Category Archives: Sermons

The Starfish Movement

A Sermon for 18 June 2017

 

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 9:35-10:23 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.  36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.  2These are the names of the twelve apostles:  first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.  5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  You received without payment; give without payment.  9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.  11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.  12As you enter the house, greet it.  13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.  15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.  16See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.  19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.  21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’”

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

 

Have you heard of the difference between a spider and a starfish?  This is not a joke.  It’s a serious question posed in the book The Starfish and the Spider:  The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom).  In describing the findings of the book, the reader is told that “if you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies”  (https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B000TK5BQY/ref=tmm_aud_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1497557999&sr=8-1#audibleProductDescription_1497558171162).  Not much use left for a dead spider.  They just get swept up into the trash.  . . .  Starfish are different.  Starfish, or sea stars as scientists refer to them today, “are famous for their ability to regenerate limbs, and in some cases, entire bodies”  (www.animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/starfish/).  National Geographic explains that starfish “accomplish this by housing most or all of their vital organs in their arms.  Some require the central body to be intact to regenerate, but a few species can grow an entirely new (starfish) just from a portion of a severed limb” (Ibid.).  They’re remarkable too in that their stomachs actually can come out of their shells to envelop prey and digest it before returning back into its body.  But that’s just gross so who really wants to think about that.  Rather, the authors of The Starfish and the Spider would have us focus on their argument that “organizations fall into two categories:  “traditional ‘spiders,’ which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary ‘starfish,’ which rely on the power of peer relationships”  (see amazon.com reference above).  Any wonder which types do better in today’s growing culture of inter-dependence?  The Starfish and the Spider puts forth intriguing examples like how the Apaches fended off the powerful Spanish army for 200 years.  And the power of a simple circle.  The need today for catalysts with the uncanny ability to bring people together.  And even how Alcoholics Anonymous has reached millions without a top dog – just a shared ideology and those a bit further down the path of recovery reaching back to aid another along the way.  . . .  Starfish principles built upon the connection of peers, offer a whole different way to be together in the world.

Jesus obviously was a starfish man.  He knew God’s mission would be pointless if he approached it as a spider.  One slice of the head and it’ll all be over.  Instead, he went about calling people together.  Like the twelve we hear named in the gospel of Matthew:  Peter, Andrew, James and John.  Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddaeus and Simon and Judas too.  Jesus called into a circle ones he encouraged to follow that God’s mission might be regenerated after the catalyst of the movement was no longer physically present.  We don’t encounter all the details of what they did until after the stories of the gospels give way to the stories of the Acts of the Apostles.  But we do learn just a third of the way into the gospel of Matthew that Jesus sent out in his name these men.  According to this portion of the gospel, Jesus passed on the healing portion of God’s mission – casting out unclean spirits and curing every disease and sickness.  He instructed his followers to go to proclaim in word and deed the good news of a kingdom come near.  They were to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons” (Mt. 10:8).  They were to rely upon the goodness of their hosts, which God indeed would provide.  It wouldn’t always be easy – the world might seem a cruel and unreceptive place.  But the Spirit of God would be with them.  And, according to the gospel of Mark’s telling of the same occurrence, Jesus gave them each a partner (Mark 6:7).  Buddied up they went out as six different pairs to spread the healing work of Jesus further than he ever could have gone on his own.  The gospel of Mark also tells of their excited return (Mark 6:30-31), when Jesus tried to sweep them away for a retreat where they could rest and swop stories of all they had seen and done.  Truly Jesus was a starfish man.

The gospel of Matthew explains the need for that kind of shared power.  Jesus was busy fulfilling the mission of God, when the crowds moved him.  Matthew records:  “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36).  It is then that the plea arises for many laborers to be sent out into the plentiful harvest.  So Jesus calls twelve together to tell them to go out.  Brilliant.  Just brilliant to utilize starfish principles.  Enlisting in the work of God more than just himself!

It’s needed like that today.  For a long time, I think, we had it a bit confused.  That Jesus liked spiders over starfish.  Maybe a menacing hairy spider insisted it was so.  But it’s clear from his actions – his calling a whole dozen together – that his movement was going to take more than just one.  Peer-to-peer passing would be key.  And while each might have different gifts, we all get pointed in the same direction.  “Go!  Out there!” Jesus says.  “To the crowds for whom I have compassion.”  . . .  A hymn from the late 1990s says it best – and it’s from the Christians in Cuba so it has a really fun, get-your-toe-tapping, get-yourself-ready-to-get-on-out-of-your-seat beat.  The words go:  “sent out in Jesus’ name, our hands are ready now to make the earth the place in which the kingdom comes.  The angels cannot change a world of hurt and pain into a world of love, of justice and of peace.  The task is ours to do, to set it really free.  O help us to obey and carry out your will”  (“Sent Out in Jesus’ Name,” #2184 in Sing the Faith, 2003).  . . .  It’s still needed like that today.  That every one of us go forth into wherever we find ourselves each week.  We’re now the recruits in God’s healing mission.  The ones to be hope in the world.  There’s certainly enough news to remind us how desperately it is needed.  . . .  What can you do today to bring healing wherever you will go?  Can you speak a little gentler?  Listen a bit more intently?  Do you know what it feels like to hear words of encouragement when you feel like you just can’t go on?  Do you remember how sweet it feels when someone truly gives their undivided attention to the words you just have to get out of your heart?  Each one of us is capable of that kind of healing.  . . .  What about just being there when someone has a need?  “Two are better than one,” the wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds.  “For if they fall, one will lift up the other,” the words go on.  “But woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help” (Eccles. 4:9a, 10).  How many of the people you will encounter this week are alone?  I’m not just talking about people who aren’t married or don’t have children at home.  Because how many people too are surrounded daily in families, maybe even with loving spouses; and still they feel all alone?  There’s great power in someone just being present.  Letting us know they have our back.  That even if they can’t understand exactly who we are or what’s going on with us; they will remain, at our side, patiently, for however long it takes.  Can you calm with a gentle, welcomed touch?  Last week I met a chemo nurse who makes a point to go around the clinic every now and again just to offer simple shoulder massages to those there for treatment – but most often to her co-workers with tense shoulders who are able to hook up their next patient.  That’s a profound ministry of healing in a place that can feel like a living hell.    . . .  By the time we get to the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Risen and ascending Christ will give the command to go out into all the world.  But first he commanded his followers to go to their fellow Israelites – those all around them each day.  And it wasn’t some lofty command like baptize and teach.  First it was a ministry of compassion.  Healing however they could in his name.  It doesn’t always take the miraculous, magnificent acts.  Sometimes all that’s needed is us being fully human, which means being fully present in love to the fellow human being at our side.

