If Jesus returned today…

A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

June 24, 2018

 

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

 

5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

 

This week’s scripture is written by the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians. Now, if you were here last week, you would have heard me talking about Paul’s great love for the Thessalonians. I believe I told you that it was a toss up whether Paul liked the Thessalonians or the Philippians better. Well, today we are talking about Team Thessalonica – that’s where the Thessalonians live.

 

And Paul loved these Thessalonians. When you read through this whole letter – and you should because it’s only five chapters – you get a clear sense of Paul’s affection for them. Early in this letter, Paul writes about his time among them: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” (1 Thess 2: 7-8) Here Paul is thinking of himself as a nursing mother to this infant church. He is pledging commitment to sharing both the good news of Christ and his very self with them. He loves them.

 

As Paul begins to write the portion of the letter we heard today, it is grounded in deep love for his people. Now these kinds of passages in scripture sometimes strike us as threatening. Here we see what some scholars call Paul’s “apocalyptic hope.” Throughout Paul’s letters, there is a real sense that the end is coming soon. Paul believes that Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection was, essentially, the beginning-of-the-end. It was the start of this cosmic turn from brokenness toward the endgame of a full restoration of God’s creation.

 

And Paul believed that Jesus was going to come again – to complete the job he had started. In chapter 4 of this letter, Paul assures the believers that when Christ returns to metaphorically join heaven and earth, those among them who are still alive (as well as those who have died) will be with Christ in that reality. Now remember, Paul is not writing this letter to us. He’s writing it to the Thessalonians in about 51 AD. And he is telling those folks that some of them are going to be alive when Jesus returns.

 

Well, to state the obvious, Paul was wrong. I know that’s shocking, but he makes clear in 1st Thessalonians and 1st Corinthians that he really does think that Jesus is coming back within his lifetime – or at least the lifetimes of his immediate followers. And before everything can be made whole again, Paul expects there will be judgment. In order for goodness to reign, evil has got to go.

 

The scholar I have been reading, NT Wright, describes that final judgment like this: He says, on the day of Christ, “God would sort the whole thing out once and for all. On that day when all human corruption and wickedness would face ‘anger and fury’ and ‘trouble and distress,’ those who had turned away from idols would be rescued by Jesus himself” (Wright, Paul: A Biography, p. 216). And he writes in summary, even though we don’t know when it will happen, “The point is that heaven and earth will come together and those who belong to the Messiah will be part of it” (p. 221).

 

And Paul has a real sense of urgency about this. Because despite him saying himself that no one knows that day or the time that it will happen, he feels like it is just around the corner. He senses and probably hopes that any day now, he and all of his followers are going to be called to account for whether they have actually been living “in Christ” or not.

 

Now, 2,000 years after Paul, we are still waiting. And we also do not know the day or the time when we might enter fully into the presence of God. Sometimes people read this scripture as having to do with the reality that we never really know when death will come. Occasionally, it’s used to scare a verbal profession of faith into children or the dying.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Paul definitely is into people professing faith in Christ.

 

But Paul also makes clear, over and over in his letters, that faith in Christ is not just about saying you believe something: it’s about living a life that has been transformed by your encounter with Christ. And, as Paul says here, on that day when you come face to face with Jesus, it’s not about whether you have professed “I believe.” It’s about whether you have been living in the light of Jesus’ love, rather than in the dark of your self-seeking schemes.

 

Remember I told you that Paul LOVES the Thessalonians. He loves them enough to tell them the full truth of the gospel. The first truth is this: God loves you incomprehensibly. God loves you and demonstrated that love for you by becoming human, by humbling Godself, by sharing in our death, and by making it possible to share in God’s resurrection. This is good news!

 

And the other part of that good news is that faith in Christ creates…dare I say demands…a transformed life here and now. Once you truly realize the depth of God’s love for you, once you respond in gratitude to the grace and abundance that God has given to you, life should not and will not be the same.

 

And when you are truly in Christ, you realize that God’s love is not just for you (singular), it is for you (plural) – all of us. And not even just the people in this church. Not just the people in this country. God’s liberating and saving love, God’s promise of abundance is for every one of God’s children wherever that child has been born on this earth.

 

Now that we are “in Christ,” we have a responsibility to care for one another.

 

I have to admit that I was convicted by this scripture when I read it this week. I had picked it weeks ago. So it was there waiting for me this past Monday morning, inviting me to reflect on how I have been doing, on how I would feel if Jesus showed up in my office and assessed how I am doing, specifically, as your pastor.

 

And I was convicted. I sensed a need for repentance.

 

See, last Sunday, I should have talked with you about our country’s immigration crisis. On the way home from Annual Conference, I had heard the reports about families being separated at the border. I had heard that an official in the administration had used our Christian faith, a particular passage from Romans 13, to defend the practice. (This passage of course was used to justify returning slaves to their owners before the Civil War as well.) I knew about this last Friday and last Saturday, and I should have said something about it last week in worship. But I didn’t.

 

So I had to confess. I had to confess my laziness, my complacency. I already had a sermon written. It had been a long week at Annual Conference. I didn’t want to stay up into the wee hours of Sunday morning writing another sermon. And so I chose to look away. When I imagined Jesus showing up in my office, I was smacked in the face with what a sin that is – to sit in my comfortable place and just choose to look away from injustice and suffering.

 

I also had to confess my fear. See, I love you people. And I know we are not all of one mind politically. I don’t want any one of you to be angry or upset by something I say in worship. So I was afraid, and it kept me from speaking out on behalf of the most vulnerable.

 

And finally, and this is the hardest one to admit, friends. I had to confess my pride. I had to confess my clinging to the idol of worldly success. Because I had thought: I really should just talk about things that are encouraging. That’s what people really want to hear. Now I’m not judging that. That’s what I really want to hear and talk about, too. So I worried, if I talk about hard things like immigration, and folks are unhappy, these pews might get pretty empty. And I would be seen as a failure. And so my pride, my love of that idol of worldly success, that temptation to be ruled by what other people think of me, kept me from speaking out on behalf of the most vulnerable.

 

I had to confess, and after confession, life in Christ calls for repentance. Repentance is simply a turn away from sin back toward God. In the language of today’s scripture, it’s the decision to live as a child of the light instead of a child of the dark.

 

So this week, I am endeavoring to turn and to live in a new way. And it is not always pretty. I did not want to spend the week sorting through news about children being separated from their families. I did not want to hear the audio recordings of their cries or see the pictures of their faces. I really, really did not want to watch the videos I sought out where Honduran refugees told the stories of rape and murder that caused them to leave home and come to our border in desperation.

 

But I spent the week reading and watching and listening anyway – so that I could see the immigrants and refugees coming to our border as fully human. I sought as much as I could to put myself in their shoes and to be brutally honest about what I would do, and also brutally honest about the difference between my life and theirs. I live a comfortable, safe, middle class existence. My fears for my family are pretty much imaginary. We are extraordinarily safe. And many of these migrant families are literally, literally, and daily at risk of death.

 

As the poet Warsan (War-Son) Shire puts it, “no one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.” So if I was in their shoes, you are darn right I would try to get to safety. I would probably break some laws. I would try to seek asylum however unlikely it was that I’d be approved. I would even send my daughter without me if that’s what it took to save her life. And I would pray. I would pray that someone who is living in the light of Christ would be in this country to receive her.

 

I am glad that our government has committed to changing its practice of separating families. That’s an excellent decision. And it is not enough. We continue to have a moral crisis in this country around immigration.

 

Now, I am a realist. I know there are great practical hurdles to address. Laws need to be changed. Administrative practices need to be tightened. But I believe, before we update any laws or change any policies, we need to start by acknowledging the full humanity – the identity of migrants and refugees as children of God. Any dehumanization of them needs to stop. We in this nation can no longer refer to people as “illegals.” We can no longer infer that they are all gang members or criminals. We can no longer use words like “infest” when we talk about human beings.

 

Because the people arriving at our border are people. They are beloved children of God, and they need our help, not our fear and disdain. And – on top of that – most of them are Christians. These are our siblings-in-Christ. We cannot turn our backs on them. We cannot just look away, as we send them back to abject poverty and war zones.

 

 

As your pastor, it is my job to preach the gospel. And the gospel is this: God loves you. God loves each one of you so much you can’t even fully comprehend it. And God loves the people arriving with such great need at our borders – the same. God loves each one of us the same.

 

Jesus laid down his life for that refugee at the border.

 

May we live in the light of Christ as we receive them.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

Our Perfect and Fierce Mother God

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

May 13, 2018

 

Isaiah 49: 13-15

 

13

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

break forth, O mountains, into singing!

For the Lord has comforted his people,

and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

14

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,

my Lord has forgotten me.”

15

Can a woman forget her nursing child,

or show no compassion for the child of her womb?

Even these may forget,

yet I will not forget you.

 

I am a part of a number of Methodist and/or clergy groups on Facebook. And this time of year, the same passionate debate always arises: how does or should your church observe Mother’s Day? There are essentially four camps. Camp One is very simple: yes, we celebrate Mother’s Day. We give flowers to all the moms, and we ask them to stand and we applaud them in worship, and it is great. Camp 2 is something like this: Mother’s Day is not a religious holiday, and it really shouldn’t be in our worship service – except maybe I’ll mention it during prayer time. That’s about it.

