Category Archives: Sermons

How Has the Shepherd been Good?

22 April 2018 – 4th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 10:11-18.  Listen for God’s word to us.  And remember that these are words the early Christian community recorded as being on the lips of Jesus.  Listen:

“’I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  14 I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.  16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.  I have received this command from my Father.’”

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

 

The church in which I was raised had a sanctuary full of stained glass windows.  While it seems a little odd to find such beautiful artistic creations in a strictly Protestant church of a small town in rural Wisconsin, they were a great feature for children.  During what I believed to be long, boring sermons; as a little girl in worship, I would look up to marvel at the massive colors all around.  Blues and reds and greens, greys and yellows and purples blended perfectly to depict scenes from Jesus’ life.  Pictures inspired by his parables.  Even images of lessons he taught – like being the One that stands at the door and knocks.  And being the One on a hillside teaching common folk who came hungering for a word from God – the Bread of Heaven.  There was a window with children gathered round – a highly-appreciated scene for little eyes to see.  ‘Cuz even if the adults typically wanted us to neither be seen nor heard, the arms of a welcoming One stretched wide to invite us all in.  And then there was the window near the front of the sanctuary.  It shone bright with One dressed in a rugged tunic.  Far off in the countryside.  Dutifully carrying home a single, little lamb.  The scene drew upon the point of what some have called the counting parables of the gospel of Luke.  The woman who diligently sweeps her house until she finds the lost coin.  The father who patiently waits to welcome home his wayward son.  The shepherd who cannot bear to leave behind one of his flock; so out he goes to find his precious, lost sheep.

The fourth Sunday of Easter routinely brings us back to the image of the Shepherd.  Psalm 23 is assigned by the lectionary for every fourth Sunday of Easter in the three-year cycle.  “The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want” year A, B, and C proclaim from the Psalter (Ps. 23:1).  In green pastures I can lie.  Beside still waters I walk.  My depleted soul, the Loving Shepherd restores.  Even in the darkest valley of my life, there is no need to fear.  Thou art with me.  You, O LORD, deeply comfort me.  My whole life long and beyond, I shall dwell with you.  . . .  It’s easy to see how the words of Psalm 23 just might be the most universally favored words of Holy Scripture.  They speak to us in the weary-most experiences of our lives.  The scariest moments of our faith – whether we are drowning in the depths of sorrow or withering in the darkest night of the soul.  In the nick of time, the LORD as our Loving Shepherd grasps our hands so we will not fall.  “I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus says.  The One who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).

Each year, the lectionary pairs the beloved poetry of Psalm 23 with a portion of the tenth chapter of the gospel of John.  This year, year B, the LORD as our Shepherd is paired with the equally beautiful declaration by Jesus.  The Good Shepherd.  Who knows his own, even as his own know the sound of his voice.  In John 10:11-18, we hear Jesus distinguish the Good Shepherd from the hired hand.  Though the hired hand might scatter at the first sign of fear, the Good Shepherd risks his life for his own.  He will not let them go.  In Feasting on the Gospels, one commentator writes:  “Jesus is the good shepherd invested not in himself but in the sheep.”  The commentator then asks:  “What does it mean to be loved by a God whose ultimate priority is all us sheep?” (David Lower, Feasting on the Gospels, John, Vol. 2 [chapters 10-21], p. 17).  . . .  In the beautiful sermon called The Voice of the Shepherd, gifted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a friend who had grown up on a sheep ranch.  Taylor’s friend reported to her that it was cattle ranchers who once started the rumor that sheep are dumb.  Because they’re not at all like cows.  Cows get herded from behind with shouts and prods from the cowboys.  Taylor explains that “if you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you.  . . .  Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led.”  She writes:  “Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else – their trusted shepherd – does not go first, to show them that everything is alright” (Nancy R. Blakely, Feasting the on the Word, Yr. B, Vol, 2; p. 450).  In Christ, that’s exactly what God has done.  Come into the flesh and blood of us human beings to show us everything is alright.  There is a way to live in this world in trust of a Loving Shepherd who will provide and guide and come get us when we’re lost.  We can relax into the grace of a God who never gives up on us.  For, as Lamentations reminds:  like the clean slate of a new morning, the mercies of God never end.  So great is Thy faithfulness!

If I were to sit down now and allow you all to finish the rest of this sermon by telling your story of how Christ has been a Good Shepherd in your own life, I wonder what each of you would say.  . . .  Would someone tell the story of how you were totally lost – wandering far from the ways of God; or just not all that clear in your life about what all this churchy stuff is supposed to do with the daily choices you make?  Then one day, a fresh insight came about your worthiness in the eyes of God and it was as if you suddenly were found by One who whispers daily in your ear:  “I love you!  You are mine:  precious, and honored, and beloved just for being you!”  . . .  Would another tell of how you lost it all – your job?  Your spouse.  Your child.  Life seemed pointless.  You were ready to give up.  And then, after months or years or maybe just moments now and again; glimmers of color returned to the bleak grey of your life.  Slowly you learned to begin again.  Try again.  Maybe even love again – despite the tender spot you feel where your heart still is mending.  It wasn’t your own doing; but a Force, a Presence, a Comfort in the worst of the pain.  The Shepherd gently remained at your side.  . . .  Someone might tell of the music that comes to mind – the words of the past that creep back in when everything else is kinda hazy.  Daily memory may allude, but “Jesus Loves me This I Know” remains.  “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.”  Or it just might be that in the most intense moments of your fast-pace days, the sunset captures your heart and you hear:  “Peace.  My peace I give to you.” (John 14:27)  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:1 &27).  . . .  Yet another among us might tell how in the dead of night, when the rest of the world is fast-asleep and your mind just will not let you fall off to the land of dreams; you sense something is with you – Someone that feels like a mighty fortress under your feet.  A solid rock upon which you can stand.  . . .  It’s the Presence of the Good Shepherd in our lives.  Feeding us.  Quenching our thirst.  Tending our wounds.  Guiding us safely home.

