Tag Archives: Barbara Brown Taylor

Around the Table

A Sermon for 19 May 2019 – 5th Sunday of Easter

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

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

 

In Take this Bread: A Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-first-Century Christian, Sara Miles tells of the first day she walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California. Raised by parents who wanted nothing to do with the religion for which each sets of their parents had been overseas missionaries; at forty-six, Sara walked into the building down the street from her house one day. From the start, she was struck by the beautiful, sun-drenched rotunda of the space where chairs where configured in a circle around that to which every detail of the building’s architecture pointed. Sara writes: there, “in the center of the open, empty space (that) was ringed high above by a huge neo-Byzantine mural of unlikely saint figures;” there, was a table (p. 57). That morning, for the first time, Sara heard the words she would hear every other time she gathered with others for worship in that place. Amid simple a cappella songs, the standing and sitting that accompanies the pageantry of most any Episcopal service, the listening, and the joyful dance that led worshippers up to that table; Sara heard a woman announce: “Jesus invites everyone to his table” (p. 58). Though never having received the bread and fruit of the vine before; Sara went forward to taste and see.

Sara would come to learn that this little church intentionally had been crafted by two priests who had grown weary of ossified Episcopalian worship. From the building, to the rock-hewn baptismal font out back, from the beautiful liturgy, to the body of believers who were “mostly highly-educated, liberal, middle-age San Francisco professionals, with” in Sara’s words, “a sprinkling of Republicans, older people, and younger families . . . a congregation of 150 artists, scholars, theater designers, psychologists, and composers” – many of whom had spent years away from religion but were looking for a way back into a congregation that would accept them for who they were. Doubts, difference, and all. Sara stood among them around that table that winter morning and as she ate the crumbly bread and drank from the cup of sweet wine, Sara writes: “Jesus happened to me” (p. 58). From that first time around that table, her life dramatically changed.

I’m not sure what would happen if someone like Sara came into our midst. ‘Cuz within a year, she went to her new priests to ask if it would be possible to begin handing out bread from that very table to the ethnically and economically different, hungry people who lived all around St. Gregory’s building but never set foot in the door. From the moment Jesus happened to her. From the moment she first heard the words, “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” Sara – a woman who started out as a chef in New York long before women were accepted as chefs. Having ingested Jesus at that table, Sara wanted to feed others too! From nothing, she began what would become one of San Francisco’s busiest food pantries. And when they couldn’t keep up with the need, Sara found ways to replicate the model at various locations nearby. She firmly believed what was said each week in worship: Jesus invites everyone to his table! With loaves of bread literally given from that same table every Friday, the face of St. Gregory’s Episcopal church began to change.

Long has the church struggled in sharing The Table with others. As early as the first days of the Acts of the Apostles, the first followers of the Way weren’t so sure with whom it was okay to eat. As Jews who had gotten on board behind the wandering rabbi from Nazareth, they believed that it wasn’t kosher to dine with those who were different from them. It makes no sense really that they clung to this notion, because the gospels tell story after story of Jesus sitting at table with those who were not considered ritually clean. In fact, when a woman from Syrophoenicia reminds Jesus that even Gentile “dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” her faith is blessed. Her daughter instantly healed. The One the apostles had been following – the One they had been watching welcome those often-considered outsiders, touching those thought untouchable, inviting the most unlikely to come follow. Jesus, the One from whom the first disciples had been learning, ate in the homes of tax collectors and Pharisees. The gospels tell the stories of a Holy rebel. The ultimate table-turner who freely shared what he had been given. How in the world could those to whom he had entrusted his mission so blatantly missed his point?!

According to Acts of the Apostles, Peter is swarmed in Jerusalem for eating with uncircumcised men! It happened that Peter – the one often considered Jesus’ lead disciple – was off on his travels. Preaching the good news of the Risen Christ. Healing powerfully in his name. Staying in the city of Joppa, Peter was asked to come to Caesarea by a man named Cornelius. Long years Cornelius had prayed to God. Giving alms and dedicating his whole household to the LORD despite the fact that he was a member of an Italian Cohort – a centurion serving Rome, who himself was not a Jew. It can be hard for us to understand all the fuss. Most of us today don’t even know the background of our ancestors. We don’t build our guest lists based on whether or not each guest is circumcised! Oh, we have the safe circles in which we mostly live and move and have our being so that many of us may never have sat down to supper with someone who wasn’t born in the United States. We may never have eaten with someone who doesn’t speak our same language. We might know a few folks of another religion. But have we intentionally invited them over to our homes or set up a date to meet for dinner after work? Maybe we’ve experienced such divergent ways when traveling internationally for a mission trip. But how often in the past week have we entertained at our tables those who are radically different from us?

