.  A God who loves those who are inevitably unable to help themselves.  There is a special place in God’s heart for the poor, the lost, the lonely, the orphaned, the widow and all those who are oppressed by political, social and economic systems.  Systems designed not to help people up but to keep people down and dependent on others.  Often people need help to navigate the system to find their way out of difficult situations; whether that be Circles of Hope, Habitat for Humanity, a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, clothing closet or a drug rehab clinic. 

We are called by God to be agents of that help.  Not to walk by on the other side, not to ignore someone in need because of inconvenience or fear but, to offer a helping hand, to show mercy and compassion without judgement, without condemnation and without prejudice.  We are called to share our resources, connections, and skills to help give people the boot straps as well as the tools they need to survive on their own.

We do this because we know what it is like to be the man beaten on the side of the road.  We know what it is like to be starving for food, for meaning and for hope.  We know what it is like to be so far down that the only way out is Christ.  Jesus comes to us when we are at our lowest.  Jesus comes to us when we should have known better.  Jesus comes to us, even when we have made mistakes. 

Jesus comes to us when we cannot help ourselves.  Jesus doesn’t ask if we deserve his love.  Jesus doesn’t ask if we promise never to mess up again.  Jesus doesn’t say- I’ll only help you this once, next time you’re on your own.  The only thing Jesus asks is will you let me in, will you let me help, will you take my hand and let me carry you, heal your wounds and ease your pain. 

We don’t deserve the mercy, compassion and love of God.  And there is no guarantee that we won’t need his help again.  In fact, the opposite is true.  We will be constantly dependent on the love and mercy of Christ.  We will be constantly in need of his helping hand.  Our only response is to say yes please, help me please, save me please and Thank you Jesus for loving me at my worst and making me a better person. 

All that Jesus asks is that we pay it forward, be his hands, his feet and his voice.  To show compassion and mercy to those we find in need- even when they don’t deserve it, even when they mess up and need us again. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

It's all God's will- Truth or Fiction?

1 Kings 17:1-24 and "Half Truths" by Adam Hamilton

 How many of you have ever heard, or said, the phrase, “Everything Happens for a Reason” or it’s close kin; It was all part of God’s plan, it was just meant to be or It is God’s will? 
I am sure I have said it.  Most of the time we hear it said in very serious and tragic situations like the death of a child, when a person is diagnosed with a dreaded illness or when natural disasters occur.  I have also heard it in more lighthearted circumstances when someone gets a great parking spot at Wal-Mart or their team wins the national title.  But is this saying entirely true? 

Most people during the time of Elijah in our story today would say that this is 100% true.  There was a belief that every act of nature, battle, illness, birth and death were credited or blamed on a god.  In Elijah’s time that didn’t necessarily mean our big “G” God.  Each nation had their own god to credit or blame. 
Drought, famine, flood and earthquake alike were all blamed on whatever god being angry because their people were not doing what they are supposed to do.  They aren’t worshiping correctly or not following that god’s laws.  We see this in our scripture from 1st kings.  Ahab, the king of the Northern Territory of Israel has married Jezebel and begun to worship her god, Baal.  Ahab has turned his back on his faith, the faith of his ancestors, and the one true God for the false god Baal, and deserves to be punished.  Elijah tells him that his punishment will be a severe drought throughout the nation of Israel.

Even at this early point in the story, we have a problem.  The punishment of Ahab, affects not just Ahab, but the rest of the nation, everyone who lives within the territory will suffer the consequences of Ahab’s rejection of YHWH. 
God provides for God’s servant Elijah with water from the brook and food from the birds, which is great, but it isn’t long before we see that other people are suffering too.  The widow sent to feed Elijah is down to her last biscuit.  She and her son are starving to death and we presume they aren’t the only ones.  No rain, means no harvest and means people were starving.

Believing that “Everything is part of God’s plan” would then mean that God intended for people to starve to death just so Ahab could be punished and God could show God’s power through drought and miracles.    
This question arises again in modern times.  Was Auschwitz and the Nazi regime part of God’s plan? A punishment for some evil with only a few being saved?  Is cancer part of God’s plan- just so some can receive successful treatment while others don’t?  And if it is God’s plan should we fight back or seek treatment if the fate of the nation or person is already decided?

