The water looked clean, but the children kept getting sicker and sicker. No one knew what to do. "One time, I had four children all in the hospital at once," says a pastor named Justin in the African nation of Rwanda. He didn't understand about germs and disease transmission in the local water.
Then Larry and Carolyn McBride showed up on a mission trip from Saddleback Church in California. After seeing children carry dirty river water over long distances, they returned home with a deep desire to do something for thirsty African children. The McBrides gathered friends for prayer and planning. They began to craft clean-water systems for Rwandan hospitals, clinics, orphanages and pastors' homes. Their project, called the Clean Water Initiative, also created teams to equip hundreds of Rwandan church volunteers to improve health and sanitation in 116 communities.
The Clean Water Initiative provided a water filter for Pastor Justin's home and funded a well in the community. "We have people coming from all over to get clean water, and we haven't been back to the hospital since," he reports. "It has changed our lives and given us hope for the future."
Teams are now taking Clean Water Initiative technology and education around the world - to Argentina, Mexico, Tanzania, Tibet, Kenya and East Timor. They're even going to Haiti to help combat the cholera outbreak. The McBrides dream that "no child would miss another day of school or die of such a preventable death."
New life begins with just one drop. Jesus knows this, which is why he cries out in the seventh chapter of John, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water'" (John 7:37-38).
Whenever the Bible speaks of "living water," it's pointing us in several directions. Living water can mean fresh, running water - water from a spring, as opposed to a container. It can also mean life-giving water. In this case, Jesus is suggesting both because he knows that fresh, running water is also life-giving water - something everyone needs for a life of health and vitality. Just ask the children of Rwanda.
But John the gospel-writer offers a third meaning of “living water.” John is convinced that the living water Jesus offered to the woman at the well and to the crowds of people gathered at a festival is nothing less than the fresh, running, life-giving Holy Spirit of God, which comes to Jesus' followers on the day of Pentecost, and is available to us every day. Living Water. Holy Spirit. Both change our lives. Both give us hope for the future.
Clean water and the Spirit of God can flow together in some powerful ways in the mission of the church today. An organization called Living Water International exists for one simple reason: to provide "a cup of water in Jesus' name." They know that when they give thirsty people something to drink, they're really serving Jesus. For decades, this Houston-based nonprofit has been building clean-water wells in poor parts of the world. It believes the simple presence of one clean-water well can transform a community. Clean water leads to health, which leads to productivity, which leads to education and commerce and forward progress. It isn't just about a cup of cold, clean water. It's about a future.
Jesus tells us the power of the Holy Spirit has the same effect. When we turn to Jesus in faith, we receive a free-flowing and life-giving Spirit who has the power to transform our lives. The Spirit makes us happier, healthier and better able to serve God with passion and purpose. Just one drop. That's where it begins. Then the flow of the Spirit becomes a river of living water.
Our transformation begins with just one drop - a drop of concern for a child in poverty. That drop can turn into a trickle - a trickle of help for a neighborhood in need. This trickle can become a river of living water - a river that carries the good news of God's love around the world, washing over people with improvements to their spiritual and physical health. Whether fighting cholera in Haiti or installing water filters in Rwanda, Christians are changing lives as they follow the Holy Spirit's leading. Jesus' words are coming true: "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:38).
It can start with just one drop. The installation of one water filter. The digging of one well. But once the water begins to flow, nothing can stop it. Same for the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
water can be still
Major-league baseball is now off our radar (and television) screens until the third week of February, when the league’s “Spring” training kicks into high gear. But don’t despair! There is still plenty of football ahead. Maybe you’ve heard this before…George Carlin musing on the nature of baseball and football:
Baseball is played in a park - a baseball park. Football is played in a stadium - often called Soldier's Field or War Memorial Stadium.
Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything is dying.
Football is concerned with downs. "What down is it?" Baseball is concerned with ups. "I'm not up. Is he up? You're up!"
In football, you receive a penalty. In baseball, you make an error. Oops!
In football, the specialist comes in to kick something. In baseball, the specialist comes in to relieve someone.
Football has hitting, clipping, piling on, spearing, personal fouls and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.
In football the objective is for the quarterback, sometimes called the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense, hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun, with short bullet passes and long bombs. He marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial attack with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the front line of the defense. In baseball, the objective is to go home and be safe.
If you were in worship last Sunday, you will remember that we are thinking about water for a couple of weeks, and using the story of Noah and the flood, we thought about how water can be destructive AND purifying. This week, I want us to think about how water can be still. The difference between destructive water and still water can be as dramatic as George Carlin’s understanding of the difference between baseball and football!
Psalm 23 tells us that the Lord, who is our shepherd, leads us “beside still waters.” I love that image. I believe we are led “beside still waters” so that we can become still. So that our souls can be restored. But there is no doubt in my mind that achieving a stillness that can restore us is very hard to do. This is not news to you…most of us are always on the move. With all that is demanded of us (in reality, or in our own minds) it is hard to figure out how to be still.
In my pastor’s article for the November/December edition of our church newsletter, The Good News Focus, I wrote about my love of napping. I offered up a photo of my 2-year-old great-nephew, Nolan, coming to a full-stop on his walk on the canal path, to take a nap! At least, that’s what I imagine he is doing. Right there on the pavement. Totally relaxed. Oblivious to where he is. I just assume his little body was completely worn out and he had to stop. And be still. I know it is not easy to give ourselves permission to close our eyes and be still, but Psalm 23 tells us that is, in fact, one way in which God takes care of us. God leads us beside still waters, so we can become still.
For so many people though, even if we are able to achieve some level of stillness in our bodies, we can’t still our minds. Our brains resist being still, I think. I’ve heard stories from so many people who know how excruciating it can be to be in bed, their body completely still, but they cannot fall asleep because they cannot still their mind. “He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” Tell that to the person who cannot rest at night. They probably have a completely different story to share.
We all do so much during each day to stimulate our brains, often on purpose! An article in the Buffalo News on October 18 reminded the reader how the phrase “use it or lose it” has dominated our thinking on how to—in theory--protect our (aging) brains, and as we tend to do, when we think something is good for us, we find ways to overdo it! Now, according to this article written by Carolyn Johnson, a study published in the journal Nature, suggests more isn’t always better. Excessive activity—at least at the level of brain cells—could be harmful.
As I understand it, there is a protein in our older brains called REST (is that not perfect?) that tamps down genes involved in sparking brain activity. After some testing on mice and roundworms, scientists found that in some very long-living roundworms, when the REST protein is increased, the brain activity decreases and the roundworms live longer. Fascinating! Cynthia Kenyon, vice president of aging research at Calico Labs said, “I think this is overactivity, out-of-control excitation—it’s not good for the brain. You want the neurons to be active, when and where you want them to be active, not to be just generally firing off.”
A favorite verse for many people comes from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still. Lead me beside the still waters. Restore my soul.
Henri Nouwen said, “Without solitude it is almost impossible to live a spiritual life.” I would suggest, “without times of stillness, it is almost impossible to live a spiritual life.” Living in a world of constant noise and distractions, we are exhausted and disconnected. Yet scripture commands, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Many fear silence and stillness because it often forces us to slow down and listen to our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. But the promise we hear in Psalm 23 is that our souls will be restored by still waters. There is something about water that is still that brings us comfort, peace, rest. A chance to catch our breath.
For just a moment, I want you to call to mind a place you love that has still waters. Picture yourself by that water. Take a deep breath, and let it out.
Know that God is in that stillness. And be restored.
water can be destructive
Genesis 6:11-22 (NRSV)
I enjoy being near water. I like that I live an easy distance from the Niagara River, the Erie Canal, Tonawanda Creek, Ellicott Creek, and Lake Erie. I love being on the beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in Englewood, south of Tampa. What I do NOT like being near is waves. What I do NOT like being near is hurricanes. What I do NOT like being near is tsunamis. It’s true that I’ve never personally experienced a hurricane or a tsunami, but I am confident I do not like them.
We are nearing the 15th anniversary of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, one of the most powerful and deadliest natural disasters ever. On December 26, 2004, an undersea mega thrust earthquake that registered a magnitude of 9.1-9.3 occurred off the west coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. People on the coast felt the earthquake, of course, but then many of them became fascinated by the rapidly receding water…it was like all the water was being sucked away, and behind it there was this great expanse of ocean floor that people had never seen before, never walked on before. So they ran out onto the newly exposed ocean floor.
Fifteen to twenty minutes after the earthquake, the first waves of that ocean water came roaring back to the coast. The tsunami waves topped 100 feet, and traveled as fast at 500 mph. For nearly 230,00 people, there was no time to get out of the way.
I was serving the Salem United Church of Christ in the city of Tonawanda at the time of this tsunami. I remember very clearly that we wanted to give people in the church opportunities to make donations to organizations that were trying to offer assistance in the aftermath of this disaster, so we created a massive bulletin board in the fellowship hall, filled with photographs from the Buffalo News and Time Magazine and National Geographic, with information about where to make donations. When I close my eyes, I can still see some of those photographs…particularly the ones that show the 100 foot wall of water approaching the coast, and the ones that show mothers and fathers and children clinging to the branches of trees or sitting on the roof of a house, hoping against hope that they would not be swept away in the water. They probably were. I looked at those photographs for months, and they made me deeply sad. As hard as I tried, I just could not fully imagine the fear and panic that must have suddenly gripped the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of people as the relentless walls of water came.
We hear at the beginning of Genesis that God had an idea, about water. With just a word from God, a dome appeared, separating the waters from the waters. The waters above the dome were separated from waters under the dome. God called the dome Sky. And it was good. A little later, God created humankind, and that was a good day, too.
A long time later humankind wasn’t so good; in fact, humankind was behaving in an ugly fashion. Then God had another idea about water and with another word, water came, floods of it. It fell from the sky, it rose high on the earth, and God’s simmering anger drenched everything everywhere, and only those few animals and humans aboard the boat survived. The earth was purified. What I want you to hear this morning is that God’s message about the flood is a beautiful message which came in a time of great ugliness.
Why? Because the story tells us that at the time of Noah, human consciousness and the resulting behavior had become quite ugly. Our words and actions reflect the peace, or lack of peace, the beauty or ugliness, in our hearts. What we think affects our behavior, and our behavior affects the world we live in. Long after the world was first created by God’s word and pronounced good, the world had indeed become an ugly place. The descendants of Cain and Seth had multiplied greatly and spread broadly across the land, and everything had become a mess. The thoughts and hearts of the children of Seth and Cain turned continuously to evil, and so naturally the world reflected their thoughts and hearts, and it became an ugly, awful, and evil place. God was not pleased (Genesis 6:1-6).
So God had a thought to destroy all of it except for Noah’s family and the animals who went aboard the ark. God had this thought, said the word, and the waters became ugly, and began to fall, and to rain, and rain, and flood the earth, until all living creatures were blotted out, purifying the earth, washing it clean (Genesis 6:7-8).
As terrible as it sounds, God used chaotic, destructive water to purify the earth, to cleanse it from human thought, from human behavior, and from human life. As painful and destructive as it sounds, this story of water has everything to do with God’s ongoing desire to purify us. Even though God regretted making humans, even though God saw that humans had made a mess of everything, even though all of that happened, God decided to give all of humanity a second chance at getting it right.
We can be thankful that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Human beings may have behaved badly, we may have had ugly ideas, and sometimes live ugly lives, but we were — and we are — innately, intrinsically well made, and deeply good.
In Noah’s day, when God was frustrated with the way humans behaved, and with the way things turned out, God gave all of creation a thorough washing and a second chance. If God could give such second chances to all of earth and humanity back then, then certainly God, who continues to wish to purify us and make us whole will give us second chances—and third and fourth chances—today.
So let us give thanks that even though this most basic element of nature—water—has the power to destroy, God uses water to purify and heal. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
who doesn't love a good eraser?
“School days, school days, dear old Golden Rule days …” If you remember that old song it means you’re, well, old; (Note: I do NOT remember this song!) and that means you’re at least old enough to recall when the front of your school classroom featured a big blackboard on which all of your assignments for reading, writing and ʼrithmetic were carefully inscribed by your teacher with chalk. (Notes: I DO remember blackboards!)
In fact, you might’ve been the good kid who got the special privilege of cleaning the erasers by banging them together, creating a cloud of chalk dust which had everyone coughing for five minutes. Or maybe you were the bad kid who got after-school detention and had to wipe down the whole board with a damp cloth. Whether you approached it for praise or punishment, or to work out that difficult math problem in front of the whole class, the blackboard was the nerve center of classroom life.
It still is to some degree, although kids today will never know the smell of a cloud of chalk. Instead, they get the alcohol smell of the markers for the dry-erase board, which started to phase out the blackboard in the late 1980s. Actually, the blackboard’s demise started a little earlier than that with the advent of the green chalkboard, which was made from steel and porcelain and was less fragile than the older, heavy, slate boards. The green color was also supposed to be easier on the eyes, and the chalk powder didn’t show up as much, making it easier for the Bart Simpson-esque class clown to wipe it down after school. The evolution of the classroom board continues today as some schools have “smartboards” that allow what’s handwritten on them to be immediately photographed, digitized and downloaded — no need for copying down your homework.
We might think of the blackboard as ancient technology, but the truth is that since civilization began in Mesopotamia, people have been scribbling on things, and then correcting their mistakes. The Akkadians and Babylonians used wet clay tablets and a stylus for writing, the marks of which were easily erased unless you wanted to bake the clay and make them permanent. The Romans used wax tablets that could be warmed and reformed as a kind of early Etch A Sketch. In fact, Rome is where the term “clean slate” comes from. In Latin, tabula rasa means “clean slate.”
Of course, if you want something to be permanently written, you “write it in stone.” The first real document we encounter in the Bible is written that way, the Ten Commandments being chiseled on stone tablets when Moses was in conference with God on Mount Sinai. The Israelites carried those tablets around in the Ark of the Covenant for generations until the Ark itself rested in Solomon’s Temple. It was the set-in-stone covenant that God had made with Israel, but that covenant itself had had its own evolution of media, from God’s first toddler-like instruction to Adam in Genesis 3 (“Don’t touch! Don’t eat!”) to Abraham’s bloody path of animal guts in Genesis 15. Stone tablets seemed more sophisticated by comparison, communicating God’s word to his people in a permanent medium.
In Jeremiah’s day, however, those stone tablets were gone. They disappeared sometime during the Babylonian invasion of Judah and the subsequent exile of God’s people to Babylon around 586 BC. Whether they wound up in a forgotten hiding place, were destroyed or are languishing in a warehouse in New Jersey, nobody really knows. What we do know is that the exile was a major event in the history of God’s people, destroying the world as they knew it and leaving them with an uncertain future. How were they to move forward now that the covenant with God had been broken by their sin? What was to guide them when the tablets were no longer around to give them the rules? How would they now relate to God on the other side of exile?
Through Jeremiah, God had promised the people they would return from exile and have their own land again and God promised not to leave the people to suffer endlessly for their sins. Whereas the old covenant was chiseled in stone and offered no practical means, other than endless animal sacrifices, to erase the sins they committed, God promised the returning exiles a new covenant. It wouldn’t be like the old Sinai covenant, which was brittle enough that they broke it repeatedly. Instead, God would write this covenant on their hearts — a “heartboard” that could be repeatedly erased, cleaned and made new. “I will put my law within them,” said God through the prophet, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people”.
In an elementary school classroom, you might expect the rules to be framed and hung on the wall for all to see, and if you violated them, you might be required to write them 25 times on the chalkboard, whiteboard or smartboard as a punishment. Whether that punishment is effective, however, depends on the orientation of the child. No amount of scribal repetition will change the hard heart of a rebellious child. In a high school classroom, on the other hand, you’re less likely to see the rules scribbled out on the wall. Instead, those rules should already be internalized by people old enough to have the capacity to know what’s right.
The same is true for God’s people. Knowing the commandments and obeying them are two separate things. To obey freely, one must have an inward sense of what’s right and wrong, an inward orientation to please the one in authority, and a desire for repentance and forgiveness.
God’s people had spent 70 years in exile. It was like a timeout — plenty of time to figure out what they had done wrong. Going forward, God now expected them to relate to him in a different way — not as coerced, chastised children, but as people on the way to maturity. Repentance and forgiveness were the means by which God would work in his people, forming them into a covenant community based not on external compulsion but on internal communion with God.
No longer will they need those stone tablets or endless, repetitive instructions about who God is. Instead, they will know God by God’s grace, by God’s forgiveness, by what God does in their hearts. And what is God doing there? Erasing the brokenness. “For I will forgive their wickedness,” says the Lord, “and remember their sins no more”. In other words, their “heartboards” could be cleaned and renewed.
And in the ultimate reversal, they wouldn’t have to clean those boards on their own as a constant punishment. Instead, Someone was coming who would take their punishment on himself and enable their hearts to be washed clean of their sin forever. Jesus embodied the new covenant, and we who are his people by his grace are made new, our sins erased and our lives given a tabula rasa, a clean slate.
What’s inscribed on your heartboard? Maybe it’s a problem from the past, a sin you can’t shake, a fear or shame that binds you and keeps you in exile from God. Hear again the good news: God is ready to wipe your life clean through the grace of his Son, Jesus Christ. No need to pound the erasers!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
October 20, 2019
to love and be loved
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Since 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 99 times. Over the years, 89 men, 17 women and 24 organizations have received it. Last October, the prize went to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. In 2017, the Nobel was given to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Ten years ago, Barack Obama received the prize for his efforts to strengthen international diplomacy.
Forty years ago? Well, that was 1979! Do you even remember 1979? 40 years is the number of years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. Forty years is the amount of time it takes for a new generation to arise.
Forty years ago, on October 17, 1979, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She heard a call from God to help the poor, and she founded a group called the Missionaries of Charity. In India, Mother Teresa and her helpers built homes for orphans, nursing homes for lepers and hospices for the terminally ill. According to the Nobel website, she was a “saint in the gutter.”
In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, she said, “I am sure this award is going to bring an understanding love between the rich and the poor. [That] is why Jesus came to earth, to proclaim the good news to the poor. And through this award and through all of us gathered here together, we are wanting to proclaim the good news to the poor that God loves them, that we love them, that they are somebody to us, that they too have been created by the same loving hand of God, to love and to be loved. Our poor people are great people, are very lovable people, they don’t need our pity and sympathy, they need our understanding love.”
One particular word pops up again and again in these lines from Mother Teresa’s speech: love.
The group that Mother Teresa founded in 1950 is called the Missionaries of Charity, an organization that now has more than 5,000 members. They are focused on charity, but unfortunately that term is often misunderstood. So often we think of charity as the act of giving help to people in need, typically in the form of money. But the word “charity” comes from the Latin caritas, which means “affection.” Charity is fundamentally Christian love and affection, not a monetary gift. We should all be missionaries of charity.
Forty years have passed since Mother Teresa gave her speech. She died in 1997 and was declared a saint in 2016. A new generation of Christians has arisen. So how are we doing on the goal of creating “an understanding love between the rich and the poor”? How are we doing with Christian love and affection?
In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul challenges his younger colleague by saying, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David — that is my gospel” (v. 8). When we “remember Jesus Christ,” we remember his words about love — words which are not so much a fuzzy feeling as they are a call to action: In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands us to “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
When asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus says, “ʻYou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Jesus also gives the order, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:35).
