This is a stunning theological claim. In earlier times, the prophets kept us up-to-date on God’s thoughts, and we trusted them on that. Seemed legit. But now, more recently, God has spoken to us through a Son. A Son! And that Son is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” The spitting image, you might say. It’s just as if God came, in the flesh. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us, in its opening phrase, of what lies at the heart of our lives as Christians: God didn’t send just anyone to us. God came. This is the heart of what draws us together. This is what gives us our unique identity. We are in Community with Jesus Christ.
As you may know, Joan and I were on a pre-anniversary cruise over the past two Sundays.
We’ve been on cruises before,
so it came as no surprise that as we walked the narrow hallway to our cabin,
we’d see trays of food outside the doors of several staterooms.
People had ordered meals and snacks through room service,
and the leftovers, sometimes it appeared whole meals, were left for stewards to dispose of.
No surprise, as I said, but no less disturbing to us to see so much food thrown away.
The same thing happened in the dining rooms, too.
Meals unfinished, untouched, or simply unsatisfying,
or sampled and then abandoned for something more appetizing…
mountains of food utterly wasted.
I suspect that one reason cruise ship food is so easily rejected is that cruisers think it’s free.
It’s true that on these huge floating hotels, there is no additional charge for meals and many snacks.
By the pool there’s a pizza place; pick up a slice or five…no charge.
Around the corner, ice cream cones…no extra charge there either.
Pastries in the piazza, same story.
And so easily tossed aside, since a) there’s so much of it, and b) you didn’t pay for it (directly).
But at the end of the cruise,
my son Jim and I stood on the cabin balcony as we awaited the signal to disembark.
Jim pointed out all the activity below on the dock,
and we watched several huge forklifts begin the process of restoring the ship’s stores,
that is, replenish the supplies for the next cruise.
And there were palates of watermelons and cantaloupes, fresh from farms and trucks,
being loaded onto the ship…a reminder that food is real, it has value, it is necessary.
Somehow, seeing the actual melons, round and green, prompted a vision of fertile fields prepared,
seeds planted, rain and sun and labor nurturing the living fruits and vegetables,
the harvests, and the shipping, and there the loading of fresh food from God’s good earth.
What a shame to see it treated as garbage left on trays outside one’s door.
If you’ve been on a cruise, or simply gone to a buffet-style restaurant,
you’ve seen the food stacked on crowded plates,
food served from bounteous, sneeze-protected stainless steel trays and platters.
What a rich variety we have to choose from!
Well, before I begin hearing the growling of stomachs as we inch toward the noon hour,
I want to set another table for you, as it were.
A sad and dramatic contrast to cruise ship dining and trashed trays of tasty foods.
[And, please…this is not at all to plant seeds of guilt for all of us who have so much
and who take it so much for granted.
My intention is to reflect on the word of God spoken to and through the prophet Isaiah.
Those verses about free food and drink.]
Yesterday, I asked Google for a list of the largest refugee camps.
The largest is in Kenya. And so is the second largest. And the third.
Also in the running is one (not surprisingly) in South Sudan.
I was wondering because when I looked in one of my commentaries at this Isaiah passage,
I found something I had downloaded many years ago when preparing a previous sermon.
It was a sheet from the Presbyterian News Service about relief efforts following the
Rwandan civil war (which tells you how long ago I filed the sheet in the pages of that book).
The article was written by Howard Cameron, an International Mission volunteer
in our denomination.
He wrote so that we would know something of life in a refugee camp.
His words now:
Go out in your backyard and choose a l0-by-l0 foot plot of ground. Choose well because
that's where you will live for a while. Get a 10-by-l0-foot sheet of blue or white plastic,
a cooking pot and a five-gallon plastic jerrycan for water.
Don't fill it yet-- That comes later.
Now you and your family (if you still have one) leave the house and move to that l0 -by-
l0-foot plot. Make yourself comfortable because that is where you are going to be tonight,
tomorrow, and many more tomorrows while politicians and military leaders play out their games,
which will decide if you can ever go back in the house and resume a normal life.
No breaks. No time-outs. No trips to the bathroom. Everything that happens happens
on that 10-by-10-foot piece of ground. If you are lucky, a neighborhood slit trench has been cut
into the rocky volcanic soil. Privacy? You learn very quickly that privacy is between your ears.
It's a state of mind rather than a closed door.
You can't leave your plot, except to go daily for a yellow jerrycan of water
or a weekly ration of beans -- 100 grams of beans per person per day. That means three (?)
ounces of beans. You can handle that except on the day when beans are handed out. Then you
have to make a choice. The water is so far away and the food line is so long that there's not
enough time to do both. [If you are by yourself], you must choose either water or beans. It will probably be beans, so that day no water.
