Sermon: Letting Go

“Letting Go”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
John 20:1-18
March 27, 2016 • Easter Sunday

Audio for this sermon is unavailable.

John begins the Easter story with the words “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark . . .” These words should not come as a surprise to those of us who have, during Lent, become acquainted with the darkness, what we called the Dark Wood, that place where all we seem to have is a past and we cannot see into the future. Nothing to look forward to, whether it concerns our health, our relationships, our family, our careers – all of a sudden there is a dead end, when all that had made life meaningful seems broken, broken beyond mending, and we are left with millions of memories and all kinds of pressures and anxieties, unable to see ahead.

Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb of Jesus while it was still dark. He had been her friend and teacher. And now he was dead; crucified in a humiliating public execution, and now lying in a borrowed tomb. When he died on that Friday afternoon, more expired than just his body. The hope of hundreds of people had died with him, for they thought he was the Messiah. From the day he first appeared in Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom of God and doing acts of power, the word had spread that Israel’s long awaited deliverer had arrived and with it the hopes of the people began to rise. But then as swiftly as his fortunes had risen, the tide turned against him, and although he’d tried to prepare them for what would happen, before they could take it in, he’d been arrested, tried, convicted and put to death.

At the point where they had come to expect so much, suddenly it was all over. Their hope had been crucified, and the darkness was overwhelming.  Surely this story of the first Easter tells us that no one is ever ready to truly encounter Easter until he or she has spent some time in the darkness where hope cannot be seen, and where new life is the last thing one would expect.

As Mary made her way in the darkness to the tomb, perhaps she reflected on memories of happier times that now seemed so far away, almost like a dream.  Maybe she wanted a few moments alone simply to be as close as she could be to the one she had loved and followed, the way we have felt at one time or another when we’ve returned to the gravesite of a loved one after the funeral and graveside services are over – to let the reality sink in. It is the closest we can get to them now, and the relationship we had is in the past, not forgotten – never forgotten – but in the past, the subject of reminiscence, the time for saying things like, “do you remember when he said . . .,” or “I’ll thought I’d never stop laughing when she  . . .,” or “Nobody played the piano, or baked a cake, or told a joke like . . ..”

When Mary arrived at the tomb she was horrified to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. It did not occur to her that she was encountering something that God had done. She thought grave robbers had added even more pain to her already broken heart by stealing away Jesus’ body. And so she ran to tell Peter and John, who in turn ran to the tomb to see for themselves and they confirm her worst fears. Jesus is gone. The tomb is empty.

With nothing to see there, Peter and John return to the others, but Mary lingers, not knowing what to do next.  I really sympathize with her next move – you know how it is when you’ve lost something, and you know it just has to be there – so you go back again and again the last place you saw it, thinking maybe this time it will turn up.  So it is with Mary; she takes one more look inside the tomb just in case they all somehow missed something, but Jesus isn’t there.

Two angels have arrived, however. Unlike in the other gospels, they make no grand announcement that Jesus has risen and gone to Galilee. They simply ask her why she’s crying. And she tells them what is on her heart. “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” All she wants is his body back. All she wants is a shrine for her memories, a place where she can come to mourn her friend and the hopes that had died with him.

Now we get to the good part! As she turns away from the tomb, she sees a man standing there whom she supposes to be the gardener. He asks her the same question the angels had asked: “Why are you weeping?” and so she goes through the whole story yet again and asks him if he’s taken Jesus’ body away. Then the unexpected thing happens in the darkness of her life, the gardener calls her by name, “Mary.” And she experiences, not what she was looking for – the body of her dead friend – but what she never expected to find or see again – the living Jesus, the resurrected Lord.

It is almost more hope than she can handle, and she reaches out in her joy to embrace Jesus, but the risen Christ says “Do not hold on to me.” Now, if I’d been writing the gospel, there’d be a few extra verses that included the opportunity for a reunion hug, and then maybe Jesus would say something like, “Relax, I’m back. Let’s get the others, put our heads together and make a plan.” That’s what Mary wanted – to go back to the way things used to be before that horrible Friday three days ago that had changed everything, back to the old, familiar life where everything was normal and somewhat predictable, back to the safety of the known.

But one thing she learned that day, and we know it too – we can never go back – never back to the days before that fateful Friday, never back to the days before the doctor’s diagnosis, or the employer’s pink slip, or the or the day mama died.

What we miss and beg God to give back is gone. Easter does not change that. So we cannot cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the way it used to be. The only way out of the darkness is to move ahead. And the only one who can lead the way is the risen Christ, not the old teacher we once knew. We can’t hold on to him where we are, but we have to let go and allow him to take us where he is going. He calls us to follow him, not to hang on to him. And following Jesus is a never-ending process of discovery because he is always on the move, unable to be confined to the past, and waiting to be revealed in new ways to us in the future.

