Stretch Out Your Hand

Mark 2:23-3:6

As we approach the topics of Sabbath and healing today, I would like to begin by sharing with you a story written by Philip Gulley. “Two or three times a week I visit the Dairy Queen in our town,” he writes. “When I was a child, I went for the ice cream. When I was a teenager, I went for the girls who worked behind the counter. Now I go to visit Leon, who owns the Dairy Queen and presides over the enterprise from a lawn chair at the back door. He has much time to think, and I like to stop by there and rummage through is musings.  We were recently discussing the peculiarities of modern life, when he said, ‘we’re so busy living the good life, we’ve forgotten how to enjoy life.’

Now, not everything Leon says sticks in my head, but that observation has. There is not one ounce of hypocrisy in Leon. He not only extols the merits of relaxation; he embodies it. I don’t know anyone who sits as well as he does –  hour after hour, moving from nap to conversation and back to nap again, every now and then reaching down to scratch his dog behind the ears. If leisure were an Olympic sport, Leon would be a gold medalist.

Leon is not lazy. For many years, he worked two jobs; he was an accountant in the daytime and king of the Dairy Queen evenings and weekends. Now it’s his season for leisure, and he pursues it with the same single-minded determination he’s shown in all his endeavors.”[i]

What Gulley has described here, I believe, is the common understanding of what we call “Sabbath.” I mean, when I say the word “Sabbath” what comes to mind? Rest? Relaxation? A day off? Perhaps someone like Leon?  Or maybe something more than leisure. Does it conger up the image of worshipping in church on Sunday? Does the concept of Sabbath encourage you to set aside a time and space in your busy life to just be with God? Perhaps none of these images pop into you head; maybe all of them.

The point here is that God intends for humankind, for you and I, to spend at least one day a week dedicated to resting our bodies from labor, focusing our minds on God, and devoting ourselves to a time of worship. This is, rightly, the common understanding of Sabbath.

Mark however, in these two little “vignettes,” these two short-stories that we have before us today, invites each of us to consider a deeper understanding of the connection between the Sabbath and God’s Justice. Mark wants us to see that Jesus embodied true spirit of Sabbath through his restorative actions.[ii] In other words, these two interconnected narratives tell us that Sabbath is finally about healing. In the first story, we receive a lesson about God’s abundance, a realization that there’s enough food for all people on this planet, demonstrated by the disciples picking the abundant grain and the following exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities. And in the second, we’re taught Jesus reaches out to the “least of these,” the social outcast, the infirmed, as pictured by the healing of the man with the withered hand. And in both cases, Jesus chose to ignore the long-established rules surrounding Sabbath. [iii]

You know, this is just one of the qualities I admire most about Jesus. I admire his ability to know when to follow the letter of law and when to allow the Grace of God overrule the law. He sums it up well here when he says that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around. We’re not a slave to the rules or to doctrine or dogmatic principles, rather, we’re as Paul contends, “free under the law.”

Now, this didn’t set well with everyone. The Pharisees failed to interpret the man’s healing as God’s approval of Jesus’ Sabbath work. Yet we know that God’s heart is inclined toward giving life and not denying the essentials of life to anyone. Thus, I believe that Jesus’ actions adhere to the Sabbath law far better than the Pharisees interpretation.[iv]

But how about us? What things are we “Pharisaic” about? Have there been times when we’ve let the rules trump grace?  Well, if your answer to that question is yes, rest assured, you’re not alone. “This passage asks readers in every age: ‘What are the essential categories of our lives that Jesus threatens?’”[v] In other words, in this passage Jesus changes the meaning of Sabbath. He transforms it from being an oppressive ogre, with denies food to the hungry and healing to the sick, to what it was originally: a reminder that we belong to God.”[vi]

Which brings me back around to Leon. You remember ole Leon, the leisurely king of the Dairy Queen passing the time in his lawn chair. Philip Gulley continued his thoughts about Leon by writing, “When Leon sits at the Dairy Queen, his back it turned to all the timepieces and their nagging, prodding authority.”[vii] My friends, the first step in letting go of societies pressure to judge others is to leave our timepieces at home, slow down, and once again, just sit in the presence of the Divine. And it’s from the slower pace of life that we can truly remember that we belong to God and that authority comes not by adhering to a set of directives, but rather, from opening our hearts and minds to the love and grace and compassion of Christ. And, it’s in these moments of clarity, in these precious moments of resting in the peace of God, of experiencing Christ’s healing in our lives and in the lives of others, that we discover the deeper meaning of Sabbath; the Sabbath life to which we have been called.

