Tag Archives: Sermon

22 June 2014 Sermon-Matt. 10:24-39

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

“Division”

22 June 2014 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 10:24-39

Click here to read the scripture first: Matthew 10:24-39 (NRS)

Anyone having a warm-fuzzy view of Jesus, who thinks he’s all about loving our families and being seekers of peace in this world; probably doesn’t like this part of the gospel of Matthew. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he’s quoted as saying. “Man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . . one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” And “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:34, 36, 37). Tough words that don’t necessarily match up with things elsewhere in scripture that he’s recorded as saying, let alone the Jesus so many of us love as our confidant and friend.

I’ve only ever met one person in the world who actually loves this text. I don’t remember his name. But I vividly remember his story. I met him one night in Pakistan. It was the days before most Americans even knew where Pakistan was, let alone what life was like there. It was the summer of 1993 and I had been chosen by a Presbyterian Missionary Conference to be in service for 8 weeks with 4 other college young adults. When I got the acceptance letter with the news of where we were heading, the first thing I did was found a map to look up where in the world Pakistan was. The next thing I did was call my parents to tell them the news. And while it wasn’t the first time they heard me tell them of plans to travel oversees for some sort of mission; they were not at all thrilled. Because: Pakistan?!! That’s like a whole world away! . . . Over the course of the next few weeks, we were sent various articles about Islam and the ways of this Muslim country. I learned that religions other than Islam legally were tolerated. But of course toleration and full acceptance are two very different things. I learned that out in public, I would need to keep my arms and legs covered at all times – and be ready to cover my head too depending upon where we were. I learned that I would need to know the proper greeting for most Islamic countries: “As-salamu alaykum,” I would hear. To which we were to respond: “Wa alaykumu al-salem.” Loosely translated it was: Peace be upon you; and unto you peace.

Based out of the busy city of LaHore, I spent my summer meeting various Christians of the country. My charge was to listen to the work they were doing at such places like the YWCA, the Christian Blind Society, a Christian Broadcasting Network, and a self-development training center for women. At the time, I think the Christian population of Pakistan was somewhere like 1% — in other words, being a disciple of Christ then and there was not a very popular pursuit. Nor were Christians across the country very well connected with each other. My work that summer was to learn how Christians were serving those in need in order to compile a resource that pastors and other church leaders could use in connecting those able to serve with places they could do it, and those needing to be served with ministries that could handle their requests.

Somehow, one Sunday night, our group met a man. I remember him rushing in to the home where we had gathered. In Urdu he said some words to the American mission co-workers who were with us. Then we all took seats in the living room. It was almost like we were having a little house meeting as the earliest Christians would – meeting for prayer and fellowship at the close of the day. Mike, one of the American mission co-workers, stood next to the gentleman who looked kinda tentative but eager to speak. Over the course of the next half-hour, the man told us (with Mike translating for us) that he was a follower of Christ. He told us how he had come to hear of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. He told us how he had learned of this one who spurred on the Christians of Pakistan to treat others with kindness and mercy and the human dignity they deserved no matter their religious affiliation. He told us of how he and his fellow Christians came together to rely upon one another and to serve those forgotten by the rest of society. How they were willing to take risks and even go against the ways of their elders if they must because of the love, forgiveness, and hope they had come to know through Jesus Christ. At long last, Mike broke in to tell us details the man wasn’t sharing. Details of his life that we really needed to understand. This man was the son of a prominent Muslim Imam. His uncle and his father both followed in the footsteps of their father to be important leaders of local mosques. He was to as well. Instead, when this man decided as a young adult to follow the ways of Christ, his biological family disowned him. He was like a stranger to them. In his context, he knew that becoming a disciple of Christ would set him at odds with those he loved most. There was something about these words of the gospel of Matthew that became a great comfort to him.

