Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for August, 2013

Our Daily Bread

CUMC on Google+

August 11, 2013

Texts:  Matthew 6:11, Psalm 145:15-19

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

This is perhaps the most straightforward petition of the Lord’s Prayer:  give us what we need, God.

It is also the only petition of the Lord’s Prayer that refers to physical needs.  It’s inclusion reminds us that we are embodied people who have physical needs – and that God cares for those needs.  They are not somehow less important, less significant than our spiritual needs – though the church has sometimes suggested as much.  When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” he is affirming the validity of their material needs.  He will say a bit later in Matthew 6 (31-32), “Don’t worry…Your heavenly Father knows that you need [food, drink, and clothes].”  Our physical, material needs matter to God.

So the first thing this line teaches us – for remember, this prayer was given as an example, a model, to teach us how to pray – the first thing this line teaches us is that it is okay – good, even! – to go to God with our physical needs.  The proverbial “praying for a parking spot” may be a bit much, but there is nothing at all wrong with talking to God about the material needs of our lives.  When the physical needs of life consume our thoughts – a job, a house, food on the table or bills to be paid – it is right and good to take those needs to God in prayer.

That being said, most of us in 21st century America do not, literally, need to depend on God to provide our next meal.  Rarely do we know true hunger pains.  So how do we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” when our refrigerators are full and our store shelves are well-stocked?

Perhaps our prayer ought to be more like the ancient Hebrew prayer, recorded in Proverbs 30:8b-9:

Give me neither poverty nor riches,

but give me my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?”

Or, I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

Give me neither too much or too little – but give me my daily bread.  This may be the most straightforward petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the most concrete and down to earth – but I would suggest that it is also the most difficult part of the prayer to pray whole-heartedly.

It is hard because it directly challenges both our affluence and our self-sufficiency – two values that are at the very core of our American culture.

A culture of affluence teaches us to constantly strive for more, bigger, better.  We are continuously confronted with opportunities to upgrade everything from our cars to our phones – people even upgrade engagement rings to a bigger stone! We may not think of ourselves as affluent – many of us live paycheck to paycheck – but we nonetheless live in a society that lifts up affluence as the goal.

When affluence is the goal, is it nearly impossible to feel as if we have enough.  And being content with enough is at the very core of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Like the Israelites who collected manna in the desert (Exodus 16), daily bread implies just enough to meet the day’s needs – not excess to store away for tomorrow.  That kind of contentment with enough flies directly in the face of a culture of affluence.

Contentment with enough also implies dependence.  Excess allows us to believe that we provide for ourselves, that we are self-reliant and independent.  But having just enough for today requires us to acknowledge our own limitations and our dependence upon God to provide.  As Proverbs reminds us, it is easy, when we have plenty, to disown – or just plain get distracted from – God.  Dependence draws us back and keeps us connected to the God who supplies all our needs.

So we pray with the author of Proverbs:  “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me my daily bread.”

But the Lord’s prayer, as Jesus taught us to pray it, makes one small but significant change to that ancient prayer.  Jesus teaches not “give me” but “give us” our daily bread.

Here, the prayer becomes downright radical.  It is not only that I trust, myself, that God will meet my needs.  It is not only that I acknowledge my dependence on God and learn to be content with what I have.  To pray “give us our daily bread” requires that I also pay attention to the needs of my neighbors.

If we are to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” then it matters that 870 million people – 1/8th of the world’s population – is undernourished.[1]  It matters that in our own country, 1 in 5 children – and 1 in 3 African American and Latino children – are at risk of hunger.[2]

“Give us this day our daily bread” takes on an entirely different urgency when food is not readily available.  In many areas of Africa, families prepare each year for what they call wanjala – “The Hunger Season.”  The Hunger Season is a period of time – sometimes weeks, often months long – that comes before harvest.  It is the time when last year’s store of food has been depleted and humanitarian aid is used up.  The Hunger Season comes every year, just as surely as spring, summer, fall or winter come to us.

Families prepare for the Hunger Season by intentionally cutting back on the food intake of healthy adults, so that children and the elderly might have enough to stretch through the lean months until the next harvest.  Even so, many die through these months simply from lack of calories.

