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6-18-17 The Prodigal Son - The Prodigal Father

The Prodigal Son – The Prodigal Father

 

Beth Henricks

 

June 18th, 2017

 

Luke 15:11-32

 

The Parable of the Prodigal Father by Trevor Burke

 

What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey

 

 

Today is Father’s Day, a day where we reflect on the men in our lives that have made an impact on who we are today.  As I was writing this message, I kept thinking about my own dad that I lost 12 years ago and snippets of his life kept popping up.  His love of sports, how he built an ice rink in our back yard every year, how he could eat 20 ears of corn in one setting, how good he was at playing the card game Rook, how much he loved my mom and me and my brothers.  I am sure that each of you today can recall some great memories of special moments with important men in your life.  I am thankful for the presence of not only my dad, but my late husband Jerry, my brothers and other men that have been and are important to me.

We often associate certain characteristics and attributes to fathers – strength, protection, provision, justice, fairness, loving and we often use this language and these characteristics of Father to describe God.  God as Father is probably the most common image we have of God and we regularly refer to God in a masculine pronoun.  Of course, God is neither male nor female, God transcends a role such as Father and is far beyond the characteristics we use to describe God.  And yet, our limited human minds must try to bring God into a place where we can grasp some reflection of God’s essence within our known relationships and the idea of Father is one place for this. 

Pope Francis recently said to a large crowd at the Vatican that calling God "Father" rather than simply "God" can deepen our spirituality and nourish our Christian hope.

"The entire mystery of Christian prayer is summed up here, in this word: to have the courage to call God by the name of Father," the pontiff said.

"Calling God by the name 'Father' is not something that can be taken for granted,"  "We are tempted to use the highest titles, which are respectful of his transcendence. But calling him 'Father' puts us in his confidence, like a child talking to his dad, knowing that he is loved and cared for by him" the pope said.

Of course, it can also be dangerous to focus on God as Father because some human fatherly relationships are destructive, are not intimate and not loving.  Having talked with several folks over the years that have deeply struggled with the idea of God as Father, I have become much more sensitive to avoid using masculine pronouns in how I speak about God.

But I still believe there is much for us to gain in our understanding of God to think about the best and most loving examples of this role of Father.  And this role of Father in the story that Dan read for us today is an insight into God’s essence that is really astounding.  This parable of Jesus is probably the best-known parable within Christian and secular circles.  It is a story that is rich and complex and helps us grasp some idea of the magnitude of God.  And it defies the traditional roles of Father that were customary of the first century.  

I have heard many messages on this parable before and usually they focus on one of the sons. The prodigal son asks for and takes his portion of his inheritance and wants to get away from his family and live the life he wants to live.  Of course, things don’t turn out so well for him and when he returns, the elder son shows no mercy, no forgiveness and becomes angry with his father.  While this story is usually called the parable of the Prodigal Son, I believe the heart of this story is about a Prodigal Father.  I looked up the word prodigal and I found words like reckless, extravagant, lavish and wasteful.  And certainly, the young son’s decisions do seem to fit these adjectives.  And yet, the Father’s love and grace in this story seem to be extravagant, reckless, lavish and wasteful.  The generosity of the father does not seem wise, just or fair.  Who gives half of their child’s inheritance just because they asked for it?  Didn’t the father in his heart know that his son would likely waste all this money?  And the father had to face the fact that this son didn’t want to be with him and chose to move far away.  What heartbreak the father experienced to have his son reject their life together. In the ancient world, the father-son (even adult son’s) relationship was a hierarchical one so it is even more shocking that the son would demand his inheritance by challenging his father’s authority and the father would give him his share of the property without saying one word or requiring certain things in exchange for his share.  How many times have I given something but expect certain activities, behaviors or outcomes in return?  Shouldn’t the father have disciplined his son instead of giving into his demands?  Whether we think this wise or not, the generosity of the father to the son is quite breathtaking and seems almost reckless.

 When the son returns home penniless, hungry and broken, the father not only welcomes him back to the home, the scripture says that he saw him a long way off and ran to his son and threw his arms around him and kissed him.  In the ancient world at the time, grown men did not run as it seemed undignified and a sign of a man out of control.  It would also mean having to bring public humiliation on himself by raising his cloak and exposing his legs to run and embrace the son.  Another example of reckless emotion and a break from the social norms.  When they embrace, the son can’t even get the words out that he planned to say asking his father to become a hired servant.  The father immediately calls his servants to bring the best robe, put a ring on his finger and offer a lavish dinner to celebrate the return of this son. 

The father’s extravagant grace continues toward the older son.  When the older son sees the return of his brother and this joyous celebration he becomes full of anger and refuses to go into the house which was a sign of great disrespect to his father.  He berates his father in a public way for his reaction to the younger son’s return.  The older son is full of bitterness and resentment and again the custom of the time would be for the father to discipline this son.  But the father’s reaction is one of grace as he says to the eldest son what joy to have been together for these years and certainly you know that all that is mine is yours.  He was hoping the older son could rejoice with him in the return of a lost brother.  The story ends there and we don’t know what the ultimate response was from his brother.

I think Jesus is giving us a window into the depth and breadth of God’s love and grace to us in the actions of the father in this story.  It is the father who takes the initiative to restore the relationship.  The son can only come within reach while the father is the one to offer complete acceptance back into the home.  The father is extravagant in his generosity to both sons.  He places no conditions in the restoration of their relationship.

Most of Jesus parables give us a glimpse into the transcendence and uncontrollable nature of God.  A nature that changes everything and turns our normal view upside down. These parables seem to want to correct our notions about who God is and who God loves.   No one gets what they deserve for God’s mercy is not contingent upon the actions of others.  God’s love surpasses all typical expressions known to humanity.  A prodigal love for a prodigal people.  God is always waiting for us to return.

I have been reading Phillip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing about Grace this week.  He shares a story about a British conference a number of years ago on comparative religions where experts from around the world were debating about what belief is unique to Christianity.  They began eliminating possibilities – the Incarnation?  Other religions had different versions of gods showing up in human form.  Resurrection?  Other religions had accounts of return from death.  C.S. Lewis came into the room and when he heard what scholars were discussing, he said that it is easy to identify the unique contribution of Christianity to other religions.  It’s grace.  The idea that God’s love comes to us with no strings attached seems to go against every instinct of humanity.  The Buddhist path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant and the Muslim code of law all offer ways to earn God’s approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.   

Doesn’t the world condition us to find a catch in every promise – we must read the fine print to know the conditions of our contract.  Yet here is Jesus describing an unconditional love that disqualifies no one.

Sometimes our vision of a father is one that demands our love through fear.  But the God that is the prodigal father demands nothing and is unbelievable in the generosity of grace and love. 

Henri Nouwen says “God rejoices.  Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness.  No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found.”

 Phillip Yancey describes the gospel as nothing that we humans would come up with on our own.  Isn’t it just and fair to give more to the good people and give less to the bad people?  Shouldn’t there be some merit to our salvation?  Grace does not depend on what we have done for God but what God has done for us. 

The great theologian Karl Barth arrives at one definition of God after thousands of pages of writing – the One Who Loves.

 

As we enter our time of unprogrammed worship may we reflect on this concept of a prodigal father that offers grace that is lavish, extravagant.  How do we understand this grace in our lives?  And how do we show this grace to others?   I pray that your heart is open to the Sprit this morning.  If the Spirit is speaking just to you today, hold this in your heart and listen to the Spirit.  If the Spirit is calling you to share a message with all of us please be obedient to the Spirit. 

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6-11-17 Quakerism, Yesterday and Today

By John Moorman

Good morning! In less than three weeks Bob Henry will be here as our new pastoral minister. As we prepare to welcome him and his family to our meeting community, we need to take a little time to examine why we are here today. What brought us here to Indianapolis First Friends Meeting? Why are we here as attenders or members, active or not? What is there about Quakerism that speaks to us, individually and collectively?

 

I propose in a very short time this morning to briefly highlight the beginnings and present-day situation of our faith as a way for thought on the above questions. These questions are personal and each of us will handle and answer them according to their personal experiences, readings and searching for the Christ within.

 

George Fox is considered the founder of Quakerism. He was born in England at a time of political and social upheaval. George was a poorly educated individual who began his life working for a shoemaker. This shoemaker also kept sheep and cattle. George’s time in the fields with the sheep and cattle gave him an understanding and love of everything that God had made. As he put it in his Journal he was, “in unity with the creation”.

 

At an early age, Fox began his search for the reality of God that he could not find in preachers, professors, or others he approached with his questions and concerns. Finally, a leading came to him that, “There is one even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition”.

 

This was revolutionary. Each person can realize the presence of Christ within their own lives. Fox called this an opening. As Fox is quoted in the testimony of Margaret Fell an early convert and later his wife, “he spoke as followeth…How that Christ was the light of the world and lighted every man that cometh into the world; and that by this Light they might be gathered to God”.

 

Out of this conversion experience and various leadings, early Quakerism was developed. At its core was the belief that Christ’s presence could be experienced individually. There was no need for an intermediary to reach God. Fox was strong in condemning the “Hireling Ministry” found in the Churches of the day. They were hindrances to finding the presence of Christ within each person.

