Friday, August 26, 2016

“Yes: Heal on the Sabbath, and Other Necessary Heretical Acts” Sermon from August 21, 2016 on Jesus' healing the woman on the sabbath

When religious rules interfere with acts of love and compassion, then defy them and put your trust in God's loving-kindness instead. What do you think? Please post below.

“Yes: Heal on the Sabbath”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 16, August 21, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI
Focus Scripture: Luke 13:10-17

For the past two Sundays we have talked about faith. My sermons have been on the topic of “faith”, using a couple passages from the letter to the Hebrews out of the 11th chapter which talked about faith. The author of the letter was talking about keeping the faith to a community that was being persecuted and harassed for being followers of Jesus. To inspire his or her audience, the letter writer listed a number of people who had faith in God. With “faith” being, as I said the past couple weeks, I like to think of “faith” as meaning “trust.” What does it mean to have faith in God? It means to trust. To trust God’s promises, to trust in God’s love, to trust in God’s goodness. So the author listed some of the people who had gone before who followed and trusted God: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Miriam, Rahab, David, and more. People who trusted God, and trusted that God is honest and loving, that God will keep promises, that God will be also faithful to what God has said.

They trusted in God, even through times when they had their doubts that God was being faithful to them. When they had doubt about God and God’s promises, still, they were faithful. It’s okay, in faith, to have doubt, even as we trust. It’s okay to have some doubt. Doubt can be even helpful in matters of faith. It means that we’re being honest. It means that we’re being real. It means that we’re thinking about it. It means that we’re not just being blind in our faith or our beliefs, without thinking or pondering or meditating on it. I like to think it means that we have a more mature faith, if I may use that word. A more mature faith. A more adult-like faith to have that trust. But sometimes, maybe, with some doubt and wondering in there. Maybe I don’t have it quite right. Maybe I need to rethink this. Maybe it needs to change.

To have faith is to trust and to be faithful to trust. To be faithful to God is trust in God’s words. To be faithful is also to live up to the trust that others have put in us. To be faithful to others is to do what we have said that we will do. To be as trustworthy as they think that we are. To be true to one’s words and what one says and what one believes is also to be faithful. If a person says that they believe in God, the ten commandments, in Jesus, maybe they have all the right words about belief about love, grace, salvation, but at the same time they’re rude to people, they lie, the skim money off the corporate accounts, or doing some other unethical behavior, or they are greedy, or put in whatever vice you might think of… if their actions aren’t matching what they say they believe - but let us also be honest about ourselves that at some level we all fail at that and are prone to mistakes and our own levels of hypocrisy - that’s not being faithful. If the actions don’t match the words then it’s not really faith, it’s just a bunch of words that would appear to actually not have any meaning to the one saying them.

That is what Jesus is up against here in the synagogue: a set of beliefs without action with this leader of the synagogue. But, before we tear down this leader - we’ll get to this later - I want to lift him up and give him big props and kudos for being so protective of the sabbath. He is very protective of the sabbath here. That is one of his concerns. I want to lift him up for that because I think one of our big issues in modern day American culture and living is that we’ve gone the opposite direction, in that we don’t protect the sabbath, and have basically abandoned it and forgotten about it. We’ve moved to the other extreme of not ensuring we get or take a sabbath day every week. It is not a big part of our culture, and in fact in many ways the idea of a sabbath day is anathema to our culture.

I don’t mean just coming to church on Sundays, either. Nor am I lamenting that stores are open on Sundays or schools having activities on Sundays. Not just that, but the more direct disrespect of sabbath, which was a command from God. Out of every seven days of the week, one day - just one! - should be devoted to sabbath. To rest. We get one day of rest each week. One day each week that we do not have to be productive. One day that we do not have to make bricks for Pharaoh. One day to let go of the anxiety, and to not be busy but to just rest and relax and spend that day with God however that might look for you. Being outside, spending a day reading, being with your family, whatever a day of rest might be for you. But to have one day a week that we don’t have to be productive. Think of the gift that sabbath is! And think of the gift that sabbath was to the Hebrew people when God gives them the command. They have come out of hundreds of years of slavery, and God gives them a command right away to respect the sabbath day. “You have been slaves for so long, you get one day off every week that you don’t have to work. You don’t have to be productive.” This is not a burden, either. It’s not God saying, “I forbid you from working this day, and I will punish you for it” but it’s a gift saying, “You’ve worked so hard, you need some time for rest and time with me.” Sabbath is an important policy, and even a political statement, to say that we are not valued by what we produce but we are valued simply because we are God’s people. That’s where our value is. Not in what we make or produce.

So I want to give mudos to the leader of the synagogue here for being protective of the sabbath and remembering it and championing it.

But I’ll say also that I think his heart is in the wrong place. He’s more concerned with the letter of the law than in the meaning of the law. He is trying to protect the sabbath, yes, but he’s taken it from being one of God’s most important gifts and blessing to be enjoyed, and he’s turned it into a burden of the law. It is something to do out of obedience to the law. Perhaps done out of fear of punishment for not honoring the sabbath in the right way or the fullest extent. There is some irony in that position. God says, “Here is a day of rest to relax with me and be at peace… but don’t do it wrong!!” “Here is a day to let go of all your anxieties, but if you don’t do it in the right way, I’ll come down on you!”

That’s where the leader of the synagogue seems to be. It’s not about obeying the sabbath to avoid punishment. That’s not being faithful or trusting of God. That’s being a rules follower and that comes from an image of God as a punisher. An image of God as the one who must be appeased: “You have to do these things to make me happy. My default state is to be angry and wrathful so you have to do these things to make me like you or love you.”

But it’s the other way around! Trust in God’s love first. Trust in God’s compassion. Trust in God’s grace. Jesus says here, “Don’t look at sabbath this way! Have faith, my friends, trust in God’s love and compassion and forgiveness. Trust not in the letter of the law but in the meaning of the law. Trust that the needs of one of God’s people outweighs the requirement or the rules that we’ve set for ourselves. Trust that doing an act of love for a neighbor a far better thing to do than to ignore the neighbor simply because it might put you in violation of God’s law somehow or might somehow affect your standing with God.”

We see that in the story of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite who pass the man battered on the side of the road. They are following the law. They shouldn’t be around the blood or the person who’s been attacked. But the Samaritan follows the greater law of love by going to help the man and showing compassion.

So healing this woman on the sabbath day is more faithful than keeping the sabbath restriction of doing no work. And maybe healing should not be considered work, anyway. Healing is more faithful. Just like one can untie a cow on the sabbath in order to water it, or one can rescue an animal that has fallen into a hole on the sabbath, compassion and love take precedence. We can do them trusting that whatever rules God has set up - and a lot of our rules are ones that we’ve made up anyway, that have been built up over time - that they can be broken for the sake of compassion or just doing what is right. That they are guidelines that they can and should be broken if they interfere with doing acts of love, or human dignity, or compassion.

We can have faith, we can have trust in God that no act of love will be held against just because, maybe, it breaks some rule or goes against some tradition. Rules that keep love from becoming incarnate in our lives ought to be broken and left behind. Let love be the number one rule. The number one command is “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”.

That’s why, here at Plymouth, our communion table is open to everyone. It’s an act of love. We don’t turn anyone away from Jesus’ table. Now, might we be wrong about that? Possibly. Some churches would say that we are, and that the table is only for certain people. I don’t think we are wrong, but we could be. But I would rather err on the side of too much love and too much hospitality. Err on the side of inviting too many of God’s people to the table.

