Monthly Archives: March 2016

Holy Meals

I pretty much loved this one too!!  Enjoy!

RevJule

A Sermon for 2 April 2015 – Maundy Thursday

(based upon John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

As we get ready to enact that most amazing meal which our Lord and Savior shared with his disciples even on the night when they would betray, scatter, and deny; it is fitting for us to spend a few minutes remembering our own experiences of meals. Meals around this table. Meals around the tables in the fellowship hall. Meals shared in homes and restaurants and at picnic tables. Meals shared on days when it felt like the world was falling apart. And meals shared in great joy when we wanted to gather all those important to us to celebrate together. . . . Every day at least once, and better if it’s two or three times, our bodies require that we stop. Hopefully to sit down at a table for sustenance. Sometimes it’s just for the fuel we thoughtlessly shovel in. But hopefully, if not every day, then at least once or so a week, we sit down, like Jesus, with those we dearly love. Whether we talk about the really important things of life or just laugh together about nonsense, what we do together around tables is significant. Not only for the nutrients our bodies crave to keep us active however we need to be for God in this world; but also for what happens between us when at last we sit down to eat. . . . I once heard it said that the surest way to make a friend – even out of an enemy – is to invite them home for a shared meal. Try it sometime with someone you’re struggling with. See if you can stay bitter at someone with whom you’ve broken bread. . . . What is it about sitting down to delight in the bounty of this world that changes things between us? Maybe the act of eating itself reminds us of our frailty. Our mortal bodies were made to stop. Hunger and thirst tell us so. Our hearts have been made to connect – overflowing freely with love that is not to be withheld – that, without great violence to ourselves. You know: building that rock solid wall around our heart which we presume will protect us. That’s the only way love can be stifled as we break bread with one another. . . . Meals are the perfect place for us together to be a little bit more of who God has made us to be. Creatures who know our dependence on one another, on this beautiful world, and on the Mystery that dances all in between – the Mystery we call the Holy One. God.

It was no ordinary meal Jesus sat down to enjoy on this night so long ago. His people were in the midst of the festival culminating in the meal we heard instituted at the Exodus. The celebration of the Mighty One passing over all of their households on the way to giving them something that had been taken from them: their freedom. . . . The meal of Passover was a Sabbath unlike all the others of the year – it was THE meal that reminded them of who they were, to whom they belong, and for what purpose the great act of Passover was done. . . . That night together was a most holy meal, deepened further in meaning as the Lamb that was about to be slain for the Passover feast sat among those first disciples.

According to the gospel of John, he went a bit overboard in the symbols that night at the meal on the night before Passover. He took off his outer garments, got down in the dust at their feet, and humbly washed each one. . . . Foot by foot, did he remember all the steps they had taken together over the years? As he held each person’s feet in his hands, did he recall the day he first called that one? When he told them to love as he had loved, could he see all of the places their feet yet would take them in proclamation of the most amazing love they had come to know in him? . . . Ah, what holy moments around the table of that holy meal.

In the bread and in the fruit of the vine we are about to partake at his command, we are challenged to remember. To wonder what the Christ would be thinking as he held our feet in his hands, then broke the bread and poured out the cup that we might taste the gifts that change us forever: the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation for us! . . . That meal; a holy, holy meal that charges us to go to live likewise.

In the silence now, let us be readied to receive such an amazing gift! Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

 

If Tables Could Talk

I LOVED this sermon!  Enjoy as you prepare for Maundy Thursday!

RevJule

A Sermon for 17 April 2014 – Maundy Thursday

based upon John 13:1-17, 31b-35

If tables could talk, what stories would they tell?

Would we hear tales of families gathered round for Christmas dinner and Easter brunch? . . . Would we hear of a rule that insists at least five out of seven – or, if nothing else, one night every week the whole gang is required to take their seat together. Let the cares of this crazy-busy world pass by for 20 or 30 minutes, as together food is enjoyed and stories of the day get told – the glads and the sads both – and lives get shared with one another. . . . We’d hear of tables once crowded with children and a beloved spouse now painfully silent with one left to eat alone. . . . We’d hear it – though I wish we would not – of tables that never groan under the weight of a hefty feast; for that table’s family barely can scrape by. . . . And that one too often is surrounded by vicious shouting instead of the sounds of harmony that should come from a home. And underneath that one has become a haven for a frightened child whose only parent is struggling with addiction or mental illness, or both, or worse. . . .