 

Camp 3 is like, “oh heck no, Mother’s Day is risky business. Some people experience a lot of hurt around mothering, so we are not going to even mention it.” I am in Camp 4, which agrees with Camp 3 that Mother’s Day is risky business, and people do experience hurt around mothering. But Camp 4 says this is exactly why we should talk about it in church. We talk about meaningful things here, even when it’s hard.

 

So…motherhood. It’s risky business. For so many reasons. In our opening prayer [1], I tried to capture all the hurt people might experience around mothering. Maybe we are disappointed by or simply missing our own mothers. Maybe we are mothers who are disappointed by or missing our children – or mourning the child we could never have. Maybe we are just about buckling under all the expectations of being a perfect mother. Maybe we are struggling under the real physical demands of mothering. Whether we are “officially” a mother or any kind of caregiver, maybe we just feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, and we can never give everything that our loved ones need.

 

Whenever we choose to love and nurture like a mother, it is risky business. Author Elizabeth Stone wrote these words: “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

 

I would expand this to say that whenever you’ve decided to love and be responsible for caring for and nurturing someone – whether that’s your child, a grandchild, a niece, a nephew, a sibling, a friend’s child, the students in your classroom, children in this church, whoever. When you choose to love like a mother, it’s like letting your heart go walking around outside your body.

 

Now that’s risky business.

 

As much as you want to be perfect and perfectly protect that child from everything bad that might happen in the world, you can’t. You are simply human. And the world is broken. No human mother can be perfect. There are too many challenges, too many stressors, too many competing priorities, too many things outside of our control. The world is simply too broken for any human mother to heal all its wounds.

 

In our scripture from Isaiah today, we hear the lament of a people whose world is broken, a people who feel like they have been forgotten. Zion, used here as a name for the people of Israel who have been conquered and sent into exile by the Babylonians…Zion says “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”

 

And God responds by comparing Godself to a nursing mother. Even a nursing mother, who is normally fiercely protective, when faced with difficult, heartbreaking, impossible circumstances, might forget her child. But not God. God says, “Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

 

Only God is a Perfect Mother. Only our divine Mother is an endless source of love, wisdom, and support. When humans fail, She persists: our compassionate Mother God.

 

Now I’m not sure how much this feminine language for God has been spoken here at Hanscom Park in the past, but if it’s like most churches, probably not much. So it might be surprising or even uncomfortable for you. It’s okay if you feel uncomfortable. You may never yourself pray to Mother God, and that’s just fine. But I’d like to share with you why I think embracing mothering language for God is so important to me and for others.

 

Images of God as mother show up quite often in the bible. Here in the Prophet Isaiah, besides God being like a nursing mother, we have God as a comforting Mother in Isaiah 66:13 when She says to Her people, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” We have God as a woman in labor in Isaiah 42:14. God says, “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor…”

 

But Isaiah is not the only place that God as Mother shows up. In the New Testament, in Matthew (23:37) and Luke (13:34), Jesus says to Jerusalem “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Here Jesus is imagining himself as a Mother Hen. Jesus also describes God in a feminine image in the “Parable of the Lost Coin” in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15: 8-10. It goes:

 

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

Here in this parable, Jesus helps us imagine God our Mother who searches for us and seeks us out until we are found and celebrates with the angels when She find us.

 

Now, certainly Jesus talked about God as Father a lot. And that too is a good image. But Jesus also points us to these feminine images of God’s care, especially for those who are lost and endangered.

 

This Mother God is not just nurturing though. Sometimes people think that mothering images of God somehow reduce God’s power. Elsewhere in our scripture, we find out that a Mother God can be fierce. Deuteronomy 32:11-12 describes God as a mother eagle: “Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.” I’m not sure if you’ve been close to an eagle lately, but they are some fierce birds.

 

The Prophet Hosea imagines the full range of Mother God from nurturing to fierce. In chapter 11 (Hosea 11:3-4), Hosea reports these words from God who says, “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms… I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” And then only two chapters later (Hosea 13:8), Hosea shares these fearsome words of God described as a mother bear: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…”

 

God’s mothering love for us is both tender and fierce. Imagining God as mother does not take away from Her power. It helps us to imagine a God who is many things: gentle and nurturing, and mighty to save.

 

But perhaps most importantly, to imagine God as the Perfect Mother frees us. It frees us from the need to be a perfect mother, and it frees us from the disappointment of realizing that our human mothers – no matter how great they might be – can never be perfect.

 

Only God is a Perfect Mother. And She is not just a Perfect Mother. She is Our Perfect Mother.

 

She is love and strength and wisdom for each one of us. She wipes our tears when we are missing or mourning our human mothers. And she holds and empowers the mothers and caregivers who are doing their best just to make it through each day.

 

We too – all of us – can rest in the unending compassion of our Mother God.

 

Like in the parable, She is seeking us. Like a mother hen, She longs to gather us under her wings. Like a mama bear, She will protect us. And like a nursing mother, She will never, never forget us.

 

So we give thanks for the nurturers who have shown us glimpses of Her fierce love.

 

And above all, thanks be to God.

 

Amen.

 

[1]

A Mother’s Day Prayer
by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

 

God of Love, On this Mother’s Day,

We ask that your presence be made known

By all those who mother

Whether they are called by that title or not.

Envelop in your warm embrace

Each person who has nurtured us,

Each one who has provided for us,

Each one who has protected us

Who has cuddled us and cradled us

And kissed away our tears.

And surround those who long to mother:

Who await a child to call their own,

Who mourn a child they once held,

Or once carried,

Who sit by the phone waiting for a call

Or in the chair waiting for a visit.

Fill their sorrows with your presence.

And encourage the mothers who struggle:

The ones who haven’t slept

The ones who wait for healing

For themselves or their child

The ones with mental illness

The ones who fight addiction

The ones who can’t find

affordable housing or childcare

The ones stretched thin between caring

For their children and their parents

The ones who carry the burden of nurturing alone.

And bind up the wounds we carry from our childhoods:

Those of us who are disappointed.

Those of us who are estranged.

Those of us who experienced abuse.

Heal all of us.

Through the mothering love of your Holy Spirit

And the hands and hearts you send

to nurture us now and who journey with us in this community.

 

In your holy name, we pray.

Amen.

All Ye That Are Weary

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

May 6, 2018

 

Scripture: Matthew 11: 28-30
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

 

Most of you know that I went to seminary in New Jersey about five years ago, and I served a church in New York City during my time there. Well, suffice it to say that strange things happen when you hang out in New York City. Like sometimes you see famous people. Once, we saw Neil Patrick Harris in a Mexican restaurant. I am happy to report that he is both 1) very good looking in person and 2) very punctual – he was the first one of his party of four to arrive. I was impressed. Another time, Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory was filming a movie right outside of our church.

 

But for a church nerd like myself, the most interesting person I met in New York City was an Australian man named James (whose name is changed for privacy reasons). James struck up a conversation with me in Birch Coffee shop in West Greenwich Village – which just so happened to be next door to my church. I was having a cup of coffee and waiting for a meeting to start and reading a nerdy church book. James and I were sitting right next to each other. (Coffee shops in New York are small.) He commented that the book I was reading looked interesting. So we chatted for a bit, and I asked him if he attended a church (which seemed reasonable since he wanted to talk to me about my church book). He said, no, and that it was a long story.

Well, I had leave just then to go to my meeting, so James and I agreed to meet again another time to talk.

 

At that second coffee, James shared with me that he had been part of the group of people who started Hillsong Church in Australia in the 1980s. That name might not ring a bell to you unless you listen to contemporary praise music. Hillsong is very well-known for the music they produce, and tons of churches sing their songs. In fact, we sing a number of their songs here (What a Beautiful Name, Shout to the Lord). Hillsong is also sort of a mega-mega-church. They have campuses all over the world and claim that over 100,000 people worship in their churches every week. So the fact that James was involved with Hillsong when it was being formed was super interesting to me.

 

But I knew he wasn’t a Christian anymore, so I asked him what happened. Well, he told me that not too long after the church started really growing, he was diagnosed with depression. He was really struggling. And at his lowest point, the pastor of Hillsong asked him to step down from the leadership team and leave the church. See, they had been promoting this idea that if you gave your life to Christ, and if you have adequate faith, your life would be blessed. Your struggles would be gone. It didn’t look good to have a leader who wasn’t doing well, who was struggling with his mental health, so James was invited to quietly go away. So James left, feeling betrayed and brokenhearted that his faith community abandoned him when he needed it most. He never went to a Christian church again.

 

To be fair to Hillsong, this was the 1980s, and I doubt that any church was doing a really great job engaging the reality of mental illness then. Even today, mental illness is not discussed much in church. It was barely addressed during my seminary training, and it was named by Methodist pastors in our district as one of the topics they most needed education about.

 

When I met James, I didn’t know much about mental illness either. I didn’t know that 1 in 5 adults in America experience mental illness in any given year. I didn’t know that 1 in 25 adults live with a serious mental illness – one that interferes their day-to-day activities. (Stats https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers). As I entered into ministry, I was surprised by how many people I encountered who lived with mental health conditions: from homeless folks who attended Church of the Village, to college students I worked with at Creighton and student-veterans at UNO, to your average person in the pew. I encountered people with all different kinds of mental illness: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders.

