In the Middle of Storms

June 24, 2012


by Delacroix

1 Samuel 17;  2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Mark 4:35-41

I am struck by the contrast of today’s readings  with last Sunday when we were reading about the slow, steady, quiet growth of the Kingdom of God. Like seeds “automatically” coming up after being sown, spreading like weeds without much coaxing. And we saw how God chose the overlooked, youngest Son of Jesse to be king, out of the limelight of courts and reporters.

Today in contrast to  the quiet, unobserved growth of the kingdom, we have a threatening storm, a fearsome giant, and a list of hazards,both natural and man made,Paul has dealt with on missionary trips. These are definitely “on the other hand” sort of lessons.

When Jesus had finished all the hopeful parable of the invincible, steady, quiet coming of the kingdom of God, he got in a boat “just as he was”, not a suitcase or toothbrush. Just him. And when the boat left the shore behind, he promptly fell asleep. However much the story ends in stressing his divinity, let us not miss this picture of Christ’s utter humanity exhausted with a pillow under his head.

And a storm comes.

Storms will.

Trouble comes into every life.

Now I know you could have gone to some church today and heard some preacher assure you that if you keep your nose clean, tithe, and really have faith– that some bubble of protection will insulate you from anything going seriously wrong. But I think that is a lie. And you know it is a lie too.

Back when I was in divinity school I was driving home to SC and giving a friend who was from Greenville a lift too. Things were going great till we got to Charlotte and the race traffic was merging into I-85. I know they have improved all the traffic flow since, but it brought the interstate to a standstill. I had been sitting there just a while when I glanced back in my rear view mirror and saw someone barreling down behind me with her eyes on the visor mirror while she putting lipstick on. I braced for the crash and tried to point my tires off the road show I wouldn’t get crushed between her and the car in front of me.

The car was totaled. It did not matter that my tires were good and my inspection up to date, that I had been obeying the speed limits and watching the road.

Things happen to you that you in no way cause or did anything obvious to deserve. I don’t care if you have good karma. It won’t stop getting hit by somebody with bad karma.

Some trouble we do make for ourselves. But sometimes trouble just comes at us. And here is a disturbing thought, having Jesus on board did not keep the waves out of the boat.

Paul certainly knows that from personal experience. In today’s reading he recounts for a second time the stuff he has been through– well at least some of it– run out of town, shipwrecked, beaten, jailed, falsely accused, jeered. And the worse it yet to come– as tradition reports he will be martyred in Rome by Nero.

Despite all this, Paul seems to feel he is doing the right thing being a missionary. “I have nothing, but I have everything.”

I have known people like that, who had little but were so good hearted, and happy and nurturing and generous you’d never think of them as self-pitying.

And I have had the pleaasure of knowing people who have a lot of this world’s goods but didn’t let it go to their head. Paul says “have as if you didn’t have ” that is, don’t let what you have define you– because in God’s eyes it doesn’t.

And if you don’t have– don’t have as if you had– because poverty doesn’t define you either. “I have learned I can do all things through Christ.”

Paul writes about a thorn in the flesh in chapter 12 of this letter. “God, you know I could serve you better if you had pity and removed this thing that holds me back and makes me miserable.” God said, “no” God said, it is going to be all right, because you may have the thorn, but you will also have my grace. My grace will be sufficient.

Trouble comes and sometimes God just leaves us in it. It sets up camp and stays a long time.

So…Where is the good news?

God may not prevent storms, but God does not abandon us to the storms. The storm does not have the last word.

Bottom line– don’t be afraid, trust God, who is greater than the any storm.

That trust makes you brave to face anything. David faces Goliath, runs out to him. Faith shakes fear loose and makes you brave and daring and inventive.

There is a lot of flap in the news about the Vatican’s decision to come down hard on the nuns for writing frankly about sexual ethics and the desirability of women having priestly functions. Vatican slapped them down, but a lot of lay Catholics are saying people are not going to buy it. They know the work these women have done sacrificially and bravely in places of need, violence, desperation. Don’t mess with the nuns.

Remember the “Kony 2012” video that was an Internet hit earlier this year, about an African warlord named Joseph Kony? One of the few heroes in the long Kony debacle was a Comboni nun, Sister Rachele Fassera.

In 1996, Kony’s army attacked a Ugandan girls’ school and kidnapped 139 students. Sister Rachele hiked through the jungle in pursuit of the kidnappers — some of the most menacing men imaginable, notorious for raping and torturing their victims to death. Eventually, she caught up with the 200 gunmen and demanded that they release the girls. Somehow, she browbeat the warlord in charge into releasing the great majority of the girls.

Kristof writes: “I’m betting on the nuns to win this one as well. After all, the sisters may be saintly, but they’re also crafty. Elias Chacour, a prominent Palestinian archbishop in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, recounts in a memoir that he once asked a convent if it could supply two nuns for a community literacy project. The mother superior said she would have to check with her bishop.

The bishop was very clear in his refusal to allow two nuns,” the mother superior told him later. “I cannot disobey him in that.” She added: ‘I will send you three nuns!’” 1

You know, you could be scared out of doing the right thing.

Francis Bacon, quoting Montaigne, wrote “If it be well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards God, and a coward towards men. For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man.”

The  Israelite army was afraid of Goliath. Their consciousness was flooded with the threat he presented.

David was more conscious of his trust in God than the intimidation of Goliath. And so he acted bravely in the face of that danger, not thinking his five stones inferior to the brass and iron of the giant’s armory.

If you have the proper fear of God we will not be intimidated by anything we have to face in this world.–Augustine

Psalm 18.1 The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.

Psalm 91 He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High/Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress;/My God, in Him I will trust.”

3 Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler/And from the perilous pestilence.

4 He shall cover you with His feathers,/And under His wings you shall take refuge;

His truth shall be your shield and buckler.

5 You shall not be afraid of the terror by night,/Nor of the arrow that flies by day,

6 Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness,/ Nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,/ And ten thousand at your right hand;

But it shall not come near you.

8 Only with your eyes shall you look / And see the reward of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge,/Even the Most High, your dwelling place,/10 No evil shall befall you,

Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;/ 11 For He shall give His angels charge over you,To keep you in all your ways.

12 In their hands they shall bear you up, /Lest you dash your foot against a stone.

Four Old Women – John Upton Messenger Spring 2012:

“It was during the last trip to China that I had an opportunity to visit and preach at a church in Hangzhou, a city southwest of Shanghai. After all the services that day there was an opportunity to have lunch with the pastor. The church cornerstone indicated that the church had been built in 1888 and therefore had seen many changes in China in its lifetime.

“So, I asked the pastor over lunch how the church had endured the Cultural Revolution era. The pastor leaned back in his chair, relaxed, and smiled a big grin and said, “That is an incredible story.” I asked if he would share the story, which he did.

“He recalled first the impact the Cultural Revolution had on Christians and on the church. Bibles were confiscated and destroyed. In front of that particular church thousands of bibles were taken both from the church building and from church members. They were gathered in a huge pile and subsequently burned as a lesson for all in the community. The ministers were carted off to western provinces for reorientation and to work in propaganda camps. None of the ministers who served the church in those years were ever seen again.

“Church members were told they would not be able to gather in the church for worship or for any other reason. If they did they would be arrested and taken to reorientation camps as well. Many of the church leaders were eventually taken and, along with the pastors, disappeared.

“It was a frightening time for members of the church and for Christians in general. They could not carry bibles; attend any church; pray in public; speak of their faith in any way, including with family members; and could not gather together for religious purposes of any nature.

“Family members could not be trusted. The government was thorough in its intimidation and scare tactics. Consequently, the church was completely shut down and essentially destroyed.

“That was true, he said, except for four older women in the church. They continued to gather for prayer and quoting of scripture as best as they could remember. The authorities wanted to arrest them but a high ranking government official just laughed when he heard of them meeting and said, “They are just four old women. They can’t do any harm, let them be.” So, they continued to meet for literally decades.

