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.

Differentiation

A Sermon for 2 February 2020 – 4th Sunday after Epiphany

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 5:1-12. Listen for God’s word to us.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”

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

 

I feel like I’ve asked ya’ll this before, maybe you remember: about that part of Sesame Street that goes: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.” On the screen bobs four different shaped balloons. Three are red. One is blue. Another time there are four things we put on our feet. Three small children’s shoes all in red. One large adult red boot. Kermit the Frog even gets on in the lessons, asking viewers to distinguish between three different kinds of bird and one frog. Then one blue shoe, a saw, a pliers, and a hammer. The song continues: “Can you tell which thing is not like the others by the time I finish this song?” We could debate the merits behind teaching young children that something different doesn’t belong. We could wonder suspiciously why such an emphasis was a part of seemingly every episode of the beloved children’s show that began in 1969 when so many felt like the world all around was falling apart. But, what strikes me about this part of Sesame Street is the importance of being able to differentiate. It took keen observation. Critical thinking. A discriminating eye that was able to tell the difference between things. Which actually is a necessary function we all need in order to develop into healthy adulthood. Not that knowing that red balloons are different from blue balloons is all that important to our daily lives. But being able to figure out things like: helping is different than hurting. Sharing leads to a different outcome than hoarding for self. It is essential to be able to differentiate between things like behavior that tears down human trust and actions that bring life – true life to one and all. I like to think that the makers of Sesame Street knew how important it would be for their little viewers to gain sure

It seems Jesus would agree. Today the gospel of Matthew takes us right into the start of a lengthy sermon. Jesus’ teachings from a mountain – at least as the scene is recorded in the gospel of Matthew. Here comes the one baptized in the Jordan as God’s Spirit descended upon him like a dove dive-bombing from the heavens. Wilderness-tested, which goes to show he’s grappled with some of life’s biggest questions. He’s ready to go around the land telling others what he knows of it all. How he’s experienced the Spirit of God working through his life. Totally One with the Father. The Son, able to be the Voice speaking the Word, enacting the Word, being the Word as he invites others to join the Divine dance too.

He’s called a few brothers to come follow, at least as the gospel of Matthew tells the story. He’s right there in Galilee – the part of their country invaded again and again. And what he has to say. How he has to heal. All he’s proclaiming about God’s kind of kingdom is reaching so many ears. Great crowds seek him out. At last, according to Matthew’s gospel, he finds the top of a mount. Believed to be right along the northern tip of Sea of Galilee. So that the land itself will allow the words to echo stereo-like for hundreds if not thousands to hear. Make no mistake, the placement of his body as he teaches is significant. Remember the Mountain of Sinai? There, we learn in Exodus, the people of God received God’s word to them. God’s will for their lives together as the great prophet Moses told them, after his encounter with God while on high. Jesus sits to teach – as all rabbis sat to teach. Those seeking to learn from him – those who were his disciples, gathered close to hear. The crowds settle in next to catch what he has to say.

We cannot forget that Jesus was sitting in occupied land. Rome ruled an empire nearly as large as the land mass of the United States. At its height stretching northwest to the isle of Britain all the way to Egypt in the southeast. Rumor was that the second emperor, Tiberius, wasn’t afraid to expand the empire by force as one of the greatest Roman generals. Those of Rome who got in his way were put on trial for treason, many to be executed. Things got a little squirrelling during his reign – especially after he stole away later in life, not really wanting to rule. What of Rome’s happenings reached Galilee may never be fully known – instant newsbreaks didn’t scroll across any devices in those days. Meanwhile, the Jewish stand-in for Rome in their land wasn’t really worrying about the welfare of those who would have been in the crowds gathering around Jesus. And honestly, it wasn’t like there ever has been one monolithic – single view of God and God’s will. From the start of the Old Testament itself, we can trace different views of God from those who see God with human kind of tendencies (J), to those who have a much more mysterious view of a holy Other (E), to those concerned about the law (D), to those concerned about sacrificial ritual (P). Can you imagine the response when in a lengthy sermon from a mountain – recorded in Matthew’s gospel as Jesus’ first major teaching to all in earshot to hear. Can you imagine the impact of The Word proclaiming the Word about who’s really blessed by God?

The kingdom of God belongs to those poor in spirit,” the Man of God proclaims. The One speaking for the LORD God of heaven and earth says, “comfort comes for all who mourn. Meekness inherits the earth; how blessed by God those who embody it. Hungering and thirsting for right-relationship with God and each other will fill you right up! And blessed – specially honored by God – are all who are merciful: granting release instead of harm. Those with pure hearts – honest intentions – actually see God. Peacemakers are blessed; for they act according to the very Way of the Great Father – spreading Shalom as children of God” (paraphrase of Mt. 5:3-9). The words weren’t intended as a list of moral behaviors to follow. Instead, Jesus was proclaiming the good news – God’s Word. So that no one would be confused. He wasn’t here teaching a road to power over others, force when necessary, fear incited in every heart. Very different from what they might have been seeing by those in authority all around them, Jesus was proclaiming what God really is like. Upon whom God’ blessing rests. He was preaching it. Living it. Passing it along to those who would come after so that every last one would be able to differentiate for themselves: God is this, not that. Like these, not those. Thus: walk in the Way of the LORD.