For me the question is an unfolding journey. Because I was raised in a small town in Wisconsin where it was drilled into us as youngsters that “If you’re not Dutch; you’re not much.” Difference spanned the gamut of from which part of the Netherlands did your grandparents come? In our little town of 1,800, we worried about how blonde your hair was and if you were ready every summer to participate in Holland Fest. All four churches in town believed they were so very different, though all four were a part of the Reformed Theological Tradition. And you wouldn’t dream of becoming friends with the one or two Catholics who went to services outside the village limits. We were proud to be Dutch – counted among the much who worked hard. But it didn’t take too many years of living until it was clear to me that my own mother was a red-head and my best friend in high school was a dry-witted brunette. None of us really were the same – but if you wanted to color outside the lines, that too would have to be done outside the village limits. In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “God made us different that we might know one another, and . . . how we treat one another is the best expression of our beliefs” (p. 225). Had I never met those different from me, I literally would not be here today. Neither would you. Despite how awkward it can feel sometimes when we’re not sure if we all agree on the same table etiquette, why in the world would we refuse to eat with those who are different from us?

It would take a startling vision from God for Peter to abandon his prejudices. On the roof at the home where he was staying in Joppa, Peter found himself in a dream-like trance while he prayed. Something like a sheet descended from the heavens with all sorts of animals in it. It’s recorded that Peter was hungry and a voice told him to go ahead and eat. Protesting that the animals held in the sheet weren’t all ritually clean, Peter refused to eat. Lest we think the vision is just about what foods to eat, the voice Peter heard clearly told him – three times: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Wasn’t that how they were treating the Gentiles? Not so sure they were clean in the eyes of God, though according to the story the Creator of all made all good. Very, very good!

It certainly can complicate things trying to eat with those who are different from us. ‘Cuz like did you know that not everyone in the world wants to drink sweet tea? And I can tell you as a first-hand witness that not every Presbyterian Church in this country has ever even heard of pimento cheese sandwiches! When we sit down at table with different people, we might have to learn how to eat other foods. Literally finding that the Jewish family down the street is grateful to stop to observe a holy Sabbath rest each Friday night. The Buddhist neighbor could teach us a lot about keeping centered in peace through silent prayer. Someone who’s not even sure there is a God might be the first one at our door in a crisis – their commitment to relieving human need coming from their own experience of compassion when catastrophe struck their life. The other night I was blessed to listen to a passionate, young African American women tell about the way she has begun a Soulful Sunday circle in a local park. As she held my broken foot to offer me healing energy, she talked of the young people who join her to sit in the quiet on the earth, be guided in a heart-centered meditation, and re-grounded to go back out into the world for another week.  . . .  Isn’t it amazing to think of us all at one Table? Bountifully eating our fill of food that truly nourishes?

About us all dining together, one biblical commentator writes: “A change of heart comes when one sees the Spirit at work in the stories of strangers, recognizing in them the same Spirit that is working in one’s own life. People need first to see God at God’s surprising work. Theological reflection comes afterward, either to bring what has been seen into coherence with past thinking, or to make a reasoned break with that thinking” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, Lewis S. Mudge, p. 252). That’s how Peter and the believers in Jerusalem finally understood. As Peter eloquently proclaimed to Cornelius and those gathered in Caesarea: now “I truly understand,” he said, “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears the LORD and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35). For indeed, God gives the Spirit to all that leads all to Life! (Acts 11:18).

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 Gifts of Epiphany

A Sermon for 6 January 2019 – Epiphany

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 2:1-12.  This is the gospel text assigned for today that tells of the gifts of Epiphany.  Listen to God’s word to us.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”  Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

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

Thanks be to God!

 

Are you familiar with something called the Magi Complex?  I learned of it from a friend who has been thriving for 6 years after breast cancer.  Part of the protocol used after her surgery, she found that the Magi Complex is one of nature’s most powerful healers.  Supposedly it’s a revolutionary supplement good not just for reversing inflammation to reduce pain in the body, but also for keeping cancer cells from growing within.  I admit I haven’t tried it myself – and anyone certainly should ask their medical professional before doing so, though my friend is living proof.  Along with other natural healing interventions, the Magi Complex kept her from any radiation or chemo after a double mastectomy.  In case you’re wondering just what’s in this miraculous Magi Complex, you guessed it.  As every wise healer knows:  gold (known in the essential-oil world as turmeric).  Frankincense.  And myrrh:  gifts from the earth fit for a king!

