Dec 18

December 6, 2018

Shine! A light for all nations

By Robert English

Read Luke 21:25-36

Moving to a new city means that you spend a lot of time noticing all the things that are different about your new home.  My recent move from California to Cincinnati has provided ample opportunity for me to notice all the differences between these two places, and let me tell you there have been quite a few.  Cincinnati is weird y’all.  This is the first fall I’ve ever experienced in my life so I’ve been just a little bit baffled by the weather pattern: 50 and sunny one day, 20 and snowing the next day.  I’ve been amazed by what happens to trees here in the fall.  The leaves, the colors, amazing is the only word I can use to describe it.  The changing of the leaves has also been a good reminder that even in death there is beauty and wonder to behold, to cherish.

And then after those leaves have changed they fall off of those trees that were once lush, rich and full of life, you have to rake them, and rake them and rake them.  But you get to create these massive piles that 4 year olds love to run and jump in.

But also as the leaves fall you start to look at the woods in a different way.  The other day I was walking through Parker Woods nature preserve in Northside where we live and I was noticing how now I could actually see through the woods to the other side.

The other thing that I have noticed about my new home here in Cincinnati is this: it gets dark here really, really early in the fall.  The other day my family and I were out to dinner after our older daughter’s gymnastics class and it was pitch black as the sun had set hours ago.  I was thinking to myself, we’ve got to get these girls fed because it must be late and we really need to get the girls home and get them in bed.  Then I looked at my watch, it was 7 o’clock, even though it felt like midnight.  But, the hidden joy as the nights growing longer and the days shorter, I regularly see the beauty and wonder of a Cincinnati Sunrise, the first light of a brand new day.

When we move to a new place, a new city, a new environment, the way we see our life, the world and our place in it shifts significantly.  It gives us a brand new perspective.

And let me tell you, that is the heart of the season of Advent, getting a new spiritual perspective.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of year we set a part in the church to wait for a new revelation, a time we set aside to look for the light of God’s love shining in hearts and our world.  Advent is also the start of a New Year for the church so happy New Year everyone.

We begin the church year with a time for prayer, for silence, for meditation, a time to acknowledge and let go of whatever might be holding us back and holding us down, a time to clear out the cobwebs and to make a little room inside the inn of our hearts, to simply receive, receive love, receive hope, receive joy and receive the peace of our God which surpasses all understanding, surpasses all time and place and circumstance, the peace of God which comes when we finally let go enough to recognize that we can’t save ourselves, we can’t make ourselves whole, only God’s unconditional love can.

And so we have this season of Advent, a season which is contemplative and quiet and a season of contradiction, a time to slow down enough to find the already present indwelling of Emmanuel, God with us and at the same time recognizing that love’s redeeming work is yet to be done.

Advent is a weird time of year as a Christian because the world speeds up at the same time we try to intentionally slows down.  There’s that long check-list of things that need to get done and there seems to be very little time to do it all, especially this year given that Advent starts on the first Sunday of December.

We’ve got to get the house decorated, the tree up, the ornaments out, we’ve got to solidify travel plans, party plans, we’ve got to get all the shopping done, which of course is super easy because of Amazon Prime and yet it still seems to stress us out,

we’ve got to get emotionally prepared for all the various celebrations, the time with family, falling back into old family systems and dynamics which no matter how healthy are slightly dysfunctional, because well it’s family, there’s always a hint of dysfunction.

And in the midst of it all we have the various spiritual obligations we feel which sometimes become just part of the to do list which we feel we desperately need to check off in order to make sure our heart is right, our spirit is prepared, our condition is in just the right order to welcome Christmas with all its blessing.

That’s why we need Advent, in the midst of our wild world, a world filled with pressure for our lives and our families to look picture perfect, to look the way they look on our Facebook,

a world filled with the empty promises like that we need to buy our way into happiness,

a world filled with real human suffering and a weariness as it seems like things never change.

We need Advent to help us cultivate that Jesus perspective, that holy perspective, which tells us to seek the light, to find the light shining in the midst of the darkest dark of night, which by the way is where the smallest of lights shines the brightest.

It’s always a little bit jarring to start off the Advent season with a text like the one we have today, a text where Jesus gives a vision of the end.  And yet visions of the end are never really about the future but about the here and now and this text is no different. Let me say that again, in the bible whenever there is a passage that talks about the end times, it is never really about the end times, it is about how we live here and now.

See Jesus gets us as human beings and he knows that we are future oriented people.  He knows that we would prefer to live in the future, in the yet to be realized, in the anxiety of uncertainty rather than right here and right now.  So in this reading he lays it out this way:

in the end, no matter how dark it may be, no matter how much suffering may exist in this world, no matter what you or we may go through, in the end God is always with us, redeeming all things and bringing about a new creation.  The kingdom of God is always near.

