Humbled to be Holy

A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

December 3, 2017

 

woman holding up arms to sky

 

Scripture: Luke 1:39-55

 

The scripture we heard today contains a prayer (or song) that is known in our Christian tradition as The Magnificat. The word “magnificat” comes from the Latin translation of this song of Mary. It means magnify. Mary starts her song by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This is a song of joy and confidence in the power and goodness of God.

 

…which is actually a little surprising coming from someone in Mary’s, um, situation. Let’s back up in the story a bit. You may know this already. See Mary has recently been visited by the Angel Gabriel. And the Angel Gabriel informed her that she would be bearing a child, Jesus, who will be called “Son of the Most High” and who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end!”

 

That sounds pretty good. But there’s a little problem. Mary is not married.

 

If we turn over to the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that Mary is only engaged (or betrothed) to Joseph at this time. My trusty New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary tells us that this engagement “was a binding arrangement between people already legally considered husband and wife, so that unfaithfulness was considered adultery.” So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and they have not yet had relations, technically Mary could have been put to death for her unfaithfulness (though our commentators mention that the death penalty for adultery was not really practiced by the time the gospels were written). However, they still describe the penalty for adultery as “severe and humiliating.” Think: how people sometimes react to unwed mothers in our culture, but like 100 times worse.

 

Not to worry though. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that upon finding out Mary is pregnant, Joseph (who is a righteous man) decides to divorce Mary quietly. But he too is visited by an angel in a dream. And that angel explains to him that Mary had become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit and that Joseph should marry her anyway. So that’s good.

 

But over in today’s gospel, in the one we heard – Luke’s version of the story, we get no such assurances that Joseph was going to swoop in and save the day by covering up the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy. All we know is that the Angel Gabriel visited Mary. That Mary was afraid and perplexed by his visit. But when the angel explained to her that she is going to become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, she agreed to this plan. God gave her a choice, and she chose obedience. She said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me according to your word.”

And from that point on, our heroine Mary is not deterred one bit by this scandal. In our scripture today, Mary sets out and goes with haste to see her relative Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Mary is pregnant. She has not been married up properly to Joseph. She is a young woman having a child out of wedlock in a society that thinks that is a real problem. And she goes to see Elizabeth.

 

She goes with haste that conveys excitement. Everybody in this scene is filled with joy. Mary is joyful, Elizabeth is joyful, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumps for joy – even as Mary is part of this scandalous mess of God’s plan for birthing Christ into the world. And the Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise, indicates her awareness that what God is doing through her is counter-cultural. She names that God has come to her in her lowliness, in her humility – and God has done great things for her. God has done and will do great things for her and for her people, who are poor and oppressed and lowly just like her.

 

God’s plans for Christ being birthed into the world through Mary are unexpected, are counter-cultural (even a little scandalous), depend upon Mary’s humble obedience, and bring Mary and the whole world joy and salvation.

 

So what might this tell us about God’s plans to birth Christ in the world this year – through us? Perhaps God’s work in our lives too is unexpected, counter-cultural (even a little scandalous),  and requires our humble obedience – and will bring us and the whole world joy and salvation.

 

Now, I think the key to embracing God’s plans for us is to start with the humble obedience piece.

 

I know, it’s my least favorite piece, too.

 

Because humility and obedience also require vulnerability. And I think holidays in general, but Christmas in particular can make us feel really vulnerable. During Advent we are invited to come face to face with our deepest longing. Our longing for love and acceptance. Our longing for salvation and assurance. Our longing for a life of meaning. Our longing to really know that we are loved by God and part of God’s dream for the world.

 

But we can’t really control that. Nothing we can do, can MAKE an experience of God’s grace happen for us. So I think maybe we put all of our hopes for the Christmas season into the things we can control, the things we can plan, the things we can buy. And our whole culture tells us this is what we should be doing. It promises that this is what will make us happy. Right?

 

The culture tells us things like this: “Giving your kids just the most beautiful tree surrounded by piles of presents will fill your (and their) deepest longing for joy. Making sure that your holiday gathering is just perfect will guarantee that your family will get along and will always be there for you. Buying new clothes or getting your hair done will make you beautiful enough to be deserving of love. Filling yourself with good food and drink will make sure you never have to feel empty.”

 

Now I’m not against any of those things. Please. Enjoy your festive tree (I’ve got one) and your lovingly set table and the confidence of a new hairdo and the pleasure of food and the fun of cooking it together. But just remember that none of it needs to be perfect, and that none of it can fill the deepest longing of your heart. Only God can do that. Only Christ can do that.

 

To invite Christ into our lives, we have to humble ourselves. We have to give up the power we think we have to fill our own every need. And we have to offer ourselves in obedience to God’s desires for us. Now, as your pastor, I wish I could give you an exact 3-step process for how to ensure that you will be filled with the Holy Spirit and never feel empty again. But I can’t. But I do have an idea of how we might start.

 

I believe it starts with prayer. One thing I’m doing to help us commit to prayer during this season of waiting is that I am sharing my daily devotional time on Facebook. Friends, it’s not fancy. It’s me turning on my computer and a camera and asking you to pray along with me through my usual practice. It’s probably not even as long as it should be. But it does help us to be accountable to one another when we commit to praying together – whether it’s in person or online. So if you are on Facebook, go Like the Hanscom Park United Methodist Church page, and you will be able to find me doing a live video there Monday through Friday at 7:45 AM…just praying and reading scripture and a reflection. And you are welcome to join me.

 

And if not that, then find another way to ground yourself in prayer this season. I encourage you to add whatever prayer practice to your life that will help you stop and listen for God’s presence and desires for us. Because we hear so many voices, so many messages every day, and even if they have the word “Christmas” as part of them, they are most-of-the-time not God’s voice. You know as well as I do that Christmas has been commercialized and secularized and exploited so folks can make money. The voices outside us talking about Christmas have almost nothing to do with welcoming the presence of Christ into our lives. So if we want to hear God’s voice, we have to do something counter-cultural.

 

We have to stop and listen. We have to be non-productive. We have to pray. Prayer gets nothing done. Prayer is not going to help you get one thing marked off your Christmas list. But I believe prayer is the only way we can hope to humble ourselves before God and submit (that’s a scary word, right? Well, I’m using it anyway). We have to submit to God’s radically different dream for our lives and for the world.

 

And as counter-cultural as submission and humility seems, it is also the only thing that will bring us joy.

 

“My soul magnifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

 

To be like Mary, we have to be lowly servants. We have to be counter-cultural, wrapped up not in the commercial trappings of a money-making holiday, but in the beautiful scandal of God coming to live with us right here in the mess of our world.

 

And promising to redeem it.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

What will you write?

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

October 22, 2017

 

paper with the word hope written on it

 

Scripture – Romans 8: 18-25

 

This week, we are finishing up our Unwritten sermon series, and I would like us today to consider our place and our role in God’s unfolding story of love and liberation. We are somewhat like the community in Rome to whom Paul is writing in our scripture. Surely, the historical and cultural details are wildly different. But on the grand cosmic level, we are pretty much at the same point in the story.

 

In the grand biblical narrative, Paul and the Romans come into the story after all the big stuff has happened. It is after Jesus’ death, after his resurrection, after his ascension, and in the midst of a promise: A promise of a return that will bring renewal and restoration for all of creation. The members of the Roman church are a people waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, and Paul tells them to wait with patience. They also wait with hope.

