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Hurray, Joseph!

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”  Matthew 2:15-16a (NRSV)

Every so many years, I like to preach a sermon on the Sunday after Christmas that has the title, “What Happened to Joseph?”  Somehow it seems like we need to give Joseph a little credit for the part he played as Jesus’ earthly father, and it’s amazing to me in the biblical writings that Mary (or any woman) has a “front and center” role.

I’m grateful, to be sure, because I think that Mary had a huge influence on Jesus’ faith development and theological understandings.  From what we can tell, she was a remarkable person – she had to have been since God chose her to bear the Savior of the World.

Yet, somehow, it feels strange to push Joseph to the back of the manger and totally ignore him.  Let’s think about what Joseph did:

  1.  In a culture where a young woman became pregnant without the benefit of marriage, the custom would have been to stone her.  But Joseph chose not to sensationalize Mary’s pregnancy and initially decided to divorce her (release her from their betrothal).
  2. When he was told in a dream to take Mary as his wife because the child she carried was of the Holy Spirit, he did what God had asked him to do – quite a leap of faith!
  3. He and Mary traveled a long distance to reach Bethlehem – about 100 miles from Nazareth – a LONG walk for him pulling a donkey with his nine-months-pregnant fiancé on board!
  4. If we take the Lukan birth narrative at face value, Joseph was the one who delivered the baby, too – a BIG no-no in that culture because it would have rendered him unclean.  Of course, there were extenuating circumstances.  He probably had seen birthing all around him as he was growing up, so he had some idea of what would happen.
  5. He stood by Mary when she would have been shunned by family and friends and townspeople.  He protected her as they traveled.  He stayed with her when the baby arrived.  He was the “hovering” presence when strangers showed up at the stable (the “dreaded” shepherds who didn’t have a good reputation among the villages) and then the Magi from the East (an odd sight for anyone).
  6. When Herod became so paranoid that he sent the soldiers to kill all the infant boys from the age of two and under, Joseph listened again to God’s instructions to take the mother and baby to Egypt to keep him safe.  They traveled another LONG journey and became refugees in a foreign country, only to return to Nazareth once Herod had died and it appeared to be safe for them to go home.
  7. He would have raised Jesus as his own son, teaching him practical things, but he also would have taught him – as all the fathers apparently did – about the Torah, Jewish customs, and probably told him the story of his birth and early childhood.
  8. Joseph gave Jesus legitimacy by giving him a name and a father.  He took Jesus as his own child, and he was faithful to Mary, as well as to God.

I think Joseph must have been a remarkable man, just as Mary was a remarkable woman.  Our Bible study group watched the movie “The Nativity” for our Advent study this year.  It was fascinating to see how they portrayed all the characters, but the one that struck me the most was the actor’s portrayal of Joseph.

His kindness and selflessness was so evident, and in the movie, he and Mary gradually bonded as husband and wife.  In one scene, Joseph had fallen asleep from exhaustion, and Mary decided to wash his muddy and dusty feet.  She looked down at her stomach and told her child that he would have a kind and loving father.

It is good for us to ponder Jesus’ earthly parents because we can learn a lot from them.  Both of them exhibited amazing faith and courage.  Both of them accepted their role and responsibility as parents of the most precious gift of all – God’s Son.  Let’s keep Joseph right up front with Mary because they both were remarkable people.

What can you learn from Joseph?

What can you learn from Mary?

How will you carry that with you in your faith journey?

The Future – The Present

Let the children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  Luke 18:16b (NRSV)

This Sunday in both of the churches I serve we will celebrate Children’s Sunday.  What does that mean?  Don’t we celebrate children EVERY Sunday?  Well, yes.  However, this coming Sunday is set aside for them to share with us.  They share what they have learned throughout the school year about the Holy Trinity and their walk of faith.

We have the opportunity to learn about them and their experience of Christ, an experience we have promised to provide at the time of their baptisms.  The church covenants with the parents to help bring the child up in the faith, so we offer Sunday school, support, and a community of faith where the children can learn and be nurtured and grow.

That is what the family (kingdom in the passage above) is all about.  We build each other up, and we send each other forth, not only as adults, but also as children.  I don’t know about you, but I think the children teach me tremendous things about faith.  They can see God in so many ways that somehow our adult eyes just don’t see any more.

