The Spirit of Patience

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Patience is not a virtue that comes easily to us.

Some of us are built with fairly short fuses.

I think it is because we get personally invested in our work and our play and we want to see the results of our efforts.

But when things start to fall apart, instead of taking the long view – we begin to lose hope, we begin to get angry, and sometimes we behave in ways that are far from Christian.

So, this morning we are going to talk about patience through the story of two brothers… Jacob and Esau.

Esau is the older of the two – a rough and tumble sort of guy who thinks with his gut.

Jacob on the other hand, is quietly clever… a mamma’s boy who uses his wit to trick his older brother and gain the upper hand.

And Jacob uses these skills to steal the birthright and deathbed blessing from his brother, Esau.

Esau is furious at the outcome of these events. Everything has just been taken from him.

This isn’t the kind of frustration that comes from some sore muscles – this is the kind of existential angst that comes from having your very identity called into question.

As we heard in the scriptures from this morning – Esau seethed in anger against Jacob… he brooded, “The time for mourning my father’s death is close. And then I’ll kill my brother Jacob.”

It was the last straw. Esau just couldn’t take it anymore and he snapped. And Jacob had to flee for his life, far off to the land of his uncle, Laban.

Usually when we visit these stories, our attention stays with Jacob. We follow him to Paddan Aram where he works for seven years for the hand of his beloved Rachel… and then for seven more years when he is tricked into marrying Leah instead. We follow his story as he spends time increasing the flocks and in turning tricking his uncle Laban and ends up with the best of the flocks and the herds and a huge family of wealth and power.

We could point to Jacob and talk about his patience. About how in spite of being cheated by his uncle, he stuck to his promises and waited for God’s blessings. We could talk about how his persistence and trust led to his success.

But today, I want us to look back to the land of Canaan to the son who was left behind.

The fruit of the spirit we know as patience, is often translated as longsuffering.

It is the gift of being able to endure in spite of the circumstances that have come against you.

It is a hopeful fortitude that reminds us that there is light at the end of the tunnel… that if we trust and wait, the outcome we are praying for will come to pass.

Barclay’s commentary writes that patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.

Patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.

Patience is seeking an opening, waiting for the anger to pass, breathing deeply, and finding a way forward.

Patience is remembering that this inconvenience, this obstacle, will not last forever.

If patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t… then I think the person who actually exemplifies the spirit of patience is not Jacob, but his older brother, Esau.

The first way that Esau is patient is that he doesn’t strike out immediately in anger when his brother cheats him.

If we followed their story from the time they were just children, I’m sure that there was more than just these two instances of trickery. And yet, up until this point, up until the moment that Jacob steals away his blessing, Esau has managed to not let it get to him.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is this moment where everything is taken from him and Esau is pissed off.
But, even in the midst of his anger… we might even say righteous anger… he has enough control to wait.

I haven’t played a lot of disc golf this summer, but there was an afternoon a few seasons ago when I hit four trees, in a row, on four consecutive shots, before I ever got to the basket. I hadn’t been playing well all afternoon, and my frustration was building. My temper was getting the best of me.

If we truly think about patience as having the grace to not revenge a wrong, then patience would have been taking a deep breath, not picking up my disk and chucking it at the nearest tree out of frustration for it being in the way.

Many people in today’s world who had something done to them like Esau experienced would immediately grab the nearest weapon and seek out their brother. But Esau waits. He thinks. He knows that there are some things that are more important at the moment… namely, the fact that his father is dying.

Patience means being slow to anger and while Esau became angry, he didn’t allow that anger to consume him in an instant. He thought about others. He put his anger on the back burner.

In moments when you find yourself on the brink of acting out of frustration or anger, patience is taking a moment to breathe and to pray.

It is asking for God to come into the situation and remind you of what is really important… and if necessary to let go of the anger.

Esau also helps us to understand patience in how he lives his life after Jacob flees.

He acts not out of spite, but in all things tries to follow his father’s wishes.

When his brother is sent away, Jacob is commanded not to marry a Canaanite woman. Esau is not given this expectation, but he also chooses such a bride, always looking to please his father. He seeks out his half-uncle Ishmael… and marries one of his daughters.

And that is all we hear about his life for the next 14 years.

Not once does Esau plot and plan and come looking for his brother.

Not once does he try to make good on his promise that his brother should die.

No, he moves on with his own life.

He carves out the best possible future for himself.

In spite of the situation that he finds himself in, he endures.

That is longsuffering. That is patience.

Making the most of our given situations is a very hard thing to do. We like to sit and stew and wish that things were different. We breed anger and resentment in our hearts. And we spend too much time looking into the past, instead of living into our new futures.

Yesterday, I had the honor of helping to celebrate the life of a woman named Renee. When our church began its work with the Women at the Well Re-entry Teams, Renee was the first person that we had the honor of walking with.

As I sat talking with her dad, Paul, he mentioned to me how you always think that someone else’s child would be homeless, or addicted, or abused. You never imagine that it could ever happen to your child. But it did.

From the ages of 4-14, Renee was sexually abused by a family member who also gave her alcohol. Her addiction began before most children even know what a drink is. That terrible injustice had a profound impact on her formation. In some ways, it led her to be scared of being successful – often getting in her own way. But in other ways, it provided the source of her ability to connect with people who were struggling, homeless, down and out. Her experience helped her to share her life story and God’s word with people who desperately needed to hear it.

In the midst of the hurt and pain of her life, she knew that God was with her and that her journey was not something to be ashamed of or to run away from, but it was an opportunity to share with others. As the Message translation of Isaiah chapter 50 reads, “The Master, God, has given me a well-taught tongue, so I know how to encourage tired people.” And in spite of her addiction, Renee used her humor and writing to bring encouragement to people who needed it the most. She didn’t allow herself to be overcome with bitterness and despair.

That is God’s longsuffering patience.

Finally, Esau teaches us about patience through his ability to forgive.

We sometimes think of patience as simply the ability to wait… to hold out.