“If you love me,” says Jesus, “you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
So, what does it mean to remember Jesus? Love your enemies. Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love Jesus. Love one another. Show so much love that you lay down your life for your friends. In other words, be a missionary of charity. A missionary of Christian love and affection.
The world needs this kind of Christian love now more than ever. In the United States, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and there is not much “understanding love” between the two. In 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the top 1 percent of families took home an average of 26 times as much income as the bottom 99 percent. Income inequality has risen in nearly every state, and it has a lot of negative effects, including increases in crime, increases in illnesses and decreases in high school graduations.
Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching out to the poor with Christian love. She didn’t judge them, but instead offered them affection and assistance. Her loving actions were the way she remembered Jesus Christ, “raised from the dead,” even though these actions caused her hardship. We can do the very same, as we seek to create “an understanding love between the rich and the poor.”
In the novel City of Peace, a stranger appears at the door of Riverside Methodist Church on a Sunday morning. He says, “I’ve been out of work for a month, and money is real tight. I could really use some food.”
“We’ve got a food pantry,” says Harley Camden, the pastor, “and you are welcome to a bag of groceries.” Harley has a lot to do before the Sunday service, and he feels annoyed that this scruffy, middle-aged stranger has ambushed him. But Harley has been in the business long enough to know that ministry happens in and through interruptions, so he decides to try to be patient.
“I was delivering pizzas, but I wrecked my car,” says the man as he starts to examine the shelves of canned food and dry goods. “They couldn’t keep me on without a car. I’ve been looking ever since, but it seems like nobody’s hiring.” Harley stands nearby as the stranger slowly fills his bag, examining each food label. “Sorry to hear it,” the pastor replies, wishing that the guy would make his selections a little faster.
“You know, I’m a pretty spiritual guy,” says the man when he finishes filling his bag. “I can feel things. People say I have a sixth sense. I knew the exact moment my brother died, even though he was far away. I feel the Spirit is here, right here in this church.” “Really?” replies Harley, surprised. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” says the man. “I appreciate the groceries.” And then he slips out the back door and heads down the street, leaving Harley to marvel at the people he has met who have keen spiritual sensitivity, folks with built-in radios that can pick up stations no one else can hear.
In City of Peace, Harley Camden discovers the truth of what Mother Teresa knew in 1979: “Poor people are great people, are very lovable people, they don’t need our pity and sympathy, they need our understanding love.” All of us, rich or poor, are created by the same loving hand of God, made to love and to be loved.
So let’s commit to this in the life of this church: let’s commit to doing our best to present ourselves to God as disciples who actively love God, love neighbor, and lay down our lives for our friends. Missionaries of charity. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Luke 17:5-10 (NRSV)
I despise roller coasters. At least, I think I do. I haven’t been on a roller coaster in decades, but I distinctly remember the last time I was, probably at Seabreeze, in Irondequoit, near Rochester. Seabreeze is not known for having the world’s largest roller coasters, but still, riding the one they had was enough to make me hate them. You know how the very first thing you do on a roller coaster ride is slowly head up a huge incline? That’s when I started crying and screaming. On the way up.
But for some people, there’s something exhilarating about traveling at high speeds, being dropped from terrifying heights, and feeling like you just might lose your life. And do you know what these people do when they finish the ride? They get in line to do it again! They want more! Unbelievable.
Most of us tend to look at life this way. If something is good, then more of it will be better. So we make faster roller coasters—or live in bigger houses, buy fancier cars, and so on. But at some point, living in a culture where bigger is better leaves you thinking that what you do or what you have isn’t enough.
I read something this week written by Dennis Sanders, the Lead Pastor at a church in Minnesota. He wrote, “When I was called to be the pastor at my church six years ago, I wondered if I could do it. I spent five years as an associate pastor, but could I really be a solo pastor of a church? As someone who is on the autism spectrum, I am always wondering if anything is enough. I felt like I entered this profession with so many deficits. Can I preach good sermons? Can I engage in small talk? Can I connect with the congregation? Can I be a leader? Can I be a Christlike presence to those around me? It’s hard to look at other pastors—people who are master speakers and can exegete like nobody—and not feel inadequate.”
I desperately wanted to tell Dennis that he isn’t alone, and his feeling of inadequacy isn’t because he’s on the autism spectrum. I’ve been in ministry for nearly 35 years, and any time I am around a group of pastors, I find myself asking the same questions Dennis asks. It’s hard not to feel inadequate! Many, many pastors ask the same questions. With shrinking congregations and budgets, we wonder, can we continue this ministry to the community around us? Can we afford it? Why can’t we draw people like that megachurch down the road?
In today’s reading from Luke, the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Like us, the disciples tend to think that more is better. If they could only have a bit more faith, then everything would be great. They have seen what Jesus has done. Jesus made blind people see, removed leprosy from the skin of people, cast out demons, fed 5,000 people with a few fish and a little bread, and so much more. How do you live up to that? They realize there is no way that they can do what he did with their puny faith. If they want to do even 10 percent of what Jesus did, they will need an extra-strength faith. That’s the world we live in: more is always better.
But Jesus counters this by telling his disciples that to move a mountain, you only need faith the size of a mustard seed. It’s not about having enough faith. Being faithful is doing what God would have us do in the world even when we think our faith is incomplete and doesn’t measure up. Jesus is not a figure skating judge who rates us on our faith.
In Thursday’s Daily Devotion from the UCC Writing Group, Kenneth Samuel, pastor of Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, wrote about his English teacher from 7th-9th grade, Ms. Hutchinson. He wrote, “She stands a demure 4’11”, wears spectacles and is quite soft-spoken. When she walks into a room, no heads turn. There is nothing at all intimidating about her presence or her demeanor. You’ll likely not find her leading any kind of protest or vociferously espousing any campaign.
Yet, for the past sixty years and counting, Ms. Hutchinson has been one of the most effective warriors for quality public education in our nation.
“She doesn’t fight with protests and press conferences. She fights by proving that when school resources and broader community resources are invested adequately, even children in the ghetto can excel academically. She fights by non-abrasively advocating for pedagogical means that measure critical thinking capacity, not just test-taking proficiency. She fights by being relentless in her efforts to instill within each of her students a sense of self-esteem and self-respect. She fights by personally inviting the parents of her students to take seriously their roles as partners and mentors in the educational development of their children.”
Pastor Samuel goes on to reflect: “There is need for change and reform in so many areas of our nation’s collective life. Do we need mavericks adamantly pushing for reform on the front lines? I think so.
But we also need fighters who understand the strength of inobtrusive perseverance. We also need warriors who face impossible odds every day, but who still fight to make progress—quietly but impactfully.”
With this great example in mind, are you reminded of God’s preference for small things? Gideon, the weakest guy in the land of Israel, is called by God to defeat an occupying army. His 300 men defeat thousands on the other side. When Samuel meets the strong, handsome sons of Jesse, God chooses the youngest, David, over his brothers. And God chooses a young, poor woman—living in Israel under the Roman occupation—as the one who would give birth to Jesus. God is into using what little we have and performing great works.
God doesn’t need us to believe enough. God calls us to be faithful—to seek to do God’s work in the world. Faithfulness is about being a witness to the grace and mercy of Jesus; it is about trusting in God’s faithfulness to us even when our faith is wavering. We are faithful when we proclaim the good news and do acts of compassion, even on those days when our faith seems small. It’s faithful to pray with a family when they learn their loved one is not going to get better. It’s faithful to bring communion to a church member who can’t make it to worship. It’s faithful to come together to write notes thanking a guest for their presence in worship, and encouraging them to come again.
The disciples don’t need more faith, and neither do we. We are called to trust God with the faith we have. It’s not a fancy faith and it may not seem like much, but in Christ it will move mountains. It is not about having enough; it’s about knowing that we are enough. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa L. Drysdale
Psalm 71:1-6 (the Message)
Once upon a time…I’m told…people used to hide their money under the mattress.
But then they figured out that the mattress was one of the first places that burglars look for cash. So they decided to put their money in an old sock in the bottom of the sock drawer ... in a watertight plastic bottle in the tank on the back of the toilet ... in an envelope taped to the bottom of the cat's litter box ... inside a big coffee cup in the back of a cupboard ... or in an envelope inside a DVD case.
Very clever. But not completely secure. You don't want to come home and find that your spouse has given away your copy of the movie The Color of Money. You know, the Paul Newman, Tom Cruise film. The one that is filled with your money!
Fearing such losses, most people choose to put their money in bank accounts that can be accessed online with the use of passwords. We come up with a simple string of characters -- somewhere between six and 16 -- and figure that our money will remain safe.
Well, maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. It may be no safer than if it were sitting in a plastic bottle in a toilet tank.
According to Wired magazine (November 15, 2012), a password is no longer an adequate means of securing precious data. No matter how complex or unique, our passwords can no longer protect us.
As we know so well, hackers are now breaking into computer systems and releasing lists of names and passwords on a regular basis. We are putting so much personal information in the internet "cloud" that it is ridiculously easy for nefarious people to figure out our passwords. That’s why there’s so much focus on a two-tier system of recognition…someone would have to know my password and have my fingerprint, or my eyes, to access my information.
This is all very depressing. We can only hope that Internet security experts are still working hard to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. At some point, we're going to have to move past the password altogether. Or go back to taping an envelope to the bottom of the cat's litter box.
Psalms 71 challenges us to think long and hard about the source of our security. For years, we have trusted government to provide us with political security, law enforcement to provide us with community security, our medical system to provide us with health security, and our financial system -- including online banking -- to provide us with economic security. But we are learning every day that there can be breakdowns in these systems.
In today's cloud-based world, where is solid security to be found?
The writer of Psalm 71 calls God "a granite fortress, our bedrock," one who can free us "from the grip of the wicked". The psalm challenges us to put our faith in the Word of God instead of in human words, in online passwords; to place our faith not in technological fixes, but in theological fixes, and be willing to put our personal information in the eternally secure "cloud" that is Almighty God. We can reveal everything to God and trust God to protect us and save us.
The psalm begins with the words, "I run for dear life to God, I’ll never live to regret it". We do not know if the psalm-writer was being really being chased by enemies and needed to hide, or if he was struggling with illness, weakness or age, and needed healing and help. But in any case, he pleaded to God, "Do what you do so well: get me out of this mess and up on my feet".
At times, we all need a strong fortress -- a refuge that cannot be penetrated by hackers or criminals, illnesses or enemies, failures or betrayals. We long for a place that is a rock of refuge, a mighty fortress, a bulwark that never, ever fails.
Martin Luther felt the need for such a place when he took his stand against the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. In 1529, he wrote a hymn which began, "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing."
These English words are powerful, but the original German is even better. Historian Michael Streich points out that Luther compares God not only to a fortress, but to a stronghold -- what he calls a "Feste Burg." The word feste points to a strong and completely secure tower, and by doing this Luther stresses the absolute power of God over the invading forces. This is why the hymn's second verse ends with the triumphant prediction, "Christ will prevail triumphant!"
"A Mighty Fortress" moves us past the password to something much more secure -- to a completely unbreakable stronghold created by God.
But Luther goes deeper in the German version, speaking of a "Feste Burg." Historian Streich explains that "a Burg was a fortified town. When invaders approached, the surrounding populace fled to the safety of the walls" -- sometimes to layers of walls within walls. In his hymn, Luther is saying that God is like the most powerful of all Burgs, one in which nothing can breach the walls.
When we need a place of refuge, God offers us his Mighty Fortress, his Feste Burg. This stronghold cannot be hacked or broken into, since it stands as a fortified town with eternally unbreakable walls. Inside this fortified town, we are delivered, rescued and saved by the Lord who desires to have an eternal relationship with us.
Let's be clear, however -- life in the Feste Burg is not free of struggles. As long as we live, we are going to face what Luther calls a "flood of mortal ills." We will still experience personal attacks, betrayals, failures, illnesses, and the difficulties that come with advancing age. But God acts as a helper amid the "flood of mortal ills," one who supports us and shields us from complete annihilation.
Inside the Mighty Fortress we discover that (as Paul so beautifully writes in Romans) "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).
Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Absolutely nothing. That's real security, much more powerful than a password.
Psalm 71 continues with the words, "My God, free me from the grip of the Wicked, from the clutch of Bad and Bully". The writer of the psalm is turning to God for help, and asking to be rescued from the cold grip of wicked, unjust and cruel people. In short, writes biblical scholar J. Clinton McCann, Jr., "the psalmist trusts that God -- not the wicked -- rules the world."
What a bold statement of faith: God rules the world. The psalmist is saying that God the Creator is really in charge of the grand sweep of human history, despite the evil, unfair and heartless acts that people commit every day. God can be trusted to work his purposes out, in spite of the selfish and sinful decisions that people make.
To trust God in this way is to concentrate on living according to God's priorities. As the members of British indie folk band Mumford & Sons sing in the song "Awake My Soul":
In these bodies we will live,
in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love,
you invest your life.
Most of us have learned how to invest our money, putting it in various online accounts with password protection. But have we learned how to invest our love, putting it into words and actions that serve our neighbors and glorify God? The writer of Psalm 71 has learned how to do this, saying, "For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth". If outsiders looked at us, would they see evidence that we have put our complete hope and trust in God?
"You keep me going when times are tough," says the psalmist; "I’ve hung onto you from the day of my birth…I’ll never run out of praise". If neighbors assessed our spiritual investment strategies, would they see signs that we have been hanging onto God and offering praise?
Where you invest your love, says the song, you invest your life.
But so often we make our investments elsewhere.
Psalm 71 challenges us to put our total trust in God, rather than in the people or institutions of this world. It invites us to depend on the Lord for security, rather than on anything that lies behind a password-protected Internet portal. When we put our faith in God, we discover that he is a rock of refuge and a strong fortress. We find that he is strong and willing to help us, as he guides us through the grand sweep of our lives.
Invest your love in God and in his plans for the world. There you will find security, eternally.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
September 29, 2019
fear cannot lead
Judges 7:1-8 (Contemporary English Version)
Experiencing fear every now and then is a normal part of life. I assume we all know that. If we couldn't be afraid, we wouldn't survive for long. We'd be walking into oncoming traffic, stepping off of rooftops and carelessly handling poisonous snakes. We'd be hanging out with people who have tuberculosis. In humans and in all animals, the purpose of fear is to promote survival. In the course of human evolution, the people who feared the right things survived to pass on their genes. In passing on their genes, the trait of fear and the response to it were selected as beneficial to the race.
I did some reading about “fear” this week. I can tell you I did not just wake up one morning thinking I should know more about fear. Instead, I read a very brief devotional based on the idea that fear cannot lead. It cannot take the lead. The devotional was written by UCC pastor Kaji Dousa, and her reflection was based on this passage we are thinking about from the book of Judges.
Well. I don’t think I’ve ever preached from the book of Judges! Why would I? In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, he writes a synopsis of the book of Judges and says, “Sex and violence, rape and massacre, brutality and deceit do not seem to be congenial materials for use in developing a story of salvation.” No…no, they do not. Even so, in this book there is this great story about Gideon preparing to fight a mighty battle for God’s people, Israel.
As an aside, Gideon is quite a guy, and I laughed when I re-read about an encounter he had with God, where he is trying to make sure that going forward into this battle is, in fact, what God is calling him to do. Listen to this, from Judges 6.
Gideon said to God, “If this is right, if you are using me to save Israel as you’ve said, then look: I’m placing a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If dew is on the fleece only, but the floor is dry, then I know that you will use me to save Israel, as you said.”
That’s what happened. When he got up early the next morning, he wrung out the fleece—enough dew to fill a bowl with water!
Then Gideon said to God, “Don’t be impatient with me, but let me say one more thing. I want to try another time with the fleece. But this time let the fleece stay dry, while the dew drenches the ground.”
God made it happen that very night. Only the fleece was dry while the ground was wet with dew.
So Gideon began his preparations for battle. And I found myself thinking about fear. During the 19th-century debate surrounding evolution, the "face of fear" -- that wide-eyed, gaping grimace that often accompanies sheer terror -- became a talking point. Why do people make that face when they're terrified? Some said God had given people a way to let others know they were afraid even if they didn't speak the same language. Charles Darwin said it was a result of the instinctive tightening of muscles triggered by an evolved response to fear. To prove his point, he went to the reptile house at the London Zoological Gardens. Trying to remain perfectly calm, he stood as close to the glass as possible while a puff adder lunged toward him on the other side. Every time it happened, he grimaced and jumped back. In his diary, he writes, "My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced." He concluded that the entire fear response is an ancient instinct that has been untouched by the nuances of modern civilization [ref].
Most of us are no longer fighting (or running) for our lives in the wild, but fear is far from an outdated instinct. It serves the same purpose today as it did when we might run into a lion while carrying water back from the river. Only now, we're carrying a wallet and walking down city streets. The decision not to take that shortcut through the deserted alley at midnight is based on a rational fear that promotes survival. Only the stimuli have changed -- we're in as much danger today as we were hundreds of years ago, and our fear serves to protect us now as it did then.
But look at what today’s story in Judges says about fear. God felt like Gideon’s gathered army of 32,000 men was too big; God felt like an army that big would take credit for the win, and not remember God’s hand in all of it. In an attempt to whittle down the army from 32,000, God told Gideon to make a public announcement: “Anyone afraid, anyone who has any qualms at all may leave Mount Gilead now and go home.” 22,000 took God up on this offer. They headed for home.
God was planning to do something decisive and wanted the people to know it for the miracle it was. “If you’re afraid, that’s ok. Just go home.”
Fear could not take the lead. God was very clear about this.
Kaji Dousa reflected, “It is not bad to fear; it is a natural response to danger. The trouble is not feeling afraid. [But] problems arise when fear takes over. Fear cannot take the lead for any of our major advances, especially as we do the work of God. Fear cannot be the start of the advance, the impetus behind the action, the driving force.”
Fear cannot take the lead.
To pull all of this much closer to home, much closer to our own lives and hearts, consider the decisions of your day.
Is there a choice you need to make, an action you need to take, where you have been putting fear in the lead?
If so, remember Gideon’s shrinking army and know that God needs you (God needs me) to sift that fear out, set it aside, and send it away.
As Kaji Dousa concludes her reflection, “Setting aside the fear makes room for the miracles to occur.”
May it be so for us! May we be ready for a miracle. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
what's your sacred space?
Psalm 27:1-6 (Contemporary English Version)
In April, 2016, Elizabeth Palmer wrote about sacred space in the Christian Century. She said, “I was in Boston for a day, and my friend asked if there were any local sights I wanted to see. I tentatively suggested the Liberty Bell. ‘That's in Philadelphia’ my friend laughed. ‘But I know where I'll take you. You're going to love this place.’ We got on the interstate and drove to a shopping mall. We entered next to a seafood restaurant, took the elevator down to the basement, and walked down a hallway. I heard chanting and prayers. Vested priests were lined up in a procession. We were at the doors of a Carmelite chapel. The 4:00 mass was about to begin, and the pews were packed.
“A chapel in a shopping mall is counterintuitive, but as I worshipped that day I marveled at the ease with which sacred and secular mixed in that holy space. The church was adorned with statues of Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Jude, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The sermon was lively, the cantor's voice was like honey, and more than 300 people received the Eucharist.
