“A Ribbon of Possibilities” – January 29, 2017

“A Ribbon of Possibilities”

January 29, 2017 – 4th Sunday after Epiphany – Year A

There is a story about a woman who asked the great Teacher, “What is the key to religion?”  The teacher replied: “Once there was a magic ring which gave its bearer the gifts of grace, kindness and generosity.  When the owner of the ring was on his deathbed, each of his 3 sons came separately and asked him for the ring.  The old man promised the ring to each of them.

“He then sent for the finest jeweller in the land, and paid him to make 2 rings identical to the original.  The jeweller did so, and before he died, the father gave each son a ring without telling him about the other 2.

“Inevitably, the 3 sons discovered that each one had a ring, and they appeared before the local judge to ask his help in deciding who had the magic ring.  The judge examined the rings and found them to be all alike.  He then said, “Why must anyone decide now?  We shall know who has the magic ring when we observe the direction your life takes.

“Each of the brothers then acted as if he had the magic ring by being kind, honest and thoughtful.

“Now,” the Teacher concluded, “faithfulness is like the 3 brothers in the story.  The moment we cease striving for justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God – it is then that we cease living on the path of faithfulness.”

Our lives can get rather complicated when we forget the simple directive for faithfulness.  Yet, 3 short words summarize the key to religion – justice, kindness and obedience.

That is the proclamation of the prophet Micah, as well as the sage of old.  The Good News translation of the Bible states: “do what is just, show constant love, and live in humble fellowship with our God.”

The account from the prophet Micah begins with a court room scene.  God directs you to respond to the question “what have I done to you?”  Then God lists some of the care and saving acts directed towards the people saying:

  • “I’ve brought you safely from Egypt
  • I freed you from slavery
  • I sent leaders to help you
  • I protected you from the devastation of the Kings
  • and I revealed to you so many of my saving acts.”

That is a pretty impressive list, isn’t it? 

The people of the 6th century BCE find themselves struggling with the timeless question, “what is the key to religion?”  or to put it in more basic terms “How do I live faithfully?” – asks the people of Micah’s day and the people of Penticton United Church in 2017.

The answer throughout time remains –  live the way of righteousness, gentleness and meekness. This simple 3 word directive has been the motto for many of you as you have sought to live out your faith.  I remember being a teenager and participating in a workshop where I really heard this passage.  It was perhaps the first time that it touched my soul.  “What does the Lord require of you … but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  That was a tough call for a teenager, and continues to be a challenging directive.  But, as seekers and companions of the Holy One, we walk the walk and talk the talk.

Our journey takes us to a mountainside overlooking the Lake of Galilee.  We hear Jesus saying words that touch us in a profound way.  It is as if Jesus is speaking directly to me, and to each one of you personally.  How is it that Jesus knows us so well?  But it is not some bland porridge that he offers.  Instead he heralds a radical message. Speaking in the present tense, Jesus relays the very active presence of God.

The “Whole People of God” Sunday School Curriculum suggests that “This amazing Sermon on the Mount has Jesus naming blessings that reverse the world’s conventional wisdom and values.  They are not so much an urging to be this or that, but a statement of God’s intention to bless despite human injustice and misfortune. Abraham Heschel, the famous Jewish theologian stated “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”  Perhaps Jesus refers to the blessedness of simply allowing oneself to be what you are rather than trying to be something else.  Those who are seen as poor and less fortunate may in fact be far richer than those with wealth because they are much closer to the true gift of life and can appreciate the blessings that are inherent in even the simple necessities of life.

We find an emphasis upon the blessedness of being as opposed to striving, achieving and becoming.  With all the mountains and the hills and all the “holy ground” of this good earth we are invited to say, ”Blessed be!””

It seems to me that coupling the Micah passage with the Beatitudes is a mixed blessing.  Both are profound statements that encourage us to draw close to God’s way of faith-filled living.  As we reflect on both texts we are surrounded by the deep assurance that God is present.  We are called to fully surrender our lives into the care of the Holy One. For it is when we are truly dependant on God’s mercy and grace that we are called “blessed.”

May we share in communion and recognize the blessedness of one another.  May we do justice – love mercy – and walk humbly with our God.  Amen.

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“God is Well Pleased!” – January 8, 2017

“God is Well Pleased!”

January 8, 2017 – Epiphany and Baptism of Jesus – Year A

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  This is my Daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  “This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  “This is my child.  I love him.  I am really pleased.”  “This is my beloved, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”  “This is my Own, my Beloved, on whom my favour rests.” 

