Each week, the Sunday sermon by Rev. David Haley, pastor of Skokie Central Church, will be posted. As the archive of sermons is completed, we will link to the archive from the blog as well.
Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Storm Sunday
Pastor David L. Haley
Job 28: 20 – 27; Psalm 29: Luke 8: 22 – 25
September 18th, 2016
“One day Jesus and his disciples got in a boat. “Let’s cross the lake,” he said. And off they went. It was smooth sailing, and he fell asleep. A terrific storm came up suddenly on the lake. Water poured in, and they were about to capsize. They woke Jesus: “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
Getting to his feet, he told the wind, “Silence!” and the waves, “Quiet down!” They did it. The lake became smooth as glass.
Then he said to his disciples, “Why can’t you trust me?”
They were in absolute awe, staggered and stammering, “Who is this, anyway? He calls out to the winds and sea, and they do what he tells them!” – Luke 8: 22 – 25, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
It was August 28, 1990. After living in the city of Chicago for 11 years, just two months earlier I had arrived in West Chicago, in DuPage County, 30 miles west of Chicago, to begin my tenure as pastor of First United Methodist Church. I was working in my office in the church that afternoon (with its large windows), when the skies began to darken and the wind picked up and rain began to fall in torrents. I still vividly remember thinking, “Wow – I am fair game again!”
What I meant was I believed what many believe, that a tornado will never strike the city of Chicago, due to the disruption of the buildings. In fact, I was wrong about that, because according to Tom Skilling, it happened once, on May 6, 1876, and Tom says it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. Anyway, what I suddenly realized that day was that I was no longer shielded by the city, and fair game for tornadoes one again.
Does anyone remember why that day in particular is significant? That was the day of the F5 tornado that struck Plainfield, Illinois; 19 miles south of where I was sitting. It killed 29 people, injured 353, and caused $165 million dollars in property damage in the space of 30 minutes. To this day, it is the only F5 tornado ever recorded in August and the only F5 tornado ever to strike the Chicago area.
Perhaps this is why that day is still engraved in my memory. Imagine how much more so, for all those in Plainfield that day, who experienced its deadly destruction.
It is our experience with storms of all kinds – thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, hail, hurricanes, tsunamis, and even sandstorms (depending upon where we grew up) – that determines whether we are in awe and fascination of such storms, or scared to death of them, from the first moment clouds gather on the horizon.
I was one of the fearless kind; I loved to be out watching the clouds, feeling the wind blast and the first raindrops, at least until lighting started crashing. I used to work at the Fire Station at the DuPage Airport, which meant we had a mile or so vista to the west, and could watch the clouds and wind and rain roll in, literally like a wall, until it smashed into the west overhead doors, bowing them inwards, shaking the building.
But – like some of you – I have also seen the death and destruction caused by storms. When I was in grade school, a tornado swept through our county, destroying two of my classmates’ homes. Once as a fireman, as a member of a truck company, I helped retrieve off a roof in the middle of a thunderstorm the body of a roofer killed by a lightning. So though I have thankfully escaped myself, I can appreciate how people who have lived through such experiences, who lost homes or loved ones to storms, might understandably be terrified every time clouds gather on the horizon.
In a minor way, I understand that myself. Before I arrived here in Skokie, storms were a time to go to work. The second year after we moved here, during a storm the parsonage storm system failed and water began flooding downstairs, a few inches deep. We later learned the advice given by former pastor Bob Burkhart’s wife, Shirley, which was that every time it rains, put a bowling ball in the toilet! Since that experience, now whenever storms approach, I am filled with anxiety, and the first thing I check is the glowing red light on the sump pump switch, which means it’s working. Of course if the power goes out, I’m going to need that bowling ball. So now I get storm anxiety; pretty much like everyone else who lives in Skokie and most of Chicagoland. How many have experienced basement flooding?
Take our storm anxiety, and imagine how much more it must have been in the ancient world, where people knew nothing about meteorology, had no storm prediction or early warning systems, and were also less protected from the elements. No wonder as they looked up into the sky, experiencing the force of a storm, they viewed them as the vehicle or instruments of the gods, or in the case of the Hebrews, the One God.
For example, in the book of Job, we hear how God:
“gave to the wind its weight,
and meted out the waters by measure;
made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the lightning of the thunder;
that God saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.”
In Psalm 29, the Lord is portrayed as a storm God, with some scholars even suggesting this psalm was originally ascribed to the storm god Baal and later applied to the God of Israel. In Psalm 29, the thunder of the storm is the voice of God. That voice is so powerful it causes waters to rage, the mighty cedars of Lebanon to splinter and the forests to be stripped bare. God’s thundering voice also causes lightning to appear as flashes of fire, a devastating power on Earth, as indeed lightning still is.
Even today, despite our scientific knowledge and understanding of storms as natural phenomena, some people still think of storms in this way, as instruments of God to demonstrate power, to punish and destroy and intimidate us sinful mortals?
For example, in 2015, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council interviewed extreme Messianic Jewish pastor Jonathan Cahn, who suggested that Hurricane Joaquin, which devastated the Bahamas, was a “sign of God’s wrath” against abortion and the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on same-sex marriage. (If this is the case, God missed pretty badly.) Perkins agreed, saying that while “those on the left like to mock these things,” American leaders have historically viewed hurricanes as signs that “God is trying to send us a message.”
This year, however, it’s a different story. In the recent Louisiana flooding, Perkins and his family had to escape their Louisiana home in a canoe, and – like many others – are living in a trailer for six months while their home is under repair. Would it be fair to ask what the message is? I’m not saying this is good in any way; I’m only cautioning we all need to be careful when we attribute moral messages to natural phenomena, especially when we want to apply it to others, but not so much to ourselves.
Of course it is understandable that after every natural disaster where people – possibly people we love – die, we should not only ask “Why?” but “Why me?” trying to find some kind of meaning in it, whether rational or spiritual. And yet, as much as we might want an answer, sometimes the only answer is that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, storms are natural meteorological disturbances that have rolled across the planet before humans even existed. When we build our houses in their paths (which could be anywhere), both homes and human lives are in danger. That’s why it’s always important to heed the warnings given, do all we can to rescue those in danger, and – failing the first two – aiding and assisting the victims of natural disaster.
We especially do this as Christians because the God revealed to us in the Gospels, in the life of Jesus Christ, is not a storm King, not a God of thundering power. The God revealed in Jesus does not blast away the evils of Earth with hurricanes and tornadoes and fires, nor does he strike the crowd taunting Jesus at the cross with bolts of lightning.
Rather, the God revealed in Jesus suffers for and with God’s people. Rather than riding the wind, this God revealed in Jesus is riding the waves with the victims of the storm, with his disciples in the boat but also with the fathers and mothers and children in the tsunami and the hurricane and the tornado. Jesus does not call down the storm; he calms a stormy sea. His role is to save lives and heal creation.
Even though storms are integral to the weather patterns of our planet and we as mortal creatures are subject to them, it is also clear that global warming and other human-related factors are making them worse, intensifying their frequency and severity, like the recent historic Louisiana flood, in which they experienced two feet of rain in 72 hours. Amid these ecological storms, could it be that the God we know in Christ is summoning us to calm the climate storms that threaten us, and to heal the people and creatures crushed by human greed and environmental pollution? Who else is going to do it?
Do you remember the story about the man in the flood, who climbed onto his roof and prayed to God to save him? As it began to rain, a rescuer came in a pick-up truck, which the man turned down, because he was waiting for God to save him. As the waters rose, rescuers came in a boat, but again the man turned them down. Finally, as the waters reached the roof, a helicopter came, but again he turned them down. The man drowned. He stood before God in heaven and said, “God I was waiting for you to save me, how come you let me drown?” God says, “Well, I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter, but you refused them. What else could I do?”
After the Plainfield Tornado, the people of Plainfield erected a Memorial not only to those who died that day, but to those who helped them in their time of need. It looks like this, and the inscription says:
“Thousands of volunteers came forward after the tornado and helped this area with its immediate needs and long-term recovery. We salute their spirit with this memorial. We will be eternally grateful for their helping hands.”
Where is God in the storm? God is not in the storm, but with the victim, and in the rescuer, and in all those who offer aid and assistance in every way. In the name of God, let us be among them. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Flora & Fauna Sunday
Pastor David L. Haley
Job 39: 1–12, 26-30; Psalm 104: 1, 14–23, 31;
Luke 12: 22-31
September 11th, 2016
“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfill,
and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.
“Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
to which I have given the steppe for its home,
the salt land for its dwelling place?
It scorns the tumult of the city;
it does not hear the shouts of the driver.
It ranges the mountains as its pasture,
and it searches after every green thing.
“Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will it spend the night at your crib?
Can you tie it in the furrow with ropes,
or will it harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on it because its strength is great,
and will you hand over your labor to it?
Do you have faith in it that it will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor?
“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey;
its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there it is.”
– Job 39: 1 – 12, 26 – 30, the New Revised Standard Version
About a month ago, my Uncle Charles died at the age of 83. If there is anything I learned from my Uncle Charles, it is an appreciation of nature, and especially flora and fauna, plants and animals.
I don’t know how it happened, but my Uncle Charles loved exotic creatures, particularly birds. While other people had dogs and cats, cows and chickens, we had peacocks; one nested in a dead tree behind our house every night. Other pets included not just dogs and cats, but snakes and lizards and an iguana. Somehow Uncle Charles once came home with white and blue herons (don’t ask!), which he recruited my cousin and me in feeding. What this meant was we spent part of our summer days wading through creeks, seining minnows and fish, which we fed to the herons. Boy did they have a great life! I never see a wading bird in a lake but what I don’t remember that.
Today, in our celebration of the second Sunday of the Season of Creation, we remember the Fauna and Flora of the earth, all the plants and animals, with whom we share our planet. Where do we even begin?
As I was looking for graphics today, I was overwhelmed, because there are so many. What should I show you? Playful pandas in bamboo forests? “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night,” as the poet William Blake put it? Majestic elephants? Lions, king of the jungle? Wildebeest, as someone once said, which God made of parts left over? Dolphins? Whales? Eagles? And what about plants? Orchids? Rain-forests? Lilies? Roses? As one who came late to the botanical world, with a botany course in college, you flower-and-plant lovers will have to pardon my preference for fauna rather than flora.
