Archives for July 2013

Midweek Service: Inside Out and Upside Down

This will be the final sermon in this 10-part series of oldies.
I preached it in the last year of my ministry
and began it with a Readers’ Theater reading of the text,
something I love to do from time to time,
just to encourage people to really listen to the words.
It’s from the Old Testament, which is a favorite place for me.
Because mixed up with the violence and the seeming primitiveness
of those long ago times, there is beautiful, lasting truth.
Truth about human nature
and truth about the story God is telling in the universe,
the story that centers on grace.
This sermon touches on a lot of things that are close to my heart,
and I think, if they should ever read it,
my grandchildren might find
something good here to hang onto.
I think maybe this is my favorite one.

Inside Out and Upside Down
2 Kings 5:1-17
A Sermon preached at
Montecito Covenant Church
July 4, 2010 (Communion Sunday) by Diana R.G. Trautwein

Independence Day is traditionally a day for family gatherings and for family story-sharing.  Well, have I got a story for you today.  Oh my, this is a good one – one of the best-crafted of so many well-told tales in the Old Testament.  This one takes place in about the 9th century before the birth of Christ – and it’s found in 2 Kings – chapter 5, to be exact.  And today, I want to encourage you to have your Bibles open, but to just listen to this story as we read it for you.

READERS’ THEATER FOR THREE VOICES – 2 KINGS 5:1-17

Reader 1:           Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram.
Reader 2:          He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded,
Reader 3:          because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier,
Reader 1:          but… he had leprosy.
Reader 3:         Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young  girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress,
Reader 1.         “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Reader 2:         Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said.
Reader 3:         “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
Reader 2:         So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing.  The letter that he took to the king of Israel read:
Reader 3:         “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
Reader 1:         As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said,
Reader 2:         “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does his fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
Reader 1:         When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message:
Reader 3:         “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Reader 1:         So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him,
Reader 2:         “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
Reader 1:         But Naaman went away angry and said,
Reader 3:         “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?”
Reader 1:         So he turned and went off in a rage.  Naaman’s servants went to him and said,
Reader 2:         “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
Reader 1:         So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of  God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.  Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said,
Reader 3:         “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.”
Reader 1:         The prophet answered,
Reader 2:         “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.”
Reader 1:         And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.
Reader 3:         “If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD.

 

Pretty good story, right?  Surprising people in surprising places, doing surprising things with surprising results.

A story filled with — the unexpected, the serendipitous, even a bit of the hilarious: curses that become blessings in disguise, important people who act like children, and children and servants who literally save the day. 

Here in this story, nearly 900 years before Jesus was even born, we have a pretty powerful illustration of the crazy mixed-up nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught his disciples about as they walked along the dusty roads of Palestine. 

In this story, as in so many of the stories of Jesus, the outsider is brought in, gentle words are more powerful than anger, the no-named ones make the difference, the high and mighty behave like the wild and wacky, the littlest, least likely one puts the whole thing in motion, and it all comes down to grace – pure and simple, free and fabulous, grace.

For that is the center of this story — and any story worthy of telling, it seems to me.  Grace is all around us, readily available to us, but…we must follow Naaman’s lead and step into it. 

We have to step into the water of grace.

What does that look like for you? for me? for us?  I think it looks like at least these three important truths:

  1. It looks like: Paying attention
  2. It looks like: Making space inside
  3. It looks like: Following through

Paying attention…to the people and the events and the space around us, and maybe most importantly, the space within us. 

Paying attention means listening carefully enough to our own hearts to discover the thing we want most in this world – not merely what we think we want. You know, those wishes and dreams that float to the surface pretty fast — like a new car or a better body or a perfect relationship or admission to just the right school or enough money to have whatever we want whenever we want it.  

And not even those things that we think we ought to want — like better habits, or a stronger character, or a more loving personality, or a deeper sense of compassion and a greater desire to help others. 

No. 

I’m talking about the thing that’s way the heck down deep in there, the thing that we take great pains to cover up with all kinds of other stuff just to distract us from the deepest yearning of our hearts. And that yearning goes by a lot of different names in our culture — names like…wholeness, fulfillment, completion, connection, even love. 

These are all fine things, good things – but they are not at the center of our most honest desire.  For the very truest thing about us, as human beings, and the truth that is foundational to all those fine things our culture thinks are at the top of the list – the very truest thing about us is that we were made to deeply desire the one true God – the God who made us, who calls us to be our best selves, who loves us even when we’re a long way from those best selves, who sees us and knows us and wants to share life and love and relationship with us.  That’s what we want.  That’s who we want.

It’s just that we have this bent place in us, a broken bit that pretty consistently calls us away from that deep truth and tells us to just go ahead and fill up that yearning, that space inside, with all kinds of other stuff – like those I listed out just a couple of minutes ago. 

We simply move one or more of those perfectly fine things into the space that was created for the one true God. And they do not fit. We work really, really hard to make them fit.  We even get addicted to them.  We even begin to act as though they are god and we convince ourselves that they can fill up that space just fine, thank you very much. 

And then we place layer upon layer of almost anything or anyone else we can think of right on top of that God-shaped space until there is no room to be found.  Very soon, our lives have become so filled with distraction that we simply cannot pay attention.  We haven’t the time or the energy or finally, even the ability to . . . stop. 

To slow down.  To peel back the layers a bit and look around in there.  But…and this is a lovely and grace-filled word for us human creatures… but…we can sometimes find a little help for our distracted busyness, help that comes from people and places that might surprise us.

Naaman needed help to pay attention, and it came from the most surprising people: a captured little girl with a message of hope and healing in the beginning of the story; and faithful, humble servants whose calming truth brought a little coolness into the heat of his temper tantrum near the end of the story. 

Sometimes we need a little help, too.  Maybe, just maybe, we can help one another to learn more about paying attention.  I know several of you have certainly helped me to do that at various times over the last 13 ½ years.  You’ve sent a sweet note, or written a provocative poem, or suggested a thoughtful book or website that helps me find my way back to center.  Because it’s at the center where paying attention becomes easier, more natural, more revealing.

And that brings us to the second truth for this morning – the importance of making – or perhaps more accurately – re-discovering that center, that space inside, that space that’s just the right size for grace, just the right size for God.

You know, I think Naaman was probably a pretty good guy.  We’re told three times in the first verse or two that actually, he was a great man, a recognized and famous man.  I imagine his life was full, busy, scheduled up the yin-yang.  If he wasn’t in the middle of one military campaign, he was probably at the map tables, busily laying out the next one.

We know he had servants and a household to run as well as an army.  We know he was part of the royal court of Aram.  We know he had immediate access to the king.  We can surmise that his servants thought pretty highly of him, which tells us that he probably was a pretty good guy, as well as a great military leader.

But all his fame, and all his great military prowess, and all his household possessions could not make up for the fact that he was a sick man.  He had a serious skin condition — not serious enough to keep him socially isolated — but serious enough for a little slave girl to be aware of it and concerned about her master’s overall well-being.  And that little girl brought something new to the table with her wide-eyed comment to the general’s wife — “Hey, I know a guy who could heal your husband.” 

This caused the busy, great man to stop.  To pay attention.  To seek the help he needed. 

But he still had a lot to learn, and discovering that space inside was at the top of the list.

Boy, he loaded up those donkeys, didn’t he?  He brought lots and lots of really cool stuff to the King of Israel, things that would look impressive, that would buy good favor, that would grease the wheels in the local power system. 

Sort of a picture of all the stuff that was likely piled up inside the man, too, don’t you think?

Now the king of Israel wasn’t exactly the sharpest pencil in the box – probably a bit of an editorial comment by the writer to let us know this king was a bad, idolatrous king and that the only help for Naaman, who was — let us not forget to notice this very important point — NOT an Israelite, but a Gentile, an outsider — in fact most of the time, an actual enemy of the state.  (So perhaps the king’s hissy fit is a little more understandable?) 

The only help for Naaman was not going to be found within the walls of the royal palace, but in the countryside abode of the man of God, the prophet whose name was Elisha.  So, Naaman lugs all his piled up stuff over the hill to the prophet’s house and waits to be greeted with the acclaim and admiration due a man of his stature.

Not gonna happen, Naaman, not gonna happen.

The countryside prophet wants to make it abundantly clear that he does not do magic, that he does not do parlor tricks, that he himself does not do anything to bring about the healing that will come.  And that healing can only happen if Naaman divests himself of some of those trappings and receives the healing as it is intended — a gift of grace.

Funny thing, though.  There doesn’t seem to be space in Naaman for anything except his aggrieved sense of entitlement and his unholy anger. 

Wow. 

What is it in us that makes us so prickly sometimes?  Why do we take offense if we feel like we’re not being treated ‘right,’ whatever that is?  Why do we so often hurl insults at the very things that will bring us hope and help and wholeness? 

A lot of the time, I do believe, it’s because we don’t have any room inside us to let the grace flow in.  We’re so full of ourselves, so full of self-righteousness, our own agendas, our own ideas of the way things should be done, so full of our own uncertainties and fears, that we have no space left to allow God to break through with healing love, with the help we need.

Once again, that help is on the way, however.  This time, it is the faithful servants who have accompanied Naaman on his journey.  They step into the heat of his anger, offering good and wise advice. 

(What was it Paul said in our Galatians passage?  “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.”  Ah yes — his servant-friends helped Naaman to make some room for grace.)

But ultimately, the decision to follow through had to be made by Naaman himself. 

With a little help, he was able to pay attention. 

With a little more help, he was able to open up some space inside. 

