Thirty years ago I spent a whole day in the hospital, sitting with a woman named Marion, from my first church. She was waiting her turn in the queue for a by-pass operation. I will never forget the trepidation she felt that was just underneath a veneer of calm. I will never ever forget her eloquent reflection on what she was going through. As I offered her empathy, she looked back at me very tenderly and said, “Well, I guess it’s all in a lifetime.”
I’ve previously written in the church newsletter about my visit to Bethlehem in 1999. That day, before tensions between Israelis and Palestinians began to rise due to the intifada, and cement walls began going up all over, a visitor could still imagine an impossibly young Palestinian girl filled with holy purpose, riding a donkey down that little town’s one main street with her new husband, Joseph, the both of them looking desperately, by starlight, for a place to gain shelter for the night.
Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann says that the Christian faith is about that two word admonition: "Fear not." Years ago in Chicago I heard him engage a group of us clergy. He asked us to recall a time when, as children, we were frightened: maybe lying in bed, sure that the shadows on the wall were of a dark monster and the bumps and creaks on the stairway were the portent of something dreadful. He asked us to imagine calling out to our father or mother, who would appear and take us in his or her arms and say, "Everything is all right. Don’t be afraid. It will be all right" That, Brueggemann says, is what faith is about.
I have a pastor friend who, years ago, was told by his children’s minister a moment before the annual church Christmas pageant that the little boy chosen to play Joseph was sick. My friend just said, “Have the shepherds stand right up next to the manger scene – no one will notice he’s missing.”
No one who has a child knows what will be called out from him. I witnessed it myself visiting my granddaughter for the very first time last week. I will tell you, she is the most darling thing I’ve ever seen, short of her mom, my daughter. But as small as she was at birth – a little over 6 pounds – she took all the air out of the delivery room and has continued that way the last seven weeks. Babies are cuddly, and sweet; the cutest thing you will ever see if she is your own. But she is also demanding, expensive, and relentless.
We will never know the extent or the full effect of the good we do on this earth. God may bless even the smallest thing we have done or said. And God may use and bless our failures, too; even the big ones. Remember, “Not to take possession of your life plan is to let your existence be an accident.”
Perhaps this parable is even more important for us today than for Matthew's church; maybe this is an age that needs most to hear words about standing firm and acting decisively in life!! Mostly we just bumble along the surface – we don’t mean to – but time just flies by and we wake up once in a while and wonder at what happens, and also, at what doesn’t.
Reflecting on that picture from the book of Revelation, of the saints gathered at the throne of God, Frederick Buechner says, "All the company of heaven means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved when we lost them."
There was a growing desire among the sincere religious to “go back to the practices of the early church,” a time in which there were no grand cathedrals, and instead, Christians met in one another’s houses. For them the words of Jesus had been enough.Into this milieu came Martin Luther ...
We Value What Is Truly Valuable, and Nothing Counterfeit
God or Caesar. Perhaps one of the reasons why we come to church is to ascertain the relative worth of the conflicting values in our lives. I think that should certainly be one takeaway. There are those singular moments when, in a flash, the value of things comes into focus and we see what is truly valuable.
Let me call time-out for a moment here and remind you that this sermon is Part Two of an October series I’m calling, A Credo for Our Time. Maybe I should have called it, A Credo for a Dark Time. No matter, each week is an extended discussion of a precept necessary for healthy living in such a time as this. Last week the precept was, We Take Our Stand in the Here and Now. This week it’s, We Trust in Something Larger than Ourselves
You know, all of us have a crazy relationship with time. Both the past and the future. Depending on who we are, we tend to dwell on one or the other. Ironically, that takes a lot off time. More than we even know. And more ironic than that, neither the past nor the future really exist. As we all know, at least intellectually, the only real time is right now. This given moment.
Along with the parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable is one of those stories of forgiveness so radical that it offends, because it seems to reward those who have done the least while it sends those who have worked the hardest to the end of the line. "So the last will be first and the first last," Jesus says, scrambling the usual order of things, and challenging all the usual assumptions by which most of us live our lives.
Forgiving someone once is one thing, but are you going to give him a third chance? Wouldn’t that make you feel like a ninny? Would that make you co-dependent? How about seventy times seven times? Come on?
There are plenty of people who seem to have the foresight to see catastrophes coming. Some of them are scientists and some are religious prophets of one sort or another. The question is, do we have the will to work together and do something to limit the damage that is coming in this era of aging infrastructure, and inadequate sea walls, and building codes that can’t stand up to what we might be facing in the years and decades ahead?
Many years ago I had my daughter Margaret in tow. We were visiting the Portland zoo, one of our favorite places. We were standing before the huge glass cage that was part of the home of the orangutan family. It was a cool fall afternoon, and we watched as the baby ran to it’s mother to cozy up – get warm. The mother took a large wool blanket, perhaps her only possession, shook it out like any mother would do, and then swung it around her shoulders as gracefully as a Martha Graham dancer. She pulled it down around her little one and sat there looking at us as we stared back. Any thought I ever had that these creatures might be of less value than human beings evaporated away that afternoon.
Here they were, women who lacked the only honorable distinction given to women in their day, to give birth, but through the madness and fear of a king, they found themselves in a unique position of power. And they used that opportunity to make a difference. They played the only part they could play, but it was one that would change the world, setting the stage for the liberation of an entire people from a tyrant.
The story starts so small. Joseph is merely on an errand for his father. He’s sent out by his father to locate his brothers – make sure they are okay. That part of the story means very little – it’s just kind of ironic. And he is about to go back home, because he can’t find them, when a nameless man happens along and tells him that he overheard his brothers say that they were on their way to a place called Dothan. That’s it. But it makes all the difference in the world.