The Advocate

When folks I meet discover I am a Pastor, often, I can guess their reply, “Oh, that’s nice!  I find I’m more spiritual than religious.” It is either that or my favorite, “Did you become a Pastor, Online?”  Conversations are developing throughout our society about the difference between being religious and being spiritual.  Many staking no claim to a particular sacred tradition.  Instead, identifying as spiritual. 
          What is the difference?  “On first glance, it may seem like the terms are similar, but in the view of religious traditionalists and spiritual seekers the words describe opposing points of view.  The term “religious” typically refers to a loyalty to a particular faith, its doctrine, and system of beliefs, like the United Church of Christ.  Following the rules or rituals, participating joyfully in the leadership and body of the church.  Worship is a corporate celebration.  While “spiritual” allows for more freedom and can include ideas and practices from various faith traditions, finding God alone or in small groups connecting to the spirit through

meditation or prayer.  Worship may be silent and solitary. 

          One common characteristic of someone who identifies as “spiritual”, at some point in their lives they have likely experienced negativity or even oppression from a religious body that claimed to be their community of faith.  Just like the views of a particular religious tradition, the views we adopt as our own become very important to us.  They shape who we are, they give us stability and a foundation.  But even the strongest of us needs a community in which to share our strength.  The church is where the religious and the spiritual come together to worship, each bringing their gifts, passions, and love to the table.  The church is where the spirit touches everyone. 

          Although, millions of people claim to be a part of the community of Christ, within the Gospel lesson we hear about only handful who surrounded Jesus and called each other friend.  Theirs’ was a community of sojourners.  Their intimacy, a result of routine and constant contact with one another.  After all, these companions had left life and family and blindly followed a man they hardly knew, but trusted tremendously.  Therefore, you can imagine when Jesus told them in the upper room on the eve of his crucifixion, that he would be leaving them, they were horrified. 

          Philip Sheldrake, in his book, Spirituality, claims:  “Our ultimate guide to goodness is not abstract codes of behavior or moral rule books but the presence within us of God’s Spirit.”  Jesus shared with his friends that he was not going to leave them orphaned and alone, but explained he would be sending an Advocate to be within and around them. The Spirit of God would now be their companion along the way.  But this did not dull the sting of Christ’s departure.  How would they live?  Who would lead them?  Where would they go? 
          Through their fear of being left behind by the man who was their teacher and friend, the disciples struggled, once again, to understand what Jesus was saying.  “Look, I am going to die, but you are not going to be without me.  Someone else will be sent to be with you.”  Hearing this from Jesus was as foreign to them as the multiple other times their Teacher tried to explain his impending death.  In hindsight, we understand that Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit.  That the same spirit that is within Him, that is Him, will now dwell within them.  Jesus, who is with them now in the flesh, will always be with them, will always be within us.  In other words, Christ’s disciples,   which includes us, need not fear loneliness because this Advocate is the key to community. 

          Theologically candid, Henri Nouwen has said:

Community springs forth from solitude, and without a community, communion with God is impossible.  We are called to God’s table together, not by ourselves.  Spiritual formation, therefore, always includes formation to life in community.  We all have to find our way home to God in solitude and in community with others.  

The word advocate means to come alongside another.  So, the word community is an action word, meaning to take the time to walk with another on their journey. 

Jesus equipped his early followers with everything they needed to walk alongside each other, while he walked another way. 

          Just yesterday in Quarryville, Lancaster County, the KKK, driven by fear and hatred, held a demonstration.  In response, coming alongside their neighbors, the local chapter of the NAACP and folks from all across Lancaster County gathered at the Lancaster Court House in a prayerful vigil of peace and neighborly love. 

Lancaster Rabbi, Jack Paskoff wrote this letter to his congregation and members of the Lancaster community.  Here are a few of his words:

Dear Friends:

Yes, this weekly message is very early and very urgent. Aside from timing, I cannot see ending this week, as I always do, wishing you only a Shabbat of peace and blessing, because it is truly a request that we make this a Shabbat of activism and solidarity, a Shabbat to raise our voices and to stand together, as we defy racism and hatred.

As they periodically do, the KKK will be gathering in Quarryville for a cross burning on Saturday. Working with experts in the field of developing appropriate responses, our local chapter of the NAACP has decided against an approach that confronts directly—the Klan thrives on the media attention that such confrontations create. Instead, we will be gathering with people of good will, of all faiths, races, and beliefs, at a Day of Unity titled "Rise! Embrace, Envision, Empower." This event is a call to the Lancaster community to stand for a whole and just multiracial community.”

Our voices must be included in a resounding statement that there is no place for hatred here—in our county, in our country, or in the world. (pause…)

Blessed are those who know their need,

For theirs is the grace of heaven.

Blessed are the humble,

For they are close to the sacred earth.

