Monthly Archives: October 2015

“What a Wonder!”

A Sermon for 18 October 2015

A reading from Job 38:1-33, 40:1-5. I’ll be reading this poetic piece of Scripture from the version of the bible called The Message. It’s helpful to remember that earlier in the story, Job has lost everything. He’s beginning to ask why – and as the text indicates, Job’s not just wondering, but actually accusing or blaming God for the state of suffering he’s in. At long last, God speaks. Listen for God’s word to us.

“And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of a violent storm. And God said: “Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about? Pull yourself together, Job! Up on your feet! Stand tall! I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers. Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that! Who came up with the blueprints and measurements? How was its foundation poured, and who set the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the angels shouted praise? And who took charge of the ocean when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb? That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds, and tucked it in safely at night. Then I made a playpen for it, a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose, and said, ‘Stay here, this is your place. Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’ And have you ever ordered Morning, ‘Get up!’ Told Dawn, ‘Get to work!’ so you could seize Earth like a blanket and shake out the wicked like cockroaches? As the sun brings everything to light, brings out all the colors and shapes, the cover of darkness is snatched from the wicked – they’re caught in the very act! Have you ever gotten to the true bottom of things, explored the labyrinthine caves of deep ocean? Do you know the first thing about death? Do you have one clue regarding death’s dark mysteries? And do you have any idea how large this earth is? Speak up if you have even the beginning of an answer. Do you know where Light comes from and where Darkness lives so you can take them by the hand and lead them home when they get lost? Why, of course you know that. You’ve known them all your life, grown up in the same neighborhood with them! Have you ever traveled to where snow is made, seen the vault where hail is stockpiled, the arsenals of hail and snow that I keep in readiness for times of trouble and battle and war? Can you find your way to where lightning is launched, or to the place from which the wind blows? Who do you suppose carves canyons for the downpours of rain, and charts the route of thunderstorms that bring water to unvisited fields, deserts no one ever lays eyes on, drenching the useless wastelands so they’re carpeted with wildflowers and grass? And who do you think is the father of rain and dew, the mother of ice and frost? You don’t for a minute imagine these marvels of weather just happen, do you? Can you catch the eye of the beautiful Pleiades sisters, or distract Orion from his hunt? Can you get Venus to look your way, or get the Great Bear and her cubs to come out and play? Do you know the first thing about the sky’s constellations and how they affect things on Earth?” . . . God then confronted Job directly: “Now what do you have to say for yourself? Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges?” Job answered: “I’m speechless, in awe – words fail me. I should never have opened my mouth! I’ve talked too much, way too much. I’m ready to (be quiet) and listen.””

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

A reading from Psalm 104:1-13, 24, 33-34, 35 c. I again will be reading this beautiful poetry of the Psalms from the version of the bible called The Message. Listen for God’s word to us.

“O my soul, bless God! God, my God, how great you are! Beautifully, gloriously robed, dressed up in sunshine, and all heaven stretched out for your tent. You built your palace on the ocean deeps, made a chariot out of clouds and took off on wind-wings. You commandeered winds as messengers, appointed fire and flame as ambassadors. You set earth on a firm foundation so that nothing can shake it, ever. You blanketed earth with ocean, covered the mountains with deep waters; then you roared and the water ran away – your thunder-crash put it to flight. Mountains pushed up, valleys spread out in the places you assigned them. You set boundaries between earth and sea; never again will earth be flooded. You started the springs and rivers, sent them flowing among the hills. All the wild animals now drink their fill, wild donkeys quench their thirst. Along the riverbanks the birds build nests, ravens make their voices heard. You water the mountains from your heavenly cisterns; earth is supplied with plenty of water. . . . What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations. . . . Oh, let me sing to God all my life long, sing hymns to my God as long as I live! Oh, let my song please God; I’m so pleased to be singing to God. . . . O my soul, bless God!”

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

Well, we had a wonderful time at NaCoMe. I think it’s safe to use the past tense, as I’m pretty sure everyone’s packed up and making the trek back home by now. I left after closing worship there this morning in order to be back here with ya’ll. And how is it possible it wouldn’t have been a great time? I mean, if you’re up for staying overnight away from home, you get to spend the weekend with wonderful people of this congregation in a whole different setting than the sanctuary. It’s fun to just sit back in the rockers on the cabin’s porch to catch up with each other. To swop stories and laugh and just enjoy unhurried time together, which we don’t get enough of in our lives these days. You get to know each other on a whole other level at NaCoMe.

