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The Good Samaritan Parable

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“The Good Samaritan Parable” (Luke 10:25-37)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
November 3, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The Lawyer
I had heard much about Jesus of Nazareth before I actually met him. My friends have mixed feelings about him. Some of my friends tell me about how he eats with tax collectors and sinners, those who are clearly unclean. And one of my friends even told me about the time that he invited Jesus over to his house and Jesus allowed a woman who was clearly a sinner to touch him, to anoint his feet with her hair. I couldn’t believe it.

And of course, they say he seems to have no regard for the Sabbath Law at all. Some saw him pluck grain and eat it on the Sabbath. And some of my other friends told me about when he healed someone on the Sabbath. There was a man with a withered hand whom he healed in the synagogue. And while I’m amazed at his power to heal, he should have known better than to chose that day. For the Law of Moses has very clear Sabbath regulations, which he seems to disregard completely. And to be honest, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with that. I mean, we can’t simply pick and choose which parts of the Law to follow.

And yet there are these amazing things that I have heard that he has done. I hear that he has healed a centurion’s son and that he cast demons out of a man who had been possessed for a long time. Other friends of mine told me how he had fed a crowd of over 5,000 with only 5 loaves and 2 fish. And Jairus told me that Jesus had raised his own daughter from the dead.

And I wonder, how can he do these things apart from God’s power? Some of my friends are sure that it is because he has a demon, but I’m not convinced. Why would Satan be working against his own kingdom like that?

These are truly miraculous things! It is almost as if the words of the prophet Isaiah are being fulfilled through this man for those who have long been held captive through disease and demons have been set free, and those who have long been blind or ill have recovered their sight and been healed!

I don’t agree with everything that he does, but I have a good deal of respect for him. He seems to be a great teacher and he has gathered quite a group of followers (I mean, he recently sent out 70 people to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom). And if he would just change a few of his practices, I feel that he would become a great leader. And if he would just take the Law of Moses more seriously, this man who does such amazing things could be remembered for a long time.

But I was curious about how he felt about following God’s Law after hearing all these things, and so when I heard he was speaking in my village, I decided to test him to find out. I wanted to find out for myself whether or not he thought it important to follow God’s commandments.

So I asked him how one inherits eternal life, as any good teacher of the Law knows that one inherits eternal life through following God’s Law.

He responded to my question with a question of his own. It almost made me wonder, who is the one who is really being tested here?

But I answered him as I thought any good Jew should answer, straight from the Torah, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I mean, this pretty much sums up the 10 commandments, doesn’t it? The first four teach us how to love God and the last 6 teach us how to love our neighbor.

And he told me that I had responded correctly, as I knew that I had.

And so, wanting to let him know that I righteously followed the Law, I decided to ask him “And who is my neighbor?” I fully expected him to answer from the book of Leviticus, that “you shall not hate anyone of your own kin” and that “you shall not bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”1 I fully expected him to say “Your relative, your friend, your fellow Jew” whereas I would have responded faithfully, “I have fully loved these” and that he would have praised me for fulfilling the Law.

But instead he responded with a story, about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead, and about the three who came upon this man on the side of the road.

The Priest2
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho has always been a dangerous road. And so when I came upon a stripped and bloody man lying on the side of the road, I was not surprised. This was not the first beaten man I had come upon who had fallen prey to the robbers and bandits who lie in wait behind the rocks along this treacherous highway. One feels sorry for anyone who falls to such a fate. And one shudders to think how excruciating the last thoughts of such a man might be as he waits to die, bloody and alone in the ditch.

If the man wasn’t already dead when I passed by, he certainly would be soon. And I felt sorry for him; I really did. But there was little that I could do to help him. As a man who has been called by God to be a priest, there are very specific ways that we are called to live as befit such a high and holy calling. We are to avoid all contact with anything unclean to avoid being contaminated by the powers of sin; and we cannot perform our priestly and holy duties while we are in a state of uncleanness. You see, I cannot even come within 4 cubits of a corpse without defiling myself and so I could not even get close enough to the man to see if he needed my help without risking defilement especially since there was such a good chance that he was already dead and beyond my aid.

Do you know how humiliating it is to undergo the ritual of purification? I’m called to be a leader within the community, an example to others of what it means to live righteously. What would the people think if I stood with those who were unclean at the Eastern gate in front of the altar? Would they think that I had been influenced by the powers of sin? Would they think that I was no longer fit for my high calling?

Not only would I publicly humiliate myself in front of those who I am called to be a good example to, but I would need to complete the ritual of purification which involves finding and purchasing a red heifer to sacrifice upon the altar until it was reduced to ashes. This process of purification takes an entire week; it is very time consuming and very costly. And my family would suffer through the expense of the cow and through my not being able to perform my sacred duties during the time that I would remain unclean. They might even have to go without food because I would be unable to provide for them and we would not receive the food that I receive for performing my duties.

It is most unfortunate what happened to this man. And I hope that someone will take pity on him and at least give him a proper burial. But because God has called me to live a life that it set apart and holy, it could not be me. I cannot defile myself due to the holiness of the office that God has called me to. And who am I to go against the Law of Moses just to help this man who was most likely already dead and beyond my aid?

This is a very dangerous road. And it’s sad that yet another man had to fall victim to it.

May God have mercy on his soul.

The Levite
I saw a priest pass by a beaten man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. I can completely understand why he did this, as he could not risk contaminating his holy calling by coming in contact with a corpse or with a non-Jew. And since this man had been stripped of his clothing, there was no way for the priest to identify this man’s nationality.

But my own calling does not require that I follow such strict regulations of purity as the priest is called to do.3 And so I decided to stop and at least check on the state of this poor man4 whom fate decided should meet with such an unfortunate predicament. He appeared to be unconscious, but he was still breathing. But I wondered, “What should I do for this poor man?” His breathing was shallow and so perhaps death was close enough that, regardless of what I did, he would still die. Perhaps it was best not to prolong the inevitable.

Besides, even if I was able to clean and bandage his wounds, there would be no way for me to transport him to a safe place. I had no beast of my own to carry him and he was too heavy for me to carry a long distance and so I would have to wait until someone else would come by who would be willing to help transport this poor man. And chances were good that I myself would be attacked by robbers before someone would come along who would be willing to help. And then they would need to transport two men to safety, or even worse, bury two corpses.

I really felt sorry for the man, but what could I do, especially since there were no guarantees for his safety or for my own safety.

Or what if he was simply pretending to be hurt and that he was just waiting for some naive victim who was kind enough to help him, but then he in turn would rob and harm me?

Or what if he deserved what he got? Maybe he was flaunting his wealth and so he was bound to attract the attention of bandits. Or maybe he has been a terrible person, and God sought to punish him because of his unrighteous living and who am I to go against God and come to the aid of a sinner?

But again, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s right when I see people who are in need of help or who are begging for money or bread. I hate to see people suffering; I really do. But I’m just one person. There’s so much suffering that happens in this world, and what can I do to help alleviate all of the pain? Where does one even begin? One would get overwhelmed and burnt-out if we tried to help everyone who needed our aid.

And so I went on my way, hoping that someone else would come along who would help this man. For I did not feel that I was able to do so.

The Samaritan
I had seen both a priest and a Levite walk past a beaten man on the side of the road, and so I had assumed that he was dead. But as I got closer to him, I noticed that this was not the case, and that he was still breathing. And I felt moved with compassion for this poor man. I know that it was likely that he was not a fellow Samaritan, as we were in Judea, but no one should have to suffer such a fate, alone and forsaken, bleeding and broken, dying on the side of the road. What would his family say when he didn’t come home? What would happen to his wife and children? What would they think if they never knew the fate of their husband and father?

Perhaps it was a foolish thing, but I felt in my gut that I could not simply leave this man to die if there was anything that was within my power to save him.

And so I poured oil and wine over his wounds to clean them, and I bound his wounds with strips of cloth from my own garment. And I placed him on my own animal and took him to an inn, where I was able to continue taking care of him. And once I saw that he would be okay, I decided that it was time for me to be on my way. But not before making sure to pay for this man. After all, all that he had had been taken from him, and he would have no way of paying for himself. And I did not want to put him further in debt and make things worse. And then I was on my way, and I was glad that I could help a fellow human being in need. And that’s it. That’s all I did.

I do not judge the priest or the Levite for acting as they did. They did what they thought was right and they did what they had to do based upon their own callings. And I’m sure no one would blame them for acting as they did.

For myself, I helped him because, well, I would hope that someone would show the same kindness to me if I were in such dire need. And I did it because I follow God. I didn’t feel obligated to because of this; no one would blame me for not helping someone who was most likely an enemy. But I did it because of God’s deep love for us and because God saves us even when we do not deserve it.

And I’m not comparing myself to God. I mean, I certainly have my own flaws and am in no way perfect, let alone a hero. But I have experienced God’s love in my own life and I felt called to show God’s love and healing to someone who needed it. Maybe if it were a different day and I had saw this man lying on the side of the road then, I would have passed by. I don’t know. Please don’t assume that I have all the answers on what it means to follow God and live a righteous life. I just happened to see a fellow human being in need, and I took pity on him.

The Lawyer
I have pondered my encounter with Jesus for a long time now. And I am still struck by the things that he said to me.

First of all, a Samaritan? Really? Was he making a statement on how he feels about me and other religious leaders teachers and all of us fellow Jews who are faithfully trying to follow God’s Law? Was this why he made the Samaritan be the one who acted rightly? I mean, we’re all just trying to follow God’s Law as best we can.

I mean, the Law says that my neighbor is my fellow Jew, my kin. What Jesus is asking, well, it’s almost as if he’s asking me to love my enemy! And well, that’s impossible for mortals!

I’ve been taught from a young age that Samaritans are cursed and that they will not receive eternal life. I was so sure that the third person in his parable was going to be a righteous Jew. Even had the Jew been the one to help a Samaritan, that would have been easier for me to take at the time.

But I suppose that I’m not the one who ultimately sets limits on who God can and cannot work through. I mean, Abraham lied about his wife’s identity, and God still used him to become the ancestor of all of my people. Rahab was a prostitute, yet she played an influential role in helping my people enter into the Promised Land. Ruth was a foreigner from the land of Moab, and yet she became the great grandmother of King David. Who am I to say who God can and cannot work through?

But a Samaritan? Really? At the time I was so shocked, maybe even angry at who he had chosen to respond in the morally righteous way, that I couldn’t even bring myself to name the Samaritan for who he was. “The one who showed him mercy.” That’s what I said.

A Samaritan … is my neighbor …

But I guess I’m focusing too much on the question that I asked Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t really interested in answering my question, “Who is my neighbor?”

He wasn’t really interested in answering who’s in and who’s out, although perhaps he began to answer that question by choosing who he did for his parable.

But instead, Jesus was much more interested in the question, “To whom must I become a neighbor?”5

And it feels as though Jesus was trying to say to me that in order to fulfill God’s Law, I am called to reach out in costly compassion to all people, even to my enemies. Even if it seems impossible to us, all things are possible for God.6

We will all stand before God on that day. And I suppose that God won’t be focusing on whether or not I noticed who all was following God’s Law or who wasn’t, but that the focus will be upon my own life, how I myself lived and how I myself followed God’s commandments; how I loved the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and how I loved my neighbor as myself.

