Author Archives: RevJule

About RevJule

RevJule is a pastor of the Presbyterian Church (USA). She is The Rev. Dr. Jule, who holds a BA in Theology from Valparaiso University, a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and a Doctorate of Ministry (in Gospel and Culture) from Columbia Theological Seminary of Decatur, GA. She soon recently completed a Certificate of Christian Spiritual Formation from Columbia Theological Seminary of Decatur, GA and is beginning to be trained as a Spiritual Director through the Haden Institute in North Carolina. RevJule has served in a variety of professional ministry settings ranging from specialized ministry among children and families to adult ministry to solo pastorate work. She began writing almost before she could read and it was her way to connect deeply with God, others, and her truest self. RevJule currently enjoys creating weekly worship experiences and sermons for a congregation she is leading on a journey of self-re-definition. She enjoys teaching and connecting with others about matters of faith and life. She makes time almost daily for sitting quietly, being with her closest friends, walking her toy poodle Rufus, reading great books, and digging into the soil of whatever garden she can create. If you like what you are reading here, contact her to schedule a retreat or other spiritual formation experience for your faith community.

What Love Looks Like

A Sermon for 14 July 2019 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Luke 10:25-37. It’s claimed that this is one of the most familiar stories told by Jesus. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.’”

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

 

A prayer entitled Common Prayer goes like this – perhaps you’ve heard it before. “There are only two feelings. Love and fear. There are only two languages. Love and fear. There are only two activities. Love and fear. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear.” (by Leunig, quoted in books and speeches by Alan Jones).

Love and fear. We know what they look like, right?

Fear looks like eyes down on the sidewalk in front of us. Hugging in as we pick up the pace just a little bit. No matter what’s up over there. Don’t make eye contact as we just keep on walking by on the other side of the road.

Fear looks like accusations from a pulpit – or podium. Speech dripping in disdain. Hateful words spit into a microphone or spewed online that only insight further dis-trust. Anger. Violence.

Fear looks like keeping ourselves separated. Safely hunkered down among our own kind. And don’t anyone dare challenge our current way of thinking by coming up close with their true personhood. The story of their own struggles, pains, hopes. We prefer our worldview just the way it already is, thank you very much!

Fear looks like worry. Hands wringing about whatever situation has arisen. Pacing the floor. Anxiety rising because what if this one mistake. This one incident. This one episode brings it all tumbling down?

Fear looks like giving up. Not trying something new because we’re too set in our own ways. Too preoccupied by other things. Too tired to even try again.

A 2018 Christian pop rock song puts it this way: “Fear is a liar.” Listen to these beautiful lyrics: “When he told you you’re not good enough. When he told you you’re not right. When he told you you’re not strong enough to put up a good fight. When he told you you’re not worthy. When he told you you’re not loved. When he told you you’re not beautiful. That you’ll never be enough. . . . When he told you were troubled. You’ll forever be alone. When he told you you should run away. You’ll never find a home. When he told you you were dirty and you should be ashamed. When he told you you could be the one that grace could never change. Fear, he is a liar. He will take your breath. Stop you in your steps. Fear he is a liar. He will rob your rest. Steal your happiness. Cast your fear in the fire. ‘Cause fear he is a liar” (“Fear is a Liar,” from Chain Breaker; written by Jason Ingram, Zach Williams, Jonathan Lindley Smith. © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Essential Music Publishing).

And love? Love looks like a story I read this week – a story much like the one once told by Jesus that the gospel of Luke alone records. A parable of Jesus, which tells us that whether or not Jesus actually ever saw such a story take place, it is true. Parables are deeply true so that we should recognize the characters. The circumstances. The twists and turns of the plot from the days and nights of our own lives. Like three different men each having an opportunity to stop. To help another left as good as dead on the side of a dangerous, desert road.

In Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation, Mirabai Starr writes of the time her father called her up to see if she wanted to head over the boarder with her hippie, free-loving momma and her mother’s new boyfriend. Teenage Mirabai was getting over her first heart-break so she agreed. Her father dropped her off at the Mexican border just a few miles from the commune where her parents had moved Mirabai and her two siblings after the death of the oldest, then-nine year old son, Matty. Away Mirabai, her mother, and Ramón raced to the find the isolated beach on which the family lived for six months after Matty’s death. Life along Mexican beaches had changed by then, so a campsite would suffice. The story’s a little racy, because Mirabai writes that “mom and her lover proceeded to explore their relationship” (p. 40) while Mirabai sat on the beach reading and writing love poems to the boy who just had broken her heart. Topless, her mother and Ramón sat smoking a joint on the beach. Before the night was over, Mirabai would have to negotiate their way out of arrest by the Mexican police patrolling the beach who did not at all approve of what they found going on at the campsite. The next day, after some big fight between her mother and Ramón; Mirabai’s mother ended up – let’s just say, in a drug-induced state that left her racing down the beach until she suddenly disappeared. When Mirabai finally caught up to where she last had seen her mother, she saw a high bluff off of which her mother had fallen only to be laying in excruciating pain down below. Mirabai was only fourteen when suddenly the fate of her mother lay in her own hands. Somehow she got herself down the embankment, then back up it with her mother — only to find her mother unable to walk. Something was drastically wrong.

