Monthly Archives: May 2016

Who

A Sermon for 29 May 2016

            A reading from the gospel of Luke 7:1-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,’ and he goes, and to another, “Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

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

            Have you heard the story of the little boy and a shop owner? Award winning author and blogger Chiao Kee Lee writes it and it goes like this: “A store owner was tacking a sign above his door that read “Puppies For Sale.” Signs like that have a way of attracting small children and sure enough, a little boy appeared by the store owner’s sign. “How much are you going to sell the puppies for?” he asked. The store owner replied, “Anywhere from $30-$50.” The little boy reached in his pocket and pulled out some change. “I have $2.37,” he said. “May I please look at them?” The store owner smiled and whistled, and out of the kennel came Lady, who ran down the aisle of the store followed by five teeny, tiny balls of fur. One puppy was lagging considerably behind. Immediately the little boy singled out the lagging, limping puppy and said, “What’s wrong with that little dog?” The store owner explained that the veterinarian had examined the little puppy and had discovered it didn’t have a hip socket. It would always limp. It would always be lame. The little boy became excited. “That is the little puppy that I want to buy,” he definitively stated. The store owner said, “No, you don’t want to buy that little dog. If you really want him, I’ll just give him to you.’” The story goes that at this point, “The little boy got quite upset. He looked into the store owner’s eyes, pointing his finger, and said, “I don’t want you to give him to me. That dog is worth every bit as much as all the other dogs and I’ll pay full price. In fact, I’ll give you $2.37 now, and 50 cents a month until I have him paid for.” The store owner countered, “You really don’t want to buy this little dog. He is never going to be able to run and jump and play with you like the other puppies.” To this, the little boy reached down and rolled up his pant leg to reveal a badly twisted, crippled left leg supported by a big metal brace. He looked up at the store owner and softly replied, “Well, I don’t run so good myself, and the little puppy will need someone who understands!”

The author goes on to write: “The part that really got my eyes filled up with tears was when the boy got upset and said, “That dog is worth every bit as much as all the other dogs.” It goes straight to the heart of what we, as human beings, have . . . worthiness. In the little boy’s eyes, just because the little puppy was without a hip socket doesn’t mean he is less worthy compared to the others. As human beings, we are the same,” writes the story’s author. “Just because we are not perfect doesn’t mean we are not worthy. We are created exactly the way we are supposed to be. We are perfect in our own imperfections. Worthiness is merely a perception defined only by ourselves. Like that puppy,” says the author, “I am worthy and so are you” (by Chiao Kee Lee on http://thedirty30sclub.com/blog/2011/10/the-boy-and-the-puppy/).

Why is worthiness something we’re so quick to define for ourselves? Let alone for others? Why is it that we human beings so quickly come to our conclusions about who is worthy and who is not? . . . Who deserves our time, our money, our affections, and who does not? A world in need surrounds us daily. Consider our neighbors whose families are coming apart at the seams from the stresses and strains of life in this post-modern world. Or what of our beloved family members, either near or far, who going through health crises? On this weekend especially we remember all who have given their lives to keep peace in this world. The sacrifices they and their families make for the benefit of all. And that’s just to name a few of the people of all ages, races, and creeds in this world who are in dire need each day. . . . Which of them are worthy of our time, attention, and money?

Jesus is up against the very same question every day of his life. Here he is, in this story, which the gospel of Luke alone records. Jesus just has been among his disciples and great crowds saying to them things like: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. . . . And love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. . . . If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you (Luke 6:20-21, 27, 32, 37-38a). These are the words of his infamous Sermon on the Plain as the gospel of Luke tells it – not on the Mount as is recorded in the gospel of Matthew. . . . No sooner does he finish speaking, than Jesus is going to have an opportunity to put into action the sentiment of his very own words.

According to Luke 7, Jesus enters Capernaum. In his day, this wealthy city was known as the crossroads of the nations. Capernaum was over on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee and one of the last stops in Israel on the way to Lebanon to the north and Syria to the east. Living in Capernaum when Jesus arrived that day is one we can only assume is a pretty well-to-do Roman centurion. It would seem this man is of rank for he speaks from the experience of commanding other men. “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes,” says the centurion. “And to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it” (Luke 7:8). Which, it would appear, is part of his problem. According to the text, the centurion has a highly valued slave who no longer can fulfill his orders. He’s sick – near death, in fact; and this has the centurion so upset, it’s as if he’s pulling in favors to save him. . . . Now, I realize the word alone leaves a bad taste in many of our mouths because we’re most familiar with 18th and 19th Century slavery in America. And while the institution of slavery always is denigrating of human rights, it’s presumed slavery of Jesus’ day was nothing like the chattel slavery of America’s past. While the man was the property of the centurion, commentators believe he was treated with dignity. Some even note affection or at least the admiration of the centurion for his slave. After all, for his slave, such a prominent Roman is willing to bother his friends, the Jewish leaders, and even this one called Jesus he’s heard about. Supposedly the centurion is a God-fearer. A non-Jewish believer who is seeking to live by the moral ethic of Judaism. He’s ensured a synagogue was built in Capernaum – so that the Jews of the village had a proper place to worship the LORD their God. The floor of that very synagogue has been found under the remains of the Second Century Capernaum synagogue. And it’s an amazing spot on which to stand as you realize Jesus lived many of the days of his ministry in Capernaum a stone’s throw away at Peter’s house and often worshipped and preached right there in that synagogue. The Jewish elders of Capernaum explain to Jesus the gratitude due to the centurion for his generous devotion to God and the community of Capernaum. “He is worthy of having you do this for him,” they say, “for the centurion loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (Luke 7:4-5).

