Monday, September 19, 2016

Be Healed, Be Whole by Rev. Hafidha F. Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

            Two stories are before us this morning.  The first: Jerusalem, the “city of peace” is about to be sacked.  Its brightest minds and most gifted citizens were about to be carried away to Babylon to serve the interests of King Nebuchadnezzar.  Those who were left were artisans, people dealing with chronic disease, service workers, widows, the very young, and orphans.  Basically, people who the Babylonians thought could not organize themselves into a resistance movement. This way, the once prosperous, militarily, and culturally formidable Jerusalem could be managed and kept under the rule of a foreign government.  And for this Jeremiah cries.  He’s known as the “weeping prophet” because he has received countless messages from God that the city’s end was near.  Yet, the people do not take him seriously.  They continued as if Jeremiah had never spoken.  

Ever heard of the word accommodationist used to describe a city?  It’s a city whose managers and citizens have surrendered their autonomy to another city or entity so that they are not truly in charge of the policies and practices that made them a community.  They have abdicated their right to rule themselves.  And for this reason, truly, is why Jeremiah cried.  In giving up their identity as people who had come through the waters of the Red Sea and survived a 40-year trek through the wilderness of Sinai, they had cheated and stole from widows. Forced into poverty those with limited resources.   Passed laws that made it impossible for those who were accused of crimes to defend themselves.  Sound like a city or nation you know?

Jeremiah cries and cries, giving warning after warning to those in the city to stop, and turn back to the ways of God’s peace that made it famous, and prosperous for all its inhabitants.  When they didn’t, he throws his hands up in anguish and declares that they are sick, deeply sick.  What else could account for this illness, this disorder that has corrupted them so?  Then he asks a familiar question that the black church in America centuries ago turned into a spiritual, Balm in Gilead.  Jeremiah asks: 
 “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there? 
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”

Jeremiah calls out for a healer, any healer… and to God: “Is there anybody out there who would heal them, make them whole?”

The second story: Jesus tells his disciples the parable of how a business manager had been brought up on charges of mismanaging his employer’s finances.  When the owner of the company demands that the manager give an account of his practices, the manager delays meeting with the employer long enough to go to several of the debtors and re-writes their bills.  He reduces the actual amount owed, effectively forfeiting any commission that would normally accrue to him.  Wow!  I can sense the dread of all of you who are employers.

This manager was “stuck between a rock and a hard place”, as they say.  On the one hand, he could have turned the person who was in arrears over to the courts, who then would have been turned over to the prison system.  But on the other hand, he could have come clean with his employer and said that in his estimation the debts were unpayable by the people who incurred them, so the employer would be better off getting whatever he could. We an only imagine that the result would be the same; that he would be out of a job, and his situation would have become just as precarious as those to whom he was sent to collect debts. Ane, he could have been put in prison himself.

There is a third way we could look at this passage: the manager was a lying cheat, and deserved whatever the employer could have thrown at him.  But, I’m inclined to think that the third option is not supported in the text.  Nothing is said about him embezzling funds.  This is a fantastically cryptic parable, full of questions and interesting conclusions, and I encourage you to look at it again at some point.  Wherever you come out in your conclusion you’ll no doubt recognize that his situation was very much like the stories we could tell of our life.  “How do you choose wisely when the choices before you are equally less than desirable or unclear?”  “How do you make a good decision, particularly when your heart is being pulled in two directions?”  A friend of mine used to say, “How do you hit a straight lick with a crocked stick?”  How
can we be healed and whole when the source of our pain is often within us just as much as it is found outside of us?  From where is the source of our healing and wholeness to come?

So, what’s the gospel this morning? What can we learn from these two old stories; so old, yet so contemporary?  I think three things.  First: while we cannot live in this world without money – because this passage is about money and any other culturally valuable asset we have -  we can be honest and on our guard as to how it can claim our allegiance in spite of our responsibilities to people, even our promise to do justice.   History bears it out that wealth mixed with unchecked power has been the downfall of many a nation, a family, an individual.  And for some people it has produced in them a sickness that proves resistant to pleas for mercy and self-reflection – leaving them blind and broken.

