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A Sermon for 15 October 2017

A reading from Exodus 32:1-14.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear one more Sunday about the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt.  Listen.

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron.  He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”  They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.  The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once!  Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”  The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”  11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?  12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’  Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.  13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”  14 And the Lord changed the LORD’s mind about the disaster that the LORD planned to bring on the people.”

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

 

Have you ever seen one of those stage plays where the audience is involved in picking the ending?  Usually something like a murder mystery, the actors have rehearsed all sorts of ways to finish the plot.  Was it Ms. Scarlett in the Library with the wrench?  Or Mr. Green in the Kitchen with the lead pipe?  Once the audience chooses which way it will go, the actors spring back into action, as if never missing a beat, to show how the story unfolds.  It never goes quite the same way twice.  Alternate endings are possible depending on the will of the people.

We forgot we have the power, in pretty much every situation, to influence how things will unfold.  So often we feel as if only one way is possible in the story of our lives; but it is not so.  Fear often holds us back.  Literally moving us out of the higher realms of our brain’s ability to imagine alternate endings.  Fear leaves us operating out of what’s often referred to as our “Lizard brain” – the oldest part of our brains that develops first in the womb.  It’s an important part of who we are so we can instinctually act when our lives really are in danger.  But allowing ourselves to daily live out of our lowest, lizard brains is the last thing needed from human beings by this planet.  God gifted us with frontal lobes, the most complex part of the human brain where impulse control, consideration of actions’ effect on others, even reasoning about consequences can take place.  The goal is to use the amazing heads we’ve been given so that we can envision possibility number one.  Or possibility number two.  And even possibility number three, four, five, six, and seven.  Endless alternative options in any given situation.

I wish the Israelites at Sinai would have taken some collective deep breaths.  To move from operating out of their lizard brains into the higher realms of conscious ability.  If we’ve ever given up something we really love for Lent, then we might understand how long 40 days can feel.  Moses, the one who has guided them miraculously into freedom, and God, the One who has been present to them all the way, convene forty days on the mountain.  And the people below panic.  They’ve just been given the commands of God for how they can live connected rightly to God and each other.  In awe they saw the thick cloud envelop the mountain.  They heard the thunder roll and witnessed the lightening flash.  They heard command number one:  have NO OTHER GOD’s before me.  And command number two:  MAKE NO IDOLS!  The either have really short memories, or refused to listen in the first place.  Maybe it even shows that the commands of God foreshadowed what anyone studying human behavior could guess would happen.

Afraid Moses had been torn to pieces by some wild animal on that mountain, or maybe convinced the ole’ fool at last was smothered by the thick cloud of God; the people demand brother Aaron do something concrete in their midst.  They want something tangible to show them the way.  Impatient with the wait.  Anger certainly on the rise.  And afraid they’ve been abandoned.  They beg for a god to be made that can lead them out of that harsh desert.  The salt in the wound is that even as Aaron collects all their gold for the calf, God had been describing to Moses a sanctuary where a LORD who seems to be passionately in love with the people could dwell among them forever.  According to Exodus 25, step one was to begin with “an offering; for all whose hearts prompt them to give.”  Specifically, it would be an offering to God of “gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns.  Fine linen, goat’s hair, tanned rams’ skins, (and) fine leather; acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breast piece” (Exodus 25:2-7).  God wants the finest of all they have for a sanctuary in which the people would be able to lift up their hearts in gratitude to God.  Meanwhile . . . the people circle Aaron to demand some new deity immediately!

Tragic.  So tragic when our fear demands our one and only imaginable way.

How else might the story unfold?  If the people hadn’t let their fear get the best of them, if they could have held on just a bit longer; what other options might had they imagined together?

Our other reading for today offers an alternative.  “Rejoice in the LORD always,” the Christians of Philippi are instructed.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The LORD is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:4-6).  Wow!  If the people could have kept back their fear.  If they could have remained a bit more patient; then imagine the party they could have enjoyed!  They could have sang and danced at the mountain’s edge.  Remembering the LORD God always is near, they could have built a fire as a sign of the fiery column that had led them.  They could have sat down to rehearse with one another the first time God provided for their thirst.  They could have told tales of the remarkable double manna portion waiting them every sixth morning on the desert floor.  They could have taken out a few of the quail feathers and swopped stories of how good it tasted when first they arrived in a rush from Egypt.  And Egypt:  that flight they finally made?!  Aaron might have taken the opportunity to remind them to pour out their requests once again to God.  God heard and acted every time in the past.  What makes them think this time will be any different?  Maybe allow a little gratitude to mingle with their concern just to remember that the One to whom they pray their prayers is nearer than their very own breath.  It would have been a completely different unfolding of their story . . .  it can be a totally alternate way for our own as well.

It’s been a rough go these past few months.  Starting with Harvey, intensifying with Irma, and Maria too.  Finding out in the narthex after worship that a church across town was being shot up.  And just a week later, the most horrendous mass shooting our country has known.  Fires rage out of control in California again.  Now more than ever, an alternate way is needed.  . . .  A heart-felt reflection offered by one of our denomination’s current General Assembly Co-moderators, included these words this week:  “Are these tragedies changing the way we live now?  Are we giving up a Starbucks or two so that we’ll have some loose change to send to a disaster relief organization?  Are we talking in our churches about ways we can do more as congregations?  . . .  How does our faith in God manifest itself in these days?” (https://achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com/2017/10/12/what-a-difference-a-tragedy-makes/).

