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Sower2

Sowing Seeds of Faith

 

God does not reserve God’s goodness only for those who respond in the way God hopes…

The Foolish Farmer
A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, with allusions to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Sunday, July 26, 2020

Farmers can’t control every variable, but there are things they can do to make a good harvest more likely. This time when I went home my brother Charles and I talked a lot about soil management at the farm, crop rotation and such. He was filling out reports on what he has planted in every field this year. We also talked about what he and his co-worker have been doing to condition the soil more deeply. It gets compacted over the years, and it has to be loosened.

One strategy that Charles has used, though not this year, is to plant giant radishes in a field between the crop seasons. These radishes grow to the size of baseball bats, and they push deep into the soil and break it up. Eventually they decompose, adding organic matter to the soil.

A farmer went out to plant, Jesus said to the crowd, and it quickly became apparent that this farmer was not like the wise farmers we know. There was no strategic plan, no soil analysis, and no soil preparation. Instead he threw seeds willy-nilly everywhere. Some landed on the path, where the soil was hard and needed something like the giant radish treatment to break it up. Those seeds never germinated. Birds quickly got them. Some landed where the soil was too thin to support the emerging plants, and they withered. Some landed in the weeds, and the weeds choked the seedlings. Thank goodness some seeds landed in promising ground, where they germinated, grew, and brought forth an abundant harvest: thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold.

What foolishness is this? What true farmer has seed to waste? Not in the real world. It’s clear Jesus is talking about a different world here. Jesus is inviting his listeners into the parable zone, where deceptively simple little stories challenge our usual assumptions, where the values and priorities often turn out to be different, and where worldly wisdom sometimes gets turned on its head. In the parable zone, for example, workers who get hired at the eleventh hour get paid the same as those who have toiled all day. In the parable zone, wayward sons who have thrown their lives away get treated like royalty. In the parable zone, farmers foolishly broadcast seed any and everywhere. “Let those who have ears, listen,” Jesus said.

Those who do listen and walk around in the parable zone, who wrestle with the strange things they see there, learn something about the kingdom of God, where God is in charge, about the great farm where God is the farmer in charge. They learn the strange wisdom of God.

God the great farmer isn’t worried about wasting seeds. The seeds of God’s great faithfulness, mercy, and love truly are unlimited. God is determined to sow good seed everywhere whether it is well-received or not. It is the great farmer’s nature to sow the seeds of love broadly, reaching out to all. God does not reserve God’s goodness only for those who respond in the way God hopes.

Jesus stepped out to sow God’s love in this way. He sowed his word and his teaching generously everywhere. He shared God’s gifts of love generously, everywhere, even in places and with people that some pious onlookers believed Jesus shouldn’t be wasting his time on. Often it was the outsiders, people who could not hide the pain and mess of their lives who were the most receptive. They turned out to be the most fertile ground for Jesus’ message.

Unfortunately, some of the religious leaders who knew the scriptures best turned out to be the least receptive. How dare Jesus be so soft and loose on the law of God! How dare he throw grace and forgiveness around so willy-nilly! Jesus ought to get tough on sinners, which is what they themselves decided to do: get tough on Jesus. By the middle of Matthew 12, just before the array of kingdom parables we are now exploring, this powerful contingent of scripture experts was plotting to destroy Jesus, like he was some kind of noxious weed. Continue Reading »

Our congregation feels the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic and the weight of the suffering and strife in our community, nation, and world.  We are still worshiping via Zoom as cases of the illness continue to rise in North Carolina.  We shared communion today after we reflected on Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:25. The video below is a rendition of Sylvia Dunstan’s hymn, “Come to Me, O Weary Traveler,” a loving invitation for these hard times.  (Video from the First Congregational Church of Houston.)

Come to Jesus

A Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30

One translation of today’s gospel lesson reads: “Come to me all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads” (Common English Bible).  We get it.  We know what it means to shoulder up heavy loads:  Struggling with worries and pressures and illness in ourselves and others.  Shouldering responsibility for loved ones who are helpless or frail.  Feeling the weight of the pandemic and the unrest in our country.

Jesus always saw clearly what was weighing on folks.  He recognized the yokes they wore.  And on that particular day in Matthew 11 what he saw weighing on so many was the burden of being unable to measure up religiously, being spiritually second class, at least in some self-appointed religious experts’ eyes. Jesus took special notice of them.  He called them “little ones,” as opposed to the “big shots,” the experts who thought they had God and God’s ways all figured out.

Whereas God had meant for the sacred law to be a gracious, guiding yoke for humanity, these wise in their own eyes experts had turned God’s gracious law into a heavy yoke that was hard for ordinary people to shoulder, and downright impossible for many.  Later in Matthew 23, Jesus puts it this way, “They make up heavy loads and pile them on people’s shoulders, but then refuse to lift a finger to help them carry these loads.”

These little ones were the people who couldn’t get everything right in the eyes of the big shots.  They were too poor, or too sick, or too disreputable to be able to get with the spiritual experts’ “program.”  Some had bodily conditions that rendered them perpetually unclean according to the purity laws.  And if they were unclean, they could not come into the house of the Lord.  Some made their living at occupations—such as shepherding—that made it impossible to comply with all the rules.  Some didn’t have the time, or the strength, or the money to do what the experts said the law demanded.  Grace was their only hope before God, and they knew it.  Jesus saw these little ones were in the crowd that day, and he said, “Come to me.”

“Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest,” he said.  “Put on my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in spirit, and there you will find a resting place for your souls.”  The yoke Jesus is picturing is one that yokes two together to pull as a team.  The yoke he offers is his own, the one he himself is already in.  “Come be yoked together with me, and I will give you rest.”

“Come away from the ‘get it right or else’ crowd,” Jesus called.  “Come away from those who take the focus off God and put it on the rules.  Come away from endless efforts to try to please or appease an angry God.  Come to me, get in the yoke with me, and through me, come to the God who loves you.  Learn from me.  I will teach you what burdens you can let go of.  And I will help you carry the ones you do have to carry.”

Jesus recognizes the loads people labor under.  He knows all our burdens.  He knows all our worries and fears.  He knows we cannot carry them alone.   “Come to me, all of you.” 

“Come to me,” Jesus calls to all the sick, to everyone who is hurting in body, mind or spirit.  “Come to me,” he calls to the poor and hungry, to the outcast and the rejected, to all who are seen as little in the world’s eyes.

“Come to me, little children, let me take you in my arms.”  Jesus  knows children carry heavy burdens in their bodies and in their hearts, too, things that make them sad and afraid. 

Jesus always sees the loads we carry, and he says, “Come be with me, all you who carry heavy burdens, who struggle, who need relief, and I will help you.  I will give you rest.”

“Come get beside me in the yoke, and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls.  Come join me at my table.  And you will find food for your souls.  

I will give you rest.

I will give you life.

AMEN.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36.

A Sermon on Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 9:35-10:1

Remember that time when Jesus wept?  He was so moved by the pain he saw in his grieving friends Mary and Martha that he cried.  And then he did something about it.  He raised their brother Lazarus to new life.  The gospel lesson we read today makes it clear that Jesus was often deeply moved when he saw people’s pain and struggle.  When he saw the crowds, it says, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

The English word compassion does not do justice to the Greek word that is used there.  The Greek word is much more powerful.  It means to be moved deep in one’s guts.  It’s similar to our English idea of the heart breaking, but an even closer equivalent might be to say he was torn inside.

The words translated “harassed” and “helpless” carry more of a punch, too.  Among the meanings I discovered for those words in Greek are dispirited, confused, scattered, aimless, bewildered, distraught, and distressed.  Jesus saw so much pain and lostness.  He could see the brokenness.  Many were sick or coping with disabilities.  Many were poor.  Food insecurity was a big problem in Jesus’ day.  They were at the mercy of forces they could not control, while the religious and political leaders, the shepherds who could have made a difference were preoccupied with securing and maintaining their own power.  Taxation, for example, fell heaviest on those who could least afford it.  What did they get for their tax money?  They got a king named Herod, the latest in the rapacious Herod family, who were not above murdering each other to get and maintain power.  Herod was a developer.  Their tax money went into Herod’s big, expensive building projects.  And they could not vote this man and his cronies out.

On top of that, their tax money paid for their own oppression.  It went to maintain the Roman Empire and the Roman army that was stationed everywhere.  Roman soldiers regularly strung people up on crosses to reinforce the message: don’t you dare dissent.  Don’t you dare get out of your place.  Don’t you dare resist.  They couldn’t vote these people out, either.

Think of what all this did to people’s souls, not to mention their bodies.  But many of the religious experts spent a lot of time finding fault with others who did not agree with them, or who could not practice the faith the way the experts said it must be practiced.  They did not ease people’s burdens.  They acted like “sin police.”  From almost the very beginning of his ministry, they were finding fault with Jesus.  One example is in the passage immediately before the one we read.  Instead of rejoicing when Jesus set a man free from a demonic spirit, these experts complained that Jesus must be doing this by the power of the ruler of the demons.  Lord, have mercy!

As Jesus gazed at all these shepherdless sheep, his grief echoed God’s grief in Ezekiel’s day when God’s people were being so poorly shepherded politically and spiritually.  Many were already scattered into exile in Babylon, and a second deportation to Babylon was on the way.

When God gazed on the wreckage of the community of God’s people, God was moved to the core, and God poured out blistering critiques of the nation’s leaders through the prophets, like the one we just heard in Ezekiel.  Here’s a sample:

“Thus says the Lord: you have not fed the sheep.  You have not healed the sick.  You have not bound up the injured.  You have not sought the lost and brought back the strayed.

“Instead you ruled with cruelty.  You led my people astray.

“Worst of all, you ate the sheep entrusted to your care!”

The pain of people today moves God to the core.  What must God be thinking as God surveys the flock now?  What, for example, must God be thinking about how the political and spiritual shepherds of our American flock are handling things now that we have the pandemic putting us into exile in our homes, on top of the usual struggles of life?  The current crises have pulled back a curtain so that we are forced to look at ugly realities in our life together as a nation and at wounds that remain unhealed.  Like scattered sheep without a shepherd, we Americans can’t seem to work together to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.  We are doing stuff like fighting over wearing masks.  God has got to be shaking God’s head.

The critique God would deliver through Ezekiel today might sound something like this:

Continue Reading »

God is love. That is the central message of Trinity Sunday.

