When you hear the word “clay” – what do you think of?
How is pottery different from clay?
What does a potter do?
Have any of you ever worked with clay?
Have you used a “potter’s wheel” before?
What’s it like working with clay?
Does the item you are working on come out right, perfect each time?
What happens when it doesn’t turn out right, or just falls on you?
Pottery is a beautiful form of aft. Interestingly, art and Christianity have a lot of similarities. “Art doesn’t fundamentally lie in the creation of the material (medium) to be used. The material is a given – it is to be understood, practiced upon, cherished, for sure, but not created. Art lies in the recreation of that material in a new form.
Christianity is not about imaging something perfect, called creation, and straining to get ourselves back to that ideal state. It’s about taking the material of humankind, the surrounding world and universe, and exploring the form of a relationship between God and us, and contemplating the governing idea that God, the artist, will go to any lengths to restore that relationship” (Wells, S.).
In our Jeremiah text, we once again find the image of the potter and clay. This image goes all the way back to the beginning of humanity. In Genesis 2:7, we hear how God formed humans from the dust of the ground. We were fashioned specifically and carefully by the Creator, the grand Potter, in God’s own image.
Art – painting, making music, sculpting, working clay on the wheel, etc., is often thought of as one-sided. The artist has the idea, the grand design, and works the material before them to meet the image they envisioned, right? The paints, the clay, the musical instrument don’t have a say ibn what they become do they? They are intangible, so they can’t have a role in the creative process…..or can they?
Art is actually a very relational process. The artist becomes immersed in the medium they are working with. It is almost as if the material speaks with the artist, or as artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti said: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” (goodreads.com/quotes)
I think that the creation of humanity followed a similar process. God’s own hands gathered the dust of the earth, dampened it, worked it, and shaped it just right, before breathing life into each of us.
Ever since, God has allowed each person to live and function on their own – independently and collectively, making good choices and bad. Over the years, God remains in close contact with each of us. Sometimes, we can hear God and feel God’s movement in our lives clearly. Other times, we believe we can go it alone, that we don’t need God’s guidance or “interference” in our lives, and we drift further away from God, and often from each other. God doesn’t give up on humanity, though. God continues to remain close to us. The relationship doesn’t end because we believe that we don’t need anyone, even God.
Yet, “the very manner in which God speaks to the people through prophets is intrinsically relational. Thanks to Walter Brueggemann in particular, the church is waking up to the fact that Old Testament prophetic language is not neutral or merely descriptive but expressive, engaging, committing – always seeking to evoke a response. Precisely because the language seeks a response, its working will depend on the nature of that response” (Wells, J.).
Here in our Jeremiah text, we see that give and take, the interchange and co-creative actions and expressions of humanity (the clay) and God (the potter). Like clay, we are meant to remain soft enough, malleable or flexible enough to be shaped and reshaped by the circumstances around us. Frequently, though our lives seem to become misshaped, brittle, chipped, and broken; they can even fail or fall apart on us.
Through it all, God continues to try and offer up warnings to us when we venture into unhealthy decisions and territory, just like God did to the people through Jeremiah. Sometimes, God must use tactics and people that will produce a reaction; that we will wake up and respond – hopefully we will realize where we have ventured into dangerous territory (physically and emotionally), where we have gone astray spiritually, repent and turn towards God once again.
By doing so, by turning back to God once again, by admitting that we are malleable clay, that we do need the grand potter in our life to help shape us and mold us, God is able to full re-engage with us and will become hands-on in our lives once again, seeking to rework us, mend our wounds, strengthen our resolve, and reshape us into faithful, useful servants and vessels once again.
My friends, we come from dust and to dust we will return at some point in our lives. In the meantime, we are to remain as malleable flexible clay formed into useful and faithful vessels of God’s spirit and love – each individually shaped and continually re-shaped by the potter’s hands.
May it be so…..AMEN
Wells, Jo Bailey, “Blogging toward Sunday.” https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2007-09/blogging-toward-sunday
Wells, Samuel, article Christ the artist, we the portfolio, printed in February 1, 2017 issue of Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/faith-matters/christ-artist-we-portfolio
Have you ever noticed how much Luke’s Jesus loves to eat? There are more references to eating, banquets, and being at table in Luke than in any other gospel (pastorsings.com).
Our sacrament of Holy Communion comes from this tradition of sharing meals together. During this sacrament, we remember that one of the last things Jesus did before being arrested was to gather with friends and family to eat and celebrate Passover. So, it’s no wonder that those closest to Jesus, who go on to start the fledgling Christian church movement, started every gathering by sharing a meal together and talking about their time with him. Maybe this was also the beginning of church potlucks.
Even today, in our daily lives, we often gather with friends and family around tables.
Why are shared meals around a common table so important?
When you gather at home over a big meal – holiday, or special event
During holidays and special events, who comes and sits around your table?
