Come Together, Right Now…

So when is the last time that you commanded a mulberry tree to get up and be replanted in the sea? Apparently, Jesus tells us in the scripture this week that it is one of the powers that comes with faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed.

What are we to make of this? That we should have some sort of magical power to move trees with speech? Are we all convicted of a lack of faith? Because last I checked, I don’t see anyone with the power to talk to trees.

I suppose the most straight forward way to see this is that with God, all things are possible. Perhaps the point is not so much that we are given mystical abilities to command plants, but that when we put our mind to something and believe in God’s power within our lives, everything is within our grasp.

Given the message of hope that we heard last Sunday through Jeremiah, perhaps this message about faith should help that hope flourish. Even in the worst of situations, by working together as the community of faith, remarkable things can happen—like aquatic mulberry trees.

It may not take the form of a mystical command, but perhaps it takes the form of a community banding together to dig up, move and transplant said tree. Perhaps it takes the form of a community that accomplishes a massive amount of work moving stuff in and out of a church building to have one of the most successful parking lot sales in history. Perhaps it takes the form of a church united working to improve the larger community by taking on challenges no one thought possible.

The point is, faith is not about mystical tree talking powers, it is about communities taking on the impossible to accomplish the incredible—and that is something that happens far more often than you might think.

What is it that you have been facing that seems improbable? Have you tried talking with your community of faith about it lately? Have you tried uniting with others to move mountains or trees? I think that one of the messages that Christ brings to us in this scripture this week, is that there is very little that cannot be accomplished when people of faith unite together and follow God out into the world.


If It Is Not Okay, It Is Not the End

Hope is a tricky thing. On the one hand it is the very heart of what moves us, what makes us tick, what keeps us going. However, hope cannot be present without adversity.


I am reminded of one of my very favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption. As I sat to write this, I had the words of one of the lead characters going through my head. “Remember, Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” To be honest with you, as I began to write this, heard those words bouncing through my head and thought they must have been scripture. Instead, they are the words of Andy Dufresne, a man who was mistakenly sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife (which he didn’t do). Those words of hope are offered by Dufresne to his friend Red, who has been released from prison but no longer knows how to live as a free man.


As I mentioned earlier, the nature of hope is a complex one. I think we need hope as much as we need air, water, food and shelter. It is one of those vital parts of our inner being that keeps us going. The trick is, you cannot have hope without adversity. A prerequisite for hope is having a situation that seems insurmountable, challenging, painful, harmful, dark, scary, or even evil. For it is in facing such realities that the human spirit chooses to find ways to rise above, and it is in this determination to rise above that we find the seeds of hope.


I wonder sometimes about the realities of our American culture. The rates of depression for us are strikingly high when compared to other countries around the world. Could it be that we have so shaded ourselves from reality with entertainment, comfort and distraction that rather than facing adversity and pain in order to find hope, we have opted for living a life under anesthesia? Is, perhaps, part of the problem that we have turned away from our troubles instead of facing them, and by extension, limited the birth real hope in our lives?


This Sunday’s scripture lesson shows us real hope—albeit in a very strange place. In the case of Jeremiah, real hope came in the form of a real estate transaction. As Babylon was razing Jerusalem to the ground, Jeremiah was setting up the purchase of land from his cousin—from Jeremiah’s own prison cell, no less! Talk about adversity, pain, darkness and even evil. Jeremiah is pretty much at his lowest low, and here he is buying property. At first read, this seems like such a strange story, but when you think of the symbolism, it is incredibly powerful. Even at this darkest of all moments for the people of Jerusalem, Jeremiah is investing in the future—on the very land the Babylonians were taking from them. Keep in mind, Jeremiah has been that hopelessly negative guy that kept telling everyone that things were going to fall apart and that the world as they knew it was coming to an end. And for people to see pessimistic Jeremiah buying land, must have been a real symbol that the story isn’t over yet. As Richard DeSimone put it at Bible Study last night (borrowed from a Hindu proverb that was later quoted by John Lennon), “Everything will be okay in the end. If it is not okay, it is not the end.” Powerful words. Words of true hope!


Perhaps this points at the fact that we do need moments where it is not okay. We do need moments of adversity, struggle and perhaps even evil. Without these painful moments, how else could we find that kind of hope? How else could we find the king of hope that moves us to amazing feats? How else would we be moved to take on the things that others would say are crazy, that we might change the world?

Be A Good Little Pharisee

Let’s talk about Pharisees for a minute. We love to demonize them. They are the bad guys who Jesus went up against. We just love it when Jesus pulls a fast one and pulls one over on the Pharisees. But do we really know who we are talking about?


The Pharisees were a religious class in Jesus time (far more prominent after Jesus time, but that is for another reflection). They were not the high priests. They were different from the Scribes in that they didn’t have nearly the power. They were different from the Saducees in their understanding of resurrection and afterlife questions. In a lot of ways, perhaps the best understanding of Pharisees in our modern context would be elders of the church. They were a bit more learned on matters of faith, had a bit of a voice within the religious community, had respect that went with them. All of this is to say, they weren’t really the bad guys at all. They were the good guys. They were the really good guys. But there in lies the problem, and the grounds upon most of the confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees.


The Pharisees were the ones who followed the rules, did as they were told, and looked down upon those who did not. They were self-righteous. They knew that they were better than everyone else, and they acted like it. That is often where we find them in the stories when they confront Jesus. This week, Jesus is dining with a mixed group of sinners, tax collectors, as well as Pharisees and Scribes. The Pharisees and Scribes are turning up their nose at those “other” dinner guests. That brings on three parables from Jesus, the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (better known as the prodigal son).