“At one of their meetings one of the ladies said that they have been enjoying their fellowship each week for years but did they think that maybe God wanted them to do something for him besides enjoy the fellowship. They were poor and totally disregarded by everyone, including their own families, but they began to pray about something they could do. After much prayer they felt a conviction to make a contribution to someone’s life so they identified a young man who demonstrated much talent in their neighborhood and decided they would put together the meager resources they had among themselves and help him attend college. He was very bright and gifted but came from a very poor family that could never have the resources to send him to school.

“The young man went off to college with their support. Several years later when he graduated he came back to the four ladies to thank them for believing in him and encouraging him and giving him a future. He asked if there were anything he could do for them to express his appreciation. They said yes, could he find a bible for them to have. It had been over 20 years since they had seen one. He immediately told them that was against the law and he couldn’t do it. They thanked him for listening to them anyway.

“In a few days he actually found a bible and quietly took it to the ladies. They were thrilled and held it close one by one. Then he made a mistake. He asked if there were anything else he could do for them. They said, “Yes, would you please read it to us? None of us can read.” So, he began reading.

“As he read to them for several weeks he noticed that he was reading more for himself than for the ladies. He found that he was being drawn to the gospel he was reading. It wasn’t long before he became a Christian himself.

“The pastor paused, looked at me, and said, “I was that young man they helped.” That day when I preached at that church there were over 25,000 in total attendance from all six worship services. I knew that day I had just heard a Pentecost story. The wind of the Spirit is blowing and there is no one at the margins, including four older women.”

Yes, Jesus cares, but it does not mean we will not go through times of danger, suffering, or even death.

The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil was born to agnostic parents. She suffered all of her short life from health problems. She fought in the Spanish Civil War and participated in the French Resistance in World War II. Along the way, she came to embrace Christianity. In the midst of a particularly difficult time of suffering, Weil had an experience of Christ’s presence. She has been reciting the George Herbert poem “Love” as she often did in the midst of violent headaches. Weil writes:’ It was during one of these recitations that…Christ himself came down and took possession of me…I had never foreseen the possibility…of a real contact, person-to-person, here below, between a human being and God…. Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love” [Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 69].

Reynolds Price tells of an 87-year-old woman who wrote to him about one of those moments in which the clouds scatter, the darkness lifts, and we see Jesus. She was facing her own time of difficulty as she was going through exhausting medical tests in preparation for surgery. One day she had a kind of vision. “I went out along the Galilee hills and came to a crowd gathered around a man, and I stood on the outskirts intending to listen. But he looked over the crowd at me and then said, ‘What do you want?’ And I said, ‘Could you send someone to come with me and help me stand up after the tests because I can’t manage alone?’ He [Jesus] thought for a moment and then said, ‘How would it be if I came?'” (Letter to a Man in a Fire, 30-31)(from a sermon by Lewis Galloway.)


Augustine comments on this story

Augustine : “Don’t forget the presence of Christ. When you have to listen to abuse, that means you are being buffeted by the wind; when your anger is roused, you are being tossed by the waves. So when the winds blow and the waves mount high, the boat is in danger, your heart is imperiled, your heart is taking a battering. On hearing yourself insulted, you long to retaliate; but the joy of revenge brings with it another kind of misfortune—shipwreck. Why is this? Because Christ is asleep in you. What do I mean? I mean you have forgotten His presence. Rouse him, then; remember Him, let Him keep watch within you, pay heed to Him. Now what was your desire? You wanted to get your own back. You have forgotten that when Christ was being crucified He said: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Christ, the sleeper in your heart, had no desire for vengeance in his. Rouse Him, then, call him to mind.”

1We Are All Nuns” By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, NYTimes, April 28, 2012.

In Our Weakness


2 Samuel 5: 10,  2 Corinthians 12:2-10,  Mark 6:1-13

Did you hear Paul’s testimony to the unusual vision he had? It reminds me of all the books about near death experiences, like Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, about the experience of a four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor. And there are scientists working on whether the mind can have a life without the use of the brain. Whether people who deeply love each other can affect each other over a distance. All very strange stuff.

Now if we took time this morning we could go back and see that the reason Paul talks about his experience is that some of his critics have tried to convince the church that he lacks credentials to be preaching about Jesus. Corinthians are very susceptible to impressive talkers, spiritual tall tales. . From time to time people accused Paul of being a liberal whowould preach that just anyone could be saved, whether they lived like observant Jews are not. Others mocked him for his lack of eloquence. Some think that his name “Paul” was a shorten form of Paulus– “shorty”.1 “Not an impressive speaker,” they complained ,2 Cor. 10: 10 For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Some were jealous of his impact, planting churches in city after city.

So from time to time, Paul defended himself. Phil 3:4 If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

In I Corinthians 14 he responds to those who feel superior because they speak in tongues, “18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Similarly here he feels forced to testify that he has some remarkable spiritual experiences to match any these interloping preachers talk about. “I was taken up into the third heaven.” This is heaven to the third power. The third was according to some Jewish writings the place where the righteous dead awaited resurrection day.

Paul says he is not even sure whether he was in the body or out of the body. But he felt he saw things too wonderful for words. A lot of folks who have had that kind of experience say it has changed the way they see the world; they have an absence of fear of what lies beyond their death. They have an inner conviction of the truth of God’s eternal hold on us.

Paul did not know exactly what to make of it, and he went through it. I am not sure what to make of stories of near death experience either. I guess we just need to keep an open mind.

Paul did not talk about what happened. Here it is 14 years later. And he speaks of it as if it happened to someone else. He is being modest at the same time he is testifying to something wonderful.

This SUMMER’S blockbuster movie Bruce Almighty, a television newsman is given a set of divine powers, including the capacity to perform such miracles as the parting of a bowl of tomato soup, a la Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. When God wants to communicate with Bruce, God displays a telephone number on Bruce s pager. In the weeks after the movie’s release, anyone who shared God’s seven-digit number was besieged with calls from cranks, practical jokers and a lot of people desperate to connect with God.”2

 Now some of Paul’s critics would take an experience like this as a credential of their importance and authority. But Paul goes on to turn that upside down.

Listen. “To keep me from being to puffed up by the exceeding abundance of the experience, God gave me a thorn in the flesh to keep me humble.”

So now we go from glory to suffering in one line.

We do not know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. Something he could not overlook, something hampering him. You know it is hard to care about someone else’s problem when you have a toothache. It is hard to concentrate on your job when you have a migraine. It is hard to be optimistic when you are in pain.

We don’t know what ailed Paul. Some said it was malaria, or near sightedness, or speech impediment, or epilepsy. Tertullian had heard that the apostle suffered from a severe pain in the head or ears, and assumed that this was his thorn in the flesh. Chrysostom thought that the reference was not to a physical infirmity, but to the opposition of adversaries Augustine wondered if it could be a persistent temptation. We don’t know what it was. What is yours?

Is there something that if you could just get rid of it, you think everything would be smooth sailing?

We all think about what we could be if we just had less problems and more power. Little boys are fascinated with superpowers and imagine what it would be like. Little girls seem to have more domestic fantasies of beautiful princesses.

Some of us never outgrow the fantasy of having power of one kind or another, to wish away trouble or to woo the world our way. If God would just take away my problems, I would  be able to do so much more. If I could win the lottery. If I could be somebody else……

I have heard some preacher complain about certain folks in his congregation and dream aloud about going to a church without fusses and hurt feelings and disagreeable, half-hearted folks. A wiser preacher suggested he find a good church without a congregation. You can chase the mirage of a perfect situation all your life.

Take this thorn away. All the bundle of things that confine us, limit us, frustrate us.

Rabbi said there are six people in any marriage. Three for each partner: The first is the person you imagined you would one day marry– that dream may hang on; the second is the person we think we have married, and the last is the person we actually have married. And the secret to making a marriage work is learning to accept and encourage the real person in our life who is not perfect.

Paul does not report any revelation from his time in heaven; but he tells us what God said to him about his suffering: “My grace is sufficient.” There are things that weakness can teach us that we will never learn when everything is going smoothly.

That is, grace works in the middle of the real weaknesses of real people. You don’t have to have things perfect , or be perfect yourself, to do real good.

Here is the thing about being a mature adult Christian. It is not that you have it all together, but that you have learned to depend on God when you hit your own limits.

How does Paul put it in Romans 8? We don’t always know how to pray as we ought….but the Spirit helps us in our weakness and takes up our wordless sighs and finishes our prayers.

