Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

Fired Up

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Acts 2:1-21
May 24, 2015
Steve Hammond

I want to begin with this Pentecost blessing.
What the Fire Gives
A Blessing for Pentecost Day—Jan Richardson
You had thought that fire
only consumed,
only devoured,
only took for itself,
leaving merely ash
and memory
of something
you had thought,
if not permanent,
would be long enough,
enduring enough,
to be nearly
eternal.
So when you felt
the scorch on your lips,
the searing in your heart,
you could not
at first believe
that flame could be
so generous,
that when it came to you —
you, in your sackcloth
and sorrow —
it did not come
to consume,
to take still more
than everything.
What surprised you most
were not the syllables
that spilled from
your scalded,
astonished mouth —
though that was miracle
enough,
to have words
burn through
what had been numb,
to find your tongue
aflame with a language
you did not know
you knew —
no, what came
as greatest gift
was to be so heard
in the place
of your deepest
silence,
to be so seen
within the blazing,
to be met
with such completeness
by what the fire
gives.
See more at: http://paintedprayerbook.com/2015/05/17/pentecost-what-the-fire-gives/#sthash.K8n1kXfX.dpuf

We are used to fire consuming, taking, destroying, but the fire of Pentecost is a gift, a gift, it turns out, to all. The miracles of Pentecost were not sounds like wind, or divided tongues, as of fire, but that sounds like wind filled the whole room. And the tongues, as of fire, rested on each of them. All touched by the wind and fired-up they went running from their hideout into the streets. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians and Libyans, Romans, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. They were included, too, on that Day of Pentecost. They heard, they understood. They, too, imagined something as if fire.

Frank Couch, a person whose writing I keep coming across, is becoming my Moravian bestie. Here are his thoughts on the Pentecost story, on what happened that day in Jerusalem. English translations underplay the fear-inducing, adrenalin-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-singed, smoke-filled turmoil of that experience. Those who observed this Pentecost visitation from outside the room are described as “bewildered” (v. 6), “amazed and astonished” (v. 7), and “amazed and perplexed” (v. 12). The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending. It’s important to release this story, he continues, from its 2,000 year-long domestication. Its connections to some of scripture’s most primal, disorderly, prophetic roots open doors into a liberating, open-ended array of possibilities made possible by the unconstrained Spirit of God.

Since that first Pentecost we have been living, the Apostle Peter declares, in the last days. His evidence? The Spirit is poured out on everyone. Not just a few of the folk hiding away in a room somewhere. Not just all the folk in that room. Not just the Jews and the proselytes. Not just the Romans or the Arabs.
“Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men shall see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Slave and free. Men and women.”

Much to the consternation of the institutionally settled, this fire is burning out of control. It’s swept along by the wind. Or is it Spirit? Or is it breath? Funny how that word can mean any of those things. And, anyway, who said that just anybody could proclaim God’s deeds and power? And who said that just anybody was allowed in on what was our secret, our special relationship to God. These must be the last days for sure.

What happens when everybody, every boy and girl, every woman and man, every one enslaved, and everyone who is free, can have their mouths, their lives touched by something like tongues of fire? Well one thing is that the dry bones begin to rattle. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. Even they begin to hear the word of the Lord. They take on sinew and muscle and nerves and flesh and breath and spirit. That boneyard valley suddenly becomes a place of life. And they aren’t like animated corpses, the walking dead, Zombies who only see human beings as prey. These once dry bones become a community of the living, an inclusive community of these last days where we recognize that something like tongues of fire, something like breath, something like wind can land on all of us. Everyone and everything can proclaim the deeds and power of God and everyone and everything can hear it, and understand it in their own language.

The followers of Jesus came alive, they were suddenly on fire. Those three years with Jesus where they seemed so clueless, more of an obstacle to the Jesus Movement than moving it forward were, in an instant, a thing of the past. Something like fire settled on tongues that beforehand only seemed able to speak of confusion and disbelief. Or just kept quiet.

Jesus knew all along, though, that those dry bones could live. And they ran out of that room like cats with their tails on fire and they began speaking to the valleys of dry bones. And the bones came alive. And this living, breathing, wind and spirit filled community called the church is still coming alive. And we continue to be touched with tongues like fire. It’s a fire, though, that doesn’t consume, but like the fire that fires a kiln and burns us into our purpose. And it all started in that little room in Jerusalem where everybody thought the fire had gone out.

So here’s a word for those graduating. You’re getting lots of those these days. But, of course, they aren’t just for you. Lots of those things you are hearing are things we all need to hear, maybe just in our own languages. Howard Thurman, the great American preacher and theologian, who sojourned for a bit in Oberlin, wrote this. Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

This day before commencement is always so hard. Too many good-byes have to be said. But we have been building a church with each other these past few years. What a gift of the Spirit that is. And what I want for all of you who are leaving is to find a place, a community of faith, where you can come alive, and also where they will gratefully receive the life you are bringing with you. What I want for you is to have those folk who will stand with you over the dry bones and prophecy life to them. “Hey come alive with us. There is breath. There is wind. There is fire. There is Spirit. Jesus is leading the way. We can find our way out of this valley.”

Everyone in that room was touched by the wind and the fire. Everyone in that town heard the glories of God in their own languages. Every man and woman, every son and daughter has been called to dream dreams and proclaim God’s word. The Spirit of Pentecost blows down all our barriers and burns down all our assumptions. Even the church can seem no more than a valley of dry bones, but as long as we are prophesying life, those bones can live again.

I began with a Pentecost blessing by Jan Richardson and want to end with something else from her, something for those graduating, something for those not graduating, something for all of us to hear no matter what language we are speaking right now.

Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.
It is stubborn
about this;
do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.
To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.
Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief.
Bring your fear. Bring your weariness,
your pain, your disgust at how broken
the world is, how fractured,
how fragmented
by its fighting, its wars,
its hungers, its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.
I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered,
wait.
Watch.
Listen.
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones
a clarity
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made,
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
and into
the blazing day.
– See more at: http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/06/01/pentecost-this-grace-that-scorches-us/#sthash.R7WjZA17.dpuf

The First Ever Church Business Meeting. What Could Possible Go Wrong?

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Acts 1:13-26
May 17, 2015
Steve Hammond

I love the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. There are so many interesting stories in Acts, including the one we just read this morning. Now this has been one of those read by stories, you just read it and don’t stop to think too much about it. That’s why I’ve never preached on it before. But this time, it finally struck me. This is story about the very first church business meeting. Now that’s worth some attention!

Jesus had just ascended to heaven and the disciples all went back to the place where they had been hiding out, having no idea of what they were supposed to do next. So when you’ve got a bunch of church folk together, or those who are soon to become church folk, and you have no idea of what you are supposed to do, somebody calls a meeting. For some reason it seemed important to them that they replace the fallen apostle, Judas.

