Monday, August 15, 2022

Community and Suffering

 Ruth 1:1-22

The book of Ruth in so many ways shows us exactly the opposite of the book of Job.  In Job when everything goes wrong, he first piously pouts and prays, and then as things get worse and worse, he eventually yells at God.  I’ve shared with you before that I love the book of Job because it shows a God who responds to our pain, responds to our cries, responds even to our anger when it is expressed directly to God.  Our God shows up, is present and loving.  And in the end of Job, all that he had comes back to him in greater abundance than before.

But, while I deeply love the message of Job that God is there when we are honest, real and completely open with God, I think I love the book of Ruth even more.  In the book of Ruth, we see a very different response to a similar situation.  Naomi, who is, in many ways, the real star of the book of Ruth, has, like Job, lost everything.  As you know, women had no agency at this point in time.  They could not own property, they could not hold jobs.  Everything they had and everything they were was dependent on the men to whom they were attached.  So when Naomi loses not only her husband, but both of her sons, when her spouse and her children are dead and along with them, her livelihood, her property, and all that she has, she, too, has truly lost everything.  This can’t be understated.  Everything she knew was gone.  And as she says here herself, she is too old to remarry and produce more sons.  Unlike Job who can go on to remarry and have more children, Naomi is past that.  So, like Job, she too is angry and grieving.  As she says, “Don’t call me Naomi, (which means pleasant) but call me Mara (which means bitter) for El Shadai has made me very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty.”  

Like Job, Naomi is angry.  Like Job, Naomi is in deep grief.  Like Job, Naomi seems beyond hope.  But unlike Job she does not act like she is beyond hope.  Job sits and complains.  Job sits covered in sackcloth.  But Naomi moves herself into action, instead.  She picks up to move back to her home land, having hope that there will be food there for her.  She doesn’t start with a complicated plan.  She just starts by putting one foot in front of the other.  We are told, “She arose… because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them.”  So while she may have been expressing pain, expressing despair, she chose to act out of her hope.

And what she finds, in this first step, this unclear, unplanned, but decisive first step to go home is that she is not alone.  Ruth, who has also lost her husband and therefore her livelihood as well, commits to going with her.  And Ruth is adamant in that decision.  Naomi takes a step into life, and in doing so finds she is not alone.

This is my message for each and every one of you today, and what I hope you will take from today.  When we choose to step forward in hope, to take action despite our feelings of grief, of loss, or of despair; when we follow the call to act, we will find that we are not alone.  We will not be sent on the journey by ourselves.  The helpers are there, and they will come.  And along with them, there is often a plan, often a vision, often the insight to see the call into the next step, and the next, and the next.

My family has been watching the series, “Call the Midwife”.  This week we watched an episode from the second season in which the main character, Jenny, is trying to help a woman who had been forced, out of complete destitution, to go into the workhouses in London.  She had been there for 35 years, until they closed.  And now her life is one of agony, one of deep poverty.  But at the base of her pain and her grief is the fact that when she had first gone into the workhouses, she had entered with five little children.  The way these workhouses functioned was that all children would be taken from you when you entered into the workhouse.  All five of these very young children were taken from her.  This woman, now an old woman, has no knowledge of what happened to her kids past the day that they were taken from her.  But she yearns for them, calls for them, cries out for them.  When one of the nurses goes to help her, all this woman can talk to her about is seeing her hope of seeing her daughter, Rosie, who at the time was the eldest of the five, and was 8 years of age, in particular, again.  The nurse, Jenny, is so upset by all of this that she decides to find out what happened to the children.  And she discovers that all of these five very young children died very quickly after being taken from their mother.  “Failure to thrive” it was said.  The system destroyed the children by taking them away from their mother.  Jenny doesn’t know what to do with this information.  She brings it back to Nanatus house, devastated by this history that she has discovered.  And the response?  “And what do you propose to do, Nurse Lee, now that you have garnered these unedifying facts?”  When Nurse Jenny Lee says she doesn’t know, the nun continues, then, to quote the apocrypha, “you have been curious in unnecessary matters.  The past remains the past.  The present, unamended.’”  Another of the sisters joins in, “Sister Monica Joan is right.  It’s what happens in the here and now that counts.”  Nurse Jenny Lee responds with, “Forgive me but her life in the here and now is not safe or filled with love.  She waits every day for a child.  For children that are never coming home.” The nuns respond, “Then you should turn your mind to that.”  And so she does.  Nurse Jenny goes and does more research, and she finds where the children have been buried, which is in a mass burial ground.  But within that mass grave, there are specific locations for each of the children.  She memorizes where each child is and then takes the old woman to the grave site.  She says “We are standing by a public grave.  There are many put in here.  This is where they buried the workhouse inmates.”  

“I had too many,” Mrs. Jenkins says.  

“Yes, and they are all here.”  Jenny replies.

“Together?” she asks.

“I was able to get plans of the cemetery and the graves in the public records.  It’s all written down.  Percy and May are lying next to each other.  Just over there.  Alice is to the right, over there.  I think in the summer that tree must cast some shade there.  And George is by the cross.  Rosie is right here, Mrs. Jenkins, almost underneath your feet.”  The old woman bent down, putting her hands on the snow over the grave of Rosie “I’d have liked her in with me to warm her feet.  But I can see she’s tucked up safe.”  She sobbed and cried, but was then was able to grieve properly and to finally find some peace, knowing where they were, knowing what had happened to them.  Jenny then invited her into a new life: invited her to help her community to sew and make costumes for the Christmas pageant.

Nurse Jenny had seen a problem: the suffering of this older woman who had no closure, no way to grieve, no way to move on past those horrible 35 years.  And while Jenny did not know what to do, she took her own suffering, her own pain, her own despair to her friends.  While they didn’t give her the exact answer, they pointed her in the right direction.  And in the end, after Jenny had taken the steps to learn, to share, to help move Mrs. Jenkins forward, it was the entire Convent that helped Mrs. Jenkins to find work, to find meaning in making the costumes.  They, together, invited her into their community, and they, together, helped her to grieve, to mourn, and to find peace.

 I think about Moses who knew what he had to do but was afraid to do it.  In choosing to step forward, God provided that Aaron and Miriam would go with him and would help him.  He was not alone.  

I think about the women who started MADD: when Candace Lightner’s child was killed by a drunk driver, she knew something had to change.  She put it out there and Cindi Lamb joined her (who had also lost a child due to a drunk driver).  Together they were able to make a huge change.  MADD has lowered the number of those who have died from drunk driving by half!  That is huge.  

