Let Go and Let God

June 13, 2021

Mark 4:26-34

It has been a long fifteen months. Very little has looked the way we would have hoped for and if we are honest with ourselves, we are not going to return to normal as we knew it. Practices and routines are going to look different in the future. Priorities have changed and now we must truly be willing to let go and let God guide us into the future.

I am not so good at the letting go part of it. There has been a huge learning curve over the past fifteen months, and I have been reluctant to let go of those things I knew I could control. Even when someone asked me, “What can I do to help?” I did not know what to say because at the moment at did not know what I needed. I have been forced to use technology and media in different ways than were in my game plan this past year. While this has taken up a lot of my time, I also know it is a valuable tool for the future of our congregation and the church as a whole. In the past fifteen months, we have learned new and exciting ways to be the church as we continue to celebrate God’s word together.

Before the pandemic struck last Lent, we were in the midst of a journey with LEAD to listen to our community and its needs. There are still plenty of needs in the community, yet they have shifted and we must find new ways to meet those needs. In just fifteen months, we are in a new time and place. Yet, we must not forget God has been with us in every step along the way in these past months. Seeds have been planted and there is new growth for us to look for. Among those seeds are many visions. When each of us have our own vision and fail to let others in to help and discern then we have chaos. I have been guilty of this. A vision is only as good as the community that gathers around it to work for a common cause.

Jesus teaches the disciples and the others gathered in parables. Parables can be frustrating. Parables can seem ridiculous. Parables can lead to us throwing our arms up in the air and walking away because we have no idea what Jesus is trying to say. In the passage from Mark, Jesus lays out his vision for the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses different parables to communicate the point he is trying to make. Today’s parables are agricultural and would have been quite familiar to those he was teaching. For somebody growing up in a big city today, it most likely would be lost on them.

First Jesus starts with the parable about someone who scattered seed on the ground. This is the kingdom of God, Jesus says. The kingdom of God is like these seeds which sprout, grow a stalk, then a head and the full grain. These seeds could have easily been trees, something we may not harvest to eat, yet can provide other resources. Think of the glorious oak tree which comes from the little acorn. God works wonders in those little seeds. Bearing much fruit and bringing strength and growth to something which at one time was small. God works in our lives much the same way. There is a mystery in our faith. We are invited to place trust in the Lord to lead us on the right path. To grow strong and be strengthened in the mystery of God. God invites us into the mystery.

In the second parable, Jesus must really get their heads turning. Of those gathered that farmed the land, they have got to be thinking Jesus does not understand agriculture. The mustard plant could be invasive. The mustard plant was not wanted in the fields because it could spread rapidly and overtake other crops. The mustard seeds could be seen as those in society others have shunned. Each era of time has created their own outcasts. In Jesus’ time it would have been the gentiles, lepers, tax collectors, and many others.

We have made outcasts of those who we do not think fit into societal norms. We separate people based on race, financial well-being, anyone within the LGBTQ spectrum. And you know what Jesus is trying to say? The kingdom of God welcomes them all! There is no difference in the eyes of God. Everyone is created in the image of God to be loved as they are as God created them. This little mustard seed which can grown into a large shrub and invade fields can also be a shelter for other parts of God’s kingdom. These outcasts are made great! God does not cast out anyone. Humans are the ones who cast out, thinking they know better than God.

Too often we worry about what our neighbor is doing and do not stop to think about how our own actions may affect others. This is when we get stuck in our own vision instead of the greater vision of God which is far greater than we can ever imagine. Jesus teaches through parables to get people to think. We can be sure the people Jesus taught this parable to will not be able to get the image of the mustard seed out of their heads.  It was a radical image.

Jesus invites us to let go of our control and accept his radicalness. It can be difficult to accept his radicalness because we think we need to do everything on our own. Jesus is present and is expecting us to ask for help and shows up in those around us when we least expect it. Are you looking for those that are growing and are you being open to growth yourself? Are you open to welcoming in those mustard seeds that have been cast out by others? Are you open to planting some mustard seeds to see what may take root and provide shelter and gain strength? In all of this, Jesus invited us to let go.