 

Fast-forward about 2,000 years to our place in the story, and we are still waiting. I’m not sure even Paul knew how much patience this waiting would require. And I didn’t know until I started studying our scripture this week, just how much responsibility we had either. So in this text, Paul is writing about the future restoration of all of creation, about how all creation will be freed from its bondage to death and decay. That sounds amazing! Restoration! No more death and decay. Who doesn’t want that?

 

But as I read closely, I saw this little nugget that was not so amazing. Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” He says that once we humans are revealed as the children of God, then all of creation will be restored. Which sounds good in theory, but is actually a bit distressing when you think about it. All of creation is waiting for us. It is groaning under the stress of it. Because all of creation is not going to see the full salvation of God, the end to decay and death, until we humans get on board with God’s agenda.

 

I’m not sure how you feel about that. But for me, that is way too much pressure. I don’t want the restoration of all of creation being contingent on whether I personally am responding to God’s call on my life. And I certainly don’t want it depending upon all of humanity responding to God’s call to peace and love and justice.

 

I’m not sure if you’ve looked around at how we are doing as a human species lately, but it doesn’t look so good. We humans are pretty messed up. We are mired in political bickering and personal attacks that keep us from focusing on people’s real needs for health and safety and sustenance. There are violent conflicts going on around the world. Even the small ways we interact with each other on Facebook or in person – they seem so often to be filled with fear and hostility and anger – instead of compassion and understanding. I don’t see that we as a human species are doing very well contributing to God’s dream these days.

 

When are we going to be revealed as the children of God?

 

Creation is waiting for its redemption, its restoration: but it sounds like we humans have to go first. The view from the ground on that can be pretty discouraging. Theologians have wrestled with this for a long time: this question of whether humanity is sort of generally on track to fulfilling its role as children of God, or whether we are hopelessly doomed and creation will only be restored after we are more-or-less wiped out.

 

One theologian I have been reading about lately is the one who wrote our opening prayer today. His name is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was a Jesuit priest living in the late 19th and early 20th century. And he articulated this hope we read in Paul like this: God is moving all of creation toward what Teilhard calls the “Omega Point.” The Omega Point is the point of fulfillment to which all of creation is going. More or less, the Omega Point is Christ. We (in the very big cosmic sense) are all moving in the direction of restoration and unification in Christ.

 

Teilhard’s views were controversial during his lifetime. He wrote in the wake of the First and Second World Wars. Many theologians believed that humanity had proved itself unredeemable. They might have called Teilhard a foolish optimist, whose theology was not grounded in the reality of human experience.

 

Yet Teilhard constructed his theology, what some might call an unreasonable hope, during his time as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of World War I. In the midst of seeing the worst that humanity could do to each other and the earth, Teilhard found hope in the promise of God as articulated by Paul. He found this hope by pulling his perspective back, way, way back to the cosmic view of history and the universe. He was a scientist who studied evolution. He admits that humans indeed go through very dark times, do very violent things to one another, but that God is always moving us to the Omega Point, to Christ himself. He points us to times in natural evolution where all seemed lost, but then something extraordinary arose.

 

A scholar of Teilhard, Cynthia Bourgeault writes this about his perspective:

 

“Even the emergence of human consciousness itself, he reminds us, reaching its present configuration a mere 125,000 years ago with the stunning debut of homo sapiens, was preceded by a 10,000-year ice age, in which it appeared that all that had been gained prior to that point was irreversibly lost. It wasn’t. No sooner had the ice receded than the first [scientific evidence] confirm[s] that human beings were now using fire and tools— unmistakable evidence that beneath the ice and apparent desolation, the evolutionary journey was still unperturbedly marching forward.”[1]

 

Our hope comes from the cosmic view, from the universe’s timeline, and from God’s promise that the end to which we are moving is life not death. Now, I will admit. It can be hard to get from that cosmic, billion-year timeline down to what we are doing today.

 

I think our old friend John Wesley might be able to help connect the dots for us. Toward the end of his career as the founder and visionary of the Methodist movement, Wesley began to preach more and more on this theme of the new creation. Of course in the 18th century, Wesley was not privy to the science that Teilhard employs, but he found the same hope and promise in Paul’s letters. Wesley too was convinced that God was acting in history to produce a “new creation:” one in which suffering and death were no more.

 

And Wesley connected the intensely personal experience of a person becoming a “new creation” in Christ to God’s cosmic work of bringing about a “new creation” everywhere. Wesley had no illusions about people being just sort of generally good, and they would do the right thing in time. He has a very robust theology of sin. He probably would not be that surprised about the current mess we are in.

 

But he did believe that faith in Christ could transform even the most flawed person into a “new creation.” And as new creatures, we are able to respond more and more in line with what God would have us do. Through faith, there is the possibility that we will be revealed and restored as children of God, and then one day, all of creation will share in that restoration.

 

Wesley notes that the way our lives change when we experience Christ is evidence of the new creation, what he calls the “age to come,” started right here in us. To quote him directly, “’In a degree’ we can experience both God’s purpose for us and the first evidences of the age to come as “God sets up his throne in our hearts.” [2] What Wesley calls the “first evidences of the age to come,” Paul names in our scripture as the “first fruits” of the new creation. The transformation that is wrought in our lives because of faith is the first evidence, the first fruit, both a sign and a seed, of the restoration of all of creation.

 

So that leads us to ponder the question: What first fruit of the new creation is present in my life, and how am I being called to use it to contribute to God’s dream of a world of peace and love and justice?

 

Put another way, what gift has God given me that I can offer for the good of the world?

 

Your answer might be one of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul describes in Galatians. Has God gifted you with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Maybe it’s one of the gifts of the Spirit listed in First Corinthians: wisdom, knowledge, or healing. Maybe it is one of the big three gifts that abide: faith, hope, and love. Maybe it is something I haven’t named.

 

What gift has God given you that you can offer for the world?

 

I will tell you. For me, it is hope.

 

The greatest gift God has given me is hope in God’s promise: that God’s dream for the world will come true, and that I can contribute to it, even in just a tiny way, through my faithful response to God’s love. That is my job. I have received the gift of hope and am called to offer hope back into the world.

 

And I know, in our desperately broken world, my gift of hope alone is not going to bring about the fullness of the reign of God. But I trust that when I respond to God’s call and offer my tiny contribution…and when all of you do that, too…that God will take our offerings and do something with it.

 

And that God’s dream for the world will one day become reality: in us, and through us, and – thanks be to God – sometimes even in spite of us.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

[1] From: https://www.omegacenter.info/teilhard-for-troubled-times-1/

[2] John Wesley in Theodore Runyon, The New Creation, p. 9.

 

—-

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION / DISCUSSION

 

  1. What gift has God given you that you can offer for the world? (If you were at church Sunday, what word did you write on the altar cloth?)

 

  1. What is some evidence of that gift in your own life? Describe a time or situation where you have experienced that gift.

 

  1. How do you or how can you share that gift with others?

Believing Thomas

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Sunday, October 15, 2017

 

person in church looking up

John 20: 24-29

 

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

 

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Like last week, this is another very familiar story from scripture. Similar to the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, this idea of a Doubting Thomas has also kind of jumped the sacred-secular line into our culture. And Poor Doubting Thomas – made famous for being that guy who just couldn’t believe.