All this Pharisee talk is important because it tells us that there is a part of this parable that we often miss. Again, Jesus had several different audiences, and the sinners and tax collectors loved hearing of the redemption of the lost son. That is often the part we love to hear too! We love the idea of being welcome with open arms by our God when we have wandered off from home. However, we often don’t realize that for most regular church-goers (most of you reading this email), our part in the story is often a lot closer to that of the older brother, rather than the lost son. Yeah, I know—none of us want to hear that. The older brother is self-righteous, conceited, and merciless. He is really only concerned about what he gets from things. He is a Pharisee. He has done everything he was supposed to be doing. He has done what he was told. He has acted the part. Now he wants his piece of the pie. He doesn’t come off looking so hot.


That is kinda the warning to us—God loves that we have been doing as we have been told. God loves that we have been faithful and loyal. God loves that we are dependable and wear those butt prints into our pews on Sunday. But beware the temptation to self-righteousness. It is easy for those of us who do behave as we are expected, to start looking down on those who don’t. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap as the older brother or as the Pharisees and think that we are somehow better than those who have not lived by all the rules. Thing is—that isn’t how God operates. God loves us all. Period.


One of the beauties in Jesus’ teaching is that these parables do speak to so many audiences. There are times in our life where we are the prodigal and need to be welcomed home. There are also times when we need to realize we are the older brother and need to be better about the welcoming part—which brings us to this Sunday!


I hope you all have been good little Pharisees and done as you were told—inviting someone to church. It is Back To Church Sunday! This is an important time for us to practice the grace that the older brother lacked. It is time for us to welcome with open arms, those who we haven’t had sitting next to us. Frankly, it is always time for us to welcome with such grace, but now is a good time to practice. We’ll talk a bit more about Pharisees and Prodigals on Sunday. See you then!


Many people are uncomfortable with the words of the prophets, as many times those words are filled with wrath and threat. The passage from Jeremiah this week is no different. In Jeremiah 4 we hear the threat of what is to come from the Babylonian armies, if God’s people don’t shape up.


On Sunday, we will certainly spend a great deal of time talking about how we make sense of the wrath and the anger, and what that means for how we live our lives of faith. However, something else about this passage caught my eye this week, and it bears some reflection. Take a read and see if this part of the passage reminds you of another passage of scripture:


23 I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light.

24 I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth.

25 I looked and there was no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight.

26 I looked and the fertile land was a desert; all its towns were in ruins before the Lord, before his fury.

27 The Lord proclaims: The whole earth will become a desolation, but I will not let it be destroyed completely.


I don’t know about you, but I hear a reflection of the creation story from Genesis 1. What God is seeing is the way that we are undoing the good creation that God has made through our actions. Jeremiah wanted us to see that the ways that we have been unfaithful at times have led to the undoing of the world around us.


These are important words, at an important time in history. This past year has been filled with news stories that are tucked back behind the main headlines that tell us some rather disturbing things are happening in the world around us. There have been stories about permanent ice loss in the arctic and Antarctic. There have been stories about the temperature of the whole globe rising by a degree and a half. That same temperature increase is affecting the oceans as well. We are hitting milestones in the condition of the earth that scientists did not believe would happen for many more years.


Now, I know that some of you do not think that these changes in the globe are connected to human activity. The politics of the global climate change crisis often still point to other factors. Perhaps that is the case. At this point though, I think most people accept that there are some disturbing changes afoot. However, let us think about the theological case here, and put politics aside.


There are changes happening. Big ones. Scary ones. What we can learn from the prophets, and Jeremiah 4 in particular, is that there are warnings about changes on the way. If Jeremiah is to be seen as a sample case, we tend to ignore warnings. Jeremiah is the story of how God warns (repeatedly) the Israelites from playing political games with their big bad neighbors, the Babylonians. Yet, the powers that be in Israel continue to ignore God’s warnings. In the end, what comes to pass is much like what Jeremiah has written about in this passage—the undoing of the world as the Israelites knew it. The undoing of God’s good creation as they were hauled away into slavery and exile by the Babylonians.


We will spend some time talking about how we make sense of these anger and wrath passages on Sunday, but in the meantime, let us acknowledge that there are consequences to our actions. The actions of the Israelites led to the undoing of their world. These words from Jeremiah seem to suggest that seeing the world unravel as we are seeing it now, may be a warning to us, that some things need to change. Even if there are other causes to the global climate crisis, it cannot be denied that we could be doing a much better job caring for God’s good creation than we have been doing. At the moment, it seems we are content to ignore the warning signs around us, come what may.


Perhaps one prime example of this is what has not been in the news until this week. For months, there has been a standoff between a major international oil corporation and the Lakota Sioux tribes in North Dakota. There have been some serious underhanded dealings that have led to a pipeline being built in the Lakota Sioux’s backyard and across their main source of water. Much of the situation is the result of dubious deals between the US government and the tribe 50+ years ago. I am willing to grant, that maybe there is another side to this story. However, I am also fairly convinced that the reason we have not heard more about this story is that the corporations who bankrolled this pipeline also happen to be the ones who have a controlling interest in the news media. It wasn’t until last weekend, when dogs were sicked on protestors and pepper spray used, that the internet lit up with this story and major news media had no choice but to start mentioning it.


Again, maybe there is another side, but shouldn’t this come as a reminder that perhaps we have been ignoring warning signs all around us as well? The prophets are a voice that is there to draw our attention to the things that we are content to ignore. The prophets are the ones that are not popular, because they tell us what we do not want to hear. But the prophets are also the ones that are there to wake us up before it is too late. Things didn’t work out so well for the Israelites when their world was undone by ignoring the warning signs all around them. Will we repeat their mistakes?