Sermon: Living out a Mental Health First Aid Action Plan

[Jesus went home] and the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and the disciples] could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:20-35

My sermon from the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (June 9, 2024) on Mark 3:20-35.

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Earlier this week, I attended a “Mental Health First Aid” training here at the church. The two day event hosted by Meals on Wheels of North Jersey was to help us recognize and respond when people go through a mental health crisis. Nearly 1 in 5 adults, every year, will experience some kind of  mental health issue and youth and young adults are affected as well. Being mentally healthy doesn’t mean we’re always happy, comfortable, and secure. When we’re mentally well, we respond in ways that seem reasonable while living through joyous or difficult things.  If, for example, we do poorly on a test or we’re ghosted by someone we’re into – we’re supposed to get sad, angry, anxious, and more. Those are appropriate responses to something that is hard. But when these feelings linger for weeks at a time, impacting our ability to go to work, school, or take care of ourselves, we might be in the midst of a mental health crisis. Those attending the training were invited to learn how to respond well when a person they know starts to be a little different from who they knew them to be. And while doing that work can be hard, it’s also one of the primary ways we choose to be for each other – no matter what. 

What that care looks like, though, isn’t always easy to figure out since I’m not a mental health professional and God has not called me to diagnose the people around me. What we need is some kind of action plan we can follow when we don’t know what to do. And the training provided one – using the acronym “algee” – a l g e e – to imagine that care can look like. So the first thing we do is “Approach and Assess.” Rather than backing away when someone seems a bit different, we make sure it’s safe and then pay closer attention to whatever they’re going through. This assessment might even include doing the difficult thing of asking if our friend might be suicidal. While we assess, we move pretty quickly into the next stage of the acronym, L, by choosing to “listen non judgmentally.” It’s not helpful or our role to tell someone to calm down, man up, or to just get over it. We can, instead, let them know we’re concerned and we wonder how long they’ve been feeling this way. This kind of listening is hard because we often feel incredibly awkward while doing it. We don’t really know what to say and we might get upset when someone doesn’t accept the help we’re trying to give. Listening is a skill that is both exhausting and life-giving all at the same time. And while we do listen to the person who is suffering, we can move into the “G” of the acronym by giving them assurance that we’re with them and then share any information we might have. This kind giving can include the double “e” of encouraging them to seek appropriate professional help while also encouraging them to practice self-care since therapy, medication, and just taking a break doesn’t mean we’re not good enough or that we’ve somehow failed at life. This action plan isn’t meant to be linear since we often find ourselves listening, encouraging, assessing, listening, and encouraging over and over again. But it can help guide us through those situations when the people we care about aren’t who we expect them to be and this plan might even help us grow into who we can become too. 

I was thinking about the acronym “Algee” while noticing what happened to Jesus in our reading from the gospel according to Mark. Jesus, it seemed, was caught in the difficult situation of being challenged by many religious leaders as well as his own family all at the same time. Both were concerned with not only what Jesus was doing but also with whatever seemed to be happening within him. The leaders imagined that Jesus was, somehow, possessed by demons while even his mom thought he was completely out of his mind. Our notion of mental health is very different from what was commonly thought when Jesus’ walked the earth 2000 years ago. But I wonder if both of these groups thought Jesus needed an intervention because he wasn’t acting in ways they thought he should. Jesus’ own family and the scribes noticed how he kept talking to people he didn’t use to talk to in the past, while offering forgiveness in ways they didn’t expect, and he kept forming bonds with people he was supposed to exclude. Jesus kept talking about how the kingdom of God was near and yet the kingdom Jesus practiced didn’t have the boundaries they assumed it had. We should, I think, give Jesus’ family and the religious leaders the benefit of the doubt. They, I believe, were doing what they could do to live out God’s will. But when they were confronted by the life Jesus chose to live, they didn’t know what to say or do. And they soon fell into the trap we often fall into as well – expecting God, in the words of Professor C. Clifton Black, to abide by our own definitions of what the boundaries of God’s kingdom should be. We act, trust, and honestly believe that what we think is good, holy, and true match what God wants in our world. But Jesus often has a habit of showing how God’s boundaries are always much bigger than our own. This reality can be scary, challenging, and strange since we assume we know what God’s baseline alway is. Yet the baseline Jesus put into practice is always bigger since the kingdom Jesus lives out is a kingdom big enough to include us too. 

On the surface, Jesus’ family and the religious leaders didn’t really do a great job living into any kind of mental health first aid action plan. Jesus’ actions, teachings, and behaviors didn’t match what they considered normal and so their assessment led them to challenge rather than to listen. Jesus, in their mind, was dividing the community when it came to what God’s people were supposed to say and do. Yet much of Jesus’ ministry was about discovering how expansive God’s kingdom truly was. We, I think, often let our own notions of normal, holy, and healthy, get in the way of noticing what God is up to. We let the boundaries we define be the limit of what life can be rather than letting God show us what life can become. It’s an approach to living that we pretend includes us even though we are never as perfect, good, and loving as we demand others be. And we act as if these boundaries we put into place are the same boundaries God has already built even though Jesus’ love will always be more. This more isn’t only big enough to include the people we assume are with our God. It’s also a love big enough to include someone like you. You, through baptism and faith, have already been made part of what God is up to in the world. And while living into that truth can be hard, it is how God transforms us into who God imagines we can be. We won’t always get this kind of living right nor will we, while living through our own mental health issues, always be able to live into the kingdom God has already brought us into. But we can trust that when Jesus made us a part of His holy family, he meant it, and that he will be the One who will carry us through. 

Amen.

Sermon: Sabbath is meant for everyone

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

My sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 2, 2024) on Deuteronomy 5:12-15.