Today, we hear, how Jesus spends the early part of this particular dinner party watching those gathered. He notices that they are spending a lot of time and energy on trying to maneuver themselves into the best seats at the table. He realizes that even these religious leaders and elite, are caught up in the Roman structures of societal position and trying to get ahead.
I imagine that Jesus shakes his head and heaves a sigh. It seems so easy for everyone to set aside God’s ways as they attempt to secure their position within society. Why is that? Do we do that today? Sure we do.
So, as the food is served and everyone settles down to eat, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak. He states that God has a very different idea of how things work – then and now. He tells those gathered for dinner that they should be inviting those whom society deems last and excluded; that those individuals are first and included at God’s table, rather than the individuals who can do you favors and help you get ahead (pastorsings.com).
Jesus’ comments seek to urge both the host and attendees toward true generosity, real hospitality that expects nothing in return. He reminds them that God’s ways are very different from societies, and that they belong to God first and for most. Through quoting scripture, Jesus cautions what could happen if they try to take the best seat in the house without invitation to – they will be asked, publicly, to move. Not what anyone wants to have happen. Rev. Rachel Hackenberg quoted Sirach in today’s Daily Devotional for the UCC saying, “Pride was not created for human beings” (Sir 10:18), not even for those who cloak their pride in humility and bad seating hoping to be recognized and invited to a better place at the table.
Jesus also reminds those gathered that they are not to look at others by what they can do for them, but to look and truly see them for who they are in God’s eyes. And as God’s faithful servants, they should naturally seek to help those who have a need – who are hungry, thirsty, and homeless – rather than hanging-out only with and serving our friends, family and others who have plenty or can give us a leg up.
For Jesus, hunger and justice go hand-in-hand. Fred Craddock puts it this way, “Bread (food) was (and still is) important; in fact, where some eat and some do not eat, the kingdom is not present” (Matthews quoting Craddock). The Kingdom of God is present when all have enough, when everyone shares and sees to the needs of others, and when all are treated equally.
Jesus also says, that when we see and meet the needs of others, we will be blessed.
What do you think that means?
How are you blessed by helping others – by participating in our food support programs for the Northeastern Food Bank and packing bags at Hayshire Elementary?
Hayshire professes to be, and wants to continue to be, a place of extravagant welcome for all people. Terms like Extravagant Welcome and Radical Hospitality are often used interchangeably. Gary Peluso-Verdend reminds us that the Greek word for “Hospitality” is philoxenia, which means “love of the stranger.”
Are we providing an Extravagant Welcome, offering Radical Hospitality – are we loving others in our surrounding community?
I believe we “love” very well when we can collect things for others, or do things from a distance. But how well do we do when people come to us? How are we at initiating that radical hospitality – seeing the need and meeting it – outside our walls and with people we don’t know?
Jesus’ rule of thumb for the Kingdom of God etiquette and banquet dining practices was not just for his own time. It is still a teaching that we should be putting into practice today.
What would the world be like if we spent more time sitting down together and sharing a meal with those we don’t know, or don’t agree with, rather than fighting and saying hateful things about each other?
My friends, God’s table is about relationships and peace. It’s about always showing “love” – kindness and compassion – to strangers and making them friends, or at least known acquaintances. It’s about making room for and celebrating the differences in our lives. And it’s those differences that bring such a richness and depth to our world. If we seek to honor those differences and see them as strengths rather than weaknesses, our world will be a better place.
As we come to God’s table once again this week to gather and eat, we do so seeking to embrace the love of the one who gives us life and in whom we are beautifully, wonderfully, uniquely, and fearlessly made.
May it be so….. AMEN
Matthews, Kathryn, “Open Table” bible study and seeds for thought on Luke 14:1, 7-14, September 1, 2019. www.ucc,org/weekly-seeds.
A Pastor Sings, “Where Will You Sit – Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14”. https://pastorsings.com/where-will-you-sit-sermon-on-luke-141-7-14/
We have reached the end of our summer Elephant in the Pew series and our final questions are once again about Hell. They are: If God forgives everyone, then why does hell exist? ...and What is the nature of hell?
Hell is one of those topics that we love and hate to talk about. There are movies and TV shows that depict the end of the world and what the punishments of hell might be like. We all have opinions about Hell – whether it truly exists, what it might be like, and who should go there and for what reason.
There has been a lot of debate by the scholars as to whether or not Hell is real. It seems that we could debate the topic ourselves, because it was on our list last year during our Elephant series, too.
Many believe that hell is very real, and that we are all in danger of ending up there if we don’t repent and change our ways. Others believe that hell was created as a scare tactic centuries ago to try and keep the population in check and easier to manage – and therefore irrelevant in today’s world.
When we look at scripture, we will find texts that support both sides, and how you read those texts can sway you one way or another. Logically, it’s hard to say what is true or not, because there is no tangible proof one way or the other. Plus, we don’t know anyone who has been there and came back to tell about it. There are no stories of individuals having near death experiences saying that they have been to hell. We only have stories of “heaven” encounters. The happy, light filled, family reunion, walk with Jesus stories. We don’t have anything that proves there is another possibility, a darker possibility. So, that could mean a few things:
Reality is all humans are imperfect, we all sin (do wrong) in some way or another – and some of us more boldly than others. If you were to read Dante’s inferno, you would, most likely, find a place for yourself within his 9 circles of hell, and a description of the torment or punishment you are destined for.