That is also why we are Open and Affirming here, open and welcoming to all of God’s people. Not just to the table, but to our fellowship, our worship, or church life. Might we be wrong about that? Possibly. Some would say that we are, and I occasionally get letters saying so, that letting lesbian and gay brothers and sisters into the community is wrong. But again, I would rather err on the side of hospitality and love. I would rather be too generous than not generous enough. I don’t want to meet my maker and hear the words, “You have kept all the rules and followed them really well, but I wish that you had trusted me more than the rules. I wish you had had more faith in me than in the law, because you let opportunities go by where you could have done a loving act but didn’t because you were worried or anxious that I might not like it.” I don’t want to hear that from my maker. I want to hear, if these are mistakes (which I don’t think they are, but in case), I want to hear God say, “Wow, you were too generous. You showed too much hospitality.” Because if that’s a mistake, I don’t care, and it’s one I’m willing to make. But I think that is not a mistake and is actually what God wants.

Be more generous than we think we ought to be, show more hospitality, be more inviting, be more welcoming than we may ever thought we should be. And do so because that is what God has asked us to do, and do so trusting in God’s love and forgiveness above all else. Trust in God’s goodness. Trust in God’s promise of new life, redemption, and grace shown in Jesus’ life, in his teachings, in his death on the cross, and in his resurrection. Have faith in that God. Have trust in that God, and like Jesus, break the rules when they interfere with doing acts of love. You can never go wrong by doing what is right.

Be like Jesus: heal on the sabbath. Or do whatever you need to do to be faithful to God’s word of love and Jesus’ example of loving-kindness and compassion.


Friday, August 19, 2016

“Running the Race in Faith(=Trust)” - Sermon for August 14, 2016

As always, please comment below on your thoughts on the sermon, your thoughts about faith=trust and your thoughts about faith not equaling trust, or perhaps equaling something else! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

“Running the Race in Faith(=Trust)”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 15, August 14, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI
Focus Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:2  and Luke 12:49-56

Last week we talked about faith, which is what this 11th chapter of Hebrews is about. I said last week that I think a good way to think of this word, to envision what the word “Faith” means, is to think of it as trust. To have faith in God is to trust God. To have faith in another person, as well, is to trust that person. To have faith is to have trust.

Trusting in God’s presence. Trusting God’s promise of love and redemption. Trusting that the Holy Spirit will never lead us into something that God does not want to happen, or that is in contradiction to God, but that the Spirit will only blow us into a fulfilment of God’s vision. Even if that means the Spirit is blowing us into difficult or anxious times.

So to have faith is not simply to believe in Jesus, whatever that word “believe” might mean. When people say, “I believe in the Bible” or “I believe in Jesus”, I like to ask them, “What does that mean to you?”

To have faith is to trust. To trust Jesus enough to follow in his footsteps. To follow on his path of loving our neighbor, doing justice, healing the world, to fulfil God’s vision, to run the race set before us in whatever way we are capable of running the race.

I’m thinking of running this week because of the Olympics. As we watch the Olympics, we do see some athletes better than others, but usually the winners and the ones who come in at the end are still within seconds of one another in a race, or a point or so in events that are scored, etc. These are exceptional athletes at the top of their form. I bring that up because a friend posted on Facebook this week saying that they should do in the Olympics is have one average person in every contest just as a comparison to see how truly extraordinary these athletes are.

And also with faith/trust/following Jesus. We’re running the race, and some of us are far ahead of the pack, and some of us are far behind, not running anywhere near as fast. But we want to at least keep running. Or speed walking. Or, I suppose, a saunter. Even a crawl. So long as we are moving forward. We all have our own speed, and all Jesus asks is that we keep going forward, to keep trusting God. Like a coach, “Keep moving! Keep moving!”

I mentioned last week that we don’t know who wrote this letter, and we don’t know to whom it was written. Many of the letters in the New Testament were written to a specific congregation or person that is mentioned right in the letter, but not this one. This one only says that it is to the Hebrews, and that is a title given to it probably a hundred years or more after it was written; not a title given by the author.

It lists a number of faith moments in Israel’s history, in the history of the Jewish people. Being as the letter is to “The Hebrews”, it is a good bet that this was written to a congregation of Jewish followers of Jesus, though probably it had some Gentiles. But being mostly Jewish, they would know their history and would know who the people are who are mentioned in this passage. It’s a kind of shorthand, as he, or possibly she - this could have been written by a woman - reminds them of the cloud of witnesses that have gone before them. That other people have endured difficult times. Other people, their ancestors, have trusted in God.

At the time the letter was written, which was likely in the range of 60-100 CE, there was anxiety and difficulty as well. The Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire were persecuting these “Christians”, these followers of Jesus, this upstart new religion. Jesus followers were being arrested, murdered, harassed, stoned, thrown to the lions, imprisoned, martyred… terrible things were happening for those who called themselves followers of The Way, or followers of Jesus. It was a time of trial. A time very much like Jesus said in the words in our Gospel. It was literally “A time of division, five in one household divided two against three and three against two, daughter against mother, father against son, in-laws against in-laws.”

That was the reality for many people at the time. There was division within families. This new radical movement of Jesus was considered to be dangerous. I’d like to see it become dangerous again! It was considered too radical, and against the Roman Empire, because of the movement’s vocal witness that said that poor lives matter, and women’s lives matter, and lepers’ lives matter, the lives of those who are on the bottom matter. It caused division. It was opposed to the way of the Empire, and that made it dangerous to be a follower of Jesus. So there are instances, and we have recorded stories, about the divisions that happened within families. A daughter becomes a Christian, for example, either out of a Jewish or a Roman family, and the rest of the family says, “No, you can’t do that, it’s too dangerous! The followers of Jesus are being killed, arrested, harassed…” or maybe the family says, “No, you can’t do that, because that is not our religion. You are abandoning our religion, and you can’t do that.”

There was literal division within families. Some out of concern for safety, some because they didn’t like this new upstart religion. People were ratting out one another, tattling on their neighbors to the Roman authorities or others trying to hunt down these horrible Christians who are sharing food with one another, talking about loving their neighbors, resisting the ways of the empire.

There also was division within the larger family of Judaism around Jesus. There were numbers of Jews that started to follow Jesus - and of course, he himself was Jewish - and became what we now call Christians. But not all Jews did. So within Judaism there was tension around that. At the time of this letter being written is when that tension was coming to a head. The Christians were still worshiping in the synagogue, as well as doing their Christian worship. It was during this time, the span of 60-100 CE when this letter was likely written, that Christianity began to separate itself from Judaism and leave the synagogues entirely. So this is being written at a tense time. There is division within the religion out of which Christianity comes, and within the greater culture. A tense and anxious time when it would be easy, even forgivable and justifiable, for someone to let go of their Christianity and just pretend that Jesus never happened. To play it safe. To say that they are not a follower of Jesus. To pretend like that never happened. To go back to life as it was as a Roman or a Jew or whatever they might have been.

The letter writing here is encouraging the people, saying, “Don’t give up! Trust in God!” Trust that this movement that Jesus started is, indeed, God’s will. This is a movement of the Holy Spirit. The writer encourages the people about not giving up by lifting up stories of the faithful - the trusting - who listened to and followed and trusted God. He lifts up those that we in the church might call the saints who went before us, or the great cloud of witnesses as the writer uses here. A witness is simply one who shows their trust in God so that others may see it and be inspired by it and emulate it.