Blessed are those who weep,

For their tears will be wiped away.

Blessed are the forgiving, for they are free.

Blessed are those who hunger for the earth’s oneness,

For they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the clear in heart,

For they see the Living Presence.

Blessed are those who suffer for what is right,

For theirs is the strength of heaven.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

For they are born of God!

          For me, accessing the Spirit does not come easily.  Because from a young age, I had been taught that you need to work for anything and everything.  Nothing comes to you in life, free.  This makes it extremely difficult to accept things like free grace, and the unconditional love of God.  Yet, this is the message we hear from scripture.  This is the message that I have often shared with you. Being in this place, this safe space with all of you helps ground me enough to let go and let God be God!  To let the Spirit take my hand and lead me for a change.  Being alive in the Spirit to me means accepting my part in God’s story.  No matter how hard it may be, showing up to receive God’s love in order to share that love with another.  For my faith

should be based on such love and grace.   Jesus claims, “If you love me, follow my commandments!”  Rabbi Jack invited an entire community to show forth the love of God!  To be a community of love and grace. 

          At this time in my own life, hearing the term, orphaned, has taken on a new meaning.  Having lost three of the four of our parents over the past two years has left both Kara and I feeling a little abandoned.  I can relate with the disciples and their feeling of abandonment.   How about you?  What in life or death has made you question God’s presence?  What challenges have kept you from following Christ’s commandments?  Do you open yourself up to allow the Spirit to touch you? 

          I recently read a blog by the Rev. Dr. Anna Hosemann-Butler, simply titled, Orphaned?

Interesting that Jesus uses the word "orphaned" in this week's text, as it is such a potent metaphor for what he was about to do, which was to leave his beloved disciples. 

He surely knew that his death would—and rightly so—strike fear and terror in those who loved him, those he loved so closely and so well, so sacrificially.

He surely knew they would be left vulnerable.

He surely knew they would panic.

He surely suspected they would turn and run for their own lives, abandoning him the very moment things got rough.

He surely knew all of these things but loved them anyway.

Yet his words in this passage reveal none of his own sense of loss and panic, his own sense of being orphaned. He speaks only of love of God, the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will never leave. 

Whether they heard him or not, he only speaks words of hope.

Jesus made a promise then that is still alive today. We get from him—straight from the horse's mouth as it were—what it means to live faithfully in the midst of life, and that is to live as though we know with full assurance that we are loved, no matter what.

          My friends, what is your voice?  How will you let the Spirit stir you to action?  Whether you are religious or spiritual, or a little bit of both now is the time to put what you believe into action.  Now is the time for all of us to love Jesus, by keeping his commandments.  Now is the time to allow God’s Holy Spirit to touch us, change us, and love us.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are born of God!  We are not alone… thanks be to God!  Amen.


Sources Cited:

Sheldrake, Philip.  Spirituality:  A Brief History.  Wiley-Blackwell.  2013.

Nouwen, Henri.  Spiritual Direction:  Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith.  HarperOne.  2006.

Newell, J. Phillip.  Casa de Sol Blessing of Jesus. 

Paskoff, Jack.  Letter to his Congregation.  Lancaster, PA.  2017.

Stones Roll Away

Acts 10: 34-44Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

John 20: 1-18   April 16, 2017

 “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

Prayer:  O risen Christ!   Please let your love and your life find a way into our hearts and our very lives, like you did in so many before us.  In the Spirit of the risen Christ we pray, Amen.

 Barb and I were at Texas Roadhouse recently, and some of the servers wore T-shirts that said, “I “heart”  Ymy job!”  And, I can unequivocally say that that is true for me, I “heart” my job! Especially on Easter Sunday!  Not only do I “heart” my job, I also Y our church!  I am so blessed and fortunate to be among you, a congregation filled with lots of “heart!”  You share and carry the Easter spirit, the gospel’s good news, in so many ways, and I, for one, am very grateful for you making it easy for me to “heart”  Ymy job!” Thank you!

Some pastors don’t enjoy certain parts of their job so much—some don’t like weddings—I love ‘em!  Most pastors don’t like doing funerals. Neither do I. But,  there’s no better time to share the Good News of Easter to people that are often unchurched.  I think that’s true.  Another pastor said he likes funerals because they last longer.  When asked to clarify he said, “The first person I brought to Christ, fell out of faith.  The first couple I married divorced.  But, the first person I buried has stayed there”, retrieved April 14, 2017).

I guess that’s true… someone dies, we bury ‘em.  We put the tombstone over the top of the grave, and that’s that.  We expect the body to stay there; and it does.  Nothing to see here, move along.  Life is done.  Death is final.  We expect nothing else.

