Malleable

A Sermon for 8 September 2019 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 18:1-11. And perhaps before reading this text, it’d be helpful to remember that the prophet Jeremiah was called to speak for God to the people of Judah. The thought is that as things in Israel already had fallen apart when the Assyrians overtook and exiled the northern part of what once had been the unified kingdom, things in Judah were just beginning to fall apart and finally did entirely when Babylon conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE. In the days leading up to the devastation of Jerusalem, folks were wondering: How did we get here? How could something like this happen to the people of God? Did we neglect the covenant? Is God with us still? (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 3, WJKP, 2019. Joseph J. Clifford, p. 287). Throughout Scripture, we hear varying responses to such questions – even as we Christians continue to make sense of national and personal devastation in so many different ways. Like: have we brought it on ourselves? Do destructive things just happen – even to righteous people? The likes of faithful Job or the descendants of Abraham who found themselves enslaved in Egypt only, at last, to be rescued by a grace-filled God. As we ponder the welcomed and unwelcomed changes of our own lives and of our life together as the body of Christ, let us listen for God’s word to us in this reading of Jeremiah 18:1-11.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there the potter was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

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

 

Early in the 12th Century, Hildegard of Bingen was busy having visions from God. Hildegard began having such visions as young as three years of age. Tithed to the church at birth by her noble parents because she was the tenth of their children, Hildegard was brought when she was 8 to live with her spiritual mother Jutta, an anchoress turned abbess who was enclosed in the Benedictine Monastery at Disibodenberg. There, Jutta was to “introduce (Hildegard) to the habit of humility and innocence” in a double monastery – a Celtic-founded monastery that has both men and women (Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, Second Edition, Sabina Flanagan, 1998 p. 2-3).

Many today seek deep, direct connection with the Divine. Hildegard’s experience warns regarding such communion. For throughout her life, whenever she failed to heed the Voice of her visions; Hildegard had terrible bouts of illness. Finally, at the age of 43, Hildegard acquiesced to the Voice to publicly reveal her visions and the Voice’s insistence that she (a mere woman, a simple nun) write what she saw. So it was that this remarkable 12th Century woman claimed her own spiritual experience and began a forty-year ministry that would include counseling kings, advising popes chastising to them in writing the injustices she saw in archbishops and bishops and priests, cultivating gifts in twelve areas of human endeavor including music and art and healing and science and theology and pharmacology and preaching and writing and iconography, and being a complete innovator who it has been said was both “daring and audacious so much so that 800 years later (she’s) made a huge impact in our time (and hasn’t) become irrelevant or boring” (quote by Mary Ford Grabowsky in “A Very Real Mystic,” Hildegard von Bingen In Portrait).

You may know the vivacious, larger-than-life force that was Hildegard for her signature concept viriditas or greening power. In Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen by Matthew Fox, viriditas is described as “God’s freshness that humans receive in their spiritual and physical life forces. It is the power of springtime, a germinating force, a fruitfulness that comes from God and permeates all creation” (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, Matthew Fox, 2002, p. 44). As a mystic of the Rhineland; Hildegard was influenced by the lush, flourishing valley that surrounded her throughout her lifetime. One scholar explains that Hildegard saw the fecundity of the Rhineland and believed it all was the very essence of life. As so many do, Hildegard didn’t just look upon the world as beautiful. In fact, in the mandala of her vision entitled “The Six Days of Creation Renewed,” Hildegard chastises Adam because, as she wrote: “’he took in the smell with his nose, but he did not perceive the taste with his mouth. Nor did he touch it with his hands’” (Ibid., p. 97 – Hildegard’s own words). According to Hildegard, this was Adam’s great fall. Because God – who Hildegard calls “the purest spring” – (she also calls Jesus “Greenness Incarnate” and the Holy Spirit the “greening power in motion, making all things grow, expand, celebrate” [Ibid., pp. 43-44]). According to Hildegard, God has put the greening power within us and all things, and we are not merely to look upon it with our eyes – appreciating how pretty it is. Our viriditas is in us in order for us to participate with the Creator in creating. Thereby assisting “the cosmos in its unfolding” (quote by Matthew Fox in “A Very Real Mystic,” Hildegard von Bingen In Portrait). Hildegard presses the point further in her vision entitled “Sin – Drying Up.” In this mandala, Hildegard records what she saw from God – the merciful dew sent to the human heart by the Holy Spirit (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, p. 92). The sap of life – the greening power that keeps our souls from turning to dryness. That keeps us from becoming cold, hardened, dust – the greatest sin. For, as Hildegard wrote: “A dried-up person and dried-up culture lose their ability to create” (Ibid., p. 46). Thus, Hildegard explained that our baptisms are “baptisms through water but into moistness” (Ibid.). Our baptism, Hildegard proclaimed, is “a commitment on our part to stay wet (to remain) green. Like God” (Ibid.).

Hildegard’s viriditas comes to mind as we hear the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. To the potter, the prophet is charged to go. There, Jeremiah will hear God’s word when he sees what the potter is up to. If you’ve ever tried to work clay on a wheel, you know how important the friction of both hands. The centering of the clay. The need for water to keep the material on the wheel malleable. Clay that dries out. Clay without that bit of water stiffens. It no longer can be shaped. It becomes hardened into a form useless to the potter. But, as Jeremiah saw in his visit to the potter’s house: even if clay goes awry on the wheel; as long as it is moist, the potter can scoop it up. Press out the kinks in preparation to re-center it on the wheel and begin again.

It’s like that with the people of God. We’re meant to drip with the waters of our baptisms. To stay malleable for use by the Creator. Because, as one commentator writes: “When our shape becomes fixed, we leave little room for God’s grace to” re-form us (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 3, WJKP, 2019. Joseph J. Clifford, p. 288).

You remember a two summers ago when we were busy doing that CAT. That Church Assessment Tool that resulted in a Vital Signs report regarding this congregation. One of the things we learned through that process is that churches that are vital today have key factors in common. Among such things as vital worship, meaningful relationships, and an orientation to lifelong learning; communities of faith that are vital today are flexible. They are malleable. They stay green – growing like clay able to be re-shaped by the potter in order to be effectively used in the context in which that clay finds itself today.