So the writer lists some examples of the faithful to inspire. “By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea.” That’s the exodus out of Egypt. By faith, the walls of Jericho fell. That was the entry into the promised land. By faith, Rahab the Prostitute was saved. Rahab lived in Jericho, she was not Jewish, but she helped the Jewish spies who came into Jericho to take it over, and because of that she survived. Others are lifted up by name: Gideon, Barak, Jephtha, David, Samuel, the prophets. All who through faith, who through trust in God, endured hardships, did great things and endured hardships, including martyrdom and sometimes fates worse than death. They stayed faithful. They remained trusting of God. “Look to them,” the author of Hebrews says, “and be inspired to get through this time of trial. Don’t give up on who you are. Don’t give up your trust that God is working good. Don’t give that up.” It would be easy to do so at this time, but because this time is difficult that is why we must be most trusting in God. And since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, look to those who have gone before. Trust in their faith, as you trust in God. Not only the witnesses of the far past, but look also, and trust the faith of the recent witnesses. People that the audience of this letter would or could have known, their contemporaries, who were staying faithful even when they were sent to the lions, prison, or had other things happen to them. Look to the saints who have gone before, and the saints who are around us.

Now in 2016 we have another 2000 years of witnesses and saints, from the time this letter was written, whose stories we can rely on to inspire trust and faith. We have our contemporaries, too. Think of the witnesses of this congregation, in the present time and going back 130 years to our founding. All these saints who went before us who have built this congregation and kept it going, kept the Word of God being spoken and preached and lived here in Eau Claire, who left us a legacy of faith and trust as Plymouth United Church of Christ. Who did so during times of external and internal struggle, and anxiety about the present and the future, within the congregation, within the greater church, within society.

These people who remained faithful and trusting in God as the world was turned upside down numerous times, plunged into depressions, world wars, smaller scale wars around the world, globalism, changing fads and fashions, changes to ways of being the church, changes in culture…and surely conflict within families - biological and the church family, two against three, mother against daughter, son against father and so on…

There really is no period in human that there is not anxiety and trouble and conflict. Probably few times in our lives that we don’t have our own anxieties, conflicts, and struggles within and without. But, the writer here is saying, trust in God. Trust in God’s love, faithfulness, compassion. Trust that God will not let the Church down, but that God is using the Church to bring word of God’s love to the world.

Look out to all those saints who have gone before us, to that cloud of witnesses. They all moved forward in faith. They all moved forward in trust. Trust in God to do as the letter writer here says, “To run with perseverance the race that was set before them, looking to Jesus.” Staying focused on Jesus. That Jesus’ path is the path to follow. The saints point us to Jesus so that we may have faith and trust to run our own race, looking also only to Jesus.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

“Forward in Faith” Sermon, August 7, 2016

“Forward in Faith”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 14, August 7, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI
Focus Scripture: Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40

This letter to the Hebrews that we read was written during perhaps the second or third generation of the church, somewhere between the year 60 and 100. So somewhere from 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection to 70 years after. Somewhere in that range.

Most of the letters we have in the New Testament, we know at least who they were written to, many of them we know who wrote them, but this one we don’t know either. We don’t know who wrote it, nor to whom they wrote it. Though it would appear that it was sent to a congregation that was made up of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. And probably it was a congregation that had either undergone persecution by the Roman Empire or the Jewish leaders, or was going through persecution at the time of the writing. This was a time when Rome was persecuting Christians, throwing them to the lions, stoning them, arresting them, harassing them, and other things.

The letter is divided into four sections. The first part explores God’s word as spoken by Jesus. The second is a lifting up of Jesus as the eternal high priest in comparison to the Jewish high priests. The third section talks about faith as an insight into our world and into God’s realm. Today’s passage comes from that section. Then the fourth part is the last chapter, chapter 13, which has advice and greetings.

We read in the section about faith.

Faith is one of those words that we bounce around a lot in the church, and talk about it a lot but don’t always talk about what it means. What is faith? And faith in what?

It is a tricky word, faith.

I like to think of faith as meaning trust. To have faith in God is to trust God. So not about blind obedience or blind acceptance of doctrinal statements. Faith does not mean turning off our reasoning capacity and believing things without questioning.

Faith is simply trust. Trust in God. Trust in God’s promises. Trust that God is present. Trust that God will keep the covenant even when we fail to do so. Trusting in God’s love above all else. Trust that no matter what, nothing can separate us from God’s love. That God will never stop loving us.

As I think about the meaning of faith, I think that trust is really a good word to use in thinking about faith. Hope can be another definition. Faith is the hope in God, that God is working something in this realm for us, for the good.

There are abusive ways to think of faith as well. Like faith healing. I am suspicious about that. The people who call themselves faith healers. Or those who say, “If you just have enough faith you can be healed of anything.” Which has, of course, its negative corollary that if you have prayed for healing and did not get it, then you must lack faith. Somehow you didn’t have enough faith. So it’s your fault for not believing strong enough. I think that’s an abusive way to look at faith and our relationship to God. The so-called faith healers who say they have the power to heal people, you may have seen them on TV - and I do try to always leave some room for miracles, and things can happen that we don’t understand; there may be a few true faith healers in the world, who have some kind of Spirit-power about them, but I doubt they’d go on TV - the ones I see I often wonder, “If you were really a faith healer, then you wouldn’t be charging people to come to you in some auditorium or arena; you would be going through our hospitals and emptying them out for free.”

Not to say that there is no power in prayer to heal or help, either. Prayer is a powerful act. We pray here, of course, during worship and before meals and in the nursing homes and hospitals… but I don’t believe that God’s love for us depends on the strength of our faith or the piety of our prayers. There is no test or metric that God puts in front of us, that “Once you have enough faith, then I will do this for you.” The promise is simply God saying, “I love you, and want you to trust in that.” But no reward for doing it in the proper way, or punishment for not doing it in the right way.

We are called simply to have faith. To have trust. To trust in God. To trust in God’s love. And to trust, then, that if something bad happens to us it is not because God is punishing us, or that we did something to deserve punishment (though the bad thing happening could be our own fault at some level, but it’s not God punishing us). Or that if something good happens to us it isn’t because we did something extra special that has merited God’s favor, that God is doling out a reward on us, or that we have some kind of favored status with God.

Have faith, have trust, in neither the punishing retributive God, nor the Santa Claus God that gives gifts to all the good boys and girls of the world. Trust in the God of Jesus Christ: who promised us to love us always, who promises us eternal life with God, and who went to the cross to show us the depth of divine love.

The writer of Hebrews here talks about Abraham. Abraham being the one who shows up very early in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, and becomes of the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Hebrews writer lifts Abraham up as a man of faith, someone who trusted God. Abraham listened to God and followed, even through long periods of trial when it seems that God would never fulfill the promises that were made to Abraham.

Abraham was promised that he would become a father. That took years and years to come to fruition, and not until he and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing age. He had the promise of a new land, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. That took a long time to be fulfilled. Even Isaac and Jacob, who were his son and grandson, did not see the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jacob’s sons, the twelve sons that became the twelve tribes of Israel, did not see it. They end up in Egypt, and their descendants spend a few hundred years as slaves there. Then Moses arrives and takes the people out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land, but they have forty years of wandering in the desert. And then, FINALLY!, after about 700 years since Abraham’s time, they see the fulfilment. They see the Promised Land and enter into it with Joshua at the head of the people.

They trusted, had faith, that in all that time God was faithful to the covenant. Even the generations of people who did not see it themselves remained faithful.

Jesus said in the Gospel lesson, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit. Be like those waiting for their master to return.” Trust that the master will return, that the master will hold true to his words. And while you are waiting, be ready and be active while you wait, as well. Be about the business that you should be about while you wait.

That’s a call to us as a church as well.

To be ready, to be attentive, but to also be active. This is Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob and many generations trusted and had faith that God’s promise would be fulfilled, we also are in a time of waiting and expectation as the Church, not just ours, but the worldwide Church, is going through another kind of reformation. Like the wandering Hebrews in the desert, we who are the Church are in a bit of a wilderness time, a waiting time, a promise-fulfilling time. The Holy Spirit is up to something. It’s a time to have faith and trust. We are a generation that is being called to have faith that God is working something new. To have faith that God is growing us in a new direction as Jesus’ Church. The world is changing - that’s pretty obvious - and a we also note the church is also changing. It is changing to adapt to this new kind of world we are becoming, to be a new kind of church that is relevant and means something in this new world.