Such is the affirmation to Jesus upon his baptism and is our confirmation by our generous God.  God is well pleased with every one of us!  God’s blessing is as if God says “I know you, and you are good.  You are worthy of praise.”  Isn’t it wonderful to be so completely and deeply known?  Isn’t amazing that even when we blow it big time, God sees through the awfulness and knows that deep down we are God’s beloved?

Those of us who have fallen in love know that from that moment your life’s agenda is to learn about the beloved.  You have this great desire to be with that beloved.  It is the beginning of a new way of living.  Such is true with God’s relationship with us.  From the moment we are born, God looks at us and names us beloved.  God’s greatest dream for us is that we             grow into the fullness of who we can be.

About 20 years ago, I was invited by the community psychologist to work with him in offering communication skills workshops.  We conducted them in churches, the community college, to sororities and then one day he asked me if I would go into Kent Correction Centre and do a one day workshop there.  I said yes, shaking in my shoes.  So, in we went.  We were screened, patted down and then allowed into one of the common areas.  There were about 20 men waiting for us.  These were men who were sentenced for up to 25 years.  Rob was not only the community psychologist but also a United Church minister.  He did prison ministry for many years.  This was a first for me.  We lead the men through our workshop and they were amazing involved in what we offered.  One disclosed stories about his abusive childhood, another told about not being allowed to attend his father’s funeral, another spoke about being gay in a men’s prison.  Several broke down in tears.  These men were owning their stories and speaking in clear ways that allowed them to get in touch with deep pain.  Rob and I were able to affirm that though they had done horrendous things are being punished for it, God loves the core of who they are.   Many of the men who gathered for a communications workshop heard the story of Jesus baptism in a new light and could own “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

A 12 year-old boy was baptized at a revival meeting.  The kids at school asked him about it.

“Did you hear God talk?” one asked.

“No.”

“Did you see a vision?” another asked.

“No.”

“Well, then how did you know it was God?” a third friend asked.

The boy thought for a moment and then said, “It’s like when you catch a fish.  You can’t see the fish or hear the fish; You just feel it tugging on you line.  I felt God tugging on my heart.”

God tugs at our hearts in interesting ways.  The sight of beautiful art-work – a moving piece of music – a spectacular vista in nature – “I love you” spoken by one’s beloved – involved in a cause for justice – cradling a newborn baby – seeing a person with disabilities accomplish a task after much practice – greeting a refugee after a time in detention – and the list goes on.  Will we take the time to appreciate those “God moments?”  Over and over God tugs at our heart and reminds us that we are valued and loved.

When we hear the powerful affirmation “You are my daughter – my son – my servant – in whom my soul delights.  Here is where I need you to serve.  Now, let me delight in you as you share the love I’ve invested in you,” we are encouraged to go out into the community and be lovers, justice makers, and compassionate caregivers.  Some of the ways that I see you folk living out that call are as you make phone calls to those who are ill or lonely.  I watch you helping out at the soupateria, preparing teas following funerals and memorial services, doing odd jobs around the church ensuring it is in good repair, volunteering for coffee time following our worship services, visiting the ill and home-bound, driving others to appointments and shopping, and other acts of grace and service.  All of this delights God.

Jesus was willing to do whatever it takes to make him pleasing to God.  Is that also true for us?

This is where the text from Isaiah proves helpful.  “To bring forth justice” is the key – repeated 3 times for emphasis.  Being chosen isn’t about being blessed so much as it is about being given responsibilities.  The nation of Israel (and we too!) had forgotten that being chosen by God meant more than “favoured nation” status.  It meant being a “light” and a “covenant”.  As a light, they were to reach into the dark corners of the world and bring the message of God’s abiding love and majesty.  As a covenant, they were to demonstrate what it means to be in relationship with God.

To be chosen by God – to have God’s Spirit within us – is something with which we are all endowed.  Jesus was unique in that he fulfilled completely the mandates of God, not for his own benefit, but for the sake of the world.

How do we respond to being “chosen” – to being God’s servant in and to the world?  Is God pleased with us?  I am convinced that love is both the question and the answer.  If we are committed to the way of extravagant love, then our lives are rich.  If we are willing to love lavishly, then our church is a beacon in Penticton.  If we are determined to love selflessly, then our world will be transformed.  And God says, “This is my beloved, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”  Well done good friends.  Amen.