But . . .
All on his own, he went down to that riverside.
All on his own, he dipped his fevered skin into the Jordan River.
All on his own, he emerged from that seventh dip with the cleansed, restored skin of a young child. 

And see what happens!  This is not just a healed man that emerges from the Jordan.  This is a changed man, a converted man, a redeemed man.  The angry, entitled man of just moments before is transformed into a humble man, a deeply grateful man, a man filled with grace to the point of overflow. 

One of the first Gentile conversions recorded in scripture.  The only healed leper in all of the Elijah/Elisha sagas in the book of Kings.  One of the two Gentile believers noted by Jesus in the very first sermon of his ministry life. 

Naaman, the over-busy, easily-angered military leader becomes Naaman, the humble recipient of grace, eager to worship the one True God.  And he replaces some of his own stuff with Israelite dirt to form the base of an altar dedicated to Yahweh, the God of Israel, now the God of Naaman.

That’s what grace can do

It can wind its way into the tiniest available space and bring about wholesale transformation and change.  Grace will always seek us out, but it will not control our choices. 

It is there for us to receive, if we pay just a little bit of attention, if we open up just the smallest of spaces inside of us, and if we follow through on what we find. 

For it is the gift of grace that can bring healing and hope into the midst of sickness and despair. 

It is the gift of grace that can bring us into the inside out, upside down center of real life, where God is God, we are God’s loved children and Jesus is our elder brother and our Redeemer. 

It is grace that can change a small, torn piece of bread and a wee cup of grape juice into life and hope and promise. 

It is grace that can turn a roomful of strangers into the family of God. 

Praises be!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Did Yesterday: A Photo Essay

If you know me very well, you quickly become aware
that I am a mass of contradictions.
One minute, calm and self-confident,
the next minute, a mess of insecurities and fears

I’m working on it, but somehow perfection eludes me.

Case in point —
I live in fear that something I say or do
will embarrass my children.
Some days, this fear stays quiet
and seems to be fast asleep,
hiding comfortably under
a bushel basket of busyness.

Other days, however,
like these days — right now —
when I am living without a schedule,
without deadlines,
without commitments.
Well, on those days,
that fear gets loud and snarly.

We are vacationing at the same time as two of our three kids.
We’re not exactly vacationing together,
but we’re staying in close proximity and doing things
together from time to time.

Yesterday the whole kit and kaboodle of them
(one kid/wife/one of their two kids, one kid/husband/three kids,
one kid’s spouse’s parents (who NEVER embarrass their children),
one kid’s friend’s family of 5 . . .
if you’re counting, that makes a group of 15 so far)
decided to take a snorkel tour up the Napali Coast.

They invited me to go along,
and I said, YES, surprising us all.

Four hours long, beauty that stops the heart,
a chance to swim with tropical fish,
and a big old turkey sandwich and cold guava juice
to finish the day.
Oh, yes. And a one hour return ride
through the afternoon swells,
directly into the wind.

My husband gets seasick,
so he kept the 3-year-old and they had a ball.
I carefully sun-screened my entire body,
wore one of Dick’s t-shirts over my suit,
packed (as usual) more stuff than I’d need
and quietly clomped my way down the stairs
to join the crew.

So there’s this piece:
I have two bad knees
and a recently flaring achilles tendonitis.
Oh, and I’m old and a scaredy-cat.
So the opportunities for
being awkward, slow, and
so-much-less-than —
well, they abounded.
Yes, they did.
They ABOUNDED. 

But, I went anyhow.

And I am so very glad I did.

Getting there required:
driving down the hill from our condo
to the town of Hanalei,
parking behind the garbage container of a seafood restaurant;
(not the ideal aroma before a sea voyage of any kind);
waiting to sign in and get a waterproof bag for our stuff;
waiting four times for a 12-passenger van to shuttle
50 people to two 25-passenger boats;
riding said van to the river that flows into the bay;
then walking through knee-deep water
to board a six-passenger dinghy

which would take us out to the boat.

I, of course, was in the very last dinghy.

On board, I sat next to someone I did not know.
And out of all the towns, and all the rivers,
and all the boats in all the world,
I sat next to a woman who,
when I asked where she was from,

said to me: “Santa Barbara. Well, actually, Carpinteria.”
“Oh,” I said, “my kids are from there,”
pointing across the aisle,
“and my DIL practices medicine in Carp.”
“Omigosh,” she hollered.
“That’s my most excellent doctor right there.”

So SHE took that embarrassing moment I was so afraid of,
and captured it all for herself.
YIPPEE!!

The trip up the coast was magical;
there is no other word for it.

The captain set a leisurely pace,
stopping to look at caves,

waterfalls,
dolphins, hikers, kayakers
and green, green valleys.


At one time, about 3000 Hawaiians lived and fished
in these valleys, leaving only
when they needed medical attention
because of infections brought by explorers and traders.

When you look up these cliffs, you cannot imagine
how anyone ever lived here.
In the winter months,


40-foot waves hit these walls with such force,
they leave permanent scars of white calcium
and red-dirt run-off.

Parts of the Pali are open to campers,
with permits,
but the trail is rated a 9 out of 10 for difficulty,
and is often slick, muddy and very, very narrow.

If I were 40 years younger and a whole lot fitter,
kayaking to the first valley might be on my list.
(I say ‘might’.) But hiking it? Not a chance.
 
After we got to our snorkeling spot,
at the very end of the northern tip of the island,

I waited and was nearly the last person into the water.
Once all my children and their children
were safely looking down into the water through their masks,
I oh-so-gracefully,
slid myself over the side of the boat
and  plunged into the warm Pacific.

Maybe someday, I’ll have a photo from
my son-in-law’s underwater camera to
add to this story,
but for now, you’ll have to take my word for it:

God is a genius.
A GENIUS, I tell you.
Coral of all sizes, types and color,
tiny fish, mid-sized fish
and one midling sea turtle
yes, a real live sea turtle,
the sight of which made me say
through my snorkel,
“this is so cool, so cool, so cool.”
(So glad none of my kids can hear me through that snorkel.)

The trip home was. . .  how shall I say it?

Strenuous.


But  you know what?

It was tremendous fun.
We got bounced and bumped and WET.
But we also saw a pod of about 30 spinner dolphins,
three of whom jumped the wake of our boat.

Sittin’ on the bay, waitin’ for the dinghy to go home.

And that night, we all ate together, saw the best sunset yet,
and enjoyed watching some neighbors
sail paper lanterns,
lit with specially coated, biodegradable wicks,
while all the children around sang
that song from “Tangled.”

Magical.
That’s the word for the entire day.

And I didn’t embarrass my kids.

There was that one time I laughed a little too loudly, 

but they’re pretty much used to that.

And there was the fact that I cannot, in any way, shape or form,
manage to straddle a picnic table that’s low to the ground.
Other than that, I think I made it through
and lived to tell about it.
I’m glad I chose adventure
over my fears and insecurities.

And I loved every minute of it.
It was nearly completely dark, so this is very blurry, but I loved that lantern against the colors of the sunset.
It’s Monday, so I’m joining this one with Laura, Jennifer and Michelle, because even though it happened on Friday rather than Sunday, that snorkeling was the most wonderful worship experience in a long while.

 

Midweek Service: Coming Home

We’re nearing the end of this summertime series of oldies,
and this one is about 10 years old, I think.
In honor of our time away on Kauai
this window is from the beautiful historic church in Hanalei,
where we worshipped yesterday morning. 

Coming Home
Luke 15 – The Parable of the Prodigal Son
A Sermon Preached at
Montecito Covenant Church
by Diana R.G. Trautwein
sometime in 2003 is my best guess

What is home? Where is home? How do we get there? What does it mean to go home, to come home, to be at home? What are the ingredients required to make home home?? Can one be at home without ever having a house? On the other hand, is it possible to be at house without being at home?

The story before us today deals with questions like these.  Because it is, at its heart, a story about homecoming, a story about welcome, a story about celebration, a story about grace, uncommon grace – the kind of grace, the kind of mercy, that we don’t understand, the kind of grace that we sometimes find puzzling, uncomfortable, unreasonable, unfair.

Grace, unfair? Yup!

Grace, unfair.Totally, completely, unhesitatingly, undeniably unfair. Because that is, after all, what the word means: unmerited favor; undeserved goodness; unwarranted kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, welcome, at-home-ness.

And most of the time, we haven’t got a clue what to do with it! We just do not get it. We need help, we need open eyes, open minds, open hearts.

The gospel of Luke tells us a whole lot about this grace, this weird thing that God does, this remarkable, divine grace that God puts flesh around in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Luke tells us about the surprises of God’s grace, God’s mercy, from the very opening verses of his gospel story. He puts it in the mouths of those two great singers in chapter 1, Zechariah and Mary. “For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary sang out.  “God, the Mighty One, has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the powerful, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Surprise! Grace pays no-never-mind to wealth and power. What you have and who you control have no impact on the gifts God wishes to give. In fact, the less you have, the more you are likely to receive. Weird stuff, this grace.

And Zechariah, that strange old priest who fathered that strange young prophet – he gave melody to these words: “God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors. You, my child, will go before the Lord, to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people, by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Surprise!  God’s mercy and grace are nothing new. They’ve been a part of God’s story from the very beginning.  The mercies of God have been promised from the earliest tracings of God’s dealings with the human family. And those who sit in the darkest places will be the first to see the light of God’s promises fulfilled.

Amazing grace, surprising mercy, remarkable love.

That’s the heart of the gospel message. That’s the heart of Luke’s story. That’s the heart of Jesus, who came to show us the Father. And the One that we’re looking at in this sermon series entitled, “Introducing Jesus.”