One way that we are changing is by being more present and relevant in our communities. I’ve talked about this before many times in sermons. Getting outside our walls and being present in our community, both here in Eau Claire and all over the world. We cannot stay in our walls any more, we need to be pushing out into the world that God loves. To be out there offering hope, compassion, listening ears, love for our neighbors. We are like those servants who are waiting for their master to return. We are in an in-between time of growth and reformation. We don’t know what the final product will be, or what it will look like it, or will result in.

This is a tense and anxious time, because of the change, but it is also a hopeful and exciting time! God is doing something new! Jesus is up to something, the Holy Spirit is up to something! The Church is changing as the world changes, and because it is happening in our time, that means that we get to help write the new story of what the Church of the future will look like and what it will be. We have started to live that vision now, and to then be the kind of church that says that people who are homeless matter. That people deserve a wage they can live on. That our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters matter and must have a place in the Church and in society. To say that peace is better than war. That children matter and need to be included in the life of the church and society. That we who have enough should share our excess with those who do not have enough. That the elderly matter, the sick and the inform matter. That generosity is better than accumulation. That sharing is better than hoarding. That our environment should be protected, and that we should be stewards of the world that God created. To be a church that says that where faith and trust in God’s love, that every single one of God’s people is welcome and invited to share at this table that Jesus sets before us. That we should be good and hospitable hosts opening the table to all whom God sends to it.

And so it is a somewhat anxious time in Jesus’ Church. And individual congregations, denominations, and the Church all over the world is changing. The world is changing rapidly, and we are trying to change to adapt to it, to help lead the change to direct it toward the good. To make it into a Church that means something for the new age. The Holy Spirit is doing something amazing and new. But like that promise made to Abraham, we don’t know what it will look like or when it will be fully realized. We don’t know quite what we are being birthed into, or when, other than that it will be what God wants and what the Holy Spirit blows us into being.

This is our Abraham moment, to have faith and trust through this reformation. The Church seems to go through reformations every 500 years, and this our time. It happened around the year 500, and again around the year 1000, then the 1500s with Luther and Calvin and other reformers, and now. These reformations take a few generations to get through, too, so we might not see the end of it.

As the writer of this letter to the Hebrews said at the end of the passage, “If they had been thinking of the land that they left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.” They could have gone back, and lived in the past if they wanted to. But they didn’t. They let go of the past in order to move forward. They would have had opportunity to return, but as it is, they desired a better country, a heavenly one, and so they moved forward in faith.

Let us keep moving forward, waiting actively, trusting in God’s promise of love for us, and love for the Church, and that it is through the Church that God’s love can be made known to the world.


Monday, August 1, 2016

“A bottle of this, a jug of that, and that’s how God works it” Sermon June 5, 2016, Elijah and the Widow

“A bottle of this, a jug of that, and that’s how God works it”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 5, June 5, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI
Focus Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-24 and Luke 7:11-17

We are talking about vessels for the coming weeks. We are all vessels of one form or another. All of us are vessels. We are all carrying many things around with us and in us. Think of us as jars, or Tupperware, or storage bins, or maybe even grails. What if we think of ourselves as holy grails? Which, in a sense, we are. Holy grails holding God’s spirit. Holding God’s love and grace. Would that make a difference to think of ourselves as a holy grail? I think it does. Something good to remember. We are all vessels.

In that we go about the earth, we go through this earthly life containing things, carrying things, with us. Our personalities, our hopes, our dreams. We carry those around with us. We walk around as well holding on to our failures, or guilt, or shame.

But to that, I say this: remember that our vessels have lids. We can take the lid off, and take out all that which is not healthy or wise for us to carry around. We can let go of all the unhealthy thinking or feelings that are contaminating the good. We can let God take them out and take them away from us, because that’s what God wants us to do, and wants to do for us. That is one of the functions and why we have a prayer of confession and the assurance of pardon in worship. It’s not there to make us feel bad, but to remind us of our state of grace. To admit to our mistakes, to be honest about them, and then let them go. To say, “This happened” or “I did this” or “I failed to do this” and then say “I am going to let that go. I won’t dwell on it or stew on it.” And then to be assured through pardon that God doesn’t hold it against us, and so therefore we don’t have to hold it against us either. We can let it go. We don’t have to marinate in our guilt or our shame.

Open your lid with confession and just let it out and let God have it. That, we do not need to carry in our vessels.

But our vessels also contain our skills, our passions, our life experiences. Our bodily vessels can also show some of our life experiences: the lines under our eyes, our scars, parts of our bodies that have been cut away or removed. Our bodies are also vessels that show some of those life experiences.

We also contain the Holy Spirit. We have within our vessels the Holy Spirit. Imagine that! Something as wildly precious and holy as the Spirit, God said, “I am going to contain that in these human beings that I have made in my image.” That’s good news, there, too! To think that God would use us to hold the Holy Spirit.

We contain our likes and dislikes. I hope your likes outweigh and outnumber your dislikes.

The vessels that we are contain our gratitudes and our disappointments. I hope also that our gratitudes outnumber our disappointments.

We contain love and hate and apathy. Fear and joy, courage and sadness. We also contain the fruits of the Holy Spirit, like a big ol’ fruit basket! Think of the vessel of ourselves as a big fruit basket. We will hear more on the spirit fruits in a few weeks when Andrea is preaching. We are all vessels.

We are all vessels in which God has put things, and in which we put things. Some things that come from God and are wonderful. Things that come from us can be wonderful, but we also have a tendency to put our garbage in there and let it hang out in our vessels. But that stuff… that stuff, we can let out.

The church is also a vessel. It contains many people. It is a container that is also always able to expand as well. There is not a finite space within the vessel that is the church. Always room for one more.

As our worship team was preparing worship for June, as Andrea set up earlier, this idea of vessels came up. It appeared because of stories like today, with the widow and the jar of meal and the jug of oil. We will have a jar of perfume next week that a woman uses to wash Jesus’ feet. Then we will have the vessel of the church, and then the basket of spirit fruit at the end of it all. There is a theme of vessels and containers in those lessons. And it raised some questions for us:

  • What are we carrying around in us?
  • What has God put in us?
  • What do we need to let go of to let God come into us?
  • What are you carrying in your vessel?
  • What do you carry around with you in this precious beloved unique vessel that is you?
  • What are you carrying within you?

Those are the some of the questions we thought of as we were looking at worship.

  • What are you carrying, or holding, or maybe even hiding in your vessel?
  • What are you holding in there that would be better off if you gave it God and let it go?
  • As in confession, What needs to be let go of to make room for a healthier and more spiritually mature life?
  • And what are you holding within you that could be used for the glory of God, or that you are using for the glory of God?
  • What is your vessel being used for?

We aren’t perfect. We know that are not always going to do things that give glory to God. We are all going to make mistakes. We can’t expect perfection. But we can strive, I think, toward more glory moments than mistake moments. Especially if we rely on the help of the Holy Spirit.

But there is a way to glorify God even in our mistakes, when we admit to them. When we offer forgiveness to others, or offer forgiveness to ourselves. That is a powerful witness, as well, and a way to give glory.

For this widow in Zarephath, her vessel is hospitality and faith. Amongst other things, like love for her child. But as someone in our planning team said, her vessel is one of hospitality and faith.

I thought that was spot-on, and something that I had not thought of. That’s the nice thing about coming together as a group to talk about scripture. We learn from one another.

