This week begins a six-week sermon series on the infamous “Seven Deadly Sins.” You will not find this literal list of human offenses anywhere in Scripture, although references to and examples of each of them are found throughout the Bible.
The list commonly known today comes from a fourth century monk from Marseilles by the name of John Cassian who created the list as a way of guiding his fellow monks.
Pope Gregory adapted the list in the sixth century and it became widely accepted as not only important for monastic life, but for secular life as well: 1. Lust, 2. Pride, 3. Anger, 4. Gluttony, 5. Greed, 6. Envy, 7. Sloth
Transfiguration Sunday is a good time to explore this particular list because it provides a powerful example of one deadly sin on John Cassian’s list; and if the purpose of following Jesus is to transform us then examining what went wrong with Peter’s response on the mountain can only be to our benefit.
I think it is helpful to remember the literal meaning of sin means to “miss the mark” and comes from the example of an archer trying to hit the bullseye. Looking at these aspects of life that appear basic to our human nature is not meant to defeat or judge us, but to allow self-awareness to transfigure us. [read more via downloadable PDF]
There is an old denominational joke about United Methodists.
Question: “How many United Methodist does it take to change a light bulb?”
I have actually heard the same joke told inserting a number of various denominations in place of United Methodists.The truth is that people tend to resist change, preferring images and assurance of stability; maybe this is why God is often described as a rock- a solid rock, a mighty rock, an immutable rock, an immovable rock, a rock of refuge.
The Source of all creation, however, is never motionless; as Scripture proclaims and nature demonstrates, everything in life is dynamic and involves change, and it is best for our wellbeing at every level (spiritual, physical, and emotional) to understand this and learn to live into the changes we are called to make over a lifetime as followers of Jesus.
One of my favorite examples of the pervasive dynamism of every form of creation is found in Death Valley. [read more via downloadable PDF]
Scientists are able to regenerate body parts from a patient’s own cells, shaped especially for their role within the body. Like different parts of a body all sharing the same DNA, we have been assembled by God to be the body of Christ for the world.
By simply checking a box on our driver’s license renewal form, or adding a line to our wills, our kidneys, livers, lungs, hearts and more can be transplanted to increase the quantity and quality of the lives of other people.
I was vividly reminded of the impact this technology has on everyone involved in a transplant process as I watched a PBS program last week about a family living in Haines, Oregon.
There are five children in that family, and because of a particular combination of DNA unknown at the time of their birth, every child has or will need at least one heart transplant in order to survive. One daughter has already received a second heart after the first one failed nine years following the transplant. [read more via downloadable PDF]
For many like John, who met Jesus during his life and ministry, and for many who meet Jesus through the gospel and spiritual practices today, Jesus is the living embodiment and fulfillment of these words from Isaiah, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
This identity and awareness of a unique presence is present at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry- in the calling of the first followers, or disciples.
There is debate among scholars whether or not these men knew Jesus from an earlier encounter or relationship. Those who believe they did see this passage as a “setting off” point following a period of preparation of sorts.
Others believe John, Andrew, and Simon (to become Peter) never met Jesus prior
to this account. [read more via downloadable PDF]
When we worry in the presence of God, we are essentially doubting God’s promise to be with us. (Isaiah 43:1-7)There is no doubt plenty of stuff to worry about in this world. Yet, often, we worry about the wrong things.
Yes, it is important to be prepared and to be cautious in life, but if we’re smothered by chronic anxiety, we’re going to find it hard to live a life of joy and significance.
The ancient people of Judah, who were captive in Babylon, were no doubt filled with anxiety. Yet, God speaks through the prophet to tell them their anxiety is misplaced. And, for one very good reason: “I will be with you,” God says. [read more via downloadable PDF]
Originally published in Katalyst, Winter 2015. Click to download PDF of this article.
Scripture: Jeremiah 33: 14-16, Luke 21: 25-37 ~
This text from the gospel of Luke is one of those passages that is difficult to interpret; it is also one open to many different interpretations.Over the centuries there have been people who attempt to predict the end of the earth, the end of time as we know it through events occurring in their lifetime: earthquakes and volcanoes, human pandemics, wars, and other calamities.
We see this, too. You can find any number of television evangelists, public speakers, and books filled with such predictions and “proofs.”
This is not to say that none of these things will never trigger a cataclysmic event, but the point of Jesus’ response here is that no-one can know the future; no being but God can answer this question about the end of time, and it is a useless waste of the time we now do have, and the life that we do have, to worry about it.