 

To be totally honest, I was unprepared, even overwhelmed sometimes. But I did my best. I researched, and I learned as I encountered each person and situation. I also quickly realized that I didn’t know anything about the mental health care crisis either – the shortage of beds in in-patient facilities, and the shortage of psychiatrists and counselors (especially in rural areas). So I started to educate myself about the systemic issues that make getting care for people with mental illness even more difficult.

 

More than anything though, I just sought to be present and compassionate with folks no matter what. Sometimes I did better than others.

 

What I did not do is tell people that if they just prayed hard enough or believed well enough, their mental illness would go away. What I did not do is tell people they needed to hide or be ashamed of their mental illness. But I did try the very best I could to incarnate the presence of Christ from our reading today when Jesus says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

 

This scripture is in a section of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus is pushing back against the Pharisees. The heavy burdens that Jesus mentions in these words are likely a reference to the legalistic religious burdens that the Pharisees were putting on people. Their religious rules and ideas were making suffering people’s lives harder, not lifting their burdens.

 

It makes me think about my friend James, and the church that held so tightly to its notion that Christians don’t experience mental illness, that they would rather abandon him than engage reality. They would rather hold onto this idea of faith as a magical cure than actually care for the person in front of them. Instead, they laid a heavy burden on James. They burdened him by saying he wasn’t faithful enough or he wasn’t trying enough, and the mental illness was somehow his fault. They burdened him by kicking him out of his community of faith.

 

Again, I don’t tell you these things to judge Hillsong church. I hope and pray that they would respond very differently now. But I lift up this story to help us think about how we as Christians and as a Christian community are called to respond to mental illness.

 

As you know, the church is sometimes referred to as the body of Christ. We are the ones who are called to incarnate the presence, to be the presence, of Christ for the world. And I believe, that as Christ’s body on earth, the church is called to be a place of welcome and rest for the weary and burdened – and that includes people who experience mental illness.

 

So how can we do that? How can we be the presence of Christ for all people – especially people with mental illness?

 

Well, we’ve already done the first thing. By speaking and hearing about mental illness, we are helping to get rid of stigma. We are helping reduce the shame and blame that sometimes happens to people who experience mental illness. Like our children’s video told us, mental illness is an illness. Just like we wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that they should just try harder to get over it, we won’t tell people with mental illness that.

 

Secondly, we can encourage folks to seek treatment. We can see the healing that comes from medications and psychiatrists and counselors as gifts from God. God has given us medicine and people to care for and guide us, and we can encourage folks to use all of God’s gifts.

 

Personally, I have worked with a counselor, have been in therapy, for probably a total of four years of my life. It has been critical to getting me and keeping me in a mentally healthy place. Counseling has helped me adjust to being a mother, helped me with my marriage, and it has helped me manage the stress of pastoring. More than anything, it has helped me become more aware of the lies I had been telling myself about where my value comes from. I can honestly say that without counseling, I would not be in this pulpit today. Counseling freed me to be open to God’s presence and God’s call on my life. Without it, I would not have had the courage to follow that call.

 

So we can encourage each other to seek professional help when necessary. We can also be cheerleaders for each other’s self-care. We can ask one another how we are doing – how we are really doing. Especially when we know folks are struggling, we can check in with them. And we can try our hardest not to give advice but just to listen as a caring friend, and then respond if someone asks us for help.

 

Finally, we can be a community together. We can be a community of people of all mental health statuses. I learned through my relationships with people who experience mental illness that it’s not a one-way street. I’m not some hero taking care of people. I am being blessed by the people that I am in relationship with. We are all in the same boat here. We are all seeking the same salvation in Christ, and sometimes we hold other people up, and sometimes they hold us up.

 

I want to tell you a story that Gabe has given me permission to tell. As some of you know, Gabe is our good family friend who sits with Matt and Ruby each week. He was also Ruby’s confirmation sponsor. He’s very special to me – to us. Well, the winter of 2016-2017 was a rough one for Gabe. He had been hospitalized because of mental illness a number of times that January and February. I had spent a lot of time visiting him and checking up on him. I was glad to do it because I love him.

 

But what was the most moving thing to me, the most important thing that I learned journeying alongside Gabe, was that this Christian life of caring for one another is always a two-way street. In the midst of that difficult time, I was interviewing to see if I would be ordained or not. As you can imagine, it is stressful and a big deal.

 

And it meant so much to me that the week I was being interviewed, Gabe would text me and remind me that he was thinking about me and praying for me. He supported me through my difficult time, just like I supported him. It helped me see that we are all in this together. We all embody the presence of Christ for one another.

 

In fact, I am so proud that Gabe is leading a new group here at the church. It’s called Gathering Hope: A Mental Wellness Gardening Group. It is a chance for people to experience wellness by working the dirt and seeing things grow. It is an opportunity for those who are weary and burdened to find rest – in the activity of gardening and in the company of each other. It is the church being the presence of Christ right here and right now.

 

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

 

May we offer Christ’s rest here. May we receive Christ’s rest here.

 

Rest in acceptance, rest in encouragement, rest in speaking and in listening, rest in community, rest in a garden.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

QUESTIONS FOR CONVERSATION / REFLECTION

 

1) In your experience, how acceptable is it for people to talk about mental illness? Is it something that your family of origin ever discussed? Is it something you ever discuss with friends or family now?

 

2) Why do you think people sometimes avoid talking about mental illness?

 

3) Have you or would you ever seek counseling for a problem you are having? If you have, share as much as you feel comfortable about that experience.

 

4) What is your experience with mental illness? Have you ever personally experienced mental illness? Does mental illness affect someone you love? Share as much as you feel comfortable.

 

 

 

 

Consider the Rock Badger

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

April 29, 2018

 

Scripture: Psalm 104: 1-2, 10-12, 16-18, 24

1  Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
2  covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
11 they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.

16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has her home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

 

Most pastors have topics that they love preaching on. There are particular characters or ideas or scriptures that they keep going back to. Maybe it’s something like an affinity for the Gospel of John, or the character of the flawed disciple Peter, or maybe they really love the story of the Prodigal Son. So they keep returning to it and exploring it from different angles, seeing what else there might be to say, or what new insights the Spirit might provide when they revisit the topic once again.

 

For me, it’s rock badgers. That’s right. Rock badgers. What? You haven’t had a pastor preach about rock badgers before? Well, I don’t know what these people have been doing.

 

In that case, let me tell you some things about them. They are fascinating little creatures. Rock badgers, also known as rock hyrax or coneys, live in the Middle East and Africa. Some of them live in the Holy Land, where our psalmist lived. They are ubiquitous there – they are all over the place, kind of like squirrels are here.

 

And as you can see, they are very cute…even though my husband Matt says they are terrifying because he doesn’t like rodents. (Yes, this is what we talk about at home.) But I told him, they are too cute because they are NOT rodents. Get this. Rock badgers are related not to rodents or squirrels or even badgers. Their closest living relatives are elephants and manatees. In fact, you can’t see them in the picture, but they have tiny little tusks, and their feet are just like little elephant feet. That’s how biologists know they belong to the elephant family and not the rodent one. So they are indisputably cute.

 

If you are in Omaha, you can see them at the Henry Doorly zoo if you go in the summer. I’ve tried to go see them in the winter, but they are never on display then. That’s because they are in the new Africa exhibit which is outdoors. See, rock badgers have poorly developed thermoregulation systems. In other words, they can’t regulate their own body temperature very well, so they have to stay inside during the Nebraska winter. Even in warm climate of the Middle East, the reason they lay around on the rocks or even in little piles of rock badgers all the time is to keep warm. They need other rock badgers and warm rocks to survive when it gets cool.

 

That’s why our psalmist says, “The rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.” When I was first learning about this psalm, I read a commentary by a man named Walter Harrelson, and it really struck me. It’s probably his fault I became so enamored with rock badgers.

 

I want to share what he wrote in spite of its slightly outdated 1975 language. Professor Harrelson writes:

 

God made fir trees for the storks to nest in, and he made storks to nest in the fir trees. He made high, inaccessible mountains for the wild goats to run and jump upon, and he made wild goats to do the jumping and cavorting. He created the vast expanse of rock-covered earth in eastern Jordan for rock badgers to live and play in, and he created rock badgers for the rocks.”

 

… and then he writes:

 

“Storks and goats and badgers do not serve mankind. They do what is appropriate to them.”

 

In other words, God did not make rock badgers, or any animals described here, to serve humans. God creates things not for human use, but solely for God’s pleasure and for the thriving and well-being of those creatures. Interestingly, elsewhere in the Hebrew bible (Leviticus 11:5 to be exact), the people are told that rock badgers may not be eaten. They are not kosher. So there really is no human purpose for their existence. And yet God creates them and gives them life and gives them a home in the rocks.

 

Quite apart from any concern about humans, we can look at nature and notice that God is continuously creating and sustaining the earth and everything in it for its own sake. So we are called to honor the sacred in all of creation, not because of what it does for us. We are called to honor all of creation because as God’s creation, it is valuable in its own right. We are called to lovingly tend the earth as God’s garden, rather than exploit it for ourselves.

