Intimate Caring

Intimate caring: Ruth as a story of peacebuilding

Kevin Shorner-Johnson

If you know me, you know I am a nerd. I study music, ethics, and time orientations through the lens of educational policy, 17th century Puritan theology, and multicultural peacebuilding practice. That’s a whole lot of nerd. And from my Episcopalian background with a side of Catholic and Baptist bible study, I am also a nerd for studying lectionary and coming to know scripture more deeply. Please humor me as I take you on my passion for philosophy, theology, and peacebuilding.

I love Ruth, because Ruth is a beautiful story of moving toward each other in sacred moments of humble but audacious love. It is also a remarkable book because it is the only story that explores feminine relationship with great depth, and along with Esther, it is one of the few stories that is told from the point of view of a woman.1 Ruth is not a story of the powerful and famous, but is the story of two, ordinary people on a threshing floor doing extraordinary work of love. Because I am passionate about research in peacebuilding, I want to look at this story from a peacebuilding lens and the language of closeness, argument, and grace.

# Closeness

I wonder if Ruth is a story of what happens when we move closer to each other. While Ruth was a widowed woman in a distant land, she was an object of despair. Refugees and migrants today generate sympathy because they are distant objects of despair. Hearing their story might cause me to feel sympathy for their distant, “third world” plight – maybe generating a donation? But then, Ruth and Naomi begin their migrant journey toward economic security and acceptance - Something that was very difficult to achieve in the violent masculine-powered society at the end of Judges. Ruth arrives, and as she moves closer to Boaz, Boaz is convicted of his need to offer a little more. He leaves larger amounts of grain in the fields and commands field hands to leave her unmolested and unharmed.

Moving closer still, Boaz joins her for dinner.

Boaz clearly has done great acts of kindness and compassion for a destitute woman. But . . . this is not enough, because Ruth moves closer yet, creating new ethical dilemmas as she moves closer and closer. Ruth is not content to be an object of sympathy - she wants more, she wants the security of food, shelter, and safety.

{Carol Meyers, "‘Women of the Neighborhood’ (Ruth 4.17): Informal Female Networks in

Ancient Israel," in Ruth and Esther: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, (Sheffield, England:

Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 110-127. }

So she shares an intimate relational space with Boaz on the threshing floor. When Boaz awakes, he sees the intimate humanness of Ruth. Suddenly, leaving leftover grain doesn't feel like enough. Boaz leans into the shared love of marriage, pledging in a public covenant to care for Ruth.

As we move closer to each other, we realize that what we thought was enough care, enough donations, enough love, was not enough -- and we uncover our unending capacity to love more deeply.

My godparents had a cozy dining table. They say it is the table where the late Reverend Billy Graham spent many hours in food and conversation. When we sat there with my godparents, that table is just a little bit sacred – not just for Billy Graham but also for the loving presence of my godparents. Having sat at many cozy dining tables with friends and family, I understand the sacredness of a good, cozy table. Tables are where we draw closer to each other, binding our souls and spirits through food and conversation. We probably all remember moments where we draw closer, with deep friends at the sacred site of a good dining table.

As someone who is passionate about ethics and peacebuilding, I am deeply interested in how we come to care for each other and the natural world. In our capacity for empathy and loving intentions, we practice our choreography of love – responding to each other and living closer. As Ruth and Boaz choreograph a closer dance, we, like Naomi, know that good things are bound to happen.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote that God might be the in-between space of sacred relationship. Deep relationship is the opposite of disconnection.2 Disconnection is the fundamental fuel of destructive addictions that lead us to violence toward self, the environment, and others. Our work as peacebuilders is to follow footsteps of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, building sacred moments where we are fully present to one another.

# Argument

On its surface the book of Ruth doesn't look like much of an argument. Everyone gets along, individuals increasingly care for one another, and the story, unlike so many, actually has a happy ending. However, I want to play with the idea that when this book is set against passages from Genesis, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Nehemiah, and Ezra, Ruth is a radical argument for love and care over unfeeling interpretation of law and principle. Prior to Ruth, Jewish cultural norms seem to be pretty clear about what to do with a Moabite woman. The writers of Genesis describe Moabites as coming from the sinful union of Lot and his first-born daughter. Ezra tears his garments at hearing that Moabite women have joined with Jewish men. Nehemiah 13 calls for separation with foreigners, particularly those Moabites.

{2 Martin Buber, I and thou. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1970)}.

This story in Ruth seems to repeat at every possible paragraph that Ruth is a Moabite, making the argument more and more pointed.

Why would a story about a Moabite woman, who seemingly breaks every prohibition be placed alongside texts that are explicitly clear about Moabite women? Ruth and Naomi seem to be persistent troublemakers, walking across borders and breaking rules of contact.

Whether it be Job or Jacob, so many characters within the Jewish tradition wrestle and argue with God. The Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emphasizes the Jewish notion of "Mahloket l'shem shamayim" – translated “argument for the sake of heaven” or that the process of arguing leads us into deeper relationship with God.

3 What if Ruth is an argument of love and care against rules about Moabites in Ezra, Nehemiah, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? In many ways, Jesus lived out similar arguments as his care for children, widows, the sick, the lame, the tax collector, and the prostitute challenged the rules of the powerful. Jesus breathes life into hardened laws through love and care.

My educational hero, Nel Noddings advocates that a teacher’s most important job is to enter into caring relationships with students. Care is often at odds with unchanging principle and distanced, objective rule.4 We know that our deep love and care for children, spouses, parents, friends, and neighbors forever changes who we are. Our ability to change enlarges our care.

Maybe our work as Christians is moving closer to love, pain and joy, because when we know and are known through intimate love, we are all changed. Ruth’s close presence is an argument for her humanity. Naomi accurately predicts that once Ruth has moved that close to Baoz, he will be forever changed.

I wonder if the Widow at the offering plate in Mark 12 is a similar argument. The rich people are following principles of rational giving. They are also part of an economic system that leaves a widow with 1/64 of a typical day’s wages.5 But as the widow moves close to the collection plate, she gives all that she has. This feminine act of whole-hearted giving is an argument against rule and unjust difference. What a risk and a challenge to our well-ordered lives.

Can I accept the risk that I might be changed within arguments for love?

{3 Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, “Jewish women in peacebuilding: Embracing disagreement in the pursuit of ‘Shalom’,” in Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding: Illuminating the Unseen, ed.

Susan Hayward and Katherine Marshall (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press,2015), 113-126.

4 Nel Noddings, Caring: A relational approach to ethics and moral education. (Berkeley, CA:

University of California Press, 2013).

5 https://politicaltheology.com/a-widows-presence-mark-1238-44/

4# Sin and grace}

The Hebrew word of ḥesed lies at the heart of understanding the book of Ruth. ḥesed is steadfast “lovingkindness” that goes beyond the expected. It is a form of kindness that sets off a chain of good deeds. ḥesed is explicitly used three times in Ruth and is the implicit glue that holds the story together.

6 Ruth’s ḥesed is a “cumulative force” of kindness that brings restoration to two women who have lost a secure future. My favorite Irish poet, John O’Donohue personifies radical kindness as having “gracious eyes” and transforming vulnerability into “occasion[s] for dignity and empathy.” “Kindness,” he says “casts a different light, an evening light that has the depth of color and patience to illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.”7 The rich difference of Moabite and Israelite may be a prism of color fed by the evening light of shared love.

I believe that when I toss pebbles of ḥesed into our reflecting pool, these intentions set ripples of lovingkindness across space and time. When this is done in community, like the community of Ruth-Boaz-Naomi, ripples become waves, collectively transforming scarcity to abundance …. fear to love.

When I was at the Alliance for Peacebuilding conference two weeks ago, I entered the deep hope and grace within the amazing women and men who courageously build out love and care in Colombia, Syria, Yemen, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US, and Mexico. While we lament stories of hate, violence and fear, we believe there is always a larger community of ripplemakers than we realize.

Maybe Grace is moving closer. Maybe Grace is being embraced in the close and steadfast lovingkindness of ḥesed. And just like Ruth and Boaz, each move closer demands even more of us. Leaving out leftover grain becomes not enough, until we can do nothing less than give our whole selves.

If Sin is missing the mark, notice how the mark moves higher as we move closer. Sin needs intimate grace to set the bar higher.8 Sometimes I move closer, becoming intentional and vulnerable. Sometimes I move farther away through distraction or avoidance. How is our loving presence an “argument” against forces of hate, violence and exclusion? If Ruth, a destitute, widowed woman in a masculine world could transform the world this much and teach us this much about love, what can we do with the power of our intentions?

{6 Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth. (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011). 7 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings. (New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2008). 8 Shannon Craigo-Snell and Christopher J. Doucot, No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming An Ally in the Struggle for Justice. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).}

Ruth and the widow at the treasury are stories of loving acts in a sea of strangers and unfeeling rules. These stories illuminate Grace and love like a beacon in the night. On this 100th anniversary of armistice day, when we acknowledge the essential possibility of peace, acts of intimate caring illumine the best parts of ourselves, casting out fear of the stranger and turning every Moabite into a neighbor. Intimate ḥesed gives me hope. And because of faith, I choose to live in that hope. This is a beacon of light, the gathering strength of waves, the life-giving embrace of covenant, and the clink of an ordinary coin becoming a whole-hearted gesture.

Amen.

Blessing:

Hear the blessing within Irish verse of John O’Donohue:9

Awaken to the mystery of being

Enter the quiet immensity of your own presence

May intimacy journey you to that place where love, warmth, and feeling change us;

Respond to the call of your gift and the courage to follow its path;

Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention;

May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within;

May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and twilight are one;

May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.

9 O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.

Seeing Again For the First Time

Hebrews 7: 23-28         Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 10: 46-52              October 28, 2018

Then Jesus said to  him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Prayer:  Open our eyes, Lord that we may see, visions of truth you have for us.  Amen.

 I think we all have vision issues, of some sort, don’t you think?  Some more than others.  Just look around you.  Lots and lots of people wear glasses, and if they don’t, they wear contact lenses.  Some have color blindness—I know I have a mild case of red/green colorblindness, although Barb would beg to differ with me on ‘mild case’ part.  I’m just saying…  I tell her.  I say, “I see all the colors; I just don’t know their names!”  Yeah right.  Ask me later how that’s going for me!

But, she and I, and I suspect many of you who may be older…  we have what’s called ‘presbyopia.’  No, it’s not something only Presbyterians get… “presby” is Greek for elder/older, and “opia” is Greek for eye/sight.  So, presbyopia is when our vision slowly gets fuzzy as soon as we hit 40 or 50, and our arms get too short, and people make fun of us saying that they’ll hold the paper 10 feet away so we can read it!  You know you have presbyopia when your reading glasses are stashed all over the place—at home, at work, in the car, anywhere you read or need close up vision.

One thing I found though, is that in well-lit conditions, I can see clearly, close-up without my readers.  And, I got to thinking about that!  I love this idea!  Lots of light helps sharpen my vision and my focus.  It’s great for my vision.

 And catch this—lots of light—God’s light—is also great, metaphorically speaking, for sharper vision on our faith journeys.  Because the light of Christ, the presence and influence of God, the impact of the way of love—these points of God’s light help us see life clearly.  These help us grow out of whatever blindness we may have.  With the light of Christ, we can see our world, our lives, our contemporary issues in new ways.  We’re seeing again, fresh, as if for the first time.

With regards to our contemporary concerns, I invite you to consider Jesus’ question: “What do you want me to do for you?”  If Jesus were to ask us that question today, what would we answer?

As I said, we all have vision issues, more or less, I think.  We have different types of short-sightedness.  Obstinacy can make us short-sighted.  So can intolerance.  Narrowmindedness is a form of blindness.  One-sided thinking—“My way is the only way” mentality.  All are forms of vision issues.  We can’t see clearly when we have these. If Jesus were to ask us “What do you want me to do for you?”  could we say, “My teacher, let us see again?”  Could we persistently say, “O God, have mercy on us, for we do not see as you see.”

Funny thing about these kinds of blindness; we often don’t know that we have them.  We can get so used to our familiar ways, so used to life in our own little world, so comfortable with our privilege that when someone like a þ Bartimaeus shouts out, crying for God’s mercy, begging to “see” like everyone else sees, wanting to have a life that everyone else has—that person is sternly rebuked.  Oftentold to be quiet.  The crowd tried to put Bartimaeus back in his place on the socioeconomic sidelines.   I Call it socioecopia.  And, Bartimaeus cried out all the more when the crowd tried to silence him.

 In our day, the migrating group of thousands of people, heading north from Honduras through Mexico in search of a better life, fleeing a life of poverty, guerillas, gangs, and drug cartels, are told to turn back.  And, if they don’t, they will be met with military force.  When will we have an effective immigration policy?   I call this blindness borderopia.  And the voices of immigrants will cry out all the more.  Are people of faith in our nation’s leadership listening?

 In our day, we know we’ve got blindness because of the wide polarity in our public discourse.  We’ve lost the ability to engage in discourse that respects critical thinking and opposing points of view and dialogues and learns from them.   Instead, pipe bombs are made by somebody and mailed to people who disagree, effectively saying, “Silence your criticism, and if you don’t, you will be blown up. You will lose your life.”  I call this form of blindness critiqueopia.  And the voices of those wanting healthy dialogue in the public square are crying out!  Is anyone listening?

In our day, there are people living on the church’s margins—people of the LGBTQ community, people of different races and ethnicities, people of different socioeconomic status and backgrounds, all seeking a place to worship safely, wanting to love and be loved without judgement, needing to forgive and be forgiven, desperately craving to be who they are, crying out to God and praying that God’s representative on earth, the Church, would welcome them, would affirm them.  Only to be told in many churches, you must change in order to be here, you must not speak about “your cause”, or your problem. You must fit in the way we are.   I Call this blindness churchopia.  And the voices of those on the margins of church life cry out all the more! I encourage us at Christ Church, keep explaining what it means to be an all inclusive church. Let us keep listening!

 In our day, after years of searching archaeologists may have found the ruins of Nicaea, the famed, but lost city where the first Council of Nicaea met in 325 A.D to hammer out the Nicene Creed which declared that God and Jesus were both God, and also set the formula for Easter Sunday.  It’s going to be difficult to excavate because it’s under about 9 feet of water.

 And, similarly, in North Carolina, back in 2012, North Carolina’s own Coastal Resources Commission predicted that sea levels could rise as much as 39 inches in a century.  So, coastal developers, concerned that this prediction would hurt real estate values and drive up the cost of insurance, successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass a law that bans all policies based on that prediction.  Talk about blinders! I   call it climate-change-opia (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/12/north-carolina-didnt-like-science-on-sea-levels-so-passed-a-law-against-it, retrieved October 27, 2018).  And the voice of our planet earth is crying out all the more.  Are we listening?

And the list goes on...this mass shooting in Pittsburgh reveals, again, a gun control-opia. A blindness we have.

These I think are some examples of short-sightedness and blindness in our day, and  God never nurses them along.  God never encourages us to hold on to our prejudices, our blindspots, or our short-sightedness.  Instead I think God wants those to die out in us.  And, in their place, God wants the living Holy Spirit to live in us.  That’s God’s holy life, love, and values living in us, giving us new sight on all our contemporary issues and concerns.  Nothing of the old life, the old ways of seeing remain.  With new sight and new insight, we, like Bartimaeus, are encouraged to follow Jesus on “the way.”  God’s way.

