Weighed Down

Folks were clutching their rocks, ready to pound a woman brought into public view as an adulteress. It’s scary how quickly a mob can turn on someone. We see that in our world today. I would never run for office, given the vindictive scrutiny that magnifies tiny details from the past. Opponents distort truth to promote their agenda. Crashing the Bible Study, men grabbed rocks while women and children moved to safety. They were anxious to be spectators but not victims of flying stones. They stood at the ready, waiting for the green light from the Temple staff.
In chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, Jesus meets a woman in unlikely circumstances. She’s brought before Him because of a crime: she had committed adultery. This was especially unfortunate given that, in her culture, her punishment could be death by stoning. It’s unthinkable that she is dragged into the Temple courts where Jesus’ Bible Study is interrupted with the mandate of capital punishment. But it’s tragic on another level. The Pharisees, who were the keepers of the Jewish Law, weren’t at all interested in her or her sin. She was a pawn. The Pharisees wanted to bring Jesus down and she became the public example that would test His faithfulness to the Law. It’s a turf war deciding who has jurisdiction over the spiritual development of a people. Jesus is on their turf: the temple grounds. He has a crowd of people hanging on his every word. I imagine the Pharisees having a closed-door meeting with the goal of identifying a legal conundrum that could get Jesus in trouble. It’s dangerous to engage in public service successfully! Status quo advocates surface with their fists up!
The religious elite use language that distances them from the accused. “This woman was caught…Moses commanded to stone such women…” They looked past her to the One they really wanted to stone to death. Jesus didn’t start the fight. They foisted it upon Him. But they underestimated their opponent. They should have known better from other skirmishes. Jesus the Teacher has no projector, no power point, no chalk board. He casually traces letters in the dirt where He has been teaching. But His opponents keep at Him. The woman stands there, heart pounding and thoughts racing. Perhaps she is aware that the man with whom she had the affair is not held accountable. She alone is carrying the guilt. Finally, Jesus stands up. He commands attention. He looks straight into the eyes of these mobsters and throws out a one sentence challenge: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Game over. We don’t know whether His challenge was received with complete silence or if they talked among themselves. Did the last to leave stand his ground in self-righteousness before finally giving up? What we read is that they left, one by one, not in a mass movement. Those who first confessed their own sinfulness were the elders. They had lived enough life to know that stones could come flying their way if folks scratched just beneath the surface of their past. “Best to leave before someone distorts facts about my life and broadcasts them to an audience!” Jesus pierces the hatred that was so easily encited in this mob and they disperse after just one challenge in this power play.
Paul wrote a letter to the believers in Galatia. In the first ten verses of chapter 6, he stated that sin happens. Accountability is needed. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to live in holiness together so that the Body of Christ is enriched, not destroyed. He tells this fledging congregation how to proceed if someone among them has sinned. Act with gentleness. That stands in stark contrast to the scene of the woman in John’s gospel. Don’t cast this person out of the congregation. Rather work to restore them but only if you can do this without being tripped up by their sin. Don’t hurl stones at each other. Rather, heap your stones in a wheelbarrow to clear the confessional landscape. Then help the weak person to push her load. Heave that wagon full of sin to the edge of town and drop it off for good. Do it for the person who is unable to do it for himself. The only way you’ll be able to do this is if you confront your own sinfulness. Otherwise, your ego will lead you to pounce on opportunities to bring someone else down with judgmental rhetoric. That’s much easier than doing the more difficult work of restoration!

Paul instructs these early Christians to start with themselves. Examine your own actions, the thoughts in your hearts and the words you use. Don’t compare yourselves to others in giving yourself a grade. Look within. Know yourself so that you understand when you have acted to the best of your ability as a disciple of Jesus. When you have done that, no one else’s evaluation of your actions matters. Don’t worry about God being duped into thinking that the schemers are heroes. God is not deceived. God observes how we each sow through our speech and actions and it’s going to boomerang right back at us, good or bad, blessing or curse, depending on what we dish out.
The stakes are high because sin is highly contagious. It only takes one screamer in a crowd to get the whole group riled up with murderous intent. Life has always been hard so we, like this early congregation, are barely keeping it together with the pressures of daily living. Like the corona virus that has spread from one person to another, floated invisibly through cruise ships and airplanes, locker rooms and Wall Street, the sickness of sin sucks the life out of us. The innocent get hurt when we refuse to do the hard work of introspection. If we aren’t willing to admit the ways we carry sin on us, others will get hurt.
In February, a funeral was held in the chapel of a psychiatric ward in Cheongdo, South Korea. Several of the mourners attending the service were infected with the corona virus and they left their germs behind. 111 residents and four nurses were infected. Sin spreads and brings down those who are least able to defend themselves. On morning TV, a world map is increasingly colored in with new and startling statistics about where the plague has shown up. Our world has become a petri dish that is rife with disease. People are desperately trying to distance themselves from each other. As a global community we are suspicious. We are lonesome. We are weary. We are weighed down.