 Mary comes to the tomb, grieving and distraught, totally in a daze, expecting nothing but a sealed tomb and a dead body inside it.  She expects nothing else.  What she finds is totally unexpected.  What she thought was dead and buried was anything but.  The sealed tomb was unsealed.  The stone was rolled away already.

Now grieving, distraught, and confused, she runs away at first, but comes back, and soon discovers that God is in the business of rolling stones away… stones that try to keep goodness and love out of our lives.  Stones that try to squelch life out of us.  Stones that make us think that life is like a cemetery filled with dead ends.  Divorce, job loss, failing grades, debilitating illness, the painful death of a loved one, or even an awareness of our own mortality—these can all be stones that give us the message that nothing can get past them, not even life itself.  But, none of it is true.

Because God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, those stones roll away.  Because God carried Jesus through the very worst of life’s horrors, because the stone was rolled away, because Jesus is alive, God can work with us bringing to our consciousness opportunities to encounter the risen Christ who will help us roll the stones in our lives away.

Recently, Barb and I saw the movie “Hacksaw Ridge.”  It depicts WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refused to kill people, and became the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.  He clung to his belief that the 6th of the 10 commandments, “Thou shall not kill” was an imperative to be followed.  He could never hold a rifle, let alone fire it to kill a human being.  In fact, the only time he touched a rifle in the whole movie was to help make a stretcherso that he could drag a fellow soldier to safety.  One of most powerful lines in the movie was when Private Doss said, “While everyone else is taking life, I’m gonna be saving it.  And that’s gonna be my way to serve” ( retrieved April 14, 2017).  Several tried to bury Private Doss’ belief in the 6th commandment, several tried to stuff that belief in a grave and put a stone on top of that grave, but, God, and love, and life helped to roll that stone away.

When stones are rolled away, they open up our tombs, release new life, restore love, and let life move forward in healthy ways.  Easter gives us hope!

Stones, when rolled away, let forgiveness and reconciliation come forward, yielding positive results, and life can move forward in healthy ways.  Easter gives us hope!

In our information crazy society with dash cam videos, cell phone coverage of any event in the world, reality TV, social media, we’ve seen what appears to be a disturbing trend.  Life, love, morality, humanity’s basic goodness seem to be getting buried.  It’s like stones are being rolled over these basic God-given gifts, trying to entomb them.

I believe God will not let our love, our life, our goodness, be completely buried, dead and gone, that’s that.  Instead, I believe those powerful characteristics of God’s life in us cannot ever be dead and gone.  Easter’s victory in the risen Christ is our victory, too!  Easter gives us hope!

I ask for all of us to pray for the world’s leaders and its people to not let God’s gifts to us be entombed.  Please pray that we can grow into and keep a global society featuring the best gifts humanity has.  Pray that the power of love will rise above the love of power.  Pray that life’s circumstancesneed not bury us, but help us grow into people of goodness, love, and grace, more so than ever before.

If your life right now has things going on that are trying to bury you, things that are like a stone preventing your life from flourishing, come to God.  Come to the risen Christ.  Stones roll away with God.  Come to the table where life, love, spirit, relationship are all restored.  Come to share in the Good News of God’s tremendous gifts, and life can move forward in healthy ways.

Come to this table, not because you must, but because you may.  Come and find thatthis table is where holy nourishment happens, where the risen Christ is encountered.  Come.  Every stifling circumstance of life, every impeding stone are all rolled away as we come to experience the life of the risen Christ.  It is in you.  It is in me.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Extravagant Love - Expressing Humility

Philippians 2: 5-11       Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Matthew 21: 1-11         April 9, 2017

“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey… ”

Prayer:  Incarnate God, you who refused to let your high and holy status be exploited, won’t you please teach us the grace of such humility?  In Christ Jesus, I pray, Amen.

Here we are… the beginning of Holy Week, the beginning of a week that will take us further and deeper into understanding the extravagant love God that is shared with us and the languages which communicate that love.  So far, we’ve explored five love languages which communicate love in ways we can understand.1The first one was the language of doing Acts of Service.  The second language was the Giving and Receiving Gifts.  The third love language that communicates love is spending Quality Time with God and each other.  On the fourth Sunday of Lent we heard about Physical Touch as a love language.  Last Sunday, we delved into Words of Affirmation that speak of holy love.

Today, on Palm Sunday, we push further in our exploration.  The biblical texts for today I think speak to us textsthe language of Expressing Humility as a love language that might well communicate extravagant love.

Jesus’ ministry was all about sharing God’s extravagant love for God and advocating what God is about.  Remember what Jesus’ first words were in his ministry?  “Repent!  The kingdom of God is at hand!”  His ministry was about bringing God and God’s realm down to earth.  Accessible.  To have it among us and part of us.

