The Orphan Syndrome

John 14: 15-21 *** Sunday, May 17, 2020 *** by Scott Webster, Lay Minister

At some point in life we all fear that time when we will be abandoned and left alone. John 14:15-21 overviews one of the last speeches that Jesus gave his disciples before his crucifixion. It was a strange mix of words to those gathered around as Jesus begins, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It sounds as if Jesus was going to offer one of his parables, but as he went on the disciples became confused and even distraught.

Jesus tells them he is going to be leaving them to go to his Father, but they aren’t to worry as he is going to have God send them someone else to be with them. Depending on the version of the text you read, this entity may be the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Helper, the Comforter, or even an Advocate. This Spirit of Truth cannot be seen or known by the world. But in fact, those that know God and follow Jesus’ commandments will receive this Holy Spirit and know the spirit because the spirit lives inside God’s children.

I can imagine that many of those gathered around Jesus were grumbling and complaining that Jesus is leaving them. He has been a part of their lives for 3 years or more and they can’t imagine what things will be like if he really leaves them. I’m sure that Jesus is feeling this dissatisfaction growing, so he shares this little statement with the crowd, “I am not going to leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

What a powerful statement. At some point in our lives we all want or even need a comforter to be with us. Jesus’ words speak straight to our biggest fears whether loneliness, abandonment, vulnerability, or even isolation arise. 

Obviously in these times of uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic and political unrest across the globe, it may seem like we are being left to fend for ourselves. We begin to imagine a million ques-tions: What will I do now? What should I do next? Am I really going to die alone? Who will love and guide me? These are sometimes referred to by scholars as the orphan questions.

These questions which might be running through our heads today are the same questions that Jesus’ followers must have been thinking as well. In my opinion, Thomas asks one of the most famous orphan questions of all time: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How do we know the way?”

For those dealing with orphan questions such as these, it would be comforting to hear the words, “I will not leave you orphaned,” from someone they care about. But imagine for a minute that you were of the world and not of Christ. You would never know this Comforter. What might happen? I would guess that fear and vulnerability would begin to fester and grow.

But we as God’s children can take heart at Jesus’ words: “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you.” For it is not God’s way for man to suffer and face things alone. Man just was not created that way. We were created to love and be loved, have relationships, and live among, and with, others as Jesus lives with God. We can live in the promise of Jesus and in doing so we will never be alone.

According to scripture, Jesus answers orphan questions through love that is revealed and fulfilled by keeping his commandments. Most importantly, his new commandment: Loving our neighbors as ourselves, loving our enemies, and loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I ask you today to examine your score-card so to speak. Each of us needs to examine our lives and determine if we are keeping Jesus’ commandments. Do we live a life of transforming love? Letting it grow, transform, manifest, and expand into the world? Or are we falling victim to that fear of the time, living our lives literally in isolation, self-contained, as if we are living in an orphanage?

Even though aspects of this pandemic keep many of us secluded and self-isolated for health reasons, we should not feel as if we have been orphaned. Jesus made us a promise. He will send the Holy Spirit to live inside each of us so we will never be alone. His promise is just as real today as it was back then.

These words spoken of Mike Marsh, an Episcopal priest, in 2011, still ring true today…  “I will not leave you orphaned.” Over and over, day after day, regardless of what is happening in our lives that is Jesus’ promise. We have not been abandoned. Do not abandon yourselves or others to the orphanages of this world.”

So, in spite of whatever may be going on around us – individuals contracting illness and dying due to the pandemic, migrants detained and returned home, children being separated from their parents and left in detainment camps, or even worshippers not being able to meet for church in their buildings – we need to hold on to Jesus’ promise that we are not alone. It may feel like the world has abandoned us and we are all alone in our struggles, but if we love God, others and ourselves, we will never be orphaned and alone.

“Garbage In, Garbage Out”

August 16, 2020

Sermon by Scott Webster, Lay Minister

Today’s reading is from Matthew 15:10-20. Such a small part of the Scriptures, but such a huge implication in life.  What needs to be recognized here is what the beginning of Matthew 15 is all about.  Matthew 14 was describing the events that were unfolding before the people. Peter walking on water, the calming of the storm, and even the healing of the sick. 

After witnessing these events, the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus in a lie, asked Him, “Why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?” Seems like a normal, everyday question to ask.  Don’t you normally wash your hands before eating? And considering what they were all doing previously… fishing, healing the sick, etc. But Jesus knew their hearts and intentions and, in normal Christ-like character, began to respond to their question with questions of his own. Seems normal to me. How about you?

Our reading today is really about Jesus exposing the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. His questions were meant to expose their wickedness of heart because he knew they were using their own traditions as reasons to violate God’s commands. I think this passage is just as relevant to society today as it was then.

This particular text highlights the depravity of the human heart. So what does makes one sin? Is it the environment? Is it the people we associate with? Is it the devil that makes one sin? We are always looking for that one thing that is the source of our sin. However, in this passage, Jesus makes it very clear that the source, which we are so set on discovering, actually resides inside us. According to the teachings of Jesus, the most vial place in the world exists right inside the human heart.