A Sermon on John 14:1-7, 15-21

The Ten Commandments warn against making images of God.  No image can do God justice because God is always so much more.  There is the danger that people will focus so much on these partial images of God that they think they understand God, and there’s nothing more they need to learn.

And yet, imagining and picturing things is often how our minds work.  As a child, I think I did picture God as an old man up in the sky.  Where did that come from?  I’m not sure, but it did make sense.  In order to be our creator and to be over everything, God must somehow be high above.  God must be old, because God has been around forever.  And people referred to God as he, so it was a picture of a man.  

One common way of picturing God is of a mighty king sitting on a high throne.  Often this king has a stern face, and he demands perfection from his subjects.  Their purpose is to serve and please him.  In medieval times, people elaborated on that picture and envisioned a great top-down chain of being with God at the top, down through angels, then humans, then animals, then plants, then non-living things at the bottom.  Sometimes they subdivided each level, so for example, humanity got ranked from highest to lowest.  Human kings were on top of humanity, and they saw themselves as God’s lieutenants.  Power and authority went from the top down.

But the picture of God that Jesus suggests in the Gospel of John is very different.  At the last supper Jesus talked long into the night preparing his disciples for what was coming with his death and resurrection.  From John 13 to 17, five whole chapters, Jesus talks in circles.  He makes the same points again and again in slightly different ways. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he repeats, and he also keeps talking about the relationship between himself, and the Father, and the Spirit, and his disciples.  He keeps talking about being with each other and in each other: I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

In the passage we read this morning, Jesus speaks of it in terms of a place: he will take us to that place to be with the Father, but also he will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with us in this place.  That doesn’t sound top down, from king down to peon to me.  It sounds more like a family dwelling together.  It sounds more side by side.

It sounds more like the picture of the Holy Trinity that I sent out in the bulletin.  I will try to put it up here on the computer screen as well.  This painting is an icon, which is a picture that is meant to help people pray.  It was painted by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev around the year 1410.   To me, this is one of the most profound pictures about the nature of God in existence.

We see three figures around a table.  The Father is in gold on the left, the Son in blue is in the center, and the Spirit on the right is in green.  They are the same size, their clothes are similar, and their faces look alike.  Their eyes look gentle and humble.  They slightly bow their heads towards each other.  Christ and the Spirit turn towards the Father.  We could draw a perfect geometric circle around them.

There is a strong connection around this table, and even though the image appears still, something is definitely going on.  Something is moving.  What’s moving from one to all the others and back again is love.  This is an image of a living community.  This is a picture of communion.  This is a glimpse of what is going on in the very heart of God: love is alive and flowing among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, among Creator, Christ, and Spirit.  This is what Jesus is getting at when he repeats I am in my Father, and my Father is in me.  The very nature of God is loving community.

And it’s an open community.  Look at the icon again.  There is a place at the table, ready for someone else.  The three figures are all turned, open towards us as we look at them, and the Spirit’s hand is gesturing towards the empty place at the table.  Not only is there room at the table for us, but the triune God wants us there.

Notice that square hole in the table at the empty place.  There are remnants of glue in that spot indicating that at one time there may have been a mirror attached to the table so that people gazing at this painting would literally see themselves in the picture and at the table.  (See Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance. London: SPCK, 2016, p. 30.)

This is what the Trinity means for us: God’s very being is living, powerful, flowing love.  God is love. This love is so big and so active that it spills out.  This love is big enough to call the whole universe into being, and every single creature in it.  This love is big enough to cherish each and every one. 

Just like Jesus said, there is room for us in the picture, not down below God’s feet, but at the table with God.  The Trinity tells us this very basic truth:  God IS love.  The Triune God is the great source and generator of love.  The Trinity is the power of love.  We come from this love, we are healed and saved and sustained by this love, and we are cherished forever in this love.

Friends, there is room for you in this picture of love.  Your place in God’s love and at God’s table is there, ready for you.  Let God welcome you into the fellowship of the Trinity.

Join the Holy Trinity in welcoming others to the table.  The love of our three in one God is so great that there is always room for one more, and another, and another. 

Holy, holy, holy, God in three persons, blessed Trinity!  AMEN.

Keep Breathing, Beloved

A Sermon on John 20:19-22, with allusions to Genesis 1:1-5 and 2:4b-8

 

Pentecost

Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes like a mighty blast of wind, as in the Pentecost story that we remembered earlier.  But more often, the Holy Spirit comes like a gentle breath, as in the gospel lesson we just read.

I don’t think Jesus’ disciples could have taken a mighty blast of the Spirit that night behind locked doors.  They had heard Mary Magdalene’s testimony that she had seen Jesus, but they were still traumatized.  They didn’t know what to make of what had happened on the cross two days earlier, and they were afraid that the authorities might be coming for them next.

What Jesus did that night was true to God’s character.  God always takes into account what is going on with God’s people, and comes to them in ways that fit the situation and address them where they are.  Jesus came quietly and stood among them, and the first thing out of his mouth was a word that they so badly needed to hear:  Peace. Sweet, sweet healing peace in the middle of turmoil within and without.  “Peace be with you” Jesus said, and before they had a chance to reply, he showed them his wounded hands and feet.  It truly was Jesus, and he wasn’t just a figment of their imagination.