But the kind of patience that God invites us to embody is that grace of a person who could revenge a wrong, but doesn’t.

Had Esau simply been waiting for the opportunity to strike back then his moment would have come when Jacob returned to the land of his father.

And Jacob knows it.

Jacob trembles with fear at the thought of the anger of his brother. He sends messengers ahead to let Esau know they are coming… it’s almost as if he is saying – I’m here… let’s get this over with.

Jacob divides up his great wealth and sends it over the river in waves as a gift to soothe his brother’s anger. He sends his wives and children over – in essence saying – all that I have is yours if you want it.

If Esau had been “patiently” harboring revenge all of those years, he would have destroyed those gifts. Those four hundred men standing with him on the other side of the river would have taken the flocks, killed his wives and children and come rushing over the river to kill the trickster brother.

But Esau was a man of godly patience.

He put his anger on the backburner of his soul, and allowed God to let forgiveness replace the hatred.

When Esau was given the chance to revenge the wrong that was made upon his life, he instead ran to his brother, fell into his arms and wept.

He looked upon all of those gifts, the wealth his brother had humbly offered, and Esau could have taken them all out of righteous indignation. He could have said, “it’s about time that I got my birthright and my power and wealth back.”

Instead, he looked his brother square in the eye and he said, “I have enough, brother… keep what you have for yourself.”

The past was forgiven. All that mattered now was their futures. The future of two brothers reunited at long last.

My family has experienced the kind of conflict and betrayal of family members that Jacob and Esau struggled with and I have to be honest that they have not yet reached the point of reconciliation.

It is difficult to forgive.

It will take time to forgive.

But I also know that when we fail to do so, we carry around with us a burden that is often too heavy to bear.

My prayer for my family and for all of us who have experienced the frustration of relationships or illness or pain is that instead of holding onto revenge, bitterness, or despair, that we would instead seek God’s patience.

It is the kind of patience that our Master has with us.

In 2 Peter, we are reminded that God is patient towards us, not wanting any to perish but for all of us to be able to change our hearts and lives (3:9).

God’s gracious spirit chooses not to revenge the wrongs we have committed.

God’s gracious spirit waits until we finally turn back towards love, grace, mercy and peace.

God’s gracious spirit shows us true patience, waiting with open arms for us to come back home, no matter how many wrongs we have done in this world.

Amen and Amen.

The Spirit of Kindness

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One afternoon when I was serving the church in Marengo, a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone.

Not a problem, I said.

We talked for a bit and I learned she had just been released from the county jail, was 80 miles from home, and no one was coming to get her. She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone. She hung up in frustration.

And so I asked if I could give her a ride. She was seven months pregnant and needed to get home. We got in my car and headed out. And on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on my shelf.

As we drove, we talked about our lives and stopped for food. We talked a little bit about church – but only enough to learn that she had never found one that had felt like home. She had dreams that she wanted to fulfill… but also was raising kids by herself and had put her goals on hold. But she was going home. And for the moment – that was all that was important.

An outsider might look on that situation and see a random act of kindness. Going out of your way to do something nice for a complete stranger. But what I did on Monday morning was far from a random act… and this young woman was far from being a stranger.

Each week this summer, we are exploring how the Holy Spirit moves in our lives and provides what we need for any situation. Today’s gift of the Spirit is kindness – and so we are going to wrestle with where it comes from and what it looks like, in part through the story of Joseph.

When Joseph finds himself sold into slavery in Egypt, he is purchased by Potiphar, a very important man and an official of the Pharaoh. It is like he was sent to work for one of our government’s cabinet officials.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, he writes about Christians who find themselves living under the authority of government officials. He tells Titus, “remind them to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully to anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone.” (Titus 3:1-2) Paul reminds Titus that it is God’s kindness and love that has saved us so that we can do these things.

The word that Paul uses here for kindness, chrestotes, describes a sort of temperament that is respectful and helpful without expecting anything in return. Rick Renner describes this attitude “being adaptable to the needs of others.”

Adaptable might be the best way to describe Joseph.

When sold into slavery, he tried to figure out what he could do to best please his master Potiphar. He served him with respect. Respect – even to the point of denying the advances of his master’s wife.

When that got him in trouble… Joseph adapted. His new home was the jail. His new task was to be the best prisoner he could be. And his willingness to be obedient and courteous put him in good favor with the jailor. Joseph was promoted in the prison system and was put in charge of the other prisoners.

And although he was there unjustly… and although he had no reason to treat the other prisoners with respect, he did. He cared for those other prisoners and did what he could to help them.

Which means that when the royal cupbearer and baker are thrown into jail… Joseph is the same person that he was the day before… he treats them with the same respect he would have treated anyone else in that prison. And his kindness eventually gets him out of that jail and in front of Pharaoh.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, we see that kindness is being ready for every good work. In that sense, it is not random at all, but an intentionally willingness to let God use you in every moment.

Here in Iowa, we are really good at being nice, but kindness is not just being nice or saying nice things… The Holy Spirit empowers us to live out a spirit of kindness so that we are ready to act on behalf of another person.

Kindness is always looking for the next person that you can bless.

Kindness is seeing others not as competition or as obstacles to your success – but as recipients of your grace.

The people who enter your life are not strangers… but they are children of God. The Hebrew word for kindness, Khesed describes how we should behave when we have a commitment to another person. And because we have a relationship with God, we have an obligation to love and care for every person we meet. It doesn’t matter if they are beneath you or the very kings and rulers and presidents of your nations. Every single one of their lives matter and the spirit of kindness urges us to look out for their best interests.

Last week, a number of us from Immanuel attended our Iowa Annual Conference. Our theme for this year is about being difference makers. Throughout our work and our worship, we heard stories of how people of the United Methodist Church are making a difference all across our state and received encouragement to come back to our churches to make a difference in our own communities.

