Category Archives: General

“God’s Blessings”

A Sermon for 29 Jan. 2017

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

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

Before us today stand God’s blessings. Words so beloved that we might have them cross-stitched on a pillow or hanging on a placard on a wall in our home. I’m not sure I have any original insights to share about these blessings from God. But I do have a few stories. So listen for the word of God.

I once met a waitress when I was at a pub for a reading group. The woman was quite attractive and I noted how she flittered about joking flirtatiously with the male patrons. Halfway through our meal she noticed our books and let us know she was an avid reader. It was a heavy theological text so we were hesitant to tell her about it; but she was insistent. The content of the book had to do with the experience of so many who struggle with mainline Christianity. I told her about it while my colleagues at the table rolled their eyes giving off this “Jule, just stop talking” vibe! Before we knew it, the woman leapt into her story about being raised Christian but not really being a part of it any longer. She said she still let’s her parents take her daughter to Sunday School sometimes. Reading between the lines this beautiful, young, unmarried mother made it clear that she is met with disapproval in her small town. Though she may need them most, her church lets her know her actions are beyond their welcome. . . . “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus once said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).

Last weekend while I was at my final intensive for Spiritual Direction training in Hendersonville, North Carolina; we heard from a man who is part Cherokee. I noted a sadness about him – a depth of pain he had known, partly from the details of his own journey. Partly from the history of the Cherokees, which his father and grandfather made sure he knew. We were at Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of North Carolina where Cherokee Indians once roamed free. Our speaker returned often to the Removal of 1830 – an act passed by congress and signed into United States law by President Andrew Jackson. . . . Maybe it was the best policy for a burgeoning nation. Maybe there was no other way for differing groups of natives and settlers to get along with one another. Maybe we choose fear over love and allowed a strong, proud people to lose so very much. . . . According to the gospel of Matthew, on a hill one day, Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt. 5:4).

Over twenty-five years ago when I moved from a small town in Wisconsin where everyone had enough, I started seeing things I’d never seen before – sights that continue to this day. One sign reads: “Homeless and hungry. Please help.” Another states: “Veteran: will work for food.” The worst are when you can see the wounds – the man with half a leg who’s out there near the Old Hickory Boulevard Kroger almost every Sunday morning. We don’t really know their stories – whether the signs are true or not. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. What strikes me every time is the posture: hung heads, minimal eye contact – which most of us drivers never mind. Have you ever stopped to wonder what’s going on inside? I mean standing there in frigid temperatures and the hottest days of summer too. Waddling along up the line of traffic begging for someone to give a handout. I imagine there’s gotta be some deep desperation inside. Most of us have too much pride to beg like that day in day out. Most of us do what we can to avoid being at the mercy of others. Imagine the humiliation carried as he sits, as she waits, as the young vet waddles along hoping someone will have compassion. . . . A man who would carry the humiliation of us all as he shouldered the cross once said: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5).

Have you seen signs – often in neighborhoods – but ones we need all over the city that read: “Drive as if every child you see on the street is your own.” Change drive to live as if every child you see on the street is your own and it pretty much summaries the good news of right-relationship we come to know in Christ. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:6).

You don’t get to see the church Clerk’s Questionnaire completed each year for the General Assembly on behalf of the ministry you undertake. It starts off easy: name of the congregation, address where it gathers for worship. Moving on to things like number of active members – 85 for HPC at the end of 2016 – and average worship attendance – holding strong at the end of 2016 with an average of 53; question 44 finally asks this: “How many different individuals (nonmembers) do you estimate that your congregation served or ministered this year through its various ministries (events, programs, outreach, and visitors)?” Anyone want to take a guess? . . . If you assist with the Food Pantry, or help with outreach to Tulip Grove Elementary School, or wait each week for someone to come for financial assistance through HPC’s Good Samaritan ministry; then you may not be shocked to hear that in 2016 this small-but-mighty congregation of 85 active members ministered to the needs of 195 people – 195 strangers really whose lives you impacted for good through your generous welcome, your faithful gifts, and your deep compassion for the least of these. We don’t get to hear often enough about the difference made when folks needed just a little something to get them through to the end of the month, or somewhere to rest when the pressures of their lives are too much, or a circle of love to welcome them no matter the challenges they are facing. 195 lives impacted for good! You made that happen. You didn’t have to. But “blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says on that mountain. “For the merciful will receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7).

Pure in heart? A woman I know, who possess an incredibly beautiful spirit, wants to become an ordained priest. It’s not impossible in her tradition. She’s about my age with a supportive husband. Together they already are leading a different kind of ministry in a building someone has allowed them to use rent-free. They’ve created a community where people about their age or younger gather together for dinner once a week. Wine is served. Conversation is had. Folks who once were without any sort of connecting, caring community are finding it there. The woman I know wants to be ordained in order to be able to fully serve this widening community, and others like it, with the sacraments of faith: baptism into the way of Christ. Eucharist around the Table of the Lord. . . . “They will see God,” Jesus says of those who open their hearts in sincerity and honesty and pure devoted-love (Mt. 5:8).

In 2006, the book The Faith Club was released. After 9/11, three New York mothers came together to write a children’s book about each of their faith traditions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The Faith Club captures the fascinating, honest, conversations of Ranya, Suzanne, and Priscilla as three strangers come together regularly to discuss the core principles of their faith and the key struggles they experience with their own and each other’s’ religions. . . . Maybe it’s just a baby step, but “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

I know a professor at a local church college. She’s there as a woman at an institution that sees women as inferior – unable to attain the same levels of authority in the church as men. It’s hard work, but she’s trying to show a generation of that particular shade of Christianity that there’s a different way to understand the world: one where our contributions are appreciated no matter our bodily form. I’ve listened in horror more than once to stories that show that she’s suspect if not from the administration, then from the students themselves. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” says our Lord, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10).

Just a few stories for us to consider this week as we think about some of Christianity’s favorite words. God’s blessings . . . Whether they console or challenge, may they remain with us every day.

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

© Copyright JMN 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

Testify to the Light

A Sermon for 25 December 2016 – Christmas Day

A reading from the gospel of John 1:1-14. Listen on this Christmas morning for God’s word to us.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God.   3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

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

Christmas is not the only celebration of the week. In the wee hours of the morning Wednesday, about the time my dog decided he just had to drag me out of bed for him to go outside; the Winter Solstice took place. It happened this year at 10:44 Universal Time – that’s 4:44 a.m. Central Standard Time on December 21. When the Northern Hemisphere leaned the furthest away from our sun, the North Pole experienced twenty-four full hours of night. And for us in this part of the earth; we had the shortest day of the year and longest night (www.earthsky.org/earth/everything-you-need-to-know-december-solstice). The ancients must have wondered if the sun ever would come back round again. Winter began – the official start for us of frigid temperatures, windy gusts, potentially treacherous ice, and long dark nights.

Many Christians are unaware, but the Winter Solstice and Christmas actually are tied up together. Long before the birth of Christ, cultures around the world observed the solstice. Many still do – it’s we in the United States who seem oblivious to the life-cycle of our solar system. “The word solstice comes from two ancient words: Sol, which was the name of the sun god, and stice, which meant still” (www.miltontimmons.com/SolsticeandChristmas.html). The solstice is the day when the sun stands still – many ancient cultures believing it’s the time when their sun god would go to battle against the forces of cold and darkness. Huge bonfires lit up the night sky at the time of the solstice. And in the morning, when the day after the solstice increased again in light; great celebrations took place. Their sun god had won! The cold of darkness would not reign. . . . As early as the Fourth Century when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, our Christian ancestors made the connection between the Winter Solstice and the birth of Christ, the one we believe to be the Son (s-o-n) God come to earth to dispel the chilling forces of darkness. Due to changes in marking time over the years – what with the need to keep the calendar in sync with the cycles of the sun; it eventually came to pass that Winter Solstice was landing on December 25th. Despite Pope Gregory establishing the Gregorian Calendar in 1582 – brilliantly adding the one additional day of February every fourth year – tradition kept to Christmas on December 25th instead of linking it forever with the Winter Solstices of anywhere from December 20-23 (www.miltontimmons.com/SolsticeandChristmas.html and www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice.html). Thus – all around the world, whether people know the Son (s-o-n) God or not, celebrations of the Light abound. Darkness will not have the final say. Light wins. The Son (s-o-n) God reigns!

Certainly the gospel writer of John knew this truth from nature when the beautiful poetry of John chapter 1 was written. And as brilliantly as our Christian ancestors, who over the centuries replaced a nod to a sun god with the hope of the Son (s-o-n) God, the gospel writer dispels our fears. The chilling forces– all we experience throughout the days of our year what with wars and hostile terrorist attacks. The continuation in our country of senseless mass shootings and greed and corruption and life-threatening illness in our families and among our friends. The desperation of a generation wondering how to make a living and aging folks left alone when families no longer can attend their needs. Mental illness and disturbed spirits. Poverty and racism and gender inequality still. Apathy about the future and even some wondering if things ever will get better for their families and them. It’s Christmas morning so we may not really want to hear about it; still it is true that darkness looms at every corner. But . . . but. Light has been born. The Light has come into the world! This we celebrate today. This we give witness to today, even as John the Baptist did from his wilderness pulpit. The True Light has come into the world. It shines brightly against the night sky – brighter than one small candle lighting up the dark. None of those chilling forces of destruction will overtake! Even out of death, Life returns.