That’s the power of the movement built on starfish principles.  The regeneration of his Way wherever we are each day.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

The Mystery of God

11 June 2017 – Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 28:16-20.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

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

 

What’s so intriguing about a mystery novel?  Some of you may like to read them, so you know better than me.  Why is it that in 2016, for the third year in a row, James Patterson was the highest paid author with earnings of $95 million pretax dollars?  (Forbes.com, August 23, 2016)  Why is it three of the top five highest paid authors are the mystery masters:  Stephen King, John Grisham, and James Patterson – with J.K. Rowling in spot three for her kind of wizarding, mysterious adventures? (www.forbes.com/pictures/578d3ba531358e0aa22e29b0/)  Something about a good mystery leaves us unable to put it down.  I still remember the night I went to Kroger at midnight to get me a copy of the last book of the Harry Potter series, then went home and read for something like 30 hours in a row just to see how it all would turn out.  . . .  Good mysteries reel us in . . . making our hearts race and our minds spin with twists and turns we never could anticipate.  Good mysteries suck us into the story of characters we find ourselves pulling for and plot lines we desperately try to figure out.  Good mysteries leave us dangling so that we have to turn the page, just to see what happens next!  Intrigue, suspense, surprise weave together to leave us on the edge of our seats begging for more!

Mystery is a good word on this liturgical day called Trinity Sunday.  This week, the daily devotional app D365 summarized it well:  “Our God is one – unity.  Our God is three – diversity.  Our God is three in one – mystery.  . . .  Therefore, “work for unity.  Engage diversity.  Welcome mystery.”   . . .  I keep hearing in my mind the words to that 18th Century Trinity hymn:  “Holy God, We Praise Your Name.”  Stanza four reads:  “Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit:  three we name you, while in essence only one; undivided God we claim you, and adoring, bend the knee while we own the mystery” (Glory to God, #4, Text attr. Ignaz Franz).  . . .  Seventeen hundred years ago, the church was fighting about the Mystery.  Though the Great Commission from the gospel of Matthew makes reference to baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it doesn’t explain the relationship between these three.  Nor does it seem to worry about delicately holding the tension of the three-yet-Oneness of God.  To make matters worse, the Trinity’s not clearly explained anywhere in scripture.  In fact, the word Trinity never is used.  The gospel of John’s farewell discourse of Jesus (chapters 14-17) might be the closest attempt to talk about this God that is in us even as we are in God, and Jesus is in God, and Jesus is in us, and another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be among us forever.  But that whole section can be more trouble than help.  . . .  We do have the second letter to the Christians in Corinth which closes with the message:  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:13); though the benediction isn’t really explaining Trinity as much as it is naming for the first followers of Christ’s Way the experience of the grace, love, and companionship of God – the various aspects of God that can be real in our lives.

Just what can we say about the mystery of the Triune God?  God:  the One creating like a loving father, Christ the One among us as the Way, and Holy Spirit the One in us and all living things.  . . .  Way back in the Fourth Century when esteemed Church Theologian Saint Augustine tried to explain the Trinity; all he could think of was a tree.  “The root is wood; the trunk is wood; the branches are wood,” Augustine explained.  “One wood, one substance but three different entities” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, Steven P. Eason, p. 46).  . . .  Certainly, you’ve heard for Trinity the egg illustration:  shell, egg white, yoke.  Three different parts, but all one egg.  Pinterest suggests using an apple in Sunday School today to describe the Trinity to children.  The peel is like God the Father, who protects us.  The flesh is like God the Son, because Jesus is God in-fleshed.  And the seeds are like the Holy Spirit, who helps us grow into all God wants us to be.  . . .  There’s always the three-leaf clover example, though that one doesn’t really make any sense for the Triune God, because it’s just one thing with the same three leaves – not one thing with three distinct persons or personas as the Greek often reminds.  . . .  I was taught as a child to draw God as a triangle – three equal sides.  But it never seemed just right because one point always ended up on top; and that never seemed quite fair.

Eastern Christianity depicts Trinity differently.  Three circles of the same size are intertwined to represent what’s been named the perichoresis of God:  the dancing around in great delight of three mutual beings.  God, the perichoresis, is the never-ending circle where the God beyond, among, and in us exists in joyous right-relationship.  Almost like a synergy or living sphere of powerful energy.  A God who is plural, yet one.  A mutuality.  A shared being, like a water wheel that just keeps on pouring itself out into the other.  The Triune God is an inter-dependence where three co-exist in beautiful harmony with one another – like a perfect musical chord.  One’s not more important than the other; they’re all necessary.  Distinct, yet equal.  One never without the others.

Presbyterian Systematic Theologian Shirley Guthrie wrote of the Trinity:  “The same God who is God over us as God the Father and Creator, and God with and for us as the incarnate Word and Son, is also God in and among us as God the Holy Spirit”  (Ibid.).   To embody it each morning, I’ve made it a practice to get my body a little limber by stretching my arms as high as I can overhead to greet the God that is beyond us.  Then I bend at my waist to touch my toes in honor of the God who lives among us in Jesus, the Christ.  Then I open wide my arms to encompass everything around as I greet the God who lives in all things.  . . .  Some say:  God the Creator, Christ the Redeemer, and Spirit the Sustainer of us all.  Others stick closely to the language recorded on Jesus’ lips by the gospel of Matthew.  Go into all the world to baptize and teach in the name of the “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – or Holy Ghost if you still prefer the King James Version of the bible.