What I also noticed when this passage came up in the lectionary is that they wanted us to leave out the part of the story about how Judas died, which any eight year old boy could tell you is the best part. “And falling headlong, he burst in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” Now why would the lectionary elders leave that part out? Not because it’s gross, I think, but because it’s a much different story than what we read in Matthew 27.

In the story of the Book of Acts it says that with the wicked proceeds he got from turning Jesus over to the authorities, he went out and purchased a field right before his much deserved awful death. But this is what we read in Matthew’s gospel. When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus[was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, Judas departed; and he went and hanged himself. That’s a much different, and much more sympathetic portrayal of Judas than what we get in the Book of Acts.

It’s interesting what happens to Judas in the gospels. Do you remember the story of the woman who poured out the perfume on Jesus when he was eating dinner with at the home of Simon the Pharisee? Frank Crouch from the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, PA points this out about what happens with this story. All four [gospels] report an objection being raised that the perfume was not sold for the poor — raised by “some of those present” in Mark, by the disciples in Matthew, by Simon the Pharisee in Luke, and in John, by “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him).” Only John adds further commentary, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it” (v. 6). (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2456}

Now you can understand the anger and feelings of betrayal they were all feeling toward Judas. How did Peter say it in today’s story? “…for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” Sure Judas did an awful thing, but none of the other male disciples won the steadfastness and courage trophy during Holy Week. It was easy enough for Judas to become a scapegoat that they could pin this on.

So they have this first church business meeting where the main agenda item was to find someone to fill the office of Apostle left vacant by the untimely and, and in their minds, seemingly, well deserved death of Judas. They were freestyling here. There is no book of order or a set of by-laws they can turn to. There is nothing that said there had to be 12 surviving Apostles. It just seemed like a good idea to them that Judas be replaced and that they draw lots to find his successor.

Now just because something is in the Bible it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the way we are supposed to do things. And there are more issues here worth pondering than the casting of lots to determine new leadership, which the Hutterite’s apparently do, based on this passage.

Look at the process in this story. Before he ascends to heaven Jesus tells the disciples to go back to Jerusalem and wait, wait for the Holy Spirit before they do anything. “Don’t just do something, stand there!” But they needed to do something, so they called that business meeting. They came up with their criteria for candidates for the Apostleship, and then prayed for God to pick a successor to Judas, as long as it was one of the two candidates that had made the finals. And it’s interesting that the prayer came after the process. They cast lots and Matthias was chosen as the replacement for Judas. This story makes the preacher Ralph Milton really mad because it was so obvious that if they were going to replace Judas, the choice was Mary Magdalene.

Who here can tell me what important mark the Apostle Matthias left on the early church? You never hear about him again. There are some vague and seemingly late traditions about him, but they all seem to be along the lines of he was an Apostle so he must have done something.

Matthias may well have done good and significant things, but his story just got lost. On the other hand, have you ever heard of a guy named the Apostle Paul? It was no business meeting or lot casting, or even a consensus vote that named him apostle. But, obviously, God had plans for him that went way beyond whatever Matthias brought to the church. And there were other Apostles that came along, including Junias, a woman’s name that got changed to Junia, a man’s name, in manuscripts along the way. God was never limited to just twelve, or even men, it appears.

Things, important things, can get done at church business meetings. Fortunately, though, we don’t have to always get it right. God can get things done because of us, or in spite of us. Grace abounds and so do our opportunities to grow and listen to the Spirit. Just because Matthias didn’t rise to the stature that the Apostle Paul did, it doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have been set aside for service like he was. The Spirit may well have gotten Matthias to the place he needed to be, it may not just have been what people at first assumed.

That’s why I like the stories in Acts. The thing is that, in spite of a shaky start, the disciples and earlier followers came through. We get to see a bit of their lives and read about their stories and we do see the Spirit at work in their lives.

And here is what I would like to think possibly happened with these two stories of the death of Judas. You can understand the grief, anger, and fear that the disciples felt as they spent those days hiding out in Jerusalem. You can see how that all got turned to Judas, that creep who not only did Jesus in, but put all of them in jeopardy. You can imagine in that fear and uncertainty they were experiencing that they could easily latch on to that story of what they saw as his gruesome and deserved death.

As things went along, though, and the apostles and all the followers of Jesus began to put the gospel on, maybe when it got time to the writing of Matthew’s gospel, the author remembered he had heard another story about Judas and how grief stricken he was by what he had done. Maybe, at least, we ought to keep that in the record, he thought. Life is complicated. Maybe by the time of Matthew’s Gospel the early church was ready to imagine Judas in a different way.

I came across these thoughts about conversion in my reading this week by James Alison that seem an appropriate way to think about what this story of the of the Apostles, and want to share it to close our time this morning. By a story of conversion I don’t mean one of those accounts of how I was bound by this or that vice, had an overpowering experience, and have now managed to leave it all behind me…though such changes are by no means to be belittled when they happen. However, they are incidents, and not stories. Someone can give up doing something held as a vice only to turn into a persecutor of those who lack his same moral fibre. That is not a Christian conversion. The authentic convert always writes a story of his or her discovery of mercy, which means that they learn to create mercy. (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/easter7b.htm}

In The Valley of the Shadow of Goodness and Mercy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Psalm 23 and Matthew 5:1-11
Steve Hammond
May 10, 2015

We’really not talking about the Beatitudes this morning. It just seemed like it would be good to have them in mind as we look a bit more at the 23rd Psalm, which John Bergen used for his text a couple of weeks back. I’m not going to say much about sheep or sheoherds, though. By I think there is still a lot to that Psalm even without the sheep and shepherds,

John talked about Psalm 23 in response to his thoughts about when resurrection isn’t enough. We’ve been doing all the yay, Jesus is alive stuff during Easter, but what do you do when that’s not enough? Sure there has been resurrection but the depression isn’t ending, the cancer isn’t getting better, the relationships aren’t improving, the pain isn’t going away. There are those valleys of the shadow of death we still traverse even when there is Easter and resurrection.

John talked about how we need folk walking with us when we find ourselves in those valleys of death. And with his time in Hebron in the West Bank of Palestine he did some very literal walking in those valleys by walking with children on the way to school. They have to negotiate Israel soldiers and checkpoints. There is tear gas to try to avoid, settlers and soldiers who want to do the kids harm. He asked us to imagine what it is like for a six or seven year old child to have to decide if they are going to walk through the tear gas on the way to school, take the extra time, maybe hours, to get to another checkpoint where there is no tear gas. Or just go back home. At the Peace Potluck he told the story about the family who can only turn left when they go out their door because there is a checkpoint to their right that is just outside their door.

Having someone like John or other Christian Team Peacemakers or other folk walk with you makes a big difference, even if they can’t put an end to the Israeli occupation, or really do much about the tear gas.