 

You know what, though? I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap. I know, for my part, growing up in the church, his story did not make him sound so good. When I was told the story of Doubting Thomas, it sounded something like this:

 

So Jesus had died and risen from the dead, and everybody believed it without any proof, except Doubting Thomas. Thomas was the only one who doubted. And when Jesus showed up, Jesus caught Thomas right there in his doubts. It was a real gotcha kind-of-moment. Jesus repeats the words Thomas had said about what he would have to see to believe. In the version I remember, Jesus was sort of scolding Thomas, saying, “Oh, so you need to see my wounds to believe. Well, fine, here you go.” And Jesus shamed him. He showed that Doubting Thomas how ridiculous – maybe even how bad – he was for not believing.

 

Now, that I think about it. In retrospect, it’s not just Thomas who got a bad rap here. In that understanding, let’s be honest, Jesus kind of looks like a jerk. Now, to be fair, I was learning about Thomas in my childhood religion classes, so it’s possible that I am misremembering, or that it was just my teachers who taught it this way. But since poor Thomas can’t ever be remembered without the word “Doubting” in front of his name, I suspect they were just giving me the same impression they had gotten when they were taught about Doubting Thomas. In fact, I think that interpretation is common in the tradition. Which is both 1) unfortunate and, 2) I would argue, a really inaccurate reading of the scripture.

 

When I first got excited about Christianity about 9 years ago, I actually started reading the bible myself rather than just remembering the way I had been told these stories. And I started reading commentaries about the stories. Commentaries are written by people who have actually really studied the bible and read it in its original language (Hebrew or Greek depending on the Testament) and know the cultural and historical context it is written in. These folks are experts.

 

But even though they are experts and some of the commentaries I read were really complicated… some commentaries didn’t do much else than just get me to read the plain words on the page to see what they really said – rather than read them with the assumptions my religion class teachers and our cultural imagery had given me.

 

The story of Thomas is a great example of this. I have to give credit to commentator Gail O’Day who helped me see it. So, here is what really happens in the Gospel of John (from which the Thomas story is taken) after Jesus rises from the dead. Everybody doubts. Everyone. Every disciple who encounters Jesus after the resurrection in the Gospel of John either doesn’t know or doubts it is really him until Jesus gives them some sort of proof. And Jesus gives every person what they need to believe.

 

The first person to encounter Jesus after the resurrection is Mary Magdalene. She goes back to the tomb looking for Jesus’ body. She assumes he is dead. Now, you might remember that when she encounters Jesus there, she mistakes him for the gardener. It is only when Jesus says her name that she understands who he is, that she believes he has been raised from the dead. And she goes and tells the other disciples.

 

So next Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples: all of them except Thomas. Now Mary has already told them that Jesus is risen. So he appears in the locked room in which they are staying. And do you know what he does? He shows them his hands and his sides. And then they rejoice because they know it is Jesus. Jesus shows them his wounds, and they believe.

 

Now, when the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus, he does not believe them. That’s when he makes the declaration we heard that he must see his hands and his sides in order to believe. Now, let’s stop here to see if you are following along. Who else needed to see his hands and his sides in order to believe? That’s right. ALL of the disciples, except Mary – she recognized Jesus at the sound of her name.

 

They all doubted. Thomas is simply very honest about his doubts. And so, just like with the other disciples, Jesus shows up and offers Thomas his hands and his side, and says “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” When you read the text – and this is supported by the commentators, and just for good measure, I looked up the Greek myself – there is absolutely no reason to think Jesus is rebuking or shaming Thomas.

 

What a difference it makes when you can imagine Jesus approaching Thomas with tenderness, wanting to help him believe, generously offering Thomas his very body so that he might be able to have faith. This reading should not be surprising to us. Why would Jesus, the incarnation of the God who is Love, respond any differently?

 

Jesus gives each of the disciples what they need to believe.

 

Jesus also gives each of us what we need to believe.

 

But we do have to show up to receive it. That was the difference between Thomas and the other disciples. He simply wasn’t there when Jesus revealed himself to all the others. He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared in that locked room. Nor was he there with Mary when she followed her longing for Jesus and went back to the tomb to find him.

 

We don’t really know why he wasn’t there. One commentator speculates that he was off grieving by himself, though I don’t believe the text gives us any actual insight. I don’t think it’s possible to figure out what Thomas was doing when he missed experiencing the Risen Christ. I think the more important question is: What is keeping us from showing up, from being open to God’s presence?

 

I suspect the answer to this might be different for all of us. Maybe some of us miss opportunities to experience God’s presence because we are distracted. Gosh, life is so busy – it really is. It is easy to keep on the treadmill of doing, doing, doing – so much that we don’t stop and reflect on why we are here, what really matters, and where God is working in our lives.

 

Or maybe it is doubt that keeps us from showing up. It’s easy to look at some of the big claims of our faith and think, I’m not sure if I believe that. And if you’ve been taught that faith is about certainty, maybe having doubt makes you stay away from church or keeps you from praying. Keeps you from showing up.

 

And when I hear about people who don’t show up because they have doubts, it hurts my heart. Doubt is part of faith. It is a part of the journey. We are meant to struggle and ask questions about what we believe. It means we are really engaging with the questions that matter the most. And when we do have doubts, it’s not the time to take a break. It’s time to double down on showing up. God gives us what we need to believe, but we have to show up.

 

As you can probably hear, I am passionate about this. Because I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t shown up in spite of my doubts.

 

Let me tell you my story. Some of you have heard this before. Back in 2009, I had been attending First United Methodist Church for a few months. At that time, I would describe myself as agnostic but slightly hopeful. I had been coming to church and was just waiting for the pastor to say something to offend me so I would never come back (which is of course a kind of stressful realization now that I am myself a pastor…but I digress). What I am trying to say is that I had lots of doubts. But I kept coming to church anyway.

 

And then this thing started happening. I started feeling a pull on my heart, what I now would call the nudging of the Holy Spirit. Week after week, I’d show up, I’d start experiencing this pull, this nudging, and I’d put up my guard. I’d tell myself to quit imagining things.

 

And finally, one week I thought to myself, what if I just stop resisting this? And during some particularly moving piece of music, I found myself filled to overflowing with the assurance that God was real, God was present, and God claimed me as beloved. And I cried with joy and relief. As the founder of our Methodist movement would say, my heart was indeed strangely warmed.

 

Because of that experience, I realized some things about how I had been living my life. I realized that I did not have to spend all of my time trying to be perfect anymore. I realized that God forgave me for my mistakes, and so it was possible for me to finally forgive myself. In traditional language, you might say I was saved, and I am being saved every moment in every day. I was saved from the death-dealing expectations of our culture to which I could never live up, and I was saved for the task of loving the world into wholeness the best I could.

 

That’s all I had to do, and I didn’t have to do it alone. Because God is with me and working through me, and God is with you and working through you. And God is with us and working through us. And God has a dream for a world of peace and love and justice, and God has promised that dream will come to fruition one day, whether we live to see it or not. And we are called to work alongside God to help bring that beautiful world into being, so now I have something worthwhile to do.