Letting go is a difficult task. When you have the vision laid out in front of you there can be reluctance in handing a project off to someone else. Jesus reveals to us in his parables that we do not have to do it on our own. The scattered seeds grow on their own with little effort on our part. Out of the earth, God’s very creation, the plant grows from seed to stalk, then head and full grain. The mystery of God flourishes in the seed and grows to provide an abundant harvest. As the mustard seed becomes a great shrub, Jesus turns an invasive plant into a refuge for the birds of the air. Jesus gives hope to the outcasts and instills a sense of trust for all. May you place your trust in God as you begin to let go of the struggles and challenges weighing you down. May you let go and let God.

We Are Jesus’ Family

June 6, 2021

Mark 3:20-35

Have you ever been involved in an intervention?

The occasion to help someone see the brokenness around them can be uncomfortable. Yet, it is also a reminder to the person they are loved and cared for deeply. An intervention is a useful tool to help a person come to terms with a particular challenge and acknowledge it instead of ignoring it. It is used in hope of getting someone to make a positive change in their life. When we think of interventions, our minds may go right away to substance abuse. Often, it is acknowledging that which has power over us. Jesus intervenes for us and goes right to the front line and does not back down.

One of my favorite sitcoms is How I Met Your Mother. The long running series follows four friends in their various struggles and challenges of life. It is a comedy and yet there are points of seriousness and even revelation. Throughout its nine seasons, they used interventions in both serious and absurd ways. An intervention was called for in countless episodes. On the serious side, they dealt with depression after the loss of a father, rushing into a relationship, and pushing to connect with a biological father. The absurd included the overuse of magic tricks, an obsession with spray tans, use of a fake British accent, and even an intervention for having too many interventions. A banner was even created so the person knew it was an intervention. While absurd at times, to see a group of friends help another friend acknowledge a challenge (even if it appeared silly), revealed they loved and cared for one another.

I bring up the notion of intervention because we read about one in the third chapter of Mark. The third chapter of Mark has Jesus’ family concerned. They want to shield him from any retaliation or harm those in authority may cause him. His family wants him to be careful. His family loves him and believes they are caring for him by showing such concern. This is not substance abuse we are talking about. There is a concern Jesus has lost his mind. He is speaking and teaching about things totally different from the current understanding of the Jewish people. He is turning everything upside down. It appears to Jesus’ family, he is deluded. 

The authorities have something completely different in mind. The authorities seem to think he is demonic. Jesus is unlike any other prophets who have come before him, and the scribes simply do not know how to handle him. They attempt to handle him by discrediting him. A common tactic played out today in all areas of life.

The love and care of Jesus’ family means little to him at this point because they are the ones that are yet to fully understand. While the questioning of his family probably comes as no surprise to Jesus, there still must be a twinge of hurt. Think of those times you are trying to share something serious with your family and they write you off as being deluded. Jesus does not let us in on this concern if it is there. He is preparing to teach and knows exactly what he is doing.

We hear in Jesus’ dialogue what he stands for. He is seeking unity among God’s creation, and in his teaching, Jesus points out how a divided house or divided kingdom cannot stand on their own. And if Jesus is Beelzebul, how can he still be casting out demons like he has been doing? Satan, or the evil which exists, cannot stand when it is divided. Satan is the “strong man” in which Jesus refers. It is the strong man who is really doing the dividing and causing derision among the people of God. By Jesus healing the people of God and performing exorcisms, it prevents the evil from fully taking power.

It is Jesus who is in the fight for the world. By him being born as an infant, he is fully in the world and can tie up the “strong man” and perform healings, exorcisms, and many miracles. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. He has come into the world to confront our demons alongside us. When we do not let Jesus walk alongside us, we can get in trouble.

It can be difficult to acknowledge you are struggling and ask for help. We become independent and want to do everything on our own because we don’t want to show any sign of weakness. Yet, the “strong man” still attempts to get in and take control. The “strong man” can reveal itself to each of us in various ways. It could be through our own weakness of not wanting to ask for help. It could be in an addiction of one form or another. It could be in our own mental well-being.

