Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 28, 2016
Genesis 1:1-2:4, Matthew 6:25-34
The scene from The Lion King opens with Pumbaa, Timon and Simba all lying on the grass, after dinner, looking at the stars.
Simba, “I’m stuffed”
Pumbaa, “Me too. I ate like a pig.”
Simba, “You are a pig.”
Pumbaa, “Oh, right.”
They all sigh.
Pumbaa, “Have you ever wondered what those sparkling dots are up there?”
Timon, “I don’t wonder. I know.”
Pumbaa, “What are they?”
Timon, “They’re fireflies; fireflies that got stuck up here is that blueish-black thing.”
Pumbaa, “Oh Gee, I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.”
Timon, “Pumbaa, with you, everything is gas.”
Pumbaa, “Simba, what do you think?”
Simba (hesitantly), “Well I don’t know…”
Pumbaa, “Oh come on…give, give, give. We told you ours.”
Simba, “Somebody once told me that the great kings of the past were up there watching over us.”
Timon, “Really. You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?!”
They all begin to laugh and the scene fades.
The Lion King makes it clear what Pumbaa, Timon and Simba saw when they looked at the stars; when they looked at creation. So what is it that we see, or perhaps what is it that we are supposed to see when we look at creation. I ask because just like these three friends, human beings across the last ten-thousand years or so have seen many different things when they looked at creation. Like Simba, many saw gods, goddesses or ancestors living in the sky, the sun, the moon, the trees and the plants. Others, Like Pumbaa, looked at creation and saw a mechanical universe which was like a pocket watch, all wound up and running eternally on a set of mechanistic principles; principles that today we learn about in physics such as gravity, electromagnetism, strong force and weak force. Still others, like Timon (who saw the stars as his food source) saw creation as a giant piggy bank of minerals and materials waiting to be exploited for the money that could be made, regardless of the consequences. And the materials were not simply what one could take out of the earth, but were the human beings that were to be enslaved, used up and then cast aside. Others saw only awe and beauty, a gift to be explored and about which one could write great music and produce amazing works of art. But what is it that we, the people of the Book; the people of God in Jesus Christ are to see, when we look at creation? The answer is twofold, and both answers can be found in this morning’s lesson from the opening of the chapter of Genesis.
First we are to see creation as God’s creation. The writer of Genesis 1 makes it clear that the universe and everything in it is God’s. Now to be clear we as Presbyterians are not Creationists. We don’t believe that Genesis either explains the mechanics of creation…the actual how it was made, or give us an exact timeline for the creation event. Even so, what it affirms is that God was somehow mysteriously behind all of this; all of creation; all of life. Whether that life came through God casting a seed of energy at the Big Bang that was filled with the potential and possibility of life, or whether God insured that the potential for life became the reality of life doesn’t matter to the writer. What matters is that God is the creating force behind this creation. The writer also reminds us that God created all that there is but that God cared and cares for all that there is. God said that it was good and very good. In a sense whatever God creates, God cares about. When we look at this creation then the first thing we should see is that it is God’s; that it is God’s very good creation.
Second, we should see it as our creation. When I say that I don’t mean that it is ours as a possession. Even though many people have and will read Genesis that way; that we are to have an exploitative dominion over creation, that is not the essence of the Hebrew. The original wording of dominion refers to the dominion of a king who guides and protects his people. It is the dominion of a shepherd who cares for the sheep. Walter Brueggemann implies that the image we ought to use in understanding dominion is that of Jesus who lays down his life for his sheep. In other words, the dominion we are to have entails a responsibility for the creation; so it is our creation because we are the ones whom God has tasked with taking care of it. This is in fact the meaning of the image of God. The image of someone, say a king, referred to the authority given to an individual who was commissioned by the king to serve in the king’s place when the king could not be present. Thus when God addresses humanity in these opening verses of Genesis, God is saying that this is our creation to care for, nurture and assist in becoming the wonderful, awe filled place that God created it to be.