At the time of the widow and God’s prophet Elijah, the people of Israel had been unfaithful. The king then was King Ahab, and he was awful. The biblical texts spends a lot of words letting us know how awful he was. Did terrible things to his people. He was also at the time of this story worshiping the god Ba’al, which was the god that his wife Jezebel brought to him. Jezebel was from Sidon. She was a foreigner, and she brought Ba’al with her. Ba’al was a god of rain, storm, and fertility. So it is ironic that God, responding to the unfaithfulness of worshiping the god of rain and storm, brought a years-long drought upon Israel. Then God sends Elijah to a person who was not Jewish, Hebrew, or even in the land of Israel. God sends Elijah to this widow in Zarephath, which is in Sidon. Where Jezebel came from. More irony there. God does have a sense of humor, albeit sometimes it’s a dark humor.

Elijah is told to go seek help from a nobody who has nothing. But she really is not without nothing. Materially, her vessel echoes from emptiness. But spiritually, she is filled to overflowing with faith and hospitality.

“Bring me a drink,” Elijah says to her. So she moved to do so. That’s hospitality. What do you do when someone shows up at your door? You give them something to drink. Elijah asks for water, and she goes to get some. Then as she is going, he says to her, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”

That is a very specific request. Not just “Bring me something to eat,” or “Bring me food,” but “Bring me food in your hand.” In your hand. Elijah saying, maybe, “Let your hand, let your physical self as woman and widow and mother, let your hand be the vessel that brings my nourishment. Not a plate or anything else, bring it to me in your hand.” Maybe Elijah also knows that she doesn’t have very much, and that all that she says food-wise maybe would fit in her hand.

She says, “But I have nothing baked!” She has nothing ready to eat. Embarrassed perhaps by her poverty, or embarrassed that she can’t offer hospitality to this stranger. I would think that many of you know that sense of panic, or disappointment, in not being able to provide for a visitor. I saw that in my mom, and aunts, and family friends. I think there is, definitely here in the midwest, a sense of hospitality that when someone shows up at your house you have to give them something to eat. There is always that question when someone shows up, “Did you eat?”

I saw this in my mom and other family when there wasn’t something prepared. “Oh my gosh, we have visitors, and I have no pie, no cake baked, nothing ready to serve them!” So they whip something together. That hospitality is so important to them, and so important as well to our faith as followers of Jesus. Hospitality is really important as a part of our discipleship. And very important within the culture of Elijah and this widow. She says, “I have nothing.”

And then she confesses: “I have so little, that I was going to make a last meal for my son and me and then we were going to die.”

Elijah says to her, words that we hear so often in scripture, “Do not be afraid.” He tells her not to be afraid that there seems to be so little. “Don’t be afraid of me. Don’t be afraid to show hospitality. Don’t be afraid to give from what you have.” And remember, too, that this widow was not Jewish, Hebrew, not an Israelite. She is more than likely a Ba’al worshiper herself. Living in a land foreign from Elijah’s. I don’t think there’s any reason that she would know who Elijah is. I don’t think she would know that she has a great prophet at her doorstep. To her, he’s just a stranger. She has no idea who he is, what god he worships, maybe not even knowing where he’s from. He says to her, “Do not be afraid. Make me food, and make some for you, and for your son, because my god” - now he lets her know who he is! - “Because my god, the God of Israel has said that your jar of meal and your jug of oil shall not fail until God brings rain upon the earth. My God will provide for you. My God cares about you.” So she followed his directions. She made the food and her vessel, filled with faith, and maybe filled with hope - though it can be difficult sometimes to tell the difference between hope and faith, as they are very similar - she does as Elijah instructs her. Her jar and her jug were not emptied. They never ran out of meal, never ran out of oil.

As someone in our planning team said, “God gives us vessels of unending love and grace.”

What is in your vessel? How much room for God have you left in your vessel? Are there some things that need to be cleaned out to make more room for God? What are you using your vessel for? I hope that you are using it for the glory of God, and for making a more loving world. For being disciples. For showing the faith of God to those around us, trusting that we have unending jars and jugs that the more we empty them out for God’s glory, for the sake of God’s realm and the sake of God’s people, the more that God fills them back to the top.


“Life Consists in the Abundance of What We Have Given Away” Sermon July 31, 2016

“Life Consists in the Abundance of What We Have Given Away”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 13, July 31, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI
Focus Scripture: Luke 12:13-21

Jesus finishes here, after his parable, with the words, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Now, I could say, and I’m sure many have before me who have taken this text and said, “Therefore every dollar that you keep to yourself and don’t give to the church, God will hold against you.” Or put it the other way around, and say that “For every dollar you give to the church, God will hold in your favor.”

But I don’t think Jesus is talking about institutional giving. And I don’t think that God holds against us or in favor of us just because we give or don’t give a certain amount to the church. I don’t think that’s a good way to look at God.

I think that when Jesus says, “Be rich toward God” he isn’t talking about being generous to God’s institutions, which in Jesus’ time would have been the Temple in Jerusalem; and would be nowadays the Church, or temples, or mosques, or wherever God’s people gather. We have record of Jesus at other times being critical of the greed of the Temple, just as Luther and later reformers were critical of the greed of the Church. Even churches can be greedy and fall to that sinful temptation. Even the institutions that are of God can be greedy and fall into that bad side of idolatry of money and things.

So I do not think that this is a stewardship parable in the sense of giving to the institution. This is not saying that you must give to God by giving to the institution.

But it is a stewardship parable in terms of our relationship to money and our relationship to things, which relationships are - ultimately - about our relationships to people. Our relationships to our neighbors and our neighborhood. Our relationship to money and/or things very much informs how, then, we relate to the people around us and how we relate to God.

Jesus asks us to be rich toward God.

I don’t think he’s just talking about money or things, either. Being rich toward God is also our attitude toward life. Be rich in attitude to God. I think there is a good reason that the people who put together the lectionary readings for each Sunday paired this parable with Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Paul says some words about what it could look like to live rich toward God. Paul says, “Set your minds on things above.” Meaning, set your minds on godly things, heavenly things. Though please let me say that this is an okay metaphor, but it’s an unfortunate metaphor that we are stuck with, to think always of God as “above” or up. God is also here, and also below. Above, here, and below. It is unfortunate metaphor to think of God as above. Maybe, if we thought more about God being here, and of God being below with the destitute, the poor, the homeless, the addicted, those who are the underclass of society… if we thought more of God also as below and here, instead of just above, maybe we would notice and care for our neighbors a lot more than we do.

Set your mind on godly things, Paul says, and let go of the ungodly. He speaks mostly of the ungodly in this passage: impurity, evil desires, greed (which he also calls “idolatry”), disobedience, abusive language, malice. He says to embrace the godly. He doesn’t list the godly here, but he does in his letter to the Galatians when he talks about the spirit fruit: goodness, self-control, kindness, love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, gentleness. That is how we can be rich toward God. That is what it is to be rich toward God. By showing the spirit fruit and letting go of the other things, enjoyable as they might be at times, especially in certain moments. Using abusive language, or being angry, or slandering… sometimes those can feel sooo good, but Paul says, let go of that and replace it with godly riches, which are the spirit fruit. Replace with goodness, generosity, faithfulness, love…

The man in the parable tore down his buildings to build bigger storehouses for his crops. His crops were his capital, his valuables, his treasure. Even though his previous storehouses were clearly enough to live on, which we know because he is still alive. But now he has an abundance and says, “Well, then I must tear down what I have and build bigger ones because now i have more stuff.” Gotta have a place for our stuff. Like the great George Carlin routine about how we like our stuff and ever search for room to store it. To say, “God has blessed me so much, I had to get a second (or third) storage unit” as though it is some kind of competition that he who has the most storage units at the end is the winner. The one who collects the most is the winner.

