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Counter Cultural Calm and Comfort-All Souls

  • All Soul’s Day – Isaiah 25: 6-9, Ps 27: 1-9,13-14, Romans 5:5-11, John 6: 37-40

 

Tuesday afternoon, I sat with a bedridden elderly woman. I was just beginning to introduce myself to some residents at a nursing home.  I had no information about this woman other than a staff person suggesting she might enjoy a visit.  So I asked, “How’s it going for you?”

Her eyes began to form tears. “Oh, my husband, he’s here, he has dementia, Alzheimer’s.  He sits in a wheel chair and he just talks nonsense…he was never that way before.”   She made no mention of it, but it was clear she had her own health issues too.

We talked for a few minutes about the strain of watching a beloved spouse’s health deteriorate. I asked her: would she like to have me read to her out the Bible.  “Yes”, she nodded.  So I opened to Psalm 103, and read of the goodness of God, about God’s love and faithfulness, compassion and mercy.  She grew visibly calmer as I read.  “Oh, thank you,” she breathed.  The Bible I had with me was donated by the Gideon’s, and I left it with her.  Those free Gideon Bibles have a well-deserved reputation for helping people who are overwhelmed by life.

It’s very easy, and entirely normal, to forget God’s love when crisis strikes.   But in every section of the Bible, we can find reminders of the tender love God has for us, all of us.  Today one of our reading is from Isaiah, a Hebrew prophet who lived some 800 years before Christ.  It speaks of the Lord ending death and grief and tears on the earth, and offers assurance that the Lord will save us.  Then the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation……..wait for the Lord with courage.”

Years later, St. Paul declared with great certainty that we will not be disappointed by our hopes in God.  Wearied by the sound bites of politicians, we need to be reminded of this!  Paul says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us…we are justified and saved through him…”  Paul adds, “We also boast of God.”  Now, if you have read much of St. Paul, you know when Paul says you can boast of something, he means it’s rock solid, without a doubt.

But if you might have any remaining doubt about hoping in God, our Gospel will dispel it.  John quotes Jesus saying, “…Everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.”

All Soul’s Day is about remembering those who have gone before us; those we miss, those we will mourn for the rest of our lives. But this day calms us, and draws us back from the pain of loss to the comfort of God’s love.  It is almost counter-cultural to remember that God didn’t make us disposable. We are eternal beings.  It is absolutely counter-cultural to say that we are eternal beings, but we still don’t know very much at all about eternity.  And it is probably close to anti-cultural to say that we don’t need to know more about eternity than we already know.  What do we know?  We know Eternity is real, prepared and waiting for you and me and those we love, and it will be beyond anything experienced in this life.

So, today we rejoice in life. We light candles to remind us of eternal life; their light breaks through the darkness of doubt.  We delight in the memory of those who have been born into eternity, even as we remain here for a time, and we continue to share the love of God.

 

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Keep on Going, Keep on Doing

Posted in Called, christian, Christianity, ethics, Faith, homily, inspirational, politics, religion, scripture, Word by Rev. Martha on July 10, 2016

15th Sunday Ordinary time, 7-10-16  HT  Deut 30: 10-14, Ps 19, Col 1: 15-20, Luke 10: 25-37

We have to start today back in the Old Testament, specifically in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Deut 6: 4-9 is part of the Shema, one of the most fundamental prayers of the Jewish faith.  Verse 5 says: “… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  Jesus may have heard this on the day of his birth, as it was traditionally said twice each day.

That verse was linked- long before Jesus’ time – with Leviticus 19:15-18. Verse 18 says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Scripture scholars saw these two verses drawn together like magnets, because they used the same Hebrew verb form for the command to love:  we’ahabeta, which is used only 1 other place in the OT.  Any disagreement between Jesus and the lawyer was only over the application and the boundaries of these commands, not the significance of the command to love God and neighbor.  So many difficulties arise not with ideas and ideals, but with making them become reality!

