Is it Still Good?

In the darkness, something was happening at last.  A voice had begun to sing.  Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself.  There were no words.  There was hardly even a tune.  But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. 

It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. 

 

         Then two wonders happened at the same time.  One, was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices.  More voices then you could possibly count.  They were in harmony with it but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices.  The second wonder was that the blackness overhead: all at once, was blazing with stars.  They didn’t come out gently, one by one, as they do on a summer evening.  One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out – single stars, constellations, and planets brighter and bigger than any in our world.  There were no clouds.  The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. 

 

         Far away and down near the horizon the sky began to turn grey.  A light wind, very fresh, began to stir.  The sky, in that one place, grew slowly and steadily paler.  You could see shapes of hills standing up dark against it.  All the time the voice went on singing.  The eastern sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold.  The voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it.  And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose. 

 

An origin story written by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Magician’s Nephew. 

 

         In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 

 

         I love a good story, but every good story needs a great introduction to entice the bibliophile to want to continue reading.  I cannot think of a better introduction to the entire Bible then the opening words of Genesis.  This one sentence has many characteristics of a great book:  A strong main character, a statement about life, originality, power, redemption out of chaos, and the ability to leave the reader forever changed.  And let’s not forget, intrigue.  Everybody loves a little intrigue. 

 

         The great 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth once said, "The miracle is not that there is a God.  The miracle is that there is a world."  When we read and hear the Creation story in the book of Genesis, how our world and the Universe which contains it was created from nothing, it is indeed miraculous that we exist.  Yet we do, and our faith rests in the knowledge that the universe and all its inhabitants exist because God spoke us into existence.  Creation is a gift from God, and it is good!  We are good!  

 

         In 1985, Carl Daw, Jr. entered a hymn competition held to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Women’s Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention.  His award winning text is now a familiar hymn in our New Century Hymnal.  Listen now to the first verse of, “God Our Author and Creator”

God our Author and Creator, in whose life we find our own

Make our daily witness greater, by our lives make your love known.

Help us show how love embraces those whom fear and greed down-trod;

In all yearning hearts and faces let us see a child of God.


         When I hear the story of how the world came into existence, I am both humbled and scared.  Proud, because God thought to include the likes of me alongside the great mountains, whales and camels, and red wood trees; and frightened, because God trusts that I will be able to care for the whole of the Divine Vision.  In the center of creation, God placed a garden and then tenderly put human beings there too, deeming us the caretakers and stewards of God’s work.  That’s a lot of responsibility, and I am not sure I am up to it?  How about you?  

         But wait, there’s more… when God was finished, God proclaimed that all of creation was good!  Has there ever been anything more beautiful, more inspiring then this ancient story about creation, us, and more importantly, about who God truly is? 

 

         Today, the first Sunday following Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday.  The day when we celebrate God in three persons… The Father/Mother, the Son, and the Holy Ghost… The Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  So you might ask yourself, “Why focus on the Genesis text on Trinity Sunday?”  This text was chosen to be read on this particular Sunday in large part because some have found traces of the Trinity within Genesis 1:26, Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”  Perhaps this language suggests the plurality of God’s nature.  We see Jesus as the Word, and the Holy Spirit in the image of the wind across the water.  In Proverbs 8 we hear about Lady Wisdom, Sophia, and the presence of Wisdom in creation. “Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” In any case, as representatives of God, who creates all things and deems them good, it is our responsibility to steward God’s good creation with wisdom and compassion.  

 

Annie Dillard, in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, laments:

"In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade. The whole creation is one lunatic fringe. If creation had been left up to me, I'm sure I wouldn't have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that."


          But God did not stop with the atom, and as a result we have been given the best gift!  The Genesis story is a story of the birth of life itself and that life comes forth at the command of a God who creates it all out of sheer joy and delight.  I invite you to think about how this world came into being and how we were birthed into it.    We all carry individual origin stories passed on from our parents about how we came to be, what kind of chaos we caused coming into this world, and how we changed their lives forever.

 

         There have been many who have written papers and books on the chaos of creation’s beginnings; how the swirling bits of the universe settled into existence.  I can only imagine.  But I can see how time and humanity have returned us to such chaos.  Dare I go there…why not, Climate Change!  We all know about how our world is physically changing around us, so I am not going to delve into the how and whys, but I will ask:  Does God care that we are altering the planet that God created and loves and sent the divine son to make whole once again?

Within the Book, The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Some’ writes this intriguing introduction to the healing power of nature: 

 

Nature is the foundation of indigenous life.  Without nature, concepts of community, purpose, and healing would be meaningless.  The idea of a person born with a purpose, a purpose that needs to be supported by an active community presence, and the idea of working with subtle energies’ for balance and healing would be only grandiose notions in the absence of nature as the playground, as the school where the children can play and study.  Our relationship to the natural world and its natural laws determines whether or not we are healed. 

 

Yes, God does care.  And I picture that God mourns every time the natural balance of life is broken.  Our belief that humankind is at the center of creation, that anything and everything occurs because of our human needs and comforts have brought us to this time and place in a world that seems broken.  

Genesis 1:26, Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”

 

         What a powerful image.  Humans are created in the image of the Creator.  But if our faith is based on this thought then this means that our actions mirror those of God’s if we truly are the stewards of creation.  So as caretakers how can we help the earth heal?  This is a loaded question these days.  Just about every culture has its own creation narrative.  A story of their existence.  As those who believe in the creation story and those who feel drawn to more scientific approach, we all can agree that something miraculous took place at our beginning.  Whether you identity as a creationist or a big bang theorist, getting caught in the how of our being is not the point as much as it is about how we are treating that Creation. 