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Today’s first reading from the book of Deuteronomy can feel a little bit repetitive. It is, after all, repeating what we first heard way back in the book of Exodus. At that point in the biblical story, God had freed the Isrealites from slavery and gathered them together at the foot of Mt. Sinai. For four hundred years, the Egyptians had controlled their work and their rest. So God, through the ten commandments, invited them into a new way of being in the world. Deuteronomy, though, took place 40 years after that moment – and Moses knew he wasn’t going to be with the community once they crossed into the land of Canaan. These words then are primarily a series of messages and sermons Moses wanted the people to hold onto – especially those who were born after they were enslaved. So Moses gathered the community together to hear – once again – the Ten Commandments. And we’d expect this moment to simply be Moses repeating words he had already shared. On one level, he did exactly that – recalling the shared promises they were drawn into such as don’t make idols, don’t steal, and don’t bear false witness against their neighbors. But Moses wasn’t interested in only doing what he had always done. And so rather than merely repeating why the sabbath came to be through the work God did during the story of creation, Moses expanded it to speak to those moments when rest isn’t an option. The sabbath doesn’t simply break up our week. The sabbath is meant to be an interruption that shows us who God imagines us to be. 

Now Professor Julián Holguín, in a commentary about this passage, pointed to two stylistic changes that expanded what the sabbath is all about. He noted that when the sabbath first appeared in Exodus, the community was invited to remember it. This remembrance was always more than simply thinking about it but it does seem to treat the sabbath as a kind of object or thought we hold in our head. Moses, though, changed the words – telling the community to observe it. The sabbath wasn’t merely something we hold in our hearts or our heads. That sabbath is something we do and live. It’s a moment in time when put into practice the art of not working – and this not working isn’t only for us. Moses, while describing who gets to stop, added to that invitation the ox, the donkey, and every animal in the field. This break in the week wasn’t only meant for those who had the opportunity, the resources, and the wealth to take a day off. It’s also meant for the enslaved; those of lower social classes; those who came from somewhere else; and even the creatures we use for our food and our lives. God tells everyone to just stop. You, as you are, shouldn’t turn in that spreadsheet that was due last Friday or make that one more phone call trying to fill your sales quota for the month. You shouldn’t take on that extra bit of uncompensated work you think will show your boss how much you care about your job. God, instead, tells you to stop – because your worth isn’t only defined by what you do. This invitation, though, isn’t only for you. The gift of rest – according to Moses – is also a gift meant  for everyone that happens on the exact same day. The rest we take is a rest meant for the gas station attendant who filled up our car before church and also for the undocumented line cook who will prepare our meal during brunch. The rest God imagines for us is a rest meant for everyone else too. And when we make others serve us while we take our break; we’re not really observing the sabbath even if we made it to worship that day. The sabbath, when practiced fully and completely, breaks the cycle that says God’s creation – and everything a part of it- is only valued through the ways it supports us. And instead of letting the community fall into that kind of trap – one they experienced during their long history of enslavement when resting wasn’t an option – Moses grounded the command to live out the sabbath in the kind of future God imagined for all. God’s beloved children aren’t only worth a break; they’re also invited to make sure others get their own kind of break too. 

Now what we should take a break from has been an ongoing conversation since God first gathered those people around Mt. Sinai. It’s a debate we’ve never truly resolved since what we do – and what we ask others to do – always changes. We typically focus the conversation on what we – as individuals or as families do: such as our never-ending-to-do list or how travel teams impact our ability to regularly attend Sunday worship. It’s a conversation that centers us rather than imagining what life might look like if everyone – and everything – could simply rest. Even Jesus, near the very beginning of his public ministry as depicted in the gospel according to Mark, was caught up in the same kind of conversation since the Greco-Roman world didn’t have a weekend. Observing the sabbath was one of the ways the Jewish community practiced their faith out loud. And it was incredibly at odds to be the kind of people who stop while surrounded by a culture that defined people based on what they do and what they could get from others. When anything other than God’s love and grace becomes the primary way we define ourselves and others, we end up falling into the trap that claims certain people, rather than others, are the ones who are truly worthy. Jesus, and those around him, were doing their part of not falling into that trap by engaging in an ongoing conversation about what the sabbath is all about. And while their answers to that question were a bit different, they were all living into the bigger question of what life looks like one God has claimed us as God’s own. It’s a question we keep living into even as new ideas, new technologies, new languages, and new cultures shape what the sabbath might mean. And while taking a break isn’t something all of us can currently do – the promise at the heart of Jesus’ words – is a promise meant for you. The work you do or can do isn’t the limit of who you are. Rather, you are shaped and defined and held by a God who claims you as God’s own. I’ll admit that, most weeks, I don’t rest as much as I should. I struggle to not only claim the sabbath but also to help others live into that sabbath too. It’s so hard to imagine the kind of rest for myself that would enable others to rest too. Yet the Jesus who lived, died, and rose for you doesn’t choose to see us only through the work we do or the value and wealth we create in the world or even through the rest we claim for ourselves and others. Rather who we are is rooted in who Jesus says we are – and Jesus, in faith and through baptism, has included you as a part of him forever. The purpose, hope, meaning, and promise we have in Jesus invites us to see ourselves, and others, as people worthy of rest, care, and love. And that value isn’t built on what we’ve done but on the Jesus who promises to be with you – forever.  

Amen.

Children’s Message: The Breath of the Spirit

Delivered on May 26, 2024

Bring a windwill

So it’s my tradition after the prayer of the day to bring a message to all of God’s children. And I brought something from the front of my lawn. What is it? A little windmill. It’s a decoration that does one thing. It spins. And when it spins, it makes these pretty colors that are fun to see. But it needs something to spin. What do you think? Wind. It needs moving air to whirl and take something static, something not moving, and bring it movement that others can see and enjoy.

Today is a day in the church calendar when we celebrate who we experience God to be. And the special word we use to describe that is: Trinity. Trinity means “3” – and we talk about God as One thing but with 3 expressions or abilities or ways of being in the universe. That does not mean we worship 3 gods or that one part of God is better than any other or whatnot. Rather, I see the Trinity as a way for us to try to use our limited language and human mind to put into words who we experience God to be. God is always bigger than any metaphor or idea that we have. Yet God chooses to make sure we experience God in concrete ways. One way is through God as creator – and we experience that becase we are created. We live in a world that was created, the stars were created, our food was created, and more. Just by being, we experience God’s creation – a creation we and our friends and even strangers are part of. Next we experience God as Jesus. God chose to live a human life, to experience life as if God was created, and how scary and limited and beautiful life can be. We listen to Jesus’ story through stories in our bible, through the songs we sing, as well as through the worship we do everytime we gather in Jesus’ name. But there’s another part of God that we often struggle with. And that’s God as Spirit – which is, to me, our experience of God moving and living and impacting our lives and our world. It’s the Spirit that tells us we’re loved. It’s the Spirit that inspires us to do good and kind things. It’s the Spirit that reminds us that we are not alone. And it’s the Spirit that brings us hope when we feel hopeless. But what does that look like or feel like? Well – that’s why I like the windmill.

