Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Discerning the Spirits

A Sermon for 10 June 2018 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Mark 3:20-35.  We continue to hear about the early days of Jesus’ ministry according to the gospel of Mark.  Listen for God’s word to us.

The words right before verse 20 read:  “Then he went home;”  and beginning at verse 20:  “and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”  22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.  28 Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”  31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

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

 

The novel The Girl Who Could Read Hearts:  A Family and the Power of Intuition is about six-year-old Kate.  Primarily written from Kate’s six-year-old point of view, the author records in the Afterword that while Kate and her family are fictional; the story is inspired by a vivid dream and influenced heavily by experiences the author has had throughout her life.  It all starts on Kate’s birthday when she accidently puts the candles of her cake too close to her beloved angel doll Etta Ebella.  Given to Kate by her dear grandmother who mysteriously has been left fully paralyzed and unable to speak, Kate knows what her grandmother too knows but no longer can communicate.  That Etta Ebella isn’t a typical childhood toy.  Which is kinda perfect because Kate isn’t a typical child.  The doll is an actual angel whose heart space sometimes turns into sparkly diamonds and whose topaz eyes captivate those in need of help and whose angel wings flutter every now and again to remind Kate to listen to what she hears with the ears of her tummy.  To trust her vision-like dreams.  To pay attention to what she sees when she looks out from the eyes inside her chest.  For Kate has the seemingly miraculous ability to read people’s hearts.

The description of what she sees when Kate looks at people is fascinating.  Like when her favorite Uncle TT takes Kate to the house of a woman friend she didn’t even know he had.  Kate is surprised to see beautiful little sparks coming out of the hearts of both Uncle TT and Dr. Angelique.  As she watches them animatedly talk, Kate sees the firefly-like sparks circling in one between their hearts.  . . .  When Kate looks at her mean-spirited Uncle Vaynem, she sees something else altogether.  There where his heart should be, Kate sees an ugly color.  A hole stockpiled with weapons that are just waiting to be used in stealth against his next target.  . . .  When Kate looks at the sneaky, bigoted nurse at the hospital, Kate sees the color of greenish-grey-black storm clouds.  A heart filled with bumps like warts on a toad.  Kate doesn’t want that nurse to come anywhere near her with her stone-cold, hard as ice eyes and her nasty, pitted heart.  Kate’s angel doll repeatedly tells her to note the gift of her amazing ability to read hearts.

It might be just a fictional story, but it’s remarkable that lots of people similarly see.  Sometimes referred to as empaths; all sorts of people today are paying attention to their ability to see or feel or intuit – as Kate would say:  with the ears of their tummies and the eyes of their hearts.  Thereby knowing just what is inside another person.  The gift might seem as much a curse as a blessing.  True empaths literally feel what others are feeling – often times taking in another person’s emotional energy (Empaths:  16 Simple Habits to Protect Yourself, Feel Better, and Enjoy Life Even If You are Highly Sensitive, Vik Carter, 2017, p. 5).  While it leads to an astounding ability to be extremely sensitive to other people’s pain, being an empath can be totally draining – especially for those who are unaware they are taking in other’s emotions.  Those with such intense empathy can be incredibly generous.  They want to help others, which at times leads to problems.  ‘Cuz empaths can over-give, while others can over-take until there is such an imbalance between two people that one ends up completely empty while the other never can get their fill.  In the story of The Girl Who Could Read Hearts, it’s helpful that little Kate has her Uncle TT with the very same gift, her similarly-gifted grandmother – even if she is incapacitated, and her angel doll Etta Ebella as her guide.  All helping young Kate to make sense of how valuable it is for her to listen to, and act upon, what Etta Ebella tells her are “the whispers of God,” there to guide her so she will “make choices based on what (she) hears and sees with (her) special ears and eyes” (The Girl Who Could Read Hearts, Sherry Maysonave, Balboa Press, 2016, p. 318).

Jesus is talking about the very same thing.  The gospel of Mark records that Jesus goes home – seemingly back to Nazareth – for the first time after he had set out to find John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry.  No sooner do people crowd around him than his family hears he’s back.  It’s noted by the gospel that they’ve grown worried:  Jesus’ momma, brothers, and sisters.  They’ve been hearing the rumors.  They see the mounting fear.  Scribes come poking around from Jerusalem, which can’t at all be good!  Attracting the attention of the spiritual authorities all the way up in Jerusalem means there’s bound to be trouble!  He’s been all over Galilee accomplishing miraculous cures, exercising a new kind of power, making pronouncements that ruffle the feathers of the religious and political leaders of his day.  We have the benefit of the full story as we read of Jesus.  We already believe him the mysterious mix of human and Divine.  His contemporaries did not!  They wanted to know just who he thought he was!