Tables may be where we do our homework, or write our sermons, or pay our bills, or browse the web when we’re bored. Some tables are the site of game nights, and baking parties, and letter-writing campaigns. Some tables hold the harvest fresh from the garden out back, while others know nothing but frozen pizzas and fast foods. . . . Tables in the homes of our Jewish brothers and sisters this week have been the site of the ancient Passover feast, now called the Seder – adorned with the two finest candlesticks, the lamb shank in remembrance, the wine those who are free can enjoy, and even the open spot for Elijah symbolizing the hoped-for future of eternal peace. . . . Tables – tables! What wonderful sites! . . .   Maybe your table is where you kiki with friends, or gossip harmlessly with neighbors, or dream big dreams with God. . . . Tables might be where we learn to: eat our broccoli, and make peace, and begin again. . . . Tables can be the site of separation – where goodbyes are said; and they also can be where strangers first become friends. . . . Around tables we might sit by another through heart-breaking sobs, or raise a glass in celebration of this miraculous journey called life!

At tables some need to hide the reality of who they are, as the others gathered round can’t accept the truth. At tables some need to keep silent for safety’s sake; while others bitterly find themselves no longer invited. . . . Some Holy Week tables for the first time are missing a beloved pastor or anticipating it will be their last. . . . If tables could talk, indeed, what stories would they tell?

Tonight THIS table is front and center; ready for us to come gather round. And on this night, at the first table of our Lord, as he prepared to face all that lie ahead. As he predicted betrayal and knew another would deny three times. As he readied himself to be abandoned by every last one that scattered in fear of death. . . . We’re told in the gospel of John that loving his own – around that table – he loved them to the end. Taking a basin of water and a towel, Jesus knelt at the feet of his friends. In an act of great love, the Master took on the role of the servant. The Teacher humbled himself to perform a most intimate act. The Son of the Most High knelt down before sinners to wash every last one of our feet. . . . Even as he held them in his hands, he knew we wouldn’t walk faithful to his way – not always; and for some of us, not ever. . . . But that table attests: the Savior of the world enacted a new commandment. “As I am doing,” he said, “do likewise. Love one another.”

Thanks be to God, tables can talk. And this one has such a powerful story to tell. For even on the eve of his death, he loved us. He provided for us. He showed us. He loves us to the end. . . .

Let this table speak to you tonight, as in great thanksgiving, in humble awe; we come to taste and see – and ever after proclaim – the amazing goodness of our God!

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

 

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)

The Ruckus of the King

A Sermon for 20 March 2016 – Palm Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 19:28-48. Listen for God’s word to us.

“After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it.’ ” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.”

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

 

A reading from the prophet Isaiah 50:4-9a. Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

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

 

We started this service with that beloved reading according to the gospel of Luke of that first Palm Procession down the Mount of Olives, through the garden of Gethsemane, and into the city of Jerusalem right through the Temple gate. And just in case we don’t see you again this week, let me remind you that Jesus is about to get into great big trouble! Trouble that will bring on for him what the prophet Isaiah once wrote about. . . . What a blessed day, Palm Sunday, to rehearse the story of his coming into Jerusalem. I guess we could call it triumphant – though at this point in the story, he’s really not triumphed over anything yet. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus just has welcomed into the fold Zacchaeus. It might have been one of the last straws for the religious leaders of the day because, according to the gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. And he was very rich. But he wanted to see Jesus so he climbed up a tree. Much to everyone’s shock, Jesus called Zacchaeus outta the tree and sat with him at table in his house. . . . Jesus really is starting to meddle. It all was clear before – who was in what place. Tax collectors were out. Unclean as they mingled with the Romans. And not to mention despised for all too often overcharging for their own gain. In the eyes of Jesus’ people, no one’s much lower than a chief tax collector. . . . But “he too is a son of Abraham,” Jesus declares. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). If those in religious leadership had no reason to be furious with him before, as Jesus sits at table with Zacchaeus, now they most certainly do!

And he doesn’t stop there! He should’ve stayed out of the city. Kept his mouth shut – as some Pharisees warn when the crowd is going crazy shouting “Blessed! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38). . . . We all do our best to make sense of things. And the gospel of Luke’s got a certain understanding. Here alone the story goes that the crowds shout “blessed is the king . . . peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” . . . This is the gospel writer who alone tells of the night of his birth. Remember at Christmas when we heard of angels singing to the shepherds? It was the in-breaking of a new kingdom. “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” they proclaimed. “And on earth, peace among those who God favors!” (Luke 2:14). . . . We miss it because words like king. Peace – often these are common for us when we think about Christ. . . . But it’s believed there was another procession into the city that week. Passover was when all the Jewish pilgrims would flock to Jerusalem. It was time to celebrate their freedom from captivity. The way God made when they were slaves in Egypt. With a merciful hand the LORD their God passed over each home marked with the blood of the lamb – the sign of the covenant. Later that night, their sandals on, their cloaks ready – the people of God escaped captivity behind the mighty staff of Moses. . . . Passover in Jerusalem was the annual reminder that God had set them free! . . . So, just to make sure they didn’t get any revolutionary ideas, each year at Passover, Rome made sure they were ready. Pilate came parading into the city too. Strong. Royal. On a warhorse, surrounded by Roman soldiers, spears in hand. As a sign of the Roman Empire – an extension of Caesar, Rome’s king – they were there to keep PEACE (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2; H. Stephen Shoemaker, p. 153). . . . The kingdoms indeed are clashing!

