Holy, Holy, Holy!

“Holy, Holy, Holy!”

Isa 6-3 sanctus-holy-holy-holy

Isaiah 6:1-8 (6:3) – May 27, 2018

Today is Trinity Sunday. In the children’s message, we talked about a straightforward way of understanding the Trinity. The theological concept of the Trinity is an idea that has been and still is misunderstood—for centuries. Christians and non-Christians alike just plain do not understand it. Even knowledgeable ministers and bible scholars have problems talking about it clearly. That is one reason the children’s message about the concept of the Trinity was stated the way it was.

The simple idea behind the children’s message is an idea that can work for us adults, too.

Jesus said to approach Him as little children. He was talking to adults at that particular time. He meant that piece of advice to go for His disciples, His followers, and anyone else who was thinking about following Him. This can work in terms of the theological idea of the Trinity, as well. What’s a good way to talk or think about the Trinity?

One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, observes Trinity Sunday as one of her favorite Sundays of the year. She says: “It is God Sunday. The call is not to explain God but to celebrate God’s mysterious, more-than-we-can-ever-explain presence.  What could be better!” [1]

As we consider God’s unsearchable mystery and God’s awe-inspiring power and might, we all can look at God from a child’s point of view. We might even think about “the unanswerable questions people of all ages ask about God, such as but definitely not limited to:

  • What was God doing before God created the world?
  • How can there never be a time before or after God?
  • How can God pay attention to each person in the world all the time?” [2]
  • Why did God create rattlesnakes and mosquitoes? Along with spiders, sharks, viruses, earthquakes, and volcanos?

 

Let’s look at the Hebrew Scriptures. There have been hints of the Trinity from the very beginning. Think of the first chapter of Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And, the beginning of the Gospel of John that starts “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.”

Imagine a universe still and dark. Imagine a solar system just before it was going to spring into being, with nothing hung in space—yet. Imagine a place where the earth will orbit, but nothing there, yet. Except—the spirit of God—the Holy Spirit hovering, ready to hold the newly-born earth in loving embrace. Imagine the Word, the Logos, the creative force of God, speaking forth the whole of creation with astronomical power and might. Not only the earth, but also our solar system. Not only our solar system, but all other solar systems. And stars. And meteor showers. And quasars, and black holes, and everything else that is in the universe.

Traditionally speaking, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit had differently described roles in different expressions of the creation of the universe.   

As we look more closely at both of these passages, Genesis 1 and John 1, we see God created the universe in the beginning. Genesis tells us that God spoke, and the world came into being. The Word, the Logos, the pre-Incarnate Son was the powerful Word spoken at the beginning of all things. And then, the Holy Spirit—or the spirit of God—described as moving over the surface of the waters, holding the earth secure. Can you begin to understand what a mind-blowing image that was?

We continue to get glimpses of this Triune God in our sermon passage for this morning, where the prophet Isaiah has a sweeping, magnificent vision of the heavenly Temple of God.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

                    As Isaiah describes it with vivid word pictures, I think his vision sounds fearsome, and glorious, and terrifying. But, that’s not all! “And the angels were calling to one another:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

This passage from Isaiah 6 contains important liturgical language:. Did you recognize that language? “Holy, Holy, Holy!” This is called “the Sanctus. The song is an acclamation from the congregation honoring the presence of the Lord. The minister celebrating communion has just said, “The Lord be with you… lift up your hearts… let us give thanks…” and then prayed a prayer of acknowledgment (the Preface) for what God has done in language that calls up the time of the church year.”

We find out more—in another way—about how great and mighty and powerful this God is, by looking at the Psalm passage from today’s lectionary.

Psalm 29 deals with the mighty powers of God in nature and in the crashing sounds, stunning displays and fearsome descriptions Eileen read to us.  “For the psalmist, the storm is a symbol not of the power of nature, but rather of the power and sovereignty of Israel’s God. Seven, the number of completeness, is significant [in this psalm]. Israel’s God is completely powerful and ultimately sovereign. There can be no competing claims.” [3] Just in case anyone was wondering, that is. God is the ultimate in power, majesty and glory.

In the New Testament, God the Word, God the Logos becomes incarnate; He is born and grows to adulthood as the son of Mary, Jesus the Messiah. Jesus the Anointed One, the Lamb of God chosen before the foundations of the earth, the Prince of Peace revealed to us in the Gospels of the New Testament.

Remember last week, when we celebrated Pentecost, the birthday of the Church? That was the expected coming of the Holy Spirit in each believer’s life, in great power and might. The Holy Spirit blew powerfully into the lives of the assembled persons praying. The Holy Spirit ignited their hearts and minds to go forth and tell others about the might and power of God, in raising Jesus from the dead with resurrection power, and saving us from our sins.   