We have better things to do while we and the world are here: to quote a favorite passage from Hebrews: “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)
The late feminist theologian, Letty Russell, advocated what she termed an “adventology” in which followers of Christ are to be watchful for the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth. This watchfulness involves looking for and being attentive to the places in which we, who are called by God and have been gathered by God’s grace, may also be agents who participate and help in God’s dismantling and reconstruction of the world.
I find Dr. Russell’s words particularly hopeful this year when there are so many things we could point to as “signs” of the end.
It helps to be reminded that others before us observed the same erratic natural catastrophes and brutal human behaviors and still raised their heads in hope.
Give Thanks for These Things
The Old Testament passage from Jeremiah 33 emphasizes and reminds us of God’s promise to gather and reconcile humanity and creation.
As followers of Jesus we believe this promise is already in the process of being fulfilled, and that we are part of this redemption.
This is the hope of Advent; it is why we wait, watch, act, and live as people with a hopeful future despite the current circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Sometimes in the midst of our contemporary social angst it is difficult to remember to live with our heads lifted in hope, even as Advent beings and we are caught up in holiday festivities.
Airport security and airline travel is one example of a mix of celebration and anxiety.
Making it through airport security can be a challenge on both a physical and emotional level.
We understand that it is all for the sake of safety, which we are all concerned about given recent acts of terrorism.
But as if you aren’t stressed out enough by the whole process, now some experts are looking at ways to measure your anxiety as you stand de-belted, disheveled and shoeless in the security line.
The idea is to determine whether you are exhibiting the stress of a would-be terrorist or merely the anxiety of a parent who just dragged three screaming kids past the terminal gift shop.
While we now walk through metal detectors and bomb sniffers, the next thing we may have to face is what some are calling an “anxiety machine.”
This machine uses “FAST” (Future Attribute Screening Technology) that works on the same principle as a polygraph. That is, it looks for sharp changes in body temperature, pulse and breathing.
The difference is that in a polygraph, the subject answers questions, while this machine simply tests people as they walk through. In practice, people whom the machine identifies as suspiciously stressed would then be taken to another area and interviewed in front of a camera that measures minute facial movements to determine if the subject is lying.
All of that makes removing your shoes, belt, and pocket change sound hassle-free by comparison.
Even though the machine is years from possibly being fielded, it already has critics. Some people do not believe the machine will work because it will subject innocent travelers to what amounts to a medical exam, bringing up a whole host of privacy issues.
Others doubt the reliability of the technology itself. “What determines your heart rate is a whole bunch of reasons besides hostile intent,” says Timothy Levine, a Michigan State University expert on deceptive behavior. Reasons such as being late for a flight, for example. “This is the whole reason behavioral profiles don’t work.”
Think about it. If this thing were waiting to scan us at the airport today, there’s a pretty good chance most of us would wind up setting it off.
Just last week there were more shootings in our country — protestors at a Black Lives Matter rally in Minneapolis, and a violent automatic weapon attack at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado; many continue to face major economic downturns with jobs, Paris remains in a state of emergency … and that’s just as of this writing. We’re stressed about our personal lives and stressed about the world, let alone about whether or not our toothpaste got packed in that little baggie.
Chances are that most of us would be in for some questioning about what’s making us so anxious.
Jesus Told Us to Expect This
But we have to remember that Jesus warned us there’d be days like this.
Read this apocalyptic passage in Luke 21 again, and you’ll notice there is anxiety all over the place — and not just the kind that comes from missing a flight. Jesus is talking about the kind of anxiety that would cause people to miss the signs of God’s presence in our lives and world.
First, you have natural signs — the whole cosmos in an anxious uproar, along with the “nations” who will be “confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25). This would seem to be describing the kinds of natural disasters we’ve seen in recent years, such as the “roaring of the sea and the waves” of the 2004 Asian tsunami. But we have to remember that apocalyptic language is more often symbolic than literal. The reference to the “sea,” for example, is used throughout the Bible to refer to the primordial chaos that was present at the dawn of creation (Genesis 1:2).
In the Bible’s most famous apocalyptic book, Revelation, it’s interesting to note that in the vision of the new heaven and new earth there would be no more sea (Revelation 21:1) — no more chaos. For now, though, Jesus is using stark imagery to describe world-shaking, chaotic events that many will interpret as the end: these events will cause no small amount of anxiety.
