Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

The Church: Begins, Grows, Evolves

Sermon given on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018.  What a powerful day to bring together the messages of Pentecost, John Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience, and the 50th anniversary of the merger of the Evangelical Brethern and the Methodist churches in 1968.  

Reflection:  The Church Begins:  Pentecost Ignites the Apostles

Pentais Greek for the number five, and pentecostliterally means the 50thday.  Originally this was 50 days after Passover in the Jewish tradition, but after Jesus’ Resurrection, which concluded during the Jewish Passover festival, the term pentecosthas developed its own significance as the birth of The Church.

Today, May 20, 2018, we celebrate Pentecost as the birth of The Church but more importantly the arrival of the Holy Spirit as God with us.  The Apostles were still trying to sort out what they were to do after the crucifixion and the resurrection of their teacher Jesus Christ.  There was no university program designed to equip them with the skills to take a peaceful, service-minded, loving idea and set up an organization to drive the movement forward.  But as they sat in community, the Holy Spirit arrived:

Acts 2 1On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.

 

Can you even imagine what the experience must have been like?  The closest thing we could even compare to that is a tremendous thunderstorm suddenly developing, but this happened without the meteorological event—and not outdoors but inside a closed building.

The record in Acts is not the first mention of the Holy Spirit.  The first reference is in Genesis 1:1-2:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.   2 The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

 

This event followed the Resurrection, 50 days later.  Bob Deffinbaugh, a pastor from Texas describes the event:

The Day of Pentecost arrived when the small company of believers were gathered together in one place. It was then that the Holy Spirit came upon them in a powerful and dramatic way. The accompanying sound from heaven attracted a large crowd, many of whom were devoutly religious. A large number of them had come from distant lands to reside in Jerusalem (to be there when Messiah appeared?).  [Accessed on May 17, 2018 at https://bible.org/seriespage/4-peters-sermon-pentecost-acts-214-36%5D

 

The event now known as Pentecost for Christians across the world and throughout all denominations marked the beginning of The Church as the Apostles began their work.

Deffinbaugh describes the gathering as a “small company of believers,” but that is a very relative term.  In Wesley’s Study Bible, the commentary states:  “They” probably refers to the 120.  The “one place” may be the temple courts, due to the group’s size and the crowd’s reaction. (p.1324).  That number refers to Acts 1:15 in which it states that Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about 120) . . . The gathering was also in conjunction with the Jewish harvest festival during which the faithful practiced a covenant renewal.

How appropriate was the setting and the crowd for God to send the Holy Spirit in a highly visual manner, or as Deffinbaugh said, “a powerful and dramatic way”!  The prophecies of the Old Testament and of Jesus were fulfilled by the anointing of these Apostles and the earliest disciples with the Holy Spirit. The ability for all to hear the words in their own language demonstrates the inclusiveness of God’s message.  The Church began its work as each one of those Apostles and faithful stepped out to share God’s message of loving one another.

Today’s celebration is global.  The work is global.  The audience is global.  We are just as important today as the very first disciples were on that fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection.  We are The Church.

[Join in a time to talk with God.]

Reflection resumes:  Pentecost: John Wesley’s heart strangely warmed

Pentecost is reflected in the COR’s stained glass window, but the real impact can be seen right here in this sanctuary.  Our own stained glass story is “dramatic and powerful” and we can witness the effect of the Holy Spirit in our own history.

Each one of us knows how the Holy Spirit works in our own lives.  We have met others who are filled with the Spirit as they serve others in love.  We have felt moved to love someone in some manner that may have surprised even you.  We have suddenly turned down a road we did not plan turning onto only to discover we were there to listen to someone in pain or to help someone with a flat tire or to spot a situation that needed immediate help.  We know God works through us in ways we may not even suspect. This is the evidence of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe we have not experienced a life-altering event, or have a “heart strangely warmed” as John Wesley did.  But God is present with us as the Holy Spirit, and it is alive when we serve one another in love.  God’s work is mysteriously done in not so mysterious ways as when Christians actively live out their faith in their daily lives.

Pick any day of the week, month or year, and you can see God alive in this world.  You can see it in your own homes, on the roads you drive, and at the businesses you visit.  Sometimes it is easy to see; sometimes it is more hidden.  At the same time, you can see so many places in which God is needed. God asks us to live our faith out loud. He asks us to respond to the cry of those in need.  He asks us to take care of this world he created.

Pentecost, as an event, occurred on that fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection, but Pentecost occurs each time we experience empathy with another, when we feel moved to act as God would act, when we see through God’s eyes, when we hear with God’s ears, when we step into the sanctuary and feel calmed by his presence.  God is with us all the time.  He is triune—as creator, as Jesus Christ the human son, and as the Holy Spirit that resides within all who believe.

So, happy birthday to The Church that was born when the earliest believers were baptized by the Holy Spirit on that harvest festival day in Jerusalem.  The Church grew from that point in time, that place in the world, to the Church it is today that wraps around this globe.

(Pause for the offering and hymn.)

Resuming the reflection:

Another birthday, so to speak, is included on this day, and that honors John Wesley’s epiphany when he was attending a study group on Aldersgate Street when “he felt his heart was strangely warmed.” This experience was on May 24, 1738, often referred to as the Aldersgate experience.

In an on-line article from UMC.org, Rev. Fred Day explains the experience:

. . . John Wesley was at a low point, having just returned from his disappointing missionary efforts at the colony of Georgia in the New World.

Wesley reluctantly attended a group meeting on the evening of May 24th on Aldersgate Street in London.  As he heard a reading from Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”

Rev. Fred Day: “He writes in his journal, “I felt that God loved me.” I experienced that God loved me. It was no longer something that was in my head, but it’s something that I felt in my heart.”

 

I can remember a conversation with my dad about knowing the truth of one’s own faith.  He said wondered if he really knew God because he had never had an experience that told him he did.  I know Dad experienced times when his heart “felt strangely warmed” because he also said explained that sometimes driving and listening to the news he would just start crying.  Surely these were moments when the Holy Spirit were speaking to him.

The Pentecost comes to each of us in our own way. Today, one of the closest Sundays to May 24, honors Wesley’s Aldersgate experience.  With Pentecost being celebrated today, what better time to acknowledge that Wesley’s personal Pentecost that moved The Church forward through his own work that has resulted in the denomination of which we are part—Methodism.

So today, let’s say happy birthday to the Wesley’s Methodist movement.

(Pause for a small celebration.  Singing and cake are possible additions.)

Concluding today’s reflection:  The Church Evolves:  50years as United Methodists

And The Church continues to evolve.  The Methodist denomination that grew out of Wesley’s ministry has also evolved.  Today the United Methodist Church celebrates 50 years.  In 1968, the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical Brethren Church.  Personally I can remember that because I had a classmate who was a member of the Evangelical Brethren Church and when the announcement was made, I wondered if she would begin attending with me.  (She did not; but she also lived in another community so I have no idea where she worshipped.)  That merger was 50 years ago:

[Show the UMC.org video on You Tube.}

So, another happy birthday we say to the United Methodist Church.  The Church continues.  Each denomination has its own story.  The heritage is filled with changes because humanity is static, every-changing, too. Therefore, The Church continues to evolve.  The stories in the stained glass window(s) capture the history, but it cannot freeze the evolution of The Church.

The United Methodist Church is currently undergoing another stage of change.  The social and cultural changes that are challenging today’s people are beginning to be addressed by so many organizations and the United Methodist Church is one of them.

The Council of Bishops has worked for several years to create appropriate amendments to the Book of Discipline that reflect the Christian values in today’s global culture.  The Bishops finally submitted five amendments:

  1. The first amendment proposed a new paragraph between current Paragraph 5 and Paragraph 6. This new paragraph would have focused on gender justice. (66.5%)

 

  1. The second amendment proposed changes to the wording in Paragraph 4 in “The Book of Discipline.” If it were ratified, the proposed amendment would have added “gender,” “ability,” “age” and “marital status” to the protected membership groups. (61.3%)

 

III. The third amendment dealt with the election of delegates to the General Conference as contained in Paragraph 34. As ratified, the amendment adds this sentence to Paragraph 34: “Such elections shall include open nominations from the floor by the annual conference, and delegates shall be elected by a minimum of a simple majority of the ballots cast.”  (90.3%)

 

  1. The fourth amendment clarified the time of election of bishops in Central Conferences as contained in Paragraph 46. As ratified, the amendment adds the following words to Paragraph 46: “provided that episcopal elections in central conferences shall be held at a regular, not an extra, session of the central conference, except in the case where an unexpected vacancy must be filled.” (92.9%)

 

  1. The fifth proposed amendment adds language to Paragraph 50 regarding how the Council of Bishops holds its individual members accountable for their work. As ratified, the amendment adds the following sentence to the end of Paragraph 50: “These provisions shall not preclude that adoption by the General Conference of provisions for the Council of Bishops to hold its individual members accountable for their work, both as general superintendents and as presidents and residents in episcopal areas.”(81.2%)

 

The amendments had to receive 2/3 majority to be passed, and much to their own surprise, the first two amendments did not receive the required 2/3 majority (the percentage of yes votes are indicated in parenthesis after each amendment).

This is the reaction by the Council of Bishops:

“While we are not completely clear concerning the motivation that caused them to miss the two-thirds required majority by slim margins, we want to be clear that we are unequivocal in our commitment to the equality of women and their full inclusion in our Church,” said the Council statement.

 

Another surprise was the expressed by the female bishops who wrote in their letter:

“Like Rachel weeping for her children, so we as episcopal leaders weep for our church. We weep for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harm that is inflicted upon women and girls because of this action. We weep for those who are denied the ability to use their gifts to make a difference in the world. We also weep for those who are not protected from exclusion in the church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.”

 

On May 7, 2018, Bishop Robert Farr, our state’s bishop made the following statement:

I am saddened and disappointed that two of the constitutional amendments related to the right of girls, women, and other vulnerable groups did not receive the necessary 2/3 aggregate vote of all the annual conferences in The United Methodist Church. Please know that as your bishop in Missouri, I am firmly committed to the equality of women and their full inclusion in our Church. I stand beside the active and retired women bishops’ statement released alongside the announcement.  . . .

 

While I believe we have made progress in Missouri, I know we have miles to go before we realize gender justice in the Church. Both amendments passed handily in the Missouri Conference at 90% and 80% respectively. In fact, it passed in both of our partner conferences in Mozambique, too, by even greater margins.

 

The Church evolves.  We are connectional, but as a congregation we are responsible for carrying out God’s work in all the ways that we can, as best as we can, for as long as we can.  The Church is all denominations and how our community defines itself is by the work of this church family in relation to the community in which it exists.  The Church is much more than its discipline and its connectional organization.  The Church is the action of the Holy Spirit within us.  This Pentecost Sunday is a time to review the birth, the growth and the evolution of The Church since the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The story continues. . .

Closing prayer:

Dear All-knowing Lord,

 

Thank you for the Holy Spirit

            Who is your presence within us.

Thank you for the earliest Apostles

            Who established The Church.

Thank you for all the reformers

            Who continued The Church’s growth.

Thank you for accepting efforts

            That keep The Church evolving.

 

Guide us through the Holy Spirit

            To continue your work

            Sharing the story

            Loving one another

Guide us to listen carefully

            In how to work together

            In how to grow the church

            In how to serve one another.

Guide us to see this world

            By the power of the Holy Spirit

            By the vision of Jesus Christ

            By your unlimited love.

 

May our work reflect your perfection.

May our work continue the story.

May our work strangely warm others hearts.

 

In you name, Heavenly Father,

And in your son Jesus Christ’s,

And through the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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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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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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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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The Message of the Trees: The Cross: A man-made tree

This is the second of three sermons spinning off the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window as seen below.  The website is https://sacredspaces.cor.org/leawood/

images

Scripture connections:

 Old Testament: Isaiah 53:7-12 (NLT)

He was oppressed and treated harshly,
yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
Unjustly condemned,
he was led away.[a]
No one cared that he died without descendants,
that his life was cut short in midstream.[b]
But he was struck down
for the rebellion of my people.
He had done no wrong
and had never deceived anyone.
But he was buried like a criminal;
he was put in a rich man’s grave.

10 But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him
and cause him grief.
Yet when his life is made an offering for sin,
he will have many descendants.
He will enjoy a long life,
and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands.
11 When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish,
he will be satisfied.
And because of his experience,
my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
for he will bear all their sins.
12 I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier,
because he exposed himself to death.
He was counted among the rebels.
He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.

 

Gospel: Luke 23:44-49 (NLT) [also found in Matthew 27:45-56, Mark 15:44-49 & John 19:18-27]

44 By this time it was about noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock.45 The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. 46 Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!”[a] And with those words he breathed his last.

47 When the Roman officer[b] overseeing the execution saw what had happened, he worshiped God and said, “Surely this man was innocent.[c]” 48 And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow.[d] 49 But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching.

New Testament (from Paul’s letters)

I Corinthians 1:18-21 (NLT)

18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”[a]

20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.

Galatians 3:1-3 (NLT)

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?

Reflection:

As I started working on the images of the three trees in the COR’s stained glass window, I struggled to understand how the cross could be identified as a tree. Trees are living, breathing organisms, and a nature-loving mother raised me to respect them. The cross was not a living organism so the only correlation I could make was that it was made from a tree.

Last week we talked about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The image in the window is surrounded by the visual representations of the Old Testament stories. The Tree of the Cross is surrounded by the images that tell the story of Jesus Christ, from his birth in a manger through his crucifixion on the wooden cross.

The cross is a man-made shape used to hang a man. Man destroyed a living tree to destroy Jesus Christ. This tree represents all the evil that God tries to teach us to avoid—and it was man-made rather than God created.

Why, then is the Tree of the Cross the central figure of the three trees? Turning to scripture, references to the cross are buried even in the prophecy of Isaiah:

But he was struck down
for the rebellion of my people.
He had done no wrong
and had never deceived anyone.
But he was buried like a criminal;
he was put in a rich man’s grave.

 

Even though the verses do not use the word ‘cross,’ the typical method of sentencing a criminal, especially if considered a rebel, was crucifixion—a horrible, cruel death meant to serve as a deterrent to others who might encourage rebellion against authorities.

And all four gospels describe Jesus’ death in almost the very same words. The description of the actual crucifixion is minimal, but the method is not as important as the purpose Paul outlines in I Corinthians 1:18-21:

 

18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.

 

The message, as we prepare to come to the table today, is that those who accept Jesus Christ as their savior will be saved—granted eternal life.

Paul continues to explain the meaning of the cross to the Galatians:

For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ.

 

The cross is our symbol of God’s effort to keep humanity from self-destructing. The cross is a constant reminder that God loves all so much that he joined us—all humanity—by stepping into human form as Jesus to teach us how to love one another.

The cross triggers us to remember the stories of Jesus’ teachings and his efforts to model how to love one another. The cross, man-made from a tree, carried the weight of Jesus as the body of God died.

Do not leave worship today without keeping image of the Cross with you. Look around in our community and in our homes to see where the Cross is visible. Reflect upon the cruelty that God endured as he completed his work in the body of Christ.

Yes, the Cross was man-made from a tree. In fact a tree had to be destroyed in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. The Old Testament tells the stories of how the ancient Israelites failed to remain faithful to God or failed to follow the Law of Moses beginning with the story of Adam and Eve failing to follow God’s rule. The stained glass artist demonstrated the destruction of the Garden of Eden as God created by the choice of yellowing, withering leaves from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Tree of the Cross symbolizes humanity’s failure to remain faithful. Even legends have developed about the choice of wood used for the cross. The choice the ancient Romans used cannot be proven because the ancient crosses deteriorated and there is no archeological evidence of the wood used. Possibly it was olive wood, cypress, or cedar, but as a native Missourian, I am familiar with the Legend of the Dogwood Tree.

Googling the legend, I found the story:

In Jesus’ time, the dogwood grew 
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong and firm, its branches interwoven.
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.
Seeing the distress at this use of their wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
“Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.
Slender and twisted, it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
As blood stains the petals marked in brown,
The blossom’s center wears a thorny crown.
All who see it will remember Me
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected, this tree shall be
A reminder to all of My agony.”

 

[Accessed on February 2, 2018 at https://www.gotquestions.org/legend-dogwood.html]

 

This legend helps me remember the message of the Cross, especially when the dogwoods bloom in the Spring. But, I was curious:  Did dogwood trees grow in Jerusalem? No. I learned that the dogwood is native only in the United States.

The Legend of the Dogwood was created to help remember the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Other cultures have different legends, and one of them includes a connection to Seth, a son of Adam and Eve. The story is complex, but it challenges our sense of chronology that our human minds comprehend.

In a doctoral thesis by Nicole Fallon from University of Toronto, Canada, legends share that the wood on the cross came from the trees in the Garden of Eden:

The notion that wood was taken from paradise goes back to Jewish tradition . . . [when] Eve and Seth bring herbs back from Eden; another tale recounts how Adam and Eve took wood with them at the time of the expulsion, which was later used as a rod by Moses and was eventually incorporated into the Tabernacle. A third account tells how Moses went to paradise personally and cut his staff there from the tree of life.

[Accessed on February 2, 2018 at https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/19188/1/Fallon_Nicole_A_200911_PhD_thesis.pdf%5D

The Cross represents the story of God as the man Jesus Christ. As we continue to study the Bible and work at hearing God talk to us, it is important to remember that the Bible, like the stained glass window, is filled with stories to guide us in living the very principles God taught us and continues to teach us. In the window, the New Testament images revolve around the Cross, a man-made tree.

We must be disciplined to read The Word as John Wesley instructed the earliest Methodists. Sometimes the scriptures do not make sense based on our personal experiences, but if we study the scripture together in small groups we can help each other find God’s message.

The Tree of the Cross reminds us of God’s promises. This week as we think about the message in the visual images of crosses that surround us in our churches, in our homes, and even around us in our community, we remember God’s promise that those who accept Jesus Christ as their savior will be granted eternal life symbolized by the Tree of Life, the third tree of COR’s stained glass window.

Closing prayer:

Dear Father,

We look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

And know we must be disciplined to read scripture

So we can choose good over evil in our lives.

Yet today we know there is much we do not understand.

 

Today, we consider the Tree of the Cross

And remember Jesus Christ is your son

Who died to pay for our sins.

Yet today, we know there is much we do not understand.

 

As we come to the table for the bread and the cup.

We recommit ourselves to be disciples

Who strive to live the life you give us

So that others, too, may understand your love. –Amen

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PEACE: Christmas Presents That Won’t Break

Sermon given on Sunday, Christmas Eve 2017, based on the Advent study by James W. Moore and Jacob Armstrong, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  Even though Advent comes to a conclusion with Christmas Day, the study will be followed for the next week or two.  Many thanks to Moore and Armstrong for publishing this study so others may find the gifts that won’t break:  Hope, Love, Joy and Peace.

Scripture: Luke 2:1-6 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

 

Luke 2:8-11 (NRSV)

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

 

Luke 2:8-11 (NRSV)

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

 

PEACE: The Christmas Present That Won’t Break

 

Life at this time of year sometimes feels like total chaos. There has been all the shopping, the baking, the extra events on the calendar and all this is on top of our typical daily life routines. No wonder everybody becomes exhausted. The idea of peace seems impossible.

Yet, peace is possible. And today, Christmas Eve, in the midst of all the seasonal chaos, peace is possible and it is a gift that won’t break.

Chaos is a permanent state around us and that is no different throughout human history.—even since creation, as John 1 reminds us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NRSV)

 

At no time in our lives are we immune to chaos. The key to peace is knowing that God is with us, or as one of our members has said repeatedly this year, “God’s got this.” And that testimony has carried her through the chaos of a medical crisis.

God is with us. Since the beginning, God has existed and continues to be a very real presence within our lives. Have we opened this gift? Today is the perfect time to open this last gift, God’s gift of peace.

[Light the Peace candle.]

Peace is difficult to define especially when our world is in such chaos, but I always have hope that we can reach the ultimate goal of peace. The key is finding peace with God first, then finding peace with one’s self, and that makes finding peace with others possible.

This morning we awoke to find the magic of a white Christmas.   The snow really completes the mental image of Christmas for us in the Midwest. Seldom, though, does a white Christmas become real. I hope that as you stepped out into the natural world you heard the peace.

As I tried to figure out a way to explain what the gift of peace was to the kids, I could only come up with one idea—the way the world is when snow falls. There is nothing like it. When snow falls, there is a pureness that one experiences.

  • The visual shows a world with no flaws as the snow covers the dulled yards, turns leafless trees and bushes into white, sparkling gardens if even for a few moments.
  • Snow even has a unique smell, almost absent of odors but also refreshing. We notice that when we go into the stores and see candles and scents with snow as the descriptors. One might think that snow should smell like rain, but it has its own unique scent.
  • And who admits that snow does have a taste. As kids, I am sure we have all ran out into the snow, stuck out our tongue and tasted it. Why snow even serves as the base ingredient for an old fashioned treat—snow ice cream (even though we always add extra taste elements to it).
  • Touching snow may begin with the taste on the tongue, but snow brings out the kids in all of us as we run and play, scoop it up to make snowmen, or fall into it to make snow angels. Even the gentle feel of the snow on our face seems to calm our very anxious souls.
  • Finally, the sound of snow is the key to knowing what peace is. Step into a world where snow has coated the ground, especially as the day begins. The sound of snow is peace. It quiets us, it soothes us, it wraps us up like a warm blanket on the coldest of days.

This mornings gentle snow fall can serve as a real example of what peace with God is like.   (I know, the cynics might try to twist the magic of the white Christmas into the negatives, but I choose to focus on the snow as an example of God’s gift of peace.)

James Moore uses the story of the angels being taught to sing the one hymn to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as a one-time public event. The angels were told that this was the only time that they would sing this one song as a performance. That may seem like a silly story, but thing about how the Christmas carols delight us as we look forward to Christmas.

The story concludes with God explaining to the angels that once they perform this majestic hymn, their job was done. Moore writes God’s response: “Because,” God said, “my son has been born, and now earth must do the singing!”

The Christmas story is told and retold every year in hope that all people can find peace with God. Moore adds:

The Good news of Christmas is so awesome, so full of wonder, that it’s not enough just to talk about it. We have to burst forth in song, we have to sing it. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 85)

The gift of peace begins with knowing God and accepting the gift of his son Jesus Christ as our savior. With that we can also find peace within ourselves even if chaos swirls around us like the tornadoes we know so well.

Accepting God’s gift of Jesus in our life makes it possible for us to find a sense of calm in our lives. Consider all those around you and that you have heard throughout history who demonstrate calm despite the chaos that surrounds them. I can list a few of the most historical examples : Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi.

Placing God first and then turning one’s life over to him creates peace within one’s own life. Moore states, “The only way we can be right with ourselves is to be made right by him [God].” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 89)

Finally, the gift of peace expands into peace with others. By accepting God’s gift of Christ, we turn over the chaos to him. Remember our own example this year as we heard the personal testimony in the battle with cancer, “God’s got this.”

Because God has accepted our chaos, we can find peace with ourselves, and that makes it possible for us to find peace with others. Moore explains the tradition of the mistletoe to demonstrate how important it is that we find peace with others, too.

The ancient tradition of northern European Druids is far different than what we may expect. Moore explains:

They believed mistletoe had curative powers and could heal lots of things including separation between people. So when two enemies happened to meet under an oak tree with mistletoe hanging above them, they took it as a sign from God that they should drop their weapons and be reconciled. They would set aside their animosities and embrace one another under the mistletoe.

When Christian missionaries moved into northern Europe, they saw this mistletoe custom as a perfect symbol for what happened at Christmas—that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us, to redeem us, and to bring us peace, healing, forgiveness, love, and reconciliation. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 90)

Today we can just imagine what it was like to live in the cold, frigid regions of northern Europe. The environment might be comparable to our lives without God, without peace. The mistletoe of God in our lives gives us the power to find peace with others, too.

Give the gift of peace this year. Follow Moore’s advice:

If you want to have a “peace-full” Christmas, go in the spirit of love and fix the broken relationships in your life. If you are alientated or estranged or cut off or at odds with any other person, go in the spirit of Christmas and make peace. Don’t put it off any longer. Drop your pride,your resentment, your grudges, and go set it right. With the help of God, go make peace today. Christmas offers us the gift of peace with others, but it’s up to us to accept that gift. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 90)

Christmas is the annual reminder that God loves us and gives us the greatest gift of all: Jesus Christ. Accepting that opens us to a world that is peace-filled.

Merry Christmas to each of you. I pray that you have received the gifts that won’t break: hope, love, joy and peace.

Closing prayer: (in unison)

Dear God, thank you for the gift of peace.

Help us put peace into practice

            in our lives and show others

            the path to true peace.

Remind us to serve as peacemakers

            and to share the love of God

            with those in need. Amen.

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