And so, Jesus gives us this simple, very profound, unbelievably difficult spiritual practice for us all:

he says, stay awake, keep alert, be attentive in this moment, experiencing all the joy and agony of life and this world, don’t escape, don’t inhabit some other moment, be here, stay in this moment and you will find your hope, seek the light shining in the darkness and you will find God.

That is a powerful word for us today, in the midst of the times that we find ourselves in.  As a culture we are still grieving the mass shootings at the Tree of life Synagogue and Borderline Grill, we are still seeing pictures and hearing stories of the unbelievable destruction of the Woosley and Camp wildfires in California, and this last week we saw images of children being tear gassed at our border.  We see all of this happening in our world and on top of it we have the joys and struggles that we each carry with us and it’s hard to see any kind of light, any kind of hope in any of this mess.

This last week my wife Allison rented that new documentary about Mr. Rogers that came out a few months ago, Won’t you be My Neighbor?  This documentary is an incredible testament to an incredible life lived following in the way of Jesus.  I’m sure many of you know already that Fred. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian pastor.  His life’s work was about living in the light of God’s love and letting that love shine through him for as many children as possible.  What a life and what a ministry.

I often think of this quote he said when this world is, well, being the world, when things are getting almost too dark, too dark, to see.  Mr. Rogers said: “when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news my mother would say to me ‘look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’”

The story of Advent, the story of our faith tells us that God is here, present in the messiness of life, the light enters the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it.

The story of our faith says that God so loved the world that God came to be with us,  light to all people, all people, so that all would know the fullness of grace, undeserved love, and the abundance of life made new in him.  As we journey through this season that has been co-opted and hijacked by our culture, may we become more aware, more attentive to the movement of God’s Spirit at work redeeming all things even in the messiest of moments we may find ourselves in, may we move about these days cultivating the spiritual perspective of hope which never gives up, may we look for the helpers, look for the good, may we seek the light which shines brightest in the darkest nights.  Amen.










Nov 18

November 29, 2018

what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord”

By Robert English

A sermon for Christ the King Sunday.  Read John 18:33-37.

Well everyone, thanksgiving is over, so I guess we’re supposed to start saying ‘Merry Christmas?’

Isn’t that the way it seems to go in our world.  Our society has already moved on from Thanksgiving, haven’t we?  We made it through the madness of Black Friday, which has become its own kind of holiday, and now, according to our culture, we are fully into the Christmas season.

People have already decorated, trees are up, and at Starbucks we have the special red and green cups.   Of course in the church we don’t celebrate Christmas until the season of Christmas; that is the season which follows Christmas morning and goes on for 12 whole days.  So the season that our culture calls the “Christmas season” is in fact the season that the church calls: Advent.

But, it seems as though our culture doesn’t quite know what to do with a season where in the church talk about things like growing in our patience, exploring the spiritual depths of what happens when we learn how to sit and wait for all that is to come and the joy that comes as we grow in anticipation.

Advent is this spiritually rich season of yearning for an already here and yet to be realized birth of divine love, holy love, sacred love to be made known anew in our hearts and the world.

It seems like nowadays we aren’t really that good at waiting, which was evident in my Facebook feed on Thursday, Thanksgiving night, when multiple people reported that they were in fact already watching their favorite Christmas movies, because, well, Thanksgiving over, so bring on Christmas.

And so, here we are as the church in the middle of this strange Christian year, where, because of the calendar, we have a Sunday in between Thanksgiving Sunday and the start of Advent which begins next week.  So as the world has already moved on to Christmas, for Christians the season of Advent has not even begun.

So today is this odd, wondrous, somewhat esoteric, Sunday called Christ the King Sunday, which we celebrate as the end of our church year.   Yet another weird thing about the church, our New Year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, next week.

So, this is like the Christian version of a New Year’s Eve, a time to reflect and to remember who we are and whose we are, to recall and reclaim this simple and yet profound belief that Jesus Christ is our King.  To recall and reclaim this belief that Jesus is not only our King but is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and that his kingdom will have no end.

If you’ve been around the church or Christianity for a long time then these titles for Jesus, these images and metaphors we attribute to him probably have layers and layers of meaning tied to celebrations throughout the church year or different bible passages you’ve heard and cherish.

But, if you are newer to the faith, or perhaps if you’ve never really stopped to think much about it, these titles: King of Kings and Lord of Lords, probably stand out as being a little bit unusual and probably a little bit archaic.  Perhaps they sound a little bit too churchy or irrelevant in our sphere of the world where, for the most part, we are kingless and lordless.

