Father of the Seas

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Father of the Seas” Job 38:1-18

We live in a watery world.  70% of our planet is covered by ocean.  So important are the seas for the existence of life on earth that they are sometimes called the lifeblood or the lungs of the planet.

All life depends upon the water cycle that begins at sea.  The ocean is warmed by the sun and water evaporates. Warm water vapor rises and condenses into clouds as it enters the cool air of the atmosphere.  When clouds become filled with water, it precipitates, falling as rain or snow to fill our lakes, cap our mountains, bless our forests, and bring forth the harvest.

The ocean is equally essential in sustaining a breathable atmosphere.  Scientists estimate that seventy percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by marine plants, which absorb carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to energy. At the same time, they release oxygen into the atmosphere, giving us fresh and healthy air to breathe.

The ocean is the great temperature regulator of the planet.  It absorbs heat in summer and disperses it in winter.  Currents within the ocean, like great rivers, sweep the globe, bringing warm tropical waters north and cool arctic waters south.  For example, the Gulf Stream sweeps northward through the Atlantic, bringing warmer tropical waters, rain, and milder winters to the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.  In fact, without the ocean to moderate the earth’s temperature, this planet would be in perpetual winter.

The ocean is also a haven of stunning biodiversity. Microscopic marine plants (phytoplankton) are the great base of the ocean food chain.  Bioluminescent fish dwell in the watery depths of the sea, never seeing the sun but generating their own light.  Enormous blue whales, the largest creatures to ever exist on the planet, live ninety years, can reach up to 110 feet, weigh more than 330,000 pounds, and eat six tons of tiny crustaceans called krill every day.  How amazing is that?

One of the most essential truths that we embrace as people of faith is that God created the world and all that is in it. In pondering the ocean, we can affirm that God is a master creator with a stunning, interconnected, complex plan for the flourishing of life as we know it. 

Our reading from the Book of Job offers one of many descriptions in scripture of God’s work in creation.  According to Job, God spoke out of the whirlwind, remembering the birth of the ocean.  The primordial waters gushed forth from the cosmic womb and into the hands of God, who shaped them and set their bounds and limits.  Next, God clothed the deeps, like a newborn child.  God wrapped them in clouds and swaddled them in darkness.  Then, God swam through the springs of the sea and walked in the recesses of the deep. 

I love this particular creation story.  It affirms the truth that God is the great creator, but it does a whole lot more.  In the setting of limits and the forging of bounds, we hear that bringing our oceans into being was hard and intentional work.  In the holding and clothing of the seas, we hear God’s love for the ocean, like a parent tending a firstborn child. Finally, as God swims through the waves and walks upon the sea floor, we learn that God inhabits and delights in creation.  Anyone who has done a little body surfing at the beach or snorkeled along a coral reef knows the joy that God experiences in the ocean.  Indeed, this is a creation story that inspires both awe for the Creator and reverence for God’s watery creation.

Unfortunately, our oceans are in trouble and the problem is manmade.  We have used our oceans as a dumping ground.  Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s a floating dump in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, two-times the size of Texas.  Prevailing currents have collected trash from America and Asia into a 100-million-ton debris field. It’s an ecological catastrophe.

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest challenges to healthy seas. 17.6 billion pounds of plastic enter our oceans every year. That’s equivalent to a garbage truck load of plastic being dumped into the sea every minute. Five trillion plastic pieces weighing 250,000 metric tons are floating in our oceans right now.

Climate change greatly impacts our oceans. In the last fifty years, oceans have absorbed ninety percent of the excess heat caused by global warming.  That means that ocean temperatures are rising, especially along coastlines and at the poles, where scientists say the earth is warming twice as fast as at the equator.  Cold water habitats are shrinking, including places where phytoplankton grow, that most essential link in the world’s food chain. As our oceans absorb the growing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, that increases the acidity of waters, killing coral reefs and eroding the shells of clams and crabs.

That stunning biodiversity of our seas is at risk, too.  90 million tons of seafood are fished each year. Sixty percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished and in danger of collapse.  In 1992, years of overfishing led to the collapse of the Canada’s Grand Banks. 40,000 fishermen found themselves out of work.  Despite a moratorium on cod fishing, the Grand Banks cod population has never recovered. 

It isn’t just the fish we eat that is a threat to biodiversity. In the twentieth century, the whaling industry killed an estimated 2.9 million whales.  That’s a marine holocaust.  Some species, like the blue whales were reduced in population by ninety percent, putting them at risk for extinction. 

It isn’t just what we fish. It’s how we fish.  Trawling drags massive nets along the sea floor disrupting the ecosystem. Every year, hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, and porpoises are killed as they are caught and drowned in commercial nets – a practice that the fishing industry refers to a “bycatch” as if this is an acceptable by-product of the business.

If God were to speak to us from the whirlwind this morning, it would be a tale of lament.  The father of the oceans would weep as their beloved child suffers.  God would swim through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in disgust.  God would walk the devastated ocean floor in despair.  In our misuse of the oceans, we have failed to honor the creator and the creation. The lifeblood of the planet is bleeding out.  The lungs of the earth are gasping for air.  We have treated the keystone of creation like a sewer and a boundless resource for our personal profit.  In doing so, we have threatened death to the planet. It is time to gird up our loins like adults and account for our actions.  Lord, have mercy.

So, what we can do? It begins with a shift in how we see the world around us. If God is, indeed, the Creator who has birthed and delights in the creation, then we, as people of faith are called to touch the earth lightly, to carefully consider the impact of our actions upon this great web of being that God has woven.  If we can live and act from a place of reverence and humility, then there is hope for our oceans.

We can all make lifestyle choices that reduce our impact upon the oceans, starting with plastics.  We can stop using single use plastics like straws, cutlery, coffee cups, water bottles, plastic bags, and take-out containers.  If every American just used five fewer straws each year, it would keep 1.5 billion straws out of our landfills and oceans. We can also demand that restaurants and industries use and develop plastic alternatives like compostable containers for leftovers, re-useable cloth bags for produce, and bio-degradable plastics made from corn.

We can reduce our carbon footprint and take our little bite out of global warming.  If you live in town, try walking or riding a bike to run errands.  If you live out of town, combine errands to make only a trip or two each week.  Turn off lights when you leave a room.  Better insulate your home to reduce fuel consumption. Consider turning back the thermostat at night or when you are away from home for eight or more hours – you’ll save money and reduce heat loss through your building envelope.  Those of us who are carnivores can try eating less meat.  Land-based proteins like beef, pork, and lamb generate methane, a greenhouse gas, as part of their digestion.  If we really want to cut the world’s carbon footprint, we can make peace.  War consumes massive amounts of fossil fuels, devastates the natural world, and warships release extreme amounts of waste into bodies of water, degrading marine habitats and coastlines.

We can also do our part to maintain that stunning biodiversity of the ocean.  It can begin by making wise choices at the grocery for seafood that is sustainably fished or farmed.  I’ve made some copies for you of Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch National Consumer Guide.  The aquarium monitors the fishing industry to determine which seafoods are most sustainably fished or farmed.  They adjust their guide every six months so that you can trust that your fish dinner isn’t coming from fishing stocks in danger of collapse.  We can also speak out about “by-catch” that murders marine mammals in pursuit of a profit, and we can only purchase tuna that is sustainably caught – look for a label saying so on the can.  Finally, tell others about the importance of consumer choices for the world’s fisheries, and let your favorite restaurant know that you only want to see sustainable options on the menu.

We live in a wonderful, watery world.  It’s the pride and joy of the Father of the Seas.  On this Care for Creation Sunday, let’s resolve to do our part to keep the planet’s lifeblood flowing and lungs breathing.

Resources:

Joe McCarthy. “How War Impacts Climate Change and the Environment” in Global Citizen, April 26, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/how-war-impacts-the-environment-and-climate-change/

Alison Bailes. “If You Think Thermostat Setbacks Don’t Save Energy, You’re Wrong!” in Energy Vanguard, Feb, 17, 2012. Accessed online at https://www.energyvanguard.com/blog/if-you-think-thermostat-setbacks-don-t-save-energy-you-re-wrong.

Environmental Investigation Agency. “The State of the Ocean.” Accessed online at https://eia-international.org/ocean/the-state-of-the-ocean/

David Bauman. “State of the World’s Oceans” in UCONN Today, Feb. 10, 2016. Accessed online at https://today.uconn.edu/2016/02/state-of-the-worlds-oceans/

World Wildlife Fund. “7 Ways You Can Help Save the Oceans,” June 6, 2018. Accessed online at https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/7-ways-you-can-help-save-the-ocean

Oceana. “10 Ways You Can Help Save the Oceans” in Protecting the World’s Oceans. Accessed online at https://oceana.org/living-blue-10-ways-you-can-help-save-oceans/

Diane Boudreau, et al. “All about the Ocean” in National Geographic Resource Library, May 20, 2022. Accessed online at https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/all-about-the-ocean


Job 38:1-18

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man;
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

“Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
    and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began
    and caused the dawn to know its place,
13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
    and the wicked be shaken out of it?
14 It is changed like clay under the seal,
    and it is dyed like a garment.
15 Light is withheld from the wicked,
    and their uplifted arm is broken.

16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
    or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
    Declare, if you know all this.


Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Mercy, Me!

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Mercy, Me!” 1 Tim. 1:12-17

Oren Kalisman grew up with Muslim neighbors he never met.  In fact, as a Jewish child growing up in the Galilee, Oren’s only childhood memory of interacting with a Muslim neighbor was when his mother stopped to give a ride to an old man, hitchhiking on the road to the next village.  At eighteen, Oren, like his parents before him, began compulsory military service with the Israeli Defense Forces. He was selected for an elite squad of paratroopers with twenty soldiers under his command.

