Category Archives: Sermons

God’s Abundance

A Sermon for 21 January 2018 

A reading from the gospel of John 2:1-11.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear of the gospel of John’s recording of Jesus’ first act upon his mission.

“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 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.”  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!

 

I heard an incredible dream recently.  The main symbol in it was a table.  Now this wasn’t just an ordinary dining room table.  It was the largest buffet table one ever could imagine!  At least twelve feet wide and two or more lengths of this sanctuary long!  It was immense!  On it was every food conceivable.  All the delicacies to enjoy:  delicious-looking pastries, bountiful fruit, casseroles that smelled wonderful, and vegetable dishes that would make your mouth water just looking at them.  All this, in just the first few feet of the bountiful table which was centered in the middle of an elegant, open-air balcony where people of all kinds joyfully were milling about.  The occasion was Easter brunch.  The mood was festive.  Laughter and excitement and hope filled the air.  Families were all together.  Friends were enjoying the merriment of each other’s company.  Everyone had a spot somewhere at the sophisticated banquet.  In a word it was the picture of abundance!  Such an incredible dream!

We’re not sure what the room looked like in Cana of Galilee.  Though I’ve been to the church sanctuary erected over the spot believed to be the site, where the first sign of Jesus’ public ministry took place – at least according to the gospel of John.  We’re not even sure if the wedding reception was in a room or outside somewhere in the open-air on the land surrounding the bridegroom’s home.  What we do know is that after inviting a few men near Bethany to come and see, Jesus set out for the region of his home in Galilee.  Cana was a few miles northeast of Nazareth and it seemed Jesus’ family was present at the event.  . . .  The writer of John’s gospel makes some interesting decisions in telling the story of the One met in Jesus, the Christ.  From the start, reference is made to resurrection:  “On the third day,” chapter two begins in the gospel’s launch into Jesus’ public ministry.  Every reader of the gospel knows what else took place on the third day.  From the start, we’re supposed to hear the story of Jesus with resurrection in mind.  The whole point of this gospel is to embrace the gift of God’s promise.  The surprise of the Light that shines despite the darkness.  To welcome “What has come to being in him,” as John 1:4 states:  “Life!”  God’s promise for all: never-ending, abundant Life!

Interesting too, this gospel begins Jesus’ public ministry at a wedding.  Jesus and his first followers have been invited to a party:  a celebration to honor covenants made.  We’re again supposed to catch the deeper meaning of the ministry of the embodied Word beginning thus.  Long years the people of Israel were told by God’s prophets that God was like their groom – and a frustrated one at that, waiting for his bride to be faithful.  Remember the prophet Hosea?  Just to prove a point, God had him marry Gomer, a wife of whoredom to show metaphorically that God’s wife, Israel, had forsaken the sacred covenant.  In anger and hurt God declares to Hosea:  say to my people “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:1-2).  The covenant has been defiled.  . . .  The metaphor has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with union.  The coming together of opposites to create a third.  Divine and human melding into one.  As is happening in the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us.  The Transcendent mingling with the stuff of Earth that both become something holy.  Something cherished.  Something new.  Indeed, a wedding in Cana is the perfect place for the embodied Word to begin revealing his glory.

Whether Jesus is goading his mother when she comes with the concern that the wine has run out, or if he’s not yet aware of his time; one thing is for sure.  Mother Mary knows the One who is present at the party.  After all, he grew in her very own womb.  She knows the Bridegroom, the true Host, has arrived.  The One who will attend to the needs of the guests.  For it was what he was born to do.  . . .  At her prodding, Jesus takes up his mother’s ministry of hospitality in signs that reveal the abundant goodness of the true Host.  The water becomes the very best wine – and an infinite amount at that.  Anywhere from 120-180 gallons of the finest wine anyone ever could imagine!  At last the prophesy of Isaiah is fulfilled that promised:  “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.  For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:2-5).  As promised, God’s blessing is upon the people.  A boundless sign shows it to be true.  . . .  Isn’t it beautiful?  Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as the story is told according to the gospel of John, we see the abundance of God.  Something like a bountiful table.  A never-ending cup.  Streams of mercy that overflow for all the world!

