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Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Cross in the Room

John 13:31-35
Acts 11:1-8
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6

 We have before us this morning a beautiful and rich smorgasbord of scripture readings, on a Sunday where we have remembered our Baptism, will soon celebrate, bless, and ask God’s protection on gardens, fields, and the growing things that sustain us, and share once again in the means of grace at the table of our Lord.

My Lord, What a Morning! (I feel like I should break forth in song here). As I read through these lessons again and again in preparation for this morning, I had a hard time choosing just one to preach on. So I decided to take on the entire smorgasbord. We should be out of here by about 4 o’clock this afternoon. (Just kidding)

To try to pull a single theme out of these readings might appear to be a challenging exercise at first glance. First we have Peter speaking to the circumcised believers of the early church in Jerusalem, that is, Jewish converts to Christianity, explaining to them that God has given the Gentiles the same gift as God has given the Jews, without distinction. They are included in the love of God and in the gift of salvation.

The psalm is one of praise to God for the fruits, fowl and fauna of the earth, for all that resides in, under and over the earth, the seas and the skies.

The reading from Revelation relates a vision that has been given to John of Patmos, which reveals a new creation which has dawned through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a creation in which God continues to abide through and through, as we await its completion – its being brought to fruition - at Christ’s return.

Finally, we have this lovely Gospel reading, which is so familiar, containing this new commandment as it does - this commandment to love. Jesus reveals that it is through this loving that all will know that we are Christ’s disciples – and will therefore know the love of God.

It is this commandment, I think, that ties all of these scriptures together and presents us our theme. God’s love binds us together. It points us in the direction of discipleship. It shapes who we are and how we are to carry out our mission – in love and in service born of love.

The commandment in this text is one of the more famous statements in the whole bible, and as Christians it seeks to guides our behaviors and decisions. It is lived out in our actions and in our attitudes.

It is not pointed inward, but is always pointed outward. It is not about us. It is about God! And it is nothing new. Loving one another is part of the Jewish tradition, is present in the Greco-Roman world that surrounded these original disciples and early Christians, and evidence of God’s love is present throughout the richness of God’s creation.

Love is where it’s at, People! It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

And yet, we know that it isn’t always easy, is it?

Which reminds me of a story I heard recently:

One Sunday a priest was finishing up a series on marriage. Of course he talked a great deal about the necessity of love being at the core of the union, and he mentioned this commandment of Christ’s. At the end of the service he was giving out small wooden crosses to each married couple. He said, "Place this cross in the room in which you fight the most and you will be reminded of Jesus’ new commandment and you won’t argue as much." One woman came up after the service and said: “You’d better give me five crosses.”

We can all probably agree that it is usually pretty easy to love those who are part of our “family” – however you define family – even if it sometimes takes a cross in each room to remind us of the meaning and cost of love.

We can pretty safely say we love those who look like us and hold the same ideological values and wants as we do. And it’s easy to say we love someone, even when sometimes we hold deep personal animosity toward them.

It’s hard to act with love toward those we don’t understand, those who don’t agree with us, those who stand for the things we think are wrong. It’s challenging to acknowledge that people who look, speak, believe and behave differently than we do are the ones, together with those we favor, that we are called to love.

And yet, love, as Jesus does it, is not simply the absence of hatred. Love is living, dedicated action - born testament to valuing, caring for, and wishing the best for the other – and at times requires participating in bringing the best, even when we are in conflict with the other. As Jesus did love, we are to do love.

We remember that right after he said these words, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, showing them that love is embodied in humble service. Jesus shared bread with the very one he knew would, within hours, betray him and hand him over to die.

Here, at the Last Supper, when Jesus knew he had to prepare his disciples for his absence – for soon, he will die on the cross, and they will be left to carry this mandate to love into the world without him at their side - Jesus showed them what love looks like.

They will be fearful. They will be anxious. They will not know where this road will lead.

My friends, these are appropriate days in which to hear and contemplate these words, and think about how our role as disciples of Christ, following this commandment should shape our thoughts, behaviors and reactions.

