Our Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette, writes a regular column for the Saturday Religion page of The Reporter newspaper published here in Lansdale, Pa. The following is a recent edition of this column.
Fly Eagles Fly! Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette February 10, 2018
In almost 38 years of preaching, I can honestly say that I had never crafted a sermon that included numerous references to football until last Sunday, but then, for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven! Not only was it Super Bowl Sunday and the hometown team was playing, but the designated Scripture readings for the morning ~ as prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary, followed by Roman Catholic and Protestant churches alike ~ included these words from Isaiah 40:31: “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Inspired by a multitude of faithful church members who were planning to come to church dressed in green on Super Bowl Sunday, it was clear to me that a “football” sermon needed to be preached.
Now I must confess that I am not an expert when it comes to football, but I am a huge fan of our hometown team, the Eagles, and it isn’t just because they made it to the Super Bowl and won. What they do off the field has inspired and impressed me as much as what they do on the field. I have observed a team of men who do much more than toss around a pigskin-covered ball, tackle opponents and score touchdowns. Several of the team members are unapologetic about sharing their faith, but are always careful to do so with great respect for those who embrace different faiths or no faith at all. They seek to embody their beliefs, as evidenced by the foundations they have created, the generosity they have spread far and wide, and the role models they have set. And judging from how they responded to adversity and disappointment throughout the season, I think it is safe to conclude that they understand the words of the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 40:31 does not say that if we wait for the Lord we will lead a charmed life, nor are we promised we will never have to deal with loss, illness, tragedy or despair. What the verse does assure us is that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength: that is, we will have the strength we need to face whatever life throws our way. We will be able to endure the unendurable, face the unimaginable, and like eagles that are able to literally rise above storms ~ powered by the wind and their strong and massive wings ~ when we wait for the Lord we will be able to run and not grow weary, walk and not faint. Note that the Hebrew word we translate as “wait” can also be translated as “hope.” In Scripture, the words wait and hope are often used interchangeably, which makes perfect sense because waiting and hoping are inextricably interwoven. Think about it: if you have ever had to wait for something, you know that being filled with hope makes the waiting easier, and if you have ever hoped something would happen, you know that waiting is almost always involved.
While many are still savoring the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory and enjoying the wonderfully positive spirit that has accompanied their big win, this won’t last forever. What will last is the promise of Isaiah 40:31, the promise that assures us we can all possess eagle-like qualities if we dare to wait for the Lord ~ if we dare to place our hope in the Lord and acknowledge that we cannot go it alone. We are part of a team, created by God to be in community. Not only are we are in this together, but God is in this with us, and as long as we remember that, we, like eagles, will be able to fly!
A New Rhythm for the New Year Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette January 13, 2018
One of the gifts I received for Christmas was a calendar to hang in my kitchen, where I have hung calendars for as long as I can remember. This calendar contains lovely art and memorable quotes, the one for January grabbing my attention immediately: “And now we welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been.” These words of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke strike me as being both hopeful and challenging, reminding us of the clean slate that is ours as we step into a new year, but also calling attention to the uncertainty surrounding the unfolding of each new day. How will we approach the gift of yet another year? What if the things that have never been are worse than the things that have already been? Where will we find help and hope in the midst of uncertain times?
For years I thought that what I needed to do in order to cope with the challenges and uncertainty of daily life was to find balance, making sure that no one thing or person or task or responsibility consumed all of me, but if you have ever tried to balance standing on one leg for any length of time, or attempted to perform on a balance beam, you know just how challenging that can be. There’s a reason why performing on a balance beam is an Olympic sport! Then someone suggested to me that rather than trying to find balance in my life, perhaps I should seek to find a rhythm that worked for me, because rhythms are fluid and allow us to alter our course as the circumstances of our lives change.
Clearly, there are similarities between finding balance and finding a rhythm for our lives, but for me, the idea of a rhythm seems more in tune with what is described in the pages of Scripture. Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . “ Just as there is a rhythm in nature that brings about the changing of the seasons, so too in our lives. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry. We love, we hate, we mourn, we dance, we speak, we remain silent, we gather things together, we throw things away . . . We don’t balance these things ~ we experience them, moving from one to the next, sometimes in a rhythm that is syncopated and fast paced, at other times in a rhythm that includes whole notes and rests that allow us to catch our breath and regroup.
I hear rhythm in the words of the prophet Isaiah when he describes what is in store for those who dare to wait for the LORD: they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31) Walking, running and mounting up with wings like eagles are all part of the rhythm of life for those who choose to place their hope and trust in God. In the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus urging those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come to him to find rest. (Matthew 11:28-30) When the burdens we carry are weighty and impossible to balance, we are offered a “yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.” Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of this passage, has Jesus inviting us to “walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
While not a one of us knows what 2018 will hold, our faith assures us is that God holds 2018. There will be good days and bad, ups and downs, joys and sorrows, reason to hope and reason to despair, but our challenge will be to hold on to the rhythm that enables us to navigate the uncharted waters of the New Year with a peace that passes all understanding. Let us invite God to help us find that unforced, life-giving rhythm of grace, one day at a time.
Waiting Is Not Easy! Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette December 9, 2017
Mo Willems ~ award winning author of numerous children’s books featuring Piggie and Gerald the Elephant, who are the best of friends ~ hit the nail on the head when he entitled one of those books Waiting Is Not Easy! Talk to any child at this time of year ~ or many adults, for that matter ~ and they will confirm that waiting is especially hard when you have made a list of things you want Santa to bring, or there are family members and friends you are eager to see, and Christmas is still days away.
Although Willems’ story is not specifically about Christmas, it speaks beautifully to this season in the midst of which we now find ourselves. As the story unfolds, Piggie announces that she has a surprise for Gerald, but he must wait to see it. As you can imagine, Gerald is not happy about having to wait and does a fair amount of groaning, wailing and complaining because he does not see the point in having to wait so long. Piggie insists that he must, and finally it becomes clear why: Piggie wants to show Gerald the beautiful star-filled night sky, and one cannot see the stars until it is dark.
The story is a wonderfully gentle reminder to us that it is often in the darkest of nights we are able to see beauty ~ beauty that would not be visible were it not for the darkness. In the darkest nights of our souls, in the darkness of despair, in the darkness of pain, grief and loneliness, God’s light is revealed in all its splendor . . . but we must WAIT.
I think it no coincidence that in the Bible, the words wait and hope are used interchangeably. Take, for example, one of my “go to” verses in Scripture: “But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Depending upon the translation you choose, verse 31 of Isaiah 40 may read, “But those who hope in the LORD . . .” or “But those who trust in the LORD . . .” Waiting, hoping and trusting are all ~ to use a phrase I have introduced you to before ~ inextricably interwoven, and in no case is that more true than during this season we have come to refer to as Advent.
During Advent we wait, not twiddling our thumbs, tapping our fingers or pacing back and forth anxiously. We fill our waiting with preparing, and we prepare, not so much by buying gifts or decorating or partying, but by making sure there is room in our hearts for the baby whose coming into this world changed everything. We prepare by paying close attention to those in need around us. We prepare by really listening to people, rather than simply waiting for our turn to speak. We prepare by facing the dark places in our lives head on rather than avoiding them, all the while hoping and trusting that God will meet us in those dark places, hold us close, and guide us toward the light. Waiting is not easy, but then, nothing in life worth anything is easy. As we journey through this season of waiting, may we be sustained by the One who gives us reason to hope, and in whom our trust is secure.