Earlier in the week, Mirabai had found a cantina far down the beach. It was late in the night when at last Mirabai managed to get her mother there. Mirabai explained to the elderly Mexican gentleman standing in the cantina that her mother had fallen down a bluff – her foot was growing larger and more purple by the second. We can see why Mirabai helped – even if she was pushing all the boundaries of acceptable mother behavior, the woman who had fallen over the bluff was her mother. As I read the story, I couldn’t help but wonder if the man in the cantina noticed her mother’s blood-shot, stoned eyes. Suddenly this free-loving American was being dragged to him – their only shot at hope in the middle of the night on that vacant Mexican beach. Almost as quickly as Mirabai had gotten to work to rescue her whimpering mother, the man at the cantina got under her mother’s arm and led them to a small table. He ensured her legs got propped – and took a closer look at the balloon expanding where once a foot had been. Mirabai insisted they needed a doctor – unfortunately, they no longer had any money or their car because those were negotiated away the day before in order to keep the three from being put in jail when the police came up upon their illegal activity on the beach. The man explained there would be no getting a doctor in the middle of the night. Then, almost like he’d known these two strangers his whole life long; he helped them out back to his little beach hut. Getting Mirabai’s mother settled in his own, only bed; he said he’d sleep the night in the hammock between the trees. If they needed anything, Mirabai was to come get him – which she did when the pain got so bad. It was then the man offered a bottle of tequila to at least get the woman to sleep. When morning at last broke, Mirabai was able to find Ramón whose friend drove them back to the cantina. The friend tried to pay the elderly gentleman for tending the two through the night, but the man of the cantina refused to take any payment. Instead, Mirabai reports, “he helped us load Mom into the car, kissed the top of her head, and asked God to bless us all” (pp. 40-46).

Love looks like strangers in need being treated as kin – so they make it through the darkest night.

Love looks like holding what we have freely so that we’re willing and ready to share.

Love looks like carrying one who has fallen until they can walk on their own again.

Love looks like waiting with another in pain – even if there’s nothing we can do to make that pain stop.

Love even looks like offering another the blessing of God when they’ve messed up and don’t deserve it at all.

Once, a lawyer wanted to test Jesus – we hear from the gospel of Luke. He wanted to know how to have Life – eternal Life, which is Life in full here and now and forever yet to be. He knew the rules – love God and neighbor as yourself. But he didn’t quite understand that Life’s not at all a bunch of rules we’re supposed to follow. Life is putting love in action in order to experience God. For, as one source reminds: when we let go of fear, we are touched by God” (paraphrase of EnneaThought for the Day, The Enneagram Institute, 8 July 2019). When we Love, we know God. We Live!

May those with ears to hear, understand. May we choose love and Live.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Freedom

A Sermon for 7 July 2019

A reading from Galatians 5:1, 13-25. This is believed to be one of the letters written by the Apostle Paul to the churches of Galatia – likely a Roman province Asia Minor located east of the Aegean Sea and north of the Mediterranean Sea. Listen for God’s word to us.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”

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

 

Recently I heard an interview with Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Super Soul Sunday, OWN, 16 June 2019). A Doctor of Psychology, who is known to friends and family as her preferred name Edie, Dr. Eger was born in Eastern Europe in 1927. The youngest of three sisters, Dr. Eger’s father was a skilled tailor. Her mother, a pragmatic woman, became an adult child when her own mother died shortly after childbirth and Edie’s mother took on the duties of mothering the household. Dr. Eger might have had a promising career as a dancer. She even was training for the Olympic gymnastics team until her beloved coach pulled her out of practice in the early 1940s to let her know she no longer would be able to compete on the team because of her “background.” It made no difference that Edie was one of the most talented girls on the team – her eldest sister Clara a protégé violinist and her sister Magda a flirtatious beauty. In 1944, Edie was a young Hungarian Jew.

Now 91, Dr. Eger has released her first book – her memoir of the Passover when soldiers invaded her family’s tiny apartment. After a month of being held with 3,000 other Jews of her home city; Edie, her sister Magda, her mother, and her father were loaded on a truck; then transferred into the dark, over-stuffed cargo car of a train that emptied them before the man known as the angel of death. Standing before Dr. Josef Mengele, with a flick of his finger; he ordered Edie’s mother to the left – the line that led directly to the gas chamber of Auschwitz, the most heinous Nazi death camp. There stands the gate reading “work sets you free.” Unbelievably, Dr. Eger writes: “I could have remained a permanent victim – scarred by what was beyond my control . . . Early on, I realized,” she writes, “that true freedom can only be found by forgiving, letting go, and moving on” (https://dreditheger.com/). Certainly, she came to that lesson due in part to a lifesaving shred of wisdom her mother gave her when first the soldiers came to get them. Edie’s mother told her, “They can never control what you put in your own mind” (The Choice: Embracing the Possible, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, 2017). That wisdom taught Edie the difference between victimization – something she explains nearly all of us will experience in our lifetimes from the external forces of another – and victimhood – an inner belief that we are not worthy of any better treatment than what is given us by those who would harm us. A vibrant ray of light at 91 years of age, Dr. Eger is one of the few Holocaust survivors still alive today. If it wasn’t for an American soldier, who on 4 May 1945 noticed a slight movement amongst a pile of dead bodies, Dr. Eger would not have made it and gone on to become a celebrated psychologist who for fifty years has been helping others victimized by severe physical and mental trauma. Broken in so many ways during her time as a Nazi prisoner, Dr. Eger reports that the mantra that carried her through every horrific day at Auschwitz was the reminder: “if I survive today, then tomorrow, I will be free” (The Choice: Embracing the Possible, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, 2017).

Likely we’ve heard the word this past week. “Land of the brave. Home of the free,” our nation sings not just in celebration of Independence Day; but also at every major sporting event from football to hockey to tennis (“The Star-Spangled Banner”). Freedom is in our blood as Americans – though the history of what has happened here on the soil of this part of North America paints the picture of freedom for some. Enslavement, exploitation, and continued victimization for others. Now I don’t intend to get all political today – just because we’re a few days from the fireworks and fun of the Fourth of July. Rather, I want us to focus on what we know as Christian people. “For freedom,” the Apostle Paul writes, “Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1a).

