LAW OR FAITH

June 11, 2017

Union Ave

It was in the 1980’s that the prosperity gospel started getting a good deal of applause. This so called ‘gospel’ is based on IF I have enough faith, I will get what I want, do what I want and be rewarded by God for all that I do. This is all about me, me, me! It has nothing to do with God or faith. It is, however, about me forcing God’s power to become mine … and again honestly has nothing to do with faith.

And even though it was not called prosperity gospel in the time of Abraham (or Paul) it is exactly what is being referenced in this passage today.

IF I keep the rules or laws, I can be rewarded. IF I outwardly perform as I am supposed to do, God will love me. IF I am generous, then the world (and God) will be generous to me. WRONG!

I recently read a story about a young woman who had just started seminary. She noticed a fellow student who had muscular dystrophy and was having a very difficult time climbing the steps to class. And so she said to him “if you have faith, God will heal you.” It obviously took him a moment to capture what she had said to him and then he responded “I do have faith – and God has healed me.”
We have absolutely no clue about the faith of others. Trying to determine – from an external basis – whether someone has faith is truly absurd. We also have no understanding of what any other person faces day in and day out within their hearts and souls. Figuring out faith simplistically – by outward appearances – is just not possible. We honestly have no idea (until others share with us) what is and has been within our lives and how God has helped us.

And this is precisely what a congregation is about … to offer experiences and times of sharing what we have been through, what we are facing, and how we can learn from others how God has helped us.
We will never inherit anything from God if that is based on us keeping the law or certain rules. All of us fall short … all of us break the laws … all of us step into places we ought not go. If we are to be rewarded for being perfect – well, guess what – no one will get the prize!

Faith is honestly NOT about keeping the rules. It is not about being stellar for the law. Faith is about believing in God’s presence and knowing assuredly that this presence will guide us, forgive us, love us, challenge us and surround us always. If we think we would inherit something from God IF we keep all the rules and laws … we are going to be sorely disappointed. Faith is believing IN God …. it is not believing THAT we will be rewarded when we keep the rules.

So, dear Abraham….when God spoke to him – at the age of 99 and gave him some good news and some promises, Abraham fell on the ground and laughed. Who wouldn’t laugh – at the age of 99 – when you are told that you would father a son and he would also be the father of many nations!?! His beloved wife was 90 years old. Impossible … impossible … impossible. Abram had fathered a son before – and that did not turn out as planned, but they did reconcile…Sarah and her servant whom she had given to Abram. But still, that son was NOT going to be the one God had just promised.

Though we do not truly know what Abraham wanted in his life, he undoubtedly did not get it. The reality that he was without children – especially in those days – must have been hard. The other reality that he had been promised to be the father of the land – or reinterpreted as the world – surely must have baffled him. However, Abraham stayed faithful. He was always assured that he was being loved by God … even though he probably did not understand why he was going through what he was. But God’s promise to Abraham that the world would become heirs to him was kept … it just did not look like what Abraham expected.

And so what about us? What promises do we think God has made to us? And how do we believe we should be gifted for those promises? Just as the young seminarian replied ‘I do have faith and God HAS gifted me’ did not look like it to some other people.

But no one knows what God has done for each of us. No one honestly knows what our lives have been. And no one understands the righteousness that we have received from God. God provides us grace…always …and none of this is because we keep laws or rules … but because this is God’s way when we trust … when we believe … when we know the holy presence of God is always surrounding us, filling us, challenging us and loving us through whatever life will bring to us.

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LIKE NEWBORN INFANTS

May 14, 2017

Union Ave Christian Church

On Mother’s Day we read a passage that begins ‘like newborn infants long for the pure spiritual milk’.

Many people think that breast feeding comes oh so naturally …and for some it does! But for many it takes time to learn. First of all, mothers need to know how to relax – or else the milk will not flow. Babies (it is thought) have a natural tendency to latch onto the breast but that is not always the case either. Often they have to be taught the right place …and not to suck so hard that they wear themselves out. It honestly takes some time and diligent processing for at least a week (and sometimes much longer) for mother and child to get the rhythm. But when they get it, it is oh so, so good. And mother and child get to be fed together and relax and love each other!