Whether Jesus agrees with the conclusion that the prominent God-fearing centurion is worthy, or whether Jesus is blind to such worldly distinctions and knows he needs to go help a sick slave few others might deem worthy; Jesus shows that both the slave at the bottom of society and the non-Jewish centurion are worthy of his attention – not because of anything they’ve done. But because of who Jesus is. . . . He said it at the start of his ministry, according to the gospel of Luke – words reminiscent of his pregnant mother’s magnificent song: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” Jesus proclaimed as he was beginning to live out his baptismal call. “Because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). . . . In other words, those in the most dire need are worthy of his attention. Those in the most serious of situations are the very ones he was sent to serve. The Spirit of the LORD our God lives among us to seek out the lost. . . . Jesus spent his whole life giving his time for, paying attention to, and having affection for the very ones the rest of the world quickly would conclude are not worthy.

What about us? As his body alive here and now, who do we deem worthy of our attention? To which ones shall we give our time? Who shall we use our money to help? . . . Once we realize that all are worthy in the eyes of our God, the questions kinda become obsolete. . . . Any in dire need deserve the attention of the body of Christ, the church; for, as we see with the centurion and the slave, all are worthy of our Lord’s. . . . We might take a lesson from Jesus as to where to begin. As those advocating for the centurion’s slave crossed the path of Jesus; likewise, all in need who cross our paths are worthy of our attention. But if that way of living ready for constant response is too much for us, maybe we can take a lesson from that little boy. Remember the one wanting the lame puppy? He wanted that one exactly because of their common need. He knew he understood the little puppy’s struggle because he’d lived through it himself. That kind of solidarity with another in need can be an incredibly motivating force. The wounds we have lived through, give us understanding for the wounds with which another struggles right now. Listening to the experience of our lives and honestly responding out of the pain our hearts have felt, opens us to the kind of empathy another needs. In this way, we come to know our true vocation – the real reason we are here in the world. The way we, like Jesus, live out our baptismal calls as our particular gifts, abilities, and history are used for the glory of God. . . . In great thanksgiving, let us ever be ready to respond!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

Life from Death

It was so uplifting Saturday to be at a regional meeting of church folk (a.k.a. a Presbytery meeting).  I know!  If you’ve ever been to one, then it may not seem a credible statement.  But it was for me.

I’ve been doing a lot of research and reflection lately on the church, contemporary culture, and change.  In many ways, it’s been my passion for the past decade.  Inevitably, it leaves me wondering often about what of the church needs to die.  I dream too about what might be able to grow if in fact those within the church (like me) let go of what we’ve always known.  It’s scary.  It calls me to dig deeper into that vow to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

I used to care about needed changes in the church for reasons like job security, and to ease my frustration over things that drive me bonkers about the church, and to create ways that might be easier on all.  The deeper I go in it, the more I see that I care because my own life is full of all sorts of people who I love immensely and who want nothing to do with communities of faith in which I have lived my whole life.  Many of the folks in my life used to want to be a part; but for whatever reason, they no longer can be.  Some have been burned badly, or been raised with terrible theology that still haunts them, or find themselves totally bored in worship by things that seem absolutely irrelevant to daily life.  I even find active church folks who desperately want something different, something more; but don’t have the foggiest idea what that looks like or how to get there.  Of course, I know there always will be people who aren’t at all interested.  They never have been and they likely never will be.

My heart breaks for us all.

Just to be clear:  I think it’s wise to turn away from a people who label themselves with Jesus’ name but act like the antithesis.  I think it’s tragic to feel isolated or lonely or unloved or unlovable and have no community to turn t0 — especially because some expressions of church today are at their best and do offer the needed healing balm.  I think it’s deplorable to be seeking — or worse yet:  to already have connected deeply to the Life Force — only to be told that such things are NOT of God (which, in fact, they are!  The Divine is about the journey of awe and wonder; not certainty and fact).   I think it’s sense-less that the hearts of a people who claim the name Jesus aren’t breaking for the eclectic array of people Jesus went out of his way to welcome home.  It’s not ok to me for people to be unaware that they are beautiful, cherished treasures.  And it’s even worse to me for any to be deemed unacceptable by others who believe they know.