In the past few weeks while I’ve been away, I’ve been asked more than once to tell about the congregation among which I serve as pastor. After about the third time of telling about the ministry we’ve been at together these past several months, I realized I had lots of very exciting things to tell. Of course, we’ve done the usual: worship each week on Sunday mornings. Holding meetings now and again for decision-making. But we’ve also stopped for some time of silence – in the middle of Presbyterian worship – not only to reflect individually upon our priorities, our own big rocks – but also to write notes of encouragement to teachers heading back to H.G. Hill Middle School for another year of investing in the children of Nashville. We’ve tried things like creating out of recycled and natural items as we learned a bit about Hildegard and God’s power at work in creation. We’ve learned more about caring for those who are aging and continued our intergenerational visits to homebound members of the church. This very month we are in the beginning stages of welcoming two new community partners to this congregation. One by providing space for those who participate in an effort called Nashville’s Non-Violent Communication. And another where we are working with peers in the community to launch a training and on-going support ministry for those who have lost a loved one through death by suicide. We’re continuing with our current community partners Playcare and H.G. Hill Middle School and Mending Hearts and Small World Yoga and the 12-step Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families that meets here every Saturday. A few of us even have met with innovative ministry leaders of Nashville to learn what more can be done for the assets of this congregation to creatively serve the needs of the community around us. Not to mention, our property leaders and Trustees have been working HARD to upgrade things like the electrical system of this building and our internet and phone systems that will allow us to find new ways to deepen our relationships with each other as we navigate typical 21st Century means of connecting.

It’d be easy to hunker down and think: we’re just a little group of people – aging and set in the ways we’ve always known. And then we hear things like people getting fed this summer by those from this congregation who went to provide meals during a Solidarity Retreat held monthly at Penuel Ridge Retreat Center for people who are homeless. Women recovering from addiction and trying to get their lives back together after serving time in prison coming here to sit down for a scrumptious, welcoming feast! We learn of young and middle-aged adults coming here weekly to work through the painful experiences of their childhood. We’re about to welcome to the facility those seeking to learn Heart Centered Mediation Practice in a four-week course being led by one of our new community partners. And even if Heart Centered Meditation Practice doesn’t sound like our preferred way to pray, hopefully some of us will commit to attend – if for no other reason than to learn a different way to connect with God that is meaningful for those who’d never come Sundays to worship like us. Hopefully a few more of us will volunteer our time this school year for the 30 new fifth graders now enrolled at H.G. Hill Middle School who just are learning to speak and read English and desperately need adult mentors to come help them grow.

It seems to me we’re moving along in our malleability as a congregation even by doing things like gathering after worship now for a true chance at fellowship instead of sprinting through coffee and treats a few minutes before worship begins. Supporting and encouraging each other through life’s joys and challenges. All the while giving of ourselves in new ways as we serve God by serving others in need. Slowly but surely we are being re-shaped. Re-fashioned. Re-formed by the Potter. Clay still dripping with the waters of our baptisms. Ready yet for use by our Great Creator today.

As the days roll on, may we stay malleable come what may!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Big Rocks First

A Sermon for 11 August 2019

A reading from the gospel of Luke 12:22-34. In this continuation from the gospel reading assigned by the lectionary to last week, listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will God clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

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

 

Perhaps you are familiar with a story recorded in the book called First Things First. It goes like this: One day, a time management expert was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, he used an unforgettable illustration. As the man stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers, he said: “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then, he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. The man produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Dumping some gravel in the jar, he shook it causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks. He asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time, the class was hesitant. “Probably not?” one of them answered. The man replied: “Good!” Next, he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping in the sand and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full” “No!” the class shouted. “Good!” the man said. He grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. The time management expert looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?” A student raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you always can fit more into it!” The time management expert replied: “No. That is NOT the point. The truth this illustration teaches is: if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.” The author of the book where this story is recorded goes on to ask: “What are the big rocks in your life? . . . A project that you want to accomplish? Time with your loved ones? Your faith, your education, your finances? A cause? Teaching or mentoring others? . . . Remember to put the BIG ROCKS in first or you’ll never get them in at all.” (First Things First, Stephen Covey, 2002; http://www.worklifecoach.com/Big_Rocks.pdf).

What are the big rocks of your life? If I were to stop right now to give you a few moments of quiet, what would you list as your big rocks? What are the things that are most important to you? The things you want to put in first in your life, whether you’re doing so right now or not, because they are the most significant things to you. Go ahead: take a few moments right now to list your big rocks – the 3-5 things that are most important to you. You won’t have to show them to anyone else. You don’t even have to put them in priority order. You can think about them in your mind or literally list them somewhere right now.

(SILENCE)

There’s another story about an old recipe for cooking a rabbit. The instructions read: “First, catch the rabbit.” First, put the first things first. The big rocks. It is written that: “That’s what we do when we establish priorities – we put the things that should be in first place in their proper order” (http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/priorities.htm).

Big rocks – priorities. The things that should be in first place in their proper order.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in the section of the gospel of Luke we heard this morning and the section from last week that precedes it. After telling the parable about a fool of a man whose biggest rocks are himself and his abundant possessions – the rich man who executes the most ridiculous plan by tearing down his FULL storage barns to build bigger ones, for him to keep more stuff for himself. After telling that parable, Jesus jumps into a teaching about what not to put as biggest rocks. “Do not to worry about your life,” Jesus is recorded as saying. “Don’t make your biggest rocks what you will eat or what you will wear” (Luke 12:22 paraphrase). Even if everybody else around us does it, Jesus charges us NOT to make our biggest rocks the kinds of things that give physical security. He lifts up the beauty of the world around us. Birds that neither sow nor reap but always find enough. Lilies of the field. Wild flowers that grow without toil. Without constant effort. It’s a reminder that God knows our needs. The question is, do we?