Freedom in Christ is less about our desire to overthrow some far-off British king, and more like Dr. Eger’s inner attitude to forgive, to let go. In the interview I heard with her, Dr. Eger talked about those who survived the camps but didn’t know what to do once the day of liberation came. They had become so broken by their oppressor in the death camps, they barely knew how to face regular life again. After liberation, some walked back to the barracks in which they had been imprisoned. It took Dr. Eger’s starved, pain-wracked body over a full year to begin to heal. And her inner torment, most of her lifetime. She reports that she still can be taken back to that heinous year in Auschwitz with something as benign as a trip to Costco. The interviewer listening to her surmised it must have been like that too for African America slaves who finally found their freedom. We know from Scripture, it was no easy transition for our Israelite spiritual ancestors when at last the Pharaoh let them go and Moses led the racing people of God on dry land through the sea, only to live forty years as a wandering people in their journey to be free. Paul’s insistent words echo: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal. 1).

I’m not sure we realize the precious gift we have in Christ – the one who shows us how to live free according to the Spirit of God alive in us. It’s easy to live according to the ways Paul calls the ways of the flesh – what I like to think of not as our physical bodies, but as our unaware, slumbering selves. Paul’s talking about living enslaved by the unconscious impulses that arise. Like the automatic anger that can overtake when we feel hurt. The unexamined gnawing that drives us to act destructively. The impulsive, involuntary way we do something without even stopping to consider the harmful consequences to ourselves and others. Living like this – the way so many live – is not at all living free. It is the way of living as those who have submitted ourselves again to the yoke of slavery.

Dr. Eger tells a story that gives a good example. One day an angry 14-year-old arrived at her office for court-appointed therapeutic interventions. Just a few minutes into the session, he exploded that he wished all Jews were dead. Dr. Eger had not made mention of her ethnicity. She did not tell of the horrors of the kind of treatment she experienced even as a young girl when other children would spit at her and call her names because she was Jewish. As the teen filled with such hate sat before her in her office; for her to begin to help him heal, Dr. Eger describes finding a way within to regulate what might seem like the natural reaction to snap back. Instead, she breathed deep, called upon a calm still place within, and created the kind of safe space between her and the boy where the trauma of his life could be processed. That’s living free – by the Spirit. Not reacting out of her own space of hurt. But opening herself instead in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

“There is no law against such things,” the Apostle Paul writes (Gal. 5:23). These fruits, as they’re called, show that within we are totally free – not at all enslaved, no matter the outer circumstances of our lives. To live according to the fruits of the Spirit is the very reason Christ has set us free. The very gift we receive when we embrace the truth that the Spirit of God dwells in us and wants just a little more room inside to guide our thoughts. To direct our actions. To transform the very way we see everything that is before us. Living by the Spirit, that inner Presence expanding in us to be like the rudder of the vast ship that is us, this is the way in which we live free. Surely that’s an independence we all can celebrate!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

An Image for Caregivers

A Sermon for 23 June 2019 – Caregiver Sunday

Let us pray: Holy One, who is Life itself to us; calm the restless places in us. Quiet the constant chatter in our minds. Center our spirits as we listen for your Spirit to speak to the deepest places in us. As Scripture is read and proclaimed, may we hear your abiding word to us. Through Christ we pray, Amen.

From the prophet Isaiah, we hear beautiful words for those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. As I told the children, today we are focusing on the needs of those who care for the needs of others. Many of you know because you are now, or you have at some point in your lifetime, cared for a loved one. Maybe it is a young child who is exciting to watch grow each day, but whose needs are endless until they are old enough to tend themselves. Maybe it has been your partner: your husband, your wife who, because of disease or age, became your daily responsibility. Maybe it is a parent – near or far – a grandparent, a grandchild, or the neighbor next door who has no one else. So you, out of your love for God and others, are stepping up to do what is needed. Caring for others can be a 24/7 job – you know that. It can be one of the greatest challenges of our lives. But it also can be one of the most rewarding experiences of growing as disciples of Christ who daily find contentment and connection with The Holy as we listen, feed, bathe, help in a whole variety of ways. Caregiving for a loved one as they age can be one of the most difficult things we ever will do in our lives as we grieve the loss of the one we have loved while they still are among us – just not quite as we’ve always known them. It can bring out the worst in us even as it allows the best in us to shine.

If you’ve been reading A Spirituality of Caregiving by Henri Nouwen, then you might find familiar Nouwen’s thoughtful words about caring. Nouwen writes: “To care is the most human of all human gestures. It is a gesture that comes forth from a courageous confession of our common need for one another and the grace of a compassion that binds us together with brothers and sisters like ourselves, who share with us the wonderful and painful journey of life.” Nouwen writes, “In the very act of caring for another, you and I possess a great treasure. One of the great riches of caregiving is that it embraces something more than simply a focus on cure. Caregiving carries within it an opportunity for inner healing, liberation, and transformation for the one being cared for and for the one who cares. And because we who offer care and we who receive care are both strong and vulnerable, though in different ways, our coming together in a caregiving relationship is an occasion to open ourselves to receive an unexpected gift” (A Spirituality of Caregiving, Henri J. M. Nouwen, Upper Room Books, 2011, p. 16-17).

So, for us who are giving care and us who are receiving care; this morning we are invited to listen to beautiful reminders to us from Holy Scripture. First, we hear God’s word to us in a reading of Isaiah 40:28-31.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. The LORD does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. The LORD gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31 but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

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

 

Our next reading actually is the lectionary gospel reading assigned for this Sunday. Hear God’s word to us through Luke 8:26-39.

“Then they (Jesus and his disciples) arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So Jesus got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So the man went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

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

 

Irene had a most generous spirit! She came to a church I was serving shortly after a decade of caring for her husband in his last years of life. I loved Irene from the start! Her eyes sparkled like the bright summer sun shimmering across the ocean water. She was just the right combination of a beautiful spirit sprinkled with a dash of sass. Though frail when I first met her, you still could tell that this was no one to be pushed around! In fact, as the first to go to college from her rural Kentucky family, I sat in awe as Irene told me what it was like to be one of the first women allowed to study at Yale Divinity School. I admired Irene from the start. Not just for the trails I knew she had blazed for people like me, but for the way she came to me on like week two in worship to say: “Pastor Jule, now just because I can’t get around the way I used to, doesn’t mean I’m going to join this church to be the kind of person who sits back to do nothing from the pew. I intend to serve and want to talk to you about my gifts for teaching.” Irene wasn’t allowed to finish her studies at Yale Divinity School; but later in life, she earned herself a Ph.D. in English Literature and had enjoyed her students at the university where she and her husband both had taught. Irene was the kind of new church member pastors dream about. Not afraid to jump in to a new church family to see what she could do! I loved her from the start.