If you or someone with you catches something (and there are plenty of “somethings" to
catch), no call to your doctor's office. You go down the hill and stand in line at a small clinic tent
set up by the Presbyterian Church. That line may be so long that you won't have time to get to
water and back afterwards. Pray that you aren't sick on bean day.
Are you beginning to get the feel?
Now, let's put you in a refugee camp. Take your 10-by-10-foot plot and put it in the middle
of a 100-acre field on a steep hillside. Scratch out a level spot with a stick. No shovel. Divide the
rest of that field into 10-by-10-foot plots and fill them with 10,000 people.
[By the way…that was the Rwandan camp; the largest camp in Kenya has 250,000 refugees.]
Understand that those others couldn't choose their plot as you, did. They took what they could find. Or maybe the one they found was occupied by a family who just died. They took the bodies down by the road so they would be picked up and they moved in.
The other refugees couldn't even choose their clothes. When they heard shooting and
screaming down the street and realized gangs were shooting and hacking to death friends, neighbors
and family, they ran with what they had on. Maybe they grabbed a pot and something else. Maybe
not. They ran until they only had strength Ieft to walk
Some walked for six days with little or nothing to eat. Their water was roadside puddles,
small streams and rain. Thank God for the rain. It was fresh and clean. And bone-chilling.
Finally, they crossed into [a neighboring country]. Some stood around and tried to understand what had happened.
Some tried to mourn, but were too numb. Some simply lay down and died. The trauma and the
trip killed them. Some quietly died from gunshot or machete wounds. Some were loaded on
trucks, driven into rough hillsides to places called “camps” and told to find a 10-by-10-foot home.
They were given a blue plastic tarp and yellow jerrycan.
And there they are.
God bless the Howard Camerons of the world, and of the church,
for they remind us of the power of God’s word to the exiled people of Israel,
a people who had abandoned hope for a tomorrow that would bring
any relief to their hunger, and slaking of their thirst, any light in their darkness.
They had seen glimpses of promise before;
but so many times had led to disappointment that it seemed easier to abandon hope altogether.
Until Isaiah’s voice spoke God’s word of invitation, saying “Come!”
In fact three times, the word Come is spoken, or shouted, or exhorted, or whatever…
and that’s just in the first verse!
We can only imagine the hunger, the thirst of that nation of exiles.
And here is God offering relief, renewal of life,
gifts not only for their deepest physical emptiness, but for their very souls.
Listen again to the invitation, and imagine you are in exile, or in a refugee camp:
All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!
Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat!
Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!
2 Why spend money for what isn’t food,
and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me and eat what is good;
enjoy the richest of feasts.
3 Listen and come to me;
listen, and you will find life.
Here’s the thing: we human beings have all different kinds of hunger and thirst, don’t we?
Yes, the poor we will always have among us, Jesus says.
So, when he says he was hungry and we fed him, and thirsty and we gave him something to drink,
and when he says a cool cup of water given to one of the “little ones” who surround us
will bring a reward…
these are not mere metaphors.
These are teachings that are concrete ways to serve sisters and brothers in need.
Maybe especially strangers…exiles, refugees, the faceless, the nameless,
the neighbor whom we have never met.
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize the gratitude you would have if,
when you were hot, parched, desperate for something to drink,
someone offered you a tall, cool glass of water.
Slaking and quenching are such good words!
Maybe your imagination is still stuck at the buffet line on that cruise.
Well, put yourself back in that 10 by 10 plot
and watch the sky for the parachuted food dropping from relief agencies ,
or the white trucks with red crosses rolling into camp,
with the most basic of foodstuffs to be shared among neighbors.
Isaiah’s prophesy is still echoing through the centuries and the continents.
Everyone come to God’s table.
Feast on God’s bounty.
But wait…there is another level to explore.
That line from the third verse of Isaiah 55 says”,
“…come to me…and you will find life.”
The Hebrew says, “Come to me that your soul may live.”
This promise involves not only the stomach but the spirit.
For we do have other kinds of hunger in our lives, do we not?
We know that there is a thirst for justice.
A hunger for freedom.
We could break into small groups and come up with long lists of the things we long for,
hunger for…the ways we yearn to be filled, the solutions to our emptiness.
Knowledge, understanding, acceptance, human rights.
The Psalmist knew those deep hungers.
“O God, you are my God.”
I seek you “with a heart that thirsts for you
and a body wasted with longing for you, like a dry land, parched, devoid of water.”