And Jesus showed that God is about love.  God is about justice, fairness, and equality.  God is about doing the right thing by caring for the earth and its resources, by caring for the people of the earth, regardless of status, wealth, nationality, or race.  God has a soft spot for people, especially if they are on the margins and outskirts of society and culture; if they are weak or poor; if they are homeless or refugees.

Jesus himself I think experienced what it meant to be on the margins.  His followers called him “Rabbi,” which means ‘Teacher,’ and so he was.  But in the official circles, in the leadership of the established religion, Jesus was not welcomed.  He was bad mouthed in Jerusalem’s Pharisaic circles for being one who broke biblical laws.  He was an itinerant preacher with a huge, threatening entourage, and he had a reputation for being overly critical of the scribes and lawyers for being hypocritical.  For not practicing what they preached.  For “lording” their power over the common person by imposing huge fines and punishments for not obeying the Laws of the Torah.  For not being the shepherds of the people as God wanted them to be. Is it any wonder that in those circles Jesus was a radical.

So I think Jesus communicated God’s extravagant love by being their shepherd for people by identifying with them… by being among them as their leader who didn’t have the typical appearance of being all high and mighty...but, by arriving in Jerusalem on a donkey and a foal, the same kind of animal the common person would own and use, instead of mounting up on a warhorse, or something, which would be typical of a king or a military leader. According to Matthew, Jesus was fulfilling what the prophet Zechariah foretold—that their king is coming, humble, mounted on a donkey and a foal of the donkey.  He entered Jerusalem, not flaunting his power as the Chosen One of God, not all high and mighty, not with threats of violence toward Jerusalem or Rome.

No, Jesus entered expressing humility.  He entered as a different kind of king, one who humbly communicated God’s extravagant love for people through solidarity with them, not sovereignty over them.  Sovereignty comes later.

Paul invites us as Christ’s followers to have the same mind as Christ had.  He invites us to be on the same page, to be willing to put aside any status, any privilege we might have so as to identify with God’s people who may be on the margins, or treated unfairly just so they know God’s extravagant love.

Let me tell you the story of Chuong Nyugen, one of the few boat refugees to escape Vietnam in 1975.  He made it to the Philippines

and was welcomed by the US 7th Fleet of the Navy.  Eventually, he arrived in the United States where he soon became a Catholic priest.  Well, Fr. Nyugen made the news recently when he wrote President Trump on the day the executive order was signed which banned entrance to the US for Syrian and other refugees.  In his letter, Fr. Nyugen offered to relinquish his US citizenship so that it could be offered to a Syrian refugee.  And not only that, he wanted his bishop to relocate him to one of the seven predominantly Muslim countries named in the executive order.  Now, it is not known whether the White House responded to the priest’s letter or whether such a citizenship swap is even possible, but what an extravagant proposal!  What a way to communicate God’s extravagant love by the humble act of relinquishing one’s higher status of citizenship for another person to become a citizen, but also to desire to go and be with and identify with those who are refugees stuck in an oppressive situation (“A Refugees Gift,” Marty, Peter, Christian Century, March 15, 2017, p. 3)!  I found the priest’s letter and proposal quite compelling in terms of how extravagant love can be shared through expressions of humility.

So, how might we be able to share God’s extravagant love through our own expressions of humility?  Perhaps we might find it possible in our relationships… where equality between people, spouses or partners is shared, in spite of what roles males and females offer to us in our culture.  Reflections of God’s love get shared this way, I think.

Maybe expressions of humility are found in good working environments… between boss and employee, where bosses don’t “lord” it over employees, but instead they identify with the employees by working hard alongside them and supporting the gifts, skills and abilities employees have.  I think that the power of God’s extravagant love is mirrored in the work place.

Lastly, I said a moment ago that sovereignty comes later.  After the expressions of Jesus’ humility, and humble action on the cross, Paul affirms that God highly exalted him as our Sovereign Lord and Savior.

Well, I wonder… the way that God elevated Jesus because of his faithfulness, because of his willingness to humbly express God’s extravagant love, will God elevate us as well when we express humility which communicates this holy love?  I don’t mean that we become Christ, but I do mean that perhaps our inner spirit gets restored and elevated that way.  I mean that this holy love transforms us, and energizes us, and we become a joyful people who extend God’s extravagant love… We find that it’s like second nature to welcome all people, that it’s like seeing all the colors of the rainbow in each person, no matter who we are or where we come from. We see God in the person next to us. We see a part of God in the person down the street. We see God all around us.

So today we sing “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty” because Christ was lifted up for expressing with humility the extravagant love of God.  May we be empowered to so, too.  Amen.


Extravagant Love - Words of Affirmation

John 3: 16-17   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Romans 8: 6-11            April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

“… Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  Thus syas the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”

Prayer:  Breathe, O Breath of God, now breathe O Breath of God now breathe, O breath of God now breathe… on us once again, that we may live in and share your holy, extravagant love.  Amen.