Saints Alive! Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette November 11, 2017
“Saints alive!” is an expression I became familiar with during my growing up years, spoken most often by folks of my grandparents’ generation. It was their “go to” expletive when something happened that was extraordinary, surprising or unexplainable. For some reason, these words came to mind in recent days as we at St. John’s, like so many churches, celebrated All Saints Sunday and took time to honor those saints in our midst whose lives on earth had come to an end during the past year.
While mention of the word saint conjures up images of those who have died, and in particular of those who were able to do miraculous things when they were living, almost all references to saints in Scripture speak of living people of faith who were rather ordinary and quite flawed. Scripture is full of saints alive, as are our faith communities, and we are challenged to be among them. The definition of a saint that I resonate with most is one I learned from my longtime colleague in ministry ~ Rev. Dr. John Touchberry. John used to say, “A saint is anyone who makes it easier for us to believe in God.” By that definition, do you qualify as a saint? Do others look at you and the way you live out your faith and find reason to believe in God, to have hope?
Martin Luther famously declared that we are all simultaneously saints and sinners. We make mistakes and bad choices. We stumble and lose our way. We get it wrong much of the time, yet still we are loved by a God whose mercy and grace are always available to us. Most often we lose our way when we forget that being faithful ~ being saint-like ~ is less about privilege and more about responsibility; less about power and recognition and more about being a servant.
When, in chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel, we encounter Jesus critiquing the religious leaders of his day and warning them of dire consequences should they fail to change their ways, it is not because their teaching is errant or their zeal for the Jewish law lacking. It is because they have lost their focus and forgotten about the very people God had called them to shepherd and serve. Jesus’ words to them are clear: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this familiar warning speaks volumes: “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”
The lives of saints count for plenty, not because they are perfect but because they are lived faithfully with a deep awareness of their need of God. As I think about the saints alive in my life, what they all exude is a humility that is not spoken but displayed in acts of service and compassion. Their humility is not of the “wretched worm am I” variety: that is, it is not about thinking less of self, but rather about thinking of self less. And these living saints recognize the value of being in community. They recognize that no one can make it in this world alone. There is no such thing as a solitary saint, just as there is no such thing as a solitary Christian . . . or member of any faith tradition, for that matter. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A great man is always willing to be little.” May we dare to be small so that the greatness of the God who created us will shine brightly in our lives each day.
Who’s Counting? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette October 14, 2017
“Who’s counting?” tends to be a question we pose in a lighthearted manner, say, for example, when someone calls attention to the number of candles on our birthday cake or the number of times we have gone back for yet one more delicious homemade cookie. “Who’s counting?” we respond, suggesting that the number really does not matter . . . which is true in some cases, but not in others.
Peter, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, would learn this the hard way when he posed a question of Jesus, presuming that he already knew the answer! “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Thinking himself rather generous in suggesting seven times because the law did not require that many times, imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus responded, “Not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times,” or as some translations read, “seventy times seven.” It was Jesus’ way of making clear that there must be no limit to the number of times we are willing to forgive those who hurt us or do us wrong.
After exhorting repeated forgiveness, Jesus shared a parable which showed two examples of NOT forgiving: the king in the parable takes back the forgiveness he initially offered to a slave who owed a huge debt, and the forgiven slave refuses to extend forgiveness to a fellow slave whose debt is small. (Check out Matthew 18:21-35) To say that the story does not end well would be an understatement! Some, in seeking to interpret this parable, have concluded that the king is God and we are the slaves, but I, for one, am counting on God to be far more merciful and compassionate than the king portrayed in Jesus’ story. Yet even if the king is not God, one thing is sure: failing to forgive has dire consequences. We may not be physically tortured for not forgiving (as is portrayed in the parable), but our souls will be tortured, our hearts will shrivel up, and we will destroy ourselves from the inside out.
I have the feeling you already know that forgiveness is hard work. In fact, I believe it is one of the hardest things we as people of faith are called to do, and it does not happen overnight . . . which is why the tragedy that occurred at Nickel Mines in October of 2006 captured the attention of the world when the Amish community quickly forgave the man who killed five Amish school girls, traumatized several others and then took his own life. In reflecting on how such forgiveness was possible, authors of the book Amish Grace point out that forgiveness does not mean what you did doesn’t matter, nor does it eliminate the consequences of one’s sin. Forgiving is not about forgetting, but about remembering in ways that bring healing. It is about taking the broken pieces of our lives and with God’s help, finding ways to “re-member them into something whole.” While forgetting a horrible offense may not be possible, we all get to choose how we will remember what we cannot forget. Because this is such hard work, we won’t always do it right or well, but maybe ~ just maybe ~ that is why Jesus stressed that we need to forgive over and over and over again. The more we sincerely try to forgive, the better we will become at it. After all, practice makes perfect, right? With God’s help, let us commit ourselves to giving the hard work of forgiveness our very best try, because God’s counting . . . on us!
Inextricably Interwoven Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette September 9, 2017
There are certain words and phrases I use often ~ just ask the faithful folks in the congregation I serve and they will tell you. One of those words ~ awesome ~ was high on my list long before it was popular, mainly because it is the perfect word to describe the God I worship and in whose image each one of us has been created. “Inextricably interwoven” is also high on my list, not just because I really like the way these words sound together but because they describe what I believe needs to be at the heart of our understanding of our relationship to one another and our place in the midst of God’s creation.
To be inextricably interwoven is to be connected in such a way that the items in question are inseparable, incapable of becoming untangled or parted. This kind of closeness/connectedness causes some to feel uncomfortable. Others refuse to acknowledge that this is, in fact, how we were created by an awesome God who calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to bear one another’s burdens, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. A God who calls us to remember that we are our sister’s and brother’s keepers ~ not in a possessive or oppressive way but as equals, recognizing that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. “I am a rock, I am an island,” lyrics from a Simon and Garfunkel song popular during my teen years, proclaims an ideology that simply does not jibe with the teachings of Scripture.
Because we are not all carbon copies of one another, this interwoven-ness can be messy and challenging. Some people are sociable, outgoing and love nothing more than to be with people every chance they get. Others prefer to work alone, craving solitude or the company of a select few. Regardless of our preferences and inclinations, however, we cannot relinquish our responsibility as people of faith to live, as much as it is possible, in harmony with one another. We are called to live with a constant awareness that everyone and everything on God’s good earth is connected, that, as Maya Angelou correctly observed, “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.” The decisions we make with regard to how we treat one another – not just some others but all others – and how we steward the earth God has entrusted to our care, matter more than we can imagine!
What has come to mind often in recent days, as I have listened to the heart-wrenching news of yet more terrorist attacks ~ both abroad and on our own soil ~ are the words of a song etched on my heart from the time I first sang them in Sunday School decades ago: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” With gusto and conviction, I sang those words ~ words that cry out to be embraced now more than ever before. There is no place in our faith for excluding or mistreating others because of the color of their skin. There is no place in our faith for a sense of superiority or domination over others or over the creation God has entrusted to our care. We are inextricably interwoven. We are in this together, and together we will either grieve the God who loved us so much that God came to live among us, or we will bring God joy. May we choose the latter, unapologetically reaching toward those on the edge and in the margins so that we might become the beloved community of God’s dreams.
When Our Lives Speak Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette August 12, 2017
For many, warm summer days are synonymous with trips to the beach or the local pool, fun in the sun and a more relaxed pace to the daily routine. For me, summer has always been synonymous with more time to read. I have fond memories from childhood of bicycling across town each week to the public library, where I would check out as many books as would fit in my bike basket and then pedal home to enjoy the bounty. More often than not, the books I chose were biographies and autobiographies of women and men who have changed our world.