These understandings lead us to two conclusions. First they lead us to become those who care for and appreciate the environment, which is appropriate this year as we celebrate the Centennial of our National Parks. This is in some ways an obvious outcome. The second is a conclusion that we might miss; but fortunately Jesus points it out to us…and that is that we get to live a life of “hakuna matata”, or a life where there are no worries here. (And by the way, even though most of you probably heard this phrase first in the Lion King, it is a phrase used by Kenyans). We hear Jesus saying this to those who had gathered around him for what we call the Sermon on the Mount. He asks them why they worry about life, clothes or food and then implies that they need not worry. This is a remarkable ask considering how difficult life was in the first century. People were small farmers scratching out a living. They were day laborers hoping to get hired in order to feed their families. They were small merchants who were heavily taxed and who might be robbed at any turn on the road. So how could Jesus tell them to live by Hakuna Matata? He could do so because this is God’s and our creation. Jesus reminds them that in God’s creation God not only takes care of the birds of the air and the grass of the field, but God takes care of those who are made in God’s image. Jesus says, “Are you not of more value than they?” Thus Jesus says, God will take care of the needs of human beings and so they do not need to worry.
In our study book, We Make the Road by Walking, the author speaks of the awe and wonder that we should experience when we view God’s creation. Like many of you there have been many times in my life when the beauty around me has left me virtually speechless. Yet for me, the greatest aspect of awe and wonder, is that the God who created the heavens and the earth, cares so deeply for this creation and for all of us in it; for every bird, and tree and human being who draws breath, that God will work that we have all that we need, now and always.
My challenge for you then for this week is this, to ask yourselves, where do I see awe and wonder in God’s creation and how am I fulfilling my role as one who has been created in the image of God?
Living in Ordinary Time: Liberation
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 21. 2016
Exodus 20:8-11, Luke 13:10-17
Good guys and bad guys; they are usually easy to spot on the movie screen. The good guys are generally better looking than us, inventive, indestructible and almost always do the right thing. They do not have to be perfect, in fact many of them are flawed, yet we know that they will save the damsel in distress, or in the case of Disney’s Frozen, the damsel will do the saving. They care for the weak and powerless and they keep evil at bay. The bad guys are those who look slightly off, slightly evil. Often they have foreign accents or they look scary and mean; just consider the orcs in Lord of the Rings, or the aliens in well, any movie. They look like we should be afraid of them and so we are. In a sense these types of guys and gals in black or white hats are caricatures of human beings, set apart in order to make the story easy to understand.
For many of us this is the way that we read this morning’s story about Jesus and the head of the synagogue. We know who the good guy is, it is Jesus. We know that Jesus is the good guy because, well first off because he is Jesus. We also know Jesus is the good guy because he is going to heal the crippled woman regardless of anything thought or said. Even knowing that he might irritate some people he went for it. He knew that she had been crippled for perhaps, most of her life and so as we see it, love must be love in action and so he liberates her…he sets her free. The bad guy is the president of the synagogue. We know he is the bad guy because he appears to be a legalist who does not care that this woman has been crippled for 18 years. Even though it might be her only chance of being healed, he does not care. He is so stuck on the Sabbath rules and regulations he is willing to see this woman left as she is. So there you have it, the good guy and the bad guy face off and the outcome is that love wins out over law; good over evil. Except…except that is not what is actually going on here. And if this is where we leave it then we miss the heart of this story.
In order to understand we need a bit of background in how Jewish religious life actually works. First Judaism was and is a living tradition. What this means is that Jewish teachers are constantly arguing about what God desires. And in so doing they bring to their arguments, arguments from the scriptures, especially from the Torah. Rabbinic literature refers to this as Arguments from Heaven, meaning each side is trying their best to do what they believe God would have them do. In this case the president of the synagogue is not being a legalist, he is instead arguing directly from the Torah that the Sabbath is to be holy. There is to be no work done on it, and even healing is work. If one reads the Old testament, time and time again, the people of Israel are criticized for not following the Sabbath rules. He is not the bad guy. He is striving to do what the Torah tells him to do. Jesus is doing the same thing. Jesus is arguing from the Torah that liberating a cripple is a greater good that keeping the Sabbath. I realize that for many of us here this morning this seems like a strange thing to say because we don’t know of any Old Testament rules about healing. But what we need to understand is that the Torah is not just the rules of the Old Testament but it is the entire narrative story of the first five books of the Old testament. And because of that reality, Jesus is arguing that liberation, setting God’s people free is greater than the Sabbath because the Exodus, God’s greatest act of liberation comes before Moses and the people are given the Sabbath. Thus liberation makes Sabbath possible…for both animals (leading an animal to water so it can rest) and for humans (allowing a woman to be healed so she can rest). The end result is that the leader is shamed because he understands that he had missed the clarity of Jesus’ argument, and the people celebrate because liberation has arrived.