When soul and body thirst, it is God and God alone who fulfills our greatest needs
and satisfies our deepest hunger.
But both Isaiah and Jesus would want us to know that we play a part
in satisfying both kinds of thirst, body and spirit, and both at the same time.
When I was an adjunct professor at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education,
one of our students there was Elena Delgado.
After earning her Master’s Degree there, she went to seminary and was ordained
a Presbyterian minister, and I was excited to learn she was serving a Rochester church.
Her work also took her to Kenya, to the Crossroads Springs Institute,
a primary school for children orphaned by AIDS.
Elena saw the great need for clean water both at the school and in the children's homes.
Elena started to search for a solution and found one
when a church member mentioned a simple water filter system to her.
Friends and church mission committees eagerly supported Elena's vision
to bring health and hope to the children of Crossroads Springs
and their contributions resulted in more than 300 portable filters being delivered
to the staff and students there.
Four years ago Elena founded an organization called Water=Life.
Its goal is "nurturing the human spirit through the gift of clean water."
Now Water=Life is at work in Haiti.
It’s amazing to me that a simple water filtration system,
or wells drilled by Living Waters for the World,
or cisterns that capture rain water
can make such a difference in slaking thirst, preventing disease,
and restoring health, wholeness, and hope to villages filled with our global neighbors.
This Isaiah passage speaks of not just the bare necessities,
but the luxuries of wine and milk.
This is a sign of God’s unconditional love and grace offered to all
who hunger and thirst, gifts offered at a table open to everyone who will come.
I have always appreciated the fact that in Presbyterian churches we have no altar.
We have a table.
And today it is set with little in terms of material or physical abundance.
A morsel of bread, barely a taste of grape juice.
But it is also set with true grace,
undeserved, satisfying, and strangely empowering for the mission that awaits us,
to feed the hungry, support the weak, and join in the liberating forces of Jesus
to free the captives of every race and clan and camp.
Thanks be to God.
Genesis 25 tells a story of sibling rivalry that will eventually build to the Jesus teaching of the first turning last and the last first, as God turns traditions and expectations upside down.
A sermon on music as the language of prayer...
And I have just one question: What kind of God does that? I mean, God with all God’s godliness is creating a universe, and somewhere on a little rock in the insane, immeasurable vastness, God decides to plant something that will eventually evolve into us, and God’s got lots of things to worry about… the lifespans of stars, which rocks will get water, the exact distance of rocks-with-water from stars to ensure friendliness to life… and into the mix, God decides that sunsets will be just spectacular. Also oceans. Also shells and rocks, moons and stars, and the toes and laughter of babies. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” the Psalmist asks. Who are we that you, who made all that is, give even the tiniest thought to us?
And of course, one possible answer is: It’s not at all about who we are. It’s all about who God is: a God who makes everything, including us, out of an unimaginable abundance of love. Psalm 8 describes the majesty of it all, the beauty. Eventually, another writer of scripture will conclude: God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). If a sunset doesn’t convince us of it, maybe the flowing beauty of a river will, or the scent of newly blossoming peonies, or the sight of a mountain rising into the clouds. Or those baby toes. The earth and everything that is in the natural world is one long, loud canticle of praise that sings: God is love.
Youth Sunday message by graduating senior, Ryan Kelley.
The book entitled, “The Gospel According to Harry Potter” was written by Connie Neal. In speaking of the joy of reading, Neal says, “Not only can we enjoy the story itself, we can go on to share what it means to us, what it reminds us of, and what that makes us think about in other stories and in real life.” Years ago, some anti-Potter critics saw “real” witchcraft and occult practices in the Harry Potter stories. Neal, as a Christian, chooses to find the Christian gospel instead. She quotes J. K. Rowling the author of the Harry Potter books, who once said, “People tend to find in books what they look to find.” I choose to find parallels to my faith, as Neal has done, and here are some examples from her book.
God’s love for us – “The Curse of Death and the Boy Who Lived”
Soon after Harry was born, he was targeted for death by the Dark Wizard, Lord Voldemort. When his parents, James and Lily discovered this, they took Harry into hiding. However, Harry’s parents were betrayed and Voldemort learned the location of their refuge. Upon Voldemort’s arrival, he killed Harry’s father, James. When he attempted to kill Harry, Lily Potter placed herself between Voldemort’s killing curse and Harry, sacrificing herself. Again, he tried to kill Harry, but this time the curse rebounded and Voldemort’s power was mysteriously broken; Harry became, “The Boy Who Lived”. The mystery, of course, was Lily Potter’s love for her son. As Dumbledore later explains to Harry, “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s love for you leaves its own mark....to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”
Lily Potter’s willingness to lay down her life for her son can remind us of the love of Jesus Christ. From the book of Romans, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Lily dies for Harry, but Jesus dies for us all; all of God’s children. The curse of death was broken, not only for Jesus, but for everyone who believes in Him.