If ever we get confused, these Beatitudes are right here. Words from the One who lived it that we all might live it too. Able ourselves – together with one another’s help, those of our Reformed Theological Tradition would remind. Differentiating God’s will for our lives today. Clear in order to discern better tomorrows for us all.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2020 (All rights reserved.)

 

Follow

A Sermon for 28 January 2020 – Installation of Officers

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 4:12-25. I’m reading from the Common English Bible. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said: 15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali: alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light, and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death. 17 From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” 18 As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 20 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21 Continuing on, Jesus saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and 22 immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 23 Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all those who had various kinds of diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed, and Jesus healed them. 25 Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from the areas beyond the Jordan River.”

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

 

If Advent and Christmas are the liturgical seasons when the Church is aiming at and celebrating the birth of Christ. And Lent and Easter are the times we’re getting ready to remember his death and resurrection. Then what’s the focus of Ordinary Time? Though the special seasons of the liturgical cycle get all the hype, Ordinary Time makes up 33 to 34 weeks every year. Week after week of green gets its time. So, we best know what it’s all about! One biblical commentator explains that Ordinary Time is the time when we, like the first disciples, are asked “to follow Jesus, not because of the star that announced his birth, nor, yet, because of the excitement conjured by the promise of a trip to Jerusalem, but simply because Jesus has said, ‘Follow me’” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1, David Toole, p. 284-286).

How exactly do we follow Jesus today? We live in a world some have called a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous place. And we certainly see that put before us every day. Which reminds me of the very context in which Jesus lived. Because our own historical understanding of the land in which Jesus’ lived may be a bit vague, we easily could miss what biblical commentator Stanley P. Saunders points out about the places named here in the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus hears of John the Baptist’s arrest, he takes his leave from the area where John had been baptizing in the Jordan River. Though the gospel of Matthew alone emphasizes the historic names, Saunders writes: “Zebulun, where Nazareth is located, and Naphtali, where Capernaum is found, were according to Jewish Christian traditions the first of the twelve tribes to go into exile under Assyria (as recorded in 2 Kings 15:29) and thus the first who might expect to be restored” (Connections Yr. A, Vol. 1, pp. 204-5). We believe the gospel of Matthew is the gospel written primarily to those who were Jewish and would have known the history of Jesus’ people. When they heard that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a stone’s throw from the King’s paranoid palace in Jerusalem, they would have remembered the promise of a new king destined to be born from the throne of David. When they heard the story of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan, echoes of ancestors wading through to the Promised Land would have been fresh in their minds. When they heard of a man being driven into the wilderness only to be tempted forty days, reminders of those forty wilderness years and all the ways the people’s faithfulness was tempted would have rung in their ears. And, when those first Jews to become followers of Christ’s Way heard this very One deliberately set out for Galilee to make his home by the sea in Capernaum in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, they would have known that at last the prophet’s words had been fulfilled that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Is. 9:2). They would have connected the references to the invasion of their land by Assyria, the dispersion of their northern ancestors all across the known world, with the invasion of Rome, the latest empire occupying the land. As Saunders writes: “these place names are not incidental, but signify the beginnings of the reversals that attend the coming of the son” – the heir of the Davidic throne. “Both Matthew 4 and Isaiah 9,” Saunders writes, “affirm that God brings about justice not through the powerful, but for and by means of the lowliest” (Ibid., p. 205).

Enter fishermen named Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, and even brothers James and John. These men worked the sea of Galilee. Their stately shoulders rowed the water each day. Their rugged hands hauled nets full of fish. If you were looking for a way to begin God’s reversal, you might as well start with ones such as these. For all we know, these are brothers busy with their everyday lives, far from the halls of the power propped up in Jerusalem. Maybe not quite as concerned about following the prescribed religion as being sure their families got their daily bread. It’s ones such as these Jesus tells to follow as he goes about remaking the world – bringing light all throughout the land. Which should give us hope as we think about this VUCA, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world in which we live. Because it is people like us who Christ still calls to follow – furthering God’s reversal, joining the Spirit of God as together we go about remaking the world. Us, common folk: bringing light all throughout the land.

In a few minutes, we’re going to turn in this service to the liturgy used in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to ordain and install leaders into offices of the church. We’ll hear again how each of us has been called in our baptisms – how that very act clothed us with Christ. Calling us to live as those whose lives keep God’s great reversal going today. I love how the version of the Bible called The Message puts this in Colossians 3. Listen: “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. 3-4 Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. . . . So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. 15-17 Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God . . . every step of the way” (Col. 3:1-3, 12-17).

In other words: we are to follow right where we are in our regular old lives, which actually have become new lives – our real lives, according to the epistle – in which every detail – words, actions, whatever – are to be done like Christ – according to his Way. It’s the beginning of the reversal, God’s work in our own lives. Which really is the continuation of the reversal, the re-making of the world. The kingdom of God spread right out here in the midst of our everyday lives. This is the Way we are to follow. Carrying on God’s great reversal. Our lives: like Light never to be overcome

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

© Copyright JMN – 2020 (All rights reserved.)

Building a New World

A Sermon for 15 December 2019 – Third Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:46-55. Listen to God’s word to us through a reading of words coming from the lips of a young girl when she found out that God intended to do amazing things through her. Enlisting her to bear a child in the middle of a world taken over by an oppressive empire. The young girl consents proclaiming words known throughout history as the Magnificat. Listen.

