Prayer for Wisdom and Courage

[As we sang “God of Grace and God of Glory” at an alum gathering at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio last week I was impressed with how prayerful those lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick are; and those lyrics inspired my pastoral prayer for today.]

God of Grace and Glory, please listen to your people praying.  Pour your power upon us as we pray for the healing of brokenness and suffering everywhere – in our own hearts and minds and in relationships interpersonal and international in scale.  You have planted the seeds of love in every human heart, but those seeds are threatened by draught, wild fire, earthquake and the ravages of unbelievable storms.

Please let our time of worship nourish the one true seed of your loving presence in us and in those we hold up in prayer.  We feel surrounded by the forces of evil and long to be free from fears that shake the foundations of our faith.  Send your Holy Spirit here to the church on the hill to free our hearts to praise you and serve you.  Giving you the glory, let us not hide the Good News of your Salvation under a bushel, but let this congregation on the banks of the Scioto be a beacon of hope to a broken and discouraged world.

Lord listen to your people praying.  Empower us to set an example as peacemakers to a world too long enslaved to war and violence as our only response to conflict and threat.  Let us be leaders in finding ways to beat our guns into plowshares and our nuclear weapons into technologies to feed the starving masses and to power our planet with clean renewable energy.  Instead of rattling our sabers let us put on the whole armor of God – righteousness, truth, peace, faith, and salvation to win the struggles within us and around us with selfishness, greed, injustice, and all that divides the very oneness of creation.

Strengthen us please, O God within each of us, to not lose hope when illness or despair sap our human energy.  Remind us again that we can flip a switch with a simple word of prayer to connect to the one true source of hope that never fails us.

Lord, listen to your people praying and grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.  We humbly ask these things in the name of the one who is the way and truth and life as we unite in one voice to pray the prayer he gave us……

 

 

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Longing to Belong – A Prodigal Prequel, Genesis 32:3-8, 22-31

[Sermon preached at Northwest UMC, October 8, 2017]

Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought you would die? I certainly do. The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. But homesickness is not just a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken and alone in a strange world where we wonder what we’re doing here? This week after another horrific massacre of innocent people in Las Vegas I’m very homesick for a world with less violence and hate.

Some homesickness is quite normal. As teens or young adults we are the ones who think we want freedom and our own space. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public because we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK because we learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.

It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. That’s where our friend Jacob finds himself in our Scripture for today. What we have in Chapter 32 is just a snippet of the story of Jacob that takes up half of the book of Genesis. It’s a fascinating saga so full of deception, incest, polygamy, fake murders and kidnapping that it could be mistaken for a modern day soap opera. I’d recommend taking the time to read or re-read the whole story because we can only deal with one brief but very dramatic episode today. The bad blood between Jacob and his twin brother Esau that is the impetus for what we read today begins back in Genesis 25 when Jacob, still in utero, grabs the heel of Esau and tries to pull him back into the womb so he, Jacob, could claim the prize of being Isaac’s first born.

As a young adult Jacob, true to form, tricks his near-sighted old father into giving him the blessing that by custom belonged to the eldest son Esau. And because of his underhanded tactics Jacob has to flee from his angry brother to the land of Haran where he lives and prospers with his Uncle Laban. The details of how Jacob and Laban take turns deceiving each other and have a falling out many years later is fascinating – but that will have to be a teaser for another sermon. Except to say that it sets the stage for why we find Jacob in our text today heading back to Canaan to finally face the brother he cheated.

Anyone here have any conflicts in your family? Sure we do, we all do so much that there are times when I think the term “dysfunctional family” is redundant. Conflict in human relationships is inevitable unless we choose to keep our relationships superficial. Some of us are like comedian Ron White who says, “I had the right to remain silent, I just didn’t have the ability.” And introverts like me are often so quiet nobody knows what we’re thinking. Neither extreme is satisfying because both leave us feeling inauthentic and homesick.

We live in a time of terrible isolation and loneliness. We live in houses or apartments in close proximity to other people but don’t really know our neighbors. The Las Vegas shooter was so much a loner that none of his neighbors or his own brother really knew him, maybe not even the woman he lived with. And tellingly his brother said they never really knew their father either. We may never know the reason he killed and maimed so many innocent people, and it’s even less likely that we will ever know the depth of the loneliness or homesickness that drove him to do the unspeakable.