And this story, this parable, this teaching tool from the lips of the Savior — these 21 verses located about 2/3 of the way into Luke’s larger gospel – and told only here in the New Testament – this story contains some of the most important truth that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, need to know.

Before we dive into it, let’s pray together:

 Lord God, Maker of heaven and earth.
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father,
what in the world can I say about this tiny gem of a story
that hasn’t already been said a thousand times?
The story is old, the story is wonderful,
the story is rich and thought-provoking,
weird and wonderful,
and we’ve all heard it about a million times before.
Help us all, O God, to hear it again.
To hear it with new ears, with hearts that are open
to hear old truths in new ways.
Your word is the truth, and our only hope for finding our way.
Will you use it today to help us receive you,
to help us see you?
Thank you, Lord, that you hear and answer prayer. Amen.

Brent has read for us this remarkable and very familiar story, this story of fathers and sons, of going away and coming home, of wasted potential, of earnest hard work, of pig slop and fatted calves and great rejoicing and bitter rejection. A study in contrasts, a series of lessons we have such a hard time learning.

Who are you in this story today? At various times in our lives, we are at least one of the main characters described here.

Are you the wastrel today, the younger child, demanding your inheritance, going your own way, determined to have a good time, the consequences be damned?

Are you the hard worker, the older child, staying at home, doing your duty, secretly  angry, angry, angry and resentful beyond belief?

Are you the parent, rich in resources, but lonely for the children you love?

Who are you today? Where are you today?

If you were there in the crowd that day, listening to Jesus tell this story, you might have found it hard to hear. “Something’s wrong here,” you might have thought. “Something’s not quite kosher. Clearly the father in this story is wealthy. He’s got hired hands and he’s got slaves. He’s got goats and he’s got fatted calves. He’s got robes and rings and fancy shoes. But right there, at the very beginning of the tale, he’s as good as dead, no matter how much stuff he’s got. He lets that younger kid break up the estate, run off with his third of the money, and he gives the ranch over to the older one before he has even died! The old guy is basically giving up everything that means ‘life’ and identity and substance and ‘being’ in our culture. What kind of a story is this, anyway?”

If you’re part of the crowd that was testing Jesus – those Pharisees and scribes who wondered what in the world Jesus was doing hanging out with such riff-raff –if you’re a part of that high-falutin’ crowd, you’d really wonder where Jesus is going with this story.

And if you’re part of the riff-raff, you’d know that this gentle rabbi, who loved a good laugh and a good glass of wine, was bound to be upsetting folks before long!

By now, most of you folks who’re listening to Jesus teach – no matter which crowd you’re a part of – by now, you’ve gotten used to his methods. He likes to tell stories, just like a lot of the rabbis of the day.  He likes to tell stories that make you listen, that make you think, that make you do a large part of the work. He likes you to have to wrestle the truth out, to wonder what the point is, to take some ownership in the whole learning process. And right away, you can see that this story is no exception. And as the story begins, it’s anybody’s guess just where Jesus is headed.

(Well, there are a couple of clues in those other two stories he told right before this one -the first one about the lost sheep and the other one about the lost coin. Some common threads are showing up: things that are lost and then found, great parties, great rejoicing.)

“But what,” you might wonder, “is the real point of the deal?  How is this story an answer to all that grumbling the Pharisees have been doing?”

If you’re paying attention to the story the rabbi is telling, certain words, certain phrases, certain ideas begin to leap out at you, to catch your ear, and then your mind. Sometimes those words cause you to question and to wonder, sometimes they give you an ‘a-ha’ kind of experience, sometimes, they leave you just plain speechless.

But a lot of that depends on who you are today as you listen to the rabbi tell his stories –are you an older sibling or a younger one? a Pharisee or a sinner? An insider or an outsider? And which is which in this story, anyhow?

The younger child’s story is filled with ear-catching lines like these: ‘Father, give me my share…” “So the father divided his property…” “When he had spent everything…” “…he hired himself out to a man who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs…” “But when he came to himself…” “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion…” “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again…”

If you are a part of the riff-raff today, standing with those whom the Pharisees resent, those the scribes look down on, if you’re a part of that crowd of listeners, you probably hear these words of Jesus with recognition and relief.  You hear the rabbi’s story and you think: “Surely, that young man’s journey is much like mine! I have wasted my potential in wild living, I have hired myself out to keepers of swine, (those Romans for whom I collect all these taxes are certainly swine-like!) I, too, have yearned for the bean pods and found no one to feed me, no one to help me. I have felt cut off from my home, my people, my God. I wonder, have I come to myself yet? Is that what this rabbi is calling me to do? To come to myself? To come to the father? Could it be that the God I have turned my back on is anything like the father in this story? Can I trust myself to such a God?”

Yes, I think if you are in the noisier, earthier section of Jesus’ listeners, you see yourself in that younger son today. And you might even feel hopeful about your situation, hopeful for the first time in years.

But what if you’re part of that team of questioners, quibblers, and leaders, those righteous rulers who grumble and gossip and complain about the company Jesus keeps? Where are you in this story? As you listen, you’re beginning to see where Jesus is headed with this whole thing, and you don’t like it at all. You know where righteousness and justice are found even as the story begins. Some of the very same phrases that catch the ears of those riff-raff over there are catching your ears as well.

But somehow, you are not hearing the same things at all. “Who in the world does that young whipper-snapper think he is?” you wonder. “Everyone knows you don’t ask your father for your inheritance ahead of time, it just isn’t done, it isn’t done! And imagine the frustration of that poor older brother! He gets to stay at home and work like a dog, for what? So that his doddering old dad can waste that calf they’ve  been fattening up!  Why, that noble man has probably been holding that calf in reserve to impress some important potential clients, buyers of their livestock and produce, perhaps – and that crazy old man is wasting such a great prize on that scamp of a brother! Why, I don’t blame that guy one bit for his anger! I’d be madder than blazes myself, that’s for sure! What is that old geezer thinking?? He’s got a righteous son, a dutiful, obedient son, a hardworking and industrious son, a loyal and subservient son – and is the thanks he gets??? What kind of a story is this, anyhow?”

Ah.

We seem to have a bit of a problem here, don’t we? The riff-raff can find themselves in the story. Those who have been broken by life, by their own poor choices, by their own sin – they can see themselves for who they are. They can acknowledge their own weakness, they can hear the words of the younger son and say them with him: “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” They have nothing left to lose, and they see their humble return to the father as the only road available to them.

But the righteous rulers can’t see themselves at all. Well, actually, they do see themselves, they just don’t see themselves as Jesus sees them, as God the Father sees them. And that is the core issue here, isn’t it? Grace and mercy can only be perceived,  can only be re>ceived by those who are willing to admit that they need it, that they have done absolutely nothing to deserve it, that they are hopeless and helpless without it.

The older brother begins the story as the one on the inside, the father gives him all that he has. But somehow, he cannot see it, he cannot receive it, he cannot appreciate it. He cannot receive this loving gift from his father because he has not been willing to relinquish his right to have it. He insists that he can earn it, that he deserves it, that he is in control at all times of what should be his by right. He ends the story on the outside, looking in with anger, jealousy, resentment, bitterness and a stubborn refusal to join the party.

The younger son, on the other hand, begins the story on the outside, breaking up the family and leaving for a far country to live in ways unworthy of his home. When he loses it all, he sees the truth of his situation. He ends the story on the inside, the recipient of the father’s uncommon grace, his loving compassion and mercy. He is warmly enfolded into the center of family life, forgiven, renewed, restored.

I ask you now, what is fair about that??

Absolutely nothing.

There is nothing fair about it. Jesus, as God’s word enfleshed, completely redefines the world’s ideas about justice, about fairness, about righteousness, about goodness and grace and mercy. The father in this story loves both of his children, he goes out to both of his children, he offers gracious gifts to both, he includes both in the celebration of homecoming.

The younger child enters in, gratefully receiving all that the father offers.

The older one remains outside the door, and we are left wondering, will this much-loved child let go of pride? Will this one let go of the need to win? Can those powerful, culturally ratified ideas about rights, fairness, righteousness, the requirements of duty be let go? Will this child join with the father, join the party, join in the rejoicing because the one who was dead, is alive, the one who was lost, has been found?

This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Recognizing our need, relinquishing our rights, rejoicing in finding the lost. This is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ: to seek and to save those who are lost, to rejoice when they are found, to rely completely upon the  uncommon grace, the welcoming, loving mercy of the Father.

It’s all about moving from the outside to the inside, it’s all about recognizing home, coming home, being home, celebrating home, offering home, and welcoming others home.

Home is where the Father is, and Jesus shows us the way.

Let’s pray together:

 We come to you this morning, Lord,
as those who are in need of home.
Help us to see our need,
to acknowledge our need to you,
to know that there is absolutely nothing
that we can do
or earn
or win,
that there is
no amount of hard work,
or dedication to duty,
or any self-made righteousness
that can bring us home.

It is only by your mercy that we can come in,
it is only by your grace that we can be saved.
Here and now, Lord, help us to let go of
our need to be right, our need to prove a point,
our need to keep score!
We want to give it all over to you, O God,
because we know from your word that you don’t keep score.
And what a blessing that is!
Thank you for your grace, for your love,
for your welcome home.
Because of Jesus we pray,
Amen.

 

The Welcoming Sound of Vowels: A Photo Essay

There was just a small spot of light on the pew, the one just below the open window.
The window made of green sea foam glass,
through which the strong Hawaiian sun filters itself into softness,
becomes invitation.
The breeze welcomed us to worship as the service began,
offering gentle reminders of the wonders outside the building
as we enjoyed the simpler ones within.

