May 2, 2021
1 John 4:7-21
Can you point to a time in your life where you truly had a deep love for your neighbor?
I am not talking about the way you love a partner, or your family.
I am talking about a love that goes beyond barriers. Barriers we have self-constructed.
Francis of Assisi encountered this love when he went to the lepers and embraced them and gave them a kiss that signaled a love greater than all. It was the love he found in God.
In the bible, an example of this love can be witnessed in the story of the Good Samaritan. A man is beaten to an inch of his life on his way from one town to another. It was easy for many to step to the other side of the road and pretend they did not see him, including a priest and Levite. It is the Samaritan who stops to help him and shows great love for one he does not even know.
Looking at the past century, one individual showing a great love for her siblings was Mother Teresa. Her compassion for orphans and the disadvantaged saved many lives. The love she approached everyone with was bountiful.
This love which I refer to is known as agape love. Agape love is different from eros (an intimate love) and philia (love of brother, or family). Agape love is an understanding of our sibling and it redeems one’s being. Agape love is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous and unmotivated by personal desire. Agape love directs us to not seek our own good, but the good of our neighbor.
We first experience this love through Jesus Christ. A love born incarnate in flesh. A love willing to go to the cross and die. A love revealed in the resurrection and bestowed upon all creation. The first love we experience comes from God. God loves us first, no matter what. There is no quid pro quo to God’s love. There is not action required on our part to experience God’s love. Yet, to fully experience God’s love and have it abide in us, we are commanded to love our siblings.
It is not easy to love our siblings. We look for differences which discourage us from loving one another. The lack of love is what stirs conflicts and war. The lack of love hardens hearts and makes it difficult to see Christ in each other. The lack of love leads to fear. When we fear the things and people around us, we are being pulled to darkness by sin and evil. When we let fear direct our path we are left gasping for fresh air and the love born in Christ. Fear can expose itself in many ways. We may fear what others think and thus we remain silent. We fear change, although change is the one consistent event we can rely upon. We fear the events that occur around us that shake our foundational understandings. Over this past year, we have heard many fears around the COVID pandemic. The fearing of catching it. The fear of shutting everything down. The fear of what is going to happen to the economy.
As the church we meet the fear by caring for one another. Yes, we have limited in-person gatherings, but amid change and adjustment we are expressing love for our neighbors and community by doing everything we can to minimize the risk of spread.
Fear can be taken to an extreme when we begin to fear our siblings. This fear can lead to hatred. The hatred stokes fear. It can be an endless cycle until we are bold enough to step in and stop it. When we fear others, divides are created and widened as those fears go unchecked. It is a sin we can easily point to in the bible. The Hebrews were afraid of those that worshipped Baal and much more. The Jewish people were afraid of the Samaritans. The newly converted Christians in Acts were unsure of Gentiles joining their ranks. The same fear of others can be witnessed today between Black and White, different ethnicities, and those we simply do not understand.
When we fear others, it is easy to find a scapegoat. A person or community we can push blame off to when things do not go the way we expected them to. Amid all of this, we have separated ourselves from the love of God and the commandment to love our neighbors.
To love those we do not agree with is bold. The author is 1 John calls us to love with a boldness come judgement day. The thing is, we do not know when judgement day may come. Therefore, we should love boldly daily. Love those we do not agree with. Love those who have in the past disregarded us. Love those that do not think the same as us. We are called to love everyone. In the love we find in our siblings, we find the love of God abiding in us. A love that distills all fear.
This love begins with God. We meet it in our daily prayer and reading of scripture. We start practicing by doing little things for our neighbors. Once the seed is planted, it begins to grow and bloom.
No one knew this love greater in the past sixty years than Martin Luther King, Jr. His practice and call for non-violent resistance revealed agape love. His call to end segregation was met with disdain by the majority in the south and yet he instructed all to not raise a fist to those desiring to detour the movement. He understood agape love and knew what it meant to love all creation. Agape love would be required to meet the other and to live in harmony. While we have moved forward in race relations, there is still plenty of work yet to be done. To completely love the other unconditionally would bring an end to discrimination and all the -isms as we know them.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” It was and remains a call for us to live in the light of Christ and to love our siblings unconditionally. Agape love is a love in action. A love meeting our siblings where they are and embracing them. A love born in God. A bold, radical love.
The commandment to love our siblings seems simple. However, many of our preconceived notions and beliefs can cloud the very ability to love. The ability to love all creation means we look deep within ourselves and contemplate on how we would want to be loved. To love our siblings and all creation is an invitation to be open to the love of God. If we do not have love for our siblings and creation, how are we expected to love God? God is love! A perfect love casting out fears.
April 25, 2021
1 John 3:16-24
“On a mound of dirt on a wind-combed prairie in northern Wyoming, the rarest mammal in North America is dancing. He prances and bucks, then stops. Then hops—forward, forward, backward, side-hop left—spins around, and dives into the hole at the center of the mound. A four-beat wait. His black bandit mask peeks over the rim. Then he flings the muscular tube of his torso out again in the prairie dawn, bounding, twisting, frisking for an audience of none.”[i]
Black-footed ferrets are curious and playful creatures. They had been a part of the landscape for nearly a million years along with their neighbors the prairie dog. The ferrets and prairie dogs practiced living in community as the ferret’s primary meal was prairie dogs and they helped keep the prairie dog population in check. Until the 1800’s when the pioneers moving out west started to clear land for crops and cattle and plowed up or poisoned the prairie dog towns. Thus, as the prairie dogs went, so did the black-footed ferret.
The connection we have with the environment goes all the way back to the beginning of creation as God brought order to chaos. In the beginning was the Word and in the Word we find an overwhelming love embracing all creation. It is a love calling us into unity with all creation because God is active in all creation. God’s love extends from the smallest particles, the building blocks of our universe as we know it, to the vast mountain range of the Himalayas. Nothing escapes God’s recognition and love.