The work that people are doing to help refugees from the Ukraine they are doing together.  The work that Hope Solutions is doing to help the homeless in Contra Costa County started with people from a church dreaming and envisioning and planning together.  There are so many needs in our world.  But when we get stuck in the “I don’t know what to do” there is no movement.  Pray, ask God what is the thing that is concerning you the MOST right now.  And then speak about that!  Share with us your fears, your concerns.  Do you try to solve these problems alone.  Together we can do so very much!

When we are in pain, when we are grieving, when we are struggling against loss and fear, we are called to listen to that pain as a calling from God to act.  And when we do not know what we can do to act, the first thing we must do is to say “yes”.  That’s it.  Say “yes, I will act.”  The second thing then that we are called to do is to remember that we are not lone rangers.  None of us is here alone.  Not one of us has been put here on this planet to solve the problems of the world on our own.  We are made for connection, we are made for community.  That pain in your heart, that tugging on your sleeve, that call to action: it is not given to any one of you alone.  Our lone ranger complexes keep us stuck in inaction.  And while God showed up for Job, and God will always show up for us, too, Job was not able to do what Ruth and Naomi did.  Job stands as a lone book.  Ruth, in contrast, is an ancestor of Jesus.  Our ideas that we should be able to figure it all out on our own keep us from acting at all.  We end up being Jobs rather than Naomis when we forget that God has not put us here alone.  

It was together that Ruth and Naomi were able to rise above their situation and survive.  It was together that Ruth and Naomi were able to make enough difference in the world that Ruth is listed as one of the ancestors of Jesus.  It was together that they were able to thrive.  And it is together that we, too, will change our world.  All we have to do is say “yes”.  And then look for the helpers.  They are there.  God makes sure of it!


Monday, August 8, 2022

Mental Health sermon

 

1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a

Galatians 3:23-29

Luke 8:26-39

 

               Today I want to talk about a subject that we tend to avoid in church, but that is a very important part of our lives, and that therefore needs to be discussed in our faith communities.  All three of these passages deal with it, but in different ways.  What I want to discuss with you today is mental health. 

               And I want to start by asking the question: How do people in faith communities usually deal with mental illness?   

               Obviously, there are many different kinds of mental illness.  And yet I think people can end up lumping all mental health issues, as well as the people who struggle with them, together, very inappropriately I might add.  I have heard people make very fear-based comments that imply, for example, that anyone with a mental illness is somehow dangerous because they are more prone to be violent or unpredictable.  That is a completely unfair prejudicial stereotype that is not, in fact, born out.  Your likelihood of being unpredictable or violent is based on many factors, but a person who struggles with depression or social anxiety, bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia, say, is not going to be necessarily more likely to be unpredictable or violent than someone who does not struggle with those issues.  Until you understand what the person is dealing with in full, you cannot simply decide that they will be more unpredictable or violent.

Today I want to talk to you about mental illness from a faith perspective for two reasons.  First, anybody hurting in our communities is of a faith concern since God cares about and grieves for those who struggle with anything and calls us to care, as well as offer healing and caring as well.  Secondly, mental illness is a growing reality in our country.  Just looking at depression: the rates of depression in our country are hugely on the rise, and there are more suicides in our country every year than homicides.  If we think this has nothing to do with us, we are na├»ve at best.  In 2020 there were almost 46,000 deaths by suicide, making it the 12th leading cause of death in the United States.  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, that same year 12.2 million adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million made a plan and 1.2 million attempted suicide (https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/annual/measure/Suicide/state/ALL) .   Estimates are that up to 36% of Americans will undergo a major depressive episode in their lifetimes. That’s over a third of us.  Look around you.  Are you aware of who in your community has suffered serious depression and who has not?  Even if it is a little less than 1/3 in this room who have suffered depression, that is still quite a few people here, in this place, who have experienced debilitating depression at one time or another.  Do you know who those people are?   Are you aware of who might be in this room right now who might be experiencing a severe depression? 

And perhaps the bigger question: if not, why not?  How should we respond to this crisis?  And, as a people of faith, what does it have to do with our faith, with our relationship with God, with our call to serve God’s people?  In the first passage we read today we see Elijah going through a major depressive episode.  Even the prophets struggled with this.  But how are we to respond?

And to point out the obvious, depression is just one of many different mental illnesses.  The church should be a place of welcome, or healing.  And so we must know how to respond to these mental health issues in our community. 

               Theologian Frederick Buechner said, "It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life's story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others' lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling."  So, in light of that, I choose to share something with you, with permission, that was written by someone I know.  I will not use a name, not because you know the person, but because this could be anyone and I want you to hear it in that light:

               They wrote, “When I was a teenager, I went through a depressive episode that came very close to ending in suicide.  It came close enough that I had a plan, I had acquired the means, I had set a time and place.  The reasons that sent me there don’t matter.  What prevented me from doing it that day also doesn’t matter.  What matters is what I learned from that experience.

               The first is that mental illness is not about being weak.  Depression, which is the illness I struggled with, is not something that you can just “snap” out of or that a happy day can make go away.  It is insidious, it changes not only the way you feel but the way you THINK about life, about yourself, about the world.  I absolutely believed while in that state that the world would be better off without me, that while my family might feel some pain at my loss, ultimately they would be happier with me gone.  I could not shake that thinking.  People telling me to “just get over it” deepened the depression because I was incapable of feeling better.  I could not make myself feel better or have a happier outlook or be more positive.  Sometimes I could name reasons for feeling like that, but other times I couldn’t and therefore nothing in my experience could or would fix it.  I felt helpless, hopeless, and was incapable of eating, sleeping or functioning “normally” in any kind of way.  But I was not weak.  The fact that I got up every morning in spite of those feelings, the fact that I carried on every day in the face of those strong demons telling me my life was worthless was a sign of my deep strength.

               Second, the stigma around it made it nearly impossible to get help.  Granted, this was a few decades back when we did not know as much about depression, but I believe much of the stigma around it continues today.  People are ashamed to admit when they are struggling with any kind of mental illness and that makes it very difficult to get help.  As I said before, mental illness is not about weakness.  It is a medical problem, a medical condition.  And until we start treating it like any other disease, not something to be ashamed of, but something that needs our help and care, it will be hard to treat.              