That got me thinking about those children and how important it is to have John and others walk with them through those valleys of death. And that got me thinking about all kinds of other people and all kinds of other valleys that are much closer to home, though we can’t forget about those valleys in places far away like Palestine, or Iraq, or Pakistan, or Nigeria, or Guatemala, or Nepal, or Israel or any of a multitude of places where children are the victims of war, violence, corruption, racism, terrorism, and disasters natural and of human origin..

There are kids in this church that need us to walk with them. It’s not tear gas or angry settlers they face, or terrorists, but they are walking through their own valleys of death. And we get to walk with them and with those who walk more closely with them.

It’s not just the kids, though. Many of us know those hard valleys where resurrection just hasn’t been enough. I remember how many walked with Mary and me through that literal valley of death when our daughter Sarah died. As I was telling Bob Cothran during one of those sharing times that John had us do that morning, it wasn’t that people were just walking with us, but sometimes they carried us, and still do sometimes.

That’s not just a unique experience to Mary and me, most of you know from your own experiences. There are all kinds of valleys of death that many of us are trying to pass through. And we need people to walk with us.

The writer of the Psalm said that not only was God walking along with him in that valley, but following close behind was goodness and mercy. It’s not enough to feel like God is with us in those valleys, we have to find that presence with each other as they walk with us. And, as hard as those valleys are, can you imagine if goodness and mercy weren’t following behind?

One of the podcasts I listen to is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I was listening to one this week about World War 1. He talked about the experience of a British soldier who had been near the front lines when the Germans launched a four hour long artillery barrage. It was awful. And the British knew that when the artillery stopped the German ground troops would be coming. The bombardment had been so horrific, that instead of demoralizing, at least, this one British soldier before the ground troops came, all he wanted to do was kill someone.

And suddenly out of the fog there came a German soldier who had been wounded, stumbling along. The British soldier pulled out his gun and ran up to the German and pointed the barrel of the gun at the German’s temple. The German soldier just looked at him with fear in his eyes and pulled a picture of him with his family out of his pocket and showed it to the British soldier. Though, Dan Carlin said, “mercy is a dangerous commodity on the battlefield,” the British soldier let the German go. And the one thing from the war that British soldier really continued to think about was whether that German soldier ever got home. Those two soldiers has seen enough death to know that the only way out of that valley was through goodness and mercy.

Goodness and mercy is lots of stuff like compassion, forgiveness, grace, love, kindness (or that really wonderful phrase from the old days, loving kindness). That’s what we get to bring people when they are walking through those valleys. That path of righteousness that we read about in this Psalm must have something, I imagine, to do with goodness and mercy.

And it’s in those valleys where God prepares a banquet in the presence of our enemies. But those banquets don’t happen by magic. We get to do God’s work by preparing times of feasting and renewal and respite for folk even in the hard places of their lives. And that all happens because walk with each other.

And that’s the point. We are walking with each other. We are helping each other traverse our own valleys of death. John talked about how they all walk with each other in Palestine. How many times have you walked with someone through hard times to discover they have helped lay a spread before your enemies?

And what those kids in Palestine know, as well as the rest of us, is that it’s not all valleys of death. There are green pastures and still waters. And, again, they don’t just pop up. We lead each other to those places that God wants for all of us. We get to help pour those cups that overflow, simply because we are walking with each other. That’s how souls get restored.

One of the organizations that has come to be in the midst of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is one that brings together Israeli and Palestinian parents whose children have been killed in the violence there. They walk with each other in that valley they all inhabit. If those folk can do that, what’s the lesson for the rest of us?

I may be becoming a bit obsessed by this transition business that all churches are facing these days. But things are rapidly changing in this world and all churches have to figure out how they are going to create a new future for themselves. Surely, finding ways to walk with others near and far, in places of death or green pastures is key to the church continuing to mean something for this world. And we get to try to figure out how to walk with people along the way of Jesus, or as it was simply called in early church days, The Way. The Way is a path, a trail, a road, a journey where we walk with each other and seek with Jesus the Realm of God, which takes us to valleys of death and still waters, and all kinds of stops along the way. But we keep walking with each other. And the churches whose folk are willing and able to discern how they can help folk along that journey are the ones that will have something to offer.

I think it is unfortunate that the 23rd Psalm has been too often relegated to funeral duty. Sure it’s comforting in those literal valleys of death, but when you really pay attention to it, it offers us a lot of challenge. How do we walk with others and allow them to walk with us? Is God the only one who leads us to green pastures and still waters? How do we help restore souls? How do we prepare a feast for those who don’t feel like eating or make sure we bring what they want to eat rather than what tastes good to us? And as churches make the transitions we must make, can we remember that it’s goodness and mercy that people need?

The title for John’s sermon was When Resurrection Isn’t Enough. John and I talked afterwards about how Easter was never meant to be the end of the story where everybody lived happily ever after. Like the 23rd Psalm, I see Easter and the resurrection as much of a challenge as a comfort.

I think the response to the Easter morning proclamation He is Risen! is not Risen, indeed! but Now what? And the 23rd Psalm suggests that we keep walking with each other and bring all the goodness and mercy we can muster.