Do we know the God-sized hole in us nothing but God can fill? Do we realize that the big rocks for followers of Christ have to include things like daily time connecting with God, the constant who always is present. We need priorities around things like prayer, the reading of scripture and creation and all of life to hear God speaking to us through it all. Conversation with others about our faith and what God seems to be up to in our lives. Thought about who God really is to us each day, and why we love the One creating, redeeming, and sustaining our lives every day more and more. If we don’t have enough time because of the hustle and bustle of children or aging parents or demanding jobs, maybe it’s time to figure out a new way to integrate God in somehow with the other priorities that mean so much. I mean, children are naturals at wonder – ask any parent of a two or three-year-old. All they want to know is why? We can see those as conversations about our marvelous Creator. Ask an aging parent or spouse or friend about what is sustaining them. Then listen carefully for the God-tracings all over their lives. Even if they don’t use words like Jesus or God or Holy Spirit, that doesn’t mean that’s not what really is beneath, holding it all. Demanding jobs – paid and unpaid – can be experiences for us to ask God what life-lessons we are supposed to be gaining from the co-worker who seems to push all our buttons, or the boss who keeps piling on more. If we feel we can’t put God in as the first big rock – though that’s exactly what Jesus is saying, and is really the only big rock that ever will be a constant no matter what comes in life or in death. But if we’re not ready honestly to assign God as our first big rock – maybe we can at least make God one of the top 2-3s. Truly – not just in some passing fancy of: o, I attend worship every now and again, except for in the summer when it seems I deserve a break.

Supposedly September is the best time to make New Year resolutions; so August ought to be a time to reflect upon priorities – our big rocks. Those things in our lives that we want and in fact need to put first. Jesus stated it frankly: “The nations of the world strive after the wrong big rocks. As for you, strive instead for God and God’s kingdom” (paraphrase, Luke 12:30-31).

In the quiet of this time, review the lists of your big rocks. If you feel you need to edit, either crossing one out or adding another, do so now. Then in the quiet, lift your big rocks to the One who holds it all.

(SILENCE)

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 Metrics of Success

A Sermon for 4 August 2019 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Luke 12:13-21. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But Jesus said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then the man said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.’”

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

 

There’s a short video out there by the motivational speaker Jay Shetty. It’s called “If you Feel Pressure, Watch This.” A perfect reminder as children, parents, and teachers get ready to go back to school in these next weeks. In the video, a noisy bunch of young teens race into an auditorium for an assembly in a Secondary School in England. All dressed in their school’s upscale uniform, a sea of multi-colored faces follow the leader’s directions to settle down. Someone who looks like a strict headmistress launches into a reminder that the students are about to begin their exams. She says: “These exams are going to define you. The grades you get are going to determine which sixth form (high school), which university, and which job you will be able to get into. These exams are exceedingly important and I want you to take them seriously” (Episode 144, https://jayshetty.me/videos/). As she speaks, the students’ faces grow a little anxious. One girl sits biting her nails. Another’s face shows apprehension. The headmistress continues: “These exams will determine what you become in life” (Ibid.).

Over in the corner, an out-of-place man casually raises his hand. He heads to the stage to begin reading a letter written by a principal in Singapore. He says he wants their teachers, their parents, and the students to hear it. “Dear Parents,” the letter begins. “The exams of your children are to start soon. I know you’re really anxious for your child to do well. But please do remember, amongst the students who will be sitting for their exams there’s an artist who doesn’t need to understand math. There’s an entrepreneur who doesn’t care about history or English literature. There’s a musician whose chemistry marks won’t matter” (Ibid.). The faces of the students lighten. Some even begin to nod their heads in agreement. The letter continues: “There’s a sports person whose physical fitness is more important than their grade in physics. If your child does get top marks, that’s great. But if he or she doesn’t, please don’t take away their self-confidence and their dignity from them. Tell them it’s OK, it’s just an exam. They are cut out for much bigger things in life” (Ibid.) Now if you really value education, you may be taking issue with the message of this video. But as it came to me from a parent of a teen who is struggle with a learning disability, I’m grateful it’s out there.

The video wraps up with Jay Shetty finishing the letter from the Singapore teacher. He reads: “Tell them no matter what they score, that you love them and don’t judge them. Please do this and when you do, watch your children conquer the world. One exam or low mark won’t take away their dreams or their talent. And please do not think that doctors and engineers are the only happy people in the world.” The letter is signed: “With warm regards, the Principal.” Shetty continues: “And here’s my message. Exams are important, but they’re not everything. Grades are good, but they don’t define you. Don’t let one exam or one grade define your whole future. There is so much more potential right inside you. And remember,” Shetty concludes, “as Albert Einstein said, everyone’s a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it’s stupid. Don’t let other peoples’ metrics of success become yours.” The students jump in joy to give a standing ovation.

Don’t let other peoples’ metrics of success become yours.

How often do we consider the metrics of success by which we build our lives? How often do we pause enough to be intentional about what really matters to us and how we will judge the value of our own lives? The world around us is primed and ready to tell us what metrics it thinks equal success. Everywhere we turn, society booms the values it wants us to embrace. Like: youth – no matter the cost. Speed – despite what’s lost. Prestige. Physical power. Wealth. If we’re not intentional, we’ll get swallowed up in it all. Which not only can be detrimental to our health and our relationships. Taking on the metrics of success spouted by society can be disastrous to our souls.

“You fool,” Jesus quotes God in his story about a rich man who had so much, he had nowhere left to put the abundance that came to him. The land, which he certainly was not working on his own, produced such a prolific abundance – which the man was convinced he had to keep for himself – so that all the man could think to do was pull down his already stuffed-to-the-brim barns so he could build bigger places to store his stuff. Never once did that man stop to think about giving away some of that bounty. According to Jesus’ story, the man didn’t reward those working with him with a surprise feast or consider sharing the bumper crop with them. The man never thought to sell what he had so that others might be fed too. Or even allow the fields to be gleaned – according to their ancestor’s practice to leave a little behind in each harvest for those with no land to be able to come behind to have enough. The very way Ruth and her mother in law Naomi finally came to be progenitors of the great King David.

