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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Divine Utilities - Plugged In, Connected and Empowered

John 14:15-21
As human beings we are simply not wired to be alone. We are wired to be in, to live in, relationship, and I mean that in the broadest sense. There are many of us who, for various reasons live by ourselves. But we are connected through a broad range of threads drawing us to other people, and linking us in profound ways to each other. Regardless of which Genesis creation story you read, we are told that once God had labored to produce the magnificent creation, and before God was truly done with that original creative work, God went about creating humankind. First, God created Adam. And once God had set the first human in the garden, God decided that it wasn’t good that the man should be alone with only animals to keep him company, so God created woman.
For better or worse, from that time forward the nature of human kind has been that we are made for living in relationship to one another. We are connected. Even more importantly, we are made for relationship with God. Of course God envisioned and designed the perfect kind of relationships, and though we have challenged God’s vision and design over the ensuing millennia, still, God persists in building, creating and sustaining relationship with us and for us. And because connectedness is our nature, the opposite condition – being alone - frightens most of us. In fact the thought of being left alone, of being isolated and abandoned terrifies us.
It is that fear, I think, that drives us to thoughts of boogey men and monstrous creatures lurking around us when as children- or adults - we lay alone in our beds at night – that and a hefty dose of Grimm’s fairy tales, Disney movies, or whatever the conveyors of evil and malevolence are for you these days. There is security in numbers; there is safety in company; there is confidence within supportive relationships and networks.
In her book, Gospel Medicine, Barbara Bradford Taylor shares her experience of being the eldest of three daughters, and therefore the designated babysitter in the family from about the time she was twelve years old. Each time she would be left to care for her siblings, more or less the same scenario would play itself out. After receiving from her parents both the pep talk about how much they trusted her because she was so responsible, and then all the necessary instructions, including emergency numbers and protocols for what to do in case something should go wrong, she would walk with her parents to the door, where everyone would kiss goodbye. Then, Barbara writes, “the lock clicked into place, and a new era began. I was in charge. Turning around to face my new responsibilities, what I saw were my sisters’ faces, looking at me with something between hope and fear. They knew I was no substitute for what they had just lost, but since I was all they had they were willing to try.”
Taylor then describes how everyone would be agreeable for a while, as they played games and ate their snacks. But eventually, as the night went on they all got crankier and crankier. “Where are mommy and daddy?” the younger girls would ask. “Where did they go? When will they come back? I told them over and over again,” Bradford Taylor says. “I made up elaborate stories about what we would all do together in the morning. I promised them that if they would go to sleep I would make sure mommy and daddy kissed them good night when they came in.”
What made Bradford Taylor and her sisters fearful, was that something might happen to their parents while they were out. What if something bad happened to them? What if they were in an accident? What if they never came back? What if we are left orphaned? What will happen then? And that age-old, primitive fear took over – what if we are left alone? Alone to fend for ourselves in the world, alone without a safety net, alone without the guidance, love and support of the ones who have been the center of our universe? Abandoned and alone, what will we do?
As Bradford Taylor explains, as the sister-babysitter, it was hard for her, too, because of course she had her own fears. She was a potential orphan too, with as much to lose as her sisters. But she couldn’t give in to her fear because she was the one in charge, the one who was supposed to be cheerful and confident and sure of the future for her sake and for her sisters’. She was supposed to know all the answers. But fear stalked her, too. I think that there are so many parallels to our lives, too.  I wonder what instills that kind of fear in you?
This is the question that is at the core of our text for today. It is the question that certainly was on the minds of the disciples as Jesus is telling them that he will be leaving them soon. How can Jesus leave us alone? What will happen to us? What are they going to do without Jesus there leading them, guiding them, teaching them all there is to know about God and about this new life that Jesus is offering them? Keeping them safe?
What is it that the disciples need to hear from Jesus?
They need to hear that they will not be left alone. They need to know how they will live. They need to know how they will continue in this relationship with God, how they can be disciples once Jesus is gone from them, and how they will do all that they need to do as disciples of Christ. They need to know how they will exist once he is gone, and is no longer there to teach them, guide them, and accompany them. And, crankily, they want to know, how could he be leaving anyway?
Jesus knows what is in the mind and hearts of his disciples. He knows what the challenges of the next days will bring as he faces his arrest, passion and death. Jesus knows the confusion that will follow the discovery of the empty tomb. Jesus knows how frightening it is to be left alone.
What Jesus offers the disciple both then and now is the promise of “another advocate”. Jesus himself, “the first advocate” is God incarnate, who came so that we might see and experience God – and for the disciples, that is exactly what Jesus has done up to now. But now as Jesus is preparing to leave, he gives his instructions and he makes these promises; his beloved disciples –we – will not be left alone; he will not abandon them, but instead, through the Spirit, will continue to abide with them - us. Jesus will not leave these children of God orphaned, without an anchor. Rather, Jesus will give an advocate, who will stay with them.
In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost. We will celebrate the special gifts and tools for ministry they received, similar to the gifts we receive through baptism. But in these verses before us today, Jesus is promising the disciples that through the love of God, their allegiance to Christ is a sure foundation, and by their love and their dedication to the mission Christ has set before them, they will be blessed. And this is a word of grace and gospel for us today as well.
On Pentecost the Spirit descends to equip us for mission, too, but for today, the purpose of the Spirit is to advocate for us, to accompany us, to bear out the words of Christ, that although the cross and the tomb and then the empty tomb await, Jesus is not leaving us alone. Rather, in love and mercy Jesus is ever and will ever be with us. This week we celebrate Ascension Day – the day on which the disciples witnessed Jesus physically ascending as on clouds, up into heaven. It is the final “leave-taking” of Jesus, so to speak, and once again it may feel like Jesus is abandoning us as he shed his earthly bonds and ascends into heaven. But as Jesus has promised, there is life after Easter; there is abundant life in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus accompanies us throughout our days.
As Bradford Taylor comments, as Christians, we may sometimes feel like the babysitter left in charge, the responsible elder children trusted to carry on in Christ’s name, and “everywhere we go,” she writes, “we see the faces of those whom he has given in our care.” They come from different places with different expectations and different needs and wants. They may still be waiting for Jesus to return or they may have given up. “Where is he? Where did he go? And when will he be back? It is hard, being the ones in charge, because we are potential orphans too, only he said he was coming back again, and not only at the end of time.”
Jesus promises that through the Spirit, this advocate, he will be with us, he will accompany us, and will make a home with us. Jesus promises that there is life beyond Easter because the power and presence of Easter persist beyond the empty tomb. Jesus promises life beyond the boogeymen and monstrous creatures and the fearsome evil we confront in daily life. As David Lose puts it, there is more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead. Our Easter reality is that we are alive for Christ, we are bold to live without fear, because Jesus does not, and never will, leave us alone.  
Jesus will soon ascend into heaven, and the post resurrection visits that we have read about will come to an end. But God’s presence, God’s abiding with us, will not end. God has made us God’s dwelling place. God will continue to make Godself known to us, through advocating, accompanying, comforting, constantly creating and inspiring Spirit of God. God will never leave us alone, for in life, in death, and in life after death, we will ever be in the power and presence of our Lord. Of this we can be sure. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Imagine This!

John 14:1-14, Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
          We are surrounded by countless images each and every day. Some of these are visual images of physical objects; others form through words we read on a page; still others are the images arise from conversations and stories told to us by other people.
Sometimes these images evoke other memories. Occasionally they shock or even overwhelm us. Sometimes competing images confuse us. Much of the time, images evoke an emotional response from us.
          Here are some of the images, for instance, which have been taking up space in my head this week. They begin with the snapshots of empty dormitories in a school in Nigeria from which over 200 girls were kidnapped over a month ago; they are still missing - evidence of so many lives interrupted. There are images from burned-out homes and acres of land consumed by wildfires in California, still threatening vast areas of the state. There were the crowds of people in Turkey, waiting for news of the fate of those buried deep under the debris of mine explosions, hope dimming with each passing hour; and there was a pregnant woman in Sudan condemned to death because she is a Christian and refuses to renounce her faith, the faith in which she was raised, a risk most of us simply cannot comprehend. All startling and disturbing images.
Against those images though, are these: the youth of Grace working hard to raise money so that over a year from now, they can join with tens of thousands of other high school aged students at the National Youth Gathering, where they will learn more about their faith, where they will have the opportunity to share and discuss more about the issues affecting their lives as Christians in an increasingly pluralistic world, and where they will put their faith into action through service to the people in need in the city of Detroit, where they will be meeting. I have the image of dozens of Easton residents showing up to stand in solidarity and support of a shelter for some of God’s beloved children who are facing tough times; images of walkers and runners gathering and participating in races locally and elsewhere, to raise funds to give hope and cure to those afflicted with life-threatening illnesses. I carry with me this morning the image of men and women of all ages gathering at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg where I was on Friday, first to celebrate their accomplishments when seminary degrees were conferred on them, and then coming together as community again a little later that afternoon, to give God thanks and praise for all God’s blessings and for their vocations; and, the images of hope and excitement at commencement exercises held in places locally like Washington College and Salisbury University and in many other institutions of learning across our country and around the world as well.
