A Total Eclipse of the Heart

Let me begin by stating that I’ve never really liked the song, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s such a sad song. Yet, since the eclipse of August 21, 2017 I can’t get it out of my mind. Maybe because it explains what’s been going on in our country and around the world. Up until this eclipse, individuals have been in a sort of their own total eclipse of the heart. Increasingly, people are looking out for number one. Yet, the time leading up to the eclipse had people focusing on this cosmic event in a way that really struck me. People were communicating to each other on where buy or how to make special glasses, and they even traveled across the country to see the event together. Large groups gathered as a community to watch the event. True, it won’t happen again for quite a long time, but I’ve been amazed at the effect it had on people. I have to admit, that even I was eagerly anticipating seeing even a partial eclipse. People all over the country were of one mind; they were focusing on one thing, and communicating. Something extraordinary was about to happen. And it did. It was more than just a total eclipse of the sun; it was something that changed people. Their total eclipse of the heart –darkened and shaded by doubt and fear – had been opened a little bit. While the sun was growing dim, hearts were growing brighter.  Something changed people’s hearts that day. Instead of fighting and arguing people were helping one another witness this extraordinary event. The media relayed pictures of people – young and old, black and white, gay and straight, different ethnic, economic, and political backgrounds – all united together in this rare experience. And that is what moved me even more than the celestial event.  It moved me to see – even if briefly – that everyone can get along. Everyone can put aside our differences. There can be peace. If we have the ability to come together for an event like this, surely we can come together to bring justice and peace for all. Love, like the sun, can break through the total eclipse of the heart.

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Hitting the Pause Button

Sunday, August 27, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 16:13-20

 

There’s a lot going on in our congregation right now.  We’re gearing up for God’s Work. Our Hands Sunday, Rally Day, the Fall Festival, and many other events that you’ll see highlighted in our upcoming newsletter. There’s a lot going on in our personal lives too.  Children, youth, and young adults are heading back to school, summer vacations are coming to a close, and most of us continue to juggle the everyday ups and downs of life. Something is always going on; there’s always competing things vying for our attention. And the news in our country and our world pulls us in different directions too. So much is also happening – good and bad – and it’s impossible to avoid the bad. In fact, it’s our responsibility as Christians to pay attention to anything that hurts another human being. This weekend our attention is focused on those who are devastated by Hurricane Harvey. There are so many things that are competing for our attention and focus.

We can become overwhelmed with all that is going on, with all that is around us. Some people have told me, “I just need to take a media break,” and that’s certainly not only understandable, but a good idea from time to time. Sometimes we just need to hit the pause button – like when we’re watching something on television –  and stop everything.  Today is time for us to do that as we gather outdoors in worship and take time for fellowship at our congregational picnic.  Periodically, we need to hit the pause button – wherever we are – and re-focus, re-connect with what’s most important.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Matthew’s gospel account today. Jesus and the early disciples were outside – not in the temple – but 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in Cesarea Philippi. . It was a strange setting. Cesarea Philippi was a place filled throughout the centuries with all kinds of temples and idols to various gods. There was a giant marble temple built for Caesar Augustus and his son Philippi who were worshipped as gods (That’s how it got its name.), a temple to the Syrian god Baal, a temple to the Greek god Pan – god of shepherds and flocks and various other temples. It was a familiar setting, but a strange one to pause and reflect on what was most important. We need these moments to pause, to re-balance ourselves, re-focus ourselves on what it is that really matters in life rather than going through life on auto pilot.

It was here that Jesus asked them to pause – look around at all those competing images, all those other powers that try and ask for attention and devotion – and answer the question that brings everything into focus, “Who do you say that I am?” In the midst of competing images and powers, Jesus is asking us the same question, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s the defining question of our lives, because it’s the question that puts everything in focus. How we answer that question – not how anyone else answers it – makes all the difference in the world, and to the world.

There are other defining questions to be sure like, “Will you marry me?” And that is a life-changing question. But Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is the most life-changing, because who Jesus is to us determines the course of all our actions. If Jesus is a prophet like John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah, then he is just one among many of God’s messengers that we may/may not pay attention to as flawed humans. If Jesus is a historical figure that existed at a certain time thousands of years ago, then we may hear his words as inspiring, but no different than the words from any other person from a time far removed from us today. But if we say – like Peter, through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit – that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” then everything we do is changed. Because to profess Jesus as the Messiah – the Savior – the Son of the living God – is to profess that Jesus is our focus. Jesus is more important than anything or anyone else in our lives. Jesus is our reason for living. To profess Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God is to acknowledge that all life-giving power resides in Jesus. To profess Jesus as the Messiah – the Son of the living God – is to know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is alive, he is risen, and is working through the Holy Spirit to continue God’s mission of love for all the earth. We need to pause and think about the impact of this confession of faith.