“At the same time, people were in and out--shoppers with their bags, some of them talking loudly in the hallway and others coming into worship. The gift store next to the chapel, where I bought my daughters orange and yellow cross-shaped suckers, reminded me that we were, indeed, inside a mall--at the crossroads of commerce, where the swipe of a credit card could secure tangible souvenirs made of corn syrup and wrapped in plastic.”
It is nearly impossible to define what is “sacred space,” because what is sacred is different for everyone. There may be general agreement about some very famous spaces, like the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When that 800+ year old cathedral dealt with a massive fire on April 15, news reports used the words “horror,” and “gasps” and “grief” to try to describe people’s reactions to the scene. French President Macron, recognizing the profound effect this tragedy was having on people, vowed to have the church fully repaired in five years.
What space is sacred to you? I asked this question of the members of the church’s 20/20 Vision Team. The Team has been working to discover what is most valuable to this congregation in terms of mission, worship, and even very practical things like advertising, and welcoming, and…where we choose to sit in this large sanctuary when we worship together. Here’s some of the committee members’ reflections: a sacred place is a place that is dark, quiet. It’s a beach; a place where one can feel completely in tune with the surroundings; there’s such power in being in the presence of water. It’s a view of mist on water, and ducks, and music. It’s a room in my house that is quiet, and exactly the right color, and there are personal knick-knacks and religious books around. See how personal sacred space can be?
Then I had the 20/20 Vision Team engage in an experiment one evening this past winter. We came into the sanctuary and everyone sat where they would normally sit on a Sunday morning for worship. We were, as you can imagine, no where near each other. I sat behind the pulpit. A couple sat near the back. Others sat near the side aisles, near a pillar, in a particular pew. For five minutes, there was complete silence, and we just sat in our spaces, looking around, trying to understand what it is about that particular space that makes us feel comfortable. In reflecting together after the five minutes were up, we noted the calming effect of the blue color though millennials might say its an old-fashioned color. We talked about the comfort that comes from sitting in a pew where family has always sat. There’s a comfort for some in sitting where certain, dedicated, hymnals are near, or where certain people are always near.
Then we all moved to sit in a spot where we never sit in this sanctuary! Five more minutes of silence and paying attention. Then the reflections came: some felt completely disconnected from everything and everyone by sitting in the back. For those who sat right up front, they said they felt closed in, and didn’t like the thought of people sitting behind them looking at them, or they felt alone sitting near the front.
From there, we sat in a circle on the floor by the steps, then we moved to sit in a circle right on the chancel. We talked about how this spot—and being in a circle—brought a deeper sense of intimacy. All of a sudden, the ceiling didn’t seem so massive. Being closer to the cross on the chancel made the space feel especially sacred.
This was a very small experiment in thinking about sacred space. What we are doing together for a couple off weeks is also a small experiment in thinking about sacred space. Why are you drawn to a certain space in this sanctuary? What happens for you when you attempt to experience the spirit of God in a different space? What bothers you, and why? What comforts you, and why? We do have a couple of people who will easily sit anywhere in this sanctuary…what is going on for you??!
In a triumphant song, David writes in Psalm 27, “I ask only one thing, Lord: Let me live in your house every day of my life to see how wonderful you are and to pray in your temple.” (vs. 4) Then he writes, “You will let me defeat all of my enemies. Then I will celebrate, as I enter your tent with animal sacrifices and songs of praise.” (vs. 6) House…temple…tent. For David, it doesn’t matter what the venue is. It simply matters that it is a place to experience God, a place to pray, a place to sing, a place to celebrate.
Every time we gather for worship in the Fellowship Hall—as we have for the past two summers—people tell me how much they value the intimacy that comes with sitting closer together, even facing each other. I certainly value the ability to be closer to you when I preach…where I can clearly see your facial expression and your body language. Where I can get a glimpse of what is making some kind of an impact on you. Or not. All of this feeds my ability to lead you in worship.
Here’s what I am encouraging all of us to do in these last couple of weeks in September: pay attention to where you are, what you’re doing, how you’re feeling when you encounter something or someone or someplace that is sacred for you. Think about how that sense of sacredness can be felt in this place. And think about how we can all expand our understanding of sacred space to include all the spaces God has created for us.
By the way, in case you were wondering…when the Notre Dame cathedral was burning, some people were very concerned about the honeybee hives that are kept on a roof of the cathedral. These hives house over 20,000 honeybees! The good news is, all the hives survived in good shape. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Lisa Drysdale
what's our address?
2 Samuel 7:1-7 (The Message)
I hate camping.” This is how Matt Laney began his Daily Devotion on the UCC website one day in August. “I hate camping,” he said, and I laughed. I’m pretty much with Matt on this one. When I was a teenager, I did travel with some kids from my church’s youth group in a Winnebago across the country to lead a week of vacation bible school with the Hopi Indians in Second Mesa, Arizona. While in Arizona, I believe we slept on the floor of a church on or near the reservation. The rest of the nights we usually slept in the Winnebago parked in some parking lot somewhere along the road.
And I have done some tent camping in my life as a director of a youth camp in Sandusky, NY. For a week. And those tents were built on large wooden pallets and had single cots and bunk beds in them so even then, some would say, I wasn’t really “camping.” I remember one night we took all the Junior High kids out to camp under the stars. I have absolutely no memory of how that went, so I must have blocked it out of my mind.
The truth of the matter is I’m not a big camper. But for people like me, there’s always “glamping!”
Camping is a thrifty way to vacation. It can also be a huge hassle: the complex packing and unpacking; the loud, drunk people at the adjacent campsite with the yappy dog; the mosquitos; the frightful bathrooms.
Glamping, on the other hand, is where stunning nature meets modern luxury. It’s a way to experience the untamed and completely unique parts of the world—without having to sacrifice creature comforts.
There is no doubt that the way we travel has changed. We no longer want a generic, one-size-fits-all vacation. We want to explore on our terms and immerse ourselves in local culture, and we no longer just want to simply witness nature—we want to live in it. A fusion of glamour and camping, glamping is a way to authentically experience the most awe-inspiring locales around the world.
Glamping is much more than a nice tent.
The glamping movement is growing, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Across the globe, you’ll find incredible destinations, each offering their own unique advantages. You can wake up in a yurt on a mountaintop. Reside in the forest canopy in a treehouse. Take in the panoramic views in an eco-lodge. And that’s just to name a few.
Glamping lodges, for example, are the perfect way to experience nature while still having four walls and a ceiling. These unique destinations from Nepal to Maine have carefully constructed the ideal dwellings for their properties, allowing guests to stay in complete luxury while still developing an up-close-and-personal relationship with the surrounding nature.
Glamping.com has researched the best glamping tent accommodations throughout the world. These glamping tents are a far cry from the do-it-yourself tent in a bag. They offer amenities like comfortable beds and in some cases en-suite bathroom facilities. When you're glamping, there's no tent to pitch. All you have to do is relax and enjoy the unique experience provided by these luxury glamping tents.
But without the advantage of glamping at his fingertips, I can understand King David’s misgivings about God having to camp while David stays indoors.
David had just scored a decisive victory against the Philistines and marked his reign over both Judah and Israel by bringing the ark of God into Jerusalem. Remember that the ark of the covenant was built by Moses to hold the Ten Commandments, given to him by God. The Israelites carried the Ark with them during their 40 years spent wandering in the desert, so its not hard to imagine how deeply attached they were to this sacred container. In a moment of rest, David finds himself thinking it odd that a mere mortal like himself lives in a grand post-and-beam cedar house, while the Almighty Master of the Universe dwells out back in a tent. God should have a temple, a big one!
Then the word of the Lord comes to David through the prophet Nathan, “I’ve lived in a tent since I brought your ancestors out of Egypt. I don’t want a house. I like the freedom and mobility that comes from camping!”
Well, for someone like me who “hates camping,” this is just hard to understand!
A house for God was eventually built anyway, a big one in the middle of Jerusalem. That might come as a relief for those who resist camping. It also says how uncomfortable we are with a free-range God. We prefer God to stay where we put God. It says how we prefer a God who affirms and mirrors our values, biases and preferences. It says how much easier we think it is to keep God “here,” than it is to try to keep up with God moving all over the place “out there.”
What I want you to think about is this: do you identify as a camper, or a glamper, or a strictly indoors kind of person? How comfortable are you with the concept of a “free-range God”? What are the risks of a God who continually moves? What are the risks of a God who stays put?
The challenge for all of us is to remember that God’s address is everywhere. It’s in the elaborate temple, and it’s in the cave on the side of a mountain. It’s in the grandest cathedral, and its in the humblest of meeting rooms. It’s here in this Fellowship Hall and its in the beauty of our sanctuary.
God’s address is everywhere. What about our address?
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Selections from Exodus 16
If you’re like most people I know, you’ve already thought about where your next meal is coming from. Maybe it will be from the vegetables in your garden. Or from groceries you haul home from the store. Or something on a restaurant menu that looks good to you. Until recently, these were about the only choices most of us had, meal-wise. Until, that is, the advent of meal-kit delivery services.
Once the domain of those trying to lose weight, gourmet meal kits have become a hot little corner of the food industry. Trading under names like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, these companies offer subscribers a box of fresh ingredients each week that they can use to whip up their own gourmet meals at home. Open box. Follow recipe. Dig in. Once you have a subscription to one of these services, the food cartons show up each week like clockwork. You don’t have to order them — although most services do allow for some substitution options. The boxes just come.
One day, long ago, the Hebrews, recently emancipated from slavery in Egypt and at the point of starvation in the wilderness, woke up to find bread from heaven! They called it manna, and like the Blue Apron boxes, it came on a regular basis — not once a week, but every morning!
This went on for years. Israel’s manna rations didn’t include such ingredients as quinoa, fresh basil or chili paste. But without fail, each daily delivery included a fine, flaky substance that “was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:30). The Israelites scooped the stuff up and baked it into cakes, the ultimate in convenience food for busy working refugees.
There was no shipping box, no freezer pack, no insulating liner like today’s shipments. The manna arrived on the ground fresh, like shimmering morning dew. Its shelf life was limited to one day, so there was no stockpiling it for the future. But who among them was concerned about that, when the Lord delivered a fresh supply each day (with double, less-perishable rations on the eve of the Sabbath, to spare God’s people the temptation to work on their day of rest)?
It’s remarkable how often God sends us just what we need, when we need it. It was true for the ancient Israelites, and it remains true for us today.
When these holy wanderers were lost, God guided them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
When they were thirsty, God told Moses how to strike a rock with his staff, calling forth a bubbling spring.
When they were hungry, thinking back with longing on the three-square meals a day their slave-masters had provided, God offered them flocks of quail, easy to catch, and also this unique gift of manna from heaven.
The word “manna” literally means “What is it?” I am confident that was the question they asked themselves, when first they saw this crusty white substance on the ground. At least, it’s what every child (and adult?) still says when they see some kind of food they’ve never had before. What is it? Scripture tells us it went on like this for 40 years — an entire generation. Manna was the gift God gave the Hebrews daily, to preserve their lives.
Some Bible scholars have tried, over the years, to figure out what manna was. There are all kinds of theories. Some say it was the secretions of certain insects; others, tree sap; still others, a sort of edible fungus that sprang up during the night. The bottom line is, nobody really knows. To the authors of the Bible, it’s a miracle — and that’s probably all we need to know. The elegant image of manna from heaven is a powerful way of depicting God’s goodness in providing all that we truly need in life.
What we’re talking about here, in theological terms, is called “providence.” It’s not a word you hear so often anymore — unless you’re talking about the capital of Rhode Island. That city was named by its pious founder, Roger Williams. He gave thanks for “God’s merciful providence” in leading him and his followers to that place. This was after they were driven into the wilderness by the governing authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who clearly did not like Williams’ unorthodox theological views. The early settlers of Rhode Island didn’t discover any flaky white stuff on the ground, but they did find plenty of game in the forest and fish in the streams. That was manna enough for them.
Isn’t that so often the way it is with us, in times when we feel trapped by dire circumstances? When jobs are lost, when relationships fail, when sickness intrudes — even when we’ve locked the keys in the car — we may not think at the time that God is close at hand, guiding our circumstances. But then, wonder of wonders, we discover that we have what we need, after all. And we give thanks.
Such experiences are our manna moments. They may not always seem so at the time — but, later on, with a little distance to reflect back on the situation, a pattern of loving care emerges. We come to see the providential hand of God active in our lives in the most remarkable ways. When that happens, the place we once imagined to be wilderness turns out to be a place of blessing after all.
From time to time, we gather at the table of the Lord. Here we consume not manna and quail, but bread and juice, which we understand to be, for us, the body and blood of our Savior. Listen for a moment to these lines from the Heidelberg Catechism, which dates from a time when the concept of providence did not seem so mysterious and strange as it does to so many people today: “I trust God so much that I do not doubt God will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world.”
Powerful words indeed — for all our manna moments!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
biblical people (Summer Series)
We’ve taken the time to look at some pretty interesting Biblical characters over the last five weeks…you may remember some of them: we’ve looked at Jonah, Elisha, Ananias, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and last Sunday we considered the story of Esther and her cousin, Mordecai, partly because I really liked the name of the King at the time, King Xerxes…the only Biblical character whose name begins with the letter X. You may also remember that Esther is the only book in the bible that never mentions God.
Today we turn to a great story from the Gospel of Mark, a story about a man who is paralyzed, whose sins are forgiven by Jesus and who was then able—much to the dismay of the religion scholars—to get up off his mat and walk…perhaps for the first time in his life.
Listen to the story as told by Mark in the 2nd chapter of his gospel… (Read Mark 2:1-12)
I love this story. I love how the paraplegic is healed and can finally walk. Some of you know that for years I walked terribly because of an accident that destroyed my right ankle when I was 16. I certainly wasn’t paralyzed, but I was in often in pain. After my healing—through two very successful fusion surgeries five years apart—I find myself giving thanks every single day for the ability to walk. It is indeed a gift, one I do not take lightly. In the story in Mark, we aren’t told what happens to the paraplegic, but I have no trouble imagining how dramatically his life changed, and I like to believe that he spent the rest of his life finding ways to praise God for that healing.
I also love how the religion scholars—when they hear Jesus proclaiming the paraplegic’s sins are forgiven—get all bent out of shape and start whispering to each other. “Wait a minute…he can’t do that! Only God can forgive sins.”
And standing on the other side of the densely packed room, Jesus knows what they are whispering—Jesus always seems to have this kind of “bionic” hearing capability—and he immediately confronts them. More importantly, Jesus confronts their faulty thinking, their rigid thinking, their lack of belief in him and he says directly to them, “Just so it’s clear that I’m the Son of Man, and authorized to do this…,” he tells the paraplegic, “Get up. Pick up your stretcher and go home.”
The Scripture says “everyone there” watched the man do it…they watched him get up, grab his stretcher and walk out. “They rubbed their eyes, incredulous—and then praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” I think the Scripture is a little unclear about whether or not the religion scholars were rubbing their eyes, too…it’s hard to know. I’d like to think they were, but I also know they don’t give up on plotting to bring Jesus down.
But the part I love the most is the part that tells us the least. Mark tells us that Jesus is home and people have gotten word that he’s there (today, this news about Jesus being in town would travel by Twitter…). So all of these people have made their way to Jesus’ house and the place is packed…no one can get in or out. Now remember what Mark says…. “They brought a paraplegic to him, carried by four men.” These four men aren’t able to get the paraplegic into the house to see Jesus because of the crowd, so what do they do? They climb up on the roof of the house, with their paralyzed friend in tow, they dig their way through part of the roof—presumably with their bare hands—and they lower the paraplegic down into the room so that Jesus will see him.
Four men. Who in the world are these men? It fascinates me that we know nothing about them, other than the fact that there were four of them, they saw a need and they stepped up to help. Not only did they step up to help, they got very creative in their solution to the problem. Jesus is inside and you can’t go through the door? The windows are blocked? I know, let’s dig through the roof and lower this man down on his stretcher!” What does it take to come up with an idea like that?
We do not know the names of these four men, but we know that they were willing to do anything to help the paraplegic get to Jesus. They could have consoled themselves that they tried to get the paraplegic help just by getting him into the general area where Jesus was. No one would have blamed them for giving up at that point. But these four nameless men believed that Jesus was a mighty man of God who could help this broken man AND their belief manifested itself in a resolute, persistent, and conspicuous action. They clawed a hole in the roof and lowered their friend into Jesus’ presence.
Notice that it’s not the faith of the paraplegic that leads to his healing, it is the bold belief of these four men. Their faith leads Jesus to heal the man.
It’s amazing to me that these men would step up. With all the people gathered in that place, they had to know that their action would connect them to the paralyzed man, which wasn’t something people in that day wanted to do because they assumed he was paralyzed because he was full of sin. And their action would connect them to this man capable of forgiving sins and healing broken bodies and spirits, this man who was always frustrating the religion scholars. Also a risky move. These four men could easily have been “tainted by association,” yet they did not hesitate to become involved.
I think we all know people who are paralyzed…maybe not physically, like the paraplegic, but paralyzed emotionally, or intellectually, or spiritually. Maybe you have felt paralyzed at some point in your life.
Who have been the people in your life who have lifted you up when you didn’t have the strength to “get up and walk” on your own? Who are the people who have helped to carry you when you simply could not see the way forward?
So a tormented man who had to be carried to Jesus walked away bearing his own stretcher and free as a lark. It would never have happened, though, if his faith-filled friends had not cared enough to risk ridicule and disappointment to bring him to Jesus. We do not know their names, but we know the impact they made. We couldn’t have this story without them. I wonder who we are being called to lift up? To carry?
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
biblical people (Summer Series)
Esther 2:1-4 (The Message)
I have to tell you, there were a number of times during the week, as I thought about today’s message, when I said to myself, “What was I thinking?”
Well, I knew what I was thinking at the time that I picked the book of Esther. I picked it because I really liked the name of the King in this book. Xerxes. How could you not be interested in a guy named Xerxes? And once I discovered that King Xerxes has the distinction of being the only person in the Bible whose name begins with “X”, I was hooked.
So early on, I was set on Xerxes being the character we’d think about today.
But then I went back and read the book of Esther (only 10 chapters!) and discovered that Xerxes wasn’t the most interesting (or helpful) character in this book…not by a long shot.
In the 10 short chapters of the Book of Esther, a fascinating story unfolds. (By the way, I think I can make a case that Chapter two of Esther tells the story of the first “Bachelor” episode, like we now watch on TV.) Through some unfortunate circumstances, Xerxes bans his wife, Queen Vashti, from his presence forever, and is now hunting for a new Queen. Listen to what Esther Chapter 2: 1-4 says…
Later, when King Xerxes’ anger had cooled and he was having second thoughts about what Vashti had done and what he had ordered against her, the king’s young attendants stepped in and got the ball rolling: “Let’s begin a search for beautiful young virgins for the king. Let the king appoint officials in every province of his kingdom to bring every beautiful young virgin to the palace complex of Susa and to the harem run by Hegai, the king’s eunuch who oversees the women; he will put them through their beauty treatments. Then let the girl who best pleases the king be made queen in place of Vashti.” The king liked this advice and took it.
