Tag Archives: PCUSA

Extravagant Abundance

A Sermon for 20 January 2019

A reading from the gospel of John 2:1-11.  As we move into the season after Epiphany, when lectionary readings show us more deeply the revelation of Christ; listen for God’s word to us.  And remember that this is the gospel of John’s telling of how Jesus’ ministry begins just after calling his disciples.  Listen.

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.”  And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”  So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

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

            Thanks be to God.

 

Following Fellowship Time today, the new 2019 session of this church will meet for the first time.  After we’re called to order for the meeting to begin, we’ll start as we always do with a time of devotion.  Sometimes we spend a few minutes in silence to gather ourselves before diving into discerning business for the church.  Sometimes we read a scripture passage and a reflection upon it.  Sometimes we share inspirational sayings around a particular theme like gratitude or gifts or recharging for leadership among the church.  Today, your new session is going to hear words from the “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” as outlined in part two of our denomination’s constitution, The Book of Order.  (You may know that part 1 of our constitution is The Book of Confessions which contains the 12 creeds and confessions by which we are guided theologically in the PCUSA.)  Here are the words the session will hear as a part of their devotional time today.  From F-1.0202 entitled Christ Calls and Equips the Church:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world.”  We’ll hear these words too:  “Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word” (Ibid.).  And “Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body” (Ibid., F-1.0301).  Let that sink in – especially in light of a story from the gospel of John that demonstrates the abundant generosity of a God who would turn as much as 180 gallons of water into delicious, delightful wine just to ensure a family in Cana would not lose face with wedding guests who otherwise would be incredibly disappointed that halfway through the celebration of the union, nothing was left to drink!  Take deeply into your mind, soul, and heart the words Presbyterians have trusted for centuries:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid., F-1.0202).  Just to be sure we all remember, I should make you repeat it after me. Repeat it after me:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).

I love to tell the story.  Maybe you’ve heard it from me already.  A year ago, we got going full steam ahead with renewed ways for this church to live out the mission of this church that you all discerned sometime the fall of 2015.  You concluded that this church exists to serve God by serving others.  About this time last year, two Renewal Team members began the process of making contact with the high school right across the street.  Calls were made.  Emails were sent.  Calls were made again.  This went on for something like six or eight weeks.  We figured out who we already knew on the staff and tried to gain access that way.  As a church we wanted to build community partners beyond the main one we’ve had for years with the preschool downstairs.  And, as the high school literally sits across the street, we were offering to help.  Asking for a meeting or any ideas on how we might be able to connect.  Crickets.  Nothing.  No response whatsoever – nothing even back through the contact on the inside who tried to send on word for us.  Sometimes God assists in clarifying a church’s mission by what does not work!

The Renewal Team went back to the drawing board.  What about an elementary school nearby, we thought.  Or a different direction all together.  Finally, we decided to give the nearby middle school a shot.  A Renewal Team member re-composed an email sending it off something like a Tuesday late in the afternoon.  Before I went to bed that night, I received two cc’ed responses.  One was from Principle Carrie Jones.  The other from Community Involvement Specialist Maggie Dicks.  Both emails resounded with:  “Yes!!!!  We would LOVE for you all to become our community partner!”  The next thing we knew, we were scooping out ice cream in their cafeteria to host a social for the 5th grade Welcome to Middle School night.  Kleenix and hand sanitizer became regular items in all of our shopping carts to ensure teachers and students of the middle school would have all they would need.  This past fall, tutors got started – five from among us.  And, I’m excited to report that next Wednesday, our first parent from the preschool downstairs will drop off her baby downstairs then head over to the middle school to begin tutoring with students each week.  “Wanna help with a Rise Against Hunger event,” we were asked.  Two of you went during the very busy week of Thanksgiving to set up tables and pack highly nutritious non-perishable meals among 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  “Got any gently used umbrellas the children could use to get to and from their portable classrooms,” the school wondered?  And here we are:  about to go to a joint meeting with other middle school Community Partners to learn how we can work together next.  Oh:  and finalizing a date for us to provide lunch for teachers and staff during Teacher Appreciation week this March.

“Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  Do you see how doors get opened when the Church gets clear about the mission in the world God has entrusted to us?  . . .  It happened almost as miraculously with Mending Hearts, the residential addiction treatment homes for women located just four miles northeast of here.  For months we offered Mending Hearts a whole bunch of ways we could serve.  At long last we connected on our Women of the Church hosting a women’s lunch for women in Mending Hearts’ addiction recovery process and women of this church.  After two wonderful lunches together last year, we’re looking at plans for at least 2 if not 3 lunches together in 2019.  Of course, a joint women’s lunch would be a great hit!  This church is full of great cooks and lots of welcoming love!  The thank you card received a few weeks ago from the Mending Hearts participants was confirmation!  Indeed, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).

I hope you know that ACA – Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families – continues to meet in a room down the hall that hadn’t been used in several years.  Every Saturday they are here.  A small group at 10:30 a.m. meeting to specifically work through the process of healing from childhood trauma.  A larger group at 1 p.m. to support each other on their journey of learning new, healthier ways to function after being children who had to become the adult of the household due to their parents’ personal problems.  You may not know how it all came about that we now have nearly 50 people here every Saturday.  You and the leaders of this church – the session and Renewal Team members – talked and dreamed and worked for this building to be used again by the community.  About 12 months ago I remember asking if we wanted to set a goal to have a certain number of outside groups using the space by the end of each 2018 quarter.  We weren’t ready to be that ambitious.  T.H.E.Y. kept on tidying up what was needed.  Prayers continued to be prayed.  Sometime last summer I got an email from a woman I had met the prior year.  “Hello Jule,” the email read.  “I’m a member of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.  The husband of one of your friends mentioned at our meeting Saturday that he had heard Hillwood might have space for community groups to use.”  The session and leaders here diligently checked it out.  We decided what we needed to know and do in order to make such regular upstairs space-sharing work smoothly.  By the end of September, we had given over our first upstairs key to a group from the community that would use the building weekly.  This week when I bumped into ACA leaders, I was greeted with big hugs.  One asked if we could be sure to return all 50 chairs to the room in which they meet weekly because there were only 42 chairs the last few Saturdays and one participant had to sit on the floor.  The other leader told me he was moved to tears at Christmas when they found the holiday card our Painting group made and left for each ACA group.  He said that little card made him and other participants of ACA feel so incredibly welcomed by this church.  A feeling not always experienced elsewhere before.

“Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  . . .  I saw it again this week.  If you were here last Sunday for our FRED (Fellowship, Renewal, Education, and Devotion) brainstorm meeting, then you might recall that the following interests were put pretty high on the list:  Nature Art – which is right in line with the plan to expand creativity ministries in 2019.  A presentation by Retrieving Independence and maybe another Pet Blessing in conjunction with learning about the agency that trains retriever puppies in the local prison, then ensures those who need service animals have an affordable dog ready to go.  Learning with other churches in the neighborhood also made that list.  Wednesday I met with other neighborhood pastors.  The first thing I was asked was if we might have any interest in partnering to bring another Rise Against Hunger meal-packing event either to the middle school or to the neighborhood in general by our churches working together.  We moved on to wonder what might be possible if we pulled together the artist over at another nearby church with the people in our churches who already are into creative art as a way to feed their spirits.  Before I knew it, I was being asked if church members might have any interest in a joint Blue Advent service next year – something two of you asked about in December – a Blue Advent service being a worship experience for healing and hope during the season of Advent.  Because just when the world wants us to be jolly; many long for a quiet, holy space because they are grieving or going through other emotional challenges.  “And what about a joint Blessing of the Animals,” one pastor asked Wednesday.  “We could do it right on that big flood plain by the railroad tracks off Harding and Davidson.”  4 p.m. 29 September already is set.