The man in Jesus’ parable thought only of himself. He had some very clear metrics – his description of success. “Relax, eat, drink, and be merry” he literally told his soul (Luke 12:19). Wealth mattered most to him. He himself and his own ease in life seemed to surpass any other concern he had. We’re never even told if he had a family – anyone else in his life for which he sought to do all that work. In the span of two short bible verses, the man refers to himself 6 different times: “I, I, I, I, I, I” (Luke 12:17-19). The problem is not a healthy desire to take care of one’s self. The problem, according to Jesus’ story is that that very night the man’s soul would be demanded of him. All that he stored up on earth, God wondered, “whose do you think they will be?” (Luke 12:20). There’s a kind of selfishness that is blatant in Jesus’ parable aptly labeled “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” Measuring the value of our life. Holding to the metrics of success according to the society around us is, according to God, foolish. Totally devoid of any wisdom.

What does it look like to be rich to God? To measure the value of our lives according to the metrics of God.

It looks like the life of Jesus! Which is why knowing the life of Jesus is so very important. Reading the gospels to hear how he spent his days. What he did when someone in need came across his path. How he was among those who hurt. Who he welcomed into his circle and even went out of his way to find. We never hear of a bank account Jesus had squirreled away somewhere. He didn’t have a Traditional or Roth IRA. Nor a 403b account. As far as we know he never even sought to own his own home. I’m not going to stand up here and say we gotta go sell it all to give to the poor, even though Jesus told a man that in one encounter in his life. Rather, this story from Jesus is here to remind us to consider the metrics of God. The value of Love. Peace. Forgiveness. Justice. Trust. As Christians we need to hear now and again of the charge to be rich to God. To spend our lives – literally pouring out the time, talents, and treasures we have – according to the values of God. Which we see clearly in Jesus, the Christ, our Savior and our Lord. The Teacher who shows us the Way for each of our days. “Take care,” Christ reminds. Be rich to God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

I Hope You’re Praying

A Sermon for 28 July 2019 – 7th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Luke 11:1-13. I realize this version might sound unlike what we pray each week; but listen for God’s word to us in this reading that tells it a bit differently than the other gospels.

“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’”

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

 

How do you pray?

Do you get up really early in the morning to get a little quiet time with God before all the noise of the day begins? Do you lie in bed at night and tick off a list of loved ones who need God’s help? Moments in the day for which you know you need grace. Cares you want to lay down so you can drift to sleep in peace. Do you pray while you walk – each pound of the pavement a prayer of thanksgiving for the beauty of this world, a shift in your circumstances, the people in your lives for whom you are absolute grateful? Do you steal away to a favorite spot during lunch to leave the mess of your job behind – if even for a few quick minutes? Do you say the same thing every time – or vary it, at least a little? Maybe even reveal greater concerns as you go deeper in your life with God? Do you pray through music? Movement? Or maybe even paint? Allowing the creative impulsive of your body to open up before the Great Creator of it all? Do you pray through the words of Scripture – using the Psalms or prophets? Or do you just turn your heart and mind inward in silence to connect deeply with the God residing within?

In Feasting on the Word, one commentator describes his experience of prayer. He writes: “In Catholic school I learned four reasons to pray: to praise God, to thank God, to ask God’s pardon, and to ask God for what I needed, or even wanted – provided the prayer ended with ‘however, not my will but yours be done,’ like Jesus at Gethsemane. Later, while becoming a member of the Redemptorists, a Roman Catholic religious order,” the commentator writes: “I was taught mental prayer, to meditate and contemplate. . . . More recent voices that influenced my attitude toward prayer,” the commentator continues, “are Thomas Merton, who spoke of prayer as the communion of our freedom with God’s ultimate freedom; and Anne Lamott, who wrote that she has two basic prayers: ‘Thank you, thank you!’ and “Help me, help me, help me” (Feasting on the Word Yr. C, Vol. 3, James A. Wallace, C.SS.R.; p. 287, 289). The commentator’s words bring to mind Lamott’s book: Help! Thanks! Wow! The Three Essential Prayers.

Boy Erased tells the story of one young man’s persistent prayer. “Lord, make me pure,” the boy fearfully would pray every time a thought came that his religious community had taught him was sinfully wrong. Even though the Apostle Peter learned the lesson way back in the first days of the Church, as is recorded in Acts of the Apostles: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15b). Still, “Lord, make me pure,” the boy erased would pray in trepidation when he did things that seemed natural to his body, but he knew were considered perverse to the deacons and elders of his small, deep South church. I’m not sure the major motion picture, released last year, as clearly paints the boy’s fervent, fright-filled prayer as does the biographic memoir written by Garrard Conley, the boy whose parents sent him off for the conversion therapy that today is considered by most not only unethical but entirely unscientific. In fact, while Garrard only endured about 8 days of the brain-washing therapy, at the release of the book nearly fifteen years later; Conley reports he still has been unable to connect with any sort of loving God. The experience of being raised in such a constricting, fundamentalist church then shipped off by those very same people in order to be changed from something God had made him to be has robbed Conley of faith. It’s left him, and so many others who were made to undergo the fear-based therapy, isolated in abiding ways. Garrard’s anxious prayers were persistent. But never answered as he desired; for he got prayer all wrong.

Jesus is clear on that. His disciples want to know how to pray and what does Jesus teach them? We’ll never know why the version told in the gospel of Luke is shorter than the version told in the gospel of Matthew. What we do get from the whole of the gospel of Luke is almost a continuous reminder to pray. To ground our lives in deep communion with God, as does the Jesus portrayed throughout the gospel. What’s more, though Luke’s Lord’s Prayer jumps right from “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come” to the needs we have for daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from difficult trials; the gospel of Luke paints the picture of a way to pray that is all about communion with Love. “Father,” Jesus says. “Abba,” in the Greek which is more like addressing God as Daddy. Tender. Dear. As his follow up stories declare, the Presence of constant care that is way better than any example of the most gracious parent who certainly would provide every last need for their cherished child. That’s how to pray, Jesus is teaching – at least as the gospel of Luke presents the Lord’s Prayer. In the attitude of – while using words that underscore our full trust in the God who would do anything for us to know the depths of Love, that is indeed God.

Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, tells of a great saint of the church who knew exactly how to pray. If you’re not familiar with Teresa of Ávila, she’d be a great woman of faith to meet. She’s accredited as saying: “The important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love” (Wild Mercy, Mirabai Starr; Sounds True, 2019, p. 17). Teresa was born in the early 16th century in Spain, not too long after the Spanish expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492. Her own paternal grandparents dared to convert from their ancestral Jewish upbringing to the church-enforced Roman Catholicism that was to be practiced if families wanted to remain in their homeland. These were the early days of the three-hundred-and-fifty-year span of the Spanish Inquisition. When it was discovered Teresa grandparents secretly still clung to the Jewish practice of welcoming the Sabbath, the whole family – including the boy that would grow to be Teresa’s father – was drug through the city every Friday for seven weeks as others spit on them and hurled anti-Semitic insults while church officials forced the whole family to kneel at every Catholic shrine in the city. As a result, Teresa’s father became a staunch Catholic who would never give a shred of suspicion for his own children to undergo such shaming humiliation. Having endured the death of her mother at 12 years of age, Teresa grew into a bit of a wild young woman. At long last, her father sent her away to a convent in hopes the sisters would settle her down, then return her home as a proper civilized woman who’d be ready to marry and begin having babies. To the shock of all, Teresa discovered refuge in the quiet spaciousness of contemplative prayer during the liturgy of the daily offices. She declared to her father she was staying and determined to make her vows among the sisters.

Decades would pass – the routine of monastic life a challenge for Teresa – until one day late in her thirties, Teresa deeply connected in the convent hallway with a statue of Christ. The figure was bound and crowned with thorns. With eyes fixed upon the eyes staring back at her, the floodgate of Teresa’s heart opened. She saw the unconditional love of Christ. The vulnerability. The intimacy. It’s told: Teresa flung herself on the hallway floor and refused to get up until promised that Christ “would never let her forget how deeply she loved him” (Ibid., p. 20). Thus began Teresa’s profound union with God. What she went on to describe as the highest form of prayer. “’The Prayer of Quiet,’ in which the soul simply rests in the presence of the Friend and any trace of separation between them evaporates” (Ibid., pp. 23-24). Isn’t it beautiful? For Teresa, God had become the Beloved. Her own soul the lover.

Teresa’s way of prayer seems like what Jesus was teaching in his prayer. That we enter into communion with the tender Parent whose name even deserves praise. Whose reign of Love we long for most. Who we can trust fully to provide all we need: food for our bodies. Nourishment for our souls. Forgiveness for our failings. Deliverance in times of our deepest distress. Dropping any need for moralizing our own and others behavior, we’re reminded. Whether we have the proper words to define God and God’s demanding Way. Jesus teaches us to pray simply, as Teresa does. By stepping into the arms of the Beloved to allow the intimacy discovered there to inspire us “to harvest the fruits of love and feed the hungry world” (Ibid., p. 24).

No matter the manner in which we do it, I hope each and every one of us prays like that. Steeped in communion with God, the Lover of our soul; the Divine Parent waiting to hear us all.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

One Thing (a.k.a. NOT Continuous Partial Attention!)

A Sermon for 21 July 2019 – 6th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Luke 10:38-42. Now, I know this text may sound familiar to many of us. And we immediately may read ourselves into this story. But we’re invited to try to listen anew today. To hear a fresh word from God to us in the reading of this story. Listen.

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.””

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

 

Before jumping into the sermon, I want to read this text again – this time from a version of the bible not quite as familiar. Perhaps this reading will continue to bring fresh insights regarding the story of these archetypal sisters Mary and Martha. Listen again.

“As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” 41-42 The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42, The Message)

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

 

In 2006, an article in the New York Times told this story. A man arrived at the airport in Paris looking for the driver who was to take him to his hotel. I’m sure the man was excited to be in the city of love. Exhausted from the long flight, but eager to take it all in! A French friend had arranged a taxi driver to pick him up at the airport. And as the traveler spotted the driver who was holding a sign with the traveler’s name on it, the traveler got a little worried. The driver appeared to be talking to himself – with great animation! Carrying on as if a little crazy while standing there holding the name of his rider on a sign. When the traveler fully approached; he realized the man, into whose hands he was about to place his life, wasn’t suffering some psychosis. He just was deep in conversation with whoever was on the other end of the Bluetooth device that was shoved into his ear. Lots of people pass the time at airports on their devices. It’s no big surprise that the driver would be talking as he waited. The thing that disturbed his rider-to-be was that as the traveler pointed to himself that he was indeed the one named on the driver’s sign; the driver motioned to the exit for his rider to follow behind him. Arriving at the car; the driver took the man’s bag, placed it in the back of the taxi, got himself into the car, and kept right on talking to whoever was on the other end of the phone. Reluctantly the rider entered the taxi – willing it all to be alright despite the hour-long ride that lay ahead into the heart of the city. Inching in the taxi away from the busy airport, the rider noticed the driver continuously checking the monitor on the dashboard. Where he thought the GPS map to the hotel would be, the rider noticed the driver was watching a movie. Maneuvering a taxi out of Paris’ busiest airport, animatedly holding an in-depth conversation with someone on the other end of the Bluetooth phone, and all the while watching some sort of movie; the rider realized the age of small cabbie talk was over. He sat back, pulled out his laptop to finish some work, and plugged in his I-Pod to listen to his favorite Stevie Nicks playlist. In the New York Time’s article, the rider notes: “The driver and I had been together for an hour, and between the two of us we (simultaneously) had been doing six different things. He was driving, talking on his phone, and watching a video. I was riding, working on my laptop, and listening to my iPod. There was only one thing we never did: Talk to each other” (https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/01/opinion/01friedman.html).