Recently I saw an amazing clip on The Work of the People in which Rachel Held Evans made a matter of fact statement that rocked me to the core:  “Empires worry about death.  Gardeners do not worry about death”  (To watch the clip go to http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/creating-something-new).  A few day later I watched a clip by John Philip Newell on “Dreaming Forward” (http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/dream-forward).  Newell quoted the Dalai Lama regarding hope for the future.  He said:  “‘Of course I believe there is hope for the future.  The future hasn’t happened yet.'”  My mind once again blown, I went off to the Presbytery meeting Saturday where we heard from three different young adult women (interestingly all were women) who spoke passionately about the meaning they have been finding for life through their involvement in Presbyterian Campus Ministries.  They have connected with others and that which is beyond, they have built relationships and learned from those much different from themselves, they have helped the hurting and shown love to those battered by life.  I left that meeting so excited that these young women are the church today:  the future hope in our midst.  The people who passionately and honestly seek to follow the Way of Love.  Ones who want to make a difference in others lives, not just seek to have their own needs met.

Maybe it’s just a handful and maybe as they get older the flame will fade.

Or maybe . . . just maybe, their lives (and the fruit of who they are) are the new growth.  And maybe, just maybe, all can learn a thing or two from them as we seek to breakdown in ourselves the walls of cynicism, self-focus, and indifference.

Then . . . maybe, just maybe, our own fresh growth will unfurl under the blazing sunshine in the grand garden of this world.

Here’s hoping . . . here’s to hoping!

 

Peace & Love prevail,

RevJule

 

Relationship

A Sermon for 22 May 2016 – Trinity Sunday

A reading from the wisdom of the Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us.

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth –when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

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

 

It’s Trinity Sunday. The day every year when the church tries to explain the inexplicable. We’re ambitious like that! . . . Trinity: lots of people like to think of it as the Father who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Spirit who sustains. The God who is beyond us, the God who lived among us as one of us, and the God who lives in all. One God, in three persons. If you’ve studied up on all this ever, then you likely already know that in ancient acting, a few actors would play various personas throughout a drama. That’s where the three persons words for Trinity comes from. Our One God, who is known to us in three personas – three distinct characters in the drama of this thing called life. . . . As ancient creedal language puts it: the Father who begets the Son; and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, who with them is worshipped and glorified! . . . I remember protons, neutrons, and electrons from high school science, don’t you? We can understand that all living things are not solitary. Even before the explorations of modern science, anyone could look at the world and see things that were one, but three. Take a bird for instance. It has a beak, wings, and tail feathers. Three different parts; but it’s all one bird. And, in fact, without all three parts, it wouldn’t really be a bird. . . . God is kinda like that. Three distinct parts: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; YHWH the almighty One, Jesus Christ the embodied Word, and the Holy Spirit forevermore. God is all these. All these are God – three, but One: Trinity.

It’s a mystery. And I think a great children’s book gives us insight. It’s called: God is Like a Mother Hen and Much, Much More (by Carolyn Stahl Bohler). I wish I could show you the pictures, but it’s kinda a small book and I didn’t think you’d all be willing to scrunch up here together on the floor, so you’ll just have to hear the words today. “God is like a Mother Hen,” the book begins as the opposite page has a picture of a momma chicken with her chicks. Gently gathering them under her wings the page reads: “who protects her little chicks.” Turning the page we see: “God is like a Caring Daddy, who listens really well. God is like a Teacher, who smiles and says, ‘Try again’” – cuz the lil chic at the chalk board wrote four as the answer for one plus two. God’s like that. We’re all learners in this journey of life; everyone makes mistakes. “Try again,” smiles our Teacher God. As the book continues we learn that: “God is like a Best Friend, who plays and shares with you. God is like a Mommy, who kisses all your hurts. God is like the Air, right there, but you can’t see it.” The little chic on the drawing is skipping in the sunshine of the great outdoors saying: “The air keeps us alive!” The next page reads: “God is like a Child, who loves to have surprises.” Then “God is like You. Sometimes crying, sometimes laughing. God’s Love is like a Teddy Bear’s, ready for snuggling at night.” Then the book states: “Can YOU think of what else God is like?” The caption is: “Fill in using your imagination.” . . . “God is like a Mother Hen, a Caring Daddy, a Smiling Teacher, a Best Friend, a Mommy kissing hurts, the Air you can’t see, a Child loving surprises; You, crying or laughing; a Teddy Bear’s Love, blank” where you fill in what you named God with your imagination, “and much, much more!” God is like a Mother Hen and so very much more! . . . Solid rock, scripture attests. Good Shepherd. Forgiving Judge. Intimate Presence. The Way of Peace. And so very much, much more. All of these together; yet none of these in full. Known to us and Unknown to us all at the same time. The Triune God is so very much, much more. All the different metaphors give us a great way to experience – not to mention speak to others about this One-in-Three that we love.