We don’t always get to see the ways that “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  We either forgot to take the time to notice.  Or we don’t really know how everything comes together in the life of a church – how God’s Spirit hovers over it all bringing God’s will to fruition!  . . .  If the gospel of John’s way of telling the opening of Jesus’ ministry has anything at all to teach us, it is this:  an extravagant God abundantly provides.  In the life of the church.  In our lives in the world.  Sometimes it seems as unexpected as water turning to wine.  Sometimes as mystifying as suddenly having to figure out what to do with 180 gallons!  Or as one commentator writes:  “the equivalent of six hundred to nine hundred bottles of fine wine” – an act so miraculous we are called to linger for a while over an extravagant God (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1; WJKP, 2018, Matthew L. Skinner, p. 191).  For, as that same commentator writes, “There will be no shortages or rationings when the messianic banquet opens its doors” (Ibid.).  The prophets had foretold, as Isaiah 25 records:  an amazing “feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6).  For the banquet of the marriage – the celebration of the union of God with humankind – in Christ, has begun!  And as that same biblical commentator reminds:  “The church should . . . trust in a God who abundantly provides” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1; WJKP, 2018, Matthew L. Skinner, p. 190).  In our life together.  In our lives when from here we go, may it ever be so!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Boating with Jesus

A Sermon for 24 June 2018

 

A reading from the gospel of Mark 4:35-41.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.  Other boats were with him.  37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

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

 

A few years ago, I was on a boat.  Growing up on Lake Michigan, I’d often been on our boat.  Fishing with dad.  Messing around summer afternoons with my sister as we rowed out beyond second sandbar.  Relaxing with friends in the quiet offshore.  Boats are nothing new to me – likely they’re not to some of you too.  Canoes.  House Boats.  Ocean liners.  I’ve pretty much experienced them all.  The boat I was on in 2014 was not only unexpected.  It ended up to be kinda ironic.  I was on a pilgrimage as the culmination of my work for a Certificate in Christian Spiritual Formation through Columbia Seminary.  We were in the Holy Land.  Staying in a wonderful inn in the city of Tiberias.  When we loaded the bus one morning, we drove north then east to the entrance of a boat launch.  We walked through a museum housing the remains of a First Century fishing boat which at last was recovered from the sea in 1986.  Finally, we got ourselves on board the much sturdier, modern tour boat.  The captain powered up the motor.  And away we went for a ride on the Sea of Galilee.

Never before had I been to the Holy Land.  On the other side of the world.  Reflecting with every step upon story after story I had known since I was young.  It was amazingly eye-opening to actually see the places the stories mentioned:  Capernaum, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, Jerusalem, and, of course, the Sea of Galilee around which Jesus spent so much of his ministry.  I’ll never forget that Galilee boat ride.  Because no sooner did we get out into the middle of what seemed to me to be a pretty small lake; after all, it’s nothing like Lake Michigan where all you see is sandy beaches and blue water the whole way to the horizon.  But there we were.  In the middle of that eight-mile-wide lake alongside Tiberias when the wind switched.  Dark clouds rolled in.  And a storm overtook the sea.  Moments before my fellow pilgrims had been standing at the boat’s edge, looking to Tiberias on one end of the sea, Capernaum on another, the southern side of the lake from which the Jordan River flows, the eastern cliffs believed to be the spot the demon-possessed pigs jumped off into the sea.  Then suddenly the wind whipped up.  The waves thrashed about.  The rain pounded down upon us and that little boat.  The captain was panicked.  Barking orders for us to sit down fast.  He did a 180 to promptly cut our sea cruise short – worried not so much about our safety, but of the fate of his livelihood; his precious touring boat.  Inching ever so slowly through the chopping water in hopes we’d make it safely back to shore, we were presented with a few moments to ponder just what it must have been like to be out there on a boat much smaller and more fragile than our captain’s sturdy vessel.  According to the story as record in the gospel of Mark:  in the middle of night.  After a long day of hearing story upon story about God’s kingdom.  Only to find Jesus – the charismatic teacher who had been inspiring his little ban of followers – snug in the stern.  Asleep in the back of the boat!

