Becoming One

 

John 14:15-21

Acts 17:22-31

We all belong to at least one community.  Many of us to various communities which may, or may not, overlap.

We are in community with those who live geographically near us, usually sharing government, source of utilities, educational structures, as well as some culture and history.  Some communities formed around location are places where people move in and out on a regular basis and finding more than one or two generations making their home there unusual.  Some communities formed around location have a core group of families for whom belonging to that specific community goes back five or more generations.

I am not sure about here, but in my hometown, there are families who have lived and actively participated in the community for over fifty years who are still considered newcomers by those whose connection to the community goes back to its founding.

We are in community with those who share our faith journey.  That can be the community of a circle of friends, a specific church, a specific denomination, an ecumenical group, or a combination.  We share fundamental beliefs such as those expressed in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.  Our elements of worship, prayer, and study are similar.  Our belief in one Triune God held in common.  Our understanding of our mission is to welcome others in and to serve our neighbors, but the habits of how we live together sometime makes that more difficult than we recognize.

We are in community with those who share our desire to help others such as members of the volunteer fire company, the 4-H organization, the Historical Society, the Friends of the Library, the local Lions and Rotary Clubs, the Band Parents, and many others.

We are in community with those who enjoy the same interests.  A biking or model train club, a book club or sewing group, a golf foursome that gets together regularly, a community based band or drama club.

There are specific characteristics, goals, values, understandings that make each community with which we can identify which makes it distinct in some respect from the larger society within it exists.

As we enter the passage from the Book of John this morning we enter the conversation Jesus is having with his Disciples to prepare them for ministry without his physical presence.  He pulls together the basic elements of what he has shared with them over the previous three years, highlighting in a way the basic characteristics, goals, values, and understandings that make those in His community, the kingdom of God, distinct.  He shares the essentials of His church universal community, which is unlike anything his disciples have previously experienced.

From this passage in John, we learn that what brings us into this community established by Jesus is loving Him and keeping His commandments.  The disciples don’t need to ask what commandments, they have heard Jesus tell the experts of church law that the greatest commandment in the Law is  ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’ and : ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Saying that all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [1]

Jesus points out that living out those commandments is not an individual endeavor.  Jesus is an advocate and He has asked God to provide the Spirit of Truth as another advocate to not only help, but also to be with His disciples forever.  Not an advocate separate from us but an advocate in us.

19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live..  20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”   As Paul describes it, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  Each follower is in community with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with all followers.

In the passage from Acts, we hear Paul acknowledge the yearning of the people to experience this sense of community with the living God.  A yearning he notes leads them to look to a number of gods, including an unknown god.  Then he ministers to their searching.[2]

We live in a time of many people categorizing themselves as spiritual not religious.  A time when things, accomplishments, wealth, attractiveness, power often draw us into communities which do not reflect the essential relationships and actions Jesus lifts to his disciples.  It is a time not completely unlike Paul’s and his reminder calls us back to community with God and our neighbors.

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.[3]

Our yearning can only be filled when we recognize that Jesus is in His Father, and you are in Jesus, and Jesus is in you.  We respond to God’s love by believing, loving, being fully committed, and keeping the commands.

Jesus loves by giving, not by taking.  He doesn’t ask his disciples to serve him, but to serve one another.  Jesus gave himself to almost everyone he met.

He loved all kinds of people.  The poor, the oppressed, the outcasts, the sick and diseased, the mentally ill, the deformed, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and those who could not speak.

He loved women and children.  He loved those inside his faith community and those from outside it.  He loved people from cultural and ethnic groups other than his own.

He gave himself in love to others by teaching them healing them, and just plain hanging around with them.  He didn’t surround himself with the successful people of his generation.  He didn’t hang out with the glamorous, beautiful, powerful and wealthy.  He didn’t choose friends and associates for what he could gain for himself out of those relationships.

He gathered a diverse group of disciples around him who often didn’t get what he was trying to show them, yet he loved them and helped them develop their strengths so they could continue to build the community of faith.  He showed them how in Him they are one with the Father and the Spirit and with one another.

He continues to show us how we are one in love.  How we are called to look at relationships with others in what we can give rather than what we take.  How our focus needs to stay on loving others as He loves us.

While it means we look for ways to be more like Christ, it doesn’t mean that we try to be exactly like each other.  We are uniquely created to be parts of the body.  Our Oneness is in connection to our Triune God and with each other.  It is not in having the same way of doing things, the same ideas, the same ways of dressing or same ways of preparing food or decorating our homes.  I believe our oneness actually depends on our diversity and we are so much further ahead when we share our unique perspectives with each other in love, genuinely listening for the Spirit connection which surfaces in our ideas and stories.

We are reminded in 1 Corinthians: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others[4]

Unity and Diversity in the Body

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it[5]

It isn’t an easy thing to understand this reality which Jesus explains to His disciples when he says, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”  It takes time and effort, trial and error.  It takes trying to intentionally love others over the course of our entire lives to learn to love God’s world as Jesus loves it.   When we put in the effort, risk the errors, we will come to discover that we are not only one with Christ, but increasingly one with our brothers and sisters.[6]

The understanding of what it means to be part of this community and the power to be One with each other comes from our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is not grounded in our own giftedness or our own capability to “get along with others” but rather in the relationships and life of the Trinity.[7]  The power of the Spirit working in us and through us not only makes the community we share in Christ distinct from the larger society it moves us into an eternal community of disciples that transcends all societies and human concepts of time and place.

