A UNIQUE HOSPITALITY

ACTS 11:1-18

MAY 1, 2016 FPCTRC

 

The story in today’s reading actually appears 3 times in the book of Acts. This story appeared just prior to today’s reading in chapter 10, again in chapter11 and then again in chapter 15. Each successive narrative adds layers of meaning to the story to clarify its theological importance. The story of Cornelius’s conversion is an important event as the church is just beginning and is pivotal for the rest of the book of Acts.

In Chapter 10 we have the story of both Cornelius’s  and Peter’s visions. Cornelius sees an angel who tells him to send men to bring Peter back to his home while

11 

[Peter] saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

 

Then, while he was thinking about the vision the Spirit told him that 3 men were looking for him and that he was to go with them without hesitation.

 

So, today’s text is Peter recalling the vision and subsequent events because essentially he has been called on the carpet by the Church leaders in Jerusalem for breaking the rules. When the apostles and believers in Judea heard that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God, they were waiting at the door for Peter to get back! They were ready….it says ‘the circumcised believers criticized him, saying “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”’

It is here that we read again the story of Peter’s vision about the sheet coming down from heaven and  four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air; all forbidden as food for faithful Jews. We already know about the voice from heaven saying ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ And then Peter shared with them that  the Spirit told him to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.

A primary difference between the account in chapter 10 and chapter 11 is the confrontation. Like Peter’s initial revulsion of the creatures as unclean and profane, the Jerusalem leaders were immediately offended by the idea that Peter accepted hospitality from those unclean and profane Gentiles. It’s interesting that they didn’t seem worried about people who didn’t have a legitimate Israelite descent; what bothered them was the idea of people who were uncircumcised sitting at the same table as a Jew. It was a revulsion of people considered to be unclean because of their social practices and culture. They were profane because they weren’t part of the inner circle reserved for the circumcised believers. But, notice that Peter doesn’t respond to the Jerusalem leader’s criticism with a theological argument or a carefully constructed defense of his actions. Instead he tells his story in detail, a story they already knew because the news reached them before he even arrived. It is the story that changes their hearts….Peter told how the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles just as it had upon them at the beginning and then he asked the leaders “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” The text says “They were silenced” by Peter’s story and then they praised God saying, ‘God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”

Peter’s story could very well have been any one of their stories. What would any one of them have said in response to God’s words, “What God has made clean you must not call profane….go with these men and make no distinction between them and us.” It could any one of our stories. They suddenly realized that the Spirit was at work in the stories and lives of strangers just like the Spirit was working in their lives, just like the Spirit is at work in our lives. The Spirit spoke to Peter, he never set out to break any rules. He wasn’t seeking to step outside accepted norms. He wasn’t trying to get in anyone’s face, he wasn’t trying to prove a point, he wasn’t a bleeding heart liberal…..God intervened in his life calling him to see beyond the stereotypes and distinctions his culture created. God was calling him to see his mission in more universal terms; God was calling him to share the love of Christ with all people because God loves all people—who was Peter or for that matter who are we to reject God’s people.

This is a powerful story today with all the rhetoric surrounding immigration issues, people seeking asylum and refugees fleeing homelands torn apart by war and terrorism. Yet we hear every day how we have to close the borders, build walls, send people back where they came from no matter the danger. It seems that our immediate response to immigrants is much like Peters—we label them unclean and profane. The Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, criminals and rapists. The Syrian refugees are terrorists. We label those who are different from us and we don’t know their stories. Many of them so horrific we cannot fathom their desperation.

We need to stand in the shoes of all God’s people. We need to walk the journey of people in desperate need of asylum and a safe place to live and raise a family. Yet, they are denied because they are not afforded the legal assistance that is their right to have or they are unable to communicate the reasons they need protection and they are ever fearful of retribution and persecution.

How can we as a Christian nation continue to push people out and close our doors in the face of great need when Jesus is calling us to go out in love. In Matthew 25 Jesus says…..35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’….40 ’Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.’

Jesus calls us to be advocates of the most vulnerable persons in all places; to ensure that the basic needs of food, clothes, shelter, and safety are met. As Christians we believe in the intrinsic worth of each human as a person made in the image of God. In Jesus Christ, strangers are transformed into neighbors who are welcomed into our communities. Barriers no longer divide and alienate; reconciliation is the new norm. All persons in all cultures are our neighbors. Jesus identified with the stranger in his own context and clearly emphasized hospitality as one sign of the reign of God (Matt 25:35-40; Luke 10:29-37) As Christians we are called to seek community with the ‘foreigners’ in our midst instead of allowing stigmas, fears and stereotypes separate us.

The Presbyterian Church USA is actively advocating for justice for immigrants and refugees in calling for compassionate comprehensive immigration reform that is based on mercy, respect and accountability without persecution.

Throughout scripture Jesus expresses a special concern for the poor and the downtrodden among us. As followers of Jesus we are called to extend a unique hospitality to all people. Hospitality that is based on love and mercy rather than fear and punishment. Hospitality that is based on respect for human rights instead of self-interest. Hospitality that is open to all people, not just those who are like us. Peter’s encounter with a stranger, Cornelius, transformed him. Only then did he recognize that the Gentiles were equal in the sight of God. It wasn’t through his community of Jewish Christians that Peter’s eyes were opened, It was through Cornelius who was an outsider both religiously and politically. In extending our unique kind of hospitality, God will transform our lives and indeed transform our country from one of fear and hatred to one of love and compassion. In Proverbs 31:8-9 a mother gives advice to her son, the king, about his responsibility to be a righteous judge…..Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Humans aren’t illegal, humans are valued by God and we are called to love as we have been loved.

I am going to close with what  a woman named Shannon Scopa wrote about the picture below on facebook:

…I’ve been seeing a lot of commentary on my newsfeed about ‘illegals’ and immigrants and how ‘we should get rid of ‘anchor baby’ legislation…..[this is hard for me to skip over] because people are people to me, no matter where they come from, and the idea that I should hate somebody merely because they were born somewhere other than where I was born is a bizarro world to me. So here’s what I have to say right now. Don’t talk to me about the sanctity of life if in the next breath you can start foaming at the mouth about ‘illegals’ and the horrors they bring with them. don’t talk to me about what’s “right” if in the next breath you can tell me what’s “wrong” with so much hatred in your voice it chills me to my very core. Do not EVEN start with your religion and values and morality speeches if you believe the people greeting this man and his children on the shore should push them back to sea.

