A Rule of Life

A Sermon for 10 September 2017

A reading from Exodus 12:1-14.  This may be familiar to you as it is a reading assigned each year for Christians to hear on Maundy Thursday.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.  If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.  Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.  They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.  They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.  10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.  11 This is how you shall eat it:  your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.  It is the passover of the Lord.  12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments:  I am the Lord.  13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live:  when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.  14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.  You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.

 

Today in Sunday School we learned about the Rule of Life.  I know it’s not entirely fair to tell you about it after the fact, but it is Christian Education Kick Off Sunday.  Maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to plan to attend adult Sunday School in the weeks to come!  And if you’ve already been there, see if I miss anything important!  . . .  The Rule of Life is an ancient practice, sometimes referred to as living life by a Spiritual or Sacred Rhythm.  The idea of a Rule of Life is to arrange our lives for spiritual transformation.  We commit to particular daily, weekly, monthly, even annual practices to keep ourselves open and available to God.  We set a framework for our lives with time for God to come in and do what only God can do.  Thus, we participate in the miracle and mystery that is spiritual transformation.  Day after day practicing certain spiritual disciplines like centering prayer or daily scripture reading or even a particular weekly service project in the community undertaken as a part of one’s Rule of Life to give God the space to show up in ways we can’t anticipate to work on us from the inside out.

As we were reminded in class today, we live in a world of rhythms.  The waves ebb and flow.  The seasons change predictably from summer to autumn to winter to spring.  Even our breath is a rhythm – and our heartbeat and our brain waves.  All are necessary rhythms we cannot live without.  Ruth Haley Barton claims that there are rhythms that are so necessary for us spiritually that “if they are not present in our lives, we probably are spiritually dead” (Sacred Rhythms DVD, Session 6, Learn In).  If we are not practicing solitude which simply is time alone each day with God if even for only 10 minutes.  If we fail to carve out this time with God, we soon will feel cut off completely from our Source.  If we never allow ourselves to get quiet to listen in a daily practice of silence, how will God have the chance to energize, as well as stretch us?  . . .  The idea of The Rule of Life is to arrange our lives according to our deepest longings . . . our spirit’s deepest desires for God – be it peace or connection or love.  In our lesson today, we were reminded that the great spiritual leader Thomas Merton once wrote:  “Ask me what I am living for and what is keeping me from living fully for that” (Ibid.).  Who among us isn’t willing to arrange our lives for what we really want?  . . .  For children of God, hopefully among our deepest longings is a desire for God.  Maybe it’s to bring delight to the Divine, or to live a little bit more like Christ in order to experience abundant life now, or just to go deeper into union with God which will lead us out into the world renewed.

In the Exodus reading for today, the people of God are being instructed in a practice that will be an annual part of their Rule of Life.  It will be a communal practice – something whole households will do together each year as a remembrance of the night of God’s decisive action.  We likely have heard of Passover; the high Holy Day our Jewish ancestors still observe not only to remember the past, but also to keep themselves open and available to God today.  When at last Moses went to the Egypt’s Pharaoh to deliver God’s message to let God’s people go, the command was met with defiance.  No way was Pharaoh about to give up the free labor the Israelites were forced to provide.  According to the story, it would take ten miraculous acts before the slaves were liberated – the tenth being an act so violent that many of us have difficulty reconciling the destruction of the firstborn of every creature living in Egypt as an act undertaken by God.  The Passover is instituted as the blood of a spot-less male lamb hurriedly is splashed over the door of each Hebrew home.  Thus, the blood was a sign for no harm to come upon that house.  Its inhabitants belonged not to the Pharaoh, but to God.  And the ones inside had better be ready.  Loins girded, sandals on their feet, dough not yet risen in the bowl.  When at last freedom came, it was a dash out into the night at Pharaoh’s request to go!

Passover is an annual practice in a Rule of Life centered around the freedom we have in God.  It is essential because it defines the people of God.  We can read the whole Exodus story as a clash between two Sovereigns – or between One Holy, High Sovereign and another who just thinks he is.  Soon enough we’ll get to the ten commandments with its classic thou shall have no other gods before me.  Freed from the chains of Egypt’s claims; the people of God need an annual, weekly, and even a daily practice to know the One to whom they really belong.  They need to arrange their new lives in such a way that they never forget.  They belong to the Sovereign who acted for their benefit and continues to do so every day.  It’s our story too so that our Rules of Life, our own Sacred Rhythms demand rest in order to know the Master to whom we always have belonged.  One who desires us deeply enough to ensure praise to our Creator ever remains on our lips.

In that light, it might be high time we each got clear about our own Rule of Life – if we don’t already have a Sacred Rhythm to which we have fully committed.  It doesn’t have to be something imposed upon us.  In our class lesson today, we learned the characteristics of effective rhythms.  Things we must keep in mind as we arrange our lives to stay open and available to God.  Connected rightly to our Source.  Our Sacred Rhythms need to be personal to us.  I would argue that there are certain disciplines disciples of Christ need in our lives.  Like, we need to commit to weekly worship – gathering with one another when our hearts are full of gratitude, when they’re breaking, and even when they are bored.  And we need practices for our days that uniquely feed us.  I have to be outside in silence with God for at least ten minutes each day.  When I’m not, the souls of my feet cry out for the feel of the grass under them.  I know someone who creates a mandala – a circle of wholeness from whatever bits of nature she finds each Sunday outside on a walk through her yard.  Maybe you have to use your body to create music or movement or a beautiful work of art.  Commit to it as a spiritual practice – as a time in which God can show up to work in you.  It doesn’t have to be a lot of things each day.  Don’t overcommit.  One daily spiritual practice is enough.  We might even re-purpose things of our lives that we already do but do them now with the intention of allowing that act to keep us open and available to God.  The spiritual life isn’t about practices that bore us to tears.  I suggest building monthly review into our Rules of Life so we can assess now and again and change course as needed.