When the second intifada began in 2000, Oren and his unit were deployed outside a refugee camp. There they used snipers to pick off alarmed Palestinians who emerged to defend their homes with rocks and Molotov cocktails.  In 2002, a solo Palestinian attack at an Israeli checkpoint killed six Jewish soldiers.  Orders came from Oren’s commanding officers: the Muslim policemen manning Palestinian check points in the West Bank were to be killed in retaliation.  Fifteen officers were executed.

Oren justified the violence that he and his men perpetrated. If someone was throwing a Molotov cocktail at you, they should be killed.  Likewise, someone had to pay for the murder of six Israeli soldiers, even if those killed had nothing to do with the attack.  Oren was just doing his job.  He was following orders.

In our reading from 1 Timothy, the Apostle Paul alludes to his track record as a man of violence and a persecutor of Christians.  As a devout youth, Paul had studied with the esteemed rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem and become an expert in the Torah.  Paul practiced Pharisaic teachings, which touted an extreme piety and devotion as the best way to please God.  In his zeal as a young Pharisee, Paul had endorsed the stoning of the deacon Stephen, the first martyr among Jesus’ followers.  Paul had also harassed the church in Jerusalem, and when many fled to Syria, Paul sought special permission to take his violence on the road, to arrest and return to Jerusalem for punishment all who believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Paul justified his violent behavior, believing that he was rooting out a dangerous sect that defiled Judaism with the news of a false Messiah. 

We may not be members of the Israeli Defense Forces or Pharisees censuring blasphemers, but we know how it feels to be troubled by our pasts, even when we believed that what we were doing was true and righteous.  In fact, our past may continue to haunt our present and trouble our thoughts about the future.

Before coming to Saranac Lake, I enjoyed being a youth pastor in Morton Grove, Illinois.  I like to think that I did some good ministry among the young people of the church, but I think some of my best service was in providing caring presence and compassionate listening for some of the church’s oldest members, our World War II veterans.  They were troubled by remembrance of the friends they left behind on the beaches of Normandy.  They were disturbed by memories of the hate and violence they had directed toward Japanese enemies in the South Pacific.  They realized that they had brought the war home with them after it was over.  They kept secrets from their wives.  They had been emotionally distant with their children.  As Morton Grove welcomed an increasing number of Asian immigrants, they struggled to let go of their painful memories and love their new neighbors.  There were any number of ways that they could reasonably justify their past actions, but their violent pasts still troubled them.

In my twenty-two years of serving churches, I have learned that we can all be troubled by our pasts, whether we have embraced violence and persecution or we have simply engaged in practices that wound the spirit or brought injury to others.  We regret the harm we have caused our families: our impatience and harshness with our children, our failures to care for aging parents, or the too little love that we have shown to our spouse.  We regret the harm we have worked against the human family: our gender bias, our racial hate, our prejudice toward those whose ethnicity, social class, or political views are unlike our own.  We can be adept at justifying our actions and rationalizing our bad behavior, but when we are truly and deeply honest, we know our need for grace.  We know the late-night hours when we pray, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

Paul’s past caught up with him as he hurried down the Damascus Road, intent on arresting those who knew Christ as Lord.  According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was stopped dead, blinded by a heavenly light, and accused by the aggrieved Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Struck blind and powerless, the incapacitated Paul was taken to Damascus, where he spent three days without sight, neither eating nor drinking, pondering how he had gotten things so wrong.

Oren Kalisman’s turn around came during the Passover in April 2002.  In response to a terror attack in Netanya, Oren and his men were sent into the West Bank with orders to occupy Nablus, using whatever means were necessary.  From the second floor of a home that they had occupied, Oren heard gunfire from the room next door.  There, one of his men, a sniper, was firing at an unarmed old man who was seeking to recover the body of a boy, dead in the street below.  When Oren ordered his soldier to stop firing, he learned of orders from their commanding officer to kill with impunity.  Shocked at the inhumanity they had resorted to, Oren realized the moral quandary he was in.  Remembering that moment, the Israeli says, “We were surrounded by Palestinians who were fighting very bravely and who I realized, like ourselves sixty years ago, were fighting out of desperation for their very homes.”  At the end of the operation, Oren voiced his moral concerns and asked to be replaced.

We all have our Damascus Road moments when we are convicted of the harsh truth of sin.  Sin confronts us in the dysfunction that we instill in our families.  Sin shouts at us from the evening news as the murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, or the lead in Jackson, MI drinking water remind us of that racism is part of the fabric of our society.  If we are at all self-aware, we will admit the sin of writing off relationships, doing the wrong thing because it is the easy thing, and allowing ourselves to hate others because their political views are unlike our own.  When we sin against our neighbors, we sin against God.  We sin against Jesus, who asks why we are persecuting him. Lord, have mercy upon us.

Paul tells us good news. Although we act in ignorance and unbelief, the grace of God overflows for us.  Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom Paul deemed himself to be foremost. We are loved and forgiven.  And in the greatness of Christ’s mercy for us, we find a new purpose in service to God and neighbor.  Jesus would use Paul’s zeal to serve God’s Kingdom.  The former persecutor and newly Christened apostle would make multiple missionary journeys, plant countless churches, and touch many lives with the good news of God’s amazing grace that seeks and saves us when we are lost.

Oren Kalisman has found a new purpose.  He has established a chapter of Combatants for Peace in the West Bank community of Nablus where he once was an occupier.  Combatants for Peace brings together former members of the Israeli Defense Forces and former Palestinian combatants.  They share their stories, build relationships, and learn principles of non-violent conflict resolution.  Their goal is nothing less than building a foundation for Israelis and Palestinians that will bring lasting peace to the land.

My wise World War II friends knew that the only way forward from a war to end all wars was through the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ.  They trusted that, even though they might always be troubled by their war experiences, the grace of God overflowed for them.  They poured out their lives in God’s service in simple heartfelt ways. They attended church every Sunday. They shared their skills and abilities for God’s glory: founding a church, building a manse, tending the church gardens, serving on session. They kept God at the heart of their families with Sunday School and table graces, mission trips and church potlucks.  They knew their weakness and trusted that the Lord could do what they could not.  In the eighteen years since I served as one of their pastors, those men have all died.  I have no doubts that grace led each of them home.

The grace of Jesus Christ overflows for us this morning.  We are loved and God is faithful, even if we are, like Paul, the foremost of sinners.  Our immortal, invisible, only-wise God redeems us with a love that is stronger than the persecution of Pharisees or the intractable violence between Israelis and Palestinians.  God’s mercy for us is bigger than the legacy of war or all the ways that we can get things so wrong in our families and the human family. The mercy of God abounds for us and claims us for God’s purpose.  Lord, have mercy!

Resources:

The story of Oren Kalisman was recorded for The Forgiveness Project and may be read at https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories-library/oren-kalisman/

If you would like to learn more about Combatants for Peace, you can at this link: https://cfpeace.org/

Eric Barreto. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 11, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

Benjamin Fiore. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 15, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

Christian Eberhart. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 15, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

A.K.M. Adam. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 12, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org


1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience as an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


By Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17040973

It Will Cost You Everything

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 14:25-33

Jesus knew that following him would cost his disciples their lives.

James the son of Zebedee was the first apostle to be martyred.  Tradition tells us that James went all the way to Spain to share the gospel with Jewish colonists and slaves.  But on a return trip to Jerusalem, he ran afoul of the Roman authorities and was beheaded in the year 44CE.  They say that when the apostle was led out to die, a man who had brought false accusations against him walked with him.  The man was so impressed by James’s courage and joy that he recanted his false testimony and became a Christian.  Alas, James’s name wasn’t cleared.  Instead, the man was condemned to die with James. Both were beheaded on the same day and with the same sword.

The Apostle Andrew was also martyred.  Andrew took the gospel north, along the Black Sea and the Dnieper River as far as Kiev.  In the year 39CE, Andrew founded the church in Byzantium, which continues today as the center of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Andrew’s evangelizing came to a painful end in western Greece.  Arrested for disturbing the peace in the city of Patras in the year 60CE, Andrew was crucified.  Considering himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus, Andrew insisted that he be killed on an x-shaped cross.  They say the cross is still kept in the Church of St. Andrew at Patras in a special shrine.  Every November 30th, the feast day of St. Andrew, the cross is revered in a special ceremony.

Andrew’s brother, the Apostle Peter, was martyred, too, more than thirty years after Jesus’s crucifixion. They say that Peter was arrested and condemned following the Great Fire of Rome.  Although historians now know that the emperor Nero ignited the fire to clear away slums, the blaze burned out of control and destroyed much of the city.  Looking for a scapegoat, Nero blamed the Christians, many of whom were arrested, tortured, and executed.  Peter, at his own wish, was crucified upside down, either on the Janiculum hill or in the arena. When Michelangelo painted Peter’s martyrdom, he portrayed the upside-down, grey-bearded apostle looking very much in control, while soldiers managed the crowd and a cluster of four terror-stricken women cowered near the foot of the cross.

Jesus warned his friends that following him would cost them everything.  In today’s reading, Jesus was nearing the end of his journey where death waited for him in the Holy City.  Crowds, that were drawn by his teaching and healing, were on the road with the Lord.  Luke’s gospel describes the people as amazed, rejoicing, filled with awe, and praising God, who was so clearly at work in Jesus.  Who wouldn’t want to hear those wonderful sermons and watch those incredible miracles?  But according to Jesus, discipleship wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops. If anyone truly wanted to follow him, then they must be prepared to hate their families, take up their crosses, and give up their possessions.