Please note that I am also purposely ignoring snakes and spiders and such insects as mosquitoes, not my favorite part of creation. And who would want to have T-Rex’s still wandering around, even though some who still believe Adam and Eve rode them to church. Maybe there was no way for God to create the good without the bad; or maybe God just loved creating, and let it go in all directions. After all, how would you explain and defend an aardvark?
I am thankful that in my life – like some of you – these are not creatures I have seen pictures of in books. I have seen mountain gorillas in the Congo. I have seen lions and giraffes and elephants and wildebeest on the Serengeti. I have seen dolphins and whales in the oceans, and eagles soaring in the skies of the Boundary Waters. If you have had such experiences, you know the feeling of awe and humility it gives, that we our fragile creatures sharing the planet with them. Can we even imagine living in a world without such beautiful, awesome creatures?
Before I go on to talk about theology or science, or the perils the flora and fauna on our planet are facing, I want to go one step further about our favorite fauna on earth, our pets.
Even though you may appreciate and respect them, you may not feel that endeared to elephants and rain-forests and gorillas and stink plants and pandas and bamboo forests; after all, most of them would eat us or swallow us up without feeling. But who here has never loved and been loved by a dear pet, like a dog or cat, or iguana or goldfish, as the case may be?
I would have to say that, as children, there may not be anything that teaches us more about life and the mortality of all living things, including the life lessons of emotional attachment and grief, than pets. We get so attached to them; I have always felt it is one of life’s greatest injustices that we should live so long, and they so briefly. Why should God give a turtle a hundred years, and a dog or cat a mere 15? What’s up with that?
Growing up, we had dogs (I’m not sure cats would have stooped to live with us), but we also lived on a busy highway. Inevitably, the dogs would get hit by cars, which of course ripped our hearts out. After awhile, you get where you don’t want another dog, because it was too painful to lose them. I can’t help but wonder whether – especially when it happens at an early age – that this transfers over to our relationships with people? On the other hand, handled well, such life lessons with pets can teach us about the inevitable reality of love and loss and grief as humans, including with those we love the most. (Perhaps it’s time to go on to other things, before we all start crying . . .)
So let’s talk about the theology of our relationship with all creatures; that ought to dry any tears. Today we heard from the Old Testament, God’s interrogation of Job, a text likely older than Genesis, asking Job if he knew the intimate secrets of nature, such as the mountain goats and wild ass and ox and the hawks and eagles, implying of course not, not as God their Creator knows. We read Psalm 104, a song of praise to God – O my God how great you are! – especially as reflected in nature, including mighty Leviathan the whale, right down to the tiniest sparrow. We heard Jesus teaching us how to live, by looking to nature: consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Perhaps we should do more of this, including in church, since Jesus told us to. Perhaps you have heard of the Buddha’s famous Flower Sermon, when one day the Buddha gave a wordless sermon to his disciples, by simply holding up a white flower. No one understood except one of Buddha’s disciples, who subtly smiled, signifying the transmission of wisdom without words, simply by beholding a flower.
What we did not read today at is the Genesis account of creation, which – if it does not tell us how – tells us why we are related to all creatures. Really, there are two creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and if we summarize, there are three major points: (1) God was the Creator of all things; (2) humans and plants and animals were created out of the earth; indeed, that is Adam’s real name (‘Adam is also the masculine form of the word adamah, which means “ground” or “earth” or “clay”). And (3) according to the Genesis account, God intended humans to be “caretakers” of this beautiful garden, with all its plants and animals, with which the Lord has entrusted us. We’ve not done a very good job, have we?
Without the theological overtones, science tells us a similar but different story, not only in theory, but through archaeology and chemistry and even DNA mapping. Science tells us that all life came from a single origin, evolving through billions of years, with all living things united in biochemistry, but different in complexity and diversity.
One significant difference is that while – in the Genesis account – we see ourselves as the stars of the show, toward which all creation is leading and around which it is centered; in reality we it remains to be seen whether we humans are a work in progress, or dead-enders, who foul our own nest and finally do ourselves in. Maybe dinosaurs felt they were pretty cool, too. In the long term, it remains to be seen whether cockroaches will succeed us all. And then where will all our theology be?
BTW, if you are interested in exploring this further, on Monday evening, September 19th, at the Skokie Public Library, from 7 to 8:30 pm, there will be a conversation moderated by my colleague Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler, entitled, “Where Do We Come From? Religious and Evolutionary Perspectives.” It is presented as a part of the library’s current series, “Exploring Human Origins.” And to think that I thought I came from Kentucky!
To return to our assigned role as caretakers of the planet and the flora and fauna in it, how are we doing? Not too good. According to the UN Environment Program, the Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the “natural” or “background” rate and, say many biologists, is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65m years ago.
The World Wildlife Fund lists 19 critically endangered species, included gorillas, orangutans, and tigers; 45 species that are endangered, including elephants, whales, chimpanzees; and 10 species that are near-threatened, like the tuna, monarch butterfly. Might the threat to the creatures, like bees, for example, be like the parakeet in the coal mine: if they go, then how long do we have before we do too? (www.worldwildlife.org)
While there are many examples I could use to illustrate the plight of the world’s wildlife, here’s one: In Kenya, in east Africa, three rhinos graze on the grassland of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Most of the world knows that the rhinoceros is threatened, but these animals are in another class. They are the last three northern white rhinos on the planet. None of the three of them are capable of breeding, so the Northern White, which once roamed Africa by the thousands, is in effect extinct. The three rhinos – named Sudan, Najin, and Fatu, are the last of their kind. Isn’t that just so sad?
Soon, a group of scientists from the US, Germany, and Japan will attempt what has never been attempted before: to rescue the northern white from extinction by removing the last eggs from the two females and then – using advanced reproductive techniques – including stem cell technology and IVF, create embryos that could be carried to term by surrogate rhino mothers. It this succeeds, it would be a first, but a technique that might be used to rescue some of earth’s other threatened species. (www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/14/northern-white-rhino-bid-to-save-extinction-threat#img-1)
Given this, what can we do about it? First, we can join such organizations as the World Wildlife Federation or the Sierra Club, through which we can become informed and active, making a difference before it’s too late.
Second, we can travel responsibly, by choosing travel agencies that contribute to endangered species protection and causes, not simply treating them as existing for our sport or entertainment.
As I said before, to see such magnificent creatures in the wild is one of the greatest experiences of life, increasing our respect and gratitude not only for them, for our own lives, as one of God’s creatures.
Thirdly, without traveling to exotic places, what we can do in our own backyard is this: be mindful, of the plants and animals that grow there. I would invite you to come and see the beautiful goldfinches whose ecological niche are the daisies that grow in our backyard. It’s not hard to imagine Jesus standing there and saying, “Consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.” Stop, look, and listen, for even in the city, flora and fauna are all around us, waiting to make us appreciative and grateful of God’s wonderful creation.
Just last night, for example, taking my own advice, around 9 pm, I went outside, to take a look at the moon and the sky. I looked over toward our Log Cabin, and here came a big opossum walking down the walk. Just as on cue!
So I guess that even though I didn’t know at the time, what a gift it was from my Uncle Charles to grow up with a peacock in the backyard. It was a portent of things to come, of how I would one day travel the world seeing some of God’s most magnificent creatures, and eventually stand here before you, asking you to do the same. Because out there in the world, among God’s flora and fauna, there is more beauty and wonder than we can even imagine.
As Cecil Francis Alexander put it:
“All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
the Lord God made them all”
Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Ocean Sunday
Pastor David L. Haley
Job 38: 1 – 18; Psalm 104: 24 -34; Luke 5: 1 – 11
September 4th, 2016
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal, and it is dyed like a garment.
Light is withheld from the wicked, and their uplifted arm is broken.
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this. – Job 38: 1 – 18, New Revised Standard Version
Today as I talk about oceans, let me be the first to admit I am out of my depth. As a boy growing up in Kentucky, in the middle of the country, the first ocean I saw was the Pacific, when I was 20 years old and spent a summer in California. For the first time in my life I tasted the salt water and felt the force of the waves, and I have loved the ocean ever since, trying to visit as often as I can.
Those of you who grew up near an ocean likely have such love for the sea as well, but an equal mixture of awe and respect, which all of us have to learn. For example, on a trip to Kenya in Africa, I rode the train from Nairobi to Mombasa, on the coast. Dying to get into the water, I waded out until I was up to my chest, put my goggles on, and dove in. I found myself face-to-face with a large tiger moray eel. I stood back up and thought, “Maybe I ought to learn more about this before I jump in.”
In subsequent years, I went scuba diving in Cozumel, and gained an even greater appreciation of the world beneath the surface, of which most of us have little appreciation or knowledge. There, on the edge of the reef, at about 100 feet depth, you could look down into the dark blue abyss of the deep. Most of us have come to appreciate the wonders of the ocean just by walking along the beach, but there is oh so much more beneath the surface, a deep and deadly wonderland we know little about.
Indeed, all of us who have experienced the ocean – the sea breeze, the sight and sound of the crashing surf, the feel of the sand beneath our feet, the salty taste of the water, the frightening ease with which those waves can toss you around – all who have experienced this will know that anything and everything I say today is nothing compared to that experience. There is something about that experience that stimulates feelings very deep and primal in us.
When we read the Bible, we get the sense that our ancestors were as awed and as scared of the oceans as we are. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the creation of the world is expressed in mythological terms: the earth was formless and void (tohu wu bohu) are the Hebrew words) and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God (literally “wind from God”) brooded over the face of the waters. And God began to create, dividing the waters, until finally, in verses 20- 23:
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.”
In most ancient understandings, the realms of nature were under the control of gods (as for, example, in ancient Greece, Neptune was the god of the sea) and part of that understanding is present here. What the Hebrews were claiming is that their God – Yahweh, the one God, Creator of all – was greater than all those lessor gods. Even so, there was always a war between deities going on, and that is why there are such verses – as in Psalm 29:
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
As far as I can tell, the Hebrews were afraid of the seas, perhaps that is why they were never a sea-faring people like the Phoenicians (the sea peoples) or the Greeks. The Hebrews were not the only ones to fear the seas: up until the invention of modern air transportation, seafaring explorers and sailors often feared for their lives, describing monstrous storms at sea at which they feared for their lives. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was one of them; it even played an instructive role in his spiritual life. (And of course, let’s not forget the Titanic or Gilligan’s Island!)
