We Are Dust

           Meditation on Matthew 6:1-6

Ash Wednesday

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Ash Wednesday image

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 

I used to wonder why my grandmother was always humming while she cleaned the house. Housekeeping was such hard work back then, when I was a child, visiting her in her little cottage in Daytona Beach, Florida, without air conditioning. She did everything by hand—no dishwasher, no washing machine, no sewing machine, no dryer, not even an electric vacuum cleaner. She washed all her clothes in the kitchen sink and hung them on the clothesline in the backyard or on the back porch. She had a gas stove she lit with a match and an old refrigerator she called an ice box.

Grandma, one of 13 born to Norwegian immigrants, was one of the most humble, hardworking people I have ever met. Her family was well cared for and loved. She served her church in a myriad of ways. And her house was always clean. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” she used to say, a saying that may have come from John Wesley in a sermon in 1778.

Grandma dusted regularly, something that seemed much less important to my generation, especially when I was a young mother who worked outside the home. Dusting is one of those jobs that no sooner are you finished, you look away and the dust has returned. But that didn’t bother Grandma.

I have come to realize that the act of cleaning itself was deeply satisfying for her; it brought her peace and joy, no matter if the result—a clean house—was short lived. And when she hummed her favorite hymns, her cleaning tasks truly became a spiritual discipline, an act of grateful worship.

And this is how it is with us on Ash Wednesday, when we stop all the rushing around we usually do, racing against ourselves to complete everything we have set ourselves to do, however unrealistic and self-harming these expectations might be. Instead, we honestly examine ourselves, our motives, thoughts, and habits, and invite the Lord, as the psalmist says in 139:33-34, to help us see the sins in us that we cannot see and cleanse us from them. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns,” the psalmist prays. “See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the way everlasting.…” The point of confession and forgiveness is to restore our peace with the Lord and one another, so that nothing will interfere with our journey with Christ to the cross, throughout these 40 days.

Confession and forgiveness are something like house cleaning. We are never finished. As soon as we have sincerely repented from sin and returned to the Lord, next thing we know, we fall into sin again. But that’s OK. God’s grace is sufficient for us, as it was for the Apostle Paul. The Lord wants us to keep on returning to him, not just for forgiveness, but for strength to do His will.

Some people struggle with the image of human beings as dust. I find it comforting, a relief, to admit that we are dust, and as Genesis 3:19 tells us, “and to dust we shall return.” For we are God’s precious dust, and we stand in solidarity with every human being on this.

The dust reminds us of our beginnings and our close relationship with the Lord, from the beginning, not to mention our strong connection to the earth. In the beginning, when the Lord was creating in Genesis 1:27, God formed the first people. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In 2:7, we get an even closer look at His work of creating the first people when he fashions adam from the dust of the ground, adamah. The Lord didn’t hesitate to put his hands in the soil for this act of love. He didn’t see the ground or dust as dirty or bad. It was the medium for our creation, like artists use oil or acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal, pencils, pen and ink, and so on. God chose to use dust. Our heavenly Father is our potter, says Isaiah 64:8; and we are the clay. He didn’t just speak us into existence as he did the light, sky and stars; he formed the human being and leaned in close to breathe his breath into the person’s nostrils and the man became a living being. And the word for breath is ruach, the same for God’s Spirit, the same for the wind that swept over the face of the waters in Genesis 1:2. God’s breath remains within us, reanimating and reforming our dust. We are dust, but we aren’t the same dust or the same people we were yesterday. God is at work in our lives to accomplish his plans and to use all things for good.

We rejoice in the promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not anything we do or anything that can happen to us. In life and in death, we belong to Him.

***

In our Matthew reading, Jesus explores three expressions of authentic Jewish piety—prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Jesus is often moved to compassion and acts of kindness and healing when he sees people in need. With the hypocrites’ long, fancy prayers in the public square and the practice of piety for others to see, Jesus seems to be talking about religion verses faith. His society is full of religious people who seem to do all the right things, just as our society is full of religious people, who may not actually be faithful. God is not impressed with vast amounts of spiritual knowledge and memorizing Scripture without putting it into practice. The Lord knows when we are holding back, faking it, or just going through the motions. The Lord knows if he has our hearts and if our lives are truly centered on Him.

