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07-24-11 Prayers

Prayers. They are far more complicated than most of us like to admit, aren’t they? If you ask a room full of Christians who would like to give grace, most of them will shy away from the task. They are afraid they might do it “wrong.”

We understand that prayer is talking to God. What we can have trouble with is how to be involved in that relationship. After all, prayer is more than offering a list to God. It is praying for the will of God in our lives and those we pray for. While we tell God of our trials and troubles, we are also saying, what would you have of us? But what we believe to be divine will is often what we think is best in a given situation, isn’t it? We want God’s will to be done, but when it is the same as our own. Praying ‘thy will be done’ is easy on Sunday morning in worship but difficult when it involves someone we are directly concerned about.

After all, suffering can take its toll on our relationships, including our relationship to God. While there are those that say that doubting, questioning, and being angry towards God is bad and unfaithful, it is a natural part of the relationship. Like any relationship we have with our spouses, parents, friends, or children, we will get angry, we will doubt, we will question. It is what it means to be in relationship, the good and they bad. When we have suffered pain, turmoil, and conflict, often times it will impact how we relate to God. We may yell, we may write letters, we may become silent. Sometimes there just aren’t the words necessary to adequately talk to God. And sometimes, we just don’t want to communicate.

It is in the times where the ability to communicate with God come up short, when we are just too angry, too sad, too confused to find the words, prayer seems the most impossible. It is in those moments where we feel we must lean on others to have faith for us, as ours comes up short. We may believe in God, yet our emotions overrun our ability to speak and relate.

In those moments, we can trust that the Spirit will intercede for us. Paul states “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Sighs too deep for words.

As we bring our desires to God, we find the Spirit takes our prayers to Jesus who makes them his own. Our feeble, clumsy, inarticulate prayers are cleansed, and in a “wonderful exchange,” Christ makes his prayers our prayers and presents us to the Father as his children. Our prayers are his prayers; his prayers are our prayers. This is why we pray in “Jesus’” name.

This Trinitarian prayer is happening right now. The only one who has the power to condemn us is the very one who is praying for us, Christ. This is why Paul’s wisdom is a true and trustworthy statement: “nothing will separate us from the love of Christ” When we feel alienated, separated and estranged, maybe by others or maybe by ourselves, when it feels like everyone and everything is against us, it’s easy to forget that God is unequivocally for us.

In the middle of our trials and our suffering, when it feels too hard to pray, God is still with us. Nothing, nothing can separate us from God’s love.

The first of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos is called Rain. In it, Rob takes his three year old son for a hike and it the middle of the hike it starts pouring rain. Now for his son, all he knows is the rain and how horrible and cold and wet and awful it is. But Rob knows that they are almost home, and he knows that he would do anything for his son. So he takes his boy and holds him close, telling him over and over again, how much he is loved.

We get so caught up in the storms of our lives, we can’t see beyond them. We can’t grasp the love of the God who is walking through those storms with us, every step of the way. The storm is so fierce that the deep realities of divine love are obscured by outward appearances. In the gospel for this week Jesus describes the subtleties of God’s kingdom that require a discerning heart.

He says that the presence of God’s kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed — something insignificant rather than extravagant, fragile and not mighty, unlikely rather than obvious. His kingdom can also be imperceptible, like yeast leavening a batch of dough. It’s difficult to detect unless you look carefully. It’s not apparent, even though you know it’s there somewhere. God’s reign is also like a fishnet containing the good and the bad together, or a field of wheat infested with weeds. The ultimate reality of God’s kingdom is that his perfect love is unconditional. Everything else comes after that fact. And nothing can separate us from his love.

Even when we are in the midst of trial and can’t even begin to think of prayer, God is with us, loving us. It is the link with the Spirit that helps us communicate with that love. The Spirit is God’s love within us.

We Presbyterians are not always comfortable in the realm of the spirit, are we? We prefer words. We often live more in our heads than in our hearts. Talking about the Holy Spirit is just something that comes across as too mystical. Too strange.