Isn’t it interesting, that even according to a modern scientific understanding, the seas were most likely the primordial soup, leading to the birth of those organic compounds that – over the course of billions of years – would lead to life on the planet? Did you know that one theory why we humans are the only hairless ape (relatively speaking) is that our primordial ancestors may have lived for a time in an aquatic environment. Could that still be why the seas and oceans have such a fascination and attraction to us, because they literally are in our DNA?
What is the status of the world’s seas and oceans? The oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the Earth’s water. Less than 1% of the Earth’s water is fresh water, and another 2 to 3% is contained in glaciers and ice caps. In an amazing number, the oceans contain 99 percent of the living space on the whole planet; just not for us, unless you have gills and fins.
As we should all know by now, despite their enormity and importance to the planet, earth’s oceans and the life in them is endangered by the irresponsible actions of one Homo Sapiens (often more unwise than wise.) I did not have the time to do the research I wished, but global warming is leading not only to a rise in atmospheric temperature, but also ocean temperature, leading to a host of ominous consequences, such as a rise in ocean levels, which could lead to massive population migration. (If I were you, I wouldn’t be buying any beachfront property.) A rise in ocean temperatures has also led to changes in aquatic environments and migration of species, like whales for example, but also toxic algae blooms along coastal areas, deadly to both aquatic life and humans.
Another global danger to the oceans is pollution, not only from petroleum or toxic chemical spills by corporations, but through such things we contribute daily such as plastic or non-biodegradable material, which gets washed down rivers and streams into the ocean, where it accumulates. For example, did you know there is one called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive dump of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean, parts of which are said to be twice the size of the state of Texas. If you are interested in finding out more about how our oceans are endangered, there are far more resources online.
The last thing I want to talk about in regard to oceans and seas is that while we may be at the same time both attracted to and fearful of them, even though we are distant from them, they still serve powerfully as metaphors of our spiritual lives.
Think of all the Scriptures in which the seas and sea imagery plays a role: from the opening verses of Genesis, to the escape of the Israelites from the Egyptians through the Red Sea, to such psalms as Psalm 130 (Out of the depths, O Lord, I call to you), to the story of Jonah and the whale, a Sunday School favorite. And let’s not forget all those stories about Jesus as Lord of Nature and Master of the Sea, even though it was no ocean but a rather small sea at that, the Sea of Galilee. Even though today you see more windsurfers than fishing boats, even that small sea was a metaphor of raging winds and tossing waves, threatening to overwhelm Jesus’ disciples if not for Jesus’ intervention. And also of him also always knowing – to their consternation and amazement – where the fish were, and thus where the best place to throw the nets was. Like those incompetent fishermen who were his disciples, we’re been throwing the nets on the wrong side for a long time now, and even though we’ve never done it that way before, maybe it’s time to throw them on the other side.
Even watching the waves is not only comforting to the soul but enlightening, as to the spiritual nature of life. Like a molecule of water rising and falling with each passing wave, the molecule of water is not destroyed, it only becomes a part of another wave. As the French philosopher, theologian, paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Much like that drop of water in the wave.
My favorite yet is the meditation attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:
Her heart is full of joy with love
For in the Lord her mind is stilled.
She has renounced every selfish attachment
And draws abiding joy and strength
From the One within.
She lives not for herself, but lives
to serve the Lord of Love in all,
And swims across the sea of life
Breasting its rough waves joyfully.
Don’t you love that image? It is one of my favorites. We are like surfers, entering the waves. Along comes a massive wave, and – what do we do? – we jump to break through it with our chest. Says Teresa – who must have gone surfing somewhere, sometime – this is what we do we do in life, as it throws its massive waves at us: “We swim across the sea of life, breasting its rough waves joyfully.”
We have come from the ocean, and whether we love earth’s seas and oceans or fear them, they are a vital and beautiful part of our planet. Let us care for them and learn from them, as they teach us about God our Creator and ourselves as God’s creatures. Want to play with Leviathan, anyone?
Central United Methodist Church
Mind Your Manners
Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
Pastor David L. Haley
August 28th, 2016
“One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move.
He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.
“When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God’s people.” (Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)
Etiquette: what is the state of it today? Where I grew up, we didn’t know it as etiquette, a word borrowed from the French, which is ironic that we should borrow such a word from a people who resisted bathtubs and invented perfume as a substitute. Instead of etiquette, we knew it more simply as manners, as in “Mind your manners,” which assumed that we had some to begin with. Although I was taught some manners, I can’t say Emily Post was a standard reference in our house.
Briefly defined, etiquette is “a code of behavior that defines expectation for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or group.” Given this, what is right and polite changes according to time and place.
Since they change over time, it has always been the job of older generations to lament a lack of manners among the young. As one elder put it: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” That was Socrates, in 4th century B.C.E. Greece. Substitute “devices” in place of “chatter,” and it would fit today. Although I have to say I was impressed recently when I said “Thank you,” to a young woman, and instead of responding with the usual “No problem,” she said, “My pleasure.” Let’s hope this catches on!
Perhaps no place are manners (or the lack of them) more observable than at the dinner table: whether we eat alone or together, who sits where, when to eat and when to wait, which spoon or fork to use or the rudeness of using none at all, and now – when to put the iPhone away.
If that isn’t difficult enough – as I noted before – all these rules also vary according to place. In France, you sit so close to strangers it is unsettling, especially for us Americans who love our space. In China, I looked around to see how people eat shrimp with shells and head on; the answer is not with chopsticks, but with your fingers. In India, you only eat with your right hand, the left is used for personal hygiene. I’m sure, you could tell me many more, from where you grew up. Not knowing what the table manners are in any particular place, how are we to know other than by observing?
Such observation is exactly what is going on in the Gospel of Luke today, when Jesus is invited out to eat. Not only were they watching his every move, he was also observing them.
As we have seen over and again in the Gospel, the everyday activity of home and marketplace, farm and fishing boat provided Jesus not only insights into people’s character, but also opportunities to reveal life in God’s kingdom. Nowhere was this more true than around a dining table.
In Jesus’ world, table fellowship was laden with religious, social, and economic meaning. And so Jesus used such times to clarify kingdom etiquette; how we should behave in the Kingdom of God, not a kingdom to come but here on earth right now. And so Jesus has lessons for guests and lessons for hosts, which – at one time or another – all of us are.
When we are guests, whether in God’s house or someone else’s house, the appropriate virtue is humility. When Jesus observed people jockeying for the best seats at the head table, he warned them of the risks of inflated ambition. In a shame/honor culture such as theirs was, there was considerable risk/reward either way. The status and rank of individuals is legitimated by their inclusion on the guest list and their location on the seating chart. So how embarrassing would it be to sit at the front and be publicly called out. Instead of “moving on up,” you’d be “moving on back.”
As Jesus put it: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Eugene Peterson renders it this way: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
As for us, we may know such exaltation/deflation more from airline seating than lavish banquets. Father Dan Costello is the pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church here in Skokie. When we had our Thanksgiving Eve Service here at Central 2 years ago, Dan – who was our preacher – shared a story about getting on a plane. Being a priest, he hinted to the stewardess as he boarded how wonderful an upgrade would be, you know, for a man of the cloth. So he was thrilled when she came back a few minutes later invited him to first class, but less than thrilled when she added, “We’re having some weight distribution problems with the plane, and we’d like you up front to even it out.” I’ve rarely heard more prolonged laughter in our sanctuary. “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Done with the appetizers, Jesus now turns to the entrée, a word to the hosts of the dinner; which – as a church and as families and as individuals, we are. In this case, the recommended kingdom virtue is not reciprocity (what they can do for us in return), but hospitality:
“The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God’s people.”
According to Jesus, both synagogue and church are constitutionally committed to the care of the poor and the disabled. However, please note that here, Jesus is not calling us to provide for the needs of the poor and disabled, as he is calling us to invite them to dinner and eat with them. Nor does it mean sending food to someone; rather it means host and guest eating together. In God’s kingdom, the clearest sign of acceptance, of recognizing others as equals, of heart-to-heart fellowship, is eating together. Do you suppose Jesus was serious about opening church halls, homes, even our hearts in this way?
I’m still learning. A week ago Saturday, Mae texted me to say someone was coming to my door. I thought it was her, so I was surprised when I opened the door and a man was standing, there, a fast and loud talking man who greeted me like an old friend. He said his father lived on the corner, named his name, said I’d probably seen him out walking the dog. While I’m racking my brain, he said that his father had had a stroke and was in the hospital, could I do him a favor. I’m thinking he wants me to go see him, but he says that his car has been towed, they want $120 and they only take cash, and he’s got $100, could I loan him $20. Soon as he gets his car and goes to the ATM, he’ll pay me back (those words again) in an hour. Guess what, I’m still waiting! Did I show hospitality, or was I just scammed? That’s grace, says Jesus. Giving to people, even invited them to dinner, when you know they can’t pay you back. After all, isn’t that what God has done for us?
So what starts out as a breach of etiquette at a dinner party ends up as an agenda for radical spiritual and social change, initiated by God, modeled by Jesus. Jesus’ word still speaks clearly to a world, to a church, and to us as individuals, as an enduring vision of God’s Kingdom, of life the way God desire it to be.
Long before I went into the ministry, a movie which had an impact upon me was the 1955 movie, “A Man Called Peter,” the story of Scots immigrant Peter Marshall, who was the Pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. from 1937 to 1949, until his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 46. Can you believe there was a time when they made movies about preachers?
One of his sermons which I read afterwards is a sermon called, “By Invitation of Jesus,” based upon this text, which I’ve never forgotten. In this sermon, Marshall imagined a rich man in Washington who read this text, and decided to put it into action. So he had a card made which read:
Jesus of Nazareth
Requests the honor of your presence
at a banquet honoring
The Sons of Want
on Friday evening, in a home on Massachusetts Avenue
Cars will await you at the Central Union Mission
at six o’clock
When the time, came he sent cars to the Mission, to pick them up: the unshaven, the disabled, the hungry and homeless. Once they arrived, the host stood and said, “My friends, let us ask the blessing.”