One theologian writes, and I quote, that:  “Christians ought to be celebrating constantly.  We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment.  We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death.  We ought to attract people to the church quite literally,” he writes, “by the fun there is in being a Christian” (Robert Hotchkins, Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, pp. 262,264).  . . .  Too many have been made to think it’s all about rigid rules, and buzz-kill sacrifices, and hiding any sense of enjoyment lest God or anyone else might be watching!  But that’s more like John the Baptist-kinda of faith, than Christ’s Cana-kind of grace.  As see in the One who stands as the sign that heaven and earth – Spirit and flesh have been wed.  The time for profuse joy and peace and hope has begun and is expected in us because of the bountiful nature of God!  The gracious invitation to the never-ending celebration from the true Host, who dreams for our lives to be as extravagantly generous as God.  As filled with eternal merriment thanks to the gift of everlasting, abundant life!

Brothers and sisters of Christ, as Cana teaches:  the abundant grace of God is here!  Let the party begin!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Curiosity

A Sermon for 14 January 2018 

A reading from the gospel of John 1:43-51.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee.  He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Philip said to him, “Come and see.”  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?”  Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”

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

 

I love that the first chapter of the gospel of John, unlike the other gospels, tells already of those who are curious.  Curious about One being hailed by John the Baptizer as The Lamb of God!  Curious about happenings that just might be, regardless of popular opinion.  Curious about One who simply invites, saying:  “Come and see.”

Who among us was taught at an early age to be curious?  Especially about matters so momentous as encounter with the Divine.  Movement of Spirit within.  Beholding the Wonder of the World?!!!  . . .  Curiosity is the foundation of intelligence – not to mention an aspect that leads one off onto an amazing adventure through life.  Consider a child who has inside the impetus to explore.  Wander.  Wonder.  Even if that child doesn’t do as well as another who has rote memorization down pat for school tests; the curious child has a better shot in life at things like critical thinking, complex intellectual abilities, pure self-assurance deep down in their guts which leads to one being able to live their own life – not just swallow lies as fact.  The curious child possesses the capacity truly to learn.  To decide his or her own truth.  To grow.  To become.

Despite the age-old adage that curiosity killed the cat, curiosity is one of the key ingredients to the life of discipleship.  Only one who is curious would be willing to heed when a man from Nazareth walks through the scene saying:  “Come see.”  Only one open to seek would be able to find where he was staying, as the gospel of John records in the part of the story right before Philip and Nathanael experience their own encounter.  Only one wondering if there might be something more than what other outer authorities say would be able to journey with a man whose words sound strangely authentic.

The gospel of John begins with the beautiful declaration about the pre-existent Word of God – calling all things into being.  Shining in the darkness.  Born into the world with flesh and blood and the ability to be among men, women, and children in ways not fully beheld before.  You might remember that the distinction between the Word and the man sent from God to make way for that word is woven together in the poetry of the gospel of John’s opening on the incarnation.  John the Baptist’s testimony picks up next – his tangle with the Lawkeepers being outlined from the beginning.  While he is surrounded by his disciples; the very next day, Jesus comes walking by.  . . .  Surely, the gospel of John makes a better theological claim than a geography lesson.  The places named as locations on particular days hardly make much sense, unless Jesus is enlisting recruits for an Israeli power walking club.  The story puts him first near Bethany outside Jerusalem.  A few days later heading north to Galilee, where on the third day he attended a wedding in Cana, then head northeast to Capernaum, only to return south the hundred miles – most likely on foot – back to Jerusalem as Passover draws near.  No birth narrative here.  No angels announcing and dreams convincing or shepherds and Eastern magi on bended knee.  No sooner does Jesus come walking by, than curious men – openminded men.  Seekers, we might call them today, catch wind of this One and willingly join an adventure.  They’re promised a path of witnessing.  Beholding the work of God’s Lamb.  Hooked, first Andrew and another inquire where he stays.  Andrew grabs his brother Simon whose name right away is changed to Peter, and before all’s said and done one named Philip will find his friend Nathanael, inviting him on the uncertain voyage as well.  Any perceived divide between heaven and earth is over, Jesus insists by his reference of the ladder climbed by angels from ancestor Jacob’s infamous dream.  In their midst stands the full encounter with God.  The Word en-fleshed to elicit response in the hearts of all who wonder.  . . .  Like the curious monkey named George in the children’s book series; the first few to be invited, seek.  And according to the gospel of John, that curious nature is essential in disciples of Christ.