It makes good sense, actually.  Thanks to biblical details and historical legend, we know a little bit about the Eastern travelers called the magi or the three wise men.  They come seeking.  Asking:  “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Mt. 2:2).  They are foreigners from another land.  Most probably professional star-gazers.  Likely ones familiar with the healing arts of the earth.  In the light of the rising star, they are aware that something bigger than themselves calls them – like a tug they had waited for all their lives.  Some legends trace them back to Persia – others Babylon.  There, Jewish exiles once kept hope with stories of a Messiah who someday would come to set the world aright.  Had the promise reached their ears so that these wise men already knew of the one who someday would be born?  Think of the words of the prophets:  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.  . . .  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (Is. 40:1-2a, 3b-4a).  And “he shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  (Is. 40:11).  “Here is your God,” the prophet also proclaimed, who “will come and save you” (from Is. 35:4).  Then, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6a).  According to the prophets; the anointed of God, the Messiah, Israel’s long-awaited king would be the Great Healer.  Had these wise ones known all along the gifts fit to bring?

We hear the story and tend to envision the other kind of gold:  the precious metal of the earth’s crust that across cultures has connoted great wealth.  Frankincense, which biblical scholars tell us symbolized “an oblation worthy of divinity” – as the aromatic incense often burned in temples (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, William J. Danaher, Jr., p. 212).  And myrrh – known in Jesus’ day as a resin or essential oil used not only for healing, but also for burial.  The ancient Egyptians actually using myrrh for embalming their mummies.  So that even in the gifts given, we are told to hear clues of who the baby born in Bethlehem is destined to become.  . . .  The gospel of Matthew is keen to point out the three gifts from the Eastern travelers.  A detail so specific that every nativity now contains just three wise men – though the gospel never mentions the number of travelers, just the three gifts.  Magi, on bended knee, falling in awe around the precious child.

In her newly released children’s book entitled Home by Another Way:  A Christmas Story, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of the gifts received by the travelers from their time with the blessed baby.  On a page near the book’s end, the three elderly men stand by their camels ready to depart as a young mother holds a swaddled babe in her arms.  The page imaginatively reads:  “So the wise men picked up their packs, which were lighter than before.  Then they lined up in front of the baby, to thank him for the gifts he had given them.  ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ the baby’s mother said, laughing.  ‘For the scent and weight and skin of a baby,’ said the first wise man, who had no interest in living on herbs anymore” (as he’d been found doing at the opening of the story when Taylor imagined each of the three men seeking something more in a life of ascetism, a life of study, and a life of rigid spiritual discipline).  Of the second gift given by the baby, Taylor writes:  “’For this home and the love here,’ said the second wise man, who could not remember how to say it in the ancient language.  ‘For a really great story,’ said the third wise man, who thought that telling it might do a lot more for him than continuing to walk on hot coals” (as he had been doing at the opening of the story, according to Taylor, in his search for something more) (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way:  A Christmas Story, illustrated by Melaine Cataldo; Flyaway Books, 2018).

Gifts, given and received, are a huge part of this day.  The final celebration of the Christmas cycle known as Epiphany.  The day assigned to the wise men.  The liturgical feast marked as the manifestation of God’s amazing gift:  the healing of the nations!  The East and the West – represented in the story by the Eastern travelers and the Western puppet-ruler Herod; who, according to one commentator, clashed “over the birth of a little Jewish boy” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Emerson B. Powery, WJKP, 2018; p. 155).  If the magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh truly were gifts to be used by the one foretold by prophets, then the wise ones knew what Herod and Jerusalem could not see.  Among them was rising one who would shepherd the people – all the people.  Standing and feeding the flock that had been battered and bruised by their own.  Binding up the wounds of those longing for a little good news.  Proclaiming release to captives.  Recovering the sight of the blind.  Letting those oppressed go free.  The Great Healer of all nations shining as the Light of the world from the humble spot in Bethlehem.  Gifts given.  Others received as the magi gave witness to The Morning Star that had dawned.  The great Light to light the earth as guide through the night.

When I think about the gifts of Epiphany, first given:  gold, frankincense, myrrh.  And first received:  the divine in our flesh.  Love radiating from a little place in Bethlehem.  A story about one born to change the trajectory of the world.  I think too of the gifts given us.  From the magi we learn to seek.  Like them, we heed the words that would come from the baby’s lips when from a Mount he first taught:  “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find” (Matthew 7:7).  From the magi we learn to believe.  To trust the signs given us.  The promises of hope to heal us all.  From the magi we learn to stay open.  Waiting when we must.  Falling on our knees in wonder – even if what we’ve found doesn’t quite match any expectations we might have had.  From the magi we receive the greatest gift of all.  The reminder that we cannot go home from Christmas the same.  God’s gift is meant to change us.  Transform us from the inside out.