A good Rule of Life is realistic about the demands of our lives.  If we’re working a job that takes us out of the house for twelve hours each day, it’s likely we won’t have anything left for an extended time of silence every night.  In those circumstances, it’s unrealistic and shouldn’t be attempted.  Last week in Sunday School, we learned about the practice called the Examen.  A practice I once heard referred to as sleeping with bread.  Ten minutes before bed – maybe even as you’re brushing your teeth and getting yourself ready on auto-pilot at night, or in the morning if that works better for you – review the past twenty-four hours with God.  Name how you woke up, what you did to care for your body, how you interacted with others, and even what you did throughout the hours of your day.  Look for traces in your day of seeing the Spirit of God at work – surprising you, guiding you, maybe even making you a little bit better at handling life’s situations – which is evidence of the Spirit’s expansion in you.  Confess before God the ways you weren’t who you wished you would be.  And commit to beginning again tomorrow.  Then simply thank God for every breath of your day as you lay your head down for the refreshment of the night.  The Examen is a simple enough spiritual practice to make a part of one’s Rule of Life.  Over time, it can bring us great wisdom and deeper compassion for ourselves and others too.

We’ve got to make sure the practices to which we commit are life-giving to us.  It’s a good idea as well to take on one practice that stretches us a bit to keep ourselves growing towards wholeness.  People who lose themselves in talking with others, need the discipline of silent time alone with God.  And those of us who otherwise would ignore our bodies, need to take a holy walk around the block to feel the way God amazingly created this home that is us.  In it all, we must remember grace.  Rules of Life are not meant to enslave us.  We must hold them flexibly – knowing some days unexpected events occur.  Tomorrow we can get back to our Rule again.  . . . It’s how we stay alive with God as God lives more fully in us.  How we keep connected to our Source and remember the Master to whom we really do belong.  We don’t need to make ourselves into some other people for God.  We only need to arrange our lives in ways that keep us open and available.  Just like in Egypt, we can trust; God will do the rest.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

Outside

A Sermon for 20 August 2017

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 15:10-28.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:  11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  13Jesus answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.  14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.  And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”  15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”  16Then Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding?  17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?  18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”  21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  23But Jesus did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  24Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.

 

Fifteen years ago, right after the beginning of the 21st Century, Charles Campbell – then preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary and now at Duke Divinity School – wrote these words:  “The church is called intentionally and habitually to move out of the places of security and comfort into those ‘unclean’ places where Jesus suffers ‘outside the gate of the sacred compounds,’ whether those compounds are shaped by religion or class or race or culture.  . . .  Through dislocation, privileged Christians cross the boundaries that keep the privileged and oppressed apart and take a first step toward solidarity . . . which, in a consumer culture, is one way of radically contesting the Domination System” (Charles L. Campbell, The Word before the Powers:  An Ethic of Preaching, WJKP, 2002).  . . .  “The church,” he urged, “intentionally and habitually” is to move outside.  Beyond itself.  Beyond the gates of safety in the land of the known.  Outside to where we will encounter the outsider.  Not just for their benefit, but for the mutual benefit of us all.

What happens when we venture forth outside – outside the familiarity of our typical circle?  Outside the comfort of being among people whom we perceive to be like us?  Outside – beyond the boundaries we tend to keep between ourselves and those who are unknown?  . . .

Look what happened with Jesus.  . . .  Before us today is a timely text.  Religious leaders come from Jerusalem to Jesus in Galilee.  They’re concerned he’s letting his disciples break the traditions of their elders.  Stepping outside the norms of their people as they fail to wash their hands before they eat.  Whether their violation has to do with the act of washing hands before the weekly Sabbath meal, or unclean hands passing out bread and fish to 5,000 men plus women and children at Tabgha; it’s clear.  Tension is building over who does what to show all they are insiders and who does not.

I realize hand washing may seem minute to us today, but the traditions of the elders of Jesus’ people were in place for good reason.  Such rituals were practiced as a part of their culture – the acts that defined them as a people, which was especially important to them when not everyone living around the land was Jewish.  Beside them now were gentiles of Rome, soldiers and supporters who were not of their own kind.  We know there were Samaritans smack dab between Galilee and Jerusalem with whom ancient feuds festered.  And, as we learn in the story of Matthew before us today, not far from their beloved land still lived Canaanites, the original folks dwelling in the land whom their ancestors had driven out.

It’s interesting that the gospel of Matthew describes the woman Jesus soon will encounter as a Canaanite, whereas the gospel of Mark refers to the same woman as a Syrophoenician (Mark 7:26).  You might remember that when God promised the land west of the Jordan River to the Israelites who had been forty years in the wilderness, the people were afraid.  The spies of Israel came back to tell Moses and the people that the land of Canaan was abundant in luscious fruit.  But the inhabitants of the land were fierce, large people.  Not one Israelite had courage enough to enter the land of Canaan because they felt like insignificant “grasshoppers” next to such strong inhabitants (Numbers 13:23-33).  Listeners to Matthew’s telling of the story likely were aware this son of the great King David would be up against a giant as fierce as the one David was up against in Goliath.  A Canaanite woman who was not about to back down was coming after Jesus.  Likely the encounter would not be easy – not even for our Lord.