This is no different from the people Jesus was teaching nearly two thousand years ago. His teaching stated so much, if a house or kingdom was divided it cannot stand on its own. I would say we can extend it to the individual. When we allow the “strong man” to confuse and misguide us, we cannot thrive. This is why Jesus is such good news! Jesus is in the fight for us. Jesus has gone to the front line and is not backing down. Jesus does not need anyone intervening on his behalf. Jesus is intervening for all of creation.

Through our baptisms, we invite Jesus into our lives to help us. Sometimes we forget the declaration at our baptisms, “you are marked with the cross of Christ forever”. We are gathered as friends and neighbors. Yet, more importantly, we are gathered as family. As we gather around Jesus and open ourselves with his teachings, we too are his sisters and brothers. How much different our community, the church, and the world could be if we all lived into Jesus’ vision of the family.

Mark’s Gospel begins Jesus’ ministry at a breakneck speed. We barely have time to stop and take a breath. As everything seems to be happening so fast, Jesus’ family wants to intervene for fear of his life. This is of no concern for Jesus. His concern lays with the communities and houses that are divided. Jesus is concerned for each and every one of you. Jesus comes to preach unity among the divided. These communities and houses are divided because they have entertained evil and let evil manipulate decisions and interactions. Jesus goes to the front lines for you to fight the strong man, as he calls it. Jesus brings light to the evil and hope for our future. Jesus embraces us as family.

Join the Dance

May 30, 2021 Holy Trinity Sunday

John 3:1-17

Waking up on a January morning to the mist and fog lying over the rolling hills of Trappist, Kentucky was not a sight I anticipated. Being able to take a walk on the miles of trails was a blessing. To find myself contemplating and praying on such holy ground was surreal. This holy and sacred ground has continually been cared for by Trappist monks for over 170 years.  The monks have lived, prayed, and worked together for nearly two centuries!

It was here, at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where I met Thomas Merton for the first time. Now, let me be clear, he had already been dead for over fifty years, but it was through his words and the feel of his presence where I came to appreciate his depth of spirituality and his many writings. I give thanks to Thomas Merton for drawing me into a deeper spiritual life and the desire to become a Spiritual Director. The writings of Thomas Merton explore a deep connection with God found in contemplation and prayer. Merton’s writings point to the unity of creation and how we are all one in Christ. I was thirsty for more and have since enjoyed engaging his many words.

Merton along with Richard Rohr are two modern examples I look to to as spiritual teachers. I was searching as I was preparing to go on my seminary internship later in the year. It was the writings and words of these great spiritual teachers which drew me deeper into the wonder of God and revealed the power of the Holy Trinity. I was encouraged to continue my searching and learning through the God I had seen revealed through their works.

Encountering Nicodemus in John’s gospel this time around brought a new profound awareness of what must have been going through his mind. He too was searching. He had seen something in Jesus and wanted to learn more. Nicodemus would have been in the temple in the scene prior to this selection from John. Nicodemus would have seen Jesus become angry with the money changers and merchants making a mockery of the Temple. He would have heard Jesus’ teaching and he was drawn in by his words and actions. Much like the disciples who were encouraged to drop whatever they were doing and follow Jesus.

Nicodemus’ action at Christ’s death in helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare his body for burial revealed his faith for all to see. Nicodemus, a Pharisee by training, would have been questioned in his support of Jesus. I believe it is this reason he came to Jesus in the darkness of the night. He did not want any of the other leaders in the temple to see he was intrigued by what Jesus had to teach. Yet, when he first comes to Jesus, he calls him Rabbi. Being called Rabbi was a sign of great respect and it showed he was willing to learn. He was searching and he believed Jesus had something greater to teach him beyond the Hebrew Scriptures. He knew what it meant to be a follower in the Jewish tradition, and he sought a greater insight from this teacher who turned tables over and spoke with authority.

I also find it interesting Nicodemus sought Jesus in the darkness of the night because all humans tend to do the same thing. Whenever embarrassed by what others may think or simply do not want others to know, actions take place in the dark. It could be the literal darkness of night or the darkness within our own homes where no one else can see. It could be something bad or it could be something good. Whenever we want to hide something, we place it in the dark confines of our lives.