How does Paul put it? I prayed to God three times – and God was silent. He did not give me the answer I was asking for. The thorn was still there. What does it mean? Paul heard this: “My grace is sufficient for you.” We can admit our weaknesses, because we lean on God’s grace and strength.

I remember being at a Bible camp the last night when I was just a young man. The service was a time for people to come, light a candle, and talk about where God was moving in our lives. There was a long embarrassed silence for a while. But sometime late in the service the preacher’s own kid came forward and broke down. It kind of surprised us. He hhadn’t been  seemed to have it together, a junior counselor, someone we looked up to. And he broke down and said he realized that he was not the person he had tried to make other people think he was. He had pretended to be better than he really was. His father put his arms around his shoulders as he cried. In that brokenness we saw grace lighten his load.

The sufficiency is not of ourselves. We are not good enough. We cannot make God’s kingdom come. We cannot control others’ responses to the gospel.

When Jesus sent out those disciples he sent them out in blatant weakness. “‘no bread, no bag, no money in their belts’ (Mark 6:8)– (we read in the other gospels – no weapons either.).When those disciples hit the road, they had nothing to show for themselves but the power of Christ.”

He even prepared them for the times they would fail – then shake the dust off your feet and go to the next town. “Shake it off.” and go on.

Paul has not only put up with this thorn in his flesh, he as had to endure being mocked, misunderstood, bad mouthed. The service of Christ is not always a ticket to fame and fortune. You try to help and someone doubts your motives, you sit with the sick and catch their cold, you go to visit and have a flat tire. You heard about the lifeguard who was fired for a while for rescuing a man who was drowning outside his assigned area. We have this treasure in earthen vessels and sometimes the container gets roughed up and begins looking pretty ragged.

But miracle of miracles, the realm of Jesus keeps taking hold in spite of our limits. Indeed sometimes God uses our limits to extend his grace.

We do our best, don’t misunderstand me, but don’t we often feel that our best has not been enough? We scatter the gospel seeds and wonder if any will come up. If anything will change, if people will ever change?

We are only charged to remain faithful. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

What comes of it? God knows. We will trust God for it all.

David was victorious in the end not because he was the best armed, but because of this remarkable trust he had in God. “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”

Paul had an astounding spiritual experience of paradise. Then the world collapsed back into the usual difficulties. Wouldn’t we think that the special experiences of glory would be a proof of our closeness to God? We want them for our reassurance and maybe, just maybe, so we can brag at testimony time.

Oddly enough, Mark seems to point to the fact that our faith is not founded on miracles. Just the opposite. Miracles are impossible without faith. Jesus could not do anything miraculous for the people in Nazareth because there was no faith in them.

Faith is not faith if it depends on a diet of miracles to stay alive. Faith proves itself when it hangs on to God, to serving, to doing right, even when times are tough, prayers not answered, when we are not sure what to pray for, when we struggle with doubt but keep living obediently.

Perhaps I’ve told you about visiting a charismatic Catholic home group with my Catholic friend, Jim. The Bible study was good. The songs were easy to catch on to. I was all ears when we prayed and some spoke in tongues. The welcome was warm.

Another guy was visiting. He wanted to show his spiritual stuff a little. And he bragged just a little about having the gift of discernment and of healing. He would use it to “God’s glory” fixing people who needed healing.

First, he found people whose hearing was not up to snuff. Have you heard the story?:

An old man is wondering if his wife had a hearing problem. So one night,he while his wife is sitting in her lounge chair, he goes behind her and says softly to her, “Honey, can you hear me?” He gets no response. He moves a little closer and says again, “Honey, can you hear me?” Still, he gets no response. Finally he moves right next her and said, “Honey, can you hear me?” This time she looks up with surprise in her eyes and replies, “For the third time, Henry, Yes, I can hear you!” 3

I have to admit I was skeptical when the man healed people of problems they had never noticed: that one leg was slightly shorter than another. That one ear did not hear as well as the other.

Then he turned to our gracious hostess, a woman who sat in her chair with crutches close by. She was a victim of polio years earlier.

He asked, “Do you believe that God can heal you tonight?”


Do you want to be healed?”


Do you want to ask for that healing?”

She said quietly and gently. “Oh, I have asked God several times, and he said ‘No.’”

“Most gladly therefore (because of the Lord’s reply) will I rather glory in my weaknesses (than pray that they may be removed). in order that may rest or tabernacle upon me the power of Christ.”

It may take faith to be healed.

But I know it takes faith not to be healed and still trust God.

And of all the things said and done that night, hers was the testimony that has stuck with me the most. In her courage I sense a charismatic gift of a different kind. A charismatic faith.

Can we take our life in all its brokenness and be all right about the unspectacular? Can we be content, as Paul said , whether we have much or only a little?

The call of Christ is to humble, self-forgetful service not attention getting self-glory. In this we find the presence of Christ.

“You have my grace and that’s enough. For my power is being made perfect, even in your weakness.”

1Biblical name derived from the element ‘paulus’ which means little, humble. Paulus (Latin) is an old form of Paul. Paulus was originally a Roman nickname, but it soon evolved into a given name after the Classical era.

2Joanna Adams, Christian Century, June 28, 2003.

3A poor pastor who was delivering his sermon when a gentlemen in the back pew

turned his head to one side, put his hand to his ear, and said, “Louder.”

The preacher raised his voice somewhat and continued with his sermon, which was

not too inspiring. After a few minutes the man said again, “Louder!”

The preacher strained even more and continued on, but by now the sermon had

become quite boring. The man said again, “Louder!”

At this point a man on the front row couldn’t stand it any longer and yelled

back to the man in the rear.

“What’s the matter, can’t you hear?”

“No,” said the man in the back.

“Well,” said the man down front, “move over, I’m coming to join you.”


A Bigger Tent

hospitality02September 9, 2012

Mark 7:24-37

The words of our hymn “Pass Me Not” are perfect for today’s gospel lesson. Just exactly the sort of thing the Syrophoenician woman is saying, “Include us too.”There is a moment in the story when it appears that Jesus will pass her by.

Let us put this incident in the context of Mark’s larger story. In Mark 1 Jesus began his ministry, calling twelve disciples, about the time John the Baptist was arrested by Herod. In Chapter 6 we learn that John the Baptist has been executed about the time Jesus multiplied his ministry by dispersing the twelve in teams of two, advance teams announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and calling for repentance as preparation

It is interesting to note how the shut down of John the Baptist related to the increased pace of Jesus’ ministry.

The twelve return probably as exhausted as they were excited. There is a lot to talk about. Time for a retreat and debriefing. They take off in boats to a deserted shore, or so they expected. When they arrive a huge crowd has gathered. Jesus accepts the interruption and spends the whole day teaching, healing and then feeding. The twelve had thought it justified to send the multitude home and let them tend to their own needs.

So, still no down time. All the gospels indicate that after the “Big Feed” Jesus got into some kind of head butting with religious authorities. In John it is about the difference between Moses giving bread for the day and Jesus giving bread to eternal life. In Mark the argument starts with the disciples not washing before breaking bread,

And Jesus comes down hard on the obsession with unclean hands when the problem they should be worried about was unclean hearts. They have used tradition to their own advantage, perverting piety in the process.

Still no down time.

That, I think, is the explanation for Jesus leaving Jewish territory altogether and heading for Tyre and Sidon.

Mark says he wanted to hide out for a while.

Well, it did not work. Word gets around and someone spied him going into a house. And yes, one more person in need corners Jesus.

So what we have today is one more interruption that postpones the retreat.

Now, to jump ahead Jesus does have the retreat in chapter 8 in Caesarea Philippi – beyond Jewish settlements. And it will be a turning point. Out of that debriefing comes Peter’s breakthrough that Jesus is the Christ and the even more important revelation of what is to come. The execution of John the Baptist ought to be enough to tell Jesus that the Kingdom of God talk could result in violent end.

This world is a place of violence. Unpleasant people doing stupid, impulsive things, and justice being run over by the powerful. Upset righteous folks turning on Jesus.

Jesus tells them, “I am going to be killed.” Never once did Jesus talk about changing his course.

