Tag Archives: Sermons

29 June 2014 Sermon — Matt. 10:40-42

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!

“Who Do You Represent?”

29 June 2014 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read the scripture first: Matthew 10:40-42 (NRS)

Have you ever had to hire a lawyer? I don’t mean because you got yourself in trouble, though that can be a good time to do so as well. I mean more like you couldn’t be present for the sale of your home. So you hired a lawyer to sign closing documents for you. You expected her to represent you well. Maybe you’ve been put in the tough spot of having to make end of life decisions for a parent or beloved spouse. As their medical power of attorney; for them, you sign the orders regarding palliative care. They trusted you to act in their name. Hopefully we’ve all voted for a State Representative we intended to send to Washington DC. I know cynicism runs high around such things; but when we cast our votes, we do so believing that person will make decisions for us which will positively impact life in our communities. We want them to decide for our benefit. Or maybe we’ve just gotten behind the efforts of the US Soccer Team this summer. Off to Brazil we’ve sent them. Even if we can’t kick a ball, they go in our stead to represent the sporting pride of our nation. Win or lose, we hope they give it their all for us all.

According to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus closes his charge of discipleship with an important reminder. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Mt. 10:40). He might have well just given them a list of summer camp rules. If you’ve ever worked with the youth of the church, then you might know that this frequently is done. We send them off reminding them to be on their best behavior because not only are they representing themselves and their parents and our church; they represent Christ. In essence he says: “It’s me they see when they see you. So, holding your chin high, head out into the world in my name!”

I’m not sure we think about that enough. That it’s Christ we represent in our lives each day. Like the lawyer who signs for us or the team that plays in our name, those who have said yes to the vows of Christian baptism (and confirmation), no longer live for ourselves. Instead, we bear Christ’s name in the world. On days when we feel like it and days when we don’t, we represent Christ. Our words and our actions are speaking for him – every day of the week, every place that we go, not just Sunday mornings here. The question is: what message about Christ do we send?

Recently I read an interesting reflection by a pastor I know. I think she actually was quoting a tweet she read at our General Assembly in Detroit. The quote was: “If I hang out at your church, will I actually meet people who are like Jesus? Or will I just hear about him?” She went on to write: “Imagine walking into a church building and seeing people who remind you of Jesus. What would that look like?”  (achurchforstarvingartisits.wordpress.com/author/jledmiston, 18 June 2014).  It’s how it’s supposed to be. For each other and for the world, we represent Jesus. What do they see? Do they see in us the kind of compassion, kindness, peace, and care he exuded? Do they witness the clarity, generosity, and joy he was about? When in our presence, is it for others like being in the presence of one so centered in the Spirit of God that he always was ready and able to attune to the one in need before him. To offer the space for the other to become even better than they were before they met him. That’s how Jesus went about his life on this earth. And to those who have vowed to be his followers, he’s now given us that charge so that we know it’s not us that is welcomed along our journey of service in his name, but him: Christ.

If you’re familiar with Saint Benedict, then you might already know and practice this rule. It’s safe to say that Benedict is a giant in monasticism – at least for those covenanted communities that still live according to the rules he established in the Sixth Century. It’s not all things like poverty and servitude. For Benedict, life was to be a celebration. The balance between prayer and work and play; all of it, ways to encounter the Spirit of God living in, among, and beyond God’s marvelous creation. To this day, Benedictine orders have a porter. One author writes, “Quite simply, the porter is the one who opens the door to the monastery when someone knocks” (Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2014; Martin Copenhaver, p. 22). I’ve experienced the classic warm welcome of Benedictines, but I never knew that such monasteries have a porter with the specific responsibility of sleeping “near the entrance to the monastery so he can hear and respond in a timely way when someone knocks. Then, as soon as anyone knocks . . . the porter is to reply: ‘Thanks be to God!’” (Ibid.). The author explains that: “before he even knows who is on the other side of the door. Before the porter knows who that person is or why he or she is there, he is to praise God for that person’s presence” (Ibid.). You see, it doesn’t really matter who’s on the other side of the door. The porter knows whoever it is, it will be Christ. And the porter knows that whoever it is, he himself represents Christ for them. Thanks be to God! Try muttering that the next time you hear your doorbell! The next time a guest shows up among us for worship, try practicing Thanks be to God – not because we might have a new member to add to our numbers as we suck them dry of their time, talents, and treasures. But thanks to be God! In the guest, we welcome Christ among us! And to the guest we represent Christ.

