Contemplating the Mystics of The Church

Sermon for April 15, 2018:  This sermon developed from the images of Leawood, KS, Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass windows.  The images of those who continued God’s work after Jesus’ resurrection.  Today, the image of Saint Teresa of Avila was the inspiration for this sermon.

How many Christians harbor a seed of uncertainty about the resurrection?   Until we walk the same path that all must walk, there is no concrete evidence our logical minds crave to answer that lingering question.

In the lectionary’s scripture for this week there is a reading from I John 3:1-7.  This letter was written by John the Apostle, whose brother was James and father was Zebedee. Based on writing styles and historical research, the same person is believed to have written the gospel of John.

Scholars believe the first letter of John was written as a circularletter to be shared among churches.  The purpose was to reassure the early Christians and counter false teachings. The letter provides three descriptors of God:  God is light; God is love; and God is life:

Scripture connections:

I John 1:5-7  God is Light

This is the message we heard from Jesus[a] and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.

 

I John 3:1-3  God is Love

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

 

I John 5:11-12 God is Life

11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.

 

Today’s world is consumed with logical thinking and the need for proof; Christianity is targeted as an outdated concept. Christianity cannot be boiled down to a code that computers can dissect and recreate with accuracy.  Christianity is simple but complex.  It is faith in what is known, but what is also not known.

As the weeks, years, decades, centuries distanced people from the events of that first Easter Sunday, The Church developed, evolved, and continued to share the story Jesus taught the Apostles and the earliest disciples.

The gospel written by the Apostle John differs from the other three and is sometimes identified as the mysticalgospel.  Why?  This gospel focuses on the fact that Jesus was God more than focusing on his physical human qualities.  God is light, love, and life.  The Word.

Scripture reconnect:

John 1:1-5, 9-14

1In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,[a]
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.[b]

 

     The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

     10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.

     14 So the Word became human[a] and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.[b] And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.

The Church had the task of continuing God’s work as delivered through Jesus Christ. And The Church continues.  At first there was just the one denomination, as we would call it today, but the reality is that even in the earliest days, believers formed different cells focusing on different perspectives.

Some fled into distant countries to live together in isolated communities.  Others blended into community churches located in homes.  Differences developed based on national cultures, strange practices, eventually creating orders who taught and trained others to continue the work of the Apostles.

Leaders developed into Popes, and The Church that evolved into the most organized arm of Christianity became known as the Catholic Church.  An organized religion developed and The Church grew.  The evolutionary process has seen various movements for reformation and Teresa of Avila, who later was beatified as a saint, led one.

[Insert video introducing St. Teresa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn4v6atYpq8&t=0s&list=PLFlOzfWR7LMU3h-0LlX_QPiZWi_Lx_rFm&index=5]

Teresa of Avila lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisitions and is known as a mystic.  Admittedly this is an uncomfortable facet of Christianity that does not match the 21stcentury mindset.  Therefore, I turned to the Harper Collins’ Bible Dictionary:

Mystic:  one who has a direct experience of the divine presence, an intimate and transforming communion or union with God.  . . . Traces of mysticism are sometimes identified in the Pauline Letters, especially where Paul speaks of union with Christ.

With that definition as a foundation, the writings of John the Apostle can be understood as being mystical, too.  The words from his writings and the quotes from St. Teresa are similar.

As John wrote in his first letter, God is light.  An article from biographyonline.com explains that after a severe illness during which St. Teresa experienced a vision.

In one of her visions she saw an angel pierce her heart with a spear with a golden tip and the pain, instead of being debilitating, became a movement into ecstasy for the mystic.  As she herself wrote, “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”  This event became symbolic of her life, that she was chosen in a special way to share in the pain of Jesus Christ. (Accessed on April 13, 2018 at https://www.coraevans.com/blog/article/the-incredible-life-of-st.-teresa-of-avila)

Afterwards, Teresa shared her vision, and some clergy argued the vision was the work of the devil.  She lost her confidence in her own visions and raptures, sometimes called ecstasies.

The article, though, continues to explain more:

However, in the course of time, she became absorbed in deep contemplation in which she felt an ever-growing sense of oneness with God. At times she felt overwhelmed with divine love. The experiences were so transforming, she at times felt the illumining grace of God would wash her soul away. She was so filled with divine contemplation it is said at times her body would spontaneously levitate. Teresa, however, was not keen on these public displays of ‘miracles’. When she felt it happening she would ask other nuns to sit on her to prevent her floating away.

Mysticism is not common in today’s faith discussions, but St. Teresa is accredited with part of The Church’s reformation.  Being included in the Church of Resurrection’s stained glass window (Leawood, KS) connects her to the evolution of The Church. She is accredited with starting a new order that focused on the values of poverty and simplicity:

She guided the nuns not just through strict disciplines, but also through the power of love, and common sense. Her way was not the way of rigid asceticism and self-denial. Although she underwent many tribulations herself, to others, she stressed the importance of experiencing God’s Love.