You see, I think Jesus had a lot on his mind when that woman came barging in to beseech them to heal her daughter. Jesus comes across a bit stern, a bit dismissive.

Jesus’ parable about feeding the children before you feed the pets suggests “children of Israel” ought to get his attention before he ministers to ‘dogs’– the unflattering slur Jews used sometimes of Gentiles who they considered unclean.

Now to be perfectly fair the word “dogs” in Greek is the diminutive “little dogs” “puppies”

And Jesus says “first”– he tells her “not now,” “not yet.”

That seems to be Jesus plan as the Gospels roughly indicate. Matthew puts it that after the resurrection Jesus send his followers out “into all the world” but first to Jerusalem, Judea.

John says word that became flesh came to his own (people) and was rejected by the very folks who ought to have recognized him. Nevertheless to all –all, not just “his own”– who did receive him he gave power to become children of God.

But this woman in not interested in grand designs. Her daughter is ill. And she doesn’t care if it is golf day for the doctor or if he has a vacation with his family. It is her daughter who is suffering. Help me now. Like you have helped so many others. You have one more blessing, I know. “Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry. While on others thou art calling, Do not pass me by.”

“But dogs don’t have to wait till dinner is over, Don’t they get crumbs that fall on the floor? I may only be a little dog, but don’t deny me the crumbs of your abundance.”

Has she heard about how much was left over after the “Big Feed”?

There is abundance enough in God. The blessings won’t run out if you give me some now.

Reminds me of that widow in the parable in Luke. She nagged the judge till he took her case. And Jesus commends her example. It is okay to persist in prayer. Let you petitions be made known to God.

Well Jesus responds to her pushy impertinence by saying “Since you put it that way, go on. Your daughter is healed.”

“Many, or even most people find this is a disturbing story because of the negative light in which it casts Jesus. We don’t think of Jesus as someone who would insult the mother of a sick child, seemingly as a way of dismissing her request. We must remember though that Jesus was, after all, a Galilean Jewish man of his time. His disciples would not have thought it odd. Remember that they thought it odd that he would give the time of day to children!…Yet, her faith in Jesus’ power is such that she believes with all of her being that “a mere crumb” of his power will do the job. In her reply, she turns the insult into a _ statement of strong faith. (Beth W. Johnston)

Never again would Jesus turn down or put off a non-Jew who came to him. On the heels of this he cures a deaf man in Decapolis and feeds 4,000 in the same non-Jewish region.

In Matthew 8 we read

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 1

I don’t know what you make of it, but it looks like Jesus lays aside the original agenda, inspired by a woman’s great faith, and the thing that wins out is “All are welcome.”– gentiles included

All are welcome. All are invited.

So James, the brother of Jesus (some identify him), writes– if you are going to have the faith of Jesus you must share his hospitality. You cannot practice partiality.

The people who walk into your life are your neighbors whom God sends your way to love as if it was yourself in their shoes.

Jesus was not a respecter of persons. Even his enemies, the Pharisees, gave him credit for that when they said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality” (Matthew 22:16). (Ezeogu)

James is concerned in his letter with how well people who are down and out are received. Are they treated with the same off- the- cuff hospitality that is usually shown people who look successful and powerful?

All are welcome.

A professor told of helping serve hor d’oeuvres before a conference. He tried to engage one fellow in talk as he passed the trays of goodies, but the man looked right through him, in the dismissive way people sometime treat those who are waiting tables or serving the public. When the discussion began the professor sat behind the circle of those invited to the conference, right behind that gentleman At one point in the discussion the convener said, “I think we ought to defer to our resident expert on that area of New Testament studies.” They all turned around and there was a look of shock on that gentleman’s face. He never apologized for his earlier treatment; he just made a point of coming over and talking to him. What a change. How do you see your neighbor?

James says it is ironic that you automatically treat the rich and powerful with so much deference when it is people like that who routinely rip you off in their legal proceedings and make fun (blaspheme) of your faith. Meanwhile the poor who share your faith you overlook. Your attention may be drawn to power, but God pays attention to the poor. God is called “defender of the poor.”

God did pick the Jews first. And after them we Gentiles got grafted into the vine. Because in the grand plan Abraham is told he will be blessed/chosen but through him all peoples will be blessed. All are welcome.

A Catholic church in Florida posted this welcome sign.

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you! –Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community

Someone commented on this sign, “I love the thought that a few members of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community getting together and saying, “Let’s invite everyone to come meet Jesus!” And then they started writing their list. And it got long. Why?

Because everyone needs Jesus. Everyone changes when they meet Jesus.

And they wanted to make sure everyone knew they were invited to meet him.”

What a big tent the church is– or should be.

The woman tells the gospel a different way. “Depth of Mercy, can there be, mercy still reserved for me?” “While on others thou are calling, do not pass me by.”

It was not impertinence, but desperation and humility that put that woman at Jesus’ feet. And should we not realize that is how we come too. Not assuming that we deserve grace, but just confident enough that God is merciful that we come. Over 500 years ago a leader in the English church, Thomas Cramner, adapted words centuries older into a prayer for believers before they take communion:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Thomas Cramner


1 I am intrigued by the mention of banquet, dinner, feast in these two cases.




Taming the Tongue

22130-change2byour2btongue September 16, 2012

James 3:1-12

James has several themes that run throughout. Today we look at what James says about the way we talk.

Someone has counted the verses in James that refer to speech. 46 of 108 verses, that is 43% of James, refer to speech:

Listen to just a few:

1:26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

Instead of talk, he suggests action: going out to do something for the people who are vulnerable, for example.

27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

  • Be quick to listen, slow to speak.

  • If you say you have faith, but do nothing that demonstrates it you delude yourself

  • Do not say to the poor “God bless you” and then fail to bless them yourself.

  • Do not brag about your calendar without acknowledging “If God wills,….”

  • Don’t boast about yourself.

  • Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. .. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” 4:11-12 (NKJV)

  • Confess your sins to one another

  • Go to godly fellow members and ask them to pray for the sick.

In short, James maintains that how you talk, what you talk about, and how much you talk has everything to do with maturing in faith. Who would have thought that the tongue would end up being so important?

Look at some of the points James brings out. First he stresses the importance of listening. Of silence. You can stop your tongue

Calvin Coolidge, who was noted for being a man of few words. A story from the twenties has Mrs. Coolidge asking him the subject of a sermon he had heard. “Sin,” he answered. When prompted to elaborate on the clergyman’s theme, Coolidge is said to have replied: “He was against it.” (Coolidge remarked that this story would have been funnier if it had been true.)

But Coolidge had a point when he said “I have never been hurt by anything I did not say.” (Calvin Coolidge)

Ecclesiastes reads, “A time to speak and a time to remain silent.

It is a good thing to rein our tongue it. Someone said “Don’t let your tongue lick you.”

Talking too much can get you into trouble.

Like the stock boy at the grocery store. A lady asked him, “Can I buy a half of lettuce?” He walked back to the manager to ask, not realizing she was walking right behind him. He said, “You’re not going to believe this, there’s an old bag out there who wants to buy half a head of lettuce.” Then he turned around and saw her standing there and said, “And this fine lady would like to buy the other half.”

Later in the day the manager cornered the young man and said, ‘That was the finest example of thinking on your feet I’ve ever seen! Where did you learn that?” “I grew up in Grand Rapids, and if you know anything about Grand Rapids, you know that it’s known for its great hockey teams and ugly women.” The mangers face flushed, and he interrupted, “My wife is from Grand rapids!” to which the stock boy replied, “And which Hockey team did she play for?”

Some people need to be reminded of that phrase, “You have the right to remain silent.

Quick to listen. Slow to speak. What we say should show that we have heard the other person.

I had a Jesuit priest friend at Duke, who once told me, “While I tell you this story, you be thinking of an interesting story to tell me.” Well, that is the way a lot of people carry on conversation. While we talk, they are thinking about what they are going to say. And while they talk we half listen, while we think about skewering them with a good comeback, or of a better story, or of fixing an error in what they said. Not a dialogue but alternating monologues that have no relation to each other. That happens so easily.

Use speech as a way of showing that we are listening.