In Circle of Grace:  A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Jan Richardson beautifully summarizes Epiphany’s gifts.  She reminds:  “There is no reversing this road.  The path that bore you here goes in one direction only, every step drawing you down a way by which you will not return.  You thought arrival was everything, that your entire journey ended with kneeling in the place you had spent all to find.  When you laid down your gift, release came with such ease, your treasure tumbling from your hands in awe and benediction.  Now the knowledge of your leaving comes like a stone laid over your heart, the familiar path closed and not even the solace of a star to guide your way.  You will set out in fear.  You will set out in dream.  But you will set out by that other road that lies in shadow and in dark.  We cannot show you what route will take you home; that way is yours and will be found in the walking.  But we tell you, you will wonder at how the light you thought you had left behind goes with you, spilling from your empty hands, shimmering beneath your homeward feet, illuminating the road with every step you take” (“Blessing of the Magi,” p. 70-72).

These are the gifts of Epiphany.  Given and received so that the Light now shines in us – through us – to illumine the Way home.  For us.  For all.  Thanks be 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.)

How Has the Shepherd been Good?

22 April 2018 – 4th Sunday of Easter

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

(Silence).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

With Mary, Rejoice!

A Sermon for 17 December 2017 – Third Sunday of Advent

 

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:26-55.  I trust these verses will sound familiar to most of us.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”   29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Then the angel departed from her.  39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

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

 

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  Maybe you know all about it.  How until the fifth century, Lent was the primary preparation season of what would become the liturgical calendar.  When the early church finally decided that the feast of Christmas, like Easter, needed a similar period to prepare; Advent became a forty day fast beginning the day after the feast of St. Martin in November (November 12).  Imagine in the 21st century in the United States, starting an Advent fast two weeks into November through to the eve of Christmas!  . . .  Like Lent, Advent was meant to be a time of penitence.  Hence in the lectionary readings, all the pleas from John the Baptist to repent of any wrongdoing in preparation for the Way of the Lord!  And like Lent, Advent was more somber.  Evidence exists to show that, like Lent, no organ music and no flowers were to be included in worship.  Except for one special Sunday mid-way through the season.  As Advent, until the ninth century, wasn’t shortened from five to the four Sundays we know of it now; Gaudete Sunday falls on the third Sunday of Advent.  . . .  We can consider it a mini-break from the serious examination of the rest of the sorrowful season – which, like Lent, is supposed to be the time in which we are searching our hearts to be cleansed of that which keeps us from living God’s ways in the world.  . . .  But on Gaudete Sunday – mid-way through the season of Advent – clergy marched in in pink.  Rose-colored vestments really.  The organ hit its first chord in weeks as the procession began with the mighty imperative to rejoice!  In the words of Philippians 4:4 -5, the priest implored the people to “Rejoice!  In the Lord always!  Again, I say:  rejoice!  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near!”  No longer was the church merely invited to adore “‘The Lord who is to come.’”  On Gaudete Sunday, the people were called upon to “worship and hail with joy ‘The Lord who is now nigh and close at hand’” (www.newadvent.org/cathen/06394b.htm).  Legend has it that the Pope himself broke the flower fast to hand out pink roses on Gaudete Sunday – making it a festive celebration mid-way through the season.  Everyone was called upon to lift up their hearts in exceeding joy – not just for the remembrance of the birth that is almost here.  But also for the coming again of Christ in glory.  Ready to return to restore all creation.  “Gaudete in Domino semper” the priest would sing as the mass began:  Rejoice in the Lord always!!! (Ibid.).

It’s part of why every third Sunday of Advent the lectionary always allows for the reading of mother Mary’s song.  “My soul cries out, with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great,” proclaims the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes.  The Magnificat!  A young girl’s response to the work of God in her life – and for the life of her people.  Imagine being a teenage-girl whose marriage already has been arranged.  When suddenly you find out you’re pregnant, which is something you’re smart enough to know cannot be since you’ve hardly even seen your husband-to-be, let alone been left alone to be intimate with him or any other boy.  As a good Jewish girl, you’ve been taught the stories of your people.  You know the promise of one to come from the throne of David.  A Prince of Peace who would restore the fortunes of your nation.  Bring back the dignity of freedom to your people.  Save ya’ll from the bitterness of foreign rule.  The shame of endless armies having their way with whoever, whatever, and however they want.  You’ve heard the ancestors say the Holy would intervene – could intervene to make a way where no way seemed possible.  But what sort of craziness does this one called Gabriel speak?  How in the world could it ever be?

When I was young, Mary didn’t have a great reputation for me.  It’s mid-way into life that I’ve come to appreciate her – more so since visiting the honored sites in the Holy Land of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Mary’s Well and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  I’m not sure if it’s some sort of anti-Catholic thing for a lot of Protestants, or just a primary focus on the child to be born.  As if the Christ child provides the only inspiration during Advent, the heroism of Mary often is overlooked.  Joseph sometimes gets a little more credit, but that’s another sermon.