We’ve been to this place before, five years ago,
and remembered the gentle, sometimes befuddled, kahu (pastor).
He was sitting in the tiny choir loft
as we walked into this beautiful old wooden building,
the one so often featured on postcards and travel brochures;
he was pulling notes together,
readying himself to lead.

But Sunday morning is not a time for postcards,
and there is no paragraph about what happens here in any brochure I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes we need reminders that real people live in this place, this paradise.
Real people, with jobs and families, worries and hopes and dreams.
To sit with them, to sing and pray and listen,
to watch the keiki (children) hurry to the front to meet with the kahu
and then make a quick exit to the open-air Mission Hall for music and stories;
to hear the sweet sound of ukeleles and Hawaiian voices during the offertory;
to watch the graceful hands and hips of two middle-aged women
offering a hula at the same time . . .

All of this reminds us of how much we share even though the details may differ.

The sermon was not exactly a sermon,
at least not a sermon using the seminary definition of same.
No biblical exegesis, no story-telling.
Rather, a collection of verses around a theme,
a series of quotes found online,
a bit of stumbling here and there in the delivery.

But you know what?

It was a wonderful theme, and some of the quotes were funny and memorable.
And the pastor was sincere and kind.

“Show proper respect to everyone . . . ” I Peter 2:17 = guiding verse.

And these were the 5 main points:

When you speak, be tactful not just truthful.
When you are served, be understanding and not demanding.
When you disagree, be gentle and not judgmental.
When you share your faith, be respectful, not rejecting.
When people are rude to you, respond politely.

And these were some prime quotes for each point:

“Being tactful is making people feel at home when you wish they were at home.”
“Why are we most disrespectful to the people we’re closest to, our families?”
“We are not morally superior to anyone.”
“Righteousness does not equal rudeness.”
“Don’t be a blowtorch with your faith witness, all you’re asked to be is a light.” 

No, it was not the intellectual challenge that we’re used to,
that we enjoy on Sundays in Santa Barbara.

But here’s the thing:
the pastor knew his people,
and the people knew their pastor;
every person in that room was glad to be there,
every person in that room was friendly,
every person in that room exuded gentleness of spirit,
thoughtfulness before speaking,
and a deep gratitude for the presence of visitors.
Out of a worshipping congregation of about 120,
approximately 25 were 1st time visitors —
and every one of them got a handmade flower lei.

And over and around everything,
from the printed bulletin,
to the unison prayers,
to every song sung but one,
there was the soothing sound of this language,
this mellifluous, lilting language,
these words composed of so many vowels.
Only 8 consonants and each one must be followed by a vowel
or a double vowel.
Something about hearing it is soothing, welcoming.

 Aloha is more than a word in this part of the world.
It is a way of life,
and we are grateful for it.

For the first time in a long while, happy to be joining with Michelle and Laura:

Midweek Service: Freely Gifted, Freely Given

We are on vacation with family and friends for the next 3 Wednesdays, so these archived sermon posts will be coming to you from the gloriously beautiful island of Kauai.
As I see the date on this sermon — one I loved working on and one that I think is central to our understanding of faith and life, of suffering and joy — I remember that our son-in-law at that time was struggling through the last few months of a long siege of struggle, pain and suffering, a siege that led to his death just four months after this sermon was preached. I think perhaps I needed this one most of all.

Freely Gifted, Freely Given

Matthew 9:35-10:8, Romans 5:1-5, Exodus 19:2-8
Preached at Montecito Covenant Church
Sunday, June 15, 2008 by
Diana R.G.Trautwein

I want to begin today’s sermon by reading for you the gospel selection from the lectionary for today’s date.  The other scriptures that you’ve heard this morning are also taken from that list – the Psalm with which I began our service today, the words from Exodus and the words from chapter 5 of Romans which Anne just read – all 4 scripture lessons are part of today’s worship service.  And, in a way, all four lessons are part of this sermon, as I’ve been living with them, and thinking about them, and praying through them all as I’ve read and studied and pondered.  So, hear the word of the Lord as it is recorded for us in the gospel of Matthew, beginning with verse 35 of chapter 9 and continuing through verse 8 of chapter 10.

This passage of scripture marks the transition from one big chunk of Matthew’s book to another, from one of his five extensive ‘red letter’ sections of Jesus’ teachings, which seem to many scholars to be designed by Matthew as a parallel to the 5 books of the Jewish Torah – the 1st5 books of what we call the Old Testament.  And as we read together today, it’s good to remember that the very first readers of this book were undoubtedly Jewish Christians, men and women who brought with them their religious and biblical heritage as they began to follow Jesus, and who deeply understood things like: the Torah – and the covenant – that agreement which God struck with his chosen people – whom God called, as our Exodus passage put it: “my treasured possession;” and the biblical imagery of the sheep and their shepherd, which occurred in one form or another in all of their sacred writings, from Exodus through the Psalms and into the writings of the prophets.  See how many of these Old Testament echoes you can hear in these 12 short verses:

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” NRSV

This is the word of the Lord for us today. Thanks be to God for it.

The rest of chapter 10 continues with Jesus’ words of instructions to his closest followers about how to be . . . well . . . his closest followers. It’s pretty much a training guide for discipleship 101, with clear instructions and advice about how to go about doing what he himself has been doing. This commissioning of the 12 disciples happens at a relatively early point in Jesus’ ministry life, and he places some pretty serious parameters around what they are to do and where they are to go.  It’s their first foray out into the world of ministry and they’re sent out in twos – they’re even listed in twos by Matthew – to preach the kingdom message of Jesus, which is to say – to tell people that God is near!  God is here!  See for yourselves!

And then they are given the authority and the power to do the kinds of things that Jesus himself has been so busy doing – touching those in all kinds of need with healing, cleansing, releasing. And they’re to do it as generously and unreservedly as Jesus has been doing it. On this first trip out, they are to restrict themselves to ‘the lost sheep of Israel,’ honoring God’s special relationship with his people. Later on, if you turn to the end of Matthew’s gospel – after the crucifixion and after the resurrection – and Jesus prepares to leave this earth and the era of the church really begins – his words to his disciples are much, much broader. The Great Commission – the very last verses of Matthew’s gospel in chapter 28 read this way:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.  And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

But here, in these opening verses of chapter 10, just as his active, in-the-flesh, on-earth, kingdom-announcing, healing-the-sick, raising-the-dead days really begin to get going, Jesus’ words are more particular, more pointed, more specifically directive, more elemental.

And yet, from these beginning words of instruction – in fact, included as a centrally important part of these words – there is this one powerful, central, formational, life-changing truth. A simple word that is true not just for beginner disciples, but for more experienced ones as well. A truth that, I believe, is as completely applicable to the words of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, or the words of praise and exultation in Psalm 100, or the words of promise in Exodus 19, or those of hope in Romans 5 — as it is to these words of instruction in Matthew 10:8:

“Freely you have received, freely give.”

What you have received from me, Jesus says to his friends, you paid not a dime for, you did do and you can do absolutely nothing to earn any of it. It is offered to you as a gift,gratis, Grace.

But what can I possibly tell you about grace – that lovely word, that amazing concept,  that hard-to-grasp reality – that you haven’t already heard about a million times?

You know, I tried to make this sermon go in a different, slightly less hackneyed direction.

I thought for a while about the message of the kingdom of God – that great good news of God’s nearness – of God’s breaking into our world in a new way –- that Jesus traveled around telling the towns and villages of Galilee, his home county.  And I suppose I will tell you a little bit about that today.

And I thought about concentrating on those words in Romans that speak of peace, peace with God. I thought for a while, that I might tell you about shalom, that great Hebrew word which means so much more than our English word ‘peace,’ that Old Testament concept that includes so much more about wholeness, and righteousness and well-being than it does about a kind of cease-fire — which is what peace seems most often to connote in English. And I will probably tell you a bit about that, too.

But then I also thought about last week’s wonderful sermon on ‘breaking,’ and how nicely that topic dovetails with Paul’s words about suffering producing perseverance and perseverance, character and character, hope and how hope does not put us to shame…

And I know I’ll touch on that sometime in the next 10 minutes or so.

I even started to head in the direction of that evocative word image in our Exodus passage, where Yahweh reminds Moses to remind the people that he carried Israel ‘on eagle’s wings and brought them to himself,’ And I suppose it’s entirely possible that I could head down that road as well today…

But as I kept thinking about all of these words, these ideas, these grand themes that are found in all of our texts for the week, the single word that kept coming back, like a lovely, silvery dolphin, rising out of the deep waves of God’s glorious Word, was grace –unmerited favor, unearned reward, unexplained tenderness, unreasonable tolerance, unbearable acceptance. Grace.

And there is nothing capricious about this favor, nothing unstable about this reward, nothing uncertain about this tolerance, nothing unplanned about this acceptance.

God’s grace is highly intentional, completely inclusive, open to all. God’s grace is free-flowing, yes, but it is also deliberate, enduring, unchangeable and very, very dependable. And it is the grace of God which infuses and surrounds and undergirds every one of the scripture passages for this morning.

It is the grace of God which inspires the psalmist to acknowledge, indeed to know that the LORD is God, that he is the one who has made us, that we are his.

It is the grace of God which miraculously frees the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, long before they ever enter into any kind of covenant agreement.  God rescued Israel, carrying them on eagle’s wings, before he asked for their obedience.

It was the grace of God, as made flesh in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, which healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead before any kind of condition was put on those who received those gifts and blessings.

It is ‘this grace in which we stand,’ according to Paul in Romans 5.  It is this grace that makes peace possible, that can cause us to glory, or rejoice, or even boast in our sufferings, of all things.  In our sufferings? Yes.  God’s grace is evident even there.