“Peace be with you,” he said again, and then he added, “Just as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Jesus’ mission was now their mission.  They would love as he loved.  They would do as he did.

And then Jesus was silent.  All they could hear was the sound of his breathing.  Jesus breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

It was so quiet and gentle and low-key, and yet this was nothing less than a new creation.  Just as God breathed over the face of the deep at the first creation, and just as God breathed life into humanity in the beginning, the risen Christ now breathed new life into his followers and into his church, overcoming hopelessness and despair.

It is so disheartening, with people we love contending with difficulties that go on and on, without any good resolution in sight.  And when will the time when we can embrace come again, when we can gather without fear of making each other sick?

This has been such a disheartening week.  It is discouraging how badly people treat each other, how little regard they show for other people’s wellbeing.  Some people are refusing to do simple things like wear a mask to help protect others, and insisting on doing things that put others at risk in the name of their own rights.  The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and all the aftermath is heartrending, and even more so because it points to great unhealed wounds in our nation.  Sometimes the kingdom of God seems further away than ever, and all our efforts to practice and teach the way of Jesus’ love seem not to make much difference.

The picture of Jesus’ disciples huddled inside, disheartened and afraid really speaks to me now as we flawed and fearful disciples navigate these troubled times.  This story invites us to be quiet, quiet enough to hear Jesus speak the word of peace to us.  Quiet enough to hear him renew our call to mission.  Quiet enough to hear him breathing.  And in the breathing to find the strength we need to go forward.

Sometimes in the midst of pain and distress you can almost forget to breathe, or to breathe deeply anyway.  I remember when the ambulance was on the way to take me to the hospital before Laura was born the doctor was talking to me on the phone line, and he said, “Keep breathing.”

The living Christ is among us, breathing into us the very breath of life, the Spirit of healing, the Spirit who makes things new, who overcomes hopelessness and despair.  Remember to breathe, beloved.  Help one another remember to breathe.  Breathe deeply, beloved, and receive the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

Between the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus’ followers sat together in uncertainty.  The promises Jesus made to them hold for us in this uncertain time.

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Photo by Christopher on Pexels.com

This Time In Between

A Sermon on Acts 1:1-14, with Allusions to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Jesus’ followers were like people on a long journey, wondering when are we going to get there.  Since the resurrection Jesus had been coming to them and patiently instructing them about the kingdom of God.  But when was something going to happen?  Finally somebody got up the courage the ask the “Are we there yet?” question.

“Lord, is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Jesus’ followers were imagining that this journey with Jesus was going to take them back to the golden years of the kingdom of David, a time they remembered as the high point of the nation’s history.  No more Roman oppression! Freedom and self-determination at last.

But Jesus made it clear that there would be no return to the way things were.  What’s more, the timetable is God’s alone.  They could not know how much longer this in between time was going to last.

Nobody knows how long this in between time is going to last.  Many are anxious to get back to normal, but nobody knows what the timetable on this virus is.

Time itself feels somehow different.  My sense of time is really off.  I don’t have a good sense of what day of the week it is.  One day is pretty much like the next.  There’s almost nothing on the calendar.  One of biggest questions for me right now, and I imagine you, too, is not just what our steps towards safely gathering in person should be, but mainly when.  How will we know when?

We don’t know that time yet, but there are some things we can say about this time.  For some it has literally been a time to plant, and it is a joy to see gardens coming along.  We look forward to harvest time, which is also sharing time.  For others it has literally been a time to sew as they work hard to make sure everyone is equipped with a mask.  It’s a time of preparation for the baby who is joining us in September.  Now the the official school year is ended, students and their families must figure out what to do with this time.  One parent in our congregation said the other day, “It feels like summer is already half over.100515881_10152332401219999_6715839918926462976_o

This is definitely a time to refrain from embracing, except inside our households.  It is also a time to mourn with deaths in the United States approaching 100,000, almost a third of the world’s total.  This morning’s New York Times is covered with the names of 1000 of the victims, along with something about who they were.  So Lord, when are we going to get back to something approaching normal?

Jesus’ followers asked, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”

Jesus replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.  Instead, you must stay put in Jerusalem and wait.  Then you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and then you will be witnesses for me everywhere, starting at home, and moving out to the very ends of the earth.” With that, Jesus was lifted up from their sight.

Jesus did not give them a detailed timetable, but he did give them a promise and a mission.  Wait patiently: the Holy Spirit is surely coming to you, giving you power.  And then you will take action.  

The Holy Spirit will give them the clarity and the power to take their first step towards the ends of the earth.  But for now, they had to wait.

Jesus’ followers returned to Jerusalem and spent a lot of time sequestered together in the Upper Room, perhaps the same room where they had experienced the last supper.  The roll call of those gathered included the apostles, along with a number of women, perhaps those same women that followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him along the way; plus the roll included Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers.

They didn’t just twiddle their thumbs while they waited.  At the top of their agenda was prayer.  They also took care of people’s needs, and the needs of the congregation.  The Apostle Peter took the lead and recommended that the fellowship choose someone to fill the place among the twelve that had once belonged to Judas Iscariot.  When the Day of Pentecost arrived, it found the church faithfully, prayerfully, actively waiting, just as Jesus had instructed.

