Where Is Your Treasure?

 

Meditation on Luke 12:32-40

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Aug. 11, 2019

     32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

     35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

   39 “But know this: 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. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

***

Not long after we first arrived in Coshocton, I told you about Jim and I taking Mabel, our Pomeranian to the vet. She has diabetes and, though Jim was giving her insulin shots twice a day, she was drinking too much and having accidents in the house. The kindly vet held her for a long time and gave his diagnosis, “She seems stressed.”

We were back to the vet yesterday, this time with Mabel and Melvyn, our cat. It was to be a routine exam; they both needed shots. But we knew, before the vet examined him, that something was wrong with Melvyn. We had noticed that he was looking at us with big, black pupils and struggling to go up and down stairs and climb up on our bed.

He hasn’t always been an easy pet. He had certain annoying habits. When he first came to live with us, we couldn’t leave out any food on any surface in the house, even in a box or bag, without Melvyn eating through the box or bag. Butter in a covered butter dish mysteriously disappeared. It took a while for us to figure out what was happening and we kept wondering why the container was so clean on the outside. Homemade banana muffins, a gift from a church member, had bites taken out of them through a plastic bag. Once, he stole a large loaf of French bread from the counter, dragged it across the kitchen floor and gnawed off one end. It was a Saturday night, and the bread was for Communion the next day. And Jim said we could just cut off the end and use it, but I said, “No! Not my Jesus bread.”  Melvyn was an early riser. He woke us up at the crack of dawn with loud yowling and knocking things off bedside tables. If we pushed him out of our bedroom and closed the door, he would scratch and meow, “Hawoo?” Until we laughed and let him back in.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that Melvyn wasn’t really our pet. We were his servants! Whatever his need, we would try to meet it, usually with love in our hearts. Even Jim, who has never had a cat before Melvyn and vowed he never would, grew to love this orange and white stray, cuddly and affectionate, a peacemaker, wanting no more than his meals and to climb into our laps or lie on our legs, purring loudly as we stroked his head.

On Saturday, the vet confirmed our fears for his health. Our cat is losing his sight. The vet spoke in a soothing voice, explaining that it is probably from old age and could not be restored. He told us how most cats can adjust to blindness. As he talked, I just kept thinking about all the years Mel has been with us, since that day he followed me home from church–a stray that someone had neutered and declawed before he was dumped in a Minnesota field and left to fend for himself. How he cried in our shrubbery in the rain that first night. In the morning, I opened the door, he walked in, and I fed him. He slept in our bed, purring so loudly that we worried he had a breathing issue. He has lived with us as an indoor cat, happily, ever since.

I can see the grace of God in the life of Melvyn, an outcast, who has brought us much comfort and joy in three different states, never complaining during the long car rides and hotel stops as we moved from Minnesota to Florida, then Florida to Ohio.

Mel on catnip

Mel playing with his catnip.

***

Being ready–prepared for our Lord’s return at an unexpected hour–is the message of our gospel in Luke 12. This is a continuation of last Sunday’s lesson, a warning to guard ourselves against greed and loving stuff too much. This is part of preparing ourselves to meet the Lord, face to face.

Being ready for Christ’s return means living by faith, trusting God our Father, and letting go of fear and worry. As Jesus says 12:22, just before today’s passage, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or about your body, what you will wear, for life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens, they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds then. Of how much more value are you than birds? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

Jesus tells us that if we want to live a godly life, we can’t be conformed to this world in our thinking or behavior. “The nations of the world,” he says, “strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need these. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Today’s reading begins, then, at verse 32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Isn’t that amazing–that Christ tells us to strive for the Kingdom, but has already given or entrusted it to us, just as Ephesians 2:8 assures us that by grace we have been saved, through faith. It’s not our own doing; it’s a gift from God!

Yet, there is something that can get in the way of living the Kingdom life now and hurt our witness to those without the hope of Jesus Christ. We are back to worry, fear–and stuff! “Sell your possessions, and give alms,” Jesus says, “Make for yourselves purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Are you wondering how we make these purses that never wear out? By nurturing our faith through Word and Sacrament, worship and prayer, serving and giving; it takes faith to give and when we give, our faith becomes stronger. It’s up to us to choose how we respond to the gift of the Kingdom. What do you value most? Where is your treasure?

Jesus is speaking to all of us when he says in Luke 12:34, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Much more can be said about this intriguing parable, but for now, I hope that you will recognize that Jesus is talking about us in this story with layers of meaning! We are the servants or slaves–it’s the same word in Greek (doulos). We are the blessed ones. Our job is to be faithful, keeping our lamps burning brightly in the darkness. We are those whom the Master will, with the Spirit’s help, find alert; we are the ones who will be waiting in hope when he comes again, trusting in Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and not in ourselves or the things of this world that won’t last and won’t satisfy.

When the Master comes again, at an unexpected hour, though he will come with power and glory to judge the living and the dead as we say in the Apostles Creed, he will also come to serve us with love, nourishing us for all eternity.

***

I held Melvyn tightly in my arms on the way home from the vet, trying to comfort him, saying, “It’s OK. It’s OK. I love you.” But I am not sure that it IS OK with me that he can’t see. I am sad for him. Isn’t growing old hard enough without going blind? And we can’t even tell him what is happening and why. He must be frightened and confused.

Jim reminds me, not for the first time, that Melvyn has had, these 6 or 7 years with us, a very good life. And we will continue to care for him with love for all his days. I truly can see the grace of God in Melvyn’s life–how he came to us not just when he needed us, but when we needed him. He has always managed to adjust to whatever life holds, the ups and downs and joys and struggles, and remain a sweet, loving creature. He is an example to us of a life lived in gratitude, with grace. Thankfully, he hardly ever wakes us up at 5 a.m. anymore.

Friends, I pray that, when Jesus returns for His blessed ones, to serve and nourish us to eternal life, the Master will find us loving and caring for all the creatures–human and animals–whom God has entrusted to our care.