There’s a story of a little church that fell on hard times. You may have heard this one before. They were down to just four members, who were angry and anxious and not always all that nice. The leader was sent to seek guidance from a wiser one. The wise one told the leader: “I’m not really sure how to turn your little church around. All I know is that Christ is one of you.” The story goes that the message struck a chord in the hearts and minds of those four remaining members. Just in case it was true, they started treating each other better. Welcoming one another with the grace and excitement one might have in welcoming Christ. They went about their worship and their service together with a bit more care; just in case Christ really was one of them. They paid attention to every little detail of their space and their lives together; in the off chance that Christ really was one of them. Because, of course, they wanted to be and do their best for him. Over time, word spread. People stopped in to see if Christ really was there in that little church. They discovered such mutual respect, such genuine affection, such gracious attention that they started to stay. The four became fourteen, then forty, and then four hundred. All of them living with each other as if one of them was Christ.

We do represent Christ. And o for a world full of us! A world of us ready to welcome one another as speedily and as graciously as the Benedictine porter welcomes at the first knock. A world living as patiently and as attentively as four church members who believe one of them is Christ. . . . I know there will be days we do better at it than others. Days when we need a little reminder from one another – like some sort of signal to get us back on track when we slip: “Oops, Pastor Jule! You’re representing Christ to us right now!” Or “Oops, one another: take care for the message we’re sending. For we represent Christ even now to each other!” . . . No longer for ourselves alone, in all we do and say; we represent Christ. May that which is shown be “Thanks be to God” each day!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

Trinity Sunday Sermon — Matt. 28:16-20

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!


15 June 2014 – Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20

Click here to read the scripture first:  Matthew 28:16-20 (NRS)

Seventeen hundred years ago, the church was fighting about the Trinity. It can be a confusing concept which we have great difficulty wrapping our minds around. It is, after all, a mystery. Though this gospel reading of Matthew makes reference to baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it doesn’t explain the relationship between these three. Nor does it seem to worry about delicately holding the tension of the three-yet-Oneness of God. To make matters worse, the Trinity’s not clearly explained anywhere in scripture. In fact, the word Trinity never is used. The gospel of John’s farewell discourse of Jesus (chapters 14-17) might be the closest attempt to talk about this God that is in us even as we’re in God, and Jesus is in God, and Jesus is in us, and another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be among us forever. But that whole section can be more trouble than help. We do have the second letter to the Christians in Corinth which closes with the message: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:13); though the benediction isn’t really explaining Trinity as much as it is naming for the first followers of Christ’s Way the experience of the grace, love, and companionship of God – the various aspects of God that can be real in our lives. And just as Christianity began to gain some ground in the Roman Empire of the early Fourth Century, the church started fighting about the Trinity.

It’s called the Arian controversy. A man named Arius and a man named Athanasius led the way. They stood at polar opposites about the nature and power of God. Arius (wrongly) was convinced that the Son and the Father were not co-eternal. “’There was when he was not,’” Arius said – referring to an independent God (the Father) creating Jesus (the Son) right alongside everything else in creation – something we Christians do not believe. For Arius, “God was an utterly unique, self-contained, and self-sufficient reality” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3; Stephen B. Boyd, p. 46). . . . Fathers’ Day seems a good time to remember that the church did not accept this notion of God. For how long has our culture, especially tried to tell the males of it, that they too are individual? Self- contained. Sufficient all on their own. Arius was terrified of any sense of vulnerability in God. For him an eternal partnership with the Son, not to mention the Holy Spirit; implied weakness in the deity. You know, one that could be affected by another; changed by another; to Arius that was weak. Unacceptable in any sense of God – which tells us that Arius may not have been reading the scriptures very much because it’s all over the stories. This amazing Deity who chooses to come to us in such a vulnerable way. This God who feels and weeps, and deeply is affected by the faithfulness and waywardness of God’s creation. . . . I know a mindset still lingers in our society: that to be a man is to be like this invincible, independent, hover-a-little-bit-above-it-all kind of god.