 

If I had stopped showing up to church eight years ago because I had doubts, I wouldn’t be a lot of things. I certainly wouldn’t be your pastor today – which would be a real shame. And I would have never had the opportunity to stand up here and tell you with all sincerity that my encounter with Christ that day changed my life…and that my life as a disciple of Christ continues to fill my days with more love and joy than I ever would have hoped for.

 

And all I did was show up, and Jesus gave me what I needed to believe.

 

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 

May it be so for all of us.

 

Amen.

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

 

  1. Think about the times you have heard the story of Doubting Thomas in the past. In the versions you heard, what was Thomas like in the story? What was Jesus like in the story? What lessons were you supposed to learn from the story?

 

  1. Think back on your faith journey. Was there a time when you were having doubts? How did you get past your doubts? Or what are you still struggling with?

 

  1. What is keeping you from showing up, from being open to God’s presence? (You might also think of this in terms of what keeps you from showing up to the practice of prayer, or showing up in worship, or doing whatever else might help you grow in your faith.)

Outside Looking In

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Preached at Hanscom Park UMC

October 8, 2017

 

Scripture: Luke 15:11-32

 

image of a sign that looks like a crossThe story we just heard, often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is one of the most well-known parables in the bible. It is maybe second only to the Good Samaritan as far as parables that really have entered the culture and kind of have a life of their own outside the church. Almost everyone knows that a Good Samaritan is one who helps someone in need. And a Prodigal Son is one who has left, has turned his back on his family, and then comes home.

 

Taken out of a theological context, these stories become stories about people, with no reference to God. And certainly, they tell us something about what human beings are like. But Jesus used parables, these metaphorical stories, not primarily to tell people what they were like, but to tell people what God was like. He told stories to illustrate God’s nature. In some ways, Jesus’ whole life, his death, his resurrection is one grand story to show us who God is with us and for us.

 

Stories invite us to imagine God in ways that aren’t easily explained, easily understood or even sometimes aren’t easily accepted. I mean, I’m pretty sure, if Jesus wanted to, when he was teaching, he could have just said things very directly: “Like hey, listen, God is really forgiving. No, I mean, God is REALLY forgiving.” Except I don’t think people would have understood the extent of God’s mercy if he just said that.

 

Instead Jesus said things like this: God is SO forgiving, God is SO merciful, SO filled with compassion and grace, that if God were a father, and his youngest son insulted him by asking for his inheritance early (essentially saying “it really would be better if you were dead right now so I could have my money”). And if then, the son went out and recklessly spent it all, and came back…If God were that father, he  would respond not by yelling at the son, not by making the son pay for his disloyalty.

 

Instead, if God were that father, and he saw that son coming up the walk, he would run – RUN (even though running in ancient Palestine would have been considered undignified, and maybe even embarrassing). And even so, if God were that father, he would RUN and throw his arms around that son and kiss him. A kiss that signals forgiveness before the son even voices his remorse.

 

And when the son asks for scraps, to maybe live as a servant because that is all he deserves, if God were that father, that father would say, “Heck no! You are welcomed back into my house as my beloved child!” And then that father would throw him a banquet. And we are invited to see that God’s grace and mercy and generosity are surprising and extravagant – they come faster than we would ever expect, and they go deeper than we would ever hope.

 

What human father would be so quick to forgive? Now I have a high regard for fathers. I have talked about my own father and his lilies, and I live with one of the best fathers I can imagine because I have seen the love that Matt pours out on Ruby. But not one of our fathers is perfect. Very few would not even be offended in a situation of a child rejecting and insulting him. Human fathers might be very good. Some human fathers are very bad. Probably most fall somewhere in between.

 

This is one of the reasons you will hear me use feminine images for God, to insist that sometimes we imagine God as a Mother God. Not because mothers are perfect. (Heavens, no! I couldn’t handle that kind of pressure.) But because God is not exactly like a human father or just like a human mother. God is entirely beyond human. Of course, human fathers can be forgiving, human mothers can embody compassion. But we are still human. But our Mother God. Her love never fails. Our Father God, His forgiveness never runs out. He never holds a grudge. She always runs out to meet us when we return, however long we’ve been away. God’s mercy and compassion is beyond what we humans can muster or sometimes even understand.

 

We are much more likely to be like the elder son in this story. He has been good and loyal. He has never insulted the father like his ungrateful younger brother. He has worked hard. And he’s in a good spot. As the elder son, he is entitled to double the inheritance of his younger brother. Nothing his younger brother did changes all that. His brother’s sins were against the father, not against him.

 

Yet he stands in judgment against his brother. When the younger son comes back, the elder son is angry and refuses to join the party. Again, the Father comes out to him. And the elder son is rude to his father. He addresses him saying, “Listen!” And he complains he has been working like a slave for him, and the father never threw him a party.

 

And then the father gives him this news. Maybe it comes as something of a shock. The father says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Here the elder son thought he was earning his father’s love, all these years. And it turns out that the father’s blessing and generosity was never in peril. It never depended upon him being good or loyal. And the father just wants him to rejoice with the rest of the family at his brother’s return. The Father wants him to be part of the party, but he won’t come inside.

 

And if God is like that father, if God is telling us that our place in God’s family, our portion of God’s love doesn’t depend on our hard work and our good deeds – and if we have been working hard and being good for a long time – that can be hard to hear. We might even find the wideness of God’s mercy intolerable.

 

And the tragedy of that is that we are not locked out of the party. We are invited. But sometimes our angry hearts won’t let us go in. But here is the good news. God’s mercy is so wide, God’s compassion is so deep, it receives and transforms even us and our angry, judging hearts. And it also receives those we think are undeserving, and even those who have done things which humans find unforgivable.

 

On our altar today are stones representing the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. On Thursday, I put 58 stones on the altar: one for each person who had died. And I walked around with a 59th stone in my pocket for the whole day: the one that would have represented the shooter who also died. And I thought about the victims. I thought about the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and children who were grieving them. And I didn’t want to put that 59th stone on the altar. If it were up to me, I would have said the killer was outside of the bounds of God’s love and grace.

 

I couldn’t forgive. I wouldn’t ever suggest to someone whose family member was murdered, that they had to forgive. But you know, sometimes people do forgive. In ways that I think must be beyond human. I think of the African American Christians who forgave their loved ones’ killer in Charleston two years ago. I think of the Mennonite Christians who forgave the man who murdered their daughters just over 10 years ago. I think of someone I know personally, a Methodist Christian named Fred Wilson – who was shot and disabled in the Von Maur shootings, and who forgave the shooter almost immediately. Those are certainly acts of forgiveness empowered by God. So I know it is possible.

 

But I knew I couldn’t forgive like that, and in fact, it wasn’t my role or right to forgive or not. So I walked around with that stone for quite some time. And even though I didn’t want to put it on the altar, I did. Because that is the cross of Jesus up there. And it’s got nothing to do with whether or not I declare someone forgivable. Jesus on the cross said, “Father, forgive them” about the very people who put him there. It doesn’t make any sense. It is mercy beyond our comprehension. It is grace far greater than we can ever offer. Because we are just humans, and God is God.

 

And, as hard as it sometimes is, we are invited to rejoice because God is so merciful, even to the last person we would ever include. We are invited to let go of the responsibility of standing in judgment of others and of ourselves. So that our hands and hearts are open to receive the grace of God.

 

So like the elder son, we have a choice. We can stand outside of the celebration judging ourselves and others, or we can be part of the joy that God’s mercy is so great.