Whichever way we think about it, the Triune God is like a captivating mystery.  Like that novel we just cannot put down.  One encounter, and who really can resist the urge to keep at it until we know just where the twists and turns might lead?   . . .  Maybe God intended it that way – to suck us in to the very relationship that is the Triune God.  To engage us as witnesses to the process of seeing how Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer will work it all out.  . . .  Reeled in, we find ourselves along for a wild ride as God keeps on seeking to recreate this world through ones such as you and me.  Intrigue, suspense, surprise weave together so that we just have to find out what happens next.   . . .  Maybe, just maybe Trinity wanted it like that so you and I will join in the joyous dance of right-relationship; shared being in a powerful synergy that pours itself out for others too to be brought in.

Mystery:  holy Mystery, this God that is one:  unity.  This God that is three:  diversity.  This God that is three in one.  . . .  Together we are sent in the name of the Triune God until all embrace the Mystery.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

 

Visualization

A Sermon for 4 June 2017 – Pentecost Sunday

 

 

A reading from Acts 2:1-21 (N.R.S.V.).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”  14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.  21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

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

 

The first day of volleyball practice the summer before my senior year of high school was strange.  We all gathered and got ready – knee pads in place, shoulders loose, fingers ready.  Coach blew the whistle to call us over and said:  “Everybody spread out and sit down.”  Sure she was about to lead us in the stretching she did every practice – at that point in our lives, she seemed to care more about the future of our muscles than we did.  Next she said:  “Close your eyes.  Open your imagination.  See yourself here in the gym.  Now, zero-in on one skill – the one for which the team most relies on you.”  Allowing time for our minds to catch up with her instructions, she left long periods of silence between each statement.  On and on it went like that as she had us SEE ourselves doing each movement of our most valuable skill.  It was almost an exercise to feel the success of the move in our bodies.  Have our minds train our muscles to do exactly what was needed in order for our team to function beyond our peak performance.  The exercise was called visualization and it became the opening ten minutes of every practice from that first one on.  Coach wanted us to get in our minds a vision of ourselves doing our absolute best.  As time went on, we moved from individual skills to whole plays of games, until one day one of us visualized our team playing for and receiving the coveted gold medal awarded each fall to only one division champion in the state.  It was kinda strange because we weren’t the team that was supposed to be able to dream that dream.  The powerhouse hitters of our high school had graduated along with the most successful team setter in the school’s history.  We were a little ban of pretty good players without any outstanding giants.  Imagine everybody’s surprise when just a few months after that teammate visualized our gold medal success, we found ourselves loading up the bus and heading to the state championship tournament in order to do what we could to make the vision of our success a reality.

I begin with this story today, not to tell you the reason why I had to have shoulder repair surgery a year and a half ago, but to lift up the amazing practice of visualization.  Some of you might know it well.  Perhaps you’ve been a practitioner of visualization all your life.  Daily, or every now and again when you have a life challenge you really need that extra umph to make it through, you get yourself quiet.  Open your imagination.  And see happening that which you hope to have happen in your life.  All the right words coming as you talk with your child about a really difficult topic.  The calm you need to confront your boss on another direction for your company’s work.  Step after step of a routine or a song or a race that you hope to perform well.  Visualization can be a powerful practice for just about anything in our lives.  Something in our brains needs to SEE the desired outcome before we set out.  I can’t really explain how it all works – maybe it just alters the constant inner critic that can stifle our best efforts until we don’t even try because we’re so convinced it’s bound to fail anyway.  Maybe it just widens our vistas to view possibilities something inside us CAN imagine when we open ourselves to what could be.  . . .  The prophet Joel is quoted that Pentecost day when the Spirit of God mightily stirred among Christ’s disciples.  “Your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams!” (Acts 2:17b).

The practice of visualization didn’t start with my volleyball coach.  In fact, as Presbyterians, we’re invited into a visualization exercise every time our attention moves over to the Lord’s Table.  In the invitation we hear:  “scripture reminds that they will come from north and south, east and west and sit together in peace in God’s kingdom.”  That’s a vision – a vision of God’s intended way.  . . .  “Then, at last, all peoples will be free,” are typical words during that long prayer of great thanksgiving when most of our minds might be wandering, wondering when the pastor is going to say Amen so we can get on with it.  “All divisions healed, and with your whole creation, we will sing your praise through your Son, Jesus Christ” (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 145).  That’s a vision – to spur our hope, guide our actions, and daily direct our lives.

“The young shall see visions,” we are promised on Pentecost.  “The old shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17b).

When we get quiet.  When we allow our hearts and minds to be open, the Spirit of God gives us visions.  We see in our mind’s eye what God wants to bring to reality.  . . .  What do you see when you visualize – for this church?  . . .  It’s easy to stay focused on the past.  To see, as you visualize, what used to be 20 or 30 or more years ago.  Even though every one of us knows from personal experience that we cannot do what we did 20 or 30 or more years ago.  Nor would we really want to with bodies that are a bit older now, hearts that know better now, and wisdom that has come from the challenges we have faced.  . . .

I know it’s a little outside the box, but its Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Spirit that goes as it will.  So we’re going to try it now – a little visualization for the ministry of this church.  Get yourself quiet – don’t worry about how much longer this sermon or this service is going to go on.  Just settle in to your pew right now.  Put your feet flat on the floor to let yourself be well grounded right where you.  Then close your eyes – yes:  a preacher is instructing you to close your eyes during a sermon, so go ahead!  Take advantage of it!  Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.  . . .  Don’t worry about anyone around you right now, just listen.  Listen deep down in your guts – where you know because the Spirit of God is there in you.  . . .  What do you see for this church?  . . .  What is happening?  . . .  Who is a part of the picture?  . . .  What are you hearing?  . . .  What are you seeing?  . . .  What is being done – alone and together?  . . .  As God is being served by serving others, what exactly do you see?  . . .  Let God’s Spirit guide you as you visualize.  . . .