On one side we have Pilate, Rome’s right-hand man, ready by force to overtake any who get outta line. That’s what peace looked like for Rome. Fear, intimidation, domination, force: that’s the way in the kingdom of Rome, the way of the world. . . . Now don’t get me wrong: the Pax Romana, or the Peace of Rome, brought with it many good things. Travel suddenly was secure – possible even – on roadways Rome built all over the empire. After all, they had to have a way to move their army around. So it may not have been for the best of intentions, but still it brought movement all over the Empire for almost anyone – and in relative ease and safety. The potential for commerce boomed. Which probably was a good thing for common folks, because Rome had to have some way to pay for it all. Heavy taxes were laid upon the people – for some a crushingly cruel amount. And Rome wasn’t interested in letting you file for an extension if you thought you were going to miss the April 15th deadline. With ruthless force, Rome ensured peace. If followers of God aren’t careful, they too will mistake such ways as acceptable. It appeared as if the end justified the means. Being so deceptively sweet, such ways easily ensnare.

And in more ways than one. In the gospel of Luke’s telling of the story alone, some of the Pharisees are present as Jesus parades into the city. They’re not necessarily adversarial towards Jesus; just insistent. They want the ruckus stopped. It reads as if they represent the voice of fear. You know: that part of us that doesn’t want the boat rocked. Those voices in us that clutch us and keep us from seeking truth. That power that overtakes until we cannot act on faith. . . . Fear is a major force, played upon by any empire wanting to keep folks quiet. The threat of the cross was real in Jesus’ day. It represented execution by the state for any sort of crime against them – including inciting allegiance to One higher than the Emperor. Crosses dotted the land as a fearful threat to stay in line. Maybe these Pharisees know exactly how much trouble Jesus is in for as his followers hail him king and shout out about God’s way of peace. It’s possible they are the very same leaders who’ve warned him once before as he approached the city – sending word to him to stay away because Herod wanted him dead (Luke 13:31-35). . . . No matter. Jesus tells them God’s way will prevail; for if his followers were silent, “the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). No matter the pressure; creation bows only to one King.

It’s we people who quickly forget. The gospel of Luke’s telling of the story alone reminds us even further. For it reports that when Jesus rounded the bend – a bit closer to Jerusalem – he wept over it bitterly. . . . As in the days of old when prophets like Zechariah had warned against living according to the ways of force. When Habakkuk had prophesied that those unjustly betraying God’s Law and God’s people would not last long. As in the days when God’s people fell into living the ways of the world instead of being according to the ethic of Love; Jesus weeps over what it all has become. The peace he knows – the peace he brings is so very different than the enforced peace he sees. The same kind of peace we often see that benefits some and greatly diminishes others. . . . One commentator seeks to explain God’s very different kind of peace by writing: “’Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven’ is more than a song of heavenly rest and hope in the world to come. It is about the ‘kingdom of the heavens,’ as (the gospel of) Matthew called it, which has drawn near in Jesus to challenge and change the kingdoms of this world” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2; H. Stephen Shoemaker, p. 155). . . . O yes! Jesus is about to get into some very big trouble. He’s about to alienate everyone.

But why? Why does he seem to seek out the conflict? Didn’t his parents school him in not rocking the boat? Why won’t he tell his disciples to pipe down a bit – everyone’s listening? Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone – stay outta Jerusalem all together. Or at least keep a low profile and just celebrate Passover dutifully along with everybody else. Why’s he got to seemingly go looking for trouble? Which the gospel of Luke indicates he does as he heads from his Palm Parade directly into the Temple. Imagine the scene as he starts pushing out the Temple peddlers. More ruckus! Even if they just were doing their job in reference to providing proper sacrifices in remembrance to God. It’s not like it was the first time and it certainly will not be the last time the people of God have it bobbled, and what was to be a good and holy thing got turned all inside out and upside down. The church can heed the warning that too quickly can we make the worship of God about something else entirely: our gain, our entertainment, our right thought or feeling over everything else. . . . Why would you march right into Jerusalem, with a whole crowd singing your praises, only to incur further wrath as every interaction from here forward just infuriates the religious leaders even as it threatens the powers of this world?