The reading from 1 John this week continues to focus on the love of God and the reconciliation of a creation that has been led astray. We hear the commandment Jesus himself spoke to the disciples. A commandment to believe in Jesus and love one another. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures we read story after story of our ancestors falling away from this very practice. The Hebrews have warred against other nations and magnified the notion that they are better than other nations. Each prophet has stepped up to steer the Hebrews to a place of peace and justice with God. They have attempted to conquer lands that were not always theirs and taken advantage of the people and material resources. What is missing at many times is an encompassing love of neighbor and even returning the love to God.
The love extends beyond humans. The love written of in 1 John extends to all creation. A love for the prairie dog and black-footed ferret. A love for the environment giving us breath and life. We are all interconnected. If it were not for the waters, we would not have life. If it were not for the trees, we would not have enough oxygen to breath. Bees are essential for pollination and fertilization of crops. If it were not for animals and plants, we would have very few food sources. The plants and animals and ultimately, humans, are dependent upon one another in a relationship formed at the very beginning of creation.
Amid our brokenness and sin, we have failed to witness the importance of those relationships. Cain was jealous of Able and thus killed him and sin abounded. From the very beginning a focus on the individual often overruled the focus on community. The author of 1 John is reminding the recipients of the power of community and by working with one another love abounds. The relationship that we invest in each other can also be translated to our relationship with the earth.
Seeing and witnessing God in creation can be difficult. It is not concrete and to become one with nature requires effort. For some it may be easier to connect with nature than it is to connect with individuals. And of course, the opposite is true as well. Our western culture has a propensity to focus on the individual. What is in it for me? How can I make more money? How can I get everything I want? This desire to focus on the individual is easily reflected in our relationship to the earth. We think of what we need right now with disregard for how it may affect future generations. As seen in my opening example, humanity has made a practice of moving into areas and changing entire eco-cultures. Every time such action is taken, it is a step away from how God calls us to live with creation.
The words of 1 John are an invitation to live simply in this beautiful creation we have been graced to live as part of. Our goods are not our own. Our wealth and property are not completely ours. We have God to give thanks to for these gifts. The connection of the wealth of our country and many like ours have a direct connection to the environment and climate change and cannot be ignored. We must do everything we can to not cause harm to our neighbors and the very creation that we live in. Even as we choose to live simply, we must realize that we still use many more resources than our siblings in other parts of the world.
The author reminds us, loving in word and action is to believe in Jesus and truly love one another. Not just in word or speech but truly love one another in our actions. We do this by loving the very creation God has bestowed to us. We love creation through the care and protection of endangered animals. We love creation by making our voices heard when others are just trying to make a quick buck and take advantage of the earth and its resources. We love creation by caring for our neighbors at the border and those halfway around the world that hunger and seek safety.
Amid this pandemic one way to care for our neighbors is to ensure the equal distribution of COVID vaccines. While the United States and many other rich countries have had little issue with procuring vaccines, poor countries are falling far behind. A majority of the world’s population will not see vaccines until next year. This is not how we show love for our neighbors, especially when we have more than enough to vaccinate everyone in our country and there are thousands of vaccines going unused and wasted daily. We advocate for those whose voices are not being heard and seek justice for those in need. Advocating can take place for our fellow humans as well as creation.
Returning to the black-footed ferrets, we witness a relationship of love played out. A relationship in which God is very proud. A relationship with the people and the land. A restoration of both the prairie dog and black-footed ferrets is beginning. Caring for the black-footed ferret whose numbers dwindled to the point they were thought to be extinct means also caring for the prairie dogs. It is a relationship of dependence and a model for humans as we come to rely on one another in the greater global well-being. Conservationist, advocating for the land, have been able to get ranchers to respect the prairie dog, and a love for creation is revealed.
And, “What will survive of us is love.”
This closing line from Philip Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb speaks truth to our lives in creation. It is love and the truth and action done in love’s name that leave an impression on all we touch. It is easy for anyone to speak and claim they are going to do the next step. It is in action that truth and love is really revealed, and one becomes Christ like. God’s call for humanity to have dominion over the land in Genesis is a call to care for creation. A care for creation combined with love reveals a unity born in God. It is a unity which reveals God’s love is active in all creation, from the smallest particle to the largest mammals and mountain ranges. In this love that God calls us to word and action to care for this home we call earth. When we put this love to action, we begin to experience a new creation as the kingdom of God is revealed. May you experience this revelation through the love of your neighbors and all creation.
[i] Boss, Gayle. “Wild Hope: Stories for Lent from the Vanishing.” Page 47
April 18, 2021
1 John 3:1-7
Jenny’s mother died when she was incredibly young. She would spend her elementary years living with an abusive father and trying to avoid him as much as possible. Coming to rely on a best friend she invited to sit next to her on the bus in those years would be her saving grace. Everything seemed to be working in her favor after she moved in with her grandmother and made it to college. However, she would leave college and start to wander, always looking for something, not quite sure what the something really was. She would enter questionable work and fall into some questionable groups. Drug and alcohol experimentation would ensue until she started to realize what may be missing in her life. Jenny did not fully embrace love and when it was close to her, she did not recognize it.
This is one of the subplots from one of my favorite movies, Forrest Gump. This nearly thirty-year-old movie is full of life, both challenges and joys. To counter Jenny’s life, we have Forrest who wants to show Jenny love. At one point she tells Forrest, “You don’t know what love is.” She was mistaken, for it was Jenny looking for love in all the wrong places. Forrest learned love from his mother and the wonderful “Gumpisms”she shared with him. Forrest knew what it meant to be a beloved child. Jenny did not have that experience from a parent and failed to recognize it coming from others.
Love is where it all begins. Calm was brought to the chaos in creation through love. Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt because of love. Jesus entered this world as one of us because of love. Jesus cooks fish on the shore for the disciples after his Resurrection to remind them of his love.
Love is where it all begins.