In the weeks after Pentecost we will work through a new series entitled from Chaos to Community, exploring ways God converts our human chaos into God’s blessed community.  I hope you will join us.

[1] Matthew 22:

[2] William Willimon, Feasting on the Word: Year A., Sixth Sunday of Easter.

[3] Acts 17:29

[4] Romans12:4,5

[5] 1 Corinthians 12 (NIV)

[6] The Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, Sixth Sunday of Easter – Preaching Notes – Discipleship Ministries.

[7] ibid

Refuge

Mother’s Day was never meant to be a “Hallmark Card” event.  The two United Methodist women who pushed to create this annual observance in the 1860’s saw the negative impact of war, particularly on women and children, and they were all about women who see needs in the world and work to make things better.  “They were thinking about the work of women and the significant testimony that women could give about the need for peace.”[1]

In fact, when the card companies got involved and the price of carnations when from pennies to quarters, they voiced their concern over commercializing what was meant to honor mothers in a deeper way.

They probably never imagined the tradition with which I grew up of awarding flowers to the oldest mom in the room, the youngest mom in the room, the mom with the most children, and the mom who most recently became one.  And those who instituted that tradition probably never envisioned the hurt they were bringing to some in the room, and didn’t notice some women avoided church on Mother’s Day altogether because it was too painful, for reasons too personal to share.

There is much to celebrate about mothers and about the women who are mothers to many even though they never gave birth.  But this Mother’s Day, it is the Psalm that spoke to me.  It was a plea for God to intercede on the Psalmist’s behalf that drew me in.

“Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,” the Psalmist prays.

It seems life is filled with those traps, those things that bring disillusionment, discouragement, and despair, that endanger the dreams we have for ourselves and for the next generation, those things that disrupt our personal and our community’s peace.

I am sure all of you can identify those traps.  They can be part of our everyday routine – the door left open for the umpteenth time, the squabbling in the back seat, too many obligations and too few resources, lack of sleep, over abundance of questions to answer, loss of a job or loved one, feeling lonely, and sometimes a feeling you are the only one trying to handle it all.  You know, the traps that pile up and make us yell “enough!”

And there are more.  In the last week I have heard stories of the effects of the Opioid epidemic which is just outside our doors, stories of poverty, stories of hunger, of bullying, and stories of possible abuse.

Even if we haven’t heard the stories shared by persons affected, television brings it front and center.  This week human trafficking was highlighted on Hawaii Five-O.  The outtake of the episode was that this is an overwhelming problem, for which there are insufficient resources to address, and yet at the conclusion it seems at least one woman is ready to try to make a greater difference for all the woman affected by this worldwide problem.

Today, as we reflect on our moms and those who have mothered us, we likely can remember times when the traps seemed too much to take, too overwhelming to get through, too painful to endure.  We may also remember times they prayed as the Psalmist does.  Not to eliminate the traps that are set, but to find a way around or through them with God by their side.  Times God gave them strength to move forward in ways we couldn’t imagine were possible.

Seeking refuge in the Lord, seeking God’s ear in the midst of difficult struggles, resting in the fortress a relationship with God brings, and listening for God’s loving guidance which will deliver us, are some of the ways this scripture helps them, and us, get out of or avoid the traps which seek to remove the very breath of life out of us.

When we put it all in God’s hands, God is faithful to deliver us from all that works to pull us down and we are filled with love and light.  When things seem the bleakest, this Psalmist’s prayer can be ours.  I suspect it is similar to prayers lifted by mothers, many times with various words and in a myriad of circumstances.  It is a prayer that reminds us we have the protection of God’s love even when we don’t perceive it.  It is a prayer that reminds us we are never alone.

We are not alone in what we are experiencing because others have experienced it as well.  We are not alone because God is faithful.

We are not alone because we have the church which nurtures us.  Our human mothers are not the only “mothers” we have that follow us into our adulthood. This week’s epistle text 1 Peter 2: 2 begins by describing Christians as “newborn infants” who long for and eagerly lap up “spiritual milk,” so that they might “grow into salvation.”

Leonard Sweet describes the mothering nature of the Church this way:

From the moment that we confess a faith in Jesus Christ, the church becomes our source of spiritual sustenance, our “mother’s milk.” Just as the relationship we each have with our human mother is the most life forming relationship we have in our physical lives, so our early nurturing by our faith mother, the church, directs the path of our life of faith. All the research underlines how the early days with mother are key to the baby’s identity formation. So it is in the baby stages of discipleship, where the nurturing of mother church cannot be underestimated.

For Christians, our family tree is the Tree of Life. We are all “adopted children of God through Christ.” Our Father Christ is wedded to the Mother Church. We are told to honor our Father and Mother, to honor our roots, our origins, the ‘grounds’ of our beginnings, our faith.

Mother Church is the womb for developing in discipleship, and for birthing generations of Christians. We love her not for her qualities or perfection, for she is flawed as all mothers are. But we love Mother Church for her relationship as the bride of Christ, and mother of all. Mother Church brings life into the world. There is no mother without children. And we are her children in honoring Mother church as we honor our physical birth Mothers. [2]

As we prepare for the rest of our Mother’s Day, of celebration all the mothers in our lives, let’s remember all the ways God is with us, as God has been with women throughout the ages.