We do not know this kind of desperation. We do not know this kind of fear. We do not understand what it is to live in a country so torn by war and devastation that we are willing to take our children and the clothes on our backs into a boat, risking our very lives, in the hope of finding safety. In the hopes of finding a place where our children can go to school without fear of a bomb crashing through the roof and play outside without being killed where they stand. WE DO NOT KNOW.

These are people, just like us, and how dare we -how freaking DARE we-deem them less than because they are not ‘ours.’ we are all people. we are all important. We all belong to this world. We all belong to each other.

So, don’t. Just don’t. and if you have a problem with me saying any of this, it’s okay. We’re allowed to disagree. But if it’s THAT much of a problem then unfriend me. Do it now. Because if you could look this man in the eye and push him back to sea? I’m not sure i even want to know you anyway.”

I don’t even know if Shannon is a Christian. She may be a Cornelius helping us see, in the story of this man’s face what God calls us to do. Our hospitality is unique—it transcends the message of the world.

GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST  AMEN

 

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN

JOHN 18:33-37

04242016 FPCTRC

 

In 1925 secularism in the world was increasing. People were doubting Christ’s authroity and dictatorships in Europe were on the rise. Pope Pius XI wrote about his concerns that respect for Christ and the church was waning as people were being taken in by the rhetoric of dictators. Today, while we are not under the government of a dictator, the issue of secularism is still on the rise. There is the same distrust of authority and individualism has been embraced to an extreme. The only authority that many claim to submit to is often the authority of the self and what benefits the self. The idea of Christ as ruler seems offensive. But, in that we are missing the whole point of Christ’s kingship; Christ’s kingship is one of humility and service. In our Gospel reading today Jesus says to Pilate “My kingdom does not belong to this world….You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus understood the oppressive nature of secular kings, he understands the many problems of today’s secular politicians, and in contrast to secular leaders then and now, he connects his role as king, to humble service. When we celebrate Christ as our King, we are not celebrating a harsh ruler or a manipulator of the system; we celebrate the one who was willing to die for humanity and whose “loving-kindness endures forever.” That’s not something we hear today in a political campaign. Christ is the only ruler who will give us true freedom.

In our text today, Pilate is in a pickle. He questions Jesus, hoping to find fault in him based on Roman law. It’s Pilate’s job to control the people of Judea and this man Jesus has been brought to him by the Jewish high council. To keep peace in the realm, Pilate needs to appease these people because they can cause real trouble for him and he doesn’t need any more bad news getting back to Rome. He tries to get Jesus to implicate himself but he won’t do it. What’s a guy to do? By Roman law Jesus has done nothing wrong, yet according to the Jewish high council, Jesus is guilty. Pilate stands in the tension between two earthly kingdoms—Roman law and Jewish authority. Neither of which Jesus is claiming any authority over. It’s politics to the core—the way governments and kingdoms of the world function. Pilate really didn’t understand the concept that Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world and that somehow Jesus is king over the realm of truth. I can see Pilate shaking his head in thought as he asks “What is truth?” In the end Pilate is satisfied that Jesus is no threat to the imperial rule of the government of Rome.

For the most part, our concept of royalty and kingship is shaped by the tabloids that cover royal weddings and births and royals behaving badly. However, through history until relatively recently, to have a king meant there was an organizing center to society. A king defined the shape, the norm, the operations of the realm. Essentially this is why the Pope, in 1925 wanted to remind people that Jesus is the king of our hearts and of our lives—-not secularism and not politics. So we are called to reflect on what that means. How does Jesus define and shape our lives? Are we, like Pilate satisfied that Jesus is not a threat to what truly rules our lives? Do we assign Jesus, the Son of God, to a less than imperial role; a role where perhaps we let him reign over Sunday morning but not over our week, our life or our decisions for our country? These are questions that come at an opportune time; when things are happening in our church that require sacrifices on the part of everyone, when the threat of violence seems to lurk around every corner, when nature seems to reek devastating blows on humanity and when politicians will do or say anything to win votes.

In today’s world there are so many things that catch our interest and claim our allegiance. We are a society preoccupied with possessions, power, beauty and titles…the list goes on. We have a well developed system that we can keep bys with so that we can avoid the truth Jesus talks about. The truth of who we are at the core of our existence and who be belong to. But, we like the order we think we have created in our lives and we don’t want it disturbed. So sometimes we need to stop our busy lives and be reminded that real truth is only in God.

I recently read about a woman and her husband who were invited to spend the weekend at the husband’s employer’s home.  Arlene, was nervous about the weekend. The boss was very wealthy, with a fine home on the waterway, and cars costing more than her house.

The first day and evening went well, and Arlene was delighted to have this rare glimpse into how the very wealthy live. The husband’s employer was quite generous as a host, and took them to the finest restaurants. Arlene knew she would never have the opportunity to indulge in this kind of extravagance again, so was enjoying herself immensely.

As the three of them were about to enter an exclusive restaurant that evening, the boss was walking slightly ahead of Arlene and her husband. He stopped suddenly, looking down on the pavement for a long, silent moment.

Arlene wondered if she was supposed to pass him. There was nothing on the ground except a single shiney penny that someone had dropped, and a few cigarette butts. Still silent, the man reached down and picked up the penny.

He held it up and smiled, then put it in his pocket as if he had found a great treasure. How absurd! What need did this man have for a single penny? Why would he even take the time to stop and pick it up?

Throughout dinner, the entire scene nagged at her. Finally, she could stand it no longer. She casually mentioned that her daughter once had a coin collection, and asked if the penny he had found had been of some value.  A smile crept across the man’s face as he reached into his pocket for the penny and held it out for her to see. She had seen many pennies before! What was the point of this?  ‘Look at it,’ he said. ‘Read what it says.’ She read the words ‘  United States of America .’  ‘No, not that; read further.’

‘One cent?’

‘No, keep reading.’

‘In God we Trust?’

‘Yes!’

‘And… ?’

He explained, ‘And if I trust in God, the name of God is holy, even on a coin. Whenever I find a coin I see that inscription. It is written on every single  United States coin, but we never seem to notice it! God drops a message right in front of me telling me to trust Him. Who am I to pass it by? When I see a coin, I pray, I stop to see if my trust IS in God at that moment. I pick the coin up as my response to God; that I do trust in Him. For a short time, at least, I cherish it as if it were gold. I think it is God’s way of starting a conversation with me. Lucky for me, God is patient and pennies are plentiful! ‘

God is waiting for you and me to remember what he did for us through his son Jesus. God is waiting for us to keep Jesus in the center of our lives and to put our trust in him.