“People will faint from fear and from foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).
It’s at this point, Jesus says, that he will be seen “coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (v. 27). Again, the idea isn’t so much to be looking up to anticipate a cloud-surfing Savior but to recognize that the ultimate sign of the kingdom coming will be the full manifestation of Christ the bearer of righteousness and the Prince of Peace.
Jesus borrows the cloud imagery from Daniel 7:13, another apocalyptic vision, and Luke uses the image to link Jesus’ ascension with his return (Acts 1:9). Just as the sea represents chaos, clouds represent glorification. Despite the chaos in the world and all the anxiety it produces, Jesus promises that God will set the world right once and for all in some future, unknown time.
Faith, Not Fear
In the meantime, however, followers of Jesus are not to be queuing up for a run through an earthly anxiety machine.
Instead, we are to be observant and seeking the signs of God’s presence where it is already within the world initiating reconciliation and redemption.
Jesus says that means paying attention and approaching life with faith rather than fear. Jesus urges us to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (v. 28). The fig tree parable reminded the disciples to vigilantly look around for the signs of the kingdom and Jesus’ own eternal “words” instead of constantly focusing on the daily stress-producing news of calamity and disaster (vv. 29-33).
When we identify and name the fears, anxieties and distractions of the people around us, we can begin to offer them hope and help them through toward a journey with Christ. “Be alert,” says Jesus, and help others do the same.
Pray for Strength
Beyond alertness Jesus also encourages disciples to pray for the strength to “escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (v. 36).
Some biblical scholars see Jesus’ warnings here as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which would take place within the lifetimes of those listening to him — thus the reference that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (v. 32).
But whether Jesus is referring specifically to the impending destruction of the Temple or not, the greater point is that amid impending disaster and anxiety, Jesus urges us, like them, to keep our heads up, praying for the strength to weather the storms of life with hope, standing firm in the future Christ signifies.
If our anxiety is setting off alarms everywhere we go, it might be time for us to step back, take a deep breath and pray.
There is no better way to lower your heart rate, your blood pressure and your body temperature, as well as your anxious spirit, than slowing down and communing with God. Jesus reminds us of this.
The journey, though tough, will end well, and everything will be as good in the end as it was in the beginning of creation.
In a recent Leadership Wired newsletter article, “Be the One: Serve” John Maxwell said:
“In life, it’s not what happens to you, but what happens in you and through you that counts. When adversity visits your life, you have two choices: to be a victim or a victor. Victims allow life circumstances to get them down, and they spend their lives asking others to redress the grievances life has dealt them.
Victims are needy and demand to be served. Victors, on the other hand, rise above the challenges they encounter. They rebound from life’s hardships with newfound strength and they use their strength in service of those around them.”
So, in the words of Rev. Dr. Letty Russell, let us be adventologists- watchful followers of Christ, victors not victims of the circumstances of life, living with heads uplifted in hope.
Hidden God, wherever you are in your own kind of space,
We watch and wait for you to startle us to wakeful newness in this Advent season.
Come and thrust into us the spirit of daring and courage to make flesh on earth a bit of the kingdom of heaven.
Come to open the inns of our minds and hearts to the miracles of your compassion and purpose as Jesus demonstrated them.
Come and make your own transforming way in the desert of our confusion and wilderness of me and mine,
So we may walk with Jesus the hard way of justice, mercy, and peace among the people of earth.
Come and lift up the valleys of our discouragement, doubt, and denial,
And make level the mountains of our greed and pride,
So we may see your glory revealed once more in us and in all our brothers and sisters, from the shepherd to the magi lofty.
Come and fulfill through us Mary’s vision of mercy stretching to all generations,
Of the proud scattered, and the powerful punctured, of the rich emptied and the poor filled, and our lives magnifying your grace.
Come lace our songs, our shopping, our celebrations with your mystery and strange magnificence,
And let us sense it in the small, strange stirrings of the earth and of our hearts, now and always. Amen.
~ Ted Loder, “My Heart in My Mouth”
Originally delivered November 29, 2015, by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.
- Fig Tree by Froiaresumra (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Pray Codex, see page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Originally published November 20, 2015 by Church Within a Church Movement.