As we wait, we cannot safely assemble in person inside, and yet we surely are together in heart and mind; and we’re not twiddling our thumbs, either, as we wait.  Morton Church is not closed.  We’re just not in the building.  There’s a bunch of praying going on.  As always prayers flow on in loving support of people in need, and of a world in need.  But our prayers are also searching, questioning, opening to what God will say to us and teach us in this time in between.  We listen with our minds, our sense, as well as our hearts.

During this time in between, we have the time to think about what we want a new normal to be like.  A writer named Dave Hollis put it this way, “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”  (On Being Newsletter The Pause , May 23, 2020.) The pandemic makes our society’s problems even more glaring.  I don’t want to go back to a normal where millions and millions of Americans cannot afford health and dental care.  This is a moral issue.

Between the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus’ followers sat together in the uncertainty, but they weren’t passive.  They waited prayerfully, expectantly, for the Spirit to show the way and empower the way.  Maybe they weren’t out in the open, but they were most certainly open: open to God through the Spirit.

On Friday one of my colleagues, Ed McLeod, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh posted this reflection:

Our church is already open. 

We are open to the Spirit’s leading.

We are open to new opportunities for mission.

We are open to the stirring challenge of the call to discipleship.

We are open to anyone who wants to join us on the journey of faith.
We are open to learning new ways to tell our old story.
We are open to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.
We are open to criticism when we fall short.
We are already open.
We just happen to be worshiping in our homes, for now, as a way of promoting safety and mitigating risk, as an expression of the love we have for our neighbors, and as an acknowledgment that any reckless behavior on our part could have a devastating effect on others. And we are grateful for the technology that makes this possible, aware that we are richly blessed.
But we are already open. (Ed McLeod, facebook post May 22, 2020.)

Open to the Spirit and wait patiently, beloved.  You’re doing a good job.  Hang in there.  The Holy Spirit is on the way to give us clarity, to show us the next steps ahead, and to give us the power to be Jesus’ witnesses.  It will come in its time.  It will come in God’s time.  

AMEN.

We are in a time when love means keeping our distance in order to help protect people from getting sick.  This sermon imagines how someone like the writer of Acts might summarize life in the church during the pandemic. The focus is not on asserting our rights but on caring for the wellbeing of others.

The Wellbeing of OthersIMG_0244

A Sermon on John 15:1-17, Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37

The song “Blest Be the Tie” would not be written for another 1700 years, but had they known it, the early church would have loved it.  The people of the Way, as the early church was called, cherished their life together.  They were glad to join together for learning, fellowship, prayer, breaking bread together around their dining tables and around the Lord’s table. 

In describing their blessed ties, one thing the writer of Acts makes clear is that the people of Jesus were motivated by a profound concern for the wellbeing of others.  They understood that their resources were not just for their own benefit, but meant to be a blessing for all.  Sharing was a core community value.  Those who had assets such as real estate that they could liquidate did it, and brought the proceeds to be used to address the needs of others.

The people of the Way were trying to embody the way of Jesus, following his commands, and doing what he himself did.  “You are my friends,” he had said.  “You live as my friends by loving just as I have loved you.  Love means laying down one’s life for one’s friends.”  This is just what Jesus did.  He put himself on the line for them, even though it meant laying down his life on a cross.

The profound love of the people of the Way made quite an impression on the world around them in those early years as they sought and cared for the wellbeing of neighbors beyond the bounds of their own fellowship.  One Roman Emperor, Julian, who was otherwise hostile to Christians, remarked, they “feed not only their poor, but ours also.” (http://www.thenagain.info/Classes/Sources/Julian.html.) 

Embodying this way of love is always challenging, and now the COVID-19 pandemic is posing challenges that none of us has ever experienced before.  Just like the church in Acts we cherish our time together, that until now meant much time literally spent physically together in worship and prayer, learning and fellowship, breaking bread at the table and at the Lord’s table.  But right now as Jennifer Copeland of the North Carolina Council of Churches put it, “We love our neighbors best by keeping our distance from them.” (https://www.wral.com/lawsuit-filed-to-block-n-c-governor-order-on-churches/19098285/)

This is because we have learned that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads most easily when people are together in an enclosed place breathing the same air over a sustained period of time, like an hour of worship or choir practice.  We also know that a person can become infected with this virus and spread it around without ever experiencing any symptoms.  That’s because the virus is projected into the air with every breath, not just through coughing and sneezing.  Talking and singing and preaching project even more virus particles into the air.  Activities where people congregate and stay grouped together for a sustained length of time are tailor made for virus transmission.  Yet these gatherings are among those we cherish the most.

But as we heard Paul say earlier in 1 Corinthians 13, love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.  Gathering together physically is not the only way in which love can be lived out.  Love is hopeful.  It finds ways to make itself known in changing and challenging circumstances.

Imagine how someone like the writer of the Book of Acts might describe life in the church during this pandemic when love means keeping a distance.  Imagine if someone wrote a summary like the ones we read in Acts 2 and 4.  It might read something like this:

In those days, the believers were one in heart, and mind, and soul.  But though their arms ached to embrace one another, though their laps felt empty, missing dear children, and though they grieved because they could not go in person to comfort their frail folk in facilities, their love endured.  They missed one another’s faces, and they missed singing together, but they did not insist on their rights to gather as they pleased.   They trusted God, and they found other ways to live out their concern for the wellbeing for each other and the community around them.  They humbly welcomed the guidance of scientists and public health experts, grateful for their work, and especially grateful for the efforts of medical personnel putting themselves on the line for others.  Therefore, the believers put aside their own comfort and preferences, and did all they could to protect others.  They found new means to praise God, to nurture their faith, to care for and support one another, no building required.  Because they were willing to let go of what they wanted and liked best, lives were saved.

The believers found ways to address the pain and economic devastation caused by the pandemic.  Those who had resources did not consider them as their own only.  With generous hearts they constantly looked for ways to share, addressing needs whenever they could.  People who did not need all of their economic stimulus checks shared with others who had greater need. 

They prayed constantly, joining the longings of their hearts together with the longings of God’s heart.  Their lives testified to the living Christ.  Onlookers saw their witness, their love so creatively and selflessly lived out in this trying time, and they thought, “Love is real.  Jesus is real.”

Signs and wonders occurred among them, and great grace was upon them all.

Dear friends of Jesus, thank you for being so profoundly concerned about the wellbeing of each other and of neighbors all around us, near and far.  We are the people of Jesus’ Way, and we can continue practicing his Way in this and all circumstances.

We will do it in the name of the God who did not withhold his only Son, but gave him up for us all.

We will do it in the name of the One who calls us friends, Christ Jesus, who laid down his life for us all.

We will do it in the name of the Holy Spirit, the powerful healing breath of God, everywhere at work—in and through and among us all, and all around us—seeking the wellbeing of everyone.  Always.  AMEN.

Even When

Even When

A Sermon on Psalm 23 and John 10:1-15

The situation in John chapter 9 makes what Jesus says in John 10 even more precious and beautiful.  In John 9, Jesus gave sight to a man who had never been able to see, and along the way, the man came to deep insight about who Jesus is and about how much God loves him.  But Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, which was a grievous sin in the eyes of the man’s spiritual shepherds—his pastors, you might say.  Instead of celebrating the healing, they were accusing and argumentative; and by the end of chapter 9, they had condemned Jesus and kicked the man out of the congregation.  Even the man’s parents didn’t come to his defense.  They were afraid they might get kicked out, too.  

Maybe those pastors actually did the man a favor in that it got him out of a toxic situation.  Some religious people and groups are toxic.  But the man was more than okay.  He was safe with Jesus.  By the end of chapter 9, Jesus was his lord and his shepherd.  “Lord, I believe.” he said.

In chapter 10, Jesus describes what kind of shepherd he is.  He is the one who knows each sheep by name, the one whose voice they know and follow.  The one who supplies nourishing pastures and protects them.  The one who gives them life abundant.  The one who lays down his life for their sake.  He is the one who embodies Psalm 23.

Which follows the trauma and struggle of Psalm 22.  The situation in Psalm 22 makes Psalm 23 even more precious and beautiful.   Psalm 22 starts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me?  Why don’t you answer me?”  Psalm 22 is turbulent, swinging back and forth from cries like those, to expressions of hope when the hurting person remembers God’s faithfulness in the past.  Psalm 22 is what sprang to Jesus’ mind and lips when he was suffering on the cross.

But then comes quiet, peace-filled Psalm 23.  The Lord is my shepherd: the one who provides good pastures and restful waters, guidance, a safe haven, protection, when there is danger all around.  The one who sets and a full table even in the middle of the danger, and pours a cup that’s never empty.  The one who makes a home, and who is a home always.

Notice the verse that is right in the heart of the psalm, verse 4.  Suddenly it’s not talking about the Lord any more.  The psalmist is talking to the Lord directly:  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.   You, beloved, faithful, dependable shepherd, you are with me.

Even though I’m in a dark and dangerous situation, you are with me.  Fear is not going to stop me.  I will trust, because you are with me.

Jesus Christ is risen, and he is the Lord.  He is that shepherd, and he is with us even when we are in the valley of the shadow, even when we are afraid.  He is with us.  Even when we are out of step with others, and with the world around us.  Even when we have been rejected like the man in John 9 who was shunned by his parents and thrown out of his congregation.  Even when we experience deep desolation as in Psalm 22.     Even when we are on that kind of roller coaster.  Even when we can’t see or feel that the Lord is near, he is still near.  Even when we can’t hear him, he is still there, as the sun is still there even when we can’t see it.

Even when a dangerous new virus threatens us and the whole human family, even then fear will not paralyze us, for YOU, beloved, faithful, dependable shepherd are with us.  You make a shelter for us in the middle of this crisis, even then.  You set the table and pour the cup for us, even then.  Your goodness and mercy are all around us, even then.  You are our home, even then.

You are with us.  Even when…even then…even now.

Thanks be to God! 

Ordinary and Holy

A Sermon on Luke 24:13-35

 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Emmaus is probably where these two followers of Jesus lived.  One was named Cleopas, but no one knows who the other one was.  It might have been Cleopas’ wife, or another family member.  Some people suggest that the author deliberately left the second disciple unnamed as an invitation to us to picture ourselves in that spot, walking alongside Cleopas.

As the two companions walked they went back over the details of all they had witnessed: the shocking violence and cruelty of Friday, and the moment when Jesus took his last breath, when all seemed lost.  But now, since the report of the women who visited the empty tomb that morning, there was confusion added.  Maybe all wasn’t lost after all.  Was it worth it to get their hopes up?

At some point Jesus himself drew up beside them, but they didn’t recognize him.  He looked like another ordinary traveler.  Nothing stood out about him. “What’s this you’re talking about back and forth as you walk along,” he asked.

Cleopas and his companion stopped in their tracks, their faces full of sadness.  How could this stranger not know what had been happening!  The people of Jerusalem could talk of nothing else.  It was like somebody now being totally oblivious to what’s going on with the COVID-19 virus.

“You must be the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have been happening,” Cleopas replied.

“What things?” Jesus asked.  And then he listened patiently while the two companions poured out the whole story.

“Um, um, um,” Jesus replied.  “How slow you are to trust the words of the prophets.”  He went on to show them what he meant.  He took them on a walk through the prophets, starting with Moses, and showed how all the pieces of what had happened to him fit together with the scriptures.  The two found themselves hanging on Jesus’ words.

The afternoon flew by, and evening fell as they reached their destination.  Jesus appeared to be going further, but the two companions insisted, “Look! It’s going to be dark soon.  Come in and stay with us.”  I wonder if they remembered Abraham welcoming the three angels of God back in Genesis.  In any event they were eager to show hospitality to this new friend they had made along the way, and he accepted. 

At the supper table their new friend took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.  Wait!  They had seen this before.  They had seen Jesus do this before when he shared the bread with the crowd, and then again at the last supper.  In a flash it was clear.  This wasn’t a stranger.  This was the risen, living Christ himself, and he had been there with them the whole time.  And in that same instant, he vanished from their sight.  “That’s where the fire in our hearts came from while we were talking on the road,” they exclaimed.

Jesus had made his loving presence known in such an ordinary, everyday way, nothing at all big or showy.  Just walking and talking and listening together on the way home.  Just breaking bread at the supper table.

What is holy can be experienced in the ordinary and everyday.  On Friday I read a facebook post from a mother who experienced this while out on a walk with her son that afternoon.  She wrote, “At one point, my 9-year-old and I were holding hands and talking quietly.  Suddenly I felt God show up with us.  I asked my son, ‘Do you feel God with us right now?’ He said yes in a definitive tone.  I asked him if he is just feeling God with us now, or all along.  He said, ‘Just now.  I know God is with us all the time, but I just felt Him now.’ I asked him how it feels to him.  He said, ‘Like someone standing right behind us but is invisible!’  (This was exactly how I was experiencing God, too.). Then I told him about a friend of mine who really needs prayer, and suggested we pray for her.  We continued walking together, holding hands, as I prayed out loud for my friend.

“God is so good,” she continued. “My faith has been dry lately.  God showing up, and being experienced by my son at the same time as me, was a real gift.”  (Jessica Hetherington, facebook post on the RevGal BlogPals page, Friday, May 1, 2020.). Sounds like they were on the Emmaus road, with Jesus walking right alongside.

The simplest situations and the simplest actions can become a place where Jesus’ loving presence is known.  Two friends opening their hearts to one another, and the next thing you know, they realize he is there with them.  Grownups taking time for children, to listen to them, to read with them, or to watch them stretch their wings, and there he is.  

There he is, holy and loving, when someone uses skill and kindness to ease another person’s suffering, to help in the healing.  Tired, sad travelers open the door, and there stands someone with a plastic container of food.  There Jesus is again.

Right now we can’t get physically close to one another as we spend time walking around in the scriptures and share Christ’s meal together at the table, but we are continuing to do those simple things as best we can.  And Christ is with us.  We are still close in heart, and he is using the simple means we do have to kindle the flames of hope in our hearts. His love burns in our hearts.

The holy One was present yesterday, sanctifying a joyous moment for Elizabeth, Daniel, Raylee Jean, and all of us who love them.  I wish every child, everywhere had that many people loving them and rooting for them.  And I believe God is working on that.  I’m glad we can help. (Note: the congregation was able to share the moment when our expectant parents learned that their baby is a girl.)

The wonders of our living, holy God are all around and among us.  The heavens declare God’s glory, the creatures declare their maker’s praise, the elements of the earth point to their creator.  Our creator.

We do not always see or feel Christ’s holy presence with us, but we trust him to be there all along.  Not just in the extraordinary, but in the everyday and ordinary, filling our hearts with his love, covering our lives with his grace, everywhere on this road.  We certainly are walking alongside those two on the road to Emmaus.  But even more importantly, the risen Christ is walking alongside us.  Thanks be to God!

AMEN.

To find our way into the future it is critical to ask questions, in the spirit of Thomas.