I began today by affirming that God cares about our material needs, and there is nothing shameful about praying for the things we need.  By the same token, God cares for the very real, physical needs of hungry children and adults throughout our world.  And if we are followers of Jesus, then we must care too.  We cannot pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” without acknowledging and addressing the needs of others.

That means we must learn to live with less – even when the media and culture tell us we deserve more.  It means we must learn to limit our desires; to be content with what we have, so that others may have what they need.  It means we learn to recognize and give thanks for our blessings – to be grateful for daily bread!  And it also means we learn to share those blessings more freely, more generously – giving of our time at the food pantry, for example, or of our money to an organization that addresses hunger locally or globally.  It means that we work to address the root causes of poverty, and the injustices built into our economic system.  It means challenging the idea that making a profit matters more than paying living wages, and standing up against the assumption that poor people bring poverty upon themselves.

This kind of work cannot be done alone.  It requires the support of a community of faith committed to wrestling with these sorts of questions and concerns together.  It requires sharing life together, a life that values different things than the society in which we live values.  And it requires constantly, continuously praying together:  “Give us this day our daily bread,” and learning to live that prayer one day at a time.

“Give us this day our daily bread” may be the shortest, most straightforward petition of the Lord’s prayer, but it also perhaps the most difficult to live into.  It addresses our hearts’ deepest values and the world’s greatest needs.

It is not our job to solve the problem of poverty or to end the Hunger Season on our own.  But it is our job to pray as Jesus taught us, “Give us this day our daily bread,” to trust God to meet our own needs, and to join God in the work of meeting the needs of others.  We do so with the promise from the book of Revelation that when the kingdom of God is fully realized,

“Never again will [any] hunger, and never again will they thirst” (Rev 7:16).


[1] United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization statistics, 2010-2012.  From http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm

[2] US Department of Agriculture Report, “Food Security in the United States, 2010.”  From http://www.bread.org/hunger/us/facts.html

Read Full Post »

God, Take Control!

CUMC on Google+

Preached August 4, 2013

Texts:  Matthew 6:10, Psalm 145:10-14

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”  Matt 6:10

We don’t think in “kingdom” terms much in 21st century America.  Perhaps this prayer, prayed in our day, would read instead, “Your party win, your agenda be passed, in the halls of Congress as it does in the West Wing.”  Or…something like that.

It feels much more crass, more confrontational, when put in the context of our own political system, doesn’t it?  But it is perhaps closer to the original impact of these words.  This part of the Lord’s Prayer – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” is inherently political and subversive.  It unsettles the powers-that-be, and challenges the established order.  Right or wrong, when Jesus’ disciples heard these words, they would have imagined a political revolution, and a physical kingdom.

It is easy for us, some 2,000 years later, to shake our heads at their narrow view of the Kingdom of God.  We generally don’t give much thought to their longing for political independence from the Roman Empire.  From our vantage point, it seems clear enough to us that the Kingdom of God is more a spiritual reality than a physical one, more metaphor than literal.

Except…it’s not.  That next line – “on earth, as it is in heaven” – makes it clear that whatever the Kingdom of God is, it is certainly not some other-worldly reality that is separated from the concrete realities of life.  Rather, the Kingdom of God is something concrete, coming to be in time and place, in the real world.

So how is it that the Kingdom of God comes on earth?  For what do we pray when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?”

Most basically, we are saying:  “God, take control!”  Take control of our world, our politics, our nation.  Take control of our environment, our woods, our mountains, our oceans.  Take control of our schools, our cities, our youth.  Take control of our lives.  Take control!

There is a certain desperation expressed here.  “God, the earth is a mess.  Our families are a mess.  Our lives are a mess.  Won’t you take control, and bring some order to this chaos?!”

Jesus knows that the Kingdom of God is not always evident to us.  As he continues to teach his disciples, he will tell them, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…the smallest of seeds.”  Or, “The kingdom of God is like a bit of yeast, mixed into a large amount of flour…”

These parables seem to say:  The Kingdom of God is here, sometimes almost unnoticeable because of its smallness, its hiddenness.  God is in control already; but it may not always be visible.  There will be times, looking around, when you will wonder how it could possibly be.