So, when we hear of people crying out for the same privileges, the same access, the same way of life that many others share, I encourage us not to silence their voices, not to push them off, but to listen and dialogue with them.

 And, to do so with a persistent faith that God has the ability to make a difference in our blindness, to shed light into our lives helping us see again, maybe for the first time, the kind of life God desires all humanity to have.  It takes exactly that kind of faith to walk in the way, to see all of life again, always influenced by God’s light in us, always having our consciences stirred, to bring wholeness to ourselves, to those we love, and to our world.   Amen.

 

Servant Leadership

 Hebrews 5: 1-10          Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Mark 10: 35-45              October 21, 2018

“But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”

Prayer: Help us become great in your realm, O God.  Amen.

 To begin, I invite your responses to this question: Who said this?  “I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest!  I’m the greatest thing that ever lived.  I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old.  I must be the greatest.  I showed the world.  I talk to God everyday.  I know the real God.  I shook up the world; I’m the king of the world.  You must listen to me.  I am the greatest!  I can’t be beat!”

OK?  Who said that?  Anyone?  Yes!   Muhammed Ali!  One of the world’s greatest boxers who ever lived!  Excellent!  That was pretty easy, huh?

 OK.  Who said this?  “Wouldn’t it be a beautiful world if just 10 percent of the people who believe in the power of love would compete with one another to see who could do the most good for the most people?”

OK?  Who said that?  Anyone?  The two statements could hardly be more different, could they?  As I said, the first quote is Ali’s boyish bluster from 1964, just after he defeated Sonny Liston for the first time.  The second quote—is also from  Muhammed Ali, something he wrote in his autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly, in 2004, forty years later (https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040705, retrieved October 19, 2018).  Nice to know that some perspectives changed for Muhammed Ali over time.  I think Jesus was hopeful that the perspectives of the disciples would change, too… after all; it’s been quite some time since they dropped everything and began to follow him.  And, Jesus faithfully kept teaching them about God’s realm, about God’s ways that are often opposite to the ways of human beings.  Prior to this passage, Jesus just got done teaching them that the greatest in the kingdom of God were people who become like little children.  But, were they getting it?

 Evidently not.  Because when James and John approached Jesus, they still seemed to be holding onto old ideas about greatness, about having power, about having privilege and entitlement.  They wanted Jesus to do for them whatever they wanted, and in this case, their request was that they would have the top two spots in the eternal realm of glory after Jesus triumphed in victory and conquered the existing powers that be here on earth.

Wow!  There is so much that is off base with their request that Jesus remarks that they really don’t know what they’re asking.  After asking a few more questions about how willing they really were to follow him to Jerusalem and the inevitable, and after observing the anger from the other ten for James’ and John’s arrogance, Jesus takes advantage of the moment.  He calls them together, and once again, teaches them that glory in God’s kingdom doesn’t look like glory in the kingdoms of our world.  As his disciples, they are not to be like all other powers they know… with lording it over others, their prestige and position and the bullying that comes with all that.  Nope, they are to “transform the world, not from the top down, but from the bottom up.” (Taylor, Barbara Brown, Bread of Angels, “Trickle Up Effect,” Cowley Publications, 1997,  p. 45)  They are to become servants of all—servants of others are the greatest in God’s kingdom.

 

 Sing: If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be a servant of all.  If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be a servant of all.

The trouble is, we over-expect the greatness that comes from our present practices of privilege, power, and entitlement, and under-expect the greatness that comes from God’s grace found in servant leadership.  The political culture these days has totally lost sight of what greatness is from God’s point of view.  God’s sovereign grace is underestimated in its power to transform, to bring peace, to cultivate new leaders.

 What do servant-leaders look like?  They are people who  embrace both concepts of serving others by serving Someone greater and beyond themselves.  In a spiritual community, no leader gets privilege, no leader cuts the line; no leader gets in first or takes the best seat.  Whoever wants to be a leader must be a servant to all the rest.  A true spiritual leader serves first, and by serving leads... through example.  They are people who understand the importance of awareness, listening, empathy and building community.  They understand that it isn’t about me; it’s about you.

 William Cohen, a researcher in business is quoted as saying, “My research debunks the myth that many people seem to have ... that you become a leader by fighting your way to the top.  Rather, you become a leader by helping others to the top (Cohen, William: The stuff of Heroes: The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership, quoted on the Trinity Western University Web site, twu.ca/Leadership/sl_quotes.asp. Retrieved April 9, 2003, https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=3201, retrieved October 19, 2018).

 So, I wonder if this becomes our chance to discover our true humanity, by serving others promoting their greatness.  “Servant leadership I think means we have an ability to relate, cooperate, combine and create with God, with one another, and ourselves.  This requires us to understand one another, empathize with one another, seek the well-being of one another and love one another as we love ourselves” (Wells, Sam, Faith Matters, “An Economist Bears Witness,” Christian Century, October 10, 2018, p. 35).  Such is the way to be fully human.  Such is the way to be fully in the seat of glory.  Such is the way to transform lives.

I want to affirm our Servant Leaders in our congregation and in our community.  There are way to many to list, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to call out names.  But, let me say that many of you servant leaders come to our church on any given day; you come here to do ministry.

 You come here to worship, to sing praise, to help others lift their voices in song, to practice faith, writing liturgy, using gifts and talents.   You don’t do this for personal praise, but instead for the One who is worthy of our praise.  I praise God for your servant leadership.When you come here and lead others in worship.

 You come here and teach our kids and youth.  You help form faith.  You teach, you coach, you mentor, you cheer lead, you socialize.  you love without fanfare, without seeking glory, without demanding payment.  I praise God for your servant leadership in forming faith in all our people.

 You come here doing mission and outreach, gathering and sorting diapers for needy children.  You volunteer at the winter shelter, sometimes staying overnight assisting homeless people.   You put soup together for hungry people who come here in need.  Or meals together for those in Lancaster.  You go to parts of our nation devastated by disasters.  Or internationally to assist with orphans and children.  There is no “look at me, I’m doing this ministry” attitude.  Nope.  You just serve God by serving others.  You lift others up.  You strengthen the community.  You do it without calling attention to yourself. praise God for your servant leadership in mission and outreach.

You come here to work on our property and tend to our building concerns.  You come here to beautify our grounds, to wash our windows, to repair our dings and scratches.  No one seeks out recognition, but know this, all your ministry is appreciated.  I praise God for your servant leadership in our building, facilities, and our grounds.

 You come here to work on administrative details, handling money, raising and managing our financial resources, making policy decisions, working with our staff, working with me.  You come here and do this ministry without expectations of glory, without wanting to sit at the top spots. I praise God for your servant leadership in the administration of our ministry.

You come here with open hearts and open minds, welcoming all with a deep sense of hospitality.  You see someone you don’t know and you introduce yourselves.  You publicly practice our motto  “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!”  Because of you, the person seeking a safe place to worship, a place to grow in faith, a place to practice God’s extravagant love, a place to be loved extravagantly, a place of community without judgment—because of you that seeking person IS here.  That person is welcomed here, that person is loved here.  I thank God for your servant leadership in the ministry of hospitality.

 And you do all this not because you want to earn a place in Jesus’ glory, but because Jesus already earned that place for you.  Because his work of giving his life has touched your heart.  Because Jesus made you his.  He came not to be served as the Messiah, but as the Messiah, he came to serve, to give his life that we would know greatness in the realm of God.  I praise God for your servant leadership and I praise God for Jesus’ servant leadership.

 Sing with me... If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.  If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.  Amen.

 

Seeing Deeply

Mark 10: 13-16            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12             October 7, 2018

“God… in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

Prayer:  Holy God, may your word through scripture and through our consciences reveal deeper truths to us today.  Amen.

 Eighty-five years ago, in 1933, Rev. Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA had the idea of World Communion Sunday.  It was Dr. Kerr and the Shadyside congregation’s attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—one in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information—about how each person is in a relationship with God, how each person carries the image of God within, and to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is globally, how each congregation is interconnected, one with another.  In 1936, the whole US Presbyterian Church adopted the practice of celebrating World Communion,  and in 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) endorsed World Communion Sunday as the 1st Sunday in October and began to promote it to Christian churches worldwide (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Communion_Sunday, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadyside_Presbyterian_Church, retrieved October 5, 2018).

 Sounds like those purposes for World Communion Sunday could be applied to  Jesus’s ministry, don’t you think?  Jesus wanted to have every person know and cherish  a personal relationship with God.  He recognized how each person carried the image of God within.  And, he wanted the people of his faith community to know how interconnected they were—interconnected by a fierce, holy and divine love that God had for every one of them.  Jesus knew God loves each person, the way a child is loved by a parent.   And, he would suffer and die to make that point real, and save us from ourselves and from having a life without God’s grace in it.

 So, as he ministered to the people of his day, Jesus stood up for those whom his society tended to disregard, those who were disempowered.  He reached out to them, touched them, healed them, ate with them.  Because these were people whom society did not affirm.  They were not treated as children made in God’s image, or made a little lower than the angels.  These were people whom society did not care to be interconnected with because they were not among the powerful, the privileged, not among the widely accepted. But Jesus knew they were divinely accepted and loved by God.

 Take children, for example.  In Jesus’ day, children had limited rights and no voice.  They were property.  Take women, for another example.   Women had limited rights and limited voice compared to most adult men.  The passage immediately prior to this one is about divorce—in Jesus’ day, divorced women could simply be cast aside by the men as they would a discard piece of property.  The women were often left on their own, without resources and were outcasts.

 Jesus also reached to other marginalized people—prostitutes, tax collectors, those mentally ill and physically disabled or inured.  All of these people were not interconnected with the mainstream, their humanity unseen, to say nothing of God’s image seen in them.  But, they were all children of God.

 Now, more than two thousand years later, we are in a cultural crisis that challenges whether or not the beliefs of world Communion Sunday and Jesus’ ministry can continue and be sustained.

 It’s good we worship God in Christ affirming the belief that all people are made in God’s image.  It’s good to honor that all people are children of God interconnected, one with another, by a holy, divine love of God, and, yes, it is important that we share Christ’s meal today with this in mind.

 And yet, these beliefs are challenged because in our day, children still are being separated from their parents at the southern border of our nation.  In our day, in cities and towns, people are shot each and every day.  In our day, those on society’s periphery are told by the powerful to be quiet.   In our day, people of the #MeToo movement are told to bury the abuse and mistreatment, and just go along.  If a person claiming abuse does speak up, there is disbelief, mocking, or they’re told to grow up.  In our day, people of the “Black Lives Matter” movement are told that “all lives matter,” which is true, but “all lives matter” has not been practiced for centuries, nor is it practiced now.

 I suggest that while today’s recognition of Christians around the world is good, and our affirmation that all are made in God’s image is wonderful, and we are interconnected with each other is powerful—I suggest that  the strength of our words today pales in comparison with the strength of those whose suffering has spurred them into action.  Those who are fighting in the trenches for equality and for justice.  Those vulnerable to the ridicule and non-acceptance—these are the ones whose efforts magnify our beliefs.  They are the ones who put actions on the words of faith.  Their suffering in the hard work of seeking justice mirrors the One who suffered through his hard work of perfecting salvation, the One whom God made as the Savior for all God’s children, the pioneer of our salvation, whose suffering made perfect the plan of God that all the children of God are to be in the center of God’s realm both here on earth and in the world to come.

I think it is for us then to take from those who suffer, indeed from Christ himself, a new and dedicated resolve to stop practicing customs and traditions that oppress and disempower, and start living the truth in love and faithful living, so that this faith and these beliefs shown in the foundations of Jesus’ ministry and in the origins of World Communion Sunday would never end.  May God help us. Amen.

 

The Children's Savior

Mark 10: 13-16            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12             October 7, 2018

“God… in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

Prayer:  Holy God, may your word through scripture and through our consciences reveal deeper truths to us today.  Amen.

 Eighty-five years ago, in 1933, Rev. Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA had the idea of World Communion Sunday.  It was Dr. Kerr and the Shadyside congregation’s attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—one in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information—about how each person is in a relationship with God, how each person carries the image of God within, and to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is globally, how each congregation is interconnected, one with another.  In 1936, the whole US Presbyterian Church adopted the practice of celebrating World Communion,  and in 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) endorsed World Communion Sunday as the 1st Sunday in October and began to promote it to Christian churches worldwide (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Communion_Sunday, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadyside_Presbyterian_Church, retrieved October 5, 2018).

 Sounds like those purposes for World Communion Sunday could be applied to  Jesus’s ministry, don’t you think?  Jesus wanted to have every person know and cherish  a personal relationship with God.  He recognized how each person carried the image of God within.  And, he wanted the people of his faith community to know how interconnected they were—interconnected by a fierce, holy and divine love that God had for every one of them.  Jesus knew God loves each person, the way a child is loved by a parent.   And, he would suffer and die to make that point real, and save us from ourselves and from having a life without God’s grace in it.

 So, as he ministered to the people of his day, Jesus stood up for those whom his society tended to disregard, those who were disempowered.  He reached out to them, touched them, healed them, ate with them.  Because these were people whom society did not affirm.  They were not treated as children made in God’s image, or made a little lower than the angels.  These were people whom society did not care to be interconnected with because they were not among the powerful, the privileged, not among the widely accepted. But Jesus knew they were divinely accepted and loved by God.

 Take children, for example.  In Jesus’ day, children had limited rights and no voice.  They were property.  Take women, for another example.   Women had limited rights and limited voice compared to most adult men.  The passage immediately prior to this one is about divorce—in Jesus’ day, divorced women could simply be cast aside by the men as they would a discard piece of property.  The women were often left on their own, without resources and were outcasts.

 Jesus also reached to other marginalized people—prostitutes, tax collectors, those mentally ill and physically disabled or inured.  All of these people were not interconnected with the mainstream, their humanity unseen, to say nothing of God’s image seen in them.  But, they were all children of God.

 Now, more than two thousand years later, we are in a cultural crisis that challenges whether or not the beliefs of world Communion Sunday and Jesus’ ministry can continue and be sustained.

 It’s good we worship God in Christ affirming the belief that all people are made in God’s image.  It’s good to honor that all people are children of God interconnected, one with another, by a holy, divine love of God, and, yes, it is important that we share Christ’s meal today with this in mind.

 And yet, these beliefs are challenged because in our day, children still are being separated from their parents at the southern border of our nation.  In our day, in cities and towns, people are shot each and every day.  In our day, those on society’s periphery are told by the powerful to be quiet.   In our day, people of the #MeToo movement are told to bury the abuse and mistreatment, and just go along.  If a person claiming abuse does speak up, there is disbelief, mocking, or they’re told to grow up.  In our day, people of the “Black Lives Matter” movement are told that “all lives matter,” which is true, but “all lives matter” has not been practiced for centuries, nor is it practiced now.

 I suggest that while today’s recognition of Christians around the world is good, and our affirmation that all are made in God’s image is wonderful, and we are interconnected with each other is powerful—I suggest that  the strength of our words today pales in comparison with the strength of those whose suffering has spurred them into action.  Those who are fighting in the trenches for equality and for justice.  Those vulnerable to the ridicule and non-acceptance—these are the ones whose efforts magnify our beliefs.  They are the ones who put actions on the words of faith.  Their suffering in the hard work of seeking justice mirrors the One who suffered through his hard work of perfecting salvation, the One whom God made as the Savior for all God’s children, the pioneer of our salvation, whose suffering made perfect the plan of God that all the children of God are to be in the center of God’s realm both here on earth and in the world to come.