The Bible will often describe the Spirit as wind – and wind moves things. It can be very big and scary and frightening. Yet it can also cause clouds to be in the right place so that rain can water crops that grow. The wind causes things to move – and when we see something beautiful, lovely, kind, supporative, patient, and brilliant happening – like the windmill turning and all the beautiful colors – that’s the Spirit moving.

But what happens if there’s no wind going. How could wind happen when we’re inside – like here? Accept examples but then talk about breath. We can breath out – and that wind that we generate can cause a beautiful thing to happen. You, as created and beloved children of God, carry within you God’s Spirit. And just like God’s spirit spreads love, we get to do the same. We get to be kind even when it’s difficult. We can to love even when it’s hard. We get to make sacrifices so others can experience joy. And we can remember those who did exactly that – especially those who served in our military who died so others could live – which is what Memorial day is all about. We don’t always realize how the Spirit is showing up in our life yet we do have the gift of the Spirit within us that we can give and share to others. So remember that God is with you – Jesus loves you – the Spirit is moving through you – and we see that Spirit at work when life, love, and hope are made real in our world.

Sermon: What A More Divine Imagination Might Look Like

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah 6:1-8

My sermon from Trinity Sunday (May 26, 2024) on Isaiah 6:1-8.

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We’re nearing the end of my first year as a volunteer coach for my town’s rec track and field team. I am, to put it mildly, not an athlete and I’ve never particularly enjoyed running. But when the track team asked for help, I decided to not let others do what I’d like seen done in the world. I agreed to spend up to three days a week, one hour at a time, corralling up to 30 kids, one hour at a time. At first, I spent most of the time lingering in the background – letting more athletic parents lead the kids in stretching, agility training, and more. Yet as the season progressed, I was soon blowing whistles and shouting various affirmations with the best of them. Track, as practiced in my town, is as competitive as each kid wants it to be. Some turn every practice into an all out race while others spend most of the time talking to their friends. The goal of the season is to help kids set their personal records and then push past into something more. Even though these kids might never stand on a podium with a medal hanging around their neck, they can, with a little work, learn how to progress and grow. It’s a way summed up by another parent-coach who, while helping kids with the long jump, invites kids to focus less on getting the perfect jump and focus instead on getting one inch better. These small incremental and measurable bits of progress we make are a beautiful thing we should celebrate. But I’m also mindful of how our philosophy of progress doesn’t always last. There are times when getting one inch better is no longer an option since life is a bit different than a track and field program for elementary aged kids. I wonder if the heavy focus we put on growing, improving, and not letting things be might not be big enough to embrace the fullness of our lives. What we need to do is expand our imagination so we can be who God imagines we can be. 

Now the prophet Isaiah, in our first reading today, lived through something that not only expanded his imagination; it changed his life. He was, most likely, young when Uzziah, the king of Judah, died. Uzziah had ruled for over 50 years and was seen as an able administrator and successful military leader. Through his leadership, the borders of the country expanded and the community’s imagination of who it could be began to grow. Uzziah, though, wasn’t only interested in making the kingdom more prosperous than it once was. He also wanted power over their religious rituals and practices too. Uzziah, at one point, challenged the priests at the Temple, attempting to preside over rituals reserved for them alone. The question of what – and who – was allowed to shape the spiritual imagination of the wider community lingered even after Uzziah’s death. It was at that moment when God invited Isaiah into something amazing. Isaiah, while at the Temple, suddenly noticed something different filling that physical space. God, it seems, chose to reveal God’s self as an over-the-top version of earthly royalty. The throne God sat on was gigantic, pushing beyond the physical limitations imposed by the Temple or Creation itself. The royal robe God wore was also fancier than anything on earth. God filled that space with divine majesty but God and Isaish weren’t the only ones who were there. Kings and queens on Earth were surrounded by all kinds of soldiers, servants, and advisors. And so God made sure Isaish’s vision matched those expectations. The things surrounding God, though, were a bit different – resembling flying serpents instead of angelic beings. Each one of these seraphim had six wings – two to cover their eyes, two to cover themselves, and two they used to fly. While darting back and forth across the heavens, they kept singing “holy, holy, holy,” in a voice that probably matched what they looked like. The vision God gave Isaiah did more than overwhelm him. It also challenged him to re-imagine his world and himself. 

And so Isaiah began that process by admitting exactly who he was. He was, for all intents and purposes, terrified by what he saw and experienced. The words he uttered are similar in feeling as the ones we used during our confession at the start of worship. He realized, while experiencing the divine, how small and vulnerable he truly was. We don’t know exactly what was going through Isaiah’s head before this vision took place since his book doesn’t really flow in chronological order. But seeing the hem of God’s royal robe was enough to change him from seeing himself as a holy, religious, faithful, or even good person. Isaiah no longer could easily imagine his way into a future defined by his work, effort, or opportunity since he realized how limited he truly was. God, though, refused to let Isaiah linger with an imagination that was more human than divine. God made the vision bigger through a holy ritual inviting Isaiah to recognize his place in God’s imagination rather than only in his own. And then, with a rhetorical question God already knew the answer to, God pushed Isaiah into a tomorrow built on the promise that he is with his God – forever. 