The Earth’s Holy Ground

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Joyce Parker
May 3,2015

Here are the notes from what Joyce Parker shared for the “Soil Blessing: service.
“Train your children to choose the right path, and when they are older they will remain on it.” Prov. 22 :6
“The moment that a child can walk
Like that it which it first can talk,
Is a precious start of exploration into landscapes of creation.
Walking, walking, walking walking, walking on the earth.” –FD Hole … walking on holy ground….
We are designed to connect with nature with body, mind, and spirit. Emotions weave with understanding over time. There are several pathways that we adults can nurture:
1) Experience—Variety of experience helps us be adaptable (trait for human success), tolerant (rain, heat, cold), also to handle fears, become comfortable in situation
2)Mentoring- “Go with me”, show me, collaboration is a second trait that makes humans successful.
3) Understanding –Knowldege (trait for human success)–starting with big ideas such as awesome world, cycles of life, stewardship of creation, doing our part to take care of this gift! But spice it up with interesting details that they may discover—and you may discover with them!
Our spirit and attitude are what is caught by the children around us. So, our first questions for ourselves might be, “Do I feel glad about the soil under my feet? When did I last give thanks for the dirt that literally keeps me alive? Have I recently done anything that would pay respect to nature’s gift to which we are all connected?
So getting hold of those feelings and gathering a round of enthusiasm and curiosity, NOW you and I can share with the generations that follow us.
Last year, I watched with wonder as our 5 year old grandson called out to us as we arrived at their home, Grandma come see the garden! It was just a 10 x 12’ space alongside their garage. With his running (which is what he does most of!) to his little gate, he entered along one row of peas and began picking and eating as he went. His mama said for the children to have access was important and she is also big on vegetables. We got a little sand bucket and he started in on the cherry tomatoes. Plunk into the bucket and chomp into the mouth. Growing right up in the center of it all were two giant sunflowers. We recalled that in the spring for at least 2 years, our son and family had bought little peat pots and sunflower seeds for 2 and 3 year olds to handle and watch grow. It wasn’t the perfect system, but it was done with enthusiasm and some real results. Pride and a sense of ownership had been instilled. I was seeing the benefit for those kids. They buy produce and eat it on the way home. (I cringe because it is not washed, but there is freedom of access and encouragement to enjoy!!)
Teach your children well. And turn their questions back to them to encourage curiosity.
Cultivate a sense of wonder in the natural world. Be curious, explore, let the kids find new things and then look up the details (even on the computer where there are wonderful pictures and videos). I brought exhibit #1 a long piece of string. Have you ever roped off a section of the yard (2X2) with string and then started naming all the things you can find in that area. Dig for worms and insects? Try the woods. Nature is full of mysteries to be solved and when we enjoy the out of doors, we can share time asking questions and finding answers. Plan a walk taking a magnifying glass or camera, go barefoot and play with the stones.
And listen with delight when they tell you of their encounters with nature. Put their findings on a special table for display.
There is a book, How to raise a Wild Child. (Meaning a child in love with nature.) Time in the out of doors can have many benefits.. It is especially important in today’s world so full of technology, screen-time, games, and scheduled time. Children in connection and comfortable with nature are often more relaxed and have a greater love for it —and will likely to want to care for it.
Take a winter walk and view the ice on the trees and look for animal tracks. A lot of “bad” weather can be tolerated if we dress appropriately. It teaches adaptability. Being out of doors can help energize us and inspire us. Play for the youngest ones is most important– “splashing in puddles” is a must in my experience. When I was young I loved to turn our little turtle loose in a big puddle and then worry about finding it again! And now as a Grandma I love to wade in a stream and listen to the water.
One parent has a worm bin and the kids enjoy feeding the worms their food scraps. Vermicomposting has taught them about the circle of life and made them more aware of protection and sustainability
Read a book on the back steps or under a tree. Take a picnic to the park. Lay on your back and watch the clouds go by, feel the wind pick up before a rain. Watch the storm. You know what I mean. Get in touch with the natural world.
It can be a part of their life that they will not forget. Put down the phone. Talk to the Creator about life on this planet. Teach the children for joy and for healthy survival on this earth.

What We (and they) Couldn’t See

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

April 19, 2015
Luke 24:33-49, Acts 1:1-4
Mary Hammond

We are going to begin with a guided meditation. I don’t want to assume anything about your very personal journey, your hidden questions and doubts, or your deepest convictions. It may be that this meditation does not speak to you. In which case, I invite you into a time of silence. It may elicit strong emotion. That is OK, too. I promise you, this journey I am taking you on is deeply related to our scripture story as it continues to live in and through us.

Make yourself as comfortable as you can (on a wooden pew), and take a deep breath. Slowly release that breath.

Remember a time when you believed something very strongly, or hoped for something very deeply (maybe even prayed for it a lot), and things didn’t turn out the way you expected them to. Experience that time in your body, in your being. Feel what you feel. Be conscious, and gentle with yourself (Silence).

The foundations of your beliefs may have been shaken. Maybe any prayers felt shattered, too. You wondered how to make sense of what really happened, maybe even how to trust, or how to trust God, again. Sit for a moment in this space. Experience that disorientation in your body, in your being (Silence).

Maybe you are still in this space about that particular reality. If so, stay where you are, and let that be what it is for now, as uncomfortable as it may be. And be gentle with yourself (Silence).

For others–maybe you have wrestled with your beliefs and expectations and come out to a new place. Maybe this experience has changed you prayer life, moving it in new directions. Maybe you understand yourself, the situation, or God differently because of this journey. Maybe mystery makes more sense now. Maybe some semblance of wisdom–with or without understanding–has come.

If you are in this new place, feel that in your body and spirit. What is it like? How hard won has it been?

Whichever space you are in, notice that space within you (Silence).

Now let’s come back to our gathering with one another. Take a moment or two to just re-enter this gathering of one another (Pause).

Our lives are filled with inner stories such as these. They continually call us from one understanding to another, from “what we could not see, to what we come to see.” In his book, “The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary,” Walter Brueggemann speaks of this process as one of disorientation, reorientation, and integration or transformation.

I believe we could also describe that final step as ‘resurrection.’ At first, something dies in us. Disorientation feels much like being lost. Deep within the cavern of the soul, new life slowly recreates itself. Over time, reorientation brings us home to ourselves once again, but in a new way. What is seeded in us, at long last, yields to transformation or resurrection. We are out, on the other side!

Today we continue to celebrate the liturgical season of Eastertide—this mysterious, mystical 40 day period after the Resurrection, when Jesus appears alive to many of his followers. According to the first verses of the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1-14), Jesus is not just popping in to say hello. He is meeting and eating with his disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom or Realm of God.

Yet the disciples are still doggedly holding onto their exclusive view of the Realm of God. As Jesus gets ready to ascend into heaven, they ask him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:5). When new information comes, they doggedly feed it back into their familiar belief systems.

The 40 days between the resurrection and ascension mirror the 40 years of the Israelites in the wilderness, wandering toward a new home–skeptical, faithless, doubting, over-confident, fearful, confused. We all know those wilderness periods of our own lives, times where we must confront the fact that life turns out differently than we anticipated, and we have a lot of soul work to do to make the necessary transitions of heart.

Could this be what is going on during and after those meals with Jesus throughout that period between the resurrection and ascension? Does he expect the disciples to get what he is saying then? I doubt it.

Yet, does Jesus hope for their future–for the time when the Spirit will blow fiercely upon them–fresh conflicts with political and religious authorities will erupt, and the disciples will stand up strong; questions about including Gentiles in God’s project will arise, and inclusion will ultimately happen; issues of law vs. grace will fester, and grace will triumph? Does he hope for a time when the seeds he has planted in their souls will break forth from the moist, dark earth of their beings, and bear astonishing, abundant fruit? I think so.

The disciples are witnesses to resurrection. They also become bearers of that story in their own beings. So do we. You and I become unfolding stories of resurrection.

There’s no side-stepping the fact that it can be a hard road to get there. Once we move through disorientation into reorientation and sow the seeds of transformation, then the next leg of the journey begins. That, too, offers its challenges, as the accounts of the disciples in the early church demonstrate so clearly.

Most of the time, we are at all stages of this process. As we continue to open ourselves to see what we cannot see, something old is dying in us, and new life is rising. Amen.