Nicodemus, in his encounter with Jesus at night, wants to know more and begins a dialogue of what it means to be born anew. Nicodemus stumbles and fails to understand as Jesus begins to teach, yet he perseveres. Too often, when we fail to understand, we just nod our head and walk away. It is much easier when you are presented with concrete facts and knowledge. Because of this, it is easy to get tripped up in the parables of Jesus. The disciples did not get it right away either. Jesus had to share the same stories in multiple ways for them to fully understand what he was talking about. And when he referred to his death, they denied his words. It would take the resurrection for them to fully understand Jesus’ words prior to his death.

Many struggle with faith because they want facts. They want Jesus to come to them just like he appeared to the disciples in the closed room after his resurrection. To have faith, one must believe in those things in which there is no visible proof. As Christians, our faith has been built on two thousand years of teaching and testimony. The foundation of our faith is the words of scripture. For me, I can also point to the spiritual leaders in which I have developed a strong connection. They have taught me to see and experience God in new and exciting ways.

Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus gives us insight into the Trinity. Speaking of God, Jesus tells of God’s love for the world, and it is because of this, Jesus is now present with us. Jesus is not present to condemn our struggles, challenges, or missteps. Jesus is present to redeem the world and restore God’s kindom here on earth. When it comes to the Spirit, Jesus speaks of the flesh and the Spirit. The flesh is those things of the world leading us astray. The material items of this life; love of money; desire to lift oneself up above all others. It is in the Spirit we are born anew in the waters of baptism and given new life. In the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we are promised an enduring and eternal life in God. In our searching, bits and pieces are revealed to us daily if we are willing to be observant.

It is easy for us to see signs of new life in these spring months. The months where everything comes into bloom and greens up. Yet, God is also always present in the dreariness of those winter months to lift us from our gloom. Take the time to stop and breath. Stop and breath in the wonder and mystery of the Triune God. Take the time to sit in prayer and ask for Jesus to join you in conversation. Be open to the mystery of the Holy Spirit and her guidance. Slowly, you will begin to feel the presence of the Triune God washing over you.

We are all on a journey. The question is, do you know where you are going? Surprisingly, the answer for most people is no. Getting caught up in daily tasks can stall the journey or appear to put it on hold. Yet, it continues whether we are aware or not. It is a dance. A dance with all our daily activities. There is give and take. Amid the dance, God is at work. The God we know as, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a dance revealing life and the love of God. It is a dance inviting us to celebrate in all the gifts we have been given. Are you ready to join the dance?

Unity not Uniformity

May 23, 2021 (Pentecost Sunday)

Acts 2:1-21

Imagine the challenges of moving cross country. Perhaps you have done it yourself. Moving more than a thousand miles from your support system. From experience, we moved four hours away when I attended seminary and going from seeing family nearly daily to seeing them every few months was a challenge.

Sarah Thebarge took on such a challenge. Not only that, but she was also recovering from breast cancer treatments at the age of 27 and had recently broke up with her boyfriend. Sarah was looking for a fresh start and was eager to find such a new start in Portland, Oregon. She did not quite know what to expect in this move and was open to whatever may come her way. I believe the Spirit was at work when it brought Hadhi and Sarah together for the first time. A chance encounter on public transportation revealed their many differences. Hadhi, a Somalian Refugee and single mother of 5 girls, was having difficulties navigating her new American life.  Sarah found herself present to help Hadhi’s family adjust. Hadhi and her daughters provided an opportunity for Sarah’s life to be transformed and find new meaning. In the barriers of language and cultural practices, the Spirit drew them together and they affirmed each other’s differences.[i]

On the Day of Pentecost, we recall the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples and all those gathered together. The Day of Pentecost was already remembered in the Jewish community as the Feast of Shavuot and originally marked the first harvest of the planting season. It would eventually become a day in the Jewish calendar when the Jewish people would remember Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. On this first Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the promise of Christ is fulfilled as an advocate is sent in the form of the Holy Spirit.

The Day of Pentecost reveals the differences among the people of God. The multiple languages spoken in the aftermath of the rush of the wind and the tongues of fire reveal a God working in the differences. It has been suggested Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel story. At the Tower of Babel, we are told in the Hebrew Scriptures, God separated the people and sent them off speaking in various languages. On Pentecost, they continue to speak in various languages, but now they are understanding one another. The Holy Spirit comes seeking unity, not uniformity.