 

God is coming out to invite us in.

 

May we walk through the door.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

 

  1. Which character in the parable of The Prodigal Son do you most relate to? Why?

 

  1. What story from your own life or the world around you gives you a sense of what God’s grace and mercy is like? Have you ever been a witness to or heard about mercy or compassion that seemed beyond human? When?

 

  1. What judgment about yourself or others is it hardest for you to let go of? In other words, what things do you judge others or yourself for? How does that impact your ability to believe in and receive God’s grace and forgiveness for yourself?

Knowing Each Other So We Can Love Each Other

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

October 1, 2017

 

Isaiah 56:6-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

 

6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant—

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.

8 Thus says the Lord God,

who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them

besides those already gathered.

 

communion table

 

I love this scripture. Here we’ve got God gathering outcasts and foreigners as part of Isaiah’s vision of the full restoration of Israel. This is a vision of God’s holy mountain Zion and the temple on it that will be restored and expanded to include not just one nation – but all the nations.

 

This is a great scripture for World Communion Sunday, if I do say so myself, since I am the one who picked it. World Communion Sunday is a celebration of the diversity of our worldwide Methodist connection, as well as an acknowledgment of our ecumenical relationships (meaning all Christians celebrate communion, not just Methodists). And it is an opportunity for us to give, to donate in support of students from all around the world. Like the text says: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Thus says the Lord.

 

But…like almost every scripture, when you start studying more and digging deeper, you encounter some trouble. As preachers know, there is almost always some trouble in the text. In this one, the trouble comes from the context in which it was written. This part of Isaiah was written in post-exile Israel. This is the period where the exiles who have been taken against their will to Babylon come back. They get to come back because the Persians have ousted the Babylonians. In some ways, this new imperial overlord was good news. The Babylonians had forced most of the people out of Israel, but the Persian Empire thought it was better to let them return to their homeland.

So, some 60-70 years, generations after having been removed, the exiles were allowed to return. However, as you might imagine, during that 60-70 years, other people have moved onto the land. Some of those people were actually there to start with. They were the poorest residents who the Babylonians didn’t even bother to relocate. And some of those people were the foreigners we hear about in our scripture today.

 

When the exiles return, things are a mess. The poor folks and foreigners didn’t have the land or humanpower or resources to rebuild or re-work the land after the Babylonians ruined it. So when the returnees arrive, there are suddenly way too many people, and way too few resources to go around.

Let’s suffice it to say that Isaiah’s idealistic declaration of the foreigners being welcome additions to the people of Israel: well, not everybody felt that way. Some of them thought that maybe those foreigners should get out, so the real chosen people could have more to eat. In fact, you can find other prophets writing at this exact same time who very clearly want that. Nehemiah preached against the Judeans marrying foreigners, and Ezra went so far as to tell Judeans if they have taken foreign wives, they should abandon them and any children they had with them. There is not agreement, among people in the community, even among the prophets, about whether God’s salvation is really for all people.

I think this trouble in the text invites us to acknowledge that there is similar trouble in our world. Sure, we love celebrating World Communion Sunday. We want to declare that this is a house of prayer for all peoples, but we too struggle with whether we think there are really enough resources to go around.

 

And so we have to ask ourselves the question, “with which prophet do we stand?” Do we stand with Isaiah who declares that God wants to include everybody? Or do we stand with Ezra and Nehemiah who insist that resources are too scarce. We have to take care of our own. Do we really value people in different communities and distant countries and cultures as much as the people who are nearby? Think about Puerto Rico. Think about the recent earthquakes in Mexico. Think about our political debates about immigration. It’s hard to know what to do. And the prophets could have us go either way.

 

Luckily, our Methodist tradition has some help for us. How many of you remember me talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral? It tells us that we have to read scripture using these other tools: our reason, tradition, and experience. The bible is a complicated book – a library of books in actuality. To make sense of its many voices, we have to bring to bear all of the theological resources we’ve got. And today I’d like us to seek some guidance from our Methodist tradition. Specifically, from our founder (I may have mentioned him before), the Reverend John Wesley.

 

Now John Wesley knew something about salvation. He knew that salvation was new life, lived in love, right now. It is something we experience when we receive God’s forgiveness and acceptance. It results in transformed lives. Wesley expected people who claimed to know Jesus, to know God, to be changed. He believed every faithful person could grow more and more in the image of God, and that eventually they would be “perfected in love in this life.” They would be perfectly conformed to the image of God, totally free from sinning. They would be able to love God and love their neighbor perfectly. In this life. All the time.

 

Now, I know that it quite a claim. I think even Wesley knew that the actual reaching of perfection was rare. But even so, he encouraged all of his people to strive for it. And one thing he thought was absolutely indispensable for people if they were going to grow in the image of God, is that they had to be in direct relationship with the poor and the sick. Because we simply cannot love our neighbors, if we do not know our neighbors. And if we only know middle class and healthy people, then there are a lot of neighbors we don’t know and can’t love.

 

Wesley was ruthless about this. Prepare yourselves. He did not coddle people. Here is an excerpt from a sermon he preached called On Visiting the Sick.

 

“One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart.”

From http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-98-on-visiting-the-sick/

 

I know that is harsh. Wesley is not playing, and it’s not because he hates the rich. He interacted with people of all social classes. He is concerned for their souls. He believes that not being able to love all of God’s children – especially those who are in need – is a major and dangerous impediment in our relationship with God.

 

He shows this concern also in a series of letters he writes to a wealthy woman named Miss March. Wesley is clearly impressed with her spiritual progress. He writes to her that he has great optimism that she will go on to reach perfection in love. But she does have some work to do. When she survives a grave illness and asks Wesley how she can best give God glory because she has been given the gift of more days on earth, Wesley replies:

 

“And are you willing to know? Then I will tell you how. Go and see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman! Remember the faith! Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear a higher character. You are an heir of God and joint-heir with Christ!” (Wesley, John. “To Miss March, June 9, 1775.” In The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. (Vol. VI). London: The Epworth Press, 1931: p. 153-154.)

 

Wesley tells her to “put off the gentlewoman.” In our language, maybe something like “quit being so high and mighty.” And go visit the poor and sick in their homes.

 

Apparently, this was not easy for Miss March to do. In successive letters, Wesley continued to urge her again and again to visit the poor, to know the poor. I remember the day when I was sitting on the floor in the library in seminary, digging through volume after volume of Wesley’s letters, and I saw his last letter to Miss March. It was this exasperated plea to just go visit the poor and the sick already. It gave me the impression that he was so disappointed with her that he was just done with her. He never wrote to her again. I was surprised to find my feelings hurt on her behalf. And honestly, I think Wesley could have been more kind.

 

But this issue was so essential to him. He took it with such seriousness. And I think it is that essential to us. You can’t truly love people you don’t know. Your heart can’t break with compassion when you haven’t heard people’s stories, when you haven’t shared relationships, when you haven’t been in their homes.

 

So before we decide whether it is our job to help Puerto Rico or Mexico or not, or whether we should support immigration reform or not, I think we need to listen to John Wesley. We can’t look from afar and decide it’s okay not to care about people who are distant from us in geography or circumstance. We have to know people so that we can love people.