Jesus was using a rhetorical style called hyperbole, a form of argument that embraces exaggeration to make a point.  In the first century world, the Beth Ab, the House of the Father, was the most fundamental building block in society.  Following Jesus could put disciples at odds with their families.  When James and his brother John answered Jesus’ invitation to drop their fishermen’s nets and start catching people, their father Zebedee was left behind in the boat.  Within a decade, traditional synagogues would expel those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, further dividing families into opposing camps of Jews and Christians.  To truly follow Jesus would call for a singular commitment.  The family of faith must supersede the Beth Ab, and there would be hardship and heartache for many.

As if losing family weren’t hardship enough, Jesus chased his hyperbolic warning about divided households with stories about the costly ventures of building a tower and waging war.  Jesus could have ripped those comparisons from the headlines today.  Many of us have had home improvement projects that have proven more costly and demanding than we ever imagined.  And when it comes to the unanticipated, high costs of war, we should check in with Vladimir Putin.  The Pentagon estimated in August that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded during the war in Ukraine.

Like a wet blanket on the fervent joy of the crowd, Jesus warned the people that discipleship would demand deep commitment and big risks.  Those people in the crowd had counted the blessings found in following Jesus, but had they considered the costs?  If they were truly intent on discipleship, then they would need singular commitment and deep allegiance in a world where following Jesus could cost you everything. 

Beyond those first century martyrs, history holds stories of faithful people who practiced a costly discipleship.  Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey stand ten statues of modern martyrs – twentieth century Christians who gave up their lives for their beliefs.

In 1937, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his most influential book, a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount called Nachfolge.  The rise of the National Socialist regime was underway in Germany.  As Hitler and his Nazi followers assumed power, Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, realized that his faith in Jesus demanded that he do the inconceivable: abandon his non-violent principles to become embroiled in a failed plot to assassinate the Fuhrer.  Bonhoeffer’s discipleship cost him everything: his principles, his liberty, and eventually his life.  He was executed, just days before his prison was liberated by allied forces.  His book Nachfolge was one of the most significant works of 20th century Protestantism, translated into English with the title The Cost of Discipleship.

As a young minister at the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was drawn into a demonstration against segregation on the city’s bus services. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was brilliantly successful, and King soon formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to press for racial justice. King and his family paid a steep price for his faithful work to win voting rights and opportunity for black Americans: death threats, bomb scares, police harassment, and prison. King ultimately lost his life, assassinated in Memphis while there to support sanitation workers seeking basic worker safety after 3 were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck.

Oscar Romero was serving as the archbishop of San Salvador when the killing of a fellow priest awakened him to the widespread abuse of political power by violent men who murdered with impunity. Wealthy citizens of El Salvador sanctioned the violence that maintained them, death squads executed those who voiced concerns in the cities, and soldiers killed as they wished in the countryside.  Romero committed his cause to the poor and began to document the abuse of human rights, daring to speak the truth in a country governed by lies, where men and women simply disappeared without account.  In March 1980, Romero was assassinated, shot dead while celebrating mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived.

From first century martyrs to the prophetic efforts of twentieth century Christians to end tyranny, pursue justice, and advocate for the poor, disciples have been taking up their crosses to follow Jesus for almost 2,000 years.  It’s a daunting truth that may feel frightening and impossible for us to imagine for ourselves. 

Yet, beyond those well-known names, are millions of everyday folks like you and me, who may not have died for Jesus’s sake, but they have shown singular commitment and deep allegiance by daring to follow the Lord in costly ways.  They have shared their faith amid repressive regimes, where talking about religion is forbidden.  They have spoken out against injustice in societies that label them dangerous radicals or misguided bleeding hearts.  They have sacrificed from their bounty for the sake of a world in need, giving generously to support churches, alleviate hunger, and care for vulnerable neighbors.  Beyond the martyrs and heroes of the faith, there is an invisible multitude, a great cloud of witnesses, who have paid the price of discipleship for the sake of Jesus Christ.

It’s easy to enjoy all the good things about being a follower of Jesus: love, forgiveness, grace, the life eternal.  It’s easy to be like that amazed, joyful, praise-filled crowd that tagged along on the road to Jerusalem.  But what happens when things get costly?  Are we willing to share our faith, risk the rejection of neighbors, or live with fewer toys or a more modest retirement for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom? 

Following Jesus will cost us our lives, my friends.  This morning, the Lord challenges us to sit down, add it up, and dedicate ourselves to him anyway.  Will we take up our crosses and follow?

Resources:

Jeannine Brown. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 5, 2010.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

Carolyn Sharp. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 4, 2022.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

David Jacobsen. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 4, 2016.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

Jeremy Diamond. “Russia facing ‘severe’ military personnel shortages, US officials say” in Russia-Ukraine news, August 31, 2022. Accessed online at https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/russia-ukraine-war-news-08-31-22/index.html.

–. “Martyrdom of St Peter, by Michelangelo” in Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Biography. Accessed online at https://www.michelangelo.org/martyrdom-of-st-peter.jsp.

–. “Modern Martyrs” in Westminster Abbey History. Accessed online at https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/modern-martyrs


Luke 14:25-33

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


Photo by Mauru00edcio Eugu00eanio on Pexels.com

Friends in Low Places

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 14:1, 7-14

A number of years ago, I invited Michael, a local homeless man, to come share Easter dinner with me and Duane.  Michael had worshipped with us some and even tried singing in the choir, sweating copiously in his blue choir robe and sometimes playing his African drum for us.  I tried on a number of occasions to persuade him to move into permanent housing, but he always resisted, choosing instead to couch surf, moving from home to home, crashing with friends until he wore out his welcome.  Michael seemed pleased with the Easter dinner invitation and promised to be there at two o’clock.

I was a little surprised on Easter Sunday when Michael wasn’t in church.  But on my way home, I ran into him coming out of Stewart’s.  He had a big bottle of Mountain Dew and an equally enormous bag of potato chips.  Looking at the chips and soda, I asked doubtfully, “Michael, you are coming to our house for dinner, aren’t you?”  He looked a little cagey but assured me that he wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I got home, I told Duane that the odds were fifty/fifty that the man would actually show.  But sure enough, Michael appeared at two, bearing his enormous bag of chips, unopened.  I put the chips in a big party bowl and added it to the spread: ham, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, rolls, crudité, salad, and Michael’s chips.  It was a feast.

Our lesson from Luke’s gospel describes a sabbath day feast hosted by Pharisees. In Jesus’ day, diners reclined on three low couches, called a triclinium.  Those three couches surrounded a low central table where food was placed.  Diners ate from common dishes, reaching with hands or pieces of bread to scoop up their dinner. 

Your place at the triclinium said a lot about who you were in society.  The guest of honor took the place of prominence next to the host with best access to food and conversation.  Then other guests, by virtue of their social standing, took places of descending prominence on the couches. Guests of least honor were pushed out to the margins, where food might be passed to them by another diner or a servant. Your place in first century society was worked out with table fellowship.  You invited guests of high standing to your banquet, hoping they would accept.  This increased your social status in the eyes of the community, especially when your high-status guest had to reciprocate by inviting you to dine at their table.

As Jesus watched this complex dance of social maneuvering around the triclinium, he shared a teaching that contradicted traditional practices of hospitality.  First, Jesus counseled diners to choose seats of humility, without any presumption of honor or status.  Then, he advised that they should rethink the guestlist.  Invite low-status guests who could not reciprocate their hospitality because they were poor or infirm.

Now, while righteous people like the Pharisees gave charitably for vulnerable neighbors, like widows, orphans, and refugees, the people whom Jesus described would never make the guestlist for the sabbath feast.  The poor, maimed, lame, and blind would have been a disgrace at the table of a high-status Pharisee, like his host.  Jesus’ words would have been incredibly offensive to everyone seated at the triclinium.  There would have been some major acid reflux around the banquet table.

Practicing the sort of hospitality that Jesus advocated wasn’t easy in the first century, and it isn’t easy today.  That Easter dinner with the homeless Michael was part of many interactions with him that were alternately funny, puzzling, and angering.  One morning, Michael called me before six o’clock, waking me up.  A doe had been hit and killed on the LePan Highway, near where he was couch surfing.  He had butchered the doe for meat, but he wanted to know if I was interested in the hide of the unborn fawn.  He thought I might like to tan it so that I could make a drum. Then, there was the day when Michael told me that God was calling him to work with children and youth at our church.  That blew up even before it started when I asked him to collaborate with others and follow church policies.  On another occasion, I returned home from a two-week vacation to learn that Michael had moved into the church basement in my absence.  Everyone knew about it, but no one wanted to deal with it, so it was left to me to have the “come-to-Jesus” talk with my homeless buddy. 

“Michael” I told him, “I wish you would let me help you get into an apartment.  You’ve got to go. No one gets to live at the church, not even me.”  He wasn’t happy, but he moved out, and he stopped coming to our church.

Jesus, do you understand what you are asking of us when you suggest that we invite our vulnerable, crippled, impoverished, crazy neighbors to be a real part of our lives?  Honestly, Lord. Do you realize the difficulty, frustration, and risk that come when we open ourselves up to those sorts of relationships? We’re not sure we really want to go there.  Can’t we, like the Pharisees, simply do our mitzvah and practice a little charitable giving, assuaging our conscience and maintaining the status quo?

Here is the rub.  Jesus chose to specially identify with his neighbors who were vulnerable, stigmatized, and excluded.  One of the reasons that Jesus was being carefully watched by the Pharisees was his practice of eating with sinners, tax collectors, and outcasts.  On the sabbath day, when all eyes should be on God Almighty, Jesus reached out to heal the lowly, from bent-over-women to men with dropsy and withered hands.  And while Jesus could have been building his social status by helping and healing the most prestigious households in the land, Jesus tended to blind beggars, demon-possessed boys, hemorrhaging women, and scabby unclean lepers.  When Jesus got to Jerusalem, he would die as many of the people whom he helped had lived: outcast, rejected, in pain, and humiliated. 