I think it is for us then to take from those who suffer, indeed from Christ himself, a new and dedicated resolve to stop practicing customs and traditions that oppress and disempower, and start living the truth in love and faithful living, so that this faith and these beliefs shown in the foundations of Jesus’ ministry and in the origins of World Communion Sunday would never end.  May God help us. Amen.

 

Faith Growing Pains

James 5: 13-20             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 9: 38-50  September 30, 2018

“If any of you put a stumbling block...”

Prayer:  Holy One, may your word enlighten us with your wisdom and clarity for our faith journeys.  Amen.

Sometimes life throws moments at us when we have to choose between two difficult choices.  This past week all of America was subject to the difficult choice the US Senate Judiciary committee has to make, namely whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court should go to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote or not.  It’s difficult because on the one hand, he’s had a stellar judicial career which some say make him fit to be a justice on the Supreme Court.  But on the other hand, serious accusations of sexual misconduct from thirty years ago from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford have surfaced without corroboration that not only question the judge’s fitness as a Supreme Court Justice, but if they are true and he’s lying about them, the lying by itself many say, makes him unfit to serve on our highest court in the land.

Now, an FBI probe supposedly is started, and we might get to the bottom of it, but honestly, I think we, the American public will never know what really happened way back then.  So, the choice is to have a good judge on the Supreme Court with his reputation ruined and his credibility in question, or to have a bad judge on the Court who looks good on the surface, but has lied his way to the top.  Or, go back to the drawing board.  Some choices, huh?  Either way, it feels like a choice between having chronic lung disease or chronic heart disease, and we, as Americans, are poorer for it.

Our scripture from Mark has Jesus teaching about making difficult choices regarding certain stumbling blocks to our faith growth or to the faith growth in others.   Sometimes we have affinities, interests, even good things in our lives that can cause us to stumble or could cause others to stumble.  Jesus says, “Cut those things off.”  Our hands, feet, eyes… all good things.  But, Jesus says, if they lead you or another person to a shortage of faith, or life without God, cut them off!  If they lead you to spiritual unhealthiness, cut it out.  Some choice, huh?  Cutting off good things, which can bevery painful, or a hellish life without God.

Of course, Jesus does not mean we should be into self-mutilation. It’s metaphorical! He is talking about the hard, painful emotional and intellectual work of detaching ourselves from anything we’ve grown so accustomed to but can be stumbling blocks to faith growth.  These might need emotional and intellectual surgery.  Work done in the head and heart.

 He gives some examples which have applicability for us.  Like when Jesus’ disciples were being exclusive.  They tried to stop someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name because this exorcist was not part of their exclusive little group.  Jesus rebukes them saying “Don’t stop the healer!  Whoever is not against us is for us.”  The disciple’s exclusivism was an obstacle. It got in the way of the healer and those being healed from finding and having God in their lives.  Jesus essentially said, “Cut off your exclusivism.  It’s starving the power of my name in them.” That is one powerful reason why I am so encouraging of us becoming an all-inclusive church.

If someone from another ethnicity, another sexual orientation, or level of intelligence, or level of privilege, or another country, or another race comes here starving for God, is filled with anxiety and fear of not being accepted, has a faith that is barely hanging on, if someone like that comes through our doors and gets the feeling that our church is exclusively for the majority of participants here and not for them, Jesus says basically that it is better for us if we didn’t exist at all.  Exclusivity in a church can be a serious stumbling block for someone else’s faith growth.

 Change is not easy, especially if you’ve been loyal to the exclusive ways all your life.  If you’ve been allegiant to purity and orthodoxy in practice, changing can be struggle.  Old habits die hard.  Even when you want to change, and you try to change, and old way crops back up, it’s painful.

I praise God that we are working hard to emotionally and intellectually cut off whatever exclusive attitudes and perceptions, whatever narrowmindedness and limited understanding we grew accustomed to over the generations, and grow more deeply in our inclusivity in every way possible.  In our attitudes, our words, our perceptions.

Maybe that’s what Jesus means by the statement “If your eye causes you to stumble…”   If the way you see life, if your perception takes you to an unhealthy place, maybe your eye-perspective needs to be cut out.  If you see yourself as a victim all the time, for example.  Or, if we get caught up in societal form of justice as punitive only, so much so that forgiveness doesn’t stand a chance.  Or, if your perspective on life takes you to deep cynicism, or deep hatred, maybe all those should be torn out.  Because if we’re swept up in this thing called the gospel of Jesus Christ, might our perspectives have to change accordingly? Might open an emotional and intellectual surgery in us?

 Last summer a man by the name of Ken Parker participated in that infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.  A former grand dragon of the KKK, he had joined a Nazi group after concluding that the KKK wasn’t hateful enough.  Can you imagine?  But, over the past year, his perspectives got torn out and started to change as he got to know his African American neighbor, Rev. William McKinnon III, pastor at All Saints Holiness Church in Jacksonville, Florida.  And guess what?  In early August, one year later,  Pastor McKinnon baptized Ken Parker in All Saints Holiness Church (Century Marks, The Christian Century, September 12, 2018, p. 8). Ken Parker’s old perspective was torn out.  A new life spirit was growing in its place.  Thank God.

 Of course, we can examine other things in our personal lives that actually starve the life of God’s spirit in us.  Addictions to alcohol, drugs, power, sex, money, illicit relationships, even co-dependency (which is an addiction to helping others) can cause sinful behavior by those things influencing our behaviors so much that we secretly make them god with a little “g.”  And, they actually tear apart our relationship with the real God and starve the life of God in us as well as in others around us.  Jesus says, “Cut them off.  It is painful to cut off that which you love, but it’s better to have the life of God nourished and thriving in you without those things than to have those things and be dead on the inside.

The process isn’t usually a pleasant one.  It hurts to have things torn from us, to have the bottle taken out of our hands, to have bad relationships come  to an end, to have the way we see ourselves and the our church and world change.  God’s spirit brings to our consciousness the places where we need to cut, not to exercise power over us or to punish us with the pain, …but to free us.

When we go through the sometimes painful faith growth, the good news of the gospel is that God’s grace comes every time we “cut off’ that which takes us away from God, or that which harms healthy relationships with each other.  Some alcoholics have said that they feared cutting off the alcohol thinking they would surely die without it, when in fact,  cutting it our and going without is exactly what freed them. That’s what gave them new life!  That’s God’s grace.

Facing the person who has wronged you, or if you’ve wronged someone, seeking reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness may be painful, it may have far-reaching consequences out of your control, but that’s the beginning of freedom, of healing and grace, of restoration.  You start to feel free from the pain, or free from the guilt, or from the burden on your shoulders.

Which takes me back to the Senate Judiciary hearings.  I can’t help but wonder… if the events of thirty years ago are true, what would happened if Judge Kavanaugh upon hearing  the accusations, privately, and publicly, went immediately to Dr. Ford and said, “I need to tell you, I’m very sorry for the way I treated you back in college.  My actions were disrespectful and intolerable.  Please forgive me.  I take full responsibility for my actions.  And if I am not voted in on the Supreme Court because of it, so be it.”  And what if, upon hearing that apology Dr. Ford said, “I forgive you and am thankful for your apology.”  What would happen if that kind of conversation would have taken place? I’m not so naive to think that would ever happen in our society.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a person on the Supreme Court that is not perfect, but has developed integrity through the painful, difficult work of confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

Or, if the events are not true, and the whole incident 30 years ago is either a hoax or case of mistaken identity, what would it be like if Dr. Ford fessed up and said, “I’m sorry, I have my facts mixed up.  I take full responsibility for my error.”  And what if Judge Kavanaugh accepted such an apology?  That too, would be a place for new life, new grace, reconciliation and restoration to take place. Again I’m not so naïve to think that would ever happen in our day and age.

Here’s what makes sense to me.  Faith growth sometimes is painful.  But God’s grace is always present.  Being a Christian doesn’t mean being squeaky clean.  It does mean that some things we hang on to actually do us and others harm.  But, with wisdom, power and love, God will speak through the spirit in our spirit, in our conscience, with our moral compass to help us know what things need to be cut out.  And, God will work into us the grace that heals and restores and frees us.  And, we may have scars, but we’re healed.  We do not live with the illusion of perfection, but  we live with real life, with God’s life living in us. And, we will be much better for it.

Amen.

 

The Divine Journey

Psalm 1             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Jeremiah 11: 18-20             September 23, 2018

Mark 9: 30-.37

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Prayer:  God, on this journey of faith, may we be deeply in touch with you always.  Amen.

 This past week my brother in Illinois called in.  We chatted mostly about his job as a police officer.  He painted me a frightening picture that made pray for him and all cops working in the world of drug enforcement.  In his little small town in Illinois, he and his officers put themselves in harm’s way all the time.  They have undercover officers trying to buy and sell drugs in order to infiltrate the underground world of drug sales.  He told me about different levels of undercover police activity that he and his fellow officers engage in—(and what I’m telling you is only the tip of the iceberg—he told me so much!).  It starts with what’s called a “buy/walk” which means an undercover officer goes to a drug dealer intending to buy the drugs (crystal meth) and walk out with no further action.  It helps to gain the trust of the drug dealers.  One transaction. No arrest. They do that a few times until they’re ready to go the next step which is to arrest the dealer and go to jail, or become a “CS” or a “confidential source.”  As a CS, a person starts working for the police taking them to another dealer, distributors, etc. trying to gain more and more undercover access, going to higher and higher levels, each one becoming more dangerous.  Eventually, through several steps, the DEA gets involved on the higher levels, and officers get closer to the head of the snake, the cartels, where sometimes big “sting” operations may take place.

It’s a dangerous business.  A terrifying world.  A bunch of guys going down the dangerous path in order to get the upside, the good of making the world a safer, healthier place.  Our chat made me much more appreciate the work he does and the work of tens of thousands of police officers everywhere.

 Our chat also reminded me that in the world of faith growth, on our spiritual journeys the concept is often true. The way down is often the way up. 

All three of our biblical texts give us food to ponder on this idea.   Psalm 1 identifies the path of righteousness compared with the path of wickedness.  On our journeys, we’re invited to ground ourselves in God and be like trees planted by a stream of water.  Have faith that God watches over us on our journey of righteousness.

 Jeremiah goes a step further.  He says that grounded in way of righteousness sometimes will mean doing the righteous thing in God’s eyes which may be totally crazy in our eyes.  The servant of God, referencing the Messiah, will go on God’s journey, out of comfort zones, facing devised schemes, facing danger, “like a lamb led to slaughter,”… but, the servant goes with commitment to God, knowing God is present… knowing God has a divine purpose…  knowing that sometimes God’s path down is the way up.

Of course, we as Christians read the gospels and believe that Jeremiah’s depiction of the Servant Messiah now comes true in Jesus.  þ Jesus, walking and talking with his disciples tells them for the second time that his journey takes him down the path of betrayal and death.  But paradoxically, that is the way up, because after three days, there will be resurrection.  After three days, new life.  Not just for Jesus, but his death and resurrection magnifies much more profoundly the resurrection power God always had, but now becomes much more real.  Much more tangible.

So, Jesus’ way down into betrayal and death leads to our way up—salvation and life.  This is the divine journey.  It leads to new life, new hope as we face our problems.  It can lead to an energized, determined spirit that responds to injustice, or sparks a righteous defiance of evil in the world.

 In 1970, Yale University held a gathering of leading black jazz musicians raising money for a department of African-American music.  Musicians such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Mary Lou Williams, and others gathered for three days.  During a performance, some  person unhappy with their presence, called in a bomb threat.  Police attempted to clear the building, but Charles Mingus refused to leave, remaining onstage with his big string bass.  He said, “Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain’t strong enough to kill this music.  If I’m going to die, I’m ready.  But I’m going out playing ‘Sophisticated lady!’  And Mingus’ defiant music filled the space with passion and protest, and hope and life  in the face of danger and evil. (Ramsey, Mark, “What if Jesus Meant All This Stuff?” Journal for Preachers, vol. XLI, No. 4, Pentecost 2018, p. 23).

 The journey of righteousness that goes through the struggle but has a purpose of revealing God’s resurrection power is a divine journey.  It can create for us a new positive attitude based on trusting God, no matter what the “out of comfort zones’ God may take us to.  It leads us to a transformation of heart, mind, and spirit, which takes us to care for the under-privileged, the under-represented, the under-included, the under-accepted.

 I like the story Dr. Wil Willimon tells (he’s the former chaplain for Duke University and bishop in the United Methodist Church).  When he was a bishop of several UMC churches in Alabama, he went to one of the churches that served breakfast to homeless people every morning.   He recognized a man in the kitchen washing dishes, up to his elbows in dishwater.  He was a lawyer and a member of the largest, most affluent congregation in the city.  Willimon said to the lawyer, “I think it’s wonderful you are here washing dishes for the homeless.”  “Good for you,” he mumbled not looking up from his work.  “Have you always enjoyed ministry with the homeless?”  “Who told you I enjoyed working with the homeless?  Have you met any of the homeless out there?  Most of them are crazy, or so addicted, or messed up; that nobody, not even their family wants them home.”  Willimon stuttered a bit, “Well, I, uh, er, I… that’s all the more remarkable what you are here doing.  How did you get here?” The man looked up from the dishwasher and said, “I’m here because Jesus put me here.  How did you get here” (Ramsey, Mark, “What if Jesus Meant All This Stuff?” Journal for Preachers, vol. XLI, No. 4, Pentecost 2018, p. 23)?

That’s a good question for each of us, I think.  Because if we’re on the divine journey, it’s a God-centered journey.  And, we got here because God calls us here.  God’s purposes are enacted through us…

And, Jesus’ call to care for the least of these puts us at places like dishwasher sinks, like the serving tables at First Reformed Church in Lancaster.  Those of you going to First Reformed Church Tuesday, know that you’re going not to win points with God but you’re going because Jesus’ call puts you there.  You’re on a divine, God-centered journey of faith.

þ And Jesus’ call to those joining our church today or if you’re considering joining us in the future, know that we’re a church that strives to be on this divine journey.  It sometimes takes us to a defiant righteousness against evil and wrong.  It sometimes takes out of our comfort zones and into places where there is great need, and even possibly into danger sometimes.

But, we’re committed to God’s cause, God’s ministry in this place.  And believe me, the divine journey always takes us closer to God’s heart. It always takes us to a deeper relationship with God.  And it always gives us wonderful opportunities to see God’s resurrection power at work, even if it means going through the ringer sometimes to see it!  Thanks be to God!

Let us be quiet and reflect upon this message.

Amen.

 

Source of Wisdom

 Mark 8: 27-38             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Isaiah 50: 4-9a             September 16, 2018

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.  Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.  The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.”

Prayer:  Lord, this is my desire, to honor you.  So, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.  Amen.

