Unity Within Diversity

John 17:1-11

When I was in school, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was on the track team. I was predominantly a long-distance runner, but on one occasion, when we were short a couple of runners, I was asked to join the relay team. Now, I don’t remember the distance of the race or really anything about the meet, except, dropping the baton. In case you’re wondering, that’s not as easy as it looks.  To properly pass the baton takes a lot of practice. “Practice makes perfect” the old saying goes.

Well, today, we have before us Jesus’ prayer for the disciples as he prepares them for life and ministry and mission after he is gone.  And while the heart of this prayer is for them to be unified with God and with each other, he prays that they will be one just as he and God are one; the hands and feet of this prayer, the nuts and bolts if you will, is a call for them to put into practice what they had learned under Jesus’ guidance. Jesus, in a metaphorical way, was passing the baton to the disciples and encouraging them to hold on to it tightly.

But how could this ever-diversifying group of followers ever take the baton and unify as one? Well, the key is to start with the basics. Interwoven with a whole lot of “Father” and “glory” language, Jesus says, in essence, “my life is on display in them,”[i] In other words, unity starts with seeing Christ in each other. And this tells us something about our calling as well. Our mission today is to “display” the life of Jesus in our faith and ministry. That’s the baton that’s been passed to us.

Now, there is much to be said for seeing Christ in each other, but there is also something to be said for seeing ourselves as God sees us, with steadfast love and compassion and with hope for the future and what is yet to be. The disciples were a group with great promise, and Jesus saw that promise within them, but he also knew that they would carry the gospel, and embody its message, in a hostile and unwelcoming world.[ii] A world that, for the most part anyway, didn’t care about the gospel message of seeking justice or the outcast, welcome for the immigrant, or providing a helping hand to the poor.  Sound familiar?

In a world, and currently a nation, full of challenges to people of faith, one wonders how the church’s self-definition would be changed if it took as its beginning point, ‘We are a community who sees all people and ourselves as God sees us'” How would such an understanding affect the way our church sees itself, its strength, its possibilities, and its mission in the world?[iii].

Well, one organization who has taken this approach to ministry is Back Bay Mission in Biloxi Mississippi.  Back Bay has a simple mission statement: “strengthen neighborhoods, seek justice, transform lives.”[iv]  Now, I know some of you have gone on a mission trip or two down to Back Bay and there’s another one in our future.  But for those of you who aren’t familiar with Back Bay, it’s a United Church of Christ mission site in Biloxi Mississippi who sponsors teams of volunteers to come down a week at a time and rehab homes for folks who are struggling to avoid homelessness. In addition, there’s a food pantry, laundry facilities, assistance with job placement, and a whole lot more.

Now, the focus has shifted a bit in the past few years to building new condos for homeless veterans. But the beauty of Back Bay, the real core of “seeing ourselves as God sees all of us” is the relationships that develop between the volunteers, the staff, and those being served.  You see, the work at Back Bay is done side by side with the staff and the prospective home owners. The experience puts a real face on poverty and those who have gone report that their lives and their perspective on poverty are greatly changed. One woman, when describing her experience at Back Bay, said that she was both “energized and saddened.” “Energized,” she said, “by the mission and the people she encountered there, but saddened by the overwhelming amount of work yet to be done.”

There is much work still to be done. The hard and often tedious work of changing hearts and minds concerning the poor is still far from over.  It’s far from over because the world is often a hostile place, and the cross makes no sense to many people, any more than the Resurrection does, but our reassurance rests in the knowledge that Jesus has left us in God’s care. We are not alone. As Fred Craddock so eloquently puts it: “The Evangelist leaves no one in doubt: the church is not an orphan in the world, an accident of history, a thing dislodged, the frightened child of huddled rumors and superstitions. The pedigree of truth is established and unbroken: from God, to Christ, to the apostles, to the church”[v]

As we leave this service today, and go about our lives, may that “pedigree of truth” embolden us take up the challenge and put into practice, real-life practice, the second of the two-fold command: to love our neighbor as ourselves.  My friends, that’s the baton that’s been passed to us “from God, to Christ, to the disciples, to the historic church, to us…” And as we grasp that baton of compassion, may our grip be true, and as our race comes to an end, may we confidently pass the baton on to the next generation.