Because he trusts another Way. For he embodies a very different kind of God. If Rome wants to portray peace as something kept by intimidation and force and even death to any challengers; then Jesus knows a prevailing power. We’d do well to remember. The gospel of Luke emphasizes – especially at the end – that Jesus represents a different kind of King. Here from the cross Jesus readily gives up his spirit. It’s an ultimate act of love – a willing sign of trust. No “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” is here, as in the gospels of Matthew and Mark when the crucified Christ questions why God has forsaken him. . . . This king is of a different kingdom – the kingdom of true peace. Freedom. Shalom. And this Christ shall be victorious over any other power. For God’s ways of justice, mercy, everlasting love shall demolish all other ways forever – though maybe I’ve given too much of next Sunday away. . . .

“Blessed??? Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!??? Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!???” . . . Hold on . . . because all the other ways are going to do everything they can to put an end to this Way. . . . Hold on: it’s a rough ride on the way to resurrection . . .

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

 

Prepared to Die

A Sermon for 13 March 2016 – Fifth Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 12:1-8. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.””

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

So here we are: one week before all the passion and pomp of Holy Week. Next Sunday that amazing rehearsal of events we cherish begins! . . . The gospel of John has us on another day this last Sunday during the season of Lent: six days before the Passover. In other words, Sunday before the Friday of Jesus’ death. His last week among us before his crucifixion and beyond. . . . A lot can happen in one week. A lot will happen to Jesus, the Christ, in his last week. It’s something we so often miss. Things happen TO Jesus his last week and he lets it. We know he goes about doing a thing or two himself. Depending on which gospel you read, Jesus goes about everything from entering Jerusalem triumphantly, but humbly riding on a donkey as one would do in a time of peace, not on a horse heading out for war. Jesus weeps over this city – the ancient site of his nation’s religion and sovereignty. Jesus drives money changers out of the Temple his last week – according to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There’s his whole thing with that fig tree he tries to use as a lesson on fruitful faith. He prepares for and sits at table one last time with his closest disciples and friends. And then he goes out to the garden. Where in the chill of the night, he pleads his case before God.

I imagine Jesus loved life. Every bit of it – from being in a human body, to connecting with other human bodies, to enjoying the beauty of this gorgeous world, to healing and helping whoever he could. Letting go of that’s not an easy process – not even for our God in-flesh in Christ, at least according to the gospel’s record of his prayers in Gethsemane. This is the point in Jesus’ life on earth as one of us when he really, really, really must trust in-full in God. He’s lived his lifetime letting go of his own desires in order to accomplish the work of God among us. And now, one last time, he must do what his words to Mary Magdalene will be after his resurrection. “Do not cling to me,” the Risen Christ speaks in the garden of Easter morn (John 20:17). . . . Do not cling to your life is the message Jesus first must drink in the garden of Gethsemane. Do not hold fast to your own desires, Lord Christ. Rather, let it be. Let it be with you according to the Way of the Creator of the universe. The pattern for all is life, death, then something new. . . . The gospels tell us that his struggle that Gethsemane night finally dissipates. He is ready to let events happen to him. Which is the meaning of the word passion – the pascal mystery of Christ. “Thy will be done,” at last he utters (Luke 22:42). Just in time for a guard, led by his beloved disciple Judas, to come take him away. He is ready.

According to the gospel of John, Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus – knew. It should have come as no surprise really. He’d been telling them all along that it would be the path. And then, what he did there in Bethany just one chapter prior to the story we hear today, seals his fate – at least according to the gospel of John, which alone tells of Jesus’ raising of the dead man Lazarus. (And yes, I checked! The Greek word used for it IS the same that is used of the Risen Christ on Easter morning.) . . . The council was incensed. So many started to believe this Jesus really was somebody that the council felt the nation was threatened. He’d have to be put to death. That’s the only way they believed it all would end up ok. The worst failure of imagination on earth. They could not see another way for it all to be. . . . Mary knew.

