Sunday, October 31, 2010

October 24, 2010 - Up to our Eyeballs in Alligators

Up to Our Eyeballs in Alligators
Psalm 121

[Pecans in the Cemetery]
    On the outskirts of a small town, there was a big, old pecan tree just inside the cemetery fence. One day, two boys filled up a bucketful of nuts and sat down by the tree, out of sight, and began dividing the nuts. "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me," said one boy. A couple of them dropped and rolled down toward the fence.
    Another boy came riding along the road on his bicycle. As he passed, he thought he heard voices from inside the cemetery. He slowed down to investigate. Sure enough, he heard, "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me." He just knew what it was,  so he jumped back on his bike and rode off.
    Now just around the bend he met an old man with a cane, hobbling along. "Come here quick," said the boy, "you won't believe what I heard!  Satan and the Lord are down at the cemetery dividing up the souls."
     The man said, "Beat it kid, can't you see it's hard for me to walk?" When the boy insisted though, the man hobbled to the cemetery.  Standing by the fence they heard, "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me..." The old man whispered, "Boy, you've been tellin' the truth.  Let's see if we can see the Lord." Shaking with fear, they peered through the fence yet were still unable to see anything.
    The old man and the boy gripped the wrought iron bars of the fence tighter and tighter as they tried to get a glimpse of the Lord.  At last they heard, "One for you, one for me. That's all.  *Now let's go get those nuts by the fence and we'll be done."* In terror, the old man and the boy looked at each other, then took off a-running.
    They say the old man made it back to town a full 5 minutes ahead of the boy on the bike!

What are we afraid of in America today? I believe that the overall atmosphere of this nation is fear.
    +Fear of terrorism,
    +fear of the nation’s long economic recession,
    +fear about what will happen if the wrong people get elected;
    +fear that we will walk into an Al Qaida plot while traveling in Europe,
    +the list goes on and on.

Far too often, it is fear that shapes the way we vote, the way we lock up our houses, the way we spend or do not send our money, and much more.
    And we keeping wondering, “How did we get into this mess?” Or more to the point, “How do we get out of this mess?”

    An old Jewish saying tells us that difference between being smart and being wise is that the person who is smart knows how to get out of a situation which the wise person would never have gotten into in the first place. As the sky falls around us, what we've learned is that America, for all its SMARTS, lacks WISDOM, that is, the ability to see what lies ahead and how to proceed after hitting a fork in the road. And so we worry that even our smarts may not extricate us from hole we're in.
    It is a time of fear, and so we worry. In such a time as this, do we have any word from God? Lord God, I hope so.

[ABC-TV] In 2007, ABC-TV presented a special by John Stossel with the title: "Scared Stiff: Worry in America." It raised the question: "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" Have we created an atmosphere of fear which is hurting our health-as-people and our heart-as-Americans?

    There's a lot to be scared about. The media hit us with endless warnings: terrorism, swine flu, vicious crime, cancer, global warming and much more. **But are all worries created equal?** It turns out that what we worry about is often different from what's most likely to hurt us.

            *Terrorism:* How big is the risk? The program looked at what the American Enterprise Institute calls "terror porn": billions of dollars wasted in the name of safety, and what you could call the F.I.C., or the *"Fear Industrial Complex"*: politicians, lawyers, activists and media, who have an incentive to keep us scared. They stay in business by spreading fear. Skeptics, like John Mueller, author of "Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats," say the threat is overblown, and Americans are less likely to be killed by an international terrorist than by driving into a deer.

            *Kidnaping and Molestation*: C.N.N.'s "Nancy Grace" and Dateline's "Predator" programs earn high ratings by focusing on molestation and kidnaping. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs powerful public service announcements about abducted kids. But what damage is done by the fear they spread? Kids are much more frightened about kidnaping than they are about the other risks that are *more* likely to hurt them.

            [*Vaccines*: Many activists have blamed some vaccines for IQ loss, mental retardation and autism. People are catching easily preventable diseases because we have frightened the public about vaccines.]

        The *Law of Unintended Consequences* is alive and well: Politicians pass laws in the name of safety, but safety regulations can create new problems:

            *Bike helmet laws*: Countries that require bicyclists to wear helmets find that fewer people ride, possibly making us fatter. And it's not clear that the mandatory helmets result in fewer injuries. And when I started wearing a helmet, I took more risks -- I used to ride in Knoxville City traffic right down Broadway from Fountain City into town.

