Monday, April 29, 2019

4-28-19 “Grace That Transforms” - Rev. Danny Dahl

4-28-19         “Grace That Transforms” - Rev. Danny Dahl
Scripture: Galatians 1:13-24
Each and every one of us has a story to tell.  We are all unique in all the Universe, no two of us are alike, not in our DNA and certainly not in how we view our relationship with Christ.
When Pastor Jay asked me to come speak this morning, he casually informed me that there was to be a theme, given by the Bishop, from which I would need to work.
So, as I would normally do, I followed directions…..  I looked up what the Bishop had in mind, and found it was something which has always been a part of how I view the ministry…..  It was about Grace…Today’s theme is “Grace that Transforms.”
Now, several months ago, I preached here for several weeks about Grace, God’s grace.  I am certain all of you remember everything I had said…. But, for those of you who might not have been present, I will follow the directive of the Bishop….graciously..
As I said a few moments ago, each and every one of us has a story to tell; we are all unique in who we are and in our place within, not only the universe, but also in the Kingdom of God.  So, I appreciate where we are starting this series; in Galatians, one of my favorite Books in all scripture.
Here we find a bit of the Story of Paul; what happened to him after the encounter he had with Christ on the Damascus Road; we read how he spent three years trying to understand what had happened to him; we get part of the story of how he spent time and learned about who Christ was and what the ministry was all about.  Then, when he had learned what was needed, he began to preach and teach…Folks immediately brought up that this was the man who had persecuted the very church he was now trying to support and expand….  Paul had begun to understand the need for God’s grace in the lives of those around him; he had experienced it first hand and knew of its power in his own life; and yet, folks just wouldn’t forget the horrible things he had done before….funny isn’t it, that our stories usually end up with someone doubting our motives.
Recently, at Livingston Church, we finished an Adam Hamilton study on Simon Peter.  We learned how flawed Simon was, how he could never quite get his spirituality right; and because of that, people questioned his motives and he had to really learn about forgiveness, tolerance and especially, Grace.
I believe that this is the story of the New Testament; that, we fail, we falter, but the redeeming Grace of God brings us back into contact with the one who loves us and gave Himself for us.
As I got to thinking about what the scripture was today, I began to see some parallels between Peter and Paul…they were men who didn’t understand how God was going to use them.
Paul abetted the murder of Stephen; Peter denied the Lord.  Paul threw Christians into prison; Peter called Jesus a liar when Jesus said he had to die.  We do have interesting role models within the Christian faith, don’t we?
I continue to believe that these stories of failure, hate and murder are absolutely necessary for you and me to read about and hear; for you see, our stories are just as problematic as those of the giants of the faith.  Sometimes our lives are worse, and yet, if Peter and Paul received the grace of God and were transformed by it, who are we to say it cannot happen to us?
We each have our own stories of the transforming power…of grace.
If we are to discuss “Grace which Transforms”, we need to understand that the only way we can possibly BE transformed is through the power of Grace.  It seems to me that Peter and Paul both understood this.  They took lives which had been shattered, lives which had not surrendered to Christ and were transformed by the action of a God who forgave them even when they appeared to be unforgivable.  And THAT , my friends, is transforming Grace.
It’s nothing we do for ourselves, it’s nothing we can do by ourselves; this transforming grace has to come from God alone; it has to come from the love, compassion and forgiveness which Christ has to offer; and it is offered without cost to each and every one of us..because the price has already been paid, on the Cross and with the revelation of the empty tomb.  
It continues to amaze me that some still believe that we can, somehow, legislate morality; that somehow we can determine whom God accepts or rejects just because we think we KNOW what God wants.  It baffles me, because scripture tells us that God chooses the least of us to confound the rest of us.  He uses those who are weak to show those who believe they have the ‘right way’ to heaven that they just might be wrong (Pharisees maybe?);
When we all know, or should know, that the right way to heaven is to ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and THOU SHALL BE SAVED’, I see no reason to attempt to improve upon that, it makes sense as it is…
I believe it is as simple and as complicated as that… It is by grace we have been saved though faith, and even that faith isn’t generated by us, it is a gift of God; that way no one can brag that they have done it on their own…  As my friend Julia used to say, “It’s all grace”…  and that is the story of transformation.
I have spoken of my initial encounter with our Master, Jesus on many occasions.  But, to be true to the Bishop, let me just put this out there again.  I was 18 and heading toward Ohio University to just party and have a good time.  My then girlfriend, talked me into going to a service where there was going to be a “gospel band”.  Not wanting to miss a good band, I went; it wasn’t what I thought it would be; young folks banded together to speak of the gospel, and in that moment, Jesus called my name.  I came forward, and my heart was changed; but, it took years for me to fully begin to understand what that transformation was; it took me years to understand that God had granted me a new life, not by anything I did or deserved, but just because He wanted to share His grace with someone like me; who didn’t deserve the grace, but received it anyway.  I am still on the journey of learning about his grace; but I know it is always out there and always is mine, if I want it to be.
My story is ongoing, and so is yours if you have taken the time to listen to the whispers in your soul; and have said you are willing to receive the free grace of God.        
I cannot move away from this today without commenting on where the United Methodist Church is today.  
I have heard the rhetoric; I have seen the anger; I have observed how folks are hurting and sad….and it hurts my heart.
I don’t want anyone to think that I do not stand with reconciliation, or reconciling ministries….I am there, it took me years to get there, but here it is…and here I am; I stand with the Grace of God which transforms those who accept it….ALL who accept it..
You see, Grace and reconciliation is just that; and it must be for everyone, not just a few.  Our brothers and sisters who have hurt, and continue to hurt, others with words and deeds and have put forward a regression, a regression to the thoughts and habits of a bygone time.  Yet those who have done this are also hurting and have been hurt.  I think, it might be up to us to stand tall, not to relent to the regressive thoughts and actions, but to stand tall with this lesson in Grace. “If Grace isn’t for everyone, then it is for no one.”
John Wesley spoke deeply of grace; he went to places where the Anglican Church would not go.  The Anglican Church of Wesley’s time condoned child labor in coal mines which were deadly and murderous; but Wesley’s call was to change this and reform the church so that it would protect these little ones.  Wesley’s call was for holiness, but he said there was “no holiness apart from social holiness”.  Wesley was a reformer because it was necessary, it was a part of who he was because it was part of who Christ was; but he was also a person of Grace… I have read what he has said, ‘Dost thou believe in Christ?  If so, take my hand for we are brothers.’  This is a lesson in Grace which transforms, “whosoever will may come”, the scripture says…and believe me when I say, I hold myself to this scriptural basis.  To reject, or to not accept those whom Jesus calls is dangerous; it is deadly.
I cannot reject those whom God has personally called into the grace of His love.  And, if Peter can curse and swear, reject and say that he didn’t know who Jesus was; and If Paul can stand by while Stephen is stoned to death AND STILL be forgiven and called back into the fold, who are we to reject anyone who says they have been called by God, and have been saved by His grace?  To do so is to put ourselves at risk…at risk of opposing God Himself…this puts us in peril, and it shouldn’t be so, not in the Wesleyan tradition, and especially not in the eyes of Christ.
To not acknowledge that God has done something in someone’s life is to reject the very call of Grace and love of Christ Himself; it is to reject the core of the Gospel and the very soul of each and every person with whom we may disagree; it is to reject the basis of His ministry; it is to reject the stories, the happenings and the revelation of the Word of God, who John says is Jesus the Christ Himself.  We cannot show God’s grace if we do not believe His grace is for everyone; we can only show God’s wrath, anger and punishment…and this I cannot accept; not as a United Methodist, nor as a Christian called to be like Him.
So, today, with all that is before us, and all that has come from behind us, we need to take a look at what is going on with Paul, and with Peter… Grace is ALWAYS there for us; we have a gracious and loving God who accepts us, warts and all, and is trying to move us from where we are, and take us to where He wants us to be.  Grace is for us; Christ is always for us…and for anyone and everyone, who calls on His name and seeks His forgiveness.  
This, my friends, is the Grace which Transforms.