Resurrectionists

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

John 20:19-31 and Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-35
April 12, 2015
Steve Hammond

One of my favorite preachers is Ralph Milton, a retired pastor from the United Church of Canada whose theological commitments are what could be called undecided. I think he would say he has been around too long to imagine aligning himself with just one theological camp. The thing is that I have never actually heard him preach. But he does this wonderful web site called Rumors which he bills as “sermon helps for preachers with a sense of humor.”

He is willing to poke more than a bit of fun at our ecclesiastical pretentions, and in the process gets to some important and serious stuff. Here is what he says about the story from John’s gospel we read this morning. “The Gospel reading shows us that the disciples were not all cut from the same cloth. Like the folks in our churches, they come in all stripes and flavors, and they come to their faith in different ways. Some see the thing whole in one glorious revelation, like Mary of Magdala, and some say, ‘Show me the evidence,’ like Thomas. Others grow into it slowly, bit by bit, over a lifetime. Others (like me),” he writes, “are never really sure what they believe.”

We don’t learn why Thomas wasn’t in the hideout with the others on that Easter night, when Jesus showed up in that room, nor why he was there the next Sunday when Jesus showed up again. That’s the kind of thing I would love to speculate about, but not today. But if you’ve got some ideas feel free to share them with me sometime.

Thomas, though, was finally there and got to see the evidence he needed. I think I used to think that it must have been a humbling thing for Thomas to see the Risen Jesus that next week. But maybe not. I don’t think Thomas was making any apologies about needing evidence, and I don’t think Jesus was expecting any.

And Thomas shouldn’t surprise or trouble us. We often hear that folk in Jesus’ day were living in a pre-scientific age, so that’s why they were able to believe in something like the resurrection of Jesus. But, it wasn’t just Thomas who had a hard time buying this whole thing. None of the folk who came to that room were expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead. The first reports of his resurrection were greeted as nonsense. This is what it says is Luke’s gospel. “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.” The people who were in that room on that Easter night were not expecting to see Jesus again any more than Thomas was. Even though it was what we call the pre-scientific age, they weren’t about to believe such a thing could happen without evidence. They just got to see the evidence that Thomas saw a week later.

That second Sunday evening, Jesus appeared saying the same words he did the week before. “Peace be with you.” Those are not the words that we might have expected Jesus to start with. Here is an alternative scenario from Paul Nuechterlein. “His disciples who had abandoned him and denied him are sitting in a locked room, grief-stricken, afraid, and feeling ‘guilty as sin,’ and the Risen Jesus pops in to visit them. You and I would have, at the very least, sacked the whole lot of them. We would have fired them — ‘You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I’m risen I’m going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.’ That’s what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it’s incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! “ (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/easter2b.htm)

Those four little words, “peace be with you.” Jesus was Jesus to the very end and beyond. It was always about peace for Jesus, no matter if it was religious and political authorities trying to do him in or his most trusted friends abandoning him.

Jesus also said to Thomas and actually all the rest, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And it turned out that it wouldn’t be very long until people got the chance to believe without seeing, which leads us to the other story we read this morning from the Book of Acts.

That’s because the disciples did leave that room. In the power of the Spirit they left their fear behind and went out into the streets. Suddenly they weren’t just a group of several dozen, but a few thousand. And those new converts became believers by seeing, not the wounds of the Risen Jesus, like Thomas and the others had, but the power of the resurrection. They saw Jesus in that little community of Jesus followers or Followers of the Way as they were called long before the derisive term Christian was hurled at them. That community of The Way was the proof. They took care of each other. They shared their possessions and lives with each other. They built an alternative community right there in Jerusalem, where people felt the resurrection before they believed it.

It also says in Acts 4 that they were “all of one heart and one mind.” But we know that being of one heart and one mind does not mean that everyone was all alike. That community of The Way was made up of people who had to learn how to be of one heart and one mind even though they maintained their differences. That was the power of the resurrection, the proof of the living Jesus. They were trying to build something new in this world and it wasn’t easy.

One of my many favorite stories from the Book of Acts is in the seventh chapter where the Greek speaking widows complain that they were not being treated fairly and that the Hebrew speaking widows were getting preferential treatment. That thing about how they sold all they had and distributed the proceeds to all that were in need wasn’t quite accurate. Community, even the Community of The Way doesn’t always live up to its aspirations. Unfortunately, Christian communities back in that day and even now aren’t perfect. But they dealt with the conflict in a way that doesn’t often happen in communities, churches, or anywhere else. When the Greek speaking widows bought their complaint, the Apostles appointed seven of the Greek speakers in that early first of all churches to resolve the problem. There was not a Hebrew speaker among them. They let the victims come up with the solution. That is, indeed, a different kind of community. If they had appointed some Greek speaking women in that group, it would have even been better. But we all are learning

It’s not easy being a church or a bunch of followers of The Way who have somehow found themselves together to show folk the living Jesus. We are meant to be the proof that the Thomas’s of this world, and most others, including ourselves, are looking for. There are lots of things that need to happen, thankfully they don’t have to be done perfectly, to be a community of followers of The Way. One of them is forgiveness, which takes us back to John.

Jesus says this intriguing thing that first Sunday night with the huddled and scared disciples. “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I used to put a bit too much on this verse. It can sound like that Jesus is giving the community, folk like us, the power to make cosmic decisions like who gets forgiven and who doesn’t. But what if he meant something different, something like this. Jesus put so much stock in forgiveness. Maybe he was saying something like, “You know, people can do things sometimes that are intentionally or unintentionally hurtful. They can do things that offend God and the people around them. One of the ways to healing and new possibilities for them is forgiveness. Your word of forgiveness can help bring release and relief. But if that forgiveness doesn’t come, they just have to keep on carrying, or retaining that sin or brokenness, or fear, or whatever you want to call it. Forgiveness can help them and help you let go.”

Those words may well have come in handy as they all had to deal with the aftermath of Holy Week. Peter, after all, had denied Jesus. And most of the others ran away. Many of the men, if not all of them, had underperformed. And now Thomas was about to proclaim his doubt. If they were going to make a difference in this world after they finally left that room, forgiveness would need to be offered and received. And that probably wasn’t the last time they were going to have to decide whether they were going to forgive each other so there wasn’t a bunch of stuff people were holding on to. And Jesus led the way be offering words of peace, so they could all move ahead in the power of forgiveness.

In that early church, as we learn from the dispute between the Greek speakers and Hebrew speakers, plenty of opportunities would present themselves for forgiveness to come into play. And I guess the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven really does offer the church a way that bears witness to resurrection, to the possibility of being a living presence of the living Jesus. The communities of The Way we build are the only proof out there that Jesus is alive, even though we also come with our own wounds and scars.

When we can live with each other in ways where we assume, that no matter what people end up doing, that their motives and intentions were good, or at least, not bad then the possibilities for forgiveness grow rather dramatically. And when we regard each other in light of the best we bring rather than the worst, then we are on to something that is life giving.

