May Flowers?

A Spring Devotion

God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.                                                                                                                                                    I John 4:16

“April showers bring May flowers.” But if this axiom is true, what do April snowstorms bring? I saw a humorous Facebook post recently that featured a street full of people, frantically digging out after a blizzard.  The caption read, “Meanwhile in Wisconsin. Wisconsinites are shoveling the road for the annual Fourth of July parade.”

This year, it seems like winter will never end. But here’s the thing.  It will. As proven by our late April thaw, snow will melt away, the temperatures will rise, the flowers will bloom again, and the birds will sing. (And it will probably be in the upper 90’s and humid for the Fourth of July parade)

Faith kinda follows this same logic.  We all know someone who is experiencing a “winter” time in their life. The seemingly endless snow of struggle and grief, of fear and doubt, continue to blind them to any possibility of a coming thaw. But that’s why God has called upon all of us, whether we’re the one stuck in a snowbank or the one driving the plow truck; God has called upon all of us to be in community with one another and with God. Sometimes we mistakenly view faith as an individual thing.  But it’s not.  Faith is a shared journey of love.

The “love” part is key here. The author of the First Epistle of John says that “God is Love.”  That’s a huge statement.  It’s huge because he isn’t saying that God only imparts love (which God does) or that God only expects love (which God also does), but that God is Love.  So, love itself isn’t only the core of the gospel message, it is the gospel! Love, the unconditional, often unexpected, universal Agape of God is finally the healing that humanity seeks; it’s the spring of our existence.

So, have faith my friends.  The snow will melt, spring will come, and the Love of God will continue to bring warmth and grace into all our lives…  …eventually.

Peace & Blessing for the Journey.

Pastor Phil

Abiding in Love

John 15:1-8

In this week’s reading, John uses the image of a vine and its branches as a challenge to his community and to us as well.  It’s a challenge to examine our relationship with God. We’re invited by this text to “remain” in God and in turn God will remain in us. Now, back in Jesus’ day, people would have been familiar with this vine metaphor because it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures several times to describe Israel. Now, this image might be a little more foreign to most of us because we’ve never tended a vineyard. But even though you’re not vinedresser, chances are you’ve seen a grapevine with its many intertwined branches.  You’ve probably noticed how the winding branches make their way around one another in intricate patterns. Patterns that make it almost impossible to tell where one branch starts and another one ends. But as a symbol for Israel, we’re intended to see that these patterns are more than just intricate; their intimate. The vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain it, the life force of the whole plant. The vine is one with the branches.[i]

Another example of this same kind of interconnectedness are the giant sequoia trees of California. They can measure hundreds of feet in height and up to ten feet around the trunk. These amazing trees can live for thousands of years, and yet, sequoias have very shallow root systems. So, how do they keep from falling over when the first strong wind blows? Well, they intertwine their roots with all the others sequoia trees in the stand, thus drawing their strength from their interconnectedness with each other.[ii]

Now, contextually speaking, this interconnectedness between the vine and branches works in much the same way.  John uses this illustration to symbolize the interdependence of community. Community is key to understanding John’s Gospel and the mission and ministry of Jesus. But one of the problems we have in the Christianity today, one of the places where I feel like we’ve “jumped the tracks” in our theology, comes when we devalue community and reduce Jesus to nothing more than a “personal relationship.” This “remaining” that we read about today, however, wasn’t originally written in the form of an I/thou relationship.  John was clearly talking about the whole community “remaining” in Christ.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that an individual relationship with God is a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it’s vital. As people of faith, we should always be seeking a closer relationship with the Divine. We must create a time and space to be in God’s presence every day. And we can all do this through prayer, devotional reading, and personal reflection.

But, problems arise when our personal relationship with Jesus overshadows our calling to participate in community or when our personal view of Jesus clouds the movement of our church toward peace and justice and service.  Why do I say this? Well, right here in this passage, Jesus says, “a branch can’t produce fruit by itself.  [But] if you remain in me,” ‘abide’ is the word used in older versions of the Bible, “but if you remain in me and I in you, you will produce much fruit.  Without me, you can’t do anything.” And here’s the clincher. John ends this passage by saying that God is glorified when we produce an abundance of fruit and “this is the way,” he says, “that you prove you are my disciples.”