In Proverbs we get a different kind of peek at our amazing God. That part of God which is wisdom. “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals” – in other words: everywhere! “She cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live’” (Prov. 8:2-3). . . . In the Hebrew language, wisdom is associated with the feminine. The Spirit of God that is a part with God at the very beginning. . . . In the Greek, wisdom gets linked with the Word, Logos, masculine and a foreshadow of the Word embodied in the male figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Proverbs links wisdom much more with what we might understand as God’s Spirit. The force with God in creation. She declares in joy that “when God established the heavens, I was there, when God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, when God established the fountains of the deep, when God assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress God’s command, when God marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov. 8:27-31).

What a beautiful tribute to God! Logically, we know God cannot just be One: nothing living is entirely solitary. If any of this magnificent creation ever was going to be, God has to be more than just one part. The creative force in synergy with itself causing something to come to be. It’s why in the first creation story of Genesis 1, God speaks thus: “’Let us make (humankind) in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Even then, we declare God is an us – One but more than one. Creating a whole world to be one – no single solitary thing – but beautiful in the distinctness of each. . . . Isn’t it a wonderful image of the Spirit of God creating while the wisdom of God is celebrating it all? . . . Maybe you grew up with the triangle view of God. One at the top point, typically what was referred to as God the Father, or God the Creator. The Son and Spirit, not quiet as important, were at the points down below. For centuries, it was a popular way for the Church of the Western world to visualize God. But tucked back away in the Eastern Church was a different kind of image. One that’s slowly making it’s way into the West, which I think is a really good thing as it seems a bit more biblical. You might have heard me say it before, and I first ran across this great truth in Shirley Guthrie’s book Christian Doctrine, which some of you have been studying all year. It’s the perichoresis of God. In this image of Trinity, God is like three distinct circles – equal is shape and size. (Kinda like the image on the front cover of the bulletin.) An interconnected one with all three. There’s really not one that predominates another. Rather this image of Trinity connotes the mutual dance of God. Love itself. Three intertwined dancers twirling about with each other in flawless delight. It gives us a better picture of the One God who is involved in every aspect of the God who is creating and redeeming and sustaining. For in truth, we can’t have one function without the other and still have God as we know God.

And so in mutual delight, we know the Almighty Creator . . . whose final word always is Life. Who makes covenant with a people to be a light to all the nations. Who speaks through the prophets to call us back to faithfulness. Who never-ever will let us go; even when it’s what we really do deserve. . . . We love God the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Who’s life, death, and resurrection sets us free from all that would bind. Sets us free for Life here and now and forevermore. Who shows us what it looks like to live as God. Who teaches. Who heals. Who feeds. Who celebrates every aspect of human living and welcomes the entire eclectic array – men, women, and children. Young, old and everyone in between. Not just those like himself of Jewish descent: but those of all lands, every tongue, all economic situations. We love God the Son who is our Way, our Truth, and our very Life. . . . And we celebrate God the Holy Spirit. Who powerfully comes among us. Who is our courage and strength. Who lives in every little finger and toe of our bodies. And who lives beyond us in all things living – sometimes known as the very breath of God enlivening all creation. The greening, viriditas force that is alive in all. Celebrating it all as does the Spirit of God, according to Proverbs. The Spirit of the Risen Christ, who guides us into all Truth that we might live in like manner. Who revives us when we are weary and gives to us that great zest for life. . . . Our God, the great Trinity; One yet three, and so very, very much more!

Whether we get it up here (in our brains) or not, it’s the One in whose name we all were baptized – the one in whose image we all were made. No single solitary thing, so that we know we too are not one entirely on our own – whether we want to be or not. Made in the image of the God who is in relationship in God’s very self, we are connected to everything else that lives: in relationship with it all, to be in mutual delight. One with all creation, even as is our God. . . . At the end of the day, whether we understand the mystery or not; our call is to give God praise. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer! The God who is beyond us, who lived among us, and who lives in all. To the Mysterious, Holy Trinity, we give praise forevermore!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

 

Language

A Sermon for 15 May 2016 – Pentecost Sunday

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 2:1-21. On this Pentecost Sunday, perhaps you’ll find these words very familiar. Listen anew 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. 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, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 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!

 

So there’s this sit-com with the plot line about a young woman who had been held captive in an underground shelter in Indiana by some crazy self-proclaimed prophet who captured these four teens and told them for like fifteen years that the end of the world had happened and they are the only things left. Then one day, they’re rescued. The teens now are full-grown women and one of them decides she’s moving to New York City to finally begin living. The thing is: she’s been secluded underground for the past several years. And though she’s nearly thirty, she still has the mannerisms, clothes preferences, and language from her days as an eighth grader. Her new New York City housemate tries to help her get a clue about life today. Like: she has no idea what a selfie is – because in fact, she hasn’t ever heard of, let alone had a cell phone. She’s read only one book over and over again for the past fifteen years so any life lessons she’s come to know are through that one pre-teen story. And worst of all, she still uses expressions that were popular in her junior high prior to her captivity in the underground shelter by the crazy self-proclaimed prophet of the end of the world. Like, there was a time and place when it was so cool to say things like “Groovy!” – or so I’ve been told. But not in New York City in the year 2016! Her housemate keeps a notebook entitled: “Things People No Longer Say.” Every time she blurts out such an outdated expression, it gets recorded in the notebook. As if teaching someone about language is that easy.