 

Humans, historically, have not been very good at this.

 

In my childhood, I learned about this thing called the “Dust Bowl.”

 

“Dust storms, at first considered freaks of nature, became commonplace. Static charges in the air shorted-out automobiles on the road; men avoided shaking hands for fear of shocks that could knock a person to the ground. Huge drifts of dirt buried pastures and barnyards, piled up in front of homesteaders’ doors, came in through window cracks and sifted down from ceilings.” (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/legacy/)

 

As a kid, I thought this happened as a result of a random drought, something that humans were merely victims of. Well, I learned as an adult that the reason it was such an enormous disaster was because of something called the Great Plow-Up of the 1910s and 1920s. The Great Plow-Up “turned 5.2 million acres of thick native grassland into wheat fields.” (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/legacy/) When the drought came, the barren fields where the wheat couldn’t grow anymore caused an estimated 850 million tons of topsoil to blow off the land in one year alone! And without topsoil, you can’t grow anything.

 

So the Dust Bowl just got worse and worse, nearly turning the Great Plains into a desert. Here’s the kicker: if the native grasses had been there rather than the wheat crops, the topsoil would have stayed in place. Native grasses could have withstood the drought. The human activity of indiscriminately clearing all this land for just this one crop caused the Dust Bowl. This supposedly random ecological disaster was actually a human disaster.

 

We know this is true of our current ecological crises as well: climate change, pollution of air and land and water, deforestation, mountain top removal mining…there are so many ways we are not tending God’s garden well. But we can choose differently. And for that, the Dust Bowl is a great example. Contemporary farmers are beginning to tend the earth differently. They are practicing no-till farming and using cover crops to preserve the topsoil. These practices could actually prevent another Dust Bowl…which is of course good for humans and animals alike. The Dust Bowl helped us see that humanity’s well-being is intimately tied up in how well we care for the land.

 

But our Psalm actually challenges us to stretch our perspective even more. It doesn’t say, “care for the land so that humans can thrive.” It invites us to care for the land out of respect for God’s creation that has nothing to do with us. Not because it’s good for farming or good for business. But so that the storks can have trees to live in. So that the rock badgers can warm themselves on the rocks.

 

I know it’s difficult. It’s difficult to stop seeing ourselves as the center of the story. It’s easy to imagine that everything God does is for humans, or even particularly for me. It takes a radical de-centering of ourselves to think about the well-being of other creatures before our own well-being.

 

But that is exactly the call of the Christian life. This is not some pagan earth worship. This honoring of the created world is exactly what we read in the Psalms. And this de-centering of ourselves as the most important creatures in the universe – well, it’s a wider view of the same, liberating, self-giving life that we are called to as disciples of Christ.

 

As Christians, our salvation always lies in remembering that we are not the center of the universe. Our salvation always lies in remembering that our personal comfort is not the most important thing, but that like Christ, we are called to pour ourselves out in love for each other and for God’s project of redeeming all of creation.

 

Like I said, this is difficult. But I think the first step is opening ourselves up in love and delight to God’s non-human creation. Some of us have experienced true love of creation as pet owners. We’ve experienced the delight of welcoming some strange creature into our home, and we’ve experienced the joy and the responsibility of caring for a cat or a dog or a bird or a fish or a ferret – come what may. And many of us have experienced the grief of losing a beloved pet that sometimes stings and heavies our hearts almost as much as losing a human companion. I don’t think this is something we have to apologize for. If indeed God has created the rocks just for the rock badgers, God surely loves the dogs and cats and birds and fish and ferrets, too. Perhaps when we grieve their loss, we experience something of God’s love for them.

 

Others of us are swept up in the majesty of nature. We have stood at the edge of the ocean and watched the pelicans skim just barely over the top of the waves. We have watched the dolphins crest and jump. We have delighted in the diversity of the shells that are homes for all kinds of mollusks. We have caught our breath observing a beautiful landscape – whether it is a high mountain or green valley, a rolling sandhill or the stark beauty of the desert. We have heard the music of the birds – a different soundtrack for each scene. We have looked up and around us in wonder, and for a moment, we have forgotten our human cares. Perhaps when we appreciate the majesty of creation, we experience something of God’s delight in it.

 

And when we see through God’s eyes, we are able to remember that Christ is the center of all things, and not us. We are more willing to give of ourselves, to choose to recycle or drive less or eat differently or vote differently because we choose to de-center ourselves and to love – sacrificially – our neighbor-animals and -earth.

 

So may we open our hearts. May we open our hearts to the rock badgers. May we love our cats and our dogs and the birds in the tree. May we stand at the foot of a mountain and know our insignificance. May we look up at the night sky and rejoice that there is so much more than us.

 

And may we tend this earth beautifully for our good and the good of all creation.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

 

  1. Have you ever had a pet that you truly loved? How did that pet’s presence make you feel? How did you feel when s/he was suffering or died?

 

  1. Have you ever had an experience where something in nature took your breath away or made you feel more aware of the expanse of creation? When and where was that experience?

 

  1. What is one thing that you have done for the good of creation in the past or one thing you plan to do in the future?

Keep on Doing the Things

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

April 22, 2018

 

Scripture: Philippians 4: 4-9

 

It occurred to me this week that confirmation sermons are kind of like graduation speeches. People are here to see you get confirmed; nobody wants to listen to some long speech from a guest speaker. Unless that guest speaker is Will Ferrell – but maybe that’s just me. And yet…at every graduation, the speaker gets up there and prattles on and on for like 20 minutes and No. One. cares. So I will keep this brief, I promise. I won’t be that guy.

 

Unlike a graduation speech, this is a sermon, so we better start with the scripture. Our scripture today is the closing section of a letter from Paul to the community he established in Philippi. That’s where the Philippians live – Philippi. (See you learned something today.) And the section we heard reflects the general tone of Paul’s whole letter. He is so darn happy. He’s telling those Philippians to rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say rejoice! He tells them: don’t worry about anything. Just be thankful and trust in God.

 

Which is a little annoying, right? Don’t you hate it when you are having problems and someone is all sanctimonious and tells you that you should just be thankful and trust in God? I mean, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking Paul is being a little obnoxious here. I kind of thought that myself when I first heard this scripture quoted with no context.

 

But here’s the interesting part! Paul, Mr. Just-Be-Joyful-and-Don’t-Worry-about-Anything is writing to the Philippians from prison. He’s been thrown in jail for spreading the good news about Jesus. And he still is rejoicing. He still is giving thanks. That’s because Paul’s life has been so changed by Christ that his priorities are totally transformed. He is not worried about his personal well-being or comfort.

 

When Paul encountered Christ, he was given the gift of understanding which things matter, and which things don’t. Paul knows that the gospel is spreading. He knows that these folks in Philippi to whom he is writing are remaining faithful and following Jesus and telling others. And because of that, Paul doesn’t even care if he’s stuck in jail. Paul is joyful that his friends in Philippi are well and that they are succeeding in their mission of sharing Christ with others.

 

Paul encourages these Philippians to rejoice at the good work they have done, and like in a graduation speech, he gives them some advice as well. He writes, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” I think all of these verbs are interesting. He could have just said, keep on doing the things you have learned from me. But he says, keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Not from me. In me. The way that Paul taught the Philippians about the transformative and liberating love of Christ wasn’t just by talking to them about it, but by showing it to them, by allowing them to receive and experience it for themselves.

 

Confirmands, the same charge that Paul gave his beloved friends in Philippi is the one I give to you: keep on doing the things. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen…and the God of peace will be with you.” Now, we don’t personally know Paul, though of course we can learn from him by reading his letters, by hearing about his ability to remain joyful in Christ even when he’s in prison. But hopefully, you also know some people personally who follow the way of Jesus and in whom you can see what transformation in Christ looks like.

 

I hope and pray that you learned something about following Jesus and being filled with the love of God from me or from Emily as we journeyed through confirmation together. And I hope and pray and trust that you have received and heard and seen something of Christ in others as well: your parents who showed you the face of God from the very first time they comforted you, your grandparents who sat beside you in these pews or prayed for your from far away, your Sunday school teachers who taught and loved you, your youth group leaders who challenged and encouraged you, your sponsors who let you ask the hard questions without judgment, the elders of this church who modeled commitment and generosity, and even your friends who studied alongside you – who showed you Christ in their acceptance and joy and even some seriousness in this business of learning more about God.

 

These people have shown you what it means to follow Christ. They have shown you what it means to be people of faith. Because faith isn’t just about believing something. It’s about living your faith every day. It’s about coming to worship. It’s about praying alone and with others. It’s about being part of the family of God at the communion table. It’s about service for and with the poor. It’s about treating each other – especially the outcast – with gentleness. It’s about inviting and welcoming people. It’s about supporting people when they have needs. It’s about seeking justice and not putting up with anything that takes advantage of the weak. Hopefully, these are things you have learned and received and heard and seen.

 

And now it’s your turn. Now it’s time for you to do the things. Now, it’s time for you to take responsibility for your own journey.