The believers to whom Paul addressed his letter were weighed down. They were pawns in the impressive machinery of the Roman Empire that didn’t hesitate to crush those who stepped out of line. The masses were over-taxed and undervalued. Roughly a third of the population in Paul’s time were slaves. They had no reason to hope that they would ever get out from under the debt they owed their master. They had to content themselves with the crumbs that were thrown their way. But Paul breathed a new mission into this congregation by urging them: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

We may be weary but there are folks who need our help. It may feel impossible to push our wheelbarrow of burdens any further but there are people willing to use their strength to assist us. If we don’t waste our energy getting caught up in modern versions of stoning, we will have the strength to carry each other’s burdens. That, as Paul writes, fulfills the law of Christ.

The Pharisees dragged the sinner before Jesus, using her to bring Him down. They didn’t care about her and they certainly didn’t care about Jesus. Sin clouded their vision. If they had done the hard work of looking within and evaluating their own lives through the lens of their faith, they would have fallen before Jesus. With their faces in the very dust where Jesus traced His lesson, they would have confessed their own lengthy list of sins. They were jealous. They were self-righteous. They coveted Jesus’ popularity. They had made gods of their own power and forgotten the One they were called to serve. They most certainly had learned to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbor and victimized the innocent to promote their own political campaign. But Jesus unmasked their sin. I wonder what they talked about at their dinner tables that night? Did they confess the shame they felt for being exposed as one who breeds contempt for a living? Did they get honest with their God? Or did they push the shame down deep and return to business as usual the next day?

At the end of the encounter just Jesus and the trembling woman are left. Even the people in the Bible Study are so shaken that they flee. Just Jesus is left alone with a woman who is still standing, stones strewn about. There are no words that give us a hint of her emotions. It almost sounds like a calm conversation that wraps up the story but we know it could not have been. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” Her eyes are wide with terror, having faced her own mortality. She responds, “No one, sir.” Jesus is merciful but He is still a teacher. He is still a priest. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

The rules stand. She had sinned. Jesus holds her accountable for her guilt but He understands the penitence she feels in her heart after this near-death experience. Jesus knows that she, like all of us, is in process, struggling to live a holy life in a brutish world. Jesus forgives her but exhorts her to change her ways. She picks her way through the heavy rocks that were never hurled. She goes home. The burdens she had carried with her were left at the feet of her Confessor. She has journeyed from death to life. She is weighed down no more. Hallelujah!

(Artwork by Noel Skiba. Painted in our worship service in June, 2015)


Two Windows

So let’s just state the obvious: life feels strange! I have never preached to an empty sanctuary knowing that our people will be brought together through virtual technology. We have cancelled worship services in the past but have always assumed it would just be for one Sunday. We are making history right now as a country, mandating quarantines and voluntarily suspending activities that bring large groups of people together. The corona virus lurks so we retreat to our homes for an indefinite period of time. While it felt strange for us and thousands of other churches to worship remotely, I am thankful for the options we have to stay connected even while physically separated from each other.

TP and purell
There are lots of firsts right now. We are seeing what our priorities are in times of crisis and surprised by the national run on toilet paper! Who knew that TP topped the lists of so many people! A shop in Ann Arbor was selling small bottles of Purell, misspelled in their on-line advertising, for $20, $40 and $60 per bottle, depending on the size. And they sold out! Bottles of water have flown off the skids, never making it onto the shelves. Costco shoppers in Las Vegas found many of the shelves empty but still had to wait in line two hours to check out. The corona virus is giving us a new window into our world and it’s alarming!
I went to our local grocery store yesterday, more to experience the mood of our community than to shop. The parking lot was as full as I’ve seen it in preparing for holidays. But people were considerate of each other. Folks yielded their carts for others to pass, offering a weary smile. One young guy rushed down the center aisle wearing what looked to be a gas mask that covered most of his face. He was on a mission. But he was the exception. The good news, as with many crises, is that people reach out to each other with kindness. We look for the ways to be unified even when urged to stay apart.
A church member posted a moving video on Facebook on Friday. The footage was captured in the town of Siena, Italy, where the whole town—in fact, the whole country—is on mandatory lock-down. The camera was aimed out an upper level window, looking down a dark street with three-story buildings on both sides. One lone bass voice begins to sing a song. Very shortly another voice joins in, then another. Soon the whole neighborhood has turned into a choir, lifting the spirits of those who cannot be physically near each other. They are singing out their windows in harmony in a time of quarantine. There is beauty in these frightening times!
We could not have known as we started the Lenten season how “Lenten” it would feel. The mood in Lent is heavy. We choose to walk alongside of Jesus, who is voluntarily offering His life for the well-being of others. The nearer He got to the cross, the greater the isolation. Out of fear, even His closest disciples quarantined themselves to stay safe from those who opposed Jesus’ ministry. We will remember this Lenten season as being uniquely different. But, I hope, we will look back and remember how intentionally we reached out to others whose safety net is much smaller than our own. We need to keep that image of singing God’s praises in solidarity with each other, even as we remain physically separated. Like the disciples, we will discover what is most precious to us in this historically difficult time.
The scripture for today comes from Matthew’s Gospel, the seventh chapter. It is familiar to many of us: 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