God is with you today, if you are like Tamar, struggling with infertility, or a miscarriage.

God is with you today if you are like Rachel, counting the women among your family and friends who year by year and month by month get pregnant, while you wait.

God is with you today if you are like Naomi, and have known the bitter sting of a child’s death….

God is with you today if you are like Joseph and Benjamin, and your Mom has died.

God is with you today if your relationship with your Mom was marked by trauma, abuse, or abandonment, or she just couldn’t parent you the way you needed.

God is with you today if you’ve been like Moses’ mother and put a child up for adoption, trusting another family to love your child into adulthood.

God is with you today if you’ve been like Pharaoh’s daughter, called to love children who are not yours by birth (and thus the mother who brought that child into your life, even if it is complicated).

God is with you today if you, like many, are watching (or have watched) your mother age, and disappear into the long goodbye of dementia.

God is with you today if you, like Mary, are pregnant for the very first time and waiting breathlessly for the miracle of your first child.

God is with you today if your children have turned away from you, painfully closing the door on relationship, leaving you holding your broken heart in your hands. And like Hagar, now you are mothering alone.

God is with you today if motherhood is your greatest joy and toughest struggle all rolled into one.

God is with you today if you are watching your child battle substance abuse, a public legal situation, mental illness, or another situation which you can merely watch unfold.

God is with you today if you like so many women before you do not wish to be a mother, are not married, or in so many other ways do not fit into societal norms.

God is with you today if you see yourself reflected in all, or none of these stories.

This mother’s day, know that God and we walk with you. You are loved. You are seen. You are worthy.  [3].

 

[1] Harriet Olson, Chief Executive, United Methodist Women, United Methodist Women Facebook page ® May 2017.
[2] Leonard Sweet, Mother Love and Mother Church.  Preachthestory.com May 14, 2017.
[3] – Adapted from A prayer for Mother’s Day, originally written by Amy Young, as adapted by Heidi Carrington Heath

Community of Baptism

 

John 10:1-10

Acts 2:42-47

Metaphors can be messy.  Understanding what they mean does not always come easily.  In John 10, Jesus uses this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

They didn’t have the context, heart, and perspective to grasp how he is the gate and the shepherd of the sheep.  They do not recognize that his voice, and what he says, is processed in terms of their understanding of God as defined by their rules and tradition.

We may experience this metaphor through our knowledge of raising sheep, through the interpretations we have heard over the years, or in light of other scripture like the 23rd Psalm, what is going on in our lives, or any combination.  Yet our understanding is likely evolving as we experience it in relationship with Jesus and in relationship with each other.

As the flock in the metaphor, we are part of one community, led by one Shepherd, but exactly how that impacts our lives may remain unclear.

In the time of Jesus, sheep pens were made out of rocks.  A pen generally had only one entrance.  When the sheep were being herded through the entrance and into the pen, the shepherd would lay hands on each member of the flock.  He would run his hands through their wool to make sure there were no injuries or burrs or other things that needed attention.  Often the doorway to the sheepfold didn’t have a gate or any other type of physical barrier, so after checking the sheep, the shepherd would position himself physically across the opening.  He would be the gate to the sheep fold, placing his body where he could keep the sheep from escaping, and thieves, bandits, and animals that might do them harm, from coming in.  The shepherd literally was the gate.[1]

In the John passage we see that the shepherd welcomes the flock into safety.  We also see the shepherd calling the sheep by name and leading them out of the safety of the pen to find nourishment and refreshment.  Together the flock leaves the known of confinement staying tuned into the Shepherd’s voice to keep them on the right path into the unknown.

This morning I encourage us to look at our faith community as the sheepfold into which we enter and from which we exit into the world.  Our faith community is a place of security, a place of safety, a place of promise.  We enter through our relationship with Jesus, the shepherd who loves us, cares for us, protects us, and saves us.  We enter through the gate of claiming our identity as followers of Jesus the Christ, many at the time of our baptism.

Jesus is our shepherd-gate and he welcome and sustains all who seek a relationship with him.  As the shepherd, Jesus actively does what it takes to gather all into the fold, those with various colors of coats, those who are crippled, blinded, wounded, ostracized, attacked[2].

But not only Jesus takes on this role, He calls his flock to take it on as well.  We are not sheep, we are created in the image of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to care for one another, to love one another as God has loved us.

Life is not easy.  It is in community we find support to face what life brings our way.

Over the past few weeks I have witnessed a number of times where this faith community has watched over one another in Christian love.  There are quiet visits and conversations upholding some among us who are going through a difficult time, there are compromises as the flock works toward common ministry goals, times of shared stories which build community and faith, as well as times of holding one another accountable.

I have heard conversations turn to mutual exploration of what following the voice of Jesus means in our ministry to each other and our ministry to our community.  I have witnessed many hours of shared time and resources to help others experience God’s love through the simple gesture of sharing what we have with those who face tough times.

One example which showed me vividly how following the voice of Jesus and living out the covenant made with others at the time of their baptism has to do with getting immunizations.  In an act of love, hospitality, and concern, one of our members and maybe more, specifically ask to receive all the immunizations they need to be around young children.  Not because of grandchildren and great grand children, but because of children in our flock who she wants to protect by having the shots she needs to help them stay healthy.

Another was the desire to reach out to those in our community for whom coming to a chicken barbecue is not possible for many reasons.  Those who found names for us to share a meal with were amazed that we would think to reach out that way, those who made the gifts possible were touched by the lives of people who need to feel God’s touch, and those who received the meals were touched by that love through all of you who worked to prepare the meals, those of you who donated them, and by the one who delivered the meals.

In these and many of the things this flock does and will do, you watch over others in prayer, continually lifting their needs, for healing, justice, peace, and restoration, to the Good Shepherd and listen to His voice calling you to serve with love and sacrifice reaching out to those within the fold and those yet to come in through the Shepherd-gate.

Through your witness of focusing on the voice of the Good Shepherd you ignore the things that seek to distract and harm you and the flock.

As you devote yourself to studying the words of Jesus and the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer, Others are filled with awe at the many wonders and signs you perform.  As you share common goals and focus, break bread in and eat together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God you draw others into the fold where they will find the care and love of the Shepherd and the flock.

The church or sheep-fold that Luke portrays in Acts is counter-cultural, joyful, and a community that prays, praises, breaks bread, and to which God keeps adding.  As we live by that example we too will experience growth spiritually, as a faith community, and possibly, in numbers, truly living into our baptism in new and awesome ways.

 

[1] paraphrased form Fuquay, 55-57, by Dr. Dawn Cheser, Discipleship Ministries Fourth Sunday of Easter Preaching Notes 2017

[2] Dr. Dawn Chesser Fourth Sunday of Easter Preaching Notes 2017

Commissioned

Many of us have been there, or have at least practiced for handling a threatening situation.  Frightened by something going on around us, we lock our doors and windows, sheltering in place.  We separate ourselves from others, unsure about who we can trust.  We focus inward, afraid of the unknown.

That is where we find the disciples in this morning’s passage.  They are sheltered in place.  They know Jesus is no longer in the tomb, Peter and the other disciple verified that to be true.  They know Mary has seen the resurrected Christ and that he has commissioned her to tell the other disciples that he is alive.  Yet even with this knowledge of Jesus conquering death, they are afraid.  Afraid of the information they have, afraid of those who caused the crucifixion, afraid of accepting that Jesus truly lives, and maybe afraid of moving forward.

Then without fanfare, without a need to knock at the door, or to come through a window, Jesus is in their midst.  Greeting them with the words, “Peace be with You.”  Words he will use repeatedly as he reveals who he is to his followers and as he offers a life giving alternative to the fear which has forced them into hiding.  Words of grace: no reprimand, no commotion, no room for doubt.

Followers encounter the presence of God in the risen Jesus and that presence calls them to live with a sense of peace, not fear.  Calls them to experience the reality of peace that he shared with them at the Last Supper: “Peace I leave with you: my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (14:27)  A peace now experienced as they talk with the risen Lord.

It is a peace that gives them, and us, courage at points throughout our lives “where we fear that God’s goodwill for the world’s well-being is a pious dream, out of touch with the chaos and hatred of everyday life.  For the one who offers the words of peace is the very one who has endured the brunt of that chaos and hatred, yet now stands in their [and our] midst – risen, indeed!”[1]

With this peace comes a call to action.  Once the Disciples recognize him as their Lord, Jesus offers peace to them again, immediately followed with the proclamation:  “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  He commissions them to leave their fear-filled, inward looking, locked room, and to take Christ into the world.  He provides them with the peace, the example, the evidence, and the breath of the Holy Spirit needed to fulfill their commission.

This passage in John indicates however that Christ knew this commissioning would not produce instant acceptance by His followers.  He comes to them a week later, showing Thomas, who was absent the first time, the places he was pierced.  Gently giving Thomas what he needs to comprehend what has transpired and to prepare him for fullfilling his part of the mission.  The response of Thomas is to recognize the one before him as his “Lord and God”.

Identifying those to whom the disciples throughout the generations are sent, the risen Christ tells all those gathered with Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

None of us gathered this morning have seen in the sense that the disciples gathered in that locked room saw.  Yet, all of us have the opportunity to see as the Holy Spirit reveals the truth of scripture to us, have the opportunity to experience the risen Savior in each other, to have the grace-filled peace of God’s presence in all the joy-filled, as well as chaotic and difficult times of our lives.

In this passage we are all commissioned to reflect Christ in our day to day lives.  Through study, conversations, prayer, and openness to the Holy Spirit we all have the resources available to move us from the locked rooms of fear into the challenging connections outside of our personal space, where we must go so others can experience the risen Christ through our faith and actions.

Some of us came to believe through the faith stories of others.  Some through Christ-filled actions of love, compassion, patience, and forgiveness.  Others through a combination of these and others forms of God’s grace extended to us in some way by a person or persons of faith.  Those connections are not possible if believers stay locked behind closed doors.

As I considered Christ’s call on our lives while reflecting on this passage from John this week, forgiveness emerged as an incredible life-giving, peace sharing, power given to each of us who believe.  As Jesus sends his disciples, us included, into the world as the Father sent him, he says,23”If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Out of context, that seems like permission to evaluate each other’s behavior, to determine who will be forgiven, who will be left outside of our circle.  It may seem permission giving to hold a grudge or to walk away from someone who disagrees with us or hurts our feelings.  We may see it as a way we can seek revenge without breaking any laws.

In the context of all that happens in the days and hours before this power is given to believers of the resurrected Christ, I don’t think it is any of those things.  Instead I think it is the power to love as Christ loves: patiently, sacrificially, radically different than the world loves.  To forgive as God forgives, not holding grudges, not keeping a record.

Each of the eleven disciples gathered in that locked room had a different life story, each had denied, questioned, been slow to understand, looked with different expectations as to how Jesus would institute God’s Kingdom.  They would sometimes disagree in the years to come as to exactly how to share the message and yet they shared the peace, grace, and Spirit endowed on them by Jesus the Christ and were connected in his teachings, his life, death, and resurrection.  Forgiveness was a critical part of their carrying out the commission they were given.

Jesus gives each of us the power of forgiveness.

There were so many times on his earthly journey Jesus could have refused to forgive: the religious leaders who sought to undermine his ministry, the people who found fault with whom he kept company, those who refused to listen, his disciples who denied access to the children, his disciples who argued over who would have a place of honor, his disciples who fell asleep when he asked them to watch with him, his disciples who denied him when afraid to acknowledge him would cost them their status or safety, his disciples who needed help believing Jesus is now the risen Christ.

Jesus shows us how to use the power of forgiveness – patiently reaching out until we accept forgiveness – never giving up on us – coming back as many times as necessary until we understand and believe – just as he did for Thomas.

With this power we stay connected to one another and to God.  With this power we can fully realize the Peace and Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

Just as Jesus the Christ commissioned the Disciples and empowered them with peace, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit, He commissions each of us.

He calls us to stop fearing the things going on around us, to open the doors and windows of our hearts to reach out to others, and to embrace the unknown with the confidence God is already there.

I am not suggesting that we stay in abusive or bullying situations, that we jump into the middle of a fire-fight unprepared, or that we stop teaching our children about stranger danger.

I am suggesting that Jesus models a way for us to share God’s love with the world and that it starts by accepting our commission, leaving the safety of our locked mindsets, and recognizing the power of forgiveness in completing our mission.  I think when we do, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will experience the Peace Jesus brings in new ways and others will be drawn to join us on the journey.

[1] Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Sunday, April 23

By Name

John 20:1-18

As we gather this morning, light has pierced the darkness.

Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark.

She may have come before dawn because she wanted to apply spices to the body of Jesus as soon as possible after the Sabbath was over.

Possibly because she wanted to minimize how many people would have an opportunity to see her come, fearful of those who had killed her Lord.

Regardless of the reason, she came as darkness filled her physical and spiritual reality that morning.

She discovers the stone is rolled away and quickly goes to share the news and to share her understanding of what has happened with the other disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

As the two disciples, hearing what she discovered, run back to the tomb, there is an urgency, a deep desire to make sense of what has transpired.  They find the empty tomb.  They see the evidence that something unusual has happened as they witness burial clothes lying as if Jesus body had passed through them.  John’s gospel says one of them believes, but doesn’t indicate what he believes.

It seems that by seeing for themselves, they both must believe that what Mary shared with them is true.  Jesus is no longer in the tomb.  But it seems to be just one more fact to add to the story.  There is no experience that would lead them to understand the significance of that reality, and seemingly satisfied with confirming that the tomb is empty, they head back to where they are staying.

It isn’t enough for Mary.  She stays in the garden weeping.

Maybe as her tears fell she was remembering all that has transpired since she met Jesus –

his healing voice that brought her to wholeness when demons kept her from fully participating in life;

all she has heard as she traveled with the Disciples as both a follower and financial supporter of Jesus,

how her life had changed because of what she had learned from this one of a kind teacher,

what she witnessed as Jesus was crucified and buried,

the reality he cared about her when no one else did, when there were so many reasons not to.

Then, needing to make sense of it, to know more, she bends down and looks inside the tomb.  She hears angels speak to her “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she says, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

Nothing makes sense.  If she can find him, maybe some of the darkness in her soul will lift.

Then she turns and bumps right into the One for whom she is looking, but she doesn’t recognize him.  It doesn’t fit what she understands to be true, this man is alive so it never occurs to her that he is Jesus, she is looking for what her physical senses tell her she needs to find, a lifeless body.

So she asks this man, thinking he is the gardener, if he has moved the body and if so to where, so she can provide the necessary care.

Then, in a single word – her name – Jesus brings light into her darkness.

Immediately she recognizes him.

As she realizes she is in the presence of her risen Lord, sorrow and confusion are replaced with unspeakable joy.

When he explains why she can’t hold on to him, he gives her a message that is personal and transforming.

“To my Father and your father

To my God and your God.”

In the speaking of her name – the commissioning of her to take this message to others – Jesus calls to each of us by name.

Lorraine, Ruth, Tina, Kester, Phil, Trinity, Kurtis, Matthew …

Diana, Guin, Peter, Char, Nancy, Georgia, Jackson, Jim …

Jesus calls everyone in this room, everyone in this community, everyone in his creation – saying: – because the tomb is empty, because I came, died, have risen, and now return, my Father is your father, my God is your God, and nothing will ever be the same.

It is news that must be shared, must be experienced, must be personal.

He knows everything about me, He loves me, He lived for me, He died for me, He ascended to the Father for me, He forgives me, He transforms me.

If the empty tomb stays just part of the story of an amazing historical Jesus the darkness remains and dawn is hidden.   It is only something we believe happened but it is not transformational.

Mary heard her name – recognized what Jesus the Christ had done for her, and responded immediately to His Call to share that experience with others.

There was no hesitation, no fear, no looking back.

We can know the words, be able to recite the words, even believe the story we share today, but until we respond to our name, recognize it was for each of us, all of us, that the tomb is empty, the dawn will be a pretty thing to look at but not something that fills our spiritual being with Light brighter than the Sun.

I share this morning with the assumption that all gathered here know and believe the story to be true

I hope we have each heard our name and know that what we celebrate today is personal and life changing.

I Pray we recognize we can’t hold on to that experience, to our understanding of God’s work in our unique life’s journey, that we need to go share our experiences with others and love others in the way Christ loved us – who, knowing everything about us – flaws and all – died and rose that we may have life abundantly.

Not just a part of history, this mystery is part of today, this Easter morning, and everyday.  As Mary ran to tell others – may our joy be so great we share it in all we do and say, in all of our relationships, and that each of us can share her message, “I have seen the Lord!”

 

Father God, The dawn has broken and the sky fills with light from your created Sun and our hearts with the light of your begotten Son.  May we hear our names and share the transformational news – “He Lives, He Lives indeed!”   Amen 

Nurture

John 9:1-12, 24-25, 35-41

We gather today with half of our journey through Lent behind us and Holy Week only two weeks away.  Remembering that the season of Lent was historically a time of preparation for people who wished to become followers of Jesus who would formally enter into this covenant through baptism on Easter morning, we have been working through the baptism covenant we make as United Methodists.

We have considered the need to resist temptation, to accept the power God gives us to resist evil in all forms, and the need to confess our experience of the living Christ to our world through all that we say and do.

Today we come to the part of our baptismal vow where we hear these questions:  “To parents and sponsors: Will you nurture these children/persons in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?…  To the congregation:  Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?”

We have all heard these questions.  Many of us have answered: “I will” more than once.  Yet I wonder how many of us check in with ourselves to see how we are doing at keeping the promise we made.  I think this morning’s gospel lesson gives us an opportunity to consider how we are doing.

Our baptismal vow to nurture one another speaks to community.  We cannot teach, set examples, nurture in the Christian faith and life unless we have a relationship, a community where we spend time together praying, studying, working, playing together.  The time, stories, tears, and laughter we share with one another are critical to our fulfillment of this promise to one another.

As the writer of John weaves us through this story of the man who sits begging because he doesn’t not have physical sight, we encounter three distinct communities: the disciples of Jesus, the neighbors who had known the blind beggar and his family since the man was born; and a small group of religious leaders.[1]  All communities in which we would expect to find nurturing.

The Disciples have witnessed Jesus doing miracles, talking with many who were considered of no value by the world in which they lived.  They have heard the teachings of love and a new way of looking at things.  They have experienced a reversal of priorities that puts caring for those least able to care for themselves above personal gain of any kind.  They have witnessed the power of “God with us” first hand.  Yet as they look at this man who has been unable to see since birth, they look past the person and are distracted by why this would happen.  As many people of the day believed, the Disciples believe that when a person is suffering from a physical or mental ailment it is a punishment for sin.  It is not surprising from the world-view then, that they want to know if the man sinned or if he is without sight because of his parents’ sin.

As the story unfolds in John, we see little empathy from the Disciples for the man.  No efforts to nurture him in the faith or to get to know him.  Their focus is fixed on who to blame for his condition.

Jesus focuses on glorifying God through the healing of this person.  The man didn’t seek the healing, Jesus saw his situation and reached out.  In the context of the passage before this one, at the time he sees the man begging, Jesus is aware there are people in the area hoping to get an opportunity to stone him.  He is in the midst of his own personal crisis, and yet he sees and responds to the need of another, setting aside what many may consider the more pressing concern for his personal safety.  He stops, makes the mud out of spit and dirt, and spreads it on the man’s eyes.  An outward sign of the grace-filled work God of within the Man.  Nurturing body and soul with his touch before sending him to wash in the pool of Siloan.

This man’s life is transformed in many ways because of the actions of Jesus and yet the community of His’ closest followers make assumptions about this man’s condition that justify the wider community to continue to reject him.  Through the Disciples actions the community can infer that they don’t have to nurture him because his blindness is his own fault, they can ostracize him and deny him access to what those who have not committed the sin that leads to blindness take for granted, such as employment opportunities, a place to live, and friends and family who won’t deny knowing him in order to protect their own privileged status in the community.

The neighbors who had known the blind beggar and his family since the man was born should have known this man the best of anyone.  They saw him sitting begging every day, they know his family.  Yet when he returns with his eyes open, his barriers to experiencing the world as a sighted person, the community of his birth doesn’t recognize him.  They don’t seem to believe he is who he says he is.  They focus how it could happen, if this person is the one who was blind.  His community wants to see the person who made it possible.   To find the remedy.  By questioning and seeking the source.  They reject the person who stands before them.  There is no indication of joy in this miracle, of celebration.  No evidence they reach out to nurture this member of the community into all the possibilities for him that now exist.

Then there is the community of this small group of religious leaders.  They too seem to focus on things that are outside the understanding of nurture.  They are caught up in a discussion over whether Jesus is from God because he healed on the Sabbath, suggesting he is both a fraud and a sinner, and in so packaging Jesus, put the fact a healed man with who they are talking face to face is healed, into question.  When the healed man answers their questions as to what he has to say about Jesus with the declaration Jesus is a prophet, the religious leaders can’t accept that as truth and look for ways to prove the whole story is a lie.  The man’s parents, confirm that their son was born blind, but don’t acknowledge any further information.  They seem to want to stay clear of any association with the followers of Jesus for fear of what their religious community will say about them.  They don’t want to lose their position in their church by confirming the actions of Jesus on their son’s behalf.

The religious leaders still can’t accept the facts.  They go back to the healed man trying to establish proof that he is following a false prophet that he is still an unrepentant sinner who continues to practice a sinful lifestyle.  They reject his testimony and drive him out of the only community he has ever known.

Three communities which should love others as God loves them.  Three communities which should see beyond the labels and the things of the past to the transformed hearts and lives of those touched by Jesus.  Three communities which should have rejoiced, embraced, and nurtured this person witnessing to God’s work in his life.

Three communities that missed an opportunity to live out their faith through the nurturing of another person because they were focused on Why this would happen, How healing could have possibly taken place, and Finding a way to reject it as true because it messed with how things have always been.

Jesus discovers that the one healed is now rejected, without a nurturing community, and he reaches out again.  He invites him into the community of his followers, establishes a relationship which opens the man’s spiritual eyes as well, and provides the example that allows the man to become part of a community that will actually see him for who he is and nurture him in the faith.

In many ways the UMC of the Abundant Harvest is a nurturing community.  We take time to hear each other’s stories, to pray for joys and concerns of those within our faith community and the community beyond these walls.  We dream together as to how to witness to the world the healing power of Jesus in each of our lives.  We explore ways to support ministry in new ways.  We gather together to worship, pray, study, work, and sometimes even to play.

There are times, however, when we all can get distracted and fail to nurture.  We can get caught up in the history of things, not recognizing the amazing things that sometimes come with change and transformation.  We can be frightened by circumstances which make us feel out of control.   Sometimes we can find it difficult to accept facts that surface and we look for ways to discredit them so we can ignore them.

Jesus has healed each of us in some way, possibly multiple times.  Jesus reaches out to each of us welcoming us into His community of followers with a focus on loving us and equipping us to love others.  He calls us to watch out for each other, to love each other, to model Christ in each conversation and each action.  He moves us beyond the limited sight modeled by the Disciples, friends and neighbors, and religious leaders, opening our eyes to how things are in His Kingdom.  He calls us to look for ways to love and build each other up: those we know well, those we are just getting to know, and those we haven’t met yet.   He calls us to nurture in the most difficult times and places so that all will come to know and glorify God.

We have promised to live this way.

He has promised to give us the power to fulfill our commitment.

 

 

 

 

[1] Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, Preaching Notes Fourth Sunday of Lent, Discipleship Ministries UMC

Confess

John 4:1-52

So Amazing!  Still trying to make sense of it, and yet I know it happened.   Such an incredible conversation!  I lost track of time as we talked, my innermost being connected to this stranger, who I discovered as we conversed, wasn’t a stranger at all.

I almost didn’t answer when he asked me for that drink of water.  Jews and Samaritans don’t talk.  We have a past that makes us distrust one another, makes us expect the worst just because of our heritage, our view of history, and how we worship God.  I couldn’t understand why he would even talk to me, let alone think I would help him.

What was he doing here anyway?  Jews don’t usually travel through Samaria.  They want to avoid us.  Conversation and sharing a drink, even if just water, not something they normally do.

Then there was the scandal of talking to a Jewish male.  Why was he risking ridicule to talk to me?  Jewish men don’t interact with any kind of women in public.  He might talk to his mother, wife, or however many daughters he has, but never to any other women.  If anyone saw us talking, the gossip mill would be up and running at full speed.  It wouldn’t really harm me, they already talk about me, all those men in my life.  I come to the well in the heat of the day to steer clear of those judgmental stares and comments as much as possible.  But what about him, what price would he pay for accepting a drink of water from a Samaritan woman with a questionable past?

So many questions, so many reasons to be about my business and get out of there.

Yet there was a gentleness in his request.  His eyes filled with respect and compassion for me, and somehow I knew I wanted to draw him some water.  There was something different in how he acted, and it eliminated my first impulse to ignore him and go about taking care of myself.  As I pulled up the vessel of water I thought, I’ll be cordial, but keep any conversation on a superficial level.  After all even if he is different, even if I’m drawn to know the answers to the questions surfacing in my mind, I can’t let my guard down.  Can’t let him know about all the messiness of my life, can’t reveal my pain and mistakes.  It is only a request for a drink of water after all.

At least I thought so at the time.

Then the conversation began.  He treated me as if what I had to say mattered, as if I mattered.  He began to dismiss all my preconceptions about why he shouldn’t or wouldn’t interact with me as he talked of God and God’s gift to us.