“If this is pleasing to Thee, O Lord, bless us as we sit around this table, and bless the food that we are about to receive. “Bless these men. You know who they are, and what they need. And help us to do what you want us to do. Accept our thanks, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
As they ate – for they were hungry – their host looked around and reflected what an amazing thing it was that he didn’t know the name of a single man! His guests had no credentials, no social recommendations, no particular graces – so far as he could see.
As he sat there, the stories in the Gospels kept coming back to him, and he could almost imagine that the house was one in Jerusalem. It seemed to him that these men would be the very ones that Jesus would have gathered around Him – the legion of the world’s wounded, the fraternity of the friendless, pieces of broken human earthenware.
After the meal was over, someone came in and sat down at the piano, and they begin to sing, old favorites, men who had not sung for months. After the singing, the host said
“I know you men are wondering what all this means. I can tell you very simply. But, first, let me read you something.” He read from the Gospels stories of One who moved among the sick, the outcasts, the despised and the friendless, how He healed this one, cured that one, spoke kindly words of infinite meaning to another, how He visited the ostracized, and what He promised to all who believed in Him.
“Now I haven’t done much tonight for you, but it has made me very happy to have you here in my home. I hope you have enjoyed it half as much as I have. If I have given you one evening of happiness, I shall be forever glad to remember it, and you are under no obligation to me. This is not my party. It is His! I have merely lent Him this house. He was your Host. He is your Friend. And He has given me the honor of speaking for Him. “He wants you all to have a good time. He is sad when you are. He hurts when you do. He weeps when you weep. He wants to help you, if you will let Him.
“I’m going to give each of you His Book of Instructions. I have marked certain passages in it that you will find helpful when you are sick and in pain when you are lonely and discouraged, when you are blue and bitter and hopeless and when you lose a loved one. He will speak a message of hope and courage and faith.
“Then I shall see each one of you tomorrow where I saw you today, and we’ll have a talk together to see just how I can help you most.”
When they had gone, the man sat again by the fire and looked at the dying embers, until the feeling became overwhelming again that there was Someone in the room. He could never tell anyone how he knew this, but he knew that He was smiling and that He approved. And that night, on Massachusetts Avenue, a rich man smiled in his sleep. And one who stood in the shadows smiled too, because some of the least of these had been treated like brothers for His sake.” (Peter Marshall, “By Invitation of Jesus, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master: Sermons and prayers of Peter Marshall, 1973)
To “mind our manners,” what are we supposed to do? In this case, let’s not look around us, but to these words of Jesus, and then we shall know what to do. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
The Problem with a Partial View
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 13: 10 – 17
August 21st, 2016
“Jesus was teaching in one of the meeting places on the Sabbath. There was a woman present, so twisted and bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up. She had been afflicted with this for eighteen years. When Jesus saw her, he called her over. “Woman, you’re free!” He laid hands on her and suddenly she was standing straight and tall, giving glory to God.
The meeting-place president, furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the congregation, “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.”
But Jesus shot back, “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”
When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and redfaced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” – Luke 13: 10 – 17, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
As an entrance to today’s story of the “Woman Bent Over,” I would like to use an idea suggested by Alyce McKenzie, Professor of worship and preaching at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Professor McKenzie has suggested that one way to think about the “Woman Bent Over,” is as a woman with a “partial view.”*
All of us who are theater or concert goers and especially Cub fans know what I mean by a “partial” or “obstructed” view. Week after next, my son Chris and his family are coming to visit and in the tradition of my baseball-loving family, 3 generations of Haley’s are going to a Cubs game. As you know, with the Cubs doing well right now tickets are ridiculously expensive, and I agonized to find a balance between decent seats and reasonable price, especially when one of us – at 4 1/2 years old – is likely to lose interest before the end of one inning. My concern is that I am going to discover I have bought seats with a “partial” view, meaning one of Wrigley Field’s support pillars will be between me and home plate. How can I yell at the umpire, if I am as blind as he? In the old days you could always start in at partial view seats and later move to more “front row” seats, but now they don’t allow that anymore.
On the other hand, sometimes “partial view” seats can be a good deal. When Michele and I go to see Chanticleer at Fourth Presbyterian Church each December, our choice seats are the reduced price balcony seats, which – though they are partial view – are so close that the sound is excellent. Who needs to SEE singers sing, as long as you can HEAR them sing?
Understanding this concept of “partial view,” we can appreciate the plight of this poor woman in the synagogue, who – due to her physical condition AND resulting social status – was restricted to a partial view, not just occasionally, but ALL the time.
Reflecting the understanding of the time, the text uses the strange expression “spirit of infirmity,” interpreting her condition to be a physical effect of a demonic power. In reality, who knows whether it was a congenital deformity, degenerative arthritis, the result of back-breaking labor, or even physical abuse. I have seen – in Africa and India – women like that, bent over carrying heavy loads on their backs, which over time takes its toll on your body.
Whatever it was in this unnamed woman’s case, it controls her, burdens her, bends her like a human pretzel, and blocks her. Such that for 18 years this unnamed woman must strain to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For 18 years she has been accustomed to looking down or slightly ahead but never up, not without difficulty. For 18 years her world has consisted of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with a glance. For 18 years she has lived a life with a partial view.
Though the text doesn’t say so – given what people believed then – that physical infirmity was connected to moral and spiritual failure – quite likely her condition also relegated her to a back seat in the synagogue as well, perhaps behind a wall or a pillar. After all, women couldn’t worship with men (as they still can’t in orthodox synagogues or mosques), and her physical condition likely made her more marginal, easy to exclude and ignore.
Given the woman’s status, don’t you find it incredibly revealing that out of all the people there that day, Jesus sees her, calls to her, invites her to come to him? She does not approach Jesus nor make any request of him; nor does Jesus say anything about repentance or faith. All Jesus says, is: “Woman, you’re free!” The text said he laid his hands on her; how do you think he did that? Do you think he put his hands on her back, or do you think he got down on the floor on his knees, to look her in the face, the only way she’d easily be able to see him?
Suddenly, the woman stood up straight and tall, giving glory to God. The Greek word for “raise up” is also used for the rebuilding of a house. That is what Jesus does; he raises people up, restoring them to their original beauty. She must have felt like I feel in the morning when I get the kinks out of my back and stand up straight, although I can’t say I always remember to give God the glory. Not only was her posture changed, but also her perspective on life: “Thanks and glory be to God!”
Truth be told, most of us thank God alright, we thank God we’re not like that poor woman. But if not physically deformed, don’t many of us feel like we are bent out of shape? That the burdens we bear in our hearts and minds, show in our bent backs and furrowed faces. Like this poor woman, we too, need to hear the word of Jesus: “Stand up straight and be free!”
And what of those who may be deformed or disabled in body or mind, or – if not deformed or disabled – still know the pain of being marginalized and alone. As often the case, do we exclude and avoid them out of our own fear and anxiety, or do we do as Jesus did to this woman: acknowledge them and pay extra special attention to them, treating them with compassion and respect, even if it means we have to deform ourselves, and get down – as Jesus may have done – on our hands and knees.
You’d think everyone there would have been thrilled at this miraculous turn of events; after all, they were in a synagogue, where a woman was praising God after being miraculously healed after 18 years of suffering. Who could have a problem with that?
Well, it turns out there was one (there always is), the leader of the synagogue, who as it turns out is a poster child for people with a partial view. (Did you see the picture I posted in the weekly email, by the Rev. Glenda Skinner-Noble, an ordained Elder in the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church: “Jesus, The Woman Bent Over, and the Leader of the Synagogue as painter Edward Munch’s ‘The Screamer.'”) If you think the woman had a partial view due to her physical condition, he had an even worse one due to his limited perspective, his tunnel vision. Even though a woman who had suffered for 18 years was miraculously healed, his problem with it was not that it happened in synagogue, but that it happened on the Sabbath. It was a scheduling problem (as if you can schedule a miracle). “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath,” he said. Makes you wonder if there was a sign on the wall, saying: “No Healing Here, sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.”
In some ways, we get it, don’t we? After all, for those of us who try to follow the rules, keeping the Sabbath is one of the 10 commandments, or at least it used to be, before malls were open and school sports were scheduled on Sunday. While we may barely observe it at all, we should remember some still take this rule very seriously. When we were in Jerusalem a few years ago, driving a rental car, it was important to not to accidentally drive into Mea Shearim, a haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood on the Sabbath, unless you want to literally be stoned. (Don’t want to take your rental car back in that condition!) Even here in Skokie you see them, observant Jews walking to temple on the Sabbath. Sometimes – when I see them – it makes me feel irreligious.
Rules are important, but sometimes – for the greater good – rules must be broken. The trick is the moral discernment to know when to FOLLOW rules, but also when to BREAK rules; again, for a greater good.
For this, Jesus had not a partial view, as did the woman and the leader of the synagogue, but a FRONT ROW SEAT. For Jesus, the rules of the Mosaic Law and the Jewish social holiness code were important; after all, he was an observant Jew in a synagogue on the Sabbath. But in the end, this was what made him trans-formative: all those laws were subordinate to the greater VALUES of justice and mercy. So if helping a stooped woman in synagogue on a Sabbath creates a crisis, then crisis it has to be.
And so he says to the protesting synagogue leader, in a “play on words” which Eugene Peterson captures:
“You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”
I like how Eugene Peterson translates what happens next: “When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and red-faced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” What the text does not say is this: at the end of this story, the woman walks out of the synagogue erect, dignified, and joyful, to the cheers of the crowd.
Let’s face it, all of us have a partial view, and we should acknowledge that. We are products of our upbringing, our history, our culture, even our white privilege; we are also sometimes victims of our own pessimism and cynicism. Sometimes we get stuck in the rules, so stuck in the tall grass that we fail to see the amazing things God is doing in the “BIG PICTURE,” right before our eyes.
So today – through what we have learned from this story, let us move – even if a few rows at a time – from partial view seats to front row seats with Jesus.
- Even though people are imperfect, poor, rude, rough, and sometimes even objectionable, Jesus receives them.
- Even though people are on the fringes of society, even though they are non-elite/working people, or foreigners ordinarily avoided, Jesus receives them.
- No matter their background or status, Jesus receives them with the same equanimity, respect, and concern.
And so Jesus notices this woman and respects her, he deals with her tenderly and lovingly. He summons her out of the isolation into which she has withdrawn, out of a sense of shame, and sets her free – both physically and spiritually – such that she stands upright and praises God.