Today we are reminded that Jesus came into this world to bring order to us, to shape our lives in ways that bring wholeness and peace of heart and mind—if we will let him. Jesus turns our criteria of what makes a good life upside down. The good life will not come as result of a political campaign. It won’t come because there will be winners and losers on election day. True life will come when we see Christ in the homeless, the battered, the hungry and the sick who are all around us and who live with great needs. We will know true life when we understand faithfulness and love. When we understand how to love our neighbor, to give sacrificially, to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of another and to live a life worthy of God. Christ yearns for us to know the greatness of this truth of God’s love—a love that is always faithful to us in ways that no human institution will ever be.

As we walk through yet another campaign season that demands our attention, we need to consider who rules our hearts? Who wins our hearts? Do our lives show who reigns in our hearts? Can it be seen in the way we serve, the way we give, the way we worship, the way we pray, the way we show concern for all people—not just ourselves? What or who is at the center of our lives? Think on that the next time you find a penny from heaven because God wants to talk to you!  GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST! AMEN

FORGIVE AND……

MATTHEW 18:21-35

04172016 FPCTRC

 

Today’s reading is set in the context of the life of the early church. In reading what leads up to this text you will find a not-so-subtle storm brewing among the disciples over which of them is the greatest, some instruction on how to deal with weaker members and then how to discipline those who fail to live up to the group norms. It’s Peter of course who blurts out the question we still ask today, “If someone sins against me, how often should I forgive?” In other words when can I stop forgiving someone—especially when I know of course that I’m right and he’s in the wrong. Forgiveness is hard. Yet, forgiveness is essential to all relationships in our lives, with those we love, with those we hardly know or even do not know, with God, with our enemies, with our church family and even with ourselves. Forgiveness is a mark of our life in Christ as we seek to live in a way that is faithful to Jesus’ life and teaching. Jesus spoke often of the necessity of forgiveness because he knew the effects un-forgiveness has on individuals and communities. There are so many situations within our society, in the world, in our churches, in our families, and in our workplaces that, when not dealt with, can sow the seeds of bitterness and fester into deep painful wounds that hurt not only the parties involved but everyone around us, especially those closest to us.

I heard about a man that went to see his doctor because he was feeling absolutely terrible. The doctor gave him a careful examination, left the room to look at some tests, came back in with a very somber expression on his face, and said: “Sir, I don’t know how to break the news to you, but you have rabies and you’re going to die very soon.”

The man very calmly got out a piece of paper and began furiously writing. The doctor said: “What are you doing, making out your will?” He said: “Oh no, I’m writing out a list of people I’m going to bite.”

I’m sure that more than a few of us today may have just such a list in the back of our minds! Often we do not really want to forgive someone or ask for their forgiveness even when we know we should. Sometimes it’s because we harbor a desire for revenge, we are tempted to get back at someone for what was done to us. We might resist forgiving another because we think that the person who hurt us ought to do or say something to mend the hurt. I have known people who even went to their grave demanding and waiting for an apology that never came. We put conditions on forgiveness when there are no conditions—forgiveness is not dependent on an apology. We may resist forgiving another because of our own pride because we don’t live in the awareness of how much God has forgiven us. The servant in the parable who is forgiven a huge debt but is unwilling to forgive a small one has no sense in his heart or mind of the generosity and graciousness shown to him.

When Peter asks, “how many times do I have to forgive;” he also makes a suggestion to Jesus, ‘Up to seven times?’ typical of Peter, he thinks he already has if figured out. And actually Peter probably thinks he is being generous and righteous in his suggestion because the going rate of forgiveness according to the Talmud and Rabbinic law, they were obligated to forgive someone three times. It was three strikes and your out! So, Peter has doubled the number of times that the law demanded and added one free pass as a bonus. After all, any Jew knew that the number seven denoted perfection. So Peter thought he had arrived at literally the perfect answer. You had to forgive a brother seven times, and after that the gloves came off.

Well, as usual, the Lord Jesus gave an answer that was not only surprising, but absolutely stunning. V.22 tells us: “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Now understand that when Jesus said “seventy times seven” he was not giving a math lesson. He wasn’t saying, no, you must forgive four hundred and ninety times, but on the four hundred and ninety first time, Pow!

No, the number seven denotes perfection. He multiplied perfection times perfection. Forgiveness offered must be complete. The lord in the parable didn’t offer partial forgiveness of the debt, he forgave it all. Jesus does not allow for three strikes and you’re out. Jesus is saying, “You can’t keep a scorecard. If somebody sins against you the first time, and you forgive that brother, then you promise not to ever hold it against him again.” The difference between Peter’s idea and Jesus’ response is that Peter was appealing to the law, but Jesus was appealing to love. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the law it has everything to do with love. The law has limits, love does not. The law keeps count, love does not. The law keeps records, love does not. The law has a long memory, love has no memory.

Now, I want to be clear that forgiveness is not denying our hurt. It is also not a matter of putting the one who has wronged you on probation, waiting for them to do something wrong so we can take it back. Forgiveness does not excuse unjust behavior and to for give is not necessarily to forget. Some events and situations we should never forget like the Holocaust, slavery, ethnic cleansing, exploitation of children and women, the infidelity of a spouse, a lie that turned your life upside down, abuse or betrayal.

Rabbi Harold Kushner told of a woman in his congregation who came to see him. She was a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She said to Rabbi Kushner, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?” Rabbi Kushner told her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking yo to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”

Not all situations that call for forgiveness have devastated lives as the young woman who went to Rabbi Kushner. Yet the bitterness, indignation and resentment that festers in our hearts over the seemingly small indiscretions we experience are just as harmful to our spirits. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale told of a young woman who came to him one Sunday. After the service was over she came up to him and said: “I want to share a problem I have with you. I have an itch that will not go away, and the itch gets worse whenever I go to church. Today the itch was unbearable as I was listening to you preach.” She said, “Furthermore, I constantly run a low grade fever.”

Dr. Peale said, “Well, I’ve had a lot of reactions to my messages, but I don’t believe I’ve ever made anybody itch.” Well, the lady didn’t even laugh. She said, “I’m very serious. I’ve gone to doctor after doctor, and no one can tell me what is wrong, and I was hoping you could help me.” Dr. Peale said he thought immediately that perhaps her itching did not have a physical cause, but a mental or even spiritual cause.

Dr. Peale, with her permission, called her doctor. The doctor told him that, in his opinion, there was nothing physically or organically wrong with this patient, but there was some kind of a neurosis or obsession that he described as a kind of inner mental eczema, a scratching on the inside that in her mind was really on the skin.”