Third, and along those same lines, mental illnesses are isolating.  I have always heard the biblical phrase, “to those who have much, more will be given.  And to those who have little, even what they have will be taken away” in the context of mental illness, not as something God does to us, but as a reflection on the reality that it is those most in need who often have the hardest time getting the help they need.  People who struggle with mental illness need support and care.  And yet, not only do people with those illnesses struggle to ask for the help they need, when they finally do, they find that often people respond by distancing themselves. Those most in need of the care and attention of others are often the least likely to be able to get it.  I hope this is changing, but as a kid struggling with clinical depression, I learned that if I wanted to be around other people, I had to hide my depression, hide it completely.  I had to learn to put on a “face” that others could not see behind.  Once that face has been learned, it is almost impossible to unlearn.  If I were dealing with depression today, few would know it because that early lesson in hiding that depression remains with me still.

And finally, I learned that the most well-meaning people are often the ones who do the most damage.  Those who say, “cheer up” or “buck up” or “smile” added to the pain.”  I want to pause here and share with you all a wonderful commercial that’s been on the TV recently for an on-line therapy program.  A man says into the camera that he is really struggling with depression, but that “fortunately, those around me are there to help.”  It then cuts to various people saying things like “You have so much to be happy for!” “Just snap out of it!”  “Fake it til it feels normal!”  “Cheer up!”  “It’s all in your head”  “Think of all those who have it worse than you.”  “It’s because you’re a leo!”  And after all of their comments we return to the person struggling with depression just staring bleakly at the camera in complete disbelief as the words “not helpful!”  flash across the screen.

People are trying to help, but you can’t just not feel depression when you have it.  The same is also true of social anxiety or any of the other mental illnesses.  Telling someone, for example, with anxiety to “just don’t worry about it!” will never stop them or help them to have less worry!

My friend’s letter continued, “But the ones who were hardest to deal with were the people of faith who told me that if I just turned it over to God, everything would be fine.  That if I really had faith, I would not be suffering.  That God had blessed me with so much and that my depression was a sign of a lack of gratitude for all God had given me.”

In several of the gospels there is a narrative that describes a “demon” that Jesus says can only be gotten rid of by prayer.  While the demon described sounds a great deal like epilepsy to me, I have also wondered if mental illness isn’t also one of these “demons” that can only truly be cured, at least at this point in time, with God’s help.  It can be TREATED with medication, counseling, friendship, meditation.  But I think it is something that can be CURED only by God.  We don’t know how to fix it yet.  We just don’t.  Even so, sometimes those prayers for cure are answered with “No”.  As my friend continued, “I prayed constantly for God to take away the depression, but it remained.  I asked different people how to pray, thinking maybe I just wasn’t praying right (this idea came because one of these well-meaning people told me if I had been praying “right” that I wouldn’t be depressed anymore).  I tried gratitude prayers, thanking God for removing the depression before it was gone.  I tried surrender prayers.  I tried “not your will but mine” prayers.  I tried everything anyone suggested in terms of praying and nothing “worked”.  But those well-meaning people of faith with their ideas about my lack of faith being the cause or at least preventing the cure of my depression did again a whole lot more damage than anyone else.  Their lack of understanding and compassion, their righteous judgment and impatience with my pain – all of that led me much more quickly to the place of contemplating and planning my own suicide than anything else.”

               So what do we do with this?  As people of faith, how are we called to respond?  People who are struggling with mental illness have a hard time asking for help.  Putting it onto them, demanding that they seek the help they need is like asking a person who is carrying a 100 pound backpack to lift another 100 pounds.  It can be the hardest thing in the world to reach out when you are in that place.  So, as people of faith, we have a responsibility.  We have a responsibility to ask, to look, to see.  We are called to be courageous, and to say the hard words, “are you struggling?”  and then the follow through, “are you considering hurting yourself?”  We have to be brave and start seeing mental illnesses as the diseases they are and offering the help we have to give, not in terms of platitudes about “letting go” or “turning it over” or “bucking up” but in terms of offering to sit with someone, be with someone, listen to them, even when we can’t “fix” it.  This is true of social anxiety as well: just telling someone not to worry fails to recognize that anxiety is not something people CHOOSE.  It is therefore extremely unhelpful to just tell someone with anxiety to simply “don’t worry about it.”  We have to be willing to offer the prayers to God on behalf of that other person, asking what we can do to help.  We also have to be willing to intervene, step in and take the person to the doctor for treatment, even when there aren’t cures.  Mostly, we have to have the courage to not turn away or look away from that which makes us uncomfortable or uneasy.  We have to be willing to put aside our judgments, knowing we don’t and CAN’T understand what someone else is experiencing.

               Mental illnesses – these are struggles that appear to have no meaning.  The loss of life, lives like Robin Williams that were full of laughter and compassion and philanthropy – there is no purpose to these deaths.  But we can help God bring good out of every evil by choosing to learn from those horrible things that have happened, to change the way we interact and care and respond to others, to take a step towards healing our world by being present enough with one another. 

               In today’s gospel story from Luke we see Jesus dealing with the demons, which appear to me in this case to be more about mental illness.  In some ways being able to refer to them as demons made it easier: these mental illnesses were recognized as something the person had, and not the person themselves.  Can we do the same and remember that each person is more than just their illnesses?  Their challenges?  Their struggles? 

I also want to challenge all of us to think about this differently.  The truth is, not one of us is 100% healthy.  We understand this at a physical level.  Each of us has something wrong: we are overweight, or we have osteo-arthritis.  We have need of glasses or hearing aids.  We have high blood pressure or diabetes.  Even as kids, some have broken arms, some have anxiety attacks: whatever it is, not one of us is 100% physically healthy.  And I would say the same is true mentally.  Not one of us is 100% mentally well.  Not one.  Whether you are struggling with anxiety, or fear; whether you deal with your pain by swallowing it down or flying into rages; or if you have a diagnosed issue such as depression or bipolar disorder: None of us is 100% mentally healthy which means that all of us are on a spectrum of mental health.   This isn’t an issue of “us” vs. “Them”.  For some of us the illness might be diagnosed or treated.  For others it might be as simple as being afraid or dealing with anxiety.  But not one of us here is mentally “whole”.  We are on a continuum, and the sooner we can stop dividing the world into those with mental illness and those without, the sooner we can learn to have compassion for those around us who are struggling with serious mental illness.  In today’s passage from Galatians Paul tells us that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.  He is telling us that in Christ there is NO Us and Them.  This applies to mental health as well.  There aren’t “those with mental illnesses” and “those without”.  In Christ we are one.  We are all connected, we belong to one another.  And the sooner we can remember that, the more compassion, the more grace and the more wholeness there will be, for me, for you, and for the world. 