Easter is the first day of the new week – the new life – and we cannot understand the true joy and meaning of Easter until we realize that God has given us in the resurrection a new perspective on life. The God whom Paul described in Romans as “the One who can make things that are out of things that are not and the one who can make dead things come to life again” (Romans 4:17) is a factor to be reckoned with as we think about the future. We are not alone in our struggles in life; it is not simply our strength, our intelligence, our abilities, our determination or our willpower that are the only forces at work in our lives. God is in our lives too – out there ahead of us, taking what seems dead and beyond mending, and bringing it back to life again.

And if God’s undeniable presence is factored in as we contemplate the future, despair is undone and hopelessness disappears. We can no longer look on our brokenness and say we are beyond mending. We know that if God was not only able but willing to take the broken body of Jesus and raise him back to life, what can God not do? What lives, what families, what careers, what relationships can God not mend?

The effect of Easter on us is to change forever the way we use the words “possible” and “impossible.” Our God is alive and going before us into the future, and therefore our despair is inappropriate because it concludes something about the future that we finite human beings have no ability to conclude.

Because Easter has happened, we know that the God who leads us into the future, who had the power to raise Jesus from the dead, also had the mercy to send him back to the ones who had betrayed him. Even Judas, who had really made a terrible mess of his life, I believe would have received pardon and forgiveness from Jesus if he had not despaired of his future. What he did was not much worse than what Peter did. There would have been mercy enough for him if he’d stayed around to see what God could do with what he had done.  He didn’t understand that out there in the future there is a God powerful enough to make dead things come to life again and who is merciful enough to be willing to do it.

Out of the brokenness of our own lives, in times when we feel lost in the Dark Wood, God is there too. As we’ve said before, God does some of God’s best work in the dark. So in the darkness, before we know or are aware, God is shaping our tomorrows, bringing life out of death. And there is enough power and enough mercy in God to deal with whatever difficulties we may face. Jesus died on the first Good Friday, but despair died on Easter morning.

After the resurrection Mary was never the same again; nor is anyone else who has experienced the risen Christ. That is the good news. That is what the gospel proclaims. We do not have to worry about what lies ahead for us because we know that Christ has already gone on before us and waits for us there. Darkness is banished; despair is no more; our risen savior is on the move and he’s calling our names. Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.

Sermon: The Gift of Being Lost

“The Gift of Being Lost”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
John 3:1-10
March 6, 2016

Audio for this sermon in unavailable.

There are times in life, even when we’re doing everything we think we’re supposed to be doing that we realize at some point along the way we’ve gotten lost – taken a wrong turn, become preoccupied with our busyness  and missed a signal, zigged when we should have zagged, put our minds on automatic pilot once too often. However it happens, we wind up not  where we want to be, doing perhaps what we didn’t want to do, worried about how things haven’t turned out as planned, and wondering how did that happen and how in the world do we find our way out of this place.  Being lost is not a once in a life time experience for most of us; it happens from time to time and requires a mid-course adjustment , but sometimes we don’t know how to start, maybe feel stuck, maybe feel scared, maybe feel inadequate and not up to a change even though the present is uncomfortable.

The story of Nicodemus’ night time visit to Jesus is a familiar one to many.  He has lived to this point within a very well defined framework. He’s comfortable with it; he knows its contours; everything is under control, nothing within his reality is loose or untamed or inexplicable. The very first words out of his mouth are a confident, “Rabbi, we know.”

Nicodemus is a Pharisee; he takes his faith very seriously. To preserve the faith the Pharisees had separated themselves from secular influences centuries before, and practiced rigid rules of purity and sacrifice. They were a distinct class, inflexible defenders of tradition, who over the years had grown in power and influence. They knew the limits of divine action, how God does and does not work in the world. They knew what is possible and not possible. Within their system there was no room for surprise; God is awesome, magnificent, and perfectly predictable.

But then they heard about Jesus and saw him in action. Now on the one hand, the signs, the miracles he is able to do mark him as a man of God because as Nicodemus says, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God”; but here’s the problem – Jesus is obviously not qualified; he’s not one a Pharisee; he hangs out with unsavory people; he doesn’t follow all of the 613 rules that a truly God-fearing person must; he heals on the Sabbath, touches the unclean, and eats with gentiles. He reinterprets tradition.  Nicodemus and his friends are experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance. What they know for sure and certain seems to be the opposite of what they have actually seen and experienced. It’s not a comfortable place to be in. Nicodemus is lost and in the dark. It is not by accident that he comes to Jesus at night.