These are not easy questions to answer.  Let’s look at the perception of God from the exact opposite side.  While some think that God is manipulating daily events others think that God has taken a hands off approach.  They believe, God created the world, placed humanity in charge and walked away.  This means that everything that happens on earth, good or bad is due to the decisions of humanity. 
Everything is cause and effect and natural consequences. The presence of evil and our response to it.  This point of view also states that natural disasters are not an act of God but how God put our planet together- weather patterns are weather patterns; earthquakes happen and volcanos erupt.  It is not planned or timed, nor is it aimed at one group or another as some have claimed.  This point of view would deny any unexplainable miracles, or divine intervention. 

So, which is it?  Is God manipulating each and every detail of our life, or is God entirely hands off after creation?

The real truth probably lies somewhere in between.  Things like weather and natural disasters are a part of the world we live in.  Sometimes it rains, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it rains too much. 
Somethings that happen to us and our loved ones are the result of natural consequences of our God given gift of Free Will.  A drunk driver wrecks his car.  It is the result of a poor decision made by the drunk driver to get behind the wheel.  Someone loses their job because the CEO embezzled money and had to file bankruptcy.  Bad things happen to good people, innocent people, people who don’t deserve it.  But God isn’t causing these bad things to happen. 

But at the same time, there do seem to be moments of divine intervention that cannot be explained.  Going back to our scripture in 1st Kings.  The woman and her son have taken Elijah in, given him all they had when they themselves had nothing.  They opened their home to a stranger, a scary proposition for any person.  She didn’t deserve to have her son die.  He was her lifeline, the only reason she had a place to live; or any way to have an income and he was the only person to take care of her in old age.  At first, she accuses Elijah of bringing this on, blamed it on YHWH as punishment for some unnamed sin.  And while God didn’t cause the boy to die; God did hear Elijah’s prayer, God did intervene in the life of this boy and his mother.  God did miraculously provide food for them while Elijah was there and God did save her son’s life.
This continues into our gospel stories about Jesus.  Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was sick or demon possessed but he did heal many.  God does meet us at our lowest, most desperate times in our life and use these difficulties, these tragedies to show us the power of God and bring us closer to God if we let it. 

It happens in subtler ways too.  One of the retired pastors I know tells of a story when he was a young pastor.  He was driving from the church into town.  About ½ way down the road he gets this gut feeling that he needed to visit a parishioner who lived 20 minutes in the opposite direction.  When he arrived, the person expressed how they had been praying for someone to visit and pray with them.  This pastor didn’t have to turn around and drive 30 minutes out of his way but he did and they were both blessed by it.  Would this person have been ok if he hadn’t visited her that day, probably, but because he listened to that nudge from God, God’s peace and presence was shared with that person in her struggles.
The other night, while watching a re-run of the TV show “The Office”, Pam and Jim are in marriage counseling.  The counselor suggests they use each problem and moment of conflict as an opportunity to speak the truth, show gratitude, and appreciation for the efforts of the other. 

God often uses difficult situations as an opportunity to make the word and works of God known.  Let’s take the family in our neighborhood who lost their home in a house fire as an example.  We got a thank you note from them last week thanking the church for everything you all had done for them.  She expressed in her note that they were doing well and that her husband is now cancer free.  God didn’t cause the house fire but instead used it as an opportunity for positive things to happen.  The man, found out he had lung cancer because of the treatment he received after being in the fire.  He may have never known he was sick or may not have found out early enough to receive treatment if it had not been for the fire. 
The fire provided an opportunity for God to show up and be seen through your generosity and love as well as the doctors.   

The gospel of John supports this understanding.  In Chapter 9 the disciples ask Jesus if God caused a man to be blind as punishment for sin.  Jesus replies no, but that God uses these as an opportunity show the power and presence of God. 
Then again, in Romans 8, Paul tells us that all things will come to good for those who serve the Lord.  Not that bad things won’t happen but that God can use all the circumstances of life to help those who love and serve the Lord to see God at work. 

We still have free will.  We don’t have to respond when God nudges us.  We don’t have to accept the modern day miracles around us but God is still there working through tragedy and turning negatives into positives.    
Understanding this about God, helps us to offer real love and support to people who are facing difficult situations.  Instead of discarding their emotions, encouraging them to blame God and potentially driving them away from God, we can offer the never ending love of Jesus who promised to be with us always, who knows what it means to suffer at the hands of injustice and offer Jesus as an example of how God turns tragedy into an opportunity for good. 

Even though evil forces put Jesus on the cross.  Even though Jesus died a horrific and unjust death, God prevailed.  God turned this problem into an opportunity to show that God has power over life and death.  And that nothing, not even death itself will separate us from the love of God.  God will prevail, God has and will overcome the forces of evil and death and God will turn your sorrow into joy if we allow God to enter our lives and work in and through us.