May the Lord, when he comes back at an unexpected hour, find us faithful.

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, we witness and experience so much struggle and suffering in this world, and yet we always turn to you during these times for comfort, wholeness, and strength to endure. Thank you for your faithfulness. Help us not to be distracted by possessions, the things that don’t last and don’t satisfy. Give us hope and courage to light our lamps and be dressed for action, and not become too comfortable or complacent with the way things are. Lead us to do the things you have planned for us. Speak through us your words that bring life and health to others. Teach us to give generously, with a grateful heart, and live so that we might reveal your peaceful, loving Kingdom to a hurting, broken world in desperate need of healing. May we become the people you are recreating us to be–the blessed faithful, through your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

 

Life Isn’t About Stuff

 

Meditation on Luke 12:13-21

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Aug. 4, 2019

 

parable-of-the-rich-fool

 

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

 

***

 

It’s good to be back with you! I am grateful to Reverend Hoover for preaching and leading worship last week so that I might visit my parents in Florida. This time, I traveled by air, so my first challenge was packing the suitcase. Does anyone else have trouble packing the suitcase? I blame my mother. It’s all her fault. When we were kids, and we were getting ready for the annual Florida car trip to visit our grandparents, Mom used to make each of us a packing list. Mine included: an outfit for every day–shorts, shirts, underwear and socks, bathing suit and cover up–and then dress clothes–slacks and a dress– for going to a restaurant and church. Assorted toiletries and a sweatshirt for cool nights walking on the boardwalk. A cardigan sweater, because the air conditioning in public places in Florida is always on full blast. Several pairs of shoes–sandals, flip flops for the beach or pool, sneakers and dress shoes. Then we each brought our pillows for napping in the car and sleeping at Grandma’s. Library books, cards, drawing paper, pens and other things to occupy our attention during the 15-hour car ride, which can seem like a REALLY long time when you are a kid, trapped in the back seat with your siblings. Mom took care of packing snacks and drinks. When we got cranky and bored, “Mom, are we there, yet?” She would bribe us with red licorice.

And now that I am grown, I have even more stuff to bring. I pack my own snacks and drinks. Money and ID, medication and vitamins, makeup and jewelry, Hair dryer. Extra clothes for exercising. Shoes to match my outfits. Shoes can really add weight to a suitcase!

Pink shoes fashion

 

And then there’s electronics– phone, laptop or IPAD and the cords and chargers. Earphones, if you want to listen to movies or music on the plane.

And I still bring my pillow with me, even though my parents have lots of pillows. Does anyone have a special pillow?

I was so proud of myself when I got it all into one large suitcase on wheels–AND it came in at under 50 pounds, so I didn’t have to pay extra at baggage drop.

I had to change planes in Atlanta–and that’s a fun place to hang out for a little while. People complain about Atlanta airport, but really, it’s a great, big shopping mall. I don’t usually shop but I did stop at a bookstore. I only planned to be in there a minute. But I took too long choosing my murder mystery. When I got back to my gate, the plane doors had already been closed. The flight attendant said I was 5 minutes too late.

So my perfectly packed suitcase, filled with everything I needed for the journey and back was on a plane headed for Daytona. And I was still in Atlanta.

At least I had a good book to read, while I waited for the next flight. But I couldn’t concentrate and was filled with anxiety, not just because my poor mom would be picking me up at the airport at midnight, but because I kept thinking, “What if my suitcase is lost?”

 

***

 

It strikes me, at first, as kind of funny that a stranger in the crowd would ask Jesus to tell his brother to share his inheritance with him. Why should Jesus care about such things? But as we read on, it helps to remember that Jesus often has conversations with rich people–and this person has probably been raised in a wealthy family if he is coveting his brother’s inheritance. One of Jesus’ conversations with rich people ends with him telling his disciples in Matthew 19:24,  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Ever notice that Jesus talks about money and things more than he talks about many other topics, including prayer? The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 6:10 will also warn against greed, writing, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Whenever Jesus talks about material things, he does it with the underlying assumption that everything and everyone belong to God. This is a foundational belief in the faith in which he was raised. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” We know from the New Testament that this foundational belief continues with Christianity. For in the Early Church, there was no private property. The writer of Acts 2:44-45 says, “Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need.” When Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 sell a piece of property, but keep part of the proceeds and lie about it to the faith community, they are severely punished.

It’s interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t immediately take on this man’s cause in Luke 12. Why shouldn’t the brother be made to share the inheritance? Isn’t he the one being greedy if he refuses to share? We don’t know if it is a large amount of money and property. With Jesus’ warning against greed and the parable he tells about the foolish rich man who needs a bigger barn to store his grain so he can eat, drink and be merry in an idle lifestyle, we are probably talking about a lot of money and property. But it doesn’t have to be a lot of stuff before stuff becomes a problem for us.

Author Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, dean and president of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX, suggests that this parable be renamed, “A Place for Your Stuff.” She reminds us of the late comedian George Carlin’s monologue about stuff. “You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in their pockets. Women have stuff in their purses… Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. That’s what life is all about, trying to find a place for your stuff? That’s all your house is, a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off on an airplane,” he says. “You look down and see all the little piles of stuff. Everybody’s got his own little pile of stuff.”

So this man who approaches Jesus in Luke 12–he wants his brother to give some of his stuff to him so that he will be the proud owner of stuff, too. Do you wonder why the man doesn’t just ask the brother himself for the stuff? This is where this story reminds me of Mary and Martha. Do you get the feeling that the man has already asked his brother to share his stuff? And what did the brother say? No, in no uncertain terms. Or the man wouldn’t have asked Jesus to help him. Now the two brothers aren’t talking, anymore!

That’s why Jesus asks, “Friend, who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you?” The Greek word translated “arbitrator” is literally “divider.” Stuff and money has come between two brothers and destroyed their relationship.

