Scripture - Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38
Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)
18-19 The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.
20-23 While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:
Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).
24-25 Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.
Luke 1:26-38 (The Message)
26-28 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
29-33 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.
He will be great,
be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever--
no end, ever, to his kingdom.”
34 Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”
35 The angel answered,
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
will be called Holy, Son of God.
36-38 “And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”
And Mary said,
Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.
Then the angel left her.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
(Loved, Cherished, Valued, Worthy, Beautiful, Holy, Sacred, Blessed, Treasured, Precious)
Mary and Joseph - ordinary people who did something extraordinary for God. The twelve disciples - ordinary people who did something extraordinary for God. John and Charles Wesley - ordinary people who did something extraordinary for God. Those of you who were at last week’s discernment session heard other names mentioned as well - people like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Richard Allen -- all ordinary people who did something extraordinary for God.
It’s easy to think of these people - and others in the Bible like King David or the Apostle Paul or named throughout Christian history, like Saint Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa or Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr. - as sacred people; We think - of course they are holy - and we ascribe that holiness to the fact that they must have been extra special or worthy or somehow more loved by God than the rest of us. After all, they are still remembered today - some even generations later. Some may have changed the course of history, the ripple effects of their life still felt today.
But the truth is - God doesn’t love Mother Theresa - or Mother Mary - any less or more than God loves you or me. There’s nothing more special about them as people in their inherent worth as children of God. What does, however, set them apart - what allows us to easily see as sacred people - is their willingness to say yes to God - their willingness to make God’s love known - their willingness to usher in God’s kingdom.
There’s nothing special about Mary and Joseph - first of all, Joseph is mentioned because he was engaged to Mary and decided to marry her anyway despite already being pregnant - cooperating with God’s command to not be afraid to take her as his wife. Joseph says yes to God. As for Mary, we have all these assumptions that she must have been especially pious or meek and mild - when in actuality, do you realize how much guts it takes to say yes to being an unwed mother in a society that stoned women for such behavior? That takes courage, boldness, grace - but she isn’t more special than any other person. What makes her worthy of notice is that she says yes...she says yes to the angel. “I am the Lord’s servant, Let it be with me just as you have said.” She decides to bear this holy child for God’s bold agenda of a kingdom of righteousness and peace, of love and hope for all.
There is truth when we say we are all loved equally by God - that we are all God’s children. The person you see in the grocery store, the homeless panhandler in Portland, the children you see at the mall, the bank teller who cashes your check - even the person you sit next to in church. However, what makes you and me sacred isn’t merely our belovedness, but our willingness to be used by God - to be present for someone who needs company, to stand up for those who are hurting in our world, to advocate for the poor or the hungry, to cross the lines that divide us to love and listen to those with whom we disagree -- and when that happens, when you open yourself to God’s love to take root in your heart, when you offer yourself to God’s use in the world, you realize that maybe there isn’t this division of people after all - that even those who we would label as “Other” - those who are very different from us or those who are marginalized by our society or those whom we unintentionally tend to devalue….that their belovedness makes them sacred too as we see God’s love for humankind reflected within them.
One way to understand this is through the Christian practice of icons. Icons aren’t merely religious artwork or pictures of saints - but icons bear witness to the reality of God’s presence with us in the mystery of faith. Much like some of us experience God’s presence with us as we contemplate the sunrise or when we walk through the woods - or how some of us feel close to God after a conversation with a friend - icons serve as a means for experiencing the Kingdom of God and as a way for us to be present to that kingdom.
As we consider Sacred People in this season, I’m reminded of the story of Ryan Klinck, who is part of the Missional Wisdom Foundation - which is an organization that is reenvisioning forms of Christian community - experimenting with monastic models where people live together in urban or rural settings and share prayer and ministry together or supporting churches using community development models for neighborhood enrichment, and so much more. The work of these communities often takes people out to the fringes - the fringes of their neighborhoods, their comfort zones, their previous experiences -- and it is there that they encounter God and partner with what God is already doing out in the world.
Ryan Klinck lived in Bonhoeffer House for several years - a house in East Dallas that lived and journeyed alongside people who were homeless or homesick - and many of these folks lived in community together - sharing a house, sharing resources, and being in ministry with one another and their neighborhood. As he was living and working there, he was beginning to see the divine goodness in his homeless friends and their giftedness and began to wonder what it would look like to see his neighbors, friends, and people in his community as saints. He did this because so often the world overlooks those who are homeless - beyond just bypassing them on the street, there’s a tendency to devalue their gifts, their stories, their wisdom - devaluing their very humanity. So Ryan and his friend Josh decided to show the world and lift these folks up to say, these are saints, just like all of us are called to be saints - and invite people to see them as God sees them.
He took pictures of his friends - many of them homeless, others who were living in the house - and his friend Josh turned them into icons - you can see on the screen - as a reminder that we need each other to be transfigured into sainthood.
Because here’s the thing - when we start to see ourselves as beloved children of God, as people worthy of God’s love even despite all our growing edges, our mistakes, our sins, the things we don’t have together in our lives - if God loves us even with all our faults and failings and we are willing to say yes to God, imperfect though we are…..if there is sacredness and holiness in that….then that sacredness extends to others who are also imperfect...and also beloved.
We recognize each other as sacred people -- that doesn’t mean we have it all together, it doesn’t mean our lives are perfect -- but it does mean we are willing to encounter God in the other, we are willing to say yes to God’s life of hope and love, we are willing to usher in the presence of the kingdom by being open to the presence of the Holy Spirit among us. But that starts with seeing ourselves that way.
To help us with that - we have a mirror here. I was talking with Deb when we were putting together the bulletin on Thursday and she mentioned that she didn’t like the bulletin image - and I asked why, and she said “because nobody likes looking at themselves in the mirror.” So you can blame Deb for giving me the seed for this idea. It made me think about how so many self-help books or programs have you do self-affirmations in front of a mirror - like “I am a strong and capable person” or “I can do hard things” or whatever else it might be. And there’s value in that because it helps change our perception of ourselves. What I want to suggest, though, is that even though we say we know that God loves us personally and that we are people of sacred worth...do we really believe that on the deepest levels of our being? Do we truly acknowledge our own belovedness, our own worthiness, do we believe we are sacred people - not in spite of our imperfections, but as human beings on this journey toward wholeness and union with God?
So as you are led - come forward and take a look in the mirror. It doesn’t have to be a long look - but when you are there, take one of these markers and write one of the words we have up here...loved, cherished, valued, sacred...there are a whole bunch. And then take another look - maybe repeat that word a few times to yourself silently or out loud - as a way of reminding yourself that you are a sacred person -- and that together - we are sacred people on a journey with God to usher in God’s love and peace in this place and beyond. Come forward as you are moved to do so.
I’m reminded of a sentence in our welcoming statement. It reads, No matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you are loved and a child of God. These are words we all need to take to heart -- for others, yes….but also for ourselves...that we are sacred people together.
I want to close with a quote from Desmond Tutu, archbishop of South Africa, who talks about this beautiful word from the Bantu language - Ubuntu. It roughly translates as “I am because we are.” He says, “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity and for recognizing everything and everyone as sacred.”
May we in this season recognize everything and everyone - including ourselves - as sacred -- so that in our belovedness, we may make God’s love known in our lives for the sake of God’s glory...for the sake of others who need to be reminded of their own sacredness...for the sake of this world which God loves so much. Let us be willing to be used by God for this time...this place...and this people. Amen.
Scripture - Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 3:1-12
Romans 13:11-14 (NRSV)
11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Matthew 3:1-12 (The Message)
-2 While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”
3 John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:
Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
4-6 John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.
7-10 When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.
11-12 “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
Several months ago, before Genevieve was born, Ben and I were trying to figure out how to manage Michael’s sleep - he’s never been a great sleeper and one of our goals before welcoming Genevieve into the world was to improve his sleep - namely him being able to fall asleep more independently and...having him not wake us up at 5 in the morning. To help deal with the latter, we purchased an “OK to Wake clock”. We bought an owl. You set the time for when it’s OK for your kid to get out of bed. When you squeeze the owl and it’s before the set time, it turns orange, and it plays a little “Go back to sleep now” song and some lullabies. Squeeze the owl after the set time, it turns green and it says “Time to wake up!” and plays some happy wake up music - and that’s Michael’s signal that it’s OK to get out of his room and wake us up (if we aren’t already awake). This OK to Wake clock is the best thing ever and has saved our sleep on more than one occasion (well, at least until Genevieve came along!)
In the Christian life, the season of Advent is like our “OK to Wake” clock. It’s the green light that says, “it’s time to get up now” - because Christ is coming and the kingdom of God is here. For that matter, John the Baptist was like the “OK to Wake” clock for the Jewish people - urging them to live the kingdom life now. His urgent message of repentance drew people to the Jordan river for baptism to wake them up so they wouldn’t miss out on what God was about to do in Jesus. Maybe more than an “OK to Wake” clock - John the Baptist was like an alarm clock, that you couldn’t hit the snooze button on, alerting people that the time to change hearts and lives wasn’t some day in the future, but was here right now.