I mean, just take a moment and think- what comes to your mind when you hear the word king?

Perhaps you think about a British child named George, son of a young couple across the pond, whose life is one of wealth, influence and intrigue.

Maybe you think about Elvis Presley, ‘The King,’ whose music and persona were larger than life.

I know a lot of my friends back in Los Angeles are thinking about King James?- You know Lebron James, the basketball player who is considered by many to be not only the greatest active player but also perhaps the greatest player of all time.

Maybe you think about that silly and kind of creepy ‘Burger King’?  Or maybe not.

These are the images we have in our day and age of kings.  But the truth is this image, this belief that Jesus is the king of kings is rich and full of meaning which I believe is still remarkably relevant to the way in which we live today as people of faith.

So let’s unpack this idea through the lens of the text from the gospel of John which we just read.

This story comes from the final days of Jesus’ life.  Jesus is in Jerusalem where he has been arrested and is brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler over the Holy Land.  Now just to be clear, Pontius Pilate was the most powerful person in the entire region.

Pilate begins to question Jesus about the claims Pilate has heard that Jesus had been making about himself.  He asks, “are you the king of the Jews?”  Jesus points out that Pilate asks because of what he has heard from others. Pilate is not asking for himself.  Jesus then goes onto say

“my kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews, but as it is, my kingdom is not from here…. You say I am a king.  For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

See in this moment Jesus is challenging societal norms and all of the human notions of power and authority.

Jesus is taking everything everyone thought they knew about the way the world is supposed to work and he’s turning it all over on it’s head. He is challenging all of these ideas and conventions, he’s reshaping and reforming it all into this vision of what he calls the kingdom of God.

And for us to understand what he is doing, what he is claiming here we need just a little bit of context to put it all into perspective.  See the backdrop of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, is the Roman Empire.  Now the Roman Empire was the biggest baddest empire that the world had ever known.

And on thing to know about the Roman Empire is that it was built around this central notion:  the way to true power, absolute power was through coercive violence, oppression and fear.  The Romans were ruthless, completely ruthless.  They would march into your home, your village, with the largest and strongest military you’d ever seen, and they would say: declare your allegiance to Caesar, proclaim Caesar is the Son of God, Caesar is Lord or die.  It was conversion at the end of the sword.  And make no mistake about it everyone knew that Caesar was the King of all the Kings and Caesar was the Lord of all the Lords.

So these words King and Lord, these titles, were reserved for the most powerful, most wealthy, most untouchable human being that had or would ever live, Caesar, the ruler of the world.

But, then this man emerges, a carpenter, this guy from Galilee, a rural, backwater kind of place, a man who calls fisherman and tax collectors to follow him, a man who’s teaching, engaging and empowering slaves and Samaritans and women.  His name was Jesus.

Jesus who’s healing the sick and touching the untouchable and he’s having dinner parties with all the wrong people, like all the known sinners in the village, come over let’s have dinner together.

this man who’s challenging the structures of power in this world by making these radical claims like the way to true power isn’t through coercive violence and fear but humble, sacrificial love for all people.

Jesus, who is inviting people into a different kind of life, living into a different kind of kingdom, the kingdom of God, a kingdom ruled by grace and mercy, where the meek inherit the earth, where the poor and the poor in spirit are blessed with divine favor, where lowly are exalted, and those who have been last, time and time again are finally first and those who have been first since birth are last.

Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God’s unbounded love and overflowing joy for all people, all people, especially for those who know what it’s like to have the boot of the empire on their neck, those who have been used up and spit out by the powers of this world for their own gain and their own profit.  Jesus says no you have inherent sacred worth, you are created in the image of God, follow in my way because

Jesus, not Caesar, is the way to an abundant life; Jesus, not Caesar, will offer us salvation, wholeness and a peace that is beyond all understanding.

Jesus, not Caesar, is king of kings and lord of lords.

See what he’s doing here?  These loaded and powerful word, these politically charged and dangerous titles, Jesus is taking it all and flipping it upside down.  Jesus revealing to us the very nature of God’s love as we see it in scripture time and time again, a God whose love and power is revealed in powerlessness, a God who creates each of us, no matter who we are or where we find ourselves, in God’s sacred image,

a God whose compassion and mercy are without limit or condition, and a God who calls and empowers us to live lives where we give ourselves away for others in love.  A God who says to us, if we do this, if we live in this way, we will be set free from all the binds us and we will be made whole.

Ok so the question for us is how does this make a difference in our life of faith?  What does this mean for us in our world which, like I said earlier, is Kingless and Lordless?