That little room full of frightened people who never expected Jesus to show up in their midst was made up of all kinds of people. It had become their tomb. But something pretty special happened to them. They didn’t end up all being alike, they didn’t all follow Jesus in the same way, but they found their way out of that tomb and they showed this world Jesus. I’ve been thinking about tombs this week and how we find our way out of them. I guess the best we can do is keep walking toward the light. It’s in the power of that same Spirit they felt in that room with Jesus that we get to offer our frightened little selves to each other and this world and move together into the streets as nothing less than a bunch of resurrectionists. And if that sounds like insurrectionist, it’s supposed to. Jesus expected that we would stir up some trouble when we walk out of our tombs.

Sweeter than Light: An Easter Reflection

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

John 20:1-38
Mary Hammond
April 5, 2015

In his final book, Convictions, Marcus Borg sums up the meaning of Easter by saying, “it is God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus and his passion for the kingdom of God, and God’s ‘no’ to the powers that killed him” (p. 143, Convictions, HarperOne, 2014). In other words, the resurrection story embodies the defeat of the world’s Domination System and the bold confession that Life, not death, has the final word.

Holy Week is so important in the life of the church. The vast majority of John’s Gospel is devoted to this one week in Jesus’ thirty-three years of life. If we skip from ‘Hosannas’ on Palm Sunday to ‘Alleluias’ on Easter morning, we gloss over the deepening darkness between Monday and Saturday. We miss Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple as recorded in synoptic Gospels (In John, it occurs earlier). We miss the last supper, the anointing of Jesus, the foot washing of his disciples, the prayers in the Garden of Gesthemane. We miss the rapidly accelerating collusion between religious and state authorities, and ultimately even with one of Jesus’ own disciples.

We miss the betrayal, the arrest, the torture, the execution. We miss the loss, fear, and shock of Jesus’ followers as they watch events unfold. We miss their anxious, mournful, confused sabbath day waiting for and wondering what is next. We miss the most powerful signs of the Clash of the Kingdoms of this World and the Kingdom of God.

Then comes today. As John tells the story, Mary Magdalene makes her way to the tomb and the stone is rolled away. She runs to tell Peter and another disciple. They come, inspect the scene, corroborate her observation, determine that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb, and leave.

Mary alone lingers. Jesus appears to her, and she mistakes him for the gardener. Yet when he speaks her name, the sound of that voice is singular and utterly unmistakable. Mary’s impulse is to grab hold of Jesus and cling to him. He resists. Instead, he commissions Mary, a woman, whose testimony would be disallowed in a court of law, to announce to the others that he is not dead, but alive!

Sweeter is the Light among those who sit in darkness, who struggle with temptation, disappointment, disbelief, confusion, and all the rest of what makes us human. Sweeter is the Light when we, like Mary, sit with our sorrow and weep. Just when we think all is lost, we hear the Lord call us by name. Arising in us is hope beyond hope, the joyful confession, “He is alive!” The Light illuminates our hearts, shining within us, through us, among us, and in spite of us. He is alive, friends! He is alive!

The Judas Syndrome

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

The Judas Syndrome
Mark 11:1-11
Steve Hammond
Palm Sunday 2015

Mark’s story says that Jesus sent two disciples into a village on the way to Jerusalem to find the donkey he was going to ride into the city on. We have no idea who the two disciples were. I don’t think this is an insignificant detail in the story, though, because it gives us, I believe, some deeper insight to the forces that were about to clash in Jerusalem.

Any thoughts on who the two disciples might have been? There are no wrong answers because everything about this is pure speculation, including the scenario I have developed. I think Judas was one of those two disciples and the other one was whoever Jesus trusted to keep an eye on Judas.

There is lots of intrigue in the story of Holy Week, beginning with this business of fetching the donkey. It wasn’t like Jesus just assumed that some donkey would magically be available that he could donkey jack. Arrangements had been clandestinely made with folk who were evidently a part of, at least, a somewhat underground network that was trying to get this donkey ride into Jerusalem pulled off without the Roman occupiers getting wind of this. They would never have allowed such a blatant challenge to their rule happen. And who best to be in the middle of some anti-Roman intrigue than Judas? He had lots of experience with underground movements that were working against Rome.

This was not the only procession into Rome that was going to be taking place. Because it was the Passover and so many people were flocking into Jerusalem, security was on high alert. What better time for the Zealots and other groups fighting the occupation to stir up trouble? So to intimidate the people and remind them that Rome was in control, a few days before Passover the Governor, Pilate, you may have heard of him, rode into Jerusalem with a whole bunch of Roman soldiers. There were infantry and calvary and chariots and lots of weapons on display. The clank of armor, beating of drums, Roman standards blowing in the wind, the Eagle which was the symbol of Rome on prominent display. The Governor was all decked out in his uniform and was riding a white stallion that was bred for battle. It was political theater, and Pilate expected to be greeted by adoring subjects who were waving palm branches and extolling the glory of Rome. He didn’t care how his Jewish collaborators got the crowds there, just so they got them there.

This is why the bit of political theatre that Jesus was planning for the other side of town, that was obviously a parody of what Pilate was doing, had to be planned under wraps. But it turned out, even to the surprise of those participating in that anti-Roman street demonstration, most particularly Judas, perhaps, that this was more than a parody. Jesus was taking all that Pilate was trying to demonstrate about the violence that he could unleash if there was any trouble and turned it upside down. He wasn’t going to have their little laugh at Pilate and then gather the Zealots and start a popular uprising against Rome. That donkey was more than just a jab at Rome. It was a new way of looking at how you challenge the powerful in this world. Jesus was going to meet the power of violence with the greater power of non-violence. A donkey, and perhaps a nursing donkey when you read Matthew’s story, was much more Jesus’ style than a war horse.

Getting into Jerusalem was not the only bit of intrigue, of course, during what we now call Holy Week. Judas was in the thick of a lot of it. He was not simply a double agent, plotting to hand Jesus over to the authorities. He was, in effect, a triple agent. He wasn’t secretly working on behalf of the religious establishment when he turned Jesus over to them. It is not so much he betrayed Jesus, but the ideals of Jesus. I think a pretty convincing argument can be made that Judas never expected Jesus to be captured. He may well have not been turning against Jesus but trying to force Jesus to fight back, to actually start this revolution that Judas had so longed for. And it’s not that Jesus was surprised Judas would try something like that. There is a reason the word zealot has stuck. That’s why, if my imaging that Judas was one of those sent to get the donkey, that Jesus might have sent someone else along to make sure Judas didn’t have something else up his sleeve.

Judas and so many others were devastated when Jesus refused to fight for his freedom and the freedom of all Israel that week. They did not see how the way of Jesus could challenge the way of Rome. Nor could they see that Jesus had something more than Israel in mind. Maybe the most intriguing part of the week was when Pilate tried to figure out what kind of King Jesus was. “My kingdom,” Jesus told him, “is not like the kingdom you are used to in this world.” Pilate kept trying to figure that out but, like Judas, he only knew one way of running a Kingdom, through brutality.

Even though Jesus was so clear that his way is different than the ways of the empires of this world, there are still many who don’t understand how things could be any different. Look, for example, at the end times scenarios that are so common in much of the church in this country. In their view there is no place for a donkey when Jesus returns. Instead, he will borrow Pilate’s war stallion and reap death, destruction, and chaos on the enemies of God. Everything Judas, the betrayer, hoped for.

One more thing I find intriguing about Mark’s story is that it has such an anti-climatic ending. He’s left the crowds behind and he walks onto the Temple grounds. No palm branches, no cheering crowds. He doesn’t start turning over of the tables or driving out the money changers. Not yet, anyway. He just looks around and then goes back out of town to be with his friends, including Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. What do you think was going through his mind as he stood in the temple that Palm Sunday night?

This is from Jan Richardson from her website paintedprayerbook.com

After all this, Mark—alone of all the gospels—tells us that Jesus goes into the temple and looks around at everything.

He does not teach. He does not preach. He does not heal. He does not confront or challenge. He does not even speak; neither does he cross the path of anyone who requires his attention. Mark conveys the impression that here, in this sacred space that lies at the heart of his people, Jesus is quite alone, and that it is night.

Jesus simply looks around. What is it that he sees in the temple by night?

The gospels vary in their account of Jesus’ relationship with the temple, and how much time he has spent there. Taking together their accounts, we know Mary and Joseph took him there as an infant for the rituals that occurred forty days after a birth. He made the journey to the temple every year with his family for Passover, most memorably at the age of twelve, when his parents, missing him on the way home, went back and discovered him in conversation with the teachers. Matthew tells us that the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, urging him to jump, that angels would catch him. John in particular emphasizes Jesus’ presence at the temple earlier in his ministry, where the temple features in such stories as Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. It is at the temple, according to John, that Jesus proclaims himself as the river of life and as the light of the world, beginning to take into his own self, as Richard Hays has pointed out, the purpose of the temple as the focal point of the liturgy and life of the people of Israel.

This is the place that holds the memories of Jesus and the collective memory of his people. And it is to this place that Jesus returns, after the palms, after the procession, after the shouts of proclamation have vanished into the air. He will come back tomorrow, Mark tells us, and he will turn over the tables and drive out the buyers and sellers and castigate the people for turning this house of prayer into a robbers’ den. He will return yet again over the next few days to teach, to provoke, to watch a widow drop two precious coins into the offering box. And soon he will die.

But for now, for tonight, in this holy place at the heart of his people, Jesus merely looks. He peers into this sacred space that is inhabited and haunted by his own story. And perhaps it is this story he sees again this night. Perhaps he sees Mary and Joseph coming out of the shadows, carrying their infant son. Perhaps he sees Simeon gathering his young self into his arms, singing about salvation and a light for revelation, joined by the old prophet Anna, who raises her voice in praise. Perhaps Jesus sees again the twelve-year-old who conversed with the temple teachers, and the tempter who tried to lure him to fling himself from the pinnacle of this place. Perhaps a woman, once trapped and terrified, stands before him again, this time with the light of forgiveness and healing shining through her eyes.

And perhaps in this place, where Jesus is alone-but-not-alone, they gather about him, reminding him why he has come, calling him to remember, offering their blessing for the days ahead. Perhaps in this space, after the palms and before the passion, Jesus is able simply to rest. To remember. To breathe. To be between.

And you? What are you between? Where is the space that invites you to be alone but not alone, to allow the memories to gather and bless you, to offer strength for the days ahead? What is the place that beckons you to breathe, to rest, to look? What is it that you see in that space? What stirs in the shadows?

Blessings to you in the spaces between.
http://paintedprayerbook.com/2009/03/29/palm-sunday-the-temple-by-night/

Longing and Living

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

John 12:23-26
March 22, 2015
Mary Hammond

Our hearts long for spring. Even 35 degree weather feels heavenly to our winter-battered souls. We rejoice when green grass, or even brown grass, peers out beneath snow-covered lawns. We search for spring’s promise budding on the trees. We hear the forgotten music of birds who have wisely wintered elsewhere. We ache for new life, for resurrection.

Winter’s nakedness, its raw vulnerability, has done its hard work. Planting season arrives. Seeds one day stir from their long slumber, preparing for the great push beyond the safety of their earthen home into the morning light. We watch and wait.

The story of the seed in John’s Gospel provides a metaphor for the final climactic days of Jesus’ journey on earth. Like the seed, he will die and rise to glory and new life. The disciples of Jesus, as well, are invited to partake in this journey for themselves.

I invited Anita Peebles to offer reflections on this biblical image. She spent a lot of time her senior year as a Religion Major at Oberlin College, looking at parables and stories of Jesus, challenging anthropocentric, or human-centered, interpretations. In her work, she searched for insights that could better link nature and humanity in one unitary Community of Creation.

In exploring this particular passage, Anita confessed her discomfort with the metaphor of “dying” as a pathway to “living.” Traditionally, she said, it has been interpreted to mean that one should “ignore the self and selfish desires to be able to clear heart, mind, and soul enough to follow the life of Christ.”

Alternatively, Anita suggests that we understand this metaphor in terms of transformation. An example she offers is the buckwheat seed which her preschoolers in Atlanta are planting. She comments, “Buckwheat goes to seed if not eaten or cut. If it doesn’t serve that purpose, it propagates itself and becomes seed again.”

I have to say a couple things about John’s use of the phrase translated in English, “Whoever hates his own life in this world will keep it for life eternal” (GNB). With the word “hate,” think hyperbole, or exaggeration. Jesus often employs words and stories designed to shock his audience into reflection. This statement is no exception. Remember what else Jesus does and says about the journey of discipleship. Remember God’s deep embrace of the whole Community of Creation and God’s longing to redeem all of it. Remember the beginning of John 3:16, which we discussed last week, “For God so loved the world…”

Consider Anita’s image of the transformation of the seed. Remember Jesus’ story, culminating in death and resurrection. Recall Jesus’ calling to the disciples, to follow him. The only way those disciples can move forward with Jesus is to let go of all that they hope he will be and embrace all that he turns out to be. They have to “lose” the Warrior Jesus beating Rome at its own game. They have to “find” the Servant Christ who washes their feet. They have to “lose” their dreams of jockeying for the top positions in the Realm of God. They have to “find” their place smack dab in the muck and mess of life as servant leaders. We all have “losing” and “finding” to do, the whole journey through.