So that’s really what I have been pondering here of late, as I walk along the road and see all the faces of the people I encounter as I journey, Jews and Samaritans, Male and Female, Slave and Free, Friend and Enemy, and I wonder: how can I go and be a neighbor to others?

Notes:
1. Leviticus 19:17-18.
2. All ideas on purity regulations are taken from Kenneth Bailey’s Through Peasant Eyes and his chapter on the Good Samaritan.
3. Above taken from Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes.
4. The text seems to suggest that the Levite does more than the priest. The priest “saw him, and passed by on the other side.” The Levite “came to the place and saw him.”
5. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 55.
6. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 55.

For God so loved the world

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“For God so loved the world” (John 3:16-17)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
October 6, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

John 3:16 is one of the most recognized verses from the Bible. You see it on signs at ball games or along the road or on Christian artwork to be hung in homes. It’s a beloved passage for church members to memorize, and one that most have been taught from a very early age. And I think that it is beloved and well known for good reason. In John 3:16-17 the very essence of the gospel seems to be communicated: “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

And at the very heart of this good news, is God’s deep and steadfast love for the world. And this deep and steadfast love encompasses all people, all of creation, all of the world. God’s love is not just for a select group of people, or just for those we assume fall under God’s care and favor, but also for those we tend to assume are outside of God’s care and favor, even those who we do not ourselves love, even those we consider to be our enemies. It is the world in its entirety that God so loves.

And God so deeply loves the world that God was willing to send the One who God loves most, the only begotten Son, into the world, despite what would happen, despite the great pain that this would cause, despite the tremendous sacrifice on God’s part.

When I was a freshman in high school, my youth group participated in DOOR in Denver. We stayed at one of the local churches there and would gather every night for worship. And I remember the pastor of the church telling this story to communicate God’s deep love as we sat on the mountain side. He imagined that all of us youth had gone to bed for the night in the church building and then for some reason or another, he happened to stop by the church only to see smoke pouring out because of a fire in the building. He said that in that situation he wouldn’t even think twice about rushing in to warn us so that he might save our lives, despite the risk to his own body.

But then he imagined the same scenario, that he stopped by the church building after we were all asleep, only to see smoke pouring out because of a fire in the building, only this time, his 5-year-old son was with him. And he pondered what it would be like to instead send his son into the burning building to warn us and save our lives, all at the risk of the life of his son for our sake. And the pastor didn’t think that he would ever be able to do that; it goes against every fiber of a parents’ being to put our children at risk or to send them into a dangerous or hostile situation.

Yet God loves each of us so much, that God was able to do just that. God loves each of us so much that God was willing to send the One who God loves most into the world, despite the great risk, despite the great pain and sacrifice that this would bring about, all for the sake of our salvation. It was love, God’s deep and steadfast love for the world that caused the incarnation, despite all that would happen. The Son was given for the sake of the world’s salvation, even at the cost of his own life, because of the deep and steadfast love of God.

And because of God’s deep love for all of the world, salvation is offered to every person, that everyone might have eternal life. It is God, out of love, who takes the initiative for our salvation. It is God who makes the first move, and who gives the Son for the sake of the salvation of the world. Salvation is available for all who believe in the Son and the One who sent him. But we know, of course, that not all will believe, for some have loved the darkness rather than the light. Some will not accept God’s offer of love and salvation.

But for those who believe, God gives the power the power to become children of God, to become a part of God’s family. This is God’s doing. For those who believe, God brings about our salvation and leads us from death to eternal life. Those who believe are born anew into God’s family out of God’s deep love for us. John 3:16 and 17 are located within the narrative of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. And Jesus tells Nicodemus, that one must be born from above (or born anew) to experience eternal life. The thought that the birth is from above suggests that it is God’s doing, that we ourselves do not bring about our new birth. And if you think about it, how many of you had a say about whether you were born or not? Our birth was not our own choice, but the choice of our parents. Just like, to be born from above (or born anew) is not our own doing, but God’s doing in our own lives, it is God bringing us from death into eternal life. And we begin to experience eternal life now. It is not something we simply have to wait for, it is not just something for the age to come, but for those who believe, we have already passed from death into life.

But believing in Jesus, does not mean that our lives will stay the same as they were before. We cannot simply claim to be born again, and then continue to live in the same ways that we did before we experienced eternal life. Believing in Jesus, fundamentally changes who we are. To be born anew is to be transformed completely.

And though it is God’s initiative that brings about our salvation, and our new life, we always have the choice to respond to what God is doing. In the gospel of John, “believe” or “faith” is always a verb, it is always active, it is always moving. Believing is what you do. Believing is how you respond to God. Believing is the way you live so that your life reflects the True Light that came into the world.

In the language that the gospel of John was originally written, John 3:16 can literally be translated “all who believe “into” him.” In the Greek, you do not only believe “in” Jesus, but you believe “into” Jesus. Believing means moving towards Jesus. Believing means orienting one’s life towards the direction of Jesus, to move closer and closer to him.1 Yes, there will be times when we “miss the mark”2 or even veer off course. But even when that happens, we can once again choose to reorient our lives towards Jesus and to move towards him.

Believing is to be orienting our lives towards Jesus. Believing is to be moving towards Jesus. Believing is to be living in a way that reflects the True Light of the world. Believing is to be responding to God because of what God is doing, and because of God’s deep love.

For it is God’s deep love that makes this all possible. It is because of God’s deep love that our salvation and assurance of eternal life is possible. It is because of God’s deep love for each of us and for all of creation that God gave the One who God loved most for our own sake, despite the tremendous cost. Out of gratitude and awe for this tremendous gift, may we spend our whole lives believing and moving towards the One whom God has sent into the world for our salvation. Amen.

Notes:
1. Willard M. Swartley. Believers Church Bible Commentary: John. p. 505.
2. Literal translation of one of the NT words for sin, “harmartia.”

Safe with God

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Safe with God” (Daniel 6:10-23)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
September 15, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When we were in Phoenix for the MCUSA Convention this past July, one of the speakers began her sermon by expressing her fear of flying. With one flight in particular, she remembers that the plane was shaking quite violently. And as she looked around her, she realized that she seemed be the only one to notice the shaking, and that she was really the only one paying any mind to it. And she was getting more and more anxious because of it, hoping it would stop soon. But the shaking kept going, and kept going, and finally, after 45 minutes of this, she stood up and screamed, “You’re all in denial! This plane is going down!” And after she sat down, the person next to her turned towards her and said gently, “You don’t fly very often, do you, dear?”

And after we heard her speak, I told the youth, that even though I wasn’t going to embarrass them with any outbursts like that on the flight back, that’s pretty much how I feel every time I get on a plane. I hate flying. First of all, I have terrible motion sickness, so flying often really does a number on my stomach and leaves me feeling sick for the rest of the day. But secondly, even though I know intellectually that flying is statistically much safer than driving, and that you’re more likely to be killed by a donkey than a plane crash, I still don’t get how something that heavy can stay up in the air with so few complications. So not only do I usually have to focus to keep the contents of my breakfast safely within my stomach while on a plane, I’m also usually worrying about whether the plane is going to crash or not.

 

As we flew across the Atlantic Ocean on our way to the Holy Land, I remember thinking, “Hmm, if something goes wrong and we need to land somewhere, there isn’t even anywhere to land amidst all of this water!” So when I noticed that our plane was shaking violently, I pulled the steward aside and asked him if it was normal. He simply laughed and continued on his way.

I also was panicking while I was flying out to Ohio to speak at Bluffton University’s chapel service during a snow storm. The plane jumped what felt like to me to be about 20 feet in the air and back down in a matter of a couple of seconds. And I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m done for.” All while the two boys in across the aisle started shouting, “Cool! Let’s do it again!”

And of course it certainly didn’t help that our last flight on the way home from Convention this summer was grounded for 2 hours before taking off because they were “fixing some mechanical problems” on the plane we were about to take off in.

But every time I’m flying somewhere, the same song is going through my head over and over as a form of prayer: “God our protector, keep us in mind, always remember your people. We could be with you one day in time, it is better than a thousand without you.” In a way, it’s my way of praying for safety as I fly. But more importantly, it’s just a way of continually reminding me, that no matter what happens, God is present with me. It doesn’t always take my fears away entirely, especially if there’s a lot of turbulence, but it calms me down immensely and it comforts me greatly to remind myself to simply trust that God is, in fact, there with me.

I suppose that one of the reasons that I thought of this in conjunction with the text is because it really frightens me to fly and it seems natural to me that Daniel would have been terrified as he was being led to the lions den and placed into the pit. But as I continually read the text over and over this week, I realized that the text seems to give very little indication that he was frightened at all. But he was certainly always aware of and trusted God’s presence with him in his life.

Perhaps God’s presence with him was one reason that Daniel had risen so high in Darius’ esteem and good graces in the first place. For when Darius was setting up his kingdom, he appointed 120 different men to act as satraps, or governors, over the different regions of the kingdom. And Darius chose 3 men to act as administrators to rule over these 120 governors, to hold them accountable and to make sure that everything was in order for the king. But Daniel had distinguished himself so much from all of these governors and administrators that Darius decided to appoint Daniel over the whole kingdom.

Well, you can imagine how well this went over with the 120 governors and the 3 administrators. They began to conspire amongst themselves so that they could find some scandal or skeleton in Daniel’s closet so that hopefully Darius would reconsider appointing him, a foreigner, over the entire kingdom. But after looking for anything that they might use against Daniel, they found nothing, because Daniel was faithful, a hard worker, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him.

So since they couldn’t find anything against him, they decided to try a different tactic. They knew that Daniel followed God in his life, and they began to concoct a way to use this against him. After conspiring together, all of the administrators and governors crowded before the king and said, “King Darius, may you live forever! All of your administrators and governors and all of your leading officials have agreed that you should issue the following decree: For the next 30 days, no one shall pray to any god or mortal except to you, O king. Anyone who disobeys will be thrown into a den of lions!”

O King, establish this decree and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persions, which cannot be revoked.” And King Darius agreed and signed the document and made the decree official.

Now Darius doesn’t come off looking too good in this story, he is so easily manipulated by the hollow flattery of his leading officials. He must have known that Daniel followed God and would not have obeyed this decree. Yet he did not even pause to think how this decree might affect those around him, including his right hand man! He simply signed it without question after his ego was appealed to.

But those governors and administrators certainly knew what they were doing. They had used Darius as a tool to achieve their sinister purposes. And they assumed that they had finally trapped Daniel and would get rid of him once and for all.

Now Daniel knew that this decree had been signed and made into law. But even the threat of death was not going to prevent him from worshiping the God whom he followed. If he had been afraid, he certainly didn’t act like it, for he continued to pray with his windows thrown wide open, where everyone who walked by could see him. If he had been afraid, he certainly didn’t pray about it, for when he knelt down three times a day, he continued to praise God, just as he had done before. For he knew when to obey God before the laws of the kingdoms of this world.

Last month saw the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech.” Here was a man who wholeheartedly chose to obey God before the laws of the kingdoms of this world, and who practiced nonviolent civil disobedience to protest the unjust laws of segregation so that each person might truly experience freedom and equality. And King spent much time praying that God’s will might be done and for God’s mercy to be shown.

