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.

Recognizing the King

26 November 2017 – Christ the King Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 25:31-46.  Listen for God’s word to us in this story recorded on the lips of Jesus, the Christ.

“’When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”

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

 

Remember the opening scene of the show Camelot?  King Arthur is all alone in the woods – hiding out because he’s scared.  Guinevere, is soon to be arriving.  His new wife, which will make her the new queen of Camelot.  Merlin, his mentor, comes looking for him – trying to reassure Arthur that it all will be all right.  Though Merlin has seen some sort of thing ahead with a valiant knight called Lancelot.  King Arthur goes on to sing that song as if he’s his subjects on the eve of their king’s wedding:  “I wonder what the king is doing tonight?  . . .  Arthur answers back, as any wise man might the night before uniting their lives with a powerful woman.  He sings:  “He’s scared!”  No sooner does the audience applause die down, than in rushes Guinevere.  The king hides out as she sings her plea to her patron saint to save her from this terrible turn of events:  being in a land far from home in which she really doesn’t want to be and becoming the wife of a king she really doesn’t want to marry, just because her father worked out the arrangements to strengthen ties between their countries.  When finally Arthur comes down out of the tree, Guinevere continues to tell of her terrible fate and how she has run away to ensure it never will come to pass.  She’s looking right into the face of the man she doesn’t want to marry, but she doesn’t recognize him.  That was the days before the paparazzi plastered photos of celebrities everywhere.  And it’s not like Arthur had a way to do a selfie to Snapchat to her in advance.  She doesn’t know he’s the king – until a soldier of his guard comes looking for Guinevere.  Seeing the king, the man bows to the ground in recognition of his sovereign.  Suddenly Guinevere understands.  This is the face of the king she is to marry.  She finally recognizes the identity of the one standing before her.

It’s ironic, of course, that this king isn’t recognized in his own land – and by the woman who is to be his queen, no less.  But it wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last that a king goes undetected.  In his final teaching, at least according to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells too about a King that often is not recognized.  Ironically, he’s talking about himself and the way in which all the nations will be able to see him.  It’s a parable of sorts about the long-awaited Son of Man finally coming among the people.  The prophet Daniel had foretold such a son.  One who would save the people from the way their lives had come to be.  Everyone will be gathered together, the story goes.  And as was done each night in Israel by the shepherds, sheep and goats will be separated.  Shepherds brought the goats together back then – most often bedding them for the night in a cave where their collective body heat could keep all the goats warm.  Sheep on the other hand, with their woolly coats could sleep scattered out on the hillside if they wanted to.  For the sake of the goats the shepherd had to separate them in order for goats to survive the cold of the night.  The funny thing is:  the separator in Jesus’ story is a king.  One that will treat like his own heirs those who have recognized him.

It’s possible we’ve heard this story from Jesus so many times that it no longer has the impact it most certainly had upon his first hearers.  It had been a really long time – if ever – that the people knew a king that fed the hungry and made sure the thirsty had water to drink.  That outsider strangers were welcomed in and those unable to put a stitch upon their own bodies were given clothing.  The sick often were left to be tended by women who most of the month already were considered unclean.  And the worst thing in the world was to be carted off by the king’s soldiers to be imprisoned for whatever unjust infraction you might have been accused of.  Kings didn’t mess with those kind of people.  The kings Jesus’ listeners knew were the Roman king Julius the Caesar and Herod Antipas who also was referred to as a king.  It wasn’t in the face of one in need you were to recognize those kings.  They were recognized in their great might.  In the massive building projects they undertook.  In Rome’s fierce army and their ability to keep everyone in check through fear.  The kings of Jesus’ day weren’t seeing to the needs of their subjects.  They were seeing to the security of their own interests.  They were crushing common folks into allegiance with crippling taxes and threats of death.  Jesus is speaking of a different kind of kingdom.  Ruled by a drastically different king.

We’ve not always been good at recognizing this in the church.  Which is a goodly part of why in the 1920s the Franciscan order of brothers overtured the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church to establish a holy feast day called Christ the King of the Universe.  The world just had witnessed the kings around the earth clashing in a cataclysmic war to end all wars:  World War I.  In fine Christian lands, Christ was not being recognized as the King of compassion.  Instead, folks were acting a whole lot more like the Caesar and Herod of Jesus’ day.  Christian history often has gone astray in such a way.  Which is why the Franciscans wanted Christ the King of the Universe Sunday to become a regular part of our faith traditions.  It really was in the 1960s after Vatican 2 that Christ the King Sunday gained any sort of universal recognition.  So that you and I are like 2nd generation Christ the King Christians – though I realize many of us may not be all that familiar with the high holy day.  One contemporary Franciscan reminds us that Christ has been the King of the Universe from the start.  He’s the Alpha (the first letter of the Greek alphabet).  And will be the King of the Universe at the end.  He’s the Omega too (or that last letter of the Greek alphabet).  In one of the most helpful explanations of Christ the King that I have heard, we’re reminded that Christ, or the eternal Logos, was part of God from the start.  The pattern or blueprint of God that came to be materialized.  In other words, the part of God that came to inhabit matter.  To show us what God is all about.  To show us the way that rules the universe from beginning until the end (Richard Rohr, http://cac.org/images/MP3s/RRHomily-2012_11_25-Christ-VBR.mp3).  That very same way that Jesus, the Christ, was about in his life, death, and resurrection.