Monday, April 22, 2019

4-21-19 Easter Sunday “Name Calling”

4-21-19 Easter Sunday    “Name Calling”

   Dale Carnegie once said that there is nothing sweeter to a person’s ear than the sound of their own name on the lips of another. Well, like everything, I think that depends on the context as to how sweet the sound. As a child - and sometimes as an adult - I’ve always known I was in trouble when my middle name was invoked. I’ve always just been “Jay,” or sometimes people would speak my name as a quick, “JD,” like in the initials. But when I heard my name spoken in full, in all of it’s nonsensical glory, J-A-Y D-E-E, JAY DEE!  then I knew I’d better either change my tune or head in the other direction as quickly as possible, because what was coming would be anything BUT sweet!

   David Lose tells the story of how he used to sing a song to his young daughter Katie that included her name, and that whenever he sang it to her, whether she was joyful or whether she was sad and crying, the song would always eventually coax her to stop crying, to wipe away her tears, and would elicit what he called a “full blown grin of recognition and delight.” But rather than this simply affirming Carnegie’s idea, Lose goes on to say the he believes that, in    
“hearing her father or mother call her by name, Katie was reconnected to her family, rejoined to those who loved her, and in this way remembered who she was by remembering whose she was – our beloved daughter. So that even when grasped by the seizures of willfulness and insecurity that seemed so frequently to plague a two-year old, when called lovingly by her name Katie was freed from the hold of her confusion and found her way back to the world. And what she came back to was, really, a whole new world, one where, at least for the moment, her old fears and hurts had been banished, replaced by a sense of belonging and contentment and security that showed itself in that grin of delight.”