So many people say repeatedly that the children are our future.  I agree.  They are.  However, if we see them only as our future, it seems to me that we are thinking of them as the way to keep the church going.  Well, I suppose that’s fairly obvious.

But aren’t the children part of who we are as the family of God RIGHT NOW?  They are more than just a future; they are also part of our present.  As I said earlier, they teach us about God right now, in the present.  I think we do a disservice to them to relegate them to the future when they are so much a part of the NOW.

Let’s train them for the future, but more than that, let’s learn from them.  “Let the children come to me . . .” Jesus said.  He recognized the gifts they had to offer.  He recognized them in the “now.”  He saw them as part of the kingdom of God here on earth – and in the future.

So, Sunday, as our children stand up in front of us, I will listen and learn and applaud – and most of all love them for their willingness to share who they are, Whose they are, and their faith.

How do you learn from the children in your lives?

In what ways can you encourage them and walk with them in their journey of faith?

A Different Kind of Heartburn

“They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’  That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and the round the eleven and their companions gathered together.”  Luke 24:32-33 (NRSV)

Two people walked home to Emmaus which is a short distance from Jerusalem.  They talked about what had happened to Jesus who had been put to death on a cross.  They talked about their disappointment because they thought he was the one who was going to save Israel and restore the nation to its own people.  When a stranger appeared on the road, they all walked together, talking about these events, even though Jesus acted as if he didn’t know about it.

When Jesus spoke, they had the same burning in their hearts as they had before he died, but it didn’t dawn on them that it was really Jesus; after all, he had died on the cross and been buried.  Logically, they never expected him to be alive.  As they approached their house, he acted as if he was going to continue on, so they encouraged him to come into the house and have a meal with them – typical hospitality in those days.

Somehow Jesus took the bread to bless it, and it was at that moment that they realized who it was, and he was gone.  They had a glimpse of the risen Christ, and they dropped everything as they hurried back to Jerusalem to share their amazing and wonderful news with the disciples.  Their hearts burned within them.  A good kind of “heartburn!”

As I’ve pondered my mother’s death since the end of February, I have wondered why my grieving wasn’t more intense.  In fact, I mentioned it to my husband and then later to my grief counselor.  It seemed as if I should be crying more or something, but what I felt most was joy for her, even in the midst of my own loss.  This Easter season has been poignant for me as I deal with Mom’s physical absence and my relief that she is no longer tied to her physical body.  I don’t wish her back in the state she was in with Alzheimer’s Disease, and yet, there is a large empty space in my heart because I miss her.

I told my dad that I was homesick for the first time in forty-one years since I left the Midwest and moved to the East Coast.  He paused and said quietly, “It’s because of Mom.”  I knew that, and yet at the same time, I believe she had a joyous homecoming in Heaven.  I can’t be sad for her gain, even though I’m sad for my loss.

This past Sunday, the choir at one of the churches I serve sang an Easter song about the power of the cross and how it sets us free.  I struggled through it because I truly am happy that Mom has been set free, but it also reminded me of my own loss.  My heart is warmed and overflows with gratitude at the hope we have in the resurrected Christ and the promise of life with him forever.  My prayer is that others will come to that place of faith where their hearts burn within them as they recognize the risen Christ with them.  Amen.

Do Not Be Terrified

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”  Luke 21:9 (NRSV)

This past week, we saw the horrible devastation and loss of life in the Philippines.  One U.S. army general flew over a residential area and reported seeing thousands of bodies on the ground and houses washed away or leveled to the ground.  Those who are left have no place to sleep, they have lost their homes and many of their family members.  People are starving, thirsty, and trying to figure out what to do next.  Looting has begun, and relief efforts are slow in arriving.  It must seem like the end of the world to them.

When we think back to last year, it must have seemed the same way to the folks in New York and New Jersey with Hurricane Sandy, or to those in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, or Japan following the tsunami, or the earthquake in Haiti, the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in 2011, or the Vietnamese people when a horrible war broke out in their country, or in Korea, or during World War II and the Holocaust or World War I or the American Revolution or the tribal wars in Africa or . . . or . . . or.  We could go on and on with the list of times when everything seemed to be crumbling around the people of that era.  Surely, they believed that it was the end of time.