And just in case we wouldn’t remain clear about where to recognize this King, Christ; Jesus tells us to look into the face of those around us.  Especially those in the deepest need.  It’s pretty radical to claim that the eternal God, King of the universe, sovereign Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of it all can be found most definitely in one consistent place.  In the face of those who are fed, watered, welcomed, clothed, and healed.  Now who ever would expect a King to reside there?!  . . .  It’s why we are to be about such ministries.  Face to face, not just writing checks for them.  . . .  If we allow ourselves to be, we are changed when we come face to face with feeding someone who is hungry, or giving drink to one who thirsts.  When we welcome someone who was a stranger to us, our lives are opened a little bit wider to the ways God lives and works in this world.  It’s always good to help because another has a need; but according to Jesus, that’s not quite why we’re to jump into action.  Such service changes us.  It allows us to see God living in another – even if we sometimes have to look rather deeply to recognize – maybe peer around parts of a person we’re pretty sure God would never inhabit.  If we dare enough to see – maybe even to have our minds opened a little bit further to who God is – we’ll find ourselves standing before the King.  And if in that moment we’re quiet enough, we might just hear:  “Well done good and faithful servant.  Today, you’ve entered my kingdom!”  May it be so.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

Carrying the Presence

A Sermon for 5 November 2017 – All Saints’ Sunday

A reading from Joshua 3:7-17.  We’re returning this Sunday to the story of the Israelites in the wilderness.  Well, just as they are leaving the wilderness.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.  You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’”  Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God.”  10 Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites:  11 the ark of the covenant of the LORD of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan.  12 So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.  13 When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the LORD of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”  14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people.  15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest.  So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off.  Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho.  17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.”

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

 

If random people on the street were approached, what do you think they would say when asked:  What are you carrying with you?  . . .  Most all Americans over the age of 13 would answer:  my cell phone.  Many adults who have a home and a car would say:  my keys.  And my credit cards or some other form of currency.  Young mothers, with and without their little toddlers, likely would be carrying some sort of wet naps and diapers and a favorite toy for distraction when the little one melts down in the long line at the grocery store.  While men might turn out their pockets to show you their wallet or breath mints or safety knife – whatever men keep in pockets; some women might be carrying a purse that includes in it everything except the kitchen sink.  If anything, children might be carrying a fist-full of dandelions freshly picked from the cracks in the sidewalk or some other hidden gem discovered along the path.

We can answer the question differently, like:  what are we carrying with us –emotionally.  Of the past.  Memories that comfort us – especially those of the saints of our lives we honor here today.  Regrets that haunt.  Anxiety that grips us as we try to go about life in this busy world today.  We’re seeing almost daily that many Americans are carrying tension – a general unease in our bodies from the barrage of critical news.  Some of us who are extra sensitive might be carrying a little depression about all the violence against each other we keep seeing, and the horrors of the natural disasters our world has been living through these past several months.

On television the other night – I think during one of those World Series games; I saw a rare commercial.  Have you seen it?  It begins with people jumping out of their cars to help push a broken-down vehicle off a busy, backed-up street.  A man who appears to be rushing to work up an escalator, stops to help a woman of a different race get her baby stroller up the escalator too.  As all sorts of scenes continue of diverse people helping each other, the narrator says:  “It would be great if human beings were great at being human.  And if all of mankind were made up of kind women and kind men.  It would be wonderful if common knowledge was knowledge commonly know,” the narrator says, as some bullies in a school knock books out of a smaller boy’s hands, while a girl steps forward to protect him.  A smile flashes across the face of an elderly woman who looks like she’s telling stories, while a younger woman stands behind her brushing her hair.  The narrator continues, saying:  “And if the light from being enlightened, into every heart was shone.  It would be glorious if neighbors were neighborly and indifference a forgotten word.  It would be awesome if we shared everything and being greedy was absurd.”  If you’ve seen the commercial, you too might have found tears welling in your eyes just 40 seconds into this ad.  The final punch:  “It would be spectacular if the Golden Rule was golden to every man.  And the good things that we ever did were everything that we can.”  Another woman’s voice comes in to say:  “Treating others like we like to be treated has always been our guiding principle.”  As the final shot shows the name of the hotel chain being advertised, the screen reads:  “We live by the #Golden Rule”  (https://www.ispot.tv/ad/w6rw/marriott-human-the-golden-rule#).  . . .  What if more of us carried that:  the guiding principle that We live by the #Golden Rule?  Helping others no matter our differences.  Protecting the weak.  Truly being neighborly and accepting and generous.  A world of people who carry within the Golden Rule that can be seen in action daily.  Indeed, what we carry can make all the difference.

As the exodus of the Israelites finally comes to a close, their priests carry the ark of the covenant into the Jordan River.  We may not be as familiar with this part of our faith ancestor’s story as we are with the escape from Egypt through the Red Sea.  The day Joshua was their new leader and the power of the LORD God stopped another body of water, so that the people could cross over from their wilderness wanderings into the land promised as their home.  The Jordan River flows the eastern length of the Holy Land – originating in tributaries beyond the Sea of Galilee as far north as Mount Hermon, and flowing south into the Dead Sea.  From their spot in the desert, the only way into the Promised Land was through the Jordan River.  It likely sounded like a crazy plan.  Choose one man from your tribe.  All twelve together then, grab hold of a corner of the ark of the covenant.  Those twelve were to walk right into the Jordan, that likely was a mile wide during the time of harvest when its banks overflowed.  “And trust me now,” says Moses’ successor, who was so new he likely was still wet behind his ears.  “God’s gonna stop the mighty Jordan from flowing.  On dry ground we’ll all cross over – the men, women, children, and herds of animals too.”  The priests are instructed to wade into the water.  Pay no attention to the possibility of snakes and sink holes.  Stop then, and stand still.  Soon the waters shall be cut off from the north to stand in a single heap.  After all, they’re carrying the ark of the covenant.

