A Prayer for Today

Sacred Wholeness: 

Inspire our hearts, feet, & hands to be your expansive love in the face of hostility and hatred and fear. Help us to retain your essence of compassion and favor for those on the margins. May we embrace your calling of love and justice in “just such a time as this.” Amen. 

###

Related Scripture Readings
Luke 12:22, 25, & 31
Micah 6:8
Mark 12:30-31
Esther 4:14

I Beeped, He Flipped

I Beeped, He Flipped

From his perspective, I came from out of nowhere. He saw an opening and pulled his Jeep out of the center turn lane. That’s when he heard a beep, looking back to see the bright green car.

I turned into the drive lane from the side street. Assuming the Jeep in the turn lane would stay put, I accelerated. That’s when it  pulled out, nearly taking the front end off my car.

I beeped; he flipped.

He showed me his middle finger from inside his car. Going the same way,  I stopped behind him at the light. Apparently, not sure I’d seen his middle finger, he held it out his window.

I suppose I should have reacted so he knew I’d seen his finger. He pointed at me using the outside mirror and showed me his middle finger again. I didn’t react.

Red-faced, he energetically pointed at me and showed me his middle finger yet again. I didn’t react. He pointed and showed it to me a fifth and sixth time. Finally I understood. He needed some closure. I gave him what I hoped would be a submissive shrug.

That seemed to satisfy him.

***

Like the driver of the Jeep, we all want to be seen and heard. I could have felt threatened. (A small part of me did.) However, I chose to remain calm, mustering empathy. Like my companion driver, stressors can negatively impact my driving or my relationship with others.

I am thankful for the empathy that helped me perceive what the angry driver needed. In calmness and empathy, I saw the divinity within a sojourning human being.

___

Luke 6:27-31

Am I Wasting What Time I Have?

It can be extremely rewarding and gratifying but this month, it is hard. Ministry is hard.

We spend half our time 165-miles apart and I’m done with it. Done, done, done. I ache. We’ve been at this for over three years. Before that we dealt with 350-miles for the three years while I was in seminary. There was a brief period between in which we lived together, in which we slept in the same bed every night.

I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re challenged by separation and distance. In my focused meditative Bible reading leading up to my seminary years, I perceived the Holy Spirit speaking to me about the cost of my call. Following God can sometimes involve leaving family behind, at least for a time.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Turning to them, he said,  “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:25-27 CEB

No, I don’t think God is trying to break us up.  The still speaking God, however, hinted to me about the very kind of challenges we’re enduring. I naively thought they would end once we finished my seminary years.

I’ve grown weary about what it means for a clergy couple to respond to our individual calls from God and remain true to our marriage vows. We both work hard in our respective ministries. We also remain strongly committed to one another and make good use of texting, phoning, and Facetime to maintain our relationship.

But it is hard.

Ministry can be lonely work under the best of circumstances. When you are faced with personal struggles of loneliness, there is often no one to whom you can turn. The role of the pastor (me) and the chaplain (my wife) is to listen to others rather than talk about our own problems.

I have found healthy ways to cope. I exercise regularly. I maintain friendships of mutuality outside of my tiny community to the extent I’m able. I sit with my feelings and accept them without judgement. (Well, sometimes.)

But it is hard, especially in weeks like the last few.

Having survived Holy Week with its extra pressures and services, I looked forward to some downtime with my wife. As is prone to happen, death comes on its own schedule rather than on mine. Word reached me that a beloved member of our church was nearing his final breath. I kissed my wife and traveled 165-miles to be with the dying saint of the church. I did not get to pray with him the one last time I’d hoped. He died while I was en route.

The time apart from my wife has been more emotionally difficult since this death. I’ve been weepy. I’ve been clingy. I’ve been a bit on the controlling side.

This is what sometimes happen when standing and praying with a widow as she bids the body of her husband of six and a half decades goodbye. Her emotions mingle with my own and I wonder if I’m wasting the little time I have with my own beloved to minister to others.