The Jesus followers of the early church believed that Jesus would return any moment, but he didn’t.  All the signs were there of false prophets, earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecution, and devastation.  It must have seemed like the end of time and that Jesus would be coming back to establish the eternal kingdom on earth, but it still didn’t happen.

Jesus doesn’t promise that we won’t suffer; in fact, he assures us that choosing to follow him will actually bring us more suffering, alienation, and hardship.  What he does promise is that he will be with us.  Luke 21:19 hold this promise:  “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  (NRSV).  The thing that always assures me is that Jesus knows what I’m going through in my every day life as well as what it is like for others to suffer.  He gets it!

He knows what it is like to lose a father to death (even though we don’t read about that in the scriptures, his earthly father Joseph clearly is out of the picture by the time Jesus begins his ministry).  Jesus knows what it is like to laugh, play, cry, grieve, be betrayed by friends, love others, be an outcast, be a leader, be abused, and any number of other human experiences because he WAS human.  He was God in the flesh, and because Jesus experience the full gamut of human life, God also understands what we are going through.  Jesus is with us all the way on this journey.  “. . . I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  (v. 15 NRSV).

When the 9/11 attacks happened, people flocked to the churches.  Some were terrified and seeking answers.  Many have since wandered away, not satisfied or willing to make a complete commitment to Christ.  And yet, perhaps some seeds were planted so that the next time their world seemed to be coming to and end such as the death of a loved one, loss of job, or illness, they might have a sense of the presence of Jesus with them.

Our family is dealing with my mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease.  This past week, we moved her to a long term care facility.  For my dad, it was a heart wrenching decision, and for my siblings and me, it was so hard to see them going through this.  But they both have a strong faith that is helping them get through this – along with our support and care.  Last summer, Mom and I had a conversation during one of her moments of clarity when she told me she talked to God all the time and wanted to be with God.  She said that she would see her parents and was ready to go.  I pray, for her sake, that she will have her prayer answered soon.

For us, as a family, it may seem like the end, but through our faith and drawing together as a family, we recognize the presence of Christ in our midst as we take this journey.  The essence of who my mother is here on earth has gradually faded away, but her soul is strong.  My dad is strong, and at 90 years old, he has great wisdom and perseverance.  I see the presence of God personally in them and in my siblings who are all strong in faith, and I’m grateful for God’s love in our lives.

Do not be terrified, Jesus said.  My mom isn’t terrified.  For her, the return of Christ will be when she meets him face to face in the near future.  For the rest of us, it’s a matter of faith and trust.  We don’t know the future, but we do know that Jesus has already gone on ahead of us and has paved the way, and he is with us throughout our lives and through all of the world.  Thanks be to God!

From the Heart

Tell [the rich] to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage — to do good, to be rich in helping others; to be extravagantly generous.  If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.”  1 Timothy 6:18-19 (The Message)

What is wealth?  Is it lots and lots of money?  That would seem to be the most logical answer for us.  Yet, in Jesus’ day, wealth was determined, in addition to money, by the amount of land one owned, or by how many herds someone had, or by the number of sons a man had in order to run his business – whatever it might have been.  Jesus never said we shouldn’t have money or things, only that we should not let them run our lives and be more important than God.  The ancient Hebrews often were able to manage faith and wealth in good ways.

The Bible is full of directives to share:  give off the top of the flock, dedicate the first-born child, give 10% to the temple or synagogue as a tithe, be generous, share openly, don’t hold back.  Those who have were to share with the “have-nots,” and they were to take care of the poor, the widows, the orphans.  None of this was supposed to be turned into a resented duty, but was a response to God’s generosity toward humans.

Zacchaeus the tax collector was one of the greediest in town, apparently.  Yet, when Jesus came to town, he climbed a tree so he could see this itinerant celebrity rabbi more clearly and was totally taken by surprise when Jesus stopped below the tree, invited him to come down and feed Jesus and his followers!  After being with Jesus, Zacchaeus’ heart was moved, and he became and honest man to the point where he over-repayed any money he may have cheated out of someone.

Generosity comes from our hearts because it originally came out of the heart of God.  What flows from God to us is – well – everything!  All that we have is God’s anyway.  God’s generosity to us gives us a means by which to be generous with others, including the poor and marginalized of our society.  Giving leaves a much better feeling in us than hoarding or being selfish about what we have.