My thanks to Worship Team A and our additions to the team this morning, Wil and Amber… and for everyone’s creativity in sharing the Ezekiel story today… for sharing how God’s word can make us come alive.  And, thank you to Andy Yehl, who introduced to me Lauren Daigel’s song “Come Alive” (Come Alive,” Daigel, Lauren,, retrieved March 31, 2017).

I particularly love the bridge which is the prayer part... “Breathe, O breath of God now breathe.”  In the Hebrew language, the word for breath is “ruah.”  That’s the same word for “Spirit.’  She’s praying that the “ruah,” the breath, the Spirit of God would come upon us… and would breathe into us. Take a deep breath.  Breathe in the breath of God. The Spirit of God. We are in the Spirit.

Our passage from Paul’s letter to Romans today tells us that followers of Jesus—those who’ve come to believe he is Lord and Savior— are in the Spirit.  We’re followers of Jesus, too, so he writes that the Spirit of God dwells in us… which is also saying that the breath of God dwells in us.  Then Paul says that if God’s Spirit dwells in us, then God, who gave life to Jesus’ dead body, will give life to our bodies as well through his Spirit.

What powerful words of affirmation!  What he is saying I think is that not only is God able to bring back life into our deadness (I’ll come back to that in a minute), but he is also saying that God must love humanity and the world so much that God is willing to do that! To bring life back into our deadness.

See how important we and the world are to God!  The words we heard in The Message’s translation of John 3:16-17, it seems to me are very affirmational of that fact.  That God has such an extravagant love for the world, all of creation, and its people, that God gave his one and only Son.  Why?  So that anyone can have a whole and lasting life.  God’s Son didn’t come to point an accusing finger—he came to help, to put the world right again.  God shared extravagant love to the world by sending Jesus.

Jesus was God’s extravagant word.  He communicated how much God loves humanity.  So much of what he said affirmed God’s love for Israel, and for people who were not of Israel.  Jesus’ words reached the likes of Nicodemus, a devout Jew, a Pharisee, and the likes of the unnamed Syro-Phoenician woman who was a descendant of the old Canaanite worshipers of Baal.  In many places, our gospel writers affirm that people are God’s creation, made in God’s image.  And Jesus went out after people and spoke of God’s extravagant love and salvation.  He brought that message toJew and Gentile alike.

This affirmation of God’s extravagant love for people is also our vocation, our calling, I think.  To share these words of affirmation creates the possibility for healthy and good relationships, for a winsome environment.

I remember several years ago, I was in an airport somewhere during the time when Southwest Airlines encouraged all of its employees, flight attendants, and travel agents to be joyful, playful, light-hearted, loving with words with all its customers and with each other.  So I was sitting in the gate area, and this team of flight attendants were getting all the ticket holders situated with boarding passes and so forth.  But what was so amazing was the way they talked to each other.  Men and women, all of them were using terms of endearment when speaking to each other.  “Thank you for taking that bag down to the plane, sweetheart.”  “You’re very welcome, my love.”  “I just printed that passenger’s boarding pass.  I’ll take it to him for you.”  “Thanks, Hon.  Really ‘preciate it.”   And on it went like that.  The entire time!  It was amazing!  Never have I seen people sharing such words of affirmation that were so positive and good!  It made for a very positive environment for everyone.

Right here, at Christ Church, we are people who have seen with our own eyes the positive goodness of how God loves the world and its people extravagantly, and if we’re not the ones to speak up affirming this, then who is?

We have seen our children sing of their love and praise to God.  Why not share this joy with the neighbors on your street?  We have seen participants of our church feed the hungry believing that those needy people carry the Spirit of God in them.  What a reflection of God’s divine extravagant love that is just begging to be shared with others!  We have seen new worship participants coming to our church from all kinds of different backgrounds, from orientations that unique to them, and they’ve felt the warmth and welcome of our regular church participants.  If we’re not the ones to speak up to others affirming this in our neighborhoods, then who is?  We have seen people rise up from the ashes of addiction making new pathways in life.  We’ve seen couples boldly making new steps in marriage because they’re discovering new ways to communicate love to each other.  We’ve seen immigrants come here and be welcomed, and we’ve learned from them.  We’ve seen people’s lives changed by Faith Formation events that are unique and creative.

If we’re not the ones to speak up to others affirming the life coming out of deadness, the positive goodness of how much God loves the world and its people extravagantly, then who is?  We are.  We’re in the Spirit!

Theology Professor Bruce Epperly says, “When we are in the Spirit, our cells and our souls are animated.  We are awake to divine energy with every breath.  We turn from death to life.  Filled with the Spirit, our mortal flesh becomes what it’s intended to be: a living reflection of divine wisdom and love, moving in tune with all creation.  We can dance and jump around, alive to God’s energy that gave birth to the universe and gives birth to us” (Epperly, Bruce,, retrieved March 27, 2017).