Dr. Peale said, “Do you know of any other problems that she might be having?” He said, “Well, I do know that she and her only sister have been on the outs for a long time, and it may be that is part of the problem.”

Dr. Peale called the woman in and asked her about her relationship with her sister. The story she told was not complex. But years before she and her sister had had a bitter disagreement. This lady swore after this argument that she would never again speak to her sister.

Dr. Peale said, “Do you love Jesus?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “Did Jesus ever hate anybody?” She said, “No.” He said, “Then do you believe that with His help you can overcome your hate?” She said, “Yes,”

He said, “Then you do right now what I’m going to tell you. You tell God that you’re sorry for this sin, and you ask Him to take that hate away.” She did that. Then he said, “Now, you tell God that you love your sister, and that you forgive her if she has wronged you.” For a moment she hesitated, and all of a sudden she burst out crying and said, “Dr. Peale, she didn’t wrong me, this is all built up in my mind. She’s the sweetest person on earth, and I’ve been such a fool.”

Dr. Peale said, “Now you tell Jesus right now: ‘With your help, I now let my hate go, and I affirm my love for my sister, and Lord forgive me.'” She did that. Dr. Peale said, “What is your sister’s telephone number?” She gave it to him, he dialed the number and gave her the phone. She said, “I can’t talk to her.”

Dr. Peale said, “You’re going to talk to her.” The sister hesitated for a moment, and then just simply said, “Sister, I love you. Would you please forgive me?” Both of them began to weep and cry, and a relationship was mended.

Dr. Peale said after four years, the itching disappeared and so did the fever. What doctors, medicine, psychiatry, and pills could not do, forgiveness could.

Even in the church, we can be theologically straight and morally upright, but if we do not have a forgiving spirit, we are spiritually bankrupt. Today, in this parable we are reminded of the high value that Jesus places on forgiveness. The church is meant to be a uniquely forgiving people, a people of humility and repentance, who concern themselves with the specks in their own eyes rather than the planks in their neighbors’ eyes. We may wonder if this is possible, but we saw it in Charleston SC after Dylan Roof walked into a Bible Study and killed 9 members of the Emmanuel AME Church. Church members who readily forgave Roof knew that not everyone outside the church would understand it. Elizabeth Alston, 70, Emanuel’s archivist and a longtime member said, “It took me a while, If somebody shot my mother, I didn’t think I could be as forgiving, but now I could. I just felt that I’ve been praying ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ from The Lord’s Prayer for years, and now it was time to re-examine those words and practice it.”

Today as you pray the Lord’s prayer, examine your hearts, is there someone in your life you need to forgive? Jesus paid for our debt completely and in full, a debt we could never possibly pay. How can we refuse to forgive another when we have received mercy beyond our comprehension?        GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST  AMEN

IT’S A SCANDAL!

LUKE 15:11-32
03062016 FPCTRC

The word scandal is defined as:
1. a disgraceful or discreditable action, circumstance,
2. an offense caused by a fault or misdeed.
3. damage to reputation; public disgrace.
4. defamatory talk; malicious gossip.
5. a person whose conduct brings disgrace or offense.