bluff 2

The wise person builds their house upon the rock because the home that is set upon a foundation of sand will fall. Several of you are hearing a Vacation Bible School song in your heads from an earlier generation, right?! My family built a house on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1974. Perched high up on a bluff that overlooks the big lake, it fulfilled my parents’ greatest dream. A decade later we had to move it back because of rising lake levels. We were blessed with lowered lake levels since the 1980’s but that ended dramatically last year. With lake levels surpassing those of the 1980’s my siblings and I have watched, horrified and powerless over the forces of nature that have ravaged our bluff. Huge chunks of our real estate have fallen into the lake below. Angry storms have taken down ancient trees and destroyed the habitat of various woodland creatures. What is our foundation made of? You can tell a lot about a house by its foundation. An old farmhouse will have stones piled on top of each other and held together with mortar. Ancient ruins remain because foundations were made of stone. In this challenging time of Covid 19, we will discover as individuals, as a nation, as a global community, the foundation upon which we have built our lives!

bluff 1
I enrolled in a Spiritual Direction course nearly two years ago. Each student was asked to choose one spiritual giant to study. We have been asked to share with each other what we have learned about our person and how their life has impacted our own. I chose Julian of Norwich. Honestly, it seems as if she chose me. Norwich, where Julian spent her life, is just 20 minutes south of the small town where I lived in England from ages 1-4. I feel like I know her world as part of my earliest childhood development. My daughter, Maria, gave me a coffee mug several years ago that has an upbeat line printed along the inside upper rim of the cup: All will be well. The mug has yellow flowers painted on the outside of it. This mug cheers me up, especially as I sip my morning coffee in the dark of winter. I learned, as I got to know Julian, that this is her line. She is remembered for her affirmation: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. What an optimist I chose!

This rosy optimism might not grab our attention until we learn about the great challenges that faced Julian. Born in the 14th century, England endured several waves of the black plague. Between 1348 and 1349 in Norwich 7,000 people died out of a population of 12,000. More than half the population of Europe died from the plague. When Julian was 20, there was a flood in East Anglia (her hometown) that brought storm surges 30 feet above ordinary levels. The winds sometimes reached more than 100 miles per hour. Villages were washed away overnight with tremendous loss of cattle, homes, and human lives. The Hundred Year’s War broke out in her life. The disarray and crumbling of the papacy happened during this time, leaving folks to rely on spirituality from mystics and personal experience rather than formal ecclesial sources. Julian was one of many who went deep in her faith life rather than turning to traditional models of church authority for inspiration. There was nationwide rioting in the peasants’ rebellion that resulted in their movement being crushed and folks witnessing unforgettable violence. Famine was a continual companion for Julian and her contemporaries. In her writing, Julian made references to death, dying, flood and disease which were based on her personal experiences with these crises. She taught that loving and praying are done with the will, not the emotions. With the continual swirl of crises that surrounded her, this was a central tenet to sustain her prayer life. One biographer stated that death was so familiar in her life that it had an image, smell, sound and touch to it. So her strong affirmation of faith that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” can only be the result of Divine revelation and a profound intimacy with God. This statement of faith pointed to a conviction that our daily trials need not consume us for God shall triumph over all that is created in a glorious manner. Nothing else matters!