It’s fair to say Jesus was the quintessential empath – with a very special gift of reading the hearts of others.  Certainly, he was expert at listening to the whispers of God.  Paying attention to his vivid vision-like dreams.  Listening with the ears of his tummy and seeing with the eyes of his heart.  People couldn’t understand how he knew what he knew.  It didn’t make sense to them where he got what he taught and how he was able to heal as he did.  They claimed he drove out demons – unclean spirits that might have looked just like six-year-old Kate’s Uncle Vaynem’s ugly-colored, weapon-stockpiling heart; or like what Kate saw when she met the conniving, small-minded nurse with her storm-cloud, wart-bumped heart.  Somehow Jesus was able to discern the spirits of those who came to him.  To cast out the parts that were making the person ill and cure parts of bodies few others dared to touch.  He clearly knew what was of God and what was not.

What’s more, he proclaims that discerning the spirits is key for any who would be his followers.  All his talk about “Satan casting out Satan,” a “kingdom being divided against itself” never being able to stand (Mark 3:23-24).  Jesus knew the difference between that which was of the Holy Spirit and that which was not.  Messing up the difference between a spirit that was contrary to the Spirit of God would have eternal consequences, Jesus taught.  Trying to silence what was of the Spirit of God, as Jesus’ family intended to do to him on his first trip back home, would show one’s real allegiance – would reveal what really was within another’s heart.  Jesus would have none of it.  In word and in deed he proclaimed that being about the will of God shows the contents of a person’s insides.  Jesus teaches that if we want to discern the spirits, all we need to do is look.  . . .  Later in the New Testament, the apostle Paul would give the helpful reminder to look for the fruits of the spirit.  We can distinguish between the Holy Spirit of God and that which is not when we see evidence of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).  The nine signs that the one we’re looking at is under the influence of the Holy Spirt; is up to the will of God.

It might be easier if we all had Kate’s remarkable ability.  Literally to see the colors and shapes emanating from hearts – our own and others.  It might be a welcome gift to be able to notice when fireflies are dancing or jagged ridges are shooting.  When the emotions of another look like turbulence or feel as delightful as a soft breeze caressing our cheek.  Surely then we could rightly see – clearly distinguishing so we’d repeatedly be on the side of God’s Spirit.  Nonetheless, even if all we have are the eyes on the front of our face; our Lord expects us to look.  To discern between the spirits.  To be sure we don’t mistake the work God is up to in the world today, be it different than what we’ve seen before.  So that when authorities question motives.  And families fear for lives; we are not deterred.  With the clarity of those who really know, we follow where blessed fruit grows.  Welcoming in our lives and others’ the evidence of the Spirit, wonderful signs, God’s whispers come to be our special guides.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Celebrating the Spirit’s Work

A Sermon for 20 May 2018 – Pentecost Sunday & 60th Anniversary Celebration

 

A reading for Pentecost from Acts 2:1-21.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”  14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.  21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

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

 

When the day of Pentecost had come . . .  and the disciples of the Risen Lord were all together in one place in Jerusalem just fifty days after Christ’s crucifixion . . . . something incredible took place!  Like the sound of a violent storm rolling in.  Like people aglow – beaming with light all around as they live fully in the flow.  The whole gathered assembly was filled!  Stirred up – in a good way!  As the Spirit of God infused each one for everyone to leave from that place to accomplish the task needed next in the world:  telling the truth they had seen.  So that the movement behind the crucified and risen Christ would spread.  So that the resurrecting force of God would guide all who would come to believe!  . . .  The power of what can happen when God’s people get together took place on Pentecost!

Here we gather, week after week, hopefully with a sense that something is supposed to happen when the people of God get together.  When we come together for worship, or a few moments we have the chance to be still together.  And to open our mouths in praise together.  To humble our hearts together in confession of our sins and of the sins we see taking place in the world, for which we beg God’s mercy.  Collectively we gather to give our thanks; thereby remembering that we are not our own.  In fact, apart from God, we really can do nothing – except maybe mess things up in our personal and public lives.  Worship is intended to give us space together to be taken up into the presence of the Living God – to be filled, like those first disciples, filled up with the Holy Spirit.  Not because it can’t happen anywhere else in our lives; but because in good days and in bad, we can count on it to happen here.  If not in ourselves, then in the person down the pew who is basking in God’s steadfast love.  In the little child across the sanctuary who is eager to learn.  In the stranger who is grateful to find acceptance here.  Even if it has felt like a million years since the Spirit of God has been flowing through us individually; together here, we are a part of the body of Christ.  Enlivened by the Holy Spirit to be miraculous in the world each day!  Living lives that show what can happen when God’s people come together.