Probing Questions

A Sermon on John 20:19-31

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Let’s get something out of the way right up front: what Jesus actually said to Thomas is very difficult to translate into English.  “Stop doubting” is not a good translation.  The words that Jesus uses here for faith and unfaith are adjectives, not verbs.  A more accurate translation is, “No longer be untrusting, but trusting.”  The root of the adjective means trusting, having faith, believing.  Trusting and not trusting are about relationships.  Jesus is inviting Thomas to move towards trusting him.  A trusting relationship is what this is about, not whether or not Thomas has the correct beliefs, doctrines, or creeds and is sufficiently sure about them.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the group that first Easter evening.  But sometimes people want to be alone when their hearts are broken.  It’s likely Thomas isolated himself in shock and grief, especially those first few days after the crucifixion.  Bless his friends.  They didn’t want Thomas to remain in isolation, so they reached out to him.

They shared their experience with Thomas.  In response, he trusted them enough to be real with them: “Until and unless I see and touch his hands and side, I don’t trust,” he said.  His friends continued to hold him in their fellowship nevertheless.  They accepted him as he was, and so he was with them the next Sunday night when the congregation of Jesus’ followers gathered.

That’s the way Thomas was: he was too honest to pretend he understood when he didn’t, or to pretend he trusted and believed when he didn’t.  He’s the one who asked the questions the others probably wanted to ask when Jesus told his followers he was going away, and they knew where he was going.  Thomas immediately piped up, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”  Even though others had seen Jesus after the resurrection, Thomas was too honest and sincere to pretend that all was well when he was still struggling hard inwardly.

That next Sunday night the community was once again gathered behind locked doors, fear still hanging over them.  Once again Jesus quietly slipped in among them and greeted them all with amazing, comprehensive grace and peace, Thomas included.

Jesus then proceeded to offer Thomas the same gift he had given the others the week before: the sight of his hands and side.  He welcomed Thomas to come and see and touch.  “Probe my hands.  Put your finger there.”  Jesus welcomed Thomas just as he was, questions and all.  He understood Thomas’ need to probe the situation.

Did Thomas actually touch Jesus?  The text doesn’t say.  The story moves immediately to his exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”  Maybe hearing Jesus’ welcome, experiencing Jesus’ grace was all it took to move him in the direction of trust.  Simple, powerful, real: “My Lord, and my God!”  If this isn’t the climax of the Gospel of John, it is certainly one of the high points.  It was a revolutionary declaration in those days when the empire declared that Caesar was lord and God.  Once Jesus’ followers went public with that statement of faith, Jesus is Lord and God, it was going to put them at odds with the empire.

Thomas needed to ask questions on his way to a more trusting relationship with Jesus.  But sometimes Christians and churches don’t take kindly to questions or to the people who ask them.  Your beliefs have to be correct.  You should be able to accept and repeat what you were told and not ask questions.  How you understand what Jesus has done for us has to be nailed down and certain.  If it’s not, keep quiet about it.

This week I heard yet another story about someone who was rejected by fellow Christians when he started asking questions.  He was a pastor in a tradition that has a very rigid system of beliefs.  For a long time he wholeheartedly subscribed to this system and preached it himself.  He remembers when the questions started.  He described a night when he was on retreat with some other men in the church.  As the others slept peacefully, he found himself wondering, “Where did the idea come from that God’s mercy towards a person stops the moment that person dies?  Doesn’t scripture clearly say God’s steadfast love is forever?”  And that sleepless night was the beginning of many.  It led to a painful journey out of that tradition, but into a deeper relationship with Christ. (See Colby Martin, The Shift.)

Jesus understood that Thomas needed to ask questions.  Thomas couldn’t draw closer and move forward with Jesus if he couldn’t be honest and say what was really in his heart.  Doubting and questioning are not the enemy of faith.  They are essential on the road to deeper faith.

Courageous questioning is essential for finding the way into the future.  Bold questions are essential in the service of the truth.  Raising questions is how we discern what’s true from what’s not, what’s truly helpful and what’s quackery.

Raising questions is essential as we move through the COVID-19 pandemic and find our way into the future.  We are not going to be able to return to a settled past, relying unquestioningly on former ways of doing things.

On one level there are practical questions.  The other day our governor outlined a multistage approach to returning to more normal activities.  It will unfold over time, and being able to move forward to a new phase will depend on accurate data about what’s happening.  For example, new cases of the illness will need to start falling and continue to fall, while our ability to test and determine who actually has the virus must rise.

Congregations will not be able to gather in person for activities for some time yet, and when we do, we will still need to be super vigilant, and our practices may need to be altered.  For example, passing an offering plate from hand to hand may not be wise.  We will be asking procedural questions, but also we’ll be asking questions such as, “Is there a way to maintain a connection so that people can continue to join the congregation for worship remotely?”  I really like having friends and family joining us from far away.  And think of what this could mean for people who are shut in in general.

And then there’s the whole question of where is God in all this.  People are asking, and some are quickly offering answers that are not helpful, and even harmful.  As they do whenever there is a disaster, a few are quick to proclaim that God is punishing somebody, usually blaming particular groups of people.  How will we answer that question?  Where do we discern the presence and activity of God?

If we’re going to call Thomas anything, we should call him “Honest Thomas.”    Be like honest Thomas.  His example is one to follow.  Be fearless questioners.

Jesus held out his hands to Thomas, welcoming him just as he was.  Welcoming Thomas’ searching, questioning heart.  The next thing you know, Thomas was entrusting that heart to Jesus.  

See, Jesus is holding his hands out to us.  Welcome, beloved.  Just as you are, questions and all.  AMEN.