I don’t know about you, but lately, it seems that there are days when it honestly feels like the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, driven there by deep divides that bring out the worst in people – including us.

This election cycle has been described as being without parallel, in recent history anyway, in terms of the hate-filled, divisive rhetoric that polarizes and defeats us. Many people are fearful. Many people are anxious. Many people are concerned about where this road will lead.

Regardless of who you favor or how you will cast your vote, these deep divisions among us must not lead us to forget this very central command and characteristic that Christ demands – love one another. But we are reminded through this scripture of Christ’s example and words. Have love for one another. Care for one another. Respect and honor one another as creations of God and as co-inhabitors of this world that God so lovingly created and sustains.

Loving one another, Christ tells us to work together to love and reach out to and care for the poor, the outcast, the disadvantaged, the homeless, the refugee, the abused, the prisoner, the addicted, the diseased, the underemployed, the children, the lost sheep.

Jesus shows these disciples that to participate in his kingdom work, they must “be” with Jesus through love – loving the world he is leaving them, and loving one another with depth and humility and humor and devotion and strength.

As love binds together the biblical readings we have this morning, love binds us together as disciples of Christ. We love because God first loved us. We reach out in care and devotion to all whom God created because Jesus did so himself and has shown us the way.

We learn and teach by example, and as we watch Jesus, others are watching us, to see what loving as disciples of Christ look like. We teach about God’s love and demonstrate the love of Christ by what we say and do. That is a delightful – and daunting – truth.

The love of God comes to us anew each day through our baptism. It is love that brings with it grace – and the forgiveness of sin as we struggle, and sometimes – often - fail, to fulfill God’s desire that we be Christ for the world.

The love we are called to is sometimes easy, sometimes made evident in everyday acts among our friends and between strangers; and at other times it is hard, - loving, forgiving and valuing those we are in deep disagreement with. Loving action means going to places and following paths of which we cannot see the ending.

God has created us for love and by God’s mercy and grace God sent Jesus to embody love, to teach about love, to model loving action, and to demand love from those who would follow him. As Christians, through prayer and discernment, we seek to discover how we may best participate in God’s mission to love, care, and do justice.

As students and disciples on the Way of Christ, with love at the core of our action and being, may we embrace others – no matter who they are – because we know that God blesses us in order that we might love as God loves – without distinction

As lovers of Jesus, let us also be lovers of justice and peace, mercy and grace, forgiveness and truth. And when we struggle, let us remember the cross “in the room” – whereby God reminds the lengths to which God will go to love us unto eternity.

There is a beautiful prayer that is part of the service of morning prayer printed in our hymnals, one which reflects the courage and inspiration we need to go forth loving as Christ loves:

Let us pray. O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

All I Need to Know!

Psalm 23
Grace, mercy and peace be yours and mine through our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