   Now, today is Easter Sunday, and for some preachers that’s an invitation to try to pack a year’s worth of teaching, instruction, evangelism and whatever else they can pull from their bag of tricks in order to reach those who are lovingly referred to as the “C and Es,” those who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. But I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to present a dissertation of a sermon on the meaning of Easter, the theological significance of the resurrection, the opposing ideas of a physical versus a spiritual resurrection, or what significance any of this has on what we think of as salvation. And I do that because I’d like for you to all stay awake if possible. And if we can accomplish that, I’d like also to keep you engaged. 

   Our reading today from John is a different telling of the Easter story than that given by the other Gospel writers. While the others talk about the group of women who went to the tomb on Easter morning, in John’s version it’s only Mary Magdalene.  She, alone, leaves early to go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body - hastily placed in the tomb only two days before. This is personal for her - Jesus was personal for her.

   She arrives at the tomb to find the stone rolled away from the entrance. John doesn’t tell us that she looked in or entered the tomb, but we assume she must have because he tells us that she “ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple…and said, ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb and we don’t know where they’ve put him.’” Interestingly, she says “we don’t know where they’ve put him,” when John records only her presence at the tomb. But I digress. A footrace ensues between Peter and the other disciple - we assume it is John - and when they arrive they alternately look into and then enter the tomb to find the grave clothes neatly folded where Jesus’ body had been placed, but no Jesus. And John writes, perhaps about himself, that the “other disciple ‘saw and believed,’ but that he ‘didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.’ So, if he didn’t understand the scripture, we’re left wondering, what it was he believed. But again, I digress. 

   Peter and John say nothing and leave to return to where they were staying. Mary remains outside the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb and she saw two angels dressed in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been. And the angels say to her, “Woman, why are you crying?” And she explains to them that someone has taken the body of Jesus.  And as she said this to them she turned to find someone standing there, who asks her the same question, “Woman, why are you crying?” and then “Who are you looking for?” 
Ah, now there’s $64,000 question? 

   “Who are you looking for?” She thought she knew, but in the midst of her grief, in the midst of her tears, that which was right in front of her was also lost on her. Distraught and exhausted, still mired in the trauma of all that she had witnessed in just the last week, she was unable to recognize the person she sought, even as he stood before her. 

   And then it happened. “Mary,” Jesus says, calling her by name, penetrating the shroud of her grief to grasp hold of her and draw her into a whole new world. And as Lose describes this moment, 
“It’s hard to imagine all the emotions that must have coursed through Mary in that moment; and yet, while the text doesn’t give us many clues, I have a feeling that after just a heartbeat she responded, at first with a shy smile, wiping away the tears soaking her cheeks, and then broke into a grin of recognition and delight, breathing ‘my teacher.’” And having been called by name, having been reminded not only of who she is, but whose she is,  Mary is sent to the other disciples to tell them what she has seen."

   And Mary’s message may be the truest sermon ever preached. She doesn’t speak the creedal statement, “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed,” but simply “I have seen the Lord.” You see, resurrection is not some third-person confession, it’s a first person event, a real life experience - I have seen the Lord. People don’t need to hear a debate about the historical accuracy of the event or that resurrection is a creed of the church, we need to know that it’s a truth that we can witness in the here and now, that we can experience on a daily basis, and that if experienced, can be the seed of transformation that we need in our lives and in our world. Called by name, Mary is invited to a new understanding of who she is, and whose she is. 

   Each of us received a name tag when we came in. 
If you didn’t do it then, I invite you to write your first name on that tag and put it on. We’ll sing a verse of a song while you do that:

Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling, 
calling for you and for me;
see, on the portals he’s waiting and watching, 
watching for you and for me. 
Come home, come home; you who are weary come home;
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling, O sinner, come home!

   Now, I invite you to take just a moment, and turn to another person, and simply look into their face and say their name out loud. And then repeat that the other way, speaking the name of the one who spoke to you. And if you see someone sitting alone, move to them so that every one has the chance to hear their name spoken to them in this time. 

   You see, Easter isn’t some broad theological treatise upon which to expound once a year and then store it away with all the plastic eggs. Easter is personal. 
We all need the invitation, the encouragement, the promise that we can say, “I have seen the Lord” in our own lives. This doesn’t mean that we have to find the tallest mountain, the busiest street corner, or the jam-packed mall and yell it out for every passer-by to hear. It doesn’t mean putting John 3:16 on a poster to hold up and wave during a football game. It doesn’t mean evangelism as coercion, competition, certainty, and beating the other down. To say “I have seen the Lord” is to point out resurrection in the midst of ruin; new life when all that seems visible is death; love in the face of hate; decency and goodness when that which is vitriolic and vile and vicious finds only more and more followers.

