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.)

An Image for Caregivers

A Sermon for 23 June 2019 – Caregiver Sunday

Let us pray: Holy One, who is Life itself to us; calm the restless places in us. Quiet the constant chatter in our minds. Center our spirits as we listen for your Spirit to speak to the deepest places in us. As Scripture is read and proclaimed, may we hear your abiding word to us. Through Christ we pray, Amen.

From the prophet Isaiah, we hear beautiful words for those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. As I told the children, today we are focusing on the needs of those who care for the needs of others. Many of you know because you are now, or you have at some point in your lifetime, cared for a loved one. Maybe it is a young child who is exciting to watch grow each day, but whose needs are endless until they are old enough to tend themselves. Maybe it has been your partner: your husband, your wife who, because of disease or age, became your daily responsibility. Maybe it is a parent – near or far – a grandparent, a grandchild, or the neighbor next door who has no one else. So you, out of your love for God and others, are stepping up to do what is needed. Caring for others can be a 24/7 job – you know that. It can be one of the greatest challenges of our lives. But it also can be one of the most rewarding experiences of growing as disciples of Christ who daily find contentment and connection with The Holy as we listen, feed, bathe, help in a whole variety of ways. Caregiving for a loved one as they age can be one of the most difficult things we ever will do in our lives as we grieve the loss of the one we have loved while they still are among us – just not quite as we’ve always known them. It can bring out the worst in us even as it allows the best in us to shine.

If you’ve been reading A Spirituality of Caregiving by Henri Nouwen, then you might find familiar Nouwen’s thoughtful words about caring. Nouwen writes: “To care is the most human of all human gestures. It is a gesture that comes forth from a courageous confession of our common need for one another and the grace of a compassion that binds us together with brothers and sisters like ourselves, who share with us the wonderful and painful journey of life.” Nouwen writes, “In the very act of caring for another, you and I possess a great treasure. One of the great riches of caregiving is that it embraces something more than simply a focus on cure. Caregiving carries within it an opportunity for inner healing, liberation, and transformation for the one being cared for and for the one who cares. And because we who offer care and we who receive care are both strong and vulnerable, though in different ways, our coming together in a caregiving relationship is an occasion to open ourselves to receive an unexpected gift” (A Spirituality of Caregiving, Henri J. M. Nouwen, Upper Room Books, 2011, p. 16-17).

So, for us who are giving care and us who are receiving care; this morning we are invited to listen to beautiful reminders to us from Holy Scripture. First, we hear God’s word to us in a reading of Isaiah 40:28-31.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. The LORD does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. The LORD gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31 but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

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

 

Our next reading actually is the lectionary gospel reading assigned for this Sunday. Hear God’s word to us through Luke 8:26-39.

“Then they (Jesus and his disciples) arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So Jesus got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So the man went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

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

 

Irene had a most generous spirit! She came to a church I was serving shortly after a decade of caring for her husband in his last years of life. I loved Irene from the start! Her eyes sparkled like the bright summer sun shimmering across the ocean water. She was just the right combination of a beautiful spirit sprinkled with a dash of sass. Though frail when I first met her, you still could tell that this was no one to be pushed around! In fact, as the first to go to college from her rural Kentucky family, I sat in awe as Irene told me what it was like to be one of the first women allowed to study at Yale Divinity School. I admired Irene from the start. Not just for the trails I knew she had blazed for people like me, but for the way she came to me on like week two in worship to say: “Pastor Jule, now just because I can’t get around the way I used to, doesn’t mean I’m going to join this church to be the kind of person who sits back to do nothing from the pew. I intend to serve and want to talk to you about my gifts for teaching.” Irene wasn’t allowed to finish her studies at Yale Divinity School; but later in life, she earned herself a Ph.D. in English Literature and had enjoyed her students at the university where she and her husband both had taught. Irene was the kind of new church member pastors dream about. Not afraid to jump in to a new church family to see what she could do! I loved her from the start.