Even though the word scandal involves actions or words that are disgraceful, damaging, defamatory, malicious and offensive, you have to admit that America loves a good scandal. The media thrives on it. The public can’t get enough of it. Politicians practically salivate trying to catch their colleagues of the ‘other’ party in some kind of scandal. Every day there seems to be a new one whether it involves emails, sexual exploitation, mis-appropriation of funds, setting up photo-ops to mislead the public or extramarital affairs….and if it involves a celebrity a politician or a high-power CEO you can bet it is front page news.
We today we read a story that would have been front page news in Palestine. Its a story about the most heart wrenching loss any parent would even know. Not the loss of livestock like the lost sheep, not the loss of cash like the lost coin, but the loss of a child. When the younger son demanded his inheritance, a monetary share of his father’s property, before his father’s death, his actions were astoundingly unconscionable. His request was an offensive, slap-in-the-face, “I-wish-you-were-dead’ disregard of everything that was expected, respected and accepted. He was supposed to stay on the family property, raise a family and honor his father through his life and work. The rules for inheritance are clearly spelled out in the Torah and this request for an early liquidation of inheritance is beyond all social acceptability. The compassion of this father, granting his son’s request flew in the face of established tradition, everything the family and the community understood as right and true. The fathers response is generous because he not only gave his younger son his share but he gave the older son his inheritance also as it reads the father ‘divided his property between them.’ The younger son left causing great grief to his father and bringing shame on the family and the community. It’s a scandal that would have rippled throughout the whole community, surely the father, the patriarch of the family would disown this rebellious and foolish son!
The younger son goes off to a distant country—which is Luke’s typical designation for Gentile regions. Apparently it doesn’t take him long to blow through his entire inheritance and run out of money just as the ‘distant country’ where he has been partying experiences a ‘severe famine.’ The younger son goes from party boy to poverty stricken and hospitality of a distant country didn’t extend to foreigners during a famine, especially now that he was broke. In a desperate attempt to survive, the young man takes an unthinkable job for a good Jew, that of tending swine. The uncleanness of eating, touching or even herding swine is clearly spelled out in the Torah but he is so hungry he is even willing to eat the food he feeds the swine, but his employer would give him nothing. In the Gentile world poverty was considered a ‘just reward’ for the failures of those who suffered it. They saw alms-giving as pointless, not compassionate. His employer had no interest or compassion for the young man’s situation or that he was hungry. You reap what you sow and if that means you sit in a pig pen, then so be it!
The story tells us that the young man, one day, ‘came to himself.’ He realizes that even his father’s day-laborers were better off than he. He decides to return to his homeland and to his people knowing full well that he would not return as his fathers ‘son.’ He will return as a servant. So with speech in his pocket he heads home. While he is still far off, this story takes a surprising turn, the father saw him and was filled with compassion and ran out to greet him and hug him and kiss him. All the young man can get out is “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” and the next thing he knows is his father interupts him and exuberantly instructs his servants to “Quickly, bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get the fatted calf—we are going to have a party for my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” The father’s forgiveness is absolute and complete. The younger son is restored as a beloved child. Gasp! Yet another scandal! Now the neighbors are whispering again—‘How can he embrace this reprobate son and not only that, give him a robe, a ring and throw him a big banquet! After all, this boy publicly shamed his father and no self-respecting Jewish patriarch would even think of welcoming him home….he is a shame to the whole community! He undermined all of our traditional values and standards and this sets a horrible example for all our young people—how dare he!’
Well, the banquet was as much for the community as the younger son…it served to ease the boy back into the good graces of the community, to allow the boy to make amends to his neighbors and repent of his sin against the community.
You see, it’s grace that lies at the heart of this parable—scandalous grace, grace that defies all earthly rules and conventions, grace that flies in the face of our own self-righteousness.
Now the story turns to the final player of the whole story. The oldest son. He is returning from the field where he was working and as he neared their home, he could hear a party going on. When he discovers that it’s for his ingrate brother who has returned, he is consumed with jealously and resentment and he essentially throws a temper tantrum. He is seething with anger and refuses to go in. What does the father do—again? In a breach of etiquette of the day, he abandons his guests to go out to greet his son who is now in danger of being just as lost as his brother. But, instead of respectfully greeting his father, the oldest son has had it and he pitches a fit, ‘Listen! I have been working like a slave for you, I’ve never disobeyed you but you’ve never given me even a goat to celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours comes back, this jerk who squandered everything on prostitutes—you throw him a party!’ The older son disdainfully disowns his younger brother by identifying him as ‘this son of yours’ and he wants no part of a relationship with either his father or his brother. He feels fully justified to judge severely the behavior of both his father and his brother.
Again—it’s scandalous! How could you Dad? Do you know how hurt I am? The economy of love and grace surprises and offends us in it’s extravagance. The ways of our world would more closely aline with the community and even the older son. Yes, he can come home but he must suffer his just desserts, he can scrub floors and subsist on bread and water for the rest of his life to atone for his deplorable sin. However, in reflecting on the actions of the older brother it would do us well, those of us who have been a part of the church for most of our lives and who have been with the Father always, to recognize these very aspects of sinfulness that none of us are free of. Pride, jealousy, anger and self-righteousness are all the more appalling when we, who welcome God’s grace seek to withhold grace from others. Instead of celebrating redemption that is available to all people, we assume the worst in others. Like the elder son embellishing his brother’s story with ‘prostitutes,’ our jealousy often compels us to exaggerate the shortcomings of those in our midst. We think first of how a turn of events affect us instead of how they might benefit the well being and the unity of the community. We cling to our tried and true ways of doing things because then we feel safe, justified and rewarded for ‘being good.’ The standards of the world call for justice—justice as we see it instead of mercy even while God’s ways have clearly shown mercy on us over justice.
Salvation and Scandal rule the church. The message of Lent is that we have a Scandalous God. The scandal of love, the scandal of forgiveness is beyond our tolerance and it brings out our resentment and in many ways heightens our fears. Fear of change, fear of diversity, fear of negotiation and compromise—like the older son ‘What will happen to my position if I welcome my brother who clearly is underserving of forgiveness and mercy?’
Do you remember the 2006 fatal shooting of 10 Amish children aged 6-13 outside of Lancaster County? A milk truck driver with three children and a wife drove his truck up to the one-room schoolhouse, exited the boys, barricaded the doors so none of the girls could escape, and proceeded to shoot the female children before shooting himself.
As if the scandal of the violence wasn’t enough, the most talked about scandal, however, was the reaction of the Old Order Amish community to the shooter’s wife and three children. Within hours, the Amish community publicly forgave the killer and expressed loving concern for his widow and three children. After burying their own children, they attended the burial of the 32 year old non-Amish killer. There were 75 in attendance. Half were Amish. The killer’s wife and her three children were greeted with hugs . . . and with an Amish-started fund for the killer’s family. “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need,” the killer’s widow, Marie Roberts, wrote the Amish later.“Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world.” (Quoted in Stan Guthrie, “The Scandal of Forgiveness,” Christianity Today, January 2007).
It was the act of forgiveness and compassion scandalized people the most. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote “Hatred is not always wrong, and forgiveness is not always deserved.” How dare these Amish forgive the killer of their children, and reach out to his family.
Even today we older brothers and older sisters have trouble with this concept of forgiveness, forgiveness that came from the scandal of the cross and its occupant, the scandalous Jesus. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re pollyannaish about the world, or plaster over the cracks in people and history. Forgiveness looks square in the face of wrong, and chooses healing and reconciliation rather than hatred and revenge. It may be the hardest thing in the world to do—to offer true forgiveness. Scandalously hard. But then, we have a scandalous God who dares to welcome us home….and invite us to the party —-will we join Jesus to welcome and eat with the disaffected, the poor, the immigrant, the sinners…..with people like us? Or will we stay outside and stand in judgement of grace and mercy? It’s a decision we all will face. ​MAY WE GIVE ALL GLORY AND THANKS TO GOD WHO IS A GOD OF MERCY WHO WILL WELCOME EVEN US-THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN WITH THE FATHER ALWAYS. AMEN

#BLESSED—-REALLY?
Luke 13:1-9
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In today’s world of social media, with facebook, twitter, snapchat, instagram and on and on there is a habit of labeling one’s post or describing feelings or an activity with a # and a word to follow it. Twitter is full of #GOPdebate following comments about the candidates last week. You will see pictures of friends together on Sunday with #FundaySunday. Someone will post a rant about sitting in Schoolcraft with a #Train after it and maybe a red-in-the-face emoji—-again making me wonder how those 6 minutes of your life just ruined everything! #’s are meant to identify everything from what one is doing, to where someone is and what one is feeling. There is one # that I find particularly perplexing and I think it is overused and most of the time inappropriately. That is #Blessed. You will find #Blessed applied to nearly any kind of post. Here are a few real examples:
The workers at chipotle just thanked me for always bringing in positive energy and gave me a free bowl #blessed

I’ve got it set up so that I don’t have to see my in-laws for Canadian Thanksgiving, but I still get a plate of food.#Blessed

There’s nothing more magical than being the first one to use a porta potty. #blessed

