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Tina and I were sitting having breakfast at Original Steve’s Diner in the strip mall on Panorama Trail one morning last week. The waitress had showed us to a booth next to one of the front windows and sitting in a booth directly behind us were four women dressed in bright red and green Christmas sweaters, laughing and exchanging presents wrapped in silver paper with oversized gold and red bows tied to the same color ribbon running lengthwise on the box, obviously the bows and the wrapping were done by someone with great skill and patience.

“I am telling you,” one woman said, “we were all laughing and singing. It was like waking up from a dream about winning the lottery, but the dream was real.”

“It was like after being immersed in darkness for a long time,” another woman spoke. “Dark like in the very beginning of life until God said, “let there be light, then there was light. All of the uncertainty, the troubled dreams, the confusion and chaos were gone because the light chased it all away.”

“Oh, it was just like that,” a third women said. They all laughed and I was starting to very slowly cut my one big blueberry pancake that covered the entire plate, drizzling maple syrup on it while I was listening to the women’s conversation. Of course, Tina was giving me a look that said I shouldn’t be eavesdropping, except they were talking so loud I had a hard time not listening to them.

“Yes,” the second women said, “it was just like that and we were so thankful that we had gone. Sort of the way you are when the lights come back on after a thunderstorm.”

“But, so much more breathtaking.” The third woman said.

“So, when did you get to Bethlehem?” The fourth woman asked.

“Well, this was a regular pilgrimage people make during Advent,” the first woman said. “Thousands of people were there. It was amazing and frightening because it is Israel and the political situation was in upheaval, but at the same time it was exciting, especially finding out where everyone was from.”

“Yes, there were people from England, the US of course, but from Poland..”

“Oh, and the people from Africa, who were taking lots of photos to take back with them, “the third woman said. “One young woman had her whole trip paid for by her village because it was very expensive, so she was taking photos on her cell phone and sending them back home, so they could feel like they were on the trip with her. She said, “I am on a journey from being only about myself to discovering other people, traveling from a familiar place to a promised place.”

“Remember that woman from Poland,” the second woman said,  “who said she wasn’t very religious, but said she had to come because as she said, “You sing about these places and you make nativity scenes and you talk so much about the stories, but you never think that you will actually go here. I cannot say that I am the most religious, but just to be here on this day is significant.”

“Oh yes, it was significant.”

“Tell me, “the fourth woman said, “how did you get to Bethlehem? What was the journey like?”

“Well, it was hard because so many people were going the same way we were.”

“Oh yes, everyone was on the long obedience in the same direction road trip like Pastor Eugene Peterson wrote about in one of his books. And, someone was singing, “it seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles. We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were the talk of the nations: ‘God was wonderful to them!” God was wonderful to us; we are one happy people.”

“That’s right. They were singing Psalm 126. At first I didn’t realize what they were singing because they were using the Message translation. When I realized it I..”

“Yes, anyway,” said the first woman, “we started out going to the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for prayers, then we attended a mass with hundreds of people at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem led by a wonderful priest, Father Kelly, I think.”

“Then, “said the second woman, “we traveled to Bethlehem, which took quite a long time and when we arrived there were just long lines after long lines. Kinda like at Disney World because this is the place where Jesus and David were born and people said it was the perfect place to be on Christmas Eve and everyone wanted to be there.”

“Did you see the manger?” the fourth woman asked.

“Well, yes, it took over an hour and half, but we saw the place where the manger had been and I was amazed to think, this is where God came to us. A pretty plain, ordinary looking place, but filled with such joy and wonder.”

“Oh yes. It was like what someone wrote about pilgrims, but I just can’t remember exactly what.

As I listened to the women, I thought about what Rev. Phil Antilla wrote about pilgrims on Passover, Pentecost and Sukkot journeys to Jerusalem. Their “road trip,” he said, “was both literal and metaphorical. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Palestine at the time, so nearly anyone who made this trek experienced a quite literal “ascent”. The trip however, also acted as a metaphor, representing a pilgrimage into life with God. Advent is our metaphorical pilgrimage, since every step and every song and every physical motion represents a deeper story of the Christian life.” Indeed, a long obedience in the same direction-the path of living for Christ, as Peterson wrote.

“Yes, I felt, “ the third woman said, “as though I needed to really be aware of how I can be faithful to God because of everything God has done, is doing and will be doing for me and really everybody.”

“It is like William Faulkner wrote,” the first woman said, “the psalms and our pilgrimages are not monuments, but footprints because monuments say, ‘at least I got this far’ but, footprints say, ‘this is where I was when I moved again.”

“The air was still that night in Bethlehem,” the first woman said, “even with all those people, it was quiet. Thousands of people hushed to silence by prayers of their own, recognizing God’s gift of being present with us whether we planted seeds with tears like my grandmother talked about doing in Nebraska, just hoping the seeds would germinate and wheat crops would come up, hoping the rains came at the right time and the hail stones wouldn’t come at all or whether we harvested the wheat and could pay the mortgage and bills for seed and gas for the tractors and such with maybe a little something left over. My grandmother would say the harvest was the joy God brought to them as they celebrated the harvest with songs and dancing and food and laughter from the oldest to the youngest because they came in from the fields carrying armfuls of God’s blessings that only looked like wheat sheaves.”

“Oh yes, I felt it just that way. God’s presence strengthening us and renewing us in the midst of Bethlehem, then somewhere on the journey back from Bethlehem we started singing, laughing and dancing and feeling unbinding, unbounded joy!

Drinking the rest of my coffee to wash down the last bite of blueberry pancake, I recalled Silvia Purdie’s version of psalm 126 written as a harvest song,

“Remember feeling amazing!
Remember a time of celebration –
that was the Lord God at work!
Laughter rang out,
everyone was happy,
everyone laughed till they shook with joy!
The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!

