Category Archives: Sermons

Looking for the Risen Christ

A Sermon for 21 April 2019 – Easter Sunday!

A reading from the gospel of Luke 24:1-12. Listen for God’s word to us in this reading about the first Easter morning. Listen.

“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to (the apostles) an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

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

 

The gospel of Luke presents a curious telling of the first Easter morn. For in this gospel and this one alone, a question is posed to the dutiful women who go early to the tomb. They’re asked: “Why do you look for the Living among the dead?” On one level we know why they look. All of the gospels put the women who were disciples of Jesus at the foot of the cross. Though Peter and the others may or may not have been there, the women are. They see with their own eyes what had been done to Jesus. They watch and wail. They see him take his last breath – rendering his spirit into the hands of God. When Joseph of Arimathea comes to bury his body; the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke name the woman as there. Still watching. Still grieving. Still wanting to provide for the needs of the One who had become their teacher, mentor, friend. The One who had accepted them and gave them a special place in the circle of his disciples as the women too found the purpose of their lives transformed for the furtherance of their Lord’s mission. Why, according to the gospel of Luke, are Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them at the tomb at the break of light the first day of the week – after the Passover Sabbath had come to an end and it was time to go properly anoint the body of their crucified Lord? They’re there out of great love, of course. For that’s what we do when we lay our cherished ones to rest. After the final funeral casserole is gone and we’re left without all the bustle of sympathizers who have come to offer their support, we return to the grave to ensure the marker properly has been placed. We say our prayers, brush away the stray dirt. We return to the spot we last saw our beloved – wanting just to be in their presence again.

On another level the question to the women at the empty tomb is curious. Because if they’d been listening, wouldn’t they have expected to find the Living One among the dead? That’s where he’d always been. For wasn’t this the One who declared about himself at the beginning of his ministry – as recorded in the gospel of Luke – that “The Spirit of the LORD” was upon him? Because he had been anointed to bring good news to the poor. He had been sent to proclaim release to captives. He was here to recover the sight of those who were blind. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the time of God’s favor. Wasn’t this the One, the women knew, who had gone about his days cleansing lepers, who were as good as dead? Healing those who whose lives seemingly had become useless? Wasn’t this the One who taught a whole different Way than the death-tolling fend-for-yourself – use-force-if-you-must way that was being promoted in the culture all around them? Wasn’t this the One calling to his cause the most unlikely of folks? Fishermen far from the halls of Jerusalem’s great Temple. Despised tax collectors like Zacchaeus. Even women and other outsiders. Wasn’t this the One who spent his time among those good as dead bringing them back to Life with a touch of his powerful hand? A nod of welcome in his circle? A summons to follow in the Way of self-giving love? I realize that the messengers at the empty tomb wanted the women to know the Living One had been raised; he was no longer there. But where else really would the Risen Christ be than among those still needing Life?

Easter asks us to look – to keep our eyes open for the presence of the Risen Christ. And to remember where best to find the Living One. In the places where we are broken. Among the people still needing release. We’ll find the Risen Christ where bread is broken and the fruit of the earth poured out – especially for those who are hungry to eat. We’ll find the Risen Christ where bodies are healed and spirits are calmed. We’ll find the Risen Christ still where outsiders are welcomed. And those blinded by the ways of this world finally, at last, see. We’ll find the Risen Christ where all hope seems gone – after devastating loss when we come to one another to offer an empathetic ear, a helping hand, a sense that no one will have to walk alone. Everywhere any still are as good as dead, the Risen Christ will be. Working through us, working in us, sometimes even working in spite of us to bring new Life for all.

This is the mission. We’re invited to come follow. Until, at last, Life is all that’s left. Risen Life alongside the Living One!

Alleluia! And Amen!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Revealed in Prayer

A Sermon for 31 March 2019

The gospel reading for today takes us to the night of Maundy Thursday. We hear of the last recorded time when Jesus sought the solace of prayer – out in the garden of Gethsemane. The fate-filled night one of his own would lead the authorities out to arrest him. Listen for God’s word to us in a reading of Luke 22:39-46.

“Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” 41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” [43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.] 45 When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”

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

 