So, Jesus had a history of association with the “wrong people” – remember the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. He touched and healed the “unclean” – lepers, the bleeding woman, and the widow’s dead son.   He ate without the hand wash ritual, he allowed his hungry disciples to pick wheat on the Sabbath.  If the lawyer had any plan to trap Jesus into teaching contrary to the religious Laws, Jesus was prepared, skillfully redirecting the discussion to the intent of the law.  The discussion starts with that curious dance of questions that began any formal Jewish scholarly debate on the Law – but ends with “Go and do likewise”.  It was no longer a debate but a call to action.

Two weeks ago, in the previous chapter of Luke, we read about the disciples wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village which would not welcome them. The breach between the Jews and Samaritans was of long standing and firmly entrenched.  There was a constant attempt to insult and demean each other. The disciples got a swift rebuke, not fire, for Jesus was very tolerant of being turned away.  Again, when Jesus encountered the Samaritan “Woman at the Well”, it was a time of forgiveness and healing.

But this is not a lesson about the Samaritans.   Neither is it an attempt to criticize the priests.   This is a parable, not a diatribe of negativity; it is teaching to a specific point.  The Samaritan is cast as the stereotypical “bad, stupid guy” who is –undisputedly -doing the right thing – in contrast to the stereotypical “good and smart guys” who clearly are not doing what God requires.  The startling contrast gets our attention.

Where is the pivotal point in this parable? The priest sees, and passes by.  The Levite, a Temple assistant, sees, and passes by.  The Samaritan sees, and was moved with compassion at the sight.  Compassion: the deep feeling of sharing the suffering of another, together with the inclination to give aid or support, or to show mercy.  I looked it up – and found on the next page of the dictionary the word “compel” – to necessitate or pressure.  I think Jesus is saying that the Love which God wires into us makes us feel the need to be compassionate.  Sharing the suffering of each other is a necessary part of living.  Paraphrasing the words of our first reading today, “(Compassion)….is something very near to us, already in our mouths and in our hearts; we only have to carry it out.  For it’s not too mysterious and remote for us.  It’s not up in the sky, nor across the sea.”

Simply asking the question, “Who is my neighbor?” assumes there are limits on compassion. Jesus, of course, does not teach a boundary, a limit, on love, and will not permit us to say, “We have loved enough”, nor choose who we will love.  In mathematical terms, nearness + need = neighbor; love creates neighborliness.  To love God with all of one’s being and loving neighbor as self is living out our relationship with God.

One writer called this parable “a little annoying, for it will not let us look away or excuse us from being compassionate”. Some people are put off by the insinuation that we must exhaust ourselves and our resources over every possible instance of need that we hear of.  If you leave these doors today resolved to help everyone, your wallet will be empty and you will be disgruntled and discouraged by the time you reach home. But, the point of the parable is to identify what Christian character is, not prescribe particular action. And we don’t need to always love our neighbors by ourselves.  Community efforts are generally more effective and longer lasting.  We sometimes respond better to needs when we are challenged as a group.

Still, knowing how to implement this parable is not that easy.  So, my message is not “Go and do likewise”, but “Keep going, and keep doing” the outstanding outreach to your community that you’ve already established.  This church has found neighbors at an Elementary school close at hand.  You have been the wise people who brought gifts to area families at Christmas through the Jessie Tree project.  You were the ones who responded to a call for laundry essentials at the nearby housing units last December.  And I believe I heard a resounding “YES! They Heard Me!” from the heavens.

 

Between the Desert and the Meadow

Posted in christian, Christianity, church events, Faith, homily, inspirational, religion, Word by Rev. Martha on July 18, 2015

16th Sunday Ordinary time, 7-19-15, Jeremiah 23: 1-6, Ps 23, Eph 2: 13-18, Mark 6: 30-34

 

I suppose I shouldn’t be, but I am always startled when I read an Old Testament passage that could have come from the newspaper tossed into my driveway this morning.  Newspapers seldom miss a church scandal, and scandal is what the passage from Jeremiah is talking about. “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away,” God declares. The clergy and the lay men and women of the church who make the headlines are most often those who bring scandal to the church, who embarrass the church, who cause us to drop our head into our hands and moan. It is of little consolation that this, apparently, is not a new problem. Some 600 years before Christ, Jeremiah’s “church” needed reform and integrity. 