 I love Children’s Moments during worship, don’t you?  So many times, the kids are just totally themselves.  One time, years ago, a pastor was leading the Children’s Moment, and he asked the question, “What’s brown, has a bushy tail, eats nuts, and lives in the trees?”  Hands shot up, and the pastor called on a little guy near the back of the group.  He said, “I think the answer’s a squirrel, but I’m going to say, ‘Jesus!’” (https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/btl_display.asp?installment_id=93040593, retrieved September 14,2018).  Well-trained!  God, Jesus, Love, all standard Children’s Moment answers!

 And, of course, if I ask you, “What’s the greatest source of wisdom you have in your lives?” your standard answer is going to be God, Jesus, Love, right?  Right!

Because it’s true.  God’s wisdom is found in Proverbs.  The Psalms.  The Prophets.  All throughout the Bible.  Jesus is God’s wisdom in the flesh.  His words were God’s wisdom spoken.  His life was God’s wisdom lived out.

Love is God’s wisdom in verbal and action form.  Remember what Rev. Emily Heath said (I shared this with you a few Sundays ago…) “As we move forward [in life], we must choose our own next right steps.  The greatest commandment becomes our guide, even in the scariest of [moments].   When you are unsure, remember this: if the next step you take is done in love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self—it will always be the right one” (Heath, Emily, Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear, Pilgrim Press, 2017, p. 146). Good wisdom!

But, sometimes we have trouble accessing the greatest source of wisdom in our lives.  Often, prior to going to God, Jesus, or Love, we turn to what society says.  What culture says.  What common sense says.  What is trending.  What’s in favor, what’s not.  What the general consensus is.

 When Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” he’s asking what people are believing about him.  Are the people believing the rumors in the community that he is John the Baptist returned from the dead?  Or, Elijah reincarnated?  Or one of the prophets? Many are saying, “yeah.”

It’s easy to go along with what the general public says, isn’t it?  We see that in our world all the time.  Ever since 9/11, we saw a large rise in society’s belief that all Muslims are terrorists.  Thankfully, I think that has settled back a bit, but make no mistake, it’s still there.

 But, when Jesus asks “Who do YOU say that I am?” it’s a question of whether or not the disciples have chosen to turn to him.  Turning to him means not turning to the culture’s belief.  Not trusting a reputation, not putting faith in the rumors.   All those are resources, not THE source.  He’s asking whether or not they are choosing to listen to THE source of wisdom—God’s Spirit within their hearts, or to something else?

Peter is the first one to answer— “You are the Messiah!”  Matthew’s version has Jesus responding saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven! (Matthew 16:17).  Jesus saw Peter not relying on worldly sentiments, but on the source of holy wisdom coming from the Spirit’s work being done in him.

But, even so, divine wisdom often will contrast worldly values.  Contrary to our liking, God will sometimes take us to places where we don’t want to go.   When Jesus begins to teach that he will soon face suffering, Peter can’t stand it.  “God forbid it, Lord!” he says to Jesus in Matthew’s version.  “This must never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22).  One moment Peter’s connected to God’s wisdom, the next, not so much.  Isn’t that true for all of us at times?

But, Jesus, perceiving that his disciples were watching and learning from him, calls Peter on this, telling him that he is an Adversary (Satana) to God’s wisdom, that he has set his mind on human thinking, and to get behind him.  Take note—the verb in Greek for “behind” is the same word as “follow” in the next verse ὀπίσω: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and [get behind and] follow me, or come after me.”

In other words, Peter is encouraged not so much to get behind and out of Christ’s way, but more to get behind him, get in step with him, and follow after him. Jesus tells the disciples to take up their cross and go with what he is teaching and doing. 

We are encouraged to do the same—take up our cross and get behind, get in step,  and follow in Christ’s wisdom. These words are by Christ who has been given the tongue of a teacher.

 Christians believe that Isaiah’s words foretell the coming of Christ.  The words predict the Messiah to be a faithful servant who is nurtured by God, taught by God, gifted by God, whose source of wisdom is God and is continuously learning from God.  And, the faithful servant doesn’t turn away from following God’s will, even if adverse.

Isaiah’s words can be our words.   God is our source of wisdom.  We are encouraged us to turn to God—morning by morning.  Each day, we are encouraged to let God teach us.  Day by day we can let God open our ears of understanding.  Can we let God take us to places that, with our inner consciousness stirred by the Spirit, we would not turn away, but we would act in that moment, tapping into our source of wisdom, which is believing in the power of the gospel?   The wisdom of the gospel is that it has the power to identify life’s brokenness, invite change and restoration, and foster forgiveness and joy, and creates a freeing, deeper communion with God, with new life, even if it brings adversity at times… because we follow Christ and his wisdom.

 I was intrigued by an event that happened in Washington D.C. last month on the anniversary of that horrific marchon Charlotte.  Apparently, the D. C. Metro system planned to provide special trains to get white supremacists to a Unite the Right rally on the Mall.  The Metro said it was trying to avoid trouble on the trains.  But, the Metro’s largest union objected strongly to the plan, whose members were mostly people of color.  The union president of Local 689 Jackie Jeter said, “Local 689 is proud to provide transit to everyone for the many events we have in D.C.  We draw the line at giving special accommodation to hate groups and hate speech.”  The pressure grew from there and became strong enough that the Metro canceled its plans for separate trains (Century Marks, The Christian Century, August 29, 2018, p. 8). And, only a handful of white supremacists gathered for the rally.

Do you think that was a moment when the inner conscience of the union president was stirred?  She invited change and restoration by facing an example of life’s brokenness.  And acting on behalf of others, she did not turn away from the moment.  I believe in that moment, an opportunity for many people to have a deeper communion with God occurred because when something right occurs, God is in it.  When new life occurs, God is in it.   That’s the power of the gospel, the power of new life happening outside the church, no less.

 The power of the gospel to lead people to new life through repentance, grace, forgiveness, acceptance and love has to be learned and practiced in our homes and inside our church first, though… these are the workshops where we learn where our source of wisdom is.  God in Christ as our source of wisdom occurs when we say grace around our dining room tables.  when night when saying prayers with our kids.   And, right here, within our sanctuary, within our Faith Formation rooms, within our Consistory, commission, and committee meetings and the ministry we do— these places are where we learn to practice our faith so that all can live in the gospel’s wisdom of truth and hope and redeeming love.

 In a few moments, we are going to install our Faith Formation teachers and shepherds and Commission members into their respective ministries as part of our Faith Formation program.  This calling to serve our children, youth, and adults, to help them to know where their source of wisdom is, to help them increase the love of God and neighbor, to help them have open ears and hearts, to help them live in the truth of God’s power of the gospel for new life—this calling is a most profound calling.  Our teachers, our shepherds, our youth advisors, our helpers, all have the tongue of a teacher… all can sustain those of us who are learners, those who are weary, those of us who choose to tap into our source of wisdom.  All know where the source of their wisdom is.  And like any good teacher, all know that they are also learners, too.   God awakens each one of them in ways unique to them, helping them to learn more, helping them to discern how they will teach and form faith in others.  How they will inspire learners to reach out and practice the gospel alongside them.

So, let’s pray for our Faith Formation people… every one of them.  Let’s pray that they will help us to form deeper faith, to help us navigate the waters of life.  Let’s pray that they will forever inspire us to turn to God, Jesus, and Love as our best and only sources of real wisdom.  Let us pray that they might lead us to practice our faith so that, as we read and hear the news, as we see life and death occurring all around us, we might not turn away from the moment, but instead will be the people who trust in God, who speak words of the truth of the gospel, who invite people to move out of comfort zones, and witness to the power and the love of Christ.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

275th Anniversary Sermon

James 2: 1-10, 14-17    Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 7: 31-37  September 9, 2018

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Prayer:  God of all our years, God of our present day, God of our future, may the richness of our legacy handed to us inspire our faith in you.  In Christ we pray, Amen.

I say again… Happy Anniversary, Christ Church! We celebrate 275 years of ministry!  275 years of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.  275 years of amplifying, magnifying, evangelizing, revitalizing God’s Good News for all, God’s resurrection power, God’s redemptive work, God’s love and grace—For ALL!   For 275 years we sought to live out the purpose of the Christian Church, which is to increase the love of God and neighbors and ourselves.  What a legacy!  So, we celebrate! Yay!

That word ‘legacy’ should have new meaning for us today.  It first of all implies our “past” heritage.  Indeed, in the first part of our worship today was about “Remembering our Past.”  We heard music from centuries ago.  We spoke ancient liturgy from scripture.  We sang hymns written even long before the beginnings of Christ Church.  It all reminds us of what ministry we’ve done, where we’ve been, what gifts we’ve left behind for others to use, and what gifts we’ve brought so that God’s love is increased.

Let me remind us again that the voices of Christ Church’s past gift-givers are Stillspeaking to us today when we use their gifts… for example, when we spent money on this year’s summer concert series, when we look at our choirs with beautiful robes, when we hear the bells of our Carillon choir, we are really hearing the voice of Martha Seibert who wanted her gift to be spent on music that gives glory to God right here at Christ Church.

When we hear Justin play the organ, or Ray, or Nancy, we are really hearing the voices of Edna and Jeannette Barnes because they gifted Christ Church with this instrument.  We also know it’s improved and maintained by money given by Jeannette.  The voices of these two women continue to speak of their love of God, music, and Christ Church.

When we support our seminarian Dan Dorsey through the Seminary Fund, we are really hearing the voice of Earl “Beanie” Kaufman from the past who donated a gift designated to assist people discerning a call into ministry and support their education for that purpose. And there are many more voices who continue to speak to us.

It is wonderful that we hear the voices of past Christ Church members that are still speaking to us.

It’s their voices that inspire us to create a new legacy of faith for the future with joy.  It’s their voices that remind us that just as they handed this church and its legacy to us and we engaged in ministry with them, we also hand it to our children and our youth, and invite our kids to engage in ministry with us.

I think it’s important for us to ask what kind of church do we want to give to our kids?  What will our very youngest receive from us? What kind of church will the kids in our nursery right now receive? Will they receive a new legacy of God’s grace? Will they get a church that practices love others? Will they receive a church mirroring God’s all-inclusive nature?  Can we give our kids a church that has deliberately says, “Yes God, please open our ears to the voices our society has grown deaf to?”  Can we give them a church that, with its tongue released by God, intentionally speaks words and practices full welcome and full participation to any person marginalized by society and other churches?  Can we give our children a church that is committed to practicing this type of ongoing faithfulness to God?

It is for us, I believe, to dedicate ourselves to the ongoing task of inspiring this legacy of faith for us and for our children.  We will be amazed to see how God will use us to touch the lives of those who need God’s good news of resurrection power, of incessant love and redeeming grace.

It is fitting, I think, that we were under a tent last night with no sides.  In some ways, I think that a side-less tent is a metaphor for our church as we create a lasting legacy for our future.  Might we think of Christ Church, as literally Jesus Christ’s own church?  A church without walls.  A church that desires to be bearers of God’s love and light in the world.  A church that is on the move spiritually… so that those who have gone before us will not have gone on in vain… so that our church, in partnership with God, may have a new resurgence of life… a resurgence of covenant and that the purpose of increasing the love of God among men, women, youth, and children shall never end for the next 275 years.  Amen.

 

Better Done Than Heard

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

James 1: 17-27             September 2, 2018

 “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Prayer:  Holy God, you gift us with tender mercy and saving grace, holy presence and spiritual empowerment.  May we let such gifts inspire us to live our lives, right by you.  Amen.

There are two upcoming weddings in our family next year.  Our son Mark and his fiancée Megan are getting married at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the Reading area in June.  And, my brother’s son Michael and his fiancée Jenna are getting married in May in what’s called a “destination wedding” in Branson, Missouri, over Memorial Day weekend.   They are getting married at a place called Stonegate Glass Chapel.

 It’s interesting to me that one wedding is in a church with a practicing congregation, and the other is in a chapel without a congregation that is designed primarily for weddings. 

I’ve done weddings, in all kinds of places.  I’ve done them in barns, outside backyards, in tents, on the mountain top, at beaches, wineries, resorts, hotels, and parks; I did one in Canada and one in Aruba.  Talk about a “destination wedding!”

Weddings in actual churches are rare these days.  I’ve been among you for almost four years now and only officiated at, I believe, three weddings here - all church members.

Much effort goes into the planning of the wedding, as it should.  But, in the premarital sessions I have with couples, we don’t talk about “the wedding” until the very end.  We first talk about life.  We talk about relationship… about communication… about marriage and what it means to them.  We talk about God’s involvement in life, and relationship in communication, and in marriage.  I often say that the wedding is for a day; marriage is for a lifetime.

But, what we talk about in those premarital sessions is much better done than heard.  It’s much better practiced than simply talked about.  In the actual wedding ceremony itself, if the couple wants me to search a message, again, what I offer is usually better done in marriage than heard on th4e wedding day.  Wedding vows…?  Always better done than heard.  And at wedding receptions?  The Chicken Dance, always better heard than done… possibly best not heard at all!  I’m just sayin’!

 There’s a lot in the Christian faith that is better done than heard.  We can come to church and hear messages about God’s love and saving grace for everyone and all creation.  We can sit here and listen to God’s word about the power of God’s mercy and forgiveness that frees us and supports us.  We can absorb the significance of God living in others as well as in me.

 We can even, to use a well-worn phrase, “talk the talk…” but, can we “Walk the walk?”  Jesus quotes Isaiah when he was frustrated with the religious leaders.  “These people honor me with their lips…” They talk the talk.  “But, their hearts are far from me…”  They don’t “walk the walk.”

 James’ message is similar.  “Be doers of the word, not just hearers only.”  In other words, walking the walk shows you’re a person of God, touched by God, changed into a new creation by the Holy Spirit.  Only hearing the word just isn’t going to cut it.  Just as sitting in a garage doesn’t make you a car, or sitting in the chicken house doesn’t make you a chicken, so sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian!  Likewise, making tradition, or the laws found in the Bible the “end all” doesn’t make you faithful to God either.

Part of what makes us Christians is that we can hear messages of faith in our worship, or can we listen to them.

 Have you ever wondered if there’s a difference between listening and hearing?  I think there is.  Hearing a message is when words enter in.  We hear it.  The sounds waves turn into electrical impulses and enter our brains.

 Listening is when we hear and absorb. We are moved internally by what we hear.  That movement could be acceptance or disagreement of the message.  It could be critical questioning.  It could be inspiration to do something based on what we’ve just heard.  Listeningto God’s messages of faith, I think opens the way for the Holy Spirit to move us spiritually, and encourages us to live out that message.  Or even more profoundly, to BE that message.

And, then we realize that lots of messages of faith are better done than heard.  The ‘listened to’ message about God’s love for every person means that we can BE God’s love for all.  The message that God actually lives in other people means that we can be God’s acceptance of others. We cannot choose who else is our spiritual brother or sister, which helps us honor the sanctity of each person.  Messages of faith are best when they are lived out as examples of faithfulness in our everyday lives.

 A woman named Martha Heft is 99 years old living in Clearwater, Florida.  Martha started sewing when she was five years old.  After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Martha decided to make dresses of all sizes for people who lost everything.   The colorful dresses, made out of donated patterned pillowcases, made their way to Regraso de Paz, an orphanage in Aguadilla, which houses children who are up to 10 years old.  Each dress has sewn in it a unique note—one of which read, “Smile because we love you.”   Martha’s crafts, including quilts and blankets, have not only been donated on Puerto Rico, but have been disbursed in Haiti as well (https://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article212920329.html#storylink=cpy, retrieved, August 31, 2018).