If I stopped this sermon right now and you had to tell of how the LORD has been your Good Shepherd, just what story might you tell?  . . .  In the silence of these next few moments, review your life.  Listen.  Remember how the Shepherd has been good to you!

(Silence).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Sent Without Canoes

A Sermon for 8 April 2018 – Second Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 20:19-31.  Listen for God’s word to us.  And remember, this story takes place later on the first Easter.  Listen:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

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

 

If you’ve ever been west of the Mississippi – like to California, Oregon, Montana, or Nevada – then I’m guessing you are grateful for the adaptability of the men named Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  It was 1804 and the newly formed nation just had acquired a huge expanse of land called the Louisiana Territory.  Wanting to know what they had gotten and determined to find a water route that connected the eastern United States to the Pacific Ocean; President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery under the command of Lewis and the one Lewis made his co-captain, Clark.

A book called Canoeing the Mountains, quotes historians who describe the defining moment of Meriwether Lewis’ life.  “He was approaching the farthest boundary of the Louisiana Territory.  The Continental Divide.  The Spine of the Rocky Mountains, beyond which the rivers flow west.  No American citizen ever had been there before.  This he believed was the Northwest Passage, the goal of explorers for more than three centuries.  The great prize that Thomas Jefferson had sent him to find and claim for the United States.  With each stride, Lewis was nearing what he expected to be the crowning moment of his expedition and his life.  From the vantage point just ahead, all of science and geography had prepared him to see the watershed of the Columbia; and beyond it, perhaps a great plain that led down to the Pacific.  Instead, there were just more mountains”  (Canoeing the Mountains:  Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger, pp. 87-88).  Captured in his expedition journal, Lewis writes:  “’Immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us, with their tops partially covered in snow’” (Ibid.).

Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains, writes:  “At that moment in the daunting vista spread out at the feet of Meriwether Lewis, the dream of an easy water route across the continent – a dream stretching back to Christopher Columbus – was shattered”  (Ibid.).  It’s been said that as Lewis and the Corps stood atop the Lemhi Pass in what would become the state of Idaho, the geography of hope gave way to the geography of reality.  Though wanting to cling to the known, as all of us do; Bolsinger writes:  “Lewis wasted no time in casting off assumptions once the brutal facts of his reality were clear.  There was no water route.  There were miles and miles of snowcapped mountain peaks in front of them.  They had no trail to follow.  Food was scarce in this rugged terrain.  And winter was coming.”  Bolsinger writes:  “This is the canoeing the mountains moment.  This was when the Corp of Discovery faced for the first time the breadth of the challenges posed by the Rocky Mountains and came to the irrefutable reality that there was no Northwest Passage.  No navigable water route to the Pacific Ocean.  This is the moment when they had to leave their boats.  Find horses and make the giant adaptive shift that comes from realizing their mental models for the terrain in front of them were wrong” (Ibid., p. 93).  Canoes would not get them over the mountains.  That which had served them well thus far, no longer would work.

They could have responded to the challenge differently – especially because the order from their Commander in Chief specifically charged them to find a water route from sea to sea.  Bolsinger writes:  “They could have decided that they had indeed discovered the vitally important, but certainly disappointing reality that the long-hoped for Northwest Passage and its water route was a myth.  . . .  They could have turned back.  They could have returned to Washington, made their reports, and told Thomas Jefferson that another crew more equipped to travel long distances through mountain passes should be launched on a different expedition.  But they didn’t” (Ibid., pp. 93-94).  History is defined by this moment and all the other things they could have done.  Nevertheless, Bolsinger writes, “at that moment, without even discussing it, Meriwether Lewis simply proceeded on” (Ibid., p. 94).   Deep within, he knew – as did Clark and the rest of their men – to what they really were called – not just some specific order from President Jefferson; but as men of the Enlightenment – even if it meant they would have to learn a whole new way through uncharted territory – Lewis, Clark, and their men were 100% dedicated to discovery in service to others as what gives meaning to life.  . . .  They kept going – re-committing to the principles that lie in the core of their being.  Leaving behind the familiarity of their canoes, they literally left the map.  They journeyed on.

It’s one week after Easter; but later that night according to the gospel of John.  Though Mary Magdalene had come from her garden encounter with the Risen Christ, the other disciples did not yet know what to make of the news.  Frightened, perhaps, that when the religious leaders caught wind of the story that the tomb was empty; their own crucifixions would be next.  Pick them off one by one, over some talk of “he is not here but has risen.”  Until every last preposterous voice was silenced.  There were no known mental models for how to live after your dead rabbi had risen from the grave.  No easy course to travel after one who had taught and healed and inspired was crucified, dead, and buried . . .  only to appear to them alive again just a day after the Sabbath rest???!!!  Standing in their shoes, we too would likely lock ourselves away in fear.  Not knowing the next steps to take after Mary burst in to declare she had seen the Lord!  It was their defining moment.  The moment all of heaven held its breath to see what this little ban of humans would do.

The gospel of John tells the story differently than do the gospels of Matthew and Mark, where the disciples later are given the great commission.  The gospel of Luke links with Acts to expand upon the reception of the Spirit 50 days after Easter at Pentecost.  But the gospel of John tells that it was on that first night of the week, the very night the tomb was discovered empty; the Risen One comes to his faithful followers breathing peace, in order to send them out into the world.  Somehow, he expects them to release others from their sins – a charge likely to clear those who had crucified him; so that the hearts of Christ’s followers would remain open.  Pure.  Ready to give witness to a revolutionary love often unseen on the world’s stage.  “Peace,” the Risen One says to those locked in fear.  “Now go.”  Get on with it – all he had commanded them pre-crucifixion.  They were to live the peace of laying down their lives for another, even as he had laid down his own for the sake of all the world.  “By this,” he had told them just a few nights ago at the supper when he knelt before them to wash their feet, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Almost like Acts of the Apostles records in that part of chapter four that we heard earlier – though it seems like a hyperbolic exaggeration.  The vision of a beloved community enacted.  Living in one accord – heart and soul fully committed to one another so that all was freely shared for the common good.  Giving powerful witness in word and deed to the way God always brings new life.  Epitomizing grace as any in need found themselves filled.  According to scripture, these were the first marks of the ones who followed Christ’s Way.  No matter if the world around embraced the Way or not, together they journeyed on.

Theologian Marcus Borg – as many others – likens the moment in which the church today finds itself to be much like the moment those first followers faced on the eve of Easter.  Locked in fear for what might come in a world that seemed hostile to the Risen One.  Another wise scholar of today describes us as those needing to learn to be “apostles on both sides of the door” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, D. Cam Murchison, p. 404).  “The missionary people empowered by this peace and this inbreathed Holy Spirit to bear the forgiving, transforming love of God into every sphere of human experience” (Ibid.).  The territory isn’t entirely unknown; for the first followers found their way post-resurrection.  Scripture also inspires us with the way they did finally leave that post-resurrection Upper Room to continue the adventure begun by their crucified and risen Lord.  Changing the course of history day by day in witness to the One whose life, death, and life again showed the Way of the great Creator of the Universe:  the abiding strength of love that triumphs even over death!  . . .  Though the current terrain may be unlike anything the church has enjoyed – at least since the founding of this nation; it is not impossible to traverse.  For remember, we worship the One whose very own mother was told at the announcement of his birth:  “nothing shall be impossible with God!”  (Luke 1:37).  It’s what Easter Sunday tells us!  What resurrection is all about!  . . .  That even when we stand metaphorically at the Lemhi Pass in Idaho – nothing but mile after mile of mountainous, off-the-map wilderness before us; the Risen Christ comes to us.  Breathing peace.  Helping us to let go of our cherished canoes.  Saying:  “Go.  Get on with it!  As the Father has sent me, so I send you!” (John 20:21).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Easter and Us

A Sermon for 1 April 2018 – Easter Sunday

A reading from the gospel of John 20:1-18.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.  He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.  11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.  As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”  Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!”  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

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

What does resurrection have to do with our lives – not just some day off in the future when our mortal flesh returns to the earth.  But today, on Easter.  And tomorrow.  And the next.  And any random day of the week, like three weeks from next Tuesday?  How does resurrection impact us every day?

We know how it impacted the life of Jesus, the Christ.  Arrested for sedition by a state that was colluding with religious folks who believed him blasphemous, Jesus was brutally executed.  Hung on a cross as were all those in his day who were condemned to die.  A handful of women – and, according to the gospel of John, the beloved male disciple – were the only ones from the throngs devoted enough to watch.  Joseph of Arimathea – who represented a dissenting voice on the Jewish high council – and Nicodemus – the Pharisee who once went to Jesus at night to learn of God’s undying love for the world – got his body off the cross.  The gospel of John records that they wrapped him with about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes – which is a hole lot of powerful healing oils!  They placed their dead Rabbi in the linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.  And because the Jewish day of preparation was fast-approaching, they laid his body in a newly hewn tomb in the garden near the spot where he had been crucified.  Night fell as the corpse lay stone-cold still, the ruah – the breath of Life, the spirit of the one called Jesus no longer there to animate his body.

Resurrection meant all the difference for that one!  Early on the first day of the week, after the celebration of Passover was over, in the dark before dawn; Mary Magdalene found her way back to the tomb in the garden.  Love’s redeeming work was done!  He was not there but had risen!  That very morning, he again called her by name.  Standing before her face-to-face; the Risen One charged her to go tell his brothers.  He was ascending – returning to the Source from which he had come.  Though he would appear to them all later that night.  Then one week following.  And again, when they had returned to the boats and nets.  The power of his life was not yet done.  The resurrection of his body confirmed all he had been teaching – the LORD of heaven and earth would have the last word, not death.  But Life for all and forever for those who would follow his path.

Resurrection changed the lives of those first rushing to the tomb.  Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John.  Mary his Mother, James his brother, Thomas and all the rest too.  To the ends of the earth eventually they would go.  Not scattered like scared sheep but sent with purpose to the far-reach of lands we now know as India, Africa, and Europe.  From that one little spot in a garden outside the walls of Jerusalem, a different kind of world-wide web would form.  The message over and over:  “I have seen the Lord!  The crucified, dead, and buried; lives forevermore!”  He is present with us.  In us, as we continue to walk the path he taught throughout his living and dying and living again.  . . .  Talk about an adventure!  All around their known-world they went to teach any who would listen everything they had seen and heard.  To give witness to Christ’s healing power.  To tell of his up-side-down understanding of the welcome of God.  To live in ways that showed yet the life-transforming effects of compassionate love.  Resurrection made all the difference in a world craving any seed of hope.

Resurrection is meant to change our lives too.  It shows us the pattern imprinted by the Creator in the creation.  Life.  Death.  Life again!  We too live forevermore.  Our days have purpose because of what we have seen – not just far off in the land where Jesus first lived.  Not even alone in the stories of scripture that we cherish.  But also in our very own lives.  Where the power of forgiveness has broken-open our hearts to heal.  To begin again.  Where the up-side-down welcome of God has allowed us to be – to accept ourselves in all of our foibles, because each part is accepted by God, redeemed by God, cherished not as weakness but as an opportunity for God to work wonders we cannot accomplish on our own.  In our own lives – I hope we have experienced and continue to be for others – people of compassionate love; those who consider the need in ourselves even as we notice the deep need in another.  Resurrection is meant to change our lives – to give us hope in a world where we’re taught to focus more on that which divides instead of seeing all the ways we are connected.  For we need one another.  And when we sit together to break bread, the mysterious Spirit of God is found binding us all into one.