A few years ago a great little book came out, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.” By Faber and Mazlish. One of the most practical books on raising children that I know. It focuses so much on how you put the things you say to children, what you say and how you say it.

The book stresses “Quick to listen, slow to speak.” When a child is upset, or acting out, the authors advise not rushing to lecture, but stop to acknowledge their feelings, before trying to impose a solution. Mirror what they say back to them, “You want to buy that toy.” Be quick to listen, slow to speak.

So sometimes instead of telling them what is going to happen, it pays to take time to acknowledge the emotions they seem to be exhibiting first. Before rushing to give a verdict on what is going to happen, show them you have some understanding of how they feel.

Sometimes when we are around someone who is angry or grieving, we tell them not to feel what they feel, don’t we? We tell them in so many words, they are out of order, or they shouldn’t think like that. But feelings deserve to be taken seriously.

It might be the biggest help if we just hang in there with them and hear it out.

First you have to listen.

Our tongue can steer our lives in new directions.

James offers two comparisons to the tongue: a bit in a horse’s mouth can direct the whole animal; the little rudder of a ship does more to determine the direction it takes than the winds. James acknowledges how hard it is to control what you say. If you can control the tongue you probably can direct the whole of your life.

We should be careful of what we say because words are not just words. The Hebrew for words is Devarim which comes from debar, which means doing something, making something. Just as God spoke creation into being by his word, we call things into being by our speech, we create a world out of our talk. Worlds that then take on a life, and a reality, of their own. In this sense we talk ourselves into becoming who we will be.

James compares the tongue to a rudder on a ship and a bit in a stallion’s mouth. In both cases a little thing determines the direction of the whole. The tongue helps determine life’s direction. What we say to ourselves, the way we talk about things, shapes the general direction of our lives.

How do you talk to yourself? Do you constantly put yourself down? Do you look for the worst or do you express a hope for a better future? Do you rehearse old injuries and nurture bitterness? How you talk to yourself has a power to determine the direction you are taking.

One man writes: When I was a young father, I learned the difference between saying to one of my sons when he had disobeyed, “You did a bad thing” rather than “You are a bad boy.” If you repeatedly tell a child that he or she is bad, the child will live up to it. If you tell your child that he is fundamentally a good boy, but that in this instance he stepped out of character and did a bad thing, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game.

In baptism we say things that change our direction in life. We speak ourselves into the new reality God offers. We talk ourselves into being Christian

Romans 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

We shape our words and then our words shape us.” If you don’t like the way you’re headed right now, change the way you talk.

The Tongue can destroy.

James compares the tongue to a spark of fire than can set the forest ablaze. Words create things that have a life of their own. Words are not just words. A little spark can start a fire that is soon out of control. Here he is thinking of the damage that our talk can have.

Sometimes our speech increases heat and not light. There are ways of speaking that invite peace, and ways that incite further fury and division.

* Isaiah 50:4: “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.”

* Proverbs 15.1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.

David and Vera Mace who in the end of their long years were in Winston Salem were among the founders of marriage enrichment. They used to insist that couples refrain from expressing themselves in ‘you’ statements, but rather make statements beginning with “I.” Vera Mace said when she got angry with her husband she would say, “I am angry with you right now and I don’t want to be angry with you. When would it be good time for us to talk it out?”

Thomas Jefferson :When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.

In the book and film, The Joy Luck Club; One of the characters is a little girl whose capacity, in her own words, to “see the secrets” of a chess board, makes her a national chess champion at age 8. Her only real liability is an absolutely driven mother who is both envious of her daughter’s gifts and selfishly using her to fulfill her own ambition for wealth and respect.

At one point, the little girl dares to speak back to her mother. The elder woman responds, first by giving her an icy silent treatment, and then finally by saying to her daughter: “You are nothing, nothing at all.” This is how the little girl describes the experience: “What she said was like a curse. This power I had, this belief in myself, I could actually feel it draining away… feel myself becoming so ordinary. All the secrets I once saw I couldn’t see anymore. All I could see were my mistakes, my weaknesses.And the best part of me just disappeared.”

In her powerful novel, Saint Maybe, Anne Tyler tells the story of Ian, a young man who’s eaten up with guilt because he wrongly suspected his sister-in-law of having an affair and of being unfaithful to his brother. She hadn’t. But he told his brother anyway. His brother, believing Ian, became so despondent at the news that he took his own life. Ian is haunted by the guilt of what he’d done that cannot be undone. He can’t sleep; he can’t eat. “Oh God,” he pleads, “how long will I have to pay for a handful of tossed-off words?… Can’t we just back up and start over? Couldn’t I have one more chance?”4

“Four things come not back: the spoken word, the spent arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.” –Arabian saying–(Omar Idn Al-Halif, The second Caliph)

, which sums up this point:

The boneless tongue, so small and weak, Can crush and kill,” declares the Greek.

The tongue destroys a greater horde,” The Turk asserts, “than does the sword.”

The Persian proverb wisely says, “A lengthy tongue — an early death!”

Or sometimes takes this form instead, “Don’t let your tongue cut off your head.”

The tongue can speak a word whose speed, Say the Chinese, “outstrips the steeds.”

The Arab sages said in part, “The tongue’s great storehouse is the heart.”

From Hebrew was the maxim sprung, “Thy feet should slip, ne’er the tongue.”

The sacred writer crows the whole, “Who keeps his tongue doth keep his soul.” (anonymous,Joseph Friedlander, comp.  The Standard Book of Jewish Verse.  1917)

Words can bless

Words can curse, but they can also bless: story of the teacher who told a 1st grader that his purple teepee wasn’t realistic, and his art project wasn’t good enough to hang on the wall. That little boy took his purple teepee, and completely covered it with a black crayon. This story has a happy ending. In 2nd grade, when the child was told to draw anything he wanted, rather than risk rebuke again, he left the page blank. But when the teacher came to see his work, she complemented him on his beautiful picture of a snowfall. The little boy remembered both incidents, years later.

Encourage one another. 1963, Lincoln monument. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had originally prepared a short and somewhat formal recitation of the sufferings of African Americans attempting to realize their freedom in a society chained by discrimination. He was about to sit down when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”

How you talk can turn your life to proper direction and be the difference between peaceful solutions or fights. The same tongue can be used to curse or bless. James tells us to bless.

Sidlow Baxter: “The proof that God’s Spirit is in your life is not that you speak in an unknown tongue but you control the tongue you do know.”




The Bread of Life



Van Gogh

 August 12, 2012

John 6:41 Then they began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

There are so many puzzles about John 6. And it must be all right to be puzzled. Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Martha in Bethany– all are a little unsure what Jesus is saying and ask in one way or other, “How can this be?”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, asked that same thing when told she will give birth.

We ought to take a cue from this recurring routine in John in which the people Jesus is talking with fail to catch on to what he is saying. I suppose that John is tipping us off that we might not catch all that Jesus means either, even if we claim to be Christians, on his side.

Maybe, just maybe, Jesus eludes us as well.

Jesus tells the folks who have tracked him down “I am the bread come down from heaven,” and they are frankly baffled. How can that be? They know exactly where he came from. They know his parents, his brothers and sisters. “What’s all this about coming down from heaven?”

Moses fed our ancestors in the wilderness,” they said earlier. Jesus corrected them. “No, it was God, not Moses, who sent the bread. But that was bread that you had to eat every day or face starvation. And just as God sent mana to the children of Israel in the wilderness so that eating it they would not perish in the wilderness, even so we are kept alive with eternal life by consuming the bread the Father has sent which is Jesus.

I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” What does that mean?

I think John inevitably has in the back of his mind the words of the weekly communion service which Christians have observed these two thousand years. We repeat before we eat the bread, the words Jesus spoke that night, “This is my body broken for you.”

Pagans passed the rumor around that Christians were cannibals, because the talked about eating flesh and drinking blood.

Catholics teach transubstantiation. That the substance of the bread becomes instead the substance of the body of Jesus and we are bringing Jesus into our very selves through the act of eating the bread and drinking the wine.

Reformers were a little less comfortable with the magical sound of that and preferred to think that the meal was a memory jogger, sort of like Grandma’s chicken recipe that someone brings to the reunion and everyone talks about when they used to sit down at her table.