julian of norwich churchJulian of Norwich church 2
We know that Julian had a near death experience at age 30. During the time that she lingered between life and death, she experienced visions that brought her into the presence of a loving God. She emerged from that sickness with a desire to commit to a more intentional life of faith. She became an anchorite, one set apart from the world. An anchorite chose to be walled into a small apartment, approximately 9’ by 11’, on the grounds of a church. It was a lifetime commitment. Julian chose the cathedral near her hometown in Norwich. The family paid for the support of the person. Julian had two windows in her cell: one enabled her to look into the sanctuary where she could see the communion elements lifted up in worship. The other opened up to the town of Norwich. There was a heavy curtain that separated her visually from folks on the village side. But people would come up to her window to consult her wise counsel on their struggles. In this tiny cell, Julian prayed and read scripture. The priest ministered to her through the window that looked out onto the sanctuary. News of the outside world reached her through the folks who came to her for spiritual direction. She wrote about her visions and those became the greatest source of counsel she could offer others. But the words she became known for in this era of unprecedented suffering and death were the ones written in part on my coffee mug 600 years later: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
Really?!? When she had her near death experience at age 30 she had no father or siblings, no husband or children. We assume that she experienced the loss of much of her family—like all of her neighbors. So why didn’t she get stuck on crying out, “Why me? This isn’t fair!”? Because she met the God of Jesus Christ in her own dying and that holy Presence was enough for her. To an anguished population that sometimes traveled long distances to sit at her window, she reassured them of God’s love. And each day, as the mass was offered, she took strength from the uplifted bread and cup, the reminder that Jesus poured out His life for a panicked, bereaved people.
Our lives are narrowing in part because of government mandates and in part, out of our own sense of caution. These are not fun snow days that give us a break from our usual routine for a day or two. We are fearful with the threat of death broadcast continually on the news. We are bored and lonely in our absence from each other. We wonder how long it will go on. We suspect that this will change the way we do business, do church, do social outings in the future.
So I offer to you the image of two windows. As our lives narrow we choose to immerse ourselves in spiritual disciplines. This is the unique challenge and choice of Lent. What do I add to my life to commune with God more closely? We read scripture in our families. We pray together. We read material that will build us up in the Spirit. We reach out to each other in the ways that are safe right now. Through one window we look into the sanctuary, like you are doing this morning. As odd as it feels, we have this option, thanks to technology, to worship together even though we are not physically present to each other. It’s comforting to see the familiar cross hanging in our empty sanctuary with candles lit on the altar. They remind us of Jesus, the Light of the world. We look in on this together through our I-Pad, cell phone and computer screens. The other window is one we have on the world. We see others when we go to work, when we are out in our driveways talking with our neighbor. We overlap with people in lines at the grocery store. We connect with people quarantined in nursing and retirement facilities by phone call and email. We even have the opportunity to drop a note in the mail to folks who might be more adversely impacted by these strange times than others.
There are people who are counting on us nourishing our own faith life so that we have the spiritual strength and optimism to reach out rather than simply hole up. 75,000 children are on free and reduced lunch programs at their schools in Michigan. People are donating food items and time to organizations like Children’s Food Basket to be certain that this at-risk population gets fed. Our Lenten collection is for various food and toiletry items for United Church Outreach Ministry clients. I will encourage our Mission Board to bring these items to UCOM as they come in rather than wait until the end of the Lenten season. For our neighbors in that part of Grand Rapids, there can be no waiting. I am certain that City Impact will have a heightened need to minister to residents of the Cedar Springs Mobile Homes Estates. We are closely connected to the work of North Kent Connect and will watch for their appeals. We will keep you posted of ways we might help them. I will continue to offer pastoral care to our members and I invite you to reach out to others in smaller groupings as opportunity presents itself.
Perhaps we Christians, gathering in unique ways in unusual times, can gain strength from an affirmation of faith that surfaced out of a plague 600 years ago: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Thank you, Dame Julian, for building your deep faith on the rock of Jesus Christ. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for Your healing presence and eternal love for this world. We need You!


Inside and Out

In the 23d chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we listen in on a rant! It is the opposite of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than naming as “blessed” those who have labored for Godly purposes, Jesus calls out warnings to the religious elite. “Woe to you, you who think you are bigshots” is not the desired opening for a letter delivered by FedEx to my doorstep! For my spiritual report card I’d much rather read that I am blessed than feel upbraided by a teacher who’s yelling in my direction!

In his commentary on Matthew’s writing, Dale Bruner refers to the Pharisees as “The Serious.” They take themselves seriously. They seek to overachieve in their job description to earn the accolades of their people. The Old Testament Law that righteous Pharisees still followed in Jesus’ day required that people give one tenth—or a tithe—of their corn, wine and oil to the Temple. Those three food items were regular staples in their diet. But The Serious wanted to exceed even the most generous giver with extreme stewardship. Even of their spices they measured out a tenth of what grew in their gardens. With pomp and circumstance, they brought it into the Temple with a great showing of importance. They were SERIOUS about their commitment—and don’t you forget it! But Jesus didn’t take them too seriously. In fact, He was unimpressed! The problem with the Serious in any religion is that they do too much in the wrong spirit and do too little with the really important matters.

Jesus gives a few examples using exaggeration. Can you remember back to summer when there’s a swarm of gnats that seem to hover in place, blocking your path with a thousand weightless bodies? Jesus accuses the Pharisees of straining one microscopic gnat out of their lemonade but then swallowing a camel. This imagery is funny and pointed!

normandy cemetery

On the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Adar, which falls between February and March, the graves were painted with bright white chalk in preparation for Passover. This paint provided a layer of protection against spiritual uncleanness for anyone who might brush up against them. Jews of Jesus’ day were forbidden to come into contact with anything related to a dead body. But the chalk was considered “clean” even though it was a thin coating on gravestones. The cemetery was a bright white as Passover arrived. The whitewashing simply made the stones that marked the resting place of the dead appear clean. You needed simply to dig beneath these stones to come into contact with the bones and decaying bodies of lifeless corpses. The Serious were attentive to appearance and unconcerned with substance. Jesus cried out woe to these religious bigwigs who majored in the production of false pretenses! As someone said at the local ministerial meeting this past Wednesday: The Pharisees knew the stuff but didn’t do the stuff so that was the problem! In Old Testament terms, they were hard-hearted!

A young woman named Meredith grew up in our congregation and is now married with two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. Her picture-perfect life was interrupted when her daughter was less than a month old. Her body didn’t feel right. Initial misdiagnoses allowed symptoms to worsen until she checked into the hospital with fevers, migraines and vision issues. She was diagnosed with endocarditis, an infection of the heart. Doctors moved quickly, performing open-heart surgery on Meredith the very next day. Her mother described the procedure to me. The surgeon had to remove the hard shell that encased her heart, piece by delicate piece. The functioning of the heart had been increasingly impeded by this shellac that was formed by the virus. It took eight hours to surgically attack the infection that had spread to her brain, causing seizures. It had landed on her hip, hindering her ability to walk. Endocarditis can be a death sentence if not diagnosed and aggressively treated. Meredith had to follow up the surgery with a rigorous dose of antibiotics injected into her arm daily.