In the name of the One who leads us all the way through the tape.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

[i] Eugene Peterson. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress Publishing Group, 2005)

[ii] Kathern Matthews. Reflection on John 17. (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds) 2017

[iii] Gail R. O’Day, John, The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. IX eds. Lender E. Keck et.al. (Abingdon Press 1995)

[iv] From the Back Bay Mission website (https://thebackbaymission.org) 2017

[v] Fred Craddock.  Preaching Through the Christian Year. Vol. A (Bloomsbury, T&T Clark, 1994)

 

If You Love Me

John 14:15-21

I’m going to start out today by sharing with you the story of “Balcony Guy.” No, balcony guy isn’t a superhero nor is he a fictional character.  Balcony guy is a real person who attended a church that I used to serve.  I call him balcony guy because he would come to church after it started, sit by himself in the balcony, and leave before it was over.  So, for the first four years I was there, I never met him.  I would see him up there during the sermon, but he would always leave before the final hymn. 

I thought this was kind of unusual, so I asked some of the long-time members about him.  However, outside of knowing his name and who his parents were, they knew very little.  So, I called him and tried to set up a home visit, but he wasn’t interested. And while I had him on the phone I invited him to come in a meet with, but again, he wasn’t interested.  Becky talked with him a couple of times.  She would hand him a bulletin sometimes when he came in, but that was the extent of it.  She observed that he was extremely introverted, so he most likely would have been very uncomfortable participating in worship or coming to fellowship.

Now, I mention balcony guy today because I think he had a unique, if not unusual way of interacting with the church.  The text that we have before us today, however, offers an alternative understanding of what it means to BE the church.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” We all know what “keep my commands” means, right? When asked about the most important of God’s laws Jesus answered, “Love God with all you heart, soul, strength and mind.” In other words, with all your being; with all you are.  And the second and equally important law is this, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  “The entirety of the law hangs on these two concepts,” Jesus said. Love God, love neighbor; it’s as simple and as complicated as that.  And it’s the complexity of loving God and neighbor that John takes up in this text and, I would contend, still confounds us today. So, that being said, I think it’s important that we take a closer look at this passage.

First, Jesus’ words here may seem like just that: words from a lovely speech long ago. But they’re more than just pretty words. Jesus backs up his claims with a promise to send the Holy Spirit. Paraclete (Paraclete) is the Greek word that John uses here to describe the Spirit rather than the more common Pneumatos (Pneumatos). Now, the word Paraclete is an interesting word. It literally means “someone who comes alongside to comfort” That’s the “companion” John’s talking about in this passage. We can turn to this Paraclete, this Comforter, this Spirit of Truth, as a companion on our journey. A companion who comes along side us and comforts us as we travel. Especially as we wrestle with the concept of loving God and neighbor.

But this commandment, that mattered so much to Jesus, didn’t end with this passage.  He expanded upon it, through his actions and further teachings, to include things like forgiveness, praying for our enemies, caring about the poor and the marginalized, and ordering our lives so that we might live them to their fullest.

That the first complexity we encounter when attempting to keep his commandment, and the second is this: Loving God and neighbor doesn’t stop with the individual; it’s a communal challenge. 