In other words, God can make our spiritual dry bones come alive from whatever deadness we have.

The refrain of the song is also meaningful: “As we call out to dry bones, come alive, come alive.  We call out to dead hearts, come alive, come alive.”  God can, by sharing words of life, bring new life into places where we may have dry bones… in places where we may have dead hearts, or hearts as hard as stone, or as cold as ice.  God’s spirit brings life.  God’s presence brings peace.

Won’t you share this life, this peace?  Won’t you affirm God’s love for you and others?  If not you, then who?  May the peace of Christ be with you.  Share it!  Amen.


Extravagant Love - Quality Time

John 4: 5-42      Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Romans 5: 1-11              March 19, 2017

“… and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”

Prayer:  O holy God, would you please pour your Holy Spirit upon us today that we may discern your presence for our faith and the lives we live in faith.  Amen.

One summerlong time ago, early on in my ministry, I had just arrived home from directing a week long high school summer MADD Camp. After arriving home, I spent most of that afternoon re-thinking and remembering the events of the week in my head.  Processing.  Debriefing.  Mostly done quietly.  Any questions I was asked by my wife and kids were answered with short replies: Yes.  No.  Fine.  Maybe.  Uh-huh.I was in my own little world—until finally my wife finally said to me, “Hey!  You’re here, but you’re not here!”  Immediately, I saw the problem.  I was away for a week, and now that I was home, I wasn’t engaged in quality time with her or the kids.  I was home, but I wasn’t present.  She was absolutely right.  I had to re-focus.

 Spending quality time, as described by Dr. Gary Chapman,1 means making a conscious decision to be focused on making time with a loved one, or loved ones.  It means being together without distractions.  No TV, no cell phone, no text messaging, no Facebook, or the Internet.  Nothing work-related.  No lost in thought in your own little world.  Quality time means spending time genuinely with your loved ones in meaningful ways for the purposes of communicating the love you have in your heart for that person or persons.

Spending quality time can also mean doing things together based on interest and willingness, like going out on dates, going to concerts, shopping, even doing projects around the house, or out in the community or at church, but doing it together.  The sky’s the limit based on interest and desire.

 And, another form of spending quality time is having quality conversations with each other.  To speak together from the heart, being willing to be vulnerable as you share what’s going on in your life, or how your day went, or what you experienced during the movie, etc. or whatever.

Being.  Doing.  Speaking.  These are dialects of the same love language of quality time that communicates love to another person.

Psychiatrist William Glasser, whose books were key resources for me as I wrote my dissertation, describes how each of us has what he calls a “Quality World.”2In that quality world are, among other things, all the people who are in the most significant relationships with us.  Most often the people in our quality worlds are our parents, siblings, spouses, partners, our coworkers, sometimes our best friends, and sometimes other people who may be close to us.

At this point during our season of Lent we are invited and encouraged consciously and deliberately to put God in our quality world and spend quality time with God.  What a powerful way of communicating our love to God!  It means being with God, without distractions.  Sometimes that means being in the silence and observing and listening and experiencing.  Quieting our minds. That’s a way of being present with God and spending quality time with the Holy One.

 Doing things with God might mean reading the Bible, taking time to come to church to worship, volunteering, seeking justice in God’s name.  Doing what you can, trust God to do what you cannot.  Doing things with God is spending quality time with God and communicates your love for our Creator.

 Speaking to God in prayer communicates our love for God and spends quality time with God.  Prayers of praise and thanksgiving, petition and confession, prayers of intercession and blessings.  Being and speaking with God in prayer means giving God our undivided attention for a little. Those are spiritual disciplines we are encouraged to practice during Lent.

Cautionary note—many of us like to pray at a certain time during the day.  We, myself included, can get in the habit of regulatory prayer.  Some pray at night.  Some pray around the dinner table.  I pray at 

the start of the day.  The danger is that habitual prayer can lose the characteristic of‘spending quality time with God because we can grow in love with our habit and not with God.  I mean we might sit down, read our devotional booklet, but did we really zero in on God?  Did we really communicate our love to God?  Did we really nurture our relationship with God?

 The good thing with spending quality time with God is that our hope deepens in us because, as Paul says, God’s love is poured into our hearts.  And I start to wonder what that means.  How does our hope deepen with God’s love poured in?

One place where our hope deepens I think is how we let love influence and guide as Christians.  A loving people.  A people who spend quality time with one another, both here at church, but also out there in the mission and ministry that we do.  God’s extravagant love is poured into our church—that is why the cross is in the middle of our sanctuary today.  We spend quality time with God and each other here. So the cross of God’s extravagant love comes out of the middle of who we are as Christians, as God’s people, as sharers of God’s extravagant love.