Which might explain why it was so obvious to me how tired Irene looked. She came to us a few weeks after moving into the local assisted living center. She couldn’t take care of her stately old home any longer. She really didn’t want to after the decade she spent there taking care of her husband’s every need as slowly he slipped away from her. Irene confided that those ending years were tumultuous. The daily demands of taking care of the man to whom she had committed her life so many long years ago swallowed up any other thing she might have needed to do – like process with him and by herself the struggles their life together included. But now it was too late. He was gone. Her spirit was troubled and her body was giving way to itself as all the years of lifting, washing, holding, dressing, feeding, caring for her beloved husband left her hobbled over. Unsteady on her feet, no longer able to stand erect. Irene was tired, in body, mind, and spirit after a decade of tending the father of her children, the man she had loved despite the painful challenges their marriage included. Irene had given daily care for a decade – she wouldn’t have traded a moment of those days for anything in the world. She had given care. The grace of compassion had bound her to her husband through his deep need. It was evident that she needed to receive. Grateful, yet weary, she needed rest.

Another preacher told me this week that nothing in the lectionary’s text from this week’s gospel of Luke jazzed him. Ugh. Jesus on the other side, healing the Gerasene Demoniac. Pigs rushing off a cliff. Town’s people all upset. At one level I agree. But then all week, I kept seeing in my imagination that man. Healed. All that was in him: gone. Can you see it too? In peace he is sitting at the feet of Jesus (Luke 8:35). What a shame that when the neighbors arrived at the place of all the commotion, they were afraid. They had grown accustomed to seeing the man whose whole world had been taken over by the “legions” inside. Possessed by forces beyond his own control. The story goes that for years the man lived in the wild. Naked. Alone. Homeless. He’d endured being shackled by the community to keep him from hurting himself or anyone else. Clearly this man was in deep, deep need. Upon meeting him, Jesus wants to know his name. The man doesn’t even know anymore. If you’ve ever been in deep need, you know how isolating the experience can be. How our memory can grow fuzzy. How the pain in our bodies turns our own minds on ourselves. It’s easy to forget who we are – who we were before – who we remain no matter the circumstances. Precious. Honored. Adored children of a God who invites us to come. Rest. Remember a love that never lets go. Can you imagine what it feels like to find yourself again centered in yourself? Sitting at the feet of Christ simply able to be.

Sometimes I think that the most difficult thing about caring is that there are no quick fixes to getting through the times we are pouring ourselves out for the needs of others. When we become the one who is responsible for the daily needs of a child, a parent, a partner; nothing is going to swoop in to magically make things all better. It’s hard. Hard work physically and challenging work emotionally and spiritually – we can give so much and feel so guilty that it’s not enough. I wonder if, in the most trying moments, maybe we can remember. Maybe we can steel away as many small moments as possible just to take one deep breath. To close our eyes – if even for 5 seconds – to see in our minds’ eye this Gerasene man. We may feel as tossed about within as he was by all that had taken him over. But with that breath – in that small moment of our great need while we’re receiving or giving care – might the image of this man whole. Centered. At rest at the feet of Christ, be something we can hold on to in the most challenging of moments? Might the gift of this story for caregivers and care receivers everywhere be the beautiful image of that man. Restored to his former self. Resting before the Great Caregiver. The Mighty Healer who is with us in our challenges, more concerned with our wholeness than anything else.

For those of us caring and those of us receiving care, please remember. Please be gentle with yourself even as you seek to find the tracings of God’s Spirit in and around it all. Tend those in need well and be gracious with yourself. Look for the ways God is with you. Know the compassionate Healer, the Great Caregiver, is at work. Rest. Centered fully at the feet of our Savior and Lord who shall make all things whole.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

God

A Sermon for 16 June 2019 – Trinity Sunday

It’s Trinity Sunday. A day filled with hymns that declare the amazing work of the Godhead. Holy, Holy, Holy is our LORD God Almighty! All creatures of our God and King! This day is a day too to hear beautiful words from Scripture that proclaim the awesome nature of God. I mean, did you hear those words from Psalm 8?! “O LORD: how majestic is your name in all the earth!” How could we do anything but fall absolutely in love with the Creator as we look upon the grandeur of this world? When we gaze up into the night sky – noticing the twinkle of millions of tiny lights that would take millions of years to walk to! When we look at the ground – like how is it possible that we can take tiny seeds that within themselves are a brilliant, beautiful work of art. We put them in the soil, or a songbird just drops them somewhere. The sun shines, the rain falls. The ground gives way. Before we know it, tomatoes are popping out everywhere. Basil is filling the sweet summer air. Even while we’re caught up in the beauty that surrounds, other little marvels are toddling all around us. These human bodies in which we live are sheer miracles. Do you know that when I broke the bone in my foot a few months ago, a very accomplished doctor with a very impressive education working for a well-respected medical group told me that now that the bone (that had been giving me some trouble for a while) finally broke, the body will heal it and build it back even stronger. Sure it’s taking time and there are factors that can impede the process, but I couldn’t believe I waited all that time to have some fancy surgeon tell me the truth of these incredible bodies in which we get to live: it knows how to heal itself! Despite the aches and pains we encounter as we age – indeed, with the Psalmist we can proclaim: O what are human beings, LORD, that you care for us?!