Is there any wonder that we are likely to fall on our knees as we sing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy?” As we consider the word holy the most special and important, set-apart, and awesome aspect of God. We reflect on the Trinity as we sing this hymn:

First, we praise God. Second, everyone in heaven praises God. Third, even though we do not fully understand God, we praise God anyway!.And last, everyone and everything on earth praises God. [4]

There are not enough superlatives to even begin to describe God. We do not have enough glorious, magnificent words fit to praise God. Our vocabulary falls far short.

Why don’t we consider the words of the heavenly beings in Isaiah 6, and close today with the words of the angels from Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”

Amen. Alleluia. Praise be to the Trinity, Eternal One in Three, Three in One.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/04/year-b-trinity-sunday-may-31-2015.html

Worshiping with Children, Trinity Sunday, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[2] Ibid, Worshiping with Children.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2453   Commentary, Psalm 29, J. Clinton McCann, Trinity Sunday, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

[4] Ibid, Worshiping with Children.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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All Who Call on God’s Name

All Who Call on God’s Name

Acts 2-3 pentecost

Acts 2:1-21 (2:21) – May 20, 2018

Reporting to you live, down the street from Temple Square, scattered reports are streaming in to our news desk. The reports are all about the huge commotion affecting almost everyone: the local people in downtown Jerusalem as well as the yearly visitors in town for the Passover festival.

What facts we have been able to piece together give an incomplete picture. But, most reports agree that something significant happened today, involving several violent gusts of wind, some flames that appeared out of nowhere, and just as quickly disappeared, and a veritable Babel of tongues from the gathering crowd, as a result. We will keep you updated on this developing story as more information comes in.

What would the modern-day media have to say about the happenings on that first day of Pentecost? Might their stories have sounded a bit like this?

Of course, you and I have heard about this account from the first day of Pentecost over and over again. But—what if this news from the streets of Jerusalem was indeed new to us?

If reported by today’s news outlets, these accounts of strong wind, tongues of fire, and unfamiliar languages sound out of control. Wild, raging, unsettling, untamed. What kind of occurrence is happening in Jerusalem—and beyond? Something definitely out of control. Out of human control, at least.

Let’s go to the end of today’s scripture reading, and listen to what Peter preached: “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That is surely beyond human control, too.  Plus, this reading can have a great deal to say to us on this Mental Health Awareness Sunday, too.

 

“Let’s begin with the last part – all who call on the Lord are saved. Did you hear this? It says “all.” There’s no comment on who has “right” theology, “right” behavior, “right” thinking, or the “right way” of living. It also doesn’t say that those who struggle with physical or mental illness have no place in the Body of Christ. This strange story of the first Pentecost says clearly that salvation, the Love of God shown in Christ, is for all people.” [1]

Do you hear? Salvation is not only for some people, or even for most people. What about  salvation only for people with sight or with hearing? Or, only for those who are left-handed, or for those who are right-handed. What of those people who only can speak one language, instead of those who can speak several? Or, is salvation only for those who grow up on “the right side of the tracks?” What about the rest of the people who grew up elsewhere?

I have spoken from the pulpit and from the front of the church about God’s ideas of equality, any number of times. The kind of equality that the apostle Paul talks about in Galatians chapter 3: “28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But, what about people with mental health challenges? Is salvation also for these people? Are those with mental health challenges—and their families and loved ones—beloved children of God, too? The account of Pentecost in Acts indicates a whole different kind of truth.

“Imagine what we would say if somebody told us this story today. If someone came into our worship and said that they saw flames of fire above our heads, we might dismiss it as a hallucination. If they told us that they heard a sound of mighty and rushing wind, we might say the same thing. Then if they added that they heard us speaking in languages not our own, we would just shake our heads and turn away, if not back away in fear. How wrong we would be!

 

Maybe we can consider the Pentecost narrative as invitation to welcome, include, support, and engage persons who live with mental illness, and their loved ones. Let’s face it, those disciples don’t sound particularly well in this story. Yet, God did not abandon them. God didn’t turn them away. God included them in the building of the early church. They might have had some unusual experiences and some unique ways of being in the world, but God used them to create the Body of Christ that we are all a part of.

What if this story isn’t only a story about the mysteries of the Holy Spirit, but also a story of extravagant welcome? And if we add to this Paul’s account from Romans of the Holy Spirit’s care, concern and love for each of us, we get such a powerful promise of inclusion and new life.