As first his words about offering me water, which would quench my thirst from that moment on sounded so good.   It would be wonderful to stop these daily trips to the well in the mid-day sun and the struggle to pull up the water from the depths of the well, and then the long walk home with the weight of the pitcher on my head.  But as deep as the source of the water I gave him to drink, was the depth of his words as he spoke of eternal life, worship, God, and the Messiah.

All my plans to keep my private life private blew away as sand in the breeze.  He knew things about me, the number of husbands and non-husbands I had, my understanding of the scripture and differences between Jewish and Samaritan beliefs, my desires for the Messiah to come and explain how we should worship and live.  His intimate understanding  of who I was, how my life’s story had evolved, for that which my soul was thirsty, touched me and changed me.

To me, an invisible woman, unimportant to, if not disdained by most, he revealed his identity.  He is the Messiah, He is the one who explains everything.  He revealed that true worships will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.  “God is Spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Amazing!  Not confined to a particular place or people, not limited to a prescribed style, but set free in our relationships to God and one another, opening our eyes to each person’s stories through the eyes of this caring compassionate man who looks into who we are and offers us what we need to never thirst for love and acceptance ever again.

All that I had learned from the religious leaders over the years became so much clearer, this man at the well was who he said he was.  His words, his actions, his knowledge of who I am revealed truth to my yearning heart.  He is the Messiah and he is interested in talking to me.  Remarkable!

Just as I was trying to make sense of this revelation, his disciples returned.  They didn’t challenge our conversation, but somehow I thought I needed to get back to town, to let people know who was at the well, to give them an opportunity to have truth revealed for their lives.  I am not sure they will believe me, but if they hear my story, the astounding truth that he knows everything about me, they might be curious.  They might take the walk to see him before he leaves, so I better hurry up and tell them.

They need to know that the time has come when what we are called doesn’t matter and where we go to worship doesn’t matter. It is who we are and the way we live that counts before God.  Our worship much engage our spirit in the pursuit of truth.  That is the kind of people God is looking for those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship.  When we come in worship we come before God who knows our every thought and our every hope, our every gift and our every broken place, every single beautiful thing about us, every wonderful story and even the ones that aren’t so wonderful.  We come before God, and God offers us a cool drink of water, and a place to rest, and listens to our stories. [1]

He knows all that I’ve ever done, yet he loves me, and openly reveals his identity to me.  He has so many reasons not to and yet, he does.  He is the One promised, He is the Messiah.  We know we can’t survive without a good steady source of refreshing water.  I know now we can’t really live without the truth He reveals.  Please hurry, come and see for yourself!

(out of character)

So Amazing!  Jesus reveals himself – Confesses who he is – to someone the world has identified as unimportant.  Jesus reveals God’s desire for our lives – Confesses that it is more about what we say and do than where we worship.  The woman is self-aware of her limitations and her needs.  She has taken advantage of the opportunities to learn about God offered in her culture and is not afraid to ask questions that help her grow spiritually.  The barriers in her life do not hold her back from seeking to know more or from recognizing the presence of the Messiah breaking into the routine of her life.

Once experiencing the presence of the promised One, her priorities change, the water jug sits at the well and she hurries to invite others to come see for themselves.  Her passion, her confession that “he knew everything about me,” so compelling that many go to see for themselves and believe.

This morning we look at the question raised at our baptism.  Do you confess Jesus Christ as Your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as Lord, in union with the church Christ opens to people of all ages, nations, and races?  Will you commit yourself, according t the grace given in you, to be faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

The woman at the well lived out this confession, trusting what Jesus told her was true and serving as Christ’s representative in the world.

In our baptism we take up the calling of the church to intercede for the world, and to continue to live more deeply into the mind of Christ.  In the lifelong pilgrimage with the church begun in baptism, we discover again and again that our purpose in life is deeply tied up with giving ourselves in service to others. In baptism, we step into the flow of living water, and in it we experience, now, already, a foretaste of heaven.

Jesus told a Samaritan woman he could offer her “living water.” He said, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (Jn. 4:13). When we receive this living water, says Jesus, our deepest needs are satisfied. More than that, initiated into the flow of living water, we become part of God’s blessing to the world, participants in that “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Becoming a part of that gracious flow satisfies many of our deepest longings, for God created us to “give ourselves for others.” Self-giving is at the heart of the life of the Trinity into which we are baptized. We are at once most deeply human and closest to God when we give ourselves in love. [2]

The woman at the well discovered that the living water offered by Jesus Christ is available to all, regardless of personal history, ethnicity, place of worship, gender, socio-economic status or any value set by this world.

God’s grace is offered to all who will drink of it.

We who have drunk of this living water, we who have come to faith and who claim faith in Jesus Christ, can only testify to what drinking of the living water of Jesus Christ has done for us. We cannot give the living water of faith to others. But we can become part of God’s blessing in the world. We can join in God’s mission by giving ourselves in love. And we can commit ourselves anew, according to the grace given to us, to be representatives of Jesus Christ in the world, and, through our words and self-giving actions, point people to the only one who can give us the living water that we most need.[3]

With all we say and do we can confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, in essence saying to those we encounter to “Come with me. See the person who has told me everything I have done! Mightn’t this be the Christ”

[1] Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, March 19, 2017

[2] Mark Stamm The Meaning of Baptism in the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2017),

[3] Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser – Living Our Baptismal Calling. Discipleship Ministries UMC – Confess – March 19, 2017