God is love.  The gospel of John along with his letters emphasizes that God is love.  St. Teresa’s writings include quotes that echo John’s teachings:

  • “It is love alone that gives worth to all things.”
  • “The surest way to determine whether one possesses the love of God is to see whether he or she loves his or her neighbor. These two loves are never separated. Rest assured, the more you progress in love of neighbor the more your love of God will increase.”
  • “We may speak of love and humility as the true flowers of spiritual growth; and they give off a wonderful scent, which benefits all those who come near.”

St. Teresa’s work clearly emphasized that God as love includes being a servant.  A few quotes from her sound very familiar to John Wesley’s most notable quote:

Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can. (Accessed on April 13, 2018 at Wikiquotes.com )

St. Teresa used these words:

  • “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
  • “If we practice love of neighbor with great perfection, we will have done everything.”

St. Teresa knew God as love. She also knew God as life.

“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life. . . . If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.”

In her visions, she experienced God’s love.  By the union with God through Jesus Christ, she saw God as life.  The metaphor that a nun is married to The Church simply means they are as devoted to the church as spouses are devoted, singularly, to each other. As a nun, St. Teresa’s life was devoted to God; God was her life on earth as well as after death.  In the biography, a fellow sister/nun describes St. Teresa’s death:

“She remained in this position in prayer full of deep peace and great repose. Occasionally she gave some outward sign of surprise or amazement. But everything proceeded in great repose. It seemed as if she were hearing a voice which she answered. Her facial expression was so wondrously changed that it looked like a celestial body to us. Thus immersed in prayer, happy and smiling, she went out of this world into eternal life.”

This final picture helps us to understand the mystical aspect of Christianity.  The Church cannot fully explain the complexity of God:  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but the figures who have carried the story forward along human history’s timeline, provide glimpses.

Even St. Teresa explains her mystical faith in God:

“They deceive themselves who believe that union with God consists in ecstasies or raptures, and in the enjoyment of Him. For it consists in nothing except the surrender and subjection of our will – with our thoughts, words and actions – to the will of God.”

As Methodists who know the words and works of John Wesley, St. Teresa’s words and work, we see that God is, God was, and God always will be light, love, and life—eternal life. To fully accept God in our lives, we, too, must be mystic at least to some degree.  There is no other way to know the reality than to rely on The Word—through reading scripture, through prayer, and through loving one another in any way that we can.

Closing prayer:

St. Teresa prayer life has also been the subject of study.  She said, “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.”

Now, please join in prayer:

Dear loving, life-giving Father,

As we wake to the sunlight of the morning,

As we lie down to rest in the moonlight,

Fill our souls with light, love and life

Taught us by your son Jesus Christ

And guides us as the Holy Spirit.

May we hear The Word within our minds

So that we, too, may live as your children

Following and reflecting your light others,

Loving one another as we want to be loved,

And confidently believing you are life

Now and forever, amen.

In closing:

            Here we sit in the Midwest in our protestant church.  The story of The Church is filled with saints who carried the Word forward, beyond the geographical home of Jesus Christ.

Here we live in the 21stcentury in a culture far removed from ancient thought, yet the saints kept Jesus’ work alive.

Therefore, when we learn that someone in our contemporary world experiences God in a mystical way, the story can empower us even more.  For some, the following story sounds familiar, for some it will provide encouragement.  This is the Easter story now, in our own world  [Accessed on April 12, 2018 at http://www.carmelites.net/news/resurrection-in-a-kansas-backyard/:

 

Resurrection in a Kansas Backyard

APRIL 1, 2018 | GREGORY HOUCK, O.CARM.

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Easter Sunday is one of the biggest days of the year in the Catholic Church, but for priests like myself it can sometimes be an occasion for sleepiness and maybe some crankiness. We’re cranky because the night before, the Easter Vigil, is a very large celebration in which the liturgy itself and the festivities afterward can go on for hours until early in the morning. Getting up the next morning for 7:30am mass can be pretty difficult.

 

This past Easter Sunday, I was helping out at a Carmelite parish in Kansas. It was a beautiful day; but that didn’t quite cut through the sleepiness. The aisles were choked, every pew taken, and I’m wrapping up one mass and preparing for the next when a man approaches me and asks me to give Last Rites to his dying father. Though this the last thing I want to hear at this moment, I tell him I can be there that afternoon, after the last mass.

 

Afterward, as I am plugging his address into the GPS in my car, I seriously consider blowing it off. I really need a cup of coffee and maybe something to eat. I need some time to rest. ‘I could show up tomorrow morning, no damage done’ I think to myself. But there was something quietly urgent about the man’s request, so I head over.

