Scattering Fear and Gloom

Format Image

Easter Sunday is a rollercoaster of emotions.

We felt that as we began worship today… instead of starting with the joy of the resurrected Christ, we began with the despair felt by Mary and the disciples because their Lord and Teacher was no longer with them.

You see, for the disciples, Easter morning began with a hopeless situation.

It began with fear of the unknown.

It began with the gloom of death.  

When I wrestled with what I should preach about this morning, I couldn’t help but think about all of the hopelessness and fear and gloom in this world. 

I hear it in the halls of this church, and around our dinner tables… in the grocery store, the halls of work or school… all of the varied and sundry places that we gather in our lives.  

We worry about family who just can’t seem to get their act together.

We struggle with illness or money in our personal lives.

We watch the evening news and everything seems wrong with the world.

After a while, the daily grind starts to take its toll and we become numb to all of that stuff around us. We find ourselves settling into the rut and start to believe that this is just the way it’s going to be.

The violence of the world almost ceases to phase us.  What is a crucified Savior when another bombing in Syria has taken lives?  Another shooting at a school last week?  Another gun related death in our city?     

We can barely keep ourselves abreast of the human rights violations occurring across our planet as war-torn countries continue to destroy the lives of innocent men, women and children. So many of these places of conflict feel utterly hopeless and without end.   It seems that no matter what we do, or maybe because of what we do, new groups and new people spring up to fight, instead of searching for ways to work together and to rebuild lives.

 

In our gospel reading this morning, Mary goes to the tomb and she is not going with expectant hope. She is going to bring spices and oil and to continue to prepare his body for burial.

You see, Jesus was laid in the tomb just before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath Day and so the women did not have enough time to properly lay him to rest.

As the sun rose on this Easter morning, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb to mourn, to pray, and to say her good-byes.

She was someone who desperately loved Jesus. He was her Teacher and her Master. He offered her new life and a brand new beginning when he cleansed the demons from her life. And ever since that time, she had followed him faithfully. Then, in one fell swoop, everything that she had begun to put her trust into was taken away.

Her Lord was gone.

The disciples who followed him had scattered and those who remained were hiding out in fear of the Jewish authorities.

Mary had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

The only thing she knew to do was go to that tomb and rehearse a ritual practiced by Jewish women for centuries. She would go to the tomb to honor Jesus and to mourn for him properly.

 

But as our scriptures this morning remind us, when she arrived, everything was in disarray!

The stone was rolled back and her Master was nowhere to be found!

His body was gone!

Desperately, she ran to the house of one of the disciples for she knew that some of them would be there…

They have taken away his body! She cried out….

They have taken him and I don’t know where they have laid him!

Two of the disciples, run back to the tomb with her and find her story to be true. They enter and find the burial clothes there also, neatly folded and placed on the stone. They know that something has happened… but none of them really knows what it means.

 

Mary, in the midst of all of her desperation and mourning saw Jesus standing before her but did not recognize him. She couldn’t see the promise that was right before her eyes!

Jesus even called out to her, trying to scatter her fear and her gloom:

 “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

As Mary stood in that garden weeping out of desperation she heard her Master call her voice. One moment of startling fear and overwhelming joy – a moment of holy awe – as the significance of what is seen – and what is unseen comes crashing in.

 

And Christ is calling out to us all the time, every day.

He asks us constantly what we are weeping for.

He longs to wipe away the tears from our eyes.

Jesus is Risen. Death could not hold him.

And if it cannot hold him, it cannot hold us.

All that Jesus said about life and death

all that was understood only as idea – as a concept – as a vision

is made real in that empty tomb and in that encounter in the garden.

 

The disciples and the women heard Jesus talk SO MANY TIMES about his death and resurrection and it just never sunk in.

They couldn’t understand the promise because they never believed it would happen.

So when Jesus shared his final meal with them on Thursday night they let him down and failed to remain faithful.

And when Christ was crucified on Friday afternoon, they were paralyzed by their unbelief and forgot the promises he made to them.

They couldn’t see past their own pain and fear and gloom to remember the promise!

The ancient promises from Isaiah:

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

 

And he wants us to see him, to recognize him as the Jesus who is alive – the Jesus who is risen – the Jesus who has the power to bring that new creation to bear on our lives.

But like Mary, our hearts are often so slow to believe, to trust, and to accept he is standing before us.

There are so many things in our lives that we could feel hopeless about:

Loved ones who die too young,

People who work away their lives for a wage that won’t pay the rent,

Hungry families… including the 55,000 people in Des Moines who don’t have enough food on their tables,

But the power of the Easter resurrection didn’t just bring Christ to life.

The power of the Easter resurrection took a rag tag bunch of disciples who barely knew their left from their right as far as following Jesus was concerned…. And turned them into apostles.

It turned these doubting, stammering, disobedient fools into the leaders of a movement that would transform the world!

When Christ rose from the dead, the Body of Christ that is the church was brought to life – a community was formed that would love and cherish and carry on the mission and the ministry of Christ!

Each and every single one of us is a living testimony to the power that Christ’s resurrection had on our world.

Each one of us is who we are today and is in this place this morning because those first disciples experienced the risen Christ.

And because that experienced so radically changed their lives that they had to tell others.

 

So what is this Easter morn?

It is God’s promise of a new day

It is God’s promise of a new life

It is God’s promise of a new world

coming to pass in our midst.

 Jesus is risen. Death could not hold him. And it will not hold us either.

 

Wherever in your heart there is weeping, Christ promises to turn your tears into laughter.