And that’s how Daniel was found by those who had conspired against him: praying and seeking for God’s mercy. And this is the only time that the text hints that he might have been afraid, for in his prayers, he was “seeking mercy before his God.” He must have known that his civil disobedience would catch up with him at some point, that those who were jealous of his power would one day come seeking his life. And he very well may have been asking that, in God’s mercy, God would spare his life. I’m sure that if I would have been in his place, that’s exactly what I would have been doing. But I also wonder if he was asking for God to be merciful towards those who would condemn him and seek to end his life through an unjust conspiracy. Perhaps either way would be true to the text.

But regardless, the conspirators came and caught Daniel in the act of disobeying the king. And they went to Darius and told him what they had found, and that according to the decree that he himself had established, Daniel should be put to death.

Darius, who had not thought how his law might affect Daniel, was distraught and tried everything that he could to save this man who had earned his favor from being executed. But his administrators and governors told him that his decree was irrevocable and that there was nothing he could do.

So Daniel was led to the lions’ den and thrown into the pit. And before they rolled the stone over the mouth of the den to seal him in, the king said, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” Perhaps he said this out of hope. Or perhaps he simply wanted to encourage someone he assumed had gone to his death, for he knew that neither he nor any other person could do anything else to change Daniel’s fate.

Darius had tried everything that he could to save Daniel, but ultimately, he had no power to save; he felt bound by the laws of this world, laws he and those around him believed could not be revoked. But even the most irrevocable and permanent-seeming decrees of this world’s kingdoms cannot prevent God and God’s saving power.

And God’s presence was with Daniel as they led him to the lions’ den and sealed the stone over the mouth of the pit. And God’s presence was with Daniel and kept the mouths of the lions closed so that they could not harm him.

And, when Darius ran to the den, after a long, and sleepless night, he found Daniel unscathed and unharmed for God had kept him safe, even in the den of the lions.

And those who had conspired against Daniel met the same fate that they had tried to pin on Daniel.

And Darius revoked his decree and instead wrote to all people and nations that all should worship and revere the God of Daniel, who is the living God who endures forever, whose reign will have no end, who delivers and rescues and works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, and who had saved Daniel from the power of the lions.

Darius began to catch a glimpse that even the rulers and powers of this world do not have the ultimate power and that it is God who is ultimately in charge and who has the final victory. Even the laws and decrees of this world cannot prevent God from working God’s will. It is God who ultimately has the power to save and to answer the prayers of the faithful.

Yet you and I know of times when prayers have not been answered as Daniel’s was. And my guess is that there were those who, as they stepped on the plane 12 years ago on September 11, were also praying that God would keep them safe as they traveled. You and I know of times when people who have trusted God and who have sought to obey God over the laws of this world have died long before they should have. Martin Luther King trusted and followed God rather than the laws of this world, and yet he was cruelly assassinated.

Was God any less present with King than with Daniel? Or with the victims of September 11 and all the men, women, and children who have died in its wake?

I had a professor at CMU who told our class that God will always save those whose lives God has a plan for. But I cringed when I heard it then and I still cannot believe that those who have died in terrible and tragic situations died because God didn’t have a plan for their lives. And I have continued to wrestle with why some who do not trust in God have lived comfortably to a ripe old age and why some who have trusted God throughout their lives, die young.

But when one continues reading in the book of Daniel, one will come across something that has been immensely helpful to me when I am struggling with these questions. In chapter 9, when Daniel is praying, God immediately sends an angel to speak with him and answer his prayer, even before Daniel has finished praying. And it is my hope that all of us can think of times in our lives or in the lives of those we love, that prayers have been answered immediately and sometimes even in miraculous ways. But in chapter 10, Daniel had been praying, and fasting, and mourning for a long time, and still God did not answer his prayer. But finally, after 3 full weeks, the angel came again and told Daniel how he tried to come to Daniel to answer his prayer, and yet had been prevented from coming because the prince of Persia had opposed him for 21 days. And it is my guess that all of us can think of times in our lives or in the lives of those we love, that prayers have not been answered, and it seems as though God’s good intentions for our lives have not come to pass.

The world we live in is “fallen.” And there are powers in this world that are opposed to God and are working against God. And even though God is working to accomplish God’s will and purposes within creation, and though I believe that God is seeking to save all of God’s beloved children, sometimes the powers of this world still are able to triumph for a time and can sometimes delay our prayers from being answered.

Because of the fallen state of the world we live in, there is no guarantee that even if we trust God with all of our heart, that we will always be kept safe, as Daniel was. But like Daniel, we will choose to serve and obey God regardless of what may happen to us. For we trust that regardless of what comes our way, God’s presence is with us. And we do trust, that regardless of what happens to us in this life, God will save us, whether it comes in ways we would expect or not. For we have a hope that the world does not; we trust and hope that we will experience God’s salvation in the kingdom that is to come. And because we are already citizens and members of God’s kingdom, we choose to follow God in life, regardless of what will happen.

For even God’s own Son was not kept “safe” as everyone had hoped and expected. And as he hung dying, those from the crowd mocked him, asking why he could not save himself when he had saved others. And God’s own Son died, crucified upon a cross by those who had conspired against him and wished to get rid of him once and for all. But God saved him from the power of death, and raised him on the third day.

And this is why we hope and trust in God’s sure salvation, for because Christ was raised, we know that we too shall be raised and experience God’s salvation on the last day.

For ours is the living God, who endures forever and ever, whose reign shall never be destroyed and whose dominion has no end. God delivers and rescues and works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth. God saved Daniel from the power of the lions. God resurrected Jesus on the third day. And God has saved us, and is saving us, and will save us even from the very power of death itself when the final victory is won. And we trust that it is, indeed, God who has the final victory. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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Let all creation praise the Lord

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Let all creation praise the Lord!” (Psalm 148)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
August 18, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

All of creation is called to praise the name of the Lord, the One by whom we live and move and have our being, the One by whom all things came into being. All of creation is given a voice and each voice is important, all blending together in unique harmonies and intertwining melodies. All things that breathe, indeed all things that are, are called to praise the Lord who created us. Humans and animals, young and old, males and females, sea monsters and creatures of the deep, trees and mountains, sun and moon, angels and hosts of heaven, even the weather patterns. This is a universal call to praise and all whom God has created are called to join in the song, to blend our voices in a great chorus of unceasing praise to the one who created us and loves us.

Now anyone who has spent time within creation can begin to catch a glimpse of the ways that creation itself is praising God. You can see this in the power of the lightning storm, and hear it in the might of the thunder and in the sound of the falling rain. You can see it in the beauty of the flowers as they open in the spring time, filling the earth with color and fragrantly sweet smells, and you can hear it in the voice of the birds as they sing to greet the dawn. You can see it in the vast wheat fields in the summer, or in the beauty of the moon upon the freshly fallen snow in the winter, and you can hear it in the lowing of the cattle, or the bleating of the sheep, or in the voice of the coyotes who sing under the stars. You can experience this as you sit by the lake, as I had the privilege of doing last Sunday in my time with the youth group, with the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore, the fish leaping out of the water, the majesty of the trees, the intricacies of the tiny ants, the glory of the sun setting over the water, the joy in human voices and the fellowship of friends.

And God is infinitely worthy of all of our praise. And if you even begin to ponder the world around us, you can begin to see why. Consider the wonder that is a seed, how this tiny thing sprouts and grows and becomes a flower, or a plant, or a source of food, or a mighty tree all through God’s hands. Consider the wonder that is your body, its ability to move, and to see, and to taste, and to smell, and to hear, and to create. There were so many circumstances and factors that had to be just right in order for us to enter this earth as we are; each of us is a miracle who has come into being through God’s hands.

And we are to spend the whole of our lives praising the One who gave us life, to blend our voices with the voices of creation, to listen for the unique harmonies that each one of us as humans, and animals, and plants, and weather patterns, and heavenly bodies create together, to marvel in the cacophony of creation as we praise the One who created us.

And we, the people who are dear to God and close to God’s heart, we who have been called by God and set apart by God are called to lead this mighty chorus of praise, to articulate the unspoken praise of the rest of creation so that all may come to know and see and praise the glory of the Lord so that every knee shall bow and every tongue join in singing the praises of our Creator.

But perhaps there are times that you have found, as I have, that for whatever reason, it is difficult to do so, when our heart isn’t in it, or the words don’t come, or when it’s difficult to see the glory of the Lord within creation given the pain, and destruction, and death, and despair of life in a world created for praise and yet is fallen. Though all of creation is called to praise,creation itself is also groaning and longing to be set free from the powers that hold it captive. And voices within creation which long to praise the Lord are stifled due to cruelty, and destruction, and illness, and death. And we forget to praise, or we don’t have the heart to due to the pain that we see and that we experience. And perhaps we even wonder, “Where is God in all of this? Where is the One who promised never to leave us nor forsake us? And when will God come and set things right?”

I have wondered this many times myself, seeing the pain of the world and hearing the groaning of creation, and I have sometimes found it hard to believe that God is working to set things right in the midst of such destruction, and cruelty, and illness, and death. But I was struck this week by the things which the psalmist chose to include in the psalm, reminding us of all that has been created by God and which God ultimately is ruler over. The psalmist includes sea monsters, which perhaps to our ears sounds strange, but during the time that this psalm was written, the monsters of the deep and the oceans themselves were closely associated with chaos and destruction; they were chaos personified. And it was a good reminder for me to reflect that even the things which frighten us, even the chaotic powers, are subject to God and will not have the final say.

And the psalmist also includes the rulers of the earth, the ones who have either taken power or been given power, those who seem to control the fate of the earth and who wield great power over others, who oppress the poor and marginalized, who wage wars and destroy the earth to sate their own greed, even they do not have the ultimate say over the fate of creation, even they are subject to God and are called to praise.

Yes, there are times in our lives when the words do not come, but even then the song of praise is continuing. Yes, there are times when the pain is great and we groan loudly along with creation, but even then the song of praise is continuing. Even when we are silent, the very stones, and trees, and rivers, and fields are crying out and proclaiming the glory of the Lord. And sometimes we are able to catch glimpses of this and to hear the song continuing despite the chaos and the pain.

In my own life, I have found that my daughter has been a wonderful reminder to praise the God who created her. First of all, this is simply because of who she is, of the miracle that she is, of the gift that she is, and I praise God for her every day. And I sincerely hope that each of you has someone in your life whom you love so deeply that they enable you to see the wonders of God’s hands and who inspire you to praise God simply because they are a part of your life.

She also reminds me to praise, because, coming so recently from God’s presence, she has a wisdom that I have forgotten amidst the hectic moments of life, and her eyes still see things that the busyness of life have blinded me to until she points them out to me. She is completely enamored with creation, and she points out the many ways that creation is praising God and that God is in fact present within creation. She stoops to look at every lady bug and spider, she picks up every stick and leaf and stone that she finds, she speaks often of the moon, she points out every bird and flower and squirrel and dog and cat and horse and cow and rhinoceros and every animal that she sees. And she sees the mystery and the wonder and that which is of God in each of these. And she reminds me to simply slow down, that it’s okay that there are still things that need to be done, because what’s important is to simply take time to notice the majesty and wonder of God’s hands in each thing, each life that has been created and to respond with praise.