I think you’ve missed the understanding of what it means to be blessed, because, fool, this night your life is demanded of you.

What good are those extra storehouses. What good is it to keep all of that abundance for yourself. Why do that?

In the context of this parable, Jesus is offering it as a response to this man’s demand that Jesus tell his brother to divide his inheritance. A couple weeks ago we had Jesus at Martha’s house and she’s doing all the work while Mary listens to Jesus. Martha comes out and tells Jesus, “Say something to Mary! Please, tell her that she has to help me!” An instance of trying to get Jesus involved in a domestic dispute. And here, in today’s lesson, is another domestic dispute. “Jesus, I was you to intervene on my behalf with my brother. Tell him to split our inheritance.”

So it begins, really, about relationships. The relationship between these two brothers, and the relationship at least this man who speaks and his relationship with money. The whole Luke passage begins and ends with relationships. It really is not about money per se. What is our relationship with money and with one another?

Jesus begins with saying, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The man in the parable had an abundance of possessions and yet his life was taken away. What do you think he might have missed in life? What lesson he might have missed? Or what parts of life did he miss because he had this attitude? What did he miss in life?

Do we want to be that person?

Do you want to be that person?

What is it to be more attached to a thing, than to the people around you? What does that say about our values as people, as a church, as a community?

As I have grown older and marginally wiser, I hope, and I hope becoming a better disciple over the years, a better follower of Jesus over the years, I’ve come to a few conclusions of life related to this parable. Some of my attitudes toward money and things, and even the way that I live, have changed.

One less is that I learned I really don’t need a lot of stuff. I used to think that I did need a lot of stuff. I would collect things, spend my money and time on stuff that I found later really didn’t matter so much. I don’t need to have a lot of stuff. I still have too much, but I am trying to reduce as best as I can.

In letting go of things, now, much of what I have left are the things that are more valuable and important to me. So now I have art that means something to me. That either I bought while on a trip, or I know the artist, or some kind of attachment to the art or the mementos that I pick up on trips. I used to just buy a pile of souvenirs to bring home for the sake of having a pile of souvenirs, many of which I never really looked at again but for some reason I would collect all of them. Now when I go somewhere, I maybe buy one or two things that really say something about that experience or that trip that I can display or put in a place where I can see them, or that I actually use them. Something other than putting them in a box and putting them in a closet. Nicer things and things that mean something to me because of the memory they bring and the story behind them.

A second thing I’ve learned is that letting go of things is really quite freeing. Physical things, like knick knacks, toys, souvenirs, money, or letting go of the things that Paul was talking about. Letting go of the pride, the anger, the abusive language. I made a new year’s resolution a couple years ago to try not to be so sarcastic or divisive online in my comments to people. If I am going to say something, let it be something that builds or helps the conversation and isn’t just mean, firing off my anger, or a nasty retort, or a sarcastic something or other. Letting go of the abusive language, and letting go of things as well.

I talked about storage units before. I say that as one that has had a storage unit in down in Sparta for 20-some years. When I moved to New York to go to seminary, I could take a small amount. I was going to live in a dorm, but I had been living on my own so I had a kitchen full of equipment and furniture and other things that I wouldn’t need in NYC. And I thought I’d be coming right back after graduation, but I didn’t. I stayed in New York for another ten years. So by the time I came back to Wisconsin, I had new and better furniture, and better kitchen equipment, and other things. So other than my bicycle, I haven’t needed anything that I had in storage so I left it untouched. But I’m trying to empty it out now.

I was down there a few weeks ago and brought six boxes of stuff back with me. Out of those six boxes there was one board game that I wanted, and some mementos from my fraternity. The rest of the stuff was nothing that means anything to me. Computer books that were totally outdated. Loading supplies that I don’t need because I don’t hunt any more. Collectible glasses that meant so much to me at one time, but don’t really mean anything to me any more. Things in there that can go to someone for whom it will have meaning, or give to the thrift sale here, or give away. Some items that are collectibles that can go on ebay. But stuff to be let go.

There is a lot of freedom in letting go of things. To not let those things rule us. Whether physical things or stuff like our pride, our egos, our traditions, our ideas…

The third thing that I’ve learned is that I don’t bring into my life any more things that I don’t plan to use. I think I’ve used this example before, but I’ll say it again. For so much of my mother’s life she wanted a set of china. Totally understandable. She grew up in incredible poverty, had so little, and the china was a symbol of having “made it” or at least of having gotten out of poverty. So I can see her desire for having china. But once she finally got a set, she was so afraid of breaking it, that we used it only twice. And she did not even display it - it sat in her fancy dishware cabinet, behind closed doors, unseen and unused.

I don’t bring things into my life that I don’t plan to use or that I am afraid of breaking or that I am afraid of losing. I don’t want my possessions to have that power over me. If I’m afraid of it breaking, then I won’t get it. Or if I am afraid of losing it, or someone taking it, then I won’t have it. I don’t want those to have that much power over me. I don’t want to store up treasures for me, but instead want to be rich toward God. I am certainly not in any perfect, or anywhere near as good as I would like to be, but that is the value that I try to keep before me.

As your pastor, I want you to do that as well.

As people of God, as a church, I want us to do that as well. To keep that value before us, that life consists not in the abundance of possessions, but in the abundance of what we have given away.


“Conversations with God” - sermon from July 24, 2016, on prayer and praying

“Conversations with God”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 12, July 24, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI

The story of Abraham and God having a conversation here is one of asking, seeking, and knocking with God. Abraham has the audacity to petition God. Like many of our prayers, God’s ultimate answer is “no,” but Abraham asks. To be in conversation with God and speak what is on his heart. Abraham speaking what is on his heart. God is planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

But first, I want to take a little tangent here from the prayerful part of this text just to avoid continuing the story that has grown around this story that God’s anger with Sodom and Gomorrah was solely or mostly about homosexuality, or other sexual issues. Let’s expand that a bit. In the Genesis story, God does not offer specifics about the wickedness of the people, just that they have fallen into wicked ways. God doesn’t say what they’ve done, only that they have fallen into evil ways. To get the answer, we have to go to the prophet Ezekiel, who gives us an answer to what Sodom’s sin really was: 

Ezekiel 16:49 [this is God speaking through the prophet Ezekiel] “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

They had fallen away from God’s way of loving your neighbor. Their sin was that they did not help the poor and needy; that they had excess food and were not sharing it. It was a sin of failing to show hospitality, and a sin to fail to love their neighbors by feeding the hungry and taking care of those in need. They failed to live up to God’s standards that we would love our neighbors and take care of one another.

That’s not particularly pertinent to this sermon, but it’s hard to read this story without wanting to mention that the sin here is not homosexuality, but their failure to take care of the poor and needy. It is important to know and remember, in case you hear - as we often do - someone blame homosexuality as the sin of this city. Now you have a way of challenging them, and reminding them that, no, the sin was that they, as a community, particularly the monied and powerful part of that community, failed at the primary duty that God sets before us: to care for the least of these, for those who are the most vulnerable and powerless. So, end of tangent, and back to the sermon.

God says to Abraham that God is going to destroy the cities.

But Abraham sees the terrible nature of what God proposes, and so he implores God in this conversation not to do so. And what is prayer, but conversation with God? That is all prayer is: it is having a conversation with God. For all that we may think that prayer is something tricky or requires a certain skill or takes training - and I know a lot of us are fearful of praying in public, whether it be saying a table grace at our potlucks or praying publicly at other times - it is not a tricky thing to do. It’s just conversation. Letting God know what is on your mind and heart. Your joys and concerns. We do that every Sunday, taking our joys and concerns and putting them in prayer. Your disappointments and your thanksgivings. Your fed-up-ness with the evils of the world, or your fed-up-ness of your own mistakes or proclivity to do wrong, or your sufferings that are not in accordance with how your values say the world ought to be, or your sufferings from health, or things happening in your family, your community, the world…. Whatever it is that is on your mind or heart, offered to God in a conversation. 