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

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

 

Have you heard the news? God is building a new world!

Listen to the promise of the prophet. One named Isaiah who it’s believe gave voice to God’s plans when the people found themselves still in Babylonian exile – or possibly just back home in the land of Judah, scholars aren’t sure of the writing’s date so that it’s possible the people not long before Isaiah’s words had walked upon a seemingly miraculous highway of the LORD running far off in the East right back to the crumbled doorposts of Jerusalem. Whichever side of exile, the prophet proclaims: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly. . . . (For) the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; . . . the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. . . . Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes” (Isaiah 35:1-2a, 5-7). No one expects deserts to burst with beautiful blossoms of wildflowers for as far as the eye can see. Blind eyes don’t become open again, do they? Do ears unable to hear suddenly find release? People unable to walk all at once hopping and leaping and bounding all about? Those silenced, tongues unable to speak, don’t all of a sudden sing for joy, do they?

Listen to another prophet who finds herself at her aunt’s house shortly after a messenger of God interrupts her typical teenage afternoon. Gabriel, the one known by her people as God’s messenger – one standing in for God’s presence. This angel appears in a way in which she actually can communion, and the young girl known as Mary – the one already engaged, though not yet living with the man to whom she’d been given. Mary receives world-shaking news. A life-altering message that despite appearances, God is with her and her people. It wasn’t the first time such notice had been given in the most unlikely of ways to ones who traced their history through the likes of the great King David – who didn’t exactly come from the proper lineage what with his foreign great-grandmother Ruth uniting herself to Boaz. Don’t forget Moses, a salvific figure for the people, whose dicey past as a murderer, after being raised in the palace of the Pharaoh due to his mother’s shrewdness, drives him away into hiding only at last to return to a nation in need when a voice amid a flaming bush set his life upon a different path. And what about Abram and Sarai – the father and mother of them all –who doubted promises given – even laughed at God’s audacious plan? In a long line of questionable ancestors such as these; legend says, a young girl went forth one ordinary day to draw water at Nazareth’s well. She came home a completely different woman. Perplexed by how it all could be but willing to open her life and her womb to how God was building a new world.

The prophet Mary proclaims: “My soul magnifies the LORD! For God has done great things! God has scattered the proud. And brought down the powerful. God has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry. God has helped servant Israel,” (paraphrase of Luke 1:46-55, various verses) the ones classically known as wrestlers with God – as was their namesake Jacob who would not relent until a blessing was given and his name, at dawn, turned to Israel, or: he who wrestles with God. So we can too! Make no mistake about it. For eons, God has been busy building a new world! One biblical commentator, brilliantly puts it like this: Mary’s “song is not a halfhearted praise; this is more than ‘my soul thanks the LORD and I trust that (God’ll) get me through this mess and things will turn out okay’” (Connections, Yr. A, Vol. 1, Marci Auld Glass, p. 40). Mary does, after all, find herself in quite a pickle as a pregnant, yet-unwed mother who could not only get turned away by the man to whom she had been promised for marriage. But also, according to their nation’s laws, Joseph could have her stoned for such a presumed betrayal of the bridal bed. Nonetheless, the biblical commentator reminds that Mary’s “song is much bigger” than a simple thank you, God. Her proclamation “shows that she, correctly, connects the details of her life to God’s bigger plan for the world” (Ibid.). ‘Cuz let’s face it: “If God can use a teenaged girl from a backwater town, then surely God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away hungry. Surely God will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly” (Ibid.). Mary’s song, it is written: “becomes not a prophesy or prediction, but a description of reality” (Ibid.). And you know how we know: because in her singing, Mary “does not even bother to use future tense. She does not sing, ‘God will . . .’ She sings, ‘God HAS . . .’” (Ibid.). Thus, with the mother-to-be we too can proclaim: God is building a new world!

You know how else we can know? We can look to see all around us. While the national news continues to show leaders at each other’s throats. While they want us again and again to see divisions between people and nations and those perceived to be so very different from one another. You know what I’ve seen? Let’s just start with last Sunday when children of a father whose mind slipped far away came back here. Believing they would find solace in their loss – welcome in their grief and proclamation of God’s work even over death no matter that it had been a while since their family had been able to be a part of this church. Monday all sorts of interesting conversations began! I saw leaders of this congregation meet with young people to see how their gifts might undergird our own efforts in community renewal. I heard leaders among our community partners tell how new efforts could bring greater good! Tuesday – well, so many of you were here then! I saw a parlor transformed to a banquet where all could sit down to feast! Women whose wounds seem obvious and others who more easily have been able to keep things together. Felons laughing with new friends – some struggling still from the effects of addiction and the pain the disease has caused in their families – and others able just to listen. Hearts open wide because we know we need each other. And while it got a bit chaotic when about a dozen high schooler girls and boys descended upon the doorstep, did you see how God was building a new world when Trina Frierson, the founder of Mending Hearts, spoke? She told her cautionary story so they might now make positive decisions. All the while, even some macho teenage boys listened. Which reminds that we cannot know how something as simple as stories shared and encouragement given and hope of a different way allows God to build anew. When Thursday rolled round, this place was packed! Every pew full of parents and grandparents and family friends – cameras on the ready – as little children of every shade stood up here. Absolutely adorable! Have you ever heard about 80 wee voices sing things like “Up on the rooftop, click, click, click!” From Frosty the magically-come-to-life snowman to holiday songs about dreidels to joyous little mouths belting out: “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” At such young age the gift of music and art and play is a part of the lives of Playcare’s children. So maybe when they are older, they’ll recognize creativity keeps them connected to the Source, who Creates us all! Another way I’ve been noticing that same One at work is through this Trader Joe’s pick-up and delivery process we’ve gotten ourselves into! Every time others hear about these Neighborhood Shares efforts, it’s like hope in humanity’s kindness gets restored. Trust in generosity and abundance and the simple gift of caring no matter the circumstance or age. So many new relationships are being forged through simple things like flowers – lives are getting impacted positively and other opportunities for connection are unfolding! It’s so cool! Yes, God is busy building a new world – re-weaving the fabric of community every time a flower is passed along, or a random stalk of brussels sprouts shows up in our narthex. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the joy of such grace – such gift is making a deep impact this Advent.

