Tag Archives: Resurrection

God’s Abundance

A Sermon for 21 January 2018 

A reading from the gospel of John 2:1-11.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear of the gospel of John’s recording of Jesus’ first act upon his mission.

“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 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.”  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!

 

I heard an incredible dream recently.  The main symbol in it was a table.  Now this wasn’t just an ordinary dining room table.  It was the largest buffet table one ever could imagine!  At least twelve feet wide and two or more lengths of this sanctuary long!  It was immense!  On it was every food conceivable.  All the delicacies to enjoy:  delicious-looking pastries, bountiful fruit, casseroles that smelled wonderful, and vegetable dishes that would make your mouth water just looking at them.  All this, in just the first few feet of the bountiful table which was centered in the middle of an elegant, open-air balcony where people of all kinds joyfully were milling about.  The occasion was Easter brunch.  The mood was festive.  Laughter and excitement and hope filled the air.  Families were all together.  Friends were enjoying the merriment of each other’s company.  Everyone had a spot somewhere at the sophisticated banquet.  In a word it was the picture of abundance!  Such an incredible dream!

We’re not sure what the room looked like in Cana of Galilee.  Though I’ve been to the church sanctuary erected over the spot believed to be the site, where the first sign of Jesus’ public ministry took place – at least according to the gospel of John.  We’re not even sure if the wedding reception was in a room or outside somewhere in the open-air on the land surrounding the bridegroom’s home.  What we do know is that after inviting a few men near Bethany to come and see, Jesus set out for the region of his home in Galilee.  Cana was a few miles northeast of Nazareth and it seemed Jesus’ family was present at the event.  . . .  The writer of John’s gospel makes some interesting decisions in telling the story of the One met in Jesus, the Christ.  From the start, reference is made to resurrection:  “On the third day,” chapter two begins in the gospel’s launch into Jesus’ public ministry.  Every reader of the gospel knows what else took place on the third day.  From the start, we’re supposed to hear the story of Jesus with resurrection in mind.  The whole point of this gospel is to embrace the gift of God’s promise.  The surprise of the Light that shines despite the darkness.  To welcome “What has come to being in him,” as John 1:4 states:  “Life!”  God’s promise for all: never-ending, abundant Life!

Interesting too, this gospel begins Jesus’ public ministry at a wedding.  Jesus and his first followers have been invited to a party:  a celebration to honor covenants made.  We’re again supposed to catch the deeper meaning of the ministry of the embodied Word beginning thus.  Long years the people of Israel were told by God’s prophets that God was like their groom – and a frustrated one at that, waiting for his bride to be faithful.  Remember the prophet Hosea?  Just to prove a point, God had him marry Gomer, a wife of whoredom to show metaphorically that God’s wife, Israel, had forsaken the sacred covenant.  In anger and hurt God declares to Hosea:  say to my people “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:1-2).  The covenant has been defiled.  . . .  The metaphor has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with union.  The coming together of opposites to create a third.  Divine and human melding into one.  As is happening in the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us.  The Transcendent mingling with the stuff of Earth that both become something holy.  Something cherished.  Something new.  Indeed, a wedding in Cana is the perfect place for the embodied Word to begin revealing his glory.

Whether Jesus is goading his mother when she comes with the concern that the wine has run out, or if he’s not yet aware of his time; one thing is for sure.  Mother Mary knows the One who is present at the party.  After all, he grew in her very own womb.  She knows the Bridegroom, the true Host, has arrived.  The One who will attend to the needs of the guests.  For it was what he was born to do.  . . .  At her prodding, Jesus takes up his mother’s ministry of hospitality in signs that reveal the abundant goodness of the true Host.  The water becomes the very best wine – and an infinite amount at that.  Anywhere from 120-180 gallons of the finest wine anyone ever could imagine!  At last the prophesy of Isaiah is fulfilled that promised:  “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.  For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:2-5).  As promised, God’s blessing is upon the people.  A boundless sign shows it to be true.  . . .  Isn’t it beautiful?  Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as the story is told according to the gospel of John, we see the abundance of God.  Something like a bountiful table.  A never-ending cup.  Streams of mercy that overflow for all the world!

One theologian writes, and I quote, that:  “Christians ought to be celebrating constantly.  We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment.  We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death.  We ought to attract people to the church quite literally,” he writes, “by the fun there is in being a Christian” (Robert Hotchkins, Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, pp. 262,264).  . . .  Too many have been made to think it’s all about rigid rules, and buzz-kill sacrifices, and hiding any sense of enjoyment lest God or anyone else might be watching!  But that’s more like John the Baptist-kinda of faith, than Christ’s Cana-kind of grace.  As see in the One who stands as the sign that heaven and earth – Spirit and flesh have been wed.  The time for profuse joy and peace and hope has begun and is expected in us because of the bountiful nature of God!  The gracious invitation to the never-ending celebration from the true Host, who dreams for our lives to be as extravagantly generous as God.  As filled with eternal merriment thanks to the gift of everlasting, abundant life!