This is a warning to all of us, who like our stuff. We don’t have to have a lot of stuff to fall to the temptation of liking our stuff too much. We actually don’t have to have any stuff  to make stuff an idol. Rich and poor and in between. Everyone has the problem of liking and worrying too much about stuff.

Jesus is saying to us, “Life isn’t about stuff.” It’s about love–love of God. Love of people. “One’s life,” Jesus says in Luke 12, “does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” “I came,” he says in John 10:10, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

***

Returning from my visit with my parents, I didn’t once think about the contents of my suitcase, though I admit, I did have even more stuff in the suitcase on the return trip than I did going there. But I didn’t get caught browsing too long in a bookstore or any store at Atlanta airport.

I fought back tears as I said goodbye to Mom at Daytona airport. I had already said goodbye to Dad at the nursing home with a lump in my throat, wondering when I would see him again–and how his health would be the next time I see him.

“I miss you so much!” I said to my mom, giving her a hug as an airline employee prepared to roll my big, blue suitcase away, taking with him nothing that cannot be replaced or lived without.

For life isn’t about stuff. It’s about love.

 

Let us pray.

 

Heavenly Father, why do we love our stuff so much? Forgive us for our idolatry. Please help us so that stuff doesn’t become the root of jealousy and greed and destroy relationships with family and friends. Teach us how to live without idolizing stuff and money and never being satisfied with what we have–always wanting more and then needing a bigger place to store our stuff. Stir us to let go of stuff and money and give generously so that no one will go without, as they did in the Early Church. Empower us by your Spirit to love as your Son showed us love and to call all people our friends. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

What Is Your Rule of Life?

 

Meditation on Luke 10:38-42

July 21, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

 

     38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

mary-martha-lazarus.jpg

Thank you for your birthday cards and notes! I enjoyed them so much! Bob and Marialice sent me one that began, “And God said, ‘Let There be Light. And Lo And Behold…” You open the pop up card, and inside it says, “And there was your birthday cake!” I don’t know, I lost count, but I’m pretty sure there were at least 100 candles blazing on top of the cake.

card

I don’t think I am 100, yet. But I have trouble remembering my age. Do you know how old you are? My grandfather, when he was in 90s, when you asked him how old he was, he would say, “Oh, around 75.” That’s how old he thought he was. So I think I am in my 50s. But, after seeing Bob and Marialice’s card, I could just be fooling myself!

I have been partying since Thursday. I am going to be like Lula and celebrate my birthday all month long. Age doesn’t bother me, but the one thing that worries me on my birthday is the nagging question, “Am I doing what God wants me to do? Am I being faithful to the call?”

I had to come up with a “rule of life” for a school assignment this summer. Then I had to live it out for at least a month and write a paper about the experience. Author Marjorie Thompson, author of Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, says “Certain kinds of plants need support in order to grow properly. Tomatoes need stakes, and beans must attach themselves to suspended strings. Creeping vines like clematis and wisteria will grow on any structure they can find. Rambling roses take kindly to garden walls, archways, and trellises. Without support, these plants would collapse into a heap on the ground. Their blossoms would not have the space and sun they need to flourish, and their fruits would rot in contact with the soil. .. . When it comes to spiritual growth, human beings are much like these plants. We need structure and support. Otherwise, our spirituality grows only in a confused and disorderly way.” In Christian tradition, the kind of structure that supports our spiritual growth is called a “rule of life.”

My rule includes walking, praying and engaging in holy reading each day, taking time for stillness, silence and rest, as this is Christ’s gift to us. Also being kind and encouraging others, practicing forgiveness, talking to strangers, showing hospitality–these are as good for our spiritual health as they are for others. Being kind to self is on my rule– eating what is good, for when our physical body is healthy, we can better handle the mental, emotional and spiritual challenges of our lives. Finally, I knew my rule needed to include living free of anxiety and fear. Jesus tells us not to worry or be afraid, as in Matthew 6, in his “consider the lilies” teaching and in John 14, when he tells his grieving disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.”

***

I can’t help but wonder if Mary and Martha had to write a rule of life, what would it be? Martha’s rule might focus more on service. Mary’s on loving God, delighting in His Word, and enjoying His presence. All of these are important in our Christian life.

In this gentle, living room scene, we discover which part is the better one, the most important to the Lord. Mary and Martha’s house in Bethany is a stop on the way to Jerusalem. The cross looms ahead. Jesus is preparing his followers for their mission after his death and resurrection.

Just before Christ’s visit with Mary and Martha, a lawyer asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, who shows mercy to an enemy, at risk to his own life. “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.” The themes of listening to God’s Word and doing God’s Word, discipleship and hospitality, appear throughout the gospel of Luke.

Wonderful things happen to hearts, minds and spirits as people gather to eat with the Lord, a shadow of things to come–when people will come from the north, south, east and west to feast at the banquet table in the Kingdom of God. This time, in the Mary and Martha story, in the space of just 5 verses, an important spiritual lesson arrives before dinner is served.

I don’t know about you, but I admire and feel sorry for Martha. In my mind, she is like Martha Stewart. She has everything just right. Cloth napkins are folded into the shape of geese; the best china is laid out with a floral centerpiece on the white linen tablecloth. Ok, Martha probably didn’t have china, linen, and a floral centerpiece, but you get the idea. She has prepared a feast fit for the King of Kings. Doesn’t Jesus deserve the very best? I’d be nervous in Martha’s shoes, too.

But Mary…. What’s going on with her? In those days, women wouldn’t be sitting in the living room with the men while dinner was being prepared. She might have been assigned hostess duties, but then sat down at Jesus’ feet to listen and enjoy his presence, rather than return to the kitchen with Martha. Maybe Jesus has invited her to sit with him when he sees her hanging on his every word.