But Presbyterians, like everyone else, sometimes experience a spiritual thirst. People search in all sorts of places for things to quench that thirst, to fill up the empty spaces in our souls. “My soul thirsts for God,” the Psalmist says.

Similarly, as summer wears on, the earth and its plants thirst for rain in all this heat. I once heard a farmer say that even if he uses a hose to give his garden an inch of water, it doesn’t seem to do as much good as one-tenth of an inch of rain. Now, I’m not sure why that’s true, but it certainly seems to be the case. Sprinklers don’t make up for good, soaking rain.

Just as nothing substitutes for rain, nothing truly quenches our spiritual thirst but the Spirit. As hours are filled with everything from school to work to shopping to just watching TV, we seem to crowd out spiritual void by filling up with other things. That’s easier than sitting still and listening for the quiet voice of God.

But it doesn’t work, does it? It’s not enough on its own to stay busy or get in shape or to live right. We need the Spirit so that we can pray. We need the Spirit to be connected to the God who loves us no matter what else is going on in the world.

The theologian Paul Tillich remarks upon this passage, saying, “Out of this insight Paul gives a mysterious solution to the question of the right prayer: It is God Himself who prayers through us, when we pray to Him. God Himself in us: that is what Spirit means. Spirit is another word for “God present,” with shaking, inspiring, transforming power. Something in us, which is not we ourselves, intercedes before God for us. We cannot bridge the gap between God and ourselves even though the most intensive and frequent prayers; the gap between God and ourselves can be bridged only by God. And so Paul gives us the surprising picture of God interceding for us before Himself.

This may help us also to understand the most mysterious part of Paul’s description of prayer, namely, that the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Words, created by and used in our conscious life, are not the essence of prayer. The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself. The way in which this happens is called by Paul “sighing.” Sighing is an expression of the weakness of our creaturely existence. Only in terms of wordless sighs can we approach God, and even these sighs are His work in us.”

The Spirit is the Spirit which will intercede, speaking on our behalf. It is the Spirit that will overwhelm us like the wind, bringing us comfort and peace in the midst of chaos. It is the Spirit that wh
en we feel most abandoned and alone is indwelling within each of us. It is the Spirit that has been with us since the beginning and will never leave.

Yes, that makes us uncomfortable sometimes. We can’t quantify the Spirit. We can’t point and say that is the Spirit right there. We don’t have a good concept of the Spirit. But that doesn’t make the Spirit any less important.

When those times of complete weakness, physically, emotionally, spiritually, come around, the Spirit will breathe those sighs. They are the sighs that can speak beyond our mere vocabulary to communicate our deepest pangs of grief. They are the sighs that will communicate all our suffering, all our grief, all our anger. The sighs are the ones that will echo the truth of every bruise, scar, and crack that are engrained on our hands and on our heart. They are the sighs that will communicate our hope and are longing for healing.

When words aren’t enough or when there are no words, when our own spirits are parched, that is just the time when God’s Spirit comes to us. The Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words when we are unable to voice our own emptiness

And nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from that Spirit, God’s loving presence within us. So as we go through life’s storms, know that even when you cannot find the words for God, the Spirit is there. Sighing along with you, too deep for words.

Rev. Cara Gee

July 25, 2011

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THE
WHEAT AND THE WEEDS

Matthew
13: 24-30

In
1880,
a
very
slim
novel
was
published
that
has
been
an
intriguing
delight
to
readers
ever
since.
The
work
is
called
FLATLAND,
and
the
authors
memorable
name
is
Edwin
Abbott
Abbott.
Listen
to
what
one
reviewer
said
about
FLATLAND:

Flatland
is one of the very few novels about math and philosophy that can
appeal to almost any layperson. This short fantasy takes us to a
completely flat world of two physical dimensions where all the
inhabitants are geometric shapes, and who think the planar world of
length and width that they know is all there is. But one inhabitant
discovers the existence of a third physical dimension, enabling him
to finally grasp the concept of a fourth dimension. Watching our
Flatland narrator, we begin to get an idea of the limitations of our
own assumptions about reality, and we start to learn how to think
about the confusing problem of higher dimensions. The book is also
quite a funny satire on society and class distinctions of Victorian
England.”

The
author playfully calls the book a memoir of one of the citizens of
Flatland, and that resident is named A. Square. Like those in the
time of Christopher Columbus who presumed the world was flat,
sometimes our senses and even our scholarship can keep our minds
boxed in. When a child plays “Heart and Soul” on the piano, a
simple melody is all that the right hand plays. But add the harmonies
and contrasting line of the left hand and the song gets much more
interesting, that is, unless you used to torment your family by
playing it continuously! The great composer Ravel had a sense of
“I’ll show you!” as he defied musical conventions by creating a
symphonic piece that simply repeats the melody over and over, adding
instrumentation and crescendo to make it a most interesting and
engaging piece; again, unless it is played over, and over, and over!
Before Disney and Pixar came out with computer animation that
appeared three dimensional, cartoons were two dimensional figures of
people and drawings of landscape, sometimes colored in rich detail,
but still clearly two dimensional. The news Winnie the Pooh film is a
classic two dimensional delight, while the last Harry Potter film has
ventured into the land of 3-D. And except for a few experimental
attempts, watching science fiction films thirty years ago at a
theatre was a grainy, often poor quality experience of sight and
sound compared to the state-of-the-art theatre where I saw James
Cameron’s “Avatar” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception, ”
with digital projection, 3-D, and digital sound made seeing those
movies a game-changer.

Today
let’s look at this parable, how it functions, and what it might
mean apart from the allegorical interpretation found six verses
later. First, a parable like this– the wheat and the tares in King
James language, the wheat and the weeds in modern language– brings
words of judgment from God like those proclaimed by prophets in the
Old Testament and John the Baptist in the New. But instead of the
prophets throwing fastballs toward each crowd they faced, building
resistance of will and deafness of hearing, Jesus chose another
device: parables; Biblical curveballs. Far from being charming
stories, they had multilayered and sometimes ambiguous ways of acting
out a story. By contrast in my childhood, westerns had “black
hatted” and “white hatted” characters to differentiate the good
guys from the bad guys! Professor Stan Saunders of Columbia Seminary
adds: “In response to growing division and rejection [that Jesus
faced], Jesus begins speaking in parables, a form of teaching that at
once reveals and conceals. Israel’s prophets had used dramatic
sign-acts—signs
that perform what they signify—to convey their messages forcefully.
Jesus’ parables are also sign-acts, in that they both describe and
intensify the growing division in Jesus’ audience. His parables
beget crisis, forcing the hearers to embrace, or turn away from God’s
empire.” [PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, Westminster John Knox
Press, 2010, p. 120.]

Next,
let’s think about the purpose for Jesus telling this parable,–and
the one about the sower before it, and the one about the mustard
seed, and the one about the hidden leaven—it was to raise the
awareness of the times in which they were living: There was”
goodness” metaphorically speaking, and “evil.” But who is who?
Evil was lurking, mixed in with good. Matthew loves to bring good and
evil into the same sentence, in much the same way that good and evil
exist side by side in the world. Listen to these words from the
parable as we react to them: “The Kingdom of Heaven.” Some have
said that sounds like a quaint land of fairytales when really the
faithful were looking for a new and just empire, a Godly empire, to
rule in place of the current oppressive “Roman Empire.” They were
looking for a new and just empire in which God was honored. But
God’s empire is not brought in by force; it is brought in by
justice, and witness, and transformation. “Someone sowed good seed
in a field.” Some say that the sower stands for Jesus; but could it
have been another person in his day instead? Could it have even been
someone living under the oppressive Roman regime who nevertheless was
trying to do the right thing? Could the seed have been called good in
the eyes of Israel and the new message Jesus was bringing be labeled
as “bad seed” because of his revolutionary new ideas? If you are
like me, you’re not fond of ambiguous stories; I like to know who
the redemptive characters are in a story. But our point of
view—whether it is as an insider, outsider, Christian,
non-Christian, management, or laborer—affects our perspective. The
parable then continues about an enemy sowing weeds among the wheat.
Now we wonder if the enemy is the devil, or in the eyes of the Chief
Priest or of Rome, could the enemy be Jesus? We keep listening and
remembering that the crowd was made up of people in many walks of
life. “When the plants grew up, the weeds appeared as well.”
Notice then that the workers, or servants, certainly don’t want the
blame on this one, so they bring their discovery to the master’s
attention, deflecting blame. “Didn’t you give us good seed to
sow? Why are there weeds there?” And the master, not willing to
take the blame either, said “An enemy did it.” So then the
workers ask if he wants them to go and pull out the weeds. The weeds
in the case are, by almost all accounts, “darnel” or in Greek
“Zidzania,” a wheat looking weed that also can carry a poisonous
contaminate, potentially ruining an entire harvest. Agriculturally,
pulling the weeds, or killing the weeds, is the right thing to do.
Apocalyptically, that is, in the description of the refiner’s fire
of the final judgment as Old Testament prophesies described, both the
bad and the good in the world grow together, and will be separated at
harvest and the weeds (or tares) are then burned. The imagery of the
hymn we sang today first, “Sing to the Lord or Harvest” and the
next hymn often sung at Thanksgiving, “Come Ye Thankful People
Come” are not just about an agricultural harvest.
The
metaphor turns crops into people and the harvest into a final
judgment.

Finally,
we do have the allegorical words that Matthew says were Jesus’
words of explanation in verses 36-43. Certainly at that time Jesus
had left the crowds and had gone with his disciples into a house. It
was inner circle time. I am glad he gave an explanation to his
disciples. Jesus’ gave them the message about final judgment, that
there will be one, even as evil and good grow together. In spite of
hoping to understand new concepts or new technologies the first time
you hear them, aren’t there times when you’ve said to your
teacher “Would you run that buy me again and explain it to me?”
The disciples, in that way, are just like us! They almost never
understand Jesus the first time they hear him! Sometimes they ask
him, as they did in Matthew 13:36. But other times they are left
silent and wondering.

The
parables: they deceptively powerful tools for prophetic change and
for describing our human condition and brokenness. But our Lord chose
to use them with purpose: together, we can learn to hear them from
fresh perspectives. In your bulletin you should see a sheet with nine
dots on it. Perhaps you have done this exercise before: you are to
connect all the dots with four straight lines and don’t lift your
pencil. This is what I’m calling this
week’s
THROUGH PARABOLIC EYES experience!
The
answer is on the bulletin board in the narthex and another copy on
the fellowship hall bulletin board. Or perhaps a child can show you
how it’s done! Like wanting to color outside the lines in a
coloring book, sometimes lines, or boxes, or dots can be
self-restraining. FLATLAND taught the world that. What are the new
possibilities for understanding our world when we can see it in
Technicolor, and not just black and white? How is the experience
different when you watch INCEPTION in 3-D instead of 2-D? And what
might we learn about God’s Kingdom—or Empire—if we think
outside of the box of expectations and conventions, with the tools of
wonder, of possibility, and of God’s infinite love?

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
July 17, 2011   

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How many of you
have ever gardened? Grown flowers or vegetables? If you’ve worked
with growing things at all, it’s easy to tell that Jesus is a lousy
farmer. Any good farmer will tell you that you only put seeds
directly in the soil. And you put them only into the very best soil
and you place them neatly in pre-dug rows. Then you carefully water
and fertilize them, and carefully weed around the edges. You don’t
go scattering them every which way across the countryside. But Jesus
does. Jesus scatters the seeds on the good soil and the bad soil and
the rocky soil and the places where there is no soil at all.

In
this parable it does not tell us that he went out and plowed the
field, made nice neat and fertile furrows, and then painstakingly
planted the individual seeds in order to produce the most plants.
Nope, this guy is simply slinging seeds anywhere and everywhere and
hoping that some of them grow into something.

Why does Jesus
tell this parable when he knows all the stories of his people’s
struggle during famine and exile? Why tell a story of such wasteful
methods of planting? Jesus knew the story of his people living the
desert and living off of the manna from heaven. They weren’t taught
to waste but take only what they need. What does this obviously
wasteful story tell us about God and God’s personality?

Well,
it tells us that Jesus is not a farmer. But he wasn’t trying to be.
Jesus was a teacher. He was trying to sow the Word of God on the
unpredictable soil of the human heart. Not only is it unpredictable,
it is invisible, which means that you can’t tell, just by looking,
what kind of heart someone has. Jesus didn’t censor who he preached
to. He didn’t make sure to only teach to those who were the most
likely to receive the word. No, Jesus preached the prostitutes and
the priests alike. Tax collectors, sinners and good honest Jews. Even
the Samaritans heard his teaching. He scattered the Word of God far
and wide. Never knowing what kind of soil it might find.

In
following Christ, we are called to do that same scattering of the
Word. Giving the grace of God a chance to grow. Because we never know
what kind of soil it might land in. So you begin to sow seed
everywhere and in every way imaginable. Some people talk to their
friends and neighbors quite openly about their faith in God. Others
try to show their Christian faith by example. Some leave flyers in
public phone booths, and others perform random acts of kindness. All
of these can be ways of sowing seeds. A lot of it will fall in places
where it never takes root. Some of it will fall in places where it
gets a good start but doesn’t last. Some of it will fall in places
where it gets choked out by competing interests.

That’s just
how it is with ministry. Jesus himself could have told you that. But
he could have also told you this: that sometimes the scattered seed
of the Word finds good soil and grows and produces a bumper crop. And
since you can’t predict just how or where the seed is going to fall,
or when or if it is going to produce, you just scatter it wherever
you can and hope for the best.

You see, that’s the other
part of the story that proves how much of a farmer Jesus is not. He
talks about his crops yielding a hundred fold. That’s like saying,
well, I planted 4 tomato seeds. Three of them never fruited because
they were planted in bad soil. The fourth gave me 100 tomatoes that
year! Or 60! or 30! It isn’t until Jesus gets to the last number
that is analogy becomes at all realistic. And that’s kind of what
Jesus is getting at. When the Word grows it isn’t a small amount.
It isn’t a realistic reaction. It’s an over the top, beyond
anyone’s expectations reaction!

He who has ears to hear, let
him hear. She who has ears to hear, let her hear. The coming of the
seed and its success—when that happens—is all grace. Maybe that’s
why the farmer keeps lobbing seeds at even the unlikeliest of
targets. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t understand the long
odds. It’s just that when you’re talking about salvation by
grace, it’s not finally about the odds but about the persistence of
the Holy One who won’t stop. Ever.

Which brings me to the
other thing I want to look at in this passage. We tend to listen to
it and try to figure out what kind of soil we are, don’t we?
Whether we are rocky or thorny or, hopefully, that good fruit
producing soil. Sometimes we listen to it and try to think about what
kinds of soil other people are. Is he rocky? Will the birds eat her
seed?

That becomes dangerous because we only want to share
with those we think are “good soil.” We only want to talk about
God with those we think will listen and respond favorably to us. I
mean, everyone wants to be able to say “I brought her to God,”
but no one wants to be laughed at, right?

But that’s not what
Jesus calls us to do, is it? Scatter the seeds about. Grace for all,
whether the seed takes root or not.

I think the trouble we
have here is that we see ourselves and others as just soil, when
really, we are gardens. I know I embody the four types of planting
myself. We all do. Our lives are rock-strewed and “flinty”
pathed, choked with thorns, and wide open for winged robber birds.
There are days when all we are is hard. And no matter what someone
tells us, we won’t accept it. And there are days when so many other
things are crowding in around us that we couldn’t possibly hear one
little Word amidst the roar. And there are days that are so awful, so
horrible, that our roots feel non existent and we rail against the
injustice of it all.

But we all have patches of good soil here
and there accept the seed the Sower scatters. There are days when we
listen and hear. There are days when our heart warms to the sun and
we reach out. And maybe that’s enough.

In Thomas Merton’s
book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton writes: “Every moment and
every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her
or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds,
so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come
to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women. Most
of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, for such seeds as
these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom,
spontaneity and love.”

Merton is inviting us to see that
Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is not about the occasional moment when
God or a human evangelist sows a seed about God. Rather, everything
at every moment of every part of our lives is a seed suffused with
life-giving spiritual import. This claim is not to say that
everything that happens is good or controlled by God; instead it is
to say that the sort of soil that we are — good or bad, rock-filled
or thorn-infested — in each arising present moment effects how we
receive the seeds of experience that are always being sown around us
and within us.

We are always receiving seeds. The Word is
always present and active in our lives. We just need to be aware of
the sort of soil it is falling on. We have to tend our gardens. By
breaking up the hard places in ourselves, we give the seeds a chance
to find the soil before the birds take it away. By clearing away some
of the weeds in our lives, by finding moments of stillness, we give
the seeds room to grow. And by deepening our faith, we give room for
those seeds to put down deep roots. Deep enough to handle even the
worst days.

And that’s why we are called to scatter the
seeds to the wind. We never know when it might fall in good soil,
even when it all seems like rocky ground. Have you ever seen a plant
growing in the most improbable place? Like a crack in the pavement or
on the side of a cliff? I once saw a seed growing in the crook of a
tree where a bird must have dropped it. Living our lives as an
example of Christ, sends seeds far and wide.

What soil—what
earth—is the Word finding in our own lives these days? Where are we
scattering the Word in the world? How do we seek out the Word—in
the scriptures and in the person of Christ—in the rhythm of our
days? How willing are we to go deep into the layers and complexities
it offers to us? How do we take the Word into ourselves and let it
take root across the span of seasons and years? What fruit are we
called to let the Word bear in and through us?

As Christians,
we are called to be both the sower and the soil. The teacher and the
listener. No matter who you are, there is always room to grow in your
faith, always soil to tend. And no matter who you are, you have a
seed to share with others.

Go forth today to scatter your
seeds and tend your soil. And may your efforts reap a hundredfold.
Amen.

Rev. Cara Gee

July 10, 2011

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TRADING IN
SINS FOR SALVATION

Matthew
11:25-30

Presbyterian
worship can often by identified by both the trained and casual eye.
Other denominations include a sermon or a message as we do; others
include hymns or praise songs as well; and still others include
intercessory prayers as we do. But a service in the Reformed
tradition almost always starts with a call to worship, moves to a
hymn of praise, and then puts on the brakes with a prayer of
confession. Why does this order matter to Presbyterians? Others just
have a prayer of invocation, or of praise, or of thanksgiving. People
have said “Why throw the wet blanket of sin over the glad and
joyful hymn of praise?” The response is that it parallels the
Biblical witness of creation; it is what human beings did to the
beauty of God’s creation. First, before human beings, there was
God. God created them to offer back to God their love and thanks and
adoration in response to God’s gift of life, and a home, and all
that is here. But like many children, we, and they, acted
ungratefully; some offered no thank you note of prayer; and there was
little demonstration of a good learning curve when sin and its
consequences were pointed out. Likewise in worship we are called to
praise God, then we sing a hymn of praise, or in the case of today, a
gathering hymn to ask for the Lord’s blessing. It implies that God
is good, God is holy, and to God we offer our devotion. It reminds us
of the proper order of approaching God, especially as we then
acknowledge our sinfulness before God: it is because, as in the
beginning, as in the history of Biblical characters and beyond to
this day, we sin and stray from the way God created us to go. We eat
forbidden fruit, we make forbidden gestures, we tell forbidden lies,
and we take forbidden actions. And so we confess it. We confess it on
behalf of the world and we confess it because we do it too. There
are times that denial keeps us from seeing our own sins, but a
confession of sin makes us face our sinfulness. Our prayer of
confession is not just about our personal sins, although it includes
that; it also takes the continuous and inexcusable actions of the
world and lays them at the judgment seat of God. For most people in
ancient times, coming before a deity was nerve-wracking at best and
terrifying at worst. It would be like hoping that a medieval king was
in a good mood when you were brought before him with a crime. Would
you be beheaded mercifully, or would you be drawn and quartered
publicly as a witness to your crimes? In days of yore it could be
terrifying to come before one’s own father with the guilt of a
crime you committed. Such emotional or physical consequences could be
great. So how do we bring our sins before God? Should it not be with
at least as much fear as that famous scene in the Wizard of Oz when
Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion approach
the wizard to ask for his help? Dorothy and the Scarecrow quiver, the
Tim Woodman shakes, and the Lion flees and jumps over a wall to get
away. The wizard asks for an extremely dangerous and deadly deed in
order for him to consider granting their requests: to bring him the
broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. They realize she will not
give it up unless she’s dead. What a cost to grant a request.

But
back to our order of service: we now come to what theologians say is
the most important and amazing part of the service:
the
declaration that if we repent of, (that is, turn away from) our
sinful ways, God will welcome and forgive us because the price of our
sins was paid by the lamb of God.
That
symbolism comes from our religious ancestors, Jews, who only got to
have full forgiveness once a year on the Day of Atonement called Yom
Kippur. Can you imagine; holding your sins for months; living with
the burden of them for months; and having the consequences of sin
start to work their poison everywhere? Jews in the time of the Temple
brought two goats to the temple: one for the sins of the nations that
was sacrificed, and one that a priest took and put his hands on,
symbolically transferring the sins of the people onto the goat and
sending it off into the woods. This was known as the “scapegoat.”
Later, in their most important meal called “Passover,” Jews in
thankfulness to God they took their most costly animal, an
unblemished lamb, and sacrificed it as a way to remember God’s
salvation and to give thanks. In our day, because of Jesus, who we
call the Lamb of God because of the symbolism just mentioned, we are
forgiven because of his sacrifice, and like the scapegoat, the sins
of the world have been transferred onto his head and taken away from
us as far as the east is from the west, and the north is from the
south. But it is still up to us to show and give thanks!

A
minister friend of mine once told me that one thing about his
services that disturbed him was the distracting activity that went on
among his congregation while he proclaimed their forgiveness. “It
so disturbs me” he said, “that while I am telling them the best
news a human being can hear, they are perusing the announcements,
looking toward the next hymn, or checking out what other people are
wearing. All the while I am telling them the earth-shattering news
that, by God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice, that they are
forgiven.” I suggested that he step out of the pulpit and move
closer to them to take the actions out the realm of “same old, same
old” to people who might hear it and receive it in a new way. It is
extraordinary that Jesus give us the chance to declare and celebrate
that weekly! Forgiveness; paid for by someone else; the consequence
of our sins are still ours; but the price is paid.

Jesus
was giving many sermons and making invitations in Matthew chapter 11.
His most famous words are often shared at the beginning of Holy
Communion as they were shared in today’s solo: “Come; I will give
you rest. Take my yoke upon you.” By grace we get to come to God
through Christ. And today we get to partake of a meal prepared for
us. Like the declaration of forgiveness, preparing your soul to
receive communion takes quiet reflection rather than distracted
activity. Each week, perhaps you can anticipate the pinnacle event of
worship, not the sermon, but the assurance of your forgiveness. Each
month, perhaps you can, as our forebears have done and was required
of them, do a rugged self-examination of one’s sins, name them,
repent of them, and do what is necessary to mend those relationships.
As recently as 50 years ago, Presbyterians would send out reminders a
week before Holy Communion that it was time to prepare one’s heart
for the meal with the Lord. People would bring a small chip that they
would turn in as they received communion, assuring their ministers
that they had prepared their souls sufficiently. Sometimes we take
forgiveness lightly, grace lightly, and communion lightly. Perhaps
today we can give them all the weight, and the profound thanksgiving,
that they all deserve.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
July 3, 2011