November 20th marks the 16th annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance. This memorial began in response to the murder of Rita Hester, a transgender woman found in her apartment in Allston, MA on November 28, 1998. She was stabbed more than twenty times and died shortly after being rushed to the hospital. Each November 20 rituals are held in many nations and cities honoring and remembering the victims of brutal transphobic violence. As the 16th Transgender Day of Remembrance is observed on November 20, 2015 the effects of sharing my story as a transgender clergy in The United Methodist Church continue to unfold.
Some continue to ask why I disclosed my history, wondering if it would have been better both for me and the church had I not. The first reason I gave then remains true today: since my ordination in 1982 violence and oppression directed towards transgender persons has only increased, resulting in statistics which confirm transgender people suffer the highest rates of suicide, unemployment, poverty, and homelessness in our country. Many transgender and gender non-conforming children and youth are rejected by family, friends, and faith communities, resulting in homelessness, isolation, and sex for survival. In the midst of this oppressive social reality transgender persons are often depicted by the media and political candidates as insane, perverted, predatory, and unable to function successfully within society. People, particularly transgender youth, need other role models.
Despite the fact that more names than ever will be read during Transgender Day of Remembrance observances around the world this year, I remain hopeful about the future for transgender and gender non-conforming persons. There is more awareness and education about transgender people today than I could have imagined forty years ago. Medical research and technology have dramatically improved the lives of transgender persons. Yet so much remains to be done to address the spiritual and material needs of our community to decrease and reverse these grim statistics. May Spirit bless Church Within A Church as you continue to create changes in policies and practices within our Church and society that enable the social and spiritual abuse of an entire population of diverse human beings referred to collectively as Transgender.
Prayer for Transgender Day of Remembrance
By Reuben Zellman: “Keshet” Jewish organization working for the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people.
God full of mercy, bless the souls of all who are in our hearts on this Transgender Day of Remembrance. We call to mind today young and old, of every race, faith, and gender experience, who have died by violence. We remember those who have died because they would not hide, or did not pass, or did pass, or stood too proud. Today we name them: the reluctant activist; the fiery hurler of heels; the warrior for quiet truth; the one whom no one really knew.
As many as we can name, there are thousands more whom we cannot, and for whom no prayers may have been said. We mourn their senseless deaths, and give thanks for their lives, for their teaching, and for the brief glow of each holy flame. We pray for the strength to carry on their legacy of vision, bravery, and love.
And as we remember them, we remember with them the thousands more who have taken their own lives. We pray for resolve to root out the injustice, ignorance, and cruelty that grow despair. And we pray, God, that all those who perpetrate hate and violence will speedily come to understand that Your creation has many faces, many genders, many holy expressions. Blessed are they, who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world.
Blessed is God, in Whom no light is extinguished.
 See: “Injustice at Every Turn: The National Transgender Discrimination Survey” http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46 ~
Good deeds really do matter, not only to the recipients, but also to God.
Last week every time I sat down to create a worship bulletin or message for this morning I found myself walking away from the desk disappointed. I struggled for days with the scripture readings from the Lectionary. When I realized there was nothing in those texts that spoke to me I decided to look at other gospel passages.
In my search on Wednesday I found the gospel reading you just heard: Matthew 25:31-46. It spoke to me as a passage relevant for our community and world so I selected it as the focus for this morning- I did not understand why, really, until Friday evening.
Friday changed everything, not only for me but for our community and world: 129 innocent people killed; 353 wounded; 99 in critical condition.
As more than one world leader or political commentator said, what happened in Paris Friday changed everything not only for the individuals involved in the attacks, but for the world community.
For one thing, there can no longer be any doubt or denial that there is a group of Islamic religious, radical fundamentalists who have openly declared Jihad — Holy War — on the rest of the world.
These extremists are focusing on non-combatants, what the news refers to as “soft targets” (i.e. people like us) to spread terror.
This is no way affirms a stereotyping of Islamic people, or agrees this violent interpretation of Islamic scripture is correct. As in the Bible, passages are open to various interpretations. Some Muslims have interpreted the Qur’an to advocate brutality and violence toward non-Muslims and a mandate to create a global Islamic state. This is essentially no different from extreme fundamentalist Christians who wish to create a Christian theocracy in this nation as a means of eliminating enemies and social controversy.
Actually, I cannot think of a better passage to reflect on together in the wake of what has happened.
Many people questioned Jesus about the end of the world; how would they know, and what should they do in the meantime?
If you had to be an animal during Bible times, it would be preferable not to be a goat.