Martha is exasperated. I have a feeling this isn’t the first argument they have had, after all, they are sisters with very different gifts and passions. I imagine Martha wiping sweat from her brow, muttering, “If it weren’t for me, there would be no dinner at all!” She is so upset, she isn’t talking to Mary, and she does a thing called triangulation. Our kids used to do this. “Mom! Tell James he has to help me clean up!” Did your kids ever do that? She feels sorry for herself for having too much to do, though she chose to do it all. Don’t we do that? We make more work for ourselves and then complain about how much we have to do! She is jealous of her sister, too, for getting all the attention. “Lord, do you not care,” she asks, “that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.”

Many of us were raised to be Marthas. I was, though I was never able to do it all and do it well; this is still a value in our society, especially for women. Busy people are more admirable than people who are less busy. That’s why when we are sick, injured or struggling with mobility, we feel less valuable. Society teaches us this, beginning with our families in our childhood. It was a value in Jesus’ time, too, for women. This is nothing new.

Luke seems to be telling us in this passage that busyness, even when our intention is to serve and care for others, can become the thing that makes us proud, distracted, resentful, and anxious, if we lose our focus on the Lord. As the first question of our Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man? To enjoy God and glorify him forever.”

Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

***

On this day, when I celebrate and give thanks for another year to live this wonderful life, and enjoy and glorify our Lord, the one question I will invariably ask myself is, “Am I doing what God wants me to do?” Now I have a rule of life to help me to be faithful and support my spiritual growth and health. Walking, reading God’s Word and prayer every day–these are going well. And I’ve been more intentional about being still and enjoying the presence of God, and allowing myself to rest, without feeling guilty.

But living free from anxiety and fear and not getting caught up in busyness, well, I think I need some help. So I am starting a women’s book study Aug. 20, Joanna Weaver’s Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World.

mary heart

My hope is that we will support each other, trust one another enough to become vulnerable, and find healing through laughter, love and prayer. I will have an opportunity to practice hospitality, as the gathering will be in the early evening in my living room. If there are more than 12 women interested, we can start a second group to meet during the day at church. So sign up, even if the 12 spaces are filled.

When my husband found out that I am starting a group for women, he said, “Well, what about the men?” He is considering starting a men’s group. Men also struggle with society’s value of busyness. I am sure men were taught when they were small the more that they do, the more valuable they are. Anxiety and thoughts of I am not doing enough, no matter how much we do are not a “woman thing” or a “man thing.” It is a reality for all human beings.

Please, hear the Good News! We are freed and forgiven from the sin of busyness and works righteousness. We have been reconciled with God and human beings because of the work of Christ, our Risen Savior.

Don’t sacrifice your relationship with the Lord and others by losing your focus, and getting caught up in everything you are doing. Don’t give in to your anxieties and fear. I encourage you to write a simple rule of life. I hope you will include starting your day with God’s Word and prayer. This will feed your faith and strengthen you to do the acts of kindness and humble service that God wants you to do.

I leave you with Christ’s encouraging words to Martha, exasperated, resentful, jealous, overwhelmed, though she is graced with the presence of her loving Lord in her living room. “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

Let us pray….

Lord God, we are so joyful to be in your presence, delighting in your Word. Thank you for your work done for our sakes–because you love us and want to be in a close, loving relationship with us. Help us to keep our eyes focused on you and not get caught up in the busyness of life. Stir us to pray and listen for your Word every day. Forgive us our anxieties and fears. Guide us in your Will–so that we do the acts of kindness and humble service that you want us to do. In Your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

 

Who Is My Neighbor?

 

Meditation on Luke 10:25-37

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

July 14, 2019

 

mercy

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

      29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

***

It’s another beautiful day in Coshocton! Jim and I have our air conditioning restored, so it is comfortable at 1626 Marion Drive, even when it is hot and humid outside. Actually, I was cold last night and was wearing a sweater in the house!!

More good news: I am enjoying my daily walks. Are you following me on Facebook? I post photos of lovely homes and yards that I pass as I am walking. Some friends respond by telling me who lives there. People really know the neighborhood! I also post pictures of flowers, birds, the occasional bunny, and pets that come up to greet me, such as a little black and white dog named Lily on Buena Vista and a grey, striped tabby cat with white paws on Marion.

I am happy to see church members as I walk in my neighborhood. Saw Kirsten and Anne and Lew on Monday. Saw Barb and Ari eating ice cream cones on their front steps Friday night. Others have walked with me for part of the way–Lisa Thompson, Linda Magness, and Dolores Millward with her dog Callie. I hope that more of you may want to walk with me, too.

Most of the time, I talk to strangers. My smile and wave often lead to curious questions—“Who are you? Where do you live?”—and some sharing of stories.

For that hour of walking, I let go of the problems of the day and have no other agenda except spiritual, mental, and physical well-being, and keeping alert to anyone who might want to talk and/or walk with me. This is my way of being more intentional about reaching out to my neighbors and seeking to be known and available to help people in need.

***

Jesus is ever patient with the expert in religious law in our reading in Luke 10. The man is trying to trap him into saying a word or phrase that can be misconstrued and used against him. He asks a seemingly innocent question.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. The question is flawed. Can anyone do anything to inherit something? An inheritance is a gift one receives after a relative or friend dies.

The subject of eternal life in First Century Judaism is a hotly debated issue. Everyone is talking about it. So Jesus asks the lawyer what he thinks about it. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, essentially, “Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus answers, “You are correct. Do this—hold to these standards of loving God and neighbor and you will have eternal life.”

What’s the problem with what Jesus tells the lawyer? As Paul says in Romans 7, the problem isn’t with the law of God. The problem is that we aren’t able to keep it. “ I do not understand my own actions,” Paul says. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But, in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

The lawyer isn’t finished with his questions. He wants to justify himself. To be justified in biblical language means to be granted the status of one whom God accepts as one stands before God. He believes that he can satisfy the law’s requirements through his own goodness and intellect.

He asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He is counting on a narrow definition of   the neighbors whom God’s people are told to love. Leviticus 19:18 may seem to support his assumption, saying, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The context of “love your neighbor” is “your own people.” But reading on to Leviticus 19:34, we find a broader definition of neighbor. “The alien or stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the citizen or native among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Then, Jesus tells a parable, a spiritual teaching device that draws from images, attitudes, and real-life situations in his world. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, robbers attack, strip and beat a man traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The assumption is the man is Jewish. They leave him for dead. Who is the first to find him? A priest. This is a hereditary position; the priesthood is a wealthy and elite class in Jewish society. If the wounded man were a Jew, the priest would be duty bound to help the man. But if he were already dead, then the priest would be ceremonially defiled if he touched him and would have to go back to Jerusalem and undergo a weeklong process of purification. It would affect his family and servants, and hold up the distribution to the poor. The priest, afraid to take the risk of becoming defiled, passes the man on the other side of the road, leaving him to die.

Next comes the Levite, who serves as an assistant to the priests. Since a priest in front of him has passed the man by, the Levite, seeing him, could also pass by in good conscience and not help the wounded man. Besides, if he rode into Jericho with the wounded man, he would be insulting the priest, who neglected his duties.

A third person comes along. Jesus’ audience is expecting this person to be a Jewish layman who will be the hero of the story, to help a fellow Jew in trouble. Not a Samaritan, a hated outsider! Those hearing the story would rather hear that a Jewish man would reach out and show compassion to a Samaritan than how a Samaritan helped a Jew. We get an idea of just how much the disciples hated Samaritans in chapter 9, after a Samaritan village refuses to receive Jesus. And James and John ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus turns and rebukes them.

Kenneth Bailey, a professor of Middle Eastern New Testament Studies at an ecumenical seminary in Jerusalem, says that the Samaritan risks his own life to transport the wounded man to an inn within Jewish territory. A Samaritan wouldn’t be safe in a Jewish town with a wounded Jewish man strapped to the back of his riding animal. This may stir the community to take vengeance on him, even if he has saved the life of a Jew.

In the final scene of the parable, it is the following day.  The Samaritan gives the innkeeper two denarii, which would cover the bill for food and lodging for at least a week or two, so the wounded man would not be sold as a slave for not paying his bill, which was common practice. What the parable doesn’t say is if the Samaritan survived after he paid the bill. “Was there a crowd awaiting him outside the inn?” Bailey asks. “Was he beaten or killed?” We are left wondering.
And Jesus never answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

He answers a better one that the lawyer never asked. “What does it mean to become a neighbor?

      For being a neighbor has nothing to do with religion, ethnicity, language, or even geography. A neighbor is one who loves by showing mercy, being willing to risk one’s own life to save even an enemy.

Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

***

In this very familiar passage, sometimes preachers will ask us to put ourselves in the story. Are we feeling beaten and wounded in body and spirit, helpless and hopeless, longing for a compassionate neighbor to respond to our need?

Are we living in fear, like the priest or the Levite, allowing our concern for our own personal risk keep us from answering the call to love our neighbors and show mercy to those in need?

Are we like the lawyer, trying to find a way to justify ourselves? Looking to earn or achieve what is a free gift of eternal life, offered to all people, through the mercy and sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

Or are we ready to follow Jesus, who, like the good Samaritan, was the hated outsider, giving his own life to reveal the goodness and mercy of God.

The parable is for all Christ’s followers, who would like to be excused from loving and forgiving the people we struggle to love. The parable is for us, who, seeking to justify ourselves, might ask, “Who is my neighbor?” when a better question is, “How do we become a neighbor?”

By showing love and mercy, by being willing to take personal risks to help another.

Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for calling us your children, for forgiving us for our selfish ways, for not always wanting to help our neighbors and, in doing so, reveal your love and glory. Thank for your mercy and compassion for sinners and for sending your Son to die for our sins when we could not, not matter how hard we tried, justify ourselves or make ourselves right with you. Help us, Lord, to become good neighbors, to reach out right where we live and seek to help people in need. Give us courage, Lord, and strength to “Go and do likewise.” In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Wash and Be Clean

Meditation on 2 Kings 5:1-14

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

July 7, 2019

     Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.  2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”  4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”

 

***

 

We endured another week without air conditioning. In spite of the heat, we had a good week and enjoyed some more Ohio firsts! We watched the Coshocton fireworks from our back deck and planted our first flower garden with Shasta Daisies, Black-eyed Susans, 2 kinds of Hosta, yellow daylilies, and a red rose.

I prayed for patience and saw the goodness of the Lord in the kindness of family and friends and the wonder of God’s Creation. For with the windows open wide, we can hear the birds singing in the trees during the day and the serenade of frogs at night. We can smell the freshness of the rain, bringing cool relief from the heat.

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We see God in the ordinary and extraordinary, the everyday and surprising sights, sounds and situations. Our God of compassion is always with us, always loves us, suffers with us and desires our healing.  We see the Lord with eyes of faith, believing in the one who sends us out, like Christ sent out his 70 to preach repentance, work for peace, heal the sick and cast out demons. To proclaim, “The Kingdom of God is drawing near.”

 

***

 

There’s so much surprising about our reading in 2 Kings. Naaman of Aram or Syria today is a mighty man, commander of the army of Aram, whose victories have earned his king’s favor. The first surprising thing is that God would grant Israel’s enemy victory. But this isn’t about God’s judgment on Israel; the overall message of this passage is God’s grace extended beyond the boundaries of a single nation or people—even those who act as God’s enemies. The story of Naaman foreshadows the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, opened to all, as Paul will say in Romans 5:10, that “while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, (and) how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

Also surprising is that the great warrior suffers from leprosy. In the ancient world, leprosy is a sign of being spiritually “unclean” and would bar him from worship and from engaging in normal life in community. But Naaman is far from a social outcast, and there is no mention of the severe crippling, paralysis or blindness that can occur with the leprosy known today as Hansen’s Disease.