The church where I came to love the Lord seemed to be, like this passage says, a “meadow”. It was a place where I found delight in the faith, where I learned the Bible stories that never grow old, and where I felt safe. Later, I took my children to a similar church, another piece of the “meadow”. But when the new pastor was arrested by the vice squad, that meadow became yet another piece of desert. Even if the shepherd/ sheep metaphor doesn’t do anything for you, we all know how it feels to be deceived, lied to, and left in the desert. 

Which is why the 23rd Psalm is the favorite Psalm of all time. There’s none of that more recent business of “smelly, stupid, downright dumb sheep” here, no, none of that. The 23rd Psalm makes us feel valuable, precious, loved, and protected. Our Lord leads, restores, guides, accompanies, feeds, and anoints. He gives tender care, ceaseless vigilance, presence and protection, and provides a feast! The images are of restful calm, well-being, and affection – affection not necessarily earned, but nevertheless, lavished on us, unconditionally. 

St. Paul is no poetic psalmist, but writes something similar in the prose of every day life. He says Jesus found us “far off” (in the desert), and brought us “near” (back to the meadow). Jesus brings an end to anxiety and fear. His peace makes our enemies into our brothers and sisters. He ends the threat and pettiness of the Law, replacing it with love of neighbor equal to love of self. He overcame death by dying and rising. He came to us, created unity among us, children of One God. Paul says that Jesus has lavished unconditional love on all of us, not just some of us, just like in Psalm 23. 

Then Mark tells a story of Jesus acting out this love. Jesus shows us how to love by actually loving (loving the unlovable!). He sends the twelve apostles out to teach, to preach repentance and heal. What a thrill for them to be sent out with such authority for the first time! 

But then comes news that Herod had beheading John the Baptist. This was Jesus’ cousin, the man who baptized Jesus. What loss and senseless violence! Jesus has no time to grieve; the apostles return with crowds of people following them, and Jesus and the 12 were so busy they didn’t even have time to eat. “Come away by boat to a quiet place and rest a while,” Jesus tells them. But news spread quickly, and more people were waiting for them when the boat landed. At that point, I’d have hired crowd control or posted a schedule of office hours. I’d have been overwhelmed, perhaps even angry. 

But with surpassing tenderness, Jesus reflects the compassionate of God. “His heart was moved with pity,” Mark writes. Jesus recognized these people had no one who cared, no one taught or modeled for them the love of God. Remember the words from Jeremiah? “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…and bring them back to their meadow.” Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus, the Son of God, does just that. 

The press of people who need to be loved, who have never found the love of God as portrayed in the 23rd Psalm, who are frightened and lost and scared – their numbers seem to grow daily. We need honest balance in our lives. We need time to eat and pray and rest. We also need to give time, teaching and sharing the love and compassion of Christ, face-to-face. It is easy for that balance to be forgotten or distorted. We also need to balance our efforts to share our material wealth with sharing the emotional and spiritual wealth that Jesus brought us. Teachers know that hungry children don’t learn well. Christians know that bread alone does not satisfy the hunger of the soul. 

Balance becomes real when we spend a portion of our time with those who are like sheep without a shepherd, when our hearts are moved with pity. This week you can expect an opportunity to lead someone beside restful waters and help them restore their soul. That is when we act as God’s hands, bringing back the scattered sheep to the meadow.

But your homework is to prepare yourself for next week’s reading. Today’s Gospel is immediately followed by the feeding of the multitude. While a message in itself, this week’s reading begs us to prepare our hearts and minds for the fullness of that miracle – and I do believe it to be a miracle- of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Take 15 minutes and read it in the other Gospels*, too, and you will have a better and fuller glimpse of this altar & of the heavenly feast that the 23rd Psalm promises. 

 

*John 6: 1-15, Mark 8: 1-10, Mark 6: 34-44, Matthew 15: 32-38, Luke 9: 10-17