My husband is one of the most generous people I know.  I have seen him give things away that I couldn’t imagine doing myself.  When I ask him why, he reminds me that “they are just things.”  It’s true.  When I was growing up, we were taught that what was ours is OURS, and no one else was allowed to have it.  Un-learning that has taken a lot of years, and I’m thankful for a husband who is helping me to undo those attitudes.  I still consider myself a pretty generous person, but it’s now a lot easier to give away things – material possessions because they just aren’t important.  I still have work to do, but I’m getting there!

God wants our hearts, and when we give them to God, the other “stuff” simply doesn’t matter.  What bogs us down and blocks us from a full relationship with God and others?  Do we make up our minds ahead of time about what we are going to pledge to the church and not stay open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our hearts?  Are we stuck in a rut and not changing the way we give even in a tough economy?  These are things to think about.  Maybe we can’t change things, and that’s certainly understandable, but then, maybe we can make a small change that would make a difference in our generous giving as well as helping others through the ministry of the church.

May our hearts be open to God’s generosity and may it flow through us!

When the Storms Rage

“Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Mark 4:40

     Jesus asked this question of his disciples when they were caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee.  Storms on that lake come up very quickly, and the winds can be dangerous, causing large waves that would threaten to tip their boat over.  Yet, Jesus slept in the boat while they were trying to keep it steady, and finally in frustration, they woke him with the rebuke:  “Don’t you care?”

     When Jesus stood and calmed the storm and the waves, they were amazed, and then he asked them the questions in verse 40 above.  That question always bothers me.  I consider myself a person with strong faith, and yet, there are times when I doubt and wonder.  There are times when I go through difficulties and feel abandoned and alone, in spite of all the times I preach about God being in the midst of the storms of our lives.  Does that mean that I never am afraid of what happens i nlife?  Does that mean I don’t have faith?   I suspect that many people have heard those questions in that way.

     The readers of Mark would have understood what it was like to go through the storms of life.  They were living about 70 years after Jesus died and were experiencing tremendous persecution even to the point of being put to death if they declared that they were a follower of Jesus.  They would understand fear and questioning whether or not it was worth following someone who had died years earlier.  They might doubt whether this was really true.  The writer of Mark was trying to get across the point that the power of Jesus’ Spirit was never gone and was always with them.  In spite of the trials and tribulations, in spite of the dangers and worries, they had a strength and power in Christ that helped them to get through.  Obviously many believed that because we wouldn’t have a church today if it hadn’t been for those who endured such hardships and trials.

     What about us?  How do we respond when the storms of life surround us and rage around us?  I remember when I took a leave of absence and went to California with my best friend.  We thought we were going to the land of golden opportunities, and we were sure this was the right move for us.  Yet, when we arrived, we discovered that finding a job often depended on whom you knew and what kind of connections you had.  The cost of living was much higher, and we ended up selling my piano one month to pay the rent on the apartment we had, and then we sold her washer and dryer to pay the other month.  After that, we decided it was time to move back to New England where we had better connections and where we were known and loved.

     During that difficult summer, I felt lonely and abandoned by God.  I was angry that things didn’t turn out the way I thought they should, and I thought God had ignored my prayers.  In hindsight, I can see that the trip to California had many good and positive learning experiences.  For one thing, I discovered that New England was home.  More than that, I discovered that God must have chuckled at my plans when God already knew that there was a better place for me here in the state of Maine.  Eventually, I met and married a wonderful man, and I have had congregations who have been such a blessing. 

     Even though I’m sure there would have been congregations in California who would have been a blessing, the road to finding a way into the United Methodist system there would have been long and challenging.  I realize that much of the decision to move to California was an attempt to fulfill MY dream, a romantic notion that I had carried all my life, and a lack of listening to God’s guidance in my life.  Fortunately, I have grown from that experience and I think I handle the difficulties of life much better than I used to. 

     The best friend who went with me died four years after we returned from lung cancer, and tomorrow (June 21) would have been her 64th birthday.  Her death affected my life in powerful ways, but through that whole experience – through that storm of life – I felt the love and support of my congregation, my family and friends, and I felt the presence of God sustaining me.

     I still become afraid in the storms, but now I’m learning to turn to the peaceful center and trust that my Companion – the Spirit – is with me through it and will get me through to the other side.  That is when I feel the calming of the wind and waves and recognize my Savior standing in my boat.  Thanks be to God!

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