Because here’s an important thing to understand, a critically important piece of the puzzle that is, at times, what this journey of faith feels like.

Grace is a gift – a gift at just the right time, Paul writes – while we ‘were still powerless, Christ died for us,’  ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’

But grace is not a guarantee of a trouble-free life. Grace is not a shield behind which we can hide from the trials and travails of the human condition; grace is not designed to provide supernatural protection from either the slings and arrows that come our way because we are inhabitants of a fallen planet, or to prevent the hardship, pain and turmoil that can happen because we are followers of Jesus.

On the contrary, in those additional red words in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, the ones that follow the ones we read just a few minutes ago, Jesus carefully reminds his disciples that they are being sent out as ‘sheep among wolves,’ and he as much as promises them that they will be flogged in the synagogues, and brought before governors and kings, under arrest, that family members will betray them, that ‘everyone will hate you because of me.’

Yowza.

Can’t we climb our way back to the peaceful, sonorous tones surrounding the word ‘grace?’ Can’t we stick with those images of sheep in the pasture, with a loving shepherd nearby? Let’s get back to that great song, “Grace Flows Down,” that we sang a few minutes ago, okay? Somebody hit the rewind button here.

Ah, but if you’re going to hit that rewind button, you’ll find something pretty remarkable, I think. You’ll find that the grace of God simply cannot be separated from all this other stuff – we must somehow hold onto both the beautiful, poetic, soul-soaring words like the praise of the psalmist or the graceful theological leaps of the apostle Paul, and we must also hold onto Jesus’ words of warning and Paul’s teaching about suffering.

It’s of a piece, you see. And while for a moment or two that might feel like bad news, I’m here to tell you that this is good news, really good news.  Even great news.

We are grace-fully saved from our sin and our brokenness, while we are right in the midst of our sin and our brokenness. The grace of God restores to us relationship with him, the grace of God goes before us and behind us and beside us even before we choose to receive it. The grace of God is a free gift, yes indeed.

But it is a gift designed to be shared, to be radiated outward in the middle of a world that far too often doesn’t know what in the heck to do with it, can’t recognize it when it sees it, and isn’t at all sure it wants it when it’s offered. Because, you see, we live in a sinful, broken world populated by sinful, broken creatures whom God desperately loves, whom God deeply desires to restore, whom God breathes grace on every second of every hour of every day. But that breathing, my dear friends, is done by . . . you and by me.

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few,” Jesus told his disciples.  “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” That’s the plan, that’s the design, that’s the program.  That’s how grace finds legs – and arms and hands and eyes and ears and mouths to speak out the good news that, ‘the kingdom of heaven is near.’ God’s grace was evident all the way through the characters and the stories and the poetry and proverbs of the Old Testament – grace was there, God was there, intervening to save his people, to give them the law as a guide, to create a nation of priests for the world.

But the grace of God needed fuller expression, richer demonstration. So Jesus came into this world, singing out the good news, acting out the good news, living out the good news, dying the good news and rising again with the good news of God’s gracious love and forgiveness.

And Jesus turned right around and passed the baton on to his disciples – beginning with the 12 in Matthew 10 – and extending that assignment of grace-giving to each and every one of us – and maybe even more importantly, to all of us together – all who have said, all who do say and all who will say yes to the gift and yes to the giver. “Freely you have received.  Now, freely give.”

Are you struggling with something intense and painful right now?  Have you lost someone you love?  Are your children giving you fits?  Are you battling your own personal demons or addictions?  Is someone you love battling those demons?  Are you overwhelmed by financial worries?  Are you old and tired and lonely?  Are you young and confused and lonely? Are you wondering what’s coming next in your life and how you’re going to handle it when it does come?

Here’s the good news: you are not alone. Do you notice where Paul puts his sentence about suffering in those opening verses of Romans 5?  He puts it right in the middle of all that wonderful talk about peace and love and grace and hope. Which is exactly where your suffering belongs, where it is, by the grace of God, if you have eyes to see.

There is nothing that happens to you or to me or to those we love that falls somehow outside of God’s providential, graceful care of us.  Even when we feel like there is no way out of whatever it is we’re facing – God is at the edges of the box, God is in the box with us.

Do you want to know how I know this to be true? Besides my own experiences of learning and stretching and being shaped by the word of God, and the struggles of this life, I know this to be true because so many of you have taught me, have shown me, have told me and have encouraged me to believe and to know that it is true.

Because that’s how it works.  The grace with which we, by the goodness of God, are filled when we say ‘yes’ to the gift — that grace is not something that is containable.  It’s like a rich golden liquid that flows out and over us right into the lives of others, when we let it. Never believe that a note, or a phone call, or a meal, or a prayer shawl, or a kind word on the patio, or a quick prayer offered on behalf of another is wasted effort, or that it is small and somehow uncountable.

Every single time you reach out to someone else who is suffering in any way, you are the grace of God at work.  Every single time you open your heart to genuinely receive an offering of any kind from a follower of Jesus, you areseeing the grace of God at work, you are inhaling the very breath of God, you are receiving life and love and peace and joy and hope and grace.

In his famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis noted that,

“There are no ordinary people. Our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ verelatitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

Your neighbor – anyone whom God places in your path – is ‘the holiest object presented to your senses.’ And if that neighbor is also a believer in Jesus, The holiness goes up a notch – not because of the neighbor, but because of the Jesus in the neighbor, the grace of God that fills him or her, the grace of God that fills you, even in the midst of the darkest, most difficult place you can imagine – the grace of God is still there. Freely you have received, freely give.

Freely you have received, freely give!

 Oh dear God,

I don’t want to make this sound trite
or nonsensical or impenetrable.
Because it’s so mysteriously simple
and so simply and beautifully true.

“Out of the depths,” the psalmist cries at one point.
But he cries to YOU because even there,
>even in the depths,
your gracious presence can be found,
your sweet Spirit can sustain.

One of your friends from the early years of the last century said,
“We may doubt, but it is in God we doubt.
We may kick against the pricks, but they are God’s pricks.”

And so often, oh God, you choose to use us
as carriers of that grace,
as vessels for that sweet Spirit,
that you are in the doubts.

Lord, give us eyes to see you,
in whatever way you may choose to reveal yourself,
but most especially, give us eyes to see you in one another.

We pray this earnestly, and with great humility
as we remember once again that you have chosen us
to bear your grace to the world.
For Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

“Activist Faith” – a Book Review

 

“Being an everyday activist doesn’t mean you need to quit your job, sell all your possessions, and move to a Third World country to feed starving children. In fact, one might even argue that staying in your job while finding ways to impact the world around you might even give you greater opportunities to discuss your faith with coworkers.

Being an everyday activist simply means that you are taking advantage of the opportunities right in front of you and embracing what God is calling to you do—and doing it with the full devotion you’d give if you were serving Jesus Himself. Because in truth, you are!”– pg. 11

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you know there is more you could be doing, maybe even more you should be doing, about a whole lotta things that are wrong with this crazy world of ours. But the truth is, there is so much wrong out there, that somehow it feels easier to keep doing the usual, to take care of me and mine, than to actually come out from under the covers and begin. I often feel overwhelmed by blog posts, Facebook comments, editorials in print and online newsmagazines, all urging me to do something, to change my lifestyle, to change my world view, to morph into a different person than I am and become a crusader for any of a long list of causes.

And that overwhelm? It pretty much leads to paralysis – at least for me. And also to some finger-pointing guilt, with all fingers pointing to moi. If any of this feels familiar to you, I encourage you to read a book that is releasing TODAY, a book written by three men, one of whom I know personally, a book that looks at twelve of those hot-button issues and offers some practical, how-to suggestions about how each one of us can make a difference for good. The book (and accompanying website) is called “Activist Faith: From Him and For Him,” and it’s co-authored by Dillon Burroughs, Daniel Darling and Dan King.

And the twelve topics highlighted include: human trafficking, immigration reform, poverty, environmental care, disaster relief, homelessness, abortion, war/terrorism, the persecuted church, parenthood, marriage and sexuality, prison ministries and orphan care.

I will add one caution here at the top – this book is written from a conservative point of view, conservative theologically and conservative politically. The selection of topics tells you that, perhaps most directly in the chapters on abortion and marriage. It also shows in the decision NOT to look at other issues which are important for Christians to be concerned about, gun control being the most glaring omission to me. In some places, I wish the authors were a little less up front about their conservatism because I know that quoting certain authors and choosing some topics over others might cause some of us to purse our lips and shut the cover.

I urge you, however, not to do that. Because if you do, you will miss some important things. First of all, you might discover – as I did – that you are already doing some things very right indeed. I was encouraged to find myself nodding here and there, nodding in agreement and in recognition. “I do some of this,” I thought. (Not all of it and not nearly enough of it, but . . . some of it.) And that small slice of encouragement was what it took for me to read through to the end.

And more importantly, you would miss the rich variety of resources and personal testimony that this book contains. Each chapter is designed to be used in family or small group settings, with reflection questions, suggested lifestyle changes and/or ministry opportunities, and a list of recommendations for further reading on the topic at hand. I resonated most strongly with the chapters on immigration reform, disaster relief, and homelessness and I am sure I will return to these pages for information and suggestions in days to come.

This book is thoughtful, practical and a veritable treasure chest of information for anyone who is seeking to follow Jesus into the real world, where real people with real problems live and suffer. None of us can do everything that needs to be done. But all of us can do something. And this book is a helpful guide to discovering what your something might be.

Here is a link to the book at Amazon – order your copy today!

