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.

Our Offerings

A Sermon for 11 November 2018 – Commitment Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Mark 12:38-44.  And remember that the gospel of Mark records this story as taking place inside the temple in Jerusalem.  Days before Christ’s arrest and crucifixion.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.’  41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.  Many rich people put in large sums.  42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.  43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”

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

 

About a hundred years ago in Europe, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung met.  Freud, known as the founder of psychoanalysis, and Jung, known as the founder of analytical psychology; corresponded first, then worked together for a few years.  Elder Freud was excited about the possibility of passing on what he began to Carl Jung, who was his junior.  It never would work, however, because the two held drastically different views.  Both were curious about the messages that come in dreams.  The images that arise from our unconscious.  Freud believed it all to be a sign, while Jung believed what comes to us in our dreams are symbols; some say gifts from God to guide us on our way.  It sounds like just semantics, I know.  But meet one of them – or sit in a session with a counselor schooled in the tradition of one or the other and you will note a significant difference.  Signs, according to Freud are interpreted by the expert.  So, in Freud’s view, if you dream about water, he would tell you it has something to do with birth.  If you dream about animals or little varmint, Freud would tell you they represent your siblings.  Symbols are different.  Jung believed symbols come from the dreamer’s unconscious to reveal the dreamer’s great wisdom – the spark of the Divine living within.  While many of us approach several symbols similarly, so that Jung concluded we have a collective sense of things; only the dreamer can uncover the meaning of the symbols revealed in their own unconscious.  So, when asked, a dreamer might say that a small copper coin represent a diminishment of wealth.  A lucky penny.  Or even the greatest sacrifice of your life.

As Jesus sat in the temple with his disciples one day, he reminded them to beware.  Beware of those who want to show off their great status.  Those entrusted with holy things who crave public recognition over humble service.  Beware of those who want the best seat everywhere but pay no mind to a place for the vulnerable.  Beware of such impulses in ourselves, I think Jesus intended to say, especially to those who want to get on board in his movement.  Calling ourselves his disciples, but not so sure we’d be willing to let the last go first and the least receive the most.  He’s nearing the end of his lessons with his disciples.  In Jerusalem for one last Passover, as the great shepherd becomes the lamb.  They sit opposite the temple treasury, as Jesus invites his followers to join him to observe.  Sit a spell to people-watch.

Imagine the colorful scene.  Pilgrims from all over have traveled to Jerusalem to be a part of the great feast of Passover.  Many likely had the financial means to attend the celebration every year.  Others were there, wide-eyed in awe, as they’d get just that one chance in their hard-knock life to be there.  It’s believed widows would flock to the temple.  After all, care of widows, orphans, and foreigners repeatedly was commanded in ancient Israel.  Author Kathleen Norris reminds in a wonderful book called Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith, that “righteousness is consistently defined by the prophets, and in the psalms and gospels, as a willingness to care for the most vulnerable people in the culture, characterized in ancient Israel as orphans, widows, resident aliens, and the poor” (p. 96).  “Look!” Jesus insists.  Those of extravagance give out of their abundance.  Large sums drop to the bottom of the temple treasury.  And even a destitute widow puts in what she can.  . . .  Though historical interpretation of this text has given the hefty givers a bum rap.  Lifting up a give ‘til it hurts stewardship plea that supposedly mirrors the giving of the heroic widow and her two little mites.  Think for a minute about what those gifts symbolized to Jesus just a few nights before he would give up his very own life.

One commentator writes:  “Those coins represent more than money.  They represent faith and belief and how these must be lived out in our lives in concrete acts” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, Emilie M. Townes, p. 286).  Another commentator writes:  “This is the last scene in Jesus’ public ministry.  From here all that remains in Mark’s telling is the temple discourse and the passion narrative.  So, this widow offers a glimpse into what Jesus is about.  He is on the way to giving ‘the whole of his life’ for something that is corrupt and condemned:  all of humanity, the whole world” (Ibid., Pete Peery, pp. 287, 289).  I’ve heard the two coins symbolize trust.  Trust that the people of God would live up to their calling to take care of the widow.  Her giving, then, an act that challenges her community to put their money where their mouth is literally.  Ensure she has enough; for she’s just given to the glory of God the last two coins left to her.  I could stand here on this Commitment Sunday and tell you to give like the widow – pledging on your 2019 Financial Stewardship card all you have to live on.  Or I could ask you to ponder for a bit what those coins represent to you.  What the offerings of your time, talents, and treasures symbolize for you.

I have a hunch some of us would say our offerings represent our faith.  Our trust that in life and in death we are held by God.  Sometimes by something that feels like a direct connection with the LORD of heaven and earth.  Sometimes by the hands of help offered by the person down the pew from us.  The calls of concern and willingness just to ask:  “How are you?”  Faith; trust that we are not alone in this life because of the Presence of God and God’s people may be what our offerings symbolize as we write another check, put in another twenty, or click another link online for funds to be transferred automatically from our account to the church’s.

Some might say it’s gratitude.  For once I was lost; but now I am found.  Blind, but now I see.  So, every Sunday we show up.  We joyfully give God’s tithes and our offerings because our hearts are full of great thanksgiving.  For life.  For health.  For family and friends.  For acceptance.  And forgiveness.  And new beginnings thanks to God.  For being re-created into those who know clear purpose in this life – giving of ourselves for Life in this world.  And so incredibly grateful for the gift of ever-lasting Life.  Those coins.  Our financial offerings symbolize the depths of our gratitude to God.

Another might say “my offerings symbolize my responsibility.”  A privilege not taken lightly, because of being engrafted into the body of Christ in our baptisms.  Taking vows to turn from sin and the ways of evil.  Promising before God and everyone to be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love.  Devoting ourselves to the church’s teaching and fellowship, breaking of bread with one another and being the people of God who pray for the world (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 2018, p. 409).  Whether taken first for us by our parents and later by ourselves in our confirmations or promised from the start on our own volition; for some of us those baptismal vows were taken very seriously.  When we first said:  “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” and when we re-affirm that faith each week, we responsibly intend to live up to those words.  Which includes our financial contributions to the church as a way we continue together to uphold our vows.  For some of us, giving our money to the work of the church symbolizes part of our responsibility as a disciple of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

What do your offerings symbolize to you?  If you’ve never stopped to consider, I hope you will today.  And I hope you will remember each week when you give just what those tithes and offerings mean to you.  . . .  Hope that this congregation will go on serving God by serving others as we renew community together and in the wider neighborhood.  Reliance upon each other to give a portion of what we have too that together we might continue to be the people of God gathered in this place for worship and service and growth.  For respite and care and connection.  Trust that God receives all of our offerings – large and small – mixes them all together, then accomplishes so much more than any one of us could achieve alone.  God makes miracles occur in all of our lives and in the lives of everyone we meet throughout the week because of what we each have given and received here as a part of this church.

Just what do your offerings symbolize to you?  The fruit from your labors that you give?  As we prepare ourselves to make our 2019 financial pledges, remember and rejoice!  Hear God whisper back to you:  “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Well done!  Enter into the joy of all who give!”

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Celebrating the Saints

A Sermon for 4 November 2018 – All Saints’ Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Mark 12:28-34.  Before hearing this portion of the gospel, it’s important to know that Jesus is in Jerusalem at the temple.  And every time he turns around there, religious leaders are upon him.  At this point in the gospel of Mark, Jesus already has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday.  He’s been to the temple to overturn the tables of the moneychangers.  Next, four instances are recorded of the religious leaders coming to question Jesus – and not at all in a friendly manner; for lines in the sand already have been drawn between them.  At last a scribe, who overheard the other leaders’ disputes with Jesus, questions Jesus.  What follows is a beautiful reminder of what God really requires.  In this reading of Mark 12:28-34, listen for God’s word to us.

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel:  the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”  32 Then the scribe said to Jesus, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  34 When Jesus saw that the scribe answered wisely, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question.”

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

 

All Saints’ Sunday is the perfect Sunday to have before us the story of Jesus in the temple – at long last putting an end to everyone’s religious questions by declaring it’s all about love, love, love.  Love of God first with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And love of neighbor as ourselves – as in loving our neighbors as if we saw them as our very own selves.  Though Roman Catholicism might reserve the status of saint to those the church officially deems so after a lengthy investigative process.  A process that typically includes a five year waiting period after death, substantive evidence of heroic virtue, and at least one if not two verifiable miracles (www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27140646).  In the Reformed Theological Tradition we’re a part of, we view the saints a bit differently.  The PCUSA’s Book of Common Worship reminds us that the emphasis of the festival of All Saints’ Day “is on the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God.”  We’re further reminded:  “While we may give thanks for the lives of particular luminaries of the ages past, we also give glory to God for the ordinary, holy lives of believers in this and every age.  (Thus) this is an appropriate time to give thanks for members of the community of faith who have died in the past year, and to pray that we may be counted among the company of the faithful in God’s eternal realm” (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 2018; p. 383).

During the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving today, we’ll remember the lives of this congregation’s saints – the members of this congregation who have died in the past year.  Elva, Faye, Bill, Bill, and John.  As Christians, we seek to pattern our lives after Christ – following the ways we learn of in Jesus’s life and death and resurrection.  And I think it’s good for us to look too to the lives of other followers among us.  Christians who have shared the pews with us whose lives give witness to the love of God and neighbor enacted among us today – like in our same kind of lives and in similar homes in which we too live.  Think about Elva – if you knew her.  ‘Til just a few days before she died, she sat over there.  Elva was raised in a faithful Christian family.  A member as a child at Woodland Presbyterian Church in East Nashville, she and her family became active members here in this church’s early years.  And for all those years, Elva faithfully worshipped and grew and served among us.  Quietly.  Diligently.  Through hardship and joy.  Her life reminds us to live likewise.  . . .  And what about Faye?  I’m told she too used to sit over there.  If you knew her, then you knew that in her last days, every breath was a struggle.  But Faye continued to have that welcome that graced her life with all sorts of interesting, eclectic people.  The memorial service we had here in celebration of her life reminded that Faye loved life.  And people.  No matter who it was, she opened wide her heart for strangers to become friends.  Her life reminds us to live likewise.  . . .  And Bill B.  At the beginning of the year, wasn’t he still standing with his cane right on that back row?  Bill had an incredible integrity about him.  A warmth and kindness that made him a wonderful friend and successful businessman.  His entire family admired him – from his devoted wife to his youngest great-grandchild.  Bill still is deeply missed because he cared so much for other people – making them feel special no matter who they were.  Exuding wisdom that came from deep faith.  Indeed his life reminds us to live likewise.  . . .  When I think about Bill R., I think about us visiting him just last Christmas when we caroled to him.  Remember how he took a hymnal and started singing along?  Bill loved all of our visits – especially the ones including the children of this church.  A man of few words, he had a presence of appreciation.  Some of you may remember how Bill lovingly cared for his wife for several years.  And though he knew deep pain in his life as a father, one of Bill’s greatest joys in his final months of life was seeing his son released from prison to start his life over – a sober, changed man.  Talk about the forgiving, abiding love of a father for his child!  Bill’s life shows us the power of love – a love like God’s that never gives up on us.  No matter the ways we mess up.  His was a saintly life that teaches us to live likewise.  . . .  Just a few weeks ago, we gathered to celebrate the long life of John.  A survivor the Great Depression, John (like Bill) proudly served our country.  As a naval commander, those who attended John’s memorial service heard the depth of his life’s impact.  A man who had served in the army as a part of the effort storming the beach at Normandy showed up to pay his respects at John’s visitation.  He told John’s children that if it hadn’t been for their father’s leadership by sea that day, he would have been killed in that battle.  John’s courage and steady leadership ensured others lived.  John’s deep love of his family and friends was inspirational.  The way he tirelessly gave for others needs encourages us to live likewise.

In a way, each friend we remember here today shows us what it looks like to put love of God first, followed by love of neighbor as self.  None of us does it perfectly, we know that.  But to keep our aim, as the saints of the faith have, to continue to get up each morning.  Give thanks to God for another day.  Go about our lives loving our family members and neighbors and co-workers.  Finding ways to welcome strangers and provide for those in need.  Giving ourselves in service for middle school students down the street and babies downstairs.  Using our talents in our life together here so that homebound people feel connection and hurting people have a place to come heal and others have a chance to discover new gifts and abilities, and friendship can deepen, and children can grow.  This is what saintly life looks like.  Faithful life.  Generous life.  Lives like the ones you have been living; for which we all can give great thanks!

Perhaps no pope will ever canonize any one of our lives.  No evidence will be sought that proves our heroic virtues or verifies the miracles we accomplished – though each one of us certainly has done the miraculous in the ways we have given of ourselves.  Even if a pope never deems any of us saints, no matter.  Today and every day, we look to the faithful that have slipped on before us.  We celebrate the saintly life of all who quietly continue to live among us right here each day.  . . .  Members and friends, in all the ways you have loved God first and neighbor as self.  In all the ways you faithfully have served God by serving others through your time and talents and treasures, THANK YOU!!!  Thank you!  Through it, God’s kingdom has been in our midst!  . . .  Alleluia!  And amen!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

Three Views of Our Hopes for Every Child!

A Sermon for 21 October 2018 – Children’s Sabbath

A reading from Isaiah 43:1-7.  Listen for God’s word to us.

I’ll be reading from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  Listen.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.  Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.  Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’”

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

 

I’m up first in today’s three-person tag-team sermon entitled:  Three Views of Our Hopes for Every Child.  In addition to my hopes for every child, we’ll hear from one of our teen members, then from the Community Involvement Specialist at our community partner H.G. Hill Middle School.  Each of us will give our perspective on our hopes for every child.  Because Children’s Sabbath 2018 is all about Hope for Every Child.  . . .  Hope can be difficult to describe.  One source defines hope as “deeper than simple optimism, and more mysterious, delicate, and elusive.”  The source states that:  “Hope is a feeling we must develop and cultivate, but like faith is also a state with which we are graced.  Hope can foster determination and grit”  (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/collections/142028/poems-of-hope-and-resilience).  I think hope has something to do with the ability to bounce back.  Resilient.  Hope is that force in us that keeps us determined despite any setbacks.  No matter how seemingly impossible.  It’s been said that hope motivates us to change what we can control.

Children can’t control very much in their lives.  They’re born into families that will dramatically shape who they will become.  Being born into circumstances of poverty – as far too many children in this world still are – can rob a child of a healthy, well-adjusted, hope-full future.  Being born into complicated situations like to mothers and fathers who may never have wanted a baby due to their own immaturity or wounds or challenges can make life extra difficult for a child as they grow.  . . .  When I consider my hope for every child, the words of the prophet Isaiah come to me.  Words first spoken to an exiled people who weren’t so sure they mattered much to anyone – least of all the Sovereign God of the Universe.  Creator of it all.  The prophet’s words seek to re-strengthen the people.  To remind.  To deepen their hope.  As a mouthpiece for God, the prophet declares God’s message:  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  . . .  you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you  . . .  Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:1, 4, 5).

One thing you, me, and every child can seek to control each day is the message we allow to reside inside us.  Will it be a message from the circumstances of our lives or a message of our beloved worth taken from God’s word to us?  . . .  A recently released pop Christian song called “You Say” puts it this way:  “I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough.  Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up.  Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?  Remind me once again just who I am because I need to know.”  An uplifting refrain swells as the singer belts full voice:  “You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing.  You say I am strong when I think I am weak.  You say I am held when I am falling short.  And when I don’t belong, you say I am yours” (“You Say,” sung by Lauren Daigle, Look Up Child, 2018).  . . .  My hope for every child is to know this truth.  To feel down deep in our insides that the great Maker of heaven and earth claims us all as beloved.  Gives us a Voice to trust above any lessor messages from peers or parents or culture.  My hope for every child – no matter our location or age – is to live out of the truth that we matter immensely to God.  We are precious in God’s sight.  Honored.  Loved.

 

(Two additional views from two other speakers – not included here.)

 

There you have it.  Three views of our hopes for every child!  Note the similarities and the varied perspectives we each bring.  Let these words, our hopes – all our hopes – motivate us to embody the love of God for every child!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)

 

Always Reforming

A Sermon for 28 October 2018 – Reformation Sunday

A reading of Acts 15:1-35.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear of one of the church’s first experiences of reformation.  Listen.

“Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.  So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.  But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”   6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.  After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.  And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.  10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.  13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me.  14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for God’s name.  15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.  Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18 known from long ago.’  19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.  21 For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”  22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.  They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23 with the following letter:  “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.  24 Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25 we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.  27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.  28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials:  29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.”  30 So they were sent off and went down to Antioch.  When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.  31 When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.  32 Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.   33 After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them.  35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord.”

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

 

We may not be incredibly familiar with this text from Acts.  It’s a great one for today, on Reformation Sunday, however, because we get a view into one of the first moments of major reform in the Church . . .

CHILD: (running into the sanctuary with papers in his hand, interrupting):  Pastor Jule!  Pastor Jule!

JULE:  Ah . . .  Ceci?  Is everything ok?  Aren’t you supposed to be quietly sitting in your pew right now?

CHILD:  But Pastor Jule, I found this outside, taped onto the door.  It’s addressed to Hillwood Presbyterian Church.  I think you need to read it!

JULE:  Ah – ok.  Thanks.  I’ll read it after worship.  Now I gotta get back to my sermon.

CHILD:  No Pastor Jule.  You’re supposed to read it NOW!  Aloud!  Read it out to everyone.

JULE:  Seriously, Ceci?  I’m supposed to be preaching right now.

CHILD:  YES, Pastor Jule!  I found it outside taped to the door, addressed to us.  I think it’s really important.  Read it out loud RIGHT NOW!

JULE:  Ok.  But if I do will you at least go sit back down?

CHILD:  Ok, Pastor Jule.  Just make sure you read the whole thing to everybody.  We need to hear what it says.

JULE:  Ah-hmm.  HPC,

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s Reformation Sunday and I happen to know that today is the day Protestant Churches around the world celebrate that one man took a stand by posting 95 Thesis on the door to the sanctuary in Whittenburg, Germany on October 31, 1517, All Hallow’s Eve – 501 years ago this Wednesday.  He knew his fellow clergymen and congregants would be at high holy mass for All Saints’ Day the next morning on November 1st.  I realize 95 Thesis is a whole long list of protests, demands, complaints – whatever way you look at them.  But Martin Luther wasn’t just complaining about things he didn’t like about his church.  Rather, Martin Luther – and all the reformers to come after him – was undergoing a spiritual re-awakening.  He was so excited about the assurances of God’s absolute acceptance of him, which he was finding in his study of Scripture – Romans in particular.  Like Romans 3:21-26:  “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe.  For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.  God did this to show God’s righteousness, because in God’s divine forbearance, God had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that God God’s very self is righteous and that God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26).

I love these verses about God’s divine forbearance.  Because they remind me that all of us are ok.  Better than ok even:  fully loved.  Fully accepted.  Fully cherished by our God.  Every human being, not on our own accord – not even through any of our striving, but alone through the efforts of our God.  Grace makes us right with God and each other.  The free gift born of the One who is pure love.  I know we mess up over and over.  We don’t deserve the unconditional love of our God or of each other.  But that’s divine FORBEARANCE:  that patient living with another, committed no matter what to continue to love the other.  Even when we abhor and will NOT tolerate the harmful behavior undertaken by the other.  Though we continuously break the connection between God and ourselves, God is faithful still.  Thanks be to God every day, and especially on Reformation Sunday, for this marvelous GIFT!

Reformation Sunday reminds us too that continuous reform always will be a part of the church.  At least if we believe in the living God who continues to call to the church through Scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  I think often of the Early Church:  what a mess!  O, I know Acts of the Apostles tells of followers of Christ initially coming together in joy and thanksgiving each day.  Together they held all things in common and distributed what they had as any had need.  They spent much time together in the temple (which might be code for they sat in lengthy committee meetings).  And “they broke bread at home as they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:43-47).  Their joy.  Their gratitude.  Their devotion to God and each other was a witness to all the people – others looked upon them with admiration.  And they grew, and they spread, and they started having more and more problems.  Some were threatened by their new-found following of the Way.  Still others soon came to be perceived by them as a threat; because they too wanted in on the Way.  Day by day, the followers of Christ had to come together to listen to each other and for the Spirit of God in their midst.  Just as happened in the story from Acts 15.  “Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit” wasn’t a foundational principle newly discovered and first recorded in the PCUSA’s recently updated FOG (Form of Government, F-1.04).  Disciples of Christ, the Church, always have had to remain open to whatever comes.  That is, at least, if they want to continue with God in their midst.

I guess that’s part of why I’m writing this letter to you, HPC – to and for us.  Because I know it’s been a very full year for us as a church.  We’ve wrestled with some tough stuff, watched beloved friends and fellow church members die, tried new ways of being together in fellowship and spiritual growth through things like Walking Group and Book Studies and Painting Parties.  We’ve worked together – remember all those called meetings earlier in the year to decide to get a loan in order to get some heat and air back in the building?!  Despite the scary price tag, we committed to continuing to be a church in this place so we can serve God by serving others in this area.  We’ve even installed a new pastor – despite the fire alarm sounding about every ten seconds during that service!  We’ve opened our doors to the wider community through Small World Yoga and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.  And I don’t know if you even realize how busy the Trustees, Property, and Finance folk of the church have gotten.  They’ve newly transferred HPC’s investments to be handled by the PCUSA’s Foundation while beginning to get a master facility care plan in place to ensure generations to come will be able to worship and serve God by coming together in this place.  I could go on – for there’s been so much more too that the people of God have been busy doing in this place through new community partnerships like the one growing with H.G. Hill Middle School and Mending Hearts and the one steadily continuing with our largest service to the community:  Playcare.  A pre-school of almost 90 children onsite every weekday with 20 employees tending and teaching for sweet little ones to grow!  HPC, I write to you excited about it all!  Excited because I see the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit all over us all!  In renewal and in change, I’ve seen people open to listening for God’s Spirit.  In the efforts to care more compassionately for one another like through the kinds of ministries the children and teens of the church undertake today by reverse Trick-o-Treating to HPC’s homebound members and friends.  And did you know that our leaders and staff have been working hard together with input from the Renewal Team too to put together exciting ministry plans for 2019?  Not only do we plan to continue to grow our community partnerships, but we also want to create a new ministry of Creativity – maybe even invite some artists from around town to come teach a workshop or two to the wider community.  We plan to open ourselves to new ways of stewardship through a capital campaign and legacy giving that we might be good financial stewards of all we have in life and in death.  I hear plans are in the works for an overnight spiritual refreshment retreat and of course securing new technologies one of these days that will allow the church office to communicate by phone, email, and text in whatever ways work best for church members and friends.  There’s gonna be some of our favorites like Sunday Fellowship Coffee, weekly worship with wonderfully gifted vocal and instrumental musicians, Men’s Club and Women of the Church, continued pastoral care in times of need, and even the fun of Christmas Caroling to our homebound followed by a Christmas Party too.

HPC, on this Reformation Sunday, I’m reminded how dicey those initial days of the Protestant Reformation were – as dicey as the early church times we heard in Acts of the Apostles.  Martin Luther, and the other reformers, never imagined how deeply their personal spiritual awakenings would transform the whole of human history.  Like:  Martin Luther never expected to be hunted by the Pope and his beloved Church, his very life threatened for the ways he believed God’s Spirit was calling the Church into a different future.  He never wanted a house divided.  Like Christ, he wanted God’s people to know the freedom, joy, and wonder he had discovered in the love of God.  Like Christ, he wanted us all to be able to lift our voices in praise to the One who made us and justified us and grows us into more hallowed living each day.  Like Christ, Martin Luther wanted you and me to find deep connection with our God as we read for ourselves the stories of God coming in love to God’s creation again and again and again for the sake of God’s whole, renewed creation.  Like Christ, Martin Luther wanted the kind of awe-filled wonder – the joyful thanksgiving Christ’s first followers celebrated together each day!  . . .  On this 501st celebration of the Great Protestant Reformation, my prayer for this church is the same!

May God bless us all as we live each day as a blessing one to another, and even unto the entire world.

Signed:  A fellow follower of the Way.

Ceci, thank you SO much for bringing this letter to us this morning.  Indeed, it contains God’s good news to us!  So be it.  Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)

 

Purgation: Begin by Letting Go

A Sermon from 14 October 2018

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

“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.  19 You know the commandments:  ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words.  But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’”

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

 

If you ever have used the prayer tool called the labyrinth, then you know about the Neoplatonic understanding of the spiritual journey as a three-fold path – the path from the letting go of purgation, through the revelation of illumination, finally to the bliss of union.  Many students of scripture prefer to follow the biblical view of spirituality as a four-fold path.  A Way that begins with an understanding of our original blessedness in the Via Positiva, through the letting go of the Via Negativa, to the birthing of the Via Creativa, which leads to renewal – a new creation in the Via Transformativa (Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 2000, pp. 23, 26).  Both paths are ways of recognizing that the spiritual life moves through various predictable stages.  We do well to be aware of the ways lest the experiences of living drastically shock us when circumstances bring us to the next phase of the journey.

The labyrinth gives us a condensed experience of the entire spiritual journey.  It’s not any old backyard maze.  Standing at the opening of the labyrinth; one sees a large, four-quadrant circle having anywhere from three to eleven circuits or paths moving from the outside of the circle to the inside.  As an ancient tool for experiencing the spiritual journey, those who walk or trace a labyrinth give themselves over to about 30-60 minutes to go deeper with God.  I always encourage those using a labyrinth to go slow.  If walking one, unite each step with your breath in order to calm yourself enough to recognize the movement of Spirit within.  In every step, be deliberate.  Don’t worry that you think you’re about to be at the middle, then turn the next corner to find the path before you taking you far away from the center.  Feeling like you’re heading almost all the way back to the beginning.  The spiritual life’s like that.  The point is to keep walking.

As we enter the labyrinth, we let go.  Let go of the busy-ness of the day.  Let go of the worries that constantly gnaw.  Let go of any guilt we have over things done and things left undone.  It’s the purgation of the three-fold path or the Via Negativa of the four-fold one.  The critical phase of the journey.  Without which we wouldn’t get very far.  Because think about it:  if we won’t let go.  If we don’t purge things from our lives that continually distract, we’ll never hear the whispers of God’s Spirit.  Without purgation, nothing much will take place at the center of a labyrinth other than the continual chatter of the loop that runs in our head.  If we don’t let go – if we don’t release from whatever gets in the way of our daily connection to God – we can’t receive what God eagerly wants to give us:  new insights for the journey, a felt sense of the Presence of the Holy with us, peace amid life’s storms.  Nothing new will be born if we refuse what can be scary; but is the absolutely necessary step of letting go whatever stands between us and the incredible experience of union with the LORD our God.

The Master spiritual teacher Jesus knew the Way.  He knew that no matter how difficult the letting go can be, that release must happen.  The gospel of Mark shows us as it opens with Jesus’ first public words.  The invitation is to let go:  “The time is fulfilled,” the gospel reads.  “And the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus might as well have said:  “let go!”  Let go of the way you have been going.  Let go of whatever is separating you from God.  Let go of whatever keeps you here and now today from living in the kingdom of God.  . . .  No sooner is the proclamation made in general – the gospel not revealing to whom Jesus directed his first public words.  No sooner does the One baptized as God’s Beloved charge anyone who would hear to release whatever they must; than we’re told that Jesus passes along the sea of Galilee saying these words to Simon and his brother Andrew:  “Follow me.”  He goes a little farther around the shoreline to say to other fishermen, James and John:  “Follow me” (Mark 1:16-20).  Surely the sea was dotted that day with those fishing the waters.  We know father Zebedee and several hired hands were in the boat.  The miraculous thing is, four men let go.  They release themselves from their professions and follow along behind the Christ.  They don’t know where they are heading.  That’s exactly what the Via Negativa is like.  Letting go is like wandering around in the darkness a while until what will unfold unfolds.  Releasing what is known, something else has a chance to grow.

With these fishermen, Jesus continues on his journey.  Until the gospel of Mark records in the tenth chapter that a man runs up to Jesus.  He kneels at his feet.  It seems the man wants union.  He longs for eternal life.  He’s followed the religious rules.  Now he wants something More.  Maybe he’s seen it in the life of Christ.  Teaching with profound wisdom.  Making significant differences in the lives of so very many people.  An authority and passion and surge of Life that only comes from deep connection with the Divine.  The man wants it too.  Eternal Life – which isn’t understood in the original language as some sort of heaven in a hereafter.  It’s more a sense of abundant, alive Life now.  Dwelling deeply with God in the culmination of the three and four-fold spiritual paths.  Union.  Communion with the One who created, redeems, and sustains.  Such connection that truly changes lives – blessedly transforming.  The man at Jesus’ feet wants that.  . . .  Inviting him onto the path, Jesus has to tell him to let go.  It’s the first step – the one that gets replicated daily in life behind the Christ.  . . .  The man at Jesus’ feet lacks the willingness to enter the labyrinth.  To purge himself of what is getting in his way of life with God.  He refuses to let go.

What about us?  For those who want to be Christ’s disciples – for those who desire to lead a life worthy of him; are we willing to let go?  And I’m not talking about going out to sell all we have as the way of our release.  Like the man in the gospel, physical possessions might be the block for some of us.  Our wealth might be what gets in our way of life with God.  But what about those of us stuck in a sense that we never could be good enough to be in deep union with God?  What about those of us stuck in our heads – in our left, rational brain so that we can’t logically figure out how being last means being first?  What about those of us who are filling that inner longing with everything else but intimacy with God?  What about those of us who are too afraid of that moment after release – those scary seconds that could last a very long time.  When we could grope in darkness seemingly forever before illumination ever comes.  Do we have the courage to let go?

A man stops Jesus on his journey because he really, really, really wants deep union with God – here and now and forever after.  Shocked at the first step, he has no concept of the spiritual path.  For as an infamous Thirteenth Century theologian once said:  “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction” (Meister Eckhart quoted by Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 2000, p. 132).  For only that which is empty can be filled.  Only that which is last can be first.

Does it seem unlikely for us?  An impossible first step to let go?  Thanks be to God, Christ declared:  All things are possible with God (Mark 10:27).  . . .  Rumor has it, the words remained with him on a cross.  Just before his final release gave way to a glorious new morn’!  For that, we eternally give great thanks!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

The Heartbeat of the Universe

A Sermon for 7 October 2018 – World Communion Sunday

In a wonderful book called Christ of the Celts, John Philip Newell states that we all must choose.  As we listen to the tune at the heart of the universe, what is it that we hear:  judgement or love?  It seems an important question to consider before launching into a sermon on a text like the one we have before us today.  Late this week after Beebe already had run the bulletins, I wished I would have picked one of the other lectionary texts assigned for this World Communion Sunday and avoided this complicated gospel story all together!  Then I remembered Newell’s question.  What tune resides at the heart of the universe?  What tune echoes throughout the caverns of our souls?  What tune did Christ reveal in full?  . . .  If we believe the tune at the core of it all is judgement, then the story we are about to hear could lead to simple conclusions that we could pick out of scripture to hold as authoritative as we ignore the setting of this story.  A story in which Jesus is being tested on the topic of divorce.  Leaders of his day who seem to have chosen the option of the harsher tune want to trap him.  But if we believe the tune at the center of it all – if we believe that the tune in the center of God’s own heart is love . . . well, then listen.

A reading from the gospel of Mark 10:1-16.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan.  And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.  Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.  But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.  Jesus said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

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

 

Now, before we go jumping to any hasty conclusions – or being distracted in a stew of guilt upon the reading of this text – or worse yet:  closing up shop all together in order to dismiss what at first glance may appear to be a text confirming judgement at the heart of the universe; remember the context.  The Pharisees weren’t coming at Jesus with an off-the-wall, out-of-left-field question regarding divorce.  It’s part of the problem of reading small snippets of scripture one at a time – we forget the context.  The question posed to Jesus, this test in which the religious leaders of his day hope to trap him, is far from left-field.  It’s a brilliant, though devious, fast-ball aimed right at the bull’s eye of happenings in their day.  King Herod and Herodias’ marriage!

Here we have Jesus traveling through the region of Judea even stepping beyond the Jordan to the east bank.  You may or may not know that this is supposedly the same place where John the Baptist got the axe (literally!).  Remember that John lost his head because of his words against the swop-a-roo marriage of Galilee’s tetrarch King Herod to his brother’s wife Herodias.  Upon hearing of John’s beheading by Herod, Jesus seeks a break – likely a time to re-strengthen his resolve to be ready to continue, no matter the consequences.  Longing crowds hunt him down, so Jesus returns to public teaching.  No sooner does he, than some Pharisees arrive.  The gospel writer keeps telling us that they are on a quest to test him.  Obviously threatened by him, they try again and again to trip him up.  This time they bring the million-dollar question of divorce.  The actions of King Herod and Herodias certainly have them spinning.  The convenient divorce and re-marriage at the top of the ranks is the context of this encounter.

It’s not a new question for the Jewish leaders.  You see Moses had allowed a man to obtain a certificate to send his old honey along her merry way.  The legality of divorce really wasn’t the question of the day.  The circumstances under which such a certificate of dismissal could be granted was.  . . .  Some said, “Only if she’s caught fooling around with some other man.”  The opposite end of the spectrum refuted, “Ah-uh.  If she burns my toast two mornings in a row, she is outta here!”  In Ancient Israel, men alone legally were allowed to seek such a certificate of dismissal.  Though Roman law allowed women to initiate divorce, ancient Jewish law did not (C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 143).  Which is a reminder that we are walking in the realm of a culture that understood marriage much differently than we do today.  The patriarchs of scripture even practiced polygamy.  Marriage in antiquity had to do with the transfer of property (a young girl from her father to another man) in order, often, to secure more property (more land and large dowries).  One commentator reminds that “in Jesus’ day, when a woman received a ‘certificate of divorce,’ she lost most of her rights (like the right to own property).  She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income.”  The commentator concludes:  “Clearly, Jesus had a pastoral concern for women who could have their lives torn apart by a signature on a piece of paper.  (Because) in the kingdom of God, there should be mutual respect and concern for each other” (David B. Howell, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 142).  Might Jesus have been encouraging an alternate view of marriage?  One radically based on mutual love?

In that spirit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 2018 Book of Common Worship, for the first time in 25 years, has revised the liturgy for marriage.  It now reads thus:  “From the beginning, God created us for relationship and kept covenant with us.  Jesus gave himself in love and taught us continually to forgive.  And the Holy Spirit, given in baptism, renews God’s grace within us day by day, enabling us to grow in faith, in hope, and in love.”  The new marriage liturgy continues stating:  “Those who marry are called to a way of life marked by grace, fidelity, and mutual respect, as they bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys.  As blank and blank” – which means fill in with the names of the two standing before God and everybody in the wedding ceremony.  “As blank and blank make their promises today; families are joined, friendships are strengthened, and a new community of love is formed.  Let us surround blank and blank with our affection and prayer, giving thanks for their love for one another and for all the ways that God’s love is made manifest in our lives” (p. 691).  The liturgy almost makes even me wanna get married!  For what a beautiful reminder of what God has intended for those who marry.  Spouses are to be visible reminders to the world that God designed us for love.  Created us for right-relationship.  And remains with us on the days when loving one another is a great joy and when it’s not.

In light of the gospel text before us today; you might understand why, as I reviewed the new Book of Common Worship this week, I let out an audible gasp.  When I turned past the first liturgy in the new Marriage section, and the second which is fully in Spanish, and the third which is a “Reaffirmation of Marriage Vows;” I found the fourth.  A liturgy unlike any I have seen before.  It’s entitled:  “Prayer at the End of a Marriage.”  It reads:  “Blank and Blank,” again, insert the names of the two people who have given it their all, but for whatever reason no longer can move forward in life as a married couple.  The liturgy begins:  “Blank and blank, we gather here today to pray for Christ’s healing, to seek the Spirit’s guidance, and to ask forgiveness from God and one another.”  The pastor then reads:  “Hear these words of comfort and hope from scripture.  God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.  (So, in the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew,) come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  (Hear also words of the Apostle Paul from Romans):  the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (p. 711).

Can you imagine hearing these words from scripture in the context of marriage’s difficulties?  Can you imagine the healing for all for whom a marriage regrettably comes to an end if again those divorcing would gather with their pastor, children, family, and friends to pray for God’s strength in the midst of what is one of life’s most painful moments?  How might it offer healing for all if, as the liturgy encourages, those divorcing would stand together to speak these words:  “Blank (fill in with the name of the soon-to-be ex-spouse) I return this ring to you, with gratitude for the blessings of our marriage . . . (the liturgy notes read:  at this point) [children of the marriage may be named].”  The person continues by saying:  I return this ring to you with “sorrow for that which is broken between us . . .  and hope for the future into which God will lead us” (p. 713).  The liturgy for “Prayer at the End of a Marriage” closes with a charge to “Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Then the pastor raises their hands over two who’s lives will go a very different way than they once anticipated, to remind them that God does bless and keep them.  Is kind and gracious to them.  Looks upon them with favor.  And will give them peace forever.  Can you hear the tune at the heart of the universe loudly echoing in such prayers?  Through such a liturgy, can you see the Divine heart aglow with Love?

One day long ago, religious leaders wanted to trap Jesus.  They wanted him to declare his allegiance to one party or the other.  They wanted him to align with their hard-hearts or whimsically dismiss women in the ways of their local King Herod.  . . .  Instead, Jesus takes the argument all the way back to the beginning.  He reminds that God so desired mutual connectedness that when God made the first helpmate, the creature declared at long last, “Finally bone of my bone.  Flesh of my flesh! (Gen. 2:18-25).  Oh!  Thank you, thank you, thank you, LORD!  . . .  It’s not a set of divorce criteria Jesus is attempting to set up here in this text from the gospel of Mark.  Instead, Jesus seeks to vocalize, then (by welcoming the children) enact, that Love is the tune at the heart of the universe; for Love is the heartbeat of God.  . . .  Will we be eternally held out if our loves fail?  Are we guilty in God’s eyes if our relationships regrettably fall apart?  I don’t think so.  That would make God’s heart into a heart of stone – judgement over love, turning it all into law – the very thing the Pharisees wanted, and Jesus wanted to steer clear of.  Making God’s gift something other than a gift.  That’s a message we can hold on to on this World Communion Sunday.  A message that reminds that at the heart of the universe is Love; for God is Love.  May all our relationships reflect the very same Love.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Such a Time as This

A Sermon for 30 September 2018

A reading from Esther 7:1-10 and 9:20-23.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther.  On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther?  It shall be granted you.  And what is your request?  Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”  Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.  If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”  Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?”  Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”  Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.  The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him.  When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?”  As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.  Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.”  And the king said, “Hang him on that.”  10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.  Then the anger of the king abated.  . . .  Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.  23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.”

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

 

Do you ever feel as if we are living in a time absolutely consumed by values unlike those of Christ?  Maybe you look at the lives of neighbors or friends and wonder:  what in the world drives them to do what they do?  Perhaps you turn to the news and think:  does anyone care any more about things like compassion, forgiveness, truth?  If ever it seems like the world around us is like foreign territory, we can give thanks for the biblical reminders that we are not alone.  Throughout the story of faith, God’s people have lived like aliens in another land.  Doing their best to be who God needed them to be, no matter where they found themselves each day.  From Abram and Sarai in Egypt, to the exiles in Babylon.  To Jesus who was a young Jewish boy hiding out as a refugee in Egypt because of the foreign king of his land.  The earliest stories of Christ’s movement remind us that Rome once fatally rejected Christ’s ways – not only killing Jesus, but later putting to death one of his most strident followers Paul, and scads of early Christians too.  If we ever wonder how to be faithful in the midst of a world that lives and moves and values things quite unlike the ways of Christ, then taking a dip back into Scripture might lend some helpful clues.

For instance, consider the life of the great Queen Esther.  Once orphaned by the death of her mother and father, young Esther was lucky enough to have a cousin who took her in.  Though we often refer to him as Uncle Mordecai, he technically was a first cousin who adopted Esther to be his own.  Orphaned children don’t always get a great shot in life.  But Esther had one thing going for her and Mordecai seized upon it.  A delight to the eyes, Esther was absolutely beautiful.  It’s a bit of a harsh story – especially in light of the current climate of #Why I Didn’t Report.  A drunken king is shamed before his kingdom when his Queen Vashti refuses to be summoned to the debauchery in order to be on display.  To save face and keep every man – as Esther 1:22 reads:  “master in his own house,” Queen Vashti is banished from ever again setting foot before the king.  Stripped of her crown, the king demands another.  It is then that Mordecai jumps into action.  His reasoning being he and his people, the Jews, are aliens in a foreign land.  Exiled by Babylonians, they eventually found themselves under Persian rule.  After years of keeping themselves alive, Mordecai figures a beguiling queen who hides her Jewish identity could come in handy someday.  Beautiful young Esther is sent to the palace.  The story goes that she favors the king’s head eunuch so, that she rises in the ranks of King Ahasuerus’s harem.  This is the point of the story when we really don’t wanna know all that Esther had to do.  Scripture merely records that it is her beauty that deeply impresses the king during the times when she went in to see him.  . . .  Though no mention is made of God in the entire book of Esther, we have to wonder if Mordecai alone is running the show, or if Yahweh the Sovereign of the Universe was busy making a way where there seemed to be none.  Esther – keeping her Jewish identity a secret – soon finds herself the new Queen of an empire stretching from India to Ethiopia!

It might be helpful for us to know that when the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah fell, the Assyrians took a divide-and-conquer approach to Israel – flinging their captives wide across the known world.  Some from a tribe being sent there.  Another being sent here.  Still others, all the way over there.  Years later, the Babylonians sent Judeans all together into foreign land.  All the way from Jerusalem, they mourned the destruction of their lives, their land, their Temple.  Psalm 46 poetically reminds what always eventually comes to be:  “the nations are in an uproar,” the Psalmist writes.  “The kingdoms totter . . . the earth melts” (Psalm 46:6).  Which is pretty much what happened.  The nation of Assyria rose.  The nation of Assyria fell.  The nation of Babylon rose.  The nation of Babylon fell.  The empire of Persia came to be.  And it too would see the end of its mighty rule.  . . .  Kings of empires often are inflated.  The stories of Scripture are full of leaders who are puffed up on themselves only eventually to fall.  I guess being a successful invading emperor easily could leave one feeling they can do whatever they want.  After all, if you think you’re at the top; who’s going to be around to tell you no?

The king of Persia was smart enough to know alliance matters.  When someone warns you of an internal assignation plot, you make sure the one who saved your skin is favored.  From all his time at the palace gate, old Mordecai hears that two eunuchs close to the king have grown angry enough to kill him.  Mordecai gets word to Queen Esther who in turn lets King Ahasuerus know what’s in the works.  When a new man rises to position number two next to the king, he doesn’t at all like that Mordecai refuses to bow before him.  Deciding it’s beneath him to have Mordecai alone killed; Haman, the new number two to the king, sets his sights instead on annihilating all the Jews of the empire.  . . .  Scholars believe the book of Esther is a part of Scripture to explain how the Jewish festival of Purim came to be.  According to one biblical commentator, “the purpose of the feast, actually two feasts, are to celebrate the rescue of the Jews from their wicked enemies, their escape from death that turned their ‘sorrow into gladness and . . . mourning into a holiday’ (Esther 9:22).  This liturgical feast was to be made unique by its exuberant gladness, the sharing of gifts of food with one another, and the giving of presents to the poor” (Kathleen M. O’Conner, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 101).  Such deliverance reminds of a brilliant quote we read this week in our new Book Group book Inspired:  Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.  Author Rachel Held Evans writes:  “My Jewish friends like to joke that you can sum up nearly every Jewish holiday with, ‘They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!’” (p. 40).

None of it would have come to pass if not for the courageous Queen Esther – who was smart enough to listen to the wise sage Mordecai when it came time to look beyond her own comfort to the salvation of her entire people.  When Mordecai sends word to Esther to use her position as queen to plead for the lives of all the Jews, he’s eloquently quoted in Esther 4:14 as saying:  “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Perhaps we are living in a world of such challenge as followers of Christ’s way, for such a time as this.  Oh, we may not be beautiful queens of an ancient empires stretching the wide expanse of almost all the known world.  But we are a people of immense privilege living in a land of incredible wealth.  We have been gifted with positions in business and education and industries of service.  We have the pleasure of living in relatively safe neighborhoods in comfortable homes with access to just about anything we could want.  . . .  I’ll never forget the words of another wise sage when I drove her from inner city Nashville to do a minute for mission in the church I was serving in Brentwood.  As a student of Vanderbilt Divinity School who was serving on the staff at a church in subdivisions where corporate wealth was on the rise, it was common to hear fellow Div. School folk questioning if I cared at all for the plight of those in need – as if need only wears a face related to money.  On our way to Brentwood for a minute for mission by Ms. Laura, the founder of the Luke 14:12 Feeding Program of Edgehill United Methodist Church; I’ll never forget the words she spoke to me.  She said:  “Jule, those crushed by poverty need others to speak for them to those who have the power to make a difference.”  She encouraged me faithfully to follow wherever God sent me – no matter what anyone else might think.  With Mordecai, she might as well have been reminding us, saying:  “Who knows?  Perhaps we have come to our positions in life for such a time as this.”

In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther stuck to a doctrine of divided kingdoms – the realm of God and our station in this world as separately distinct from one another.  John Calvin, the genius behind our Presbyterian thoughts and ways, believed there is no separation.  As Christians, we are in this world to make an impact.  Summarized beautifully in the Great Ends of the Church, the missional statements of the PCUSA proclaim, we are here as Christ’s Church for “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; (for) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; (for) the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and (for) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (PCUSA Book of Order 2017-2019, F-1.0304, p. 5).

Indeed, each one of us – wherever we go every week, we are needed for such a time as the one in which we find ourselves today.  . . .  Take heart, royal priesthood.  Be brave, members of the household of God.  The God of Jacob and Mordecai and Esther is with us!  We are here, now, for just such a time as this!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)