Getting ready to come back to the present moment, first express to God by verbalizing in the quiet of your mind whatever you are stirred to express.  . . .  Then when you are ready, wiggle your toes or tap your heels into the ground under your feet.  As you are opening your eyes, remember what happened in these few moments – whatever visualization you received from God.  And make sure you take the opportunity to let me or one of the session members know whatever came for you that we need to know.  Maybe plan to do this exercise again at home this week or in the weeks to follow.  And even pay attention to your nighttime dreams to see what God gives there.  . . .  Peter’s Pentecostal words from the prophet Joel told us it would be so – God would guide God’s church.  “Your young shall see visions,” Peter said.  “Your old shall dream dreams!” (Acts 2:17b).  For such gifts, thanks be to God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

What Now?

A Sermon for 28 May 2017 — Ascension of the Lord Sunday

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 1:1-14 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us in this reading assigned for the day of the Ascension of the Lord.  Listen:

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.  “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away.  13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.  14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”

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

 

This week marked a significant ritual among Christians of England, Scotland, and Wales.  In years gone by, the week of Ascension Day was the time in which parishes would beat the bounds.  It was a practice that made some practical sense.  “In the days before maps and written title deeds, a knowledge of the physical boundaries of property was very important.  So the custom grew up of walking the boundaries, stopping at intervals to strike boundary stones to ‘mark’ the bounds” (www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/about-brasenose/history/215-brasenose-traditions-and-legends/416-beating-the-bounds).  Supposedly the practice began in France as far back as 470 C.E. and included religious ceremonies.  Three days of Ascension Day week were dedicated to “old parishioners (mixing) with the young to pass on the knowledge of the boundaries”  (www.wshc.eu/blog/item/beating-the-bounds-a-parish-tradition.html).  Prayers often were a part of the boundary-marking parade.  The parish priest beseeching God to make fertile the crops growing within the parish’s lands.  Beating the bounds showed to God and any who saw that those living within the boundaries of the parish were devoted to God, from whom they sought “protection from evil and (blessing) of the congregation and the fruits of their labor” (Ibid.).  One source claims that “the youngsters of the parish, usually boys, would be armed with long birch or willow twigs to beat the specific landmarks such as an old tree or stones.  (And) in some cases, the boys themselves were beaten with the sticks, so they should never forget the crucial information passed on to them by their elders” (Ibid.).  As of 1598, Poor Laws made those in need, the destitute, and apprentice children the responsibility of the parish  (www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/about-brasenose/history/215-brasenose-traditions-and-legends/416-beating-the-bounds).  Which unfortunately started another practice of running out of the parish young girls who were found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  Which, according to another source, explains why beating the bounds included beating the young boys.  It was a warning to the young men of the parish that (quote) “any sexual misbehavior ought to take place with women who lived outside the parish” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Ascension).  Isn’t that absurd!?!  . . .  We Christians certainly can come up with some wild rituals!

If at first the beating of the bounds ritual seems to have nothing to do with the Ascension of our Lord, stop to consider.  Ascension’s not just a time to get tripped up about where exactly he went.  The Ascension of the Lord tells us what now.  . . .  Acts of the Apostles is believed to be something like the sequel of the gospel of Luke.  And the ascension of the Lord opens Acts, just as it had closed the book of the gospel of Luke.  In other words, this writer wants us to know that while the one born of Mary, raised in Nazareth, ministering primarily in Galilee before his trek to Jerusalem that got him killed and raised again – while Jesus the Christ played the leading role in the gospel of Luke; in Acts, it’s going to be his followers.  Or the Holy Spirit of God working through his followers in the same way the Holy Spirit of God was working through Jesus.  He kept telling his followers, as the gospel of John records (John 14:12), that it’s better that it happens this way so that we will do greater things than him.  The Ascension of our Lord tells us what we’re supposed to do now:  fulfill the mission he has passed on to us.

Acts opens with the apostles hanging out with the Risen Christ on the Mount of Olives, again overlooking Jerusalem.  I’m sure the view was a bit chillier this side of crucifixion and resurrection.  As the disciples stood on the same spot from which they first entered the city, pre-Passover; they easily could recall all the Holy Week events.  They hear him saying something about being baptized not with water like John the Baptist.  But they just want to know if it’s all about to be over, the whole kingdom of Israel restored as the plot of their long trek behind Jesus comes to a magical, marvelous end.  . . .  Giving them something else upon which to focus, the Risen Christ says:  “It’s not for you to know the times or periods set.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem (yes, the dangerous city where they put the Lord to death), in all Judea and Samaria (the provinces that don’t necessarily like such Galilean outsiders), and to the ends of the earth (which includes worlds you can’t even image – people so very different from you who may not even recognize their hunger for the Holy)” (paraphrase of Acts 1:7-8).  They were hoping it all was about to be over.  But it was just the beginning!  . . .  Instead, it’s a near impossible order he’s giving them.  And according to how it got recorded in Acts, it is an order.  Christ says:  You WILL be my witnesses from this spot right before you, unto ever-expanding circles beyond.

I don’t really know when we Protestant Americans lost the sense of a parish.  Boundaries around those to whom we are responsible as a congregation.  But in some ways, I think a good ole’ beating of the bounds is exactly what Ascension Sunday calls for.  A physical ritual to remind us of the territory that is our near-impossible mission.  We annually would touch markers indicating that the people living in the shadow of this sanctuary are ours.  We, as the body of Christ – commanded by Christ for this mission, have responsibilities to them.  It’s our job to ensure they know and experience the good news of the work of our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord.  It’s our mission to tend to their spiritual needs.  Can’t you almost picture Christ, returned to the Triune God, saying things like:  “check out that church community, God.  They really are at it in their own backyard!”