For one reason, there’s that whole scapegoat thing. The scapegoat was the goat over whose head the high priest Aaron confessed the sins of the people of Israel on the Day of Atonement. Then the goat, symbolically bearing their sins, was driven out into the wilderness, where it probably became dinner for a hungry lion.
One could argue that being a sheep could be equally as dangerous. A sheep, after giving up its wool, often appeared on the dinner table, or in the stew, or on the altar as a sacrifice.
But goats in the Bible clearly are not viewed as sympathetically as sheep, and the gospel reading for today singles out goats for unwelcome treatment as well.
When talking about the final judgment, Jesus speaks of separating sheep from goats, and it’s clear that the goats are the losers in this sorting.
For a shepherd, separating sheep from goats is not difficult. Though both species are often pastured together and can be similarly colored, they are easily distinguished from one another.
Goats are thinner than sheep. They have different eating habits (goats browse on leaves, shrubs, twigs and vines, while sheep graze on grass and clover).
Goats are curious and independent by nature, while sheep prefer to stay put with the flock. Goats have hair, but sheep have fleece.
And a goat’s tail stands up while a sheep’s hangs down.
Of course, as Jesus continues the story, it’s quickly evident that he’s not actually talking about animals.
Jesus is using sheep and goats as an analogy for people, for people like us, who are likewise prone to creating scapegoats sorted; people who are ultimately sorted into two groups at the final judgment — sheep-people on the right and goat-people on the left.
The ones on the right are welcomed into the presence of God.
The ones on the left are told to depart forever.
The criteria for this sorting, however, have nothing to do with what one eats or which way one’s tail points.
It also has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, religiosity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other culturally determined value.
Rather, the significant criteria have to do with whether or not one has been merciful and helpful to those in dire straits; if one has rendered aid to the most vulnerable, the most afflicted, members of the culture in which we live.
Jesus said those identified as sheep have literally ministered to him by their compassion. Those on the right, well, they have ignored him by ignoring the most desperate and vulnerable among us.
One of the striking things from this account is that unlike sheep and goats, those who have loved their neighbor and those who have not can ultimately only be distinguished by Christ, who serves as the Great Sorter in this story.
The sheep and goats cannot easily distinguish between one another: this is a message every person on this earth needs to hear and accept.
We simply cannot name whole groups, nations, races, or religions as enemy.
Didn’t someone once say, “We have found the enemy, and it is us?”
“We have met the enemy and they are ours” — one of two famous quotes made by American Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry on September 10, 1813, after defeating a British naval squadron on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
In the gospel passage the doers and non-doers of good deeds don’t easily recognize which are which, and the members of both groups are quite surprised to learn which one they have been sorted into.
When Jesus sets out to teach his followers about God’s judgment, he explains it by recalling this familiar scene: sheep go one way, goats the other.
Many of us have heard this passage taught as a guilt-inducing story. Those who teach it that way assume it’s mostly about the church, how some of us will make it into heaven and some of us won’t.
But this is not likely how Jesus’ followers would have heard the story. Their attention would have been grabbed by the first few words: “All the nations will be gathered before him …” (25:32).
“Okay,” those ancient Jewish listeners would have said to themselves, rubbing their hands together in glee. “This is the long-awaited moment. Now we’re going to hear how those wicked goats, the Gentiles, will get theirs!” The story has a surprise ending, one that undoubtedly shakes everything they’ve come to believe about faith and ethnicity: an ending those caught up in terrorism and violence today cannot hear.
First, neither the sheep nor the goats are especially bright. Both of them are equally clueless as to when, exactly, they saw Jesus “hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked or imprisoned.”
Second, the distinguishing feature between the two sets of people is not ethnic identity, as Jesus’ listeners suppose. Neither sheep nor goats seem to know which group they belong to until the shepherd sorts them into it. Once they find themselves milling around in that group, they haven’t the slightest idea how they got there.
So, this isn’t the old, exclusivist story about God’s chosen being destined for salvation, while the Gentiles go to perdition. Jesus is spinning an entirely new narrative.
The distinguishing feature in this new tale is not who your parents were. It’s some invisible mark that only the shepherd-judge seems able to see.
–Carlos Wilton, Homiletics contributor
Commentator George Buttrick put it, “The loving folk were so lowly that it did not occur to them that their daily kindnesses could ever have been a personal service to the Christ, or that they had done anything worthy of reward. The unloving were so callous, their religion so perfunctory, that they never thought of Jesus as being linked with [humans] in love, or as asking from anyone any forthright deed of compassion.”