As often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me. And so some say we do it to remember, and that is all that happens.

But then, why actually eat? Just hold up the bread and the cup as some visual aide and remember Jesus. Maybe there is a greater mystery here than just recalling something that happened a long time ago.

Have you ever stopped to wonder at how food is taken into us, and transformed into our life. I mean, the proteins and minerals and carbohydrates are reassembled into parts of our cells, so that bread becomes in a sense, brain, nerve, electrical current, muscles, the power to move, the consciousness to write, to verve to sing songs, to yearning to embrace, —that bread is taken up as part of the tears we cry, the energy of our laughter, the callouses on working hands.

None of these look like bread, anymore than the bread looks like the sunlight, rain and rocky soil that were transformed into the wheat that made the flour that became the dough that came out of the hot oven as the bread we eat.

The bread has been transforms from the very elements of earth which itself is the dust of exploded stars that lived and died after the fiery birth of the universe. None of that is obvious in the bread before us.

What a wonder you are. From a tiny baby, with the blueprint of DNA and the soup of experience, and the response of unfolding choices, you are so different from who you were at a year of age, and still are becoming what you will be. What has been flows into what shall be. Accumulated memories opening up onto new vistas. Transformation is happening.

And in all this God moves. In the beautiful poetry of Genesis 2, it is pictured like this– the stuff of this earth is fashioned by God into the form of a human, but the life comes into that form only when God breathes Spirit into that shape. We live because the life God breathes into us.

What Jesus is saying here is that we need that infusion of the Spirit again . To have eternal life in us God must come into us again.

And God is here in the sunset, and the spring rain, in the austere beauty of galaxies and the aptness of Scripture. In the gift of a newborn, and the embrace of a loved one. God comes in a thousand ways.

But there is no greater way God comes to us than in Jesus.

The Divinity deigns to stoop to flesh and blood, a human life, to impart Divine life to us, that our lives take on the imprint of eternity.

Just as bread becomes part of our body, so Jesus whom God sent must become part of who we are. Jesus becomes the fuel, the basis, the sustaining substance of our life.

We are asked to receive his life, his flesh and blood human existence. Jesus says “whoever comes to him” and “Whoever believes in him.” Whoever assimilates Jesus into their life is transformed so that it is no longer just them, it is Christ in them.

A friend was telling me of a new treatment he was receiving for his cancer. The doctors drew out blood, extracted white cells, which were sent off to Atlanta where technicians exposed the cells to his own cancer in such a way that the white cells learned to identify the cancer as an enemy and attack it. Then the white cells were sent back and reinserted into his blood stream so that now it is his cells, but his cells transformed, that have the power to act upon the very part of his body that is killing the rest of his body.1

Our souls are exposed to the life of Jesus, the real human, flesh and blood humanity and our cells are taught new ways of behaving. Go after what is killing us and allow new stronger life to emerge.

There is something mystical here. Surely Christ is present to us in many more ways than communion. As the story of Jesus coming to the disciples in the storm after the feeding of thousands, Jesus is really present in storms and stresses of life too.

But When Jesus said “This is my body.” is was saying “This is myself.” He is offering the totality of his flesh and blood existence, the full sweep of his life and death and resurrection– all the history of his life here and giving it to us to become part of us.

Who does he think he is?

Karl Barth wrote, “Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told man of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied.”

Ezekiel was told to eat a scroll. It was the message of God for Israel. He was to let it become part of his very insides.

We are invited to let Jesus become part of our insides.

To eat this bread and drink this cup is to participate in a parable, to act out a pledge, to practice a ritual that instills habit and reflexes into our life like a permanent press, that no matter what the rough and tumble when wash is over and we dry out we come out with the bent to be like Jesus.

Ephesians illustrates some of that likeness. We practice these and let the presence of Christ remake us.

Do not limit the ways of God coming to you. Take the bread over which we pray. Take it in faith. Discerning the power and presence of Christ that it may give life to your souls, and strength for the journey.

Henri Nouwen, in his beautiful book, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life, offers wonderful fruit for reflection as one prays with the Bread of Life Discourse. Nouwen writes:

“In the Eucharist, Jesus gives all. The bread is not simply a sign of his desire to become our food; the cup is not just a sign of his willingness to be our drink. Bread and wine become his body and blood in the giving. The bread, indeed, is his body given for us; the wine his blood poured out for us. As God becomes fully present for us in Jesus, so Jesus becomes fully present for us in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist…God does not hold back; God gives all. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. That is that mystery of the Eucharist. Incarnation and Eucharist are the two expressions of the immense, self-giving love of God. And so the sacrifice on the cross and the sacrifice on the table are one sacrifice, one complete, divine self-giving that reaches out to all humanity in time and space.


When I hear people talk about what is wrong with organized religion, or why their mainline churches are failing, I hear about bad music, inept clergy, mean congregations, and preoccupation with institutional maintenance. I almost never hear about the intellectualization of faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list. In an age of information overload, when a vast variety of media delivers news faster than most of us can digest—when many of us have at least two e-mail addresses, two telephone numbers, and one fax number—the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, which have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God. (BBT,The Christian Century, 27 January 2009)

1‘FDA approves novel prostate cancer “vaccine”’ By Tiffany O’Callaghan | April 29, 2010

“To oversimplify quite a bit: with Provenge vaccination begins with a blood draw. Blood is then sent to the lab, where technicians extract immune cells known as antigen presenting cells (APCs) from the sample. From here, Dendreon combines the immune cells with proteins that are prevalent on the surface of prostate cancer cells. An immune boosting substance is also added into the mix. Exposure to the cancer proteins and immune booster spurs the APCs into action—and the prostate cancer proteins move to the surface of the “activated” cells. At this point, the activated APCs are pumped back into the patient’s blood stream.

“Part of what makes cancer so difficult to treat is that the immune system doesn’t react to cancer cells as it does to other infections or viruses—as invaders that should be routed out. The goal of the Provenge treatment is to change that. Once the activated APCs are back in the patient’s blood stream, they come into contact with T-cells (the white blood cells that generally “seek and destroy” any unrecognized bugs). In turn, those T-cells become activated—they now recognize tumor cells as bad guys, and set out on the hunt, replicating more cancer-munching T-cells along the way.

Read more:

The Purposes of God

maxresdefaultJuly 15, 2012

Ephesians 1:3-14

Someone said, “Life is just one [damned] thing after another, and then you die.” (Elbert Hubbard?)1 Sometimes it feels like that doesn’t it? That there is no real plot, no real goal.

When we were growing up our parents would decide on a Sunday afternoon to take a drive. We’d ask where we were going and they would say, ‘just around.’ Looking back, maybe it was their way of staying cool. The breeze coming in the Chevy window was at least a breeze. But there were other times when we just took a random variety of country roads till we ended back at home.

And we were glad to get back.

Do you ever wonder where your life is going?

Several scientist are excited that they have evidence at last for the Higgs Boson particle. Some called it the “God particle” because its existence would explain why the universe is the way it is. A few had editorialized that it means that the universe did not have to exist and that if it did exist it did not have to be like ours.

Now there is a danger putting to much sermon weight on last week’s findings. But honest science is seeking a real and true account of the way things are. And if you believe in God’s revelation is true then somehow God’s creation fits with what we learn about the world. They do not contradict or destroy one another when we know all.

So I take it this way– the universe did not have to be and did not have to be this way. So either it is strange chance or what if it is chosen?

I don’t think this is an idle question. I would take it that the universe is finally tragic if it isn’t going anywhere except finally to death. But what if the universe is chosen? That is what our faith holds to.

Now you will never be able to prove this by another experiment. John Polkinghorne is both a Nobel prize physicist and a pastor. He gives an illustration. When you ask “Why is the water boiling in the kettle?” you could explain it by saying “The transfer of energy from the stove has activated the molecules of water till some of the water is now turning into a gas called ‘steam.’” Or you could explain the boiling water by saying “I am making tea.” Both are perfectly true and do not contradict each other. One describes the mechanism the other describes the purpose.

Paul begins Ephesians with a poem, a blessing. He praises God for revealing the purpose which runs through creation and which defines the substance of human existence.