 

Like most graduation speeches, this is really a message, not just for the confirmands, but for all of us. Faith is not a spectator sport. You can’t be a Christian just by watching me dance around up here every week, as entertaining as that might be. Like Paul says, you need to “keep on doing the things!” If you want to grow in faith, you have to live your faith.

 

You have to practice it. Just like you won’t become a better musician or athlete or student without doing the things that musicians or athletes or students do to grow, you won’t grow as a Christian unless you do the things that Christians do to follow ever more closely in the footsteps of Jesus. And no one can do that for you – not me, not your parents, not your partner, not your teachers or small group leaders… You. You have to do the things.

 

Certainly, we do them together. Christians have always been Christians in community, but you are the one who has to show up. You are the one who has to come to worship. You are the one who has to pray. You are the one who has serve. You are the one who has to stretch yourself to be more compassionate, to continue to study, to learn more and do more in pursuit of God’s mercy and justice. You have to do the things!

 

You have to show up – and not just that – but you also have to be truly present. Be present and be open and do the hard work of asking the hard questions and choosing faith in Christ even when God seems distant or the demands of faith seem too steep. It’s in those very spaces of struggle where you will encounter God.

 

So Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice! Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen…and the God of peace will be with you.

 

Thanks be to God.

 

Amen.

 

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

 

  1. Who is someone in whom you have learned or received or heard or seen the presence of Christ? In other words, who showed you what being a faithful disciple of Jesus looked like through the way they lived their life?
  2. What is one thing you have done in the past to grow in your faith?
  3. What is one thing you want to do in the future to grow in your faith?
  4. Have you ever grown in your faith because of a difficult experience? Tell us about what happened and how it helped you grow closer to God?

Set Free from Judgment

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

April 15, 2018

 

Scripture: John 8: 2-11

 

A man named Shon Hopwood grew up in David City, Nebraska. Do you know David City? Well, it’s a nice community. It’s a small town of about 3,000 people, with a low crime rate. Shon was lucky: he was born into a good family. He had good Christian parents who encouraged him to be self-reliant and responsible. It seemed like he had just the right start in life to grow up and do well: to be a positive contributor to society.

 

Well, Shon went to college, and like a lot of people, it wasn’t his thing. So he went into the Navy, served for awhile, and was discharged for medical reasons. He went back to David City, got a job, things looked okay. Until one day, his friend Tom invited him out to the bar for a drink. And Tom said, “What do you think about robbing a bank?”

 

And rather than say, “What, are you kidding me?” or “No, of course not,” Shon’s response was “Yes, that’s a great idea.”

 

And that’s how Shon Hopwood became a bank robber. In fact, he recruited some friends and robbed five banks in rural Nebraska before he was caught and sent to Federal Prison.

 

I learned about Hopwood in a radio story on NPR this week.[1] They were using him as an example of someone who seemed like he had all the advantages and opportunity to be a fine, upstanding member of society. Yet that one conversation with Tom in the bar caused his life to have a radically different trajectory.

 

The story ultimately was about whether we can predict what a person’s future life will be based on their history. To find out, a couple years ago, a professor at Princeton University put on a competition for computer programmers. He challenged them to create a program that would predict which children will be successful in life and which will not.

 

Here’s how it worked. The professor had information about 5,000 children. And the computer programmers were supposed to predict – by looking at the children’s experience and history from birth to age 9 – what each child’s GPA would be at age 15. The professor had high hopes, but it turned out that none of the computer models could consistently predict how any individual child would do. Scientists can of course identify patterns – things that generally make kids more successful – but they could not apply that to one individual kid and guarantee that kid would succeed or not.

 

The bottom line to the story was that there is a lot of randomness in the world. Our lives are not pre-determined by some scientific set of data. And part of that is because we have the radical freedom to choose – for better or for worse – how we will act in each moment. Shon Hopwood choose pretty poorly back in 1998.

 

Today’s scripture points us to that radical freedom to choose, unencumbered by our past choices, because of God’s forgiveness. When the woman caught in adultery stands before Jesus, he simply says to her “I don’t condemn you. Now go and sin no more.” It’s not that her previous actions don’t matter. It’s just that she is free from them. Whatever has happened in her life or whatever mistakes or bad choices she had made, when standing before Jesus, she is free to act differently. She is free to go forth and live in the way that God desires for her, untethered from her past.

 

We have the same freedom. When we have sinned, when we have acted in ways that have separated us from God, Christ grants us the freedom to choose differently from this very moment forward. And even beyond that – when we have made mistakes, when we have been negatively impacted by random bad luck, or other people’s bad behavior – we still are free to go forth and live in the way that God desires for us. To go forth and sin no more.

 

But. And. To receive the freedom to choose God’s way again and again, we have to let go of judgment. In today’s scripture, the scribes and Pharisees are very busy judging this woman. They drag her before Jesus as a kind of test. For them, being judgmental of others is what determines if you are really teaching the truth. If Jesus doesn’t condemn this woman, they figure, then he is guilty of breaking the law of Moses. They want to expose Jesus as a false teacher.

 

So they drag her in front of Jesus and say, “Hey, this woman was caught in adultery. The law of Moses says we need to stone her for that. What do you say we should do?”

 

Well, Jesus is having none of it. He doesn’t even answer and instead, bends down, and writes in the dirt with his finger. Commentators tell us that this was Jesus’ way of dismissing them. He wasn’t even going to engage with them. But the scribes and Pharisees persist, so Jesus finally stands up and says to them “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

 

Then he starts writing on the ground again. Kind of like, “okay, I’ll wait.” And of course, the scribes and Pharisees slink away. None of them was without sin. None had the right to judge her or stone her. So the woman is left standing there alone with Jesus. He straightens up and addresses her this time, saying: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she says, “No one, sir.” So Jesus sends her off, too, saying “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

 

In this passage, Jesus frees all these people from judgment. I mean, the scribes and Pharisees may not have liked it, but I think Jesus is doing them a favor. He is showing them that they don’t have to be burdened with the need to judge other people. If they have sinned (and all humans have sinned) then judgment is not their job. And then Jesus unburdens the woman as well. He doesn’t suggest that she should stand around being ashamed. He doesn’t tell her to atone for her sin in some way. He simply says, “I don’t condemn you either. Go and sin no more.”

 

Now this is more mercy than most of us (maybe any of us) can muster. When someone sins, when someone does wrong, I think it’s human nature to want to judge and punish folks. But more than anything else, I think this scripture tells us that judging is not our job. And this frees us to let go of the burden – I truly believe that it is a burden – of feeling like we have to spend our time judging others and judging ourselves.

 

I think those two things are wrapped up in one another. How often is our judging of others a reason not to look at our own behavior? How often is our judging of others something we use to feel self-justified? “Well, maybe I’m not living a perfect Christian life, but I’m doing a heck of a lot better than those people.” “Maybe I haven’t helped people as much as a I should, but look at them! They deserve to be in a bad spot because of what they have done.”

 

That kind of judging – that’s not our job. And thank God it is not! I am not telling you this to judge you. (Not my job, right?) I’m telling you this because I think it is so darn liberating. You don’t have to judge others; you don’t have to judge yourself. It’s not your job. You can admit where you have sinned and where you have made mistakes and fallen short. You can admit where you have not loved God and not loved your neighbor as yourself. And you don’t have to get stuck there. You can live in a new way. You can hear the words of Jesus: “Go now and sin no more.” Go! Live differently! You are freed from the past! You can choose differently. You can live differently as an individual person.

 

This is also true of us as a society, as a community. We can acknowledge our collective failings and not sit in judgment of ourselves or others. Instead, we can live differently. We can acknowledge our past and present sins of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism; and we as a culture can choose to go and sin no more! Especially today as we recognize Native American Ministries Sunday, it is important to acknowledge the sins we have committed against Native people in the past. But we do not need to get stuck in judgment. We can go and sin no more. We can live differently. Instead of seeking to erase Native American identity (as many churches, including our own United Methodist Church has done in the past), we can choose differently to support and stand in solidarity with Native American people.

 

When we let go of judgment, we have this exquisite freedom to choose in every moment. We have the freedom to go and sin no more in every moment. That is why none of those computer models worked. Even with the worst histories, we can choose differently, and live in the way of Jesus from this moment on.

 

Which brings us back to Shon Hopwood. While he was in prison, he was approached by a fellow prisoner to help him draft a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. And despite having only a high school education, Shon wanted to be helpful. So he said, “Okay.” And they worked on the petition, sent it out, and Shon kind of forgot about it…until the day when he heard his friend yelling to him across the prison yard that the Supreme Court had accepted the appeal Shon had written…which as you can imagine, is pretty unusual for someone with no college degree and no formal legal training.

 

Fast forward sixteen years, and Shon Hopwood is now a law professor at Georgetown University.

 

In every moment, we can choose to be weighted down with judgment for others and ourselves, or we can choose to go and sin no more. We can go and choose the life of love and mercy and justice and hope and abundance and peace that God wants for us. We can choose to walk in the footsteps of Jesus – no matter where we have wandered in the past.