Jesus is risen! Death could not hold him!

And the forces that tear us apart in this world will not defeat him either!

Christ has risen!

And we… as the body of Christ, in this time and in this place… are called to continually live our lives as a beacon of that promise!

We are called to visit the sick and those who mourn and pray for healing in this life or the next.  

We are called to work for those who are struggling and help to create a better way.

We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast, the person who is not like you: 

whether that means they were born here or not,

an NRA member or fighting to limit guns,

someone who wants sidewalks in their community or doesn’t,

whatever the color of their skin or whomever they love. 

 

You and I… because of the reality of what we experience this morning… are called to go forth and scatter the forces of fear and gloom in the world.

We are to find small ways to live out and practice the resurrection power in our world today.

Christ is risen!

Let us crown him the lord of Life, the Lord of Peace and the Lord of Love

and may we believe in his power to truly transform our lives.

Amen.

We Have Found the Messiah

Format Image

“I am not the Messiah”

That’s probably pretty obvious to all of you.  Of course, I’m not the Messiah.

But I wasn’t talking about me.

These were the words of John the Baptist as he started his ministry.

He was out there, talking to people about the coming Kingdom of God, preaching, inviting people to repent… well, actually, doing things that I typically do as a pastor.  

And people started to wonder about him.

Who are you?

Are you Elijah?

Are you a prophet?

Are you the Christ?

“I am not the Messiah” he answered.

“I’m just a voice, crying out in the wilderness, making the Lord’s path straight.”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it might mean to make the Lord’s path straight and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really about making it easier for people to connect with God.

If you go back to the origins of the phrase from Isaiah, the Hebrew word used in this passage actually means to clear the land… to remove the rocks and roots and everything that gets in the way so that something new can be planted, so that something new can be done.

John was someone who was called to help clear out the obstacles that prevent people from experiencing God.  To clear the way for God’s salvation.

 

And so in our passage today, we hear about what happens when the Messiah does show up.  John is out there, doing his job and Jesus comes to be baptized… by him!    He has this amazing experience and vision and realizes that THIS is the Messiah.  THIS is the one they had been waiting for. 

But John’s job isn’t finished. 

 

No, John’s role is to keep pointing to Jesus, to keep making it easy for people to come and discover the Messiah for themselves.  

And so the next day, John is hanging out with two of his own disciples.  And when he sees Jesus walking by, he cries out:  “Look!  It’s the Lamb of God!  That’s him!  That’s the one I was telling you about!”    

And so these two start to follow Jesus.  And then they reach out and invite others to come and see.  “We have found the Messiah!” they tell their friends and neighbors and siblings.  “Come and see!”

 

In many ways, the beginnings of the church was a pyramid scheme.

You find one person, and that person finds two people, and then those two people each find two people, and then those two people… and before you know it, there are 2.2 billion followers of Jesus Christ in the world.   

 

The question I want to explore this morning is how you and I are called to keep this church going.  In many ways, our job is simple.  We have found the Messiah!  We don’t have to BE the Messiah.  We don’t have to save this world all by ourselves.  We don’t have to single handedly run this thing or be perfect or fulfill every obligation.  

We have found the Messiah.  We already have someone who can do that.

 

No, I think you and I have two jobs.  

 

First,  it is state loudly and clearly to all the world that “I am not the Messiah.”

Will you repeat that with me?  “I am not the Messiah”

Let’s say it like we really mean it: “ I AM NOT THE MESSIAH.”

That might seem like a strange exercise, but the truth is, we aren’t perfect.  We are totally unworthy of this calling.  We will make mistakes all the time.

In fact, we are only 15 days into this year and I have already made a bunch of small mistakes and a couple of big ones.  But I learn from them.  I keep going.  I try to grow and do better the next  time.  That is all that we can do. 

One of my own failings is that sometimes I set the bar too high.  And I’ve heard from some of you, who are overwhelmed that you don’t feel like you are good enough or can do enough for the church.  And I’ve heard from some of you that you are burnt out and tired and trying to do all that you can, but you simply can’t do any more.  

You know what?  None of us are the Messiah.

None of us are good enough to be here.  And we all have some kind of brokenness in our lives – be it a broken relationship or our bodies are broken and letting us down or we’ve broken promises to ourselves or others.  

We aren’t perfect.  And we aren’t supposed to be. We are not the Messiah.

 

But we ARE here today, because we think we have found the Messiah.  

I am part of the church, not because it’s a community of perfect people who never make mistakes or let one another down, but because I believe that this is a place where broken people find healing.  

I am part of the church because this is where I hear the stories of Jesus Christ and in the midst of the brokenness, I meet Jesus all the time.

Rachel Held Evans is a Christian writer and blogger and recent talked about why people come to church. And she said:

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.14f389a46dd4)

And so our second job is to make it easier for people to come and meet the Messiah. To clear the way.  To invite our friends and neighbors and siblings to join us on this journey.  To ask them to come and see what it is that we have found here:  life in the midst of death, healing in the midst of struggle, hope in our despair, forgiveness in our mistakes.

 

Our Administrative Council has been wrestling over the last few months with what we want to set as goals for this church in 2017.  And part of what we have been doing is looking forward as well to what God is calling us to as a church.

We’ve had a vision for the last four or five years to “Live a life, in Christ, of love, service, and prayer”   and part of what I have been pushing them, and us, to think about is so what?  

What is going to be different in this world because we have done so?  