Friends of Immanuel, you already have been difference makers. We go out in mission to make a difference at places like CFUM and under the bridges with the homeless here in Des Moines. We put together kits that make a difference in the lives of people all across this world. In your personal lives, you are part of service organizations that are making a difference for people far and wide. And before our service is over today, we will commission the Bell Tour, who have turned their musical offerings into service and who share God’s love with people who are lonely through the gift of a teddy bear or doll or stuffed animal.

And that is because the spirit of kindness is flowing through this place. We believe that God has called us, in Christ, to live lives of love and service and prayer. We believe that God is sending us outside these walls to bring healing and hope to broken people and places. We are ready for every good work.

One of the ways we have tried to live out that service this year has been through our 5th Sunday Service projects. In January, we put together care packages for some of our local police departments, in gratitude for their service and as a way of reaching out in love after the loss of some of our local police officers. We wanted to bring healing in the midst of their grief and we continue to pray for them.

At the end of April, we put together May baskets for our neighbors and our homebound folks. Those small offerings of love were a good work, a blessing, that we hoped might bring healing to those who were lonely.

We have another fifth Sunday coming up at the end of July but as we have been reflecting on what it means to go out and serve others, what it means to be ready for every good work and to act on behalf of others, and what it means to be open to where the Holy Spirit is sending us, we have a challenge for you.

On July 30th, our next Fifth Sunday Service project, we want to share 100 acts of kindness in this world. Instead of all picking the same project, you now have six weeks to get together with friends, and neighbors, and pew mates, and to figure out together what good work God is prompting YOU to do in the world.

Maybe you want to wash your neighbor’s windows and you can pull together 3-4 people to help you.

Maybe you are feeling called to visit some of our homebound folks. Round up a friend, or even better, a couple of children from the church and go and spread some joy.

Perhaps you know of a local agency that needs help with a project. Find out what is needed and take your book study group with you.

You could pull weeds, or write cards, or play bingo, or clean gutters.

All that we ask is that 1) you do it with at least one other person and 2) you make a difference in the world.

All together, we are hoping to bring about 100 acts of kindness on July 30th. If you can’t be here that day, plan your project for the week or two ahead and send us a picture of what you have done so that we can lift it up and celebrate all the ways Immanuel is making a difference in the world.

We can only do this big, amazing, and wonderful thing if YOU let God use you… if you let the Spirit of God fill you with kindness so that you can be ready for every good work.

Throughout the tale of Joseph, we discover that he is continually in the presence of God. He knew that every person he encountered was someone that God had put in his life. And so he treated Pharaoh the same way he treated his fellow prisoners.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us that even sinners love those who love them, and are good to those who are good to them. We are called to do even more… to love our enemies and do good to them. We are supposed to love all people the way God, our Father, loves us. And if God is kind and generous and gracious even when we are at our worst… well, that’s how we should treat all people (Luke 6:27-36).

As the Message translation puts it in Luke 6:36: “Our Father is kind; you be kind.”

And the loving-kindness of God saved us not because of anything worth that we had done… but according to his mercy. We were once ungrateful and wicked… and some days we still are.

Our job, as recipients of this grace and this mercy is not to go out and point to the sin in the lives of others… but to love them as we have been loved.

When that young woman walked into my church in Marengo, I knew that the Holy Spirit was prompting me to be kind.

I couldn’t begin to meet all of her needs, but I could get her home. I could buy her lunch. I could let her know that I didn’t care if she had spent a few nights in jail or a thousand years or if she was Mother Theresa – but she was loved by God and by me and she deserved to have someone help her. I could do that. Or rather…. God could do that through me.

And God can do amazing things through YOU. Live so that you might be open and adaptable to God’s promptings.

See every person you meet as a child of God, your brother or sister.

And remember that with the Spirit’s help… God’s kindness will be your kindness. Amen.

Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve

In the beginning…

 

Most years when we get to the season of Advent, we dive deep into the gospel texts.  We want to hear about the shepherds and angels, about Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the magi and the star.

Yet, as Heidi Haverkamp will share with us in this week’s reflections in her book “Advent in Narnia”, the medieval church also focused on Adam and Eve. 

They went all the way back to the beginning to remember who we are and why God needed to come to redeem us. December 24th was the feast day of Adam and Eve… a time to rehearse once again the story of the creation and the fall. 

And that tradition continued in the seasonal Lessons and Carols of Kings College… which will be presented next Sunday at Simpson College.  There, too, the story of love and light begins where it should… in the beginning. 

 

In the first chapters of the book of Genesis, we find out who we are.    We were created by God.  We were created for relationship and to care for this world.  And having been given the world, we want more, we desire more, we test our boundaries and more often than not… we cross them. 

This is the human condition.  It is our story. 

And so maybe it is not so surprising that when the Pevensie children stumble into Narnia and the magical creatures of the land discover these humans, they are called the “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve”. 

They, and we, are full of goodness and knowledge and love.  

Last week, we met Lucy, the youngest child whose heart is full of longing and hope.  Her love was so strong that it cut through the fear of Mr. Tumnus and helped to transform his life.

The prophecies of Narnia talk about how these four children will bring hope to the land and break the power of the White Witch…

 

But they, and we, are also full of temptation, mistakes, and sin.  

The next child who makes his way into the wardrobe has a much different experience.  

Edmund is the next youngest and he often feels left out and unappreciated.  He is jealous and hurt and when he finds himself in Narnia the first to cross his path is the White Witch.

 

We find in their encounter a parallel to our story in Genesis chapter 3 this morning.  

First, there is this figure that is on the edges of our main characters story… a figure that at first seems completely neutral.  

On the one hand, we have the serpent, the craftiest and most intelligent of all the creatures who strikes up a conversation with Eve.  The serpent asks questions, raises intrigue, and starts Eve wandering about that tree in the middle of the garden.

The White Witch is beautiful, arrives on a sleigh and plies Edmund with warm beverages and questions.  She invites him up onto her sleigh and tempts him with his favorite treat:  Turkish Delight.  

Both are lured in by what is pleasing to the eye and good to eat…

 

But even more than that, they are both lured by the possibility of what might away it they say yes.  