He went their anyway.  Intentionally.  He dislocated himself and his disciples out of the safety of their known land of Galilee to Tyre and Sidon, where non-Israelites lived.  Roman port cities on the eastern Mediterranean in Jesus’ day, Jesus may have known of the great spiritual hunger in the people of that land.  According to the gospel of Mark (3:8) and the gospel of Luke (6:17); early in his ministry, people from Tyre and Sidon came to Jesus for healing.  Traveling now to them, seemingly intentionally after friction between him and Jerusalem’s religious leaders; it could not have been possible that Jesus believed he’d go unnoticed.  . . .  Silence is his first response to the fierce mother calling out for her daughter’s life.  His disciples definitely do not want to get involved.  It’s hard to reconcile the racially charged exchanges here in this story.  Though he’s intentionally traveled outside, Jesus tells his disciples he’s been sent only for those lost in the house of Israel (Mt. 15:24).  Was he trying to set up a powerful object lesson for his listeners?  Or was Jesus really not yet clear that there was food enough for those outside of their own house as well?  The text never really clarifies.  What we do learn is that encounter matters.  When that momma, whose daughter has been tormented, throws herself at Jesus’ feet, her request cannot be denied.  When she will not allow her need to go unnoticed, Jesus sees past any outward appearance into a heart that firmly trusts that grace is big enough to include her too.  It is as if the encounter leaves all understanding that something deeper binds us.  Pain is pain.  Tears are tears.  Furious mother love is furious mother love whoever you are.  No matter the language you speak.  The race with which you identify.  Or the land from where you come.  Something deeper binds us one to another.  O for a world in which we all finally would see.

In a meditation taken from A New Way of Seeing, A New Way of Being:  Jesus and Paul, Richard Rohr writes:  “It is an openness to the other – as other – that frees us . . . It is always an encounter with otherness that changes me.  If I am not open to the beyond-me, I’m in trouble.  Without the other, we are all trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors that only validates and deepens our limited and already existing worldviews.  When there is the encounter with the other, when there is mutuality, when there is presence, when there is giving and receiving, and both are changed in that encounter; that is the moment when you can begin to move toward transformation . . . – to ‘change forms.’  When you allow other people or events to change you, you look back at life with new and different eyes.  That is the only real meaning of human growth.”  Rohr goes on by writing:  “One could say that the central theme of the biblical revelation is to call people to encounters with otherness:  the alien, the sinner, the Samaritan, the Gentile, the hidden and denied self, angels unaware.  And all of these are perhaps in preparation and training for hopeful meetings with the Absolute Other (with God).  We need practice in moving outside of our comfort zones.  It is never a natural or easy response” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation:  “Intimate with Otherness;” from Center for Action & Contemplation; 14 August 2014).

It certainly doesn’t seem an easy encounter for Jesus and his disciples.  It won’t always be for us either.  And yet we go.  We dis-locate ourselves outside ourselves to encounter whoever we might meet.  We go, trusting the Absolute Other to bless us all.

In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (all rights reserved.)

 

Separation Anxiety

A Sermon for 30 July 2017 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 8:26-39

A reading from the letter to the Christians in Rome 8:26-39 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

  28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  29 For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that the Son might be the firstborn within a large family.  30 And those whom God predestined God also called; and those whom God called God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified.  31 What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?  32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  34 Who is to condemn?  It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  36 As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’   37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Remember when your little ones were toddlers and they were all clinging?  A few of you are living through this phase right now and could tell us all about it.  I once rescued a teacup poodle who never did grow out of this stage.  He just couldn’t stand being away from me.  It’s the time before little ones, and rescued dogs, know that you will be coming back to them.  Life is experiential for them.  Pre-cognitive.  You certainly can’t reason with them that daddy’s just going away for a little bit.  Or momma will be right back.  Their little brains don’t yet know that things exist away from them.  As you try to drop them off at daycare or their grandparents’ house or anywhere for a few hours while you go out for a relaxing dinner; their grip around your neck tightens as the screams get louder and the tears flow.  It’s separation anxiety – a stage every little one goes through.

Being separated from one you love can be a very scary thing.  I’ll never forget the time when my sister who is two years older than me got separated from our family.  We were in a big department store at a huge mall in an even bigger city far from home.  She was around six or seven years old and the next thing we knew, she was gone.  My parents had some experience with this as it seemed I would get stuck every week on aisle three in the local grocery store when I got drug along shopping with my mom.  I couldn’t resist poking holes with my little kid hand through every roll in the toilet paper packs.  Mom of course wouldn’t let me do such a destructive, disrespectful act so I’d find a way to hang back while she went on to the next aisle.  Only once in all those years did I ever get so separated from her that I couldn’t catch up with her a few aisles down.  But this with my sister was different.  The city we were in was huge and everyone there were strangers to us.  We rarely went to that great big department store.  And even though I was too young yet to read much, I knew those faces of children on the milk cartons.  Boys and girls who somehow got separated from their parents – many of them missing for years according the snap shots on the cartons.  I was sure my sister’s photo would be on the very next batch.  It was terrifying.  Certainly some of you have gone through a similar experience and know firsthand that being separated like that is one of the worst feelings in the world.

My sister was found and returned to us a few hours later.  But I can’t help thinking about those who live separated each day.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind as one who experienced the extremes of separation.  Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor born in 1906 and hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945.  From the start he was in opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews.  Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler in pleas to his fellow Germans to consider that the rhetoric of Hitler was incredibly misguided.  After Hitler found a way to infiltrate the German Lutheran church, Bonhoeffer was a key organizer in the oppositional Confessing Church which would create “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” a confession in the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions, in which Christ alone is hailed as Lord – not Hitler or any other representative of the state.  . . .  The Confessing Church was a small but mighty force, led by Bonhoeffer and others, against the Nazi government.  To keep him in check, Hitler eventually arrested Pastor Bonhoeffer.  Separated from his church and family, it would have been easy for Bonhoeffer to feel abandoned too by God.  Cut off completely.  But, legend has it that he kept himself going in prison with the hymns and scripture verses he would bring to mind.  He must have turned that time of separation into communion with God instead.  Convinced, even in those extreme conditions, that he was not separated from God.  How can we ever really be when God lives in and around us always?  . . .  Similar to the first Christians imprisoned for speaking out against the empire, Bonhoeffer continued to spread the message to fellow inmates and guards – acts that got him moved to Buchenwald concentration camp and then to Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was condemned to death by the state and hanged just two weeks prior to US forces liberating the camp.  In every way, this was a man cut off from his previous life.  Separated from those he loved, the pre-Nazi German homeland he cherished, and freedom itself.  Still, a man who saw his execution writes:  “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer . . . kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God.  I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution (which he was marched to naked), he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.”  The on-looker writes:  “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer).  In spite everything, Bonhoeffer clearly knew from One he was not separated at all!