Disciples. Plural. Sometimes there are linguistic challenges when we translate words from Greek to English. But not in this instance and for a good reason.  The word used here is plural because this remaining, this abiding, is a communal process.  It’s not just one disciple being challenged to “walk in the garden alone” with Jesus, but the whole community together. A faith community then, is defined by how is “remains” in Christ and that “remaining” is proven by the fruit it produces.

So, here’s the obvious question: What does this fruit look like? Well, for John producing fruit is summed up in a single word, love. We often hear the word love in John’s writings. For John, love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, love is the measure of faithfulness, and love is a state of being that compels us to serve others. As a matter of fact, I would contend that love is the central verb in today’s passage and our shared faith journey.[iii]

Here’s and illustration of what I mean. I first met Linda about three years ago and in that relativity short amount of time, I came to view her as an inspiration.  She was the type of person who, when you went to visit with her, would enrich your soul and renew your spirit. Every time we talked, she reaffirmed her belief that God was present in her life. Even as she came to terms with her own impending mortality, Linda knew that God was walking right there beside her, because she was walking beside God.  And an important part of that walk, maybe the most important part of her walk with God, was sharing love with others.  You see, Linda shared with me that her faith wasn’t something she hid away, but rather it was to be lived out every day with and though her faith community.  Her faith was demonstrated through loving acts of kindness.

Now, I’m starting to see some smiles around the room because some of you have figured out that I’m talking about Linda Hoover. Now, for all the times I went to Linda’s home, I couldn’t tell you the color of her refrigerator. I don’t know because the it was literally covered with pictures of family and friends, inspirational sayings, and pieces of Scripture. And when her refrigerator door would become too full to add any more, she would frame everything and hang that framed collage on the wall in the kitchen creating room for more stuff on the refrigerator door.

Now, I mention Linda’s refrigerator door today because of a phrase displayed on it that jumped out at me: in big, bold letters it read, “Love is a verb!” Love is the underpinning of our action as people of faith, love is foundation of the church and of her mission and ministry. And love, love in action, is what sustains us as we journey through this life and into the next. If I learned nothing else from my relationship with Linda, it’s to remember that love is a verb; a verb that needs to be lived out in community by serving our neighbor. And in a similar way, this is the type of community that John was speaking about in this text. He understood that love was the motivation, the foundation, of the community that Jesus sought to create.

Now, in our context, this foundation of love is what defines us as a church; it’s the difference between a church and a social organization. Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with clubs that do good-works. I used to be a Rotarian.  Rotary International does some great things to assist and advance humanity.  But the underpinning of Rotary finally isn’t spiritual, instead, it comes from a place of wanting to connect with a diversity of people from across the globe.

The Church, however, finds her foundation in our unique relationship with the Sacred. And it’s this longing for the Divine that fuels our desire to connect with a diversity of people from outside our inner-circle, sharing our faith through our actions and good works. Do you see the difference here? Social organizations start with a desire to help and through helping better themselves and their community.  A faith community starts from a sacred center and from that connection with a higher power, propagate the desire to help others and better our community.

Contemporary author and theologian, Richard Rohr, affirms this notion when he says that “…true religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good.” In other words, there’s something almost indescribable going on deep within our being when we participate in acts of service. Something beyond making ourselves feel good or carrying out a commandment. And I think, that “something” is the intrinsic interconnectedness between God and the faith community and between the Church and those beyond our four walls.  An interconnectedness that’s fueled by love.

You see, when we remain in Christ, we when we abide in and share the love of God we become a part of something larger than our selves. We are called as followers of Christ to be a part of a larger community.  A community that’s bigger than individual religions or nations.  A community that’s joined together by a shared love and a challenge to bear the fruit of that love in the world today.[iv]

One final thought this morning. Gandhi once said, “Where there is love there is life.” My friends, as we continue this journey of faith today, tomorrow and beyond; as we continue to remain in God and as God remains in us, might this be our mantra. “Where there is love there is life.” May it be so. Amen.

[i] Katheryn Matthews. Love Abides. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[ii] Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens. Well-Connected Christians. (www.Day1.org) 2006

[iii] Fred Craddock. Preaching through the Christian Year B (www.ucc.org/samuel) 201

[iv] Ibid. Stephens.