As it turns out, King Xerxes was, according to my Biblical Who’s Who reading guide, Frederick Buechner, “a blowhard and a show-off, and anybody with an eighth-grade education could wrap him around his little finger without half-trying. Or her little finger, as it turned out.
“There was Haman, for example. Haman was Xerxes’ right-hand man and a raging anti-Semite. There was also a Jew named Mordecai, who lived in the capital, and one day when Haman came prancing by, Mordecai refused to flatten himself out and grovel in the dust like everybody else. It was the break Haman had been waiting for.
“He told Xerxes about Mordecai’s insubordination and rudeness and said it was a vivid illustration of how the Jews as a whole were a miserable lot. He said if you let one of them in, they brought their friends, and Persia was crawling with them. He said the only laws they respected were their own, and it was obvious they didn’t give a hoot about the king or anybody else. He then said that as far as he was concerned, the only thing to do was exterminate the whole pack of them like rats and offered the king ten thousand of the best for the privilege of organizing the operation. Xerxes pocketed the cash and told him to go ahead…kill all the Jews.
“But then there was also Queen Esther, a good-looking Jewish girl who was a cousin of Mordecai’s AND the woman the Bachelor King Xerxes chose to be his second wife. (The way I understand it…she got the rose!)
“As soon as Esther got wind of what Haman was up to, she decided to do what she could to save her people from the slaughter. Xerxes had a rather short fuse, and you had to know how to handle him, but she planned her strategy carefully, and by the time she was through, she’d not only talked him out of letting the Jews get exterminated but had gotten him to hang Haman from the same gallows that had been set up for Mordecai. She even managed to persuade Xerxes to give Mordecai Haman’s old job.
“Unfortunately, the end of the story is less edifying. Not content with having saved their people and taken care of Haman, Esther and Mordecai used their new power to orchestrate the slaughter of seventy-five thousand of their old enemies.”
Again, I ask, “What was I thinking?!”
What in the world could be the value of this Book, other than having a King with a great name, and this great quote from Mordecai as he speaks to Esther about whether or not she should stay silent while Haman plans to slaughter the Jews: “Don’t think that just because you live in the king’s house you’re the one Jew who will get out of this alive. If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out. Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this.” I’ve heard some really great sermons on that theme…”For such a time as this.” All by itself, it is a powerful message.
But what else could there be in this story that can be helpful for us today?
It seems odd that the awareness of God, or even of the people of God, brings out the worst in some people. God, the source of all goodness and blessing and joy, at times becomes the occasion for nearly unimaginable acts of cruelty, atrocity, and evil.
There is a long history of killing men and women simply because they are perceived as reminders or representatives of the living God, as if killing people who worship God gets rid of God himself. Not long ago, we completed a century marked by an extraordinary frenzy of such “god” killings. To no one’s surprise, God is still alive and present.
It turns out that no God-representing men or women get killed in this story—in fact, in a dramatic turnaround, the plot fails. But millions before and after Esther have been and, no doubt, will continue to be killed. There is hardly a culture or century that doesn’t eventually find a Haman determined to rid the world of evidence and reminders of God.
Here is something particularly amazing about this Biblical book of Esther: the Book of Esther has the distinction of being the only book in the Bible where the name of God is never mentioned.
Even so, in the end, Esther continues to speak the final and definitive word: You can’t eliminate God’s people. No matter how many of them you kill, you can’t get rid of the communities of God-honoring, God-serving, God-worshiping people scattered all over the earth.
This is still the final and definitive word. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
biblical people (Summer Series)
Some of you may well be familiar with our “character of the day.” His name is Nicodemus. If you are thinking that Nicodemus was the short guy that Jesus saw sitting up in a tree, you would be close…but wrong. The names sound kind of the same, but the short guy in the tree was Zaccheus. I’m willing to bet, if the two characters were put side by side, more people would remember the story of Zaccheus than they would the story of Nicodemus. So let’s take a moment and look at Nicodemus, and see what he has to teach us today.
The main part of the story about Nicodemus is found in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John. It’s a fairly long scripture passage, so let me give you some high lights of Nicodemus’ life from chapter 3. Frederick Buechner tells his story this way:
“Nicodemus had heard enough about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, he decided it might be just as well to pay Jesus that visit at night…so he waited ‘til he thought his neighbors were all asleep.
“At the start of their conversation, Jesus was fairly patient. What the whole thing boiled down to, Jesus told him, was that unless you got born again, you might as well give up.
“That was all very well, Nicodemus said, but just how were you to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five? How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? He even got a little sarcastic. Could a man ‘enter a second time into his mother’s womb,’ he asked, ‘when it was all he could do to enter a taxi without the driver coming around to give him a shove from behind?’
“A gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame, and Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn’t something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God’s sake.
“‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus said, and that’s when Jesus let him have it.
“Maybe Nicodemus had six honorary doctorates and half a column in Who’s Who, Jesus said, but if he couldn’t see something as plain as the nose on his face, he’d better go back to kindergarten.
“’I’m telling you like it is,’ Jesus said. ‘I’m telling you there are people on Medicare walking around with the love-light in their eyes. I’m telling you there are ex-cons teaching Sunday School. I’m telling you there are undertakers scared silly we’ll put them out of business.’
“Jesus said, ‘I’m telling you God’s got such a thing for this loused-up planet that he’s sent me down so if you don’t believe your own eyes, then maybe you’ll believe me…and maybe you won’t come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore but will come to, come clean, come to life.’
“What impressed Nicodemus even more than the speech was the quickening of his own breathing and the pounding of his own heart. He hadn’t felt like that since his first pair of long pants, his first kiss, since the time his first child was born or the time they’d told him he didn’t have lung-cancer but just a touch of the flu.”
This is the story of Nicodemus we find in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John. But there is more to his story! He comes back into the Gospel right after Jesus is crucified. In chapter 19, starting with verse 38 we read about Nicodemus again. Listen to this: “After all this, Joseph of Arimathea (he was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because he was intimidated by the Jews) petitioned Pilate to take the body of Jesus. Pilate gave permission. So Joseph came and took the body. Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, came now in broad daylight carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. They took Jesus' body and, following the Jewish burial custom, wrapped it in linen with the spices. There was a garden near the place he was crucified, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been placed. So, because it was Sabbath preparation for the Jews and the tomb was convenient, they placed Jesus in it.”
What I find so fascinating (and challenging) is this: When we finally hear about Nicodemus again, he is placed in the story right next to another guy (Joseph of Arimathea) who is apparently afraid to be known as a follower of Christ. He is one…he just doesn’t want people to know it. Nicodemus went to see Jesus under cover of darkness because he was afraid, he was intimidated. He didn’t want people to know he felt compelled to talk with Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea was also afraid and intimidated. People thought they knew who Joseph was, but what they clearly did not know was that he was a disciple of Jesus…because he kept that part of his life secret.
I wonder what makes you afraid. I wonder who or what intimidates you. Is there something about a life of faith that makes it hard for you to be open about your connection to Jesus? Is there something about who Jesus is…or about who you think you are…that makes it hard for you to grow closer to Jesus? Through a personal encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus was able to openly profess he was a disciple. But in the Gospel of John, we never hear about Joseph of Arimathea again. We don’t know if he was ever able to talk openly about being a disciple.
Today we have two characters to consider, both of whom were afraid. I wonder whose example we’ll follow in the days to come? Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
biblical people (Summer Series)
2 Kings 2:19-25
Today, I want to introduce you to another OT prophet, whose story is found in the 2nd book of Kings. His name is Elisha. Sometimes, telling Elisha’s story gets a little tricky because—as we’ll learn—he was the student of another prophet whose name was Elijah, and quite frankly, it’s easy to get them mixed up because their names sound so much alike!
The connection between these two prophets is significant, so let me back up a bit to make sure you understand who they were.
Elijah was the prophet that King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, vowed to kill after Elijah’s God—our God, Yahweh—destroyed the prophets of Baal. You may remember that Elijah freaked out at this threat and ran into the desert, seeking shelter in a cave, and asking God to just let him give up. It was at the mouth of that cave that God showed up—not in a hurricane, not in an earthquake, not in a fire—but in a gentle and quiet whisper.
Near the end of Elijah’s life, God chose a man named Elisha to follow Elijah and they became good friends. Elisha served Elijah faithfully. But one day, Elijah said, "Elisha, you stay here. God is sending me away."
"As God lives, I will never leave you," said Elisha, and he continued to stay with Elijah. Each time Elijah told Elisha to stay behind, Elisha refused to leave his friend.
"What can I do for you before I go?" asked Elijah.
"I want a double share of your spirit," said Elisha.
Then a chariot of fire swept down from heaven and took Elijah away. But God answered Elisha's request, and like his friend, Elisha became a powerful prophet too.
Elisha has a fascinating story all his own in the 2nd book of Kings, but I want to bring your attention to one little portion of his story, found in 2 Kings 2:19-25:
One day the men of the city said to Elisha, “You can see for yourself, master, how well our city is located. But the water is polluted and nothing grows.”
20 He said, “Bring me a brand-new bowl and put some salt in it.” They brought it to him.
21-22 He then went to the spring, sprinkled the salt into it, and proclaimed, “God’s word: I’ve healed this water. It will no longer kill you or poison your land.” And sure enough, the water was healed—and remains so to this day, just as Elisha said.
23 Another time, Elisha was on his way to Bethel and some little kids came out from the town and taunted him, “What’s up, old baldhead! Out of our way, skinhead!”
24 Elisha turned, took one look at them, and cursed them in the name of God. Two bears charged out of the underbrush and knocked them about, ripping them limb from limb—forty-two children in all!
25 Elisha went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.
What?! The first part I get. Elisha—with the power of God upon him—acts like you might expect a prophet to act, and “heals the water”—purifies it—brings fresh, un-poisoned water to the land. You know we can’t live long without access to fresh, clean water, so Elisha—in true prophet style—saves the people of Jericho.
But what in the world is going on in the second part of this Scripture? And why don’t we ever hear about this part of Elisha’s story?
Listen to how Frederick Buechner tells it:
“It was a hot day as the prophet Elisha made his way up to Bethel where he had business to attend to. Pausing near a camping ground for a bit of shade, he was mopping his bald scalp with a corner of his prayer shawl when a Boy Scout troop broke ranks and surrounded him. They threw bottle caps at him, and they made rude gestures. They pulled their mouths wide as they could with their thumbs and at the same time pulled their lower lids down with their index fingers ‘til you could see the wet, pink membrane inside. It was an unnerving spectacle.
(As an aside….I have to tell you that I tried making this face in my bathroom mirror, and it IS unnerving….)
Buechner continues: “Skin head” and “Chrome-dome” and “Curly” they called at him ‘til finally the old man had enough. He made a few passes at them, muttered a few words, (cursed them in the most literal sense!) and within seconds a couple of she-bears lumbered out from the trees behind the picnic tables and mauled some of the slower members of the troop rather badly.
“It is NOT the most edifying story in the Old Testament, but there are some lessons to be learned from it, even so.”
I think what this story about Elisha teaches us (along with the entire story of 1st and 2nd Kings) is this: even in the midst of all the ways we mess up God’s purposes, God continues to work his purposes and uses unlikely Kings and prophets—unlikely people like us!—in the work; doesn’t discard them, doesn’t detour around them, he USES them. They are part of his sovereign rule, whether they want to be or not, whether they know it or not. God’s purposes ARE worked out in confrontation and revelation, in judgment and salvation, but they are worked out.
The books of Kings, in particular, provide premier witness to the purposes of God carried out among some of the most unlikely and uncooperative people who have ever lived.
Sometimes those being led by God get it right—they “heal water”—and sometimes those being led by God get it wrong and use their power from God to curse, instead of bless.
In the midst of it all, God works for good. It’s hard to believe sometimes when someone or something in our experience distresses us. But the gift is that God is sovereign over all, and God can use it all…the good, the bad, the ugly.
If God’s sovereignty is never canceled out by the so deeply sin-flawed leaders both in our culture and in our church, we can rejoice in God’s sovereignty as it is being exercised (though often silently and hiddenly) in all the circumstantial details of our day.
This is probably not the most edifying story about Elisha, but it is perhaps one of the more endearing. And, by the grace of God, it teaches us a lot…
biblical people (Summer Series)
Acts 9:10-19 (The Message)
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve looked at some interesting Biblical characters in an effort to see what they can teach us. We spent time thinking about Jonah, and last week we considered Elisha. This week, I want to call your attention to a lesser known character, but someone who is absolutely critical to the spreading of the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Now, if I asked you who Saul was, I’m willing to bet someone here would be able to tell me some things about him. You might be able to tell me that Saul was once a notable “up and coming” Jewish Pharisee, and you might be able to tell me that he was eager to imprison anyone who claimed to believe in the death and resurrection of this man named Jesus. You might be able to tell me that Saul went on his way to Damascus with permission from the High Priest at Jerusalem to seize all Christians living there. And, you might be able to tell me that while on his way to Damascus, Jesus himself appeared to Saul and spoke to him…actually knocked him off his horse.
Frederick Buechner describes Saul’s encounter with Jesus this way: “It was about noon when Saul was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name, twice. “Saul,” it said, and then again, “Saul. Why are you out to get me?” and when Saul pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, “I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.” We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish him off without even noticing it, and Paul (the name we came to know him for) waited for the axe to fall.
“Only it wasn’t the axe that fell. ‘Those boys in Damascus,’ Jesus said. ‘Don’t fight them, join them. I want you on my side,” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterwards, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world.”
I remind you of this story of Paul because what happened to him played a significant role in the life of the character I want us to consider today: Ananias. If you’re really up on your Biblical characters, you’re probably asking, “Which Ananias?” To you I say, “Wow. I’m impressed!” I had to do some research to make sure I knew which Ananias I was talking about, because there are three of them in the New Testament. The first Ananias was a Christian of Jerusalem. He and his wife Sapphira were among those disciples who sold their property for the proceeds to be distributed among all the Christians in Jerusalem. But Ananias and Sapphira kept back a part of the money while pretending to give the full amount to the apostles. When Peter exposed his lie, Ananias was struck dead. Sapphira appeared later before Peter and maintained the lie; she, too, was struck dead.
(Acts 4:32-37; 5:1-10)
Another Ananias was a High Priest who tried Paul when he was arrested in Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey. (Acts 23:1-10)
Then there’s “our” Ananias, a Christian disciple living in Damascus when Paul arrived in that city after his conviction. Listen to his story in the 9th chapter of the book of Acts:
There was a disciple in Damascus by the name of Ananias. The Master spoke to him in a vision: “Ananias.”
“Yes, Master?” he answered.
11-12 “Get up and go over to Straight Avenue. Ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus. His name is Saul. He’s there praying. He has just had a dream in which he saw a man named Ananias enter the house and lay hands on him so he could see again.”
13-14 Ananias protested, “Master, you can’t be serious. Everybody’s talking about this man and the terrible things he’s been doing, his reign of terror against your people in Jerusalem! And now he’s shown up here with papers from the Chief Priest that give him license to do the same to us.”
15-16 But the Master said, “Don’t argue. Go! I have picked him as my personal representative to non-Jews and kings and Jews. And now I’m about to show him what he’s in for—the hard suffering that goes with this job.”
17-19 So Ananias went and found the house, placed his hands on blind Saul, and said, “Brother Saul, the Master sent me, the same Jesus you saw on your way here. He sent me so you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes—he could see again! He got to his feet, was baptized, and sat down with them to a hearty meal.”
This Ananias had a vision in which he was instructed to go to Paul to baptize him and give him back his sight. Ananias was at first hesitant because he knew well the harm Paul had done to the Christians in Jerusalem. Finally, with the power (and fear) of the Master in him, Ananias went boldly to Paul, explained Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus when he got knocked off the horse, caused him to recover his sight, and then baptized Paul.
I want to suggest to you today that Paul’s conversion may never have happened without Ananias, and yet, Ananias isn’t known for his greatness (if he’s known at all!)…Paul is. Ananias cannot be forgotten though, because of this: Ananias is the catalyst. God’s catalyst. Paul is the instrument…Ananias is the catalyst.
Sometimes we’re the instrument. Sometimes we’re the catalyst. Both the instrument and the catalyst have critical roles to play in spreading the story of God in the world.
Ananias also reminds us that sometimes God asks us to love unlovable people…even people who seek to harm us.
Paul is clearly the best known star in this story. Very few disciples become such a famous, useful, willing instrument of Jesus Christ like Paul became. But all believers can be like Ananias, willing to go where God calls us to go. Capable of setting our deepest fears aside, trusting God to lead. Capable of letting go of our skepticism, believing that God knows all and is faithful.
We don’t hear about Ananias again, but we cannot forget him. Because of his faithfulness, Paul was healed of his blindness, and his spirit was set on fire for Jesus. God seeks to use us as well!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
biblical people (Summer Series)
Today, and for a number of Sundays this summer, I want to introduce you to some special people. They’re not people we can actually meet, greet and carry on a conversation with. Instead, they are Biblical people. Some of them you will have met along the way. Some of them will be quite a surprise to you. All of them, I’m convinced, have something to tell us, something to teach us.
Today I’d like to introduce you to Jonah. Perhaps you’ve met before…
Jonah is often perceived as a cute children’s story about a gentle magic whale who serves as a living submarine for a runaway prophet. What’s so amazing, though, is that Jonah’s story could win an award as the most subversive document in the biblical library. It’s one home-grown character, Jonah, is rebellious, pouty, and wrong nearly all the time, while all the other characters in the story—from pagan sailors, to ocean waves, to Ninevites, to a bush and a worm, to the great swallowing and vomiting sea creature himself—respond to God beautifully.
The story begins with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.” (1:2). Jonah declines the assignment and jumps a ship that will carry him to the opposite end of the Mediterranean world. God intervenes with a major storm to block Jonah’s escape. Jonah ends up getting thrown overboard by a remarkably kind group of sailors who, after doing everything they can to save both him and their own skins, in the end agree to Jonah’s death wish and toss him into the sea.
Enter the whale or great fish, who dutifully swallows Jonah and whose stomach provides a kind of prayer chamber. When cued by the Lord, the fish vomits Jonah on the shore, and when told by the Lord a second time to go to Nineveh, Jonah complies.
Jonah arrives in Nineveh and starts preaching that the city will be destroyed in forty days, and right on cue, everyone repents, from the least to the king himself. The king calls everyone to fast, pray, and “turn from their evil ways and from violence” for this reason: “Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quite being angry with us and let us live!” (3:8-9).
And that’s all it takes for God to drop the “destroy in forty days” forecast. At this point, Jonah is furious. He vents: “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!” (4:2). In other words, Jonah says, “I didn’t want to come to Nineveh, our enemy and the axis of evil, for fear that you would be gracious and compassionate to them.” He wants no part in sharing his tribe’s “secret defense” or “secret weapon”—the grace and love of God—with the enemy. He wishes God would remain more to his liking—which means, exclusive.
Jonah then, in his second suicidal moment, begs God to kill him, as if to say, “I’d rather be dead than have to live in a world where you love both our enemies and us”—a not uncommon sentiment among some religious people still today, it seems. God tries to reason with Jonah, first using words and then a kind of experiential learning program involving a bush and a worm, but Jonah keep sulking and wishing he were dead.