This Sunday gives us a point to pause in our life and to ask ourselves these questions: is our relationship with Jesus first and foremost in our life?  Are we listening to him?  Are we following him?  Are we living by his truth?

You know, the reality is that there are other things in this world that try to creep into our hearts and tell us that they are a better king than Jesus.  There are other things in our world that try to take his place in our hearts and in our life.  There are other things that say, hey follow me, live by my truth and not by God’s truth.

We have these things that insert themselves into the place of Jesus in our lives.  We have these things around which we order our lives and all of our relationships. I like to call this our organizing principle.  What is your organizing principle.  What is the thing that is at the heart of your life that you organize the rest of your world around.  What is the thing that controls your calendar?  Theologian Paul Tillich called it that with which we are ultimately concerned.

But when we say Jesus is our Lord, it means that following Jesus is our ultimate concern.  It means that we have professed and believe in our heart of hearts that the way of Jesus, the way of humble, sacrificial, life-giving love is better than all the other ways of being in this world.

If Jesus is lord, then our job isn’t, if Jesus is lord then our country and our politicians aren’t, if Jesus is lord then the size of our bank account isn’t, if Jesus is lord then he is our organizing principle, he is the thing around which our world gets ordered.

So what are we to take from this into our week this week?  Maybe we can take some time, before the start of Advent to think about the things in our life that have tried to take over, they’ve tried to creep in and uproot our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  What is taking you away from living and loving in the way of Jesus?

As we prepare for Advent, spend some time meditating on this question and see what comes up.  Name those things for yourself and ask God to help you to find ways to decentralize whatever it may be, in order to find our true center in God’s unbelievable and unconditional love in Christ.

So as we prepare to go out into the world, may we listen to our King, the one who calls us to give ourselves away in humble life-giving love, following him above everything and everyone else.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.



Nov 18

November 20, 2018

giving our all

By Robert English

Read Mark 12:38-44

In our world we often hear things like, “bigger is better, and biggest is best,” or “it’s always better to have more rather than less.”  We sometimes idolize people and companies who have unbelievable amounts of money, the unbelievably ginormous mansions, or an ungodly number of twitter followers.  We lift them up as a society and sometimes put them up on this pedestal as folks to be admired and emulated.

Think about the hubbub we recently had in the news over the trillion dollar company Amazon and their decision to build a new headquarters, HQ2, somewhere in the United States.  This was a big news story because the shear size of Amazon’s wealth and their intention to build this huge facility and pump beau-coop bucks into a local economy.

It was just announced the other week that H2Q would in fact be split into two different locations, one in New York outside of Long Island and the second location outside of Arlington Virginia.  As a people, as a culture, we are drawn to these stories of the big, the powerful, the wealthy.  Our attention tends to focus on them as well as our imagination.

That’s where today’s story from the gospel of Mark comes into our consciousness and disrupts all of our norms and our expectations.  This story from the gospel of Mark almost reads like one of Jesus’ parables, which may be exactly what the gospel writer intended us to see.

A parable, in case you’re new to Christianity or need a refresher, is a short story that Jesus tells which is intended to take all of our assumptions about the way the world is supposed to be an turn them all over on their head.  It’s a story which is supposed to challenge the way that we view the world and we understand our place in it, in order to see more clearly where God is at work and how we are called to live and move and have our being in this life.

The story from today’s gospel does just that.  it is a short story that seeps into our heart and into our minds and reshapes our understanding of the world and how we are called to be in it.  Let’s unpack this a bit.

So Jesus is in Jerusalem, which is the heart, the very center of the holy land.  It was considered  the most sacred and important place on the face of the planet because it is the place where folks believed God dwelt closest with humanity, in the temple, which was in the heart of the city.  Jesus’ trek to Jerusalem brings his ministry to the poor, the marginalized and the outcast closer and closer to the heart of power, wealth and might in the region.  It was also a journey toward his crucifixion and resurrection.

But before that eventual end, Jesus spends time in and around the temple in Jerusalem, preaching and teaching.  That is the setting for today’s reading as the treasury was part of the temple complex.  Jesus is there with the disciples as people are coming to give their monetary offering to the work of the temple.

Jesus and the disciples see the most important and most rich people emerging from the crowd offering their large sums of money to the work of the temple.  It was a public display of power and prestige.  One of the things that might be lost on us as modern readers is that the currency of the day was entirely coin.  There were no paper monies.  So as these folks are making their large offerings, the sound of the coin being tossed into the treasury would have been noticeable to say the least.  It would have resonated throughout the entire area. This was a very public act in this very public place.

So Jesus is witnessing one person after another, after another, making these large donations which sounded out through the crowds.