 

Some of the leadings of Fox led to early testimonies against the swearing of oaths, simplicity in dress and lifestyle, against the paying of tithes to the Church of England, and non-participation in wars and military life. These testimonies caused great difficulties for early Friends as they were seen by those in power as a danger to their positions, whether in the established Church, or Government at both a local and national level. As a result, many early Friends were imprisoned, died in prison, were killed by mobs, or by being executed by Governmental order, or suffered greatly for their beliefs including losing their land and homes. George Fox was beaten and imprisoned many times in places that would make today’s prisons look like palaces by comparison. He had to be a hardy man to survive into his 67th year. This in an era when the average lifespan was 45 years.

 

What enabled Quakerism to survive these early years when other small groups such as the Ranters did not?

 

There were several factors that enabled Quakerism to survive beyond its beginnings.

 

The first was that Fox was by all accounts a charismatic individual. His presence was powerful both in speech and prayer. William Penn once stated that he had never met such a powerful man in prayer as George Fox.

 

The second was that he made friends easily and was particularly effective in attracting to his side those who were more educated than himself and held substantial positions in English society. These individuals included William Penn, Issac Pennington, and Robert Barclay. As William Penn wrote in an introduction to George Fox’s Journal, “He was an original and no man’s copy”.

 

The message of Fox had its own inner validity, as William James said, “In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity”. However, no spoken word, in a time prior to modern communication methods, could survive unless it was contained within a written and intelligible format. George Fox did dictate his Journal, but without the exceptional work of Thomas Ellwood in editing it, it would not have reached publication.

 

Any movement, such as early Quakerism, must be able to attract minds capable of giving an intellectual structure to its organization and beliefs. These beliefs must appeal to other minds and be logically defensible. Robert Barclay did this for Quakerism. His “Apology” was a presentation of Quakerism that could be understood by literate individuals of the time. It helped place Quakerism as a biblically based Christian belief, rather than a small sect of questionable worth or value.

 

The third was that George Fox understood the need for organization if this faith was to continue and grow. His provision of the organizational setup of individual meetings, which then were members of a quarterly meeting, and then of a yearly meeting helped stabilize the early Quaker movement and brought with it the ability for oversight and the development of leadership as time progressed. The establishment of meeting elders gave each meeting the ability to examine individual leadings of members and provide guidance to meeting members if needed.

 

The fourth was that George Fox recognized that not only could Christ speak to him personally, but he could speak as well to others. This was not a personal religion but a community of believers.  As the light of Christ is given to you share it with others. This is not done individually but through a gathered community of believers (witness the formal name; Religious Society of Friends). As Steven Davidson states in the recent Pendle Hill Pamphlet, The Gathered Meeting, “In the gathered meeting, we experience what we seek as a religious community; inward confirmation in our personal faith, collective unity of purpose in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and a profound sense of the Presence”. As Fox would say, collectively we seek Christ’s presence in our lives. Thus, when Fox died, he was but one Quaker minister among many and the leadership of Quakerism was already passing on to others.

 

The form of early Quaker worship was unprogrammed. However, Fox and others could expound for hours during meeting on Christ’s presence in their lives, their leadings, and the importance of scripture to everyday life.

 

Any religion changes over time. Quakerism is no exception. As it has no creeds nor doctrines, it is more open to change than others. The Light of Christ within continually gives new leadings that while they must be examined by fellow members, eventually result in change in outlook and structure. It took over 100 years but Quakerism did disavow slavery as being against Christ’s will. Men’s meeting for business and Women’s meeting for business became the Meeting’s meeting for business.  Plain dress and plain speaking gradually were eliminated as society changed and became less ostentatious and stratified.

 

The outside world also affected Quakerism. Religious movements such as the Wesleyan and Holiness movements of the 1800’s, and individual Friends with strongly expressed concerns on Quaker views and practice all had a place in the changing structure of Quaker worship and belief emphasis.  Splits occurred among Friends meetings and Yearly Meetings and are continuing, regretfully, as I speak. As an Indiana based example, there are four Yearly Meetings with headquarters in Indiana; Western Yearly Meeting headquartered in Plainfield of which this meeting is a member, Indiana Yearly Meeting headquartered in Muncie, Central Yearly Meeting headquartered in Muncie, and New Association of Friends headquartered in New Castle. Three of these Yearly Meetings are currently affiliated with Friends United Meeting a world-wide association of Friends Meetings and Churches.  One, Central Yearly Meeting is independent. There are individual Friends Meetings and Churches in Indiana belonging to Yearly Meetings affiliated with Evangelical Friends Church -  Eastern Region and Friends General Conference, or independent of any further affiliation. Sometimes, I think that Quaker toleration extends beyond our faith, not within it.

 

I see the result of each schism as a loss of something that was vital to early Quakerism. Early Quakerism was Christ centered, mystical, prophetic, and evangelistic. It was grounded in the knowledge that the Light of Christ was present in everyone; that we as a community of believers could personally experience Christ’s presence. This experience must be shared with others and it was, with an evangelistic fervor. It was the intent of early Quakers that their experience would sweep the world and bring radical change. That intent was never realized.

 

Currently, Quakerism in its many forms has 377,055 members worldwide. The countries with the most Quakers are Kenya with 146,300 and the United States with 76,360.

 

So, what does this mean for Indianapolis First Friends Meeting as we await the coming of our new pastoral minister and his family?

 

One thing that separates Quakers from other faith communities, is that we have no lay leadership. Ours is a participative community of ministers who share their ministry joyfully with each other. Ministry is many things; singing in the choir or as separate individuals, playing music, preparing food for fellowship hour or special events, calling on individuals who are sick or in need of assistance, giving spoken messages, encouraging others in their ministry, keeping the building and grounds clean, up-to-date and in order, teaching Sunday school and assisting with Children’s Church, working with meeting finances, writing articles for Quaker publications, organizing events, providing opportunities for spiritual growth and enrichment, and many others that I have not mentioned.

 

What is your ministry? How have you been encouraged in it? Have you encouraged others in their ministry? If not, Why?

 

As our new pastoral minister comes let’s welcome him and his family into an active meeting that is a worshipful community responding to Christ’s presence in our lives. How can we prepare to assist him in his ministry as he joins us?

 

What can you say?

As we enter unprogrammed worship as a gathered community, let us be open to Christ’s presence among us. If you receive a message that is for you personally, keep it in the silence. If it is a message you feel led to share stand and share it with the meeting community.

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5-30-17 Forgiveness

A Need for Forgiveness – For ourselves and others

Beth Henricks – May 28th 2017

Matthew 18:21-22

Sources:

A Mother’s Reckoning – Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, Sue Klebold

Center for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr

 

April 20th 1999 is a day that will never be forgotten in our history.  That morning at 11:19 a.m., two young men named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked onto their high school campus, Columbine High in Littleton Colorado with bombs and guns and killed 12 students and 1 teacher, injured 24 others and then killed themselves.  Their intention that morning was significantly worse than what occurred as the bombs they made did not go off.  Their intent was to blow up the school. 

Most of us remember that day with horror as we watched events unfold on television for days and tried to understand what happened and how to make sense of it.  This was the first significant school shooting in our history.   There was lots of speculation about the motives of Eric and Dylan, their families, home life and school life.  I remember wanting to get answers that made sense like they were abused as children, had abusive parents, something in their background that would somehow explain this tragedy.

We wanted to blame someone for this act and since Eric and Dylan killed themselves, we went after their parents.  How could Dylan and Eric’s parents not have known what they were planning?  How could they have been so clueless?  What in the upbringing of these two young men caused them to carry out this deadly attack? 

I do remember at the time thinking how awful life must be for those parents.  Not only did they lose their child, they had to live with the horror of what they did to others.  How could you ever go on in life with this kind of baggage?

I was in the car two weeks ago and heard Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother interviewed on a radio show.  I was fascinated with her story and immediately got her book, A Mother’s Reckoning Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.  Her story is heartbreaking.  She and her husband went into hiding after the incident and hoped that they would die.  This tragedy stripped away her own identity as she only became the mother of a killer.  And it showed to herself how tied up she had been with ego.  Sue had focused on wanting to be liked and a respected member of the community.  She had taken pride in her sons and their family.  After the tragedy, she had no respect and was considered the worst mother on earth.  All parents have regrets, but when a child commits murder/suicide the guilt and second guessing are constant intolerable companions. 

It turned out that Dylan was severely depressed with a perfectionist streak that made him the perfect counterpoint to Eric who really fit the description of a psychopath.  Sue did not recognize the signs of Dylan’s depression thinking his behavior was typical of teenagers.

Over the last 17 years, Sue and her husband had to file bankruptcy, they divorced and Sue got breast cancer.  It has taken years for Sue to put her life back together.  One of her friends asked the question – Can you ever forgive Dylan for what he did?  Her response to this question was forgive Dylan?  My work is to forgive myself.  She felt that she was the one that let Dylan down.  A murder-suicide is unthinkable.  Sue felt that she had failed to protect Dylan from himself and everyone he killed.

Sue had overwhelming negative feelings about herself.  She had raised a murderer without knowing it, a person with such a faulty moral compass that he’d committed an atrocity.  She had been a fool to not see what was going on. 

Sue has spent years coming to the point of forgiving herself.  She has finally realized that it was Dylan’s pathological behavior that caused this and not hers.  She has committed her life to working for suicide prevention and speaking out on mental health issues of young people.  And she has experienced forgiveness from some of the victims’ families.  Forgiveness at this level is probably the greatest act of love there can be. 

Forgiveness – forgiving ourselves can be one of the hardest things to do because we have to embrace our grief and confront our shame.  We do not feel worthy of God’s love.  Henri Nouwen says “Self rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved”. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”  God’s enormous love for us is present as we are right now.  In our brokenness, our shame, our ego, our pride.  God’s love is not contingent on us making some changes for the better (although that could make life better for ourselves).  We are God’s beloved as we are today.