None of that is to make any excuses for mass murder, but it is a call for all of us to come clean about our own homesickness. Where in our lives have we alienated ourselves from others? Where have we failed to love our neighbors because we simply don’t know them? What guilt or disagreement has driven us to move away from family or friends, or to withdraw within ourselves? I heard a great quote from James Baldwin this week on NPR. He said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Jacob was homesick. In his message to Esau he says, “I have lived with Laban as an alien.” He is heading home and dreading the inevitable confrontation with the brother he has wronged. Jacob is imagining the worst – that he will get his just desserts; and so he does everything he can think of to appease his brother. He sends Esau enough gifts to rival the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In one section of Chapter 32 that we skipped today for brevity there is an inventory of all the livestock Jacob sends ahead to Esau with his messengers, and the list totals 530 head of livestock. Jacob also bows and scrapes by addressing Esau repeatedly as “my lord” while referring to himself as Esau’s servant. To his credit Jacob is very transparent about what he’s doing. He concludes his message to Esau by saying that he has sent these gifts “in order that I may find favor in your sight.” The only thing missing is an actual apology for cheating his brother out of his birthright, but that may be expecting too much.

Jacob’s messengers return from their mission to report that Esau is coming to meet him. That sounds promising, but then the messengers add the kicker – he’s got 400 men with him. That’s like challenging your big brother to a game of basketball and being told he’s bringing LeBron James and the Cavs with him!

“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed,” verse 7 tells us, and he devises a clever plan to save his hide, even if it means putting others, including his wives and kids at risk. He divides his large company into two groups, thinking that if one group is destroyed by Esau and his army the others will be able to escape.
Finally as a last resort Jacob does what he should have done first – he prays. Anyone else ever forget to pray until things get tough or is that just me? We didn’t read this part either but in his prayer Jacob does two things. As we would expect he prays for God to deliver him, but before that he does something even more important that we can all learn from. Listen to what he says in verses 9-10: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.”

Jacob acknowledges all that God has done for him and his ancestors in uncharacteristic humility, but then he reminds God of the promises God made to him that convinced him to come back home and face the music. Why would he need to do that? Surely God doesn’t forget his promises! No, Jacob is reminding himself who he belongs to, he’s claiming his blessing from God, and we’ll see how he does that again in much more dramatic fashion in the best-known part of this text.

After Jacob prays and sends his family across the river we are told “Jacob was left alone.” He is really alone. Jacob is like you and me. We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating social media friends who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? But when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.

“Jacob is alone” Genesis says, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” But this is no ordinary man and the wrestling match is not the WWF! These two combatants struggle all night long and the match is still a draw as morning approaches, although Jacob’s hip will never be the same. And the man says, “let me go, for the day is breaking.” That’s our first clue that this is no ordinary man. This is God and they both know that if any mortal sees the face of God he or she will die. God is protecting Jacob even as they struggle by warning him not to see God’s face. But Jacob refuses to let go unless God blesses him. Jacob realizes that God’s blessing is more important than life itself, and after God gives Jacob a new name “Israel” because he has striven with God and prevailed God blesses Jacob and the struggle is over as abruptly as it began.

It is after wrestling with God and only then that Jacob is ready to meet his brother. Like another prodigal son that Jesus talked about, it is an encounter with God that gives us courage to confess and face our human struggles. Jacob had to wrestle all night long, and sometimes those dark nights can last for weeks or years, but if we can hang on to God above all else, morning will come and with it the courage to carry on.

I slept in last Monday and as I got up I remember thinking that I had missed my usual breakfast with the CBS Morning News team. Unfortunately the news of the massacre in Las Vegas lasted all day. The cumulative effect of bad news stories recently, each one worse than the last, knocked me into a funk that lasted several days. I’d probably still be there if I didn’t have this sermon to prepare. Sermons are a constant reminder to preachers that no matter how we are feeling, Sunday’s coming!

That’s important for all of us, not just preachers. We Christians worship on Sunday because that’s the day of Christ’s resurrection; and that is our reminder that no matter how bad the news is or how dark the skies are – Sunday’s coming. I gladly borrow that phrase from the great preacher Tony Campolo who made it famous in a Good Friday sermon entitled “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!”

