Tag Archives: The Way of Christ

Such a Time as This

A Sermon for 30 September 2018

A reading from Esther 7:1-10 and 9:20-23.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther.  On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther?  It shall be granted you.  And what is your request?  Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”  Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.  If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”  Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?”  Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”  Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.  The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him.  When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?”  As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.  Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.”  And the king said, “Hang him on that.”  10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.  Then the anger of the king abated.  . . .  Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.  23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.”

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

 

Do you ever feel as if we are living in a time absolutely consumed by values unlike those of Christ?  Maybe you look at the lives of neighbors or friends and wonder:  what in the world drives them to do what they do?  Perhaps you turn to the news and think:  does anyone care any more about things like compassion, forgiveness, truth?  If ever it seems like the world around us is like foreign territory, we can give thanks for the biblical reminders that we are not alone.  Throughout the story of faith, God’s people have lived like aliens in another land.  Doing their best to be who God needed them to be, no matter where they found themselves each day.  From Abram and Sarai in Egypt, to the exiles in Babylon.  To Jesus who was a young Jewish boy hiding out as a refugee in Egypt because of the foreign king of his land.  The earliest stories of Christ’s movement remind us that Rome once fatally rejected Christ’s ways – not only killing Jesus, but later putting to death one of his most strident followers Paul, and scads of early Christians too.  If we ever wonder how to be faithful in the midst of a world that lives and moves and values things quite unlike the ways of Christ, then taking a dip back into Scripture might lend some helpful clues.

For instance, consider the life of the great Queen Esther.  Once orphaned by the death of her mother and father, young Esther was lucky enough to have a cousin who took her in.  Though we often refer to him as Uncle Mordecai, he technically was a first cousin who adopted Esther to be his own.  Orphaned children don’t always get a great shot in life.  But Esther had one thing going for her and Mordecai seized upon it.  A delight to the eyes, Esther was absolutely beautiful.  It’s a bit of a harsh story – especially in light of the current climate of #Why I Didn’t Report.  A drunken king is shamed before his kingdom when his Queen Vashti refuses to be summoned to the debauchery in order to be on display.  To save face and keep every man – as Esther 1:22 reads:  “master in his own house,” Queen Vashti is banished from ever again setting foot before the king.  Stripped of her crown, the king demands another.  It is then that Mordecai jumps into action.  His reasoning being he and his people, the Jews, are aliens in a foreign land.  Exiled by Babylonians, they eventually found themselves under Persian rule.  After years of keeping themselves alive, Mordecai figures a beguiling queen who hides her Jewish identity could come in handy someday.  Beautiful young Esther is sent to the palace.  The story goes that she favors the king’s head eunuch so, that she rises in the ranks of King Ahasuerus’s harem.  This is the point of the story when we really don’t wanna know all that Esther had to do.  Scripture merely records that it is her beauty that deeply impresses the king during the times when she went in to see him.  . . .  Though no mention is made of God in the entire book of Esther, we have to wonder if Mordecai alone is running the show, or if Yahweh the Sovereign of the Universe was busy making a way where there seemed to be none.  Esther – keeping her Jewish identity a secret – soon finds herself the new Queen of an empire stretching from India to Ethiopia!

It might be helpful for us to know that when the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah fell, the Assyrians took a divide-and-conquer approach to Israel – flinging their captives wide across the known world.  Some from a tribe being sent there.  Another being sent here.  Still others, all the way over there.  Years later, the Babylonians sent Judeans all together into foreign land.  All the way from Jerusalem, they mourned the destruction of their lives, their land, their Temple.  Psalm 46 poetically reminds what always eventually comes to be:  “the nations are in an uproar,” the Psalmist writes.  “The kingdoms totter . . . the earth melts” (Psalm 46:6).  Which is pretty much what happened.  The nation of Assyria rose.  The nation of Assyria fell.  The nation of Babylon rose.  The nation of Babylon fell.  The empire of Persia came to be.  And it too would see the end of its mighty rule.  . . .  Kings of empires often are inflated.  The stories of Scripture are full of leaders who are puffed up on themselves only eventually to fall.  I guess being a successful invading emperor easily could leave one feeling they can do whatever they want.  After all, if you think you’re at the top; who’s going to be around to tell you no?

