Tag Archives: World Communion Sunday Sermon

Apprehending Rightly

A Sermon for 1 October 2017 – World Communion Sunday

 

A reading from Exodus 17:1-7.  The journey through the wilderness continues.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded.  They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.  The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”  Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the LORD?”  But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”  The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”  Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.  He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?””

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

 

In England in the Fourteenth Century, there lived an amazing mystic of the church.  She resided in the county of Norfolk on the North Sea, just a hundred miles north-east of London in Norwich, which once was the second largest and second most important city of England.  There, Julian had retired from the world into a small cell adjacent to the Church of St. Julian of Norwich.  It’s believed, Julian had been trained by nearby Benedictine sisters and might just be remembered after the saint of the church so that the original name of this incredible woman may be lost to us.  Presumably from a wealthy family, some believe she took to the cell as an anchoress after she lost her family to the plague.  (Richard Rohr Meditation:  Julian of Norwich, Part 1, 1 October 2017 and en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich).  It was somewhere around the middle of her life, after she herself nearly died at the age of 30.

Some mystics experience revelations from God throughout their lives.  But it was not so with Julian.  It was just once in her life, during an intense, near-death illness; that the Spirit of Christ communed with her in sixteen separate visions.  When Julian miraculous recovered from her illness, she spent the next forty-some years of her life trying to make sense of the visions she had received on her deathbed.  Her book Revelations on Divine Love captures the visions, and her later writings explore the meaning of what was revealed to her.  Supposedly, her first book was the first text written in English to be authored by a woman.  She did some amazing work as an anchoress in the little cell attached to the church in Norwich.  Not only was her writing about the full love of God ahead of her time, but the wisdom she also gave as an anchoress sustained the lives of those who would come seeking counsel from her.  Something like a modern-day Spiritual Director, male anchorites and female anchoresses dutifully took to cells attached to sanctuaries.  In exchange for the church providing for their physical needs, they made themselves available in their little adjacent cells whenever a wayward soul knocked on the cell’s window.

Julian counselled many well.  I’ve always loved her charge that “the fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.  For God is the ground, the substance, the teaching, the teacher, the purpose, and the reward for which every soul labors” (from Meditations with Julian of Norwich).  Somewhere she also wrote:  “if there is anywhere on earth a lover of God is always kept safe, I know nothing of it.  For it was not shown to me.  But this was shown:  that in falling and rising again, we are always kept in that same precious love” (source unknown).  In another source she wrote:  “the greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of God’s love” (source unknown).  And this week, I heard more deep wisdom from this our amazing sister of the faith.  “God doesn’t want you to sin,” Julian explained “because God wants you to see yourself as God sees you” (as quoted by Richard Rohr on The Enneagram:  Discerning the Spirits, 2004 recording).  God doesn’t want us to sin, because God wants us to see ourselves as God sees us.  What a beautiful way to remind us that the Divine dwells in us all always.  Because, after all, God dwells in everything.  It’s just that when we sin, when we do those things that separate us from who God would have us be; we make it harder for ourselves and others to apprehend the Divine in us.  Like a cataract that darkens our vision, our sins mar the ability to see the Divine Spark in us.  The Heavenly Breath within.  The Fullness of Love living in our souls.

I wish the Israelites in the wilderness would have had the benefit of Julian’s insight.  Things are getting pretty rough out there in the desert.  Last week in our lectionary reading we heard the people complaining for food.  This week, things turn sour again as thirst rears its ugly head.  Grumbles intensify so that the text records:  “the people quarreled with Moses” (Ex. 17:2).  They demand he give them water to quench their parched thirst.  As if Moses is some magnificent magician, they once again come after him shouting:  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst!?!” (Ex. 17:3).  . . .  It is so obvious that God sees in them something they cannot.  That God wants for them something they cannot imagine for themselves.  Though God already has been sustaining them all throughout the wilderness, though a pillar of cloud has been guiding them and a column of fire led them through the darkness of that vast, immense desert; the people of God fail to apprehend the Divine in all things – even in themselves.  If the story were before us on the big screen, at this point the music would pierce our hearts with sadness.  O the tragedy of our inability to see God with us every step!