After this service of worship, Hillwood’s Renewal Team will have its first meeting.  Pray for the five church members who set out today on this journey.  Commissioned this fall by the session – before we got all caught up on the events of Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas, your Renewal Team has committed to taking key learnings from the Vital Signs report of Hillwood’s Church Assessment Tool to begin forging a new trail for this church’s future.  Your input on the Church Assessment Tool is telling a few of the first needed steps.  When I spent some time with those again this week, it struck me that four of the five top matters connect to curiosity.  They include:  individuals wanting to know their particular gifts for ministry.  Members accepting the responsibility of life-long spiritual formation.  Helping you each know you are called to God’s ministry as you venture forth in the world.  And providing a variety of experiences for you to deepen your knowledge and love of God.  It’s exciting to me that these emphases touch at least three of the six factors which make for vital congregations today:  life-long learning orientation, education and formation for complex lifestyles, and one that might require a little more courage for some of us:  flexibility – making changes needed for the current context with as much ease as humanly possible.  . . .  Certainly, the curious men who first came-long with Jesus have a word for us as we undertake the process today!

In the few short weeks between now and Lent, we’re going to learn more of what they saw as they came along.  We’ll hear the miraculous events they beheld.  We’ll get their reactions – even be told how slow some were to accept.  Our eyes remain ever on Jesus, God’s Lamb pointed out from the start by John the Baptist.  But the curious ones who would follow also can capture our hearts.  For if the first ones he came ‘round to invite were those open to the adventure of journey; certainly, he’s hoping for that very same curiosity in us today.  Willingness to see where he’ll take us.  Excitement that it’s larger than the way we already know.  Wonder at what could be, despite evidence that wants to conclude otherwise.  Perhaps curiosity can ignite in our spirits too.  So that we keep on – or begin for the very first time – awakening to Spirit’s lead.  Listening for what resonates within.  Walking with eyes wide-open to behold what we’ve never seen before.  With curiosity key to our being, ready to journey wherever he goes.

May it be so.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018

The Importance of Knowing Your Name

A Sermon for 7 January 2018 – Baptism of the Lord Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Mark 1:4-11.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11And 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!

 

Have you ever been to a naming ceremony?  We’ve heard of one these past few weeks in our Christmas readings.  The event is so matter-of-fact that after all the hype of the angels and shepherds and birth out back among the animals, the gospel of Luke simply records:  “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).  One little verse, recorded only in one gospel; tells us Jesus’ parents observed his naming ceremony.

If you want to know what to expect today in a naming ceremony, just goggle it.  Reformjudaism.org includes Rabbi Karen Companez describing “What to Expect at a Baby Naming.”  Though the number of days after birth differ for little boys and little girls, you can expect a naming ceremony for a Reformed Jewish family to be held either in the baby’s home or at the synagogue.  The child receives a Hebrew name – the name they will be called at every major milestone of their lives.  From their first Consecration ceremony at the beginning of their religious education, at their coming-of-age bar or bat mitzvah, when they wed, when the are called upon in worship to read the Torah, and at last, when they die.  The Hebrew name given at their naming ceremony will be used at their funeral.  Then to be inscribed on their tombstone.  At a Reformed Jewish naming ceremony, parents typically explain why it is that name has been chosen for their child.  Blessings are said that remind all that this child has “entered into a brit, a covenant, with God.  . . .  The traditional wish is offered – that this child may grow into a life of study of Torah, of loving relationships, and the performance of good deeds” (https://reformjudaism.org/what-expect-baby-naming).

Hindu naming ceremonies are considered sacred and elaborately performed on the twelfth day after an infant’s birth.  For the first week-and-a-half of the baby’s life, no one but it’s mother and a helper – typically the mother’s mother – is allowed to touch the baby or mother.  After a ceremonial bath for both infant and mom, relatives are invited to the home.  In some Hindu cultures, the paternal aunt has the honor of naming her brother’s child.  After the mother “wets the head of the baby with drops of water as a symbol of purifying the child,” the auntie “whispers the newborn his or her name in the ear and then announces it to the gathered family and friends.”  After, in some Hindu communities, “the sacred fire is lighted and the priest chants sacred hymns to invoke the Gods in heaven to bless the child” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naming_ceremony).  . . .  What beautiful rituals to welcome a new little one into the world!  To ensure that child and all who will surround his or her life know how special the little one is.  How cherished and honored and excited the whole community is to watch the life of that little newborn unfold – to become all that little one can be as a blessing to the world.  The naming ceremony tells all how important this child is for the life of the world.