This is the life that the early Christians lived - this perpetual alertness to what God was doing - because they watched and waited for Jesus to come back and they believed that that day was soon. This is what Paul means when he writes, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
It’s OK to Wake now - get ready because God’s kingdom is here.
In Advent, we prepare ourselves and get ready for Christ to come again; for Jesus to be born anew on Christmas, to come once again into our hearts and lives. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes my preparations for Christmas have little to do with waking up to the reality of God’s kingdom in our midst and more to do with whatever Christmas “emergency” has caught my attention. I mean that in the sense of how easy it is for me to find myself caught in the trappings of Christmas because they are things that my time just seems to flow towards without conscious thought - following the blaring sirens to the tree lot, to the mall, to the parties and concerts, to the kitchen in a baking frenzy, to church, to the craft fair, to home again to decorate and oops, I’ve forgotten to mail out Christmas cards again and I’ve forgotten that I really have a choice about how to spend my time in getting ready for Christmas - and to do so in a way fully awake and expecting Christ around me rather than drifting through the season half-asleep to the true meaning of this season.
So perhaps instead of Christmas emergencies - the trappings that pull us toward the perpetual to-dos of festive anticipation, we should think of preparation for Christmas as a time of “emerge-agency” - a time to celebrate and welcome our ability to order time according to what we find sacred and a gift, instead of where the sirens are or whatever feels most urgent or whatever we find distracting or draining.
We get to choose - we get to choose to construct our time in a way that allows us to see our preparations as holy and sacred. We get to have agency and not merely be swept along by the busyness of this season. We get to choose whether we get ready for Christmas half-asleep or fully awake and present to what God is doing in our midst.
Being awake may be something as simple as taking 5 minutes of silent prayer at the beginning of the day. It may be choosing to donate extra food to the food pantry or clothing to Goodwill in a reverse Advent calendar - where you add one item a day to a box for donation. Being awake may be about lighting a special candle in your home as a reminder of God’s presence with you or to remember that each task done in preparation for Christmas can be a sacred one. Being awake for you may be about letting go of certain obligations to focus more on being present to God or to others - visiting or calling those who have a hard time making it out, baking extra cookies for neighbors, offering a helping hand to other people in their own preparations for the season. It could be about working to forgive someone or loving someone who you find difficult to love. Being awake means participating in the things that make up God’s kingdom, it means changing your perspective, it means living a kingdom life, one that is green and blossoming, as we heard from our scripture this morning - not living life as if we were deadwood ready for the fire.
You may have noticed the paper watches in your bulletins. Take those out - and take out a pen or pencil. Think about what takes up your time and attention during this season - especially those things that seem like “emergencies” and write them down on the watch. When you are done, put them on your wrist.
Does everyone have them on?
I invite us to take some time for silent reflection - on the ways God is inviting us to be awake and ready this season - on the ways God wants us to use our time in ways that draw us toward the sacred and holy - on the ways that we can order our time so that it is life-giving and holy.
As you are moved to do so - come up to the front -- take off your watch and offer it here and exchange it for one of these bracelets - as a reminder to be awake - as a reminder that we can choose to spend this season in ways that are life-giving and meaningful...and that we can choose to find the sacred in all things.
[start playing Be Still and Know….as folks are starting to come forward, we’ll start singing it together….]
Let us pray. Thank you, God, for the Emergence of our sacred gifts of Agency in this Holy season. In all the upcoming “nows” we will experience, grant that we may wisely order and inhabit your sacred gift of time - with each other, our families and friends, and with all the many needs that cross our paths. Enable us to resist the pull of the all demands upon our time, drifting from one thing to another, but keep us awake and ready for you. In the name of Jesus, for whom we are getting ready, we pray, Amen.
We’re in the middle of our stewardship campaign, where we’re taking some time to remember and to be thankful for all of the resources that God has given to us, and talking together about some ways that we as a community can increase our giving as we seek to be faithful stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us.
Generosity isn’t about obligation; it’s about a way of being in the world - it’s about having an attitude of gratitude, and living out of God’s abundance for us. It’s a matter of the heart - responding to the outpouring of God’s blessings upon us and wanting to be able to bless others. And one of the ways we develop that attitude is through practice and by continuing to find ways to step out in faith...and by understanding that what we have - our time, our talents, our treasure - aren’t ultimately ours to do with as we please. We use what we have been entrusted with knowing that it all belongs to God.
That’s what we talked about last week with our introduction to Stewardship and the story of the One Speckled Hen. A brief synopsis - in case you don’t remember - is that a father and his daughter happen across a speckled hen one day. They try to find her owners, but no one in the neighborhood laid claim. So they decide to take care of her for her rightful owner. In the process, the hen lays eggs, which get traded for chicken feed, a cow, and a sheep - and because the hen doesn’t belong to them, they decide the eggs don’t either...and neither does the cow and the sheep.
The hen’s owner eventually comes back - and when offered the rest of the animals, let the father and daughter keep everything else, taking back only his chicken - Matilda.
The father and daughter acted to take care of the hen - and the rest of the animals - knowing that none of it belonged to them.
Stewardship in the church is the same - we take care of our time, talents, and treasure - knowing that none of it belongs to us.
We’ll talk about how that relates to our finances next week.
This week we’ll talk a bit about our time and how God wants us to use it through this church for the building up of God’s kingdom.
James 2:14-26 (The Message)
14-17Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
18I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, "Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I'll handle the works department."
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
19-20Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That's just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with something lifeless on your hands?
21-24Wasn't our ancestor Abraham "made right with God by works" when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn't it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are "works of faith"? The full meaning of "believe" in the Scripture sentence, "Abraham believed God and was set right with God," includes his action. It's that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named "God's friend." Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?
25-26The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn't her action in hiding God's spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up lifeless. Separating faith and works makes you lifeless.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
How much time does it take to follow Jesus?
Time. It’s the one thing we all have to manage - we all have the same 24/7 to work with - but it’s also the one thing that many of us seem to have not quite enough of. I’m feeling that pretty keenly right now as I try to get back in the flow of work and home with Genevieve (who all I want to do sometimes is stare at), and Michael (who craves attention and playtime) and balancing the bare minimum of housework with other to-do list items and time quickly runs out.
And this is how much of the world works, right? We live in a world with competing priorities - there are always demands on us and on our time between family and work and friends and our own needs. We are under pressure to attend to this need here, that event there with our schedules full up to overflowing with tasks and projects and meetings that sometimes, it’s a blessing that we can just sit and stare at Netflix for a couple hours. It’s easy to find ourselves with more things to do than we have time to spare, and so we prioritize - making time for the things that are most important to us.
With this way of thinking, it’s very easy to treat following Jesus the same way; it becomes something that we fit in to our busy schedules. We make time to go to church on Sunday, we may find an hour to study the Bible with others, we may even make time to pray each day or intentionally be with God. We may even - sit on a church committee. I mean - isn’t that the ultimate expression of discipleship? (Actually, I take back the slight sarcasm there, because sometimes there is true sacrifice involved with that).
But really, how much time does it take to follow Jesus?
Following Jesus isn’t something we give up an hour or two a week to do. It isn’t something that can be contained into any sort of time frame. It’s not something we can tick off our checklist of things to-do. Following Jesus is a lifestyle, not something we fit into our busy schedules. it’s something that permeates everything we do, something that’s part of every moment, that takes the 24/7 we are given and transforms it into God’s work in the world.
Because following Jesus encompasses all of our life, what we do with our time reflects how important following Jesus is to us.
Now this isn’t to say that you have to give up your job or your family to follow Jesus in some far off place or that you need to go home and read your Bible for six hours each day (but if that’s what you are feeling called to, more power to you) -- but it is to say that each moment we are given is an opportunity for us to live in a way that reflects what God wants for us and for this world. It encompasses how we act when we’re at home, when we’re with our families, when we’re on the ferry, when we’re at work or wherever we are - and it especially encompasses how we are as a church together and the work God has for us to do through this church to be in ministry with others.
If we say we follow Jesus, then that needs to be true in what we do.
I’m particularly struck by the passage we heard from James this morning. It’s the way Eugene Peterson articulates the famous “faith without works is dead” passage. Verse 19 and 20 go like this:
Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That's just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with something lifeless on your hands?
We say “yes” to God, we come to church and sit back and profess that we’ve done our duty, that we’ve given our time to God. But saying “yes” to God, believing in what God has to offer us through Jesus -- it isn’t enough. God wants all of us, time, money, gifts - all of it. And when we fail to express our faith through the way we live and the way we spend our time, we end up with something dead - a faith that is not alive...a faith that isn’t real at all, that barely exists, a faith that, as James puts it, even the demons have.
Faith is made to be put into action. It demands to be seen and lived out. Faith can’t be seen just by going to church every Sunday or by sitting on a church committee. Faith can’t been seen just by putting a few bucks in the offering plate when it comes around, or by planning the next church fundraiser. Faith must translate into works - in to how we live, how we treat other people, how we spend our time working for God’s dreams for this community and for this world. That’s something we do as individuals -- and as a church community together. If we as a church community say that we have faith, but that doesn’t translate into ministry to and with our community....then what we do together doesn’t matter...then we are dead and lifeless.