 

I was honored to receive a galley copy of this book from my friend, Dan King. The review above contains my own honest responses and observations.

 

Midweek Service: Marketplace Mentality?

The summer series called Midweek Service continues this week with a sermon from John 2, a powerful story that shakes us where we live . . . if we let it:

Marketplace Mentality?
John 2:13-24
The Cleansing of the Temple
Diana R.G. Trautwein
A Sermon Preached at Montecito Covenant Church
Date undetermined, but sometime in 2005 before the arrival of a new pastor

We have just read from the second chapter of the gospel of John this morning.  This is a chapter that marks beginnings: the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry of miracles> – with the joyful changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana in the opening verses of chapter two; and the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry of <em >majestyas he moves through the temple courtyard with authority, and with surprising anger – and as he begins to engage the Jewish leaders in the kind of cryptic dialog that will characterize his relationship with them until the end of his life.

Now if your early exposure to scripture was anything like mine, you probably learned a fair amount about that ministry of miracles. Miracles make great stories; they remind us of Jesus’ tender heart and of his desire to help people along the road to wholeness and health. And the story of the water into wine is a lovely, happy example of just that kind of thing. Jesus gathers his newfound friends, brings them along to a wedding party. And while there, he listens to his mother (something every mother in this room is always delighted to hear!), he works quietly, behind the scenes, revealing his power to the servants only, and he produces – simply by the power of his presence and his will – enormous quantities of top-quality wine for the party-goers. John’s gospel tells us that this was ‘the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him.’

‘Jesus revealed his glory . . .’ To whom? To the servants – and to those who became his disciples. So this second chapter of John’s gospel begins with Jesus drawing the people on the edges toward himself.

And it continues with Jesus starting to alienate the <strong >people at the center of things. For his ‘second number’ – as he moves into that ministry of majesty that most of us are far less familiar with — he does a startling thing in a very public way, as opposed to a quiet thing in a very private way. And, in the process of doing this very startling and very public thing, he makes a powerful statement about exactly who he is and why he has come.

Jesus has come to the world of human beings, joined in the day-to-day routine of making friends and going to parties and sometimes listening to his mom and sometimes not.  And his very presence in that routine stuff, makes the simplest gesture a moment of sacred power and mystery.

And in this chapter, he has come to the very heartbeat of his society’s sacred showplace. When he does, he recognizes and points out how it has been subverted and diluted and dramatically and wildly separated from anything even close to sacred.

The everyday is touched by the divine and transformed into a shining moment of joy and recognition and glory. That which is viewed by human eyes as ordinary becomes extraordinary.

And that which is viewed by human eyes as extraordinary becomes even less than ordinary in the scene before us this morning.

The spectacular Jerusalem temple – the centerpiece of Jewish faith in first century Palestine –- is revealed as something far less than what it is touted to be. Jesus dramatically points out that his Father’s house has become some sort of a ‘bizarre bazaar’ –- a place of commerce rather than prayer, a place where barnyard animals, birdcages and bankers have created a noisy, dirty, confusing and shockingly profane space.

The temple court has turned into an arena, overcrowded with the wrong kind of people and the wrong kind of activity. Jesus lifts the curtain, so to speak, and reveals the truth that the emperor has no clothes, the Wizard of Oz is nothing more than a bumbling, middle-aged inventor on a power trip, the temple is no longer the place where God dwells.

And he makes a lot of important people very, very unhappy when he does so.

So . . . which is the ‘real Jesus?’ The happy-go-lucky, water-into-wine, hail-fellow-well-met Jesus we meet in verses 1-12? Or the angry, zealous, whip-snapping, table-turning, animal-driving, in-your-face, rabble-rouser we meet in verses 13-24?

Which one would you rather meet today?

Which one do you need to meet today?

Are you thirsty for some excellent new wine? Wine that has been ‘kissed’ by the carpenter from Nazareth who’s just beginning to reveal himself as someone more than a carpenter?

Or do you have some tables that need turning over, some messy animals and noisy birds that need shooing away so that you can once again discover where God dwells?

Perhaps, like me, you find that you need a bit of both today.  Truth be told, I believe we always need a bit of both.  We need regular reminders that Jesus is far more complex than any painting of him we might enjoy, far more multi-faceted than any formula or bromide we might read or hear, far more interesting and challenging, perhaps even life-threatening, than we are often led to believe. For Jesus is, as I’ve noted before –- and I believe with these exact words — Jesus is a righteous dude. Right here, in the beginning of his ministry on earth, we begin to see that. John lays it out for us in bold strokes.

There is a Truth, with a capital “T,” in Jesus that just cuts through all the gunk we human beings try to build around ourselves. That gunk that’s designed to show the world that we’re really on top of this ‘spiritual’ stuff, that we’ve got the righteousness rules all figured out, that we can somehow circumscribe God and keep him confined to our own, very limited vision of him.

The Jews were God’s peculiar and particular, chosen people – the ones through whom God decided to show himself to the rest of the world. God drew them to himself, told the story of salvation through them and yet, somehow, they so often misheard the plot, or stopped listening to the story, or decided to make up their own ending.

Not too different from the way we would do it, the way we DO do it. The Temple built during Solomon’s time was glorious, built to God’s specifications and it was the agreed-upon space wherein God would reside during the days of the ancient kingdom of Israel.

But that temple was destroyed as the people ignored God’s story and were eventually led away into captivity. A second, smaller and less ornate temple was rebuilt after the exile and it, too disappeared into the sands of the wilderness.

By the time Jesus entered time and space, King Herod had decided to build a magnificent edifice, in a misguided attempt to ‘get in good’ with the Jews he was sent to rule. He constructed a huge building with a concentric series of courts leading up to the Holy of Holies – that space where only the High Priest could enter and then, only once a year. That space where Zechariah met God and learned he would have a boy to be named John, who would become the Baptizer.

Coming out and down from that holiest of places, there were increasingly inclusive spaces – one for the rest of the priests, one for Jewish men, one for Jewish women, and, at the outside edge, one for Gentiles. That’s where those outside the circle of Israel were invited in. That’s the space where anyone interested in learning more about this God of theirs could come and be taught. That’s the space where all the nations could come and learn to pray.

And that’s the space that was filled with noise and confusion, with animals and merchants and moneychangers. when Jesus strode through it that day, long ago. The other gospel accounts of this incident record Jesus quoting the Old Testament and saying, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” And Mark even adds the phrase, “a house of prayer for all nations,” underscoring the universal and inclusive nature of the temple’s outer courtyard.

But as Jesus looked around, he saw that it was no longer a welcoming place for strangers and for seekers. It was a bustling marketplace, filled to overflowing with the paraphernalia required by both the sacrificial system and the temple tax structure. There were laws in place, you see. Detailed laws about how much ‘tax’ every adult Jewish male was to pay to the temple for the privilege of worshiping and offering sacrifices there. And that tax had to be paid in one kind of coinage only, so tables were set up – right there in the temple itself – for the changing of Roman coins into the ones acceptable to the temple hierarchy.

And, just to make things more convenient – the animals – the perfect, unblemished animals required for the various kinds of sacrifices needed at those important feast days – the animals were right there, available (for a price, of course) to the pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem to observe the holy days. Now they used to be available in the valley, just outside the city walls – but over time, they moved closer and closer into the center of things, until they actually encroached on temple territory itself. The mentality of the marketplace had overtaken sacred space and as it did so, it eliminated the only avenue through which 1st century seekers could begin to learn about God.

So, Jesus came for the Holy Days. And Jesus saw that his Father’s house had been scandalized and vandalized and trivialized –and he was furious!

Wouldn’t you love to have seen it? Well, at least part of me would love to have seen it! And the other part of me is terribly worried that I would have heartily joined in with those who questioned Jesus’ authority to do what he did.

“What right do you have to say what you’ve said? What right do you have to do what you’ve done? You’ve messed it up, Jesus.  You’ve mixed it up, You’ve thrown everything all around and confused us all. Just who do you think you are?? What sign can you show us to prove that you really do have a right to do what you’ve done??”

And I would probably have heard Jesus’ answer in the same way that those agitated ‘in’ people heard it: “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days,” said Jesus, the carpenter. Yeah, right. Who are you kidding? It’s taken 46 years to get this magnificent building to this point. 46 years, they said, and you’re going to raise it up in 3 days?? You and what army?? Don’t be ridiculous.

Be honest, now.  Isn’t that what you’d have been thinking?

John tells us that’s pretty much what the disciples were thinking. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the implication is there.  Why else would he add, “After he was raised from the dead, the disciples recalled what he had said.  Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” Even the disciples – who had just had such a great time partying with the Lord and his magically created, delicious wine – couldn’t fathom what in the world he was doing or what he was saying about what he was doing.

It is a startling way to begin a ministry – a bold, controversial, puzzling act and an even stranger verbal response.

NOW, with the hindsight of 2000 years, the traditions of the church and most importantly, the word of God written, we know that Jesus was talking about himself.   That the building behind him was no longer the dwelling place of God on earth – in fact, it never had been in quite the way that Jesus now began to speak about.

For Jesus is beginning to teach these slightly dense yet dearly loved people that he himself is the dwelling place of God on earth. He himself is God, come, as John’s gospel puts it in the prologue, come ‘to tabernacle with humans,’ come to show us the Father, come to bring his sacred touch to our profane lives, come to transform us into living, breathing temples of the Holy Spirit, come to grow a new temple, an organic one, a body —  a huge body of men and women, boys and girls, living across the globe and across the years — that will be the temple for all the millennia until that time when time will not be. Then the temple will be God himself, right in our midst, and we will be in the realm of the new heaven and the new earth.