For we are created to praise the One who made us and by whom we live and move and have our being. And this is what eternity holds for us, when we join the myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands who surround the throne singing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, who is, and who was, and who is to come” now and forever more.

And so this week, the challenge is for us to look for the places where we see creation praising God, to look for the places where God is at work, to catch glimpses of God’s glory, to hear the harmonies of the universal song of praise, and to praise the One who made us and loves us.

As we enter this week, may we be given eyes to see and ears to hear and voices to join in the song.

Let all creation praise the Lord!

Alleluia!

Amen.

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God Cares for Us

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“God Cares for Us” (Psalm 139:-118)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
July 21, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The verses that were read from this psalm strike me as 3 stanzas of one song, or a poem in three parts, with each part speaking of a different aspect of God’s deep and intimate love for us as beloved daughters and sons.

The first speaks of God’s intimate knowledge of us; our Creator knows us deeply, when we sit and when we rise, our coming out and our going in. The second speaks of God’s constant presence with us; so that even when we are lying in the depths or at the far limits of the sea, God’s Spirit is with us. The third speaks of how our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made by the hands of our Creator, that we are knit together by God’s loving hands in our mother’s womb.

Our God knows us. Our God knows us deeply. Our God knows intimately; so intimately in fact that God knows our every action and has searched out our path and has perceived our every thought from far away.

Now there is a part of me that cringes a bit at this knowledge. There are some things that I have done that I have a hard enough time admitting even to myself, let alone to God. And there are some words that I have said and thoughts that I have had that I would be embarrassed to talk about with God; hateful thoughts, thoughts that do not reflect the goodness of God’s image within others, thoughts that do not reflect the nature of the person who God created me to be. Yet God already knows of these shortcomings and failings anyway. I imagine that God is disappointed when I think these things or say these things or do these things. And I would hope that in being aware that God knows all about me, my every action, my every thought, that this knowledge would prompt me to act and think in ways that are more in keeping with who God calls me to be.

But. . . I do know that even though God knows the very worst things about me, God still loves me unconditionally, as God loves all of us, for with God there is always grace upon grace.

And it is also wonderful to realize that God knows us so well for it means that God is not simply absent from our lives; God is not simply uninterested in what we do. God did not create the world and then leave it to its own devices. God knowing every minute detail about our lives means that God is intimately involved within our lives and within creation, both the bad and the good. God knowing every intimate detail about our lives means that God cares deeply about what happens to us.

Lord, you have searched me, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down, you are familiar with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, you, O Lord, know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

There is no where where we can escape God’s presence. If we ascend to great heights, God is there. If we descend into the depths, God is still there.

Now speaking for myself, I do not remember there ever being a time when I have tried to flee from God’s presence. But I can remember times when God’s presence has felt very absent from my life. One of my closest friends in high school was someone I had grown up with. She and I had attended the same congregation since our birth and the same school since kindergarten. We were both leaders in our youth group. She and I had written all of the skits for our Youth Sunday. She and I were both a part of our congregation’s praise team and worship band. She and I had both performed in the musical “Godspell” at the MCUSA convention in Nashville. She had gone with me to Winnipeg to visit the CMU campus when I was in the process of making the decision where to attend college. We talked about a lot of things, things that were funny, or serious, inconsequential, or momentous. And when we were both seniors in high school, she told me that she no longer believed in God. And that was very painful for me. As someone who had begun to feel a call to ministry, I was at a complete loss for how to respond to her. I couldn’t understand it, especially given all that we had done together in our youth group and in worship. And I was angry and hurt. And even though I still very much believed in God myself, from the time that she told me this until nearly my third year in college, I had ceased to feel God’s presence with me in the ways that I had been used to before. The once familiar and comforting presence seemed to have vanished from my life. And I can still remember screaming and crying in my prayers because of what had happened to my friend and because I was angry that at this time when I was hurting, I no longer recognized God’s presence with me.

I also remember feeling that God’s presence had abandoned me when Peter and I experienced a miscarriage. Even knowing the 1 in 3 chances of a miscarriage with a first pregnancy, I couldn’t understand how this could happen if God was knitting the child together in my womb. We found out that our baby had no heartbeat during the Easter season, on the week that I was scheduled to preach. And I didn’t know how to proclaim the promises of the resurrection when my own body had become a tomb. And I was angry at God. And I felt abandoned by God. And many of my prayers were simply tears. And it felt like pain and darkness were consuming me.

But even at these times in my life when it has felt as though I have descended into the depths, even there God’s hand has led me. And in looking back, I have been able to recognize that even then God was with me, even though it was not through the familiar presence that I have been used to feeling and knowing. When my close friend lost her faith, even then God’s hand was guiding me, leading me to CMU, calling me into ministry. When we lost our first child, I experienced God’s presence through the prayers, meals, embraces, and tears of friends and the family of faith.

I know that many have experienced more pain in their lives than I have, that I am not the only one who has felt as though God’s presence is very distant if not gone all together. Yet I truly believe that God is present in even the darkest moments of history, and if nothing else, simply crying with us in our pain. For there is nowhere that we can go from God’s Spirit. There is no where where we can flee from God’s presence.

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for the darkness is as light to you.

It is by God’s own hands that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are created very good in the very image of our Divine Creator. I hope that we have all been told this from a very young age, that God has indeed created us good, that we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made by God’s own hands. And yet I lament that I too often have believed the lies of the culture when it tells me that my body is not good enough. We are told that we’re not slender enough, not curvy enough, not muscular enough, not tall enough, not short enough, not fast enough, not strong enough, not toned enough, not tan enough, not fair enough, not smart enough, not athletic enough, not feminine enough, not manly enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough, not good enough.

And I have spent hours agonizing over my reflection in the mirror or the numbers I see when I step on the scale. If only I could change a few things about my body, then I would be beautiful. Or so I’ve been taught to feel by the lies that this culture has told me. And even though I have read Genesis 1 and Psalm 139 so many times, I still fall prey to this belief that my body isn’t good enough.

But the profound and ancient truth is that each of us are indeed very good in the eyes of our Creator. Each of us are fearfully and wonderfully made by God’s own hand. And our bodies are so good in fact that God’s own self chose to take on our flesh and become one of us. God came to us in a body like our own, knit together in a mother’s womb, a body that could run, and dance, and play, and laugh, and suffer, and cry, and feel pain, and embrace others, and worship, just like our own bodies are capable of, for good indeed is the flesh that the Word of God has become.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately wove in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before even one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.

And that is the very promise of the One who took on our flesh, who is God-with-us, God’s very presence among us, and who knows us intimately. For God has promised never to leave us nor forsake us. And indeed, God is with us always, even to the very end of the age.

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Do not worry?

June 14th, 2013 No comments

“Do not worry?” (Matthew 6:25-34)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
June 9, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

It would seem to me that Jesus’ favorite venue for preaching was outside in creation. Many of his parables and much of his imagery speak of the land, the plants, and the animals he saw around him.

“The Reign of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”1

“A sower went out to sow some seed, and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.”2

“How often I have desired to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.”3

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until it is found?”4

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.”5

“Look at the birds of the air … Consider the lilies of the field … “6

He preached from what he saw in creation all around him. And it seems to me that he took great delight in creation. And of course anyone who has spent time time outside in the fields, or in the garden, or by the lake, or in the woods can understand why. There is a deep and profound beauty in creation. We often experience God’s presence when we are outside in creation. The goodness of our creation reflects the goodness of the One who created it.

And we are told right “from the beginning” that God delights in creation and calls it “very good.” Jesus’ “pastoral” words here from the Sermon on the Mount also proclaim that God is actively caring for and providing for creation, even the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It is lovely imagery that speaks to God’s deep care and delight in creation.

These are beautiful words. But I admit that they have sometimes perplexed me. I love the imagery of the birds and the flowers and God’s providing for creation, but I have always wondered about Jesus’ other words in this passage. Does he really mean that we should not worry? That we should never worry? Isn’t it justifiable that people would worry where their next meal would come from? Especially with a global population that is growing exponentially, with more mouths to feed and less room for farmland? Isn’t it justifiable for our brothers and sisters around the world to worry where their next meal will come from when so many children cry out for bread and die from the lack of it? Isn’t it justifiable for our neighbors to worry about food for their bodies when so many children, even within our communities of Whitewater and Peabody and Newton go to bed hungry?

For myself, I have never yet worried about where my next meal would come from, but anxiety and worry are still absolutely part of my vocabulary and daily experience.

Does Jesus really mean not to worry? Does he really mean this considering the many things we worry about, that occupy our thoughts and keep us awake at night? What about the many bills we have to pay: car payments, and mortgage payments, and medical bills? What about looming expenses of college tuitions? What if there’s a drought? How will the crops fare? (Indeed, the plight of our neighbors in Oklahoma remind us how damaging severe weather can be.) What about the stresses of homework and papers? What about the stresses of all the things that we have yet to do, meetings to attend, children and grandchildren’s activities to watch, family gatherings to plan and prepare for? What about the stresses of home repair and cleaning and daily upkeep? What about the pressures of fitting in, of appearing as though we have everything all together? What about worries about our health? What about worries about the health of those we love?

I have often thought about these words of Jesus as I lie awake at night worrying, and how I’m not adding a single hour to my life (and in reality, I’m probably more likely to be taking away hours from my life due to frequent anxiety and lack of sleep). But even though these words come to mind as I lie awake worrying, there’s rarely relief from my anxieties.

I have always been a chronic worrier, from the stresses of homework and sermon writing, to housework and upkeep, to finances, to Peter’s safety as he drives home. But my worrying increased one hundredfold when Sophia was born. I was suddenly acutely aware of all the terrible things that could happen to her, of all the many possibilities of how things could go wrong, of the myriad ways that she could get hurt, or worse. And these worries often haunt my sleepless nights. I was barely getting enough sleep as it was as a mother of a newborn, but I remember not being able to fall asleep because of worries about the state of the world that my daughter was born into and all in her generation who will inherit the earth. What about the violence that many have to live with on a daily basis, whether through the devastating effects of wars or abuse? What about the ways that women and girls are still not treated as equals with men and boys throughout the world and the ways that our gender is exploited and mistreated and belittled? What about the effects of climate change? How will this affect creation within her lifetime? What about the increasing size of the global population? Will there always be enough food and clean water?

We know that God cares deeply for creation. And as members of a rural congregation, many of us having spent time in the fields, cultivating our gardens, and caring for livestock, and we too have a deep respect for the land, and the growing things which spring from it, and the animals which depend on it. We know the ways that the land provides for us, and our calling to thus till the earth and keep it as stewards of God’s good creation.