About the endless depictions of this scene, beloved preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  “Somewhere in the annunciation scene you can usually find a dove, a sign that what is happening is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  But down below, everything depends on Mary.  Gabriel is not standing over her; he is kneeling in front of the girl upon whose answer he, and God, and the whole creation depend” (Gospel Medicine, 1995, p. 151).  . . .  Thanks be to God she said:  yes!  It might seem as if she had no choice, but we all have choice about the circumstances that crop up in life.  We can’t control what will happen to us – any more than Mary could have run away from the emissary or wrestled herself away from the Holy Spirit when the power of the Most High overshadowed her.  . . .  Events in life take place.  Happenings we can choose to fight against or to embrace.   . .  In a post entitled “More like Mary . . . and Joseph,” blogger Jane Hugo Davis encourages:  “Don’t ever underestimate the importance of being still, listening to God’s messengers, following (the) guidance even when it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit into our plan.  The joy that’s experienced when we live and love as God has called us to will overcome any fear or question or doubt in our minds.  It may not be easy, but it’s worth it” (https://thesoulinthecity.com/2017/12/11/more-like-mary-and-joseph/).

Mary shows us that it is well worth it to say yes to God.  To take hold of the unknown unfoldings in our lives.  To open ourselves to whatever’s yet to come.  . . .  Of Mary’s yes to the unanticipated work of God in her life, one preacher writes:  “You can decide to say yes.  You can decide to be a daredevil, a test pilot, a gambler.  You can . . . listen to a strange creature’s strange idea.  You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand.  You can take part in a thrilling, dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees.  You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.  Deciding to say yes does not mean that you are not afraid . . .  It just means that you are not willing to let your fear stop you” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, 1995, p. 153).  . . .  Then, it seems life becomes a great adventure.  An opportunity to be a part of something much larger than we ever could orchestrate.  A reason, daily, to rejoice!  To lift up our voices in great thanksgiving!  To proclaim the marvelous movement of God’s Spirit in all of our lives.

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  We light the pink candle.  We hear mother Mary’s famous song.  We take a mini-break from preparing ourselves to allow the Way of Christ to be re-born in us.  We gather with exceeding joy for the ways we see God working to restore the Way in the world – through every last one of our responses:  yes!  . . .  Gaudete in Domino semper, brothers and sisters of Christ!  Rejoice in the Lord Always!  Let your life be a yes!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

The Mark of Discipleship: The Way of Love

A Sermon for 13 April 2017 – Maundy Thursday

A reading from the gospel of John 13:1-17, 31b-35.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear the gospel of John’s rendering of Jesus’ last night with his disciples.

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.  And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.  And you are clean, though not all of you.”  For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”  After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.  . . .

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  Little children, I am with you only a little longer.  You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

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

 

Christians all over the world tonight are gathering.  In elaborate cathedrals, simple huts, and sanctuaries much like this.  On Maundy Thursday, we hear the new command given by Christ while he was at table with his disciples the night before his end.  While most tonight will just get a taste of the bread and a sip of the fruit of the vine in remembrance; some actually will sit with their bare feet in a basin.  The pastor or other spiritual leader of the congregation will kneel before them, likely with a pitcher and towel in hand.  Water will be poured.  The worshipper will feel the cool liquid as it hits their feet’s skin.  Soap may accompany the wash and maybe even a relaxing massage to soothe tired toes.  I wish I could be in a place that included a soak with reviving essential oils – a little rosemary and eucalyptus to include all the senses in the defining act.

I don’t know about you, but other than family members when I was a small child and pedicures which don’t really count, only twice in my lifetime have I had my feet washed by another person.  Once was at the beginning of a much needed massage during a pilgrimage in the Holy Land.  Though we didn’t speak the same language, the therapist brought out a basin of warm water and indicated to me to put my feet in it.  She gently stroked my feet with a wash cloth to make sure any dirt from the road was gone.  It was wonderful!  . . .  Another time was in a sanctuary not that far from this one.  The night was Maundy Thursday.  A woman of the congregation who grew up with regular experiences of foot washings in worship, volunteered to wash everyone’s feet that night.  On our way up to communion together around the Table, we could sit down in a chair.  Silently then, the woman would indicate to hold your feet out over the bowl.  She would pour water over them, then reverently wipe dry each foot with a towel.  We all put our shoes back on before proceeding up front to get the bread and the juice, but I really wanted to leave them off.  The act seemed so holy.  Besides:  Moses stood barefoot before the Presence of God in that bush that was aflame but not burning up.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to approach the Table of the Lord clean-footed, nothing between the skin of our feet and the ground right under us?

We’re not including foot washing as a part of this service tonight.  You can relax.  You don’t have to worry that anyone will see that toe you think is ugly or that scar you got from some risky childhood stunt.  Few among us really want to be that known in worship – our bare feet hanging out for all the world to see.  Which is too bad because just hearing about the act that marks this night doesn’t go far enough to communicate the depth of what Christ did.  The humility of bending, touching, smelling through it all.  The intimacy of holding in this hands bare foot after bare foot.  I wonder if he looked deep into each person’s eyes while he washed them.  Maybe smiling as wide as a proud parent when he considered all the places those feet had followed behind him.  Knowing the feet of his disciples had so much further yet to travel to enact God’s good news all around the world.  . . .  This is the act that defines tonight.  The mark of the new command he gives to us all.  The towel and basin still prominent in the room, Jesus says:  “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).  This is the way all will know you are mine, he proclaims.  Bending, touching, holding tenderly – as if the most precious treasure.  This is the mark of one who bears his name.  That night, that last fate-filled night; Jesus preaches a silent sermon as he bends.  Touches.  Washes them all – including Judas, who, according to the gospel of John, still is in the room.

One commentator claims:  “the mission and strategy of Jesus” is “symbolized in his washing of the disciples’ feet” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, Trygve David Johnson, p. 275).  For “in the washing . . . Jesus chooses to empty himself rather that to promote himself” (Ibid.).  He shows that the path of love is serving another.  Willingly fulfilling all God intends.  . . .  This is the night the church sees in full what it means to be the church, the body of Christ for the world.  The body of Christ willing to stoop in humility to do what others don’t want to do.  To feed those who hunger, visit those who are sick, loose that which is unjust in this world because from a position at his disciples’ feet; this is what our Lord shows us to do.  . . .  Priest and profound author Barbara Brown Taylor writes this about the night Jesus gathered one last time with his friends.  She writes:  “With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, (Jesus) did not give them something to think about together when he was gone.  Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.  . . .  “Do this,” he said, not believe this but do this – “in remembrance of me.’” (An Altar in the World, pp. 43-44).  Taylor insists Christ did so because “the last thing any of us needs is more information about God.  We need the practice of incarnation,” she writes, “by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies.  Not more about God.  More God” (Ibid., p. 45).  Through practices like washing feet.  And taking bread in order to sit down together for a feast of fellowship.  . . .  Christians all over the world tonight are gathering.  In elaborate cathedrals, simple huts, and sanctuaries much like this.  We are seeing the new command given by Christ while he was at table with his disciples the night before his end.  After we partake of the bread and drink of the fruit of the vine, the question remains:  will we go to do likewise?

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Freedom and Rest

A Sermon for 21 August 2016

A reading from the gospel of Luke 13:10-17. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

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

 

Remember the Blue Laws? Some fifty or more years ago in the United States, no matter where you went on Sundays, most everything was closed. The doors of sanctuaries were open and it was expected everyone who was anyone had their entire family with them in a pew. Laws throughout the United States banned such things on Sundays as open restaurants, open department stores, open car lots, and open liquor shops. “You did not even hear the whistle of freight trains . . . on Sundays, because it was illegal to haul goods on the Sabbath” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 128). Sunday had become the day you did not! Radically, to this day, a county in New Jersey still bans “the sale of clothing, shoes, furniture, home supplies, and appliances on Sundays” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_law). And of course, we all know that if you want to enjoy some wine over Sunday dinner or a beer for the afternoon ballgame, you better be sure to stock up before Sunday morning arrives.

Ironically, the fourth of the infamous Ten Commandments begins not with shall not but with this: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). . . . Remember the Sabbath day? Way back in Genesis 1 and 2, the Great Creator went about all the work of making this amazing world. Separating light and darkness, crafting an environment in which creation could thrive – waters above, waters below, with dry land in there too. Fruit trees and pines and, as the story was told from the perspective of the land tucked between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, certainly there were figs and pomegranates and grapes galore. The stars twinkled in the brilliant night sky and the moon waxed and waned to keep track of all the seasons. Fish and cattle and creeping things of every kind came into being until earth was mixed with the divine breath to concoct such a creature as had never been before: humankind came into this world! And then, at last – not because we wore God out in our making, though the news each day might cause us to wonder – then, the Great Creator stopped. It was finished. The Great Creator paused in delight declaring: “Ah! Very good! Very, very good indeed!” . . . Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy – because God wants everyone of us to stop too. To pause, if just from one sundown to sundown, to declare in delight: “Ah! Very good! It all is very, very good indeed!” Set apart in this way, we too make the rest holy.

That was the purpose of Sabbath, at least until the Exodus when Sabbath took on another meaning as well. Observant Jewish brothers and sisters welcome Sabbath in their homes each week with the lighting of two candles when at least three stars can be seen in the sky. One is this candle command of creation – the pause for creatures to delight. To rest. The other is the candle of freedom. Once we were enslaved by the ways of the Pharaoh. But God heard the cries of the people. The wringing of hands over if there would be enough this month to feed the children. Would we ever get a break from the boss who has been breathing down our necks these past several months over our performance on the job? Is that all it all is: toil for a paycheck and worry everything shall work out? . . . Will we ever get a break from defining ourselves by what we do and being defined by others in that way too, instead of simply being accepted for who we are – warts and all? God hears all those cries. Every wonder and weary worry. In response, once a week for a whole 24 hours; we are free! None of it matters. We are invited to put down such heavy burdens to take a walk in the park with someone we love who loves us back just as well. We can take a nap no matter the piles of dirty dishes or chores to do outside. Lay in a hammock or rock out on the front porch if only for 20 minutes just to listen and observe. Rest from the pecking order of this world at least for one whole night and one whole day and see if you wake ready to worship the next morning. Do it on a Saturday, as was first the plan; so that the next day you can gather with others in the faith to swop stories over how good it was for just one night and day this week to rest in the freedom of God.

That is what has Jesus all incensed in the story before us in the gospel of Luke. At a glance it might appear all is well, but the Sabbath command is violated. Not by the one accused of doing the healing. Rather, this particular synagogue leader failed to see the burden on the shoulders of a woman bound by her body for eighteen long years. They would untie their ox or donkey every Sabbath that the animals might get what they needed – even on the day of rest and freedom. But that synagogue leader would not have it that a child of the covenant might get a bit better treatment than beasts of burden on the weekly day to live God’s freedom and rest! . . . Notice that this woman didn’t seek out Jesus. The text says nothing of her coming to the synagogue expecting any sort of healing that day. The author gives great detail that the woman was “bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (Luke 13:11). So that even if she wanted to seek out Jesus, about all she’d be able to see as an identifying mark in her search would be feet. Some of you live with back problems that have hindered you to stand up tall to look another straight in the eye. You know the pain that becomes the constant companion. The desperation of wanting to be well. And if you’ve been dealing with it for nearly twenty years, you know too how crushed a spirit can get. So crushed, it would seem, this woman just goes to the synagogue – no indication she’s expecting any sort of release, even there among religious folk you might hope would be concerned enough to find a way to help. . . . Though the leader might spit in his criticism that she was in the wrong for seeking healing on the Sabbath; the story never questions her motives or throws any sort of blame her way. Jesus who has stop to rest and remember – to delight in the goodness of it all and to be free from anyone else’s expectations – while Jesus is observing this day of Sabbath in the synagogue, he sees someone who needs immediately to be set free. Likely, he saw a whole synagogue full of faithful Sabbath-keepers who desperately needed to be free. Free from law over grace. Free from rules trumping compassion. Free from external expectations over the will of God. Free from mental, emotional, and spiritual ailments that weigh heavy upon the backs of every last one –even if those burdens haven’t yet imprinted physically on the body. None of it is ok with this faithful Sabbath-keeper. Keeping his eye on the true intent of the fourth command; with one word, much like the Great Creator at the beginning of it all, Jesus releases the chains upon this woman’s back. He lays his hand upon her and in an instant she is set free. With a full body alleluia, she stands upright, for the first time in eighteen years, to praise God! . . . True Sabbath. True freedom. True joy-filled rest as a beloved child of God! In the whole room, they’re the only two rightly practicing Sabbath. The only two resting in the delightful freedom of the LORD!

In An Altar in the World, the book we’ve been reading this summer in Home Book Club, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds that Sabbath is a “’palace in time’ . . . into which human beings are invited every single week of our lives. The question is: “Why are we so reluctant to go?” (p. 127) . . . I get it. For far too long we’ve been told it’s all about thou shall not. For far too long we’ve let the world around us demand our time and attention. Maybe you’ve been taught to believe Sabbath is all about Sunday and “going to church” – which is not at all what the bible records anywhere! Sabbath is about entering the beautiful palace in time each week to sit a spell, not in an effort to do anything holy, but just to be. Just to rest and remember that we are free. Free from it all because the Great Creator hears us and loves us and commands us just to stop. That in itself is holy! . . . If one sundown to the next sundown is too long for you each week, then at least begin with an hour – preferably sometime Saturday so you at least have some bit of gratitude in your tank when you race in to worship on Sundays. Give it a try, if you don’t already. And enjoy the freedom and rest of God! It is so good. So very, very good indeed!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

Momma Hen vs. the Fox

A Sermon for 21 February 2016 – 2nd Sunday of Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 13:31-35.