Because of the love of God, we are welcomed into creation and called children of God. Bearing God’s image, each and every one of us are family and are invited to this wonderful practice of humanity. The author in 1 John is clear that being Children of God is not something that will happen in the future. We already are Children of God now. We are not waiting for an appointed time in the future. The time is now, and we are loved by God at all times in all places. It is a love that abounds not only in quality but also in quantity. God’s love knows no boundaries and encompasses all of creation.
The author of 1 John speaks to the community through this very love that began in Christ. The author’s concern for the followers of Christ is relational. There is a desire to ensure the community knows of the love of God and in God’s love they are all children of God. The author is not oblivious to reality. Aware that there will be sin, the author makes it clear stating to intentionally sin is not living in Christ and far from living the love of God. To live the love of God is to refrain from the intentional practice of sin. To be human, is to sin. However, it comes down to whether you are taking ownership and seeking repentance or sinning freely without a care for others.
Living out the love of God is hard work. Many obstacles present themselves as we attempt to live out the love of God. Most of the time it is our own self-interest taking the driver’s seat steering us away from God that causes the most harm. Thinking we know better and holding fast to our own personal interests instead of listening to those with knowledge creates a chasm between us and God. Selfishness occurs when we fail to think about our neighbors and siblings when we take action or fail to take action. Leaning into our own selfishness and greed fractures the very relationships God wants us to create with our siblings in Christ.
Martin Luther is known for saying that we are both saint and sinner. This is true. However, which way do we let the pendulum swing? Our selfish nature swings the pendulum to the sinner while fully realizing that we are children of God swings the pendulum to the saint. We will go back and forth, and God knows this. This is the reason we confess our sins and repent of the sins we do and those we do unaware. We deceive ourselves when we think we have this all figured out and ultimately are more than likely to give into sin.
Recognizing our being as a child of God is also not a one and done event. Yes, in our baptisms we are named child of God, and in God’s grace we will enter the kingdom. However, there is also work to do here! Now that we recognize we are children of God, how do we live our lives in that realization?
It comes down to, what does it mean to be a child of God? Let’s first think of children playing out on the playground. There is a freedom to their expression. There is quite often joy abounding as the run and jump. I can hear the joy nearly daily whenever school is in session since the schools are practically in our backyard. The same freedom and joy are lived out in being children of God. Living our lives as Children of God can have several facets.
Being children of God invites us to play and explore the world around us.
Being children of God means we are living into relationship with our neighbors and even with the people we disagree.
Being children of God means being patient and committed to those relationships. Staying the course and not abandoning ship when things get rough.
Being children of God means having an energy and intensity around our ministries and being excited in sharing the Good News.
Being children of God means moving beyond our self-interest and fostering a notion of compromise. Working together may come reluctantly, yet through determination we can work together.
By working together, we get closer to the notion of the purity of life in which the author of 1 john writes. A purity of life means that we are not putting up any barriers for our siblings. We are not creating divisions. We are knocking down the walls of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia to name a few that have long plagued our society.
In his simplicity and innocence, Forrest Gump, knew what it meant to live as a child of God. It may have never directly stated it in the movie, but his love for all was pure. He shared that love in all of his relationships. Especially in his relationship with Jenny, hoping that she too would come to know love as he did.
We enter this world with a dependence on those caring for us. We need people to feed us, change our diapers, to ensure we are healthy. Ultimately, we need to know love. We learn love through those hands and hearts that wake up in the middle of the night to feed and change us. Unfortunately, we all experience love at different levels, such as Jenny and Forrest. Love is manifest in our healthy relationships. Love begins with God. It is in a love greater than all, which we are named children of God. Through God’s loved poured out for us through Christ’s death we are a witness to unbounded love. Through the waters of baptism, we are named child of God. May you come to know the love of God more deeply in the promise of Resurrection.
April 11, 2021
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
“Where do we go from here?”
I imagine this conversation taking place among the disciples before they had the opportunity to encounter the Risen Christ. Once they can see, talk, and listen to more teachings from Jesus, they should have a better idea of their mission. However, I still imagine there was still questioning and a lot of courage summoned before Peter gave his first sermon recorded in Acts.
Let’s jump ahead sixty or so years. A lot can happen in sixty years. Christianity has begun to spread around the Mediterranean. The Apostle Paul has proclaimed the Good News to many towns and villages. Christianity is growing and many churches have been formed. The rest of the Apostles have carried the Good News beyond Jerusalem and Israel. Yet, the nagging questions still arises, ‘Where do we go from here?” There are always new opportunities that abound to share the Good News and teach of Jesus Christ.
For the next six weeks, we are going to travel through First John. It is presented as a letter, however, it does not have the structure of a letter. It is most likely someone’s personal writing or a sermon that was given to the community. It was most likely written in Ephesus, where the Apostle John had connections. It was most likely written by a leader within the community and not the Apostle himself.
The Apostle John, one of Jesus’ original disciples, has developed quite the following. The gospel attributed to him, has created Johannine communities all over the place. Communities which have lifted up their own leaders to proclaim the Good News. The Good News is passed down from generation to generation. This is the way it was supposed to work. Until it didn’t.
The author of First John is writing to devoted followers of Jesus. They have become steeped in the teaching of John the Apostle. It is how they first heard the Good News. The story he shares of Jesus in his gospel is much different than the other gospel writers. It is a story that has led some of them astray. If you think about it, the same thing easily happens today. Twenty of us could hear the same speaker and all twenty of us could come back with a totally different impression and talking point.
The community the author is writing to is a community in crisis. There is a division among the believers of Jesus Christ. There is hope this writing will bring unity among division and restore hope where disagreement has instilled anger. Among those who first came to the good news through the Apostle John, their faith has buoyed them through any storms. Their faith in Jesus Christ has carried them through persecution. Their faith has allowed them to live joyously into the light of Jesus Christ.
Now the crisis they are encountering is different. It is not a crisis with those that have no faith or simply do not belief in Jesus. This new crisis is around whether Jesus was fully human. The author of First John writes in the hope of reassuring those original followers to stand firm in their faith. Those that are the creators of the crisis must repent of their misteaching and ask for forgiveness. A forgiveness that will be given through God’s love for all humanity.