It doesn’t have to be flowery Shakespearean speech or beautiful language. It just needs to be honest. It needs to come from the heart and your mind. As you would speak with a friend in conversation. However you would speak to your friends, talk to God that way. Not like talking to your boss or the Queen of England or something…. Nothing tricky or difficult about it. 
Give it to God, and then listen for God’s response. Which rarely comes in speech. It rarely comes directly sas speech, but it does come from the people around us and what they say, or through scripture, or an event. Listen. Have that conversation, and then listen for God’s response. 

So Abraham is in conversation with God. This is a very prayerful conversation. Abraham doesn’t like what God is planning to do. “But what if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Would you destroy them with the city, just because you are angry at some of the people?”

Abraham is reminding God of God’s sense of justice. They have been in a relationship for a long time. 

And God says, “No, for the sake of fifty I will not.”

Then Abraham says, “Well, what about forty-five?” And God says, “No, if there are forty-five.”

Well, then, how about forty?

One might think this is trying God’s patience. But it is being persistent. God continues to respond to each of Abraham’s interruptions. “Are you really willing to take out innocents, God, just to punish those who maybe deserve it? The innocents don’t deserve it.”

This is coming out of Abraham’s anguish, maybe even anger, at God, that God would plan to do something like this. Many of the Psalms, too, are prayers of anguish and anger and lament at God. How could you let this happen? Or “Remember your covenant with us, God!” Prayers of lament: This is happening to me, God, and it is not good. Or, This is happening to us, and it is not good.  These prayers of lament. Offer that to God as well. They are reminders to God that God, also, must be faithful. Conversation with God. 

The entirety of who we are, our joys and concerns, our hopes and pains, whatever it is, offer it in conversation with God.

One of my very favorite comic book writers and artists is Will Eisner. He wrote especially of the human condition and the human struggle. Don’t be fooled by the term “comic book writer and artist”, he was a serious literary guy as well. He did comics from the 1930s into his old age until he died in 2005. In his later years he did graphic novels of very serious story telling about aging, life, the life of cities. Some of you older folk might remember “The Spirit” that ran in Sunday newspapers from 1930s to the early 40s. Will was Jewish, and grew up in poverty in the tenements of New York City in the South Bronx, after his parents immigrated to the U.S. He was born and grew up in conditions that weren’t particularly good. Lots of poverty around him, and rough times. Then after Eisner got married, he had a daughter. She died of leukemia when she was a teenager. He turned his anguish over her death into what became a very important book called “Contract with God”. I highly recommend that you read it. In this book, a faithful young Jewish man, Frimme, writes a contract with God promising that he (Frimme) will be faithful by living a life of good deeds. He does live a life of good deeds, and becomes successful. He moves from Russia to New York City, and everything is going well for him and he attributes all his success to being a man of good deeds, but mostly because of God upholding the covenant. He is very faithful and believes that God is upholding the covenant, the contract. But then his daughter dies when she is a teenager, much like Eisner’s daughter. Then he abandons his faith because he is so angry at God. Throughout the story are moments of prayerful anguish that the man has with God. The debate he has with God, like Abraham and like Moses and others we read in the Bible. He laments, “Why did this happen? How dare you break the covenant?” He lets all of his anger and anguish at God. 

Read it to find out how it ends. It’s really a very honest and faithful take, I think, on how our relation with God can be be fully honest. It doesn’t just have to be “Thank you, everything is okay.” Or pretend that God only wants to hear our thanks and praise for the good things in our lives. 

God is big enough to take our anger and our suffering. God doesn’t want just our thanks and praise as though everything is okay, though if we are honestly thankful, then offer it. God also wants all of who we are, though. Be honest about all of who we are with God.

Abraham is, I think, angry at God here. They’ve had a long relationship. Abraham has put a lot of trust into God, and now God seems to be willing to do something that goes against God’s nature.

Abraham is aware of this because Abraham has been paying attention, listening to God, being in prayer with God.

If you were here last Sunday, you heard the story of Jesus in the home of Martha, in which her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens while Martha does all the work. She is cooking the food, cleaning the dishes, doing the chores, and providing the hospitality. Martha becomes angry at Mary, and she asks Jesus to intervene. But Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better way.”

If you want to know more about that, you can last week’s sermon or listen to it online. 

In that instance, at Martha’s house, the better way was a time of paying attention. Of listening to Jesus, hearing the word, finding her focus in Jesus. Martha’s busy-ness was not rooted in Jesus, it was rooted in something else - her need to serve, perhaps, or something. Spend time in prayer to find our focus again.

Something we often lose in the church. We get focused on the programs or the building or the budget or other distractions, and we lose our focus on Jesus as the reason for why we do what we do, and why we are gathered. We do what we do, which is to make and grow disciples and grow in faith and bring God’s love to other people, because of Jesus. To follow his example, to do what he asks us to do.

Mary has chosen the better way. Then immediately after that brief interlude at Martha’s home, the Gospel moves to Jesus and his disciples being out together, and they ask him about prayer. Like they are asking Jesus, “We’ve just witnessed the interchange between Martha and Mary. Clearly it is important to pay attention, to listen, and to spend time in the word, and to spend time in prayer. So teach us. Teach us how to pray.”

Jesus teaches them what we now call the Lord’s prayer. Which is an incredibly efficient prayer that covers all the bases in few words. It begins by saying to God that YOU are the holy one, God; we are here to be about YOUR realm and doing YOUR will, not ours, here on earth. Give us enough for today, because we recognize that you are the one who gives, and that we don’t need more than we actually need. Forgive our sins, because we know we can’t, and help us to forgive others with the same generosity that you show us. Keep us from temptation. Keep us focused on you and paying attention, so that we don’t stray. So that we don’t go into ungodly places with our lives. We pray this to you because we know that you are the one who is the ground of our being, and the only one who deserves the glory.

Then Jesus continues by telling his disciples about “ask, seek, knock” and God will listen. He says, “Will a father give a child a scorpion if she asks for an egg? Or a snake if he asks for a fish?” Of course not! He’s saying, “Look to the most good and honorable person that you know, and know that God is more good than that! God is more loving than the most loving person you know.” Keep that relationship going with God, by going to God in prayer. 

Keep that relationship going. With prayer meaning “conversation”. Remember that GOD is the prime mover, not us; and that we don’t have to go it alone, nor should we try. The faithful way to go is to ask God to come along with us on the journey. Or even better yet, to first ask God how we can go along to where God is moving, where God would have us go. To ask how we can join Jesus on his (our) journey. It is easy to forget to include God in what we are doing. I know I often forget to include God, or to seek God’s counsel first. It is easy to fall into doing what I think ought to be done, and then maybe at the end of it, then remember God, “Whoops, I screwed that up, God; perhaps you can fix it for me.”

Not to say, “Jesus, do this for me”, but to say, “Jesus, help me do for you what you want from me.”

Let’s take it as “ask, seek, knock” means, basically, that we’ve remembered to seek God’s counsel, and to include God in our plans, and that we can go to God with all that we are. All our hopes and dreams, our sufferings and angst. Focus our minds on Jesus and to root our plans in God’s vision and who God is. We may discern that through paying attention to the word, and through prayer. Praying can help us focus our minds to find, to hear, and to be aware of the answer. To do that so that we may more faithfully act as God would have us act. In that holy conversation of give and take with God, in honest dialogue with the God who loves us and who loves the world, and who does want to hear from us because God cares for us. 

