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.

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.

The Gratitude of One

20 October 2019

A reading from the gospel of Luke 17:11-19. Listen for God’s word to us.

“On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.””

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

 

How many things do you do each week without even thinking about them? In a whole day most of us brush our teeth, make our coffee (or tea), turn on cars or TVs or computers or I-Pads, without thinking one bit about what we are doing. Whether to brush side-to-side or up-n-down. Whether to add two lumps or one. Where to put in the key – or if you have a newer model, whether to press the brake before pushing the button. Our days are filled with so many things we just do so that we really don’t have to engage our brains to think about how to do it – unless something suddenly goes wrong. Then we’re on high alert to trouble shoot. Just getting out of bed to get ready for our day involves so many rote actions so that it’s difficult to tabulate how many similar thought-less things we do each week.

I’m pretty sure I know one thing most all of us do each week without a whole lot of thought at all – at least if we’re in worship on Sundays and have been for any length of time in our lives. “The Doxology.” Often it seems more like a seventh inning stretch or a throw away transition to get the offering plates up to the front before getting on with the final hymn and charge for the week.

Praise. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God, all creatures here below; Praise God above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen!” (Glory to God, 2013; No. 606). I’ve served churches who routinely used No. 607 and messed me up each week with the words: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise Christ, all people here below; Praise Holy Spirit evermore; Praise Triune God, whom we adore.” I never did get it right – because each week the ushers handed me the offering plates to put up in the chancel area and if I didn’t have the bulletin to remind me of those words, I’d end up just singing, “Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon” – a hymn trick a retired old pastor once taught me when I stood next to him to lead worship twice every week for about five years.

“The Doxology.” If you stop to think about it, it’s kinda radical. I mean where else in our world today would people willingly open their wallets to kiss their money goodbye without the exchange of a tangible product placed in their hands to take with them. And then get up to joyfully sing: “Praise! Praise God from whom all blessings flow???!!!” . . . Maybe we’ve been through seasons in our lives when “The Doxology” brings tears to our eyes. If, say, you’ve just lost your job and the bills keep coming in – but somehow the money to pay them turns up too. Maybe then you joyfully jump up to sing “Praise! Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” Perhaps if you’ve been through some sort of prolonged, life-threatening illness, or are going through one right now, but find yourself still standing; maybe then thankfully singing: “Praise! Praise God from whom all blessings flow” moves your spirit deeply. If a difficulty is passing and we feel a little bit like we can breathe again after the loss, or the crisis, or the intense season of life that has taken its toll. Maybe then we truly mean it when the words tumble out of out of mouths: “Praise! Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” Or maybe we are the kind of people who have matured enough in life to know that all good things flow from the loving heart of a gracious Creator. We’ve lived long enough to be a people of gratitude because we can look back and see the sustaining tracings of God’s finger all over the messiness of our lives. So we joyfully praise! Praise God from whom all blessings flow!!!

Gratitude changes us, doesn’t it? A few years ago, I learned of a popular gratitude guru named Louise Hay Launching what would become a multi-million dollar writing career in her mid-forties, Louise reports that “at 55 I ventured into the world of computers . . . At 60, I had my first garden (and) enrolled in a children’s art class (to begin) to paint. At 70 and 80,” she writes, “I was more creative” than ever (Louise Hay newsletter email, 5 October 2016). And she once professed that nearing 90, her life continued to get richer and fuller (Ibid.). It certainly looked to be so as just a few months before her death, she still radiated joy! Her message is pretty simple: live grateful! Affirm the miracle of our bodies. Celebrate this incredible world in which we live. Rejoice with each passing year! I would add: know the One to thank and do so every day! Gratitude literally keeps our bodies healthier. It makes our spirits lighter. It allows our minds to be at peace. It makes us people others enjoy being around. After all, who wants to sit next to the sour puss? Who wants to let the arteries of our own hearts clog up from begrudged living? Who wants to craft a life around the belief that everything is solely up to us – instead of knowing our lives are wonderfully inter-dependent with the amazing gift of grace? Gratitude is just the better way to live.

