Tag Archives: The Church

Turning swords into plowshares

Sermon given on Sunday, June 3, 2018 and loosely connected to the Church of Resurrection’s stained glass window.

Leaving college and my farm life, I moved to Lexington, MO, and stepped into a new community that seemed so far away from my roots.  One facet of that new community was its historical connection to the Civil War and that of the military academy.  Through the years, I also learned that during World War II a prison camp for Germans had once been located in the area.

Now these historical pieces never really made me uncomfortable and I did teach at the academy for nine years, but I honestly never considered any connection between those pieces to my theology of loving one another.

In my mind, these facts were just glimpses into the history of the area, and working at the military academy was a teaching job about which I was passionate.  Teaching in that environment hinged on establishing relationships with students who were not living with their families.

But there is another connection between the images of war and theology that has become a focal point for me this week.  I literally was surprised to discover image #32 in the stained glass window and equally surprised at the mental picture that immediately jumped into my mind.

In Lexington, one of my church family always wore a lapel pin that fascinated me.  She had a miniature sword that was turned into a plowshare.  I was so intrigued that I asked her about it, and she explained the significance.  She was a respected science teacher in our community who always emitted a special sense of peace.

Nowhere else in my memory have I come across that image nor had anyone really develop a discussion around that concept.  As I studied the list of images in the stained glass window, I discovered that #32 was of a young person holding a sword that had been hammered into a plowshare just like the image of Pat’s lapel pin.

The paperwork for the puzzle provides this explanation:

 

Two times in the Old Testament we catch a glimpse of a restored paradise, where enmity and warfare have ceased and an abiding peace has come to stay.  In this vision, instruments once used for destroying one another will no longer be necessary, and instead will be converted into peaceful, useful, and productive tools for the sake of creation.  This image corresponds to, and signals the end of what began with the killing of Abel by his brother Cain in the first section of the window.

 

The two Old Testament references are Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3:

 

Isaiah 2:4–The Lord will mediate between nations
and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.

 

Micah 4:3–The Lord will mediate between peoples
and will settle disputes between strong nations far away.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.

 

Resuming the reflection:

 

Why would the image of a sword turned into a plowshare be included with the images of The Church?  The scripture connection is from the Old Testament, before The Church became established.  Historically, the ancient cultures fought wars to gain more land.  Battles were horrific, hand-to-hand conflict.  The outcome ended with death, dismemberment, and slavery.  The weapons included swords, spears, clubs, maces that were hand held and brought the warriors face to face—angry and fearful.

God never intended for humans to treat each other like this.  He designed a world that was to meet all the needs without conflict.  His human creation was to care for the world and all its creatures.  His human creation was to live in peace and in relationship with each other and with him. War was not part of his creation.

The Church is the tool that Jesus’ disciples created to establish relationships with one another and to care for this world through the one simple rule:  Love one another.  The Church continues to work establishing relationships that heal, protect, provide for all God created.  Swords destroy.  Plowshares cultivate.

Consider the context of the two verses from Isaiah and Micah.  The Jewish people populating the region along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea had split into two separate countries Israel and Judah.  The geographical area continues to be riddled with battling cultures. This warring attitude is far from what God teaches through his son Jesus Christ.  The swords today are so much more destructive and The Church struggles to develop peace.

One of the key words in these verses is “mediate” or “judge” as used in other translations.  God is the only one who can mediate or judge between peoples, as the scripture state.  The prophets wanted the faithful to understand that only God has that final power, humans do not.  The Church cannot judge, either, instead it is to spread the word that we are to care/love one another as we want to be loved.

Two different prophets, who were basically contemporaries, wrote these verses.  Interestingly, Micah’s role as prophet is identified as 742-687 BC while Isaiah’s prophecy began in 740 BC.  The two prophets even lived in nearly the same area as Isaiah was in Jerusalem while Micah was from Gath about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem.

Surely the two prophets’ messages were heard by many of the same people.  But as we all know, we can hear the same message from two different people or in two different settings and not recognize that the messages are the same. Through the millions of years and the hundreds of translations the message from these two prophets are still as important as they were in the 8th& 7thcenturies before Christ’s lifetime.

