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.

True or False?

A Sermon for 16 September 2018

A reading of Mark 8:27-30.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”  30 And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

And one more reading.  This one is a reading of James 3:1-12.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  For all of us make many mistakes.  Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.  If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.  The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.  For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?  12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?  No more can salt water yield fresh.”

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

 

Today’s sermon is a True-False pop quiz!  So, buckle up and get ready – now!

There once was a mother whose young adult son was taken in the middle of the night from their small home.  Such brutal police raids had become common around there at that time.  Their land was being ripped apart by the color of people’s skin.  Years later, in open court, the police officer involved stood before the young man’s family.  He told of the way the son’s body was beaten, bloodied, and buried by the police.  In great shame he said:  “I am sorry.  Now I see how wrong it all was.  I am so sorry about what I did to your son – to you.  To us all.”  It was hard to hear.  But at last this momma knew what had happened.  Tears streaming down her cheeks, with great courage she said:  “Thank you for facing me to tell me the truth.  I forgive you.”

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

There once was a twelve-year-old girl living in the rural South of the United States.  She was happy with her single momma and sister, living in their little trailer outside of town.  Everyone knew the pre-teen as being rather sweet.  A well-mannered child, who sang in the church choir and went weekly to prayer circle with her mother and sister.  But she also was a little different – some sort of problem at birth which left her a bit behind other kids.  The school bus picked her up daily to take her off to school.  Every day she was poked and teased and had her pigtails pulled on the bus.  The driver never said a word.  One morning, she just couldn’t take the name-calling any longer.  She pulled a handgun from her backpack, and it was as if this sweet, innocent, bullied child snapped.  Reports said no one was “injured.”  No shots ever fired.  She would spend the next two years of her teenage life in jail.

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

There once was a vivacious little girl.  She was creative and imaginative and so much fun!  ABCs didn’t come easy for her.  Neither did her 123s.  The further along she went in school, the more she couldn’t learn in the way the teachers taught.  Every day became a nightmare.  And homework time:  a knock-down drag out – leaving her often to go hide under her bed.  Frequently she was heard telling her family she was dumb.  Stupid.  She just couldn’t learn.  One year she got a teacher who said:  “I know how I can help.”  Though differently than all the other children, the little girl began to learn!

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

You may not know it, but it only took a speech or two.  Explanations of how the country’s economic demise was their fault.  Newspaper ads portraying them dirty, sub-human.  That’s de-humanization.  The process that has to happen in order to go against our own biology which is wired NOT to kill our own species.  One man was able to whip a crowd into an amazing, fear-incited frenzy through name calling and tribal sorting and de-humanizing some in order for some others to go against our natural, instinctual drive to connect.  A plan was born of how to return this presumably superior race to greatness. The rhetoric was:  be wary of certain neighbors.  They’re not like us – not human.  Do not trust them.  It’s all their fault.  The year was 1924, Germany.  A holocaust of eleven million people began – six million who were Jews.  According to one source, the other five million were “gay people, priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters” (https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6555604).  By the time it was all over, somewhere between 50 and 80 million people lost their lives in World War II (https://www.historyonthenet.com/how-many-people-died-in-world-war-2/).

True or false:  the tongue has IMMENSE power.

Do you know the words by the former slave, great abolitionist, and woman’s suffragist, Sojourner Truth?  Words she spoke at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, pre-Civil War, when gathered Christians – mostly white women and men – were arguing over whether women should be allowed equal rights in a burgeoning democracy.  It helps to know a little about the stature of this 6-foot-tall, chiseled, old grandma, who was born into slavery in New York but earned her freedom in 1827.  Her mere entry into the church assembly stirred the northern crowd that wasn’t too sure they wanted to mix their plea for women’s rights with that of the slaves of the South.  Sojourner listened long to the arguments, then finally rose to speak.  She’s quoted as saying:  “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere.  Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!  And ain’t I a woman?  Look at me!  Look at my arm!” she said bearing her muscular shoulder.  “I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me!  And ain’t I a woman?  I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well!  And ain’t I a woman?  I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me!  And ain’t I a woman?  Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it?  [and a member of audience whispers, “intellect”]”.  Sojourner continues:  “That’s it, honey.  What’s (supposed superior intellect) got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights?  If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?”  Pointing to a pastor, she continues:  “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman!  Where did your Christ come from?” Sojourner, the uneducated slave woman eloquently argued, and I quote her:  “Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman!  Man had nothing to do with Him.  If the first woman God ever made (mother Eve) was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone” (as throughout time has been an argument against mutuality for women).  Then, Sojourner said:  then, “these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right-side up again!  And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”  (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.asp).  Woo!  The eye-witness response was recorded as being “roars of applause (while Sojourner) returned to her corner leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude.”  The witness wrote:  “She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty turning the whole tide in our favor.”  The reporter quoted:  “I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day, and turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration.  Hundreds rushed up to shake hands with her, and congratulate the glorious old mother, and bid her God-speed on her mission of ‘testifyin’ (again) agin concerning the wickedness of this (here) ‘ere people’” end quote (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ain%27t_I_a_Woman%3F).

True or false:  even if some still are threatened by this one, isn’t it true that the tongue has great power?  Enormous, beautiful, miraculous, world-changing power!

We could go on.  An innocent insinuation on Facebook.  A text that quickly gets around.  One-liners that ring throughout history.  Words that change the trajectory of lives.  Words like:  I love you.  I am proud of you.  You matter to me.  You are precious in my sight.  . . .  We even heard it today from the lips of that great disciple:  “You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:29).  Two thousand plus years later, thirsty souls still profess the name:  Jesus the Christ, God’s anointed one.  Savior.  Lord of all!  . . .  Indeed, the tongue has amazing, life-altering power!