I also wonder if we have growing hope that the love in our hearts might change our perspective on things?  Maybe with loving hearts influencing our decisions, we might have hope that our world might just be in a better place societally?  Culturally?  Politically?

Some might say that love has no place in these areas.  But, I disagree.  God shared extravagant love with us.  Jesus told us to love one another.  The least we can do, it seems to me, is to spend quality time with God to help us discern how we may let love influence our decisions.

A little while back, when we were responding to the Harrisburg Islamic Center with letters of love and encouragement, at just about the same time, in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis chapter of the  Council of American-Islamic Relations was looking for a larger space for its offices, and after a series of threats, hate mail, and hostile phone calls, it was looking for a safer space, as well.   Well, hats off to Bethany Lutheran Church which discerned that they should welcome Islamic chapter to use space in their building.  Bethany has a history of supporting advocacy groups who struggle with injustice being done (Century Marks, “Welcoming Place,” Christian Century, Mar. 1, 2017. pg. 8).  Perhaps quality time with God helped Bethany Lutheran Church people discern what it means to share God’s love extravagantly and un-prohibitively. They stretched beyond cultural boundaries making their world a better place.

 Jesus spent much quality time with God, so much so that he discerned that some of the boundaries of his day were prohibitive of God’s extravagant love being shown.  This is clear as he reached across the boundaries with the woman at the well.  The cultural boundaries that would have prevented him from talking to her were 1) that she was a woman, and viewed as a lesser-class citizen, 2) she was a Samaritan, an outsider to Judaism, and 3) she was a person who had many husbands, and she wasn’t married to the man she was with at the time she met Jesus.  And, Jesus dared to talk to her?

 Yes, because he discerned that God’s love and peace and grace and glory are for all people.  This grace, this living water is applied to everyone—woman and man, friend and foe, Jew and Gentile, and in our world, Christian and Muslim, even American and Syrian.  God’s power to save is all-encompassing, and by comparison, sin’s impact is finite and temporary.  Grace abounds.  Before we can do anything to earn our salvation, God’s grace saves us.  Christ redeems us and gives us extravagant love before we ever can deserve it.  In my mind, those are powerful reasons to spend quality time with God.

 On our Lenten journeys, I encourage us to practice communicating God’s extravagant love that has been poured into our hearts.  And, among the very best ways to do that is to spend quality time with God.  Being with God, doing things with God, and speaking with God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Extravagant Love - Act of Service

Genesis 2: 15-17           Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Romans 5: 12-19              March 5, 2017

“If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Prayer:  Extravagant God, as we begin our Lenten journey, please let your presence be another way you communicate your love to us.  We pray through Christ Jesus, our Redeemer and Friend.  Amen.

On Ash Wednesday, our Lenten journey began.  To set the stage and to begin the theme of “Extravagant Love,” we heard the idea that out of holy love for the world, God gave the gifts of Love, and Life, and saving grace through Jesus Christ.  A key biblical passage for us is John 3:16 which says, “For God so loved the world, that God gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will never die, but will have everlasting life.” Amen.

Throughout the Sundays of Lent and worship moments of Holy Week, we will be exploring and learning ways to communicate this extravagant love.  Christian author and family care specialist Gary Chapman has written a book called The Five Love Languages.  In his book he helps people express and receive love that we speak and understand in relationships.  He calls them love languages.  Our worship experiences will explore these five languages, and three more I’ve added. We do this not so much for married couples, but more so for us as people on the spiritual journey (you can see the five languages and the additional three ones on the inside back cover of your bulletin).

We will also use the placement of the cross in our sanctuary on various Sundays as a means of suggesting that God’s extravagant love might be expressed visually by the cross being in that certain place.  Today, the cross is at the altar, and you’ll see why in a minute.

 The first love language is one we can all identify: doing an act of service.  An act of service to or for another person is a meaningful way of expressing and receiving love.

From a biblical perspective, God did an incredible, outrageous, extravagant and needed act of service for the whole human race.  The Genesis passage sets up the reason why.  The metaphorical story depicts God taking Adam, the human being and placing him in the garden of Eden, earth.

Then God instructs Adam about what to eat and what not to eat.  But… human beings, being human beings, are prone to doing exactly the opposite of what was told, though, right?  It’s like, if I told you, ‘Don’t think of an elephant.’  Uh, you did!  I told you not to!  But, what did you do?   Later on in the story, God told Adam and Eve, “Don’t eat from that tree of knowledge good and evil.”  Uh!  What did Adam and Eve do?  They ate. Ofcourse, it’s much more complicated than that, but when, they ate from the tree theybusted their pristine relationship with God.

