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.

Celebrating the Spirit’s Work

A Sermon for 20 May 2018 – Pentecost Sunday & 60th Anniversary Celebration

 

A reading for Pentecost from Acts 2:1-21.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”  14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.  21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

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

 

When the day of Pentecost had come . . .  and the disciples of the Risen Lord were all together in one place in Jerusalem just fifty days after Christ’s crucifixion . . . . something incredible took place!  Like the sound of a violent storm rolling in.  Like people aglow – beaming with light all around as they live fully in the flow.  The whole gathered assembly was filled!  Stirred up – in a good way!  As the Spirit of God infused each one for everyone to leave from that place to accomplish the task needed next in the world:  telling the truth they had seen.  So that the movement behind the crucified and risen Christ would spread.  So that the resurrecting force of God would guide all who would come to believe!  . . .  The power of what can happen when God’s people get together took place on Pentecost!

Here we gather, week after week, hopefully with a sense that something is supposed to happen when the people of God get together.  When we come together for worship, or a few moments we have the chance to be still together.  And to open our mouths in praise together.  To humble our hearts together in confession of our sins and of the sins we see taking place in the world, for which we beg God’s mercy.  Collectively we gather to give our thanks; thereby remembering that we are not our own.  In fact, apart from God, we really can do nothing – except maybe mess things up in our personal and public lives.  Worship is intended to give us space together to be taken up into the presence of the Living God – to be filled, like those first disciples, filled up with the Holy Spirit.  Not because it can’t happen anywhere else in our lives; but because in good days and in bad, we can count on it to happen here.  If not in ourselves, then in the person down the pew who is basking in God’s steadfast love.  In the little child across the sanctuary who is eager to learn.  In the stranger who is grateful to find acceptance here.  Even if it has felt like a million years since the Spirit of God has been flowing through us individually; together here, we are a part of the body of Christ.  Enlivened by the Holy Spirit to be miraculous in the world each day!  Living lives that show what can happen when God’s people come together.

We celebrate that amazing day today – that first Pentecost festival after Christ had risen.  It was customary for faithful Jews to observe Pentecost – sometimes calling it the Festival of Weeks.  “As the fiftieth day after the presentation of the first sheaf of the barley harvest,” Pentecost came to be “considered the anniversary of the giving of the law at Sinai” (Donald K. McKim, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 4 & 6).  The day marked the reminder that the law was meant to guide the people of Israel in living according to God’s will.  That way, the community would reflect the very nature of God.  . . .  For the church, Pentecost marks the advent of a new guide.  A new advocate – a new power that dwells within as we seek to live out God’s will as shown to us in Jesus, the Christ.  One commentator has written that “the story of Pentecost . . .  seeks to communicate how important the church is and how inseparable it is from Christ.”  She writes:  “Pentecost serves as a catechetical instruction that continues to tradition the church into its identity and purpose.  Every year, on the Day of Pentecost, we are reminded of who we are as a church, what we proclaim, and the source of that proclamation.  It is a message to the church from the church, passed down through millennia to each generation” (Kristin Emery Saldine, Ibid., p. 4).  That we might be guided by the Spirit today!  That together we might accomplish the task needed next in the world around us.

Today we’re also celebrating the roots of this congregation.  Roots that flow from Pentecost, through those first hundred years of Christ’s followers trying to survive the hostile environment of an empire that wanted them silenced, through dark times as ignorance seemed to fall upon the face of the earth, through the rebirth of enlightened minds and fervent hearts that led to necessary reforms of a church that had strayed from the Way, through new expressions of faith taken on by communities and individuals alike; until, in a land far away, in a place called Tennessee, a handful of folks excited about the possibilities of a new residential community called Hill Place, ensured that this facility was built.  The chapel was named for a primary benefactor Mr. H. G. Hill.  And about 20 classrooms, upstairs and down, eventually would be added.  Where little ones like Tom (who was here 60 years ago) could gather – along with a few of the rest of you who remember jam-packed Sunday School rooms each week.  Over the years, some of you were a part of Youth Groups that certainly contained adventures whose details are best left in the past!  Ladies’ Teas and studies and missions.  Stalwart adult classes digging into the Scriptures.  The years have included missions in which homeless folks found here a hot meal and respite for the night.  And young people of Nashville’s Monroe Harding Children’s Home and Martha O’Bryan Center were given hope.  And those in Honduras whose lives were threatened by unclean water met the diligent hands of Presbyterians from here who changed the course of those villagers’ lives.  . . .  Because those first members and friends of this church came together, marriages took place here – how many of you were married here?  And baptisms – any present today who were baptized here?  Or had your child baptized here.  What about a grandchild baptized here?  Several of you have gathered here after the death of a loved one – your parent, your spouse, or your child, or your dearest friend.  If I were to ask, I hope some of you would raise your hand because you have learned here in this place something vitally important about God and about your worth in God’s eyes and about God’s desires for your life.  I hope at least one person has met a lifelong friend here in this sanctuary – or has introduced one to this church.  And that hundreds have been comforted in times of difficulty here, and even challenged to grow a little bit more through this congregation’s ministries of worship, service, education, and fellowship.  . . .  This church has glorious roots that give witness to what can happen when the people of God come together.

AND this church has the gift of an adventurous future ahead!  Another pastor reminded me this week that no one ever has been able to see exactly what the future will look like.  I’d be willing to bet that the first families who came together to worship in this sanctuary in 1958 could never have imagined what this congregation would look like today.  They couldn’t know what we would carry from our hearts unto God.  The things that would terrify us today and the possibilities we can see.  I’m pretty sure no one in 1958 would have anticipated that 6-week-old infants would need nurturing care every day in classrooms once intended for Sunday instruction.  I doubt anyone in 1958 would have been wondering about how this church could get involved in partnering with a non-profit agency just four miles from here that is filled with women of every color who are trying to heal from their addictions as a part of rebuilding their lives.  Or anticipated work on a more interactive presence for this church on something called the world wide web.  I’d be willing to bet that in 1958, very few pondered how to live faithfully alongside neighbors who call God by a different name – and others who aren’t even interested in calling upon the name of God.