Picture this: it’s 1955 in a village in Kenya when a 6-year-old boy is abandoned by his family. Left to join the daily grind of thousands of other children, this boy named Charles becomes a street child. Fortunate enough to beg his way through primary education, once this little boy grew to be 16, he became a Christian; then set out to walk nearly fifty miles to the city of Nairobi – something that too him 3 ½ days. This one obviously had smarts. A big heart filled with dreams. And enough determination to turn his life upside down. Finding a job in the city, he saved up enough money to buy his first car. Then another. And another until he eventually had become a wealthy business man owning an entire transportation fleet. His rags to riches story is absolutely inspiring. But no one in the world ever would have heard of him if it hadn’t been for an encounter he had in 1986. Parking his car on a street in Nairobi that day, several teenage street boys stopped him to beg for money. Whether too proud to remember his own roots, or too stubborn to give away any of his hard-earned cash; the boys quickly surrounded what looked to them a shiny, successful, rich man. Charles quickly walked away; but when he returned, his fancy car was gone. Charles was filled with rage. The faces of those boys were burned in his anger. He reports being in emotional turmoil for several years – his life embroiled in a mix of anger, sympathy, and guilt. Until the morning of November 17, 1989. Driving in another fancy Mercedes; he pulled to the side of the road somewhere and spent the next several hours wracked with anguish. He claims there no longer was any peace in his life. The faces of those boys still prominent in his mind, Charles cried out: “God, what is it you want me to do?” According to Charles, it was in the fourth hour that he finally heard a response. He heard: “I gave you everything. I raised you from nowhere and I gave you all of this.” By then, Charles’ fortune was in the millions. The voice said: “Now, I want to take everything that you have and give it to the poor.” Charles reports he didn’t leave that car until at last he said: “Yes LORD. I will do it!” Filled with immense joy, Charles drove home to tell his wife and eight children that he had good news for them. He told them: “I will not work anymore for money. I want to give everything for the poor.” He was determined to become, in the words of the Psalms, the father to the fatherless. The very next day, he liquidated all he had; then went to the streets to find the first three abandoned children he would rescue. Thirty years later, Charles and Esther Mulli have built 6 orphanages in Kenya and Tanzania, they have been father and mother to over 10,000 street children – raising about 1,000 at a time in their own home when the first started. They have rescued 10 failing schools and built many other centers across their nation. Today Mully Children’s Family has been saving children’s lives in their self-sustaining work to transform the lives of children who once had no hope. Wanna learn more about what can be revealed in prayer? Go to mullychildrensfamily.org to watch Mully, the Movie. Be sure to have tissues nearby as your own heart is certain to overflow with the joy of seeing such inspirational Christian service! (Sources:https://eur04.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fyoutu.be%2FluMzrgBDAS8&data=02%7C01%7C%7C79a50e3ffc7441acec5708d6b3b69176%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C636893994029006157&sdata=HuEECyHIHvi2uC7Iv8SxOrxiYYZkhWmGWOf7tw647Xw%3D&reserved=0 ; The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, “Visions of God,” Season 3, episode 3. First aired 19 March 2019; and www.mullychildrensfamily.org).

A simple prayer. God, what is it you want me to do? A willing heart. A world changed one life at a time.

Jesus goes from an upper room one night into a beautiful garden. We’ve a tendency to read the gospels as if Jesus knew all along the way exactly what was going to happen to him. Maybe he did. Certainly, he was wise enough to see that if you’re going to live faithful in the struggle against injustice and oppression, there will be struggle. There will be suffering. Sacrifices will come. Because we know the possible consequences for standing against what kills, Jesus in the garden reminds us to seek God’s strength in prayer. To keep ourselves open to faithfulness. To be reminded: God is with us always inviting us deeper into the dance of Life. I love the conclusion of one commenting on the story of Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane. The commentator writes: “God wills that injustice and oppression be opposed . . . The reality is, then and now, that to stand steadfastly against injustice and oppression is to invite the opposition of powerful forces. . . . (Thus) Jesus prays for the strength and courage to witness to the justice, righteousness, and peace that God wills. If this means facing deadly opposition, so be it” (Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Vol. 2; J. Clinton McCann Jr., p. 293). In prayer, it is revealed to him to go forward in peace. Centered in the strength of God despite what comes. In essence, Jesus is praying in that garden: “God, what do you want to do through me today?” The gospel accounts all agree that initially Jesus was asking for something else to happen. “Remove this cup, if you are willing,” the gospel of Luke reports Jesus prays (paraphrase of Luke 22:42). In anguish. Until at last he cries out: “not my will, but Thine. God, what do you want to do through me today?”

We’ve all be invited during this season of Lent to be praying this daily prayer: “God, what do you want to do through me today?” It’s the prayer of our Grateful for the Past; Renewing for the Future campaign and as we can see, it’s the prayer to be prayed each day by a faithful follower of Christ. “God, what do you want to do through me today?” . . . The other day two of us visited Martha and Olivia. By the way, they said we could tell this story – we even caught it on video for everyone to see. A member of our Prayer Team had taken Martha and Olivia a prayer rock – which they absolutely love. Olivia said that when Martha first got it; she held it in her hands, read the prayer aloud: “God, what do you want to do through me today?” And said: God wants me to smile! If you know Martha, you know that she’s such a delight with a warmth that welcomes the whole neighborhood! The other day when we were there; she held the rock, read the prayer aloud: “God, what do you want to do through me today?” And instantly replied: Behave! We all got a great laugh at that! ‘Cuz even in her advancing years, Martha’s still got that spit fire in her that needs a little reminder now and again to behave!

I’ve enjoyed reading what some of the rest of you have noticed so far as you already have been praying: “God, what do you want to do through me today?” One of you has noticed something specific about your ministry here. How what had been really difficult news about a building repair became way more encouraging when a trusted company provided an additional quote. That’s a huge relief for us all as we seek to take good care of this facility for ministry to continue to take place from this building. Another who has been praying “God, what do you want to do through me today?” has been reminded that even with 100 children and staff downstairs in Playcare every day, and weekly Yoga and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional families meeting upstairs; this building could be bustling with some other daily neighborhood ministry. Won’t it be interesting to hear how that prayer continues to unfold? Another who has been praying daily “God, what do you want to do through me today?” has noticed a new boldness to stand up against injustice. They’ve noticed – as has someone else praying the prayer – being moved to be more forgiving and loving. They’ve even noticed being moved to be a more faithful follower as they consider ways to deepen their giving to this church. Someone praying “God, what do you want to do through me today?” reports that as they have prayed this prayer, suddenly – abruptly – new ways to serve others have happened! Another has noticed shifts in their monthly financial responsibilities that have created new room in their budget to support the capital campaign. One praying daily “God, what do you want to do through me today?” is finding that the prayer is making them more mindful of God in their life. It is absolutely beautiful to see what is revealed when God’s people enter into prayer together.