Then, from among the crowd, emerges a widow, an older woman single woman, to make her offering.  Now it is worth pointing out that widows held a particular place in society during Jesus’ time.  They were the most vulnerable or all persons.  This was a heavily patriarchy society where a woman’s worth was dependent upon her relationship to a man; her father or her husband.

If a woman was widowed in her lifetime, there were laws and expectations that she would in fact remarry one of her late husband’s brothers so as to be protected and supported.  So if a woman were to remain a widow it meant that she had no one to care for her and she was unable, due to the views and laws of the time, to care for herself.  Widows were among the most forgotten, ignored and weak of all persons in all of Jesus’ society.

This widow emerges from the crowd to offer her offering.  Two small coins, which were called a mite, which together equaled the smallest of all the Roman currency.

This is who Jesus lifts up and puts on a pedestal.  This is the person who Jesus says to the disciples: be like her.  That would have been shocking and completely unexpected.  Jesus calling us to be weak, vulnerable, and impoverished and to give from that place.

That sounds pretty radical to me.  Jesus sums this whole thing up in this way, he said, ‘For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

There was a tremendous amount of faith, love and intention that prompted her gift.  It meant something to her in a way that the gifts out of the abundance just didn’t.

One of the things that Jesus teaches over and over and over again in the gospels is that the heart space behind our actions matters.  In fact, Jesus teaches us that it is our heart space, our intentions that matter the most.  He calls us to live with our hearts constantly in the right alignment with God’s will for our lives.

He calls us to examine our lives and allow God’s love to fill our hearts first so that our actions in this world can flow from this place of love and grace.  In other words, Jesus says that our spiritual life is an inside job turned outward.  It is a job of being transformed in love inside the very depths of our beings which then is turned out in how we live in this world.

That’s what Jesus is uplifting about this woman and her offering.  She offers more than all of those other large gifts and huge amounts of money because she offered her entire self to God, for God’s will to be done in and through every single aspect of her life.  She offered more than everyone else because she turned her will and her life over to the care and love of God.

Jesus says, see that woman, be like her.

So today is Thanksgiving Sunday as well as Consecration Sunday.  One thing we know in our faith is that generosity is intimately linked to gratitude.  When we are grateful we are not living in a mindset of scarcity, a mindset of there isn’t enough.  When we are grateful we can see more fully all of the abundance we have in our lives and we remember all that we have received.  When we are grateful we remember that the blessings we have in this life don’t come from our effort, they aren’t earned but they are received as a gift of God’s grace.

Pastor and writer Fredrick Buchner described the gift of grace in this way:

“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring   about your own birth.   A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace.  The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace….The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Gratitude flows out from us when we remember that God is grace and that grace is bestowed upon us continually.  This week many of us will celebrate and give thanks around a meal with friends and family.  We will eat, we will talk, we will laugh, we may even get into any argument  with that family member who votes differently than we do about the mid term elections.

We celebrate this holiday with family and friends because this time we spend together is holy and sacred.  It fills our hearts to the brim with love so that we can be poured out in loving service for our neighborhood and our world.  There is a spiritual power in our gratitude, it humbles us, it inspires us, it grounds us.

And because of this today is the perfect day for us to consecrate our pledges for 2019 to God’s use and work through this congregation here in Mt. Healthy.  If you haven’t yet filled out a commitment card or if you forgot yours, there is one in your order of worship and you are welcome to fill it out now.

Every pledge matters.  Every single one.  No matter the size.  Every single gift matters because our spiritual practice of generosity, our giving out of love and hope for all that is to come, it transforms our hearts and our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Because what really matters most is what lies behind the gift, a willing and loving heart ready to be transformed.

In just a few moments we will come forward and place out pledges, our commitment cards into the basket.  I invite you to do this prayerfully, to do this intentionally, to allow this ritual action to bring your heart, our hearts, into alignment with our God who is self-giving love, who gave of himself by coming to be with us in Jesus Christ, forgiving, whole making love made flesh.  Amen


Nov 18

November 8, 2018

for all the saints

By Robert English

Today, All Saints Day, is a special day set apart by the church each year.  This practice goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.  A day to remember, to honor and give thanks for the lives of the faithful who have gone on before us in glory to be with God.  It truly is a glorious and difficult day, a day where we mourn and we celebrate, a day where we weep and we laugh, a where we embrace all of the beauty of this life and to remind ourselves of the truth of our gospel, that we are never for without hope for we are people of the resurrection.  

All Saints Day is also a day to reaffirm our faith, here and now, in the midst of the time that we live in.  It is a day where we recognize that we often look to the faith of others, those who are part of that great cloud of witnesses.  We their faithfulness, their love and their witness gives us strength to live faithfully, to live lovingly here and how.  As writer Shane Claiborne put it:

Since its earliest centuries, the church set aside a day to remember the great cloud of  witnesses who have gone before us in faith. However hard it might seem to follow the way of Jesus in our own time and place, this day we remember that we may be crazy, but we are not alone. 