The community, living in a time when some of Jesus’ original disciples could still be alive, are living in the experience of Christ. They are not concerned with the doctrinal, or technical teachings of what it means to follow Jesus. They have first-hand knowledge from one that walked with Jesus and has set an example for them. Their faith is sensory. They have heard, seen, and were able to touch or reach out to one that broke bread with the Messiah.
Their faith lies within their ability to follow these same actions. They have continued to share the good news they heard from the Apostle John. They have seen the wonders and miracles that have taken place in the name of Jesus. They have broken bread around the table with those disciples who sat at the table with Jesus. They have been refreshed by the cleansing waters of Jesus Christ and know the new life the waters brings.
This is a community of love and relationship and thus those who have brought division and question the faith of generations has stirred up unexpected anger. There is a tension that has been brought to the forefront by Jesus, now spilling over into the community. The community is learning how to live into the tension. It is a tension of light and darkness, of sin and redemption. There are no clear definitions here. There is a lot of gray area. And this, as Christians, is what we live in. This is where we encounter our siblings. This is real life.
We live in tension daily. The tension that pulls us in different directions from what we know is right, to what it is we desire. The tension that encourages us to speak up for what we believe and staying silent because we do not want to cause a scene. When we do take a step in the wrong direction, it is easy to deny our wrong doings. The blame is shifted to others and ownership is not taken for the wrong taken place.
Even when we sin, we are still welcomed with open arms by a loving God. We are cleansed of our sin when we repent and are bestowed God’s forgiveness. When we experience the arc of the Word in Christ to the acknowledgement of our sin, we begin to grow as disciples.
We are then called to proclaim the same good news the community of First John heard at the end of the first century from the Apostle John. Good news that shares in the brokenness of humanity through the saving grace of Jesus Christ cleansing us from all sin. To be connected with the early followers of Jesus through the sharing of this same Good News connects us to a movement that brought light to darkness and hope to the despaired. We are called to experience Christ in the here and now. We are called to hear the Word of God among us. We are called to see the Word of God among us in the actions of others. We are even called to break bread with one another and touch and taste the sacred.
Carrying a movement forward is hard work with challenges and difficulties along the way. It often times gets overlooked and there is little recognition for the effort exerted. The early disciples were responsible for proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ as he instructed. The Word of Life that was with God at the very beginning of creation was now the Word that they were proclaiming. In their proclamation, the challenges and difficulties, were diminished by the joy found in Jesus. The joy that reveals the light of Christ and bares forgiveness for our sinful nature. This Easter Season, I invite you to live in the joy of the resurrection and light of Christ.
The vision of life has changed for many people over the past year as the world is encompassed by a mass pandemic. This is a good point in time for Higgins book to take center stage. Taking precautions this past year by making sure we wash our hands and wear masks should seem simple. However, some equate that with living in fear and not trusting in God. When caring for others safety is not fear.
How Not To Be Afraid is part memoir bringing the events of Higgins life of growing up in Northern Ireland to light. As he shares his fears of living through times of uncertainty it connects the reader with their own personal fears. Higgins is extremely relatable as he shares his personal stories and connects with opportunities for reflection and healing.
His call to live in relationship and community helps dispel the fear. In his guidance, he turns from memoir to someone walking alongside the reader like a spiritual companion. The notion of the story we tell ourselves is how we live into the fear seems very accurate. To surround ourselves with stories, builds a strong foundation of hope. It provides shelter. Higgins writes, “And a shelter is a kind of story. It’s a blanket we’re weaving that covers us, enveloping us in its warmth and hope. A trustable story shelter is a treasure indeed. And a trustable story shelter has three elements: mentors, calling, and community.” (pg 145)
You may not find connection with each of the seven fears that the author presents, but his stories wrapped around those fears bring them to life. If we are honest with ourselves, I truly think everyone has encountered the fear. He calls the reader into a new way of being and living through that fear. Each chapter concludes with the opportunity for contemplation or practice. Drawing one out of fear and into a new way of living.
This book could be an endless resource and one to return to again and again for your own personal growth or to help others.
April 4, 2021 Easter Sunday
“Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?”
These are the lyrics to the contemporary hymn, The Summons, by John Bell. This hymn was included last week in our Palm Sunday liturgy as I preached on Jesus’ obedience to God’s will and thus our calling to follow in his footsteps to do the same. Isn’t this what Jesus’ entire ministry has been about? It has been an invitation to come and follow him. It is in his final days that the call is much more tumultuous. We have sensed hesitancy among the disciples. They say they won’t deny Jesus, yet they have stepped away and are hidden in the upper room not sure what to do next. It is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus that take Jesus’ body down from the tree and place him in a tomb before the Sabbath begins.
It was in the tomb where they expected to find him once the sabbath was over. The disciples are grieving and numbed by the experience of Jesus’ death. During the sabbath they are secluded. It is Mary Magdalene who makes the first move as the sabbath draws to a close and she wants to go grieve Jesus at the tomb and ensure his body was properly cared for.
Mary quickly notices that the stone is rolled away, and she runs to get Peter and another disciple without looking in the tomb first. I imagine her arriving to speak to Peter out of breath and frantic. Something does not feel quite right, and she wants reassurance from others that she was not imagining it.
The footrace then ensues between Peter and the other disciple to get to the tomb. Everyone sees something different once they arrive. The other disciple looks in the empty tomb first and notices the linen wrapping lying there. Peter proceeds to look and goes in and sees the linen wrapping, as well as the clothe that had been on Jesus’ head neatly rolled up. We are then told the other disciple then stepped in the tomb, saw, and believed. What did he believe? Did he believe Mary’s account of the stone being rolled away? Did he simply believe that Jesus’ body was no longer there? It is not clear whether the reference to him believing is directed toward the resurrection, yet!