So it turns out – for Jesus and for Luke and for us – that the best way to celebrate the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day – is to raise up men and women to their original form, to delight in our divine dignity and to praise God, the creator of human dignity. When we do this, we all go on way more upright.
So it turns out, a partial view seat might not be the best bargain after all. Not when it obstructs our view of God’s desire that all God’s children be restored to dignity and community, whatever day of the week it is.
*Alyce M. McKenzie, “Partial View Seats: Reflections on Luke 13:10-17,” Edgy Exegesis, August 15, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Partial-View-Seats-Alyce-McKenzie-08-16-2013
Central United Methodist Church
Fire on the Earth
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 12: 49 – 56
August 14th, 2016
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
“father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12: 49 – 56, the New Revised Standard Version
Fire? Did Jesus say fire? How have I missed this before? I know something about fire; no wonder it caught my attention.
My guess is that – for most of us – as we look back at our lives, we shake our heads in wonder at the twists and turns they make, which – in retrospect – seem providential. That’s the case with me and fire.
One of those twists and turns for me was a day in the late eighties, when I was pastor of Berry Memorial UMC in Lincoln Square in Chicago, living on Winnemac Street. One day my son Chris – around 6 years old at the time – came in the house and said, “Dad, there’s a fire out back.” I went out to look, and sure enough, one house away across the alley, the rear stairs of a two flat were on fire. We called 911 and heard the siren of Engine 110 on Foster Avenue start toward us, about 6 blocks away. Soon there were engines, trucks, and fire hoses all over the street. And there was also a guy standing there in a white coat and fire helmet, with a cross on the front. It was Father Tom Mulcrone, the Chicago Fire Chaplain. I thought, “They have people who do that?” I decided if I ever moved out to the suburbs, I would do that. And so, in 1990, when I moved to West Chicago, I did that, and have been doing it ever since, now as the fire Chaplain in Des Plaines and also at NIPSTA (Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy.) As the saying goes among firemen, “I’m not saying I want anybody’s house to burn down, but if it does, I want to be there when it happens.”
Like water, fire is one of earth’s most basic elements. While fire has served us humans well – providing light, keeping us warm, and cooking our food – fire out-of-control can be the “red devil,” both destructive and deadly. I hope none of you have ever been through a house fire, and I pray none of us ever do. Your whole house is trashed from ceiling to floor, from soot and smoke and fire. Many if not most of your possessions are ruined, if not from the fire from the water used to extinguish it, which runs through your house in waterfalls. Plastic objects like phones and light fixtures are melted, pets are dead in their cages or under the bed (where they try to hide); and yes – sometimes people die, sadly, including children. As a Chaplain, when I stand with someone in their front yard watching this – as long as everyone escaped and no one got hurt – I try to gently help people keep things in perspective, as devastating as it may sometimes appear. The house can be rebuilt (sometimes better than before); things can be replaced; but the people you love cannot. Thank God nobody got hurt and everybody is safe.
Do you think any of this was in Jesus’ mind when he said he came to bring a fire upon the earth? Surely, in his life he had sat around fires and seen grass fires and brush fires and maybe even house fires. Perhaps he had seen children burned by fire, a common occurrence in poorer countries where food is cooked over open fires. Did Jesus think about any of this before he said he came to bring fire on the earth? So let’s be clear here, Jesus is not saying anybody should be literally getting burned.
Please note, the clues and the context make it clear Jesus did NOT mean this literally, but metaphorically, as we must interpret much of the Bible. Remember, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and he has a pretty good idea of what will happen there. At this point, he is seized with anxiety and urgency, in the sense of “let’s get on with it.” Just as we might resort to colorful and exaggerated language at such an anxious time, so did Jesus.
And if – as I believe – Jesus used images such as fire this way, he did so based not upon what’d he seen, but what he knew, which was that there was plenty of precedent in the history and Scriptures of ancient Israel to do so. For example, was he thinking of fire as God is a pillar of fire, leading God’s children out of bondage in Egypt and through the wilderness, as in Exodus? Was he thinking of fire as the fire of God’s judgment, which destroyed the false altars of Baal at the prophet Elijah’s God contest on Mt. Carmel, as in 1 Kings? Was he talking about the refiner’s fire, as Malachi spoke about in the book of the same name, burning away the chaff of sin or fruitless branches? And – yet to come – what of fire as the sign of God’s Spirit, and the tongues of fire that would dance over the heads of Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Pentecost? Were any or all these the fire Jesus was talking about?
Jesus resorted to what we might call prophetic hyperbole, using images such as fire and baptism and division and even the weather, to express the fear and urgency and determination he felt to change the world, to shake up the status quo, to bend the moral arc of the universe God’s way, even if it cost him his life. I’ve always liked Albert Schweitzer’s image of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, a young man who threw himself on the wheel of history in an attempt to stop it from turning, but instead it crushed him.
So the reason speaks in this exaggerated way is because for him it WAS a time of crisis – not in the sense of emergency – but in the sense of a time of truth and decision; not just for him, but for everybody. I think it is true to say that still – even on a sunny Sunday morning – how we hear and respond to the words of Jesus presents a moment of crisis for us, a moment to hear and decide and act, like sparks falling in kindling, either igniting a fire or dying out.
For this reason – because it brings about a crisis in our lives – the words and work of Jesus can go either way for us. He can show mercy, or he can bring judgment. He can immerse us in the comforting waters of baptism, or he can light a fire in our hearts. He can be a peacemaker, or he can be a divider. He can be a Gentle Shepherd or the Conquering Lamb. As Julia Ward Howe wrote in the Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1861, “In the beauty of the lilies he was born across the sea,” but he is also the one who “sets loose the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.”
Not that this is something we want to hear. In fact, if we were to list the ten hardest sayings of the Gospels, this one would undoubtedly be on the list. The statement that Jesus came to bring fire, a distressful baptism, and division – even among families – are hardly welcome words for any congregation. We are far happier with Jesus as peacemaker than as home breaker. (Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C).
And what are we to make of the divisions about which Jesus speaks, in families? One could say that what he says is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. That is, it was not Jesus’ purpose to set children against parents or parents against children, but that these sorts of divisions can result from the changes Jesus brings, in lives and in families. It brought disruption in Jesus’ own family, when they came to get him, seeking to take him home, thinking he was “beside himself.” Remember, also in Luke’s Gospel, the story of the Prodigal Son, a parable about a father and a son estranged from each other, who were reconciled. But even that reconciliation causes disruption between the elder son and his father. Keep this in mind: even a ministry that reconciles long-standing enemies will inevitably rend relationships, if those relationships depend upon the old status quo. Ready to let the fire of God burn in your life? Get ready for the disruptions it will bring. I will warn you right now; somebody is going to throw a bucket of cold water on you, and hopefully nothing worse.
I remember the day I came home and told my parents I was switching from medicine to ministry. I was pre-med in college, for the first two years. I was working in the local emergency room. I had respected doctors who had spoken for me. And now I was going to throw it all away to become a Methodist preacher, which is I think the way they put it. (It took them awhile to come around, but after they did, they supported me all the way.) Some days, I wish I had listened to them. Maybe these were the kinds of things Jesus was talking about, when he talked about a fire being kindled, a baptism to undergo, and divisions that would arise, even among people with whom we are close. Something we might want to keep in mind, in this election year.
As difficult a saying as fire on the earth may be, our consolation is this: as painful as both real fire (I wouldn’t wish burn injuries on anybody) and metaphorical fire may be, in the end, it can sometimes be regenerative. There are certain seeds that can germinate only through the high heat of forest fires, resulting in new growth. Sometimes when your house burns, you get a bigger and better house (Don’t even THINK of torching it!)
In ancient Greek mythology, the Phoenix was a bird of colorful plumage that was cyclically reborn, by dying in fire and then arising anew from the ashes of its predecessor.
Like the Phoenix, today the church is going through a “fiery trial” (some might even say death), and we are waiting to see what will be born. As our friend Vivian Mathews once put it (or something to this effect): “We know what we HAVE been; we just don’t know what we’re GOING to be.”
Some of us may feel like we are going through a fiery trial or purification at this time of our life, and we don’t know yet what’s going to emerge; what we’re going to be like on the other side.
But what we know is this: Jesus fiery baptism is followed by a resurrection; entering into the fire with us, he emerged as the Risen Christ. May God be with us through the fires of our life, with the hope that out of the ashes will arise healing and new life.
“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”
So may it be.
Central United Methodist Church
Close to our Heart
Luke 12: 22 – 34
Pastor David L. Haley
August 7th, 2016
“Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Luke 12: 22 – 34, The New Revised Standard Version
The day of the Lord is coming; the day of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. No – I’m not talking about the Last Judgment; I’m talking about the next time we have to move, most likely downsizing, definitely purging ourselves of lots of stuff, some of it junk and some not, in fact some of it even dear to us.
If we have not had to do this for ourselves yet, we have likely had to do it for someone else, like our parents, or perhaps even a friend (they would have to be a VERY CLOSE FRIEND.) As the baby boomer generation (of which I am one) ages and downsizes, there are millions of people and couples and families going through this day-by-day.
If you have done this, you know how hard it is. In fact, I think it is harder to do for ourselves, than for others. Because it is easy to throw away somebody’s else’s junk; not so easy to through away our TREASURES. Which is why – if we are wise – we always ask for help – whether paid or volunteer – someone who doesn’t have the association or nostalgia or sentiment we do, and can more objectively decide whether any given thing should “stay or go,” whether it is junk or treasure.
Due to the demand, one of the hottest self-help books in this area has been that of Marie Kondo, entitled, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” (I know we have a copy in the house somewhere, if only I could find it in all the junk.) Ms. Kondo’s decluttering theory is interesting and helpful, and – risking oversimplification – can be reduced to one basic idea: “Discard everything that does not “spark joy;” after thanking the objects for their service, give them the “heave-ho.” Some might find this a strange thing to say to a T-shirt of pair of jeans or old socks. And – for those of us in text-intensive professions – what about papers? As Ms. Kondo says, “There is nothing more annoying than papers,” she says firmly. “After all, they will never spark joy, no matter how carefully you keep them.” Which is why I like the guy who said – according to this theory – that he had already thrown out his tax form and several piles of bills, as they sparked no joy whatsoever. Good luck with that. (Penelope Green, “Kissing Your Socks Goodbye; Home Organization Advice from Marie Kondo,” The New York Times, October 22, 2014)
We arrive at this topic today because in today’s Gospel Jesus continues to talk about the danger of wealth and possessions, and the anxiety and distraction they cause in our lives, whether from having too much or too little. And the worst distraction is this: both anxiety and greed distract us from our real riches in life, God’s gifts to us and God’s purposes for us. In today’s text, Jesus puts it is this way: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Which raises the question: where is our treasure? What is close to our heart?