But there is also a certain confidence in praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”  By Matthew’s 6th chapter, Jesus has already told his disciples repeatedly, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  He doesn’t say, “The kingdom of God is coming” – as if it were a future reality to be hoped for someday.  But, “The kingdom of God has come.”  That Kingdom has arrived, already, on earth!

Like a seed that has taken root, or a bit of yeast mixed into the dough, God’s kingdom will grow and spread.

With each right decision, each moment when our hearts yield to the Holy Spirit, our lives begin to come under the will of God.  With each hurt forgiven, each relationship restored, our families begin to come under the will of God.  Each time resources are poured into peacemaking rather than weapon-making, our nations begin to come under the will of God.

In those moments, when we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God on earth, we find ourselves feeling most alive, most aware of God’s presence, most confident in God’s promises.  They remind me, a bit, of the days of pregnancy, when a flutter (or a kick!) from inside reminds a woman life is indeed growing inside her, even if it is not yet fully visible to the rest of the world.  They are moments of hope and beauty and joy.

But even with those moments, living in the time between the planting of the seed and the flowering of the plant is not easy.  Jesus experienced the full weight of this “already-but-not-yet” aspect of the Kingdom of God in the Garden of Gethsemene.  There, just before his arrest (which will lead to his death by crucifixion), Jesus prays, “If this cup cannot be taken from me, then Your will be done.” (Mt 26:42)

What does it mean for us to pray with Jesus, “Your will be done”?  Is it simply to accept the hardest, most difficult things in life as “God’s will”?  Is it to trust that however unfair life may seem, God must have some higher purpose that we cannot know?

Perhaps there is some truth to that.  Certainly, God’s ways are higher than our ways.  But I think that when Jesus says, “Your will be done,” in the Garden of Gethsemene he is praying something more than, “help me accept this awful, unfair thing as your will, God.”  I think, rather, he is praying, “No matter what comes, let me still live as you would have me live.  Let my words and actions reflect your character.  Let me love no matter how unlovable people act toward me.  Let me forgive when I’d rather strike back.”  “Not my will, but thine, be done.”

That’s not easy.  But it is possible, because Jesus has already provided us with evidence that the Kingdom of God has taken root and is growing in our world.

To pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” is to ask, then, that the character of God – shown to us in real, concrete ways on earth during Jesus’ life – would also control our lives.  And if our lives are ruled by such qualities, then our homes and families will be too – and our neighborhoods – our towns – even our whole world.

“Thy kingdom come…” is both a profoundly big and profoundly small prayer, reaching out to the greatest social ills in our world and also down to the deepest places of our hearts.  The hope that we strain toward, the seed we trust is already planted and growing within us, is the promise of God’s reign in our own hearts; in our closest, most intimate relationships; and in the whole complex web of relations among human beings and with the natural world.  So we pray and hope and live:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Read Full Post »

Our Father

CUMC on Google+

Preached July 28, 2013

Texts:  Matthew 6:9, Psalm 105:1-7

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“This, then, is how you should pray,” introduces the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel.

In Luke’s Gospel, it begins with a request:  “Lord, teach us to pray…”

It is sort of funny that even with Jesus’ very direct instruction – pray this way, these words – we can still mess this Lord’s Prayer up!

Oh, sure, most of us know it by heart.  We recite it each week in worship, and at most weddings, funerals and other religious and civic functions.  But for all its familiarity, you’d be amazed at the number of times we become tongue-tied when praying it!

For example:  At a shared service last spring, we all started together, but we couldn’t end together!  Some prayed “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass…” while others prayed, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  The “debts” folks were so far ahead of the “trespasses” folks that we all got lost, until finally someone yelled out above the clamor of voices, “FOR THINE” and we all joined together for the final words.

Of course, that closing doxology itself can be problematic when you have Catholics and Protestants worshiping together.  Some of you may know that the Roman Catholic church does not include “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever…”, and in the Orthodox tradition it is spoken only by the priest after the congregation ends the prayer proper.  Have you ever been that one lone voice that continues on after everyone else ends?  I’ve done it a couple of times.  It can be embarrassing!