Imagine what was going on in her heart. We know that she and her siblings deeply loved Jesus. We’re not sure how they met – perhaps he stayed often at their house on his way to and from Jerusalem. What we do know is Jesus had been with them before. We also know that they all treasured each other very much. Imagine your dear old friend returns to your home, just a bit after he’s given you back your dead brother. You’ve heard the rumors, so you know this act is it. The higher ups will be on his tail until they nail him; you know. AND you know you are absolutely grateful – grateful for the gift of bringing your brother back from death. Mary and Martha’s lives depended on their brother Lazarus. We don’t hear of husbands or other surviving male relatives. They needed him alive for their own lives to carry on. Imagine the well of thankfulness stirring in Mary’s soul. Imagine the pit of sorrow stuck in her throat because she knew her brother’s life meant her Lord’s death. At the feet of such an extravagant gift, she seeks to give back an equally extravagant gift. At some point in the meal, Mary bends before Jesus. She takes out a huge amount of the most glorious, most fragrant, most expensive perfumed nard. She holds Jesus’ feet in her hands, rubbing the oils into what must have been calloused, aching feet from taking him all over their country and back. Tenderly she prepares these feet for the last steps they will take. The cold of the pit he’ll be held in at Caiaphas’ house. The pain of the nails that will rip through them. The dew they’ll at last feel again in the resurrection garden. Maybe she couldn’t know each step those feet yet would trod, but in an act of extravagant care, she does her part to prepare her Lord to die. She does not cling – she cannot. For she just has learned in the death of her brother how fleeting life is. How out of our hands life on this earth really is.

It’s what he’s been trying to show every step of his journey. It’s the path we’re invited onto as he pleads, “Come follow me.” It’s the only way that ensures life – this way of self-emptying, of letting go, that something new can begin. It’s the only way that makes of our days anything important. Anything valuable. Anything of significance for anyone else in this world. The Way of self-giving love. Of setting aside our own way, and joining Christ in the prayer, “Thy will be done, O God. Let your pattern of life, death, and new life be cherished and trusted by us.” . . . That doesn’t mean our losses will be easy. Letting go – not clinging is so very hard for human beings. As we were reminded in our Wednesday night class this week: it’s ok to feel however you feel – it’s ok to cry in the face of death. AND, at the very same time, we’re invited to look beyond that moment. To see the Way of our God. . . . It struck me in a new way at one our retreats this past fall. Did God put the pattern all around us in this whole world to show us? Spring ALWAYS follows winter. Something new always grows. Always – no matter how severe the winter – no matter where you go on this planet. It might be more intense in some spots, but maybe, just maybe our Creator was trying to show us from the very first blade of grass on this earth. Maybe, just maybe, our work here is to be prepared. Prepared to move through the pattern of dying to self for God’s ways to be seen in us. Of holding on to everything – our lives, our families, our relationships with each other, even the stuff in our closets at home – never clinging. Hands open ready to let go and behold the unfathomable ways God can work. Maybe, just maybe like Jesus, and this Mary kneeling at his feet; we’re invited to heed the Risen Christ’s command: do not cling. For God makes a Way!

As we enter these final days of Lent and all the passion of Holy Week that’s yet to come, may we find ourselves a little more ready this year.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

“New Creations”

A Sermon for 6 March 2016 – 4th Sunday in Lent

A reading from the second epistle of Paul to the Christians in Corinth (from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Listen to this good news not only with those brothers from Jesus’ parable in mind. But also listen for the way God works in us all. . . . Listen:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he (God) made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him (Christ) we might become the righteousness of God.”

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

Last year on a trip to the monastery our retreat series heads to at the end of the month, I picked up a cute little icon in the bookstore gift shop. The icon features slender figures. A bit dark-skinned, with angled faces. One figure in the icon appears to be dressed differently than all the other figures who collectively appear through an opening in a wall with a majestic skyline in the background. Eleven sets of eyes peer at that figure who is dressed differently – in red that covers from head to toe this one who is the tallest figure in the icon. A finger is raised – as if in mid-sentence – and the eleven other figures look on at this one who obviously is talking. Interestingly, the figure at the lead of the pack is stern-faced and holding up a hand as if to indicate no. At the top of the icon, above the people, above that opening in that wall, a rainbow arcs over all. . . . The point of an icon is to tell the story in picture form – initially the form used to pass on the gospel in a world where few were able to read and write. Today, we have the privilege of knowing the names of icons, in case our eyes can’t read the truth the icon creator intended when they wrote the picture. By the way, icons are written, not drawn, though all they typically are is a scene of something in our faith. It’s an elaborate, deliberate process to proclaim a very intentional message. . . . And can you guess the message of this little icon? The eleven in the opening of the wall would be: the Risen Christ’s disciples. The rainbow tells us it’s the advent of a special new day – all creation knows it. The tallest figure in red outside the wall to whom every eye instantly is drawn is Mary Magdalene. The sentence she’s obviously in the middle of saying is: He is risen! Christ is risen indeed! On the back, the icon is entitled: Mary Magdalene Announces the Resurrection.

I’m not sure we think enough about those first disciples during the season of Lent. That is until the dramatic events of the Last Supper where Christ washed the feet of them all and gave the command that they love one another as he loves us. But what about Mary Magdalene and all the others a few weeks prior to that fateful night? Three Sundays before Easter, where were they and how had their lives already been changed?