If you were here last Sunday, you may remember Jesus’ comments on these subjects came about when someone asked him, “”Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.” Being the wise man that he was, Jesus refused to intervene in this domestic, but he did go on to warn: “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” And then he told a story, about a rich farmer who decided to build a bigger barn. The good news was that the rich farmer’s harvest was so good he needed a bigger barn; the bad news was, he died that night, so he never got to see those barns. Thus he wound up looking and being pretty foolish, because while rich in many ways, the sad thing was that he wasn’t rich toward God.
He wasn’t rich toward God because he had no insight into his life, knowing what most of us have come to know, that our lives are fleeting, leading us to think about what is important. He never seemed to understand what most of us have learned, that others have contributed to our assets, and others can benefit from them. It never seemed to dawn upon him that which is most important to us, that whatever we have, it is worth nothing without people who love us and whom we love and who make our lives worth living. Perhaps most importantly, he never seemed to understand what most of us are learning, that what being “rich toward God” really means, is to care and to share what we have with those who are hurting and needy. Which is – in the end – what we seek to avoid – why God called him foolish.
What about us? We may or may not be rich, but does our anxiety about what we don’t have, or our preoccupation with what we do have, distract us from being rich toward God, from seeing what God has given us and what God intends for us? “Stop being so anxious and distracted about what you have or don’t have and look around,” Jesus says. As you hear how Eugene Peterson renders it, keep in mind that Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Imagine that as they walk and talk, birds fly overhead, or sing in the trees, just as – even when we are discouraged or anxious or distracted – they also fly over our heads, or sing around us:
“Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more. “Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance — but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do best for you?”
Ever hear the story about the boy, who while walking, found a quarter? Ever after, he walked with his eyes down and his back bent, on the lookout for more money. And, sure enough, through his life, he found some $2,500 in loose coins and bills. What he didn’t see was, the blue sky, the green trees, the beautiful flowers, or the faces of the people he met on his way. That’s what happens, says Jesus, when we get too distracted by our stuff or our things or our money.
I know, if we were there, we might want to raise our hand to say, “Au contraire, Jesus!” Because Jesus’ words and his whole idea of simple trust seem so out of step with our society and the way we live, the way we have to live. As someone once said, “What Jesus said could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on a beach in sunny Galilee.” Obviously Jesus never had to worry about the rent or insurance or a retirement pension. I guess that’s one good aspect to getting nailed to a cross at the age of 30. (“Always look of the bright side of life.”)
On the other hand, the way we live is not working out that well for us, either. In fact, the stressful, anxious, way we live is literally killing us, either causing or exacerbating many of the disease processes that take us down. Constant anxiety depletes our immune systems, it keeps our bodies in a constant state of alert, it raises our blood pressure and constricts our arteries, it squeezes off the blood flow to our heads, our hearts, and yes, our pocketbooks.
So I like what Jesus says next, as Eugene Peterson renders it:
“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works . . . Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bank robbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”
Karoline Lewis is a Lutheran pastor and professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Each week, for preachers like me she writes a commentary on the Gospel at WorkingPreacher.org. This is part of what she had to say about this week’s – and last week’s – Gospel, illustrating the intertwining of our stuff with that which is dear to us:
“We are moving my mom into a nursing home. We are getting closer, but the sorting and the sifting and the sadness persist.
And so, the biblical text yet again lives my life is such a way that this column has to be a “part two.” The biblical story just won’t let me go. And I guess I am glad it won’t – because it reminds me of what the life of a preacher, of a believer, should be.
You know what I mean, right? You try to find something else on which to preach. You imagine going rogue, and wow, is that ever a ride! Outside of whatever lectionary you are using. You consider justifying a chosen text for a situation when really, all of the machinations are just escapes to avoid the ways in which a text comes way too close to the truth.
Two weeks in a row. Luke, you are killing me.
So, here I go again on possessions.
What is close to your heart?
In last week’s column, I talked about how our possessions matter if they matter to another – if the meaning of the object can be lodged in how it means outside of yourself.
This week, it’s a 180, friends. What is close to your heart?
Driving back on Sunday night from a day of packing, I called a dear friend. I needed to talk, to process. I needed help. How do you decide? What do you keep? My friend told me, “When my mom died, I kept just a couple of things, a few things close to my heart.” (Karoline Lewis, Treasured Possessions, Part II, Working Preacher.org, July 31, 2016)
It’s a good question, the same question Jesus raised, a question to think about long after we leave this place. What is “close to our heart?” “What brings us joy?” Because if we can figure out where our treasure is – what is close to our hearts and what brings us joy – what changes might that make in our jobs, in our lives, even our giving? I’m going to think about this; will you also?
Central United Methodist Church
Rich Toward God
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 12: 13 – 21
July 31st, 2016
“Someone out of the crowd said, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus replied, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Speaking to the people, he went on, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: “What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ “Just then God showed up and said, “Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods — who gets it?’ “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” – Luke 12: 13 – 21, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
From time to time, during this election year, I think about Father Abraham. Not Father Abraham of the Old Testament, but Father Abraham (Lincoln) of Illinois. If Abraham stepped out of his grave in Springfield, I wonder what he would have to say about what has happened to his “Party of Lincoln” today. I would love to hear what he would say, and especially what story he might tell. As we know, Lincoln loved to punctuate even the most solemn and serious of subjects with some remotely connected story, which used to drive the members of his cabinet wild.
No, I did not know Abraham Lincoln (I am not that old), but I can say with some certainty that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton (both millionaires) are no Lincolns. But because – historically speaking – Lincoln and his times were not that long ago, in many ways he is still accessible to us.
As an example, one of the best places in Washington D.C. to feel close to Lincoln is his summer cottage at the Old Soldier’s Home in NE Washington, which my family has visited twice now. In the sweltering summer’s of Lincoln’s presidency, the area around the White House was full of soldiers, cattle, and disease, so President Lincoln and Mary lived at the Old Soldiers Home in the summer, with Lincoln commuting back and forth to the White House on horse, believe it or not. On one occasion he even had his hat shot off, which he made the soldiers who with him swear never to tell Mary, for fear that she would worry.
When you visit the Old Soldiers Home, not only are you putting your hand on the handrail Lincoln put his hand on to go upstairs, the guides there also tell you Lincoln stories, recreating the scene.
On our recent visit, my family had a good laugh as our guide was telling a Lincoln story about Kentucky and a preacher, and as he did, to my surprise he pointed straight at me! (How did he know?) The story was that a preacher once asked Lincoln, “Mr. President, aren’t you concerned whether God is on your side?” To which Lincoln answered, “I would like God on my side, but I MUST have Kentucky.”
Whenever I hear today’s Gospel about the man who asked Jesus to help him with sorting out the family estate, I think of Lincoln. First, because as country lawyer Lincoln probably could have helped him (for a small retainer), and secondly, I’m sure it would have reminded Uncle Abe of a story, as it did with Jesus.
You heard what happened: while Jesus is talking about weighty things, at least one man in the crowd was not listening, because he was worried about something else. But he must have thought Jesus was a smart guy, a fair guy, a good guy to have on your side, because when the time came for “Q and A,” the man raises his hand and out of the blue says, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”
Though maybe not the right time or place, or person, we get it, don’t we? How many families have we seen (maybe even our own) blown up over who gets what after Grandma dies, haggling over furniture, dishes, silverware, house, land, and savings.
And so Jesus answers, in one of my all-time favorite Jesus quotes: “Man, who made me an umpire over you?” What do you think this is, small claims court? And who do you think I am, Judge Judy?” (At least he didn’t say, “Get him outta here!”)
Perhaps knowing it was a “teaching moment,” Jesus turned to the crowd: “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” And then – as Lincoln might have done, to make his point Jesus told a story, about a rich real estate mogul – no wait, a rich farmer.
Once there was a rich farmer whose farm did so well, he said to himself: “Self, what can I do? My barn isn’t big enough.’ “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, “Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’”
In all fairness, we should not caricature the farmer. After all, there’s no indication he put his name on the barn, in big letters. There’s no hint of graft or theft, no embezzlement or mistreatment of workers. I mean, just read the story without prejudice:
“A rich farmer had terrific crops — so big he needed larger granaries to store it all. So he decided what to do: he’d build bigger granaries so he wouldn’t have to worry anymore, and then he’d be able to retire.”
What’s wrong with that? Haven’t frugal people always stashed excess food and supplies in pantries, silos, barns, and basements? Isn’t that just good estate planning?
What’s wrong with that? “Everything,” says Jesus. “You fool!” God says to the man in the story. Kids, don’t try this at home, even though some politicians may do in public. This is strong language in this story, and intentionally insulting! But it is only a story; don’t try it in real life.
Why was the man a fool? Because: (1) Being mortal, he hadn’t figured death into the equation; and (2) judging by the language of the story, he didn’t think about anybody but himself.
I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but unfortunately, the man dropped dead. Or as Jesus says in The Message (slightly paraphrased further by me, “Just then – somewhere between Mr. T and the Grim Reaper – God shows up and says: “Fool! Time’s up; tonight you die. And your barnful of goods — who gets it?”
Jesus ends his short story by warning us: “Be careful: that’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”
But like a story told by Lincoln whose point was obvious to only to himself, what did Jesus mean? The story drives us to the edge of a cliff and leaves us there. What does it mean to be “rich toward God?”
Some preachers – including myself over the years – have taken this to be a good stewardship story; never mind that it doesn’t play well on a summer Sunday in July. Many are the sermons on this text – and I have preached a few – that boil down to: “Remember, you can’t take it with you, so be generous with your gifts – and especially to the church!”