Resurrection has everything to do with us – with our living, with our dying daily, with our living again now and forevermore!  . . .  Happy Easter, Resurrection people!  When we depart from here, let us go to make all the difference!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

The Point of Palm Sunday

A Sermon for 25 March 2018 – Palm Sunday

 

A reading from the gospel of Mark 11:1-19.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”  They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street.  As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.  12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.  13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.  When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  And his disciples heard it.  15 Then they came to Jerusalem.  And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?  But you have made it a den of robbers.”  18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.  19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.”

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

 

Hearing stories like the ones we heard from the gospels today, do you ever wonder if Jesus was either absolutely fearless or just full of folly?  Or maybe a bit of both?  . . .  In The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson does a wonderful job of teaching about the groups of faithful Jews who were contemporary to Jesus.  Likely we’ve heard their names thrown around by gospel authors:  the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.  Similar to the varieties of Christian denominations today, not everyone then approached God through Judaism in the same way.  (See:  Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way, pp. 206-271.)  One thing they all held in common – though for different reasons – Jesus appeared a threat.  The reactionary Pharisees, who started off about 150 years before Jesus as a protest against Greek opposition to Judaism and grew into a strict following of God’s ancient laws, believed Jesus broke the absolute ways of the Sabbath – and according to certain tellings of the story – he even wanted to include the uncircumcised.  Compassion was of higher value to Jesus than code.  . . .  The Sadducees and chief priests, who had gotten in good with the upper echelons and stopped caring for those right before them in spiritual and physical need, despised that Jesus broke bread with the masses.  They hated that he called crooked tax collectors to repent.  . . .  The Essenes, who simply wanted to escape in order to focus on their own holy lives, didn’t like that Jesus got down and dirty with the people.  He touched lepers and listened to blind men.  He let a woman infiltrate a precious male circle as she anointed his body before burial.  He didn’t stay out of the synagogues and Temple where in the Essenes’ opinion some religious folks worried more about themselves and their own comfort over the will of God.  Rather, Jesus marched right in in order to be present – that he would be able to nourish their spirits with the bountiful bread of heaven.  . . .  As if his every move wasn’t enough to turn the religious leaders of his beloved religious community upside down, Jesus meddled.  He told folks what to do with their money.  How to spend their time.  He made clear the ways God expected them to invest their talents – for the good of the whole.  He spoke of merciful love, justice, and forgiveness when so many craved separation, dominance, and revenge.

Look at him today in the story we call Palm Sunday.  Check out the actions of this foolish – or fearless, or a little bit of both – man.  Who does he think he is, descending from the Mount of Olives?  That was supposed to be the path of the long-awaited one.  . . .  The prophecy from Zechariah told of a day when one would come mightily into Jerusalem – one even mightier than old, beloved King David.  A royal descendant would weave down the path from the Mount of Olives on the east into the city with the Temple mount rising above.  The LORD’s promised one would liberate the Israelites from any other rule and establish forever God’s universal kingdom – an empire that stretched over every nation of the world.  What a wonderful vision!  . . .  It’s just that Jesus didn’t look at all like most had anticipated, what with the way he acted – pretty much standing in opposition to all the religious leaders of his day.  All too often Jesus offended, especially those who were certain that they knew.  And now – at Passover – as the city was jammed packed with those making the annual pilgrimage – how dare he participate in this attention-getting, seemingly pre-arranged parade?  He had to know it would only make matters worse.

No bother, to Jesus.  It’s important for us to remember that had a mission – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, as we say in Renewal Team meetings.  He would not be deterred.  He was centered and focused and ready for whatever would come.  . . .  It was his parade of peace, that day he descended from the Mount of Olives.  He’d been saying all along that the ways of violence would be used against him, as they’d been used against his people for too long.  Those in charge of ordering other’s lives got to such positions through force.  There were no democratic elections in Jesus’ day.  In Jesus’ day the machine of domination rolled over nation after nation.  Person after person – on their way to establishing the Pax Romana:  The Great Roman Peace.  . . .  Was it the Psalmist or the ancient prophet or Jesus himself who chastised those in charge, saying:  “You cry, ‘Peace!  Peace!’  When, in fact, there is no peace!”  . . .  His sign of choosing a donkey – a young, previously unridden colt, as the gospel of Mark details.  Jesus’ choice was a powerful symbolic message.  He was embodying the prophet Zechariah’s oracle of chapter 9:9-10 which promised that a triumphant king will come.  Not on a horse charging in for war with shield and sword ready to go.  But humble – holding nothing in his outstretched hands:  just peace.  Peace pervading every ounce of his heart.  . . .  Here comes Jesus ambling into the city – the victorious king of peace.

It’s why he would tell his followers to put down the sword when in Gethsemane one of them sought to strike.  The One of peace doesn’t fight with those kind of weapons – just acts of kindness, self-emptying calm, and courageous words.  It’s why he would stand silent when both Caiaphas, the High Priest, and later Pilate, the Governor, challenged him to defend himself.  His fight wasn’t to save himself.  But, in love, to offer salvation to the whole world.  It’s why he stayed there on that cross, bleeding in throbbing pain.  His work was to give up his very self, trusting God to show that Life remains forever.  . . .  Here comes Jesus – our Christ – humble as a sign of peace.  Challenging any who would to follow.

It would be easy in today’s Palm Sunday story to keep our eyes on the king of peace – pin all our hopes on him and let it go at that.  But he didn’t enter that city; he didn’t wash his disciples feet; he didn’t hang on that cross and rise triumphant from the grave just for us to think his actions are all that matter.  Holy Week is for us in ways so much deeper than that.  We return to the same stories every year, perhaps from the perspective of a different gospel writer; but we come back round to them as a church to celebrate the Big Hairy Audacious Goal of the One that is not just Savior, but also Lord.  The One who makes a Way for us through death to life again, then beckons us to follow.  This week matters so deeply; these stories shape our faith significantly because they tell us what has been done for us and they lay out the pattern for our lives.  They give us the trajectory for our days.

In The Confession of 1967 of the PCUSA, we hear:  “The life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission.  His life as a human involves the church in the common life of humankind.  His service to humanity commits the church to work for every form of human well-being.  His suffering makes the church sensitive to all the sufferings of humankind so that we see the face of Christ in the faces of those in every kind of need.  His crucifixion discloses to the church God’s judgment on our inhumanity to one another and the awful consequences of our own complicity in injustice.  In the power of the risen Christ and the hope of his coming, the church sees the promise of God’s renewal of humanity’s life in society and of God’s victory over all wrong.  . . .  The church follows this pattern in the form of our life and in the method of our action.  So to live and serve is to confess Christ as Lord.”  (adapted for worship from the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions).  . . .  Here comes our Savior and Lord, O church.  Our amazing king of peace – fearless with a big ole splash of folly, at least according to the standards of the world.  He leads in the way of God – we’ll hear it throughout this week called Holy.  All that’s left to see is whether or not we will follow.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Lent Lesson #4: The Way

A Sermon for 18 March 2018

A reading from the gospel of John 12:20-36.  Listen for God’s word to us.

 

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.  27 “Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  28 Father, glorify your name.”  Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”  30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.  34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever.  How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?  Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer.  Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.  If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.  36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’”

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

 

It was a wonderful Easter Egg Hunt yesterday!  So fun to see all the little ones coming together enjoying the hunt and the surprises inside when they opened up each egg to pile up their stash in the parlor!  A big thank you to all who helped make it happen.  From buying the candy, to being the helping hands filling eggs at the potluck last week, to assisting in the actual event yesterday!  Thank you for creating such fun!  . . .  It’s got me reminiscing about a few favorite games from childhood.  Remember Simon Says?  Rainy afternoons at Vacation Bible School, it was the go-to recreation activity in the church fellowship hall each summer.  The Rec Leader would pick one person to be Simon.  The rest of had to get in a line on the other side of the room.  Simon excitedly shouted out commands the rest of us were to follow – but only if “Simon said.”  You may remember that the trick was for Simon to try to get everyone to follow a command without saying “Simon says” first.  If you fell for it, you were out.  ‘Cuz Simon didn’t say to hop on one foot.  And either you weren’t listening attentively enough, or you just were tired doing the last command Simon did tell you to do like jumping jacks, or hand stands, or whatever crazy thing Simon would have the group doing.

Follow the Leader was a different game.  Instead of one person barking out commands the rest had to follow, Follow the Leader involved us all – usually behind one another in a line – doing the actual movement that the leader did.  In Follow the Leader, if the leader jumped up and down, so did we.  If the leader wiggled on the ground like a worm, so did we.  If the leader turned around to shake the hand of the person behind them, so did we.

As Christians we think we grow out of such games as we age.  But we don’t.  As we consider Christianity through the centuries, we likely see two factions:  those approaching faith as if it’s a game of Simon Says.  As if it’s just about doing certain commands passed on from:  God, the bible, the church, or maybe even the pastor.  Granted, there are certain commands we follow as members of the Body of Christ.  But thinking the life of faith is like Simon Says – carefully attuning to the commands of the Leader in order to do what is said, doesn’t seem to be what Jesus had in mind.  Over and over again he’s telling people to follow.  “Follow me.”  As in the gospel reading for today, when Jesus’ words are recorded as thus:  “Whoever serves me must follow, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:26).  Elsewhere in John, it’s recorded that Jesus said:  “I am the Way” (John 14:6) – the I Am statement of Jesus that was the focal point of our Sunday School class today.  You can think of that Way as a physical thing like a pathway.  As in Jesus is the Way:  the One who gains our salvation.  And it’s also possible to understand the statement as a process – a manner of doing something, like a way of putting together a puzzle.  As in I am the Way – the Way to live in this world.  The way to be in this life so that the typically-believed lines between heaven and here are blurred and the joys of abundant, eternal life begin now – every moment in which we are following the Way.  Way as a process leaves us understanding our faith not just as a special destination for someday beyond our physical death.  Way as a process is about faith that is a journey here-and-now and forever yet-to-be.

The gospel of John especially seems to be interested in understanding the life of faith as a Way to live in this world – becoming, as Jesus says in John 12:36, “children of Light.”  As this gospel tells the story, Jesus has returned to Jerusalem for what will become his last Passover pilgrimage.  A week before entering Jerusalem, he’s just outside the city in the little town of Bethany.  He’s been there at least once before – though likely he’d often been to the home of his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  By the way, this is the same Lazarus he raised from the dead.  . . .  When Jesus went to see them six days before his last Passover in Jerusalem, the gospel writer records that Mary – perhaps Lazarus’s sister who many scholars today believe is the same Mary elsewhere named Mary Magdalene.  Mary lovingly anoints her Lord with a pound of pure nard – a costly essential oil you can get on Amazon today for about $50 per ounce or $800 for a pound.  Jesus says she’s getting him ready for burial.  Which is code for us to know that Jesus knows the Way he’s living in this world is not at all popular.  The gospel of John records that the next day he enters into Jerusalem to crowds waving palm branches as they shout out “Hosanna!  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the LORD!” (John 12:13) – but we’ll get to those details next week when we gather for a similar palm parade as the week we call Holy begins.  In Jerusalem, the religious leaders are in a whirl again because the crowd sees something in Jesus they refuse to.