History hasn’t always been pretty to this Mary of the New Testament who is believed to be from Magdala – so, often referred to by us, as Mary Magdalene. The gospel of Luke is the only gospel to make mention of Mary Magdalene before we get to the events of Holy Week and Easter morning. Luke alone states in chapter 8, verse one: “Jesus went on through cities and villages bringing good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evils spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:1b-3). As Mary is the first person named in Luke chapter 8, and as this portion of scripture directly follows the time when Jesus forgave, at the home of a Pharisee, a woman of the city who was named a sinner – though the text never says what her sins were; somehow a Sixth Century Pope took all that, mushed it together, didn’t quite read the text closely enough, and labeled Mary Magdalene – well, you know what they call women of the city who are sinners (prostitutes). . . . For whatever reason, Pope St. Gregory the Great started telling a particular tale of her that ended up sticking pretty well (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, 2008, p. 81). No evidence exists – even in the New Testament writings to draw such racy conclusions about what kind of a woman Mary Magdalene was. If we trust the writer of the gospel of Luke’s account of Mary Magdalene, then we know her as one who presumably Jesus has healed of whatever spirits held her captive – the text doesn’t even make those details very clear. What all four of the gospels do consistently tell us of Mary Magdalene, and her alone, is that she is the only one with Jesus through every step of the crucifixion, burial, empty tomb, and, as my icon accurately tells of the gospel’s record: Mary Magdalene not only is the first to whom the risen Christ appears, she is the first to go blurt out to all the rest who are hiding out in fear that she has seen the Lord! He is risen! He is risen indeed!

The Nag Hammadi scrolls which were unearthed in the Egyptian desert in the 1940s include manuscripts believed to be written by Mary Magdalen herself – or at least recording her perspective of the trek with Jesus all over Palestine, to that last week in Jerusalem, and beyond (Ibid., p. 1, 22). The New Testament, in addition to these recently unearthed treasures, makes it clear that whatever Mary of Magdala saw in this Jesus called the Christ, whatever she experienced in her life because of him: from the first day meeting him on, her life never ever would be the same. She became a new creation. A sought after voice for believers in the early days after the resurrection, though the manuscripts that were unearthed in the 1940s tell of one or two run-ins with Jesus’ other follower Peter throughout the years their paths crossed. One author writes of that first encounter of the Risen Christ on Easter morn: that it is “a powerful moment of pure love” (Ibid., p. 85). In her distress from witnessing with her own eyes the entire Holy Week drama, Mary Magdalene goes and does what those who most love a dying person would do. She stays by his side every step of the way. Even weeping at an empty tomb, she demands to know where her beloved Lord’s body has been taken. When at last he speaks her name, and I quote again that same scholar: “she recognizes him and throws herself at his feet with an ecstatic cry . . . Easter Sunday begins with the energy of this encounter; it reverberates with two hearts reunited” (Ibid.). Nothing in her ever would be the same again.   She was a new creation.

They all were. What of Peter and James and John? What of little known to us Thomas, who I once was schooled about by a member of a church I served. She was a devote Christian woman from India who proudly explain to me that her family lineage traced all the way back to the Apostle Thomas himself, as is common in many of the Christians in the land to which Thomas took the good news just a few decades after Christ’s resurrection. If I was taught that in all my years of school, I hadn’t remembered the trajectory of Thomas’ mission outside of the Roman Empire all the way to India. When I did a little fact checking, I found it indeed to be so. If you’ve been to Italy, perhaps you’ve visited the chapel in his honor that contains relics from him that were found in India (www.gcatholic.org/churches/Italy/0164.htm). Or if you’ve been to India, perhaps you’ve visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Thomas, were one of the three known tombs of Christ’s first apostles still exists – that of Thomas, of course. Peter’s being in Rome and the tomb of the Apostle James being in Spain (www.velankanni.in/stthomas.html). All of them were entirely NEW CREATIONS! They met Christ, they followed him, they learned from him, they grew to love him more and more each day, and their lives NEVER, EVER were the same again.

I think that’s what Paul, in his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, was trying to say. “So if anyone is in Christ,” he writes “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away” (2 Cor. 5:17). Our love for him – Christ’s love for us really – changes us. How else would anyone of us even know each other? Why else would the path of our lives lead us to wherever your path as a follower of his has led you? Do you think you would deliver meals on wheels in this neighborhood if you never had heard of the gracious love of God, who in Christ was reconciling the world – seeing us as beloved, scot-free sinners to whom God has entrusted the very same message that God was about in our flesh and blood as Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Listen to what Paul writes in that beautiful text about us: not counting trespasses against any, but entrusting the message of reconciliation to us, so that we now are ambassadors in this world for Christ! (paraphrase of 2 Cor. 5:19-20a). NEW CREATIONS! Every last one of us.