 

Now, it is sometimes not as easy as just “visiting the poor in their poor little hovels” as Wesley would say. We can’t just hop on a plane to visit people in other countries. We might not know any recent immigrants with whom we can have a chat. But I do think we can take first steps in learning about those who are different than us, so that eventually we can build relationships with those same people.

 

There is an organization called Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON). They were started by The United Methodist Church, and they actually are moving into the old Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging building on 42nd and Center. So they will literally be our new neighbors. They employ a team of attorneys who work with low-income immigrants who cannot afford to pay for legal advice.

 

And I am glad that our WIMPS group (Women in Mission Projects) is hosting a speaker from JFON here at the church on October 19th at 6:30 PM. Her name is Anna Deal, and she is an attorney that works with immigrants. She will be talking with us about the immigration process and how families are impacted by it. And I hope you will consider attending. While this isn’t yet what Wesley would require of us since it doesn’t directly put us in contact with our immigrant neighbors, I hope it will be an educational step for us to prepare to reach out with compassion to the many immigrants who, for example, attend Norris Middle School just up the street and live in our immediate vicinity.

 

Friends, we can’t celebrate World Communion Sunday with any integrity unless we commit to knowing the diverse people in our own community. So I am going to keep encouraging us to do that. And I’m also going to tell you the truth. The theological bottom line is this: you are a beloved child of God, made in God’s image, and able to grow to perfection in love. And so is every person of every race and nation and class in this vast world of ours.

 

So we have a big job to do. Because to be in communion with each other, we have to put in the effort to know each other. And only when we know each other can we possibly love each other.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

———

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION / SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION

 

  1. When resources are scarce and need is great, how do you decide who to help, which people to care for, or which organizations to support?

 

  1. Where are there gaps in your experience with diverse people? Are there certain groups or types of people you need to know better so that you can love them better?

 

  1. Tell us a story about a time that you got to know someone who was different from you (from a different race, ethnicity, nation, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, level of ability, etc.). How did it change how you thought, felt, and acted?

Seasons

A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

September 24, 2017

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

 

Scripture: Genesis 1: 14-18

 

photo collage of seasons

 

Our scripture for today is an excerpt from the long creation story we sometimes hear. The one that starts on the first day with the spirit of God, the ruach (in Hebrew), sweeping over the waters and God declaring, “Let there be light”… all the way to the sixth day when human beings are created in God’s image to the seventh day when God rests.

 

I just selected the fourth day for our reading today – probably one of the days we tend to sort of skip over, thinking yep on days 2-5 God created everything. Moving on. Or maybe just I do that.

 

I picked it though because the word “season” in it captured me. This autumn, this fall season seems to have such a cultural presence anymore. I don’t know if it’s the football or the drama of the leaves turning or the Pumpkin Spice Everything that you can get in the store nowadays – even pumpkin spice deodorant, I learned recently on the radio. I’m not even going to comment on that. But fall seems to really draw our focus to the seasons – or at least my focus.

 

Because I’m going to tell you a secret. I’m not a huge fall fan. I’ve always been a spring kinda gal. All new life and flowers on the trees and that wonderful smell of a spring rain just past or just about to arrive. That’s my jam. Because for me the fall is often an ominous reminder that winter is just around the corner. Amidst the crisp sweater-weather days and hayrack rides and pumpkin carving, there’s always a bit of dread for me that the stark cold is almost upon us.

 

I just prefer spring. I like it better. I long for the days of hope and newness.

 

But our scripture today reminds us that God’s created order means that we don’t get to live in endless spring. God set the sun and moon and stars in our great creation poem – which we now know scientifically is more about the tilt of the earth – but it’s all to order the seasons of our world. No matter how much I want it to be any other way, I just have to put up with the fall season and the winter season. And I think one of the challenges of our lives is learning to love the season we are in, learning to observe the beauty and possibility of it, even if it is not what we prefer.

 

This is a notion easily applicable to our own individual lives. It is easy to look back and prefer the spring – those years when we had more energy, when life seemed more open with possibility, when we conformed more closely to the standards of beauty our culture holds up as an ideal. (Which I will as a sidebar say, I think is wrong. We are beautiful in all of our various seasons of life.) Or if we are very young, it’s easy to long for a summer or fall season: when we have our career firmly established, when we are in that comfortable place with a home and children, maybe we even look forward to retirement – that’s when we will really start living.

 

We probably all have either nostalgia for seasons we have been in or dreams for the future. And those things are all good – as long as they don’t prevent us from seeing the beauty and possibility that God is continually creating in the season that is currently before us. This seems to be part of God’s design: that there are seasons to everything, in nature, in our individual lives, and in our community life as well.

And in every moment, in whatever season, God is creating and re-creating. And in those very same moments, we have the opportunity to embrace what God is doing in our lives and participate in it, whether that is in the full-on fecundity of spring or the abundant harvest of fall or even the dormant rest of winter. God is creating in all of it, and we are called to be a part of that creativity in due season.

 

Of course, creation is cyclical. Winter is not really an end. This is true of nature. This is true of our lives. This is one of the most fundamental hopes of our Christian faith: that our individual lives are part of God’s great mystery of renewal and resurrection. We are born, we live, we die, and at the end of our winter when we encounter death, we are born again into God’s eternal presence. The seasons of nature remind us of and reflect our resurrection faith of new life in Christ.

 

And our community experiences these seasons as well. When one of our members die, we experience the stark loss of winter. And when a new member joins our community, or a new member is baptized, our community is also reborn and recreated. We are no longer the same. We enter with the new members into a season of new beginnings and new hope. Now, there may be times when we experience more fall and winter as a community, where we might be tempted to look back at the heyday of the Methodist church or this particular Methodist church and wish we could go back there.

 

But that is not the direction we are going. With the ebb and flow of the seasons, our community has ebbed and flowed. And maybe it’s because I am a spring gal at heart, and because I am caught up in our resurrection faith. But I see every opportunity for us to welcome new members into this place as a sign of God’s new life happening right here, right now.

 

And I will dare to speak out loud that we have moved as a community through spring and summer and fall and maybe even experienced a touch of winter. But as we welcome our new members today, I sense that spring is here again.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

 

Questions for Reflection / Small Group Discussion:

 

  1. What are some aspects of God’s beautiful creation that you have observed in this season of the year?

 

  1. Do you ever find yourself longing for a different season (of the year, of your life, or of our community life)? What do you miss or hope for?

 

  1. How is God calling you to be a part of God’s work in this world in this particular season of your life?

What We Cast Out

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

September 17, 2017

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

 

Scripture: Mark 5:1-17

 

drawing of pigs falling of a cliff

image credit: http://stripgenerator.com/strip/463441/pigs-jumping-off-cliff (jesuslovesyou123)

 

I have a confession to make. I got to choose today’s scripture myself. I am not following the lectionary, so I could have picked ANY scripture in the bible to share with you today, and I picked that one. Now I can imagine what some of you might be thinking, “That Chris, she seemed like such a good pastor…”

 

Have you heard this text before? I think it’s interesting to encounter a kind of unusual text like this on a day when we are giving bibles to 3rd graders. I mean, it kind of makes me wonder – should we really be giving bibles to third graders? There’s some pretty wild stuff in there.