The Church has continued to share the same message:

  • The Lord will mediates between peoples—not humans
  • Hammer swords into plowshares—get rid of weapons, turn to tools for feeding the people
  • Do not fight between nations—end war, do not even train for war

 

The Church preserved this message as it canonized the writings from the prophets into the Bible. The Church has turned the words of scripture into actions encouraging each of the faithful to do exactly what the prophets asked.  The Church has worked to develop the very peace-loving, nurturing practices that God asked Adam and Eve to do when he created this world:

Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us.  They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.  . . . Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply.  Fill the earth and govern it. . . .”  [Genesis 1:26, 27]

 

Certainly God’s original plan was changed, and is noted in the stained glass window by the battle of the brothers Cain and Abel. Ever since creation, the battle between good and evil continues.

How, then, do we keep up our personal responsibility as Christians?  We are The Church regardless of denomination, congregation or community, what matters is whether you do all that you can do to carry out the message God has sent to us in so many different ways.  What matters is that you work peacefully to love one another just like you want to be loved.

The image of turning swords into plowshares is a concrete message to each of us.  The scripture introduced the mental picture, but the window shows us a visual picture.

Isaiah’s prophecy, written hundreds of years before Christ, includes the prediction that God was sending a messiah to teach the methods needed to shift from warring cultures to loving cultures.  And the work continues, must continue.

Creating the United Nations may be one global effort to turn swords into plowshares, too.  There is an interesting irony of how the prophets’ words have been artistically translated.  On the bulletin’s cover is the statue of a blacksmith beating a sword into a plowshare. That statue is at the United Nations headquarters in New York City; but the irony cannot be ignored.

The artist Evgeny Vuchitech was Soviet and the statue was a gift from the USSR (Russia) presented on December 4, 1959. The explanation provided by Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s website under the article “Art in the Christian Tradition” explains the bronze statue:

The sculpture, depicting the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other, which he is making into a ploughshare, is meant to symbolize man’s desire to put an end to war, and to convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of mankind.

 

The irony of the statue does not end, either.  While searching for more information on the artist, one learns that a step-granddaughter is an Israel politician Ksenia Svetlova.

Add to this the timeframe that the statue was donated to the UN.  The Secretary General of the UN was Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden.  He was known for his work to develop peace, to mediate between warring peoples.  His notable quotes reflect the message behind the prophets’ words and the artists’ statue:

Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each of us. To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just.

 

The Church is global.  The Church is tasked to make every effort it can to return this world to God’s original plan:  a peaceful world where all is provided to meet our needs and we are the stewards of this world.  Hammarskjold also said,

We’ve got to learn hard things in our lifetime, but it’s love that gives you the strength. It’s being nice to people and having a lot of fun and laughing harder than anything, hopefully every single day of your life.

 

You are The Church, right here in this community working with this Church family.  Yes, it can be difficult, but life in God’s eyes is one that is peaceful, love-filled. You are not to judge, you are to love. Through love, unconditional love, you can do all that you can to create a peaceful world—at least in your corner of the world.

Closing prayer:

Dear God of all people,

As we listen to the words of ancient prophets,

Open our hearts to their peaceful message.

As we stop for these moments to think about The Church

Open our minds to all the possibilities God offers.

As we work together to serve all in our communities,

Open our doors to make plowshares, not swords.

 

Move us forward to share the messages of the prophets

To demonstrates Jesus’ love-filled actions.

Move us forward through these times of transition

To keep Jesus’ work alive in our community.

Move us forward to discover new, exciting ways

To hammer out swords of differences into plowshares.

 

Thank you for the guiding words of scripture.

Thank you for the unexpected messages of peace.

Thank you for the unconditional love you provide.

 

We can do all that we can through the your gifts.

We can do all that we can because Jesus teaches us.

We can do all that we can through the Holy Spirit.

Amen, Lord, amen.

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Mothering: Susanna Wesley Style

Sermon for Mother’s Day, May 13, 2018.  Susanna Wesley is one of the figures included in the Church of Resurrection’s, Leawood, KS, stained glass window which has loosely tied the sermons together for the past several months.

            Just imagine where The Church would be without mothers.   Mothers have raised children perpetuating their culture’s faith foundation even before Jesus was born.  Looking at the COR window, the images include other mothers, too, but Susanna Wesley cannot be ignored within our tradition.