As Christians we believe Christ to be a part of the Triune Godhead that we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. It’s what makes us different from Jews and Unitarians and a whole lot of really spiritually mature people. In Christ, we believe we hear the words of God speaking to us, as Jesus did in that beautiful sermon he gave to his disciples the night before he would die. He promised: “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:18). God loves us so much, because, after all, God is Love. And as Love, God never, ever, ever is willing to be separated from us. We are God’s, Jesus declares in the portion of the great farewell discourse that we hear from the gospel of John today. That means that even if it feels like the rest of the world has abandoned us. Even if it feels like no one else accepts us. Even if it feels like we are in this all alone, we are not. God is like that tenacious father we hear of in Jesus’ parable of the lost – or prodigal – sons. One who never gives up. One who is proud to welcome us home, no matter what a mess our lives have become.

Trinity Sunday ends up being a day in the church when preachers around the world try to do the impossible: we try to use words to speak about God. To describe God. To explain the very nature of the Godhead that we proclaim through the doctrine of the Trinity. Though clearly spelled out nowhere in the bible, tradition settled on words like Father, Son, Holy Ghost to describe the relatedness of the Triune God. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer often are heard as a way to capture the function of each persona of the three-and-one God. This week, I read words written by The Rev. Jacqui Lewis who tried to describe her vision of God. Admittedly, I’ve never thought about God in the same way that this powerhouse head pastor from New York City’s Middle Collegiate Church describes God. And I’m still letting her explanation of God sink into my soul to see how it might resonate. Even as I remember that Rev. Lewis speaks from and for the context in which she ministers which is a multiracial, fully inclusive congregation whose purpose is “to heal souls and the world because they believe faith is about Love. Period” (https://sojo.net/biography/jacqui-lewis). Quoted in Richard Rohr’s daily devotional, which some of you also may have read on Thursday; Rev. Lewis describes what she sees when she imagines God. She writes: “My God is a curvy black woman with dreadlocks and dark, cocoa-brown skin. She laughs from her belly and is unashamed to cry. She can rock a whole world to sleep, singing in her contralto voice. Her sighs breathe life into humanity. Her heartbreaks cause eruptions of justice and love” (Center for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr Meditation: She Is Love, 13 June 2019). Rev. Lewis claims that we know God is a mystery. She writes: “We don’t know everything about (God). So out of our imaginations and our yearnings, our hopes and our fears, we make stuff up. At our best,” Rev. Lewis writes, “we project goodness, power, kindness, and love unto God. At our worst, we create a God who is punitive, angry, judgmental, and harsh. (Lewis says) We do this because we are those things, and we think they make us safe” (Ibid.).

I would argue that we can find it all in our Holy Scriptures – so many different ways our ancestors in the faith were inspired to use words to attempt to describe what we experience of this amazing Force. This incredible Love. This grand Designer we call God before whose awesomeness we humbly bow. Everything from Good Shepherd to Sheltering Eagle to Righteous Judge to Mother Hen to Solid Rock on which to stand is used in Scripture to speak of God. A plethora of images for just about every need in which we humans will find ourselves. The One – the Force – the Energy – the Love, whichever word best describes God for you – who from the beginning was Triune. Which might just be our attempt to give language – a doctrine, an explanation to the God of the Universe who is relationship itself. And if all this Triune talk. If all this trying to speak of God who took on our flesh and blood to be our Way, our Truth, our Life. If all this trying to speak of the Mystery of Three co-existing as One is too much for our little minds to comprehend, then how about we just listen. Listen for the beauty of how the wisdom writer of Proverbs gave expression to the Divine. Hear God’s word to us in this final Trinity Sunday reading from Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 (NRSV).