As news of Voldemort’s demise spread, and Harry’s story begins, the wizarding world rejoiced. Shooting stars streaked across the sky, messages were sent to loved-ones, outbursts of great joy filled the air. This celebration could remind us of another joyous beginning where the sky was filled with angels pronouncing great joy while in a lowly stable, a baby sleeps.
God always knows where we are – “The Unstoppable Invitation”
For the next ten years, Harry was raised by his “muggle”, or non-magical, aunt and uncle. J.K. Rowling wrote, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” Right before Harry’s 11th birthday, he received a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The address indicated that the sender knew not only his street address, but that his “bedroom” was the cupboard under the stairs! Since his aunt and uncle considered magic to be nothing but “hogwash”, they never told Harry about his wizarding past. So, when the letter came, Harry was not allowed to read it and it was destroyed. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia thought that by ignoring the letter, Hogwarts would give up and not contact Harry again. They were wrong! In the following days, number four Privet Drive was invaded by a multitude of owls delivering Hogwarts letters, and no matter what Uncle Vernon did to discourage their delivery, the letters found a way into the house. Distraught and at his wit’s end, Uncle Vernon drove the family far away; to an isolated hut on an island in the sea. Incredibly, that same night, Harry receives a visitor, Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of Keys and grounds at Hogwarts who personally delivered his letter. Harry finally got to read his acceptance letter to the wizarding school!
Even though some people act like Uncle Vernon, there is no successful way to run away from God. Just ask Jonah. When the Lord told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to warn the people against their wickedness, Jonah fled in the opposite direction and boarded a ship to Tarshish. When the seas grew rough, Jonah told the sailors to toss him overboard because he knew that it was God’s displeasure with him that caused the storm. With that, the seas became calm. The Lord then sent a huge fish to swallow Jonah where he spent three days and nights in the fish’s belly praying to God. Jonah was then spit upon the shore and again commanded to go to Nineveh. This time he went.
There is someone out there who knows each of us, loves us, cares about us and calls us by name. Neal writes, “His message has been sent out through prophets who wrote it down, read it aloud, and delivered it to kings and peasants, religious and irreligious, young and old alike. God’s message, compiled in the Bible, holds an invitation to enter a supernatural realm where we can learn his ways and take an active part in the battle between good and evil.”
Professor Dumbledore was not deterred from getting his invitation letter delivered to Harry just as God was not deterred in reaching humanity. Just as it became necessary to send Hagrid to personally deliver Harry’s letter, there came a time for God to send his message in person as well. He knew this would be the case from the very beginning. From the book of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “God’s Holy Spirit continues to seek out those who are lost and to urge them to accept God’s invitation to come into his kingdom and learn of him.”
Jesus is Betrayed by a Friend – “The Rat Who Betrayed Harry’s Parents”
In the third Harry Potter book, we learn that Ron’s pet rat was really a man named Peter Pettigrew. Peter attended Hogwarts with Harry’s father and was one of a band of friends that included James Potter, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin. These friends stood against Voldemort when he terrorized the wizarding world.
When it became known that Voldemort meant to kill Harry, the Potter family went into hiding. They used their friends and a Fidelius Charm to keep themselves hidden. Voldemort would be unable to find them as long as the friend they entrusted with their location kept the secret. They chose Peter Pettigrew as their secret-keeper. Unfortunately, Pettigrew, a man they considered to be their friend, betrayed them to Voldemort, which led to the deaths of Harry’s parents and the attack on Harry.
When Jesus began His ministry, he chose twelve disciples that he called friends. One of them betrayed Him to the religious leaders who felt threatened by Jesus’ popularity and influence. These leaders sought to have Jesus silenced forever, so they worked against Him. Their plan was to arrest Jesus when he was away from the crowds, so they enlisted the help of someone close to Him. Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples, offered to betray Him. After the Passover meal, when Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas came with a military force whose purpose was to arrest Jesus. Judas identified Jesus to the soldiers with a kiss.
Neal summarizes by saying, “We do know that even though Jesus was betrayed by one of his friends, like James and Lily Potter he showed us the greatest act of love and friendship one can possibly demonstrate when he laid down his life for us.”