When personal or national tragedies threaten to blow us away we can be like Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Lt. Dan got his legs blown off in Viet Nam and was angry at Forrest for saving his life. But a few years later he is reunited with Forrest and helps him run the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. In one great scene Dan and Forrest are out on their shrimp boat during Hurricane Carmen. Double amputee Lt. Dan climbs the mast of the ship as the waves are crashing onto the deck below and he shouts at God, “Is that all you’ve got? You call that a storm?” This foul-mouthed atheist has learned in the school of hard knocks that life goes on if we just hang on till morning comes. Psalm 30 puts it this way: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Anyone here have trouble handling big changes in life? That’s homesickness. Because change, even positive change, is hard, and much of the division in our nation today is because change is coming at us at warp speed. We are so homesick for a simpler day that we resent those who represent change – immigrants, people of different races or faiths or political opinions. And on top of that this baby boomer is homesick for the things my aging body just won’t do anymore. We seniors are eager for younger folks to take over leadership of businesses and families and churches, but darn it the younger generation doesn’t always do it the way we’ve done it for years.

Being an itinerant United Methodist pastor has comes with built in homesickness. Like people in many professions and businesses we move a lot, and that makes it hard to know where home really is. I grew up in the small town of Wapakoneta in northwest Ohio. Wapak is where I’m from but I rarely go back there. My parents moved away from there while I was in college, and I moved away intellectually as I accumulated multiple degrees in higher education. I still have several aunts and uncles back there in Auglaize County, but I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been on a 50 year ego trip that has kept me away from that extended family. None of them went to college and as my theology and worldview changed over the years I felt like we just didn’t have anything in common. I don’t want to argue about religion or politics with them, and quite frankly I felt superior.

Over Labor Day weekend this year I went back home with my two sisters. I must give my sisters credit for initiating the trip. It was my one sister’s 50th high school reunion, and while we were there they suggested we visit our three uncles who live there.

It was a marvelous experience with all three of them but the priceless moment came when we visited the one we call Uncle Frog in the hospital. He’s just 15 years older than I; so when I was a kid he was a big strong athletic guy that I adored. He took time to play catch with me and made me feel like I mattered. Now he’s 86 and has a very bad heart. He knows he doesn’t have long to live. He called me over to his hospital bed and got very emotional as he tried to ask me something, but the words wouldn’t come. I knew he wanted me to conduct his funeral when the time comes because we had talked about that after another uncle’s funeral 10 years ago when Frog was still in good health. As I held his hand and assured him I’d be there for him I realized I was home.

We can go home again if we’re willing to struggle and cling on to God’s blessing which is always wherever we are on life’s journey. Beyond the beliefs and ideologies that divide us is a deeper human bond we all share. It’s love that bridges those divisions but we have to cross that bridge to get home.

There was a movie many years ago called “The Poseidon Adventure” about a group of people who were trapped in a ship that got turned upside down in a storm. Isn’t that how life feels sometimes? Like everything is upside down and we can’t find our way home. The theme song from that movie captures the truth that Jacob learned wrestling with God. The song says, “There’s got to be a morning after if we can hold on through the night.” Whatever darkness or struggle you are facing – just hang on to God till morning comes.

Jacob refuses to let go till God blesses him, and in the strength of that blessing he immediately goes to meet his brother. What happens then is summed up in this description from Genesis 33: “He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” The prodigal was limping, but he was home.
Amen

A World Communion Prayer

Jesus prayed that we might be one.
One in spirit
One in mission
In union and communion with each other and with You.
Today, God, we confess fumblings and failures in accomplishing unity, as we set aside yet another day to remind ourselves of the task.
On this World Communion Sunday, give us eyes to recognize your reflection in the eyes of Christians everywhere.
Give us a mind to accept and celebrate our differences.
Give us a heart big enough to love your children everywhere.
We thank you for setting a table with space enough for us all. (Africana Worship Book, Year B, (Discipleship Resources, 2007)

This year world communion coincides with the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. With our Jewish sisters and brothers we all stand in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with you Lord and with our neighbors. We give thanks that our sins have been forgiven by the sacrificial love of Christ, but please don’t let us grow complacent by taking your grace for granted. The good news of the Gospel must be shared to keep it alive and growing.

As we feel the unity of our spirits with Christians today from Myanmar to Minnesota, from Boston to Bolivia, let us renew our commitment to living lives worthy of Christ. Forgive us when we fail to love you with all our hearts and minds. Our broken world has never needed the Holy Spirit’s healing more. We pray for a new birth of human unity created in the image of Christ. Make us so at one with Christ and with you that we will be Christ for those who are sick, lonely, or grieving. For those who suffer hunger and thirst and those who are starving for the bread of the world offered to all who hear Christ’s voice and turn to him.

Make us instruments of your love, O God. May the way we live our lives each day be a witness to the unity of humankind we celebrate this day. May we grow in love and service to Christ who taught us to pray this prayer…… .