 

Like here we have the Gerasene demoniac. Honestly, one of the reasons I like this story is that it is so dramatic. It describes this possessed man and the way his life has deteriorated because of the unclean spirit that has taken over. Apparently, earlier in his possession, he had been kept in chains. But by the time we see him, he is so wildly out-of-control that not even chains can hold him. And he has become almost inhuman. The text says, “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” He is living among the dead, an impure place where no other people would dare to go, and he is causing harm to himself and howling. It is a horrible scene.

 

The man is so far gone that when Jesus tries to heal him, he thinks he is being tormented. He tries to tell Jesus to go away. He doesn’t want to be healed. So, because of an ancient idea that if you know a demon’s name, you can cast it out, Jesus asks the demon its name. And he replies, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

 

When you and I hear this name Legion, we might catch some of its meaning. In English, of course, a legion is a whole lot of folks. And we might think, oh dang! That means there’s a whole bunch of demons in him! But the associations with that word in ancient Palestine (where Jesus lived) were even heavier.

 

One commentary on this story says that this scripture “contains a veiled reference to the devastation of people and property caused by the Roman occupation.” It goes on to say “The Tenth Legion, which used the boar as a symbol on its standard, had been stationed [in that area] since 6 CE.” (Perkins, “Mark,” New Interpreter’s Bible, v. 8, p. 584). So…there was a Legion of Roman soldiers that used a wild pig as its symbol in the area where this story is set, and the multitude of demons in the Markan story actually identify themselves as “Legion,” and die when they are cast out into pigs. And the commentators are saying this a “veiled” reference to the Roman occupation? It seems sort of obvious to me!

 

It seems that the man, the Gerasene demoniac, had internalized the values of the Roman Empire. The empire had taken up residence in him. This was the empire that had taken over Jesus’ homeland. This was the empire that used violence as a means to create peace. This was the empire that enlisted the help of some of the Jewish people whose land they occupied, in order to subdue and exploit the masses. This was the empire who believed that enemies are to be destroyed, killed, ousted, or at the very least disregarded or silenced. This is the empire that crucified Jesus because he was a challenge to everything it stood for: violence and domination and retribution. And when that empire took up residence in this Gerasene man, the result was isolation, self-harm, and something that looked almost inhuman.

 

And as I read the scripture this week, I began to wonder. I wonder what empire values threaten to take up residence in us.

 

Maybe our empire values are not quite the same as in 1st-century Palestine, but here are some lies that I believe our culture, our empire tells us. I believe we are told, all the time, in a million different ways, that we are inadequate. We are not good enough. We are not attractive enough. We are not wealthy enough. We are not successful enough. We are not smart enough. We have not achieved enough. We are inadequate and therefore unlovable. And we will continue to be inadequate and unlovable until we conform to some impossible ideal of what constitutes a good, beautiful, smart, worthwhile human being.

 

And that ideal is never quite achievable, always changing and out of our reach, and I believe that is no mistake. Marketers and advertisers count on us feeling inadequate, so that they can sell us something that will make us okay, so they keep moving the bar. Of course, there is nothing we can buy to fix our overwhelming sense of inadequacy.

 

So, besides trying to buy stuff to keep up with the latest fashion, or have a nice house, or project an image that our family life is just so great, we also sometimes start to compare ourselves to other people. Because that might make us feel better for a bit. I might not have the best job, but I have a better job than her. I might not be the most attractive guy, but I’m more attractive than him. But there’s always someone who seems happier and better than you (I mean, on Facebook, everybody is happy, right?) So we kind of start to resent those people who seem to be doing better than us, too. And as we judge and compete with each other, our ability to be compassionate slips away.

 

And when none of that works in making us feel better, then we sometimes turn in on ourselves. I will share with you a revelation I had in one of our small groups this week. I realized that there is a direct correlation between my anxiety about being able to be good enough – being able to adequately perform – in my role as a pastor, and my likelihood to lash out at my in anger at my spouse and my daughter. And the presenting reason I might give for that is “I was tired” or “I was stressed out.”

 

But at the very core of it is this. In those moments, it’s like the empire has taken up residence inside me and convinced me that if I don’t succeed at being a pastor, it will mean I am unworthy, inadequate, and unlovable. And when I start to believe that lie – I lose my ability to be the kind of human God created me to be – one that is made first and foremost for loving relationship with God and other people.

 

In our scripture today, Jesus casts the empire out. He sends those values of domination and control and violence into pigs who throw themselves into the sea. And the next thing we see is the Gerasene man sitting there, completely in his right mind, utterly human again. He is no longer living in a place of death and self-harm where no other people can go. He is well and ready to be in relationship with others.

 

Later in the scripture, the man asks if he can go with Jesus, and Jesus tells him no. But Jesus gives him a mission. He says, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” And so he goes and proclaims what Jesus did for him all over his homeland.

 

This man who had been made almost inhuman because of the values of domination and retribution inside of him becomes a witness to the power of God to cast out the evil of the empire, and make people human once again. And I can’t help but wonder, when I think about the effect of his witness – whether the most important thing was that others learned about Jesus from him – or whether the most important thing was that by retelling his story of restored life and liberation over and over, it helped to keep the empire values out.

 

Maybe his witness was about him continually saying out loud: that demon is not who I am. That man in chains, cut off from all human relationships, and harming himself is not who I am. I am a child of God created for loving relationship with God and others. And Jesus freed me to be that.

 

Me, too. That is my witness, too.

 

I am a child of God created for loving relationship with God and others. And Jesus freed me to be that. I am not that person who lashes out, who feels the anxiety and pressure of my job, and so hurts the very people I love the most. That is not who I am. I am a child of God, reconciled to God through Christ, and the empire is no longer inside me.

 

And so are you.

 

And we need to keep telling ourselves and others that. Every. Day. We need to keep telling ourselves when we gather for worship, when we take daily time for prayer. We need to keep telling ourselves when we meet in small groups, when we talk with a good friend, when we have a quiet moment with our spouse.

 

People divided from one another, competing with one another, dominating one another, hurting one another and ourselves: that is not who we are. We are not created for lives of division and desperation. We are not destined for a life among the dead.

 

We are created for lives of connection and  hope. We are destined for the life of the living. When the empire is cast out, we are made human again, able to love and be loved by one another.

 

We are children of God, reconciled to God through Christ, and the empire has no dominion here!

 

Can I get an Amen?

 

Thanks be to God!

 

Amen.

 

Questions for Reflection / Small Group Discussion:

  1. In what situations do you find yourself believing the lies that you are inadequate, unworthy, or unlovable?
  2. What do you do to help yourself remember who you really are – a beloved child of God – rather than what the voices of our culture might say you are?
  3. Who in your life has helped you to remember that you are a beloved person of sacred worth?

Tiny, Tiny Mustard Seeds

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Preached September 10, 2017

At Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

 

Matthew 13:31-32 (NRSV)

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

 

boats rescuing people during 9-11

 

Well friends, it has been a difficult week for our part of the world. As we meet here, a second major hurricane, Irma, is making landfall in Florida. Of course, cleanup from Harvey in Texas has really just begun. There was an earthquake affecting southern Mexico and Guatemala on Friday. There are wildfires burning in nine Western states. Besides those natural disasters, there was the announcement that DACA will end in six months if there is no congressional action – removing protection from 800,000 young immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons. And to top it all off, tomorrow will be the 16th anniversary of 9/11.