   For the resurrection to be personal, you and I must love as Jesus loved. E. Stanley Jones, in his book Gandhi: A Portrayal of a Friend, tells the story of his first encounter with Mahatma Gandhi. Jones asked him, “What would you, a Hindu leader, tell me, a Christian, to do in order to make Christianity a normal part of India?” Without hesitation, Gandhi responded with clarity and directness.
  • “First, I would suggest that all of you Christians begin to live more like Jesus Christ.  
  • Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. 
  • Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. 
  • Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” 
The great Hindu leader said, “Your faith doesn’t need to be changed; it doesn’t need to be added to or subtracted from; it needs to be lived as it is.” 

   It needs to be lived. Our faith needs to be livedBecause, in the end, resurrection is not only the promise of life after death, which would be enough, but also the assurance that the life-giving love of God will always move the stones away. Tombs are just that -- containers for the dead. And while we seem rather content these days with such spaces -- those dead places that fuel corruption, deception, racism, sexism, suspicion, rejection, marginalization, misogyny, judgment, and fear -- God continues to roll those stones away that keep life at bay. And when the stale air of decay meets God’s breath that breathes into, inspires new life and the possibility of hope and peace, death truly is no more.

   The late Dr. Peter J. Gomes, Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard, extends this message to each one of us today. He wrote,
“…the resurrection is a continuing event which involves everyone who dares be involved in it. Easter is not just about Jesus, it’s about you.  Jesus has already claimed his new life. What about you?  Easter is not just about the past, it’s about the future.  Your best days are ahead of you.     The proof of the resurrection is in your hands and in your life.”

   So, take a moment and just take a breath. And then speak aloud your own name…
NAME, you are a beloved child of God. Again.
NAME, with you God is well pleased. Again.
NAME, Jesus invites, “follow me.”

   To live the resurrection we must be involved in the resurrection.  To be involved with the resurrection, you and I must be “all in” followers of Jesus.             That is, we must identify, not only with Jesus but, with the people with whom Jesus identified. That means we will have to identify with the poor and oppressed, the marginalized and forgotten, and with the super-religious.  Identification and relationships are essential to being “all in”. We have to have personal contact with people who suffer as well as celebrate.      So that might mean doing something like:
  • serving meals, serving in the pantry, or visiting the sick and lonely.
  • assisting those who are physically or mentally disabled,
  • befriending a neglected child or tutoring in a school,
  • leading an outreach of our church into the community to engage with the people in our neighborhood.
   These actions are ways we can identify with the people with whom Jesus identified. As we do, we can discover the humbling joy of receiving more than we give.  Through identification with persons and involvement in their lives, we can become the living proof of the resurrection.  

   To be involved with the resurrection, you and I, must not only love like Jesus, be “all in” followers of Jesus, but we must listen to the witness of those who have been with Jesus themselves. Mary’s testimony, “I have seen the Lord,” insists that the ways of love will win over the ways of hate. “I have seen the Lord” confirms that the truth of kindness can be heard over the din of ruthless, callous, and vindictive rhetoric. “I have seen the Lord” gives witness to the fact that there is another way of being in the world -- a way of being that is shaped by resurrection, that embodies anything and everything that is life-giving, a way of being that is so counter-cultural, so demonstrative of mercy, so exemplary of the truth of Easter that others will listen to you, watch you, wonder about you and say, “Wait a minute. Did I just see the Lord?”

   Not that the truth of the resurrection needs our action for verification. 
Not that the truth of the resurrection depends on our witness to convince others. Not that the truth of the resurrection relies on our willingness to speak words of life into conversations intent on destruction or our determination to free those captive to the deaths that our culture, our world, perpetuate. The truth of the resurrection is true regardless of our testimony. But maybe, it will be more true for each and every one of us if we can walk out of church on Easter morning and be willing to say “I have seen the Lord,” be willing to look for where we can say, “I have seen the Lord” in our lives, or imagine those who might need us to say, “I have seen the Lord” because they cannot. And why can’t they? Because they have known the walls of their tombs too long.                    True resurrection is the truth that the transformative resurrection of Jesus indeed matters for our future, but even more so for our present, and for the sake of the present of others.