No brokenness, no illness is beyond the reach of our loving God. The breath of the Holy Spirit gives all of us life. God transforms our bony, broken, despairing lives by knitting us all together into the Body of Christ. We can all find wholeness and hope when we come together in the name of the One who Loves us all…” [2]

Alleluia, amen.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways  Mental Health Sunday, Pentecost, May 20, 2018

[2] I have borrowed freely for my sermon today from the Sermon Starters in the Worship Ways of the United Church of Christ. Yes, today is Mental Health Awareness Sunday as well as Pentecost Sunday. May we all help to become more aware, more caring, and more welcoming of all people, including those with mental health challenges and their loved ones. #EraseTheStigma

http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways  Mental Health Sunday, Pentecost, May 20, 2018

His Followers—Including Us, Too

“His Followers—Including Us, Too”

John 17-9 Jesus prays for us

John 17:6-19 (17:9) – May 13, 2018

Throughout the centuries since Jesus’s death and resurrection, believers have followed their Lord Jesus and prayed for others. I suspect we all can picture Jesus and His friends during that last week before His crucifixion. And, Jesus was a person of deep prayer. This profound image is quite precious to me, and I suspect for you, too.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus prays for His followers. Not just any old prayer, but a significant prayer, at a profound time of Jesus’s life. The night before His crucifixion, when He must have had a thousand and one things on His mind, Jesus takes the time to think of and to pray for His followers; His friends and disciples.

Today is Mother’s Day. Today is a day to take the time to think of beloved mothers (and, those who have acted as mothers). Some more devout people even pray for their mothers. And grandmothers, and daughters and sisters. All those who act as mothers, too.

In many, many cases throughout this country—and beyond, around the world—many caring, loving and nurturing women have mothered those under their care. In cases of religious nurture, caring mothers, grandmothers, aunties, sisters—and others who have stood in the place of these maternal figures—have prayed for their friends, relatives and loved ones, too.

Whether nearby or far away, prayer makes that intimate connection, that bond between friends, relatives, and loved ones. It does not matter whether the pray-er and the ones prayed for are next door, in the next town, or separated by miles, mountains or oceans.

Jesus was making that connection, too, through His prayer.

As we have noted before in weeks past, the disciples were anxious, worried, even scared to death. And, Jesus knew that very well. Remember His words of comfort from just a short while before this? In John 14:27, where Jesus says “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Of course, Jesus knew how serious this all was! He knew He was going to be beaten, jeered at, crucified, and die. He knew it was all going to happen in less than twenty-four hours. Yet, Jesus still had the amazing love, nurture and caring for His friends and disciples that He would say such things as these. Jesus did not allow the horror and anguish of what was to come take away from the love, caring and connection He had with His friends.

In today’s passage from John 17, Jesus expresses His deepest yearning for His closest followers. But, there is much more. Commentator Janet Hunt says “[Jesus] speaks to them all together at length ‘one last time’ as he sits with his disciples at table that Thursday night. … For instance, we get a sense of Jesus’ profound connection to the one to Whom he prays. And we are told that those who followed Jesus had learned of the truth of this as well.” [1]

How often do we hear of a faithful, devout mother or grandmother or auntie or dear friend praying for her loved one, asking God to take care of this dear one, whether nearby or far away? And, even when things become depressingly sad, or that diagnosis turns into a hospice admit, or the divorce finally happens, God is still able to be there and be present with the one prayed for. And their family.

As we can see from today’s scripture reading, Jesus prayed for His closest followers and friends. I love the way Dr. David Lose puts it: Jesus “senses their anxiety, confusion, and fear, and so he prays for them. He knows they can bear no more, and so he prays for them. He knows he will soon leave them, and so he prays for them. And as he does, and whether or not they understand everything he says, he tells them that they do not have to do everything or even understand everything.” [2]

Jesus was a master at making connections, just as relatives do in a close family, just as dear friends make intimate connections with each other. Sure, this climactic point in the Passion Week, this night in which Jesus was betrayed, had all the disciples’ emotions and feelings at a breaking point. Sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, horror. And, we know Jesus was there with His friends in the middle of all of those tumultuous feelings.

What about those in countless congregations today, and those who did not go to a house of worship this weekend, who had (or are still having) difficulty with the relationship with their mom? What about those whose mothers are somehow unwilling or unable to care for their children? What about those who have given children up for adoption? Mother’s Day is certainly difficult for these hurting people.

What about the mothers who have had miscarriages, or stillbirths, or abortions? What about those mothers who have lost a young—or not-so-young child? What about those who have never been mothers—for a whole host of different reasons? Yet, these women often care for and nurture others, whether theirs by natural means, or through choice. And even more important, Jesus is certainly able to love, nurture and care for all of these loved caregivers, all of these called children of God.

As we look at John 17, we can be sure that Jesus used His masterful way of connecting to show love, care and nurture. Pastor Tim Yee had the following illustration: “Jedd Medefind and Erik Lokkesmoe’s book, The Revolutionary Communicator, stresses seeking connection as an important communication tool that Jesus modeled, as he engaged people… This story [the authors] share of a little boy visiting a grieving elderly widower illustrates the power of seeking connection: The mother noticed the little boy crossing into the neighbor’s yard and climbing up into the old man’s lap. He remained there for some time, sitting quietly. When the boy returned home, his mother met him with her hands on her hips. “I told you not to bother him!” she scolded. “What were you doing?” “I wasn’t doing anything,” the little fellow answered. “I was just helping him cry.” (p. 23) [3]

Yes, Jesus prayed for the disciples, and “not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” That includes us! Just as a devout mother or grandma prays for her loved ones, just as Jesus seeks a intimate and loving connection with His friends and followers, so we can seek to have that deep connection with one another.

Dr. David Lose invites all of us to hear these words of Jesus addressed to each of us today. To imagine – really, to know – that Jesus was praying for us all those years ago and continues to care for us, support us, and love and connect with us today. Please take a moment to think about where we need to be more whole, to have more peace in our lives. And then, imagine that Jesus is actively, intimately praying for each of you. And, indeed, for all of us. [4]

Jesus is caring for us, you know. Jesus loves each of us that much.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/last-words/  “Last Words,” Janet H Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2018.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2566  David Lose The Power of Being Prayed For

[3] Revolutionary Communicator: Seeking Connection

https://lifeforleaders.depree.org/revolutionary-communicator-seeking-connection/?utm_source=Life%20for%20Leaders&utm_campaign=6da0a06843-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_05_12&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_daeb77a376-6da0a06843-85700765&mc_cid=6da0a06843&mc_eid=6effffadbb

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2566  David Lose The Power of Being Prayed For

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Love as Jesus Loves

“Love as Jesus Loves”

John 15-12 love one another, words

John 15:9-17 (15:12) – May 6, 2018

Love, love, love. When you think of love, what comes to mind? Valentine’s Day hearts and heart-shaped boxes of candy? Bouquets of roses? What about popular love songs from musicals or the radio? Or, do you think about loving your family—your parents or children, or grandchildren? Loving your spouse, or your pets? Or, how about dear friends?

At first glance, this seems like something natural, common sense. Of course, I love my children. Of course, I love my husband. Of course—when they were alive, years ago—I loved my two dogs. Of course, I go out of my way for my loved ones. I bet we all do those things.

But, is that the kind of love Jesus is talking about here? Jesus gives His friends the command to love: what does that look like?

Some people say they love one another. They talk really big. You know the kind I mean. They might speak of loving all different kinds of people, and put on a great show. How much they talk the talk of love! Telling everyone how big their heart is. But, when it comes to doing anything related to love, and caring, serving, and helping others, where are these people? Do they walk the walk of love? Do they practice loving like Jesus loved?

When I was in kindergarten, my parents started me in piano lessons. As the youngest of six children, I followed all of my older brothers and sisters in having at least a few years of playing the piano. And, practice I did. As I practiced over the years, I became better and better at playing the piano. I had a teacher to show me how to play an instrument, and I practiced.

The same could be said for anything people want to become skilled at. Practice! Whether it’s playing baseball, football, hockey or tennis, when we practice an activity, we can’t help but become better at doing it. Whether it is sewing, dancing, painting or whatever else we are striving to get better at, practice doesn’t necessarily “make perfect,” but it does help us to improve. A teacher or coach helps us to become more comfortable and accustomed to doing whatever thing we are trying to do.

Let’s go back to the blowhard, the one who says they love everyone. Can you hear them bragging and boasting? Look at them! They are so tremendous at loving. In fact, no one loves half as well as these super-special lovers.

Question: is their talk of  “love” only self-serving and selfish? Or, do they walk the walk of love? Can we see the genuine effects of their loving, in their families, among their friends and acquaintances, and out in the community?

Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel reading for today, from John 15. Jesus starts His command with a few words of preparation: “10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

The big thing I get from this introduction to our Lord’s command? Jesus tells us to keep His commands. This ought to be a no-brainer. We all need to keep, or follow, Jesus’s commands. Piece of cake, right? Walk in the park! No problem, Jesus.

Well, not so much. Jesus must have known how much of a problem we all would have with this command. He said, “IF you keep my commands.” I am assuming we are not braggarts and blowhards like some people. No, we really mean to try to love others. So help us, God! But, it is not so easy. That thing called sin gets in the way, snarling and tangling us all up.

But, why does Jesus say this? He wants us to be filled with His joy. It says so, right here in this reading. We all have the possibility for the joy of Jesus of be in each one of us. Not only the joy of Jesus, but the complete joy of Jesus. Chock full to the brim! Filled with His joy!

I don’t know about you, but I think that being filled with the complete joy of Jesus sounds amazing. Beyond awesome.

However, I keep coming across this problem. I know very well that my heart is sinful. I have sinful thoughts, and sometimes I say sinful words, and do sinful deeds. Self-serving things, selfish, bragging, and boasting. I wonder whether you might do or say selfish things, too?

I suspect Jesus knew that this was the case, which was why He phrased His command in this way. But, wait! There’s more. The next thing out of Jesus’s mouth: “12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Now, wait a minute, Jesus! What do You mean? Sure, “love one another,” that I get. But, “love each other as I have loved you?” Didn’t Jesus sacrifice a lot? Didn’t Jesus love people with an unconditional love? Jesus finishes the command by not only telling us about unconditional love, but He shows us what it can mean.

I consider these words of loving command serious words, indeed. Show one another unconditional love, just like Jesus. Let me tell you how one commentator’s mother followed Jesus’s words of command to love as He loved.

“My mom started a backpack program 8 years ago with an elementary school down the road from my parents’ church that has morphed into a partnership. Among many other ways that they support the school’s students and teachers, congregation members pack food every week for more than 100 children who may not otherwise have anything to eat during the weekend.

This story was relayed by the mother of a child who receives a weekly backpack.

“This mom watched from her window as her child and his friend got off of the school bus one Friday afternoon. Her son took his food bag out of his backpack and started unpacking some food at the bus stop. This little one shared half of what he had with his friend. When his mom asked him about what she saw, he told her that his friend needed some extra food, too.

“Word got back to the school counselor. We sent extra food in this little one’s bag, until we could get the new child enrolled in the program. We added a note telling him how proud we were of him and that we would send extra food for him to share with his buddy until he could get his own bag of food on Fridays.” [1]

That weekly commitment – shopping, packing, delivering – is a way to put action to the words of love, a way to show others we care. We have the opportunity to stop being selfish. That makes possible other acts of self-giving and generosity. It’s a way to love with actions, the way that Jesus would love.

What self-sacrificing love! This kind of love is not self-centered. It does not brag or boast, it does not get all puffed up and just blather on about how loving they are. No, this kind of love is love with workboots on. Love that rolls up its sleeves and goes to work, for anyone. Loving one another, no matter what. Loving people the way Jesus would love them.

I ask periodically, “what would Jesus do?” Would Jesus roll up His sleeves, get in there and pack backpacks for kids who did not have enough to eat? I think so. What can we do for Jesus? How can we roll up our sleeves and show others that Jesus loves them?

We all have the opportunity to follow the commands of Jesus. Love one another. Go and do. Go and love, in Jesus’s name.

[1] http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2015/05/what-is-love/

“What Is Love?” Anna Macdonald Dobbs, Ekklesia Project, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Fruitful Branches, Fruitful Lives

“Fruitful Branches, Fruitful Lives”

John 15 grape-vines

John 15:1-8 (15:4) – April 29, 2018

Spring has sprung! Finally, everything in the garden is starting to get green.

On Friday afternoon, after a medical appointment, my husband and I went to the Chicago Botanic Garden. The day was cool, but lovely and sunny. Since Friday was during the workweek, all of the garden staff was busy planting, watering, pruning, and getting the Garden prepared for spring. Everything was just beginning to bud. We saw leaves on trees and bushes just starting to unfurl, and spring daffodils, poppies and hyacinths showing their colors.

All of this new life is refreshing to see. A joy to behold. It reminds me so much of what Jesus was talking about here in our Gospel reading today. Jesus compared Himself to a Vine, and compared His followers—that’s all of us—to branches connected to the Vine.

Let’s hear again some of what Jesus said in John 15: “I am the real vine, my Father is the vine-dresser. For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the one who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful.”

How can the Vine and the branches not be green and growing? Especially at this time of year, in the bloom of spring? At the end of April, we can very well ask that question. How can we not be green and growing, sharing the essence, the life of Jesus? Ah, but there is a complication. A large problem.

In the farming or gardening analogy that Jesus is using here in this reading, Jesus talks about pruning, and about how God His heavenly Father “removes any of my branches which are not bearing fruit and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit to increase its yield. Now, you have already been pruned by my words.”

Now, that is a problem for me. I can follow Jesus when He talks about His followers sharing in His life, and being connected to Him. But when Jesus talks about pruning, and how God removes any branches—or followers—which are not bearing fruit, that is where I have difficulty. Big problems. This seemingly harsh statement does not square with other clear and loving statements Jesus made in other places in the Gospels.

Let’s go back to my visit to the Botanic Garden. As I said earlier, dozens of workers were out planting, watering, gardening, and pruning, all over the huge garden. They were preparing the Garden for the wonderful summer season, when everything is in full and glorious bloom.

As my husband and I walked by one of the large lagoons, we saw dozens of bushes all along the lagoon’s edge. I could see how the bare twigs were just beginning to sprout little leaves. I can’t remember what kind of bush they were, but my husband and I could see about twenty-five or thirty feet of bushes that were cut back to within a foot of the ground—severely pruned. There was a wheelbarrow half full of branches, and no staff worker around. The gardener had taken a break, apparently.

Then, further down the path were additional bushes that had not been pruned yet. My husband and I talked about how we had seen different kinds of bushes, in past years, that hadn’t been pruned, and how straggly and badly managed their growth was. We compared those bushes to the severely pruned ones we were looking at, by the lagoon.

I wonder whether that was the idea Jesus wanted to convey to us in this reading today? Did Jesus know that some wise and prudent pruning from a knowledgeable Gardener or Vine-Dresser might encourage the branches to grow?

Some preachers and some commentators on the Gospel of John say that God is going to prune away the unfruitful branches—or followers—of Jesus, and just throw them away. In other words, be fruitful for God, or die! That is such a harsh understanding of this reading. And, again, I wonder whether this understanding of the person of God is too harsh, as well?

One of my commentators J. Vernon McGee mused “no doubt that the Lord does some pruning. He moves into our lives and takes out those things that offend, and sometimes it hurts. He removes things that are hindering us.” [1]

Sometimes bushes and branches do need to be pruned. Sometimes—like on Friday, when my husband and I observed those dozens of bushes being pruned—pruning can help the overall health and growth of the whole plant. Sometimes, our loving, wise Gardener or Vine-dresser knows He has to do some pruning in our lives in order to make us more fruitful, and in order to cause additional life and growth in the whole plant—or, the whole family of faith.

Dr. David Lose, another commentator, adds “I think this is less intended as a threat about what happens if you don’t abide in Jesus but more a metaphorical description of what actually happens when you are not connected to the source of life. You end up cut off, withered, useless, like the branches and scraps we clean up from our yard and haul away or burn. Plus, if you’ve ever seen pruned bushes, you know it’s not a pretty picture.” [2]

With all this talk of pruning and cutting back and unfruitful branches, I am getting uncomfortable. I don’t want to be just a scrap or a branch that is cleaned up from God’s gardens and hauled away, or even burnt. I want very much to stay connected to Jesus, my source of life.

But then, I have never been seriously ill, as an adult. (Yes, as a teenager, but that was quite a while ago, and frankly, I do not have a clear memory of that time any longer.) However, Dr. McGee did have that kind of pruning experience. Let him explain: “I can speak to that subject and confess that it hurts. I think the Lord was pruning me when He permitted me to have a cancer and allowed it to stay in my body. He prunes out that which hinders our bearing fruit.” [3]

Let me say that I do not think that God arbitrarily makes people get sick, or forces individuals to get cancer, or heart attacks, or strokes. However, Dr. McGee was a beloved preacher and bible commentator who spent decades poring over the Bible, and had a great deal of wisdom and understanding concerning the Scriptures.

I’ll be completely frank: I do have difficulty with this aspect of John chapter 15. I do not completely understand what Jesus was getting at here. That is why I try to read commentaries from wise men and women who spend their lives studying the Scriptures in depth. I try to glean some of their wisdom and communicate it to you all in sermons and bible studies.

I think I have come to a better understanding this week, as I’ve examined this reading. As John 15 says, “For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the one who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful. For the plain fact is that apart from me you can do nothing at all.”

What’s the bottom line here? Jesus wants us all to share in His life. Apart from Jesus, we can truly do nothing at all. No fruit, no ministry, no sharing, no giving, no kindness, no love. Without Jesus? Nothing. With Jesus? Sharing His life? Then, we can bear fruit, for Him.

If we share life with Jesus, we have everything we ever need. Including our ability to have fruitful lives, for Jesus’s sake.

[1] Through the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew – Romans, J. Vernon McGee (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 466.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1532 Getting Real,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.

[3] J. Vernon McGee, ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

For the Sheep

“For the Sheep”

John 10:11-18 (10:11) – April 22, 2018

Jesus Good Shepherd_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v

The Bible often talks about sheep. Sheep in a sheep fold. All we like sheep. The sheep and the shepherd. The nation Israel is like sheep. The followers of our Lord Jesus are like sheep. We can follow the repeated illustrations of sheep and a shepherd in many places in the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Just like in today’s scripture readings.

The words of Jesus can be a bit puzzling to both children and adults. We as adults can figure out what Jesus is saying here in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. We have more developed brains and we can figure out what Jesus means by the metaphor “I am the Good Shepherd.“ Jesus is like a Good Shepherd, and we are like sheep.

But, what makes a shepherd “good?”

Jesus gives us further information in His description about what a Good Shepherd is not. A good shepherd is not a hired hand, since a hired hand doesn’t own the sheep. And so, he does not truly care about the sheep. If the hired hand is watching the sheep, a wolf might come and attack and scatter the flock. A hired hand will probably run away and leave the flock unprotected. So, the hired hand is most definitely not a Good Shepherd.

I go back to my initial question: what makes a shepherd “good?” For a more complete answer to that question, we need to take a close look at Psalm 23, our psalm reading for today. Remember, we are still trying to figure out what makes a shepherd “good.”

Our description from King David lets us know more about what makes a shepherd “good.” As sheep, we might be unsure about where we will find grass to eat, especially in a semi-arid region like most of the country of Israel. Yet, our Good Shepherd knows where there are places with grass to eat; we as sheep will feel safe enough to lie down in green pastures.

What else makes a shepherd “good?” When flocks of sheep are wandering around the fields and foothills of many dry places in Israel, sometimes it is difficult finding places to get water. A quickly rushing stream is not a place where sheep like to drink, since they can get hurt or swept away by the swiftly moving water. Yet, the Good Shepherd can lead His sheep to pools of still water, where they can safely drink.

Even today, we can ask similar questions. What makes a Shepherd “Good?” Dangers and problems can crop up today, at any time, among Jesus’s sheep, too. Will I have enough to eat or drink? What about a quiet place to live? Will the place where I live be safe? Or, will there be wolves and other nasty creatures wandering in my general area?

One of the earliest known depictions of Jesus in early church art is found in the Roman catacombs, under the ancient city. One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, tells us that “The catacombs are narrow, twisting underground tunnels.  The walls are filled floor to ceiling with graves that have been dug out of them.  They are dark and spooky.” [1]

Carolyn Brown suggests that we imagine we are walking quietly through the catacombs with a small oil lamp to find Christian friends who are gathering to worship by a designated grave. Can you hear the clank or crunch of Roman soldiers’ armor or boots? Christianity was an illegal religion. Christians were often hiding or on the run from the authorities. Since this was the case, it is easy to imagine why someone painted on the catacomb ceiling a picture of Jesus as a strong young shepherd who would take care of them.

What does a Good Shepherd look like, to you?

Jesus expands on this illustration of the Good Shepherd. The people of His time lived mostly in villages or small towns. Even if they worked doing other things, I suspect almost all of them were familiar with sheep, lambs and shepherds. I bet they had some ideas about what made a “good shepherd,” and what a “bad shepherd” looked like, too.

Even though today we might not be very familiar with the job of a shepherd, we still know how safe we feel when someone truly cares for us and looks out for our best interests. We still understand when someone protective stands guard and watches out for enemies so we can feel secure. We still appreciate when someone loving goes out of his or her way to search for a lost sheep when we wander away or get hurt or are in distress.

Jesus wanted to get across the idea of how much He cared for His sheep—that’s all of us. Jesus not only compares us to sheep (a biblical illustration repeated several times in the Hebrew Scriptures), but He tells us just what a hired hand does with the sheep. Or rather, Jesus tells us that the hired hand just runs away. The sheep would then be deserted and alone, liable to be attacked and perhaps eaten by wild animals.

Except, our Lord Jesus will not run away. Instead, He will care for the sheep, feed and water them, and lead them in good places. Jesus will not allow them to stray, but instead will lovingly protect and guard the flock.

As commentator Lucy Lind Hogan says, “To be [Jesus’s] followers was to enter into his sheepfold. He came to be the one who cared for and fed them.  It was a dangerous job; protecting the sheep from wolves and bandits. As the good shepherd Jesus had not only to be willing to, he did, lay down his life for the sheep that God had given him.” [2]

What does our Good Shepherd look like? How do we know when we have found Him?

And, is it possible that Jesus loves us so much that He gave His life for us? That He laid down His life for the sheep God had given Him? Jesus goes further in this reading from John 10, even further than King David in Psalm 23. Jesus not only cares for the sheep, and loves them, but He even dies for them. Gives up His life for the sheep.

Similarly, we lay down our lives every time we set aside what we want to take care of the needs of others.  We all need to hear Jesus’ insistence that if He lays down his life He can take it up again.  Giving up what you want once does not mean you will never get it or that you will always be called on to give up what you want.  Adults have learned that, but it takes a while for children to learn it, too. [3]

I said earlier that some people, young children especially, have a problem understanding metaphors. When Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd,” that can be one of those hard sayings.

When Dr. Maria Montessori was working in a children’s hospital “she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure [of the Good Shepherd] and held onto it “for keeps.”  So the Good Shepherd made sense to them in some way.” [4] Jesus our Good Shepherd is able to come alongside of all of us, too. We are able to take hold of His hand, “for keeps.”

We know today Jesus loves us so much He gave His life for us. How much did Jesus love us? He loves us this much. [spreads arms wide]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1239

Commentary, John 10:11-18, Lucy Lind Hogan, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

Peace Be with All of Us

“Peace Be with All of Us”

peace be with you, formal

Luke 24:36-49 (24:36) – April 15, 2018

Sometimes I just feel like pulling the covers over my head and not getting up in the morning. Wars, rumors of wars, bombings, fires, gas attacks, and these were just in the past week. Seriously, with all of the scary and shocking things going on in the world, the world can be a downright scary place.

No matter whether we live today in the United States or two thousand years ago in occupied Israel, there can be a lot of scary and confusing stuff going on.

In the case of our Gospel reading today, the scary and confusing stuff was going on right in Jerusalem. It was the time of the Passover, during what we today call the Passion Week. As we have been considering for the past few weeks, the occupying Roman forces in Jerusalem are watching the festival and worship situation very closely.