Maybe none of us will end up hearing that we are to become father to the fatherless. Maybe none of us will experience the wrath of powerful forces unleashed upon us as we seek to stand up for God’s justice, righteousness, and peace. Maybe we won’t hear much – the timing in our lives not quite right. Or the silence exactly what we need to experience in the midst of overly busy days. We are invited to pray. Just pray. “God, what do you want to do through me today?” Then, every few days, check in. Review what’s happening in our lives and in the lives of those around us so that we can notice what is taking place.

Revealed in our prayers through our willing hearts. It’s so exciting to see how a world is being changed one life at a time!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

 

The Golden Plan

A Sermon for 17 March 2019 – Second Sunday in Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 13:31-35. Listen for God’s word to us.

“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 Jesus said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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

 

This second Sunday in the season of Lent with the gospel’s foxes and brood and the hen with wonderfully, healing wings; it seems a good time for a little something different. So, listen to a story for Lent. It comes from the children’s book written by Walter Wangerin, Jr. and it’s called “Branta and the Golden Stone.” Listen.

Branta is a little girl, living out in the middle of no where in the Northern-most region of the world where it is absolutely freezing! Winds whip down from the northern seas to send an unbearable chill immediately up your spine. Branta, sadly, finds herself alone one winter when her ancient father – her only connection to the human world – dies. But before he leaves his dear daughter, he gives her a gift. He tells her the secret of his stone; a golden stone he has harbored for years. With it, people are changed. The powerful golden stone makes a person whatever they wanted to be. Sick suddenly are healthy. Blind eyes at last can see. A farmer becomes rain to water his fields in abundance. An angry man turns to fire to burn up his enemy’s house. People are changed by the power of the stone all right. Both for good and ill. The moment before his final breath, Branta’s father warns that she must be extremely careful with this golden stone. The change is incredibly costly. For you see, the change is irreversible: absolutely no going back. “Beware,” Branta is told. Whatever a person becomes by the power of the golden stone, she will stay that way forever.

Isolated upon the death of her dad – no neighbors anywhere in sight, Branta eventually is accompanied by a new arrival. One day a delightful duo of geese grace Branta’s solitude. O how she welcomes her new companions – even if they’re just geese. After all, humans and geese are so very different. They aren’t able properly to communicate with one another. Branta never could get too close. Regardless, the geese offer the company of another life. Branta enjoys the geese: watching them, listening to their gaba-gaba squawking, seeing them soar in the air. Branta grows to love her new feathered friends. As spring sprints on, the two quickly multiplied to eight! Six sweet goslings gaba-gaba-gabbing on and on. A whole goose family. What fun! . . . But winter can come in an instant in Branta’s northern hinterland. And so it is one night when summer abruptly dies and a storm tears in from nowhere. The north wind blows. The ground freezes. Heavy snow heaves itself upon the earth. For two days Branta cuddles in her cozy cabin. She’s gotta survive the storm. Still, all she can imagine is her precious pals caught unawares and now withering in the wintry blast. Finally, bundling up, she takes off outside to find them. She’s convinced herself that she’ll coax the geese into the shelter of her heated home. . . . Picture the scene: frantically the gallant girl is trying to wave the perishing geese toward the warmth. But filled with fright, they run further from their only shot at survival. Eight freezing geese – perhaps aware of the perilous wintry winds – are terrified of the alien intruder. They just don’t get it that she’s trying to lead them to life. What in the world is a determined little girl to do?

It isn’t geese but chicks Jesus chats about that day. His course has been set on Jerusalem. He travels with firm resolve. It might be helpful to remember that Jerusalem, named the city of peace, had become the seat bed of power for the Jews of Jesus’ day. A conflicted place, however, what with Rome ruling right over the Temple to ensure no one tried to rebel against the foreign oppressors. Collusion with Rome in order to keep on practicing the faith has grown common. It’s not that there’s anything inherently bad with the religion of Jesus and his people. Rather, as always has been the tendency; playing into a system of dominance, fear, might for the sake of worldy gain has seeped into the water. Too many in Jerusalem – religious leaders and Rome alike have lost the Way. Resolutely, Jesus has set his face to go there – into the halls of power. In order to attempt a course correction. . . . What happens one day is that somewhere still in Galilee, a handful of Pharisees approach. Their intentions are not to harm. Rather this group gives the warning. It seems Herod – the ruler of the region – has it in for Jesus. He wants him dead – perhaps his head also on a platter as was the conclusion for the dear John the Baptist. Some friendly Pharisees fear a fatal end for Jesus so they set out to curb his path. But Jesus will not be deterred. Onward to Jerusalem he goes. For he knows his purpose; the God in whom he trusts. Content to speak God’s truth to worldly power, Jesus simply says, “Go and tell that fox: he may think he’s got the ability to interrupt God’s plan. But listen: I am continuing my work of casting out demons, performing cures, and on the third day I’ll be done” (Luke 13:32). Determined. He’s absolutely sure of the mission.

Remember the mission? For a long time God has been trying – tirelessly trying to gather God’s brood. It’s an awesome Old Testament image to which Jesus attests. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). Once we have a little bit of the world’s ways, it’s hard to give them up. A plethora of prophets were sent. You’d think exile in unknown lands might have gotten their attention or at least the restoration thereafter. The cycle keeps happening again – as it has in the history of the church, the generations gone before, right up to the ways we ourselves can continue to go astray. . . . Look at it from God’s view: as if we were those vulnerable baby chickens. Those fuzzy little fluff balls. So tiny. So fragile. Oodles of us – curious little chicks scattered this way and that; winding way out of the barnyard. Far from mother hen – and the shelter of her wings. Can you smell the big bad wolf lurking in the shadows? Ready to snatch the little, lost ones in an instant. Momma hen would be in a panic! . . . That’s exactly how it goes. God births the brood of Israel for God’s very self – a light to shine in the nations for all to come to know. But no sooner is the covenant constructed, than the children go astray. It seems so in our nature that we willfully wander far out into the wild. Suddenly we’re easy prey for all sorts of predators. We ignore God’s commands that were given to us to ensure communal bliss. Our selfish actions give rise to division. Too often we live in whatever manner we wish – no matter how far from our Creator our actions take us. We’re as oblivious to the danger as are the good God-fearers of Jesus’ day. What in the world is a gracious God to do?!!!