Now I know, like I said last week, it would be amazing if our personal experiences with God resembled something like Isaiah’s. It would be amazing to build our faith on a moment so overwhelming and over the top. Some of us, I know, have had experiences just like that – serving as the foundation for everything that’s come next. But the rest of us, I imagine, have moments that aren’t always full of so much divine majesty. Our experiences with God might feel a bit small when compared to seeing God enthroned as king of all creation. Yet I wonder if Isaiah’s story is meant to act on us in the same way it acted on him. The smallness of our faith story compared to Isaiah’s doesn’t mean God isn’t with us. God hasn’t ignored you, brushed you aside, or decided others are worth way more than you just because you’ve never seen the hem of God’s royal robe. God isn’t, I think, primarily interested in your so-called progress but rather cares about how rooted you are in God’s holy imagination. Isaiah, after experiencing God, doesn’t really progress because he knew nothing he could do would ever get close to what he just saw. And so rather than relying on the inches of improvement to chase after God, God chose to change him. The work it takes to grow, change, and accomplish our goals is truly a beautiful thing. And God wants us to celebrate the journey we undergo while learning a new skill, starting a new career, or tending to the relationships that matter the most to us. But progress, itself, isn’t the whole of who we are. Rather, because of our baptism and through the gift of faith, God has already included you in God’s imagination for the world. Pushing ourselves from a  progress-based imagination into something more divine will, I think, do more than help us live through those times when getting better is no longer something we can do. It will also help us recognize how every holy moment, no matter how small, is really part of the one big experience of living with a God who promises to never let you go. 

Amen.

Sermon: Living Out the Spirit of Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Acts 2:1-21

My sermon from Pentecost Sunday (May 19, 2024) on Acts 2:1-21.

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What was your first summer blockbuster movie? 

I don’t mean a movie your parents brought you to because they were embarrassed to be seen watching The Avengers all by themselves. I’m talking about the first summer movie that, for a few months, became your entire personality. For me, my first summer blockbuster movie was Jurassic Park. And my brother and I annoyed our parents for weeks asking them to drive us to the theater over and over again so we could see it. It wasn’t long before I memorized entire scenes from the script and even today, when my car is stuck in traffic during a heavy rain, I can almost see a Tyrannosaurus Rex lurking just out of sight. Summer blockbusters are designed to overwhelm every one of our senses with incredible special effects – transporting us into a new reality where anything is possible. And when we walk out of the theater into the warm summer evening, these experiences linger with the hope that our present can be so much more. 

Now today’s reading from the books of Acts is, like a summer blockbuster, full of incredible special effects. It begins with Jesus’ disciples hanging out in the city of Jerusalem waiting to see what might come next. The city, at that specific time, had begun to fill with religious pilgrims hoping to celebrate the festival of Pentecost in the place God promised to be. The word Pentecost, in ancient Greek, means “fifthieth” and marked a Jewish celebration held 50 days after Passover. In the beginning, the festival gave thanks to God for all the food the earth produced. But over time, that thanks grew to include all of God’s promises too. People from across the ancient Mediterranean world and beyond converged on the city. And Jesus’ friends, who had already arrived in the city for the festival of Passover, sort of just stayed there while everything else swirled about them. They weren’t really visitors to the city nor were they planning, at that moment, to make it their home. Yet they still felt the need to wait and so they did, finding a place where they could stay. Jesus’ friends were still worried that Roman soldiers could show up at their door at any time. So they planned on keeping a low profile while figuring out what to do next. It was then when, over the bustling noise of the city, they heard the sound of a gentle breeze. At first, they probably thought nothing of it but it soon grew louder and louder. The wind, it seems, was on a mission – picking its way through the city to find their building alone. And when it roared through with the intensity of a tornado or a hurricane, this summer blockbuster special effect had only just begun. The disciples looked around and saw bits of fire – like the wicks of candles burning – dancing over each one of their heads. These disciples were wrapped in something incredible that kept swirling around them. And if that wasn’t enough, these fishermen, tax collectors, men, women, young, and old who mostly came from small towns and villages scattered around the Sea of Galilee – everyone could suddenly speak as if they came from somewhere else. 

Now if we could choose our own kind of holy experience with God, something as powerful as Pentecost might be high on our list. We’d love for our faith to be supported by a summer blockbuster kind of moment that we could share with everyone. What that might look like varies from person to person and it probably depends on whatever we’re going through at the time. Yet having a moment with some incredibly divine special effects would, for a bit at least, make it seem as if anything is possible. So often the God we seek and the God we expect is a God with overwhelming power, strength, and might. And while the Pentecost story implies that this is who our God is, when we only focus on the wind, the fire, and the amazing languages the disciples could speak – we miss what made this moment truly special. What they saw, with the fire and the wind and the gathering of so many different kinds of people – that truly was divine. But in the ancient world, people sort of expected that stuff like this would occasionally happen. To them, the world was full of heavenly special effects full of wonder and mystery. Yet what surprised these pilgrims about this moment wasn’t that the disciples could suddenly speak so many different languages. What truly overwhelmed their sense of wonder was how specific those languages actually were. God’s story of love, grace, and mercy as lived out in Jesus Christ was shared with them in the language they first heard as a baby in a crib. When they first entered the world, those who were excited to see this new life among them uttered words of love and hope in the dialect and languages they knew best. God wanted those who had not yet met Jesus face-t-face, and even those who weren’t in the neighborhood when Jesus was hung on the Cross, to know how the love they were meant to experience in their very first moments was the same kind of love God always had for them. It wasn’t the special effects of wind and fire and words that blew everyone away; it was how these words – rooted in a holy love – came to them in a very unexpected way. 

 Now in my office is a black binder full of bulletins from many of the Interfaith Thanksgiving services that have happened in our area since 1968. These special events serve as opportunities for different faith traditions to show one another what their language of holy love looks like. While scanning through the binder last fall while making plans for the service we hosted last November, I noticed how Doris’ name appeared unexpectedly in one of the bulletins. In 1976, St Paul’s Episcocpal Church in Montvale was hosting the service and they invited congregations to bring with them different pieces of cloth symbolizing who they were. Those pieces of cloth would .be used as a kind of banner and some words about that piece of cloth were presented by someone from each congregation. Some faith communities included pieces of fabric highlighting how different religious rituals expressed who they knew God to be while others highlighted their history and their identity in our religiously diverse neighborhood. When I scrolled down to see what CLC did, I saw how Doris Crouse presented what I think is an awesome encapsulation of what Pentecost is meant to be about. “Our church has chosen for its symbolic cloth a garment from one of our members who has needed much care. We are trying to put into practice the words of James in the second chapter, verses 14 through 17, where he speaks of caring for one another. This ministry of love, through caring for our church family and others in times of need, is one way of expressing our thanks to God for all [that God] has done for us.” 