Burned 650 calories giving blood #blessed

Scored tickets to the game #blessed

Of course if someone is blessed, then someone is doing the blessing. And, that someone is God. Apparently God is doing a lot of blessing these days….blessing a woman on facebook with birthday greetings from 900 of her closest friends….blessing a woman with front row seats at Fashion Week….blessing my facebook friends with exotic vacations. There is nothing like invoking holiness as an opportunity to brag about your life. Some call this humblebragging. It’s a way to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, fish for a compliment, acknowledge a success without sounding too conceited or purposely to elicit envy. Danielle Thomson, a writer in New York says “It’s almost as if the Internet now exists simply to voyeuristically hate-read all the ways everyone else in the world has been blessed. There is literally no other word that can simultaneously inspire such animosity and rapture.” As a human, if I constantly see how everyone else is blessed but I’m not feeling it—then I have to wonder, why am I not blessed..and..since I’m not what do I need to do to be blessed like my friends!
And, if so many that I know are #blessed and I’m not….does that mean I am somehow a lesser person or a worse sinner and therefore I am #cursed?
In our scripture today, the people come and tell Jesus about a tragedy involving the blood of Galileans being mingled with Pilate’s sacrifices. Jesus goes straight to what he knows is on their mind and deep in their hearts—because the Galileans suffered in this way, does that mean they were worse sinners than other Galileans? Or when the tower of Siloam fell on 18 people in Jerusalem…were they worse offenders than everyone else in Jerusalem? Jesus tells them no but then he repeats this 2 times: “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Well, which is it Jesus? Do bad things happen to bad people—because they were worse sinners so God hits the smite button? Is there a cause-and-effect relationship between our behavior and tragedy? Is Jesus delivering a turn or burn sermon here? I would suggest that Jesus is not talking about physical death or suffering in this conversation.
Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to abundant life and the promise of life eternal. Jesus goes on to tell them a parable about a fig tree. In scripture figs and fig trees are often metaphors for Israel or Judah. So Jesus turns from addressing the condition of the hearts of the Galileans or people in Jerusalem, and turns the focus to God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with his people and his mercy and never ending patience toward all people. There is nothing God desires more than for all people to turn to him. God waits for us to repent and and turn and return because God’s judgement is tempered by his Mercy. God waits for us to repent—to turn away from the belief that worldly things will secure us and #bless us. To turn away from actions that are damaging, hurtful and unhealthy toward ourselves and others. To turn to God in acceptance of fullness of life that can only be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The fig tree is reminiscent of the apathy and indecision among those who hear Jesus’ message. The people that say yeah, I believe but I don’t have to change my thoughts, my habits, my heart.
In Jesus’ parable the master comes to the gardner concerning the fig tree that hasn’t borne fruit for three years—he’s tired of waiting and the tree is just wasting the soil. But the tree has an advocate in the gardner. The gardner works with the tree, tends it, works manure into the soil and nurtures it—he works for the tree without knowing if it will ever produce, the gardner pleads with the master that every chance be given to the tree before a final decision is made.
As we journey through Lent to the ultimate paradox of the cross we have this little story that points us to the mystery of God’s nature, His patience and mercy. The tree can’t just of it’s own will produce figs in a timely manner, it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness, first by pleading his case to the owner of the field, and then by his constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure. The same apathy abounds today. We say we are a Christian nation but we do not live as a Christian nation. Our rhetoric is scathing and vitriolic and while we may not be the one spewing hurtful things, we laugh at it as if it doesn’t matter. The fruits of the spirit, love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are in short supply. We like to #curse those we don’t like and #bless ourselves. Will not the Master tire of this and order the fruitless to be cut down? Who of us would not give up and cut it down? Yet God’s extravagant nature provides his Son, who is the one who pleads for our justification before God. Who in an act of supreme grace ‘did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,…who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:6-8)
How long will God wait for us to turn and return to him? We don’t know, Isaiah tells us “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ ‘Isaiah 55:6-9’ God is a merciful God and is giving us, the world every chance to receive his grace and the gift of life abundant. Jesus doesn’t care who sinned or who is the worse sinner because he came to save sinners. Jesus is the one who intercedes for us, tends us and stays with us in all circumstances. That is what it means to be #blessed. To be set apart by grace, to be made holy in the image of Christ, to humble ourselves and to live in penitence and trust before God. Only then will you truly know what it is to be #blessed!
GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST! AMEN

 

 