God twice asks Jonah what right he has to be so angry. The first time, Jonah just walks away without saying anything, although I can certainly imagine him muttering something under his breath like a teenager. The second time, he claims he does have a right, and (once again) he’d rather be dead, thank you very much. God replies:
“What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?” (4:10-11)
And that’s the end—the only document in the biblical library that ends with an open question and with no sense of closure to the plot.
This is why I think meeting Jonah is important for us today:
This openness presents us with great hope. Even though Jonah rebels and runs away from his calling, his rebelling is not the end of the story. Even though Jonah asks to be thrown overboard, his death wish is not the end of the story. Even though Jonah is swallowed by a monster, its potent stomach acids are not the end of the story. Even though Jonah has a snarky attitude and stomps away from God in a huff, his temper tantrum is not the end of the story. And so on.
Whether you’re Jonah or the Ninevites or us, wherever you turn, you keep bumping into a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love. Again and again, God opens up another chance to repent, and so the story ends without really ending. Instead of closure, the story leaves us with an opening, a space.
Should God not be concerned? Should God not be “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love”—both toward the Ninevites and toward his reluctant, disobedient prophet? Should God not care?
Our answers to these questions, I believe, shape our vision of the future. The future is open, because the compassion and care of God are unconstructed, open wide for us to turn and find a better life than we’re now experiencing by taking a better path than we’re now walking.
Now it’s up to us… Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)
When playing pool, depending on what variations of the rules you’re following, you may get to call your shots. I read this recently, and because I don’t play pool, I did not know what it meant, so I went to the Internet. Oh boy. There is a whole thing going on out there in the internet world that I did not know existed! There are people who are very are serious about their pool playing.
I did learn a couple of things, though. Eight Ball is generally played as a “call shot” game, which means that before you hit a ball, you must call the shot. First you pick your shot, then you say it aloud so your opponent can hear you: “Five ball in the corner pocket” or whatever the shot is that you're about to make.
As I scrolled through some unusual conversations about pool, I came across someone asking the question, “Why do you have to call your shot?” In a pretty funny post, WikiTiger wrote, “Is that even an official rule? I admit that I know little about the game and never was any good at it so I never pursued it.
Anyway, it’s my understanding that you have to say which pocket you intend to place the ball. Why is that necessary? If you shoot for the corner and it accidentally goes into a side pocket then great! If a quarterback throws to one receiver but the ball is tipped off his fingers into the air and another receiver catches the ball, we don't penalize the team for that. It just makes no sense to me so I was hoping someone could explain it without saying something like "that's the rules." After a lot of back-and-forth responses to WikiTiger, one post actually made sense to me. The writer simply wrote “calling the shot makes the shooter have to be more precise.” And I would say, confident.
Evan Garner says that “Announcing in advance exactly how you will cause the cue ball to interact with the other balls and the table offers an opportunity to look impressive—or foolish.” In Romans 5, Paul describes justification by faith as if it were a theological form of shot-calling. He encourages his readers to have confidence in an outcome they cannot yet see.
Paul writes, “Since we are justified by faith…we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Boasting in hope is a little like counting one’s chickens before they hatch—except that those who place their faith in God are assured of the result. The Greek word Paul uses—although frequently translated as “boast,”— also means “living with one’s head held high.” Rooted in the word for "neck," this kind of boasting describes the stance of those whose confidence is visibly manifest in their posture.
Normally, such strutting-before-the-fact would foreshadow an undesired outcome. In an article in the Sports section of the Buffalo News on Thursday, Vic Carucci wrote about LeSean McCoy’s feelings about his upcoming season with the Buffalo Bills. Carucci wrote, “LeSean McCoy doesn’t seem the least bit fazed by the Buffalo Bills adding new running backs via free agency and the draft after the worst season of his 10-year NFL career. He told the Buffalo News Wednesday…that he fully expects to continue as the Bills’ starting running back. ‘I’m the type of guy, I thrive off of having a big name. So when guys come to my team, they’re curious to see how is LeSean McCoy? Is he still a good player? I mean, I’m a dominant player. I think that speaks for itself.’” In responding to questions about the Bills’ new running backs, McCoy responded, “I play with confidence…”
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m happy Shady plays for the Bills! But the difference here is that Christians boast not of their own accomplishments but of God’s. And for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is all the confidence we need.
As Evan Garner says it, “Justification by faith means being declared righteous by God not because of what we have done but because of our confidence in what God has done. Our hope, therefore, depends not on the fruit of our own labors but on the fruit of the resurrection. This enables us to see, in Christ, what the world cannot see—that even in the midst of struggle our future is assured.”
Of this otherworldly confidence, Paul writes boldly, if not ridiculously, that “we also boast in our sufferings.” Because of our confidence in the one who is faithful, we hold our heads up high as if we inhabit a position of strength—even when the path before us leads to hardship. Even when we feel as if we are being taken further from our share in God’s glory, we have confidence in God and God’s promises. How else could the ones who suffer look their persecutors in the eye? Or as I often ask, “how else would we ever get out of bed in the morning?”
This brand of hope and faith is not easily found, however. It is produced through the agonizing process of suffering, endurance, and character-building. In Christ, God has given us every reason for confidence, but those who hope in God still place their faith in something that cannot be seen. We are justified not merely by agreeing with the blind prospect that things will get better, but by trusting—by knowing—that God will bring us to glory.
“In the face of such difficulty, how can we know how things will turn out? Where does faith like that come from? It comes from knowing that even though we are the ones who call the shot, we are not the ones who make it.”
Praise be to God that we can know—and believe—the promises of God! Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
God Talk is Tricky!
God talk can be difficult to get right, even among professionals. A priest and a pastor from two local churches were standing by the side of the road holding up a huge sign that read, “The End Is Near! Turn yourself around before it’s too late!” They planned to hold up the sign to each passing car. The first driver sped by and yelled, “Leave us alone you religious nuts!” From around the curve they heard screeching tires and a big splash. “Do you think,” said the priest to the pastor, “we should change the sign to just say, ‘Bridge Out’?”
On the day of Pentecost, the church began to talk. And in a sense, they talked about the old bridge being out, but pointed the way to a new bridge, Jesus Christ.
If we were to read the story of the first Pentecost in the book of Acts, we would discover that the apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Using a variety of tongues, the apostles started to talk publicly about “God’s deeds of power.” And Peter, who had denied Jesus just a few weeks earlier, raised his voice and boldly proclaimed that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
On Pentecost, the silence of the church was broken. With the help of the Holy Spirit, church members talked openly about God’s deeds of power and about the salvation offered by Jesus. Many who heard this message “were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” to the Christian community (Acts 2:41). The words spoken by Peter and the other apostles were inspirational, and they sparked the explosive growth of the Jerusalem church.
Then, as now, God-talk has the power to change lives. But it appears that we are losing our voice. In The New York Times (October 13, 2018), religion writer Jonathan Merritt reports that it’s getting harder and harder to talk about God. Although more than 70 percent of us in the United States identify as Christian, most of us don’t feel comfortable speaking about our faith. According to a recent Barna survey, more than three-quarters of Americans do not often have spiritual or religious conversations. A meager 7 percent of Americans say that they talk about spiritual matters regularly. Seven percent! What if only 7 percent of the apostles had spoken up? The day of Pentecost might have been a dud. And if all this isn’t discouraging enough, get this: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly don’t do much better than the general population. Only 13 percent of these people have a spiritual conversation about once a week.
So why do we struggle so badly with God talk? Jonathan Merritt says that today, “work often takes precedence over worship, social lives are prioritized over spiritual disciplines and most people save their Sunday-best clothing for Monday through Friday.” Americans also feel conflicted about talking openly about their faith. The Barna survey reveals that many people believe that spiritual conversations create tension or arguments, and some are concerned by the trend to politicize religion. A smaller number don’t do God talk because they don’t want to appear religious, sound weird or seem extremist. God talk can be tricky — no doubt about it. But if our faith is important to us, we should find a way to do it.
The apostle Paul gives us some guidance in his letter to the Romans, which he wrote to his fellow followers of Jesus in the capital of the Roman Empire. He knew that spiritual conversations could create tensions and arguments, and he was aware that Christians in Rome could come across as weird and extremist. So the language he uses is very carefully chosen.
Like Paul, we need to be careful with the language we use in conversations about faith. J.R. Briggs says that if you ask someone with no church experience what it means to “feel called,” they might think you’re “referring to the phone vibrating in their pocket.” Although Briggs has been a pastor for more than 15 years, he still doesn’t know exactly what people mean when they say goodbye with the words, “Be blessed.” He is also aware that phrases from Scripture can be confusing — being healed “by the blood of the Lamb” and giving your “tithes and offerings” are religious jargon that can be mystifying to people outside the church. This might simply be a matter of knowing our audience. It’s fine to talk about being washed “in the blood of the Lamb” with someone who knows the Bible from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 and all parts in between — especially Leviticus. But try explaining that our sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus to someone who’s just moved in next door? Maybe not a good idea.
Fortunately, Paul doesn’t make such mistakes in his God talk to the Romans. Not only is he careful with the language he uses, but he also talks about values, not dogma.
Sure, Paul is well-known for his theological arguments, and his letter to the Romans is hardly considered bedtime reading. Yet, here he speaks clearly about life in God’s family, something that most people desire for themselves and for the people they love. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” writes Paul, meaning that we are children of God when we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit leads us away from self-centered living and toward God-centered living. We want God to shape our actions, attitudes and values.
So what does this mean? Paul says elsewhere in Romans that we should “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:9-13).
Love, mutual affection, honor, zeal, hope, perseverance and hospitality. These words are not confusing, and all are the kind of God talk that can be spoken and understood by anyone, inside or outside the church. All are marks of a true Christian, seen in the life of a person who is led by the Spirit of God into the family of God. Most people will talk about what they value and what they deem important in life.
We all know the value of love, honor, hope and hospitality, and if we fail to use these words, then they will fall out of use. Jonathan Merritt has discovered that language about Christian virtues is, unfortunately, declining right along with God talk. Since the early 20th century, humility words like “modesty” have fallen by 52 percent. Compassion words like “kindness” have dropped by 56 percent. Gratitude words like “thankfulness” have declined by 49 percent. When such words fall out of circulation, our entire culture suffers.
On this day of Pentecost, the church can begin to talk again. Not with religious jargon, but with clear words about what it means to be children of God who are led by the Spirit of God. Each of us has been adopted by our loving Abba, and we have an opportunity to serve God right alongside our brother Jesus. When we speak of love, honor, hope and hospitality — and, better yet, when we back up our words with our actions — the world will get the message.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
38 Years Is a Long Time
John 5.1-9 (The Message)
I love it when people tell me stories of their kairos moments. We’ve probably all had them. I know I have. I hope you have, too. If we are alert to them, they can be amazing moments of clarity and connection with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos, which is the word used to describe chronological or sequential time, and kairos, an understanding and experience of time I want us to think about this morning. Kairos is the Greek word used to describe the right, critical or opportune moment.
Today’s story from the gospel of John is a powerful example of the kairos kind of time. It’s the story of a man who is completely unable to move around. He’s an invalid, The Message says. And now--for some amount of time, we don’t know how long--we know he’s been hanging out by this pool in Bethesda, a place where people believed that if they could get into the water, they would be healed. But you had to enter at the right, critical, or opportune moment, when the water was stirred up. It was all about the timing.
Aisha Brooks-Lytle, the executive presbyter at the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, wrote in a recent Christian Century magazine about this scripture, and about the importance of kairos time. Thinking about kairos time led her to remember her preteen years in a black working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, a time and place that taught her a lot of things.” It was the art of double Dutch that taught me that timing is everything,” she said.
“Watching and participating in this game,” she continued, “I learned how to know when it was just the right moment to enter into the jump ropes and to keep in step with movement, agility, and syncopated rhythm. I was never good at actually jumping into the ropes, but I could always be counted on to turn them. As I held the ends, I was able to create the magic moment of one rope going up while the other was coming down, two ropes crossing each other and allowing someone to enter and jump in the center only if they could make sense of the perfect moment.
“I would watch girls count out loud or in their heads as they entered the ropes and tried to keep in step with fancy footwork. As I turned the ends, the expert jumpers seemed to know, intuitively, how to slide in between the two ropes like a dancer and stay on beat. It was as much about rhythm as it was about timing.”
Aisha Brooks-Lytle is executive presbyter at the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.
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What Aisha Brooks-Lytle goes on to say has been very helpful to me in thinking about this story. She says, “When I read John’s account of the ill man at the side of the pool at Beth-zatha, I am as fascinated with this man’s time spent, time wasted, and time perceived as I am with Jesus’ timing in his life. As a sick person with limited mobility, the man must have counted the days and years that went by with no change in his situation. Thirty-eight years is a long time to be stuck in one position.
“I wonder about the amount of time that went by as he imagined who he could count on and how his life would be different if he could just get to those healing waters. Day after day, week after week, year after year, his thoughts of a calculated move toward healing were always interrupted. I can imagine people getting in his way of getting close to those healing waters. I can imagine him being discouraged and giving up. I can imagine him feeling like time was just evaporating as he remained stagnant and siloed in that position.
“For him, time must have been torture—a mockery. With each new day and each new hour, he was reminded that nothing good was going to happen for him.
“Then Jesus comes on the scene. With the clock ticking for this immobilized man, Jesus does not focus on the amount of time the man has been stuck. Jesus is not concerned about the amount of time wasted or the time spent in this one position for 38 years. This man has been landlocked on a mat as if frozen in time. Now Jesus unlocks a timeless moment with him. Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter, simply asking, “Do you want to be made well?” What a seemingly dopey and obvious question!!
“I wonder if time stands still for this man who has been waiting for so long. With one question in a moment’s notice, Jesus wipes away every excuse, every barrier, and every misperception this unnamed man has had concerning his own situation. Jesus, like a seasoned city girl who knows just the right moment to enter the fast-moving jump ropes and demonstrate her skills, seizes the opportunity. It is a miracle that the man is able to take up his mat and walk after being incapacitated for 38 relentless years. It is also a miracle that Jesus invites him to see the impossible and to participate in his own healing and renewal.
As the story comes to a close, we get one more take on the perfect timing of Jesus. This healing takes place on the sabbath, a time when Jesus often gets in trouble for healing, feeding, and caring for others. While others may be fixated on the clock, “Jesus is fixated on the moment. He is opening the hearts and minds of those around him. He reminds them that even on a day of rest, God’s transformative power is always at work. God’s redemptive power is always ready to spring forth. It’s kairos time rather than chronos. It’s a sacred moment that can’t be calculated but can be cultivated.”
:Only the divine can cultivate a kairos moment in our lives. This is what Jesus has done for the man who was afflicted for 38 years, and it’s what Jesus does for us time and time again. The invitation for the sick man to desire healing and restoration is a timeless invitation. Christ is among us, ready to seize the moment to ask if we desire to be well. This is God’s hope: for us to be made whole, to be reconciled to our creator, and to be reconciled to one another.
“It doesn’t matter how much time has passed, and it doesn’t matter if the barriers we see are real or perceived. Christ will find just the right moment to speak to us—in the voice of another person or through a song, a gentle breeze, scripture, art, or something that challenges the mind and convicts the soul. Christ has the power and precision to know when to remind us of the invitation to want to be made well. Each time we answer yes to the grand invitation to wholeness, we are commanded to delay no longer but to get up and walk in a way that is renewed with each new day.”
Thanks be to God that Christ never stops inviting us to grace and wholeness! Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Ready to Listen
1 Samuel 3:1–10 (The Message)
Few Bible stories fill us with as much envy as the story of Samuel's calling. After all, here is a call that is both unmistakably clear and remarkably consistent. With patient urgency God's voice repeats until Samuel at last understands and responds. When Samuel repeats the message God has given him, all those around him seem to accept unquestioningly the truth of his words and his new role as prophet. What I love most about this story in Samuel is the lesson that Samuel learns from his mentor, Eli. When Eli finally figures out that God must have something to say to Samuel, Eli tells him, “Go back and lie down. If the voice calls again, say, ‘Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen.’” Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen.
What a great reminder for me, for all of us, today. It is too easy, sometimes, to find ourselves frustrated by the lack of a vision—or a revelation—from God. Where is it? Why can’t we see it? What’s God up to, anyway? Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen. As I was thinking about this story of Samuel, I came across an article in the Christian Century, written by a pastor who found herself wondering about whether or not God was going to show up in her community. This is what she wrote:
“Some years ago, when I was in my first pastoral appointment, I met an 11-year-old named Victor at youth court. A friend had asked me to serve as translator for Victor's father, who spoke only Spanish, because Victor was about to be tried for shooting a child in the leg with a BB gun. Violence and trouble were part of life in Victor's neighborhood. In the Gospel of John, when Nathanael asks Philip if anything good can come out of Nazareth, he might have been talking about Victor's neighborhood or about kids like Victor.
“After the jury had deliberated, Victor was given the maximum punishment of 25 hours of community service plus four jury duties at youth court. As I explained the verdict to his father, I realized that the family lived only blocks from the church I served in the urban core of our Midwestern city. It was decided that Victor would begin his community service hours at our church the next day.
His first task was to help clean up an unused youth room on the third floor. It was hot, dusty and messy up there—not a particularly congenial setting for someone trying to maintain moussed, spiked hair. But Victor took the task seriously and assured me he could make a difference in the room. If he did, I told him, the room could become a youth room for him and his friends.
It didn't take Victor long to turn that musty room around. At one point he came across a large cross that he placed on a table so that the two objects resembled an altar. He then positioned the entire apparatus—altar and all—in front of the east window. He told me that he had considered many places for the cross, but this seemed to be the most fitting. "This is a church, isn't it? Every church should have a cross in the window so those of us on the outside can see it."
Victor had one more responsibility during those weeks. We needed help with vacation Bible school. Victor wasn't sure about doing any kind of "school" in the summer, but he said he'd help. When he invited his friends, our VBS was blessed by Javier, Pedro and Fernando.
We are told in 1 Samuel, "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." I often feel as though all my years in ministry have been spent in times when the word of the Lord was rare and visions not widespread. I imagine a time when the Lord's voice might be clear and ever present. I pray for visions that draw a picture of what the future of our congregation, community and city will look like. Must the voice of the Lord feel so distant? Must we wait like Samuel, so attentive to the needs and voices of others that we begin to mistake the Lord's voice for yet another demand on our time, energy and resources?
The request to go to youth court came only weeks after I'd begun my first full-time appointment in a parish. I was so neck deep in the "stuff" of ministry that I was hesitant to provide this translation favor for a friend. Did I really have time to assist a kid accused of shooting another kid with a BB gun? Every parishioner was waiting for a home visit; the music director was asking for Sunday's scriptures; the district needed members for a task force on urban ministry. Then came the call to help Victor. I have been called once already, I thought. Please, everyone, stop calling me!
These days our congregations struggle to make sense of the way cultural change has pummeled our identity. Pastors seek refuge from the voices crying out for their attention, few of which resemble the voice of God. Like Samuel, we continue to get up and tend those who are crying out in need.
Then Samuel receives a word from his wise mentor, Eli. "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" Eli sensed what was coming over Samuel. Even though the word of the Lord was rare in those days too, and visions were not widespread, Eli counseled Samuel to go, wait and prepare for God's voice.