The king of Persia was smart enough to know alliance matters.  When someone warns you of an internal assignation plot, you make sure the one who saved your skin is favored.  From all his time at the palace gate, old Mordecai hears that two eunuchs close to the king have grown angry enough to kill him.  Mordecai gets word to Queen Esther who in turn lets King Ahasuerus know what’s in the works.  When a new man rises to position number two next to the king, he doesn’t at all like that Mordecai refuses to bow before him.  Deciding it’s beneath him to have Mordecai alone killed; Haman, the new number two to the king, sets his sights instead on annihilating all the Jews of the empire.  . . .  Scholars believe the book of Esther is a part of Scripture to explain how the Jewish festival of Purim came to be.  According to one biblical commentator, “the purpose of the feast, actually two feasts, are to celebrate the rescue of the Jews from their wicked enemies, their escape from death that turned their ‘sorrow into gladness and . . . mourning into a holiday’ (Esther 9:22).  This liturgical feast was to be made unique by its exuberant gladness, the sharing of gifts of food with one another, and the giving of presents to the poor” (Kathleen M. O’Conner, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 101).  Such deliverance reminds of a brilliant quote we read this week in our new Book Group book Inspired:  Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.  Author Rachel Held Evans writes:  “My Jewish friends like to joke that you can sum up nearly every Jewish holiday with, ‘They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!’” (p. 40).

None of it would have come to pass if not for the courageous Queen Esther – who was smart enough to listen to the wise sage Mordecai when it came time to look beyond her own comfort to the salvation of her entire people.  When Mordecai sends word to Esther to use her position as queen to plead for the lives of all the Jews, he’s eloquently quoted in Esther 4:14 as saying:  “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Perhaps we are living in a world of such challenge as followers of Christ’s way, for such a time as this.  Oh, we may not be beautiful queens of an ancient empires stretching the wide expanse of almost all the known world.  But we are a people of immense privilege living in a land of incredible wealth.  We have been gifted with positions in business and education and industries of service.  We have the pleasure of living in relatively safe neighborhoods in comfortable homes with access to just about anything we could want.  . . .  I’ll never forget the words of another wise sage when I drove her from inner city Nashville to do a minute for mission in the church I was serving in Brentwood.  As a student of Vanderbilt Divinity School who was serving on the staff at a church in subdivisions where corporate wealth was on the rise, it was common to hear fellow Div. School folk questioning if I cared at all for the plight of those in need – as if need only wears a face related to money.  On our way to Brentwood for a minute for mission by Ms. Laura, the founder of the Luke 14:12 Feeding Program of Edgehill United Methodist Church; I’ll never forget the words she spoke to me.  She said:  “Jule, those crushed by poverty need others to speak for them to those who have the power to make a difference.”  She encouraged me faithfully to follow wherever God sent me – no matter what anyone else might think.  With Mordecai, she might as well have been reminding us, saying:  “Who knows?  Perhaps we have come to our positions in life for such a time as this.”

In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther stuck to a doctrine of divided kingdoms – the realm of God and our station in this world as separately distinct from one another.  John Calvin, the genius behind our Presbyterian thoughts and ways, believed there is no separation.  As Christians, we are in this world to make an impact.  Summarized beautifully in the Great Ends of the Church, the missional statements of the PCUSA proclaim, we are here as Christ’s Church for “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; (for) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; (for) the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and (for) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (PCUSA Book of Order 2017-2019, F-1.0304, p. 5).

Indeed, each one of us – wherever we go every week, we are needed for such a time as the one in which we find ourselves today.  . . .  Take heart, royal priesthood.  Be brave, members of the household of God.  The God of Jacob and Mordecai and Esther is with us!  We are here, now, for just such a time as this!

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 Way

A Sermon for 14 May 2017 – 5th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 14:1-14 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“’Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.’  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’”

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

Little Ziggy is about to get baptized.  A bundle of wonder, the adventure of his life unfolds before him!  He’s been born into a loving family, with a great big sister, and parents doing all they can to provide for his every need – including his every spiritual need.  In just a few moments he’ll be brought.  Promises will be made – not just by his mom and dad, but by you all too.  Until the day he’s old enough to claim Christ for himself, we’re doing it for him today.  And every day hereafter he will be a brother of ours in Christ.  It’s important that we remember that he’s not too young to be experiencing faith already.  From the time we are born into this world, the nurture we experience from the adults of our world is our first experience of a loving God.  To the extent that he’s surrounded in love by his family at home and his family of faith here, his trust of God is being formulated before he even has words to exclaim how amazing God’s grace feels!  . . .  Baptism days are big days for us all in the Church of Jesus Christ.  . . .  I hope we don’t forget what it first was like, when the Risen Christ’s followers underwent the sacrament for themselves.  As the radical movement was spreading, people who had been raised according to other religious practices were drawn to the water.  They were schooled in the message of the abundant love of God as shown to us in Jesus, the Christ.  They were asked if they were ready – ready to enter into a new family.  A new covenant community where they would walk with one another, helping each other not only to understand what this disciple of Christ thing all was about, but also to live as one initiated into the covenant.  One engrafted into the group.  They were entering – as is Ziggy today, as have we all at some point in our lives.  Baptism is about entering into the Way of Christ.

Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault presents it beautifully in her book, The Wisdom Jesus.  She reminds that Jesus isn’t just Savior.  That is only part of his work among us – to save us from the cycle of our sins that can make life now a living hell.  Western Christianity has emphasized this as Jesus’ role.  Meanwhile, we’re discovering that the Eastern Church initially understood Jesus as Life Giver.  As one who invited others unto the path of wisdom.  Life Giver, Bourgeault writes:  is one “whose life is full, integrated, and flowing.  Jesus’ disciples saw in him,” Bourgeault explains “a master of consciousness, offering a path through which they too could become . . . enlightened.”  Ones whose primary task on earth is to “put on the mind of Christ.”  To live the Master’s way.  (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 21).

The gospel of John describes this way . . . the Truth that leads to Life.  Jesus is desperate at the last supper with his friends to teach them that he is one with the Father.  In him, the one laying down his life, Jesus teaches that the Father can be seen.  One commentator writes:  “In John, Jesus himself embodies the way to God and therefore the way of discipleship” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A Vol. 2, Donald Senior, p. 469).  His life, death, and resurrection show the path of how we are to be in this world – disciples of his who follow in like manner.  . . .  And what do we see when we look at him?  He shows us that his way is the way of being so fully united with God that one is at one with God’s will for the world.  It’s the only way, says Jesus the Life Giver, that we will find ourselves with God.  . . .  This is the way described right before this four-chapter Maundy Thursday monologue, when Jesus gives the new command to “love one another” (John 13:34).  This is the way “by which all will know we are his disciples,” he claims, “if we have love for one another” (John 13:35, paraphrase).  Thankfully, all are invited to this path.  Everyone’s welcome to follow in the way of emulating our Savior and Lord, thereby finding ourselves saved.  Given Life now and forevermore.

It’s not the path that ends at the baptismal font.  It’s the way that’s just beginning.  As Ziggy grows, it will be up to his parents and us too to show him the way.  To teach him how to use the personality, skills, and time he’s been given in such a way that his life is united with the One whom Jesus called Abba, Father.  . . .  Listen to the words that soon will be proclaimed at the font:  “In baptism, God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to the very household of God.  . . .  By water and the Holy Spirit we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.”  . . .  We’ll plead to God in prayer today that Ziggy will be “a new creation through these baptism waters” to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  It’s a tall order for such a little guy.  So we’ll ask God to “strengthen him to serve  . . . with joy” until all is made new (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 1993; pp. 403-415).  Before it’s all over, we’ll see the water on his brow and hear the proclamation that he is a child of the covenant . . . one to whom God will keep the promises made here today forever!  . . .  But this day is not just for him.  It’s for us all too!  In a moment, I will remind you to remember your baptism.  To remember and be grateful!  For you too are a child of the covenant, marked in your own baptism, no matter how long ago, as one who also has promised to follow in Christ’s way.  To embody the path of Love for as long as you shall live.  . . .  It means we’ll get busy now – ensuring we too continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God.  We’ll nurture one another and pray we’re strengthened always to live the good news.  To embody in word and deed that the Way of God is the path of showing love to one another AND to those in this world who are in any kind of need.  We’ll lay down our own desires to be united with God’s will for a world so deeply cherished.  We’ll live as new creations serving with joy until ALL at last is re-newed.  The light of our lives growing as we follow in the Master’s Way.  . . .  Brothers and sisters together, let us always give thanks to our Savior and Life Giver Jesus, the Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Upheaval

A Sermon for 9 April 2017 — Palm Sunday

A reading of the entrance into Jerusalem from the gospel of Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’  And he will send them immediately.”  This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,  “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,  “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

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

A reading from the prophet Isaiah 50:4-9a (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.  Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.  The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.  I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.  The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.  Who will contend with me?  Let us stand up together.  Who are my adversaries?  Let them confront me.  It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

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

 

Upheaval.  If any word sums it all up well today, it is upheaval!  Upheaval in that Jerusalem entry.  Upheaval in the Psalm over God’s steadfast love.  Upheaval from Isaiah for the One who gives his back over to be struck.  Even this service is an upheaval.  Maybe you expected it, but the choir wasn’t up front when we started today.  I read the gospel text for the day right after the opening hymn.  Which in itself was an upheaval, with a procession and all.  Calling us to do something out of the ordinary – particularly for Presbyterians who like to keep things decently and in order, especially in worship!  But the band came by, the palms were waving, and we all were invited to leave the safety of our pews – eek!  To walk around the sanctuary.  Waving palm branches no less???!!!  What an upheaval – getting us to worship before God – at least once a year – with our full body, soul, and spirit!  It’s an upheaval!

It had to feel that way that day.  Like an upheaval!  Down came Jesus, winding along the path on a donkey and a colt, at least according to Matthew’s gospel.  Down he rode that steep slope from the Mount of Olives, east of the city; through Gethsemane and the Kidron Valley, right into the old city gates.  Though we don’t know for sure, it’s likely he entered through the Lion’s Gate.  A road that would have taken this upheaval right past Pilate’s palace on the right and the Temple mount on the left.  All the while, as the gospel of Matthew records it, a throng of people crowded round.  Before and behind him men, women, and children too, I suspect.  They threw down their outer cloaks.  Some cut branches from the trees to involve all creation in an uproarious parade.  As our processional hymn said, we could call them the saints that were marching in.  Running and dancing and celebrating chaotic-like more than marching in in-line like obedient soldiers.  And they shouted:  “Hosanna!  Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Save us!  Words neither appreciated by Rome or the Temple leaders.  All of whom are within earshot.  Son:  of the great King David?  Descending into the city?  Humbly on a donkey and colt, as the prophet Zechariah foretold.  Entering the city as the triumphant King, come to “command peace to the nations;” the prophet wrote.  “His dominion . . . from sea to sea, and from the River (likely the Jordan) to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:9-10).  According to the prophet Zechariah, war will be no more once this King arrives.  For domination, control, fear, force-over-another shall not be his way.

Talk about an upheaval!  The gospel records that this first, unruly palm parade left “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” (Mt. 21:10).  One commentator points out that the Greek word used for turmoil literally means to tremble.  Used too of “the earthquakes at Jesus’ final breath upon the cross and at the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb.  The shaking of the earth is associated with the ‘day of the LORD’ and the presence of God” (Audrey West, Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, p. 157).  The commentator further explains:  “Although the people of Jerusalem do not fully comprehend the significance of Jesus’ arrival, their reaction to him is fitting:  when the Messiah comes, it is an earthshaking event” (Ibid.).  Upheaval.  100% total upheaval to the powers of this world, to entrenched religious ways, to our very lives.  . . .  We can celebrate joyously all we want today.  But before too long, this One will enact in full what he demands of all.  Emptying himself for the sake of Love, he shows us the only path that leads to Life.  With a wink and a smile from that donkey and her colt; he nods:  “Come walk it.  Follow me.”

Upheaval.  Total upheaval.  Because he will not let us claim him Christ, then go on as if nothing much in life really needs to change – like the orientation of our hearts, the direction of our actions, and the will of our desires.  . . .  It takes courage to jump in on his parade, going where the Spirit leads like wind that cannot be controlled.  If we’re brave enough to tag along, we’ll be tossed to and fro through the events that mark this Holy Week.  The joy of today.  The awe of a table on his last night.  The chill of what happens one Friday because of what’s in us that will not tolerate pure Love.  Few of us will keep a fast from sundown Friday until sun-up Sunday morning as some devout followers used to do – and certain traditions today continue yet.  Most of us don’t like that kind of upheaval to our bodies.  Or our schedules.  We’re too busy getting ready for special Easter afternoon feasts to slow down enough Saturday to consider why it is classified as Holy.  . . .  I’ll never forget how the chapel at my college campus marked the week.  Imagine a sanctuary able to seat 3,500 people.  Everyone waving palm branches together one Sunday, only to gather right before sundown the very next Friday.  As we heard the whole story from God’s covenant in the creation of the world, through the enslaved’s liberation, to the waiting and watching and calling back to faithfulness, until at last a baby cried from a Bethlehem animal trough.  He grew.  And taught.  And fed.  And formed.  And angered.  And, for the sake of Love, he would not change his course.  As we sat those Good Fridays in that college sanctuary that naturally darkened as the sun went to bed for the night; at last the paschal candle was snuffed out.  “It is finished,” we heard.  The One on the cross breaths his last to surrender himself in full.  Not an eye was dry as we fumbled through the dark night out of that flame-less sanctuary where a pin drop alone would crash through the stunned silence.  Something about the way those college chaplains did Holy Week for us brought us to the wrenching ache of death.  It was as if the gloom of collective grief hung over campus beginning the night of Good Friday – the night they sent us out in silence into a star-less, dark world.  Can you feel the emotional upheaval deep within?  And who could imagine what it might be like to gather just before morning Sunday.  Outside, still in the dark.  Until, one match is struck.  A new candle lit.  A whisper begins:  “Upheaval!  The forces that obliterate the Light do not have the last say.  The path of Life leads through death.  . . .  Upheaval.  Total upheaval!  For which we will give great thanks!

But first, the turmoil.  First, the last.  First, learning the self-emptying path.  As he heads full force to his death, hear him nod, “come walk it.  Follow me.”

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)