We can get caught up in the fear – there’s enough of it out there.  We can grow weary and impatient and even angry during such difficulties.  . . .  Or we can turn to God.  Rejoice in all the ways we see the will of God being lived out as neighbor helps neighbor and compassion is given more room to grow.  We can rehearse all the ways we see provisions are being made.  And instead of wringing our hands in worry, we can live in gratitude for the gift of each day – for another opportunity to embody God’s ways among this world.  We have the power to significantly influence the outcome of these days.  How it all unfolds can radically be impacted for good by us.  . . .  Breathe deep, brothers and sisters of Christ.  Through us, let the story unfold another way.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

To Remember the Web

A Sermon for 8 October 2017

A reading from Exodus 20:1-21.  We continue to hear of the Israelites in the wilderness and what happens when they reach Mount Sinai in the third month of their freedom.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then God spoke all these words:  I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.  You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses the LORD’s name.  Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.  12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.  13 You shall not murder.  14 You shall not commit adultery.  15 You shall not steal.  16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.  18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”  20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of the LORD upon you so that you do not sin.”  21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”

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

 

Late in the 1980s, Bill Moyers sat down to interview Joseph Campbell.  Campbell’s forty-year career of studying the great myths of the cultures of the world was coming to an end.  At the same time, the world’s history was being impacted immensely thanks to the space race that a few decades earlier began to bring us full views of earth from nearly 40,000 nautical miles into space (https://www.nasa.gov.imag-feature/may-18-1969-apollo-10-view-of-the-earth).  These were the days before Facebook and Goggle Earth.  Campbell’s interview with Moyers regarding the power of myth even took place a year before the invention of the world wide web, which didn’t go live to the general public until August of 1991 (https://webfoundation.org/about/vision/history-of-the-web).  Nearly thirty years ago now, the interview also happened a few years before the miraculous Hubble Telescope was launched, which lets us view light images deep into space and time.  In the interview, Campbell pauses to reverence the amazing 1969 Apollo 10 and following images of the earth from space.  He’s emphatic regarding the truth of that now infamous view.  Thanks to scientific technology and the information age, we now readily can see what good theology has been trying to teach for millennia:  from space we can see that there are no boundaries between the nations of the earth.  Oceans are visible, vast and wide.  And land too.  Lakes and rivers and mountains and canyons also can be seen.  But there are no visible borders between nations at 40,000 plus nautical miles from earth.  From space we can see that everything on earth is connected – a truth that underscores the reality of the literal world wide web.

Sometimes it takes new perspectives – vaster sights for us to be moved to marvel at something that was intended to be obvious.  The design of the universe is connection.  Quantum Physics has been confirming it for a hundred years now.  The truth of our planet is one.  One intertwined web of life so that what we do here has the power to effect life on the other side of this world.  We were not intended to understand ourselves, or any aspect of the creation, as separate.  In fact, Reformed Theological Faith declares, what Shirley Guthrie writes in his classic Christian Doctrine text, that “to be a human being means to be created in the image of God.” The implications being three key factors:  that:  1. life (is) received from and lived for God in a relationship of thankful dependence and active obedience; (that) 2. life (is) with and for our fellow human beings in a relationship of mutual openness and help; and (that) 3. life that is self-affirming and self-fulfilling . . . (is lived) in community with God and other people” (Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 1994, pp. 212-213).  Anything that separates us from that right-relatedness with God, others, and our deepest selves is sin.  Out of sync with how it was intended to be.

Had we the big-picture view of interconnection from space in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t have needed the section of Exodus that is before us today.  But it’s here as a gift from God so we will remember.  So our lives will reflect the truth.  . . .  The commandments of God are given to the Israelites in the wilderness some 90 days after liberation from slavery in Egypt.  It hadn’t been that long since Moses came in contact with God at Mount Horeb while he was tending the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro.  Three new moons after leaving Egypt, the text records that “they came into the wilderness of Sinai . . . and camped in the wilderness” at the foot of that other mountain (Exodus 19:1-2).  There Moses, who once had killed a man, began the lengthy conversation with God – instruction after instruction to be passed on to the people so that they would know for certain the interconnected design.  So that all of them would learn.  So that – free from Pharaoh’s rule – they would have clarity in their new life in the wilderness.  What life really was like; and how the One who set them free designed for them to be.

The commandments from God teach that we are in relationship with the Sovereign God of the Universe.  Nothing shall come before that.  Not Pharaoh.  Not a heroic leader.  Not our own hungers and thirsts and fears.  God is to be first in all our lives.  It’s a mystery why the Divine would will it so, other than the fact that God is pure Love.  Try to define the Divine any other way and we come up short of the mind-boggling reality of grace.  Don’t even attempt it; we’re told in the commands.  Just allow the One who claimed the name:  I Am who I Am to be.  Care must be taken as we live in and reflect to others this truth.  It’s to our own detriment when we forget.  . . .  The commandments from God also describe what life together looks like for those who understand the truth of connection.  We honor our parents – the wisdom of the ancestors.  We respect life and committed relationships.  We live content with what we have.  We speak only truth.  And satisfied with our own homes, families, and gifts from creation; we reverence what is ours for safekeeping and what is not.  . . .  Just to be sure we remember it all, we rest every week.  We linger long in the freedom of the Liberator as we delight in the generous abundance all around.  . . .  Remember the whole list of the don’ts; and keep the list of whys before you as well just to be sure you know what it does look like to live together as those connected – rightly-related to God, others, and our deepest selves.