Like many of these images, the scriptures that we read this morning are simply snapshots out of time. They capture a part of the story, but we know there is detail and a backstory that we are missing. Alone, the images evoke a response, but do we really know what we are even reacting to? Take our first reading, for instance, a dramatic story to be sure – this text, which tells of the stoning and martyrdom of Stephen. This story presents a powerful image – a young man, a disciple of Christ, sees a vision of heaven, with Christ standing as if as witness at the right hand of God, and then is rushed out of town and stoned to death.
In and of itself, this is a powerful image. We also have to admit though, it is in many ways disturbing image. True, in this short piece of the text we are given an admirable picture of the strong Christ-like witness of Stephen whose final words, we are told, are in fact reflective of Christ’s words from the cross, words of forgiveness for his murderers. But you know, this story would make a really poor employment ad for disciples for Christ.
But we know that there really is much more to the story. If you read the preceding chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, you will learn that Stephen, because he was known as a young man who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, was called as a disciple early in the first days of the church. As the church was rapidly growing, it was noted that help was needed to make sure that the people most in need of food were not overlooked but were being cared for. And so Stephen and some other disciples were added to attend to the needs of the poor. Yet, as he is serving and tending the people, Stephen’s strong witness of Jesus Christ, the wisdom and strength of Spirit with which he spoke caught the attention of the wrong people, who plotted against him and ultimately brought him to the moment we read about here.  Hmmm, still not very enticing, is it? Anyone here ready to sign up?
Fact is, we will be welcoming a new member of Grace through Baptism a little later, but I wonder, has he read this story? If not, we had better lock the doors and grab him while we can, right? Because who in his right mind would answer the call to discipleship with this story as its invitation?
But then we read the other scriptures we have before us this morning. It looks like the psalmist has had some troubles of his own. Don’t we all? From time to time, like the author of this psalm, we all have our struggles. Enemies from within and without assail us. As members of this fallen humanity we each suffer as well as cause pain and suffering. Stuff happens that we cannot understand or explain. We inflict harm on our environment, and we are vulnerable to disease and death.
Yet as this psalmist faces challenges and hardship, his words reflect hope, assurance of God’s steadfast presence and strength, and ultimate deliverance. Whatever befalls him, he declares, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O LORD, God of truth. For my times are in your hand….let your face shine upon your servant, save me in your steadfast love.”
Our reading from 1 Peter tells us about the beloved of Christ, a “living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight…” The author of that lesson goes on to describe how firm a foundation we have when Jesus Christ is our cornerstone, the one in whom we believe and trust, the one through whom we receive the grace and mercy of God.
Finally, we come to the gospel from John which comes from the Farewell Discourse Jesus delivers to his disciples on the very night he is handed over for his passion and death, and ultimately, his resurrection. I would like to focus on these important words from this gospel for us today, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (verse 1) There are many words that follow. Words that promise a mansion in which God is preserving a place for each one of us. That is for the future. But the gospel words of this passage for all the disciples of Christ, both then and now, are these that come from the first verse.
Jesus isn’t simply telling his disciples here not to worry. But Jesus knows what is coming. Like many of the events of our days and the images that accompany them, Jesus knows that events are coming, images that will shock, terrify and yes, trouble the hearts of the disciples. What Jesus is telling the disciples – and us –is more like this – Jesus is telling us that the time is coming when events will threaten, frighten, shock, sadden, and even terrify you. But you will have faith to withstand whatever comes, because Jesus has given it to you. “You believe in me,” Jesus is saying, “and I have told you things that you will remember and share with others. Continue to hold onto my words, to the promises of God, because though them, I will continue to reveal God’s love to you.” Jesus will replace troubling images with reassuring ones, including those of this mansion with many rooms, including one with your name on it.
Jesus knows that the disciples will be troubled by the coming events; that the early church would be troubled by persecution; Jesus knows that we are troubled by shocking images and troubling news and events in our own times and in our lives. Jesus knows that it is only natural and human to be concerned, frightened, and even to have doubt when those things transpire. But Jesus is telling us, when those things happen, don’t be consumed by worry, do not let your hearts continue to be troubled. Rather, turn to my Word. Turn to the faith that I have given you. Turn to the promise of God that is true – that I will always be with you, with you to the end, and beyond.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Jesus promises that despite images that assail us that would cause us to worry, to be troubled, and even to doubt, that God loves us, is with us, is and will be always on our side. God continues to be rock, refuge, and strength. God promises that we are God’s people, and that as such, we have received God’s mercy and grace. God abides with us. God will dwell with us now and forever. Even when we cannot fathom the events around us, like schoolgirls being kidnapped and used as political pawns, or wildfires destroying the homes, property and environment, even when life’s challenges, disease and death threaten, we can believe in God and in the promise of our Savior who loves us, who hears our prayer, and answers our needs with wisdom, with eternal promise and with unending, surprising, and even shocking displays of mercy and love.