We’ve got to wonder if Bonhoeffer held the words from Romans in his heart that day – and every day of his valiant life in which he sought to follow our Lord Jesus Christ.  The words from Romans chapter 8:  “What then are we to say about these things.  If God is for us, who is against us?  . . .  Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  (Romans 8:31, 35).  . . .  It’s true, isn’t it, that we go through our days often feeling very separated from God.  Like lost little children, not as connected as we’d like to be to our Gracious Parent who created us, and loves us, and wants us to live each day in the goodness of God’s great love for us.  Too many of us live like those far from a sense of home in God.  Or maybe even as those up against horrors almost as trying as life in Nazi Germany.  So many of us feel separated from God – anxious if God even exists, or if God really cares enough about us not to leave us all alone.  We’re aware of that swirl of unrest in the pit of our stomachs.  It is a part of being human, that we’ll feel separated from God and at times even doubt God’s true existence.  It’s a terrible way to live – feeling cut off like that.  Sometimes we just have to keep telling ourselves an alternate truth until it seems real in our hearts and in our minds.  Like the old saying:  fake it ‘til you make it.  Or:  repeat it often enough until the truth of God’s steadfast, ever-present love sinks down deep into every fiber of our being.  Nothing able to separate us from that.  Nothing able to keep us from the goodness of God’s unconditional, eternal love for each one of us.  Nothing!

That’s God’s promise to us.  Captured in the beautiful words of Romans 8 that NOTHING “in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).  Nothing!  Not our struggles.  Not our doubts.  Not our wanderings.  Not any trial that comes our way.  Not even our very selves.  . . .  We often hear these words at funerals – or at the side of loved ones who are on their deathbeds.  They are a wonderful balm to troubled souls.  But it’s not just in the face of death that we need this reminder, is it?  We need it every day – to combat our separation anxiety.  To remember that no matter what happens to us in that day, no matter how much we mess up as disciples of Christ, no matter how others might put us in positions that really could shatter our faith.  No matter what anyone else might say or do to convince us otherwise.  The love of God will never be taken from us.  We’ll never be separated from our great God – even if it feels like it.  That’s our perspective, not God’s.  That feeling is a signal to us that something in our actions or our understandings need to change.  With a sure and steady hope, we can know that God’s love is faithful still.  We’ve no need to fear because we never, ever, ever could wander off so far from the love of God that we would be separated from it.  Never.  . . .  It’s news good enough to allow someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to speak out without fear against the evils of the world.  It’s news good enough to sooth any angst in us.  It’s news good enough to move us out into this world reminding others too of the amazing truth!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Jacob, the Dreamer

A Sermon for 23 July 2017

 

A reading from Genesis 28:10-19a.  Listen for God’s word to us as we continue our summer readings from Genesis about our ancestors in faith.  Listen.

“Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.  11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”  17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  19 He called that place Bethel.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

 

It’s so amazing that Scripture gives us not just the stories of our faith ancestors, but also their dreams.  In the bible, we’re told of waking dreams, or visions, as often they are referred to.  We hear of messages from God which were heard and seen.  And we’re given insight into God’s relationship with God’s people as we learn of the wisdom that came to them in their nighttime dreams.  Along with cultures from the beginning of time, Hebrew belief in God’s messages through dreams was common.  And it’s not just through Jacob, Joseph, and others like the Hebrew prophets.  If it hadn’t been for another Hebrew man paying close attention to his dreams, Jesus would have been born to a young divorcée – if pregnant Mary would have been allowed to live had Joseph gone through with his initial plan.

“In the third century (CE) in the East, Origen wrote that God provided dreams ‘for the benefit of the one who had the dream and for those who hear the account of it’” (Our Dreaming Mind, Robert L. Van De Castle, p. 74).  In the third century in the West, Tertullian declared that “’Almost the greater part of mankind get their knowledge of God from dreams’” (Ibid., p. 78).  Then, in the fourth century in the West, Saint Jerome had what’s often referred to as a big dream.  One which he unfortunately understood literally so that it shook him to the core.  In the dream, he was dragged before a judgement seat and asked to profess his identity.  You see, Saint Jerome was an avid reader who had been born to a wealthy family.  He treasured reading what was considered the pagan classics.  In the dream, a merciless judge orders Jerome scourged.  He awakened from his terror only after vowing never to read anything but the books of God.  Later in life when he was called upon by the Pope to come translate the bible into Latin, Jerome mysterious mistranslated a Hebrew word three out of ten times in his manuscript known as the Vulgate.  It remained “the authoritative Latin version of the bible until the twentieth century” (Ibid., pp. 78-79).  So, for sixteen hundred years, the Western Church’s understanding of dreams has rested on what seems to be a deliberate inaccuracy.  We’ve been robbed of the treasure of God’s messages to us that come when we know how to listen to the wisdom of our dreams.  Thanks to the work of folks like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and a whole host of others; Christians in the Western world finally are re-discovering God’s wisdom that comes to us every night in our dreams.