Now, before we jump to any false conclusions about how terribly divisive Islam is, we can remember that Christians too have experienced this kind of rejection by their own Christian families. It still happens today – you know it. One follower of Christ doesn’t agree with another’s understanding of it all. One disciple seeks to be true to who they’ve come to know in God through the good news of Christ, and the others are of a different ilk. Before you know it, folks are being holier than thou at the family reunion – if they’re still talking at all. It happened quite a bit for the first followers of the way. For many of them, their families were Jewish who kept to the ways of Judaism, even if one called Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah. As the movement spread, it was Greeks and Romans, who had notions of other gods. Before Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century, it took a whole lot of courage to go home to tell your parents that you were going to start living in the manner of Christ. . . . Doing that, you too might find yourself ostracized by your loved ones – or worse. In fact, it was another man in Pakistan who first taught me a great wisdom about such religious exclusionism. He was one of the most peaceful, serene, Christ-like persons I ever have met. He was Muslim and worked alongside me each day at the office of one of the Presbyterian missionaries. Everything about him embodied Christ for me: his gentleness, his generosity, his joy. He went out of his way to tell me more about Islam and the way it grounded him in being a person of peace in this world – a seeker too of justice. Something about him made me begin to wonder if, though we were walking different paths to God, was it all really the same Way, the Way I know as Christ? He’s one of the first persons to tell me that extremists exist in any religion, which can give us all a bad name. He firmly believed that when our religious practices fail to embrace and embody the highest principles of the Love to which they’re supposed to point us; then something has gone awry. Anyway, that’s the wisdom my Muslim co-worker taught me that summer.

The thing is that following in the footsteps of one who heals the sick, befriends the outcast, and casts out that which leads from life; following in the footsteps of that Teacher very well can lead to some very strong reactions. One commentator helpfully reminds that “if Jesus were really the . . . nice guy we often insist on imagining, should he not have been able to stay out of trouble? . . . Kingdom work, it turns out, is more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness. If the teacher gives offense (as Jesus did to those of his day), how much more the student?” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3, Lance Pape, p. 167).

It’s the reality with which we have to wrestle. I’m not saying we have to get out there to intentionally bring division. Rather, the message of Jesus in this part of Matthew’s gospel is that we very well may. In the words of that same commentator, “true discipleship is the art of seeking the kingdom with single-minded determination and letting the chips fall where they may.” According to that commentator, “The church that always manages to glide through life without ever rubbing anyone the wrong way may have reason to question whether it is truly this Jesus it honors as master and Lord” (Ibid.).

This Jesus, of Matthew’s gospel, is summoning twelve of his followers and giving them authority to go out doing the same things he is: proclaiming good news to those of their own nation who are being preyed upon by a religious system that had become entrenched with those seeking gain for themselves on the backs of others; those perverting God’s good news in fear of the oppressor; those turning their heads from the suffering of their brothers and sisters. This Jesus is coming as a balm to those who have lost hope in the confines of illness and death and social exclusion and forces beyond themselves. This Jesus is telling his followers to be learners and doers of his way – knowing that some are going to scoff. Some are going to say no way. Some are going to cut you off because they won’t accept such a God. That’s literally what was going on for the community to which Matthew first wrote, so that they needed to hear the good news that “even the hairs of your head are counted by our loving God. Do not be afraid; for you are valued as precious by God. We will be held through it all” (paraphrase of Matthew 10:29-31). This Jesus is telling those who would follow after him that the way will not always be easy. We might find ourselves locked out of one family – though thanks be to God another family is ready to welcome us in. It’s the road we must walk, come what may, if we want to be called worthy by our Lord. If we want to know the joy of full-acceptance by our God. In the end, it’s the way of losing ourselves, as the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel here says, in order to find true Life. . . . Despite the cost, no matter our fear; may our days be blessed as we follow in the footsteps of our Savior and Lord!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

Pentecost Sunday Sermon – Acts 2:1-21

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

8 June 2014 – Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-21
Click here to read the scripture first: Acts 2:1-21 (NRS)