The most surprising thing of all is that a little Israelite girl, taken captive by the Aramaen army to serve Naaman’s wife, is the one who shows compassion for her captor and reveals great faith in the God of Israel working through Elisha. The little unnamed slave girl is the true heroine of the story, the agent of hope. She tells her mistress, who tells her husband, and Naaman, on the slave girl’s advice, decides to go into enemy territory to trust a prophet of Israel for his cure. He tells his king, who also comes to believe and writes a letter for Naaman to take with him, along with payment for prophetic services: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.

Naaman goes to the Israelite King, probably Jehoram, son of Ahab, who was killed in battle with the Aramaens. Jehoram, not surprisingly, sees this visit as the Aramaens’ attempt to provoke war with Israel, again. He tears his clothes in torment. Then Elisha sends a message urging Jehoram to let Naaman come to him, so that “he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”  Jehoram relents; he doesn’t like Elisha and he probably thinks it’s a good way to pass his problem onto him.

The commander goes with horses and chariots to the prophet’s house, but the one who said he wanted Naaman to learn that there is a prophet in Israel won’t come out to meet him! He isn’t impressed by his wealth and power, and he wants no payment! This, again, demonstrates the grace and mercy of God! The Lord only asks that we believe and live as a people of faith. Worldly wealth and power don’t impress the Lord! Elisha sends his servant to tell Naaman, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” The Aramean army commander expects the prophet to do something dramatic to bring about his healing. He feels humiliated when told to “wash” in a river in Israel that very likely isn’t as broad or clean as the rivers in Aram. Filled with rage, the proud man almost misses the miracle healing that God has for him because it isn’t miraculous enough! It is too ordinary for such an extraordinary man. Wash and be clean, indeed!

We aren’t surprised, this time, when the servants are the voice of reason and that Naaman, once again, listens to and values the opinions of his servants. They persuade Naaman by flattering him that he would certainly do something difficult to be healed. Wouldn’t he try this simple thing?

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So he goes to the Jordan. He washes and is made clean. He declares his faith in the God of Israel and returns home, to continue to serve as commander of the army of Aram. But he is a changed man, with a powerful story to share. His flesh has been restored to that of a young boy. He has come to believe in the Lord because of the faith of a little Israelite servant girl.

Jesus will use Naaman as an example of God’s care for Gentiles in his hometown sermon in Luke 4:27, angering his Jewish audience. “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha,” he says, “and none of them were cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

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***

As it rained last night—keeping the air conditioning repairman away yet another day for fear of electrocution—I thought of how water is used for life and death in the Bible. How God destroyed much of life on earth in a flood and caused water to flow from a rock when the Israelites were thirsty. And how water is a symbol of the Holy, life-giving Spirit and how Jesus is Living Water for the Samaritan woman at the well. Each of us is washed and made clean in our baptisms, dying to sin and rising to new life.

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The Lord showed us the way by being baptized in the Jordan, where the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land and Naaman the warrior is humbled and washed clean of leprosy. And how in Revelation 22 the water of the river of life, as clear as crystal, awaits us, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

As rain fell gently on our back deck, the birds and frogs were silent, but the trees seemed to whisper, “The Kingdom of God is drawing near.”

Let us pray…

Holy One, we thank you for your gift of water, essential for all life, and for your Spirit, symbolized by water, that leads us to new life every day. Thank you for your love, for suffering with and for us, for your promise to be with us always, your desire to heal us of our diseases, and your claiming us in our baptisms. Lord, help us to see you every day in the ordinary and extraordinary, every situation, and not miss any blessing you have for us. Stir us to see and share the good news: Your Kingdom is drawing near. In Christ we pray, Amen.

 

Follow! Don’t Look Back!

Meditation on 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

June 30, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

     Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah said to him, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.

***

Welcome to summer in Ohio. It’s hot! It seems like we are always talking about the weather. Last Sunday, we complained about the rain and flooding, and thanked God for the sunshine! On Monday, I was hiding in the downstairs bathroom with the dog, taking shelter after a tornado warning.

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Did anyone else hunker down in the bathroom or the basement? Did any of you take your dog with you? Mabel our Pomeranian was comforting, though she was confused. She heard the wind, thunder, and crashing of breaking branches, and cocked her head as she looked at the closed bathroom door. I texted Jim at the library to make sure he was safe. He was with the staff in the basement, too. I worried about Melvyn, our cat, asleep upstairs in our bedroom. He wasn’t worried about the storm, but he eventually wandered downstairs, looking for a snack. When I opened the bathroom door, the expression on his face seemed to say, “Where did y’all go? Woke up and you were gone.”

I hesitated before leaving my shelter after the all-clear signal. Was it really over? Were we really safe? The thunder boomed and the rain poured down. I waited, wondering what my next adventure in Ohio might be.

 

***

 

Inside my basement shelter, I remembered the story of Elijah, hunkered down in a cave. He wasn’t afraid of a storm; he is running from the idolatrous Queen Jezebel, Ahab’s wife. She wants to kill him after Elijah kills 450 false prophets of Baal. Now he is running for his life, but also running from his call.

The prophet’s mantle had begun to weigh heavily on the one whose name in Hebrew, Eliyahu, means, “My God is the Lord.” Before hiding in the cave, he runs a day’s journey and stops to rest under a broom tree. He cries out to God, “It is enough, now, O Lord! Take away my life. For I am no better than my ancestors.”

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Like some other Old Testament prophets, Elijah suffers from depression and self-doubt. Moses, who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, struggled with his call, too. He prays to God in Numbers 11:15, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”

And then there’s Jonah. He tries to run away from God by boarding a ship headed in the opposite direction that God commands him to go. A violent storm comes up and threatens to break the ship apart. Jonah tells the frightened sailors, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Later, after a whale rescues him and Jonah preaches to wicked Ninevah as God commands, the city repents, and the Lord forgives them for their sins. Jonah cries out, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

The Lord uses Elijah, Moses, and Jonah, in spite of their weaknesses, to accomplish God’s purposes.