John Wesley learned his faith and developed his methods from his mother’s teaching.  He along with his nine other brothers and sisters including Charles, were raised in a devout Church of England family.  Their father was Samuel Wesley, a priest in the Church of England, who even left the family for a year simply over a political argument with Susanna.

The article from historyswomen.com quickly introduces Susanna Wesley as the Mother of Methodism:

As a wife and mother in a small 18th century English parish Susanna Wesley herself received little recognition for how she managed her household, raised and educated more than a dozen children and coped with a sometimes impecunious, idealistic and occasionally difficult clergyman husband. Yet from her personal influence and loving home came a son who would experience a spiritual awakening and use that inspiration to begin a ministry that would fill a void in the national spiritual life and also develop into a world wide church. Indeed, it might be said that the movement called Methodism had its foundations in the home of Susanna Wesley.  [Accessed on May 10, 2018.]

 

I have no idea if Mom and Dad connected my name with Susanna Wesley, but I do know that Mom certainly referred to Susanna after I had my two kids.  Susanna had ten children who survived beyond infancy, but I clearly remember one of Mom’s pieces of advice that I am sure is familiar to many:  “You need to give each one an hour.  Susanna Wesley had ten kids and she devoted one hour to each one.”

Now, I am not certain if that is completely accurate, but I did find a similar statement in historyswomen.com biography:  She gave each child individual attention by purposely setting aside a regular time for each of them.  [Ibid.] A second website, christianitytoday.com, added this statement: Susanna made it a rule for herself to spend an hour a day with each of the children over the period of a week.

One thing I do know is that Mom greatly respected Susanna Wesley and so did her own son.  My mom also told me how the family’s home burned and John almost died. The biography on christianitytoday.com also affirmed Mom’s references:

After the fire of 1709 family discipline broke down, but Susanna managed to restore it later. She paid special attention to John, who was almost lost in the fire. He referred to himself as “a brand plucked from the burning fire,” and his mother said that she intended to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child that Thou hast so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been, that I may do my endeavors to instill into his mind the disciplines of Thy true religion and virtue.  [Accessed on May 10, 2018.]

 

Today we honor our mothers, true; but consider where today’s church would be without Wesley’s mother.  She was the daughter of a priest, she married a priest, and she mothered a priest (remember John Wesley was ordained in the Church of England as a priest).  Her personal upbringing greatly influenced her mothering.  One can only speculate how the scriptures prepared her for that role.

Looking at the Old Testament, the wisdom of King Solomon is found in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon/SongsSurely Susanna knew these words well:

Scripture:  Proverbs 22:17-21

17 Listen to the words of the wise;
apply your heart to my instruction.
18 For it is good to keep these sayings in your heart
and always ready on your lips.
19 I am teaching you today—yes, you—
so you will trust in the Lord.
20 I have written thirty sayings for you,
filled with advice and knowledge.
21 In this way, you may know the truth
and take an accurate report to those who sent.

 

Proverbs are“short, concise sentences that convey moral truths,” as explained in the Life Application Study Notes.  These statements cover

“a range of topics, including youth and discipline, family life, self-control and resisting temptation, business matters, words and the tongue, knowing God, marriage, seeking the truth, wealth and poverty, immorality, and, of course, wisdom [defined as applying knowledge/facts to life]. [p. 1306]

 

As Susanna was raised in a religious home, she must have known these proverbs well.  In an UMC.org feature by Joe Lovino, a letter she wrote to John outlines her mothering tips. The tips are outlined in these categories:

  1. Religious education
  2. Education
  3. Order and Discipline
  4. Sleep
  5. Meals and Dining
  6. Manners

 

Reading through Proverbs 10-24, which is titled “Wisdom for All People,” many of Susanna’s tips seem to echo several proverbs.

Additionally, Susanna practiced self-discipline, too. In fact, her prayer life was extremely important, and I stumbled into one blog that discussed her use of a “prayer apron”:

When Susanna was young, she promised the Lord that for every hour she spent in entertainment, she would give to Him in prayer and in the Word.  Taking care of the house and raising so many kids made this commitment nearly impossible to fulfill. She had no time for entertainment or long hours in prayer!  She worked the gardens, milked the cow, schooled the children and managed the entire house herself.  So, she decided to instead give the Lord two hours a day in prayer!