 

You know, the meaning of “salvation” is “to heal.”  It is God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need, resulting in their restoration to wholeness.  

Taking what is broken and making it whole.  

That’s the business God is in.

What if that is the business we were called to be in?

We are not the Messiah, but we are here, because we have experienced God’s love, grace, and healing power.  

So what if we lived in such a way, if we loved in such a way, if we served in such a way, if we prayed in such a way that we could clear a path for others to come and find Jesus here, too.

 

In a few minutes, we are going to take a moment to remember our baptism.  We are going to remember that we have been saved and healed and are being made whole by the Lord Jesus Christ.    

And part of this rememberance is being honest about just how fall we have fallen short.  We have ALL fallen short.  None of us are perfect.  We are not the Messiah.

But we will also be invited to make anew some promises to God.  

Because, we might not be the Messiah, but we, the church, believe that God can use us and use our gifts to help make it easier for others to come and find Jesus, too.  

And so our covenant prayer simply places our lives in God’s hands.  It invites us to remember that we are not the Savior, but that we are willing to let God work in our lives this year.  

 

I am not the Messiah.

You are not the Messiah.

But we have found the Messiah.  

Thanks be to God.

 

Livin’ on the Edge

This morning, we are hanging out in liminal space…

That’s a funny word isn’t it… liminal….

Say it with me… liminal.

 

It comes from Latin and means “threshold.”  It is the space in between.  It is transitional.

Our country is in that liminal space between an election and the swearing in of a new president.

The United Methodist Church is in a liminal space – knowing that we can’t be what we were and aren’t yet sure what we might become.

Many of us are in personal liminal spaces… a time of discomfort, of waiting, of transformation.  We are experiencing transitions in relationship statuses, or maturing from childhood to adulthood.  We are waiting for test results that might forever change our world or experiencing losses that already have.

The theologian Richard Rohr describes liminality this way:

It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.  It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.

Or, if you’d prefer the theologians Aerosmith:

There’s something wrong with the world today

I don’t know what it is Something’s wrong with our eyes

We’re seeing things in a different way

And god knows it ain’t his

It sure ain’t no surprise

Livin’ on the edge

Every single one of us is dealing with something in our personal lives that looms large on the edges.  Job insecurity.  Financial woes.  Racism.  Personal loss.  Illness.  Depression.  Sexism. Addiction.  Work or School stress.  Bullying.

Whatever it might be for you… It’s there on the edges.

We don’t talk about it… but it’s there.

 

And it was there for Edmund, Peter, Lucy, and Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia.

As we enter this Advent and then Christmas season and beyond, we are going to be following these four children in this magical land and hear what  the author C.S. Lewis has to teach us about what it means to be people of faith in tough times.

And the story starts with this magical threshold… this doorway between two worlds that the littlest girl Lucy discovers.

 

We focus on the magic of that doorway… but what we sometimes overlook is the difficulty that brought all of the characters to this place in this time.

These children are in a liminal space.

The story is set during the middle of the London Blitz of World War II.  Their home in the city was no longer safe.  Like children in Aleppo, in Syria, today, every day they lived in terror that a bomb would drop on top of their home or school or the hospitals.

Yet these children were able to make it out of the city.  They were sent away to the countryside, sent away from their parents, into a big lonely house.

Everything they knew was in turmoil… and they didn’t yet know what might happen on the other side of the war.

 

This summer, as we preached through the prophets, we heard the passage we shared this morning from Isaiah.  About the people who lived in the land of deep darkness.

Those who lived in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali knew what it meant to live through wars and conflict.  Their tribal home had been ravaged for so long that they didn’t know what hope was anymore.

There’s something wrong with the world today

The lightbulb’s gettin’ dimmed

There’s meltdown in the sky

If you can judge a wise man

By the color of his skin

Then mister, you’re a better man than I

Livin’ on the edge

Right there… on the edge… where hope had ceased and the shadows seemed longer and longer, light was promised.

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

 

And so in the midst of this liminal season of her life, Lucy hides in a closet and discovers a magical doorway between worlds.

She finds herself in a forest, surrounded by snow, and she sees a light shining in the distance.

It is a lamppost.

A light shining on the edge.

“It is a beacon in the face of the dark, cold spell that lies on the land,” writes the author of our devotion Advent in Narnia.

Both lands.  All lands.

London and Narnia. Syria and Israel.  The United States. The World.

The lamppost, which stands there at the boundary between Narnia and the “wild woods of the west” remains shining in the darkness.  The power of the white witch who has taken over Narnia… the darkness of despair, sin, and death which threatens to overtake our lives… it cannot put that light out.  It shines.  Always has… always will.

 

As we will hear read on Christmas Eve, the gospel of John reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.

And we hear… that the people loved the darkness more than the light.

As the Message puts it… the light entered the world “and yet the world didn’t even notice.  He came to his own people and they didn’t want him.”

In the midst of our story of light, we are reminded that that we are human.

It is so often our sin that is the cause of the world’s darkness.

Hatred and greed.  Nationalism and pride.  Consumer impulses that fail to recognize the cost to others and this planet.

That is why we are reminded in the gospel of Luke that the door is narrow and few will enter it.

Mr. Tumnus is the perfect example of this reality.  He is working for the witch, even though he knows it is wrong because he is too afraid to do otherwise.

We are too struck by the darkness.

We are too consumed with ourselves.