This story then is not about good guys and bad guys. This is a story about God’s desire for liberation. This story is at the heart of all that Jesus says and does. At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke Jesus describes his ministry as proclaiming release to the captives and letting the oppressed go free. And we see Jesus do this throughout his ministry. He frees people from hunger by feeding them. He frees people from spirits by casting them out. We see Jesus freeing people from sin by forgiving them. We see Jesus freeing people from the power of sin and death by going to the cross. Liberation is what Jesus is all about. And so this story is one more episode where he lives into his mission; into the vision that God had given him. And this is what we were about these past two weeks in Kenya.
On the surface our trip appeared to be a construction trip. We went to complete the building of two classrooms on an existing school in Olongai in Maasai Land and a church in Tala, which is in the Kamba region of Kenya. Yet what we, and all of you by extension, were involved in were acts of liberation in the name of Jesus Christ. The school in Olongai offers Maasai children an opportunity for an education they might night otherwise have received. This brings liberation because it offers them a glimpse of a life beyond the customs of child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). It also prepares them for life in the wider world which is slowly but surely moving in upon them. We saw liberation when we met with Faith Kasoni. Faith is the first girl, now a young woman, to refuse to be circumcised by her tribe, the Samburu. And even though she was an outcast from her village she returned to other Samburu and taught health practices, and became an inspiration to other girls to say no to FGM. Our part in Faith’s life and work is that First Foundation is helping her to receive an education so she can continue her work with the Samburu, and we delivered the money for this while we were there. The church in Tala offers liberation in that the Kamaba are a largely unchurched tribe, some of whom still live in the fear and superstition of their ancestors. By offering a permanent church we offer them liberation through knowing the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. We also visited a girl’s rescue center in the Maasai Mara that takes in girls who have been rescued from child-marriage, for some girls as young as eight, girls whose parents cannot feed them, and girls who do not want to undergo FGM. We pooled our money so that they could be hooked into the electric grid, thus enabling the girls to study at night…and through education break free and become whatever it is that God is leading them to become.
Liberation is what God is all about. Liberation is what Jesus Christ came to offer us; liberation from fear, need, hate, ignorance and all that keeps us from becoming the full human beings were are created to be. Liberation is then what we are to be about. My question to each of you then, my challenge to you, is to ask, how am I being an agent of liberation, helping my friends, my family, my city and my world become the kind of creation God desires and longs for us for all human beings?
Living in Ordinary Time: Your Choice
Rev. Joanne Blair
August 14, 2016
Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 12:49-56
Well, this passage from Luke certainly doesn’t sound like the loving, benevolent, compassionate and peaceful Jesus we like to talk and preach about, does it? Earlier in this very chapter of Luke, Jesus has assured and reassured his followers of how precious they are in God’s sight, and how they should not worry. Yes, just last week Amy started her sermon by reading these words to us from verse 32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is the reassuring Jesus we like to think about.
Now, only 17 verses later, Jesus speaks of bringing fire, being stressed, and dividing up families. These words have a bite to them. Jesus appears to be on edge. Instead of sounding like a peace-maker, Jesus sounds like a home-breaker. What happened?
In preparing for this sermon, I learned that this is not a favored passage by preachers (shock!), and that many skip it when it comes up in the lectionary. And I must admit, I was tempted! But it’s important. And it’s important for us to remember that there is so much more to being a Christian than worshipping a “feel-good Jesus.” If we skipped this section of the lectionary, we would miss an essential side of Jesus. The side of Jesus that is demanding.