Because of him we love the children who come to us on Wednesday nights. We open this building to be a place of communion, healing, and growth for an eclectic array of people from beyond this church who come here as if it too is their home. We feed those who come here hungry. Through your Good Samaritan ministry, you ensure families have heat and senior adults have water to clean and bathe themselves. You love and care for one another and you go into the everyday places of your homes, neighborhoods, and professional lives to live differently because Christ has made you a new creation! . . . I love that those first followers of him come to us in this season of Lent and I don’t know, like me, don’t you want to know more about the wild and crazy turns of their lives because they met and followed and learned from and loved Christ Jesus our Lord? Don’t you want to know their absolute determination, their unstoppable courage, their amazing ingenuity to navigate the waters of whatever culture they eventually found themselves in? I mean, India had to be VERY different from Palestine in the First Century – an exotic land so far away from the place where Jesus lived and died and lived again. Spain was like a land no one ever had heard of back then? What did James do to learn the lingo of the people he met there so that they too would come to know the life-changing love of Christ? We know he did because some of the oldest monasteries in this world began in Spain thanks to James’ efforts. And Peter? He didn’t care if he had to stand before the Holy Roman Emperor himself (which he supposedly did). He was going to find a way to pass on the good news of God’s unending love for us all as we know in Christ. . . . And you know, I just wonder. If they could do it; all those years ago. In a world that seemed absolutely foreign to them, among people who most probably seemed so incredibly different from them; then what about us? Why can’t we? . . . Why can’t we?

HPC: each and every one of us are NEW CREATIONS. We can leave behind the old and continue to forge a future as ambassadors for Christ some-20 centuries after folks first began it. Because it’s God’s work in those who follow and love and continue to learn from the One who revealed the heights and depths and lengths of God’s love for this whole world. We have in our DNA all we need to become what God needs us to be individually and collectively, today and tomorrow, for this community right here in the world around this building where we all come to worship each week. We can do it; for in us, God has made a new creation to be about God’s work right here and right now! . . . I know it’s still Lent, but that good news makes me want to shout already: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! And Amen!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

 

“The Fruitful Interruption”

A Sermon for 28 February 2016 – Third Sunday of Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 13:1-9. I know it may seem like we’re going in reverse order as we move back to the first verses of chapter 13 today. The lectionary takes us on an interesting gospel-ride during this season of Lent. Though we’ve already considered what happens after it with a warning from some Pharisees regarding Herod’s growing disdain for Jesus, Jesus has been preaching up a storm. And, according to the gospel of Luke, the crowds have been getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Suddenly, the following takes place. . . . Listen for God’s word to us.

“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’ ”

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

 

I still remember the night in fifth grade Wednesday night bible school when our class had a substitute teacher. If you’re in school now, or if you still recall such days; then maybe you know what often happens in classes with substitute teachers. . . . That night, we did everything as a group of slightly obnoxious fifth graders, to throw off our substitute teacher. He was the new pastor from the Presbyterian Church in the small community down the road from ours. We had never met him before. He was young and wound just a bit too tight, which made him fresh meat for our sharp-minded class. That night, something came over four of us in particular. For the better part of the hour, we had his head swimming with our what if interruptions. He was getting more and more frustrated, because he just wanted to get through the lesson. We sensed it. We kept on firing off questions until he finally threw up his hands in anger and drew a firm line in the sand. He wasn’t budging. We knew we had got to him. He never returned to sub for us again. I’m not proud of the incident, but I certainly learned that night how a group quickly can lead a teacher off course.

In our text for today, Jesus gets interrupted. Thousands have gathered to hear him teach. They’ve come to soak in his words like thirsty sponges. And it’s good stuff. “Beware of the yeast of the phonies” (Luke 12:1). “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat . . . or wear . . . but strive for God’s kingdom and you’ll get the rest as well” (Luke 12:22, 31). “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Jesus was out there preaching with impressive passion. He was proclaiming the providing love of God. Then – someone abruptly interjects, “Hey Jesus, have you heard about the Galileans Pilate killed while they worshipped?” . . . Now, this is one of those totally off the wall comments that seemingly has nothing to do with the topic at hand – at least not in anyone else’s mind but the one who spoke it. A whole lot of teachers would react by laughing off the interrupter. Some might ignore the comment all together. Others might shame the person into silence. Substitutes often end up totally frustrated. Not Jesus. Instead he goes with it. Perhaps seeing it as a perfect opportunity to further his point – even if the example provokes anxiety in other listeners.