I’m thinking that what Jesus might be saying to us regarding this manager who seemed to be playing fast and loose with his employer’s money is that we, too, should act shrewdly; act wisely, particularly in circumstances where the way forward is not clear.  We are to do our best
at navigating the ambiguities that come with doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God - in this world that is so filled with need and brokeness.  The Gospel writer Matthew records Jesus saying, “…so be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.”  Working for healing and wholeness – ours and someone else’s can be tricky.  And sometimes we’ll get it wrong.  But, often we’ll get it right!

I believe a second take away from these passages is that faith takes time to grow.  If your journey with the Spirit has been like mine – from belief to unbelief to skepticism to trust – then you understand that the Christian life is often one of wrestling with the Spirit with a divided heart; divided loyalties.  In this world we contend with concepts and ideas and realities and people that confound our heart and our head.  How do we make sense of it all?  How do we know when to speak and when not to speak?  When to wait and when to push forward?  The manager in Jesus’ parable took the initiative and acted on the side of compassion; although he caught heat about it with his employer.  Remember, he was commended for acting shrewdly.  Sometimes there is no right answer to a situation.  There’s just an opportunity to do what seems just and right.  Some things in life we just have to live into until we know more.  Faith takes time to grow on us.

And a third truth I think we can take from both of these passages when we look at the undeniable thread of truth that runs through all of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is that the God we know through Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is a covenant-keeping God.  Hear these promises of God to us:  “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; God will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31.6) I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued by faithfulness to you.” (Jer. 31.3)  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  (John 14:27)

Words, yes, but words that we have seen lived out in our lifetime: (1) when justice is won, (2) when minds and hearts are opened to think and behave in ways that welcome and not harm, (3) when inspiration regarding how to resolve a dilemma seemingly comes out of no where and is effective, (4) when we gather in spaces at tables with friends – new and old and the fellowship is something like a healing balm to the soul.

Village Church, the answer to Jeremiah’s question is “Yes” there is a balm in Gilead.  Gilead – now the region we know as the present-day Kingdom of Jordan -  was a region known for its medicinal plants and herbs.  But, it’s no longer the location of healing for the kind of dis-ease, dis-placement many of us feel.  As much as there are cures and correctives that we can receive from healthcare professionals that can bring about one particular kind of healing, we can be a critical source of a different kind healing for each other.  In spite of all our differences, our tendencies to discount our abilities, to accept the helping hand of the other, we can be a conduit of transformation for people around us; even our own.   Gilead is us.  We can be balms of calm, of compassion, of companionship.  We can with much mercy and grace lovingly speak a strong word that can set someone off on a needed course correction, maybe because someone has helped us in a similar way. We can be healed, if only as beautiful wounded healers. We can be whole, as whole as the chances and changes of life will bring us.

“Is there a balm in Gilead?”  Is there a balm in Toledo?  Yes, and we offer ourselves as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth to be a healing community for those who call out for healing and wholeness.  Together let us follow in the ways of Jesus the Christ!  Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

You Are God's Beloved by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

I remember the first Sunday Rock came to The Village. I learned later that he came because his son said, “You’re going to The Village Church today. I heard about it from someone at work and I think you’ll like it.” That first Sunday Rock could not look anyone in the eye. He spoke in a soft, tentative voice, betraying his lack of trust. Rock told me later that he did not think we could be for real. Christians are all fakes. No one could really be this kind and sincere. But that night my mom called Rock. My mom is so sweet; how can you be suspicious of my mom? Rock began to soften.
Fast forward a year.  Rock met Beth. They fell in love. They two of them came to church. They got married. I remember their wedding day. It was such a day of blessing. Rock had become a totally different person: outgoing and happy. Rock can look you in the eye now. Oh sure, they still have their ups and downs. Rock has had some health problems. But this church has changed Rock.
Rock knows one thing because of this church. Rock knows that he is God’s beloved child. And that makes all the difference in the world.
That’s the one message I want to leave with you. This is my last Sunday as your pastor. If there is only one message I can get through to you after eight years of being the pastor of The Village, I want it to be this: “You are God’s Beloved Child.” You are precious. You are unique. God made you and God loves you just the way you are. Period.
Jesus heard that message on his baptism day. He went down to the Jordan River where John was baptizing people. He asked John to baptize him. At first John was hesitant. John said that Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus insisted. So John baptized Jesus. And scripture says: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