If you were here last week, I asked you to bring a photo of yourself from your baptism – or the photo of another one you love on the day of their baptism.  I hope you did and that you take a good long look at it.  . . .  Today is the time in the liturgical calendar to remember what most likely was our equivalent naming ceremony:  our baptism.  . . .  Spiritual blogger and Millennial spokesperson Rachel Held Evans speaks of baptism as a naming ceremony.  In a Work of the People clip, which is a resource we’ve been using as part of our curriculum for Sunday School these past few weeks; she says:  “Baptism is a naming.  Naming someone a child of God.  Baptism acknowledges someone’s belovedness.  Jesus’ baptism was an acknowledgement of his eternal belovedness.  Baptism acknowledges our eternal belovedness too” (www.theworkofthepeople.com, “Baptism Named Beloved,” Rachel Held Evans).  In the baptismal liturgy, we renounce evil and its power in the world.  We’ll do so in our Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant later in this service.  Rachel Held Evans makes sense of this renouncing by explaining that it is a “renunciation of all those competing voices that try to tell you who you are.”  She says:  “The world gives you names like screw-up, faker, fat, slut, addict.  In baptism you are named beloved.”  We are beloved, she explains.  And that’s enough!  “Baptism is a defiant thing to do,” she says, “because the world always will try to name us.  And in baptism we say:  ‘No!  My name is beloved!’  We are named by God and that is enough.  It’s good news!” (Ibid.)

It’s why we Presbyterians baptize publicly – at the time of worship, not in some separate private ceremony.  Whether a newborn baby, a pre-teen, or an adult; we declare as a community that the one to be baptized must know their name:  Child of the covenant, Beloved of God!  As we acknowledge the one being baptized’s name, we are charged likewise to remember our own baptisms and be grateful!  To call to mind our own name – beloved – lest the names of the world are left to resound in our heads.  We all are beloved!  And from the moment of our vows on, we resolve to live as those who know our own and show others’ their names too.

I love this day and I love that it falls so close to the beginning of each calendar year.  What better way to begin a new year than with this very important reminder?  And today, being that it’s a first Sunday of the month too; we’ll re-affirm the baptismal covenant, then move into the joyful feast of the people of God.  In the Lord’s Supper we’ll do what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a “regular re-performance of what we claim in baptism.”  We’ll partake of “concrete, tangible signs of the generosity of God” (www.theworkofthepeople.com, “Faithful Practices,” Walter Brueggemann).  We’ll eat of the food and drink of the cup that proclaims, in Brueggemann’s words, that we “belong to the narrative of Jesus and not the narrative” of the world (Ibid.).  We will taste and know our names:  beloved children of God who are “sealed as Christ’s own forever” (Ibid.).  . . .  It’s very good news!  News that changes how we understand ourselves, how we interact with our neighbors, and how we resolve to live our lives this day and forevermore!

Happy Baptism, brothers and sisters of Christ!  Come now, to the font.  Again, let us know our names!

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

The Birth

A Sermon for 31 December 2017 – First Sunday of Christmas

A reading from the gospel of Luke 2:22-40.  Listen for God’s word to us in this reading of Jesus’ first weeks.

“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.  38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

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

 

The birth of a baby heralds hope!  Excitement fills the air!  A tiny, precious, helpless little one is born!  No one can resist the rejoicing; for, with this new life comes the chance for anything.  Press up close to the nursery window.  Scan the newborn crowd.  Look:  That may be the one to grow up to find the cure for cancer.  And her.  Perhaps she will move us closer toward world peace.  Oh, and how about that sweet one.  In this little darling lies the potential to do for the world whatever he desires.  . . .  Remember the last time you welcomed an infant into the world?  You stood there peering into that delicate, tiny face.  Saw the wee fingernails.  Felt the warmth of that little bundle.  In an instant, the child stole your heart away.  Oh, the birth of a baby resounds with rejoicing.  No matter the circumstances surrounding the child’s conception, whatever conditions will be this one’s reality; at least for a moment, all pause beholding the miracle.  We give thanks for such a perfect gift!