Jesus should have said it that bluntly. Though we probably wouldn’t understand without the beauty of a real-life illustration. Like the time when ten desperate ones whose bodies are wrecked with disease – whose spirits likely are languishing as laws kept them isolated away from healthy people, even the loved ones of their own families. Ten people, who probably have been treated much more like eye-sores than human beings with feelings and hopes and dreams; ten seek out Jesus to beg for mercy. This is one of those instances in which I wish Jesus would have gotten closer. I wish he would have stopped in his tracks, walk right up to the group, lay his hands upon them to declare them instantly healed. For whatever reason he doesn’t – at least not according to the story as it is recorded in the gospel of Luke. Perhaps he wanted to give them a role in their own healing – invite them to trust what he asks them to do. So that all he does in this healing is see them. See their pains. Then Jesus speaks, saying: “Go show yourselves to the priests,” (Luke 17:14). It’s recorded that they all went, even though it’s kind of hard to believe. I mean, Jesus just sent them to see the ones that represented the system that called them unclean and kept them away from others. Do they really all sprint off in the direction of the holy men? It must have been so because Jesus later says, “were not ten made clean?” (Luke 17:17). Ten supposedly trusted that something significant would happen to them if they followed the instructions of this incredible teacher. Something would change – if not in the healing of their bodies, then maybe they anticipated healing in some other way. Ten head off. Only one returns. I wonder if that one came back singing: Praise! Praise God from whom all blessings flow! He falls to the dust at Jesus’ feet and simply, profoundly, passionately from the bottom of his heart says: “Thank you!” Thank you! Thank you!

Jesus declares that it is that man’s faith – his willingness to trust the instruction given him – that makes him well. And it is the gratitude in his heart that will keep him well – no matter if the leprosy comes back, or if his family all is gone when he heads home, or if the community won’t welcome his restoration. Gratitude will change the trajectory of his life. The way he frames the story of the rest of his days. The prayers he makes as he lays his head down on a pillow somewhere at night. The peace that will remain in him as he remembers his past and looks forward to a different kind of future. Gratitude will carry him through, all the way to his end and beyond.

We could take a lesson from the gratitude of one. His life could show us how NOT to take our moments for granted. How NOT to thought-lessly go through the motions each week. Maybe even to find a way to joyfully jump up after we give back to God a portion of what God already has given unto us, singing: “Praise! Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” May gratitude be the response not only from one, but from all!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Faith

A Sermon for 6 October 2019 – World Communion Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 17:5-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

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

 

            If I asked you to rate your faith on a scale from 1 to 10, what number would you assign? 1 would be terrible. No faith at all. 10 would be amazing! Your zinging along all day with a depth of connection, an intensity of joy, a peace that palpably surrounds your entire being. One reason I so love the 16th Century Spanish mystic and nun Teresa of Ávila, who routinely was seen levitating by the sisters at daily prayer with her. Is that for all the rapture for God that Teresa experienced in her body and soul, she also admitted there were times each day when God, who she referred to as her Beloved, felt so incredibly elusive. She knew the spiritual life was about ecstatic connection with the Divine. AND (as she said) doing the work of washing the pots and pans in the kitchen. The highs and the lows and every day in between. Teresa counseled Christians to expect and welcome it all. So that if I asked you right now to assign a number to your faith, I hope it wouldn’t be 1 – though some moments it might be. And maybe it’s 10 – but I highly doubt it’s that way 24/7 for anyone, though hopefully it’s close at least sometimes for most.