Meredith has been an athlete her whole life. To find herself in such bodily weakness was unimaginable. She had to surrender her control, allowing doctors to take on the battle for her. She had to entrust her children, including her newborn baby girl, into the loving care of family members. The focus had to be on herself, an unlikely situation for a mom of a tiny baby and a young boy. She had to fall into the loving arms of the God she knew from her childhood, a God that carried her through the valley of the shadow of death until her heart was healthy once again.

Being hard-hearted is a terminal diagnosis unless it is detected and treated. A heart can be encased in brittle layers we’ve put in place to protect us from seeing what we don’t want to see. Jesus called out the Pharisees for layers of self-righteousness and pride that clouded their vision. Their blindness neutralized their leadership as spiritual guides. “Woe to you”, Jesus cried out, warning them that the need for heart surgery was urgent. Though they carefully tended to their outer appearance and reputation, their bodies were infected with diseased morals.

The journey of faith is one of letting go. Do you like the word surrender? Me neither! Jesus was teaching His disciples, who sacrificed their personal lives to follow Him, that they had to relinquish control over their carefully-crafted destiny and fall into the care of God. This story of Jesus’ preaching tells us that it’s a matter of life and death.

Jesus calls us to let go of check mark religion. You know, when we think that we deserve better because we can check off boxes on our spiritual report card that give us top ratings? Perhaps we are guilty of tithing of the herbs in our cupboard but ignoring the needs of our neighbor. I remember a time when I noticed a tiny staple on the floor of my car. I picked it up and threw it out the window. A staple didn’t belong in my car. Mind you, this was my big, red suburban that I drove for 17 years, hauling children from one place to another. This was the car that had a back seat so removed from my driver’s seat that I didn’t notice that one of my kids had spilled an Oreo McFlurry back there until it was dried and crusted on the upholstery weeks (months?) later. This car was not kept in pristine condition by any means. So why did I care that a staple had somehow infiltrated my vehicle? And why, I wondered later, did I think that a staple belonged on the face of this earth? Whether it remained on asphalt or ended up on grassy soil, a staple, tiny as it is, didn’t belong there. I would never consider tossing a bag of McDonalds’ wrappers out my window but somehow I didn’t think twice about throwing a manufactured piece of metal out of my window. Are there gradations to sin? Am I focusing on the wrong thing, thinking I’m justified in the little transgressions? What is the condition of my heart when looking at how I direct my actions from one day, one week, one year to the next?

Jesus cries out, “Woe…” to the religious authorities who didn’t hesitate to put others down so as to elevate themselves. Sounds like politics, doesn’t it? I wonder if any of those Pharisees in attendance heard Jesus message and yielded to the heart surgery that was needed for their spiritual survival? It’s uncomfortable to let go. Whom do you trust when you have to do that? What do you stand to lose? The Serious, Jewish Upper-crust entrusted with caring for their people, were called to cede center-stage and all the perks that come with celebrity status. They were directed in Jesus’ sermon to submit to God’s rule. Jesus assured the people who were as anxious about letting go as we are, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10) What matters is the health of our heart not the carefully tailored exterior that we showcase to the folks we wish to impress. Do we believe Jesus’ promise of abundant life? Or are there promises in our world that allure us into thinking that the best is yet to come only if we pledge our loyalty to them? Is our IRA, our job, our physical beauty, our intellect what keeps us anchored? As the DOW plummets and a virus spreads, do we feel like the rug is pulled out from underneath us?


Jesus is a prophet of economics. He calls out those whose plates are overflowing because they have taken advantage of others. How people make their money and establish rich lives matters. God sees what’s inside the cup, what’s buried under the gleaming white tombstone rather than being deceived by the exterior.

stones on altar

I love the mystery of geodes. Maybe you’ve been surprised by one before. The exterior looks so bland, so unremarkable. But the interior to this stone, when it is cracked open, reveals crystals stacked on top of each other to reflect back beams of light in a hundred different directions. The exterior of the disciples Jesus chose was not noteworthy. They were fishermen, a despised tax collector, sons and husbands of ordinary people. But Jesus saw that their heart condition was good. They were not so full of themselves that they could not hear the Word of Truth Jesus preached. It’s easy to block out the needs of others when our own needs are abundantly met. But Jesus warned the Serious, the Elite, that they were doomed if they didn’t confess their heart disease and submit to His authority so as to have the truly abundant life.