Today we give thanks for such a child.  The baby Jesus:  God come among us, putting on the flesh and bones of humanity, making a home with us in our circumstances – from the depths of despair to the pinnacles of praise.  Lying in that lowly manger is the infant God.  The teeny-tiny speck of light bursting into our darkness; the child given as our hope.  .He’s an ordinary little one with a future yet unknown to the world.  At the same time, he’s not quite an ordinary little one – unlike all the others.  Atypically, this one comes with a few instructions:  name him Jesus (which means literally he saves) for he will be the Savior of his people.  . . .  Don’t you wish you could get inside Mary’s mind?  What could she be thinking?  Every time she turns around, someone else is proclaiming her child’s greatness!  “He will be the Son of the Most High God,” announces the angel.  “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).  Pride swells as Mary takes it all in.  She goes to visit her aging relative Elizabeth.  “Ho!  Blessed!  Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  Leap for joy Mary; for within, you carry the miracle!” (Luke 1:42)  Face it – under such circumstances, there’s no way any of us could hold back a stunning smile. …   Sure, there’s no room in the inn.  The cave for the animals out back is all that’s available – which is far from the sterile walls of our delivery rooms.  But those shepherds:  “Good news.  Don’t be afraid.  Great joy for all people.  Born a Savior to you.  The long-awaited Messiah – God’s chosen one!  The LORD come to dwell among us!” (Luke 2:10-11).  Indeed, amazement fills the air!  “Born like every other baby is Mary’s little guy.  But certainly, unlike every other child.  Does she know?  The one she cradles at her breast is God’s Christ – the cure to creation’s ills!”  How can she contain herself?  Surrounded by all the hype, her heart had to race with great gladness!  At the shepherd’s declaration, the description from the gospel is that Mary:  “treasured all these words, pondering them in her heart.”  (Luke 2:19).

All this took place before she learned the hard lessons of motherhood.  The initial jubilation must have subsided a bit.  Some young mothers say, pretty much by the first night.  It’s coming.  For, son of the Most High or no, this kid’s diapers stink like rotting eggs, just as bad as the next.  And, of course, the angel didn’t mention the difficulties of breast feeding.  The 2am sleep interruptions.  What to do to stop the endless cry-fests.  After all:  the one Mary tends is the Word – the Word by which God declared in the beginning for all things to come into being.  The Word made flesh.  Powerful voice as all that, you gotta figure the kid’s got some lungs!  The greeting cards may portray an infant sweeter than the Gerber baby, but it’s quite possible that this one destined to shake things up through proclamation, probably began exercising his vocal cords at a wee age.  But before all that – before the truth of motherhood sank in, prior to Mary being taken over by the tiredness, she treasured every bit.  Riding the high of all the wonderful words regarding her precious package, clinging to the prophecies of greatness, Mary enters the Temple.  . . .  He’s the firstborn son.  And being devout Jews, Mary and Joseph desire to designate the infant as holy to the LORD.  It’s a big day for the family.  They probably primped him all pretty – the silky white gown, that sweet baby smell, little tufts of hair combed all smooth.  The precious child is paraded with humble pride.  You know how that is:  like when there’s a baptism.  It’s a big day.  The words ring in Mary’s mind:  “Greatness.  This child’s bound for greatness!”

In the Temple, the newlyweds are greeted by the righteous Simeon.  His whole life he’s been waiting – and you thought keeping your patience until Christmas so you could rip into those beautiful packages was tough!  Simeon has spent his life looking for the consolation of Israel.  He’s been awaiting restoration – perhaps expecting a return to Israel’s greatness.  His eyes have been scanning the scene, searching diligently for a bridge bringing the people back to God.  Then, at long last, he declares.  “my eyes see your salvation, Holy God!  Thanks be to You!”  As he praises, he takes the child in his arms.  “You, O LORD, have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel!” (Luke 2:30-32).  Can you imagine Mary and Joseph standing in absolute splendor?  Never have two parents bubbled with greater joy.  “That’s my boy!” Joseph’s smile beams.  Mary murmurs, “Our delightful son!”  Simeon turns, lowering his voice to say:  “Mary, this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).  “Greatness!”  Her thoughts are all wrapped in greatness, when Simeon delivers the shocking blow.  He will be a sign that will be opposed, so the inner thoughts of many are revealed.  And Mary, poor Mary, your own soul will be pierced as well.