What would the ascended Christ say about us?  . . .  This congregation has discerned an awesome mission statement:  Serving God by Serving Others.  But who are the others?  In my years of working with churches, it seems to be the most difficult part of heeding Christ’s command.  Clarifying who it is who will be the target of the congregation’s mission ministry efforts.  Some of us always want to keep up the mission we’ve been supporting for years – even if we no longer have the passion or ability to continue that particular work.  Some of us want to help everybody – thinking we need to save the world, even though Jesus already has that role covered.  Some of us want to focus on young people and others want to ensure the needs of the elderly are met.  I wonder what would happen if we literally beat the bounds of the three to five mile radius around us, declared it the parish, then got busy learning the needs of those living within our bounds?

I reconnected in the past year with an old friend from Divinity School whose congregation is alive!  But it wasn’t so when first he arrived there.  A typical urban flight situation, the congregation had dwindled to a handful of the old faithful too stubborn to leave.  As my friend got busy among them, he asked them to look around.  To see what the needs of their community were.  And not just to look, but to ask:  ask the real people they encountered around the neighborhood just what it was that they needed.  Before long, the small congregation opened their doors as a soup kitchen.  They started feeding anyone who was hungry.  A clothes closet came next as people seemed to begin coming out of the woodwork.  Worship attendance increased as those around the neighborhood started seeing that this congregation took seriously the human need existing in their midst.  It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t always easy.  And it’s not a cookie cutter mold for all churches everywhere as if doing these same ministries will automatically bring the same results here.  It’s the story of a congregation that slowly, over the course of several years, found and began to excel at its niche.  It even has become a leading voice in their area for pushing the bounds of the wider church’s definition of inclusivity.  Through team work, intentionality, and commitment to Christ’s command; that church has found themselves to be a thriving, diverse collective of disciples of Christ who are committed to the needs of those living right around the blocks of their neighborhood.  It remains an impossible mission, but one blessed by the presence of God’s gracious Spirit.

Ascension Day is so important.  . . .  As he’s lifted up like Enoch and Elijah – two other righteous ones of God whose feet supposedly left this earth in the same way.  While Christ is taken out of the-kind-of-sight they’ve been having of him since before and after his resurrection, the apostles have to have another message to get them to stop just standing around gawking up at the skies.  . . .  Acts records that they finally go back into Jerusalem and they stay together.  Praying and waiting for this empowering gift that will infuse them with the courage and energy, determination and clarity to emulate the One now lifted before them.  To be about the business of carrying on his mission even if it means standing before the powers that want him dead, engaging those so totally different from themselves, and journeying into the wild unknown.  . . .  It’s the near-impossible mission the crucified, risen, and ascending Christ entrusts to his followers.  The work he commands us to do.  So that we will do the greater things he told us will be done by the Holy Spirit through us!

Happy Ascension Sunday, disciples of Christ.  Let’s get out there to serve within our bounds!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Not Alone

A Sermon for 21 May 2017 – 6th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 14:15-21 (NRSV).  We continue to hear portions of Jesus’ words to his disciples at their last supper together the night before his death.  Listen for God’s word to us in this message recorded on Jesus’ lips:

“’If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’”

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

 

Have you ever taken on a project that ended up being too big for you to accomplish alone?  Maybe you’ve gotten yourself in over your head on a project at work and needed to call upon a few colleagues to help.  I’ve heard some of you speak of enlisting help to clean out your parent’s home after their passing – a difficult task made a little easer with the help of friends.  If being honest, I’m pretty sure anyone who ever has attempted to raise a child has said:  “Help!”  . . .  One spring a few years back when I was serving in a specialized ministry to children and their families; we came up with the idea to take old crayons, melt them down, then make new big crayons for the preschool children at the Martha O’Bryan Center.  This was a project intended for the fifteen or so first through sixth graders who attended the church’s Wednesday Night missions ministry.  The kids were all about hands-on projects to serve others.  The plan was to do a crayon drive opened to the whole 1,400 member congregation.  After about three weeks of that, the Wednesday Night kids would sort the crayons into like colors, then unwrap ones still rolled in that crayon paper.  As the project progressed, the children would be assisted by an adult experienced in such crayon-making who had some sort of hot plate for melting the wax and cute molds of letters, animals, and fun little shapes just right for the hands of pre-school colorers.  Perhaps you see where this is going.  . . .  The children of Wednesday Night made posters to put all over the church facility:  “COLOR DRIVE FOR MARTHA O’BRYAN PRE-SCHOOLERS!  Bring in your old ones; we’ll make them into new!”  We set out a small box beside my office door.  Sunday morning when I arrived, I already had to push through bags of crayons overflowing from the small collection box we had prepared.  And the crayons just kept coming.  Week one, week two, week three.  Even though we hadn’t seen 1,400 people in a week for ages, I think every last member of that church dug out the old crayons tucked back in their cupboards used by children who since had had children and some even grandchildren too!  By the time we called a halt to the crayon drive, I had like three large storage tubs filled to the brim of old crayons eager to be made into new!  After about a month of Wednesday nights, we finally had them all sorted, much to the exhaustion of the children who were excited to work on the project the first week, but pretty tired of it all by the end of week two!  And that was just the sorting.  Peeling off that tight paper glued by like super-glue around each crayon took forever!  We finally enlisted all the children’s Sunday School Teachers to make crayon peeling a project in the church’s ten children’s classrooms for a few weeks later that summer.  The adult assistant for the project and I each spent hours late at night at home for weeks trying to get at least a reasonable amount of crayons ready to take to Martha O’Bryan.  I still remember someone a year after when they were bored to tears recovering from surgery at home asking if I had any little project they might be able to do while they were laid up at home.  I returned the next week to their house with two huge plastic bags full of sorted crayons still needing to be peeled!  Eventually we gave up trying to complete the project – which is why I still have a two gallon plastic bag full of unpeeled crayons – which I could have brought to give out to you all today to enlist your help in the effort too!  . . .  Needless to say, the project ended up being WAY bigger than anyone anticipated and even WAY bigger than a small group of children and two overly-optimistic adults could accomplish!  It happens sometimes that we take on projects that are way too much for us to handle on our own.