Take, for instance, the wisdom from God in Jacob’s dream – a dream we can take on as our own to see how its truths resonate in us.  I’m not sure what Jacob would have entitled this dream if he were writing it in his dream journal:  Angels on the Ladder?  Sleeping on Holy Ground?  Or maybe Zepplin’s famous phrase:  “Stairway to Heaven.”  We do know the date he’d give:  the family mess of his waking life context when his dying father sent him away from home with the stolen blessing.  This is the brother who engendered favor not in the eyes of his game-loving father but in the eyes of his more introspective, homebody mother Rebekah.  This is the brother that swindled his older twin out of his birthright.  This is the brother who by his mother’s plan again stirred up trouble between him and his elder twin Esau.  When their father was on his deathbed, Rebekah overheard Isaac’s charge to Esau to go hunt game to prepare him dinner that he might confer on his beloved eldest son his blessing.  By the way, the blessing ensured abundance for the eldest male heir who was supposed to receive it.  It gave every wealth of the father to his eldest boy.  And in this case, Isaac gave the blessing for God to make his son’s life sweet with the bounty of the land, the service of all other nations to the blessed, and the rule of the blessed over every other sibling.  After igniting the hatred of Esau and likely the anger of his father, Jacob was sent away to get for himself a wife from the descendants of his mother’s father.  Way far to the north and then east he was to travel, beyond the other end of the country, where his grandfather Abraham first stopped when he was called from Ur of the Chaldeans.  Whether Jacob knew it or not, his fate-filled night ended near the same spot where his grandfather had built a second altar (Gen. 12:8) and where after returning from Egypt, Abraham had to part ways with his nephew Lot (Gen. 13:1-9).  As surely as rocks carry in them the history of the earth, Jacob finds the sun setting for the night in the land where his grandfather pitched his tent, built an altar, and invoked the name of the LORD (Gen. 12:8).  There Jacob finds a rock for his pillow and lays down alone for the night.  If this were a movie, the music would crescendo for the audience to know something big is about to take place.

In this dream, a ladder is set up on earth.  It reaches straight up into the sky.  On it are angels, supposedly hovering up and down which seems to indicate presences that already were here on the earth and others that were on high.  And they’re all just covering this ladder – why?  To get the dreamer’s attention?  To herald the Presence of another?  What does a ladder grounded in the earth reaching straight up into the sky symbolize?  If this were my dream, I would be curious about the mundane parts of my daily life needing to come together with the loftier parts of the Beyond.  Like maybe how to allow the Spiritual to guide the regular parts of life like getting along with a brother and being honest with parents.  As earth often reminds us of mother or the feminine, and sky traditionally has been known as the masculine or father; if this were my dream, I would wonder how the energies of feminine and masculine need to come together in my life.  How the balance of receiving and giving truly is holy.  God shows up in this dream – though we don’t get any description of how God looks to Jacob in the dream.  It’s interesting that the words spoken by God to Jacob mirror closely the words with which his father Isaac blessed him.  If this were my dream, I would wonder about the parallel between my earthly father and this Divine father-like Voice.  For the one had just coldly sent Jacob away after the blessing.  While the other clearly covenants never to leave him until all that has been promised is done.  It’s significant too, if this were my dream, that the One doing the blessing in the dream evokes the name of the ancestors (my how we could use their wisdom and courage and inspiration!).  “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham,” Jacob hears as he’s sleeping on ground once trod by his family’s patriarch (Gen. 28:13).  And note exactly the words used in the dream:  “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Ibid.).  If this were my dream, I would be in awe that the Divine is tying my destiny to the same given to Abraham – the father of offspring more numerous than the stars of the skies.  If there was any sorrow over the brokenness remaining between Jacob and his earthly father Isaac because of Jacob’s conniving against his brother; well, it would seem this dream is engrafting Jacob back into the family’s original, God-given plan.  It would seem any sense of separation from God or others that Jacob might be carrying from the guilt of his actions; well, doesn’t this dream give a beautiful vision instead of a Holy One that sticks closer than any earthly father.  A Holy One who knows how to re-work a broken life for purposes that will bless the ends of the earth.

Whatever ah-has come to Jacob from his dream – the awareness that the very earth on which he lays is holy – is the site of encountering the LORD; he carries the dream into his waking life.  Early in the morning, he rises.  He takes the stone – that stone upon which he laid his head to be open to such wisdom; that stone from the same land where grandfather Abraham built an altar.  Jacob takes the stone and sets it up as a pillar.  Anointing it with oil perhaps as a sign of healing, or maybe like an act of coronation; Jacob calls out Bethel:  House of God – the home in which the banished son now knows he is welcome.  The story goes on to tell us what he does next:  “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.’  Then Jacob went on his journey” (Gen. 28:20-29:1a).  Thanks to the wisdom of his dreams, he knew the next steps to take.  Thanks to the wisdom of his dream for us, we too know the One with whom we are home.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

The Soil of the Heart

A Sermon for 16 July 2017

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.  2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.  3And he told them many things in parables, saying:  “Listen!  A sower went out to sow.  4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.  6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  9Let anyone with ears listen!”  . . .  “Hear then the parable of the sower.  19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.  20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.  22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.  23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Though the parable of Jesus focuses on soil; instead, I’ve been thinking this week about hearts.  Our hearts.  . . .  What an amazing organ right there in our chests!  Some of us are incredibly heart conscious.  Perhaps our doctor told us it was time to be so.  Maybe we’ve a history of heart problems in our family and want to be extra careful.  Or maybe our bodies took care of the message directly that scary day we felt the clenching pains in our chest and couldn’t get to the emergency room fast enough.  . . .  How attuned are you to your own heart?  When’s the last time, maybe lying in bed before drifting off to sleep or before dashing up to start your day.  Have you ever just stopped long enough.  Putting your hands on the center of your chest to tune in deeply to the rhythms of your own heart?  Feel free to do so during this sermon if you’ve never tried it.  Just place your hands over your chest.  Breathe in deeply.  And notice what you feel below the palms of your hands, your ribs, your lungs, and all the way into your heart.  . . .

