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Wilderness Testing

A Sermon for 10 March 2019 – 1st Sunday in Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 4:1-13. On this first Sunday in the season of Lent, we hear the gospel of Luke’s version of what happened to Jesus right after he was baptized. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the LORD your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

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

 

In Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brené Brown states: “Theologians, writers, poets, and musicians always have used the wilderness as a metaphor, to represent everything from a vast and dangerous environment where we are forced to navigate difficult trials, to a refuge of nature and beauty where we seek space for contemplation.” Brown writes: “What all wilderness metaphors have in common are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest” (Braving the Wilderness, 2017; p. 36).

I think of Dr. Brown’s work when we hear the reading from the gospel of Luke put before us today. For what else are we looking upon in the story of Jesus after his baptism, than his very vulnerable encounter during his very real emotional, physical, spiritual quest? Each year we begin the season of Lent with Jesus in the wilderness. Long has the Church looked upon this text as the perfect place for our attention on the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday. We’ve just entered the time in the liturgical calendar when we begin a more fervent listening and watching and learning how best we can follow as disciples of the Christ – all the way to Jerusalem and beyond. Lent is our time to willingly stand with Jesus in the wilderness – not only to see what he encounters there, but also to be taught our own need for wilderness. The like-it-or-not time we must face in order to be who God would have us be.

In Braving the Wilderness, Brown is using the metaphor of wilderness to present her research and lived findings on what she calls “belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone” (Ibid.). Which sounds exactly like Jesus, doesn’t it? Brown is talking about living so entirely as your true self that you belong not to the voices that surround from culture, family, ego, and even religious institutions. Wilderness is Brown’s understanding of, what Carl Jung defined as, being our capital S Self – the wholeness of Self that regulates our center. That inside, which “some speak of . . . as the God within or the Christ-within” (Unopened Letters from God, Robert L. Haden, Jr., 2010). The Divine Spark that animates us to live our best selves. Biblical commentators might say: wilderness is where – and when – we live as the authentic creation God made of us at our start. Before we forgot and got entangled in the mess of how this world too often goes. In my reading of it – especially according to the gospel of Luke, I would say that wilderness is where we must wrestle any other influences – the demons within and without – in order to authentically be who God created us to be.

Dr. Brown reminds that wilderness is “an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching” – surely Jesus knew that, not only from his first forty days there, but from the many times, according to the gospel of Luke, when Jesus deliberately returned to wilderness. When he stole away as often as he could to return to time alone with God. Brown writes: wilderness “is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness,” Brown states, can feel “unholy because we can’t control it . . . but it turns out to be the place of true belonging.” The bravest, most sacred place we ever will stand (Braving the Wilderness, p. 36). The place of honest integrity before God – honoring our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer – as Jesus did in the wilderness. Being so firmly resolved to trust the One he often called Abba, heavenly Father.

Unlike the other gospels which claim that immediately after his baptism Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, the gospel of Luke uniquely claims that “full of the Holy Spirit” Jesus “returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). Instead of an emphasis of the Holy Spirit seizing him in his baptism to lead him out there to withstand alone whatever would come, the gospel of Luke focuses us upon the Spirit’s role with Jesus the entire time, when he seemingly went to the wilderness as a voluntary act. Which might leave us wondering if the gospel of Luke is emphasizing that like our need for a deepening of connection with God during Lent, Jesus too needed a time alone to hear what was to come. To listen for what it all meant that he’d just heard The Voice declare in his baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22b). To have the opportunity to choose – to sort out the ramifications of the message of his baptism. Like his ancestors who are recorded as having wandered forty years in their own experience of testing in order to reveal their true selves. We’ve got to wonder if the wilderness will strengthen Jesus’ resolve to move out to be who God has made him to be. Will he choose acceptance of and obedience to The Voice? Will he emerge ready to unite himself fully with his authentic, true self? So that even when the most difficult challenge was to come – one night about three years later in a garden outside Jerusalem, Jesus still could be found praying: “Not my will be done, LORD, but yours” (Luke 22:42). In advance, wilderness shows if the Beloved faithfully will be the Beloved, or not.

I love the words in Braving the Wilderness that Dr. Brown quotes from a friend who is a religious leader in a Christian community that is known for lacking full inclusivity. Of wilderness, Brown’s excluded friend says she has discovered that “the wilderness is where all the creatives and prophets and system-buckers and risk-takers always have lived, and it is stunningly vibrant.” She writes, “the walk out there is hard, but the authenticity out there is life” (p. 152). For belonging so fully to the Self we discover God has made us to be, ends up linking us fully with all the others devoted too to being their true Selves. Those who cannot not live as God has created, called, and sustained them to be! In other words: it’s best we remember that no matter how difficult wilderness can be, it is entirely worth it! Just ask Jesus. What would his life among us have been had he not relied upon and lived in full the Way The Voice had called? Had Jesus not lived his authentic self, no one ever would have gone on to proclaim his name! No 5,000 plus fed on just five loaves and a few fish. No impassioned plea to follow after him. No bread broken and fruit of the vine outpoured as sign and seal of a God of infinite grace. No death at the hands of his enemies. No resurrection in power from a grave. No Life everlasting offered for all forever, Amen!

One biblical commentator writes: “In Luke 3:21 – 4:13, we see that the Spirit’s anointing of Jesus in baptism and his faithfulness to God amid testing constitute Jesus’ preparation for his mission. (For) being chosen and anointed is not sufficient preparation either for our ministry gathered or for our ministry scattered.” The commentator writes: “We must be tested, often by being led to places of hunger and despair. Only then do we learn dependence on God, who graciously provides for all of our needs in all of life’s seasons” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, Jeffery L. Tribble, Sr., p. 44).

Brothers and sisters of Christ, especially during Lent; wilderness is where we belong – in our lives individually and in our life together. For in wilderness the Spirit is with us. The tests provide opportunity to choose. Jesus knows it’s difficult and that we could so easily lose the Way. But wilderness forces us really to finally, fully rely upon God. To wrestle with all the other voices until we too earnestly pray as our Savior and Lord has taught, saying: “Not our will, but Thy will be done, O God!” . . . Grateful for one another and all vibrantly alive out there, let us embrace wilderness in order to be who God would have us be.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

Life AND Death

A Sermon for 1 November 2015 – All Saints’ Day

A reading from the gospel of John. You might find this portion of Scripture familiar if you know the story of Jesus and his good friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary who resided near Jerusalem in the village of Bethany. Our reading today is only the final portion of this story in which Jesus intentionally delays his journey back into Judean territory after receiving word from the sisters that their brother Lazarus is very ill. When at last Jesus goes, he finds deeply grieving sisters surrounded by crowds of mourners; for Lazarus already has been dead four days. Listen for God’s word to us in this reading from the gospel of John 11:32-44.

“When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.””

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

 

Did you see the moon the other night? Just shy of full, it finally hung in radiant view Wednesday night. I first saw it on our way out of the parking lot after Wednesday evening activities here. It was glorious! I’m not sure if it was waxing or waning gibbous – whatever that means – but it sure was beautiful. After all those overcast nights of rain it was as if that nearly full moon rose up to say: “Hello! I’m sorry the rain blocked your view last night of my full splendor. But here I am – still doing my thing, whether you can see it or not, in beautiful the night sky.” . . . It happened some twelve hours after a morning walk when I passed a nearly bare tree. My dog stopped amid its fallen leaves to do his thing when I noticed that the leaves from that tree were bright green. They never turned to their glorious hues – just kept summer’s color as they fell to the ground to remind us that the weather’s been doing a number on us this year. The combination of the two events on Wednesday left me wondering about the moon and the trees. You know, they put up no protest. Moon doesn’t rail against the night sky saying: “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t wax and wane! I wanna stay full and bright every night of the month!” Leaves don’t argue: “Wait a minute! The conditions weren’t right! I refuse to fall to the ground!” And when conditions are right for those leaves to turn to the most beautiful reds and oranges and golden yellows, nothing in them shakes their fists to protest: “No way! I’m too beautiful now to continue through the cycle! I’m not letting go – I’m going to stay super-glued right here to this tree and never end up decaying brown on the ground!” You ever hear such chatter from the moon? Have you ever heard a leaf come up with intricate excuses why it shouldn’t have to fall?

Something about Mary’s words stand in direct contrast. And the thing is, when you read this story of Jesus, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary from the start of chapter 11, you hear that Mary mimicked the exact same words of Martha upon the first sight of their Lord. Martha protests first: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). A few minutes later Mary is recorded as greeting Jesus the same: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). No: “Jesus! Thank you so much finally for coming!” No: “It’s so good to see you, Lord. You know he loved you so much!” No. Instead Martha and Mary are recorded as speaking the exact same words, which leaves us wondering if the gospel writer seeks to indicate something other than exact dialogue from that very day, and something more of what often first arises in us humans in the face of death. God: Why?! Why did you let this happen when certainly you have the ability to make it not so! LORD, if you’d have been here – if you were here, the one we love dearly certainly would not be in the casket right now.

Sometimes we’re relieved – the pain of dying has passed for the one we love. . . . Today we honor two women beloved by this congregation who wasted away before us. Each of these faithful witnesses was taken away by diseases that left their bodies among us longer than the fullness of their shining personalities. The length of their battles differed, but those who loved them watched each of these women slip further and further from this life before finally being consumed by death. I’m not sure if either one of them ever turned a demanding fist to ask why. I wouldn’t doubt it if a few others had in their favor because both were wonderful women whose lives shined as bright examples to others and with folks like that, we just don’t want to let them go. . .

For years I’ve read this story of Lazarus’ death – I’ve read tons of commentaries that zero-in on Jesus’s tears at this event. His great disturbance and deeply moved spirit at the sight of all those weeping over the loss of Lazarus. Maybe you’ve heard it too: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The shortest verse in the bible, as it’s recorded in the King James Version. And perhaps you know all the arguments as to why: why he was grieved too at the loss. Was he mad at the Jews who came out from Jerusalem in their traditional parades of mourning? Why exactly does God-in-flesh in Jesus, the Christ weep at the tomb of his friend Lazarus? Why is his spirit so deeply moved – enough so to turn to heaven in a prayer of thanksgiving before commanding the dead man to come out? . . . Did you notice that each time it’s recorded that Jesus is greatly disturbed, both in verse 33 and again in very 38, it’s immediately after someone has verbalized their desire for death to have been side-stepped? Martha says it first, then Mary. And Jesus is greatly disturbed – the Greek word used here connotes a swirl of various emotions – including anger. The Jews of the crowd wonder aloud if this weeping one who loved Lazarus so couldn’t have kept him from dying. And again, it is reported that Jesus is greatly disturbed – that swirl of emotions, including a little anger. Is it possible that Jesus is at his wit’s end? Moved deeply in spirit because he’s getting close to his end in Jerusalem just two miles from this little village of Bethany. So close to being about his final letting go and for all his efforts, all his words, every deed he has done to show any who would listen that we must die before we die – no matter how many times he’s tried to explain through word and deed that death is a daily part of life, no one seems to be getting it. How many times does he have to tell us that the path to Life is one paved with death? “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” he says, it produces no fruit (John 12:24). “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” he pleads. “And those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). And again according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches us that denying ourselves daily is the way of following him – it’s the way of the cross. The self-emptying of our will each day and all throughout it in order to join our spirits with his as he finally comes to say in the garden: “Not my will, O God, but yours be done!” (Luke 22:42). Just like the words of his mother Mary who once faithfully said: “Let it be with me, O God, according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Dying is a part of life – not just the dying that our physical bodies will do one day. Dying daily to our wills in order for God’s to prevail is The Path. It is the Way. The Truth that leads to Life itself. It is the walk of Christ.

It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Deeply. It doesn’t mean God is flippant at our death or at our grief. The gospel records Jesus is greatly disturbed AND he weeps – both. A spirit that wants us to understand his path of Life, yet mourns the sight of our tears. Laments with us in compassion over the pain we feel from death. Even we who know the end of the story – that resurrection happens on the third day – even we who trust in ever-lasting Life, we still ache when one we love dies. We just do it as those whose tears mingle with joy, don’t we? As those who have hope. . . . And if in the face of such death, then why not each day? Why not grieve the little deaths we must go through as we let go of our own desires, but do so mingled with joy; for we know the God whose final word always is Life? A whole new world awaits. In our letting it be, in our dying to self, in our daily death; God makes something new. . . . Whatever it is – whatever letting go, whatever letting it be, whatever dying to self in order to live that you must go through each day, trust. For it too leads to Life. Life. God’s abundant gift of Life.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

Our Crosses

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
______________________

A sermon for 1 March 2015 – Second Sunday During the Season of Lent

Click here to read scripture first: http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/mark/passage/?q=mark+8:31-38

It’s Lent, so I guess public confession is good.  Here goes. Someone really hurt my feelings last week. Don’t worry – it wasn’t anyone connected to the church!  It was something someone else I know said to me, about me, last week. And it hurt. My ego got bumped. I got mad.   . . .  Am I the only one this ever happens to?   . . .  For at least the first two days, I wanted to call up my best friends and trash talk. Tell them all about it. Point fingers at the person who said what they said. Get them on my side about it all just so I would be justified.   . . .  Seriously: am I the only one stuff like this ever happens to?   I don’t think so, though I realize some of us are further along on the continuum regarding such things.

Recently I heard a beloved, deep-on-the-journey spiritual leader talk about it on national television. The interviewer asked him something about him living each day in the flow or absolute love of God. And he confessed that though he writes and talks eloquently about the absolute love of God – the Ground of our very being, sometimes he’s there. But not always. And some weeks not even every day. This is someone who has devoted his life to daily silence, scripture reading, study, communal living, and prayer. He’s sought after worldwide for in-person lectures. His printed works sell millions and his visual and audio recordings are bringing life to Christians all across the globe. And still, after nearly fifty years of the practice, he claims his own ego still gets bumped. People say things or do things that rub him wrong and before he knows it, he feels that pain. Now, thanks to his daily, life-long practices, he admits such annoyances come and go fairly quickly for him now – even things like getting cut off in traffic. Anyone get all worked up about that? But he doesn’t have that urge to call up BFFs to tell them all about it. And he doesn’t stew either –as the less verbal among us tend to do, right? Just soaking in our juices. Fuming about what so and so did or said that really got our goat.

It’s the first thing that comes to mind from Jesus’ words of the gospel of Mark. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). It would be easy to keep such words way back then in history. Thinking about Peter, James, and John literally having to give up the regular ways of their lives to follow Jesus around Galilee before finally heading to Jerusalem. But the message isn’t just for those long ago. It’s for every last one of us. Today. In the real stuff of our lives.

If you were at Wednesday night to see it, or watched the link of the video we email blasted (click here to watch it:   https://vimeo.com/116071300) that was by the Barna Group about their findings regarding the unchurched, then you might remember that one of the major hurdles to Christianity today is that the unchurched, or church-less as they were calling them, cannot see any distinctive difference between how they are living their lives and how most of us church people are living ours. Ouch! The research showed that other than us being in worship sometimes on Sundays, for the most part, the daily lives and choices of most American Christians do not look all that different from the daily lives and choices of the church-less. Chilling, isn’t it? Because the One we claim to follow was pretty clear that we are not to be living the same as everyone else. In a world of rampant consumerism, self-absorbed self-interest, and escalating violence; we should stand out. It should be seen that we give of at least a portion of our time, talents, and money not for our own pleasure but for the benefit of others. It should be seen that we curb our appetites for more, more, more. It should be seen that, if nowhere else in this world, at least among us Christians forgiveness is genuinely practiced – love for all no matter what is the norm. All those good fruits of the Spirit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). It should be seen that we’re not about us and them but about one, beloved human family. One, united creation actually, that all is sacred unto God.   . . .  As an example to demonstrate his point, the Barna researcher spoke of an ancient practice of God’s people that can be incredibly relevant for today: keeping Sabbath. True rest as a creature in our amazing Creator without all our techno-gadgets. The point being that if others see us able to use, but not be addicted to our screens, like actually NOT all being on our smartphones as we sit at a meal in a restaurant. You’ve seen that, right? Dad taking a work call. Mom searching the web for something, and little Christian children playing whatever app they’re playing when the server comes to take their order. Sabbath just one day a week – or one hour if the consideration of one full day causes you an immediate sense of panic. Stopping from life like that, to rest in the natural beauty of this world. Truly connecting with one another face-to-face and even with our God; well, that would be one way to be an authentic witness today of denying ourselves to follow after the principles of another.

Our crosses might not look like the bloody devices of torture used by Rome to put to death anyone seeking to incite the people against their ways. Our crosses might look like practicing daily meditation so that we’re not as attached to the bumps and bruises of our egos. Steeping ourselves in the words and actions of Christ that the ways we interact with others blare with mercy and kindness and grace. The sacrifice of our own hidden agendas are seen by our colleagues out there in the world and even in here in the church. Not being doormats for everyone else to walk all over. Being our best selves in God by losing how we always want it to be for the sake of God’s grander vision to grow.

You know, the one who says to follow didn’t have to show up here in this world and live the kind of life he did. Jesus could have gone about his little carpenter life – eking out a living for the benefit of his own family. Keeping his unique worldview and talents to himself. He could have had year after year of his life used up just by getting by each day – trying merely to make it from sunup to sundown accomplishing the duties laid upon him by his business and family and friends. Or by making and taking more for himself, even at the expense of others. But he didn’t, did he? Which is why we know anything about him at all – this man who was truly one of us and yet truly of God as well. He turned to the Spirit. He gave space enough for God’s truth to grow in him. He enjoyed others – cherishing them, not trying to figure out how they could benefit himself. He quieted his own wants – probably by the times he daily stole off to be alone in prayer with God – until his only want was summed up in that amazing prayer in the garden: “Thy will be done, O God. Thy will.” That’s the way he was God with us. Showing us how to be Godlike in the world today.   . . .  With all the clamor and concern about how to live well these days, why do we look anywhere else but to the life of Jesus, the Christ?

“Those who want to save their own life,” he said, “will lose it.” But those who lose their life – giving up their own selves each day, like him? Those already know real Life! The point of it all.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)