During the week of vacation Bible school with Victor assisting me and his friends participating, his buddy Pedro came to me with a question: "Pastor, you know those community service hours that Victor has? How can I get some of those?" I was stunned to attention. All of the other voices crying out for attention stopped. I was silent. Then I listened. The voice of the Lord was about to speak a new vision. It was clear and came with a challenge: Do kids have to shoot someone with a BB gun before they are invited into your church?
From that day on, Victor and his friends guided our Wednesday afternoon youth ministry on the third floor of that church in a once dusty, messy room. The cross stayed in the east window, but more and more young people began to see it from inside rather than from the outside. Victor and his friends respectfully demanded access to a building they thought had been closed to them, a space where the word of the Lord was rare and visions not widespread—until their voices cried out.
Later Jesus would say to Nathanael and his doubts, "You will see greater things than these." Indeed we will.”
Speak, God. We are your servants, ready to listen. May it be so.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
(Story by Cynthia D. Weems, Christian Century, 1/3/12)
Simple Good Works of Great Value
Acts 9:36-42 (NRSV)
A long time ago, let’s say 75 or more years ago, most people — average folks — tried to avoid buying manufactured things at stores because they were so gosh-darn expensive. Instead, most everything was made at home.
Mom (for whom we give thanks and celebrate today) made the family’s clothes on a Singer sewing machine. If the clothes developed a tear, Mom sewed things back together. She even darned socks. Mom didn’t buy bread; she baked bread. Mom didn’t buy bedspreads and blankets; she made quilts. And Dad didn’t buy furniture; he made the kitchen table, sideboards and cupboards.
And if your family needed things that the family couldn’t provide, you didn’t go to the store; you went to your neighbors. Maybe you needed eggs; you went to the neighbor with hens. Maybe you needed plates and cups; you went to the potter. Yes, sometimes you had to go to the store to buy things, but as much as possible, you made things yourself.
That was a long time ago. But about 1950 to 1960, a huge transition took place during which America started buying. So affluent did the Builder generation become that their children, the Baby Boomers, rejected materialism and the establishment it represented.
Today, to make a long story short, a corporate policy of planned obsolescence has renewed interest in, and a demand for, handcrafted items. In many cities around the world, one can find stores devoted to the sale of handmade items. There is a huge market for handcrafted items, especially if they’re creative and of high quality. People love this stuff.
And people loved this stuff 2,000 years ago. They loved Dorcas’ stuff. Dorcas made handcrafted items. Of course, this was not so rare then. Yet, among the artisans of her day, she stood out. Her work was of great quality, and she worked on behalf of the poor. When death took her, the entire community realized that it had lost a valuable resource.
What can we learn from this incident recorded for us in the book of Acts? Let me share a couple observations that may help answer this question.
First, you have to be impressed by the response of the people she served. When Dorcas died, the community threw a fit. They had a hard time accepting that she was gone. This response of the community to Dorcas’ death gives us pause. When we die, there will surely be a circle of friends and family who will miss us and mourn our absence. But will there be a wider circle in the community adversely affected by our absence because of the impact our lives and our ministry had on the community?
Maybe this is too high of an expectation to have for everyone. Even so, this story tightens the lens on the importance of living for the benefit of others and not for ourselves. The loss of Dorcas was devastating for those who had come to depend on her charity.
Second, the Bible says she was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (v. 36). The actual expression is “full of good works.” We need to understand that she did not dabble in good works. They were not a hobby of hers. They were not a compartment in an otherwise busy life. Good works were her life. She had no room for anything else because her life was overflowing with her “good works and acts of charity.” Good works were what Dorcas was all about. And the bible is clear on this: our way of life is to be filled with good works.
A third little point: have you noticed that in this story, we never hear anything from Dorcas herself? Luke tells her story for her. She is full of good works. She dies — perhaps suddenly. Peter restores her to life. She sits up, Peter “shows her to be alive” and she resumes her work. For Dorcas, good works were not about her. She wasn’t interested in establishing a nonprofit foundation — although there’s nothing wrong with that. She didn’t train volunteers or have apprentices. Nothing wrong with that either.
She’s just a simple woman who knows what she’s good at. She desires no more. She does her thing: good works and acts of charity. And, by the way, she’s the first woman in the New Testament to be called a disciple, and this disciple’s entire vocation was to make handcrafted items for the widows and the needy.
Now, let’s take a look at Peter for just a moment. The message he receives is: “Please come without delay.” This is Peter’s first pastoral call, and it’s a big one! Bringing someone back to life? I’d say that’s a big deal. I am sure it is true that many people fear being asked to “come without delay!” What would we say to the person in the hospital, to the family in the throes of grief or to the inmate in the prison who asked us to “come without delay”?
These are good questions, but the work God calls us to is not always so dramatic. Our calls are more likely to involve simply being a person who does good in every action and gesture of his or her life. It’s more likely to be simple thoughtfulness — something that should come to us naturally.
Yes, the grief counseling, the hospital calls and the prison visits are important and vital. But fundamentally, we’re called to be “full of” — overflowing with good works. We need not fear a call to “come without delay,” because if that call comes, we are simply being asked to come and be who we are!
Here's one last thing to think about: Dorcas herself, like us, was a piece of work! We are God’s handiwork. We are handcrafted by God so that we might fulfill our vocation: good works. Will our good works consist of sewing and knitting? Maybe, but probably not. But we’re called to good works.
What, then, are the good works that God would like us to be doing? May our minds and hearts be open to hear what the Spirit of God has to say to us. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
May 12, 2019
How Do I Know You?
Luke 24:28-35 (The Message)
We’ve been looking at the Easter story, according to the gospel writer Luke, for a couple of weeks now. On Easter Sunday we thought about the angels at the tomb who ask the women looking for Jesus, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery? He is not here, but raised up.” When the women responded with what I assume were blank looks and blinking eyes, the angels go on to say, “Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Remember? Oh yeah…! I do remember Jesus saying something about that!
Last Sunday, we thought about Cleopas and an unnamed other person walking toward Emmaus later on that resurrection day when Jesus shows up and starts walking along with them. And they don’t even recognize him! It’s like they don’t know him.
Today, we’re going to take one more step forward into this 24th chapter in Luke, and look at what happens when Cleopas, the other unnamed walker on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus get to the edge of the village where they were going. They still don’t know this is Jesus with them, but they know they have to offer this man a meal because the day is done, and Jesus looks like he’s going to keep walking into the night. The scripture says this is what happened: “[Jesus] sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him.” Yes! That’s how I know you!! I imagine all the times they had sat with Jesus around a table came flooding back to them. I imagine them saying, “I knew you felt familiar to me!” “I knew I knew you from somewhere!” Maybe they particularly remembered that last meal with him, just a few days earlier, when he did this exact same thing: took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Have you ever had that experience where recognition suddenly dawns on you? A detail somebody reveals about their background, a certain way they pronounce a word, the way they tilt their head when they laugh, the familiar look they have in their eyes….and all of a sudden the light goes on, your heart leaps and you can finally say, “I know you!”
I love what the disciples say when it finally dawns on them it was Jesus who had been with them on the road: “Didn’t we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?” Some versions of the scripture say it this way: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road…?” That moment when Jesus broke the bread was an unforgettable gesture of self-revelation. Resurrection light dawned. Truth pierced their hearts. Hope abounded. The face of Jesus was recognized. Now that moment at this meal on the edge of the village of Emmaus was burned into their minds for eternity. Their hearts were aflame with Easter fire. (We should try to remember this image when we get to Pentecost in a couple of weeks….)
The word used for heart refers to everything we are emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. To be burning is to be rekindled or renewed or alive. A burning heart refers to the renewing effect Jesus Christ has on the whole person. Men and women with burning hearts are people of faith who have recognized Jesus Christ - alive and resurrected - and allowed his power to make them alive emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually.
Writing in The Lutheran magazine (June, 2012), Peter Marty tells about an incident Viktor E. Frankl recounted from when he was in a Nazi concentration camp. He was at the end of his rope from the deprivation. At this point, when he had lost every possession and had every value destroyed, someone gave him a piece of bread. Frankl wrote, "I remember how a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time. It was the human 'something' this man also gave to me -- the word and the look which accompanied the gift."
Marty comments, "Keep on the lookout for that 'human something' the next time you break bread with another person. Their words may offer more nutrients than the bread in your hand. Their look may open the eyes of your heart. It might all be a small taste of the first Emmaus."
Emily Heath wrote in a reflection on this story, “It’s not about how well we see with our eyes, but how well we recognize God in our hearts.”
May our encounters with friends and strangers leave our hearts on fire as we recognize God in each one.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Luke 24:1-12 (NRSV)
Have any of you ever played Twister? Have any of you been injured playing Twister??
Twister is a game of physical skill produced by the Milton Bradley Company. It is played on a large plastic mat that is spread on the floor. The mat has four rows of large colored circles on it with a different color in each row: red, yellow, blue and green. A spinner is attached to a square board and is used to determine where the player has to put their hand or foot. So, "right hand yellow”, or “left foot green” might be called out and players must move their matching hand or foot to a circle of the correct color.
When two people are playing, they cannot have any hands or feet sharing a circle with the other player. A person is eliminated when they fall or when their elbow or knee touches the mat.
Twister was submitted for patent by Charles F. Foley and Neil Rabens in 1966, and became a success when Eva Gabor played it with Johnny Carson on television's The Tonight Show on May 3, 1966. However, in its success, Twister was also controversial. The company that produced the game, Milton Bradley, was accused by its competitors of selling "sex in a box". That accusation was probably because Twister was the first popular American game to use human bodies as playing pieces. [Wikipedia]
Now, let me ask you this: How many of you have ever practiced yoga? In my own experience, practicing yoga is a little like playing Twister…
Most recently, I’ve been practicing Power Yoga, just down Main Street in Snyder. Before that, I practiced a particular kind of yoga—further down Main Street, in a studio across from Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic church…Bikram Yoga. The Bikram Yoga classes were 90 minutes long, and we moved through 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises in a room that is heated to 105 degrees, with 40% humidity. What this means is that by the time you get your body up off your mat to start the class, you are already sweating!
If you’ve ever practiced any kind of yoga, I’m assuming some of the poses used in Bikram Yoga would be familiar to you: There’s the half-moon pose with hands to feet pose, the awkward pose, eagle pose, balancing stick pose, and the triangle pose (“trikonasana” being the official name of this pose in Sanskrit). There’s the standing separate leg head to knee pose, the tree pose, the cobra, locust, half-tortoise, camel and rabbit poses. And there’s my personal favorite—Savasana—the corpse, or dead body pose.
One time, the yoga studio was conducting a photo contest. Students were encouraged to have their photo taken while they were practicing any one of the 26 poses, with some sort of cool background, like, Niagara Falls. I thought about submitting a photo of me doing the dead body pose, in a cemetery. But the more I thought about it, the more I figured there would be a way for that photo to come back to haunt me….
Anyway, 90 minutes is a long time to pay close attention to a teacher guiding you through your practice, and that is why Bikram Yoga teachers use a standardized monologue. Every teacher in every class says the exact same thing for 90 minutes. They don’t show you how to do the poses, they use their words to describe how to do it.
Over time, some of the monologue gets kind of stuck in your head, phrases like, “natural human traction,” or “stretch from your coccyx to your toes“ or “place your exact forehead on your exact knee.” The monologue is always the same, so there are no surprises in your practice of Bikram Yoga. You don’t have to worry that the teacher is going to say something that completely throws you for a loop and makes you throw your back out. You know you aren’t going to be confused by a new teacher.
This is done, in part, because it can take weeks, months, even years to hear—to fully hear and comprehend—what the teacher is saying, and then actually incorporate their directions into your practice.
So here we are, on Easter Sunday, remembering how, according to the Gospel of Luke, the women came to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been placed after it was removed from the cross on Friday. Nothing could be done to tend to his body on the Sabbath, so at the first possible moment on Sunday morning, the women went to the tomb with spices so they could prepare Jesus’ body for a proper burial.
You know what happens next. You’ve heard this story before, maybe 100 times before!
The women enter the tomb when--much to their relief, I imagine—they find the stone; the massive stone that was rolled in front of the opening to the tomb to seal it, was already rolled back. The women were certainly puzzled, but there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about how it could be that the tomb was open because as soon as they entered the tomb, “out of nowhere it seemed, two men, light cascading over them, stood there.” Wow. That’s pretty impressive!
You can bet the women were clearly impressed because Luke tells us the women immediately bowed down to worship. And then, in an even more amazing turn of events, these two men they are bowing down to worship—because they are awestruck, the Scripture says, but I have to think there was a healthy dose of fear in their hearts at the same time—these two men bathed in light start talking to them. Like it was the most natural thing!
“Why are looking for the Living One in a cemetery? He is not here, but raised up.” Or in words that may be more familiar to the ears of many of us: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
“Remember,” they say, “remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Remember?
Oh yeah….! Your exact forehead to your exact knee! They remembered Jesus’ words. Since they had first heard those words, they had talked about them often among themselves…trying to figure out what he meant, why he said what he said, hearing the exact words in their heads over and over again without fully understanding…until that moment in that tomb on that morning.
“He is not here. He is raised up.”
The women left the tomb and immediately started telling the eleven disciples the words they heard the two men in the tomb say: “He is not here. He is raised up.” Luke says, “they kept telling these things to the apostles.” Because…it can take weeks, months, even years to hear—to fully hear and comprehend—what God is saying to us. What Christ is saying to us. What the Holy Spirit is saying to us.
We can hear the words 100 times, and then when we hear them for the 101st time--“He is not here. He is raised up.”—the light goes on, the mind expands, the heart opens up and it finally, finally dawns on us! “Oh, my God! Jesus died for me. And then God rose Jesus from the dead, so that I will never have to be separated from the God who created me!” Now I can hear it! Now I get it!
Now what are we going to do?
My friends, once the beauty and the power and the knee-bending grace of this reality takes hold of you….whenever the day comes that you begin to understand why Good Friday can ever be called “Good,” you have to tell this story to others. Like the women at the tomb, you have to keep telling these things to others. It may take weeks, months or even years before one other person finally understands what you mean when you say, “Jesus died for me,” and “Jesus died for you, too.” Don’t give up! Keep telling.
I was never very good at getting “my exact forehead to my exact knee” in my practice of Bikram yoga, but I can tell others what a difference the love of God in Christ has made in my own life. You can do that, too. “Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
The QUESTIOn OF Holy week: What Are We Supposed to Do?
Luke 3:7-17, 21-22 (MSG)
If you’ve been walking with us regularly these Sundays during Lent, then you’ve heard me talk about a number of questions that Jesus asks on his journey to Jerusalem. If you know this story, then you know that when Jesus gets to Jerusalem, he is going to die, on a cross, a gruesome death. This is what we will remember when we gather for worship on Friday.
Along the way, we’ve thought about these questions that Jesus asks:
Why are you so afraid?
Why do you weep?
Who do you say that I am?
How many loaves do you have?
What do you want me to do for you?
On the surface, I suppose, these seem like easy questions. But I’ve learned they’re not easy at all. Jesus asked each one of them, I think, as a way of getting each one of us to look deeper than the surface of things…to consider for a moment the core of our own beliefs. I can’t do this thinking for you. You can’t do it for me. And, it is important that we all figure out how we would answer these questions Jesus asks.
Today’s question is different. It doesn’t come from Jesus. It comes from the people.
John is out there, in the desert, preaching about this most amazing thing: a baptism of life-change. And the people wanted to know more. They came out into the desert to hear John, to learn what this baptism was that he was talking about.
Some, though, came out with the crowd into the desert because, well, it was the popular thing to do. You know what that’s like. You do it—whatever it is—because everyone else is doing it. That’s why some of the crowd in the desert was there…and John knew it. He said to them, “Do you really think that a little bit of water is going to save you? Forget it. It’s your LIFE that has to change. From the inside. Not just on the outside.
And then the crowd asks John: “Well, what are we supposed to do?” The tax men come to be baptized, and they ask John, “What should we do?” And then the soldiers ask him, “And what should we do?”
What are we supposed to do?
It’s like they’re saying, “We hear what you’re saying, John, but we don’t really know what you mean. We think we want to be baptized—we want to be disciples of Christ—but we’re not really sure what it means to have our lives changed…from the inside.” And John says to the crowd: “If you have two coats, give one away. Do the same with your food.” To the tax men he said, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.” To the soldiers he said, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”
John the Baptist is giving each group of people instructions on how they can change their lives. John could not be more clear in answering their questions.
And then we read that after they were all baptized, Jesus was baptized by his cousin, John. “As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice, ‘You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.’” In a dramatic and memorable way, Jesus demonstrated for the crowd a real way that they could show the world that their lives had changed.
Sam, Kai, Karsen, Rachel, and Owen,
Today is your confirmation day. What you did this morning is something you alone chose to do. No one could make this choice for you. It was just you, the Spirit of God, and all of us who love and support you in this beautiful place, and I asked you a question…
“Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?” When you said yes, your earlier baptism in Christ was confirmed, and you entered into a life of service. Jesus said “yes” to a life of service and commitment to God, and he got baptized by John in the Jordan River.
But it’s not just this amazing moment of confirmation that is so important today. It’s what happens after today…what happens tomorrow, and the day after that. What happens next year, and 5, 10, 25 years down the line. “What are we supposed to do?” the people asked.
“If you have two coats, give one away. Do the same with your food.”
“No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”
“No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”
After his baptism, Jesus taught them more about what they could do:
Turn the other cheek. Don’t judge someone else. Love completely. Give what you have to those who have less. Speak the truth at all times. Pray without ceasing. Treat your bodies like they are God’s temple. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Today, when you said “I do” to the questions you were asked, you were confirmed. When you said yes, as many of us have said “Yes” at some point in our lives, then you said that you will live your life in a new way. You will be changed. From the inside out.
We could not be happier for you. You have taken a step that many of us chose to take…some time ago. We’ve spent our lives trying to understand how this moment of confirmation changed us, and how we show the world that we are changed. We could not be happier to have you on this journey with us.
May God bless you on this day, your confirmation day. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
QUESTIONS OF LENT: How Many Loaves of Bread Do You Have?
Mark 6:30-44 (The Message)
It was just about a decade or so ago when school boards across the country discovered that food fights erupt when you decide to focus on healthy nutrition. Some districts were beginning to limit the amount of junk food — potato chips, cookies, candy bars and sodas — and their policy did not sit well with students, principals, parents or even teachers. When schools opened for the fall semester after these policies were put in place, some favorites were missing from the cafeteria. Sodas and candy bars were banned for grade-schoolers, and you could hear the howls of protest for miles by kids who think the four major food groups are: Fast, Frozen, Instant and Chocolate.
School principals complained that they were being forced to act as “nutrition police.” Teachers claimed that they needed candy to reward students. Both parents and kids fed each other schoolyard rumors about Twinkies being confiscated from lunch boxes. And nearly everyone, long dependent on the revenues that vending machines bring in, screamed that there wouldn’t be enough money for wholesome activities like band camp and choir trips. It became a full-blown food fight.
Food is basic to life, right up there on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — when one is hungry, there is nothing more urgent than satisfying an empty, growling belly. Jesus knew that. When Jesus was holding a seminar in Galilee, people gladly listened — until they got hungry. Apparently, not even the Son of God can hold your attention if you aren’t given a food and bathroom break.