I wish all would remember.  Don’t you?  ‘Cuz aren’t we tired of the fights about where which commands need to be posted while senseless separation seems to rule the day?  Can we bear one more story of a Lone Wolf who decides to take matters into his own hands?  Do we honor at all the way God intended it to be when we fail to keep the view from space before us – the view that shows the intertwined web that is life?  You know, this is the reality anyone under the age of thirty has known for their entire life.  If any of us are struggling with interconnection, then the wisest among those under thirty can lead us in understanding how to live this way.  If not tainted by a view of separation, connection is the world ethos imprinted in them since their childhoods when first they started surfing the web.  . . .  I don’t really know how not to sound kinda preaching today when the commands of God are before us in the text assigned by the lectionary for this Sunday.  These are the gifts from our Judeo-Christian tradition which taught a people how best to live together in community.  The gifts that still can guide our lives.  It almost seems like they are based on God’s assumption that our eyes would grow cloudy.  That our perspectives would be limited.  That over the years we would forget the pristine blessing of the web which is life itself.  . . .

Elsewhere in scripture, they beautifully are summed up fully in two simple statements:  Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And love your neighbor as your very self (Matthew 22:37-40).  Do this, we are told.  And we shall Live.

For the sake of this entire planet, may we remember the web.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

Apprehending Rightly

A Sermon for 1 October 2017 – World Communion Sunday

 

A reading from Exodus 17:1-7.  The journey through the wilderness continues.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded.  They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.  The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”  Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the LORD?”  But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”  The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”  Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.  He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?””

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

 

In England in the Fourteenth Century, there lived an amazing mystic of the church.  She resided in the county of Norfolk on the North Sea, just a hundred miles north-east of London in Norwich, which once was the second largest and second most important city of England.  There, Julian had retired from the world into a small cell adjacent to the Church of St. Julian of Norwich.  It’s believed, Julian had been trained by nearby Benedictine sisters and might just be remembered after the saint of the church so that the original name of this incredible woman may be lost to us.  Presumably from a wealthy family, some believe she took to the cell as an anchoress after she lost her family to the plague.  (Richard Rohr Meditation:  Julian of Norwich, Part 1, 1 October 2017 and en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich).  It was somewhere around the middle of her life, after she herself nearly died at the age of 30.

Some mystics experience revelations from God throughout their lives.  But it was not so with Julian.  It was just once in her life, during an intense, near-death illness; that the Spirit of Christ communed with her in sixteen separate visions.  When Julian miraculous recovered from her illness, she spent the next forty-some years of her life trying to make sense of the visions she had received on her deathbed.  Her book Revelations on Divine Love captures the visions, and her later writings explore the meaning of what was revealed to her.  Supposedly, her first book was the first text written in English to be authored by a woman.  She did some amazing work as an anchoress in the little cell attached to the church in Norwich.  Not only was her writing about the full love of God ahead of her time, but the wisdom she also gave as an anchoress sustained the lives of those who would come seeking counsel from her.  Something like a modern-day Spiritual Director, male anchorites and female anchoresses dutifully took to cells attached to sanctuaries.  In exchange for the church providing for their physical needs, they made themselves available in their little adjacent cells whenever a wayward soul knocked on the cell’s window.

Julian counselled many well.  I’ve always loved her charge that “the fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.  For God is the ground, the substance, the teaching, the teacher, the purpose, and the reward for which every soul labors” (from Meditations with Julian of Norwich).  Somewhere she also wrote:  “if there is anywhere on earth a lover of God is always kept safe, I know nothing of it.  For it was not shown to me.  But this was shown:  that in falling and rising again, we are always kept in that same precious love” (source unknown).  In another source she wrote:  “the greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of God’s love” (source unknown).  And this week, I heard more deep wisdom from this our amazing sister of the faith.  “God doesn’t want you to sin,” Julian explained “because God wants you to see yourself as God sees you” (as quoted by Richard Rohr on The Enneagram:  Discerning the Spirits, 2004 recording).  God doesn’t want us to sin, because God wants us to see ourselves as God sees us.  What a beautiful way to remind us that the Divine dwells in us all always.  Because, after all, God dwells in everything.  It’s just that when we sin, when we do those things that separate us from who God would have us be; we make it harder for ourselves and others to apprehend the Divine in us.  Like a cataract that darkens our vision, our sins mar the ability to see the Divine Spark in us.  The Heavenly Breath within.  The Fullness of Love living in our souls.

I wish the Israelites in the wilderness would have had the benefit of Julian’s insight.  Things are getting pretty rough out there in the desert.  Last week in our lectionary reading we heard the people complaining for food.  This week, things turn sour again as thirst rears its ugly head.  Grumbles intensify so that the text records:  “the people quarreled with Moses” (Ex. 17:2).  They demand he give them water to quench their parched thirst.  As if Moses is some magnificent magician, they once again come after him shouting:  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst!?!” (Ex. 17:3).  . . .  It is so obvious that God sees in them something they cannot.  That God wants for them something they cannot imagine for themselves.  Though God already has been sustaining them all throughout the wilderness, though a pillar of cloud has been guiding them and a column of fire led them through the darkness of that vast, immense desert; the people of God fail to apprehend the Divine in all things – even in themselves.  If the story were before us on the big screen, at this point the music would pierce our hearts with sadness.  O the tragedy of our inability to see God with us every step!

I can imagine that trekking for years through the harsh conditions of a desert would make the most faithful among us wonder.  Is God among us, or not?  . . .  Isn’t that what we wonder when we get the breaking news about a senseless shooting among a church on the other side of town?  Isn’t that the question that seeps into our souls when we see the destruction from Harvey and Irma and Maria too?  Isn’t that the fear that rises when we look at empty pews, which once where filled with children and teens and parents who were eager to raise their families in the faith?  Has God abandoned us?  Was the LORD ever with us in the first place?  . . .  “Apprehend God in all things” another great mystic of the church once wrote.  “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.  Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God” (Meister Eckhart).  . . . Part of the problem in the wilderness – in the Israelites and in us – is that we fail to apprehend rightly.  If we think God is somewhere out there – outside of it all and all we have to do is wait for some mighty one to valiantly come to our rescue, then we’re confusing faith with fairytales.  We don’t understand the Crucified and Risen One.  . . .  God is in all things which means we are never apart from God.  Even when we mar the image of God in ourselves so badly that we and others end up having a very hard time seeing; God remains with us, in us, and beyond us too.  I have a feeling it takes something like wilderness to notice.  Because most of us live as if we don’t really need anything outside of our capable minds and able bodies and our persistent efforts.  We fool ourselves into believing we can handle it all so that the only way left for us to learn the truth of it all is wilderness.  The desert, where at last we finally might see.  The paradigm of faith is, as Julian says:  that in falling we rise again and in each step we remain loved.  In the falling and in the rising again we still are precious to God.  If we can apprehend God in that – in both – we’re on the right path . . . It won’t be long until our parched places flow with abundant, life-giving water.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Work in the Wilderness

A Sermon for 24 September 2017

 

A reading from Exodus 16:1-15.  Listen for God’s word to us as we continue to hear from the story of the Exodus.

“The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.  The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.  On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”  So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because God has heard your complaining against the Lord.  For what are we, that you complain against us?”  And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we?  Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”  Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for the LORD has heard your complaining.’”  10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.  11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”  13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.  14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.  15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?”  For they did not know what it was.  Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’”

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

 

We could spend our time this morning seeing ourselves in this text.  When we stop long enough to get honest with ourselves, we confess:  we know well the Israelites in the wilderness.  We’re familiar with their complaints, aren’t we?  We know about fear of change.  Of lack.  Of growing into something or someone yet unknown – something or someone not like we’ve ever been before.  We know the desire to go back – even if the past wasn’t as fabulous as our memory makes it out to be.  We’ve learned a thing or two as we’ve aged – at least I hope we have.  So that going back really is something most of us only would be willing to do, IF we got to go back to re-live it all over again with our current hard-earned wisdom and courage and hope that we likely didn’t have back then, but that defines who we have become now.  We know the Israelites:  the blaming of their leaders, the finger-pointing at the Divine, the unwillingness to see what’s right before their eyes – the blessings that surround them NOW, though in a new place – an in-between place.  Though threatened by forces wildly beyond their control.  Though vulnerably uncertain about what the path ahead will require of them.  . . .  If we’re willing to be brutally honest with ourselves, we know that we know our Israelite forbearers well.

Here the LORD God, Sovereign of the Universe, is trying to do a new thing.  To liberate a people from their bondage.  To change a people into those who know deep down in their guts that they are free.  They are valued not for what they do but for who they are.  They are necessary to the Divine’s unfolding work in this world.  Through them – through what God will do in and among them – others will see the glory of the LORD.  Others will come to know the goodness of Love, the foundational nature of God.  . . .  It’s an interesting dance.  This two-steps-forward, one-step-back shuffle in the wilderness.  It’s just the fifteenth day of the second month since God re-set their calendar-keeping at Passover..  Some amazing work already had been done by God for them.  The Passover itself was the tenth miraculous sign in Egypt for all to see.  The whole company of Israel, over six hundred thousand men, and women, children, and livestock too, all went out of Egypt in haste when at last the dash to freedom began.  A pillar of cloud led them by day; and at night, a fiery column gave them the light they needed to find their way.  It was a roundabout path, purposefully, so that the freshly liberated people didn’t have to begin their freedom raging war through other nations’ lands.  Instead, through the sea they went – which was an unbelievable act!  Moses stretching out his shepherd’s staff so the waters themselves would recede, as in creation, for the feet of the multitude to cross safely on dry ground.  What may have seemed like the last leg of their journey, left them singing and dancing for great joy!  Moses’ sister Miriam led the women in joyful procession as Moses and the others sang with grateful delight.  . . .  Three days later in the desert, praise turns to protest.  No water.  No food.  No longer any happy campers!  It’s like that at the beginning of any transformation process, isn’t it?  Even when scary, the journey to something new entices – until the first real challenge comes along.  Like the caterpillar who thinks the world is over, until the moment it bursts from the cocoon as an incredibly new creature.  Wings now, it can fly to be in the world as something totally different.  . . .  Without water and food in the wilderness the people of God really could die.  But what makes us think God ever will lead us somewhere where there will not be enough?

In a wonderful book called, The Universe Has Your Back, spiritual writer Gabby Bernstein urges us to consider whether we truly believe that the Universe has our back.  Or, as I like to frame it:  do we really believe that God has our back?  That God knows even when we do not.  That God will guide so that we trust the beautiful words of the Psalmist, who wrote:  “God will not let your foot be moved; God who keeps you will not slumber . . . the LORD will keep your life . . . from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121:3,7b,8b).  . . .  We could spend all our time today thinking about how we are so very much like our Israelite forbearers, or we could listen for the truth of the God of the Wilderness.  Later, when the keepers of the law would record one of Moses’ last charges to the people, we hear:  “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread  . . . because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; (and) the LORD will not fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).  In Isaiah, the prophet records likewise, God saying thus:  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:15-16a).  We continually are before our gracious God.  . . .   Manna already was there for them – a substance secreted in the desert from “two insects that live on the tamarisk tree” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A Additional Essays, Proper 20, 2011, Carol J. Dempsey, p. 6).  Quail annually migrate from wintering in Africa to Palestine and Sinai in the spring (Ibid.).  In unknown territory, the gifts of God still were readily available to the people.  Maybe they didn’t really know it yet.  Maybe years of being settled in Egypt had taken their toll so that the people couldn’t remember the incredible generosity of the One who had cut an everlasting covenant with their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and to their offspring forever.  Maybe it was just the beginning of their intimately knowing the God who, according to the Psalmists:  searches us and knows us and loves us completely (paraphrase of Psalm 139).  And, as also recorded by the prophet in Isaiah, God proclaims:  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Is. 43:1b-3a,4).