This pause to re-focus and re-center our lives based on this confession changes us. So many things try and lead us in so many different directions, often the wrong directions. That’s why is so important to pause and reflect on the question Jesus asks us today, “Who do you say that I am?”  Every week during worship we make our confession of faith in the creed, but so often we don’t pause to really reflect on what it is we are saying. Do we truly believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of the living God, who will deliver us from all our burdens?

The challenges in life can at times seem overwhelming. It is hard to deal with one tough thing after another. Yet when we pause to re-focus, we realize that we aren’t alone, and that Jesus is willing to take our burdens on himself. Trusting in Jesus eases our burdens. Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, doesn’t mean life will always be easy or that we’ll always understand – we’ll hear the continuation of this story and Peter’s subsequent remarks next week – but being a Christian means we literally pledge our allegiance, our loyalty, our life, to Jesus who has the power to overcome even death. We re-focus on letting Jesus be in control and not us.

We need to take the time to pause – to answer “Who is Jesus to me?” not anyone else. When we do this we see God at work in the world where we may not have seen God before. This past summer our interactive bulletin board has been filling up with post-it notes of where you have seen Jesus in your travels. Some of the responses so far are: “Watching my garden thrive and grow.” Yes, we see God in the beauty of nature as other post-its continue: “The bounty of Steve’s garden.” “In the beauty of the sunset,” and the “beauty of a day lily tour at a friend’s garden.” Other responses talk about how God works through people such as: “Sand art of Christ in Ocean City, NJ Boardwalk.” “a special blessing – a vist to our grandson and wife Nevin and Lauren in Walford, MD.”“A hug and smile from ‘my grands!’” “Enjoying a week at the ocean with family,” “Cousins breakfast’ with the grandchildren.” “the kindness of strangers.” “The support and encouragement from friends who listen,” and “the healing of God’s hand.” God continues to be revealed in nature. Jesus continues to work through others. Please pause and look around to be aware of God’s presence, and share them on the bulletin board for all to see.

“Who do you say that I am?” This question is for each and every one of us as members of the body of Christ. We – the church – not a building made of rocks or stone or brick – but we the living rocks – like Peter – are who Jesus has built the foundation of his church. We, the church, are not a stationary building, but mobile missionaries. We take the church with us wherever we go.

How we answer who Jesus is matters to the world because it determines how we treat one another.  Hit pause and show the world who Jesus is – the Savior of the entire world. Hit pause to use our diverse gifts to show others the love, compassion, kindness, mercy, and faithfulness of Jesus. He is our Rock, our Redeemer, our salvation whose deliverance will never end. Hit the pause button – re-focus – and give thanks for Jesus, then let’s live our lives so that his light is seen through us. Amen!

Words of Healing and Life

Sunday, August 20, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

 

“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you.” So go the words to the phrase from the early 19th century to try and soften the blow when someone is ridiculed. It’s supposed to make you feel better. To think that if you aren’t physically hurt, that the words are just words. But words do hurt. And words, especially cruel ones, can cause a great deal of emotional damage. They can leave scars that last a lifetime. Jesus said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” He was trying to make the religious leaders at that time, and those who were trying to follow the letter of the law understand that it wasn’t about eating the wrong foods, or not washing your hands – all purity laws – that make a person unclean. Rather Jesus emphasized that you can follow all the right religious laws,
but if your heart is not in the right place – a heart not filled with love and compassion – then you are unclean. And words that come from the heart, especially cruel ones, can cause damage. Like toothpaste that squeezed out of the tube, once these words are out you can’t put them back.

Insults have been around for as long as people have been alive. It seems to be part of our human sinful nature to sling hurtful words. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re doing it, but more often than not we know exactly what we’re doing. We speak them when we want to get back at someone for hurting us, or because they’re different and we feel we are better than they are, or because we think they threaten us in some way. We use hurtful words to keep people out of certain groups. We create clicks of who is in and who is out. The recent events in Charlottesville, VA and Barcelona, Spain are just a couple examples of what happens when intolerance, and hatred toward people who are different is allowed to fester and grow in our hearts. This evil starts small – an angry thought, then thoughts of wanting to be rid of the person who is different, ignoring them, bullying, name calling and slander, treating them insultingly at the store, not approving a loan at a bank because they are a certain ethnicity – all real-life examples – and eventually it leads to outright hatred, violence, and even death.  And this evil is what Jesus warned us to resist over and over again. He came to show us through his life how we are to treat others. He came to deliver us from this evil that tries to take hold of our hearts.