 

So go. Be unburdened, starting in this very moment. And sin no more.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

[1]https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/03/30/597974076/invisibilia-do-the-patterns-in-your-past-predict-your-future

 

QUESTIONS FOR CONVERSATION / REFLECTION

 

  1. What do you most often find yourself judging other people about?

 

  1. What do you most often judge yourself about?

 

  1. Tell us about a time in your life that you either carried or let go of a burden (whether judgment, guilt, shame, regret, anger, or something else). What happened? How did that feel? How did it make a difference in your life?

Live Like You Have Faith

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

April 8, 2018

 

Scripture: Luke 24:13-35 

 

Some days, some weeks, faith is hard to come by. Whether it’s because we are experiencing brokenness or heaviness or despair, or whether it’s because we are just weighed down or overwhelmed by the banality, the sameness, the endless routine of everyday life; some days, some weeks, faith is hard to come by. It is hard to see the Risen Christ in one another. It is hard to recognize, like the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins says, that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

 

This is one of those weeks. Now last week, Holy Week and Easter: those are easy. It is the climax of the story, the grandest week of the church year! We show up, we dress up, we give it our all for that one week… and then we fall off something of a cliff. Because, even though technically, liturgically, we celebrate Easter for fifty days, once the big day is said and done, it’s easy to fall back into the routine of same-old, same-old.

 

Some days, some weeks, faith is hard to come by. It is hard to see the Risen Christ.

 

But friends, we are not alone in this struggle. In our gospel reading today, we have Cleopas and his unnamed buddy, and they are having a pretty bad week as well. They had spent the week in Jerusalem for Passover with Jesus, and commentators tell us that their 7-mile walk to Emmaus was probably a walk home. They too had experienced the exhilaration of Palm Sunday, the community of Holy Thursday, the grief of Good Friday, and they have begun to hear rumors of the resurrection. But apparently, those rumors were not compelling enough for them to stay. They are going back to their home town, their old life, in Emmaus.

 

On the way, they are discussing all the things that had happened, and Jesus himself starts walking along with them. And they don’t recognize him. He talks with them, and he even explains to them how all of the scriptures were pointing to how the Messiah (in other words, HE) would have to suffer and die in order to save the people. Yet, even with him explaining all that, they do not recognize him.

 

Now I have said this before, and I will say it again here. Here are these two people who had physically been with Jesus, like three-four days ago. The Risen Christ literally is walking beside them, explaining who he is, and they cannot recognize him. Now, if it is that hard for those with immediate experience of Jesus to recognize the Risen, Living Christ; how much harder is it for us?! Some days, some weeks, faith is hard to come by.

 

At times, faith was also hard for John Wesley. As you heard me say in the Children’s Sermon, Wesley is our spiritual forbear. He is the founder of the Methodist movement, from which our own United Methodist Church has grown, as well as Methodist and Wesleyan churches around the world. According to the World Methodist Council, there are over 51 million people in the Methodist family of churches worldwide [1]. And all of them can be traced back to John Wesley.

 

Yet even John Wesley struggled with faith. He struggled most remarkably after he had spent some time in the American colonies. Early in his ministry, he had gone to Georgia with the hope of spreading the gospel to Native Americans and colonists alike. By all accounts, his time there was something of a disaster. He had failed at his goals.

 

But the thing that disturbed him the most was on the ship to-and-from the colonies. During those crossings, he experienced storms at sea. And in the midst of those storms, the ever-so-pious Wesley, found himself terrified of death. In Wesley’s mind, his own fear of death was proof of something being terribly wrong with his faith. Because, after all, if he believed in a loving and merciful God who would receive him after death, why should he be afraid to die?

 

To make matters worse, there were these Moravian missionaries on board. The Moravians were German Christians who also were headed to the colonies to spread the good news. And as Wesley cried out in terror during the fierce Atlantic storms, the Moravians calmly, peacefully prayed and sang hymns, with no fear at all.

 

Despite Wesley’s impressive credentials as an Anglican priest and pioneer of the Methodist movement, he struggled with his faith. After his fear on the ship and his failure in Georgia, he returned to England somewhat distraught. That is when he became friends with Peter Böhler. Böhler counseled Wesley about what to do in the face of his apparent lack of faith. One time, Wesley was so distraught that he told Böhler he was going to stop preaching because how could a man with such weak faith be an adequate preacher? And that’s when Böhler instructed him with the following words: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

 

So that is what Wesley did. Despite his doubts, he continued to act like a person of faith. He preached faith, he prayed, he worshipped, he served the sick and poor, he met with the bands and societies of Christians that he had established, and even when he didn’t feel like it, he showed up. And because he continued to act like a person of faith even when he felt doubtful, he was present and open to the experience of being assured by God one evening in 1738. This is when Wesley had what is called his “Aldersgate Experience,” possibly his most profound experience of God’s grace in his whole life. Here is what he says about it in his journal:

 

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading [Martin] Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” [2]

 

I think my favorite part of this description is that he went “very unwillingly” to a reading of Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. I mean, that sounds boring. I would have gone very unwillingly, too. But he went. Because he knew that when he was experiencing a crisis of faith, the thing he needed most was to be in Christian community with others, and to continue to worship and learn and serve, and as Böhler told him, “preach faith” until he had it.

 

Even the giants of our faith, like John Wesley, had doubts. Even those who knew Jesus, in person, were not immediately able to recognize the Risen Christ. I suppose one could find this alarming. But I find it strangely encouraging. When we have doubts, of course we have doubts! We are no John Wesley. We missed our opportunity to walk with Jesus on this earth by about 2,000 years. Even those folks had doubts. Of course, we do too! What a relief!

 

So how might we ever have a chance to see Christ, when in fact, we are no John Wesley, no first disciples?

 

Well, I think our eyes can be opened to the Risen Christ when we respond to God’s presence by living as if we have faith even when we are not “feeling” it. To paraphrase Peter Böhler, “Live like you have faith until you have it.” Live like the presence and power of the Risen Christ is real, and it will be. Live like the God-who-is-Love guides your life, and then you will find that the God-who-is-Love is guiding your life.

 

That’s what John Wesley did. And that’s how the disciples on the Road to Emmaus saw Jesus, too. Toward the end of our scripture today, Jesus is about to leave them. It says, “He walked on as if he were going ahead.” But Cleopas and his friend don’t give up on this stranger. They urge him to stay. In fact, their insistence that he stay is practicing the inclusion and hospitality that Jesus had modeled for them. Even though they thought Jesus was dead and didn’t know what the heck was going on, they were still going to act like his disciples. And so they say, “Stay with us.” They invited him into their home, and they invited him to their table.

 

And when he was with them at the dinner table, he took bread, he blessed it, he broke it, and he gave it to them. And their eyes were opened. They saw the Risen Christ. And when he vanished, they noted to themselves that he had been there all along. They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

 

Like John Wesley, these disciples’ hearts were strangely warmed. Not because they saw Jesus immediately, not because they never had doubts, but because they stayed with him. They chose to follow in the way he had taught – even, maybe even especially – when they were discouraged.

It’s easy to lose sight of Christ in the disappointment, the struggle, even the banality of our day-to-day lives. When the Easter party is over, and we go back to the regular rhythm of our days, God can be difficult to see. It’s okay. It’s okay to have doubts.

 

But don’t be discouraged. Simply live like you have faith until you have it. Walk out of these doors and into the world as if Christ is risen in you and in every person you meet. You don’t have to be a hero who never struggles, just a person who is willing to spend one day – and then the next – living as if Christ is truly alive.

 

Do that enough, and you just might find that along the way, your doubtful heart has been strangely warmed.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

[1] http://worldmethodistcouncil.org/about/member-churches/statistical-information/

[2] Journal of John Wesley. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION / DISCUSSION

 

1) Think about a time in your life when you felt incapable of doing what was expected of you (maybe in a job or role or challenge in your personal life).  What was that situation? How did it feel? How did you get through it?

 

2) Think about your journey of faith. Were there times or situations in which you had doubts? What did you do in response to those doubts?

 

3) Who is one individual in your life who inspires you to become a more faithful person. What about that person is so inspiring?

The Abundance of Who We Are

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park UMC

February 25, 2018

 

Scripture: Mark 14:1-11

 

Well, it is the moment that you have all been waiting for… or perhaps the moment you’ve been fearing…depending upon your perspective. Ever since that crazy bishop decided to appoint a woman at Hanscom Park church, I know you have all been waiting for me to use the F-word. You know, the F-word…feminist. Well, today is your lucky day! I know. You’re excited. Or very concerned. But hey, at least it will be interesting, right?

 

Today’s scripture is my favorite feminist scripture in the bible. And by feminist, I simply mean it’s a scripture that encourages women – and I think all of us – to participate fully in ministry.

 

I first learned about this scripture in seminary. Let me set the scene for you: I’m sitting at my desk reading the whole Gospel of Mark as an assignment. And I’ve made it to chapter 14. To be honest, I’m just trying to get through it at this point. So I start reading this story, and I get to this line of Jesus’ where he is talking about this woman who anointed him. He says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

 

I literally stand up, and I look at my bible like “What the heck did I just read?” So I sit down and read it again. “Truly, I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

And then I think I yelled something like, “HOLY COW!” I was so excited. I mean. Holy cow. Here is Jesus honoring this woman and saying she should be remembered wherever the gospel is proclaimed. Wow! So I ran out, and I told Matt, and he was like, “Settle down, Chris.” And I told Ruby and she was like, “Okay, Mom.” She was 7.