How can such happiness, such hope, such rejoicing be dashed on jagged rocks so quickly?  Like parents receiving the horrible news of in-utero complications.  What begins as a mother riding high on the wave of life, ends with a stricken soul.  Young Mary quickly learns the definition of greatness according to God. . . . Oh, if you only will hold on, dear Mary!  If only you too will keep watch for God’s salvation.  Then with Simeon and the angel and all disciples-yet-to-be, your own sorrow will be turned to dancing.  Indeed, this child’s birth heralds hope!  For in the blink of an eye, the father of the child will begin the revolution.  Through death – his death:  resurrection!

We too come with rejoicing.  Ecstatic about the precious package delivered a night so very long ago.  But the excitement of the birth is only half the story.  The sword that pierces Mary’s, pokes our souls as well.  Rejoice today, believers!  But remember:  the child we celebrate is the child that calls us all to follow.  Life’s not fun and games for him – pretty ribbons and bows.  He was born to be opposed.  Those who’d rather set up road blocks on the pathway to God – piling on requirements, defining greatness with words like status, wealth, privilege.  Ones who’d rather live for themselves will hunt down dear baby Jesus.  The darkness will try to snuff out the Light.  . . .  So shall it be with those who slip on Christ’s sandals, seeking to follow in his steps.  . . .  The road will be treacherous.  Faithfulness will require courage.  . . .  But look!  My eyes can see God’s salvation!  The Way, which the LORD has prepared, in the presence of all peoples!  Look:  just beyond the cross.  Can you see it?  Do you know?  It’s a tomb, a grave.  And it is empty!

Glory be to God!  The baby King lives today and evermore!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

With Mary, Rejoice!

A Sermon for 17 December 2017 – Third Sunday of Advent

 

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:26-55.  I trust these verses will sound familiar to most of us.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”   29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Then the angel departed from her.  39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

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

 

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  Maybe you know all about it.  How until the fifth century, Lent was the primary preparation season of what would become the liturgical calendar.  When the early church finally decided that the feast of Christmas, like Easter, needed a similar period to prepare; Advent became a forty day fast beginning the day after the feast of St. Martin in November (November 12).  Imagine in the 21st century in the United States, starting an Advent fast two weeks into November through to the eve of Christmas!  . . .  Like Lent, Advent was meant to be a time of penitence.  Hence in the lectionary readings, all the pleas from John the Baptist to repent of any wrongdoing in preparation for the Way of the Lord!  And like Lent, Advent was more somber.  Evidence exists to show that, like Lent, no organ music and no flowers were to be included in worship.  Except for one special Sunday mid-way through the season.  As Advent, until the ninth century, wasn’t shortened from five to the four Sundays we know of it now; Gaudete Sunday falls on the third Sunday of Advent.  . . .  We can consider it a mini-break from the serious examination of the rest of the sorrowful season – which, like Lent, is supposed to be the time in which we are searching our hearts to be cleansed of that which keeps us from living God’s ways in the world.  . . .  But on Gaudete Sunday – mid-way through the season of Advent – clergy marched in in pink.  Rose-colored vestments really.  The organ hit its first chord in weeks as the procession began with the mighty imperative to rejoice!  In the words of Philippians 4:4 -5, the priest implored the people to “Rejoice!  In the Lord always!  Again, I say:  rejoice!  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near!”  No longer was the church merely invited to adore “‘The Lord who is to come.’”  On Gaudete Sunday, the people were called upon to “worship and hail with joy ‘The Lord who is now nigh and close at hand’” (www.newadvent.org/cathen/06394b.htm).  Legend has it that the Pope himself broke the flower fast to hand out pink roses on Gaudete Sunday – making it a festive celebration mid-way through the season.  Everyone was called upon to lift up their hearts in exceeding joy – not just for the remembrance of the birth that is almost here.  But also for the coming again of Christ in glory.  Ready to return to restore all creation.  “Gaudete in Domino semper” the priest would sing as the mass began:  Rejoice in the Lord always!!! (Ibid.).