The book of James is the New Testament’s only work classified as Wisdom Literature (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 62).  It seeks to teach the faithful the importance of living the faith.  Though many of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century rejected James all together.  In particular Martin Luther himself, who spoke of the book of James as “the epistle of straw” (Ibid.); the grand offense being wisdom’s claim that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).  And I guess due to their context in which notions of the grace of God had become something one had to do a work to earn, we can understand the concern.  Nonetheless, the wisdom the book of James seeks to teach is that true religion consists of three marks:  “care for orphans and widows in their distress, (keeping) oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27), and speaking rightly.  For the tongue, like the smallest flicker of a flame, is able to set ablaze an entire forest (James 3:5).  Mature faith is evidenced by these three marks.

Even if you got a few of the true-false questions wrong today, our charge is to go into the world to live the life-giving truth.  May the blaze our words be the start of love’s revolution!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Encounter

A Sermon for 9 September 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 7:24-37.  And to put this reading in context, it’s important to know that Jesus just had come from a pretty rocky confrontation with some Pharisees and scribes who traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee.  Likely they were there to check out what was going on around one gaining fame.  For everywhere Jesus went, he was being begged by the people to be healed.  Certainly, rumors had reached Jerusalem of the one in Galilee who was gathering followers, healing outcasts, and sharing his mission by sending out those learning from him.  When curious Pharisees and scribes find Jesus, they are not at all happy that the disciples of Jesus blatantly disregard the traditions of the elders.  The wise ones of Judaism had declared that food from the market must be washed.  Hands too.  But Jesus’ disciples were eating out in the open – without washing their hands.  The concerned leaders from Jerusalem had to think that if this sacred tradition was so easily being disregarded, what other ways might Jesus and his gang go on to the rock the boat?  Incensed, Jesus lets these Pharisees and scribes have it!  Quoting Isaiah against them, Jesus proclaims them hypocrites.  He charges that they stick to human traditions while abandoning the commands of God (Mark 7:6-8).  Jesus turns to the crowd, likely with these Pharisees and scribes still standing there offended.  He tells them that it is that which comes from the inside out that defiles – not the other way around.  Explaining to his followers in private he says:  “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come . . . and they (are what) defile a person” (Mark 7:23).  Whether Jesus intentionally leaves that place with his disciples to give them a concrete lesson, or if he just has to get away for a bit for a break; next we hear this.  Listen for God’s word to us in a reading of Mark 7:24-37.

“From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.  She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.  31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  33 Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”

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

 

In the book The Word Before the Powers:  An Ethic of Preaching, homiletics professor Dr. Charles Campbell writes this chilling challenge:  “The church is called intentionally and habitually to move out of the places of security and comfort into those ‘unclean’ places where Jesus suffers ‘outside the gate of the sacred compounds,’ whether those compounds are shaped by religion or class or race or culture.”  Campbell continues, “Through such dislocation, privileged Christians cross the boundaries that keep the privileged and oppressed apart and take a first step toward solidarity with the poor, which, in a consumer culture, is one way of radically contesting the Domination System” (pp. 153-154).  . . .  So, in 2005 while I was doing specialized ministry with children and their families in a large, upper-class congregation that was 99.8% filled with white-skinned people; I decided to test Campbell’s theory.  We created a ministry opportunity for fifth and sixth graders called the Practice of Encounter:  Kids Connected in Christ.  I might have mentioned this before.  We explained to parents and children what they were getting themselves into – a qualitative research project for a Doctor of Ministry degree in Gospel and Culture.  The gist of it was that once a month for a full school year, the children of the church where I was serving would go across the river to a church near the Martha O’Bryan Center – which, at the time of the Practice of Encounter in 2005 (just four years after 9/11), was in the center of Nashville’s largest, most economically disadvantaged housing project, the James A. Cayce Homes.  One Thursday afternoon a month, a small group from a Green Hills congregation and a small group from a Cayce Homes congregation simply came together.  As children do:  we played games, talked about school, and got to know one another.  This continued once a month – fifth and sixth graders from different sides of our city – merely encountering one another to see what we might find.

For what do we find when we truly encounter one another?  Especially when the ones we encounter are perceived others?  . . .  After a year of the children encountering each other and keeping a journal to write about their experiences, here’s what Practice of Encounter participants said they learned about encountering others.  One pre-teen of the church near the Cayce Homes said:  “even though we are different, we still can have fun together!”  Another said that “everybody has more things in common than people think.”  One child from the Green Hills congregation proclaimed:  “I understand now (after the Practice of Encounter) that we can’t survive without each other.”  At the close of the year in a formal group interview held to discover what the children learned, another from the Green Hills church reported that before the Practice of Encounter, I thought that “neighbors were people next to me; now everyone is my neighbor.”  This was the same child that wrote in a Sunday School class that when she was on the other side of the city with the children there, she “felt really connected to God” (Jule M. Nyhuis in Nurturing Faith in a Bifurcated Generation:  A Practice of Dislocation for Children to Resist the Forces of the Domination System; 2007; p. 31.  Copy available at Columbia Theological Seminary Library; Decatur, GA).

I think about that year-long Practice of Encounter every time we bump into the story of Jesus’ intentional dislocation to Tyre.  All sorts of strangers reside in Tyre.  Certainly, Jesus knew that.  Tyre is a city of Gentiles on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea – filled with Greeks and Romans of the Empire, who in the days of Jesus were despised as outsiders.  Others.  Those most good, God-fearing Jews would steer clear of, as the inherited human traditions had taught.  It kinda makes you wonder if Jesus had some concrete learning lessons in mind as he and his disciples traveled to encounter others.  As if tongue-in-cheek, Jesus calls the woman he would meet in Tyre a dog just to see the reaction he’d get from his disciples—like to see if they got what he really was about?  Maybe wondering if those who already have read the first six chapters of the gospel of Mark would take as much offense to Jesus’ outright refusal of the pleas of that scared Syrophoenician momma, as the Jewish keepers of the law took offense to being called hypocrites by some itinerant Galilean healer who was willing to hold up a mirror to their souls.

So much has been written of these stories taking place outside the sacred compound – beyond the borders of ancient Palestine.  Tyre being in modern-day Lebanon and the ten cities of the Decapolis, north and east of the Sea of Galilee lying mainly in modern-day Syria and Jordan.  Even one way up in the Golan Heights where to this day, day and night, Israeli tanks are aimed across the border to ensure their neighboring nations stay out!  Commentators have wondered if this text shows Jesus’ own cultural biases of Jews sticking to their own tribe for purity and protection sake.  Some feminist biblical scholars decry the Jesus pictured in the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman as a man bested verbally by a woman – her hutzpah as a momma-bear-kind-of-woman fearlessly backing down from no one.  Not even God in human flesh.  Those who need to cling to a high view of Christ’s divinity have trouble with the story of an encounter that seems to broaden Jesus’ understanding of just who he is and how wide is the inclusive welcome of the God he embodies in flesh.  While others see in this story the divinity of Christ as something the human Jesus discovered along the way, like an evolving process – an understanding strongly supported according to the earliest written gospel, which is Mark.  The gospel where a man named Jesus from Nazareth shows up to be baptized, hears his name as the Beloved of God, and is driven into the wilderness to wrestle until he emerges with a call to proclaim the good news of God.  The gospel of Mark putting on Jesus’ lips the words:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  . . .  The more I listen to Jesus’ encounter with the mother, the more I hear a wisdom exchange.  Almost as if Jesus is a wise sage speaking a mysterious riddle to the woman.  Who calmer than one trained for the non-violent protests of the lunch counter sit-ins, simply stands in her truth unflappable.  To remind the wise old teacher that the table of grace is large enough, and potent enough, and enough for those, who some consider dogs – fit only to be under the table, to find also all that they need.  Honestly, I don’t know the best way to navigate what some consider to be one of the most difficult stories about Jesus.

But the text makes clear this:  Jesus intentionally takes a route out of Galilee – away from the ground he’d daily been covering.  He dis-locates himself and his followers to encounter others.  And what he finds there is faith.  Deep faith.  A mother willing to take just a crumb if it means her own child could be healed.  A woman who understands she’s dealing with a God of enough.  A “dog” so absolutely centered in her worthiness so that no other words will crack her trust in the One who can heal – the One who binds us all.  For that’s what happens in encounter.  We learn a bit more of what God’s up to in the lives of others.  The little boxes of the truth we’ve come to know from our lives get opened up bigger – perhaps obliterated all together so that at last we stand in humility before the One who will not be contained.  We bow before the Mystery which is Love itself.  Knowing at last that we all need each other to survive – to thrive!

However we make sense of the story of Jesus’ encounters outside; what’s left to decide is:  will we, the church of Jesus Christ today, intentionally and habitually move out of our places of security – outside the gates of our sacred compounds – open to encounter.  Ready to be humbled by all we will find.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

With the Passion of God

A Sermon for 2 September 2018

Once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary, we are taken into the Song of Solomon.  Today happens to be that day.  True confession from me is that early in my ministry as a solo pastor, a wise retired English professor named Ivol asked me to co-lead a study of Song of Solomon at the assisted living facility where she lived.  She said:  “I’ll handle the poetic context and you handle the theology.”  The request alone should tell you something about the spunk of the woman I was dealing with!  Soon, we were watching the chin-hit-the-table reactions of the ladies who Ivol wrangled up to attend.  Several of them would blush as Ivol recited the steamy poetry of Song of Solomon.  Giggling they would say:  “I had no idea such things were in the bible!  We certainly were NOT taught this as little girls in Sunday School!”  . . .  To ensure none of us find ourselves in our twilight years unaware of the full range of Holy Scripture, listen to a reading from Song of Solomon 2:8-17, 8:6-7.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The voice of my beloved!  Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.  Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.  My beloved speaks and says to me:  “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.  Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.  O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.  Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.  My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.  Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.”

And from chapter 8:  “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.  Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.  Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.  If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”

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

 

What is your favorite love song?  Every generation has them.  Remember:  “You must remember this:  a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.  The fundamental things apply.  As time goes by” (As Time Goes By, by Frank Sinatra).  When I was approaching adulthood, many loved the one about star-crossed lovers from two different worlds.  Even if they couldn’t be together, Whitney Houston crooned:  “I will always love you!” (I will Always Love You, Whitney Houston).  . . .  What about love songs for God?  Isn’t it one of the reasons so many cherish the hymn Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound?  It’s a rousing song of our love, our deep appreciation, our absolute devotion to God – the One of grace who doesn’t have to be so dedicated to us; but is.  From the haunting Lenten tune of What Wondrous Love is This, O my soul, O my soul to More Love to Thee, O Christ.  Such songs can strike a chord that resonates all the way to the deepest places in our hearts.

Song of Solomon can do that, or the Song of Songs as the book of the bible often is called.  But this little eight-chapter book squeezed in between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah gets minimal respect.  Chances are high that most Christians never have read it.  In fact, it’s been proclaimed the most secular book of the bible because God is nowhere referenced in it.  There’s not even mention of the standard holy-stuff like praying, or fasting, or observing religious celebrations.  There’s not one lick of typical God-infused scripture here.  Nonetheless, it’s in here – ancient Israel’s kind of love song.  Actually, it’s a collection of beautiful love songs – passionate descriptions of love and two lovers’ visions of one another.  And it just so happens to be the songs of two whose love was considered unacceptable in their time.  One mate is believed to be Solomon, the great wise king of the Israelites, famed son of King David.  Though some scholars believe it’s just attributed to him as a way to make it an acceptable inclusion in Holy Scripture.  The other lover seems to be an unexpected choice – which she herself declares in chapter 1:5-6:  “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me.  My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!”  She’s not like all the others her beloved could have chosen.  Her skin is dark from being forced to do manual labor beneath the hot sun.  No one would consider her fit for a king.  It’s the oldest love story out there, right?  Whether class or race or both is the issue, we can’t be sure.  Nor do we know what great wrong caused the anger of her mother’s sons to burn against her.  Was she born by one other than her brothers’ father?  O had her brothers caught their little sister sneaking off before?  History has not left us the code to unlock the mystery.  But, throughout this love song, we do learn that the two lovers had to fight for their right to love.  In their day it was unheard of for two people from such differing backgrounds being together!  The sneers of Jerusalem’s daughters lurk around every corner.  The lovers have to sneak off to the fields in order to be together, hastily seeing one another between this duty and that.  Never being able openly to display their love without being despised.  Likely it made their love grow stronger.  Perhaps their poetry became the place to passionately declare their right to love whomever, no matter the prevailing cultural norms.  In their writing is their insistence on loving whomever their heart desires.

And it’s pretty steamy!  Filled with surprisingly sensual language, it sounds more like one of those Harlequin Romance novels than ancient Holy text.  Here’s how the book begins.  The lover pleads:  “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!  For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; . . . draw me after you, let us make haste” (1:2-4a).  And in chapter 4:9-10, the lover proclaims:  “You have ravished my heart, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.  How sweet is your love . . . how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice.”  And then there’s 5:1 and following where the lover proclaims:  “’Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’”  She responds:  “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again?  I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?  My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.”  Then, of course, these Songs contain my favorite parts – the lovers’ descriptions of one another.  Here’s what ‘ole Romeo declares to Juliet:  “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.  Your belly is a heap of wheat . . . your two breasts are like two fawns, your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Heshbon, . . . your nose is like a tower of Lebanon” (7:2-4)  WHATEVER??!!!  It sounds like he’s calling her some sort of big-nosed, giraffe-necked, pot-bellied freak with deer for a chest!  CLEARLY this poetic beauty is lost on our post-modern imaginations.

So what’s the deal?  What’s the Song of Solomon doing in Scripture and how in the world did it EVER make it into the lectionary – even if only for one week in the three-year cycle?  . . .  Well, a lot – a lot of good that is.  And not just as an allegory of the love between God and the soul or Christ and the Church as some over the years have considered the Song of Solomon.  This little book is in the bible and it has the power to do a world of good as a celebration of human love – a helpful corrective for us.  Because think about it:  what messages have made their way down through history about passion?  It’s something to stay away from, right?  Something to be feared!  Passion lies in the realm of uncontrollable, irrational emotion.  Passion can cause us to do crazy things – spontaneous things – out of control actions.  Think young love first pulling you into it’s grip!

Of passionate love, one commentator writes: “to be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self.”  Love moves us into the realm where human and divine can merge – where we can get a good education in loving and being loved (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4; Julia M. O’Brien, p. 5).  Indeed, it is one of God’s greatest gifts – to open ourselves to the mystery of the passion moving in us.  . . .  And if for another human being in this world, then how much more for the Holy One, who has gone to great depths for us?  Isn’t it time we fervently sing our love songs to the One who got more than a bit passionate in loving an entire creation?  Getting physical, as God took on human flesh to walk among us, fiercely loving for our welfare.  Definitively showing in Christ that love indeed is stronger than death.  Passion is fiercer than the grave!

Song of Solomon invites us to love.  To give of ourselves to one another like the One who passionately loves us every day and at last, beyond the grave.  Brothers and sisters of Christ, celebrating the great gift, in our human love; let us love with the passion of God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

Thanksgiving at All Times

A Sermon for 19 August 2018

            A reading from Ephesians 5:15-20.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil.  17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.  18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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

I’ll never forget the ministry moment from a few years back.  A church member told me about a health scare they were undergoing.  The situation had the potential to be quite serious and we both were pretty worried!  Eventually the person let me know that the tests were back; it was just something minor a medication should alleviate.  What a relief!  . . .  I can’t count the number of times in my life as a pastor that this scenario has played itself out.  Nor have I tracked the numerous times when the news wasn’t so good.  In nearly 25 years of pastoring close to 3,000 different people, it’s been a lot of awaiting scary test results and unexpected surgeries and emergency room trips and oncology visits and funerals and job losses and shattered dreams and heartaches.  I don’t intend to make light of any one of our life-altering challenges.  They’re all awful!  They’re all unwelcome and every one of us just does the best we can to cope as we are able when the storms of life rage.  Some days it’s easier than others.  What sticks out about this one instance is the rest of the story.  Grateful for the news that the health situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been, this person declared:  “I am so excited to get to worship this week just to thank God!”  . . .  We could get all caught up in a debate over whether or not the response would have been the same had the test results turned out differently.  No matter.  “I am so excited to get to worship this week just to thank God” was a message that certainly stood out.  . . .  How often do any of us hear or say those words?

“Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you, God!!!”  The test results were clear.  My friend picked up the phone when I needed most to talk to someone.  The paycheck came before the mortgage was due.  The traffic was merciful when I was running late to get to my child’s school play.  The principal let me into the class I really needed in order to graduate on time.  I passed the test.  The boss gave the raise.  The hot weather broke.  We could go on and on.  And it seems quite a shame that we don’t more often.  A lot of us come here to worship to see our fellow congregants.  Or to enjoy the music.  Or to do our duty as usher, or liturgist, or Fellowship Coffee provider, or maybe even just to be a warm body in the pew.  O for a world – each one of us – every Sunday entering this sanctuary excited to say THANK YOU to God this day!

There’s an old hymn in the maroon Presbyterian Hymnal that some of you may know.  It’s called:  “Safely Through Another Week.”  Interestingly, its tune name is SABBATH.  “Safely through another week,” worshippers sing, “God has brought us on our way; let us now a blessing seek, waiting in God’s courts today:  day of all the week the best, emblem of eternal rest; day of all the week the best, emblem of eternal rest.”  I love the line too about “Here afford us, LORD, a taste of our everlasting feast,” and “May Thy gospel’s joyful sound conquer sinners, comfort saints; make the fruits of grace abound, bring relief for all complaints.”  In 1774, John Newton wrote the words.  In 1824, Lowell Mason completed the tune.  . . .  You may know John Newton, who lived a rowdy life and eventually got involved in the slave trade business – where he excelled.  Then, one day in his travels; he learned of some Wesley brothers whose hearts were strangely warmed and henceforth were on fire with the Spirit of God.  Before you know it, Newton underwent a life-changing conversion to the way of Christ.  Eventually he wrote some words about it that were set to music and still inspire us as a most beloved hymn today.  Newton’s infamous song is called “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.”  . . .  “Safely Through Another Week” and “Amazing Grace” for that matter, capture the kind of gratitude to God that the letter of Ephesians encourages.

“Make the most of the time,” Ephesians 5:16 purports, as you sing and make melody and approach our God with a perpetual attitude of thanksgiving.  One commentator summarizes:  Christians’ “primary obligation is to praise God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, G. Porter Taylor, p. 352).  In fact, such thankful worship “redeems the time.  It orients (us) to the Almighty and keeps our life in right relation” (Ibid.).  Coming here to give thanks, that I’m-so-excited-to-get-to-worship-Sunday-just-to-thank-God attitude is the way we are created to live.

If you were here last week, you heard me say it then.  All that we know points to the conclusion that the epistle of Ephesians was a letter that was circulated among the early churches in Asia Minor.  Probably not written by the Apostle Paul, but by one trained by him.  The writer knew that all Christians everywhere need the kind of encouragement given in this little New Testament letter.  The writer knew that from the beginning of the church until now, so much can pull us off center each day.  If it’s not the awaiting test results, then maybe it’s the pressures of work, or family, or friends.  It can be a huge challenge to get through one day – let alone seven each week – with an attitude of thanksgiving intact.  . . .  Ephesians reminds:  we were called by God to a great hope (Eph. 1:18).  We were and are destined for adoption as God’s children (Eph. 1:5).  We have an amazing inheritance from God:  life here and now and forevermore!  God’s grace has saved us (Eph. 2:5) so that today we can be set free from the ways of death.  Right now, in this world, we can live – fully alive in joy – knowing our forgiveness already has been worked out!  For all of us, Ephesians 2:11-22 assures, circumcised and uncircumcised alike.  No matter who we are, regardless of the world situation into which we were born:  we are members of the household of God!  Precious.  Honored.  Beloved!  . . .  Thus:  we are to live worthy of that gift (Eph. 4:1).  To be renewed daily in the spirit of our minds to live in the likeness of our merciful God (Eph. 4:22-23).  “Do not be unwise,” we hear in our reading for today.  For our time is limited.  Make the most of it by living filled with the Spirit of God!  Giving thanks.  Singing praise.  Approaching it all in utter, excited thanksgiving!  (Eph. 5:15-20).  . . .  Take note that not one single thing in the list of blessings in Ephesians has anything to do with our bank accounts, our physical health, or our life circumstances.  Which is great news because all of those wax and wane throughout our days.  Nonetheless, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.  God’s mercy never comes to an end!” (Lam. 3:22).

We know that many have very heavy burdens to carry.  The tests don’t always come back clear.  We don’t always catch the break we’re hoping for.  . . .  Nevertheless, it takes 21 times to develop a habit.  21 days – just three short weeks of our lives , if it’s a daily discipline we’re seeking to incorporate.  If we want to move from waking up each morning disgruntled, dejected, and depressed to living each day full of thanks – on fire with gratefulness, overflowing with gratitude to God – no matter the details of our lives!  Do it 21 times and see what happens.  . . .  It has been written that “We shape our experience by what we bring to it, how we receive it, and how we are in the habit of responding to it.  To a significant extent, mood is what we make it” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, Paul V. Marshall, p. 352).  . . .  We can be a people who approach each moment in great thanksgiving – not glibly, ignoring the realities of our lives.  But with sheer grit and determination, we can give thanks – honestly, in all circumstances!  And if we can’t yet, then at the least, we can pray for God to give us eyes to see that for which we can give thanks no matter what.  Awareness of what has come as blessing after life has fallen apart.  Patience to wait as long as necessary to catch a glimpse of the ways God will redeem even the worst experiences of life.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us endeavor to be filled with the Spirit, giving thanks at all times, in everything.  For our time is short.  Come what may, may our lives proclaim:  Thank you, thank you, thank you God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Thin Places

A Sermon for 26 August 2018

A reading of Psalm 84.  Listen for God’s word to us in this beautiful Psalm believed to be inspired by pilgrims’ annual journeys to Jerusalem for Temple festivals.  Listen.

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!  My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.  Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.  Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.   6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.  They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.  O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!  Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.  10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.  I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.  11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield; God bestows favor and honor.  No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.  12 O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.”

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

I’ve been told that Ireland is beautiful!  Some of you likely have been there.  I never have.  . . .  Rolling hills along rugged coasts.  Green everywhere you look.  Wild weather often blows in off the Atlantic.  And ancient stones sit all over the land.  For those unwilling to appreciate the beauty of nature, it might just seem like a country filled with piles of old rocks.  Others find the land palpable with Presence.  Hallowed spaces where it feels as if heaven and earth meet.  The Ancient Celts called such spots thin places.  In fact, a Celtic saying proclaims that “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter” (quoted on https://www.irishamericanmom.com/irelands-thin-places/).  From stone circles in places like County Cork to the massive Grianan Stone Ring Fort in County Donegal, thin places teach us that some locations on earth are closer to the spiritual.  Thin places are where God’s Presence is more accessible.

Listen to one passionate Irish American describe her experience of Ireland’s thin places:  “These places bring feelings and emotions, realizations and awareness to the fore.  It is as if the line between all that is sacred and human meet for just a moment.  There is something otherworldly in the atmosphere, transcendent, even divine.  Other dimensions seem closer than usual.  There is a tangible stillness to the silence” (Ibid.).  She continues:  “In a thin place something beyond words causes our spines to tingle, as if awakening our souls.  Even our thoughts seem to be swept away in the moment, and something deep within our beings touches a luminous seat of knowledge.  . . . Returning from a thin place is marked by a feeling of refreshment and renewal.  Our awareness of the world around us becomes heightened” (Ibid.).  She also writes about the lasting effects of being in a thin place.  “In days, weeks, and years to come;” she writes, “memories of sacred landscapes help us see glimpses of nature and the Divine in the chaotic world around our urban existences.  The prayerfulness of these little corners of earth urge us to return to them in our imagination when we cannot physically visit them again.  When overwhelmed by the monotony of daily life, the tedious details of work and living” she writes; “we can listen to our hearts and hear the silent music of thin places.  Our souls guide us back to the peaceful presence of those ancient stones and help us draw strength from the peace and serenity of our thin place experiences” (Ibid.).

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts,” the Psalmist writes (Ps. 84:1).  “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD!” (Ps. 84:2a).  Psalm 84 might be one of the most beautiful scriptural descriptions of a pilgrim’s experience of a thin place.  It’s unlikely that most of us consider the Temple in Jerusalem as a thin place.  But what else do we think the people of God had been describing?  Since the days of Moses and the wandering Israelites dwelling with the tabernacle of God among them, Scripture is filled with stories of the people of God experiencing the palpable Presence of Heaven coming ever so close to earth.  Of course, the Presence was on the move in the Ark of the Covenant until King Solomon finally had the go ahead to have massive stones moved together on Mount Zion.  The Temple was raised on the mount in Jerusalem for the Sacred to fill the atmosphere.  To bring the other dimension of the Divine closer to human beings.  To cause our spines to tingle.  To awaken our souls and be swept up beyond all rational thought for something deep within ourselves to be touched by the Luminous.  That we might know, truly know, that the One who is beyond us also is among us.  The thin place of the Temple had that kind of effect – not only because the of grandeur of the structure.  But also because it was there worshippers had experienced the wonder-filled meeting of heaven and earth.

A few years ago, when I arrived in the Holy Land with a group of fellow pilgrims; we were told to suspend suspicion over sites we would see being factually in the actual spot where the events might have taken place.  I think I’ve told you this before.  We were reminded that everywhere we were going in that land was where Jesus of Nazareth had walked.  For people of faith, it all was hallowed ground.  And it was hallowed not just by his previous physical presence.  Part of what makes the Holy Land holy is the power of the prayers pilgrims have brought to each spot for thousands of years – from our earliest Israelite ancestors in the faith right up to the worldwide Christian visitors of today.  The land pulses with a Presence – an energy – a Living Presence that feels like an intersection, a thinner veil between heaven and earth.  The Holy Land is full of such spots – though the hustle and bustle of busloads of other pilgrims can make it difficult to notice.  Tough to be quiet in order to hear the silent music of God.  Our hearts and our flesh able to join the Psalmist in singing for joy to the living God (Ps. 84:2b).  It’s just easier to experience God there – for emotions and realizations and awareness to bubble up to the surface so that we want to remain right there forever.

The destruction the of Temple a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection might have brought an end to the glory of that building.  But it did not bring an end to the mystical quality of that space.  The stones of the remaining Western Wall – also known as the Wailing Wall – still hold the power of the Divine Presence.  Millions flock there annually to make their wishes as they touch the ancient rock and shove their little prayer papers into whatever crevice they can find in the wall.  Scores of observant Jews (watched by curious spiritual seekers) gather late each Friday afternoon.  Men on one side, women on the other.  They begin the beautiful ritual of preparing for the Sabbath with prayers and songs and joyous dances.  I remember being there, watching one Friday.  And seeing that even the birds were gathered.  Right over the heads of worshippers sparrows and holy pigeons joined with their happy sounds.

I realize this spot (this sanctuary) isn’t anywhere as ancient as the holy spots of Jerusalem or the stone circles of Ireland, but I wonder if any of us notice the palpable Presence here?  So that we long to be here – in this sanctuary – ever singing God’s praise?  When we gather here together, we are saturated by the prayers of the generations.  Their hopes and fears and celebrations.  We are surrounded by the power of ancient ritual.  The sprinkling of water as a sign and seal.  The breaking of bread.  The cup poured out in reminder that our own life-force is to be as freely given for life in the world today.  Hearts attuned.  Voices lifted up.  Hands folded or outstretched.  For years.  The Presence awakening our souls in this thin place that we might go forth refreshed.  Renewed.  Dare I say:  for us to remember that the lovely place in which God dwells is here and is within every last one of us too.  Who long to be together in the Presence of the Living God – like batteries recharged – so that we spread out into homes and neighborhoods and places of daily work to be like walking thin places.  People in whom heaven and earth – Spirit and flesh – intersect.  Creating an atmosphere – not on our own accord but because we’ve gotten ourselves out of the way enough for the Spirit of God, the Light of Christ to shine right through us.  That palpable Presence going forth from us to renew the hearts of those who cross our paths.  Refreshing toilsome souls that long for a taste of the Light.  . . .  Thin places – walking all over the earth for God’s Presence to be a little more accessible to all.

May our lives proclaim how lovely is God’s dwelling place!  May our hearts sing for joy for the palpable Presence of the Living God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

Imitators of God

A Sermon for 12 August 2018

A reading of Ephesians 4:25-5:2.  Before launching into this reading, it might be helpful to remember that Ephesians is an epistle of the New Testament.  It is attributed to the Apostle Paul, who once was Saul.  But as far as we know, Ephesians is what scholars believe to be a circular letter.  The style, language, and meanings are uncharacteristic of the other letters that we know the Apostle Paul wrote to certain church communities.  Additionally, in the opening of the letter, the earliest manuscripts we have of Ephesians don’t mention Ephesus at all.  There’s not some known church crisis outlined and refuted in this letter.  All of which points to the conclusion that the epistle of Ephesians is just a good wholesome letter of encouragement to everyday Christians – probably circulated to several worshipping congregations in Asia Minor.  Perhaps Ephesians was written by the Apostle Paul towards the end of his life.  Like a wise old saint, near the close of his days, who passes on his collective wisdom to others on the journey.  If not directly from Paul’s pen, then likely Ephesians comes from someone taught by Paul who similarly sought to encourage other Christians (The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, 1994, NT p. 272).  Which is all to say that Ephesians is for us all – everywhere.  On any old day.  . . .  With this in mind, listen now for God’s word to us in a reading of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NRSV).

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil.  28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

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

 

Last weekend I was at the home of my childhood with my parents and surrounded by my sisters.  It was great fun!  Growing up, summers always were the best.  With time to just hang out.  Relax together outside at the beach near our house, in the water, or just wandering through the woods.  As my sisters and I got older, we were alone together a lot.  And it was then – especially in the summer when we didn’t have much else to do but mom’s chore list.  It was then that we eventually turned to provoking each other.  If you’re a sibling or have reared children or grandchildren, then you might know what I mean.  One childhood taunt I dreaded most was when my sister would copy me.  Ever experience it?  If you really wanted to get under the skin of your sister or your brother you’d just start repeating every word they said.  Scrunching your face like they scrunched their face when they protested for it to stop.  Stomping like they did.  Mimicking the whinny tone in their voice.  Relentless – especially when unsupervised ‘cuz then there was no parent to tattle to.  You were totally at your sibling’s mercy!  . . .  I don’t know why children do it – it’s totally immature, yet so incredibly effective.  It can be done without making a peep.  From all the way across the room even once mom has banished you to separate corners.  Still, your sister – or brother – could get 100% under your skin by imitating you!

Imitation’s not always a bad thing.  In fact, it’s also a pretty effect way to grow.  When not done of the purpose of driving your brother or sister absolutely nuts, imitation can lead to mastery.  Think about all the things toddlers begin to do because they see the person in front of them doing it.  Clap your hands with a smile before a little one and they’re bound to start clapping too.  Show a youngster the steps of mastering things like shoe tying or letter writing.  Soon they’ll be at it on their own.  As we age, we go through an entire period of growth called adolescents when it seems imitation will have no end.  Teens wearing the same cloths as their friends just to fit in.  Girls wanting to pierce their ears ‘cuz everyone else is doing it too.  Boys telling silly jokes because the boy who seems to get all the attention tells silly jokes too.  The way to self-assurance developmentally leads through imitation.  As adults observing, our hope is teenagers pick the right ones to imitate!  Avoiding the examples all around of bullying and disrespect and irresponsibility.  Hopefully imitating peers and role models whose values are in line with the way we want them to grow.

I’m not sure the age of those who heard the epistle of Ephesians when it was being circulated around the Mediterranean.  If the letter really was written near the end of the Apostle Paul’s life, then it’s highly likely that those who heard it were at most a few decades in to being committed followers of the Way – disciples of Jesus who early Christians came to believe was the Christ.  The One of God come to deliver the people.  We can debate all day exactly what they needed deliverance from, but it’s clear that some who heard of Jesus were captivated by his teaching.  They were astounded by the way his disciples vowed compassionate care of one another.  They were impressed by the community’s broad inclusion of Jew and Gentile alike.  It would take the established church years to develop the theological doctrines we take for granted today.  In the meantime, those who wanted to be a part of Christ’s movement came to learn just how they were to be in the world each day.

One source tells of early baptismal liturgies that ritualized the expected behavior.  G. Porter Taylor writes:  “in the first liturgies of the church, the baptismal candidates faced the west and renounced the forces of darkness”  (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 326).  We see remnants of this in baptismal vows of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  The first vow in the covenant of Baptism reads:  “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” (Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 2018, p. 409).  “I renounce them,” the baptismal candidate is to proclaim (Ibid.).  In the PCUSA, after professing the One to whom the candidate for baptism will turn, they are asked:  “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?”  “I will, with God’s help,” PCUSA baptismal candidates respond! (Ibid.).  In those first baptismal liturgies, after turning to the west to renounce the forces of darkness; baptismal candidates “then turned to the east at sunrise and proclaimed their allegiance to the light of the world” (G. Porter Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 326).  Taylor goes on to write:  “They literally stripped off their old clothing and put on the new garments of being adopted by Christ as children of God after they were baptized.  They were then brought into the community of faith.  In baptism the old self is killed off, and the new self is raised” (Ibid.).  From that moment on, the baptized live as those aligned to the Light of the World!

“Imitate God,” Ephesians 5:1 declares.  “And live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).  Imitate God.  . . .  Lest we fail to know what that means, the writer of Ephesians fleshed it out with description after description.  The world may be full of those who want to lie.  Those who imitate God speak the truth.  The world may be full of those who get angry and immediately lose their temper.  Those who imitate God get angry.  We recognize anger and every other emotion as the signal they are from our own body-mind.  Then we act free from sin – not stewing in disgruntlement lest those forces we renounced in baptism have a chance to take hold.  The world might be full of those who labor for their own ends.  Imitators of God labor honestly so as to have something to share with those in need.  Ephesians reminds that the world may be full of those who let all sorts of drivel come forth from their mouth.  Those who imitate God use words to build up others so that grace abounds.  Bitterness, wrath, wrangling anger, slander together with malice may surround us daily in our streets and from our cities.  But those who imitate God practice kindness – in big and small ways.  Imitators of God are tenderhearted – no matter how callous everyone else might get.  Those who imitate God forgive; for we know it’s only so long until we’ll need the same forgiveness.

Imitators of God are beloved children.  A fragrant gift to the world around.  Not always perfect, but still striving for the goal.  We seek to imitate the One we know in full through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord.  In our life together.  In our lives at home.  In our lives wherever we go in the world.  Let us live love, as Christ has loved us.  Let us imitate God.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Knowing Our Need

A Sermon for 22 July 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56.  Earlier in the story, Jesus had sent out his disciples, charging them to carry out his healing ministry wherever they went.  Upon their return, we hear this.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.  31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.  . . .  53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

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

We have one more reading today.  It is from Revelation 3:14-18, 20, 22.  Listen.