 

When I pull into the driveway, a crowd of people that could only be family is standing on the front lawn of the house. I think they must be waiting for the ambulance; I’m sure that because I hesitated, I am too late. But I find out pretty quickly that the family isn’t waiting for the doctor – they are waiting for me.

 

“Dad asked us to carry him out to the backyard to enjoy this weather,” the man explains. “We were afraid that if we stayed out back we wouldn’t hear the doorbell ring.” The family members– the dying man’s wife, two daughters, two sons, and a handful of college-age grandchildren – are pleasant enough, and as I am following them out to the backyard, I feel a bit calmer.

 

Out back, the dying man is propped up on a lawn chair. After relaxing in the sun and visiting for a while, I bring out the anointing oil, as well as Communion, in case anybody wants to receive. The Catholics in the group have skipped mass, afraid they’d lose their father while at church, and they are relieved at not having to forgo Communion today. I perform the Last Rites ceremony, and then I talk briefly about the Easter Gospel from this morning’s mass. I talk about the Doubting Thomas story, and about how Thomas’s newfound faith in Jesus is its own resurrection.

 

After a moment of quiet the dying man looks at me and says, “Today is the best day of my life.” I have to admit that given that he’s near death and had to be carried outside I wonder ‘if this is the best day of his life, what were the other days like?.’”

 

After distributing communion, the dying man asks to speak with me privately. Assuming he wants his confession heard, the family gets up and retreats into the house, and we are alone. After a moment of quiet the dying man looks at me and says, “Today is the best day of my life.” I have to admit that given that he’s near death and had to be carried outside I wonder ‘if this is the best day of his life, what were the other days like?’

 

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” he explains. “I’ve always had one or two jobs to keep food on the table. My kids – I think they knew I loved them, but I never told them that.” He pauses for a moment. He’s looking away from me. “I think they loved me, but they never told me that. We never said these things out loud – we just were a family.” He turns to me again. “But suddenly these last two days, being with them all the time, I know how much they love me. And I never really knew that before.”

 

As he speaks, I can feel my attention to his words sharpening. “I married my wife because she was the prettiest woman I ever saw – but I never really knew that her heart was so much more beautiful than that.” My Doubting Thomas sermon is starting to feel a little silly in comparison.

He stares out into the grass. “And I finally realized what I’d been missing my whole life. Today, after a few days with family constantly at my side, I finally got it. The whole point of life is to love. The reason we are alive is to love – and that makes this the best day of my life.”

 

I begin to understand that this man has just given me a gift – and that clarity like this is contagious. Love itself is a resurrection. The family returns and we sit around chatting for a while, and suddenly I am not so hungry, not so desperate for a cup of coffee. This man is approaching death, I realize, with joy; and that is a gift to his family too. They are not grieving so much as delighting in watching him exit with grace.

The next morning the phone rings in the rectory at an oddly early hour. It’s a representative from the nearby funeral home: “We’d like to schedule a funeral this week.”

 

“I know” I say to the voice over the phone. After hanging up, I’m sitting alone in silence for a few moments when I realize that tears are falling down my face. As a priest, I’m often called to be present when people die but, in truth, I’m generally not much of a crier. It dawns on me that my tears are not in sadness for the death of a man I barely knew. Instead, they are for the grace and privilege I felt at being witness to a resurrection on Easter Sunday afternoon in a backyard in Kansas.

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Prepping for meals ahead

Yesterday was mid-week, you know the feeling–Wednesday or Hump Day.  I had chores to do and just kept moving from one thing to the next.  Some days are like that, you know.

Anyway, I decided one chore was to prepare some of the meat I had picked up at our local grocery store Tuesday morning (they restock the fruits and veggies early in the morning).  I found some 93% lean ground beef as a manager’s special, so bought all they had–3–in the cooler.  They also offer some deals of various cuts and pro

Prepping

93% lean ground beef & sausage ready for browning

ducts that cannot be ignored:  5 for $25.00. 

So this morning, one of the first things I did was pull out the skillet and start browning meat.

I am not sure where I read this suggestion, but for well over 20 years, I have used one ingredient on my store bought meats–powdered garlic or chopped garlic.  Tucked in my memory is the statement that the garlic kills the bacteria that sometimes develops around the grinders and blades in the butchering process.  Therefore, in goes the meat and on top goes garlic, veggie pepper and onion powder.  My standard mix of spices to which I can add later when I continue the final dish.

Meat seasonings

The Tupperware shakers are always at my fingertips and in proper order: garlic powder, veggie pepper, and onion pepper. No labels, but the nose knows.

I probably should do some research and find out how garlic works, but I can testify that  ailments are rare in our home.  Even when the kids were in school, they just never seemed to bring home “The Bug.”  I keep thinking there must be something to the garlic memory stored in my memory.

But there is something about prepping meat and storing it away.  As I finished up the

Sausage

A new brand of sausage, but I figured I could add more sage like the one I usually try to buy. Sadly my usual one was not offered in the 5 for 25 offer.

ground beef, drained it, I started the second pan, the sausage.While the sausage browned, I started packaging up the ground beef.  My daughter convinced me that a food keeper was smart, and it certainly does help on these projects.  I got the beef done just in time to drain the sausage, clean the pan, and then package the sausage.

Finished prep

Ready for use: ground beef and sausage into the freezer, dated and labeled.

Wednesday continued to be filled with odds and ends as Hump Days seem to do.  But when I was done prepping the meats, there was a sense of peace and even pride, that I was thinking ahead.

Browning meat is not high tech, nor really a skilled cooking technique, but there are at least seven meals packaged and ready to go.  Who knows what the final meal will be–spaghetti, pizza, biscuits & gravy, hamburger soup, gumbo, Sloppy Joes/juicyburgers, or a skillet stroganoff.  The key is that the meat is ready and I am prepared to throw together a meal in just a few minutes.

The secret of the garlic powder?  I cannot tell you the news story that I heard so many years ago, but I know that we have weather many flu, intestinal flu bugs that have swirled around us.  I am afraid to not use the garlic powder at this point.  But maybe, just maybe somebody else will know the science behind it and confirm my practice.

My Wednesday went into the history book, but the freezer holds answers to some of the future.  Prepping ahead in the kitchen can be a metaphor for prepping many other facets of our life.  Seems to me that is what going to church is, too.  It prepares us for whatever lies ahead.  Just saying. . .

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By & With God’s Grace

Sermon for Sunday, April 8, 2018:  Beginning a series loosely based on the figures in the Church of the Resurrection, Leawood, KS, stained glass window that show the growth of The Church since Jesus’ resurrection.  Today the timing of Martin Luther King’s assasination made the inclusion of his portrait in the window the starting point.  The scripture references are included within the text of the reflection.

             1968:  The year was filled with notable events within our country’s history, but that does not make it any different than any other year along history’s timeline.  But 1968 has a definite place in our lives as Americans and as Christians.  And today, 50 years later on the Sunday after Easter, I cannot ignore some comparisons between the words spoken by Jesus and those of Martin Luther King, Jr.

These words are from the speech in Memphis, TN, on April 3, 1968:

     And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

     Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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 so I’m happy, tonight.

     I’m not worried about anything.

     I’m not fearing any man!

The words are prophetic, as MLK died the next day, assassinated.

Compare those experiences and the words of Jesus’s ministry and death.  The similarities cannot be ignored.  In the gospel of John, we hear Jesus’ words that are equally prophetic about his own death.  John 13:31-36:

     31 As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the Son of Man[h] to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. 32 And since God receives glory because of the Son,[i] he will give his own glory to the Son, and he will do so at once. 33 Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. 34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

     36 Simon Peter asked, “Lord, where are you going?”

And Jesus replied, “You can’t go with me now, but you will follow me later.”

These words come directly before Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will deny even knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows.

Living ones Christian beliefs can place you in very critical positions between good and evil.  And even though Jesus lived and died over 2,000 years ago, the conditions around us remain the same.  There is good and evil competing for our attention.

MLK and Jesus experienced discrimination and their prophetic words as they neared their final day are eerily parallel.  The discrimination experiences are different; but they are also the same.  How both chose to confront discrimination was to follow God’s commandment:  Love one another, as you want to be loved. Following that commandment mirrors the grace God provides us.

MLK was assassinated 50 years ago, but the Civil Rights movement continues.

Jesus was assassinated 2,000 years ago, but the Christianity movement continues.

Since the crucifixion and the resurrection, Jesus commissioned the disciples to continue his work:

     16 Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him—but some of them doubted!

     18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations,[a] baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  [Mathew 28:16-20, NLT]

As the disciples stepped out of hiding and began to follow Jesus’ instructions, the community of followers developed into The Church,.  And the Church is the vehicle that continues to move Christianity forward.

            The Church grew.  The movement continued and continues.  God’s grace is a message so valuable that Christians have gone to great lengths to share the story.

The images that surround the Tree of Eternal Life in the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window have all accepted the commission, “. . . to make disciples of all the nations,[a] baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  Each one’s story is different yet the same. Each one’s story is God’s story—love one another.  Another common trait is that they exhibit God’s grace.

Maybe understanding grace is a key to unlocking the value of Christianity.  Theologians have defined grace a bit differently than a common dictionary would define the term.

  • According to the on-line edition of the Oxford Dictionary, grace is
    • Smoothness and elegance of movement
    • Courteous good will

But then the Oxford Dictionary adds the third definition:

  • (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.
  • According to the website, wllaboutgod.com, grace is explained more fully in this manner:
  • In the New Testament grace means God’s love in action towards men who merited the opposite of love.
  • Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves.
  • Grace means God sending His only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty ones be reconciled to God and received into heaven.

The website includes the scriptural reference from 2 Corinthians 5:21, 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin,so that we could be made right with God through Christ.

This is the good news that The Church has carried forward since Jesus’ resurrection and commissioning of the disciples.  God’s grace is for everyone that is the message filling Paul’s letters in the New Testament.  The same website includes scriptures that develop Paul’s argument for accepting Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection in Romans 3:22-24:

     22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

     23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.

This argument fueled the earliest Christians to carry the movement forward.  Each disciple, each man and woman and child who accepts God’s grace and believes that Jesus frees us from sin joins in the movement to spread the good news.  The Church is an inclusive term that continues to evolve as it carries the story forward through the years and around the world.

MLK is included in the images of the window because he accepted God’s grace and lived to actively demonstrate that loving one another should erase all barriers between one and another.  The civil rights movement is an evolving process—the word movement itself should remind us that change takes time and must continue forward.  MLK wanted all people, regardless of race, to be included in society equally.     If God loves all people, we are to love all people as we want to be loved.  God did not segregate any peoples from his grace after sending Jesus Christ to teach us how to love one another as we want to be loved.

Paul shared how grace saves those who believe in the story of Jesus Christ with the church in Ephesus:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.  [Ephesians 2:8-10, NLT]

After the crucifixion, running and hiding must have been much easier than continuing to meet with the other Christians, who were certainly a minority in their communities, experiencing discrimination. No visual difference identified the Christians from the Gentiles, the Jews or the Pagans, but they were targeted as being different.

No political affiliation or nationality identified who was Christian or not.  No, God sent Jesus to assure all people that he loved them all and wanted all of them to leave their evil ways and accept God’s grace.  God’s agenda was to provide unconditional love and forgiveness to all individuals regardless of anything:  there were no restrictions, no limits, no boundaries—geographical, political or racial. This is God’s unconditional love and accepting that premise results in knowing God’s grace.

As Christians we are part of The Church. Our job is to push forward, to keep the movement growing.  God’s grace removes any barriers between people.  MLK saw no reason for discrimination and he stepped forward. His dream is God’s dream:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.  . . . And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” [Accessed on April 6, 2018 at kinginstitute.stanford.edu.]

            How do you define God’s grace?  Do you live by grace or do you live with grace? Did MLK live by grace as he led the civil rights movement?  By following God’s one commandment to love one another as you want to be loved, are you perpetuating Jesus’ teachings by the way you live?  MLK chose to live out God’s message because he knew God’s grace and wanted to do all that he could to assure that all Americans were free.

The Church today has weathered many challenges, but the message of God’s grace and the salvation available to us through Jesus Christ is the story, but do you live by grace or with grace?  The Church lives by grace when is offers “courteous good will.” The Church does not always work smoothly or elegantly, but whatever it does to love one another continues Jesus’ work.

Today you live with God’s grace when you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior; and you live by God’s grace whenever you unconditionally love others as you want to be loved.  You are part of the  Christian movement that continues to grow and to spread the Good News.  God expects each of us to do all that we can in any way that we can to demonstrate God’s grace to others through unconditional love.

Closing prayer:

Dear loving God,

Thank you for granting us grace

Thank you for Jesus Christ, our teacher.

May we each find ways to share

Your grace with all others.  –Amen

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2018 Snow’Easter

Yesterday was Easter Sunday.  One’s focus was on the story of the resurrection, but the reality of the day was the weather.  After the East Coast had experienced three Nor’easters during March, the weather that included plunging temperatures and snow/ice captured our attention here in Central Missouri.

After getting home from Easter services and the family late lunch, we closed the garage door to precipitation.  In no time, the wet rain drops turned to sleet–no grauple.  It poured grauple and the yard turned white with green.  I could not resist coining the term that had been whispered from the weather people as the “Snow’Easter” hit.  And I grabbed my phone to record. . .

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Mary Magdalene at the The Cross/The Tree of Jesus

Easter Sunday sermon:  The scriptures are embedded in the text, but I would also like to share that I am sharing some of the music from Jesus Christ Superstar during the service, also.  Please listen to Mary Magdalene’s song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the final song, “Jesus Christ Superstar” at its inclusion.  I was fortunate to see the Broadway production in 1972 with my high school classmates on our senior trip.  The fact that it is going to be a live performance this Easter Sunday on NBC will be a dramatic ending to this Easter Sunday.  

Let me introduce you to Mary of Magdala.  Her image is the final one in the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window.  She is sitting on a stone, weeping and alone—at least the artist has her pictured this way in the window.

The trial and the crucifixion is over and the very same people who were standing along the road cheering as Jesus arrived on a donkey one week earlier are now in hiding.  Mary of Magdala is not.

Mary stayed beside Jesus as he hung on the cross and died. Joseph of Arimathea takes the body and places it in his personal tomb late Friday just before Sabbath began. The first opportunity Mary and a few other women have to complete the burial practice was Sunday morning:

It was customary to wash the body and anoint it with perfumes and spices, not ever for embalming but always to control the odors. . . . The hands and feet were wrapped with linen clothes (grave-bands), and the face and head were covered with a small cloth and bound.  It was loving friends and relatives, mostly women, who prepared the body.  The Jews did not use coffins and did not embalm. [Accessed on 3-29-18 at http://www.bible-history.com/backd2/burial.html.]

 

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Why did this woman stay beside Jesus through the crucifixion?

Why did Jesus speak to her that Sunday morning?

Mary of Magdala is first introduced by Luke earlier in the story of Jesus’ ministry found in Luke 8:1-3:

Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples.

 

This introduction immediately follows the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet while at a dinner with the Pharisees.

But who is this Mary and why did she stay beside Jesus only to be the one who witnessed and recognized his resurrection first?

Research shares insight into the character Mary Magdalene, but the reality of this woman cannot be definitively identified with factual details.  The possibility of her relationship with Jesus being more than a disciple is the subject of movies.  The research cannot refute it, but the fact does not change the importance of Luke’s and John’s reporting of her presence at the resurrection.  And, if the possibility of the intimate relationship with Jesus is true, the morning of the Resurrection may actually be more believable.

The Gospel of John reports the morning’s events to the earliest Christians:

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

     Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed— for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then they went home.

     11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in.12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.

“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

      14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Why did this woman stay beside Jesus through the crucifixion?

Why did Jesus speak to her that Sunday morning?

Mary came from the city of Magdala, a trade center, and probably was a successful businesswoman in the textile industry. She was afflicted with seven demons according to the scripture.  The story does not explain, but you know the demons that can cause one to lose focus. Maybe she was mentally struggling with manic depression.  Maybe one demon was physical pain from something like endometriosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Maybe she had a strawberry birthmark that caused her embarrassment.

The demon does not matter, but what the story tells us is that Jesus loved her unconditionally and healed her from the demons. Such unconditional love is the message that Jesus delivered.  Mary chose to accept that unconditional love and responded in a manner that she became a disciple—maybe even one of Jesus’ inner circle, an apostle.

Put yourself in Mary’s place on that Sunday morning. Would you have been sitting on that rock weeping?  Or would you have been one who had gone into hiding?

Mary’s story continues as she arrives at the tomb early Sunday morning.  Her sorrow keeps her steps slow and heavy.  Her head remains downward.  She carries the supplies she needs to complete the burial ritual.  There is no joy in her heart, in her step, nor in her expression.  Her eyes are red from the tears shed over the past several days.  Her hair is a mess.  She has no reason to fix herself up.  She is raw.

And as she reaches the tomb, she looks up.  The stone is rolled away from the opening! The exhaustion she feels turns into agitated confusion.  Why is the tomb open?  Why is the tomb empty?  New tears begin flowing now from confusion and uncertainty and even fear.

Then she turns and sees a figure.  Out of context.  Out of a mind.

And the figure speaks to her. Only when he addresses her in that familiar tone she knows so well, “Mary”, does Mary of Magdala recognize Jesus.  In John, the story continues:

     16 “Mary!” Jesus said.

She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).

     17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

     18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

Tears turn to joy!

Mary carried the news to the other disciples.  She knew where they were.  She knew the importance of reporting what she saw—who she spoke to. The story of Jesus’ ministry must continue and she who may have been the most emotionally connected to Jesus now had to take a new role—deliver the message of his resurrection.  He still had work to do and even though she wanted to hold him, she couldn’t.  Her faith caused her to move into action.

In a male-dominated culture, where Jesus treated the women equally, Mary Magdalene recognizes the truth of the resurrection. Jesus is alive and all the disciples now must carry the story forward.  They must live as Jesus taught them.  You, too, even 2,000 years later are to join in the task of telling the good news, living the Christian lifestyle, and loving one another as you want to be loved.

Why did Jesus speak to Mary that Sunday morning?

Because he lives.  [Conclude with the music, Because He Lives.]

Closing prayer

 

Dear ever-loving Lord,

May we experience the joy

Mary of Magdala did

As Jesus called out her name.

May we hear God call our names

As Mary Magdalene did

Knowing we, too, are with you

Now and forever.

Guide us to understanding.

Guide us to commitment.

Guide us to serve

One another in love,

Unconditional love.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

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The Cross as the Tree of Jesus

Palm Sunday sermon, March 25, 2018.  This reflection is based on the middle panel of the Church f Resurrection’s stained glass window, Leawood, KS.  The scripture connections are found within the text of the reflection.

No doubt you have noticed that the trees around us are budding out and getting ready to leaf out. Not only did the rain this week knock off those buds onto our driveways, cars, and windows (thanks to the blowing wind), now just looking at the bare branches shows evidence of the green as in the willows and in the nodules of the blooms on the Bradford Pears. Add to the visual images, the allergies that hit whenever the leaves bud out.

The symbolism of the tree in its life cycle cannot be ignored as we enter spring and Holy Week. Trees become central in our lives as we move through the seasons.   Admittedly I could spend a great deal of time using trees as metaphors for life, for religion, for education. . . well the list grows.

As we began the year with the images of the Church of Resurrection’s stained glass window, we looked at the trees—the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the tree of the cross, and the tree of life. Today, let us return to the central tree in the window, The Cross.

The cross now universally symbolizes the story of Jesus. The images that surround the window’s cross have their own messages for us this Palm Sunday. These images summarize the entire purpose of Jesus’ ministry as listed in Matthew 4:23-25:

                  23 Jesus traveled throughout the region of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and announcing (other translations use preaching) the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 24 News about him spread as far as Syria, and people soon began bringing to him all who were sick. And whatever their sickness or disease, or if they were demon possessed or epileptic or paralyzed—he healed them all. 25 Large crowds followed him wherever he went—people from Galilee, the Ten Towns, Jerusalem, from all over Judea, and from east of the Jordan River.

 

Three verbs share the purpose of Jesus’ three years in ministry:

  1. Teaching listeners how to understand God’s message of loving one another regardless of age or gender, of education or profession, of sins or not.
  2. Announcing/Preaching God’s message Jesus asked for commitment to follow him actively living God’s message.
  3. Healing those whose physical, mental and spiritual health was separating them from God so that they may be whole.

The Old Testament is filled with stories of how the Israelites struggled to remain faithful. They made mistakes, and God forgave them. They struggled to understand. They struggled to remain committed. They became separated from God in so many different ways, yet God never gave up on them as we learned in the story of Noah. And in Joseph, we learned how to live faithfully even when life hands you a lemon.

All those early stories were in the one book of Genesis. The Old Testament contains so much more to read and to understand. Throughout it all, though, God continues to believe in us. Those faithful to him prayed for understanding, for commitment, and for wholeness. And God heard the prayers deciding to step into human form and model the life he asked from us.

Born as the human son of Mary and Joseph, God as Jesus was raised in a Jewish home, nourished and taught to be all that he was to be. Not until Jesus was almost 30 years old, did he begin his ministry. The ministry is visually summarized in the stained glass window beginning with his birth, then his baptism and the calling of his disciples.

The message in the window is a summary God delivered as Jesus Christ. Let’s review the message:

  1. Jesus welcomes the children: Mark 9:33-37

         33 After they arrived at Capernaum and settled in a house, Jesus asked his disciples, “What were you discussing out on the road?” 34 But they didn’t answer, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve disciples over to him, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.”

         36 Then he put a little child among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.”

 

The story of welcoming the children is found in three of the gospels, but not in John.   Including the story or the lesson shows the importance of what Jesus was teaching—God’s love is for everybody and no one is more important than anyone else.

The all-inclusive ministry applied to everybody. The ancient culture created all types of divisions among people such as separation of men and women even in the temple, the social system had freed men and slaves, and the divisions even included geographical labels as the story of the Woman at the Well, a Samaritan.

  1. Woman at the Well: John 4:1-14

Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink.” He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food.

         9 The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”

         10 Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” . . .

         13 Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14 But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” . . .

Jesus was alone and the cultural standards are clear in the exchange at the well. When the disciples return and find Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, a new lesson was given. God’s love and how we are to live with one another does not have any cultural boundary, no geographical boundary.

Maintaining a trusting, faithful relationship with God is possible for anyone, no exclusions. Such inclusion creates a society that supersedes any that humans might create that excludes others in any way.

The window includes another image that shows the enormity of God’s inclusive family. Forgiveness was a large part of the Old Testament stories and the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet echoes that tenant of God’s message, also.

  1. Woman who anointed Jesus’ feet: Luke 7:47-50

         47 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” 48 Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”

         49 The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?”

         50 And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Jesus modeled forgiveness. Are we able to do the same? Jesus used the different experiences in his life to teach the disciples how to live a God-centered life. He forgave this woman and then explained to the Pharisees and the disciples in the room that forgiveness is another way to love one another.

Certainly the stories captured in the stained glass have more to share about Jesus’ story. The images show how God loves us through the actions of Jesus. The stories explain how faithfulness and forgiveness work to heal those struggling to manage in a sinful world.        The final image before Jesus’ Last Supper is that of Zacchaeus in the tree. Zacchaeus was a tax collector and despised by the Jewish people because he collected taxes for the Roman government. Even though he was Jewish, he was shunned because of his job. The job was equated to corruption as the tax collectors often pocketed money for themselves.

But Zacchaeus was curious and wanted to know more about Jesus and his message. Jesus acknowledged Zacchaeus against the wishes of those around him, but Jesus’ compassion healed Zacchaeus. Jesus looked past the wrongs and saw the man who wanted God’s love:

  1. Zacchaues: Luke 19:9-10

         9 Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

Regardless of our past, God loves us. He waits on us to ask for forgiveness. He waits on us to acknowledge his love for us.   Are we able to accept God’s grace? Are we able to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?

Today we remember how Jesus’ spent three years teaching, preaching and healing all those who came to hear God’s story. Jesus chose to enter into the city with all the pomp and circumstance of a long-awaited king. He knew the trials ahead that his human body would have to endure; but for just a little while, the celebration helped spread the message.

This week, as the rain falls, as the flowers pop open, as the trees continue to leaf out, and the world shakes off the winter, spend some time in prayer and reflection. Are you like one of the images in the window? Have you accepted God’s grace? Have you asked for forgiveness? Have you shared The Story so others, too, may experience God’s love?

Closing prayer

Dear loving, gracious Father,

What a joy it is to see Spring arrive!

What a story you have given us to share.

Let us see The Story in the window

And find ways to share it with others.

May we use this Holy Week

To hear Jesus’ story anew.

Guide us in checking our own faith.

As we look at the images of The Cross

Fill us with unconditional love

So we, too, may know the joy

Of living in full relationship with you,

Now and forever. –Amen

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In reply: “Gone Missing” Letter to the Editor

In Re: Curriculum for the 21st Century: a reply to C.D. Rinck Sr.’s Letter to the Editor, March 21, 2018.

D. Rinck of Mission, KS, has a valid point. He asked, “ What happened to all those government checks and balances I was taught in high school?”

He goes on reflecting on his own education, “”They must have suffered the same fate as diagramming a sentence as I learned in English Class.”

Rinck should be concerned. Having taught for nearly 30 years before retiring in 2015, I have taught both—how to diagram sentences and the US Constitution. I also taught journalism.

The Constitution provides the clear separation of powers as a means of preventing any one branch from taking control. The checks and balance system is critical to a democracy including the republican democracy of the United States.

At no point should one branch have power over any other branch. In Sen. Jeff Flake’s comments to the National Press Club last week, the same topic of checks and balance is referenced.

Flake said, “Defending democratic institutions ought not to be a controversial idea, and hasn’t been until very recently. But recognizing that our institutions are under threat from within, with clarity, seems to me a basic obligation of the Article I branch of government—the congress, whose power is, in theory, equal to that of the president’s…”

Jennifer Rubin, from The Washington Post, was published in the KC Star editorial, “The problem: Flake can’t win in today’s Trump GOP” also focused on checks and balance.

American textbooks include the principle of checks and balance as a primary theme to be taught in civics and government classes. The class used to be taught juniors not freshmen as it is today. (And as an aside, I question whether freshmen are developmentally prepared to discuss the theory or to fully comprehend the value of the US Constitution.)

The American checks and balance system has also included an additional watchdog—freedom of speech that includes professional journalism. I taught journalism as the social responsibility as I was taught at MU during the mid-1970s. Journalists are to report the news objectively not subjectively, unless in editorials.

Our schools must teach students how to be critical readers, good communicators, and independent thinkers. I am concerned that emphasizing technology education and student achievement testing undermines what education must be.

Language curriculum needs to include sentence diagramming again. Diagramming teaches students how words communicate. Students need to understand value of the word, the difference in denotative and connotative meanings, and how to write clear statements. Sentence diagramming teaches analysis of language.

An example of applying critical reading and understanding language’s structure as evidenced in today’s KC Star article, “Trump’s phone call to Putin raises hackles,” about the President congratulatory phone call to Putin included one biased word: stubborn. Look at the paragraph.

“Trumps comments came five days after the White House imposed sanctions on Russia for its meddling in the 2016 election and other “malicious cyber-attacks.’ It widened what has become a familiar gulf between the Trump administration’s tougher actions and words toward Russia and Trump’s own stubborn reluctance to criticize Putin.”

Let the facts speak without adding the opinion.

Of course, our school’s curriculum and the emphasis placed on education must be a priority for our society, too. Our students will be left behind if the curriculum does not teach the skills to be critical readers, analytical thinkers, and good communicators.

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