Eve is told by the serpent that she will not die as she supposes, but she will become like God – knowing good and evil.  All of creation is at her fingertips, and yet she longs for the one thing that has not been given to her.  She is not satisfied with the blessings that surround her.

Edmund is likewise tempted by power… and a life apart from his siblings.  “It is a lovely place, my house,” said the Queen.  “I’m sure you would like it.  There are whole rooms of Turkish Delight…. I want a nice boy whom I could bring up as a Prince and who would be King of Narnia when I’m gone.” As the youngest son, he glimpses in this offer approval and power, love and prestige… to finally have the chance to lord it over his brothers and sisters.  

Overcome by the temptation, he agrees to lure his siblings to the palace.  

And like Adam and Eve, as soon as Edmund is away from the witch and realizes what he has done, he begins to be filled with shame.  

He encounters Lucy in the woods, who tells him the truth about the White Witch and he begins to feel sick to his stomach…  That, and he ate too much Turkish Delight.

 

As we continue our story over the coming weeks, we will experience Edmund’s journey.  He will make more mistakes. 

Like any good Christmas movie, there has to be a bad guy… a Scrooge, a spinster, a grouch…

But eventually Edmund will experience mercy and forgiveness, life and love.  The delight of a Hallmark Christmas move is to watch that characters life turn around.  Scrooge finds his generosity.  The Grinch’s heart grows.  A  prodigal son returns home.  

 

We are the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.  We have an infinite capacity for good and for evil residing in our souls.  

Maybe that is why some of our most popular Christmas songs ask us to reflect upon the state of our souls.

“He’s making a list and checking it twice, Gonna find out whose naughty and nice….

He sees you when you’re sleepin’  He knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good… so be good for goodness sake.”

 

The truth is, we are both.  

We are simultaneously sinners and saints.

Our lives are full of mistakes and missteps, but also acts of kindness and generosity.  

We are tempted by the glitz and glam and our comfort zones, but occasionally find our way out to be in real relationship with people who are struggling.

The reality of our souls is not as simple as making a list of who is good and who is bad.  

 

And the good news is that while we were yet sinners… while we were still weak… while we are this complicated jumble of goodness and evil… God entered our lives to redeem all of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve

 

As we sing in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we yearn for the Christ Child to be born in our midst to cast out the sin of our lives.  We yearn for new life, for joy, for an end to the tears and the loneliness and the pain.

This season is about transformation and embracing what is good and holy and pure… letting go of the past that has haunted us.

God has come to offer us mercy and forgiveness and life abundant.

Thanks be to God.

Pride and Humility

I didn’t plan it this way intentionally, but I find it providential that we are talking about humility and pride on the weekend in between our two national political conventions.

Each party competes to see who can blow the most hot air and puff themselves up the most.

They will talk up their achievements and point out the other team’s failures.

And the national pundits and media will delight in every mistake along the way.

 

Pretty much the opposite of everything the scripture calls us to be and do.

 

Today, that scripture focuses on two of the minor prophets… connected only by this thread of pride that rings through their message.

Up until this point in our Summer of the Prophets we have been going in a sort of chronological order.  We started with some of the earliest prophets – Elijah and Elisha – and made our way through various kings and rules, to the destruction of first Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and then Judah, the Southern Kingdom.  Last week, we found ourselves with the Judeans in the middle of exile, trying to make the most of life in a strange land.

Scholars disagree about where Obadiah fits into the mix.  Some firmly believe that Obadiah was the servant of King Ahab mentioned in the scriptures… which meant he would have been in ministry during the time of Elijah. Yet the context of his words make far more sense either during or after the time of exile.

In either case, the word of God he receives is meant not for Israel, or for Judah, but for the neighboring kingdom of Edom.

 

To understand how Edom fits into the picture, we need to go all the way back to Genesis to the story of two brothers… Jacob and Esau.

 

Esau is the older of the two – a rough and tumble sort of guy who thinks with his gut.  Jacob on the other hand, is quietly clever… a mamma’s boy who uses his wit to trick his older brother and gain the upper hand.  And Jacob uses these skills to steal the birthright from his older brother and to gain a deathbed blessing from his father.

Esau is furious at these events.  He knows that his father is near to death and promises that as soon as their father is gone that he will take his brother’s life.  And Jacob must flee for his life.

 

Usually we follow Jacob in this story… to Paddan Aram where he works for seven years in order to marry Rachel… and then for seven more when he is tricked into marrying her sister Leah instead.

We mostly forget about Esau… but he lets go of his anger and moves on with his life.  He marries and has children and is wildly successful… and his people become the nation of Edom.

 

While Jacob and Esau eventually reconcile,  Edom remains a separate kingdom… sometimes ruled over by Judah… at other times in alliance… and still at other times they benefit from Judah’s downfall.

Such is the case when Nebuchadnezzar rolls through Judah and destroys Jerusalem.  The Edomites are recruited to help in the battle AGAINST the people of Judah and plunder the city of Jerusalem.

And so Obadiah cries out… “Because of the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame will cover you, and you will be destroyed forever.  You stood nearby, strangers carried off his wealth… You should have taken no pleasure over your brother on the day of his misery… you shouldn’t have bragged on their day of hardship…” (Obadiah 1:10-13)

 

Zephaniah’s words follow on the heels of these and describe the sort of people God creates out of the judgment and punishment that was visited upon Israel, Judah, and Edom:

“I will remove from your midst those boasting with pride.  No longer will you be haughty on my holy mountain, but I will cause a humble and powerless people to remain in your midst; they will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.” (Zephaniah 3:11-12)

 

We have here a picture of contrasts.

Those who are prideful, who gloat over the misfortunes of others, who are so thankful that they are safe and warm in their beds while others suffer… they are the ones facing judgment and destruction.

But those who seek refuge in the Lord, who know their limitations and weaknesses, who seek to help others and have compassion on the suffering… they are the ones in whom God delights.