In this text, Jesus is speaking to a group and not to an individual, and he was preparing them for what was to come. Things were going to change, and change fast, and, that would affect how the disciples would carry out Jesus’ command, even how they would show their love for him after he’d gone.  So, that means this short passage we have before us today was crucial to the disciples.  They would come to show their love for Jesus by doing the works he had commanded. They would show their love for Jesus by loving others, by demonstrating compassion, by forgiving and accepting forgiveness, and by gathering in communities of faith. They didn’t cling to a cherished memory of him nor did they retreat into their private experience of him. When the disciples walked the talk and lived out what Jesus had taught them in their communities of faith, they found themselves once again in his love”[i]

So, with this understanding of loving God and neighbor, how might John’s words guide our faith journey still today? In other words, would anyone be able to pick us out of a crowd as followers of Jesus, because of our love? Love of enemy? Love of someone from a different race, or nationality or religion? Loving constantly and without judgment? Now, I don’t know about you, but the question that arises in my mind is: “How can we possibly live up to this standard of loving and God and all our neighbors all the time?”

Well, the truth is we can’t. Not on our own anyway. But this is where our text for today really helps us out. I am in God, Jesus says, “[and] you are in me, and I am in you.” The word IN is vitally important here. Jesus is IN God and God is IN us!  This is not a visit nor a pass through from time to time. We don’t live our lives down here while God exists only up there in heaven. Jesus, through the faithful writing of John, makes it perfectly clear that God, the very breath of God, the Paraclete, is within each of us; within all humanity and within all creation.  God is love and God’s love is within us!

When I was a twenty-something the idea of the Holy Spirit being within me was a very foreign concept.  In my youthful immaturity, I believed God was out there, waiting for me to “trip-up.” Hoping even to catch me committing a sin.  But I’ve come to discover that nothing could further from the truth. God is within me. God, through the Spirit, is my advocate, my comforter, comes alongside me on the way.  God is finally Light and Life; a light that shines forth from within each of our lives.

Richard Attenborough, the British producer of the movie Gandhi, has a wonderful philosophical perspective on this idea of God within each of us.  He once said: “There is a Light in this world. A healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometime lose sight of this force when there is suffering, and too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.” “…the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.”

I think this is a wonderful description of what it means to BE the Church; both in our congregation and in the United Church of Christ. When we, ordinary people realize the calling of the Spirit within us, it can and will lead us to answer in extraordinary ways. And this is best done, more easily realized, in community.  Yes, there is an individual calling on our lives, but the work of the Spirit with us is most fully lived-out when we participate in the mission and ministry of our church. 

Which brings us back to balcony guy.  My hope is that in some way he was fed by being present in worship on Sunday mornings. His potential as a person of faith, however, was most probably not all it could have been because he finally didn’t fully participate in the community. He chose to be an outsider looking in.  My friends, while it’s true we come to worship to be fed by God’s Word presented in the forms of song and prayer, scripture and message, it’s also true that we are not here on Sunday’s just to receive our spiritual feeding. We are also challenged to give of ourselves. Church is about a mutual sharing, a giving and receiving of God’s blessing and our blessing upon each other.

One final thought this morning. In her book, Gospel Medicine, Barbara Brown Taylor compares the church to a home. I like that image.  She said that the Church “…is a permanent home,” and that it “…is a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love unites. It is John’s idea of heaven to move in with the God who has moved in with us…”[ii]

As we go out from this gathering today, that’s the image of the church I’d like you to ponder. The church as  “a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love invites.” May we all walk with God who is Love, who comes alongside us and meets us right where we’re at, and whose comforting Spirit is within every breath we take… may it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Gail R. O’Day, John, The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. IX eds. Lender E. Keck et.al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1995) pgs. 739-744

 

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor.  Gospel Medicine (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995)

 

 

Trustworthy

John 14:1-14

“Down below the surface of a quiet pond lived a little colony of water bugs. They were a happy colony, living far away from the sun. For many months they were very busy, scurrying over the soft mud on the bottom of the pond. They did notice that every once in awhile one of their colony seemed to lose interest in going about. Clinging to the stem of a pond lily it gradually moved out of sight and was seen no more. “Look!” said one of the water bugs to another. “One of our colony is climbing up the lily stalk. Where do you think she is going?” Up, up, up it slowly went… Even as they watched, the water bug disappeared from sight. Its friends waited and waited but it didn’t return…

“That’s funny!” said one water bug to another. “Wasn’t she happy here?” asked a second… “Where do you suppose she went?” wondered a third.