The universe has a point, and, as a subset of that, your life and my life has a point.

My life and your life is the consequence of a whole series of choices, and ultimately of a choice made by God before he uttered “Let there be light.”

What is this purpose? What is the will of God for me and you and us?

Somewhere down the road I must have heard a preacher say that God had a detailed plan for my life. I know folks who believe that God has an opinion about everything. “Shall I have strawberry jam on my bread or blueberries?”

Maybe sometimes God’s will is that specific.

One of my favorite Tony Campolo stories is about the time he was invited to speak to a small Christian school near his home in Philadelphia. Before the program began several administrators and faculty members thought it would be a good idea to pray, so they had Campolo kneel while they laid hands on him and prayed. Campolo didn’t really mind except that they prayed for a long time, and the longer they prayed the more they leaned on his head. And one guy wasn’t even praying for Campolo. He was praying for somebody Campolo didn’t know named Charlie Stofsels. He’d say, “Oh Lord, you know Charlie Stofsels. Lives on Marinara Boulevard, third trailer on the right hand side…” And Campolo is thinking, “Knock it off! God knows where he lives.” But the fella went on. “Oh Lord, Charlie says he’s leaving his wife and three children. Lord, don’t let Charlie walk out on his family. Touch his heart, Lord. Don’t let him walk out of that trailer on Marinara Boulevard, third one on the right hand side. Oh Lord…” And he went on and on like that until Campolo’s head was starting to hurt. He was thinking, “Hey, if you’re gonna lean on my head, pray for me.”

Well, they finally finished the prayer. Campolo went out and spoke to the students. Afterwards, he got in his car and started driving home on the freeway. He saw a hitchhiker. He knows you’re not supposed to pick up hitchhikers, but now and then he does it. He stopped the car, the man got in and they rode away. Campolo said, “Hi, I’m Tony Campolo.” And the man said, “Hi, my name is Charlie Stofsels.” Campolo didn’t say a word. Just got off at the next exit, circled around and headed back on the freeway in the opposite direction. His passenger looked puzzled. “Where are you taking me?” Campolo said, “I’m taking you home.” “Why?” “Because you just walked out on your wife and three kids, that’s why.” Stofsels mouth dropped open. “That’s right!” he gasped. Campolo didn’t say anything more. He just kept driving, drove straight to Marinara Boulevard, and pulled up in front of the third trailer on the right hand side. Stofsels asked, “How did you know I live here?” And Campolo said, “God told me.” Then he said, “Go inside and get your wife.” Stofsels stammered, “Yeah, yeah. Anything you say, Mister.” He went in the trailer and came out with his wife, and her eyes were as big as saucers.

And Campolo began to talk with them about their marriage, about their personal problems, about their spiritual life, and by the time he left that third trailer on the right hand side of Marinara Boulevard Charlie Stofsels and his wife had patched up their relationship, pledged to continue working on their home life, and committed themselves to a life of faith in Christ. And they’re still together today. And Charlie Stofsels is now Rev. Charlie Stofsels.

God told Phillip “Go down to the Gaza road” and that is where Phillip intercepts the Ethiopian eunuch on his way home.

God may have something very specific for us to do. But not always. and not for everyone. It may be God will leave it up to you whether to live in Martinsville or Mombasa. Sometimes God has a long range plan but in the meantime things are left loose.

God told the prophet Jeremiah to buy a field from his cousin because one day the Jews would come back to Israel. There would be a time, but it was not now. In the meantime it was his will for them to live faithfully and fruitfully where they were in exile. It wasn’t where his people would eventually be, but it was where they were now and in the less than ideal circumstances it was God’s will for them to carry on.

God can call on some people to marry, and some to remain single, and leave it to others to decide. He may call on some to give away everything they own, and others like Zaccheus to use all they have honorably, honestly, generously.

Sometimes God’s will is written into our nature. So that waking and sleeping, working and playing, in laughter and tears we are by being profoundly human and humbling accepting that we are fulfilling part of God’s will for us who when he created said of each stage, “that is good.”

In this hymn of blessing in Ephesians Paul speaks of God’s purpose lying under and running through all of creation. He says that Jesus is God’s way of revealing the mystery of his will. Let me pick up three things that are God’s purpose for us all.

1) God’s plan is to adopt us as his children. Jesus’ coming in our flesh signals God’s desire to adopt us. Christ becoming human reveals God’s intention that humans be included in his life, that humanity come into the family.

You know how adoption works. Someone who is not a natural biological child of a couple is chosen to be their child. It is not the child choosing. It is not something that just happens of its own accord. The parent picks the child and pledges to care for and provide for the child, to rejoice with it and hurt with it “till death us do part.”

A little girl found out she was adopted and was crushed. Her mother sat down with her and explained, “Honey everyone in our family is part of the family because someone picked them. Your father and I chose each other, and we chose you.”

The difference is that when God chooses, he chooses for keeps. Paul wrote of the Jews (Romans 11:29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.)

We know God will not take back his decision to include us. Those who hear and trust this good news receive a persistent assurance. The Holy Spirit is a seal on our hearts of God’s ownership, a down payment on all the blessing God yet has for us.

The other day I tried to put gas in my car and something was wrong with the pump. I went in to the cashier, but I wanted to fill the tank. So I left my credit card with her and she turned the pump on. My credit card was my guarantee that I’ll be back and finish the transaction.

God has given us a “credit card,” His Holy Spirit – that says “I will cover all the promises.”

God’s will is to adopt you and for you to live as his child in this world. From before the foundation of the world God chose you “in Christ.”

2) “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” God’s plan is that you we by holy and blameless in love. The holiness and blamelessness is tied up with loving. 2

So the first thing we need to know is God loves us and the second is that God wants us to love each other.

Now it is a central theme of Ephesians how God brings things together in harmony and gracious cooperation. “Tearing down the dividing wall.” The wall that separates Jews and Gentiles for in Christ they are one people. Tearing down the wall between us and a holy God for in Christ we are forgiven our sins and can approach boldly. Tearing down the wall between clergy and laity, for in Christ everyone has gifts, everyone has a ministry, we are priests to each other. And then in the practical part of the book Paul talks about how husbands and wives learn to be partners instead of competing to be boss. How parents and children can behave so that relation is positive.

God’s will is that we discover unity and cooperation and strive for peace and reconciliation.

Now what this tells me is that it may not be clear to us which vocational path God might have had in mind for us, but the way we do whatever job opens up is God’s will if we do it “as unto the Lord.” Whether we are policeman or politician, plumber or professor, what is clear is that is God’s will that you treat others with love and respect and seek ways of working it out so we can live together compassionately, justly and productively. “Pray for your enemies” teaches us that the call to be holy and blameless in love extends to everybody.

speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ … and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:15, 24)

3) Lastly it is God’s will that we share his joy.

Notice how many times Paul describes God’s will with joyful terms. according to the good pleasure of his will, according to his good pleasure, to the praise of his glory( twice)

God not only gets a kick out of this grace he chooses to pour out on us, but he wants us to revel in it. To delight in his delight. To take pleasure in his pleasure. To share the divine joy.

There is nothing like laughing with joy together to know that you are with a friend.

Do you remember the punch line of all those parables in Luke 15 – lost sheep, lost coin, lost boy– “Come and rejoice with me.”

The gospel lesson is about the cruel joy of Herod’s family. Dancing, merriment, music, but in the end death.

But there is a heavenly joy. David dances before the ark as it enters his city. He throws himself body and soul into dance. Gives himself up in worship with everything that he is, in joy.

Whatever his faults, and David had them, David always comes back to the Lord. always has this sense that his life is in the Lord, and before the Lord. After he sinned by taking advantage of Bathsheba and betraying his general her husband, David is confronted by Nathan and we are told that Ps 51 is the result. “I have been a sinner since I began to be. ..

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

….12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation;

Return me to the joy of a close relation.

That is one way we could put salvation: Rejoicing in the joy that God had in me.

In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis is addressing, somewhat indirectly, the question: How, or better yet, Why, do you worship a God who needs nothing? If God is altogether self-sufficient and cannot be served by human hands as if he needed anything (Acts 17:24-25; Romans 11:33-36), least of all glory, why does he command our worship and praise of him? Lewis continues.