Imagine if we were all the same across the globe. What a boring world it would be. We would not have the beauty of various languages nor the cultural practices found in each region around the world. The Holy Spirit has come so that we can affirm our differences and live into unity.

Pentecost is a call to action. It is not the beautiful, peaceful image of adoring the infant Jesus on Christmas Eve. It is not the glory found on Easter morning as we rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Pentecost comes in with the sound of a violent wind and fire resting upon all present. If you look at the flames of a fire, they can be unpredictable. Just when you think you are in the perfect spot to toast your marshmallow, the flames decide to shift. The Holy Spirit is much the same. The Holy Spirit invites us into the car, and we are encouraged to take the backseat and let the Spirit guide us. Pentecost and the Holy Spirit guides us out of our comfort zone and leads us to a scary place. A place where we proclaim the Good News! It is also a place where we meet one another in our differences as witnessed on the first Pentecost after the resurrection.

It can be difficult to sit down at the table when you do not agree with the person on the other side. This has happened throughout history as we have seen many splits within the Christian church and many denominations formed. In government, you have politicians doing all in their power just to suppress those thinking along different ideological lines. Instead of having conversations, we have press conferences denouncing one another. Churches dig their heels in and hold steadfast to tradition and push back on any inkling of change. This can result in being very insular.

As individuals, we can fall in the same traps. Why would I want to understand someone if they don’t think the same as me? In a society where wondering what is in it for oneself, is the first thing thought about, there is the notion that my way is the only way. On Pentecost, the Spirit has come to stir up all those misconstrued beliefs. The Holy Spirit comes to draw us together in our differences. The Holy Spirit invites us all to the same table.

Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit guide you to the table? The moment we begin to understand we are not in control it is like a relieve valve is turned and tension and pressure is released. The moment we say yes to the Holy Spirit taking the driver’s seat and begin to enjoy the ride, we open ourselves up to the divine mystery of God in our lives. It is in the divine mystery where new relationships are formed, and we begin to love our siblings for their differences.

A wind ripped through the crowd and garnered everyone’s attention.

What would it take to garner the attention of people today? Is it a pandemic bringing life to a standstill?  A pandemic which has helped reveal issues existing beyond our personal boundaries affecting our siblings around the world. The movement of the Holy Spirit on the first Christian Pentecost fulfilled the promise of Jesus sending an advocate. The Holy Spirit is the advocate Jesus promised, guiding us in the truth and drawing us together in our differences. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit draws us out of our comfort zone by bringing us fully into the Light of Christ. Being in the Light of Christ, we are brought together in our differences to affirm one another and seek the kindom of God. May you let the Holy Spirit reveal the Light to you.

[i] Sarah Thebarge, The Invisible Girls, 2013.

Eternal Life Now

May 16, 2021

1 John 5:9-13

I have been struck these past several weeks by the letter of 1 John. It has instilled in me a whole new appreciation for the Johannine community. It is founded in respect and ultimately a great love that is embodied in Jesus Christ.

Our journey together through the letter of 1 John has been revealing. Revealing in a way in which God’s love for humanity has been poured out and shared. A love beginning in creation, born incarnate in Jesus, and suffering on a cross for all of creation. It is a testimony to the very love of God within each of us. Yet, it is the testimony of God conquering all sin and brokenness where love reigns free. The author writes in the hopes of sharing this testimony. In this testimony we can witness Jesus fulfilling the promise of eternal life.

I would pray you have begun to get a sense of where we go from the glorious resurrection of Easter. The letter of 1 John is a call to love. A love beginning in the formation of creation. A love we are all fully capable of sharing with our neighbors.

The purpose of this letter is not to convince those who do not believe the same way. The purpose of this letter was to fortify the faith of those already in the community. It is a good thing to be reminded we are on the right track. It is a good thing to know God loves us. It is a good thing to know love will eventually conquer all.

Love reigning supreme is a goal each one of us should be focused upon. The more we express our love for the neighbor, we testify to Jesus.  The more we live in the love of Jesus Christ and follow in his way, we experience eternal life.