He wants to have an intimate relationship with us, just as he did from the very beginning, when he leaned in close and breathed into the nostrils of adam, formed from adamah. While there is a time to practice your good works publicly, so that all can see and give God the glory, when you practice acts of charity and kindness privately, so no one else knows, it can’t be an obligation or a task meant to impress others; acts of kindness and charity are an act of worship, a grateful response to God’s gracious gift of salvation. When we pray in our rooms, with the doors closed, it can only be about relationship and learning to trust in Him.

Just as all of Lent is a season to get back on track with our Christian walk and live to serve and work for justice, Ash Wednesday is a day of new beginnings, a chance to start over. We empty ourselves of ego and pride. We let go of our worldly cares and goals. We confess together as a faith community and are marked with a cross of ashes to remember God’s great love and as a sign of our renewed commitment to the Lord and living our faith. We humbly recall the costly price of the sacrifice and his claiming us in our baptisms—our dying and rising with him to new life. We surrender all of ourselves, together, so our Potter can recreate and renew us, unite and heal us, make us whole and holy in Him.

***

My grandmother, if she were living today, would be way over 100 years old.  She probably wouldn’t be disappointed that my house isn’t as clean as hers was and that I seldom bother to dust. She was a gracious and kind woman who would have been happy to know that her prayers for me were answered, that I finally began to accept God’s love and forgiveness, and that I am learning to live for Christ each day. She would tell me, whenever I shared my feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear or disappointment, “to give it all to the Lord in prayer.” It sounds so simple, but it really is quite profound. No matter how you are feeling, seek the Lord in prayer. Go into your closet and shut the door. For God cares for you. His love will never end.

We can rejoice and give thanks that we are dust, God’s precious dust. We have nothing to fear as we contemplate returning to the dust.  In life and in death, we belong to God.

Amen.

 

Come Up to the Mountain

 

Meditation on Matthew 17:1–9

Transfiguration Sunday

The Presbyterian Church

Feb. 23, 2020

 

Icon-of-the-Transfiguration-of-Christ

      Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

       9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

 

It’s cold outside! In this kind of weather, I don’t want to go outside without my gloves! Brrrr!

But I am finding that those who live in Ohio are a hardy sort. On Friday night, the cold weather didn’t keep most of our confirmation class from getting together for pizza at Amici’s in West Lafayette. Ever been there? Yeah, the pizza’s great. But you should have warned me how cold it is in winter! We were huddled together for warmth, choosing the booth closest to the heat vent so we didn’t freeze to death. It was so cold inside that when I ordered hot water for the tea bag that I brought with me for tea, by the time the waitress walked with my cup from the kitchen to our table, the water was ice cold.

But the Holy Spirit was with us on Friday night. I felt the warmth of God’s presence. And I discovered that the owner paid for most of our meal, which was very kind. Only in our small town, my friends! I enjoyed just being with the mentors and the youth, listening as they talked about things that matter to them; their likes and dislikes; what makes them happy or frustrated, mad or sad; what and who they care about and worry about. I look forward to hearing more of their stories and encouraging them to take risks and never give up on their dreams.

After I got home Friday night, I kept thinking about them. How it’s difficult to be an adult nowadays in our community with jobs that are going away, schools struggling to educate with fewer and fewer funds, and our community health problems, including drug addiction and mental illness. But how it must be even more difficult for the children and youth– how helpless and stressed they must feel. How do our young people stay positive in a world that seems to be crumbling around them? How do they stay positive when the adults around them are not always positive? For our words don’t always reveal our hope in Jesus, and our actions don’t always demonstrate our living resurrected lives with Him right here.

The answer for the youth and for all of us is knowing Jesus as our Lord and Savior. In the weeks and months to come, I pray that the mentors, parents and I will reveal Him through His Word and the fruits of the Spirit—love and joy, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. This is how the children will weather the storms in their lives—knowing Jesus, learning to seek Him and trust in Him. Human beings will always let us down. Not the Lord!

What I want more than anything is for us to lead the children and youth up the mountain of God, so that we may meet our Lord together and hear his voice. May His light dispel all the darkness that remains in us—so that we may live as a source of light for others, walking in the ways of mercy, hope and justice.