What would our lives look like if we took those words deeply into our being?  How would we go about the living of our days – the ones when we are walking through turbulent waters that seem as if we certainly will drown.  The days when the pressure flashes like hot consuming flames.  And the days when everything within at last is at rest.  What if we lived our lives as if we trusted, what some have called, the sure and steady beneficence of God, the infinite generosity, the overflowing open-heartedness?  What would we be like if we took a little bit more into our souls, the truth of God?  . . .  Just a few years back, I read research that pointed to one of the primary reasons why unchurched Americans aren’t interested in being a part of a church today.  The key factor revealed that our unchurched neighbors don’t see that our lives look any different than their own.  It’s sobering to think that those who only know Christianity through our example, don’t perceive that our stress-levels are any lower than theirs.  That our priorities are any different than theirs.  That we approach connection with our families any differently than they do.  That the way we spend our money and time and lives really are all that distinct from their own.  Why get out of bed Sunday mornings if the other six days of the week aren’t going to be significantly impacted by what happens in us when we come together to worship and study and serve?  If we’re going to be as alarmed in the face of life’s challenges as all the others, why bother being a part of the church at all?

We have the power to change those perceptions; for we have the power of the Holy Spirit in us to go forth into the world a little bit different than how we were when we entered this place.  We can open ourselves to the unfolding of God’s work in our lives.  As joyously as possible, with eyes attuned in gratitude to the gifts that do surround us each day; we can invite God to work in and among us through whatever wilderness of transformation we face.  . . .  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.)

 

A Rule of Life

A Sermon for 10 September 2017

A reading from Exodus 12:1-14.  This may be familiar to you as it is a reading assigned each year for Christians to hear on Maundy Thursday.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.  If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.  Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.  They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.  They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.  10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.  11 This is how you shall eat it:  your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.  It is the passover of the Lord.  12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments:  I am the Lord.  13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live:  when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.  14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.  You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

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

 

Today in Sunday School we learned about the Rule of Life.  I know it’s not entirely fair to tell you about it after the fact, but it is Christian Education Kick Off Sunday.  Maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to plan to attend adult Sunday School in the weeks to come!  And if you’ve already been there, see if I miss anything important!  . . .  The Rule of Life is an ancient practice, sometimes referred to as living life by a Spiritual or Sacred Rhythm.  The idea of a Rule of Life is to arrange our lives for spiritual transformation.  We commit to particular daily, weekly, monthly, even annual practices to keep ourselves open and available to God.  We set a framework for our lives with time for God to come in and do what only God can do.  Thus, we participate in the miracle and mystery that is spiritual transformation.  Day after day practicing certain spiritual disciplines like centering prayer or daily scripture reading or even a particular weekly service project in the community undertaken as a part of one’s Rule of Life to give God the space to show up in ways we can’t anticipate to work on us from the inside out.

As we were reminded in class today, we live in a world of rhythms.  The waves ebb and flow.  The seasons change predictably from summer to autumn to winter to spring.  Even our breath is a rhythm – and our heartbeat and our brain waves.  All are necessary rhythms we cannot live without.  Ruth Haley Barton claims that there are rhythms that are so necessary for us spiritually that “if they are not present in our lives, we probably are spiritually dead” (Sacred Rhythms DVD, Session 6, Learn In).  If we are not practicing solitude which simply is time alone each day with God if even for only 10 minutes.  If we fail to carve out this time with God, we soon will feel cut off completely from our Source.  If we never allow ourselves to get quiet to listen in a daily practice of silence, how will God have the chance to energize, as well as stretch us?  . . .  The idea of The Rule of Life is to arrange our lives according to our deepest longings . . . our spirit’s deepest desires for God – be it peace or connection or love.  In our lesson today, we were reminded that the great spiritual leader Thomas Merton once wrote:  “Ask me what I am living for and what is keeping me from living fully for that” (Ibid.).  Who among us isn’t willing to arrange our lives for what we really want?  . . .  For children of God, hopefully among our deepest longings is a desire for God.  Maybe it’s to bring delight to the Divine, or to live a little bit more like Christ in order to experience abundant life now, or just to go deeper into union with God which will lead us out into the world renewed.

In the Exodus reading for today, the people of God are being instructed in a practice that will be an annual part of their Rule of Life.  It will be a communal practice – something whole households will do together each year as a remembrance of the night of God’s decisive action.  We likely have heard of Passover; the high Holy Day our Jewish ancestors still observe not only to remember the past, but also to keep themselves open and available to God today.  When at last Moses went to the Egypt’s Pharaoh to deliver God’s message to let God’s people go, the command was met with defiance.  No way was Pharaoh about to give up the free labor the Israelites were forced to provide.  According to the story, it would take ten miraculous acts before the slaves were liberated – the tenth being an act so violent that many of us have difficulty reconciling the destruction of the firstborn of every creature living in Egypt as an act undertaken by God.  The Passover is instituted as the blood of a spot-less male lamb hurriedly is splashed over the door of each Hebrew home.  Thus, the blood was a sign for no harm to come upon that house.  Its inhabitants belonged not to the Pharaoh, but to God.  And the ones inside had better be ready.  Loins girded, sandals on their feet, dough not yet risen in the bowl.  When at last freedom came, it was a dash out into the night at Pharaoh’s request to go!