As it is written in 1 John, eternal life is not a future goal. Eternal life is already available to us now. The end game is not to get into heaven. If our focus is only centered on getting into heaven, then we are missing out on so much of life. Eternal life comes to us today when we believe in Christ and follow in his footsteps by being the hands and feet of God in this world. Believing in Christ is not simply something we say or are told to do. Believing in Christ is truly relational and is found in our relationships with others. Eternal life is a call to authentic human existence in the world. Eternal life is a call to embody the love of God made known to us in the Word made flesh. Eternal life provides freedom in a loving God where we are met with mercy and grace.

There are plenty of obstacles along the way to living this eternal life. There were many people who doubted Jesus in the first century. Alongside this doubt, also rested a complacency in the current system and the fear of changing anything. There were other prophets trying to raise their voices above the din of the crowds and would lead people astray. One of the greatest obstacles was love of oneself. Yes, you need to love yourself before you love others. However, do you let the love flow from yourself to your neighbors?

We could point to modern day examples in each of these obstacles. If we are honest, many of us at one point or another have had our doubts or allowed others to stir them within us. Doubt can raise many questions and can also strengthen our faith. Complacency is what has closed many churches. Without the desire to change and meet people where they are at, like Jesus did, churches can find themselves struggling with a lost sense of direction. We can point to cult leaders who have tried to raise their voices to attract people and lead them astray. We have also seen times where the leader themselves think they are bigger than Jesus. When it comes to loving oneself more than we love God, all we must do is examine consumerism run rampant. Where are we spending our time, energy, and finances?

Despite these obstacles, the letter of 1 John reminds us we are loved by God. It is a reminder believing in Jesus Christ brings us eternal life now. Eternal life following in the footsteps of Jesus and sharing the love of God. Eternal life which brings us freedom and grace.

Throughout these past six weeks we have been reminded we are a child of God and nothing or no one can take this reality away from us. Each and everyone of you are created in the image of God and are loved. In the call to love, God includes all creation. This means we are to care for the environment and the very creation entrusted to us by God. We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. One way to express love for our neighbors is through our actions. Through this love, we share in the love of Jesus and live into eternal life now. All of this culminates in living eternal life now by living and sharing the love of God.

Over the past several years, different faith traditions have been witness to many tragedies both within our own country and worldwide. Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina was victim to such tragedy in 2015 when nine of its members were killed. Another incident happened at the Christchurch Mosque in New Zealand in 2019. In 2018 multiple people were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Time after time we have witnessed communities stepping up to support one another amid such tragedy.

One specific example of God’s love being shown through faith in action and love of neighbor occurred in Canada following the shooting at a Mosque in Quebec. Christians and Jews formed “rings of peace” around other mosques in town to ensure the safety of their neighbors. The love of neighbor was returned following the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. Muslims would form a “ring of peace” around six Toronto area synagogues. These are testimonies to God’s love present for all creation.

Are you ready to provide a testimony? A testimony to live as Jesus lived. Putting your faith into action through the love of Jesus Christ. Love is the testimony we are called to share with our neighbors around the world. God is love. Love is the foundation of all things. Where we go from here is to continue to love on our neighbors the best we can. To love them through our actions and testimony to Jesus Christ. In this testimony, we find eternal life.

Faith in Action

May 9, 2021

1 John 5:1-6

Growing up, I was captivated by the work of M.C. Escher. Trying to determine in many of his drawings whether the stairs were ascending or descending. Where did they start and where did they end?

In much of his art, he incorporated the use of a Mobius strip. For example, when you look at a single piece of paper, it has two sides. However, if you give it a little single twist and attach the ends, it becomes one continuous surface. You can start at one point and draw a line all the way around and you will eventually end where you first began.  

Like the single piece of paper, we could state God’s love for us in on one side. The other side of the paper would be our love for God. There is the notion they could be two separate things. Yet we put them together and form a mobius strip, the two loves become intertwined. This is a wonderful example of how we abide in God and God’s love abides in us. This love is all wrapped up in the belief we love our neighbors as we love God. This love is expressed as Jesus draws us to himself through our faith. In our faith, we are one with God.

Love and faith are not easy.

To love one another it means we must break out of ourselves. We leave the desire of pleasing ourselves behind and look to see how we can serve and love our neighbors. When we begin to grow our faith in Christ, we begin to see the love for our neighbor more clearly.