It was 2006. A full year before the first iPhone hit the market. Years would pass before most of us knew about apps and cloud storage and google assist. Nonetheless, a technologist named Linda Stone already had “labeled the disease of the Internet age ‘continuous partial attention’ — two people doing six things, devoting only partial attention to each one — she remarked: ‘We’re so accessible, we’re inaccessible. We can’t find the off switch on our devices or on ourselves.’” She wrote: “’We want to wear an iPod as much to listen to our own playlists as to block out the rest of the world and protect ourselves from all that noise.’” Stone stated: “’We are everywhere — except where we actually physically are.’” (Ibid.).

If we think we’re the first to live in an age full of so very many distractions, then we may hear the story of Jesus and the two sisters as a cautionary tale about the balance between stopping and going. Doing and being. The contemplative life versus the active, servant life. I’ve heard it all before. If you’re a woman whose spent any time in your life in a Women’s Bible Study, then I bet you’ve heard it all before too. The archetypal energy of Mary – being at the feet of Jesus. Soaking in his wisdom. Quieting herself in the attitude of humble listening. And don’t forget Martha. The archetype of the super woman sister who gets it all done. This is the energy of the good church woman who surpasses those little energizer bunnies in all she is able to do. Whipping up homemade treats for fellowship time. Hosting a visiting youth group in her beautiful home. Serving on all ten church committees – always the first to open the building and the last to lock up after everyone else has gone. Marthas organize church fundraisers, and take homecooked meals to the homebound, and provide sit down dinners after funerals, and sing in the choir – likely as the one assisting the director with any organizational needs. Marthas are the first to say yes to whatever ministry requests the pastor brings their way – which is part of why I LOVE Marthas and know at heart, I’m one myself! And remember we do not have to be women to take on one or the other of these iconic church roles. Men can be Marys – spending their time digging into Scripture as surely as they can be Marthas tending to every last church-task ever needed. If we think we’re the only ones to live in an age where we keep ourselves busy with a zillion different things at once, then we miss the true caution of the story recorded in the gospel of Luke. The time Jesus warmly was welcomed into the home of his good friend Martha.

Reader beware. The words at the close of the parable directly before the story of Martha clanging the pans in the kitchen while her sister leaves her alone to tend every last detail for the impromptu dinner party featuring the Ultimate Host. Right before the gospel of Luke tells of Jesus commending Mary for having chosen wisely, the gospel of Luke records the final words of the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Go and DO likewise,” Jesus tells a lawyer who wants to know what love looks like (Luke 10:37). Do, Jesus says! So that we most certainly miss the point if we think Jesus turns right around to head into the presence of Mary and Martha in order to chastise Martha for the doing of discipleship. The story of Mary and Martha is not at all about some ancient dichotomy between being and doing. Resting and going. Listening and putting God’s love into action. The story of Mary and Martha is about how we are. The state in which we exist whether we are soaking in beautiful words of Scripture or scrubbing pans after the latest church potluck. Are we in a state of continuous partial attention? Or are we razor-sharp focused on the one thing right before us? Are we truly where we are when we’re there – consenting to be on the red X under our feet? Or are we fragmented all over the place – doing a bunch of different things at once? Are we thinking about the past and worried about the future, or are we fully in the here and now?

One thing only is essential,” Jesus proclaims in the second version I read of this gospel of Luke story (Luke 10:42a, The Message). One thing.

Continuous partial attention – which may look a little different in Jesus’ day than it does in our digital world. Nonetheless, continuous partial attention – like prepping the table while you’re trying to pour beverages for everyone and watching the pot over the stove and trying to overhear the conversation in the other room and checking the recipe to see which ingredient needs to be added next. Continuous partial attention like driving a taxi cab and talking with someone else and watching a movie on the dash board all at the same time is about as disastrous as sitting down to pray while you try to catch the breaking news on the television, sip your morning beverage, and wonder what you need to pull out of the freezer for dinner. It’s about as disastrous as picking up a call from your friend while the dog’s scratching at the door to come inside, the child or grandchild is pulling at your leg for a snack, and your trying to sort the stack of mail that has overtaken the kitchen counter.

One thing, Jesus says. One thing. Why? Because in addition to the obvious strain continuous partial attention has upon our brains and our bodies, listen to what happens. Not only in the home back in that little village of Jesus’ day, but also in the cars and homes and spaces in which we find ourselves every day today. Alienation. Dis-connection. The breaking of true relationship. Martha’s distracted doing separates her from Jesus. It puts her at odds with her sister. It makes her into some angry monster no one really wants to be around. We are made to be in right relationship with God, others, and our very selves. But all our distracted doing – all our continuous partial attention breaks right relationship. It takes us from True Presence to zap the joy right out of our heres and nows.

One thing only is needed. One thing. Do this and rightly Live.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

What Love Looks Like

A Sermon for 14 July 2019 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Luke 10:25-37. It’s claimed that this is one of the most familiar stories told by Jesus. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.’”

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

 

A prayer entitled Common Prayer goes like this – perhaps you’ve heard it before. “There are only two feelings. Love and fear. There are only two languages. Love and fear. There are only two activities. Love and fear. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear.” (by Leunig, quoted in books and speeches by Alan Jones).

Love and fear. We know what they look like, right?

Fear looks like eyes down on the sidewalk in front of us. Hugging in as we pick up the pace just a little bit. No matter what’s up over there. Don’t make eye contact as we just keep on walking by on the other side of the road.

Fear looks like accusations from a pulpit – or podium. Speech dripping in disdain. Hateful words spit into a microphone or spewed online that only insight further dis-trust. Anger. Violence.

Fear looks like keeping ourselves separated. Safely hunkered down among our own kind. And don’t anyone dare challenge our current way of thinking by coming up close with their true personhood. The story of their own struggles, pains, hopes. We prefer our worldview just the way it already is, thank you very much!

Fear looks like worry. Hands wringing about whatever situation has arisen. Pacing the floor. Anxiety rising because what if this one mistake. This one incident. This one episode brings it all tumbling down?