Fast forward 50 years or so, and while I no longer bicycle across town to the public library for my books, I still love to read, and my summer reading list still includes books about people who have left this world better than they found it. This summer I have been deeply moved by the spiritual biographies of Jackie Robinson (authored by Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb) and Eleanor Roosevelt (authored by Harold Ivan Smith), two individuals whose lives overlapped in some ways but who grew up in decidedly different worlds. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in professional baseball by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, grew up in poverty, painfully aware of what it felt like to be mistreated and verbally abused because of the color of his skin. Although Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a world of wealth and privilege, her growing up years were filled with a multitude of adverse experiences, including the death of her parents and one of her brothers.
Both Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt eventually found themselves in positions of power and chose to use those positions to fight tirelessly to end discrimination, to advocate for the poor, and to make equal rights for all a top priority. They also both chose to live their faith unapologetically ~ if not conventionally ~ challenging the status quo and speaking in opposition to much that organized religion had championed over the years.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed that tolerance and care for the well-being of all must guide one’s living ~ that the answer to the biblical question, “Am I my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper?” is YES! Believing that the value of a faith is measured in how one lives, Eleanor wrote that believers “must show by their own way of living what are the fruits of their faith, “ and “the reason that Christ was such a potent preacher and teacher was because He lived what he preached.”
Reading the spiritual biographies of Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt, along with several other books this summer, has challenged me to do some serious soul searching and to ask: Will I leave this world better than I found it? Will others know I am Christian, not by strict adherence to some narrow doctrine, but by my love? Will kindness, compassion and mercy be the hallmarks by which I am identified? Will I have taken to heart the challenge “To whom much is given, much is required?” Will I have been my sister’s and brother’s keeper in a manner that raises up rather than diminishes those I seek to help? As we dare to ponder these important questions, may our lives speak in ways that bring joy to the God who created us and hope to the neighbor God has called us to love.
Choosing What Matters Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette July 8, 2017
Some passages of scripture are just plain difficult! They are hard to understand and hard to stomach . . . like Jesus’ words from Matthew 10: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. “ Jesus went on to say that he had come to set family members against one another and made it quite clear that if we love our family members more than we love him, we are not worthy of him. We must be willing to take up our cross and follow him, to lose our life so that we might find it. When I read words like these, I am reminded of what I heard years ago with regard to the teachings of scripture: the purpose of scripture is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Surely, these words from Matthew 10 fall into the latter category!
To make sense of these challenging words of Jesus, it is crucial that we understand their context. Jesus spoke these words to his disciples as he was preparing to send them out into the world with the important but difficult task of spreading the good news. To do their work, it was critical that they understand family in a big way, reaching beyond nuclear families or chosen families to include all of humankind. It was also critical that they recognize there is always a price to be paid when we choose to devote our lives to doing the work to which God calls us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp because of his involvement with the Resistance movement during WW II, addressed this reality in his book entitled The Cost of Discipleship . . . the title says it all.
While the work to which we have been called as people of faith is a large work and certainly not for the fickle or fainthearted, even large work must start small. Mother Teresa’s words come to mind: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can to small things with great love.” And when doing the work to which God calls us sets us at odds with those who are closest to us ~ when following what we believe in our heart of hearts to be true compels us to challenge the status quo or speak out in the face of injustice ~ we are reminded of the good news that immediately precedes Jesus’ challenging words in Matthew 10. Jesus assures us that we have a God who doesn’t miss a trick ~ a God who is concerned about even the tiniest and seemingly most insignificant creatures on this earth. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” As Jesus sent his disciples out into the world, it was with the assurance that God, whose eye is on the sparrow, most certainly would have an eye on each one of them.
There is a statement in Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees that I believe gets at the heart of Jesus’ message in Matthew 10: “The hardest thing on earth is to choose what matters.” Daily we are called to accept the cost of discipleship, to do what is right in God’s eyes, to choose what matters to God. As difficult as that is, we are able to do it, knowing we have a God who watches over us, a God who will never abandon us, a God who has given us an identity as members of his beloved family ~ an identity no one can take away. With that assurance, may we dare to draw the family circle wide. May we dare to lose our life ~ that which drags us down and holds us back ~ so that we might find the life God envisioned for us from the very start.
A Nonpareil of Another Kind Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette June 10, 2017
My family often accuses me of finding sermon illustrations in just about everything, and I confess: I am guilty as charged. Case in point: as I enjoyed one of my favorite treats recently ~ dark chocolate nonpareils ~ it occurred to me that these delicious confections and God have something in common. Seriously! You see, the word nonpareil literally means without parallel, having no equal, unrivaled, matchless. If ever there were one who was without parallel, having no equal, unrivaled or matchless, it most certainly is God. And God, who is without parallel, possesses creative powers and a love for humankind that are also, in every respect, nonpareil.
Consider the story of Creation recorded in the first book of the Bible, in the very first chapter of Genesis. Sadly, many who read this account become so caught up in either defending or refuting the plausibility of Creation actually occurring in six 24 hour days that they totally miss the heart and soul of the story, which is a God who takes pleasure in the creative process, who sees possibility in nothingness, and who turns that nothingness into something so awesome and amazing we struggle to comprehend it. At the heart of the Creation story is a God without parallel, having no equal, unrivaled and matchless, without whom nothing that is would be.
This matchless God whom we encounter in Genesis 1 seems to be pleasantly surprised at just how good his creative efforts are. After each act of creation, God steps back, sizes up things and we read, “God saw that is was good.” The original language gives us the sense that it was almost as though God smacked his lips, as one would after eating something delicious, and said, “Um, um good!” It was not “I guess this will do” but rather “This is awesome, totally awesome!”
The Psalmist captures the incredible majesty of God’s handiwork when he writes in Psalm 8: “When I look at the 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? Yet you made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” In other words, “I’m blown away by what you’ve done, God, by who you are and by what you’ve entrusted to our care!”
In his paraphrase of Psalm 8, Eugene Peterson refers to God as brilliant, and marvels that one so mighty and powerful would even bother with us human beings, yet God does! Not only does God bother with us: God has given us responsibility for this incredibly beautiful but fragile masterpiece. Sadly, we have failed miserably when it comes to caring for the unrivaled and matchless Creation of our God, largely, I believe, because we have lost our sense of awe and wonder. We walk through fields of purple and fail to see the beauty, past flowers and trees in bloom and barely notice. We sit in traffic or hurry along the sidewalk annoyed by those who are not moving fast enough, rather than really seeing them and the God in whose image they were created. If we choose to live this way ~ and it is a choice ~ we will miss out on the nonpareils that make life truly sweet, and I’m not talking about chocolate this time. I’m talking about encounters with the living God, who is alive and well and very present in our world, if we will but pause long enough to notice.
All Gates are Not the Same Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette May 13, 2017
Decidedly different from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke in both style and content, the gospel of John contains seven statements made by Jesus that begin with the simple words “I am” ~ claims that, if you or I made them, would seem outrageous: I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life; I am the true vine; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth and the life; I am the good shepherd; I am the gate. It is the last of these ~ I am the gate (some translations read “I am the door”) ~ that particularly intrigues me.
Jesus’ claim comes in the midst of a conversation with his disciples about thieves and bandits trying to enter the sheepfold without using the gate, their intent being malicious and destructive rather than protective and caring like that of the shepherd. Although this imagery seems a bit foreign to us, it would have been familiar to Jesus’ original audience ~ a nomadic people accustomed to herding sheep and living off the land. Throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, references to God and Jesus as shepherd, and their followers as sheep, are common. This is all well and good if one reads the tenth chapter of John from the vantage point of being on the inside and part of the sheepfold, but for those on the outside, it is more troublesome.
Exactly what kind of gate is this Jesus, and who has access to the sheepfold? As I have sought to live into the faith that has guided my life for so many years, I have come to understand Jesus as being like a gate that swings wide and is open more often than it is not. Yes, there are times when the gate must be closed to protect the sheep from those who would run roughshod over them or who would seek to lure them away from the loving shepherd, but as a rule, the gate is wide open so all who desire to experience the care of the shepherd and the safety of the sheepfold might come in. The gate is also open so those on the inside might wander out, should they so choose, but the shepherd will pursue them because every single one of the sheep matters to him.
Reading Jesus’ words in John’s gospel, I cannot help but make an observation. Gates that are always locked (or that seldom if ever are open, and when they are allow only a select few to enter) are not gates at all: they are walls in disguise. Jesus did not say “I am the wall” but rather “I am the gate.” He also made it quite clear that his purpose for coming was so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus was ever eager to draw people into the sheepfold ~ that is, into the faith community ~ not keep them out.
Many of you reading these words are part of a faith community, while others of you are not. Perhaps you once were, but lost touch or interest as your life became filled with a multitude of seemly more important and pressing things. Maybe you intentionally left a faith community because you became disillusioned, burned out, or no longer found it helpful. Being in community ~ being part of the sheepfold ~ can be challenging and messy. To be sure, living and working with other human beings often is, but here’s the thing: when we dare to stay connected with the sheepfold, the shepherd is never far away, nor are the reminders that we have reason to be hopeful, that we can change, that new life is possible and that ultimately, God’s love will win. It just may be time for you to check out that wide open gate and dare to venture in!
Real Tears, Real Hope Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette April 8, 2017
Big boys don’t cry, and neither do big girls who want a seat at the big boys’ table! Statements like these cause me to cringe, but the more I thought about these in particular, the more I realized they contain some truth. The way I see it, anyone worth his or her salt doesn’t cry, or just shed a few tears. No, they don’t cry ~ they weep, uncontrollably at times, because they are persons who think, feel and love deeply. They are inclined to immerse themselves in the world and carry with them the pain of those who suffer . . . not unlike Jesus, whose weeping at the grave of his dear friend Lazarus, and whose actions following those tears, give us reason to be filled with hope.
I was fairly young when I learned that the shortest verse in the Bible (according to the King James Version) is John 11:35 ~ “Jesus wept.” Its shortness, however, is no match for its significance with regard to what it reveals to us about Jesus. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we read “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” That is, Jesus became a real, live, human being and entered our everyday world. This Jesus, whom Lazarus’ sister Martha identified as “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” was very human, experiencing exhaustion, anger and profound sadness. Jesus’ weeping was triggered by his own grief and the grief of those around him. Persuaded their brother would not have died had Jesus come immediately upon receiving word that Lazarus was gravely ill, Martha and Mary also wept, their tears flowing freely, their grief inconsolable.
The eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel contains a potpourri of emotions: Martha is resentful of Jesus’ delay, but in the same breath voices her trust in the power of his compassion. Mary blames Jesus, and then kneels at his feet. Jesus is troubled and so deeply moved that he weeps, but then springs into action as he instructs those standing nearby to roll back the stone covering the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb. Once again it is Martha who speaks up, urging Jesus to exercise caution because her brother has been in the tomb four days, which means there will be a stench. “The smell will be awful” is the way the Common English Bible translates her words, but my favorite is still the King James Version: “Surely he stinketh!” Stinketh or not, Jesus insists on the stone being removed, calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and then instructs those looking on to unbind him and let him go.
As Lazarus’ story unfolds, I am intrigued by the ever present crowd. Although Jesus does not call attention to them, they are always moving around in the background ~ watching closely, making assumptions, drawing conclusions, and no doubt struggling with their own emotions. They witness a miracle and then go away, some forever changed, others cynical, suspicious and disbelieving. This account forces us to look death in the eye. It challenges us to ponder: how close to death are we willing to get? And if we dare to get close enough to witness Jesus’ power and passion, will it scare us or set us free? God knows, the world in which we live provides us with ample reason to weep, but God provides us with ample reason to hope, for if Jesus could restore life to one who had died, just imagine what he can do for us! To experience what God has to offer, though, we must be willing to move beyond resentment to trust, beyond blame to worship, and beyond weeping to action. We must be willing to reach out with both hands to receive the life God offers. With tears of joy and a hope-filled heart, may we dare to do just that!
More or Less Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette March 11, 2017
In all of my years of ministry, no one has ever greeted me at this time of year by saying “Happy Lent!” or “Have a merry Lenten season!” and I am pretty sure I know the reason why. Lent is totally counter-cultural. Out of sync with what is going on in the popular scene, this season has no decorations, requires the purchase of no special gifts, and does not call for any wardrobe additions so that we might look our best at all of the special Lenten celebrations to which we might be invited! To the contrary, Lent is about doing without, or at least about doing with less. This season invites us to go off the grid for a bit, to humble ourselves, relinquish control and dare to let go of “stuff” rather than acquiring more. In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, it is “a time to focus on filling the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.”
Of course, the irony is that often the best way to fill the empty place inside of us is by emptying ourselves so we can make room for God. Jesus did that by fasting as he spent time in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. During those 40 days and nights that are the inspiration behind our 40 day observance of Lent, Jesus chose to focus entirely on listening for God rather than on the many things that so easily distract us in our daily living. Also ironic is that as Jesus listened for God, he heard instead the tempter/Satan/the devil, whose challenges helped Jesus understand just what it was God wanted him to do and be.
If you have not recently read the account of Jesus’ wilderness experience, you may want to check out Matthew 4:1-11. The three temptations Jesus faced have often been identified in a more general way as the temptations of pride, power and possessions ~ temptations that we certainly recognize as real and relevant in our world today. As evangelist Billy Graham once said, “The devil doesn’t need to invent any new temptations; the old ones work as well as they ever have.”
Whether we are persuaded the devil is a sinister character clothed in red and garnishing a pitchfork, or are more inclined to see evil as a pervasive force far too vast to be contained in any one being, dealing with temptation and finding ways to live our God-given lives in the best way possible requires stepping away from the roar of the crowd and technology so that we might re-connect with the Source of Our Being . . . and Lent gives us the opportunity to do just that.
As we seek to make the most of this season, a suggestion: rather than focusing simply on what you will “give up,” let me invite you to think in terms of MORE and LESS. What do you want to see more of and what do you want to see less of, in our world as well as in your personal life? What do you want to experience more of and what do you want to experience less of? To get you thinking, here are some MOREs and LESSes that have been shared with me: more acceptance, less pushing away; more tolerance, less hate; more grace, less guilt; more face time, less screen time; more pausing, less pushing; more forgiving, less blaming; more hugs, less shrugs. Once you have composed your MORE and LESS list, offer it up to God, and with God’s help, seek to make it so. And because making it so may not be easy and we may fail miserably at times, I offer one final MORE and LESS to hold onto: there is absolutely nothing we can do that would cause God to love us less . . . or more. Now that is Good News worth pondering!
Flavoring and Brightening the World Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette February 11, 2017
Salt and light ~ where would we be without them?! Folks forced to eliminate salt from their diet know all too well what a difference even the tiniest amount of salt makes. And those forced to live in darkness learn quickly what a toll the absence of light takes on the human psyche. That being said, it should come as no surprise that salt and light are what Jesus calls his followers to be. In the words of Douglas R. A. Hare, our task is to “add zest to the life of the whole world.”
Jesus’ teaching about salt and light comes on the heels of the Beatitudes ~ those upside down values of a God who chooses to bless the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted, not with cushy lives or good fortune, but with lasting rewards that this world does not value. This same God chooses to commission salt and light for the earth, and chooses us to make it so.
How exactly are those of us who identify ourselves as Jesus’ followers supposed to be salt and light? What does it look like to flavor and brighten a world so divided and full of fear? Being salt and light involves giving ourselves away, not in part but completely. In order to flavor food, salt must dissolve, and in order to illuminate the darkness, light must dissipate, not remain concentrated in one small area. Here is where we get hung up, because our human tendency is to hold back, to cluster with like-minded people and eventually to become convinced of our own superiority, but that is not how salt and light work best. Bishop Brian Maas, in reflecting on being salt and light, wrote, “Called simply to bear the savor of our Savior, we bear instead the bitterness of our betterness.” Instead of reaching toward others, we clutch our fists, cross our arms and turn inward.
When Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world,” the “you” he used was plural, not singular. In other words, being salt and light is something we must do together . . . which is challenging because we may not all agree on how to handle important issues like poverty, violence, refugees or racism. Is it possible to be salt and light while also respecting and caring for those who view the world through a lens decidedly different from our own? I believe it is. We must find ways to work together ~ to listen deeply, to recognize what we share in common, and to acknowledge that at the heart of faithfulness to our loving Creator is not a set of rules and regulations to be adhered to at all costs, but rather relationships to be honored. Loving our enemy, praying for those who persecute us and welcoming the stranger are teachings that fill the pages of the Old and New Testament alike.
When I observe what is going on in our country and around the world, my heart aches because it feels like we have taken our God-given salt and dumped it into a river called FEAR, while burying our God-given light under a false security blanket called Christian values. It feels like the word Christian has been hijacked by our culture, causing it to no longer look anything like the beliefs that guide my life and challenge me to draw the circle wide while doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.
Being salt and light is incredibly challenging work, but it is also vitally important ~ now more than ever. Should you choose to engage in this work, I encourage you to do so with humility and great love, always remembering: “We do not draw people to Christ be loudly discrediting what they believe, or by telling them how wrong they are and how right you are, but by showing them a light so lovely they will want with all of their hearts to know its source.” (Madeleine L’Engle)
- Choices, Choices, Choices Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette January 14, 2017We are now three weeks into a brand new year . . . so, how are you doing with the resolutions you made on New Year’s Eve? Are you sticking to that diet, exercise regimen, study plan, or have you begun to lose heart, go astray, bend the rules a bit? Maybe you are one of the many who no longer makes resolutions, deeming them futile and unhelpful to your overall well-being. Wherever you find yourself on this wintery Saturday, let me suggest another way of approaching the year that now stretches out before us.As the Old Testament book of Joshua draws to a close, Joshua reminds the Hebrew people of all God has done for them, beginning with leading them out of Egypt where they had been enslaved, journeying with them in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership, and bringing them to a land of plenty. Because they were prone to forget God’s steadfast love for them, and at times even worshipped other gods, Joshua felt the need to challenge them with these words: “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”Life is full of choices, and I’m not just talking about the big ones, like choosing a life partner (or not), choosing a vocation, choosing a place to live or choosing whom we will serve. Our lives are an accumulation of all the little, seemingly insignificant choices we make every day: how we treat the people we meet along the way, what we say and how we say it, the company we keep, or how we spend our time and money. Because we are human, we will make mistakes. Some of our choices will be terrible, but that does not mean we are doomed or that there is no hope.Musician Herbie Hancock tells of playing on stage with the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis was in the midst of an incredible piece of music, playing with great clarity and feeling, the audience holding onto his every note, when Hancock, who was accompanying him on the piano, played a wrong chord. To Hancock, it sounded like a big mistake, horrifyingly wrong. To his amazement, Miles Davis paused only ever so slightly, and then proceeded to incorporate the wrong chord into the music, making it right. You see, Davis did not view it as a mistake: it just happened. It was simply an event. The moral to the story: when you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines if it’s good or bad!In the course of our lives we will, no doubt, hit wrong notes, choose unwisely, or fail to do the good we intended to do, but that does not mean we are doomed or done. Thankfully, our God is a forgiving God ~ one who wipes our slate clean and challenges us to take the wrong chord we have played and turn it into something good, perhaps even beautiful. Nido Qubein made the observation, “Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go – they merely determine where you start.” Regardless of what the first three weeks of this New Year have been like, the future depends on what we choose to do TODAY. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” May we dare to take that first step, persuaded of the truth of these words written by the apostle Paul: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Heartsongs for the Season Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette December 10, 2016
No other season of the year is like the one in the midst of which we now find ourselves. No other season has so many decorations, triggers so much shopping, inspires the baking of so many cookies or has generated so much music. In fact, while some grumble and complain when the Christmas music begins to take over radio stations not long after Halloween, the truth is that without the music that surrounds us almost 24/7 at this time of year, Christmas would not be Christmas.
While I enjoy singing about chestnuts roasting and red-nosed reindeer, figgy pudding and halls decked with holly, the music that speaks to me most deeply at this time of year is sacred in nature, inspired by the coming of God’s Son into a world desperately in need of the comfort and joy only God can offer. The images created by the carols of Christmas are hard to match: midnights clear, angels bending near the earth, heaven and nature singing, God abiding with us, silent and holy nights, the breaking forth of beauteous light, glad tidings of great joy, and Christ entering into our lives, forever changing our world.
One of the most moving songs of the season is the song Mary sang, bursting with news she could hardly contain and barely comprehend. A song that has come to be known as “The Magnificat,” its words both challenge and inspire us. The song begins as one might expect, with Mary celebrating God’s greatness and rejoicing that God chose her ~ an insignificant servant girl ~ to be the mother of Jesus (check out Luke 1:46-55). Then the lyrics become a bit more edgy and unsettling as Mary describes, with wisdom and insight beyond her years, how her baby’s birth will turn things upside down. In the tradition of Hannah and Miriam before her, Mary sings with certainty of the proud being scattered, the powerful being brought down, the lowly being lifted up, the hungry being filled, and the rich being sent away empty-handed. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this stirring song describes tyrants being knocked off their high horse, victims being pulled out of the mud, the starving poor sitting down to a banquet feast and the callous rich being left out in the cold.
Mary’s song calls to mind words from one of my favorite carols: “Christ rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove The glories of God’s righteousness and wonders of God’s love . . .” I am drawn to the carols of Christmas because they inspire me to be better, to do better, to better embody the truth and grace that came into this world in an unassuming baby whose first bed was a feeding trough for animals. Jesus’ birth challenges us to reflect the light his coming kindled, a light the darkness cannot overcome. Carrie Newcomer’s song Lean in Toward the Light reminds us: “The shadows of this world will say, There’s no hope – why try anyway? But every kindness large or slight shifts the balance toward the light.” My prayer is that the sacred songs of the season will stir within us a deep desire to do everything we can to shift the balance toward the light by filling our lives with acts of kindness and love.
Holding On To the Dependable Grace of God – November 12, 2016
For the record: I am not a fan of roller coasters. The only time I allowed myself to be persuaded to ride one was when the teenagers who were part of the youth group I was leading would not take “no” for an answer. As I was strapped in, I refused to let go of the bar securing me in place. While riders around me thrust their hands in the air and cried out in sheer delight, I held on for dear life, white-knuckled and fairly certain I would not survive to tell about my experience!