   Maybe the greatest proof of the resurrection is seen in the transformation of our living.  We don’t even have to say much when we are loving one another as we have been loved. But we do need to listen for the ones who know Jesus personally, for the ones who have taken the time to listen, in the midst of all that goes on around us to distract us, for Jesus to call their name.            Because he calls all of us, you see, but we have to listen. That’s when we’ll hear, see, and experience the power of the resurrection. That’s where we’ll claim the new life.  So this Sunday, my prayer for you is this: That you will listen, and that when you do you will hear Jesus, softly and tenderly calling your name, and that it will lead you to an Easter transformation. May it be so! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

4-14-19 “Give It a Rest”

4-14-19   “Give It a Rest”

   In preparing this message this week I asked Lynn for her thoughts on the question, “when is it okay to break the law?” And as we first considered it, many of the examples that we came up with were examples of traffic law violations:
  • Is it okay to exceed the speed limit in an emergency while trying to get someone to the hospital?  Most would say yes.
  • Is it okay to make a “rolling stop” at a stop sign if there are no other cars there? One would think so, but the Reynoldsburg police informed me a few years ago that the answer is NO.
  • Is it okay to run that traffic light in the middle of the night when it just won’t change and there’s nobody else in sight? Well….
  • How about parking in a no parking zone, at a yellow-painted curb, or in a handicap spot without the appropriate sticker if you’re “just going to be a minute?” Hmmm…

   Besides traffic laws, we considered, other questions, such as:
  • Is it okay to steal food to feed your family? Or medicine for a sick child when you don’t have the money?
  • Is it okay to share a prescription medication with another person who was not prescribed that medication by their doctor?
  • Is it okay to share passwords for Netflix, or Hulu, or some other subscription service with someone who isn’t paying for it, or to steal cable TV by hooking into someone else’s service without paying for it?
   What if we put this in the context of the Ten Commandments, what we understand as God’s law. When is it okay to kill?  That debate that has gone on in the church since the very beginning. 
  • Is war okay? Capital punishment? Or if it’s self-defense?
   What about having other gods - when is that okay? If we’re honest with ourselves, we all do have other gods who compete for our love, affection, and devotion with God. If we want to know who our other gods are, we need look no further than our checkbooks, credit card statements, or sports loyalties. 
   Is it okay to covet our neighbor’s stuff if we’re just being aspirational, just hoping and dreaming for the future? 
   And then there’s the law that presents itself in our scripture today, about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy. We had a member in a previous church, a developmentally disabled woman, who worried to the point of being frantic and in tears, nearly every week, that she was going to hell because her job required her to work on Sundays. 
   All of these questions pose ethical dilemmas for us - or they should - because regardless of their severity or perceived importance, they’re all illegal in some way, shape, or form. They all violate, to one degree or another, a cultural norm or more that has evolved into and been codified as a law in our society or in the church. And violating the law comes with consequences, right?  At least it does for some laws, and some people, in some instances, in some places…

   Jesus and his disciples are “busted” in our passage today for eating grain from the field as they were traveling on the Sabbath, both of which the Pharisees considered a violation of Sabbath law. In their minds, and according to their interpretation of the law, the disciples should have prepared their food before the Sabbath, and they were not to travel more than a defined, minimal distance during the Sabbath time. Now, before we vilify the Pharisees, which is easy for us to do and is our tendency when we read the Gospels, we should remember that they meant well. These were the folk who cared about the church and the law, who gave their time and energy and talents to their faith. They were entrusted with great responsibility. 

In many ways, they are us, because after all, we are people who care about the church, and our faith, and give our time and energies to the work of the church, to reading daily devotionals, studying scripture and all of those things. So, as we think about this passage, it’s good to remember that it’s partly about the Sabbath, and partly about the Law, and also about us.

   But it’s also good to be reminded that the Torah, the instructions from God - what we know as Law - was given for our good, for “our own well-being,” God tells Moses. They were not given on a whim. God didn’t simply make up a set of rules to see if we would follow them. This is loving guidance from a caring God, about how to be in a healthy relationship with God and with one another. This is a loving parent sharing with beloved children the wisdom they need to live full and joyful lives; seeking to do just what we would do with our children and grandchildren. This is not a set of regulations that God has established in order to have an excuse for either exiling us from God’s presence or rewarding us with eternal bliss, and it certainly is not a means of excluding others from the love and grace of God, which is what was happening in Jesus’ day…and perhaps in ours as well.

   One commentator (, helps us understand the historical context in which this story takes place, saying, “We do not have to assign terrible motives to the religious folks who Jesus was dealing with at the time. For the most part we can assume they were doing the best they could to try to follow the way God had laid out for them. They were occupied by Rome and their religious freedom, although not completely taken away, was very restricted. Although they did not offer allegiance to Caesar as a god, they were forced to pay him tribute in the form of money or crops. Many of their customs and ways of life were put on hold during the occupation. The laws that could be followed, therefore, became more important to them. This would not have been so much a problem if they had not taken the next step. It began to be a situation of those who had the means and were able to follow the laws of the temple and the laws of Rome seeing those who could not do so, as being unfaithful. Those who could afford to pay the tithe to the temple along with the Roman taxes thought themselves more holy than those who were forced to pay the Roman tax under pain of death only to find they had not even enough left to feed themselves and their families. Instead of looking on these people as oppressed and abused, they were seen as sinners.”