Brothers and sisters of Christ, as Cana teaches:  the abundant grace of God is here!  Let the party begin!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

The Birth

A Sermon for 31 December 2017 – First Sunday of Christmas

A reading from the gospel of Luke 2:22-40.  Listen for God’s word to us in this reading of Jesus’ first weeks.

“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.  38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

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

 

The birth of a baby heralds hope!  Excitement fills the air!  A tiny, precious, helpless little one is born!  No one can resist the rejoicing; for, with this new life comes the chance for anything.  Press up close to the nursery window.  Scan the newborn crowd.  Look:  That may be the one to grow up to find the cure for cancer.  And her.  Perhaps she will move us closer toward world peace.  Oh, and how about that sweet one.  In this little darling lies the potential to do for the world whatever he desires.  . . .  Remember the last time you welcomed an infant into the world?  You stood there peering into that delicate, tiny face.  Saw the wee fingernails.  Felt the warmth of that little bundle.  In an instant, the child stole your heart away.  Oh, the birth of a baby resounds with rejoicing.  No matter the circumstances surrounding the child’s conception, whatever conditions will be this one’s reality; at least for a moment, all pause beholding the miracle.  We give thanks for such a perfect gift!

Today we give thanks for such a child.  The baby Jesus:  God come among us, putting on the flesh and bones of humanity, making a home with us in our circumstances – from the depths of despair to the pinnacles of praise.  Lying in that lowly manger is the infant God.  The teeny-tiny speck of light bursting into our darkness; the child given as our hope.  .He’s an ordinary little one with a future yet unknown to the world.  At the same time, he’s not quite an ordinary little one – unlike all the others.  Atypically, this one comes with a few instructions:  name him Jesus (which means literally he saves) for he will be the Savior of his people.  . . .  Don’t you wish you could get inside Mary’s mind?  What could she be thinking?  Every time she turns around, someone else is proclaiming her child’s greatness!  “He will be the Son of the Most High God,” announces the angel.  “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).  Pride swells as Mary takes it all in.  She goes to visit her aging relative Elizabeth.  “Ho!  Blessed!  Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  Leap for joy Mary; for within, you carry the miracle!” (Luke 1:42)  Face it – under such circumstances, there’s no way any of us could hold back a stunning smile. …   Sure, there’s no room in the inn.  The cave for the animals out back is all that’s available – which is far from the sterile walls of our delivery rooms.  But those shepherds:  “Good news.  Don’t be afraid.  Great joy for all people.  Born a Savior to you.  The long-awaited Messiah – God’s chosen one!  The LORD come to dwell among us!” (Luke 2:10-11).  Indeed, amazement fills the air!  “Born like every other baby is Mary’s little guy.  But certainly, unlike every other child.  Does she know?  The one she cradles at her breast is God’s Christ – the cure to creation’s ills!”  How can she contain herself?  Surrounded by all the hype, her heart had to race with great gladness!  At the shepherd’s declaration, the description from the gospel is that Mary:  “treasured all these words, pondering them in her heart.”  (Luke 2:19).

All this took place before she learned the hard lessons of motherhood.  The initial jubilation must have subsided a bit.  Some young mothers say, pretty much by the first night.  It’s coming.  For, son of the Most High or no, this kid’s diapers stink like rotting eggs, just as bad as the next.  And, of course, the angel didn’t mention the difficulties of breast feeding.  The 2am sleep interruptions.  What to do to stop the endless cry-fests.  After all:  the one Mary tends is the Word – the Word by which God declared in the beginning for all things to come into being.  The Word made flesh.  Powerful voice as all that, you gotta figure the kid’s got some lungs!  The greeting cards may portray an infant sweeter than the Gerber baby, but it’s quite possible that this one destined to shake things up through proclamation, probably began exercising his vocal cords at a wee age.  But before all that – before the truth of motherhood sank in, prior to Mary being taken over by the tiredness, she treasured every bit.  Riding the high of all the wonderful words regarding her precious package, clinging to the prophecies of greatness, Mary enters the Temple.  . . .  He’s the firstborn son.  And being devout Jews, Mary and Joseph desire to designate the infant as holy to the LORD.  It’s a big day for the family.  They probably primped him all pretty – the silky white gown, that sweet baby smell, little tufts of hair combed all smooth.  The precious child is paraded with humble pride.  You know how that is:  like when there’s a baptism.  It’s a big day.  The words ring in Mary’s mind:  “Greatness.  This child’s bound for greatness!”