Now that’s challenging stuff.  That’s life-changing stuff, maybe even life-threatening stuff – at least life as we too often live it. (Song lyrics inserted on the screens at this point, lyrics from “Becky and Me,” written by Chris Rice)

Becky has a house on Abundant Life Boulevard
A good name, good family, and butterflies in her yard
Becky loves Jesus and really wants to make Him proud
She tears up in church and she sings her harmonies loud
She’s got a Bible by the bed, a prayer journal, and a fish on her car
She makes sure to bow her head and give thanks in every restaurant
But is that enough?

C’mon Becky, let’s go for a ride
If I’m driving too fast then I apologize
But there’s a world out there that we left behind
Full of souls as important as yours and mine
Looks like a reckless road, and a sacrifice
And I’m crazy scared it may cost our lives
But then I remember Jesus died
So c’mon Becky
Let’s go for a ride

I’m rolling up to Becky’s house on my Sunday drive
I have to laugh to myself ’cause it looks exactly like mine
I smile and wave at all the happy people strolling by
We’ve got the same walk, same talk, and the same sparkle in our eyes
‘Cause we’re thankful for the blessings, but maybe we could lay ’em aside
I get a feeling we might be missin’ the time of our lives

So hop in and hold on tight
c’mon Becky, let’s go for a ride
If I’m driving too fast then I apologize
But there’s a world out there that we left behind
Full of souls as important as yours and mine
Looks like a reckless road, and a sacrifice
And I’m crazy scared it may cost our lives
But then I remember Jesus died
So c’mon Becky Let’s go for a ride

‘Cause we’re thankful for the blessings, but maybe we could lay ’em aside?
I get a feeling we might be heading for the time of our lives

So hop in and hold on tight
C’mon Becky, let’s go for a ride
If I’m driving too fast then I apologize
But there’s a world out there that we left behind
Full of souls as important as yours and mine
Looks like a reckless road, and a sacrifice
And I’m crazy scared it may cost our lives
But then I remember Jesus died
So c’mon Becky Let’s go for a ride

So, if Jesus were to walk through this temple today, what would he find? This temple – meaning. not this building, wonderful and beautiful and set apart as it is to be sacred space – not this building, but this temple — our bodies – each of us, together and separately?

What are the things that have gotten in the way of our Father’s house?

The market place? Trying to do the right things, say the right things, impress the right people with our piety? Trying, perhaps, to offer ourselves as burnt sacrifices when that job has already been done, far more completely than any one of us could ever do it?

When Jesus arrived at that long ago courtyard, he found it crowded with the wrong kind of people doing the wrong kinds of activities. Instead of being open to the world – a place where strangers were invited in – to find a place of learning, of quiet, of prayer, a place to explore what it might mean to approach the God of the Universe, The God of the World, The God of the People of God – it was a place crowded with marketeers, with stray animals, with people trying to change money from profane to sacred – to make things kosher, to line up the ducks, to make the pieces fit, to keep God inside the dimensions of a box of their own creation.

And Jesus said, no.

Open it up, quiet it down. Make this place a temple again, a place of prayer – for all people – not just the okey-dokey people. Not just the people with the right kind of money. Not just the people who know the rules and obey the rules, but the people who haven’t a clue and who need one so very badly.

Is there space in this temple – this body of believers – for God to really dwell and do a new thing? Is there space in this temple for a new pastor, a new pastor’s family, a new pastor’s ideas and leadership?

Is there space in this temple for new people, people different from the ‘in’ group, people on the edges, people who need a clue?

Is there space in this temple for new ways to worship together? For new music, for new art, for new drama? Is there space in this temple for new ministries to children? to students? to adults? Is there space in this temple for God to do the work God wants to do in and through us? What needs to be cleaned up and driven out of your life? Of my life? Of our life together?

Oh, Jesus, We need new wine, And we need the tingle of that whip. We need to wake up and reach out and open wide. We need to let you in in ways that may scare us a little, that may make us wonder what in the world you’re up to. We need you to be the Lord of the church, the one through whom we meet God Almighty, the one who dwells in us by the presence of the Holy  Spirit.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Remind us that you came to make our ordinary lives sacred. Slice our hearts with your loving touch and help us to hear your call, and then, to obey it.

Amen.

5 Minute Friday: Beautiful

Joining with Lisa-Jo Baker and the crew once again to write for 5minutes without editing on a prompt. You really should check out the wide variety of responses to these weekly invitations — truly mind-blowing, so come on over and see what I mean.

Five Minute Friday

Today’s prompt: BEAUTIFUL

GO:

I am so far from perfection, it ain’t even funny.
Just ask my husband.
Just ask my children.
Just ask my grandchildren.

I get a whole lot of things wrong.
I am opinionated, tend to be bossy, sigh too much and am impatient with
lots of people, starting with myself.

But I’m here to tell you,
I can celebrate special occasions with the best of ’em.

Yesterday was the fourth of July.
Tomorrow is my mother’s 92nd birthday.

So we had a day-long party.
It started with tennis for some,
food and beverage arrangements for others,
and Lego-Building for the youngest two.

Fortunately, the weather cooperated beautifully,
and the typical morning gloom hung around long enough
to play tennis without bright sunlight,
and then rolled away like the proverbial carpet
just in time to allow for cooling off in the pool,
enjoying lots of good food al fresco,
and eating birthday cake,
with homemade ice cream, no less,
all of it with a gaggle of people we love a lot.

It was a beautiful day.
We shared laughter and stories,
fresh corn on the cob and barbecued salmon for the meaties
and portabellos for the veggies,
and we leaned into it really, really well.

Like everything else in life, it was not perfect.
My mom is still facing the continuing losses of dementia,
and the ongoing realities of living with the  loss of eyesight and hearing.
Our eldest grandsons are still feeling their way to
full adulthood and responsibility,
and at the end of it all,
my husband and I were fighting to stay awake.

But all those ‘negatives’ only serve to give sharp, bright edges to the positives,
and woven in and around the worries,
there was this underlying truth:

we are family.

We love each other, no matter what;
we are there for each other,
in good times and hard times,
and life is better when we live it together,
even if the REAL together is only once in a while.

STOP (90 extra seconds!)

A few extra pictures from the beautiful day we shared:

Toward A More Perfect Union — A Deeper Family

It’s the first Thursday of the month! And that means I’m writing over at A Deeper Family today. It’s also our national birthday – the Fourth of July – so here is a picture of some fireworks we enjoyed while we were in Dresden, Germany, about two months ago. Please come on over and join me at ADF to read the rest of this reflection . . .

The heat is rising in waves from the concrete deck, shimmering in that strange, invisible way that heat waves do. The whole of southern California is turning up the AC, blowing fans over bowls of ice, taking quick dips in the pool or bathtub, trying to even out the air temp in as many creative ways as possible.

Here, in our coastal town, we’ve had temperatures in the 90’s for almost a week now – unusual in early July. Often our national holiday is shrouded in fog; the annual fireworks display can only be seen in bits and pieces, when an occasional rocket climbs above the layers of goop circling round the end of the pier.

This year, however, the show should be grand. But we will not be there.

We’ve seen lots of fireworks in our day, and sent more than a few brilliant displays into the  skies ourselves. Yet these days, listening to the pops and bangs and whizzes is almost as much fun as seeing their aerial display. Maybe we’ll watch the televised ones from DC and NYC, who knows? I only know we won’t be joining the throngs who will jam the beachfront boulevard and then struggle to make their way, ever-so-slowly, up to the freeway and home again, home again.

At this end of 47+ years together, we are increasingly careful about how we spend our time and energy, wanting not to waste any of it with crowds and confusion. Maybe that makes us old fogies. In fact, I am SURE it makes us old fogies. And you know what? I am more comfortable with that idea than I ever dreamed I might be. Believe me, it’s not all bad, being a fogey. It has its perks.

Like . . .

Wanna know what those perks look like from our end? Well, come on over. Just click this sentence and you’ll find the list. 

Midweek Service: Written On Our Hearts

This summer series of long-ago sermons continues with one from Lent in the year 2003 – a full decade ago. We had a different Senior Pastor then and were facing into different life events as a congregation and as a nation. Yet, somehow, this message is not tied to a particular time in history, but an expression of one of the most powerful of God’s timeless truths.

Written on Our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34
April 6, 2003
5th Sunday in Lent
preached at Montecito Covenant Church by
Diana R.G. Trautwein

My husband and I have just returned from a week away – something we both needed and thoroughly enjoyed.  We traveled to the desert, and a primary motivating factor for this trip was to see if we could find some displays of famous California wildflowers.

Now both of us are native Californians and we have lived here almost all of our lives, yet we have never done the wildflower bit. People come from all over the world – as we quickly discovered – to see the wonders of the desert on fire with the colors of God’s palette – but we, like the cobbler’s children without any shoes – had never taken the time to see the beauty that God provides for us each and every spring.  So this year we did it.

We drove to beautiful, downtown Palmdale the first night out, with the intention of seeing the Poppy Reserve near Lancaster.  And we did see the Poppy Reserve, and we actually saw thousands of poppies strewn over the hills and fields.  Unfortunately, we didn’t truly see them in all of their splendor and glory because. . .these little flowers, which land where the breezes blow them –  and at one time, according to the conquering Spanish explorers, flowed like rivers of molten lava toward the sea with colors so vibrant they could be seen from the decks of their ships as they sailed into what would eventually be known as the Los Angeles harbor area – these little golden flowers are incredibly crafty.