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

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

My thirteen year old niece loves animals. All kinds of them. Last winter a stray cat was wandering near their house. She was all worried that cat would freeze to death outside in the frigid temperatures of their Wisconsin winters. So after a few days, out on their front porch; she made it a warm, welcoming home. She even named the cat Shadow. Then to lure Shadow in to the little shelter, she put up a sign reading: “Shadow is Loved Here!” . . . She has this amazing compassion for all kinds of animals – and for people too – but especially for animals. Though she lives in Wisconsin with the rest of our family, she’s not on a farm. Nonetheless, for the past several years she has been wanting to raise chickens. She and my sister baby-chick-sat one spring for my sister’s friend who raises chickens and provides fresh eggs to all her family and friends. Ever since then, my niece has been set on having a few cute little chicks of her own. For whatever reason, my sister hasn’t given in to her pleas. Perhaps because they live in the woods on Lake Michigan and my sister knows all other sorts of animals are around. Things like that stray cat and raccoons and coyote. Once when my niece was really young and used to take off by herself through the woods over to grandpa and grandma’s house next door, my sister told her she couldn’t do that because what would happen if a bear was out there in the woods between their houses? My sister insisted she was too little to face a bear alone. Rarely have there ever been bear in those woods, but my sister really didn’t want anything to happen to her so she tried to reign in my niece’s precocious nature with the potential presence of a ferocious bear. It didn’t really work. But the point is: cute, cuddly little chickens most probably wouldn’t have a chance at their house with all the other predatory animals around.

The amazing preacher and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor has a beautiful sermon about animals that is inspired by the gospel text for today. Barbara speaks firsthand. Because after too many grueling years trying to keep up with the daily grind of pastoring for a big urban church in Atlanta, she moved as far away from civilization as she could in order to be the priest for a little country church. Part of why she left the city was to live in the middle of nowhere on several acres of land. There she and her husband built a chicken coop, planted a huge garden, and even made a little cabin back in the woods were Barbara can go into the quiet to listen and write. Out there on the land, Barbara learned all about chickens. Along with various rhythms of the natural world – including lessons learned about lurking predatory animals like owls and weasels and fox.

Jesus was a man of the land – most subsistence cultures are. While some trade was taking place in his day, it is believed that many of the people of the Galilee, where he was raised, grew their own food and tended their own small animals. He likely had fig trees and some sort of grain. Perhaps his family had a goat and a donkey and chickens running all about. It was a daily part of life so that they knew the lessons of nature – what it took for crops to grow. How to catch a fish – if you lived right on the Sea of Galilee. And which animals could and could not live peaceably together. Like: Jesus would have known all about mother hens. Their fierce instinct to protect their young – though without the kinds of talons of roosters and with such small beaks, about all a momma hen can do is cluck around while flapping her wings – trying to get her little brood under her safety. If that doesn’t work, as Barbara Brown Taylor states, a mother hen just “puts herself between (her chicks) and the fox, as ill-equipped as she is. At the very least, she can hope that she satisfies his appetite so that (the fox) leaves her babies alone” (Bread of Angels, p. 125). If you are a keeper of chicks, about the last thing you want anywhere nearby is a fox.

It would appear that Jesus choose his words very carefully. How long had God been trying – tirelessly trying to gather God’s beloved brood: God’s precious little fluffy chicks called Israel? . . . A plethora of prophets were sent – Jerusalem ignored and at times even had them killed. You’d think exile in unknown lands might have gotten their attention. Or, if not that life-altering experience, then certainly the restoration thereafter would have. None of it works! . . . At this point in the story, John the Baptist already has been beheaded by Herod. Supposedly he didn’t much like the accusations John had made about Herod’s unacceptable taking of his wife. The fox has proven himself to be a predator of any speaking truth. Jesus is his next target. Some Pharisees come to warn him. Nonetheless, Jesus’ course is set on Jerusalem. He travels with firm resolve. No fox scares him. He knows he’s the embodiment of the hen. He’ll do anything to protect his beloved chicks. . . . Content at revealing a stronger power, Jesus simply says, “Go and tell that fox: he may think he’s got the ability to interrupt God’s plan. But listen: I am continuing my work of casting out demons, performing cures, and on the third day I’ll be done” (Luke 13:32). He weeps when he considers the way Jerusalem again and again behaves like a fox. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” He mourns. “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). Perhaps it’s just fuel for the fire in him that is determined to show a more excellent way: the way of laying down your life for the sake of another, so that all may live. Jesus is intent on showing that every time the way of the mother hen prevails against the fox.

Lent is a season for us to be reflecting upon which way we tend to live. Do we put our trust in the power of the mother hen, or do we acquiesce to the world’s way of the fox? Do we seek to shelter others who need protection, or do we seek first to satisfy our own appetites? Are we willing to lay down our lives for the sake of another, or do we devour one another as if other’s lives don’t matter beyond being prey to fill our own emptiness? Which nature more often rules in us: the way of the mother hen or the way of the hungry fox? . . . Pay attention little chicks, for we’re sheltered so that we too will live likewise. As intent as the mother hen in loving those about to be devoured. Refusing to run and vowing never to succumb to such destructive means. This is the path of our Savior, the path our mother hen invites us to follow each day. God grant us the courage to carry on for the sake of life for us all.

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

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