 

In this day and age, our political parties are like the perpetually warring brothers Jacob and Esau.  Pride, vanity, power all get in the way of real relationship.  And we can be so focused on having it our way and our answers and our recipe for success that we actually hurt ourselves and those around us.

And as much as we don’t want to admit that those same kinds of prideful interactions are part of the church, they are.  As someone who has participated in the local, regional and global levels of church leadership, we, too, have political parties and opposing sides… caucuses and maneuvering… winners and losers.

No doubt, some of you will have heard that the Western jurisdiction in the United States just elected and consecrated the first openly gay, married bishop of our church.  Bishop Karen Oliveto has served as the pastor of Glide Memorial in San Francisco, one of the 100 largest churches in our denomination, before being nominated and elected.

As Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops wrote the night of the election:  “There are those in the church who will view this election as a violation of church law and a significant step toward a split, while there are others who will celebrate the election as a milestone toward being a more inclusive church…”

Whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, conflict is at the center of our relationships in the church and in the world.

 

But as Bishop Ough continues in his letter, “We affirm that our witness is defined, not by an absence of conflict, but how we act in our disagreements.  We affirm that our unity is not defined by our uniformity, but by our compassionate and Spirit-led faithfulness to our covenant with God, Christ’s Church and one another.”

 

I hear in the Bishop’s letter and in our scripture today echoes of my favorite passage from Philippians 2:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

 

That call to be humble, to let go of our perceived power, to get down in the dirt and be in solidarity with those who are weak and suffering and broken… that is the core of the Christian faith.

It is right there in the life of Jesus.

It is in the parables… as the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the one lost lamb… in the story of the Good Samaritan… in the story of the widow and her mite.

 

As the blogger, Joshua Becker, puts it:  “Humility is… the opposite of aggression, arrogance, pride, and vanity.  And on the surface, it appears to empty its holder of all power.

But on the contrary, it grants enormous power to its owner.

“Humility offers its owner complete freedom from the desire to impress, be right, or get ahead.  Frustrations and losses have less impact on a humble ego and a humble person confidently receives opportunities to grow, improve, and reject society’s labels.” (http://www.becomingminimalist.com/the-hidden-power-of-humility/)

 

There is nothing we can do to change the dialogue at the national level right now, but we can choose how we engage in the relationships right here in this room.  We can choose how we have dialogue in our families.  We can choose the kind of dialogue we will have on social media and in coffee shops.

We can let go of our pride, we can let go of arrogance and aggressive attitudes towards one another and instead, we can practice humility.

We can try to hear what one another really thinks.

We can discover and appreciate the values that are at the core of their positions.

We can respect one another as persons and refuse to demonize our opponents.

And we can commit together to turn not to the power of kings or presidents or worldly leaders to save us… but to turn instead to prayer.

Prayer centered in the humble and self-giving life of Jesus Christ.

Prayer that calls us out into the world to love all people as children of God.

Prayer that transforms us from the inside out.

 

I urge you, as a witness to how Christians act in times of conflict, to live with humility over the next few months.

Seek out conversation with people you disagree with and truly listen.

Be willing to let their positions change you.

Be willing to share openly and honestly and in loving ways what you believe.

Don’t gloat over wins, and don’t pass around falsehoods and half truths.

Instead, stand with people when they are hurting.

Admit when you are wrong.

Try to grow in the knowledge and love of God and the world every single day.

 

 

 

Two Texts: Pope Francis, the Environment, and Relationships

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This summer, Pope Francis issued a letter to the world, “Laudato Si’” or Praise be to You which calls upon all people to care for our common home, our sister, Mother Earth.

And while it made the news this summer, one of the first thoughts I had was that, as United Methodists, we had a letter of our own like this about six years ago. In 2009, a pastoral letter was issued from the United Methodist Council of Bishops called: God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action. (http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/council-of-bishops/documents/grc_letter_english_1010.pdf)

If you would like to see or have a copy of our letter, you can pick one up at the table in the back as you leave today.

 

In both, we are reminded of the relationship between living organisms and their environment… that we need to understand our ecology: the interconnected system of water, air, soil, plants, animals, and ourselves.

From the fight over water rights in California, to our own conflict here in Iowa over nitrate levels, this summer has been full of stories about how the environmental choices we make in one location impact the whole of creation in another. And I’m not just talking about the decisions of a farmer. Each of them is simply responding to the demands of the market, which is impacted by our choices as consumers. We do not always appreciate how precarious the balance of our ecologies can be, until the weather and climate change.

As our Bishop’s letter states, “we no longer see a list of isolated problems affecting disconnected people, plants and animals… the threats to peace, people, and planet earth are related to one another.”

Or as Pope Francis writes: “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation…”

Everything… from the availability of quality water, to the loss of biodiversity, to the inequitable distribution and consumption of energy, violence, warfare… is interrelated.

 

And rather than debating the merits of specific proposals or policies, Pope Francis points us towards the foundation for a different way of being.

 

It all boils down to three relationships

  1. Our relationship with God
  2. Our relationships with our neighbors
  3. And our relationship with creation itself.

So today, aware of the multitude of articles and stories this summer on climate change, water, drought, and the environment, let us explore the text in our scriptures that lays the groundwork for our ecology… Genesis One.

 

We learn in this story of a creative and life-giving God. Everything has a purpose. Everything is connected to another. The sun, moon, and starts give light and determine the seasons. The plants provide food for the animals, who provide sustenance for humanity.

Everything is a gift and nothing was made by our own hands.

Therefore, the foundation of our relationship with God should be one of gratitude.

Gratitude for every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, every creature in the multitude of this diverse, beautiful planet.

 

Our relationship with our creator is also fundamentally related to our relationship with the creation, because we are called to take care of this earth. Historically, we have heard verse 28 as the call to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, over every living thing that moves on the earth.” We look at this image of the creation and our central image in it and believe the world revolves around us.

The language of dominion and subduing has led us to believe we are called to control and use and have power over the world. It is ours to do with it whatever our hearts desire.

 

But when we really look at these verses in context, I think we have been sorely mistaken.

