Tag Archives: John Philip Newell

The Heartbeat of the Universe

A Sermon for 7 October 2018 – World Communion Sunday

In a wonderful book called Christ of the Celts, John Philip Newell states that we all must choose.  As we listen to the tune at the heart of the universe, what is it that we hear:  judgement or love?  It seems an important question to consider before launching into a sermon on a text like the one we have before us today.  Late this week after Beebe already had run the bulletins, I wished I would have picked one of the other lectionary texts assigned for this World Communion Sunday and avoided this complicated gospel story all together!  Then I remembered Newell’s question.  What tune resides at the heart of the universe?  What tune echoes throughout the caverns of our souls?  What tune did Christ reveal in full?  . . .  If we believe the tune at the core of it all is judgement, then the story we are about to hear could lead to simple conclusions that we could pick out of scripture to hold as authoritative as we ignore the setting of this story.  A story in which Jesus is being tested on the topic of divorce.  Leaders of his day who seem to have chosen the option of the harsher tune want to trap him.  But if we believe the tune at the center of it all – if we believe that the tune in the center of God’s own heart is love . . . well, then listen.

A reading from the gospel of Mark 10:1-16.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan.  And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.  Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.  But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.  Jesus said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

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

 

Now, before we go jumping to any hasty conclusions – or being distracted in a stew of guilt upon the reading of this text – or worse yet:  closing up shop all together in order to dismiss what at first glance may appear to be a text confirming judgement at the heart of the universe; remember the context.  The Pharisees weren’t coming at Jesus with an off-the-wall, out-of-left-field question regarding divorce.  It’s part of the problem of reading small snippets of scripture one at a time – we forget the context.  The question posed to Jesus, this test in which the religious leaders of his day hope to trap him, is far from left-field.  It’s a brilliant, though devious, fast-ball aimed right at the bull’s eye of happenings in their day.  King Herod and Herodias’ marriage!

Here we have Jesus traveling through the region of Judea even stepping beyond the Jordan to the east bank.  You may or may not know that this is supposedly the same place where John the Baptist got the axe (literally!).  Remember that John lost his head because of his words against the swop-a-roo marriage of Galilee’s tetrarch King Herod to his brother’s wife Herodias.  Upon hearing of John’s beheading by Herod, Jesus seeks a break – likely a time to re-strengthen his resolve to be ready to continue, no matter the consequences.  Longing crowds hunt him down, so Jesus returns to public teaching.  No sooner does he, than some Pharisees arrive.  The gospel writer keeps telling us that they are on a quest to test him.  Obviously threatened by him, they try again and again to trip him up.  This time they bring the million-dollar question of divorce.  The actions of King Herod and Herodias certainly have them spinning.  The convenient divorce and re-marriage at the top of the ranks is the context of this encounter.

It’s not a new question for the Jewish leaders.  You see Moses had allowed a man to obtain a certificate to send his old honey along her merry way.  The legality of divorce really wasn’t the question of the day.  The circumstances under which such a certificate of dismissal could be granted was.  . . .  Some said, “Only if she’s caught fooling around with some other man.”  The opposite end of the spectrum refuted, “Ah-uh.  If she burns my toast two mornings in a row, she is outta here!”  In Ancient Israel, men alone legally were allowed to seek such a certificate of dismissal.  Though Roman law allowed women to initiate divorce, ancient Jewish law did not (C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 143).  Which is a reminder that we are walking in the realm of a culture that understood marriage much differently than we do today.  The patriarchs of scripture even practiced polygamy.  Marriage in antiquity had to do with the transfer of property (a young girl from her father to another man) in order, often, to secure more property (more land and large dowries).  One commentator reminds that “in Jesus’ day, when a woman received a ‘certificate of divorce,’ she lost most of her rights (like the right to own property).  She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income.”  The commentator concludes:  “Clearly, Jesus had a pastoral concern for women who could have their lives torn apart by a signature on a piece of paper.  (Because) in the kingdom of God, there should be mutual respect and concern for each other” (David B. Howell, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 142).  Might Jesus have been encouraging an alternate view of marriage?  One radically based on mutual love?