Don’t be afraid to pray. Don’t be fearful to pray to God. Whether you do it silently in your head, or if you are with a group of people and someone says, “Would you like to lead the prayer?” You can do it! It might be scary at first, but just think of it as having a conversation. Whatever is on your mind or your heart. It should not be a terrifying thing to do, or a scary thing to do, but it is a beautiful gift that God has given us because God cares for us all. 

May you have a good and faithful prayer life. 


"Marthas and Marys" Sermon from July 17, 2016

“Marthas and Marys”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 11, July 17, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI
Focus Scripture: Luke 10:38-49

So, we have Jesus and Mary and Martha and a domestic squabble about household chores and womanly duties.

The stuff that soap operas are made of. Or perhaps sitcoms. Jesus and Mary and Martha on their weekly adventures together.

My friend Jeff and I discussed this text this week, because he is preaching on it at his home church. He’s a UCCer over in Oshkosh and lay academy graduate, and gets to preach occasionally. When he does, he likes to get into a conversation about the text with me and talk about the sermon.

He’s also really funny, as well as faithful and very serious about his faith, but not afraid to find the funny in it.

So we got on a riff about what if this were a 1980s sitcom. We didn’t know what each episode would contain, but we knew that every show would end in the same way. It would be the catchphrase, Jesus saying, “Remember, Martha, choose the better way!” (or sometimes, “Remember, Mary, choose the better way!”).

And Mary says, “Oh, Martha!”

And Martha says, “Oh, Mary!”

Then the theme music is cued, close up for Jesus laughing and rolling his eyes as these two have another argument about listening versus doing, and freeze screen on his laughing face as the credits rolls.

It *is* a comical text, in a way. It’s a funny little story here, and sets itself up in the archetypal way that so many sitcoms do.

Martha is the busy-body who wants to get things done and make sure people are taken care of. She cares about hospitality, but she’s always busy with something, not taking time to sit down or even enjoy the food that she’s serving to others.

Mary, the dreamer, the one who would rather have her head in a book (or in this case, be at Jesus’ feet listening to stories and teaching), who isn’t so much concerned whether the dishes get done today or tomorrow. The work will always be there, let’s take our time now to enjoy today.

Narrow visions of both. I’m sure Martha was not only a busy kind of person, and that Mary was not just the dreamer bookhead. But for a sitcom, that works, as they tend to be one-dimensional archetypes.

They have Jesus in their home, and Martha is growing increasingly irritated at Mary. She grows increasingly irritated that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet while there’s work to be done.

But instead of complaining to Mary, which would be the right way to handle this dispute, she goes to Jesus. That’s where I see the humor in the text. She doesn’t speak to Mary about this, she asks Jesus, the Lord of all Creation and savior of the world and Prince of Peace, “Hey - Lord-boy - talk to my sister, and tell her to help out!”

Kind of a disrespectful way to approach it.

I don’t know if she knew that Jesus was Lord of all Creation or Savior of the World. But I’m pretty sure she thought of him as an important teacher. Maybe as a holy man. She does call him Lord. So this request is quite odd to ask Jesus to intervene. Or maybe not.

Maybe she feel his divine influence would help her in a conversation in which she has failed on her own hundreds of times.

Or maybe she thought since Mary was so willing to listen to Jesus, that she’d listen to him tell her to help. Imagine that teaching. “Blessed are the meek, for they inherit the world. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the poor. And Mary, come on, would it kill ya to help out your sister once in awhile?”

It’s so wonderfully domestic, this little passage tucked between the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray. The Prince of Peace is in their home, and Martha asks him to mediate a dispute with Mary about chores and hospitality. And then it doesn’t go her way, either. First she gets whammied by a sister who won’t help, and then when she ass Jesus to help out, she gets whammied by him by being told that she’s chosen the lesser way.

Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

Then the story ends. No resolution to it.

So did she sit down and join Jesus, or did she go back to work? What would you do?

Hmmm…. It is an interesting question.

Interesting because it seems to me that Jesus offers her a somewhat confusing answer here because there is so much emphasis in the biblical texts about hospitality. About the importance of making sure that guests are being take care, and neighbors being cared for. We see that in the Genesis story that we read. Abraham shows hospitality to the strangers, and discovers he is literally showing hospitality to angels. Like it says in the letter to the Hebrews (which is part of the New Testament), “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

We have talked a lot about hospitality in this congregation over the past couple of years as well. How important it is to be open and welcoming, to greet people, to go beyond in serving them, and so on.

And so here is Martha, working herself into a sweat, into anxiety and frustration, to be a good host and make sure her guests are being taken care of…

and Jesus tells her she’s wrong.

So which one is it? Hospitality and service, or sit at Jesus’ feet? There is tension here in this text. Just as there tension in our lives, too.

However… however… I can also imagine that there were times that Jesus lifted up Martha as the worker, as the one who chose the better way. It’s contextual, the times to listen or to act. Sometimes we need to sit and listen, sometimes we need to act. Jesus does tell his disciples to out and do things, but there are also times that Jesus spends time with them teaching and praying, giving them the word. So I can imagine that were times that Jesus said to Mary, “Today is not the day for words and learning, Mary. Today we are out with the people, healing and comforting and washing their feet.”

But in her house, that day, it was a day of learning and being immersed in the word. And Martha, for all the gifts of her hospitality, was not listening. She was also focused on herself. She uses “me” language here. She addresses Jesus as Lord but then only wants his lordly power to make a decision in her favor. A tool that she can use, instead of a locus of spiritual centering. She’s focused on herself and her work, but not on Jesus, the one who should be her (and our) focus.

It’s a trap that churches can fall into. To do things to maintain the institution, but falling away from engagement with the living Christ. To remember WHY we are the church, and WHY we do what we do. It’s easily to fall into the place of focusing on our work, ourselves, our building, our budgets, or whatever might be that churches can get caught up on and leave Jesus out of it, or push him out of the picture. To not take time to remember to sit at Jesus’ feet. To be immersed in Jesus’ word and remember what he said. To hear him speak again.

I have mentioned before that our Conference, the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC, is putting a lot of time and resources into a new initiative on church vitality and church growth. The tagline of this initiative “From maintenance to mission.”

It is a moving away from focusing on ourselves and our activity, the maintaining the church or preserving the institution for the sake of the institution or the buildings or the history… it is to move from a maintenance frame of mind to making the church a missional church, which is what we ought to be about. From an inward focus to an outward focus.

But part of that is also to spend the time with Jesus’ words to remember who we are and who Jesus calls us to be. To remember WHY we are doing what we do, and what we are called to do and be, keeping Jesus as our focus always.

So in this sitcom that Jeff and I came up with, I could see that each week’s episode having a different adventure of some sort. Mary and Martha and Jesus in different situations. Some weeks Jesus has to remind Martha that her activity has lost its rootedness and she needs to spend some time in prayer and contemplation and listening to Jesus’ words; and some weeks, it is Mary who gets told that she’s spending too much time in the word and she needs to go out and make her faith active and alive in the world. The tension between contemplation, learning, praying and praying by being active in the world, by doing the mission that we want to do. That tension of doing both.

That’s the cycle. Come to worship on Sunday mornings and worship to hear scripture, to remember the words, to sing, to spend time with fellow disciples. Hopefully you are spending some other time during the week reading scripture or something faith-based, spending time with friends discussion life, spending some time in prayer. All of that to help give focus, then, to how or why we act at work or in school, being out and about in the world, or how we serve the church and how we encounter our neighbors.

The Church needs both the Marthas and the Marys, and thank God for them both. The Church needs the Marthas and Marys.

“Oh, Mary!”

“Oh, Martha!”

And Jesus smiles, knowing that they understand the need for both.