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.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

Visualization

A Sermon for 4 June 2017 – Pentecost Sunday

 

 

A reading from Acts 2:1-21 (N.R.S.V.).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”  14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.  21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

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

 

The first day of volleyball practice the summer before my senior year of high school was strange.  We all gathered and got ready – knee pads in place, shoulders loose, fingers ready.  Coach blew the whistle to call us over and said:  “Everybody spread out and sit down.”  Sure she was about to lead us in the stretching she did every practice – at that point in our lives, she seemed to care more about the future of our muscles than we did.  Next she said:  “Close your eyes.  Open your imagination.  See yourself here in the gym.  Now, zero-in on one skill – the one for which the team most relies on you.”  Allowing time for our minds to catch up with her instructions, she left long periods of silence between each statement.  On and on it went like that as she had us SEE ourselves doing each movement of our most valuable skill.  It was almost an exercise to feel the success of the move in our bodies.  Have our minds train our muscles to do exactly what was needed in order for our team to function beyond our peak performance.  The exercise was called visualization and it became the opening ten minutes of every practice from that first one on.  Coach wanted us to get in our minds a vision of ourselves doing our absolute best.  As time went on, we moved from individual skills to whole plays of games, until one day one of us visualized our team playing for and receiving the coveted gold medal awarded each fall to only one division champion in the state.  It was kinda strange because we weren’t the team that was supposed to be able to dream that dream.  The powerhouse hitters of our high school had graduated along with the most successful team setter in the school’s history.  We were a little ban of pretty good players without any outstanding giants.  Imagine everybody’s surprise when just a few months after that teammate visualized our gold medal success, we found ourselves loading up the bus and heading to the state championship tournament in order to do what we could to make the vision of our success a reality.

I begin with this story today, not to tell you the reason why I had to have shoulder repair surgery a year and a half ago, but to lift up the amazing practice of visualization.  Some of you might know it well.  Perhaps you’ve been a practitioner of visualization all your life.  Daily, or every now and again when you have a life challenge you really need that extra umph to make it through, you get yourself quiet.  Open your imagination.  And see happening that which you hope to have happen in your life.  All the right words coming as you talk with your child about a really difficult topic.  The calm you need to confront your boss on another direction for your company’s work.  Step after step of a routine or a song or a race that you hope to perform well.  Visualization can be a powerful practice for just about anything in our lives.  Something in our brains needs to SEE the desired outcome before we set out.  I can’t really explain how it all works – maybe it just alters the constant inner critic that can stifle our best efforts until we don’t even try because we’re so convinced it’s bound to fail anyway.  Maybe it just widens our vistas to view possibilities something inside us CAN imagine when we open ourselves to what could be.  . . .  The prophet Joel is quoted that Pentecost day when the Spirit of God mightily stirred among Christ’s disciples.  “Your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams!” (Acts 2:17b).

The practice of visualization didn’t start with my volleyball coach.  In fact, as Presbyterians, we’re invited into a visualization exercise every time our attention moves over to the Lord’s Table.  In the invitation we hear:  “scripture reminds that they will come from north and south, east and west and sit together in peace in God’s kingdom.”  That’s a vision – a vision of God’s intended way.  . . .  “Then, at last, all peoples will be free,” are typical words during that long prayer of great thanksgiving when most of our minds might be wandering, wondering when the pastor is going to say Amen so we can get on with it.  “All divisions healed, and with your whole creation, we will sing your praise through your Son, Jesus Christ” (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 145).  That’s a vision – to spur our hope, guide our actions, and daily direct our lives.

“The young shall see visions,” we are promised on Pentecost.  “The old shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17b).

When we get quiet.  When we allow our hearts and minds to be open, the Spirit of God gives us visions.  We see in our mind’s eye what God wants to bring to reality.  . . .  What do you see when you visualize – for this church?  . . .  It’s easy to stay focused on the past.  To see, as you visualize, what used to be 20 or 30 or more years ago.  Even though every one of us knows from personal experience that we cannot do what we did 20 or 30 or more years ago.  Nor would we really want to with bodies that are a bit older now, hearts that know better now, and wisdom that has come from the challenges we have faced.  . . .