And we also know that many do not share our love of God’s creation, who do not share our respect for the land, or care for animals, or the sacredness of each human life. Instead of tilling the earth and keeping it, many instead choose to exploit the earth, destroying all which gets in the way, using it only for sating greed. Corporations spew waste that pollute our water sources, the rivers, the lakes, the oceans. Chemicals used in manufacturing cause cancers and birth defects. “Our devaluation of animal life has led to the extinction of whole species and to unnecessary cruelty to animals.”7 We are depleting the earth’s resources at an alarming rate. If everyone lived as we do in the United States, we would need 5.3 earths to support us.8

And I know that I am a part of systems that exploit the earth, through purchases that I make that have been manufactured by people who are not paid a living wage, through food that I buy that has been shipped across the country or from overseas, through my dependence on my vehicles for transportation. I drive much more often than I seek alternate forms of transportation, such as biking, walking, or even carpooling, even just to downtown Newton. And when I drive, I often drive too fast, showing more concern for my lateness than for the nonrenewable fuel that my car is depleting and which in turn contributes to climate change. I throw too many things away without considering what these non-biodegradable plastics, styrofoam, diapers, and all of my other trash will do to the land and water after they leave my house.

I worry deeply about all these things for my daughter’s sake, and for the sake of all whose lives are even now affected by humankind’s choices which do not show care and respect for God’s creation. I know that God cares for creation and provides food for the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And that God cares for all the more deeply for human life. But another thing that troubles me about this passage is how do I respond to this promise when there are many whose cries for food go unanswered? What then of the children who go to bed hungry? What then of the people who die for want of bread? What then of the 30,000 children who will die today because of starvation? In the song “Rain Down” which we sang last Sunday, one of the verses proclaims that “God will not leave us to starve.” But every time I sing that, I want to say, but what about those who are hungry, and starving, and dying? I have spent a lot of sleepless hours worrying about my daughter, but I also know that parents who love their children just as much as I do, who have prayed for them just as earnestly as I have, who worry for their lives just as much as I do, have witnessed violence and pain being inflicted upon their children, have heard their hungry cries for bread, or have lost them to the cruel sting of death.

And it’s overwhelming, especially when one begins to worry about all the things that we truly could worry about. Reading and watching the news is enough to send anyone into a state of anxiety and depression. It’s enough to consume a person. It has consumed me at times. And I admit that I have experienced times of hopelessness over the fate of creation, over the fate of our brothers and sisters, over the fate of the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field, and the flowers and trees of the field which God cares so deeply about, whose lives are carelessly thrown away because of the greed of humankind when we seek to lay up our own treasures on earth.

God certainly cares deeply for all of creation. God’s desire is absolutely that everyone, from the lowliest sparrow to each human being, would be provided for and have all of their basic needs met. God’s eye is certainly on the sparrow and not one will fall to the ground unperceived by God.9 But “God’s watchfulness and care doesn’t mean that God stops every sparrow from falling.”10 I wish that I had all of the answers for why this is the way things are. And I wish that the world was ordered in such a way that made sense. But the reality of the world that we live in is that some who have caused much pain live comfortably and to a ripe old age, and many who are innocent and good live with much pain and die much too young. For there are powers at work in the world that are working directly against what God is doing and against God’s good purposes for creation. And because, out of God’s deep love, God has given us freewill, human beings often make choices that fall prey to these powers which are working against God.

But even when this happens, even when many, humans and others within creation alike, suffer and are destroyed, we still trust that God is actively caring and providing even in these seemingly hopeless situations and even if we can’t always fathom what that care and provision might look like if it comes in ways that are different from what we had expected. Even when there is suffering, we trust that God is still present. Even when there is destruction, decay, and death, we trust that God is still actively moving. This is the very promise of the person of Jesus, of God incarnate, God-with-us, of our God who cries with us, who suffers with us, and who even experienced the cruel sting of death upon a cross. Jesus never once assumed that our life would be without suffering and pain, indeed he assured his followers that persecutions would come, but he also promised that he would never leave us nor forsake us, and that he would be with us even to the very end of the age.

And knowing that God is indeed with us, we are called to seek first for God’s Reign and God’s righteousness. And to do so is to align our own cares with the things that God cares about. And we know that God deeply cares for creation, the birds of the air, the flowers of the field. And for as much as God cares for each of these, how much more so God cares for each human created in the Divine image. So just as we should care for and respect the creation, the birds of the air, the beasts of the fields, and the flowers and trees, even more so should we value each human life. And it is important to reflect on how creation, plants, and animals, and humankind are all interconnected with each other, thus care needs to be given holistically. To value life as God values it, calls for us to be good stewards of creation, of which we are an integral part. To value life as God values it means seeking to end violence in our land and done to our land.11 To value life as God values it is to value all life, from the lowly sparrow to each human brother and sister.

I by no means am advocating that we all become vegetarians (I know better than to do so in a congregation with so many hog and cattle farmers and I would be very sad if I ever needed to give up sausage), but we can be concerned about where our food comes from, whether the animals are treated with respect and dignity from when they are born until they die. And I appreciate the ways that you who raise livestock do care for your animals. I have a deep respect for all of you who grow and provide your own food, through fieldwork, through gardening, through raising chickens for eggs, and cattle for milk and meat. I thank you. And I would encourage all of us to know where our food comes from, how it was raised, and the wages and treatment of those who grow it and pick it.

There are already many ways that we are seeking to till the earth and keep it, and to respect the land which provides for us out of God’s abundance. And I have a deep respect for those of you who do till the earth and keep it through your fieldwork and gardening, and the ways you respect the earth through building terraces, through soil and water conservation, and allowing the land to rest and replenish. But I wonder if there are other practices that we can begin to engage in or to continue to engage in that also seek to care for creation. What are ways that we can seek to reuse and recycle instead of simply throwing away? What about how fast we drive or how frequently? Do we try to limit our consumption instead of storing up for ourselves treasures that rust and mold? How are we seeking to live simply so as to respect the earth and its resources so that everyone has enough?

I appreciate and applaud the many ways that our congregation is witnessing to God’s deep care for every human life, through our ministry at the Homeless Shelter, through the ways we seek to meet the needs of those within our communities, through the ways we seek to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world with assembling school kits and helping with meat canning, and other ways that we support Mennonite Central Committee and other organizations that share the good news of Christ. What are other ways that our lives can reflect this? What other ways can we witness to the preciousness of each life from the womb to the grave? Something that has been on my mind a lot lately is the practice of knowing how our clothing and other material goods are made, especially in light of the factory in Bangladesh that recently collapsed, killing nearly 1,500 workers. Are those who make our clothing and other household items being paid a living wage and being treated with respect and dignity? Perhaps one way to respond to this is to purchase clothing from the Et Cetera shop so we do not participate in systems that exploit others for the sake of cheap clothing.

And as those who know the goodness of our Creator and the creation, I would encourage us to continue to seek to live in ways that respect and care for all of God’s creation. May we continue to brainstorm together ways that we can do this.

But even then, my guess is that worry will not go away. In fact, based upon what I find in this text, it seems that even Jesus doesn’t assume that worrying will simply stop. He assumes that there will be worries for today, (after all, there will always be bills to pay, and other pressures and stresses from daily living) but that these worries should be enough. These worries are enough for today, do not worry about tomorrow. Live in the present, for we do not know what tomorrow will bring. After reflecting on this passage, I wonder if Jesus’ words to us are not to stop worrying all together, but to not let our worrying consume us and send us into hopelessness. For myself, I’m still figuring out what it means to let go of my worries, to not let them consume me. I still expect that I will have sleepless nights, that I will still will spend hours of my life worrying. But I would hope that my worries would not simply consume me and send me into a state of hopelessness, but that they would move me to act in ways that are in keeping with who God is. Perhaps my worries over the state of the world will move me to continue to seek and act in ways that respect and care for creation. And perhaps in response to the worries of daily living and the busyness of daily life, I would instead seek to spend more time simply considering the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and the goodness of our Creator.

For the Creator of the cosmos, of the moon, the sun, the stars, cares so deeply for creation, that God notices even when one sparrow falls. And we know that the final word is that God will restore creation when Christ comes again in glory. This is how the story ends. But God is already actively working towards its redemption. And as followers of the One who cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, we will not simply sit idly by assuming that this is only left to God’s hands. For we are Christ’s body in the world, and we too are called to participate in what God is already doing. We will seek first God’s Reign and God’s righteousness.

For we do not know what tomorrow will bring, but we do know that it will bring God with it.

May it be so. Amen.

Notes:
1. Luke 13:19.
2. Luke 8:5.
3. Matthew 23:37.
4. Luke 15:4.
5. Matthew 10:29.
6. Matthew 6:26, 28.
7. God’s Eye is on the Sparrow: a sermon and illustration by Leo Hartshorn on Matthew 10:29-31.
8. Living More with Less: 30th Anniversary Edition.
9. Luke 10:29.
10. God’s Eye is on the Sparrow: a sermon and illustration by Leo Hartshorn on Matthew 10:29-31.
11. God’s Eye is on the Sparrow: a sermon and illustration by Leo Hartshorn on Matthew 10:29-31.

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Sitting at the feet of God

June 6th, 2013 No comments

“Sitting at the feet of God” (Luke 10:38-42)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
January 20, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

There were many whom Jesus loved as he walked upon the earth in human form, and today we tell the story of two of these followers whom Jesus loved. As today we dedicate two intelligent and beautiful little women/young girls in our congregation, I thought it would be appropriate to tell a story about two women who were both followers of Jesus: Martha and Mary.

Now often when this story is told or interpreted, Martha tends to be cast in a negative light, if not vilified completely, as one who is too caught up in doing, one who is too busy, one whose priorities are all wrong, while her sister is the admirable example of one who takes the time to sit and listen to Jesus. After all, it seems as though Jesus reprimands Martha. A number of artistic depictions of this story have Martha as a haggard woman with an angry and nagging face, (one woman even went so far as to describe one picture of her as looking similar to an ugly step sister from Cinderella), whereas Mary is beautiful, sitting serenely at Jesus’ feet, looking up at him with her angelic countenance, ready to learn. And perhaps we feel some resentment towards Martha for seeming to get her priorities all wrong. Why wouldn’t she simply take time to let go of her hosting duties to come and sit with Jesus?

But it’s interesting to me that this would be the case, especially as a people who pride ourselves in hospitality. Our congregation is known for its hospitality when it comes to putting together meals for potlucks or for the community, or welcoming people into our church. And perhaps this isn’t the case for you, but it is a joy for me to have friends or youth or people from our congregation over for a meal. For one thing, it means that I’ll get the house thoroughly cleaned at least as often as we have guests over, but it also means the creative time of food preparation, decorating, and a time of fellowship with people I love.

I can very much see myself in Martha, not as one who has done something to be reprimanded for, or as someone who has priorities wrong, but as someone who is feeling overwhelmed by all that needs to get done yet, someone who feels burdened by expectations both placed upon us by the culture around us and expectations that we place upon ourselves.

I can imagine that Martha was feeling overwhelmed with the task set before her. She had welcomed Jesus into her home, which meant finding him a place to stay, which meant making sure that the guest room was ready with clean bedding and a freshly swept floor, and it also meant that food would need to be prepared, which involved grinding flour and baking, perhaps butchering and preparing an animal, gathering food from the garden and buying food from the market, gathering water from the well, washing dishes, providing fresh table linens, and all else that goes into hosting a guest.

But Jesus went very few places without a crowd of disciples following him. And Jesus came to Martha’s house soon after the 70 he had sent out had returned from their mission. How many of these 70 disciples showed up at Martha’s house unannounced with Jesus? Perhaps she frantically tried to calculate in her mind, okay… just how much will this hungry crowd need to eat? Will there be enough food to go around, or will she need to ask Jesus if he could simply provide another miracle of abundance as he did for the crowd of 5,000. Although to do that would maybe seem to her to be a failure in her hosting skills if she could not provide for her guests herself.