Once they leave, Mary steps to look in the tomb and sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body would have been laid. Wait a minute, where were these angels just a few minutes before when Peter and the other disciple were in the tomb? Maybe, they were not open to hearing the truth just yet. Maybe that truth was meant for Mary.
And what an amazing truth it is! And it comes to a woman! When there are arguments still in Christianity whether women should be allowed to preach and teach, in reality it was a woman that heard the truth first and it was a woman who first proclaimed the Good News that Jesus is Risen to the rest of the disciples.
We witness Mary’s compassion and love for Jesus through the author of John’s gospel. She wept and kept weeping for Jesus. She is heartbroken and she is looking for answers. She wants to know what has happened to Jesus’ body. She wants to know where her Lord is now. I like to think that she was going to pray in the garden when she first notices the unrecognizable man. She is still weeping, and she thinks that perhaps this gardener did something with the body.
Then she is awakened! She is awakened to the truth. She is awakened by the calling of her name, “Mary.” There is power and recognition in hearing your name be called.
Think of the times in your life that you have heard your name called. When you were baptized. During your confirmation as you affirm your faith in Christ. During graduation where it marks a great accomplishment. During your wedding when it is combined with your partners and a relationship is blessed. In your death, you will be named boldly and in confidence of entering the kingdom of God.
These are the milestones in your life. Hearing your name makes you feel loved and cared for. However, when you are so desperately looking for something, instead of listening, you can miss Jesus calling you. When you have your eyes glued to your smartphone instead of the world around you, you can easily let Jesus slip by. When you do not take time for the silence and seek God in prayer, it is easy to be caught up in clatter and chaos.
Now, imagine Mary weeping in the garden and encountering this man she does not recognize. She is seeking out Jesus. She is looking and pondering deep within herself where he could have gone. In the simple act of stating her name, “Mary,” Jesus awakens her to a new reality. In this first Easter, Mary is not being drawn to the past. She is being drawn into the future.
It is a reminder for us as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic, though we have a long way to go. The light we encounter on Easter does not reveal the past. It reveals something new! It is a promised new future that Jesus is guiding us into. It is a future full of hope and the truth of Christ. It is a future where we are called to work together in relationship and learn one another’s name. It is a future that first comes into view in the stone rolled away and continues in hearing our name.
“Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” This unspoken invitation, simply in Jesus saying, “Mary,” reverberates through millennia as we continue to tell and share the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ today. It is not in our seeing. It is in our hearing and more importantly, in our listening. We may hear the noise around us, but are we truly listening for Jesus to call our name amid the commotion and confusion? At times, Jesus speaks our name in whispers so soft we must be fully present, and at other times it can be so loud we have to stop and take a deep breathe. This Easter season I invite you to listen for your name. Listen for your name from loved ones and acquaintances. Listen for Jesus calling you into a new creation. I invite you and encourage you to use other people’s names as often as possible. Hearing our name and speaking the name of others builds a connection and stronger relationship. Today we give thanks for the risen savior, and boldly proclaim him, Jesus Christ the Messiah.
Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
March 28, 2021 Palm Sunday
As Jesus enters Jerusalem to fanfare and shouts of “Hosanna,” I am sure that the disciples still fully did not understand what was about to take place. They were holding out hope that Jesus would be like the conquering Messiah they had imagined. Jesus predicting his death, is not what they were hoping for and it has them on edge and there is hesitation in their footsteps. The parade into Jerusalem seems celebratory. In their minds however, there is apprehension. At this point, they are being obedient to Jesus and follow in his footsteps. Living on this side of the empty tomb, we know how quickly it will change.
It was my prayer, like many others, that as we entered this Holy Week, things would like very different. I prayed that the pandemic would have started to fade away and this Easter season would be a return to the familiar. And yet, here we are. Macomb County has one of the highest infection rates in the country. Part of our obedience to loving one another is in our practices of washing our hands and wearing masks.
It has become practice to blend Palm Sunday and the Passion story. It has become typical to read through the entire Passion narrative each year through the eyes of which ever gospel is our focus for the given year. This year it is Mark and instead of reading the entire narrative, I prayed over the entire text and picked a selection that can speak to us today.
I read from the eleventh chapter of Mark as we began worship on this Palm Sunday. And it is in Jerusalem where we now find Jesus. Sitting down to have a meal and break bread with the disciples. Jesus fully understands what the next 24 hours hold for him. The disciples are busy and caught up in their meal to fully understand this will be the last time they sit back and relax with Jesus. It is in this meal that we find the institution of Holy Communion. It is in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine that Jesus once again points to the saving grace of the actions of the cross.
While Jesus decides to head to the Mount of Olives to pray, he continues teaching. He informs the disciples that they will be scattered by the very action of Christ’s death. In word, they want to stay obedient, with Peter leading the pack. All of them, except Judas who had already left to set into motion his betrayal, agree that they will never deny Jesus. We know that does not hold true and they will sit in disbelief for three days with the thought of what has occurred on the cross.
So, what struck me in this particular scripture selection? Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Being in the Holy Land last January has given me a new perspective. Walking the same paths of Jesus has ingrained the gospel story much deeper within me. Being among centuries old olive trees and seeing a glimpse of what Jesus probably had seen is breathtaking. I actually had to run to catch up with our group when we were at the Mount of Olives because I got caught up in prayer in the church that is now located there.
Listening to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane reveals a fear and hesitation on his part. Jesus is even questioning the coming events and if the cup can be taken away from him, he would rejoice. In what appears to be his fear, one can fully witness the human Jesus. A humanity that connects with the very creation that he came to be with in his birth. In Jesus’ reluctance, I feel closer to him and also some assurance that when I have to face things reluctantly, I am not alone.
It is in his prayers in Gethsemane that Jesus turns himself over to true obedience. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” While Jesus may be hesitant and perhaps a little reluctant of his impending arrest and crucifixion, he knows God’s will be done. Amid his obedience, he is already sensing the disciples are starting to step away. They cannot even stay awake for him as they wait.
To be obedient means we follow the commands or guidance of someone or something that is in control. One is expected to obey his parents. One is expected to obey the laws that govern a nation. These make for good civil order. At times we can find ourselves in a quandary when the laws enacted conflict with the commandments of our Lord. Who then are we to follow? Jesus teaches us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. If we live out this obedience to God, a love for all creation is manifest.
Francis of Assisi became a living example of obedience. When Francis looked around and found himself surrounded by war and living the life of a soldier, he sensed he was far from his calling. Wandering around the countryside one day, he found himself near the dilapidated Church of St. Damian. He went into the church and heard God speak to him, through a crucifix, saying, “go and repair my house, which, as you see, is completely destroyed.” Francis took this commandment literally and would begin to rebuild the church placing one stone on top of another. Francis followed through obediently. He would move on to a couple more churches and do the same. Francis’ father did not agree on his new endeavors and took him to the bishop. Francis would attend church and was being drawn to the crucified Christ even more. He began to understand “repairing the church” was much more than erecting the walls. It was a greater obedience to God. Francis followed through obediently. It was an obedience to live in the love of Christ and to share the same love with others. It was Francis’ obedience to the Lord that would guide him for the remainder of his life. No matter how foolish he seemed to others at times.
Often, obedience can easily be taken out of context and seen as a foolish or negative trait. It may feel restrictive and put a damper on your personal desires. Yet, obedience is also a call to love one another. It is a call to support and respect all creation throughout time. To be obedient to God is a call to follow God’s will and not our own, as Jesus so rightly prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Throughout the Bible and history we have examples of obedience and following God’s will. Being obedient to God is not always an easy path, and it can lead us to uncomfortable yet essential growth in our faith. Jesus walked obediently through is last days in humility and thankfulness for God’s will being done. As you enter this Holy Week, may you experience the love of Christ through his death on the cross and practice obedience in his word.
March 21, 2021
Who remembers playing telephone when you were younger? You know, the game where you hear a message, and you have to share it with one person at a time to see how accurate the message is at the end. This can be a great icebreaker. It also tests how well we listen and how well we comprehend
On the television show, Ellen’s Game of Games, they have a game that is played like telephone. It is called, Say What? The message is passed through 5 people, so they should have it easy, right? Well, they are wearing headphones with music playing so they must read lips and the message that is relayed from the last person to hear is usually far from the original. While listening to others, we may not have headphones on, but what other things do we allow to distract us?
In John’s gospel it appears we have an early version of the telephone game. We have some Greeks come into the scene right after Jesus enters Jerusalem. It is before his arrest and crucifixion. We have no explanation of why they desire to speak to Jesus and whether Jesus speaks to them. The Greek people most likely come to Philip because he is one of the few disciples with a Greek name. Perhaps they knew him and they figured Philip could be the guy that could get them in to speak with Jesus. However, it is not that simple. Philip brings their message and request to Andrew. Together, Andrew and Philip go to Jesus. It is here that Jesus makes the proclamation that the time has come.
What is it in the desire of the Greek people to speak with Jesus that he makes this proclamation? Jesus speaks of being lifted up from the earth, and when this happens, Jesus will draw all people to himself. Yet, Jesus is already experiencing this. It has occurred throughout his short three years of ministry. From the time of his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, to his healing and miracles, people are being drawn to Jesus. Crowds appear wherever he goes. Crowds sometimes make it difficult for him to travel. Jesus has even found it hard to step back and take time in prayer by himself.
Even though this has been happening all along, Jesus is expecting even greater things once he is lifted up. Not only lifted up onto the cross, but also lifted up in resurrection and eventually his ascension as he leaves his disciples to proclaim the Good News with their feet on the ground.
The Greeks being drawn to Jesus are a sign of the things to come as Jesus draws all people to himself. It could also be an indicator of the mission of the disciples in the coming years. Now to say someone was Greek, would also signify them as a gentile, or a person of non-Jewish descent. If you recall, it was the Apostle Paul who was specifically called to minister to the gentiles as he traveled over vast territories. Through his disciples, Jesus would continue drawing people to himself. A drawing that continues to happen today.
What does it mean to be drawn to Jesus?
Being drawn to something usually means there is a type of attraction that is taking place. A piece of metal being drawn to a magnet. Plants being drawn to sunlight. When you realized you were going to marry your spouse. Peanut butter being drawn to jelly. Okay, the last example may be an exaggeration.
Being drawn to Jesus reveals a natural attraction that occurs in our hearts as we are created in the image of God. Being drawn to Jesus is like the plant that reaches out for the light or corn in the dry days of summer as it reaches to the air for a drink of water. Jesus wants us to be drawn to himself. It is much easier to be drawn to something than it is to be pulled.
When we are pulled into something, it is not usually a pleasant experience. It can often times be accompanied by kicking and screaming. Of course, we can witness that with children as they are told it is time to leave the park. It can also be just as bad for adults, although the kicking and screaming is usually on the inside. When we have to be pulled, we are not ready for whatever it is we are being pulled to. It may be something negative we are being pulled to by peers that are a negative influence, such as doing something illegal. It could be something we feel ill-prepared for or not qualified for. Many times, we have to be pulled out of our comfort zone into something new.
Sin and brokenness have entered our world when we have to be pulled into relationship with our neighbors because we don’t see them as a child of God, but look instead upon the color of their skin, whom they love, or what their beliefs are. The uptick in Asian-American hate crimes this past year has revealed that sin and shows that words matter. When we look towards those characteristics of a person, it is like putting on headphones and being distracted and not hearing the full message. A message that comes from Jesus when he says he will draw all people to himself.