In the Temple, the newlyweds are greeted by the righteous Simeon.  His whole life he’s been waiting – and you thought keeping your patience until Christmas so you could rip into those beautiful packages was tough!  Simeon has spent his life looking for the consolation of Israel.  He’s been awaiting restoration – perhaps expecting a return to Israel’s greatness.  His eyes have been scanning the scene, searching diligently for a bridge bringing the people back to God.  Then, at long last, he declares.  “my eyes see your salvation, Holy God!  Thanks be to You!”  As he praises, he takes the child in his arms.  “You, O LORD, have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel!” (Luke 2:30-32).  Can you imagine Mary and Joseph standing in absolute splendor?  Never have two parents bubbled with greater joy.  “That’s my boy!” Joseph’s smile beams.  Mary murmurs, “Our delightful son!”  Simeon turns, lowering his voice to say:  “Mary, this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).  “Greatness!”  Her thoughts are all wrapped in greatness, when Simeon delivers the shocking blow.  He will be a sign that will be opposed, so the inner thoughts of many are revealed.  And Mary, poor Mary, your own soul will be pierced as well.

How can such happiness, such hope, such rejoicing be dashed on jagged rocks so quickly?  Like parents receiving the horrible news of in-utero complications.  What begins as a mother riding high on the wave of life, ends with a stricken soul.  Young Mary quickly learns the definition of greatness according to God. . . . Oh, if you only will hold on, dear Mary!  If only you too will keep watch for God’s salvation.  Then with Simeon and the angel and all disciples-yet-to-be, your own sorrow will be turned to dancing.  Indeed, this child’s birth heralds hope!  For in the blink of an eye, the father of the child will begin the revolution.  Through death – his death:  resurrection!

We too come with rejoicing.  Ecstatic about the precious package delivered a night so very long ago.  But the excitement of the birth is only half the story.  The sword that pierces Mary’s, pokes our souls as well.  Rejoice today, believers!  But remember:  the child we celebrate is the child that calls us all to follow.  Life’s not fun and games for him – pretty ribbons and bows.  He was born to be opposed.  Those who’d rather set up road blocks on the pathway to God – piling on requirements, defining greatness with words like status, wealth, privilege.  Ones who’d rather live for themselves will hunt down dear baby Jesus.  The darkness will try to snuff out the Light.  . . .  So shall it be with those who slip on Christ’s sandals, seeking to follow in his steps.  . . .  The road will be treacherous.  Faithfulness will require courage.  . . .  But look!  My eyes can see God’s salvation!  The Way, which the LORD has prepared, in the presence of all peoples!  Look:  just beyond the cross.  Can you see it?  Do you know?  It’s a tomb, a grave.  And it is empty!

Glory be to God!  The baby King lives 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.)

 

Peace Be With You!

A Sermon for 23 April 2017 – 2nd Sunday of Easter

 

A reading from the gospel of John 20:19-31 (NRSV).  And remember, according to the gospel of John’s telling of things, this story takes place the same day Mary Magdalene had been to the tomb then gone and told the others she had seen the Lord.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“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.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  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.”  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.”  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.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  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.”  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  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!

 

Brother Roger was an amazing man.  As a young adult, he founded the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé.  He brought this community into being in France while Europe was again under siege in the Second World War.   At the age of twenty-five, Brother Roger started this intentional community on the Christian principles he tenaciously saw in his grandmother during the First World War:  “welcoming those in need and seeking reconciliation among Christians” (Brother Roger of Taizé:  Essential Writings, “Introduction,” p. 13).  You may know something of the Taizé community from songs in our new Glory to God hymnal.  Songs like “Wait for the Lord” based on Psalm 27.  And “My Soul is at Rest” from Psalm 62.  And the round “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” sung during Advent.  And “Stay with Me,” sung during Lent by our very own choir.  The Good Friday song “Jesus Remember Me, When you come into Your Kingdom.”  And the one that may be best known, but perhaps not linked by all to Taizé:  “Ubi Caritas.  Live in charity and steadfast love.  Live in charity; God will dwell with you.”  . . .  Because worship in the Taizé community is all about peace, the community creates these chant-like, repetitive songs often based on the poetry of the Psalms and other scriptural phrases.  A deep commitment to prayers for all the world pervades the community and its worship.  Perhaps that’s why young people from around the globe still flock to the community in France on pilgrimage to be a part of things – even if only for a week.  When the community gathers for daily worship, scripture and silence weave round the simple songs to transport worshippers to a centered quiet.  That calm clearing inside in which the Spirit of God has an opportunity to work.  If we are able to imagine entering that sacred space daily, perhaps we would expect spiritual profundity, like the kind of deep wisdom that exudes from Brother Roger.  Listen to his words about the presence of Christians in the world today.  He writes:  “The peace of your heart makes life beautiful for those around you.  Being wracked with worry has never been a way of living the gospel.  Founding your faith on torment would mean building a house on sand (Mt. 7:26-27).  At every moment, do you hear these words of Jesus the Christ:  ‘Peace I leave you; my peace I give you.  Let your hearts cease to be troubled and afraid’ (Jn. 14:27)?”  Brother Roger continues:  “This deep-seated peace provides the lightness needed to set out once again, when failure or discouragements weigh on your shoulders” (Ibid., p. 34).