Yet, as Christians, we are reminded that Jesus’ death on the cross made it possible for us to avoid eternal punishment. We are assured that we will be able to reside with God in eternal joy and peace – if we profess our faith in God.
In this life, humanity has created a system of laws that help keep our behaviors “in check” or “balance”. We know that there are consequences for our negative actions and behaviors here on earth. Yet what about once our bodies give out? Are there eternal consequences for the way we live in spite of our profession of faith?
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells us there are consequences for our actions and our inactions:
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” AND
41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…
Jesus tells both - “Truly I tell you, just as you did/did not do it to one of the least of these, you did/did not do it to me. 46And (those who did not do) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous (those who did) into eternal life.”
The majority of scholars agree that Hell, in part, is life without God, or living outside of the presence of God. Without a relationship with our creator, without a connection to the source of all life, we will eventually wither and die. That in itself is an eternal punishment.
What is the duration of our punishment? Is the “punishment” for eternity, as the Matthew text states, or is it for a shorter period of time?
Again, the Bible has texts on both sides. Such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – 2 real towns located on the southern tip of the Dead Sea, their physical destruction was a once a done thing. You can see the remnants of them still today. So there “eternal” destruction is symbolic for a punishment that has eternal consequences (Reagan). It is meant to be a warning to others as to what will happen if you live a certain way. For people who live near the remnants of these 2 cities, the warning is still very real.
Since our roots come from the Jewish tradition, I looked for information on what they truly believe about Hell. I found the train of thought from the Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic spiritual revival movement within the Jewish tradition, very interesting. When asked if Jews believe in Hell, one individual responded in this way:
“We believe in a type of hell. Hell is not a punishment in the conventional sense; it is, in fact, the expression of a great kindness.” Punishment as kindness, really? How so? I wondered. I understand that parents punish their children out of love and to help them learn proper behavior, what not to do so they won’t be hurt, etc., but to see punishment as a kindness? That’s a stretch.
The article continued to say, that “The Jewish mystics describe a spiritual placed called Gehinnom – usually translated as “hell,” but a better translation would be the Supernatural Washing Machine. Because that’s exactly how it works. The way our soul is cleansed in Gehinnom is similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine.”
Let’s take a sock for example: “If you were a sock and thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you might start to feel that someone doesn’t like you.”
Yet, “We don’t put socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your socks, you are doing them a favor by putting them through this process.
So, too, with the soul. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed. If at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high. We must go through a cycle of deep cleansing. Our soul is flung around at an intense spiritual heat to rid it of any residue it may have gathered, and to prepare it for entry into Heaven.
Of course, this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done and make amends with the people we have hurt, we can leave this world with clean socks” (Moss) and hearts.
Wow, now that’s an interesting thought. “Every act we do (or don’t do) in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed.” I think that is one of the best explanations I have heard yet for the connection between the cause and lasting effects of how we choose to live.
We all recognize that we have some “dirty laundry” in our lives. Things that we need to do some cleaning on. Maybe it’s well hidden, but often it’s still there just like a stinky, dirty pair of socks left forgotten on the bottom of the laundry bag. It can hide for a while, but eventually it will come out.
With this thought in mind:
My friends, no matter where you are on your spiritual journey, know that God is on your side and willing to guide you and help you along the way. Remember…..nothing is impossible with and through God.
May it be so….. AMEN
Moss, Aron, article Do Jews Believe in Hell? Printed on https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1594422/jewish/Do-Jews-Believe-In-Hell.htm
Alighieri, Dante, “The Divine Comedy” translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House/New York, NY, 1995
Considine, Kevin P., article Faith in Real Life, published on www.uscatholic.org/print/30965
Reagan, David R. (Dr), article The Nature of Hell, printed on christinprophecy.org/articles/the-nature-of-hell/
Psalm 11 Song of Trust in God
1 In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me, ‘Flee like a bird to the mountains; 2 for look, the wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string, to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart. 3 If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’
4 The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind. 5 The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence. 6 On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulphur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. 7 For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.
Romans 6:15-23 Slaves of Righteousness
15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Here we are in week 4 of our Elephant in the Pew Series and our question is: Where did Adam and Eve go after they left the Garden?
The Bible is pretty cryptic about the life of Adam and Eve after they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden. In fact, it tells us nothing about where they go, other than the fact that God “drove out the man” and that God placed cherubim with flaming swords east of the Garden of Eden to prevent Adam and Eve from having access to the tree of life (v24).
The Bible goes on to tell us of the birth of two of Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel. We can also read of Abel’s death at the hands of his brother Cain.