So it is with faith. Sometimes we work so hard and believe we have to do all sorts of things to get in line … that we wear ourselves out. When we understand that we can and should relax, be fed, receive the spirit of God, it becomes oh so much easier. We are linked to the spirit when we remain open and listen … when we allow ourselves to be challenged by the inspiration of God’s holy ways … when we are attentive enough to know that God does speak to us, does feed us, does lead us and does take us to new depths of understanding and love.

A colleague shared an incredible book with me recently. It is titled ‘The Spiritual Child” by Lisa Miller. The author is a psychologist who has done extensive research related to spirituality and children. She has – through her studies found that every one of us is born knowing that we are connected to a higher power …whether that be nature, God, spirit or the loving and guiding universe.

The book is for parents who need to know how to nurture and encourage their children’s well-being and make sure they stay attentive to that ‘spirit beyond them’ rather than denying the possibility.

Here is a passage from the book:
“Perhaps you’ve taken the time to walk in the park and just marvel together at what you see – the sky, the flowers, or an ant hauling a crumb across th dirt. Maybe you’ve asked your child to help you gather food or clothes to take to the homeless shelter or encouraged him to befriend the new kid at school, share the last piece of cake, or watch for opportunities to step up and to lend a hand. You’ve likely shared your family’s history and kept alive the memory of those who’ve passed on. Perhaps when your child fails or makes a mistake, you share what you know about growing through those experiences. Maybe you go to church or temple or send your child to Sunday School. Maybe you say grace before meals or share a bedtime prayer to bring the day to a peaceful close. Or, you say ‘I love you’ and mean that your love is for always and unconditional.”

So, I think it is pretty amazing that we have psychologists who are seeing the links that communities of faith understand. This is a very, very good sign! It also reminds us and helps us know that our youngest babies are reaching out for the fullness of the spirit.

And from the very beginning, all of us have the inspiration that we believe in something (and we in the church call this God!) We believe in something beyond us that can guide, transform, challenge and always love us.

All of us are the chosen ones – from the beginning. It is only when we CHOOSE to reject that reality that we fall away.

The last piece of this passage needs a bit of understanding:
– Once you were not a people
but now you are God’s people
Once you had not received mercy
but now you have received mercy

This, I believe, is the reality that we can be open to the leading, the drinking of the spirit of God, the open-ness to the challenges and love of God … or we can refuse this. And when we are old enough to make these choices and do so, then we are truly the people of God and fully realize the incredible mercy we receive.

And yet, how do we do so? How do we continue to build the strength we have in God, the teaching and leading of Jesus, the deeper and deeper understanding, reliance and trust in the assurance that God will always lead us? How do we make sure that the building blocks DO make us a ‘royal priesthood, a holy nation and God’s own people?’

Today is the fifth Sunday of Easter. Are we still full of the glory we experienced 5 weeks ago? Are we still dancing, singing, protesting, praying, marching because God is feeding us to do so? We cannot be taken down if every day we are yearning for and drinking the spiritual milk of God. We can – if we so choose – to be fed from the extraordinary …not just meager milk. Every moment of our lives we need to remember that we are connected to the spirit of God.

Jesus was rejected by some humans and yet he was ‘the living stone’. We, too, are rejected by some humans …and when that happens, it is oh so important to remember that we are still connected and empowered by the spiritual milk of God.

Living stones we are! We are certainly not perfect – but when we choose to access the Spirit of God we are vital, living stones that can build, rebuild and care for this hurting world … as Jesus has taught us.

Once we were not a people…NOW we are God’s people!!!!

12 March 2017
Lent II
Union Avenue

Is there really anything more we can say or preach about THE most familiar passage for Christians? Well, we will see! There are Christians who claim they are ‘saved’ and ‘born again’. Many times these phrases are meant to create a distinction between people. Honestly, I do not hear many of this congregation using those phrases … and thankfully not using them to claim some power or prestige over others.