Now on a day when we celebrate God’s special effects, we also give thanks for the effect our love, care, and faithfulness has on all our lives. We often look for things like tongues of fire to reveal who God is; yet God chooses to show up in the ways we let one another know how much we are loved. This love is not easy since it requires us to be with one another during times that are tense, difficult, and full of wonder. But this love we get to share is a love letting our friends, family members, and even strangers know how there is always a place for them at the foot of the Cross. I can’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate Pentecost than honoring a disciple who continues to live that kind of faith out loud. Doris has, in her own way, been a kind of blockbuster who has let you know how much you mean to God. Pentecost isn’t only supposed to be about those special surprising effects that impacted a group of disciples 2000 years ago. Pentecost is always a celebration of who we get to be since we are graced by love, mery, and faith. Each one of you will have opportunities during our luncheon after worship to let Doris know in one-on-one conversations about how your mutual love has made an impact on your life. And we, along with Doris, David, their entire family, and all who call her friend – will continue to keep Pentecost alive by living out a holy kind of love that will never end. 

Amen.

Sermon: What’s Enough to Be Whole

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

My sermon from the 7th Sunday of Easter (May 12, 2024) on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26.

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So if today’s reading from the book of Acts sounded a bit like gambling – you’re not wrong. The disciples, while pondering what the future of their leadership might look like, basically rolled some dice to see who it should be. It’s pretty weird for our Bible to embrace gambling since, weeks prior to this moment in the story, Roman soldiers did the same thing to decide who would keep Jesus’ bloodied clothing. And yet casting lots in the ancient world was seen as a way to communicate with the divine. The general thought was nothing could be truly random and so by tossing some dice or trying to pull a short stick out of a bunch stuck in a bag, folks would gain some holy insight into what might come next. That’s often why the Bible calls out gambling since it was seen as manipulating with forces we couldn’t fully control. Yet the act of casting lots was primarily used to make money and, in the process, consume people’s lives. The Biblical injunction against gambling is long and yet, in the days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples took a chance to fill a hole within their community. The so-called “Twelve” were now down to eleven since one of their own had been the catalyst for Jesus’ crucifixion and death. And so before they spread the good news from Jerusalem and into the heart of the Roman Empire itself, they casted lots to see who among them could step up and make them feel truly whole. 

Now wondering what it takes to be whole is something I thought a lot about this week while noticing all the small orange price tags scattered all over the building. Our Trash and Treasure sale on the 5th was incredibly successful, raising around $13,500 to support ministries all over the world. But beyond all the cash, it was also a lot of fun because this place was full of people living out their baptismal calling to embody God’s love in our world. The church since mid-April felt very full but now, on the other side of the sale, it feels as if something is missing. This building has, in a sense, returned to its typical, natural, and wholesome shape. And yet all this quiet, especially when I’m here by myself, feels like we’re living with a hole waiting to be filled. That feeling is, I think, similar to what the disciples felt when, nearly 2,000 years ago, they realized they had a lot of living left to do. They, in the days and weeks after Jesus’ death, often wondered what they were supposed to do next. Some of them stayed within the city limits, worshiping in the Temple on the Sabbath before gathering together on Sunday mornings to share a meal and talk about their faith. During those conversations, I imagine they wrestled with everything they had just experienced. Jesus not only had refused to act as if might makes right, he kept appearing to them in ways that were exciting and strange. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in the community felt as if they were a bit more whole than they once were. And yet they could also see how Jesus himself still carried holes in his hands, side, and feet. Nothing was really as whole as they hoped it might be and so after watching Jesus assume the fullness of his identity as the Son of God, the disciples wondered what it might take for them to fully embrace who Jesus called them to be. 

That wondering probably gnawed on them which is why they, as a community, chose to do something Jesus didn’t explicitly tell them to do. We have no record of Jesus telling those who followed him to increase their leaders back to the number they once had. Jesus, rather, encouraged them to build a history of love among themselves and in their world. The call to build that history caused the disciples, I think, to reflect on their own history too. The hole left by Judas’ action wasn’t something that could be easily wiped away. They, as individuals, might never process or fully understand what caused Judas to do what he did. And yet they realized that, as a community, they could never be who they were supposed to be if they didn’t take stock of their entire story. The Eleven, with the help of prayer, worship, the reading of scripture, and the kind of conversation that lets us be honest and true, would gamble that the only way they could become whole is if they did this kind of work – together. 

Now wondering what it takes to be whole isn’t something only communities do after big changes and events. All of us, at one point or another, wonder what it would take to make our own lives whole too. We might, after a broken relationship, an unexpected change in employment, or a scary diagnosis – realize the tomorrow we planned for isn’t the tomorrow we’ll actually see. Our expectations, our hopes, and our dreams run head first into the randomness of life that we can’t always control. It’s then when we might feel a kind of hole grow in the quiet of our souls – one we try to fill with anxiety, grief, anger, and sorrow. Our first instinct might be to try and ignore what we’re going through as a way to take control of a life that feels like it might be going out of control. And while that might work for a little while, it wouldn’t last forever. We, instead, need to take stock of the fullness of our story – and realize that sometimes the most holy thing we can do is to wonder, question, lament, and shed the tears welling up inside. It’s these kinds of moments that make us realize that we aren’t as whole or as complete as we’d like to be. And while we might see that as a failure on our part to be the faithful person we think we’re supposed to be, I think a much better response is to pay attention to what our ancestors in the faith did while living through those kinds of situations too. When they longed for wholeness, they chose to be authentic and true to their story. They didn’t run away from their present by seeking to return to a past that seemed more wholesome than it truly was. The disciples didn’t move forward by running from their current moment. They, instead, explored the fullness of what today had become so they could see more clearly the God who would be with them in this life and beyond. Rather than seeking wholeness on their own, they would do this work together so they could love those who needed to be loved and, in turn, be loved when they felt isolated and full of holes. The community they were called to be wasn’t only going to be full of perfect people who always got everything right. Their community would, instead, be full of folks taking a chance that they, together, can be so much more. In the randomness of our lives, filled by things we’ve done and things done to us, God doesn’t want us to pretend to be anything other than we are. We get to be filled with our wondering, our questioning, our worries, and admit the ways we wish we were whole. And while that feeling might linger a lot longer than we’d like it to, your status as a beloved child of God doesn’t depend on how whole you think you are. You, even now, belong fully to God because God knows the body of Christ cannot be whole without you. As you imagine what tomorrow might be, it might feel like all you can do is gamble on what comes next. Yet the God who claimed you in your baptism is the same God who will bring you through. 