The gospel of Luke records this funny little scene where the disciples of Jesus ask him to increase their faith. They want a number closer to 10 and further away from the no faith of number 1. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ saying about the mustard seed of faith comes right after his time on the mountain when he transfigured into the glowing rapture of God alongside what appeared to be Moses and Elijah. Then, when Jesus and his disciples Peter, James, and John come down from that experience; a man falls at Jesus’ feet begging his son be healed. The father explains that Jesus’ disciples were unable to help. So, Jesus reminds of the power of even a mustard seed of faith. But in the gospel of Luke, Jesus just had finished teaching his disciples about the seriousness of their role. The weight of their responsibility as his followers so that they dare not cause another to stumble. The magnitude of graciousness he expects so that any who turn from their wrongdoing are released through the gift of forgiveness. Jesus is going to go on to tell them a parable about slaves, servants as the Greek term more typically is translated, just doing what’s commanded. Getting on with the work their Master tells them to do. ‘Cuz that’s what servants do! As a result of all Jesus is teaching, the disciples gawk: “Lord, increase our faith!” They might as well have been saying, “You want us to live in this world how? To be mindful day in and day out of the effect we may have on those who surround so that none of them ever stumble because of us? Not expecting some great reward but getting on with it all anyway? Like, seriously Jesus, following you is like that???” He better increase their faith! And while he’s at it, be sure he gives an extra dose too to each one of us. Because in light of that vision for his disciples, most of us likely feel like we’re going to need a whole lot more faith!

Faith is a curious thing. In the Greek of the gospel, the word we translate as faith is πίστιν (pisten). Though many often think more of faith as a body of content we must know about God, pisten connotes trust. The Apostle Paul reminds beautifully in his first letter to the Corinthians that his own proclamation was not in lofty words. Not in some huge body of human knowledge. He writes that he wanted their faith to rest not on that of his own doing, but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5). It’s the same direction Jesus points his disciples when they ask for increased faith. Alluding to the power of God which spoke creation into being, Jesus tells his friends: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6). In other words, what we do for God as a result of our faith is not dependent on how much of it we have. It’s about who God is. One biblical commentator puts it like this: “The true miracle of Jesus’ saying is not about overcoming natural laws (by doing things like uprooting mulberry trees), but about the presence of true faith, a faith that takes hold of the God with whom ‘nothing [is] impossible,’ [Luke 1:37] (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, Margit Ernst-Habib, p. 142). One tiny shred of faith is enough for us to do the amazing! Not because of our tiny shred of faith. But because of God!

I received an email this week from a film publisher who took a moment to update his subscribers about what’s been going on in his ministry and life. This dedicated soul, who so creatively expands others’ hearts and minds with the content he makes available for spiritual formation, poured out the personal challenges of his past several months to let subscribers know the experiences that will impact the direction his future publications will take. He closed his update with two jarring little words. He wrote: Stay Weak. “Stay Weak,” I thought! Who wants to do that?! The culture all around us is about strength. Power. Might. No one wants to be a weakling. Those who are weak are pushed to the side. Trampled. Kept out. We pump iron to feel strong. We stockpile missiles to feel strong. We swagger over others in order to feel strong. Stay weak? In a doubletake, what the film publisher’s challenges must certainly be revealing flashed in my mind.

Jesus wants us to know we do not have to be strong to do God’s work. Remember the Apostle Paul’s great affliction? The thorn in his flesh never fully revealed to history, but that kept him from “being too elated?” (2 Cor. 12:7). He begged and pleaded and prayed for that weakness to be taken from him. Finally he heard: “My grace is sufficient for you, for (my) power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). At last, Paul came to know what Jesus had been teaching all along. We know too – though sometimes we forget. God chooses the weak to work in this world. That which is last according to culture’s standards is first with God. Little is enough. So that who God is, not who we are, will shine. So that how God is able, not how we are, will be magnified. A mustard-seed-of-faith is plenty for the work of God to be accomplished! Not because of us. But because of God! One biblical commentator writes: “When the disciples ask for greater faith, knowing that difficult times lie ahead of them, Jesus responds by asking for something small: a trusting faith the size of a mustard seed, so that the faithful follower of Jesus might not look at herself, judging her own faith, relying on its strength or being scared by its weakness, but look instead at the One she follows” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, Margit Ernst-Habib, p. 142). Consider instead: God.