Back in the cabin, the storm still raging outside, Branta searches diligently for that stone. “If only I can grab it,” she wishes. “Become a goose myself. Perhaps putting on their very same size and shape; the same white markings on my throat and that exact black beak.” Branta rationalizes to herself: “if I become one of them I can speak their gaba-gaba language.” Then maybe her precious geese pals will trust her enough to follow where she leads – right back home to shelter from the storm. . . . Would you believe it? The plan works. Holding the golden stone in her human hand, Branta speaks her desire: “I want to be a goose,” she says. Next thing you know she’s flapping majestic wings. Sporting that sleek neck. Waddling away. The little girl literally becomes one of them: a goose – gone forever her human ways – quite a cost for sure. But a sacrifice she willingly makes because she knows it’s the only shot she has at leading her beloved friends to safety. Sure enough, as soon as the geese – near-death without protection from the blizzard – as soon as they hear in their own language: “Gaba-gaba gather. Gaba-gaba Get up. Gaba-gaba Go. Go into the warmth of the cabin.” As soon as they see one just like them pointing to the path, immediately they heed. It’s like a lightbulb suddenly goes on. “Oh, okay. If YOU say so!” Eight otherwise doomed geese and one little goose-girl survive the storm together!

Do you wonder what will happen with God’s willful, wandering brood? How in the world so many lost, little chicks will be pointed down the path? Led back to the shelter of momma hen’s wings? One way: one high-priced way. Someone will have to become a chick like the rest. To lead the whole lot. . . . Jesus is born into the world. He grows. He begins the mission to show the Way. But so infinitely many are a part of this brood. As soon as one is brought to safety, ten more seem gone for good. Unlike Branta’s story; for us it takes a continuous process to gather such a huge flock. . . . And so it goes that those who have been found – having learned the Way home – are expected to enter the enterprise. Despite potential danger. The found chicks go from the shelter of momma’s wings in search of others. Learning to speak their language. We point the Way home. It’s a grand communal effort initiated at high expense. But tell me: what else is a God of grace to do?

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

Wilderness Testing

A Sermon for 10 March 2019 – 1st Sunday in Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 4:1-13. On this first Sunday in the season of Lent, we hear the gospel of Luke’s version of what happened to Jesus right after he was baptized. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the LORD your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

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

 

In Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brené Brown states: “Theologians, writers, poets, and musicians always have used the wilderness as a metaphor, to represent everything from a vast and dangerous environment where we are forced to navigate difficult trials, to a refuge of nature and beauty where we seek space for contemplation.” Brown writes: “What all wilderness metaphors have in common are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest” (Braving the Wilderness, 2017; p. 36).

I think of Dr. Brown’s work when we hear the reading from the gospel of Luke put before us today. For what else are we looking upon in the story of Jesus after his baptism, than his very vulnerable encounter during his very real emotional, physical, spiritual quest? Each year we begin the season of Lent with Jesus in the wilderness. Long has the Church looked upon this text as the perfect place for our attention on the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday. We’ve just entered the time in the liturgical calendar when we begin a more fervent listening and watching and learning how best we can follow as disciples of the Christ – all the way to Jerusalem and beyond. Lent is our time to willingly stand with Jesus in the wilderness – not only to see what he encounters there, but also to be taught our own need for wilderness. The like-it-or-not time we must face in order to be who God would have us be.

In Braving the Wilderness, Brown is using the metaphor of wilderness to present her research and lived findings on what she calls “belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone” (Ibid.). Which sounds exactly like Jesus, doesn’t it? Brown is talking about living so entirely as your true self that you belong not to the voices that surround from culture, family, ego, and even religious institutions. Wilderness is Brown’s understanding of, what Carl Jung defined as, being our capital S Self – the wholeness of Self that regulates our center. That inside, which “some speak of . . . as the God within or the Christ-within” (Unopened Letters from God, Robert L. Haden, Jr., 2010). The Divine Spark that animates us to live our best selves. Biblical commentators might say: wilderness is where – and when – we live as the authentic creation God made of us at our start. Before we forgot and got entangled in the mess of how this world too often goes. In my reading of it – especially according to the gospel of Luke, I would say that wilderness is where we must wrestle any other influences – the demons within and without – in order to authentically be who God created us to be.

Dr. Brown reminds that wilderness is “an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching” – surely Jesus knew that, not only from his first forty days there, but from the many times, according to the gospel of Luke, when Jesus deliberately returned to wilderness. When he stole away as often as he could to return to time alone with God. Brown writes: wilderness “is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness,” Brown states, can feel “unholy because we can’t control it . . . but it turns out to be the place of true belonging.” The bravest, most sacred place we ever will stand (Braving the Wilderness, p. 36). The place of honest integrity before God – honoring our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer – as Jesus did in the wilderness. Being so firmly resolved to trust the One he often called Abba, heavenly Father.