You see, the common conviction of the day was that suffering was a sign of God’s displeasure. The whole system of Greco-Roman gods – which was the system of belief held by many of the Gentiles of Jesus’ day – their beliefs were based on it. They believed the gods to be moody entities who needed to be appeased by the little people whom they had created for their own whims. Jesus’ response to his interrupter leads us to believe that the one asking implied that those Galileans must have been really bad. Why else would such a sacrilegious end have come to them – being slain by Rome’s puppet Pilate while they offered sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple? The interrupter imagines that those Galileans must have done something wrong. Something that transgressed so badly that they were brought to such a horrible, abrupt, end. . . . We know about such rationing because it’s still found around us today. Too often people blame the victim for whatever circumstance befalls. Remember after 9/11, when a nationally-known preacher said that the catastrophe was God’s judgment on us for becoming the perverse nation he believed we had become. Then a few years back when Haiti had that terrible earthquake, remember the retired professional athlete who posted on his blog that the Haitians deserved what they got because they lived in such rubble to begin with? Layers of ignorance ooze from sentiments like these. We know better than to believe that such suffering is a mark of wretched sinfulness. . . . Now, don’t get me wrong: we do bring plenty of pain upon ourselves and the rest of our world – awful actions about which God has warned. Hildegard, the infamous German mystic, theologian, healer, artist, musician, and church reformer of the Twelfth Century, was saying all the way back then that the natural world will not tolerate human beings living out of balance with it. We’ve had plenty of experiences in the past twenty years to show us how true Hildegard’s Twelfth Century wisdom is. But it’s not God doing anything to us as punishment. . . . Jesus beautifully takes the interruption as a time to correct the popular, though off-base, notion. The truth is that bad stuff happens – to anyone and everyone. Sometimes Galileans get slaughtered – it’s no fault of their own. Sometimes a tower of the city wall suddenly collapses; as Jesus pointed out about another innocent eighteen. They didn’t bring it on themselves. It’s not like that. Sometimes suffering just happens – it’s not punishment from God and it’s not due to a person’s sinfulness.

Not only does Jesus grab the gift given by those who interrupted his preaching, but he also uses the time to re-direct those with ears to hear. He launches into his favorite teaching method. He begins to tell a story. The one about the fig tree. . . . Once upon a time there was a tree – a fig tree. It was planted in a vineyard for the purpose of – well bearing figs, of course. Why else are fig trees planted? So there’s the tree. Summer turns to winter. Winter to spring. Three years the tree matures. However, there’s one problem. The tree is trouble. Not once does it do what it’s intended to do. Three years; no fruit! Now most fig farmers are pretty decent people. They’re patient and persistent. But three years – three fruitless harvests is a long time. If you’re not one to work the land, then imagine your car. If, for instance, we had a car that for three years wouldn’t work; well, no doubt about it: we’d sell it in an instant. Now when we take it in to get rid of it and the car man says, “Wait; let me tighten a hose or two. Add some oil. Maybe even give it a new gallon of gas.” Before we’d buy another, it’d make sense to see if we could get the old one running. Who among us wouldn’t give it a chance? . . . The owner of the fig tree allows another year. Hoping that perhaps this will be the remedy. The tree finally will bear fruit.

That’s Jesus’ message: come on guys. Bear fruit! After all, it’s why you exist. How many years are you foolishly going to let the fig farmer find you fruitless? It’s like he’s trying to wake them up. Don’t waste a single moment. Especially in light of the Galilean tragedy, bear fruit NOW. . . . Someone tries to throw off Jesus with the horrifying story of a group of Galileans being murdered as they worship and Jesus just seizes the opportunity to vividly remind us that we have absolutely no idea. Life – at least on earth – is fleeting. We’re not guaranteed tomorrow, or the next day, or another year. BUT. We do have this moment. This exact instant to be as we are meant to be. To bear the fruit God wants from us. To birth LIFE into the world with our every breath, through every word, every deed.

I hope you noticed that Jesus’ parable is unfinished. “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down . . .” (Luke 13:9). That’s it. Here ends our reading of the Word of God. . . . I want to know what happened to that fig tree, don’t you? I mean, I wish Jesus would’ve told us. After the gardener tended it; a year later. Did it make it? Was all well and good? Or did this unproductive little tree find itself fatefully falling to the ground? He never said. That’s the beauty of parables. . . . The answer is up to us. We are left to write the ending. . . . The answer is up to us: what are we going to do with this very moment? Today? Will we bear fruit or not?

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)