         Within the book, The Gift, a, collection of poetry from The 14th Century Persian Poet, Hafiz, we hear…

Only that illuminated One

who keeps seducing the formless into form

Had the charm to win my heart.

Only a Perfect One.

Who is always laughing at the word two

Can make you know of Love.

 

         The world and all of its splendid creation is not separate, but in fact, one.   Amen. 

 

_______________________________________

 

Works Cited: 

Ladinsky, Daniel.  The Gift:  Poems by Hafiz. Penguin Compass.  England.  1999.

Some’, Malidoma.  The healing Wisdom of Africa.  Penguin Putmann Inc.  New York.  1999.

Daw, Carl.  The New Centaury Hymnal.  The United Church Press.  Cleveland.  1995.

Dillard, Annie.   Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  1975.

Pentecost

PRAYER:  Come Holy Spirit come, and fill our lives with the message and mission of Pentecost.  Amen. 

        Most of you know that Pentecost is one of my favorite times of the church year.  I love to see the Red Paraments adorn our sanctury.  The balloons and banners help to highlight the presence of the Holy Spirit in our worship and throughout our lives.  And, I always look forward to the Rite of Confirmation, a culmination of the last two years of the spirit filled journey of our teens and mentors.  It is truly a time of joyous celebration. 

        Pentecost is the day that we celebrate the birthday of the Christen Church.   The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, made evident by the tongues of flame and rushing wind, creates a community of believers empowered to share the Good News of Jesus with the world.  Pentecost is the anniversary of a time when the disciples went forward and preached and Jews from all over the world, gathered in Jerusalem for a great party and when they heard the disciples preaching in their own language, many came to believe that Jesus was and is God’s chosen Messiah.  Amid our festive red and white, we celebrate the coming of the Spirit and the Birthday of the church.

        The Confirmation journey at Christ Church is designed around a journey of transformation it is a walk that claims confirmation is a repeatable rite of the church; that there are multiple times in a person’s life in which they would like to re-affirm their faith.  In other words, the laying on of hands, inviting the Spirit into our hearts does not happen once, but can occur over and over again along our spiritual journeys.  These are the moments when we find ourselves back at the font of life.  Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that the Season of Pentecost is never over!

        A Pastor friend of mine once shared a memory he holds dear from his own confirmation.  “I will always remember what was shared during the sermon” He continued, the Pastor offered: ‘Remember the Pentecost message is really about maintaining our connections to our brothers and sisters from the churches of the past while nurturing our relationship within our current family of God.’”  His point, the church is connected by the generations which preceded it as well as those which will continue its mission well into the future.

        Listen to the words of a hymn from our New Century Hymnal, God, When I Came into this Life

God, when I came into this life, you called me by name;

Today I come, commit myself, responding to your claim.

 

You give me freedom to believe; today I make my choice,

And to the worship of the church I add my learning voice.

 

Within the circle of the faith, as member of your cast, I

Take my place with all the saints of the future, present, past.

 

In all the tensions of my life, between my faith and doubt, let Your great Spirit give me hope, sustain me, lead me out

 

So help me in my unbelief and let my life be true; Feet firmly planted on the earth, my sights set high on you. 

        The confirmation journey of our teens and mentors have been scrolling the screen since our time together today.  I’m sure you have been touched by the physical transformation of our confirmands over the years.  Perhaps you have been blessed by reading their statement of faith, at this point along their journey. 

        The author of the hymn we just heard, talks about owning what we believe today in order to recognize the impact of those who have gone before us, and those who continue to travel with us on our journeys.  But the composer also talks about accepting our place among all God’s people.  Listen to some of what our teens, who are to be confirmed claim they believe.

I believe that Jesus is always there with us in any situation.

Holding grudges on others is not Christian-like and we should forgive the sins of others who have sinned against us. Forgiveness is not always easy, but it is possible with the help of God.

We believe that God is the loving creator of all things that we know in life.  God is present in all living beings. Through God’s eyes everyone is equal and through God’s love those struggling will find strength. 

Jesus Christ is the head of the church, which is his body, composed of all, living and dead, who have been joined to him through saving faith.

I believe that no matter what happens, Jesus will always love me and everyone.  I believe that the power of God is unlimited.  I will look for the presence of God in every person.  As a Christian, I will do my best to accept people as they are and to help others. 

        Our connections run deep with those from Christ Church’s past, and if we are sincere about being a Pentecost People, our outreach and relationships will continue to strengthen future generations at Christ Church. 

        Jesus has sent us the Spirit to advocate for Him in his absence.  What does Jesus… the way he lived his life, his death, his resurrection… tell us about God?  Through our Birthday celebrations of the Church we acknowledge that the breath of God is at work, here and now.  Through scripture and prayer, music and proclamation, experience and relationship, in service and mission:  God’s holy breath challenges us, comforts, clarifies, and even scares us at times. 

        Pentecost reassures us that God’s Spirit is still at work.  Whether the original followers or the next generation of disciples, Christ’s mission continues in this world.  What part will you play?  As people of Pentecost, God invites us to experience the fullness of life intended for everyone.  To breathe deeply, take in the Spirit, and be changed. 

Fire, wind, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present and far beyond, in time and place.  Maybe it was a little frightening, something people would want to explain away, or to contain with cynical comments that blamed it all on drunkenness.  But this much is true, many lives were changed on that first Pentecost. God IS still speaking, how will this community of faith respond to God’s call and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, how will we live out such a covenant?  Amen.  

 

 

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” https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=2402, 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” (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/391672498826438058/ 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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XAeyFagceQ, 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, www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2017/03/adventurous-lectionary-fifth-sunday-lent-april-2-2017, 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.