Melissa: It may feel odd that we’re still in this virtual space on the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to those first disciples, known as “the birthday of the church.” We’re going to hear two different stories about the gift of that Spirit, first from the Gospel of John - which gives us one story, and second from the book of Acts - a story that may be more familiar to us.
First we will hear John’s account, which takes place on the day of Jesus’s resurrection.
Gloria: 19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” - John 20:19-23
Melissa: Jesus breathed onto his followers the Holy Spirit - which is a beautiful image of the life of Jesus being breathed into us. Spirit and breath often go hand in hand. Our next reading explores a different image - that of wind and fire! We’ll be hearing this scripture read in a variety of languages.
Melissa: Throughout this season, we have proclaimed that love is that which binds us (the root of “religion”) to God, to Jesus, to each other. Love IS our religion. On the day of Pentecost, the church received the power of the Holy Spirit to let this message flow out from all, to all. The power of this message is ever-so important to offer to the world today. The Spirit is poured out on each one of us so let us be a community of messengers letting living compassion flow from our hearts.
Two things from these passages stand out to me - even as they make different claims about how the Holy Spirit came to be with the disciples.
The first is from the Gospel of John. This is the same day as the resurrection, it’s the first time Jesus is appearing to the men, they’re all locked away in the house after Mary Magdalene had shared the news that Jesus was, in fact alive, and they’re all afraid. Jesus comes into their midst, speaks peace - breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In the Greek, the verb tense used is a command. And order. Take it. It’s not an invitation, it’s not a suggestion, it’s something you have no choice but to do. And with this power of the Holy Spirit comes the authority to forgive and absolve sin...or not.
The second is the image of fire from the book of Acts. Tongues of fire descending on those early followers of Jesus - again, hidden away together - fire that empowered them to speak boldly and that enabled the crowds to hear the message of Jesus in their own native language.
Fire and wind - forces that are uncontrollable, that have the power to change the environment. Fire warms, and wind cools - but both can unsettle and destroy - tearing down what was built and forcing reconstruction and renewal.
The crowds on that day witnessed the wind and the fire disrupting and deconstructing everything they thought they knew about who God was, who they were as a people, and about what God was up to in the world through Jesus. The Holy Spirit blew through that community so fiercely, the crowds thought that people were drunk. And instead of dismissing the event or saying, “well, that was interesting” before getting back to their regularly scheduled lives, or trying to stifle the message that God was about a new thing in the world and pretend like it never happened and get back to normal - the crowds responded by aligning their hearts with the Spirit of God - choosing to let the wind and fire burn away the old and carry them into the waters of baptism and into the way of Jesus.
In the midst of the disrupting power of the spirit, they chose not to go back to normal.
It makes me think about where we are today, Jesus breathing on the disciples to confer the Spirit...and we’re in the middle of a pandemic that manifests primarily in difficulty breathing...and we’re in this moment when our Black siblings are having their breath taken away…. And the tongues of flame sweeping through those early Jesus followers…can bring the refining fire to point us to a new way of being and living - painful and uncomfortable as it is.
We have this unique inflection point where we have choices to make about what we’re going to do going forward. There is immense pressure to act as if nothing ever happened when it comes to the pandemic - albeit a socially distanced, masked, increased attention to hygiene kind of normal. And that push towards normal comes from our government, from marketing, from the left and the right - all wanting us to move on as if nothing disrupted our routine.
Lest we forget, however, that normal was the problem...the normal we’re being pushed to get back into is one marked by exploitation of our planet, extreme wealth inequality, racial oppression and violence - we saw that one pretty clearly this week, a broken health care system, and injustice throughout the entire fabric of society. This pandemic has revealed the cracks in the system built to support the privileged.
We’ve seen how Brown and Black people are more likely to contract COVID because they are more likely to work frontline jobs and live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible. We’ve seen how much of a difference a reduction in carbon emissions has made for our planet. We’ve seen hospitals unable to have the protective equipment needed to do their jobs. We’ve seen people who make more on unemployment than they do at their day job. There are things we’ve witnessed during these past two months that we cannot unsee. Knowledge that we cannot forget. Stories that aren’t just stories, but people’s daily lived realities. And just like the crowds on Pentecost, we have the choice, to say, “oh, well, that was an interesting time, wasn’t it?” as we are pressured to get back to the normal that may have worked for us but not for many, many people - or we can stop and choose to live a different way. Refuse to go back to normal. Let the wind and fire finish its work in our hearts to bring us to a more just way of living with each other and with all creation.
I believe this is part of what the church is meant to embody in the world - a different way of being together, a community of people following Jesus that invites and challenges the world to strive for right relationships between people and between all of creation. As Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill of the BTS Center put it, the church is to be “a Gospel-shaped, Love-fueled, Spirit-led, peace-loving, justice-seeking, destabilizing agent of change, not a stabilizing preserver of the status quo. And that’s what Pentecost is all about.”
To me, this circles back to the first disciples receiving the Holy Spirit as depicted in the Gospel of John, where Jesus basically commands his disciples to take the Holy Spirit, and as a result, to be the ones to hold others accountable for their sins. Some of what we’ve put up with as normal has perpetuated our cycles of systemic injustice and global devastation. We have an opportunity in this moment to call our culture to account - and to examine ourselves as well - as we, too, have this challenge as a church to not go back to normal, but to use this moment to continue following the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit and be the church.
We’ve been on this discernment journey over the past eight months as we’ve considered our relationship with the wider United Methodist Church. We completed the required sessions together, and that’s something to celebrate. We’ve put in hard work together, we’ve learned together, and we’ve had honest conversations about our values and the incompatibility of our values and that of the UMC. But I think what has also become clear is that there is more work for us to do - not only in terms of what we wrestle with being part of the UMC...but also in terms of where the Holy Spirit truly is leading us. I believe we have seen glimpses of that as we’ve seen what we’ve done as a church in serving this community - both those near and far - during the pandemic. The movement of God’s spirit has been powerfully present with the food pantry ministry - what else might God be inviting us into as we serve? What about in the ways we worship? There, we won’t be able to go back to normal - no singing, no hugs or handshakes - in worship we will have to find new ways to worship God together. I think, too, about our children, and the opportunity we have to address how we can help them become the people God has created them to be - as I think about the way many of them have disengaged from church to be the clearest sign that our normal wasn’t working. We have questions to answer about how we nurture one another’s faith.
We’re in a moment when the Holy Spirit has swept through and deconstructed much of what we knew about our world, about church, and about ourselves. Are we willing to resist the urge to go back to normal so that we can follow the Holy Spirit into a new way of being?
Melissa: So take a moment to look around the room you are in. Find one object in the room that represents the pressure to get back to normal - and if you can go get it, I invite you to do so. If you can’t get it, just make note of it. We’re going to share about our objects in a moment. [pause to allow time to do this]
Breaking Open our Lives with Discussion
Leader: Our theme scripture says, “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” One way we can be glad and generous is to share about how we are finding strength, hope, love and peace in these days. This is part of “breaking bread” with each other as we break open our hearts to one another as well. Maybe even help each other rekindle the Jesus fire within.
Share about the object you found - what pressure to get back to normal does it represent? How do you feel called to live differently?
What is it that your heart is on fire for?
What winds of change you want to blow through your life?
Finally, what do you feel is at the heart of the matter of life?
Each week, we have an activity or two to spread Goodwill throughout our communities. This week - chalk art! Get out onto the roads, since many of us don’t have paved driveways, and write some messages to share with your neighbors that they are loved, that there is hope, love, and peace!
(Many thanks to Marcia Mcfee and the Worship Design Studio for providing these resources free during this pandemic! We have adapted them slightly for use in our context. I'll post both the Word and Reflection and Action Response, as well as the Have Goodwill action for the week.)
Melissa: Jesus used the metaphor of a shepherd several times in his ministry. We will hear a song using the most famous instance from Psalm 23 later in our worship. In this passage from the Gospel of John, the sheep know that the Shepherd really cares about them and offers what they need–good, abundant, green pastures to eat in. They recognize this Shepherd who takes care of them as they hear his voice.
John: I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.
So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest. - John 10: 1-10
Melissa: There are so many ways to live life to the fullest right now–or, as another version of the scripture calls it–“living life abundantly.” Being together, either physically or virtually, is one important way for us in this moment. Perhaps we can keep up some of our “connection habits” we have exercised well beyond our time of isolation. This next scripture is an extended version of our theme scripture for our Easter Season series and shows us the value the early Christians, some of whom had to gather in secret and isolation, were supporting one another “abundantly.”
Cheryl: The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. - Acts 2: 42-47
Melissa: In these two scriptures we see the desire of God for us to be taken care of, for us to live to the fullest, and for us to support one another in having abundant life and community, food and gladness. The “thief” in the first passage could be anything that robs us of those things. Sometimes the sacrifices we have endured because of our attempts to slow this virus can feel as if we’ve been “robbed” of our well-being. But we can also turn that around and see that these sacrifices are how we share goodwill and well-being with one another. Our hearts overflow with the grace and guidance we know from the Shepherd and we want that goodness for everyone. Glad and generous hearts overflow with love in so many ways.
I was thinking about what I’ve been robbed of these past few weeks, visiting family, margin that was provided by regular childcare, ability to get off the island and run errands, eating whatever I want just about whenever I wanted it...and it reminded me of a post I saw going around social media a couple weeks ago. I’ll read it to you - it’s from an anonymous author.
I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Your ship could be shipwrecked, and mine might not be.
Or vice versa.
For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflections, of re-connection, easy in flip-flops, with a cocktail or coffee. For others, this is a desperate financial and family crisis.
For some that live alone, they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest, and time with their mother, father, sons and daughters.
With the $600 (US) weekly increase in unemployment, some are bringing in more money to their households than they were working.
Others are working more hours for less money, due to pay cuts or loss in commissioned sales.
Some families of four just received $3400 from the stimulus package, while other families of four saw $0.
Some were concerned about getting a certain candy for Easter, while others were concerned if there would be enough bread, milk, and eggs for the weekend.
Some want to go back to work because they don’t qualify for unemployment and are running out of money. Others want to kill those who break quarantine.
Some are at home spending two to three hours a day, helping their child with online schooling, while others are doing the same on top of a 10–12 hour work day.
Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it.
Others don’t believe this is a big deal.
Some have faith in God and expect miracles this year.
Others say the worst is yet to come.
We are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different.
Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing.
We are all on different ships during this storm, experiencing a very different journey. — Unknown Author
I think it’s fair to say that the pandemic has certainly robbed us of a lot - and I think to some degree all of us have felt it. It’s been hard, there is no doubt - and it will get harder as we all start to get a bit stir crazy! But as we consider Jesus’s invitation to life abundant and the situation we’re in right now - what can seem like deprivation, what we experience as sacrifice and hardship - because this is hard work we are all doing - is for the sake of love of neighbor.
What I really love is this picture - and for those of you who attend our Friday afternoon class meetings, you’ve seen this - but it’s three simple questions: [share screen]
And what I love about it is that it not only allows us to name the grief we feel, the struggle we’re going through, but it also challenges us to name the things that the pandemic can’t take away from us...and the unexpected gifts in each day. This, I believe, is part of what Jesus invites us into with life abundant.
I think about this, too, with the early Jesus followers - those who came into the fold after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That early church gathered together in homes and at synagogues often at great personal cost. Many of these gatherings had to be secret for fear of being persecuted. Being a Christian meant subverting the authority of the Roman Empire; it meant alienating yourself from your friends and neighbors...perhaps even your family members. It meant you distanced yourself from many of the activities that were a normal part of your life. Eating different foods. Being in community and sharing food with different people - those you wouldn’t have associated with before. It meant new religious habits and rituals that marked you as an outsider. And yet - even with the sacrifice of so much, there was this beautiful sharing of food, possessions, money, shelter...life together. The fear and worry I’m sure were still there - what would happen to you if you were found out as a Christian could very well cost you your life. But there was something so compelling about the way these early Christians lived that people were willing to let go of their old way of being and relating and live for something new.
That’s still true for us today - life abundant means acknowledging the fear, the worry, the grief - and entrusting it to God’s care. The Shepherd’s care. It doesn’t mean those feelings won’t go away - but it does mean that we can chose to see them for what they are and surrender ourselves instead to the love and grace that is always there ready for us.
Leader: And so I invite us today to take our stones and place them in a full bowl of water. This glass of water filled to the brim symbolizes the state of grace and love that is always and already what God gives to us. When we drop our worry and grief into it, we will see the love spill over. Placing our feelings and trust into God’s love helps us to pour out love all around us, making that love available to everyone. There is always enough to go around.
(Many thanks to Marcia Mcfee and the Worship Design Studio for providing these resources free during this pandemic! We have adapted them slightly for use in our context. I'll post both the Word and Reflection and Action Response, as well as the Have Goodwill action for the week.)
Word and Reflection
Melissa: Here is how the story of Jesus’ surprise visit on the road and at the dinner happened. Imagine yourself walking down the road and a stranger comes along…
Sharon: On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him.
He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.
The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”
He said to them, “What things?”
They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.
When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”
They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread. - Luke 24:13-35
Melissa: After Christ was no longer with his disciples in the flesh, several letters began to circulate, making the rounds to the early Christian communities. This one is from a letter called “First Peter” that is recorded in our New Testament. It reminds people that the story of Jesus is about new birth for all people, and we are to be seeds of God’s life-giving love.
Eldon: Christ was chosen before the creation of the world, but was only revealed at the end of time. This was done for you, who through Christ are faithful to the God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory. So now, your faith and hope should rest in God.
As you set yourselves apart by your obedience to the truth so that you might have genuine affection for your fellow believers, love each other deeply and earnestly. Do this because you have been given new birth—not from the type of seed that decays but from seed that doesn’t. This seed is God’s life-giving and enduring word.
Melissa: Jesus’ table ministry was a preeminent way that he showed and shared a depth of love unseen in his time. He ate and spent time with those considered unworthy of his attention. Even in his post-resurrection appearances, it was in the breaking of bread that he was “recognized”–perhaps because so many times in his ministry, it was at tables that he invited people to open up and share “straight from the heart”–getting right to the heart of the matter. As we gather this day, we remember that, at the heart, his message was unconditional love. To offer ourselves “straight from the heart” is the seed he planted in us, and this is the growth we must continue to nurture.
Ben and I keep a running list of legendary meals that we’ve had - meals that just stand out in our memory...one of them was at Evo for our 12th wedding anniversary a few years ago...one of them was at a dinner party when we were living in Haverhill and from time to time - usually when we’re out at a new place - we’ll go through the list and while excellent food certainly does make a difference, part of what makes the meal memorable is the connection and conversation around the table. It’s the energy that’s flowing as we eat and drink and share, it’s the talk about things that matter, that are closest to our hearts, it’s about who you are sharing the experience with that makes the most difference.
I can’t think of the number of times where twelve or more people were crammed into the kitchen of someone’s house, sharing food together, even though there was ample space in the dining room or the living room. But equally memorable are the morning long conversations spent in coffee shops with scones and lattes or the times sharing beverages and appetizers on the porch on a warm summer evening.
There’s something about how breaking bread together breaks us open as well - and allows us to share more of ourselves with others…that allows us to offer ourselves “straight from the heart.” For me, I have to think that’s part of what Jesus meant when he said to remember him in eating the bread and the cup - that when we share food together, there’s something sacred happening that binds us together in ways that reflect Jesus’s love. At the table, we offer one another more than food and drink, we offer ourselves to one another, an act of love that is far greater than whatever else is on the menu.
Leader: I invite you to put both hands on your heart, close your eyes for just a moment, and think about a message of love. Then reach out your hands to your sides and imagine two people on either side of you who you want to offer love to right now. You can reach out with text or call later to let them know you were thinking of them at this moment. In this moment, we just let this gesture plant more seeds of love, straight from the heart.
Every week, we’ll have a time to put what we’ve shared and talked about into action. This week we talked about Jesus breaking bread with the disciples and the seeds of love planted within us that allow us to offer ourselves to the world “straight from the heart.” Because more and more, I think many of us are realizing that this is the truest gift we can offer the world. This season is stripping away so much and that allows us to discern the heart of things in our own lives.
This week, I encourage you to have a Zoom dinner party or cocktail hour or coffee date with friends. Zoom for free allows for a 40 minute call with 100 people at any time so invite some folks to share a meal with you! (Gloria puts https://zoom.us/pricing link in the chat)
If you are Zoomed out - this week, bake a loaf of bread to share with a neighbor. There’s an easy artisan bread recipe if you need one (Gloria link: https://www.itsalwaysautumn.com/homemade-artisan-bread-easiest-bread-recipe-ever.html) - and as you mix the ingredients and let the loaf bake in the oven, be in prayer for the person or family you’ll be giving this to.
Here are the images I shard in Sunday's Holy Humor Sermon. I cannot take credit for their creation! I hope you enjoy them and that they bring laughter to your heart and lightness to your spirit.
Click on each one to see the full image.
This is not the Easter we expected to have.
This is an Easter where sanctuaries are closed, cold and empty and silent. There are no Easter flowers strewn around the altar, given in memory of loved ones who have gone before us or shared in honor of those still with us. There are no glorious choirs belting out Alleluias. There are no filled pews with people decked out in their Easter finest. There are no extended family Easter dinners, all crammed around the table with a huge ham or shanks of lamb to share. There are no kids crawling around community parks in search of Easter Eggs hidden in tree limbs or nestled among patches of newly budded flowers.
This is certainly an Easter like no other.
Well – perhaps like one other Easter.
I’m reminded in many ways how much this Easter might have some things in common with that very first Easter nearly two thousand years ago. After all, that first Easter found the disciples hidden away in their homes, overcome with fear and anxiety…and when Mary realizes she’s talking to Jesus in the garden, he tells her not to touch him. Talk about social distancing before it was a thing. Here we are, all tucked away in our homes, sheltering in place – many of us facing more than a little anxiety when we have to go get groceries or conduct essential business. We wear masks to hide our faces to protect others from the germs we may or may not carry and wear gloves to keep the germs off our hands…and the thought of touching other people – even as we long to give our friends hugs – it’s so difficult.
I think about that first Easter and those first disciples – their world had come crashing to an end over the course of a week. They had paraded into Jerusalem expecting this to be the beginning of a new era of Jesus as King, a rejection and subversion of Empire, a glorious triumph of God’s reign. And while those things were – in fact – about to become true, it was not in the way they had anticipated. Jesus was arrested, beaten, flogged and crucified as a revolutionary – and the disciples, as his closest and known associates, thought the government was coming for them next. To them, it was over. The new era they had yearned and hoped for had turned into a new era of fear and exile. There wasn’t just grief over the loss of their teacher, their rabbi – there was grief about losing this new world they were to build together.
And haven’t we, too, grieved over plans and hopes and dreams? Graduations of seniors canceled, funerals indefinitely put on hold, long-awaited vacations or weekend getaways refunded, coffee dates, weddings – no more. We grieve over lost jobs, the upending of plans and our daily routines and rhythms, how this disruption will affect the most vulnerable among us. We grieve not being able to gather on this, one of the holiest days of the Christian year. And we wonder what Easter even means when there is so much hurting and suffering and pain in the world right now.
But, I think, that is precisely the point – and it is one that goes overlooked so often. We’re in this new era – not one we would have expected, or even wanted – but this pandemic has been an apocalyptic unveiling of just how broken our world is – from our economic system that primarily benefits those who have means and not those living paycheck to paycheck, from our healthcare system that has been overwhelmed, to our global climate crisis created by our frantic need for more – and this unveiling has left so many people wondering how to take care of themselves and their families, unable to say goodbye to loved ones as they pass, trapped in homes with their abusers or in the cycles of addiction, fearing infection because of weakened immune systems, or risking themselves at work.
And so, let me remind you, that the first Easter came to a bunch of frightened, grief-striken disciples huddled in a house…to a woman out for a nature walk who dared to believe that Jesus was alive.
This was the first Easter – and these were the first Easter people – a people slowly but surely finding their way to hope out of the shattered pieces of their lives – the ruined plans and the buried dreams.
Let me read for you so you can hear again the verses that Ben wrote for Christ the Lord is Risen today.
Sanctuaries dark as night, empty pews and dust mote light, do God’s people sing alone? Do we wander with no home?
Given life: a second birth, made Christ’s body o’er the Earth, not a building, not a place, but Your people: voices raised!
The promise of Easter isn’t that resurrection brings us back to normal. It’s not about the strength and courage we need to keep on keeping on until one day we can get back to business as usual or life as we knew it before. It isn’t about living in hope that one day things might be restored to the way things were. The promise of Easter is that the resurrection brings a new normal to the world – that through death we are offered new life, that Christ draws near to us in our grief and suffering and shows us hope that life can be different – that the world can be different. The promise of Easter gives us strength and courage to acknowledge the fears within us and to let God bring the broken pieces of our lives together in a way we never dared thought possible. The resurrection is an invitation to hope in a world beyond our wildest imaginings…and to be a people scattered throughout the earth to live the good news that Jesus is alive – to be the body of Christ over all the earth.
Our church buildings may be empty – they may look and feel much like the tomb on that very first Easter. But that just means that Jesus is out and about in the world. Jesus is alive – the church is alive – in all the ways we reach out to one another and share hope and love together despite the social distance. Our church is alive in every donation made to the food pantry and in every gift of food received by people here on the island. Our church is alive in every phone call, email, and text message sent…and received. Our church is alive when we share words of hope and encouragement on social media – or when we remind others to be loving and kind. It’s also alive when we’re the ones needing to be reminded. Our church is alive when we meet to share prayer over Zoom, or when we need to rely on each other to help ground ourselves again in God’s presence. Our church is alive when we share our fears, confess our failings, express our gratitude for each other.
As we journey through these pandemic days, we don’t know yet what the new normal will be. I do believe that our shared life together as a country cannot go back to what it was and there will be a great temptation to go back to business as usual. But here is too much at stake for the most vulnerable in our country and our world, and that there is too much at stake for our planet earth. And I believe that we – as Easter people – as people who have sat in the ashes of our lives and dared to let God bring us into a resurrection life – can be a sign and witness to this new way of living in the world. And I believe that this is a moment where we can choose as individuals and as a people together to live life differently.
There may be no choirs…our Easter finest this morning may be sweatpants and a t-shirt….and yet we still proclaim the Easter promise – that Christ is risen; Christ is risen indeed – and so will we, into Jesus’ resurrection life. Amen.
1-3 When they neared Jerusalem, having arrived at Bethphage on Mount Olives, Jesus sent two disciples with these instructions: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there, her colt with her. Untie her and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”
4-5 This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:
Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
foal of a pack animal.”
6-9 The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”
11 The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
I hit the wall this week.
It was Friday afternoon and I looked at my living room floor with a cranky eight month old and a four year old who was desperate for my attention as I had emails to respond to and my to-do list was outstripping my capacity and I just had this feeling of dread and despair wash over me. 17...18 days into self-isolation life and I knew I wasn’t in a sustainable rhythm and it was all we could do to keep our household from disintegrating into complete and utter chaos, and I thought to myself...I can’t keep this up. What am I doing? I can’t survive if this is what life is going to be like for six more weeks. I was so in my head, wrapped up with the mountain of tasks in front of me that I couldn’t see my way clear of it, couldn’t figure out a path forward other than lots of late nights or early mornings at a computer screen to finish whatever urgent tasks didn’t get completed from the day before….and that didn’t sound much like a way out.
What does this have to do with Palm Sunday?
The story we heard read for us this morning comes at a difficult time in Israel’s history. The people were living under Roman Rule, but were desperate to be their own sovereign nation again - to remember the glory days of might and power they enjoyed under King David. They yearned for a king to come and restore them to that wealth and prosperity and freedom from oppression - and Jesus seemed to fit the bill. With much of Jesus’ talk about the kingdom of God and release to the captives and miraculous healings, it seemed like Jesus was the one who was going to bring Israel back. The people expected Jesus to lead a political coup - to overthrow the government and establish Israel as an independent kingdom once more.
As he comes into the city - the wave of hopes and dreams and expectation goes before him. Though he enters on a lowly donkey, it’s as if it was a royal procession, with branches and garments strewn on the ground before him, with shouts of “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”
“Hosanna” if you didn’t know, is a Hebrew word. We think about it as a word of praise, as a celebratory shout. But Hosanna in Hebrew means “save now”... “save us”... the people were looking to Jesus to save them from oppression, from exploitation, from poverty and hunger...and to do that through military means.
Of course, we know a bit how the story played out - that because of his subversive message of love that threatened the fabric of the empire, he was executed at the hands of the Roman government as a criminal...that the kingdom he came to establish was not one that could be built by militaristic might...that what he came to save us from was not our external circumstances, but from ourselves.
When I think about what it means that Jesus saves us - I don’t think about Jesus rescuing us from the fires of hell, or paying the price for our sins so that we don’t have to, or that Jesus steps in as a hero and graciously grants us forgiveness when we fail or falter. I think about Jesus saving us from the fact that our faults and failings don’t have to define us. Jesus saving us means that it is God who comes near to us, we don’t have to work ourselves, drive ourselves, perform ourselves into this thing called grace, and because of it, God can make beautiful things happen in the broken places of our lives. Jesus saves us from letting our brokenness become our reality.
Friday for me was a stark reminder that I needed saving. It’s not something that it’s easy for me to admit - because I’m totally someone who likes to do it all and have it together - probably like many of us - but I was drowning, I was at my limit, and as I sat with that realization for awhile, I came to understand that what had brought me to that point was a place that needs healing in my life - a place that Jesus needs to save me from - and for me it’s the need to perform, to overfunction, to meet all the needs I see and be the one that makes it all happen and if I drill down even deeper than that, it’s about the feeling that I need to prove myself because I’m young...because I’m a woman...because I feel like maybe I’m not good enough...or worthy enough...….you get the picture. Jesus needs to save me from that.
It can be a hard and scary thing to admit, that we need saving...and that we need Jesus to do it, that we can’t get there ourselves. The story from scripture tells us that upon entering the city, all of Jerusalem was unsettled and shaken. There was unrest and turmoil - who is this that has come here? Jesus coming to save us - can be a struggle - because we have to admit that we don’t have control over something in our life, we have to admit that our sins and brokenness are bigger than we are, we have to admit we can’t do it on our own and that only God can save us.
Sometimes it takes hitting a wall to come to face to face with that truth.
The gift in that, however, is that our sin, our failings, the places we’ve messed up - while real - aren’t the final word on who we are...that God loves us too much to let us be defined by our wounds...our brokenness... our sin...because God is the one who makes all things new in this beautiful resurrection life that we share in together and that we’ll celebrate more fully next week.
What would you ask God to save you from? Take a moment and think about that. Maybe something immediately jumps to mind...perhaps you snapped at your kids this morning...perhaps you’re caught in hopelessness...perhaps it’s something that you need to tease out a bit. I’m going to give you a minute to think about what within yourself you need Jesus to save you from.
When you have it take that piece of paper and marker, and write “Save me from __________” in big huge letters and hold it up to the screen. And hold it up there for a minute or two…”
Let us pray -
God, amid the parade and festivities as you entered Jerusalem, your people cried out to you - Hosanna, save us - blessed is your name. Your people this day continue to call out to you, to save us from the things that bind us...from the things that hurt us and others...from the things that cause us to stumble and fall. We ask for you to save us - to carry us - to take those broken places and breathe afresh your life that we may cling more fully to the knowledge and assurance that we are your children. Save us this day...and the next….save us this moment...and the next...and enable us to claim ourselves as your beloved, people that you have fashioned for yourself. We pray this in the name of the one who came to save us, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Scripture - Ezekiel 37:1-14 (from The Voice)
Ezekiel: 37 The Eternal had a hold on me, and I couldn’t escape it. The divine wind of the Eternal One picked me up and set me down in the middle of the valley, but this time it was full of bones. 2 God led me through the bones. There were piles of bones everywhere in the valley—dry bones left unburied.
Eternal One (to Ezekiel): 3 Son of man, do you think these bones can live?
Ezekiel: Eternal Lord, certainly You know the answer better than I do.
Eternal One: 4-5 Actually, I do. Prophesy to these bones. Tell them to listen to what the Eternal Lord says to them: “Dry bones, I will breathe breath into you, and you will come alive. 6 I will attach muscles and tendons to you, cause flesh to grow over them, and cover you with skin. I will breathe breath into you, and you will come alive. After this happens, you will know that I am the Eternal.”
Ezekiel: 7 So I did what God told me to do: I prophesied to the bones. As I was speaking, I heard a loud noise—a rattling sound—and all the bones began to come together and form complete skeletons. 8 I watched and saw muscles and tendons attach to the bones, flesh grow over them, and skin wrap itself around the reforming bodies. But there was still no breath in them.
Eternal One: 9 Prophesy to the breath. Speak, son of man, and tell them what the Eternal Lord has to say: “O sweet breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these who have been killed. Make these corpses come alive.”
Ezekiel: 10 So I did what God told me to do: I prophesied to the breath. As I was speaking, breath invaded the lifeless. The bodies came alive and stood on their feet. I realized then I was looking at a great army.
Eternal One: 11 Son of man, these bones are the entire community of Israel. They keep saying, “Our bones are dry now, picked clean by scavengers. All hope is gone. Our nation is lost.”
Ezekiel: 12-13 He told me to prophesy and tell them what He said.
Eternal One: Pay attention, My people! I am going to open your graves and bring you back to life! I will carry you straight back to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Eternal One. 14 I will breathe My Spirit into you, and you will be alive once again. I will place you back in your own land. After that you will know I, the Eternal, have done what I said I would do.
Ezekiel: So said the Eternal One.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
“My days are a thirsty atonal combination of the mundane and the apocalyptic.”
That’s a quote from poet Audre Lourde, reflecting on her experience of living with cancer, and I came across it at a gathering of other spiritual leaders who were trying to figure out what spiritual practices look like in these strange times we’re living in. One of the presenters shared this quote as a way of describing the tension that many of us feel - on the one hand, life has to go on, our everyday tasks continue...on the other hand, things seem rather apocalyptic -- not in the world coming to an end, fire and brimstone sense, but apocalyptic in it’s true nature, which is about a shift in perspective, a shift in worldview, a moment when the world as you’ve known and experienced it ends….and a new one begins….and you need a new narrative to hold it all. You have to deal with both...the mundane...and the apocalyptic.
“My days are a thirsty atonal combination of the mundane and the apocalyptic.”
So this passage we heard from Ezekiel is the one appointed from the lectionary for this Sunday in Lent - this season of spiritual preparation that leads to Easter. And when I read it earlier this week, I don’t think I had ever before been so struck by the resonances between what’s going on in our world and in our country and in our lives and an arbitrary scripture passage from a 3 year cycle of readings.
And we find ourselves in this dry, barren, thirsty valley full of bones. Dry bones. Bones bleached white by the sun kind of bones. Bones that have absolutely no chance of ever coming back to life. They are deader than dead.
Pretty hopeless….and so God’s question “do you think these bones can live?” seems like a no-brainer. Of course not would be the rational, reasonable answer.
And yet Ezekiel says “you know the answer better than I do” - Ezekiel seems to look upon this valley of dry dusty bones with a different perspective. Where some might see despair...hopelessness...lifeless desolation...Ezekiel looks and realizes that God can do something with this. Whether he speaks this out of genuine confidence in God’s ability to perform miracles or out of uncertainty...Ezekiel’s response reminds us that what is beyond our human perspective or knowing is not beyond that of God’s...that God’s imagination outstrips our own.
And yet, even in this, God relies on human agency. God asks Ezekiel to speak to the bones to accomplish this miraculous wonder in bringing life out of death….and what was once a scene of desolation and grief becomes an image of power and strength - through God’s words and breath in cooperation with Ezekiel’s own.
It’s an apocalyptic moment, where God’s action brings about a whole new perspective, something that was so completely out of the bounds of human imagination.
And God wants us to be ready for it - right in the midst of our everyday, mundane lives.
The last two verses of the passage, God says “Pay attention, My people! I am going to open your graves and bring you back to life!...I will breathe My Spirit into you, and you will be alive once again. I will place you back in your own land.”
I think for me that’s the invitation and the challenge of this time where life isn’t what it used to be two weeks ago. Pay attention to our bodies...to our emotions...to our rhythms and routines...pay attention and notice what is going on inside us...around us….pay attention to our breathing...and pay attention to where God is showing up...to what God is saying...to what God is inviting you into in this apocalyptic moment.
We’re going to do that together for a moment...paying attention to God through centering our breathing together. Breath is such a powerful image in the Bible - the Hebrew word for it is Ruach -- breath...wind...spirit...used both in reference to human breathing...and as a name for God. The Greek word pneuma is used similarly. And so we can imagine...as we get into a comfortable posture...as we close our eyes and focus our awareness on our breathing….that as we slowly breathe in, we’re not just taking in oxygen to nourish our bodies but we’re taking in God’s spirit….and as we breathe out, we’re not just breathing out the molecules our bodies can’t use, we’re breathing out all that doesn’t ground us in this moment...everything that distracts from God’s presence with us here and now….
...we breathe in the breath of God….
...we breathe out tenions…
...we take in what we need….
...and breath out to make room for more….
...as we breathe in and out we are cleansed and renewed...we are reminded of God’s spirit breathing over the waters of creation and the word that infused the universe with light…
...we are reminded of the dusty dry and barren places in our lives and God’s renewing breath suffusing us with life….
...we are reminded of the wind of the Holy Spirit empowering God’s people to speak and embody love…
...we take this time to ground ourselves in God’s presence...and we pay attention to God’s movement in our lives and in our world…
...as you continue to breathe...what do you notice? What is your attention drawn toward? Take a moment to write it in the chat box….
...Sit with what you have noticed for a minute...and offer it to God. What is God’s response to what you have shared? What is God saying to you through this?
Take some time...and as you are moved to do so, share what you are hearing back from God in this moment in the chat comments.
I want to close this time by sharing this poem from Steve Garnaas-Holmes called Dry Bones.
There are parts of you,
maybe great parts,
that have withered and died.
Maybe spiritual gifts that you have buried,
a face of yourself you have closeted,
wounds ignored, hopes starved.
Some have passed on, forever.
But some, God may breathe life into.
God may bring bone to bone and sinew to sinew.
You may be aware of it; a daily ache.
Or it may be unknown to you,
a hidden mystery.
What part of you is God bringing back to life?
Where is God's breath blowing,
the dry bones moving?
Don't direct the wind.
Don't even worry where it is.
Just prophesy to the dry bones.
Be open to the miracle.
Let God breathe, and wait.
Scripture - Luke 13:31-34
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
The Word of Life. Thanks be to God.
A seminary professor shared an image this past week that stopped me in my feed - so to speak - for a few minutes. I had been feeling overwhelmed and decided to escape to Facebook for a few minutes - really, that’s not a great idea, but it was the best option available at the time.
Granted, it’s not a very historically accurate depiction of Jesus, but I shared it nonetheless because I was struck by how vivid and intimate a relationship was portrayed. I’m going to try and share my screen here so you can see it….
It’s an image of Jesus holding the world depicted as a woman who is sick - and all the flags on it are the countries of those affected by the coronavirus.
This image caught my attention because of its truth. Jesus carries us. Like that children’s song, He’s got the whole world in his hands. In that instant I felt acknowledged. Seen. Carried. Held. And I had been going a mile a minute up until that point - between parenting and touching base with family and work - that I realized I hadn’t really stopped and considered the place I was in...or the emotions I was carrying.
The scripture we read this morning describes Jesus longing like a mother hen who yearns to gather her chicks to keep them safe. Jesus wanting to gather his people for shelter -- sheltering them from that fox of a King Herod. And I was struck how this is so much of our desire - yearning to protect our loved ones. We want to keep our children safe, no matter if they are still in our home, returning from a closed university, or living in another country. We want to keep our parents safe - my dad took a trip to Brookline to pick up a dresser that didn’t fit in my sister’s apartment and I was like “what are you doing?!?!?”. We want to shelter our friends and neighbors who are living alone and make sure they know they are loved and cared for. We’re all carrying a lot.
Not only are we carrying people in our hearts, but we’re carrying a lot of other worries and fears - worrying about loved ones who may get sick, worrying about our community and the burden of protecting the most vulnerable among us, fear that the decisions our country is making may not be enough, fearful that people are taking this too seriously or not seriously enough. It’s a lot.
This disease has threatened so much of the way of life we’ve taken for granted. Like the fox threatens the chicks.
But the image of God as a mother hen - sheltering us, desiring to protect us gives me hope.
Nadia Bolz-Weber writes this - and it’s a long passage but really sums up where I’m at right now, and I hope it is an inspiring word for you all as well. She writes: Maybe that beautiful image of God could mean something important for us: and by us I mean we fragile, vulnerable human beings who face very real danger. I can’t bear to say that this scripture is a description of what behaviors and attitudes you could imitate if you want to be a good, not-afraid person. But neither can I tell you that the Mother Hen thing means that God will protect you from Herod or that God is going to keep bad things from happening to you.
Because honestly, nothing actually keeps danger from being dangerous.
A mother hen cannot actually keep a determined fox from killing her chicks. So where does that leave us? I mean, if danger is real, and a hen can’t actually keep their chicks out of danger, then what good is this image of God as Mother Hen if faith in her can’t make us safe?
Well, today I started to think that maybe it’s not safety that keeps us from being afraid.
Maybe it’s love.
Which means that a Mother Hen of a God doesn’t keep foxes from being dangerous…a Mother Hen of a God keeps foxes from being what determines how we experience the unbelievably beautiful gift of being alive.
God the Mother Hen gathers all of her downy feathered, vulnerable little ones under God’s protective wings so that we know where we belong, because it is there that we find warmth and shelter.
But Faith in God does not bring you safety.
The fox still exists.
Danger still exists.
And by that I mean, danger is not optional, but fear is.
Because maybe the opposite of fear isn’t bravery. Maybe the opposite of fear is love. Paul tells us that perfect love casts out fear. So in the response to our own Herods, in response to the very real dangers of this world we have an invitation as people of faith: which is to respond by loving.
It’s like The famous story about Martin Luther: when asked what he would do if he knew the world was about to end, he famously said if he knew the world were ending tomorrow, then he would plant an apple tree today.
I love that because it is defiantly hopeful. As though he actually listened to Jesus when Jesus said “do not be afraid”. If the world were ending he would respond by loving the world.
Because the Herods of this world, the dangers of this world the foxes that may surround us, do not get to determine the contours of our hearts. Nor the content of our minds.
So, we can plant trees and cast out demons and heal, and we can squeeze every single drop of living out of this life.
So to hell with fear. Because it does nothing to actually keep the bad things from happening ….it just steals the joy of appreciating the good things around us.
So, love the world, good people.
But, you know, for now, do it from home.
We carry each other….and God carries us -- as we shelter others, we do so knowing that God shelters all of us - not to keep us safe, because danger is real and out there - but to remind us that we belong to each other and that fear doesn’t have to define us or our responses. We can choose to love - because bad stuff will happen no matter what - and in choosing to love, we can find more joy and peace...and we will not let fear define us.
I’d like to close with the first verse of Psalm 27 - we heard it read this morning from the Message, but I’m going to read it here with the more familiar translation:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
Scripture - Galatians 1:13 - 2:21 (idea of story and re-storying our lives after that of the gospel)
This morning we’re going to be spending some time with Paul’s story as he tells it in the first couple chapters of Galatians. I’ll summarize it for you but I really encourage you to read it - it’s in your bulletin insert for your reference. The gist of the story is this: Paul - the one who was zealously persecuting the early church on behalf of the Jewish authorities - receives this mission to preach the Gospel message to the Gentiles - non-Jews. He has this experience and instead of talking about it with the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he goes off to Arabia for three years before going to Jerusalem to spend some time with James and Peter. He then continues his ministry.
Fourteen years later, he goes back to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus and shares with the other apostles what he’s been preaching. Titus comes along as a kind of proof-of-concept that Gentile converts don’t have to be circumcised to follow Jesus. Paul’s mission to spread the Gospel among the Gentiles was affirmed, Peter’s mission to spread the Gospel among the Jews was affirmed - everything seemed just fine.
Yet then Paul recounts a confrontation he ended up having later with Peter in Antioch, where Peter - a Jew - didn’t participate in all the Jewish customs around food when he was hanging out with the Gentiles...until James - also a Jew - had sent some of his faction to town and then Peter quickly distanced himself from his non-Jewish friends. Paul called him out on it with this killer line, paraphrased from The Message, “If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?”
This is the backdrop to where we’ll pick up in verse 15 of chapter 2. We’ll continue with The Message. Paul writes,
Galatians 1:13 - 2:21 (The Message)
15-16 We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.” We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
17-18 Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
19-21 What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.
Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
There was a video going around Facebook in a few of my moms groups a few weeks ago - it was a video of a 10 month old baby who was born partially deaf hearing his mother’s voice for the first time thanks to the use of hearing aids. His expressions ranged from delighted smiles and giggles to shock and bewilderment and back again as his mother repeated “hi” and “hello” to him over and over again. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the whole way you experience the world change in an instant and you realize that there’s more depth and richness than you ever thought possible.
That’s basically what happened in Paul’s conversion story, where he was opened up to this whole new world and had to reinterpret everything he thought was familiar.
One of the things I admire about Paul’s story is that he was able to recognize that it was Jesus speaking to him - when he had that dramatic moment on the road to Damascus. I have to be honest and say that I always wanted that kind of direct clarity and certainty in my conversations with God. God tends to speak to me in a lot more subtle ways - no voices or flashing lights or dreams or visions - mostly it feels like a lot of detective work and putting pieces together...sometimes a dash of what I call holy anxiety where I know I have to do or say something and it comes out of the blue. Sometimes I think that getting the neon signs from God might make things easier. Maybe not.
He shares his story with the Galatians to remind them that the old way doesn’t work - that you can’t rule-follow your way into a living relationship with God. For Paul, if you are interested in pleasing people by how virtuous you are, or in trying to do good in order to make God happy, or in trying to get it right by following all the Jewish laws and traditions -- following Jesus isn’t going to get you there.
His experience of Christ broke down all those old categories for him and it led to a new understanding of his own religious tradition. It led him to a new interpretation of old stories - stories about who God is and what God wants for the world, stories about who is in and who is out, stories about what it means to live in light of God’s kingdom. These are the stories that have shaped his religious faith for generations, stories that were a part of him from childhood - stories that became fresh and new in the light of Christ. It also led him to being part of the new chapter of God’s story. It revealed a whole new way of being in the world that meant he could never go back to life as he knew it before Jesus.
In God Unbound, Elaine Heath recalls a conversation with Wendy Miller, author and spiritual director, about the stories we live. I had the good fortune to study under Wendy Miller during the Gateways to God program at Rolling Ridge a few years ago - and this is truly the heart of her approach for discerning the spirit of God at work. The question Wendy posed was “which story are we living?” She continued with, “we pause from time to time, especially when we need discernment about a decision, and we ask ourselves: Are we living the Gospel story or living the world’s story?”
Are we living the Gospel story or are we living the world’s story? Are we operating under the rules the world tells us are important, are we living out of fear and anxiety, are we drawing boundaries around who is in and who is out, are we driven by our ego or by trying to please others -- or are we living the Jesus story - motivated by compassion and forgiveness, seeking to heal and restore, driven by what would be life giving to others, responding to the freedom and grace offered to us in Jesus?
This approach to discernment relies on our familiarity with the stories of Jesus and allowing those stories to speak to us in the midst of our various life situations. As we consider our lives and meditate on the narrative, we invite Jesus to be present and find ourselves incarnating the love, compassion, grace, and presence of Jesus in our own lives and to those around us. This gives us the opportunity to re-story our lives again and again around Jesus - allowing us to see the ways Christ invites us to be in the world.
The encounters we have with Jesus may not be quite as dramatic as Paul’s, but they are no less transformational if we are open to all that Jesus has for us. In re-centering and re-storying our lives in the narratives we find in the Gospels, it helps us pay attention to what God is up to, to sense the movement and work of the spirit in our lives....in our communities...and in our church. It allows us then to follow his lead and invitation, to trust the wisdom and direction he gives us, and to give ourselves over again and live by the Gospel story.
What would it look like to invite Jesus into the story of our church? What would it look like to consider the struggles we currently face...the fears and anxieties we have about the future...the memories of the past...the hopes and dreams we long for...the grief we carry of people who are no longer with us...the decisions about our identity and relationship with the United Methodist Church...what would it look like to invite Jesus in to all of that and notice what he says or what he does? What would it look like to invite Jesus to live again in this congregation?
Jesus takes our stories, our traditions, our hopes and dreams, our very selves - and transforms them into something new. We live inside the story that God is writing, following Jesus as our guide. We are freed from our old stories, the old narratives that try to sway us from the freedom and grace that are found in Christ. May we continue to fix our eyes on him - that we can live the Gospel story in all things - and share God’s love wherever we are. Amen.
Scripture - Galatians 1:1-12
1 Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - The First Song of Isaiah (FWS 2030)
I remember my first flute lesson in college. I had been playing the flute for eight years at this point - all through middle school and high school. For never having taken a formal lesson and learning through my own practicing and what my band teachers had taught, I was pretty good. Through some miracle, I hadn’t learned too many bad habits, I could read music pretty well, and had some decent technical proficiency and thanks to singing, decent breath support. There wasn’t much I had to unlearn.
So when my flute teacher handed me a piece of music full of whole notes on it I thought it was a walk in the park. I played through the notes as they were written without too much thought. She asked me to play it again, but this time paying attention to the beginning and ending of each note. The next time through, she wanted me to pay attention to my embouchure - the shape of my lips - and change them slightly on each note to hear how the tone changed. The third time through I was to pay attention to my breath. And so on and so forth. The next set of exercises was to make sure I had my scales down cold - not just memorized with my mind, but know them on an instinctive level ....down to muscle memory.
I had to go back to the basics to pay attention to the fundamentals - because any flaw in tone production, technique, phrasing - will show up as you work your way through the basics. By getting these things right, or by continuing to work on them and practice them, your playing will improve overall. It’s not easy work. It’s not even very exciting work. But it’s important work.
This is the heart of what Paul is getting at in this letter to the churches in Galatia - get back to the basics of the Gospel. He dives right in with fiery admonishment - they are perverting the message of the Gospel of Jesus that Paul preached among them.
By making new believers in Jesus undergo Jewish initiation rites before being able to participate in the life of the church.
In the beginnings of the church, there were no real distinctions between Christianity and the Jewish religion. This small sect of the Jewish faith called themselves followers of The Way, and it was attracting all kinds of followers - both practicing Jews and those who were not. In other words, Jews and non-Jews alike were drawn to the Way because of how they saw people living their faith together. Paul was one of these early followers of The Way who felt compelled to share this Gospel message specifically among non-Jewish people. We’ll hear a bit more about Paul’s story next week.
The issue that early followers of The Way had to wrestle with was this -- some early leaders of this movement believed that in order to properly follow Jesus, non-Jewish people would have to first become Jews and become subject to the same laws that Jews practiced -- especially around circumcision, dietary laws, and other Jewish customs. Paul was in a different camp - that Jesus was the fulfilment of the law and came to save all God’s people to a new and different relationship with God so that Jews and non-Jews alike could live in freedom - freedom from the evils of this present age, freedom from being bound by rules and regulations, freedom to live as human beings beloved by God without the weight of the Jewish tradition.
Paul makes it clear that he received this message by a direct revelation of Jesus Christ - not mediated by humans, not something he learned about in a book - but something he experienced straight from the source. Not only does Paul root the Gospel in his own revelation of Christ, he roots his mission to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles as one given by God as well. Paul claims his apostleship not from human authority, not because he was sent by any person or persons, but from Jesus Christ himself. He argues that in this, he’s not trying to win approval from others, he’s not trying to advance himself or appease others - because, let’s face it - preaching Jesus Christ crucified and risen; Jesus, an executed criminal, a prophet disgraced and rejected by many of his own people, doesn’t win anyone popularity points. As Dan Clendenin who writes at Journey with Jesus notes, “To the Jews [Jesus is] a scandal and to Greeks he's foolishness.”
What Paul knows in his bones - and what he desperately wants the Galatians to remember - is that the Gospel is not bound by traditions of the past, but transforms them in the light of the risen Christ. And to put conditions on the love and hope that are freely offered in Jesus perverts the Good News that we are freed from sin and saved into a new life with God.
Elaine Heath in God Unbound writes this: “Paul neither rejects nor disrespects his tradition but comes to see it in a new light. Non-Jews are just as beloved to God as Jews, he realizes. People need not follow all the rituals of the Hebrew tradition to experience God’s love and salvation fully. Jesus the Messiah has come for all people.”
I’m going to do a quick word substitution in part of the above quote.
“The unchurched are just as beloved to God as the insiders. People need not follow all the rituals of the Christian tradition to experience God’s love and salvation fully. Jesus the Messiah has come for all people.”
For me, that hits a lot closer to home. I can sit and nod along with the conclusion that Jesus loves everybody and that God’s love and salvation are there for everybody, and thanks to Paul we don’t need to follow all the ins and outs of the Jewish law to accept the reality of what Jesus has done for us. But when it comes to the stream of tradition that we stand in - traditions that have shaped me in my experiences of God, traditions that hold meaning for this community, traditions - it challenges me to consider what is truly at the heart of all those things that hold importance for us?
For Paul - and for us - it’s the gospel. God’s love and forgiveness and freedom from sin for all in the name of the risen Christ, and the ability to live into the fullness of that Good News as individuals and as a community. Back to the basics.
In Health’s own wrestling with Paul, she notes that “Paul convinced me afresh that a great tradition lies behind our traditions...Paul’s vision in Galatians does not threaten the true gospel, which proclaims the tradition behind the tradition. It only threatens a church that subsumes the gospel to institutional priorities, doing so in the name of tradition.”
We live in a time of great cultural shifts, of deep division, of rapid change. The effects of that are felt keenly in many congregations across white American Christianity with declining membership, dwindling budgets, and decaying edifices. It is difficult to grapple with the eroding and changing of the traditions we have inherited because many of us have found meaning and comfort and strength within those traditions. The danger comes when we fail to hold space for the ways the gospel is incarnating itself outside of our expectations and familiarities.
We’ve seen this here in our congregation. Many of us remember a time when people came to worship on Sunday mornings because it was the thing to do. Pews were fuller, there were more programs that reached out to youth. The Parish House was a place of community-wide fellowship. This place hosted graduations, Christmas parties, and so much more. But the culture has changed, more than just people finding other things to do on Sunday mornings. When people talk about connecting with God or about their spiritual experiences, they don’t talk about buildings or programs...they talk about nature, about connection with others who are seeking God in their lives.
It reminds me that the heart of the matter is how we engage with the great tradition - to love the tradition behind the tradition - to place ourselves in the unfolding story of the gospel and to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit in to see what God is doing - both within and beyond this church - and how we must be a part of it. What we did in the Parish House for January and February - not only in worship but also in eating together - is a part of that journey and the beginning of the conversation that God is inviting us into - of how we take the tradition of this church - one that has been on this island for over two hundred years - and see the heart of a community that has pursued faithfulness to God in every generation and ensure that there is a community for a new reality, a new set of people, some of whom are within these walls...and many who are not.
We can take hope from the ways Paul helped expand the views of these early Jewish Christians when it came to their perspectives of God, neighbor, tradition, and mission. And we can do this as we pay close attention to our understanding of the basic Gospel message and how people are experiencing God’s action and movement in their lives.
As Elaine Heath reminds us: “The church belongs to God. The church is God’s idea, not ours. Our vocation as the church involves our participation with God so that we can give this world a glimpse into God’s great heart of love. To take up our apsotolic vocation today we have to come to terms with this reality: The God we love, the God revealed in Christ, is much bigger than we knew. God has never been bound by our theology or our traditions. It is now time for us to see the unbound God.”
May we have such faith that as we recommit ourselves to the gospel - as we get back to the basics - we will see and experience the ways that we are a part of a much bigger story and movement of God’s work in this world - and that we may be enriched and enlivened by it together. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.