Exciting things are going on in the church of Jesus Christ. And I’m not just talking about the excitement I see in you men who are rolling up your sleeves to take care of our building; and those of you helping the people in need who come to us each week; and those of you who are eager to experience some other forms of worship in a few upcoming Field Trips we’re working on organizing during this transitional time in the life of this church; or those of you asking for a book study in people’s homes that we hope to launch in a few weeks! All of which are really exciting things among us! . . . I realize we can get so caught up in worry about declining numbers and church dogma fights and budget crunches. But lots of evidence points to a vibrant future for the Christian faith. While it’s true, as one author has said, that in the USA, the first decade of the 21st Century has been the “Great Religious Recession.” It’s equally true, according to that same author, that we’re living in the era of an emergence of “a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being ‘born again’” (Cheryl Jones quoting Diana Butler Bass in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2013, p. 3). It’s exciting! It’s a great, even if challenging, time to be alive! . . . Supposedly we’re in the midst of “moving from being a religion about God, to being an experience of God” (Cheryl Jones, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2013, p. 4). From the what of faith to the how of faith. From what’s been called an Age of Belief to an Age of the Spirit.

It’s very good news for the church of Jesus Christ because more than ever in the history of this nation, spiritual experience is what people want. The research all points to a rise in those not affiliated with any church; yet craving connection with God. Unlike Americans of the past who weren’t a part of any religious body; when those of the past turned away from the church, they turned away from God all together. Atheists and agnostics used to abound. The what of belief was their crisis – and, in response, the what of belief was the church’s key witness. . . . But today we’re told those who won’t be a part of a church still seek some sort of experience of the Divine. They want wonder. They want awe. They want a glimpse into the mysterious. They want the rituals and practices that will bring them into deep connection with that which is beyond themselves. In other words, they want the how of faith. They just don’t think they can find that among us, the church. We, who religious non-affiliates of today seem to believe, spend more time propping up and preserving an institution than seeking to live the how of faith – than being in true connection with the living God.

And more than any other day of the liturgical calendar, today is a great day to celebrate the craving for the spiritual over empty religion. Today is Pentecost – the feast of God connecting with God’s people. Pentecost: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That uncontrollable force like the rush of a mighty wind. Something, we’re not sure what, but as best as it’s been able to be described, something like flashes of fire. Little flickering flames alighting around each believer present. As far as we know, 120 gathered together in Jerusalem on that day. Jesus had instructed them to wait together for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They were being given such a lofty commission: to go – be witnesses of the good news of God’s unmerited, redeeming love, shown fully to us in Christ Jesus. They were being sent to speak in the ancient halls of religious power in Jerusalem. To the first ring of those living a bit further out than that, and all the way beyond to lands they had no idea even existed. To places like Hermitage, Tennessee – which surely had to be the ends of the earth according to their world view. Those first followers of the Risen Christ were going to need more than their own abilities for such a commission. They were going to need POWER: the power of the Holy Spirit – God’s very self living in and among them. To keep them courageous and open and going when all the evidence in front of their eyes said: stop.

They, and most of the rest of the Jewish world, had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, “the third of the three great festivals of Judaism. . . . Shavuot was a joyful festival, in which the first fruits of the harvest would have been given to God” (Margaret P. Aymer, Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3, p. 15). It was the celebration of God’s giving of the Law to Moses and their ancestors. It was a significant commemoration of God’s covenant with them – the giving of the Torah, which would make Hebrew slaves into a covenant community for God. . . . And at that moment – as those excited about the Risen Christ were together for Shavuot – like an avalanche that cannot be stopped, the Holy Spirit came! . . .

It’s curious that images like wind and fire are recorded about that day. . . . A few months ago I saw a map of the United States that had Home of the Hurricane written across the Southeast, Tornado Alley written across the Midwest; and Wildfire Way written across the West. It was a spoof about the current state of our weather; but it makes a point: wind and fire are powerful forces. Two of the main elements of our earth that no matter what we do really cannot be controlled. In fact, they can be the source of such immense destruction. . . . Which leaves me wondering how many of us don’t have something within us individually – and collectively as a congregation – that needs some blowing out; some burning off in order to make us what is needed for God? Some of us harbor old understandings of ourselves and others that need to be cleared away. Some of us cling to hang-ups about our personal abilities – or maybe our collective abilities too. Some of us let life-long fears or worries steal our chance at living fully alive here and now. We need something like wind and fire to blow all that away; burn all that out of us kinda like John the Baptist said long ago. In the gospel of Matthew he was recorded as speaking of the fire that will be used to burn out of us everything that is not life-giving: the chaff. The part of the wheat that is inedible by humans. Wind separates the grain and the chaff in winnowing when it’s tossed up so that the chaff is blown aside and the grain falls to the threshing floor (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaff). Remember those words often lifted up in Advent: “His winnowing fork is in hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary” – that’s the good stuff in us that does feed others. “But the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” – the parts in us that are no good for God’s life-giving mission in the world, it’s like they are burned out of us with fire. Might that be part of the work of the Holy Spirit? To destroy in us what keeps us from the mission of God. Of course we know that wind and fire aren’t just destructive. They also can be powerful, uncontrollable sources that make amazing things happen. Think of full sails that can carry a ship far across the ocean. Think of the flames that can fire up an engine to move a massive train from one end of our country to the next. Wind and fire are powerful forces in this world that can put into motion magnificent things! That, we’re told, is what the Holy Spirit of God is like.

A few years back, I started getting really serious about the Holy Spirit – I realize not many Presbyterian preachers may make such a statement. But I just had finished teaching a year-long confirmation class with senior highs who said at the close of the year that they had no idea what the Holy Spirit was about. It was a wake-up call to me as their pastor and to that congregation as a church that whatever it was: our own lack of understanding, or emphasis, or fear, or something was hindering the spiritual life of our young people. I started doing some reading – the natural thing we Presbyterians do when we are confused about God. As an object, we study it. Soon my spiritual director was encouraging me to put down the books and just listen. Be quiet. Wait. Because God is not an object to be poked and prodded; God is a living subject in, among, and beyond us. I asked church members to join me as we did some contemplative prayer together; we practiced a few other kinds of prayer too that would attune us better to God. We even started singing songs about the Spirit from the hymnal. Somehow or another, the next time confirmation class rolled around, I was astounded to hear that class of confirmands heartily include the Holy Spirit in their personal statements of faith – they articulated not just what they believed about the Holy Spirit but how they experienced it. I kept the words they wrote about the Holy Spirit because I was moved so deeply by them. That group of young persons spoke about the Holy Spirit as: “The breath of God . . . everywhere . . . powerful . . . always with us.” One of them wrote: “You can’t see it, but it’s with us everywhere we go. . . . The Holy Spirit is like the air we breathe, because you need it to survive, and it keeps us going.” Another wrote: “I believe the Holy Spirit is kind of like the wind. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. That’s how (God’s) always with us – through hardships, (and through the) happy moments in our lives.” The quietest boy in the class wrote: “I believe in the Holy Spirit that is always with me, even though I can’t see it; I can feel it. I believe the Holy Spirit is the glue that keeps us believing and doing good deeds. (The Holy Spirit keeps) my faith in God when there is chaos around me.” And finally one professed that the Holy Spirit “is everywhere we go. It lives inside of us. It comes from God” (Quotes from 2012-13 COTC Confirmands).

Everywhere. Mysterious, in that we can’t really see it – but we can experience it. We can use metaphors like breath of God, air, wind, the glue of our lives that keeps us believing. The ever-present God that lives inside of us. A gift that comes from God. It’s still the power that sends us out into the world – bound together to one another to carry out the very same charge given so long ago to the first followers of the Risen Christ. The Holy Spirit is the church’s experience of God living in us every day to be the church – the presence of Christ’s very body wherever we go on this earth.

And the Holy Spirit is how we know an exciting future lies ahead for Christ’s church – if we’re willing to remain open to God’s living presence among us. For the Holy Spirit is God’s power in and among us to refresh and revive and re-create. The Guide that sends us out to live our faith – not just keep certain beliefs in our brain each day, but to enact the kind of behavior that shows God alive in us. . . . The Holy Spirit – the fire of God burning in us; the breath of God living in us – is our hope. . . .

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

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)