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth –when God had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When God established the heavens, I was there, when God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, when God established the fountains of the deep, when God assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress God’s command, when God marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

What else might we attempt to say about God today? Other than this wisdom text may never have been a reading we’d have known had not the council that created the Revised Common Lectionary decided it must be included every third Trinity Sunday. One biblical commentator writes of these words, “First, the image of Wisdom as God’s helper reminds us of the reciprocity of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit giving and receiving within the very being of God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3, Jeff Paschal, p. 31). Acting and resting, I would add. Doing and stopping just to behold. The balance of energies that allow the flow. That show us how to be as well. That same biblical commentator goes on to write: “Even more, the description of Wisdom in verses 24 and 25 – ‘brought forth’ (whirling, dancing) – calls to mind the Eastern Church’s emphasis on the Trinity as perichoresis, literally, ‘dancing around’” (Ibid.). In great wisdom the biblical commentator writes: “So we do not worship a stingy God who grudgingly gives gifts and who grants forgiveness as a divine grump” – another way, I would add, that so many seem to imagine God. “Not at all,” writes the commentator, “The triune God is a joyous, dancing God who pours out overflowing gifts to humanity with gladness!” (Ibid.). What a beautiful way to see God in our lives – a way so many of us have experienced even as we have read of in Jesus, the Christ, who lives among us as God! When we experience joy, we know God. When we live free – free enough to dance – we know God. When we take stock of all the gifts that overflow to us, we know God. When we love, we know God. The Triune God whom we trust and worship and serve!

Trinity Sunday is a day to celebrate God, the Mystery who keeps on giving and receiving and giving for all Life to prevail! With grateful hearts, may we ever rejoice in the God who is One, and three. Three and One, dancing around in an endless, unblocked outpouring of Love. Celebrating the inhabited world. Delighting in the whole human race!

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 We Do Have

Sermon for 9 June 2019 – Pentecost Sunday

On this Pentecost Sunday, listen to a reading from Acts of the Apostles 2:1-21. Listen for God’s word to us.

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

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

 

On Monday, Sharon Shields and I attended a rather interesting workshop. We went because of the title: Turning Sacred Space into Kingdom Cash. Admittedly, I was not expecting to sit through a full-blown lecture from a Professor of Finance about the steps to take in order to become a Social Entrepreneur. I wasn’t so sure what to do with his in-depth description on vetting market opportunities that included things like benchmarking to other commercial ventures and regulatory constraints and elasticity of consumers and profit maximizers. I looked around the room as he spoke and wondered if he forgot that we were a bunch of church leaders (mostly preachers); not young adults sitting in a university level business class! What did fascinate me in his presentation was his passion for church-based social enterprises. And the descriptions given at the workshop of not just one but three different church-based social enterprises this professor and his students have been about in the last few years.

Let me tell you about Spring Back – a church-based business that not only is improving the work force, but also is making money in serving the social good. Spring Back is comprised of men from the Isaiah 58 ministry of Belmont Church who are coming out of prison and trying to get their lives back together. At a warehouse off Trinity lane, Spring Back employees these men to whom Belmont Church has been ministering. They report to work for pay each day to take apart mattresses. Now, if you’ve ever tried to get rid of an old mattress, then you know absolutely no body wants them! Even the local dump would rather not take them because they are a huge fire risk. Spring Back teaches the men how to take apart each mattress which is made from something like 85% recyclable materials. Foam on one pile, steel on another. On and on they go with discarded mattress after discarded mattress until a profit actually is earned from the recyclable materials!

We heard too, on Monday, of a Farm to Table social enterprise of Nashville that is taking unused land to grow vegetables to sell to local restaurants. This Farm to Table business trains homeless men and women so they are able to work the land for pay. When harvest comes, two bushels of every crop are donated to local food banks while the rest is sold to restaurants wanting fresh, hearty homegrown food. Like Spring Back, it’s a social enterprise our Finance Professor would call a hit with its triple bottom line!