Unlike the other gospels which claim that immediately after his baptism Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, the gospel of Luke uniquely claims that “full of the Holy Spirit” Jesus “returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). Instead of an emphasis of the Holy Spirit seizing him in his baptism to lead him out there to withstand alone whatever would come, the gospel of Luke focuses us upon the Spirit’s role with Jesus the entire time, when he seemingly went to the wilderness as a voluntary act. Which might leave us wondering if the gospel of Luke is emphasizing that like our need for a deepening of connection with God during Lent, Jesus too needed a time alone to hear what was to come. To listen for what it all meant that he’d just heard The Voice declare in his baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22b). To have the opportunity to choose – to sort out the ramifications of the message of his baptism. Like his ancestors who are recorded as having wandered forty years in their own experience of testing in order to reveal their true selves. We’ve got to wonder if the wilderness will strengthen Jesus’ resolve to move out to be who God has made him to be. Will he choose acceptance of and obedience to The Voice? Will he emerge ready to unite himself fully with his authentic, true self? So that even when the most difficult challenge was to come – one night about three years later in a garden outside Jerusalem, Jesus still could be found praying: “Not my will be done, LORD, but yours” (Luke 22:42). In advance, wilderness shows if the Beloved faithfully will be the Beloved, or not.

I love the words in Braving the Wilderness that Dr. Brown quotes from a friend who is a religious leader in a Christian community that is known for lacking full inclusivity. Of wilderness, Brown’s excluded friend says she has discovered that “the wilderness is where all the creatives and prophets and system-buckers and risk-takers always have lived, and it is stunningly vibrant.” She writes, “the walk out there is hard, but the authenticity out there is life” (p. 152). For belonging so fully to the Self we discover God has made us to be, ends up linking us fully with all the others devoted too to being their true Selves. Those who cannot not live as God has created, called, and sustained them to be! In other words: it’s best we remember that no matter how difficult wilderness can be, it is entirely worth it! Just ask Jesus. What would his life among us have been had he not relied upon and lived in full the Way The Voice had called? Had Jesus not lived his authentic self, no one ever would have gone on to proclaim his name! No 5,000 plus fed on just five loaves and a few fish. No impassioned plea to follow after him. No bread broken and fruit of the vine outpoured as sign and seal of a God of infinite grace. No death at the hands of his enemies. No resurrection in power from a grave. No Life everlasting offered for all forever, Amen!

One biblical commentator writes: “In Luke 3:21 – 4:13, we see that the Spirit’s anointing of Jesus in baptism and his faithfulness to God amid testing constitute Jesus’ preparation for his mission. (For) being chosen and anointed is not sufficient preparation either for our ministry gathered or for our ministry scattered.” The commentator writes: “We must be tested, often by being led to places of hunger and despair. Only then do we learn dependence on God, who graciously provides for all of our needs in all of life’s seasons” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, Jeffery L. Tribble, Sr., p. 44).

Brothers and sisters of Christ, especially during Lent; wilderness is where we belong – in our lives individually and in our life together. For in wilderness the Spirit is with us. The tests provide opportunity to choose. Jesus knows it’s difficult and that we could so easily lose the Way. But wilderness forces us really to finally, fully rely upon God. To wrestle with all the other voices until we too earnestly pray as our Savior and Lord has taught, saying: “Not our will, but Thy will be done, O God!” . . . Grateful for one another and all vibrantly alive out there, let us embrace wilderness in order to be who God would have us be.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

Shining Like the Son

A Sermon for 3 March 2019 – Transfiguration of the Lord

A reading from the gospel of Luke 9:28-43. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.”

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

 

You’ve heard it said that beautiful brides radiate. And once their bellies get big and round, everyone agrees that pregnant women have that glow. Anyone excitedly welcoming a newborn talks about them being a bundle of warmth – as if the sweetness of God reflects right through them. When parents are as proud as can be, they beam at their children. And of course, two people in love look at each other and their eyes light up an entire room.

Thomas Merton, one of the 20th Century’s most well-known monks, is famous for his epiphany in downtown Louisville on March 18, 1958. He said: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” He said, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race . . . there is no way of telling people they are all walking around shining like the sun.” . . . He went on to explain that on that day he “suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.” Merton wrote, “If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all of the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, New York: Doubleday, 1996 – http://merton.org/TMSQ.aspx).

Buried in the book of Daniel, the prophet exclaims that “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness (shall twinkle) like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

The Exodus reading assigned by the lectionary for Transfiguration Sunday – and referred to in 2 Corinthians, which often is read on Transfiguration Sunday as well. The Exodus reading names Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law. He was up on the mountaintop – in the presence or Shekinah of God. What he didn’t know as he descended from that amazing experience of being with God was that his face shone brightly – the light of God’s presence was reflecting on Moses’ skin. (Exodus 34:29-35).

Jesus himself has some sort of experience. It may not have been exactly the same. But we hear of the way Jesus was transfigured on the mountain. He’s up there praying – just eight days after he told his disciples what lie ahead. Peter, John, and James are with him. While he’s deep in prayer, they look up to see “the appearance of Jesus’ face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). He’s transformed before their eyes. That radiance. That glow. That beaming shine like the bright summer sun. The presence of God glows right through his skin. It’s as if on that mountain, all with eyes to see finally behold the core of Christ’s reality. Who he really is: the one in whom God in-full dwells. A voice even confirms it saying: “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)

Now, it may seem like quite a leap, but we can think about worship just like that. In Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster, worship is defined as: “when (upper case S) Spirit touches (lower case s) spirit” (Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster, 1998, p. 159). When the Holy Spirit of God connects with the spirit of God alive in us. Worship is when we get plugged in. Re-charged. Spirit unites with spirit, which we know can happen anywhere in this God-breathed creation. So that sometimes it just happens. Walking along an autumn path, the rays of the sunshine just so that it seems the world is transfixed into heaven-like streets of gold. Or any number of such unexpected, take-your-breath-away life moments that leave us speechless in awe. The times we’re not ready for God’s Spirit to wake up the one slumbering in us. And the times we actually get ourselves ready: prime the pump, it’s often called. When we go to a particular place – like here – where it seems a thin place between common and extraordinary. Holy and mundane. We attune ourselves to connect with that which is Beyond. Spirit touches spirit: worship!