In 60 years, the people of God have changed dramatically – and we will change just as much in the years to come as we seek to accomplish for God the tasks needed next in the world.  Though the future of this and every other Christian church will not look like the past, one thing will never change – Pentecost proves it!  Miraculous things will happen when God’s people come together!  The future will unfold.  The Holy Spirit will guide.  Mysteriously moving in, among, and beyond us for God to accomplish through us what is needed in the world around us now!  . . .  For 60 years gone by, for 60, or 600, or more years yet to come; thanks be to God!  Now and forever!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

One

A Sermon for 13 May 2018 – Ascension Sunday & 7th Sunday of Easter

[Acts 1:1-11, and John 17:6-19, NRSV]

A reading from the gospel of John 17:6-19.  If you’ve followed the last couple of weeks of our gospel readings, then you know that this portion of John still happens during that last supper Jesus had with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion.  Apparently, he had a lot to say that night!  This part of John’s 17th chapter has Jesus turning his eyes heavenward to talk with God.  At the close of all the words recorded on his lips that night, Jesus is praying for his followers.  Our own needs are foremost in his heart.  Listen for God’s word to us as Jesus addresses God.

“’I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.  They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.  10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.  11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.  12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me.  I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.  13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.  14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’”

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

 

Recently, a colleague told me about a scene from a movie that brought goose bumps to her skin.  It’s one of those sci-fi type films set in a strange, other world.  There are these creatures.  As I heard of them, I pictured some sort of animated thing similar to monkeys – with really long tails.  I’m not sure about the premise of the movie, but after a challenging, chase scene; the monkey-like creatures stop for a moment.  They are somewhere out in a forestry-jungle – and they obviously are exhausted.  Suddenly, in one accord; all the creatures stick the tip of their tail into the land under their feet.  When they do, the scene captures the flow of energy all around.  From the land, into their tails, into each creature’s body.  And from the land below each creature’s feet, outward to the feet of the creature next to them, then up into their bodies too.  In what must have been one amazing moment, movie viewers saw something like a vibrant electrical current connecting it all.  Land to creature and creature to creature.  Like the web of roots under the floor of a forest – connecting one tree to another.  The whole scene transfixed into one!

Last week, I heard another story.  Our Executive Presbyter Warner Durnell told the story in his sermon in worship at the start of the Presbytery meeting last week.  (Source unknown.)  It’s about a farm mouse, who lives in the farm house, and is absolutely panicked when the farmers order a mouse trap to set in the house.  Frantic, the mouse goes from animal to animal shrieking:  “There’s a mouse trap in the house!”  From the chicken, to the pig, to the fattening cow.  Each animal tells the little mouse, “I hear you.  And I can see how you might have need for alarm.  But what concern is a little mouse trap to me?”  The other animals think the mouse’s problem has no impact on their lives.  So, they encourage the little mouse to head out to the field to hide out on his own.  A mousetrap in the house is of no consequence to the chicken, the pig, or the fattening cow.  Until that very night, when the farmer hears rustling close to where the trap had been set.  Fumbling in the dark – convinced of their success in putting an end to the nuance of the mouse that has been in their house; the farmer arrives near the trap only to see – too late – that the tail of a venomous snake is caught in the trap.  Before the farmer can react, the snake snatches down on the farmer’s leg releasing the deadly poison into the farmer’s body.  The story goes that the farmer was rushed to the hospital and thankfully survived the night.  When the farmer and his wife finally returned home the next afternoon, the farmer’s wife decided some chicken soup might be exactly what her husband needed to regain his strength.  She heads out to the barn to ring the chicken’s neck in order to make the soup.  A few days later, the farmer takes a turn for the worse.  All the children come home to sit bed-side, waiting to see if dad will make it.  With the house full again, the farmer’s wife decides to prepare dinner for them all.  Having the pig slaughtered, the family sits down to a meal of ham and mashed potatoes.  Followed by fried bacon for the next morning’s breakfast.  The farmer doesn’t make it.  After the funeral, neighbors from far and wide come calling upon the farmer’s wife and family.  People are everywhere on the farm, and obviously the farmer’s wife is the kind of woman who can’t let a soul go home hungry.  She calls for the fattening cow.  All the guests feast on her infamous beef stew.  From the forest’s edge, the little mouse watched it all.  Terribly sad that his barnyard friends couldn’t see what he saw:  a threat to him was a threat to all.  For as the little mouse knew:  they all were one.

I could go on.  After all, it’s mothers’ day and who knows better than a mother that the child that grows in her womb remains one with her forever.  . . .  One.  We all are one.  Jesus says it in his prayer for his disciples.  “May they know they are one the way you and I, Holy Father, are one” (John 17:11).  He’ll say it again in the verses that follow the reading we heard today.  When he expands the circle beyond the first ones present that night to us all.  The gospel records:  “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one’” (John 17:20-23a).