About a year and a half ago we offered a training here through zoom in how to deal with those who are struggling with mental illness.  I have to give you all credit that the training was well attended.  In many congregations when these things are offered, they are not well attended because people do not want to talk about mental illness.  People are afraid of those with mental illness, seeing them as somehow different, or other. But I think so many of us here were willing to attend the training because we are used to interacting with it, dealing with those who live next door to us, for example, who struggle with mental illness.  None the less, I say again that this is an area in which we have to continue to learn, continue to grow in our ability to address and care for those in our midst who struggle with mental illness.  And that has to start by remembering they are not “other”.  They are us. 

So once again, it comes back to what I said before: Mental illnesses can be demons which seem almost impossible to tame at times.  But we can be present.  We can pray.  And we can learn to stand with and fight with our brothers and sisters in their pain.  I will stand with you if you are there.  And as a community we can make a commitment to stand, as God’s people, with one another.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Suffering

 

1 Peter 4:1-19

Malachi 3:1-3

Matthew 5:43-48

 

“There stood Beethoven, gravely ill and totally deaf.  Eyes closed, he kept conducting the orchestra even after they had ceased their performance and the audience had risen to its feet in thunderous applause.  As a singer stepped from the choir to turn him around to see those whose shouts of “bravo” resonated throughout the concert hall, tears of elation filled his eyes.  Perhaps the worst loss a composer could experience had been the catalyst for a remarkably adaptive creativity that allowed him to transcend his tortures to become immersed in the thrill of conducting the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, the “ode to Joy”.  At that moment, and not only in spite of but BECAUSE of his adversity, Beethoven had experienced the thrill of thriving through adversity.”  _ prelude of “Beethoven Factor”

I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about suffering lately.  And today’s passages really explore it and call us to look at it once again.  There is a Christian Education study entitled, “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat” which explores many aspects of stepping out in faith to walk as Jesus has called us to do, with God and each other.  The study explores our fear, the risks we take, how we perceive failure and also what we do with suffering because when we do take the risks of stepping out of the boat and stepping onto the water, there will be times when we suffer as a result, when we fall into the water, when we fail.  Even though we know there will be suffering, we are still called to do it.  We are still called to step out, take the risks of faith, go through the fire to come out on the other side, purified.  In one of the chapters, John Ortberg looks at what he calls the “resilience factor”.  He wrote, “People who not only survive but grow through difficult situations have (been found to have) three qualities in common:  1.  They take action, seeking to reassert some command over their destiny rather than viewing themselves as helpless victims.  2.  They have a larger-than usual capacity for what might be called moral courage – for refusing to betray their values.  And 3.  They find meaning and purpose in their suffering.” 

In the book, the Beethoven Factor, the new positive psychology of hardiness, happiness, healing and hope, Paul Pearsall says a similar thing, especially in regards to finding meaning and purpose in suffering.  He says that some people who suffer don’t become victims or even survivors, instead they become thrivers, people who actually grow through and because of their pain and suffering.  He lists twelve characteristics of such people, but many of them also have to do with finding meaning and purpose.  Number one on his list is that he says those who thrive rather than just becoming survivors, or staying always as victims have found meaning behind the things that have happened to them, though for each individual that will look different.  He also says that thrivers make sense of what has happened or is happening to them.  In other words, both of these studies emphasize again and again the importance in finding meaning and purpose in our suffering if we are to come out stronger, thriving and resilient on the other side.

For much of the Western world, suffering seems pointless.  Our culture tells us the purpose of life is “fun”, or happiness.  And in that context, suffering can have no meaning.  As a result, many people in our culture have a very difficult time when pain does come.  Where is meaning and purpose in suffering when the goal is just to “be happy”?

But our faith paints for us a very different picture.  The Bible never tells us that life is about being happy or comfortable or at ease.  Meaning and purpose have many levels and many layers and therefore we can’t say there is one reason or one purpose behind any individual’s suffering, we can’t determine for anyone else what their suffering is about, or why it is happening or what good God can bring out of it for any one person.  None the less, what we can and do know as people of faith is that God can and will bring purpose, meaning and new life out of suffering if we work with God, if we are open to God’s movement through the pain.  God creates meaning even when we can’t find it.  God brings resurrection out of death.  And for me, today’s passages really touch on the “reasons”, the purpose, the meaning behind all that we suffer.  The passage from Peter says that God uses suffering to “test” us.  I don’t really like the word “test” because for some that can imply that God authors our suffering to see how much we can put up with.  That isn’t my experience of God.  The God I experience does not create our suffering, but can use it to help us to grow, and to change.  And that is actually the truer meaning behind the Greek word that is here translated as “test”.  It is more accurately translated “challenge” in the sense that God uses our suffering to challenge us to grow, to learn, and to deepen in our connection with God and with life.  I find the same meanings present in the Malachi passage.  Our suffering can refine us.  As John says, it also “prunes” us.  Our suffering can lead us to be more godly, but only if we are open to the purpose God can put into it, open to being “refined” through the hardships. 

As Rick Warren, author of Purpose Given Life said in an interview, “We were made by God and for God, and until you figure that out, life isn't going to make sense…Life is a series of problems: Either you are in one now, you're just coming out of one, or you're getting ready to go into another one.  The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort; God is more interested in making your life holy than (God) is in making your life happy.  We can be reasonably happy here on earth, but that's not the goal of life. The goal is to grow in character, in Christ likeness.”

As we know, this isn’t easy.  Malachi tells us this isn’t easy when he compares the process to the pruning of branches, to the refining of metals.  Growing in character means loving more fully, more deeply, even those we don’t like.  Getting there is hard.  And knowing exactly how to do this, how to love more deeply and fully is a challenge.  So God pushes, God “refines” us and “prunes” us so that we might bear more fruit, so that we might be the pure, refined silver we are meant to be.  That hurts.  It just does.  But that also gives meaning to the suffering that comes.  Again, I’m not saying that God causes our suffering.  What I am saying is that when we do suffer, God can use it and DOES use it to refine us if we are open.  While I don’t believe God purposely wants us to hurt, I do believe God can bring and create meaning through our suffering by allowing it to teach and refine us into more godly people. 

Some women in a Bible study came across this passage from Malachi, “God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”  One of the women offered to find out the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible Study. That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work.  She didn't mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining Silver.  As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up.  He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities.  The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot; then she thought again about the verse that says:  'He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.'   She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time.  The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire.  If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.  The woman was silent for a moment.  Then she asked the silversmith, 'How do you know when the silver is fully refined?'

He smiled at her and answered, 'Oh, that's easy -- when I see my image in it.'

   “…When I see my image in it”. 