Whether they realized it or not, Jesus knew.  Mid-way through the gospel of John, as Jesus gathers with his friends for that final meal; he gives them a project he knows will be way too much for them to handle on their own.  We heard it last week, and Thursday night of Holy Week too:  “a new command I give unto you, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  It’s how the whole world will know you follow my way!” (paraphrase John 13:34-35).  This is the way the gospel of John tells of Jesus instructing his friends to make an impact in the world:  being like a light that shines for others to see as the diverse group of folks he’s pulled together show his kind of love to one another.  Imagine what it was like for Peter, who history tells us perpetually was jealous of Mary Magdalene.  Imagine what it must have been like for him to show self-giving love for her.  How would it have been for someone like James or John who once worked really hard for a living as fishermen now asked by Jesus to extend the genuine hand of brotherhood to someone like Matthew, a tax collector who likely had cheated his fellow neighbors out of their hard-earned money as he lined his own pockets in an endeavor for the Romans.  And that was just in the inner circle.  What was going to happen when once this movement spread to those like Saul who used to hunt Jesus’ followers for the religious leaders, and those like the eunuch of Ethiopia who wanted to know about the One who freely gave his life, and even those like Lydia whose business in purple cloth far exceeded any wealth the rest would ever know.  They were going to need help, all right.  They would need the Spirit of God living in them if they were going to follow Christ’s command to make an impact in the world by loving one another.

In the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed hearing from many of you in our Listening Sessions.  We’ve still got lots of decisions to make as we navigate the way forward into this congregation’s future.  But I heard so many of you tell stories of your most meaningful ministry experiences in loving others.  In serving for God as you did everything from take care of homeless strangers, to be with children in need in short-term mission either as a counselor for the summer or as those ensuring they’d get clean water.  Some of you spoke of sitting with those of a different race as early as the 1960s to hear what life was like for those long-considered second class citizens in this nation.  Others of you told of ways you really want to make an impact in the lives of families who bring their children downstairs each week – whether or not those families ever end up upstairs in this sanctuary with us.  And still others want to ensure the needs of the surrounding community’s older adults are met – not necessarily the financial needs, but needs for human connection – breaking the isolation that aging alone at home too often brings.  It’s been wonderful to hear the passion you all really do have for the mission of this congregation:  for Serving God by Serving Others!  Someone even brought up the idea in a recent meeting of thinking about this congregation’s ministry as a concentric circle.  Like a pebble dropped into water having an outward ripple effect, it’s as if caring for the members of this congregation is the first ring of the mission, making a positive impact in the lives of the families and staff of the pre-school downstairs is the second ring, making a positive impact in the 1-5 mile radius of the local community is the next ring of mission, and making an impact in the word internationally through the mission of Living Waters for the World is the fourth ripple of impact in the mission of this congregation’s expression of Serving God by Serving Others.  It’s an interesting way to think about it, which certainly needs additional refinement as it rolls around in your thoughts and hearts.  And one thing’s for sure:  if this congregation is going to fulfill Christ’s command to make an impact in this world through love, then the Spirit of God surely will be needed among us.  The Spirit that guides into a new future.  The Spirit that revives when we’re weary.  The Spirit that persists in pushing us forward when we’re afraid or overwhelmed or just not wanting to go.  The Spirit of God is needed to fulfill the mission of Serving God by Serving Others!

The good news we hear from the gospel of John today is that Jesus has promised that this Spirit will be with us.  Wherever his people love one another, there God’s Spirit dwells!  We’re not quite to Pentecost Sunday yet, just six weeks into the season of Eastertide; but the gospel of John assigned in the lectionary for this Sunday wants it to be known that the church of Jesus Christ has not been abandoned.  We may be aging and this building may need a little repair – like a new HVAC.  We may not yet know exactly how to make a positive impact in the community living a stone’s throw from this sanctuary.  But we are not alone in this project Christ has given of Serving God by Serving Others.  The Spirit of God is with us.  And if it feels like the Spirit is missing then we better get busy loving one another to re-experience the Spirit with us all over again.  It’s a high calling but we do not undertake this endeavor alone.  The Holy Spirit of God abides with us.  Together, a little blood and sweat from us, a dash more reviving Spirit from God; together the Way will be made.  Trust the words of our Lord:  “I will not leave your orphaned.”  The Spirit of God abides with us today and evermore!

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

© Copyright JMN — 2017 (All rights reserved.)

The Way

A Sermon for 14 May 2017 – 5th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 14:1-14 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“’Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.’  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’”

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

Little Ziggy is about to get baptized.  A bundle of wonder, the adventure of his life unfolds before him!  He’s been born into a loving family, with a great big sister, and parents doing all they can to provide for his every need – including his every spiritual need.  In just a few moments he’ll be brought.  Promises will be made – not just by his mom and dad, but by you all too.  Until the day he’s old enough to claim Christ for himself, we’re doing it for him today.  And every day hereafter he will be a brother of ours in Christ.  It’s important that we remember that he’s not too young to be experiencing faith already.  From the time we are born into this world, the nurture we experience from the adults of our world is our first experience of a loving God.  To the extent that he’s surrounded in love by his family at home and his family of faith here, his trust of God is being formulated before he even has words to exclaim how amazing God’s grace feels!  . . .  Baptism days are big days for us all in the Church of Jesus Christ.  . . .  I hope we don’t forget what it first was like, when the Risen Christ’s followers underwent the sacrament for themselves.  As the radical movement was spreading, people who had been raised according to other religious practices were drawn to the water.  They were schooled in the message of the abundant love of God as shown to us in Jesus, the Christ.  They were asked if they were ready – ready to enter into a new family.  A new covenant community where they would walk with one another, helping each other not only to understand what this disciple of Christ thing all was about, but also to live as one initiated into the covenant.  One engrafted into the group.  They were entering – as is Ziggy today, as have we all at some point in our lives.  Baptism is about entering into the Way of Christ.

Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault presents it beautifully in her book, The Wisdom Jesus.  She reminds that Jesus isn’t just Savior.  That is only part of his work among us – to save us from the cycle of our sins that can make life now a living hell.  Western Christianity has emphasized this as Jesus’ role.  Meanwhile, we’re discovering that the Eastern Church initially understood Jesus as Life Giver.  As one who invited others unto the path of wisdom.  Life Giver, Bourgeault writes:  is one “whose life is full, integrated, and flowing.  Jesus’ disciples saw in him,” Bourgeault explains “a master of consciousness, offering a path through which they too could become . . . enlightened.”  Ones whose primary task on earth is to “put on the mind of Christ.”  To live the Master’s way.  (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 21).

The gospel of John describes this way . . . the Truth that leads to Life.  Jesus is desperate at the last supper with his friends to teach them that he is one with the Father.  In him, the one laying down his life, Jesus teaches that the Father can be seen.  One commentator writes:  “In John, Jesus himself embodies the way to God and therefore the way of discipleship” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A Vol. 2, Donald Senior, p. 469).  His life, death, and resurrection show the path of how we are to be in this world – disciples of his who follow in like manner.  . . .  And what do we see when we look at him?  He shows us that his way is the way of being so fully united with God that one is at one with God’s will for the world.  It’s the only way, says Jesus the Life Giver, that we will find ourselves with God.  . . .  This is the way described right before this four-chapter Maundy Thursday monologue, when Jesus gives the new command to “love one another” (John 13:34).  This is the way “by which all will know we are his disciples,” he claims, “if we have love for one another” (John 13:35, paraphrase).  Thankfully, all are invited to this path.  Everyone’s welcome to follow in the way of emulating our Savior and Lord, thereby finding ourselves saved.  Given Life now and forevermore.

It’s not the path that ends at the baptismal font.  It’s the way that’s just beginning.  As Ziggy grows, it will be up to his parents and us too to show him the way.  To teach him how to use the personality, skills, and time he’s been given in such a way that his life is united with the One whom Jesus called Abba, Father.  . . .  Listen to the words that soon will be proclaimed at the font:  “In baptism, God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to the very household of God.  . . .  By water and the Holy Spirit we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.”  . . .  We’ll plead to God in prayer today that Ziggy will be “a new creation through these baptism waters” to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  It’s a tall order for such a little guy.  So we’ll ask God to “strengthen him to serve  . . . with joy” until all is made new (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 1993; pp. 403-415).  Before it’s all over, we’ll see the water on his brow and hear the proclamation that he is a child of the covenant . . . one to whom God will keep the promises made here today forever!  . . .  But this day is not just for him.  It’s for us all too!  In a moment, I will remind you to remember your baptism.  To remember and be grateful!  For you too are a child of the covenant, marked in your own baptism, no matter how long ago, as one who also has promised to follow in Christ’s way.  To embody the path of Love for as long as you shall live.  . . .  It means we’ll get busy now – ensuring we too continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God.  We’ll nurture one another and pray we’re strengthened always to live the good news.  To embody in word and deed that the Way of God is the path of showing love to one another AND to those in this world who are in any kind of need.  We’ll lay down our own desires to be united with God’s will for a world so deeply cherished.  We’ll live as new creations serving with joy until ALL at last is re-newed.  The light of our lives growing as we follow in the Master’s Way.  . . .  Brothers and sisters together, let us always give thanks to our Savior and Life Giver Jesus, the Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Church

A Sermon for 7 May 2017 – 4th Sunday of Easter

 

            A reading from Acts of the Apostles 2:41-47.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.  42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

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

 

If you’ve been to Shaker Village outside of Lexington, Kentucky, then you know how wonderful it is!  It’s a museum of a village that once was teeming with men, women, and children.  But it’s more than just some old museum; it’s a retreat destination and a bit of a working farm where you can stay overnight in refreshed Shaker quarters.  Everything is reminiscent of the Shakers:  from the clean lines of the chairs and nightstands, to the simplicity of the TV-less rooms, to the recipes at the dining room tables.  The food is so good:  fresh from the farm and so sumptuous.  The Shakers believed in delighting in the fruits of the earth as much as they believed in living simply as a sign of humility before God.  They believed Christ called them out to be a light.  Living together in simplicity, setting their hands to the plough that all of them could eat and worship and live – collectively.  Communally.  None of them owned personal property, but pooled their resources once they came to join the community.  They would live by the community’s codes – willing to take their turn at whatever task was theirs for the day for the benefit of the common good.  Of course, they failed to realize that their celibacy vow would lead to eventual elimination – I think only 3 Shakers are left in the United States.  But for a time, their way of life seemed idyllic – seeking not to compete against one another as is the norm in our market-driven world, but to be alongside one another in humility and harmony and joy.