 

***

 

In our gospel reading today, Jesus retraces the steps that Moses took in Exodus centuries before to be with God. Moses would return from the Holy Mountain after 40 days and 40 nights, equipped with the Word of God that would bring order and shape to the community of faith, teaching them how to love God and neighbor. In addition to the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, Moses brings back detailed instructions on how to build the tabernacle and ark of the covenant, make the sacrifices for thanksgiving and atonement, to anoint and dress the priests in holy vestments, and for Aaron and his sons to tend the oil lamp on a golden lamp stand that burns day and night before the Lord.

Moses, as he leaves for his climb, tells his elders to wait with the people, and settle their disputes until he returns. He brings with him his assistant, Joshua. Jesus will choose three disciples—Peter, James, and John—to go up the “high mountain, by themselves.” Nothing and no one will distract them from their meeting with God. It strikes me as curious that Jesus never tells them why they are going up the mountain or prepares them for what’s going to happen. I can imagine these fishermen are way out of their comfort zone.

When Jesus is transfigured before them, his face shining like the sun and his clothes a dazzling white, and is talking with Moses and Elijah who suddenly appear, I think to myself, “No wonder Peter says what he says.” For he is merely offering to use his gifts and skills to serve the Lord. Wouldn’t we do the same? Why wouldn’t he want to build dwelling places or booths for the guests, so they may be sheltered from the elements and have a nice visit? Peter longs to make this terrifying vision a comfortable, more ordinary reality. And by building booths, he reveals his desire for Elijah and Moses to stay—and this divine revelation to never end.

Then, just as Peter is speaking, the Lord overshadows them in a bright cloud, like the cloud that Moses enters when he goes up the mountain. A voice echoes the voice at his baptism when it says, “This is My Son, the Beloved; with Him I am well pleased.” It’s when the voice adds, “Listen to him,” that the disciples fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. “Listen to him” means do what Jesus says!

But the one they are commanded to hear and obey comforts them with a touch and gentle words, “Get up and don’t be afraid.”

He orders them to keep this vision a secret until he has been raised from the dead. It will be some time after the resurrection before they understand how Jesus, the one who stood with Moses and Elijah on God’s mountain, is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. The Living Word and image of the invisible God, is also the new commandment, God’s love in human flesh.

Like Moses, Jesus would descend the mountain to encounter a faithless community below.

 

***

 

Today, we will install deacons and elders for our congregation. Their job, first and foremost, is to be spiritual leaders, praying for us and helping us to be more faithful to serve our servant Lord.

The message of the Transfiguration for Christ’s disciples then and now is to be still and listen for the Word of the Lord. Listen with awe and anticipation of what the Lord will do. As Isaiah 55:11 says, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Come to God, not just to make your desires known, but to hear His will and be strengthened in your faith. Let the Lord give you the desires of His heart and make them yours. Come with the confidence of His Beloved Children. “Cast all your worries and cares on him,” says 1 Peter 5:7, “for he cares for you.”  “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace,” says Hebrews 4:16, “that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

To our deacons and elders, I say that you will feel peace doing God’s work. It will be satisfying and bring you joy. Other times, you will be out of your comfort zone. But that isn’t a bad place to be! For didn’t the Lord choose three fishermen to climb a high mountain with him and use them to grow His Kingdom?

As deacons and elders, you may, at times, feel overwhelmed. You may, when you’re tired or things don’t go as planned, wonder what you were thinking when you said yes. I assure you that you are, indeed, called to this ministry. God will be faithful to equip, teach and transform you as you seek Him in prayer. Ephesians 2:10 assures us, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

And whenever you are afraid, the Lord will touch and comfort you with His Word, as he did for his disciples. You are never alone. Your brothers and sisters are behind you and with you. As you serve and give of yourselves, the Lord will surprise you with His goodness and grace. You will be blessed by your congregation.

So, come, everyone. God awaits us on His holy mountain. Let us meet Him together and hear his voice. May God’s light dispel all the darkness that remains in us—so that we may live as a source of light for others, walking in the ways of mercy, hope and justice.