I’ll give you three guesses as to where Martha does her sewing, and the first two don’t count!  Yep!  She does it at church!  She and a bunch of ladies get together and sew these dresses, quilts, and blankets at First United Methodist Church of Clearwater.  Something tells me that she and her friends do this generous act of giving as an emulation of God’s love.  Something tells me those ladies are doers of the word, not just hearers only.  Some things are better done than heard.  She made the comment, “As long as God grants me life and health, I’m happy to do this.   I just wish I had a little bit more speed.”  God love her!

Now, as CollectiveSpirit comes back and gets ready to lead us in the conclusion of our worship today, let me say one more thing…  when we listen and are changed by God to practice our faith, God’s power sustains us.  We are people, doing the word of God, not just hearing it.  We are sustained by the Holy Spirit that lives in and among us and goes out from us.  It is the very life Spirit of Christ that lives in us and sustains us.

Doing the word and not just hearing it, I think nourishes the life Spirit of Christ within us.  We, as people of faith, can trust in the promise that Christ is alive in us, and Christ sustains us.  We are meant not just to survive, but to thrive in this world with his life Spirit in us.  Be a doer of God’s word!  Let us stand and sing!  Amen!

 

Did Jesus Really Mean It?

1 Kings 2: 10-12, 3: 1-14             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 John 6: 51-58  August 19, 2018

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven… But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Prayer:  O living bread, please give us your life… again… and again… Amen.

 These days there is always something more that is smart.  We have smart phones, smart cars, smart TVs.  We have smart tablets, dishwashers, refrigerators, washer and dryers.    We have smart people working in smart companies making smart sensors to detect your smart devices as soon as you walk into the room, or drive up to your garage.  Some have smart houses!  Intelligence and smarts are big and growing concepts in this, our technologically advanced age, right?  Our smarts are in the limelight a lot.

 Yet, for all our smarts, I wish that wisdom would grow more… would get more play in the limelight within our culture and society.  Because wisdom is not smarts.  Wisdom is not intelligence.  There is a difference between being smart and being wise.

 Wisdom is the development of conscious discernment.  It’s the ability to grow in insight, to see more deeply, to understand the spiritual side of life.  Wisdom is letting experience and maturity assist in helping us  see meaning behind the facts, understanding beneath the story, and a discerning mind in words of metaphors and similes.

I think wisdom is necessary when interpreting scripture.  It helps us know what parts to take literally and what parts metaphorically.  That’s why prayer and worship are vital to discerning God’s wisdom as we approach scripture.  But, we have to use our smarts, I think, and resist taking things in snippets and out of context and in sound bites, as is practiced so much these days.

 I like to think of Wisdom as a part of God…  In our Christian tradition, we know God in simple, yet complex terms, such as the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or as functions—Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Those terms are the basics, but we often identify God in more than three ways.  So, I affirm that God is Wisdom, as well, or if you will, Diviner, or a Revealer.  There are several passages in the book of Proverbs, the psalms, and in the “Wisdom books” that affirm that Wisdom was alongside God in the beginning of creation.  Wisdom was with God in the creative process right from the start.    It is the non-physical reality, the non-material part of life that provides food for the spirit and depth of meaning in life.

So Solomon, at approximately age 20, humbly prayed for the wisdom he needed to lead a whole nation of people.  He could have asked for riches and luxuries and all this material stuff to go with being a king and having a kingdom.  But, he didn’t.  Solomon prayed for something not in his own self-interest but was in the interest of others and the natyion.  He needed an understanding mind to help him govern this people Israel.  And, his prayer touched God’s heart.

Solomon not only got the wisdom he asked for, but he got the riches, the luxuries, and the material stuff he didn’t ask for, too.  He didn’t need any of that, but it was sure nice to have all that...  And, he could keep it, as long as he kept God’s laws.  (And, let’s be careful here, this is not a formula for riches—just pray for wisdom, and you get rich.  Nope.  It doesn’t work that way!)  But, let’s remember his humility when he offered his prayer… his sincerity.  Remembering that, see what’s next!

 In our passage from John’s gospel, we pick up where we left off last Sunday.  The people who were complaining and protesting when Jesus said he was the living bread that came down from heaven are the same people who are disputing among themselves when Jesus said that the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh.

They just weren’t getting the wisdom, Jesus’ metaphorical meaning.  To them, his words sounded like a direct violation of Moses’ law… the law of eating unclean flesh, let alone the horror of what sounded like cannibalism.  Did Jesus really mean cannibalism? Seriously?  Of course, he didn’t!

 But, does Christ Jesus really mean that all who hear his words can look beneath those words and find a pearl of wisdom that says anyone who participates in his life finds life?  Does he really mean that just as easily as we can take food in physically, we can take Christ in spiritually? Of course he does.

 I think that anyone who comes close to God shares in the life of Christ.  Each time we share in Holy Communion, we are consuming Christ, participating in his life and his ministry, by being flesh and blood extensions of his ministry in the world.

 I think that means that each time we come close to God—in prayer, in worship, in singing songs of praise, in listening to glorious music played gloriously, in saying grace before meals, spending time with God in daily devotions, we are taking in Christ.

And, it’s not just the ‘religious’ moments, either. each time we paint a wall or pound a nail for the Community Place on Washington, each time  we make and serve a meal for the hungry in Lancaster,  each time we bring diapers in for Women’s, Infants and Children, each time  the WIC van is here,  each time we meet as a Consistory, or as a commission, or committee, or small group, each time we participate in justice and witness opportunities, we are consuming the life of Christ, the living bread. We’re taking him in.

 Each time we not just say “You are welcome here,” but practice it, we are participating in Christ’s life.  Each time a guest, or a visitor, or a newcomer arrives here and experiences that welcome feeling from us, but also gets the message that “My church is your church; you can participate fully here, you have equal access to God’s table of grace,” as anyone we are abiding in Christ and Christ abides in us.  We live in him.

Friends, the number one reason why we do all these things… the number one reason why we are developing  best practices toward being an all-inclusive church is that these best practices  reflect deep faithfulness to God and to the gospel of Jesus Christ!  It is a powerful way that we are eating and taking in the living bread from heaven, participating in Christ’s life.

Let’s ask ourselves… are we trying to become an Open and Affirming congregation that welcomes not just the LGBTQ community but all marginalized groups of people because it’s trendy?  Are we trying to upgrade our sanctuary assisting those who have hearing and sight issues with new a sound and projection systems because we love technology?  Are we trying to find a way to put an elevator in here, making our whole building accessible to everyone because it’s exciting?  Are we striving to be sensitive to often excluded groups in our written and verbal language because it’s the thing to do these days?

No, we’re developing these and other best practices because we really believe that Jesus meant us to learn and deepen our ongoing faithfulness to God!  Only God!  Not anything else!   I think Jesus really meant it when he invited people to eat the bread he offers which is bread for the life of the world.  And the world means everyone—the world reflects the full diversity of God’s creativity.  We’re being faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ which is offered for the life of the world.

I believe Jesus really did mean all that he lived for, and died for, and lives again for… that he is food for the world.   He is our food.  He is our life and our way to live forever with him.  His words and our conscious discernment of his wisdom fortifies us spiritually—and we grow closer to God in Christ in Christ.

 But, we also grow in faithful witness—a new determination to resist forces that blight the promotion of spiritual health, wholeness and well-being for all people.

The blight of the abuse and the predation by several priests of the Catholic Church we heard about this past week should give us all a moment, not only to pray for those victimized and abused and now suffer from PTCD—Post Traumatic Church Disorder, but also to pray and discern out best practices for a Safe Church.  Yes, we have a policy in place, but perhaps evaluating and if necessary, updating it and changing our practices might be a good idea?  Nothing should get in the way of any person experiencing the joy and safety of being in God’s house because Jesus really did mean it when he said, “Let the little children come unto me… do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God!”  And, aren’t we all children of God?

Our deepest wisdom comes, not from our smarts, not from our common sense, but from God when we seek God’s wisdom.  Jesus really did mean it when he said, “I have come so that you may have life and have it fully and abundantly.”

Amen.

 

Extravagant Lavishness

2 Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Ephesians 1: 3-14         July 15, 2018

 “… according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.  With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will.”

Prayer:  Extravagant God, we can learn so much from your goodness, and our love.  May we do so.  May we live so.  Amen.

 I had a really good week at Music, Art, Drama and Dance, or MADD Camp at Hartman Center.  Good theme.  Beyond Belief of the Universe of God’s Love. Perfect weather.  Twelve very interested, engaged, talented, and creative high school youth.  A good performance at the end that highlighted the youth sharing through word and song and dance responses to social issues of the day. Thank you for your love and support as I ministered to these high school youth;  as John Duffy ministered to them, too (he led an archery workshop—I won’t say how poorly I did…)

But, my biggest highlight of the week was watching the youth come together, reunite with one another, and welcome new youth into camp.  In significant ways, the youth become a family at Hartman Center.  And, if you know anything about Hartman Center (and I may have shared this with some of you already) se share a lot of love with each other.  Endearing names such as “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” “awesome dude,” “my love,” or “loved ones” roll off our tongues in regular conversations.  Supportive language flows.   Like when you can tell someone is nervous up front singing a solo.  “You’re doing amazing, Sweetie!” will come from some high school youth in the choir.  “Love your voice,” another would call out.  Or, when an art project comes to completion, compliments and supportive comments come unsolicited.  “That is so cool!”  or, “Wow!  How did you do that?”

Many of today’s youth, especially youth in our churchessense the goodness of practicing and living out the acceptance of everyone, even when it’s difficult, too. We had one difficult camper this week.  The youth continued to be supportive as much was possible as this 14 year old youth struggled with bi-polar mental illness and conflicting sexual identity.  But, God bless those other youth… they made great efforts to offer loving, supportive, welcoming words to the 14 year old youth. We had two going on this week.

One sixteen year old girl’s aunt died on Tuesday.  The impact of her death rallied much love and support for the girl.  We found a way for her to go attend the funeral on Friday afternoon, come back to camp, and be ready for the remaining activities of MADD Camp, Friday into Saturday.

 So, you CAN feel the love.  Takes just a little while to get all that started.  But it’s all good when it happens and rolls along throughout the week.  The hope is that everyone feels extravagantly welcomed, extravagantly supported, and extravagantly accepted.  It’s extravagant lavishness. It’s over the top!

And, it’s wonderfully reminiscent of the kind of love that God has for each of us.  It reflects the kind of spiritual blessings we have from God.

Paul writes that this love and power and the tremendous availability of the grace of God is the plan of God.  This plan was in place since the beginning of time.  This plan involves our adoption by God.  It implies our redemption—we are made holy, and found completely blameless before God. We are accepted.  Redemption is extravagantly lavished upon humanity.  Over the top! It brings forgiveness—forgiveness is extravagantly lavished upon all living souls.  It brings a fantastic inheritance—the gift of salvation.  God extravagantly and lavishly pours salvation and all of these gifts upon us, the whole human race.

Paul says that at one time, way back in early history, all this was a mystery.  All the gifts of God were unknown.  But, in Jesus Christ, the mystery of the will of God is revealed.  It is no longer the unknown.  This wisdom, this plan of God happens through Christ.

 We cannot do anything to earn this redemption.  There is nothing that we can do that makes forgiveness happen; nothing can be done, thought, said or believed on our part,  that is a prerequisite for God to love you.  According to the riches of God’s grace, we cannot do anything to stop that love; it is always coming to us.  It’s extravagant lavishness on God’s part.  It’s the way God is. Over the top.

 It does help, though, if we believe it.  At one point on Friday evening, I invited my troubled fourteen year old youth to come in from outside to worship with us.  Of course, I got the made up excuse: “I don’t believe in God.  I’m an atheist.”  I smiled.  Thankfully, what we say and think and believe about God doesn’t change God at all. One can say, “I don’t believe in gravity, but that doesn’t deny anything about gravity. Believing it makes it more real. But, to believe that it is God’s will  to extravagantly, lavishly shower us with every spiritual blessing makes God’s gifts much more real and accessible.

These blessings made King David sing and dance before the Lord with joy and with all his might.  These blessings make the high school youth of MADD Camp wonder how they can bring this joyful feeling back into their homes and lives.  These blessings come to us with extravagant lavishness, even when we are at low points of our lives.

 Believe in the will of God. Believe in God’s extravagant lavishness to love and grace you...

Let me close with one of the songs I taught the youth this past week.  I think it beautifully speaks of God’s extravagant lavishness, especially in light of our weakness and misunderstandings.  It reveals God’s wisdom and insight. It’s called “God of All Our Days,” by Casting Crowns.  (follow the slides on the screen)

I came to You, with my heart in pieces
And found the God, with healing in His hands
I turned to You, put everything behind me
And found the God, who makes all things new

I look to You, drowning in my questions
And found the God, who holds all wisdom
I trusted You, and stepped out on the ocean
You caught my hand among the waves

'cause You are the God of all my days
Each step I take, You make a way
I will give You all my praise
My seasons change, You stay the same
You are the God of all my days

I ran from You, and wandered in the shadows
And found the God, who relentlessly pursues
I hid from You, haunted by my failures
And found the God, whose grace still covers me

I fell on You, when I was at my weakest
And found the God, the lifter of my head
I've worshipped You, and felt You right beside me
You're the reason that I sing

'cause You are the God of all my days
Each step I take, You make a way
I will give You all my praise
My seasons change, You stayed the same
You are the God of all my days

In my worry, God You are my stillness
In my searching, God You are my answer
In my blindness, God You are my vision
In my bondage, God You are my freedom
In my weakness, God You are my power
You're the reason that I sing

'cause You are the God of all my days
Each step I take, You make a way
I will give You all my praise
My seasons change, You stayed the same
You are the God of all my days

In my blindness, God You are my vision
In my bondage, God You are my freedom
All my days

 

 Amen.

 

Sent Out With Power

2 Samuel 5: 1-5, 9-10   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Mark 6: 1-13   July 8, 2018

“He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.”

Prayer:  Holy One, may we continue to discover new meaning from scripture  today.  Amen.

 Most of us know that in life, we will experience set backs and failures from time to time.  Sometimes those can be painful; other times, reasonably slight.  But they always lead us somewhere or can provide deeper meaning.

When I was in 8th grade, I goofed off in science class, didn’t do my homework, and quite skillfully flunked the class the first quarter of the year.  When Mom and Dad found out I failed the class, whoa!  There was holy comeuppance to be paid.  But, it paved the way for straight A’s in the next quarter of science class and a deep love not only for  science, but also for the good feeling of getting good grades.

That didn’t last though, because my freshman year in high school, I failed French miserably.  It’s not that I goofed off; I just couldn’t figure out the language!  But, when I dropped the class and took Spanish, I figured out the foreign language thing and made Spanish Honor Society.

Sometimes the failures and setbacks are good in that they pave the way for something else.  Saul’s failure as Israel’s first king paved the way for David to become King over all of Israel, and he made Jerusalem his hometown in the process.  But then, it was David’s moral failure with Bathsheba that opened the door for Solomon to become the wisest of all Israel’s kings (if you don’t remember the David and Bathsheba story, it is part of July 29th’s readings—so, you’ll just have to come to church or Google it yourself!)

 Even Jesus experienced a setback of sorts in Nazareth, his hometown.  Those people remembered the Jesus of yesteryear and couldn’t imagine that he was anything special as a grown up.  They lacked faith, they resisted his message and ministry, and they took offense at him.

With faith lacking in the people, Mark tells us that Jesus’ healing power was quite limited.   Healing is synergetic, meaning that Jesus’ power of healing often works in tandem with the faith of the person being healed.  A lack of faith can close off certain divine possibilities.  So having faith can make a huge difference.  Jesus was amazed at how many lacked faith in God and God’s power; only a few sick people were healed that day when he laid his hands on them.

But, despite the limited deeds of power, despite the faithlessness he encountered, Jesus didn’t let that deter him.   If anything, the surprising faithlessness and resistance of the home crowd paved the way for the disciples to be sent out on their next assignment… a training mission that would teach them to rely on God, even with the most meager of supplies and resources; but mostly, to teach them to use the gift of divine authority over unclean spirits, to be about God’s ministry, even when resistance could be present.

 Eugene Peterson, the author and biblical translator offers this translation of Jesus’ words to the disciples: “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this journey.  You are the equipment” (The Message).

 In other words, it’s synergetic interplay.  God sends us out.  We trust in God to provide what we need on the journey.  God gives us authority.  We let the gift of God’s authority over unclean spirits be front and center.  God uses us for God’s purposes.  Our faithful responsiveness can make a transformative difference in people’s lives.  The disciples were sent with power and authority.  So are we.

 These are challenging words for the church.  Often, we think we have churchy authority—authority over our church’s practices and procedures, authority over our building, our operating costs, our endowment fund.   But do we think of ourselves as having authority over unclean spirits that plague our society and culture?

 We often do not.  We often think of the church as just one of many existing organizations in our communities that brings people together, that offers a place for volunteering, that does good for others in the world, and shares in good food, fun, and fellowship.  Heck, the volunteer fire department does that.  Rotary International, the Lions Club, Shriners, and other similar organizations do that.  And, you can

pick and choose which organization you want to attend, participate in, give your financial contributions to.

But, none of those organizations are given the authority over unclean spirits that disciples of Christ are given.  And, the church is filled with disciples of Christ, at least that’s what we’re supposed to be.

Jesus sent the twelve out with authority which I think means we, as the church, are sent out with the authority to confront and address the unclean spirits of our world.  The church, working in tandem with God, is sent out with power to speak God’s liberating good news to the unclean spirits of racism, of hatred toward others, of violence, of exceptionalism.

The church of Christ’s disciples has the authority to speak God’s truth to the powerful structures that advocate inequality, that promote the continuation of unfairness because of expediency, that resist change because of the inconvenience it might cause.  We have the authority to encourage an expansion of God’s vision in our world, a vision of peace and well-being for all, a vision that calls the well-established systems out of complacency with injustice and a reorientation to the liberating will of God.

And honestly, is it the lack of faith in God and God’s vision that keeps the divine possibilities from happening?

 You and I, all of us, as one part of Christ’s universal church here in Elizabethtown, I believe are sent out with power, to be a pilgrim church, a pioneering church, a church that charts new ground, a church that speaks loudly our desire to expand God’s vision of inclusivity, which is a direct way to cast out the unclean spirit of discrimination.  To be a church that officially adopts a new covenant of welcome, and is not shy about making it a defining, public characteristic as to who we are and what we’re about.

In the midst of all other churches and organizations in our area looking one way, facing one direction, or going along with status quo, sticking with the way things are and always have been, we’re striving to use the authority given to us to  be the church that promotes the life God gives, the love God wants us to share with all.

 It’s like the humorous Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson that features thousands of penguins on the Antarctica ice cap doing what all penguins do… except for the one that stands up and sings “I gotta be me, Oh I just gotta be me!”

 We might just have to circle that one penguin and write our new caption: “Be that guy!”  We might stand out from all the rest, but we gotta be true to who we are as God’s people.  We can expect resistance, but we gotta be true to the authority given to us to dispel unclean spirits of our world and to anoint with spiritual oil those who can’t find a safe place for their spiritual growth anywhere else.  We might experience setbacks, failures, letdowns, and disappointments, but those are great learning moments leading us to greater truths and deeper meaning as to what it means to be Christ’s agents, Christ’s Church sent out by Jesus to the world.

May God help us.  Amen.

 

CHANGE IS GOOD - The Day is Here!

Mark 4: 35-41  Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

2 Corinthians 6: 1-13   June 24, 2018

“I have heard thee in a time accepted, and ini the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

Prayer:  We are your redeemed, O Lord.  We are among those whom you’ve delivered.  We thank you and are moved to serve you.  Amen.

Time doesn’t permit me to preach in the style that preachers from the 1700’s did.  They would take an assigned text, and go through the entire passage, line by line, verse by verse, explaining the ins and outs of the text, all the background and implied meaning, etc..  Sermons done like that would take a minimum of an hour and often longer.  For your benefit and mine, we’re not doing that today!  Thankfully, worship and preaching have evolved over time.  Change is good.

Last Sunday, we said our good-byes to Pastor Fred as he concluded his ministry among us.  We discussed that a new day was dawning for him, and for us. As all of us continue to grow on our journeys of faith, we’re discovering what it means to be new creations in Christ with new dynamics at play now.  Change is good.

Last Monday morning, we gathered as a church staff for our regular beginning of the week morning meetings.  I said that we’re turning over a new leaf.  A new chapter of ministry at Christ Church is beginning.  It looks a lot like the previous chapter, only different.  We’ll do a lot of the same things, and many of you are stepping up.  We’ll do new things, too, and we have new responsibilities.  Thank you for your help as we discern what our next pastoral leadership scenario will look like.  Change is good—the new day dawning is now here.

Today’s text from Corinthians seems to say that the new day dawning—is now here!  Spiritually speaking, the apostle Paul was 100% convinced that Jesus was the reason the new day was here.  He recognized and quoted the words from Isaiah 49:8 as a prophecy from God, and Christ Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy.  God said through Isaiah that at the right time, God would hear the cries of people who suffered from oppression, injustice, and separation from God as a result of sin.  God would help the human race recover from that on the day of salvation.

Paul strongly affirms that the day of salvation was when God raised Jesus alive from death.  On that day, the saving grace of God redeemed the whole human race forever.  On that day humanity and God were reconciled to each other.  God and people were at one… that’s from God’s point of view.  It is 100% up to us to make it our point of view, too.

We can make it our point of view by again looking at something common in our lives. Anyone who’s ever had a blood transfusion can understand what it means to be reconciled to God or at one with God.  Someone else’s blood of the same blood type gets into our system and is life-giving, right?  You can think of it as a special bond with another person.  And the needed blood flows throughout every part of our body indiscriminately.

But, we don’t think of it that way.  We just go on with our lives, not really giving the other person’s blood in our veins a second thought.

In the same way, in Christ, we receive kind of a spiritual transfusion of love.  God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ fills us completely throughout our inner spiritual lives, and gives us new life.  We are bonded with God, at one with God, redeemed by Christ.  We live in the day of salvation!  It’s here!

But, we often just go on with our lives, not really giving it a second thought.  Paul urges that people take the gift of God’s grace seriously and not in vain.  We are, as he says, workers together with God.  Because being transfused with the incredible, life-giving grace of God, we are under God’s constant influence.  God’s presence pushes into the forefront of our thinking, our actions, our words.  So, every thing we think, say, and do has God at work in it with us.

But let us not be fooled.  This doesn’t mean life all of a sudden becomes a piece of cake.  No struggles, no worries, no problems.  Faith doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer.  God never says that.  Jesus himself suffered and died while holding on to faith.  Even when the Holy Spirit, the risen spirit of Jesus is in us, storms will arise.

But, remember, we’re living in the day of God’s salvation.  And, we can remember that just as Jesus was in the boat with his disciples, God is in our lives with us.  Jesus wants them and us to have faith in God.  Jesus says in effect, “in the midst of the storm, I got this.”  Faith means that we can trust Jesus for our future made possible God’s day of salvation that is here.

Paul wants the Corinthians to have faith in God, too, even in their deepest struggles.  To effectively believe that no matter what storms they faced - afflictions, imprisonment, etc., God is saying, “I got this.  I’m in it with you.  Enlarge your heart to know that you’re living in the day of my salvation.”

On June 1st, the Atlantic hurricane season began… actually the first named storm (Alberto) happened before the 1st, over Memorial day weekend.  Beryl is the next storm name to be used.  I didn’t know this, but out in the Pacific, two storms have already been named—Hurricane Aletta and Hurricane Bud—both formed into hurricanes in mid-June.  Thankfully, both were harmless and dissipated.

The storms hit us, in our lives though, often with great fury.  Right now, on the political scene, we’re struggling with the storms Hurricane Immigration and its twin, Cyclone, Family-Separation.  I encourage us and the leaders of our country to remember that we are urged to be under God’s constant influence.

In my opinion, we cannot address these issues without viewing them from God’s point of view.  And, I don’t mean taking snippets of scripture out of context and saying that justifies policy.  It’s not the Bible that pushes to the forefront, it’s the presence of God and what God values and stands for that pushes into the forefront of our thinking, our actions, our words.

From my point of view, God is always on the side of the poor.  God always has a soft spot for the vulnerable and those treated unfairly.  God always says, “Let the children come to me.”  We’re asked to enlarge our hearts, to let all issues be addressed under the influence of God, for we live in the day of salvation.

For other storms we face, God is saying have faith.  Believe that “I got this” when people face Hurricane Volcano happening in Hawaii and in Guatemala.  Hurricane Earthquake in Osaka, Japan.  God is saying, “I’m  in it with you.  Let my presence push to the forefront of your life, your thinking, your actions.  Believe that you’re living in the day of salvation—the day is here!”

Many devastating hurricanes can hit our lives no matter where we live… Hurricane Cancer, Hurricane Divorce, Hurricane Unemployment, Hurricane Financial Crisis, Hurricane Mental Illness.  The Day of God’s salvation is here.  God’s life is already infused into us.  God is in the boat with us, in the struggles and the easy places… in the sorrows and the joys.  Let us grow and change. 

Let us enlarge our hearts to live in this day—the day of God’s saving grace.  Because this change is good.  Amen.

 

A New Day Dawning

2 Corinthians 5: 6-17   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 4: 26-34  June 17, 2018

“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”

Prayer:  O God, the sun came up; a new day dawned.  It’s time to sing your song again.  May we sing of You, your love, your wisdom, ever-present in our lives.  Amen.

One of my favorite praise songs that CollectiveSpirit sings is called “10,000 Reasons.”  The first verse invites us to sing God’s song as the new day dawns, to find more reasons to bless the Lord, to worship God’s holy name.

Last April, a boy named Emanuele met with Pope Francis.  Emanuele told the Pope that his father, a man who did not believe in God, died recently.  The boy wondered and asked the Pope whether his father was in heaven.  To his credit the Pope replied, “God is the one who says who goes to heaven,” but then the Pope added that “God has the heart of a dad who does not abandon his children” (America, April 16,https://www.christiancentury.org/system/files/resources/052318.pdf, retrieved June 15, 2018, p. 8).

What a great response!  Love it!  I hope the sun came up on that boy’s grief.  I hope a new day dawned in his life that he might know God a little better, know of God’s authority, but also of God’s extravagant love, compassion, and the power of God’s salvation.  I hope that boy might come to bless the Lord, causing him to worship God’s holy name, believing that his dad is in Christ, and a new creation, and so is he.

Moments like those make me realize that God invites us to see the movements of God’s grace in our lives, to see divine presence at work causing new days to dawn, adding reasons to bless the Lord.  We have to walk by faith and not by sight in order to see them sometimes.

Clearly, a new day is dawning for Ellie and Rylie and their parents Adam and Caitlyn.  It takes faith to believe that something deeper happened here; that it was not just water that was sprinkled on their heads, but instead the presence of God washing over them and us!  They are, as are each of us, new creations in Christ.

Clearly, a new day is dawning for Pastor Fred and for Trinity UCC in Gettysburg as he has finished the work God called him to do here at Christ Church.  Both Fred and Trinity walk by faith and not by sight believing that a new day is dawning.  Both are in Christ; both are new creations with God at work in their hearts.  So, new and wonderful things are in store that they can’t see yet.

Clearly a new day is dawning for us here at Christ Church, too.  We start a new chapter as God calls us to share and practice the all-inclusive Good News of Christ.  Both you and I walk by faith, not by sight believing that a new day is dawning.  We are in Christ; we are new creations, with God in our hearts.  So, new and wonderful things are in store that we can’t see just yet.  It takes faith to believe that a new day is dawning here at Christ Church.

Now with all those… well, it’s easy to see the new day dawning.  But, God, I think invites us to see more deeply in lots of other places.  What if God is speaking to us in the simple things of life?  Moments can speak more deeply than what appear on the surface.  Divine presence is in unlikely places.  There is always more than meets the eye.

That’s one reason why Jesus used parables to describe God’s realm.  He spoke of ordinary circumstances like plants growing in the ground to help us understand that the kingdom of God can grow deep in us.  When God gets in us, a new day is dawning.  God creates us constantly into something new.

Jesus spoke about the smallest of seeds that can grow to not only be beautiful, but powerful, too—just like God’s presence and love can grow beautifully and be powerful in our lives.  When that happens in us, a new day dawns.  We are a new creation.

When I think of what it means to be in Christ, I sometimes think of an ordinary sponge.  To be in Christ I think means among other things to be absorbed into God’s presence.  It’s in you, you’re in it.  Just like the way a sponge is saturated with water.  The sponge is in the water, and the water is in the sponge.  That’s what it’s like to be in Christ. That’s what I mean by hearing God speak through common, ordinary items.

And if we’re in Christ, and Christ is in us, what’s to stop us from seeing God’s perspective everywhere we go?  It may cause us sheer delight to see how God is Stillspeaking to us through the circumstances of our lives.

I was sitting in my office one morning last week, and I was thinking about Pastor Fred moving on from being an Associate Pastor for thirteen years and becoming a solo pastor.  As I was sitting there, I noticed that my big dracaena plant had some dried up leaves still hanging onto the stalk among all the new growth.  As I plucked off those dried up leaves, it occurred to me that God was speaking to me as I plucked off those old leaves.  The old was passing away, and a new creation was here.  I shared with Fred that as he becomes the solo pastor at Trinity, he would need to shed the role and responsibilities of being an Associate and let the new role and responsibilities as a solo pastor grow in him.  A new day is dawning.

As we go forward we will need to shed old leaves in our ministry making way for the new to come, too.  Making way for the new creation God is creating in us. We will do that preparing for new leaders called by God to minister among us.  We will do that by preparing for new ideas and new ways to be the church.  We will do that as we deliberately engage in best practices of being an all-inclusive church.  I invite us to look beyond the obvious, beyond the budget, beyond the usual “we’ve always done it this way” mentality to discover God moving in new, wonderful creative ways. We have to pluck off the old leaves and become a new creation in Christ because a new day is dawning.