Peace . . .  earlier in the gospel of John – before his resurrection, before his crucifixion, actually right after he washes their feet on that fatal night – Jesus seeks to cultivate peace in his disciples.  He knows what’s about to happen.  And while they don’t understand much of it, certainly they suspected by that time too.  He’s told them already that he will die because of the path he’s following.  AND he’s told them to still their troubled hearts.  Cease any fear!  . . .  At that beautiful final banquet, Jesus prays for his followers.  He does all he can to comfort them.  He wants them to know that “being wracked with worry” is not the way of living the gospel (Ibid.).  He expects the peace of their hearts to make life beautiful for those around them.  . . .

Just as fear is contagious, peace can be as well.  Think about the last time you spent time around someone who was deeply centered.  Not fretting all about, but relaxed in themselves.  Totally calm and attentive only to you.  In their presence, our own blood pressure begins to settle.  We can move more deeply into ourselves.  Breathing all the way into our toes perhaps, because it’s like the fragrance of their peace enters into us.  . . .  That’s the gift Christ seeks to give to his followers.

In the gospel reading before us today, three times Jesus speaks the words:  “Peace be with you!” (Jn. 20:19).  Now, it makes sense that he might start his first appearance among them again with such words.  But after their excitement over him, he says it again:  “Peace be with you!” (Jn. 20:21).  This time sounding a little bit more like a command than a common greeting connoting God’s blessed shalom.  And again he’ll speak the very same words to troubled Thomas when at last Thomas is present among them all and the Risen Christ again returns with the very same message:  “Peace be with you!” (Jn. 20:26).  . . .  It’s helpful for us to know that three is kinda significant in this part of John’s gospel.  You might remember that three times Peter is going to deny Jesus while he’s being held captive.  Then, upon the third time he shows himself to his followers, three times the Risen Christ will ask Peter if Peter indeed loves him.  And here:  three times the Risen Christ commands:  “Peace be with you!”  . . .  Since his first time at the supper telling them he’s leaving his peace with them until now when the Risen Christ comes again among them, their hearts have known everything else but peace.  How could they cease any troubled and fear-filled spirits during his arrest, execution, and burial?  Jesus told them he was leaving his peace with them and after three days of anything but, he returns pleading:  “Peace be with you!”

Think about the powerful witness peace in them would be.  I mean, when they finally left that locked upper room, what would others be wondering to encounter in them such amazing, abiding peace?  Panic would proclaim to others that nothing extraordinary happened after his death.  Fear would confirm the lies others were telling.  Angst never would lead others to waste any time listening.  Peace in them was the only way.  . . .  Peace that everything was not as expected.  Peace that another Way had been made.  Peace that all he said and did was not in vain.  . . .  Peace would flower to change the world all around them.  The peace of their hearts would make life beautiful for them and for rest of the world forevermore.

Let those with ears to hear, heed.  Peace is the gift we’ve been given.  Peace remaining in us forever.  For Christ is risen!  God miraculously made a Way.  Wouldn’t you agree that we could use a little more peace in this world now?  Peace that begins with us.  Peace that reverberates from us to those all around.  Peace:  inner calm, steady trust, quiet strength no matter the headlines that cry for our attention or the chaos that swirls all about.  The world needs peace today – just like the world around Jesus’ disciples needed peace in the days following his crucifixion and resurrection.  Peace that ripples beyond the boundaries of our souls to bring ease to those around us.

Brothers and sisters of the Risen Christ, blessed are all who have come to believe; for the peace of our hearts now makes life beautiful for all and forever.  Sent out abiding in such peace, the whole world will experience our amazing God!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

God of the Living

A Sermon for 6 November 2016 – All Saints’ Sunday 

A reading from the gospel of Luke 20:27-38. We’re in a portion of the gospel where Jesus has been busy teaching in the Temple. According to the text, he’s actually been challenged by one group after another. Likely confronted by those threatened by the authority with which Jesus speaks and to which the crowds seem drawn. . . . In what happens next, listen for God’s word to us.

“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to (Jesus) and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.””

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

 

Early in the Seventh Century on the 13th of May, Pope Boniface IV “consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs” (www.catholic.org/saints/allsaints/). Thus, a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation was born. Meaning that all Catholics must attend Mass on that very day. As a way to honor those who had persevered in the faith, every Christian was under obligation to be present and reminded of the sacrifices made by ones such as the Mother Mary, the rock of the church Peter, the zealous apostle Paul, and all the others who risked their lives in the pursuit of following the Way of Christ. Boniface was tricky in his placement of the day – he made it coincide with an ancient Roman festival aimed at placating the restless spirits of the dead. The Pope usurped the pagan day with a focus not on the restlessness of the spirits who already had passed, but on a celebration of the saints who now enjoyed the fruits of heavenly life. All Souls’ Day, the day after, would remain a day to focus on any who may have died but not yet found eternal rest. But the Holy Day of All the Saints would be a way to honor the kind of faith the church wanted everyone to emulate. Later in the Eighth Century, Pope Gregory III would move the high Holy Day from May to November. Thus, the current practice of All Saints’ Day found its way to the first day of November (Ibid.).