Remember feeling sad?
Remember tears running down your face –
God was with you then.
Your pain planted seeds
and your tears watered them.
The seeds grew in the tender mercy of God growing fruit of wisdom
fruit of kindness.
Gather the fruit, and celebrate
that all things work for good in God’s ways.
Those who go out weeping
shall come home rejoicing.

The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!”

I was just supposed to be having the weekly breakfast out that Tina and I enjoyed together, but the joy, laughter and story of these Advent pilgrims sitting behind me was a gift reminding me to be amazed, to be happy and to be joyful in this Advent because God comes to be with us as a baby born in a plain, ordinary stable to lead us on the path of long obedience in the same direction, so we too might carry God’s blessings from the fields of our lives with shouts of joy at the great things the Lord has done for us.

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A story based on Isaiah 64:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

“Oww,” yelped Caleb. He sidestepped away from the single story stucco building and stood in the middle of the alley, straining to see the figure moving ahead of him in the moon and star lit night.

“Caleb?” the man said. “Is that you Caleb? Answer me.”

“Yes, it’s me. Is that you Zechariah?”
“Of course, it is. Who else would they send to come and get you and bring you back to watch the flock? Again.

”Hmm. You’re right.” Caleb said as he stepped into the main road through the village. “Aaron does always seem to pick you.”

“Yeah and I wonder what I did wrong to deserve it. So, why did you go off this time?” Zechariah asked.

“I’m looking for the light.” Caleb said, turning to peer down the narrow lane across from them.

“Light? Like a lamp?”

“No. Not a lamp. God’s light.” Caleb whispered.

“God’s light? Really? God’s light?”

“It’s you know, like the ancient story about the beginning of life. You remember. The world as we know it begins with Or Ein Sof, pure being, the Infinite, the Ultimate source of the world, the light of life of God. Well, somehow the vessel holding the Or Ein Sof, the light of God, shatters into tiny shards and the Or Ein Sof, the light of God is scattered throughout the entire universe into an infinite number of holy sparks. These countless sparks of holiness are hidden deep in every person and everything. And, what we are to do, Zechariah, is find these sparks of light and restore the world to its original wholeness, so everyone might experience the presence and love of God as close as your breath or heartbeat.”

“Right! How are we supposed to do this?”

“Well, every person and everything is a container like a lamp for holding oil only we are the container for the hidden spark of holiness and we are supposed to free that hidden spark of holiness by acts of loving kindness and compassion. Each act of loving kindness, no matter how big or small, repairs the world. This is what the wise ones say is the Tikkun Olam- the repairing and restoring of the world and all we have to do are these acts of loving kindness and compassion, then the world be a place of peace.”

“And that,” Zechariah said, rolling his eyes,”is why you came here in the middle of night.”
“Yes, you see I did such an act of loving kindness, but I didn’t see the light. So, I thought maybe the light is here in this village because I was nearby to the village when I did the act of loving kindness. But I have searched and searched this entire village from one end to the next and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, the light of God.”

“So, it’s not in this village. Let’s go back to the sheep and do what we are supposed to be doing.” Zechariah said.

“No, it has to be in this village.”

“Why?”

“Because of that star,” Caleb turned Zechariah to see the biggest, brightest star in sky. It was the biggest and brightest star Zechariah had ever seen. “That is a once in a generation star and I thought it was pointing me to come here, but maybe I was wrong.” Caleb sighed.

Zechariah smiled and clapped Caleb’s shoulder, “Maybe, you’re just in the wrong village. Look, the star is way over the horizon. Maybe, we just have to walk over that way. As a matter of fact we’ll be heading over that way in the days to come.”

“Really!” Caleb said his eyes wide and feet stamping a dance step in dirt.

“Maybe. Of course, it could just be we’re looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing and will have to wait a while longer to see the light of God.”

“The wrong place?” Caleb said.

“Yeah. Maybe, God isn’t the one who is hidden or lost like the prophet Isaiah said. Maybe, it’s us and maybe, it isn’t so much about us not finding God’s light, but about we haven’t found ourselves being found by God. Maybe, we are the ones who are lost..”
“Oh, Oh like in the days before the great flood.” Caleb said. “You know, before Noah built the ark, when people were so lost in eating and drinking, in marrying and giving away in marriage and all the other stuff God didn’t want people to be so caught up in doing.”

“Right. Maybe people get so caught up in trying to the good life..”

“Like Aaron always going on and on about buying land with his portion of the flock.” Caleb said.

“Sort of like that. Always thinking we’re pursuing the good life and trying to get more and more of it, except it never ends because there always something we don’t have.” Zechariah said.

“Never seeing the blessings right in front of us.” Caleb said.

“Never being awake to the joy and peace we have now and realizing God hasn’t left us alone, like so many people think, but has been here, is here and will be here.” Zechariah said.

“Maybe, we have to let ourselves be found by God wherever we are?”

“Maybe, we’re always looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. Maybe, God will come to us when we least expect and in a way that is really unexpected.” Zechariah sighed.

“Maybe, that’s the reason I haven’t found the light because maybe it’s not just my one act of loving kindness, but we need a long chain of lots of acts of loving kindness and compassion, like God’s hesed. You know, just doing it all the time. Maybe, we need to wake up to the truth that every place and every moment contains a hidden spark of holiness, of God’s light of being.” Caleb said.

“And, every place and every moment is part of eternity, so that past, present and future all altogether now, because God is the beginning and end of all life.”
“You know for someone who doubts so much, Zechariah, you seem to think deeply about God.”

“Well, maybe that’s because I hang around with you looking after the sheep and staring up at the stars.”

“Maybe I’m rubbing off on you.” Caleb smiled.