This is the beginning of humanity’s downfall into a life of major depravity that eventually leads to the flood and the destruction of everything and everyone who is not with Noah and his family on the ark.
So, within scripture, we span several generations and centuries of life in a matter of a few pages and chapters, and that leaves plenty of room for speculation. We aren’t told about many of the details of life. Naturally, we want to know all the details.
Well, Googled the topic and looked through my commentaries – especially the Jewish ones – and there isn’t a lot out there that seems to tell us the “story” of Adam and Eve’s life after the garden.
On Amazon, I found a few resources. One that seemed to fill in some of the blanks is “The First & Second Books of Adam and Eve – the Forgotten Books of Eden Series,” edited by Rutherford H. Platt, Jr, in 1926.
Platt indicates that his writing “is simply a version of a myth or belief or account handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation of mankind…… This is the most ancient story in the world – it has survived because it embodies the basic fact of human life…the conflict of Good and Evil; the fight between Man and the Devil; the eternal struggle of human nature against sin” (p5). While found in the works of numerous near East, ancient writers, this version given in Platt’s book “is the work of unknown Egyptians. Parts of this version are found in the Talmud, the Koran, and elsewhere, showing what a vital role it played in the original literature of human wisdom” (p6).
A 2nd resource I found is entitled, “The Life of Adam and Eve,” which is translated from a Latin text, Vita Adae et Evae” and has been translated by B. Custis with the assistance of G. Anderson and R. Layton. This translation from the Latin has a lot of similarities to Platt’s text.
Platt writes how Adam and Eve, once driven from the garden were led to a new residence called the Cave of Treasures, where they were to live out their days.
For Adam and Eve, moving into the cave was like moving to a different country for us. The land beyond the gates of the garden were very different. They “saw the broad earth spread before them, covered with stones large and small, and with sand” (Platt, p11). Definitely not the lush almost tropical like environment that they had been living in.
According to Platt, every new experience, every little change brought a couple of responses from Adam and Eve:
To better understand, we need to look at Genesis 2:4-25, where we read about the life of Adam and Eve in the Garden in a bit more detail. In this portion of the extended creation story, we see the deep and communal relationship that God has with them. God visits them daily, spending time walking and talking with them. They forge a deep bond together. That bond is severely tested on a particular day when the seeds of doubt and of independence are sown within Eve’s heart and mind when Satan, in the guise of a serpent entices her to try the fruit of the Tree of Life – which God had pointedly forbidden them to eat. Upon tasting the forbidden fruit, Eve’s and Adam’s eyes are opened, they receive knowledge of right from wrong just like the divine beings. And, just like for us today, Adam and Eve learned there were consequences – harsh and lasting ones – for their disobedience and rebellious actions.
After their expulsion from the Garden, in Platt’s writings, we see that God continues to look out for and provide for Adam and Eve. God doesn’t break the relationship even though they have disobeyed God’s commands. The relationship continues, but in a slightly different way.
Platt tells us how Adam and Eve’s days are filled with trying to regain their former place within the garden. They beg God for forgiveness and to let them back in. God patiently, but firmly tells them that their exile will last 5,000 and 500 years, and they would not be readmitted into the garden, God’s kingdom, until the time when “One would then come and save him (Adam) and his seed (children)” (Platt, p12).
Platt tells us that approximately 7 months pass from the time that Adam and Eve were walked out of the Garden for them to come to terms with the fact that they will not be returning to the Garden anytime soon. Throughout those 7 months, Adam and Eve spend most of their time grieving, praying, worshiping, fasting, and begging God for forgiveness.
Also, during those 7 months, Platt indicates that Satan does his best to tempt and further separate Adam and Eve from God’s way. He appears in numerous disguises, plays various tricks on them, and while Adam and Eve start to fall for some of them, God intervenes and “rescues” them over and over. When trickery doesn’t work, Satan tries – and fails – numerous times to kill them.
One thing remained consistent throughout Adam and Eve’s time away from the Garden – God is always with them. At no time did God abandon them. In spite of what they had done, God continued to provide all that they needed – shelter, safety, food (once they are ready to eat it), a place to work, and eventually children to bless their lives.
According to Platt, it was 223 days, or 7 months and 13 days from the time they left the Garden, before Adam and Eve began to start a family (p172), or to “be fruitful and multiply” as God told them to do upon their creation.
Here in Platt’s writings, we find out that Eve gave birth to not just the boys we are familiar with, but at least 2 girls as well. Cain was born along with a twin sister named Luluwa. When the twins were 40 days old, Adam and Eve made an offering to God on behalf of their son; and at 80 days they made an offering on behalf of their daughter.
A couple of years later, Eve gives birth to Abel and his twin sister Aklia. Following their birth, Adam and Eve repeated the cycle of offerings and blessings before God for their new son and daughter.
As the children grew older and stronger, Platt says that Cain was hard-hearted and continually disobedient to their father, while Abel was meek and obedient to Adam. It is said that Cain ruled over Abel.