We celebrate that amazing day today – that first Pentecost festival after Christ had risen.  It was customary for faithful Jews to observe Pentecost – sometimes calling it the Festival of Weeks.  “As the fiftieth day after the presentation of the first sheaf of the barley harvest,” Pentecost came to be “considered the anniversary of the giving of the law at Sinai” (Donald K. McKim, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 4 & 6).  The day marked the reminder that the law was meant to guide the people of Israel in living according to God’s will.  That way, the community would reflect the very nature of God.  . . .  For the church, Pentecost marks the advent of a new guide.  A new advocate – a new power that dwells within as we seek to live out God’s will as shown to us in Jesus, the Christ.  One commentator has written that “the story of Pentecost . . .  seeks to communicate how important the church is and how inseparable it is from Christ.”  She writes:  “Pentecost serves as a catechetical instruction that continues to tradition the church into its identity and purpose.  Every year, on the Day of Pentecost, we are reminded of who we are as a church, what we proclaim, and the source of that proclamation.  It is a message to the church from the church, passed down through millennia to each generation” (Kristin Emery Saldine, Ibid., p. 4).  That we might be guided by the Spirit today!  That together we might accomplish the task needed next in the world around us.

Today we’re also celebrating the roots of this congregation.  Roots that flow from Pentecost, through those first hundred years of Christ’s followers trying to survive the hostile environment of an empire that wanted them silenced, through dark times as ignorance seemed to fall upon the face of the earth, through the rebirth of enlightened minds and fervent hearts that led to necessary reforms of a church that had strayed from the Way, through new expressions of faith taken on by communities and individuals alike; until, in a land far away, in a place called Tennessee, a handful of folks excited about the possibilities of a new residential community called Hill Place, ensured that this facility was built.  The chapel was named for a primary benefactor Mr. H. G. Hill.  And about 20 classrooms, upstairs and down, eventually would be added.  Where little ones like Tom (who was here 60 years ago) could gather – along with a few of the rest of you who remember jam-packed Sunday School rooms each week.  Over the years, some of you were a part of Youth Groups that certainly contained adventures whose details are best left in the past!  Ladies’ Teas and studies and missions.  Stalwart adult classes digging into the Scriptures.  The years have included missions in which homeless folks found here a hot meal and respite for the night.  And young people of Nashville’s Monroe Harding Children’s Home and Martha O’Bryan Center were given hope.  And those in Honduras whose lives were threatened by unclean water met the diligent hands of Presbyterians from here who changed the course of those villagers’ lives.  . . .  Because those first members and friends of this church came together, marriages took place here – how many of you were married here?  And baptisms – any present today who were baptized here?  Or had your child baptized here.  What about a grandchild baptized here?  Several of you have gathered here after the death of a loved one – your parent, your spouse, or your child, or your dearest friend.  If I were to ask, I hope some of you would raise your hand because you have learned here in this place something vitally important about God and about your worth in God’s eyes and about God’s desires for your life.  I hope at least one person has met a lifelong friend here in this sanctuary – or has introduced one to this church.  And that hundreds have been comforted in times of difficulty here, and even challenged to grow a little bit more through this congregation’s ministries of worship, service, education, and fellowship.  . . .  This church has glorious roots that give witness to what can happen when the people of God come together.

AND this church has the gift of an adventurous future ahead!  Another pastor reminded me this week that no one ever has been able to see exactly what the future will look like.  I’d be willing to bet that the first families who came together to worship in this sanctuary in 1958 could never have imagined what this congregation would look like today.  They couldn’t know what we would carry from our hearts unto God.  The things that would terrify us today and the possibilities we can see.  I’m pretty sure no one in 1958 would have anticipated that 6-week-old infants would need nurturing care every day in classrooms once intended for Sunday instruction.  I doubt anyone in 1958 would have been wondering about how this church could get involved in partnering with a non-profit agency just four miles from here that is filled with women of every color who are trying to heal from their addictions as a part of rebuilding their lives.  Or anticipated work on a more interactive presence for this church on something called the world wide web.  I’d be willing to bet that in 1958, very few pondered how to live faithfully alongside neighbors who call God by a different name – and others who aren’t even interested in calling upon the name of God.