Today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  Ascension Day technically takes place ten days prior to Pentecost; so, forty days after Easter.  In other words, a few days ago on Thursday.  But since it’s not really a Presbyterian thing to gather for worship exactly forty days after Easter, it’s typical to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord the Sunday after instead.  It’s why we’re singing hymns that remind us of the risen and ascended Christ.  And why our first reading was from Acts chapter 1.  Captured there is that mysterious story.  In Acts, we’re told that the Risen Christ had commanded his followers to remain together in Jerusalem.  Waiting for the moment when the Holy Spirit would douse them with incredible power.  Enlivening them to witness right where they were, all over their homeland, and beyond – even to the ends of the earth!  The story goes that as he speaks, the Risen Christ is lifted up out of their sight.  Like the time the prophet Elijah was taken up before Elisha’s eyes.  Those first disciples must have rubbed their eyes wondering exactly what they had witnessed.  Acts records that they stood there staring for a while – likely with their chins on the ground, their eyes searching.  . . .  After all, did you hear what he just told them?  Sure, they were going to get the Holy Spirit.  But it meant that he expected them to go tell the story.  To speak about what they had seen.  To enact what Christ had enacted among them.  To risk angering the very same ones who six weeks earlier had put Jesus to death.  No matter.  He expected them to see the way he did:  one.  One.  Each connected one to another.  One.  . . .  Maybe Jesus’ first followers stood gazing up at heaven to figure out what they had seen.  But, more likely they really wanted to get away too.  So that they were standing there internally pleading:  “Take me!  Take me too!”

How often have the people of God similarly been locked, looking to the heavens?  Over the years, we’ve even concocted all sorts of elaborate – inaccurate – theologies of how someday God will come to destroy this all.  But not before we’re taken up too, either before or after a 1,000-year reign of the returned Christ.  Because really?  Who wants to be left here one more day to endure the difficulties of this earth?  The challenges of a post-modern world.  The fast-pace life of a technological culture.  . . .  No matter how deep the human impulse to fly away into the skies with God, to incorrectly make the spiritual journey all about me and the One up there; one commentator has written:  “Instead of retreat from the world, Christ offers an alternative model that can empower the community to live in the world without succumbing to its values and pressures.  They (we) are to stay in the world under the protective care of God.”  Loving one another because we are connected one to another and to it all.  That same commentator writes that we “are to live amidst all of the knotted complexities of the world without . . . getting entangled.  . . .  Christ reminds the church that the pattern of his own life was not escape from the world but engagement with the world, with all of its distorted powers and pressures (Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2; p. 547, 549).  No matter how much we might want to stare upwards – to focus on a relationship with a God that is out there beyond us as the point of it all; before his crucifixion, Christ fervently prays for us to look at the space between us.  To know that we might be a zillion different individuals – all created with particular gifts and unique abilities – but we are one.  Connected – whether we want to be or not.  Whether we like the neighbors around us or not.  Whether we have a single concern for their plight, or not.  It’s how we have been made – in the image and likeness of the One that is Father and Son and Holy Spirit too.  Christ in us, and he in God, and we – all – completely one.

May we have the eyes to see, the minds to envision, and the wills always ready to act.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

Love Lessons

A Sermon for 6 May 2018 – 6th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 15:9-17 (NRSV).  This reading picks up right where Jesus left off with his disciples at their last meal together before his arrest and crucifixion.  Remember that he is not only seeking to comfort them in all that lies ahead.  He’s also charging them one last time before his death and resurrection with how he expects them to live.  Abiding in his love, he knows:  he will live among them forever.  Listen:

“’As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  12 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.  15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  16 You did not choose me, but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.  17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’”

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

 

In Nazareth, the Church of the Annunciation (to Mary) stands adjacent to the Church of St. Joseph.  Below the Church of the Annunciation, it is believed that the remains of Mary’s family home lie near the believed remains of the home that may have belonged to Joseph’s family – as if to tell the world through archeology that Joseph grew up alongside young Mary as the boy next door.  Childhood sweethearts destined to be together.  Other traditions tell that the remains in the cave under the Church of St. Joseph are where Joseph had his carpentry business – the holy family either living behind it, or in the home next door where the annunciation to Mary is believed to have taken place.  Whether the remains of either edifice are the exact spot where it all happened, Nazareth today tells the story of a unified, devoted family.  Even the art on display depicts a happy little three-some:  Father Joseph, Mother Mary, and the radiant child ever between them.  From icons to sculptures to massive wall paintings, Nazareth portrays the importance of each role.  The care needed from a willing mother.  The mastery taught from an industrious dad who passed on the family trade and faith to the child he took under his wing to raise as his very own son.  Believing the angel’s insistence that the child growing in Mary’s womb was the Spark of the Divine – the son of the Sovereign of the Heavens and Earth, the art of Nazareth shows that between the three – father, mother, and young son – infinite love flows.

It’s a good reminder that love has to be learned somewhere.  We enter this world as infants with such amazing capacity.  When greeted warmly – especially given skin-to-skin contact with our mother in the very first hour after birth, we have the greater ability to attach, have optimal brain development, and avoid separation anxiety which promotes healthy self-regulation as we grow (https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/806325).  Trust develops as we cry out when in need only to find the tender hands of a mother or father responding.  When we are held close as babies – able only to see as far as the smiling face gazing back at us, we learn our worth.  We know we matter.  As we physically grow, our little bodies allow us to explore a great big world that is totally new to us.  When encouraged within appropriately safe settings, fear subsides.  We learn to delight in the amazing creation all around.  Hopefully our homes are filled with kind voices.  Reassuring words.  The presence of peace in big people who pay attention to us because they really want to – not merely because they feel obligated.  Hopefully we’re surrounded by parents and siblings and grandparents too who cheer us on as we develop and are there when we fall to pick us up, dust us off, and love us back into trying again.  The lessons of love are meant to start at home.  But they don’t stop there.

According to the gospel of John, as Jesus is with his followers for their last meal together before his arrest and crucifixion; Jesus repeatedly tells them to love one another.  This is the way others will know they belong to him – have been schooled by Rabbi Jesus in his Way.  “Love one another,” Jesus persists, “as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  . . .  It’s such a gift to have the presence of love in our lives.  What a joy, even when we are grown, to have those alongside who greet us warmly, and respond to our needs when we cry out, and gaze upon us with a great big genuine smile.  Life would be hell on earth without heart-felt encouragement, unmerited kindness, and reassurance that we really do matter – at least to one or two people in this world.

Other than saying that no greater love exists than laying down one’s life for one’s friends – and enacting that truth in everything from getting down in the dirt to wash his disciples’ feet to willingly going to his death on a cross, the gospel of John doesn’t give a lot of words to describe love.  The Apostle Paul does in his infamous words to the Christians in Corinth when he writes:  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a).  No matter what might be going on in the world around; I wonder how many of us enact in our homes, in our lives, in our dealings with each other as a church:  patience.  Kindness.  Lack of envy.  No boasting.  No arrogance.  Never rude.  How wonderfully freeing does it feel to be in relationships where it is not about someone always insisting on their way or the highway?  Who wants to be around those that are irritable?  Who wants to let into their lives the poison of resentfulness?  Not even children really like the sibling who’s always excited when they mess up.  Wouldn’t we all rather have someone celebrating goodness.  Being with us through great challenges – believing in us and hoping the best for us and sticking with us when the rest of the world runs away?  . . .  Sum it all up in the word L-O-V-E.  But don’t forget the texture of love – the key components.  The grit of love and the grace.  The lasting nature of relationships built upon and filled with mature love.

In her new release called Grateful:  The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, Diana Butler Bass eloquently reminds that gratitude, like love, is not just a feeling.  It is an ethic, she says.  A practice.  When chosen routinely, it becomes a habit – which in turn creates a habitat.  So:  a practice of giving thanks – enacted routinely, leads to a habitat of gratitude – a person who lives thankfully – filled with grace; for they know “every hour is a grace” (Elie Wiesel quote in chapter 2, Grateful).  . . .  Likewise, a practice of loving – which routinely enacts patience, kindness, humility, modesty, civility, collaboration, contentment, and forgiveness – creates a habitat of love.  Beautiful lives for all.  Love in action – not just a warm feeling inside.  But sustained, chosen acts.  Like the kinds we see when the early church was at its best – ensuring those in deep need were tended.  Sharing what they had with each other.  Speaking the truth in love in trust that God would take care of the rest.  Living humbly, with humility – not trying to draw attention unto themselves as they spread the message of God’s love far and wide and accomplished amazing feats by the Holy Spirit.  In their finest hours, those Jesus called his friends went forth from his death and resurrection to keep their focus on the transforming love of God for the sake of all the world.

Certainly, we know that the practice of love can be complex.  Recently, a devoted grandmother was telling me that upon just returning from a week with her daughter and grandchildren, she was trying to determine whether or not to say yes to her daughter’s request to please make the 10-hour car trip again – twice more in the next month for week at a time to again babysit the three grandchildren while their mother worked.  I wouldn’t tell the grandmother what to do – how could I?  I hardly knew the ins-and-outs of the family’s dynamics even to give good advice.  But I was reminded that true love is not always easy.  Depending on the situation, sometimes the most loving thing we can do in relationships is tell another person:  “No.  This is acceptable, loving behavior; and that is not.  This is the proper boundary between what is me and what is them.  And that is not.”  Other times, our yes is exactly what is needed.  Freely chosen, we give witness to the kind of love Jesus was commending.

“Love one another,” Jesus commands.  “As I have loved you” (John 15:12).  Live in that amazing flow – the life-giving habitat of acts freely chosen.  Practices that are routine so that it takes less effort the more we do them.  Schooled in this Way, as Christ promised:  great joy will be in all.  Indeed, our lives will show infinite love still flows.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

Combating Loneliness

A Sermon for 29 April 2018 – 5th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 15:1-8.  Listen for the word of God in these words from Jesus.  And remember:  they are a portion of the words recorded in the gospel of John as being on the lips of Jesus that night before his arrest and crucifixion.  When he gathered with his disciples in an upper room for the Passover meal, Jesus washed all of his disciples’ feet.  Judas left the dinner and after he departed to go betray his Lord, Jesus begins a long message to his followers about all that lie ahead.  It’s clear in the gospel that he is preparing them for his death – and for what will be expected of them after.  To ensure they are ready to carry on God’s mission in the world, Jesus gives them a charge to love one another.  He also comforts them with beautiful images such as this one.  Listen.

“’I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’”

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

 

In the 1950s, pioneer psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann began to write about loneliness.  Born in Germany and escaping from Hitler, she made her home in Maryland where she spent the rest of her life working at Chestnut Lodge Hospital.  Fromm-Reichmann was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and had studied all of his methods.  But, unlike Freud and other psychoanalysts of her day, Fromm-Reichmann spent the majority of her career working with those others believed to be untreatable.  Those suffering from “severe breaks with reality – schizophrenia, manic-depressive bipolar disorder, and patients with psychotic depression” (www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-explorations/201503/dr-frieda-fromm-reichmann-creativity-in-psychotherapy%3famp).  In her musings on loneliness, she tells of a young female patient.  The young woman was catatonic until Fromm-Reichmann asked her how lonely she was.  The woman “raised her hand with her thumb lifted, the other four fingers bent toward her palm,’ Fromm-Reichmann wrote.  The thumb stood alone, ‘isolated from the four hidden fingers.’  Fromm-Reichmann gently responded:  ’That lonely?’  And at that, the woman’s ‘facial expression loosened up as though in great relief and gratitude.  (Then, ever so slightly) her fingers opened’”  (https://newrepublic.com/article/113176/science-loneliness-how-isolation-can-kill-you).

We know today that loneliness kills.  And I’m not just talking about the lone-wolf profile of a mass shooter.  Thanks to Fromm-Reichmann’s “insistence that no patient was too sick to be healed through trust and intimacy,” we now have biological evidence to prove her theory that “loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness” (Ibid.).  Thanks to her work, the new field of loneliness studies has “delved deeper into the workings of cells and nerves” to confirm that loneliness is as destructive as Fromm-Reichmann professed.  Judith Schulevitz in “The Lethality of Loneliness” writes:  “Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn’t know that germs spread them, we’ve known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven’t been able to explain how.  Psychobiologists now can show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack” (Ibid.).  Schulevitz continues:  “long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.  (In fact), emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking” (Ibid.).  Loneliness exacerbates everything from Alzheimer’s to high blood pressure to cancer as research shows that “tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people” (Ibid.).  We must remember that loneliness isn’t about feeling blue when you miss someone.  Loneliness studies define loneliness as “the want of intimacy” (Ibid.).  The lack of deep connection.

The creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 proclaim the same truth.  Genesis 2 records the Creator as saying:  “it is not good that the adam should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Animals are formed from the adamah – the ground from which the adam also was taken.  Birds of the air are brought forth.  And as none of these quite did the trick; at last Creator formed ishshah, transforming the one adam into two:  ish and ishshah.  The words of Genesis 1:26 finally rang true.  Words in which Creator declared:  “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  As we’re learning anew in our Adult Sunday School study on the Trinity, even God is relationship – a mutual out-flowing of self, one into the other, as the dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit merrily goes round and round and round.  . . .  Upon studying the results of AIDS-infected white blood cells that had been dosed in the stress hormone (that is released from the anxiety of dis-connection) only for the virus to replicate itself three to ten times faster than without the added stress hormone, one researcher wondered “why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease.”  He pondered:  “‘Did God want us to die when we got stressed?’’ (“The Lethality of Loneliness,” sited above).  Not quite, Genesis reminds.  God just wanted us not to be alone!  Connection one with another – to it all.  And equally to our Maker is the truth we now know in our very cells.

Jesus told his companions the same thing as they faced his pending arrest and crucifixion.  O, he didn’t talk about the stress hormone or the transformation of adam into ish and ishshah.  Instead, he put it this way:  “I am the true vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).  “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4).  Remember that a branch can’t bear fruit by itself.  “Neither can you,” Jesus said.  “Unless you abide in me” (Ibid.).  We weren’t meant to go it alone.  Not in our physical bodies, nor in our spiritual lives.  . . .  Jesus and his friends were familiar with the image of the vine, the branches, the luscious fruit, and even the vinegrower.  After all, he’s speaking primarily to those from the fertile soil of Galilee where grapes from the vine are one of the top fruits.  In fact, one source claims that the grape vine is “mentioned more than any other plant in the entire bible.”  In biblical times, “the grape vine was very important culturally and economically” (www.bibleplaces.com/grapevines-vineyards.htm).  Grape vines were so central in everyday life that the ancient prophets often spoke of the fruitful vine as obedient Israel – thriving from its verdant connection with the vine.  Meanwhile, the empty vine often was used as the symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness – cut off from its Source; isolated and withering; left to die alone.

If Jesus would have thought anyone – including himself – could go it alone in this world without deep connection; he never would have stolen away for prayer – times by himself with his Maker and sometimes with his closest friends too.  Connected in creation, Jesus likely went daily to commune in the quiet with God.  The gospels tell of places like the wilderness, mountains, gardens.  There he ensured his connection with the Vinegrower.  Readying himself to face the demands of his daily vocation.  But he never stayed away for long.  We learn too of times together in the synagogue, at the side of the sea, teaching and feeding a throng of 5,000 men plus women and children, even heading off with his friends to Caesarea Philippi at the foot of Mount Hermon – which was known in his day as a picturesque place for refreshing retreats.

As soon as he left his 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus took up the mantel of his mission from God by calling others to come be with him.  Certainly, he wanted to teach them the Way for God’s work to continue after his death and resurrection.  But I believe he also called disciples because he enjoyed the company of fellow human beings.  They knew too what it was like to live in a human body.  Imagine all he could learn with fishermen constantly at his side.  With the devotion of women who followed along too to provide for him out of their means.  And even from a tax collector who late at night might have sat with him around the campfire telling Jesus just what he had seen as he dutifully tried to peel Rome’s requirements from countrymen who weren’t at all thrilled about taxation without representation.  The Vine kept himself closely connected to his branches.  Like a father or mother who really wants their child to grow to be their best, the Vine expected the branches to remain firmly attached.  Freely receiving all they needed from the Vine to grow into who God wanted them to be.  “Abide,” he said.  I with you, you with me.  And if he was Southern, he likely would have said:  “and all ya’ll with each other.”  Alone the branch withers and dies.  But together – verdantly connected – we thrive.

Let those with ears hear . . . not for our sake alone; but for the sake of those around us.  For the branches that are about to ditch the Vine.  The ones who’ve never lived connected.  And the others whose circumstances have isolated them to the peril of their very own lives.  May we abide; so that they can too.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)

 

How Has the Shepherd been Good?

22 April 2018 – 4th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 10:11-18.  Listen for God’s word to us.  And remember that these are words the early Christian community recorded as being on the lips of Jesus.  Listen:

“’I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  14 I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.  16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.  I have received this command from my Father.’”

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

 

The church in which I was raised had a sanctuary full of stained glass windows.  While it seems a little odd to find such beautiful artistic creations in a strictly Protestant church of a small town in rural Wisconsin, they were a great feature for children.  During what I believed to be long, boring sermons; as a little girl in worship, I would look up to marvel at the massive colors all around.  Blues and reds and greens, greys and yellows and purples blended perfectly to depict scenes from Jesus’ life.  Pictures inspired by his parables.  Even images of lessons he taught – like being the One that stands at the door and knocks.  And being the One on a hillside teaching common folk who came hungering for a word from God – the Bread of Heaven.  There was a window with children gathered round – a highly-appreciated scene for little eyes to see.  ‘Cuz even if the adults typically wanted us to neither be seen nor heard, the arms of a welcoming One stretched wide to invite us all in.  And then there was the window near the front of the sanctuary.  It shone bright with One dressed in a rugged tunic.  Far off in the countryside.  Dutifully carrying home a single, little lamb.  The scene drew upon the point of what some have called the counting parables of the gospel of Luke.  The woman who diligently sweeps her house until she finds the lost coin.  The father who patiently waits to welcome home his wayward son.  The shepherd who cannot bear to leave behind one of his flock; so out he goes to find his precious, lost sheep.

The fourth Sunday of Easter routinely brings us back to the image of the Shepherd.  Psalm 23 is assigned by the lectionary for every fourth Sunday of Easter in the three-year cycle.  “The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want” year A, B, and C proclaim from the Psalter (Ps. 23:1).  In green pastures I can lie.  Beside still waters I walk.  My depleted soul, the Loving Shepherd restores.  Even in the darkest valley of my life, there is no need to fear.  Thou art with me.  You, O LORD, deeply comfort me.  My whole life long and beyond, I shall dwell with you.  . . .  It’s easy to see how the words of Psalm 23 just might be the most universally favored words of Holy Scripture.  They speak to us in the weary-most experiences of our lives.  The scariest moments of our faith – whether we are drowning in the depths of sorrow or withering in the darkest night of the soul.  In the nick of time, the LORD as our Loving Shepherd grasps our hands so we will not fall.  “I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus says.  The One who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).

Each year, the lectionary pairs the beloved poetry of Psalm 23 with a portion of the tenth chapter of the gospel of John.  This year, year B, the LORD as our Shepherd is paired with the equally beautiful declaration by Jesus.  The Good Shepherd.  Who knows his own, even as his own know the sound of his voice.  In John 10:11-18, we hear Jesus distinguish the Good Shepherd from the hired hand.  Though the hired hand might scatter at the first sign of fear, the Good Shepherd risks his life for his own.  He will not let them go.  In Feasting on the Gospels, one commentator writes:  “Jesus is the good shepherd invested not in himself but in the sheep.”  The commentator then asks:  “What does it mean to be loved by a God whose ultimate priority is all us sheep?” (David Lower, Feasting on the Gospels, John, Vol. 2 [chapters 10-21], p. 17).  . . .  In the beautiful sermon called The Voice of the Shepherd, gifted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a friend who had grown up on a sheep ranch.  Taylor’s friend reported to her that it was cattle ranchers who once started the rumor that sheep are dumb.  Because they’re not at all like cows.  Cows get herded from behind with shouts and prods from the cowboys.  Taylor explains that “if you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you.  . . .  Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led.”  She writes:  “Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else – their trusted shepherd – does not go first, to show them that everything is alright” (Nancy R. Blakely, Feasting the on the Word, Yr. B, Vol, 2; p. 450).  In Christ, that’s exactly what God has done.  Come into the flesh and blood of us human beings to show us everything is alright.  There is a way to live in this world in trust of a Loving Shepherd who will provide and guide and come get us when we’re lost.  We can relax into the grace of a God who never gives up on us.  For, as Lamentations reminds:  like the clean slate of a new morning, the mercies of God never end.  So great is Thy faithfulness!

If I were to sit down now and allow you all to finish the rest of this sermon by telling your story of how Christ has been a Good Shepherd in your own life, I wonder what each of you would say.  . . .  Would someone tell the story of how you were totally lost – wandering far from the ways of God; or just not all that clear in your life about what all this churchy stuff is supposed to do with the daily choices you make?  Then one day, a fresh insight came about your worthiness in the eyes of God and it was as if you suddenly were found by One who whispers daily in your ear:  “I love you!  You are mine:  precious, and honored, and beloved just for being you!”  . . .  Would another tell of how you lost it all – your job?  Your spouse.  Your child.  Life seemed pointless.  You were ready to give up.  And then, after months or years or maybe just moments now and again; glimmers of color returned to the bleak grey of your life.  Slowly you learned to begin again.  Try again.  Maybe even love again – despite the tender spot you feel where your heart still is mending.  It wasn’t your own doing; but a Force, a Presence, a Comfort in the worst of the pain.  The Shepherd gently remained at your side.  . . .  Someone might tell of the music that comes to mind – the words of the past that creep back in when everything else is kinda hazy.  Daily memory may allude, but “Jesus Loves me This I Know” remains.  “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.”  Or it just might be that in the most intense moments of your fast-pace days, the sunset captures your heart and you hear:  “Peace.  My peace I give to you.” (John 14:27)  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:1 &27).  . . .  Yet another among us might tell how in the dead of night, when the rest of the world is fast-asleep and your mind just will not let you fall off to the land of dreams; you sense something is with you – Someone that feels like a mighty fortress under your feet.  A solid rock upon which you can stand.  . . .  It’s the Presence of the Good Shepherd in our lives.  Feeding us.  Quenching our thirst.  Tending our wounds.  Guiding us safely home.

If I stopped this sermon right now and you had to tell of how the LORD has been your Good Shepherd, just what story might you tell?  . . .  In the silence of these next few moments, review your life.  Listen.  Remember how the Shepherd has been good to you!