She struggled to find a secret place to get away with Him.  So she advised her children that when they saw her with her apron over her head, that meant she was in prayer and couldn’t be disturbed.  She was devoted to her walk with Christ, praying for her children and knowledge in the Word no matter how hard life was. [Accessed on May 10, 2018 at http://sharonglasgow.com%5D

Certainly today’s mothers know the difficulty of finding quiet prayer time; therefore, let us quiet our own lives, consider throwing an apron over our heads, too, and spend some time in prayer:  (The practice in our church family is to join in a time of prayer during our worship, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.)

Reading through Susanna’s letter to John, provides today’s mothers solid advice on raising their families.  Even though few families have ten kids living in the one house, the wisdom of her motherly advice is worthy of review.

  • Religious education:

Devotions:  “The children of this family were taught, as soon as they could speak, the Lord’s prayer. . .

Worship and music:  “. . . the day began with reading or singing a psalm, reading an Old Testament chapter, and saying private prayers—all before breakfast.  At the end of the school day, they paired up to read a psalm and a New Testament chapter.”

Sabbath:  . . .The children “were very early made to distinguish the Sabbath from other days. . .”

  • Education

Focus:  School was 9-12 noon, and 2-5 pm

No goofing off:   “Rising out of their places or going out of the room, was not permitted unless for good cause. . .

Reading:  Each child was taught to read at age five. . .

  • Order and discipline

Routine:  a tight schedule. . . [with] times assigned for naps, education, meals, and bedtime.

Self-regulation:  Susana believed “self-will is the root of all sin and misery,” . . worked to help her children develop self-control.

Forgiveness  . . . never be punished for the same offense twice.

Peace  . . . household was not chaotic . . . much quietness as if there had not been a child among them. . .

  • Sleep

Bedtime  . . .all in bed by 8:00 pm whether they were ready for sleep or not.

Naps  infants . . . napped on a schedule. . .to bring them to a regular course of sleeping

  • Meals and dining

Dining  Mealtime was family time.

No snacking

Choosing meals  . . . expected to eat was served.

Medicine  . no problem when “. . . used to eat and drink what was given them”

  • Manners

Polite speech  be polite. . . [if] wanted something they were to ask

No lying  . . .if confess it and promise to amen, they would not be punished.

Respect for property  . . . taught to keep their hands off of another’s stuff. . .

 

Mothers all know the struggles to raise children, and Susanna was like all mothers yet today.  She knew how difficult managing a household can be much less homeschooling the ten children.  And among those ten children were two sons John and Charles Wesley.

The Church grew as John adapted his own organizational methods to take God’s message to those beyond the doors of the Church of England and even across the Atlantic to the United States

John’s brother Charles worked side by side with John and is accredited with writing so many hymns that appealed to the populace:

[Charles]was said to have averaged 10 poetic lines a day for 50 years. He wrote 8,989 hymns, 10 times the volume composed by the only other candidate (Isaac Watts) who could conceivably claim to be the world’s greatest hymn writer. [Accessed on May 10, 2018 at Christianitytoday.com]

 

Susanna’s motherhood was not easy.  Susan Glasgow’s blog summarizes Susanna’s motherhood:

A devastated home isn’t always apparent on first impression, is it? Susanna Wesley was married to a preacher.  They had 10 children of which, two grew up to bring millions of souls to Christ. That would be John and Charles Wesley.  It’s a powerful story if you stop there, isn’t it?

But, behind the door of her home, hopeless conditions were the norm.  She married a man who couldn’t manage money.  They disagreed on everything from money to politics.  They had 19 children.  All except ten died in infancy.  Sam (her husband) left her to raise the children alone for long periods of time.  This was sometimes over something as simple as an argument.

One of their children was crippled.  Another couldn’t talk until he was nearly six years old.  Susanna herself was desperately sick most of her life.  There was no money for food or anything.  Debt plagued them.

. . .One of her daughters got pregnant out of wedlock and the man never married her.  She was devastated, but remained steadfast in prayer for her daughter.

 

The Church continues through the efforts of mothers everywhere.  Susanna Wesley may be the mother of the Methodist denomination, but she is really the same as Christian mothers everywhere.  Her model of mothering includes the self-discipline of works of piety her son outlines:

  1. Reading, meditating and studying scriptures
  2. Prayer
  3. Fasting
  4. Regularly attending worship
  5. Healthy living
  6. Sharing our faith with others

 

The model of Susanna Wesley reflects much of the wisdom shared in the book of Proverbs.  As our opening scripture shares, we are . . .