But I have to admit that the church-based social enterprise that blew my mind away was one called Three One Three. Founded by a passionate millennial who also was with us on Monday. While we listened, Brennon told what his Nashville-based Three One Three is all about. He explained that 3-1-3 or three hundred-thirteen days a year, which is all six days a week excluding Sunday, too many church buildings sit empty. As he spoke, I remembered reading the words a member of the twelve-step group now meeting here on Saturdays wrote just a few months back about lots of people today being disgusted with great big church buildings that lock their doors tight to everything but their own worship on Sundays. I can’t tell you how long I’ve sat year after year throughout the week as a pastor in church buildings where I was the sole human being for hours on end. Sometimes trying to work out of such offices is just creepy with the creeks and bumps empty old buildings can make. As a millennial who knows all about the contemporary craving for community, Brennon told about Three One Three’s co-working space located in a church building that otherwise sits empty 24 hours a day at least six days a week. Three One Three worked with the local church to transform some 10,000 square feet of under-used space into desks, private offices, and communal gathering spaces. Small business owners who prefer working alongside others in order to connect throughout the day or who would rather not tie-up their funds into permanently leased office space have membership in Three One Three. Kinda like getting your YMCA card for the year. Folks pay a monthly fee to have access to all they need to run their small business out of under-used church space. Three One Three members have the great experience of getting to know other Three One Three members – talking at lunch and at breaks about things like their latest struggles at home, their great new ideas in their work, their fears and their challenges in everyday life. Brennon says that kingdom-like conversations take place in church buildings that otherwise would be sitting empty. What’s more, in one year, over three-thousand people – mostly millennials and others who would never consider attending a Sunday worship service – have crossed the threshold of the church building where Three One Three is housed. A few even have become church members. Regardless if the church ever attracts them into the rest of their ministry, that’s three-thousand people being brought into a caring, supportive space where they can connect with Three One Three hosts and other Three One Three users to begin creating community. People come together. Under-used church space gets used. And cash is generated for congregations to further their mission – ensuring they carry on the work entrusted to them by God. Isn’t it absolutely amazing what happens when church folk take stock of what they do have that can be re-purposed to serve the social good?

It’s the kind of thing being preached that first Pentecost when the wind blew and the passion burned like flames dancing over each disciple. The Spirit of God was stirred up among the first followers. Though skeptics poked fun and curmudgeons complained, the Apostle Peter proclaimed that the prophesy of Joel was being let loose in the world. The Spirit upon all flesh! Sons and daughters making way for a new future. Youngsters seeing grand new visions. Elders dreaming dreams! It’s recorded in the gospel of John that Jesus himself once declared they would do greater things than he (John 14:12)! And look: they did! We have! God’s work will not be stopped! The Spirit stirs among us and the Church of Jesus Christ is carried on in bold new ways!

Pentecost is one of my favorite Sundays of the year! Because Pentecost asks us to pray for God’s Spirit to guide us anew! We may not be the kind of church that re-purposes our 13,000 square feet of upstairs under-used space the other 3-1-3 days of the year in a co-working social enterprise. But what do we have as a congregation that the Spirit of God might want used anew for the thousands of residents living around this building? Monday reminded me that as a congregation, this church has been entrusted with nearly nine acres of land in the middle of a beautiful neighborhood. According to the demographic information we now know from the quick overview given during our Capital Campaign, the people living closest to this facility report that they’re mostly not interested in religious institutions. Whether that’s how it’s always been in Hillwood-West Meade or not, those who first came together to begin this congregation had the vision of being located in the middle of this neighborhood for strangers to come together. For neighbors to become friends. For those in need to not have to walk alone. Times were different then, but the church set forth using this building to provide that for which local folks had an appetite. It’s never too late to go back to that beginning. We find our way forward, remembering the past purpose of this church, as we envision what will satisfy the cravings of the community today.

It’s easy to get really uncomfortable with some of the directions churches today are going. Then we can remember the people we know who have no church home. People who have been rejected by family members that get themselves shiny for worship each Sunday but live with such hateful hearts six other days each week. I know children I have loved for years who have grown into adults who aren’t about to get out of bed Sunday mornings to move through rituals that seem empty to them even if it’s always been done that way. I can see in my mind’s eye sisters and brothers of every age who think what we’re about here is irrelevant. Non-sensical. And totally boring. You know such folks too – your own neighbors and friends and family members who we haven’t yet figured out how to reach because we haven’t learned the language that makes sense to them.

I want the Spirit to stir among us again. The mighty winds of God to blow away the chaff of church and re-ignite in us a passion to take the good news of a gracious God out into the streets. I’m not talking about shouting hallelujah on street corners or anything crazy like that! But how about dreaming new dreams around the best things of Christ. Things like caring for those who are hurting. Loving those who feel totally lost. Using this space – this land to connect those who are lonely. Giving hope for a better tomorrow to those who feel nothing’s worth it anymore. None of us have all the answers alone and we might need to take the time to ask youngsters to tell us their visions for the future. We might have to ask those older than us what dreams they have for tomorrow – the best of life they want to make sure those yet to come enjoy.

Pentecost is our time to re-open to the Spirit. To renew through the fresh winds of God that are blowing. May every last one of us listen. Look. Dream. For it is absolutely amazing what happens when church folk take stock of what we do have that can be re-purposed to serve the social good.

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

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