   So it’s into this context that Jesus begins his ministry with the message that God is best understood, not as being a demanding judge as in being a compassionate and loving Parent. It’s not obedience to the law that’s at the heart of the matter, but living as faithful reflections of the God who created us in the divine image. God is not best understood as a stern taskmaster who demands obedience above all, but as a wise teacher who lovingly shows us the best way to live.

   David Lose points out that, 
   “Across the Old Testament, the purpose of law is to help us get more out of life by directing us to help our neighbor. It’s important to pay attention to both halves of that sentence. Each one of us gets more out of life by looking out for each other. How does that work,” he asks? Two ways.
   “First, law establishes order, and order makes it easier to flourish in life. Think of the Ten Commandments – it’s really hard to flourish if it’s okay to lie, steal, and murder. But, second, law works best – it achieves its intended purpose – only when it’s directed to the need of our neighbor.
   “There’s something a little counter-intuitive about that for those of us who live in a highly individualistic culture. Law, we think, is something that protects my rights. But the Israelites saw it differently. If I am looking out for my neighbors, then my neighbors are also all looking out for me. So instead of having one person look after my interests – namely, me – I’ve got a whole community looking out for my welfare, just as I am looking out for theirs.
   “But we tend to privilege “order” over “neighbor.” That is, order makes us feel comfortable, safe, and secure, and before long we forget that the law was intended to direct us to help our neighbor and we fall into thinking it’s all about us. And that’s what’s happening here. The appeal of “law-as-order” trumps concern for neighbor. That’s what Jesus gets at with his example of King David and in his summary statement, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.’ That sounds good, of course, but it’s is easy to forget.” And he concludes “Yes, order is good, but if it’s not helping the neighbor, it’s neither lawful nor holy, at least not according to Jesus.”

   In all of this, however, Jesus didn’t abandon the law. In fact, he directly denied that in how he lived and what he taught. Rather, he observed the law when it brought glory to God and didn’t interfere with his sharing of the good news of God’s grace. He went to temple and to synagogue, observed the holy days, studied scripture, and spent time in prayer. He said that he didn’t come to destroy the law but to bring it to its full completion. That is, to be an example of how one lives fully into the law in a loving and non-tyrannical way. He understood that the law was given for our well-being, to be good for us, and that we weren’t created to give glory to the law. He understood that the law was created to help point us to God, but that sometimes it could actually get in the way. When he healed people on the sabbath, which occurs several times in scriptures, it was because he understood that the true nature of God was to have compassion on them in their afflictions, not to honor the sabbath. He wasn’t advocating for people to ignore the sabbath, but rather to receive it as the gift it was intended to be rather than as a burden. Sabbath is part of God’s compassionate gift of inviting us to rest in the trust that God will take care of us rather than being a cold, unbending law about what we can or cannot do.

   So in the Gospels we should be aware of the way in which disagreement about living within the law quickly escalates into hostility, a hostility that will eventually lead some -- but certainly not all -- of the most powerful religious authorities to seek Jesus’ death. Even as the passage emphasizes a commitment to life and vitality abiding at the heart of God’s reign, it also illustrates how religious commitments and values -- any religious commitments and values -- can become hardened and turn oppressive in the hands of careless stewards. None are immune - then or now.

   So the idea behind our message to “Give it a Rest,” is to help us see, as Steve Harper points out, that  “Sabbath-keeping is a sign we are living a here-and-now life. But to see this, we must not view the Sabbath as one day in seven, separated and isolated from the other six. Jesus pointed to the right view of sabbath when he said, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). He was talking about the flow — the sabbath into us, not us into a particular day. Sabbath is a rhythm, not a day – a pattern, not a 24-hour period.”

    So, how should sabbath-keeping influence how we live in the present moment? More than anything else, it’s a reminder that every moment is a gift, and is lived by grace. There is sabbath to be found in every day if we are mindful of it. Kimberly Richter notes that when we lose the sabbath, “we become enslaved to our economy and efforts. We come to believe everything depends on what we can provide for ourselves. To keep a rhythm of Sabbath rest is to remember that God is the maker and giver of all good things.”

   This is just one piece of what Jesus meant when he said that we don’t pour new wine into old wineskins. Old wineskins, like old ways of thinking about the sabbath, the Law, or even our faith, become brittle when they’re simply put on a shelf to be worshiped. The message Jesus was giving was new wine - a new way of thinking and being - that would destroy the old thought and belief containers. “You have heard it said,” he often reminded, before concluding, “But I tell you this…”  The Way of Jesus is not what they were used to, and is not what we always expect either. Jesus’ words speak as much to the Pharisees then as to the Pharisee in us today. Christ is doing a new thing, and if the law proves hurtful rather than helpful, pushing people away rather than drawing us closer to God, then, Jesus would caution, we’re looking at it incorrectly.

