Tag Archives: World Communion Sunday

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.)

“The Gift of One Another”

A Sermon for 4 October 2015 – World Communion Sunday

In a wonderful book called Christ of the Celts, John Philip Newell poses a question. He posits that each of us must choose. As we listen to the tune at the heart of the universe, what is it that we hear? Judgement or love? . . . For Celtic Christians it is love. It’s the tune they hear as they consider Christ. It’s the tune they hear as they live in the Divine’s other amazing work: creation. They believe it is the tune not of judgement but of love at the heart of the universe; for they believe love is the heartbeat of God – the Divine One who has piped the tune of love into the entire created order. It’s the tune Jesus helps us remember.

It seems an important point to consider before launching into a sermon on a text like the one we have before us today. . . . What tune resides at the heart of the universe? What tune echoes throughout the caverns of our souls? . . . If it’s judgement, we’re sure to find a simple read of the story of Jesus being tested on the topic of divorce by leaders of his day who seem to have chosen the option of the harsher tune. But if it’s love . . . well, then listen.

A reading from the gospel of Mark 10:1-16. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.’ “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

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

Now, before we go jumping to any hasty conclusions – or being distracted in a stew of guilt upon the reading of this text – or worse yet: closing up shop all together in order to dismiss what at first glance may appear a text confirming judgement at the heart of the universe; remember the context. We miss it, as if the Pharisees come at Jesus with an off-the-wall, out-of-left-field question regarding divorce. It’s part of the problem of reading small snippets of scripture one at a time. But this question posed to Jesus, this test in which the religious leaders of his day hope to trap him is far from left-field. It’s a brilliant, though devious, fast-ball aimed right at the bulls eye of happenings in their day.

We hear of divorce and may think of ripped apart relationships – our own or those of ones we love. Who among us hasn’t felt the sting? The fact of our own marriage or that of one we love has fallen apart. And it doesn’t help that there are others out there who’ve chosen judgement at the universe’s heart. How long have they condemningly wagged such texts in our faces just to prove their outlook?

But the truth is in Jesus’ context. Here we have Jesus traveling through the region of Judea even stepping beyond the Jordan to the east bank. You may or may not know that this is supposedly the same place where John the Baptist got the axe (literally!) – finding his word against the swop-a-roo marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife Herodias severely un-welcomed! . . . Crowds re-enter the scene, so Jesus returns to public teaching. No sooner does he, than some Pharisees arrive. The gospel writer keeps telling us that they are on a quest to test him – and while some of them might have been turning to him for clarification in their own confusion, the story is written to lead us to believe that most of them are not. . . . This time they bring the million-dollar question of divorce. Herod and Herodias certainly have them spinning. The convenient divorce and re-marriage at the top of the ranks is the context of this encounter. . . . It’s not a new question for the Jewish leaders. You see Moses had allowed a man to obtain a certificate to send his old honey along her merry way. The legality of divorce really wasn’t the question of the day. The circumstances under which such a certificate of dismissal could be granted was. . . . Some said, “Only if she’s caught fooling around with some other man.” The opposite end of the spectrum refuted, “Ah-uh. If she burns my toast two mornings in a row, she is outta here!”

Of course the shoe rarely made it to the other foot. We’re walking in the realm of a culture that understood marriage much differently than in our own. Marriage wasn’t about sweaty palms, mushy-gushy, pitter-pattering hearts, swooning “I pledge my love forever,” and all that jazz. It wasn’t some emotional pull of heartstrings. In ancient Israel marriage was a transfer of property – from one man to another: father, or eldest male relative, to husband slash owner-to-be. A woman was literally bought for a bride’s price – plus tax which also was known as any other gifts the man could afford. But wait, we’re really not talking about women – at least not according to our standards. These were pre-teens: the approved marrying age was 12 and a half for females – 13 years one day for males. And yes, things were generally arranged by the betrothed’s families. … Before it all was said and done, good old father Abraham’s clan even decided the purchase of more than one young female was permissible – commendable even. They thought it showed the favor of God if you had enough wealth to buy and financially support more than one woman including the fruit of her loins. Additionally, marriage was the sure way property was transmitted from generation to generation. You see you bought an untouched, virgin girl to sire an heir – preferably a male or at least keep trying ‘til you get a boy – to insure your land certainly was and forever would remain in your name. It was even better if the darling little missus could cook and clean. Marriage in antiquity: it was that simple.

But you know how complicated simple things can get. Somewhere along the line the tradition of more than one wife was erased from the books. Then real trouble began. What if you find yourself a few years down the road with Rebekah discovering that if you could get Miriam next door, you may strike a better deal – be it finer lineage, the potential of becoming the sole male relative in her family (along with all the fixings of her daddy’s wealth), or whatever the gain? Some said: “Immediately, give that man the certificate. Let him send the old model packing.” Who cares that such a dismissed woman was damaged goods. Most likely destined for a dismal future in a culture that wouldn’t allow her to fend for herself. The whole thing had become rather ridiculous. Which I dare say is how many perceived what had taken place between Herod and Herodias.

The religious leaders invite Jesus to get in on the game. They want him to declare his allegiance to one party or the other. It seems they hope to trap him to speak out against Herod in a seal of his fate – and head – just like had happened with John. . . . Instead Jesus calls a scam and scam. “Hardness of heart – completely unteachable!” . . . In a way he spits in the face of a culture set on defiling the marital bed. Jesus takes the argument all the way back to the beginning to paint a different picture. Remember God so desiring mutual connectedness – relationship – for God’s first human creature? God wanted it so much so that God makes a helpmate suitable for Adam. Genesis two goes: the creature declares, at long last, “Finally bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh! (Gen. 2:18-25). Oh! Thank you, thank you, thank you, LORD! . . . “For this reason” – perhaps this flat out ‘I’ve-never-been-more-excited-in-my-life-to-receive-such-a-gift’ reason. Jesus says: “for this reason two shall become one flesh” (Mk. 10:7-8). . . .

He’s telling us that God’s heart beats love. God’s heart, which cannot be alone, wants the same for us: relationship, connection. Two parties eagerly, excitedly, intimately giving themselves to the other – not just one day glorious wedding day, but every day. The One who piped the tune love into the heart of the universe wants us to receive the gift of one other with the same “Hallelujah! At-long-last-bone-of-my-bone” attitude as the first disconnected human being received the gift. Be it a life-long marriage between a male and a female, some other committed I’m-ever-at-your-side connection, or maybe even the bond with the person down the pew. . . . We know Jesus wants us to take a peek at how we cherish connection with one another because directly after this incident with some Pharisees, his followers find themselves chastised again. This time they’re building a barricade around their beloved leader to keep out the hoarding children. It boils Jesus’ blood. He’s spoken to them a word of welcoming, a word of our need for relationship, but they still fail to get it. “Let them come,” Jesus cries. “Do not stop them; for the kingdom is for them!” (Mk. 10:14-15). . . . It’s not a set of divorce criteria Jesus is attempting to set up here in this text from the gospel of Mark. Instead, Jesus seeks here to vocalize, then enact, the intent of a Creator completely committed to relationship – receiving each other continuously as if the other is the most precious thing upon which we ever did lay our eyes. That’s love. The gift to one another that God intends for us to be. From home, to here, to out there in the world, you and I are made to receive one another ecstatically in love. . . . Will we be eternally held out if we fail? Are we guilty in God’s eyes if our relationships regrettably fall apart? I don’t think so. That would make God’s heart into a heart of stone – judgement over love, turning it all into law – the very thing the Pharisees wanted, and Jesus wanted to steer clear of: making God’s gift something other than a gift. That’s a message we can hold on to on this World Communion Sunday. A message that might bring us all further together in loving, grace-filled relationship.

May the vision of receiving one another more joyfully than getting a long-desired present . . . just like that first human being received the gift of the other — may that ideal – never fade.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)