A few years ago, my husband and I attended mass at Notre Dame in Paris.  As we recited, “but deliver us from evil,” I realized he might not know to leave those last words off the prayer.  The only thing I could think of was to squeeze hard on his hand held in mine, hoping that the distraction might stop his words long enough for him to realize!

Then there is my biggest fear when I’m leading the Lord’s Prayer:  my mind going blank.  A few years ago, when a friend leading worship, his mind went blank, he dropped a line, and the entire congregation fell silent!

So perhaps, “This, then, is how you should pray…” is not so straight-forward as it might seem.  But it is more because of the content of the prayer than its form, really.  It’s one thing to stumble over a line because our mind goes blank; it’s another to pause and ponder the depth of a line before we are ready to speak it.  The remaining weeks of the summer, we will take time to pause and ponder.  This is an opportunity to think more deeply about what we pray when we recite this prayer.

We begin today with the first line:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

Most of us say this opening line without a second thought, but we must acknowledge that for a few, naming God as “Father” is painful.  Theologian Roberta Bondi describes her own struggle with the language:

Like many other people, having transferred to God the Father all the pain I felt around my human father, I simply couldn’t get past the father language of the prayer to reach God.[1]

For Bondi, though, avoiding the prayer was not the answer.  Rather, it was learning to pray “Our Father” that brought healing.  She describes the way she prays specifically for those with whom she is angry or disappointed.  “My Father, and the Father of my father,” she prays.  “My Father and the Father of my enemies.”

It has become her daily habit to include those in her prayer who bring tension into her life.  By doing so, she says, she is reminded of her own safety and security under her Father’s care – but also of the worth and value of the other person.  “What nearly always comes along with the words of the prayer,” she writes, “is an immediate, intimate awareness of our being equally loved members of God’s family.”[2]

Being drawn into relationship with God means also being drawn into relationship with one another.  We do not pray, “My father.”  We began the summer studying the 23rd Psalm, which is all about the intimate way that the Lord cares for each one of us personally and individually:  “The Lord is my shepherd.”  The Lord’s prayer invites us to broaden our thinking, to consider the ways that God is not only my Father; but also yours, and yours, and yours; ours together.

There is something powerful and transforming about learning to pray in agreement with one another.

When I was in seminary, my roommate spent the summer in Zimbabwe.  As a way of supporting her, I gathered some friends to pray for her weekly while she was away.  We would meet for dinner and then pray for whatever was on our minds that day, thinking of what she might be doing at that point in her trip.  Each time we gathered, someone would jot down some notes in a notebook about our prayers that day.

We had little contact with her while she was gone – an email or two over the several months – but that was about it.  When she returned to seminary at the end of the summer, our group gathered one more time, and invited Janine to tell us about her trip.  As she talked, she pulled out a journal she kept during the summer – and we pulled out our prayer notebook.

We could not believe, as we read the two side-by-side, how often our prayers were directed at exactly what she needed that day.  There were very specific, concrete needs that came up through the summer, and we had prayed for them time and time again in ways we could have never dreamed.

In ways that I cannot explain, Janine and I and my other friends and colleagues were united by our prayers, our lives inexplicably woven together as we followed and prayed to Our Father.

The experience left us in awe – there is no other way to explain it.  It was an encounter with the Holy.  “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name!”

“Hallowed be thy name” simply means,you’re your name be holy, sacred among us.

It is difficult to talk of “holiness” in anything but negative terms in our society today.  Some of us grew up with an image of a Holy God as an angry God, waiting to punish any unholy word or deed.  Others of us think of holiness as a sort of moral code that we must live up to, usually related to how we dress or what we do with our free time or our bodies.  We look askance at those who fail to live up to the code, while at the same time grumbling about those who act “holier than thou” by keeping the code too rigidly.

None of that is what the Bible means by “holiness.”  In Scripture, holiness inspires wonder and awe.  Think of Moses at the burning bush, or Isaiah in the Temple.  Think of Mary receiving new from an angel.  Such an encounter with the Holy leaves us breathless with wonder, our hearts overflowing with emotion beyond words.

Holiness catches us off guard because it comes in unexpected ways and places.  It comes, in other words, as pure gift.

Bondi writes of the gift of God’s holiness that reaches out to us.