17 Listen to the words of the wise;
apply your heart to my instruction.
18 For it is good to keep these sayings in your heart
and always ready on your lips.
19 I am teaching you today—yes, you—
so you will trust in the Lord.

Today, we can turn to Proverbs and share with others the wisdom, too.  If Susanna can do so, so can we.

[Distribute at least 30 proverbs among those in attendance and have them read them aloud to the others.]

 

Thank you to Susanna Wesley for her mothering skills.  Today, we can understand how challenging it is for mothers in our world by realizing that mothers have always managed life challenges.  The key is to study scripture and to raise our children the best that we can, teaching them the wisdom found in scripture.

Closing prayer:

Dear loving God,

Thank you for providing words of wisdom

as we find in the scripture.

Thank you for Susanna Wesley

raising her children in faith.

 

Guide us to continue following leaders

who live faithful lives  based on scripture.

Guide us to teach our children

to do all that they can for all they can.

 

May our efforts continue The Church’s work

carrying your story forward.

May our work demonstrate the true wisdom

in loving one another as we want to be loved.

 

Thank you for Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Thank you for Susanna, the mother of John.

Thank you for loving us, your children.

 

In your name,

In the name of Jesus Christ,

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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Icy morning thoughts on the Tree of Life

IMG_2086Since we had to cancel church due to the thin, but dangerous ice coating, I am thinking about my message concerning the Tree of Life.  The more I read and study scripture, the more I realize the significance of the symbolism.

Today, we are confined due to the ice, but that does not confine our hearts and minds.  The Tree of Life symbolizes two concepts:  The Church that continues to carry Jesus’ teachings on through time and eternal life.

The Church is not the denomination, The Church is the work of the faithful who see all the ways to love one another.  We were watching the news and caught an add from Massachuettes Mutual Insurance.  The entire ad clearly documented all the good that is done all around this country when one loves one another.  It was so impressive.

Sadly, the message had to be funded by a corporation, but the message is worth every penny spent in making and airing it.  Thank you to Mass Mutual for doing so.  We need a reminder of all the good that does exist in our world.

In the stained glass window now installed at Leawood, KS’s Church of the Resurrection, the Tree of Life is surrounded by all the saints that continued carrying Jesus’ message of loving one another throughout history.  The Church is alive and it is something that we are quick to forget or to overlook.

The Tree of Life also has a second symbolic message–eternal life.  This is a sticky subject for many, but as I step outside into the natural world of the ice covered yard, the birds singing, the sun trying to peak out, and the breeze (even when it is only 16 degrees), I am renewed with the knowledge that even in the depth of winter, new life does exist.

Eternal life is no mystery for me.  Eternal life is a life cycle.  There is birth, earthly existence, death and then eternity.  I cannot look up to the night sky and see all the possibility of life beyond my human understanding.  I cannot accept that when this human form dies, the spirit dies.  I believe.

The Tree of Life stands firm in my life.  I look at the Celtic images and see the unending knot woven into their designs and I feel a sense of peace.  I study the Celtic Tree of Life and understand how complex and promising the life cycle that it represents.  And I thank God for getting to live this life and for the promise that remains.

Lent begins this week and I find it difficult to see these next few weeks filled with depressive thoughts and sorrow.  I anticipate the renewal of life as winter ends and spring begins.  Still, I suppose, we all need time to reevaluate our lives and consciously reflect on how we have lived and how we can improve.  Therefore, I will work to prepare sermons based the Old Testament families who struggled to remain faithful and whose life experiences provide us today with lessons on remaining faithful to God and following Jesus’ teaching to love one another.

Winter has its grip on us today with the coating of ice, but the mind never has to be frozen.  Use today to add to your own understanding of God’s messages.  Look closely at the Tree of Life in all its visual representations shared on the web, and find hope.

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The Message of the Trees: The Tree of Life

Sunday, February 11, 2018 arrived coated in ice, therefore no service was held due to the road conditions.  We will resume next Sunday with a recap of this final sermon based on the trees of Church of Resurrection’s stained glass window in Leawood, KS.  As Feb. 18 begins Lent, we will also
begin a series 

images

based on Old Testament families.