One last thing I want to say… and again, it’s hearing God speaking in ordinary circumstances.  You know I love air planes.  I have two hanging in my office.  Barb and I enjoy going to Lancaster Airport and sitting at Fiorentino’s Restaurant and watching airplanes as we eat dinner.  Some airplanes are sitting on the tarmac, tethered to the pavement.  They have to be because if a strong enough wind blows, an airplane can get airborne while parked in its chocks!  The truth of the matter is that airplanes are meant to fly.  Airflow over and under the wing provides lift and off the ground it goes.  It does very little to fulfill its purpose by remaining on tethered to the ground on the tarmac, stuck in the hangar.

In the same way, the church is NOT meant to be tied down.  It does very little to fulfill its purpose tethered to the old dried up leaves that are just hanging on.  The wind of the Holy Spirit moves us as the church out to the edges of faith, out to where spiritual pioneers are needed in the face of cultural injustice, out to the peripheries where our deep joy and the world’s deep hunger need meet.  The wind of the Holy Spirit flows over and under the church providing lift and off the ground it goes, taking us into new realms where God is Stillspeaking, to us in our world.

What could happen if, across the spectrum of the Christian faith, the church’s wings stretch wide to catch a new, strong wind of the Holy Spirit?  The possibilities are breathtaking!  More of us would be in Christ.  New creations would be all over the place.  A new day would be dawning.

CollectiveSpirit also sings another song called “Go Light Your World.”  I invite you to concentrate on the lyrics because just as the new day dawns bringing in new light, the new day that is dawning spiritually for all of us brings in new light shining from each of us.  That light comes from God and shines from us and it is renewed all the time. That lights penetrates the darkness.  That light means we are in Christ.  We are new creations.  We are the new day dawning.  Amen.

 

Going Forward

Acts 1: 21-26    Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

John 17: 6-19   May 13, 2018

“… I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”

Prayer:  Holy God, may we come to you with willing and listening hearts as we face the journey ahead.  Amen.

Wasn’t it just a few months ago that we had elections?  Wasn’t it just a few months ago that every other ad on TV was an “I approve this message” ad?  But, like a bad penny, they’re baaaaaack!  And, with a vengeance, too.  I kid you not, on Friday morning, the ads on the news were all mid-term election ads… five or six of them in a row… and almost every one was an attack ad on other candidates running for Congress, or State Legislature, or Governor.  Really made me appreciate the quieter months of December through March when we aren’t subject to such bitter words and accusations from those who would be our so-called public servants.

 Today’s Christian Scripture reading from Acts, the church’s first history book, is timely in the sense that here we read about the church’s first election.  The twelve disciples, now turned apostles were down by one because Judas, by this time, was dead and gone, and the remaining eleven apostles felt they needed to find someone to replace him in order to go forward.

And, I feel fairly certain that Justus and Matthias didn’t run any attack ads against each other, let alone start campaigning to win the vote of the others.  Heck, they didn’t even voteThey cast lots, which is roughly equivalent to the randomly selected Pennsylvania lottery ping pong balls that are blown around in the big hopper.  What they probably did was write a J and an M on two stones and rolled them around in a bowel, and the first stone to fall out represented God’s choice for Judas’ successor.

And, that’s the difference.  It was God’s choice.  For the apostles, casting lots was a common method used to determine the will of God.  It was not just a random selection, a luck of the draw because prayer permeated the whole process.  The apostles called upon God to show them who would take the place of Judas in this ministry and apostleship as they prepared to go forward.

Because when God is called upon, when prayer is used to open ourselves to the will of God, it’s not a magic formula, it’s not pretend or make believe.  Prayer doesn’t manipulate results or disrupt cause and effect.

 What prayer does is re-establishes our connection with God.  It’s a conscious decision on our part to decide to re-connect with God… we have some little thing in our inner personal faith down deep that says, maybe, just maybe, God is here, in the moment, present, listening, active, engaging with us…and so we pray.

 And maybe, just maybe, God reconnects with us.  As we reach to God, we find that God continuously is reaching to us.  Right then, the two might meet?  Like the amazing fresco Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel.  God and Adam, the human being, reach to each other, and  perhaps through prayer the gap between the fingers can be closed?  I think through prayer, we might align with God’s vision for the future, wisdom, and insight.

So, I encourage you…when you go to the polls on Tuesday this week, may I suggest that you reconnect with God before you vote?  Pray that God’s choices are those whom are elected, and pray that God’s will is aligned with the work those people will do as we go forward from here in our nation, state, and our local communities.

 Near the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry, the gospel of John tells us that Jesus spent much time in prayer.  He was mindful of the transition that was coming.  He was concerned about going forward.  About how the disciples would do as they embraced their new role as apostles.  About how they would need protection from the evil that existed in the world, so that they would be able to continue on sharing the truth about God despite of the resistance.

 I believe that the prayer Jesus offered on behalf of his disciples he continues to pray on our behalf, too.  In other words, Jesus is praying for us!  How about that!  He prays that we may be one with God as he is one with God.  That we may be one with each other as he is one with us.  That we would have the same kind of relationship with God that he had with God.  The same kind that gave him profound joy.  He

prayed that the same joy he knew with God would be made complete in us… especially as we are mindful of the transitions that are coming our way as we go forward from here.

 With Pastor Fred’s upcoming departure in a little over a month, I encourage all of us to reconnect with God in prayer as we go forward.  Pray with gratitude on your heart for the ministry you’ve done together with him.  Pray that Fred may continue to know the profound joy that Jesus had in his relationship with God, and that joy may be made more complete in him.  Pray that Fred and Kara continue to be  aligned with God in their oneness with Christ as they go forward from here to serve Christ in Gettysburg.  Pray that all which has happened here in Christ’s name through Fred’s ministry may be sanctified by God, celebrated, and honored!  For it is good and right to do so.  Please stay tuned for the date/time when we will celebrate! Hope this next week we will know!

I suggest we also pray that we connect with God so that we might align with God’s vision for our future, trusting in God’s wisdom and insight.  We go forward, aligned with God through prayer, believing that our ministry will adjust… believing that we will discern who will be the people to help us move through these transitions—could be volunteers, could be an interim associate pastor, could be a discernment team that helps us evaluate our ministry positions.  Could be all of the above. We go forward believing that the initiatives we’ve started will continue to progress, that youth, confirmation, outreach programs will have abundant life… believing that the new members of our church, whom we welcome today, are wonderful examples of the energy of the Spirit which is with us now, blessing us, sanctifying us and synchronizing our next steps with God as we go forward.

Because, and, here’s the good news… all of us go forward—Pastor Fred, me, Consistory, our church staff, all of us as Christ Church, we all go forward into our new chapters knowing that Christ’s love and joy made complete in us is stronger than any of our transitions.  Nothing is powerful enough to nullify the promise that God binds us together in love—not transitions, not death, not endings, not beginnings.

That’s the promise.  Christ’s love and joy made complete in us is stronger than anything life throws at us.  He is here with the power of reconciliation for all people.  He is here in the person you don’t know sitting next to you.  He is here in our mom’s, our families, our relationships. He is here in our healthiness and our brokenness. He is here in our successes and our failures. He is here in our sinfulness and our forgiveness.  He is here in our church, loving his church that is going forward into something new and beautiful.

 So, for Christ’s sake and for the sake of our church, let’s reconnect often with God in prayer as we go forward.  Amen

What Spirit Have We Received?

John 3: 1-17      Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Romans 8: 12-17          May 27, 2018

“For you did not receive the spirit of slaver to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

Prayer:  Holy One, please breathe your Spirit into us as we seek to hear and understand your Word to us today.  Amen.

 One of the more memorable youth events I’ve done over the years in ministry was the one where we somewhat playfully practiced what happens at every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  At AA meetings, whenever individuals start to speak, they identify themselves by saying their name and then then saying “I’m an alcoholic.”  To which the whole group responds by saying, “Hi” and you say that person’s name.  Well, I don’t even remember the theme of that youth event, but I do remember that the youth leadership team wanted all the youth who came to dig into what it meant to identify as a Christian person.  So, in our sharing times, whenever someone wanted to speak, the introduction was like this:  “Hi.  My name is Galen, and I’m a Christian.”  And everybody said, “Hi Galen!” So we identify ourselves as God’s people. But what does that mean to us?

To identify as a Christian is to say who you are, and what you believe, right?  And, there are many ways to say that.  The true Christian is, for example,  a person who believes that God became human in Jesus of Nazareth and lived among humanity.  True, but being a Christian is more than just believing that. A Christian claims that Jesus is God’s Son, and through his life, death, and resurrection, he became the Christ, or the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  Again, true, but it’s more that that, too.  One might say that a Christian is someone who follows Christ Jesus’ ways.  Yup.  A Christian knows God’s forgiveness, grace, mercy, love, power and presence. A Christian is someone born of water and of Spirit, even baptized by the Spirit.  Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

All these are true and filled with deep meaning for me,  but one more description means an awful lot.  I identify myself as a Christian because I receive Christ’s heart and spirit all the time.  We all do, if we let it in.  I live a new life because Christ’s holiness becomes me It becomes us.  I am in Christ. You are in Christ.  Paul says it this way in 2 Corinthians 5: 17— “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The trouble is, I know all that’s true, but it’s hard to live that way consistently, isn’t it?  When Barb and I were in Rome, Italy now about a month ago, on the first day I was cordial and tolerant of the vendors selling anything and everything.   But, honestly, they were aggressive and pushy, and after three days of aggressiveness, I found myself not being very Christian anymore.  “Do you want to buy a selfie stick?”  “No!” I grumbled.  “Are you from Africa?”  “Do I look like I’m from Africa?”  And, Barb was like, “Galen!”  I know.  I sounded gruff and rude.  Had a bad attitude like living my old life. So much for living with a new Christ-like spirit within, huh?

We learned the hard way, too… like the time when two men dressed as Roman centurions from the first century invited us to take pictures with them on our cell phones.  Sure!  That’ll be fun.  [click]  OK… 10 Euro, please.  Wait, What?  What just happened?  And, I grumbled some more, gruffly tried to bargain down, but ended up paying the full 10 Euro.  Thankfully, God is merciful and forgiving when we live and act inconsistently with what we’ve received from God.

What we’ve received from God, as Paul says, is not a spirit of slavery where master lords it over the servants, and those servants live in fear of the master’s wrath.  Instead, we receive Christ’s life and holiness in us, and this sense that our powerful holy God has adopted us, has taken us in as full-fledged members of God’s family, with all the rights and privileges that any family member has.  We, the whole human race, receive from the Spirit what God works into us; the love, the power, the protection, the care, the tender mercy, grace, hope, acceptance, the adoption of God.  I believe we’re  all called to work those out in our lives.

Leighton Farrell tells the story of a couple who wanted to adopt a 6 year old little boy.  They had visited several adoption agencies and finally found a child that was a wonderful match for their family.  As they visited with the child, the wife said to the boy, “If you would come and live with us, you could have your own private room, a nice yard with play equipment and all the toys and clothes you could ever want.  Would you like to come and live with us?”  The little boy hesitated a moment and said, “No, I don’t think so.”  The couple was stunned.  The husband said to the boy, “We’ve offered you everything anyone could want.  What more do you want?”  In words far beyond his years, the child replied, “I just want someone to love me” (Farrell, Cries From the Cross, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994, p. 36).  It was almost like, “well, that goes without saying.” Well, no...no, it doesn’t. You gotta say it.

 We have received the spirit of love from God.  This is what God has worked into our lives, we gotta say it. We gotta live it.  It is up to us to work out what God has worked in.  We have received the spirit of adoption—it’s up to us to work out what God has worked in.  We have received the spirit of welcome and hospitality and acceptance from God.  It’s up to us to work out what God has worked in.  We affirm at every baptism, every confirmation, and every time new members join our church that God from the very start gives us a spirit of reception—that God has named and claimed everyone of us a child of God.  It’s up to us to work out what God has worked in.

 We work out what God has worked in when we engage in best practices as inclusive people…as an all-inclusive church.  Having stubborn determination to mirror God’s full-range of hospitality and welcome for all people comes especially with the effort to extend the welcome to specific groups of marginalized people, like members of the LGBTQ community, like people who are in racial minorities in our country, like people who are undocumented immigrants, and like people who have been dispatched by other faith communities.

 We work out the spirit of grace and love that God has worked in when we build a strong sense of community right here within our congregation for our kids and youth.  Over and over, study after study shows that the youth who continue in the church after confirmation and high school and college do so because they found an extended family here. Combined with loving, supportive parents, the additional moms, dads, sisters, brothers, grandparents and friends are found in the church, each working out the spirit of adoption that God has worked in—that is what leads these youth not only to profess their faith in a loving God revealed in Jesus Christ, but to have hope in what it means to say “I’m a Christian,” and to live out the Christian faith.  They, too, learn to work out what God has worked into their lives.

 So, what spirit have we received?  Simply put, Christ’s living heart and spirit.  Which is the Holy Spirit, which shows up as a spirit of love, of adoption, of hospitality and acceptance, of holiness.  We receive these from God all the time, and if we let them, they will transform our lives.  And, we work out in our actions, in our daily living, and in our thoughts the very same spirit of love, adoption, hospitality, acceptance and holiness that God already worked into us.  In my view, we identify most as Christians, as sons and daughters of God that we are, when we live out our lives from the Spirit we’ve received.  Amen.

 

Create in Me: A Revived Spirit

Hebrews 10: 16-25       Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Psalm 31: 1-5, 17-18, 24              March 30, 2018

Prayer:  Into your hand I commit my spirit; for you have redeemed me, O God, O faithful God.  Amen.

The Lenten season is almost at its end.  Ever since Valentine’s Day which was also Ash Wednesday, we’ve been praying to God that God would create new things in us during Lent this year… things that would help us grow closer to God… things that would assist us on our faith journeys.  And, if you recall, I suggested at our Ash Wednesday worship service, when all this began, that perhaps giving something up for Lent makes good sense—it would help us make room for the new thing God is creating in us during this season.

So, we started praying that God would create in us first a clean heart.  Then our prayers asked God to create in us a deeper sense of reverence for God and all that God values.  The third week of Lent we prayed that God would create in us a life with justice, and the fourth week, our Confirmation youth and Pastor Fred helped us ask God to create love in us, no matter what!!  In week five, our thoughts and prayers went to God creating in us a delight in the laws that God upholds, and last week, our prayer was that God would create in us a deeper sense of trust that God is at work in our adversities and our circumstances.

Last night, we heard about the importance of God creating the cup of salvation in us. And, this leads us up to tonight. All these parts that God can create in us are just the tip of the iceberg of what helps a deeper relationship with God to develop, and a more rich and meaningful spiritual life to grow.

Ironically, tonight our journeys come to a new starting point, even as our worship series ends.  Tonight we pray for God to create in us a revived spirit.  A spirit within us that is energized… a spirit that desires us to go forward on newly revived faith… a spirit of confidence that all these parts that God created within us during Lent, are able to help us in navigate life’s journey day to day.

Also ironically, even as our spirits are revived within and our faith journeys come to a new starting point tonight, we do so we recognizing  Jesus’ earthly life coming to an end.

How can this be?  We get revived as Christ dies?

It’s the mystery of mysteries that we’ve only begun to understand, and we won’t know it fully until our resurrection day.  What we do know is that for weeks before his crucifixion, Jesus not only predicted his death, he taught about it, too.  He said that when grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12: 24).  Jesus was one grain of wheat that died, but his death bore much fruit for all others to share in.