So, as you go forth from this service, on this Sabbath day, may you rest in the palm of the Creator, may you experience the healing and restoration of the Redeemer, and may you feel the assurance of God, always present through the gentle breeze of the Spirit. And as you go forth, may you be moved to share the peace and the healing and the grace of the Triune God with all people and all creation.

May it be so, for you and for me, Amen.

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[i] Philip Gulley. Porch Talk. (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 2007) p.35-36

[ii] Diane G. Chen. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B. Ronald J Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) p. 271

[iii] John M. Rottman and Matthew Lundberg. Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary, Year B. Paul Scott Wilson Ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014) p. 18

[iv] Ibid. Chen p. 272

[v] Nibs Stroup. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. III. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor Eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. 95

[vi] Ibid. Stroup p. 95, 97

[vii] Ibid Gulley p.37

Mysterious Encounter

Trinity Sunday – Isaiah 6:1-8

What does God look like? An old man with a long white beard, sitting on a throne? That’s the classic image of God. Or does God look like us? We’re created in God’s image, right? Or is God simply a breeze, a wisp of cloud on a sunny day? I don’t know. But what I’ve just described to you is how most people have come to view the Trinity.

Now, we’re not the first generation to struggle with the image of God. In the text we have before us today, Isaiah is utterly and completely mystified. I mean, think about his context.  He lived in a world where the Temple in Jerusalem was considered God’s earthly home. And to encounter the holy, to gaze upon the face of God, would mean certain and immediate death. So, picture the scene with me, there’s ole Isaiah in the Temple, doing temple stuff, when suddenly, he’s surrounded by smoke from the burning sacrifices and incense. And right then he had a vision; the mysterious encounter with the Divine that we read about today. But instead of death, Isaiah found restoration; instead of being destroyed, he received grace; instead of individual condemnation, he came to realize that God was sending an opportunity for repentance to the entire people of Judah.[i]

And this is where it gets really interesting. Isaiah knew God was holy. But his mysterious encounter with God redefined what it meant to be “holy”.  Isaiah came to understand that “God exists in community.”[ii]  God’s call for repentance wasn’t an individual mandate, but rather, God was telling the prophet to challenge the entire nation to turn from their destructive ways.

Now, let’s fast-forward to our context. Far too often I think we see God as the white-bearded judge, and as a result, we feel we must please God in order to avoid punishment.  So, we view holiness through the lens of individual piety.  In other words, we think, “if I’m good enough, if I keep all the rules, if I say the right creed and condemn those who disagree with that creed, then I’m holy.” But here’s the thing. The Triune God isn’t about individual piety.  Even Gods-self exists in community. Creator, Christ, and Spirit; Three-in-one.

But if God is more than an old man sitting on a throne in heaven, what does that “more” look like?  Well, Theologian Daniel Migliore, when speaking about the nature of the Trinity, invites us to see God in a different light. He says, “…to confess that God is triune is to affirm that the life of God is essentially self-giving love.”[iii] God is love. It’s that simple. Jürgen Moltmann affirms this position when he said that the story of the gospel is, “…a divine love story in which we are all involved with heaven and earth.”[iv]

Maybe this of it like a dance.  When you were in junior high, did you ever go to a dance? Did everyone there, dance? Did everyone have a good time? Probably not. Why? Well, some might have worried about stepping on a partner’s toes or, out of fear, chose to stand by the wall all night. Others may have felt they were too good for the rest. But whatever the reason, in some cases, the invitation to dance went unfulfilled.