As the children aged, Satan makes a reappearance and tries to lead both of the young men astray. Abel repels Satan’s efforts by praying to God, who responds and drives Satan away. But, Cain became susceptible to Satan’s manipulations. He believed Satan when he is told that their parents love Abel more than him (Platt, p179-180).
That sounds familiar. Not much has changed in family life today. Sibling rivalry is still strong, and often one child feels less loved than another.
Unfortunately, Platt tells us that the evil one (Satan) remained in the heart of Cain, and worked on him until his jealousy overcomes him. And at the age of 17 ½, he ends up killing his younger brother Abel (15). Why? Because God seemed to favor Abel over him – the first born. As a result of Cain’s jealous and violent actions, he is punished. The most difficult part of his punishment was his permanent removal from God’s presence.
Platt tells us that it is 7 years after the death of Abel that Eve conceives and gives birth to their 3rd son, Seth.
In a lot of ways, not much has changed since Adam and Eve’s time. Life is not easy for us. Families often have difficulties, and relationships are broken apart. We often feel that we live outside of God’s presence, yet in reality, God is merely waiting for us to open our hearts and minds and invite God back into our lives.
Scholars claim that we, like Adam and Eve, are always seeking to return to life in the Garden. We are grieving the loss of our deep and abiding connection with God. We long for the carefree days of abundant blessing when our ancestors once lived inside God’s realm.
Today, we recognize that we are one step away from that Garden. As promised to Adam and Eve – the One, God’s Word made flesh, came to live among us, put on skin and lived within the parameters of human existence outside of the Garden, and died for us that we might be redeemed and find our way back home.
So….How do we return to life in the Garden? By making God our first priority. By opening the channels of communication and inviting God into our lives. By relying on God to provide for all our needs and guide us to live our best lives. By reclaiming our baptisms and our identity as God’s beloved children.
My friends, let today be your first day fully back in God’s presence.
May it be so…… AMEN
Genesis 3:8-13, 22-24
22 Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man; and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Platt Jr, Rutherford H., The First & Second Books of Adam and Eve – The Forgotten Books of Eden Series. Abela Publishing/London, UK, 2012.
Here we are at week 3 in our Elephant in the Pew Series. Over the last two weeks, we have talked about: Why bad things happen to good people, especially the innocents, and how God’s Grace is a true gift in our lives.
This week’s topic asks us to stop and think about the way we prioritize our lives and where God and our faith fits in them. So, let’s start by thinking about this:
What are your daily/regular tasks?
Do you bring God into your everyday life/routine?
If you were asked to choose, what would be your first priority?
Does it/do they always come first?
Most likely not. We might like to think it is that way, but reality tell us that our priorities can change as life changes – especially when there is a crisis, illness or emergency.
I want you to honestly think about this next question:
Where does God fit into your life - What # would you give God on your list of priorities?
Why does God fit below family – kids/spouse, even friends, etc.?
In our Matthew text Jesus tells us that God alone must come first in our lives. Yet, we know that there are very few people, if any, in the world who can claim that they always – always put God first.
Laine sent me this topic/question to me last year right after our Elephant series. She worded it like this: “I can’t claim that I love God more than my family. Shouldn’t God come first? The hierarchy for me is family and close friends, then God, then everything else. I’m sure I’m probably not the only one that feels this way. How should we navigate those feelings?”
This is a big question for each of us. It hits right to “How do we live faithful lives in the midst of our crazy busy schedules and world?” I think we can all relate to this, and as we just mentioned, for each of us, God doesn’t get the top slot in our priorities – BUT God does usually get within the top 5.
The moment I read Laine’s questions in her e-mail, the “safety speech” that you hear a flight attendant give popped into my mind – specifically the part about the oxygen masks. I feel it is a critical rule of thumb for us when we are looking to figure out where God should fit in our lives. It goes something like this:
In the event that cabin pressure changes and your oxygen mask drops from the compartment above you, please put on your oxygen mask before helping the person sitting next to you.
This seems totally counter-intuitive for a parent and most people who are “helpers,” like I am. How many of you would follow the instructions as given and help yourself before helping another more vulnerable person sitting next to or year you?
Why would you want to make sure you take care of your own need before you helped someone else - even your own child?
In the case of the oxygen mask, it’s pretty obvious when you really think about it – you can’t help anyone else if you can’t breathe.
Why should we consider the need to put God before even our children/spouse/partner?
Again, the answer seems simple again – yet is so difficult for us in practice: Without taking time to refresh and renew ourselves, we cannot be at full energy to help others. If all you ever do is GIVE to others and put others first, then what happens to you? You become empty. Even Jesus took time apart to pray and rest before he dove back into meeting the needs of the people around him.
So, where, when do you go to be replenished? Who gives to you?
Just think how much easier your days and life would be if you spent a few minutes a day being replenished by God and inviting God into your life – into your concerns, fears, disagreements, moments of hurt – rather than going it alone and focusing on solely meeting others’ needs.