            [*Sanitizing the house*: Some experts claim that sterile houses may be giving more children asthma.]

            *Child safety caps*: Medicine bottles are now so tough to open that some people leave the cap off. Poisonings result.

We have become a people driven by our fears. We fear that we are up to our eyeballs in alligators, and thus alligators are all we look for.
    But worse yet, sometimes I think that we believe ourselves to be better persons because we are so focused on our worries. What do you mean that you have no worries? Aren’t you taking life seriously? Didn’t you see the warning? People who are not as fearful as we are should be taught to be afraid.

    [STORY - No Fear of Hell]
    In the very earliest days of the settlement of Arizona, the Archbishop of Los Angeles sent a missionary out to Phoenix to try to establish a church there. After two years, the priest returned to tell the archbishop that he could not establish a congregation in Phoenix.
        "Why not?" asked the Bishop. "Are there no people there?"
        "Well, yes, there are people there," said the priest. But those who live there during the winter have no need of heaven and those who live in Arizona during the summer have no fear of hell." (2)

II. Think about it: If that priest was to look at America today, how would he evaluate our spiritual situation? Adam Hamilton, in his study, Enough, points to one area: Our current economic crisis is not merely the result of bad policies of the housing and banking  industries. Rather, they are born of a spiritual crisis.

    +People have gotten into economic trouble because we reached for more houses and cars and stuff than we could possibly pay for. The spiritual term for this is *pride*.
    +Lenders have encouraged us to borrow beyond our means so they could make a profit on the loan or the sale we generate. The spiritual term for this is *greed*.
    +We have watched as our neighbors got the newest and the latest and felt we had to keep up. The spiritual term for this is *envy*.

    What has happened to our capacity to look at all that we already have and be satisfied? Or to look at the family and blessings we enjoy daily and give thanks for all the blessings God has bestowed upon us? What has happened to our ability to stand with other Americans and give thanks for all the blessings God has poured out in such abundance upon this nation? We become too busy getting the next one to give thanks for God's blessings and care. We are too busy getting more. It is a spiritual crisis.
[B.] It is a spiritual problem when the fact that we have all the houses and cars and stuff that we can handle does not lead us to the conclusion that we have ENOUGH. Instead of gratitude, we panic that we will not be able to buy the next one. And in our panic, we assume the reasons we cannot handle more are due to external threats which someone should do something about. But, the Bible teaches us that we should not be watching constantly for alligators (or terrorists, or Stock Market crashes, or oil spills); the Bible teaches us that we should be watching for the signs that God is among us.

    God wants us to live in trust, not in fear. The Bible was written in the midst of all the same worries that beset us now. Wars are nothing new. Aggression is not new. Disease is not new. Hard economic times are not new. In the middle of the same kinds of worries that trouble us, the Bible was written by people of faith who chose faith instead of fear.

    Paul said to the Philippians from his jail cell:
    6  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4.6f).

God calls us to set aside our fears and live in trust.
    +Trust that the God who has brought us this far will be with us regardless what the future holds.
    + Trust that the God who claimed us as God’s own children on the day of our baptism will claim us tomorrow.
    +Trust that the God who was able to create the world and declare it good is able to sustain the world so that it will once again be good for all the living.

[ILLUS: The Keys to the Car]
    Have you seen the TV commercial that shows a father talking to his little girl about the responsibilities of driving? She looks like she is not more than five years old. As the commercial continues, she is transformed into a 16 or 17 year old young lady – obviously ready for her first solo drive.

    There are transitional moments in life that confirm something tremendous has taken place. These are those moments in a teenager's life and in the lives of parents when a mom or a dad gives to their teen the keys to the car. Many of us have already experienced this. Some of you still have to experience it, but, I guarantee you, it's going to happen. It's going to be a step of growth for you.
    Parents, it's a time when you release your child into the adult world.
    Teens, it’s a time when your parents give you adult responsibilities.
It's a change in our lives from which none of us are ever going to turn back.