The ark of the covenant was a gift of the wilderness.  Like an artifact of faith, it got built at God’s instruction to house the tablets of the law given Moses on Mount Sinai.  Covered in gold with a solid gold throne for God on top of it, it was made portable from the start.  Placed in the exquisite tabernacle tent with an extra screen around it for added protection.  The ark was carried all through the wilderness as the people journeyed in stages from their slavery in Egypt to their new home.  In the day when the cloud of God was on the tent of meeting or at night when the fire could be seen in the cloud; folks remained in the camp.  The glory of the LORD was filling the tent, infusing the ark, enveloping all the holy accoutrements made for the ritual approach of God.  The Presence of the LORD, the God of all the earth, was fully in their midst.  Like a travel guide waiting to tell them when next to fold up camp to move on.  When the moment came – when the cloud rescinded from the tent; the ark and everything else would be packed up and moved to be set up at the next spot along their way.  Symbols of God dwelling in the midst of a people on the move, it all traveled with them as they went.  . . .  Imagine the scene then near Jordan, as those twelve men take up the ark of the covenant.  Its gold gleaming in the autumn sun – they set foot into the water.  In a sense, they were carrying the very Presence of God.  The box-like structure that reminded them of God’s promise to be their God as they did all they could daily to be people putting into action the ways of the LORD.

As a people of God today, we don’t carry around the ark of the covenant any longer.  It was destroyed the first time the Temple in Jerusalem was sacked.  Later in the story, to remind the people that even without the tangible object; the Presence of God, the LORD of all the earth, remained in their midst.  As a comfort, the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed that God would renew the covenant.  It needed it, after all; as the people hadn’t lived up to their end of the bargain.  (Jeremiah 31:31-34).  This time it wouldn’t take a moveable ark to remind us.  Rather, we would carry within the promise of the LORD.  Not on tablets of stone, but on our hearts would be written the ways of God.  In our insides.  So that wherever we go in the world, together or apart, God shall be our God and we shall do daily all we can to be the people of our LORD.  The promise resides within.  The Presence of God steadier in us than the beat of our own hearts.  . . .

It’s another thing we carry – God in us.  In our daily hustle and bustle it might be easy to forget.  Like the priests at the Jordan, holding a power mightier than they might have imagined, we carry a Presence powerful enough to stop rushing waters.  Like the cloud-covered symbols of the tabernacle showing when God’s time to move has come.  Like a little piece of God lodged in our insides.  The spark of Divinity, the Spirit of the Holy, the Breath of the Living God of all the earth, is in us.  Take that in for a moment:  that the LORD God wants to be in us – living and moving and experiencing the world through our particular bodies.  Being seen by others through us as we help others no matter our differences.  And protect the weak.  And truly are neighborly and accepting and generous.  . . .  May our actions answer what we carry.  May our hashtag be seen!  We carry the Presence of God within.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

Five Hundred Years Later

A Sermon for 29 October 2017 – Reformation Sunday

A reading from Romans 12:1-13.  Listen for God’s word to us in a message from the Apostle Paul to encourage the Christians in Rome.  Listen.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.  We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us:  prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

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

Five hundred years ago, no one had heard of this church.  Five hundred years ago, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) wasn’t a glimmer in anyone’s eye.  Five hundred years ago, there wasn’t even something called the United States of America.  We forget, sometimes, how young our great country is – not yet 250 years old.  Five hundred years ago here native people lived off the land.  The Cherokees and Chickasaws and Creeks and Natchez and Shawnees and Tuskegees hunted and farmed the land under our feet.  Tennessee comes from a Cherokee name meaning Little River.  Because the native people loved the fertile Tennessee River Valley (https://m.warpaths2peacepipes.com/history-of-native-americans/history-of-tennessee-indians.htm).

Five hundred years ago Tuesday to be exact, one man half a world away from here made an important proclamation.  The wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9b).  Five hundred years ago a monk of the church was wrestling with his faith, as many of us do every day today.  Though vowed to God as a monk and priest of the Church, the man wasn’t so sure he was ok in the eyes of God.  Riddled with guilt over who he knew himself to be – the ways he hadn’t done enough of the will of God, the ways he didn’t love his neighbors as if they were himself, and often times didn’t even love himself all that well.  Five hundred years ago a man, who was trying to do his best for God every day, came to a revelation.  It wasn’t exactly all of a sudden.  Martin Luther had been wrestling with God a goodly long portion of his life.  It’s part of what drove him to the monastery.  He was terrified of God and even more afraid of hell – something he was living on earth as his soul just could not rest in what he was seeing in and hearing from the Church.

Of course, the Church at the time was not Presbyterian, or Lutheran, or Anglican, or any other sort of Baptist, Methodist, or non-denominational body.  The Church in the Western world five hundred years ago was the Roman Catholic Church (that was it); with the Pope in Rome as its head and a whole host of cardinals, bishops, and priests all being financially supported by the local people.  They were the state, and the state was them – because no one yet had envisioned the experiment of separating the powers of the state from the powers of the church.  That would come later when some colonies that wanted to break from under Britain’s rule fought to forge a new nation where folks like the Cherokees and Chickasaws and Shawnees hunted and farmed and lived.  Five hundred years ago Tuesday one man, who found a fresh insight in scripture that transformed his experience of God, concluded that things had to change.  So, in protest of how things in the Church were and how he believed God wanted them instead to be; Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the chapel at the University of Wittenberg where he had become a professor of Theology.  He knew everyone would come for mass the next day on the high, holy All Saints’ Day.  He wanted to start a conversation in which he and his colleagues would dialogue about the ways things needed to change.  Fueled by the recent invention of the printing press that ensured copies of his 95 protests would be sent all over Western Europe in just two months – an act unheard of before; Martin Luther ignited a revolution whose end the world has not yet seen.