During the season of Lent, it provides an opportune time to allow oneself to be drawn to Jesus. As we reflect and repent, Jesus waits. Silence can run rampant in this time and is essential if we are to hear Jesus and the calling he has for our lives. Being drawn to Jesus can be an emotional experience as we listen and wait. Being drawn to Jesus invites us into prayer as we welcome that relationship that Jesus longs for. Jesus is not going to pull us along. Jesus waits for us to be drawn to him. A drawing that occurs in our hearts as we allow ourselves to be open to the grace and love of God. The grace and love is always present and we choose to receive it in our own time and when we are ready. Theologian Fredrick Buechner writes, “Who knows how the awareness of God’s love first hits people. Every person has his own tale to tell, including the person who wouldn’t believe in God if you paid him.” Listening to the stories of those that have already reached the destination can be influential and this is most likely what the Greeks wanted to hear from Jesus.
Word of mouth is the best advertisement. And it is free! The Greeks heard about the many things Jesus was doing through word of mouth and they wanted to see him. The request progresses through the disciples before Jesus hears the news. It is an additional sign for him that his work his now complete and he is ready to be glorified. The Greeks that turn to Jesus are an example of how he draws people to himself. It does not matter where your beliefs have rested in the past or your station in life. Jesus draws all people to himself as he encourages his followers to imitate his proclamation and continue to carry out his healing and loving touch to all nations. In Jesus, all of creation is drawn to eternal life.
March 14, 2021
Judgement and condemnation!
I don’t know about you, but as I read beyond the well-known John 3:16 verse, I have more questions than answers. So, God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, ok I understand that. If God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, why are we confronted with the condemned in the very next verse? Past the condemned, we discover a judgement of those that love the darkness. If God so loved the world, why is there judgement and condemnation?
Where does the judgement and condemnation originate? We’ll get to that shortly.
It is easy to rest in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone that believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” As long we believe we are all set, correct? Yes and No! John 3:16 does not say that God loved this tribe or the neighboring tribe. It does not say God loved people in this category but not that category. It says, God loves the world. All of it! It is a love so deep; it envelops all of creation. There is no end to the love waiting to embrace us as we grow in relationship with the Triune God. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on John 3:16 in his first sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. His words ring true today, “God’s love has breadth. It is a big love; it’s a broad love. . .. God’s love is too big to be wrapped in a particularistic garment. It is too great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God.”
It is important to step back and explore what is happening in the text. We are thrust right into the middle of a conversation when the gospel lesson begins. It is a conversation that begins at the beginning of the chapter. Not only that, but it is a conversation held in the middle of the night so that no one would get the wrong impression. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader in the Temple. Thus, he does not want anyone to see him talking to Jesus, who had just been in the Temple overturning the tables. Nicodemus has seen something in Jesus and wants more information. The teaching ensued by Jesus, is pointing to eternal life and the kingdom of God. Nicodemus does not understand, and Jesus must explain in multiple ways.
Eventually in the conversation, Jesus discusses condemnation and judgement. God did not send Jesus to condemn the world. However, condemnation has already occurred. We do not need Jesus to condemn the world, because we have already condemned ourselves. We condemn ourselves when we separate ourselves from the love of God. Not only do we condemn ourselves, but we also try to condemn others and place judgement upon them.
We judge others when we place labels on them and fail to see and come to know who they are as a beloved child of God. For example,
If he’s quiet, it must mean he is aloof and doesn’t care.
If they cut me off in traffic, they must be a jerk.
If his hands are filthy and his clothes look like they have seen better days, he must be homeless.
If she smiles and laughs a lot, she must be shallow and have a perfect life.
Yet, we do not know their stories. What if we got talking to them and discovered what was happening in their lives? What if we were able to build a relationship with them? We may discover,
He’s quiet because he recently lost both of his parents and is still confronting the grief.
They cut me off in traffic because they just got a call that a loved one had a heart attack and they are rushing to the emergency room.
His hands and clothes are filthy because he had just completed a twelve-hour shift in his construction job and the family washer is broke down.
She smiles and laughs a lot because she is trying to hide the reality of her home life and the painshe endures from broken relationships.
The church itself has not been much better in the past. I would like to think that the church has grown and become more welcoming in the past decades. However, “over 20 years ago a group of pastors had a conversation about church with four young adults (early 20’s) who were going through alcohol rehab. Every one of these young adults had experienced the church as a place of judgment. They felt the judgment through looks and/or comments that indicated that others didn’t like the length of their hair or the style of clothing they were wearing. Congregations can be very judgmental institutions — which according to this text, is not Jesus’ job — nor should it be ours.”
Once in a small town lived an old blind man. He was blind yet while walking out at night he would carry a lighted lamp with him.
One night while he was out of his house, a group of young travelers saw him. After seeing him they realized that he was blind. The travelers couldn’t understand why a blind person would carry a lighted lamp and started to make fun of him.
One of the travelers was very curious and asked, “You are blind and can’t see anything so why do you carry a lighted lamp with you?”
The blind man replied, “Yes, I am blind and can’t see anything, but I still carry a lighted lamp with me for people like you who can see. If I walk at night without a lamp, one may not be able to see me coming and run into me.”
Now that they knew him, they were struck with remorse for their words and apologized. Seeking forgiveness for words spoken in mockery.
In this season of Lent, we are invited to examine ourselves and the judgement we place on others. We judge people when we think different politically. We judge people when they do or do not have a mask. We judge people by what they wear. We all do it. Yet, Christ calls us to stop. Stop judging those that differ from ourselves. When we disagree, it is an opportunity for conversation, not condemnation. Once we enter into the conversation, we allow ourselves to accept our dialogue partner as a child of God. Once we accept, it opens the door for the very love that is shown to us through Jesus Christ.
God’s love knows no ends. Even when we find ourselves judging and condemning our neighbors, or even ourselves for that matter, God is present and waiting to embrace us in that ceaseless love. It is a love drawing us into a relationship. It is a love spanning millennia as God spoke order to chaos at the beginning of creation. It is a love poured out and revealed on the cross in the death of Jesus Christ. A love for you, for me, and for all creation.
March 7, 2021
How do you feel when you sense that something is not quite right?
Do you question the status quo, or do you become complacent?