What can we take away from this story for living today?
One is to recognize that sins of omission can be just as serious as sins of commission. The passage reminds us that what we don’t do can be as great a reflection of our commitment to follow Jesus as what we do do.
Another way of thinking about this is to say that apathy towards other persons, ignoring their needs or situation, a non-response, is just as debilitating as a negative one.
I was reminded of this when I read the response by French President Francois Hollande, who declared these attacks a horror, the worst since World War II; and also the remarks made by Paris Deputy Mayor Patrick Klugman when he said, “It is a horrible day in Paris … the death toll will increase … the terrorists planned to hit where people go to relax on Friday night: a soccer game, restaurants, a concert.”
My first response was, “what can I do?”
I wanted to do something. All I could think was to begin with prayer.
I posted this on my Facebook page Friday evening, asking others to join me in praying for Paris, France, and our world.
Within minutes an atheist organization posted about the utter uselessness of prayer, and how the only response is to work for peace with justice in practical ways.
This was my response: “After posting prayers for Paris, France, and our world someone issued a post about prayer as a waste of time and energy. The important thing is to get involved in justice work. Double-blind studies indicate that prayer effects both the one praying and the one unknowingly prayed for in ways we do not understand, Beyond this, prayer is not passive; it is one dimension of compassion. Practical acts of care, including working for justice are extensions of prayer for many people of faith. Drawing upon one of my favorite theologians, Fred Rogers who shared a story:
Which brings us back to the gospel.
Jesus was not attempting to give a full description of everything about faith and life in this story, but rather to make an obvious point about not ignoring the most marginalized and oppressed persons among us — about being helpers.
This story reminds us that the arena of faith is daily life. The “goats” had separated their commitment to Jesus from the doings of daily life. But in reality, the place we live out faith is in the sheepfold or goat-fold of our daily lives.
This story reminds us that compassion belongs in not only extraordinary circumstances, but also in our ordinary and everyday encounters with one another.
We need to hear that because most of life is not played out in the kinds of events that make headline news, but in how we relate to one another in the ordinary activities of life.
For most of us becoming a sheep or a goat happens not in going to training camps in Syria or even in the kind of heroic events performed by those first-responders to the carnage in Paris.
For most of us the shaping of our forms into sheep or goat happens in the smaller things — the chance meetings, the routine places, the circumstances where, and when we do or do not do a good deed; the ways we accept or reject the people around us — things that seem to us so ordinary that we think they are hardly worth mentioning, and certainly not worthy of earning us a place among either the goats or sheep.
Fortunately, in times like these God has provided a guide for living.
I once saw a sign that read, “This life is only a test. If it had been an actual life, you would have been given further instructions on where to go and what to do.”
In some ways I wish that sign were true today.
The truth is that sometimes unexpected circumstances arise in life and we have no clear idea of how to respond.
What happened in Paris, France on Friday is such a circumstance.
As President Obama said, the attack in Paris truly is an attack against humanity and the universal values we share.
The important teaching in this story is that we remain strong in our compassion and concern for one another, engaging in whatever good works we can embrace in our families, communities, and world.
This morning these words of Jesus are instructions about what to do in such a time as this … in the face of evil — do good. It is as simple as that.
What does doing good look like?
There is an old story — probably invented by some preacher — but it illustrates the spirit of this passage pretty well. It’s about a boy living in a children’s home. For grace at the dinner table, the superintendent usually prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, let this food to us be blessed.” After this happened several times, the boy said to him, “You always ask Jesus to come, but he never does. Will he ever come?”
The superintendent said, “If we really want him to, he will.”
The boy thought, “I really want him to, so I’m going to put a chair beside me tonight so he’ll have a place to sit when he comes.”
That evening, during supper, there was a knock on the door, and standing there was an old man, poorly clothed, cold and hungry. The superintendent invited him to join them for supper, and he pointed to the empty chair. The man sat and, and the boy gladly passed food to him and even shared from his own plate.
Later the boy said, “Jesus must not have been able to come himself, so he sent this man in his place.”
The point, exactly.
Good deeds matter.
“Truly I tell you, as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.”
Regardless of how simple that may sound in the world this morning, it is something essential to hold on to. In fact, it may be these little things; these acts of kindness, expressions of friendship, exchanges of civility that ultimately save us from becoming like those very ones whose brutality we abhor and condemn this morning. Amen.
Originally delivered November 15, 2015, by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.