No one had an answer. They were greatly puzzled. Finally one of the water bugs, a leader in the colony, gathered its friends together. “I have an idea”. The next one of us who climbs up the lily stalk must promise to come back and tell us where he or she went and why.” “We promise”, they said solemnly.

One spring day, not long after, the very water bug who had suggested the plan found himself climbing up the lily stalk. Up, up, up, he went. Before he knew what was happening, he had broke through the surface of the water and fallen onto the broad, green lily pad above.

When he awoke, he looked about with surprise. He couldn’t believe what he saw. A startling change had come to his old body. His movement revealed four silver wings and a long tail. Even as he struggled, he felt an impulse to move his wings…The warmth of the sun soon dried the moisture from the new body. He moved his wings again and suddenly found himself up above the water. He had become a dragonfly!! Swooping and dipping in great curves, he flew through the air. He felt exhilarated in the new atmosphere. By and by the new dragonfly lighted happily on a lily pad to rest. Then it was that he chanced to look below to the bottom of the pond. Why, he was right above his old friends, the water bugs! There they were scurrying around, just as he had been doing  some time before.

The dragonfly remembered the promise: “The next one of us who climbs up the lily stalk will come back and tell where he or she went and why.” Without thinking, the dragonfly darted down. Suddenly he hit the surface of the water and bounced away. Now that he was a dragonfly, he could no longer go into the water… “I can’t return!” he said in dismay. “At least, I tried. But I can’t keep my promise. Even if I could go back, not one of the water bugs would know me in my new body. I guess I’ll just have to wait until they become dragonflies too. Then they’ll understand what has happened to me, and where I went.” And the dragonfly winged off happily into its wonderful new world of sun and air.”[i]

Now, the children’s story that I just shared with you is called Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children by Doris Stickney and it’s one I’ve used in the past when dealing with children who are grieving the loss of a loved one. And I started out today’s message with this story because I think today’s gospel text is also about grieving the loss of a loved one, even though that loved one hadn’t yet died.

The text we have before us today is only a small part of a long address by Jesus called the “farewell discourse.” And as the name implies, it’s Jesus’ parting words to his closest followers, the eleven disciples.  Remember from chapter 13 that Judas had already left their company and the remaining eleven were listening to Jesus tell them that he would soon be executed.  And the general mood and tone of this passage is one of fear on the part of the disciples.

I read an interesting quote this week that I think reflects Jesus’ reaction to their fear. The author said, “I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.”[ii]  This quip, in a round-a-bout way, gets right to the core of what Jesus was trying to communicate. He is trying to reassure them that even in his death, they will gain life.  “Trust in God,” he says, “trust also in me. In God’s house there’s plenty of room for everyone.” And when Thomas further questions Jesus on where he is going and on how they might also get there, Jesus answers with that very familiar phrase, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, I think I saw a few of you cringe as I read these words. And I understand why. This passage has been used to promote Jesus as the “narrow way” or the “only way” to God in the modern context.  However, that was not what this passage meant in its original context.

     

What do I mean? Well, consider the meaning of Jesus’ words. When Jesus says ‘no one,’ he really means ‘none of you.’ He was speaking to his inner circle. This wasn’t a sweeping claim about salvation by a major world religion. It was instead, the conviction of a distinct religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world. And as a fledgling religion, the distinctiveness of Christianity was that they found their way to God through Jesus.[iii]  Do you see what I’m driving at here? This text, in its original context was directed at those who were already following Jesus, it was not, and is still not, an attack or a condemnation on those of other faiths.