But what if this story isn’t about money, or wealth, or even our need to give to Church? What if it’s about the man’s isolation from community? What if it’s about his narcissism, as revealed in his conversation with himself, about himself, and only himself? What if it’s about his distraction – due to his stuff and his money – from whatever else is going on in the world, including in his own life? Was this rich man distracted with his money, as Martha was distracted with the dishes a few weeks ago, when Jesus visited Martha and Mary’s home?
What does it mean to be “rich toward God?” It means to have insight into our lives, to know that they are fleeting, to reflect about what’s important. To be “rich toward God” means to know that whatever we have – whatever assets we have accumulated – others have contributed to it, and it is only valuable as others benefit from it. To be “rich toward God” is to know that whatever we have, it counts as nothing without those who love us and whom we love and who make our lives worth living. Money cannot buy us love; who wants to sit on a big pile of money lonely and alone? To be “rich toward God” is to care and share what we have with others who are hurting and needy. To be “rich toward God” is not to live and accumulate wealth in solitude; it is to live in solidarity and community and to share with others.
Which is – in the end – why God calls him foolish. Because, he forgot, not only is he not immune to death, which none of us are; but because he will die alone, as none of us want. Despite all that he has, it cannot comfort nor will it protect him, but will go to others, like dust in the wind.
So perhaps this story Jesus told is not so much about wealth as it is about community, in which we find sustenance and comfort and help and hope. After all, the story began with a break in a community, in a family: one brother seeking Jesus’ intervention in a family squabble about an inheritance. No wonder Jesus will have none of it. What should have been an occasion for celebration, remembrance, and gratitude, has been turned instead – as it sometimes does – into a time of bitterness and division. And so – as a cautionary tale – Jesus tells the story of a man who wound up right and rich alright, but died all alone.
Now we might ask, “Who was Jesus talking to? The man who raised his problem? The man’s brother? His disciples? The crowds? How about us? Yes, all the above.
Now is an especially important time for us to hear Jesus’ words, because – as you know – there is a message out there that we should not and cannot trust each other, because the world is increasingly dangerous and we should therefore be afraid, especially of the stranger. We should work hard and accumulate our own piles of money, paying the least taxes that we can, and especially not sharing with the welfare queen and the freeloader and the immigrant, needy though they may be. That might indeed be a rich life, but that would be the kind of life Jesus was warning about, and not the kind of life he was commending, a life that is rich toward God.
When Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington in 1861 to become President, he arrived with his wife Mary, and three sons: Robert, 17; Willie, 10; and Tad, 7. Another son, Edward, had died 10 years earlier. While we know of his humble beginnings, by that time Lincoln had practiced as a lawyer for 17 years and was worth about $15,000. A year afterward, Willie died, most likely of typhoid fever, usually contracted by consumption of contaminated food/water. That was one of the reasons the Lincoln’s enjoyed the relative solitude of the Old Soldier’s Home, because they were grieving the death of their son Willie and just wanted to be alone, as far as possible, even in the midst of the raging War.
By the time Lincoln was assassinated four years later at the age of 56, his estate at his death was worth $85,000, with the additional coming principally from his $25,000 yearly salary as President. Of course there were no book deals, no speaking fees. In our time when politicians and Presidents are routinely multi-millionaires, don’t you find it amazing that the greatest President of our country was financially worth only $85,000. (Harry E. Pratt, Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Monographs, Chicago, IL: Lakeside Press, 1943; Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2006.)
But what did he leave? The Emancipation Proclamation, and an end to the curse of slavery. The Gettysburg Address, the greatest memorial to the 665,000 who died in the War. The First and Second Inaugural addresses. A unified nation and a new birth of freedom, that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, should not perish from the earth. Though poor in things, I would say Lincoln was rich toward God, wouldn’t you?
Though no Lincolns, with however little or however much we have, let us heed Jesus words, and strive to be “rich toward God.”
Central United Methodist Church
The Prayer That Shapes Us
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 11: 1 – 13
July 24th, 2016
“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
– Luke 11: 1 – 4, The New Revised Standard Version
The things you learn when you prepare a sermon every week; I highly recommend it.
This week while thinking about prayer and specifically the Lord’s Prayer, a version of which we hear in today’s Gospel, I was looking for a graphic to use in the weekly email update. I immediately thought of that picture posted in Fellowship Hall, to the left of the kitchen window, which if you remember portrays an elderly man praying. It’s right next to our AED (Automated External Defibrillator), which I’ve always thought to be an appropriate placement, as that’s what we’re all going to be doing should we ever have to use that AED, God forbid. I confess that I did not know the story of that picture until this week, so if you do, bear with my telling of it. I think, after learning the story, you will never look at the picture in the same way again.
The picture is entitled “Grace,” and was taken by Minnesota photographer Eric Enstrom in or around 1918. According to the story, it came about when a bearded “saintly-looking” old man showed up at the door of Enstrom’s photography studio in Bovey, Minnesota, selling foot-scrapers. Supposedly, like Enstrom himself, the man was a Swedish immigrant named Charles Wilden, about whom local stories centered more around drinking and not accomplishing much, than being saintly. But then again, who says they can’t go together?
At that time, Enstrom was preparing a portfolio of pictures to take to the Minnesota Photographer’s Association convention. He said, “There was something about the old gentleman’s face that immediately impressed me. I saw that he had a kind face … there weren’t any harsh lines in it.” Said Enstrom, “I wanted to take a picture that would show people that even though they had to do without many things because of the war (WWI) they still had much to be thankful for.”
So, on a small table, Enstrom placed a family book (which was a dictionary not a Bible), some spectacles, a bowl of gruel, a loaf of bread, and a knife. Then he had Wilden pose in a posture of prayer, with his folded hands to his brow, as though saying grace before a simple meal.
As soon as the negative was developed, Enstrom was sure he had something special. It was a picture that seemed to say, “This man doesn’t have much of earthly good, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart.”
Enstrom first licensed the photograph to Augsburg Fortress in 1930; in the 1940s, his daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, colorized the photo by hand, which became the most widespread and popularly known version. Enstrom earned a modest sum from the photograph for the remainder of his life until his death in 1968.
As for what happened to Wilden after the photograph, no one knows. In 1926, he was paid $5 by Enstrom in return for waiving his rights to the photograph, and he disappeared thereafter. After the photograph became popular Enstrom attempted to track him down but was unsuccessful, as family members and local historians have been ever since.
And yet, still today, Wilden’s image in “Grace” hangs in homes, restaurants and in churches like ours, not only in America but around the world, still inspiring us to pray. (You may read more about Eric Enstrom’s “Grace,” at the authentic website of the family of Eric Enstrom http://gracebyenstrom.com/, or also on Wikipedia, Eric Enstrom, “Grace,” (photograph): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_(photograph)
If you like that story, here’s an even better one: in today’s Gospel, it is not a picture of someone praying that inspires us to pray, it is the example of Jesus. And not only does Jesus inspire us, he teaches us how to pray, in the words of that prayer we pray together every Sunday and which most of us pray every day, the Lord’s Prayer
In the Gospels, there are actually two versions of The Lord’s Prayer, one in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 6 (the one we most commonly use), and another slightly different version in Luke, chapter 11, which we read today. In this version, Jesus shares the prayer because his disciples often saw him praying, and – inspired by his example – they asked him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”
Though there are two versions, there are of course even more translations. Remember, Jesus spoke it in his native language of Aramaic, but it was translated and transmitted in the Gospels in Greek, and – unless Koine Greek is your language – therefore has to be translated again. In Jerusalem, The Church of the Pater Noster (Latin, “Our Father”), has plaques of the Lord’s Prayer in 100 different languages.
When you pray it in a Catholic Church, you may have been surprised that they omit: “Thine be the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.” That’s because, in both of the Gospel versions, that ending is not included, but was added later. At funerals, I can usually tell if those gathered are Catholic or Protestant, by how long they pause to see whether I will add the doxology.
Just last Sunday, while praying it with Presbyterians at Lou Haase’s memorial service at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, I said “trespasses” while all those Presbyterians said “debts.” As a Presbyterian friend of mine once said, “I prefer ‘debts’ because I always had more debts than trespasses.” Perhaps, to keep it fresh, we should do what Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C. does, which I discovered when I worshipped there a few years ago: they have in every pew a “Lord’s Prayer card” with seven different versions of the Lord’s Prayer, which they alternate praying. Another alternative would be to do what I’ve always wanted to do, just memorize it in Greek or Aramaic. Perhaps some of our Assyrian brothers and sisters could teach us.
But as we know, it is not the details of the Lord’s Prayer that make it so meaningful and important to us, it is the substance of it. It is a prayer, deeply rooted in the Jewish faith, that shapes us in our faith even as we pray it.
We don’t begin with ourselves, but with God, our Heavenly Father. The word Jesus used is “Abba,” more like “Papa.” And it is not a personal prayer but a communal; we do not say “My Father”, but “Our Father.” According to Jesus’ prayer, we can’t even pray to God without remembering our connection to our brothers and sisters. After that, it’s still not about us: first we pray for God’s holiness, God’s kingdom, and God’s will to be done on earth – in my life – as it is in heaven.
I once heard Zan Holmes, the former Pastor of St. Luke Community UMC in Dallas, Texas, say he’d once saw a bumper sticker which said, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Texas.”
In contrast, what we’re praying is the exact opposite: that God’s will be done in Texas, and in Illinois, and all over the earth, as it is done in heaven. Only then, after we ask for God’s holiness and God’s kingdom and God’s will to be done – only after we get that right – do we pray for ourselves. Which is likely the exact opposite of how we’d likely pray if left to ourselves, apart from Jesus’ example.
Even then – when we pray for ourselves – Jesus teaches us to pray not for what we want, but what we need. Not – “Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz” – but bread for the day; forgiveness for the past, TO THE DEGREE THAT WE EXTEND IT TO OTHERS (got to watch that fine print!); and – for the future and whatever may come – deliverance from temptation and evil, in whatever forms they present themselves, both personally and socially.
Because the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer that shapes us, both as a community and as individual followers of Jesus, have you found – as I have found – that one of the most inspiring of spiritual experiences is to say the Lord’s Prayer with Christians in churches around the world, even when spoken in other languages? Do you find – as I find – that our praying of the Lord’s Prayer together every Sunday is one of the most inspiring parts of our service? Do you find – as I find – that regardless of whatever tradition or form of prayer I am using in my personal prayers – whether spoken or unspoken – it is the praying of the Lord’s Prayer that makes me Christian, a follower of Jesus, praying not for my will but God’s will to be done.