Amen.

Sermon: The Call to Build a History of Love

[Jesus said:] As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

John 15:9-17

My sermon from the 6th Sunday of Easter (May 5, 2024) on John 15:9-17.

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So on Thursday afternoon, right after school, the kids and I stood around a little hole in our backyard. We were in one of our flower beds, right next to two large oak trees covered in yellow pollen. The four of us were being a bit quiet while looking down on the grave for the goldfish we just buried. Over the weekend, the youngest went with a neighbor to a local carnival and when she came back a few hours later, she proudly let us all know she had “won” a goldfish. I didn’t expect this new friend to last a single night in a home with two cats and a dog. But come the next morning, I realized we had a new thing to add to our daily routine. This change, though, didn’t last long. And after marking the spot  with a few sticks we found on the ground, I figured it would be appropriate for me to say a few words. That moment, though, was harder than I expected because I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to share something profound since my kids were standing right there but what came out of my mouth instead was a garbled mess. 

Now today’s reading from the gospel according to John can, in its own way, sound like a garbled mess too. Unlike the other stories about Jesus with a beginning, middle, and end – this reading comes in the middle of a really long speech. It can be difficult to recognize what was happening when Jesus said these words. And so that’s why I often encourage us to always put God’s word back into scripture itself. Whenever we find ourselves in chapter 14, 15, 16, or 17 of John, we need to remember Jesus and his friends were in the middle of John’s version of the Last Supper. Jesus had gathered the disciples together in Jerusalem for a meal during the festival of Passover. The city, at that time, was overflowing with visitors which created a vibrant, energetic, and tension-filled atmosphere that wasn’t helped by all the Roman soldiers policing the city. Jesus, along with his followers, had developed a reputation as a bit of a rabble rouser which is why those in authority kept their eyes on this preacher from Galilee. Those around Jesus, though, were hopeful; expecting Jesus to do something at that moment to make God’s kingdom real in their world. These people were filled with anticipation but Jesus knew the Cross was almost here. Jesus’ words and actions throughout these chapters are more than universal teachings meant to turn us into good people. He wanted those who were about to see the end of his story realize their future had only just begun. 

So Jesus, knowing what the disciples would soon experience, chose to stretch a metaphor that – on the surface – sounded as if he was going on and on and on. Dr. Karoline Lewis, in a commentary on this passage, reminded me that Jesus’ longwindedness often has a point and we notice that when we pay attention to the subtle shifts in his language. So to see that a bit clearly, we need to remember the metaphor we heard Jesus use last week. He had invited those who followed him to see themselves as branches that extended outwards from the vine of Jesus himself. We are not to primarily see ourselves as individuals moving about in the world. We are, instead, always connected to the source of who we are. Jesus, while speaking to those who were going to see the life of their teacher cut off from them in a fit of terror and violence, told them to abide in him. These disciples were to hold onto him, no matter what, because he would always have a hold on them too. This holding onto Jesus would be difficult but could be done by living into the fullness of his story. But Jesus shifts that metaphor ever so slightly by telling us to not only abide in him but also in his love. Jesus, I think, recognized that just sticking by him wasn’t always enough. What we would also need was a memory or an experience knowing what it’s like to be loved by God. When our world comes undone; when we no longer have any tears left to shed; what can hold us through is the promise this isn’t what this life will only be about. Imaging what that future might be like isn’t always easy. And so what we often need is a kind of history showing how today isn’t the limit of what tomorrow might be. 

And so with that kind of love in mind, Jesus pushed our understanding of love away from being merely a feeling, emotion, or a kind of fantasy that only exists in Hallmark movies. Love can, and should, create a history where we discover how our hope is always real. It’s the same kind of love Jesus himself showed his friends when, before he even spoke these words, he embodied by getting up and washing everyone’s feet. Jesus, even when he knew that the Cross was near, kept creating a history of love, support, and care for those who didn’t always understand him; for those who didn’t always believe in him; for those who would deny him and even for those who would betray him. Jesus gave up the privilege we’d expect the son of God to claim as his own so that fishermen, tax collectors, men, women, the young, the old, the rich, the poor, the healthy, and those in need could discover how much God valued them. That history of love wasn’t, though, something only Jesus could do. He also called all of us to create our own history of love with one another – as a response to the love he always shares. It’s a history of love that carries us through the loss, grief, and hardships that come. It’s a history of love that sustains us when we do the opposite of what that love should look like. It’s this history of love that reveals what can be even when we are worn down by what we’re going through, what the world is going through, or even by our own intrusive thoughts and feelings. When we create a history of love, we’re not only going to be nice, kind, and never get into conflict with one another. Instead, the love we give is a love that chooses to be present with and for each other even in times of crises and suffering. We, with the gifts God gives us, can – and do – make choices of what this history of love will look like through the voices we listen to, the words we post and share, and the ways we decide that some are worthy of love and some aren’t. Even when the time we have with one another is short, we can work to build a history of love that transforms, expands, and even changes what our lives, our relationships, and our world might be. When I was standing over that hole in the ground trying to say something about a goldfish I had no real history with, I realized I had forgotten my responsibility to pay attention to building that history of love. It might seem small or silly or a bit odd to care too much about a goldfish I didn’t even plan for in the first place – yet even our smallest moments can be an opportunity to build that history with everything around us. I can’t change what this last week was like – but I can choose to make this week, the next week, and every week after that to one where I build a history of love – one that reflects the love that Jesus continues to build with all of us everyday. 