    Remember the scripture where Jesus said to the disciples: "As the Father has sent Me, so send I you." Jesus is tossing the keys to the kingdom to His disciples. He is demonstrating that He is accepting them as His followers but Jesus is also demonstrating to them that He is entrusting to them the message of the gospel. He gives to them a great privilege. Jesus is showing them that He believes in them (4).

IV. Now, remember Psalm-121 with which we began our worship this morning? It is a Psalm which speaks of the confidence and peace which rests upon God's faithfulness.

    2 My help comes from the LORD,
        who made heaven and earth.
    4 He who keeps Israel
        will neither slumber nor sleep.
    7 The LORD will keep you from all evil;
        he will keep your life.

+Because God is faithful, we can live in confidence.
+Because God is faithful, what we have can be enough.
+Because God is faithful, we can lay down our heads to rest each night in peace.

    Now, I invite you to turn to Psalm 121 again and pray the Psalm we have been reading. Pray this Psalm to still the anxious fears that what we already have will not be enough. Let its confidence still your fear that you will be left behind by the latest toys or phones or cars in the stores. Let this Psalm whisper to us a reminder that it is not the stuff-we-have but faith-in-God that is the foundation of our peace.

    Let us pray:
    Lord, I lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? I know and I am confident that my help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. LORD, keep our going out and our coming in from this time on and forevermore. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

1.  In 2007 ABC-TV presented a special by John Stossel with the title: "Scared Stiff: Worry in America" 02/23/07
2. James R. Gorman, Leaving Evil to God
3. Rev. Sharon Moon, Sermon: “Rejoice and Proclaim Jubilee”“
4. Pastor Don Walker, "Commissioned to a New Ministry"

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October 17, 2010 - Just the Way it Is

Just the Way It Is
Luke 18.1-8 The widow and the Unjust Judge

    Like all great storytellers, Jesus had the ability to tell stories that address us and address our world on many levels – all at the same time. Imagine a parable as an onion, with layers of meaning – each one giving us a new insight, and each one with the power to bring us to tears. The only difference between those who listened to Jesus and us is that they probably knew the particular situation Jesus is weaving into his story: the community, the job, probably even the names.

    Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who went to a Judge to plead for justice. The Judge looked at the woman, but being a man – a man of power, and a man with more important things to do – he ignored her. And the widow, having no other way to defend herself, simply went back to the Judge day after day, pleading her case, crying out for justice. She may have been powerless, but she would not be quiet about it.
    And at this point, even before the story is finished, we think to ourselves: "That's just the way it is." Like it or not and far too often, this is just the way life works:
        +Despite all the gains in women's rights across the years, a woman without a husband is not taken as seriously as she should be;
        +And any woman, accompanied by her husband, who shops for something important like a car, will find the salesperson talking her husband not to her.

        [EXAMPLE] An unmarried woman in Bible Study this week told about a fairly recent experience of going to shop for a car – a Mercury, as I recall – here in Knoxville. She drove onto the lot; the salesman met her as she got out of her car. She had already been doing some shopping, so she told him what she was looking for. His response to her rather specific request was a question: “And, where is your husband today?” That was a 21st Century response, not a 1st Century response.

        +Men still have the power to make all kinds of decisions that affect the lives of others;
I'm not sure how the world works in other parts of the country, but here in the South, this is still the way it is. You can work with it creatively or you can just get mad. The world is not going to change; you choose.//

    Jesus told a story that recognizes the way of this world. There was widow (a woman with no power and no male relative to speak for her) and there was an unjust judge (a man with power). Well, the widow thought that some guy was treating her unjustly, and she came to the judge to ask for the justice that should be hers.
    +Some guy was taking advantage of the fact that she was a widow;
    +And the judge, who is supposed to set things right neither feared God nor cared about anybody. He had better things to worry about. In other words, the old boy was shameless.

    2. [ABOUT JUDGES] I know that the U.S. Supreme Court and the Tennessee Code Annotated have plenty to say about judges and their official conduct. For those who are aspiring to become judges one day, I want to point out that God offers the world a very high sense of justice and work of judgment. This is what God has to say about the work of judges. You’ll find it in 2 Chronicles 19.4ff:

    King Jehoshaphat appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges, "Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of persons but on the Lord's behalf; the Lord is with you whenever you give judgment. Now, let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the LORD our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes."

The world may work another way, but God offers a much loftier vision.
    Now, Jesus told a story about life and right and wrong and men and women and the way life works. And in Jesus' hands any story has a way of making us see the world in new ways.