   Out of this realization we live humbly in every moment, giving thanks to God who is the Source of the here-and-now, and offering ourselves in each moment as living sacrifices, as Paul says, (Romans 12:1) to be instruments of God’s peace. We take on the attitude of Paul, realizing we are the servants of others for Christ’s sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

   This is precisely why the idea of rest is associated with sabbath. In a literal sense, it is the renewal which occurs as we adopt the work/rest pattern in each day. And in the figurative sense, it is the relaxation which comes (as Richter noted above) as we realize we are not the creators of moments, but only the beneficiaries of and servants within them. To be fully present in a moment, to be fully present to our neighbor, to be fully present to God, is to live the sabbath.

   This is not a call to go back to slavishly refraining from all activity one day a week or to bringing back blue laws. Nor is it a call to abandon the law as old-fashioned and irrelevant. And it is certainly not a call to invite the government to impose their interpretation of God’s instructions as legal prohibitions. Rather, it’s a call to hear, with Jesus, the loving voice of a caring parent instructing us in the wisdom of life. It’s a call to hear, with Jesus, the invitation not to use God’s gracious instructions as a tool to bar others from the presence of God. It’s an invitation to receive joyously the instruction of God as it was meant to be received, for our well-being. So may you receive it as such and live in the sabbath presence of the loving God. Amen.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

4-7-19 “A Time for Every Matter”

4-7-19     “A Time for Every Matter” 

   Do you remember how, as a kid, the year from one Christmas to the next, or from one birthday to the next, seemed to pass so slowly? At the same time, while the school year seemed to never end, summer vacation was over in a heartbeat. That was the exception to the rule, though. Every other measure of time we had seemingly lasted forever, simply creeping along. 

   One of the downsides of growing up, of becoming an adult and of growing older, is that that is the slow march of time is no longer a a problem. While time continues to march at the same, steady, regular pace at which it has always progressed, our perception of its pace changes as we realize we have fewer years ahead of us than behind us. Most days go by quickly, each week seems to come and go in a rush, the years just fall off the calendar as rapidly as the hair falls out of our heads - or at the very least turns gray - and the treadmill of life keeps moving us forward.
   For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. As a kid I grew up listening to the band The Byrds singing this song, clueless to the fact that they were singing scripture. That song came out when I was five years old, 54 years ago. How many seasons have passed in those decades? 
How many “turn, turn, turns” have we made over those years? In Solomon’s days, when he wrote these words that eventually made their way into a book in the Bible called Ecclesiastes - part of the Wisdom Literature - and that some three thousand years later, become a #1 single on the pop charts, there was a clear delineation of seasons. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter aligned with rainy season and dry season, with planting season and harvest season. There was little else to be concerned about then. Now, we can never really be sure what season it is. Besides the craziness of the weather we’re seeing because of climate change that brings warmth in Winter and cool in Summer, if you really want to see confusion in the seasons we need look no further than in the world of sports. Right now, baseball season is going on, as are soccer, basketball, and hockey seasons. Golf season is in full swing too - if you’ll pardon the pun. Auto racing at all levels is driving on and the Kentucky Derby of horse racing season is only four weeks away. 

   Some seasons seemingly never end. 
When, for example, does Ohio State football season end? I know they play their games between August and December - except for a Spring practice game that draws 100,000 fans and a bowl or playoff game in January - but when does it ever end? Even now, the local paper and TV news are reporting on the ages of the coaches, the newest recruits, how good will the receivers be this year, who will win the ongoing annual Quarterback competition - it never ends. Armageddon could happen, the moon could blow up, and pigs really could learn how to fly, but if OSU signed a 4-star recruit that would be on the front page of the paper! It never ends!

   For many of us in this modern, industrial, tech-savvy world, we have lost touch with the seasonality of life. We want what we want when we want it. 
We’ve come to believe that no time is off limits and the lines between busy and rest, work and play, have become increasingly blurred. How far are we from the rhythms and "pleasure of our toil,” as the scripture phrased it? What is the cost to ourselves, to our relationships, and to our planet of this frantic pace? How has our denial of the passage of time and seasons of our lives created an anti-aging sentiment as well as the worship of everything “fast” and the sense that immediate gratification is “normal,” or worse, not fast enough?

   No matter what season we’re in now, with the possible exception of the aforementioned OSU Football season, that season will eventually pass. There will be seasons of joy and seasons of suffering, seasons of certainty and seasons of change. That is how the cycle of life was created, it’s how life was intended to be lived. Our time on this planet, like that of every person who has come before us and likely every person who comes after, is but for a season. 