Language really is a funny thing. I mean, you can tell a lot about a person by the language they use. I’m not talking about dialect or accent – though those certainly place us as well. But just the particular words we use and how we use them. . . . Remember just a few years ago? It was so confusing to hear the younger generation say things like: “That’s sick!” Because when I was a kid, we really meant it was sick – like gross. Disgusting. Something you’d want nothing to do with. Not amazing, awesome, and incredible as the kids were using it. . . . Language can be really confusing. It’s part of what defines a group. A part of a group’s culture. Just like the rituals, traditions, celebrations, and songs that mean something to a particular group of people. Certain language resonates with some because it signifies something those people value. Something a group tacitly has come to agree represents something about them. Language matters significantly.

Which is part of what makes the readings for Pentecost Sunday so incredibly fascinating. This year we hear of the day of Pentecost coming against the backdrop of that great Genesis story of the tower of Babel. A lot of really bad exegesis has been done on both of these texts over the years so that somehow lots of people came to believe that God punished the people for pride over the tower of Babel by confusing their language and dispersing them all across the land. Then, thank the Lord Jesus, at this first Christian Pentecost, God finally changed the course and re-united the people with the Holy Spirit that allowed everyone to once again understand one another – to reverse Babel and allow everyone to finally speak the same language. The only problem with these interpretations of both of these texts is that they’re not at all what the texts record! Of Genesis 11, one commentator writes: “The goal of the building project was to keep the community in one place, lest they be scattered over the surface of all the earth. Hence the people with one language wanted to stay in one place.” They wanted to establish “an identity that will endure . . . to perpetuate a single culture – the human race speaking one language and living in one place” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Ralph W. Klein, p. 3,5). I guess it made no difference to them that the command from God at the beginning of creation was to: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). In fact, according to the story, it’s the very first thing God tells us; that is after blessing us and reminding us how beloved we are. We are to fill all the earth – this grand creation of God’s that God intricately made in vast variety. If God wanted everything the same, one kind, one culture, one location, and one language; then God would have made it that way from the start! We’d all be women or we’d all be men. The whole world would just be fish or birds or creeping things – not all of them and so much more. And then in such diverse array of types. . . . The beauty of anything is to behold it in all its vast array. Color pops when there’s all different shades of black and blue and green and red and purple and yellow. It really means something – moving to our spirits, I think, when we can reach beyond our own little boundaries – our own little ways – and connect with someone or something so very different from ourselves. When we can understand one another – what the other values and yearns for in this life – across the different words we use. Despite the varying languages we speak. Like that children’s book by Mem Fox that reminds us that laughter is the same and tears are the same and blood is the same. Love is the same whoever you are, where ever you are all over the world (Whoever You Are, Mem Fox, 1997).

That’s what happened when that first Pentecost occurred after Christ’s resurrection. It wasn’t one unified language the disciples started speaking so that everyone finally understood. And it wasn’t some sort of glossa or speaking in tongues as some believe. It was, according to the text: “In other languages” (Acts 2:4). That’s what absolutely amazed the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. As the text records: “In our own native language” we hear the disciple speaking to us (Acts 2:8). Somehow the Spirit caused the first followers of Christ to speak the language of the people who were right around them. To communicate in words that meant something to those who were listening because the words used were exactly what they could understand. Pentecost reminds us that we must learn the language of those we want to hear of God’s amazing deeds of power. We must speak in a way that will connect with what they already value – what they already know that they too might come to trust the good news we have to share.

In the beautiful book Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen explains in his introduction that a much younger, secular Jewish friend named Fred once asked him – an older, Roman Catholic priest and professor of Yale Divinity School – to write for him and others like him. Nouwen explains that he finally undertook the writing of Life of the Beloved in the early 1990s because Fred had asked: “’Why don’t you write something about a spiritual life for me and for my friends?’” . . . After a while Nouwen came to see that: Fred’s “own experience and that of his friends required another tone. Another language. Another spiritual wave length.” Nouwen writes: “As I gradually came to know Fred’s friends and got a feel for their interests and concerns,” (not to mention the chaotic, demanding, isolating ways they lived), he “better understood Fred’s remarks about the need for a spirituality that speaks to men and women in a secularized society.” Nouwen writes: “Much of my thinking and writing presupposed familiarity with concepts and images that for centuries had nourished the spiritual life of Christians and Jews. But for many people, these concepts and images had lost their power to bring them into touch with their spiritual center.” Nouwen confesses that “Fred’s idea that I say something about the Spirit that his friends and he could hear stayed with me. He was asking me to respond to the great spiritual hunger and thirst that exist in countless people who walk the streets of big cities. ‘You have something to say,’” Fred kept telling Nouwen. “’But you keep saying it to people who least need to hear it. What about us? Young, ambitious, secular men and women wondering what life is all about after all.” Fred asked: “Can you speak to us with the same conviction as you speak to those who share your tradition, your language, and your vision?’ . . . It became the plea that arose from every side.” Fred begged Nouwen to: “’Speak to us about the deepest yearnings of our hearts. Of our many wishes. About hope. Not about the many strategies for survival, but about trust. Not about new methods of satisfying our emotional needs, but about love. Speak to us about a vision larger than our changing perspectives and about a Voice deeper than the clamorings of our mass media. Yes, speak to us about something or Someone greater than ourselves. Speak to us about God. . . . You can do it,’” Fred said. “’Look attentively at what you see (among us) and listen carefully to what you hear (among us). You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” Nouwen’s spiritually hungry friend told him what the masses today still plead: “Speak from that place in your heart where you are most yourself. Speak directly, simply, lovingly, gently, and without any apologies. Tell us what you see and want us to see. Tell us what you hear and want us to hear. Trust your own heart. The words will come.’” (Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen, 1992, from the Introduction).