And perhaps, at the back of her mind, as she was trying to accomplish everything that goes into hosting, she was also wondering if she would have enough money to make ends meet for the rest of the week. Or maybe there hadn’t been as much rain as she had been expecting and her garden wasn’t producing as well as it had last year. Or maybe she was worried about a close friend of hers who had suddenly fallen ill, and who she was hoping to go see after her guests were fed. But my guess is that she had any number of other concerns floating through her mind as she was cooking, and cleaning, and washing, and baking, and seeing that her guests were comfortable and provided for.

But finally, it just got to be too much, and she threw up her hands in desperation and cried, “Lord, I can’t do this! It’s just too much for me to have to do this all on my own! And my sister isn’t even helping when she knows that I have all of these things that I have to do yet!”

At least Martha had the good sense to ask for her sister to help her. There are times, even when I’m floundering in all that I have yet to do, when I won’t even ask for help, because I worry that it won’t be done “correctly” if I don’t do it myself. But I can certainly understand how Martha must have been feeling. I don’t believe that she’s the bad guy of this story who was trying to hinder another person’s encounter of God. I simply believe that she was feeling overwhelmed by all of the expectations of what it means to be a woman, and that it finally just got to be too much.

And I can relate to that. Even though I love hosting and having friends and youth over to our home, there’s a lot of work that goes into that. And there is an expectation that I place upon myself that everything has to be perfect. I expect all of my little brownies to be frosted perfectly. I expect to make sure that the presentation of the food is beautiful. I expect our house to be clean and all of my clutter hidden away, lest anyone think that our house is actually messy from time to time. I guilt myself into using little glass snack trays instead of paper plates because it’s better for good creation care even when I don’t necessarily have time to wash all 30 plates after everyone leaves. And for some reason, Peter has informed me that I always try to either change a recipe or a try a new recipe on the day when people come over without trying it out first.

For example, when we had the college students over for brunch in December, I decided to use whole wheat flour in my zwiebacks instead of all purpose flour (which I had never done before). Now whether it was because I used whole wheat flour, or because I was in such a rush to get everything done that I added the yeast to the milk when it was still too hot, I don’t know, but just before people started showing up I was taking out a double recipe of these two-tiered hockey pucks that just hadn’t risen at all. Which of course, sent me into panic mode and made me feel like an utter failure as a host and as a woman, even though the brunch went very well other than that and no one left hungry.

It was hard enough trying to live up to my expectations before Sophia was born. But nothing has made me feel so inadequate as being a parent. In the brief moments that she’s content on her own and I have just a bit of time, I go into “cleaning mode” and pick up all of the stray objects in my path. When I’m playing with her, it’s hard not to get distracted by the thought that I have yet to make her food, that there are dirty dishes piling up in the sink and on the counter, and that I still haven’t written my sermon or planned the worship service for the week. And I feel that I need to quickly pick up the house before babysitters come and at least keep a few rooms clean so that it looks like we at least have things partially together. And so when she’s napping or down for the night, I begin hastily trying to accomplish everything that I was hoping I would get done earlier in the day. But I have yet to live up to these expectations of being both a nurturing and loving parent while also keeping the house perpetually clean and in order all of the time.

Either we have expectations thrust upon us by the culture around us or we place lofty expectations on ourselves, or both, and we feel overwhelmed by all that is set before us, and when expectations are not met, it makes us feel overwhelmed and stressed out. We’re made to feel as though we’re not living up to our full potential if we’re not always keeping busy with something, not that we need any help with that. There are bills to be paid, meetings to attend, crops to harvest, building projects to construct, school activities to participate in or to go to and watch, homework, fitness regimens, family obligations and other commitments, a lawn to keep perfectly manicured, home appliances to be kept in working order, groceries to be bought, nutritious meals to be prepared, laundry to be washed, floors to be vacuumed, bathrooms to be scrubbed, kitchen counters to be kept free of clutter and dirty dishes, a home to be kept clean and well decorated, children to love and play with, significant others to love and spend time with, and we’re supposed to accomplish all of these things all while, at least for women, looking gorgeous with perfect hair, clear skin, manicured nails, beautiful make up, the latest fashion, and perfectly toned arms and a tiny waist.

And my guess is that while we’re trying to keep on top of all of these things, there are worried thoughts that pop up in the back of our mind: Where is the money going to come from in order to pay for all that we bought at Christmas? It still hasn’t rained and what if it doesn’t rain any time soon in order to nourish the wheat? What if this person I love doesn’t get better? What if our car finally decides to quit working? What if one of us gets sick? Maybe we’re also feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of children and families who have recently been affected by violence or abuse, or people who live in poverty, or who don’t get enough to eat, or by loved ones who are suffering due to physical pain or depression. All this is enough to make anyone throw up their hands in desperation and cry, “Enough, Lord! I just can’t do this any more! I don’t know how I’m going to accomplish all of this by myself!”

When I hear Jesus’ response, I do not hear a stern rebuke, but a gentle answer for a woman who is overwhelmed by trying to live up to cultural and self-inflicted expectations. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing…” Jesus loved Martha, as is recorded in the gospel of John [when he goes to be with her and her sister after their brother Lazarus has died.] He loved her as one of his followers. He loved her as a child of God. He loved her regardless of whether she was able to live up to expectations or not. He loved her even when she was at her wit’s end.

As he loves each of us, as his followers, as children of God. And he loves us regardless of whether we live up to the culture’s and our own expectations of ourselves. And it is my hope that even when we’re at our wit’s end and we throw up our hands and cry, “I can’t do this on my own, Lord!” that we will hear him responding gently to us, “My child, my child, I know that there are many worries and burdens that you are carrying. But only one thing is expected: May you allow yourself the grace to take the time to come and simply sit at the feet of the God who loves you.”

Amidst the busyness, amidst the expectations, amidst the tasks of hospitality and daily living, may we allow ourselves to come and sit at the feet of God.

I don’t know what this looks like for each of you. Maybe it means taking time to read the Word of God and study the Scriptures while listening for the still small voice of the Living Word. Maybe it means taking time to go for a walk while admiring the beauty of God’s creation. Maybe it means taking the time for silent prayer and meditation while communing with God’s Spirit. Maybe it means spending time with a close friend or a person you love. Maybe it means taking time to be with an infant or a child while remembering that it is a holy thing to be loved by someone who has so recently come from God. Maybe it means taking time to engage in an act of creation such as painting a picture, working with wood, or preparing a meal. And maybe it even means being aware of God’s presence with us in the tasks of cleaning and cooking and taking care of the home and checking off all of the other things on our to-do list.

I am still working out what this means for my life, for it is so easy for me to get caught up in trying to get everything accomplished and the worries of every day living. But as I was shopping for all the food for the meal that the youth are preparing for lunch, I was reminding myself that Jesus is present in the act of cooking and baking and hospitality, just as he was present in the breaking of the bread. And when I’m driving somewhere, or walking somewhere, or wake up at night and can’t fall back asleep because I start thinking of all the things that I have yet to do for work and at home, I am trying to let go of those worries and instead spend time in prayer, spending time in thanksgiving for all the gifts that God has given to me or spending time praying for all of the burdens laid upon my heart. And I am trying to make more of an effort to simply enjoy being with my beautiful daughter, even though the dishes are piling up in the kitchen, because I love her just as Jesus himself loves the little children whom he welcomed into his arms.

I know that my days of feeling overwhelmed at trying to live up to expectations while completing all of the tasks of daily living are far from over. But I hope for myself, as I hope for each of you, that when we throw up our hands in desperation and cry, “Lord, I can’t do this on my own” that we will hear Jesus’ gentle and loving response to us, “My child, my child, I know that you are worried and distracted by many things. Only one thing is expected of you, allow yourself the grace to simply come and sit at the feet of God, for that will never be taken away from you.”

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The Everlasting Light

December 19th, 2012 No comments

“The Everlasting Light” (John 1:1-18)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
December 16, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This is, perhaps, my favorite text in all of Scripture. It speaks to the heart of my being. It tells of the very essence of our Lord and Savior. There is beauty in its hearing. “ Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.1” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”2

“The prologue of Gospel of John differs from the infancy narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is in the form of a poetic narrative. It is written in the language of worship more than that of theology.”3 It is a hymn of praise to the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us within creation. The author of John takes us back further than Jesus’ birth to the dawn of creation, when the Word was there even in the beginning with God.

As the prologue of the Gospel of John is written in a beautiful poetic form, I thought it fitting to enter into a more poetic telling of the story of the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.

In the beginning was God. And though the darkness covered the very face of the earth, God’s presence still hovered over creation. God spoke into the darkness, “Let there be Light.” And there was Light. And it was good. And the Light shines on in the darkness, and though the darkness has not understood it, the darkness has never extinguished the Light.

And God spoke creation into being with a Word. By the Word of God, everything came into being. Not one thing has come into being that has not come from the Word of God. And the Divine Word is still creating, even today, even in our midst.

And God uttered, “Let us create humankind in our image.” Through the Word of God, humankind came into being. God breathed the light of life into them and placed within each human creature a spark from the Divine Light. And the Word of God spoke to every human heart, saying, “Let your light so shine. May your lives reflect the Light so that all creation will be ablaze with God’s glory.”

And for a while, all was “very good.” God’s glory blazed throughout creation. God’s beloved creatures let their lights shine.

But human beings were seduced by the darkness. And many chose to love the darkness rather than the light. And they forgot about the Divine spark within themselves. And the light within their hearts grew dim. And the glory of the Lord no longer shone ’round about them.

So the Word of God spoke to a people called out to let their light shine and to be a blessing to the nations. And God came and dwelt with this people in the wilderness; God came and made his dwelling among them. And the cloud of God’s presence covered their tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the space of their worship. And the cloud of God’s presence guided the steps of their journey by day, and the fire of the Lord guided the steps of their journey by night.4 And for a while God’s glory blazed and God’s beloved people let their lights shine.

But once again God’s people were seduced by the darkness, and many chose to love the darkness rather than the light. And they again forgot about the Divine spark within themselves. And the light within their hearts grew dim. And they no longer saw the fire of the Lord’s presence before their eyes to guide the steps of their journey.

So God sent prophets to remind the people, “You have called that which is darkness ‘light’ and that which is light ‘darkness’ and you have rejected the Word of the Lord of hosts.5 People of God, Come let us walk in the Light of the Lord! We are called by the Lord in righteousness to be a light to the nations! When we care for the needs of the hungry and afflicted, then the light of the Lord shall blaze in the darkness!”6 But God’s prophets were rejected and killed for people loved the darkness rather than the light.

So God himself decided to come into the world. God humbled himself and chose to be born in human form. And the Light of the World entered creation in the most unexpected way. The Word which first spoke creation into being entered the world unable to speak save for the tender cries of a newborn. The One who first breathed life into humanity drew his first breath in his mother’s loving embrace. The Light of the world entered it on a cold, dark night. Thus it was that the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us.