I can imagine that trekking for years through the harsh conditions of a desert would make the most faithful among us wonder.  Is God among us, or not?  . . .  Isn’t that what we wonder when we get the breaking news about a senseless shooting among a church on the other side of town?  Isn’t that the question that seeps into our souls when we see the destruction from Harvey and Irma and Maria too?  Isn’t that the fear that rises when we look at empty pews, which once where filled with children and teens and parents who were eager to raise their families in the faith?  Has God abandoned us?  Was the LORD ever with us in the first place?  . . .  “Apprehend God in all things” another great mystic of the church once wrote.  “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.  Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God” (Meister Eckhart).  . . . Part of the problem in the wilderness – in the Israelites and in us – is that we fail to apprehend rightly.  If we think God is somewhere out there – outside of it all and all we have to do is wait for some mighty one to valiantly come to our rescue, then we’re confusing faith with fairytales.  We don’t understand the Crucified and Risen One.  . . .  God is in all things which means we are never apart from God.  Even when we mar the image of God in ourselves so badly that we and others end up having a very hard time seeing; God remains with us, in us, and beyond us too.  I have a feeling it takes something like wilderness to notice.  Because most of us live as if we don’t really need anything outside of our capable minds and able bodies and our persistent efforts.  We fool ourselves into believing we can handle it all so that the only way left for us to learn the truth of it all is wilderness.  The desert, where at last we finally might see.  The paradigm of faith is, as Julian says:  that in falling we rise again and in each step we remain loved.  In the falling and in the rising again we still are precious to God.  If we can apprehend God in that – in both – we’re on the right path . . . It won’t be long until our parched places flow with abundant, life-giving water.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Rocks

A Sermon for 2 October 2016 – World Communion Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 17:1-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

 

And a reading of Psalm 137. Listen for God’s word to us.

“By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

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

 

Rocks tie these texts together today. Millstones hung around necks that sink to the bottom in an instant. And big, immovable ones that are best for the dashing against. Harsh feelings cause such fateful acts. A desire for retribution because heinous things have been done. It’s exactly why the Psalmist’s lament is filled with those shocking words. “Happy shall they be who do the unspeakable to your little babies!” (paraphrase of Psalm 137:9) The words seethe with hateful vengeance over the exile to Babylon. . . . In that context, maybe we can understand such sentiments. I mean, who among us too can tell a story about a time we were hurt so deeply by another, that we really wanted to lash out? Who here hasn’t stood stuck in the muck that makes for a bitter grudge? Has your spirit ever been shattered? Maybe a significant other pledged faithfulness, but strayed. Maybe a sibling has put your parents through high waters. Maybe due to the unthinkable, the earth-shattering, the awful that we’ve experienced in our lives: we close our hearts. The wall grows taller. We are too weary to trust again and again and again. . . . And these just are situations between people who know each other – not anything quite as destructive as the exile when Jerusalem was ransacked, burned to the ground, and the people carted off for the next seventy years to the distant land of their invaders. What about when nations clash today? What about when races can’t find a way forward? What about when one group seeks to hold back another for eons? How are we to live together pain after pain after pain?

If you were listening closely to the gospel reading of Luke, then you heard Jesus’ disciples declare: “O Jesus, increase our faith!” . . . That’s what the apostles said when Jesus told them the truth about life together. According to the text, it’s the context of the infamous: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree” – by the way, it’s a mulberry tree in Luke, not a mountain as in Matthew’s gospel. So you could say to this great big tree: “be uprooted and re-plant yourself in the sea” (Luke 17:6). . . . At the beginning of chapter 17, Jesus states: “Occasions for stumbling will come. . . . If another sins,” Jesus says, “tell them so.” I always like to add, “Just please be gentle when pointing out my mess ups.” I mean, “Log in your own eye,” remember (Matthew 7:3)? . . . We are told to forgive. To practice being ready – at all times – to receive back into the fold one who repents – one who turns to say, “I am sorry;” not only in words but in changed behavior too. We’re even to forgive the same person seven times in one whole day if it comes to that! . . . So be honest with yourself: is there a more appropriate response to such a charge than, “Lord, increase our faith!”

We’re human beings. Continuing in communion, as our Christ commands here, is tough stuff. Because, of course, that’s just it: all people in the whole wide world are human beings. We are not error-free. We all sin by separating ourselves from God and each other – sometimes intentionally and sometimes without us even knowing it at all. With the professional theologians, we can scratch our heads all through the day wondering about God’s original creation. We can expend great energy trying to parse out if sin is our natural state or not – which seems to be contrary to Scripture’s witness. After all, – Genesis 1 professes that the Creator declared it and us all good! Very, very good! (Gen. 1:31) . . . Still: “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” We’re not supposed to try to do it. We’re supposed to do our best. We are supposed to aim for right-relationship between us and each other and the whole of the world – no separation between ourselves and others. But it happens. Jesus knows. God knows. Why do we expect otherwise? Whether one trips over their own two feet, or deliberately orchestrates an elaborate fall, no human being in this whole wide world is perfect. If we’re going to be in community, we’re going to have to find a way. . . . Jesus might as well simply say, “You will be hurt. And you will hurt.” Certainly God doesn’t want it like that. Still, such tumbles will happen. As servants of the unconditionally merciful God, we are to be ready to do our part. Seek to walk right. Rebuke gently when needed. Turn around to start again. And always forgive. There just cannot be community – will not be real community – without such forbearance.

Be certain to understand that Jesus is NOT saying that in community, anything goes. We were not created to be doormats. Every action is not okay – and some things that are okay at one time and place are not in another. At the same time, Jesus is NOT insinuating that we roll over to play dead by pretending that the pain caused by sin simply isn’t felt. It’s real. It hurts. Why do you think we have Psalm 137 with the blessing of those who bring an end forever to the ones who brought an end to us? It’s not there to justify our thirst for vengeance. It’s there to remind us that this relationship with God stuff is real. It’s about who we really are and how we really feel. Every last emotion that wells up within us is to be brought to our God. Nothing separates us from God’s love. That rage we feel is our signal that for us something has been violated. The Psalmist knew that. The issue is: how are we going to act after such damaging violations? . . . As an example: say so and so really screws up. Either we point it out to them, or they come to realize their mistake on their own. They stand ready to begin again – ready to turn around and act differently. Will we forgive? Will we do what forgiveness is: freely give grace to another so that reconciliation can begin? . . . According to Luke’s Jesus, even if it’s seven times in one whole day, “you must forgive” (Luke 17:4). In other words, forgiveness is a practice. One might even say it’s a spiritual discipline. Do you get it? Sometimes it takes practicing forgiveness repeatedly; choosing to release that bitter, begrudging desire within over and over and over until we can freely give grace to someone for the one thing they did that we just can’t seem to let go. Depending on the particular violation, we might have to wake up every morning and before we even set foot on the floor, we might have to plead: “O Lord, before I awake and let the bitterness I hold against so and so creep in, increase my faith right now!” That is what life together demands. And they say it only takes 21 times of doing something before it becomes a habit. So forgive that sin today and tomorrow and the next day for 21 times until the defenses in your heart breakdown and release that person for that particular act.

Of course, we’d like to remind Jesus that even if we’re busy gently pointing out each others’ transgressions in rebuke, not everyone comes to us ready to turn things around. Not everyone repents, right? Then what? Even if the transformation of reconciled life together never will take place, can we still forgive? Must we still forgive? . . . I love the artwork I think I’ve mentioned before as it’s been such a powerful illustration for me. It’s of two sets of chains in a dark, dank dungeon hanging free. The title reads: forgiveness. Ponder that a moment. Two sets of chains hang free. One was for the person we were convinced deserves it because of their hurtful actions. The other set was locked around us; the ones whose lives were just as mangled by life-squelching bondage because we refused to release our clutch upon the one who wronged us. That’s the most amazing thing about forgiveness – maybe reconciliation will not come because another refuses to change their behavior. Nonetheless, forgiveness can go forth. It must. We have to let go of the desire to punish another. For without such release, we are not free to be the ones Jesus sends out.

Is there any better message – even if it’s quite a challenge one – for us this day on World Communion Sunday? Jesus’ teachings on life together. . . . If we can practice it here among us, maybe those beyond the sanctuary walls will begin to see it too. Like the pebble falling into the water that sends ripples far beyond its reach, maybe our little bit of faithfulness will spread to the farthest corners of the world – showing another way. Servants of a magnificently merciful God, keep at it. Even the tiniest bit of faith will help us find the way.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

5 October 2014 sermon — Matt. 10:1-4, 27:55-56

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
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A Sermon for World Communion Sunday

5 October 2014

Click here to read the scripture first: Matthew 10:1-4 (NRS)
Matthew 27:55-56 (NRS)

With everything we’ve been up to around here these last few days; I flipped the week and was off at the beginning of it, rather than at the end. It worked out perfectly, actually, because it turned out that I was contacted a few weeks ago about attending a class offered at Montreat in North Carolina. If you’ve never been to Montreat, then you may not know about this gem of our denomination. It’s one of the PCUSA’s camp and conference centers and we’re blessed that it’s located just 300 miles from us. Nearly 200 years ago, a Presbyterian man had the foresight to get several other Presbyterians to buy land up there in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. For years; it’s been a place of beauty for rest, refreshment, and religious learning too. Workshops and conferences are scheduled year-round – in fact, I brought back cards of their line-up for 2015, which you can find out in the narthex. And the newly renovated Assembly Inn has become a very comfortable spot, with its massive stone staircase and halls filled with photos from two hundred years of Presbyterians at worship, service, study, and play.

Peak season’s still several days away up there in those mountains, but it’s starting. Hints of red dotted the view of Montreat’s Look Out Mountain. Hues of golden yellow were in the mix. It’s been a long time since I’ve used a 96-piece box of crayons, but as I sat outside for lunch one day, it occurred to me that greens come in so very many different shades. There’s that deep evergreen. Then a shade just a tad lighter. The green that looks like vibrant life. There’s some that appear as if a master painter had swirled in lots of yellow on the pallet to come up with a shade that was much lighter than the rest. It was beautiful. In some ways even more so as everything was on the verge of what we know will be a glorious transformation!

The scene came back to me yesterday and Friday here. Wherever I looked in the Fellowship Hall, in the conference room, out in the yard: one was bagging ice. One was making signs. One was sweeping the floor. One was blowing leaves off the driveway for that added touch of welcome at the entrance to the fair. One was organizing. One had the big picture vision in mind. One was communicating tasks that needed to be done. Several had arrived with baked goods. One was handling money. A few of you had created pickles and jams and children’s crafts. And someone had known how to put up that great big tent. I even saw two of you sitting together, just talking about what was going on in each of your lives. At the Presbytery meeting in Franklin yesterday morning, I saw a few of us sitting for to listen and discern directions for our more collective ministry. And I happen to know two of you offered kind hospitality to our CAT interpreter who has traveled from out of town to be among us today. These are just a bit of all the amazing gifts on array among us this weekend. Like that glorious sight from Montreat’s Assembly Inn: the reds and yellows and multitude of greens were on magnificent display!

It’s exactly how it is with the folks Jesus calls to come follow. We don’t know huge amounts of personal information about all of Jesus’ named disciples; but we know they each were unique. From the boldness of Peter to the curiosity of Andrew. The enthusiasm of young John and the willingness of Matthew, the one who had been a tax collector. Thomas who needed a first-hand experience to believe. And Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee: the women who had the courage to watch the agonizing crucifixion of one who they supported in his mission to change the world. . . . So often we forget that it takes every kind in order to be about what God’s up to through faithful followers of Christ. Every single one of us has at least one gift – one ability – one talent like none other which is needed in God’s kingdom work.

A little skit is out there, which also is capture in a children’s book as African folklore. It’s the story of five actors trying to get a sixth into place. Two of the five actors are ears. Two are eyes. One is a mouth. And the sixth that feels unneeded by the rest of them is a nose. Somehow or another, the nose got it into her head that she wasn’t as important as the rest of the face’s characters. She had decided she no longer was needed. She couldn’t hear beautiful sounds like the two ears could. She wasn’t able to bring amazing visions into the body as the two eyes could. She couldn’t string words together like the mouth – who also could do everything from eat to sing to smile. Nose was convinced she wasn’t needed. She couldn’t do any of these other wonderful things that Ears and Eyes and Mouth could. In all honesty, Ears and Eyes and Mouth wondered if Nose was of any use. Sometimes they weren’t as considerate about her purpose as they should have been. Until one day; allergy season came round. Can you guess what happened? Ears and Eyes and Mouth and Nose all learned that without Nose, they weren’t able to sneeze. It was awful – painful as the pressure mounted. Messing up all the others so that they couldn’t work right either. The gift alone that Nose could bring desperately was needed. Finally, they all got into place and convinced Nose of her worth. The skit ends as, in one accord, at last there comes a great big “A-CHU!” . . . Let those who have ears to hear, listen, right?

Because it takes each one. . . . The Apostle Paul tried desperately to teach that in his writings to the early church. There are varieties of gifts and services and activities. And each one is a manifestation of Spirit, Paul writes, for the common good (1 Cor. 12:4-7). In other words, we’ve got to have all sorts of colors for our glorious autumn view. We’ve got to have ears and eyes and mouths and noses if we’re going to be about the purpose for which God created us as a church. Right before our eyes this fall and in front of us each day in the mirror, God gives us this most important lesson.

On the Lord’s Table today we have breads representing children of God from around this world. Because we’ve got to have followers of Christ in India, Greece, Mexico, and Israel if the work of God’s kingdom is to be brought to fruition. It shouldn’t take a World Communion Sunday celebration to bring us together to an appreciation of our brothers and sisters around the world, but we can give great thanks for the early efforts of Presbyterians who called all Christians to unite in an act at the Table the first Sunday of every October. Today we uniquely are reminded that each of us is precious to our God. Loved by our God. And sustained by our God to be about the way of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . As we prepare ourselves to come to this great feast – the meal of our Lord that is celebrated around the world this day – let us ponder the gift we alone bring.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)