Before we go any further, I think it is critical that we set this in context. Earlier in Chapter 9, verse 51, we are told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This seminal phrase must be kept in mind. When Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”, it marks the beginning of the end of his earthly life. Jesus is running out of time to talk with the disciples about living their lives in total commitment to God. Jesus says he came to bring fire, and how he wished the fire were already kindled. He has a baptism with which to be baptized, and he is under stress until it is completed. Jesus is moving toward the completion of his earthly mission. He knows what lies ahead, and he wants it finished…accomplished.
Water and fire…two elements that each have the capability of destroying… and of purifying. Images that can lead to transformation. Fire can surely be destructive, but it can also be refining, and a way to transformation. This has been a very hot and dry summer, and the number of forest fires, especially in the west, has been staggering. And yes, some were caused by human error or intent. But many are burning as an act of nature. So much destruction.
But some trees…like the Jack Pine found here in Michigan, and the Sequoia…regenerate by fire… The giant sequoias of California grow to nearly 300 feet tall, and 50 feet in diameter. They are the world’s largest trees in total volume. Their cones contain up to 200 seeds and mature in just two years. Once matured, those seeds remain in their cones and await a forest fire. The heat from the fire causes the cones to open and release their seeds. A dramatic, intense form of regeneration…and transformation.
Transformation, real transformation, is most often a painful process. Anyone who has gone through a personal transformation knows the pain of the process. An addict, going through withdrawal to become clean. A wrong-doer, taking the difficult steps toward reconciliation. A hater, struggling to put aside their preconceived notions to open their heart and mind.
It doesn’t happen in an instant. Transformation really is a lifelong journey. And Jesus asks us to take this challenging and demanding journey. The one we call the Prince of Peace knows that his own nonviolent efforts to proclaim the kingdom of God will soon result in violence. Violence that others will inflict upon him at the cross. And more violence will follow.
Jesus has been preparing himself and his disciples. Christianity does not teach that we are saved by being martyrs. Few, if any of us, in 21st century North America will ever be in danger because of our belief in Christ. But Jesus does call for a loyalty so profound that we would be willing to make the most extreme sacrifice if necessary.
Jesus talks of bringing division. It is interesting to note that the divisions he names in the family are generational. The core social values in first century times had the family as the fundamental building block of society. A person’s place in the family describes not only their personal identity, but their place in the community as well. Honoring one’s parents was viewed by many as the highest social obligation. To divide a family was to leave its members on shaky ground, both socially and economically. It cut at the very base of the social structure.
Many of us hold the family structure as our most valued institution as well. So is Jesus saying that family is unimportant? Of course not. Scripture is very clear about honoring and loving one’s parents, one’s spouse…and even one’s neighbor. But Jesus is saying, quite simply, that our first loyalty should be to him.
We, today, tend to determine our identity by our jobs, our families, our standing, our power. Jesus is calling us to define our identity by our relationship with God.
My mother and father had a solid marriage for 62 years until my father died. They had actually gone to school together since eighth grade and started dating in high school. After college, my father enlisted in the Navy, and right before he was shipped out, my mother took a crowded train to San Francisco and they got married. Apparently my grandfather had quite a talk with my mom, reminding her that my father might not come back from the war, or might come back quite different from the man she knew. But my mom had made a choice. And my mom was committed.
Earlier, when my parents were in college, my mom was mad at my dad about something and she gave his fraternity pin back to him. (My mom did later say that she kind of overreacted.) Anyway, I guess my dad came and found her and told her she needed to decide if she was, or wasn’t with him. And I guess he ended his little speech, cocked his head and said, “Iz you is, or iz you ain’t?” To which my mother apparently responded, “Ah Iz.” Right before he shipped out, my mom gave my dad this I.D. bracelet. His name is engraved on the front, and the inscription on the back says, “Ah Iz.” From then on, whenever my parents faced a tough situation like a job loss, or my father’s MS, or any number of other situations that come on life’s journey, they would look at the other and say, “Ah Iz.” They were committed to each other. As they grew together in life, as they stepped into the fire, their priority became God. God came to be first, and in the center of it all. God transformed them…as individuals, and as a couple.