I. First, Jesus said that the widow was PERSISTENT and came back to the judge over and over to plead her cause. She kept coming back so long that, even though he did not care about her or her case, she wore him down. And he gave her the justice she sought.
    It is first a lesson about prayer and asking God to answer our deepest needs. According to Luke, Jesus told us that persistence in prayer is the way to ask God to give us what we need. There are many reasons God might not answer our prayers as quickly as we'd like. Despite any delays, Jesus assures us that God does hear our prayers as surely as that Judge could not escape the widow's pleas. And Jesus urges us not to grow weary of asking in prayer. The God who loves us will answer more surely than a sorry old judge who has "no fear of God and no respect for anyone."

II. Second layer is not so much about theology as it is about practicality:  Jesus taught his disciples that the way to deal with the powerful in the world is by PERSISTENT use of the tools you have. The widow did not have anyone that she could call on to speak for her; she was not as powerful as the opponent who was troubling her. But, she could keep doing what she could do – she could go back again and again until the Judge acted. As for the judge, he could get away with ignoring her, but apparently he could not get away with silencing her or running her off. She did not suffer in silence, and she was not going to let him suffer in her silence either. She continued persistently until he relented and gave her the justice she sought.

    Remember how angry people became when the Chairman of BP Oil made that “little people” comment in his statement that was supposed to be an apology to the nation? In a meeting with President Obama in the White House, BP’s CEO Carl-Henric Svanberg, apologized for the spill, then offered a public statement of remorse to the nation afterwards. But Svanberg apology was not well received when he committed a blunder by saying: “We care about the little people.”

And everyone of us, who have found ourselves powerless before the powerful in this world, hear from Jesus a word of encouragement as we go out to struggle against the wrongs that we face. You and I may be just “the little people” to the powerful of this world, but like the widow, we can use what we have.

    [CHILE] What an incredible story of courage and persistence unfolded for the world this week at the San Jose mine in Chile. Thirty-three miners kept their composure while they waited to be contacted. Then, they stayed organized and together until their rescue this week. There is no doubt that the President of Chile played his part, and many others, from several nations, brought necessary skills and resources to the rescue operation. It became the feel-good story we can all take part in. I guess Tony Hayworth would include Chilean miners among the “little people” of the world, but what an example of courage and persistence they have given us! So many people prayed for their safe return, and now we have the joy of seeing them safe and at home.

Prayer is the stabilizing work that keeps our faith upright, that keeps us in the game, that positions us to receive from God what God wants us to have. Prayer is a practice that connects us to the power that is much greater than ourselves, a power that can fill us and change us and strengthen us and guide us. Prayer is a practice that is perfected by persistence – by disciplined determination to be in an ongoing conversation with God.

    Powerful people sometimes step-on OR step-over others in their way; that’s just the way world is. But, Jesus used the parable to teach us – all of us – about persistence and prayer.

III. Third layer: we need to return to what this passage tells us about God.
    Who do you identify with the story as Luke tells it?
    +With the widow?
    +OR With the Judge?
In a Bible study, someone led us through an exercise in which we wrote down the qualities of the widow and then of the Judge. Just make a list in your mind or on your order of service:
What are the qualities of the widow?
    +believes in justice,
    +respects the authority of the Judge to make the decision,
    +stands up for her rights,
    +(you can add others.)
What are the qualities of the Judge?
    +unwilling to do the right thing,
    +refuses to listen to someone who wants to trust him,
    +serves justice based on a person's status or power or money,
    +(again, you can add more.)

Now, looking at your lists, which one of these characters is most like God? It looks like the widow. And which is most like people? It looks more like the Judge. Which one of them looks like any of us? Immediately, I realized that I have been reading this parable upside down. The Judge is most like me and people of all kinds; the widow is most like God.
        +Like the widow, God is persistent in calling us to live up to the faith we claim. God believes in justice, but God allows people to make their own decision about faith and faithfulness. And yet, God also stands up for God's right to be God.
        +And people like us keeping putting off God's call to do right in our dealings with others; people like us keep putting off God's call to faith and faithfulness in our dealings with God. If God has the right be God and call for our faithfulness, then we are unjust in putting God off with our half-way commitment and self-serving faith.
    We know how the world works, but to hear Jesus tell this story is to see ourselves in a new light.