Boats offer intriguing experiences, wouldn’t you say?  What could be better than speeding across the water, skimming the wake, escaping the heat of summer – good friends and family all around?  Boats offer the tranquility of lazily floating down a river.  Or cruising a mighty ocean.  Boats can be as simple as a single-person kayak, as tough as an industrial barge, or as sleek as an elegant yacht.  It’s hard to escape others once you step foot upon a boat.  From the steadiness needed by all in a little row boat to the teamwork it requires to sail one from shore to shore.  Even the largest ship reminds we’re all in it together if suddenly something like an iceberg buckles the starboard side.

Almost from the beginning, boats have been a symbol of the church.  Perhaps you’ve seen sanctuaries built to the glory of God with rugged vaulted ceilings made of exposed wooden beams, intentionally fashioned to resemble the reversed look of a boat’s keel.  The architecture of many cathedrals contains what’s called transepts – the part of the building extending north to south like the horizontal beam of the cross.  The transepts run between the parts of the building called the chancel area and the part of the building called the nave, from the Latin word navis.  As in navy, naval.  Ship.  Some liturgies for baptism even include these words:  “’Received into the ark of Christ’s Church . . . may’” (the baptized) “’so pass the waves of this troublesome world’ as finally to ‘come to the land of everlasting life.’  . . .  It’s been written that “The nave, then, (represents) the Church into which God, in (God’s) love gathers us together in order to bring us in safety through the storms of life” (http://biblehub.com/library/regester/the_worship_of_the_church/symbolism_of_the_church_building.htm).  Like Noah and the two-by-two animals that made their way into the big boat right before the rains began.  The Church is the boat of God that holds us all.  And like Noah and all the animals in the big boat, it’s important to remember.  It might get a little stinky inside; but it sure beats drowning outside the ark alone in life’s flood waters.  One source writes of the boat of the Church as “tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching safe harbor with its cargo of human souls” (Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, http://www.jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols/ship.htm).

It’s been an interesting week to be reflecting upon the story of the boat that holds the sleeping Christ.  How often do we feel like the battered little boat of disciples wishing Jesus would wake up to save us in the churning sea of today’s world?  It might be helpful to know one commentator’s take on why Jesus was able to sleep through the storm on the boat.  In Feasting on the Gospels, Thomas D. Stegman, writes:  “Jesus’ untroubled sleep shows forth his deep, abiding trust in God’s power and protection.  It also recalls the sleep of the farmer in the parable Jesus just told (4:26-29), the sleep that faithfully awaits God’s creative work of nurturing the growth of the field and bringing it to harvest” (Feasting on the Gospels:  Mark; Westminster John Know Press, 2014.  p. 143).  Might we too be a little boat of disciples, holding the sleeping Christ?  Untroubled, he is with us amid the storm.  Awaiting God’s creative work.

It certainly seemed like it when I read this week of the work of the part of God’s boat called the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Perhaps you followed along too.  As the biennial gathering of our national governing body, the General Assembly, met in St. Louis; I was in awe to see what the part of God’s boat called the PCUSA has been up to.  Of course, the week included vigorous debate like that over whether or not to charge the Board of Pensions to stop investing pastor’s pensions in companies who knowingly are doing further harm to the environment.  It also included money of the church being restricted to help repair Native American churches.  And passing an overture about possibly adopting as a confession to be added to our Book of Confessions Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.”  At one point in the week, a young adult attender rose to tell the whole assembly how proud he is to be a part of a denomination that has been becoming more welcoming and affirming for all.  Then, in the very next breath; he came out to everyone there only to be immediately swarmed by a huge group hug (https://marciglass.com/2018/06/21/proud-to-be-presbyterian/).  The week also included something I’ve never before seen reported from GA.  On Tuesday about 400 Presbyterians left the convention hall in St. Louis to march over to the Justice Center with an offering of $47,000.  The money was raised to pay the bail of nearly 3 dozen non-violent offenders charged with things possession of marijuana and public disturbance.  Some have been held for up to a year because they have not been able to scrape together the cash-only required bail needed to release them from jail.  Presbyterians not only gathered to worship and study and debate.  We gathered to serve, as did high schoolers of the Hands and Feet initiative who tagged along from their Presbyterian Churches in Kentucky and Arkansas to do mission work in Ferguson.  The trip was planned in conjunction with the General Assembly gathering so Presbyterians intentionally would bring a positive impact to the St. Louis area (p. 5 of https://issuu.com/pcusa_oga/docs/ga223_news_day_6?e=33600028/62576572).  We gathered to serve the underserved in a racially torn town and ensure the release of captives.  We gathered to amend wrongs of the past and embrace a hopeful future for the least and lost among us.  Somewhere I read of a charge from the General Assembly for all Presbyterians to “live up to the qualities reflected in the PCUSA’s acronym:  Prayerful, Courageous, United, Serving, and Alive” (p. 3 of https://issuu.com/pcusa_oga/docs/ga223_news_day_6?e=33600028/62576572).  At work today!  Members of God’s boat with a trusting Christ asleep among us.  For he already sees in action God’s creative work!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