Mother-to-be Mary knew it was so. Some might say she sang it out ahead of time because she could see. It is through every act of compassion. Every courageous step. Each YES to Spirit’s invitation adds one more brick to the new world God is building! Don’t you ever doubt it; for the work is still the same. Through ordinary folks like Mary and Joseph and us, God is building a new world!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Known & Unknown

A Sermon for 1 December 2019 – 1st Advent

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 24:3-5, 32-44. Listen for God’s word to us.

“When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. . . . 32 From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

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

Today we enter again into this four-week season of Advent. The church year begins with Advent as a time to return to waiting. A time to prepare. A time to get back in touch with our ancestors in the faith who watched and hoped and anticipated with great joy the day when God would bring peace on all the earth! When at last, the prophesy of old would be fulfilled. For a child would be born! A new kind of king who would reign over all. Establishing peace through justice. Ushering in a new day. The favor of the LORD, the Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, resting on the Anointed One so that no more would oppressive empires rule over the people. No more would distress cover the land. No more would despair break backs; but the dawn of the Light would rise for love, joy, peace, hope to rule in every heart! Advent is the season that returns us to God’s promise as we join ancient echoes to come, Come Lord Jesus! Dwell among us. Be for us the Way!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. And the gospel of Matthew turns us almost to the end of the story. To a day – shortly before the crucifixion – when Jesus sat among his disciples in the Temple. Teaching them to guard themselves. Though the establishment stood powerfully in their midst; no matter what happened, Jesus did not want his followers to be led astray. For the path of the Anointed was not streets paved in gold. But the way of the cross. A giving of Life for True Life to flourish. Jesus might as well have recited the words of the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. For when their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (Psalm 146:3-4). Rather, the Psalmist would say – and Christ Jesus would display it throughout his life: Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free, the Psalmist and prophets and Jesus would proclaim. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down. The LORD loves the righteous and watches over the strangers. God upholds the orphan and the widow and will reign forever. Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Amen! (paraphrase of Psalm 146:5-10).

Some look upon the 24 chapter of Matthew’s gospel and read it literally. Using the catastrophic images to search the skies. To seek to read the times. The verses of this part of the gospel are how we get things like ideas of an eventual rapture – when some (the faithful) will be taken. And others will be left behind. Texts like Matthew 24 are one way we’ve historically gotten elaborate notions of what’s called Millennialism – Post and Pre, which has nothing at all to do with the youngsters running around today as a generation o so very different from the ones that have come before. Millennialism is a religious belief – especially popular among American Evangelicals – that is dependent upon a literal understanding of a Second Coming of Jesus that includes a final tribulation-like judgement – with a golden age before or after it, depending on which religious flavor you ask. That will lead to a world yet to come. This is how we get things like a biblical proof-texting, literal-seeking left behind idea. Torment for some. Release for a handful. The kind of Christianity that turns a lot of people away today as it’s based on eschatological ideas that fail to read the gospels in context to see how the second and final destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE dramatically influenced the way early Christian writers told the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call the Christ.

One biblical commentator calls us to another way of mining the wisdom from Jesus’ words in the portion of the gospel before us in this season of Advent. The commentator writes: “What we might focus on here . . . quite apart from the end of the world, is Jesus’ depiction of normal human life. Forget for now,” the commentator encourages, “about the end of time. Forget about the return of Christ, whatever that might mean. What we have here is a picture of the world as it is, all too familiar to us” (Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2. Lance Stone, p. 245). A world of knowns and unknowns which Jesus wants to make sure his followers understand. The commentator explains that “There are things in the world, Jesus says, that are known and that can be anticipated. Look at the fig tree” (Ibid.). Which Jesus points out to his followers in another portion of this lengthy lesson that Jesus was giving when his disciples were terrified and wanted to hold some certainty that would allow them to be prepared. Fig trees reminds us: winter gives way to spring. Summer sunshine ripens the fruit on the branch which brings about the harvest of autumn. The earth’s bountiful yield. All of nature reminds us what the commentator states: “there is a pattern and order and regularity in the world, the very basis of science and technology, and it means that we have a measure of control, without which life would not be viable” (Ibid.). The very world around us teaches that there are some things upon which we typically can rely. At the same time, the words of Jesus also offer the other half of that lesson. Something wise ones never take for granted – not so we live with a sense of dread about the other shoe always about to drop. But so we do not find ourselves feeling robbed by life – or worse yet, blaming such troubles upon ourselves or God or others when in fact difficulties arise in life. For, as that same biblical commentator reminds: life is ordered and reliable AND it is precarious. Unpredictable. “However much we may feel in control, we always are vulnerable. We know that we always are susceptible to the unexpected and the unplanned that suddenly throws our routine lives into turmoil and confusion” (Ibid.).