A few years ago I had the privilege and honor of meeting the British New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright in London’s Westminster Abbey. In his book, The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright said this about the Lord’s Prayer:
“The more I have studied Jesus in his historical setting, the more it has become clear to me that this prayer sums up fully and accurately, albeit in a very condensed fashion, the way in which he read and responded to the signs of the times, the way in which he understood his own vocation and mission and invited his followers to share in it. This prayer, then, serves as a lens through which to see Jesus himself, and to discover something of what he was about.”
Thus inspired – not by a PICTURE of someone praying as in “Grace” by Eric Enstrom – but by the example of Jesus and the prayer HE gave us, so we pray, even in the crazy times in which we live. We name God as our God. We yearn for God’s reign. We ask for that which sustains us. We ask for the hard stuff, like forgiveness and forgiving others. As we pray, we expect to be held, challenged, blessed, lead, and changed by the Holy Spirit of God. So may it be – Amen and Amen!
Central United Methodist Church
The Main Course
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 10: 38 – 42
July 17th, 2016
“As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” – Luke 10: 38 – 42, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
Martha and Mary. Do you feel – as I do – that we have known them most of our lives? If not living in our houses, at least in our heads, and in people we have known?
There’s Martha, always at work in the kitchen. My grandmother was a definite Martha (who – coincidentally – named two of her daughters Martha and Mary).
For those of you who have experienced meals in southern homes, as in other cultures, you will know that, traditionally, southern women are great Marthas, and proud of it. They have refined hospitality to such an art that they never sit; they hover. Plates are never allowed to go empty. Guests are continually asked if they need anything. The hostess keeps working, running around the table, a trickle of perspiration running past the string of pearls on her neck. She also misses most of the dinner conversation, having given herself to serving.
Up until modern times, such hospitality was almost exclusively women’s work, as it was with my grandmother. To add insult to injury, not only were women EXPECTED to do this work, they were at the same time EXCLUDED from male circles of education and power; as is still the case, in some cultures.
Having come such a long way, baby, most women would not be willing to go back to such ways, no matter how much men might wish.
Years ago a friend sent me a story about three men sitting around bragging how they had given their new wives duties. The first man married a woman from Alabama, and bragged how his wife was to do all the dishes and housecleaning at their house. He said that it took a couple of days but on the third day he came home to a clean house and the dishes were all washed and put away.
The second man married a woman from Florida. He bragged how he had given her orders that she was to do all the cleaning, dishes, and the cooking. He told them that the first day he didn’t see any results, but the next day it was better. By the third day, the house was clean, the dishes were done, and there was a huge dinner on the table.
The third man married a Chicago woman. He boasted he told her that her duties were to keep the house clean, the dishes washed, the lawn mowed, the laundry done, and hot meals on the table. He said the first day he didn’t see anything, and the second day he didn’t see anything, but by the third day most of the swelling in his left eye had gone down such that he could begin to see a little. Enough to fix himself a bite to eat, load the dishwasher and washer, and telephone a landscaper.
But to get back to the story, Martha has a sister, and her name is Mary. If Martha is the practical one, Mary is the student. She sees her opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus and takes it, ignoring her sister as she hustles about. In fact, some would say that this is the significant point of this text; unlike in Judaism, where women could not sit at the feet of a Rabbi; Jesus welcomed women. Could it be that Luke’s point with this story was that women were not expected ONLY to serve, unseen and unheard, but were also welcome to be students of the Word?
In the story, overwhelmed, finally Martha has had enough, and protests: “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” And Jesus replies, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”
Peterson catches the play on words. When Jesus says “only a few things are needful, really only one,” is he talking about how many dishes are needed (open a can of sardines?), or is he talking about life, and what’s really important: “The Main Course,” capital M, capital C?
From that day to this, this story of domestic intranquility has provoked argument and discussion. Does it pose, in story form, the tension we still experience between the contemplative versus the active life, between being and doing?
To put it in context, last week Jesus met a man who had trouble hearing the Word of God, and offered him an example, a Samaritan. This week Jesus visits a woman so busy serving she does not hear the word, and Jesus offers her an example, her sister. To the man, Jesus said to go and do; to the woman, Jesus says, “Sit down, listen, and learn.” There is a time to go and do; there is also a time to listen and learn.
After all, we can and do serve God in both ways, through both action and through contemplation. Both Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus, and responded to his presence, one by serving, the other by listening and learning. It is still true: some of us live out our discipleship by doing what need to be done: preparing meals, counting money, caring for the homebound, organizing outreach. Others of us live out our discipleship in service to the Word: study and prayer, worship and preaching, evangelism and teaching. In the church, we need both Marthas and Marys. As someone once said: “There is a need occasionally. to get the visionaries in the kitchen and the kitchenaries in the vision.”
Some of us may feel that Mary and Jesus were too hard on Martha. Surely, if Martha had not done all she did, Mary could not have taken her seat at Jesus’ feet. Giuseppe Belli’s 19th century sonnet “Martha and Magdalene” ends with Martha snapping back at Jesus when he tells her that Mary’s choice is more important: “So says you, but I know better. Listen, if I sat around on my salvation the way she does, who’d keep this house together?”
Most churches I know would cease to exist if it weren’t for the Marthas, both men and women, who take care of details. Services would never be held, the bills would never get paid, the grass would never get cut, food would never get served, the ceilings would literally fall down upon our heads. What anyone can do, someone must do. Thank God for the Marthas of the church.
On the other hand, others of us side with Mary. What an opportunity! If only we could have been there, for a day or even an hour, to listen to Jesus, to hear what he had to say, to ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask. Surely that would be worth letting the place go for a day! “Come on, Martha, order out, for God’s sake!”
And yet, aren’t there times when we are all like Martha, whose problem may not have been that she was serving, but that she was seriously distracted from that which was better? Mindfulness, as some traditions call it: attention to the moment. And yet why is it that mindfulness in life – as we experience it – is so hard?
I think of a friend whose father drove the family to the Grand Canyon, but when they arrived, spent the whole time looking under the hood of the car. I think of couples at their weddings, so spaced out by details, that they almost miss one of the most important moments of their lives. I think of people I’ve seen at some of the greatest man-made and natural wonders of the world, so intent on getting it on video, that they almost miss experiencing it “in person.”
I think of parents (including myself) who missed precious moments when children were growing up. The late Erma Bombeck once told of two such moments in her husband’s life. She said there was a time when their children were growing up that her husband used to go and look at the back yard. Surveying the muddy patches where the lawn should be, he wondered: “Will the grass ever come back?” Then came the time when the children were grown and gone, when her husband would look out over the beautiful green lawn, immaculate from lack of use and wonder: “Will the children ever come back?”
Is there anybody here who doesn’t look back and regret experiences wasted and opportunities lost, because we were distracted at the time by that which we now know was insignificant, trivial, or unimportant?
As you may have guessed, I side with Mary, who makes the most of her opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet, to listen and learn, to think and reflect about that which is most important. To me, this is what religion is all about. Religion provides us with the opportunity to participate in what medieval philosophers called “the long conversation,” a conversation in which we can talk about what matters: life and death, love and hate, the way things are and the way things are not.
It is what we do when we come to worship. Even though Sunday might be our only opportunity to sleep in or spend time with the family, if we miss worship we lose an opportunity to sit at Christ’s feet and engage in this conversation about what is important in life. Jesus made it clear that what we’re talking about here is not the appetizer or the side-dish, it is the “Main Course.”
In worship, if we fail to engage in this conversation, then we miss what’s important. Services might be held, bills might get paid, grass might get cut, food might be served, and our building be in the best shape it’s ever been in, but we’d still be missing the Main Course. This is why we have as our church slogan, the motto: “Keeping God Central, in hearts, minds, and lives.”
I believe we most often err by being too much like Martha, and not enough like Mary. Let’s face it, there is always plenty that needs to be done, places to go, deadlines to meet, kids to raise, 500 channels of TV to watch, all those new cat and dog pictures on Facebook, and possibly a text or email that just arrived in the last 2 minutes, not to mention Pokemon Go. So we find ourselves so seriously distracted that we do not spend enough time in prayer or meditation or even in conversation with the people who matter most to us, about God and about life and about what’s important, in this short life that we have here. When we do this we are like Martha, distracted, missing the Main Course.
Many years ago I visited a family in Caen, France. I didn’t speak much French and they didn’t speak much English, so when we sat down for the evening meal it was a gastronomic guessing game as to what would happen next. The food wasn’t served like we do – all at once – but in courses. First there was bread, then soup, followed by a salad. Next came some cheese, then some meat, followed by a fish. You never knew which was the main course, so you never knew how much of any one thing to eat. Is there more to come, or is this it? When the brandy showed up, I knew the meal was over.
The older I get, the more I feel my life has been like that meal in France. First there was this, then there was that; each and every chapter of my life has been full of experiences and people who still live and breathe in my memory. I confess, too often – at the time – I was distracted, by that which I now know was less than important. Which makes the question Jesus poses to each of us today all the more compelling: “Am I missing the main course?”
“You’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and this is it — it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from you.”
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- Advent 2010 – A Life Giving Christmas
- Advent 2011
- Christmas Through the Lens of Hollywood Series – 2009
- Church at the Passages of Life Series – 2007
- Conversations with Jesus Series – 2008
- Eastertide Sermons from the Book of Revelations Series – 2010
- Fearless: The Courage to Question Series Lent 2011
- Five Practices of Fruitful Living
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- Heewon Kim – Pastoral Intern 2013 – 2014
- Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse – John Chapter 6
- Kelly Van Pastoral Intern 2011-2012
- Lay Sermons
- Lessons in Practical Christianity Series – 2009
- Lizzie Sherfey Pastoral Intern 2010-2011
- PoWeRSuRGe Series – 2009
- Psalms Series – Summer 2013
- Qualities of Jesus – 2015 Lenten Series
- Roll Down, Justice! A Lenten Biblical Seriew
- Season of Creation Series 2014
- Sermon on the Mount – 2011
- Stories from the Family of Faith Series 2014
- The Journey – Walking the Road to Bethlehem Series Advent 2013
- The Story of Job Series – 2009
- The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
- Worship Series – 2008