Some Greeks who are in town too for Passover request a visit with Jesus.  It is at this moment, Jesus declares, the hour has come.  The time is fulfilled.  It’s important to realize, about the Way, that this is NOT the first time Jesus is preparing to die.  All along his path, he has been dying – dying to his own personal way in order to live the Way of God he came to embody.  In The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault – an Episcopal priest whose scholarship I’ve made reference to in these past few weeks – because I find Bourgeault’s reading of scripture a fresh way for us to make sense of Jesus.  Bourgeault writes of the three key elements of Jesus’ Way.  She names them kenosis or self-emptying, abundance or seeing the “dance of Divine generosity that is always flowing toward us” (p. 104), and singleness – which has nothing to do with being unmarried but singleness in the terms of seeing “the world through a single lens of wholeness” (p. 106).  Not this or that, but one unified whole.  . . .  Knowing Jesus, we can see how he did in fact inhabit this world daily through such self-emptying, abundant, singleness in seeing it all as one interconnected whole.  Bourgeault reminds us that we see Jesus’ Way already from the temptations in the wilderness.  She writes:  “In each case Satan asks Jesus to take (feed yourself by turning stones into bread; display yourself by drawing on your divine powers; advance yourself by letting me set you up as ruler of the entire world).”  Bourgeault writes:  “Jesus responds simply by letting go of the bait being dangled, content to rest in his emptiness” (p. 103).  He lives among us in a way that continuously is letting go.  Allowing.  Content to remain empty of himself that God might fill him up.

As recorded in the gospel of John, when the Greeks come to visit him Passover week; Jesus reminds of the truth of the grain – which is a beautiful way for Jesus to point to the wisdom all around us in this world.  “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Every farmer knows the truth of the seed.  The necessary dying.  The descent into the darkness that has to come for new life to grow – for resurrection to take place.  Jesus has been living this Way everyday – some might even say he’s been doing it in preparation for the big death, the moment he breaths his last in trust that he again will be lifted up.  Bourgeault beautifully writes:  that in his crucifixion, Jesus was wagering “his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life.”  She continues:  He was proving “that the spiritual identity forged through kenotic self-surrender survives the grave and can never be taken away.”  It reminds us “that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive” (The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 186).

It is the Way Jesus – who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – calls us all to follow.  The Way he invites to be, that we too might Live – truly Live.  Emptying ourselves so that we approach life less as a clenched fist and more as an opened hand.  Trusting in the abundant generosity of God that perpetually flows.  Seeing everything as one, unified whole – each of us interconnected with it all.  Thus we follow our Leader every step of the Way, as children of the Light.  Living his Way.  Dying his Way.  Living again forevermore.  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  (All rights reserved.)

Lent Lesson #3: Why? Love.

A Sermon for 11 March 2018

 

A reading from the gospel of John 3:1-21.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.   16 “For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”

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

 

On Wednesday night, six of us spent a little over two hours together with about 200 other people at the Enrichment Center of First Presbyterian Church, Nashville.  After donning a hairnet and sanitizing our hands, we entered the gym for a short prayer.  Then, the high-energy, full-of-facts Rise Against Hunger organizer took the microphone.  Before explaining in about 5 minutes exactly how we were going to pack 20,000 meals in a short two hours, he told us why we were doing what we were about to do.  He told us:  “815 million people worldwide don’t get the food they need to live a healthy life.  66 million primary school-age children across the developing world attend classes hungry.  Malnutrition in all its forms – from wasting to obesity – directly affects one in three people.”  He told us too that “Rise Against Hunger has a goal to end hunger worldwide by 2030” (https://www.riseagainsthunger.org/understanding-hunger/world-hunger-facts/).  Why we were there was to pack the plentiful food we have here to be sent to those worldwide who do not have enough.  Our efforts and daily efforts by organizations like Rise Against Hunger and others, are working towards the goal of ensuring that from the year 2030 on, no one on this planet again will suffer from hunger.  Indeed, it is a lofty goal to accomplish in the next 12 years, but if efforts get duplicated daily like the ones of the helping hands we saw in one place one night this week; I think we have a shot to make it!

As I reflected upon the experience, I realized that it would have been easy on Wednesday night for our Rise Against Hunger instructor simply to demonstrate how we were supposed to pack the sealed food bags.  Then let us get to work!  With something like 200 excited people from the ages of 4 years old to at least 80 ready to get going, he could have skipped the stories of the families he has met who have only salted clay cakes with which they try to quell the pangs of hunger in their empty bellies.  He didn’t have to tell us that the world produces enough food to be eaten per person each day as the equivalent of something like 17 Big Macs per person per day – if only food was distributed properly worldwide.  He didn’t even have to tell us that Rise Against Hunger is partnering with other global hunger-relief organizations to bring an end to hunger everywhere by 2030.  He could have just told us to put the flavor pack in the bottom of the plastic bag, add a mug-full of crushed soy next, one small scoop of the vegetable mix, the cup of rice on top, to be measured to between 3.89-3.94 ounces, sealed securely so nothing gets out or in in transit, then placed in the boxes for shipping.  We’re famous in the church for jumping right to the how, without remembering that if we do not connect the why of any action to the how, sustainable efforts are likely to fail.