It wasn’t any different when Matthew’s gospel was written. Different cultural, ethnic, and religious groups kept the outsiders away. The Israelites were God’s chosen people and Gentiles, or non-believers were considered pagans and called dogs in a derogatory manner. The Canaanite woman in today’s story was known by the Israelites as a dog. She was the enemy, an outsider, an outcast, who didn’t look the same, act the same, talk the same, or even worship in the same way as the Israelites. And she was a woman – an outcast just from her gender . Yet she saw something that even the disciples at times didn’t see. She saw who Jesus really was and knew – with all her heart – that Jesus could help her. Sometimes the outcasts have a better insight into things than we do. Often someone on the outside can see things with a better perspective, but we have to take the time to listen with an open heart. This Canaanite woman was taking a great risk in asking for help, but sometimes the cause is great enough – great enough to speak out.

And so this outsider – this enemy – who was commonly referred to as a dog, came begging to Jesus for help. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” We don’t know what was wrong with her daughter, but it was enough to go into town and face the ridicule and the stares. She addressed Jesus as Son of David. This is quite a shock –since one would not expect a pagan Canaanite woman to call Jesus this name. Surely this would grab Jesus’ attention. But he didn’t say a word. He seemed to not even acknowledge her. And so she kept on shouting. No matter where they went, there she was, shouting after them. Not giving up, and making a complete spectacle of herself! “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,” the disciples urged. It’s easy to dismiss the cries for help from people we have closed our hearts to because they are different. Even Jesus answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Does that mean that this woman’s pleas were falling on deaf ears? Did Jesus really not care about her at all? It makes you wonder, but this story comes immediately after Jesus told the disciples that what comes out of the mouth is what defiles. It would seem that this is a perfect illustration of what Jesus what trying to teach them. He deliberately went into enemy territory, knowing that he would most likely encounter someone considered “the enemy.”

Jesus didn’t have to go to that area. He could have avoided it. But Jesus wasn’t one to avoid confrontation. And neither was this woman. She knew she was considered the enemy. She knew people looked down on her. She knew that she was going to be insulted and ridiculed. And she knew that she could even be killed, but she was willing to speak up on behalf of someone else. She was willing to risk it all when she fell on her knees and cried out, “Lord, help me,” just like Peter last week. They both risked it all in order to be closer to Jesus, in order to receive his saving grace, in order to be delivered. This Canaanite woman wasn’t beyond shouting, and begging Jesus for the same grace and mercy that he showed to the Israelites. Faith takes risks, and Jesus acknowledged her faith, and rewarded her for it. He heard her cries for help and acted. He hears the cries of those today.

There are people today begging to be included instead of treated like outsiders.  Crying out to stop being insulted and called names or even killed because they are different. Jesus tells us that God’s grace is for all people and that we are to treat one another with kindness, compassion, mercy, tenderness, and love. Anyone or any group that tries to tell us otherwise is speaking contrary to Jesus who said that however we treat others is how we treat him. When we mistreat another person it hurts God to the core, because it is hurting Jesus.

We as Jesus’ disciples cannot be silent in the face of evil. We cannot be silent when people are being mistreated. We cannot be silent when the life of anyone is in danger, because we are all God’s precious children.  The story of this unnamed Canaanite woman is an example to us to speak out for those who need help, just as she did for her daughter, just as Jesus did for us.

Just as we cannot put toothpaste back in the tube once it’s been squeezed out, we can’t take back hurtful and evil words once they are out. We can’t bring lives back once they are dead. But thanks be to God that Jesus can bring life back from the dead. Jesus can open our hearts and create in us a beautiful spirit – a spirit of peace and love, a spirit of compassion and mercy, a spirit of faith and courage to live like Jesus wants us to live – lifting up others instead of tearing them down.

Let us pray each day the offertory prayer we pray each week from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” May God change our hearts to live our lives with the heart of Jesus, to listen with the compassion of Jesus, and to speak words of healing and life in the name of Jesus to bring peace on earth. Amen.

Holding On

Sunday, August 13, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matt. 14:22-33

Go on ahead of me; I’ll catch up with you later. Haven’t we all said this at one time or another? We make plans to do something with our friends and we remember we have something we need to do first. So we tell them to go ahead and we’ll meet them there, wherever there is.

That’s exactly what Jesus said to the disciples in today’s Gospel. He had just fed the multitudes with 5 loaves and 2 fish and he said to the disciples you go get in the boat and I’ll catch up with you later. He wanted to go up to the mountain, away from the crowds, and pray. It was time for Jesus to focus on his mission on earth, and the way he kept his focus was by maintaining a close relationship with God through prayer.