In 60 years, the people of God have changed dramatically – and we will change just as much in the years to come as we seek to accomplish for God the tasks needed next in the world.  Though the future of this and every other Christian church will not look like the past, one thing will never change – Pentecost proves it!  Miraculous things will happen when God’s people come together!  The future will unfold.  The Holy Spirit will guide.  Mysteriously moving in, among, and beyond us for God to accomplish through us what is needed in the world around us now!  . . .  For 60 years gone by, for 60, or 600, or more years yet to come; thanks be to God!  Now and forever!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Sent Without Canoes

A Sermon for 8 April 2018 – Second Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 20:19-31.  Listen for God’s word to us.  And remember, this story takes place later on the first Easter.  Listen:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

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

 

If you’ve ever been west of the Mississippi – like to California, Oregon, Montana, or Nevada – then I’m guessing you are grateful for the adaptability of the men named Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  It was 1804 and the newly formed nation just had acquired a huge expanse of land called the Louisiana Territory.  Wanting to know what they had gotten and determined to find a water route that connected the eastern United States to the Pacific Ocean; President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery under the command of Lewis and the one Lewis made his co-captain, Clark.

A book called Canoeing the Mountains, quotes historians who describe the defining moment of Meriwether Lewis’ life.  “He was approaching the farthest boundary of the Louisiana Territory.  The Continental Divide.  The Spine of the Rocky Mountains, beyond which the rivers flow west.  No American citizen ever had been there before.  This he believed was the Northwest Passage, the goal of explorers for more than three centuries.  The great prize that Thomas Jefferson had sent him to find and claim for the United States.  With each stride, Lewis was nearing what he expected to be the crowning moment of his expedition and his life.  From the vantage point just ahead, all of science and geography had prepared him to see the watershed of the Columbia; and beyond it, perhaps a great plain that led down to the Pacific.  Instead, there were just more mountains”  (Canoeing the Mountains:  Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger, pp. 87-88).  Captured in his expedition journal, Lewis writes:  “’Immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us, with their tops partially covered in snow’” (Ibid.).

Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains, writes:  “At that moment in the daunting vista spread out at the feet of Meriwether Lewis, the dream of an easy water route across the continent – a dream stretching back to Christopher Columbus – was shattered”  (Ibid.).  It’s been said that as Lewis and the Corps stood atop the Lemhi Pass in what would become the state of Idaho, the geography of hope gave way to the geography of reality.  Though wanting to cling to the known, as all of us do; Bolsinger writes:  “Lewis wasted no time in casting off assumptions once the brutal facts of his reality were clear.  There was no water route.  There were miles and miles of snowcapped mountain peaks in front of them.  They had no trail to follow.  Food was scarce in this rugged terrain.  And winter was coming.”  Bolsinger writes:  “This is the canoeing the mountains moment.  This was when the Corp of Discovery faced for the first time the breadth of the challenges posed by the Rocky Mountains and came to the irrefutable reality that there was no Northwest Passage.  No navigable water route to the Pacific Ocean.  This is the moment when they had to leave their boats.  Find horses and make the giant adaptive shift that comes from realizing their mental models for the terrain in front of them were wrong” (Ibid., p. 93).  Canoes would not get them over the mountains.  That which had served them well thus far, no longer would work.

They could have responded to the challenge differently – especially because the order from their Commander in Chief specifically charged them to find a water route from sea to sea.  Bolsinger writes:  “They could have decided that they had indeed discovered the vitally important, but certainly disappointing reality that the long-hoped for Northwest Passage and its water route was a myth.  . . .  They could have turned back.  They could have returned to Washington, made their reports, and told Thomas Jefferson that another crew more equipped to travel long distances through mountain passes should be launched on a different expedition.  But they didn’t” (Ibid., pp. 93-94).  History is defined by this moment and all the other things they could have done.  Nevertheless, Bolsinger writes, “at that moment, without even discussing it, Meriwether Lewis simply proceeded on” (Ibid., p. 94).   Deep within, he knew – as did Clark and the rest of their men – to what they really were called – not just some specific order from President Jefferson; but as men of the Enlightenment – even if it meant they would have to learn a whole new way through uncharted territory – Lewis, Clark, and their men were 100% dedicated to discovery in service to others as what gives meaning to life.  . . .  They kept going – re-committing to the principles that lie in the core of their being.  Leaving behind the familiarity of their canoes, they literally left the map.  They journeyed on.