This quote by St. Francis de Sales is a great reminder for all of us: Everyone needs at least 30 minutes a day in prayer, unless you are busy – then you need 1 hour.
I know that some of you are thinking that “I’m too busy to give God that much of my time.” I get it – really, I do. Sometimes I find myself falling into that mentality – the type A: I’ve got too much to do, I’m the only one who can do it, and it must get done as quickly as possible – so I put my head down and push through the tasks until the list is cleared. Yet, because I don’t take time for myself, it’s harder than it has to be. I find myself feeling more stressed, anxious, and tired. I get cranky, I’m not truly able to be fully present to others, and I often end up run down and/or sick at the end of the list.
So, over the last few years, I have been intentionally carving out time for “self-care” and time to spend with God. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, or needs to be taken all at once. I find that spreading out my connection with God throughout the day helps a lot. I’ve learned to keep it simple.
What does God offer us that could really help us get through our daily challenges – of being a parent, being a spouse/partner, employee or boss, etc.?
My friends, the reality is that God is with us every second of every day. It’s is we who push God away or down in our lives believing that we can go it alone. Putting God first is not difficult. It may even be the easiest thing we ever do. Pushing God away and going it alone is the most difficult thing we do.
Just like relearning how to breathe properly, putting God first must be a conscious, intentional, and mindful act in the beginning. With practice, it will quickly become an unconscious act as we come to accept that God is and always will be with us.
We will begin to notice more quickly when we don’t invite God in – when we try to go it without breathing in God’s life-giving spirit and energy properly. When we try to rely on our own limited power and authority rather than letting God’s limitless resources take the lead.
So, my friends…..make God a habit. Start intentionally putting God first. Invite God into your everyday and immerse yourself in the renewed, refreshed life that only God can give you, and allow yourself to become the best person, parent, spouse/partner, friend, boss, employee, beloved child of God you were created to be.
May it be so….. AMEN
Here we are at week 2 in our Elephant in the Pew series. Let’s start by thinking of the many gifts/blessings that God has given us. Let’s name them – How has God blessed you, what gifts has God given to you?
Today, we are talking about another true gift from God….. Grace – forgiveness of our sins, compassion, kindness, unconditional love, wholeness. God often sends a messenger – a stranger, a friend, a colleague – to be the bearer of grace in our lives. Grace is one of those categories that it is hard to say….that is grace, or this is a perfect example of grace. It’s much easier to identify/see after the fact, and even then it can be a bit mysterious and slippery. Many (all?) of these things we have not earned, maybe don’t even deserve, but God has blessed us with them anyways.
As we heard in our readings a few minutes ago, there are also several other terms/words that usually get paired with “grace” that it might be helpful if we define them.
One of my favorite authors is Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran ordained pastor who is also a recovering alcoholic. She is outspoken, blunt, and even raw at times in how she preaches the Gospel. She, like each of us, is proof that God chooses often the broken to be the best spokespersons for the Gospel and Grace. Nadia’s writings and sermons are deep and extremely thoughtful. I can, too often, see myself reflected in what she has to say – especially the parts where she struggles to be faithful to God’s call. She has several sermons on Grace, and I would like share some of her thoughts on what Grace to her/for us.
Nadia says, “God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word… it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own mess. Grace isn’t about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail, then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - and say, ‘Oh, its OK, I’ll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new’” (quotable quotes: Bolz-Weber - Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/958748-god-s-grace-is-not-defined-as-god-being-forgiving-to).
That sounds a lot like what we talked about last week from The Shack. We, humans, in our acts of “independence” often do things that harm ourselves, others, and our planet. When tragedy strikes, we often ask “Why God? Why did this have to happen? Why didn’t you stop it or prevent it from happening at all?” Grace is God’s response. As Papa says in The Shack: I do not make bad decisions, hurts, and horrible tragedies happen; yes, I could have prevented them, but I respect your independence and work within your parameters. I am able to bring good from those same bad decisions, hurts, and tragedies. The pain and suffering is not the final answer. My love and grace is.
Another one of Nadia’s perspectives is that: “Grace helps me to recognize that I have bad vision. Grace is a lens through which I can look through to see myself and others - through this beautiful pure love of God. I don’t have to create this lens, God creates it. The beauty is that nothing else can tell me who I am, who others are. Just God alone – not the world around us, not other people, just God” (Facebook post, “The Work of the People” interview with Bolz-Weber on grace and the "accidental saints" God uses to remind us who's we are. Download this video: http://bit.ly/1L1Xz7d TWOTP subscription info: http://bit.ly/1hlMOx8).
We all have “bad vision” as Nadia says. We all have let the media, social media, advertising, and others tell us who we are, how we are supposed to be, whether or not we are successful, and what it takes to be successful and stay that way.
Nadia goes on to say that “this is why we have the Christian community – because we are great forgetters. We forget that it is God alone that can tell us who we truly are and who God is – not the world and people around us. In some ways,” she says, “Christian communities are places of de-programming, where we go to remove the programming that the world tries to fill us with about our true identity and about God” (Facebook post, “The Work of the People” interview with Bolz-Weber on grace and the "accidental saints" God uses to remind us who's we are. Download this video: http://bit.ly/1L1Xz7d TWOTP subscription info: http://bit.ly/1hlMOx8).