The next time you wonder if the amount of faith you have is enough for anything much to happen, remember the lesson of the mustard seed. It’s not about us and how much faith we might have. It’s all about God.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Entrusted

A Sermon for 22 September 2019

A reading from the gospel of Luke 16:1-13. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’”

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

 

I attended a bible study this week that used a format called the Word Share Prayer. Like the Scripture practice of Lectio Divina, Word Share Prayer asks first: what stands out to you in the passage read?

A lot might be our collective response upon hearing what’s been called “one of the most baffling of Jesus’ parables, leading to varieties of interpretation that have to be carefully constructed” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 3, Donald K. McKim, p. 332). Of the reading we just heard from the gospel of Luke, another biblical commentator writes that “parables are usually gifts of clear insight into God’s choices for our lives. However, this parable is difficult to read and difficult to preach. The reader is oftentimes left to struggle for meaning, just as the preacher struggles to interpret. Both end up frustrated” (Feasting the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, Helen Montgomery Debevoise, p. 92). Which sounds about right because what are we to make of the parable unique to the gospel of Luke that has been labeled throughout history as The Dishonest Manager? A shrewd man of business who’s about to get the ax for squandering the owner’s property. But, in a last-ditch effort to ensure he’ll find welcome from others once he no longer has a job, the manager ends up praised by his boss because he cuts back all the debts owed to the owner by others. Instead of being indicted for fraud, the manager receives the owner’s “‘atta boy!” pats on his back because, the words attributed to Jesus go: “the dishonest manager . . . had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:8-9). Which might be a welcomed message if you’re serving on the church’s finance committee. But it sounds a bit off to most of our ears. Especially if we keep on reading to hear Jesus immediately declare: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10). By the time Jesus gets to the end of his point, he lets the listener have it: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). Which might leave us scratching our heads thinking: “But didn’t your parable just praise someone who seemed wrapped up in wealth?” What is going on here?

What speaks to me in the midst of it all is one little word: entrust. Entrust. To put something into someone’s care or protection. That’s what the owner did. He entrusted the manager with his business.

If I was the kind of preacher who stopped in the middle of a sermon to make you turn to the people sitting closest to you to discuss, what do you think you’d hear in response to the question: with what have you been entrusted? Furthermore, how are you doing in reference to that with which you have been entrusted?

A woman tells the story of a realization she had somewhere along the line when her 15-year-old son came to her. Not much more than a freshman or sophomore in high school and the child excitedly talked about a construction mission to Africa. The boy begged to go serve in the middle of nowhere in Kenya alongside 2 other teenagers and one adult. The woman writes: “They would be camping in the jungles and out alone in villages. . . . He wouldn’t be in my care, let alone on my side of the world” (www.buckner.org/family-hope-centers-blog/giving-children-to-god-lessons-on-biblical-motherhood-from-hannah). She did not want to let him go! What the mother eventually came to realize is that her child was entrusted with a mission. What she did not yet know was that the experience would set him on the path of building a career that used his construction skills as a ministry to help others. She had been entrusted with the job of raising him up so he would go forth into the world to be faithful to the job entrusted to him.

Children. Parents. Spouses. Grandchildren. Friends. Whatever combination we have in our lives, the people who make up our families are entrusted to us – put into our care and protection. We can’t control the outcome of how those relationships will unfold. We can’t know the bumps and bruises that will come along the way as each child grows; as siblings and parents age; as the needs of our closest loved ones arise. We have been entrusted with people for whom we are to care through encouragement and compassion. Through patience and persistence. Through holding close and letting go.

We’ve been entrusted with bodies that have allowed us to become who we are today. Born into the circumstances of our lives, even the ones with the greatest problems in this sanctuary have so much more than most of the world’s population. We can live under the illusion that we’ve earned it all on our own. When, in fact, the very bodies into which we’ve been born – in this time of history. In this nation – deeply impact all that we have and all we have been able to accomplish in our lives. We might get a little bit sick and tired of feeling tired or sick as we age in these bodies. Nonetheless, they are great gifts to us. They have made for mostly comfortable, safe lives – blessings we do well not to squander.