- Boaz and Ruth by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Scripture: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17, Mark 12:38-44 ~
The first time I read the story of Naomi sending Ruth into the threshing room for a late night tryst with Boaz I was surprised by this story of sexual proposition.
When I understood the custom of next-of-kin marriages as a source of protection for widows such as Ruth, and through Ruth, Naomi, I realized the caring, kindness and compassion Boaz demonstrated toward Ruth that night; and also the realness with which Boaz and Ruth communicated.
Remember, in this time and culture women were often regarded much like property, and viewed as liabilities.
Surely Boaz has observed Ruth and heard enough about her in the days since she first arrived to know her situation, and also that accepting legal responsibility for Ruth included taking care of Naomi as well.
For her part, Ruth well knew what Naomi meant when she suggested that Ruth should put on her best attire and surprise Boaz late at night, alone, in the threshing room. It meant that Ruth was proposing marriage to Boaz- not a gender appropriate role for either a woman, or a foreigner.
This story is a beautiful portrayal of the complexity of human relationships when they are grounded in the reality of the situation, genuine affection and spiritual authenticity.
Boaz and Ruth appear to have mutual affection for one another: both have been observing.
Boaz, though wealthy, appears to be just as alone as Ruth.
Naomi, playing the role of matchmaker, encourages Ruth to dress up, surprise Boaz late at night in the threshing room, and proposition Boaz regarding the custom of kinship marriage.
Boaz responds favorably, inviting Ruth to spend the night, and promising to move forward with the marriage process.
The story ends happily, with Ruth giving birth to a son as a sign of hope for the future, and Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz enjoying a new level of life.
Like many biblical stories, in many aspects this is a story about facing life and death issues.
Naomi faced mortality when her husband and two sons died, and she faced returning to Israel alone as a widow.
Ruth faced mortality remaining as a widow among her own people, or returning as a foreigner with Naomi to an unknown place and people.
Boaz, described and depicted as much older than Ruth, is facing his own issues of mortality even as a property owner and man of wealth (does he have other offspring?)
In the story of Ruth, these three people decide to get real with one another, and risk forming new relationships together that benefitted and blessed each of them, and through them, the broader and future community as well.
The gospel reading portrays just the opposite of genuine human affection and relationship, as Jesus points out the destructive duplicity of the scribes and the wealthy in their relationship with widows and the poor, such as Naomi and Ruth.
As in Ruth, there are issues of widowhood, poverty, religious-ethical responsibility, and genuine human relationship.
In these verses, however, community is destroyed and survival threatened by the behavior of the scribes, “They devour widows’ houses …”
The absence of genuine human affection and relationship is further demonstrated as Jesus observes the difference between giving out of abundance (the wealthy) and giving out of poverty (the widow).
When faced with our own mortality we basically have two choices.
We can try to go it alone, maybe putting on a “Happy Face” but secretly growing bitter or despondent about the limitations of our personal lives;
Or, we can gratefully embrace the life we have, savor each moment, and live each day to its fullest, pressing forward in genuine relationship with those things and people that are most important to us, taking the risk to be real and authentic rather than finding ways to “devour” one another.
As we reflect on this story of Ruth’s faithful living it is a good time for us to focus on the things in life we are grateful for today, including the precious gift of life itself.
Sometimes we forget to be grateful for life.
As Fr. Alfred D’Souza once said:
“For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin, real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”
You and I can be intentionally grateful every day, no matter what is going on in or around us: an attitude of gratitude can never be taken away — but it is up to us to develop and encourage it.
Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness is a study of twenty years of psychological research led Lyubomirsky.
It is a scientific approach to our culture’s elusive pursuit of happiness. Slicing happiness up like a pie, she claims there are three major pieces to a cheerful makeup; to living gratefully.
1. Fifty percent of our happiness comes from disposition in our DNA. We are Tigger or Eeyore based more on Mom and Dad than anything else. Like the thermostat on the wall, our temperament has a preset temperature.
2. Surprisingly, only 10 percent of happiness comes from our life circumstances. A raise at work. The kids’ good grades or happy marriages. A steadily rising stock market and retirement portfolio.
Looking at newlyweds and lottery winners, researchers have found that people almost always return to their genetic dispositional set points after life events spike their joy.
These kinds of events come and go, and they provide little lasting change in overall life temperament.
3. Dr.Lyubomirsky claims that we have control over the remaining 40 percent of our happiness. That huge slice of the pie represents our thoughts, attitudes and actions.