It’s what the Apostle Paul is referring to when he writes that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord – as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (of the Lord) from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Worship is about that connection. Seeing the glory of God. Celebrating the glory of God. Being in the glorious presence of God and never finding ourselves the same thereafter. . . . Like those disciples. Think about them. Most probably they weren’t up on that mountain to worship. I’m guessing they only went because Jesus’ asked them to. Kinda like a president’s bodyguards who have to follow around where ever the president goes. They either felt it their responsibility as Jesus’ trustworthy friends to make that trek up. Or maybe they curiously were trying to develop a prayer habit of their own. . . . According to the story, they make the climb and sit nearby as if casual observers. They planned to just sit around to watch as their dear friend Jesus prays. But what’s about to take place on that mountain isn’t something they’re able casually to observe. In the Presence of God, they’re pulled in. They hear God’s voice. And they are called to heed. Though they are silent upon the descent, eventually their sealed lips will be broken and they will be charged to go into all the world filled in the same way — with the power of the same Spirit — to witness in word and deed to the ends of the earth. . . . Worship is about that – that encounter which transforms. Our spirits unite with God’s Spirit in that glorious high that requires us then to go forth changed. Transformed to reflect God’s glory. You might even say transfigured ourselves to heed the call of Christ. Which is why there should be a sign at the sanctuary entrance that we’re all required to read on our way in: Warning – enter at your own risk, because you cannot leave here the same!

I once read a story about a preacher who tells what he saw as a young boy in the face of another man. Supposedly as a child, this would-be preacher encountered a missionary just home on furlough who was on fire for God. When first the boy saw him, he ran to get the neighborhood priest to ask who this man was. The boy was so impressed by the joy that exuded from that missionary. He never had seen someone all aglow like that. He claimed in his memoirs, which he wrote near the end of his life; that he went on to commit his life to serving God in professional ministry – largely because of the moment he encountered that missionary. He confessed that he never could get away from the influence of the light he saw radiating from that man. A shining face – glowing with the love, with the joy of Christ. The experience changed that boy’s life entirely. . . . Which just goes to show that time spent with God – Spirit connecting with spirit – true worship has power we never can underestimate. . . . Shining like the Son, may we go forth to light up the world!

© Copyright JMN – 2019  (All rights reserved.)

The Jesus Kind of Love

A Sermon for 24 February 2019

I read wise words this week regarding the text I’m getting set to read – the portion of the gospel of Luke assigned by the revised common lectionary for this 7th Sunday of Epiphany.  By the way, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday is on the way next week with Lent beginning on Ash Wed a few days thereafter.  Just to get us all in an open frame of mind, I want us to hear those wise words first, so we might willingly keep our ears open for the reading of the gospel!

Of Luke 6:27-38 – the words immediately following the gospel of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – the Blessing and the Woes of the Sermon on the Mount, biblical commentator Vaughn Crowe-Tipton writes this:  “Congregations respond to this text in the same way my children respond to seeing cooked spinach on their plate at dinner.  No matter how much I explain the nutritional value, no one around the table really wants to dig in.  I suspect preachers are not terribly different.  Even though we know enough to understand how texts can be bound by culture and time, we also know this text goes down hard, no matter when or how it is served.  Perhaps we should not be surprised that professionals and neophytes in scholarship and faith struggle to swallow what Jesus served us in this text.  Maybe he would have had an easier time of it if he had left this item off the menu.  Goodness, Jesus, who wants to love an enemy?”  Crowe-Tipton goes on to write:  “Jesus focuses, however, on the real problem with nutrition; there is a vast difference between what we want and what we need.  All who dare prepare a sermon with the ingredients Jesus offers will do well to remember that tension.  (‘Cuz) no one comes to (worship) on Sunday already thinking, ‘I would really like a challenge today; perhaps I will be asked to love my enemy.’  Nevertheless, that is what Jesus demands.  Look at this text for what it is.  Jesus offers this ridiculous teaching to his closest followers.  Remember that anyone else who heard it probably laughed out loud and with good reason.”  Crowe-Tipton writes:  “This clarion call is to swim upstream.  It asks the disciples to break conventions, to stand out in a crowd, to find fulfillment in going a second, third, and seventy-seventh mile” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Vaughn Crowe-Tipton, p. 381, 383).

So, with this warning in mind; let us listen for God’s word to us in a reading of Luke 6:27-38.  This next portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain according to the gospel of Luke.  Listen.