Jesus answer is not the one Nicodemus had hoped for, not the one that says “you’re on the right track, Nicodemus. Just keep on doing the same things, the way you have your whole life; don’t change a thing and everything will be all right.” No, Jesus says “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or in a more loose translation – “You can’t see God if you don’t start back at square one and start over like a child.”  And naturally enough Nicodemus’ answer is, “you gotta be kidding me; you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!”  Or more accurately, according to the New Revised Standard Version, “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And then Jesus totally loses him with “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And Nicodemus’s reply is an uncomprehending, “How can this be?”

Sometimes we have to start over from the beginning with all of the assumptions and definitions and categories and goals that we hold so dear, blown away by the spirit.  It means letting go of control and searching for truth in the midst of new realities. As our model, Jesus recommends the open and unprejudiced mind of a child, non-judgmental, capable of immediate response, ready for excitement and the experience of awe. Children can be in the present moment without some part of them stepping outside of the experience to hold it at arms’ length to evaluate it, filter it, and critique it. This is what Buddhism knows as “the beginners’ mind” where one is always the student, always willing to begin afresh and anew, always ready to learn and to experience more.

Often when we are lost, don’t have our bearings, and the ground shifts under our feet, we cling to what we already know, what has worked before.  But you know that cliché, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.” Sometimes before frantically clutching at outdated and worthless straws, it is better to sit still and simply be, to have that beginner’s mind – to listen, to look around, and stay in the present rather than desperately casting about for alternative scenarios – and then — wait for the breeze.  As much as we’d prefer it, God doesn’t not behave anything like the God of the movies –  no incredible Star Wars special effects, no magnificent, resonant Morgan Freeman voice, no miraculous George Burns’ friendly-old-guy type appearances. Just a still, small voice, a hunch, an intuition, a coincidence here, a surprise occurrence there.  Funny things happen that tend to add up to more than expected. God is in the details; God is in the small things that we will miss if we fail to be quiet and attentive.

A poem called “Lost” by David Wagoner is often quoted either in whole or in part by various authors reflecting on darkness – Richard Rohr, Barbara Brown Taylor, Joan Chittister, Eric Elnes . He describes what to do when you find yourself lost:

Stand still. The trees ahead
And bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again,
Saying Here.
No two trees are the same to the Raven,
No two branches are the same to the Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Good advice: Stand still; get your bearings; study your surroundings; pay attention to details; wherever you are is called “here.” And then wait for the breeze, and only then take one step at a time. Patiently, slowly.  The path is never straight or well lit, so charging ahead can be more harmful than helpful. If you’ve ever walked a labyrinth you know how it twists and turns, sometimes it seems as if you are doubling back on yourself, going in the wrong direction, but with perseverance and concentration, walking slowly one small section at a time, you finally reach the goal, the center, and the presence of God.

The journey from being lost to being found does not happen in an instant or even overnight; it takes time, to be sure. We walk to where we see the next step revealed and then must stop and wait for the breeze, the signal to take the next step forward. Some describe as similar to driving a car at night, “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”[i]

Have you ever wondered if Nicodemus found his way out of the dark wood? Or did he stay stuck, wondering “How can this be?” He is mentioned twice more in John’s gospel,  first as a defender of Jesus against the Pharisees who had wanted Jesus arrested, saying “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51) He hi criticized by the Pharisees for his tolerance. And then later after Jesus’ death he is named as a companion of Joseph of Arimathea, bringing spices and assisting with the linen cloths to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. No longer the confident, but lost, interrogator, he has worked his way through the contradictions he’s experienced to become a disciple, a student, a follower; he has been touched by the wind that blows where it will with the grace and love and mystery of God; and he is lost no more.   When we feel lost, may it be so for us as well.  Amen.

[i] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and other wanderers), 2015, 100.

Sermon: What Does This Mean?

“What Does This Mean?”
Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
May 24, 2015 • Pentecost

Call to Worship: “Spirit of God” (featuring instrumentalists Simon Scott and Chandler Pendley, and soloists Casey Pendley, Sharon Pendley and Rick Martin)

The Word in Song: “All to Us”

Sermon

Today is the day when the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is described variously in Scripture. In John’s gospel, there is the quieter version – Jesus promises his disciples that the Spirit will come after his departure to be their comforter, companion, and guide and will lead them into all truth and answer the questions they’re not as yet ready to confront. Then after the resurrection, John describes Jesus returning to the frightened disciples in the upper room and breathing on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The better known version of Pentecost is the one that Hal read earlier where the disciples after having waited in Jerusalem in an upper room as Jesus had commanded them to do, are surprised and overwhelmed by the noisy and powerful entrance of the Holy Spirit into their midst, experienced by them as both wind and flame. And the results of that experience are immediately noticeable on them and on bystanders who have gathered in Jerusalem from near and far. There is an old saying that goes, “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.”