Which might explain why it was so obvious to me how tired Irene looked. She came to us a few weeks after moving into the local assisted living center. She couldn’t take care of her stately old home any longer. She really didn’t want to after the decade she spent there taking care of her husband’s every need as slowly he slipped away from her. Irene confided that those ending years were tumultuous. The daily demands of taking care of the man to whom she had committed her life so many long years ago swallowed up any other thing she might have needed to do – like process with him and by herself the struggles their life together included. But now it was too late. He was gone. Her spirit was troubled and her body was giving way to itself as all the years of lifting, washing, holding, dressing, feeding, caring for her beloved husband left her hobbled over. Unsteady on her feet, no longer able to stand erect. Irene was tired, in body, mind, and spirit after a decade of tending the father of her children, the man she had loved despite the painful challenges their marriage included. Irene had given daily care for a decade – she wouldn’t have traded a moment of those days for anything in the world. She had given care. The grace of compassion had bound her to her husband through his deep need. It was evident that she needed to receive. Grateful, yet weary, she needed rest.

Another preacher told me this week that nothing in the lectionary’s text from this week’s gospel of Luke jazzed him. Ugh. Jesus on the other side, healing the Gerasene Demoniac. Pigs rushing off a cliff. Town’s people all upset. At one level I agree. But then all week, I kept seeing in my imagination that man. Healed. All that was in him: gone. Can you see it too? In peace he is sitting at the feet of Jesus (Luke 8:35). What a shame that when the neighbors arrived at the place of all the commotion, they were afraid. They had grown accustomed to seeing the man whose whole world had been taken over by the “legions” inside. Possessed by forces beyond his own control. The story goes that for years the man lived in the wild. Naked. Alone. Homeless. He’d endured being shackled by the community to keep him from hurting himself or anyone else. Clearly this man was in deep, deep need. Upon meeting him, Jesus wants to know his name. The man doesn’t even know anymore. If you’ve ever been in deep need, you know how isolating the experience can be. How our memory can grow fuzzy. How the pain in our bodies turns our own minds on ourselves. It’s easy to forget who we are – who we were before – who we remain no matter the circumstances. Precious. Honored. Adored children of a God who invites us to come. Rest. Remember a love that never lets go. Can you imagine what it feels like to find yourself again centered in yourself? Sitting at the feet of Christ simply able to be.

Sometimes I think that the most difficult thing about caring is that there are no quick fixes to getting through the times we are pouring ourselves out for the needs of others. When we become the one who is responsible for the daily needs of a child, a parent, a partner; nothing is going to swoop in to magically make things all better. It’s hard. Hard work physically and challenging work emotionally and spiritually – we can give so much and feel so guilty that it’s not enough. I wonder if, in the most trying moments, maybe we can remember. Maybe we can steel away as many small moments as possible just to take one deep breath. To close our eyes – if even for 5 seconds – to see in our minds’ eye this Gerasene man. We may feel as tossed about within as he was by all that had taken him over. But with that breath – in that small moment of our great need while we’re receiving or giving care – might the image of this man whole. Centered. At rest at the feet of Christ, be something we can hold on to in the most challenging of moments? Might the gift of this story for caregivers and care receivers everywhere be the beautiful image of that man. Restored to his former self. Resting before the Great Caregiver. The Mighty Healer who is with us in our challenges, more concerned with our wholeness than anything else.

For those of us caring and those of us receiving care, please remember. Please be gentle with yourself even as you seek to find the tracings of God’s Spirit in and around it all. Tend those in need well and be gracious with yourself. Look for the ways God is with you. Know the compassionate Healer, the Great Caregiver, is at work. Rest. Centered fully at the feet of our Savior and Lord who shall make all things whole.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

God

A Sermon for 16 June 2019 – Trinity Sunday

It’s Trinity Sunday. A day filled with hymns that declare the amazing work of the Godhead. Holy, Holy, Holy is our LORD God Almighty! All creatures of our God and King! This day is a day too to hear beautiful words from Scripture that proclaim the awesome nature of God. I mean, did you hear those words from Psalm 8?! “O LORD: how majestic is your name in all the earth!” How could we do anything but fall absolutely in love with the Creator as we look upon the grandeur of this world? When we gaze up into the night sky – noticing the twinkle of millions of tiny lights that would take millions of years to walk to! When we look at the ground – like how is it possible that we can take tiny seeds that within themselves are a brilliant, beautiful work of art. We put them in the soil, or a songbird just drops them somewhere. The sun shines, the rain falls. The ground gives way. Before we know it, tomatoes are popping out everywhere. Basil is filling the sweet summer air. Even while we’re caught up in the beauty that surrounds, other little marvels are toddling all around us. These human bodies in which we live are sheer miracles. Do you know that when I broke the bone in my foot a few months ago, a very accomplished doctor with a very impressive education working for a well-respected medical group told me that now that the bone (that had been giving me some trouble for a while) finally broke, the body will heal it and build it back even stronger. Sure it’s taking time and there are factors that can impede the process, but I couldn’t believe I waited all that time to have some fancy surgeon tell me the truth of these incredible bodies in which we get to live: it knows how to heal itself! Despite the aches and pains we encounter as we age – indeed, with the Psalmist we can proclaim: O what are human beings, LORD, that you care for us?!