         God claimed Jesus as God’s beloved child. And God said, “I’m pleased with you.” So this is the promise that we receive in our baptism too. We are each claimed as a beloved child of God. In our church, we hold baptism as a sacrament, a sacred event. We believe that once you receive the grace of the Holy Spirit in your baptism, nothing can reverse that gift. You can’t do something horrible, and then lose the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is always with you once you are baptized. The grace of God is always at work in your life. You can run away from God, but God never runs away from you. God lives inside of you. I tell children that the water of baptism is like an invisible tattoo, telling you that you are a child of God. 

Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite spiritual writers and he has written a whole book about being beloved children of God, called Life of the Beloved. He wrote the book for a friend of his named Fred who was not a Christian. The friend wanted Henri to write a book for him and his friends about his faith. I want to read to you some sections of that book that I think are the most powerful:

“Fred, all I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – ‘You are the Beloved.’ 

“….Yes there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’ It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: ‘You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.’

“These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the great trap. It is the trap of self-rejection. Over the years I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection…. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone or abandoned, I find myself thinking: ‘Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.’ Instead of taking a critical look at the circumstances or trying to understand my own and others’ limitations, I tend to blame myself – not just for what I did, but for who I am. My dark side says: ‘I am no good…I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected and abandoned.’ (Life of the Beloved, pp. 26-27)

“That soft, gentle voice that calls me the Beloved has come to me in countless ways. My parents, friends, teachers, students and the many strangers who crossed my path have all sounded that voice in different tones. I have been cared for by many people with much tenderness and gentleness….I have been encouraged to keep going when I was ready to give up and was stimulated to try again when I failed. I have been rewarded and praised for success…but, somehow, all of these signs of love were not sufficient to convince me that I was the Beloved. Beneath all my seemingly strong self-confidence there remained the question: ‘If all those who shower me with so much attention could see me and know me in my innermost self, would they still love me?’ 

“….Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved.’

“Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say: ‘I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace …I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. . . . I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover and your spouse. . . yes, even your child. . . wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.’

“Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper.” (Life of the Beloved, pp. 30-31.)

I wanted to read you so much of Henri Nouwen’s writing about being the beloved because I think he has such insight into how we can claim our belovedness. The great trap really is self-rejection. In my counseling, as a pastor, I see this over and over again. People don’t believe they are loveable. They say, “God can love anyone except me. I just don’t feel worthy.” But here’s the great thing. We don’t have to be worthy. We don’t have to earn God’s love. God just gives it to us. It’s a free gift. That’s why we call it grace. 

So my friends, receive God’s love. Don’t question it. Don’t overthink it. Just be grateful. You are blessed. You are a gift. You are God’s beloved child. Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Not Forgotten by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

There are times when Jesus’ actions just don’t make sense (for those following along from afar, we read Luke 15:1-32 from the Message paraphrase in worship). These parables just aren’t logical. First of all there is this shepherd. The shepherd has 100 sheep. One goes missing. 
Rather than being thankful for the 99, the shepherd leaves them unattended to go and look for the one that is missing. Who does that? It does not make sense. He leaves the 99 at risk for being stolen or getting lost themselves. But Jesus says that the shepherd goes to look for the one, and he rejoices with his friends when he finds the one who had been lost.
That’s how much God loves us. God is not satisfied until God has every one of us in God’s care. It’s not logical. It’s love. Jesus says there is more joy in heaven over the one sinner who is found than there is over the 99 righteous people. 