Fear looks like giving up. Not trying something new because we’re too set in our own ways. Too preoccupied by other things. Too tired to even try again.

A 2018 Christian pop rock song puts it this way: “Fear is a liar.” Listen to these beautiful lyrics: “When he told you you’re not good enough. When he told you you’re not right. When he told you you’re not strong enough to put up a good fight. When he told you you’re not worthy. When he told you you’re not loved. When he told you you’re not beautiful. That you’ll never be enough. . . . When he told you were troubled. You’ll forever be alone. When he told you you should run away. You’ll never find a home. When he told you you were dirty and you should be ashamed. When he told you you could be the one that grace could never change. Fear, he is a liar. He will take your breath. Stop you in your steps. Fear he is a liar. He will rob your rest. Steal your happiness. Cast your fear in the fire. ‘Cause fear he is a liar” (“Fear is a Liar,” from Chain Breaker; written by Jason Ingram, Zach Williams, Jonathan Lindley Smith. © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Essential Music Publishing).

And love? Love looks like a story I read this week – a story much like the one once told by Jesus that the gospel of Luke alone records. A parable of Jesus, which tells us that whether or not Jesus actually ever saw such a story take place, it is true. Parables are deeply true so that we should recognize the characters. The circumstances. The twists and turns of the plot from the days and nights of our own lives. Like three different men each having an opportunity to stop. To help another left as good as dead on the side of a dangerous, desert road.

In Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation, Mirabai Starr writes of the time her father called her up to see if she wanted to head over the boarder with her hippie, free-loving momma and her mother’s new boyfriend. Teenage Mirabai was getting over her first heart-break so she agreed. Her father dropped her off at the Mexican border just a few miles from the commune where her parents had moved Mirabai and her two siblings after the death of the oldest, then-nine year old son, Matty. Away Mirabai, her mother, and Ramón raced to the find the isolated beach on which the family lived for six months after Matty’s death. Life along Mexican beaches had changed by then, so a campsite would suffice. The story’s a little racy, because Mirabai writes that “mom and her lover proceeded to explore their relationship” (p. 40) while Mirabai sat on the beach reading and writing love poems to the boy who just had broken her heart. Topless, her mother and Ramón sat smoking a joint on the beach. Before the night was over, Mirabai would have to negotiate their way out of arrest by the Mexican police patrolling the beach who did not at all approve of what they found going on at the campsite. The next day, after some big fight between her mother and Ramón; Mirabai’s mother ended up – let’s just say, in a drug-induced state that left her racing down the beach until she suddenly disappeared. When Mirabai finally caught up to where she last had seen her mother, she saw a high bluff off of which her mother had fallen only to be laying in excruciating pain down below. Mirabai was only fourteen when suddenly the fate of her mother lay in her own hands. Somehow she got herself down the embankment, then back up it with her mother — only to find her mother unable to walk. Something was drastically wrong.

Earlier in the week, Mirabai had found a cantina far down the beach. It was late in the night when at last Mirabai managed to get her mother there. Mirabai explained to the elderly Mexican gentleman standing in the cantina that her mother had fallen down a bluff – her foot was growing larger and more purple by the second. We can see why Mirabai helped – even if she was pushing all the boundaries of acceptable mother behavior, the woman who had fallen over the bluff was her mother. As I read the story, I couldn’t help but wonder if the man in the cantina noticed her mother’s blood-shot, stoned eyes. Suddenly this free-loving American was being dragged to him – their only shot at hope in the middle of the night on that vacant Mexican beach. Almost as quickly as Mirabai had gotten to work to rescue her whimpering mother, the man at the cantina got under her mother’s arm and led them to a small table. He ensured her legs got propped – and took a closer look at the balloon expanding where once a foot had been. Mirabai insisted they needed a doctor – unfortunately, they no longer had any money or their car because those were negotiated away the day before in order to keep the three from being put in jail when the police came up upon their illegal activity on the beach. The man explained there would be no getting a doctor in the middle of the night. Then, almost like he’d known these two strangers his whole life long; he helped them out back to his little beach hut. Getting Mirabai’s mother settled in his own, only bed; he said he’d sleep the night in the hammock between the trees. If they needed anything, Mirabai was to come get him – which she did when the pain got so bad. It was then the man offered a bottle of tequila to at least get the woman to sleep. When morning at last broke, Mirabai was able to find Ramón whose friend drove them back to the cantina. The friend tried to pay the elderly gentleman for tending the two through the night, but the man of the cantina refused to take any payment. Instead, Mirabai reports, “he helped us load Mom into the car, kissed the top of her head, and asked God to bless us all” (pp. 40-46).

Love looks like strangers in need being treated as kin – so they make it through the darkest night.

Love looks like holding what we have freely so that we’re willing and ready to share.

Love looks like carrying one who has fallen until they can walk on their own again.

Love looks like waiting with another in pain – even if there’s nothing we can do to make that pain stop.

Love even looks like offering another the blessing of God when they’ve messed up and don’t deserve it at all.

Once, a lawyer wanted to test Jesus – we hear from the gospel of Luke. He wanted to know how to have Life – eternal Life, which is Life in full here and now and forever yet to be. He knew the rules – love God and neighbor as yourself. But he didn’t quite understand that Life’s not at all a bunch of rules we’re supposed to follow. Life is putting love in action in order to experience God. For, as one source reminds: when we let go of fear, we are touched by God” (paraphrase of EnneaThought for the Day, The Enneagram Institute, 8 July 2019). When we Love, we know God. We Live!