Brene Brown, the scholar, author and public speaker says that “the death or ending that forgiveness necessitates comes in many shapes and forms.  We may need to bury our expectations or dreams.  We may need to relinquish the power that comes with “being right” or put to rest the idea that we can do what’s in our hearts and still retain the support or approval of others.  Whatever it is, it all has to go.  It isn’t good enough to box it up and set it aside.  It has to die.  It has to be grieved.  That is a high price indeed.  Sometimes it’s just too much.”

When we let go of this pain and truly forgive ourselves we are experiencing one of the greatest acts of self- love that we can ever do.  Jesus gives us two commandments –that we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.  We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t love ourselves.  We can’t offer forgiveness for those who have hurt us, until we forgive ourselves of hurt and shame.

If I can accept this idea of forgiveness for myself, how then can I show forgiveness time and again to others? Can I really forgive others who have done terrible things or deeply hurt me?   Could I forgive someone like Dylan and Eric if my child were one of their victims?  How can we forgive anyone who has abused us?  I love this quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu – “To forgive is not just to be altruistic.  It is the best form of self-interest.  It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger.  These emotions are all part of being human.  You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things:  The depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.

He goes on to say that “when I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person.  A better person than one being consumed by anger and hatred.  Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.  If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.  You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person, too.

Forgiveness is not forgetting or walking away from accountability or condoning a hurtful act; it’s the process of taking back and healing our lives so we can truly live. 

As Eric read in our scripture today, Jesus commands us to offer forgiveness not just 7 times but 70 times 7.  I think this means that we must have a heart of forgiveness at all times.  Jesus is calling us to spiritual maturity in order to forgive our mistakes and others.  And Jesus commands us to do this because he knows that this is how we will experience healing within ourselves.  That we won’t let resentment and anger chip away at our core.  Forgiveness is the deepest expression of love.  Richard Rohr, the Catholic priest says  “ You can let go of everyone who hurt you, your former spouse, the boss who fired you, the church, or even God. You have no interest in carrying around negative baggage. Wisdom emerges when you can see everything, you eliminate none of it, and you include all as important training. Finally, everything belongs. You are eventually able to say, from some larger place that may surprise you, “It is what it is” and “Even the ‘bad’ was good.”

Friends, who do you need to forgive today?  Do you need to forgive yourself?  Do you need to forgive a family member?  A work colleague?  A friend?  Maybe it is someone that isn’t even alive but still has a hold on you.  As we enter our time of unprogrammed worship I pray that we will enter deeply without ourselves to truly examine our sense of forgiveness.  If God is speaking to you directly please hold this in your heart.  If God asks you to share this message with all of us please be obedient and stand up and share with all of us.

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5-14-17 - The story of Ruth and Naomi – an Unlikely Family

The story of Ruth and Naomi – an Unlikely Family

Beth Henricks – May 14th 2017

Ruth 1:8-9, 15-18

Resources:  Redefining Family in the Book of Ruth, Diane Jacobson (Word and World Volume 33, Number 1 Winter 2013)

Commentary on Ruth, Milton Acosta Benitez (Journal of Latin American Theology Vol 11, No 1, 2016)

 

 

I have been thinking about this message for Mother’s Day for several weeks.  It seems familiar and expected to talk about our mothers, on being a mother, honoring mothers, listing the attributes that we love and cherish and how mothers share God’s love in so many ways.  We have heard and read tributes all week about the power and influence of mothers in our world.   I love the story of the young state legislator from Tennessee, Harry Burn who in 1920 had to make a vote on whether to ratify the new amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote.  The vote was 48 to 48 and Harry had to decide what to do.  He had been publicly against the amendment, but on the day for him to cast his vote, his mother Phoebe Burn put a note in his pocket saying Hurrah and vote for suffrage!  Don’t keep them in doubt.  I notice some of the speeches against.  They were bitter.  I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.  She ended the note by saying be a good boy and put the rat in ratification.  Harry cast the deciding vote and the Constitution was amended.  Oh, the power of our mother’s influence.

 

On the surface, this is a joyful day of celebration and happiness.  And many of you feel this sense of joy today.

 

But Mother’s Day is way more complicated than what might appear at first blush or in the sentiments expressed in our Hallmark cards.  In this room, there is a full range of emotions and feelings about this day.  There are some that are still in mourning over losing their mother.  There are others that feel sadness in not having the experience of being a mother, or have chosen not to have children. Still others are in deep pain over broken relationships with their children or their own mother.  Some here have had less than ideal role models for a mother and are working towards breaking a cycle of dsyfunction within themselves.  I know some people did not come to Meeting today because it would just be too hard to sit here and listen to a message about Mother’s Day.

 

I have felt a leading in the last 2 weeks to talk today about families.  Of course, families get just as complicated as mothers.  Many people end up in therapy for many years due to issues with their family of origin.  I first learned this term “family of origin” in seminary in the last few years.  It is interesting to think that we have our family of origin but we can also have families beyond this understanding and the story of Ruth and Naomi in the Bible is a beautiful description of this enhanced view of family.

 

The book of Ruth in the Old Testament is only four chapters, but it is a story packed with pain, death, joy, loyalty, commitment and redemption.  It reads like a short novel and I encourage all of you to read this book this week.

 

The issue of what constitutes a family is a major theme identified in book of Ruth.  There is a redefinition of family with a focus on loyalty and love versus clan and blood relationships.   This was significant in the period of time this story takes place which is likely post exile for the Israelites.  Many Israelites had spent a whole generation in exile in Babylon and had left land behind in Judah.  The land was now occupied by poorer folks who had not been taken captive or foreigners that were brought to the land and forced to settle in Judah.  With Israelites returning from exile the question of land ownership was a significant one.  But even beyond the land, the questions surfaced of who are God’s people?  Who is included in God’s promises?  Who is in the tribe?  Who is part of the family? 

 

In biblical law, family issues were considered in the category of property.  So, if family disputes came up, they were turn to the biblical law to be settled.  This story of Ruth completely calls into question the idea of family issues being defined in the context of property. 

 

The story starts with a fine example of a traditional family with a father, mother and two sons.  But also with impending trouble due to a famine in Judah. This traditional family moves to Moab which is a national enemy of the Israelites.  The Moabites were considered an inferior people descending from Lot and his daughter.  Deuteronomy 23:4says that “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord”.  The story doesn’t say why Naomi and her husband chose Moab but they now become foreigners, immigrants there.  And the trouble begins.  First the father dies leaving Naomi and the two sons to make connections in this foreign land.  The two sons marry Moabite women, probably to help establish themselves in this foreign land.  More disaster occurs with no children being born in ten years and both sons dying.  Wow – Naomi is left alone in a foreign land with two Moabite daughters in law.  This is not a family unit according to biblical law at the time.  This is probably why Naomi initially tells these women to go back to the homes of their mothers and fathers and find husbands there.   While Naomi might view these woman as daughters, she knows in terms of Biblical law there are no possibilities for her and she faces disaster with no means of support for her existence. 

 

Ruth completely rejects this conclusion with the speech that redefines family which Ann read to us today. Ruth is willing to leave her own mother and father and her country because of an act of devotion and love to Naomi.  Ruth believes they are bound together as family irregardless of what biblical law says.  For the sake of loyalty and love, Ruth is willing to become an immigrant in an enemy nation. What a radical commitment.    At first Naomi rejects this idea but Ruth is adamant. 

 

How will the Israelite community accept this?  At first, the community is shocked by the return of Naomi with Ruth.  And Naomi has become bitter about all of her misfortune and gives herself a new name, Mara feeling empty and alone without recognizing the gift of family that Ruth has brought to her.

 

Ruth comes to town as a foreigner and will do whatever work necessary to take care of Naomi and herself.  She does manual labor by gleaning the fields after the reaping of the harvest reserved for the poorest of the poor in the community.    She works on land owned by a man named Boaz who is kin to Naomi.  Through a series of schemes, Boaz joins this unlikely family unit marrying Ruth.  They have a child and Ruth, the foreigner from an enemy nation, becomes the great grandmother of King David.  This story shows that expanding the traditional understanding of family was crucial for the promised future of Israel and for the redemption of the nation.  This future includes a foreign enemy, an immigrant widow that is daughter in law, wife and mother.  Covenant and commitment out of love and devotion become more important than law and tradition.  And ultimately the Israelite community accepts Ruth as a Godly woman and compares her to other great women of faith.

 

Right from the start, Ruth shows her independence as she married outside of her own people, disavows the solidarity of her family, abandons her national identity, and renounces her religious affiliation.    Some Biblical scholars consider only Abraham as approaching this radicalness and he had a direct call from God.  Ruth stands alone without support.  A young woman commits herself to an old woman in a world where life depends upon men. 

 

At the beginning of this book we find famine and death.  At the end food and life.  Ruth brings together hope and hopelessness, death and life, pain and joy, loneliness and companionship, famine and provision, abandonment and redemption.

 

The family that had fallen apart at the beginning has been reconfigured.  The Jewish hatred toward Moab is turned around into a genealogy of national importance.   

 

I believe the story of Ruth gives us a glimpse in the heart of God and how God views family.   God’s desire is for our family to be broad and inclusive.  Many of us here today are in a place that we did not envision.  We are widows, have lost children, siblings and parents.  Our families of origin are diminished, gone or broken.  We can feel Naomi’s lament of loss and bitterness as God feels distant and our future might appear bleak and lonely.