 

Scripture connections: (using New Living Translation)

 

Genesis 2:9

The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

 

Proverbs 3:18 and 11:30

                  3:18Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
happy are those who hold her tightly.

 

11:30The seeds of good deeds become a tree of life;
a wise person wins friends.

 

Revelations 22 (esp. 2, 14, 19)

Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit,[a] with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.

                                    3 No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever.

                                    6 Then the angel said to me, “Everything you have heard and seen is trustworthy and true. The Lord God, who inspires his prophets,[b] has sent his angel to tell his servants what will happen soon.[c]

“Look, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who obey the words of prophecy written in this book.[d]

                                    8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw all these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me. But he said, “No, don’t worship me. I am a servant of God, just like you and your brothers the prophets, as well as all who obey what is written in this book. Worship only God!”

                                    10 Then he instructed me, “Do not seal up the prophetic words in this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the one who is doing harm continue to do harm; let the one who is vile continue to be vile; let the one who is righteous continue to live righteously; let the one who is holy continue to be holy.”

                                    12 “Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

                                    14 Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life. 15 Outside the city are the dogs—the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idol worshipers, and all who love to live a lie.

                                    16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne.[e] I am the bright morning star.”

                                    17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. 18 And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. 19 And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book.

                                    20 He who is the faithful witness to all these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon!”

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

                                    21 May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s holy people.[f]

 

Reflection:

 

Yes, in our community we are in the dead of winter and grasping for the seasonal change with spring breezes, warm sunshine, and glimpses of yellow and purple blooms of jonquils and crocus peeking up at us. The cycle of life is repeated every year, and yet somehow humans fear the cycle of human life. Birth and death are simply part of the life cycle, yet fear and trepidation develops between the two seasons.

Looking at the COR’s stained glass window and considering the messages of the trees might help us manage some of the irrational and emotional fears that develop as we journey through our lives. The first message we considered was that of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We accept that as humans we err; we fail to trust that God will provide for all of our needs; we fail to love one another in almost every way one might imagine.

The second tree, the Tree of the Cross, provides hope. God loves us so unconditionally he kept giving his people opportunity after opportunity to make the right decision. And the people failed. Not just once, but generation after generation after generation his people failed to trust that God would provide. Yet God never gave up and decided to join the human world in the body of Jesus Christ and teach and demonstrate the simple principle of “love one another.”

The Tree of the Cross reminds us that even as God walked beside us, we failed. The gospels share the story and show how evil forces tried to destroy God’s message by destroying the human body. Yet, God’s message delivered through Jesus Christ is alive and that leads us to the third tree in the stained glass window: The Tree of Life.

Introduced in Genesis 2:9, the Tree of Life is mentioned as planted in the Garden of Eden alongside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet the significance of the Tree of Life is more fully explained in the last book of the Bible: Revelations 22, the final chapter in the final book of the Bible.

And that leads us to ask, “What is the message of the Tree of Life?”

The Tree of Life is personal to me. Certainly being raised on a farm with a mother who loved nature has contributed to my passion for trees, but I also feel drawn to the Celtic image of the Tree of Life. There is no logical explanation for my love of the image, but maybe, just maybe it is because my grandpa was born on March 17 and was Welsh-Irish. At least that is how I was raised and have not found anything to repudiate that understanding.

Still, the Celtic image of the Tree of Life explains visually what I understand developed in scripture. The Genesis verse simply mentions it, and not until reading the adages in Proverbs does the phrase return:

 

                  3:18Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
happy are those who hold her tightly.

 

Wisdom goes back to the message of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Wisdom is knowing what is good and choosing to make good choices in our lives. The result of growing in wisdom leads to a happy life—remember the Christmas gifts that won’t break: hope, joy, peace, and love. Living life making wise choices results in a life filled with hope, joy, peace and love. That is a complete formula for happiness and in this proverb wisdom is a tree of life.

The second proverb that refers to the Tree of Life shows that those who are wise, who have found true happiness, are to share that wisdom:

 

11:30The seeds of good deeds become a tree of life;
a wise person wins friends.

The meaning of the Tree of Life in these proverbs creates an understanding that living a wise life, choosing and sharing good deeds, creates a happy life filled with hope, joy, peace and love. The message of the trees could end there, but look at the last chapter of Revelation and the significance of the imagery extends beyond our human experience. And this brings me back to the imagery of the Celtic Tree of Life.