Five hundred years later, here we are.  Celebrating the doubts of a Catholic monk that propelled him deeper into realms of Christian faith.  Remembering the perseverance of a budding Theology professor who stumbled upon the Spirit’s inspiration as he prepared to teach a class on the meaning of Romans.  Something clicked in Luther like a sprung lock whose key at last is found, when he read in Romans 1:17:  “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”  . . .  Faith alone.  Scripture alone.  Grace alone would become the rally cry of all who joined Luther’s protest.  So that to this day, our own Book of Order proclaims that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “upholds the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation.  The focus of these affirmations is God’s grace in Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture . . . (and these affirmations) continue to guide and motivate the people of God in the life of faith” (F-2.04).  Of course, another young man would come along some 15 years after Luther’s protest to lead the steps of reform over in Geneva, Switzerland.  Born from his efforts, we embrace John Calvin and the other reformers’ theological traditions that call us to be “’the church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God’ in the power of the Spirit” (F-2.02).

Five hundred years later, here we are.  About to gather after a potluck to hear the results of this congregation’s recent Church Assessment Tool.  I can’t say we particularly planned it all to end up on this 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but thanks be to God the days are coalescing.  We are here as a faithful, little part of the body of Christ, the Church.  And for the fifty of this congregation who completed the Church Assessment Tool, you have made your mini-protestant proclamation.  Though the Vital Signs Report we received from your input sometimes seemed as weighty as Luther’s 95 Theses, the CAT Team has been working hard over the past months to prepare a presentation for you today that hopefully will be clear, uplifting, and motivating.

Nothing really is new under the sun.  The church of Jesus Christ still needs reformation – we know that.  For us in the Reformed Theological Tradition of the Protestant Reformation, we are the church.  Romans 12 states it beautifully:  “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).  It’s not some pope.  It’s not some hierarchical group of priests or bishops or pastors or session members who are put in place to be the church to make the kinds of changes that are needed.  It’s all of us.  Every one of us baptized in Christ who has vowed to be a disciple of Christ connected to this part of Christ’s body – whether by official active membership or simple presence here each week.  We are the church today for this place – for this community that surrounds this building and property.  And it will take us all working together, with God’s Spirit to guide, to lead the steps of reformation here.  . . .  I’m excited for you that you have spoken your truth through the Church Assessment Tool.  The results are going to tell you somethings you already know:  that you now are a small, family-sized congregation.  You are all over the map theologically and you are committed to remaining so.  You want to make an impact for good in this community and you want the leaders of your church to help you discern how your gifts and abilities best can be used for God’s glory.  That too is nothing new.  Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul was reminding the Christians in Rome that we each have different God-given gifts.  And it is possible to find our way forward.  Christians across time and space have been doing so for almost two millenniums.  The future doesn’t have to be just like the past.  In fact, it can’t be, because we who are a part of this congregation today are not just like we were in the past.  Even if it heavies our hearts, your wise enough to know that!

When you see some of the charts of the presentation today, we realize you may not be entirely happy.  What church doesn’t want to be firing on all cylinders with clear direction and excess of money, members, and ministries?  I’m a part of a Leadership Excellence Training in our Presbytery right now and I think it’s ok to share with you that out of the 12 pastors and Christian educators who are a part of that training, only one of us claims to be serving a church that is growing leaps and bounds today – and it happens to be a church near neighborhoods where home growth continues to boom.  Does that mean there’s no hope for the rest of us?  No.  As a denomination we have been shrinking in the United States for the last 50 of our 200-some years.  I don’t remind us of that to paint a picture of gloom but to remind us that faithful, important ministry still goes forth from God’s work through us.  . . .  This weekend just two blocks from the designated site the White Supremist Party chose to convene their rally, sits the building of one of the churches represented in our Presbytery’s Leadership Excellence Training.  I don’t know what they finally decided to do about the rally coming into their town, but I know some from that church gathered the night before for an alternative witness.  In an interfaith, interracial witness, they prayed for peace before thousands from around the country descended upon their community.  . . .  I’ve heard another colleague of one of our churches in a shrinking county tell of a struggling first-semester college freshman of their congregation who unexpectedly received cookies, cards, and encouragement from a woman of the congregation.  That faithful act made all the difference for that young woman whose life had become too much for her to bear.  The church of Jesus Christ still is needed in this world.  There still is vital ministry to be carried out for God by this congregation.  Luther’s revolution isn’t over.  . . .

Members of the church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God’ in the power of the Spirit; hear again these words from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome – this time from the version of the bible called The Message.  “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.  Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good.  Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.  Do not burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.  Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant.  Do not quit in hard times; pray all the harder.  Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality” (Romans 12:9-13, The Message).  . . .  Who knows what they then might be saying five hundred years from now.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Alternatives

A Sermon for 15 October 2017

A reading from Exodus 32:1-14.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear one more Sunday about the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt.  Listen.

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron.  He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”  They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.  The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once!  Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”  The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”  11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?  12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’  Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.  13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”  14 And the Lord changed the LORD’s mind about the disaster that the LORD planned to bring on the people.”

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

 

Have you ever seen one of those stage plays where the audience is involved in picking the ending?  Usually something like a murder mystery, the actors have rehearsed all sorts of ways to finish the plot.  Was it Ms. Scarlett in the Library with the wrench?  Or Mr. Green in the Kitchen with the lead pipe?  Once the audience chooses which way it will go, the actors spring back into action, as if never missing a beat, to show how the story unfolds.  It never goes quite the same way twice.  Alternate endings are possible depending on the will of the people.

We forgot we have the power, in pretty much every situation, to influence how things will unfold.  So often we feel as if only one way is possible in the story of our lives; but it is not so.  Fear often holds us back.  Literally moving us out of the higher realms of our brain’s ability to imagine alternate endings.  Fear leaves us operating out of what’s often referred to as our “Lizard brain” – the oldest part of our brains that develops first in the womb.  It’s an important part of who we are so we can instinctually act when our lives really are in danger.  But allowing ourselves to daily live out of our lowest, lizard brains is the last thing needed from human beings by this planet.  God gifted us with frontal lobes, the most complex part of the human brain where impulse control, consideration of actions’ effect on others, even reasoning about consequences can take place.  The goal is to use the amazing heads we’ve been given so that we can envision possibility number one.  Or possibility number two.  And even possibility number three, four, five, six, and seven.  Endless alternative options in any given situation.

I wish the Israelites at Sinai would have taken some collective deep breaths.  To move from operating out of their lizard brains into the higher realms of conscious ability.  If we’ve ever given up something we really love for Lent, then we might understand how long 40 days can feel.  Moses, the one who has guided them miraculously into freedom, and God, the One who has been present to them all the way, convene forty days on the mountain.  And the people below panic.  They’ve just been given the commands of God for how they can live connected rightly to God and each other.  In awe they saw the thick cloud envelop the mountain.  They heard the thunder roll and witnessed the lightening flash.  They heard command number one:  have NO OTHER GOD’s before me.  And command number two:  MAKE NO IDOLS!  The either have really short memories, or refused to listen in the first place.  Maybe it even shows that the commands of God foreshadowed what anyone studying human behavior could guess would happen.

Afraid Moses had been torn to pieces by some wild animal on that mountain, or maybe convinced the ole’ fool at last was smothered by the thick cloud of God; the people demand brother Aaron do something concrete in their midst.  They want something tangible to show them the way.  Impatient with the wait.  Anger certainly on the rise.  And afraid they’ve been abandoned.  They beg for a god to be made that can lead them out of that harsh desert.  The salt in the wound is that even as Aaron collects all their gold for the calf, God had been describing to Moses a sanctuary where a LORD who seems to be passionately in love with the people could dwell among them forever.  According to Exodus 25, step one was to begin with “an offering; for all whose hearts prompt them to give.”  Specifically, it would be an offering to God of “gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns.  Fine linen, goat’s hair, tanned rams’ skins, (and) fine leather; acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breast piece” (Exodus 25:2-7).  God wants the finest of all they have for a sanctuary in which the people would be able to lift up their hearts in gratitude to God.  Meanwhile . . . the people circle Aaron to demand some new deity immediately!

Tragic.  So tragic when our fear demands our one and only imaginable way.

How else might the story unfold?  If the people hadn’t let their fear get the best of them, if they could have held on just a bit longer; what other options might had they imagined together?

Our other reading for today offers an alternative.  “Rejoice in the LORD always,” the Christians of Philippi are instructed.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The LORD is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:4-6).  Wow!  If the people could have kept back their fear.  If they could have remained a bit more patient; then imagine the party they could have enjoyed!  They could have sang and danced at the mountain’s edge.  Remembering the LORD God always is near, they could have built a fire as a sign of the fiery column that had led them.  They could have sat down to rehearse with one another the first time God provided for their thirst.  They could have told tales of the remarkable double manna portion waiting them every sixth morning on the desert floor.  They could have taken out a few of the quail feathers and swopped stories of how good it tasted when first they arrived in a rush from Egypt.  And Egypt:  that flight they finally made?!  Aaron might have taken the opportunity to remind them to pour out their requests once again to God.  God heard and acted every time in the past.  What makes them think this time will be any different?  Maybe allow a little gratitude to mingle with their concern just to remember that the One to whom they pray their prayers is nearer than their very own breath.  It would have been a completely different unfolding of their story . . .  it can be a totally alternate way for our own as well.

It’s been a rough go these past few months.  Starting with Harvey, intensifying with Irma, and Maria too.  Finding out in the narthex after worship that a church across town was being shot up.  And just a week later, the most horrendous mass shooting our country has known.  Fires rage out of control in California again.  Now more than ever, an alternate way is needed.  . . .  A heart-felt reflection offered by one of our denomination’s current General Assembly Co-moderators, included these words this week:  “Are these tragedies changing the way we live now?  Are we giving up a Starbucks or two so that we’ll have some loose change to send to a disaster relief organization?  Are we talking in our churches about ways we can do more as congregations?  . . .  How does our faith in God manifest itself in these days?” (https://achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com/2017/10/12/what-a-difference-a-tragedy-makes/).

We can get caught up in the fear – there’s enough of it out there.  We can grow weary and impatient and even angry during such difficulties.  . . .  Or we can turn to God.  Rejoice in all the ways we see the will of God being lived out as neighbor helps neighbor and compassion is given more room to grow.  We can rehearse all the ways we see provisions are being made.  And instead of wringing our hands in worry, we can live in gratitude for the gift of each day – for another opportunity to embody God’s ways among this world.  We have the power to significantly influence the outcome of these days.  How it all unfolds can radically be impacted for good by us.  . . .  Breathe deep, brothers and sisters of Christ.  Through us, let the story unfold another way.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

To Remember the Web

A Sermon for 8 October 2017

A reading from Exodus 20:1-21.  We continue to hear of the Israelites in the wilderness and what happens when they reach Mount Sinai in the third month of their freedom.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then God spoke all these words:  I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.  You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses the LORD’s name.  Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.  12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.  13 You shall not murder.  14 You shall not commit adultery.  15 You shall not steal.  16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.  18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”  20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of the LORD upon you so that you do not sin.”  21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”

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

 

Late in the 1980s, Bill Moyers sat down to interview Joseph Campbell.  Campbell’s forty-year career of studying the great myths of the cultures of the world was coming to an end.  At the same time, the world’s history was being impacted immensely thanks to the space race that a few decades earlier began to bring us full views of earth from nearly 40,000 nautical miles into space (https://www.nasa.gov.imag-feature/may-18-1969-apollo-10-view-of-the-earth).  These were the days before Facebook and Goggle Earth.  Campbell’s interview with Moyers regarding the power of myth even took place a year before the invention of the world wide web, which didn’t go live to the general public until August of 1991 (https://webfoundation.org/about/vision/history-of-the-web).  Nearly thirty years ago now, the interview also happened a few years before the miraculous Hubble Telescope was launched, which lets us view light images deep into space and time.  In the interview, Campbell pauses to reverence the amazing 1969 Apollo 10 and following images of the earth from space.  He’s emphatic regarding the truth of that now infamous view.  Thanks to scientific technology and the information age, we now readily can see what good theology has been trying to teach for millennia:  from space we can see that there are no boundaries between the nations of the earth.  Oceans are visible, vast and wide.  And land too.  Lakes and rivers and mountains and canyons also can be seen.  But there are no visible borders between nations at 40,000 plus nautical miles from earth.  From space we can see that everything on earth is connected – a truth that underscores the reality of the literal world wide web.

Sometimes it takes new perspectives – vaster sights for us to be moved to marvel at something that was intended to be obvious.  The design of the universe is connection.  Quantum Physics has been confirming it for a hundred years now.  The truth of our planet is one.  One intertwined web of life so that what we do here has the power to effect life on the other side of this world.  We were not intended to understand ourselves, or any aspect of the creation, as separate.  In fact, Reformed Theological Faith declares, what Shirley Guthrie writes in his classic Christian Doctrine text, that “to be a human being means to be created in the image of God.” The implications being three key factors:  that:  1. life (is) received from and lived for God in a relationship of thankful dependence and active obedience; (that) 2. life (is) with and for our fellow human beings in a relationship of mutual openness and help; and (that) 3. life that is self-affirming and self-fulfilling . . . (is lived) in community with God and other people” (Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 1994, pp. 212-213).  Anything that separates us from that right-relatedness with God, others, and our deepest selves is sin.  Out of sync with how it was intended to be.

Had we the big-picture view of interconnection from space in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t have needed the section of Exodus that is before us today.  But it’s here as a gift from God so we will remember.  So our lives will reflect the truth.  . . .  The commandments of God are given to the Israelites in the wilderness some 90 days after liberation from slavery in Egypt.  It hadn’t been that long since Moses came in contact with God at Mount Horeb while he was tending the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro.  Three new moons after leaving Egypt, the text records that “they came into the wilderness of Sinai . . . and camped in the wilderness” at the foot of that other mountain (Exodus 19:1-2).  There Moses, who once had killed a man, began the lengthy conversation with God – instruction after instruction to be passed on to the people so that they would know for certain the interconnected design.  So that all of them would learn.  So that – free from Pharaoh’s rule – they would have clarity in their new life in the wilderness.  What life really was like; and how the One who set them free designed for them to be.

The commandments from God teach that we are in relationship with the Sovereign God of the Universe.  Nothing shall come before that.  Not Pharaoh.  Not a heroic leader.  Not our own hungers and thirsts and fears.  God is to be first in all our lives.  It’s a mystery why the Divine would will it so, other than the fact that God is pure Love.  Try to define the Divine any other way and we come up short of the mind-boggling reality of grace.  Don’t even attempt it; we’re told in the commands.  Just allow the One who claimed the name:  I Am who I Am to be.  Care must be taken as we live in and reflect to others this truth.  It’s to our own detriment when we forget.  . . .  The commandments from God also describe what life together looks like for those who understand the truth of connection.  We honor our parents – the wisdom of the ancestors.  We respect life and committed relationships.  We live content with what we have.  We speak only truth.  And satisfied with our own homes, families, and gifts from creation; we reverence what is ours for safekeeping and what is not.  . . .  Just to be sure we remember it all, we rest every week.  We linger long in the freedom of the Liberator as we delight in the generous abundance all around.  . . .  Remember the whole list of the don’ts; and keep the list of whys before you as well just to be sure you know what it does look like to live together as those connected – rightly-related to God, others, and our deepest selves.

I wish all would remember.  Don’t you?  ‘Cuz aren’t we tired of the fights about where which commands need to be posted while senseless separation seems to rule the day?  Can we bear one more story of a Lone Wolf who decides to take matters into his own hands?  Do we honor at all the way God intended it to be when we fail to keep the view from space before us – the view that shows the intertwined web that is life?  You know, this is the reality anyone under the age of thirty has known for their entire life.  If any of us are struggling with interconnection, then the wisest among those under thirty can lead us in understanding how to live this way.  If not tainted by a view of separation, connection is the world ethos imprinted in them since their childhoods when first they started surfing the web.  . . .  I don’t really know how not to sound kinda preaching today when the commands of God are before us in the text assigned by the lectionary for this Sunday.  These are the gifts from our Judeo-Christian tradition which taught a people how best to live together in community.  The gifts that still can guide our lives.  It almost seems like they are based on God’s assumption that our eyes would grow cloudy.  That our perspectives would be limited.  That over the years we would forget the pristine blessing of the web which is life itself.  . . .

Elsewhere in scripture, they beautifully are summed up fully in two simple statements:  Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And love your neighbor as your very self (Matthew 22:37-40).  Do this, we are told.  And we shall Live.

For the sake of this entire planet, may we remember the web.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

Apprehending Rightly

A Sermon for 1 October 2017 – World Communion Sunday

 

A reading from Exodus 17:1-7.  The journey through the wilderness continues.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded.  They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.  The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”  Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the LORD?”  But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”  The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”  Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.  He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?””

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

 

In England in the Fourteenth Century, there lived an amazing mystic of the church.  She resided in the county of Norfolk on the North Sea, just a hundred miles north-east of London in Norwich, which once was the second largest and second most important city of England.  There, Julian had retired from the world into a small cell adjacent to the Church of St. Julian of Norwich.  It’s believed, Julian had been trained by nearby Benedictine sisters and might just be remembered after the saint of the church so that the original name of this incredible woman may be lost to us.  Presumably from a wealthy family, some believe she took to the cell as an anchoress after she lost her family to the plague.  (Richard Rohr Meditation:  Julian of Norwich, Part 1, 1 October 2017 and en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich).  It was somewhere around the middle of her life, after she herself nearly died at the age of 30.

Some mystics experience revelations from God throughout their lives.  But it was not so with Julian.  It was just once in her life, during an intense, near-death illness; that the Spirit of Christ communed with her in sixteen separate visions.  When Julian miraculous recovered from her illness, she spent the next forty-some years of her life trying to make sense of the visions she had received on her deathbed.  Her book Revelations on Divine Love captures the visions, and her later writings explore the meaning of what was revealed to her.  Supposedly, her first book was the first text written in English to be authored by a woman.  She did some amazing work as an anchoress in the little cell attached to the church in Norwich.  Not only was her writing about the full love of God ahead of her time, but the wisdom she also gave as an anchoress sustained the lives of those who would come seeking counsel from her.  Something like a modern-day Spiritual Director, male anchorites and female anchoresses dutifully took to cells attached to sanctuaries.  In exchange for the church providing for their physical needs, they made themselves available in their little adjacent cells whenever a wayward soul knocked on the cell’s window.

Julian counselled many well.  I’ve always loved her charge that “the fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.  For God is the ground, the substance, the teaching, the teacher, the purpose, and the reward for which every soul labors” (from Meditations with Julian of Norwich).  Somewhere she also wrote:  “if there is anywhere on earth a lover of God is always kept safe, I know nothing of it.  For it was not shown to me.  But this was shown:  that in falling and rising again, we are always kept in that same precious love” (source unknown).  In another source she wrote:  “the greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of God’s love” (source unknown).  And this week, I heard more deep wisdom from this our amazing sister of the faith.  “God doesn’t want you to sin,” Julian explained “because God wants you to see yourself as God sees you” (as quoted by Richard Rohr on The Enneagram:  Discerning the Spirits, 2004 recording).  God doesn’t want us to sin, because God wants us to see ourselves as God sees us.  What a beautiful way to remind us that the Divine dwells in us all always.  Because, after all, God dwells in everything.  It’s just that when we sin, when we do those things that separate us from who God would have us be; we make it harder for ourselves and others to apprehend the Divine in us.  Like a cataract that darkens our vision, our sins mar the ability to see the Divine Spark in us.  The Heavenly Breath within.  The Fullness of Love living in our souls.

I wish the Israelites in the wilderness would have had the benefit of Julian’s insight.  Things are getting pretty rough out there in the desert.  Last week in our lectionary reading we heard the people complaining for food.  This week, things turn sour again as thirst rears its ugly head.  Grumbles intensify so that the text records:  “the people quarreled with Moses” (Ex. 17:2).  They demand he give them water to quench their parched thirst.  As if Moses is some magnificent magician, they once again come after him shouting:  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst!?!” (Ex. 17:3).  . . .  It is so obvious that God sees in them something they cannot.  That God wants for them something they cannot imagine for themselves.  Though God already has been sustaining them all throughout the wilderness, though a pillar of cloud has been guiding them and a column of fire led them through the darkness of that vast, immense desert; the people of God fail to apprehend the Divine in all things – even in themselves.  If the story were before us on the big screen, at this point the music would pierce our hearts with sadness.  O the tragedy of our inability to see God with us every step!

I can imagine that trekking for years through the harsh conditions of a desert would make the most faithful among us wonder.  Is God among us, or not?  . . .  Isn’t that what we wonder when we get the breaking news about a senseless shooting among a church on the other side of town?  Isn’t that the question that seeps into our souls when we see the destruction from Harvey and Irma and Maria too?  Isn’t that the fear that rises when we look at empty pews, which once where filled with children and teens and parents who were eager to raise their families in the faith?  Has God abandoned us?  Was the LORD ever with us in the first place?  . . .  “Apprehend God in all things” another great mystic of the church once wrote.  “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.  Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God” (Meister Eckhart).  . . . Part of the problem in the wilderness – in the Israelites and in us – is that we fail to apprehend rightly.  If we think God is somewhere out there – outside of it all and all we have to do is wait for some mighty one to valiantly come to our rescue, then we’re confusing faith with fairytales.  We don’t understand the Crucified and Risen One.  . . .  God is in all things which means we are never apart from God.  Even when we mar the image of God in ourselves so badly that we and others end up having a very hard time seeing; God remains with us, in us, and beyond us too.  I have a feeling it takes something like wilderness to notice.  Because most of us live as if we don’t really need anything outside of our capable minds and able bodies and our persistent efforts.  We fool ourselves into believing we can handle it all so that the only way left for us to learn the truth of it all is wilderness.  The desert, where at last we finally might see.  The paradigm of faith is, as Julian says:  that in falling we rise again and in each step we remain loved.  In the falling and in the rising again we still are precious to God.  If we can apprehend God in that – in both – we’re on the right path . . . It won’t be long until our parched places flow with abundant, life-giving water.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Work in the Wilderness

A Sermon for 24 September 2017

 

A reading from Exodus 16:1-15.  Listen for God’s word to us as we continue to hear from the story of the Exodus.

“The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.  The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.  On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”  So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because God has heard your complaining against the Lord.  For what are we, that you complain against us?”  And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we?  Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”  Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for the LORD has heard your complaining.’”  10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.  11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”  13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.  14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.  15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?”  For they did not know what it was.  Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’”

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

 

We could spend our time this morning seeing ourselves in this text.  When we stop long enough to get honest with ourselves, we confess:  we know well the Israelites in the wilderness.  We’re familiar with their complaints, aren’t we?  We know about fear of change.  Of lack.  Of growing into something or someone yet unknown – something or someone not like we’ve ever been before.  We know the desire to go back – even if the past wasn’t as fabulous as our memory makes it out to be.  We’ve learned a thing or two as we’ve aged – at least I hope we have.  So that going back really is something most of us only would be willing to do, IF we got to go back to re-live it all over again with our current hard-earned wisdom and courage and hope that we likely didn’t have back then, but that defines who we have become now.  We know the Israelites:  the blaming of their leaders, the finger-pointing at the Divine, the unwillingness to see what’s right before their eyes – the blessings that surround them NOW, though in a new place – an in-between place.  Though threatened by forces wildly beyond their control.  Though vulnerably uncertain about what the path ahead will require of them.  . . .  If we’re willing to be brutally honest with ourselves, we know that we know our Israelite forbearers well.

Here the LORD God, Sovereign of the Universe, is trying to do a new thing.  To liberate a people from their bondage.  To change a people into those who know deep down in their guts that they are free.  They are valued not for what they do but for who they are.  They are necessary to the Divine’s unfolding work in this world.  Through them – through what God will do in and among them – others will see the glory of the LORD.  Others will come to know the goodness of Love, the foundational nature of God.  . . .  It’s an interesting dance.  This two-steps-forward, one-step-back shuffle in the wilderness.  It’s just the fifteenth day of the second month since God re-set their calendar-keeping at Passover..  Some amazing work already had been done by God for them.  The Passover itself was the tenth miraculous sign in Egypt for all to see.  The whole company of Israel, over six hundred thousand men, and women, children, and livestock too, all went out of Egypt in haste when at last the dash to freedom began.  A pillar of cloud led them by day; and at night, a fiery column gave them the light they needed to find their way.  It was a roundabout path, purposefully, so that the freshly liberated people didn’t have to begin their freedom raging war through other nations’ lands.  Instead, through the sea they went – which was an unbelievable act!  Moses stretching out his shepherd’s staff so the waters themselves would recede, as in creation, for the feet of the multitude to cross safely on dry ground.  What may have seemed like the last leg of their journey, left them singing and dancing for great joy!  Moses’ sister Miriam led the women in joyful procession as Moses and the others sang with grateful delight.  . . .  Three days later in the desert, praise turns to protest.  No water.  No food.  No longer any happy campers!  It’s like that at the beginning of any transformation process, isn’t it?  Even when scary, the journey to something new entices – until the first real challenge comes along.  Like the caterpillar who thinks the world is over, until the moment it bursts from the cocoon as an incredibly new creature.  Wings now, it can fly to be in the world as something totally different.  . . .  Without water and food in the wilderness the people of God really could die.  But what makes us think God ever will lead us somewhere where there will not be enough?

In a wonderful book called, The Universe Has Your Back, spiritual writer Gabby Bernstein urges us to consider whether we truly believe that the Universe has our back.  Or, as I like to frame it:  do we really believe that God has our back?  That God knows even when we do not.  That God will guide so that we trust the beautiful words of the Psalmist, who wrote:  “God will not let your foot be moved; God who keeps you will not slumber . . . the LORD will keep your life . . . from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121:3,7b,8b).  . . .  We could spend all our time today thinking about how we are so very much like our Israelite forbearers, or we could listen for the truth of the God of the Wilderness.  Later, when the keepers of the law would record one of Moses’ last charges to the people, we hear:  “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread  . . . because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; (and) the LORD will not fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).  In Isaiah, the prophet records likewise, God saying thus:  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:15-16a).  We continually are before our gracious God.  . . .   Manna already was there for them – a substance secreted in the desert from “two insects that live on the tamarisk tree” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A Additional Essays, Proper 20, 2011, Carol J. Dempsey, p. 6).  Quail annually migrate from wintering in Africa to Palestine and Sinai in the spring (Ibid.).  In unknown territory, the gifts of God still were readily available to the people.  Maybe they didn’t really know it yet.  Maybe years of being settled in Egypt had taken their toll so that the people couldn’t remember the incredible generosity of the One who had cut an everlasting covenant with their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and to their offspring forever.  Maybe it was just the beginning of their intimately knowing the God who, according to the Psalmists:  searches us and knows us and loves us completely (paraphrase of Psalm 139).  And, as also recorded by the prophet in Isaiah, God proclaims:  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Is. 43:1b-3a,4).

What would our lives look like if we took those words deeply into our being?  How would we go about the living of our days – the ones when we are walking through turbulent waters that seem as if we certainly will drown.  The days when the pressure flashes like hot consuming flames.  And the days when everything within at last is at rest.  What if we lived our lives as if we trusted, what some have called, the sure and steady beneficence of God, the infinite generosity, the overflowing open-heartedness?  What would we be like if we took a little bit more into our souls, the truth of God?  . . .  Just a few years back, I read research that pointed to one of the primary reasons why unchurched Americans aren’t interested in being a part of a church today.  The key factor revealed that our unchurched neighbors don’t see that our lives look any different than their own.  It’s sobering to think that those who only know Christianity through our example, don’t perceive that our stress-levels are any lower than theirs.  That our priorities are any different than theirs.  That we approach connection with our families any differently than they do.  That the way we spend our money and time and lives really are all that distinct from their own.  Why get out of bed Sunday mornings if the other six days of the week aren’t going to be significantly impacted by what happens in us when we come together to worship and study and serve?  If we’re going to be as alarmed in the face of life’s challenges as all the others, why bother being a part of the church at all?

We have the power to change those perceptions; for we have the power of the Holy Spirit in us to go forth into the world a little bit different than how we were when we entered this place.  We can open ourselves to the unfolding of God’s work in our lives.  As joyously as possible, with eyes attuned in gratitude to the gifts that do surround us each day; we can invite God to work in and among us through whatever wilderness of transformation we face.  . . .  May it be so.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)