Christ Among Us

Luke 24:36b-48 – Second Sunday of Easter 2018.

I once knew a young woman who was looking for the perfect church in which to get married. The right “venue” she called it. But she nearly drove her fiancée and her mother crazy, scouting out every sanctuary in the area, looking for just the right one…the one with all the right amenities, the one with the prettiest stained-glass windows, the one with a center aisle that was just the right length.

Her final choice, however, was surprising. She ended up getting married in an old, cinder block, rectangular building with beautiful Barbie pink walls and 70’s orange shag carpeting. Why the change of heart? Well, she finally realized something very important. She realized that the church of her childhood was the place where she had been baptized and gone through confirmation, it was the place where she had met her husband and where her grandparents’ memorial services had been held. This was where she had come to know something of the love and grace of God. She realized that the building wasn’t as important as what it represented.

Now, this has been a realization, dare I say a transformation, that has played itself out across the entire history of the Church. When Luke began putting together his account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, he was living in a time in which the sacred center of religious life had been taken away. For the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem was that sacred center. It was the dwelling place of the Most-High. And in a very literal way, they believed the closer you got to the center of the Temple, the closer you got to the Holy of Holies, the closer you got to God. The temple represented the very presence of Divine in this world.

But when the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Jewish people were left without a visible, tangible sign of the presence of God. And as you might imagine, this sent a shock wave through Hellenistic Judaism, causing them to eventually rethink their entire Temple theology. Christianity however, had chosen a different course. We found our sacred center not in a temple, but in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. So, you can imagine, then, the shock that was felt when Jesus was crucified. It appeared that the sacred center for the early followers of Jesus had been destroyed. The people who at first centered their relationship with God in a temple, and who had later found that center in a person, were left with neither temple nor person. So, where did they turn? When one’s sacred center is destroyed, then what?[i]

This seems to be the question that Luke is addressing in this strange little narrative we have before us today. Okay. Jesus appeared to his disciples, and they thought he was a ghost. But when he showed them his hands and feet, when he invited them to touch him, all this ghost talk ended.  And then he told them to give him some fish, broiled fish specifically, and he ate it. Strange story! But it begins to make sense when we focus-in on the question which Luke is seeking to address. Remember, the issue is, where do we find our sacred center? When we want to find God, where do we go? If the temple is gone and Jesus of Nazareth is gone, where do we find that situation, that place, that occasion in which we can center ourselves and our lives in the living presence of God?

Now, Luke begins to give us an answer in this funny little vignette. Obviously, Luke wanted his hearers back then, and us still today, to see that a resurrected Jesus was not, and is not, a ghost or a specter of some kind, but rather, a physical being. You see, it was important, crucial, for Luke to make this point and to make it as strongly as possible because there were people in that day who believed that God could not become a human being. The popular notion then, the predominate philosophical and religious understanding was that flesh was evil and spirit was good. So, that meant God couldn’t possibility become a flesh and blood person, because the material and physical world was inferior to the “spiritual realm.” And we see this concept carried-on in the writings of Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin among others. So, it’s important for us to understand that this “dualistic” view of humanity has been firmly planted in the psyche of Christianity.

But you can see the disconnect here, can’t you? Most contemporary scholars agree that the resurrection of Jesus’ body affirms the goodness of the human body. Our culture is beginning to recognize that we are whole beings, body and soul, mind and spirit; and that somehow our healing, our restoration and reconciliation with God, gets worked out here, on earth, in these bodies just as much as our souls. So, “to insist on the reality of the resurrected body is to demand that we accept our present reality as the place where transformations of ultimate significance take place. This makes us embodied creatures and a people of hope.” [ii]

Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully describes this embodied experience of Jesus, by drawing our attention to Christ’s hands and his feet. She poetically recalls the ways the hands and feet of Jesus had been important in his ministry, healing people, breaking bread, traveling around with the good news. Now, wounded and bruised, those same hands and feet were proof to the disciples that “he had gone through the danger and not around it.”

Through the danger, and not around it. Much of our time and energy is spent on finding a way around things, rather than living through them. We don’t want to experience pain or danger, or even to come face to face with the suffering of other people, or the suffering of the earth. “What can I do?” you might say, “the world’s problems are overwhelming and I’m only one person.”

And yet, yet, Taylor says we bear hope for this world because of the commission Jesus gave the disciples and the whole Church long ago, for we are the Body, and the Image, of the Risen Christ in the world today: “Not our pretty faces and not our sincere eyes,” she says, “…but our hands and feet [and] what we have done with them and where we have gone with them”[iii]

My friends, the sacred center of life is still in this world today. It’s found in the lovingkindness, in the grace, and the presence of the Risen Christ. Luke is begging us to understand that THIS world is where God is active and alive; that THIS globe is where people can know God and where God lives with, heals, and empowers people. People, like you and I, to be God’s hands and feet in this world. THIS is the place and NOW is the time.  We are called, challenged, and commissioned to be agents of God today, in service of our neighbors near and far.  We ARE the hands and feet of God when we welcome the stranger, open our home to the refugee, and our heart to the immigrant. We are the hands and feet of God when we seek justice and equality for all people and when we seek to preserve and restore the beauty of nature. We are the hands and feet of God when we visit the lonely, feed the hungry, house the homeless, lift-up the downtrodden.  We are God’s hands and we are God’s feet whenever we speak words of kindness and participate in acts of compassion. Compassion.  I learned this week, that in Latin, compassion means “to suffer with.”  …to suffer with.

“Here,” Jesus said, “touch my hands and my feet.” And “Here,” Jesus still says to us today, “Touch the hurts and ‘suffer with’ real people across the globe, who are really struggling, right now.” And when you do,” he says, “when you demonstrate compassion for the least of my beloved children, when you love those the world deems unlovable, when you touch those others have written-off as untouchable, you touch me. And here’s the thing. In the process, because you chose the way of love, you will be transformed.”  You see, transformation finally isn’t found in the Temple and nor can it be found in even the most beautiful of church buildings. Transformation of our whole-selves, the true, deep, healing of our bodies and souls, comes, when we discover the presence of the Sacred at the center of our being and then share that presence with all our neighbors and all of creation.

Friends, as we continue this journey together, may the presence of the Risen and Living Christ guide us along the way and may we ever-seek to continue to be Christ’s hands and feet, his heart, and his voice in this world. And it’s to that end that I say, Amen.

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[i] Stephen Montgomery.  It’s Touching Time. (www.Day1.org) 2015

[ii] Stephen Cooper. Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Westminster John Know Press, 2008) Pgs. 424-428

[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor. Home by Another Way (Cowley Publications) 1997

Marks of Faith

John 20:19-31

I’ve always resisted the notion that we must seek evidence to prove our faith. Case in point. A number of years ago, I was in a conversation with a man who could absolutely prove to me that the earth was only six-thousand years old. His evidence was a YouTube video set somewhere in the desert of the Southwest. Now, the main argument presented in this video was found in the beautiful, layered rock formations that populated this wilderness.  The host, very passionately and with all the confidence in the world, pointed to these layers and said, “Look! If you count these layers, there’s six-thousand of them, one for every year, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the earth is six-thousand years old. And if that wasn’t convincing enough, he also pointed out that one of the layers had little shells in it right at the point in his history when Noah’s Ark would have been floating around.  Well, the next time I spoke to the man he was eager to see if the video had convinced me.  But instead of an affirmation, I simply asked him one question.  “Did the host of the video own a shovel,” I asked? “Why?” was the response. “Well,” I said, “those giant rocks don’t sit on the top of the ground.  If he were to begin digging, I’m sure he’d find the other 4.5 billion years.

Like I said before, this concept of having to prove one’s faith seems a little strange to me. I mean, isn’t the very definition of faith, “believing without seeing?” But we also have to acknowledge that this type of thinking, this seeking “an empirical faith,” is prevalent in the wider Church today. The word empirical, according to Merriam-Webster, means, “originating in or based on observation or experience.”[i]  In other words, an empirical faith is a faith that requires proof. But at the end of the day, all these efforts at establishing a faith based on some “objective proof”[ii] fall short of producing a complete or a well-rounded faith.