To read this parable, seeing ourselves as self-serving old judges who hold God the supplicant off at a distance is to see ourselves and our claims in a whole new light. Does God the Almighty come to the likes of us in willing powerlessness to wait upon our decision?
    +Faith in God or rebellion against God?
    +Faithfulness to God's ways or unfaithfulness?
    +Living justly to be a blessing OR living  to serve no one but ourselves?

IV. The last line of the story in Luke is the most challenging:
    "I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18.8)

The last layer of the story is Jesus’ teaching on the character of faith. Through the story, he is teaching us what faith is. Then, he asks, “When I come again, will I find faith in you? In the church? In the world?

    For too long we have accepted the view that faith is merely our agreement to a set of propositions about God.
    +God is great.
    +God is good.
    +God is love.

Whatever the list of propositions, we have presented faith as our willing assent to such a list. But, the definition of faith as Jesus presents it in this parable is much richer and more robust than any list of propositions. Read the parable again. What does Jesus teach us about faith through this parable?
    +Faith is praying in the confidence that God hears;
    +Faith is praying persistently in the face of God's delay or God's silence;
    +Faith is listening and responding when God calls on us to hear;
    +Faith is acting justly;
    +Faith is exercising the authority that we enjoy – but, in the fear of God.
    +Faith is responding to God's call and God's claims on us.
Instead of a list to accept, faith is walking alongside God each day.

    [FOOTBALL] To borrow a football metaphor: faith is never taking your eye off that Alabama linebacker who is surely coming. When the ball is snapped, you’d better not be tying your shoelaces.

    When Jesus comes, will he find faith in us? In our church? In our world?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

October 10, 2010- Children's Sunday

Technically, every Sunday is Children's Sunday, but last week we celebrated their ministry among us in a very special way. Our children's choirs offered the music, children served as greeters, liturgists, and ushers. They led the "Moments with all God's Children," and even led the "Prayers of the People." We are blessed by our children every week at Church Street, if you could not be among us, you missed an awesome day of worship. This sermon is dedicated to our children and those with a child's heart for God's great world.


"Bullies, Boys, and Grace"
Rev. Sarah Varnell
Luke 19:1-10

“Zaccheaus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he...” be honest, as soon as the Gospel story was read and you heard the name Zaccheaus, you thought the same thing. This story takes us back to out childhood when learning bible stories meant songs, games, coloring pages, and obvious life application. As adults we tell ourselves, it’s not as complicated for children...without the worries of adulthood, to understand why Jesus says and does what he says and does. Sometimes, children know what is right, they just choose outright not to apply it to their lives, or in a moment of anger at family, friend, or peer they conveniently forget their convictions...or they get too tired or cranky or annoyed to worry about how it affects others. Somewhere in there I stopped talking about children and started addressing the condition and struggles of all God’s people.


Way back in my memory vault of Children’s Church, one of the many times we heard the story of Zaccheaus, my class was called on to perform a skit. So, we made a plan- we needed someone to play Jesus, a few people to be disciples, a Zaccheaus, a bunch of tall people to be the crowd, a sycamore tree, and some other objects for the scenery on the streets of Jericho. One kid always played Jesus, so he was assigned the part of Jesus, and the shortest kid in our group was assigned the role of Zaccheaus. I wasn’t much taller than Mark to be in the crowd, nor was I sophisticated enough to be disciple material, so I took on the role of the shrub in the road on the way to Jericho, a glamorous and not-so-essential part of the tale. If you had listened to the story with your imagination, you would know the role that I speak of. Afterall, there are no small roles, only small actors. And that particular day the shrub saved Jesus from a skinned knee! I remember not really knowing what taxes were or why they were such a big deal, and so we all felt sorry for Zaccheaus that the crowd bullied him around- poor little Zaccheaus.

As a child, this felt like a story about bullies, being nice to people, noticing the little guy (like Jesus), and making that person your friend.