Passover is an annual practice in a Rule of Life centered around the freedom we have in God.  It is essential because it defines the people of God.  We can read the whole Exodus story as a clash between two Sovereigns – or between One Holy, High Sovereign and another who just thinks he is.  Soon enough we’ll get to the ten commandments with its classic thou shall have no other gods before me.  Freed from the chains of Egypt’s claims; the people of God need an annual, weekly, and even a daily practice to know the One to whom they really belong.  They need to arrange their new lives in such a way that they never forget.  They belong to the Sovereign who acted for their benefit and continues to do so every day.  It’s our story too so that our Rules of Life, our own Sacred Rhythms demand rest in order to know the Master to whom we always have belonged.  One who desires us deeply enough to ensure praise to our Creator ever remains on our lips.

In that light, it might be high time we each got clear about our own Rule of Life – if we don’t already have a Sacred Rhythm to which we have fully committed.  It doesn’t have to be something imposed upon us.  In our class lesson today, we learned the characteristics of effective rhythms.  Things we must keep in mind as we arrange our lives to stay open and available to God.  Connected rightly to our Source.  Our Sacred Rhythms need to be personal to us.  I would argue that there are certain disciplines disciples of Christ need in our lives.  Like, we need to commit to weekly worship – gathering with one another when our hearts are full of gratitude, when they’re breaking, and even when they are bored.  And we need practices for our days that uniquely feed us.  I have to be outside in silence with God for at least ten minutes each day.  When I’m not, the souls of my feet cry out for the feel of the grass under them.  I know someone who creates a mandala – a circle of wholeness from whatever bits of nature she finds each Sunday outside on a walk through her yard.  Maybe you have to use your body to create music or movement or a beautiful work of art.  Commit to it as a spiritual practice – as a time in which God can show up to work in you.  It doesn’t have to be a lot of things each day.  Don’t overcommit.  One daily spiritual practice is enough.  We might even re-purpose things of our lives that we already do but do them now with the intention of allowing that act to keep us open and available to God.  The spiritual life isn’t about practices that bore us to tears.  I suggest building monthly review into our Rules of Life so we can assess now and again and change course as needed.

A good Rule of Life is realistic about the demands of our lives.  If we’re working a job that takes us out of the house for twelve hours each day, it’s likely we won’t have anything left for an extended time of silence every night.  In those circumstances, it’s unrealistic and shouldn’t be attempted.  Last week in Sunday School, we learned about the practice called the Examen.  A practice I once heard referred to as sleeping with bread.  Ten minutes before bed – maybe even as you’re brushing your teeth and getting yourself ready on auto-pilot at night, or in the morning if that works better for you – review the past twenty-four hours with God.  Name how you woke up, what you did to care for your body, how you interacted with others, and even what you did throughout the hours of your day.  Look for traces in your day of seeing the Spirit of God at work – surprising you, guiding you, maybe even making you a little bit better at handling life’s situations – which is evidence of the Spirit’s expansion in you.  Confess before God the ways you weren’t who you wished you would be.  And commit to beginning again tomorrow.  Then simply thank God for every breath of your day as you lay your head down for the refreshment of the night.  The Examen is a simple enough spiritual practice to make a part of one’s Rule of Life.  Over time, it can bring us great wisdom and deeper compassion for ourselves and others too.

We’ve got to make sure the practices to which we commit are life-giving to us.  It’s a good idea as well to take on one practice that stretches us a bit to keep ourselves growing towards wholeness.  People who lose themselves in talking with others, need the discipline of silent time alone with God.  And those of us who otherwise would ignore our bodies, need to take a holy walk around the block to feel the way God amazingly created this home that is us.  In it all, we must remember grace.  Rules of Life are not meant to enslave us.  We must hold them flexibly – knowing some days unexpected events occur.  Tomorrow we can get back to our Rule again.  . . . It’s how we stay alive with God as God lives more fully in us.  How we keep connected to our Source and remember the Master to whom we really do belong.  We don’t need to make ourselves into some other people for God.  We only need to arrange our lives in ways that keep us open and available.  Just like in Egypt, we can trust; God will do the rest.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

Outside

A Sermon for 20 August 2017

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 15:10-28.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:  11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  13Jesus answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.  14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.  And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”  15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”  16Then Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding?  17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?  18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”  21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  23But Jesus did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  24Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.”

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

 

Fifteen years ago, right after the beginning of the 21st Century, Charles Campbell – then preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary and now at Duke Divinity School – wrote these words:  “The church is called intentionally and habitually to move out of the places of security and comfort into those ‘unclean’ places where Jesus suffers ‘outside the gate of the sacred compounds,’ whether those compounds are shaped by religion or class or race or culture.  . . .  Through dislocation, privileged Christians cross the boundaries that keep the privileged and oppressed apart and take a first step toward solidarity . . . which, in a consumer culture, is one way of radically contesting the Domination System” (Charles L. Campbell, The Word before the Powers:  An Ethic of Preaching, WJKP, 2002).  . . .  “The church,” he urged, “intentionally and habitually” is to move outside.  Beyond itself.  Beyond the gates of safety in the land of the known.  Outside to where we will encounter the outsider.  Not just for their benefit, but for the mutual benefit of us all.

What happens when we venture forth outside – outside the familiarity of our typical circle?  Outside the comfort of being among people whom we perceive to be like us?  Outside – beyond the boundaries we tend to keep between ourselves and those who are unknown?  . . .