Through the Word become flesh, God has been revealed. The world had been waiting in darkness, but now through the coming of the Word, a light has shined. The True Light, which enlightens all people, had now come into the world. And through the True Light coming into the world, God has been made known.

The One who turned the water into wine is the same One who parted the waters of the Red Sea. The One who fed the crowd of 5,000 with 5 small loaves and two fish is the same One who provided manna to the people wandering in the wilderness. The same One who stayed the hands of those who would stone the woman caught in adultery also stayed Abraham’s hand when he went to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah. The One who freed the man born blind from his illness also freed those who were slaves in Egypt. The hands that formed us from the soil were the hands that were nailed upon a cross.

The One and Only who is close to the Father’s heart is the One who has revealed God to us. The same Light who had come into the world who took on the flesh of a little child is the same One of whom the psalmist spoke, “The Lord is my light, and my salvation.”7 And through the Light who has come, all creation has come to know God. Or so we would hope, yet even though the Word become flesh was in the world, even though the world came into being through him, the world still did not know him. Even though he came to what was his own, his own did not accept him.

The True Light has come into the world, and yet we still feel like a people who wait in darkness. The Light has come into the world, yet people have loved darkness rather than Light. And many have forgotten about the Divine spark within themselves and the Light within their hearts has grown dim. Many love the darkness rather than the light. People continue to put their trust in the seductive ways of the darkness, people continue to inflict violence and have violence inflicted upon them, people continue to experience illness, pain, loneliness, children continue to be massacred, and we long for the healing, hope, and peace that only the True Light can bring.

We long for the True Light to come in full, and yet the Light still continues to pierce the darkness. We long for the coming of the True Light, and yet we are still called to reflect the Light of the One who we have given our hearts to. Just as John came as a witness to testify to the Light, we too are all witnesses of the Light that shines within each of our hearts. We are those to whom the Word has given the power to become children of God because we believe in his name and have given our allegiance to him. We are those whose lives reflect the Light of the world.

One cannot be a child of God without beginning to become like God who came to us as the Word made flesh. One cannot look upon the glory of the True Light and remain unchanged. The Light within us calls us to speak words of healing in a world filled with darkness. The Light within us calls us to care for the needs of the hungry and afflicted so that the Light of the Lord should blaze in the darkness. The Light within us calls us to witness to the light within every human heart, so that we might nurture the spark and fan it into flames that will become a blazing fire. The Light within us calls us to love each other as he has loved us, he who loved the world so much that he came and laid down his life for our salvation.

But we ourselves are not the Light. We are only witnesses to the Light. And though darkness covers the earth, the Lord will arise and his glory will appear and be radiant. Though we are as though who wait in darkness, our Light will come. Indeed, our Light has come. The True Light, who enlightens all people, is coming into the world. “And the God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness, but shines in the very midst of it.”8 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. The Lord is our everlasting Light. In him is life, and the life is the Light of all people. And we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. This is the one of whom the prophets of old have sung. He is the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. “Hail! Hail! The Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary!”9

Notes:
1. John 1:1 in New Testament Greek
2. John 1:1 NRSV
3. Leo Hartshorn, “A Different Drummer” blogpost on John 1
4. Exodus 40:34ff
5. Based on Isaiah 5:20, 24.
6. Based on Isaiah 2:5; 42:6; 58:10
7. Psalm 27:1
8. Rev. William McCord Thigpen, III
9. From verse 2 of “What Child is This”

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Swords into Plowshares and a Future of Peace

December 18th, 2012 No comments

“Swords into Plowshares and a Future of Hope” (Isaiah 2:1-5; Luke 1:46-55)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
November 25, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

It seems like there will always be wars and rumors of wars.1 And I often worry about the world that we have brought our daughter into. One merely has to glance at the news headlines to feel this sense of hopelessness at the violence, destruction, and pain that is the reality for the world we live in. In the last few months, there have been a number of tragic, random, senseless acts of gun violence, including the Aurora, CO movie theater massacre and the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East coast killing over 100 people and causing destruction to homes, hospitals, nursing homes, transportation systems, places of business, and felling 1000s of trees. Sex abuse scandals abound. The gap between the poor and the rich continues to widen. Tanzania has reported an increase in recent months of elephants who are being slaughtered and left to rot all for the sake of their ivory tusks. Schools continue to need to cut spending and yet the global military spending was over $1.7 trillion dollars this past year alone. We continue to come up with more creative ways to kill others and to inflict pain and suffering on others through the art of war and yet children continue to go to bed hungry. Plowshares continue to be beaten into swords.

Isaiah paints a beautiful image of Jerusalem as a place of peace streaming out into the rest of the world from the mountain of the Lord. Yet the reality of what is taking place in Jerusalem and the surrounding land these days is so far removed from this peaceful vision. Tony Campolo observes that to call it the “holy land” “is a misnomer when what goes on there is so unholy.”2 It was sobering to see firsthand some of the atrocities being committed against fellow human beings and to hear the stories of how many people have experienced injustice and how much pain has been endured. We visited with a family whose home had been bulldozed 4 times, which has recently been destroyed again since our visit. We heard the story of a man whose 14 year old daughter was killed by a suicide bomb. And just this month the violence has escalated with the fighting near Gaza which has been the bloodiest exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas in 4 years. This recent violence claimed the lives of 172 people, which included 34 children. One devastating picture showed a father weeping over the body of his 11 month old son who had been killed in the fighting. After seeing that image, I have needed to hold Sophia more often knowing that these parents will not be able to hold their own child again. Such terrible pain, all hopes and dreams for the future shattered in one horrific instant.

Where is the hope for the future in the midst of such hateful violence and desecration? Where is the hope when the powers at work in the world are so far from God’s will? Where are the songs of joy amidst the wailing laments? Creation is groaning with the pain of violence, hunger, fear, illness, and destruction that are inflicted upon the world. We cry with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord? How long shall the wicked be jubilant?3 How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?4 How long must we bear pain in our souls and have sorrow in our hearts?5 How long before those who mourn are comforted?”

It often seems as though the world is beyond hope, that those working in opposition to God’s will seem to triumph and that violence, destruction and greed rule the day. Yet we are those who hope in what is not seen, even when the present state of the world seems hopeless. This beautiful vision that Isaiah paints for us is God’s future for the world; creation will be restored, all nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house and will walk in the ways of God’s peace.

It is as Paul assured the congregations in Rome,

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly while we wait for the … redemption of our bodies. … Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? But … we hope for what we do not see…”6

And we continue to hope. God’s future is certain. Things will not stay as they are. God will set things right. God’s kingdom will come. Even when plowshares continue to be beaten into swords, God’s kingdom will come. Even when violence begets violence and greed begets greed, God’s kingdom will come. Even when children continue to suffer at the hands of others, God’s kingdom will come. Even when things look hopeless, God’s kingdom will come.

And all nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord and all will walk in the ways of God’s peace. And then God will settle things fairly between nations and will make things right. Then swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Never again will nation lift up sword against nation, never again will a person lift up a hand in violence towards another, never again will the ways of violence prevail.

In God’s future, people will willingly disarm and destroy their weapons to be repurposed for tools that will bring hope for the world and nourishment for the nations. Weapons will be used instead to cultivate food so that the harvest will be plentiful and every mouth will be fed. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Tanks will be transformed into tractors and guns into gardening tools. Everything that had once been used to inflict pain will be converted for God’s good purposes. When weapons are willingly being converted into instruments of agriculture we know that in God’s future even long-feuding and ancient enemies will be reconciled: family members who have long since parted ways, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Catholics and Protestants, Israelis and Palestinians, even Jayhawks and Wildcats. We will all be one new humanity instead of two; the hostility between enemies will be no more.

God’s future is one of peace, of hope, where every person will have enough to eat. Creation itself will be restored and set right. No more shall the sound of weeping be heard; the pain, chaos, and suffering of the past will be forgotten. No more will an infant live only a few days; everyone will live out their lifetime. Houses will be inhabited by those whose hands have built them; the harvest will be eaten by those whose hands have cultivated, tended, and planted it. The lion and the lamb shall lie down together and no one, neither animal nor human, shall hurt or kill when God’s kingdom comes and creation is restored.7

God’s future of hope is certain, and we who hope for what is yet to come wait expectantly for the day when all creation will be restored. And as the people of God we do not sit idly by while we wait for this day to come. If faith is believing in what we don’t yet see, if we truly believe that God’s kingdom is coming that that God will ultimately set things right, then that will affect the way we live now. We know how the story is going to end, “so we start living it into being.”8 It’s like a child who on Christmas Eve puts out cookies and milk and sleeps on the couch in anticipation of the excitement of what is yet to come.

“And so it is for us. If we know that the story ends with [people] beating swords into [plowshares], we start now. And we … don’t keep building more swords. When we know that the earth is going to be healed, then we don’t want to keep creating new wounds. … We don’t have to wait.” We can begin living as though the kingdom is already come.9

We do this by following God’s Word so that we might learn and walk in God’s ways. We engage in worship and prayer, by loving our enemies as ourselves and praying for those who persecute us. We participate in God’s future by practicing reconciliation, by feeding those around us who are hungry for bread and by feeding and nourishing those who are hungry for the Living Bread. We seek shalom in our lives and pursue it for ourselves and our neighbors and for the creation. We proclaim God’s future in a world so desperately in need of hope.

For there are times when things often feel hopeless, and even we who hope for what is yet to come will experience times of discouragement. There will be days when we will ask ourselves how we will be able to go on in a world so far removed from God’s good purposes, a world so full of greed and hate and violence. I certainly have days when I worry about tomorrow, of the world we are leaving for our children, of whether I will be able to keep my daughter safe in a violent world. I have days of despair and doubt and there are times when I admit that things seem hopeless.

Yet I am reminded of a young girl who found herself in a situation that seemed hopeless. She was single and she found herself pregnant. Her fiance was planning to leave her because he knew that the child was not his own. Her life was at stake because it was within the laws of her community to execute her for becoming pregnant without being married. And yet even within this seemingly hopeless situation, this young mother was still able to sing a song of God’s great triumph that the world would be set right. She sang of God’s great mercy, of the proud being scattered and the lowly being lifted up, the powerful being thrown down from their thrones and the hungry poor being filled with good things. She knew that God has the final victory. And she knew that the child who was being formed within her womb would be the One who would make all this possible. Mary sang a song of hope of a new creation that was coming into the world through the birth of her son.

In their book “Red Letter Revolution” Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne tell the story of a Christian family who lives in the West Bank. They write,

“[They] have lived simple lives off the land for generations, until recently. Israeli settlements have been built around them, and the Israeli government tried to take their land. Unlike most families, … they actually have deeds going back over 100 years that prove they own their land which made things tricky for the Israeli government.