It’s part of why every third Sunday of Advent the lectionary always allows for the reading of mother Mary’s song.  “My soul cries out, with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great,” proclaims the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes.  The Magnificat!  A young girl’s response to the work of God in her life – and for the life of her people.  Imagine being a teenage-girl whose marriage already has been arranged.  When suddenly you find out you’re pregnant, which is something you’re smart enough to know cannot be since you’ve hardly even seen your husband-to-be, let alone been left alone to be intimate with him or any other boy.  As a good Jewish girl, you’ve been taught the stories of your people.  You know the promise of one to come from the throne of David.  A Prince of Peace who would restore the fortunes of your nation.  Bring back the dignity of freedom to your people.  Save ya’ll from the bitterness of foreign rule.  The shame of endless armies having their way with whoever, whatever, and however they want.  You’ve heard the ancestors say the Holy would intervene – could intervene to make a way where no way seemed possible.  But what sort of craziness does this one called Gabriel speak?  How in the world could it ever be?

When I was young, Mary didn’t have a great reputation for me.  It’s mid-way into life that I’ve come to appreciate her – more so since visiting the honored sites in the Holy Land of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Mary’s Well and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  I’m not sure if it’s some sort of anti-Catholic thing for a lot of Protestants, or just a primary focus on the child to be born.  As if the Christ child provides the only inspiration during Advent, the heroism of Mary often is overlooked.  Joseph sometimes gets a little more credit, but that’s another sermon.

About the endless depictions of this scene, beloved preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  “Somewhere in the annunciation scene you can usually find a dove, a sign that what is happening is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  But down below, everything depends on Mary.  Gabriel is not standing over her; he is kneeling in front of the girl upon whose answer he, and God, and the whole creation depend” (Gospel Medicine, 1995, p. 151).  . . .  Thanks be to God she said:  yes!  It might seem as if she had no choice, but we all have choice about the circumstances that crop up in life.  We can’t control what will happen to us – any more than Mary could have run away from the emissary or wrestled herself away from the Holy Spirit when the power of the Most High overshadowed her.  . . .  Events in life take place.  Happenings we can choose to fight against or to embrace.   . .  In a post entitled “More like Mary . . . and Joseph,” blogger Jane Hugo Davis encourages:  “Don’t ever underestimate the importance of being still, listening to God’s messengers, following (the) guidance even when it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit into our plan.  The joy that’s experienced when we live and love as God has called us to will overcome any fear or question or doubt in our minds.  It may not be easy, but it’s worth it” (https://thesoulinthecity.com/2017/12/11/more-like-mary-and-joseph/).

Mary shows us that it is well worth it to say yes to God.  To take hold of the unknown unfoldings in our lives.  To open ourselves to whatever’s yet to come.  . . .  Of Mary’s yes to the unanticipated work of God in her life, one preacher writes:  “You can decide to say yes.  You can decide to be a daredevil, a test pilot, a gambler.  You can . . . listen to a strange creature’s strange idea.  You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand.  You can take part in a thrilling, dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees.  You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.  Deciding to say yes does not mean that you are not afraid . . .  It just means that you are not willing to let your fear stop you” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, 1995, p. 153).  . . .  Then, it seems life becomes a great adventure.  An opportunity to be a part of something much larger than we ever could orchestrate.  A reason, daily, to rejoice!  To lift up our voices in great thanksgiving!  To proclaim the marvelous movement of God’s Spirit in all of our lives.

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  We light the pink candle.  We hear mother Mary’s famous song.  We take a mini-break from preparing ourselves to allow the Way of Christ to be re-born in us.  We gather with exceeding joy for the ways we see God working to restore the Way in the world – through every last one of our responses:  yes!  . . .  Gaudete in Domino semper, brothers and sisters of Christ!  Rejoice in the Lord Always!  Let your life be a yes!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Recognizing the King

26 November 2017 – Christ the King Sunday

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

Carrying the Presence

A Sermon for 5 November 2017 – All Saints’ Sunday

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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