Most of us likely spent more time and energy this week on the night before: All Hallows’ Eve – also known as Halloween, the secular holiday that seems to be taking second place right behind Christmas in the United States. If you participated Monday night, I’m betting you opened your door more to Super Man or a Princess or maybe even a tortured-looking goon than to the Blessed Mother Mary, Stephen who’s first Christian martyrdom is recorded in Acts, or our brand of Christianity’s hero Martin Luther who wisely posted his protests on the sanctuary door the night before All Saints’ so that everyone in Wittenberg would know the ways he believed the church needed to change. Unless you grew up Roman Catholic, you may be boggled about this talk of All the Saints. And by the way, we Presbyterian’s don’t do All Souls’ Day on November 2. We don’t buy that theology of the restless dead needing release. . . . Nevertheless, in the mid-Twentieth Century, when mainline Protestant denominations began to see the value of the cyclical seasons of the liturgical year; Presbyterians began to sing songs like For All the Saints who from their Labors Rest. The Book of Common Worship pointed us on November 1, or the first Sunday after it, to scriptures like Hebrews 12 that remind us that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also . . . run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Prayers for this Day assure us: “neither death nor life can separate us from your love,” Eternal God. So “grant that we may serve you faithfully here on earth, and in heaven rejoice with all your saints who ceaselessly proclaim your glory” (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 385). Many faith communities now look forward to this day when the names of those from the congregation who have died since last year’s All Saints’ Day reverently are spoken aloud when we come to gather around the table. Incidentally, our prayers around the table remind us every month that the veil between the living and the dead is not as solid as many often think. Every time we gather around the table of our Lord, we welcome the presence of all those of the Church and of our lives with whom we remain connected. Our minds may tell us death brings physical distance, which of course it does. Yet our spirits know we all always are and ever will be held together mysteriously in the binding love of God.

It’s the good news according to the gospel of Luke that Jesus proclaims to the Sadducees and any others who will listen. Here come these men who do not believe anything much takes place after one physically dies. Jesus is so incredibly patient as they concoct this crazy story about a family following the laws from Moses when one after another brother marries the sister-in-law who is left childless by each one. Seven times a wedding takes place; but still no heir is born. Perhaps because she’s heartbroken from burying seven husbands childless, the woman finally dies too. And all the Sadducees want to know is will she be Mrs. Jacob in the resurrection, or perhaps Mrs. Isaac. Will she spend eternity with brother number one, or maybe brother number five who she seemed to like a little bit more? . . . So much is so far beyond our grasp, isn’t it? I mean can we imagine an existence that’s not quite like anything we’ve experienced in our earthly bodies? Can we make sense of being eternally in God’s Presence instead of feeling so separate as we tend to most of the moments of our lives? Though our minds cannot figure it out – if others will know us as Mr. so-in-so who did such-and-such all our days here on earth; or if we’ll hang out forever at God’s eternal feast with our parents or children or favorite friends. We like such re-assurances that what lies ahead will be much like what we’ve known already. And then the words of Jesus strip away every social construct that’s defined who we have been and how we have lived our lives. Children of the resurrection are beyond such human boundaries, Jesus explains. And just in case you doubt such a thing as resurrected life, Jesus throws Moses back at the dis-believing Sadducees. He quotes the very name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. This is YHWH – the Holy One of Israel who IS God of all the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God of the living; for in God, those who have gone before are not dead. They still are alive to God.

That is the great Mystery we may never fully understand. How it is that those whose hands we held at what we believed to be their end, still are alive to God. It is as if death does not exist to God. Or at least does not hinder the connection God has and always will with each one of us. It’s like God doesn’t see the casket. Doesn’t let the last breath mean one thing. Though our own eyes cannot see what lies beyond a physical death; at least according to the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Luke’s 20th chapter, God sees us only alive. Alive. Alive “for to God, all of us are alive” forevermore (Luke 20:38).

A few years ago I learned a song I may have told some of you about. It’s from a rendition of Singing the Hours and is based on words from the Song of Solomon. It goes like this: “Arise, my darling, beautiful one; my beautiful one, come with me. Arise. See the rains are over and done, my beautiful one, winter is passed; come with me. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Arise, my darling, beautiful one; my beautiful one, come with me. Arise. See the rains are over and done, my beautiful one, winter is passed; come with me. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one; come with me. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one; come with me. My beautiful one, come with me” (“Arise, My Darling – Lauds [Morning Prayer],” Joy Yee, Singing the Hours, 2011). It’s a song for Lauds, the earliest of morning prayer. And something about the tune is this elixir of fresh morning dew when first the birds begin to sing. It’s easy to imagine these words to and from Solomon and his lover in the backdrop of an abundant garden. But often when I hear it, I imagine what I suspect the composer had in mind: The Great Lover singing to us all. When each one of us exhales our last, there at our side is the Holy One. God waiting to whisper into our ear: “Arise, my darling, beautiful one. My beautiful one, come with me. See, the rains of this life are over and done; my beautiful one, winter is passed – the strife of your life is behind. Come with me.” Those seem to me the words of the One in whose eyes we never die. The Voice of our God calling us out of the slumber of our death to awaken to a whole new life. “Beautiful ones, darlings: arise and come with Me.” It’s the next great adventure – one we cannot fully anticipate, that moment when we pass from life as we’ve known it into God’s everlasting embrace. And for each one we will name here today – though sadness may remain in our hearts at what of them we have lost – ahh! What a gift. What a miracle. What an incredible adventure of an eternity in which they remain forever alive to God! . . . In this is our hope. Our comfort. Our peace.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

The With-us Potter

A Sermon for 4 September 2016

A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 18:1-11. Listen for God’s word to us.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

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

 

I wish we each had a lump of clay in our hands today. That would be the best way to spend some time with this text from the prophet Jeremiah. All of you sitting there with a ball of the soft stuff. Squeezing and kneading and working it in your hands. . . . If you’ve ever held clay before, then you know that it has such potential. It can become anything you want it to be: a pinch pot, which typically is the first thing you learn to make in a pottery class. A long snake of clay that you then can wind together into a flower vase. You can flatten it out in your hands as thin as a pancake in attempts to make a plate. Tear it into smaller bits to fashion little balls for earrings or even into the shape of a cross for a necklace.

Throwing a pot is a bit different. First you have to work the clay. Push down one way, then turn it to force it down the other direction. It’s kinda like warm up stretches before running. You’ve gotta get the clay ready before you put it on the wheel. It’s a process of moving around the molecules and getting out any air. In pottery class, they always said this is the most important step, which never ever should be skipped, even though so many novice potters wanna get right to the wheel. . . . After you have your clay ready, you finally take it to the wheel. Water and equal pressure on both sides are key – it’s what is needed to center the clay. Something you have to get right if the clay’s gotta a shot of becoming anything. Next, cutting into the centered clay, all the while keeping the wheel turning at a slow and easy pace. Too fast and the clay goes spinning out of control. Too little or too much water and the clay won’t form as you’d like in your hands. Too much pressure too quickly from one hand or the other and the next thing you know, the clay is collapsing between your fingers. Your intended beautiful bowl falls into a misshapen mess. . . . It’s fascinating to watch a master potter at work – and if you’ve ever attempted it yourself, you know it’s no where near as easy as it looks!

A lot of potters will tell you you have to listen to the clay. Let it tell you what it wants to become. . . . But not according to this text! According to Jeremiah, the potter has a good plan for what the potter wishes to make. That clay in the potter’s hands has an intended purpose. . . . I remember the pottery instructor always saying that to create on the wheel, you have to be willing to let go. Fail and begin again when the clay wobbles off center out of the form needed for a bowl. It’s not really that there’s only one way to make it, but it is the case that a pot thrown with too thick a bottom or too thin a wall won’t last the firing in the kiln. When the clay goes array on the wheel, it’s better to scoop it off to begin again because once it begins to set out of form, the clay will be wasted entirely. No use at all when it breaks in the scorching fires of the kiln.

It’s a mighty metaphor for our lives in God’s hands. . . . At God’s command, Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house to hear a word from the LORD. He sees a potter at work. A typical potter who’s obviously mature in his craft. For the potter doesn’t hesitate one moment when the clay spins off track. He scoops it up to begin again. He’s not about to waste his clay. I’d imagine that potter Jeremiah was watching had been through quite a process to get that lump of clay in the first place. I don’t know everything about where you get clay and what all the right ingredients have to be, but I know clay is found in certain parts of the ground. The potter either paid a high price for his clay, or did the hard work himself of digging for it. Each piece is precious to the potter. If it all goes array, he’s going to scoop it up to re-work, re-center, and begin to create again. He’s a committed master potter, who’s not afraid to let go of what it’s become because he wants the clay to be what he knows it can be.

The process is a little scary, however, when we start to understand ourselves as the clay. That’s what Jeremiah is hearing as he sees the potter at work. The house of Israel is in the process of going array. It’s an act of love that God won’t just let it be, though the words the prophet hears seem kinda harsh. “Can I not do with you . . . just as the potter has done? . . . Just like the clay in the potter’s hands, says the LORD, I can pluck up and restart” (paraphrase of Jer. 18:6, 7). All this talk about disaster on those devising evil. We don’t really want to face this seemingly harsh-sounding God. It sounds so like: turn or else! A threat with punishment if not heeded – which doesn’t fit so well with our warm-fuzzy notions of God. And actually it isn’t the best way to bring about true, sustained transformation.

What we do know is that this is the same God, through Jeremiah, who says to the people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you. Plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 28:11). A few chapters later, God declares: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people . . . for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:33-34). . . . Like the master potter, God has a plan for the people’s good use. When the clay goes array on the wheel, when the people turn from who God intends for them to be; like the master potter, God will re-work the vessel as seems good to God.

If you’re familiar with the work of Brené Brown, then you may know about her research on shame and the power of vulnerability – acts that take a whole lot of trust. The first thing Brown underscores is that all of us have a need for love and belonging. Shame leaves us feelings as if we’re not worthy of such love and belonging, which in turn makes it really hard for us to be willing to be vulnerable – to be willing to trust. Brown’s research testifies that: one powerful way to send a message of shame, which leads to one being stuck immobile, is to disengage. No longer be involved with someone when their behavior is unacceptable. Refuse the healthy act of engagement by setting proper boundaries with them. According to Brown, when we fail to do so – to set those proper healthy boundaries, it actually creates a deeper sense of shame in the other. Disengaging sends the message that you’re not worthy of a sense of love and belonging from me. . . . Do you hear the truth in that? The worst possible thing the potter could do to the clay when it goes array is to let it go array. Disengage from the process and just let it be. Scooping it up to re-work, re-center, and re-create again may be a process that really hurts – a process that seems like destroying. Plucking up and breaking down in order to re-build and plant may sound kinda vicious; but with the clay, the potter stays engaged all the while. The potter sends the message to the clay that it is so entirely valued, so deeply loved, that the potter just won’t let it go into whatever the clay itself might want to be. For surely the potter knows the plans the potter has for it . . . plans for the clay’s welfare – not harm – to give an amazing future overflowing with hope.

We are the clay – not just us individually, as we so often read into this text – but us collectively as a part of the body of Christ, the church. And the Master Potter seeks to re-create us into what is needed today in this world. It’s not easy to know what exactly that will look like. After all, the clay being re-worked doesn’t know if it’s going to end up a beautiful bowl that will be able to feed those who hunger; or an amazing cup that will quench all those who thirst. The process is a mystery that takes all of our trust. . . . It has been said that “we are not so at home with the resurrected form of things despite a yearly springtime, healings in our bodies, and the ten thousand forms of newness in every event and life . . . resurrection offers us a future . . . one that is unknown and thus scary. . . . (it’s not a) resuscitation of an old thing, but the raising up of . . . an utterly new thing” (Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, 2013, pp. x-xi). In this we can trust. For a Master Potter holds us every step of the way. Indeed our Loving God continues with us until all things are entirely new! For this we give great thanks!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

What Really Matters

A Sermon for 15 November 2015 – 25th Sunday after Pentecost

 A reading from Hebrews 10:23-25. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the One who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

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

A reading from the gospel of Mark 13:1-8. Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

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

Before jumping into the sermon today, listen one more time to this text from Mark. This time I’ll be reading it from the version of the bible called The Message. See if it doesn’t offer greater insight into this portion of Scripture that so often has been interpreted as a message about an apocalypse – a terrible, final end to God’s beloved creation. Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus walked away from the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! Those buildings!” Jesus said, “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture? There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.” Later, as he was sitting on Mount Olives in full view of the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew got him off by himself and asked, “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get that things are coming to a head?” Jesus began, “Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One.’ They will deceive a lot of people. When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming.

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

 

I’ve been getting texts for about the last week from a friend who is off for a celebratory trip to South Africa before returning home to jump into a new call to ministry! He and I became friends several years ago during a doctoral course in South Africa so it’s great to get such updates. I find myself smiling each time I get one because it was just three years ago almost to date that I spent a lot of late night phone time listening to his gut-wrenching panic. Though he had been in a pastoral position for over a decade and had been doing amazing work, someone started going after him because they sat at opposite ends of the theological spectrum. If you’ve never been in a church fight – or worse yet an all-out clergy attack, then you’re probably not aware of how awful it can be for everyone involved. My friend was convinced his world was coming to an end – not only because of the mess being caused in his professional life, but also because his mental and physical health were started to be effected greatly. It was a really dark, scary time.

Many of us know a lot about such difficult situations – different circumstances, same gut-wrenching panic. . . . I’ve heard teens tell how things are just over! Because they couldn’t get the grade they wanted and now they won’t be able to get into the college of their choice. The world seems to be absolutely falling apart. And for those driven-dreamers, their world really is. . . . We’ve had friends or loved ones tell us of the unexpected diagnosis – or lived through the doctor telling us about our very own bodies. We’ve witnessed children break their parents’ hearts with self-destructive behavior that leads to life-altering consequences. We’ve lived through divorces and natural disasters and death and so much more – like the horrible events in Paris this week. . . . Spoken or unspoken, we even see lots of angst among churches these days. Because the pews aren’t filled like they used to be some twenty or more years ago. The updated research came out two weeks that the number of those claiming to be spiritual but wanting absolutely nothing to do with the church has increased more rapidly than expected since the last polling. Those of us still here sometimes may wonder if church as we’ve known and loved it soon will be extinct. . . . Especially weeks like this one, we know days when it feels like the world is absolutely falling apart.

If we can get inside those feelings, I think we can come close to understanding the buzz in the air as Jesus and his disciples exited the Temple that day. The gospel of Mark records it as the final time Jesus will exit the Temple. Just two days before that Passover in Jerusalem when he would gather with his friends in an upper room in order to get them ready for what was yet to come. He can feel it. Certainly they all can feel it – the tension rising between Jesus and those who just weren’t understanding his message. And those who understood entirely but for whatever reason felt incredibly threatened by what he had to say. I dare say it feels for them all – Jesus and his disciples, and the opposition too – it certainly must feel for them all like the world is falling apart. . . . Experts tell us that we all can handle a different amount of stress before we end up going reptile. And we go reptile in predictable ways. Hiding from it all like a turtle snapping away quickly in its shell. Darting about like a lizard to scurry from whatever’s coming. Hissing to any who will listen like a snake when the pressure’s at our boiling-point. Or worse yet: attacking whatever’s in our path like an alligator because we just can’t handle it any more. These are typical and predictable patterns of behavior for those who feel like their world is falling apart. It’s probably helpful for us each to ponder which way we end up going reptile.

The world had been falling apart for a goodly long time for those living in First Century Palestine. In fact, things had been, and even now continue to be, pretty dicey in that little eastern Mediterranean byway. Throughout the centuries that little land had been ransacked by on-the-move armies over and over and over again. The stronghold of Megiddo – also called Armageddon – just 15 miles southwest of Nazareth, reveals 20 layers of re-built cities dating all the way back to 4000 BCE (The Holy Land: The Land of Jesus, Palphot, p. 70-71). That’s a whole lot of beginning again after endless conquering armies. The city of Sepphoris just four miles north of Nazareth, was overrun by Herod some thirty years before Jesus’ birth (Ibid., p. 26-27). We seldom remember that the stories of Jesus start with declarations of his time and place: “In the days of King Herod of Judea” the first chapter of the gospel of Luke reveals (Luke 1:5). Matthew records Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem followed by his family’s flight to Egypt to get out of the path of the enraged King (Matthew 2). At long last, they end up in the fertile land of the Galilee in Nazareth, which itself would face near destruction in the Jewish revolt against Rome three decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection (The Holy Land: The Land of Jesus, Palphot, p. 12-13) . These weren’t places far far away, half-way around their world. They were right in their own backyard. Several being geographically closer to them than many of us travel each day from home to work or the store or even here to this sanctuary. . . . It can leave us wondering if they all had just grown accustomed to such unsettling violence or if their nerves were absolutely fried – like some of our soldiers who return home these days with severe PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. . . . The world for Jesus and his contemporaries routinely felt as if it literally was falling apart. The Temple leaders had been doing their best for years to keep Rome from coming in and totally taking over; though in the year 70 CE (right around the time we believe the gospel of Mark was written) it all would come crashing down, when the grandiose Temple of Jerusalem was totally destroyed by Rome, never to be re-built again. . . . In a lot of ways, Jesus wasn’t saying anything on that day upon his final exit of the Temple that everyone already hadn’t been speculating, and working to avoid, and fervently praying never to take place again. . . . It was as fragile as a time as our world seems today.

Into that context – into that time and in that place, Jesus seeks to speak a word of hope.

I love the way it’s presented in the version of the bible called The Message. “’When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines’” (Mark 13:7-8). Even after God in-flesh was in our midst, that much about the world wasn’t brought to an end. Because Jesus wasn’t here to transport us out of it all but to teach us how to live and die and live again amid the raging storms of life. . . . Today he might put it to us like this: “When the boss calls you in to say it’s time to retire. When the doctor phones with the results of the test. When the unthinkable happens. When it feels like it’s all falling apart. Keep your head. Do not panic!” . . . I picked up a prayer card in the gift shop when some of us where at the monastery in Alabama last spring. It’s a Prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila, sounding a lot like Jesus here and peppered with some wisdom from the Psalms: “Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing away. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.”

We know this. We know we know this. But when things seem to be falling apart, it’s really hard to remember. Thank God we have each other to remind us! . . . “These things are nothing compared to what’s coming,” Jesus continues according to The Message. Something so much better is on the way! The New Revised Standard Version captures it like this: “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs” (Mark 13:8). In other words, something amazing is about to be born! That’s what the birthpangs announce, right? A new life bursting into the world. Something beautiful trying to emerge. . . . It’s so easy to forget that God will make something new – even in our deepest loss. We’re not sure what – even with all the ultrasounds in the world, the doctors still can’t tell us what a new baby will be like. We’re left to receive it and enjoy the adventure of watching this new life unfold before our eyes. See what it will be like, what impact it will have, and how it will emerge into the world. . . . If Jesus were a coach, we’d hear him say: “Keep your eye on the ball. Keep your eye on the ball.” In the whirl and swirl of our days, don’t panic. What truly matters is what always has been true, God never changes: we love and serve and are sustained by a God who always brings new life. As sure as winter turns to spring, and birthpangs bring the baby. . . . Keep your head. Do not panic! God always makes something new.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)