Ministry is hard, especially when my emotions get all tangled with others.

I don’t know whether I’m wasting the little time I have with my own spouse. At the end of the day being a non-anxious presence for others, I just don’t know. All I can do is sit as quiet tears fall down my face.

Does God Play Favorites?

Does God Play Favorites?
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves

When I saw it, I thought apartment building. When she saw it, she thought Swiss cheese.

Climbing the ridge I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!” 

So, who was right? Were either of us right?

In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.

She? I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at Swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.

Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.

We all do this. A lot.

We use our own frame of reference to describe and understand things we encounter. The words and pictures and thought patterns we use when we do this reflect as much about us as the object or event. In other words, how we describe and understand things reflects who we are. It’s true of tree stumps, of our politics, and of the Bible.

***

The Bible.

There is no such thing as a fully objective reading of scripture. We can mitigate the risks of eisegesis. Eisegesis is the fancy term for reading our own ideas or desires into the Bible rather than allowing the meanings of the text to be drawn out.

That is, we impose our ideas on the Bible instead of letting it speak to us. 

We can lessen but never eliminate these personal and cultural biases from our understanding of the text. This is one of the reasons it is helpful to read scripture together in diverse community. Each of us hear slightly different things.

By bouncing thoughts off of one another we can more accurately hear the voices of our ancient kindred describing how they understood God.  We also — and most importantly — can more accurately perceive God’s still speaking voice and dream for our lives in the twenty-first century.

***

I tell you this because too often our personal history and our preconceived ideas block us from the power, the depth and the radicalism of God’s dream for humanity.

Our life experiences change what we think the Bible says regardless of what meaning was intended by the original writers. The only way around this is to build our own self- and cultural awareness within diverse community.

***

Consider, as people of relative means, when we hear Luke’s report of Jesus preaching,

Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33 CEB

As people of relative means, when we hear Jesus preach this, we tend to view it as a suggestion or as hyperbole because it demands a lot of us. It demands that we live differently than our culture and capitalism tell us to live. And, so, we interpret away our obligation.

Sometimes, we talk about spiritual poverty and pretend that Jesus was more concerned about how you and I feel about God than about physically feeding the poor or economic injustices in our world.

OR.

OR we say it is unrealistic and surely SURELY God doesn’t expect us to give up everything, not really. Sometimes we act like Jesus said, “clean out your kitchen cabinets and give the canned goods to the poor.”

Not bad to share food but not exactly what Jesus said.

OR.

OR we just dismiss it because, well, because we don’t want our faith to inconvenience us.

We can intellectualize away passages like this if we are not poor. However, it is more than just being able to intellectualize passages away. We actually hear what Jesus is saying differently because of our relative wealth.

Imagine if you can, how this same event sounds if you’re impoverished. Imagine you work three jobs and still keep falling behind on your bills.

Imagine that people look down their noses at you on the street.

Imagine your body is growing old before its time because you’ve lived most of your life without adequate health care and it’s hard to take a sick day even now because it means losing pay.

Hear how Jesus’ words might sound if you were poor. Listen as the poor person I described. I’m reading from Matthew’s version of the event this time.

Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”  Matthew 19:21 CEB

I don’t know about you but I hear Jesus affirm God’s favor for the poor.

And this is just one passage. Depending upon how narrowly or widely you define the terms, the Bible either addresses the needs of the poor and needy three hundred times or over two-thousand times. Either number is significant.

Either number is far, far above the number of times the Bible talks about, oh I dunno, homosexuality or abortion (zero) or unfaithfulness in marriage. The significance of the number is true no matter how widely we define our terms to do the counting of references.

If the biblical witness reflects the experiences of our ancient kindred with God, than God is deeply concerned about economic injustice in human society.That is, if our claim that the Bible is a collection of the stories, experiences, and theologies of our ancient forebears and that God speaks through the scripture, shouldn’t one of our chief concerns as Christians be the poor?

Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the Bible’s sheer numerical and thematic concern for the poor God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Says Gutiérrez:

But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.

***

Does God play favorites? The short answer is yes. Jesus didn’t make this stuff up himself, though he clearly taught and preached it.  God’s concern for the poor is embedded in Jesus’ lived Judaism. It was ingrained in his day to day faith.

Recall that as a good Jew, Jesus’ own Bible was roughly our Old Testament. Not only would Jesus have known what we number as Psalm 113, scholar James L. Mays points out that as a traditional psalm sung at Passover,

The psalm would have been the first sung by Jesus and the disciples in the celebration of their last supper… (Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by James L. Mays, Kindle loc. 7104)

Listen again to the first two verses:

Praise the Lord!

    You who serve the Lord—praise!
    Praise the Lord’s name!

Let the Lord’s name be blessed
    from now until forever from now!

Psalm 113:1-2 CEB

As you may recall, the Book of Psalms is a collection of writings and songs. More than any other book of our Bible it directly reflects the words of the people in relationship with God.

This particular psalm is a praise hymn that, along with 114, would be sung at the start of Passover. Notice how as this hymn progresses, the writer not only calls the people to worship but also gives reasons for doing so.

The LORD is high over all the nations;
God’s glory is higher than the skies!
Who could possibly
compare to the LORD our God? Psalm 113:4-5a CEB

Then in this hymn of praise, God’s particular concern for the poor is restated. Imagine as you hear this, Jesus and his disciples singing this on that last night of Jesus’ life.

God lifts up the poor from the dirt
and raises up the needy
from the garbage pile
to seat them with leaders—
with the leaders of his own people Psalm 113:7-8 CEB

As they sang it, they would have appreciated the poetry in the language in ways which we lose in English. The Hebrew verb yashav which is repeated in verses five, eight, and nine

suggest[s] that when God condescends from on high to raise up the lowly, God is exchanging some part of God’s nature and character with the humans that God is saving. (Beverly Roberts Gaventa & David Petersen, Eds., New Interpreters Bible (One Volume) Commentary, p. 341)

Jesus and his disciples understood God’s “preferential option for the poor” and reflected it not only in their teaching and healing and other daily actions but in their liturgical practices.

***

Does God Play Favorites? Yes.

It makes me squirm as it should you. It means that my wealth is a hindrance to my faith. It means that I ought to be doing more to unravel the sinful tapestry of our economic system, the one that keeps too many citizens of our world in poverty.

It means Jesus was serious.

We are called to live with less — to give away our possessions — and share with the poor. We’re called to follow the teachings of Jesus, to mimic his life by living like and among those without. In so doing, the poor, the needy, and the oppressed will be lifted up.

Jesus was serious. God is serious. It’s time that the church get serious about fundamental social change that benefits the oppressed and impoverished.

This is our great sin. This is our great hypocrisy. We sing songs of praise but too often leave out the verses that talk about how God comes down from on high to lift up those in need. We gloss over or forget that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

We keep waiting for God to fix the church or lift up the poor or end all manner of sins in the world but fail to respond to God’s beckoning voice calling us to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

We ignore what it means for God to play favorites for the poor and oppressed while we ignore the the teachings of Jesus calling us to let go of our wealth and dismantle the systems of oppression under which poor people are trapped.

We fail to do what the prophet Micah tells us God requires of us,

“to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8b CEB)

Sometimes we fail because our wealth and preconceived ideas keep us from hearing God’s still challenging voice. Sometimes we fail because we don’t like what Jesus teaches or what our ancient kindred heard God saying.

Often, it is just too much for us — me included — to admit that God favors the very people who we feel uncomfortable among. And, so, we alleviate our guilt by alleviating the symptoms.

But God calls us to radicalism.