Actually, “I am the Way” has its roots in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Book of Proverbs. John’s Gospel presents Jesus as a wisdom teacher and as “Wisdom in Person,” a savior whose mission is to offer a path of Life and Truth rather than a path of self-destruction and selfishness.

As a matter of fact, wisdom in the Book of Proverbs is often described as “the way.” Derek in Hebrew. Now “derek” is an interesting word.  It’s interesting because it calls to mind the image of a path that’s been well worn by constant use. The implication is that wisdom involves patterns of behavior, not just isolated acts. This path is viewed as a gift of the guiding presence of God[iv]

So, if we apply this “wisdom” understanding to John’s discourse rather than using it as a condemnation of outsiders, it opens up a whole new world of understanding, a “well-worn path” to follow, especially in times of grief.

In the story of the dragonfly, that well-worn path of wisdom leads the waterbug from a small existence below the surface of the pond into “a wonderful new world of sun and air.”  God’s calling on our lives leads us down a similar path. We find our way to God when we become a reflection of God, whose ways were demonstrated to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  When we find ways to share the love and the compassion of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, and the wisdom of the Scriptures with all people; when we discover and practice the inclusive nature of Jesus and find that inclusiveness reciprocated in our times of struggle, we too have found a “wonderful new world of sun and air.” When we open our hearts and minds and share our deepest selves with others, perhaps others unlike ourselves, we show them a “way” to God. My friends, God IS Truth and God IS Life just as God IS Love.

One final thought this morning. Poet George Eliot once wrote, “Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.”  The disciples lived this quote and many of us here today have as well.  But the challenge of this text, it’s beauty, is that call to move forward even when the path is dark and the situation overwhelming. God finally wants us to not just survive, but to thrive. And we thrive when we trust in the way and the truth and the life that is God.  We thrive, my friends, when we let love overcome fear.

May it be so.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Doris Stickney Waterbugs and Dragonflies : Explaining Death to Young Children (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press/United Church Press, 2004)

[ii] Quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer

[iii] Gail R. O’Day, John, The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. IX eds. Lender E. Keck et.al. (Nashville:    Abingdon Press 1995) pgs. 739-744

 [iv] Alyce McKenzie, Preaching Biblical Wisdom in a Self-Help Society. (Abingdon Press, 2002) pg. 21

 

The Voice of a Still Speaking God

John 10:1-11a

I’ve discovered this spring that my chicken enclosure needs to be rebuilt. Years of snow and rain have finally taken their toll and the wood is quickly rotting away. Now, building a new fence isn’t all that difficult. It isn’t very complicated. The gate however, that’s a horse of a different color. The gate will take a little more thought. It must line-up correctly, swing back and forth easily, and be durable enough to last. The gate, I would contend, is the most important part. Because in the end, it’s the entrance.

Speaking of gates. I remember a Peanuts cartoon from many years ago, in which Charlie Brown is asked what “security” means. He describes the experience of riding in the back seat, while your parents are in the front seat, driving. “You can sleep worry-free,” he says, “because they’re taking care of everything.”[i]

It’s these two concepts of what it means to be “a gate” that lay at the heart of today’s narrative; the gate as an entrance and the security that the gate provides.

But before we dig too deeply into this familiar text, I think we need to look at one of the main literary tools used by the author of this gospel. You see, John, brilliantly, presents Jesus as the incarnation of God by way of Moses. Remember there’s no birth narrative in this gospel, but John makes this theological connection by recalling the time when Moses was up on the mountain asking about God’s name? Do you remember God’s answer? “I Am who I Am.”