IT’S TEMPTING!
LUKE 4:1-13
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How many times a week do you think you might say—-well, boy isn’t that tempting! We speak in such terms for all kinds of reasons….when the Paczkis show up in the office and you just started a diet; when your alarm reminds you that you are getting up at 6 am to go to the gym but your warm bed is much more comfortable than going out into the cold, rainy darkness; or maybe when Apple releases yet another ‘new and improved’ version of the phone you have that is working just fine! We all know what we should do because it is good for us but it would be sooo much easier and often more enjoyable to eat that Paczki because after all, it’s only once a year; stay in bed because after all it’s just one day; or just get that phone because it will sync better, take better pictures, fit in my pocket better, or let me get more movies and music, and even find itself better than that ol’ thing I’ve got….that actually does make and receive calls as phones should! Even trying to get your kids to practice a musical instrument might include some temptation for you—it’s a daily struggle so it’s easier to let it go; and then, when you hear the same song over and over it’s easier to just let it go rather than insist that he or she play the new piece—even though it is more difficult. It’s tempting to say, music isn’t that important anyway-they’ll do something else. Anyone with children knows that it is always tempting to take the easy road and ignore bad behavior or fail to dispense consequences because it takes real effort. Who hasn’t thought twice about grounding a child knowing that it is nearly a prison sentence for you too—do I REALLY want to be stuck in a house with a teenager with the attitude of Darth Vader—all that hissing and huffing and puffing and stomping around.
Nearly every day, it is tempting to take the easy way out, and then to rationalize it away with a thousand and one excuses. So, is this a serious issue? At first glance, it would appear not. The examples used all seem fairly insignificant and the rationalizations sound reasonable. Who really cares, after all, if I choose to sleep in rather than exercise, or choose a Paczki over a carrot, or get a new phone? Is what I’ve labeled a temptation (to take the easy way out) really a big deal? Well, theologian Helmut Thielicke thinks it is. In his sermon titled, “How Evil Came Into the World,” he reminds us that “all temptations in life begin in sugared form.” And, he says, however temptation comes, it can simply be labeled evil. Whether we call evil the devil, as in ‘The devil made me do it!,’ or the tempter, Satan, the evil one, or the Prince of this world. It makes no difference how we personify it, how we give it shape. There is evil in the world. It has been witnessed to since biblical times and we know it today in various forms and shapes. We’ve seen its ugly face in Auschwitz and in Bosnia, in terrorist attacks, in mass shootings, in white collar crime on Wall Street, in our leaders, in street violence and on and on. We see it every day in the news of our communities and the world.
But what is even more difficult for us is when we look into our own hearts. Do we know evil there? Maybe when we intentionally hurt another because of some slight we perceived. Maybe when we lift ourselves above others. Every time we allow others to be hurt and turn the other way. We know evil, but like Thielicke says the temptation to evil is often in sugared form and it is subtle. How many of you have seen the T.V. show “What Would You Do?” It is a show where actors in a public place are behaving unethically and the catch on film whether bystanders will get involved and stand for the vulnerable person who is mistreated or the business that is taken advantage of. For example recently the actors included a kind stranger, a homeless man and a bartender in a restaurant. The stranger noticed that the homeless man was hungry and took him into the bar and gave the bartender $20.00 with the instructions to give him whatever he wanted to eat. She left the bar and the bartender took the money and proceeded to tell the homeless man to get out because they didn’t want his kind in there. So we watch to see what the unsuspecting people at the bar would do who do not realize this is an act. They set up the same scenario 2 or 3 times. Each time someone confronted the bartender and insisted he feed the man or give him his money. One time a bystander agreed with the bartender. Most of the time someone steps up in these situations, but there are many others who just watch. You see evil is all around us, it might be putting people down, taking from another whether it’s money or dignity or self worth, taking advantage of the vulnerable, coercing others to do wrong, shaming others to be ‘like us’……. and it is sugar coated, if we don’t call it evil it’s easy to just turn the other way.
Every day, in a thousand subtle ways we are confronted with some kind of temptation. So, maybe we need to rethink sin. Maybe we need to think of sin in broader categories than just “bad things done” or “good things left undone.” Maybe the most uncomplicated definition of sin we could give would be our inclination to take the easy way out. The path of least resistance or just let someone else step up. Our gospel text for today offers a good way to assess our new definition. The devil offers Jesus temptations which seem, on the surface, harmless enough. They are certainly not temptations to DO evil. The devil is just encouraging Jesus to take the easy road in order to show the world that he really is the Son of God. Look, again, at these “harmless” temptations. “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Temptation number one. Not a bad idea, really. Think about it. A lot of good could come from such a move. Changing stones to bread could feed all the hungry people of our communities our nations…the whole world! Thousands of lives could be saved. Isn’t that worth some consideration? Isn’t God concerned with the hungry? Or what about that second temptation? “Worship me,” says the devil, “and to you I will give all authority over all earthly kingdoms.” Don’t dismiss this one too quickly. There are some real possibilities here. Think about what it would mean if Jesus really were in charge around here. If Jesus had control, there would be no need for nuclear weapons of destruction. Wealth and resources would be shared more equitably. We wouldn’t need a United Nations Peace Keeping Force to ensure the fair sharing of food supplies. Flint wouldn’t have water issues. The gap between the mega rich and the poorest poor would shrink. It would be done, by Jesus, who had the power to make it happen. It’s a plan that deserves some thought. And what about that third temptation? “Jesus, throw yourself down from here” and let God perform a dramatic rescue. Take it into your own hands Jesus—show them how great you are and how special—show them that God can be manipulated to do what you want and it would show us once and for all that God really is here for us. The temptations were so subtle. And we could easily rationalize the outcomes! These “harmless” temptations could lead to Jesus being King of the World immediately and easily — no more preaching to crowds on hillsides or by lakes, no more healing all those sick bodies, no more teaching to those who seem not to understand, and, most important of all, no cross to bear, go straight to the crown without the cross. It would have been the easy way out and it would have lead away from Calvary and death — but it also would have led away from Easter morning, and an empty tomb, and the death of death and sin, and the end of that real kingdom Jesus tried so desperately to explain to his followers. The temptation of Jesus was to choose another way other than the cross. Maybe … maybe that is our temptation too. The cross? We have to bear it, too. And every time we wish we could avoid it, every time we think there must be an easier way, we are tempted as Jesus was tempted. Let’s be honest, it is hard to be a child of God sometimes. It isn’t always sweetness and light. There is evil in this world that must be confronted and that confrontation may be painful. The crosses that we may have to bear can hurt us, the choices we make may be difficult, the road may sometimes be rough, we may have to give up something so another person can live. So we, too, are tempted to run, to take the easy way out.
It’s tempting to take the easy way out in so many subtle ways — in our neglect, or ignorance; in our uninvolvement; in our blindness; in our prejudices; in our apathy — because the way of the cross is hard. But, we must not forget: We do not carry it alone. The one who took up that cross in the first place not only has shown us how; in carrying his, he helps shoulder ours. He carried his and conquered it and because of that victory, he carries ours too. When our faith is weak, and trust is gone and we can’t find God no matter how hard we look, he’s there, carrying the cross, carrying us, through our temptations and in spite of our failures. Jesus never takes the easy way out with us.
In Death Valley there is a place known as Dante’s View. There, you can look down to the lowest spot in the United States, a depression in the earth 200 feet below sea level called Bad Water. But from that same spot, you can also look up to the highest peak in the United States, Mount Whitney, rising to a height of 14,500 feet. One way leads to the lowest and the other way to the highest. From that point, from Dante’s View, any movement must be in one or the other direction. There are many times in life when we stand where the ways part and where choices must be made. It’s tempting, it’s easier to trip along downhill than to walk the steady, or maybe even rocky, uphill path. But the path uphill leads to a cross — an empty cross. And the one that walks beside us is the one who hung there and defeated it. Amen.

 