Through the life of Jesus, we learn what true faith means. Jesus is faithful to the calling of his father to go and teach. Jesus is faithful to the disciples he calls to follow him in the way. Jesus is faithful in healing and performing miracles to reveal God’s love for all creation. Jesus is faithful in the garden when he wants to turn away and yet lets God’s will be done. Jesus is faithful to the very point of death on a cross. His faith is in God, the father. Also, his faith is in humanity, to continue in his word and grow our own faith in him.

Growing our faith sounds like it could be easy. Simply plant the seeds and it will start growing, right? It depends on what we are doing with those seeds. Are we watering them with the word of God and prayer? Are we nurturing the seeds with good soil and fertilizer? Are we pruning the growth back where it is not needed or wanted? Unfortunately, the growth of our faith can also be easily stunted. And for me, I am usually the one getting in my own way when it comes to growing my faith. I have a feeling if you thought about it, you are probably the one stunting your own faith on most occasions.

When we step into new situations and feel as though we are on the outside, our insecurities can be heightened. It could be an insecurity regarding how you were raised or your family of origin. It could be an insecurity around your job and wondering if it is good enough to fit in with the crowd you are talking to. It could be an insecurity around education. If we let them, our insecurities can guide our lives instead of our faith in Jesus.

For me, I will admit, self-doubt is the one distraction I allow to get in my own way. When I first started seminary, I would question myself as far as I am truly where God wants me to be. For me to self-doubt was easy, because I was surrounded by classmates born and raised in the church. As I did not come to the church until my late-twenties, I doubted whether my faith could match the faith of my colleagues. I easily dismissed the benefits of coming to the church later in life and the different valuable perspectives I could share.

Trying to be someone you are not can also stunt one’s growth in faith. When we try to be something we are not, our faith can become stagnant. It is possible to talk up a good game but are you truly getting your feet moving and your hands dirty? In other words, are you putting your faith into action?

To put our faith into action requires an obedience to the word of God. An obedience to the commandment we are reminded of in 1 John. The commandment to love our neighbor. Following the commandment of God offers us a true freedom in relationship. By doing so, we reveal a love born in God which results in our victory in faith. And as the author of 1 John tells us, this victory of faith conquers the world. We want to live in the world, but not be of the world.

Being of the world means our attention is being drawn to the material bling attempting to attract our time, money, and possessions. Being of the world pulls us away from the true faith found in Jesus Christ. Being of the world can be like poison. Therefore, as our faith grows, it conquers all those worldly desires. Faith becomes alive and is seen through our actions for our neighbors.

People notice when they see faith in action. It can be seen when we give a bike to someone in need. It can be seen in our welcoming new worshippers. It can be seen in the distribution line while hosting Gleaners.

Peter Scholtes put his faith into action when he, a white priest, volunteered to lead a half-Irish, half-Black parish on the South Side of Chicago. “For him, love was not just a romantic notion spouted by theologians. It took on concrete daily meaning. He weathered protests of White parishioners when he and his associate hung a sign outside of the church welcoming [Martin Luther] King on his first trip north. …He watched in disappointment as white congregants migrated out of the changing neighborhood.”[i] His experiences in this neighborhood at the height of the Civil Rights Movement would lead him to write the 1966 hymn, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” His hymn reflects the very nature of 1 John and especially this last chapter as we are called to love our neighbors and put our faith into action.

If you are like me, it is easy to get tongue-tied and caught up in reading 1 John. While it seems repetitive in parts, I wonder how many ways the author can talk about God’s love. And yet, I do not believe we can preach and converse about God’s love for us and our love returned to God enough. Because, in our faith and love we are one in God. The ability to love one another through our faith in action is present in all of us. However, sin distracts and leads us to other places. We find redemption in Christ. A Christ who loves us where we are no matter what circumstance we find ourselves. A Christ, whose very love for us is never ending; an endless loop like the mobius strip. A Christ we are drawn to in our growing faith.

[i] Bonnie J. Miller-Mclemore, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, pg. 490.

God Is Love

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.  

A Love for Creation

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

I Am a Child of God

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.  

The Community of 1 John

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.