Changes

Yesterday the church of my childhood left the denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  It had been a long time coming.  For years they have struggled with others in their Presbytery (the collective body of Presbyterians in their region).  In fact, I experienced that firsthand when my own process to ordination became a bit of a battleground between them and the Presbytery.  It was a messy, challenging time in the course of my journey.  I see now that it was painful for us all — each one of us trying to be faithful to who we believe God to be. 

Even though it has been nearly twenty-five years since I have been directly connected with the church of my childhood, something about yesterday grieves me deeply.  Like a long-awaited divorce in which the papers finally are settled. It’s not necessarily easier no matter how long it takes or how long it’s been since you all last talked.  I keep coming back to this odd sensation that somewhere along the way we all have grown into someone other than who we once were.  I believe that my own life and worldview have gotten bigger.  I’ve never considered myself a courageous person; yet I can see how from that starting point, my own journey has unfolded as one of openness, acceptance, and trust that we all are held in the messiness of it all.  Even if we no longer understand God, ourselves, or the world in the same ways; I am grateful for how I was blessed from the ministry of that congregation.

As we formally part ways, I need to say thank you.  I am because of who they all are — or have been.  I remember Mrs. Bacchaus.  Every week in the church basement, she taught us with the felt board and the rolling dividers.  I remember Ms. Dottie who had such a joy about singing. She introduced us to all sorts of songs that kept me throughout my youth.  I remember Pastor Paul who baptized me when I was an infant and retired from that post when I turned 18.  I loved him best because in a world where children pretty much were to be seen and not heard, Pastor Paul held a special place for us.  He treated us youngsters like we mattered. In doing so, he gave me the experience of a God who is love. 

And I am most grateful for the night when I was about 20 years old when I discovered “A Brief Statement of Faith” in our Book of Confessions.  I was about ready to be done with church and all the God stuff as it seemed it always was just a fight about who was bound for hell or not. What I really needed was a God and a faith community that would be with me NOW in how I would live out discipleship each day here on this marvelous earth.  That night I read:  “In life and in death we belong to God.  Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.” The faith statement went on to profess a living God who in Jesus the Christ acted for the sake of any in need — even children; an Abba, creating God, who in sovereign love made the world and all of us good; a Holy Spirit that still is at work in and among us to bind us together with one another for the sake of all the world. And then words that have become a great comfort; especially as I have said them at the bedside of the dying, in the presence of the mourning, and in worship among those who might just be going through the motions for the week: “With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (PCUSA Book of Confessions, “A Brief Statement of Faith”). I don’t know how I first got my hands on “A Brief Statement,” nor do I remember all the details at that time in my life with the church of my childhood; but I do know that upon reading that statement, I finally knew what it meant to be a part of the Reformed Theological Family of Faith and in particular the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I finally knew that I was home.

I’ll never agree with everything we are and do; and I’m grateful that I exist in a family of faith where that is to be expected, in part so we can practice grace among one another. I grieve that the church of my childhood no longer believes it can be a part of such a family and I hope they find a communion where they can grow in the grace God. As for me: all I know is that here among fellow faithful followers — ones who wrestle with God, one another, and our place in this world; HERE I am home. And come what may, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God!

RevJule

To learn more about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) go to http://www.pcusa.org or visit a PCUSA congregation in your area.