Dale Bruner challenges us through his interpretation of this passage: “’Clean up the inside of the cup first, and then the outside is clean as well.’ Change your way of earning money and you will clean your house. Clean up your business and you wash your dishes; change your politics of selfishness and you have the house beautiful. First conquer in your inner life your wild lust to possess; then what you do outwardly will be clean.”                                                                                       (Matthew: A Commentary/The Churchbook by Frederick Dale Bruner, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1990)


…and seven others

Last Monday our nation carved out three hours to join in on a memorial service. It was impossible to miss the celebration of the lives of Kobe Bryant and his young daughter, Gianna. They were heralded through kind words and moving music. Nearly 20,000 guests filled the Staples Center in LA where Bryant had attracted crowds as basketball’s golden child who thrilled fans for 20 seasons. The arena was filled with A-lister athletes and entertainers, each trying to wrap their hearts around the knowledge that a larger-than-life figure died tragically with a daughter who emulated his love for the game. Mourners lined the streets outside Staples Center, grieving the 41-year old athlete who attracted visitors to the city to see him do his magic on the court.
The funeral came four weeks and a day after the horrific helicopter crash that killed nine people. I was struck, as the news spread rapidly that Sunday in January, that the fame of Kobe eclipsed the loss of the other victims. It wasn’t an intentional slight. It’s what happens when two people go through the same experience. If one is a cultural icon, the other person will hardly be noticed. So the news was broadcast that Kobe Bryant and his daughter had died….and seven others.
I wonder if the families of “the seven others” were hurt that their pain was discounted. There were admirable traits among the seven other victims but the press only had energy to focus on the basketball star. I was struck that the Altobelli family lost three family members: a married couple and their daughter, Alyssa. John served as the baseball coach at Orange Coast College for 27 seasons. Two other children survive the loss of their parents and sister, Alyssa. Can you imagine what life feels like for them now? These are two young people who need our prayers.
Matt Mauser was widowed that day when his wife, Christina, died in the crash. She was a teacher and the assistant coach at Bryant’s Mamba Academy. A talented player, she leaves behind three small children. Ara Zobayan was Kobe’s most trusted pilot who chauffeured Kobe countless times between home and court. He was a flight teacher who had been licensed as a commercial pilot for thirteen years. Another one of Gianna’s team mates, Payton, was on the flight along with her mother. The girl’s uncle gave voice to the grief felt by families of “the seven others” in a written message: “While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important. Their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken.”
When someone who has captured the hearts of a nation dies, any other news event falls out of view. Perhaps you remember the memorial service for Mother Teresa in 1997? Maybe not! She died just six days after Princess Diana’s terrible car crash, one day before the royal’s funeral. I suspect there would have been a lot more fanfare over the highly revered nun’s death if it hadn’t happened right as the entire world grieved the gut-wrenching loss of a princess. I was struck at the time that Mother Teresa probably preferred that her entrance into the place of eternal reward was overshadowed and, therefore, modest. With a gentle smile, I can picture her slipping from earth’s bounds and into the waiting arms of Jesus. She didn’t need human acclaim for her beautiful ministry–just the object of her adoration, Jesus.
In the aftermath of the Bryant memorial our church family honored the memory of two faithful servants. In the beauty of our 145-year old sanctuary we remembered the contributions of two individuals who had poured themselves into the needs and joys of our congregational life. On Thursday we grieved the loss of Bill, an 86-year old man who has quietly cared for our church for several decades. He fearlessly took his place at the soundboard each Sunday, making sure the voices of those leading worship could be clearly heard. He never wished for his own voice to be dominant. After a brisk bike ride, Bill picked up the sticky cans and bottles that people deposit in our side entryway. He returned them to the nearby grocery store so that 10 cents per container could be added to our general budget. He would come into my office with an envelope of four dollar bills and a quiet smile. It all adds up to pay the heat bill! Our Tuesday morning bible study is predominantly comprised of retired women who have prepared and cleaned up after thousands of meals in their lifetimes. Bill was a faithful member of the class, coming early to turn up the heat and get the coffee brewing. By the time the rest of us slid into our places, there were ceramic mugs set out next to the coffee pot and he was the one to wash them by hand afterwards. His skills as an electrician were put to the test any number of times as areas of our old building needed some TLC. He was the first one to arrive on Sunday mornings to unlock the heavy wooden doors to the sanctuary. He turned on the lights so that we were ready for business. At a community Ash Wednesday service last week I fully expected him to walk into the neighboring church that was hosting worship. Any time we went off site as a congregation for the lesser-observed services, I could count on Bill being one of those from my flock who smiled up at me as I preached or imposed ashen crosses on foreheads. Our congregation still can’t believe he is gone.
On Friday we celebrated the life of Marilyn. She lost her husband of more than 60 years just over a year ago. She never got over that loss. But courageously she moved forward and reached out to fellow residents in her retirement facility with love and genuine interest. She was part of a generation of women who rolled up their sleeves to take care of their church. She took her place in the church kitchen to prepare meals when the public was invited in for a church bazaar. Remember those? She and the other women spent several days sorting and arranging donated goods for a rummage sale that drew crowds from nearby towns. They lined up early in anticipation of some quality goods at a bargain price. About 20 years ago a younger generation of women made it clear that they didn’t have the time or desire to spend a week pulling off a fundraiser that would make $1000 for our budget. The rummage sale was put to rest and the church dinners became less frequent. Marilyn painted a ceramic nativity set that still adorns the front altar during Advent and Christmas. I didn’t learn that she had made it until her funeral! Like the moms of her generation, she poured herself into shaping a home that was blessed for her daughters and husband. Those of us who are working moms, living on the fly, have lost the ability to sit still in the moment and savor the family moments that flee too quickly and join the stockpile of treasured memories. Conversation with Marilyn inevitably included the latest accomplishments of her grand and great-grandchildren. What else could matter more?
After each of the memorial services on back-to-back days, a new generation of servants prepared ham buns and potato salad so that the community could linger together over a meal. The folks who sat in the sanctuary were not celebrities. Not even the local newspaper was there to capture the event for their weekly publication. It was a pastor who presided over the service, not a nationally-syndicated MC. Bill and Marilyn were commended into God’s eternal keeping with humility and grace which, I suspect, is how the rest of us will be heralded when our time comes. The vast majority of people we know are among the “…and seven others.” In our own sphere of influence we will be missed. We will be remembered when a family member makes our apple cake recipe or rides a bike on the trail where our father rode. The legacy we leave will not be broadcast on national television but carried in the hearts of those who grieve our passing and are grateful for our example. In this loud culture of selfies and selfishness, our greatest joy will be to find ourselves in the warm embrace of Jesus who welcomes us home, face-to-face.