As Christians we believe Christ to be a part of the Triune Godhead that we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. It’s what makes us different from Jews and Unitarians and a whole lot of really spiritually mature people. In Christ, we believe we hear the words of God speaking to us, as Jesus did in that beautiful sermon he gave to his disciples the night before he would die. He promised: “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:18). God loves us so much, because, after all, God is Love. And as Love, God never, ever, ever is willing to be separated from us. We are God’s, Jesus declares in the portion of the great farewell discourse that we hear from the gospel of John today. That means that even if it feels like the rest of the world has abandoned us. Even if it feels like no one else accepts us. Even if it feels like we are in this all alone, we are not. God is like that tenacious father we hear of in Jesus’ parable of the lost – or prodigal – sons. One who never gives up. One who is proud to welcome us home, no matter what a mess our lives have become.

Trinity Sunday ends up being a day in the church when preachers around the world try to do the impossible: we try to use words to speak about God. To describe God. To explain the very nature of the Godhead that we proclaim through the doctrine of the Trinity. Though clearly spelled out nowhere in the bible, tradition settled on words like Father, Son, Holy Ghost to describe the relatedness of the Triune God. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer often are heard as a way to capture the function of each persona of the three-and-one God. This week, I read words written by The Rev. Jacqui Lewis who tried to describe her vision of God. Admittedly, I’ve never thought about God in the same way that this powerhouse head pastor from New York City’s Middle Collegiate Church describes God. And I’m still letting her explanation of God sink into my soul to see how it might resonate. Even as I remember that Rev. Lewis speaks from and for the context in which she ministers which is a multiracial, fully inclusive congregation whose purpose is “to heal souls and the world because they believe faith is about Love. Period” (https://sojo.net/biography/jacqui-lewis). Quoted in Richard Rohr’s daily devotional, which some of you also may have read on Thursday; Rev. Lewis describes what she sees when she imagines God. She writes: “My God is a curvy black woman with dreadlocks and dark, cocoa-brown skin. She laughs from her belly and is unashamed to cry. She can rock a whole world to sleep, singing in her contralto voice. Her sighs breathe life into humanity. Her heartbreaks cause eruptions of justice and love” (Center for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr Meditation: She Is Love, 13 June 2019). Rev. Lewis claims that we know God is a mystery. She writes: “We don’t know everything about (God). So out of our imaginations and our yearnings, our hopes and our fears, we make stuff up. At our best,” Rev. Lewis writes, “we project goodness, power, kindness, and love unto God. At our worst, we create a God who is punitive, angry, judgmental, and harsh. (Lewis says) We do this because we are those things, and we think they make us safe” (Ibid.).

I would argue that we can find it all in our Holy Scriptures – so many different ways our ancestors in the faith were inspired to use words to attempt to describe what we experience of this amazing Force. This incredible Love. This grand Designer we call God before whose awesomeness we humbly bow. Everything from Good Shepherd to Sheltering Eagle to Righteous Judge to Mother Hen to Solid Rock on which to stand is used in Scripture to speak of God. A plethora of images for just about every need in which we humans will find ourselves. The One – the Force – the Energy – the Love, whichever word best describes God for you – who from the beginning was Triune. Which might just be our attempt to give language – a doctrine, an explanation to the God of the Universe who is relationship itself. And if all this Triune talk. If all this trying to speak of God who took on our flesh and blood to be our Way, our Truth, our Life. If all this trying to speak of the Mystery of Three co-existing as One is too much for our little minds to comprehend, then how about we just listen. Listen for the beauty of how the wisdom writer of Proverbs gave expression to the Divine. Hear God’s word to us in this final Trinity Sunday reading from Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 (NRSV).

“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 God had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. 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.”

What else might we attempt to say about God today? Other than this wisdom text may never have been a reading we’d have known had not the council that created the Revised Common Lectionary decided it must be included every third Trinity Sunday. One biblical commentator writes of these words, “First, the image of Wisdom as God’s helper reminds us of the reciprocity of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit giving and receiving within the very being of God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3, Jeff Paschal, p. 31). Acting and resting, I would add. Doing and stopping just to behold. The balance of energies that allow the flow. That show us how to be as well. That same biblical commentator goes on to write: “Even more, the description of Wisdom in verses 24 and 25 – ‘brought forth’ (whirling, dancing) – calls to mind the Eastern Church’s emphasis on the Trinity as perichoresis, literally, ‘dancing around’” (Ibid.). In great wisdom the biblical commentator writes: “So we do not worship a stingy God who grudgingly gives gifts and who grants forgiveness as a divine grump” – another way, I would add, that so many seem to imagine God. “Not at all,” writes the commentator, “The triune God is a joyous, dancing God who pours out overflowing gifts to humanity with gladness!” (Ibid.). What a beautiful way to see God in our lives – a way so many of us have experienced even as we have read of in Jesus, the Christ, who lives among us as God! When we experience joy, we know God. When we live free – free enough to dance – we know God. When we take stock of all the gifts that overflow to us, we know God. When we love, we know God. The Triune God whom we trust and worship and serve!

Trinity Sunday is a day to celebrate God, the Mystery who keeps on giving and receiving and giving for all Life to prevail! With grateful hearts, may we ever rejoice in the God who is One, and three. Three and One, dancing around in an endless, unblocked outpouring of Love. Celebrating the inhabited world. Delighting in the whole human race!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

 

What We Do Have

Sermon for 9 June 2019 – Pentecost Sunday

On this Pentecost Sunday, listen to a reading from Acts of the Apostles 2:1-21. Listen for God’s word to us.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 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!

 

On Monday, Sharon Shields and I attended a rather interesting workshop. We went because of the title: Turning Sacred Space into Kingdom Cash. Admittedly, I was not expecting to sit through a full-blown lecture from a Professor of Finance about the steps to take in order to become a Social Entrepreneur. I wasn’t so sure what to do with his in-depth description on vetting market opportunities that included things like benchmarking to other commercial ventures and regulatory constraints and elasticity of consumers and profit maximizers. I looked around the room as he spoke and wondered if he forgot that we were a bunch of church leaders (mostly preachers); not young adults sitting in a university level business class! What did fascinate me in his presentation was his passion for church-based social enterprises. And the descriptions given at the workshop of not just one but three different church-based social enterprises this professor and his students have been about in the last few years.