In the very last parable that Jesus shared with his friends, he exhorted them to see him in their most vulnerable and rejected of neighbors (Matt. 25:31-46).  On the far side of death, on the far side of the miracle of resurrection, Jesus would continue to walk this earth in the guise of people who are sick and hungry, destitute and outcast, thirsty and imprisoned. He called these hurting folks his “little brothers and sisters.”  Indeed, when disciples choose to welcome and serve these lowest-status neighbors, they are truly welcoming and serving the hidden Christ, who walks among us still.

In following the ethic of hospitality that Jesus taught, we dare to truly connect with our hurting and sometimes hard-to-love neighbors; and at the same time, we are playing host to Jesus.  We never know where we might find him: in line at the Food Pantry, pushing a shopping cart home from the Grand Union, in need a ride to a doctor’s appointment, eating goulash at the Community Lunchbox, camping out in the church basement.  When we encounter the hidden Jesus, it can be messy and uncomfortable. They may test our healthy boundaries with expectation for things we cannot give.  They may not follow our good advice. They may have demons that we cannot exorcise.  And still, we owe them a debt of love and a seat at the table.  Will we extend ourselves in humility, sharing the simplest gifts of hospitality?

My homeless friend Michael skipped town.  He was picked up in Lake Placid for possession of a small amount of marijuana, but because it was near a school, it was a big deal.  As his court date neared, Michael vanished.  Then, one early morning, almost a year later, Michael called me.  What a surprise!  True to form, Michael was using a borrowed cellphone, undoubtedly belonging to someone whose couch he was surfing. 

“How are you?!” I wanted to know.  “Where did you go? Is everything ok?” 

Michael assured me that he was fine.  He was back in the Midwest near family.  He still loved the Lord, and he was helping a lot of people.  We talked about life at the church and drumming.  After a while, there was just silence on the line. Not comfortable, but not really uncomfortable. Eventually Michael spoke up, “I just want you to know I’m ok, and I’m not mad at you.” I assured him that I wasn’t mad at him either.  We prayed and hung up. 

I never heard from Michael again, but I suspect that one day we just might meet up again—at that heavenly feast on the far better shore over a big bag of potato chips.

Resources:

Carolyn Sharp. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 28, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Jacobsen. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 28, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jeannine Brown. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 289, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Mitzi Smith. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 1, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.


Luke 14:1, 7-14

1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”


Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

Bent Over

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Bent Over” Luke 13:10-17

It was the best sermon I had ever heard.  Shall I start with the voice?  Rich and melodic, captivating.  Within moments, I felt as if I had known him all my life.  He read the Torah with such love, as if he were feasting on every word.  And when he opened the scriptures to us, they came alive.  I could feel the compassion and mercy of God in ways that I had never felt before, as if even I were a beloved child of God.  The synagogue at Capernaum was quiet. Every ear strained to hear every sound.  When Rivka’s baby began to fuss, we all said, “Shhhh!” not wanting to miss a word.

But then it stopped.  Without warning or “Amen,” there were simply no more words.  Worshippers began to buzz and turn restlessly in their seats.  Slowly things got louder, like a wave of sound rising from the best seats at the front of the sanctuary and rolling back to where I stood, mostly hidden, in the doorway.  My husband Moshe placed a hand upon my back and cursed under his breath.  “Lord, help us! It’s you, Mahalath. He sees you.  I knew we never should have come.”

I should tell you about my back.  It started the year our second child was born, a sweet and ruddy boy to join an older brother.  I was still hale and strong.  With one child bouncing on my hip and another sleeping in a sling at my breast, I worked alongside Moshe. We brought in the barley harvest and shook olive branches to rain down a harvest of ripe fruit. I milked the goats, fed chickens, ground grain at the wheel, and spun wool into yarn.  Young and able with the handsome Moshe at my side and our beautiful boys, I was the envy of many, and that may have been part of the problem.  You know the ways of jealousy and the dangers of the evil eye.

One day, I bent to lift the bread from the oven, and I couldn’t stand up.  My back writhed like it was being squeezed in a vice, and my whole body seized in pain.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t move.  I dropped to my knees, sending the loaves into the fire.  The world grew dim and then went black.

I’m not sure how long I was in darkness.  I awoke to the sound of my children crying.  Moshe hovered over me, looking worried.  A Greek physician from Sepphoris had been brought to attend me. 

“Ah!  You are awake!” the doctor said matter-of-factly.  He dribbled a vile tasting liquid into the corner of my mouth.  “Drink it all, dear,” he said with kindness. “It will help with the pain.”  I gagged it down, blinking back tears, and slipped into a sleep troubled by dreams of fire, serpents, and burned bread.

When I awoke, Moshe was sitting at my side, holding my hand.  Our boys had climbed into the bed with me.  Their small hands clutched the folds of my tunic. Their cheeks were red with worry and weeping.  “Ugh!” I moaned.

Moshe leaned in, “Mahalath, stay still.  The Greek says that you have been possessed by the spirit of the python.  You must save your strength to fight.”

Now, I had heard that in Delphi, on the far side of the Great Sea, the Greeks worship the sun god.  Poseidon speaks through priestesses possessed by the spirit of the python.  Twisted, bent, and rigid, they prophesy all day long.  For the right price, they might even tell you of a bright future.  But that had nothing to do with me. I loved Yahweh.  I was a beloved daughter of Israel, or so I thought.

I did fight.  I found my feet again.  I learned to live with pain.  I tended my children.  I did my best to keep our home and fields, but I never stood up straight again. Our neighbors said that I was “bent over,” as if I were a broken reed or a tree snapped by a windstorm. With every year, my back bent more noticeably, and as my shoulders rounded and my spine folded in on itself, my perspective grew small, narrow, and limited. 

My affliction made me unwelcome at the synagogue, for only someone cursed by Yahweh could look as I did.  But each week, I would wait at the back, hovering in the doorway, hoping for the smallest crumb of blessing.  Our neighbors stopped including us, uncomfortable with my woe and believing the worst.  One day, the neighborhood children began to call me names. At first, they did so behind my back; eventually, they did so to my face.  In time, most people just called me “Bent Over Woman,” as if I didn’t even have a real name.  I prayed always, hoping that if I could find the right words, I might be set free from this prison that my body had become.

So, while I could tell you that he preached the best sermon I had ever heard, and I could tell you that Rivka’s baby fussed, and I could tell you that the preaching stopped and the sound of whispering and unrest rolled to me like a restless wave, I could not tell you what he looked like, or why Rivka’s baby fussed, or why the rabbi stopped speaking, or why the sound of my restless neighbors rolled toward me.  Because the only thing that I could see was what I always see: my feet.

Moshe reached a protective arm around my back and held my hand.  “Mahalath,” he whispered, “He’s waving to you!  He wants you to come forward.”

I tried to turn and leave, but Moshe held me fast.  “Mahalath,” he urged, “What have we got to lose?” 

What did we have to lose?  It doesn’t get much worse than living in constant pain, shunned by your neighbors, and excluded from your church.  It doesn’t get much worse than being called Bent Over Woman.  My life had become an agony of loneliness and suffering.  With Moshe at my side, I walked to the front.

If it was quiet when the rabbi spoke, it was deathly still as I stood before him.  Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on me.  Every breath was held.  Even Rivka’s baby was silent. 

Then, this rabbi did a most unusual thing.  He squatted down on his haunches, down into my limited field of vision, and he looked up into my face.  He was sun-browned, as if he worked in the fields.  Fine lines creased the corners of his eyes, which were a deep, bottomless brown.  He smiled and his kind eyes sparkled with interest and concern. Next, he said the most ridiculous thing that I had ever heard, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Didn’t he see what everyone else saw: my hideous bent-over back?  Someone snickered. Moshe took a protective step closer.

What happened next is still being talked about in Capernaum.  The rabbi stood up and placed his two broad, strong hands on my poor crippled back.  What I noticed first was warmth, like the sun on a winter day bringing a blessing to your upturned face.  Slowly it flowed out from his hands, spreading down to the tips of my toes and reaching up to the top of my head.  It was then that I realized that my pain was gone.  The spirit of the python that had held me tight in its grip had departed!  I took a deep breath and then another. Then, for the first time in eighteen years, I stood up.  I gasped and shouted bold cries of “Alleluia!” and “Thanks be to the Holy One of Israel!” I hugged Moshe, then I hugged the rabbi as my neighbors watched in shocked silence.

Not everyone was happy.  The synagogue leader was scandalized that I had entered the sanctuary, and the rabbi had healed on the sabbath.  But the rabbi would hear none of it, for surely, even one such as I deserved the mercy that is shown to an ox or mule. 

With a wink, the rabbi turned to me. “Mahalath,” he called me by name. “Mahalath, I think I just finished my sermon for today.”

I practically danced toward the door of the synagogue, followed by the rabbi and Moshe.  Out they went, but before I left, I turned to my neighbors, the ones who for eighteen years had ignored me, gossiped about me, called me names, and failed to show me the courtesy one might extend to a barnyard animal.  I looked them in the eyes and said, “By the way, my name is not Bent-Over-Woman.  My name is Mahallath. You are welcome to come break your fast with us today.”

The synagogue erupted in cheers and praise.  That sabbath evening, Jesus dined with us, and so did all of Capernaum. The pot never emptied, the bread seemed to multiply, and the wine never failed. But that is a miracle to tell on another day.  I rejoiced—and so did the whole village with me—in the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.


Luke 13:10-17

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.


James Tissot, “The Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years” (La femme malade depuis dix-huit ans), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

When Faith Divides

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “When Faith Divides” Luke 12:49-56

Our faith may put us at odds with others.  Take my family for example.  My grandparents were all Presbyterians.  But that homogeneity of belief is a thing of the past.  My sister is a Methodist lay pastor.  My brother is a born-again southern Baptist. I have an uncle who converted to Judaism. A bevy of cousins are fundamentalists, an equal number are nominally Catholic, some are completely unchurched.  I imagine that if we were to break into small groups and share a little about the religious context of our families and friends, we would hear similar stories of conflicting beliefs and convictions.  We have probably learned through bitter experience that conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table should never turn to matters of faith unless we want to risk a food fight.

Jesus warned his followers that his life and ministry would bring conflict and bitter division to their lives.  I bet the disciples didn’t like to hear those words of warning any more than we do.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”  This is no warm and fuzzy lesson.  As Jesus spoke, he and his friends were on their way to Jerusalem.  We can hear in his words the stress and tension that he must have felt.  His mission was nearing fulfillment in his death and resurrection in a holy city rocked between the joyous welcome of “Hosanna!” and the murderous shouts of “Crucify him!” There would be no peace in Jerusalem that Passover.

Jesus knew from personal experience that pursuing God’s purpose would cause family trouble.  Remember the day that Mother Mary and Jesus’s brothers showed up at the house where he was teaching (Matthew 12:46-49)? Fearing for Jesus’ mental and physical well-being, they sought to forcibly take him home to Nazareth.  Jesus refused them an audience, turning instead his followers and said, “Here are my mother, brothers, and sisters. Whoever does the will of the Father is my kin.”  Think of the sorrow and worry with which Jesus’s family turned around and went home.

Jesus’s followers knew that discipleship would bring trouble from the moment that fishermen James and John left their father Zebedee behind in the boat and answered Jesus’s call. When Luke recorded his gospel (about the year 75), the early church was plagued by division.  Traditional synagogues had driven out Christians as heretics. Many fled Israel to live in exile across the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Greece to Rome. We admire the Acts of the Apostles with its vivid stories: Philip teaching Samaritans and Ethiopians, Peter preaching to Roman soldiers, and Paul witnessing to the Gentiles.  Yet, we fail to recognize that behind those bold and risky triumphs there were scandalized parents, alienated siblings, lost loves, and outraged neighbors. Discipleship brought days of triumph, but it also brought sorrow, pain, and oh yes, plenty of division.

There are places in this world where being a Christian remains a recipe for conflict, rejection, and even death.  245 million Christians in 150 countries experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ. That works out to about 1 in 9 Christians around the world who live with threat of violence right now. For the most recent year that data is available, 4,136 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons. 2,625 Christians were detained without trial, sentenced, and imprisoned. 1,266 churches or Christian buildings were attacked, many destroyed. For persecuted Christians the world over, Jesus’s scary warning about family rejection and coming persecution are an affirmation of their faithfulness in a hostile world where belief can cost you your life.

Today in Cuba, where Christians face ongoing harassment from government authorities, David Walter Fis pastors a church. State security officials demolished the church building, and when the congregation continued gathering, officials placed restraining orders on Pastor Fis and the congregation. Despite the government’s attempts to silence their witness, the church has continued meeting in the homes of church members or in fields.

In Pakistan, Sahid and his wife Memona live in a small Hindu village. In April, they were confronted by Hindu family members and neighbors about their Christian beliefs. The couple refused to renounce their faith in Christ. Around two weeks later, their home was set on fire, and their two youngest children were killed. When the couple notified the police, the authorities tried to pressure them into saying that the fire was an accident.

In Indonesia, Nia became a Christian through the influence of friends. When her Muslim family learned of her faith, they threatened to behead her. They subsequently kept her locked in her room.  Although the parents eventually released her, they have forced her to take psychiatric drugs and see an Islamic leader for “healing.” Her Christian friends and church community are unsure how to help.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”  It’s all so black and white in the world of Jesus and the disciples.  It’s all so cut and dried in the experience of believers in those 150 countries where Christians are persecuted.  Indeed, those experiences of hardship for the sake of faith make our Thanksgiving dinner family squabbles seem tepid and innocuous.  Yet I believe that when we live with integrity, our calling as followers of Jesus continues to put us at odds with others, continues to invite us to speak truth and risk conflict for the sake of the gospel that we hold dear.  There are moments in our lives when we will risk conflict and division if we are to keep the faith. 

It may be the day that you become a whistleblower, putting your foot down over the ethical corners that your boss cuts.

It could be the time that you stop your uncle in the middle of his familiar racist or sexist jokes.

It could be your refusal to turn a blind eye to the way a family member has mistreated their spouse or children. 

Perhaps it will be when you invite your non-believing spouse to stop treating your faith like an inconvenient hobby and ask them to join you in the pews.

It may be the day when you speak truth to a parent about the harm that their addiction has caused the family and insist that they get help.

It could even be when you stop a friend from spreading a malicious rumor by reminding them how hurt the target of their gossip would feel to hear those cruel words.

If we are willing to truly live as a disciple of Christ, there will be plenty of occasions for us to stand firm in the faith in ways that will place us at odds with others.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Christians like us, who live with tolerance and religious liberty, isn’t persecution.  Instead, the challenge we face is our reluctance to make waves for the sake of our faith.  When our Christian conscience is pricked by the unethical, hurtful, or harmful behavior of others, we bite our tongues or look the other way.  We do not take a stand for fear of being labeled self-righteous, judgmental, or holier than thou.  We don’t want to be known as one of “those Christians.”

My former colleague, the Rev. Dr. John Walton, with whom I served at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, teaches that today’s reading from Luke, with its scary warning about family conflict, is meant to be read alongside the following reading in Luke 13:6-9.  That’s the equally uncomfortable parable of the unfruitful fig tree.  Remember it?  When a fig tree refuses to bear fruit, a land owner threatens to cut it down.  Fortunately for the fig tree, a good gardener bargains for more time, promising to apply fertilizer and special care to ensure a fruitful future.  It’s a parable of judgment that begs us to consider if we are fruitful fig trees.  Are we bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God?  If we stood in a court of judgment, would there be sufficient evidence in our daily living to convict us of being Christians?  Or, have we hidden our faith and refused the risks that come when we affirm that Christ is Lord?

According to Jesus, the Kingdom, with its demand for action is always all around us.  It’s as obvious as the storm clouds that bring rain or the south wind that causes a scorcher.  If we are willing to truly live as a disciple of Christ, if we take the obligations of the Kingdom of God seriously, then there will be plenty of occasions for us to stand firm in the faith in ways that will place us at odds with others. Pick your battle.

Resources

Jerusha Neal. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 14, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 18, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Emerson Powery. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 18, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 15, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Statistics on Christian persecution around the world are from Open Doors.  Accessed online at https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/christian-persecution-by-the-numbers/

Stories of persecuted Christians are from The Voice of the Martyrs. Accessed online at https://www.persecution.com/stories/


Luke 12:49-56

49 “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain,’ and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?


Photo credit: Getty Images, accessed online at https://www.newsweek.com/christian-persecution-genocide-worse-ever-770462

Faith, Not Fear

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Faith, Not Fear” Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 12:32

Ruth is afraid.  Ever since she got that diagnosis, she wakes in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.  Her thoughts race. She wonders how she’ll pay the doctor’s bills.  She knows how much her kids need her now – they may be grown, but, Lord, they depend upon her common sense and encouragement.  She thinks about her husband Bud and wonders how he’ll get by if she doesn’t beat this.  The man can barely fry an egg.  With heart pounding and the acrid taste of fear in her mouth, Ruth tosses and turns.

Brad is afraid that he’ll never pass the bar exam.  He wasn’t at the top of his law school class, but he worked hard and did all right.  He even took one of those courses that prep you for the two-day test.  But when Brad sits down to take the exam, things don’t go so well. While everyone else seems to fly through the six essays, Brad can’t concentrate or organize his thoughts, and the more he thinks about it, the more stressed he feels.  He feels even worse when he begins to think about paying back his law school loans. He has failed twice.  He’ll try once more, but he doesn’t feel confident. 

Jenny is afraid that she’ll spend her life alone.  She is shy.  A middle child with two overbearing siblings, she learned to keep a low profile growing up. Her work as a researcher is solitary, and since the pandemic began, she has been working remotely.  Her college friends are married with families of their own.  She tried one of those dating apps, but found that the people she met didn’t share her values and had little interest in commitment.  It doesn’t help that Jenny’s sister reminds her that her biological clock is ticking. Some days, Jenny feels hopeless about the future.

Abraham was afraid.  He was already getting grey in the beard and long in the tooth when God called him away from his ancestral home in Ur of the Chaldeans.  God promised Abraham and Sarah land and children, so they took a big risk and made the long journey.  Along the way, there had been blessing, a land that flowed with milk and honey, flocks, prosperity, and victory.  But what Abraham and Sarah really wanted, a child, remained an unfulfilled hope.

In this day and age when people may opt to not have children for any number of reasons, it may feel difficult to understand the despair and disappointment that Abraham felt.  In the ancient near east, childlessness was a source of social ridicule and shame.  Tradition taught that God alone governs fertility and opens and closes wombs, so a childless couple must be displeasing to the gods.  This view persevered in the rabbinic tradition.  In Jesus’s day, a childless man could not sit on the Sanhedrin, the governing board of the Temple.  According to the Mishnah, the childless man was reckoned as if menuddeh, “cut off” from all communion with God, like one who has deliberately disregarded divine commands. Some texts consider a childless man to be already dead.  From a purely practical point of view, in those days long before a social safety net, children were one’s heritage and safeguard for care and protection in old age. 

Given that cultural context, we can hear the fear and hopelessness in Abraham’s voice.  God tells Abraham to not be afraid.  God promises that Abraham’s reward will be very great.  But the patriarch laments, “O Lord God, what difference does it make what you give me for I continue childless?”  The questions within Abraham’s question are, “Do you love me, God?  Are you with me? Can you bless me when the world seems stacked against me?”

Fear can get the better of us.  When we are afraid, our body responds powerfully.  Threat kicks our hypothalmus, pituitary, and adrenal glands into overdrive. Primary stress hormones, like cortisol, adrenaline, and nonadrenaline flood our systems.  Our heart rate and respiration soar.  We feel the butterflies of panic.  When we experience chronic fear, like illness, vocational woes, social isolation, violence, or crisis, we experience a reduction in our defenses and adaptive energy.  Pretty soon, we are feeling overloaded, burned out, and fatigued.  Our immune system can be compromised.  Our sleep/wake cycle gets disrupted.  We can’t eat—or we eat too much. Our headaches turn into migraines, muscle aches become fibromyalgia, body aches turn into chronic pain, and difficulty breathing can turn into asthma.  Fear can even affect our spiritual life.  Like Abraham, we may feel bitterness or confusion toward God.  Like Abraham, we may struggle to trust God.  We may even find it hard to be hopeful about the future.

I love how God responded to Abraham.  God didn’t chastise Abraham for his ingratitude.  God didn’t withdraw God’s love in an act of punishment.  God didn’t treat the patriarch like a spoiled child and take away all his blessings.  Instead, God took Abraham outside, into the deep dark of the night before the advent of electric lights.  God called Abraham’s attention to the night sky, the milky way stretched across the heavens like a tent, a dazzling, visual symphony of stars and planets dancing across the darkness. “Take a look at this Abraham,” God promised, “This is what your progeny will one day be like.”

I suspect that Abraham felt very small beneath the night sky. To think that God, who had created that great cosmic lightshow from God’s very self, should care for Abraham!  To imagine that God, who spins the whirling planets, should stand with him in the darkness and promise him a future!  Surely, if the great God of the universe could do all this, then maybe Abraham could trust that God keeps God’s promises.  As faith and trust swelled within the patriarch’s heart, he began to fear less.  His heart slowed, his breath became even, the butterflies of panic in his gut flew away. There beneath the arc of the heavens, Abraham felt peace.

It didn’t happen overnight.  It took fourteen more years.  There were some rocky moments and crises of faith along the way.  But in God’s time, Abraham and Sarah conceived.  They were old as dirt and good as dead when their son was born.  They named him Isaac, which means God laughs, and Abraham and Sarah laughed, rejoicing in the faithfulness of God.

We all contend with fear.  Like Ruth, we have sleepless nights plagued by big and little fears.  Like Brad, we may fear that our dreams just won’t come true.  Like Jenny, we may fear the social isolation and disconnection that are characteristic of our world today.  What are you afraid of?

Abraham reminds us that faith is the remedy for fear.  Jesus knew that.  Indeed, that’s why Jesus encouraged his disciples with the words, “Fear not little flock, for it is your heavenly Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We might write those words off as an empty promise if they weren’t spoken by Jesus, who rose above fear to face head-on the agony of the cross and reveal to us the limitless love that God holds for us.  God, who spins the whirling planets, God, who raised Jesus from the grave, God is more than a match for our fears.  Let that truth swell your heart and bring you peace.  Have faith. Fear less.

Ruth decided that she wasn’t going to allow her fear to get the better of her.  She likes to tell folks that when you can’t sleep, don’t count sheep.  Talk to the shepherd.  She still feels overwhelmed from time to time, but those late-night times of prayer remind her that God is powerful, even when she is not.

When Brad realized that his fear was jeopardizing his vocational future, he went to his pastor about it.  The pastor referred Brad to a counselor who has helped Brad add a few tools to his belt to help wrangle that overwhelming fear, like meditation, breathing exercises, and visualization.  Brad and his pastor prayed together, and Brad has been added to the church’s prayer chain.  He knows that when he next takes the exam, he’ll be better equipped, and he’ll have some caring folks praying for him, too.

One of Jenny’s married friends invited her to come to church.  Jenny is still shy, but in the shared acts of worship, service, and learning, she has found that she is not alone.  There are other folks who have the same values.  They like her for who she is and make her feel welcomed.  In their kindness and love, Jenny can feel God’s love for her.  When Jenny’s sister reminds her that her biological clock is ticking, Jenny says that Jesus never had kids, but he left quite a legacy.

May our faith cast out fear.

Resources:

Judith Reesa Baskin. “Infertile Wife in Rabbinic Judaism” in Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/infertile-wife-in-rabbinic-judaism

MJP Atchison. “Children: A divine inheritance” in Religion News Service, June 18, 1996. https://religionnews.com/1996/06/18/commentary-children-a-divine-inheritance/

Jaime Rosenberg. The Effects of Chronic Fear on a Person’s Health. In AJMC, Nov. 11, 2017. https://www.ajmc.com/view/the-effects-of-chronic-fear-on-a-persons-health

Joe Pierre. “How Does Fear Influence Risk Assessment and Decision-Making?” In Psychology Today, July 15, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psych-unseen/202007/how-does-fear-influence-risk-assessment-and-decision-making

Sara M. Koenig. “Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6” in Preaching This Week, August 11, 2013. https://workingpreacher.com

Callie Plunkett-Brewton. “Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6” in Preaching This Week, August 11, 2019. https://workingpreacher.com


Genesis 15:1-6

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.


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Property Problems

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Property Problems” Luke 12:13-21

Rising inflation has us doing a double-take at the cost of groceries.  The war in Ukraine has sent gas prices soaring and made it painful at the pump.  Market volatility has not been kind to our 403-Bs and 401-Ks.  Yet, despite the economic pinch that we are feeling, we live in the world’s most affluent society.  The US has had the world’s largest economy since 1871.  With a GDP of $25.3 trillion, we far outpace our nearest competitor, China, at $19.9 trillion.  The US has the largest population of ultra-high net worth individuals in the world, including 724 billionaires.  Even COVID-19 hasn’t put a dent in the lives of the super-wealthy.  According to Forbes Magazine, the US added 98 new billionaires in 2020 and the net worth of America’s billionaires surged 62% during the pandemic to $4.7 trillion.

All that affluence may not always be good for us.  Several studies have shown that wealth may be at odds with empathy and compassion. Research published in the journal Psychological Science found that people of lower economic status were better at reading others’ facial expressions—an important marker of empathy—than wealthier people. Having more resources can also cause bad behavior. In fact, UC Berkeley researchers found that even fake money could make people’s behavior rude and inappropriate. When two students played Monopoly, one having been given a great deal more Monopoly money than the other, the wealthier player expressed initial discomfort, but then went on to act aggressively, taking up more space and moving his pieces more loudly, and even taunting the player with less money.  Wealth may also cause a sense of moral entitlement. Another UC Berkeley study found that in San Francisco—where the law requires cars to stop at crosswalks for pedestrians to pass—drivers of luxury cars were four times less likely than those in less expensive vehicles to stop and allow pedestrians the right of way. They were also more likely to cut off other drivers.  Most troubling of all, children from affluent households are at significantly greater risk for depression, anxiety, and addiction, perhaps due to greater pressure to excel, succeed, and step into the big affluent shoes of their parents.

Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel presents us with one of Jesus’s toughest teachings about the dangers of affluence.  Someone in the crowd asked Jesus to arbitrate a family dispute about wealth.  The fact that the questioner asked Jesus to rule in his favor, “Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me,” tells us that something isn’t quite right here.  Jesus’ warning, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” suggests that someone’s attitude toward the inheritance was dangerously close to idolatry.  The Greek word here for greed, pleonexia, means an insatiable desire for more that spawns avarice.

Jesus next told the Parable of the Rich Fool, an exaggerated, cautionary tale about the danger that may accompany wealth.  The rich man in the story had property problems. First, he had an inordinate love of stuff.  When a windfall crop presented him with a surplus, he hatched a plan to build bigger barns rather than part with any of his abundance.  It also seems that he loved his stuff more than he loved his neighbor.  Tony Campolo, who taught for many years at Eastern College and Seminary, says that there are about 900 teachings in scripture about the importance of sharing our abundance.  But the rich man didn’t see his bumper crop as a blessing for anyone but himself. What’s more, the man didn’t see God as the source of his windfall.  His abundance was the blessed outcome of productive seed, fertile soil, ample rainfall, long days of sunshine, and shelter from pests and disease, all things beyond his power and control.  Yet the man’s greatest mistake was his attitude about the future.  He thought he had safeguarded his future by laying up his harvest.  But the future belongs to God—all life comes from God and all life returns to God in God’s time.  It’s no wonder that Jesus concluded his harsh and uncomfortable story with God calling the man a fool.

It’s hard to know what to do with Jesus’s tough teachings about the dangers of wealth.  I don’t believe that Jesus thought that wealth is evil.  Some of the people who surrounded and supported Jesus in his ministry were wealthy.  Joanna the Myrrh-bearer, who waited at the foot of the cross and came to the empty tomb, was the wife of one of the most affluent and powerful men in Israel, Chuzza the steward of King Herod.  Nicodemus was also wealthy and influential.  In John’s gospel, Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’s body for the grave.  A one-pound jar of myrrh cost a year’s wages.  Imagine the wealth that Nicodemus had to be able to purchase 100 pounds of the precious stuff. So, Jesus didn’t have it in for rich people. When we look at Joanna and Nicodemus, we see people who used their abundance in service to Jesus and in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.  So perhaps this uncomfortable Parable of the Rich Fool isn’t a condemnation of wealth so much as it is fresh perspective for discipleship in a world that prizes affluence above all else.

The challenge for us is to redefine how we relate to our possessions.  Jesus would first invite us to question how our society prizes possessions.  We live in a culture that tells us that stuff can meet our deepest needs.  Over the course of a lifetime, the average television viewer will spend a year watching commercials – that’s right, a year of our lives wasted on advertisements, designed to tempt us to go buy stuff.  It’s no wonder that we can get caught up in a vicious cycle of consumption, buying to meet the needs that advertisers tell us we must fill.  Social theorists call this relentless drive to consume affluenza, as if it’s a disease, “the bloated, sluggish, unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses.”

In a world dominated by affluenza, Jesus would stress that our deepest needs for meaning and purpose are never met by things.  Those needs are only met by God.  What really matters in life: love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, salvation, relationship, and dignity, all are found in God—all free of charge.  When we grasp this fact, life finds true meaning, and we are liberated from that vicious cycle of consumption.  We begin to relate to our relative affluence in ways that allow us to make different choices.

Jesus would also have us consider how our relative affluence shapes how we relate to others.  Augustine taught that God gives us possessions to use and people to love.  Sin is when we get that the wrong way around.  We use people and we love possessions.  After all, Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor, not God and stuff.  Our affluence, then, is meant to be a resource in expressing our love for God and neighbor.  That’s where Tony Campolo’s 900 scripture references come in handy, inspiring us to share a tithe of our income, provide for the widow, care for the orphan, and shelter the refugee.  Could we think about our relative affluence as a whole lot of love, ready to make a difference in the world?  Now, that’s a paradigm shift. It’s the antithesis of affluenza and the heart of Christian discipleship. Here is more good news: one of the best ways to cut the risk of depression, anxiety, and addiction in affluent kids is to model for them this sort of compassionate neighborliness and to get them involved in serving others and connecting with all kinds of people.

Finally, Jesus would have us remember the true source of our affluence and blessing. The rich man thought he was the architect of his fortune and the guarantor of his future.  But Jesus reminds us that God is the source of our blessing, and the future is held in God’s hands.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard for what we have, but ultimately all we have and all we are—the heart that beats, the air we breathe, the abilities that we parlay into achievement—all these are God-given gifts. 

Imagine if we took a break from the commercials that cultivate our appetite for stuff and instead spent a few moments each day counting our blessings and acknowledging them as a gift from God.  It would be a profoundly reorienting and life changing discipline.  We would find fulfillment and delight in the everyday miracles of watching a child sleep, harvesting lettuce from the garden, or glimpsing a bass jump out of the water in pursuit of its dinner.  If God graces our daily experience with such profound gifts, then we can trust that the future, which is beyond our grasp, will also contain good gifts, whether we are talking about this life or the next.  We can be freed to live in gratitude and grace.

Two words that I hope to never hear coming out of the Lord’s mouth are, “You fool!”  How about you? In the coming weeks, may Jesus and his parable of the rich fool inspire us to make some different choices when it comes to our affluence.  May we find the cure for affluenza in the freely given gifts of God.  May we dare to share our abundant blessings in love of God and neighbor.  And may we trust that God’s future will abound with daily blessings. 

Resources:

Richard Denniss. Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World. New York: Black Publishing, 2017.

Tony Campolo. Curing Affluenza. Video curriculum.

Scott Simon. Affluenza. KCTS Seattle: Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2014.

David Lose, “What Money Can and Can’t Do,” in Dear Working Preacher,  July 29, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2668

Chase Peterson-Withorn. “Nearly 500 People Became Billionaires During the Pandemic Year” in Forbes Magazine, Apr 6, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chasewithorn/2021/04/06/nearly-500-people-have-become-billionaires-during-the-pandemic-year/?sh=73cc448925c0

Sarah Ruiz-Grossman. “A New Billionaire Was Created Every 30 Hours During the Pandemic” in Huffpost, May 22, 2022. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/billionaire-wealth-covid-pandemic-oxfam_n_6283e951e4b04353eb0a526d

Marcus Lu. “What Does It Take to Be Wealthy in America?” in Visual Capitalist, July 5, 2022. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/net-worth-to-be-wealthy-in-america-2022/

Anshool Deshmukh. “This Simple Chart Reveals the Distribution of Global Wealth” in Visual Capitalist, September 20, 2021. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/distribution-of-global-wealth-chart/

Carolyn Gregoire. “How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel” in Greater Good Magazine, February 8, 2018. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_money_changes_the_way_you_think_and_feel#:~:text=More%20money%2C%20less%20empathy%3F%20Several%20studies%20have%20shown,expressions%20%E2%80%94an%20important%20marker%20of%20empathy%E2%80%94than%20wealthier%20people. Suniya Luthar. The Mental Price of Affluence in Speaking of Psychology (interview). American Psychological Association, 2014. https://www.apa.org


Luke 12:13-21

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”


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How’s Your Prayer Life?

Sabbath Day Thoughts — How’s Your Prayer Life? Luke 11:1-13

If you visit the John Wesley House in London, you will see that the 18th century father of Methodism had a small walk-in closet off his bedroom.  This prayer room is sometimes called “The Powerhouse of Methodism” because Wesley believed that his prayerful efforts within the closet were key to the success of his mission to the world.  Wesley began each day with two hours in his closet, praying with an open Bible and a fervent heart.

19th century Plymouth Brethren evangelist George Muller was the master of persistent prayer. By his own admission, the youthful Muller was a thief, liar, and gambler, but he attended a prayer meeting in 1825 that transformed his life.  Muller committed to praying daily for five of his young friends who were far from Christ.  A few months later, one of them had a conversion experience.  Within two years, two more found Jesus.  The fourth friend came to faith after twenty-five years.  Muller died in 1898, having prayed for the fifth friend for sixty-three years and eight months.  Before Muller was buried, his prayer was finally answered as the fifth friend finally committed his life to Christ.

Rosa Parks is best known as a Civil Rights activist with the courage to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 by refusing to move to the back of the bus.  We are less likely to know that Rosa Parks was a person of profound faith who grounded her activism in prayer.  In her book Quiet Strength, Parks writes that God assured her that she would not be alone on the bus on that fateful day. “I felt the Lord would give me the strength to endure whatever I had to face,” Parks stated, “God did away with all my fear . . . It was time for someone to stand up—or in my case, sit down.”

We all know prayer warriors, those folks who are ever eager to take it to the Lord in prayer. A trusted friend, a family member, a pastor, or a link in the local prayer chain, these are the people we turn to when we get that tough diagnosis, or there are problems on the home front, or our kids are in trouble. We trust that they will listen deeply and pray passionately, letting God know that help is needed.

Even though prayer is a cornerstone of the faithful life and we are well-acquainted with champions of prayer, we may struggle to have a meaningful, committed practice of prayer. Our calendars are so full that the only times left for prayer are those few minutes at the close of the day when we fall exhausted into bed, unable to keep our eyes open long enough to express the confessions and intercessions that we long to lift to God.  When we do find the time to pray, we worry about what to say.  What are the right words to get God’s attention? How specific do we need to get? How do we know that God is listening? Perhaps most daunting of all tasks is public prayer, praying out loud in a group.  We might rather eat Brussels sprouts or take the garbage out than spontaneously pray in a roomful of strangers.  If we were being deeply honest, we might admit that we place our trust in those prayer warriors because we believe that they have something that we don’t, as if when God was handing out the prayer power, some of us got a substandard quotient.

If it makes us feel any better, even the great Reformer Martin Luther sometimes fell short in prayer.  Luther once infamously quipped, “I have so much to do today that I must spend the first three hours in prayer.” He notoriously was reported to have said that an exception should be made for those of us who struggle with prayer—we should begin our days with four hours of prayer.  But in a letter to his friend Philip Melancthon, Luther confessed that he too fell short in prayer, “I sit here like a fool, and hardened in leisure, pray little, do not sigh for the church of God, yet burn in a big fire of my untamed body. In short, I should be ardent in spirit, but I am ardent in the flesh, in lust, in laziness, leisure, and sleepiness. … Already eight days have passed in which I have written nothing, in which I have not prayed or studied.”

Jesus’ disciples must have also struggled with prayer.  That’s why they asked Jesus to give them a lesson on how to pray.  They had noticed how vital prayer was for Jesus.  The Lord seemed to find the fuel for his dynamic ministry in times of quiet communion with his heavenly Father.  Before naming the twelve disciples, Jesus spent the night in prayer.  While working wonders of healing or casting out demons, Jesus turned to prayer.  To find the strength to endure his betrayal and execution, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus was a man steeped in prayer. 

The pattern of prayer that Jesus taught his friends is surprisingly simple.  In Luke’s gospel, the Lord’s Prayer is four terse sentences.  Jesus tells us to begin with praise, acknowledging the holiness of God and our longing for the coming of God’s kingdom.  Then, we pray for what we truly need: sustenance to fuel our bodies/, the healing of relationships through forgiveness and a willingness to be forgiven/, and lastly, protection from life’s temptations and difficulties.  According to Jesus, all we really need to pray are four simple heartfelt sentences that envision God as the source of our world, our lives, our healing, and our protection.  That’s it.

It must have sounded too good to be true to the disciples.  I can imagine that they cast doubtful looks at one another as Jesus disclosed the secrets of being a real prayer warrior, because Jesus followed up his lesson on prayer with two playful, pointed teachings to bring his point on prayer home.  The story of the friend who comes knocking at midnight assures us that God hears our prayers and responds.  The example of a parent who lovingly provides good things for his children assures us that God, our heavenly parent, always provides what is good and right for us.  Jesus makes it sound so easy.

And maybe that’s the real point to Jesus’ lesson.  Prayer is meant to be easy.  It’s meant to be as natural as the drawing of breath, the sympathy of a friend, or the care of a parent.  Maybe the trouble is that we pray from the head, looking for those eloquent words, hoping to steer the course of the world, wanting to forge a future that meets our personal vision of how things ought to be.  But Jesus teaches us to pray from the heart, to pray in ways that acknowledge the greatness of God and our personal vulnerability.  When we pray from the head, we expect the world to change, which is often a recipe for disappointment, but when we pray from the heart, we can expect to be changed.  Heartfelt prayer coaxes us to grow into the people God created us to be.  Heartfelt prayer equips us to live to the best of our ability in a world that is less than perfect and sometimes bitterly disappointing.

So, I invite us to make a fresh start on prayer this morning, to keep things simple and heartfelt.  Perhaps you might even allow me to help you, guiding you in praying the way that Jesus invited us to pray.  I invite you to close your eyes and bow your head as I lead you in a prayer from the heart. 

First, give silent praise for the holiness and majesty of God, who stretches the heavens like a tent and puffs into our lungs the breath of life . . .  We praise and thank you, God.

Allow your heart to yearn for God’s kingdom, for a world where righteousness and peace will kiss each other . . . Thy Kingdom come.

Now think about your day ahead.  Ask the Lord to provide what is needed, whether it is strength or love, kindness or patience, hope or help.  Trust that what is truly needed will be provided . . . Give us this day our daily bread.

Now, think of a relationship that needs mending.  Perhaps there are hurt feelings, hardness of heart, or weariness of soul.  Ask God to bring healing to that relationship.  Trust that the Lord is already at work . . . Forgive us, O Lord, and make us a forgiving people.

Finally, consider a place of difficulty or temptation in your life.  Feel the weightiness and the challenge of it.  Now, ask the Lord to be your safety and protection.  Remember that although you may feel weak, God is strong and God is with you . . . Keep us safe from temptation, O God, and deliver us from evil.

As we finish, we might even resolve to try this again, to make a daily discipline of doing what Jesus did.  May we find the strength and the vision to live fully and faithfully through simple, heartfelt prayer.

Resources:

David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 11:1-13” in Preaching This Week, July 25, 2010. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/.

Elisabeth John. “Commentary on Luke 11:1-13” in Preaching This Week, July 28, 2013. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/.

Nivien Sarras. “Commentary on Luke 11:1-13” in Preaching This Week, July 24, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/.

Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds. Luther’s Works: American Edition. 55 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-1975.

Jared Brock. “10 Prayer Warriors Who Changed History” in Flowing Faith, June 9, 2015. Accessed online at http://www.flowingfaith.com/2015/06/10-prayer-warriors.html.


Luke 11:1-13

11 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 So he said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, may your name be revered as holy.
May your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything out of friendship, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for[e] a fish, would give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asked for an egg, would give a scorpion? 13 If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit[f] to those who ask him!”


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Cold Water

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Cold Water” Matthew 10:40-42

“That’s some good ice tea.”  It was James, in his polyester sport coat, pointy collared shirt, and freshly shined spats.  James fancied himself to be the heir apparent to James Brown.  Every so often during our Wednesday evening gatherings at the New York Avenue church, James would break into song and share his funkiest moves, feet shuffling almost too fast to be seen, body spinning then dropping into a split before popping back up, like magic. 

James had offered his appreciation for the tea in the general direction of the tea makers, Connie and me.  I was filling cups with the sweet, lemony tea, while Connie was perched on a chair, working on her latest crochet creation. The week before, I had cleaned out my yarn stash and brought Connie a big bag of odds and ends and never completed projects. If James thought he could compete with that for Connie’s attention, he had another think coming. 

“Hey,” James ventured again, “Hey, Connie! I said that’s some good ice tea.” But Connie only rolled her eyes as if to say, “He’s crazy.”  And he was.  In fact, everyone was, in one way or another, both the guests and the hosts at the 729 Club where I volunteered. 

“Connie!” I chided.  She gave me a baleful look and put down her crochet hook. 

“You are welcome, James,” she smiled as sugary sweet as the tea.  That made James so happy that he did a little spin and bow, every bit as deft and debonair as the Godfather of Soul himself.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…”

“I’d like some of that brown stuff,” it was a softly spoken request.  I turned away from the sink where I had been washing dishes and peered into the dim light behind me.  I spied him near the open back door, swaying a little bit, looking like he was about to bolt off into the dark.  I was on the reservation for my cross-cultural quarter of seminary studies.  My host was Sally Big Bear, a local spiritual leader, and this was her youngest brother, Habob.  I’d seen him around the edges of things but had never heard him speak.  Like many of the young adults on Rosebud, he struggled with addiction.

“I’d like some of that brown stuff,” Habob repeated, no eye contact, but his body language told me he was talking about the sheet cakes that rested on the kitchen counter.  Earlier, after dinner, Sally had parceled out pieces of cake to the large extended family that had come for the meal – sons and daughters, children, grandchildren, aunties, uncles, neighbors, and even seminarians. 

“Brown stuff?” I puzzled, looking at the crumby remnants, and picking up a knife.  “Chocolate?”

Habob’s brow furrowed, “No, not chocolate. The brown stuff?” He asked again, hopeful. 

That’s when I saw it, more beige than brown, crowned with a frothy brown sugar and coconut icing.  “Ah!  Spice cake!”  I cut a large slab, balanced it on a paper plate and shrouded it in a cocoon of saran wrap.  “For you!” I said, holding it out with two hands, and Habob received it with the same sort of reverence that a child reserves for a favorite toy or stuffed animal. 

“Hmmm. Brown stuff!  Thanks!” he mumbled before slipping out into the South Dakota darkness with his treasure.

About three o’clock the next day we heard news that too many families get on the reservation.  Habob had been found dead in the abandoned house where he lived with other addicts.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones….”

“Lady, can you help my dog?” It was Johnny Wayne, the seven-year-old grandson of Mr. Robert.  So far, Johnny Wayne had impressed us with his ability to cuss and cheat in bike races.  I was in eastern Kentucky with my Youth Group.  We were putting a new foundation under the back of Mr. Robert’s house. I’d spent most of the afternoon digging a ditch to lay drain tile to divert the water that would pour off Robert’s roof and under his home.  Now, I was drinking cold water, as much as I could get, and sitting on the front porch taking a break. 

“Lady, can you help my dog?” Johnny Wayne wanted to know.  She was a big red pit bull mix with a saggy belly that told me she had had more than one litter of pups. 

“What’s wrong?” I ventured warily. 

“She’s got ticks.”  Johnny Wayne wasn’t kidding.  From ears to tail, Rosie was littered with ticks, more than I had ever seen, little and big, making a meal of her. 

I confess that ticks repulse me.  They’re like little insect vampires, dropping from trees or jumping out of the grass to make our lives miserable.  And while I am a dog lover, I try to steer clear of anything that looks remotely like a pit bull.  My reluctance must have been written all over my face as I said, “Wow.  I’m not sure what you want me to do about that, Johnny Wayne.” 

The little boy tried again.  “C’mon, please!  Help her.  How would you like to be covered in ticks?”

I wouldn’t, and that’s when I realized that Johnny Wayne was good not only at swearing and cheating but also at getting grown-ups to do what he needed them to do. 

“Ok.” I relented and spent the next thirty minutes picking ticks off Rosie.  She rolled right over, as if she had known me all her life, while Johnny Wayne told me stories of all the good things that he was going to do with his father when he got out of prison.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones….”

There was a big cardboard box, right on the stoop, blocking my way to the front door when I got home from work.  I’d had the “brilliant” idea to leave a well-paying job back east and test the waters of a career change by serving as a VISTA, Volunteer in Service to America.  Now, I was a volunteer coordinator and health educator, working out of the Jackson County, Oregon, Health Department.  That meant I spent all my time touting the benefits of WIC and the Oregon Health Plan while trying to convince women to get prenatal care and immunize their children, all for a princely monthly stipend of $600, which did not go far in a community where just renting a room cost about $350.  I ate a lot of rice and beans that year.

Taped to the top of the cardboard box was a note written in easily recognizable, large wobbly letters, “For Joann.”  The handwriting belonged to Ivan, a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD.  I’m not really sure how I had met Ivan.  He belonged to the Seventh Day Adventist Church in town, and sometimes he would join me on Sunday afternoons for hikes up in the mountains or drives down to the coast, activities which he felt a young woman should not be doing on her own. 

A box from Ivan could hold a lot of things – tracts touting the benefits of being an Adventist, pumice stones that he picked up along the banks of the Rogue River, or maybe some great thrift store find, like a Rubik’s Cube or a jigsaw puzzle, missing a few pieces.  But this night, when I dragged the box inside and popped it open, I found that it was full of vegetables.  There were cucumbers and tomatoes, big leafy collard greens, onions, and zucchini squash big enough to double for baseball bats.  Move over beans and rice, I had just hit the fresh produce jackpot!

When I called Ivan later to thank him for his kindness, I learned that he had grown the vegetables in a little garden plot that he had down at the Adventist church.  I could just picture him that summer, patiently pulling weeds, watering, and harvesting.  It was without question one of the kindest things that anyone had ever done for me.  But why me? I wanted to know. Ivan’s answer was heartwarming and humbling all at the same time, “Joann, the Lord would want me to do something good for you.”

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Jesus taught his followers about the importance of simple acts of kindness that we can share in the course of our everyday living.  When Jesus sent his disciples out on their gospel mission, he knew that they would depend upon the kindness of strangers.  Jesus also taught that when we extend hospitality to our vulnerable neighbors, the little ones of our world, we are really caring for him.  Hospitality, given and received, grants us a foretaste of the world that God would have us forge.  It’s a kingdom where all are welcomed, loved, and cared for.  It’s a world where James will spin Connie around the dance floor, and Habob will tuck into a second slice of spice cake.  Johnny Wayne will play ball with his Daddy, Rosie will be free from ticks, and the tables of the poor will abound with fresh-picked produce.  I want to be a part of that world.  How about you?


Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous, 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”


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