“…and a little child shall lead them”

A friend posted on facebook that she didn’t let her class of second graders know it was her birthday until that very morning as they arrived at school. So, rather than a coordinated effort by caring room mothers who referenced Pinterest for the best possible teacher gift, her young students were on their own to plan something special. The result? An impromptu and clandestine collection was taken which garnered $1.46 in sweet pocket change that she could use for a coffee. And someone offered a paper ninja star.
What’s the most memorable gift that a child has offered you? Was it a pasta necklace or paper plate hat that you wore with pride? Teachers are loaded with stories about the incredible kindness of our youngest citizens! Maybe they should lead in some of our international diplomacy challenges?!
We read four verses in our worship today from Isaiah 11: 6The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

These verses are nestled in a larger passage that introduces God’s Savior. He will emerge as a young shoot out of a seemingly dead stump. It’s a family tree and goes back to Jesse, King David’s father. This new sprout will grow into a ruler whose leadership will shape a very different world. Natural enemies will live side by side peacefully. Reconciliation will happen between people, animals and the land. Children will sit by the nest of poisonous snakes playing happily, the parents unconcerned for their safety. Part of the folklore in my husband’s childhood is the time a rattlesnake slithered toward him when he was a toddler. His father leapt into action and heroically killed the snake with a shovel. These images of predators sunning themselves next to prey on God’s Holy Mountain are not natural! They kick up fears within us. But God is the author of this restored Creation so anything is possible!

Edward Hicks was a Quaker pastor who repressed his artistic talents for many years to honor the aesthetic austerity of his faith. But his love for capturing the beauty of this world with paints ultimately prevailed. He was so drawn to the Biblical image of paradise from Isaiah 11 that he painted it with the title, The Peaceable Kingdom. He did at least 62 variations of the same scene, always including the animals along with a child. But he changed up the people to portray the divisions of his time. In one of the paintings the background depicted Native Americans signing a peace treaty with William Penn. In another a delegation of Quakers are talking respectfully with Native Americans. Hicks sought to translate the radical nature of Isaiah’s vision into the terms his world would understand.
As Christians we understand this passage as a foreshadowing of Jesus. In His ministry we see barriers broken down between enemy groups. He rebuked his disciples when they tried to keep parents from bogging down His ministry by bringing their children to Him. He immediately availed Himself to these smallest followers, the text telling us that He took them in His arms and blessed them. He ate meals with IRS men and didn’t shy away from physical contact with lepers, the Corona Virus victims of His day. Women held important roles in His movement and children were identified as role models for getting into the Kingdom. The prophet’s vision of God’s Holy Mountain is fulfilled in full color with Jesus’ ministry.

children's message
We count ourselves as blest to have so many children in our church family. We love their wisdom and their reverence. Their capacity to understand spiritual truths surpasses ours many times. They haven’t yet developed a rational mind that gets in the way of accepting seemingly impossible realities by faith. A few examples come to my mind.
When I served at East Congregational Church on the east side of Grand Rapids, my second-grade daughter’s class visited the church for a tour one day. The church was within walking distance of the school. The sanctuary has a gothic design with high ceilings and stunning stained glass windows. The students’ reactions to this sacred space was to offer some ooohs and ahhs and then to get quiet. They had a natural inclination toward reverence in a holy setting! One little boy ran his fingers across one of the window of deep blue hues and murmured, “I’ll never wash my hand again!”