“God finds a way through,” she says.  “For me, it was in the experience of beauty [that I encountered God’s holiness]; for others, it may be in something very different:  in the joy of music, in the love of a pet, in an encounter with nature.”[3]

Such a gift received reminds us that we are loved, and sparks within us a sense of gratitude.  And so it is with the Holy – we feel thankfulness welling up within us, and we are compelled to respond to Holiness.  This is not the sort of gift we can possess or contain, but the kind that must be shared for it to last, to grow.

Holiness therefore makes demands of us – it calls forth from within us a desire and an ability to share with others the holiness we have experienced.  Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism:  “It is true that God’s name is holy in itself, but we ask in [the Lord’s] prayer that it may also become holy in and among us.”

“Hallowed be your name,” we pray, and that means not just that God’s name would be honored but that it would be honored in and through us, by the way we live, the way we act, the way we speak.  It is a prayer that we might receive the gift of holiness, and also share it with others.

For when God becomes holy in and among us…then the kingdom of God is coming!  And that is where we pick up next week…


[1] Bondi, 22-23.

[2] Bondi, 29.

[3] Bondi, 43.

Read Full Post »

Being Followed

CUMC on Google+

Preached July 21, 2013

Texts:  Psalm 23:6, Luke 12:22-34

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

my whole life long.

~Psalm 23:6

Have you ever been followed?  Every once in awhile, living in center city Chicago, I would get the sense that someone was following a little too closely behind me as I walked.  What an uncomfortable feeling!  But the time I remember most, when I think of being followed, was on a trip from my parents’ house in Erie, PA to my home in Lexington, Kentucky.  Driving down highway 71 between Columbus and Cincinnati, I became aware of the red car behind me.  It was riding a bit too close, it seemed.  I came up to a truck and moved into the left lane to pass.  The red car moved over too.  Nothing too out of the ordinary about that, when passing a truck.  But when I moved back into the right lane, the red car still followed.  And again around the next truck, and the next.

Intuition told me it was more than coincidence that this car stuck with me around truck after truck, so the next time I passed a truck, I stepped on the gas and really picked up speed.  That red car stayed right on my tail.  Then I pulled back into the right lane and dropped my speed down under the speed limit – and he followed suit.

By now, I was feeling pretty uncomfortable. When I saw two tractor trailer trucks in a row ahead of me, I decided what I would do.  I pulled into the left lane long enough to get beside them, then flipped on my turn signal and squeezed myself into a bit-too-tight spot between those two trucks in the right lane.  There was no possible way that red car could follow me.

I expected him to sail on by, and I figured I could ride it out for a couple of miles between the trucks and then get up to speed again, with the suspicious red car well up the road.  It worked – sort of.  The red car did pass me by – he hardly had a choice.  But he honked as he went by, and then when I glanced his way, gave me a wink and a grin.  I pretended not to see, and kept my eyes squarely on the truck in front of me.

Not sure what else to do, I stayed tucked carefully between those trucks for quite awhile.  Slowly I began to relax again.  Surely, by now, I had lost him.  Surely he would have given up and gone on down the highway, following the flow of traffic.

That’s what I assumed, at least.  And then the two trucks simultaneously exited to the right into a required weigh station, and I found myself staring at the taillights of that same red car!  I saw the driver glance in the rear view mirror and give a half wave.

I slowed down again, but this time WAY down, trying to put as much distance between me and that red car as I could.  As the next exit approached, I stayed carefully in my lane until the very last second, and then swerved into the exit lane.  I saw the red car jerk right a bit, but he was far enough past the exit that he had to keep going.  I pulled into the most crowded restaurant parking lot I saw, watched carefully as cars came and went, and then finally bolted inside to the safety of a crowd.

Being followed can be a frightening experience!

Sometimes, though, being followed is a great comfort.  There is another night that I remember, just a couple years ago, when I was attending a church meeting in Cranberry Township.  It snowed hard during the meeting, and by the time we were leaving, the roads were slick and snow covered.  Plows weren’t keeping up with the snow, and news reports told people to stay off the roads.  But I had to get home – the kids were there with a babysitter.  So I bundled up and started to my car, with my stomach in knots because of the snow-covered roads.