However, this is a reality that Jesus was trying to teach the rabbi Nicodemus. There is a newness to life when we understand that we are in a relationship with God. This takes action and responsibility on our part. Yes, we are ALL children of God … but God desires for us to understand, appreciate and then build on that relationship. And no, it does NOT mean entering our mother’s womb again. It does mean an awakening in our lives that our relationship with God is not just one-sided. We have responsibility to grow our side … to invest in listening … to understand the challenges that are presented … to hear what we could be doing much better than we are at the moment.

And this process is on-going …. ALL of the time! It s not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every single day we can be reading, listening to others, praying, asking questions, searching, realizing that we are not alone in any of this process but can be receiving ever so much as we are involved in the diversity of community. Growing in faith is constant … it is not something that happens once and we are ‘saved’, ‘cured’ or ‘perfect’ for the rest of our lives. We were not made by God in that way. We were made to be always growing – always changing – always developing – always becoming better servants of the faith.

And even though it seems like Jesus was ridiculing Nicodemus when he chided him for being a rabbi and not understanding … more than likely Jesus was trying to share some humor with him. Unfortunately, Nicodemus was not quite ready to accept the humor … but we know from the later encounters that this rabbi took Jesus’ words seriously and kept thinking about them and churning them over and over in his life and ultimately he understood.

The Gospel writer, John, makes a good deal out of light and darkness. Nicodemus was obviously in the dark and did not want to come out in the light to Jesus. But when he did speak with Jesus, he realized that Jesus was all about light. And even though Nicodemus went back into the darkness, he did not dismiss Jesus’ light.

Those of us who like to “live in the darkness” do so because the light will expose us and all that we have done wrong. To come out into the light means that everyone can see us – absolutely exposed. Thus we had better be living the way and the truth and the life … if we honestly are wanting to be in the light.

The other piece of Nicodemus is that as good a man and leader that he is, he was living a frightened life. It seems he truly wants to understand Jesus, but he is fearful of what that will do to his leadership and the esteem he receives from others. It seems that he hears Jesus – but he is compartmentalizing his faith.

Jesus is earnestly trying to help Nicodemus step out – to be brave. Be born again … realize that there could be a new and amazing way to live. But this all would take courage and honestly, it could mean that the respect he has from others might be reduced – at least in Nicodemus’ mind and heart.

Jesus’ words are very important to us as well. He wants us to come out from the darkness … to not be afraid … to be able to share our questions … our concerns … our weaknesses with others and know that when we do – both with other people and with God – that we will learn … we will grow … we will be able to change in the light. Darkness allows us to continue to hide and thus even we cannot see the terrors we are keeping within our hearts and souls.

This very important passage also reveals to us an important Christian concept that I believe has been misinterpreted through the ages. Jesus is teaching us that we can choose to be connected to him … we can choose by our faithfulness and spirit to be one with him. This is what atonement means … at-one-ment.

Jesus lived and served so that we would know how to live and serve. His life was a gift to us – a reflection of how we could live when and if we truly want to be the faithful servants God needs in this world.

Jesus’ death did not secure our life for us. His life – how he fully lived and taught us to live is how we can be engaged with and have new life with God.

God did not demand that Jesus die in order for us to be ‘saved’. Jesus’ life was not a ransom for our lives. Jesus lived so fully and taught us how we could live so that we, too, could be the faithful servants God needs us to be in this world.

God did not change! God has not changed … rather according to our Christian faith God gave us Jesus so that we would learn how to live the way that would help this world.

May we understand and accept that God loves this world so much that he gave us his Son … so that we might understand, serve and love God and thus experience a life of eternity.

THE TEMPTATIONS OF LIFE

March 5, 2017

Lent I

March 5, 2017

Temptations!!! We face them every single day of our lives!
Temptation comes when we look at others and feel insecure because we do not have enough money, power, prestige.
Temptation comes when we do not understand or agree with others so we make very hasty judgements.
Temptations come to all us as we look away from those who are hungry, homeless and diseased.
Temptations allow us to vent our anger when we see that others have more or are more respected than we are.
Temptation takes over when we engage in little lies that move into much bigger stories.
Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life and lose total sight of what life is and should be.