So, the bystanders who first encounter the twelve disciples, bring with them their own life experiences and so react in different ways to the spectacle unfolding around them. Some have brought a capacity for joy, and they sense the joy that is at the center of these disciples’ reactions and which cannot be contained but is now reaching out toward them. Others have brought their cynicism, which makes it just as obvious to them that there’s been some drinking going on already this morning and this spectacle is just about new wine. Still others, the majority perhaps, have brought questions with them, so they are “amazed and perplexed” – or as some would translate it – beside themselves, completely uncomprehending, blown away, and thoroughly disoriented[i] – by what they’ve seen, and so they have to ask, “What does this mean?” [ii] This honest question, some would say, “is like music to the ear of God.”[iii] Throughout scripture it is asked in many ways as the people of God try to figure out what’s happening to them and why – Jacob at the Jabbok, Joseph with his brothers, Moses turning towards the burning bush. And this is the question that we see asked and answered again and again the life and teachings of Jesus.

It is the question that is at the heart of Jesus’ desert temptation, “What does this mean, to be the messiah?” And later he asks of Pharisees, and lawyers, and disciples alike, “What does this mean, to observe the Sabbath? What does this mean, who is my neighbor? What does this mean, to love God with your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself? What does this mean, this discipline of prayer” [iv] What does this mean, the last will be first and the first will be last? And of course, Jesus always asks more questions than he answers. Then at the day of Pentecost in answer to this same question “what does this mean,” Peter tried to explain to the crowds that what they had experienced was the Holy Spirit. They had been privileged to witness what had been foretold by the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days, I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.”

By the end of his first public sermon, 3000 people were ready to be baptized and to follow Jesus. Three thousand people had experienced the Holy Spirit; three thousand people had their question answered and knew the truth of Peter’s message. Even those who had been scornful and had blamed it all on too much wine, received answers that took them from seeing this event from their own cynical view point, to seeing it in an entirely new light and as it truly was. From that day, the Holy Spirit led the disciples on to become more than they ever dreamed they could become and do more than they ever dreamed or thought they could do. It was the Holy Spirit that opened Paul’s eyes to the truth of Christ and changed him from being the persecutor of Christians to becoming the primary spokesperson for the group he’d once persecuted. It was the Holy Spirit that led Phillip to baptize the Ethopian Eunuch. It was the Holy Spirit that allowed Peter to dream crazy dreams about a sheet being lowered from heaven which contained all kinds of objects he’d thought of as unclean, and then led him to the home of a Gentile, a Roman soldier named Cornelius and to baptize this man and his whole household – people whom he would previously have shunned – and to conclude “God shows no partiality.” In each instance a new experience forced them to see the world from a different perspective, forced them to look with new eyes at a situation they once wouldn’t have questioned, and to ask “What does this mean?” And the answer came to them each time, not from the tradition or the authorities of the day, but from the urging and prompting of the Holy Spirit from within.

Today, we especially need to be aware of the promptings of the Holy Spirit as we try to find our meaning for our time. In times past, people of faith looked to outside authorities – the authority of the church or the authority of scripture – to find the truth. If the church said it, it was true. If the Bible said it, we were to believe it, and the issue was settled. But things are different today; we live in a time of change and flux. The Church which began as one is now divided into some 41,000 different denominations and sects around it world, and has lost that single voice with which it once spoke. Now there is a cacophony of voices claiming to speak for God and the Church, and if you don’t like one, you can move down the street to another more to your liking. The Bible, too has lost much of the authority it had in days gone by. Biblical literacy is at an all time low; and the changes over the last 150 or so years has undermined its power. Our historical struggles over slavery, the acceptance of divorce, the changing status and role of women, technological, medical and scientific advances have all challenged the traditional role of scripture. And one author has suggested that the current struggle over marriage equality and the ordination of LGBT clergy is the last bastion of the sola scriptura – only scripture – position within Christianity. When it is over, we will no longer be able to claim scripture as the sole authority for the answers to our deepest questions.[v] If all this is so, then to what do we turn as the authority for today that will lead us to the answers to our most significant questions? How do we know that what we do, think, or feel is right, or holy, or of God when the old standards have ceased to have influence in our pluralistic society, when there is no longer one kind of Christianity, or one clear voice that speaks for the faithful?[vi] I wonder if the answer is that we should turn to exactly what overtook the disciples on thefirst day of Pentecost – the Holy Spirit.