The Hebrew word in this place is not so much the idea of dominion or rule, but rather that of holding sway over… influencing… guiding. Pope Francis holds both the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts together, reminding us our call is to “till and keep” the garden of the world…. We are to cultivate and work this creation… while at the same time caring for it, overseeing it, protecting it.

In my organic ministry class this summer, I have been reminded over and over again that any good farmer cares for the soil as much as they do what is planted in it. One must protect the earth in order to work it. And one must listen and pay attention to what the environment demands and respond accordingly if you ever want to influence what might grow there.

That is far different than a more domineering perspective…. a stubborn resolve to use the earth and grow whatever your heart desires whenever you want to.

 

I learned about this in my own garden this summer…. (talk about tomatoes)

Even if we stick with the language of dominion, the root of dominion is in the Lordship of God. We are to be lords as God is Lord over creation… in love, in creation, in fostering diversity, in nurturing life.

 

This earth does not belong to us. It is a gift. As we remembered two weeks ago when we recalled the Jubilee in ancient Israel, God tells us that the land is not ours… it is God’s and we are merely strangers and sojourners upon it.

Yet in God’s gracious and loving spirit, we are allowed to take and use what we need for sustenance. We are allowed to care for this earth, and pass its gifts down generation upon generation.

Because this planet belongs to not only Adam and Eve, but all descendants, all humanity, then our relationships with one another are intertwined with the gift of creation.

Just as every plant and animal, microbe and molecule is a gift… so too is every person on this planet. The very idea of Sabbath calls us to let the earth and its workers rest, so that all be renewed. And the promise is that even if we rest and cease working, there will be abundance and plenty. God will take care of us.

The gifts of this planet are to be shared. Not only with people of today, but future generations as well.

So that all might find joy. So all might be at peace.

Pope Francis begins his letter with a description of the type of lifestyle that people of faith should aspire to… a tribute to his own namesake, Saint Francis. “He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology… he was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace… Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it means to be human.”

May we be people who are concerned for nature.

May we be people who always seek justice for the poor.

May we be people who are committed to society and work towards its common good.

And may we be people who find inner peace as we do so.

 

Amen.

Called By Name

If I ever doubted that I was called to this ministry with Imagine No Malaria, all of that was erased as we finished training this afternoon and closed a devotion and scripture and prayer.  We started with the calling of Samuel – and the voice of God calling him out by name.  We moved to the call of Jacob and a night of wrestling where God names him anew. 

As we listened, my heart leaped in my chest.  Both of those scriptures have been the ones I have turned to when I explain the call of God in my life.  I heard Bishop Carcano tell the story of Samuel’s call when I was a college student and realized for the first time that God had been calling me through the voice of important people in my life.  I have always had a push/shove/pull relationship with God and the idea of wrestling and asking questions and coming through on the other side different and more faithful has been a predominant narrative of my faith journey.

To hear each of those stories once again as the capstone of four days of training for a different direction in my life was powerful.  It was an affirmation that for some reason I am called to be here and to do this new position. 

I have had some fears and hesitations about the gifts needed and the travel required n the position, but I am learning that how we live out this campaign in Iowa is going to be different than in other places.  I have tried very hard to practice good boundaries and healthy self-care habits around my schedule and my family and I was worried that this position would demand something that I couldn’t offer.  But I’m figuring out that in this position, I will actually learn a better way of delegating, empowering, and supporting those I work with so that we can all do amazing things without killing ourselves in the process. 

God has called me by name.  Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

The Gift of Kindness

On Monday, a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone. Not a problem, I said. And while she sat in the office dialing numbers and getting no response, I sat at my desk trying to pick out hymns for this Sunday.

Are you stranded? I asked. She had just been released from the county jail, she said, was far from home, and no one was coming to get her. She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone. She hung up in frustration.

And so I asked her if she needed a ride. She had no other options. She was seven months pregnant and needed to get home. We got in my car and headed out. And on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on the shelf.

As we drove, we talked about where we grew up. We talked about semi-trucks. We stopped for food, because she hadn’t eaten all day. We talked a little bit about church – but only enough to learn that she had never found one that had felt like home. She had dreams that she wanted to fulfill… but also was raising her kids by herself and didn’t know if it would ever happen.

But she got home. And for the moment – that was all that was important.

An outsider might look on that situation and see a random act of kindness. Going out of your way to do something nice for a complete stranger. But what I did on Monday morning was far from a random act… and this young woman was far from being a stranger.

This morning, we get to think about kindness… about where it comes from and what it looks like… and we are going to do so through the story of Joseph in the land of Egypt.
Do you remember Joseph? He was one of the 12 sons of Jacob – the same Jacob we talked about last week. And he was the first born to Jacob’s most beloved wife Rachel. That fact alone gave him a special place in his father’s heart and the rest of his brothers hated him for it. They schemed against Joseph and captured him one day and sold him into slavery.

Now – if my brothers had just kidnapped me and sold me into slavery, I’m not sure that I would be a very happy or nice person. But as we heard the story of Joseph’s time in Egypt this morning – we find a young man who doesn’t let anything stop him from being a kind person.

In the new testament greek – the word for kindness is chrestotes and it describes a sort of temperament that is respectful and helpful without expecting anything in return. Rick Renner describes this word in his book, Sparkling Gems from the Greek, as “being adaptable to the needs of others.”

Adaptable might be the best way to describe the young man Joseph. When sold into slavery, he tried to figure out what he could do to best please his master Potiphar. He served him with respect. Respect – even to the point of denying the advances of his master’s wife.

When that got him in trouble… Joseph adapted. His new home was the jail. His new task was to be the best prisoner he could be. And his willingness to be obedient and courteous put him in good favor with the jailor. Joseph was promoted in the prison system and was put in charge of the other prisoners.

And although he was their unjustly… and although he had no reason to treat the other prisoners with respect, he did. He cared for those other prisoners and did what he could to help them. Which means that when the royal cupbearer and baker are thrown into jail… Joseph is the same person that he was the day before… he treats them with the same respect he would have treated anyone else in that prison. And his kindness eventually gets him out of that jail and in front of the king.