Later that day I made the connection, though, about why a tax collector was a bad job, as I watched the Disney version of Robin hood, and the Sheriff of Nottingham went around collecting money from the poor people who barely had enough to eat. The sweet, pudgy, Friar Tuck passed out the money, and that mean old Sheriff took it without one bit of remorse. For example, as he was walking around Nottingham one day, he stopped in at a house full of bunnies. The bunnies had many children and were very poor. One of the bunnies was celebrating his birthday and his family gave him one golden coin, but as soon as that greedy Sheriff saw the coin he swiped it up in the name of taxes! TAXES! UGH! The tables turned in my head- Zaccheaus was not poor little Zaccheaus, he was the bully! Suddenly, I no longer knew the point of the story. What was Jesus thinking? And, what were my teachers thinking teaching us to feel sorry for a mean old bully??

My confusion over this story remains the same... is it poor little Zaccheaus or poor little crowd? The lesson we teach to our children is that bullying is wrong, friendships and understanding are important, and Jesus is the ultimate example of acceptance.

It seems like, for children, you’re never big enough to do the things that you dream about doing. Conversely, for adults, you can never go back to those innocent days when life was so easy, children never know how good they have it until they don’t. Driving is one of those “issues.” When you finally realize that one day you will be behind the wheel in charge of the destination of the car, you cannot wait for the day to arrive! It means independence, control of destiny, pulling in to McDonald's anytime you crave a Happy Meal, and freedom! But as soon as 16 comes around it becomes obvious way too fast that driving brings with it responsibility, money, and higher expectations...not to mention acquiring a car. With greater power comes greater responsibility, and a little bit of the childhood excitement and curiosity over the new privilege begins to fade until one day you look in the mirror, and realize: I am an adult.

When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, this was my answer: An astronaut, a ballerina, and a pizza maker. Bear in mind that my middle name is not, and will not ever be grace...and I still don’t know how to make a decent pizza without the assistance of the frozen food section at Kroger, but as a child I read every book about space travel that I could get my hands on. I remember a very significant showdown on the playground over my career aspirations. In class we were assigned to draw a picture of ourselves as an adult doing whatever it was that we wanted to do when we grew up. So I drew a picture of a woman in an astronaut suit with a tutu, ballerina slippers, and a pizza in hand. On the playground that day, we were splitting into teams for kick ball. One of my friends, who happenned to be the fastest runner in the second grade, did not pick me for his team (which was the better of the teams).

Finally, being the mix of tomboy and girlie girl that I was- wearing a skirt most everyday, but insisting on wearing shorts underneath so that I was ready to play with the boys on the playground- I asked my friend why he did not pick me. He said, “You’re a girl!” I said, “I know, soooo!” And he said, “Girls can’t be astronauts. Your picture was stupid.” Before I could argue back or push him down or throw the ball at him, the new boy in class spoke up and he said, “My Momma said that girls can do anything they want, just like boys.” From that moment on, I was in love. Finally, someone who saw me for what I was... a girl without the glass ceiling... a girl who could play kickball... a girl who would go to the moon if her heart desired. So I played my heart out for the underdog team that day, all the while keeping my eye on the new kid, the new love of my elementary school life.

Kids struggle with bullies, people that assume they have power, that really only have power when we give it over to them. Youth struggle with bullies. Adults struggle with bullies too... people in our workplaces or friends they put unnecessary pressure on us, or just the occasional jerk on the road who acts like he is the most important car on the road. Bullies come in all forms and fashions in the adult world and in kid world, and do we really deal with them all that differently as adults? I, for one, do what I did as a child... stay out of their way when I can, and when I have the opportunity to respond I get myself in more trouble my running my mouth too much.

Zaccheaus was a man who deserved my childhood pity and my adult displeasure. He was a tax collector for the occupying nation, which means that he is a traitor to his people, placing his needs above others by taking their money mercilessly. No wonder the people did not care if Zaccheaus could see Jesus that day in Jericho, Zaccheaus didn’t need Jesus. Jesus saw the lowly, and the downtrodden, and gave them worth. Zaccheaus, though small in stature, stepped on those already down and sold his soul to the occupying nation. Yet, Zaccheaus was also a child of Abraham, a child of God.

I’m sure many of you join me in having moments in your life with people that you could not stand, because they were bullies, because they were incompetent at their job, because they let the power go to their head, and you have had moments when they have become human to you. God lets you peer into their heart, or learn something about their childhood or home life that suddenly helps you to understand and even excuse their behavior. It doesn’t make it easier or better, but it does make judging them more complicated.

In the case of Zaccheaus, Jesus does a powerful thing. He actually sees Zaccheaus for who he truly is- a child of God- in need of a serious lesson in God’s grace to be applied asap to his life.

So, Jesus, in front of the crowd, applies the difficult challenge he offers in Matthew 5:43-46, “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?”

Now it seems that bullying has soared to new levels in our modern times with even more complicated results. In the last month alone 4 teenagers have taken their lives on account of bullying. At least two of them on account of being bullied about their sexual orientation. Talk show host and comedian, Ellen Degeneres put out a powerful response to this in a short blurb calling people in this country to do something about it, she says, “this needs to be a wake up call to everyone that bullying is an epidemic in this country. One life lost is a tragedy, and four lives lost is a crisis...” And then she says to those being bullied: “things will get easier, people’s minds will change, and you should be alive to see it.”

So, hear me clearly when I say that Jesus calls us to love our enemies, but loving your enemies doesn’t mean that you have to put yourself in a position to take the abuse of a bully- at home, in the workplace, or anywhere else in the world. If you are in this position, I join my voice with the wise words of Ellen, “there is help out there, and you need support.” Dear friends, you too are a child of God, and God does not put us in relationship with others to be abused, physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally. Being a child of God, you have a built in family and the way God's children approach bullies is by recognizing the humanity in the bully, standing together and saying, "No more."

Also, keep in mind, we are not Jesus in this story. It is significant that JESUS is the one who has the power and the ability to change Zaccheaus’ heart. Don’t try to be Jesus in your life, you cannot change someone, so don't convince yourself to take abuse in the hope of changing them. Rather, pray that the power of God will work in the lives of the Zaccheauses that you face, but recognize that is a work only performed by God, who has the power to set us free from whatever holds us captive.

Zaccheaus was a wee little man, a tax collector and traitor to his people, and a child of God. May we be people of grace who advocate for the oppressed, who love our enemies and our friends, and above all, with the curiosity of a child, may we love and cherish the God who made a way when there was no way and who does new things with old stories in our midst. The lesson we teach to our children is that bullying is wrong, friendships and understanding are important, and Jesus is the ultimate example of acceptance...and even as we look in the mirror and see the adult looking back at us, we’re still learning this lesson.

Take a moment, pray for your enemies... pray for bullies... pray for victims...pray especially for our children.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

October 3, 2010 - The Feeding ofthe 5000

The Feeding of the 5000

["A New Social Order"]
    By the fourth century, the churches in Rome were feeding an estimated 20,000 poor people each week. The church at that time presented to the world a visible alternative to the prevailing social order. As Georges Florovsky has written in "Empire and Desert":

        Christianity entered human history as a new social order or, rather, a new social dimension. From the very beginning, Christianity was not primarily a "doctrine," but exactly a "community." There was not only a "message" to be proclaimed and delivered and "Good News" to be declared, but there was a New Community, distinct and peculiar, in the process of growth and formation, to which members were called and recruited. Indeed, "fellowship" ("koinonia") was the basic category of Christian existence (1).


    I. [COMIC]
        Charlie Brown and Lucy are talking in a Peanuts comic. They are lying on their backs looking up at the night sky. Charlie Brown says, “I read that in 8-10 billion years the sun will expand and consume the earth.
        Lucy sits up, glares at Charlie Brown and asks, “Well, what can I do about it?”

People were out there a long way from any village, and they were hungry. Jesus said to his disciples, “Feed them.” And the disciples asked, “What can we do about it?”  They couldn’t imagine what they might do, so he took a few loaves and a couple of fishes they found and worked a miracle to meet their need. He met the need of the hungry people, AND he met the need of the helpless disciples.

    Point #1 of the story: There are some things we cannot do for ourselves.
    –We cannot make hope at the edges of life,
    –We cannot derive meaning from the rat race,
    –We can forget our mistakes but we do not have the power to forgive ourselves.
    –We cannot make 5 loaves and 2 fish feed 5000 hungry people.

The people have come to Jesus to receive what they cannot provide for themselves. Later, the disciples come to Jesus because they were overwhelmed by the need before them, and they have no idea what to do to meet that need. On occasion, we have all been overwhelmed by the need before us.
        –I have stood in neighborhoods where poverty is the only constant and felt overwhelmed;
        –I have walked the cell blocks of a prison and wondered what could be done to relieve us of the need for such places.
        –The crowds came to Jesus because they wanted their hopes fulfilled. They wanted something more from life than they could see. And, so do we. We want to share in God’s purposes for the earth.