Regardless of the weight and authority that we do or do not give to Scripture or the traditions of the church, the Holy Spirit continues to call us into the mystery of God, reminds us of the model of Jesus, and brings us into the fullness of who we are meant to be.[vii] To speak the central question, “What does this mean?” at the first Pentecost or today 2000+ years later starts us and keeps us on our journey towards God.   The Holy Spirit has come as the Advocate, the Friend, and the Comforter, but also as the Agitator, the Encourager, the Guide of all of us who are on this life long journey during which we become more and more aware of its leading. It is as Jesus had promised, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” However, if we are not careful and aware, it is easy to become very self-centered and go right back to the place of seeing things as we are and not as they truly are. To avoid this pitfall we need one another; we need community where we can ask God centered questions – not questions about what we are doing or what is personally important to us, but about what is God doing, where is the Holy Spirit working, and what can we do today to participate in what God is already up to. Where and how can we individually and as a church fit into God’s much larger work and hope for the world. When we ask “what does this mean?” we can’t be thinking “what do we want from God or from the church?” but instead what does God want from us and from the church. The history of this church is characterized by its continual asking of these questions. The answers have changed for the changing times and circumstances. Most recently we have spent important time over the last two years exploring these questions yet again and we will continue to do so even after we’ve moved into our new building and it ceases over time to be new anymore. For as long as there is an Oconee Street United Methodist church we will ask these questions “what does this mean” and “where is God working” and we will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we explore new possibilities.

Thanks be to God for this day of Pentecost, for every year it reminds us and teaches us of the amazing, disorienting, mind-blowing arrival of the Holy spirit on that first Pentecost, and calls us to ask questions, and to move into uncharted territory and face new challenges as we find ways to serve God and God’s people in the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Frank L. Crouch, “Commentary on Acts 2:1-21, www.workingpreacher.org, , 2015 [ii] Richard Spalding, “A Seal Upon Your Heart,” Pulpit Digest, April-June 2000, 114. [iii] Spalding. [iv] Spalding, 115. [v] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, 2008, 83. [vi] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, 2006, 93. [vii] Peter Gomes, “Remembrance and Imagination,” Strength for the Journey, 2003, 297.

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, April 4

by Lorelei Smith (with help from my mom)

April 4, 2015

John 13:34-35 from The Message (MSG) 34-35: “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”

Recently in school we have been learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We even took a field trip to the King Center in Atlanta. I noticed that Dr. King is similar to Jesus because he made a lot of speeches and wanted everyone to help each other. He was also really brave because he had to talk in front of a lot of people, and he knew that there were some people who did not want him to be saying what he said, which is that everyone should love each other. He even knew that some people wanted to kill him, but he kept talking to people and saying what he wanted to say.
Like Jesus, Dr. King followed God and listened to God even though others did not believe in what he was saying. Some people wanted white people to stay separate from black people because they thought that white people were better than black people, but Dr. King wanted no more segregation. He knew that Jesus always wanted everyone to love each other, no matter what people looked like. Dr. King also knew that Jesus did not want us to fight each other. Even though people were really mean to him, he still loved them and did not act mean back to them. He taught people nonviolence and passive resistance and to trust in God.
The hymn They’ll Know We Are Christians was written by Peter Scholtes in the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was happening. Mr. Scholtes wanted to have a hymn that his choir could sing for interracial events, so he wrote this one. It says that everyone is “one in the Spirit” and that “we pray that all unity may one day be restored”. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus wanted unity and love for us. If we can remember that, then everyone can be happy.
Prayer: Dear God, I want to be like Jesus and Dr. King. I want to love people and treat people with respect. I want to be brave enough to do the right thing. Thank you for Jesus and Dr. King and other people who lead us to do good things. Amen.

Lenten Devotional: Wednesday, April 1

by Amanda Martin
April 1, 2015

John 15:12-13: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Every Wednesday morning in a local Assisted Living Home sits a healthy man in his mid-70s. He is nicely dressed and pleasantly smiling at those who speed past with trays of food, linens, sanitizing supplies, and blood pressure monitors.  Staff are busy cleaning up remaining breakfast from residents, desperately working to get confused and sickly people to the bathroom, although it is often too late.  He is at work as well, moving slowly with great attention to detail feeding his wife applesauce.  Some mornings he is reading her the paper, softly stroking her hand, speaking as if they were alone in an intimate conversation.