Now, we’ve all been invited to dance. We’ve all been asked to spin around the dance floor together in the seamless waltz of life.  All of us are a part of this earthly community. All humanity and all creation are encouraged dance with God on this wonderful planet.

But, being the human creatures that we are, we sometimes step on the toes of creation.  Or sometimes we’re afraid of change or to take a chance by putting ourselves in the company of what Jesus called “the least of my children.” And because of our fear, we choose to stand by the wall when God calls. But that’s not even the worst of it. Sometimes we might think, as Christians, that we’re too good for the rest, so we shun their very existence.

My friends, you and I both know from experience, through reason, and from the example of Christ’s life in Scripture, that God doesn’t exclude anyone. We know that God is the God of a Wide-Welcome. So, what if we were to view God from this perspective? Communal embrace rather than individual piety? What if God looks more like an act of compassion? What if God looks like a black child hugging a white child? What if God looks like a church community welcoming a refugee family, or an immigrant, or a transgendered person. What if God looks like the neighbor we are called to love and serve. I think this is what holiness looks like in the 21st century.

I’m going to leave you today with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard.  She said, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”[v] I can think of no definition of how to approach this contemporary definition of holiness than to “dangle limp” and let the Spirit take us where the Spirit will.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Michael Floyd. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. III.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. 31

[ii] Daniel L. Migliore Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991) p. 69

[iii] Ibid Migliore p. 70

[iv] Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel and Jürgen Moltmann, Humanity in God (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1993) p.88

[v] Annie Dillard. (www.ucc.org/samuel, 2018)

When All Are Welcome Isn’t Enough

Why become Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation? Well, historically, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) people of faith have experienced emotional and spiritual injury in churches that condemn their capacity to love or seek love. And as a result, they’ve learned that “All Are Welcome” usually doesn’t apply to them.  And this reality means that LGBTQ people simply cannot assume that all churches will be safe for them or their families. So, how do we let these folks know that our church is different; how do we let them know that this is a safe space for them and their family to worship and to be fully included in the activities and leadership of our faith community? I believe that making a public ONA statement is the answer. In addition to the hospitality aspect, I’ve also outlined three additional reasons for us to consider adopting an ONA covenant.

A public welcome by an ONA church sends a clear message to LGBTQ seekers that they have a home in the United Church of Christ. A congregation’s affirmation and support through an ONA covenant can be a life-changing and life-saving experience—especially for LGBTQ youth.

A public welcome helps churches grow. New ONA churches attract new members. Many of these new members are straight people who identify with the values ONA represents. And often, they’re young couples starting new families who want their children to learn the faith in a welcoming environment.

By adopting an ONA covenant, a congregation is taking seriously the inclusive actions of Christ. He welcomed people from all walks of life to join him on a journey of healing, compassion, and transformation. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “So, welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7, CEB)

The church board voted (unanimously) in their last meeting to begin the ONA process here in our church. We are in the early stages of this process.  The first step is to form a “ONA Covenant Team.” The Covenant Team will be responsible for prayerfully leading us forward in this process by determining the steps to be taken, setting the timeline, and communicating openly with the congregation.  May our path forward be blessed as we continue to be and become a community striving to share the Peace and Justice and Love of the Living God.

A Wide Welcome

A Message from the Open & Affirming Covenant Committee, Cable United Church of Christ. May 15, 2018

Who’s welcome here?

If you’re Asian, Hispanic, Black, or White…

If you’re male or female or transgender…

If you’re three days old, 30 years old, or 103 years old…

If you’ve never stepped foot in a church; or if you’re Buddhist, Roman Catholic, agnostic or a life-long Lutheran…

If you’re single, married, divorced, separated, or partnered…

If you’re straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual…

If you’re a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Socialist,

or not registered to vote…

If you have, or had, addictions, phobias, abortions,

or a criminal record…

If you own your own home, rent, live with your parents,

or are homeless…

If you’re fully-abled, disabled, or a person of differing abilities…

You’re Welcome Here!

As a congregation we are committed to being a profoundly Loving and Welcoming community of faith. This has been a long-standing principle of our church and of the United Church of Christ. We offer a Wide-Welcome to all.

We are now embarking on a deepening of that commitment by engaging in the educational and spiritual process of moving toward becoming an Open & Affirming (ONA) congregation. The ONA process invites all of us to explore, together, ways in which we might become closer to each other, to those who are not yet among us, and to God.

The first step in this process was to form an ONA Covenant Committee, consisting of church members, the moderator, and the pastor. We’ve been meeting weekly and are beginning to envision the way forward.  Two important decisions have already emerged from our meetings.  The first is an expansion of the definition of what it means to be an ONA congregation. We wish to expand the meaning of ONA, which specifically welcomes LGBTQ individuals, to include all people, as in the “who’s welcome here” list above.

The second decision is to ask for your input as the congregation will be asked to vote on this issue in the future. The committee members sincerely invite you to contact them with you comments, concerns, and questions as we begin this faith journey together.

Thank you for your support and prayers.

The Open & Affirming Covenant Committee

Spirit for All

Acts 2:1-21

Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re driving in the car and listening to the radio and you become so engrossed in the story that even though you’ve arrived at your destination, you can’t leave the car until you’ve heard the end? I’ve heard some people call these “driveway moments.” Isn’t it interesting? One moment you’re driving in your car, minding your own business, and boom! A “driveway moment” suddenly touches your heart or changes your perspective on life.

Now, I read about such a “driveway” moment this past week. Rev. Scott Kenefake tells a story about listening to a radio program called Tapestry. Now, if you haven’t heard of Tapestry, it exclusively features programming related to spirituality, faith, and religion. Anyway, the program’s host was interviewing former chef, religious skeptic, and journalist named Sara Miles, about her unexpected and inconvenient “driveway moment.” Her driveway moment wasn’t in her car, but rather came as she entered a church, on impulse, in San Francisco one Sunday.

You see, Miles was raised in a non-religious family and she was happily living an “enthusiastically secular life” as a restaurant cook and journalist, indifferent to religion at best. As she says in the Prologue to her book, Take This Bread, “I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian…. Or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut.”[1] But as she entered the doors of St. Gregory Episcopal Church in San Francisco on a whim and ate a piece of bread and took a sip of wine, she found herself radically transformed. At the age of 46 this was her first communion and it changed everything.

I share this with you today because on Pentecost we focus on biblical stories in which God’s Spirit, God’s presence with us, encounters ordinary human beings in wonderful and unexpected ways. Encounters that have the potential to change everything.

Pentecost is, of course, the birthday of the church. Historically, however, it was an important Jewish festival. It was one of three “pilgrimage” festivals that were ideally spent in Jerusalem. Pentecost occurred fifty days after Passover serving as the commemoration of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. It recalled, not only the giving of the covenant to Israel at Mt. Sinai, but also the creation of a new kind of community; a radically different way of living after Egypt.

Early Christians incorporated these themes into our understanding of Pentecost as well. In post-modern Christianity, “The central affirmation of Pentecost is that the Spirit promised by Jesus is now present among his followers and in the world. The Spirit is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. This claim is foundational to the New Testament and early Christianity.”[2]

And we see this played out in the story we have before us today. Luke, the author of Acts, used the symbols of wind and fire to engage a diverse group of Pentecost pilgrims. Pilgrims who spoke a variety of different languages because they were from various parts of the Roman Empire. But Luke tells us that they were suddenly enabled by the Spirit to comprehend a universally understood language. In essence this is a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel that we find in Genesis, where the narrator says, “The Lord confused the language of all the earth.”

So, Luke is saying in this narrative that Pentecost is the beginning of the reunification of humanity; the creation of a new kind of community in the Church. And a once timid, frightened, and discouraged group of Jesus’ followers, his disciples, suddenly become forceful, confident, and unified advocates, sharing their experience of the risen Christ.

But, unfortunately, the Church has not always followed suit. In the book that inspired the video series we’re watching in Bible Study, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, David Felten and Jeff Proctor Murphy share the following thoughts.

“In many faith traditions,” they write, “it is tradition itself that is worshipped, held up as the whole purpose of the religious enterprise. Be it infatuation with ‘smells and bells’ or resistance to inclusive language, many faithful people have confused defense of their understanding of right practice and right thinking with what they call faith. They insulate themselves from the unpredictable, demanding, transforming nature of the Spirit with a fierce, pious, unbending commitment to the church. They practice what Richard Rohr has called a ‘cosmetic piety’ intended to look good on the surface but lacking any real depth or complexity. Defense of the changeless nature of their revealed truth becomes a virtue to be aspired to, regardless of how lifeless and rote the practice itself becomes.”[3]

Do you see what their driving at here? When we let the rules, or the dogma, or the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” rule the day, we cease to be moved by the Spirit. But, if we are able to understand our history and tradition in its proper context and allow ourselves as a community to indwell the Spirit of the Living God, unexpected and wonderful things can happen.

That was the experience of Sara Miles, you remember, the enthusiastic atheist, who had no intention of becoming a follower of Jesus.  That is, until she met him as a living reality, in the bread and wine of the sacrament. How did this encounter change her life?Well, she started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where she first received communion. She then organized new pantries all over the city to provide hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, she recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.[4]

My friends, the Spirit of the Living God, described in scripture by the symbols of wind, fire, and breath, radically transformed Sara Miles’ life and her community. When the spirit is active and present, it’s not just about, “me,” but about, “we.” It’s about the creation of a new kind of inclusive, welcoming, community based on love.

But Sara Miles also discovered that her newly transformed life wasn’t necessarily going to be easy. She had to trudge in the rain through housing projects, sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, take the firing pin out of a battered woman’s .357 Magnum, then stick the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of her car, and struggle with her family and friends, who thought she’d lost her mind. Sara also came face to face with the politics of food, the economy of hunger, and the rules of money.[5]

The point of all this is that the Spirit brings change! My friends, being a person of faith “…is not about things we should or shouldn’t do, or even about being nice. It’s about reveling in the beauty of creation, it’s about taking part in the wonderment of it all by living, loving, and being. It’s about embracing the pain and suffering of the world and transforming it into new life. It’s about harnessing the creative Spirit that is so much a part of what it means to be human.”[6]

And in our human-ness, maybe because of our human-ness, God provides us with countless “driveway moments.” Opportunities each and every day to be and become more than we currently are. Opportunities to reach out beyond ourselves, sharing the love and grace and compassion of Christ with our neighbor, whoever or where ever that neighbor may be. Opportunities to hear, if we listen hard enough, for the Still-Speaking voice of God.  A voice that reassures us that the Spirit is alive and active in the world today and is bringing renewal and revitalization within and beyond the Church.

I’m going to leave you today with a quote from Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs,” He once said. “Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Through the indwelling of the Spirit, may we all “come alive!”

Amen.

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[1] Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Ballantine Books, 2008, Prologue

[2] Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Power-And How They Can Be Restored, Harper One, 2011, p. 184

[3] David M. Felten and Jeff Proctor-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, Harper One, 2012, pp. 211, 212

[4] saramiles.net

[5] Ibid. Miles.

[6] Ibid. Felten. p. 218

(Acknowledgment: a great deal of the inspiration for this message came from a sermon called Driveway Moments by Rev. Dr. Scott Kenefake found at http://www.Day1.org)

Guided in Prayer

John 17:6-19

A Methodist bishop named Minerva Carcano shared the following story.  I was reared, she began, on a small farm outside the South Texas town of Edinburg. There was an empty field directly to the east of our farm, in fact just beyond our kitchen window. One day a man bought the field. He had plans to put his cattle there. That did not bother us but what was disconcerting, was that he was a Black man. That made him different and we had heard many stories about what Black people were like. Well, my father, being the man of the house, would have to deal with him. There was one big problem, though. My father spoke no English and we soon discovered, as we had expected, that Mr. Johnson spoke no Spanish. My father would just have to figure it out.

The day Mr. Johnson moved his cattle next door my father went out to meet him across the fence that separated our properties. My siblings and I gathered at the kitchen window to see what would happen. We were amazed at the sight of my father having a conversation with a Black man who spoke no Spanish.

When my father returned to the kitchen he reported that Mr. Johnson seemed like a decent man. We were of course more curious about knowing what my father had said to him and how on earth he had said it to him since he spoke no English. But it marked the beginning of an interesting and even more, a blessed relationship.

For the next ten years, Monday through Friday at 5:30 p.m. Mr. Johnson would come to feed his cattle and my father would meet him at the fence and they would visit for a half hour or so. This monolingual English-speaking independent Baptist, and this monolingual Spanish-speaking Catholic turned Methodist, became close friends. Their daily 5:30 afternoon meeting at the fence was a time that these men both cherished for they rarely missed. We pondered how it was possible.

The day Mr. Johnson died we went to his funeral. Having always been part of an all Hispanic congregation, I was in awe of what I saw. The church was filled with Black folks, Hispanics, and white people. The entire town was represented. Many were the lives that this neighbor had touched. How my father and Mr. Johnson had become friends and how we had all come to love that black man became clear to us in that culminating moment. Friendship and even love were possible despite the obvious barriers because Mr. Johnson was more than a mere neighbor, he was an incarnation of Christ’s love.[i]

Our text for today calls us to be “one” with Jesus as he and God are “one.” And despite what the “world” might say, despite what the loudest voices in our government might say, and despite what some claiming to be followers of Christ might say; this “oneness” is not about who we are, or the language we speak, or our sexual orientation or gender identity, or the color of our skin, or even where we’ve come from, where we are, or where we would like to end up. Being “one” in the unity of God and Christ is about incarnation.  Being an incarnation of Christ’s love. The kind of incarnate love that Jesus teaches and models for us. It’s about a divine transformative love that decisively changes the lives of those who accept it. And when we believe to the point of loving, then the world will come to know the love of God, and the work of Christ, will be done. As Jesus prayed in today’s text, “…may they may become one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Powerful words. But I wonder.  I wonder how the disciples were feeling that night, sitting around after supper with the customary wine and conversation. It often seems that we relax more after dinner, perhaps opening-up more than during the meal itself. I wonder if they really knew what lay ahead for Jesus, for them? I wonder if they wanted to run away, if they wanted to separate themselves from the world? I wonder if they were afraid?

Now, contextually speaking, we’re at a point in this gospel where Jesus has been talking for several chapters.  Somewhere in chapter 15 right through all of 17 Jesus has been giving what has come to be known as “the farewell discourse.” A discourse, or a speech, to his closest followers, in this casual setting, to explain to them what’s expected of them after he’s gone. A speech that ended with today’s passage from what’s called “the high priestly prayer.”

Remember last week, we heard Jesus urging his disciples to remain in his love, to make their home in his love, and to love one another as he loved them. The lectionary, however, skips over the next part where Jesus mentions that the world would hate them and reject them, and even kill them, as it will first hate and reject and kill him.

So, I’m not surprised that Jesus felt a need to bring the conversation to a close with a deep, heartfelt prayer; that he wanted his dearest friends on this earth to be guided by prayer no matter what the future may have held for them. Remember now, John wrote his gospel for a community, who, sixty years or so after Jesus was physically gone, was also experiencing hatred and rejection; the hatred and rejection Jesus predicted. So, this prayer was for them, just as it has been for the church down through the ages, and for us as well, a guide in times of struggle and a reminder to stay engaged with the world around us by sharing Christ’s message of universal love.

You know, for many years I’ve heard it said that we are to either separate ourselves from “the world” or that we as Christians are to “be in the world but not of the world.” Neither of these positions, however, has ever sat well with me. I mean, when we view the gospels as a whole; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John together, and attempt to distill them down to their lowest common denominator, we discover that we are called, that we are challenged, to share the healing, the compassion, the grace, …the love of Christ within our context and beyond. That’s the unifying theme of Jesus’ mission and ministry: “love one another as I have loved you.” But what Jesus is addressing, at least in part in this farewell discourse, is this temptation to separate ourselves from, what he calls, “the world.”

Theologian and hymn writer Thomas Troeger expands on this idea   when he cautions against “…drawing together in communities to avoid having to deal with a hostile world outside our walls.” He goes on to concede that while we are exhausted, “with the world’s ceaseless violence and corruption, and [that we experience] frequent feelings of despair over the inability to make a difference,” the crux of this text is the assurance that, “Jesus himself will always be with us, to strengthen us and enable us in our shared-ministry in this world, rather than withdrawing from it.”[ii]

My friends, if we are to truly live out the Ministry of God and the Mission of Christ we must be in and of the world.  That doesn’t mean we’re going to participate in activities counter to our understanding of faith and ethics. But that, instead, we are with and among and a part of the entire community; a community that’s both local and, at the same time, global in scope. A community that’s diverse in language, skin-color, religion, nationality, and lifestyle.

You know, one of the things we proclaim as a congregation is “A Wide Welcome” to all. And that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because we are a friendly bunch. But declaring a wide welcome must be more than mere lip service; it must be lived out every day!  A wide welcome means breaking bread with the poor as well as the rich; visiting with the lonely, weeping with the sad, and rejoicing with the happy.  A wide welcome means inviting everyone to encounter the Sacred regardless of what their understanding or relationship with God might be.  A wide welcome means inviting every person to the Lord’s table and into the covenant of baptism, no matter how they view the sacrament. Do you see what I’m getting at here? A wide welcome means accepting people just as they are, because, guess what, God has accepted and welcomed and affirmed you and I, just as we are.

Now, I realize that this is not the most popular view among churches today. Far too often churches, through judgment and dogma say, “you’re welcome here as long as you become like us, believe the right things, act and speak as we do.” The problem is that’s finally not what Jesus was teaching.  Instead, the crux of this passage, the key to understanding the High Priestly Prayer is unification.  Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one is a prayer for just that. That neighbor can find common ground with neighbor, that nations and strive for peace with other nations, and that all religions can coexist with all other forms of religious expression.

And finally, as followers of Christ, we are called to be in the forefront of this movement.  We are challenged by the gospel to be co-workers with God in bringing about the unification of all people.

Now, we’re not there yet and maybe we’re not even close. But there’s hope. I’m going to leave you today with some very meaningful words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of his assassination in 1968.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” King said, “But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.[iii]

My friends, I’ve caught a glimpse of “a wider welcome.” We are moving, ever-progressing toward the liberation, healing, and unity that Christ so fervently prayed for. And I know with all my being, “that we, as a people, will get to [that] promised land.”  May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Bishop Minerva Carcano The Evil Among Us (www.Day1.org) 1997

[ii] Thomas Troeger Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. II. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown    Taylor eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2008 pgs. 544-599

[iii] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered this speech in support of the striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. License to reproduce this speech granted by Intellectual Properties Management, Atlanta, Georgia.

Friends Together

John 15:9-1  Sixth Sunday of Easter

The great teacher and philosopher, Lao Tzu, once said, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”[i] As we think about the concept of loving others again this week, I think Lao Tzu was onto something. “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

Our gospel lesson for today moves along these same lines. It contains many familiar phrases that inspire and comfort us, including the very heart, the bottom line if you will, of what it means to be a person of faith: “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “love each other just as I have loved you.”

Now, the timing of this statement speaks volumes here.  This statement, this exceedingly important commandment, comes as Jesus neared the moment of his earthly death.  Contextually speaking, this passage is the beginning of what we call his “farewell discourse.” It was an address to his followers about what he expected of them after he’d gone. And I think It’s vital we understand that he began this discourse with a command to love one another. This theme of love is consistent throughout John’s Gospel and is the focus of the disciple’s charge as they carry on Jesus’ mission and ministry.

But the love that Jesus espouses in this passage is slightly different than the love he talked about earlier in this text.  Love between Jesus and his disciples here, is expressed as friendship. “I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing.” “Instead,” he said, “I call you friends.”

But we must be careful with the term “friendship” here. John wants us to view friendship from a much broader perspective. He wants us to understand that this friendship Jesus has for humanity, and expects humanity to have for each other, runs far deeper than a mere handshake; it’s a full-on bear hug.

I remember a class during my first semester of seminary when the professor quoted Henri Nouwen as saying that we’re called to “love Jesus and love the way Jesus loved.” In his beautiful little book, In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen provides a lens through which to read this passage: “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing,” he said.

Now, Dr. Nouwen was writing about the ministry, and of course we’re all called to be ministers (the priesthood of all believers) We’re chosen by God for this ministry. Now, this may ruffle the feathers of free-will a bit but it’s finally not inconsistent. We are, in my own words, “set apart to be within.”  We have a calling from God to be God’s agents, God’s cohorts, God’s purveyors of love to neighbors both near and far. Or, in the more profound words of Nouwen, “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”[ii]

But what might this “ministry of love” look like?

Well, again, we are challenged by Jesus to understand that love is more than just saying some nice words. Instead, loving is what it means to be the church. The action of loving is what it means to be in covenant and communion with each other and God.  A ministry of love includes the sharing of human resources, material goods, and communal fellowship, and a commitment of solidarity toward unity, as agents of God, in a broken and divided world”[iii]

Archbishop Oscar Romero stands as an example of this kind of love. Romero knew how to be both prophet to the rich and pastor to the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador. He was ordained and was a conventional and well-respected servant of the institutional church and he could have easily made the decision to stay in that station.  But instead, Father Romero went to the margins of his society to minister to those who suffered there; the poor, those displaced by violence. And there, he shared a gospel of liberation and peace, he championed the cause of social justice and was a leader for societal change, equality, and unity.  And in exquisite faithfulness to the ministry of love of which Jesus commanded in this passage, Romero challenged the corrupt powers that be, and ultimately laid down his life for those he loved; the poor, the widow and the orphan of El Salvador.

So, what about us? What might our ministry of love look like in real time? Who in our community needs to feel the wide-welcome, the outreach, the friendship of our church today? Well, I think Romero’s story challenges us to live out Jesus’ command by strengthening our community. And we can do this by promoting unity instead of division. We can do this by affirming diversity through an open and affirming worldview and by fostering healthy relationships within families. We can practice and ministry of love by educating ourselves about the issues surrounding aging and by visiting the lonely and the grieving. We can be a ministry of love by welcoming the stranger, the refugee, and the immigrant with open arms and open hearts.  And we can be a ministry of love by initiating intercultural and interreligious dialogues.”  And these ecclesial virtues extend beyond our local community “to all the ends of the earth,” as Jesus instructed.

The Dalai Lama agrees with Jesus when he says, “Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity. We are dependent on each other in so many ways that we can no longer live in isolated communities and ignore what is happening outside those communities.”[iv]

My friends, in the end, when all the rhetoric has calmed, and the fear and the finger-pointing ceased, human beings are all, in the words of the poet, “leaves of one branch, drops of one sea, flowers of one garden.”[v]  We are a global community. In his final word to his followers, and to us, Jesus wants us to “get this.” He says if we remain in his love, if we keep God’s commandment to love beyond the limits the world has set, if we indwell the strength of being deeply loved and gain courage by sharing that love, our joy will be complete. Our joy will be complete.

I think we should stop here today and let this assurance of joy have the final word.  Amen.

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[i] Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Victor H, Mair ed. (New York: Bantam Books) 1990

[ii] Henry Nouwen In the Name of Jesus (The Crossroad Publishing Company) 1992

[iii] Carmelo Álvarez Feasting on the Word. Year B, Vol. II. David L. Bartlett

   Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Westminster John Know Press) 2008 pgs. 496-500

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Loving Friends (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[v] Jean Baptiste Lacordaire.