In that spirit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 2018 Book of Common Worship, for the first time in 25 years, has revised the liturgy for marriage.  It now reads thus:  “From the beginning, God created us for relationship and kept covenant with us.  Jesus gave himself in love and taught us continually to forgive.  And the Holy Spirit, given in baptism, renews God’s grace within us day by day, enabling us to grow in faith, in hope, and in love.”  The new marriage liturgy continues stating:  “Those who marry are called to a way of life marked by grace, fidelity, and mutual respect, as they bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys.  As blank and blank” – which means fill in with the names of the two standing before God and everybody in the wedding ceremony.  “As blank and blank make their promises today; families are joined, friendships are strengthened, and a new community of love is formed.  Let us surround blank and blank with our affection and prayer, giving thanks for their love for one another and for all the ways that God’s love is made manifest in our lives” (p. 691).  The liturgy almost makes even me wanna get married!  For what a beautiful reminder of what God has intended for those who marry.  Spouses are to be visible reminders to the world that God designed us for love.  Created us for right-relationship.  And remains with us on the days when loving one another is a great joy and when it’s not.

In light of the gospel text before us today; you might understand why, as I reviewed the new Book of Common Worship this week, I let out an audible gasp.  When I turned past the first liturgy in the new Marriage section, and the second which is fully in Spanish, and the third which is a “Reaffirmation of Marriage Vows;” I found the fourth.  A liturgy unlike any I have seen before.  It’s entitled:  “Prayer at the End of a Marriage.”  It reads:  “Blank and Blank,” again, insert the names of the two people who have given it their all, but for whatever reason no longer can move forward in life as a married couple.  The liturgy begins:  “Blank and blank, we gather here today to pray for Christ’s healing, to seek the Spirit’s guidance, and to ask forgiveness from God and one another.”  The pastor then reads:  “Hear these words of comfort and hope from scripture.  God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.  (So, in the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew,) come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  (Hear also words of the Apostle Paul from Romans):  the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (p. 711).

Can you imagine hearing these words from scripture in the context of marriage’s difficulties?  Can you imagine the healing for all for whom a marriage regrettably comes to an end if again those divorcing would gather with their pastor, children, family, and friends to pray for God’s strength in the midst of what is one of life’s most painful moments?  How might it offer healing for all if, as the liturgy encourages, those divorcing would stand together to speak these words:  “Blank (fill in with the name of the soon-to-be ex-spouse) I return this ring to you, with gratitude for the blessings of our marriage . . . (the liturgy notes read:  at this point) [children of the marriage may be named].”  The person continues by saying:  I return this ring to you with “sorrow for that which is broken between us . . .  and hope for the future into which God will lead us” (p. 713).  The liturgy for “Prayer at the End of a Marriage” closes with a charge to “Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Then the pastor raises their hands over two who’s lives will go a very different way than they once anticipated, to remind them that God does bless and keep them.  Is kind and gracious to them.  Looks upon them with favor.  And will give them peace forever.  Can you hear the tune at the heart of the universe loudly echoing in such prayers?  Through such a liturgy, can you see the Divine heart aglow with Love?

One day long ago, religious leaders wanted to trap Jesus.  They wanted him to declare his allegiance to one party or the other.  They wanted him to align with their hard-hearts or whimsically dismiss women in the ways of their local King Herod.  . . .  Instead, Jesus takes the argument all the way back to the beginning.  He reminds that God so desired mutual connectedness that when God made the first helpmate, the creature declared at long last, “Finally bone of my bone.  Flesh of my flesh! (Gen. 2:18-25).  Oh!  Thank you, thank you, thank you, LORD!  . . .  It’s not a set of divorce criteria Jesus is attempting to set up here in this text from the gospel of Mark.  Instead, Jesus seeks to vocalize, then (by welcoming the children) enact, that Love is the tune at the heart of the universe; for Love is the heartbeat of God.  . . .  Will we be eternally held out if our loves fail?  Are we guilty in God’s eyes if our relationships regrettably fall apart?  I don’t think so.  That would make God’s heart into a heart of stone – judgement over love, turning it all into law – the very thing the Pharisees wanted, and Jesus wanted to steer clear of.  Making God’s gift something other than a gift.  That’s a message we can hold on to on this World Communion Sunday.  A message that reminds that at the heart of the universe is Love; for God is Love.  May all our relationships reflect the very same Love.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Life from Death

It was so uplifting Saturday to be at a regional meeting of church folk (a.k.a. a Presbytery meeting).  I know!  If you’ve ever been to one, then it may not seem a credible statement.  But it was for me.