His wife says nothing in return, does not meet his eye, or actively respond to his presence.  She is in the advanced stages of dementia and has not called him by name in a year.  This is not to say that she does not know he is there, she is calm and seemingly at peace.  It is a painful yet beautiful example of real friendship. The man is always present with his wife, attending to her needs, anticipating what she might want.  He asks for nothing in return, he is content to be available to her.

He nods gently at me as I enter, politely acknowledging but remaining attentive to his number one priority.  I selfishly choke down a deep breath to calm my nerves and try my best to focus on residents, not the smell. I am only there for a little while, to share music, involve residents in dance, song, and reminiscence then I am off to the next group.  He remains by her side.  Tapping her lovingly, “…that was a good one, wasn’t it dear”.

Lent has traditionally been an uncomfortable time for me.  It is so painful to watch this man I love and trust go through such agony.  He suffered so, and I’d rather he didn’t have to do it for me.  It has taken some maturing to realize if I truly love Jesus, want to follow his example and live in remembrance of him I must get over my own “comfortability”.  I want to be a friend to him, to honor him, not to turn away in fear.   Perhaps in this way I can better learn to serve those in need, serve God, and in the face of fear fully live a Christian life.

Prayer:  Lord God, thank you for Jesus’ example of friendship. He did not turn away from pain, he lived it. This holy week as we acknowledge his pain help us to honor and love him more.  Through Jesus’ powerful example may we too live through hardship and suffering knowing full that contentment in doing your good work. Amen

Lenten Devotional: Wednesday, March 25

by Jodie Lyon
March 25, 2015

John 6:66-68 (NRSV):  66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

I was able to attend the official debut of Max Reinhart’s “The Gospel According to Peter” and found myself, like all those in attendance, marveling at the way Max was able to make the character of Peter come alive to his audience.  Max describes Peter as a “good ol’ boy,” a regular guy who struggles with faith in the midst of doubt—a man who experiences profound change through his encounters with Jesus and has a story that needs to be told.

Max’s songs reminded me of this text, which is one of my favorite stories in the Gospels.  Jesus has been teaching and people are getting shocked, disgusted, angry, and annoyed.  People are leaving, standing up and walking out on Jesus.  You can’t blame them, honestly.  Jesus has been teaching some crazy stuff, like “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”  WHAT??  Christians are so used to Holy Communion rituals that we forget how weird it is to talk about eating flesh and drinking blood.  In any other context, people talking this way might be arrested.  In the early church, the Eucharist was celebrated in private, with only baptized Christians allowed in attendance.  Those preparing for baptism (a two to three year process in early Christianity—no quick conversion after an altar call) were kicked out prior to the celebration of this “love feast.”  It’s no wonder that rumors spread that Christians were baking infants into loaves of bread and forcing neophytes to slice in them before sharing in a cannibalistic meal.  Christian Eucharistic talk is crazy talk—we’ve just become numb to the bizarreness of it all.

Jesus’ first century audience wasn’t used to this weird talk, so people start walking out on Jesus.  Not only the crowds he was teaching, but people who had been following Jesus long enough to become known as his disciples.  Jesus was losing his own people.  He finally turns to his closest followers, the 12, and asks them point blank if they’re ready to walk out the door, too.

There are lots of ways to read this story because the Gospel writer doesn’t give us many clues as to how to interpret the dialogue we read.  I think most Christians imagine that it went something like this: Jesus asks the 12 if they are going to leave, too, and they all look at Jesus in surprise and horror.  Peter, acting as spokesperson for the group, jumps up and adamantly proclaims, “Of course not! You have the words of eternal life!”  That’s one reading.  It might have happened that way.

But I read this text a different way.  I don’t see a group of disciples anxious to declare their allegiance with the guy who just seemingly promoted cannibalism.  I see a group of disciples who are afraid and confused by what they’ve just heard.  They’re really not sure they want what this guy has to offer.  That was some crazy talk back there.  They’re afraid they’ve signed up for the wrong team.  They have their doubts, just like the crowd does, just like those hit-the-road disciples; and in the back of their minds, they’re considering walking out, too.

Peter, in my interpretation of the story, doesn’t jump onto his desk to cry, “O Captain, my Captain!” and alleviate the fears of his teacher.  Rather, he timidly and perhaps despairingly asks, “Where else would we go?”  Peter has left home and livelihood to follow Jesus, and in spite of what he’s heard Jesus teach today, he’s seen amazing things.  He knows, deep in his soul, that Jesus “has the words of eternal life.”  Peter’s proclamation is a sign of his faith, but perhaps not the resounding faith we normally credit to the disciples in this story.  He’s worn out, and afraid, and yet he knows he can’t leave.  This guy is the one.  The one who can lead him to life.