In this case, the feeding of the 5,000, we’re not talking about people who had the food choices that our kids in the hallways of our schools have today. There were two basic food groups then, and a quick survey of the situation revealed that was all they had that day: bread and fish. And not much of that. Five loaves. Two fish. That’s it. No soda. No fries. No chocolate.
And this has been no picnic for Jesus, either. Jesus was on retreat to grieve the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. But the crowds and the paparazzi dog him as usual. When the day is finished, he is exhausted along with everyone else. It would be so much easier for Jesus to follow the reasonable advice of his reasonable disciples (who are tired and hungry themselves). The disciples are only trying to be helpful and trying to do the most reasonable thing possible given the circumstances. “Send the crowds away,” they advise, “before it gets too late, and they can find a shelter and some food in a nearby village.” Nothing wrong with such advice; after all, the disciples have counted up the loaves of bread and took a rough guess at the number of people. Do the math. With five loaves and two fish, you are not going to feed a crowd that might have numbered 10,000, remembering that the 5,000 figure includes only men.
Instead Jesus utters a critical message: “You do it. Fix supper for them.” They don’t need to go anywhere, Jesus said. You can feed them.
It’s hard for us to relate to hunger. Most of us get three meals a day, and it’s not an issue of whether we’re going to eat, but what we’ll eat and how healthy it will be. It’s a measure of our affluence that the big argument in our school systems is not about the need to feed our youngsters, but how to reduce the calories they consume, and how to transition them from eating bad stuff, to eating good stuff.
Here, in our text, the disciples of Jesus Christ react to the problem by wanting to send the seekers—the hungry, the needy—away to fend for themselves. This is bootstrap religion at its worst. It makes victims of hunger, or poverty, or oppression victims all over again. Not that the disciples are evil or hardhearted. They sincerely believe that they’re out of resources, and that the only solution is for the hungry to own their own hunger and do something about it. In short, the disciples, and perhaps most of us today, don’t believe we have anything to offer — certainly not anything that people can’t get for themselves. We’d be more than happy to help the truly needy, if we had the means, but generally, our response is: “Send them away.”
This is a response that creates emotional distance. What we can’t see, can’t affect us, or impact us. But Jesus never kept his distance from the poor, the hungry or the diseased. And now, having healed the sick, he wasn’t about to send them away hungry. So what are the disciples supposed to do? They don’t haven’t a clue until Jesus says, You give them something to eat. You fix supper for them.
This is our calling. To give the hungry something to eat. And on the authority of Jesus, we can say that we do, in fact, have something to give. All Jesus asked of them was that they take what was at hand and use it. “How many loaves of bread do you have?” God would take care of the rest. Five loaves of bread. Two fish. Give it to God, and God will give it to the people.
Remember in The Princess Bride when they’re about to storm the castle, and the question is asked: “What do we have as assets?” and the reply comes back to the effect, “Well, we have a wheelbarrow, and ... the cloak of imagination.”
Assets. What do we have as assets? In the television series, MacGyver, the hero was always getting out of a scrape at the last minute using the materials at hand: duct tape, chewing gum, fertilizer, and with these materials, he managed to build some sort of a plane and get off the island — or something like that. Assets. Five loaves. Two fish. Jesus asks, “How many loaves do you have?” Okay, what are our assets? What do we have to give? What haven’t we thought about? Take what is at hand — a little of this and a little of that — and give it away to God’s hungry people, believing that God will do wonders with our offerings.
Jesus takes the small things at hand, like a cup of water and a loaf of bread and does what compassion calls for at the moment. He refuses to be overwhelmed, either by his own need for comfort or the urgent needs of the people. Instead of anxiety about not having enough, he looks upon the face of human hunger and does the next right thing.
Jesus took what was given and blessed it, offering it to God in gratitude. Then he proceeded to break what was given so that it could be multiplied. The first action is the taking of what is given, then blessing it, breaking it and finally giving what is broken so that all may have something. Nothing is left behind and no one is left out. In the end, all are satisfied.
Albert Einstein famously said, “The way I see it you have two ways to live your life: the one as if no miracles exist and the other as though everything is a miracle.” To be open to the miraculous is to be open to impossible things becoming possible. It’s a stance toward life that is fundamentally hopeful. One places confidence in God always and is especially confident when all other sources have run out.
There will likely be food fights in the cafeterias of our nation’s schools for a long time. French fries are always going to win when going head-to-head against lettuce. But when the hungry come looking for food, when the sorrowing come looking for comfort, when the confused come looking for direction, when the bitter come looking for reconciliation, when the powerless come looking for strength, when the addicted come looking for deliverance, when the fearful come looking for courage, when the hopeless come looking for hope, let us remember the words of Jesus: “They need not go.”
And remember that we have assets. “How many loaves of bread do you have?”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
QUESTIONS OF LENT: What Do You Want Me to Do for You?
Mark 10:32-45 (MSG)
It has been about 3 years that Jesus has been working with the disciples. They have heard some teaching that they understood, and some that they didn’t. They have seen Jesus do some incredible things. They believe with all of their being that he is the Messiah. But what they believe of the Messiah is that he is going to beat up the Romans, and take over the world. They don’t know how it is going to happen, but they are sure that is the plan. Although they have listened to Jesus, they have not heard him. Jesus spoke of a kingdom to come, not a government to overthrow. Jesus spoke of a heavenly throne, not a senate seat, and yet these disciples of Jesus are so convinced about the political direction of Jesus’ leadership that they begin fighting over the best seats in this King’s Parliament.
During these 3 years, the 12 have been heavily involved in ministry. But there is also a smaller group of three that was involved in some special privileges. Peter, James and John are often mentioned as a separate group, a closer group. They were the ones that actually went into the house of Jairus when Jesus raised his daughter from the dead. They were the ones invited up onto the mountain when Jesus was transfigured before them. They were the ones who, in just a short time, would be invited in with Jesus when he goes to the inner parts of the Garden to pray on the night before he is crucified.
So it makes sense that they would start feeling special. But three is an odd number--three just does not fit. Have you ever gone to an amusement park with just 3 people? One always ends up riding alone, or with someone you don’t know. Three just doesn’t work. In Bible times there were special seats at any banquet or kingdom. The most honored person would sit on the right of the king and the second most honored would sit on the left. There simply was no room for the third, no special place. Nowhere to fit in.
So in their planning ahead, a couple of the disciples decide that they want to address that detail right now, before Jesus chases out the Romans and establishes his government. They’re planning ahead--looking out for themselves--thinking about what is best for their families. Looking for significance and comfort through prestige. James and John are brothers, so it makes sense that they get together and leave out Peter.
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."
Don’t you just love that? They want a blank check from Jesus. It is like the person who asks you, “Will you do me a favor?” If you are wise, you will say, “Why don’t you tell me what the favor is first.””
It’s like when your children come to you and say, “Mom, Dad, just say yes.” And you say, “Say yes to what?” They say, “Just say yes.”
But Jesus can’t be manipulated so easily. He asks, "What do you want me to do for you?" They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."
No big deal--just the two best seats. Why did they ask for those? It’s the same reason that we work overtime. The same reason that we make improvements or additions to our houses. They wanted to be comfortable. They wanted the easy life. It’s the same reason we allow our lives to become so busy…we are afraid we won’t be noticed. James and John just want to be noticed. Whether at work, in the home, or in the church, we want someone to notice us so we can feel significant. James and John had been toughing it out with Jesus for 3 years and they wanted to be rewarded for their labor, they wanted recognition for all they had given up.
James and John only had to beat out Peter for the seats--they already had the edge on everyone else.
It is sort of like the two guys that were going hiking through the woods. They didn’t have any weapons and they were discussing the possibility that they might encounter a bear. One guy says, do you think we can out run a bear? The other says, I don’t have to out run a bear, I just have to out run you.”
James and John just wanted to outrun Peter! But the bear they would face because of Jesus is bigger and faster than they can run.
Jesus tells them. "You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"
They are asking for comfort. That is not what they will get. They’re seeking control. They’re looking for significance. Jesus is saying, can you really do what I am about to do? Can you face the bear and look him eye to eye? Do you think you are as strong as I am? The correct answer is, no, but that is not the answer they give.
"We can," they answered.
Do you see their arrogance and their ignorance? In a sense, James and John are saying, “You go ahead and overthrow the Romans and we’ll be right by your side, generals in your army! We know you’re going to win and you will protect us so yes, we can face the giants of political betrayal and military battle.” Jesus has walked on water, calmed the storm, healed the sick and raised the dead. Beating up a few Romans is no problem as long as they are going to do it with Jesus! Bring ‘em on! We can take them.
I think Jesus is so shocked with their arrogance and their ignorance … that he doesn’t even address that part of the issue. Instead, Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."
Jesus simply wasn’t interested in their personal comfort. In fact, he goes ahead and promises the suffering, but makes no promise of comfort! Did you get that? Never does Jesus tell his followers that we will be comfortable, but he does promise that there will be suffering, and surgery, and searing pain, and days of dark shadows…but comfort, significance? He never promises these.
Even if you haven’t heard this story, you know what is coming next, don’t you? Here are 12 men, two of them ask for the promotion … not for everyone, for themselves. Two of them ask for the cushy comfort of the best places, the padded chairs while everyone else gets metal! You know what is coming; the other 10 are ticked!
“When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.” In effect, they say, “You are trying to get the best places for yourselves; you are going after the places that we want!” I think they’re indignant because they didn’t think of it first!”
Jesus calls them all together and tells them that personal comfort is not what this kingdom is all about. It is not about padded seats and 72 degrees. It is about sacrifice. It is about making yourself uncomfortable for the benefit of others.
Here is what we know from this story: God is not concerned about our comfort or our sense of significance. I am sorry to tell you that. In some ways I don’t like it any more than you do. But it is the truth. Our comfort here isn’t even on his radar screen. And our significance thermometers are pointing to zero.
Ouch. That kind of hurts, doesn’t it? What Jesus is concerned about—what he knows about because he walked the path—is that true greatness is found in serving others through menial, ongoing, tasks, when you don’t get noticed. It is serving others for the Love of God instead of the love of self. It is getting dirty and bored and feeling worthless sometimes, and being uncomfortable a lot of the time. It’s when we trudge along that path of servanthood, day in and day out, that we find greatness.
The struggle for us who often times feel so insignificant is to buy into Christ’s vision of Christianity. For those who are seeking worth, it’s tough to give up what little worth you may feel and yet Jesus says, lose your life for my sake, humble yourself, like me…seek to descend into greatness.
God is not concerned about our comfort or our significance, that’s what we know from that text.…
This morning, I want to encourage you to do something that might seem a bit odd. I want you to think of a way that God is calling you to be uncomfortable. What is God calling you to do, that you have been resisting, because it isn’t comfortable? When you come up with what that is, why not determine today that you are going to do it. Whatever it is for you, you are going to do it.
Is Jesus against comfort? No. The time is coming when we will have unbelievable comfort. I love the words of Revelations 21:4,
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
That day is coming, but not now. For now, we can look ahead, but there is work to do right here.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. Let our answer be, “Show us the way to serve.”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
QUESTIONS OF LENT: Who Do You Say That I am?
Mark 8:27-32a (NRSV)
Have you ever been mistakenly identified as someone else? Or have you ever mistakenly identified another person? Either way, mistaken identities are not all that uncommon. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking by someone on the street, and for a moment you think, “Wow, that person looks just like….my aunt Bessie.” Or sometimes you take it a step further…you’re walking by another person on the street, and after establishing eye contact for just a brief moment, you stop the person and say, “Don’t I know you?” Or, “Hey, aren’t you….whoever?”
A couple weeks ago in “my” Wegmans, a man and I went even further. He was looking right at me…smiling. When I saw him smiling at me, I hesitated, and thought “this man looks familiar.” Then he said, “Are you Chloe?” I said, “No, I’m not.” And it didn’t end there! We stood in the produce aisle trying to figure out why we might know each other. Do you live in North Tonawanda? I do! So do I! Then I always go to my employment situation: I used to serve at the Salem United Church of Christ in the city of Tonawanda… And as usual, that pretty much ends the conversation. It was nice to be smiled at, though!
Stories about mistaken identities can be found everywhere. I read about this one somewhere: “When Christian Herter was governor of Massachusetts, he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished.
"As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line. ‘Excuse me,' Governor Herter said, 'do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?' 'Sorry,' the woman told him, 'I'm supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.' 'But I'm starved,' the governor said. 'Sorry,' the woman said again. 'Only one to a customer.' Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around. 'Do you know who I am?' he said. 'I am the governor of this state.'
'Do you know who I am?' the woman said. 'I'm the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, mister.'"
Sometimes the stories of mistaken identity are very troubling, like the story of the guy who was accused of downloading pornography from his home computer. A group of law enforcement agents raided his house, demanded he get down on the floor, scared him and his wife profoundly, only to discover that someone outside of this man’s home was tapping into his wireless internet capability. A case of mistaken identity.
Sometimes, of course, the mistake is even tragic. Remember the story of Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn? Whitney and Laura were students at Taylor University, and in 2006, the University van they were in was hit head on by a tractor trailer in Indiana. 5 people were killed. And for five weeks—because of the severe damage to her face—everyone, including the immediate families of Whitney and Laura, believed Laura had survived the crash, and Whitney had not. But they finally figured out that they had mistaken the surviving girl’s identity.
Whitney Cerak didn’t understand why she had survived when others had perished. She didn’t understand why her family’s unbridled joy at learning that she was alive should come at the expense of the devastating blow the Van Ryn family had to cope with when they learned that their daughter had been dead for more than a month. Finally, her father, Newell Cerak, answered her constant question of “Why me?” “My dad said, ‘Whitney, why not you?’” It was then that she realized it was because her creator had plans for her. “God, the maker of everything, chose me to do this huge thing that’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s very humbling to know that He chose me. He knew all that was going to happen. He just had a great plan.”
In the gospel of Mark, we hear a story about another kind of mistaken identity.
Jesus is on the road with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and on the way he asks his followers, “Who do people say that I am?” What’s the word on the street? What are people tweeting about me? And it’s a fair question for Jesus to ask. After all, the disciples are Jesus’ eyes and ears. He probably muses to himself, “We’ve been traveling together for a while. You hear what they say when I’m around. What are they thinking?” The disciples answer, “Well, some are saying you’re John the Baptist. Others think you’re Elijah. Still others say you’re one of the prophets.”
Now they stop their journey toward Jerusalem, and Jesus asks Peter and the rest of the disciples a very important question. We’ve been looking at questions that Jesus asks during this Lenten season…we thought about the question he asked the disciples in the boat that was being overwhelmed by the storm; “Why are you so afraid?” And we thought about the question he asked the mourners at the bedside of Jairus’ daughter after she died, “Why do you weep?”
Today’s question seems simple enough on the surface, but it is a question that is going to have a tremendous significance in their lives. The very simple question Jesus asked was this: “Who do you say that I am?” This is THE central question…one that was posed many times, in many ways, and that people are still answering—more than 2000 years later—all over the world.
Simeon, in the temple, just after Jesus’ birth, answered this question by praising God for allowing him to see with his own eyes the Savior of the World.
Years later, some Jews in a synagogue in Nazareth—in answer to this question—tried to throw Jesus off a cliff just outside of town.
Judas—answering this question—became thirty pieces of silver richer, and destroyed his own soul in the process.
Stephen—answering this question—became filled with the Holy Spirit and preached the most passionate sermon in history…before being stoned to death…while pleading for the forgiveness of his murderers.
The list could go on and on. Some said he was a healer. A teacher. The Son of God. Just a guy from Nazareth. A crazy man. Who do YOU say that I am?
Remember, before Jesus asked this question, he asked an easier one: “Who do PEOPLE say that I am?” This is a pretty non-threatening question. There’s no need to respond with your heart—with your actions. There’s no need to commit yourself, to put yourself under Jesus’ authority to answer this question, is there? As long as the question of the identity of Jesus is discussed at the level of the intellect—at the level of the head—there is no claim on the heart.
But the creator of the world—the one who formed us together in our mother’s wombs—is not satisfied with a conversation that only takes place up here (head). Jesus always wants to have a conversation about what’s here (heart). Jesus lays claim to what’s here (heart). Jesus locks eyes with Peter and says, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
And I think Jesus “locks eyes” with us today and asks the same question of every one of us: Who do YOU say that I am? Jesus isn’t asking, “Who does your Pastor say that I am?” He isn’t asking, “Who do the leaders of your church say that I am?” He isn’t asking, “Who do the UCC churches say that I am?” He isn’t asking, “Who do the American people say that I am?”
The question, today, comes to you. And how you answer this central question, will make a world of difference in your life.
For you, Jesus may be a character from the bible, who lived a long time ago. Jesus might be a fine, respectable teacher of religion. Jesus might be a political force, a guy who rattled the cages of the Jewish leaders over 2000 years ago. Jesus might be your comforter. Your leader. Your friend. Your savior.
No one can answer this question for you. But if you are going to continue to walk with him on this journey to the cross, you’re going to have to decide how you will answer. Because before long, Jesus is going to be hanging on a cross, dying for you. Three days later, God is going to raise Jesus from death, for you.
“Who do YOU say that I am?” How will you answer?
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
Questions of Lent: Why Are You Weeping?
Mark 5:21-24, 35-43 (Contemporary English Version)
Sometimes I wonder if the miracle stories in the Bible do more harm than good. They are spectacular stories, most of them, and we can get a lot of comfort from watching Jesus still the storm, heal the sick, and raise the dead. I think his miracles remind us that the way things are is not the way they will always be, and there really is a great power available to us through our relationship with him.
Jesus is living proof that God’s will for us is not chaos but wholeness, and every miracle proclaims that truth. In every healing, every revival, every time evil is pushed aside, the kingdom breaks through, and for a moment or two we see how things will be…and then it is over. The disciples go back to their rowing, the once-blind beggar walks off to look for work, the little girl stretches her arms above her head and takes the bread her rather stunned mother holds out to her.
The problem with miracles is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own. Every one of us knows someone who is suffering. Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by. Not everyone who prays for one gets ones—not by a long shot—and in the meantime, there are all kinds of people who get them without asking for them at all.
This randomness is tough for religious people to handle, and so we spend a lot of time trying to figure out the formula. There has to be some sort of formula! Two parts prayer, three parts faith, one part good works. We look carefully at the miracles stories to find out who did what right and who did what wrong so that we can learn from their experience, and maybe, finally, get a miracle of our own.
But the thing is, trying to follow a formula to get a miracle is hard to do, because God rarely does anything the same way twice. In our gospel reading today, for instance, we get two miracle stories layered together. First, the story of Jairus and his daughter, and then right in the middle of his story, comes the story of a woman who has bled for twelve years before she touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and is healed.
Part of what is so amazing about this woman’s story is that because she is bleeding, and because she touches Jesus, she makes him religiously unclean. But Jesus doesn’t go off to purify himself. He simply sends the healed woman on her way—blessing her with peace—and turns around to follow Jairus again, causing quite a scandal, I imagine, when he stepped inside his house.
Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, remember, a respected elder in the community whose obedience to the law was a matter of record. For someone like him to seek help from someone like Jesus much have caused a whole lot of talk.