(Silence).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Sent Without Canoes

A Sermon for 8 April 2018 – Second Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 20:19-31.  Listen for God’s word to us.  And remember, this story takes place later on the first Easter.  Listen:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

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

 

If you’ve ever been west of the Mississippi – like to California, Oregon, Montana, or Nevada – then I’m guessing you are grateful for the adaptability of the men named Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  It was 1804 and the newly formed nation just had acquired a huge expanse of land called the Louisiana Territory.  Wanting to know what they had gotten and determined to find a water route that connected the eastern United States to the Pacific Ocean; President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery under the command of Lewis and the one Lewis made his co-captain, Clark.

A book called Canoeing the Mountains, quotes historians who describe the defining moment of Meriwether Lewis’ life.  “He was approaching the farthest boundary of the Louisiana Territory.  The Continental Divide.  The Spine of the Rocky Mountains, beyond which the rivers flow west.  No American citizen ever had been there before.  This he believed was the Northwest Passage, the goal of explorers for more than three centuries.  The great prize that Thomas Jefferson had sent him to find and claim for the United States.  With each stride, Lewis was nearing what he expected to be the crowning moment of his expedition and his life.  From the vantage point just ahead, all of science and geography had prepared him to see the watershed of the Columbia; and beyond it, perhaps a great plain that led down to the Pacific.  Instead, there were just more mountains”  (Canoeing the Mountains:  Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger, pp. 87-88).  Captured in his expedition journal, Lewis writes:  “’Immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us, with their tops partially covered in snow’” (Ibid.).

Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains, writes:  “At that moment in the daunting vista spread out at the feet of Meriwether Lewis, the dream of an easy water route across the continent – a dream stretching back to Christopher Columbus – was shattered”  (Ibid.).  It’s been said that as Lewis and the Corps stood atop the Lemhi Pass in what would become the state of Idaho, the geography of hope gave way to the geography of reality.  Though wanting to cling to the known, as all of us do; Bolsinger writes:  “Lewis wasted no time in casting off assumptions once the brutal facts of his reality were clear.  There was no water route.  There were miles and miles of snowcapped mountain peaks in front of them.  They had no trail to follow.  Food was scarce in this rugged terrain.  And winter was coming.”  Bolsinger writes:  “This is the canoeing the mountains moment.  This was when the Corp of Discovery faced for the first time the breadth of the challenges posed by the Rocky Mountains and came to the irrefutable reality that there was no Northwest Passage.  No navigable water route to the Pacific Ocean.  This is the moment when they had to leave their boats.  Find horses and make the giant adaptive shift that comes from realizing their mental models for the terrain in front of them were wrong” (Ibid., p. 93).  Canoes would not get them over the mountains.  That which had served them well thus far, no longer would work.

They could have responded to the challenge differently – especially because the order from their Commander in Chief specifically charged them to find a water route from sea to sea.  Bolsinger writes:  “They could have decided that they had indeed discovered the vitally important, but certainly disappointing reality that the long-hoped for Northwest Passage and its water route was a myth.  . . .  They could have turned back.  They could have returned to Washington, made their reports, and told Thomas Jefferson that another crew more equipped to travel long distances through mountain passes should be launched on a different expedition.  But they didn’t” (Ibid., pp. 93-94).  History is defined by this moment and all the other things they could have done.  Nevertheless, Bolsinger writes, “at that moment, without even discussing it, Meriwether Lewis simply proceeded on” (Ibid., p. 94).   Deep within, he knew – as did Clark and the rest of their men – to what they really were called – not just some specific order from President Jefferson; but as men of the Enlightenment – even if it meant they would have to learn a whole new way through uncharted territory – Lewis, Clark, and their men were 100% dedicated to discovery in service to others as what gives meaning to life.  . . .  They kept going – re-committing to the principles that lie in the core of their being.  Leaving behind the familiarity of their canoes, they literally left the map.  They journeyed on.

It’s one week after Easter; but later that night according to the gospel of John.  Though Mary Magdalene had come from her garden encounter with the Risen Christ, the other disciples did not yet know what to make of the news.  Frightened, perhaps, that when the religious leaders caught wind of the story that the tomb was empty; their own crucifixions would be next.  Pick them off one by one, over some talk of “he is not here but has risen.”  Until every last preposterous voice was silenced.  There were no known mental models for how to live after your dead rabbi had risen from the grave.  No easy course to travel after one who had taught and healed and inspired was crucified, dead, and buried . . .  only to appear to them alive again just a day after the Sabbath rest???!!!  Standing in their shoes, we too would likely lock ourselves away in fear.  Not knowing the next steps to take after Mary burst in to declare she had seen the Lord!  It was their defining moment.  The moment all of heaven held its breath to see what this little ban of humans would do.

The gospel of John tells the story differently than do the gospels of Matthew and Mark, where the disciples later are given the great commission.  The gospel of Luke links with Acts to expand upon the reception of the Spirit 50 days after Easter at Pentecost.  But the gospel of John tells that it was on that first night of the week, the very night the tomb was discovered empty; the Risen One comes to his faithful followers breathing peace, in order to send them out into the world.  Somehow, he expects them to release others from their sins – a charge likely to clear those who had crucified him; so that the hearts of Christ’s followers would remain open.  Pure.  Ready to give witness to a revolutionary love often unseen on the world’s stage.  “Peace,” the Risen One says to those locked in fear.  “Now go.”  Get on with it – all he had commanded them pre-crucifixion.  They were to live the peace of laying down their lives for another, even as he had laid down his own for the sake of all the world.  “By this,” he had told them just a few nights ago at the supper when he knelt before them to wash their feet, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Almost like Acts of the Apostles records in that part of chapter four that we heard earlier – though it seems like a hyperbolic exaggeration.  The vision of a beloved community enacted.  Living in one accord – heart and soul fully committed to one another so that all was freely shared for the common good.  Giving powerful witness in word and deed to the way God always brings new life.  Epitomizing grace as any in need found themselves filled.  According to scripture, these were the first marks of the ones who followed Christ’s Way.  No matter if the world around embraced the Way or not, together they journeyed on.

Theologian Marcus Borg – as many others – likens the moment in which the church today finds itself to be much like the moment those first followers faced on the eve of Easter.  Locked in fear for what might come in a world that seemed hostile to the Risen One.  Another wise scholar of today describes us as those needing to learn to be “apostles on both sides of the door” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, D. Cam Murchison, p. 404).  “The missionary people empowered by this peace and this inbreathed Holy Spirit to bear the forgiving, transforming love of God into every sphere of human experience” (Ibid.).  The territory isn’t entirely unknown; for the first followers found their way post-resurrection.  Scripture also inspires us with the way they did finally leave that post-resurrection Upper Room to continue the adventure begun by their crucified and risen Lord.  Changing the course of history day by day in witness to the One whose life, death, and life again showed the Way of the great Creator of the Universe:  the abiding strength of love that triumphs even over death!  . . .  Though the current terrain may be unlike anything the church has enjoyed – at least since the founding of this nation; it is not impossible to traverse.  For remember, we worship the One whose very own mother was told at the announcement of his birth:  “nothing shall be impossible with God!”  (Luke 1:37).  It’s what Easter Sunday tells us!  What resurrection is all about!  . . .  That even when we stand metaphorically at the Lemhi Pass in Idaho – nothing but mile after mile of mountainous, off-the-map wilderness before us; the Risen Christ comes to us.  Breathing peace.  Helping us to let go of our cherished canoes.  Saying:  “Go.  Get on with it!  As the Father has sent me, so I send you!” (John 20:21).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Easter and Us

A Sermon for 1 April 2018 – Easter Sunday

A reading from the gospel of John 20:1-18.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.  He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.  11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.  As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”  Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!”  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

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

What does resurrection have to do with our lives – not just some day off in the future when our mortal flesh returns to the earth.  But today, on Easter.  And tomorrow.  And the next.  And any random day of the week, like three weeks from next Tuesday?  How does resurrection impact us every day?

We know how it impacted the life of Jesus, the Christ.  Arrested for sedition by a state that was colluding with religious folks who believed him blasphemous, Jesus was brutally executed.  Hung on a cross as were all those in his day who were condemned to die.  A handful of women – and, according to the gospel of John, the beloved male disciple – were the only ones from the throngs devoted enough to watch.  Joseph of Arimathea – who represented a dissenting voice on the Jewish high council – and Nicodemus – the Pharisee who once went to Jesus at night to learn of God’s undying love for the world – got his body off the cross.  The gospel of John records that they wrapped him with about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes – which is a hole lot of powerful healing oils!  They placed their dead Rabbi in the linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.  And because the Jewish day of preparation was fast-approaching, they laid his body in a newly hewn tomb in the garden near the spot where he had been crucified.  Night fell as the corpse lay stone-cold still, the ruah – the breath of Life, the spirit of the one called Jesus no longer there to animate his body.

Resurrection meant all the difference for that one!  Early on the first day of the week, after the celebration of Passover was over, in the dark before dawn; Mary Magdalene found her way back to the tomb in the garden.  Love’s redeeming work was done!  He was not there but had risen!  That very morning, he again called her by name.  Standing before her face-to-face; the Risen One charged her to go tell his brothers.  He was ascending – returning to the Source from which he had come.  Though he would appear to them all later that night.  Then one week following.  And again, when they had returned to the boats and nets.  The power of his life was not yet done.  The resurrection of his body confirmed all he had been teaching – the LORD of heaven and earth would have the last word, not death.  But Life for all and forever for those who would follow his path.

Resurrection changed the lives of those first rushing to the tomb.  Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John.  Mary his Mother, James his brother, Thomas and all the rest too.  To the ends of the earth eventually they would go.  Not scattered like scared sheep but sent with purpose to the far-reach of lands we now know as India, Africa, and Europe.  From that one little spot in a garden outside the walls of Jerusalem, a different kind of world-wide web would form.  The message over and over:  “I have seen the Lord!  The crucified, dead, and buried; lives forevermore!”  He is present with us.  In us, as we continue to walk the path he taught throughout his living and dying and living again.  . . .  Talk about an adventure!  All around their known-world they went to teach any who would listen everything they had seen and heard.  To give witness to Christ’s healing power.  To tell of his up-side-down understanding of the welcome of God.  To live in ways that showed yet the life-transforming effects of compassionate love.  Resurrection made all the difference in a world craving any seed of hope.

Resurrection is meant to change our lives too.  It shows us the pattern imprinted by the Creator in the creation.  Life.  Death.  Life again!  We too live forevermore.  Our days have purpose because of what we have seen – not just far off in the land where Jesus first lived.  Not even alone in the stories of scripture that we cherish.  But also in our very own lives.  Where the power of forgiveness has broken-open our hearts to heal.  To begin again.  Where the up-side-down welcome of God has allowed us to be – to accept ourselves in all of our foibles, because each part is accepted by God, redeemed by God, cherished not as weakness but as an opportunity for God to work wonders we cannot accomplish on our own.  In our own lives – I hope we have experienced and continue to be for others – people of compassionate love; those who consider the need in ourselves even as we notice the deep need in another.  Resurrection is meant to change our lives – to give us hope in a world where we’re taught to focus more on that which divides instead of seeing all the ways we are connected.  For we need one another.  And when we sit together to break bread, the mysterious Spirit of God is found binding us all into one.

Resurrection has everything to do with us – with our living, with our dying daily, with our living again now and forevermore!  . . .  Happy Easter, Resurrection people!  When we depart from here, let us go to make all the difference!

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

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