This is the metaphorical story the ancient Hebrews told to try and make sense of the fact that all humanity suffers from an acute case of a busted relationship with God.  Call it sin.  Call it making anything more important than God.  Cal it falling short of God’s glory.  Call it missing the mark of our ideal humanity.  Call it whatever you want, but know this—it cuts us off from God, our Source of Love and Life.  If we’re cut off from that Source, what happens?  We die.  The consequence of sin is death of the inner spirit.  And death is pervasive, spreading to all.

Paul chimes in and says that death spread to all because all have sinned from the starting point of Adam—all have a busted relationship with God.  Kind of like the bowl of oranges that all of us sometimes have on our counters.   If we let them sit there too long, sure enough, one of them goes bad, and this white, moldy, gross, icky looking stuff starts spreading over all the oranges.  I like it when small moments in life teach us biblical truths.  Similarly, Paul says that death is the consequence of our busted relationship with God, spreading to everyone, dominating everything, governing all perspectives.   Is it any wonder that humanity needed God to do us a favor?  An act of service that expresses God’s love for us?

But, let’s be sure we understand… it’s not just a love that makes us feel good.  It’s not just a love that invites intimacy.  It’s not that this love creates touching moments of acknowledgement and

acceptance for us and others.

God’s Love does all that, yes… but, there’s more.  It’s a Love that is willing to go the extra mile for you, even to the point of sacrificing it all, just so you understand how far God is willing to go to communicate love for you.   That’s why I’ve placed the cross at the altar today—because the altar and the cross are symbols of the sacrifice Christ made.

 But there’s still more… most of all, the act of service God does in Christ actually removes the consequence of our busted relationship with God, which is death of our inner spirit.  Christ is able, as I understand it, to place the human race before God as redeemed, no longer held accountable for our ability to bust our relationship with God.  That means in Christ, we live!  That means, instead of death running dominant in us, if we let in life, love, grace, righteousness, holiness run dominant.  That’s extravagant love!

On the one hand, Paul describes death as starting from a certain point, spreading throughout humanity, dominating all things.  On the other hand, he describes the abundance of Christ’s grace as the free gift from God that spreads from a certain point, and that is Christ, and his act of service for humanity.  And that free gift of love and grace spreads to all.  And, God is justified in making that happen!  That is Extravagant Love!

Kind of like when you are doing dishes and one pan is filled with water, soaking… and there’s a thin film of oil over the top of the water.  What happens when you add one drop of the cleansing liquid detergent in the middle of that film of oil?  The oil dissipates quickly, doesn’t it, radiating outward to all sides and in all directions.  Ever notice that?  As I said, I like it when small moments in life teach us biblical truths.

 In the same line of thinking, God’s love is communicated in Christ’s act of service, offering the free gift of himself, and the cleansing, redeeming power radiates out from him in all directions, to all people.  The many, the human race are redeemed through the one act of service.  Such is God’s extravagant, saving Love.

 And the many, all of us redeemed people gather together, and we celebrate this act of service Christ performed for each of us.  We worship him for that reason and many other reasons, too.

We are called to be Christ Jesus’ Church.  And as Church, we do acts of service that communicate God’s extravagant Love.  For what?  I think we do it for others in the world… I think we endeavor to go on with our lives inspired to be a people who communicate God’s extravagant love and grace through our acts of service for others… others who long to have the extravagant love of God expressed to them… others who have an emptiness in their soul that craves an act of service which says to them, “God loves you.”

Friends, I think we miss an awful lot when the churchbecomes a commodity that we can consume for our own purposes, our own well-being, to meet our own personal interests and desires.  It does provide that, but there’s more!

People often say to me that they are “Church shopping.”  That’s good… you want to find a place where your faith is nurtured.  But, if you happen to settle on Christ Church, UCC, you need to know going in that being involved here means that God calls you to Be the Church with us.  The Church is the instrument God uses for God’s purposes.

This is true for all of us.  The church isn’t made for us.  It’s made for God to use in whatever way God likes.  You’re made for God to use in whatever way God likes.  And for each of us to be part of God’s Church here in E-town, in my way of thinking, that means that God has access to each of us to do acts of service, to do ministry, to be the church that expresses God’s love to all others.

That is why we have Consistory, commissions and committees, task forces, music programs, and small groups.  We provide the structure and the opportunities for all of us, not just a small portion of us, but for all of us to be the church, to do acts of service, for God’s love and grace to be shared.

And, trust me, your personal faith and spiritual needs will get met, too.  Jesus promises that so many times through scripture.  Here’s just one… Jesus said, “God knows what you need.  Seek first the kingdom of God, and all the rest will be added unto you” (Matthew 6: 32-33).

So, this season of Lent, I invite you to engage in Acts of Service which share God’s Extravagant Love because God in Christ did an loving, extravagant act of service for us.  We’re invited to cherish this gift, and to love others in new ways, because we and our church are made for God to use for God’s purposes.  Amen.