Well, John uses that statement to indicate to us that Jesus is God through the seven “I Am” statements uttered by Jesus in this gospel. Jesus said, “I Am the Bread of Life, I Am the Light of the world.” He also said, “I Am the Resurrection and Life, I Am the Way, Truth and Life and I Am the True Vine.” That’s five of them. And today, we have the other two “I Am” statements in our text. Jesus says, “I Am the Gate and I Am the Good Shepherd. In John’s narrative, the Great “I Am”, God, has come down to earth in the human person of Jesus who self-identifies as “I Am”. But the interesting thing about Jesus using these “I Am” sayings is that they cover the entire spectrum of human needs and Divine provision. I mean, we all need nourishment, right? We need light and love and we often need a shepherd to lead us on the right path. But we also need, as it says in our text for today, “a gate” to access the path. I would contend that our faith is that access point. Our individual faith as well as the faith of this community constitute this metaphorical gate.

But let’s slow down for a moment and consider this image. Jesus as a gate? Seems kind of, id don’t know, weird, doesn’t it? A gate?  Well, the disciples found it weird as well. As matter of fact, the text tells us that they didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to teach them. So, he tried again. He said, “I assure you that I Am the gate of the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in, go out, and find pasture.”

Now, one might be tempted here to us these words to narrowly define who’s saved and who is not. “Whoever enters through me will be saved.” This passage does get used that way. But that “narrow way” and “workers are few” type of theology falls apart in the very next sentence.  “They will come in, go out, and find pasture.”

My friends, viewed from this perspective, it turns out that the metaphor of a “gate” isn’t so weird after all.  A gate swings both ways. A gate isn’t a barrier, rather it’s an entrance. Jesus isn’t a barrier either, he’s an entrance. And since we are called to be and to continue to become living reflections of Jesus; reflections of his life and works, that means we too are called to be entrances. We are symbolically the gatekeepers of the faith.

People will come in and they may go out again, but hopefully they will find pasture. The point here is that we are be a gate that swings wide open including all who wish join us in this fold. A fold that cherishes and values a “Christocentric” faith.

In other words, in the United Church of Christ and in this congregation, we are centered on the actions of Christ; on how he treated the alien, the immigrant, the poor, and the outsider. And as a Christ-centered community of faith we seek to challenge ourselves, and those around us, to be all that they can be, to be agents of love and compassion, and to be on the front lines of the debate concerning issues of Justice and Peace. As it says in the waning verses of our passage today Jesus, the Good Shepherd himself, came so that the sheep, all the sheep, “might have life and live that life to its fullest.”

But how does all this play out in real life? What does it mean to be a “gatekeeper”? I read an interesting quote this past week that seems to address this question. “If you want to build a ship,” it said, “don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”[ii]

I think it’s important for us to invite people to take on the task of becoming gatekeepers rather than commanding them. Do you see the difference? It’s a “come join us on the journey” rather than a “thou shalt” way of being. And this is important! It’s important to understand that each of us has a sphere of influence. What we say and what we do effects other people and the earth itself.

It’s like the preverbal pebble in the pond. When thrown in it only makes a tiny splash. But from that tiny splash comes concentric rings of waves reaching and effecting every shoreline. The same is true when words of hate or lies are uttered or acts of violence take place. Our words and actions can produce positive rings of waves or destructive ones. Being centered on Christ means being intentional and careful with both our words and our actions.

That’s the first thing and the second is this. Every day God provides us with opportunities to demonstrate our better selves; opportunities to give, opportunities to serve, opportunities to love. Being God’s gatekeeper means listening to the voice of our heart, the voice of conscious, and the voice of reason. And these voices are an echo of the voice of the Still-Speaking God.

The voice of God is encouraging us, calling us, and inviting us, to not lose our focus on the core understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Being a gate means standing up for peace and harmony and speaking out against injustice. Even when it’s the unpopular position.

And finally, being a gatekeeper means being under the protection of “the Gate” himself. There’s a certain reassurance in knowing that we “belong to God” and that we are loving others “as God has loved us.”

My friends, as we depart this place today, our task, as I see it, is to listen for the voice of God. God has called each of us by name and God willing we will be lead out into the world with the sound of God’s voice still singing in our hearts. May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Kathern Matthews. Reflection on Psalm 23. (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds) 2017

[ii] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight. 1931.