A clergy colleague saw me hesitate as I walked toward the door, and asked me where I was headed.  He was also driving south on I-79, and he was driving a 4-wheel-drive truck.  He offered to follow me home, and I began to breathe easier.  The frightening trip was much more bearable knowing he was behind me, watching out for me.

Being followed can be a frightening experience, but it can also be a most comforting experience!  It all depends on who is doing the following.

At the close of Psalm 23, the Psalmist declares with confidence,

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life.

There is a confidence, an ease, even a joy, to this statement that closes the 23rd Psalm, because the author knows that it is the Good Shepherd who follows him.  There is nothing to fear, when God’s goodness and mercy are following you.  Whatever may come, God’s got your back!  All will be well.

All will be well, yes.  The Psalm doesn’t say, though, that all will be easy.  It doesn’t say that leisure and ease will follow us, or even happiness or comfort.  There is no promise here that the path will be easy from here on out; no assurance that the valley of the shadow is only behind us and will not come again around the next bend.  The Psalm doesn’t say that.

What is says is that, come what may, God’s goodness and mercy will yet stick with us all the days of our lives.  When we are disappointed at the evil in our world; when bad things happen to good people – yet goodness will follow us, bringing comfort for sorrow and hope in the face of despair.  When we fail to live up to expectations, when our own carelessness or selfishness hurts those we love – yet mercy will follow us, bringing forgiveness, bringing grace to begin anew.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

And because God’s goodness and mercy follow us, because they hold us secure and safe even in the difficult times, we can say with assurance, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”

Traditionally, this final phrase of the Psalm is understood as a statement about life after death.  The familiar King James Version makes that seem more likely:  “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

But the NRSV translation takes on a different tone:  “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”  This is more than a belief in life after death; it is also a statement of trust in God for all that comes in this life.  It is a statement of faith that come what may, we are and always will be part of God’s household, God’s flock.  We live – in life, in death, and in life after death – in God’s presence and care.

Such a statement of trust is possible because the Psalmist has already received the provision of God, felt God’s comfort in the valley of the shadow of death, and received God’s protection in the presence of enemies.  The Psalmist can look ahead with faith because he has looked back and remembered God’s faithfulness in green pastures, dark valleys, and all the places in between.

When we learn to live with such trust in God’s provision, we find that goodness and mercy follow us in two ways.  They stick with us and watch out for us, as my friend following me home on icy roads.  But goodness and mercy also follow us in the sense of trailing behind us.  When we trust God fully and completely for what we need, then we leave a trail of goodness and mercy behind us wherever we go.

In 2 Corinthians 2:14-15, Paul says that we ought to be the “fragrance of Christ” and the “aroma of life” that draw people to God.  When we learn to trust God fully and completely – in the good times and in the bad – then our lives will blossom with “the fragrance of Christ.”  We will pass on the goodness and mercy God offers to us, as a wake trailing out behind us.  People will want to know how we live with such confidence, with such quiet assurance.  They will want to follow our shepherd, too.

The best example I can think of of this sort of complete, utter trust in God is from Robert Higginbotham, another pastor in our Annual Conference.  Bob and his wife Ruth have been through more struggles than anyone should ever have to experience.  And yet, they are not weighed down by bitterness or anger.  They live with a deep, abiding trust that God cares for them always, come what may, and they continue to care for others with gentleness and courage in the midst of their own sorrows.

About a month ago, Bob wrote on Facebook:

We have judged ourselves unworthy of the tremendous outpouring of prayer and expressions of love, support, encouragement and comfort that have been extended us. We know that we have been sustained by your presence in our lives. When I was diagnosed with melanoma in 2009 and thought it could not get any worse, you were there. When Ruth was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma in 2012 and we thought it could not get any worse, you were there. When [our son] Rob was killed in a tragic auto accident on 23 May and we thought it could not get any worse, you were there. Yesterday I received news from my oncologist that my melanoma has metastasized and that a “spot” was found on my lung. My last X-ray & ultrasound (4 months ago) had been clear, so this is a relatively new development. And we thought it could not get any worse! Surgery is planned for latter this month…We covet your continued prayers, especially as we face these uncertain days. We know you will be there … undeserving as we are, we are counting on it. Rest assured, we will be going the distance and though battered, we are not beaten. It remains well with my soul!