Jesus teaches a new social order in which the poor are lifted from the dirt and the needy are raised from the garbage pile and seated among the leaders, the very leaders of God’s own people. (Psalm 113:7-8 CEB)

In the words of Gustavo Guitiérrez,

the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

Does God play favorites? Yes, yes God does. The difficult question is the next one: what are we going to do about it?

Are we prepared to align our interests, our favorites with God’s priorities?  As individuals and as community, as church, are we prepared to embrace the radicalism of the faith we profess?

Amen.

___

This sermon was preached at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, July 5, 2015.

license cc

The Company House & the Room Above the Garage

The Company House & the Room Above the Garage
emptyingbarnslogo
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ Luke 12: 20-21 NRSV

Looking around the living room I said, “We don’t own much in this room.”

I’m not attached to the overstuffed couch from another era, though it naps well. The glass-topped coffee table, functionally repaired many times is sturdy and large enough to hold dinner plates for two. We do own the Ikea bookcases and their contents but not the industrial strength desk.

“We don’t own much in the bedroom, either,” she said.

“No, the bed is theirs and so is that ugly nightstand. That funky plant stand your boss was getting rid of is ours, though.”

We live in the partially furnished parsonage owned by the church I serve in a tiny, isolated eastern Oregon town. We live in the company house with canyons of empty cabinets and closet space.

***

Room Above the Garage. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
Room Above the Garage. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

“We own everything in this room,” she said in a follow up conversation a few days later.

Ninety miles away in the tourist town where my wife serves as a hospital chaplain, we rent a room above a garage. It is a place for my wife to sleep when she’s on call. In it we have an Ikea sleeping mat on the floor, a dresser, a tiny couch, and a twenty dollar coffee table.

***

“Let’s do it,” she finally agreed. I had been pushing us to divest of our possessions for a long time. We’d been dabbling in getting rid of things for a couple of decades but somehow we never took a serious plunge.

On that August night, sitting on the bed we owned in a house we owned, we decided to respond to God’s claim on our lives by getting rid of all but what would fit in the two cars we planned to move with us across the country. We later amended those parameters to allow us to ship twenty-five boxes of professional books in addition.

That process of responding to God’s call to move 2600 miles on the basis of “a Holy Spirit moment” coupled with giving up most of what we own was filled with learnings and emotions. I blogged about my experiences of what we dubbed Emptying Barns, the Year of Letting Go of Stuff.

***

“I haven’t looked at a lot of these books since we moved to Oregon,” I said.

“Me, either,” she replied. We looked at each other with gazes that meant action. Fresh off of reading Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Art of Tidying,” we were both inspired to renew our divestment of possessions. Within the week I delivered five boxes of early childhood books, which I previously couldn’t give up, to our local child care center. (My former career was in early childhood education.)

This simple act of letting go of possessions that serve no purpose in my current life, has resulted in the start of a relationship with the local child care center and its director. We are already talking and thinking about how my congregation can support her important work. It’s a no-brainer to me that books on a shelf are of less value than a relationship that will be mutually beneficial.

***

At not-quite five years since we began Emptying Barns, I feel an urge to let go of more. I feel God pushing me to relinquish my attachment to things once again. There are those blank mailing labels from my failed business and that box of old phone cords and computer peripherals that “I might need some day.” There are too many post-its for someone who doesn’t use post-its and there’s that red sweater I picked up for two dollars at the thrift store but no longer wear.

There are even mementos that fail to inspire any longer. If they don’t inspire or help me to build relationships, are they of any worth?

***

Despite my commitment to further emptying the barn, despite the overall positives of the process, I would be lying if I didn’t own up to a few feelings. Lately, I’ve let the gods of stuff ooze into my psyche. The culture built upon acquisition and monetized self-value tells me I need more. It tells me there is not enough and I must scramble for my share. Our culture usurps the reality that there is enough for all of us.

I worry about where I will live when I can no longer work. I worry about whether student loans will be paid off before I am forced by age or health to retire. I worry that without property, I am of no-worth. I perceive judgement, classism, from some in the upscale neighborhood with the room above the garage. I feel vulnerable because the parsonage — my home — is only mine as long as I provide service as pastor.

Indeed, our culture has a way of luring us away from the divine.

But I’m stronger than I was five years ago when we consciously chose to empty the barn. Things do not own me like they once did.

Though I live in a world that contradicts the teachings of the rabbi Jesus whom I follow, the feelings seep into my consciousness at times. The difference is that I have less stuff to control me.

I know that God is not in the accumulation of things but in my relationships with people, with the earth, and directly with God. I know that I am called to continue to let go of more so I can see the divinity all around me.

Yeah, from the perspective of the culture my lifestyle is one of vulnerability. Living within the culture I will sometimes feel vulnerable in the company house and above the garage but I can choose to follow the counter cultural prophet of the first century.

In that choice I find abundance. In the choice to let go, I find more room for loving.

license cc

___

Related

Emptying Barns

 

 

Intricate Worth

Intricate Worth
Beauty lives in Cottonwood Canyon State Park near Condon, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves
Beauty lives in Cottonwood Canyon State Park near Condon, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

Our ancient kindred were not exempt from struggles of daily living. Reading their stories and experiences with the divine it becomes clear that, like me, they needed reminders to simply be and to trust.

I’ve become fascinated with photographing small creatures and plants. When I review my photos I often marvel at the intricacies of their physical form. And, though I do not consider myself beautiful in any sense of the word, I wonder if perhaps I should.

I wonder if I feel self-distaste because of an over-familiarity with my own form. Perhaps my psyche has been poisoned by pop-culture’s false images of human worth and beauty. Or maybe I worry over that which I have no control, failing to slow down and appreciate myself and others.

A discarded faith crossed my path on a recent hike in Washington's Columbia Hills State Park near The Dalles, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves
A discarded feather crossed my path on a recent hike in Washington’s Columbia Hills State Park near The Dalles, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

Whatever the reason I fail to see my own beauty and the beauty around me, I have something in common with the ancients.  I need reminders to trust the One, to worry less about tomorrow, and to let go of the past. I need to be reminded that I carry within me the Imago Dei (the image of God) and that I am valued by the divine One.

Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! Luke 12:25-28 CEB

I Give Up My Ground to Stand with Jesus

I Give Up My Ground to Stand with Jesus

Stand your ground laws favor aggressive behavior. In this way they are reflective of much of our American culture of bravado and violence. They are not reflective of Jesus’ teachings. Regardless of their intent, which I perceive as dubious, the implementation of these laws are racist in result. 

As a follower of Jesus, I made a commitment not to American culture or capitalism or even to democracy. My faithfulness is to God. I am committed to trying to live consistent with the teachings and model of Jesus. And so I choose to stand with Jesus rather than unjust laws.

“But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.
(Luke 6:27-31 CEB)

 

Being Remembered

Being Remembered

Listen here or read below.

Molly was just a kid. She didn’t know why the bitter cold Chicago wind blew through the holes in Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 7.23.23 PMthe side of her dilapidated house. Molly didn’t know that not everyone had rats mating in the rafters above their beds at night. Maybe the other kids huddled around their wood stoves in one room because it was too cold to be in the rest of the house.

They didn’t say.

She only knew that the other kids laughed at how she dressed in hand-me-down pants, thrift store tops, and old lady shoes her aunt got her for free.

A twinge of guilt comes over Molly when she thinks about the time she dropped an open can of peaches on the floor. Her mother was soooo angry. Her mother said, “Molly! You careless child! What were you doing? You dropped the last can of fruit we have!”

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Sarah could feel the disapproving eyes on the back of her neck when she swiped her Oregon Trail card to pay for the groceries. Then it was the tap tap tap of the well-dressed professional woman’s fingers on the counter…

The tapping cut into her very soul as Sarah dug for and counted out pennies to buy a twenty-five cent candy for her three-year-old.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

At forty-five Delia still struggled to have a normal sex life with her husband. Bob was a good man but he didn’t understand why she sometimes cringed when he came up behind her too quietly and touched her shoulder.