In the letter to Titus, we see that kindness, chrestotes, is obedience, it is avoiding a fight and not picking one either, it is showing courtesy…. But I think above all – it is being ready for every good work. Kindness is always looking for the next person that you can bless. Kindness is seeing others not as competition or as obstacles to your success – but as recipients of your grace. It doesn’t matter if those people are beneath you or the very kings and rulers and presidents of your nations. Kindness is not just being nice or saying nice things… kindness is being ready to act on behalf of another person… and OUR job is to look for ways to bless others.

So we have learned from the greek word for kindness… and we can learn even more about kindness by looking at the Hebrew word for kindness – khesed. Khesed teaches us that kindness is not random and spontaneous behavior… but kindness is the way we behave when we have a commitment to another person.

Just as we sometimes play word games – we too can see the meaning of this word khesed by playing around with it also. In the book of Job… God compares the ostrich to the stork…. You see, the ostrich abandons its young by leaving them in the sand where anything could step on them and any animal could eat them. The stork however is loyal to its young and protects them at any cost.

Now, that is all well and good, until we hear that the word for “stork” is khasidah… which sounds an awful lot like khesed – or kindness. In fact… in some bibles, this passage from Job actually uses the word “love” instead of “stork” as it compares the ostrich.

In the Hebrew understanding, kindness was not something shown to a complete stranger – but it was based in your relationship with that person.

Relationships come in many forms… We can have master/servant relationships …which is part of the reason Joseph was so kind of Potiphar and for so long warded off the advances of his wife.

We can have covenantal relationships like marriage, and commitments that arise because we are citizens of a town or a state or a nation. In fact – it was because they were all children of Israel that there was such a strong urging to care for the widows and orphans in the midst of the people…

One of the threads in this story of Joseph is the continual presence of God. And Joseph knew that every person he encountered was someone that God had put in his life. And so he treated Pharaoh the same way as he treated his fellow prisoners.

As Christians, I think our obligations to other people go farther than our families and our civic belongings. We have been made children of the Most High… and because of our relationship with God… we must love who God loves. We must show kindness to whom God shows kindness.

And… we must show kindness in the same way that God has shown kindness to us.

In the gospel of Luke we hear these words from Jesus: “even sinners love those who love them, and are good to those who are good to them… love your enemies, do good to them – then you will be children of the most high, because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked”

It is the same message we get in Titus… the loving-kindness of God saved us not because of anything worth that we had done… but according to his mercy. We were once the ungrateful and the wicked… and some days we still are.

Our job, as recipients of this grace and this mercy is not to go out and point to the sin in the lives of others… but to love them as we have been loved.

When that young woman walked into the church on Monday, my heartstrings tugged a little. It was like God was saying… I know that you want to serve me – so here is your chance – Feed my sheep. Open your eyes and let go of all that stuff you think you are supposed to be doing on a Monday morning in the office. Go…. do… love.

This beautiful young woman had a thousand different needs, and I couldn’t begin to meet all of them. But I could get her home. I could stop and have lunch with her. I could let her know that I didn’t care if she had spent a few nights in jail or a thousand years or if she was Mother Theresa – but she was loved by God and by me and she deserved to have someone help her. I could do that. God could do that through me.

And God can do wonderful and amazing things through you, also. Live so that you might be open and adaptable to God’s promptings. See everyone around you as a child of God who you have a sincere obligation towards. And remember that if we live in this open way and pray for the Spirit to fill us… that God’s kindness will be your kindness. Amen and Amen.

The Gift of Patience

For about two years now, I have been playing disc golf. It is a game that is played in many ways like your more typical golf… with a tee pad and the aim of getting your ball or disc into the hole in as few strokes as possible.

As I have grown in my ability to play, I have picked up drivers, midrange discs and putters. They each have their own purpose – they fly in different ways, and you use different discs for different sorts of shots.

But I’m still not very good at the game. I bogey and double bogey more than I like to admit. And unlike golf – there is no handicap on the disc golf course… although for a while, we played with something called “Katie-par…” meaning I got an extra stroke on every hole =)

I think what I enjoy most about the game is that I can be outside, hiking through beautiful courses. The grass is beneath my feet, the trees loom around me, we play around streams and ponds, on top of hills and in valleys.

Most of the time, I’m comfortable with my lack of skill. I do the best I can in any given moment.

But there are those days… and I’m sure that any of you who play games or sports has had them… when nothing seems to go right. Every shot is off. I lose sight of the fact that I’m still learning the game and expect perfection from myself. I get frustrated and that frustration only makes me more prone to miss the next shot, which in turn makes me more frustrated and angry. There was actually a hole this last weekend where I hit four trees in a row, on four consecutive shots before I got to the basket. There is nothing worse than when those beautiful trees become obstacles, and I have to admit, sometimes my temper gets the best of me. I want to be good at the game, and I want to be good, NOW!

Patience is not a virtue that comes easily to us. We come with short fuses. We are personally invested in our work and our play and we want to see the results of our efforts. But when things start to fall apart, instead of taking the long view – we begin to lose hope, we begin to get angry, and often we behave in ways that are far from Christian.

This morning, we revisit a familiar biblical story about two brothers… Jacob and Esau. Esau is the older of the two – a rough and tumble sort of guy who thinks with his gut. Jacob on the other hand, is quietly clever… a mamma’s boy who uses his wit to often trick his older brother and gain the upper hand.

Now, as we might remember the stories… Jacob uses these skills to steal his birthright from the older brother and also a deathbed blessing from his father.

Esau is furious at the outcome of these events. Everything has just been taken from him. This isn’t the kind of frustration that comes from missing a few shots on the golf course – this is the kind of existential angst that comes from having your very identity called into question. As we heard in the scriptures from this morning – Esau seethed in anger against Jacob… he brooded, “The time for mourning my father’s death is close. And then I’ll kill my brother Jacob.”