It reminds me of the followers of the Risen Christ according to the story we have before us in Acts of the Apostles – though they didn’t do the celibacy thing so that men and women continued to have children to whom they could pass on the joy of following the crucified yet Risen Christ.  According to the book of Acts, which is considered a continuation of the gospel of Luke; the part we heard today picks up right after Pentecost.  The breath of God filled the first 120-or-so followers of Christ who had gathered for the Jewish feast of Pentecost just fifty days after Passover.  Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims from all over Israel who had come to observe the festival celebrating God’s giving of the Law on Sinai 50 days after the exodus.  When the Holy Spirit hit those first followers, Peter preached such a rousing sermon about the Risen Christ, that suddenly the movement jumped to over 3,000 people who wanted to know what to do in response to this very good news.  . . .  Maybe the story’s a bit of an exaggeration, like a fish tale, told after the fact to stress how like wildfire the way of Christ was spreading.  But Acts of the Apostles wants us to know that those who first heard wanted to know how to live their life in response to the Risen Christ.  They wanted to know what to do.  How to be.  They wanted to put into practice the kinds of things that would help them grow into this message Jesus had been teaching – this word of a God so full of love for us all that Life would be the final word each day and forever.  “They devoted themselves,” Acts reads, to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers (Acts 2:42).  And just to round out the picture of what this looked like, Acts states that:  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:44-47).

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to tell us that this means we all need to head off to the pawn shop tomorrow to sell everything we have then come huddle up together here in one perpetual overnight lock-in, which church youth so often love.  I think, rather, we are to know that our first Christian ancestors committed themselves to certain practices in order to stay connected – not only with one another, but with God.  They understood themselves to be caught up together in a higher calling.  They didn’t exist, any longer for themselves alone – if ever they ever thought they did.  They knew themselves bound together so much so that the earliest Christians commonly would sell something they had in order to give what was needed to another.  It’s like they knew that saying that “the shoes in my closet that I no longer wear belong to the one who has no shoes” (Sara Coven Juengst).  Jesus made it clear to them that their own desires took a backseat so that they would come to embody this way of being – together, putting first the needs of the collective.  Loving as deeply as does our God.  . . .  One commentator puts it beautifully:  “The newborn church (was) a place where the deepest human longings for God, community, and basic provisions were being met in abundance for all” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, Timothy B. Hare, p. 427).

It’s good for us to remember that that sorta was the church’s story at least throughout our first 300 years.  Not that times always were easy – we can’t romanticize it.  Any quick read of the New Testament letters lets us know that the early church most certainly struggled on the journey of learning how to be the church together.  But they were growing, maturing, laying the foundations for the future.  . . .  Take for instance, the church in the 2nd Century Roman Empire.  They were a tiny, but powerful movement because the church lived by a different ethic – connected to God and others in ways those around them were not.  They really were a light in a very different kind of world.  . . .  Like the first house churches that were an eclectic array from across culture.  There were some slaves, right alongside those who were free.  Women of means were a part of it – sometimes with their husbands and sometimes without.  Those freshly widowed were a part, and in fact, thanks to their place in the church, they would come to find new purposes in their lives.  Supposedly it wasn’t atypical for those of the Roman Empire to abandon children that didn’t suit their fancy.  Soon the early church took in such abandoned children and created an order of widows, financially supported by the church, who became mothers to such discarded children.  Isn’t that beautiful?  That our first Christian ancestors figured out a way to care for those put aside by the empire.  . . .  People were tradesmen, and fishermen, and every now and again a Roman nobleman even joined.  . . .  There was something powerful about being connected together in a way they were not anywhere else in their day.  They would look around to see the diverse faces in their midst that proved that a radical kingdom had begun through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  . . .  According to one scholar, the 2nd Century church, “welcomed outsiders, regardless of their background, and thus overcame the obvious divisions of gender, ethnicity, and class that characterized the Roman world” (Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 2007, p. 56).  They believed and enacted what Christ taught, that all are worthy in God’s eyes, not just the elite, learned, wealthy men.  They embraced that all are to be loved:  women, children, and men too.  That all reflect the very image of God – even if Roman society taught otherwise.  The welcome they extended was radical in a culture that sought to keep certain people in certain places.  The result was that those on the fringe flocked to such a people of inclusion.  It was one of the earliest marks of being church.

And the radical welcome of the earliest churches wasn’t all.  In an increasingly chaotic world, the early church was an anchor for one another.  Because of their baptism into Christ, they instantly were not alone.  They literally were bound to one another – engrafted together into something beyond themselves that would be there to shape them for the living of each day.  That would be there with them to show them how to live in loving connection with God and others every day.  . . .  History tells us that in those first house churches, 15 or 20 people would connect twice daily to sing and pray and hear the Apostle’s teachings read aloud.  Before work in the morning, and after work at night; this was where they belonged.  This was where they were grounded – they didn’t expect to do it on their own.  Our first Christian ancestors found stability among one another.  Belonging – which was another of the earliest, attracting marks of being church.

It helped too that the early church was ready – whatever came – because the Roman world suffered shattering plagues twice in about a hundred-year period.  . . .  Christians already were living according to the command to love one another.  They already were caring for the hungry and thirsty and sick.  They already were looking after the needs of the widows, children, and strangers.  So, when the plagues hit, our 2nd and 3rd Century ancestors in the faith kept on doing what they already had been doing.  They simply took care of one another.  We hardly can believe it as it’s such a different culture from our own, but imagine the power of seeing – pretty much just among the Christians – what one historian describes as:  “Basic nursing care (like) sips of broth, cold rags on the forehead, tender backrubs, a change of bedding, visits from loving friends – (which all) strengthened the sick and helped at least some of them to overcome the disease” so that immune they in turn could care for others with it (Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 2007, p. 65).  And their commitment to connection mattered, even in death; because if one was lost to the plague, Christians would care for the deceased’s body with a proper burial.  They didn’t do like others did:  leaving the dying out in the streets in fear as was common among non-Christians in the Empire.  They’d even take in the dying whose families had abandoned them; tenderly caring for them until the end and beyond.  . . .  Such sacrificial service was another very clear mark of being church together.

More than just interesting stories from the past, all of it very well gives us some clear marching orders as the 21st Century church.  Of course throughout time, we’ve erred too often in other directions, but what a glorious early history . . . to be a people of radical inclusion, rock solid stability, service to others despite the risk.  . . .  It’s needed today as much, if not more, than ever before:  the Church of Jesus Christ living likewise each day for the sake of a world in such need.  May it be so.

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

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