As described in an article by Alyce McKenzie, a Methodist minister and a Professor of religious studies in Texas, “At the heart of this scripture lies a proverb….” She continues, “This saying of Jesus about what defiles is a paradoxical proverb, meant to undercut the way we habitually look at things.”  She wasn’t too far off the mark.  Most of Jesus’ teachings with parables often dealt with pairings. For example, wisdom paired with foolish behavior often ends with unwanted results.

When I was a college student in the ‘90s, I had a huge interest in computer science and programming languages. In fact, I was such a computer geek as we were known at that time, that at the peak of my college years I was able to program in no less than 10 computer languages.  What I most remember from that time in college, was a very popular proverb created by computer operators: “Garbage in, garbage out.” 

Programming was very intensive, particular, and precise. It didn’t take long to learn that if you input the wrong code into the program you were writing, you would get completely unexpected and unwanted results. Sometimes it would cause the entire computer to crash without warning. This was not by any means desirable. In fact, it turned me from a programmer into a code detective real fast. This is where I took the phrase for my sermon title today, “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”

There are actually two aspects of this scripture reading for today that deserve attention. The first comments on adhering to false doctrines; the other on the condition of the human heart. 

According to commentator J.C. Ryle, “Our Lord declares that it is a duty to oppose [false doctrine,] that its final destruction is sure, and that its teachers ought to be forsaken.” 

This is why in verses 13 and 14, Jesus “shrugged it off,” and tells his disciples when referring to the Pharisees: “Every tree that wasn’t planted by my Father in heaven will be pulled up by its roots. Forget them. They are blind men leading blind men. When a blind man leads a blind man, they both end up in the ditch.”

Most of us recognize this as being the type of response Jesus used when dealing with the Pharisees and religious rulers of the time. But the second aspect of this passage deals with the paradoxical proverb which the Message so eloquently puts it: “It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up.” 

Even Peter had a hard time with this one. It is no wonder that we often overlook this aspect during everyday life.  I learned this proverb a long time ago in a little different way: “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

So, what is happening in the passage?  Jesus was trying to teach the crowd that what comes from the mouth is not simply thoughts, but could actually be negative and harmful words which express darkness in the heart. The words we speak come from our hearts. Those words are often directed to someone else’s heart. Ever hear of a heart-to-heart conversation?

Don’t be fooled. Words can leach into the heart much like poison in a well.  If we are filling our hearts with all the negative, vial, terrifying things, it stands to reason that those will be the things that come out of our mouths as well.

But a pure heart is a different story. When we feast on the bread of life, our hearts are purified, and loving words will flow out of the mouth.

In Psalms there is description of what is required to enter into God’s presence.  The Temple can only be entered by one who has “clean hands and a pure heart.” So we can see, clean hands alone as the Pharisees were pointing out, are simply not enough. It takes both hands and heart.

The pure in heart are those who consistently and repeatedly allow God to cleanse them of the negative, vial, and unclean thoughts, images, and actions. For you see, if there is darkness in your heart, the mouth will surely reveal it.

According to McKenzie, “The pure in heart recognize their need for God; they empathize with and extend comfort to others; [and,] their lives are graced by daily deeds of compassionate forgiveness to those who wrong them. When our hearts are pure, and our words are loving, our deeds usually follow [suite].”

Remember how I said that Jesus liked to use paradoxical proverbs?  With this particular proverb, He is telling the people that purification does not come from the physical… washing our hands or making sure what we eat is clean… but rather it is what comes out of the mouth that purifies a person. Good and evil do not originate from the food supply but from the heart.

The defilement of the stomach cannot compare with darkness in the heart. The filthy darkness of our hearts always leaches into the words of our mouths. But no matter the condition of the heart, the words of our mouths control the deeds of our hands.

I am sure that all of you have heard the childish chant, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Which usually ends in a tongued raspberry—but as one that suffered through bullying—I can honestly say that the chant is definitely a lie! I’m sure we have all been wounded by thoughtless or hateful words. Sometimes words of this nature can lead to violence, or even murder.

I once read a devotional that seemed to put things in real perspective. The article talked about how everybody has problems with speech: some say too much, some gossip, some lie, some take the Lord’s name in vain, others exaggerate, distort, slander, wound, curse, or are often crude in nature …. The list could go on and on because often for many the tongue can get away from us.

The devotional goes on to say, “Part of the problem is that our mouths often let fly what is unredeemed in our hearts. Another part of the problem is that we don’t think about what we’re going to say before we speak it. [And yet] still another part of the problem is that we do think [about] what we would say to wound, hurt, or get back at someone; then, when we are given the opportunity, we say it,” usually out of spite.

Purity is an ongoing struggle. Jesus is saying don’t make it so simple, so external, that it is just a matter of what you eat. Externals may be nice for traditions, but they do nothing to fulfill redemption.

So instead of trying to blame everyone – or everything – else, for the way we speak or act, let us instead focus our attention on the human heart where the real problem lies.  We need to, in a sense, debug and reprogram our hearts so as to avoid the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” paradox of our lives.

Let’s pray…

Holy God, forgive us for wanting a cheap, quick fix to the problems of our hearts’ purity and imperfections. We want, no we need, you to redeem our hearts. We commit today to avoid what can pollute, putrefy, and poison our hearts towards you and your children, and we ask for the power of the Spirit to help us with this commitment. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.