I’ve been doing a lot of research and reflection lately on the church, contemporary culture, and change.  In many ways, it’s been my passion for the past decade.  Inevitably, it leaves me wondering often about what of the church needs to die.  I dream too about what might be able to grow if in fact those within the church (like me) let go of what we’ve always known.  It’s scary.  It calls me to dig deeper into that vow to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

I used to care about needed changes in the church for reasons like job security, and to ease my frustration over things that drive me bonkers about the church, and to create ways that might be easier on all.  The deeper I go in it, the more I see that I care because my own life is full of all sorts of people who I love immensely and who want nothing to do with communities of faith in which I have lived my whole life.  Many of the folks in my life used to want to be a part; but for whatever reason, they no longer can be.  Some have been burned badly, or been raised with terrible theology that still haunts them, or find themselves totally bored in worship by things that seem absolutely irrelevant to daily life.  I even find active church folks who desperately want something different, something more; but don’t have the foggiest idea what that looks like or how to get there.  Of course, I know there always will be people who aren’t at all interested.  They never have been and they likely never will be.

My heart breaks for us all.

Just to be clear:  I think it’s wise to turn away from a people who label themselves with Jesus’ name but act like the antithesis.  I think it’s tragic to feel isolated or lonely or unloved or unlovable and have no community to turn t0 — especially because some expressions of church today are at their best and do offer the needed healing balm.  I think it’s deplorable to be seeking — or worse yet:  to already have connected deeply to the Life Force — only to be told that such things are NOT of God (which, in fact, they are!  The Divine is about the journey of awe and wonder; not certainty and fact).   I think it’s sense-less that the hearts of a people who claim the name Jesus aren’t breaking for the eclectic array of people Jesus went out of his way to welcome home.  It’s not ok to me for people to be unaware that they are beautiful, cherished treasures.  And it’s even worse to me for any to be deemed unacceptable by others who believe they know.

Recently I saw an amazing clip on The Work of the People in which Rachel Held Evans made a matter of fact statement that rocked me to the core:  “Empires worry about death.  Gardeners do not worry about death”  (To watch the clip go to http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/creating-something-new).  A few day later I watched a clip by John Philip Newell on “Dreaming Forward” (http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/dream-forward).  Newell quoted the Dalai Lama regarding hope for the future.  He said:  “‘Of course I believe there is hope for the future.  The future hasn’t happened yet.'”  My mind once again blown, I went off to the Presbytery meeting Saturday where we heard from three different young adult women (interestingly all were women) who spoke passionately about the meaning they have been finding for life through their involvement in Presbyterian Campus Ministries.  They have connected with others and that which is beyond, they have built relationships and learned from those much different from themselves, they have helped the hurting and shown love to those battered by life.  I left that meeting so excited that these young women are the church today:  the future hope in our midst.  The people who passionately and honestly seek to follow the Way of Love.  Ones who want to make a difference in others lives, not just seek to have their own needs met.

Maybe it’s just a handful and maybe as they get older the flame will fade.

Or maybe . . . just maybe, their lives (and the fruit of who they are) are the new growth.  And maybe, just maybe, all can learn a thing or two from them as we seek to breakdown in ourselves the walls of cynicism, self-focus, and indifference.

Then . . . maybe, just maybe, our own fresh growth will unfurl under the blazing sunshine in the grand garden of this world.

Here’s hoping . . . here’s to hoping!

 

Peace & Love prevail,

RevJule

 

The Ministry of This Church

A Sermon for 11 October 2015 – Celebration Sunday

A reading from Mark 10:17-31. Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” The man said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.””

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

I heard a story this week about the ruins of the nunnery on the island of Iona in Scotland. (John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts, “Prologue”). Though the walls of the nunnery have been fallen for years, at one time the edifice stretched to the heavens to house a community of women who had devoted their lives to God through life together in that convent. I don’t know much about how life unfolded for those who once thrived in that spot. The storyteller mentioned the joys of communal life: catching up with each other as they peeled potatoes for the community dinner. Finding one another in corridors when news from home came that broke their hearts in two. Strolling together beside the sea on Iona to tell of their latest insight. There in that nunnery, disciples had worshipped God and opened their hearts to the beauty of the Psalms and diligently prayed for a world at peace. They had welcomed guests and shared what they could with the downtrodden and sought to live out their lives in obedience to God alongside one another. Long have the ruins of the nunnery on Iona gone unnoticed, the storyteller explained. But in the past few decades, the spot has become one of the most hallowed on a weekly trek around the island for pilgrims that have come from all over the world. Something about the ruins of the nunnery speaks to seekers’ deepest desires for community. For expressions of Christian faith that know we need each other – that we are dependent upon each other if we’ve got any shot at living faithful to the gospel. Something about that spot that marks the place where women once lived in devoted relationship together – well, something about that spot calls to the places in pilgrims that long for similar connection with God and one another.