May those with ears to hear, understand. May we choose love and Live.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Freedom

A Sermon for 7 July 2019

A reading from Galatians 5:1, 13-25. This is believed to be one of the letters written by the Apostle Paul to the churches of Galatia – likely a Roman province Asia Minor located east of the Aegean Sea and north of the Mediterranean Sea. Listen for God’s word to us.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”

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

 

Recently I heard an interview with Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Super Soul Sunday, OWN, 16 June 2019). A Doctor of Psychology, who is known to friends and family as her preferred name Edie, Dr. Eger was born in Eastern Europe in 1927. The youngest of three sisters, Dr. Eger’s father was a skilled tailor. Her mother, a pragmatic woman, became an adult child when her own mother died shortly after childbirth and Edie’s mother took on the duties of mothering the household. Dr. Eger might have had a promising career as a dancer. She even was training for the Olympic gymnastics team until her beloved coach pulled her out of practice in the early 1940s to let her know she no longer would be able to compete on the team because of her “background.” It made no difference that Edie was one of the most talented girls on the team – her eldest sister Clara a protégé violinist and her sister Magda a flirtatious beauty. In 1944, Edie was a young Hungarian Jew.

Now 91, Dr. Eger has released her first book – her memoir of the Passover when soldiers invaded her family’s tiny apartment. After a month of being held with 3,000 other Jews of her home city; Edie, her sister Magda, her mother, and her father were loaded on a truck; then transferred into the dark, over-stuffed cargo car of a train that emptied them before the man known as the angel of death. Standing before Dr. Josef Mengele, with a flick of his finger; he ordered Edie’s mother to the left – the line that led directly to the gas chamber of Auschwitz, the most heinous Nazi death camp. There stands the gate reading “work sets you free.” Unbelievably, Dr. Eger writes: “I could have remained a permanent victim – scarred by what was beyond my control . . . Early on, I realized,” she writes, “that true freedom can only be found by forgiving, letting go, and moving on” (https://dreditheger.com/). Certainly, she came to that lesson due in part to a lifesaving shred of wisdom her mother gave her when first the soldiers came to get them. Edie’s mother told her, “They can never control what you put in your own mind” (The Choice: Embracing the Possible, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, 2017). That wisdom taught Edie the difference between victimization – something she explains nearly all of us will experience in our lifetimes from the external forces of another – and victimhood – an inner belief that we are not worthy of any better treatment than what is given us by those who would harm us. A vibrant ray of light at 91 years of age, Dr. Eger is one of the few Holocaust survivors still alive today. If it wasn’t for an American soldier, who on 4 May 1945 noticed a slight movement amongst a pile of dead bodies, Dr. Eger would not have made it and gone on to become a celebrated psychologist who for fifty years has been helping others victimized by severe physical and mental trauma. Broken in so many ways during her time as a Nazi prisoner, Dr. Eger reports that the mantra that carried her through every horrific day at Auschwitz was the reminder: “if I survive today, then tomorrow, I will be free” (The Choice: Embracing the Possible, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, 2017).

Likely we’ve heard the word this past week. “Land of the brave. Home of the free,” our nation sings not just in celebration of Independence Day; but also at every major sporting event from football to hockey to tennis (“The Star-Spangled Banner”). Freedom is in our blood as Americans – though the history of what has happened here on the soil of this part of North America paints the picture of freedom for some. Enslavement, exploitation, and continued victimization for others. Now I don’t intend to get all political today – just because we’re a few days from the fireworks and fun of the Fourth of July. Rather, I want us to focus on what we know as Christian people. “For freedom,” the Apostle Paul writes, “Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1a).

Freedom in Christ is less about our desire to overthrow some far-off British king, and more like Dr. Eger’s inner attitude to forgive, to let go. In the interview I heard with her, Dr. Eger talked about those who survived the camps but didn’t know what to do once the day of liberation came. They had become so broken by their oppressor in the death camps, they barely knew how to face regular life again. After liberation, some walked back to the barracks in which they had been imprisoned. It took Dr. Eger’s starved, pain-wracked body over a full year to begin to heal. And her inner torment, most of her lifetime. She reports that she still can be taken back to that heinous year in Auschwitz with something as benign as a trip to Costco. The interviewer listening to her surmised it must have been like that too for African America slaves who finally found their freedom. We know from Scripture, it was no easy transition for our Israelite spiritual ancestors when at last the Pharaoh let them go and Moses led the racing people of God on dry land through the sea, only to live forty years as a wandering people in their journey to be free. Paul’s insistent words echo: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal. 1).

I’m not sure we realize the precious gift we have in Christ – the one who shows us how to live free according to the Spirit of God alive in us. It’s easy to live according to the ways Paul calls the ways of the flesh – what I like to think of not as our physical bodies, but as our unaware, slumbering selves. Paul’s talking about living enslaved by the unconscious impulses that arise. Like the automatic anger that can overtake when we feel hurt. The unexamined gnawing that drives us to act destructively. The impulsive, involuntary way we do something without even stopping to consider the harmful consequences to ourselves and others. Living like this – the way so many live – is not at all living free. It is the way of living as those who have submitted ourselves again to the yoke of slavery.

Dr. Eger tells a story that gives a good example. One day an angry 14-year-old arrived at her office for court-appointed therapeutic interventions. Just a few minutes into the session, he exploded that he wished all Jews were dead. Dr. Eger had not made mention of her ethnicity. She did not tell of the horrors of the kind of treatment she experienced even as a young girl when other children would spit at her and call her names because she was Jewish. As the teen filled with such hate sat before her in her office; for her to begin to help him heal, Dr. Eger describes finding a way within to regulate what might seem like the natural reaction to snap back. Instead, she breathed deep, called upon a calm still place within, and created the kind of safe space between her and the boy where the trauma of his life could be processed. That’s living free – by the Spirit. Not reacting out of her own space of hurt. But opening herself instead in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

“There is no law against such things,” the Apostle Paul writes (Gal. 5:23). These fruits, as they’re called, show that within we are totally free – not at all enslaved, no matter the outer circumstances of our lives. To live according to the fruits of the Spirit is the very reason Christ has set us free. The very gift we receive when we embrace the truth that the Spirit of God dwells in us and wants just a little more room inside to guide our thoughts. To direct our actions. To transform the very way we see everything that is before us. Living by the Spirit, that inner Presence expanding in us to be like the rudder of the vast ship that is us, this is the way in which we live free. Surely that’s an independence we all can celebrate!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)