It’s one week after Easter; but later that night according to the gospel of John.  Though Mary Magdalene had come from her garden encounter with the Risen Christ, the other disciples did not yet know what to make of the news.  Frightened, perhaps, that when the religious leaders caught wind of the story that the tomb was empty; their own crucifixions would be next.  Pick them off one by one, over some talk of “he is not here but has risen.”  Until every last preposterous voice was silenced.  There were no known mental models for how to live after your dead rabbi had risen from the grave.  No easy course to travel after one who had taught and healed and inspired was crucified, dead, and buried . . .  only to appear to them alive again just a day after the Sabbath rest???!!!  Standing in their shoes, we too would likely lock ourselves away in fear.  Not knowing the next steps to take after Mary burst in to declare she had seen the Lord!  It was their defining moment.  The moment all of heaven held its breath to see what this little ban of humans would do.

The gospel of John tells the story differently than do the gospels of Matthew and Mark, where the disciples later are given the great commission.  The gospel of Luke links with Acts to expand upon the reception of the Spirit 50 days after Easter at Pentecost.  But the gospel of John tells that it was on that first night of the week, the very night the tomb was discovered empty; the Risen One comes to his faithful followers breathing peace, in order to send them out into the world.  Somehow, he expects them to release others from their sins – a charge likely to clear those who had crucified him; so that the hearts of Christ’s followers would remain open.  Pure.  Ready to give witness to a revolutionary love often unseen on the world’s stage.  “Peace,” the Risen One says to those locked in fear.  “Now go.”  Get on with it – all he had commanded them pre-crucifixion.  They were to live the peace of laying down their lives for another, even as he had laid down his own for the sake of all the world.  “By this,” he had told them just a few nights ago at the supper when he knelt before them to wash their feet, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Almost like Acts of the Apostles records in that part of chapter four that we heard earlier – though it seems like a hyperbolic exaggeration.  The vision of a beloved community enacted.  Living in one accord – heart and soul fully committed to one another so that all was freely shared for the common good.  Giving powerful witness in word and deed to the way God always brings new life.  Epitomizing grace as any in need found themselves filled.  According to scripture, these were the first marks of the ones who followed Christ’s Way.  No matter if the world around embraced the Way or not, together they journeyed on.

Theologian Marcus Borg – as many others – likens the moment in which the church today finds itself to be much like the moment those first followers faced on the eve of Easter.  Locked in fear for what might come in a world that seemed hostile to the Risen One.  Another wise scholar of today describes us as those needing to learn to be “apostles on both sides of the door” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, D. Cam Murchison, p. 404).  “The missionary people empowered by this peace and this inbreathed Holy Spirit to bear the forgiving, transforming love of God into every sphere of human experience” (Ibid.).  The territory isn’t entirely unknown; for the first followers found their way post-resurrection.  Scripture also inspires us with the way they did finally leave that post-resurrection Upper Room to continue the adventure begun by their crucified and risen Lord.  Changing the course of history day by day in witness to the One whose life, death, and life again showed the Way of the great Creator of the Universe:  the abiding strength of love that triumphs even over death!  . . .  Though the current terrain may be unlike anything the church has enjoyed – at least since the founding of this nation; it is not impossible to traverse.  For remember, we worship the One whose very own mother was told at the announcement of his birth:  “nothing shall be impossible with God!”  (Luke 1:37).  It’s what Easter Sunday tells us!  What resurrection is all about!  . . .  That even when we stand metaphorically at the Lemhi Pass in Idaho – nothing but mile after mile of mountainous, off-the-map wilderness before us; the Risen Christ comes to us.  Breathing peace.  Helping us to let go of our cherished canoes.  Saying:  “Go.  Get on with it!  As the Father has sent me, so I send you!” (John 20:21).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Not Alone

A Sermon for 21 May 2017 – 6th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 14:15-21 (NRSV).  We continue to hear portions of Jesus’ words to his disciples at their last supper together the night before his death.  Listen for God’s word to us in this message recorded on Jesus’ lips:

“’If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’”

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

 