1ST CLASS WALKING
2 CORINTHIANS 3:12-4:2
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One magnificent, moonlit night, a fisherman climbed the wall of a private estate to partake in the bounty of its fish-stocked pond. He moved with stealth and upon reaching the banks of the pond observed with keen awareness that there was no activity in the bungalow below. All the lights were out. With a sense of confidence, he envisioned his fishing needs taken care of for the full week. He would be admired and respected among his peers for his success. Thus, he cast his net into the pond making the light splash. The master of the house remarked to his wife from his deep stupor, “Did you hear a sound outside?”
His wife remarked, “My dear, it sounded like a net falling into the water.”
In seconds, the owner sprang out of the stupor and visualizing his pond completely devoid of fish yelled, “Thief! Thief!” The servants of the house, hearing the master yell, scrambled outside toward the pond.
The fisherman gathered the net as swiftly as he tossed it and scrambled to find a safe hiding place. The workers’ voices were near and the fisherman’s desperation knew no bounds. His eyes caught a glimpse of a smoldering fire and he got an idea. He gathered some ash and rubbed it over his arms, body, and face. He quickly sat under the nearest tree in a posture of one in meditation. When the servants arrived at the scene and saw the man in meditation they asked for forgiveness and continued their search. Finally, they reported back to the owner telling him that there was only a sanyasin, a holy man, in the garden.
The owner’s face lit up and asked to be taken to the site of the sanyasin. Upon seeing him, he was overjoyed and demanded that the holy man not be disturbed. The fisherman’s fear turned to joy and then to pride thinking how smart he was to outwit the entire household. He sat under the tree until the shades of dawn began to sweep across the night sky. As he was preparing to leave he saw a small procession of people approaching; they had heard of the holy man. Now he could not leave under any circumstance. These people had come from a neighboring village and with total devotion had brought offerings of food, fruit, silver, and gold to invoke the blessings of the holy man!
At this very moment the fisherman realized that if by assuming the role of a holy man he had received so much respect and goodwill, how much more respect and good will would be received if he truly was a holy man. So the fisherman who was truly a thief turned in his net and became a true man of God.
It might have been quite by accident, but the fisherman experienced conversion in his life. He was transformed from a thief into a holy man through the action of others. The love, respect, and deference demonstrated toward him changed his heart. He realized he had been deluding himself to think others might respect him for his wealth, but he came to realize he could be held in high esteem by demonstrating kindness and those qualities that label people as “holy.” In a similar way on this great feast of the Transfiguration, when we recall how Jesus was transformed in external appearance before Peter, James, and John, we must seek to be transformed ourselves. We must see our need to be converted in the person of Christ. We need to change our lives and conform them more to the one whom we follow and seek to serve by our service to one another. It’s a journey—it’s a walk of faith, but we need to know where we are going.
There is another story about the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. When he was eighty-eight years old he was traveling by train. When the conductor came by, Justice Holmes couldn’t find his ticket, and he seemed terribly upset. He searched all of his pockets and fumbled through his wallet without success. The conductor was sympathetic.
He said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Holmes, the Pennsylvania Railroad will be happy to trust you. After you reach your destination you’ll probably find the ticket and you can just mail it to us.”
But the conductor’s kindness failed to put Mr. Holmes at ease. Still very much upset, he said, “My dear man, my problem is not ‘Where is my ticket?’ The problem is, ‘Where am I going?'”
We all have a destination in life. We have a purpose in life. You and I have been given First Class Freedom through Christ. Our lives have been upgraded to First Class because of His grace. And in Christ there are no 2nd Class Citizens in the Kingdom of God. You are God’s Child. Today we need to look at our destination, because no matter how far you fly, First Class or economy, you eventually have to get off the plane. And then you have to Walk. And for us, it’s a Walk of Faith. Christ calls us to be 1st Class Walkers.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he is writing to defend himself against the theology of a band of ‘super apostles’ who are in the Christian Community and who are spreading a different message than Paul. Paul is warning the Corinthians to not be deluded by false teachings but to stay on the true path. He uses the story of Moses placing a veil over his face to speak God’s truth to the people. In Christ the veil has been removed but Paul states that these ‘false apostles’ have a veil over their minds, they do not see the truth in Christ and they are hiding behind a facade of ignorance and arrogance. So he tells the people “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” His next words are very important: “And ALL of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” We all are first class walkers in the faith when we turn to Christ. Paul was transformed by a dazzling meeting with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and in that meeting the veil was removed from Paul’ s mind and his eyes and his heart and he started walking with Jesus—he understands 1st Class freedom to serve Christ in the truth and to serve others in love. His whole life was transformed, his purpose was transformed. Like the fisherman in our story whose purpose in life was to be a thief, his walk changed by the love and the attitudes he saw in the people who came out to see a ‘holy man’. In those people he saw a new purpose in life—a good purpose, one that would fulfill him in a way that being a thief and achieving wealth never would. His heart was transformed and so was his life.
What in our lives need transformation? For some it’s our attitudes; maybe about ourselves or about others. Many people don’t look in the mirror in the morning and see a child of God. When I was in seminary one of my requirements was to go to a Kentucky State Prison and counsel a prisoner. There was a stark contrast between two of my clients. One was veiled and would remain so. The other unveiled but lost. The first client I had always made herself up, did her hair and came prepared with books and paper. It was as if she were coming to a business meeting that she called and would be chairing. And I have to say she did it well. She was way out of my league in her ability to twist, con, connive and lie about everything and she came with a purpose—to get me to help her get out of jail. This woman had a veil over her mind, her heart and her soul that she had no intention of removing. The truth was not on her radar. And, I was road kill. I left there and went straight to my supervisor and was reassigned to another client and she lost her privileges to counseling. My next client came into the room as if she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her. She was desperate to be invisible and looked like she was trying hard to do just that. She wore the standard prison sweat suit, her hair was not combed, she wore no makeup and she would not make eye contact at all. She was there because she murdered her boyfriend. After she told me her story, I have to say I probably would have killed him too. I learned very quickly that somehow she needed to understand her worth, her value and that she is loved and that she could love herself. Most of our meetings were about just talking, giving her affirmation about her job there, telling her how happy I was to see her, being truly engaged in and interested in anything she wanted to tell me about. Prison is not a fun place to live. After a few weeks, she came to meet me with clean clothes on and her hair had been combed. A couple of weeks later she came in and she was wearing makeup and she walked with purpose and could actually make eye contact during most of our time together. Every week I tried to notice something different about her and complimented her no matter how small. By the time we finished our sessions she had transformed, not just emotionally but physically. She had hope, she was learning to love herself and she found a purpose in living. I went in to her sessions just trying to be a first class walker. Striving to transform my purpose to Christ’s purpose. To show her the love of Christ in our simple conversations. I didn’t do anything but love her. She would be released one day and she wanted to be a first class walker and she was on her way. She is probably out of prison now and I have often wondered what became of her. I hope she looks in the mirror and sees a child of God.
Maybe we need transformation in our relationships with others. To take the lesser seat to lift another up. To choose grace over judgement. To be generous in our hearts and minds. To pay it forward without expectations of reward.
Maybe we need to be transformed in our habits. To take care of ourselves because God cares about us. Maybe we need to go the extra mile with someone instead of deciding they don’t deserve our time. Maybe we need to offer our best to God instead of seeking the least we can do to ‘get by.’
Maybe we need to be transformed in our relationship to God. Lent is a good time to reflect on what in our lives we need to lay before God and ask for God’s strength to be a 1st Class Walker.
As we walk with Christ, we assist others in their transformation. The people who encountered the fisherman thief were instrumental in his transformation. Their respect, kindness, and goodness demonstrated to him that crime did not gain him the greatness he sought. The people removed the veil from his eyes; he was transformed in his vision. Kind words and simple conversation changed a woman in prison. Our transformation, your walk with Christ assists others to discover their own deepest need to be transformed, and sometimes we don’t even know it, but God does. A friend of mine on Facebook posted something just this morning from SimpleReminders.com; it said: “Use your voice for kindness, your ears for compassion, your hands for charity, your mind for truth, and your heart for love.” If we start each day with that simple reminder, we will be first class walkers of faith. So, today may our words and actions be transformative for ourselves and others. May all that we do and say give greater glory and honor to God. Amen.