 

The scripture we heard is not kidding. The kingdom of heaven is sure like mustard seed these days. Since that scripture was so short, I want us to take a moment to hear it again. Hear these words from the Gospel of Matthew:

 

[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

 

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The scripture says it is the smallest of all seeds – which is something of an exaggeration, but that’s okay. This isn’t a botany lesson here. Jesus is trying to make a point using a parable, a story, something he did a lot when he was teaching. Here he is talking about the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God.” Those phrases can really be used interchangeably. Matthew, our gospel writer, was a Jew writing to other Jews. And he avoids using the word “God” because of the Jewish tradition of not writing or saying the divine name aloud. By contrast, in the Gospel of Luke, for example, you will find these same parables talking about the “kingdom of God.”

 

So the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like a mustard seed. It is tiny. It is buried. It is planted in a field. And once planted, it is probably rather hard to find again. But, but! From that tiny beginning, that tiny seed, a great tree grows, and it becomes the greatest of trees, so big that even birds can make their home in it. Now, this is also a botanical exaggeration. The mustard seed does not turn into a tree. It turns into a bush. And, yes, it’s very big compared to the seed. But it is not the largest, and it’s a shrub, not a tree.

 

So why would Jesus say this? Was he just really bad at horticulture? Did he flunk his botany class? No. Commentators suggest that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. First, he was just using exaggeration to make a point that would not be forgotten. But secondly, he was making a point that the growth and potential of the kingdom of heaven to spread is beyond anything that nature could do itself.

 

When God is involved, the potential of a tiny mustard seed doesn’t just become a mustard bush – it becomes something that defies expectations, something that stretches our imaginations, something really beyond our comprehension. Sure, we can imagine how a tiny seed grows into a big tree, but the kingdom of God is even more of a miracle than that – a miracle that Jesus himself could only describe using metaphors and comparisons and stories.

 

But one thing that Jesus tells us directly is that the kingdom of God has come near. It is present right now. Even if it’s just the size of a mustard seed. Even if it’s hidden amidst the hurricanes and the fires and the political controversy and threats of war, it is here. And because it’s a seed, it is going to grow. When Jesus talks about the kingdom, it is something that is present, but there is also a promise that one day it was come to fullness. One day that seed will be a tree in which not just the birds, but all of us will find safety and peace and refuge. The kingdom is not fully established until every person, nation and social system conforms completely to the will of God. And we know that is a long time coming. But as James Bryant Smith writes about the kingdom, “Yes, one day it will be the governing power over the entire universe, but for now it is intended to be the governing power over you and me.” (Smith, Good and Beautiful Life, p. 42).

 

As Christians, we are invited to participate in the kingdom of God. Right here. Right now. We are invited to be a part of God’s beautiful story of love and peace and joy and justice. But it’s just a mustard seed, so we have to look for it. We have to listen for it.

 

When our wounded hearts yell, “hold a grudge,” the kingdom whispers, “forgive.” When our judging mind yells, “He hasn’t done enough to help,” the kingdom whispers, “have I done enough to help?” When our hurt pride yells, “Strike back,” the kingdom whispers, “show mercy.” When the chaos all around us declares, “Be afraid,” the mustard-seed kingdom whispers, “Take a risk in the name of Love.”

 

The 43rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible – what we sometimes call the Old Testament, records an oracle – a message – from God to the Israelites. At the time, the Israelites were living in exile in Babylon. Their city, their homes, and even their temple has been destroyed. They have been taken off into exile, into a foreign land. It is the lowest point that they have experienced in their lives – possibly the lowest point that the Israelites as a people have ever seen to that day.

 

And in the midst of that low and desperate situation, God says through Isaiah, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

 

“Behold I am doing a new thing… do you not perceive it?”

 

The kingdom of God is among us. Do you not perceive it?

 

I believe I have perceived it even in the crises we have been experiencing. I perceived it when I saw a photo of the “Cajun navy” – a bunch of outdoors-folks from Louisiana with boats who hit the highways in mass to help rescue people from the floods in Houston. I perceived it when I read about the woman in labor who was rescued by both firefighters – and plain old neighbors – who formed a human chain through flood waters, to reach her, so she could get to the hospital.

 

I perceived it when I watched a video of a Houston reporter, who kept the station running from her truck because the studio had to be evacuated. She was live on air out in the rain when she noticed, on the road below the bridge she was standing on, a semi-truck that was in water almost to its windows. And the driver was still inside. So she stops her reporting, and flags down a vehicle with a boat behind it that is driving by on the highway, and asks them if they are heading to help the semi-driver. In fact, they were not. They didn’t even know he was down there. So she tells them where he is, and the guys in the truck launch their boat and pull the truck driver out just before the water breaches his truck’s windows.

 

One more story. There were so many.

 

I perceived the kingdom of God when I read about four bakers that got trapped inside a Mexican bakery for two days – and when the owner of the bakery could finally get to them, he found that his employees had put their energy into baking bread for people in need. In fact, they had filled every shelf and display case in the store – bread that was then delivered to various shelters and to a police station. Hearing about the story, a person from Cincinnati offered to donate money to the bakery to help defray the costs of the 4,000-some loaves of bread that were given away.

 

Now, why would people risk themselves and give of themselves in these ways? Because the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It seems hidden, but it is all around us. It is also inside us. Whenever we sense the call to love others in small or heroic ways, we are perceiving the kingdom of God. And in every moment, we have the chance to be a part of it.

 

Sometimes we have the chance to act in big ways, like in the face of remarkable crises. But many times, most times, we have the chance to act in heroically small ways: like sitting with a friend as his spouse undergoes an operation, like dragging yourself out of bed for the fifth time when your sick child cries out, like sorting through piles of garage-sale donations to help support the church, like fixing the sidewalk so no one trips, like giving of your precious time to help when you could have been doing a million other things, like voting against your own interests because you know it will help your most vulnerable neighbors.

 

Whenever you act out of the pull of love and compassion and care for others – that is the kingdom of God inside of you. And as people of God, our story is to seek the kingdom, to listen for it, to see it, and to have the courage to be a part of it. In small ways, and yes, sometimes in very big ways.

 

So, when I moved out to New Jersey five years ago, it was the first time I met people – lots of people – who had directly experienced 9/11. And my best friend Jerry told me about how he had been working in Manhattan that day. Now you may or may not know that Manhattan is an island. And Jerry told me how scary it was, because after the planes hit the towers, immediately the city had to shut down the bridges and tunnels and trains and subways. And so it was extremely difficult for him – and many, many others – to get home.

 

It was a terrible day in our history. We witnessed acts of violence and evil, and so many lives were lost.

 

But friends, even on our very worst day, the kingdom of God is among us.

 

Let’s take a look at this video.

 

Boatlift Video. Watch whole thing or from 6:55 – onward.

 

https://youtu.be/MDOrzF7B2Kg

 

Even on our very worst day, the kingdom of God is among us and inside us.

 

Thanks be to God.

 

Amen.

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION & DISCUSSION IN SMALL GROUPS

  1. Where did you perceive the kingdom of God in the past few weeks?
  2. Think back on your life. What was one time when you sensed the call to respond in love to a person or situation? Did you do what you felt you were being called to? Why or why not?
  3. And thinking back again, what was one time when you were the recipient of someone else’s love, care, or generosity?