It’s good news to remember this morning. It’s good news to live every day of the year! For when we return from our celebrations tomorrow – or maybe even later today, all that would destroy still will work its way. The darkness never goes away. It just may be that the darkness remains so that Light can be recognized for the amazing gift that it is. So that Light will shine. Brighter. . . . We who know Christ to be the Light of the world are children of the Light. The Son (s-o-n) God has told us so. It’s up to us to let our little light outshine all the chilling forces. It’s our job to be the Light expanding in the world so that love and peace and joy and hope are found. So that Life is seen despite death’s fiercest attempts. . . . So that all will know. So that all will celebrate. So that all will come to the Light to shine and shine and shine throughout eternity!

Merry Christmas, children of the Light! Go forth to let your light be brighter because of the glorious Son!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

Life from Death

It was so uplifting Saturday to be at a regional meeting of church folk (a.k.a. a Presbytery meeting).  I know!  If you’ve ever been to one, then it may not seem a credible statement.  But it was for me.

I’ve been doing a lot of research and reflection lately on the church, contemporary culture, and change.  In many ways, it’s been my passion for the past decade.  Inevitably, it leaves me wondering often about what of the church needs to die.  I dream too about what might be able to grow if in fact those within the church (like me) let go of what we’ve always known.  It’s scary.  It calls me to dig deeper into that vow to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

I used to care about needed changes in the church for reasons like job security, and to ease my frustration over things that drive me bonkers about the church, and to create ways that might be easier on all.  The deeper I go in it, the more I see that I care because my own life is full of all sorts of people who I love immensely and who want nothing to do with communities of faith in which I have lived my whole life.  Many of the folks in my life used to want to be a part; but for whatever reason, they no longer can be.  Some have been burned badly, or been raised with terrible theology that still haunts them, or find themselves totally bored in worship by things that seem absolutely irrelevant to daily life.  I even find active church folks who desperately want something different, something more; but don’t have the foggiest idea what that looks like or how to get there.  Of course, I know there always will be people who aren’t at all interested.  They never have been and they likely never will be.

My heart breaks for us all.

Just to be clear:  I think it’s wise to turn away from a people who label themselves with Jesus’ name but act like the antithesis.  I think it’s tragic to feel isolated or lonely or unloved or unlovable and have no community to turn t0 — especially because some expressions of church today are at their best and do offer the needed healing balm.  I think it’s deplorable to be seeking — or worse yet:  to already have connected deeply to the Life Force — only to be told that such things are NOT of God (which, in fact, they are!  The Divine is about the journey of awe and wonder; not certainty and fact).   I think it’s sense-less that the hearts of a people who claim the name Jesus aren’t breaking for the eclectic array of people Jesus went out of his way to welcome home.  It’s not ok to me for people to be unaware that they are beautiful, cherished treasures.  And it’s even worse to me for any to be deemed unacceptable by others who believe they know.

Recently I saw an amazing clip on The Work of the People in which Rachel Held Evans made a matter of fact statement that rocked me to the core:  “Empires worry about death.  Gardeners do not worry about death”  (To watch the clip go to http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/creating-something-new).  A few day later I watched a clip by John Philip Newell on “Dreaming Forward” (http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/dream-forward).  Newell quoted the Dalai Lama regarding hope for the future.  He said:  “‘Of course I believe there is hope for the future.  The future hasn’t happened yet.'”  My mind once again blown, I went off to the Presbytery meeting Saturday where we heard from three different young adult women (interestingly all were women) who spoke passionately about the meaning they have been finding for life through their involvement in Presbyterian Campus Ministries.  They have connected with others and that which is beyond, they have built relationships and learned from those much different from themselves, they have helped the hurting and shown love to those battered by life.  I left that meeting so excited that these young women are the church today:  the future hope in our midst.  The people who passionately and honestly seek to follow the Way of Love.  Ones who want to make a difference in others lives, not just seek to have their own needs met.

Maybe it’s just a handful and maybe as they get older the flame will fade.

Or maybe . . . just maybe, their lives (and the fruit of who they are) are the new growth.  And maybe, just maybe, all can learn a thing or two from them as we seek to breakdown in ourselves the walls of cynicism, self-focus, and indifference.

Then . . . maybe, just maybe, our own fresh growth will unfurl under the blazing sunshine in the grand garden of this world.

Here’s hoping . . . here’s to hoping!

 

Peace & Love prevail,

RevJule

 

Alternatives

“Having studied . . . theologians who could not bend, his faith was shattered when the storms of life overwhelmed his doctrine. . . . He never saw an alternative to the God of the inflexible doctrines he learned.”

(A summary of Pastor Wilmot in John Updike’s book In the Beauty of the Lilies.)

I am loving this quote today! I hope that you have encountered the God that is far beyond all of our inflexible doctrines! It’s a hard way to have to learn to be open, but it is a beautiful, joyous journey into the Great Mystery!

RevJule