Isn’t that exactly what Pentecost teaches us: to tell what we see and want others to see. To tell what we hear and want others to hear. To trust our own hearts; for the words will come. That’s the work of God’s Spirit in us all. . . . For the sake of us all today – those who hunger and thirst and those who believe they’ve got it all figured out: let us speak, let us speak the words of Life. The language of our hearts.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

Still Easter

A Sermon for 16 May 2016 – 7th Sunday of Easter

A reading from Acts of the Apostles. We continue to hear in this season of Easter of the adventures of the apostle Paul and Silas. Listen for God’s word to us.

“One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” (NRSV)

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

 

It’s still Easter – though our memories of that glorious morning the last Sunday of March have about faded. For those of us who were there, can you remember the sound of the birds singing as we sat for a moment of silence at the Sunrise Service in the old sanctuary on The Hermitage? Remember the joy we felt around the tables in the fellowship hall that morning? The glorious music of the 11 a.m. service that day and the fun of plastic Easter Eggs all over the yard as the children enjoyed a few moments of adventure after the service? It seems forever ago – but it’s still Easter. The seventh and final Sunday of the season for this year. Next week we celebrate Pentecost: the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the Church. But for today: Easter: one last shred of this annual church season when we celebrate crazy things, ridiculous things. Impossible things coming to pass! Things like publicly crucified men being found alive again. Stone-sealed tombs somehow being opened. Disciples once crouched in fear-filled grief finding themselves shouting Alleluia! Easter causes upside down, turned-all-around, unexpected stuff.

Certainly it seems that way in our Easter-tide tale for today. Paul and Silas are stuck in jail praising away. It’s ridiculous! They have been dragged before the magistrates, unjustly. And their accusers say they have been committing crimes against the state. You see the story goes that after Paul and his buddies arrived in Philippi to find the circle of devout women, witness to Lydia, baptize her and her household as the first European converts, and begin a church back at her house; Paul and Silas continue to make their way to the place of prayer. Each day they go outside the city to praise together. One day a slave-girl starts following them. According to the story it doesn’t bother them at first. She would lag a bit behind and periodically shout out: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). It’s too bad we only have the words without the vocal cues. If the scriptures were written more like a script, then we might know the inflection in the girl’s voice. Was she being sincere, acting something like a herald of good tidings as Paul and the others made their way out to the circle to pray? Or maybe her words dripped with sarcasm: she was a slave too. Maybe she spit: “You’re slaves just like me; is it really any better to be indebted to the Most High God?” What we know about her is that she had the spirit of the python – that’s the literal words in the original Greek. Which could in fact have linked her and her seemingly psychic powers to the Greek Temple of Delphi (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2; David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, ed.; 2009, p. 523). It’s possible the spirit that possessed her was in direct conflict with the Spirit of God that possessed Paul. A clue to us listeners that the Most High God is about to do battle with all sorts of opposing forces. And remember, because of Easter, we know who wins. . . . Whatever tone the girl takes, eventually her proclamation grates Paul’s last nerve. Highly annoyed, one day, he finally tells the spirit of the python to come out of her. Which kinda leaves us wondering if Paul knew that a confrontation with that spirit would lead to all sorts of trouble. I mean, maybe, at first, he was afraid to order it out; but when he no longer could stand the girl’s annoying parade, he finally says enough! . . . And so the real clash begins. You see, this young girl made a LOT of money for the men who owned her. They put her to use fortune-telling in the city and as soon as she was free from the spirit that secured their income, her owners were furious! That’s why Paul and Silas find themselves in jail. Beaten bloody. Humiliated in public – without due process of the law. The slave owners who find their lucrative business dried up, seize Paul and Silas and drag them into the marketplace. . . . Those slave owners must have been shrewd men; for they knew to twist the truth just a bit toward their favor. They wanted Paul and Silas stopped. They shout out to everyone: these Jews are “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” (Acts 16:21). Which probably is true. I mean Paul and Silas were testifying to others about the Most High God – the God who in Jesus Christ had conquered even death. The God who certainly reigns supreme over the ways of the market, over the ways of Rome, over even Caesar. See, Easter causes craziness. Paul and Silas are attacked by the crowd. Then at the command of the magistrates, they are brutalized by the police, before they are thrown into the deepest dungeons of the prison so that no hope of escape would ever flicker. Bloodied, their feet are bound in the stocks. An attempt to crush their spirits as surely as their bodies.