 

But the story of Ruth describes the love that God gives to all of us including the foreigner. Our family will include people that come from tribes that have been our enemies.  God says they are family now.  God calls us to be in relationship  - to be family with folk that seem impossible.  The family of God is far beyond our comprehension.    Yet God’s love is beyond reason, rationale, conventional boundaries, and territories.   

 

So who is your family?  Do you have family beyond kin and tribe?  Who is in your family - this family of God’s love and calling.  And what are we willing to sacrifice for our family of God?  How do you forgive those in our family that cause us pain and hurt?  How can we live in the wholehearted center of God’s love with family?

 

I encourage you to reflect on these queries as we enter our time of unprogrammed worship.  If God is speaking to you directly, hold this experience in your heart.  But if God is giving you a message to share with all of us, I ask you to be obedient to the Spirit and share with all of us.

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4-16-17 - Jesus, a New Kind of King

Jesus, A New Kind of King

April 16, 2017

Beth Henricks, Indianapolis First Friends

 

John 18:33-38

Resources:

Christ our Hope: Daily Lenten Devotions by Henri J.M. Nouwen

A Wondrous Love: Lenten Devotional by Henri J.M. Nouwen and C.S. Lewis

Zealot by Reza Aslan,

Mystery – From the Journal Weavings: January/February 2006

 

What does Easter mean to you? 

 

As the second week in being your interim pastor, preparing an Easter message for today was a bit daunting.  Traditionally, this is the one Sunday each year where people come to church even if they are not regular attenders.  Many come to a service expecting wonderful music, beautiful flowers and an inspiring message.  We have definitely experienced the wonderful music today.  Choir thank you for opening our service with that beautiful anthem.  And Jim and Leslie, thank you for ministering to us through your song that touched my heart.

 

I am 57 years old and have been going to church since I was an infant so I am calculating that I have heard 56 Easter messages in my life.  It is the one time a year that almost every pastor from every pulpit across America is talking about the same story – that of Jesus death and resurrection.  It’s a familiar story and most of us know it well.  It is the conclusion of the story of Jesus in all four gospels.  The core of the story is essential to our faith.  Yet how can we read this familiar story again today with a freshness and an open heart to what this means for you?

 

What does Easter mean to you?  For many this story of Jesus death and resurrection is the foundation of their theology.  God sending his son Jesus to reconcile humankind to God through the death and resurrection of God’s son.  Jesus sinless life is sacrificed as a substitute for our sins and we are now God’s children.

 

For others, this story is more symbolic in representing the immense love that God has for each of us and that Jesus freely gives up his life as a way to show the world that death does not have to be feared, it is not the final answer and that love for our enemies and those who persecute us is the way to experience our own rebirth and resurrection.

 

There is no way to come to this story thinking we can ever understand it objectively.  There is such mystery and a sense of awe to the story and yet many have tried to domesticate it and condense it into a set of 4 spiritual laws that fit nicely into a pamphlet to share with others as a summary of faith in a tidy package. The magnitude of this story can never fit into anything tidy.  We must look at the life of Jesus in total to enter the mystery of this story. 

 

When we read the gospel accounts of Jesus life, we have to be aware that they were written 50 – 80 years after Jesus died and the accounts were put together in their narrative through the oral tradition being shared in the early house churches. 

 

This kind of explains to me why we don’t learn anything about Jesus life from the time he was 12 until he begins his ministry at 30.  That seems like a really important period in his development and I wish we knew more about it. 

 

When Jesus enters into his ministry, the Jewish land that had been promised Abraham had been invaded by the Romans.  Roman policy for all their captured land was to forge an alliance with the aristocracy in each city and make them dependent on the Roman overlords for their power and wealth thus insuring local leaders would be invested in the Roman imperial system. In the Jewish land this alliance was with the wealthy priestly families who maintained the Temple and were charged with collecting the taxes and ensuring order among an increasingly disgruntled Jewish population.  And they were richly rewarded for these tasks.  Rome knew that to control the Jews they must control the Temple and they did including the High Priest.   While this small group of Jewish leaders became very wealthy, the vast majority of the population experienced crushing taxes paid to the priestly elite on behalf of Rome.  Many of the landless peasant Jews were beginning to seek some kind of revolt. They were looking for a messiah that would re-establish the nation of Israel and rebuild the kingdom such as in David’s time.   What they knew through scripture was that the Messiah would come from the line of David, would free the Jews from occupation, would establish Jerusalem as God’s city and restore Israel.   

 

At the time that Jesus enters his ministry, there was a growing feeling among the Jewish peasants that the present order was coming to an end and that the Kingdom of God would be established here on earth.   They were looking for a messiah that was both political and religious to free them from occupation and restore Israel.

 

And Jesus begins to preach and to teach about establishing a new order where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  He declares that it is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.  He criticizes the priestly leaders for being more interested in power and rules than in showing God’s love.  He cleanses the Temple of the moneychangers and vendors selling sacrifices.  Jesus has a powerful message that advocates turning the economic system upside down.  He believes the content of one’s heart is more important than the adherence to Jewish law.  He travels over the countryside to share this message and performs many miracles and healings along the way.  He speaks in parables and stories to convey his radical message. 

 

The Jewish people are enthralled with this man and this message from God.  As he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people are shouting Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed be the coming kingdom of our father David. 

 

The Jewish authorities have been concerned about Jesus for some time and are now alarmed to the point of knowing they need to stop this movement.  They make plans to arrest him and put him to death as a traitor to the Roman Empire. 

 

It is a turning point in Jesus ministry when he is taken into custody.   He turns from action to passion.  After the years of teaching, healing and moving from town to town, he is now a suffering servant subject to other people’s actions.

 

And this is what changes the hosannas from Palm Sunday to the shouts of crucify him even when Pilate finds no case against him and offers to release him as is the custom at Passover.  The crowds say no and asks for Barabbas.   Jesus is not defying the authorities, he is not asking his followers to fight for him, and in fact he insists on no violence when they take him into custody.  How can he be the messiah – their hopes are dashed in re-establishing the state of Israel and being released from occupation.

 

What the Jewish people missed was the heart of Jesus teaching and this idea of king and kingdom.  Jesus was offering a new way of living in community but most of all a way of living in communion with God.  John 14:31 says I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.  Henri Nouwen says “Jesus speaks about his Father as the source of all his words and actions.  When he withdraws himself from the crowd and even from his closest friends, he withdraws to be with the Father…. All through his life Jesus considers his relationship with the Father as the center, beginning and end of his ministry.  All he says and does, he says and does in the name of the Father.” 

 

Jesus kingdom on earth is God’s kingdom and is not based on military might or political calculations, alliances and power.  It is a kingdom that takes the sting out of death.  The great paradox that Jesus shows us is that those who lose their lives will gain them.  CS Lewis says “the principle runs through all life from top to bottom.  Give up yourself and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it.  Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day.   Submit with every fiber of your being and you will find eternal life.  Keep back nothing.  Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours.  Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. “

 

 Jesus foresaw a world full of cruelty, violence and conflict including the destruction of his beloved city Jerusalem.  For Jesus, there is no happy ending in this life.  He could not solve this world’s problems in his ministry.  But he was faithful at all costs and became a suffering servant of God.  He showed us another way.   Jesus says if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

 

The story of Jesus resurrection was hidden.  He didn’t make a victory statement or to give proof to those that crucified him.  His resurrection was a sign to those who loved him and followed him that God’s love is stronger than death.

 

Jesus suffering love is transformed by death but not annihilated by it.   There is nothing we can suffer that Christ does not know, has not shared, cannot somehow use in love with us for the healing of the world. 

 

We have become obsessed with overcoming suffering.  Our call is to compassion which means to suffer with.  Our avoidance of suffering dilutes our witness to our Lord Jesus who took our suffering upon himself in love.  When we can’t enter into the sufferings of our sisters, brothers and neighbors, the Christ we embody is a shallow distortion of the Jesus we encounter in Scripture.

 

Our dear friend Ann Panah has been an inspiration to me and I am sure to many of you.  She has walked a journey of significant health issues and yet out of her suffering she shows us love and compassion.  She is always looking for ways to help us , to care for for us and to bring us together.  She has refused to allow her health issues to define herself.  The last couple of months have been very difficult.  And what has touched me in a significant way is to watch Ann’s husband Bob show his love to Ann through action.  Bob is not someone that most of us know well at all.  But in the last few weeks I have seen him devote himself to Ann, sleep every night on a cot by her bed in the hospital and advocate for her to the medical community.  He also has shown what true love and compassion looks like through suffering. 

 

Friends what does Easter mean to you?  I hope it means that we will be faithful no matter what the cost.  That our sufferings can give us prophetic hope of God’s presence. I hope that we do not fear death and that as a follower of Christ, we will take up our cross and help establish God’s kingdom on this earth.  One that loves graciously, gives freely and offers compassion to all.

 

As enter into our time of Quaker communion and expectant waiting worship, we are about to enter into the invisible and eternal reality of the living Christ.  Our unprogrammed worship isn’t something we do – it is a state of consciousness that we enter in to.  Be still and listen to what the Spirit has to say to you today.  Hold it in your heart if this message is for you.  Be obedient to the Spirit if this message is to be shared with all of us today.

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4-9-17 - True Love - By Dan Lee

Friends, unfortunately, due to technical difficulties we will not have this sermon recording online. We apologize, but please enjoy the written version!