Have you ever taken on a project that ended up being too big for you to accomplish alone?  Maybe you’ve gotten yourself in over your head on a project at work and needed to call upon a few colleagues to help.  I’ve heard some of you speak of enlisting help to clean out your parent’s home after their passing – a difficult task made a little easer with the help of friends.  If being honest, I’m pretty sure anyone who ever has attempted to raise a child has said:  “Help!”  . . .  One spring a few years back when I was serving in a specialized ministry to children and their families; we came up with the idea to take old crayons, melt them down, then make new big crayons for the preschool children at the Martha O’Bryan Center.  This was a project intended for the fifteen or so first through sixth graders who attended the church’s Wednesday Night missions ministry.  The kids were all about hands-on projects to serve others.  The plan was to do a crayon drive opened to the whole 1,400 member congregation.  After about three weeks of that, the Wednesday Night kids would sort the crayons into like colors, then unwrap ones still rolled in that crayon paper.  As the project progressed, the children would be assisted by an adult experienced in such crayon-making who had some sort of hot plate for melting the wax and cute molds of letters, animals, and fun little shapes just right for the hands of pre-school colorers.  Perhaps you see where this is going.  . . .  The children of Wednesday Night made posters to put all over the church facility:  “COLOR DRIVE FOR MARTHA O’BRYAN PRE-SCHOOLERS!  Bring in your old ones; we’ll make them into new!”  We set out a small box beside my office door.  Sunday morning when I arrived, I already had to push through bags of crayons overflowing from the small collection box we had prepared.  And the crayons just kept coming.  Week one, week two, week three.  Even though we hadn’t seen 1,400 people in a week for ages, I think every last member of that church dug out the old crayons tucked back in their cupboards used by children who since had had children and some even grandchildren too!  By the time we called a halt to the crayon drive, I had like three large storage tubs filled to the brim of old crayons eager to be made into new!  After about a month of Wednesday nights, we finally had them all sorted, much to the exhaustion of the children who were excited to work on the project the first week, but pretty tired of it all by the end of week two!  And that was just the sorting.  Peeling off that tight paper glued by like super-glue around each crayon took forever!  We finally enlisted all the children’s Sunday School Teachers to make crayon peeling a project in the church’s ten children’s classrooms for a few weeks later that summer.  The adult assistant for the project and I each spent hours late at night at home for weeks trying to get at least a reasonable amount of crayons ready to take to Martha O’Bryan.  I still remember someone a year after when they were bored to tears recovering from surgery at home asking if I had any little project they might be able to do while they were laid up at home.  I returned the next week to their house with two huge plastic bags full of sorted crayons still needing to be peeled!  Eventually we gave up trying to complete the project – which is why I still have a two gallon plastic bag full of unpeeled crayons – which I could have brought to give out to you all today to enlist your help in the effort too!  . . .  Needless to say, the project ended up being WAY bigger than anyone anticipated and even WAY bigger than a small group of children and two overly-optimistic adults could accomplish!  It happens sometimes that we take on projects that are way too much for us to handle on our own.

Whether they realized it or not, Jesus knew.  Mid-way through the gospel of John, as Jesus gathers with his friends for that final meal; he gives them a project he knows will be way too much for them to handle on their own.  We heard it last week, and Thursday night of Holy Week too:  “a new command I give unto you, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  It’s how the whole world will know you follow my way!” (paraphrase John 13:34-35).  This is the way the gospel of John tells of Jesus instructing his friends to make an impact in the world:  being like a light that shines for others to see as the diverse group of folks he’s pulled together show his kind of love to one another.  Imagine what it was like for Peter, who history tells us perpetually was jealous of Mary Magdalene.  Imagine what it must have been like for him to show self-giving love for her.  How would it have been for someone like James or John who once worked really hard for a living as fishermen now asked by Jesus to extend the genuine hand of brotherhood to someone like Matthew, a tax collector who likely had cheated his fellow neighbors out of their hard-earned money as he lined his own pockets in an endeavor for the Romans.  And that was just in the inner circle.  What was going to happen when once this movement spread to those like Saul who used to hunt Jesus’ followers for the religious leaders, and those like the eunuch of Ethiopia who wanted to know about the One who freely gave his life, and even those like Lydia whose business in purple cloth far exceeded any wealth the rest would ever know.  They were going to need help, all right.  They would need the Spirit of God living in them if they were going to follow Christ’s command to make an impact in the world by loving one another.