It feels crazy sometimes to live in the way of Jesus in this day and age.  Sometimes we look out at our world and all we see is heartache, violence, apathy, and rage.  Sometimes it feels like the universe is a cold, dark and lonely place.  This week was no different as just over a week ago our world was rocked with the news of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.  A shooting, another shooting at a house of prayer.  People whose lives were lost because they wanted to pray.  

Someone in my Facebook world posted in response to this shooting, “maybe love isn’t enough to overcome  such overwhelming hate.”  Part of me wanted to go there with my friend, but I remembered, “however hard it might seem to follow the way of Jesus in our own time and place, All Saints Day we remember that we may be crazy, but we are not alone.” 

Sometimes it seems crazy to try to live in the way of Jesus in these crazy times, in any time really.  It seems crazy to look out at the world in all of it’s glory and agony and still hold onto this belief that in the end love will always win.  

It’s not always easy because this road is tough, but there are those who have traveled it before us, who have blazed the trail for our generation and generations to come: the saints of the church, the great cloud of witnesses, all of those who have gone on in faith before us.  These are folks who lived real lives in the real world, these were ordinary, everyday kind of people; beautiful broken people, who tried and failed.  They were ordinary people who were seekers and doubters, people just like you and me who tried to live a life of humble sacrificial love.  These were people who sometimes got it right and sometimes they didn’t, but through it all they trusted in a love and power bigger and greater than us alone.

That word saint that we use in the church can be a bit tricky for some.  Most of us probably think of our Catholic friends and their belief around the saints.  But our Catholic friends have a different understanding of Saint than we do in the United Methodist Church.  When you hear the word saint, what picture do you conjure in your mind?  Is it someone who is perfect?  Someone who was pure and holy in a way that we could never be?  I think more often than not we picture heroes and heroines of the faith who we idolize but feel as though we could never emulate.  

This sentiment is captured in a quote from a wonderful and faithful Catholic woman named Dorothy Day.  She was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and worked tirelessly with the poor and homeless in our country.  She said once, “don’t make me a saint because I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

When we talk about the saints of the church on All Saints Sunday, we aren’t talking about people who are different or beyond any of us.  We are talking about ordinary, everyday kind of people.  People who lived this life in the way of Jesus, striving to follow his great commandment to love God with all we have and all we are, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.   People who heard that commandment and applied it to their life, to their family, to their community.  And sometimes when we live in this way and love in this way, we love with a love that is greater than our own, we tap into the flow of God’s unconditional, overflowing love for us and for our world.

Who are the saints in your life, people who loved with a love greater than their own, unlikely ordinary people who refused to give up on hope, humble people who gave of themselves for others, strong quiet types who did the right thing because it was the right thing?  

When I think about All Saints Day I often remember my great-grandmother Dolores Campos.  She lived a long and full life, dying at the age of 100.  She was an immigrant from Mexico and lived a tough life suffering persecution and racism.  She was a quiet, humble and faithful woman.  When I lived in El Paso as a boy I used to go over to her house every other week and mow her grass.  Looking back on it I feel so blessed to have had that time with her over those years. 

She had one of those old push mowers, no gas or electricity to power her mower.  She used to have me edge her grass with these sheers, which were basically a pair of scissors.  It was tough work.  Of course I would often complain to her about how hard it was to do the work with her mower and her garden sheers.   She would tell me, “Robert, mi nieto, this is good for you, it makes you strong.”  She would give me a 5 dollar bill and she would cook me breakfast.  The best breakfast you could ever imagine, pancakes, eggs and chorizo, beans, hash browns.  A breakfast made with love.  We would sit and talk. That was the best part of the whole morning.  My great-grandmother had a tremendous faith and because of her faith, she would talk with me about Jesus, about the power of prayer, about how no matter what happened to her she knew God was with her.  She would say things to me like, “Robert, nieto, you must always trust in his love, always.”

There is a power in our memories.  There is a power in that faithful act of remembering a loved one, for remembering their life.  It grounds us in our lives, it grounds us in the moment, it grounds us in love, it grounds us in the Holy Spirit.  When we remember we are inspired by that relationship, by that love which lives on in and through us, guiding us to this day.

On this All Saints Day, we give thanks for all those from our community who died this past year.  We give thanks for their lives, their beautiful love which we carry with us, which lives on in and through this beloved community, and for their lives which in God’s undying love, will never end.  