As [they] continued living on their land, a new strategy evolved – harassment. Olive trees were uprooted. Piles of boulders were dumped on the road leading to their home, so they couldn’t get any vehicles in and out. Even though they owned the land, they were refused permits for electricity and water. So they went off the grid and used solar and rain-water collection. When they were refused building structure permits for their home, they started building underground …

At the front of their property is a sign that reads, ‘We refuse to be enemies.’ After their olive trees were uprooted, a Jewish group caught wind of it and came and helped them replant them all. One story after another of reconciliation. … They continue to live there and have gotten to know their neighbors. At one point they invited one of the Israeli settlers to dinner. When she came into their house, she started weeping, and said, ‘You have no water, and we have swimming pools. Something is wrong.’ And when asked how they retain hope in the midst of such injustice, [they smile and simply say] ‘Jesus.’”10

For he is our hope. He is the one whose life, death, and resurrection make reconciliation between enemies possible. He is the one who will scatter the proud-hearted and lift up the lowly. He is the one who will fill the hungry with good things. He is the one who inspires swords to be beaten into plowshares. He is the reason that we follow God’s ways and seek God’s shalom and pursue it in our lives. He is our hope in a world full of seemingly hopeless situations. He is the one who has promised to return and to set things right. He is the one who has proclaimed ‘Surely I am coming soon.” Alleluia! Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!11

Notes:
1. Matt. 24:6//Mark 13:7
2. Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo
3. Psalm 94:3
4. Psalm 89:46
5. Psalm 13:2
6. Romans 8:18-25 abridged
7. Isaiah 65:17ff paraphrased
8. Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution
9. Ideas for this paragraph from Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution
10. Claiborne and Campolo, Red Letter Revolution, pages 216-217
11. Revelation 22:20

Where two or three are gathered

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“Where two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:15-22)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
September 9, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

One of my favorite promises of Jesus is his promise that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” I love writing this promise into prayers and worship services, for what a holy thing to know that when we gather together for Jesus’ sake, he is present with us, moving, comforting, transforming. It is an assurance to remember that even if only two show up for worship, it is still a holy thing to gather in the name of Jesus. I am reminded of this promise whenever the youth group meets, or a council meeting is held, or I meet with friends, that Jesus does not need to be invited to come and be present with us, for he is already there, moving, comforting, transforming.

Now this is a well-known promise. Yet often, the context is not remembered when this promise is spoken (although the contextual passage is well-known also). The context of these well-known words is the Rule of Christ which begins, “If another member of the church sins, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Jesus promises that when there is conflict and two or three gather together to address the conflict, there he is present also.

Hear again these words from Jesus: [Matt. 18:15-20]. Now often when Jesus spoke to the crowds, he spoke in stories, in parables with open-ended interpretations. Yet here we have perhaps the most explicit, and straight-forward teaching of our Lord and Savior that is recorded in the gospels. He gives very specific, step by step instructions for how we are called to deal with conflict.

Yet I wonder whether some in the crowds who heard him speak these instructions (or whether some who have read these words in the Bible in the centuries since then) questioned whether this course of action was even possible or feasible, or that it was a “nice thought, but advice that wouldn’t actually work in my present situation”, or perhaps some even went away grieving like the rich young man who had many possessions and was encouraged to give them to the poor. Perhaps they heard these words and went away shaking their heads for they recognized that they had conflicts in their life that they believed couldn’t ever be solved.

So yes, Jesus’ words here in Matthew 18 are well known, and yes they are very specific and straight-forward, but they are perhaps some of the least practiced in all the gospels. For though it is perhaps easy to think of others who we believe needs to engage in this practice, it is so difficult to think of following these instructions ourselves. And often we end up doing almost the opposite of what Jesus suggests we do when we find ourselves in conflict with someone else.

John Paul Lederach, in his book The Journey Toward Reconciliation gives a humorous (funny because it’s true) retelling of Jesus’ words based upon what people actually practice:

When you have a problem with somebody in the church, check it out first to make sure you are not alone in this problem. There is a good chance that if you have had a problem with this person, somebody else has as well. Go and pick a good friend who is likely to understand and agree with you. If she agrees with you that this person is a real turkey, then talk to some more people to see if there is broader consensus. . . If a friend, a small group, and a lawyer agree, then tell it to the church, preferably in private to the pastor and elders. When you tell them, say it is a concern that you have prayed about for some time and that there is a group of people who share the concern. . . Truly I say to you, from that point on, it is the responsibility of the pastor and elders to take care of the problem. Your task is to make sure they do it right.

This is what is much more comfortable, isn’t it? Instead of going and talking to the person we’re in conflict with, we go and find someone who will agree with us and tell it to them. We may and go speak to others in the church about this problem, but rarely do we go and actually go and speak with the person who Jesus instructed us to speak with.

Or, if we do want to speak with them directly, it’s much easier to leave an anonymous note. One pastor recounted the story of a woman who found a bottle of nail polish remover in her mailbox as a commentary on her bright red toenails. And other pastors have talked with me about how they have found anonymous notes in the offering plate when someone is unhappy with the way things are done in worship, or they have found anonymous letters in their mailboxes when members of the congregation disagree with them.

Or, instead of following Jesus’ instructions to us, there’s always the response to conflict that seems to be used perhaps the most often: we choose to ignore it and pray that it will go away. Although, I have found that when I try this method, my anger over the conflict often festers and increases rather than going away.

But when any of these methods are used, it just seems to escalate the conflict. None of the above methods we usually try make things better. They lead to hurt feelings and anger and are not only harmful to the people we are angry at, but they are harmful to us and those we love when we let our anger continue to grow instead of finding situations where we can talk it out with the person who has wronged us.

And so, perhaps we should assume that Jesus did in fact know what he was talking about, that his words weren’t just “a nice thought, yet wouldn’t work in our situation,” but that they are the most constructive way to deal with conflict when it arises.

I would like to now go through the directions that Jesus gives to us and speak about the implications that they have for our lives. But before I do, I want you to know that I am not seeking only to preach to you. I need to hear these words just as much myself (although that’s true of any sermon that I preach). I often don’t follow Jesus’ words when conflicts arise in my own life, and I am writing this sermon aimed towards me because they are words that I need to hear.

I am praying and seeking to come to a place where I can speak with those who hurt me and my loved ones with the love of Christ in what I say and how I react. But I am not there yet. I pray that I would have the heart to trust that Jesus is already present in these situation, moving, comforting, transforming, wherever two or three are gathering together to speak.

Jesus’ first instructions to us are: “If your brother or sister sins (against you) go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Jesus is assuming that conflict will happen. He does not expect the church to be a perfect place (yet even though these words of Jesus are directed specifically towards conflict that happens within the church, I believe that the Rule of Christ is a pattern to follow with any conflict that arises within our lives, with coworkers, schoolmates, family members, or other situations). Each of us were given freewill and minds to think and reason, and though we each seek to follow after Jesus, we sometimes come to different conclusions of what it means to be faithful; thus conflict is inevitable and expected to happen.

So when conflict happens, we are called to go and talk with the person who has wronged us. But I would advise everyone to be very careful about the spirit with which we approach them. If we go in our anger, very little will be accomplished; everyone will be on the defensive, and when that happens, we tend to speak past each other. If we go seeking only to convince the other person that we are in the right (even in situations where that may be the case), the other person will feel attacked and will not be able to hear clearly because of our accusatory and perhaps even self-righteous tone. At least I have a hard time hearing the other person when they accuse me of being wrong, nor do their words often inspire me to change.

I believe that the only way we can approach the other person is in the spirit of Christ, remembering that this is another person created in the divine image and who is a beloved child of God. And it may take some time before we are able to approach them in this manner. It will most likely take vulnerability, prayer, and self-reflection on our part. We will need to ask ourselves: Why does this situation cause me so much anger? What is at stake for me in this situation? Why do I feel such anxiety when I think about this person? How would Christ approach this person? How is Christ calling me to speak to this person? It may take a lot of careful and prayerful work on our part before we even reach a point where we are able to speak with the person who has wronged us. But we trust that Christ is already present in this situation, moving, comforting, transforming. And that is no small thing.

And once we reach a point where we can approach this person with the love and mind of Christ, then may we go to him or her seeking first to hear and to understand, not seeking first to be heard or to be understood. And may our words and actions towards this person reflect the love of our Savior who died for us while we were yet sinners.

And if, after we go and talk with this person reconciliation is achieved and we go away having both been heard and both being understood, then thanks be to God. Jesus has kept his promise and has been present with us all along.

I would love to say that this will work every time, that reconciliation will always be possible when this happens. Yet there will be situations when the other will not choose to speak with us or hear us, even if we approach them with the love of Christ. Or there are situations when we have been wronged when it simply will not be possible to approach the person who has wronged us, such as in situations of abuse or in situations where there is an imbalance of power. Yet Jesus has provided us with another step to follow when this happens.

“If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” To bring in one or two others allows for accountability, that the truth can be told and and mutual submission practiced. Again, this should be done in the spirit of Christ’s love. If the person feels as though he or she is being ganged up on, what hope do we have that reconciliation will occur? The witnesses should seek to be present and understanding of both people in the conflict. I would hope that they would help create a holy and prayerful space where reflection, listening, and understanding can emerge. And though the witnesses can help fill the role of mediator between the two, the primary responsibility lies with those who are in conflict with each other. And again, in this step of the process where three have gathered, we trust that Jesus is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

But if not, Jesus offers another step to follow. “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” This should not be done with the purpose of humiliating the person who has fallen short of God’s good intentions, as has sometimes been practiced in the past, for where is the hope of reconciliation? But for Jesus to tell us to bring the conflict before the church is to assume that the church is the place where we can discuss and prayerfully work with conflict, and is not a place where we will be free from conflict (and when there is conflict, it doesn’t mean that we have failed, for Jesus assumes that conflict will happen). We also know that reconciliation is the mission of the church, for Paul proclaims that Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation, for we were first reconciled to God’s own self through the work of Christ. What better way to seek for reconciliation in the midst of conflict before a group of believers who can uphold us in prayer and guide us along the path of peace? For again, we trust that Christ is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

But “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” How would those who heard Jesus speak these words have understood this? They knew how Gentiles and tax-collectors were treated; they were to be avoided as the sinners they saw them as. And that is indeed how the church has often interpreted this. Many have been shunned, excommunicated, or even killed. And schisms have rent the church asunder because of differing beliefs on how best to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. And the Anabaptist church has a long history of divisions over such issues “buttons, bonnets, and buggies”1 When we see sin in our midst, our first instinct is to separate ourselves from it, less we or our family be contaminated.

This seems to be the thing to do until we remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax-collectors. He didn’t avoid them at all costs. He didn’t angrily accuse them of sin and then sever all ties with them. He didn’t speak about them behind their backs with those who agreed with him.

He ate with them. Our gospels are filled with stories of Jesus seeking them out and eating with them. And when this happened, lives were changed.

There is something intimate about eating with another person. It implies a relationship and speaks of hospitality.

So when we experience conflict, may we seek to eat with those who have wronged us, trusting that Christ is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

The whole goal of this process is reconciliation. Every step moves us towards reconciliation. If we have any other goal in mind, then I believe we are missing the point of Christ’s instructions to us. And yes, I guarantee it there will be times when reconciliation is difficult and seems impossible; and it requires much of us (vulnerability, prayer, self-reflection, love for those who have hurt us). But God’s shalom calls us to seek right-relationships with those in our congregation, in our families, and with those around us. If God’s shalom is life as it was intended to be, why would we possibly settle for less if we have the power to do something about it? And remember, Jesus is already present where two or three gather together when there is conflict, moving, comforting, transforming. Thanks be to God.

Notes:
1. Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation

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