Meanwhile, while Jesus was focused in prayer, back in the boat the disciples were losing their focus. These fishermen who were used to rough seas from time to time, were really getting hammered by quite a storm. Matthew’s gospel says the boat was “battered by the waves.” It was not a peaceful fishing trip that they were on. And as the storm grew more and more fierce the disciples grew fearful, but it wasn’t the storm that terrified them – they were used to rocky seas. No, it was seeing someone walking on the water! That’s what terrified them. It wasn’t the waves or the wind it was what they thought was a ghost! When you’re out on the rough waters you don’t expect someone to be walking on the water!

But it was Jesus. How could they not see that it was Jesus? How could they not recognize him? They were friends. They ate together, fished together, laughed together. He was like one of them, except for the miracles. There were the miracles. This image walking on the water didn’t look like Jesus though. This image, this ghostly apparition, was frightening. It was powerful. It walked on the chaotic waters. It defied the laws of nature. This was something all- together too powerful. It’s quite possible that after being in the storm that long, that things looked all together different. When you’re being battered by a storm – any kind of storm – you just aren’t thinking straight anymore. You’re literally taken over by the storm, and it’s easy to lose your focus.

At one time or another we’ll all experience one or more storms like this. A period in our lives when the problems seems overwhelming, when the news seems too unbearable to believe, when we feel like we can’t even catch our breath, and we feel like we’re sinking – drowning in a sea of turmoil, fear, or uncertainty. And though we may try to keep our focus on Jesus, the storms may seem so big that we can only see the storm, which only increased our fear and anxiety. And when that happens we can become paralyzed by fear – stuck ….between wanting to go back to the past, yet at the same time afraid to move forward. We feel like we’re sinking.

That’s exactly how Peter felt. Only Peter was literally sinking in the water. It’s tempting to ask why Peter didn’t just stay in the boat? Why did he have to tempt things by trying to walk on the water? The truth is that Peter wasn’t trying to do some kind of magic trick. He wasn’t trying to show off to everyone that he – like Jesus – could also walk on the water. What Peter did – despite the raging storm – was take a risk – do something that seemed crazy at the time – in order to be close to Jesus. Peter could have stayed in the boat because Jesus was already walking toward them, but Peter couldn’t wait. Peter was so eager to see Jesus again that he wanted to go out and meet him in the middle of that storm. Do we have that kind of reckless passion for Jesus that we are willing to brave the storm, risk failing, to get closer to Jesus?

Getting closer to Jesus in a world that’s trying to pull us in the opposite direction – like wind and waves that are against us – is courageous. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s feeling the fear and doing what we know we have to do – what we are called to do – anyway. Jesus called Peter in the midst of the storm, “Come.” He calls us as well. “Come.”  And like Peter, we need to risk failing. We need to risk looking like a fool at times. We need to risk whatever it takes to get closer to Jesus, because even if the storms try to pull us down – even if take our focus off Jesus and start to go under – Jesus is right there to catch us. Jesus risked everything to come to us, and Jesus will always rescue us.

Today’s Gospel message is not about Peter coming to Jesus; it’s about Jesus coming to Peter, and each to each one of us. There may be times when we feel Jesus has gone off and abandoned us, but the truth is that he is always near. Our fears and anxieties may try and persuade us that the storms are bigger than our God, but our God is bigger and mightier than any storm – past, present, or future. That is Jesus’ promise to each and every one of us today. He says to us, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Why do we doubt? Why do we think for a moment that our God who became flesh and died and rose again for us would ever leave us? Jesus has promised to be with us always, and he will never break his promises.

A Vietnamese monk, peace activist, poet and writer named Thich Nhat Hahn wrote that “The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth.” That’s a real miracle at times isn’t it. It’s hard to walk on the earth, sometimes it seems almost impossible. We have to face things we don’t want to face. Undergo storms that we’d wish would never come. We look at the winds of change and may be frightened or terrified at what we see. But Jesus promises us, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It is the faithful and merciful God who walks toward us. Who walks on top of the chaos of life, who rules over the turbulent waters and the troubled earth. We need not fear. It is the Great I AM who saw a suffering world and filled with compassion reached out from heaven and sent a Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes to live among us and bring us hope. It is the Great I AM who hung on cross to save us from death itself and redeem our souls.  It is the Great I AM who rose from the dead and is alive – walking with us, abiding in us, stirring up the Holy Spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words when our words are gone. It is the Great I Am who reaches out in love to grasp us from whatever is holding us down, and rescues us. No matter where we are, no matter what situation we find ourselves in, Jesus is there holding on to us, even when we think we can’t hold on. Thanks be to God for this mighty, loving, and gracious Savior. Amen.