Still they’re praying. They’re praising! According to the story, at the latest hour, midnight, Paul and Silas are singing away at the top of their lungs, offering prayers to God. It’s ridiculous! Everyone else is overhearing and I wonder if they thought it just as radical as it sounds to us? Easter is the only explanation. Their hearts could not be broken because they trusted the God to whom they had become enslaved. They entrusted their lives to Easter – to the God of Life who would use them as that God sought to re-make the world.

I once knew a very proud momma who every chance she got would try to get me to visit the ministry her son had begun. It was in a pretty rough area of Chicago that I never did like to go visit. But that momma wouldn’t let up until one day I finally set a meeting with her son to find out all the fuss. After parking on a street that looked a bit like an old war zone, I climbed the steps of a huge building. Inside I asked for Glen. . . . It was an odd experience, walking from bright bustling hallways through locked-down corridors leading to parts of the building not yet refurbished. I remember Glen telling me as we walked that when the South underwent desegregation, nearly 500,000 African Americans flooded the city of Chicago all of a sudden and no one was ready for it. Seemingly overnight, areas like the one in which he and I were standing that day became dead-end urban ghettos. It was obvious to me that Glen and his friends believe in Easter and the craziness it causes. Glen, his wife, and fellow professional pioneers moved into that dying neighborhood back in the early 1970. . . . It was remarkable to listen to this man who not only cared, but could figure out exactly what to do first to make a difference. Glen explained that they first sought to stabilize the neighborhood through improved housing, legal assistance, medical access, and other empowerment ministries. Then, in the early 1980s when the community development ministries they had begun were busting at the seams; a mammoth vacant complex on the corner of a nearby city block finally became available. The building, which once had been home to a thriving Catholic girls’ school, had sat empty for several years with all sorts of vandalism – the electrical, plumbing, and heating all having been pillaged. In 1983, Circle Urban Ministries decided to buy the abandoned facility for $80,000. Bit by bit, as they got the funding over the next three decades, they brought back that old structure in order to transform an entire neighborhood. It’s unbelievable! Everything from a charter Kindergarten through 8th grade school, to an emergency food pantry, to a community church, to an after-school mentoring program, to a college readiness ministry, to legal and medical clinics, to a half-way home for single young moms, to a gym for physical activity in the neighborhood and a library for mental enrichment – all of it are under the roof of this one gigantic, once abandoned facility. That old building slowly over the decades became a haven for the slew of ministries finding home-base there. It’s incredible. Sure it took steady, slow progress over nearly thirty years. But an entire neighborhood in what once was one of the roughest areas of Chicago is finding itself transformed. Thanks to Easter and a few people trusting so deeply in it; men, women, and children here and now are receiving new lives – kinda like the jailor did when Paul stopped him from harming himself and opened him to a whole new world where God can cause the most unbelievable things to occur. . . . That’s the kind of craziness Easter causes. Those are the kind of ridiculous, impossible things God ends up doing through folks who are willing to trust.

It’s still Easter – in fact, the beauty is that even though the church calendar brings the season to a close, Easter never ends. It’s the season, the celebration, that changes everything forever. The question is: will we keep entrusting our lives to Easter for God to re-make the world through us?

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

Open

A Sermon for 1 May 2016

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 16:6-15. We’re hearing of the travels of Paul and Silas and Timothy here. Listen for God’s word to us.

“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.”

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

 

Fifteen years ago, 9/11 changed us. Do you remember the day? Early in the morning as many of us were just starting work, the reports broke in. In an instant our sense of security as a nation came crashing down. And in the next instance an overwhelming compassion for one another bubbled up in many of our hearts. We knew ourselves connected as we hadn’t known the day before. We were a little bit more friendly to one another because we suddenly were reminded that we all are in this together. . . . And then there was that time six years ago. The 2010 floods of Nashville. Some of you might have found yourself in a very dangerous situation. As the rain came down, so too did the defenses many often wear around their hearts. The disaster reminded this city, we are all in this together. Neighbor helped neighbor. Strangers provided for the needs of other strangers. Hearts were open to the pain each other was experiencing. In the midst of such destruction, it was a beautiful sight to see all that loving-kindness spreading across this city like a comforting warm blanket. . . . The same kind of thing often comes to pass when tragedy strikes us individually. Life throws us the kind of curve ball we never could catch on our own. We need one another – as we do each day – yet it too often takes the extremes in life for us to remember. To obliterate our sense of self-sufficiency so that we might open our hearts and minds to what might be.