Back when I was a lay Sunday School teacher I decided to have my young class memorize one of the most quoted passages in the Bible - Psalm 23.
I gave my young charges a month to learn the psalm. I figured it would be a good exercise for these little ones not only to learn this beloved psalm for themselves, but to study and maybe even discuss with their parents, which I encouraged. Because who doesn’t love Psalm 23, right?
Well, little Jason was excited about the task - but he just couldn't remember the Psalm. After much practice, he could barely get past the first line.
On the day that the children were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Jason was so nervous; so I encouraged him, and prompted him, and developed a back-up plan, in case he should just not be able to come through. But when it was his turn, surprisingly, he stepped up to the lectern with great confidence. I was thrilled to see his self-assurance. When he spoke into the microphone, it was with conviction; in a loud, clear voice, he recited, 'The Lord is my Shepherd, and that's all I need to know.' And he promptly sat down.
That could have been, and perhaps should have been, the sermon for the day. For what else is there that we need to say? What else is there to know, with true conviction and blessed assurance, than the truth that the Lord truly is our shepherd. There is nothing more that we could possibly want. Right?
Trusting that God will shepherd us, that Jesus cares for us, that the Lord provides for our every need is so vital to our understanding of who God is and how God works, that although our lectionary system mixes things up so that lessons are rotated and we hear different lessons on parallel Sundays from year to year, in each year this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is always celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday.
And, no matter what our other shepherd-themed readings for this day might be in any given year, on this 4th Sunday of Easter, we always read Psalm 23.
Most of us love the imagery this psalm offers us – cooling, trickling streams of water, verdant pastures and hillsides, a feast, an over-running cup, and accompaniment and care during the deepest, darkest times of our lives.
God’s promise of comfort, provision, security, goodness and mercy are important to hear and to acknowledge. They are vital words of consolation and solace during the struggles and losses of life. It’s why in most circumstances this psalm is read or recited at funerals – at times of great grief and uncertainty we need to hear about this good shepherd who provides living water and life in the midst of death and decay.
But is that all this psalm provides for us? Is that all that the Lord is saying to us through these traditional words of reassurance and blessing? I think not.
I think that while this psalm is meaningful to us and holds great value, appropriately so, in its traditional uses, it has much more to say to us than is typically ascribed to it. Because really, while the imagery used is beautiful, is it relevant to most of us today?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t see many sheep running our neighborhood here, or in my neighborhood on the other side of Easton, Maryland. I don’t see many shepherds roaming my neighborhood looking for lost sheep though I am sure that metaphorically, there are many of us to be found.
Except for the few who actually do live in the rural parts of our country and even fewer who do raise sheep, most of us have little contact or true experience with sheep.
What we do “know” of them comes from what we have heard about them – that they aren’t very intelligent creatures, that they wander off rather regularly, that they are easily led astray. I don’t know how much of that is even accurate – perhaps there is a kernel of truth in those characterizations, but I’m not so sure.
However, when we talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd who looks after his sheep, we think of ourselves as possessing many of the same characteristics as the sheep of our understanding – while we may be intelligent, we are often unwise – we are sometimes easily led astray – as just as often, on our own we are likely to stray from the path the God desires for our good and the good of God’s mission and kingdom.
But the image of the Good Shepherd, is one that prevails and comforts – it is a sweet image of loving protection and gentle guidance for all those times we find ourselves in danger.
I was reminded recently, however, that the shepherd’s crook is used in two ways; it has two useful ends. On one end there is a crook, useful for drawing the wandering, unwise sheep away from danger; the other end makes a good poker – it is good for prodding sheep in the way that they should go.
Jesus, the good shepherd, does both these things as well. While Jesus is constantly and consistently working through the Holy Spirit to draw us to himself, to draw us into lives of discipleship, and into ministry in his name, Jesus is also constantly and consistently poking us, often agitating, sending us out to graze in new pastures, to take on new ministries, to embrace the new life that is all around us, life that is present and ongoing through Jesus himself.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who is eternally drawing us in to hold us, while at the same time, is unfailingly challenging us to go where perhaps we really don’t want to go. The same God who created us, who fashioned us in God’s own image, who has known us since even before we were being knit in our mothers’ womb, knows thoroughly our potential and urges us toward God’s own vision and plan for our lives, our being, and our future.
There is a tension in that reality. 