Somewhere written in their DNA is the helpful hint that neither shadow nor wind is good for them.  So. . . as the late afternoon sunshine casts longer and longer shadows over the landscape (as it did on the afternoon we arrived) – or as the wind picks up velocity greater than a gentle breeze (which it did the next morning, on our way out to Death Valley) these exceedingly well-bred, vibrantly colored cups of gold clamp their little heads tightly shut and hide themselves away from potential threat – and from poorly-educated flower-viewers like ourselves!

There is a law ‘written on their hearts’  – a law that says: “Darkness and high winds are dangerous to your future – protect yourself!”  And California’s golden poppies are totally obedient to that interior instruction. They don’t have to be taught to do this – they KNOW to do it, it’s become a part of their identity as poppies and it just comes naturally.

I wonder. . . what laws are written on our hearts this morning?  What do we at the core of our being, know so well that it has become part of our identity?  What beliefs/ideas/values/instructions/’laws’ do we hold so close to ourselves that they just come naturally. . .

Tuck those questions in the back of your mind and we’ll get back to them in a few minutes.  Because just now, I want to remind us all that for the past four weeks, we’ve been traveling through the Old Testament on our Lenten journey to the cross.  We’ve been examining the ways in which Almighty God reached out to his human creatures in order to engage them in relationship.  We looked at Noah, the flood and the rainbow promise; we looked at Abraham, a childless old man who was taken by God out into the desert, pointed toward the night sky and promised offspring as numerous as the sparkling canopy of stars above him; we looked at the 10 Commandments given to Moses on the mountain of God – the beautiful law of God that set out parameters in which God’s people could live rich and full lives.

Over these weeks, we began to get a picture of what God had in mind when he created a Covenant people for himself, a people who would belong to him in a particular way, enjoying his love, protection and blessing and, in return, worshipping him alone.  And then last week, Curt took us to a point in that covenant relationship that was painfully close to home, and we watched the grumbling, idolatrous, rebellious, cranky people of God decide to move away from the covenant relationship and go their own way, ultimately saved from dismay, despair and death only by the gracious deliverance of the God they had abandoned.  This wasn’t the first time God’s covenant people had turned away from the promise, and it most definitely was not the last.

Today, we come – in some ways, at least – to a very different place, in a very different time.  Yet some things never change.  The prophet Jeremiah has been warning the people of Judah that their days as landowners are numbered.  Why?  Because they have continued to be a grumbling, idolatrous, rebellious and cranky bunch.  They’ve worked their way through judges and kings and wars and alliances and misalliances, all the while ignoring God’s promises and disobeying God’s law.  In fact, the people of God are no more.  They are living in exile, scattered amongst their enemies, disheartened and disinherited.

And right there, in the midst of that kind of confusion, turmoil, dismay, anxiety. . .right there in the midst of it all, God decides to do a new thing, a radically new thing – a new thing that is based on an old idea – a familiar idea – a covenant idea.  And it comes in the form of a promise – a promise to the people of the land that was no more, the people of the divided kingdom, the exiled kingdom, the people whom God chose as his own special tribe, despite their disobedience, despite their failure to be all that he called them to be.  And the promise is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34:

“The day will come,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the LORD.  “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts.  I will be their God and they will be my people.  And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their family, saying, `You should know the LORD.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will already know me,” says the LORD. “And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.”

 

These beautiful words were given to a people living in exile, a people who had ruptured their relationship with their God so severely that something entirely new was required to salvage things.  These words were given to Israel and to Judah and they were words of hope and delight, words of encouragement and reconciliation.  And they were built on an entirely new concept.  No more rainbows in the sky, no more stars in the night, no more tablets of stone – no more externalsigns for the covenant people of God.  No.  The day is coming, says the Lord, when I will write my law on their <em >hearts, I will put it in their minds – and they will KNOW me, really, truly, know me –from the inside out>, rather than the other way around.  This is a new covenant, says the Lord — a new way of entering into agreement with one another, a new way of enjoying relationship together, a new way of being connected, committed, intertwined, covenanted together.

The old way had not done the job.  Coming at things from the outside in wasn’t cutting it.  Signs and promises – as wonderful as they are – aren’t powerful enough in and of themselves to change things from the inside out, God knew that, and Israel learned it – through painful and difficult experience.  And every one of us in this room can testify to this truth.  Tablets of stone, lists of rules, even very clearly laid out instructions for good behavior and wise choices do not make a heckuva lot of difference if we don’t find them inside us.  If they’re something outside of ourselves, they can’t effect change that is real and lasting on the inside.  They need to be written on our hearts, part of our identity, a natural and normal part of who we are.

Is it any wonder, then, that the early church read these words and saw Jesus in them?  Is it any wonder that Jesus himself borrowed this language to talk about his mission, his purpose in life, his work here on earth?  As he gathered his disciples in the upper room the night before he was betrayed and murdered, he offered his friends the traditional cup of Passover wine, the cup of blessing, with these very words:

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” he said.  “Do this in remembering me.”  And so they did, and so we do.  For this is how God writes his law, his love, on our hearts. . . through the blood of Jesus.

About seven or eight years ago, Alison Krauss sang an old, old gospel song on a highly successful album, a song that puts this marvelous truth into poetry that truly gets your toes to tappin’.  It’s called “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”

When God dips His pen of love in my heart,
And He writes my soul a message He wants me to know.
His spirit all divine, fills this sinful soul of mine.
When God dips His love in my heart.

He walked up every step of Calvary’s rugged way.
And He gave His life completely to bring a better day.
My life was steeped in sin, but in love He took me in.
His blood washed away every stain.

I said I wouldn’t tell it to a livin’ soul.
How He brought salvation and He made me whole.
But I found I couldn’t hide /such a love /as Jesus did impart.
Well. . .  He made me laugh and He made me cry.
Set my sinful soul on fire (hallelujah).
When God dips His love in my heart.

Hallelujah.
When God dips His love,
His sweet love,
In my heart.

There was only one way that God could change his people from the inside out – and that way was Jesus.  With the incarnation, when God became human and came to walk and talk and live among men and women, it truly became possible for God to dip his pen of love in our hearts.

For in Jesus, the glorious, transcendent creator of the universe comes within touching distance.

In Jesus, the character and the glory of God are fully revealed and realized.

In Jesus, we are able to see the real deal, not our imagined images of either terror or comfort, those pictures of God that we carry around in our heads and our hearts, those pictures that are shaped by our culture, our parents, our own psyches.

We meet Jesus in the pages of scripture and then we meet Jesus in a personal encounter, an experience that changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, an experience that calls us to ‘know’ God, starting at the center, starting on the inside, learning more and more about what it means to trust.

Brennan Manning’s book called Ruthless Trust has been enormously helpful to me in understanding what it means to know God in the way that Jeremiah is describing in these beautiful verses before us this morning, especially chapter seven of Manning’s book.  For the intimate way in which this verb ‘know’ is used by the prophet implies a relationship firmly built upon trust. “For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will already know me,” says the LORD. “And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.”  The door to intimacy with God is open wide and is totally inclusive – ‘everyone, from the least to the greatest’ – and Jesus is that door.

What exactly is trust and how does it help us know God?

Trust is that marvelous combination of faith and hope – faith that comes from a personal experience of the living God as encountered in Jesus – and hope in the promises of Jesus, with full expectation that the promises he makes will be kept.  We need both qualities – faith and hope – in order to grow in trust.  If we trust Jesus, we can begin to let him soften our hearts, to write his words of love in our very tender flesh, to rest and relax in that love and to be all of who we are without fear.  “I will forgive their wickedness,” the Lord tells us in Jeremiah, “and will never again remember their sins.”  Manning talks about it this way:

“Our trust in Jesus grows as we shift from making self-conscious efforts to be good to allowing ourselves to be as we are (not as we should be).  The Holy Spirit moves us from the head to the heart . . .”

And as that trust grows, we find ourselves understanding at deeper and deeper levels what it means to be in relationship with a covenant-making God.  There are most certainly no guarantees that life will be trouble-free.  On the contrary, Jesus himself warned that following him would involve suffering, possibly even rejection and death.  What is promised is love, what is promised is acceptance and forgiveness, what is promised is peace, what is promised is presence, even when the way seems overwhelmingly difficult, even when life seems way too complicated, even when tears are our constant companion.  And we could add this morning, even when we are a nation at war, even when our pastor is leaving, even when our loved ones are suffering.  Even then. . . he is worthy of our trust.

The rabbis of old noticed that in this passage in Jeremiah the word ‘on’ is used when describing our hearts rather than the word ‘in,’ and they wrestled with that word choice for years.  Why did God’s Word say ‘on’ our hearts?  Why not ‘in’?  The answer they came to was this:

The text reads ‘on’ so that when our hearts are broken (as they always will be in this life), then the love written there can fall ‘in’ and help us to heal.

So now I’m back to the beginning. . . and I’m wondering. . . what is written on our hearts?  Do we find ‘laws’ like:

“Success at all costs.”
“Things are more important than people.”
“You can never be too rich or too thin.”

Or perhaps like these:

“I’m basically a no-good, worthless pile of nothing.”
“If I let people come too close, they’ll see what I’m really like and hate me.”
“I’ve been hurt before and nobody’s gonna do that again.”
“If I smile and say ‘I’m fine,’ nobody will know how much pain I’m in.”

When your heart breaks – and believe me, it will – are those the kinds of ‘laws’ that you want to fall in?  What possible healing can those words bring?

Ah, but if you are growing in your trust, your knowledge of God, then perhaps you are beginning to find laws like these at the center of who you are, words of love written on your heart:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Because of Jesus, I know that Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, is also Abba,           Father.”
“I am his and he is mine.”
“Jesus loves me, this I know.”

May it be so – by the grace of God, may it be so.