Fortunately, scripture gives witness to something else, so the church decided to follow Athanasius. As one commentator explains: “Athanasius believed that the incarnation of God in Christ revealed a different kind of God and a different kind of divine power. Rather than an isolated monad, God from eternity is relational; between the Father and the Son, for example, there was, is, and always will be mutual self-giving. . . . a ‘unity of love, a unity in which the identity of each party is not swallowed up and annihilated, but established” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3; Stephen B. Boyd, p. 46, 48). It’s a mutuality. A shared being. An inter-dependence where three co-exist in beautiful harmony with one another – like a perfect musical chord. One’s not more important than the other; they’re all necessary. Distinct, yet equal. One never without the others. It’s often called the peri-choresis of God: the dancing around in great delight. A circular image of God where the God beyond, among, and in us exists in this joyous right-relationship. Almost like a synergy or living sphere of powerful energy. A God who is plural, yet one. . . . It’s a much better message for the men and women of our culture – a helpful, healthy way to be reflected in our own relationships at home, in our congregation, and beyond in all the world! . . . I love how one preacher put it by saying that: “God does not exist in solitary individualism but in a community of love and sharing. God is not a loner. This means that a Christian in search of godliness (Matthew 5:48) must shun every tendency to isolationism. The ideal Christian spirituality is not that of flight from the world like that of certain . . . traditions where the quest for holiness means permanent withdrawal . . . away from contact and involvement with people and society” (http://www.munachi.com/z/trinity.htm). It means getting in there. Living rightly alongside one another, even as we tenderly tread upon this earth.

In officer training this week, one of our officers-elect explained it beautifully. A person can be daughter and a sister and a wife and a mother and a grandmother. And in all those ways how she is in each of those roles is influenced by the other; but she’s still one woman – and so much more even than just those roles. Boys too: sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, and grandfathers – all impacting how you are in each one of those, but more than each one too. I like that. Especially because it gets at the heart of why the Trinity matters: because in the image of God we are made. Not a power unto ourselves to do whatever we want with one another and the rest of creation. But a relationship – a mutuality. In other words, though we may have been reared in the great Western independent philosophy of “I think therefore I am;” the African inter-dependent notion of Ubuntu would have been a more Christian way to have been reared: that I am because we are. As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu so often proclaims: our human-ness is bound up together. In many ways, Trinity captures not just the truth of God, but also the truth of us. We never are one all on our own. Each one of us always is in relationship with God and the rest of creation, even as we are with our own self. In other words, three: a self, God, the rest of the world. We too are thoroughly relational no matter how much some of us might try to fight it. We may not be able to explain it all; but we certainly experience it.

I’ve been reading about something called the Law of Three. I admit I don’t fully understand yet all of what this contemporary Christian mystic is trying to say, other than that there is a metaphysical Law of Three. Our world isn’t just binary opposites like yin and yang, male and female, dark and light. Rather it takes three to make anything happen: like a seed in the fertile soil. Without the third element of the sunlight, that seed never will sprout to grow. (Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, p. 40). About the Trinity, this mystic writes: “A solitary God could not be ‘love without limits.’ . . . The Three-in-One denotes the perfection of Unity . . . fulfilling itself in communion and becoming the source and foundation of all communion” (Ibid., pp. 43-44).

Returning to the gospel of Matthew, that might be why the Risen Christ commands his disciples to go baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Because first of all, it’s going to take something outside of us to get us out there. A force; a power; a Spirit beyond us to motivate us to go forth into all the world with the good news. Second, thanks be to God, we have a most beautiful example of how to do this: Jesus himself, God-with-us, or the God among us, divine yet seeking to live a flawless human life. He held in perfect harmony those right relationships between God, self, and all creation. And third, thanks be to God, we have something within us: the Spirit of God burning like a fire within to give witness to the love, and hope, and forgiving grace of God. In our baptisms, we’re marked with the sign of the Triune God – the God beyond, among, and within us – we’re marked by them all in baptismal waters that we might live in God’s likeness as we delight in such beautiful balance with God, self, and the rest of creation.

As we go forth into the world, that’s the good news our lives are to reflect! That we do not go it alone. Trinity matters because our God is beyond, but among, and in us too! And like God, we work best in threes: me, you, God with us. As the wisdom writer wrote: “a three-fold chord is not quickly broken” (Eccles. 4:12b). Together we can fulfill the Risen Christ’s command – or at least begin to try. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we go forth to give witness to our mysterious, Three-in-One God.

Alleluia and Amen!

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

Ascension Sunday Sermon – Acts 1:1-14

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!
1 June 2014 – Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:1-14

Click here to read the scripture first: Acts 1:1-14 (NRS)

If this sermon were to have a title, a good one would be: Ascension??? . . . What’s it all about? Where in the world did he go? And what are we supposed to do now?

So the Ascension of the Lord:  what’s it all about?

If any of us grew up Roman Catholic or Episcopalian, you probably could school the rest of us about Ascension Day, as it’s such an important part of those traditions. It takes place every 40th day of Eastertide, always two Thursdays prior to Pentecost Sunday, the fiftieth day of Eastertide. And it’s considered one of the main high holy days. In fact, in Roman Catholicism it’s a Holy Day of Obligation. Or a day in which everyone better be at mass or else! . . . Legend has it that as early as 68 A.D., or just a generation after his death and resurrection, the first followers were celebrating the day the Risen Christ ascended. That kinda makes sense because not only would that have been about the time first followers would have been passing on the mantel to the next generation, but also because those would have been difficult days when things with Rome really were heating up – the Jerusalem Temple was about to be demolished entirely. Reassurance of an ascended, sovereign Lord would have been a growing comfort. Ascension Day might have been observed as early as the First Century A.D., but we only have written documentation of such celebrations beginning in the Fifth Century A.D. – by the time both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds were around (www.officeholidays.com/countries/Europe/ascension_day.php).

Either way, in the good old days, some very interesting customs took place to mark this holy day feast. Often the paschal candle (or Christ candle) would be extinguished. It was a way to symbolize that ascension was the end of Christ’s work of reconciling us to God and one another. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension completed the task. . . . Blessing of the first fruits often was a part of an Ascension Day celebration. People would bring the first harvest of their grapes and beans for the priests to bless. . . . Sometimes Ascension Day included a procession into the sanctuary like a parade with torches and banners as a way to commemorate Christ’s ascension. I love the descriptions of priests suddenly raising a figure of Christ high above the altar all the way up through an opening in the roof. Kinda reminds me of a “Jesus Christ Super Star” production where an actor with flowing blond hair and pristine white robes is lifted up on one of those stage harnesses to float off above all the spotlights. . . . And while I’m really not sure what this next Ascension Day custom has to do with the ascension of Christ, I’ve read that in England churches commonly would beat the bounds on this day. Sources report that “Members of the parish (would) walk round the parish boundaries, marking boundary stones and hitting them with sticks. According to some, it was once the young boys of the parish that were hit with sticks instead of the stones.” The logical explanation to this was that “knowledge of the parish boundaries was once important, since churches had certain duties such as care of children born out of wedlock in the parish. (Thus) one of the purposes served by beating the bounds was that of warning the young men of the parish that (quote) any sexual misbehavior ought to take place with women who lived outside the parish” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Ascension). Isn’t that great? We Christians certainly can come up with some wild rituals! . . . But in some ways a good ole’ beating of the bounds might be a wonderful reminder to us that we have responsibilities to and for those living in the shadow of our sanctuary. Like this territory and the people of it are ours. It’s our job to ensure they know and experience the good news of the work of our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. It’s our mission to tend to their spiritual needs. Can’t you almost picture Christ, returned to the Triune God, now saying things like: “check out that church community, God. They really are at it in their own backyard!”

Which brings us to where in the world did he go? Now, I gotta be honest. We had a little fight about this in the pastors’ lectionary study I’m a part of. I kept asserted that I worry that too many of us are concrete literal thinkers. When we hear about ascension, if we buy it at all, don’t we too often picture the human figure of Jesus sitting somewhere up in the skies alongside however we picture God the Father to be? I worry that we don’t get the metaphorical understanding of the creeds’ words that “Ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of God the Father” (Apostles’ Creed/Nicene Creed) was language used to speak of the Risen Christ being the right-hand one of God, the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe – the beloved ambassador or trusted emissary of God sent on a very special mission. We don’t always get the metaphorical, military-like language (common to that day) that the Risen, Ascended Christ is the one who successfully has completed his impossible mission even as he’s begun another. When it comes to ascension, I worry that too many of us concrete literal thinkers, if we pay attention to it at all, just get caught up in a view of the victorious Christ risen from the earth into the sky now to rest up on a cloud somewhere right alongside God; as from afar, they wait to see how badly on our own we might mess it all up.

Of course, a more seasoned preacher in our pastors’ bible study assured me that we 21st Century Americans don’t think that way. He assured me that we don’t see the world as the three-tiered cosmos of our biblical ancestors who didn’t yet know the earth is spherical, like a ball, instead of flat, like unleavened bread. Certainly Presbyterians in the pews, my preacher companion told me, know God isn’t just further up there than the astronauts have gone because it’s land here where we are, the fires of hell under below our feet, and heaven above where God and the angels reside – which was the ancient three-tiered view of the world. Rather, we know that this earth is one part of an amazing galaxy, in this incredible universe, where God is everywhere – in us, among us, and beyond us! Ascension up, as Acts of the Apostle’s describes with the words: “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), is more like the Risen Christ taking our humanity into the eternal heartbeat of God. Having lived as one of us here among us, the Risen Christ, who is God too, brings who we are fully into the Godhead so that we are in a new communion with our God forevermore. That’s why ascension matters – because in Christ, we’re united with God in a way we’ve never quite been before. At last we can get on not just with worshipping our Lord as one to lift high on a pedestal. But in emulating him as the one lifted up as the Way. The Path. The Proto-type. The Hero in whose steps we walk.

Which leads us right into what we are supposed to do now. Acts of the Apostles is believed to be something like the sequel of the gospel of Luke. And the ascension of the Lord opens Acts, just as it had closed the book of the gospel of Luke. This writer wants us to know that while the one born of Mary, raised in Nazareth, ministered primarily in Galilee before his trek to Jerusalem that got him killed and raised again – while Jesus the Christ played the leading role in the gospel of Luke; in Acts, it’s going to be his followers. Or the Holy Spirit of God working through his followers in the same way the Holy Spirit of God was working through Jesus all along. He kept telling his followers, like the gospel of John records (John 14:12), that it’s better that it happens this way so that we will do greater things than him. What we’re supposed to do now is fulfill the mission he passed on to us.

I love that Acts opens with the apostles hanging out with the Risen Christ on the Mount of Olives, again overlooking Jerusalem. I’m sure the view was a bit chillier this side of crucifixion and resurrection. As the disciples stood on the same spot from which they first entered the city, pre-Passover; they easily could recall all the Holy Week events. They hear him saying something about being baptized not with water like John the Baptist. But they just want to know if it’s all about to be over, the whole kingdom of Israel restored. Giving them something else upon which to focus, the Risen Christ says: “It’s not for you to know the times or periods set. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem (yes, the dangerous city where they put the Lord to death), in all Judea and Samaria (the provinces that don’t necessarily like such Galilean outsiders), and to the ends of the earth (which includes worlds you can’t even image – people so very different from you who may not even recognize their hunger for the Holy)” (paraphrase of Acts 1:7-8). They were hoping it all was about to be over. But it was just the beginning! . . . Instead, it’s a tall order he’s giving them. And according to how it got recorded in Acts, it is an order. You WILL be my witnesses from this spot right before you, unto ever-expanding circles beyond.

What we’re supposed to do now is get busy. Or rather wait for the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, next Sunday, and then get busy! As he’s lifted up like Enoch and Elijah – two other righteous ones of God whose feet supposedly left this earth in the same way. While Christ is taken out of the-kind-of-sight they’ve been having of him since before and after his resurrection, the apostles have to have another message to get them to stop just standing around gawking up at the skies. They’re assured he’s coming back in the very same way. As they are standing on the Mount of Olives, the words must bring to mind for them the prophetic visions that the triumphant Son of Man will come down from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to reclaim it all as God’s own. . . . Acts records that they finally go back into Jerusalem and they stay together. Praying and waiting for this empowering gift that will infuse them with the courage and energy, determination and clarity to emulate the one now lifted before them. To be about the business of carrying on his mission even if it means standing before the powers that want him dead, engaging those so totally different from themselves, and journeying into the wild unknown. . . . Any who claim the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ as Lord and Savior are to get out there to fulfill the mission he’s entrusted to us. Do the greater things he told us will be done by the Holy Spirit through us!

The Ascension of our Lord: I hope it’s gone from ??? to !!!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)