I know it’s a little outside the box, but its Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Spirit that goes as it will.  So we’re going to try it now – a little visualization for the ministry of this church.  Get yourself quiet – don’t worry about how much longer this sermon or this service is going to go on.  Just settle in to your pew right now.  Put your feet flat on the floor to let yourself be well grounded right where you.  Then close your eyes – yes:  a preacher is instructing you to close your eyes during a sermon, so go ahead!  Take advantage of it!  Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.  . . .  Don’t worry about anyone around you right now, just listen.  Listen deep down in your guts – where you know because the Spirit of God is there in you.  . . .  What do you see for this church?  . . .  What is happening?  . . .  Who is a part of the picture?  . . .  What are you hearing?  . . .  What are you seeing?  . . .  What is being done – alone and together?  . . .  As God is being served by serving others, what exactly do you see?  . . .  Let God’s Spirit guide you as you visualize.  . . .

Getting ready to come back to the present moment, first express to God by verbalizing in the quiet of your mind whatever you are stirred to express.  . . .  Then when you are ready, wiggle your toes or tap your heels into the ground under your feet.  As you are opening your eyes, remember what happened in these few moments – whatever visualization you received from God.  And make sure you take the opportunity to let me or one of the session members know whatever came for you that we need to know.  Maybe plan to do this exercise again at home this week or in the weeks to follow.  And even pay attention to your nighttime dreams to see what God gives there.  . . .  Peter’s Pentecostal words from the prophet Joel told us it would be so – God would guide God’s church.  “Your young shall see visions,” Peter said.  “Your old shall dream dreams!” (Acts 2:17b).  For such gifts, thanks be to God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

What Now?

A Sermon for 28 May 2017 — Ascension of the Lord Sunday

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 1:1-14 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us in this reading assigned for the day of the Ascension of the Lord.  Listen:

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.  “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away.  13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.  14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”

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

 

This week marked a significant ritual among Christians of England, Scotland, and Wales.  In years gone by, the week of Ascension Day was the time in which parishes would beat the bounds.  It was a practice that made some practical sense.  “In the days before maps and written title deeds, a knowledge of the physical boundaries of property was very important.  So the custom grew up of walking the boundaries, stopping at intervals to strike boundary stones to ‘mark’ the bounds” (www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/about-brasenose/history/215-brasenose-traditions-and-legends/416-beating-the-bounds).  Supposedly the practice began in France as far back as 470 C.E. and included religious ceremonies.  Three days of Ascension Day week were dedicated to “old parishioners (mixing) with the young to pass on the knowledge of the boundaries”  (www.wshc.eu/blog/item/beating-the-bounds-a-parish-tradition.html).  Prayers often were a part of the boundary-marking parade.  The parish priest beseeching God to make fertile the crops growing within the parish’s lands.  Beating the bounds showed to God and any who saw that those living within the boundaries of the parish were devoted to God, from whom they sought “protection from evil and (blessing) of the congregation and the fruits of their labor” (Ibid.).  One source claims that “the youngsters of the parish, usually boys, would be armed with long birch or willow twigs to beat the specific landmarks such as an old tree or stones.  (And) in some cases, the boys themselves were beaten with the sticks, so they should never forget the crucial information passed on to them by their elders” (Ibid.).  As of 1598, Poor Laws made those in need, the destitute, and apprentice children the responsibility of the parish  (www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/about-brasenose/history/215-brasenose-traditions-and-legends/416-beating-the-bounds).  Which unfortunately started another practice of running out of the parish young girls who were found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  Which, according to another source, explains why beating the bounds included beating the young boys.  It was a warning to the young men of the parish that (quote) “any sexual misbehavior ought to take place with women who lived outside the parish” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Ascension).  Isn’t that absurd!?!  . . .  We Christians certainly can come up with some wild rituals!

If at first the beating of the bounds ritual seems to have nothing to do with the Ascension of our Lord, stop to consider.  Ascension’s not just a time to get tripped up about where exactly he went.  The Ascension of the Lord tells us what now.  . . .  Acts of the Apostles is believed to be something like the sequel of the gospel of Luke.  And the ascension of the Lord opens Acts, just as it had closed the book of the gospel of Luke.  In other words, this writer wants us to know that while the one born of Mary, raised in Nazareth, ministering primarily in Galilee before his trek to Jerusalem that got him killed and raised again – while Jesus the Christ played the leading role in the gospel of Luke; in Acts, it’s going to be his followers.  Or the Holy Spirit of God working through his followers in the same way the Holy Spirit of God was working through Jesus.  He kept telling his followers, as the gospel of John records (John 14:12), that it’s better that it happens this way so that we will do greater things than him.  The Ascension of our Lord tells us what we’re supposed to do now:  fulfill the mission he has passed on to us.

Acts opens with the apostles hanging out with the Risen Christ on the Mount of Olives, again overlooking Jerusalem.  I’m sure the view was a bit chillier this side of crucifixion and resurrection.  As the disciples stood on the same spot from which they first entered the city, pre-Passover; they easily could recall all the Holy Week events.  They hear him saying something about being baptized not with water like John the Baptist.  But they just want to know if it’s all about to be over, the whole kingdom of Israel restored as the plot of their long trek behind Jesus comes to a magical, marvelous end.  . . .  Giving them something else upon which to focus, the Risen Christ says:  “It’s not for you to know the times or periods set.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem (yes, the dangerous city where they put the Lord to death), in all Judea and Samaria (the provinces that don’t necessarily like such Galilean outsiders), and to the ends of the earth (which includes worlds you can’t even image – people so very different from you who may not even recognize their hunger for the Holy)” (paraphrase of Acts 1:7-8).  They were hoping it all was about to be over.  But it was just the beginning!  . . .  Instead, it’s a near impossible order he’s giving them.  And according to how it got recorded in Acts, it is an order.  Christ says:  You WILL be my witnesses from this spot right before you, unto ever-expanding circles beyond.

I don’t really know when we Protestant Americans lost the sense of a parish.  Boundaries around those to whom we are responsible as a congregation.  But in some ways, I think a good ole’ beating of the bounds is exactly what Ascension Sunday calls for.  A physical ritual to remind us of the territory that is our near-impossible mission.  We annually would touch markers indicating that the people living in the shadow of this sanctuary are ours.  We, as the body of Christ – commanded by Christ for this mission, have responsibilities to them.  It’s our job to ensure they know and experience the good news of the work of our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord.  It’s our mission to tend to their spiritual needs.  Can’t you almost picture Christ, returned to the Triune God, saying things like:  “check out that church community, God.  They really are at it in their own backyard!”

What would the ascended Christ say about us?  . . .  This congregation has discerned an awesome mission statement:  Serving God by Serving Others.  But who are the others?  In my years of working with churches, it seems to be the most difficult part of heeding Christ’s command.  Clarifying who it is who will be the target of the congregation’s mission ministry efforts.  Some of us always want to keep up the mission we’ve been supporting for years – even if we no longer have the passion or ability to continue that particular work.  Some of us want to help everybody – thinking we need to save the world, even though Jesus already has that role covered.  Some of us want to focus on young people and others want to ensure the needs of the elderly are met.  I wonder what would happen if we literally beat the bounds of the three to five mile radius around us, declared it the parish, then got busy learning the needs of those living within our bounds?

I reconnected in the past year with an old friend from Divinity School whose congregation is alive!  But it wasn’t so when first he arrived there.  A typical urban flight situation, the congregation had dwindled to a handful of the old faithful too stubborn to leave.  As my friend got busy among them, he asked them to look around.  To see what the needs of their community were.  And not just to look, but to ask:  ask the real people they encountered around the neighborhood just what it was that they needed.  Before long, the small congregation opened their doors as a soup kitchen.  They started feeding anyone who was hungry.  A clothes closet came next as people seemed to begin coming out of the woodwork.  Worship attendance increased as those around the neighborhood started seeing that this congregation took seriously the human need existing in their midst.  It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t always easy.  And it’s not a cookie cutter mold for all churches everywhere as if doing these same ministries will automatically bring the same results here.  It’s the story of a congregation that slowly, over the course of several years, found and began to excel at its niche.  It even has become a leading voice in their area for pushing the bounds of the wider church’s definition of inclusivity.  Through team work, intentionality, and commitment to Christ’s command; that church has found themselves to be a thriving, diverse collective of disciples of Christ who are committed to the needs of those living right around the blocks of their neighborhood.  It remains an impossible mission, but one blessed by the presence of God’s gracious Spirit.

Ascension Day is so important.  . . .  As he’s lifted up like Enoch and Elijah – two other righteous ones of God whose feet supposedly left this earth in the same way.  While Christ is taken out of the-kind-of-sight they’ve been having of him since before and after his resurrection, the apostles have to have another message to get them to stop just standing around gawking up at the skies.  . . .  Acts records that they finally go back into Jerusalem and they stay together.  Praying and waiting for this empowering gift that will infuse them with the courage and energy, determination and clarity to emulate the One now lifted before them.  To be about the business of carrying on his mission even if it means standing before the powers that want him dead, engaging those so totally different from themselves, and journeying into the wild unknown.  . . .  It’s the near-impossible mission the crucified, risen, and ascending Christ entrusts to his followers.  The work he commands us to do.  So that we will do the greater things he told us will be done by the Holy Spirit through us!

Happy Ascension Sunday, disciples of Christ.  Let’s get out there to serve within our bounds!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)