At first glance, the ruins of the nunnery on the island of Iona may seem to have not one thing to do with the gospel text before us today. It begins with an eager man coming to Jesus to know what to do to get eternal life. We immediately may think of the afterlife – as this man may have been considering as well. But Jesus clearly has a different notion about inheriting eternal life. . . . This is a good, God-fearing man who has done all he can to keep the commands of God. “Since my youth,” he says, “I have followed God’s law” (Mark 10:20). No murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witnessing, no defrauding, and dutifully bringing honor to his mother and father. In a look of love, Jesus tells him one thing more: “go sell what you have, give the money to the poor, then come follow me” (Mark 10:21). After the whole exchange about camels going through needles’ eyes, Jesus disciples start to wonder. What about their reward? If the man with many possessions wants to know about inheriting more than he already has, then what about them? They had left everything to follow. They committed themselves to being Christ’s disciples. As if the adventure of all those miracles wasn’t enough – seeing him feed hungry crowds, and heal broken bodies, and turn lives around with the good news of God’s unmerited love – as if all that wasn’t abundance enough, Jesus’ disciples start wondering what they might inherit for all their trouble.

It’s how we know Jesus isn’t talking just about some distant future after our days on earth are done. You see, what God’s up to never has been just about some day by and by. It’s so easy to forget. As we’re out here on the road of discipleship, how often do we stop to take stock? How often do we pause to see the ways our lives already overflow abundantly – eternally – because of our inclusion in the body of Christ? . . . He’s telling his first disciples they’re surrounded now with brothers and sisters on the journey. All sorts of opportunities to exercise the message he’s teaching them. They’re encircled by the joys that come from life together in Christ’s name. The ways we know love and mercy and hope and peace and forgiveness from our lives intertwining with those in this sanctuary and beyond. . . . Think for a moment how your life would be if you had nothing to do with the ministry of this church. What would vanish – who would vanish immediately from your life if you weren’t a part of this congregation? . . . From my own, I know I’d be missing out on a whole lot of laughter and love and care. Without one another, you just might not have made it through that last family struggle. Would you have been able to fend for yourself through the illness that nearly took you under? Would your worldview be as big as it is because of the insights you’ve heard in Sunday School, or the stories you now know from those coming for help from the food pantry? Would your spirit have had that moment of connection with God’s Spirit without the inspiring music of the choir? Would you know people who do pray for you and listen to you and are ready to help you in times of need had your life never come into the presence of Christ living through the people of this church? . . . It’s easy to focus on what we hope to get one day at our end; but Jesus won’t let us get stuck there. He’s among us to let us know that each day, as a part of the family of God, is our reward – our blessing as we share our lives with one another and with all in need who cross our path. . . . Somedays it might be like iron sharpening iron – the rough edges of ourselves getting smoothed out in relationship with one another. Somedays we might more fully know our convictions – the truth God has put within us because of some other message we hear from another. I heard from a homebound member of this congregation this week – even though they can’t be present right now. They said that just knowing you all are here, the love of God continuing through you in this place – well for that homebound member of this congregation, that is comfort enough.

It’s what the man coming to Jesus will miss. It’s not that Jesus wants us all to give up everything we have to come after him. Unless like that man, we’re locked in an isolated circle of our own wealth. The man can follow all the rules all by himself. He can’t know love, however; he can’t know the kind of pour-out-your-life for the benefit of another which is God. He’ll never experience that all on his own. None of us will. . . . We can possess all sorts of stuff in this life, and let it possess us. Or we can hold on loosely in order to have hands open, ready, willing to be with another. Reaching out in relationship to experience today the hundredfold wealth of community in Christ’s name. It’s a simple choice when we get down to it: for what reward will we toil?

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)