His death opened up the opportunity for everything that is valuable and good and of God to be replicated through us, his followers.  His death, says the author of Hebrews, gives us the confidence that God’s law of love IS written on our hearts and minds.  That we ARE forgiven.  That we ARE welcome in God’s holy sanctuary.  That clean hearts ARE created in us.  That our consciences are made new without evil.  That love IS worked into us.  Christ’s death means that the redemption of our whole lives is worked into us by Christ, and we are made new in God’s sight.

I believe, friends, that God works all that into our inner spirit and revives us right there.  It is up to us, then, to work out what God works in.  All that is valuable and good and of God lives in us and can be replicated in us, and worked out from us, especially if we willfully pray as the psalmist prays… “Into your hand I commit my spirit, for you have redeemed me, faithful God.”

Yes, these words are associated with words from a deathbed; indeed, they were among Jesus’ last words from the cross.  But what if we pray these words tonight, not from our deathbeds, but from our life-beds, from our new starting points on our journeys of faith with a revived spirit?   I wonder if that means we can identify with Jesus’ death so much that we willfully decide that everything NOT of God is to die out within us?  And, conversely, everything that is valuable and good and of God lives in us, and we work it out in our lives?

Kind of reminds me of when we hear stories on the news of genuine heroes—like the two fire fighters who lost their lives trying to save lives, putting out dangerous infernos.  And the response from

firefighters all over our nation.  They’ve come to York respecting the lives of those firemen—I feel a fair bit of faith restored in humanity,  through those efforts, don’t you? When people act so selflessly and others honor and cherish their sacrifice?  Maybe that’s an example of people working out what God has worked in, what God has created within us—salvation, redemption, and a revived spirit.  A sense that we are created good.  We are valuable.  We are redeemed.

God works these into us.  What we need, I think, is space within our inner lives to let them grow.  I encourage all of us… please pray to God well beyond this Lenten season, “Create in me, O God… space… space in my inner life to let the things you’ve created in me during this Lenten season grow… grow to fruition.  Grow to new life.

May God bless all of us on this new part of our journeys of faith.  Amen.

Light-Hearted

John 20: 19-31              Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

1 John 1: 1-2:2              April 8, 2018

“… but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another...”

Prayer:  Holy One, please help us keep the Easter spirit alive in us as we give thanks for your incredible gift.  Amen.

We are Easter people!   What do we say in response to the words “Christ is risen?”  Response: “Christ is risen indeed!”  These words give a joyful voice to the central claim of our Christian faith—Christ is risen!  We are Easter people!  Amen?  Amen!

It didn’t start that way, though. Imagine you were one of the disciples on that first evening of Easter Sunday, cowering in fear, hiding out in a secret room with the curtains drawn.  You’ve been under cover since Friday evening.  You’re terrified that those in power who killed Jesus might be looking you.  Pretty scary, nerve wracking.  Imagine that, along with the grief you still feel because you remember the horrible events since last Thursday night—how Jesus was arrested, tried,, him getting whipped and beaten, his bloody crucifixion and all.  But, you’ve heard the incredible stories from the women who say they saw him alive!  All this is too much.  It’s overwhelming! You don’t know what to make of it.  You don’t know what to feel, do, or say.

You all watch as Peter quietly goes to the window, pulls apart the curtains just slightly to peek out to see if any guards outside had followed them.  When he turns around, [he shrieks!]  Jesus is standing there!  You shriek!  Would you be shocked like that?  Would you be amazed?  Would you be afraid?  I think I would be… all of the above.  No wonder the first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.”

 Then, he shows you his wrecked and wounded body.  And you rejoice along with everyone else in the room that Jesus IS alive.  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed! Rejoicing comes.

 The Latin word for “risen” is resurrexit” which obviously is where we get our word “resurrection.”  I found it interesting though that another Latin word,  “risus” has a striking resemblance to our word “risen.”  “Risus” translates to English to mean “laughter.”  And of course, rejoicing is associated with laughter, so is mirth and merriment, and jovial feelings, and being light-hearted!  No wonder that the disciples’ fear turns to joy as Jesus says “Peace be with you.”   They became light-hearted. And no wonder that one week later, Thomas’ fear and doubt turn to belief and joy as Jesus appears and gives him his peace as well.

So, here we are, one week after Easter.  We’re not cowering in fear anymore, thank God.  It’s not a scary, nerve-wracking time to be a Christian, (at least not in our part of the world very much. We should keep in prayer those who are persecuted for being Christian in other parts of the world).  We are among those who are blessed because we have not seen Jesus and yet have come to believe.  And, we are among those who are light-hearted, sharing jovially the peace of the risen Christ.  So, let us share this peace with one another.   May the peace of the risen Christ be with you.  And also with you.  Let us joyfully share the peace of the risen Christ with one another.     [take time to  share Christ’s peace.]

 Most scholars agree that the first letter of John was written by the same author as the gospel of John.  The beginning of the first letter of John has all kinds of poetic similarities as the first chapter of John’s gospel.  The purpose of John’s letter and his gospel, is for the reader and listeners to hear God’s message about the word of life—Jesus Christ—so that in understanding that message, the reader and listeners would come to believe, too, and would join in the growing fellowship, this community of believers, people who believe in God and in God’s Son Jesus Christ.

So, it’s the author who believes in the message, it’s us the readers and listeners who have come to believe in the message, and it’s God and the risen Jesus Christ—all of us together and more make up this fellowship, this community of faith.

And the message is this—God is light.  In God there is no darkness at all.  When we walk in God’s light, we are part of the great fellowship, this great growing community of faith.

 To walk in God’s light is really to live our lives highly influenced and transformed by God’s power of love, by God’s light, by what God values.  It’s living with our hearts, our inner lives shining with God’s

light.  Light-hearted.

 So, often we seek out the right fit in so many areas of our lives, which political persuasion fits us, which group of friends best fit our personality, which type of social event fits our style.  We are who we are; we find what works best for us with little or no change required.  And, a lot of the time, it’s important and proper that we do this.

And, it’s true that we do this with our faith journeys, too.  We try to discern which brand of Christianity suits us best.  Conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive.  We try to find out which church corresponds to where we are on the journey.  That’s why many people do “church-shopping.”  We even try to figure out which resurrection story we think is credible, which one we can believe in… with little or no change in our belief systems required.  We’re kind of like that sometimes… our human nature, our culture and other factors make us this way… because we choose the path of least resistance, the least amount of change, the least amount of work.

But, what if, when it comes to walking in the light of God, when it comes to God’s power in the Easter message, perhaps instead of us seeing when the gospel fits who we are, maybe who we are should be fitted by the gospel?  Maybe our hearts filled with God’s light means God’s transformative power changes us? Maybe we’re called to work at that change?

 Jesus once said, “I am the light of the world.”  Jesus also said,  “You are the light of the world.”  If Jesus is the light of the world, and we are the light of the world, and the risen Christ is in this life with us… and to be light-hearted, filled with God’s light, might that mean we get changed, and have to work at changing to live as children of God…?  You see others as sons and daughters of God?  We get transformed within, we do...we will.

 When Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” it really means that the Spirit of the Son of God enters into our hearts.  It means your heart gets filled with the light of God, and it can transform us.  It means God can help us see each other through a different lens, not just as individuals, but as a children of the living God, part of a fellowship of Christ.  We have fellowship with one another. Would you please turn to your neighbors around you and say “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  [Receive the Holy Spirit.]

We can see sons and daughters of God in the person next to you and in front of you and behind you.  We see sons and daughters of God in the stranger.  In the hungry and thirsty.  We see sons and daughters of God in the undocumented, in  the immigrant,  in the forgotten, in the person of other religions, in the person with no religion.  In the person of different sexual orientations. Being light-hearted means we walk in the light and we might see the risen Jesus in people all around us; we have fellowship with one another.

 I read of a young advertising executive who came every Tuesday night to a church’s homeless shelter because they had a foot clinic with a volunteer podiatrist on those evenings.  This executive would wash the feet of the homeless guests, followed by a foot massage with Vick’s Vapor Rub, and then a gift of a pair of clean white socks.  One evening the young executive was asked, “Why do you come every week?”  She said, “I figure I have a really good chance of running into Jesus here” (Adams, Joanna, “Ahead of Us,” Journal for Preachers, vol. XLI, No. 3, Easter 2018, p. 17).

When we walk in God’s light, our hearts are filled with light. We are light-hearted, we have fellowship with one another.

We can imagine God’s pleasure, maybe even laughter, when we share in and live in Easter’s power and joy as light-hearted  people.  Amen. 

 

A Fool's Paradise - Easter Sunday Sermon

1 Corinthians 15: 1-11              Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 16: 1-8    Easter, April 1, 2018

They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

Prayer:  Holy God, you are a wonder to us!  You restore that which was lost, you bring new life from death, create hope where there was seemingly only death.  We praise you!  Amen.

Happy Easter Fool’s Day!  Wait! What did he say? For us fools for Christ, this is a paradise day!  April Fool’s Day and Easter last coincided in 1956.  The next one is scheduled for 2029, very close to my retirement—so I might get one more shot at it.  After that, it occurs in 2040, and that’s it in the 21st century.  Three times.  So, the time to strike is while the iron is hot!

April Fool’s as a day of jokes and pranks is common enough.  What makes it rich and sassy is when paradoxes and false truths lead a person astray, only to have them find out later that they’ve been played.  One of my more favorite April Fool’s pranks I pulled on a woman named Bev at the church I served in Salt Lake City.  Bev is a lovely, vivacious person, always energetic, very overly involved in every part of her life.  She routinely stopped at the church in mid week.  She’d jump out of her car in the front driveway, rush in, and then get distracted and delayed because she was a talker.

One April Fool’s day, she did exactly that—she jumped out of her car, left her car engine running. She rushed into the church. She was there nearly a half hour talking to our secretary, when I got this April Fool’s idea.  I quietly slipped out to the driveway, got into her car, drove it to the back parking lot, and slipped back into my office unnoticed.  Then I waited.  Oh my!  The shrieks!  The bewilderment!  The shock!  “Somebody stole my car!  I can’t believe it!”  I played it up… I feigned dismay!  I hooked everyone.  Nobody knew I did it.  We rushed outside, we looked around, we anxiously discussed what we should do.  I suggested we should call 911.  It’s when she actually pulled out her flip phone and started to dial that I finally let her off the hook.  Suffice it to say, my head was on her chopping block for a little while, but everyone else, myself included, loved it!  I got the last laugh!  She was a good sport, though!  So, watch out!  Of course, I better watch out, too.

This idea behind April Fool’s day, that paradoxes and false truths can lead a person astray only to have them find out later that they’ve been played, is one that exists throughout our faith journeys.  We hear messages of false truths all the time.  Some come from within our culture, some come from human nature, some come from scripture and religion.  And, I realized that I preach about the paradoxes of faith regularly. 

In the end, though, I think God has the last laugh, and God’s message may sound foolish, but it trumps any of our human wisdom.  We are fools for God in Christ, for hasn’t God has made foolish the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1:20)?  Today is Easter Fool’s day, a paradise for all of us fools for Christ.

Let’s look quickly at a few of these paradoxes and false messages.  For example, somehow we think that God can use only those of us who do the right things, possess the right stuff.  Who are gifted! Hah!  Easter Fool’s!

Abram was 99 years old and his wife Sarai was 90 when God told them they would have a child and be the ancestors of a great multitude of people and nations.  How foolish is that?  David was a scrawny shepherd boy, and God tapped him to be the next king of Israel.  Mary was 12, maybe 13 years old when she found out she would be the mother of God’s Messiah.  Paul was an assassin hunting down the followers of Jesus—in fact, he never met Jesus in this world.  Yet, he untimely born, the least fit of all the apostles, became Christ’s greatest missionary.

Remember, friends, God can use you and your gifts, nomatter who you are.  God has a passion for you, and many times God uses those of us among the least.   Easter is a fool’s paradise because God has the last laugh.

Another example… in our Easter story today, Mary, Mary, and Salome all believe the tomb to be sealed.  They knew the heavy stone would cover the tomb.  They would need to find someone to open the tomb for them, and once open, the body would be visible, the stench

of death noticeable.  Hah!  Easter Fool’s!

God’s power rolls away the stone.  God’s presence in the form of an angel tells them that life has risen out of the tomb.  In whatever death moments we experience, always remember, friends, that Easter means God can make life rise out of death.  Don’t let death think it has power in your life.  Easter says that God has the last laugh.

In Jesus’ life, he spoke God’s truth to people, to religious leaders, even to the power of Rome.  The message the powerful leaders believed in was that their voice can overwhelm God’s voice.  They believed killing Jesus would silence him.  They believed that if they willed it, Jesus’ death would wipe out his voice.  They thought that their power, their systems of government, of business, of religion were more powerful than the power of God’s holy love.  They thought that his death was his end.

Hah!  Easter Fool’s!  Jesus WAS the love of God, and if that love were to die, it would become reproducible fruit.  His voice and power of love would be more powerful than ever before. So powerful, that death would lose its power.

Limericks often convey subtleties of humor.  Consider this Easter limerick:

Here’s the question that Easter begs:

Is it all about candy and eggs?

No, the point to be praised

Is that Christ has been raised

And death taken down a few pegs.1

Remember, no way, no how do systems within society and government and religion have power to knock out the power of love.  And, God has the last laugh.

Somehow, there’s a widespread belief that Christ came for only those who accept him… that he saves only those who love him.  Somehow, you have to earn Christ’s saving grace by living correct lives, by being moral and upright.  And, if you don’t repent from incorrectness, then you don’t stand a chance of receiving God’s grace.

Hah!  Easter Fools!  God is a God of total inclusion, and God is the author of Christ’s universal saving love and grace.  It is not earned, it is given.  It is not just for a few, but for the whole human race.  Consider another fun Easter limerick:

While making his way down the aisles,

The priest thought about Christ and the Gentiles:

How Christ rose from the grave

All sinners to save

And not just the upper percentiles.2

Remember, God’s love is all-inclusive, which is why we, as a church, are striving to practice such all-inclusivity, in all that we say and do.  Our fidelity let’s God has the last laugh.

Lastly, Mark’s gospel ends with the women fleeing the tomb, terrified, and “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Hah!  Easter Fool’s!  If that were true and all the other gospels stories were wrong, we wouldn’t be here today!  The deeper truth is that Mark’s gospel really doesn’t end there… the angel said that Jesus had gone ahead.  But, not to worry… You will see him.  God’s love emulated by us and acted upon through us, and empowered by the Holy Spirit in us is the way we see the risen Jesus.

We see manifestations of the risen Jesus in the two firefighters from York who lost their lives.  We seethe risen Jesus in the French police officer who traded places with the hostage in Trèbes, France.  We see the risen Jesus in the people who served the hungry at 1st Reformed Church last Tuesday.  We see him in the youth that stand up and speak to the powerful.  We see him in us.  The gospel of Mark continues through fools like us.

And, God has the last laugh.  Amen.

 

 

1) Brunelle, Christopher, The Church Year in Limericks, (MorningStar), taken from  Peter Marty, “Limericks for Lent,” Christian Century, February 28, 2018, p. 3.

2) Brunelle, Christopher, The Church Year in Limericks, (MorningStar), taken from  Peter Marty, “Limericks for Lent,” Christian Century, February 28, 2018, p. 3.