Something right with the world today

And everybody knows it’s wrong

But we can tell ’em no

Or we could let it go

But I would rather be a hanging on

Livin’ on the edge

My colleague Dan Dick has some challenging words for people of faith right now.  He writes as Advent begins:

Do we need a Savior?  Do we need a Messiah?  Yes, oh yes, but we really don’t want one – not if he/she is going to expect us to live up to our confession of faith.  If we have to honor the promises made for us at baptism and the promises we have made ourselves since then, well…,  we will take a pass on the Messiah, thank you very much… we really can’t afford/tolerate the Son of God coming to mess things up. (https://doroteos2.com/2016/11/26/wanted-savior-some-experience-required/)

We have a chance to say goodbye to the darkness and let go of our own sin and anger, disappointment and loss, frustration and hatred and focus on the light, the hope, the love, the promises of God.

There is light and right and good in this world… if only we would open our eyes to see it, open our hearts to experience it… open our hands to live it.

There is something so right in this world today and we are too scared, fearful, consumed to believe it!

But as Jesus instructs the people in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel – unless you change your hearts and lives… unless you repent… unless you turn away from the darkness you will never enter that narrow door.

 

Mr. Tumnus was out there in the liminal space… hanging out by the lamppost.

We don’t know what brought him to that moment, but what we do know is that in the story, he finds a child.

A child that offers him hope and light, love and forgiveness.

A child that gives him the courage to turn away from the shadows.

 

This Advent season, we have a chance to enter that narrow door.

We have a chance to enter that liminal space of transformation.

Friends, all I ask is that you open yourself to the possibility.

I ask that you step outside of your comfort zone.

I pray that you will enter and journey in Narnia with me this season.

Come live on the edge.  Come experience the light. Come and wait for the coming of our savior.

It just might change your life.

Never Go Hungry

We are gathered here tonight, as one community of faith, to give thanks.

Throughout this month, I’ve been preaching about gratitude and giving thanks and one of the things that we have highlighted is that God wants us to give thanks for the differences among us.  It is only by being grateful for someone you disagree with that you can ever move beyond those differences into community.

And our three churches probably don’t agree on everything.  I think that’s a good thing.  We all play a different role in this great big body of Christ.  And we choose to view one another not as competitors, but as partners in the amazing mission and ministry of God in this world. 

For that, I’m grateful.

 

We choose to gather around this time of year in particular because of our national celebration of Thanksgiving. 

While the fuller history of this gathering is far more checkered and controversial, one thing is certain… there were at least three days of community and peace between the pilgrims at Plymouth and the Wampanoag Nation (Wahmp – uh nahg).  The colonists had barely survived the first winter and it was only through the charity and hospitality of these Wampanoag  people that this feast occurred.   They made sure that they would not go hungry.

Our scriptures call us back to an earlier time of Thanksgiving, however. 

Gary Roth draws the connection between the early pilgrims, dependent upon the mercy of the native peoples and the Israelites, who were utterly dependent upon the grace and mercy of God.

As our text from Deuteronomy reminds us – “My father was a wandering Aramean…”  The Israelites were brutally oppressed in Egypt, and God heard their cries of distress.  They were led out of the land of Egypt, sustained by daily bread from heaven, and eventually came to the land promised to them by the Lord.  God made sure that they would not go hungry.

And these Israelites were called to give thanks and to remember that the land and everything it produced was a gift from God. 

The first fruits of the land were set aside as an offering of thanks and the people were called to celebrate their blessings and to share them with all.

 

We, too, are utterly dependent upon God. 

And we, too, have been blessed. 

As Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John, those Israelites wandering in the desert relied upon manna, bread from heaven to sustain them daily. 

We like to imagine that we are self-sufficient and don’t need anyone’s help, but that simply is not true.

Every breath of air that fills our lungs is a gift from God.

Every ray of sunshine and drop of rain that nurtures our crops is a gift from God.

Every grain of wheat is a gift from God.

And so is the bread of life… the love and mercy of God… the incarnation and death and resurrection of Jesus that provided the gift that none of us could even imagine… true life, eternal life, life with God.

Because of God, we will never go spiritually hungry.  And so we must give thanks.

 

The question is, what does a thankful life look like?

What does it mean to live in gratitude, knowing that is only by God’s grace we are sustained?

In Deuteronomy, we discover that one way to live in gratitude is to pay the gift forward again and again. 

The Israelites remembered that their father was a wandering Aramean… and then they looked out at the immigrants and refugees who were among them and shared the first fruits with those in need. 

The book of Leviticus is full of instructions to leave the gleanings of the harvest and the edges of the field for those who were in need.

We live out our thanksgiving by making sure that others have enough.

Enough food.

Enough water.

Enough grace.

Enough love.

Whether it is spiritual or physical bread… God invites us to share it with others as a mark of our gratitude.

 

Talk about the DMARC / CWS offering for the Karin people… A Christian community from Myanmar/Burma that has found a home and a refuge here in the greater Des Moines area. 

We can give thanks today by sharing God’s love and mercy and physical sustenance with these immigrants and refugees in our community. We can make sure that they will never go hungry.

But we also are challenged to think about sustaining gifts that go beyond immediate needs and create life-sustaining conditions.  So the CWS offering will go to help the communities in Myanmar that are most at risk so that they don’t have to flee their homeland in the first place.

 

Let us give thanks to the Lord for all of our blessings.

And let us never cease to pass them on to others.  

Amen.

Fruit that Won’t Spoil

Format Image

Since we are continuing this morning with the gospel of John this week and Jesus’ imagery of the vine, I thought I’d share with you another story about my own garden.