“Hmm, or it’s because I’m always looking for you, my little lost sheep. C’mon, let’s go. If we get back soon maybe, Aaron won’t have us up all night watching over the sheep.”

“Yeah, maybe.” They turned to walk out of the village toward the hills where the sheep and the other shepherds stood watch, “I still wish I could just find what I was looking for.”

As the two shepherds passed the last building in the village, a small light shone through the cracks of the stable door. The sound of wind or beating wings rose up from the village.

Pray with me, “Creator of all life, you came, you come and you will come to us in Jesus Christ, unexpectedly just as the coming of your Spirit upon Mary was unexpected. May we be as inspired as she was to welcome the One who is her child and her lord and be willing to say with Mary, let it be with us your servants. May your light of life open our eyes to the gift already given us in Christ. Forgive us our restless searching for your light of life devised from our expectations of what we think you will do or be and when and where you will come to us. Instead may we become part of an endless chain of your hesed, your loving kindness and compassion as we begin this Advent journey to Bethlehem, hoping to find ourselves being found by you. Tame our ambitions, granting us the humility to act for your agenda and not our own, so it is your will that is done, not ours. May we, in the blessing of this day, see every moment as eternity and every person as holding a spark of holiness, holding your light of life within them. Amen.”

 

Extraordinary Risk Taskers

Jennifer Staple was a young woman working a summer job at an ophthalmology office in the summer of 2000, when she was exposed to the need for eye care education and screening programs in her local community. While others might have felt helpless to influence change, Jennifer began Unite For Sight in her college dorm room.

Unite for Sight has now become a global nonprofit organization addressing preventable blindness serving over 400,000 people in 25 countries.

Dr. Bernard Kouchner, Co-Founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres and Former Head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, wrote of Jennifer’s work: “Over the centuries, most leaders have sought to bring about change through military intervention.  I’ve tried to mobilize people to undertake another strategy – humanitarian intervention.  Every citizen has the right to receive care and live with dignity,  national boundaries and political or financial circumstances cannot influence who receives that support.  Through her work to expand the fight against blindness around the globe, Jennifer Staple has intervened in some of the world’s poorest communities to ensure that their citizens, too, can lead healthy and productive lives.”

With a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Our Time is Now: Young People Changing the World, tells the stories of 30 young leaders who took risks to try to change the lives of people around them.

Whether we speak about these young men and women as social entrepreneurs or social innovators, they and countless others like them are really extravagant risk takers. They are people who have a vision of what is possible then who go out to put their vision into action and create a new reality.

Edwin H. Friedman, who was a rabbi, family therapist, sailor and map collector, argued that the relationship between risk and reality is constitutive. His study of Columbus, da Gama, Magellan and Drake makes clear that it is the very risking of a new thought or a new spirit that brings about a new frame of reference, a new context of experience, a new way of living in the world — and thereby, changes reality. “Not one’s sense of reality,” Friedman insisted, “but reality itself.”

This is precisely where the parable of the master and three servants meets these young innovators to challenge all of us to become the extraordinary risk takers God calls us and gifts us to be. This parable speaks deftly about possibility, promise, risk, and a new way of seeing and living in the world.

First,  a master gives each of his servants a certain amount of talents. Now, it is important to realize that a talent is money. It is not a small amount of money; rather it is quite a large sum of money in the form of gold. One talent in the Ancient Near East is about one day laborer’s income for 15 years. Putting the sums into today’s monetary values, the servant who was given 5 talents was given about $1.5 million, the second $600,000, and the third $300,000. None of these are insignificant amounts of money.

While the master does entrust each of the servants with his property according to the abilities of each servant, we might think the one with the most talents has the most ability and the second the second most and so on. However, notice that all of the servants have abilities and all are entrusted with talents. All have responsibility and accountability for what is entrusted to them. All are included. Notice something else. There is not a valuation that states one of the servants is more important or more valued than the others. All are equally important and equally valued by the master. The only difference between them is the amount of responsibility and accountability each of them has based upon the talents entrusted to their care.

Also, the master apparently hasn’t told them what he wants them to do with these talents. There is nothing in the reading that tells us what the master wants the servants to do with the talents, nor is there any hint about his expectations for the care of the talents. Also, he didn’t give them any warnings about what might happen to them if they lost the talents given to them. As far as we know, the master simply entrusted his property to them then left. It is up to each servant to decide what to do with what is given to them.

The first two servants immediately go off and invest or put the money to work, proy in some high risk investment because they double the money entrusted to them. However, the third servant is not a risk taking sort of a guy, so he digs a hole and buries what is entrusted to him. He does the safe and secure thing. Indeed, burying the talents in the ground is commonly the way to keep treasure safe from thieves and marauding armies in the Ancient Near East. So, he does what is prudent. He isn’t going to put the talents entrusted to his care at risk.

After some time, the master comes home. He calls the three servants to come before him to find out what they did with the talents entrusted to them. The first two servants come in and say, “Master, look what we did! We took some high risks with your money! And, hey, we doubled it!”

Master says, “All right! You are good and faithful servants. Because you have been faithful in that responsibility, I’m going to give you a whole lot more responsibility to serve me and my will!” But, the third servant is questioned about putting his talent in a hole in the ground. “Why would you do that?” The master asks him.

“I was afraid of you,” he tells the master. “I know you’re a scheming, harsh, greedy person. You always get more from a business deal than is your proper due and I was afraid to take any risk with your property. I just wanted to give you back exactly what was entrusted to my care.”

“That’s not what I wanted you to do! I wanted you to do something with what I entrusted to your care! I would’ve been happy had you just plunked it into a savings account earning 3-4% interest. But, to do nothing with the talent I gave you is unacceptable!” the master shouts and takes away the $300,000 the third servant had and gave it to the first servant; then the master told the servants to throw Mr. Safe and Secure out into the darkness.