For Martin Luther, there would be no complacency. What he witnessed and what he heard the Spirit speaking to him through scripture resulted with him posting the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. It would quickly bring about conversation among the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and they would ask Luther to recant his words, in which he responded, “Here I Stand, so help me God, I can do no other.”
His writing stirred the elite within the Roman Church from their status quo and he quickly became someone that the German laity and many others would begin to look towards for guidance. The change that Luther sought within the Roman Catholic Church was not welcomed and therefore we would witness a reformation of the Church as everyone knew it in the sixteenth century. As he called for a refocus on scripture, faith, and the grace of God, the Roman Catholic Church was more focused on the structure. For Luther, the question could be, who is serving whom. C. Andrew Doyle in a commentary for this week, notes, “The mission of God in Christ Jesus will always be limited by the time and energy spent on the structure. When the structures serve itself more than the world in God’s name then the structure needs its tables turned.”
It was as if Martin Luther went to Rome and turned the tables over.
Turning toward scripture, it was not unusual to find bustling activity around the temple. This is where people gathered. Especially during times of festivals, like the Passover, the number of people greatly multiplied as they returned to give sacrifices and thanks. Jesus was not pleased with the activity he witnessed at the Temple. Sure, there were signs of great life as many things were happening all at once, however, it was not the life that Jesus had come to encourage. In one of Jesus’ opening acts in John’s gospel, he is already turning things upside down, literally. In his promise of rebuilding the Temple in three days, or his body as we know he is speaking of, we see new life being fulfilled. In some of these opening words of John’s gospel, we are insiders to a story that has yet to play out. As Jesus refers to his body, we too can trust in God dwelling within us, and that life in our bodies is restored as well.
John chooses to present the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple at the beginning of his ministry. This is different from the other three gospel writers as this same action occurs after Jesus has made his appearance in Jerusalem right before his death and ultimately his resurrection. You can imagine there have been arguments over the timeline and who is right and who is wrong. I am not going to answer that for you, because there is not a definitive answer. However, by John placing it where he does, it sets up the rest of his gospel, which is always pointing to the glory of Jesus. It also gives a moment of time for the disciples to look back on after Jesus’ death and resurrection, fully knowing then what Jesus meant when he would raise the temple after three days. It had finally occurred to them that Jesus meant his body.
The scene that plays out before us in this lesson from John can be a bit unnerving. This is not necessarily the loving and grace filled Christ that comes to our mind. Jesus in this moment reveals an anger at what is happening in the Temple. The purpose and the focus of the Temple has become a scene of a marketplace with profits lining the pockets of those that have set up stalls to benefit as much as possible from those that are making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Passover. This is a Holy Space and when Jesus encounters it running amok with merchants and money changers, it is not surprising that he raises the heat a notch and calls out what he is seeing. Part of the concern here is that the Temple authorities seem to have no problem with what is taking place, perhaps receiving their own cut. Their disbelief in Jesus raising the Temple back up in three days after its destruction reveals where their focus rests.
The Temple has been under construction for 46 years, who could simply raise it up after three days? During those 46 years, look how far they have strayed from the true teaching of God. Their focus in those 46 years have been on the building and they have been pulled away from true worship. They have been distracted from material things that are much less important than God. It appears they are more focused on worshipping the building than they are on the God of their father Abraham. Yes, the purpose of the building is to worship the Lord, but have they allowed it to be turned into an idol that God has warned against in the Ten Commandments. They have allowed it to become diluted by the distractions of the marketplace it has turned into.
This past year has given us ample time to become distracted. As we have stepped outside of the walls of Trinity and had to adjust within this pandemic to do community and church differently, it has been just as easy to step back and say I am going to sit this one out. Yet, we are only as strong as those that are on the periphery looking in, waiting to get back to normal. When we focus too much on the physical aspects on what worship looks like, we become distracted, and our focus on God can become easily diluted. And the thing is, this does not happen just in times of a pandemic. It happens when we look back at the “glory days,” when Sunday School classrooms were full, and we had more butts in the pews. However, the reality is that the church is always in constant change and need of reformation.
When Jesus stepped into the Temple, he would set into motion a movement that has never stopped. It is a movement that is always evolving and changing. We can see that throughout history and it is that much closer for us because we can look towards Martin Luther and the Reformation. If the church is not open to constant reform guided by God’s word, then it might as well bow down to let something else take its place.
Amid, our current situation, where do we go from here? I can guarantee you that church a year from now is not going to look like church did a year ago. We have now entered a new time and space.
Jesus has stepped into the temple to discard the distractions that pull us away from being in right relationship with the Triune God. He has raised himself up as the one to follow. It is the temple of Christ’s body that guides us. We too should look at our own bodies as being of God, as we are created in the image of God. This Lent I have encouraged you to return to the Lord as we heard in Isaiah on Ash Wednesday. Let us leave all the tangibles behind and truly focus on the Lord, our God. We do this in worship, in prayer, in our daily lives. Are you keeping this in mind throughout the day as you make decisions and thinking about how it reflects your life as a follower of Christ? Are you allowing yourself to be drawn into a right relationship with God? Jesus has stepped into the Temple to stir things up, as did Martin Luther did 1500 years later. We are now in a time to continue to see the church reformed and be a part of that transformation.
There is a major difference between Martin Luther and Jesus Christ. One fully knew what he was doing and the other not so much. Sure, Luther had a desire to reform the church as he came to know it, yet I am not sure if he could have guessed where his action on that October evening in 1517 would lead him and his followers into the next century and beyond. Jesus, on the other hand, knew the movement he was starting on the first Passover in Jerusalem spent with his disciples. In driving out the cattle, doves, and money changers from the Temple, he drew people back to the true center of what worship should be. In his promise of the temple of his body being rebuilt in three days, our focus is redirected from the physical to the spiritual. It is here in Jesus Christ, as his disciples will come to fully understand at the resurrection, where the Word of God fully resides. A Word that restores us to new life.