Over the years, it’s been a great joy to watch various people.  To see how they live because of what’s happening in their hearts.  . . .  I could tell stories of so many friends and family members – I bet you could too.  Like, have you ever known a person who approaches life so rationally, with their head, that they have no idea what’s taking place in their heart?  It’s the classic story of the Bookworm who knows so much information from the stacks she’s devoured, but can’t make eye contact with another human being the minute her nose is forced from a book.  Or the resolved moneymaker who has no room inside for emotions because they just get in the way of the bottom line.  It’s why Charles Dickens’ Scrooge is such an iconic figure.  Described thus:  “the cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, as he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice, bah humbug” (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebenezer_Scrooge).  . . .  Perhaps you’ve encountered the person so battered from life that their heart is razor sharp.  Certainly, we’ve met this one, though often we go running from their jagged edges before we have a chance to come to understand just what has made them so.  It’s the bitter old neighbor who won’t even open his door to the sweet Girl Scouts in their cute uniforms who just are trying to sell their Thin Mints.  It’s too much to bear the sorrow of his tragedies.  Anger sprouts instead.  Underneath all the lashing out, great pain festers.  . . .  I’m fortunate not to have been around too many worriers when I was young.  You know if you’re one.  Worriers’ hearts are full with so many different concerns that they just spin like whirling tops.  All the good gets choked out.  . . .  There are the folks with calloused hearts that melt instantly as soon as a baby enters the room, or a puppy’s brought in, or any number of irresistible furry friends pop up.  The other night during our Pathway to Renewal discussion, we brought up a Pet Social – an event a local church is hosting – perhaps because pets make it a little bit easier for strangers to feel welcome.  Like it’s safer to engage another human being with our faithful four-legged friend at our side.  We know today that those imprisoned for horrible crimes against humanity can be given a cute, cuddly puppy to train as a way to reach past the scars left in them from violent childhoods that hardened them into violent offenders.  . . .  Yes.  What’s happening in our hearts deeply impacts how we live our lives.

It’s not exactly the way Jesus put it.  After all, he was using a metaphor his listeners knew about in order to reach their insides.  In order to impact what was going on in their hearts.  . . .  “Let anyone with ears listen,” he says.  Because he wants disciples who hear the message of God’s love and have wide open hearts.  He wants us to have space within to let grace move us.  To have hearts able to soak in such goodness that we turn about to live lives overflowing with abundant fruit.

Recently I read about observations of a generation of children from an economically depressed region in Eastern Europe (The Biology of Belief, Bruce H. Lipton, pp. 192-3).  The culture encourages families to keep having babies – even if they end up with more children than they can feed.  Sooner or later families realize they can’t possibly sustain life for them all; so, in droves, unwanted children are abandoned at orphanages.  There they are raised with all the food they need, beds in which to sleep, and shelter from the harsh conditions of being born into economically stretched families.  The dynamic has set up interesting conditions for researchers to do some comparisons.  Will children given all the basic needs for physical life grow up to be better off than the children that remain with their parents?  What they have found is shocking.  Across the board, the children who remained with their parents – even if they didn’t get as much food and physical shelter as the children left at the orphanage.  The children that grew up in their parents’ care had vital statistics that were 30% better than the children abandoned to orphanages.  Despite any lack the children with their parents might have experienced, they were healthier because the one thing the orphanage did not provide was love.  . . .  Love.  The gift that pumps freely in open, receptive hearts.

Perhaps it’s why, no matter the condition of our hearts, the sower keeps scattering the seed.  Did you notice that in Jesus’ parable?  The sower throws seed in every direction!  . . .  Jesus could have told a story about a sower who sought out the proper soil.  He could have painted the picture of the sower who kept the seed in his pouch as he passed over soil pressed down into the path, and soil overtaken with jagged rocks, and soil already infested with the weeds of the world.  Most of us would plant that way.  We’d find the best soil for our seeds.  Or we’d make it better soil first before expending the effort to plant.  . . .  My how our ways are not like Jesus’ generous sower.  The sower described by Jesus flings seed every which way until at last it gets into the place in which it can sprout and grow and flourish into abundance.  . . .  Which for us all is really good news.  Because if we take the time to attune to the condition of our own hearts, likely we will find that they change day to day, mood to mood, or maybe even moment after moment.  No matter.  The Sower showers us with the seeds of love hoping this will be the day it takes root to grow into lives overflowing in grace.  . . .  Let anyone with ears listen.  Whatever the condition of the soil of our hearts, we give great thanks for the abundant grace of the most Generous Sower!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

 

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

The Starfish Movement

A Sermon for 18 June 2017

 

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 9:35-10:23 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.  36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.  2These are the names of the twelve apostles:  first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.  5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  You received without payment; give without payment.  9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.  11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.  12As you enter the house, greet it.  13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.  15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.  16See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.  19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.  21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Have you heard of the difference between a spider and a starfish?  This is not a joke.  It’s a serious question posed in the book The Starfish and the Spider:  The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom).  In describing the findings of the book, the reader is told that “if you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies”  (https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B000TK5BQY/ref=tmm_aud_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1497557999&sr=8-1#audibleProductDescription_1497558171162).  Not much use left for a dead spider.  They just get swept up into the trash.  . . .  Starfish are different.  Starfish, or sea stars as scientists refer to them today, “are famous for their ability to regenerate limbs, and in some cases, entire bodies”  (www.animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/starfish/).  National Geographic explains that starfish “accomplish this by housing most or all of their vital organs in their arms.  Some require the central body to be intact to regenerate, but a few species can grow an entirely new (starfish) just from a portion of a severed limb” (Ibid.).  They’re remarkable too in that their stomachs actually can come out of their shells to envelop prey and digest it before returning back into its body.  But that’s just gross so who really wants to think about that.  Rather, the authors of The Starfish and the Spider would have us focus on their argument that “organizations fall into two categories:  “traditional ‘spiders,’ which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary ‘starfish,’ which rely on the power of peer relationships”  (see amazon.com reference above).  Any wonder which types do better in today’s growing culture of inter-dependence?  The Starfish and the Spider puts forth intriguing examples like how the Apaches fended off the powerful Spanish army for 200 years.  And the power of a simple circle.  The need today for catalysts with the uncanny ability to bring people together.  And even how Alcoholics Anonymous has reached millions without a top dog – just a shared ideology and those a bit further down the path of recovery reaching back to aid another along the way.  . . .  Starfish principles built upon the connection of peers, offer a whole different way to be together in the world.

