Tag Archives: Barbara Brown Taylor

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.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

One Life

16 November 2014 sermon — Matthew 25:14-30

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
RevJule
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Click here to read scripture first: Matthew 25:14-30 (NRS)

Several years ago I sat through a long and arduous meeting across from a woman wearing a t-shirt that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. It really was so alarming that I found myself deep in thought rather than paying attention to the agenda for which we were gathered. The t-shirt read: “You have one life. Do something!” . . . “You have one life. Do something!” . . . Wasn’t that the message we heard a few weeks ago on All Saints’ Sunday as the chime rang for each loved one we named? Isn’t that the silver lining of the dark cloud of death? Every time we come face-to-face with the loss of a loved one, at the same time, we come face-to-face with the reality of our limited time. Our days are not infinite – not in the life we know now as human beings. . . . Sure we have the promise and hope of life everlasting with our God. But here and now, we only have one life. It is expected that we do something!

Jesus might as well have been wearing the very same t-shirt as he talked to his disciples that day. Mind you – according to the gospel of Matthew’s telling of the story – these words come just two days before the drama of Christ’s final Passover. They’re in Jerusalem – well, right outside on the Mount of Olives, actually (Mt. 24:3). And certainly at least one of the twelve was intuitive enough to know the tension is mounting. The one who’s been busy giving away his life each day for the life of the world is about to face his riskiest investment yet. He’s about to march right into Jerusalem, and though he doesn’t want to swallow the biter cup of suffering – as his prayer in the garden reveals (Mt. 26:39), still: he’s willing to keep himself open come what may. Even if the outcome is death, he keeps his trust in his father: our God of Life. . . . This one, who is on his own high-risk adventure, is the one who tells the story we heard today as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.

It’s like three people, Jesus says. Maybe we should start it the way we love all stories to start. Once upon a time there was an extravagant owner. He wanted to see how his folks would do. So he called them together and gave to each way more than any could imagine. He was careful to consider what each might be able to handle, so as not to overwhelm. Yet lavish, immense amounts were granted. . . . According to Jesus’ telling of the story, one was given the equivalent of 75 years of a day laborer’s earnings. One 30 years of a day laborer’s earnings. One 15 years of a day laborer’s earnings (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4; Lindsay P. Armstrong, p. 309). . . . They really weren’t given any instructions. Just entrusted with such enormous gifts. I guess the owner figured they all knew each other really well: out of love for the one freely giving, the three would know just what to do. I mean, love begets love. Generosity evokes additional generosity in open, pure spirits. So, of course, the owner simply trusted they would not squander the gift.

Perhaps the owner forgot that fear is powerful. Fear gets its fangs in us and before we know it, we’re stuck. Immobilized. . . . How often has Spirit come to us with grandiose ideas? Crazy thoughts about things like starting over. Or trying something new. Opening ourselves to the person in need before us. Or investing more of our time and energy that another might grow. Spirit nudges us all the time into the ways that lead to life. And when we’re listening; if we’re paying attention; too often fear gets at us before the new thing even is given a chance to begin. . . . Now what if that would have been Christ’s approach? Where would we be – where would the fate of God’s entire creation be – had Jesus allowed fear to get the better of him that week in Jerusalem as he faced all that lie ahead? . . .

Once upon a time, one who was given an extraordinary amount went out in fear. He dug a hole. Not wanting to lose or waste or take any sort of risk whatsoever with what of his master’s he’d been given; he buried in the ground that which had been entrusted to him. He allowed fear to rob him of the opportunity to know great joy. . . . As one commentator has written, he played it safe, which is “something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4; John M. Buchanan, p. 312).

We have one life.

Of course, there are other ways to understand this story. There’s always more than one way to understand whatever we hear. One preacher questions why we always relate the master of this parable of Jesus with the big M Master of the Universe. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Parable of the Fearful Investor,” Nov. 13, 2011: http://chapel.duke.edu/worship/worship-services/sermons-bulletins/2011-sermons-archive). Reading from another angle, she wonders if this third slave wasn’t the hero of the story. The whistle-blower of sorts who refused to participate in an economic system, like the one of Jesus’ day, that was eating up the simple people of the land while more fully filling the deep pockets of those profiting from the way it had come to be. Might Jesus have meant the master of this parable was a lower-case m master who just was trying to get more for himself in the end – no matter the cost to those hurt by it all. If we read it that way, this parable becomes a code to Christ’s disciples that refusal to participate with the powers that be will lead to the wrath of those powers coming down upon our head. As he’s about to experience in Jerusalem, do something as rash as not perpetuate the unjust system and the system will ensure we are put out. Taken away the little that we might have and thrown out into utter darkness as one totally worthless in a world set up to take more and more for themselves. . . . The truth remains: We have one life. And just wait until we hear the parable Jesus is about to tell next – at least according to the gospel of Matthew! Come back next week for that one.

Maybe you’ve heard the brilliant words of the poet Mary Oliver. In a poem entitled “The Summer Day,” Oliver writes, and I quote: “Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean — the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down — who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.” Oliver writes: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me,” she writes, “what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, The House Light Beacon Press Boston, 1990 on: http://www.bemindful.org/poems.htm).

We have one life: one wild and precious life. An amazing gift to us from God.

One thing we might commit to do is invest a little bit more of it in the mission of God. If you were here last week then you might have heard the Minute for Mission in which one member said that she gives of her time, talents, and money because she wants to be a part of this church. She wants to be involved in the ministry this church is doing – things that she knows matter to God even more than they matter to her. . . . Many of you already are investing in God’s work through this church by participating in bible studies and Sunday School and other opportunities to shape your heart and mind a little bit more into the heart and mind of God. Some of you are around here a lot: fixing what’s broken, listening to the need of a struggling stranger, welcoming whoever enters into our fellowship hall or food bank or sanctuary. Most all of you are giving financial offerings each week that go to pay the electric bills of this church, and ensure we are inspired by beautiful music, and even have a pastor to call upon when you need someone to help you sort through what God is up to in your life. I wonder if each of us could step up a little bit more. Maybe increase our financial pledge by just one small percent in the year ahead. So that if you have been giving $2,000 this year, increase it one percent to $2,020 in 2015 – that wouldn’t be too harsh of a stretch for most of us, would it? If you only have been attending worship, try getting involved in one additional ministry of the church – not necessarily to be in charge of it, but maybe just show up to be present next year in one more way. If you have been great among us at using your talent of organizing, maybe begin to utilize your talent of encouragement too. You get the idea. What if every one of us invested a little bit more of who we are and what we have for the work of God through the ministry of this church? . . . We only have one life: one wild and precious life.

So: hide it? We cannot. Play it safe? We cannot. Risk it all, invest it lavishly like our Lord, in absolute trust of the abundantly, Life-giving Master? I know it may not sound very prudent – or even very Presbyterian. Nonetheless, here and now, we’ve got just one wonderful life. . . . For the life of the world, why not risk it all? In the end we too might hear: “Well done good and faithful servant! . . . Enter into the joy of your extravagant master!” (Mt. 25:21).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)