But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything else—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise lovers praising their mistresses . . . readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised the most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised the least. . . . .

Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible…..I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”

The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.” 3

God will for us to find joy, the deepest joy ever they could be, the joy of praising God who has chosen us as his own beloved children and appointed us to share that love by loving one another and loving him back in praise and blessing. AMEN

1Someone else said, “It is not true that life is one thing after another, it’s one stupid thing over and over.”

21 Thessalonians 3:12–13: May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men . . . so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father.

God predestined us to be his children and that means he destined us to be like him—to be holy, to be blameless, that is, to live in love to each other and to all men.

1 John 3:10, “By this the children of God . . . are manifest . . . the one who does not love his brother is not [a child] of God.”

Your destiny is to be holy as your Father is holy, and that means that your very essence is to love, for God, your Father, is love (1 John 4:8). You are predestined to be like your Father.

3Reflections on the Psalms [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958], 93–95


The Abundance of God

230683_cra22nouJuly 29, 2012

2 Samuel 11:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

Paul writes, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine– to him be glory.” Is it true that we underestimate God, as he says?

It is hard to miss the extravagant descriptions of Divine resources in this prayer.

Paul speaks of “fullness of God” which can fill us completely. He speaks of beginning to know, or experience, the unlimited dimensions of Christ’s love–the breadth and length and height and depth, shooting off infinitely in every direction, the love which surpasses knowledge.

An inexhaustible abundance in God, a well of blessings that can never go dry.

Streams of mercy never ceasing.

Creation reflects divine abundance

The creator we see in Genesis loves abundance. The creatures proliferate, multiply in kind and in number, to God’s delighted “It is good.” . “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19). The more we know about the universe the more magnificent it becomes. And in the last 100 years we have learned more about the cosmos than in all of human history up till then.

We learned that it was finite in size and years. The age of the universe is about 13.75 billion years, but the diameter of the observable universe is estimated to be about 28 billion parsecs (93 billion light-years) because the universe has been expanding. In 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered another galaxy than our own Milky Way. In 1999 the Hubble telescope focused on one tiny apparently empty point in the sky and the results that came back astounded scientists. Astronomers estimate 200–400 billion stars are in the Milky Way but now it is now estimated that there are 100 billion visible galaxies. 100 billion times 200 billion.

Your God is too Small is a little book J. B. Phillips penned decades ago. He pinpointed a variety of ways that we diminish God in our imagination. God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Human need

On the one hand we have this assertion of the abundance of God, and on the other we have the familiar experience of “not enough,” of human situations of insufficiency. The abundance of God is set over against the human experience of scarcity and limits.

In the Gospel reading this morning we see two different occasions in which human need encounters Divine capability.

First is the familiar story of the feeding of the thousands, the only wonder Jesus did that all four gospels retell. In this first story the people come to Jesus with their needs; in the second Jesus takes he initiative to come to the disciples caught in a storm at sea.

The feeding

We read that Jesus, who was attempting to have a quiet retreat with his disciples, is instead greeted by hoards of people eager to hear him, and to have him heal their diseases for which  he had a reputation. Jesus, rather than being perturbed and frustrated, had compassion on them, because they looked like “sheep without a shepherd.” He taught and healed the whole day. By then Jesus could see another need. They did not tell him; he saw it. They were hungry.

Where are we going to get bread to feed all these?” Jesus asked. Wait a minute. Who said it was our responsibility? Other gospels say the disciples told Jesus a better plan would be to send them off to get their own food where they could. Let them look after themselves. Only Jesus seems to think they would have a hard time pulling that off out in these rural parts.

You feed them.”

Now here is where the desire to help runs into the reality of what it would take. Jesus after all said that a general does not go into battle against an enemy without sizing up the troops on both sides. And a builder should start unless he has figured out whether he will have the means to finish the project.

Andrew says it would take 8 months wages to give just a sample to everyone there. They don’t have enough. But by now Andrew has discovered that while they may not have enough for the crowd, they do have something, or rather a small lad has something– a picnic basket with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

And then here is this remarkable moment– an act of crazy, uncalculated generosity. The boy gives the whole basket over. He is willing to share it, all without holding back a little first.

What an offering. This is like the widow’s 2 mites. The sum total of her resources at the moment. She was the only one Jesus praised in the temple that whole week.

Jesus takes this offering, this obviously inadequate sum. and – here is another surprise– he gives thanks. He does not worry or complain or say, “Is that all?”

No, Jesus just lifts up the offering and gives thanks. Now what is going on here? Jesus attributes this resource to God’s provision, and thanks  the Father.

I think that Jesus thanked God for this one boy, for the disciples who are with him, the crowd that has surrounded him, for being the kind of God who satisfies the desire of every living thing. Before anything else, this act of thanks.

Can you say thanks for what you have, even when in your mind you can’t see how it is going to be enough? Can you say grace when all you have is 5 loaves and 2 fish. Can you say, “God is good” when there is so little? Can you imagine abundance when you are so aware of needs outstripping resources? What a leap of faith and hope!!

Jesus receives with gratitude that little offering. Thanks God and then puts them back into the hands of the disciples to feed the crowd. Jesus beckons us to do something for the needs around us with the resources we have.

Something profound happened and happens when you give all you have, even if it is not by our calculations  adequate. When they began to pass the food around, everyone got all they wanted and there was an abundance left over.

Jesus turns our “not enough” into some kind of abundance that blesses more than us. It blesses the lives we touch. None of the gospels take us backstage to explain how this came to pass. How could it happen? Did it include more people than just this little boy pulling out his lunch? Maybe. God works in all sorts of ways. But notice he works through us– our gratitude, our compassion, our willingness to share Christ’s concern, our “not enough” supply, our “not enough” talents.

Ephesians 3:20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations.

We read that when that terrible drought came from God to turn people back to him. Elijah at first made out camping by stream of water and raven brought him food. But the day came when that was gone, and he went into Phoenician territory. God used a widow to meet Elijah’s need.

He asks a widow he comes upon to give him to eat. She laughs that she is gathering sticks to cook her last meal for herself and son. But because he was a man of God and because he asked, she shared with him first. And the cruse of oil and the jar of flour did not run out all the months Elijah was there.

That widow’s crazy generosity was an act of trust that God has provided, and can still provide.

Great is thy faithfulness morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto to me.”

We can look at the world with expectation of scarcity or the faith in God’s abundance. If we take the confidence in abundance seriously, we will act hopefully.

In the Parable of Soils a distressing amount of seed is lost– there is still a bumper crop. What we thought ‘not enough’ becomes a surplus in the Lord’s hands, for God is able by his power at work within us to able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

The storm

The second part of the story is about the disciples’ own need.The gospel reading goes on to say that very evening when Jesus sent them on ahead, a storm caught the disciples at sea. Caught in a storm– that richly describes most crises– the things that are beyond control. Carlyle Marney reviewed a book on grief shortly before he died. And he said “all this stuff about ‘grief management’ misses it. When you are in real grief, it is managing you.”

The Jesus who is aware of the needs of the crowds before they are, before the disciples are, sees now the plight of his followers. 

 They could not see Jesus, but Jesus saw them and came to them. “I AM” he says, that name of God which means I AM I AM or I AM….here! “Do not be afraid.” The storm is stilled, the voyage completed in safety.

Cast all your cares on him for he careth for you.

Now all this does not mean that since God cares and can help, that I would be justified doing nothing and just waiting for God to take care of it all for me.

Our lunches may be part of how needs get met; don’t stop oaring because you expect God will come and help you. Augustine said “Pray as if it all depended on God; Work as if it all depended on you.”


The crowds in their need come to Jesus, but Jesus also comes to those in need, as we see when Jesus sees the crowd’s hunger and the disciples’ distress in the storm. It works both ways. 

Paul prays that we will experience this abundant responsiveness of the Lord sustaining us:“that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

It seems that the choice of faith is to trust the abundance of God’s capacity, even when confronted by the “not enough” of our own lives, whether it be not feeling we have enough to help others, or not having the capacity to handle what has happened to us. Let us trust God’s abundance. Amen.