Amen. 

Sermon: Living into God’s Agenda

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Acts 8:26-40

My sermon from the 5th Sunday of Easter (April 28, 2024) on Acts 8:26-40

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So I don’t know if you noticed but our first reading from the book of Acts appears to be missing a verse. If you look closely at the text as it was printed in the bulletin, we can see a series of numbers starting at 26 which signify the notation known as verses that appear all through our Bible. They were added centuries after these stories were originally written as a kind of marker letting us know where we were within each book. When we track the numbers, we can see number 33, 34, 35, and 36. But where we’d expect to find number 37, we instead 38. Now there are times during worship when we might skip a verse or two as a way to focus on one specific theme or idea. But today’s jump from 36 to 38 is something completely different. Scholars theorize that sometime during the first two or three hundred years of Christianity, a copy of the book of Acts might have had a few notes scribbled in the margin. These words were, most likely, used in the early church as a confession of faith during a baptism and it’s not hard to imagine someone scribbling those words next to a baptismal story in the Bible. But, later on, when that book was copied by hand, those scribbles ended up as part of the story itself. We could brush this off as a simple mistake that lingered past the point when verses were added to the Bible even though some of the earliest manuscripts didn’t include those words. Yet there’s also the issue that this insertion wasn’t really questioned since, in the words of the Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger, there was a “ feeling that Philip would not have baptized the Ethiopian without securing a confession of faith that needed to be included in the narrative.” When the Ethiopian asked Philip “what’s to prevent me from being baptized,” Philip’s silence was a bit too much. It didn’t seem possible that this Ethiopian official from the court of Queen Candace could become part of the body of Christ without doing something to prove they truly belonged. 

Now the book of Acts takes us along the journey as the followers of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the capital of the Roman Empire itself. The book is full of incredible moments of healing, hope, and joy but also plenty of challenges. There were all kinds of issues, including threats of violence from folks who didn’t really get what this Jesus movement was all about. And the Christian community itself struggled knowing what to do with all the people who kept showing up but didn’t match Jesus’ own identity as an Aramiac speaking Jew from Galilee. It’s in the middle of all this complication when we meet a Greek-speaking Jewish apostle named Philip. He had, right before our reading today, had success starting new Christian communities in the land of Samaria. But instead of taking time to shepherd those new communities, an angel of the Lord sent Philip to an isolated road in the middle of the desert. While there, in a place no one would expect to find anyone to preach to, Philip noticed a stranger riding down the road. We never learn this stranger’s name but we do learn a lot about him. They were, most likely, African in origin and they served as the chief financial officer for the queen of the Ethopians. This meant they were responsible for managing an incredible amount of wealth yet it’s also very probable they were enslaved. They were heading home after visiting the city of Jerusalem for religious purposes because it seems they considered themselves a god-fearer. While in the city, this official secured a copy of the book of Isaiah which – in those days – was really hard for a private individual to find or even afford. This person had a lot of overlapping identities that made them who they are. Yet the one identity the book of Acts highlights the most is their status as a eunuch. This identity allowed him access to all kinds of political and financial power because his sexuality and gender was no longer seen as a threat. They were, instead, viewed as a kind of deviant – a so-called “no-man” who didn’t fit in anywhere. Their status as an outsider not only shaped how they lived but also influenced the faith they were allowed to practice. In the words of Biblical scholar F. Scott Spencer, the eunuch “suffer[ed] [not only] widespread stigmatization in Gentile and Jewish society as a permanently emasculated, mutilated figure unable to procreate,” he also “remain[ed] ‘cut off’ by law from full participation in the covenant community, according to Deuteronomy 23:1.” The Ethiopian eunuch believed in God and yet because of the things that had happened to him, by choice or by force, he didn’t really know his place within God’s household. What he needed to know was if God’s community could, would, or even should, include someone like him. 

And that’s why this story has stirred the spiritual imagination of the faithful for centuries while, at the same time, made them feel incredibly uncomfortable. When we’re honest about what we’ve done, what we’ve left undone, and all the things that make us who we are – asking if this Jesus thing has a place for us is one of the most faithful questions we can ask. We wonder how the household of God can truly contain complicated people especially those who don’t fit the so-called “norm” that’s around us. Communities, including the church, also have their own ways of letting people know who fits, who matters, and who should run and hide. And while we can really believe the body of Christ is a pretty big thing that extends beyond all time and space, it can still feel as a fairly exclusive place. These questions can help us uncover a little more about what God’s love is all about but have also been used to justify all kinds of cruelty and suffering. That’s why, I think, the early Bible copyists didn’t really question why a baptismal confession showed up when the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized in the middle of the desert. They assumed he had done something to show why he belonged. But Philip, rather than following that very human agenda, made the choice in this moment to follow God’s. He noticed the passage the eunuch was reading, a part of the prophet Isaiah describing a shamed sheep-like figure to whom “justice” and the chance for an offspring had been denied. Philip quickly recognized how this passage not only pointed to Jesus but how it also included the eunuch too. Philip knew the good news he needed to hear. And so in words that were not recorded but ones we can assume were shared, Philip let this complicated treasury official know that in Jesus, with Jesus, and despite all the ways we do our best to claim who belongs and who doesn’t including through something as violent as crucifixion on a Cross – Philip let the Ethiopian eunuch know how the household includes even him since God’s grace was meant for all. 

The baptismal note, scribbled in the margins, wasn’t supposed to hint at what the Ethiopian eunuch was supposed to do; rather, it was a revelation of what he, with Jesus, would now get to do. The barriers built around him and those barriers he built around himself had already come tumbling down. The identity he had in Jesus would wrap itself around everything that made him who he was, shaping, informing, cherishing, and transforming his life to come. No longer would Queen Constance’s agenda, Philip’s agenda, or anyone else’s agenda have an overwhelming claim on his life. Rather, the Jesus who lived, died, and rose for him would be his – forever. I know that, for me, wondering if I truly belong will never really go away since I’m fully aware of all the  ways I fail to live out the kingdom of God. But I trust that it isn’t my calling to decide who does – and who doesn’t – belong. Rather, like Philip, we get to be honest about all our questions, all our wondering, and all the identities we claim as our own. And that’s when we can give ourselves and others the good news that we have a place with God because Jesus loves them, Jesus loves you, and Jesus promises to always bring you through.