Oct 18

October 30, 2018

eyes to see

By Robert English

Read Mark 10:46-52

Today’s gospel reading paints quiet the picture.  Jesus and his disciples are in Jericho, on the road to Jerusalem.  The picture we have from scripture of this scene is one that is to be filled with energy and liveliness.  You can almost see the crowds of people following Jesus and the lone blind beggar Bartimaeus on the side of the road.  You can picture him, listening carefully to understand all that is happening.  Bartimaeus catches wind among the crowd, talk of this man called Jesus of Nazareth and something within him catches on fire, a desire, a longing, a deep rooted belief that this man can help him.

Welling from deep within his heart Bartimaeus cries out ‘Jesus Son of David have mercy on me.’  The crowd of people tell him to be quiet, they try to hush this beggar, this blind-man, this outcast.  They continue to push him to the margins.  But Bartimaeus is living on faith, he’s living on a desire to encounter Jesus, he is longing to be made whole.  Again he cries out to Jesus, “son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus hears, his voice among the crowds and responds, asking ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

You might remember if you were here last week that Jesus asked this same question to two of his disciples, James and John.  Jesus asked, “what do you want me to do for you?”  Do you remember their response?  Make us great Jesus.  Have one of us to sit on your right hand and the other to sit on your left hand when you come into glory.  Jesus goes on to teach the disciples that they’ve got it all wrong.  The spiritual life, the whole life, an abundant life isn’t about seeking power, it’s about living your faith, it’s about humility, and sacrificial love.

So we see the contrast in this story when blind, poor, and marginalized Bartimaeus is asked the same question by Jesus; “what do you want me to do for you?”

In a moment of raw humanity, Bartimaeus answers humbly, honestly: “Rabbi, let me see again.”  His sight is restored and Jesus says to him- ‘go your faith has made you well.’

And what is most striking to me about this story is the verse at the very end, it says: ‘Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.’

Now, we have seen in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus heals a variety of different folks.  Earlier in Mark’s Gospel Jesus heals another person who was also blind.  Upon completing this healing Jesus sends this person on their way.  In fact Jesus often does this with folks who he heals. Jesus sends them along and according to scripture they apparently did just that.  They returned home or went about the region.  This is the pattern of the healing stories in the gospels, except for Bartimaeus,  he chose a different path, he chose to follow Jesus.

Bartimaeus offers us a model for discipleship.  He shows us in a unique way what it means to follow Jesus.  And what Bartimaeus embodies is the epitome of faithfulness.  Bartimaeus shows us what it means to persist, to insist in the belief that we can have a whole life, a bigger life,  life made new here and now.  He shows us a persistence in this belief that God is with us, that God is for us, that God truly does love us.   Faithfulness in our walk with God is an important thing to consider.  And in fact I find that often that faithfulness can be more helpful for people to think about rather than faith.

Perhaps to some these might be seen as synonymous: faith and faithfulness.  But I talk with lots of different folks and these words mean different things when we talk about them in the church, but also beyond these walls.

Let me explain what I mean by this.  When we talk about faith we aren’t really talking about it in a biblical sense.

Many times when I hear people talk about their faith, they talk about faith as something that they possess, or should possess.   She has faith.  He needs faith.  I wish I had more faith.  It is almost as if faith is something that is not within us, a part of us, but a commodity to be owned.   And more often than not we equate faith with belief, certainty and clarity.

This stands in contrast to how we talk about being faithful.  When we talk about being faithful, it just seems to more flexible, more adaptive.  Something rooted in a real lived context and relationship.  It is something that we are: we are faithful in our relationships, faithful to the Bengals, we are faithful in our work and our vocation.  Being faithful is not something a-part from ourselves, but something that is part of ourselves. And even when we talk about missteps we talk about as being less than faithful, or not as faithful.  There’s a varying degree to it all.

Perhaps it could be said it is God’s gift of faith which then prompts our faithfulness.

I think that we see this model of faithfulness uplifted today in the Gospel by blind Bartimaeus.  The crowd tries to silence him, but he is faithful, determined to meet Jesus.  Bartimaeus persists because he trusts in something bigger than himself to bring him new life.  He knows in a visceral way that he cannot save himself, but he trusts that Jesus can.  And upon regaining his sight, he does not return to his home, or remain in Jericho; he chooses to follow Jesus on toward Jerusalem.

When we hear the term follow Jesus it’s important to remember that Bartimaeus literally followed Jesus.  Like he walked right behind him or along side him as he traveled.