 It has been a very busy couple of weeks, and although I have had time to glance at the pumpkins, I pretty much have ignored the rest of the garden.

I gathered all of the tomatoes I could weeks ago and I have jars of marinara and frozen stewed tomatoes packed away in the freezer.   The peppers never really grew and the lettuce was chewed away by the rabbits before we got to eat it. 

 This weekend however, I had the chance to do some yard work and clear out the garden, plant some perennials, and prepare for the changing seasons. 

And I discovered tomatoes on the vines again! 

There are probably 100 little cherry tomatoes currently ripening on the vines, and a few romas as well. 

 But here is the thing.  Some of those tomatoes have been there a while.  I reached out to grab one that looked red and juicy and… well… it was juicy all right.  And rotten to the core.  As soon as I touched it, the tomato burst open with a foul smelling mess. 

 

Sometimes, fruit stays on the vine too long. 

 

The entire purpose of being a part of the vine… being a branch connected to the source is to bear fruit.  And as we learned last week, the closer to the core of the vine you are, the sweeter and more abundant the fruit will be.

But that fruit is meant for a purpose!   

The grapes on the vine are meant for eating and juice making, sustenance and community.  They are meant to be dried into raisins or pickled and preserved.  The fruit is not for the sake of the vine.  The fruit is for the sake of the world!

As Jesus says in verse 16 – I chose you… YOU… and I appointed you so that you could GO and produce fruit and so that your fruit would last.    Or as the Message translation puts it… “I put you in the world to bear fruit… that won’t spoil.”

 

If we take a step back from these few verses, we find that the vine and the branches are part of a larger speech Jesus is sharing with the disciples at the last supper.  They have broken bread together, and share the cup, and Judas has left the table to betray him. 

As Jesus looks around at each of the disciples… those people who have been with him, learning from him, walking in his footsteps, closely connected to God in thought, word, and deed, he wants to prepare them for what comes next. 

Yes, Jesus will be handed over to the authorities.  Yes, Jesus will die.  Jesus will be resurrected, but will no longer be physically present with this rag tag bunch of followers in the same way. 

What are they supposed to do then?  What are WE supposed to do… those of us today who have never met Jesus, never seen his face or heard his voice? 

We are to love.

A new command I give to you, Jesus says, Love one another.

Remain in my love.  Abide in my love.  Live in my love.   

Love each other just as I have loved you. 

 

Last week, we talked about many of the ways we can stay connected to Jesus and remain part of the vine.  We can read the scriptures, we can pray, we can study and learn from others on the journey. 

But at some point, we have to take what we read and put it into practice. 

If we simply learn the words of Jesus… if we spend all of our time reading the bible or in prayer and we don’t go out into the world to share the fruit that has been formed in us… then we are just like those tomatoes on my vines.  We are going to rot in place. 

Every time we pray…

Every time we read the scriptures…

Every time we gather in a small group to learn from each other…

Every time you sit in this sanctuary and listen to a sermon here is what I want you to do…

Something!

Do something!

And friends, there are two questions that will get you started:

First, how does this apply to my life? 

Second, what am I being asked to do?

 

At some point, we have to take what we read and put it into practice. 

At some point, being connected to the vine means we have to bear fruit… and that fruit has to go out into the world.  

At some point, God’s love in us needs to spill out into love for others.

 

“I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.”

 

And that means that what we read in the bible about how we should treat strangers and refugees we need to put into practice.

It means that when we read in the bible that the church should visit the sick and pray with them, we need to do it.

When we read in the bible the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, we need to ask – how does this apply to my life?  What should I do? 

“I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last.” 

You and I are called to bear fruit… fruit of love, grace, and mercy… fruit that will transform this world. 

This fruit is not meant for us to hoard… it is meant for the widow and orphan.  It is meant for the rich and the powerful.  It is meant for the stubborn and addicted.  It is meant for people of every color and ability.  It is meant for friend and for foe.  It is meant for all. 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about our responsibility as Christians to bear fruit that will last during this election cycle.

Politics might seem like a dirty word, but the truth is that it comes from the Greek words that mean the citizen or the city.  Politics at is core are simply the relations between people who live in a society. Politics are the political opinions or sympathies of a person. (Mirriam-Webster)

And as Christians who live in this society, as people who follow in the footsteps of Jesus and bear the fruit of the gospel to the world, we have political opinions and sympathies.   

I cannot, and will not every tell you who to vote for or which party, if any, to align yourselves. 

But I do firmly believe that as citizens of a nation in which every person has a voice and a vote that one of the ways we bear fruit that lasts… fruit that doesn’t spoil… is by participating in the democratic process.  And I believe the votes you cast should be a reflection of the faith that has been formed by these scriptures. 

Every vote matters, and every race, from city council to the highest office in the land matters. 

The people we elect will influence the economic lives of our neighbors, the institutions of education that form our children, the health care systems that care for the least among us.  They will uphold or create laws that govern life and death. They will impact if we have sidewalks next to our streets, whether or not mental health care is provided, and our relationship with other nations.

 One of the realities is that our faith does not fit neatly into one political party or platform over and above others.  And so the hard work for people of faith this time of year is to spend time in prayer and discernment before casting our votes.

But perhaps as our scripture reminds us today there is really only one word that we need to remember… only one command that Jesus says will shape every facet of our life together.

 Love.

 We are called to love.

 Not to hoard love, but to share it.

 May this world reflect the love of Christ because we have been fruit bearers.  

 Amen.

The Sweetest Grapes are Closest to the Vine

This spring when I planted my garden, I included some pumpkins for my husband.

Typically, I try to avoid plants with vines, because they tend to take over the entire garden.  I plant bush varieties of cucumbers and squash and beans to keep everything more compact.

But pumpkins don’t come in bush varieties 😉

I planted only four seeds… all together in one mound…

They were planted at the right depth, they were watered and weeded.  And the vines grew.

As the summer went on, the vines took over the garden with their broad leaves and bright yellow flowers.  Stretching the entire length of my garden were glorious vines and the beginning of fruits. The weather was perfect for vine production… maybe not so much for fruit… but definitely for vines. 

But there were some scattered ugly brown vines here and there.  

In the midst of all of the living, thriving vines, some were dying. 

Now… the pumpkins really did take over much of my garden.  And so I had to tread carefully through the chaos to trace those dying vines and find the source of the problem. 

All of them were connected to a single branch… a single shoot off of the main stalk that had been severed from the vine.  Perhaps it was a rabbit or a chipmunk.  Maybe a bug.  Maybe I stepped on it.  No matter what had happened, every vine that branched off from that point was dying because it was no longer connected to the roots and stem that gave it life. 

 

In our scripture this morning, we are reminded that we will die spiritually… that we are incapable of producing fruit when we are not attached to the vine, when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us.  

And our true vine is Christ… the Christ we meet in worship… the Christ we meet in God’s Word… the Christ we meet in fellowship and in the face of the stranger.

 

As I studied this scripture, I set aside my paltry knowledge of pumpkins and turned to the world of grapes.  

Did you know that the best and the sweetest grapes are found closest to the vine?  

Nancy Blakely reflects that this is because they are closer to the source, “where the nutrients are the most concentrated.”  In fact, this is why growers of grapes are so diligent about pruning their vines… because the farther away from the vine the grapes are, the bitterer and the smaller they will be.  

But close in, close to the heart of the vine, abiding near the heart, they find the nourishment they need and produce bountifully.  

 

As we have been exploring a life of discipleship, so far we have explored what it means to be people who worship and people who share in God’s hospitality towards others.

But we also need to be fed and nourished in our work.  As Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John:

“A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine.  Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me… without me, you can’t do anything.”

 

So today, we turn our attention towards our spiritual formation, or how we stay connected to the vine.    What it means to abide in God and to remain in Jesus.

Take out the half sheet of paper that describes those various levels of spiritual formation.  

Maybe you are a small bunch of grapes way out there on the edge of the vine.   Many of us in worship today want to know more about God and Jesus and you are curious and getting started.  And that is amazing.    

We have third graders who will be learning today with their bible partners after worship…  but even if you are older than a third grader, its not too late to start.  

All of us should be reading the bible… it is the number one way that we stay connected with Jesus.  And it is a whole lot easier when you are in a safe place where you can ask questions and learn together.

We have been trying to offer Sunday morning bible studies, and I, personally, have been disappointed that more of you have not signed up.  Maybe it’s not the right time… but bible study itself is something that this church really needs in order for us to grow spiritually.

In fact, this is so important to me, that starting in November, I’m going to be leading a bible study every Wednesday night, and I’d love for you to join me.  

 

Maybe you are a bunch of grapes that is a bit closer in to the vine.  Growing a bit sweeter and bigger and fuller.   Do you regularly spend time reading your bible?  Are you finding other ways to connect with God through prayer or contemplation?

Maybe then your next step is to go deeper with others.  Our life groups have been places where many have been formed and have grown in their faith as they connect with God or each other.  They have made prayer beads, and explored topics like forgiveness and stewardship.  Some of our in-depth scripture studies like Covenant or Disciple have really challenged people to take seriously the bible in a new way.  If you are ready to go deeper… we have resources – either within the church or through retreats like Walk to Emmaus to help you connect more fully to the one true vine.  

 

Maybe you are a strong bunch of grapes… ripe, sweet, and full… right up there tucked in close to the vine.  Are you in a place where get up every day, ready to connect with God?  Do you not simply wait for the church to offer something, but seek out opportunities to learn and to grow?  

Maybe your next step is to turn your life-giving energy towards others.  Whether it is a partner for our third graders, or a leader of a class or life group, or personally mentoring someone… in helping another person grow, you will grow in new ways yourself.

 

One limitation of our vine metaphor is that it makes us think we are fixed in and we are not.  

You are not limited by wherever it is you are on the vine.  

If you are a tiny, sour little bunch of grapes way out on the edge, you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God.  

If you are a bunch of grapes that is not yet ripe, but growing… you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God. 

And you can carry the vine itself with you wherever you might go.  This vine is not meant to be stuck in the ground at 2900 49th Street…. We are meant to move and be engaged in the world with Jesus.

 

Now, there is another category of people who are not listed on this sheet, but who come up in our scripture:  The spiritually wilted and dying.  

Maybe you were closely connected to the vine at some point, but that day has come and gone.  

You know, none of us are perfect.

All of us let things besides God into the center of our lives at one time or another.

Just like my vines were cut off by critters or bugs or clumsy feet, maybe you were disconnected by work or family responsibility, disappointment or doubt.

The troubling part of this scripture for me is always the part about the pruning.  It appears like God the vinedresser simply snips off those dead and wilted branches from the vine, throws them in the fire or compost pile, and forgets about them… just like I did with my pumpkin vines this summer.  

So is there any hope for those of us who aren’t as connected as we would like?

 

No matter who you are or where you are in your relationship with God, there is always a chance to take a next step and be formed spiritually.

Even if you have broken away from the vine.

You see… the same God who talks about pruning also talks about grafting.

Grafting is a process where a branch can be attached to the trunk and roots of another tree – in many cases, different types of trees and plants are connected together for hybridization and for strength and growth.

In the scriptures, Paul talks not about vines, but about trees… the family tree of God.  The gentiles were grafted on to that tree… brought into the family after some of the faithful branches broke off.  

In Romans, chapter 11, he talks about those branches were broken off because of their own unbelief.

But if God could take us… gentiles who didn’t belong… and graft us on to the tree… then God has the power to reattach the broken branches, too.  

Even the branches that appear to be dead and dying have the ability to be restored by God’s grace.  

This morning, the bread and juice from this table will go to our homebound members who are not able to be physically present with us today, so too do we need to take the vine with us to those who are in danger of being cut off.

You are the hands and feet, the branches and leaves of Christ in this world.  And maybe you are the reconnection point for someone you know.  Maybe it is your own son or daughter. Or a friend. It might be a neighbor who hasn’t opened a bible or door to a church in a very long time.

With God’s grace and strength flowing through you, let the love of God that abides in you overflow into your love for them.

This World Communion Sunday reminds us that we don’t do faith all by ourselves.  Every part of the Body of Christ across this globe is a branch of the one true vine.  And parts of this world are broken and hurting, full of anger, pain, and grief.  

But as Kate Huey puts it, “Here, up close to the vine, immersed in [God’s love and peace], we find not only nourishment but also hope and joy, and we let God’s word ‘find a home in us through faithful devotion… ‘ When we remain that close to Jesus, we attuned to him and he to us, the remarkable result is that what we want will be what God wants, and it will surely come to pass.”

And it will take all of us, living together in love, growing deeper in our love and knowledge of God, to truly transform this world into what God desires.  But we aren’t alone. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Blessed are the Debonair

Format Image

This morning, we celebrate God’s good creation.

We celebrate the gift of this world… this earth that has been placed in our care.

And I’m sure you are wondering as you heard the scriptures for today and look at that sermon title… what in the world do these things have to do with creation care?

Well, as I prepared for our time of worship today, I spent some time in the works of Lutheran eco-theologian Joseph Sittler.

Rev. Sittler was born in 1904 and in his work began connecting Christian theology and environmental matters as early as the 1950s. He firmly believed that care for the earth and our environment is one of the central concerns of our faith.

He also loved to explore the ways various biblical translations impacted our understanding of what they mean. Robert Saler points to his fascination with a French translation of the Beatitudes – in particularly Matthew 5:5.

We know the verse today as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

However, “Sittler noticed that the French would often translate this as ‘blessed are the debonair.’ “ (Saler)

Immediately, you probably have an image in your mind of what it means to be debonair. I know, for me, it was almost the opposite of meek.

Yet, as Sittler explains:

… “debonair” in French, in the time of the French Bible of John Calvin, meant a person who is not an idolater, one who hasn’t gotten hooked up in anything worldly, one who is so sophisticated as to know wealth for what it is and that it isn’t everything…

This is a person who has a kind of centeredness that doesn’t let the idols of this world capture it. It’s a kind of debonair in which you sit lightly on the offerings and temptations of this world because you have a vision of something better…

I think about this in the context of our passage from Acts.

Peter has operated under a world view his entire life that divided the world into good and bad, clean and unclean, impure and pure. He was hooked on an understanding of the world that separated him and those like him from others.

There were some things, and some people, as a part of this creation that were outside his concern. Just as he traditionally wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the house of a Gentile, he couldn’t eat certain foods.

But then he has this vision… a vision that opened up his world as never before.

As the Message translation describes that vision in modern language:

Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.

7-10 “Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’

There are two things happening here.

Missionally, God is opening Peter and the disciples’ hearts to the possibility of ministry among the Gentiles. God is helping them come to a more sophisticated understanding of their mission that is no longer limited by the old delineations. The Holy Spirit sends Peter to a non-Jewish family who is converted on the spot.

But important for our conversation today, God is helping Peter to understand that all of creation was made by God and it is all a gift. Just as there is no distinction between clean and unclean people, there is no distinction between clean and unclean animals or birds. God has made it all and to God it all belongs… yet it is also being given to Peter, to the people, to us, as a gift… as an inheritance.

In his reflections on the beatitudes, Rev. Sittler considers those debonair who will inherit the earth:

It doesn’t say they shall own the earth, or control the earth…It says they shall inherit the earth.

…The difference is: what you own, you probably earn, or make. An inheritance is something you don’t own. You don’t deserve it. It’s a surprise. You live in the world with a gentle spirit, because the whole of creation is a kind of outrageous surprise, a gift.

Blessed are they of a gentle spirit, because they live in the world not as ones who strut around as if they own the place… Rather, their first feeling for the world is one of tender wonder, gratitude, and amazement.

And Peter does have that sense of awe. The Message translation in particular captures the drama, the wonder of it all, by saying that Peter was fascinated and took it all in. That gentle debonair spirit took over.  He realized that the systems of division between clean and unclean he had lived with his entire life were stripped away.

Every little bit of this world was made by God and belongs to God and we are merely granted temporary guardianship and use. Like Adam and Eve were given creation in Genesis to care for, to steward, to use for their needs, so this world is gifted to Peter and to us.