Delia didn’t like surprises. She’d had too many of those from her mother’s boyfriends when she was growing up. Some of the boyfriends were nice and never touched her but Mom seemed to have a knack for finding the wrong man.

There was one boyfriend who moved in for two years. He seemed to take pleasure in coming to Delia’s room every night after Mom was asleep.

Delia didn’t feel safe during the daytime either. He would shove himself up against her while pretending to give Delia a fatherly hug. He would do it while Mom was making dinner and give Delia a look that dared her to say anything.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Frank had good days and bad days. Folks in town didn’t understand why he went through stretches of time — especially in the winter — when he never stopped in at the pub for a beer with the boys. His wife grew impatient with his seeming inability to do anything around the house.

She told him to get his lazy butt off the couch but putting up the storms just seemed like an impossible task.  Frank couldn’t explain why he had no energy. No pep. No desire. Frank just knew he was depressed. It took every ounce of energy he had to go to work at all.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

***

It seems kind of odd to have this passage in the lectionary on the Sunday before Advent. Why would we want to look at Jesus dying on the cross? It’s not like we even get the resurrection. We just get a depressing story of the One the disciples thought would restore Israel, hanging on the cross between two criminals.

Today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year is traditionally marked as Reign of Christ Sunday, sometimes it’s called Christ the King Sunday. As someone who has a low christology, meaning that in my personal faith, I relate to the human Jesus more than the divine Jesus, . . .

I’ve often found this special Sunday of the liturgical year to be less meaningful than others. The imagery of a king does not speak to me. I know it holds great meaning for others but for me, not-so-much.

Raised in a denomination that grew out of the American frontier, I find it hard to think of Christ as king. Christ as guide, that’s cool. Christ as teacher, that works. Christ as model, absolutely. Even Christ as companion works for me.

But I struggle with the concept and image of Christ sitting on a throne with a crown and scepter. Perhaps I’m too egalitarian, too ingrained in our American experience in which leaders are elected.

And, so, perhaps I’m more fortunate than the disciples when I try to understand this passage from Luke in light of Christ the King Sunday. Unlike the disciples, both the apostles and the other loyal followers of Jesus, I understand that Jesus is not a king in the ilk of David. He’s not a king who will restore the earthly kingdom of Israel.

Now…Like you, I know the rest of the story. This king — this messiah — who comes to us as an itinerant rabbi, who eats with tax collectors and the oppressed is not gonna kick Herod’s tooshie back to Rome. For the apostles and other disciples, the cross was a shock! The king to whom they and we claim allegiance, is dying on a cross unable, in the words of his tormentors, to even save himself.

What does this pericope, this section of Luke’s gospel tell us about the king we call savior? What do we learn about the kingdom of God, about what I call God’s realm?

First, we know Jesus is not going to kick Rome out of Israel. Jesus’ kingdom, God’s realm is not a military power. Of course had we been listening to Jesus as he wandered the countryside, we would know this already. As Nancy Lynne Westfield points out,

Jesus spends more time talking about the Kingdom of God than any other topic or issue…Jesus spent much of his ministry describing the kingdom of God as having different rules and different expectations from the rules and laws and penalties of humanity. (Feasting On The Word, Kindle loc. #12487)

Second, Jesus doesn’t stop thinking about and caring for others — for us — even as he is dying.

 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Luke 23:34a CEB

 I confess that when I am suffering, even if only from a nasty cold, I am less empathetic and less concerned about others. It’s not that I’ll cease to care about you when I’m under the weather but I am less likely to think about you. It’s not something of which I’m proud but it is true.

In Jesus, however, is a ruler who despite torture, beatings, mockery, and certain death prays for his enemies as he is dying at their hands. The Realm of God is a place of undying love. It is a place in which we are all beloved of God.