It is important to keep in mind though that Bartimaeus literally followed Jesus in his journey from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Why does this matter? It matters because the road from Jericho to Jerusalem was not an easy road to travel.  In fact, the road between Jericho to Jerusalem was notorious for being a dangerous road, a perilous journey.  If you are familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan you might remember that it was in fact this road between Jericho and Jerusalem that was the setting for this parable, where a traveler is robbed, beaten and left for dead.  And this was well known throughout the land at this time.  It would be like talking with a friend about certain parts of Cincinnati, the parts of town that everyone knows you aren’t supposed to go to, unless your looking for some trouble.

This means one thing and one thing only, Bartimaeus knew that following Jesus might mean trouble.  He knew that going along this path with Jesus meant that he would encounter danger.  But none of that mattered to him, what mattered was following Christ.  See Bartimaeus knew what it was like to be on the losing end of things.  He lived life as a blind beggar in Jericho.  He knew what it meant to live on the fringes of society.  But after encountering the grace and the goodness of God made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord, he could not only see again, literally, but he could see the truth that lies beyond the truth: following Jesus is the only thing that really matter, truly matters in this life.

This world that we live in often promotes this understanding that if you are good, if you have faith, if you do everything right, then bad things won’t happen.  We sometimes call it the prosperity gospel.  If you believe enough God, will reward you.  It’s just not true and it’s not biblical.  Following Jesus means enduring the tough times of this life, it means persisting and insisting your way through it, it means remembering that no matter what it will not have the last word.  But life is not going to be a cake walk, something that is always easy to endure, as the Psalmist says ‘many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.’

There is the word of hope and life in the midst of it all.

As we uplift the blind beggar Bartimaeus and his bold faithfulness, we must also ask ourselves what does this story tell us about God?  Where is God when we feel those deep seated questions, or doubts arise?  Where is God when we are caught in the darkest valleys?

A man lost his son, unexpectedly and he came to church the next Sunday where the hymn of the day centered on the resurrection, our new life in Christ.  He said to me after church that day “sitting in the pew I decided I don’t need to have faith in the Resurrection today, everyone else is faithful for me.”

To put it another way, sometimes when the weight of our burden is too much to bear, when everything around us is crumbling, sometimes it’s too much for us to come to church and have faith in all this stuff, to have faith that God loves us, to have faith that Jesus has and will save us, to have faith that God is with us.  But when I can’t have faith, you carry it for me, and maybe one day, I will carry it for you.

God works through others, God speaks through the faithfulness of others.  Our community strengthens us through difficult times as God’s spirit works through us.

And we can always trust that our God is faithful enough for us, even when we aren’t.  We hear this truth about who God is in our psalm – that God hears the poor souls who cry out, and that our God is a God who saves.

This is the amazing and beautiful story of the whole bible, this is it in a nutshell; God loves us always and God is faithfulness extends to each generation.

We have this reminder that everything in this life will fade away, but that there is a rock on which we can always depend and that is the steadfast redeeming love of God.

I think that is why I think we need to rethink the way that we talk about faith.  Faith that word which seems so much more stagnant, stuck in a time or in a place.  Where at one time we had it, but over time we lost it; where once we questioned it, and once we found it.  And rarely, when we use the word faith at it’s best, is when we say that we are growing in our faith.  Perhaps we need to stop focusing on faith as something obtained but faithfulness as something lived.

Faithfulness is more about a living relationship with a living God, it flows and is fluid, it adapts and changes.

See we live these lives that are a like string of moments, one unto the next, which extend on out like an ever unfolding tapestry.  And powerfully, we believe, that God is present in each and every moment with us, that God’s grace and love extend to us at each and every step along on the way.

This grace which is present even when we forget, ignore it, or even deny it- God does not stop supplying it.

See God is faithful, always, and calls us to live in this way.

God calls us to be faithful even when we are on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, following Jesus, knowing that there are hardships along the way and knowing that the journey might end in death.  But we are people who know that struggle, pain and hardship will never have the last word.

We are people who know that God transforms oppression and tyranny into freedom and unbounded love, we know that God took death onto God’s very self, God took sin onto Godself so all of that it is forever redeemed and transformed into new and abundant life.

And so even in the midst of the darkest times in our lives we can look back with faithfulness and say just as the Psalmist- ‘I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be upon my mouth… I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.’

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, knew this and lived this in his life for his day.   He was a driven and faithful saint of the church.  One of the stories that inspires me as a Christian is this one: In his 87th year Wesley contracted pneumonia while trudging through the snow trying to raise money for an orphanage.  The story goes that as he laid there on his death bed, his family and friends gathered around.  With a feeble voice he said ‘Farwell, farwell, The best of all is God is with us.’ He lifted his head and said ‘the best of all is God is with us.’[1]

The best of it all is God is with us.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Hurst, J. F. (2003). John Wesley the Methodist. Kessinger Publishing, 298.