Why do we do any of it?  Why show up to pack meals, or attend a potluck after worship to discover our talents for ministry, or even gather to worship at all?  Why commit to a life of faith when faithfully following the way of Christ is a daily challenge to our time, our ethics, our check books, and our choices?  Why keep trying when our efforts seem lost on a younger generation and the challenges of finding ways to be relevant as a people of faith today appear to be dauntingly hard work?  Why start with the why at all?

In the lengthy gospel of John reading we heard today, Jesus clarifies the why.  Why he even is here.  . . .  A wise man of faith comes to see Jesus one night.  It’s not really clear why he seeks him out, but he must have been curious.  Curious to know more about the one that just put the Temple in an uproar at Passover when, in a burst of great passion, he cleared out the money changers, animals, and coins.  Nicodemus comes to him to state:  “we know you are a teacher from God, for none can do as you do apart from God’s Presence.”  Jesus launches into an esoteric proclamation about needing to be born from above – or as some translations read:  needing to be born anew.  As one great teacher hears in the concrete literal realm, the other great teacher waxes eloquently on a whole different level.  Born of the Spirit, Jesus says.  As mysteriously as wind that blows, though where it starts and where it stops, who can know?  It’s passages like this that remind us that Jesus was less like a common carpenter and more like a sage among his people. Unlike a regular instructor, he stood his ground in the tradition of great Wisdom teachers.  Gurus they’re called in India.  Shaman’s in indigenous cultures.  Moshels, in the Near East – including in Judaism itself:  ones who teach wisdom for the transformation of the whole human being (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, Shambhala, 2008; p. 23).  If we can’t see that, we’ll end up as confused as Nicodemus by Jesus’ words.  We’ve got to be born anew – initiated onto a path that changes us a little bit more each day.  Deepening our trust in God.  Increasing our willingness to follow.  Walking more and more to the Light so that that in us that is contrary to God daily will diminish.

But why, we might be thinking.  Why?  . . .  In what may be one of the most famous verses among Christians, Jesus tells us why – why we do any of it.  John 3:16 part A:  “For God so loved the world.”  And I’m going to stop it there.  Too long the tradition has focused on the latter half of the verse, thinking it the reason why.  Making the promise of some sort of reward here and now and forever yet to be the motivating factor of faith.  Like domesticated pets who perform on command in order to be given a treat; we’ve long lived as if an eternal reward is what Christianity is all about.  When we keep our focus on part A of 3:16, human beings retain dignity while God remains something so much bigger than One doling out eternal treats.  The why of it all is A:  for God so loved the world.

Love is the reason for it all.

As the story goes, it might seem a little ridiculous for love to be the reason for it all.  Why love a world prone to wander?  Why keep covenant with a people who too often turn their backs – and I’m not just talking about all the sinners out there.  Why would God continue to love ones such as us?  Ones settled in our ways and satisfied – kinda – with going through the motions of our days.  Though it’s easier to bring to mind people out there who don’t even seem to be trying, we know ourselves – and all the ways we’re really not that loveable.  Why would God keep on loving the mess which is us?  Another John on another occasion sincerely wrote these words, 1 John 4:7-12:  “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way:  God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”  It goes like this, in the words of the translation of the bible called The Message:  “My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God.  Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God.  The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know God if you don’t love.  This is how God showed love for us:  God sent the Son into the world so we might live through him.  This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once-upon-a-time loved God, but that God loved us and sent the Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.  My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other.  No one has seen God, ever.  But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and God’s love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”

Why we do any of it is LOVE.  Why we love one another – which doesn’t mean turning our cheek to let any old behavior in ourselves or another go.  That’s not love, to be so passively disinterested in all of us living our best lives for God.  We love ourselves, each other, and those beyond the walls of this facility because God loves the world.  Because God is love; therefore, we love as deeply as God loves.  We pack meals for the hungry around the world because God loves every one of us – those who hoard and those hunger.  We gather at a potluck to discover our talents for ministry because God loves for our talents to be used for God’s purposes in this world.  God loves those who will benefit from the ways we use our talents.  We invest ourselves in ministry in this community – with the families who bring their children for Playcare, the people who live beside us in this neighborhood, and those who spend their days in Hillwood-West Meade at work, study, and play because God loves them.  God has called us to be a church for this community because God loves this community.  We are here to enact that love.  We don’t have to do everything – but we do have to do something – the something that enlists our talents to embody God’s love from this place.  We’ll get to the how – we Christians are a savvy people who throughout history have figured it out.  But let us remember every day the why:  the why of all of it:  love.  God’s love.  Abiding love for all the world.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018

Lent Lesson #2: Fiery

A Sermon for 4 March 2018 – 3rd Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 2:13-22.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

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

 

It’s the third Sunday amid the season of Lent.  And how interesting that the gospel reading assigned in the lectionary for today takes us back to the second chapter of the gospel of John.  Right to a story that doubtfully ever will be depicted on a sanctuary stained-glass window!  Seemingly in contrast to the gentle Jesus who carries the little lambs, the story of Jesus entering the Temple to throw over the money-changers is not often told to youngsters.  It appears in all four gospels, which is one way the early church proclaimed to listeners:  now hear ye!  This one MUST be included in any understanding of the Christ!  In the Synoptics of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the wild-eyed, resolute Jesus cleanses the Temple as one of his last acts in Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion.  But in the gospel of John at the outset of his public ministry, the first time we hear of Jesus going up to Jerusalem for the Passover; he’s pouring out coins, throwing over tables, cracking a whip to rid his Father’s house of that which he finds an utter disgrace.