I prefer my reading of the story to the more upbeat one because it more aptly describes my own faith life.  Jesus wears me out and exasperates me sometimes and I’m not afraid to admit that.  Faith in the end, is trust, not simply a belief that something is true.  Faith is what you get when the rubber meets the road and you’re forced to make a choice.  Peter trusts Jesus, even in the midst of his doubts.  He returns to him, even when it’s hard.  He has faith.

In the midst of my own doubts and struggles, I am often reminded of this story.  It’s frequently a prayer on my lips when I am frustrated with God because of the things going on around me, or when I find myself questioning God in the midst of life.  I hear Jesus asking if I’m going to leave, too, and I say, sometimes lovingly and sometimes with a clear sense of annoyance, “Where else would I go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

Prayer: Lord, grant us the faith of Peter.  May we always return to you in the midst of our doubts, trusting that you are the way to life eternal.  Amen.

Sermon: Life is what happens when we’re making other plans

“Life is what happens when we’re making other plans”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
John 12:20-26, Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18
March 8, 2015

Choir Anthem: “I Choose You”

Sermon Audio

Not many of us like change. It means adjusting to something different, and adjusting is not something we do easily. It is so much easier to keep things as they are. We rely on routines and predictability in our lives for a sense of stability and safety. We seek equilibrium. Sr. Joan Chittister says “we want to sink into the marshmallow of life and enjoy what we have gained.”[i]

Even good change is difficult. Becoming debt-free, or getting in shape, or staring a new job, or moving to a new place, these are all good changes to make, and to make them, takes a lot of determination and effort. But at least these are changes that we want to make; we are ready for them even if they may take time and effort on our part, and even if they are temporarily uncomfortable or stressful. There’s a greater good that we’re working toward and believe we can achieve.

But what about those changes that we don’t chose to make, the ones that come in to our lives uninvited? It’s one thing to decide to find a new job; it’s another thing to find out your current job is being eliminated.   It’s one thing to decide to get into better shape, it’s another thing to find out that your body is doing things you didn’t realize, and exercise alone won’t cure it. I read yesterday about a young man who began to put on a lot of weight. He chose to begin an exercise and diet plan, but it didn’t seem to do much good. He continued to gain weight. He was finally diagnosed with a pituitary tumor that had been quietly growing at the base of his brain and causing all the trouble and required unexpected surgery to cure him.

In life there are changes we would never choose, but if we live long enough, they are a part of life and will come to us uninvited ,unexpected, and unwelcomed. If we made a list of them, all of the items would probably have certain things in common – shock, loss, and interruption. This kind of significant change does more than create a little temporary anxiety or stress, it can make us feel powerless, helpless , overwhelmed, and afraid. In these situations, our natural inclination is to be in denial, to hold off the future, to run away, to escape, to avoid the pain because frankly, loss feels like death, and who wants to die? But because many of the losses we experience in life are inevitable and unavoidable, trying to forestall the future is futile and trying to hang on to the present forever is impossible.

We know that the only constant in our lives is change. Change is present at every stage and phase of our lives, and it is necessary for the sake of carrying us on to the next phase of life. We experience biological and social change; internal and external change. Some of it we control, but much of it is beyond our control. How we respond to it then, is all important.

In our gospel reading today Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth, and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Somehow for Jesus, change and loss are not defeat, but gain; not the end; but somehow a new beginning.

One of the real blessings for me as a pastor having served this church for almost 14 years, is the opportunity to have watched the truth of Jesus’s words lived out in individual lives within this congregation. There are all kinds of stories of unwanted change and loss in this room this morning – and all kinds of struggles in the aftermath, and most miraculously and most beautiful, all kinds of new life that has pushed its way from the earth and into the sunlight. Each of us has a story to tell.

For me, unwanted change came in the deaths of two people closest to me. it was the loss of my mother when I was 35 years old that brought me back to church after many years away; and it was the death of my husband 13 years later that brought me first to seminary and then here.   Both events forced me to think differently about who God is and who I am and what God is calling me to be and to do. In the process, and it is a process because it doesn’t happen overnight, I have come to understand that although they are both physically absent from this life, their lives continue to bear much fruit. And I have come to trust that there was nothing in life or in death that they or any of us has to face that Jesus himself did not experience, and that he walks with us each step of the way.