I came across the bracelet this past week and it made me think of today’s scripture. The silver had to be melted, to go into the fire, and be transformed. My parents had to be melted, and transformed. And the choice of a commitment was made. “Ah Iz.”
Isn’t that what Jesus is asking of his disciples? Isn’t that what he is asking of us? We are offered a choice. We are offered the choice of choosing God to be the one primary relationship that determines who we are and what we do. To be first and foremost. And if we choose God first, it does shift things. It puts our careers, our nation, our possessions, this church, our family and friends…it puts all these things within the context of our relationship with God…with being disciples of Jesus.
Jesus was not naïve. Jesus was aware not only of what lay before him, but what lay before those he asked to follow him. He was aware that it would bring violence, conflict, and division. Still he asked. And he’s still asking today. Jesus is letting us know that to follow him is not easy. The more we are transformed…the more we change and refine habits, behaviors, beliefs and values… the more conflict and division we may feel at times. But through our transformation…then will we know true joy. The joy of Christ.
As Presbyterians, we say, “Reformed, always reforming.” As Christ followers, we are also always being transformed. As Jesus chastised those who predicted future weather but did not look around the present time, so he reminds us to not pick and choose what we turn a blind eye to. While we seek to make a better future, we are called to do it now. We turn our lives over to God, or we don’t. We follow Christ, or we don’t.
“I came to bring fire to the earth…Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” There are some who hear today’s scripture and want to turn away, or tremble at the severity of the words. But I hear God’s promise. “Come with me. Let me transform you. The process may be painful. But it is rich…and it is good.”
“Iz you is, or iz you ain’t?” It’s your choice.
Guide us to make you our priority.
Give us the strength to choose you.
Let your Spirit fall afresh on us.
Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us.
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 7, 2016
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Luke 12:32-40
It has just been one of those weeks.
I knew it was going to be hectic. My son was in orchestra camp. The Kenya mission team, including two staff members, was leaving. A mission team from New York was staying at the church. There were meetings, and mission projects, and pastoral duties piled high on my plate. And so I had been preparing. Stockpiling my fridge and pantry, worrying about any last-minute things I could help the Kenya team with, fretting over details for the Back-to-School Rally in Pontiac.
I thought I had the week all planned out. I thought I was ready. But, as often happens, things didn’t go according to plan. Visits ran late, meetings got added (and forgotten), circumstances changed. And as my days unraveled, I felt like I was watching my treasured plans spilling out of a gaping hole in my worn-out purse.
I could try to justify my drive this week, and most weeks, to over prepare, to fret and worry over the tiniest details. Losing sleep over whether or not I need to wash my son’s camp t-shirt or respond to an email feels like I am “dressed and ready for action with my lamp lit.” But the truth is, I’m not compelled by virtue. I’m compelled by fear. Fear of judgement, perhaps. Or loss. Fear of whatever may happen if I’m not ready for it. And I know I’m not alone in this fear.
We have come to translate “keep your lamps lit” as “burn the candle at both ends.” We feel it is our responsibility to prepare for every possibility. Whether the task at hand is raising our children or meeting our career goals or even trying to follow Jesus, we look up to those people who not only have a stellar “plan A” but also plans B through Q in place. We don’t want to be sidelined by surprises or derailed by missed details.
And this is because we are all driven by fear. After every disaster, every tragedy, we comb through the evidence to sort out how this could have been avoided. Public judgement is pronounced on every missed clue, every minor flaw, every delayed response. “If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into” is not good enough. He should have known. He should have had a better security system.
So then, what do we do with Jesus’ entreaty, “do not be afraid, little flock?”
Just before the words of Jesus we read today, Jesus tells his assembled flock of disciples, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” He tells them God knows what they need, and just like God cares for birds and flowers, God will take care of them as well.
If you ask me, this sounds massively irresponsible. But then I think about this week. Would it have been the end of the world if I hadn’t washed my son’s camp t-shirt three times? Did I really need to worry about that? Would it have been a total disaster if we had run out of food for the youth group and had to go out to buy some more? Maybe Jesus had the right idea, after all. When Jesus describes the servants waiting for their master, they aren’t pacing the floor, scrubbing the kitchen, fretting over whether the master is going to want eggs or muffins for breakfast.