In the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed hearing from many of you in our Listening Sessions.  We’ve still got lots of decisions to make as we navigate the way forward into this congregation’s future.  But I heard so many of you tell stories of your most meaningful ministry experiences in loving others.  In serving for God as you did everything from take care of homeless strangers, to be with children in need in short-term mission either as a counselor for the summer or as those ensuring they’d get clean water.  Some of you spoke of sitting with those of a different race as early as the 1960s to hear what life was like for those long-considered second class citizens in this nation.  Others of you told of ways you really want to make an impact in the lives of families who bring their children downstairs each week – whether or not those families ever end up upstairs in this sanctuary with us.  And still others want to ensure the needs of the surrounding community’s older adults are met – not necessarily the financial needs, but needs for human connection – breaking the isolation that aging alone at home too often brings.  It’s been wonderful to hear the passion you all really do have for the mission of this congregation:  for Serving God by Serving Others!  Someone even brought up the idea in a recent meeting of thinking about this congregation’s ministry as a concentric circle.  Like a pebble dropped into water having an outward ripple effect, it’s as if caring for the members of this congregation is the first ring of the mission, making a positive impact in the lives of the families and staff of the pre-school downstairs is the second ring, making a positive impact in the 1-5 mile radius of the local community is the next ring of mission, and making an impact in the word internationally through the mission of Living Waters for the World is the fourth ripple of impact in the mission of this congregation’s expression of Serving God by Serving Others.  It’s an interesting way to think about it, which certainly needs additional refinement as it rolls around in your thoughts and hearts.  And one thing’s for sure:  if this congregation is going to fulfill Christ’s command to make an impact in this world through love, then the Spirit of God surely will be needed among us.  The Spirit that guides into a new future.  The Spirit that revives when we’re weary.  The Spirit that persists in pushing us forward when we’re afraid or overwhelmed or just not wanting to go.  The Spirit of God is needed to fulfill the mission of Serving God by Serving Others!

The good news we hear from the gospel of John today is that Jesus has promised that this Spirit will be with us.  Wherever his people love one another, there God’s Spirit dwells!  We’re not quite to Pentecost Sunday yet, just six weeks into the season of Eastertide; but the gospel of John assigned in the lectionary for this Sunday wants it to be known that the church of Jesus Christ has not been abandoned.  We may be aging and this building may need a little repair – like a new HVAC.  We may not yet know exactly how to make a positive impact in the community living a stone’s throw from this sanctuary.  But we are not alone in this project Christ has given of Serving God by Serving Others.  The Spirit of God is with us.  And if it feels like the Spirit is missing then we better get busy loving one another to re-experience the Spirit with us all over again.  It’s a high calling but we do not undertake this endeavor alone.  The Holy Spirit of God abides with us.  Together, a little blood and sweat from us, a dash more reviving Spirit from God; together the Way will be made.  Trust the words of our Lord:  “I will not leave your orphaned.”  The Spirit of God abides with us today and evermore!

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

© Copyright JMN — 2017 (All rights reserved.)

Open

A Sermon for 6 September 2015

A reading from Romans 12:1-5. Listen for God’s word to us.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

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

We’re finally at it: the fourth of our four weeks on section F of the Book of Order. Presbyterian Foundational Principles. Foundation #4 is not quite as long as Foundation # 3 – the Calling of the Church. Remember Foundation #1 is God’s mission. Foundation #2 is Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. And just to be sure every aspect of the Trinity has a part, listen to Foundation #4.

“(F-1.04) Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Point 1: Continuity and Change. The presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around the marks of the true Church.” You remember from two weeks ago, I hope. That we believe the marks of the true Church are the unity of the Church in Christ, the holiness of the Church as set apart, the catholicity or universality of the Church, and the a-pos-to-lic-ity of the Church: our being sent out on a mission into the world. So, “the presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around (these) marks of the true Church. It is in all things subject to the Lord of the Church. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places. As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction, it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him. United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks (as Romans 12 reads) “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Point 2: Ecumenicity: The presbyterian system of government in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is established in light of Scripture but is not regarded as essential for the existence of the Christian Church nor required of all Christians. Point 3: Unity in Diversity: (Galatians 3 reads) “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution. Point 4: Openness: In Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation, the Church seeks a new openness to God’s mission in the world. In Christ, the triune God tends the least among us, suffers the curse of human sinfulness, raises up a new humanity, and promises a new future for all creation. In Christ, Church members share with all humanity the realities of creatureliness, sinfulness, brokenness, and suffering, as well as the future toward which God is drawing (us). The mission of God pertains not only to the Church but also to people everywhere and to all creation. As (we) participate in God’s mission, (we,) the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) seek: a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work; a new openness in (our) own membership, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit, as a visible sign of the new humanity; a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world; and a new openness to God’s continuing reformation of the Church ecumenical, that (we) might be more effective in (our) mission.” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-2017; F-1.04).

If you’ve been Presbyterian for any length of time, perhaps Foundation #4 seems a bit shocking. Openness???!!! To the Holy Spirit???!!! Classically these have NOT been the things for which Presbyterians have been known. Back in Divinity School, which was an ecumenical setting, all my friends used to chide me that as a Presbyterian I was one of the FROZEN CHOSEN! And frozen had nothing to do with being from Wisconsin. For years, we Presbyterians have been known in lots of church circles as being very serious, stodgy, head-driven types who emotionally are frozen; stuck in our intricate theologies. Cold: not on fire like say rowdy Pentecostals who worship full of great zip and zest. And, even though Presbyterian’s big contributions to the Christian effort are fabulous confessional statements and carefully-constructed systematic theologies, we have not been known for elaborate doctrines of the Spirit. We’ve been even more overlooked when it comes to being a people ready to be blown where God wills by the winds of the Holy Spirit. Our historic reputation is more than unfortunate as one of the hallmarks of our Reformed Theological Faith – the basis of what Presbyterians always have believed is: “Ecclesia reformata, simper reformanda” – “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit” (Book of Order, F-2.02). . . . Presbyterian Foundation #4: Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit challenges us to trust in a living God. We are asked to put all of our faith, all of our hope, all of our assurance in a God STILL at work in the world. A God ready to transform us as we look to a Lord and Savior who: “goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him” (F-1.0401).

If you ask me, this foundation is HARDWORK! At least it is for many of us. Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit implies a few things. First: it implies that we just might not be there quite yet. Incomplete. Imperfect. Unfinished. Who of us wants to be open to that?! Aren’t we always in a race in this society to be done? At the end – like those who have to peek to see how a good book ends instead of sitting back to enjoy how it all will unfold. . . . Some of us have lived a long time – a very long time. The Church has been around for a much longer time! And don’t you just feel weary some days? Haven’t we been open long enough? Haven’t we tried long enough? Must we continuously exist in this place of not quite yet being finished? . . . Though something in us just might want to cruise-control down the road on auto pilot. Being as we know. Doing as we’ve always done. Not having to face the grief that can come over that which ends before something new grows. One commentator has written that “if you’re a part of a vibrant congregation, (then) your church is in a constant state of transition.” And this is a good, welcomed thing! (Jan Edmiston, achurchforstarvingartists.com, “Rethinking Church Staffs,” 3 Sept. 2015). Openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit means a humble life of constant listening. Constant self-examination. Continual learning. Endless letting go. Openness can be really hard work!

And it’s not just about extra effort; this call to openness. It can be more than a little scary too! . . . You may know already that I grew up in the woods along Lake Michigan. In the winter when I was a child, my sister and I loved to haul out ice skates, tromp back through the snow, and see if the ice on the swamp was ready. I still can remember that old red coat of mine and the thick woolly socks. Gliding free over the ice was such a delight! It felt so amazing! Have you ever done it? The speed, the grace, the freedom of flying from one spot to the next way faster than any of us ever could walk. But you know what? Before those fabulous moments, I fell down – a lot! It was the risk I had to take if I wanted to skate. An older sister of mine once fell so hard she broke her leg – badly! Fortunately, I only bruised my knees a lot. . . . You know how when you’re just starting out – learning something new: be it ice skating, or driving a car, or maybe even trying to figure out how to relate to someone else in a little healthier way? Risk always is involved. We’re going to fall every now and again. But as the old saying goes: “Success consists of getting back up once more than we fall down.” Dust ourselves off and try again. No need to fear. Just accept that try and try again is a part of the process. . . . Being open to something new might scare us right out of our minds! But maybe that’s what God intends as a first step in having our minds transformed – renewed that we “may discern what is the will of God” in this situation and that instance and the next opportunity too (Rom. 12:2).

It’s exactly why we need to be open to the Holy Spirit – the wisdom that guides us into God’s desired future. . . . One commentator has written: “If a free flow of air is needed to make a fire, likewise a free flow of the Spirit is needed to form a church with a ‘burning center and porous borders.’” The commentator continues: “Without the Spirit, we will not only have conformist churches, we also will have churches suffering from respiratory failures. If churches are not inspired by the Spirit, then eventually they will expire” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3, Eleazar S. Fernandez, p. 378). And so: Come, Holy Spirit! Come and fill this place! Come and fill us with your surprising power! Come and lead us where God would have us go! . . . Remembering that it’s about continuity – staying in line with what has gone before – AND, as Foundation #4, point 1 states: CHANGE – being drawn deeper “into the sovereign activity of the triune God” . . . through reform, through fresh direction, through following Jesus Christ who “goes ahead of us.” He’s our leader not only so we know which way to go. He’s our leader because the living God sends him before us still to make a way for us to walk too. It’s as if Christ says: “this is the path. Walk on it!” We’ll be sustained by the Spirit. We’ll be given the courage needed. We’ll find ourselves standing one foot in line with the past and the other stepping forward to what yet will be.

This is our sure footing. Our foundation: God’s mission. With Jesus Christ as our Head, the Church called and continually open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for this solid ground upon which the Church of Jesus Christ forever shall stand!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)