God refines us until we are truly in God’s image.  What an amazing and wondrous act of love on God’s part, to be with us in that suffering to the point where we are truly made in God’s image.  To be in the image of the God of love, is to love.  To be in the image of the God who loved us so much that that God was willing to die for us, is to love each other so much that we are willing to die for each other.  Not easy.  But that is what being in relationship with God pushes us towards, and challenges us to do.

At one church where I shared this story, one of the congregation’s members approached me afterwards and said something that I also think can help us through times of suffering.  She said, “How hot it must be for God to sit there and refine constantly.”  That is the other part of Jesus on the cross as well.  God is with us in our pain, God is with us in our suffering.  And God is standing alongside in the heat, also suffering but still intent on helping us grow through and beyond our trials.

  A Hawaiian elder once said, “God sometimes tears at the fabric of our lives so that we will learn to be better weavers and to show us how to more deeply appreciate being given the chance to weave.  We may not see the final pattern, but we are wise if we try to find new patterns and become more patient and creative weavers.” (Beethoven factor, xxviii)

And it doesn’t end there.  As the passage from Peter tells us, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.”  So finally, the other side of suffering comes.  We are refined, we are made new, and in that newness we are brought to healing, to strength and to a stronger place.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Christmas Already?

 

Luke 2:1-20

               Here we come once again to our Christmas in July service.  As you may remember, we celebrate Christmas in July as a time to step away from the deep commercialism that has taken over our Christmas and our Advent, in December.  Instead, we use this time to truly focus on what is behind our celebrations of Christmas, what the story has to tell us, what the message of Christmas is for people of faith.

               And what is that message?  It really comes down to one word.  And that one word is “Emmanuel” – God with us.  The Story of Christmas is a story that tells us that our God loves us so much that God wants to be with us, here in this place.  God wants to understand us in fullness, and through that understanding to have compassion, to offer grace, and to do whatever it takes to bring us healing, peace, and salvation (whatever that means to you). 

               This is incredible news for us.  It truly is.  During these very dark times when things are unsure, when even getting prescriptions is cost prohibitive, when inflation is so high that just daily living can be a challenge and something as basic as education seems to be a luxury, when we are becoming more and more divided as a country, when we are still dealing with a pandemic; finding good news, something to hang on to, can just feel beyond difficult.  But it is into this world that Jesus comes, that God comes to be with us.  At the time when Jesus was born, the Israelites were under intense oppression by the Romans.  They were struggling as a people and the Roman “punishment” for just about anything was crucifixion, a horrible nasty execution.  That is when Jesus came.  That is when Jesus showed up.  And he offered words of wisdom, he offered kindness, he offered healing, he offered compassion.  He offered grace.

On this day in July we celebrate Christmas.  And it is a joyous and wondrous thing that we celebrate.  But that doesn’t negate all the struggle or trauma that we also witness in this world.  This world is a messy, broken, tragic, and yes, beautiful place into which we have come, into which God comes.  On Christmas in July we remember that.  We remember the mess, but we also remember the beauty.  We remember God’s grace and God’s compassion, coming to us in the middle of this.  And we remember that our call is to follow Jesus: to be that voice of grace and compassion in the midst of the mess.

In the wonderful mystery story, Aunt Dimity’s Christmas, the main character, Lori, found a stranger, a dirty, disheveled stranger, passed out in her driveway.  She got him help, reluctantly.  She didn’t want to help.  She didn’t want her Christmas to be taken up by this homeless, disheveled, mess of a human being.  But she did it.  She did the thing that needed to be done, she dealt with the mess in the midst of a time when she only wanted to see the good, the beauty.  She got him help, she got him the medical help he needed, she researched to find out who he was and what his story was.  She helped him to get back on his feet, and in doing so, she helped him to remember who he was, to come into his own again.  Again, she didn’t want to do it.  But it was through helping him that she saw the truth of Christmas.  She found that the deepest gifts came in being that voice, in not denying what was ugly or mean or difficult, but in stepping into that pain and offering grace, offering healing, offering help.  It was through her stepping into the darkness, that she brought her own light, and God’s light into those dark places.  In lighting those dark places, she then saw the glory, the beauty of the cave that had been hidden before she brought her own light in.  The gifts that came back to her far exceeded what she had given to him.  She said, “He forced me to look at things I didn’t want to see, and remember things I wanted to forget.  If Kit hadn’t come to the cottage I wouldn’t have gone to St. Benedict’s (which included the homeless shelter).  And if I hadn’t gone to St Benedicts, I wouldn’t have realized how much I have in common with the homeless men there. …I fought it tooth and nail….I’d gotten too fat and sassy...  I’d paid my dues, so I thought I was entitled to my blessings.  Kit reminded me that blessings aren’t a right – they’re a gift.  I’m no more entitled to them than the homeless men, and I’m ashamed of myself for not remembering it sooner. “  Her choosing to help this stranger led her to gifts that were uncomfortable at first, but which deepened and strengthened her and made her more whole.

It is our job, it is our calling to bring God’s presence into the light, into a fullness that others can see.  It is our calling to bring that beauty, the innocence of a new born baby, the presence of God into fullness.  It is not always easy when things are going wrong, when we are struggling.  But that is the call that we have been given.

               So as we rejoice, as we celebrate Christmas now, here, in July, may we do so not from a place of denying what is wrong in the world, but instead with a commitment to be the bearers of the light into the world. 

               I think about Simon and Garfunkel’s version of “Silent Night.” Have you all heard it?  We will play it in a moment because it is powerful, deeply powerful.  These two Jewish men wrote a version of Silent Night that I think expresses the deepest truth.  It is into this broken, suffering, struggling world that God comes, that God shows up.  The contrast between the beauty of a newborn baby and the poverty into which he was born; the contrast of a beautiful newborn brought to a displaced couple, far from their homes, with no proper in-room in which to stay reflects the current contrast of God’s beauty in the midst of fires and climate change and pandemics: all of this is the story of Christmas.  All of this is the beauty of Christmas that we celebrate today.

               I invite you to listen as we play Simon and Garfunkel’s Silent Night.

 

               I want to end by reading you a piece of a story I shared with you many years ago now.  It is one of my favorite stories and so I share it with you again: from “It was on Fire when I lay down on it” by Robert Fulghum. (p 174).  (link here.)

               Merry Christmas to you all!

Monday, July 18, 2022

Peace I Leave You

 

John 14:25-31

               The passage that we heard from John today is part of Jesus’ speech on the night before he was killed.  Throughout his speech, throughout the evening, his disciples were asking questions about his “leaving” them.  First Peter, then Thomas, then Philip, then the other Judas (not Judas Iscariot)… all were worried, all were upset, and all were asking for clarity, for understanding about this upcoming death that Jesus told them would be coming.  They also bargained, denied, argued with Jesus about what was to come.  But Jesus was clear and firm.

               In the face of their concerns, their fears, their lack of understanding and their grief, then, Jesus’ response was repeatedly to tell them, in different ways, that they were not being abandoned.  He reassured them that he would remain with them through the Spirit, that his relationship with them, though different, would not be over.  He told them they did not need to be afraid, and he offered them his peace. 

               All of this caused me to think on our own experiences of loss and death.  When we know that someone we love and truly value is going to die, that someone is going to leave us, we, too, like the disciples feel fear, anxiety and pain.  As much as that person’s death is about them, and as much as we say we rejoice that they will no longer be in pain, that they are beyond suffering, or as much as we express concern for them at their dying, we also have our own fears, our own grief, and our own experiences and feelings that we must deal with.  Sometimes those can blind us to the pain of the person who is actually dying, actually leaving.  Sometimes it causes our focus to be very inward rather than outward.  Sometimes we even express those normal stages of grief; anger, denial, bargaining, as the disciples did with Jesus, before the event even happens.  And sometimes we require the person who is dying to do the comforting, as strange and as somehow backward as that must sound. 

               But this is very human, very normal.  None of the disciples comforted Jesus.  None of them even could stay awake with him when he needed them to be with him in his final hours of anxiety, grief and prayer.  No, instead, he was required to comfort them, to reassure them that his death was not the end of the relationship, that it would continue, though in a different way.  He would be with them through the Spirit’s presence, as he promised here.  And rather than focusing on his own feelings of loss, he was tasked with the job of comforting, reassuring, and holding those he loved in these his last moments with them.    

               But the peace that Jesus offers is much more than this.  This peace is not just absence of conflict.  It is also not a peace of simply having nothing to be upset about.  So what else does this peace entail?

First, It is a peace that includes forgiveness.  Just as, when we pass the peace in church, it is supposed to be a response to our prayer of confession and acceptance of God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, the peace that Jesus offers is one that is intended to relieve us from our shortcomings, from our failures, from our lack of wholeness.  It is, above all else, a peace of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. 

I found myself reminded of something Craig Barnes wrote, “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul. Since most people are unaccustomed to exploring the mystery of their own souls, they will often work out their spiritual anxieties by attempting to rearrange something external - like a church's music program. But it doesn't matter how many changes they make to the environment around them. They will never succeed in finding peace for the angst of their soul until they attend directly to it... (That is why) to be of service to the Holy Spirit, who is at work in human lives, the pastor can never reduce ministry to servicing parishioners' complaints about the church.”  So when Jesus offered peace, he was also offering a peace that called them to attend to their own issues of the soul.  These disciples, as we know, were very far from perfect.  They didn’t understand things, they weren’t always supportive.  And Jesus’ peace calls from them growth, calls them into a deeper understanding and commitment.  This is a peace that remembers our connection and that sends his disciples, therefore, out in mission, out to do the work of healing and caring for one another.

               That offer of peace, therefore, included his own offer to them of forgiveness as well, for their lack of support for him, for their lack of understanding, for anything they had failed to do and anything they had done that was less than loving, less than supportive.  His peace was a call on them to accept that forgiveness, and to strive to move into wholeness.  His peace, again, was a call towards their action of mission in the world, doing what they were called to do. 

               But peace is even more than this.  Bonhoeffer said it this way, “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.” 

               As my bible study discussed this last week, it’s deeply connected to what Archbishop Elias Chacour talks about when he translates the Beattitudes.  Jesus “peace” is deeply connected to the “blessing” that he speaks of when he speaks the beatitudes.  To quote Archbisop Chacour, “Knowing Aramaic, the language of Jesus, has greatly enriched my understanding of Jesus’ teachings.  Because the Bible as we know it is a translation of a translation, we sometimes get a wrong impression.  For example, we are accustomed to hearing the Beatitudes expressed passively: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

‘Blessed’ is the translation of the word makarioi used in the Greek New Testament.  However, when I look further back to Jesus’ Aramaic, I find that the original word was ashray from the verb yashar.  Ashray does not have this passive quality to it at all.  Instead, it means ‘to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, repent; to become straight or righteous’.

How could I go to a persecuted young man in a Palestinian refugee camp, for instance, and say, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’, or ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’?  That man would revile me, saying neither I, nor my God understood his plight, and he would be right.

When I understand Jesus’ words in the Aramaic, I translate like this:

Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied.

Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.

To me this reflects Jesus’ words and teachings much more accurately.  I can hear him saying, ‘Get your hands dirty to build a human society for human beings; otherwise, others will torture and murder the poor, the voiceless, and the powerless’.  Christianity is not passive but active, energetic, alive, going beyond despair.”

               With this understanding, some might not be as interested in this peace that Jesus offers as they might have been a minute ago. 

               I am reminded of the article I shared with you last week from reader’s digest, about the boy who stole a wallet being helped by bar owner to retrieve what was lost.  He also gave the kid a home with his family and a job.  The owner of the wallet also forgave the boy.   This is what peace for the bar owner looked like: it looked like taking action, working for the wholeness and healing not only of himself, but for all those around him. 

               The peace of Christ is not just being content with your life.  Jesus was offering comfort, yes, but peace is far beyond that.  It is not just comfort.  It involves healing.  Healing from fear, healing from grief, healing from the terrible things that happen and that people suffer in this world.  But more, that healing, that gift of peace that is given to you, to me, to all of us: that healing is not just for you.  We are called to be carriers of that peace, to pass it along in our actions, in our work, in our very attitudes in the world.  We are called to be bearers of that peace.  To heal, to mend rifts, to work towards wholeness, for individuals and for the world. 

 

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Final Commandment

Exodus 20:17

Matthew 22:34-40

Today we hear what according to the Catholics are the last two commandments, and according to the Protestants is the last one.  Do not covet.  Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or house or objects, or anything else that you feel you do not have but that others do.  Do not be overtaken by a desire to have what you don’t have, avoid allowing that jealousy, that anger, that longing, that sense of injustice for what you see others have that is not your own to affect your behavior.  And under all of this, remember that ultimately what exists in the world that others may or may not have, that you may or may not have, that ultimately none of that truly belongs either to yourself or to your neighbor.  All that you covet, all that you long for, all that you have or do not have, ultimately is not ours to be had, because it all belongs to God.  