It takes regular practice to start to “recognize” and see God’s grace, Margaret Felice says. “The first step is getting out of yourself, to stop focusing only on your own concerns, and by simply observing the world around us.” She says, “I am more likely to be gobsmacked by grace at a random moment during the day than to experience it deeply during times of intentional prayer” but it is important to be intentional and “disciplined about making time for prayers so to balance the two opportunities of finding God in the everyday” (Rossi).
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany says, Grace “in its most fundamental sense, is the gift of God’s own self. God is free to give us graces in various modes or forms and every kind of grace offered, if freely accepted – which is always necessary – draws the receiver into the very life and mystery of God. The real gift is when we spot those moments as they happen, aware of God’s presence in the day-to-day moments of our lives” (Rossi).
So, if Grace is a lens through which we can begin to see our true selves, and the truth of each other and our world, then –
What is God trying to show you, tell you about yourself?
As Felice mentioned, it takes regular practice to start to recognize God’s presence, God’s grace in hindsight, and even more to truly see and feel it in the moment. It is in Christian Community that we learn these skills and can see the gift of God’s presence and grace in our lives on a regular basis. Sometimes, ok - often, we need others to point out where God has “shown-up” for us, or where we need to “let go” to get out of our own way and God’s way.
I leave you with these questions today:
Together, may our “Grace Lenses” become clearer and more focused. May we learn to be more attuned to God’s presence and movement in our lives. And, with the help of God and each other, may we allow ourselves to be transformed more closely to the image we were created to be – bearers of God’s grace and love.
May it be so…… AMEN
Bolz-Weber, Nadia – quotes and comments from resources as listed above.
Rossi, Tony, blog posting “Opening Yourself to God’s Grace.” https://www.patheos.com/ blogs/christophers/2016/01/opening-yourself-to-gods-grace/
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Romans 3:22b-24 and 5:1-2
3 22For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Results of Justification
5 1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
Today, we start our “Elephant in the Pew” series, and our first topic is a heavy one – one that troubles many of us: Why do bad (horrible) things happen to good people, especially innocent children?
So, let’s start there – Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
Unfortunately, nowhere in scripture does God promise that we will NOT experience bad things, or be victims of horrible incidents. What God does promise to always be with us through it all.
Do bad things ever happen to bad people?
Maybe we need to think about how we define “good” and “bad”.
Our definition of good and bad is pretty subjective. It seems like it’s up to each person to decide for themselves. So what happens when something we perceive as “good” turns out to be “bad” for us and vice-versa?
That upsets our entire understanding of how things are supposed to be. I mean – do you think you could ever see cancer or murder as something good? No probably not, but good can come from it.
Our perception of “good” and “bad” is a moving target. And to make things worse, there are billions of people each determining what is good and what is bad (evil). And when our good and bad clashes with our neighbor’s, fights and argument ensue and even wars break out (Young, p135). The root of our problem is “judging” without truly knowing the other, the circumstance, and seeing things only as one way – good or bad – as an “either/or” situation rather than even holding onto the possibility of there being a “both/and” option.
Yet, we know that the “both/and” option already exists. Scientists say that red wine is “good” for your heart, yet we know that too much of it, is ultimately “bad” for your health. Or, losing a job/home is “bad,” yet it can force us to look for new opportunities, try something we never even thought of previously, and maybe even finding out that life is even better than what we had before.
When I saw this question on my list, my mind went directly to the book, and now movie, “The Shack” by William P. Young. Have you ever read the book or watched the movie?
It is thoughtfully written in a Jewish “midrash” kind of tradition where a person explores, and writes into the “gaps,” created by the scriptures and additional texts available, in order to “fill in the story.” As I was reading the book again, while preparing for this message, I was struck by the imagery of God and the words describing the Trinity, God’s actions and God’s purpose for us – humanity.
If you have never read the book or watched the movie, you should. It really makes you stop and think about how we perceive God and our response to God. It helped me realize that I still have a small perspective of God – try to keep God in a nice and tidy box, which is just ridiculous – and how much I am missing out on my relationship with God and in life because I have never fully explored who God is and what I was created to be. This story is definitely worth revisiting on a regular basis. It’s a great inroad for meditation. Through this story, God invites you to enter into a deeper knowing, a co-union with God’s self.
Another great reason to read this book, or watch the movie, is the core of the story itself. The story is about one man’s (Mack’s) deep struggle to come to terms with the loss of his 6-yr-old daughter, who was abducted and killed by a serial killer. Like so many of us, Mack’s story reveals how he “believed” in God, right up to the point that he felt God failed him and his daughter – because God didn’t stop something horrific from happening.
Mack’s relationship with God is very “broken,” and in his grief, he challenges God, accuses God of abandoning him and his daughter, and even goes so far as to judge God guilty and to blame for what happened.