Look what happened with Jesus.  . . .  Before us today is a timely text.  Religious leaders come from Jerusalem to Jesus in Galilee.  They’re concerned he’s letting his disciples break the traditions of their elders.  Stepping outside the norms of their people as they fail to wash their hands before they eat.  Whether their violation has to do with the act of washing hands before the weekly Sabbath meal, or unclean hands passing out bread and fish to 5,000 men plus women and children at Tabgha; it’s clear.  Tension is building over who does what to show all they are insiders and who does not.

I realize hand washing may seem minute to us today, but the traditions of the elders of Jesus’ people were in place for good reason.  Such rituals were practiced as a part of their culture – the acts that defined them as a people, which was especially important to them when not everyone living around the land was Jewish.  Beside them now were gentiles of Rome, soldiers and supporters who were not of their own kind.  We know there were Samaritans smack dab between Galilee and Jerusalem with whom ancient feuds festered.  And, as we learn in the story of Matthew before us today, not far from their beloved land still lived Canaanites, the original folks dwelling in the land whom their ancestors had driven out.

It’s interesting that the gospel of Matthew describes the woman Jesus soon will encounter as a Canaanite, whereas the gospel of Mark refers to the same woman as a Syrophoenician (Mark 7:26).  You might remember that when God promised the land west of the Jordan River to the Israelites who had been forty years in the wilderness, the people were afraid.  The spies of Israel came back to tell Moses and the people that the land of Canaan was abundant in luscious fruit.  But the inhabitants of the land were fierce, large people.  Not one Israelite had courage enough to enter the land of Canaan because they felt like insignificant “grasshoppers” next to such strong inhabitants (Numbers 13:23-33).  Listeners to Matthew’s telling of the story likely were aware this son of the great King David would be up against a giant as fierce as the one David was up against in Goliath.  A Canaanite woman who was not about to back down was coming after Jesus.  Likely the encounter would not be easy – not even for our Lord.

He went their anyway.  Intentionally.  He dislocated himself and his disciples out of the safety of their known land of Galilee to Tyre and Sidon, where non-Israelites lived.  Roman port cities on the eastern Mediterranean in Jesus’ day, Jesus may have known of the great spiritual hunger in the people of that land.  According to the gospel of Mark (3:8) and the gospel of Luke (6:17); early in his ministry, people from Tyre and Sidon came to Jesus for healing.  Traveling now to them, seemingly intentionally after friction between him and Jerusalem’s religious leaders; it could not have been possible that Jesus believed he’d go unnoticed.  . . .  Silence is his first response to the fierce mother calling out for her daughter’s life.  His disciples definitely do not want to get involved.  It’s hard to reconcile the racially charged exchanges here in this story.  Though he’s intentionally traveled outside, Jesus tells his disciples he’s been sent only for those lost in the house of Israel (Mt. 15:24).  Was he trying to set up a powerful object lesson for his listeners?  Or was Jesus really not yet clear that there was food enough for those outside of their own house as well?  The text never really clarifies.  What we do learn is that encounter matters.  When that momma, whose daughter has been tormented, throws herself at Jesus’ feet, her request cannot be denied.  When she will not allow her need to go unnoticed, Jesus sees past any outward appearance into a heart that firmly trusts that grace is big enough to include her too.  It is as if the encounter leaves all understanding that something deeper binds us.  Pain is pain.  Tears are tears.  Furious mother love is furious mother love whoever you are.  No matter the language you speak.  The race with which you identify.  Or the land from where you come.  Something deeper binds us one to another.  O for a world in which we all finally would see.

In a meditation taken from A New Way of Seeing, A New Way of Being:  Jesus and Paul, Richard Rohr writes:  “It is an openness to the other – as other – that frees us . . . It is always an encounter with otherness that changes me.  If I am not open to the beyond-me, I’m in trouble.  Without the other, we are all trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors that only validates and deepens our limited and already existing worldviews.  When there is the encounter with the other, when there is mutuality, when there is presence, when there is giving and receiving, and both are changed in that encounter; that is the moment when you can begin to move toward transformation . . . – to ‘change forms.’  When you allow other people or events to change you, you look back at life with new and different eyes.  That is the only real meaning of human growth.”  Rohr goes on by writing:  “One could say that the central theme of the biblical revelation is to call people to encounters with otherness:  the alien, the sinner, the Samaritan, the Gentile, the hidden and denied self, angels unaware.  And all of these are perhaps in preparation and training for hopeful meetings with the Absolute Other (with God).  We need practice in moving outside of our comfort zones.  It is never a natural or easy response” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation:  “Intimate with Otherness;” from Center for Action & Contemplation; 14 August 2014).

It certainly doesn’t seem an easy encounter for Jesus and his disciples.  It won’t always be for us either.  And yet we go.  We dis-locate ourselves outside ourselves to encounter whoever we might meet.  We go, trusting the Absolute Other to bless us all.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (all rights reserved.)

 

Separation Anxiety

A Sermon for 30 July 2017 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 8:26-39

A reading from the letter to the Christians in Rome 8:26-39 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

  28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  29 For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that the Son might be the firstborn within a large family.  30 And those whom God predestined God also called; and those whom God called God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified.  31 What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?  32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  34 Who is to condemn?  It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  36 As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’   37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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

 

Remember when your little ones were toddlers and they were all clinging?  A few of you are living through this phase right now and could tell us all about it.  I once rescued a teacup poodle who never did grow out of this stage.  He just couldn’t stand being away from me.  It’s the time before little ones, and rescued dogs, know that you will be coming back to them.  Life is experiential for them.  Pre-cognitive.  You certainly can’t reason with them that daddy’s just going away for a little bit.  Or momma will be right back.  Their little brains don’t yet know that things exist away from them.  As you try to drop them off at daycare or their grandparents’ house or anywhere for a few hours while you go out for a relaxing dinner; their grip around your neck tightens as the screams get louder and the tears flow.  It’s separation anxiety – a stage every little one goes through.