Rev. Sittler describes a moment when he saw that debonair spirit in action:

I went with some college kids on a trip, a big Saturday afternoon walk through the gigantic Douglas-fir forest in the lower slopes of the Cascades. I watched these sophisticated kids . . . . When they walked into the woods, they became quiet, silent. They would reach out and pat the big trees as they went by. The further we got into the woods, the quieter they became.

Then the phrase came to me, “They inherit the world, because they don’t own it.”

They don’t think of it fundamentally as potential two-by-fours, though it’s all right to use it that way wisely; if you love a thing, then you’re prepared to use it wisely.”

Why should we, as people of faith lift up creation care? Why would someone like Joseph Sittler claim that environmental concerns are one of the central issues of Christianity?

Precisely because it is one of the richest gifts and inheritances that God has given us.

As we state in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church:

All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings… we should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. (Book of Discipline, ¶160)

And if we truly love God, if we truly love one another, if we truly love this gift of creation, then our love will lead us to use it wisely.

The greatest commandment, after all, is to love. And that love should fill every relationship and every engagement with the world.

And that love also leads us to periodically check ourselves and ask if we have taken this gift for granted. That love calls us to speak up when we see others abusing our common resources. That love demands that we teach our children and ourselves how to walk gently and carefully among this precious planet.

Blessed are the Debonair… for they shall inherit the earth.

We have been given this world as a gift, and we are to make sure future generations are able to inherit it as well.

 

References:

Robert Saler – “Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary Easter 5”

Jospeh Sittler, “His God Story,” in The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. Richard Lischer and James Childs, Cascade, 2013, 23-24

Untitled

Later this morning/This morning, I’m sharing these words with our Confirmation Class – 10 remarkable young men and women who have worked hard all year long to arrive at this moment.  This sermon is in part for them, but it is also a message for all of us and so I hope you are willing to eavesdrop in  and hear as well.

My young brothers and sisters being baptized and confirmed today: Sometimes people think of Confirmation as the day you join the Church. After you are baptized and confirmed, you now belong to church.

Well, you have belonged to Immanuel for a long time. You have attended Sunday School with Eunice and Deb. Wendy and Pat have taken care of you in the nursery. You have had lock-ins here. I bet there are places in this building some of you have been in that I haven’t seen yet. You have belonged to Immanuel for a long time, and Immanuel has belonged to you.

Baptism and Confirmation are really about something even more profound than belonging to church or belonging to Immanuel or even the United Methodist Church. Baptism and confirmation are celebrations, ceremonies, that announce to the world that we belong not just to church; they are announcements that we belong to Christ.

My young sisters and brothers being baptized and confirmed today: You belong to Christ. All of us here who have taken Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord and who have decided to be followers and disciples of Jesus, we belong to Christ. We are Christ’s.

And that means that you now have a new role to play in your everyday lives. It means that your job, every day, for the rest of your life, is to represent Jesus Christ to the world. Your job is to love people like Jesus would have loved them. It is to treat them with the respect Jesus would have shown them.

I think this job is harder to do today than ever before.

Because our world wants to divide us up into groups.

The athletes and the musicans.

The smart kids and the popular kids.

Rich and poor.

White and black and brown.

Republicans and Democrats.

United Methodists and Baptists and Catholics.

And sometimes when you find yourselves in one of those groups, you start to think that your group has it all together and has all the answers. And you stop paying attention to the people in other groups. You stop trying to figure out what they think. You might start to judge them for who they are and what they represent.

But here is the thing that I have learned so far… a lesson that is lifted up in our scripture this morning…

We need one another.

Last week, at the confirmation retreat, we took a survey to help us figure out our spiritual gifts – our place in the Body of Christ.

And we learned that some of us are like stomachs: we are teachers who can digest complicated ideas and explain them simply to others. We learned that some are brains: we are organizers and planners and lead others. We learned that some of us are feet: we are willing to go to the places in this world we are needed to love and serve.

We each have a part to play. We are not the same, but we are each essential to the Body of Christ.

 

A really big part of growing up and belonging to Christ is letting go of all of the ways the world tries to divide us and looking for the unique role we can play in bringing others together.

Paul encourages us to be worthy of that calling to belong in Christ. We are to be humble and gentle and patient with one another. We are to accept each other with love.

 

Friends, that is not always easy. We are not always going to agree. Sometimes those worldly divisions of money or power or color or preference sneak into the church, too. Sometimes there are fights in churches because we can’t agree about what to do.

And if we are ever having a hard time with that, then Paul tells us we need to remember that this Body of Christ, all of us, are bound together in unity. There are some things that link us together, like ligaments and tendons that hold this whole church together.

We have to remember that we are one body and one spirit. We have one hope that we share. We claim one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God.

Together, as confirmands, you spent some time figuring out what it is that you believe. The creed that we wrote together lifts up that oneness and unity. It describes what we mean that we are one body, together.

One of our founders, John Wesley, had a saying that he used regularly:

In essentials, unity.

In non-essentials, liberty.

In all things charity.

And that means that we are always united by these things you have said together in your creed. They are what bind us together. In all the other details, we might not agree. We might choose different ways. We might not believe exactly the same thing. And that is okay. We have the freedom – the liberty to do so.

But in absolutely everything, we are supposed to love. Because we belong to Christ.

And so in the future… when you are the Ad Council chairperson or the head of Trustees… when you are teaching the preschool class or volunteering in the kitchen… and you get frustrated with one of these church folks, remember this unity.

Remember what holds us together. Remember the core of who we are: we are human beings, created in the image of God, who mess up sometimes, but who are defined by how we have been forgiven and our forgiveness of others. We belong to Christ.