As we think about how we use our time in service to God’s kingdom, part of stewardship then becomes about how we use that time in service to God’s kingdom through this church - not just about what we do in our day to day lives.
This week, you all should have received your Stewardship Commitment Card and Stewardship letter - and if you didn’t, we have extra copies for you here. On it is a line about supporting the church with your time. How is God inviting you to be a faithful steward of your time - how can you be a part of making God’s hopes and dreams real for this island through the work of this church? How can this congregation be a part of making this island a place of greater peace, justice, compassion, forgiveness, mercy - a place that lives and breathes the redemptive work of God that we find made known to us in the love of Christ?
Perhaps it’s an invitation to work more closely with the kids who are part of this church. Perhaps it’s an invitation to start a meal train ministry through this church for new families or people who are going through a difficult time. Perhaps it’s an invitation for the church to educate others on this island about the impact of climate change and what we can do to be faithful stewards of God’s Creation - this beautiful place in which we live. Perhaps it’s a ministry centered around how we have hard conversations with our friends and family. Perhaps it’s even about ministering as a church to those who can’t rake their leaves. Free community meals. Making mittens and hats for those who don’t have them. Support groups for people who are grieving. Working for affordable housing on the island. There’s so much that we can be about here as a church - and I know that many of us here on the island give so much of ourselves to so many different groups and non-profits...but if we here as a congregation are about following Jesus - striving to live as he taught and lived - then having a collective witness to that fact is important...in the words of James, Separating faith and works makes you lifeless.
Be in prayer these next couple of weeks about the ways God is calling you to give of yourself through this church - your talents, your treasure, and your time. For this is the way that we will show the life that we have together in Christ - a faith that is alive and growing - a faith that is known by what we do together to serve our community and our greater world. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 18:1-8
Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
Have you ever been an answer to prayer?
Stop and think about that for a moment…..Have you ever been an answer to somebody else’s prayer?
There’s a wonderful story that Kenda Creasy Dean shares – and if you happen to listen to Ben’s Podcast (Reports from the Spiritual Frontier) – you may recall this moment from their interview. Kenda is a professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary and is at the leading edge of research around the future of the church in the United States. Take a moment and listen to her story about leading a youth group mission trip.
[Answer to Prayer story; from beginning of clip to 2:01]
By putting the trailer back on the blocks, this youth group became an answer to this family’s prayer, which gave a whole new layer of meaning to the work they were about in serving this family. And when I read this passage of scripture for this morning, this parable Jesus tells about the widow and the judge, the story we just heard is the one that came to mind.
When we think about this passage about prayer, we often cast ourselves as the widow and God as the judge - we are the ones who plaintively make our case before God day after day, night after night, and God, like a parent who has heard their child’s request for ice cream twenty thousand times, will begrudgingly give in just to stop the nagging. Prayer then becomes this laundry list of requests that we give to God to check off “yes, no, maybe later.” (Being a parent, the “maybe later” line is one that I use all too often).
We could move beyond this initial reading and consider how this parable is less about our prayer and more about God’s nature – after all, if a unjust judge, someone who cares little for others or for God – finally grants this poor woman’s request, how much more will God, who us abounding in steadfast love and compassion, hear the suffering of God’s children and the cries of our hearts? And this is certainly true, that God hears us in our hour of need; that our hurts and pains are known to God and that God will move to respond.
But such a reading ignores the fact that we have two very specific characters here in the story – the widow and the judge. Each person would have represented something very particular to the crowd of 1st century Israelites.
We’ll start with the judge. Judges in that day weren’t like our judges; there was no jury, no external laws that separated church and state. Judges were tasked with keeping God’s peace – God’s shalom – among God’s people. They were to maintain harmonious relations and listen to disputes among members of the covenanted community. They were charged with listening to all cases, from the biggest to the smallest, with fairness and no impartiality. They were the sole representatives of enacting God’s justice. So with our judge in this passage – it would have been his religious duty to hear out the case of the widow, but because he is described as one who neither feared God nor had respect for people” it’s clear he is not fit for the job.
Widows, on the other hand, were nobody. The Hebrew word for widow means “silent one” or “one unable to speak” – that gives us a sense of how little they were regarded in Biblical times. They were not allowed to inherit their deceased husband’s property, it going to the husband’s sons and brothers – and yet within the covenant, the community had a responsibility to take care of widows and orphans. Throughout scripture, God’s care and concern was consistently with these people – the orphan, the stranger, and the widow – and yet we read so often in the prophets God’s indictment of the people in failing to live up to this task as a community.
So we have a widow – a silent one – who decides to use her voice to make a grievance and is asking for God’s judgment. Her pleas fall on deaf ears, time and time and time again, until finally the judge, the one who is supposed to be representative of God’s compassion and mercy and shalom, gives in to her cries and her suffering and gives her justice. The judge becomes the answer to her pleading, persistent, prayer – even despite himself.
Perhaps we aren’t the widows then, in this story. Perhaps we may be more like the judge than we care to admit - and the question asked to us through this parable is Do we hear the voices of the “widows” around us – the people who are crying out for God’s justice – and are we willing to listen and act? Are we - people who are followers of Jesus and are called to share that same care and concern for the silent ones around us - are we willing to be the answer to their prayers?
Do we hear the voice of creation crying out as we face the most significant global crisis of our time in climate change? Do we hear the voice of Greta Thunberg, 16 year old activist from Sweden who has championed awareness of this threat, and the thousands of young people who have marched and protested for a dramatic change in how we treat our environment? Watching the response her speech at the United Nations reminded me of how threatened those in power can feel as they dismiss the righteous protests of our youth. And yet creation itself cries out with rising temperatures in our atmosphere, more extreme weather patterns, migrating wildlife and sealife, and droughts and famine across our planet. Do we hear it – and if we do, what is our response as God’s people to be an answer to their prayers?
Do we hear the voice of our children, who live in a more complex world than the ones in which we grew up – our school kids who have organized because they are angry about school shootings and are well aware of the risks they take each day by going to school – who are weighed down by anxiety and depression at higher rates than ever before – who experience bullying and sexual harassment and self harm and navigating the pressures of being a teenager in this day and age and who are rightly worried about their future on this planet. Where is the safe space for them? Do we hear the cries of their suffering – and if we do, what is our response as God’s people to be an answer to their prayers?
Do we hear the voice of our African American sisters and brothers – and others who have been oppressed and abused because of their racial or ethnic background, particularly immigrants? Do we hear them as they are shot in their homes and in their places of worship, as they are turned away at the border, as even those who are here legally live in fear of being deported? Do we hear them as they live with economic injustice and disrespect each and every day? And if we do, what is our response as God’s people to be an answer to their prayers?
Do we hear the voice of those who are poor, those who have no homes, those who struggle with addiction, those who live with mental illness, those for whom we pray each and every week – do we hear their cries? And if we do, what is our response as God’s people to be an answer to their prayers – and to be an answer to the prayers we lift up on their behalf?
Let’s return to the story we heard earlier about the kids on the mission trip. [Return to clip - play until the end]
The reality here is that being an answer to prayer isn’t just about doing good work. It’s not about the moral and ethical responsibility we have to our neighbors. It’s not even about those “good feelings” we get upon completing a task for someone else.
Being an answer to prayer is about holy work. Redemptive work. About being the church - because there will always be people who are more capable and more efficient at most things we try our hand at...but that’s not the point. The point in being an answer to prayer is to be steeped in a story far greater than our own, to be a part of God’s restoring and transforming work in the world and right here on our island, to give of ourselves to the people and places who are crying out for it the most - not because it’s a good thing to do….but because it is the holy thing to do.
What voices do we hear crying out for us? Where can we be the answer to prayer?
This doesn’t take a committee decision. It doesn’t add items to our to do list. But it requires us to be attentive to the hurts and sufferings of those around us. It requires us to show up for each other and for this island and for people we may never know - because we’ve chosen to be a church engaged in the holy, redemptive work of God. It requires us, as Ben shared a couple of weeks ago, to save each other’s lives each and every day - or at the very least be honest about the fact that we have other things to do.
It requires us to make the space and intention to listen...and to respond.
It is my hope and prayer that we wrestle with this question and answer honestly where we believe God is inviting us to be an answer to somebody’s prayer - and that as we begin to hear the cries of those all around us, that we step into this holy and redemptive work so that we might be the church - emboldened by the Holy Spirit to love and serve our neighbors near and far together. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 9:51-62
Luke 9:51-62 (New Revised Standard Version)
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
I remember the days when the internet was a fairly benign place. Sure, there were the dangerous places, but for the most part it was a place to share cute cat videos with your friends...to forward chain letters to everyone in your address book….to build and share Geocities websites all about your hobby of choice and find others who shared your interests and passions...to take meaningless quizzes about which Disney character you are or which era in history you should have been born into.
Ok, so the internet still functions in some of that capacity, and if that continues to be your experience of the world wide web, more power to you.
However, most days, when I sit down at my computer to check Facebook or Twitter...or even to read a news article...there’s one important safety rule that I inevitably break - and that is….Never Read the Comments.
It’s always a bad idea. Have you just read the most heart-warming story about a group saving baby whales in the Atlantic ocean? I guarantee you there will be at least two or three people who have taken to their keyboards and shared where they’ve found offense in the story. What about a parenting article about the best places to take your child this summer? The sanctimommies will be out in full force, shaming anyone who disagrees with their parenting philosophies. And forget about it when reading something even remotely controversial or political - the comments section will be a dumpster fire of hatred and vitriol against anyone who expresses a viewpoint other than their own.
Social media feeds this instinct within us and preys upon our lizard brains - that part of us that feels threatened whenever our values or beliefs are perceived to be under attack - and the internet allows us an outlet to express ourselves in a knee-jerk fashion -- We don’t have to have an actual conversation with the person we feel threatened by, we can share our thoughts relatively anonymously, we can fire off words and statements without really having to think very hard about what we’re saying. Even if we never write out our thoughts, we can share a quick “like” on a picture talking about a political opponent “getting what’s coming to them” or “like” someone’s outrage over someone else’s ignorance or hard-heartedness. We can remain entrenched in our own way of thinking without having to truly engage with a different point of view. We can rain down metaphorical fire upon our foes without having to think twice.
Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to the internet - we all have a tendency to react defensively or out of anger when we come up against an opposing viewpoint, or when we interact with someone who gets under our skin, or to act or speak without thinking through our response. This is what we see going on in our passage from scripture this morning, as Jesus walks with his disciples toward Jerusalem, his ultimate destination. Along their way, there is a Samaritan village, and so they send messengers ahead to prepare the village for their arrival - to get everyone ready to receive Jesus and his teachings, his ministry of healing - and most likely to arrange for lodging. Except, the Samaritans refuse him because his ultimate destination was Jerusalem -- a place that represented pretty much everything that the Samaritan people despised. Remember there was a long history of hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans. So when James and John - known also as the Sons of Thunder - hear that the people of this village didn’t want them - they asked Jesus if they could call down fire from heaven to burn down the village. I mean, isn’t that the natural consequence for someone rejecting Jesus? Fiery judgment and punishment? Except Jesus doesn’t think so; he instead rebukes James and John -- the Samaritans don’t deserve death for their refusal to welcome Jesus and his disciples - and they continue on their way.
Jesus interrupts their reactive behavior because it had clouded their hearts against the people of this village. It was a way for Jesus to refocus the disciples - shifting their attention away from taking out their outrage on the people of this village and toward a way of kindness and compassion. The call is to bring life and not death, as Jesus reminds the disciples, to those who choose a different way than what Jesus offers to them; a lesson that they will learn many times on the road to Jerusalem. What matters to Jesus is learning to operate out of a different center, even when we’re wounded and hurting, even when we feel threatened or under attack, even when we’re incensed that someone doesn’t see things our way. It’s about learning to respond with gentleness and kindness, of forgiveness and love -- of making that the goal and priority as we follow Jesus as opposed to living out of our own sense of self.
Jesus continues this theme in the second part of the passage, where various people are given the opportunity to follow Jesus, and each person gives an excuse as to why they are unable to respond to the invitation. In the first case, presumably the person is unable to accept the reality that following Jesus will not result in an easy or comfortable life. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” We want to live comfortably and securely - Jesus gives no guarantee of this.
In the second case, the man wants to bury his father before joining up with Jesus, and Jesus tells him to let the dead bury their own dead. It suggests that Jesus knows that there are times when following him will go against cultural and societal expectations, will cause us to disappoint our families - norms that we all conform to as part of living in this world. Jesus speaks to our burning need to fit in, to conform to the expectations of others around us - and challenges that very desire to say that if that is our priority, we cannot follow Jesus because discipleship will make us look different, will disrupt our families and friendships, and will cause us to shake things up, and we have to be able to deal with the fallout from that because the kingdom of God is more important.
Lastly, one man wants to say goodbye to his friends and family before following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, to which Jesus responds with: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Again, Jesus challenges our temptation to make following him an item on our to-do list - something to get to after we have finished all the important projects we think take precedence over anything Jesus might want or demand of us.
In all these four cases - Jesus interrupts our self-centered, ego-based responses and gives an opportunity to choose a different path - a path focused on Jesus and his responses and priorities - a path that takes us out of our selves and our programmed habits and patterns that reside in that lizard brain part of our being - the part that craves safety and security, that lashes out without thinking, that wants to fit in and not rock the boat, that doesn’t demand much of us beyond basic survival, that makes decisions based on threats and fear. Jesus invites us into a different way of being and living - of love and forgiveness, compassion and peace.
Jesus comes and interrupts our programmed responses to remind us of the calling of the kingdom -- like when we find ourselves aggravated by what someone posted online, or what we overheard someone say on the boat, or when we start to feel complacent in our relationship with Jesus and our lives look no different than that of our neighbors, or when we’re tempted to take the easy way out when making a decision about the future. Jesus invites us to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit instead of jumping to follow our own instincts and desires.
For Jesus - it matters whether love or fear ultimately governs our hearts. It matters if we follow our own notions of retribution and justice or the love and righteousness of the kingdom of God. It matters that we pattern our lives and our hearts after that of Jesus - who didn’t condemn the Samaritans in our passage for not welcoming him, who didn’t condemn those who chose not to follow him either, but simply offered a path of love...knowing full well how hard and demanding and challenging and urgent it was….knowing full well that it would require us to die to ourselves to be able to truly live...knowing that our hearts are in desperate need of transformation so that resurrection can happen in our lives and in our world.
That’s the invitation Jesus makes to us in this passage - whenever we are faced with a decision to make - whenever we are faced with how to respond to someone who we disagree with, who doesn’t share our beliefs or values - whenever we are challenged - as individuals and as a church - to make decisions based on fear and scarcity, security and comfort, status quo or fitting in - to stop instead - listen to the voice of the spirit, and base our full selves on a life in Christ together.
We live in a time where that kind of life in Christ is needed - It’s needed in our own backyard with new neighbors seeking asylum in Portland. It’s needed on the southern border with the conditions children are living in. It’s needed in the way we talk to and with and about each other - online and in person.Our community and our world yearns for the church to be the church - the living embodiment of Christ on earth - and for the people of God to live in a way that bears witness to the great love God has for each and every person, that demonstrates what a life of forgiveness and compassion and mercy looks like, that points to God’s restorative and redemptive work in the world.
My prayer for us here is that we be that people for this island. That we move beyond focusing on the things that serve us here in this space, and that look toward creating a community around us that is more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate -- because we as a people have chosen to take Jesus’s invitation to be about the kingdom of God instead of our own kingdoms….because we have decided to keep Jesus’s priorities as our priorities and not get distracted by the little things that drain us of energy and resources and life….because we have decided to serve our neighbors instead of serving ourselves.
And so may we go forth from this place - focused on Jesus and his work in this world, in this community, and in our hearts - that we also may be inspired and challenged to join him along the way - to choose the path of love and life...for the sake of a broken and hurting world. Amen.
Scripture - Micah 6:6-8; John 1:9-14
Micah 6:6-8 (New Revised Standard Version)
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
John 1:9-14 (The Message)
The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
“and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
As many of you know, these past few days, Lola and I attended the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church - a gathering of clergy and laity from across our region. We gather as an Annual Conference each year to make decisions about our life together as United Methodists in our area, to network and resource each other, to organize the life of the institutional church together with conference budgets and policies...but also to study and to worship together.
This passage from Micah 6:8 was the “theme” for our time together - and it’s a verse that seems so simple on the surface. What does God require of us - easy - doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. And yet, as with many passages of Scripture, it is easy in principle and so, so hard to live out as a community.
When Micah first spoke these words, he was doing so to a divided people. Literally the people of God had split into two kingdoms - Israel in the north with its capital of Samaria, and Judah in the south with its capital of Jerusalem. In addition to this, there was an economic divide - the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Lands once belonging to farmers and sheepherders were being acquired by wealthy landowners and those who once depended on the land for their livelihoods became unable to sustain themselves or their families and were essentially forgotten. To add to this, the worshipping community seemed not to notice what was happening -- they continued to bring their offerings before God, continued to make the religious observances, continued to go through the motions of faith without concern for or awareness of the exploitation and oppression happening to the poor and suffering.
So when the people finally woke up to this reality, they naturally turned to ask God what they could do to make up for their sin - to atone for neglecting their neighbors - what sacrifices could they bring, what offerings would make up for their failure, what tangible gifts could they bring in worship to make God pleased with them.
Would a thousand rams? Ten thousand jugs of oil? Burnt offering upon burnt offering? The finest calves? The choicest grain? A check for twenty thousand dollars? Expensive new paraments for the altar?
(Interestingly enough….they do not ask for forgiveness or admit guilt -- Israel just wants a way out).
God, instead, asks them to do justice….to love kindness...and to walk humbly with God.
Justice -- to do right by those who have been harmed and exploited and oppressed. To ask the hard questions of why systems hurt and exclude or why cycles of violence and harm continue to cause suffering to the most vulnerable among us.
Kindness -- the Hebrew word is hesed and is hard to translate, but is better understood as “steadfast love” and is largely about that unbreakable connection God has with God’s people. To love hesed - to love that steadfast, covenant love God has with the people - means that Israel must also have that kind of connection with their neighbors….bringing it back to doing justice.
Walking humbly with God -- not humble in the lowly or meek sense, but in the sense of giving careful and considered attentiveness to what is before you -- walking attentively with God. The invitation to be always aware of God’s call for justice, for God’s steadfast love of all people.
What strikes me in this passage is that God’s challenge to the people - which was really a challenge to the wealthy worshipping community - isn’t about tangible offerings or gifts, isn’t about right worship or rituals, but is about the extent to which God’s people are willing to give of themselves to others and to God’s priorities in the world, that their worship and offerings mean nothing if it is done while ignoring the plight of the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited in their midst.
The situation in our world - between the haves and have nots, between the powerful and oppressed, between the majority and the forgotten, between the comfortable and the suffering - has not significantly changed between Micah’s time and our day. The poor are getting poorer, and the rich are getting richer. Exploitation and oppression is woven into the fabric of our society and is part of the very air that we breathe, the clothes that we buy, the food we consume, the products we purchase. To bring it closer to home, one in ten families in the US will go hungry at some point this year. Or asylum seekers fleeing violence in their home countries who want to work but can’t because of our regulations. Children who fear going to school. Those without homes. Those who have the wrong skin color or the wrong ethnic background.
These cycles of oppression have played out in so many ways for generations in our own country and around the world - kept in perpetual motion by those who have power over others - be it financial, political, religious, or otherwise. And before we count ourselves exempt from guilt, remember that in the world economy, those who make even just $15,000 per year are among the richest 12% of people in the world.
So when God calls us to do justice, to love hesed, and to walk attentively with God, it’s not just another religious platitude or some kind of feel-good quote that we can put on a bumper sticker. It’s because there are important consequences - life or death consequences - for those who are waiting for justice and kindness.
Elaine Heath, who led morning Bible study at conference, and who has written about being church in this day and age - in addition to being a professor and practitioner of new forms of spiritual community, shared a bit about her life in relation to this passage. She described herself as a newly-graduated seminary student with a three point charge...and the house she lived in was a parsonage that was old and a bit decrepit and in a bad part of town -- literally drugs on every side...the house abutting the backyard was an active drughouse. And she remembered thinking - with Micah 6:8 on her mind - what a great opportunity to practice this verse. Need and suffering was everywhere - how great it would be to bring God to these people. And what her time in that neighborhood brought to her attention, through the relationships and through the ways Jesus met her there - that it wasn’t that she had God and they didn’t….or even that she had things or skills that they needed from her….she discovered that God was already there, among the people - whether they knew it or not. To truly do justice, to love steadfast love, to walk attentively with God, required understanding that God as the Word made Flesh had already moved into the neighborhood. It was a story that I really resonated with as someone who also, fresh from seminary, held similar ideas about coming in to help save the people of the neighborhood from their poverty and their pain - and who also had to grapple with the notion that it’s not me who does any of the saving, that’s Jesus’s job - and Jesus is already out there doing that work - God’s already in the neighborhood - and we will meet Jesus if we engage in what God’s about in the world.
That’s a hard shift to make - that it’s not we who somehow have God, we who have all the answers, we who are doing good works to serve our community to bring God to our friends and neighbors - but that God is already in and among the people and our job is to pay attention to the places where we can practice God’s justice, where we can participate in God’s radical steadfast love of God’s people, where we can join in with what God hopes and dreams for the world around us.
It means taking action - it’s not about what we say we believe, or about the statements we make or about our hopes for the future - it’s about participating in the creation of the kingdom, it’s about active presence within our community, it’s about actions because being in relationship with people - doing justice and being in connection with others in the way that mirrors God’s steadfast love - requires more than just our words and hopes and dreams. It requires us to do the hard work of prayer...of engaging others right where they are...and seeing where Jesus is already there ahead of us.
What might that look like for us here on Chebeague? What might it look like if we believed that the Word made flesh was already here among us - among our community - had already moved into our neighborhood - and was already active and working and inviting us to come along to do justice - love others with God’s steadfast love - and to walk attentively with God? What does it look like for us to engage of acts of justice? Who are the people we need to stand alongside with God’s radical, persistent, steadfast love? How can we give ourselves over so fully to what God is doing out in the world?
We may not be surrounded by drughouses here at the church building, but addiction and substance abuse is no less of a problem in our community. What does doing justice and loving kindness look like with those who are in the midst of addiction, those on the recovery journey and their families?
Our children and teens - the burdens they carry on behalf of their peers, even if they themselves don’t have suicidal ideations or engage in self-harming behaviors - what would it look like for our church to do justice and loving kindness with our kids?
Those who are lonely on this island - who suffer in silence or act out of pain - what would it mean for this church to bear witness to the radical love of God? Those who struggle with mental illness, those who live with cycles of abuse - the list can go on and on - how can this church become the Word made Flesh for and with those in this community so that we can more fully do justice, love kindness, and walk attentively with God together with our friends and neighbors?
Last week we celebrated Pentecost - the Sunday we remember the Holy Spirit suffusing the first disciples with power and authority and boldness - so much so they couldn’t help but respond in a way that dramatically altered the relationships between them and the new followers in a way that changed how they engaged with each other economically by holding everything in common - talk about justice...no poverty among them…, it changed how they ate together -- becoming one family, a radical move that bound people of different cultures and languages together at the same table….loving one another with that steadfast love of God….and worshipping and praying and studying together -- being attentive to God’s movement within and around them so that they could be about this new thing God was doing out in the world.
In this time of the church year we particularly remember the mission of the church - the church that was birthed on Pentecost - the church that continues to follow and rely upon the movement and power of the Holy Spirit to live that radical commitment to love and enact Micah 6:8 for our neighbors.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has this quote - “The church is only the church when it exists for others.”
And so my prayer for us as we move into this next season is that we may exist for others. That we might follow the Holy Spirit to see the ways that Jesus is already in our neighborhood, already at work around us...among us….and in us. And that we might join in the work that God requires us to do -- to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Amen.
*Hymn - Spirit of God, v. 1 and 2 (FWS 2117)
Scripture - Acts 2:1-21
Acts 2:1-21 (New Revised Standard Version)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - Spirit of God, v. 3-5 (FWS 2117)
The first time I had ever been out of the United States (aside from Canada) was during my freshman year in college. We had, at Colby, what were called “Jan Plans” where in between fall and spring semester, you were encouraged to take a three week course in a discipline outside your field of study. It was an opportunity for enrichment, to try new things in a low pressure environment, and broaden your educational horizons.
The French department was offering a second level course in Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe is technically a part of France - you go through French customs, your passport gets stamped with a French stamp, everyone speaks French...but it’s geographically located in the Carribean. So when my professor put the opportunity out there that there was some room for Freshman students to take the class, I jumped at the chance. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get out of Mid-Maine in the middle of winter and bask for three weeks in the warmth of the Carribean sun?
Even though I had been studying French for six years, nothing could have prepared me for the disorientation of being in a different cultural and linguistic environment. Everything was a translation - from hearing conversations around the table with my host family and having to mentally shift their words to English...to the arduous work of figuring out how to respond in French….not to mention the cultural translation of being an American student in a foreign country in the aftermath of 9/11 and how different the world’s perspective of our current events was.
It was a rewarding experience, but challenging being in an environment where it was so difficult to (1) understand fully what was going on around me and (2) make myself understood to others. Differences around language - culture - ethnicity - nationality...it was the first time where my identity and how I understood the world was not the norm, where everything was in translation. So those rare moments where I’d be out at the grocery store or walking through town and hear someone speaking American English to me was like a breath of fresh air. Beyond being just familiar words and sounds - it was a signal of hospitality, that I didn’t have to work so hard to communicate or be understood.
So I wonder what it must have felt like for the crowd of Jews gathered in Jerusalem on the feast of Pentecost - a festival celebrating the spring harvest and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai - to hear the disciples speaking in their own native languages - Jews from Egypt and Lybia and Rome and Crete and Mesopotamia - speaking the Good News of Jesus not in the language of the Roman Empire, not in the dominant tongue of Aramaic, but in each person’s birth language - the language spoken among family and close friends - the language of home.
We can get caught up in the spectacle of this day - the wind and the fire, the accusations of drunkenness, Peter’s stirring sermon, the thousands of converts and baptisms in response to the message. We celebrate this “birthday of the Church” when the circle of Jesus followers that was relatively small and intimate - about 120 people - expanded 25 times over. But what I also find remarkable is that even though all the people who responded to this message of Jesus’ resurrection and the new day of God’s kingdom were Jews - they represented different cultures, different languages, different worldviews. Diversity and inclusivity woven into our very origin story as a church -- that’s God’s people are both One and Many...and we see throughout Acts, and indeed throughout the history of faith, the ways that God drew the circle wider and wider still, pouring the Holy Spirit out in unexpected ways on unexpected people - the Gentiles, political leaders and emperors, slaves and women, young and old alike...throughout the ages to this very day.
The crowds on that Pentecost day - they weren’t confused about the message - they were astounded and perplexed by being able to understand what was being said. That there was no translation required - that there was nothing extra demanded of them to be included into the body of Christ, no cultural navigations, no wordy and awkward translations of Peter’s message, no feeling like they were on the outside looking in because of their differences. They Holy Spirit came and spoke in the language of their hearts and homes, drawing them in to relationship with Jesus - God incarnate - God who for the sake of love took on language and culture and human skin to experience life and death as one of us, God who comes and makes a home in us.
The Holy Spirit empowered those first few followers of Jesus to stop huddling in safety, to throw open the doors wide, and to speak across the things that divide us - race, culture, language, ethnicity, gender, orientation, worldview, political affiliation, economic status, and age. To take the risk of encountering difference and to be vulnerable in sharing from the heart because they couldn’t help themselves they were so much on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit.
It was risky business for those early believers; they had to move out of their comfort zones to encounter others….they had to trust that something important was happening within them, sharing things and words and sounds they didn’t understand, they had to trust that they were a part of something bigger and more powerful - no matter how silly it looked, no matter how derisive some in the crowd were - claiming they were drunk, no matter the social cost.
Even the crowds who heard these words - words spoken in familiar phrases - had to take the risk of trust...to believe that God was drawing them in...and drawing one another in. They, too, had to widen their circles to include the other, the stranger, those who were different.
And into this glorious mess of wind and fire and language and culture - of risk and vulnerability, trust and transformation, - God breathed life anew.
And I believe God wants to do the same with us today.
We took a step forward as a congregation together, trusting God’s call to affirm and include all people into the full life and participation of the church. As we heard in our opening hymn - there is a place at the table for everyone here - young and old, gay and straight, woman and man, just and unjust - God meets us here, folds us into one body, there is room for everyone. We celebrate that as we seek to live and embody our welcoming statement and as we join the Reconciling Ministries Network.
That is Holy Spirit work - that work that cuts across the things that can divide us to say to those who are marginalized in our society - particularly those who are LGBTQ - that you are welcome here...that you are wanted here...that you are safe here.
But I believe it is just one step. Inclusion isn’t enough. Feeling like everyone can belong isn’t enough. What’s next is to take the Holy Spirit risk of becoming one even though we are many - of crossing the barriers that divide to offer love and hope to all, to engage and listen with open hearts to those who understand the world completely differently than we do - who might figuratively speak different languages.
As author Debie Thomas wrote on this Acts passage - she writes: “Something happens when we speak each other's languages — be they cultural, political, racial or liturgical. We experience the limits of our own perspectives. We learn curiosity. We discover that God's "great deeds" are far too nuanced for a single tongue, a single fluency...It is no small thing that the Holy Spirit loosened tongues on the birthday of the Church. In the face of difference, God compelled his people to engage. From Day One, the call was to press in, linger, listen, and listen some more.”
When that happens - when we truly engage with the other - when we listen and learn from their stories, their experiences, learn their language, their identities - we see Jesus in one another, true inclusion happens. True inclusion isn’t just about appreciation of where others come from, or being glad that they feel like they belong or attend our gatherings...it’s about celebrating the gift they are to us...the gift they are to this church...the gift they are to the body of Christ….and empowering others to use those gifts for building up the body of Christ.
We read later on in this chapter of Acts that the result of this new diverse, inclusive body of Christ was this radical community that devoted themselves to fellowship and study together, to breaking bread together and praying together, to holding possessions in common together, eliminating economic inequality among themselves, sharing and eating together with glad and generous hearts. And what was going on among them was so powerful, so compelling, so fascinating, that others couldn’t help but be drawn in and God continued to draw the circle wider.
And so I can’t help but wonder - what would that look like on this island? What if the Holy Spirit blew through this congregation with fresh fire? What if each person here, from the kids in our Sunday School class to our seasonal friends to those sitting in the choir and those who have lived here their whole lives and everyone in between - was so tapped in to the Holy Spirit...so compelled to engage and speak words of love and hope in the language and stories of the people around us - what couldn’t God do through us?
It takes risk...it takes vulnerability…it takes trust in the one who promised to be with us always...it takes a willingness to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to full engagement with one another and with our community….and so my prayer for us this Pentecost is that we call upon the Holy Spirit for the work ahead of us -- to let ourselves be moved beyond these four walls with a message of hope and peace for all people….to speak love in the languages of those we meet...to become a church where all are truly welcome and included. May we call upon that Spirit so that we may be on fire for the healing of all those around us...for our community...and for our world. Amen.
Scripture - John 14:23-29
John 14:23-29 (New Revised Standard Version)
23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace 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.
28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
How many of you have tried a self-improvement plan this year? Like a new diet or exercise regimen or gratitude practice or meditation or house cleaning ritual -- any kind of routine that you hoped would lead to a healthier, more happy, more joyous, more peaceful, or a more whatever you?
And there are thousands of books and articles and web guides and YouTube videos all geared to help you create the best version of you possible, right? Most of them available in two easy payments of $19.99 plus shipping and handling, or one click away on your Kindle, or easily available in a weekly e-newsletter delivered straight to your inbox -- all there to help you have it al, that elusive, peaceful, simple life...once you follow the 17 easy steps to your best life now.
I have to say, I found myself caught up a bit in the Marie Kondo home-organization craze a bit earlier this year. I didn’t watch the series on Netflix but this idea of simplifying your stuff and surrounding yourself with the things and clothes and items that bring you more joy -- it’s not just about the best way to organize your sweaters, it’s about experiencing more joy and peace in your life. And who doesn’t want that? Especially in anticipation of baby #2 in just a few long/short weeks, there’s been this gradual purge of items in our household - but if I’m honest, the goal for me hasn’t been just to get rid of stuff so that we have room for all the stuff a second child brings -- it’s been about this quest for a simpler life -- as if I could achieve this by rearranging and organizing and getting rid of the extraneous items in my environment to experience greater inner peace.
This kind of dis-ease within ourselves we often ascribe to the culture around us. There is a kind of dislocation we experience and that our modern life exacerbates as we are bombarded with demands about being a good partner to our spouse while being a good parent to our children while being excellent at our jobs and great friends to our friends -- all while being expected to cycle through our appointments, errands, household chores, volunteer commitments cheerfully on the never-ending hamster wheel of life. Life is busy, we say. There’s a lot more going on in the world these days that demands more of ourselves, we say. And so we seek to control what we can - our weight, our schedules, our home environment, our attitude - everything within reach around the edges of our life, to bring alignment, happiness, peace, and joy.
Thomas Kelly, a Quaker missionary and writer, has something to say about this sense of busyness and dislocation within us, in his book A Testament of Devotion and offers insight that points to the heart of our scripture passage from the Gospel of John this morning . Kelly writes, “Let me first suggest that we are giving a false explanation of the complexity of our lives. We blame it upon the complex environment. Our complex living, we say, is due to the complex world we live in,...which give us more stimulation per square hour than used to be given per square day to our grandmothers. This explanation by the outward order leads us to turn wistfully, in some moments, to thoughts of a quiet South Sea Island existence, or to the horse and buggy days of our great grandparents, who went, jingle bells, jingle bells, over the crisp and ringing snow to spend the day with their grandparents on the farm. Let me assure you, I have tried the life of the South Seas for a year, the long, lingering leisure of a tropic world. And I found that Americans carry into the tropics their same mad-cap, feverish life which we know on the mainland. Complexity of our program cannot be blamed upon complexity of our environment, much as we would like to think so. Nor will simplification of life follow simplification of environment.
“We Western peoples are apt to think our great problems are external, environmental. We are not skilled in the inner life, where the real roots of our problem lie. For I would suggest that the true explanation of the complexity of our program is an inner one, not an outer one. The outer distractions of our interests reflect and inner lack of integration of our own lives. We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us. Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self. And each of our selves is in turn a rank individualist, not co-operative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes. And all too commonly we follow the common American method of getting a quick decision among conflicting claims within us. It is as if we have a chairman of our committee of the many selves within us, who does not integrate the many into one but wh merely counts the votes at each decision, and leaves disgruntled minorities. The claims of each self are still pressed. We are not integrated. We are distraught. We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all.”
Sounds like he wrote this about this day and age, right? He wrote these words over 70 years ago. He talks about distractions like radios and cars -- and now we have distractions that pull us out of ourselves that we carry around with us in our pockets -- How many of us have forgotten our phones somewhere and felt like a piece of us went missing?
The problem is not with the busyness, with the complexity of daily living in our reality, with the external demands upon us -- the problem lies within us, and no amount of self-improvement strategies, of escaping to a simpler life, of controlling or changing our environment will, in fact, change us.