Jesus obviously was a starfish man.  He knew God’s mission would be pointless if he approached it as a spider.  One slice of the head and it’ll all be over.  Instead, he went about calling people together.  Like the twelve we hear named in the gospel of Matthew:  Peter, Andrew, James and John.  Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddaeus and Simon and Judas too.  Jesus called into a circle ones he encouraged to follow that God’s mission might be regenerated after the catalyst of the movement was no longer physically present.  We don’t encounter all the details of what they did until after the stories of the gospels give way to the stories of the Acts of the Apostles.  But we do learn just a third of the way into the gospel of Matthew that Jesus sent out in his name these men.  According to this portion of the gospel, Jesus passed on the healing portion of God’s mission – casting out unclean spirits and curing every disease and sickness.  He instructed his followers to go to proclaim in word and deed the good news of a kingdom come near.  They were to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons” (Mt. 10:8).  They were to rely upon the goodness of their hosts, which God indeed would provide.  It wouldn’t always be easy – the world might seem a cruel and unreceptive place.  But the Spirit of God would be with them.  And, according to the gospel of Mark’s telling of the same occurrence, Jesus gave them each a partner (Mark 6:7).  Buddied up they went out as six different pairs to spread the healing work of Jesus further than he ever could have gone on his own.  The gospel of Mark also tells of their excited return (Mark 6:30-31), when Jesus tried to sweep them away for a retreat where they could rest and swop stories of all they had seen and done.  Truly Jesus was a starfish man.

The gospel of Matthew explains the need for that kind of shared power.  Jesus was busy fulfilling the mission of God, when the crowds moved him.  Matthew records:  “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36).  It is then that the plea arises for many laborers to be sent out into the plentiful harvest.  So Jesus calls twelve together to tell them to go out.  Brilliant.  Just brilliant to utilize starfish principles.  Enlisting in the work of God more than just himself!

It’s needed like that today.  For a long time, I think, we had it a bit confused.  That Jesus liked spiders over starfish.  Maybe a menacing hairy spider insisted it was so.  But it’s clear from his actions – his calling a whole dozen together – that his movement was going to take more than just one.  Peer-to-peer passing would be key.  And while each might have different gifts, we all get pointed in the same direction.  “Go!  Out there!” Jesus says.  “To the crowds for whom I have compassion.”  . . .  A hymn from the late 1990s says it best – and it’s from the Christians in Cuba so it has a really fun, get-your-toe-tapping, get-yourself-ready-to-get-on-out-of-your-seat beat.  The words go:  “sent out in Jesus’ name, our hands are ready now to make the earth the place in which the kingdom comes.  The angels cannot change a world of hurt and pain into a world of love, of justice and of peace.  The task is ours to do, to set it really free.  O help us to obey and carry out your will”  (“Sent Out in Jesus’ Name,” #2184 in Sing the Faith, 2003).  . . .  It’s still needed like that today.  That every one of us go forth into wherever we find ourselves each week.  We’re now the recruits in God’s healing mission.  The ones to be hope in the world.  There’s certainly enough news to remind us how desperately it is needed.  . . .  What can you do today to bring healing wherever you will go?  Can you speak a little gentler?  Listen a bit more intently?  Do you know what it feels like to hear words of encouragement when you feel like you just can’t go on?  Do you remember how sweet it feels when someone truly gives their undivided attention to the words you just have to get out of your heart?  Each one of us is capable of that kind of healing.  . . .  What about just being there when someone has a need?  “Two are better than one,” the wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds.  “For if they fall, one will lift up the other,” the words go on.  “But woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help” (Eccles. 4:9a, 10).  How many of the people you will encounter this week are alone?  I’m not just talking about people who aren’t married or don’t have children at home.  Because how many people too are surrounded daily in families, maybe even with loving spouses; and still they feel all alone?  There’s great power in someone just being present.  Letting us know they have our back.  That even if they can’t understand exactly who we are or what’s going on with us; they will remain, at our side, patiently, for however long it takes.  Can you calm with a gentle, welcomed touch?  Last week I met a chemo nurse who makes a point to go around the clinic every now and again just to offer simple shoulder massages to those there for treatment – but most often to her co-workers with tense shoulders who are able to hook up their next patient.  That’s a profound ministry of healing in a place that can feel like a living hell.    . . .  By the time we get to the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Risen and ascending Christ will give the command to go out into all the world.  But first he commanded his followers to go to their fellow Israelites – those all around them each day.  And it wasn’t some lofty command like baptize and teach.  First it was a ministry of compassion.  Healing however they could in his name.  It doesn’t always take the miraculous, magnificent acts.  Sometimes all that’s needed is us being fully human, which means being fully present in love to the fellow human being at our side.