So this isn’t just a story about Jesus, or even about the little girl raised from the dead. It is also a story about Jairus, who broke every rule he knew in order to save his daughter’s life. Can you imagine what it must have been like for him, to fall at Jesus’ feet in front of a big crowd? And then to lead him through that crowd, only to be stopped by the woman with the hemorrhage—whose condition was not life-threatening, by the way—and then to be told that it was too late, that his daughter was dead and there was no reason to bother Jesus anymore?
This is as bad as it gets. You beg on your knees for help and it comes too late. You give up everything you’ve built your life on in order to grab at one last wild straw, and it comes off in your hand. And just before you crumple in a heap on the ground, filled with grief, tears streaming down your face, you hear a voice say to the crowd: “Why are you all crying?” You hear a voice say to you, “Do not fear: only believe.”
Seriously? It kind of sounds like a formula, doesn’t it? If you will just believe hard enough, your prayers will be answered. If you just have enough faith, things will turn out all right. That’s how it worked out for Jairus, anyway. His daughter was saved. The kingdom broke through right there in her bedroom and she got up…and even ate some bread! But it simply does not happen that way every time.
Most people do not get a miracle like that, and one of the meanest things religious people can do is blame it on a lack of faith. Barbara Brown Taylor was serving as a chaplain on the cancer ward at Georgia Baptist Hospital, and she remembered when they finally had to start frisking visitors at the door. A couple of patients had complained that perfect strangers were coming into their rooms, holding hands around their beds and praying for an increase in their clearly inadequate faith. It turned out that a local church was doing this—uninvited—as a part of their healing ministry, only it didn’t have a healing effect. It had the completely opposite effect, as people who were already sick got a strong dose of guilt and shame to go along with their chemotherapy.
I suspect these church people meant well. But I think they got mixed up about what causes miracles. They thought faith made miracles happen. They thought miracles worked kind of like those strength tests you see at county fairs, the ones that look like big thermometers with red bells at the top. It was all a matter of how hard you could hit the thing with the sledgehammer. If you were really strong, you could ring the bell and win the prize. And if you were not…well, better luck next time.
In other words, they thought miracles were something they could control. If you are sick and getting sicker, then it must be your own fault. You just have to try harder, and you’ll get a miracle as a reward.
Except, it just doesn’t work that way, does it? This is just another one of our sad attempts to make it look like we are in charge of things…in charge of our lives…instead of admitting that every single breath we take is a free surprise from God. Faith does not work miracles. God does. If we concentrate on the strength of our own belief, then it’s like we’re practicing magic. If we concentrate on the strength of God, we are practicing faith. This isn’t a small difference either…it’s the difference between believing our lives are in our own hands, and believing they are in God’s. God is the one who works miracles.
Did Jairus have faith? Did Jairus’ daughter have faith? We don’t know….Mark never tells us. All we know is that Jairus followed Jesus home and watched this unclean, holy man do his work. Either way, the high point of the story doesn’t come in that bedroom…it comes earlier, when Jesus asks the crowd, “Why are you weeping?” and tells Jairus, “Don’t be afraid, only believe.”
If Jairus was able to do that, then he would survive whatever happened next, even if Jesus walked into his daughter’s room, closed her eyes with his fingertips, and pulled the sheet over her head. Her father’s belief would have become the miracle at that point, his willingness to believe that she was still in God’s hands even though she had slipped out of his.
As we keep walking through this Lenten season, I think it helps to remember that Jesus prayed for a miracle on the night before he died. “For you all things are possible,” he prayed to his Father. “Remove this cup from me.” Except, when he opened his eyes, the cup was still there. Did Jesus lack faith? I don’t think so. The miracle is that he drank the cup, believing in the power of God more than he believed in his own power.
I don’t think we should stop praying for miracles. I don’t think our tears are going to stop flowing when we lose someone we love. The world needs all the miracles it can get.
Every time you hear about one, remember that you are getting a glimpse of the kingdom. Remember that there is no formula for success. Remember what Jesus told Jairus; “Don’t be afraid, only believe.” That is our job. The rest is up to God.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
(based on a sermon written and preached by Barbara Brown Taylor.)
QUESTIONS OF LENT: Why Are You So Afraid?
For those who already have children past this age, what I’m about to share with you is hilarious. For those who have children this age, this is not funny. For those who have children nearing this age, this is a warning. For those who have not yet had children, this is birth control. The following came from an anonymous mother in Austin, Texas, reflecting on life with her two- and four-year-old children.
Things I’ve learned from my children:
A king size waterbed holds enough water to fill a 2000 sq. ft. house 4 inches deep.
If you hook a dog leash over a ceiling fan, the motor is not strong enough to rotate a 42-pound boy wearing Batman underwear and a Superman cape. It is strong enough, however, if tied to a paint can, to spread paint on all four walls of a 20x20 ft. room.
When you hear the toilet flush and the words "uh oh," it’s already too late.
Certain Legos will pass through the digestive tract of a 4-year old.
Play dough and microwave should not be used in the same sentence.
The spin cycle on the washing machine does not make earthworms dizzy.
It will, however, make a cat dizzy.
Cats throw up twice their body weight when dizzy.
Life has a funny way of teaching us lessons. Isn’t it interesting how the best remembered lessons are the ones learned during heartaches, trials, suffering and pain? Jesus used many ways to teach his disciples, one of which was trials. We all face trials today and we are capable of learning important lessons from each trial we face. One of the most important things we can learn is not to let our fear keep us from doing God‘s will, or keep us from a living productive Christian lives.
Everybody experiences fear at one time or another in their lives. We like to think of it as normal. Even practical. But here in Mark 4, we find Jesus asking one of the most unusual questions he ever asked his disciples: "Why are you so afraid?"
Jesus had spent the day preaching and sharing parables with the crowds that gathered to hear him teach. Evening has come and he tells his disciples to set out in the boat. About half way across the Sea of Galilee, a terrible storm comes upon them. The winds blow, the waves break on their ship and they begin to take on water. In fact, there’s so much water coming in that the disciples are afraid they might sink. But in the stern of the boat, Jesus is asleep. It’s been a long hard day and virtually nothing seems capable of waking him. The disciples can’t understand this. In fact, they seem to be a little angry as they shake him awake and say “Don’t you care that we are about to drown?” Jesus gets up, calms the sea, and then asks “Why are you so afraid?”
One of the things that strikes me as so unusual about Jesus’ question is that it would seem the disciples had every reason to be afraid. These are experienced sailors, fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. When these men got scared of a storm while out on the water, you can pretty much bet they had good reason. But Jesus asked them: “Why are you so afraid?” It’s also a puzzling question because fear isn’t always a bad thing. We know that as our children grow up, we teach them to fear certain things:
“Honey, look both ways as you cross the street.” “Why Mommy?” “Because a driver might not see you and you’d get hurt.” What are we trying to teach children here? Fear. If you’re not careful when you cross the road, you could get hit.
“Honey, don’t go swimming alone.” “Why Daddy?” “Because you might drown.” What are we trying to teach our children? Fear.
“Don’t stick that pin in the electric socket!” Usually we don’t get to “Why” on this one… we just scream it as we yank them away from the wall.
Fear is a practical response to the dangers of life and there’s nothing wrong with it. And not only is fear practical on occasion - God even commands us to be afraid of at least one thing…him. Proverbs 1:7 says “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” Proverbs 10:27 tells us “The fear of the LORD adds length to life.” And in the New Testament, Peter tells us, “Show respect for everyone. Love Christians everywhere. Fear God.” (1 Peter 2:17)
So why was Jesus rebuking his disciples for being afraid? Well, what if he wasn’t? I know that’s what it looks like he was doing. But it only looks that way if you were to overlook one little word: “SO.” In some translations, Mark 4:40 says: "Why are you SO afraid?" Remember, they knew what they were doing on the Sea of Galilee, and they had reason to be concerned. What if it wasn’t their fear Jesus was rebuking? What if it was the way they were reacting to this fear?
"Why are you SO afraid?" That little word “SO” is from the Greek word meaning “in this way” or “in this manner.” So, literally, Jesus was saying “Why have you become afraid in this manner?” Or another way of saying it might be: Why are you reacting to this situation this way? Remember, the disciples panicked AND they became angry.
“Jesus was asleep at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. Frantically, they wakened him, shouting, ‘Teacher, don’t you even care if we are all about to drown?’” What about this…what if the disciples were angry with Jesus because he wasn’t up and as worried about the situation as they were? What if they are so mad at Jesus they literally shout at him, “WHY DON’T YOU CARE?”
And there it is, right there. There’s the bottom line for the disciples. They think Jesus doesn’t care enough. Maybe, if push came to shove and they were completely honest with themselves, the disciples would discover that they’re not sure God cares enough, either. It’s as if the disciples are saying, in a very child-like manner, “But we thought you loved us!” How can this thing be happening to us?
This event was early in Jesus ministry. It hadn’t been long before this that Jesus had selected these very men to be his disciples, but they’d had a chance to see his power. They had watched as he healed large numbers of sick people. In fact, Mark goes into great detail about specific lepers and paralytics and demoniacs that Jesus had touched and healed. In addition, Mark tells us that these very disciples had been given the ability to cast out demons. So, if they had seen all this power and healing from Jesus why didn’t they ask him to help them in this storm?
Maybe…maybe they hadn’t learned YET to look to Jesus for answers. They hadn’t learned YET to ask him to help them in the midst of their troubles, and then let go of the outcome.
When the disciples were out on the Sea of Galilee…the storm was real. It was a frightening experience and a real threat to their lives and their future. And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it. And that’s why they were so angry. They couldn’t do a thing to change their situation. They couldn’t just step out of the boat and walk away from their troubles. They were trapped and helpless.
I suspect we’ve all gone through storms of your own, and we’ve experienced the same helplessness and frustration. So we can sympathize with those men in the boat all by themselves. But those men weren’t in the boat alone. Jesus was there. He was there to deal with a storm they couldn’t handle. For this storm they had Jesus.
Years ago, there was an evangelistic meeting and the speaker was explaining what it means to abide in Christ and to trust him completely in every trial. Concluding his message, he repeated the same phrase several times: "Trusting Jesus in your trials means that in every circumstance you can keep on saying, ’For THIS I have Jesus."’
At the end of the meeting, there was a time for testimonies. The young lady who had been at the piano stood up and said, "I have to leave shortly so I’d like to be the first to testify. Just a few minutes ago I was handed this message. It reads, ’Mother is very ill; come home immediately.’ When I saw those words, I knew that tonight’s message was meant just for me. My heart looked up and said, ‘For this I have Jesus.’ Instantly a peace and strength flooded my soul."
After pausing a moment, she continued, "I have never traveled very far alone, but for this I have Jesus. And for all the strain and suspense that goes with the thought of Mother’s severe illness I praise God that for this too I have Jesus."
Fear is a very real emotion. It’s written on the hearts of many in this world and it’s often written on our hearts. But today, like the disciples in the boat in the storm, we remember this good news: For this we have Jesus.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
Luke 9:28-36 (NRSV)
KGO talk radio in San Francisco conducted a call-in poll once. Ronn Owens invited listeners to express their opinion. Thirty-five percent said yes, 33 percent said no, and 32 percent were undecided. One listener, aghast at the large number of undecideds, protested, "It's this sort of apathy that's ruining America."
The only problem with all these responses was that the radio station had never posed any question.
It's not apathy that is getting most of us in trouble--it is our loud and energetic spouting off over things that we know nothing about.
It appears that the disciples may have behaved with surprising wisdom after witnessing the Transfiguration/epiphany event on the mountaintop. They did not understand what they had seen. They were amazed and awestruck at what they had heard. They were confused. Consider how disturbing Jesus' first passion prediction must have been to the hearts of his disciples. They had just returned from their first missionary excursion flushed with success (Luke 9:1-6). Jesus had miraculously fed a crowd of five thousand, and Peter finally had the insight to name Jesus "Messiah" (Luke 9:20). Instead of praising Peter for his confession, Jesus responds by foretelling the ominous future that awaits him as the Messiah.
As they joined him in his mountaintop prayer retreat, Peter, James and John must have been deeply disturbed by Jesus' predictions. Then, suddenly, there are prophets and dazzling lights and descending clouds and a voice too awesome to withstand. The voice declares, "This is my Son," but it also orders the disciples to "Listen to him." How can Jesus be the Messiah—the Son of the Divine, at home in conversation with the likes of Moses and Elijah—and yet be doomed to the suffering and death he has revealed to them? What kind of Savior is this? Confused beyond reckoning, the disciples choose to say nothing and let the future unfold without their commentary.
There are times when saying nothing is the wisest insight we can offer—both individually and as the church. Sometimes, the most significant, substantive and spiritual thing we can do is to say nothing. Nowhere is it written that, after we become Christians, we suddenly see all and know all and have an opinion on everything.
Both in Acts and at the end of his gospel, Luke records Jesus' command to his disciples to "Stay in [Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high." Other translations state that the disciples are to stay until they receive "the Word from on high" (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4). Sometimes we, too, need to stay in place, to meditate, to just sit down and wait, until the word and power from on high arrive. Although it seems to be blasphemy to say this in our “information at your fingertips age," I don't know" can be good theology.
No one really knows what happened during the six days Jesus shared with the trio of disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. Nobody even knows where the Mount of Transfiguration is. All we really know is that Jesus and his three closest friends climbed a mountain of prayer and entered the presence of God. Something wondrous and miraculous happened to them, something so radiant and mystical that the afterglow never left Peter. Years later, Peter remembered this day, different from all other days, and wrote, still in a kind of holy hush: "We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).
The Transfiguration took place during an experience of private meditation and prayer—not during a public speech or one of Jesus' tutorials to his disciples. It was an intensely personal experience. While words may fail us after such a profound event, a genuine, spiritual experience can easily withstand our own inability to understand it. We need not "talk an experience out" in order to make it real.
"They saw his glory". High mountains stand in Scripture as places of revelation, glimpses of glory, experiences of revitalization, times of transfiguration. There are only 14 summits in our world above 26,000 feet. The rarefied air of mountaintops is matched by their rarefied occurrences. Peaks in nature and in life don't happen often. Why has God been so grudging and sparing with holy places where the Divine is manifested and amazing insights are confirmed?
We don't know. It remains a mystery. There are times when God has nothing to say, when God is silent—either waiting for us to speak or waiting for us to grow in wisdom.
Remember how we used to have to go to libraries and look for the “reference books” section in order to get answers to the things we did not know? If I had to go to a card file today (do they even exist anymore??) and find a book in something like what we called the “stacks” in seminary, you can bet I would get lost. We like to be able to put our fingers on the answers as quickly and as easily as possible. As more and more of our knowledge is easily accessible on computer systems, and as more and more people tell us what they think they know on social media, "I don't know" is increasingly taken simply as a sign of laziness, not an admission of truth.
The church needs to recognize that sometimes it takes more integrity and conviction to say nothing than to spout off.
Choosing to "say nothing" isn't just an easy way out--sometimes it is the way to get close to God.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
checking our default responses
Luke 6:27-31, 37-38
Laurie, a colleague of mine who serves a church in Alfred, did a very brave thing. She spent three and a half hours after church with twelve enthusiastic 7-12 graders. They had given up their afternoon to learn some of the basics of conflict resolution, and so they began with a “simple” exercise that demonstrated the importance of everything that was going to follow. Laurie divided them into two groups, handed each group an egg and a hammer and said, “Your job as a group is to get the yolk out of the shell. Make sure you discuss your ideas and come to a mutual decision about how you will proceed.”
As you can imagine, the activity took less than one minute. Laurie said there was a tiny bit of discussion about whether they could just crack the shell with their hands but the lure of the hammer was too strong, and quickly both groups whacked their eggs into pulpy messes. While they had literally succeeded in the task, the solution wasn’t very elegant since the yolk was now mixed win the remains of the shattered shell and the egg white.
Laurie gave each group a second egg. This time she said, “In addition to the hammer, here are some additional tools that you may use to accomplish your goal,” and she handed them a pan, a hole punch, scissors, and some needles. This time, the kids took a lot longer to discuss the problem. Some still argued for the quick and easy hammer, while others were intrigued by the intellectual puzzle of how you might use a hole punch or scissors to open the egg. In the end, both groups finally settled on using a needle to punch tiny holes at each end of the shell and blow the egg out. They proudly held up the shell when they were finished to show that they had been able to succeed in the task while still keeping the shell in one piece. Laurie—being Laurie—pointed out that alternatively, they could have used the pan to hard boil the egg which, while necessitating the cracking of the shell would have kept the yolk intact, unlike any of the other methods. (Laurie has a really sharp mind!) She said that as the group discussed the exercise, they all agreed that having additional tools sparked their creativity and that while they could have just used the hammer again, as one youth declared, “That would have been boring.”
The psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Maslow may not have been the originator of this saying but he used it to describe the mental bias we develop when we become overly reliant on one familiar strategy or response to a problem.
Most of us have a default response to conflict: some of us may initially see conflict as a competition that we must win at all costs; on the other hand, other’s default response may be to run as far away from conflict as they can. Those who see it as a competition tend to become argumentative, loud, or aggressive while those who want to avoid it will shut down and refuse to talk about potential disagreements, or quickly accommodate the desires of another, even at some cost to themselves. In spite of our default responses, we need to realize that conflict in and of itself isn’t bad—it’s a natural part of human life and can even help us to grow as individuals and as a society—but when we lack tools to respond creatively, our limited responses are what cause the problem. Because of our inability to respond in alternative and maybe creative ways, the conflict becomes entrenched instead of leading the parties involved to greater growth.
If we need a model for the kind of creativity that we could be developing for dealing with conflict in our lives, all we need to do is look to Jesus.
Jesus’ “conflict tool bag” was stuffed to the brim. He didn’t have an entrenched default response but instead used a wide variety of responses to people who confronted him or challenged his ministry. And he often responded in creative ways.
Sometimes he engaged his opponents in flat-out debate, using the conversation to raise questions for listeners around the edges, and provoke new ways of thinking.
Other times, he just shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
Sometimes Jesus surprised his opponent with the truly unexpected—he turned the other cheek, refusing to engage in a competition over honor, or he invited an opponent to have a meal with him, to share a glass of wine and some good company together.
Sometimes Jesus avoided places where he knew his presence would cause a conflict, skirting villages or leaving a town where he knew he wasn’t welcome.
And sometimes he actually stirred the pot, deliberately creating conflict to challenge the status quo. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he overturned the tables in the Temple, and he publicly associated with those society had clearly deemed to be unclean. Eventually, of course, the authorities decided that they would resolve the conflicts Jesus had created by using their default response, bringing the hammer down on him and crucifying him. But even then—EVEN THEN!—Jesus responded in an unexpected way, forgiving those who hurt him and rising again to new life.
With only three and a half hours on a Sunday, Laurie said she obviously couldn’t make the youth in her church into conflict resolution experts. And she doesn’t claim to be a conflict resolution expert, herself. But she did provide them with an opportunity to think about their own default reactions to conflict, and consider the possibility of trying new approaches.
In a society that is becoming increasingly entrenched in our opinions and beliefs, it is crucial that we—as followers of Jesus—work to learn new ways of dealing with conflict. We need to become aware of our own “default” response, and learn to step out of the familiar to try new ways, experiment with creative solutions, and use the inevitable conflict we will face to grow personally, and in our relationships with each other.
“…love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
This is the very challenging word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
(with thanks to Laurie DeMott for sharing such a great story!)