Let me tell you about Spring Back – a church-based business that not only is improving the work force, but also is making money in serving the social good. Spring Back is comprised of men from the Isaiah 58 ministry of Belmont Church who are coming out of prison and trying to get their lives back together. At a warehouse off Trinity lane, Spring Back employees these men to whom Belmont Church has been ministering. They report to work for pay each day to take apart mattresses. Now, if you’ve ever tried to get rid of an old mattress, then you know absolutely no body wants them! Even the local dump would rather not take them because they are a huge fire risk. Spring Back teaches the men how to take apart each mattress which is made from something like 85% recyclable materials. Foam on one pile, steel on another. On and on they go with discarded mattress after discarded mattress until a profit actually is earned from the recyclable materials!

We heard too, on Monday, of a Farm to Table social enterprise of Nashville that is taking unused land to grow vegetables to sell to local restaurants. This Farm to Table business trains homeless men and women so they are able to work the land for pay. When harvest comes, two bushels of every crop are donated to local food banks while the rest is sold to restaurants wanting fresh, hearty homegrown food. Like Spring Back, it’s a social enterprise our Finance Professor would call a hit with its triple bottom line!

But I have to admit that the church-based social enterprise that blew my mind away was one called Three One Three. Founded by a passionate millennial who also was with us on Monday. While we listened, Brennon told what his Nashville-based Three One Three is all about. He explained that 3-1-3 or three hundred-thirteen days a year, which is all six days a week excluding Sunday, too many church buildings sit empty. As he spoke, I remembered reading the words a member of the twelve-step group now meeting here on Saturdays wrote just a few months back about lots of people today being disgusted with great big church buildings that lock their doors tight to everything but their own worship on Sundays. I can’t tell you how long I’ve sat year after year throughout the week as a pastor in church buildings where I was the sole human being for hours on end. Sometimes trying to work out of such offices is just creepy with the creeks and bumps empty old buildings can make. As a millennial who knows all about the contemporary craving for community, Brennon told about Three One Three’s co-working space located in a church building that otherwise sits empty 24 hours a day at least six days a week. Three One Three worked with the local church to transform some 10,000 square feet of under-used space into desks, private offices, and communal gathering spaces. Small business owners who prefer working alongside others in order to connect throughout the day or who would rather not tie-up their funds into permanently leased office space have membership in Three One Three. Kinda like getting your YMCA card for the year. Folks pay a monthly fee to have access to all they need to run their small business out of under-used church space. Three One Three members have the great experience of getting to know other Three One Three members – talking at lunch and at breaks about things like their latest struggles at home, their great new ideas in their work, their fears and their challenges in everyday life. Brennon says that kingdom-like conversations take place in church buildings that otherwise would be sitting empty. What’s more, in one year, over three-thousand people – mostly millennials and others who would never consider attending a Sunday worship service – have crossed the threshold of the church building where Three One Three is housed. A few even have become church members. Regardless if the church ever attracts them into the rest of their ministry, that’s three-thousand people being brought into a caring, supportive space where they can connect with Three One Three hosts and other Three One Three users to begin creating community. People come together. Under-used church space gets used. And cash is generated for congregations to further their mission – ensuring they carry on the work entrusted to them by God. Isn’t it absolutely amazing what happens when church folk take stock of what they do have that can be re-purposed to serve the social good?

It’s the kind of thing being preached that first Pentecost when the wind blew and the passion burned like flames dancing over each disciple. The Spirit of God was stirred up among the first followers. Though skeptics poked fun and curmudgeons complained, the Apostle Peter proclaimed that the prophesy of Joel was being let loose in the world. The Spirit upon all flesh! Sons and daughters making way for a new future. Youngsters seeing grand new visions. Elders dreaming dreams! It’s recorded in the gospel of John that Jesus himself once declared they would do greater things than he (John 14:12)! And look: they did! We have! God’s work will not be stopped! The Spirit stirs among us and the Church of Jesus Christ is carried on in bold new ways!

Pentecost is one of my favorite Sundays of the year! Because Pentecost asks us to pray for God’s Spirit to guide us anew! We may not be the kind of church that re-purposes our 13,000 square feet of upstairs under-used space the other 3-1-3 days of the year in a co-working social enterprise. But what do we have as a congregation that the Spirit of God might want used anew for the thousands of residents living around this building? Monday reminded me that as a congregation, this church has been entrusted with nearly nine acres of land in the middle of a beautiful neighborhood. According to the demographic information we now know from the quick overview given during our Capital Campaign, the people living closest to this facility report that they’re mostly not interested in religious institutions. Whether that’s how it’s always been in Hillwood-West Meade or not, those who first came together to begin this congregation had the vision of being located in the middle of this neighborhood for strangers to come together. For neighbors to become friends. For those in need to not have to walk alone. Times were different then, but the church set forth using this building to provide that for which local folks had an appetite. It’s never too late to go back to that beginning. We find our way forward, remembering the past purpose of this church, as we envision what will satisfy the cravings of the community today.

It’s easy to get really uncomfortable with some of the directions churches today are going. Then we can remember the people we know who have no church home. People who have been rejected by family members that get themselves shiny for worship each Sunday but live with such hateful hearts six other days each week. I know children I have loved for years who have grown into adults who aren’t about to get out of bed Sunday mornings to move through rituals that seem empty to them even if it’s always been done that way. I can see in my mind’s eye sisters and brothers of every age who think what we’re about here is irrelevant. Non-sensical. And totally boring. You know such folks too – your own neighbors and friends and family members who we haven’t yet figured out how to reach because we haven’t learned the language that makes sense to them.

I want the Spirit to stir among us again. The mighty winds of God to blow away the chaff of church and re-ignite in us a passion to take the good news of a gracious God out into the streets. I’m not talking about shouting hallelujah on street corners or anything crazy like that! But how about dreaming new dreams around the best things of Christ. Things like caring for those who are hurting. Loving those who feel totally lost. Using this space – this land to connect those who are lonely. Giving hope for a better tomorrow to those who feel nothing’s worth it anymore. None of us have all the answers alone and we might need to take the time to ask youngsters to tell us their visions for the future. We might have to ask those older than us what dreams they have for tomorrow – the best of life they want to make sure those yet to come enjoy.

Pentecost is our time to re-open to the Spirit. To renew through the fresh winds of God that are blowing. May every last one of us listen. Look. Dream. For it is absolutely amazing what happens when church folk take stock of what we do have that can be re-purposed to serve the social good.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

 

The Fullness of Christ

A Sermon for 2 June 2019 – 7th Sunday/Ascension Sunday

Despite the fact it’s not Thursday, we’re hearing Scripture readings assigned by the lectionary each year for the Ascension of the Lord. As most people never have heard of it and aren’t about to shift their daily calendar to attend to it, as we do for Christmas and Easter; this liturgical day often gets pushed from Ascension Day – the fortieth day of Easter – to the Sunday following it: today, the seventh Sunday of the season of Easter. This year we heard not only the gospel reading assigned for Ascension Day, we also hear the epistle. Ephesians is a letter, likely written by a student of the Apostle Paul, to the church of Ephesus. It has been said to have been “one of the most influential statements of Christian discipleship in early Christianity . . . (with) its depiction of Christian life as a battle against hostile forces” (The Discipleship Study Bible, JKWP, 2008, Ephesians introduction by Stanley Saunders, p. 1990). New Testament scholar Stanley Saunders writes: “Ephesians depicts the Christian life as a battle against cosmic and worldly powers that enslave humankind and darken our awareness and understanding. . . . The first three chapters describe the new reality that has come into being in Christ” (Ibid.). The fullness of Christ, who fills all in all. Listen to this reading of Ephesians 1:15-23 to hear God’s word for our Christian lives today.

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

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

 

When I was a child, I loved the Wonder Twins! You may not be familiar with Zan and Jayna who originally were a part of the Super Friends Justice League (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonder_Twins). No matter the caper, the twins would come together, fist bump, and declare: “Wonder Twin powers activate!” Zan would proclaim: “Shape of” whatever state of water would be needed to combat the evil being done by whoever was threatening the wellbeing of the world. Jayna would shout: “Form of” whatever animal she needed to be in order to work with Zan in saving the day. So, like: as a giant water-wave, Zan could take out the nemesis with a powerful tide while Jayna transformed into something like a friendly whale to carry those in peril safely back to shore. What’s more, as twins they had this psychic connection so that they literally could tell when the other superhero needed back-up. As long as they could come together, to fist bump and declare “Wonder Twin powers activate,” their special powers would be triggered. They would be transformed into exactly what was needed. They galvanized their superhero abilities for everything to be a-okay.

It is that activation. That process – when those two twin energies join together as one. That ability to call upon something extra-ordinary that strikes me in the Wonder Twins. Typically, they looked like every other brother and sister going about their day. But something in them knew they possessed very special powers – ones needed so very much by those in trouble. Oh, every now and again a crafty villain came along to try to bend their minds to his own control. That was when the world most was in jeopardy – the powers of the Wonder Twins vulnerable to be twisted for destructive ends. But for the most part, Zan and Jayna knew that something was in them that could be an incredible force for good. Again and again, they would jump to it, ready to activate those amazing powers not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of any who were in need.

Amazing special powers within is what the writer of Ephesians was trying to tell the church. As far as we know, the writer of this letter never had seen the Christians of Ephesus in person – just heard of their amazing works (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C., Vol. 2, Christopher Rowland, p. 511). Likely the writer heard of feats we’ve come to know as typical Christian kind of stuff – though the acts often were revolutionary in their own time and place. Christians would ensure those without had food. They would care for those who were sick. Christians would welcome widows into the community and give them new purpose through service in Christ’s name. Early Christians sent special offerings to those experiencing famine, like in Jerusalem during the reign of Claudius about fifteen years after Christ’s death and resurrection. They gathered together for prayer – which likely included the kinds of story swopping we hear at Fellowship Time each week. They helped those needing help and found a way to meet as equal all sorts of people: Jews and Greeks. Slaves and free. Men and women alike. Something was activated in them so that they understood the world differently. They saw something in people that many others could not – or just were not aware yet to see. It’s the prayer the writer of Ephesians has for the Christians hearing the message. The spiritual enlightenment the writer wants for them – the opened eyes – that leaves us knowing who we are, what we are made of, and to what we have been called.

Premier Twenty-First Century teacher Father Richard Rohr recently released his mind-opening opus called The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything we See, Hope for, and Believe. In it, he weaves the theology we’ve come to know in the Western Church back together with the best wisdom we turned from in the Eastern Church when we mutually excommunicated each other’s finest teachers in our 1054 C.E. split. He lifts up Scripture after Scripture to show what’s always been there, but we haven’t always seen. For starters, Rohr reminds us that Christ is not Jesus’ last name! Christ is the word for the anointed one, he explains. The “name for the transcendent within . . . the immense spaciousness of all true Love . . . another name for everything – in its fullness” (SPCK, 2019, p. 5). Rohr is trying to remind us that Scripture proclaims from the beginning that the whole world is “Christ-soaked” (Ibid., p.15) – God infused, if you will. Containing a very special power within! Spirit and matter woven together – shown beautifully to us in the incarnation of the one we claim was vulnerably born in Bethlehem. This is the scriptural witness: that the fullness dwells in all – the divine in and above all that leaves us that beautiful mix of flesh and Spirit. The biblical witness proclaims this truth. A reminder we desperately need to know, Rohr claims, because something in the human mind has a tendency to clench the negative. Before we know it, we see the world through the eyes of Genesis 3 – the story of our fallenness. Instead of reading the world through the eyes of Genesis 1 and 2 – the Judeo-Christian creation stories that declare everything good, good, good, good, good, very good!

Living from the frame of our original blessedness, we walk around the world able to see the special power – the transcendent within all – the divine in matter. The fullness of Spirit and flesh beautifully aligned as one. It might sound a little wonky, if we’ve never considered the wisdom coming from what’s often referred to as the Big Tradition – or perennial, wisdom tradition of the Body of Christ – a tradition of Christianity coming not just from reason-seeking theologians, but from embodied contemplatives and mystics whose work is having significant world-wide impact today. When we understand Christ as the fullness – seen clearly in Jesus of Nazareth – it’s almost like we get the blueprint for how to live fully human. How to live whole. Rohr explains: “Jesus is the archetypal human just like us who showed us what the Full Human might look like if we could fully live into it” (Ibid., p. 23). Jesus is the one who shows us how to be those in whom the Spirit of God is activated. Which hopefully we experience at least a few minutes every day!

It’s how the writer of Ephesians can declare to the church that we are Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). With enlightened eyes, we can see. Spirit activated in matter; the fullness of Christ in, yet above, all. We might need reminding now and again – which is when it’s best we return to our baptisms. You remember baptism, I hope. The trickle of water on the head. The tracing of the cross on the brow, done – in purist liturgical form – with oil as an anointing. Not as coincidence, nor as a way to show the world we’re now somehow over and above everything else. Rather, baptism reminds us – and all with the eyes to see – that we know the Spirit of God to be in us (Another Name for Everything: Episode 1: Christ-Soaked World, 24 Feb. 2019 Podcast about The Universal Christ, Father Rohr). We understand and accept our original blessedness. So that our baptism into Christ – our engrafting into his body – is kinda like our initial fist bump with God when the Spirit of God gets activated in us. Baptized, the Spirit’s power works through us. So we can go forth to combat the forces within and without that threaten the well-being of the world.

It’s a risky venture to infuse us humans with the Spirit. To rely on us now to live awakened – the special power activated in us to be the body of Christ for the world today. To remind everyone we meet that the Spirit of God lives in them too – longing for enlightened eyes to see. Thankfully God gives us each other for the fullness of Christ to dwell. For the need is so great. So many precious people of this planet are in peril because, for whatever reason, they do not know – they cannot yet see their own original blessedness. The good in self and in neighbor. It’s time we remember to live into our hope. To embrace our glorious inheritance. It’s time the immeasurable power of the Spirit gets activated in us all!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Open

A Sermon for 26 May 2019 – 6th Sunday of Easter

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

“They went through the region of Phrygia (Fur-gee-ah) and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia (My-shah), they attempted to go into Bithynia (Ba-thin-ia), but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia (My-shah), they went down to Troas (Trow-as). 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 (Sah-mah-throw-ass), the following day to Neapolis (Knee-ah-po-lis), 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 (Lid-dee-ah), a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira (Thigh-ra-tie-ra) 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!

 

Somewhere, I recently read the insight that if you look at every major disaster in the United States, you can see evidence not just of the terrible destruction we withstand as a people. But of the way we rise. The way we open ourselves to be our best selves among one another after such catastrophes. Think about 9/11 – a day that dramatically changed the world. 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 so many hearts. We knew ourselves connected as we hadn’t known the day before. We kicked in to help – donating time, talents, and money. We walked around a bit dazed, but a little bit more friendly to each other too. In a new way, we were open to the truth that we all are in this together. . . . Same thing happened in the Nashville floods of 2010. Some of you might have found yourself in a very dangerous situation. As the rain came down, so too did the defenses many of us often wear around our hearts. The disaster reminded this city, we all are 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 beautiful to see all that loving-kindness spreading like a comforting blanket. From horrific mass shootings, to tragedy striking one of us individually. When life comes crashing down, something new often gets opened up.

That’s what happened to the Apostle Paul, who once was Saul. A man that vehemently, violently persecuted those who had started following the Risen Christ’s Way. A bright light on the road to Damascus blinded him. The Voice spoke. At last something new opened – an impact that dramatically altered the course of human history – as Saul became Paul with the same vehement tenacity he had before. It’s just that after the opening, he hunted instead for those with whom who he could share the good news of Christ! . . . At the start of our reading for today, we hear that Paul and the 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). Paul heeded the message – he now was open to what God wanted. So immediately Paul set course to head in that direction. For the first time, the message about Christ was on its way into Europe. ‘Cuz 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 the typical spots of the women. In antiquity, whether they wanted to or not, women usually 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 (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, Paul W. Walaskay, p. 479). 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. Then, 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 (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, David G. Forney, p. 476). She’d have enough to be able to provide for whatever they needed. Lydia was 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 day after day in order to collect each snail’s small yield of dye. Or one could crush the snails completely, which of course meant that business would be dependent upon fishing the next day for more sea snails all the while hoping the snails won’t become 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. Maybe she had spent her life searching for something more so that her spirit is open to hear whatever these strangers have to say. 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 each day 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 in Asia. Then God gives him a totally new direction when Paul hears the need of those somewhere he’s never yet considered: Europe! One biblical commentator reminds, “This was not where they had planned to preach the gospel, but by attending to the voice of God, they found a new and fertile ground to share God’s good news! (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 2, WJKP, 2018. Gary W. Charles, p. 267). And what about Lydia? Lydia got up that Sabbath probably thinking it was going to be like every other time she arrived to worship. When suddenly some strangers come along. The stories they tell 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! She too is reminded that “God takes the initiative in calling followers to go where God wills” (Ibid.).

A friend once sent me a text reading: “I wonder what the next crazy venture beneath the skies will be” (Anonymous). 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! . . . 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, 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. Acts indicates that it was the LORD who opened Lydia’s heart (Acts 16:14). Can’t you just hear her daily praying: “Open me, LORD. Open me, LORD, to whatever you will this day!” . . . With this as our mantra, 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.

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