white and blue floral table lamp
Photo by fotografierende on

One of the little boys in this congregation was getting ready for his birthday party. He was turning 5! He said to his mom, “I’m going to invite God to my birthday party…and He’ll come!” The year before, when the time came for him to blow out the four candles on his birthday cake, the electricity went out. He was somewhat fearful but his grandmother, without missing a beat, said, “God just turned out the lights so you could really see your birthday candles!” (oh, to have a deep theology like that on tap!) So this soon-to-be five-year-old had a clear sense that God showed up to that party uninvited. This year he wanted to be sure to include God on the guest list!
At a Christian conference about 15 years ago one of the presenters described a morning with her nephew, Lance. She was staying at their house for a visit and learning the challenging schedule of a three year old! He was up at 6:30AM, already fed breakfast and inviting her to come to his show. Each of them sat on a stool in a dark room. He had a flashlight to illuminate his face and with dramatic flair he proclaimed, “Prepare to be amazed!” He played with a spider-man doll for about 20 seconds in the light of the battery-operated stage lighting. But then he threw the doll on the floor and ran away, minus his diaper and smelling of syrup! And she was….amazed!
People were streaming forward by the center aisle at a colleague’s parish to receive communion. A little girl in one of the front pews had already gone forward to receive the bread and juice. Now she curled up next to her mother, facing backwards so that she could watch the rest of the church members stream forward. Her head wasn’t over the back of the pew so those in line for the sacrament couldn’t see her. But to each one, as they passed her, she blew them a kiss. And some folks think children should only take communion when we’ve been able to “teach” them all the intellectual background to Jesus’ supper?! I daresay she grasped what it meant to be included in this love feast better than most of the adults in the sanctuary!
For a short while an older man came to our church with his young grandson. The boy was probably 7 years old and seemed not to have had any experience with church. When the plate holding the bread was passed down their pew on a communion Sunday, those nearby could hear the grampa say, in a loud whisper, “This is Jesus’ Body. This is Jesus’ blood.” The little boy, with an appreciation for mystery, participated in the meal and knew that he belonged.
Dr. Wes Stafford is the President of Compassion International, the agency through which we have sponsored three children around the globe for many years now. He is an internationally acclaimed advocate for children’s rights and a man of deep Christian faith. In his book, Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most, he challenges our Western culture to minister to our children. He recognizes the great capacity our children have for spiritual matters, something that doesn’t come as easily to us if we learn the faith as adults. He states that only 23% of people become Christians if they haven’t been exposed to the faith as children. So why aren’t we prioritizing our youngest citizens exposure to the faith while they’re still open to it? Are we providing the stepping stones they need to come to us from families where parents are seeking out a church home and other homes where children may need to be brought here by a friend? Stepping stones mark out a path in a terrain that might otherwise be confusing to navigate. We have three staff members whose job description is to tend to the spiritual development of our kids: a paid Nursery Attendant for our youngest members, a Christian Education Coordinator who leads our children in Christian Education classes and a Youth Director who is shaping faith through the Middle School and Senior High Youth Groups. 10 % or a tithe of our annual budget goes toward this priority of anchoring our children in the faith before they head into the world on their own. Additionally I lead a Confirmation Class for 6-8th graders that takes them to different churches and the Jewish Temple during a year of studying the faith. A talented church member coaxes wonderful music out of our elementary-aged children who sing and play bells for us in worship. As the demands on our families increase outside of the church walls, are we vigilant to place stepping stones in new places so that they will find their way here? Or do we cling to systems that worked five, ten, thirty years ago?
The Forum on Child and Family Statistics gave a report of childhood wellbeing that offers findings from 2017. There were, at that time, 74 million children under age 18 living in the U.S. 17% of all children lived in households classified as food insecure. African Americans and Native Americans have a higher infant mortality rate than white or Asian households. 13% of kids ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Children in divorced households had a more than doubled likelihood of having serious emotional or behavioral difficulties than those in homes with married parents, an increase from 4% to 9%. Boys are nearly double in likelihood over girls to have serious emotional or behavioral difficulties. In 2017, 17 1/2% of all children 0-17 years were in poverty: 10.9% of white kids compared to 28.7% of black children and 25% of Hispanic children. 8.4% of kids in families with married parents lived in poverty as compared to 40.7% in female-only headed households.
Hearing these figures, we are given a glimpse into what lions have ravaged our communities and world? As we hear discrepancies in how different races and ethnicities fare in the U.S., we discern what snakes lie coiled and ready to bring down children who find themselves in circumstances over which they have no control? If we are followers of Jesus, the One who took the children in His arms and blessed them, our role as adults is to address issues of social justice for children who come through these doors and those who never will. As we think of that remarkable vision from Isaiah 11, I wonder where we need the greatest promise of new life? Where have you seen a shoot courageously come out of a seemingly dead stump, refusing to be silenced? I wonder if we’re open to seeing life in new ways or if we find greater comfort in keeping things as they’ve always been?

view of building exterior
Photo by Pixabay on

God is the One who ushers in the Peaceable Kingdom—but we are called to sacrifice from our well-being and set out the stepping stones of faith to point the Way!
When we worshiped at Temple Emmanuel with the Confirmation Class in January there was a beautiful prayer from their book of worship that we prayed together, Jews and Christians, young and old, men and women. I’ll close with those words now, in English, not Hebrew!

Dear God,
May we, the children of the world, not repeat the mistakes of past generations. Free us from the traps of old arguments and ancient battles. May we, the children of the world, discover a new way of living, where the riches of some are not at the expense of others. May we, the children of the world, use our energy and optimism to overcome the barriers and fences of the past. May we, the children of the world, have a new vision for this planet, so that we waste less and conserve more. May we, the children of the world, live in harmony with You, Your creation, and each other. Amen.