While some point back to this event as the time Jesus got really really mad, righteous anger fuming like smoke from his ears; zeal is the word that is used.  The gospel of John declares that zeal for the LORD’s house consumes him – which is not about anger at all!  Right about now we well-reasoning Presbyterians should be warned.  The gospel’s taking us into the depths of an energy many tend to shy away from:  passion!  That upwelling of energy that moves us into the amazing.  That intensity of emotion that leaves us feeling absolutely alive!  . . .  Webster’s defines zeal as an enthusiastic, intense interest – as in a cause or ideal.  Also known as ardor.  Another unfamiliar attribute today.  Ardor is warmth of emotion, intense heat, red-hot burning passion.  Which by the way is not just about something sexual as seems today’s only acceptable realm for such intensity.  Though truth be told, most in our post-modern culture are misdirected regarding passion in that realm too!

Here in the gospel of John, the story of Christ decidedly begins with passion.  Jesus’ upsurge of intense energy that will not allow the house of God to continue to be desecrated.  It might be helpful to point out a few things about the context of Jesus’ act.  First, it was Passover.  The annual festival when Jesus and his people celebrated freedom from the Pharaoh.  Release from the bonds of Egypt.  When God saw the people miserably enslaved for the benefit of the Pharaoh’s economy, God found Moses.  Ardently consuming a bush that was not burned up, the LORD declared:  “Go to Pharaoh to let my people go!” (Exodus 3).  Passover was the annual institution for a free people to remember and rejoice!  God delivers in order for a liberated people to give great thanks.  In order for a people to be an alternative light to all the nations.  Imagine the affront to such freedom the buying and selling of animals caused.  The exchange of the emperor’s money inside the Temple gates in order for the annual Temple tax to be paid by every Jew of the nation.  Of Jesus and the money-changers, one author writes:  “had the traders been confined to the streets around the Temple, all would have been well.  The (Jewish) Talmud records that a certain Babha Ben Buta had been the first to introduce 3,000 sheep of the flocks of Kedar into the Court of the Gentiles.  His profane example was eagerly followed, until in Jesus’ day the stench and filth of the flocks of penned sheep and oxen filled the air as they were bargained for by the traders and visiting pilgrims.”  Thus, the author continues, “Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them all, including the cattle and sheep, from the Temple area.  To those who sold doves he said:  ‘Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (Robert Backhouse, The Kregel Pictorial Guide to the Temple, 1996; p. 22).  What God has made free, let none re-enslave!

It also might be helpful to know the layout of Herod’s massive Temple.  The Second Temple, which was even grander than the First Temple built by King Solomon that ended up destroyed when the people were exiled by the Babylonians.  Nearly six hundred years later, the Second Temple was the expanded spot for God’s people to gather.  Imagine something like a massive medieval cathedral with an exterior wall enclosing 36 acres on “the top of the hill on which the city stood” (Ibid., p. 12).  That’s like four times bigger than the entire building and property of this congregation.  The Temple expansion Herod began in 19 B.C. finally was completed in 64 A.D. – thirty-some years after Jesus’ resurrection and a handful of years before Rome destroyed forever all but a portion of the Western-facing wall.  Around an impressive edifice in the center of the 36 acres, stood a four-and-a-half-foot wall called the Wall of Partition.  At the punishment of death, only Jewish men or women could traverse it.  One author describes what was found inside:  “Passing within the Wall of Partition, a flight of 12 steps led up to an area 9 feet higher, where the Women’s Gate and the Gate of the Pure and Just gave access to a paved court known as the Court of Prayer.  At the end of this court, on a semi-circular raised dais, sacrifices and gifts were brought to be presented to the LORD.  Beyond this was the Court of the Priests, with its great altar of sacrifice and brazen laver for the ceremonial washing of priests.”  The description includes that:  “The porch led into the Sanctuary itself, compromising the Holy Place and the Holiest Place.  Inside the Holy Place stood the seven-branched golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  The Holiest Place was about 30 feet square and 60 feet high and was separated from the Holy Place by a great curtain” (Ibid.).  Outside these inner sanctums, sprawled a massive courtyard all the way to the edge of the 36th acre with a thousand-foot in length Temple wall.  People from around the world were allowed to be in that part of the Temple in order to make their own prayers to the LORD.  It was there, in that massive Court of the Gentiles, where anyone from anywhere might have been able to pray – if not for the ruckus that had become the buying and selling of all things needed for a proper Passover sacrifice.

The gospel of John records the scene in the Court of the Gentiles as that which stoked the fervor of Jesus.  The place of prayer for all had become nothing better than a street-fair circus (with lots and lots of animals).  The site alone bursts the gates of Jesus’ guts so that a fiery furnace flares.  It’s easy to understand how this scene gets pegged as anger – as an enraged inferno ablaze among bleating sheep, wrestling cattle, and flapping doves.  Passion may be so unfamiliar to us that we cannot tell the difference between one who is in a rage and one who is utterly inspired.  Zeal puts us among the latter as a force far stronger.  Think of the one so on fire for a cause that nothing can stop them.  The one whose body and soul has come fully alive as passion courses like racing blood through every cell of their system.  Passion is less like out-of-control rage and more like on top of the world vigor.  Like the greening that returns to spring grass.  The zest that gets one moving – despite any obstacles.  I’m pretty sure it’s known in Jewish circles as hutzpah – gusto.  The bold audacity to get up to try again and again and again.

This is the energy recorded in the gospel of John as the surge of life that engulfs Christ’s body at the beginning of his public ministry.  Passion:  the fiery voice of One living fully alive among us that we might too!  . . .  Imagine the body of Christ today being infused with such zeal.  Coming alive to ensure justice for all to have enough.  Space for all to heal.  Welcome of any excluded.  Peace in every heart and home.  Whatever it is that alights our spirits as our deepest concern meets the world’s deepest need.  Then at last we will know the kernel of Christ’s intense energy.  The essence of his fiery fierce passion:  not anger.  But love.  Love.  Love enacted for all the world to see.  May his body today surge with this same zeal!

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

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