   Verse two reminds us that there is a time to be born; a time for giving birth, a time for new life, and there is a time to die. Our time, our season here, is limited. No ones lives forever. Whether or how we embrace that fact is a matter of faith, but not embracing it or denying it won’t change it. Life is but a season. 
In reading this verse I’m reminded of the story I read at some point of a set of twins in the womb before they were born. The twins are talking to one another, and in a question that presages a similar question most of us ask much later, the one twin asks the other, “Do you believe in life after birth?” The womb was the only life they had ever known and they feared what might come next.  
Just as we all passed from the womb to the world yet have no memory of that time and that transition, so one day we will pass from this world to what’s next. 
Our faith tells us that there is something more after this season, but what that looks like is as unknown to us as this life was unknown before we were born, even as we have developed our ideas and our desires about that. Perhaps the coming transition is not unlike moving from the womb into the world.

   There is a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. Last week I shared with you some thoughts by Father Richard Rohr about what he refers to as the two halves of life, and how in the first half we tend to define our safety, security, and self-worth by our careers, our accumulations, and our family. 
In the second half of life we realize that who we are - our worth or self-worth - can never and has never been defined by those things, but rather have been and always will be defined by our relationship to God as God’s beloved children. In the first half we plant and we plant and we labor and we labor to make a name for ourselves, to accumulate stuff, and we wonder why we’re working so hard, and in the second half we come to realize that the seeds we planted then won’t sustain us now, that it is the seed planted by God within us that carries us forward - and that that has always been the case. 

   A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up. Like many Christians, I struggle with the idea that there is a time to kill, but I recognize that there are times of killing, and of healing. Jesus came to show us a time of healing, and was ironically, killed for it. But I think this verse points to the seasonality of relationships as well as life. The people who are my closest friends now are people I didn’t even know fifteen years ago. Most of the people I was close to as a child are no longer in my life. There are times when relationships die, and times when they’re healed, times when they break down, and others when they’re built up. And as resurrection people - a people for whom the central belief of our faith is that resurrection follows death - we know that even a relationship that dies has the potential to be resurrected, if we cultivate a season of healing, of building up - both in our selves and in our world.

   A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. We can’t, regardless of how hard we try, shield ourselves from the times of weeping and of mourning. Our faith doesn’t promise us that in the seasons of our lives we won’t experience pain, hurt, and loss; it promises that we won’t go through them alone. Just as God is present with us in the times of greatest joy in our lives, God is also present in those seasons of suffering, of sadness, of sickness. God, who knows our joys and our celebrations and who, as Lord of the Dance, revels with us in those exuberant times, also embraces us for the slow dance of sorrow that visits each of us at different times. Death is always followed by resurrection, God always brings a restoration, in its season. That God promises us.

   Then Solomon writes that there is a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. There is much to consider in this verse, when we think of the biblical context. King David, Solomon’s father, wanted to build what would be God’s Temple in Israel, but God wouldn’t allow it. As great a king as David was - the greatest in Israel’s history - David was not allowed to be the one who gathered the stones together that would construct what would be considered the dwelling place of God. That task, that honor, was given to Solomon. Was that honor denied David because of his sin with Bathsheba? Some have suggested that, but a close look at Solomon’s life reveals that, even as wise as he was considered to be, his sins were no less than those of his father. Perhaps this verse suggests that there are times for action, and there are times for rest, times for doing and times for contemplation. Stones are important symbolically in scripture - stones were stacked or made into altars throughout scripture to mark places as holy. 
A young David killed the Philistine giant Goliath with a sling and a stone. Jesus faced the temptation of turning a stone into bread for his sustenance while in prayer and meditation in the wilderness and told the people on Palm Sunday that if his followers were quiet even the stones would cry out. Perhaps Solomon is also suggesting that there will be times when we are called into the embrace of friends, and other times that what we need is time in our own wilderness, where the stones cry out and the only embrace we need comes from God.

   A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time of love, and a time of hate; a time of war, and a time of peace - all of these speak to me the idea that in creating our world, in setting our planet to spin upon its off-center axis, God wanted us to know that life is to be lived in the midst of that which we don’t and won’t understand, and that that is okay. As modern science has brought us amazing technological advancements, as modern agricultural science allows us to have whatever food crop we want any time we want it, as modern medicine has extended life to the point that there are more nonagenarians and centenarians (people over 90 or 100 years old) in the world today than ever in the history of our planet, these verses remind us that we do not know the mind of God. And that even as we seek, or are tempted, to eat more and more from the tree of good and evil in our own little Edens, the seasons God set in motion in the beginning will go on, with us or without us, and even in spite of us.  

   And then our scripture concludes:
What gain have the workers from their toil? 
I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover God has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

   Whether we are at a point in our lives where the seasons seem to pass slowly or whether they are seemingly gone as soon as they arrive, it is a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, for us to remember that our God is the God of life, and that our God is a God of love. And even as we go through seasons of sorrow and sadness, of joy and gladness, God goes with us, giving us the gifts of life after birth, of resurrection after death, and the promise to come alongside and walk the Way with us, that we may take pleasure in our toil. 
May it be so for you. Amen.