In both events my life was changed through circumstances I could not control, in significant ways, and I found myself on an unwanted, unexpected path, pushed in a new and different direction, one that has given me despite my grief and loss, a good and a blessed life; and no one has been more surprised than I have been. Paul’s words, Mikell read earlier express it best; In the Message it reads this way: “So we’re not giving up. How could we. Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace. . . .There is far more here than meets the eye.”

I know that for some people that old saw about a door closing and another door opening is a whole lot of hooey! Too trite, too clichéd, too easy, too pat. But nevertheless, for me it proved true. Not that the second door opens immediately after the first door closes. No, there can be a good bit of time standing in the hallway looking for a door, or going from door to door and finding each one locked. Endurance plays a large part. But Paul says elsewhere that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint. And sure enough, it takes a while to imagine, first that anything can come next, and second to imagine what will come next. But we can do more than simply endure. We can rediscover hope, and with hope we can begin anew.

My story is not so unusual – there are many who have experienced new life through the unexpected loss of the old. But even in the most unexpected and most unlikely circumstances, miracles can occur. Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts with you in a Lenten devotional and also in a newspaper article about Kelly Gissendaner. Even though 18 year ago she was found guilty of murder, to which she has confessed, even though she was sentenced to death, she has not died prematurely, but instead, surrounded by death, she has found new life, and she is a new person in Christ. She is not the person she used to be. As the prison doors closed behind her, the door of faith opened wide for her.

Even though we say we believe in redemption, it is still is hard, isn’t it, to imagine such a transformation. And yet it has happened. She has opened her heart in that most despairing of places – death row – to the grace of new possibilities. Through the grace of God, she has been given the opportunity to touch lives for the better even as she has felt hers drawing to a close. And now, who knows. The death penalty is now suspended for the time being. But each day that she has, she is living as fully as she possibly can.

The word for us today, is that change, change we will never be ready for, change that disrupts the very center of our lives, is not the end. There is a gift hidden within it if we have the faith and the endurance to persevere and look for it. It is the gift of beginning again. The gift of growth. The gift of bearing more fruit, different fruit from what we’d ever imagined.   We may be as Paul was, afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but also like him, through the grace of God present with us, we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.

The challenges for each of us are “what are we able to endure? How long will we persist? How much are we willing to learn in order to begin again?   We have a choice even in change that we did not choose – we have the choice to try to hang on to our present life and inevitably lose it, or to let it go, and somehow keep the life that truly is life for eternity. We have the choice to die spiritually, or to begin again, to be open to possibility, to see God, as Sister Joan says, not only as a caring father, but as a “birthing mother, who brings new life with the rising of every sun and the descent of every inner darkness.” And she says, we have the choice “to grow spiritually in the image of our mother God . . . to be open to newness, to expect surprise, to understand pain, to soothe hurt, to nurture difference rather than to deny it. . . . to [welcome] tomorrow . . . rather than to attempt to cement today into eternity. . . . until, at the end, we find ourselves full-statured and full of grace.”[ii] May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.

[i] Joan D. Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 2003, 20.

[ii] Chittister.

Lenten Devotional: Wednesday, March 4

by Joe Dennis
March 4, 2015

John 13:34-35 – A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

One of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received was from a student who often confided in me. One day I asked her why she felt so comfortable to talk to me. “You’re a really good Christian,” she said.

At first glance, I may not appear to be a Christian. I’ve been known to cuss. I enjoy heavy metal music and gangster rap. I watch R-rated movies. I’ll regularly indulge in a beer or a glass of wine … or both. And I certainly don’t proselytize. I would not make a good Baptist.

But she knew I was a Christian, she said, because of the love I demonstrate for others.

We will work with each other. We will work side by side.
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yeah, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
–Church Hymn, Peter Scholtes, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”

In every interaction, I try to be Christian through my love, looking at every person as a child of God. I’ve worked really hard at practicing love, especially in times when showing love is difficult: when a client is yelling at me over how I handled a job, when another person hurts (physically or emotionally) a family member, or when the customer service representative has consistently messed up my situation. Sometimes this love can be interpreted as being weak. I disagree. It’s easy to show love when it is being reciprocated. But you have to be strong to show love when societal norms are to demonstrate the opposite. Was Jesus weak when — dying on the cross — he showed love by forgiving his tormentors?

God has empowered us with the ability to forgive, allowing us the capability to love. Loving others is entirely in our power, yet it can be one of the most difficult things we attempt. Do we show love for the leaders of “the other” political party? Do we show love for our personal oppressors? Do we show love for criminals? Do we show love for members of ISIS?

Prayer: God, thank you for loving us unconditionally. Please help us love others as you love us. Help us forgive those who have hurt us. And let others be so inspired by our love, that they reciprocate it in their own lives. Amen.