Amen.

Sermon: We Have a Real Unidealized Shepherd

[Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

John 10:11-18

My sermon from the 4th Sunday of Easter (April 21, 2024) on John 10:11-18

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So last Sunday, folks from all over Woodcliff Lake met at the reservoir for a clean up. This event was something I’ve always wanted to do and I had, in my mind, a sort of idyllic expectation of how the day would go. Me, my kids, and a lot of our neighbors would carefully, safely, and without any grumbling or complaining, work together to take care of God’s creation on a pleasant day. If there was a word to describe the soft-focused image of what I expected that moment to be – it would be pastoral. When we arrived, everyone put on a pair of thick disposable plastic gloves, grabbed a trash picker, and a heavy duty contractor grade plastic bag. We were ready to make a difference in our community when, right when it was scheduled to begin, it started to rain. I’ll admit that standing along the lakeshore in the cold pouring rain while surrounded by garbage that flooded the lake during prior rainstorms wasn’t as fun as I thought it might be. The work we were going to do was necessary but it was going to be quite messy trying to fish out all the plastic bottles, soccer balls, old tires, pieces of lawn furniture, propane tanks, medical syringes, as well as a million tiny pieces of styrofoam out of our drinking water. The pastoral scene of an entire community coming together to make things better ran into the reality that this kind of work is often more difficult and dirtier than we’d like it to be. 

In the three year cycle of Bible readings we use for Sunday worship, the fourth Sunday of Easter is set aside as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And we take time over these three years to read through 30 or so verses from the tenth chapter of John. These verses seem related to each other since they all seem to talk about a shepherd and some sheep. Now Jesus, from what we can tell, didn’t have much first hand experience living as a shepherd during his earthly ministry. He was, after all, the son of a carpenter and spent most of his time traveling from village to village and city to city. We don’t have any direct evidence he ever woke up in the middle of the night to wander into the fields to check on the sheep entrusted to his care so his use of the words sheep and shepherd are more attuned to some kind of metaphor rather than any personal experience. The people he was speaking to knew, and accepted, the image of a shepherd as a kind of idealized image of who God is. It was the responsibility of the shepherd to keep constant watch over those who don’t always listen. They would need quite a bit of patience, resilience, and all kinds of grace to not only lead those entrusted to them but also to care for their needs, hurts, concerns, and worries. This idealized shepherd would let the sheep be exactly who they are but not let that be the limit of who they could be. And when a sheep went astray, this shepherd would put themselves on the line for whoever is part of their fold. We can, if we pause and take a moment, probably imagine exactly what this kind of shepherd might look like. And yet I wonder if our image of the shepherd would highlight just how dirty, dusty, and dangerous this kind of work truly is. Metaphors have a habit of revealing the truth of what something can be while, at the same time, masking the reality of what that truth actually looks like. Jesus, I think, was aware of this kind of disconnect since, in his day, the shepherd was an image for God yet actual shepherds were viewed with suspicion, worry, and fear. It was easy to dismiss them as merely hired hands since most were from the lowest rungs of the social ladder working long hours under extremely dangerous conditions overseeing sheep they didn’t own. These shepherds played a vital role in an economy where flocks were a sign of wealth, power, food, and industry. Yet these people were often viewed as being worth less than the sheep they cared for. God, as a shepherd, was an idealized image of love and support easy to see yet we can also separate it from all the dirt and grime real life actually brings. 

And Jesus, I think, knows how our idealization of faith, hope, God, and Jesus, can get in the way of what our life can be. Too often our expectations of faith are littered with idealizations that assume a life of faith should look and feel as if we were sheep hanging out in a green field on a perfect warm spring day. Faith, though, is often a bit more murky since it’s meant to hold us even through those rainy days when we’re living with all the garbage life brings. Jesus wasn’t’ the good shepherd because he promised us a life that would match the idealized life we assume we’re supposed to have. Rather, he’s our good shepherd because even when life is far from perfect, we’re with the One who promises we will always belong. This kind of shepherding and living is messy which is why today’s reading is his interpretation of what had happened in John, chapter 9. Jesus, after running into a man born blind, made him one of His own. Rather than playing the game of wondering what this man or his parents did to cause his condition, Jesus simply did what a good shepherd does by showing him where a more abundant life could be found. We could, if we stay too focused on our idealized assumptions about faith, act as if Jesus’ physical actions around the man are what being with God is all about. Yet even before his sight was made brand new, he was already part of Jesus’ flock. Jesus spoke – and the man listened – which then led to an unexpected life that was full of its own turmoil and struggle. The community, unsure of what was going on, separated the man from them since they couldn’t handle what he had become. And so Jesus, after learning this, left everything behind to find the one who was pushed aside and show how he was worth so much more. In Jesus, this man found a place where he will always belong. And when Jesus’ journey in the world led him to the cross, Jesus showed the man born blind – and everyone else – just how far God will go for the world God loves. 

There’s a tendency to use the metaphors of sheep and shepherd to unintentionally craft an idealized image of what being with Jesus is all about. Jesus, though, doesn’t choose to be with us only in these so-called pastoral moments. Jesus chooses to do the hard work of living our lives with us – especially during those moments that are dirty and grim. Jesus knows that, no matter our expectations, there will be days when the rain just falls. And while those moments are not God’s dream for us, Jesus promises that, in Him, we will always belong. What we or others say and do will not be the limit of who we get to be with our God. Instead, we are led by a good shepherd who knows you, sees you, and shows you what love actually looks like. This love that we receive is also the shape of love we get to express to others. And when we put into practice a way of life letting others know how they belong with us and with their God, we aren’t simply being idealized sheep living in an unideal world. We are, rather, showing what the Good Shepherd will do because we belong to Him and He belongs to the world. 

Amen.