We’ve been entrusted with a certain world view – a particular way of being everywhere we go because of the principles we have learned from Jesus, the Christ, our Savior and Lord. Not everyone has been exposed to the grace of God in the ways most of us have. Even among those who sit in a Christian service of worship every Sunday, some have been taught a very different message about God as an entity to be feared. An angry judge waiting to sentence us one direction or the other. Not everyone has come to know the message of unconditional love that calls us to strive to live likewise. That informs the ways we’ve chosen to work in this world. The relationships we’ve built. The expansive eyes of welcome through which we act.

We’ve been entrusted with one another and the mission God has for us as we serve people in this neighborhood. As we work from this beautiful building others sought to construct. In the area of Nashville we’ve been given to impact. Among people like young families seeking care for their children, and teachers and parents doing all they can to holistically educate middle schoolers. We’ve been entrusted with members and friends of every generation – an eclectic body of people who sometimes need support and sometimes need new ways to serve.

We’ve been entrusted with this nation. The land that we love, the home for which generations have toiled.

We’ve been entrusted even with this world. God’s good creation of fuzzy little caterpillars that grow into beautiful signs of hope. Of puppy dogs and mighty oaks. Mountains and rivers and the little plots on which we’ve built our homes.

We have been entrusted with so much. Jesus’ parable raises the question of how are we doing with all that’s been entrusted to us? Because, he says, if we cannot be faithful with all we already have, why would anyone seek to give us more? If we’re faltering with what has been entrusted to us, who will bestow greater riches?

Whatever the motivation, when the manager is told the owner is taking it all away; he wakes up. At long last he realizes he could have done something good with the role he’d been given. One biblical commentator writes: “this manager, this person of questionable character, understood something that ‘children of light’ have had difficulty grasping: dishonest or not, this man (at last) understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger goal. . . . How much more, then, must the children of God understand the riches entrusted to their care?” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, Helen Montgomery Debevoise, p. 94). The commentator continues: “With the end in mind, the manager redeemed whatever he could about his present situation. He understood that, in order to be where he wanted to be in the future, how he handled today counted” (Ibid.). This, then, is the crisis that Jesus addresses in his parable. The children of light, the people of God must not grow complacent about all God has given. We must wake up to act faithfully with what has been entrusted to our care.

May those with ears to listen, hear. May we heed Christ’s word and so live.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Malleable

A Sermon for 8 September 2019 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 18:1-11. And perhaps before reading this text, it’d be helpful to remember that the prophet Jeremiah was called to speak for God to the people of Judah. The thought is that as things in Israel already had fallen apart when the Assyrians overtook and exiled the northern part of what once had been the unified kingdom, things in Judah were just beginning to fall apart and finally did entirely when Babylon conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE. In the days leading up to the devastation of Jerusalem, folks were wondering: How did we get here? How could something like this happen to the people of God? Did we neglect the covenant? Is God with us still? (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 3, WJKP, 2019. Joseph J. Clifford, p. 287). Throughout Scripture, we hear varying responses to such questions – even as we Christians continue to make sense of national and personal devastation in so many different ways. Like: have we brought it on ourselves? Do destructive things just happen – even to righteous people? The likes of faithful Job or the descendants of Abraham who found themselves enslaved in Egypt only, at last, to be rescued by a grace-filled God. As we ponder the welcomed and unwelcomed changes of our own lives and of our life together as the body of Christ, let us listen for God’s word to us in this reading of Jeremiah 18:1-11.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there the potter was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

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

 

Early in the 12th Century, Hildegard of Bingen was busy having visions from God. Hildegard began having such visions as young as three years of age. Tithed to the church at birth by her noble parents because she was the tenth of their children, Hildegard was brought when she was 8 to live with her spiritual mother Jutta, an anchoress turned abbess who was enclosed in the Benedictine Monastery at Disibodenberg. There, Jutta was to “introduce (Hildegard) to the habit of humility and innocence” in a double monastery – a Celtic-founded monastery that has both men and women (Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, Second Edition, Sabina Flanagan, 1998 p. 2-3).

Many today seek deep, direct connection with the Divine. Hildegard’s experience warns regarding such communion. For throughout her life, whenever she failed to heed the Voice of her visions; Hildegard had terrible bouts of illness. Finally, at the age of 43, Hildegard acquiesced to the Voice to publicly reveal her visions and the Voice’s insistence that she (a mere woman, a simple nun) write what she saw. So it was that this remarkable 12th Century woman claimed her own spiritual experience and began a forty-year ministry that would include counseling kings, advising popes chastising to them in writing the injustices she saw in archbishops and bishops and priests, cultivating gifts in twelve areas of human endeavor including music and art and healing and science and theology and pharmacology and preaching and writing and iconography, and being a complete innovator who it has been said was both “daring and audacious so much so that 800 years later (she’s) made a huge impact in our time (and hasn’t) become irrelevant or boring” (quote by Mary Ford Grabowsky in “A Very Real Mystic,” Hildegard von Bingen In Portrait).

You may know the vivacious, larger-than-life force that was Hildegard for her signature concept viriditas or greening power. In Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen by Matthew Fox, viriditas is described as “God’s freshness that humans receive in their spiritual and physical life forces. It is the power of springtime, a germinating force, a fruitfulness that comes from God and permeates all creation” (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, Matthew Fox, 2002, p. 44). As a mystic of the Rhineland; Hildegard was influenced by the lush, flourishing valley that surrounded her throughout her lifetime. One scholar explains that Hildegard saw the fecundity of the Rhineland and believed it all was the very essence of life. As so many do, Hildegard didn’t just look upon the world as beautiful. In fact, in the mandala of her vision entitled “The Six Days of Creation Renewed,” Hildegard chastises Adam because, as she wrote: “’he took in the smell with his nose, but he did not perceive the taste with his mouth. Nor did he touch it with his hands’” (Ibid., p. 97 – Hildegard’s own words). According to Hildegard, this was Adam’s great fall. Because God – who Hildegard calls “the purest spring” – (she also calls Jesus “Greenness Incarnate” and the Holy Spirit the “greening power in motion, making all things grow, expand, celebrate” [Ibid., pp. 43-44]). According to Hildegard, God has put the greening power within us and all things, and we are not merely to look upon it with our eyes – appreciating how pretty it is. Our viriditas is in us in order for us to participate with the Creator in creating. Thereby assisting “the cosmos in its unfolding” (quote by Matthew Fox in “A Very Real Mystic,” Hildegard von Bingen In Portrait). Hildegard presses the point further in her vision entitled “Sin – Drying Up.” In this mandala, Hildegard records what she saw from God – the merciful dew sent to the human heart by the Holy Spirit (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, p. 92). The sap of life – the greening power that keeps our souls from turning to dryness. That keeps us from becoming cold, hardened, dust – the greatest sin. For, as Hildegard wrote: “A dried-up person and dried-up culture lose their ability to create” (Ibid., p. 46). Thus, Hildegard explained that our baptisms are “baptisms through water but into moistness” (Ibid.). Our baptism, Hildegard proclaimed, is “a commitment on our part to stay wet (to remain) green. Like God” (Ibid.).

Hildegard’s viriditas comes to mind as we hear the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. To the potter, the prophet is charged to go. There, Jeremiah will hear God’s word when he sees what the potter is up to. If you’ve ever tried to work clay on a wheel, you know how important the friction of both hands. The centering of the clay. The need for water to keep the material on the wheel malleable. Clay that dries out. Clay without that bit of water stiffens. It no longer can be shaped. It becomes hardened into a form useless to the potter. But, as Jeremiah saw in his visit to the potter’s house: even if clay goes awry on the wheel; as long as it is moist, the potter can scoop it up. Press out the kinks in preparation to re-center it on the wheel and begin again.

It’s like that with the people of God. We’re meant to drip with the waters of our baptisms. To stay malleable for use by the Creator. Because, as one commentator writes: “When our shape becomes fixed, we leave little room for God’s grace to” re-form us (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 3, WJKP, 2019. Joseph J. Clifford, p. 288).

You remember a two summers ago when we were busy doing that CAT. That Church Assessment Tool that resulted in a Vital Signs report regarding this congregation. One of the things we learned through that process is that churches that are vital today have key factors in common. Among such things as vital worship, meaningful relationships, and an orientation to lifelong learning; communities of faith that are vital today are flexible. They are malleable. They stay green – growing like clay able to be re-shaped by the potter in order to be effectively used in the context in which that clay finds itself today.

In the past few weeks while I’ve been away, I’ve been asked more than once to tell about the congregation among which I serve as pastor. After about the third time of telling about the ministry we’ve been at together these past several months, I realized I had lots of very exciting things to tell. Of course, we’ve done the usual: worship each week on Sunday mornings. Holding meetings now and again for decision-making. But we’ve also stopped for some time of silence – in the middle of Presbyterian worship – not only to reflect individually upon our priorities, our own big rocks – but also to write notes of encouragement to teachers heading back to H.G. Hill Middle School for another year of investing in the children of Nashville. We’ve tried things like creating out of recycled and natural items as we learned a bit about Hildegard and God’s power at work in creation. We’ve learned more about caring for those who are aging and continued our intergenerational visits to homebound members of the church. This very month we are in the beginning stages of welcoming two new community partners to this congregation. One by providing space for those who participate in an effort called Nashville’s Non-Violent Communication. And another where we are working with peers in the community to launch a training and on-going support ministry for those who have lost a loved one through death by suicide. We’re continuing with our current community partners Playcare and H.G. Hill Middle School and Mending Hearts and Small World Yoga and the 12-step Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families that meets here every Saturday. A few of us even have met with innovative ministry leaders of Nashville to learn what more can be done for the assets of this congregation to creatively serve the needs of the community around us. Not to mention, our property leaders and Trustees have been working HARD to upgrade things like the electrical system of this building and our internet and phone systems that will allow us to find new ways to deepen our relationships with each other as we navigate typical 21st Century means of connecting.

It’d be easy to hunker down and think: we’re just a little group of people – aging and set in the ways we’ve always known. And then we hear things like people getting fed this summer by those from this congregation who went to provide meals during a Solidarity Retreat held monthly at Penuel Ridge Retreat Center for people who are homeless. Women recovering from addiction and trying to get their lives back together after serving time in prison coming here to sit down for a scrumptious, welcoming feast! We learn of young and middle-aged adults coming here weekly to work through the painful experiences of their childhood. We’re about to welcome to the facility those seeking to learn Heart Centered Mediation Practice in a four-week course being led by one of our new community partners. And even if Heart Centered Meditation Practice doesn’t sound like our preferred way to pray, hopefully some of us will commit to attend – if for no other reason than to learn a different way to connect with God that is meaningful for those who’d never come Sundays to worship like us. Hopefully a few more of us will volunteer our time this school year for the 30 new fifth graders now enrolled at H.G. Hill Middle School who just are learning to speak and read English and desperately need adult mentors to come help them grow.

It seems to me we’re moving along in our malleability as a congregation even by doing things like gathering after worship now for a true chance at fellowship instead of sprinting through coffee and treats a few minutes before worship begins. Supporting and encouraging each other through life’s joys and challenges. All the while giving of ourselves in new ways as we serve God by serving others in need. Slowly but surely we are being re-shaped. Re-fashioned. Re-formed by the Potter. Clay still dripping with the waters of our baptisms. Ready yet for use by our Great Creator today.

As the days roll on, may we stay malleable come what may!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)