Prayer for Sanctuary

[This is a prayer I wrote for last Sunday’s worship, but it’s been such a hectic week I’m just now getting around to posting it.]
Our Creator God, in your wisdom you have given us the gift of the Sabbath as a refuge from the cares and worries of the world around us. On this Lord’s Day, after another week full of heartbreaking disasters in Puerto Rico and Mexico and all the other places we don’t even know about we admit our faith is a little shaken. It feels like the very foundations of life as we know it are under threat, and those don’t even include the “normal” challenges of grief, illness, broken relationships and the whole host of demons that go with this thing we call life.

Be our sanctuary, Lord, a haven of rest where we know we can ask your guidance and blessing for ourselves and the future of our world and your kingdom. Remind us that throughout history your children have often felt lost and forsaken. Predictions of the end times come in every generation, and yet through it all those who stay the course and follow Jesus come through to a better day.

Again this Sunday we are reminded that it was on this first day of the week that Christ conquered once and for all the grim threat of death. In his resurrected and living name we pray that we can all be worthy guides and witnesses to others who will see in us lives of integrity and faith.

Remind us that this is indeed the day that you have made, a time of re-creation and renewal for those who live in God’s presence. As you breathed life into humankind at creation, we pray for new life and hope for the living of this day and every day.

We ask for release from the sins that hold us captive to our past, release from grievances and anger that only divine forgiveness can heal. Grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days; challenge us again this day O God to examine our hearts – to renew our commitments to love you with all our hearts and minds and to love our neighbors and ourselves.

And may we always know that your sanctuary is always as near to us simply pausing to pray. Let us feel the power of your Holy Spirit around us now as we come to you in a moment of silent prayer to share whatever is on each of our hearts.

Silence

Lead us O God, walk with us that we may be faithful followers of Christ our Lord and Savior, in whose name we offer our prayers, and this prayer, which he taught us to pray…..

Not Another Hurricane?

Dear God, enough with the hurricanes already! And now one named Maria of all things bearing down on what’s left of some poor Caribbean islands? Yes, most of us understand that human destruction of the natural order is partly to blame for all the huge storms and wildfires and other disasters. Those who know and care about your creation are already on your side, and those who don’t get it are so deep in denial that they never will. So please give us a break! Haven’t enough lives been ruined already? In your mercy please spare the most vulnerable ones and kick the rest of us in the pants to not only help the storm victims but to start where we are now and do what we can to prepare for the new reality we are living in. Can’t you please find a less destructive way to impress upon us the urgency that saving the planet must be priority one? If we don’t do that nothing else really matters.

In the profound words of C.S. Lewis, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” The damage that has already been done to the environment is what it is. Help us confess our sin and face reality head on. Only then can we begin right where we are and start to change the grim future for life on this fragile planet you have entrusted into our care.

Pastoral Prayer, September 17


God of grace and righteousness, again this Lord’s Day we pause to remind ourselves of your presence – to thank you for the blessings of life and to ask your continued guidance and comfort when the road of life is bumpy and dark. We lift up those named and unnamed here today for a special portion of your love, and we ask for the wisdom and faith to approach each day of life with a healthy balance of faith and humility.

Help us not to be so enthralled by our own good fortune that we overlook the pain of our sisters and brothers near and far. And likewise when the cares of the world threaten to overshadow our hope, reassure us that we never walk alone. For as the scriptures tell us, even when we don’t know how to pray, your spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words. In the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – grant us a balanced perspective on life that anchors our lives firmly in you as the ground of our being; so that we may offer a safe harbor for the lost who are seeking the way and the truth and the life that we find in Christ Jesus. Remind us again O God of our mission and purpose for living.

As we pray for those without power in Florida remind us of your eternal power that never fails. As we pray for those left homeless by storms or by war and violence, we give you thanks for warm, safe homes, for all the physical comforts we too often take for granted. Give us grateful and generous hearts to receive your blessings, Lord, and also to share from our abundance and good fortune with those with less or without.

As we pray for people without clean water and food, remind us that as much as we need physical comforts, O God, there’s a deeper hunger in our souls that brings us out of our homes to your house each Sabbath. We need to feel the connection of belonging, the fellowship, the corporate worship that nourishes us more than individual devotion and prayer can do.

So we ask your blessing on our worship this day as we pray for ourselves and others, for our nation and world. Bless our acts of praise. Give us ears to hear your special word of comfort or challenge you have for each of us; so that when we return to our homes we do so stronger in our devotion and discipleship to serve you wherever you call us to be in the coming week.