Which brings us to our gospel text for today.  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side,” Thomas said, “I won’t believe.” These infamous words earned Thomas the eternal nickname of doubting Thomas.  But over the course of many years of study and sermon preparation, I’ve come to believe that the nickname “doubting Thomas” is a misnomer.  I think to simply lift-up Thomas as a “doubter” and by extension, “faithless” doesn’t do justice to this passage. John was very clear all throughout his gospel account that Thomas was a faithful disciple.  So, I would contend that Thomas wasn’t faithless, but rather he had a misplaced faith.  Let me explain.  Thomas was grieving the loss of the one he considered Messiah.  He had dedicated his life to following Jesus.  And now, Jesus was dead. So, it’s understandable that in his fear and confusion, Thomas needed something tactile, something as real as a dead body, before he could open himself up to the possibility of disappointment again.  He needed to see for himself before he could believe. In a very real way, Thomas expressed the same kind of empirical faith that’s common in the Church today.

But the bottom line here is that Jesus’ approach to faith was not one that endorsed seeing the evidence in order to prove it for oneself. In fact, he said “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed”[iii] This is consistent with what we know of Jesus elsewhere. The multitudes kept coming to him and asking him for some kind of miraculous sign in order that they might believe that he was who he claimed to be. But Jesus refused. I think he knew that a faith that depends on some kind of proof or verification constantly has to be re-proven and re-verified. Those who look for evidence are always looking for evidence, and never really take the leap that faith entails.[iv]

But, we do have to be careful here.  While an empirical approach to faith is an incomplete faith, so is an unexamined faith.  You’ve all heard this one before, but it really gets to core of an examined faith.

A flood was on its way, forcing everyone to evacuate. The police rowed up to the home of a very pious woman in town and said, “Ma’am, you have to leave this house! People are dying out here!” The woman replied, “No, I’m not leaving. I have faith that God will save me.” And the water continued to rise.  So, the woman went to the second story of her house. Another boat came by, and the captain yelled, “Ma’am, you have to get on this boat or you’re going to drown!” but the woman again replied, “No, I have faith, God will save me.” And the water continued to rise. This time she went to the top of the roof, where a helicopter came and hovered overhead. The pilot called-out on his loudspeaker, “Please climb aboard, ma’am. You are going to drown!” But yet again, the woman replied, “God is going to save me!” Well, the water continued to rise and soon she died. She did, however, go to heaven, and once she got there she wondered if she might ask God a question. “Go ahead,” said God. “I have always been faithful,” said the woman, “I’ve prayed, I consistently read my Bible, I’ve always tried to love You and my neighbor, I went to church every Sunday, God, why didn’t you save me?” “Well,” said God, “I’m stumped by that one too, I mean, I sent two boats and a helicopter!”

My friends, in the end, faith isn’t something you can quantify or verify in a test tube, any more than love or hope or mercy or compassion. But at the same time, faith isn’t blind. Having faith doesn’t mean there are never signs or reminders or evidence of God’s presence.  God is around and within us all the time.  My proof? I don’t have any.  But what I do have is a faith based on my own experience of God in the world; my perception of that experience anyway. This is called revelation.  I believe that God is revealed to us through our experience of tradition, our own Christian tradition and that of other faiths; God can be seen in our relationships with other people through love and compassion, justice and peace; and finally, God is revealed to us through nature in the beauty and interconnectedness of all creation.

And I think this is the crux of what John was driving at in this text when he put the story of Thomas’ questioning side by side with Pentecost.  Yes, Pentecost.  We call this text “John’s Pentecost” because this narrative is about the coming of the Spirit in John’s account. But notice something here. There are no violent winds or flaming tongues, instead, Jesus simply said, “‘Peace be with you,’ and then he breathed on the disciples, including Thomas, and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

My friends, I cannot prove to you that the very Breath of the Spirit of God is within you, but I know it to be true.  There’s finally something intrinsic about faith. Something deep within our very being, calling us, challenging us, loving us.  And that something, my faith tells me, is God.

So, my prayer for all of us, as this Easter Season continues, is that we will all find ourselves connecting on an ever-deepening level, with this intrinsic, more complete, understanding of faith.

May it be so.  Amen.

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[i] www.merriamwebster.com

[ii] Søren Kierkegaard observes that in matters of faith, “for every proof there is some disproof.” See Charles E. Moore, ed., Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 256

[iii] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 226, where he points out that even those who had seen had to make the transition to believing without seeing

[iv] Alan Brehm. Leaping into the Everlasting Arms. (www.thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2012