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for revealing the identity of your Beloved Son on the Holy Mountain to your disciples long ago and for offering us a new covenant with you when we were unfaithful and went our own way. Thank you for revealing your identity to each one of us by your Spirit, and speaking to us by your Word. We believe in the work of your Son on a cross that set us free from the burden of our sins. Lead us to have the courage to live new lives, walking with Christ. Lord, we thank you for all our children and youth in our community. Help us to nurture their faith and reveal your mercy and grace. Let them be filled with your hope and joy. May we all be transformed in your light and shine for others to see and come to know your salvation. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

Create in Me a Clean Heart

Meditation on 1 Cor. 3:1-9 and Matt. 5:21-37

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Feb. 16, 2020

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

       5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1-corinthians-3-9

Did you all have a good Valentine’s Day? I was all set to volunteer at the elementary school on Friday. And then it snowed! I got to school at 9 and thought, “Gee, where is everybody?” It was a 2-hour delay! I should have read my text messages before I got there. But I felt as giddy as the teachers did, probably—not because I didn’t want to go to school, but because I had the gift of 2 hours, actually more, to catch up on some things at home before I went back to school to help in the afternoon.

The first thing I did at home was go out and refill the bird feeders. They were practically empty. When I first started feeding the birds at Christmastime, I worried we wouldn’t have birds. I prayed, “Please God, send us some birds to eat our food.” And one or two would come, then disappear. I think they were all heading to John Leppla’s house down the hill!

Then a few weeks ago, something changed. I got home from church and heard screeching in the back yard. I looked out the window, and it was like a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock movie, “The Birds.” A flock of starlings had arrived to join the mix. There was all kinds of chaos and brutality at the feeders. Even the tiniest sparrows and juncos were at war with each other and the bigger birds. It was every bird for himself.

All I could think of was, “Now, children. That’s enough. Stop fighting. There’s plenty for everyone.”

Seeing the birds jealous and fighting with each other over their food made me think of the church at Corinth—the one that the Apostle Paul planted around 49-51 A.D., Apollos had watered, and the Lord had given the growth. No sooner did Paul head on to Ephesus that he heard from his friend Chloe’s household about all the bad things happening at the church in Corinth. The congregation was struggling with sin—sexual immorality, idolatry and internal strife, arguing over who was in charge.

The ancient city was located on the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow stretch of land that joins the Peloponnese to the mainland of Greece, about halfway between Athens and Sparta.  Corinth had been one of the largest and most important cities of Greece, with a population of 90,000 in 400 BC. But in 146 BC, the Romans besieged and captured it, killing the men and selling the women and children into slavery before burning the city.  Corinth remained deserted until Julius Caesar resurrected the city for Rome in 44 BC, shortly before his assassination. Corinth was rebuilt, under the Romans, as a major city in Southern Greece. In Paul’s time, the city has a large, mixed population of Romans, Greeks, and Jews, and is an important center of activities of the imperial cult, with emperors and their family members worshiped in temples as gods.

The letter we call “First Corinthians,” is really the second letter we know of that Paul wrote to the church. He references his first letter to them in First Corinthians, saying how he already told them to deal with their problems with sexual immorality and idolatry and stop their divisive behavior. So, he’s writing again and is understandably more upset than he was in the first letter, which did no good. They responded by being angry with him and not accepting his teachings or authority. They don’t want to change and be any different from the pagan society in which they live!

Paul’s message is that quarrels and divisions have to stop; they are destroying the church.  What matters is that Apollos continues to nurture their faith and that they become more mature, no longer drinking spiritual milk like infants, but eating “solid food,” as Paul says it so well. The Corinthians are acting as if what is “God’s field” or “God’s building” is just a human organization, living by the flesh and “human inclination,” he says. Stop arguing over the human leadership of the church! We are equally important and will be used by God, if we just do our part—plant and water. The Lord is responsible for the growth. Our witness is our fruitful living, turning from sin and humbly serving others as we walk with God.