We’re lucky that the Apostle Paul was open – even if it took a blinding light on that Damascus road to finally get him that way. At the start of our reading for today, we hear that Paul and his fellow followers Silas and Timothy had a whole itinerary mapped out. They wanted to go into parts of Asia. But they couldn’t. Instead in a vision, a man of Macedonia comes to Paul pleading for help (Acts 16:9). Immediately Paul set their course to head in that direction. For the first time, the message about Christ was on its way into Europe. Philippi was in the district of Macedonia which is a part of modern-day Greece. . . . Paul and his buddies had a typical pattern when they entered a new city. Usually on the Sabbath they would seek out a Jewish synagogue. They’d look for any circle or house of prayer where Jews would be gathered for Sabbath to give praise to God. For whatever reasons, the place of prayer Paul had learned about in Philippi was outside the gates of the city, over by the river. Maybe because there weren’t ten Jewish men of the city to constitute an official synagogue there. Open to finding those the man of Paul’s vision said were in need; Paul, Silas, Timothy and whoever else might have been with them were willing to venture this different course. . . . I wonder if they were shocked to find that it was a women’s prayer group they were intruding. . . . In those days, men and women most often kept themselves separated. The world was divided into women’s work versus men’s. Male places of privilege and typical spots of the women. In antiquity, whether they wanted to or not, women were obligated to keep to the home – seeing to the needs of however many family members lived there. Property of their husbands, it was suspect for women to converse with un-related men. In the spirit of Jesus who didn’t bother himself with such rules, the apostles don’t seem to care that it’s a women’s prayer circle they find that Sabbath day. Teachers sat to teach back then. And the text clearly notes that “we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there” (Acts 16:13). They were open to teaching whoever might listen.

Someone else in this story was open – thank goodness: Lydia. She’s a fascinating woman. Way back then, before women’s suffrage, Lydia was a successful businessperson. The text makes no mention of a husband. In fact, it’s shockingly clear that she is in charge of her household; for when her heart is opened, “she and her household (are) baptized” (Acts 16:15). She is open to this new message and has the authority in her household to ensure they all receive the mark of commitment as well. Further, without seeking permission from any male relative, she invites this group of foreign men to come stay with her at her house – additional signs of her independence and wealth. She’d have enough to be able to provide for whatever they needed. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth – which likely means that she rubbed elbows with the elite. Purple cloth was costly. It was a sign of immense wealth because the dye to make cloth purple, came from secretions of sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean. Supposedly twelve thousand snails were needed to yield enough dye to color just the trim of a single garment. One could either take the laborious time to milk each sea snail for its little bit of dye day after day. Or one could crush the snails completely, which of course meant that business would be dependent upon fishing daily for more sea snails in hopes that they wouldn’t become endangered or extinct. Either way, purple cloth was a luxury item. As one involved in such an elite trade, Lydia certainly must have led an interesting life. . . . One thing more we know about her was that despite any temptation to let her status go to her head, Lydia worshipped God. The word used in Acts to describe her indicates a Gentile who somehow had come to know of Judaism’s God. So she observed the Sabbath and offered her prayers. Whether or not she had spent her life searching for something more, her spirit is open to hear whatever these strangers have to say that day. She must have been so brave to even stick around when the unfamiliar band of men approached. Unhindered by fear or social customs or entrenched beliefs, she is eager to listen. She is open to whatever might come.

O for a world that lived like that. I mean wouldn’t it be a whole lot more fun? Paul went to bed that night possibly a little disappointed that he wasn’t going to get to go to the next place he wanted to. Then God gives him a totally new direction when he hears the need of those somewhere he’s never yet considered. Lydia got up that Sabbath probably thinking it was going to be like every other time she arrived to worship. When suddenly some strangers came along. The stories they told about one crucified and risen, one filled with compassion who was completely faithful to God’s mission of love; those strangers knew stuff she never could imagine but indeed God had made it so.

A seventh grade friend once sent me the following message: “I wonder what the next crazy venture beneath the skies will be.” What an incredible attitude! What a great way to get up each day open to whatever God has in store. Maybe, like Lydia, one of us is supposed to open ourselves that a whole new ministry might begin in our midst. You know, she insisted the apostles come back to her home and thus began a joy-filled church in Philippi – the first one ever in Europe! Throughout the epistles we hear that it constantly brought gratitude to Paul’s heart when later in life he thought about their faithfulness. Maybe, like Paul and Silas and Timothy, we’ve got a message within us about God’s saving grace. Maybe we’re supposed to share what we know of God’s love with someone who hasn’t heard, or with someone who knows of God but has never been able to fathom the reality that God loves even them no matter what. . . . Open to whatever comes, we’re bound to know more joy. Open to God’s presence in our midst, we need not fear. Open to each new day, even open to each other, we can trust that somehow God can take who we are and what we have and see to it that God’s will is accomplished in this world. . . . If it doesn’t come naturally, then we can pray. I mean Acts indicates that it was the Lord who opened Lydia’s heart (Acts 16:14). Maybe that was her prayer that very day: “Open me, Lord. Open me, Lord, to whatever you will this day.” . . . With this as our mantra, who knows: who knows what crazy venture beneath the skies will be next for us all.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)