And what a setting! If you’ve ever been to NaCoMe, then you know. It’s far off the beaten path. You drive about 60 miles out of the city, go around the round-about in Centerville, then drive another 15 or so miles into nowhere. Take a right onto a narrow road, then down the hill and around the bend through a canopy of trees that seems to rake the stress from your shoulders as you pass under their branches. Ah. You can breathe in fresh air – frigid air the two nights we were there this weekend – but we managed to stay warm, around a big old bonfire last night. It’s just the beginning of the time for the leaves to change their colors for fall, so the setting is extra beautiful. With a little creek running right down the middle of camp. A labyrinth path of stones for contemplating God in your life. And trails through the woods where you can wander in the quiet for hours. You park your car and don’t have to move it again until you have to get in to come on back to the frenetic pace of the real world. It’s a marvelous setting during the day! And then the nights! The nights put it all into perspective. It’s dark, dark out there in those woods. Last year the electricity went out one night so that the artificial lights all were off. As long as the clouds cooperate, there’s nothing to get in the way of seeing the light of a zillion stars popping out of the pitch-black darkness of night in the country. The text from Job talks about the Pleiades sisters and Orion. Venus peeking your way and the Great Bear and her cubs coming out to play (Job 38:31-32). NaCoMe at night is an amazing spot for gazing at the constellations of the sky. Realizing, even if we’re not necessarily comfortable with it in our own lives, our earth turns us outward into the unknown once every twenty-four hours. NaCoMe’s a perfect place to ponder our most magnificent Creator. The One who lives in it all – this glorious world – and miraculously chooses to turn special attention to us.

Now, I realize it’s not entirely fair to paint a picture of NaCoMe for you. After all, most all of you are ones who didn’t get to go – either by choice or by circumstance. You’ve missed the beauty of being steeped in NaCoMe’s natural world this weekend. The bliss of being surrounded by the healing powers of our mother earth. But don’t worry! We don’t have to travel out into the middle of nowhere to commune in God’s incredible creation. The Psalmist reminds us – not just here in chapter 104 – but also in chapter 24 where it reads: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1). We live IN God’s world – we live in this earth – in this amazing cosmos. Every day. Not just on special occasions at NaCoMe or some other beautiful natural setting. But each day of our everyday lives.

I’ll never forget the time I lived in a second floor apartment overlooking a dreary parking lot with a dumpster-view from my balcony. It was depressing – and smelly every now and again.   To make matters worse, an overgrown pine tree was alongside my corner apartment. The sun didn’t have a chance to peek through the few windows the apartment did have! I was all alone in a city I didn’t like, for a job that wasn’t great, in a gloomy apartment that never did feel quite like home. All might have been lost if I hadn’t gotten my first bird feeder. I still don’t remember what possessed me to try to feed birds from a depressing second story apartment but I do remember hours of comfort from the little feathered-friends that arrived. I was told by a sister that my birds were just common sparrows. Why bother feeding them? They don’t have the beautiful colors of gold finches or the interesting habits of wood peckers. I took comfort in the fact that Jesus had something to say about common little birds, though the saying never made much sense before my balcony birdfeeder attracted tons of the everyday little creatures. “Look at the birds of the air;” Jesus insisted. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). It didn’t take some far away setting out in the woods to come to appreciate our amazing Creator – right there in that dreary little apartment overlooking the concrete jungle of that parking lot, the beauty of God’s world came to me. The reminder that even without my feeble feeding efforts, those little birds were provided with every last thing they needed to live. The wonder of our incredible Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer was the song those common little birds sang. . . . Be it in a flower pushing up through a sidewalk crack, a streak of pink in the setting sun, or just one blade of grass that makes its own unique path into the sky, all of it proclaims our Life-giving Creator. Whether we have eyes to see it and minds to appreciate it or not; all of it sings of God’s goodness.

Julian of Norwich, a Fourteenth Century mystic who once experienced a deep revelation of God’s love then spent the rest of her life coming to terms with the marvelous showing. Julian is quoted as writing that “The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything” (from Meditations with Julian of Norwich). I pondered that a bit yesterday at NaCoMe’s upper lake. The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything. In you and me and everyone. And in the changing trees, and rippling water, and white tailed deer all over NaCoMe too. The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything. . . . Isn’t that what the Psalmist proclaims – right alongside the voice attributed to God in Job? . . . What happens to us – in our souls – when we sit and watch even the simplest, most common bird? What can happen as we gaze out into the dark night to see first one, then two, then ten and twenty and one hundred of the most awe-inspiring stars? When we listen to the crashing waves of the ocean, or maybe just the flowing babble of the creek out back. What if we let the gentle breeze tickle our cheeks and the sunlight warm our faces? Consider the vast variety of animals, not to mention all the bugs and birds and fish swimming in water throughout this earth. Just to be in it – whether it be sitting a spell out in the courtyard between the two buildings, in whatever you call your backyard, or somewhere special like NaCoMe – just to be in God’s grand creation, knowing we’re a part of it too. Don’t you feel a little spark of joy begin inside? A bit of peace spreading in your soul? To behold God in it all – to know God through it all, isn’t that a true gift?

I urge us all to take a moment this afternoon. Even just five minutes of this day to behold God’s beautiful world. To see God through it all. . . . Ah what a wonder! What joy we each can know by this amazing world in which we live. . . . The earth is full of God’s wonderful creations. Our whole lives long, let us bless the LORD. Let us give all thanks and praise unto God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

The Ministry of This Church

A Sermon for 11 October 2015 – Celebration Sunday

A reading from Mark 10:17-31. Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” The man said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.””