This story from my past reminds me that what we choose to hold on to for dear life matters. Are we holding on to our fears, our failures, our children, our parents, our partners, our hopes, our dreams? Perhaps the most important question to be asking is, “Are we ~ are you ~ holding on to faith?” Keep in mind that holding on to faith is not about holding on to a prescribed set of beliefs or doctrines, but rather about trusting deeply in a God who is real and generous and loving. It is about daring to place our heart ~ indeed our very lives ~ in God’s hands, which is not always easy but is always wise.
While some would argue that faith is absolutely about having a specific set of beliefs that one unequivocally endorses and embraces with certainty, true faith raises questions, struggles with doubt, and at times even sits alone in the dark, filled with confusion and despair. Peter Enns, local author and university professor of biblical studies, writes, “A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relieve our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life. Only deep trust can do that.” A bit further on in his book entitled The Sin of Certainty he makes the observation, “Part of the mystery of faith is that things normally do not line up entirely, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal that the journey is at an end but that we are still on it.”
The events of recent days serve as a powerful reminder that uncertainty surrounds us on all sides, this journey that we call life is challenging more often than not, and flawed human beings disappoint us over and over again. Faith, however, assures us that even when we cannot make sense out of the chaos of our lives and our world, God’s steadfast love is unshakable and God can be trusted to persevere with us.
The longer I live and am engaged in the privilege of “doing” ministry, the more questions I have, but in spite of those questions ~ and perhaps because of them ~ my faith is stronger and deeper than it has ever been. For me, having faith is not about having all the right answers but about trusting God and learning to live and love the questions. Poet Rainer Marie Rilke wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them . . . Live the questions.”
If ever there were a time when learning to live and love the questions was needed, it is now. Of course, doing so requires listening intently, especially to those with whom we disagree; sharing with reverence and respect what is near and dear to our hearts; and being open to the possibility that God is quite capable of doing a new thing, often working through individuals we might consider highly unlikely or even downright unworthy. In the midst of it all, our challenge is to “stay in that place of wonder and wisdom that lies between the uncertainty of the world and the dependable grace of God.” (Anabel Proffitt) Having experienced the dependable grace of God up close and personal, I would highly recommend making that choice and holding on for dear life!
You Want Me to Pray for Whom?!? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette October 8, 2016
Called to lead a new church start in the town of Ephesus, young Timothy was struggling to make a go of things. The apostle Paul (or one of his protégés), eager to encourage and instruct him, sent Timothy two letters filled with pastoral advice, clear guidance and reminders of just how much Timothy was loved and prayed for by Paul. Lifting up the importance of prayer, the second chapter of Paul’s first letter to Timothy begins with the words, “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments . . .” (The Message)
Upon hearing these words, I imagine the response of Timothy’s church members sounding something like this: “You want us to pray for whom?!? We’re being persecuted by the Roman government and you want us to pray for them? You’re kidding, right?!?” Actually, Paul was not kidding. Knowing exactly what these early believers were dealing with, he urged them to pray for the very ones who were making their lives miserable, and he gave them the reason why: pray for them so that you might be able to live in peace.
Do we really have to pray for everyone, even for those we do not like? Yes, which means praying for those who have treated us badly, for the candidates we oppose, for those we perceive to be our enemy, and for those who embrace a faith different from our own. Easier said than done, you protest. Yes, again, so how do we pray for such challenging individuals? Very specifically, how do we pray as the November election draws near? A cartoon I came across recently depicted a man on his knees in church, praying fervently. What was he praying? That Christ would return and the Rapture would occur before the November election! Somehow I do not think that is what Paul had in mind.
So, let me pose a question: when was the last time you prayed for the presidential candidate for whom you will NOT be voting in November? An observation: both presidential hopefuls identify themselves as Christian, so perhaps we would do well to pray that they will each be who they say they are: that is, persons who live in ways that reflect Christ’s teachings and example. And how do we pray for those who, in the name of their God and faith, commit unspeakable acts of violence and terror? Perhaps we do so by praying that they will come to understand that their God is not a God of hatred and destruction but a God of love and peace.
It has been said that prayer is the serious business of the Church, the first and best service it renders for the world. When we dare to pray for those for whom it is difficult to pray, we are changed, and so are they. Our praying, however, must be more than an occasional shout-out to God when the going is good or a desperate cry for help when things are falling apart. Corrie ten Boom posed this question: “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” Is prayer the guiding force in your life 24/7 or is it a last resort, the thing you do when all else fails?
More than once I have reminded those in the congregation I serve that a church is only as strong as the prayer lives of its individual members. Taking that a step further, I believe a nation is only as strong as the prayer lives of its individual citizens, be they of the same faith I embrace or of another faith which has at its core a loving Creator who calls us to reflect that love in love and concern for our neighbor. May we dare to humbly pray, not just for those for whom it is easy to pray but also for those for whom it is difficult to pray so that one day there might be peace in this world God so loves.
What the World Needs Now – September 10, 2016
One of the hit songs of 1965 has stood the test of time and is still spot on in its message over 50 years later. Written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, and sung by Jackie DeShannon, its lyrics are familiar: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . . “ While I certainly agree there can never be too much love, and I do believe the lack of love is at the heart of many of our world’s problems, I would argue that love is not the ONLY thing that there’s just too little of. As I read Jesus’ words recorded in Luke 14 ~ words spoken while attending a dinner party at the home of an important religious leader ~ I am reminded that humility and hospitality are also lacking in our world today: humility that recognizes who we are in relation to our Creator, and hospitality that draws the circle wide and large so that those on the edges and in the margins are invited into the center.
After healing a man who is identified as having dropsy (most likely a condition we would identify today as generalized edema), and doing so on the Sabbath without anyone daring to challenge him about breaking Sabbath laws, Jesus proceeded to share a parable prompted by his observation that the guests at the dinner party were caught up in jockeying for position and claiming the best seats in the house. While Jesus’ teaching ~ “Don’t claim the seats of honor, lest you be embarrassed when your host asks you to move because those seats where reserved for more important guests” ~ sounds more like strategic advice than spiritual guidance, at the heart of his words is a call to humility. The parable ends with the oft quoted but seldom heeded words, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus turned to the host of the dinner party, urging him to do things differently the next time he chose to entertain guests. “Don’t invite those who will most likely reciprocate and invite you to their home. Instead, invite the poor, the blind, the lame, the outcasts ~ those who will never be able to return the favor ~ and you will be blessed.”
At this dinner party, Jesus did what most of us cringe at the thought of doing: he raised questions and made statements that were confrontational. He dared to address issues that were controversial. People who do that are, in the words of William Lamar IV “arsonists in the hospitality forest.” They are dangerous. How many times have we gathered with people, abiding by an unspoken agreement that we will not bring up politics or religion because it is just too uncomfortable? Yet, these are the very things we need to be talking about with one another. Note that I said talking with one another: not shouting at each other or assuming that anyone who holds a point of view different from our own is either wrong or stupid, but speaking our beliefs with passion and a willingness to listen to others’ beliefs, and then engaging in questions that are thoughtful rather than attacking.
Of course, this kind of conversation is risky business and requires humility ~ humility which is not so much about thinking less of self, but more about thinking of self less. It is also a humility that recognizes we are not the only ones with good or right answers. When we dare to engage with others from a vantage point of humility, and with a willingness to invite into the circle those who are different than we are, I believe we are better able to see as God sees and to respond in ways that are pleasing to our Creator. As we reflect on what shook our world 15 years ago tomorrow ~ September 11, 2001 ~ may we commit ourselves to being the loving, humble, hospitable people God created us to be, knowing that it is indeed risky business and incredibly hard work, but ultimately will enable us, and others, to experience the life that really is life.
Rich Toward God Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette August 13, 2016
Jesus had just responded to his disciples’ request “Teach us to pray” by offering them what we have come to know as “The Lord’s Prayer” ~ a prayer that invites us to think beyond our own needs, focusing on us and our rather than me and my ~ when a person in the crowd asked Jesus to settle a squabble regarding his family inheritance. Knowing where his expertise resided and where it did not, Jesus offered instead a parable about greed and the importance of focusing on being rich toward God. (Luke 12:13-21) Let’s just say the man who wanted Jesus to solve his inheritance dilemma got far more than he bargained for, and we, 20 centuries later, are confronted with truth that is painfully relevant!
The rich man in Jesus’ parable had had a banner year ~ so much so that his barns were too small to handle his abundant harvest. Consulting himself, he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Mission accomplished, he then rewarded himself by opting to relax, eat, drink and be merry for the rest of his days. Sounds a bit like some folks’ version of the American Dream, but one need not look hard to uncover the dangers that accompany such an approach to life. No sooner had the rich man propped up his feet and closed out the world when God informed him that his life was coming to an end. Wait, what?!? That wasn’t part of the plan!
On so many levels, the rich man had set himself up for failure. For starters, his motivation for building larger barns had not been so that he might store food in order to share it with others: he was concerned only about himself. He also failed to include God in his planning for the future. Instead of expressing gratitude to God for the abundance he enjoyed and seeking God’s guidance with regard to how best to use what had been entrusted to his care, he devised a plan in his own mind that turned out to be seriously flawed and shortsighted. When, unexpectedly, his life was cut short, he was caught with a full silo but an empty heart.
Thankfully, being rich toward God is something we can all engage in because it does not require being rich by the world’s standards: it requires, instead, that we be willing to open our hearts and hands to those in need. Being rich toward God is about loving God back. It is about trusting God enough to share what we have received. It is about recognizing that most of us have far more than we need, and to whom much is given, much is required.
The story is told of a well known ethicist who sought out Mother Teresa because he believed if she prayed for him, he would have the clarity he desperately desired. His assumption was that clarity was what Mother Teresa possessed and what enabled her to live such a godly life. When she refused to pray as he requested, her explanation was both simple and a bit surprising: “I have never had clarity,” she replied, “but what I have always had is trust. I will pray that you trust God.” Mother Teresa was, unquestionably, one of the poorest people on earth, yet she lived a life that was incredibly rich toward God because she dared to trust God. While we do not need to be Mother Teresa to live lives that are rich toward God, we do need to look closely at what we are doing with what we possess. So, what’s in your wallet, in your bank account, in your safe deposit box, in your barn? As we take stock of our “stuff,” may we dare to trust God enough to share what we have so God’s work might be done and God’s love felt by all.
Responding When God Calls Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette July 9, 2016
When my son was in college several years ago, trying to discern what major he should choose ~ and in a much larger sense, trying to figure out what he was supposed to be doing with his life ~ he asked me: “Why doesn’t God just drop a 3”by 5” card down from heaven with my name on it, telling me what I’m supposed to do?” For better or worse, that isn’t how God usually works: we have to listen, search, pray and wait, and once we have discerned our calling, embracing that calling and giving it the best we have to offer is often the greatest challenge of all.
No one knew that better than the prophet Elijah, whose story unfolds in the Old Testament book of I Kings. Called to be a messenger for God and a conveyer of oft-times difficult truths, when we encounter Elijah in I Kings 19, he is running scared, having angered the rather mean-spirited pagan Queen Jezebel. The prophets of Jezebel’s false god Baal had just been slaughtered on the mountaintop, and Jezebel was hell-bent on making Elijah pay the price.
Exhausted, depressed and burned out, Elijah ran until he finally collapsed under a solitary broom tree, where he asked God to take his life and promptly fell sound asleep. Twice he was awakened by an angel who provided food for him and encouraged him to eat, then urged him on his way as he headed to Mount Horeb, where he sought refuge in a cave. Imagine his surprise when God confronted him, wanting to know, “What are you doing here?” The obvious answer was that he was running from Jezebel, but what God knew all too well was that Elijah was also running from his calling, from his vocation. Elijah’s response to God was defensive and whiney. Listening to him, one would think Elijah was the only righteous man on the face of the earth and that the success of God’s ultimate plan rested on his shoulders and his shoulders alone. That, of course, was not the case ~ not for Elijah or for any one of us!
God instructed Elijah to step out of the cave and wait for the Lord to pass by ~ which the Lord did, but not in the way Elijah expected. The Lord was not in the mighty wind that blew, not in the quake that shook the earth, and not in the brilliant fire that lit up the sky. Instead, God was in the sheer silence that followed. Some translations of scripture describe this silence as a still, small voice, others as a gentle, quiet whisper. However we translate God’s showing up, the message to Elijah was the same: “I need you to get back to doing what I called you to do!”
God was calling Elijah back to the people who did indeed challenge him, but who were also a much needed source of support and encouragement. When we isolate ourselves, we lose perspective and mistakenly conclude we are the only ones going through such a rough and awful time. No wonder God calls us to be in community, where there are others on the journey to provide support and to hold us accountable. I would also make the observation that running away from God’s call takes far more energy than running toward God and embracing our call ~ whatever that call may be. Being where God calls us to be and doing what God calls us to do can be scary at times, but knowing we are not in this alone makes all the difference. The words of St. John of the Cross come to mind: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light and safer than a known way.” May we dare to do just that as we respond to God’s call, confident God will show us the way, one step at a time.
What the World Needs Now Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette June 11, 2016
A popular song during my teen years asserted, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love; it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . .” While I think it is safe to say that love is something we can always use more of, in recent days I have become convinced that even more than love, what our world desperately needs is compassion. Compassion challenges us to move a step beyond love and passion and invites us to feel deeply with ~ to suffer with ~ those around us. Compassion always possesses the desire to help, to spare, to heal. It calls us to remember that God created us to be in community, to work together, to walk together, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate; to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I do not believe Emerson was suggesting that happiness is a bad thing, but rather that it ought not to be our primary focus or priority. These words of the Dalai Lama help put Emerson’s words in perspective: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Long before Emerson and the Dali Lama were writing about compassion, Jesus was practicing it everywhere he went. Jesus made a habit of being where the poor and powerless were. He spent time on the edge, in the margins, seeking to alleviate the suffering of those often referred to in scripture as “the least of these” or “the little ones.”
In Luke’s gospel, the 7th chapter, we read of Jesus encountering a funeral procession at the gate of a little town called Nain. The man who had died and was being carried out was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. Sizing up the situation, Jesus felt compelled to respond by restoring life to the young man. Was Jesus seeking to call attention to himself or to impress the crowd with his power? Absolutely not! When Jesus saw the widow, he had compassion for her, no doubt recognizing that the loss of her own life was all but certain, given that she had no husband, and now no son, to care for her. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this account indicates that when Jesus saw the widow, his heart broke.
Compassion flows from hearts that have been broken wide open, allowing God’s love to pour in, and then out again, in acts of kindness and healing. Such compassion characterized Jesus’ ministry from start to finish. Even at the bitter end, as Jesus hung on the cross, compassion flowed from him as he asked God to forgive those who were killing him, as he entrusted his weeping mother to John’s care, and as he promised Paradise to the penitent thief who hung alongside him on the cross.
May we, too, be a people who are characterized by compassion, allowing our hearts to be broken wide open so that God’s love might fill us and flow through us, for the healing of the nations . . . one act of compassion at a time.
Reason for Hope Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette May 14, 2016
While I suspect I may be in the minority these days, I believe we have reason to be hope-filled, even as we are bombarded with headlines that cause many to conclude we are going to hell in a hand basket in a hurry. Note: I did not say we have reason to be optimistic, because optimism and hope are not one and the same. Unlike the optimist, who believes everything is going to work out just fine and we human beings can make it so, those of us who are hope-filled are convinced that things can be better than they currently are if we involve God in the equation and count on wisdom beyond our own to face what the future holds. On our own, we have no chance of fixing this broken world, but with God’s help, there is hope.
Throughout the ages, hope has captured the attention of humankind in a variety of ways. In Greek mythology, we encounter hope when Pandora, the first mortal woman, is given a box by Zeus that she is forbidden to open. Unbeknownst to Pandora, the box contains all human blessings and all human curses. When she can resist temptation no more, Pandora opens the box, releasing all of the curses into the world and allowing all of the blessings to escape, save one: HOPE. What becomes quite clear is that without hope, human beings cannot endure.
In the 19th century, Emily Dickinson described hope in this way: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” Hope is not easily daunted, not easily shaken, and even though there are those whose mission is to destroy hope, as fragile as it may seem at times, hope is not easily killed.
In the 20th century, French philosopher and writer, Albert Camus, wrote: “Great ideas come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations a faint flutter of wings, a gentle stirring of life and hope.” Often, that gentle stirring of life and hope comes at unlikely times, in unlikely places, and is embodied in unlikely people. The arrival of a baby in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago, born to a young, unwed mother, continues to provide a source of hope for countless believers around the world.
This hope is characterized by the belief that God can and does work in and through people from all walks of life; that love will always conquer hate; and that there is more than enough of God’s grace and mercy to go around. While we fail miserably when we believe we are the only ones with a handle on the truth, with God’s help and a willingness to work together with people who view life from decidedly different vantage points than we do, healing can begin . . . we can be made new from the inside out. At the heart of our hope is the conviction that no matter how awful things may be at any given time, ultimately God will win and God’s love will prevail. So it is that I remain forever hope-filled.
Whose Words Matter? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette April 9, 2016
For a whole host of reasons, an appropriate question to be asking at this time in our nation’s history ~ or at any time ~ is “Whose words matter?” To whom should we listen? Whose voice is worth our attention? Do we listen to the person who is the loudest, the angriest, the most sensational, or perhaps to the one telling us what we want to hear and promising us what we are persuaded we need? In the Gospels, people listened to Jesus because he spoke with authority, unlike the other religious leaders of his day. That authority stemmed from the fact that his words and actions matched. There was congruence between what he said and how he lived, and Jesus’ words were life giving, not life draining or life destroying. While Jesus’ earliest followers often seemed clueless, and initially had difficulty figuring out that Jesus’ words mattered above all others, when the light finally flashed on, there was no stopping them!
Take Thomas, for example. Forever labeled “Doubting Thomas” because he dared to express skepticism when his fellow disciples told him they had seen and spoken with the risen Lord, Thomas clearly was not convinced their words mattered. He needed to see Jesus up close and personal: to touch the nail prints in his hands, place his hand in his side, and hear Jesus’ words for himself. When Jesus appeared again to the disciples exactly one week later, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were “Peace be with you.” Then he approached Thomas, not rebuking him, but inviting him to reach out and touch the nail prints in his hands and place his hand in his side. “Do not doubt, but believe,” was Jesus’ persuasive and loving invitation. And Thomas did, exclaiming “My Lord and my God!” From that moment forward, Thomas was a changed man. Choosing to embrace Jesus’ words, Thomas would go on to become a great missionary, building churches everywhere he went. Because he knew whose words mattered, the patron saint of doubters would become the patron saint of architects. Who knew?!?
And the rest of the disciples . . . they, too, would eventually figure out whose words mattered. In the book of Acts, we read of their bold witness after receiving the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost ~ a witness so compelling they ended up getting themselves thrown into prison by the religious leaders of the day who were threatened by the courage and conviction of these once clueless men. When we encounter them in the fifth chapter of Acts, Peter, speaking on behalf of his fellow apostles, is reminding their accusers “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The motley crew that had been Jesus’ disciples had come to understand whose words mattered and they were willing to act on those words, no matter what the cost.
What about us? Claiming to know whose words matter, are we willing to act upon them? Are we willing to bear witness to the joyous good news we celebrated just a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday? Keep in mind that bearing witness to the One whose words matter is not just about speaking up and speaking out. Words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi challenge us to “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Our lives preach. Our actions ~ both what we do and what we fail to do ~ speak loudly and clearly. In the flurry of words that bombard us at every turn, may we have the wisdom to discern which words are of God and the courage to act upon them so others may see God’s light in us.
What’s the Hurry? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette March 12, 2016
Living as we do in a part of Pennsylvania where road construction seems never ending, we have become accustomed to those flashing signs along the highway that warn us, “Construction ahead ~ reduce speed.” We groan ~ audibly or inwardly ~ and reluctantly apply the brakes, because slowing down is not what most of us like doing. I am convinced that our aversion to moving slowly is the result of being surrounded by those who are convinced slow is bad, fast is good, and faster is better yet. While that may be true when it comes to download speeds or getting from point A to point B when we are running late, it is not necessarily true when it comes to living out our faith.
Over the years, I have become persuaded that “slow” is a “four letter word” . . . of faith, that is. It is right up there with words like love, pray, hope, care and give. The slow I am talking about does not mean stagnant, set in one’s ways, resistant to change or inclined to digging in one’s heels. The slow I have in mind enables us to be observant, mindful, careful, thoughtful and prayerful. It is the slow that allows us to understand the change we are called to embrace, the slow that assures what we are creating will last. It is the slow I believe Jesus had in mind when he shared the parable of the fig tree. (Luke 13:6-9)
The parable describes a landowner concerned about a fig tree in his vineyard ~ a fig tree that had not borne fruit in three years. “Cut it down!” was his instruction to the gardener, but the gardener resisted, suggesting that he water it, dig around it and fertilize it with manure . . . give it another year, another chance. “Then if it doesn’t bear fruit, you can cut it down,” he told the landowner. I love it! The gardener refused to give up on the fig tree ~ in much the same way God refuses to give up on us.
A few observations about this parable: the landowner noted the fig tree had not produced any fruit in three years. Biblically speaking, three is a number that suggests a relatively short period of time (Jonah was in the belly of the large fish three days, Jesus was in the tomb three days, etc.). What seemed like an eternity to the landowner was a short period of time, all things considered. The fig tree deserved another chance. Note also that dormant does not mean dead. Dormant suggests that the tree in question has the potential to blossom and bear fruit, given time, tender loving care, and no doubt, some fertilizer . . . manure. Whether we are talking about fig trees or people, growth is slow, blossoming takes time and sometimes the process is messy and smelly!
Everything worth anything takes time ~ including being the church God calls us to be as people of faith. While faith may begin with a personal relationship, it will not grow or bear fruit unless it is lived out in community . . . and being in community is slow, hard work. We cannot do this on the run or while multitasking doing a dozen other things. To experience the life God intended for us, we must slow down long enough to see God in our neighbor, to build relationships with fellow pilgrims on the journey, and to discern what God is calling us to do next. Jesus’ life on earth was brief and filled to the brim, but we never have the sense that he was in a hurry . . . focused and driven, but not hurried. We would do well to follow his lead!