Paul’s letter and Matthew’s gospel have overlapping themes. Christ teaches us how God’s children should live out our faith, in light of the good news of the Kingdom Christ ushered in. This passage from the Sermon on the Mount never fails to challenge us, as Paul’s letters challenged the Corinthians. More than likely, though, Paul would not see the spiritual fruits in the church of Corinth in his lifetime. But his teachings would be heard and heeded by generations of Christians to come. All that the Lord required of Paul was that he do his part, be guided by the Spirit to share the gospel—plant and water. As he so wisely taught us, it would be up to the Lord to give the growth.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew interprets the Ten Commandments for our daily lives. Adhering to the law against murder isn’t enough for righteous living in the Kingdom of God. We have to let go of our anger against one another and continually seek to reconcile with one another and with God. Because if we don’t have peace with our brothers and sisters in the Lord, we don’t have peace with God. “If you are offering your gift at the altar,” Christ says, “and you remember that a brother or a sister has something against YOU, leave your gift at the altar,” Christ says, “and go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister and THEN come and offer your gift.” In other words, Jesus is saying, when someone has a problem with you, it isn’t just their problem. It’s your problem, too. And if you don’t deal with the problem right away in a loving way and be reconciled, it becomes a problem for the entire community of faith.

The most painful part of this passage, for me, is the reference to divorce. Jewish men were permitted to divorce their wives with a certificate since the time of Moses. Women were not permitted to divorce their husbands. Jesus is speaking up for women’s well-being, especially, when he says that divorce isn’t OK in the Kingdom of God. He isn’t saying that women or men should submit to abusive relationships. He is saying that men need to love their wives and honor the covenant of marriage.

Today’s Christians have come to accept divorce as a sign and symptom of the brokenness in this world, while at the same time, we know that divorce doesn’t fit with the abundant life God desires for us. The wounds from divorce and domestic strife are long-lasting and hurt the entire family.

Is there hope for the healing of relationships in this world?  Yes. We shouldn’t give up working for peace right where we live. But we must first acknowledge that we each have played a role in the brokenness. We have failed to love our neighbor, especially when the neighbor is a friend or family member who betrayed us. Sin begins in our hearts, as Jesus will say in Matthew 15.

Healing IS possible with persistent prayer and trusting in the power of God, present in the community of faith. God’s love IS here for us. Healing begins with each one of us seeking forgiveness, reconciliation, and recreation in Christ’s image. It starts with each of us praying, “Lord, create in me a clean heart.”

***

After starting my day with feeding hungry birds, I returned to the elementary school Friday afternoon to help with Valentine’s Day parties. I had forgotten how stirred up the children get on Valentine’s Day. And I remembered how I felt overwhelmed sometimes as a teacher on party days—wanting the children to have fun, but also wanting to maintain some sense of order and discipline.

But the second graders were sweet, funny, and affectionate. And I found my happy place when Mr. Gill asked how I felt about crafts. “Oh, I’m good with crafts,” I said. He led me to a table with room for 5 second graders at a time and all the ingredients to make paper bag puppets and hearts of foam with Valentine stickers.

And in between scrubbing Elmer’s glue off every surface but the paper bag puppets, and including my pants, I looked for every opportunity to encourage the children. For some of the kids looked really stressed. It was near the end of the day, and I wasn’t the only one out of my comfort zone with this change in routine. One little boy kept saying he didn’t think he could do it, and yet, when I encouraged him through the task, the next thing I knew, his puppet was finished and was one of the best I had seen that afternoon! I felt a peace come over me, amidst the chaos, when I realized that I only needed to do my part and look for openings to reveal my faith through words and acts of love and mercy. All God ever requires of me, all the Lord ever requires of us, my friends, is to plant and water. For it is God who gives the growth!

Let us pray.

Holy One, we are grateful for your everlasting presence in our lives, that we are never separated from your love. Teach us to love as you do, Lord, and be merciful, forgiving others as you have so graciously forgiven us. We repent from our sins of divisiveness and selfishness, Lord. We confess that we each have played a role in the brokenness of this world and haven’t wanted to admit it. We confess that hurt and fear have held us back from the abundant life in your Kingdom that you want us to begin living right now, right where we are. Give us hope, patience, and joy as we await your healing. Let us see your growth to encourage us as we do our part, planting, watering, and working for peace. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

You Are Salt and Light!

Meditation on  Matthew 5:13–20

Feb. 9, 2020

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

 

       You know how we make plans, and then nothing goes as planned? That’s how it has been for us these last few days.

Yesterday was the presbytery meeting in Zanesville. I was planning on going with Jim, and an elder was going to ride with us. The general presbyter, the Rev. Matt Skolnik, asked me to share about a struggle in my life. He is trying to encourage us to be vulnerable with one another and build trust in our community.