 

True Love

By Daniel Lee

 

Do you have a favorite love story? If so, is it a story of enduring love? Is the story true or make believe? Is it happy, or heartbreaking?

 

When it comes to movies, my favorite love story is the 1953 blockbuster “Roman Holiday” starring Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann and Gregory Peck as Joe Bradley. The movie is 64 years old, so I think it’s OK to give away the plot to make a wider point here today!

 

Princess Ann was a bored, frustrated, over protected dignitary visiting Rome. Joe Bradley was an ambitious American newsman assigned to cover her visit. Seeking adventure away from her many handlers, Audrey Hepburn’s character escapes by herself into the Roman night. She meets Gregory Peck, who doesn’t let on he knows she’s actually the princess. The two have a whimsical romantic day wandering Rome, but all along Joe Bradley the newsman and his photographer are gathering material for a tabloid tell-all on Princess Ann’s escapades. In the end, though, Joe and Princess Ann start to fall in love and he can’t betray her in the name of a news scoop. In the final scene of the movie, Joe sees the princess one last time at an official news conference in a grand hallway.

 

In the crowded room, Princess Ann and Joe the newsman stare at each other with big eyes.  After the news conference ends, the princess exits the stage. Then Joe, all alone, slowly walks away.

 

When he gets to the exit, Joe stops and gives a final gaze back. At this point in the move, I’m screaming inside:

 

“Say it ain’t so, Joe!” ‘Go back! Pound on the door! Yell for Princess Ann! Tell her you’re falling in love! Joe, if you leave now it will haunt you forever!’

 

But Joe doesn’t go back. He walks out the door, ending the movie.

 

 Joe Bradley’s decision to turn away from Princess Ann seems logical – they were from totally different classes and worlds. Their relationship wasn’t practical. Their love would have been forbidden! Yet Joe was so attracted to her that he sacrificed the news story of his career not to hurt her.

 

On this Palm Sunday I want to ask, what does this love story teach us about our own faith journeys? What can it teach us about our very reasons for faith in God?

 

It seems to me that many people are attracted by an almost cosmic force to the teachings, tenderness, and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, to the sense of community we feel when we worship, and to the notion of God as giving life a wider purpose to the universe.

 

Yet in the end, so many turn away in excessive in doubt, hurt, or heartbreak.

 

There are many reasons for this. Some people have been wounded by past religious experiences or interactions. Maybe you’ve been repelled by the words or actions of religious people.

 

Maybe you have lingering doubts…. We live in an increasingly secular age where faith is often portrayed as obsolete.

 

On this Palm Sunday, it’s appropriate to consider the words of the famous Hoosier satirist Kurt Vonnegut in his book entitled “Palm Sunday.”

 

“I’m enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far.” These words were part of a sermon delivered Palm Sunday 1980 about concern for the poor and how he’s seen Christians misinterpret Christ’s words about the poor always being with us to ignore helping them).

 

Vonnegut calls himself a Christ-worshipping agnostic. This is what he had to say about faith:

 

“What is so comical about religious people in modern times? They believe so many things which science has proved to be unknowable or absolutely wrong.”

 

“How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash? For one thing, I guess, the balderdash is usually beautiful – and therefore echoes excitingly in the more primitive lobes of our brains, where knowledge counts for nothing.”

 

Vonnegut’s words hurt. He’s enchanted by Christ’s message of mercy, yet he sees even the beautiful aspects of religion as balderdash.

 

Vonnegut speaks of religious ideas echoing in more primitive lobes of our brains. But is that really true? Are matters of faith and human experience – and of the human brain– really like two bumping fists? To the contrary, I believe, they are instead more like interlocked hands.

 

If we are open to receiving it, we find that cosmic spiritual force pulling us toward the divine. In 1931, Quaker Rufus Jones published a book entitled “Pathways to the Reality of God” in which he wrote:

 

“We see stars billions of miles away, only because something from the star is actually operating on the retina and in the visual center of the brain; and so, too, we find God, only because Something that is God – God as Spirit – is actually in contact with the spiritual center within us that is kindred to Him.”

 

Jones said we have a natural pull toward God just as God has a natural pull toward us. He called this “The Double Search.”

 

Several years ago I began a two-pronged personal study that convinced me that Rufus Jones is indeed correct.

 

On one hand, I studied the history, faith, and practice of Quakers. On the other hand, I studied the science on what brings humans lasting happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.

 

Throughout this two-pronged study, I kept seeing overlaps between the findings of modern science on human compassion and happiness and the practice and testimonies of Quakers as well as other Christian and faith traditions dating back centuries before the Quakers.

 

My favorite writer in this emerging field of study on the science of happiness and fulfillment is Dr. Emma Seppälä. She is science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

 

Dr. Seppälä’s specialty is researching what makes humans truly happy. She talks of two types of human happiness – hedonic happiness… This is the happiness of our pleasure centers – she calls this the sex, drugs and rock n roll types of happiness. For example, you get a short-term boost of happiness from buying something new or eating a big hunk or dark chocolate.

 

The second type of happiness is her primary focus – this is called eudemonic happiness. This is what gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in life and a connection to others. In a religious context, I would equate eudemonic happiness with the word “joy.”

 

Dr. Seppälä takes a secular scientific approach but she readily recognizes the importance of spiritual and religious practices leading to a host of benefits, including making people more resilient in stressful times, more faithful in their relationships, and more satisfied with family life.   

 

On the “Spirit Matters” podcast, Dr. Seppälä was asked to define spirituality and this is what she said:

 

“What the science is showing is that altruism, compassion, and service, these are all things that have been relegated to perhaps a more spiritual or ethical realm of study. But now we’re finding that these are all incredibly powerful predictors of health, happiness, and well being.”

 

“Veterans who go off to war and have the same traumatic experiences as someone else are less likely to suffer post traumatic stress disorder if they have a strong religious connection. If religion is very important to them, for example, it has a protective effect as well.”

 

“What we’re seeing is that a lot of the ethics, a lot of the principles that have been touted for millennia by religious traditions are now being shown to be extremely helpful and extremely powerful in terms of their impact on our happiness.”

 

Could it be that science is in some ways catching up to some of the valuable lessons of faith?

 

In my opinion, the early Quakers were pretty ahead of their time when it came to brain science. Consider the value of Quaker testimony of peace as we learn about the physical and emotional trauma of violence in our world.

 

Think also of Quaker testimony of simplicity as we’re learning about all of the stress and anxiety produced by our modern multitasking materialistic lives.

 

But here today I specifically want to look more deeply at two fundamental Quaker values – silent worship and our testimony of community.

 

First, silence.

 

Quaker William Penn famously said: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

 

The heart of Quaker worship is this idea of direct communion with God; that God can speak within any person. Silence allows us to “center down” from outside distractions and listen for the still small voice of God. Many people coming to a Quaker meeting at first find the silence awkward or difficult but later come to realize that it is the silence that gives the spoken ministry its beauty and power.

 

Now, let’s look at what the science says:

 

In her book “The Happiness Track,” Dr. Seppälä wrote:

 

“Research on silence provides insight into what makes silence so powerful… In 2006, Luciana Bernardi was studying the impact of music on physiology. To his surprise, he found that not only did the music affect participants’ physiology (slower music reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing), but so did the moments of silence – which he had only included as a comparison measure.

 

“In fact, Bernardi found that periods of silence inserted between tracks of music were much more relaxing than the soundtracks designed to induce relaxation… Physiologically, taking a ‘silence break’ had the most profound relaxing and calming effect. Other studies have found that silence – despite being devoid of content – can help develop new brain cells.”

 

All I have to say is William Penn was way ahead of his time!

 

What about community? When I think of the Quaker testimony of community, I think about what may be my favorite passage in the Bible, John 15:12-17.

 

This passage is why we call ourselves Friends:

 

Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”

 

This is the heart of the Quaker community. Close relationships bonded by love and intimacy. Think about the rich network of living in community here at First Friends – we worship in silence together. We celebrate and mourn together. We make decisions together in monthly meeting. We pray for one another and visit one another when we’re in need. We share pitch-in meals. We were, in every sense of the word, a community of Friends.

 

As it turns out, science is confirming that this exact sort of compassionate community also is good for our emotional and physical wellbeing.

 

One last time, I want to quote Stanford scientist Dr. Emma Seppälä:

 

“We all think we know how to take good care of ourselves: eat your veggies, work out and try to get enough sleep. But how many of us know that social connection is just as critical?”

 

“One landmark study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure…. People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”

Recently, an article published by the Boston Globe went viral across the Internet. Its headline read: The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” The reporter who wrote the article, Billy Baker, even wrote a follow up article about the flood of messages he’s received from men – and women – across the world telling him they too feel lonely.

To look at this in the context of faith, Christ commanded us to “love one another” as friends. Not just friendship… but intimate, sacrificial friendship with a shared greater purpose. Living in community is not just a recommendation. It’s a commandment!

 

Faith is internal, but not individualistic. We find meaning by turning inward to experience what we call the ‘indwelling Light of Christ.’ But we thrive as part of a wider, caring community where we see that of God in others.

 

Quakers maintain that this direct experience of God is freely available to all people everywhere, if only they turn to it.  Ultimately, then, all of humanity is our community.

 

Consider this statement from William Penn’s book “The Fruits of Solitude”:

 

“The humble, meek, just, pious, and devout souls, are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”

 

In the end, it seems the things that help us feel close to God and to one another – love, silence, community, compassion, and service among them – are many of the same things science is now finding that light up our brain for lasting happiness.

 

Could these be reasons for trusting our faith as being authentic? Quaker theologian Dr. D. Elton Trueblood said this in his lecture “The Trustworthiness of Religious Experience”:

 

“Millions of men and women, throughout several thousand years, representing various races and nations, and including all levels of education or cultural opportunity, have reported an experience of God as the spiritual companion of their souls.”

 

Given all this, I want to read aloud our queries for today’s silent worship. You can find these printed in your bulletins:

 

What first drew you to Quaker meeting, or what keeps you coming back? Does Quaker silent worship and the Quaker testimony of community help cultivate love, compassion, and fulfillment in your life? Can this be trusted as evidence of Christ’s ‘presence in the midst’ of your life?

 

Though we all have times of doubt and struggle, we don’t have to turn away like the broken-hearted newsman Joe Bradley.

 

We can believe in True Love.

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4-2-17 - Fellowship of Ministers

Fellowship of Ministers

Beth Henricks, Indianapolis First Friends

Ephesians 4:5-15

Resources: A Quaker View of Ministry by Keith Esch

Four Doors to Meeting for Worship by William Taber

Slow Church:  Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by Christopher Smith and John Pattison

 

Friends, we experienced an incredible worship service last Sunday as we honored our pastor Ruthie as our shepherd for the last five years.  She loved us, connected us and gave her whole self to us.  I know that many of us are still soaking in the depth of God’s love that touched us last week.  Our faith community has been changed by Ruthie’s ministry.  And we are excited for her as she determines her continued ministry in retirement.

 

So here we are the week after Ruthie is gone.  What does this mean for First Friends?  How do we move forward?  How do we care for each other?  What is next in our journey together?  Where is God taking us?

 

A couple of weeks ago Mike Mott came into the Meeting and gave me a big file folder of First Friends memorabilia gathered from his parents that highlighted our history together.  It was fun to look through our past and think about all that has gone on before us today.  While folks gathered in homes for a number of years in the early 1800’s, a building was erected at the triangle of Delaware, St Clair and Ft Wayne streets in 1856 (Total cost was $3,000).   For several years First Friends was a preparatory meeting and it wasn’t until 1865 that Indianapolis First Friends was established as its own Monthly Meeting.  It had 147 members at that time.  By 1885 the membership was up to 385.  First Friends had many ministers in the congregation and a few were identified in a timeline but no one was a paid pastor until 1888.   In 1895, a new church was built at 13th and Alabama St.   In 1955 ground was broken on this plot of land on Kessler and this new building was dedicated in 1957 (cost of the building was $350,000).  3 buildings, 15 paid pastors in 152 years and we are sitting here today benefitting from so many people that loved First Friends, committed their time, energy and resources to First Friends, and ministered to each other and to those in our neighborhoods and city.  

 

Our faith community over the years at First Friends is where we have learned to mature together into the fullness of Christ.  We have learned patience by forgiving and being reconciled to one another. Our commitment to our faith community is essential if we are to learn patience and practice stability.  Patience can hold us together when other forces conspire to rip us apart.   We learn patience by immersion and not by running away or participating from a distance.  Our commitment to grow deeper with the same people in the same place no matter what will provide a rich context through which God will bring forth fruits of the Spirit.  Reading through our history I have seen this exhibited time and again.

 

If I were to ask you today what it is about the practices of Quakers and First Friends that keep you committed to this faith community, I can imagine I would receive a number of different answers.  We have some distinct differences from other Christian congregations in how we live in faith, in worship, in conducting our business and in our outreach. 

 

One of our clear distinctives is the idea that we are all ministers of the Gospel.  No paid staff or pastor is more of a minister than each one of you.  As Ed read in our scripture today, each of you brings your skills, experiences, your inadequacies, your brokenness to our faith community as a gift of God.  You embody the local manifestation of Christ in the diversity of gifts that have been given you.

 

Growing up in the Nazarene tradition, our pastor was clearly the head of the church and much reverence and deference was given to him (and it was always a him) and his authority.  I always had trouble reconciling this because I saw our pastors be very human and make mistakes, engage in improper actions and sometimes became more concerned with their power and ego and less concerned with following God’s leadings.  My best friend in middle school was our pastor’s daughter.  It was terribly difficult to grow up in that spotlight of expected perfection for the entire family. 

 

How refreshing to join the Quakers and embrace our idea of ministry.  Wilmer Cooper, former dean of the Earlham School of Religion said that “one characteristic of Quaker ministry is that it is not the responsibility of a particular class of persons, namely the clergy, but it is a gift and responsibility of every member of the meeting.  Everybody who is a follower of the Christian way is a potential minister, a proclaimer of the word of the Lord.  Ministry is not a profession to be performed or an office endowed with apostolic rights.  Ministry is God-given and is the function of the whole People of God”.

 

The local fellowship is the soul of Friends ministry.  The ministry is encouraged, directed and fed through the fellowship of ministers.  I have watched ministry occur with so many of you through so many ways – meals, visits, children’s worship, working at the pantry, praying for healing, music, teaching, sharing …the list goes on and on.  Our human bodies are way more than the sum of its individual parts.  The ministry of this Meeting is way more than just adding up what each individual does.  Our meeting provides a means for participating in the ministry of one another.

 

The Meeting belongs to all who gather and it is under the leadership of the Spirit of Christ.  No pastor, worship committee, weighty Friends can claim the meeting as theirs.  This is empowering. Planning and programming cannot take the place of the participation of the members.   This creates a sense of ownership and community.

 

So, what is the role of the pastor here particularly as we consider the opportunity for a new pastor?  I believe one of the most important ministries a pastor in a Quaker setting provides is the ministry of equipping.  Through programs, vocal ministry, teaching, sharing, our pastor will help equip each of us to recognize our gifts of ministry and to deepen and strengthen our faith.  An equipping ministry is one of multiplication.  Our pastor is a teacher to teachers, a minister to ministers and a counselor to counselors.  This is how the early Christian communities had explosive growth in their fellowship.   Quaker Keith Esch describes five key elements to an equipping ministry:

 

1.Deepening and strengthening one’s faith – often through prayer and our devotional life

2. Enable persons to discover their gifts and develop them

3.  Development of a caring community – programs that require a spirit of cooperativeness for their success

4.  Level of meaningfulness of our Meeting for Worship

5.  The extent to which persons are finding their way into new and/or more significant avenues of service. 

 

The faith teaches commitment and service.  A vital community which experiences meaningful worship calls forth the gifts that in a spirit of commitment and servanthood need to be expressed in ministry. 

 

We need to be clear that the life and power of ministry is through the Spirit.  Cooper said that “if the Holy Spirit is not in our ministry, guiding, directing and inspiring it, then it will be lifeless and could be likened to seed falling on barren ground.”

 

One of our other distinctive at First Friends that means a lot to many of us is our communion through unprogrammed worship.  There was a lot of preaching in the early Quaker meetings but it was all for the purpose to take the hearers to Christ and to leave them there.   I believe all of the elements of our programmed service prepare us, challenge us, equip us to enter into the experience of our Quaker communion. This is the heart of our worship and friends this is powerful.  Worship is gathering together to minister and be ministered to – there is a sense of anticipation and an element of excitement because we don’t know how the Spirit will move.

 

This expectant waiting worship that we are about to enter into is the invisible but eternal stream of reality which is the living and eternal Christ.  Our unprogrammed worship isn’t something we do – it is more a state of consciousness that we enter in to. 

 

We should think of this holy experience as dipping into the stream – we are practicing the presence – we enter unprogrammed worship by doing 3 things – we have a desire and profound yearning to be in the Presence, we focus and use whatever technique or lack of technique to center ourselves and be attentive to the Presence and we trust to go into the deep Living Water of the Stream.  Be responsive to the Spirit if you are called to deliver vocal ministry to us.  Also, be responsive if you just need to sit in that Stream with the Spirit yourself.

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3-26-17 Thank You

Sermon 3-26-2017; Thank You

Philippians 1:3-11

http://www.pym.org/introducing-pym-quakers/quaker-faith/continuing-revelation/

 

What would you say?  What would you preach?  What would you share if you were called into the ministry?  If you were asked to step in to the ministry of the Gospel among Friends?  Last week, we spoke about stepping out – in faith.  But what about stepping in?  What choices would you make?

I was caught off-guard, unaware, unknowing of my call into ministry while packing up and moving out into the unknown thirteen years ago, when God called me on the phone and asked me to consider having my name added to a list of pastoral candidates for a small Quaker Meeting in Iowa, where Jon and I had attended years before.  (There are persons sitting in this room today who may one day be called to serve as your pastors.) 

What would you say?  If you had no training, no schooling, no seminary degree, nothing but a lot of experience in different faith communities and worship settings, and staff positions as a music minister?  Nothing more than a deep love for people, a deeper love for the Quaker expression of who God is, and an even deeper love for Christ?  Perhaps, after a lot of excuses, you would say what I said: “I have no idea what God intends, but instead of saying ‘no’, I’ll let God answer this one.  Put me on the list.”

For the past twelve years, I’ve been stepping in, every day, to a strange and wonderful adventure, going deeper into myself, and my relationship with God.  I have stepped in to places I never thought I would be, and wouldn’t have gone without God.  I haven’t always wanted to go.  I’ve been frightened.  I’ve been overwhelmed.  I’ve been ignorant.  I’ve been naïve.  I’ve had to face down my own shortcomings, and they’ve sometimes seemed very tall!  And I’ve had to confront other peoples’ shortcomings, and count the cost.  In other words, I’ve had to live my life, just like you do, stepping in

Whether we move out or in, I believe God asks us an all important question… will we take a step?  Or will we remain where we are, unwilling to risk, unwilling to change, unwilling to learn anything new, making excuses for ourselves, hiding behind God and what we believe about God instead of experiencing God for ourselves? 

Thank you Lord, for calling me out and in.  For making it clear to me, as I walked each morning during the autumn of 2004, that you were calling me to West Branch Friends. 

Thank you, West Branch Friends, for moving me forward in securing my Recording as a Minister of the Gospel according to Friends, and for doing what you do so well – training new pastors at the very beginning of their journey in ministry.  For nurturing me, challenging me, strengthening me, and helping me form the chrysalis from which the remainder of my ministry could emerge.   

Thank you, First Friends Meeting, for forcing me to move in, and then out, by asking me to come as your Pastor.  It would have been much easier for me to stay at a Meeting that I had served well, but had outgrown.  The cocoon could have hardened there into a safe and secure shell, had it not been for you.  Thank you friends, for partnering with me in the Gospel, which is the power of the Holy Spirit made real in our lives together.  You have been loving and generous to me, allowing me the space I’ve needed to use my gifts, and to try and sometimes fail.  You’ve been patient with me, learning that I process through ideas and decisions by talking about them – not by quietly pondering.  (That seems so ponderous!) You’ve let me be goofy, but understood me when I was dead serious.  You’ve allowed me, as did West Branch, to move into very private places in your lives and hearts, and to share in beautiful celebrations with our entire community of faith.  

The first person who ever told me about you was my friend, Brent Bill.  He’d become a great friend and resource to me as I pastored in Iowa, speaking at Meeting, leading retreats, etc.  But FUM Triennials can be dangerous – that’s where Brent found me in 2011, and told me about this Meeting, and this pastorate!  (I dare you to come to Wichita with me for Triennial in July!) I eventually sent in my resume. 

Before you knew it, three strange women… or, I should say, three interesting visitors from Indiana, showed up in Meeting for Worship in Iowa:  Brenda Rodeheffer, Mary Blackburn, and Beth Henricks.  It was kinda hard to hide them, in a congregation of about 40 people, but they managed to pull it off!  But then, I’ve learned that those three women can do just about anything! 

During my ‘candidacy’ process, First Friends was speaking to many different people – gathering references, information, etc.  And so was I.  One person I will never forget was someone I have never met.  His name was Curt Shaw.  I knew he had been a significant part of the life of Western Yearly Meeting and First Friends, and I wanted to get his perspective about coming into both as a pastor.  He not only gave me information, facts, etc… he pastored me while we spoke.  And, he prayed for me before we ended the conversation.  Something I was used to doing for others, Curt did for me.  The most significant thing he told me was that, regardless of the choice I made, Christ would bless my life.  Whether I stayed in Iowa or moved to Indiana, my life would be blessed.  Why?  Because I belonged to God.

Another person who matters a lot to all of us today is Lisa Baum.  You don’t know her, but she’s one of the main reasons I’m here.  Lisa is a member of West Branch Friends, who cares deeply about the success of the Meeting, but equally about the success of each of its members.  She’s an incredible person, a joyful woman who can afford to live on the outer edges because she lives such a deeply centered life.  In those few days after I’d been offered the position here as pastor, I called Lisa and asked her to come and talk with Jon and me.  I told her what was up, and asked her for her advice.  Her first question was whether Jon was supportive.  Once she knew that, she told me I had to take it… and she gave me all the reasons why.  Sometimes we are called to step in to other people’s lives so that they can step out into their own.  That is what Lisa did for me, and I will always be grateful. 

Thank you Jon, for loving me enough to encourage me to send in my resume, even when neither one of us thought I’d ever get the job.  When it seemed impossible, you still encouraged me to try, and when the offer came, you told me we’d work it out… and we did.  You’ve made it possible for me to live here, with you in Iowa, traveling almost every weekend to Indianapolis for five years.  And when things were difficult in the Meeting or in our relationship, you always told me not to worry, that everything would be okay – and you were right.  God has been so good to us. 

Do you realize that I’m your first woman pastor?  I mean, your first paid pastor – senior pastor – regular pastor?  Whether intentional or not, you made a significant choice when you brought me here five years ago.  Many incredible women have served First Friends in ministry in paid positions as Christian educators and associate pastors, Gale Stutz, Kara Farris, Kathy Harris, Beth Henricks… but the Meeting had never had a salaried senior pastor who was a woman.  I’m thankful that the long line of men who proceeded me has been interrupted, and that the testimony of equality of women is borne out on the inside back cover of our Directory!  Or at least, the nearest page!

Speaking of women in ministry… thank you Beth.  Beth’s brother calls us “The Dynamic Duo”, and my ministry has been just that… a pairing of my gifts with an incredible force of nature named Beth Henricks.  Where would Laurel be without Hardy?  Fred without Ginger?  Hope without Crosby?  Beth has been my hope, many times.  Within two months of my arrival, the Christian Education Director quit.  Now what were we going to do?  Beth felt a certain call – to step up, and in to a new life of ministry for herself, for First Friends, and… for me.  Beth has known how to take my energy and ideas and turn them into action.  What was once ‘Affirmation’ [show notebooks] turned into ‘Affirmation’.  In so many ways, my concerns and vision for our Meeting was met with possibility because of my partnership in ministry with Beth. She has taught me so much. Thank you Beth, and thank you First Friends, for seeking God and finding clarity in the choices you’ve made for staffing ministry positions at FFM. 

I do not dare to list all those I have to give thanks for because I will miss you, and you, and you.  Each person whose life has touched mine has changed it.  You have stepped into mine and helped me step out into that moment, that day, my life in a new way.  I sincerely thank you.

‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’  We, as Friends, know that today is that day.  That the kingdom of God is at hand… it is present, and we are called to do the good work of God that’s been begun today, and every day, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We like Fox, Burroughs, Mott, Whittier, Jones, Woolman, are called into the life of our culture, our politics, our society today.  Ours is not an historic faith.  We’re not Cereal Box Oddities.  We are a people, continually called by the Holy Spirit, to be reckoned with.  Christ calls us, in the presence of the assembled faith community, to proclaim good news to the poor – what would that be to a poor person?  To proclaim liberty to captives – who are those being held captive?  To recover sight to the blind – how many people do you know who are living in darkness?  To set free those who are oppressed – do we even notice them any more? To proclaim the Lord’s favor – God’s loves for us all.  Do you believe that God loves you?

In spite of fear, distance, worry, stepping in or out of the common, ordinary, safe, usual experience of our lives, God loves us more than we could ever love or care about ourselves.  In spite of the disagreements we have with God, the ways in which we don’t understand God, the ways we’re not certain we can trust God, God loves us.  God loves you.  And if you can’t believe it, I will believe it for you, until you can.  And if anyone asks you how you know that God loves you, you can tell them, ‘Ruthie said so.’  And if you wonder how I know, I will tell you that God told me so, and reminds me of it every day.

Thank you for loving God enough to allow me to come here and love you.  Now, the best gift you can give me is to give the next pastor the space to share who he or she is, to allow them to be themselves among you, to earn their trust, and to give them the gift of your love.  There’s nothing quite like it.

 

For Good; from ‘Wicked’ – Duet sung by Ruthie and Jon at close of Meeting

 I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return.

Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you...

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun,
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood,
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But, because I knew you -----
I have been changed for good.

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend...
Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you

Because I knew you

I have been changed for good

And just to clear the air
I ask forgiveness
For the things I've done you blame me for.

But then, I guess we know
There's blame to share

And none of it seems to matter anymore.

Like a comet pulled from orbit                                           Like a ship blown from its mooring
As it passes the sun,                                                             By a wind off the sea,
Like a stream that meets a boulder                                     Like a seed dropped by a skybird
Halfway through the wood,                                                In the wood,

Who can say if I've been
Changed for the better?
I do believe I have been
Changed for the better

And because I knew you...                                                  (Because I knew you...)

Because I knew you...
I have been changed…

For / good...

Written by Stephen Lawrence Schwartz • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group
 

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3-19-17 Setting Out

Sermon 3-19-2017; ‘Setting Out’

Jeremiah 29:11-13

Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage – Meriweather Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Pastor Ruthie Tippin, Indianapolis First Friends Meeting

 

A twenty-seven-year-old man, a neighbor and friend, was asked to serve as a Personal Secretary to his good friend in a high position.  Flattered and affirmed, he took the position.  It would change his life.  Two years later, this Secretary wrote a letter to an acquaintance from their days in military service, asking him if he would be willing to join him in a task put forward by his boss.  The acquaintance had retired from the military seven years earlier, and was now living in Indiana Territory, helping his older brother straighten out his ‘terribly tangled financial affairs.’  Could he get away?  He could, and did.  When Meriweather Lewis and William Clark shook hands October 15th, 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition under President Thomas Jefferson began.  They set out from Camp Dubois near St. Louis, on the Missouri River in May of 1804.

The Corps of Discovery explored US lands obtained in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest, fulfilling scientific and commercial goals; creating maps, documenting plants and animals, establishing trade, and identifying natural resources.  They returned to St. Louis in September of 1806, having travelled 8,000 miles or more.

Before I ever heard about the Ohio or Missouri Rivers, I knew about the Columbia and the Snake.  Growing up in Portland, I knew about Lewis and Clark’s Salt Camp at the beach in Seaside, Oregon.  I knew Fort Clatsop where we’d imagine we were a part of their expedition, hunkering down for the winter.  Our children went to Sacajawea Junior High, and Lewis and Clark High School.  My dad designed the electrical circuitry for the Corps of Engineer dams along the Columbia where Lewis and Clark portaged the worst rapids and floated the better of them.  I’ve always known more about the end of Lewis and Clark’s journey than the beginning.   

Friends, we don’t usually get to know the ending of our stories – of anyone’s stories ahead of time.  Instead, we are asked to step out, to move forward, to live in faith, not in fear.  Lewis and Clark had no idea what they would encounter, and many times we don’t either. They had a commission, they had a strategy, they had a general idea of where they were going.  They weren’t certain who they would meet, what they would see, what the weather or terrain would be like, what they would eat, what supplies they would need, and whether their essentials would last.  Neither do we.      

But we, like them, have a choice.  Whether we choose to go, are asked to go, or are forced to go, we still have a choice about how we will move into the future.  Whether President Jefferson, God the Lord, or King Nebuchadnezzar speaks into our lives, we have a choice about how we will move forward. 

Our reading today was used so often a few years ago, that it became trite… you could find it in almost every graduation card.  “I know the plans I have for you…”  What people in the Hallmark stores didn’t understand was the context for God’s word to his people.  They weren’t graduating from high school.  They were being hauled off into exile.  In fact, they were already living far from home in a city belonging to their enemies.  And God gave them a map, a strategy, a way to live into their future, even in that place.  “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters, take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” 

What is God saying?  LIVE!  Live wisely.  Be fully who you are no matter where you are!  Do what you do.  Live the life you know – the life you’ve been given in God.  The Hebrew people?  Communal, farmers, shepherds, people of the land who knew how to make something out of nothing.  Lewis and Clark?  Frontiersmen; Clark was a draftsman – a map maker, each of them had many other gifts beside.  You and me?

Just like Lewis and Clark, our supplies are packed and loaded.  We may not realize it, but we are ready to move out into the future.  God has gifted us all with a ‘backpack’ full of treasures that sustain us.  Our personhood, our character, our preferences, our education or lack thereof, our sophistication or naivete, our strengths, our flaws.  Our interests lead us to those places in our lives where we excel – sometimes without even recognizing it. 

Listen with new ears to what God spoke through Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you.  You don’t… but I do.  Plans for wholeness, and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me, and find me.  When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you.”   

Jefferson knew what Lewis and Clark could do.  God knows what you and I can do.  God sees what we cannot see.  God sees what others don’t see.  God sees us perfectly.  God sees us with more faith in us than we have in ourselves.  God sees us with confidence.  And God asks us for the same thing.  Faith and confidence in God.  Call.  Come.  Pray.  Seek.  Don’t play at this, in a half-hearted effort to face what comes your way.  This is your life.  Give it, give God your whole heart.

God knows what we are capable of.  God will use what we have.  God can use what we have been given, what we have learned, what we have become, what we can become, if we will unzip those things we have and hold – even the things we’ve forgotten or ignored at the very bottom of the bag – and give them over with a whole heart.  Things we thought had only one purpose, God can use in new ways for God’s purposes.

Moses was a murderer, who had escaped to the desert, and became a pretty lousy shepherd.  He ended up freeing his people from an Egyptian Pharaoh who had held them in bondage for hundreds of years.  Mary was an unknown, unwed mother who might have easily been stoned to death, but instead gave birth to Christ – who rescued us all.  Saul was a Roman official who made it his business to persecute and kill anyone who followed Christ’s teachings, until he finally ‘saw the light’ and became one of the greatest proponents of the same.  George Fox was a solitary, depressed, unsettled young man who discovered God speaking – not at him, but to him directly, and it changed the lives of thousands – it changed our lives. 

Moving forward is not easy… it’s much easier to stay put.  It’s much easier to stay in the circumstance you know than to strike out for new territory.  It takes work to pack your belongings, and find another place to belong.  But… Can you imagine the adventures that await?  Can you guess at all you will see?  Can you know just how much you will learn about the world? About God’s capacity to love you?  About God’s capacity to love through you?  About how much love awaits?  Can you imagine how much more you will learn about yourself?  Do you have the courage to open yourself up, and set off into wholeness, into hope, into possibility?

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3-12-17 The Risk of Grace

Sermon 3-12-2017 ‘The Risk of Grace’

Romans 4:1-16

Luke 10:25-37; The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Cotton Patch Version

 

What compels us to care?  To ‘do the right thing’?  What is it that calls us out of ourselves and into others’ lives?  Why do we do the things we do?  Why don’t we do the things we don’t?  Caring costs.  It can cost time, energy, money, sometimes our reputation, our standing in the community, our place in our family.  It means discerning how to care, who to care for, what care is needed.  Here’s a story from Luke 10, taken from Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of the Bible:

 

One day a teacher of an adult Bible class got up and tested Jesus with this question: “Doctor, what does one do to be saved?” Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say? How do you interpret it?”
The teacher answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your physical strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“That is correct,” answered Jesus. “Make a habit of this and you’ll be saved.” But the Sunday school teacher, trying to save face, asked, “But … uh … but … just who
is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus laid into him and said, “A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway. Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by. Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas.
Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat.
 He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, ‘You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here’s the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can’t pay it, I’ll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.’
“Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three-the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man – would you consider to have been your neighbor?”
The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Why, of course, the nig – I mean, uh … well, uh … the one who treated me kindly.”
Jesus said, “Well, then,
 you get going and start living like that!”

The first thing caring does is to turn us inside out.  It exposes us.  It shows who we truly are – heart, mind, body, soul.  Not caring does the same thing.  The only reason the ‘plain old every-day Samaritan’ became the ‘good Samaritan’ is because he stopped.  If he had not stopped, the story would not have been told.  There wouldn’t have been anything exceptional about the story.  This was and is a common experience in life.  Persons in trouble are often left to fend for themselves.  Priests, Levites, attorneys – like the one who questioned Jesus, have schedules to keep, court appearances to make, sermons to deliver, business deals to complete…  We all have responsibilities to tend to.  We all have prejudices we hold.  We all have personal agendas.

Jesus means for us to be exposed - learning for ourselves the personal cost of caring – the risk of grace.  Jesus intends for us to care in ways that turn ourselves inside out.  Jesus teaches us that this kind of caring will be seen as radical – reaching out to those no one else might want to have anything to do with.  A Samaritan, a black man, turning inside out to show compassion, did just that.

Paul writes: “Do you think for a minute that this blessing [of trusting God fully] is only pronounced over those of us who keep our religious ways and are circumcised? Or do you think it possible that the blessing could be given to those who never even heard of our ways, who were never brought up in the disciplines of God? We all agree, don’t we, that it was by embracing what God did for him that Abraham was declared fit for God?”

God’s blessing, God’s love, God’s compassion fills the life of the guy in the ditch just as much as the guy who walks past him.  There is no mark, seal, skin color, sign of any kind that shows outwardly whether God’s blessing has been given to one person or another.  God’s grace - the exercise of love, kindness, compassion, mercy, favor, and the disposition to benefit and serve God’s children flows over all of humankind.  All means all.

How do we decide who we will care for?  Who’s in and who’s out?  Who matters?  Who deserves our attention?  Will the priest only stop for another priest?  Will the Levite only notice another man from his Levitical brotherhood?  Does it matter that someone is Quaker, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh?  Does it matter if someone is ‘lost’ or ‘saved’?  Is there a mark, a tattoo, a ‘certain look’ that one has that qualifies them for God’s mercy? For our mercy?  For our care?

Paul, once more: “Now think: Was that declaration [of God’s blessing] made before or after Abraham was marked by the covenant rite of circumcision?  That’s right, before he was marked.  That means that Abraham underwent circumcision as evidence and confirmation of what God had already done, long before to bring him into this acceptable standing with Godself, an act of God Abraham had embraced with his whole life.” 

I think it’s fascinating that circumcision was the mark that God chose to use as the sign of community and then consecration, because no one can see it, except the one who is circumcised. It’s a secret!  No one knows – except the one who is marked.  How do we know that we belong to God, and have received God’s blessing, are set apart to God?

Listen to what Moses told us in Deuteronomy 10:12-22; once he’d read to them the 10 Commandments God had written with his own finger in the second tablets of stone:

“So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.  16Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.20You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. “

How do we know we belong to God?  How do we know that that stranger, that person so different from us, that person who is repellent to us, that person who is so hard for us to be patient with, that person who is so unlike us, is loved by God?  Marked by God? Belongs to God?  More than any outward sign we bear, or any outward sign they carry, we know by the brokenness of our own hearts.  By the love and grace of God that has tendered us.  By entering in to what God is doing – not what we want God to do.  By remembering our own captivity in times and places where we had no control, no sense of self, no choices, no advocate. And if nothing else, to remember then that we are not God.  That God loves others just as much as God loves us, and that God’s mercy extends equally to all.

Can we do that? Can I do that?  Can we ‘sit under our Teacher, the Grace of God’, which will bring our salvation from pride, selfishness, prejudice, ego?  Can we risk turning ourselves inside out, and allow the grace of God to move through us, to expose us, to save us, and then use us to bring God’s promise of blessing to others? Can we care by ‘trusting God to set us right, instead of being right on our own?’

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