It was the last straw. Esau just couldn’t take it anymore and he snapped. And Jacob had to flee for his life, far off to the land of his uncle, Laban.

Now, most of the time, when we visit these stories, our attention stays with Jacob. We follow him to Paddan Aram where he works for seven years for the hand of his beloved Rachel… and then for seven more years when he is tricked into marrying Leah instead. We follow his story as he spends time increasing the flocks and in turning tricking his uncle Laban and ends up with the best of the flocks and the herds and a huge family of wealth and power.

We could point to Jacob and talk about his patience. About how in spite of being cheated by his uncle, he stuck to his promises and waited for God’s blessings. We could talk about how his persistence and trust led to his success.

But this summer, we are taking a different look at these stories. And so instead, I want us to look back to the land of Canaan and at the son who was left behind.

This fruit of the spirit, patience, is often translated as longsuffering. It is the gift of being able to endure in spite of the circumstances that have come against you. It is a hopeful fortitude that reminds us that there is light at the end of the tunnel… that if we trust and wait, the outcome we are praying for will come to pass.

Barclay’s commentary says that patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.

Patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.

Now, out on the disc golf course… that would mean that patience is not picking up my disk and chucking it at the nearest tree out of frustration for them being in the way. Patience is seeking an opening, waiting for the anger to pass, breathing deeply, and finding a way forward. Patience is remembering that this inconvenience, this obstacle, will not last forever.

If patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t… then I think the person who actually exemplifies the spirit of patience is not Jacob, but his older brother, Esau.

The first way that Esau is patient is that he doesn’t strike out immediately in anger when his brother cheats him. If we followed their story from the time they were just children, I’m sure that there was more than just these two instances of trickery. And yet, up until this point, up until the moment that Jacob steals away his blessing, Esau has managed to not let it get to him. But this last time we hear about… well, this is the last straw. He has just had everything taken away from him and Esau is pissed off… and yet even in the midst of his anger… we might even say righteous anger… he has enough control to wait.

Many people in today’s world who had something like this done to them would immediately grab the nearest weapon and seek out their brother. But Esau waits. He thinks. He knows that there are some things that are more important at the moment… namely, the fact that his father is dying.

Now, if part of being patient is being slow to anger… I want to say that Esau has this only partially right. He became angry, all right. But he did not allow that anger to consume him in an instant. He thought about others. He allowed his anger to be placed on the back burner.

When we find ourselves in situations of great frustration and anger, I think patience is taking just a moment to breathe and to pray. Patience is asking for God to come into this situation and remind us of the things that are truly important in the moment, and to let that anger move out of the way, if necessary.

The second way that Esau helps us to understand what patience is comes from the way he lives his life after Jacob flees.

He acts not out of spite, but in all things tries to follow his father’s wishes. When he hears that Jacob was sent away with the command not to marry a Canaanite woman, then Esau himself, seeks out a woman that would please his father. He seeks out his half-uncle Ishmael… and marries one of his daughters.

And that is all we hear about his life for the next 14 years.

Not once does Esau plot and plan and come looking for his brother. Not once does he try to live out that statement of anger that his brother would die. No, he moves on with his own life. He carves out the best possible future for himself. In spite of the situation that he finds himself in, he endures. That is longsuffering. That is patience.

Making the most of our given situations is a very hard thing to do. We like to sit and stew and wish that things were different. We breed anger and resentment in our hearts. And we spend too much time looking into the past, instead of living into our new futures.

I have spent many mornings talking with the pastor from the Lutheran church . As many of you know, his wife, has a degenerative condition and as time goes on, her body will continue to fail. But as I have talked with Pastor, he also tells me about the patience and peace that his wife has. She knows that God will heal her… sheknows that God has already healed her… but she is patient and she knows that that her time of healing may not come in this lifetime. But, her diagnosis is not an obstacle to living the best possible life that she can today. She has a hopeful fortitude that keeps her going, day by day.

Finally, Esau teaches us about patience through the forgiveness of his heart. Do you remember back to that definition of patience… as the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong, but doesn’t? That is Esau.

Had Esau been the wrong kind of patient… the kind of patient that waits for the right opportunity and moment to strike back… then his opportunity would have come when Jacob returned to the land of his father.

And Jacob knows it. Jacob trembles with fear at the thought of the anger of his brother. He sends messengers ahead to let Esau know they are coming… it’s almost as if he is saying – I’m here… let’s get this over with.

Jacob divides up his great wealth and sends it over the river in waves as a gift to soothe his brother’s anger. He sends his wives and children over – in essence saying – all that I have is yours if you want it.

Had Esau been the wrong kind of patient… the revengeful kind of patient… he would have destroyed those gifts. Those four hundred men standing with him on the other side of the river would have taken the flocks, killed his wives and children and come rushing over the river to kill the trickster brother.

But Esau was a man of great patience. He put his anger on the backburner of his soul, and allowed God to let forgiveness replace the hatred. When Esau was given the chance to revenge the wrong that was made upon his life, he instead ran to his brother, fell into his arms and wept.

And to all of those gifts – the flocks and the wealth that Jacob sent over… Esau didn’t take them out of righteous indignation. He didn’t say – it’s about time that I got my birthright and my power and wealth back… no – he looked his brother square in the eye and he said, “I have enough, brother… keep what you have for yourself.”

The past was forgiven. All that mattered now was their futures. The future of two brothers who were reunited at long last.

It is difficult to forgive. And it will take time to forgive. But when we fail to do so, we carry around with us a burden that is often too heavy to bear.

Let us instead seek God’s patience. The kind of patience that our Master has for us… the kind of patience that allows us to come back to him time and time and time again – after a million wrongs have been committed and greets us with open arms and tears of joy. Our reading from the second letter of Peter this morning reminds us that God’s patience is our salvation… God’s gracious spirit that chooses not to revenge the wrongs we have committed. God’s gracious spirit that waits until we finally turn back towards her. Amen and Amen.