This why we come: we come because there are some things we cannot do for ourselves. The miracle came that day in the realization that, in Jesus’ hands, five loaves and two fish could feed the multitude. The miracle comes today in the realization that in Jesus’ hands our willing efforts can still feed or house or heal the multitudes.

Text: The next day the crowd has been so “stirred” by the miracle Jesus had done, that they follow him all around the Sea of Galilee like he was a superstar. I believe that when they first started following Jesus, they just thought he might provide an afternoon diversion. He was the most interesting visitor passing along the road. It was not much but it was enough, so they followed him just to see what would happen. And even after he worked the miracle of feeding the 5000, they could not put into words what moved them to follow him so frantically.
        +The whole thing started because people wanted to hear the traveling preacher who was passing through the village.
        +Then, their hunger and the disappointment over a young boy's lunch turned into a miracle which surrounded them with God's abundance.
        +All of this touched their souls in ways they could never have imagined. They find themselves leaving everything else to go looking for Jesus.

Have you ever gone out, thinking you are looking for something fairly unimportant only to run into something that stirs your soul? Often, the stirring is hard to define; we cannot easily put the moment into words. You were looking for the pedestrian, but you run across the profound. You don’t know whether to stop and sort it all out OR to forge ahead and enjoy the experience.
    We have all had such moments. We have been told all our lives that we are supposed to be looking for something.
    +Find a career.
    +Find what makes you happy.
    +Find the American dream and live it.
    +Find the answer that will make you a hero.

    Further, the world tells us that, whether or not we know what we are looking to find, we are in charge of the search – that it is our task. We have spend a lot of life looking, assuming that looking was something we have to do by ourselves for ourselves.
        --Never realizing that the bread of life which Jesus offers is the answer to life’s tantalizing questions about meaning and purpose and connection.
        –Never realizing that in His presence we are known and loved beyond counting and without the small print that undermines every promise the world makes.
        –Never realizing that eating the nugget of bread and drinking the tiny cup of juice the servers provide as we kneel at the communion rail is a feast for body and soul.

The meal that day for the crowd started with low expectations and ended in the stirring confidence that God was moving among them. We come to this Table – some of us – with no higher expectation than to get it done. But here at he Table the Lord of Love moves among us.

III. Something that we need to notice about this miracle of the loaves and fishes is the simple fact of the bread and the fish. In our world we expect more of the physical than we do of the spiritual. You can show the physical to your friends; it might fatten your bank account. The only thing we have to show from the spiritual is nothing to show; it is rarely more than a good feeling.  As a result, we are quick to spiritualize everything that Jesus does (just to keep expectations low) and therefore miss the physical fact that this miracle dealt with hungry stomachs filled with bread from Jesus' hands.

    In fact, the bread was so ordinary that 5000 people wolfed it down without a second thought. It was so ordinary that 12 basketfuls were gathered up when everyone had eaten enough. 5000 witnesses and 12 disciples did not notice anything unusual about the bread which came from this miracle except that five loaves and two fish turned into food enough for all of them.

    Life at its fullest is both spiritual and physical. A good meal satisfies the body’s need for fuel; it also imparts a sense of connectedness to the earth and often a sense of community around a table – physical and spiritual.
    +The life of a Christian is both physical and spiritual.
        +What we do in church on Sunday morning is no less physical just because it is deeply spiritual.
        +The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is a physical miracle which pointed the crowd and the disciples to the reality of God among them. And God among them was seen the face and acting in the hands of Jesus Christ.

IV. So, come to the Table of the Lord. Here there is bread. Here there is the cup. Here there is the undefinable and yet stirring presence of the Holy. We arrive with an nonchalance that allows us to keep our demeanor and our distance intact. But, somewhere between the Lord’s prayer and “this is the Body of Christ,” we discover a different presence moving among us. It is the presence of the Living Christ, come to visit, to listen, and to touch his own.
    Come to the Table. It is the Table of the Lord.

1. Terbush, Rev. Dr. Jay M., The Significance of the Insignificant