Lent provides the time when we can honestly face our temptations … and try to give them up without guilt … and believing that the mercy of God can and will win us over.
Right after Jesus was baptized and knew that his ministry was to begin he was led into a very, very difficult time. He agreed to go into the wilderness. We have to believe that he had an inkling of the hardness he would be grappling with in those days. Surely, he knew that life was NOT going to be easy. Closeness to God is not always easy. There are conflicts and struggles – all of the time … not because of God, but because of what we need to do and be with other people.

Interestingly, the prayer that Jesus taught his followers includes the line ‘lead us not into temptation’ … did he not know that every day we would be tempted and tested? I feel certain he did – but we can honestly be assured that it is not God who leads us into temptation … it is all the people (just like us!) who surround us.
The 40 days and nights are an important heritage. Noah experienced 40 days and nights of rain falling. Moses fasted 40 days and nights on top of Mt. Sinai where he was given the Ten Commandments. Elijah fasted 40 days and nights as he fled to Mt. Horeb. Honestly, I cannot imagine living without eating or drinking for 40 days … but this number is a very clear number for the struggle in Judaism … and so Jesus is following a tradition of his own faith.

But let’s move to the temptations. All of them are very much alive and quite honestly the church is and has been vulnerable to everything that was tempting Jesus. Yes, every one of us can also be persuaded in these temptations, but it would probably be good for us to look at the church – our history and our future – to be able to determine how we can best follow Jesus and not succumb to these temptations.

The first temptation is about miracles … change these stones into something that would nurture us. Unfortunately, churches often claim (both in the past and presently) that if we have pure faith WE will be able to create miracles. There is no question that we see, hear and experience what we would call miracles. The power to create those miracles, however, does not come from us. Yes, there are amazing surprises in life and we love to have those happen to us. But WE do not have the power to create miracles. Surprises often come because we are open to God’s word, God’s care, God’s love … all of which surround us, change us and allow us to see amazing and new revelations in life that we did not expect. The power, however, is not ours.

The second temptation was about falling from the top of the temple and knowing that angels would care for Jesus. All of us would love to be spectacular. And we long for the church to be understood as such. We do NOT like to be ordinary – either in our own personal lives or in the life of the church. But guess what? We are! We are ordinary! Every one of us is foibled … every one of us makes mistakes (little and big) … every one of us succumbs to things we wish we would not … and every one of us has been made this way. Believing that when we come together as the church that somehow we can all of a sudden be perfect and be an amazing and spectacular entity is a bit absurd. However, it does NOT mean we should quit trying to be the people Jesus taught us to be. It does not mean that we cannot always look to God for strength, guidance, forgiveness and love. It just means that the church is full of ordinary people – who are merely following the way of Jesus and trying to be a healthy and important resource in the world today. But it honestly has nothing to do with OUR perfection … but with the ability we have to follow our Lord.

And the last temptation was truly absurd. Worship me (the devil) and I will give you everything. At this point I feel certain Jesus was VERY weary … thus he was able to quickly dismiss this tempter. However, we have the same temptation all of the time. When we need and want power, we can easily fall into ways that take us from God. Personally and as the church – when we honestly believe we need more, we crave more, we have to have more … in order to be a brighter light, a more important resource, a better contributor to the world … we can fall into seeking ways that will only hurt us.

Jesus suffered through these days but he did not succumb to taking or even wanting to take God’s place or power. Jesus was a humble man who knew he was to be God’s son, God’s servant. he was to be a teacher of God’s ways, but he knew that he would NEVER take God’s place.

As the church – as the people of God, this is our lesson for the day. During this season of Lent we need to be listening, being led, being responsive to God, and sharing the good news of acting with peace, love, encouragement in this world.

We are NOT God – and never will be. We are servants of God who always need to listen for God’s ways with humility … to follow God’s ways with love … and to always know that God has the power and glory of all of life.