And they can be managed through happiness-fostering habits.
University of Wisconsin researcher Richard Davidson concurs. After studying the brains of Buddhist monks, he found that people can show markedly higher reports of happiness after two weeks by merely thinking about kindness and compassion for 30 minutes a day.
But Lyubomirsky isn’t just taking another lap around the well-trodden path of the power of positive thinking. She adds the power of positive being.
Certain behaviors will lead to certain attitudes — or vice versa — and habits of both will increase and maintain our happiness over time.
Lyubomirsky suggests 12 patterns that promote cheers over jeers, gratitude over ungratefulness:
These include forgiveness, avoiding social comparisons, nurturing deep relationships, taking care of your body and even practicing religion and spirituality.
At the top of Lyubomirsky’s research-proven list is much of what is seen in Ruth:
Her number one happiness habit is being appreciative.
Fostering an attitude of gratitude: Not just feeling but expressing thankfulness.
Writing a thank-you note to your favorite high-school teacher, telling who he or she helped you become.
Counting your blessings and literally listing them until your haves overwhelm your have-nots.
Calling the “How’s my driving?” hotline when a driver is courteous.
Lyubomirsky cites a study in which one group of people listed five things they were thankful for.
They did this every week for 10 weeks.
Comparison groups in the study wrote different kinds of weekly lists — “five major events,” “five hassles this week,” etc.
The “thankful” group reported more happiness and contentment than did the comparison groups. They even reported improved health in the form of fewer headaches and coughs.
Skip the doc. Just say “thanks” more.
In pay-it-forward fashion, people we intentionally thank will also experience increased happiness. Expressing gratitude is the stone thrown into the flat water. It creates a ripple that affects everything around it.
It appears that looking out for numbers two through 10 is really looking out for number one.
Remember the once-trendy “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” bumper sticker?
Dr. Lyubomirsky would say, “No” to this.
I believe Moses and Jesus would say “No” as well.
Don’t make your acts random and senseless. Make them planned, intentional and habitual.
Attach them to people around you so you can infect them with happiness also.
We might think of this as a halo of happiness.
Gratitude first impacts its giver and then radiates through the receivers.
Kindergarten teachers love to give out gold star stickers and smiley face stamps because of the joy that recognition creates in their kids.
And Although God may appreciate Dr. Lyubomirsky’s science, remember that, “all truth is God’s truth”
And while God could be smiling an “I told-you-so grin,” gratitude is a mainstay of biblical virtue; and it is the way Ruth and Jesus lived up to their final breath on this planet.
Who should you thank? Spent 5 minutes listing the things you’re thankful to God for.
Look over your list.
Whenever those things you express gratitude for involve ways God provided through someone else, I encourage you to come up with a plan to express gratitude to them as well.
Another Dr. Lyubomirsky study found that people who wrote and delivered letters of appreciation to those they had never formally thanked caused their own happiness to remain elevated for as long as a month afterward!
Who should we thank?
We’re talking about volunteers.
Many well-intentioned Christians — valuing the appropriate sacrifice and modesty of service — miss opportunities to recognize, celebrate and thank those who are extending kingdom values inside and beyond our churches.
The greatest pay for a volunteer is recognition.
A personal e-mail. A phone call. A real, old-fashioned personal letter. A mention in the sermon. Dinner at your house. Looking them in the eye or hugging them while honestly saying, “We couldn’t follow God effectively without you.”
So who do we need to be thanking in our church?
How should we thank?
In a survey of 10,000 employees from the 1,000 largest companies, 40 percent of workers cited “lack of recognition” as a primary factor in their leaving the company.
I am thankful that God doesn’t leave our churches over similar lack of recognition.
While our songs and liturgies encourage words of gratitude, they don’t guarantee the inner condition of our souls, our hearts, our minds and our attitudes.
God is able to see into our heart attitudes. Naomi, Ruth and a host of biblical characters knew this: Jesus taught this truth over and over again.
Look to God with gratitude every day.
That will make you radiant.
That will make your life better.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it this way: “Unless the outer life expresses the inner world, purity stagnates and intention decays.” Unless Sunday liturgies, hymns of praise and prayers before dinner radiate out of a heart of gratitude, they are just shells of concepts. Empty words. Decayed intention.
When it’s truly expressed to God and others, it both changes us and means that we have been changed already.
Originally delivered November 8, 2015, by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.
- Boaz and Ruth by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons