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.

Parts of One Body

A Sermon for 27 January 2019

A reading from the writings of the Apostle Paul as recorded in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a.  Listen for God’s word to us.  Note this morning that I’m reading from the version of the bible called The Message.  And I’m going to read a few of the verses at the opening of chapter 12 to place us in Paul’s line of thought.  It’s a long reading, but listen.

1What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.  This is complex and often misunderstood, but I want you to be informed and knowledgeable.  . . .  4-7God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit.  God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit.  God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all.  Each person is given something to do that shows who God is:  everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits.  . . .”  And now starting at verse 12 and following.

12-13“You easily enough can see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body.  Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body.  It’s exactly the same with Christ.  By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives.  We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which Christ has the final say in everything.  (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.)  Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink.  The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful.  We need something larger, more comprehensive.  14-18 I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less.  A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge.  It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together.  If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so?  If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body?  If the body was all eye, how could it hear?  If all ear, how could it smell?  As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where God wanted it.  19-24 But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance.  For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of.  An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster.  What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place.  No part is important on its own.  Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”?  Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”?  As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary.  You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach.  When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower.  You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons.  If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher.  If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?   25-26 The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church:  every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t.  If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing.  If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.  27-31 You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are!  You must never forget this.  Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything.  You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in God’s church, which is God’s “body”:  apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, organizers, those who pray in tongues.  But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, uni-dimensional Part?  It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues.  And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts.  But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

What is the purpose of the IT band?  You’d know if say, any one of the cold overcast days last week you were caught unexpectedly out in the rain.  Dashing for cover, you ran – or tried to run – as fast as you could to avoid getting drenched.  The next morning, it’s highly likely that at least one if not both of your IT bands would be talking to you.  As soon as you tried to swing your foot out of bed, the whole side of your leg from your hip to your knee seized up in achy pain.  Harvard researches have been busy creating a mechanical model of a human IT band.  They know it’s not a muscle, or a tendon as many often mistake.  “The IT band runs along the outside of the thigh, from just above the hip to just below the knee, and is made up of fascia, an elastic connective tissue found throughout the human body” (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015-08/understanding-the-it-band/).  The researches also know – as would anyone trying to take cover from a cold, icy rain – that the IT band is responsible for our gait – that spring in our step.  It’s what allows us to swing our leg forward when we walk and run and cycle.  Referred to in full as the iliotibial band, it’s the “largest piece of fascia in the human body” (Ibid.).  It “stores and releases elastic energy to make walking and running more efficient” (Ibid.).  The IT band is what makes human locomotion possible – and when overused, the painful IT band syndrome that plagues many runners sets in.

How about capillaries?  Anyone wanna try to live without them?  Long ago my doctor tried to explain the importance of capillaries when I was down with a horrible respiratory infection that left me with asthma.  According to an online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, capillaries are the “minute blood vessels that form networks throughout bodily tissues; it is through the capillaries that oxygen, nutrients, and wastes are exchanged between the blood and the tissues.  . . .  (They) are about 8 to 10 microns in diameter, just large enough for red blood cells to pass through them in single file” (https://britannica.com/science/capillary).  That’s really, really small.  But try taking a deep breath without capillaries in your body.  Try doing just about anything, as our hearts wouldn’t function without capillaries.  . . .  Aren’t we, as the Psalmist proclaimed:  awesomely and wonderfully made? (Psalm 139:14)  From the retina of our right eye to the joint of our big left toe, every bit of our miraculous bodies has a particular function.  If we want to live healthy, every part is indispensable!

The Apostle Paul didn’t come up with the comparison of the human body for human community.  According to biblical commentator Lee C. Barrett, the metaphor “already enjoyed a long history in classical literature.  However,” according to Barrett, “Paul gave it a revolutionary new twist.  Previously, the comparison had reinforced hierarchy, suggesting that the lowly workers, the drones, should obey and support their military, mercantile, and political leaders.  Those at the bottom should stay put and be grateful for the guidance and protection of their natural superiors” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Lee C. Barrett, p. 278).  According to Barrett, the reasoning was “in the body, the brain that makes crucial decisions is more critical than the lowly organs that sustain routine daily functioning.  Even today, the analogy retains a seductive plausibility” Barrett explains.  “Our culture assumes that a talented CEO is worth more than a janitor and should be remunerated accordingly” (Ibid.).  Which, in my opinion, is all good and fine.  Until you’re sitting at a big fancy, CLEAN table at a board meeting somewhere and you really, really, really have to go to the bathroom!  Each part plays a valued role – from the one ensuring the toilet is clean and properly functioning to the one who drives forward the mission of the organization to the one who ensures everyone gets paid!

Paul’s wisdom is obvious in our life together.  Who wants to choose between having the funds to sustain a place for the church to come together for worship to having a clean, functioning sink say like for babies’ bottles to be prepared after diaper changing in Playcare, to being organized as servants of God for ministries in the community like tutoring at H.G. Hill Middle School or preparing food for 15 homeless people on retreat at Penuel Ridge on the 4th Thursday of June as we’re planning to do together this summer?  Every one of us – members of Christ’s body – has a role to play as a part of this expression of Christ’s church.  Understandably, we’re not all good at the same thing.  Depending on our age and physical abilities, we can’t all do the same thing.  None of us have quite the same passions and gifts.  Which is exactly how God created it to be.  Wasn’t it brilliant of God to ensure we’re not all like mathematical brainiacs?  Or boisterous extraverts sucking up all the room so that no one can stay quietly grounded in prayer?  But we need at least a few who excitedly can extend a hand to a guest coming for worship for the first time.  We need someone who can make the coffee for fellowship.  And another who can dream big dreams for ways to serve in the community.  We need someone who can set up an online presence in the 21st Century and someone who can cheer the lonely days of a widow no longer able to get out of the house.  We need ushers who can pass the offering plates just assuredly as we need grateful hearts who can give a portion from the work of our lives just so we can have a chance to come together for worship and service and spiritual growth.  You get it – even if you feel sometimes that you don’t matter as much as someone else.  That what you have to contribute isn’t as important as the next person’s.  It’s NOT ok to be a part of the church and neglect your part of being the church.

In her book Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist includes a chapter called “And the Soul Felt Its Worth.”  She beautifully writes:  “I think it’s taken me almost forty years to actually feel the worth of my soul.  . . .  The sense of my own worth.  That’s what we’re craving.  The sense that we matter.  That someone sees us.  That we’re loved and valued,” she writes (Present Over Perfect:  Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living; Shauna Niequist, Zondervan, 2016).  She continues, stating that “The soul’s worth . . . doesn’t come from earning or proving.  Image doesn’t matter.  Out-running the emptiness doesn’t work for long.  Each soul, every soul is worthy, because God made every soul and . . . because God’s love for us is so deep and wide and elaborate God wants to be with us.  To walk with us.  To teach us how to live in that love and worthiness” (Ibid.).  Take that in for a moment.  God’s love for us is what makes all of us worthy.  Is what gives us a place in the body.  Niequist concludes:  “It’s only when you understand God’s truly unconditional love that you begin to understand the worth of your own soul.  Not because of anything you’ve done, but because every soul is worthy.  Every one of us is worthy of love having been created by and in the image of the God of love” (Ibid.).

We know this stuff.  These very basic beliefs of Christian faith.  What is it that sometimes leaves us thinking what we have to offer isn’t enough?  Isn’t as good as so-and-so’s gift.  Couldn’t possibly be worked into living out the vision for ministry God has given to this church:  to serve God by serving others as we partner for mission in this community?  We’re here to make an impact for God first in the lives of one another, next in the lives of our community partners:  the 86 children of Playcare and their families.  The Small World Yoga participants who get the chance to be present and centered in peace through yoga here and in recovery centers and schools around Nashville because of the free-will donations received at class here each week.  We’re here to impact the lives of those in their own healing process through ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.  And improve the lives of middle schoolers and their teachers down the road at H.G. Hill Middle.  We’re here to impact for good the women in recovery at Mending Hearts.  This is why this church exists.  What God intends to do through us.  . . .  Every part of this body – whether you’re more like the IT band responsible for our locomotion, for moving us forward.  Or more like the capillaries – involved in the very force of Life flowing through us.  Each part is indispensable.  Valued for the part that we are – no matter our official membership status!  Look around this room:  we each are needed if we want to be a healthy, living expression of Christ’s body.  Don’t forget that!  May God never let any one of us neglect our part in being Christ’s living body!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019  (All rights reserved.)

Extravagant Abundance

A Sermon for 20 January 2019

A reading from the gospel of John 2:1-11.  As we move into the season after Epiphany, when lectionary readings show us more deeply the revelation of Christ; listen for God’s word to us.  And remember that this is the gospel of John’s telling of how Jesus’ ministry begins just after calling his disciples.  Listen.

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.”  And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”  So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

            Thanks be to God.

 

Following Fellowship Time today, the new 2019 session of this church will meet for the first time.  After we’re called to order for the meeting to begin, we’ll start as we always do with a time of devotion.  Sometimes we spend a few minutes in silence to gather ourselves before diving into discerning business for the church.  Sometimes we read a scripture passage and a reflection upon it.  Sometimes we share inspirational sayings around a particular theme like gratitude or gifts or recharging for leadership among the church.  Today, your new session is going to hear words from the “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” as outlined in part two of our denomination’s constitution, The Book of Order.  (You may know that part 1 of our constitution is The Book of Confessions which contains the 12 creeds and confessions by which we are guided theologically in the PCUSA.)  Here are the words the session will hear as a part of their devotional time today.  From F-1.0202 entitled Christ Calls and Equips the Church:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world.”  We’ll hear these words too:  “Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word” (Ibid.).  And “Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body” (Ibid., F-1.0301).  Let that sink in – especially in light of a story from the gospel of John that demonstrates the abundant generosity of a God who would turn as much as 180 gallons of water into delicious, delightful wine just to ensure a family in Cana would not lose face with wedding guests who otherwise would be incredibly disappointed that halfway through the celebration of the union, nothing was left to drink!  Take deeply into your mind, soul, and heart the words Presbyterians have trusted for centuries:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid., F-1.0202).  Just to be sure we all remember, I should make you repeat it after me. Repeat it after me:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).

I love to tell the story.  Maybe you’ve heard it from me already.  A year ago, we got going full steam ahead with renewed ways for this church to live out the mission of this church that you all discerned sometime the fall of 2015.  You concluded that this church exists to serve God by serving others.  About this time last year, two Renewal Team members began the process of making contact with the high school right across the street.  Calls were made.  Emails were sent.  Calls were made again.  This went on for something like six or eight weeks.  We figured out who we already knew on the staff and tried to gain access that way.  As a church we wanted to build community partners beyond the main one we’ve had for years with the preschool downstairs.  And, as the high school literally sits across the street, we were offering to help.  Asking for a meeting or any ideas on how we might be able to connect.  Crickets.  Nothing.  No response whatsoever – nothing even back through the contact on the inside who tried to send on word for us.  Sometimes God assists in clarifying a church’s mission by what does not work!

The Renewal Team went back to the drawing board.  What about an elementary school nearby, we thought.  Or a different direction all together.  Finally, we decided to give the nearby middle school a shot.  A Renewal Team member re-composed an email sending it off something like a Tuesday late in the afternoon.  Before I went to bed that night, I received two cc’ed responses.  One was from Principle Carrie Jones.  The other from Community Involvement Specialist Maggie Dicks.  Both emails resounded with:  “Yes!!!!  We would LOVE for you all to become our community partner!”  The next thing we knew, we were scooping out ice cream in their cafeteria to host a social for the 5th grade Welcome to Middle School night.  Kleenix and hand sanitizer became regular items in all of our shopping carts to ensure teachers and students of the middle school would have all they would need.  This past fall, tutors got started – five from among us.  And, I’m excited to report that next Wednesday, our first parent from the preschool downstairs will drop off her baby downstairs then head over to the middle school to begin tutoring with students each week.  “Wanna help with a Rise Against Hunger event,” we were asked.  Two of you went during the very busy week of Thanksgiving to set up tables and pack highly nutritious non-perishable meals among 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  “Got any gently used umbrellas the children could use to get to and from their portable classrooms,” the school wondered?  And here we are:  about to go to a joint meeting with other middle school Community Partners to learn how we can work together next.  Oh:  and finalizing a date for us to provide lunch for teachers and staff during Teacher Appreciation week this March.

“Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  Do you see how doors get opened when the Church gets clear about the mission in the world God has entrusted to us?  . . .  It happened almost as miraculously with Mending Hearts, the residential addiction treatment homes for women located just four miles northeast of here.  For months we offered Mending Hearts a whole bunch of ways we could serve.  At long last we connected on our Women of the Church hosting a women’s lunch for women in Mending Hearts’ addiction recovery process and women of this church.  After two wonderful lunches together last year, we’re looking at plans for at least 2 if not 3 lunches together in 2019.  Of course, a joint women’s lunch would be a great hit!  This church is full of great cooks and lots of welcoming love!  The thank you card received a few weeks ago from the Mending Hearts participants was confirmation!  Indeed, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).

I hope you know that ACA – Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families – continues to meet in a room down the hall that hadn’t been used in several years.  Every Saturday they are here.  A small group at 10:30 a.m. meeting to specifically work through the process of healing from childhood trauma.  A larger group at 1 p.m. to support each other on their journey of learning new, healthier ways to function after being children who had to become the adult of the household due to their parents’ personal problems.  You may not know how it all came about that we now have nearly 50 people here every Saturday.  You and the leaders of this church – the session and Renewal Team members – talked and dreamed and worked for this building to be used again by the community.  About 12 months ago I remember asking if we wanted to set a goal to have a certain number of outside groups using the space by the end of each 2018 quarter.  We weren’t ready to be that ambitious.  T.H.E.Y. kept on tidying up what was needed.  Prayers continued to be prayed.  Sometime last summer I got an email from a woman I had met the prior year.  “Hello Jule,” the email read.  “I’m a member of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.  The husband of one of your friends mentioned at our meeting Saturday that he had heard Hillwood might have space for community groups to use.”  The session and leaders here diligently checked it out.  We decided what we needed to know and do in order to make such regular upstairs space-sharing work smoothly.  By the end of September, we had given over our first upstairs key to a group from the community that would use the building weekly.  This week when I bumped into ACA leaders, I was greeted with big hugs.  One asked if we could be sure to return all 50 chairs to the room in which they meet weekly because there were only 42 chairs the last few Saturdays and one participant had to sit on the floor.  The other leader told me he was moved to tears at Christmas when they found the holiday card our Painting group made and left for each ACA group.  He said that little card made him and other participants of ACA feel so incredibly welcomed by this church.  A feeling not always experienced elsewhere before.

“Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  . . .  I saw it again this week.  If you were here last Sunday for our FRED (Fellowship, Renewal, Education, and Devotion) brainstorm meeting, then you might recall that the following interests were put pretty high on the list:  Nature Art – which is right in line with the plan to expand creativity ministries in 2019.  A presentation by Retrieving Independence and maybe another Pet Blessing in conjunction with learning about the agency that trains retriever puppies in the local prison, then ensures those who need service animals have an affordable dog ready to go.  Learning with other churches in the neighborhood also made that list.  Wednesday I met with other neighborhood pastors.  The first thing I was asked was if we might have any interest in partnering to bring another Rise Against Hunger meal-packing event either to the middle school or to the neighborhood in general by our churches working together.  We moved on to wonder what might be possible if we pulled together the artist over at another nearby church with the people in our churches who already are into creative art as a way to feed their spirits.  Before I knew it, I was being asked if church members might have any interest in a joint Blue Advent service next year – something two of you asked about in December – a Blue Advent service being a worship experience for healing and hope during the season of Advent.  Because just when the world wants us to be jolly; many long for a quiet, holy space because they are grieving or going through other emotional challenges.  “And what about a joint Blessing of the Animals,” one pastor asked Wednesday.  “We could do it right on that big flood plain by the railroad tracks off Harding and Davidson.”  4 p.m. 29 September already is set.

We don’t always get to see the ways that “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  We either forgot to take the time to notice.  Or we don’t really know how everything comes together in the life of a church – how God’s Spirit hovers over it all bringing God’s will to fruition!  . . .  If the gospel of John’s way of telling the opening of Jesus’ ministry has anything at all to teach us, it is this:  an extravagant God abundantly provides.  In the life of the church.  In our lives in the world.  Sometimes it seems as unexpected as water turning to wine.  Sometimes as mystifying as suddenly having to figure out what to do with 180 gallons!  Or as one commentator writes:  “the equivalent of six hundred to nine hundred bottles of fine wine” – an act so miraculous we are called to linger for a while over an extravagant God (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1; WJKP, 2018, Matthew L. Skinner, p. 191).  For, as that same commentator writes, “There will be no shortages or rationings when the messianic banquet opens its doors” (Ibid.).  The prophets had foretold, as Isaiah 25 records:  an amazing “feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6).  For the banquet of the marriage – the celebration of the union of God with humankind – in Christ, has begun!  And as that same biblical commentator reminds:  “The church should . . . trust in a God who abundantly provides” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1; WJKP, 2018, Matthew L. Skinner, p. 190).  In our life together.  In our lives when from here we go, may it ever be so!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Revealed in Baptism

Sermon for 13 January 2019 – Baptism of the Lord

A reading for Baptism of the Lord Sunday from the gospel of Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

The College Football National Championship Monday reminded me of the quote that “Sports do not build character.  They reveal it.   (Heywood Broun, www.brainyquote.com/topics/character).  In other words, on the field of play – say when a freshman quarterback has walked onto one of the biggest national stages – just who he is will be seen by all.  Despite being one of the youngest players out there, can he calm his nerves enough to throw a 62-yard bomb in the first quarter to get his team poised to score?  Might his level of skill, grit, determination be revealed in a cumulative game stat of 347 passing yards and a trio of touchdown passes – something, unfortunately, I’ve not seen outta Aaron Rodgers in like forever!  The game reveals the player’s character.  It shows the world just what that athlete is made of.

According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus baptism revealed who he was.  Being in line with those others at the Jordan River, as the gospel of Luke tells the story, shows the world just what this one is made of.  What comprises his character.  Who he indeed is and will be.  We don’t get a lot of details in the gospel of Luke about Jesus’ big baptismal day.  Prior, we do hear John the Baptist’s words that one is coming.  A powerful Messiah, holy, set-apart who will breathe the fire of the Holy Spirit upon his followers.  Who will ignite the passion of God in his disciples.  Like the farmer in the granary, John says, this Messiah will clear away the chaff so that all that’s left in those baptized in his name will be wheat.  Substantial food within to feed a world starving for Something More.

As Luke tells it, John’s fiery sermon nearly drew more attention than the day Jesus arrived at the Jordan to be dunked all the way under by John.  “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,” Luke 3:21 reads.  No exchange with John about “am I worthy to baptize you, Jesus?”  No clouds parting and doves alighting on his way up out of the water, as the gospel of Matthew tells it.  No booming voice declaring to all:  “This is my Son, the Beloved!” as the gospel of Matthew also records.  Just Jesus.  There.  With all the others.  And in prayer after his baptism the Holy Spirit comes.  His Heavenly Father whispering in his heart:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased!” (Luke 3:22).

Listen to the words of one commentator who beautifully reminds that Jesus baptism reveals his character.  Shows the world just who he is.  The commentator writes:  “According to Luke, all we know about the baptism of Jesus is that it was with ‘all the people’ . . .  (which means that) Jesus presented himself for baptism in an act of solidarity with a nation and a world of sinners.  Jesus simply got in line with everyone who had been broken by the ‘wear and tear’ of this selfish world and had all but given up on themselves and their God.  The commentator continues:  when the line of downtrodden and sin-sick people formed in hopes of new beginnings through a return to God, Jesus joined them.  At his baptism, he identified with damaged and broken people who needed God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Robert M. Brearley, p. 236).

In other words, Jesus’ baptism reveals the heart of God to stand in line with you and with me.  Ones wearied by a selfish world.  Ones about ready to give up – though the Spirit keeps giving us signs every day of ways we are not alone.  God is with us, as the birth of the baby just reminded us at Christmas.  For all the ways we’ve been beaten down by our histories, our losses, our challenges, and our sins.  For that little flicker of light that dances in our hearts because deep within we still long for a new beginning.  Despite all the ways we have damaged and been damaged.  Broke and been broken:  God in Christ gets in line with us.  With all of us who wear the skin and flesh of human kind.  So we too hear the whisper of the Heavenly One:  “Mine.” The Voice says.  “Beloved.  I’m so incredibly pleased with you.”  Then in the stillness the Spirit stirs within.  So we are empowered again.  Knowing who we are too.  To whom we belong.  God now able to accomplish through us!

In the challenges we face.  In the heartbreaks yet to come.  Let us never forget:  who Jesus is – from what is revealed in his baptism – shows who we are.  How we are to be in the world.  With whom we are to stand.  . . .  Let us renew the vows of our baptisms so we will be ready to excel in God’s game!

© Copyright JMN – 2019

The Gifts of Epiphany

A Sermon for 6 January 2019 – Epiphany

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 2:1-12.  This is the gospel text assigned for today that tells of the gifts of Epiphany.  Listen to God’s word to us.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”  Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

Are you familiar with something called the Magi Complex?  I learned of it from a friend who has been thriving for 6 years after breast cancer.  Part of the protocol used after her surgery, she found that the Magi Complex is one of nature’s most powerful healers.  Supposedly it’s a revolutionary supplement good not just for reversing inflammation to reduce pain in the body, but also for keeping cancer cells from growing within.  I admit I haven’t tried it myself – and anyone certainly should ask their medical professional before doing so, though my friend is living proof.  Along with other natural healing interventions, the Magi Complex kept her from any radiation or chemo after a double mastectomy.  In case you’re wondering just what’s in this miraculous Magi Complex, you guessed it.  As every wise healer knows:  gold (known in the essential-oil world as turmeric).  Frankincense.  And myrrh:  gifts from the earth fit for a king!

It makes good sense, actually.  Thanks to biblical details and historical legend, we know a little bit about the Eastern travelers called the magi or the three wise men.  They come seeking.  Asking:  “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Mt. 2:2).  They are foreigners from another land.  Most probably professional star-gazers.  Likely ones familiar with the healing arts of the earth.  In the light of the rising star, they are aware that something bigger than themselves calls them – like a tug they had waited for all their lives.  Some legends trace them back to Persia – others Babylon.  There, Jewish exiles once kept hope with stories of a Messiah who someday would come to set the world aright.  Had the promise reached their ears so that these wise men already knew of the one who someday would be born?  Think of the words of the prophets:  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.  . . .  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (Is. 40:1-2a, 3b-4a).  And “he shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  (Is. 40:11).  “Here is your God,” the prophet also proclaimed, who “will come and save you” (from Is. 35:4).  Then, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6a).  According to the prophets; the anointed of God, the Messiah, Israel’s long-awaited king would be the Great Healer.  Had these wise ones known all along the gifts fit to bring?

We hear the story and tend to envision the other kind of gold:  the precious metal of the earth’s crust that across cultures has connoted great wealth.  Frankincense, which biblical scholars tell us symbolized “an oblation worthy of divinity” – as the aromatic incense often burned in temples (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, William J. Danaher, Jr., p. 212).  And myrrh – known in Jesus’ day as a resin or essential oil used not only for healing, but also for burial.  The ancient Egyptians actually using myrrh for embalming their mummies.  So that even in the gifts given, we are told to hear clues of who the baby born in Bethlehem is destined to become.  . . .  The gospel of Matthew is keen to point out the three gifts from the Eastern travelers.  A detail so specific that every nativity now contains just three wise men – though the gospel never mentions the number of travelers, just the three gifts.  Magi, on bended knee, falling in awe around the precious child.

In her newly released children’s book entitled Home by Another Way:  A Christmas Story, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of the gifts received by the travelers from their time with the blessed baby.  On a page near the book’s end, the three elderly men stand by their camels ready to depart as a young mother holds a swaddled babe in her arms.  The page imaginatively reads:  “So the wise men picked up their packs, which were lighter than before.  Then they lined up in front of the baby, to thank him for the gifts he had given them.  ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ the baby’s mother said, laughing.  ‘For the scent and weight and skin of a baby,’ said the first wise man, who had no interest in living on herbs anymore” (as he’d been found doing at the opening of the story when Taylor imagined each of the three men seeking something more in a life of ascetism, a life of study, and a life of rigid spiritual discipline).  Of the second gift given by the baby, Taylor writes:  “’For this home and the love here,’ said the second wise man, who could not remember how to say it in the ancient language.  ‘For a really great story,’ said the third wise man, who thought that telling it might do a lot more for him than continuing to walk on hot coals” (as he had been doing at the opening of the story, according to Taylor, in his search for something more) (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way:  A Christmas Story, illustrated by Melaine Cataldo; Flyaway Books, 2018).

Gifts, given and received, are a huge part of this day.  The final celebration of the Christmas cycle known as Epiphany.  The day assigned to the wise men.  The liturgical feast marked as the manifestation of God’s amazing gift:  the healing of the nations!  The East and the West – represented in the story by the Eastern travelers and the Western puppet-ruler Herod; who, according to one commentator, clashed “over the birth of a little Jewish boy” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Emerson B. Powery, WJKP, 2018; p. 155).  If the magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh truly were gifts to be used by the one foretold by prophets, then the wise ones knew what Herod and Jerusalem could not see.  Among them was rising one who would shepherd the people – all the people.  Standing and feeding the flock that had been battered and bruised by their own.  Binding up the wounds of those longing for a little good news.  Proclaiming release to captives.  Recovering the sight of the blind.  Letting those oppressed go free.  The Great Healer of all nations shining as the Light of the world from the humble spot in Bethlehem.  Gifts given.  Others received as the magi gave witness to The Morning Star that had dawned.  The great Light to light the earth as guide through the night.

When I think about the gifts of Epiphany, first given:  gold, frankincense, myrrh.  And first received:  the divine in our flesh.  Love radiating from a little place in Bethlehem.  A story about one born to change the trajectory of the world.  I think too of the gifts given us.  From the magi we learn to seek.  Like them, we heed the words that would come from the baby’s lips when from a Mount he first taught:  “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find” (Matthew 7:7).  From the magi we learn to believe.  To trust the signs given us.  The promises of hope to heal us all.  From the magi we learn to stay open.  Waiting when we must.  Falling on our knees in wonder – even if what we’ve found doesn’t quite match any expectations we might have had.  From the magi we receive the greatest gift of all.  The reminder that we cannot go home from Christmas the same.  God’s gift is meant to change us.  Transform us from the inside out.

In Circle of Grace:  A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Jan Richardson beautifully summarizes Epiphany’s gifts.  She reminds:  “There is no reversing this road.  The path that bore you here goes in one direction only, every step drawing you down a way by which you will not return.  You thought arrival was everything, that your entire journey ended with kneeling in the place you had spent all to find.  When you laid down your gift, release came with such ease, your treasure tumbling from your hands in awe and benediction.  Now the knowledge of your leaving comes like a stone laid over your heart, the familiar path closed and not even the solace of a star to guide your way.  You will set out in fear.  You will set out in dream.  But you will set out by that other road that lies in shadow and in dark.  We cannot show you what route will take you home; that way is yours and will be found in the walking.  But we tell you, you will wonder at how the light you thought you had left behind goes with you, spilling from your empty hands, shimmering beneath your homeward feet, illuminating the road with every step you take” (“Blessing of the Magi,” p. 70-72).

These are the gifts of Epiphany.  Given and received so that the Light now shines in us – through us – to illumine the Way home.  For us.  For all.  Thanks be to God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Being God’s Children

A Sermon for 16 December 2018 – Third Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 3:7-18.  Listen for God’s word to us in this gospel reading reserved for the third Sunday of Advent every three years.  Listen.

“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation; and be satisfied with your wages.”  15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

I don’t know about you all, but I’m about ready to celebrate Christmas!  What with all the festivities around here!  From several hours of singing Christmas carols to our homebound members two weeks ago.  To the glorious sounds of the Choral Cantata last Sunday.  To Thursday when there was a chancel-area overflowing with adorable children.  Some literally shouting out holiday songs at the top of their lungs.  Only to get an extra special surprise in Fellowship Hall:  the REAL Santa was here!  (THANKS Bob!!!  By the way, he truly looks authentic!)  And for those here Tuesday; how about that incredible, inspiring Christmas lunch hosted by our very dedicated Women of the Church!  Spending that lunch together Tuesday with the fifteen women in residential treatment on their road to recovery at Mending Hearts, was absolutely amazing!  Mending Hearts founder Trina Frierson topped off the experience – as only Trina can – with rousing encouragement to all gathered!  To us, she charged to keep opening our doors to those often turned away elsewhere because of their past; for it truly does matter to the one welcomed in!  To the women of Mending Hearts, she told so much of her own story of incarceration, recovery, and renewal; so that they would commit to continuing to show up for themselves as their lives are changed one day at a time through their recovery!  Tuesday was such a gift – the felt sense of the arms of the manger baby already in our midst to gather us all up before God.  It seems about time to welcome that lowly babe born out back in an animal cave, as they tell in Bethlehem, because there was no place for his very pregnant, ritually unclean-because-she-was-about-to-give-birth mother.

Unfortunately, it’s only the start of the third week of Advent.  We still got another 8 full days to go!  And instead of the wee babe in the manger, today we’re still stuck with John the Baptist.  Crying out in the wilderness in preparation for the Way of the Lord!  You have anyone in your life like that?  Someone who really intends to deliver good, helpful news.  Though each word seems more like a smack to the face.  Or at least a significant blow to the ego.  . . .  That’s how John feels – especially in this portion of the gospel of Luke.  This wild, zealous man crying out in the wilderness.  Name-calling actually.  “You brood of vipers!” he’s recorded as saying.  “You sneaking little snakes trying to slither away from what you rightly have coming to you for your faithless, unacceptable behavior.”  (paraphrase of Luke 3:7)

One commentator reminds that “In the Lukan narrative, ‘children of X’ are those who share in X’s character” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Willie James Jennings; WJKP, 2018 p. 44).  So, if you claim to be a child of God – say through being included as a son or daughter of Abraham – then it should be evident.  People should be able to look at your life and see a reflection of God.  As parts like Luke 6:35-36 remind:  “God’s children love their enemies, do good, and lend without expecting anything in return” (Ibid.).  Those who claim to be sons and daughters of God “are like God, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Ibid.).  John the Baptist understood that.  That as God is peace, children of God would be people of peace.  As God is unconditional love, children of God would be people of unmerited, unconditioned love.  As God welcomes – even the most repugnant prodigal.  As God works for embodied justice.  As God forgives and empowers us to begin again.  Children of God thus are people who welcome.  Children of God work to embody justice – which is just-enough for all.  Children of God forgive.

Though it might feel more like a shocking slap to the face, John the Baptizer fervently was reminding whoever would listen – tax collectors, soldiers, those in the gathered crowd, even us too.  He was trying to remind us of our names.  Sons and daughters of God.  Children whose lives reflect the characteristics of – well, if God sounds too lofty.  How about children whose lives reflect the character of the lowly babe in the manger?  Children in whom the very same deeds can be seen as will be seen in the holy child as he grows.  Children who speak the same sort of hope.  Children who live the same kind of right-relatedness as the one who will be held by mother Mary.  Tended by brother Joseph.  Praised by unexpected shepherds.  And gifted by wise ones seeking the mystical miracle they learned from the stars.  If we wanna be ready for Christmas morn’ we’ve gotta hear John’s words.  That every tree that does not bear good fruit really is just a waste.  Not fit to remain standing in the good soil.  So that logically, the Gardener would cut it down, so it can be burned as fuel for the fire (Luke 3:9).

We’ve got just 8 full days to get ourselves ready.  And I realize we might be on autopilot scurrying around faster than little church mice, so we can be sure to have ourselves a very merry Christmas.  Maybe it’s why we need John’s shocking words.  The cold water in our face to wake us up to what really matters!  The reminder to stop.  Look.  Listen.  . . .  We are children of God.  Brothers and sisters of Christ.  . . .  May all we do; everything we say show that truth!

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

Let us reflect upon God’s word to us in a moment of silence – and as we may not be getting much stillness in these often-overflowing weeks, let us truly pause in some silence today to listen for God’s reminder to each of us that we ARE God’s precious children.  Let us examine to see where we are reflecting the character of God.  Let us listen for how God is calling us through the Spirit to re-commit ourselves to embodying the very being of God in the world today.  Let us join in a time of silent reflection.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Meditations for A Choral Christmas Cantata

9 December 2018

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION

Let us pray.  Holy One, through your Spirit, instruct us with the light of your word.  Illumine our hearts, that we may hear and heed your call to become your path into the world.  Through Christ we pray, Amen.

SCRIPTURE READING

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:68-79.  In this portion of Scripture often called the Canticle of Zechariah – the words on the father’s lips when he looked upon his son who would grow to be known as John the Baptizer; listen for God’s word to us.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before God all our days.  76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

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

MEDITATION

It’s a crazy story.  Shocking in its detail, though familiarity has dulled us to its preposterousness.  How could an occupied people still believe they mattered at all to the Great LORD of the heavens and earth?  How could a nation crushed over and over by invading armies for centuries keep hope in the midst of that kind of darkness?  The audacity of the little guy to believe they still might matter as we hear in the words of Zechariah, the father of one charged with preparing the way for the LORD.  . . . Think of what we’re told takes place:  a virgin conceives?  A man keeps his wedding engagement due to strange words in a dream?  Messengers from God – a whole host of them rouse lowly shepherds with good news of favor unto all?  And how about millennia of people around the world continuing to pay homage to a baby who was smuggled into a neighboring country by his parents because a power-crazed king felt threatened by his birth?

It’s crazy.  Logic-defying stuff we come back to each year.  For that’s what it means to be the people of God called the Church.  We exist because of this story.  We are gathered because of this Truth.  That hope – the belief, the trust in the possibility of a better tomorrow – prevails.  No matter the darkness, Light still shines.  The little guy matters – in fact, all of us matter to the Force that is unending Love, the One who rules over all.  We’re here to remember, as the angel said to the young girl, that nothing shall be impossible with God.  Maybe we too can gain direction for the living of our days through the messages of our dreams, and the songs sung out in glory, and the favor that rests on us all – especially, as the babe once gargling in a manger, grew up to declare:  the last, the least, the despised of the world.  We are the people shaped by the Truth that all find rest in the fold of a Great loving Shepherd.

Open yourself again to the audacity of the story.  Allow your heart to soar with the angelic chorus.  The Word is for us – to be in us, that we too might go into the world to tell!

SCRIPTURE READING  (Luke 2:1-7)

Typically, this reading is reserved for Christmas Eve – not the second Sunday of Advent.  But listen to this most beautiful part of it all.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered.  Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

            Thanks be to God!

MEDITATION

Glory might be the best word in response to it!  Glory to God on high!  Glory to the newborn King!  Glory in excelsis!  Gloria!  Gloria!  Gloria!  . . .  Did you know that according to Siri, glory means high renown or honor won by notable achievements?  Webster’s defines glory similarly.  But just what has God achieved in Christ’s birth?  . . .  Taking on flesh, the Eternal Word blesses us.  Being humbled to be found in human form, brings immense value to our life on this earth.  Emptying Self to live in us, lifts us up to be children of Light – the spark of the Divine within – to shine for all to see!

Christ is the Light of the world!  And all who follow in his form.  All who empty self in service to Life, Live.  Truly Live.  . . .  Just what has God achieved in Christ’s birth?  The start of the revolution:  the New Creation begins!

Glory to God on high!

 

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)

“The Reign of Christ the King”

A Sermon for 25 November 2018 – Christ the King Sunday

A reading from the gospel of John 18:33-37.  We break into the portion of the gospel of John when Jesus has been brought before Pilate to be condemned to crucifixion.  Already Pilate has been outside to talk to the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to the local Roman ruler.  And Pilate has wondered if this man isn’t innocent.  He returns to his headquarters to speak to Jesus directly.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

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

 

Anyone who’s ever spent time with stories from the gospels likely recognizes how odd things seem.  In stories recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; Jesus does things like sit down to eat with those despised as outsiders.  Heal-with-a-touch people considered unclean, untouchable by religious law.  Welcome women, children, and others – even those from other nations – all who were hailed as less than in Jesus’ day.  Not to mention, forgive those violently taking his life, as even in death he remains grounded in the way of non-violence.  If we stop to read the gospels – and know a thing or two about the times in which Jesus lived, then we begin to see behavior in Jesus and in his first followers that may look quite different from what’s too often seen today.  We may look at the stories of Christ and his first followers and think:  “Wow!  It’s behavior, practices, acts – from truly beyond this world!

It’s Christ the King Sunday – the final Sunday of the liturgical year – the culmination of the cyclical story that takes us in Advent through the waiting, waiting, waiting for God to act among us in a new way, to the in-breaking of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, to his radical way of living among us which led directly to his death but could not be the end for a God who is Life and would start something amazing among us through the Spirit, so that we would grow together in this world to walk that same radical path of love.  Today we remember Christ is King!  He reigns supreme with the strongest power known in the universe.  Not force, in which the powers of this world put all their hope; but love.

This year in the scriptures assigned by the lectionary for Christ the King, we’re taken right to the judgment seat of Pilate.  Here in the gospel of John a seemingly private conversation between Jesus and Pilate is recorded.  It might be helpful to remember that John is the latest written gospel and it begins with that beautiful poetry of “In the beginning” (John 1:1-14).  There was God.  There was Word.  There was Spirit and the outflow of their love created the world.  The continuing outflow of their love caused it to be that Word would take on flesh to dwell among us.  . . .  Jesus attempts to explain this to Nicodemus when Nicodemus comes to him in the shadow of night trying to understand what Jesus might be up to.  As the gospel of John records the story, it’s the first teaching of Jesus and it begins like this:  “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).  If you’re scratching your head going:  “Huh?”  Don’t be alarmed.  Supposedly Nicodemus was a part of those who devoted their whole lives to understanding God and he’s just as confused as the next.

In her book entitled The Wisdom Jesus:  Transforming Heart and Mind, Cynthia Bourgeault makes the case that Jesus isn’t just the Savior of the world – here to die and be raised to new life for us, as we’ve primarily come to emphasize in the Christian tradition of the West.  Jesus also is a wisdom teacher – one among us to perk our consciousness that we might come to know how to live.  How to follow the path of his Way.  It’s why so much of what Jesus teaches is hard for us to grasp.  People seek to take him at face value like he’s a teacher who rattles off fact after concrete literal fact.  When wisdom teachers speak, according to Bourgeault, “pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables” all for the sake of the transformation of the human being (The Wisdom Jesus, p. 23).  Bourgeault points out that much of Western Christianity has seen the kingdom of God in one of two different ways.  She writes:  “A lot of Christians . . . assume that the Kingdom of Heaven (or of God) means the place where you go when you die – if you’ve been good.”  . . .  Others “equate the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly utopia . . . a realm of peace and justice, where human beings live together in harmony and fair distribution of economic assets” (Ibid., p. 30).  I’ve heard of both, haven’t you?  In fact, one or the other, or both, seem the concern of Pilate.  He’s Rome’s representative in Jerusalem, after all.  If Jesus is a King, he needs to know if his Caesarea has anything about which to be worried.

As Jesus stands before Pilate, he’s asked:  “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33).  In the vein of a true teacher of wisdom, Jesus turns back the question on the questioner:  “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34).  He might as well have been saying:  “What do you think, Pilate?  You see the leaders out there wanting to do me in.  Am I the King of the Jews?”  Insisting Jesus reveal his crimes, Jesus finally tells Pilate:  “My kingdom is not of this world.  That’s easy enough to see or else my followers would be here storming the gates to free me.  Using the very same force upon which Rome and the powers of this world rely” (John 18:36).

I wish the gospel writer would have used a word other than the same one used in the rest of the gospel of John.  Like when John records:  “The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through him . . .  And for God so loved the world” (John 1 & 3).  I wish the word recorded by John on Jesus’ lips before Pilate would have been the word societyCulture.  Even way, as in:  “my kingdom is not like your way.”  Anything to keep us from thinking that Jesus wants nothing to do with the physical stuff of this world.  Too long Christian history has abused the physical in this world due to misguided understandings of God.  After all, if spirit is all that is good and matter is all bad, how can we claim God created physical matter?  This beautiful earth with all its creatures including us, who are an interesting elixir of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, in-fleshed people of God.  If the world is all bad and the spirit is all that is good, then certainly God wouldn’t have taken on our physical flesh in Jesus the Christ.  . . .  Because God took on our flesh and blood; in Jesus God could wake up each day in a home with parents around him, and feet to put on the ground, and taste buds to take-in that first sip of whatever it was he’d drink every morning.  And finally had ears to hear the sweet songs of the birds.  And muscles to feel the strain of physical labor – the wood and tools in his hands as he worked alongside his dad.  Jesus could feel the hot sun on his back as they built.  And notice the beautiful colors as it began to set each night.  He had a brain to think and try to keep calm.  And a heart beating in the center of his chest with which he could feel the full range of human emotions.  I do believe that if God didn’t value the physical stuff of this world – including all the stuff of human flesh, then God never would have chosen to be in-fleshed among us in Jesus the Christ.  But, as the gospel of John so beautifully reminds:  God so loved this world; that God, in Christ, came to us in a new and wonderful way! (John 3:16).

While it is true that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world in the sense of the norms, rituals, and values of so much of our society.  Nonetheless, it is right here and now; in this world.  Jesus says it himself when elsewhere the Pharisees ask him when the Kingdom of God will arrive.  Luke 17:20-21 records his answer as:  “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed . . . for in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”  In Putting on the Mind of Christ, Jim Marion interestingly concludes that the kingdom of God might just be “a metaphor for a state of consciousness . . . a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place” (The Wisdom Jesus, pp. 30-31).  Hear that again:  the kingdom of God might just be “a metaphor for a state of consciousness . . . a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place” (Ibid.).  An awareness that sees no separation between God and humans, and humans and other humans.  It’s a Oneness.  A mutual indwelling, about which Jesus tells his followers a few chapters earlier in the gospel of John when they gather together that fatal night.  He tells them:  “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you  . . .  abide in me” (John 14:20; 15:4).

When we’re aware of that kind of oneness – when we’re living that kind of unified sense, then indeed the kingdom of God is in us.  Then, and maybe only then, can we be about the behaviors of Christ’s way.  Putting into practice things like expanding our table fellowship because God in Christ ate with the despised of the world.  Maybe as we take on the consciousness of Christ our King, we can sit with people in pain to help heal them too just like God in Christ did.  Perhaps we could enact gracious welcome of all – including men and women and children of every race and tribe and ability because God in Christ certainly did.  Perhaps we could put down the weapons of war and for once understand that the most powerful energy in the world isn’t force, but love.  Because in Christ, God showed us this Way.  The Truth which always leads to Life.

It’s Christ the King Sunday.  The day we celebrate the One whose Way is not like the ways of this world.  Whose Truth looks differently than the lies we’re encouraged by this realm to live.  When we finally get that, his reign expands in us for the Kingdom of God to be seen through us!

Blessings for Christ the King Sunday, children of the King!  May he reign in us all forever!

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

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