Then Jesus tells another story. A woman had ten coins. She lost one. She sweeps her house from top to bottom looking for the lost coin and then throws a party with her friends to rejoice. She probably spends more than the value of that lost coin on food and drink for the party with her friends. What sense does that make? No sense at all. But Jesus is making the point that God is not satisfied until every person is found and included in the circle of God’s family. No one can be forgotten. No one can be left behind. That’s how much God loves us. Every one of us. No one can be left out. 

Then there’s the story of the prodigal son. This story makes no sense. In the story, the younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. He leaves home, goes into the city and blows all his money on wild living. He ends up broke and gets a job feeding the pigs. He realizes that the hired hands on his father’s farm have it better than he does so he goes home to apologize to his father and ask for a job on the farm. But his father greets him with open arms when he comes home. He gives him a robe and the family ring. He gives instructions to kill the fatted calf and prepare a feast because his son who was left for dead has now returned home. 

Now the father had every reason to be angry at the younger brother. He had wasted his inheritance. The father should have disowned him and sent him away in shame. But the father, who represents God in the story, did not do this. The older brother, of course, is flabbergasted at his father’s actions. The older brother comes in from the fields and finds a feast being prepared for his low life brother. He is furious. He finds his father and says, “How could you do this? I have been here all these years working faithfully for you. You’ve never thrown a party for me and my friends. My brother goes off and wastes your money and he comes home and you throw him a party. It’s not fair.” 

The father tells the brother, “I love you both. You have been here with me and of course I love you. But your brother was lost. He was left for dead and now he is home. We must celebrate and rejoice at his return.”

You see, God never forgets us. No matter how far away from God we may turn, God never forgets us. And God is not satisfied until each one of us is part of God’s family. 

At one time or another each of us has been the lost sheep, the lost coin or the prodigal son. We were the one lost from God. This is the season in life when we were far away from God. Maybe you are in that season now. It’s a season when your life is out of sync with God and God’s desires for you. Sometimes it lasts a few hours, a few days or weeks, or maybe a few years. 

Perhaps you fall into an addiction that you know is not good for you. Or an affair. These are serious matters that turn you away from God and God’s desire for your life. You may need professional help in order to turn your life back around. 

A season of being lost can be a season when we fail to pray and communicate with God. We turn away from God because we get too busy with work and children and responsibilities of running a home. Just like that prodigal son, we wake up one morning and realize that we have made some big mistakes. We are lost from God. We have lost ourselves. 

This is the good news. You are never lost from God. You are never forgotten. God always knows where you are. God always knows your heart. And God loves you. God will forgive your sins. And God will receive you into God’s arms of blessing. All you have to do is ask. 

Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God wants to welcome us home. God wants to be in relationship with us. 

So what do you do when you find yourself separated from God? The first thing to do is to ask for forgiveness. Confess your sins and know that God will forgive you. This is no small thing. Then forgive yourself. That is also no small thing. It’s hard to forgive ourselves. Then make a plan for how you will live your life in sync with God and God’s desires for you.

Coming to worship on a regular basis is essential. We need this weekly time of corporate worship to praise God, to hear the word of God and to be surrounded by God’s people. Personal prayer is also essential. We need a daily time of prayer to check in with God, to listen to God and to hear God’s desire for us. This is how we stay in step with God. This is how we remember that we belong to God, when we pray every day. 

The most important thing is to remember you are not forgotten. No matter how far from God you may stray, God never strays from you.  So if you’re in a season of feeling lost, I invite you to come home. Come home to God your creator. You belong to God and God loves you. And if you’re not feeling lost, rejoice that you already have a home with God. Don’t take this home for granted. Nurture your relationship with God through daily prayer. You belong to God and God loves you. 

Let us pray: God we give thanks that we have a home in you. We are never forgotten. We thank you that like a good shepherd, when we get lost, you come looking for us. Help us to stay close to you. We love you and we need you. Amen.