What is this master doing? Is he really the greedy, rapacious, harsh person the servant claims he is? Is he really someone who is vengeful, unfair, judgmental, and just waiting to banish a servant out into the darkness of death?

Or, did the third servant allow his own fear to paralyze him into doing nothing? Did his fear of taking a risk, so overwhelm him that he could only see a worst-case scenario? Did it never occur to him in his head or his heart there might have been a rich abundance present in the talent entrusted to him? Couldn’t he hear the master’s boisterous joy and delight in those servants who were willing to risk everything for his sake? Didn’t he realize the real risk taker was the master with his generosity and willingness to trust the servants in the first place?

Probably not. Because to me the one-talent man represents somebody who buried the richest treasure he had, the most alive part of himself, in the ground. By doing this he was never able to become the person he might have been. Also, I think the outer darkness the Master casts him into is not so much punishment, as it is the inevitable consequence of what it means to bury your life or hide yourself away from all the possibilities for blossoming into the wondrous fullness of the person who are created to be. It is as if you light a lamp then put a barrel over it.  You are alone and in the dark. Then comes the really harsh part of Jesus’ parable, “From him who has nothing, even what they will be taken away.” Those are hard words. But, Jesus’ point is that if you bury your life, instead of you growing, you shrink. You become less; you become diminished.  And, Jesus doesn’t call us to be less than we are, rather he is calling us to grow, to be strong, to be the good soil that produces an abundant harvest through discipleship.

But, Jesus warns us in this parable that discipleship does not promise a safe harbor. On the contrary, true disciples are called to take risks, to weigh anchor, to venture beyond the known and secure and be adventurers for God. The “talents” the master leaves with each of his three servants are the God-given gifts we all have received before we were born and are charged with using to the best of our abilities.

The master’s judgment of this servant and his actions reveal that if we wish to call ourselves faithful servants, we had better do more with the gifts we have been given than worry about their well-being. You see, God has never been one to play it safe. A God not interested in taking risks would never have created Adam in the first place. But God not only risked creation. God risked relationship — first with Noah, again with Abraham, eternally with David and the people of Israel. Finally, God even risked the divine self — becoming human in the incarnation and suffering an ignominious death on a cross, only to rise again in the joy of the resurrection.

If God risked everything in the person of Jesus Christ for the sake of our lives, doesn’t it seem likely that this same God might expect more than self-seeking, self-motivated, safety- conscious behavior from those who have been so wondrously saved.  The risk called for in today’s lesson is the willingness to open our lives to a power beyond our own. It is risk based on faithfulness — faith in yourself, faith in God’s ability to work through your life, faith in the power of a discipleship where the ones who came back with more than they started out with, will be entrusted with even more. As the parable says, they traded with their talents. Or as, Frederick Beuchner writes, ”They traded with their lives — a wonderful phrase. We were made to be life traders, because I have what you need, which is me, and you have what I need, which is you.”

The risks God calls us to take are for the sake of others, risking ourselves, not just our money or our status. You see other people should be the focus of our risk-taking as it was for Jennifer Staple and the other social innovators. Yet, relationships are the riskiest business around because they involve risking to love and serve, risking to be vulnerable, risking rejection and ridicule, and risking frustration and despair. These are the truly profound, extraordinary risks God wants us all to take, risking all for the promise of fulfillment.  Risking all for the new reality that is God’s Kingdom and doing it now!

Now, I know being Presbyterian and being risk takers aren’t always put together, but wouldn’t it be great to be known as those Bold Risk Taking Presbyterians, instead of God’s frozen chosen?

Are You Ready?

The pool of water was still. Only the humming sound of a honeybee across the pool in the tangle of wisteria and willow on the edge of the water and the murmuring wheeze of the old man’s breathing broke the silence.

“Been comin’ here a long time.” The old man whispered to the man sitting next to him. The old man looked up at the sky. It was clear and cobalt. The sun shone like a gold plate reflecting light. “Good day ta be here.” His companion nodded his head in agreement.

“Yes sir. A good day! You know, I think I just might be ready. I know by the look on your face you’re wondering’ ready for what?’ Well, I’ll tell ya. I’m ready for the train to take me home. Finally, I am ready for the train. It took me a long while, but I’m finally ready. I’ve spent my whole life trying to get ready, but I never felt really ready. When Myrna died, what…three years ago….I wasn’t ready.

I was foolin’ myself still. Myrna, she was ready. She was ready near her whole life. Not a better woman around. She lived the good news. She knew it and she lived it! She took care of folks when they were sick. Baked bread for the new wives arriving in town. Helped people when they were down and out. Had me build a house for those young Murphys when they first came here. Didn’t have a nickel, but sure did have babies. Myrna made me find him a job. She was wonderful. She made us go to church every Sunday.  She said, God gave us over a hundred hours a week, we could praise the Lord for at least two of ’em. Praise him, she said. That’s what we did, too. I..I never really understood her until now. Now, I know what she meant, when she said she was ready. Be ready at anytime. Nothin’ ta fear if you’re ready, she said. Now, I know. I’m ready!”

The old man saw the expression on the face of the man sitting next to him, “You have no idea what I’m talkin’ about do you?  Well, I don’t know how ta explain it, but let me try this way.

You see, a man and a woman stood on the platform at the train station. The day was beautiful with the deep blue sky, wispy clouds floatin’ overhead, and a soft, warm breeze ruffling their clothes and coolin’ the heat of the day down to a comfortable 75 degrees.

The man stepped close ta the woman and said, “Are you waiting for the train?”

“Yes, I am.” she said and inched away.

“So am I.” He said without moving. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not very long,” she said and smiled at him.

“Me either. Do you know when the train will be here?”

“No,” she said, “I am not sure when it will be here.”

“Maybe I should go and ask the ticket seller.”

“If you want, you may, but I’m not worried about it. I know it will be here sooner or later.” She shrugged and walked away to sit down on one of the green painted benches under a wooden canopy.

The man shuffled off ta see when the train would be there. When he came back to the platform, the woman was still sitting on the bench under the canopy. He marched over ta the bench next to her and plopped down with a “humph” and unzipped his jacket.

“Well, the ticket seller was not very helpful. He had no idea when the train would be here. Said it was delayed somewhere. Might be a long time.” The man said.

“Oh. No matter,” said the woman. “It will be here. The time is not really important.” She closed her eyes and leaned back on the bench.

“You seem very calm about all of this.” She did not answer him or open her eyes. “Don’ t you want ta catch the train and be on time?”

“Of course. I already have my ticket and I cannot be late because the train has a schedule to keep, so I know it will arrive here when the time is right.”

“Why did you get your ticket so soon? There’s plenty of time ta git the ticket.” He looked around the near empty train station. “There’s not exactly a lot of people here.”

“Yes,” she sighed heavily, “but it is better to be prepared, so when the train comes one can board it immediately.”

“Why? I can’t imagine seating is a big problem.”

“The train does not stay in the station very long because it has many other stops to make along the way. If one is not ready to board it, one risks being left behind.”

The man frowned and half-turned away, “Poppycock! I can git my ticket and still make the train. Anyway, we’ve got plenty of time.” The man lay down on the bench and fell asleep. The woman fell asleep too.

The daylight faded into darkness. The lights of the canopy shown down on the two sleeping figures as other lights in the train station broke the darkness into circles of light. In the distance, a whistle blew. The shrill sound woke the woman. She heard the stationmaster shout, “Train is comin’. Train is comin’.” She shook her herself awake and stood up. She glanced at the man still sleeping. She reached down and shook the top of his shoulder.

“The train is coming into the station. You should get up.” She said as she shook him. The man woke with a start. He wiped his mouth and sat upright. “The train is coming.” She said as she walked to the edge of the platform.

“Uh. What?” The man said. “Oh. The train. The train is comin’.” He jumped up and ran to the woman. “How far out is it?”

“I do not know exactly, but I see a light down the tracks.” She said over her shoulder.

“Oh. Oh. Do I…”he glanced toward the station “Do I have time to get a ticket?” The woman shrugged. “How about you. Did you get an extra ticket? Can I get on board with you?”

“No. Everyone needs their own ticket, their own life. I only have one. You better go and get your own.”

“Yeah,” The man dashed off.

“And, you better hurry. The train is almost here.” She shouted after him.

The great diesel train whooshed into the station. The great silver and black compartments gleaming in the circles of light. The train stopped and a door opened in front of the woman. She smiled at the conductor, handed him her ticket, and boarded the train. As soon as she was inside and sitting comfortably in a compartment, the train roared and whooshed off.

The man came running out of the station house toward the train. “Wait! Wait! he shouted. The train roared down the tracks into the darkness. He stood at the edge of the platform. He crumbled his ticket in his hand and threw it down on the tracks. He turned round and walked back to the bench under the canopy.

Somewhere in the darkness an old gospel song played, “Are you ready? Are you ready?  Are you ready to sit by throne? For the Lord is comin’ to carry you home.”

Visible Messages of Grace

“You are free to make whatever choice you want, but you are not free from the consequences of the choice,” writes an Anonymous author.

“ There will come a time when we will have to sit down to a banquet of our consequences,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson.

“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh.

All three of these quotes affirm the same truth; we all make choices or decisions and the consequences of those choices or decisions are ours. We own them whether we like it or not. I imagine Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Bowe Bergdahl are discovering that very truth along with many other folks.

Now, sometimes we see those consequences clearly, but more often than not we fail to see all the consequences of our choices, those we intend and those we discover later as unintended consequences.

Certainly, the Hebrews in the wilderness failed to see all the consequences of their choice to abandon God in favor of worshiping a golden calf made out of their ornaments and jewelry. Yet, Moses knows that without God’s presence this “stiff-necked people” will have a hard time being the distinctive people God intends them to be. They will not be able to live into God’s way of living as the community of God’s people because they have not, yet, learned how their trust in God is connected to how they are to live in the world as the message of God’s grace and as a community where everyone belongs and is valued with dignity and respect.

This message of God’s grace invites everyone to come and join the community of God’s people, so they may see how life nurturing and life sustaining is this way of living in relationship with God and with each other. This is the reason God choose Abraham and Sarah in the first place and continued to choose this family as the instrument God will use to bless the world with wholeness and peace because God intends for everyone in the world to live together in this way of wholeness and peace.

Yet, the consequences of the Hebrews’ choices puts this relationship and way of living at risk because they failed to comprehend that faith in God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life, from the most mundane issues to questions of life and death, particularly, as they live surrounded by cultures whose political, social and religious values are opposed to God’s way of being fully human.

Indeed, the Hebrews do not realize, at this point in their journey, that their identity as God’s people is part of an interwoven conversation about who God is and who they are because of their relationship with the God who creates life, saves life, and sustains life.

They do not realize that knowledge of God leads them to knowledge about themselves, individually and communally. Nor, do they realize that our ultimate obligation to God sets the boundaries and limits to all other obligations of our life, even recognizing we are defined by our relationship and connectedness to God, not by anything else.

The Hebrews’ problem was that they were like the group of alumni of a university who were all highly established in their careers and who got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups — porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite — telling them to help themselves to the coffee.

When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice-looking, expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress.

Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups. And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.

Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of the life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee God has provided us.” God brews the coffee, not the cups. So, enjoy your coffee!

Enjoying the coffee-enjoying life as “God’s people” and recognizing how the choice to trust God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life is the difference between where the Israelites in wilderness were and where the Thessalonians were.

The Thessalonians had done something quite remarkable in the middle of living in the vibrant seaport trading and cultural center of a major Roman city; they made the choice to turn to God away from the idols everyone else worshipped and served. They turned to serve the true and living God. Paul’s letter celebrates this choice, which was so complete that they became the examples for other Christian congregations in Macedonia and Achaia to emulate. Their spirit- derived joy empowered them to maintain their faith, their love and their hope and become the living messages of the gospel-the embodiment of God’s good news in Christ, even as they struggled against persecution from their families and their neighbors.

The church at Thessalonica, of course, was not merely a model where faith, hope and love were held onto like a display in a museum just waiting for people to walk past and admire, rather the church was the place from which the message of faith, the testimony of hope and the power of love went forth into in the world every day. Yet, at the same time, it was also a safe place-a sanctuary- where people lacking faith, feeling hopeless, feeling unlovable could find the great blessings of grace and belonging.

In many ways, every church, including ours, should be such a sanctuary where people in need of the good news of Jesus Christ and the great blessings of the grace and belonging can find them. The first-century Christians got that point, by the way. They saw the church as a safe place to go to survive life’s storms and calamities. One of the first symbols that the early Christians used to represent the church was Noah’s ark, the vessel on which representatives of all living creatures found refuge during the catastrophe of the great flood. The ark was the place from which those surviving people and animals went forth to participate in God’s re-creation of life as a community of mutuality and interdependence.

In similar fashion, the early Christians considered the church as the place from which God’s living messages of grace went forth into the world bringing the story of God’s saving grace to a world in need of faith, love, and most importantly, hope. That’s the reason churches have stained-glass windows of Noah’s ark or the dove with an olive branch in its beak as well as why many sanctuaries were constructed in the shape of a boat and why the pulpit was set up high above like a crow’s nest from which the leaders could see the horizon, see the coming storms, the rocky shoals, or the land where the ship might anchor and be resupplied before continuing its journey.

And, while you’re pondering all of that, think about the importance of faith, love, and hope as blessings of God’s grace and the way we, who are the church bring those blessings to others.

        First, the church is the place where faith is offered without embarrassment. There is an old saying that Christianity is always only one generation away from extinction. Without the passing of the knowledge about Christ and the testimony of faith from parents to children, from elders to youth, from those convinced of the faith to those who have not yet heard it, Christianity might eventually either die out altogether or be reduced to a curious historical phenomenon. Now we could make that one-generation-away-from-extinction statement about many things in life — about technology, skills, scientific discoveries and so on — but with Christianity, what is passed on is not only knowledge, but also the assertion that the meaning of daily life and the path of life is found in Jesus Christ.

Some youth workers, Christian educators and pastors today are wondering, “Will our children have faith?” They observe that young people today are actually quite interested in God, Christ and Christianity, but they aren’t particularly turned on by institutional expressions of it. There is a phenomenon afoot among some in the younger generations who individually express their love for Jesus but not for the church of Jesus. Individual spirituality is a good thing, but it seldom is enough single-handedly to pass the faith to the next generation. It takes communities of Christ’s followers to do that in an intentional way realizing that faith is caught in an environment where people are living their trust in God, expressing their trust in God in worship, and maturing their trust in God through the intentional discipleship of life-long learning; especially the discipline of consistent Bible study and theological reflection all done within a community of faith.

Second, the church is a place where love is exercised without limits. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and as we in the church understand that, he wasn’t talking about emotions but about behavior. He was talking about acting in ways that support the well being of others as opposed to exploiting other people. And when we really grasp that Jesus is calling us to love others as God loves us, calling us to compare the way we are treating our families, our neighbors, the guy who is annoying at work or the woman who is hard to get along with at the gym to the way God treats us and all other people, then we realize we come up short, but that doesn’t let us off the hook because it ought to cause us to dig deeper by realizing that love has no stopping point where we can say, “There, I’ve done my duty, and now I can forget about that person.”

        Third, the church is the place where hope is nourished without delusion. Certainly there are ample reasons to lose hope in life. In fact, it’s fairly easy to experience despair, because in the day-to-day flow of life it often seems so much more credible than hope. There’s generally plenty of evidence around us to encourage and engender despair, especially listening or reading to the news, tweets, or what happens to our neighbors and friends. But we in the church understand that hope is not rooted in what happens in the present moment. The hope the church shelters believes the kingdom of God is here, now and will come in fullness, without denying life’s sometimes tragic character or attempting to explain away tragedy as “God’s will.”

Hope is not some sort of wishful thinking that those of us with strong enough gumption can somehow muster up from some mythological place, like fantasyland. Rather, hope is the steadfast trust that when all else fails, when every other support gives way, our lives remain in God’s hands. The writer of Deuteronomy spoke of this hope when she said, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, RSV). The image Deuteronomy suggests is of God’s arms creating a “floor” under us so that no matter how far down the weight and even the tragedy of life pushes us, we have a solid foundation on which to find our footing. Our task as the community of faith is to nourish this hope by being the strong advocate for hope in a community and a world too easily and too quickly grasping for the comfort of hopelessness.

Finally, faith, love and hope are the foundations and the fruit of a community of faith’s life as Paul certainly made clear in writing to the Corinthians, when he wrote at the end of the wonderful chapter about love, “And now faith, hope, and love abide.” They dwell together in a community of God’s people. That is, why he once again points to those three at the very beginning of his letter to the Thessalonians, “We continually remember before God, our Father, your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  When we look for the blessings rising from the community of faith’s life together, these three rise to the surface: faith, love, and hope. They are God’s blessings for life given to us, so we might be living messages of grace blessing the lives of other folks.

I have been thinking about Roy Moore, the onetime Alabama Supreme Court Justice forced to leave that office after refusing to uphold the law, because he is now campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama. As a judge Roy Moore tried to have a huge block monument of the Ten Commandments placed in front of a courthouse where he presided, but few people remember the story of his monument and how big it was.

It weighs 5,280 pounds or about 500 pounds per commandment, so when he brings this monument to public appearances it needs to be loaded on the back of a flatbed truck. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, “a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one — a five-ton crane/ — buckles visibly under the weight.”

“I know,” as Professor Tom Long writes, “that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion.”

But, I think it makes the perfect point about the way the Ten Commandments have become a heavy burden in our contemporary culture. Every conversation I hear about them has some commentator wagging a finger at another person saying, “thou shalt not!” as if the commandments were created by God to be a check upon the destructive personal behavior of that particular person, rather than being the structure forming and shaping a community of health and well-being. Of course for other folks, the commandments are a legalistic framework to place heavy yokes publicly on the necks of a rebellious children or a society seemingly out of control. I mean listen to the Luther’s Small Catechism, “God threatens to punish everyone who breaks these commandments. We should be afraid of His anger because of this and not violate such commandments.”

I guess all of these understandings of the Decalogue makes a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck a perfect symbol for what the Ten Commandments might be. Especially, since we seem to have forgotten that the Babylonians’ gods were heavy idols that had to be trucked around, “These things you carry,” Isaiah chided the Israelites, “are loaded as burdens on weary animals” (Isa. 46:1).

The problem is that all of the ways we use the Ten Commandments or the ten words as they are referred to in Hebrew scripture fails to recognize they are about liberation and are God’s rule of love. They are given as an expression of God’s liberating the people from slavery out of the love God has for people. Indeed, the reading begins with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” God liberates the Hebrew from slavery, then freely provides them all they need for life, including how to be free as a community of health, well-being, mutuality, loving kindness and wholeness.

God does not intend to re-enslave people with these commands, but to set them free as if to say, “you are free not to need any other gods or even to make 5,280 pound images of God to truck around. You are free to rest on the seventh day because you, your animals, your servants, your land all need rest from productivity, so you can all be healthy and enjoy a long life. You are no longer at the mercy of an oppressor working you to death and you are not something to be used up or consumed until there is nothing left of you. You are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols made of stones or wood; free from solving every problem with violence and you can instead look for ways to solve problems with other people and tribes, so everyone wins and gets what they need for life because there is abundance for all. You are free to find ways to sustain life for yourselves, for neighbors and for all creation. You are free from having to covet what your neighbor has because you both have everything you need for life and, by the way, you are free from having to compare yourself with your neighbor or find your self-worth based upon what your neighbor owns or is able to do because you are loved just as you are and you are free to celebrate other people’s gifts because you have valuable gifts as well.

Or has another theologian has written “You want to make an idol of this God, an image of bird or snake or tree or pole or money or fame or pleasure? This God will have none of that, because this is the God who brought you out of slavery. You want to trivialize the name of this God by slapping the name on to any fool thing you already want to do, thereby baptizing your idiocy with a divine seal of approval, thereby enslaving oneself in the bondage of self-satisfied power. God will have none of that, for that is also a kind of slavery from which you need to be free.”

“God says, I want you free, because I am in the freedom business. All the ways you can imagine to fall back into slavery and death, God is there to call you out to freedom and life, because that is who God is. God is life and freedom. Only the certainty that it is God who has brought us out of the house of slavery and can surely do so again, if we get our relationship to God strong and continuous, can bring us the lasting freedom that we crave.

Not only that, but God’s good news of life should be like music with the Ten Commandments the dance steps that set us moving together, as Tom Long has suggested. They are supposed to be our wings, so we might soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit. This is one of reasons Luther, also, suggested to change the language of the commandments from “thou shalt not” to more positive language that evokes the freedom God and love intends for us to enjoy, so instead of “thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” perhaps ‘find joy in telling the truth, being honest and upholding the goodness and good name of your neighbor as if pronouncing a blessing upon your neighbor.”

Also, if we want to pass this good news of freedom and life to our children, then I think we are going to have to be creative; more creative than hanging the Ten Commandments on a wall, memorizing them in order or hauling them around on a flatbed truck. I suggest we create stories because as Robert Wuthnow writes, “”Stories do more than keep memories alive. Sometimes these stories become so implanted in our minds that they act back upon us, directly and powerfully.”

Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.

This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver, The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said so many years before, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. “You were an idiot “he said to Jack.”You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up1” In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.

This how the commandments are supposed to work, as Tom Long says it, “We have the experience of being cared for, the experience of being set free, preserved in a story. Then, comes the life shaped ethically around that story. A nurse saying “I’ll be right here beside you” becomes the action of a man risking his life for a stranger because he knows in his bones that he just can’t leave him.”

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the house of slavery” prompts us to live lives shaped by the freedom created by that God,” asserts Tom Long.

I gotta believe living in God’s joyous freedom and love of the Ten Commandments is much better than carrying around tons of dreary duty and wondering when the wheels are going to come off the flatbed truck of our lives.

Welcome to the Wilderness

“Welcome to the wilderness,” said the soon to be departing Dean of students at Colgate Rochester Divinity School to all the new seminary students gathered for worship in the Chapel during our first day of seminary.

Little did we know how appropriate that welcome would be, since the wilderness is the place a person enters leaving behind all that came before on the way to a journey to a new place with new relationships and new understandings of who a person or community is and how they are to live.

The wilderness is where the journey through transition takes place, but it can be a scary place and a place where survival is the first priority. That was true for the Hebrews and the other peoples who left Egypt with Moses. Egypt had been the Hebrews settled homeland for centuries where they had lived and thrived as a people, until Pharaoh got scared because they were more numerous than the Egyptians and he thought they might try a regime change by overthrowing him. So, Pharaoh did what every leader who is afraid does, he seeks to destroy his enemies. First, he enslaves the Hebrews, forcing them to work 24/7/365 building pyramids and other public works. Second, he orders Egyptian midwives to kill Hebrew male children, so the Hebrews are forced to intermarry  and have children with Egyptians.

This, of course, prompts the Hebrews to cry out to God, who hears them and answers their prayers by sending them Moses, who battles with pharaoh until pharaoh relents following the death of the first born child of every human and animal, except the Hebrews and those whose doorways were painted with the lamb’s blood, and allows the Hebrews to leave.

Of course, it all seemed wonderful to be leaving behind the life of slavery, oppression and death for a sojourn to the land of promise and abundance and the Hebrews celebrated because being a sojourner, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph meant you were on your way somewhere, on your way to the fulfillment of a promised place and a new life. Sort of like the way every seminary student and every college and high school students feels on the first day of their new adventure. Sort of the way I felt as a child every time my family moved to a new town, new city, new neighborhood, new home, and new school, well not so much the new school.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews joyfulness and positive attitude didn’t last long because they realized this wilderness trek made them less sojourner,  less a resident alien, and more wanderers as they began coping with the stress of not having resources at their disposal like food and water, being out in the heat or the cold, subject to drought or famine and warring peoples, who were suspicious of large tribes of wandering peoples, not to mention not really having the sense of being on a journey toward a destination, but mostly just being out there. Even the word wanderer, according to Walter Brueggemann, suggests precariousness where survival is the key question of each and every day. “Will we survive today? Will we have water and will we have food? Where will it come from?  Israel, Brueggemann writes, experiences the bitterness of being landless, being exposed and helpless, victimized by anything that happened to be threatening them at any given moment. The people may have been on the way somewhere, but it was a dim comprehension of where they were going.

In the wilderness, faith is not easy. Anger and unrest are plentiful and reading Exodus and Numbers give ample voice to the whole menagerie of emotions the Hebrews were experiencing. Their wilderness experience is not really unlike that of our European ancestors, who came to this continent feeling they were on an Exodus journey to a new land God seemed to be promising to them, except upon arrival their fears of the wilderness became real, as they too experienced being in a precarious, frightening situation without resources, being victimized by everything, helpless, vulnerable, exposed and struggling for survival. Our ancestors had no actual experience of wilderness because they came from settled lands and in many cases from large urban centers, so they projected their anxieties about wilderness onto the new land they journeyed to get to. Thus, for our ancestors the wilderness was a place where the devil came to get you, it was unsafe and needed to be tamed and civilized so it might resemble the European culture and society they had left behind, a real re-creation of the good old days. Even the indigenous peoples who lived on the land needed to be conquered, enslaved, tamed or annihilated. Reading colonial era poetry, diaries of early colonial settlers or even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” bears this out.

Curiously enough, congregations in transition feel the same way the Hebrews and our European ancestors felt as they, like the Hebrews, experience wilderness and romanticize the “good old days” while anger, resentments, fear, focusing on survival;  perhaps thinking they are short on resources, and feeling vulnerable, uncertain about where they are going and if they are really going anywhere at all. They feel more like wanderers than sojourners and faith is not easy.

Except, the Israelites were not alone and were not without resources for life because God was with them, leading them, feeding them, giving them water and protecting them, and teaching them how to be a people of compassion, wholeness and well-being. What God was trying to do of course was to mold and shape them into being a particular kind of people. That is, also, what the wilderness experience is about as the desert mothers and fathers called the wilderness the furnace of transformation. The place where all the business and confusion of our lives is burned away, so we might see more clearly how truly important are the choices set before us, choices of life and choices of death. So, we might meet God and gain clarity about what it means to be in a relationship with the divine based on trusting the promises of life God makes with humanity and creation and be transformed by the experience.

This is, also, the lesson Jesus teaches us by his journey into the wilderness furnace of transformation, the first place Jesus goes after his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted by the devil with what Henri Nouwen calls, “the three compulsions of this world: to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be spectacular (throw yourself down), and to be powerful (I will give these kingdoms). It was in this furnace of transformation that Jesus was tempted to turn away from God the way the first generation Hebrew wanderers did, the way our European ancestors did, the way congregations in transition do, but that isn’t what Jesus did. He affirmed God is the only source of life and identity (you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone by serving those whom God loves, which is everyone, especially the least and the lost.) and if one trusts God, then there is no need seeking guarantees that the promises of an abundant life are real, nor is there a need to test God to see if God is really listening and paying attention to us. All a person, a community or a congregation need do is to learn the lessons God is teaching through the stories of the Hebrew wanderers, the story of God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and the Israelites before, during and after exile as well as the stories of Jesus’ life and the life of the early church, being aware as George Herbert wrote in his poem about the Israelites’ struggles to enter the land God promised them, “their story pens and sets us down” which is to say their story claims those who remember it and retell it, marking and shaping all who do so by the same faithfulness of God, which elicits the same response of trust in God as the person, the community or the congregation live authentically their why, their identity as the reason God created them to serve God’s agenda.

I pray it may be so for us claiming to be a compassionate Christian community, fostering a personal connection with God for people of ages and expressing God’s love through worship, education, mission, music and fellowship living in a time of confusion and chaos where the old techniques and ways of doing church no longer work and we feel more like wanderers than sojourning pilgrims.

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