God sends an angel to feed Elijah and the food miraculously strengthens and nourishes him for a journey of 40 days and 40 nights—what does that remind you of?—to Horeb, also known as Sinai, the Mountain of God. He will meet God there and hear God’s voice, but not in the great wind, earthquake, or fire. God is in the silence. Elijah wraps his face in his prophet’s mantle, made of fur or hair, in the presence of the Lord. The mantle is a reminder that he has been claimed by God, set apart for holiness as a child of God, for a person in ancient times would throw his mantle on a child to adopt him.

God asks his prophet, calling him by name, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God already knows why. The Lord wants Elijah to trust Him with his doubts and fears, pain and disappointment. Being obedient to God doesn’t mean we will be free of stress and pain and be popular and happy all the time. Following the Spirit often means trials and troubles, as it requires us to take a different path, the narrow road. Choosing the Lord’s way may bring sorrow and loneliness as it may mean leaving friends and family behind.

As Paul says to the Galatians in 1:10, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of the Lord.”

Elijah, huddling in the cave, says to his God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left”—can you hear the loneliness and discouragement in his voice?—“and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

God answers with confirmation of his prophetic call, in spite of his difficulties. This is where today’s reading begins. The Lord tells Elijah there’s more work to do. Elijah must go to the wilderness of Damascus and anoint Hazael king over Aram, which is Syria today, and anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, King of Israel. And the Lord, knowing Elijah’s loneliness and weariness, sends him to anoint a helper, a kind of apprentice prophet or disciple. This is extraordinary, for a prophet doesn’t usually anoint another prophet. A community anoints a priest, prophet or king, as one who has been given authority by God.

Elijah never actually anoints Elisha. He finds him plowing a field with 12 yoked oxen in front of him. Elijah passes by the younger man, an unmarried farmer living with his parents, and throws his mantle over him. The simplicity of Elisha’s calling and his response makes me think of Christ walking on the beach, calling to a couple of rough fishermen, “Come. Follow me. And I will make you fish for people.” Elisha immediately leaves his oxen, just as the disciples drop their nets. Elisha, though, has a request. “Let me kiss my father and my mother,” he says, “and then I will follow you.”

Elijah instantly feels regret at the younger man’s loss. “Go back again,” he says. “For what have I done to you?”

Elisha does more than kiss his parents. He slaughters the oxen, starts a fire with the wood of their yoke, cooks the meat, and gives it to “the people to eat,” which sounds like he is leaving behind a community or at least a large household, and not just his parents. He is giving up his former life—his family’s farm that he would inherit and his occupation–for his vocation.

He accepts the call to follow and serve the prophet of the Lord. He doesn’t look back.

 

***

Friends, Elisha’s story speaks to me especially this summer, as I prepare to finally go and visit my parents in Florida a few weeks from now. As you know, it was very hard to leave them last December. But now, I can look forward to a visit, a time when I can tell my parents in person that I love them and kiss them both goodbye, once again. And assure them that God is with them.

I have peace in the call that I accepted years ago when I heard the Lord’s voice in the silence. I was 20 years old. I didn’t know what answering the call would mean, just as Elisha surely did not know what adventures he would experience serving Elijah, the prophet of the Lord. I didn’t plan on being a pastor back then. I am sure the thought didn’t cross my mind. But then, life is seldom what we think it will be. My life is better than I expected, and I give thanks to the Lord for His grace. I am sure God has a sense of humor!

The Lord used Elijah, Moses and Jonah, in spite of their weaknesses. And the Lord can and will use us, too, with all our weaknesses. The way to peace is when we can forgive and put the past behind us. Yesterday’s failures belong to yesterday.

We can rest in the knowledge that we don’t have to be perfect for God to love us. All of the prophets were flawed human beings that the Lord was pleased to use to bring about God’s good purposes. The Heavenly Father has thrown His mantle on all of us. We are our Creator’s children, chosen, adopted, saved, and set apart for a life of worship, love and service. The Lord has given us each other so that we may be servants of one another, like Elisha serves Elijah when he is depressed and discouraged, until one day, when Elijah rides a chariot of fire into the sky and Elisha will wear his prophet’s mantle for good.

We can do mighty things with our gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. We serve a God of second chances. Today, we have another opportunity to respond with joy and faith to God’s call—to follow! And don’t look back!

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for placing your mantle upon us and calling us your children. But we are afraid, sometimes, of our vocations, just as Moses, Elijah and Jonah were afraid. We don’t always want to take risks. We lack confidence in ourselves. Yes, sometimes we lack faith, just as your first disciples did. Forgive us, Lord, and send your Spirit to strengthen and renew us. We thank you that our weaknesses won’t keep you from loving us, growing us, shaping and reforming us, and using us for your good plans and your glory. Help us to seek your face and hear your voice in the silence and then reach out to share your love. In your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

Can These Dry Bones Live?

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Meditation on Ezekiel 37:1-14

June 23, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

    I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.
And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

 

***

     I’ll say it again! It’s good to be home! After two weeks of intensive study and a time of listening for God’s voice in Pittsburgh, I’m glad to be back. By Friday afternoon, my colleagues in ministry and I were exhausted and a wee bit homesick. And it had rained almost every day—like it rained here.

We had engaged in conversations about our particular callings and congregations, and the struggles of the Church, in general. We prayed for all three. Elaine Heath writes, “A dark night of the soul is descending on the church in the United States. The signs are everywhere: a steady decline in church membership, especially among mainline denominations, a striking increase in the percentage of Americans who do not attend church, dropping numbers of young adults preparing for ordained ministry, and the loss of moral authority and credibility among clergy and churches due to widespread sex scandals and financial misconduct.” [1] Some Christians are alarmed, she says, and churches are putting forth “enormous effort to launch church growth programs to shore up membership, increase giving and keep denominational ships afloat.” But Heath reminds us that the Lord is in control. This is all part of God’s plan.

“On the margins of society,” she says, is where “the church will once again find its God-given voice to speak to the dominant culture in subversive ways, resisting the powers and principalities, standing against the seduction of the status quo.”  What is dark is not evil, she says; it is simply the unknown.

Other scholars, such as Walter Brueggemann, say that the Western church is “in exile, much like the Jewish people in Babylon long ago.” But remember, in exile, God is still with us. It is we are may be tempted to move away and have trouble finding our way back. In exile, we have the opportunity to grow in faith and learn to rely on the Lord.

Heath speaks words of hope for the future. “The church will once again become a prophetic, evangelistic, alternative community, offering to the world a model of life that is radically ‘other’—life-giving, loving, healing, liberating.”[2]

Jesus’s way does seem radically different than the American church ideals of bigger is better. That’s what Americans think, right? Bigger churches are healthier than smaller churches. Churches with more money are better than churches with fewer financial resources. Some people think that, right? But that’s not the way of Jesus. He sends out his 70 missionaries in pairs–2 by 2– in Luke 10 to proclaim the kingdom drawing near, to speak peace to the homes, towns and villages, heal people of their diseases, and cast out demons. He says to them, “‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.’” Don’t get distracted from what I am sending you to do!

Our conversation about the Church stirred one of my colleagues to ask, “Can these dry bones live?”  And we all got goosebumps. I’m getting them now!

***

Ray was quoting from Ezekiel 37 and the prophet’s vision in a valley of dry bones. The young priest, Ezekiel, is among a group taken into exile in 597 BC to Babylonia. He hears God’s call to be a prophet five years later. And he prophesies “doom for the city of Jerusalem and hope for the Israelites.”

The Israelites have sinned, proclaiming their allegiance to other gods and nations. But our Gracious and Merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, welcomes them back and promises renewal and cleansing from their idols and other sins. “A new heart I will give you,” the Lord says in Ezekiel 36:26, “and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Hope awakens in us when the Lord asks Ezekiel in 37, standing in a valley surrounded by death, “Mortal” or “Son of Man, can these bones live?” I like it that the prophet doesn’t say no or yes. He avoids getting it wrong when he says, “Lord God, you know.” And God says, “Prophecy to the bones.” And the Lord gives Ezekiel the words to say. “‘Say to them: ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.’”

Breath is ruach—Hebrew for breath, spirit or wind. This is the word in Genesis, in the beginning, when a wind (ruach) sweeps over the face of the waters and God creates the heavens and the earth with His powerful Word. He fashions human beings from dust and breathes his breath or wind (ruach) into them. And they come alive.

This is the promise of new beginnings for God’s people in Ezekiel 37.

From death to resurrection. Raised to new life.

***

I took a break from my Sunday preparations yesterday to take our dog, Mabel, for a walk. It was good to finally be out in the sun, if only for a little while. On the way in, I was surprised and delighted to see what I had not seen the night before when we returned from Pittsburgh—three beautiful, pink roses in bloom behind our forsythia bushes by the garage. I didn’t even know we had any roses planted in our yard! The funny thing is, I almost cut the bush down before I left for Pittsburgh because there wasn’t a leaf on it – just dry sticks coming from the ground. And I thought it was dead.

Rose in bloom.jpg

The roses seemed to me to be a gift of grace and beauty—like so many other gifts of grace and beauty that we encounter, but don’t always notice or think anything of, every day. The roses in bloom—bursting forth from ordinary, unenriched soil in the shade behind an overgrown bush—were signs of life and hope from Our Creator and Sustainer, the One whom Mary Magdalene mistook for the Gardener when she encountered her Risen Lord. And I thought, how many times have I missed what is lovely, beautiful, and good by choosing to look, instead, into the darkness—the strange and frightening unknown?

Sisters and brothers! Mortals! Listen to the Word of the Lord, spoken by Ezekiel. We no longer have hearts of stone; we have hearts of flesh. We have been cleansed and are being changed by a gracious and merciful God who, despite our sin and faithlessness, welcomes us home, back to the Lord where we belong.

When we dedicate our time capsule today, we won’t be seeking to memorialize our history or lift up our accomplishments. We will gather to pray for the people who will follow us, the Church of Jesus Christ that will continue on in this community for generations to come. This is an act of faith! We are saying the Church will continue on! In our prayer, we will say, “We come as a people of hope because of Jesus Christ, bringing these items to share with those who come after us not to celebrate what we have done, but in gratitude, humility and praise to you for what you have done in, with and for us, your beloved Church. We know not what the future will bring or who will be here to open this time capsule. We know not what our community and world will be like, this world that you created and still so love. Whatever challenges and opportunities the future will present for the people of God, we pray that those who open this time capsule will be people of commitment and compassion, full of faith and love.”

Come with me now. Let us draw closer to the Lord together. Open yourself to God’s ruach—the Lord’s Spirit, breath, or wind. Let’s join with the work of the Spirit among us and in our community. Because the Spirit is already at work in our community. We just have to join in! Let us follow Jesus’ example, seeking to serve and not be served, at the risk of losing our own life. For it is only in dying that we will rise. These dry bones will live a new life!

Let us pray…

Holy One, thank you for your word that continues to speak to your people through the ancient prophet, Ezekiel. We pray for the Church, Lord, in America, that seems to be in decline, walking in darkness, longing for your light. But we know you are working in, among and through us. Breathe in us, Lord, once again, with the same breath you breathed at Creation, the breath that empowered us at Pentecost, the breath, ruach, that will help us to live as Christians in this time of confusion and uncertainty, but also a time of beauty and delight. Strengthen and stir us to labor for you, to preach the good news of your present and coming Kingdom, heal the sick, cast out demons, and speak peace to homes, towns and villages. For we know the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. And when you return, as we yearn for your return, may you find us to be people of commitment and compassion, full of faith and love. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

[1] Elaine A. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, chapter 1, “Into the Night,” p. 25-27.

[2] Ibid., 26.