How do we accomplish this, and keep doing it? For me, the key that makes the most sense is “surrender.” For you, that might be a scarey word, just like “hating your life” could be a scarey phrase. Other ways to describe this paradox is “letting go” or “falling into God.”

If such words are not adequate descriptors, nature calls us back to her imagery. We can take the tiny seed into our bare hands, place it lovingly in the soil, cover it gently with the moist earth, and then watch and wait. The day comes when we sense the awe and wonder of rising, flourishing, and new life. This is our story, too.

Seeds start out small. When fully matured, they explode with life beyond imagination. This is true for the buckwheat, the acorn, Jesus, his disciples, you and me.

I love watching trees. Not just birds in trees, or squirrels scampering up trees. Just trees, doing their thing. Treeing. Standing tall, or subtly swaying with the breeze. Silent witnesses to the ages. How many Oberlin College graduations have the trees at Tappan Square attended? How many bugs, birds, and squirrels have found their homes there? How many lovers have sat beneath the trees on blankets? How many children have climbed them? How many bikers have rested in their shade? What stories do the trees have to tell?

All these fruits of life, abundance, and growth begin with a small seed. Creation is hard-wired for resurrection. Like the earth in its longing, we, too, yearn for springtime within our lives. What seeds are buried deep in the fertile soil of our hearts, yearning to take root and blossom?

[Silence]

When we risk losing our lives for Jesus in order to find them, we free fall into the arms of God. We follow where Christ leads–stumbling, getting it wrong, skipping, getting it right—all along the way.

However we get there, the journey itself is quite a ride. Amen.

John 3:16?

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

John 3
March 15, 2015
Steve Hammond

It’s been a long time since I have watched sporting events on TV, but I am wondering if people still hold up signs like this one in the stands.[Show the John 3:16 sign]. That’s a curious thing if you think about it. This makes absolutely no sense if you don’t know what it means. If you weren’t familiar with the Bible how would you know that this sign has something to do with the Bible? And even if someone told you it was from the Bible how would you find it? And if you know what it means, what’s the point? I guess it’s supposed to be some kind of evangelism thing, but it only makes sense if you already have been evangelized.

What’s your experience with John 3:16? It seems to me that for most of my life I have been told that this verse is key to my salvation. Believing in Jesus is the key to getting to heaven. From the God so loved the world part, how many times do you see the word believe or believed? So believing in Jesus is a pretty big deal in this story. But, believe what?

[If substitutionary atonement comes up, spend some time with that. Do you think it’s really true that the only way God can love and accept us is for Jesus to be tortured and killed? What’s that say about God?]

Maybe we are supposed to believe the creeds. But have you ever stopped to think about how the historic creeds of the church talk about the birth of Jesus (born of the Virgin Mary)? How he died (crucified by Pontus Pilate)? But nothing about how he lived and what that might say about how those of who follow him might live. But do the creeds offer us a kind of minimum of what it means to believe in Jesus? Do you think Jesus is looking for minimum?

What does Jesus tell Nicodemus about what he is supposed to believe? Nothing. There is not another conversation like this in any other gospel. I don’t mean another account of this story, but a time when Jesus calls anyone to believe in him. Instead of saying ‘believe in me,’ he says ‘follow me.’

Let’s look at the story a bit more. There is another of Christianity’s greatest hits here. ‘You must be born again.’ Or is it ‘born from above?’ Actually, it’s both. It turns out that the Greek word used here actually means something like being born again from above. English doesn’t have a word like that so the translators pick one or the other. But it may be that Jesus is saying something like to believe in me is to believe that I bring you the possibility of living in a whole new way that is patterned after how God’s Spirit knows we can live in this world, a spiritual birthing. That sounds like a good way of talking about atonement to me. Suddenly that turns believing in Jesus into something more than just about heaven, but very much about this earth.

What else does Jesus talk about with Nicodemus? There is all that talk about loving the light. Does believing in Jesus mean something about the light he brings into the world? Is bringing light to our darkness another way of talking about redemption, salvation, and atonement.

As you probably remember Mary and me saying lately, the word translated believe could just as easily be translated trust. Does the story take on a different meaning when the focus is not what we believe about Jesus, but what we trust about Jesus? Do we trust what he told us about love being the greatest commandment? Do we trust that stuff in the Beatitudes? Do we trust that Jesus was right about God being a God of life and not death. Belief is easy. Say the creed, sign the statement of faith, nod in the conversation, say the Amen, stand for the truth. Trust is harder. It’s one thing to believe Jesus when he says “I am the resurrection and the life,” it’s another to trust that.

The church has a long history of building communities of belief, but I think the greater challenge is to build communities of trust. Communities where we help each other trust God, trust what Jesus said, trust each other, trust ourselves, and trust this world. We can build communities where we trust each others’ motives and intentions, even when we mess up with each other. We can trust each others’ love and support even if we can sometimes be unloving and unsupportive. We can build communities of trust where we know people look to what’s best about us an not what’s worse. It’s a risk to live in this world with trust as the default in our relationships, but I think Jesus showed us that trust or belief in God and each other is what he was talking about when he said we could be born again from above. [ask someone to play the trust game where they fall backwards and I catch them. Do they believe I will catch them or trust that I will catch them. It’s called a trust game not a belief game].

One of the interning things about this passage is that Jesus may have never said some or most of what we read toward the end of this story. No it’s not that this is disputed text, but that it starts out as a story. ‘There was a man named Nicodemus…’ Since they didn’t use quotation marks in those days we don’t know if the storyteller meant that Jesus said all these things or that beginning at verse 16 Jesus is no longer talking but the storyteller is commenting on what Jesus just said. There is some debate about this in the commentaries, though the overwhelming consensus leans to these all being presented as spoken by Jesus. Does it make a difference to you if John 3:16 is actually meant to be understood as the words of the writer of John’s gospel rather than the words of Jesus?

I think that all that is going on in John 3:16 and the story it comes from isn’t quite as simple as those who go around with the signs or talk a lot about being born again imagine. This is something I came across this week from Lance Pape, a Professor at Brite Divinity School, “To “believe that” Jesus died and was raised to save us is easy to understand in the sense that it requires almost nothing of us. But such simplicity does not honor the larger story John is telling. This is a story about an encounter with Jesus that left an intelligent and accomplished man scratching his head in bewilderment as he went back out into the darkness. This is a story about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us (John 3:19–20). To “believe” this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than “believing that;” it requires “trusting in.” To “trust in” Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story”

What is important to me about the church is not that it is a place where somebody tells me what to believe about Jesus, but that it is a community where I am learning about what others trust about Jesus and what he means for their lives. And I don’t think I could ever come up with a sign that I could hold up at a football game that wouldn’t cause people to end up scratching their heads and wondering what on earth that sign is supposed to mean.