Third, we learn in this passage that God in Jesus remembers every single one of us. We learn that even a criminal who in his own words is “rightly condemned…[and] receiving the appropriate sentence for what [he] did” (Luke 23:41 CEB) is beloved by God!

Notice the sequence of events between the criminal who asks,

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t require a catechism class. Jesus doesn’t require recitation of a creed. Jesus doesn’t require the criminal to say, you are the only way to God. He doesn’t require the “correct” theology or that the criminal join the UCC. Jesus doesn’t even require baptism.

What Jesus does is, he responds immediately saying,“I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43b CEB

We learn that God’s Realm is open to the most incorrigible, those who have committed heinous acts, to mothers who scold children who drop peaches, to child abusers, and impatient professionals in the grocery line.

God’s Realm is open to each and everyone of us. Grace is grace is grace is grace.

 Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

*** 

Molly’s mom was doing the best she could to hold the family together. Food was expensive and they had very little. She felt so guilty every time she thought back to the day she reamed Molly out for spilling those peaches.

It was just so hard to make ends meet. They were on food stamps after she’d been laid off, they were out of cash, they were out of everything…and it was still three days until her Oregon Trail card would be reloaded.

She wished she could tell Molly how sorry she was for that day, but she was just too embarrassed and too ashamed.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Phyllis was in such a hurry that day but she had to run into the market for just a few things. She got in a slow line and then — THEN — the woman in front of her whips out her Oregon Trail card. “Must be nice,” thought Phyllis. I have to make ends meet AND pay for her!

The woman in front of her looked so much more “put together” than Phyllis felt. Phyllis wished she could be casually doing the groceries with her children. She wished someone else would pay for her groceries.

Instead she was on the way to a high-pressure meeting.

Phyllis didn’t realize until the woman was on the way out the door that she’d been tap tap tapping her fingers on the counter.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Joe was in prison. He’d gotten sloppy. He’d molested the wrong child and he’d been caught.

Joe had found Jesus in prison. A lot of folks thought it was a ploy to get parole sooner. They didn’t think he was sincere.

Though Joe still had desires for kids, he understood that it wasn’t ok behavior. Joe was genuinely sorry for what he’d done through the years. Anyway, Joe found Jesus in prison. And he realized that regardless of what he desired, it was a sin to act on it. He realized that it was wrong to hurt others.

He also knew that though he didn’t deserve it, Jesus forgave him. The prison chaplain called that grace.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Finally, after three years of his friggin’ laziness, Frank’s wife kicked him to the curb. He just laid around the house. She couldn’t get him to even go out for a beer with his friends let alone take her out dancing or put up the storm windows.

Someone suggested he was depressed but she knew better. Frank was just a lazy good-for-nothing and she threw him out.

She wasn’t sorry either. She had to take care of herself. She had to start living her own life.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

***

We are all sinners. Sometimes we ask forgiveness. Sometimes we know we should ask forgiveness and we don’t. Sometimes we’ve hurt others and we don’t even realize it.

Always God loves us. Always God nudges us, trying to get us to listen and change. Always God pushes us to forgo judging and empathize with others. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.

Always God loves. Love doesn’t give up. It doesn’t say, “yes, but”. It encourages us to right behavior. It nudges us to mimic Christ.

But always Love forgives. Love is grace.

We’re often uncomfortable with this kind of grace, this kind of love. It seems so impractical and over-the-top. We want to set boundaries for love. Writes Nancy Lynne Westfield,

This kind of forgiveness is a challenging notion for many of us. Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. (Feasting On The Word, Kindle loc. 12492)

But in the unfolding realm of God, we are called to live by different rules. In the unfolding realm of God, we are all beloved.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

[And] Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43 CEB

Amen.

***

This sermon was preached by Tim Graves at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on November 24, 2013. Tim took the SNAP Challenge during the week prior; he was on the final day of the experience on the day he preached this sermon. The text for the sermon is Luke 23:33-43.