It’s that famous saying -- wherever you go...there you are.
Kelly referenced this idea that we are trying to be these several competing selves at once - not under the guide of one master Life, not integrated together into one. This is where I see Jesus’s words to his disciples speaking to this issue. Jesus is sharing these final words to his disciples before his death, resurrection, and ascension. He knows he is leaving them very soon, and so is preparing them for life without his physical presence. Jesus knows that the disciples will be pulled in a thousand different directions, that they will be unable to control the circumstances they are about to be faced with, and that they will need to be grounded and centered to keep his message and mission alive. And so Jesus says to them at the beginning of our reading, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
“We will come to them and make our home with them.” - for those who love Jesus.
God at home with us in the here and now, dwelling within us as our center, the ground of our being out of which everything else flows….the Life which brings all our competing selves into alignment, which gives us that otherworldly sense of peace that permeates all decisions, all the things we carry, gives us purpose and clarity so that we aren’t pushed and pulled about by the complexity of demands placed upon us. God doesn’t become one more voice among the myriad of selves within us but becomes the True Center of our lives - the basis for all our decisions, all our actions, all our words, all our hopes and dreams for ourselves and for the world.
All….if we truly, truly want it….because once we invite God to be at home within our hearts, once we have surrendered all of who we are to let Jesus be our Center, once we choose to follow the guiding and leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives - our lives are not our own; our very selves belong to God.
God comes and makes a home within us as the Holy Spirit, closer to us than the very air that we breathe, restoring us from within, bringing healing and wholeness -- and not through any five step self-improvement plan, not through us getting anything right or perfect -- but only if we make the decision to let that love in and take root in our hearts...to decide to love as Jesus loves...to let God’s priorities guide our own. And it’s not that life suddenly becomes less complex - there are still the responsibilities and commitments we make as part of families and communities - we still carry the same load…but we do so knowing what is truly important - operating out of a new center, living that new commandment Jesus gave to his disciples - love one another as I have loved you.
Jesus goes on to promise that we will not be left alone - that the Holy Spirit will be present with us to remind us and guide us in the ways that Jesus taught his early followers. Jesus promises that his peace will be ours - peace that comes not as the world gives, but that comes only from life lived in his presence. Jesus promises that our hearts do not need to be troubled - that we do not need to live in fear - all this for those who open their hearts for God to make a home.
I think about this as well for us as a congregation. What would it look like for God to truly be at home - to be present - among us as a church? Not as a place as a literal dwelling - but as a people, whose life together flowed from Jesus as the center? Churches too, as communities, aren’t exempt from being pushed and pulled by the complexities of ministering in this day and age, with worries about fundraising enough to meet the budget, with controversy around the color of the carpet, with concerns about aging buildings and aging populations and trying out church growth programs as if that is the silver bullet that will solve all our problems. We focus so much on the externals that we fail to tend to our internal life together - Jesus at the center. God at home within us. Making God’s priorities, God’s kingdom, the primary source and ground of our being as a church - the literal body of Christ, here in this place for this people at this time...so that others might know who God is when they look at us - in how we carry ourselves, in how we love one another and this island, in how we handle all the challenges and struggles of being a faith community in our world today. Again, it isn’t that the demands go away - but instead of letting our hearts be troubled or acting out of fear in response to the struggles we face - it’s God’s peace and love that form the basis of our decision-making together, it’s God’s peace and love that drive our ministry decisions, it’s wanting God’s peace and love for our community that informs how we deal with the challenges before us.
God at home with us - within our own hearts….within our church family here. All if we truly want it to be so. If we decide to let God’s heart shape ours...to let God’s kingdom reign within us...to let God’s hopes and dreams be our hopes and dreams...to let God be home among us.
And so my prayer for us this week - as we go forward from this place...as we head into the busyness of our lives - and the busyness of the summer season before us - both as individuals and as a church - is that we make that decision to let God be at home within us...to let Jesus be our Center...our source and our guide...and to let the Holy Spirit lead us and remind us to love one another as Jesus loves us….so that we might live a life of healing and wholeness…. so that God’s peace and grace might be among us….and so that all might know and experience God in and through us. Amen.
Scripture - Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35
Acts 11:1-18 (NRSV)
11 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
John 13:31-35 (The Message)
31-32 When he had left, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is seen for who he is, and God seen for who he is in him. The moment God is seen in him, God’s glory will be on display. In glorifying him, he himself is glorified—glory all around!
33 “Children, I am with you for only a short time longer. You are going to look high and low for me. But just as I told the Jews, I’m telling you: ‘Where I go, you are not able to come.’
34-35 “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? What cherished hope or dream would you share? What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer? What legacy would you want to leave for your loved ones to carry on?
Our reading from the Gospel of John starts what is known as the “Farewell Discourse” - it’s Jesus before his death and resurrection preparing the eleven disciples (because Judas has already gone out) for life without him, although they at this point don’t fully realize that he will be leaving them so soon. Jesus knows, however, the devastation they are about to face, and so is trying to get them ready - imparting to them his final words of encouragement and advice. The next couple of chapters are full of Jesus giving his final words and instructions to them as they sit around the table and eat together - emphasizing for them the importance of focusing on the mission and outlining the legacy he wants his followers to carry forward - and that legacy is centered around one simple commandment.
Jesus’ words seem pretty simple and straightforward, don’t they? “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another.”
And then comes the reason this commandment is so important to Jesus. He says, “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
There’s nothing ambiguous about them. No provisos, no fine print, no exceptions. Love one another. In the same way that Jesus loved. This is the hallmark of a follower of Jesus. Jesus didn’t say “believe the right things” or “pray this way” or “police each other’s behavior”….there is nothing about what one believes or says or what one doesn’t believe or say….but everything about love.
And for two thousand years, we’ve been adding qualifier after qualifier to what Jesus has said….to the point where the usual interpretation of this passage has been that Jesus was only talking about loving fellow Christian believers - and even further than that, loving only the Christian believers who are in your own, specific “in” group…and even then, it’s amazing to think how much we struggle with it. The irony in this, as New Testament scholar D.A Carson puts it, is that “This new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and yet it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.”
“Love one another.”
More than that - “love one another in the same way I loved you.”
As a commandment - not a suggestion or a guideline. A new commandment.
Love - the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated - is more than what we see portrayed by Hollywood and our favorite sitcoms, or might find on Hallmark greeting cards. It’s even more than the kind of love we try to inhabit when we know we should do the kind and compassionate thing but don’t really feel it - like when we’re trying to get two kids to act as if they loved each other by sharing their toys or playing together nicely, or when we collect money for homeless shelters or cards for the sick. Not that these things are bad in and of themselves - but do they fall under the heading of Jesus saying “in the same way I loved you, love one another”?
We talk a lot in the Christian tradition about how love is a choice, it’s not a feeling - and to some extent that is true. We make the decision to love, to live our lives choosing to act compassionately and with forgiveness, even when we don’t always feel it within us. But Jesus’ commandment wasn’t “Act as if you love one another.” It was to actually “love one another - in the same way I loved you.” Which suggests to me that what Jesus is asking for isn’t just a shallow gloss of love over our everyday, ordinary actions, but to love as he did - with deep engagement, genuine presence, and sharing of our authentic selves with one another.
And that’s really, really hard to do - it’s hard to do in our families, in our congregation, among members of our own Christian tribe, or among people who think and act like we do already -- but the command to love one another isn’t limited; as we see in our reading from the book of Acts, God’s Holy Spirit is being poured out among the Gentiles - among the people that the Jews prided themselves on being different from - and now they, too, are part of the fold. The call to “love one another” expanded to include the Gentiles who were previously excluded from Jewish community. The call to love one another isn’t just about loving those who are in….it’s about loving each and every person, no matter who they are. Throughout scripture, God keeps expanding the circle of those we are called to love.
And if we look at Jesus himself - and how he loved those he encountered - he shared and gave of himself to those who were particularly excluded from community, who had been forgotten and cast out, and gave of himself in a way that brought wholeness and healing to their lives - loving them back to life in all its fullness. The blind and lame, the sick and the tax collectors - the disciples had seen and experienced the love of Jesus lived out - both in their own lives and in the lives of those he touched. And so the way of love is found in the way Jesus himself loves. He tells the disciples - follow my example. Do what I do. Love as I love. Live as you have seen me live.
“Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Touch the untouchables. Feed the hungry. Welcome the child. Release the captive. Forgive the sinner. Confront the oppressor. Comfort the oppressed. Wash each other’s feet. Tell each other the truth, even when it’s hard.”
Such love doesn’t just come from charitable tasks or well-meaning words. This love comes from the core of our being - from the compassion that moves in our gut, from hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice that we feel in our bones, from letting our hearts be broken again and again by the world’s pain -- and rearranging our whole lives to be vulnerable to the brokenness in our world so that we can be led by love to do something about it….all because Jesus commands that we love one another as he loves us….because it is by this that the world will know that we are his disciples.