That’s the power of the movement built on starfish principles.  The regeneration of his Way wherever we are each day.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

The Mystery of God

11 June 2017 – Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 28:16-20.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

What’s so intriguing about a mystery novel?  Some of you may like to read them, so you know better than me.  Why is it that in 2016, for the third year in a row, James Patterson was the highest paid author with earnings of $95 million pretax dollars?  (Forbes.com, August 23, 2016)  Why is it three of the top five highest paid authors are the mystery masters:  Stephen King, John Grisham, and James Patterson – with J.K. Rowling in spot three for her kind of wizarding, mysterious adventures? (www.forbes.com/pictures/578d3ba531358e0aa22e29b0/)  Something about a good mystery leaves us unable to put it down.  I still remember the night I went to Kroger at midnight to get me a copy of the last book of the Harry Potter series, then went home and read for something like 30 hours in a row just to see how it all would turn out.  . . .  Good mysteries reel us in . . . making our hearts race and our minds spin with twists and turns we never could anticipate.  Good mysteries suck us into the story of characters we find ourselves pulling for and plot lines we desperately try to figure out.  Good mysteries leave us dangling so that we have to turn the page, just to see what happens next!  Intrigue, suspense, surprise weave together to leave us on the edge of our seats begging for more!

Mystery is a good word on this liturgical day called Trinity Sunday.  This week, the daily devotional app D365 summarized it well:  “Our God is one – unity.  Our God is three – diversity.  Our God is three in one – mystery.  . . .  Therefore, “work for unity.  Engage diversity.  Welcome mystery.”   . . .  I keep hearing in my mind the words to that 18th Century Trinity hymn:  “Holy God, We Praise Your Name.”  Stanza four reads:  “Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit:  three we name you, while in essence only one; undivided God we claim you, and adoring, bend the knee while we own the mystery” (Glory to God, #4, Text attr. Ignaz Franz).  . . .  Seventeen hundred years ago, the church was fighting about the Mystery.  Though the Great Commission from the gospel of Matthew makes reference to baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it doesn’t explain the relationship between these three.  Nor does it seem to worry about delicately holding the tension of the three-yet-Oneness of God.  To make matters worse, the Trinity’s not clearly explained anywhere in scripture.  In fact, the word Trinity never is used.  The gospel of John’s farewell discourse of Jesus (chapters 14-17) might be the closest attempt to talk about this God that is in us even as we are in God, and Jesus is in God, and Jesus is in us, and another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be among us forever.  But that whole section can be more trouble than help.  . . .  We do have the second letter to the Christians in Corinth which closes with the message:  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:13); though the benediction isn’t really explaining Trinity as much as it is naming for the first followers of Christ’s Way the experience of the grace, love, and companionship of God – the various aspects of God that can be real in our lives.

Just what can we say about the mystery of the Triune God?  God:  the One creating like a loving father, Christ the One among us as the Way, and Holy Spirit the One in us and all living things.  . . .  Way back in the Fourth Century when esteemed Church Theologian Saint Augustine tried to explain the Trinity; all he could think of was a tree.  “The root is wood; the trunk is wood; the branches are wood,” Augustine explained.  “One wood, one substance but three different entities” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, Steven P. Eason, p. 46).  . . .  Certainly, you’ve heard for Trinity the egg illustration:  shell, egg white, yoke.  Three different parts, but all one egg.  Pinterest suggests using an apple in Sunday School today to describe the Trinity to children.  The peel is like God the Father, who protects us.  The flesh is like God the Son, because Jesus is God in-fleshed.  And the seeds are like the Holy Spirit, who helps us grow into all God wants us to be.  . . .  There’s always the three-leaf clover example, though that one doesn’t really make any sense for the Triune God, because it’s just one thing with the same three leaves – not one thing with three distinct persons or personas as the Greek often reminds.  . . .  I was taught as a child to draw God as a triangle – three equal sides.  But it never seemed just right because one point always ended up on top; and that never seemed quite fair.

Eastern Christianity depicts Trinity differently.  Three circles of the same size are intertwined to represent what’s been named the perichoresis of God:  the dancing around in great delight of three mutual beings.  God, the perichoresis, is the never-ending circle where the God beyond, among, and in us exists in joyous right-relationship.  Almost like a synergy or living sphere of powerful energy.  A God who is plural, yet one.  A mutuality.  A shared being, like a water wheel that just keeps on pouring itself out into the other.  The Triune God is an inter-dependence where three co-exist in beautiful harmony with one another – like a perfect musical chord.  One’s not more important than the other; they’re all necessary.  Distinct, yet equal.  One never without the others.

Presbyterian Systematic Theologian Shirley Guthrie wrote of the Trinity:  “The same God who is God over us as God the Father and Creator, and God with and for us as the incarnate Word and Son, is also God in and among us as God the Holy Spirit”  (Ibid.).   To embody it each morning, I’ve made it a practice to get my body a little limber by stretching my arms as high as I can overhead to greet the God that is beyond us.  Then I bend at my waist to touch my toes in honor of the God who lives among us in Jesus, the Christ.  Then I open wide my arms to encompass everything around as I greet the God who lives in all things.  . . .  Some say:  God the Creator, Christ the Redeemer, and Spirit the Sustainer of us all.  Others stick closely to the language recorded on Jesus’ lips by the gospel of Matthew.  Go into all the world to baptize and teach in the name of the “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – or Holy Ghost if you still prefer the King James Version of the bible.

Whichever way we think about it, the Triune God is like a captivating mystery.  Like that novel we just cannot put down.  One encounter, and who really can resist the urge to keep at it until we know just where the twists and turns might lead?   . . .  Maybe God intended it that way – to suck us in to the very relationship that is the Triune God.  To engage us as witnesses to the process of seeing how Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer will work it all out.  . . .  Reeled in, we find ourselves along for a wild ride as God keeps on seeking to recreate this world through ones such as you and me.  Intrigue, suspense, surprise weave together so that we just have to find out what happens next.   . . .  Maybe, just maybe Trinity wanted it like that so you and I will join in the joyous dance of right-relationship; shared being in a powerful synergy that pours itself out for others too to be brought in.

Mystery:  holy Mystery, this God that is one:  unity.  This God that is three:  diversity.  This God that is three in one.  . . .  Together we are sent in the name of the Triune God until all embrace the Mystery.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

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