“’But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.  32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.  34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for (God) is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’”

            This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

In 1906, a man was born in Germany who would grow to become a force in such opposition to Adolf Hitler, he was seized by the age of 37 and taken to Tegel Prison in Berlin.  (Details here from http://www.dbonhoeffer.org/Biography.html.)  Nearly two years later, he was moved to Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  Then two months after, executed by hanging at Flossenburg – 29 days before World War II came to an end.  When just 31 years old – six years into his ordination as a Lutheran pastor and a few years after helping to establish an underground seminary for the German anti-Nazi Confessing Church – this devote follower of Christ wrote the following words:  “How then does love conquer?  By asking not how the enemy treats her but only how Jesus treated her.  The love for our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified.  The more we are driven along this road, the more certain is the victory of love over the enemy’s hatred.  For then it is not the disciple’s own love, but the love of Jesus Christ alone, who for the sake of his enemies went to the cross and prayed for them as he hung there.  In the face of the cross, (Christ’s) disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love.  It is this that opens the disciple’s eyes and enables (us) to see (our) enemy as a brother.  (We) know that (we) owe (our) very life to One, who though (we) were his enemy treated (us as brothers) and accepted (us), who made (us) his neighbor, and drew (us) into fellowship with himself.  The disciple can now perceive that even (our) enemy is the object of God’s love, and that (our enemy) stands like (ourselves) beneath the cross of Christ.  . . .  God loves God’s enemies,” who the author explains, are all of us sinners.  The author goes on to write in this infamous work entitled The Cost of Discipleship, written by the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer just after the Gestapo closed the underground, anti-Nazi seminary he helped to start.  Bonhoeffer writes:  “God loves (God’s) enemies – that is the glory of (God’s) love, as every follower of Jesus knows; (because) through Jesus” we have become partakers “in this love” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-1945], The Cost of Discipleship; New York:  Simon and Schusster, 1995, pp. 150-151).

The words from the gospel of Luke may be some of the most difficult commands on the lips of Christ.  Love our enemies?  And I don’t think he was talking about just those big, world enemies we like to name.  But what about the family members with whom we just cannot get along?  What about the neighbor who seems to care nothing about the needs of others in the neighborhood and just takes and takes and takes from all the other property owners around?  What about ones with drastically different worldviews?  What about the person at work, or at school, who maybe even has done something really terrible to us?  Let me be clear – because this part of scripture long has been mis-heard and at times even mis-used by being thrown in the face of those hurting at the hands of another.  Failing to have proper boundaries between ourselves and another is not at all love!  Turing a blind eye to abuse, neglect, violence is NOT love and never to be tolerated by Christians who rightly are to know and to work for the difference between good and evil.  Never is the Jesus of the gospels puzzled over the rightness of things like his arrest.  His flogging.  His humiliating execution.  Never once would we hear on his lips that the injustice he confronted daily was ok – no big deal.  Rather, every day of his life – even in his death – Jesus, the Christ, God embodied among us, worked to heal those hurt by others; to call those doing the hurting to change; and to work for the abolition of hatred in this world.  The only way he could do that was by love.

You see, Jesus teaches us that love is what allows us to see and thereby live differently.  He actually prayed to God that those killing him would be forgiven – and wants us to live that way too.  He knew their act – our act – was wrong.  Love is clear on that.  But love.  His love – the kind of love he expects of us, his followers, harbors no bitterness.  Holds no grudges.  Is way less concerned about punishment than it is about healing.  It’s not like what we often see around us each day and I know – heaven knows – it certainly isn’t easy.  It’s God’s way.  The narrow path, Jesus called it.  The Way into which we all are invited.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer went on to write:  “This commandment, that we should love our enemies and forgo revenge, will grow even more urgent in the holy struggle which lies before us and in which we partly have already been engaged for years.  In it love and hate engage in mortal combat.  It is the urgent duty of every Christian soul to prepare itself for it.  . . .  And how is the battle to be fought?” Bonhoeffer writes, “Soon the time will come when we shall pray, not as isolated individuals, but as a corporate body, a congregation, a Church:  we shall pray in multitudes (albeit in relatively small multitudes) and among the thousands and thousands of apostates we shall loudly praise and confess the Lord who was crucified and is risen and shall come again.  And what prayer, what confession, what hymn of praise will it be?  It will be the prayer of earnest love for these very sons of perdition who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us.  It will be prayer for the peace of these erring, devastated, bewildering souls, a prayer for the same love and peace which we ourselves enjoy, a prayer which will penetrate to the depths of their souls and rend their hearts more grievously than anything they can do to us” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-1945], The Cost of Discipleship; New York:  Simon and Schusster, 1995, pp. 150-151).

Prayer for our enemies – not that they get what we think they have coming to them.  But prayer that earnestly asks God to provide what’s needed in them and in us for us all to live together in peace may be the best first step for us in loving those who hate us and curse us and take from us again and again.  It’s the most powerful way to live in the world.  Refusing to allow the hatred of another to permeate our own hearts.  It reminds me of the beautiful, challenging prayer said to be left by an unknown poet near the body of a dead child in the Ravensbrück Death Camp.  “O LORD, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.  But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.  And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness” (Quoted in The Wisdom of Jesus, by Cynthia Bourgeault, pp. 73-74).

It is tough stuff – to stand in such love.  Costly discipleship . . . may it be the command of Christ we seek to fulfill every day!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

Blessed are Those who F.R.O.G. (Fully Rely on God)

A Sermon for 17 February 2019

A reading from the gospel of Luke 6:17-26.  And remember that right before the reading we hear today, the gospel of Luke records that Jesus choses 12 to be apostles – ones sent out in the world to carry on his mission.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus came down with them (the twelve) and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.  20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:  ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

Ah!  The beloved beatitudes according to the gospel of Luke:  the blessings and the woes.  Blessed!  Blessed are the poor!  Blessed are the hungry!  Blessed are they who mourn!  Blessed are the rejected!  Rejoice and be glad for theirs is the kingdom of God!

I don’t know about you; but all I can ask is:  why?