And friends, the world knows a lot of things about Christians -- but I’m not sure the world really knows that we are disciples of Jesus. All you need to do is pick up a newspaper and read about the hate being espoused by groups of Christians - hate for those who are gay and lesbian, hate for those who are not white, hate for those who have abortions, hate for those who are poor, hate for Jews and Muslims and immigrants and the list goes on and on.
But while we may not find ourselves in those camps, we do our own kind of self-selection, loving people based on our choices and preferences...I know at least this is true for me. I want to keep my boundaries small and safe and manageable, loving those who I want to love, who I like, who are easy to love...rather than loving based on Jesus’ nets-cast-wide commandment. It’s easy to love those who I chose to love….it’s hard and costly to cultivate a heart like that of Jesus.
Yet that is what Jesus wants of us - to love one another as he loves us.
Next week, this congregation has the opportunity to live more fully into that all-inclusive love as we discern and vote together around our Welcoming Statement and around becoming a Reconciling Congregation. We’ve had opportunities to talk about this together, to pray about this together, to study scripture around this together. It’s one step in letting everyone know that this church is a place of belonging for all people - no matter what - and to begin to heal the harm the church has done to our gay, lesbian, bisexal, and transgender friends and neighbors. It is a step forward in loving one another as Jesus loves...and step forward in making real the kingdom in which every single person knows that they are loved deeply and fully by the God who created them.
Because that’s what at stake when we choose to love or not to love - when we choose to keep others at arm's length in safe, charitable ways or when we choose to embrace others as Christ did; when we choose to love based on our own preferences and affinities or when we choose to love in obedience to Christ’s command….what’s at stake is the ability of others to see, touch, hear, feel, sense, experience Jesus alive in and through us. It’s through this love that we are embodying Jesus - literally the body of Christ - making Jesus real in a world that needs true, authentic, self-giving love so desperately….and even in our own island community, that deep loving presence of Jesus needs to be shared.
Jesus gives that commandment to us: Love one another. In the same way Jesus loves you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are his disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
Go forth this week to love as Jesus loved - with reckless abandon, with generous action, with an all-inclusive embrace that restored life to all. Amen.
Scripture - John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
*Hymn - Alleluia (FWS 2043)
We’ve all seen the iconic images of the Notre Dame Cathedral this week - the video of the spire tumbling from on high, snapshots of crowds singing hymns as it burned, photographs of the billowing clouds of smoke and flames surging from the rooftop. On Monday, there was so much speculation as the fire burned on - what would be saved? What would happen to the art, the relics, the stained glass, the organ? What about the centuries old beams of wood that have withstood the test of time?
Everyone started sharing pictures, memories, stories about their connection with Notre Dame - many heartbroken over the devastation. I saw comments on social media saying “It feels like everything good is on fire these days” or “with the burning of Notre Dame, it seems like all of Western civilization is burning down around us.”
I don’t think we here on this island are strangers to that feeling after the season we’ve had together where it as felt like one unending string of sadness and traumatic events, one after another. It’s that feeling where we’re sitting together in the ashes, wondering what comes next; the one where it seems like everything good in our lives is slipping through our fingers, no matter how desperately we try to hold on; the one where personal tragedies and heartbreaks become communal burdens that we bear for one another and yet still we wonder - how much pain and hurt and suffering can we actually bear? We hurt for our friends and neighbors and children, we hurt for ourselves, we hurt for our whole community as nothing will ever be the same anymore.
It makes me think of Mary Magdalene in the garden from the familiar Easter story. I love the version from the Gospel of John that we heard read this morning - because she comes to the tomb alone while it was still dark. Her hopes and dreams - the ones that were flying high as Jesus came into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week - had been dashed. She comes by herself, not with anything in hand to tend the body, but simply to grieve. I can imagine that she had spent a fitful night of sleep - tossing and turning - unable to rest because of her sorrow and grief. So she does the only thing she can think of to do: keep vigil at Jesus’ tomb...to cling to that comfort of closeness that helps us in the aftermath of a loved one’s death...that even though they are gone, some part of them yet remains for us to honor their memory.
And yet, she is even denied that measure of peace as there is no body anywhere to be found. The stone was rolled away. The tomb was empty. It was the gut punch on top of the horrific events surrounding Jesus’ execution - that last physical touch stone, gone. Mary runs to notify the other disciples, assuming the worst -- and two of them run back to the tomb to investigate for themselves. They go in and see the linen wrappings laying neatly rolled up, no Jesus to be found anywhere - and then the story says that they believed - which honestly, annoys me a bit because they didn’t see fit to tell that to Mary, who stands there outside the tomb, continuing to weep as they leave her behind. No words of comfort, no hope or encouragement. She remains there in her grief, deepened by the physical loss of Jesus.
The words she speaks to the angels who suddenly appear are full of hurt and longing. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” They resonate with intimate emotion and affection and Mary is so caught up in the depth of her despair that when she turns away from the tomb, she sees a man there and assumes he is the gardener when, in fact, it is Jesus himself.
In the conversation that follows, she is again desperate for some clue, some evidence that Jesus’ body is out there, somewhere, and wants to know where she can go to keep that connection, to have some link to the one she had given her life as a follower. It is not until he says her name - Mary - that she recognizes Jesus for who he is - and I can imagine that she must have reached out to touch him, his hands or his robe, to cling to him in some way so as to reassure herself that he was not going to leave her again.
Yet even in that moment, Jesus withdraws and tells her not to hold on to him - because there is more work for him to do - that he was, in fact, going away - ascending to God, and he commissions her in that moment to share that news with the disciples - he says, “tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Even though the other two disciples came to the tomb and believed - Mary is the only one in this story who actually witnesses the risen Christ, who has a conversation with him face to face, who must first wrestle with the news that even though he has risen, he must still leave her, he must still leave the disciples, he still has to leave this world and return to God.
There’s both sadness and hope in this moment when Mary and Jesus part - sadness in the reality that things never will be the same...but hope in that the story will continue unchained from the past expectations of who Jesus was and what he came to do. Jesus calls her by name to announce to the disciples and all believers that a new creations is here, a future they never could have imagined on their own is here, and that this reality she sent out to proclaim is only the beginning of an ongoing revelation of what resurrection and all that that implies might mean.
So often when we think of resurrection, we think of restoration, of revival, of something dead coming back to life again as if everything is back to normal, that everything will be the way it was again. But that’s not here in this story at all - Jesus may be alive, but he’s not staying around so that things will go back to the way they used to be. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of something completely new - of God fashioning a new creation, something that had never been done before, something that arises fresh out of the ashes of the past. We cannot go back ever to how things were because the past is the past and it is gone. Resurrection doesn’t bring that past back, resurrection vaults us into the future where God is doing something radically new - in us, with us, and through us - and by extension, in and with and through our world and all of creation.
Resurrection - true resurrection - means that something new and beautiful will take shape from the dead and broken places in our lives. I love that the choir sang “The Storm is Passing Over” for our anthem this morning - because our whole community certainly has been through a storm this past year. We’ve been Mary, full of loss and pain. We’ve kept vigil at the tomb, not knowing what life will look like next. We’ve been battered by the winds and the rains of grief and felt the rising flood around us. We’ve seen neighbors and loved ones weighed down and burdened - yet what the Easter story promises us is that new life - that resurrection is on its way. The storm is passing over. The morning light does appear. Our task is not to forget the pain of the past, but to let go of it - as Mary lets go of Jesus - to allow the transforming power of God’s resurrection to work to bring about something new and so that we can proclaim that hope will come out of the ashes, that fear does give way to joy, that life does grow out of death. All that is needed is to look to Jesus...and to let go of what holds us back from embracing that love for ourselves...so that we can move forward into the new creation Christ has for us. It’s not easy - letting go of what is familiar to us is scary - but the promise is that God will be with us in the new life that will unfold.
It reminds me of another image that was making the rounds in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire - the one that is on the cover of our Easter bulletin this morning, of the cross shining on the wall in the midst of the rubble of the burned cathedral. It reminds me that no matter what life may bring our way - in moments of joy and celebration...but especially in moments when everything seems to fall apart around us - God is there, Jesus is waiting to meet us - offering us hope and life...carrying us in the moments when we cannot carry ourselves...showing us that our mistakes, failures, heartbreaks, sufferings, struggles - our very brokenness is what makes us able to know and feel the new life that Christ ushered in on Easter morning and that waits for each one of us to claim for ourselves.
And so this Easter - with the storm passing over us - with the light dawning on the horizon - with Jesus risen from the tomb, will we move from pain to joy, from uncertainty to boldness, from mourning to dancing, from death into life - will we enter the resurrection life Jesus brings to us? As we venture, like Mary, into the tombs of our past, will we let go of what holds us back and instead run headlong into joy and love, hope and new life, toward a resurrection so powerful that when we find it, we we too will run to tell the world, “I have seen the Lord.”
Christ is risen - Christ is risen indeed. May that resurrection reality become true for you; for us, for our community, and for our world, on this day....and every day. 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, 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.