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

I heard a story this week about the ruins of the nunnery on the island of Iona in Scotland. (John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts, “Prologue”). Though the walls of the nunnery have been fallen for years, at one time the edifice stretched to the heavens to house a community of women who had devoted their lives to God through life together in that convent. I don’t know much about how life unfolded for those who once thrived in that spot. The storyteller mentioned the joys of communal life: catching up with each other as they peeled potatoes for the community dinner. Finding one another in corridors when news from home came that broke their hearts in two. Strolling together beside the sea on Iona to tell of their latest insight. There in that nunnery, disciples had worshipped God and opened their hearts to the beauty of the Psalms and diligently prayed for a world at peace. They had welcomed guests and shared what they could with the downtrodden and sought to live out their lives in obedience to God alongside one another. Long have the ruins of the nunnery on Iona gone unnoticed, the storyteller explained. But in the past few decades, the spot has become one of the most hallowed on a weekly trek around the island for pilgrims that have come from all over the world. Something about the ruins of the nunnery speaks to seekers’ deepest desires for community. For expressions of Christian faith that know we need each other – that we are dependent upon each other if we’ve got any shot at living faithful to the gospel. Something about that spot that marks the place where women once lived in devoted relationship together – well, something about that spot calls to the places in pilgrims that long for similar connection with God and one another.

At first glance, the ruins of the nunnery on the island of Iona may seem to have not one thing to do with the gospel text before us today. It begins with an eager man coming to Jesus to know what to do to get eternal life. We immediately may think of the afterlife – as this man may have been considering as well. But Jesus clearly has a different notion about inheriting eternal life. . . . This is a good, God-fearing man who has done all he can to keep the commands of God. “Since my youth,” he says, “I have followed God’s law” (Mark 10:20). No murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witnessing, no defrauding, and dutifully bringing honor to his mother and father. In a look of love, Jesus tells him one thing more: “go sell what you have, give the money to the poor, then come follow me” (Mark 10:21). After the whole exchange about camels going through needles’ eyes, Jesus disciples start to wonder. What about their reward? If the man with many possessions wants to know about inheriting more than he already has, then what about them? They had left everything to follow. They committed themselves to being Christ’s disciples. As if the adventure of all those miracles wasn’t enough – seeing him feed hungry crowds, and heal broken bodies, and turn lives around with the good news of God’s unmerited love – as if all that wasn’t abundance enough, Jesus’ disciples start wondering what they might inherit for all their trouble.

It’s how we know Jesus isn’t talking just about some distant future after our days on earth are done. You see, what God’s up to never has been just about some day by and by. It’s so easy to forget. As we’re out here on the road of discipleship, how often do we stop to take stock? How often do we pause to see the ways our lives already overflow abundantly – eternally – because of our inclusion in the body of Christ? . . . He’s telling his first disciples they’re surrounded now with brothers and sisters on the journey. All sorts of opportunities to exercise the message he’s teaching them. They’re encircled by the joys that come from life together in Christ’s name. The ways we know love and mercy and hope and peace and forgiveness from our lives intertwining with those in this sanctuary and beyond. . . . Think for a moment how your life would be if you had nothing to do with the ministry of this church. What would vanish – who would vanish immediately from your life if you weren’t a part of this congregation? . . . From my own, I know I’d be missing out on a whole lot of laughter and love and care. Without one another, you just might not have made it through that last family struggle. Would you have been able to fend for yourself through the illness that nearly took you under? Would your worldview be as big as it is because of the insights you’ve heard in Sunday School, or the stories you now know from those coming for help from the food pantry? Would your spirit have had that moment of connection with God’s Spirit without the inspiring music of the choir? Would you know people who do pray for you and listen to you and are ready to help you in times of need had your life never come into the presence of Christ living through the people of this church? . . . It’s easy to focus on what we hope to get one day at our end; but Jesus won’t let us get stuck there. He’s among us to let us know that each day, as a part of the family of God, is our reward – our blessing as we share our lives with one another and with all in need who cross our path. . . . Somedays it might be like iron sharpening iron – the rough edges of ourselves getting smoothed out in relationship with one another. Somedays we might more fully know our convictions – the truth God has put within us because of some other message we hear from another. I heard from a homebound member of this congregation this week – even though they can’t be present right now. They said that just knowing you all are here, the love of God continuing through you in this place – well for that homebound member of this congregation, that is comfort enough.

It’s what the man coming to Jesus will miss. It’s not that Jesus wants us all to give up everything we have to come after him. Unless like that man, we’re locked in an isolated circle of our own wealth. The man can follow all the rules all by himself. He can’t know love, however; he can’t know the kind of pour-out-your-life for the benefit of another which is God. He’ll never experience that all on his own. None of us will. . . . We can possess all sorts of stuff in this life, and let it possess us. Or we can hold on loosely in order to have hands open, ready, willing to be with another. Reaching out in relationship to experience today the hundredfold wealth of community in Christ’s name. It’s a simple choice when we get down to it: for what reward will we toil?

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)