Does it seem like good news? Maybe not if you’re riding on top of a beautiful wave. Feeling all-powerful and totally in charge. But remember the setting of this gospel. Likely written shortly after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed forever – all but that still-standing Western Wall. It is good news to hear from the Anointed – the One crucified, yet resurrected. It is good news to hear that sometimes life will feel like the thief in the night. The mysterious disappearance while harvesting the fields. The random occurrence of one seemingly being struck by lightning while the next is left totally fine. The truth is: life – like God – is knowns and unknows. The agency of our own life control. And the inexplicable action of other forces upon us. In the season of Advent, our surest comfort is to remember the story of the God who lives among us. Born a vulnerable baby. Hell-bent on loving us that our own flesh and blood would become the instruments through which God chooses to work. In all of life’s knowns. In all the unknowns, may we trust in full in that!

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

 

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Vision

A Sermon for 17 November 2019 – Commitment Sunday

A reading from Isaiah 65:17-25. Listen for God’s word to us.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD — and their descendants as well. 24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”

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

 

I’m sure you are familiar with these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. – That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness” (a portion of the Declaration of Independence, http://www.ushistory.org/Declaration/document/). Some would say this is the want, will, and hopes of a people. The very reason many of you and your loved ones have served or now are serving through our nation’s armed forces.

I’m guessing you’ve heard at least portions of these words too – one’s spoken in our nation’s capital nearly sixty years ago: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope” (a portion of Dr. M. L. King, Jr.’s 1963 I Have a Dream Speech, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/i-have-a-dream-speech-text_n_809993).

This is our hope. Too why some of you and your loved ones have served or now are serving through our nation’s armed forces. For the dream of the way we envision our life together to be.

The wisdom of Proverbs even reminds that where there is no prophesy – no vision – people perish (paraphrase of Proverbs 29:18).

God has a vision. A way for our life together to be. The hope of us who claim to be about God’s way. It’s what the Christ lived to show us. Died to assure us. Rose again in power to invite us to come follow. It’s a beautiful vision – tucked away in the third part of the prophesy called Isaiah. After all, at that point in the story of our faith ancestors, at least two if not three generations had perished in exile in Babylon. But once the conditions were right – a new empire rising to power in the Persians, the little clan of Judah was allowed to return. Back to the land in which they once toiled. Right back to the gates of Jerusalem, which had all but been destroyed. It was time to start again – for the little remnant that actually returned home. ‘Cuz some stayed in Babylon, you know. Others were buried there, the near-sixty years of exile being all they’d ever known.

If there would be any hope at all, God knew they needed a vision. Hope to hold them back home in a place haunted with their history, but barely recognizable to most. In biblical fashion, the LORD would tell the prophet: “Speak and say! Thus saith the LORD, the God of the heavens and the earth!” I am about to create anew! Can you see how powerful that promise would be? The reminder that, the former things are to be put out of your mind. No longer remembered, so that forward the people would continue to press! Jerusalem would be re-created – a joy! The people God’s delight. No more bitter tears, God declares. No more distress. Though harsh realities filled their days through the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile in Babylon, even in the harsh truth before them daily in their return. Through the prophet, God paints the beautiful picture of a time when infant mortality shall be gone. Life in longevity with centenarians, seniors living full, vivacious decades! Houses built by their very own hands – no one wandering in lands far from home, nowhere to lay their heads. Food shall be plentiful – kinda like those three never-ending pallets of food picked up recently from Trader Joe’s! Nourishment grown and consumed by grateful hands that are open to sharing the bounty of the land they sow and reap. You know how somedays it seems like we toil and trouble with nothing much to show? Well it won’t be like that any longer God says. Purpose for us all shall reign, with children free to grow to be who and what they want. Even predatory opposites shall live in peace, wolf and lamb feeding together. That’s reconciliation! True individual transformation which can lead to true communal restoration! For there will be no more hurt at the hands of one another. No more destruction on all the holy earth!

You know, that vision – God’s hope for how we all might be as we live and move and have our being among one another. God’s vision casts the direction in which we are to work – each day. Every one of us when we are apart and living our lives out in the world. And when we are together as a portion of the body of Christ. We serve God by serving others, according to God’s vision. We renew community with each other through caring relationships – for young and old and every age in between because of God’s vision. We seek to build partnerships in which we work together with others in order for the community of Hillwood-West Meade, West Nashville, and all the world to flourish. We renew community, deep relationship with one another and beyond the walls of this sanctuary so that God’s vision of how we are to be together is realized now – in our midst! In a song called “Lean In Toward the Light,” it’s described as practicing resurrection. A reminder that “every kindness large or slight shifts the balance toward the Light” (Carrie Newcomer, “Lean In Toward the Light” on The Beautiful Not Yet, 2016).

One biblical commentator writes beautiful words to show the practical way God’s vision is to be lived out among us daily. Mary Eleanor Johns writes, “We may not know how God means to transform the universe, but we can confess that we know it is in God’s power to do this. What remains possible for the single believer, the single congregation, is to do the work involved in such transformation by following the patterns of mercy that Christ has laid out for us.” Johns explains, “We are able to give one drink of cold water at a time. We are able to bring comfort to the poor and the wretched, one act of mercy or change at a time. One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of condemnation, one confession of God’s presence, . . . one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of the evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person is a child of God: these acts accumulate within God’s grace” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4; Mary Eleanor Johns, p. 292). Wow! One act at a time! Johns’ concludes: “The church’s job is not to cloister itself proclaiming the resurrection just in the everlasting. The proclamation is for the resurrection of life in this world as well. . . . Think of the little things that can be done to show signs of God’s new creation” now! (Ibid., pp. 292, 294). Like through the ministry of this church in the past few weeks: one flower delivered for an at-risk teenage male to be able, in pride, to hand that flower to a teacher to express thanks. One conversation with a homebound neighbor who hasn’t talked to anybody else all week. One aspect of the property of this church repaired so that children have a place safely to play. And teens can come to feel what it’s like to be welcomed by adults like they will when that first group of students from Hillwood High School comes here to begin meeting weekly. And women and men seeking to heal from the hurts heaped on in childhood can grow and mourn and begin anew. And those grieving the loss of their loved ones through suicide can get support from each other. And that’s just part of what’s been taking place because of this church. I can’t begin to know what each one of you will do wherever you go this week – the small thing you will accomplish to keep on shifting the balance toward the Light. The one thing you will contribute according to God’s vision of the new heavens and the new earth. What I do know is that we must not give up. We cannot give in. For God has a vision. And it is through us that God’s vision comes to be in the world in which we live each day!

Keep on practicing resurrection, people of God. Live God’s vision today!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

 

Lost

A Sermon for 3 November 2019 – All Saints Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 19:1-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’”

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

 

Have you ever been lost? I don’t mean lost, as in you refuse to stop for directions lost while somewhere in like the middle of the tangle of roads that make up Hillwood and West Meade. But truly lost! So that you start to feel the panic deep down in the pit of your insides.

I remember the time when I was about four years old and my parents and my six-year-old sister and I had stopped at a huge mall in the big city on our way back home to the little village in which we lived. It was around Christmas. My parents were trying to make it a special afternoon for us to be able to see Santa Claus at a store similar to a Macy’s. It was one of those huge department stores in a mall we rarely visited. One minute my six-year-old sister was with us. The next minute, she was gone. My parents might tell you it was only for a little while, but to me it was a torturous lifetime. Long enough for mall security to be involved – which was way longer than I ever had been lost in the little grocery store back home, where I wandered off each week. As soon as mom and dad noticed my sister no longer was at our side, we started looking in the racks around us. This is the sister that always has been a bit of a rule-breaker, so it wasn’t unlike her to step outside the bounds. But to do so in the bustling mall of the big city where we knew nobody was absolutely terrifying! Images of my sister being lost went running through my little mind. With potentially horrible things happening to her. And the prospect that she may never return to us. Fear burned in my soul. At one point my parents left me with a store clerk in order to go find her. At another point they returned to me – without her – still. I remember when at last a man in a uniform, who looked to me to be a giant, came walking towards us – his huge brown hand dwarfing the tiny pale hand of my sister. Even though we weren’t a family that hugged a lot back then, when at last the man returned my sister to us; I threw my arms around her in relief! If you ever have been lost, perhaps you too know how absolutely horrifying it can be!

The InLighten film entitled “Lost and Found,” tells the story of a desperate young woman (https://inlightenstream.com/upcoming-films/#Xbu7XyVOmEc). Her beautiful chocolate face flashes on the screen as she tells that from an early age, she felt like she didn’t quite belong. She had been adopted into a family of other children in which she had the darkest skin. Her new parents did their best to raise her. But one impressionable night at a club, she saw someone pull out over $2,000 worth of cash. In awe she asked the girl where she got that kind of money. The next thing you know, the beautiful young woman turned her first trick. In the film she explains: “After that first man walked out of the room; in my mind, I was worthless. So, I didn’t deserve to have a normal life anymore” (Ibid.). Tearing up the woman says, “I didn’t deserve to have real love. I deserved what I was going to get” (Ibid.). If you ever have been lost like this, you too know just how terrible it feels!

After Hours Ministries is street outreach to women and men involved in prostitution. Associate Director Jen Cecil explains that “when you’ve been commodified, it completely tears down your self-worth. A lot of these women aren’t in it by self-choice,” she says (Ibid.). They do it to survive. They do it to avoid getting hurt by someone who has taken over control of their life. Cecil quotes a heavily debated statistic to claim that the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is between the age of 12 and 14. Other sources claim the age is somewhere between 17 and 19. In 2015, one source records that “trafficking cases had been reported in over 85% of Tennessee counties including many rural areas” (https://www.google.com/amp/s/m.huffpost.com/us/entry/5203042/amp). Cecil reminds: “These are your daughters. These are your sisters. These are your best friends. These are women created in the image of God, who God loves and pursues after” (Ibid.). They are lost. Needing to be found.

In the film, the teary young woman who ended up on that path goes on to tell that the daddy for whom she worked typically wouldn’t let her out of his sight. But one night she asked if she could go outside to smoke a cigarette. He told her to stay close to the door so he could keep an eye on her. The woman explains, suddenly “I saw this mini-van pull up. I remember thinking like: ‘Why are these people here?’ It’s a disgusting hotel. It was a family that got out and they had bibles.” Unable to hold back the tears at this point in the film, the sobbing woman says, “They handed me a bible and said, ‘We just want you to know Jesus loves you.’” The woman explains, “I remember thinking like: ‘you don’t understand. Jesus can’t love me anymore’” (Ibid.). Have you ever felt that kind of isolating shame? That kind of being totally lost?

That night, volunteers of After Hours Ministries prayed with the woman. They told her she was safe. They told her she was going to be okay. On film, light begins to creep back into the woman’s eyes as she remembers, “I had this redemption of thought,” that night. She says: I realized “God sought me out. Not because God wants something from me. But because God loves me” (Ibid.). As the film comes to a close, the voice of Jen Cecil pipes back in declaring, “A lot of times the women don’t believe that they are loved or that they are seen. I believe God desires for us to know that God is with us. And that we are loved. We are seen.” Cecil declares, “I have seen and I know the depths God has gone to for me. And that God will go there for you as well” (Ibid.).

It’s reported in the gospel of Luke – the gospel that especially likes to tell stories such as these – that one time, Jesus was passing through the city of Jericho. Jericho was a place responsible for receiving goods imported from the East (Connections, Yr. C., Vol. 3; 2019. Kenyatta R. Gilbert, p. 4580) which made it a place a tax collector could do quite well. A man lived there. One who was accustomed to climbing; for he had climbed the ranks in the world of taxing those around him until at last he earned the title of chief tax collector. For the Roman Empire, this man worked. Ensuring his fellow Jews paid the price in support of the ones who forcibly occupied their land. In the eyes of everyone, this man was lost – very lost. Though not as far off as those who can’t even see they are lost. Like those in the story who criticized that Jesus would dare spend time with ones such as Zacchaeus.

It would be easy to stay focused on people like Zacchaeus. People like the young woman in the film who found herself so lost. The point we are not to miss, however, is that we all are lost. In some ways. Maybe we’ve not been ensnared in the grip of the sex industry. Maybe we’ve not been caught up in exploiting others for the benefit of the empire. Maybe we’ve just known the depths of loss after a loved never returns. Maybe we just carry the pains from parents who hurt more than helped. Maybe we’ve just felt the sting of shame because of our gender or orientation or abilities or whatever so that we know exactly how it feels to want nothing more than to be seen by some One who will love us completely nonetheless.

Earlier in the gospel of Luke, these words are recorded – words assigned by the lectionary for All Saints’ Day every third year: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:20-31). The Beatitudes according to the gospel of Luke offer a helpful reminder that it is for the lost that God seeks. Not because being rich or full or full of laughter is any terrible thing. But because if we don’t know it yet: woe! We must! We all are lost – needing to be found. Once we know, salvation is ours! We get found by a God who is with us always. A God who sees and loves and seeks out the lost. For such a marvelous gift, let us give great thanks!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

 

Inter-Connected

A Sermon for 27 October 2019 – Reformation Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 18:9-14. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

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

 

I learned the story this week of two women. Mrs. R. and Ms. M.[1]

Mrs. R. had a beautiful-looking life! Born and raised in a picture-perfect suburb with sprawling lawns and quiet streets just east of a mid-sized, mid-western city. Mrs. R was proud of her 6-bedroom home. One for her and her prominent lawyer-husband. One for each of her 4 teenage children. One extra, for just in case. Every afternoon, her children gathered in their large bonus room around their huge flat-screen TV to watch the latest my-baby-daddy-done-me-wrong talk show. Mrs. R. was proud of the fact she had spent her life in the beautiful little borough in which she had grown up. All was right with the world because her children attended the same AP-class-offering high school which she did. They too were on track for whatever ivy league college they wanted. It was true that her youngest child was a constant bother to Mrs. R., but that had more to do with her daughter’s stubborn, break-the-rules nature, Mrs. R. reasoned, than with the fact they almost lost her as a preemie. Unaware, somewhere deep-down in her unconscious, the anxiety of those early months still haunted Mrs. R. So that any who might have known their whole history easily would have seen it was a classic case of attachment disorder – something primal seizing Mrs. R. to protect herself from the potential of the greatest loss. Mrs. R. had aspired to be a reporter – she liked to be in the know. She had all the makings for a promising career – had it not been for the even deeper desire to build a beautiful-looking life with a successful man who was able to provide a stable income for Mrs. R. to be able to do what her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her great-grandmother before them did. Make a home from her home so she’d be there every moment for her children in their youngest years. Only when they got older would she venture out to try writing for the suburb’s local newspaper instead of following any dream for something like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Sometimes she fantasized of having followed classmates to jobs in the big city. But for the most part, Mrs. R. felt safe in a prescribed pattern. She liked the rules. She believed everyone else had to follow them too. Everything thing from what color the homes in their neighborhood were allowed to be, to who got rewarded with opportunities due to their connections around town. Like her, for instance, who because of her upbringing knew pretty much everyone who was anyone. She hosted them each year at her annual Christmas party – to be sure they all kept well-connected. Just in case the need ever arose to call in the kinds of favors Mrs. R. routinely called in. She reasoned it was so she might find out the truth she needed to know – for her reporter job, of course; not for any gain of her own. She pursed her lips at others a lot and never really knew what her teenagers were up to. They didn’t come to her often. Mrs. R. never even noticed. Not that it really mattered – at least to her. Everything looked beautiful. They had it all! Until the day it all came tumbling down.

She would trace the trouble back to the day her path crossed with Ms. M. Ms. M. who was an artist – what sort of profession was that, Mrs. R. often wondered!? Ms. M. had no roots. Well, she actually did; but Ms. M. was the kind of person who preferred to move around. From a young age she had shown interest in taking pictures. She loved to capture those moments that would take your breath away. She was daring and bold so that she did things with photographs few would think to do. She dove into her work – spending hours at a time on each project. Working a few odd jobs on the side to provide enough money for food, rent, utilities. An occasional splurge at the local thrift shop for a new-to-her shirt or pants for her budding, bright teenage daughter. Ms. M. never talked of a father. Had actually never been with a man, but had come by the pregnancy of her daughter in a bizarre twist of financial desperation while at art school that started her down the path of becoming a surrogate for a wealthy couple who had crossed Ms. M.’s path years before. No one knew this, however, least of all her daughter. Everyone just assumed Ms. M. was a free-spirit. Had a bad break up. Or was just another unwed mother. Ms. M. kept pretty much to herself so that no one ever learned the truth. The interesting thing was, Ms. M. was interesting. She had the sort of quiet, unassuming confidence that drew others to her. Time and again, Mrs. R.’s own children turned to Ms. M. After all, Ms. M. never judged, as Mrs. R. always did. Ms. M. was never preachy, as Mrs. R. always was. Ms. M. just provided space. The kind of acceptance that allowed teens who were trying to figure out life, a place where they could tell the truth – the whole truth about why they did what they did. What really was going on. How their hearts were breaking and that for which their young spirits hoped. To the outsider – and especially to Mrs. R., it looked like Ms. M. was a dismal failure – hardly scraping by in their unfurnished, rented duplex. We’re talking mattress on the floor for Ms. M.’s own bed. Overstuffed pillows instead of a couch. No TV and only a rickety old table in the kitchen with two brightly colored chairs so at least they could eat the latest concoction Ms. M. whipped up from whatever sale items she found at the grocery. Mrs. R. roller her eyes in disdain every time she thought about life in that little duplex. Ms. M. just meandered along. Not really worried about what anyone else thought. Ensuring those who turned to her for help always found welcome as she had when she was young and needed it the most. . . . Two very different women. Which one, do you think, climbed in bed each night fully satisfied?

Until we are humbled, something in us seems almost innate, doesn’t it? To look upon others. Seeing them, judgmentally, as others – not nearly as good as ourselves. Jesus told a story about that. A parable, unique to the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus tried to drive home a point about “some who trust in themselves that they are righteous and regard others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). Two men, Jesus’ story starts. One a Pharisee. Another a tax collector. One a perceived saint. Another a perceived sinner. So much has been written about Pharisees. Ones with which Jesus appears to be in conflict over and over again in the gospels. Did you know that the name Pharisee is believed to have it’s roots in a Hebrew word meaning separate or detached (https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/pharisees). Christian history has done a poor job by pointing fingers at the Pharisees – a sect of Jewish religious leaders during Jesus’ day. Thinking they were a big problem. I can’t believe Jesus’ protest of them had anything at all to do with their being Jewish. Jesus himself was Jewish. Nor must he have cared that they really cared about the rules. It’s recorded in the gospel of Matthew that he himself once claimed he came not to banish the law but to fulfill it – to show how to live its essence. The First Century historian Josephus writes that “the Pharisees maintained a simple lifestyle, were affectionate and harmonious in their dealings with others, especially respectful to their elders, and quite influential throughout the land of Israel although at the time of Herod they numbered only about six thousand” (Ibid.). I can’t believe Jesus had a problem at all with Pharisees who went about living in such a way. The problem, according to Jesus’ parable, just as with Mrs. R. and Ms. M., has to do with the blindness of the particular man proud of his separateness. So exalted in who he believed himself to be that he stood in the Temple for prayers proclaiming: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11). God, I thank you that I am separate. Special. Better than others like thieves, rogues, adulterers, you fill in the blank. Can you believe such a prayer?

Christ lived among us to show us the way God sees. No matter our human tendency to categorize, separate, cast judgement; the Christ sees inter-connection. A web of human life. The Divine Spirit of God living in all and through all. Certainly, we can block the Spirit of God from flowing through us – with things like our unbridled anger, our out of control fear, our inner shame, and our bitter feelings towards others. With these at the helm, we literally find ourselves cut off from others and God and our deepest selves. We separate ourselves through our own attitudes and actions. In the Christian tradition, we call that separation sin. The travesty that breaks the right, inter-connected relationships for which we were made. It’s one thing to try to live rightly, God knows we won’t always get it right. It’s another thing altogether to dwell in the disposition of the man who gave thanks to God that he wasn’t like others. To be puffed up as something separate. Missing the truth altogether.

No matter the cacophony of cultural voices trying to convince we’re not like one another. Honesty about our inter-connection is the consciousness to which we are called. It’s a different way of seeing the world. Another lens through which we are to look. Jesus did his best to teach us in all he said and did. Maybe someday we’ll get it right and at last enter into the joy of the eternal kingdom. The Way to which all are called.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

[1] To see what happens to Mrs. R. and Ms. M, read the novel Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng.