September 10 Sermon

 

“Thoughts and Prayers”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For September 10, 2017, the 23rd Sunday or Ordinary Time and Gathering Sunday
Based on Matthew 18:15-20

This morning’s scripture is Matthew 18: 15-20. The gospel of Matthew was written about 35 years after Jesus died and was resurrected. The followers of Christ have moved out from Jerusalem, out from Judea. Matthew’s community appears to be around the city of Antioch in Syria, in what is today Turkey. Because the members of the church here were made up of both former Jews and former Gentiles, they encountered some degree of hostility from Jewish and Roman communities. A major theme of Matthew’s story is addressing behavior that tarnishes the Christian community’s ability to witness to people outside the community. The story we are about to hear is about public behavior, not individual relationships. It’s about being the church.

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16  But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17  But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18  I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19  Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” (Common English Bible)

Imagine a tray full of glass beads. Most of them are yellow. There’s a few red, and blues, fewer green, black, grey, white. You push those to the side, keeping the yellow in the center of the tray. There’s different sizes, different shapes, different textures, even some different hues. Each catches the sunlight, leading you to pray. You begin sorting through to find about a dozen that will make a nice necklace. Right off you find four, then a couple more.

And just as you select the tenth someone comes by and dumps a new cup of beads on your tray. These are mostly blue some red, some green, a couple yellow; some of them are the same shape as the yellow ones you have already selected. Some of the blue hues are the same shades as the blue you previously set aside. So you sort through the blue beads, and begin to select a new dozen beads for your necklace.

And then a cup of red beads gets dumped on your tray.

If writing a sermon is like stringing beads onto a necklace, then this is sort of week I have had.

Through the week as I kept moving the sermon beads, as I prayed with each one, I thought “Perhaps this gathering Sunday is about praying together. Perhaps the needed action for this season of Lyonsville’s life together is prayerfulness.” So this morning I am combining the reflection and the morning prayer. It’s a little different, but let’s try. I’ll offer some reflection, we’ll have a short silent prayer, I’ll pray aloud, and then we’ll sing a bit of Nearer My God to Thee.

Choir: Still all my song shall be

All: Nearer, my God, to thee; nearer my God, to thee; nearer to thee

I think Hurricane Irma is on everybody’s mind. Maybe I think it is on everybody’s mind because it is on my mind: my mother, my sister, my step children, my grandchildren, my brother-in-law all live in Florida and none have evacuated. The projected landfall is in-between Fort Meyers and Tampa; the town where I grew up is 70 miles north of Fort Meyers and 70 miles south of Tampa – so literally between the two cities.

As soon as we begin praying for Florida, we’re reminded to pray for those who have already experienced the destruction of this hurricane:

 

Barbuda

St. Thomas

St. Martin

Puerto Rico

Bermuda

Dominican Republic

Haiti

Cuba

 

As we prepare to pray for those affected by hurricane Irma, we’re reminded of other hurricanes. People are still recovering from Harvey; for that matter, people are still recovering from Sandy from five years ago and Andrew twenty-five years ago. Earlier this week Katia made landfall in Mexico, Jose is building along a similar path as Irma.

So let us pray for all people affected by hurricanes.

Lord, you are often described in scripture as a mighty windstorm. Right now those are not comforting comparisons. Keep the many people in the path of Irma safe; may the wind and water bring growth to your creation. May human life be protected. May people’s homes and property be restored. Watch over those who are in shelters, and watch out for those who are not in shelters. We pray especially for two groups: first responders, who are not in shelters so they may protect others, and the most poor and vulnerable who felt they had nowhere to go for safety before, during, and after this storm. We also pray for the people living on Caribbean Islands and in Mexico whose lives have been altered by this storm. As they rebuild their livelihoods, may they encounter your grace in new ways. Amen.

Choir: Still all my song shall be

All: Nearer, my God, to thee; nearer my God, to thee; nearer to thee

Prayers related to hurricanes lead us to other catastrophic natural events. There are massive wildfires in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California. There was a devastating earthquake this week just outside Mexico City. India, Nepal, and Bangladesh have been receiving unusually high rains causing flooding and landslides. Somalia continues to experience a drought, while Afghanistan and Pakistan have been experiencing avalanches.

So let us pray for all those who experience nature’s fury.

Here in the Midwest, Lord, we often celebrate the turning of seasons with joyful delight. But not everyone is enjoying the changes in weather. These catastrophic disasters around the world summon us to offer care – and yet, because they are across the world, it is difficult for us to reach out to them. Help us to know how to do more than pray nice words: help us to know our role in meeting the physical needs of our global neighbors. In the meantime, we give our thanks for every act of compassion that sustains and celebrates human life. Amen.

“…every act of compassion that sustains and celebrates human life.” You’d think that would be such an easy thing we would not need to call attention to it. But every natural disaster brings some who use it to blame others.

Once again evangelical leaders claim that destructive hurricanes are God’s way to condemn and punish gays and lesbians. This comes right on the heels of a group of Evangelicals issuing what they are calling the Nashville Statement. Writing as though they represent all Christians, this manifesto condemns “homosexual immorality and transgenderism,” and also states that the notion that (and here I quote) “otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree” cannot be tolerated: in other words, agree with us or you are condemned by God. Neither of these sentiments are new, but what’s different this time is that those some of those evangelical leaders also sit on the President’s religious advisory council.

Because Texas notoriously opposes GLBT rights, some with their tongue in cheek have started asking if Harvey was punishment for supporting Trump (and then said, “see how silly it sounds now”). There was a meme of God apologizing to everyone for Irma “All I wanted to do was take our Mar-a-Lago.”

This is foolishness from both sides. God does not use disaster to generate widespread repentance. God does not destroy regions to change the hearts of a few select individuals. God does not use nature to punish. And human behavior is not to blame for these hurricanes, floods, fires …

Well, human sexual behavior is not to blame.

One headline I read asked “Hurricane Harvey: whose to blame: Gay Sex or Climate Change?” We continue to debate well-gathered scientific data about climate change as though it were an opinion. Human life has impacted the global environment; human industry has changed weather patterns; human indulgence is altering the ways land and wind and sea work together. It’s not my car our your car that is polluting the environment, but all our cars together – and that we cannot, do not, will not make a different way of life that is less reliant on cars – and plastics, and fossil fuel, and moving our food stuffs hundreds of miles.

Now we’re getting to the bible lesson for today. Who do we need to forgive – and from whom do we need to seek forgiveness – for our collective impact on God’s creation? How do we forgive those knuckleheaded Pharisees who keep blaming other people’s sexuality for natural disaster – as though none of their own behaviors contribute to the environment? How do we forgive their condemnation of people who experience and express love differently than they?

This time I am going to pray aloud before a time of silent prayer – and this prayer is going three directions, all about forgiveness.

Lord, we come to you asking for forgiveness for the ways we have injured your creation. May we quickly accept new and wise ways of living in harmony with the natural world so that this fragile planet will sustain life for generations who follow us. We come asking to practice forgiveness for those who hurt our loved ones, specifically those in the GLBTQ community. May Lyonsville discern how to best represent it’s Open and Affirming responsibility in the face of growing hatred in our nation. Lord, forgive us for judging other’s. Forgive us for blaming them for the big problems. Forgive us for not engaging the roots of hatred and division more effectively. May we grow in wisdom and compassion. We add our silent prayer concerns. May we learn to give and receive forgiveness. Amen.

Choir: Still all my song shall be

All: Nearer, my God, to thee; nearer my God, to thee; nearer to thee

The GLBT community is not the only group being blamed for our society’s problems. The Black Lives Matter organizers have been calling attention to inequities in policing and the application of our social laws, especially legal punishments. Persons of color receive far more and far harsher punishments than European-Americans. And yet, when they call attention to these patterns, they are accused of caring for only a portion of our society. Meanwhile, militant white supremacist groups are becoming more public in their hate-filled activity. Since 2014, organized hate groups have increased 14%.[1] To be fair, not all hate groups are white supremacists: there are black separatist groups who advocate hatred and violence. But the majority of US hate groups advocate for white heterosexual Christians: one in ten hate groups is connected to the Neo-Nazis, one in ten is anti-Muslim, one in ten are white nationalists, and one in six is connected to the Klu Klux Klan.

It hasn’t always been this way; it doesn’t always have to be this way.

And it’s not just the US. Anti-immigrant sentimentalities are being enflamed across Europe. ISIS (or ISIL) demands sharia law of Muslims and non-Muslims; those who do not conform are killed. Kahane Chai is an Israeli hate group that targets Arabs, Palestinians, and officials of the Israeli government. FARC has opposed Columbia’s democratic government for decades, funding their rebellion through drug traffic.[2]

It hasn’t always been this way; it doesn’t always have to be this way.

It’s difficult to practice forgiveness when the offender wants to kill you. I’m not suggesting we be naïve and invite these groups into our homes or even our church for a potluck meal and discussion. But we have to engage this hatred or our silence will be interpreted as agreement.

So it is with irony that I invite you into a time of silent prayer concerning this facet of forgiveness. Let us pray.

Lord, the increase of organized hatred frightens us. We didn’t realize there were so many people with such ugliness in their hearts, distorting their souls. We didn’t realize they thought to act out that hate. We didn’t realize they lived in our neighborhoods, shopped in our stores, drive and walk the same streets we do.

Get us past our shock and move us to act. Lyonsville is not a confrontational congregation: we’d prefer you presence be known through peaceful study and gentle conversation. So guide us on how to confront these distorted views of racial difference. Guide us on how to confront our own distorted perceptions, our own prejudices. Help us to insure that Lyonsville is a safe, loving, accepting place – and then may your peace radiate from this church into the world. Amen.

Choir: Still all my song shall be

All: Nearer, my God, to thee; nearer my God, to thee; nearer to thee

Tomorrow is the 16th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I am remembering the Sunday immediately following those attacks. The congregation I served at the time had an intergenerational Sunday School before worship. The lead pastor and I worked on a lesson plan together. Part of my lesson was reading the newspaper and praying. I remember presenting an article with the headline “Saddam Hussein says ‘God Bless America’.” I asked, “What does it mean for America to be blessed by God?” It’s a question I continue to ask: what does it mean for us to be blessed as a nation?