But I never got to that presbytery meeting to share my struggle. Instead, God allowed a new struggle in my life. It was another opportunity for me to see the power of God in my weakness. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

On Friday night after supper, we discovered that our cat Melvyn suddenly could not walk or stand. His hind legs buckled underneath him. When I picked him up, he groaned in pain. And though he drank a little water, he didn’t want to eat any of his food.

This was around 8– after hours for vets. We left a message for Dr. Butcher on his cell phone. He quickly called us back and we told him what was happening. He listened patiently as I cried through my description of my cat’s behavior, and said, very gently, “I don’t know if I can help him. But I can go open up the clinic and take a look at him if you bring him in.” He said that he was on his way. “Just let me put on my shoes.”

He opened up the clinic for one, old kitty. He examined him and passed me a tissue to blow my nose. He told me that he didn’t think Mel was dying, but that he needed to keep him all night to find out what was wrong.  Even then, he couldn’t promise that he could heal Melvyn—only that we would try to make him more comfortable, make the quality of his life better. I asked if I could spend the night with Melvyn, and he said no. And that other people had asked!

I could hardly sleep Friday night, wondering if my cat was ever going to come home again. Was he going to die? I kept waking up and feeling the place beside me where he usually sleeps, then remembering, all over again, what had happened. In the darkness, I tried but couldn’t remember what life was like before Melvyn joined our family about 7 years ago, a stray of middle age in rural Minnesota.

I thought about how it felt each night when he climbed up and lay on my belly and chest, purring when I stroked his face. And how he would put his paws on either side of my neck, as if he were hugging me. How he woke us up early every morning, meowing and licking and rubbing my face with his head and touching my nose and mouth with his paw.

I prayed for healing and thanked God for the gift of Melvyn’s life. As tears slipped down my cheeks, I gave my burden to the source of my faith. The One who, in the poem Footprints in the Sand, has carried me.

Through Melvyn, we have learned about God’s love and grace in this messy, imperfect, unpredictable world.

He has been for us salt and light.

 

Mel1

 

Our passage in the gospel of Matthew today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, which begins in chapter 5. Jesus sees the crowds following him, and he goes up the mountain and sits down to teach, as was the custom in those days. And his disciples come to him, too. This sermon is meant for the crowds in his day who were drawn to the man performing miracles of healing and teaching with authority, unlike the scribes. It’s for the original disciples, called to leave their old lives behind and follow Him. And it’s for us and everyone who will listen and obey.

The Sermon on the Mount is meant to challenge and change us and not entertain us and always make us feel good about our lives. For Jesus says hard things, such as “love your enemies,” and that having bad thoughts about someone or calling them a name is like committing murder in our hearts. The Sermon on the Mount is for those who want to live out this new covenant with God in Jesus Christ—for those who are doers and not hearers, only, a message that will be picked up by James.

Jesus will say in Matthew 7, near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

While in Matthew 6:1, Jesus will urge us to do our good deeds in secret for a reward in heaven, here the Lord encourages us also to be public with our acts of kindness. Why? To witness to the Kingdom of God, where the greatest is the servant of all and fulfilling the law can be summed up in a word: love. Christ says in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

What prepares us for this mission and shapes our thoughts, words and deeds? The Word of God. To those who believe the Old Testament is no longer needed as the New Testament replaces it, hear the words of the Lord. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” he says, beginning at verse 17. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

With our encouragement to be salt and light, we are warned not to lose our saltiness and, in our diminishment, be rendered useless in the mission of God, or hide our light—hoarding the good news to ourselves, without taking a risk and going out into the darkness to share it.

Salt is a natural flavoring, obtained from the shores of the Dead Sea. It is a preservative so that foods don’t quickly spoil. It is a purifier, added to the ancient sacrifices in the Temple. It is a cleanser and promotes healing of wounds. Every living creature needs salt to live.

And light shines in the darkness, where there is pain and oppression, evil and brokenness, ignorance and injustice. The light of Christ, forever shining in and through us, brings understanding and forgiveness, hope and healing, justice, joy, and peace.

What is it, my friends, that could cause you to lose your saltiness? Discouragement? Doubts? Weariness? Grief?