Rather, they are waiting in joyful expectation. Their only job is to be awake and aware. To tend to their lamps, encourage the light so that they can see the master approaching. To open the door for him when he arrives. They are not fearing punishment if the master is displeased. But they do receive a blessing when their vigil is over. If they were afraid – of losing their jobs, their status, their shelter – whatever it is they treasure – if they were focusing on these fears instead of looking for their master, they would surely fail to be awake with their lamps lit when the master arrived. Because fear is exhausting. We are wired for short-term fear response, fight or flight. Our bodies can only sustain a racing heart, panting breath, and adrenaline rush for so long. And then we shut down.
When my son was very young, he had a minor head injury that landed him in the hospital overnight. Everything looked fine, but the nurses would check him regularly throughout the night just to make sure. My husband and I were understandably fearful about our son’s condition, and determined we would stay up through the night to watch him. Neither of us made it. While it was a fitful and often-interrupted night of sleep, our bodies could not sustain that level of fear without rest.
Unlike fear, however, sustained attentiveness can be regenerative. Think of children listening attentively for the bells of Santa’s sleigh. They manage to stay awake for an impressive length of time on Christmas Eve, do they not? And they seem to be full of energy when they awake on Christmas morning. They are waiting in joyful expectation. They are focused on one thing.
And that is what Jesus encourages his disciples to do. Do not be afraid. Focus on one thing – the kingdom of God. And we do this through sustained attentiveness, joyful expectation of that coming kingdom, that time and place where what we treasure most will be eternal. Because if we don’t follow Jesus’ instructions on this – if we are afraid, if we lose focus, if we are anxious and distracted – we will miss the kingdom of heaven when it arrives.
Now, I know this sounds like some far-off fairy-tale end-times babble. But I’m not talking about the end of the world, and neither is Jesus. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is always present and future. It is inaugurated in Christ’s coming and will keep coming until it is complete. The kingdom of heaven is not a place or an event or an endpoint. It is a process. Like evolution. Like fermentation. Like photosynthesis. The creation itself, it’s very operation, is saturated with the kingdom of heaven.
And even in the center of my wild week, even as I kept pouring my treasured energy into that worn-out purse of earthly concern, the kingdom of heaven kept showing up. I saw it in the mission team from New York packing backpacks in Pontiac. I saw it in meetings with church members who are passionate in their love for this community and their desire to see it flourish. I saw it in folks in the hospital who are experiencing the healing power of love and prayers. I saw it in the Kenya mission team’s photographs. In all those places where God so clearly stepped in to take care of things, to work things out, to give what was most needed.
The kingdom of heaven is not always experienced in a dramatic event. Often it is a slow unfolding. A long night of waiting. And so we will only see it if we are attentive. If we are nurturing the light. It may not come right away. There may be many hours of darkness ahead as you wait. Like any process, the kingdom of heaven is sometimes hard to see. Sometimes it is almost invisible. But if our lamps are lit, if we are awake and attentive and joyfully expectant, we sometimes hear a footfall, or catch a whiff of its scent on the wind, or see a faint light coming toward us in the distance. And we are reminded that it is coming.
So do not be afraid. Keep your lamps lit. In the center of your worries, your fears, whatever anxieties plague you most, wait in joyful expectation for the kingdom of heaven to arrive. In your career, in your broken relationships, in your neighborhood, in your depression, in your illness or injury, in your boredom or apathy, wait in joyful expectation for the kingdom of heaven to arrive. For when it arrives, if you have not fallen asleep, exhausted by fear, you will be blessed. God will invite us to sit down, take a load off, as God Almighty puts on an apron and sets us a feast.
And so we wait, in joyful expectation, replacing our fear with trust and gratitude, feeding the light that has been entrusted to us.
Let us pray:
Loving God, we are grateful that is has been your good pleasure to give us the kingdom.
Keep us attentive in joyful expectation, ever watchful for signs of your kingdom on earth.