The closest I’ve ever come to being poor has been trying to eek by on little to no money coming in as I worked my way through a very expensive Divinity School degree on SpaghettiOs, oatmeal, and plain rice – which was about all I could afford in those days.  Honestly:  it didn’t feel very much like a blessing.  Most of us only have been truly hungry because we forgot to get ourselves up or out of whatever we’d been doing to make our way into plentiful kitchens, with running water, and electricity to ensure a refrigerator full of fresh food and drink.  Can we imagine real hunger?  Pain in our bellies because there is no food to be found.  No freshwater.  Again.  Because of the circumstances of our lives.  Why would anybody say it’s a blessing to be hungry?  And what about mourning?  We all know this one – or will at some point in our lives if we’re willing to open our hearts enough to truly love.  To allow ourselves to fall deeply in love with a partner or a friend or a child or a vocation so much so that our own insides literally feel broken when they are no more.  When things fall apart.  When our loved one dies.  When it all comes to an end.  Any of us who have truly loved – which I imagine is every one of us sitting in this room – know how it feels to mourn.  In that dark pit, it doesn’t feel very blessed, does it?  Why would anybody say blessed are they who mourn?  And what about those being hated, rejected, reviled?  While I’ve known my fair share of struggles as a woman in this biz – one who sometimes doesn’t fit others’ expectations – I don’t remember ever experiencing the evil face of hatred.  Some of us may know this one better than others and I doubt that it feels very much like a blessing to be told that who you are or what you represent or what you believe or how you choose to live in this world is unacceptable.  Worthy of persecution through fear mongering or violating crime or riotous rage.  Why would anybody say it’s a blessing to be reviled, rejected, persecuted on account of the Son of Man?

Maybe it would help to remember what it means to be blessed.  To have the favor of another upon us.  In The Soul’s Slow Ripening:  12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, Christine Valters Paintner writes a whole chapter on “The Practice of Blessing Each Moment.”  She explains the verb blessing.  She writes:  “Blessing is to live life from a place of gratitude, to offer thanks and honor for everything that we have, taking nothing for granted.  When we remember to bless . . . we begin to live from an enlarged sense of being” (Sorin Books: 2018; p. 39).  Paintner’s definition comes close to what the opposite way of living is like – the way Jesus warns with woe.  Paintner writes:  “At the heart of this practice and way of life is paying mindful attention to our lives.  I know hours, days, and weeks can go by sometimes before I discover I have been skimming the surface of things, preoccupied by too many tasks to complete.”  Paintner continues:  “My calendar and to-do lists become misplaced holy grails.”  . . .  She concludes:  “When we skate through life’s endless demands on us, we lose our connection to (the) deep well of nourishment” (Ibid., p. 40).  Perhaps there’s no guarantee that poverty, hunger, mourning, being despised will lead to staying connected to The Deep Well of Nourishment that is God.  But isn’t it the case, that when there is less of me (as Eugene Peterson’s take on the gospel of Matthew’s beatitudes goes in Peterson’s biblical translation called The Message).  When there is less of me, there is more of God and God’s reign.  When we’re at the end of our own ropes, we’ve no where left to turn to but to God and God’s people.  When we’ve lost all that really matters to us, our arms are left open to be embraced by the only One who really matters (paraphrase of Matthew 5:3-4).  When we can manage on our own, why bother to call upon God for anything?

I wonder about that a lot when I reflect upon the big picture view of what’s happening in so many churches today.  Everywhere we look it appears as if we’re in lean days as the body of Christ.  And then I remember what I’ve noticed in myself – what I’ve noticed in you and in other churches I’ve served these last ten or more years of significant cultural shifts.  Churches are doing things they never, ever, ever would have tried before.  Opening their doors, their hearts, their minds – not just on Sundays, but on Mondays through Saturdays too.  I have a sister who is staff support for the older adult ministry organization of Presbyterians who has told me of all sorts of senior adult ministries happening all throughout the week in congregations that used to do little more than Sunday morning worship.  I read about churches beginning Holy Grounds coffee shops in strip malls to get to know whoever comes in – in particular:  being open late nights Fridays after high school games for students to have a safe place to gather.  I’ve heard of congregations doing things like Lenten podcasts for those who commute in the community – kicked off by drive through imposition ashes on Ash Wednesday.  I see members of the body of Christ finding new ways to build meaningful spiritual connection with one another.  And – as I heard one of you remind us last Sunday night regarding our Mending Heart lunches:  welcoming through our open doors those who may no longer be welcomed by their biological families in their own homes.  I behold it all and wonder:  if everything was going just great – pews over-flowing and church coffers overstuffed – would any of these new ways of being disciples in the world be taking place?  If we could manage it all on our own, would we need to rely so heavily on the winds of the Holy Spirit to blow fresh vision into Christians here and around the globe?

About the beatitudes as recorded in the gospel of Luke, one biblical commentator writes, “God does not take kindly to half-heartedness.  God does not bless us as we maintain the status quo, reaping the accolades of those who hear us and follow us.  God does not bless us as we bathe in respectability in the eyes of the world.  God does not bless us as we quietly maintain tradition and gloss over or ignore prophetic voices calling us back to God – in the church and in the world.  God does not bless us as we protect and build institutions and empires.  God does not bless us, well off, full, comfortable, hearty, and well-spoken of.  The realm of God rests among those who have nothing but God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, David L. Ostendorf, p. 360).  That same commentator writes:  “God wants the entirety of our lives.  The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God” (Ibid., p. 358).  For let’s face it:  only that which is empty can be filled up.  Only that which is broken can be shared.  Only those who know their need, can rightly ask.

Jesus wants his followers to know.  The blessings.  The woes.  The joy of utter reliance upon God.  The surprises we will see.  The Way with space enough to unfold.  Why?  Because there, in the midst of what is rejected, broken, battered within and without – there in what is called the Pascal Mystery – there dwells God.  Sovereign of all; crucified yet risen Christ!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).