We like the image of the Good Shepherd who looks after us, who guides us toward living streams of water and keeps us safe. We like the idea of a God who will be with us through every dark valley, fear, and dangerwe confront. We embrace the saving aspect of this shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
But, the other aspect of the shepherd? The one who pokes, prods, pushes and agitates? Not so much. If God wants to pursue me to call me back when I have strayed, well, that might be okay.
If God wants to grab me with the hook part of the staff to draw me away from danger, well, that’s alright too, although admittedly I may at times come kicking and screaming, because I don’t necessarily see the danger or understand the risk.
But God’s relentless pursuit, which inspired John Calvin to characterize God as “the hound of heaven?” I’m not sure I like that side of God so much. That God is a demanding God, a persistent God who doesn’t take “no” as a “final answer.”
The truth and beauty found in this psalm lie in this parallel – evil and sin truly do exist in our world today, and in our lives, and they do surround us. In this post-modern culture in which we live, speaking in such terms has gone out of vogue.
But the reality of our lives, is that we are constantly tempted through media, through consistent focus on materialism, through cultural insistence on what holds value in life and what does not.
The things of value are typically described as power, wealth, beauty, instant gratification, status, and belonging. We are bombarded by rhetoric that insists that lives in religious community hold no value and to “belong” to such a community is just folly, that the belonging we seek should be our place in the world as defined by those qualities I just mentioned.
Into this wilderness of confusion, the psalmist makes the startling claim that God restores the soul – the troubled, struggling, lost and wandering soul. Did you know that nefesh -  the word usually translated as “soul” here, in Hebrew actually refers to “life breath,” or life? It is the very breath breathed into us by God’s Spirit, the very essence of being.
“The image is of someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life” writes biblical scholar Robert Alter.
God brings us back to life. Not only in the sense of the eternal life after death that we ascribe to the meaning of these promises, but true, living, breathing, life. Life that is evident through action, here. Now.
This psalm has become our standard - we fear no evil because we trust in God. Trust trumps fear. In the deepest darkest times of our lives, through the confusion and turmoil of competing claims about God and about life itself, despite all that seeks to draw us away from God and therefore closer to death, we are assured through the words and imagery of this psalm and through the image of the Good Shepherd that God preserves and protects us from harm not only for our sake, but more importantly for God’s sake.
This promise is made for the here and now. God’s stake is claimed for our living. God’s crook and staff draw us in as God’s own, and then poke us and prod us to truly live as God’s people, fearing no evil, for the crook is poised to claim us should we falter. Because God is a true and just God, God’s shepherding acts testify to the Lord’s inordinate, steadfast love.
In the gospel today as Jesus follows up his response to the Jews about his identity, he states, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; …..My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”
Let us truly follow this Shepherd then, sent by God. Let us trust that this Shepherd leads us to true life – that is, leads us into the way of living as disciples, trusting and knowing that the Good Shepherd leads us into the way of streams of living water and lives of bountiful service in the name of Christ.
Then may we, like Jason, with full confidence and blessed assurance, proclaim, “the Lord is my Shepherd, and that’s all I need to know.”

Monday, April 11, 2016

Fish, Sheep, and Diving Right In

The Third Sunday After Easter Jesus meets the disciples on the beach - and cooks breakfast for them! As he has always done, for them and for us, Our Lord provides much more than physical sustenance. In his post resurrection visits and time spent with the disciples, Jesus instills something greater than reassurance or confidence in these, who will continue to serve in his name, long after he has ascended into heaven. There is the conviction that as he was sent by the father, he is now sending his disciples out, tasked to love, serve, care for, teach, and preach the good news.

Now they know who Jesus is. Now they know what Jesus wants of them. Now Jesus prepares them to be sent out in his name.

Our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, the very Word of God, has come into the world, bringing light and life. For those who are oppressed, suffering, outcast, this is very good news and the transformation that Jesus brings is remarkable. For those of us who are comfortable and who want to hold on to our comfort and maintain the status quo, this news brings fear and even anger.  Both groups fall into the camp of Jesus' sheep - and Jesus bids his disciples to feed and care for his sheep.

On this Third Sunday, the youth of Grace served in leadership roles throughout both services. They presented the gospel and reflected on it through a sermon skit:

Narrator:   So, after Jesus died and then rose again from the dead, he appeared to his disciples, to help prepare them for carrying on his ministry of love. He knew he would soon leave them to ascend into heaven. The third of these appearances happened when Jesus showed himself again to his disciples by the sea of Tiberius.
Narrator:   Gathered there were Simon Peter, Thomas,
Narrator: …. Nathanael of Cana in Galilee,
James and John, the sons of Zebedee,
and two other disciples.
Simon Peter:   I am going fishing.
All Disciples:  We will go with you!
Narrator: So, the disciples all went to the boat, got in, and cast off the dock. They fished all night but caught nothing.
The disciples are having no luck catching fish – they throw nets over the side of the boat and pull up empty nets time after time
Narrator: Jesus appeared on the beach and though they could see him, none of them recognized Jesus or knew who he was. But soon they knew him.
James:   Do you see that guy on the beach?
John:   Yeah – who do you think it is?
Thomas:   I’m not so sure it is a guy.
Simon:   Thomas, what in the world are you talking about?
Thomas:   I’m just not sure I believe what my eyes are seeing
Nathanael: Oh, Thomas, you are such a doubter!
Rest of the Disciples: Yup, that our Doubting Thomas, right there!
Simon: Oh, that!
John: Now that we are closer and the sun is brighter, NOW can you see him?
Jesus: Children, have you no fish?
Thomas:   Not only see him, but HEAR him!
Disciples all talk: No we don’t have any, we haven’t caught anything all night, etc. etc.
Jesus: Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some!
Disciples cast net just as Jesus told them. The net is now full of fish, and they struggled to haul it into the boat.
The disciples pull, and strain, struggling to pull the net in..
Narrator: Suddenly, John, who is known as “the disciple Jesus loved,” REALIZED who this person was. He exclaimed:
John: It is the Lord!
Narrator: Fishing is messy business, and so Simon Peter had removed his clothing while they worked. Now he put his clothes back on, jumped into the sea, and swam to shore. As the other disciples brought the boat to shore, dragging the net full of fish, Jesus built a charcoal fire and made them all breakfast.
Simon Peter puts on some clothes, and swims to the shore.
Simon Peter: Oh, my Lord!
Others bring the boat to shore, dragging the net full of fish.
Jesus builds a fire and makes them all breakfast with fish and bread.
Jesus: With this fish and bread I will feed these disciples, that they may be strengthened for service in my name.
Simon Peter Trying to drag the now-full net. This net is so heavy, I can hardly move it yet it is not torn! Nathanael and Thomas rush to help.
James & John (alternating numbers): 1…5…3….7….. (together) 153 fish!
Jesus: Bring some of the fish you have just caught.
Jesus: Come, all of you, and have breakfast.
Jesus takes bread and fish and hands it out to the disciples.
Jesus turns to Simon Peter.
Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?
Simon: Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
Jesus: Feed my lambs!
Narrator: A second time, Jesus asked Simon Peter:
Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Simon: Yes, Lord, you KNOW that I love you.
Jesus: Tend my sheep!
Narrator: And yet another time, Jesus spoke to Simon Peter:
Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Simon: Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you!
Narrator:   The disciples looked at each other. What could it mean that Jesus had to ask Simon Peter, the one who was their de facto leader, the same question about love a third time!
Jesus said to Simon Peter and all the rest:
Jesus:  Very truly I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go…. Follow me.
Narrator:  We might ask what this story means and why the evangelist John told it. A clue might be the commission Jesus gave his disciples a short while before he was taken away to die. They are to work for him. They are to love him and in turn love others. Their lives are to be marked by this love.
Nathanael:    That’s right! They are to be filled with God’s breath and sent into the world as Jesus had been.
James:  And really, like we all are.
Narrator:   But you know, if they try to do it their own way, without relying on Jesus, God’s very own Word, they’ll come up empty.
Nathanael:   Yea, like the fishing nets.
Narrator:   Right. They can work and strain and cast those nets in time and again and they will get nothing – nada – nietz.
Simon Peter:    But when they do things GOD’S way, the way of love,….
Narrator:   When they listen to Jesus,….
John:    And do what he says,….
James:   Then, who KNOWS what they might achieve.
Narrator:   So, stand in your mind’s eye with the disciples in the boat. Imagine the things, the relationships, the jobs and work you are laboring over,
Simon Peter:    Struggling over,
Thomas:   Stressing over,
John:   and getting nowhere.
Narrator:    and watch for the dawn. Watch for the figure on the shore. Listen to his voice, and then do whatever he tells you.
All together: AMEN!!!