That is the testimony of a man who knows and believes, with all his being, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the household of the Lord my whole life long.”

Read Full Post »

CUMC on Google+

Preached on July 14, 2013

Text:  Psalm 23:5, 2 Samuel 9:1-13

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

                                             ~Psalm 23:5 (NIV)

Have you ever been on a trip that you thought would never end?  You know, the one where the car breaks down, the traffic backs up and the weather breaks loose?

I can think of a couple of road trips I’d like to forget, but the one that comes to my mind first was a trip home for Christmas when my son was a baby.  We hadn’t even left the Chicago city limits yet when Joe threw up the first time – all over himself and his carseat.  We pulled over and divided up cleaning duties – I changed Joe into a new outfit, while my husband Rob wiped out the carseat.  Joe settled back into the seat and clutched at his favorite yellow blankey, and I was sure he would sleep, worn out as he seemed from the whole ordeal.  We were on our way again.

It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes later that I heard gagging noises from the backseat again.  I whirled around in disbelief, just in time to see Joe vomit all over himself, his carseat, AND his beloved yellow blankey that he was gripping in his fists.  We took the first exit off the tollroad – and went to the only restaurant at the exit, a Wendy’s.  I carried Joe inside while Rob, again, tackled the carseat.  There was no changing table in the bathroom.  Surely it was elsewhere.  No, the manager told me they did not have diaper changing facilities.  Is there anywhere else I might go to change my baby?  No, I’m afraid not.  Certainly not here in the restaurant.  And so back to the car I go, to change the baby on my lap, trying to keep the vomit from getting all over me in the process.  

This time, Joe was less than pleased to go back into the seat.  And the car was beginning to smell.  We cracked the windows despite the December chill, and strapped a protesting baby back into his still-wet carseat.  In the absence of his beloved blanket, I decided to sit in the back beside him. 

On the road again.  It had been 2 hours and we were barely 30 miles from home.  

I don’t remember how long it took for the gagging to begin again, but I do remember that we pulled into a hotel parking lot this time.  For the record, this is the way to go.  They offer you towels and washcloths to help with the cleanup process, and a warm lobby in which to nurse.  Way better than fast food. 

Cleanup number three required me to change, too, since I was now sitting within striking distance.  And it also required fishing out the suitcase from the overly stuffed trunk in the middle of a snow storm, since I had already used up both of the spare outfits in the diaper bag.

I’m not sure how many more times we stopped on that trip – I think it was at least seven times total.  By the time we pulled off the highway in Edinboro, Pennsylvania we were hours late, and exhausted.  Five miles to Rob’s parents house.  We made it.

Not so fast.  Sitting at a stoplight at the edge of town, we heard it again.  Joe threw up one last time, and screamed inconsolably.  We didn’t stop.  We just pulled out the cell phone and called Rob’s parents to warn them, and listened to him scream for the final five minutes of the trip.

Rob’s mom met us in the driveway with a blanket to wrap Joe in, and a towel for me.  We stripped him down to a diaper right there in the driveway, and she disappeared into the house with him.  I went straight to the shower.  Rob fell asleep on the couch, while his dad cleaned the car.

Thirty minutes later, we were all clean and dry, and Barb pulled a simmering pot off the stove to serve dinner.  It was some kind of beef stew, with carrots, served over rice.  I don’t remember anything else about it, except that it was delicious, and I asked for the recipe.  She just laughed.  Apparently it was the leftover meat and veggies from the dinner she had intended to serve, thrown together into a stew so that she could ‘hold’ the dinner four hours past our intended arrival time.  She says it was overcooked and mushy by the time we ate it.  I only remember that it tasted wonderful.

Few things taste as good as the meal set before us at the end of a long, hard journey! 

And sometimes, the journey is more than a roadtrip.  The cold turkey sandwich on stale white bread that I ate in the late night hours after my daughter Gracie was born couldn’t have tasted better!  Or the 21st birthday dinner I shared with my parents six-months after I had broken off an engagement, when my life looked so different than I imagined it would.  That meal represented hope, beginning to believe that I would love again someday.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” the Psalmist writes.  The journey has been long.  The road led through the valley of the shadow of death.  The traveller is exhausted and longing for home.