Googling the Celtic Tree of Life, the explanations all say the same thing (and when searching the web, one must be diligent not to be misled). One of the most straightforward explained the symbolic drawing:

Celtic knots are known as endless knots because they don’t have a beginning or end. They represent how nature is eternal. Celtic Tree of Life knots represent the roots and branches of a tree woven together without end, showing the continuous cycle of life on earth. [Accessed on February 8, 2018 at http://www.astrologyoftheancients.com/celtic-tree-of-life/

]

Even Wikipedia and other sites defined the symbolism of the Celtic Tree of Life like this.

Study the image included in the bulletin/post today. The artist draws the Celtic knot even in the roots of the tree. The knots remove time. In fact, as the explanation shares, the Celtic knots represent how nature is eternal—there is no beginning or end.

The Tree of Life in Revelation 22 continues God’s promise that if we trust in him and live life loving one another, life continues even after our worldly life journey:

1Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.

                  3 No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever.

 

Reading prophetic words can be difficult; and John, who wrote Revelations, understands this as he continues this final chapter:

 

10 Then he instructed me, “Do not seal up the prophetic words in this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the one who is doing harm continue to do harm; let the one who is vile continue to be vile; let the one who is righteous continue to live righteously; let the one who is holy continue to be holy.”

 

As Christians, the Bible repeatedly tells us that we are to not only live faithful lives, but we are to actively share God’s message and love one another as we want to be loved. Following the Bible’s instruction is how we “sow seeds of good deeds that become the tree of life.”   Sowing seed of good deeds continues the life cycle as visually represented in the Celtic’s Tree of Life images.

Returning to the COR’s stained glass window, the vitality of the Tree of Life is clearly contrasted to the wilting, yellowing leaves of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the harsh, dead wood that is used in the Tree of the Cross. The message of the Tree of Life, first introduced in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and included in the adages of Proverbs is the concluding message of the Bible in Revelations.

Being disciplined to read the Bible is key to finding the wisdom for life in this crazy evil-filled world. Joining in conversation with others reading the Bible and making life decisions of good versus evil makes our life journey easier. How this is done is revealed in the images surrounding the Tree of Life in the stained-glass window—the church lives in the works of faithful who are planting the seeds of good deeds.

Together we are the church spreading the good news of God’s unconditional love for all of us and as we spread the good deeds, The Church as the Tree of Life flourishes.

John writes in Revelations

. . . let the one who is righteous continue to live righteously; let the one who is holy continue to be holy.”

                  12 “Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

                  14 Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life.

 

The message of the Tree of Life concludes with the promise of eternal life along side God and his lamb, Jesus Christ.

Closing prayer:

Dear patient and loving Father,

 

We see your message

as shared in a magnificent window

teaching us about living faith.

 

We read The Word

in the books of the Bible

seeking wisdom to live faith-filled lives.

 

We join in Christian fellowship

through study and worship

working to strengthen our faith.

 

Open our hearts

to see evil

but choosing good.

 

Open our minds

to hear you speak

guiding our deeds.

Open our doors

to welcome others

seeking unconditional love.

 

May our lives

demonstrate our faith

accepting your grace,

sharing your story,

leading others to you

so they may know

hope, joy, peace and love. –Amen

 

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The Word Reflected in Stained Glass

Sermon given on Sunday, January 14, 2018:  This sermon serves as an introduction to sermons based on the images included in the stained glass window.images

Special note: The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS, has a stained glass window that captures God’s story and during a conference the images mesmerized me. The next few weeks, God’s story will be shared based on the artistic images of the window. Thank you to COR for investing in such an artistic interpretation so The Story can live in all who view it or who learn The Story shared by others.  See attached link.

 

Scripture connections:

Genesis 1:1-2, NLT

1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 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.

John 1:1-5, NLT

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,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.

Revelation 1:7-8, NLT

7Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven.
And everyone will see him—
even those who pierced him.
And all the nations of the world
will mourn for him.
Yes! Amen!

“I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.”

Reflection through art: The Word Reflected in Stained Glass

Sitting in our sanctuary in rural Missouri, we are wrapped by stained glass windows that share God’s story in brilliant images and vivid colors. The symbolism of the stained glass windows reflects the literature of the Bible; and we are privileged to be surrounded by these windows.

Stained glass windows have spoken to me since a child sitting in my hometown sanctuary where the windows allowed smoky light to filter in during the Sunday morning service as the sun rose behind them. The pew in which I sat each Sunday, I watched the window of Jesus holding the lost lamb. I suspect many recognize that story because they too have seen that picture either in their Bible or in a frame hanging on a wall or in a stained glass window like I did.

My awareness of God’s story and fascination for the stained glass windows probably led to the overwhelming sense of awe as I stepped into the newest sanctuary (hardly an accurate word for the enormous room or auditorium) at Leawood’s (Kansas) Church of the Resurrection. The window is huge and measures 35 feet by 92 feet. [The completed jigsaw puzzle is preserved and on display so others may inspect it as we work through the stories and the meaning of the work.]

Briefly, the window has three primary panels that merge together, bordering along a river path that wraps around the central panel. The first section reflects the Old Testament, the middle section is Christ’s story as found in the New Testament, and the final section is The Church after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The window is packed with images—some very familiar, some less so. But every element of the window carries God’s story forward. There is no time better than today to begin a journey through God’s story as shared in the window.

Let’s begin with Genesis 1:1-2, NLT

 

1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 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.

 

These words share the beginning of our understanding of Creation. The world God created is represented as coming out of the cosmos in the puzzle, a dark purple circle of heavenly-like bodies—an image I recognize from sitting out gazing at the night sky.

What better time than these first weeks after Christmas to review the opening of Genesis and consider the relationship of God to this world. How one perceives Creation, or explains how the world came to be, is not an issue for me. What matters is that there is an omniscient being I know as God, and no matter what, I am convinced that God’s story includes the stories of the Old Testament and led to the necessity of God joining us in the human form of Jesus Christ.

Reading the gospel of John, the Story is summarized in those first five verses:

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,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.

 

The words we use each and every day are the very tools to carry God’s story forward. The Bible’s words record the relationship of humans to God, provides examples of life challenges and how faith in God makes the human experience bearable. The words shared through the Bible warn, teach, and love us.

John identifies God as The Word. From the cosmos, the Word became the world we know. The Word carries the story forward so all humanity can understand. The Word gives us the ability to tell the story in so many ways—from the visual images as we see in our own stained glass, in the art hanging on our walls, in the sounds of the music we hear, in the words of the literature we read, and in the words we share with one another.

John is one of four different views of Jesus’ story. The middle panel of the COR stained glass window takes The Word and records it visually for us. The Word shared in the gospels tell the stories of Jesus’ life, but maybe more importantly the words provide us the lessons for living in this world with others from around this world.

Interestingly, John’s gospel ends with these last two verses:

24 This disciple is the one who testifies to these events and has recorded them here. And we know that his account of these things is accurate.

25 Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.

The reality of the Bible is that there is no way that The Word is complete. The Word continues as The Church fueled by the Holy Spirit and this is illustrated in the third phase of COR’s stained glass window.

The panel is filled with the images of disciples who have carried The Word forward around this globe in almost every different setting one might think up. As Jesus the man died on the cross, he commissioned his disciples to become The Church. He did not say build a structure to keep the faithful inside, he said to be The Church. The Word continues in the words, the actions, and the story of the disciples that continue following Jesus’ teachings.

The gospel John shares Jesus’ vision for The Church in the book of Revelation. Again the words confirm and continue the timeless story:

7Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven.
And everyone will see him—
even those who pierced him.
And all the nations of the world
will mourn for him.
Yes! Amen!

“I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.”

As we continue to review the story of God as shared in the words of our Bible and the stories of the people who illustrate living a life faithful to God and serving as The Church, we will see that the gift of Jesus Christ provides all the gifts that won’t break: hope, love, joy and peace.

By following The Word, the Teacher and the Holy Spirit as all those before us and those reflected in the COR’s stained glass, we will met Jesus Christ personally. We will see that God is “the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end . . . the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.”

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

Thank you for all your disciples

Who share the Word in the Bible,

In the visual arts of stained glass,

And in the auditory arts of music.

 

We ask for your presence in our lives

As we find you speaking to us

In so many different ways:

Through written words

Through visual arts

And through music.

 

Guide us, too, as we continue your work

Sharing The Word in new and surprising ways.

May we be the Church

Sharing the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace. –Amen

 

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