We’ve declared a war on terrorism, now the longest running war in US history. It’s rife with complex problems. One of them is listening to the criticisms our enemies make. They are often wrapped up in extreme religious rhetoric – that because we are not identical to them we are condemned by God. But when you get past that, there are sincere cultural criticisms that have some validity. We export our products everywhere in the world without consideration for their cultures and customs. In exchange, we take away their natural resources – so other nations cannot develop industries within their own borders and from their own cultural identities.

It’s difficult to hear from a global community the call for our nation to repent, the call to us to seek forgiveness – especially for actions we feel have helped us develop a significantly higher standard of living. So perhaps we should begin by asking for forgiveness for assuming that standard of living is our right even at the expense of people around the world. Let us pray.

Lord, we ask for forgiveness for the many products we use that rely on precious resources and labor from other nations: cotton, petroleum, rare earth minerals. These are found in our clothing, the pews where we sit, our cell phones, our jewelry, the microphones we use a tool in worship. Help us better understand our global economy and how our individual purchases affect people in other nations: may even our shopping become a righteous exercise of justice. Help us also discern the difference between justice and revenge. Help us call our governmental and military leaders to accountability for justice on our behalf within this ongoing war on terror – and help us prevent them from giving in to revenge. Forgive us for all the times we have taken our society for granted instead of recognizing it, too, is a gift from you for us to use wisely. May all expressions of our nation demonstrate our thankfulness for the grace you have bestowed. Amen.

Choir: Still all my song shall be

All: Nearer, my God, to thee; nearer my God, to thee; nearer to thee

We cannot expect our democratic society to change unless all the groups we belong to uphold people’s dignity and integrity. We are called to the hard work of demanding all our social relationships embody justice, righteousness, grace. That requires we practice forgiveness. Not just overlooking impolite slights; not merely saying “That’s all right dear.” As the called church, when we forgive we must also hold accountable. Forgiveness is a step toward transformation – so we must aid one another toward that transformation.

That’s difficult: how do we offer grace and at the same time correction? Our culture does not do this well, so we as individuals do not have many models on how to do this well. How do we say What you did was wrong. You are forgiven, you are loved, and within our community you are being called to change – because even though you are forgiven you cannot continue to hurt people. I admit, this is part of being the church that I continue to work on, because I have not done it well. But I believe it is not solely my work: it is the work of the church together. It is our work together; it is why we are called together. So let us pray for the hard work that lays in front of Lyonsville: the work of forgiving one another and relearning how to be God’s forgiving, loving, gracious community.

Lord, we ask for your guidance in humbling ourselves as we enter into the difficult work of admitting when we have been wrong. That is particularly difficult with people who we have known for a long time, people who may have along the course hurt us too. But we need to interrupt these circles of hurt. We need to learn new ways to be the church together. Let us begin with seeking forgiveness from one another, so that Lyonsville may be known as a place where grace is practiced with ease, a place where people with wounded spirits can come for healing, a place where brokenness is accepted as part of the journey toward wholeness, a place where transformation is sought and celebrated. Amen.

 

Morning Prayer

Gentle and loving God, we give you thanks for your faithfulness and the abundance of love that flows throughout creation. After so many prayers for the world, we now bring our prayers for ourselves to you.

So many people we know are facing cancers. We have all learned much more about tumors and treatments than we ever expected. For each person diagnosed with cancer, we pray that their spirits may be strong. May their families and friends comfort and support them. May their physicians and nurses demonstrate compassion and wisdom in their care. Give strength to those who are unable to venture beyond their homes, who are tired and weak.

There are so many other illnesses and diseases. On this Sunday the United Church of Christ raises awareness of mental health, so we pray for all with depression, long-lasting grief, and other perceptions that inhibit individuals from accepting how they are made lovingly in your image. We also pray for persons with learning disabilities and other circumstances which set them outside what our society calls normal. We remember the many who are caught in the cycle of making the same mistakes, who are living lives of quiet desperation, and who live without much hope or love.

On this Gathering Sunday, we ask that the upcoming year be filled with blessings for Lyonsville. In our struggle to be a faithful church, help us to sing new songs, to share the good news, and to embrace new ways to be your people. May this be a period of jubilee and renewal. May this congregation be transformed, prepared for a new era of vitality in ministry. We call special attention to the work of the Pastoral Search Team: as they read ministerial profiles and begin interviewing candidates, may they work together in harmony. May they grow together in wisdom as they discern how Lyonsville is being called by you, so they may then invite a pastor to join in the sacred call being lived out here.

We pray for this congregation as we seek to live out our faith, to find new ways of serving in this community and beyond. Watch over the people in our midst and those who are not here: be with them wherever they may be, and whatever they may be doing. And now, Lord, we ask that you visit each of us as individuals. Inspire us, invigorate us, and entrust us with new ways of being faithful within your living body. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/14/politics/charts-explain-us-hate-groups/index.html

[2] https://www.fbi.gov/cve508/teen-website/what-are-known-violent-extremist-groups

 

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