How rich and wonderful is the image of a warm, home-cooked meal awaiting the road-weary guest! 

For Mephibosheth – the crippled son of Jonathan, grandson of the disgraced King Saul of Israel – the journey was nearly unbearable, and the meal – at the king’s own table! – meant wrongs righted and hope restored. 

Mephibosheth, the grandson of King Saul, was born in the palace during the last days of Saul’s reign.  When Saul’s reign ended, Saul, Jonathan, and his whole family were captured and killed.  A young Mephibosheth was rescued by his nurse, who scooped him up and ran out the back door to escape the captors.  He was injured, though, when she dropped him in her haste to flee the palace (2 Samuel 4:4).  The escape left him crippled in both legs.

Mephibosheth lived out the rest of his days far from his home and family, with little hope for the future.  He had no inheritance and no way of supporting himself.  An abundant table seemed like a cruel, distant memory.

Then we read in 2 Samuel 9 that David remembers his love for his friend Jonathan – “is there anyone left of Jonathan’s house?” he asks.  And then David summons Mephibosheth to his palace, restores the family inheritance and promises Mephibosheth a place at his own table, giving him the status of a prince. 

“Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”  (2 Sam. 9:7)

How could Mephibosheth have ever imagined such an abundant welcome?  How could he have dreamed of such a future?

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.                                            

I read, recently, of a modern day Mephibosheth:  Leroy Sutton – featured in the ESPN story “Carry On”[1] – lost his legs in a train accident at age 11.  His mother turned to drugs to drown her feelings of guilt.  His father was in jail.  Leroy was crippled and left alone to care for a younger sister. 

ESPN Producer Lisa Fenn met Leroy when she was filming a story about him as a high school wrestler.  An unlikely friendship developed.  She felt compelled to get to know him, to be a part of his life. 

Lisa tried to lead Leroy toward a better future.  She helped him with college applications and secured scholarships.  But Leroy, she observed, barely acknowledged her efforts.  “Having never known pleasure,” she writes, “he had not developed the language to respond to it.”

Leroy could understand the valley of the shadow of death he could understand; but an abundant table was beyond his comprehension.

But the abundant table was prepared before him, and Leroy prepared for the table.  Fenn prepared him for college; ESPN readers who responded to the story provided the funding he needed to finish his degree.  Leroy was already the first in his family to graduate from high school, and in August, he will be the first to receive a college diploma.

Fenn writes: 

…Legless kids from the ghettos don’t get college educations and shiny accolades, but they should. And that is why I stayed. Because hope and love and rejoicing and redemption can happen to kids like them. And people like me, people from the “other side,” who can soften life’s blows for them, ought to help.

Lisa and Leroy, together, found the courage to imagine a bright future, even from within the violence ridden culture of the innercity.  When the road led through the shadows, they grabbed on to hope and would not let it go.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.            

Whatever the journey, however difficult it may be – this verse declares hope.  Here the Psalmist insists that however road-weary we may become, the journey still ends with a home-cooked meal, a hot shower, and a warm cup of tea.  This is a word of assurance that the traveler will not dwell in the shadows of disappointment and heartbreak forever.  It gives us courage to imagine a brighter future, from right within the conflicted, grief-stricken present.

At the center of that hope-filled picture is God’s table, prepared for us.  That is a word of comfort.  It is also a word of challenge.  This imagine gives us our mission, our purpose as a church:  to extend God’s invitation to the table to those who are road-weary and exhausted from their journey through life.  Our job is to set the table – to take the heartbreaks of this world – and there are plenty! – and imagine together a better future.  We prepare the table by imagining the kingdom of God, and working towards it.

That’s why we do things like clean up the park, and feed hungry people.  That’s why we stick with the people who disappoint us, and refuse to give up on them.  That’s why we provide things like our Loving Hands fund, that can provide a meal or a bed to sleep in when people are at the very end of their rope. 

We do it because we believe the long, hard journey leads, finally, to the abundant table of God.  We do it because we believe God is our gracious host who has prepared a table for us – and that all are welcome at that table. 

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.           

Thanks be to God!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »