Sermon: Abide in my Love

A Sermon on John 15:9-17

I am continuously amazed at how we can take something so simple and make it monumentally difficult and confusing and the writer of the Scripture passage we heard this morning is no different.  The Gospel of John lays out the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ. Of all the Gospel writers this is John’s singular focus and is why this Gospel is often referred to as the Spiritual Gospel. For John, the incarnation of God in Jesus happens throughout his entire life from his birth, to his miracles, to his ministry, and even his death and resurrection.  For John, and therefore for us, we cannot separate these realities, and we need to continually remember that Jesus was both human and divine.

Jesus starts us off by telling us that his father, God, has loved him and therefore he loves those who were listening and by extension us as followers of Jesus.  He says that we are to abide in his love as he has abided in God’s love. What does it mean to abide in something?

We are told that we have to abide by the rules and regulations of the various organizations and societies we belong too. So we follow, we obey, we conform to these rules and regulations, and by doing so, we keep the order of the organization or group. But to abide in God’s love goes a little deeper than that. Yes, we follow, obey, and conform to God’s love but we also dwell in God’s love, we hang around, we sit with it, it becomes a part of us. We do not conform God’s love to fit us; we conform ourselves to God’s love. It is a deep sense of feeling that only comes over time.

Jesus then goes on to tell us how we will abide in his, Jesus’ love, and consequently God’s love; we do this by keeping his, Jesus’ commandments just as Jesus has kept God’s commandments.  Now, just so there is no confusion Jesus tells us what his commandment is, also keep in mind that due to our Trinitarian theology, Jesus is God, Jesus commandment is to “love one another as I have loved you.” There it is, it is written right there, my commandment = “love one another as I have loved you.”

Many people struggle with this concept of loving as Jesus has loved us.  You have heard me say before, and I will continue to say, that the love Jesus is speaking of is unconditional love and I come to this understanding by reading John 3:16, we all know it, God loves the world, notice the passage does not say the Christian world, those who believe in him world, the Middle Eastern World, the passage simply says God loved the world, the whole world. Because he loved the world and desired that all be reconciled to him, he sent Jesus, not to judge, but to show us the way. This is a difficult concept and hard to understand.

This love concept of Jesus is all about inclusion but we have taken this to mean we can exclude some folks, we can judge them no longer worthy of God’s love, and we can cast them out. It has become fashionable for some to believe they have the authority to decide who gets God’s love and who does not and for those folks I simply will say, you need to read and understand this passage we heard this very morning and if you desire to abide in God’s love then you need to obey his commandments and that is, “to love one another as I have loved you.” Without conditions.

I will admit that it is difficult to love those we have judged not worthy of our love. It is even more difficult to love those who do not love us back or who are our “enemies,” but the bottom line is we have no other choice if we hope to abide in God’s love. The very act of thinking we are doing God’s will by casting people out of God’s love as in fact cast us out, although I believe that God continues to love us no matter what we do. We have placed such a narrow definition of who deserves God’s love and who does not want that often we exclude ourselves.

Back in the 1970’s Coca-Cola introduced a commercial around the season of Christmas. The commercial began with a shot of a single candle burning against a dark background. The shot fades to a woman who begins to sing about buying the world a home and furnishing it with love. As the song continues the focus shifts to different people of different races, an Asian woman a black man. The shot widens, and we get a glimpse of a chorus of people, of all races and nationalities all sitting and singing together about bringing love into the world. The song goes on to say that all of these folks would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Harmony requires different parts to make it work. If everyone sang the same note, we would all sound the same, but if we sing different, complementary notes, a beautiful melody will be born. The idea is we celebrate the diversity because when brought together we produce something beautiful.  Oh, and we have to buy a coke as well. In other words, we love everyone.

Jesus then goes on to say that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend. Now, this has been interpreted in many different ways over the years, but I would like us to focus on the spiritual aspects for just a moment.

Right after Jesus says that the most excellent show of love to lay down one’s life for a friend, Jesus says, “You are my friends,” and we all know that Jesus lays down his life for us. But he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And what is that?  Se previous verse, “love one another.” So if we love one another, we are Jesus’ friends, and it is us that he is laying down his life for. But, it goes deeper than that.

If we follow the example of Jesus, and that is the entire point of the Gospel, then we have to lay down our lives as well for a friend, now, keeping this on the spiritual plane, we are to lay down our lives for Jesus. We are to die to self, to self-desire, to self-interest, to using people as objects to get what we want, we have to die to “looking out for number one” and focus on the greater whole of humanity. We are to take up one’s cross and follow him. We have to die so we can live. We have to die to conform our lives to that of Christ.  Too often today we try and conform Christ’s life to us, but the way is narrow, many are called, but few are chosen.

In the end, Jesus reminds us that we did not choose him he chose us and he has appointed us to go and bear fruit, not for our own glory, but for the glory of God. Nothing Jesus did was for his own glory but always brought glory to God.

And he finishes off with, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” That is it, that is all we have to do, love others unconditionally. That’s the word, and that is the example. Now go, and do.

Sermon: Growing in God

A Sermon on John 15:1-8

“I am the vine, and you are the branches.” This is another of the great “I am” statement by Jesus. Last week Jesus told us he was the shepherd and we are his sheep. We discovered that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice and will only go where the shepherd has gone before out of fear of what lies ahead, and we are reminded that we have to place our trust in God all along the journey of our life.

A good preacher and teacher will use illustrations that the people hearing the sermon or lesson will understand. Jesus uses examples for the lives of the people listening to him, and so he uses a lot of illustrations around fishing, sheep herding, and now gardening or vine growing. Growing anything that to produce the maximum yield is difficult in the best of circumstances, and today we get gardening tips from Jesus, the master grower. The soil conditions need to be right, there needs be to the right amount of water, too much and the plant will drown, not enough and the plant will dry up. Conditions need to be perfect.

Jesus uses the illustration of the vine, the vine grower, and the branches of the vine. Jesus is apparently the vine as he says so in the passage.  God is the vine grower and we, of course, are the branches. There is an assumption that the soil is perfect since God is the grower God would have already prepared the ground.

An excellent vine grower knows that the best grapes are produced closest to the central stalk on the vine. The best fruit is produced there because that is where the nutrients are the richest. The further away from the central stem the lesser the yield and taste. With careful pruning, the vines are made to produce the best fruit possible but, if the vine grower prunes too much it will destroy the plant. So caution is always needed.

I am not the best gardener in the world.  I like the idea of gardening and often think of myself as the victory gardener, but that is often not the case. I prepare the soil, select the appropriate plants for my area, stick them in the ground, and hope they produce. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, but that is farming. But I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago regarding tomato plants; they have to be pruned to produce the best yield. Sure, one can let them grow wild, and they will provide, but for the best return one needs to take the pruning shears to the plant.

Okay, but what does this have to do with our spiritual life?  Jesus was not making a Saturday afternoon gardening show after all, and he was not telling them anything that they did not already know. But, he was using the illustration of the vine to point us in an essential direction regarding our spiritual life.

As we have already established, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. We are commanded in the Gospel to go and make disciples. The gospel command is not to go and create programs or sit and wait for people to come to you. No, the gospel command is to GO! Action, we have to do something. But we cannot make disciples until we are disciples right?

So if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, and we want to produce the best fruit we have to stay close to the central stem of the vine meaning Jesus. If we desire a fruitful spiritual life then the closer we are to Jesus the better off we will be. So we have to spend time every day, with Jesus. It does not matter how much time we spend as long as that time is quality time and produces fruit. Daily scripture reading, meditation, and prayer are the best ways to make this happen in our daily lives. I get that we are busy but we make space for all sorts of things that we find necessary in our lives, and this is very important.

But today’s gospel also speaks of pruning the vine and throwing those branches into the fire. Now, like many other passages of scripture, this one has been used to point to other and call them the withering vine and saying that they will be cast into the fire.  Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it, but I want us to look at it from a personal perspective keeping in mind that to make disciples we first have to be disciples.

So the pruning Jesus is speaking of is not other people, although that can be part of it, it is all of those things that prevent us from having a fruitful spiritual life, all of those distractions that call us in another direction and pull us further and further away from the central stem of our spiritual life. These are the things that we need to prune out of our lives, and yes, sometimes those things are people.

In last week’s sermon, I spoke of the sheep, us, knowing and understanding the shepherd’s voice. I mentioned that in all of the craziness of the world a sheep could distinguish between their shepherd’s voice and another shepherd’s voice and they know who to follow. But I also mentioned that sometimes, if the sheep is sick, they will stray off and follow another voice that is not their shepherd’s voice. The same is true in this illustration today.

The world is pulling us in many different directions, and there are so many voices all vying for our attention. They give us advice and tell us what we should and should not believe. Those voices want us to exclude others from the vine, or the heard because they are different then we are or think differently then we do. Sometimes those voices make us afraid of the other and draw us away rather than towards, and it is up to us to know the genuine voice over the false voice, and that happens when we stay close to the central stem, Jesus, and pray for guidance.

I have a rather extensive collection of bibles. English language Bibles, Romanian language bibles, Gaelic, Scots, Russian, and I even have one in Sanskrit. I have study bibles with extensive footnotes that help me drill down on a verse, and I have the Good News for Modern Man version for those days when I just want to read. But some of my favorite bibles are the ones with the red letters in them, you know, the red letters are the passage when Jesus speaks, and the editor of that particular version put those verses in red, so they stand out.

Those are the actual words that Jesus spoke, and there are a lot of them, and I tend to gravitate to those words, not the words about the words that Jesus spoke but the actual words. In historical language, this is what is called a primary source, the words right from Jesus. I guess I would consider myself a Red Letter Christian and only focus on what Jesus has said, the essentials of the faith if you will. When I encounter a contradiction in Scripture, and there are many, my default is to head to the red letters and see what Jesus has said about it. Why do I mention all of this? Because in the world of competing voices the red letters are the voice we need to hear, and we need to understand, all of the others need to be pruned off the vine. When we hear something that calls us away from the red letters, prune it off the vine and throw it in the fine.

In the end, if we stay close to Jesus we will produce the most fruitful spiritual life, and we will be fed with love, joy, and peace that we can bring to the whole world and that is the goal.

 

Sermon: Enfolded by Love

One of my first jobs after joining the community at Glastonbury Abbey was to work with the guys that cared for the animals at the Abbey. There were not as many animals at that time as there had been and most of them were strays that one person or another had dropped off over the years. Nevertheless, the animals needed caring for. There were some ducks and geese who were very nasty, and there were sheep and one goat. I used to walk the goat on a leash around the Abbey property.

I hated working with the ducks and geese, they always tried to bite me, so I worked mostly with the sheep and the one goat. Sheep are skittish at first if they do not know you but after you have worked with them the warm up to you. Our small flock of sheep was dependent upon us for everything. We did not have a significant pasture for them, and the pen they were in was rather sparse on grass for them to eat so we had to feed them each day, twice a day, rain, shine, snow, sleet, and the rest. I learned a lot working with sheep.

This Sunday is the Sunday we call Good Shepherd Sunday. All of the Scripture readings from the lectionary, including the Gospel passage we heard this morning, have this theme of the Good Shepherd. But, this passage is not always what it seems at first glance.

Show of hands, how many of you work as shepherds? How many of you know someone who works as a shepherd? How many of you have ever really been around sheep for an extended period? As I figured, not many of us have so the imagery of the shepherd and sheep is somewhat lost on us. Perhaps we have an idealized image of rolling fields and puffy white sheep scattered about and the shepherd standing high on a hill watching over them. As pretty as that picture might be it is not reality.

The life of a shepherd was anything but ideal. It was dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending most of their time in the fields rather than in polite society. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” This would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim he was making had an edge to it. If we were to put this in modern day language, we might hear Jesus say, “I am the good migrant worker.”

But, as Jesus usually does, he takes things a little bit further. In this passage, we hear Jesus speak of the false shepherds, the hired hands that did not care for the sheep but ran away at the first sign of trouble. In this statement, we hear echoes of the Old Testament Prophets who spoke out against the religious leaders who were neglecting their people. This image of the shepherd is meant to remind us that God is chiefly concerned with those at risk, and those who are vulnerable. As I learned, sheep are lost without constant, vigilant care by their shepherd.

So if Jesus is the shepherd, we must be the sheep.  How do you feel about being called sheep?

There is a myth that sheep are stupid this is anything but the truth. It seems this myth of sheep being stupid was started by cattle ranchers.  Cattle are herded from the back. The cowboys, on horseback, ride behind the cows pushing them forward. Other cowboys ride alongside to keep the stragglers in line. Sheep are herded from the front.  You can stand behind sheep and make noise, and all they will do is turn around and run behind you. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else – their true shepherd- has not already gone. The shepherd is out in front of the sheep showing them that everything will be okay and that there is nothing there that is going to harm them. Cattle, on the other hand, will walk right off a cliff if the cowboy pushed them in that direction, so who is the stupid one?

In her sermon, “The Voice of the Shepherd,” Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”

The shepherd’s voice is critical in the relationship. Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me.” Not only that but Jesus gives his life for the sheep. The shepherd intentionally becomes the sacrificial lamb. But Jesus makes it clear that he is doing this willingly.

But the message today gives us hope. Sometimes we go astray, just like sheep do. Sheep that are ill might follow the voice of a stranger. Sheep wander off and fall in ravines and get caught in all sorts of things. There are many voices that are trying to get our attention, and many distractions lure us from the right path. But Jesus promises that he will never let us go, and his voice will bring us back. We belong to him. This is the word of assurance to us that in life’s struggles, and they will come, we have to remain faithful. In the choices that we make each day we practice our faith by saying yes to some voices and saying no to others. Jesus is right there, going before us, to lead us.

Jesus seeks out the lost, those in need of rescue, the often forgotten in our society. Those lowly shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, were the first to hear the good news of the birth of the savior. The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does and not on what the sheep do. It’s all about who the shepherd is rather than who they are. The sheep feel secure just to hear the shepherd’s voice. Our job is to let that voice speak through us as we reach out an encounter the lost and hurting along the way.

Sermon: Talladega Nights and the Image of God

A Sermon on Luke 24:36-48

This past week, as I prepared these words, I have been giving a lot of thought to the idea of image and what I mean by that is, what image do we project to those around us and, what image do we see? These are important questions that, for our spiritual nature, we need to be able to answer.

On Thursday I had the honor of officiating a funeral for a 97-year-old woman called Helen. As so often is the case, I received a phone call from the funeral home asking if I was available for a funeral.  I did not know Helen and had no connection to the family, and they had no relationship to Bethany. In my preparation, I spoke with Helen’s daughter Sharon to try and get some information about her mother for the service. She told me about her childhood and some of the memories of her mother. We spoke about Helen’s love of golf and gardening and of course, the love of her grandchildren all the way to her great, great grandchildren. This information allowed me to paint a picture of Helen in my mind and allowed me to see an image of her.

While I was waiting for the funeral service to begin, I was speaking with the funeral director and about Helen. The funeral director had been involved with this family for years and knew them rather well. We started talking about our grandparents and memories that we had of them. He told me about his grandmother who was blind and the only way she knew which of her grandchildren were there was by touching their face.  He said when they would arrive at her house, she would call them each over so she could “see them,” and she would feel their face with her gentle touch.  She knew each person by the shape and feel of their face, and from that, she would form an image of them in her mind.

In today’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke we hear of Jesus encountering his followers on the road. He suddenly was with them, and he said, “Peace be with you.” Scripture tells us they were “startled and terrified” by this and at first they did not recognize him. He showed them, as he did with Thomas, his hands, his feet, and his side the wounds of his crucifixion so that they would recognize him. Their mind would not allow them to see Jesus in front of them, after all, they witnessed his death shortly before this encounter, but now he was standing there and showing them his wounds, and they recognized him.

In another place, we read about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb and encountering who she thought was the gardener of the cemetery.  It was not until he called her by name that Mary recognized that it was Jesus and not the gardener standing in front of her. And in another place, we read of yet another appearance and those there did not recognize Jesus until he broke bread with them. These were all images that Jesus projected, and they were able to see him face to face.

But what about us?

We all have different images, husband, wife, father, mother, friend, minister, brother, sister, etc. Each of these images is different and the same from the other. Out image in our work in perhaps very different from our image at home or in a social environment. Believe it or not, most ministers, including me, are introverts and it takes an enormous amount of energy to be in social situations and because of this we often come off very aloof and unapproachable. It is an unfortunate image that we project.

But the image that I am most interested in is in the image of God and the image of Christ.

I was once asked how I saw God. Think about this for a minute, if a sketch artist was sitting with you, and the artist asked you for a description of God what would you say? I was asked this question shortly after the movie “Oh God” with George Burns had come out. I am not sure how many of you remember this movie but George Burns was God so for me, at that moment, God looked like George Burns. We call God father, but what if the person we are talking to does not have a good father image? Maybe their father beat their mother or abandoned them when they were very young so to call God “father” is not a positive image. The point is, we make God in our image and we see God as we need to see God, and there is nothing wrong with that. Theologically God has no gender or form except when God became and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, the Word of God.

Over the last 2,000 or so years there have been many images of Jesus in all forms of art. I think one of more famous is the one that shows Jesus with the long flowing blonde hair and the piercing blue eyes. Now, this is where we have to separate the historical Jesus from the image of Jesus that we have. Historically we know that at the time of his death, Jesus was approximately 33 years old. He was single; he was a rabbi of some renown. He was from Palestine in the Middle East. Chances are he did not have blonde hair and blue eyes. Because of his age and his position he would have had a beard and traditionally long hair. So we have a historical image of a 33-year-old male from 1st century Palestine. If that same sketch artist asked us about Jesus, this would be the historical picture.

But we also have the spiritual Jesus. Theologically Jesus was human, and he was divine. Our Trinitarian theology says that he shared the same nature with God. The Gospel of John tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, Jesus, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” So Jesus is God in human form but how we see that form is much different.

Time for another movie reference. The movie is called Talladega Nights and is a film about a race car driver. Now the movie is a comedy and for some, not a very good one, but for me, it was a pivotal movie in the theological education. About halfway through the movie the main character and his family, along with his best friend, are sitting down to dinner and they are about to pray before the meal. During the prayer, Ricky Bobby, that is the main character played by Will Farrell, prays to “baby Jesus.” I wish we had a projector in here so I could show this clip but later on, today google it….

Anyway, Ricky Bobby’s grandfather objects to the prayer to “baby Jesus” he says that Jesus was a man with a beard. The counterpoint to the argument is that for Ricky Bobby, he lies to picture Jesus as an infant. At that point, now bear with me here, Ricky Bobby’s friend jumps in and says that he lies to picture Jesus in a “tuxedo t-shirt.” Now you might be sitting there looking for something to throw at me, but the point of the illustration is that we see Jesus as we each see Jesus and for some of us it might be Baby Jesus, for some it might be full grown adult Jesus, and for some, my guess is a small minority of you, you like to see Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt and all of that is just fine.

We need to spiritually see Jesus in a way that brings joy and comfort to us and if that means he needs to have blonde hair and blue eyes, I am okay with that. But the real question I have for you today is, do you see Jesus in others and can they see Jesus in you?

We are, all of us, created in the image and likeness of God we have been given the divine spark. The creation story from Genesis says that God breathed his breath into the nostrils of the first humans; we contain the very breath of God. I am not sure we truly understand what that means to be created in God’s image and to contain his very breath.

I often speak of the command to love God and love of neighbor. For me, this is the Gospel, and nothing else matters if we do not practice that sort of love. And that love is unconditional. We are also commanded to love our enemies and those who wish us harm. These are non-negotiable in the life of the Christian, and they are also challenging. But we are commanded to do that because of the divine spark, that image of God in us and the other. Someone once told me that we may be the only Bible someone ever reads and we might be the reason they come to Jesus or the reason they flee from him.

So we need to think long and hard about something today. Do we honestly see the image of God in others and by others I mean everyone because how we treat them, what we say to them and about them should be influenced by that image? If that was Jesus standing there in front of us would we treat them like that or would we say that because it is Jesus standing right there in front of us and he tells us that himself? Matthew 25 the righteous ask him “lord when did we see you hungry and feed you or naked and clothe you.” And he answers, “as you do it to the least of these you do it to me.” When we insult someone, when we mistreat them, when we lie or gossip about someone, when we refuse to help them because we do not think they are worthy or when we drop bombs on them, we do it to Jesus.

The question for this week is, do I honestly see Jesus in the other and I am projecting the image of Jesus so others can see it?

Taking the Heat

A few months ago I published an essay explaining the reasons why I feel that, not only as a minister but as a Christian and a human being, I am compelled to speak out in opposition to injustice and against the harsh treatment of the “least of these” as Jesus calls them. What I did not write about in that essay, was what happens when you face fall out from speaking out.

Jesus makes it pretty clear in his teachings that we have a gospel mandate to speak for the “least of these” in our daily lives.  Now, the “least of these” might be in our city or town or they might be in another state or even another country, the point is, we have a gospel mandate, command if you will, to speak out in and on their behalf.  Jesus also warns us that if and when we do speak out, we have to be prepared for the inevitable blowback that comes from such opposition.

In a recent United Church of Christ Daily Devotional, Tony Robinson writes that “If you want to make a difference, you will face some heat.” Tony then goes on to tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The story is that three refused to bow to anyone except God and that got them in a bit of trouble. Read the rest of the Daily Devotion Here.

The point of the story is if we are afraid to speak because of the consequences of our speaking out then we need to pray for the support and guidance of the Holy Spirit. It has been said by many that not speaking out in the face of injustice is akin to supporting the inequity. Not everyone is called to march, and not everyone is called to protest, but we are all called to speak out, and one way to do that is to support those who do.

Those who directly speak out will face a lot of opposition, I believe more so today than ever before, and they will need our support.  If your pastor or minister is speaking out for the “least of these” and she/he is getting heat from folks in the congregation, come to their aid do not abandon them in their time of need. Speak out in support of those who are speaking out it will truly make a difference in their lives as well as the lives of the “least of these.”

Dear Thomas, you’re not the only one with doubts

I always feel sorry for Thomas. I mean, the poor guy asked an honest question, and he raised some doubts, and he gets tagged with the name Doubting Thomas. This man of great faith brought the message of Jesus Christ to India, but he will always be remembered as the one who doubted that Jesus appeared. But Thomas you are not alone.

I have long been leery of Christians who seem to have it all together. They walk around smiling all the time as if their belief in Jesus has taken away all of their problems. What they are afraid to show people is that behind that smile they are filled with doubt and uncertainty. We have been brainwashed into thinking that when we “accept Jesus into our hearts” all of our doubts and problems will simply vanish. That when we are “washed in the blood” all the crap in our lives gets washed away. That just is not the truth, and I believe, it is doing tremendous harm to the Body of Christ.

When we have this belief, the struggle becomes worse, and we feel that if we speak of the struggle then somehow the “fix” did not happen.  Somehow my faith is not strong enough, and I am weak. And more often than not they quietly fade away from the congregation because they are so filled with shame at their doubts they are afraid to ask for help.

So the solution is we have raised generations of fake Christians that walk around like the department store mannequins smiling all the time. We have to keep the façade that everything is okay because if we let a crack show, then the truth will be revealed. And that just cannot happen.

What this story of Thomas highlights is that we should ask questions and not just believe it because someone told you so. It is okay to have doubts, and it is okay not to understand. What’s not okay is to not seek those answers.

Not to a party pooper but even Jesus had doubts, yes, you heard me right, Jesus had doubts.

The night he was arrested, Jesus was in the garden praying. Scripture tells us that so profound were his prayers that drops of blood came from his forehead. There are few instances in Scripture that we see that human side of Jesus and this is one of them. Jesus knew what was about to happen and he was scared, and he had doubts about it all.  He prayed that God would remove this “cup” this pain and agony that he was about to endure. But, in the end, he submits, just as Thomas does, to the will of God.

Doubts and skepticism are all a natural part of the faith journey, and I would argue an essential part of that journey. Part of the Christian walk is the struggle and to hide that is not be your genuine self. I struggle with my faith every day, and it is in the struggle the Dark Wood as Dante called it, where we come into contact with the Holy.

If I had to point to one thing, and only one thing, that is wrong with the modern church is that we are not authentically who we are supposed to be. Those of us who attend church on a regular basis sit in the seat every week, and we hide. We hide what is honestly going on in our lives and the struggle that we have.

Each week, during the congregational prayer time, I ask if there are any prayer requests from the congregation. Sometimes we hear the request for payers for so and so with health issues or traveling mercies for this one. But, we never get the request from someone, including myself, for help with the struggle.

My friends the struggle is real, and we must face the fact that the struggle is real. The journey is not easy, and there is no quick fix to problems and doubt. Jesus left us an example of prayer and fasting as well as work to alleviate the suffering of others. It is through authentically being yourself and working on our doubts and fears, which makes the journey a little more comfortable. Part of that walk is an understanding of humility, and through humility, we can be like Thomas and have doubts and have fears.  God does not call the equipped; God equips the called.

A Day of Sabbath Rest

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8

Our world is much different today than it was say 20 years ago, or is it?  The pace of our lives has shifted dramatically, and we now spend very little time in leisure. 2015 statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor show that on average, Americans spend 3 hours per day on Leisure activities, including sports, versus almost 9 hours per day on work or work-related activities. The same statistics show that we are working 13 more minutes, on average, per day then we were in 2013. So we are working more and resting less.

The Old Testament idea of the Sabbath was that all work would cease on this day.  God created the world in six days and on the seventh he rested from all labor.  Over time, this became corrupted, and in the time of Jesus, we see examples of persecution taking place. There are a few examples of Jesus being criticized for healing on the Sabbath, and at least one occasion, Jesus’ disciples are criticized for picking the heads of grain as they walked through a field on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:1-2)

By definition, the Sabbath was to be a day of rest from all work and worship. But it was a day for family and community. In the early days of the founding of America, the Pilgrims had stringent rules around the Sabbath and what one was able to do. Attendance at religious services was mandatory and other than, the basic of work to keep the farm animals alive; all other work would cease on that day and violators of the rules would face severe punishment.

But what about today, what about our modern notion of a Sabbath?

While in seminary, I worked at a camp run by a Jewish organization. The camp would host several hundred girls during the summer, and I worked as the head chef and was responsible for three meals a day for the staff and the campers.  The camp was kosher and also observed the Sabbath which meant that no cooking or meal preparation was allowed on Saturday as that would have constituted work. So all of the work for the Saturday preparation had to be accomplished on Friday.  It was okay to serve the food we just could not prepare it.

I am a minister, and as such, I work on Sunday the day that Christians have set aside as the Sabbath.  Now, I do not usually work the entire day, but I do work on that day.  So I have transferred the Sabbath to another day, usually Monday. Monday is my Sabbath day, and I try to build a wall around that day for other activities. But even though I make a fence around that day, it is not a day of complete rest, but I do take it easy. Now taking an entire day off might not be possible but the idea is we do the best we can, and while on that time off, we are indeed off.

Being truly off is not something that I am good at, but I am getting better at it.  For example, I still check email and social media sites on my Sabbath day. However, I know folks who genuinely unplug on their Sabbath day, I am not there yet, but I am working on it.

 

The bottom line to all of this is, like with all things is the striving for balance in our lives. I learned a long time ago, that if our lives are out of balance, and includes a connection between the body, mind, and soul, then we are not functioning correctly. The creator understood this and left an example to follow, work six days and rest one.

So take some time, even if it is only an hour, unplug from the world and get some rest. In the end, we all will be better off.

Easter Sermon: Why Are You Weeping?

Our journey is complete. Some 40 days ago we began a spiritual journey that has brought us to this moment. We started this journey by being reminded, on Ash Wednesday, that we are mortal and that our time here on this earth is short. We witnessed Jesus calling his Apostles and the start of his ministry a ministry that would include, healing a blind man or two, cleansing leapers, making water into wine, walking on the water, raising Lazarus from the dead and his great political stunt last week, his entrance into Jerusalem.

And this week we witnessed his final days. So many of us skip Holy Week and go right from the joy and celebration of Palm Sunday and skip right over to the joy of Easter. We skip the messy bits in between. We skip the betrayal by a close friend. We skip another friend denying Jesus three times. We skip the command to “do this.” We skip the forgiveness given from the cross, and we skip the final breath of the one who gave us all breath.

But regardless of how we go here what is important is that we are here, and we have witnessed the victory of life over death. Today we witness the result of ultimate love and the gift of forgiveness. Ultimate love and forgiveness for all of us, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him may have eternal life.

But today we need to back the story up just a little. The story begins early on that first Easter morning. We meet the women on the road. They are bringing the spices necessary to complete the Jewish burial ritual. You see, they had to remove the body of Jesus and place it in a tomb so quickly because it was the Sabbath, that they did not have time to prepare and now they had to complete the task.

While they walked, mostly in silence, they worried about who would roll away the large stone that would be covering the entrance to the tomb. Perhaps the reminisced a little about the last three years and maybe even talked about their grief over what had happened over the previous twenty-four hours. They continue their journey mentally preparing for the task ahead.

They arrive at the tomb, and the stone has been rolled away. The confusion comes over them and a touch of concern. They fear that the Romans or the Temple authorities have come in the night and stolen his body. We have the benefit of knowing how this will all end but those women, standing there looking at the empty tomb, had no idea what was going on.

We read that Mary Magdalene was among the first to arrive. There are many stories about who this Mary was, but regardless of her past, regardless of what she had done, she was one of the first to arrive and, might I add, was the first to preach the good news of the Resurrection. We read that she ran back to tell the others, and by other I mean the men who were in hiding behind locked doors, she comes to tell them that the stone has been rolled away and that Jesus is not there.

In Mark’s Gospel account we read that this same Mary encountered a man she thought to be the gardener who told Mary that Jesus was not there, that he is risen, and that she was to go and tell the others, and Peter the good news.  That same gardener, who know to be the Risen savior himself, asks Mary why she is weeping. For Mary, Jesus was the only one to accept her as she was. Jesus was the one that protected her and brought her love and forgiveness and now, not only was he dead, but his body was gone, and she did not understand.

Why do you weep, the gardener asks, and she tells him it is because Jesus is gone. Then the man calls her by her name and instantly she knows it is Jesus and her tears of sadness turn to tears of Joy and hope, hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and she is so full of this joy that she runs back to tell the others.

When we strip it all away the entire story of Lent and the entire story of Holy, actually the entire story of Christianity is about hope. Jesus came and walked among us to bring us hope and to show us a way of life that would not only bring us hope, but teach us the way to bring hope to others.

Sitting in that upper room, the place where only a few short days before Jesus had shared the Passover with them, the Apostles and the others had lost all hope. Their teacher, their leader, their friend had been taken away and murdered right before their very eyes. Peter had lost all hope recalling that he had denied Jesus when the going was difficult for him. They recalled that one of their own, one who had been with them from the start, had turned him into the authorities and he was now dead as well. They had lost all hope until someone brought them the good news that Jesus is Risen from the dead.

Right now, maybe even sitting here among us, are people who have lost hope. Right now, maybe even here among us, there are people who feel they are not loved. Right now, maybe even sitting here among us, there are people who do not feel that they can be forgiven for what they have done. But right now, right here, in this special place, we hear the good news that Jesus Christ is Risen and because of that, you are indeed loved. You are indeed forgiven. And we have hope. Hope that things will get better, maybe not tomorrow, but they will get better because Jesus is not some distant far off God, but a God who humbled himself to share in our humanity, or grief, our pain, our anguish, and Jesus understands and loves us, unconditionally.

The story of the Resurrection does not end here. The story of the Resurrection has to be taken from this place, just as it was taken from the tomb, and loudly proclaimed so that all will hear and all will have hope. We need to proclaim the Resurrection with our very lives because we have been forgiven and we are loved, and we need to show the world that they are as well.

Let us find that Easter joy, a joy so full, that it transcends all hatred and bigotry and that we can see each other as loved and forgiven and take joy in that knowledge.

Why do we weep?  We weep because God loves us to such a degree that no matter what, God loves us and forgives us.

Would you have been there?

A Meditation for Good Friday

There are not many Good Friday hymns or songs, but one that always comes to mind is the old favorite, “were you there…”  We all know the song, and it asks us if we were there when they crucified my lord. Were we there when they nailed him to the tree?  Were we there when they laid him in the tomb?  These are all excellent questions, and it leads me to ask the question of all of us here today, would you have been there?

The work of Good Friday is messy, and in the end, an innocent man endured a mock trial on trumped up charges and was publically humiliated and executed and all the while his closest friends were in hiding.  Sure, some were there with him, the women were there including his mother, but the men, they were nowhere to be found. They were so afraid that they would be next, they were so fearful that the same fate that fell on Jesus, would claim them, that the hid in fear.  When the time to stand up came, they sat down.

So I ask the question again, would you have been there?

In my Palm Sunday sermon, I mentioned that the entrance into Jerusalem was the most politically charged event in the entire three-year ministry of Jesus.  Sure, he raised Lazarus from the dead, and that raised some eyebrows.  Sure, he threw the money changers out of the temple and said that they, meaning the religious establishment of the day, had turned it from a house of prayer to a den of thieves. But riding into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey, being hailed as king was a direct challenge to the might of the Roman Empire, and at that moment the tide turned against him.

The entire ministry of Jesus was one of resistance and revolt. What Jesus did was turn the order of the world upside down and left us with an example to follow. Jesus did not just leave his thoughts and prayers with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the oppressed; he sat with them, ate with them, and loved them.

“Jesus was executed because he turned the powerful and their systems upside down with his radical inclusion of the “other” and his courageous actions against tyranny.” (Mitch Randal, Good Friday: Thoughts and Prayer didn’t get Jesus executed.)

So before we go any further let’s clear some things up, Jesus did not die so we can exclude people. Jesus did not die so we can use the poor as pawns in a political chess game. Jesus did not die so we can tell others who they can and cannot love. Jesus did not die so we can twist his words to suit our image of him, Jesus died because he practiced radical love and inclusion and so I ask again, would you have been there?

Jesus stood up to the religious and political authorities of his day with direct action. He did not take it to a committee and debate the issues he just did what had to be done. He called out those who were not living up to what they were supposed to do or by what they called themselves, the one’s today I like to call fake Christians, you know them, they are all pious on Sunday but by Sunday night they are back to cheering on tyranny and those who persecute others because of the way they look or where they are from or who they chose to love.

Jesus included everyone and left that example to us as well, radical welcome and inclusion is what it means to be a Christian; however, it has become fashionable to practice radical exclusion in many of our churches today, the message of the Gospel is clear, love God and love your neighbor, and that includes your gay neighbor, your Muslim neighbor, you black neighbor, your poor neighbor, etc. it includes everyone without conditions, Jesus did not just for the white folks Jesus died that everyone might find eternal life and when he said to go into all the world, that is not only the white world but the entire world to bring the love and light of the Gospel.

This is what I mean when I say that Good Friday is messy; it is about a radical change in the way we think and act. If we assume that we would have been there then that means we take on the responsibility of what has been left to us and that is radical welcome, speaking truth to those in authority, and when necessary call out those who call themselves Christians but act is a way that is so counter to what that means there is just no semblance of Christianity left in them.

So I ask you again, would you have been there?

The Book of Revelation is not one of my favorite books, and it has been misused and misunderstood almost from the time it was written but, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from those pages.  In the third chapter and the 16th verse we hear this warning, “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” (NKJ)

Church, the time has come to turn up the heat.  The time has come to make a choice, we are either going to stand with Jesus at the cross or we are going to run and hide. The time has come to take a stand, just as Jesus did, and call out those who are using our faith to further their white nationalistic pride and discrimination. The time has come to do what is right not just what is popular. It is time to take back our faith from the extremes that wish to use it for radical exclusion rather than the radical inclusion that Jesus practiced and calls up to practice, why, because if we do not, God will vomit us out of his mouth.  Now I don’t know about you, but that does not sound like a nice thing.

Hanging there on that cross, in one of his most human moments Jesus cries out and asks God “why have you forsaken me?” And today I fear that he is asking that question of all of us, why have we forsaken him?

One of my all-time favorite movies is the now classic Braveheart. Now I know that some historical license was taken in the making of that film, and much of the dialogue was created for dramatic effect but, there is one line that fits in with this theme today. The Scottish Army is about to face off against the English for the first time. They are standing on the field of battle, all dressed up, ready to fight. Some of the men start to get nervous and begin to turn and leave and head back to their homes. Then with dramatic music blaring, Mel Gibson rides up and brings hope, hope that they need to face what they must face. He asks them if they will run and hide or stay and fight, and some answer that they will run. He answers with these words:

“Aye, fight, and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!”

We have a choice to make, and that choice is to either be at the foot of the cross pointing up and shouting yes, I am with him, and staying and fighting for what is true and just, or we can choose to run and hide where it is safe, the choice is yours.

Do THIS in Remembrance of me

A Meditation for Maundy Thursday

On this night we pause to commemorate the events that took place in the Upper Room. We are invited in to witness one of the most intimate moments between Jesus and those who have been with him for three years. We are invited to sit at the table and to hear the words of the Master. We pause, in the business of our days for just a few moments.

I have given this meditation the title “Do THIS in remembrance of me” with the word “THIS” in capital letters. This mediation asks what the “THIS” is that Jesus is referring too in these verses of Scripture. The most common answer to what is the “THIS” would be the celebration of the Lord’s Supper after all that is the central theme of the Maundy Thursday service, but, I think it goes much deeper than that, and so we must go deeper.

We begin with the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John. We find Jesus in the Upper Room with his disciple’s, and they are having a meal, the Passover meal, together. We read that during the meal Jesus rose, removed his robe, tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a pitcher and began to wash the feet of those present. What we do not realize is that this action would have taken them all by surprise and, as we will see in a moment, shock.

Washing the feet of guests in your home was not an uncommon practice in the 1st-century world. The roads were dusty, and thus one’s feet would be covered in dust from walking these streets. Upon entering a house, a servant would be ready to wash the feet of the guests. This servant was ranked lowest in the household and would carry out their task without comment or make eye contact with the guests. Jesus, in the simple act of washing their feet, has taken on the role of a servant, the lowest servant, in the household.

When Jesus comes to wash the feet of Peter, Peter rejects the idea and refuses to have his feet washed. He is refusing to allow his friend, his teacher to lower himself to the position of a servant. Peter relents, and Jesus washes his feet. After he washes their feet, he puts his robe back on and sits with them and continues to teach them. He tells them that if he, as their master, is willing to lower himself to wash their feet, they have to be willing to do the same for each other and others.

After the foot washing Jesus tells them that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice Jesus uses the words “my commandments” not “the commandments of Moses” not even “God’s commandments” he says “My commandments.”  What are his commandments?  Jesus tells us there are only two, love God, love neighbor. Later in the conversation, he tells them, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my father will love them.” What is his word? It’s simple, love God and love neighbor.

Near the end of this portion of the story, Jesus says to them, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” How has Jesus loved them, unconditionally?  Keep in mind that before this; Judas has left the room as Jesus has called him out as the one who would betray him.  Jesus is about to reveal to them that Peter will deny him not once, not twice, but three times. But this does not stop Jesus from loving them; yes he loved even Judas, the Betrayer.

Jesus gives us another example of this unconditional love while he is hanging on the cross. As the soldiers nail him to that hardwood and lift him up. As those passing by mock him and spit on him. As the same soldiers that nailed him to that tree cast lots for his garments, Jesus thoughts turn to them and he asks God to forgive them. In his final moments, Jesus’ thoughts were for someone else, and he granted forgiveness to those who had just killed him.

So what is this “THIS” that Jesus is asking us to do?  Very simple:

Be a servant to all
Love all, unconditionally
Forgive all

Amen.