For it is in Christ’s name we pray, for his sake we witness to our faith in words and actions. Send your holy spirit upon us as we celebrate our belonging to you by joining our hearts and voices in the Lord’s Prayer.

Longing to Belong: Flood Assurance, Isaiah 43:1-7, 11-13

As you may know our kids and grandkids in Houston were hit by Hurricane Harvey. At one point during the flooding our 11-year old grandson Lukas asked his mother if they had flood insurance. When she told him sadly that they didn’t he summed up the way millions of storm victims must be feeling today in typical pre-teen fashion. He said, “Well we should. We’re screwed!”

Today I am talking about something far better than flood insurance. There are no deductibles on this policy and the premiums are paid up forever. I’m not talking about in-surance, but the as-surance in our Scripture for today. Did you hear it? That Scripture from Isaiah was chosen several weeks ago to be part of our series on “Longing to Belong”–before Hurricane Harvey laid siege to Southeast Texas and Louisiana, before Irma was even born and began doing even worse to the Caribbean Islands and Florida. The words of the anonymous prophet known to biblical scholars as Deutero or Second Isaiah could not be more timely: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases that verse in “The Message,” “When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and hard place, it won’t be a dead end.”

Two weeks ago, seems like a year now, my pastoral prayer focused on the early devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. My concern was real but still came from a safe distance. At the time my step-son and his family who live in a suburb on the North East side of Houston were still dry. The speed at which that situation changed over the next 24 hours made Harvey’s flood waters very personal and real.

By Monday morning the street in their small neighborhood was flooded. By afternoon the water was lapping at their front and back doors. They moved some of their possessions upstairs and were still hopeful they could ride it out without too much damage. Within a few hours that hope was washed away by the filthy water rapidly covering their floors and flooding their garage.

We were kept abreast of their situation with texts and videos all during the day. And then there were two extremely long hours when we didn’t hear from them. We didn’t know if they were able to evacuate or not. At last we got a short video of them climbing into a truck that came down their street in waist high water in the late afternoon. By that time the situation was so urgent that they fled with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs. The good news is they are safe. The fact that my step-son and his wife had separated earlier this summer became an ironic blessing because Matt is living in a rented house which thank God is on higher ground and out of Harvey’s reach. That house became their refuge.

Living this frightening disaster vicariously through our kids and knowing that thousands are in much worse shape has been exhausting emotionally for us. The sense of helplessness that there was nothing we could do to help them from 1000 miles away was somewhat alleviated by the outpouring of love and prayers from our church, friends and family. Social media was a blessing as we felt surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Two days after they fled the flood our kids were able to return to what had been their beautiful home. Six feet of flood water had destroyed the entire first floor of every home on their street. All of those yards are now full of ruined furniture, appliances, toys, carpets, curtains, pictures and family mementos – everything that makes a house a refuge from the storms of life. Most of Harvey’s victims, like our kids, do not have flood insurance and have lost most of their earthly possessions. So now they are all working in the stench and muck 12-hour days to begin the long process of recovery. Our 11 year-old grandson is having nightmares and his parents are living in one.

These are times that make or break one’s faith. Like all tragedies, storms like Harvey and Irma are also an opportunity for all Americans to prove that we are indeed our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. There have been many heart-warming incidents of heroic and radical generosity and hospitality. A friend of Diana’s said he felt called to go to Houston and help; so he organized some friends to go with him. They collected supplies and donations, were able to use a brand new pick-up truck donated by Lindsey Honda and pulling a U Haul trailer full of donations and supplies, drove straight through last Friday night and spent the weekend helping with the recovery effort. Our daughter-in-law tells us how much it means when strangers stop by and give them water to drink and food to eat as they are working on what they now call their Harvey House. This past Thursday a bit of normalcy was restored when the kids went back to school. They took a first day of school picture none of us will ever forget with the mountain of debris from their house as the background.

This nightmare for Harvey’s and Irma’s victims will continue for years. But Isaiah was writing to a devastated people who endured an even longer disaster. II Isaiah was writing to the Hebrew Exiles in Babylon. His powerful images of water and fire are very real to us as floods of biblical proportions pummel not only our country but India, Nepal and Bangladesh. But Isaiah’s images of water and fire are also metaphors for all of life’s crises that sometimes gang up on us and threaten to overwhelm us. The Hebrews were political prisoners in a foreign, hostile land for 60 years longing to belong again to their nation and their God.