 

I was just super excited. But then I got to thinking about it. Jesus said that everywhere the gospel is proclaimed, what she has done should be told in remembrance of HER. Well, then why the heck am I just reading about it now? I mean, I had been a part of Christian churches for a good 20+ years at this point, and I have never heard anyone tell this story.

 

So now I’m ticked.

 

And I tell Matt, and he’s like “settle down, Chris.” And I tell Ruby, and she’s like “Okay, Mom.”

 

And once I settle down, I begin to think about and research how this could have happened. Jesus said this woman should be remembered wherever the gospel is preached. So how could she be forgotten? That’s when I learned about what I like to call the giant patriarchal eraser. It’s like one of those huge oversized pink erasers you can find in novelty stores – and it’s a metaphor for how a tradition that wanted to keep women out of leadership conveniently erased these kinds of stories from the biblical narrative.

 

In the case of this story, the gospel writer of Luke re-wrote the story, described the woman a sinner, put her at Jesus’ feet crying instead of his head, and took out Jesus’ admonition to remember her. And THAT’s the version of this story the tradition has chosen to emphasize – despite Mark’s version being earlier, and Matthew including Mark’s version in his gospel as well. The church simply chose to ignore Jesus’ words, so it wouldn’t have to deal with Jesus honoring this woman in such a profound way.

 

So why does Jesus honor her? Simply put, it’s because she gets Jesus. She understands who he is and what his mission is, and we know she understands it because Jesus says aloud, “She has anointed me for my burial.” See all through the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ male disciples don’t get it. At every turn, they resist Jesus telling them that he is not the kind of Messiah they were hoping for. They simply don’t want to acknowledge that suffering and death are part of the deal. But this woman is the first person to acknowledge that Jesus is going to die, and so she offers herself in service by anointing Jesus.

 

This anointing takes place on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The other early weekdays of Holy Week help us to know more about who Jesus is, and what his mission is, as well. On Monday, he goes into the temple and flips the tables of the money-changers and the dove-sellers. According to Borg and Crossan in their book on The Last Week, he does this not because having money in the temple is a problem in general – but because the temple has become a place where people go to put on airs of being holy and righteous, but they are not actually living out their piety by helping the poor. Their religion has become a way for them to feel better about themselves, even as they benefit from and prop up unjust systems. Jesus’ table flipping is an act in the footsteps of the prophet Jeremiah. It is a sort-of symbolic tearing down of the temple – telling the people that if they keep acting this way, God is going to destroy their beloved place of worship.

 

You can probably imagine that this did not make the religious authorities who were in cahoots with the oppressing empire very happy. So on Tuesday, Jesus has a series of interactions with these religious authorities. In each interaction, they are trying to trap or undermine Jesus by asking him theological questions. And each time, Jesus manages to rhetorically flip the tables on them, too. He proves his own faithfulness and exposes the authorities’ hypocrisy. And he does it in front of crowds of people. The authorities know they can’t arrest him with so many supporters around, and so they just have to put up with his criticisms.

 

Like Palm Sunday, these early weekdays of Holy Week give us insight into who Jesus is. On Monday, Jesus is a provocateur, staging this big demonstration to get his point across. On Tuesday, Jesus is a wise and wily debater. Whether by flipping tables or verbally outmaneuvering the authorities, he is not afraid to confront injustice, even if it means confronting those who seemingly hold all the power. And he knows how and what to do and say to make sure it has maximum effect. Jesus is bold, and he is wise.

 

I submit that these early days of Holy Week tell us that to serve Jesus, to be like Jesus, we have to be bold and wise. And the story of the woman anointing Jesus tells us that each of us has particular gifts that enable us to be bold and wise like Jesus. The fact that this woman was a woman is what made her able to serve Jesus in the way she did. Because of the patriarchal culture of ancient Judea, she couldn’t be one of Jesus’ disciples in the sense that the twelve could. There were actually a number of wealthy women in the gospels who supported Jesus’ ministry financially even when they couldn’t be part of his inner circle. What this woman did was take the very specific gifts she had – her womanhood and her wealth – and she served Jesus with all of it.

 

Maybe that’s why he praises her and wants her to be remembered every time the gospel is proclaimed. Because in order to serve Jesus, you don’t have to be a man who fits a certain mold. You just have to serve Jesus out of the abundance of who you are. Whatever your identity, you can be like and serve Jesus extravagantly, not in spite of who you, but because of who you are.

 

My friend and mentor Pastor Vicki Flippin preached one time about the difference between being accepted in spite of who we are, and being embraced because of who we are. Pastor Vicki is a young woman. She is bi-racial (her mom is white; her dad is ethnically Chinese). She is an unapologetic voice for inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. And she told us about her first pastoral appointment in a suburban New York City church. By all accounts, it was a good appointment. And the people there accepted her in spite of her being a woman, in spite of her being young, in spite of her pushing the church to be more inclusive. She was bold, and she was wise. But she always was serving Jesus in spite of who she was.

 

And then she came to Church of the Village in New York City, and they accepted her and LOVED her because she was a woman, because she was biracial, because she was an unapologetic voice for inclusion. And that’s when she really was able to serve Jesus out of the abundance of WHO she was. When she was fully embraced and empowered to serve Jesus and serve the church from that place, well, it was a sight to behold.

 

And I am so happy to share with you that I feel that way here at Hanscom Park. As you may know, I just happened to be getting my picture taken for our Wall o’ Pastors this very same week that I was planning to preach on the woman who anointed Jesus. Folks, there are 130 years of male pastors on that wall, and I am the first woman. Now, as you can probably guess, there are some churches who to this day have a real problem with women pastors – even in our United Methodist system. I’m on a Methodist Clergy Moms Facebook group, and you would be shocked to hear about some of the struggles folks share about being clergy women in churches that do not affirm them.

 

That is why I am so grateful for this place. I have told some of you this, but I want you all to know that your acceptance and affirmation of who I am has been transformative for me. By being excited with me about me being your first clergy woman, you are empowering me to be the best possible follower of Jesus I can be. So I can be bold like him. So I can be wise like him. So I can take risks like him. And above all, so I can be loving like him.

 

And it is my goal that I will always do the same for you: to help you each see how you are uniquely and beautifully made to follow Jesus and serve him extravagantly. And as a community, we are uniquely called to follow Jesus and serve him extravagantly together.

 

So hear this: to follow Jesus and to serve Jesus, you do not need to be anyone else but who you are! You are loved, you are gifted, and you are enough. And I am never going to stop reminding you of that.

 

Because together with all our unique gifts fully embraced, you know what we are going to do?

 

We are going to be bold like Jesus. We are going to be wise like Jesus.

We are going to take risks like Jesus. And above all, we are going to be loving like Jesus.

 

And we are going to change the world.

 

Thanks be to God!

 

Amen.

Listen Before You Speak

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

February 4, 2018

 

Scripture: Numbers 22:21-38

 

Donkeys rarely get a role – much less a speaking role – in the bible. Today, however, Balaam’s donkey is not only a main character but is actually the hero of our story.

 

To understand what is going on in this admittedly unusual bible story, we need to know a little of what has come before. You know some of this background, I’m sure. Let’s start with the Israelites: God’s people. The Israelites have come out of Egypt because they were being oppressed by Pharaoh.

 

They have been wandering in the wilderness for a whole generation. At this point in the story, they gotten out of the wilderness and set up camp on the plains of Moab.  So there is a whole new generation of Israelites, and there are a lot of them. God has fulfilled God’s promise right there that Abraham’s ancestors would be fruitful and multiply. The people of God are thriving – hurray!

 

However, not everyone is excited about that. Enter King Balak. Balak is the king of the Moabites. He’s looking at these Israelites who are camped out on the plains of Moab and looking pretty cozy there, and he is worried. King Balak is worried that these Israelite immigrants (maybe more appropriately described as refugees given Pharaoh’s violence toward them)… he is worried that they are multiplying so fast that they are going to use up all of the resources of Moab, and he is worried they might start a war and try to take Moab for themselves. He doesn’t want them in his land, and he certainly does not want them multiplying.

 

Now King Balak has heard about the guy with the donkey: Balaam. (I know their names are similar.) The donkey guy, Balaam is described as a diviner. He has special divine powers. He is able to bless or curse people. Balaam is a Moabite, a subject of King Balak. He is not part of God’s chosen people, but even so, he knows the Israelite God Yahweh. Well, all King Balak knows is that Balaam is powerful and might be able to help him with his Israelite immigration problem. So King Balak summons donkey guy Balaam to meet with him, so he can command Balaam to curse the Israelites, so they will quit multiplying, and he can get rid of them.

 

Our scripture today opens with Balaam on his way to meet King Balak. But as you heard in our scripture, God has other plans. The angel of the Lord appears three different times to try to stop Balaam’s progress. Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and tries to alter his course, and every time, rather than heeding the donkey’s warning, Balaam strikes the donkey to try to get him to keep going. Finally, Balaam’s donkey speaks up – literally! He tells Balaam to stop striking him, and points out that he has been a loyal donkey who would only be stopping and going off course for good reason.