What is it, my friends, that would lead you to hide your light from the world, when we are called to shine through acts of kindness that others can see and give God the glory?

***

Last night, as I was finishing preparing for my message, my cat, Melvyn, lay beside me, stretched out peacefully on an electric blanket on my bed. He had spent the night before at Dr. Butcher’s clinic and had IV fluids, blood tests, and X-rays. He was able to eat in the morning. The doctor joked that maybe he decided he had better eat so he could go home. Melvyn’s problems, Dr. Butcher said, are due to aging. High blood pressure may have led to blindness. Arthritis and neuropathy have caused pain in his hips and back and weakness in his hind legs. With anti-inflammatory medication, his quality of life should improve. But he’s still not walking.

Our prayers continue for his healing. And I continue to thank God for the gift of his life. And for all the kind people in our life, especially those in this small town, such as Gere Butcher, who opened his clinic for one, old, formerly stray kitty on a cold, snowy night. Dr. Butcher, with his soft words and gentle manner, is salt and light.

As are you, my friends! You who come to worship every Sunday, to hear the Word and draw nearer to Him. You who love His Church and are praying for growth! You who are brave enough to tell your stories of God’s blessings and your struggles and give of yourselves. You who want to share God’s love.

You who long for healing and to be made whole. You who want to be strengthened to minister in the world.

You who come because you have heard God’s voice and answered the call.

You are salt and light!

 

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for revealing your love to us through the giving of Your Son, so that we may live abundantly and eternally with you. We are grateful for the many blessings in our lives—for our congregation, our family and friends, for our beloved pets. Please heal the sick in our families, including our sick pets, such as little Melvyn. Help us, Lord, to be more faithful to be what you have called us to be. Teach us your Word and stir us to pray. Lead us to be obedient to your will. Give us courage to share our stories of your blessings. May we live out our new identities in Christ. May we be salt and light. Amen.

What Does the Lord Require of Us?

Meditation on Micah 6:1-8

Feb. 2, 2020

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH

 

Hear what the Lord says:
    Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
    and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
    and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
    In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
    and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
    Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
    what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

 

On Wednesday, we celebrated the life of Duke Walters, a longtime member and friend to many.  I had gotten to know Duke and his wife, Nellie, through home, hospital, and care center visits. Duke always had a smile, even when he didn’t feel well. And he was always a gentleman, insisting on walking me to the door of his home, though he used a walker and had difficulty getting around.

Duke didn’t come from a wealthy family. He didn’t finish high school. He was busy working, going out west with his brother to drive machinery on a large farm when he was 15 or 16 years old. He served in the military during the Korean Conflict, working as a truck mechanic. He worked for Clow for 39 years. He could fix or build almost anything. He repaired and restored old cars and built a hot rod out of a Model A with a V-8 engine. He passed on his mechanical skills to his sons and gave his grandchildren tool boxes. He was a natural teacher—patient, playful, and generous. He was also a good dancer, square dancing with Nellie on a float in Coshocton Canal Days’ parades.

Duke and Nellie lost their first spouses to death much too early–when they were only in their 50s. But they found each other, fell in love, and were together, inseparable, after that. They were married here, in the Presbyterian Church, on January 18, 1992, where Duke had served as an elder and where his son, Denny, and his wife, Patty, were married. Nellie’s children were never treated like stepchildren. He treated everyone’s children like they were his own.

Mark Granger, who shared memories of his Uncle Duke at the service on Wednesday, said that he would lay in bed at night as a child, wishing that Duke was his own Dad. He shared how he loved to stay over at Uncle Duke’s house and play with Denny, Mike and David, when they were kids. How Duke had given him gifts, taken him on vacations—camping, fishing, biking, to the beach, and to Cedar Point. And how he had once spent all day and a tank of gas trying to teach him how to waterski. He wasn’t going to stop until Mark stood up.

Finally, he did.

“There’s not many kind people left in the world,” Mark said. “He was kind. He was always kind.”

 

***

 

The ancient message of the prophet Micah still rings as true and relevant today for the people of God as it did thousands of years ago.  “What does the Lord require of you,” Micah asks, “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

We seldom come across passages from Micah in the lectionary readings. The only two passages that receive attention are today’s and Micah 5:2, a prophecy of the Messiah we read at Christmastime: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

Micah is a contemporary of the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, preaching to God’s people beginning in the 8th century BCE. Little is known about his hometown, Moresheth-gath, mentioned in 1:14—just that it is west of Jerusalem in a rural area hit hard by King Hezekiah’s economic and military policies.

Micah, though he doesn’t come from a wealthy family and we don’t know how he was educated, has considerable skills as a poet. He likes to use similes and metaphors. For example, he writes in 1:4, “When the Lord comes, the mountains will melt like wax or flow like water.” He is sensitive, “grieving over a message of doom that he feels he must bring.” But his message is tempered by hope of a future restoration.

Micah begins his book in 1:3 with “Maranatha,” which may be translated, “The Lord has come!” or “The Lord is coming” or “O Lord, come!”

Social and economic injustices abound in Micah’s time. Wealthy landowners “lie awake at night devising new schemes for increasing their accumulation of property at the expense of the small farmer.” This is in chapter 2:1-2. Women and young children belonging to Micah’s social group are evicted from their homes (2:9). The political leaders are cannibals who destroy then devour those over whom they have power (3:1-3). They engage in building projects in Jerusalem that are executed only with the exploitation of labor and at the cost of human lives (3:10). The courts, where those oppressed should have a chance at righting the wrongs done to them, are infected with bribery (3:11).

The religious situation is equally corrupt. Like Hosea, Micah denounces the worship of pagan gods in Israel (1:6-7). The so-called prophets of the land are in their vocation only for pay; priest and prophet alike have sold out to greed (3:5, 11). When a prophet who brings an authentic word from the Lord does appear, that prophet meets opposition (2:6-11).

In today’s passage, God and humanity are in a courtroom. God is the plaintiff, bringing a complaint against Israel, acting the role of the defendant. Acting as judge are the mountains, hills and foundations of the earth. The Lord reminds Israel of the wonderful acts of mercy and kindness that God has done, including sending Moses to redeem Israel from slavery in Egypt.

But humanity’s response is almost sarcastic, as if Israel is tired of being reminded that God is faithful and they are not. So what do you want from us, they demand, offering what God never required for them to offer as a sacrifice — thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil—or giving their firstborn?

God’s answer is a reflection of God’s own character. The Lord is saying, “You who I have made in my own image, my children, I want you to be like me. And the only way you can do this—do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with me—is when you are in intimate relationship with me.”

The word for kindness here is hesed, which is better translated loving kindness. This isn’t like our random acts of kindness to strangers, whom we might never see again. This is kindness that comes from a heart of love and often within a covenant relationship, such as a marriage. This is the same word Hosea uses and the same word in the book of Ruth, which values both God’s hesed and human hesed.

Friends, this call to love kindness, to do justice, walk humbly with God—this is the call of the Church. This is what the Lord requires of us!

And yet, we get distracted, much like the people of Micah’s time. We get discouraged by the darkness around us. We think the problems are too big—and we just don’t have enough resources to address all the needs. We worry about keeping up with the costs of ministry, instead of just living by faith, giving by faith of ourselves and our resources, trusting that if we obey God’s word, humble ourselves before him and seek to do justice, the Lord will bless our hands and hearts to serve and prosper our ministry.

The most powerful thing we can do for the community of faith and for the entire community—is simply to be kind and teach kindness to the children. Model kindness, for actions speak louder than words, and encourage and appreciate the kindness of others. Show the lovingkindness or hesed of Jesus, who was willing to give his life for us.

What does the Lord require of us as we wait and long for His return? In a world where kindness is seen as weakness—and “nice guys finish last?” Where, as Mark says, there aren’t many kind people left?

Be kind. Always be kind. For the Lord has come. And he is coming again!

O Lord, come!

 

Let us pray.

 

Heavenly Father, we humble ourselves before you now. We confess that we aren’t always kind, that sometimes we have been overwhelmed by our own problems and the darkness around us. We have worried too much about our own finances and the church’s finances, instead of laying our burdens at the cross. We have forgotten that what you require of us is very simple and straightforward, as your prophet Micah proclaims. Strengthen and guide us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with you. Help us, Lord, to live by faith and give by faith, of ourselves and our resources. Give us patience and hearts of compassion so that we are always kind. In your Son’s name. Amen.