Being separated from one you love can be a very scary thing.  I’ll never forget the time when my sister who is two years older than me got separated from our family.  We were in a big department store at a huge mall in an even bigger city far from home.  She was around six or seven years old and the next thing we knew, she was gone.  My parents had some experience with this as it seemed I would get stuck every week on aisle three in the local grocery store when I got drug along shopping with my mom.  I couldn’t resist poking holes with my little kid hand through every roll in the toilet paper packs.  Mom of course wouldn’t let me do such a destructive, disrespectful act so I’d find a way to hang back while she went on to the next aisle.  Only once in all those years did I ever get so separated from her that I couldn’t catch up with her a few aisles down.  But this with my sister was different.  The city we were in was huge and everyone there were strangers to us.  We rarely went to that great big department store.  And even though I was too young yet to read much, I knew those faces of children on the milk cartons.  Boys and girls who somehow got separated from their parents – many of them missing for years according the snap shots on the cartons.  I was sure my sister’s photo would be on the very next batch.  It was terrifying.  Certainly some of you have gone through a similar experience and know firsthand that being separated like that is one of the worst feelings in the world.

My sister was found and returned to us a few hours later.  But I can’t help thinking about those who live separated each day.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind as one who experienced the extremes of separation.  Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor born in 1906 and hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945.  From the start he was in opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews.  Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler in pleas to his fellow Germans to consider that the rhetoric of Hitler was incredibly misguided.  After Hitler found a way to infiltrate the German Lutheran church, Bonhoeffer was a key organizer in the oppositional Confessing Church which would create “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” a confession in the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions, in which Christ alone is hailed as Lord – not Hitler or any other representative of the state.  . . .  The Confessing Church was a small but mighty force, led by Bonhoeffer and others, against the Nazi government.  To keep him in check, Hitler eventually arrested Pastor Bonhoeffer.  Separated from his church and family, it would have been easy for Bonhoeffer to feel abandoned too by God.  Cut off completely.  But, legend has it that he kept himself going in prison with the hymns and scripture verses he would bring to mind.  He must have turned that time of separation into communion with God instead.  Convinced, even in those extreme conditions, that he was not separated from God.  How can we ever really be when God lives in and around us always?  . . .  Similar to the first Christians imprisoned for speaking out against the empire, Bonhoeffer continued to spread the message to fellow inmates and guards – acts that got him moved to Buchenwald concentration camp and then to Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was condemned to death by the state and hanged just two weeks prior to US forces liberating the camp.  In every way, this was a man cut off from his previous life.  Separated from those he loved, the pre-Nazi German homeland he cherished, and freedom itself.  Still, a man who saw his execution writes:  “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer . . . kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God.  I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution (which he was marched to naked), he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.”  The on-looker writes:  “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer).  In spite everything, Bonhoeffer clearly knew from One he was not separated at all!

We’ve got to wonder if Bonhoeffer held the words from Romans in his heart that day – and every day of his valiant life in which he sought to follow our Lord Jesus Christ.  The words from Romans chapter 8:  “What then are we to say about these things.  If God is for us, who is against us?  . . .  Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  (Romans 8:31, 35).  . . .  It’s true, isn’t it, that we go through our days often feeling very separated from God.  Like lost little children, not as connected as we’d like to be to our Gracious Parent who created us, and loves us, and wants us to live each day in the goodness of God’s great love for us.  Too many of us live like those far from a sense of home in God.  Or maybe even as those up against horrors almost as trying as life in Nazi Germany.  So many of us feel separated from God – anxious if God even exists, or if God really cares enough about us not to leave us all alone.  We’re aware of that swirl of unrest in the pit of our stomachs.  It is a part of being human, that we’ll feel separated from God and at times even doubt God’s true existence.  It’s a terrible way to live – feeling cut off like that.  Sometimes we just have to keep telling ourselves an alternate truth until it seems real in our hearts and in our minds.  Like the old saying:  fake it ‘til you make it.  Or:  repeat it often enough until the truth of God’s steadfast, ever-present love sinks down deep into every fiber of our being.  Nothing able to separate us from that.  Nothing able to keep us from the goodness of God’s unconditional, eternal love for each one of us.  Nothing!

That’s God’s promise to us.  Captured in the beautiful words of Romans 8 that NOTHING “in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).  Nothing!  Not our struggles.  Not our doubts.  Not our wanderings.  Not any trial that comes our way.  Not even our very selves.  . . .  We often hear these words at funerals – or at the side of loved ones who are on their deathbeds.  They are a wonderful balm to troubled souls.  But it’s not just in the face of death that we need this reminder, is it?  We need it every day – to combat our separation anxiety.  To remember that no matter what happens to us in that day, no matter how much we mess up as disciples of Christ, no matter how others might put us in positions that really could shatter our faith.  No matter what anyone else might say or do to convince us otherwise.  The love of God will never be taken from us.  We’ll never be separated from our great God – even if it feels like it.  That’s our perspective, not God’s.  That feeling is a signal to us that something in our actions or our understandings need to change.  With a sure and steady hope, we can know that God’s love is faithful still.  We’ve no need to fear because we never, ever, ever could wander off so far from the love of God that we would be separated from it.  Never.  . . .  It’s news good enough to allow someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to speak out without fear against the evils of the world.  It’s news good enough to sooth any angst in us.  It’s news good enough to move us out into this world reminding others too of the amazing truth!

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

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