 

Once Balaam is convinced that his donkey is someone who he should listen to, Balaam is able to see the angel of the Lord himself. The angel tells Balaam that if it hadn’t been for the donkey, the angel would have killed Balaam. And Balaam finally hears God’s message to him which is: when you meet with King Balak about those immigrant Israelites, only speak the words that God tells you to speak. Do not help King Balak by cursing the Israelites with your words.

 

In this story, donkey guy Balaam possesses the power to bless or to curse God’s people by his words. I think we too have the power to bless or curse by our words. Now, we might not have magical divine powers like Balaam, but the words we speak, the opinions we share, have consequences. Sometimes our words are a blessing. And sometimes they are a curse.

 

In our story, Balaam has a choice. He can curse the immigrant Israelites because that’s what the powerful, corrupt king wants him to do. Or he can bless them because that’s what God wants him to do.

 

He is fixing to curse the Israelites when his donkey tries to get his attention. His donkey, this powerless, abused animal has something important to tell him that will help him see and hear God’s message. But Balaam just sees the donkey as getting in the way of what he wants to do. So instead of listening to the donkey, he beats the donkey. Balaam wouldn’t ever dream that maybe the donkey can tell him something about God. And yet, only when Balaam listens to the donkey’s words, is he able to hear God. Only then, can he receive God’s instructions to bless instead of curse.

 

As I pondered this story this past week, I couldn’t help but think of the state of political discourse in our nation. How often do we really listen to the people who we see as getting in the way of us having what we want? How often do we listen to the voice of the member of the other political party? How often do we listen to the person who deeply disagrees with us: that person who maybe we think is responsible for everything that is wrong in this country in the first place? How often have we metaphorically kicked those who are getting in our way rather than stopping to listen to them?

 

What if instead of getting angry and frustrated with our political foes, we listened to them instead? What if before we decide to kneel during that national anthem, we talk with a veteran who thinks we should stand in respect for the flag? What if before we condemn people who kneel, we talk with a black mother who is terrified for the safety of her teenage son? What if we talk the veterans who don’t really like the kneeling, but still believe that they served for your right to kneel if that’s what you choose to do?

 

What if we listened to victims of sexual assault before we decried political correctness? What if we listened to the men who are afraid they will be unjustly accused? What if we listened to refugees to hear about the violence they fled and the ways they are contributing to our country? What if we listened to poor white people who feel like they are being told they are privileged, even though they can’t find a decent-paying job and feed their families?

Before we speak, before we post on Facebook, before we forward that email, before we re-tweet, before we even have a good rant in the privacy of our own living rooms, what if we listened to the very people we think are the problem? What if we listened to those we have been treating as less-than-human, as obstacles in the way of getting what we want and what we think we deserve?

 

Friends, I’m not sure you know this. Maybe you do. But we are a politically divided church. We do not agree on many of the issues I just named. But what if in our diversity, we could at least be an example to the world of people who absolutely refuse to treat someone as less than a beloved child of God – just because we disagree? What if we absolutely commit to listening to one another, and even reaching out beyond our little community, to listen to the voices of people with radically different experiences and opinions than us?

 

Maybe then we could be like the diviner Balaam and hear the words that God is speaking to us. Maybe then we can even be a light and an example – this church – for the people and systems all around us that are so very divided and broken.

 

May our listening and our speaking be a blessing to the whole world.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

—-

 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

 

  1. Re-read the scripture for today. What details are especially interesting to you? What are you drawn to?

 

  1. What questions do you still have about the scripture? What do you want to learn more about? Is there anything your find problematic or concerning?

 

  1. Who is one person in your personal life that you have trouble listening to because you have deep disagreements? What do you disagree about, and why might you find it so hard to listen?

 

  1. Have you ever listened to someone whose life experiences were very different from yours and changed your perspective / opinion because of it? Tell us about that person and how/why you changed.

Keep the Miracle Bandwidth Wide

by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

January 28, 2018

 

Scripture: Matthew 17: 24–27

 

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others’, Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.’

 

Unlike last week’s scripture, this is a new one to me. It came up in a Google search of weirdest scriptures in the bible. I mean – Jesus telling Peter to pay the temple tax with a coin God sends to him via the mouth of a fish – I mean, what’s weird about that?

 

Miracle stories in scripture – whether about fish or not – always have some kind of point, but sometimes we can hear these scriptures and get hung up on the miracle part.  We write off not only the scripture but the whole concept of miracles because we think miracles don’t happen or no longer happen. We define a miracle as God sort of magically breaking a law of physics on our behalf. And maybe we even relegate God into those gaps – only believing that we see God at work when something utterly unexplainable happens.

 

But in ancient times, when the bible was written, miracles were simply part of the worldview. There wasn’t this division between everything-we-could-explain and these things called miracles. There wasn’t the natural world and the miraculous world. There were stories about the wondrous signs of God’s presence and power – and that was all seen as possible and natural.

 

We modern people have a much better understanding of science, and we like to have categories of natural and supernatural – and we tend to put miracles to the latter category. But I would argue that just because we understand science doesn’t make the world we experience today any less miraculous. A professor of mine one said it to me this way: “Keep the miracle bandwidth wide.” What if we learned to see and talk about the miracle of God’s presence not just in the gaps of the unexplainable, but in everything?

 

Today, we are welcoming new and some returned members into our church community. And I think when we welcome new members, it’s a good time to ponder once again the nature of discipleship: about what it means to be a person of faith and what it means to be a follower of Christ.

I think the first thing that committing to be a disciple of Christ means is that we commit to seeing the miracle of God’s presence in our everyday lives. Whether that is awe at the birth of a child, or natural wonders, or extraordinary kindness, or relentless justice. Whether it is the everyday miracle of suffering loss and grief and still being able to get up and out of bed one more day. Whether it’s not being able to get out of bed and receiving the love and support you need from those around you.

 

There is almost an endless litany of evidence I could offer of the divine miracles that don’t break physical laws but are simple and extraordinary moments of light breaking through the darkness. The first step of discipleship is moving from using God as a way to explain the unexplainable to seeking God in the effervescent reality of every moment.

 

And once we see God in our lives, discipleship requires us to respond. In response to the miracle of God who is light and love, we incarnate God who is light and love. In response to the miracle, we are called to be the miracle.

 

Many years ago, before Ruby was even born, I was working as a librarian. My friend Jodie had invited me out to visit her. She was the principal of an alternative school for emotionally and behaviorally challenged adolescents in Oakland, California. This was a private school for the kids who had been kicked out of the public alternative school. These students had some serious challenges.

 

Well, I had agreed to help Jodie at her school for one day. She needed help organizing books in order to set up a school library. So I spent most of the day in a dark basement room organizing all these books. At the end of the day, Jodie came to get me and was leading me through the school. And we happened upon two teachers who were having to physically restrain a student who had been acting out violently in class.

 

Jodie, of course, took this all in stride, but I was more than a bit unnerved by the situation. Mostly because, as I explained to Jodie later, I couldn’t understand that when the kids she worked with had such emotional and behavioral problems, how she could ever imagine them graduating from high school, getting a job, and being able to support themselves and live productive lives. And Jodie simply told me that she didn’t think about that. She thought about the fact that she helped a child to become a better reader that day, or that a child had one good day with no emotional outbursts. And I was in awe of her – and of all the teachers’ abilities – to be present with students who other people (people like me) would have just given up on.

 

To me, these teachers’ ability and willingness to give themselves in service to these at-risk kids…well, that looked like a miracle. I’m often taken by the miracle of those who serve as a way of life. I recently have been able to be in awe of hospice workers, of nurses, of the teachers of kids with profound disabilities at JP Lord School that will be moving in right across Frances Street from us. And the people who I talk to, more often than not, are simply responding to a call because they have seen the sacred miracle in the people they serve, and they are responding by being the miracle.

 

To tell you the truth, when I came up out of the basement that day in Oakland, having been hidden away safely from the chaos of Jodie’s school with my neat little stacks of books, I think that was the first time I saw a glimmer of the kind of life I was being called to as well.

 

And so we are here today, some 15 years later, ready to welcome new and returning members. If you are joining the church today, will you raise your hand?

 

So…you are being invited to this strange new way of living: this way of living where we run around not explaining away all the good and holy things that happen in life – but we name the source of them as God. And we agree that if these things are a gift from God, then it demands a response from us. When we see the miracle, we make a commitment to be the miracle. We commit to finding our strength in God, and then we put ourselves in uncomfortable places and situations, so that we will find ourselves transformed – more and more each day in the image of Christ.

 

May it be so…for our new members, and for all of us.

 

Amen.

 

——

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

 

  1. Re-read this week’s scripture. What details are especially interesting to you? What are you drawn to?

 

  1. Pastor Chris said that miracle stories in scripture always have a point. What do you think is the point of this particular scripture? (Or if you are not sure, what questions do you have about the scripture that might help you better understand the point/message of the scripture?)

 

  1. Pastor Chris invites us to be open to seeing miracles in our everyday lives. What things, people, or experiences in your life do you consider to be “non-magical” miracles?

 

  1. In response to the miracles we experience in our lives, we are called to be miracles for each other. How is God calling you to live differently in order to be that miracle? What step (either big or small) could you take in order to participate more fully in being God’s miracle in this world?