The need for stronger faith to handle difficult times has been very personal for Diana and me in the last two weeks. I share our experience, not because we are especially unfortunate or cursed, but because all of us have to deal with these kinds of crises from time to time. In addition to our hearts breaking for our kids and other victims of Harvey and Irma, we’ve had other pressing family concerns recently that have left me at times feeling like a ping pong ball being bounced from one crisis to the next. My 95 year-old father is in failing health and had to be moved from assisted living to skilled nursing, and that transition which has robbed him of the last shred of independence has been very difficult for him, my sister, and for the nurses and staff at his retirement community. And then last week, Diana’s wonderful 99 year-old mother was hospitalized with confusion caused by a serious urinary tract infection.

She’s doing better now, but all that happening at once felt overwhelming. I have not felt so battered by life since Holy Week of 1993. On Palm Sunday of that year my mother had emergency brain surgery for the cancer that been diagnosed only 3 days earlier. On Wednesday of that week my mother-in-law from my first marriage died and was buried on Good Friday. It was both the hardest and best Holy Week of my ministry as we experienced our own passion and felt the power of resurrection in the lives of two wonderful women.

They say (whoever “they” are) that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I believe that, but I like the way St. Paul says it a little better. In Romans 5 Paul says, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Is that a “no pain, no gain” kind of theology? Does it mean we should seek out suffering to make us stronger? No, and we don’t need to because there’s always plenty of suffering around that we can help with. There’s so much suffering in the world right now even our 24/7 cable news junkies can’t keep up with it. Wild fires are raging all over the western part of the US killing livestock and destroying homes; floods many times worse than the ones in Houston have killed over 1200 and affected 41 million people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. And I shudder to think how much suffering Irma will inflict before she’s done.

Closer to home 4 families in our neighborhood on Donney Lane are homeless because of a fire last Saturday. These are refugee families from Iraq who have no family or community support, nowhere else to go, no one to trust in a country that once prided itself on Lady Liberty inviting “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Those words from Emma Lazarus use flood imagery too as they go on to say, “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Those huddled masses are now afraid to answer their doors or to give personal information to agencies trying to help them for fear it will lead to deportation.

When the first sunshine in many days broke thru the clouds in Houston after Harvey pounded them with 50 inches of rain our daughter-in-law sent us a video of the sun’s rays. She was like a little kid at Christmas, just to see the sun again. In a similar way I’m so proud to say that our brown bag ministry with the families affected by the recent fire has established a level of trust that is a ray of hope in a painful and tragic situation. There’s an old saying that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It’s also true that a PB and J sandwich, or a few hundred of them, can unlock the doors of fear and mistrust. A simple gesture to feed some hungry kids has built relationships so strong we’ve been able to offer help and love to these families who lost their homes.

Through the persistent efforts of a bunch of wonderful brown bag servants and the heart-warming generosity of all who have made donations to help NW church has been able to live out Isaiah’s message of hope with these neighbors. To Lamar, Laith and Mohammad and their families we have said– “When you’re in over your head, Northwest church will be there with you.” “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” because we all belong to God.

How could God say that to the Hebrew exiles in a hopeless situation in a foreign land filled with pagan gods? How can God give that kind of flood and fire assurance to any of us when we feel like we’re going down for the third time? When we want to shout like the Psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

This is very important — the assurance is not because of who we are or that we’re better than others. God’s assurance is not because we’ve done anything to deserve it. It’s simply because of who we belong to. All of us long for human helpers in any crisis. We want to know we are not alone, that we are a part of a community, a family that will rescue us like the Cajun Navy in their bass boats, or like the NW church van delivering food and diapers and blankets or whatever is needed on Donney Lane. But gifts of material things as important as they are do not make us belong. One stark lesson of Irma and Harvey is that all of our material possessions can be wiped out in a heartbeat by a natural disaster, a stock market crash, a fire, a health crisis or a plane flying into a world center tower. But the ties that bind us to one another and most importantly to God can never be destroyed by flood or fire.

Why? Because Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine!” Do you hear that church? God knows us by name! God says, “You are Mine.” Our deepest longing to belong is assured. We belong to God – always have, always will. Come hell or high water, come grief or mourning, or fear and nightmare—the one unchanging certainty through it all is that God is with us, We BELONG! Thanks be to God.

Benediction: When the storms of life are raging, God stands by us. God empowers us to face each day of life, each new challenge because we have the assurance that the future belongs to God and so do we. Go share that good news with others longing to belong.

[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, September 10,2017]