“’And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:  The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:  15 I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’  You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.  . . .  20Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.  . . .  22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’”

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

 

Human need dominates the stories presented today in the gospel of Mark.  Everywhere Jesus goes; the sick, the lame, the chronically incurable are placed upon his path.  The verses from the gospel of Mark that we heard today aren’t as exciting as the ones skipped over by the assigned lectionary text.  Between the disciples of Jesus returning to him and those in need pressing round him no matter where he goes; we miss the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 hungry men plus women and children, and Jesus amazingly walking over the water of the Sea of Galilee to catch back up with his disciples after he sent them on ahead, dismissed the fed-crowd, then went up the mountain alone to pray.  Those might have made better stories for today – awing us with five thousand plus fed from five little loaves and two little fish.  Boggling our minds at the sight of Jesus striding across tumultuous water until finally getting into his disciple’s boat.  Instead we’re left to ponder what seems like transitional verses.  Hastily put before us.  Reeking of human need.

He should have known he was walking into a hornet’s nest of need.  One biblical commentator reminds that “the town of Gennesaret was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Magdala and Capernaum, where numerous hot mineral springs had attracted the sick and injured for centuries” (Robert A. Bryant, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, p. 265).  As one who has been about the land healing in word and deed, Jesus should have known he’d be swarmed by human need the moment he set foot out of the boat.  He just had landed in a town of last resort.  Like emergency rooms today, those whose bodies would not get well on their own flocked to the magical mineral springs.  When all else fails, we’ll try just about anything.  The misery of human pain, the weariness of chronic illness, the hopeless out-of-control feelings of our bodies not working the way we want them to can open us to whatever healing we might be able to find.  . . .  People from all over Galilee are brought near Jesus – everywhere he goes.  The gospel records that they “begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (Mark 6:56).  Which reminds us that no matter how bad the news is today; human need is nothing new.  With the goodness of a committed shepherd, God in Christ still looks upon our need with compassion.

All our needs – at least according to the gospel of Mark.  Though it may be the most recognizable, physical illness is not the only human need addressed by Jesus.  The gospel of Mark records that when Jesus’ disciples return from their ministry adventures, Jesus whisks them away to a deserted place.  He wants them to rest; for, as the gospel records, “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:30).  A wise leader, the disciple’s Lord can see the need in them – the ones who had been sent out to heal human needs.  They only can be out there at it so long until they must take a break.  Rest.  Re-fill.  Refresh so they might journey on.  Which hopefully is exactly what we experience when we gather here.  To worship.  To be re-filled by God in order to go back out to serve a world full of immense human need.  . . .  In the 20th Century, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that all humans have needs which, in fact, are hierarchical.  We’d do well to remember – especially as we seek to serve God by serving others faithfully each day.  Maslow explained that if our physiological needs for food, drink, and sleep are not met; it is not possible for our basic needs for safety, shelter, and stability to be met.  Our social needs for being loved, for belonging, and for feeling included somewhere; must be met before our ego needs of self-esteem and personal power ever will feel complete.  And all four of these – what Maslow called deficiency needs because we will feel deficient in some way if these are not met – our deficiency physical, security, social, and ego needs must be attended before we ever are able to reach for our own self-actualization – our fullest potential as human beings who can grow and create and develop.  Even the great philosopher Aristotle believed that “no one can philosophize on an empty stomach!”  (see https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/our-hierarchy-needs%3famp).  Jesus’ disciples were filled with their own human needs.  Beautifully, Jesus ensures those needs also are addressed.

Which makes it a little confusing why so often as God’s people, the church, we fail to admit our needs.  All of our needs, not just the obvious ones everyone with two eyes easily can see!  . . .  I once knew a family – a beautiful, picture perfect church family with whom I closely worked in a whole variety of church ministries for about a decade.  I’d been to their home on a number of occasions.  Was present at the birth of all four of their children.  Watched them grow for almost ten years.  One night, several years after I no longer was their pastor, I bumped into the mom unexpectedly.  The next night, I received a late-night frantic call from her.  She bashfully explained that after years of watching her beloved husband drink himself into a messy, depressed stupor each night; the man suddenly had gone missing that very night.  She didn’t know where else to turn; so, in desperation, she called to see if I might be able to help.  Perhaps that family routinely brought their households needs to God.  But never once in their ten years of perfect-looking membership in the church where I met them, never had they EVER brought their broken, chaotic family needs to me or any other person of that church.  Had the crisis of that night never happened, I’m certain they never would have.  The words of one biblical commentator bellow what seems to be true.  She writes:  “Most people in Western Christianity see the story of their life as a self-sufficient text.  This text may intersect with others, but for the most part it reveals a narrative that is self-contained, self-grounded, and self-made” (Cheryl Bridges Johns, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, p. 261).  A picture-perfect public face behind which we all try to hide.

Like it or not, we all have human needs.  The true knowledge of who we are physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually beneath the surface of the public images we seek to continue.  . . .  I am NOT suggesting we have a big cry-fest to let it all come tumbling out before each other.  I’m not proposing a pass-the-mic-around-the-room tell-all that reveals every last need in each of us.  That likely would do more individual harm than good.  We do each need at least one person on earth with whom we safely can tell our truth so that we can continue to function well.  And we need to know that with God, we never need to hide behind our public face.  In fact, with a whole host of older and wiser spiritual teachers; I would argue that if we try to approach God behind our public face, all of our striving will be empty.  For, in the words of that same commentator just quoted:  “the meeting of human hunger and the outstretched hands of Jesus create the possibilities for miracles of grace” (Ibid., p. 265).  He will provide the bread we need; for he IS the Bread of Life.  The true food that can satisfy all our need.  For our part, in our life with one another:  at least we might bring to mind our own needs, so that we can remember that everyone else too is carrying a load.  Needs we never may know of one another.  But needs among which we might gently walk.  Extending grace.  Showing compassion.  Trusting Christ to provide all we each need for the journey home.  For, as the words of Revelation remind – the words of Christ to us:  “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20).  Mysteriously.  Miraculously Christ will meet our needs.  “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church” (Rev. 3:22).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)