Sure, there are a great number of visitors from all over the known world, in Jerusalem for that great festival, Passover. But, the Roman forces must have doubled down on the populace in the city. And, even more, since the Rabbi Jesus had just entered the city only a few days before. He made a huge commotion, too, what with riding in on a donkey (like King David) on Palm Sunday, debating in the Temple during the week with the scribes, Pharisees and Sanhedrin, and getting arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane late on Thursday night and accused being Messiah. And, the crucifixion on Friday? Quite a week, for the occupying Roman forces.

Yes, we know some things in general about the disciples. They scattered, running away. Hiding, afraid that since their leader and Rabbi was just executed by the Romans on Friday, they might be arrested and executed next. In fact, Peter even denied knowing Jesus while in the high priest’s courtyard. He must have been scared to death, too.

The upper room, a larger room on the second floor of a building in Jerusalem, was one place where the disciples felt at least half-way safe. They were huddled up there, in hiding, trying to keep a low profile. Luke tells us the male disciples had already dismissed what the women disciples had told them about their Rabbi, early that morning. Something about an empty tomb, and their dead Rabbi gone. Even though Peter and John had run to the tomb and checked things out for themselves, they still did not have a clear idea what was going on.

This year, the lectionary does not have us look at the post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus when He walks with the two disciples from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. In brief, our commentator Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman summarizes this section of Luke 24: “Two from the group of followers of Jesus were going to Emmaus when they encounter, but do not recognize, Jesus. They express their disappointed hope that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, but Jesus explains how everything that happened was necessary according to Scripture. The two invite Jesus to spend the night with them. During the meal, when Jesus blessed and broke the bread, their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus, but he vanished from their sight. They rush back to Jerusalem and report to the gathered believers what had happened.” [1]

It is later that day that our Gospel reading picks up. Later in the evening, many disciples (I am assuming both male and female) are in hiding in the upper room. Luke specifically has the two disciples from Emmaus telling the rest about their encounter with Jesus.

Yet, the rest of the disciples are having difficulty believing, understanding. Even though several of these same disciples had angels and Jesus Himself telling them of the Resurrection, what gives? I suspect many of them are still paralyzed with fear. Scared to death. Afraid of the Roman soldiers coming around and knocking on the door at any moment, ready to carry off some of the disciples to be crucified, too.

How often have we been really afraid? Almost scared to death? Terror can paralyze a person. Fear can cause us to disbelieve, to run away, to get angry and fly off the handle. Don’t you think the disciples needed Jesus right then? When He appeared miraculously in their midst, many of them were still unbelieving. Still scared to death.

I think the first thing out of Jesus’s mouth was the most needed of all: “Peace be with you!” Do you hear? Jesus went straight to the heart of the disciples’ fear, their anxiety, their unbelief, and said “Peace be with you!”

Yes, we could talk about what happened after that, when some disciples thought Jesus was a ghost, so He ate a piece of fish to show His friends that He really, actually, had come back to life. Yes, we could talk about Jesus opening the disciples’ minds to the truth of the Scriptures, and how they were to be witnesses of the Good News and the forgiveness of sins.

I would like to go back to the first thing Jesus said: “Peace be with you!” During the Children’s Time, I talked about peace. There are many greetings in different languages that mean “Peace.” “Aloha in Hawaiian means affection, peace, compassion and mercy. Shalom (Hebrew) and Salaam (Arabic) mean peace, complete-ness, and prosperity. Aloha, Shalom, and Salaam can be used on meeting or departing.” [2]

Jesus wished the disciples His peace several times, recorded in the Gospels, including right here. This word is not only wishing a person peace, but “peace, shalom, and salaam” can also be wishing a person God’s presence. The disciples really needed that, too!

In the New Testament reading today from 1 John chapter 3, the aged disciple John tells us that we are the children of God. I remember when I was a mom of young children, sometimes then would get afraid. Sometimes I would comfort them, and hold them on my lap or give them hugs. Don’t you think it’s the same way with God? When we get afraid, even scared to death, we can run into God’s everlasting arms of care and concern. Our Lord Jesus can send us His peace.

The disciples really needed peace, first of all! Perhaps, they needed it most of all. God can send peace into the world today, too. Including peace into conflict in the Middle East, peace in warring regions in Africa and Asia, peace into difficult places in Central and South America. God can send peace to the streets of the cities of our country.

Jesus offers us comfort and peace, just the same way that parents (and grandparents) do. Jesus sends closeness, caring and loving, in addition to His peace.

Can you and I reach out in peace, in shalom, in wholeness and with God’s love? That is the message on my heart from the Gospel reading today. Reach out with God’s peace. Offer God’s peace to those around you today, and every day.

We can praise God for God’s peace and wholeness. God’s peace is a sure antidote to fear, today, and every day.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3627

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman Associate Professor of Biblical Studies Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-third-sunday-of-easter-april-19.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 3, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015