God’s compassion for all people – “The Muggle Protection Act”
In book three, Arthur Weasley introduced “The Muggle Protection Act” at the Ministry of Magic. Voldemort’s followers saw muggles as less-than-human; hurting and killing them for fun. Additionally, magical people born of non-magical parents were also discriminated against. But, those on the side of good, including the Weasleys, Dumbledore and Harry, sought to protect muggles and muggle-borns. Muggles were valued as people even though they didn’t belong to the wizarding world.
This can remind us of how Jesus treated the crowds of people that came to hear Him preach and to be healed. Neal writes, “These crowds were not just made up of those in the Jewish religious establishment. Indeed, these masses of humanity were made up of Gentiles, Samaritans, and people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.” From Matthew chapter 9 we read, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”.
Neal’s book only covers stories from the first four Harry Potter books since it was written before the other books came out. However, we can look ahead to the end of the series and the final battle between good and evil. During Voldemort’s reign of terror, innocent people both magical and non-magical alike, endured unspeakable suffering and torment. At the final battle, Harry’s mother’s love that had previously protected Harry from Voldemort’s killing curse as a baby, again saves his life. And with help from his friends, Harry succeeds in defeating the evil that was Voldemort. The battle is won!
At the end of Jesus’ ministry, there were those who opposed his teachings and were threatened by his popularity. The high priests and religious leaders felt Jesus undermined their authority so they conspired to have him killed. Thinking that his death would end his influence, we learn in Matthew chapter 26 that after Jesus’s arrest, “...the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find witnesses who would lie about Jesus, so they could put him to death.” Jesus, after being crucified and buried, was raised from the dead three days later as the scriptures foretold. His resurrection foretold a glorious reality. “Death has been swallowed up in victory”. (1 Corinthians 15:54) The battle has been won!
I feel prepared to go into the world and look for God in my everyday life because of all the support and kindness I’ve experienced over the years that I’ve attended UPC. All the services, all the Sunday school classes, all the youth group meetings, and every other UPC related activity have all cemented themselves as happy moments in my life that I will remember for a long time.
But what happened, Jesus? You were there with them, or so it seemed… where did you go?
Some say, you were lifted up, right out of sight and into the heavens. Some say nothing at all about what happened, as if, maybe, you ghosted on them…simply melted into a crowd, one day, disappeared. Some say, it was just like that morning at the tomb again, witnesses in white angel-splaining. Again.
And so your disciples returned to their upper room. They prayed. They searched the scriptures. They went about the business of living. Some probably talked of returning to their boats and their nets, goods and their bills of sale. After all, everyone has to make a living. Life goes on.
And what does it all mean, anyway? How they learn to live in a world where they could no longer see you? How do we live in that kind of world?
When have you experienced the work of the Paraclete, the Comforter? Have you experienced someone walking alongside you at a difficult moment? Maybe you felt the Spirit’s presence with you in prayer or while meditating, lying on your bed in the night, or watching the sun as it rose in the morning. But maybe you felt it in the neighbor who brought you a bottle of water when you were overheated from mowing your lawn. Or maybe the Spirit drew alongside you in the co-worker who brought you some tea and asked if you needed to vent. Maybe you saw her in the nurse who adjusted your pillows just right, so that you could truly get some rest in a hospital bed. Or, maybe, the Spirit is made known to you consistently through one particular person—friend, partner, spouse, parent, child—who draws alongside you on an almost daily basis, listening, speaking the truth in love, and sharing life’s joys as well as its challenges...
But that phrase, “living stone,” is really so strange… how can a stone be living? Does it have something to do with being chosen and precious? Can we be both solid and shapeable? Can we be strong and teachable? Can we be firm and loving? Can we allow Jesus to determine our direction and our purpose? Is this how we affirm our identity as those who see Jesus Christ as our cornerstone?
The "Good Shepherd" might just be the most comforting image we have of Jesus. For some of us these words conjure a beloved picture we remember seeing hanging on a Sunday School classroom wall. If by chance in childhood we tried to memorize passages of scripture, this might well be the passage that has stayed with us. Gentle Jesus, loving Shepherd, carrying the lost and tired lamb home on his shoulders. It is an image both lovely and loving.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” ~ John 20:1-2
I remember vividly the first time I had an experience of praying with my body. I was 6 years old. I had been hearing stories about God from my parents and my school, and I knew that God was big—bigger than I could imagine, and God was powerful, more powerful than anyone or anything, and God was infinite. I remember wondering about that word “infinity.”
And then, one summer day, I went to the beach, as I had many times before. And I went into the ocean, which I had also done many times before. And I practiced something I’d learned, not in school, but at swim class: I practiced floating.