This commandment has been separated out by the narrative lectionary folk.  And it is separated out because those who wrote the narrative lectionary felt that ultimately this one “sin” of coveting, is the cause of every other sin or error or need for commandment that exists.  Those theological collaborators believe that all of our killing, all of our stealing, all of our lying and all of our idolatry comes down, ultimately to the sin of coveting, or, to use another word: greed. 

We see this in our Biblical stories in abundance.  David’s sins began with his coveting of Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.   As king, he was already married, and he had access to many, many women in the palace.  But he wanted Bathsheba.  So he took her, even though she was married to Uriah who was away in battle.  And when she then became pregnant, he basically had Uriah (and as a result all of Uriah’s men) killed in battle.  Great sins: murder, betrayal, adultery, and probably rape (though Bathsheba’s perspective is not given in this story).  And all of it began with this greed, this coveting.  

Another example comes from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  The two of them desperately wanted Naboth’s vineyard.  Again, they had plenty of land.  They could buy more from anyone who would sell it.  But they wanted this particular piece of land.  And when Naboth would not sell it to them, they paid people to lie about Naboth, they then had Naboth killed as a “punishment” for those things they had paid others to say falsely about him, and they were able, then, to take the vineyard.  Again, many broken commandments: falsely testifying against a neighbor, murder, and theft being at the top of that list: but it all began with coveting a vineyard that someone else had.  

As the Sunday following the 4th of July, we also have to think about this, not just in terms of individuals but in terms of communities.  What do we covet for ourselves that we cannot stand other people having in the big picture?  And again, I’m not just talking about individuals here, but communities: and as countries.  For example, Oil?  

To quote Rolf Jacobson, one last time, “A friend of mine jokes about his own coveting heart, “If they make it, I want it.” I quoted that sentence one time while teaching about the coveting commandment at a church on a Sunday morning. One forgiven-sinner said, “Only one?”  The desires of our hearts will lead us astray. We are to love God. We are to love neighbor. We are not to desire our neighbor’s spouse or house.  And we cannot do it. Yes, we can develop all sorts of spiritual discipline and practices — prayer, meditation, service, fasting, accountability groups, and so on. These practices can help us curb the worst effects of our fallen nature. But we cannot do it.”

He continues, “… be aware of the incredible power of the heart’s desires. When you feel yourself desiring the wrong thing, pray. Call a friend and ask for help. Go see your pastor.”

But I also think that the things we struggle with go even deeper than greed.  I think our greed has an even deeper sin under it and that is our fear.  Our fear of not having enough, of not being enough.  Our fear of the end of our lives, or of suffering, or of meaninglessness.  And while “do not be afraid” is not one of the ten commandments, I would argue that perhaps the fact that that phrase alone shows up in scripture 365 times: once for every day of the year, is an indication of how important, how vital it is to our spiritual health.  

Each of the weeks that we have been discussing the ten commandments, we have also heard today’s passage from Matthew.  It’s because the ten commandments are summarized so well by these words in Matthew.  To remind you of what I told our Bible study when we began to look at the ten commandments, the ten commandments are found in two places in the Old Testament.  But they simply do not exist in the New Testament.  The closest we have is Jesus’ summation of those commandments here.  Ultimately the ten commandments can be summed up by the two: love the lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  And these can truly be summarized in one word.  Love.  That’s it.  Just Love.  If you aren’t sure what to do in a situation, always ask yourself, what is most loving.  If you aren’t sure which path to take in a decision, always ask yourself, what is most loving.  If you are torn between what you want and what the world needs, again, always ask yourself, what is most loving.

I think about the book, “Grasshopper on the Road” and in particular the story that I shared with the children this morning.  The grasshopper encounters a mosquito who is stuck in the rules.  He is so stuck in the rules, that he cannot see the absurdity of them at times.  In this particular case, his rule is that everyone must use his ferry boat to get across the “lake”.  It doesn’t matter to the mosquito that the grasshopper can easily step over the puddle.  The mosquito has a rule and that rule must be obeyed.  The grasshopper is too big for the boat, and yet still, the mosquito has his rule. Sometimes we, too, can get caught up in the rules and fail to see the deeper messages. 

What do we do, then, with this list of commandments.  How do we live faithfully with a list of things that are almost impossible, when we dig into them deeply, to uphold?  As we’ve seen, none of these ten commandments, as we’ve discussed them, are easy.  Not one.  For a myriad of reasons, not one of these is really simple.  Simply said, but multifaceted in execution.  Compelling, and apparently demanding, these are hard and the burden they hold feels tight.  But as always, the call is always to go deep.  To hear the message underneath.  And that message, always, is one of love.  It begins with God’s love for you, for me, for us.  And it is the nature of love to return to those who send it out.  

Going back to the story from Grasshopper on the Road: I think the message in this story is much less obvious than what we first read.  Because the hero in this story is not the mosquito.  The hero in the story is the grasshopper.  And he does not simply say, “That is ridiculous” and step over the puddle on his merry way.  He does not make fun of the mosquito’s limited vision or stuck thinking, as tempting as it might have been.  He doesn’t discount the mosquito, and he doesn’t avoid or ignore the mosquito.  Instead, he finds a way to support the mosquito, regardless of the mosquito’s great limitations of vision, insight and understanding.  Throughout the little book, in the other stories as well, we see that grasshopper has integrity, but also compassion.  He engages the others throughout the stories in the book, despite their limitations and inflexibilities, and he finds ways to be in relationship and to offer grace to them where they are.  He does not insist that they change. Neither does he give up who he is or what his call is in the world.  He approaches each as the individual they are, and he works within their world view still keeping his own integrity.  He acts with love.  He acts with the caring that is love.

That is our ultimate call: to return God’s love to the world, to the universe, in the best and fullest way that we can.  I’m reminded of the simple song I learned at Ygnacio Valley as a kid: Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away.  Love is something if you give it away.  You end up having more.  Love is like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any.  Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor.  Oh, …

So I return in the end to where I started in the beginning of this series: all of these commandments begin with God’s relationship to us.  We are called to strive to follow them, not because they are an onerous burden God has placed around our neck, but because we are called to respond to God’s faithfulness with faithfulness of our own, lived out from gratitude and joy.  The good news in the commandments is that they are gifts to us, teaching us how to love with more fulness, with more purpose.  They are gifts to us as they help us to more to greater wholeness, and greater connection both with one another and with God.  Ultimately, the commandments begin with God’s relationship to us and they are a call for us to deepen in our relationships with God, self and others.  And that can only be a good thing.  Thanks be to God for God’s great love.  Amen.


The Next Five

 Exodus 20:12-16

Matthew 22:34-40

A person shared that she was traveling in Kenya and met a refugee from Zimbabwe. The refugee said he hadn't eaten anything in over 3 days and looked extremely skinny and unhealthy. The traveler offered him the rest of the sandwich she was eating. The first thing the refugee said was, "We can share it."

In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, A 10-year-old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table.  A waitress put a glass of water in Front of him. "How much is an ice cream sundae?" he asked. "Fifty cents," replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and Studied the coins in it. "Well, how much is a plain dish of ice cream?" he inquired. By now more people were waiting for a table and the Waitress was growing impatient.. "Thirty-five cents," she brusquely replied. The little boy again counted his coins. "I'll have the plain ice cream," he said. The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on The table and walked away The boy finished the ice Cream, paid the cashier and left..  When the waitress came back, she began to cry as she wiped down the table.  There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, Were two nickels and five pennies.. You see,  he couldn't  have the sundae, because he had to have enough left to leave her a tip.

In ancient times, a King had a boulder placed on a Roadway.  Then he hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock.  Some of the King's' wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and simply walked around it.  Many loudly blamed the King for not keeping the roads clear, but no one did anything about getting the stone out of the way. Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables.  Upon approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road  After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded. After the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the King indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway.  

Today we hear the next five commandments, all of which focus on the call for us to love our neighbor.  To name them again.  Those are:

5. Honor father & mother 

6. Do not murder

7. Do not commit adultery

8. Do not steal

9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor.

As with last week when we looked at the first four commandments and saw that each of them are much more deep and comprehensive than they may appear on the surface, the same is true of all of these next five commandments.  

To honor one’s mother and father, for example, is not just about avoiding sassing or backtalking one’s parents.  It is about remembering our parents’ journey, giving them credit for the challenges that they have walked, the struggles they have had.  It is about honoring their efforts, even when they were unsuccessful or did not do the job that we might have wanted them to do.  It is about learning from their journeys, taking the time to be grateful that they gave you life, even if and when they made mistakes as our parents.  It is about practicing kindness, even with those who drive us crazy at times and striving to do a better job of caring for them perhaps, than they did to care for us.  It also means remembering the parentage of the earth and honoring that as well by not using, abusing and pillaging her resources.  The earth, too, deserves our honor and our respect.

Similarly with avoiding murder.  Sounds so straight-forward doesn’t it?  But to avoid murdering is not just about not killing the good or innocent people.  It also extends to not killing those we would label as “bad” or even “guilty”.  It also extends beyond avoiding killing physical bodies.  It also extends to not killing the souls, and the spirits of those we encounter.  To not murder therefore calls us to strive always to be kind, and intentionally thoughtful about how we interact with other people. 

Similarly, to refrain from committing adultery is not just about not sleeping with someone when it is going against the commitments you have made to your spouses/partners.  It is not just about sex.  It is about being honest, faithful, and intentional about keeping your promises and commitments in all of your relationships.

Do not steal is not just about avoiding taking things from those around you.  There are so many ways in which we steal.  When we do not pay people fairly for their time, we are stealing from them.  When we deprive people of privileges we keep for ourselves and our loved ones, we are stealing from them.  When we rob people of their dignity, their humanity, their sense of self, we use that word “rob” for a reason.  It is stealing, and it is against the ten commandments.  When we waste people’s time, we are stealing time from them.  When we toy with people’s affections, we are stealing love from them.  When we falsely use someone or lie to someone, we are stealing away their trust.  This, too, requires from us so much more intentionality than we may think.  It means being aware of where you buy things so that you are not part of a system that is stealing from people by not paying them what their efforts are worth.  It means being aware of how what you do supports those who steal more and more for themselves at the expense of the poor.  It means being kind in all our interactions as well.  And to take this a step further, it also means being aware, and working to avoid, stealing from the earth as well. The earth is not here for us to rape and pillage.  It is our mother, someone to be in relationship with, someone to avoid stealing from.

And finally, for today, we hear “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  This, too, is more than it appears on the surface.  This is not just about avoiding intentionally lying about other people.  This is about avoiding gossip all together.  Because whatever we share about another person is false.  I want to say that again, everything that we share about another person is false.  It is incomplete at the least, and false at the most.  I want you to think about this from the perspective of someone other people have talked about for a minute.  I want you to think back on what you’ve heard other people say about you.  Has it ever been accurate?  Has it ever fully captured what you actually said, what you actually meant, what you actually thought, felt, intended?  No, it never has and it never will.  So to “avoid bearing false witness against your neighbor” means, at the basest level, the most complete level, it means avoiding talking about your neighbors at all.

Whew!  So are these any easier than the ones we discussed last week?  

These are HARD.  And we haven’t even finished the list.  There is one more commandment out there that we will discuss next week.  It gets its own special place as the last commandment and as the summary piece.  But for today, let us just note, once more, than not one of these is simple.  Not one of these is single faceted or just straightforward.  And not one of them is easy to do.

Breathe.

To quote Rolf Jacobson once more, “The purpose of the law is not “your best life now,” but rather “your neighbor’s best life now.” Because we are stuck in this fallen condition called sin, and because we are going to remain stuck in this condition until God unweaves all the fibers of creation and then reknits them in the new creation, God says to us, “For as long as you’re here in this condition, love your neighbor.” We respond, “OK, God, we’re down with love. But, how do I love my neighbor?” God says, “OK, let me be a little more explicit here. Make sure everyone gets one day off each week, take care of the elderly, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t have sex with someone else’s spouse, don’t hurt your neighbor with your words, don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff. That’s how you love your neighbor.”  Because the law isn’t about you. It’s about your neighbor. And God loves your neighbor so much that God gives you the law. And God loves you so much, that God gives your neighbor the exact same law.  In other words, in the second table of the Decalogue we find good news. Good news for free people. Good news for those we need help from a neighbor.” 

And let me just say, that is all of us.  We all need help from our neighbors.  We all need connection and relationship and value from and for our neighbors.  And we all struggle to find the best way to be the best neighbors to one another.  So, we’ve been given this handy guide, this “how to” for caring for one another that God has given us.  All that easy.  All that hard.  There is more good news here too: we are all on this journey together, all striving and working to do better, be better, connect better.  We have this chance to walk it together and to grow and learn more fully.  It is never too late to grow, we are never too old to strive harder to love more fully.  And in that loving we will encounter God more fully.  Because God is in the relationships and God is in the loving.  God is in the growing and God is in the connecting.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.