Sound familiar? Has something like that ever happened to you or someone you know? When tragedy strikes, too often our faith is shaken, maybe even shattered rather than deepened. We turn away.
God’s response is to invite Mack to spend a weekend together, to get to know God deeply, to truly understand what really caused of all his pain, and to seek healing.
At the heart of this story is Mack’s – our – understanding of God.
This story and our question for today also stems from our understanding of “free will” – our ability to choose for ourselves what is right and wrong for us.
Sarayu (Spirit) tells Mack that our problems started when humanity chose independence (free will) over a relationship, co-union, with God. It all began when Eve pulled the apple from the tree and she and Adam ate of it, believing they knew better than God what was right for them. That choice to eat from the tree of knowledge tore the universe apart, divorcing the spiritual from the physical (Young, p135).
Since that fateful event, humanity has been on a path that has separated us from love, believing we could independently discern what was right or wrong, good or evil, attempting to play God – believing that we can prevent or control bad things from happening.
“When you chose independence over relationship, you became a danger to each other,” Sarayu says to Mack. “Others became objects to be manipulated or managed for your own happiness. Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong use to make others conform to what they want. In a self-centered world,” she says, “it is the excuse to inflict pain on others” (Young, p123).
“And with authority, there comes the need for rules/laws and someone to enforce them,” said Jesus. Thus creating an opportunity for abuse and the infliction of pain and suffering. “That’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you,” Jesus said (Young, p122).
As a result of our human experiences, our trust in the goodness of God has been set aside. Instead, we too often see God as either testing us, punishing us, or even worse, as unconcerned, uninterested, or even ambivalent to our pain and suffering, to our need.
At one point over that magical weekend, Mack is given the opportunity to judge God and humanity. He is told that he must decide who is responsible for all the pain and suffering in his life, in the world, and who should be punished for it. In that moment, Mack finally is able to vent some of his anger at God, but he also must face that his anger at God is the safer option than the blame he has placed on himself, the crushing guilt he wears as a heavy blanket for not being there to protect his daughter.
As the weekend visit with God unfolds, Mack discovers who God truly is. He realizes that his “image” or understanding of who God is wrong and needs to change. As often happens when we are face-to-face with those who have hurt us, or those whom we deem our “enemies,” we often learn that we have more in common than we thought; that they aren’t the evil we made them out to be in our heads. We must reframe our image of them. Yet, our pre-conceived notions run deep and are often hard to change – especially when we have been deeply hurt. In our pain, we too often assume the worst of God (Young, 176) and we place the blame of our hurt not only on the perpetrator, but on God for not preventing the event in the first place.
Mack finally sees and accepts that God is not to blame for what happened to his young daughter. In a conversation with Jesus, he asks the final and ultimate question….. “Why did this horrible act have to happen to my daughter?” Jesus replies that it didn’t have to happen. “Did she have to die so you could change me?” Mack asks Papa. “Whoa! That’s not how I do things” Papa quickly replies. “Stories about a person willing to exchange their life for another are a golden thread in your world, revealing both your need and my heart” Papa said. “But I wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t died,” Mack states. “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That line of thinking only leads to false notions about me” Papa replied (Young, p183).
The death of Mack’s young daughter happened as a result of the choices – the independence – one human exercised. Choices that we all are faced with and make each and every day. Choices that too often can result in inflicting pain on others rather than seeking to help, uplift or love.
Then Jesus tells Mack that God was with his daughter through her horrible ordeal. That she was never alone, through any of it, and that she knew she wasn’t. She knew God’s peace and comfort (Young, p173).
My friends, this is what we all want to hear and believe – that no matter how badly we “mess up” or the bad choices we make, God will not abandon us, nor will God punish us for our actions. “Sin is punishment enough” said Papa (Young, p120). Rather, Papa tells Mack, “You (humanity) were created to be loved. So, to live as if you were unloved is a limitation. It’s like clipping a bird’s wings and removing it’s ability to fly. Pay has a way of clipping our wings and keeping us from being able to fly. Pain, if left unresolved for very long, can almost make you forget that you were ever created to fly in the first place” (Young, p97).
In Young’s book, we hear the Triune-God say that in order for us to find true peace and happiness, we must “re-turn” to God. We must let go of our own ideas of control, of being able to discern or judge right from wrong, and to let go of the need for power, authority over others and everything, and to seek/submit ourselves to a loving relationship – a co-union – with God (Young, p147).
By re-turning to God, and fully engaging in the circle of God’s love, we place our total trust in God’s will for us and God’s innate goodness. From that relationship and place of comfort and security, we are able to face all the challenges, disappointments, pain and suffering that life can dish out because we know that God is with us through it all.
How is your relationship with God?
Are you ready to take it to the next level?
God is inviting you to re-turn and enter the true circle of life
May it be so……AMEN
Young, William P., “The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity.” Windblown Media/Los Angeles, CA, 2007.
28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.