Dearborn Christian Church

Pastor Notes

Sermon notes for January 3, 2015

“The Light Shines in the Darkness”

John 1: 1-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

The other day on NPR, I heard an interview with the historian David McCullogh.  We know him, in this part of the country, for his biography of President Harry Truman.  He has also just completed a series of books about important inventers in the early part of the 20th century - most recently on the Wright Brothers.  The interviewer asked him, “How do you feel looking at the future, especially the future of our country?  You have spent so much time giving us a sense of the past - but what do you make of what is happening in our world today?”

His reply went something like this:  “Yes, there is plenty to be deeply concerned about . . . the influence of an obscene amount of money upon our political process . . . the increasing gap between the very rich and the very poor . . . the serious condition of our environment and how we have yet to dedicate ourselves to addressing it . . . racial tensions . . . “  And then he said, “But I have just been traveling throughout this country and in every community I visit I see reasons for hope:  entrepreneurs at work, networks of people addressing social issues, thoughtful and committed people, full of energy and creativity . . . “  

In other words, despite all the daunting troubles of this past year, there is still cause for hope.  There is a strong message in the prologue to John’s Gospel, and it resonates with hope.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Of course, John is speaking about Jesus - the Word of God - 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  Jesus has invited us into this light - and in Matthew’s Gospel he declares:

(5:12-14) “You are the light of the world . . . a city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Richard Rohr says it this way:

“God’s life is living itself in me. I am aware of life living itself in me.

God’s love is living itself in me. I am aware of love living itself in me.

You cannot not live in the presence of God. This is not soft or sentimental spirituality, but ironically demands confidence that must be chosen many times and surrender that is always hard won.”

Joan Chittister says this about darkness and the light of God:

“There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate.  It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation:  that there is a God and we are not it. . . Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life.  At that moment, spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life.  And it is that light that shines in the darkness.”

She speaks of the spiritual journey and what the great teachers of all time have always taught:  “They demanded deep, great measures of internal awareness.   Disciples were taught to identify within themselves the spirits that colored their lives and drove their desires and moved their hearts.  It was the great purifying act of being able to admit to oneself at least, what it was for which the soul pined that was making it impossible to accept the good of where they were in life.  Then it was a matter of overcoming the negative impulses within so that the spirit of the joy of living in God could take them over and give them the fullness of life for which they longed.”

There’s a lot in here.

Internal awareness that God is present.  That Jesus is God’s Word still being revealed to us through the Spirit.  That because Jesus came among us as a human being, we too are invited into a deeper life that is God’s design for each of us.  

Also internal awarenss of what dissatisfies us. . . what keeps us awake at night . . . what causes us to strive and not find the peace of God in our midst . . . 

This awareness is a great purifying act:  admitting to one’s self about what stands in the way of seeing God in our midst  . .  refusing to accept the good of where we are in life . . . and overcoming the negative impulses within us - so that we can truly delight in the “joy of the living God.”

She continues: “What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect.”

When our daughter Sarah was in 7th grade - she experienced the trauma of being bullied.  She was going to a very prosperous private school in midtown KC.  We moved her to a charter school in the inner city.  She agreed with the choice.  Very soon, she realized her peers were not up to grade level.  Lots of academic failings.  But she was determined to succeed.  She made friends with other kids who were not like her private shcool peers.  She excelled in everything that required her initiative.  She soared.  

Joan Chittister notes:  “Human beings everywhere have transcended all manner of pain.  Paraplegics talk of being happy.  Holocaust victims report finding God in concentration camps.  People living in poverty insist that they too, find good and hope and enjoyment despite their circumstances . . .  At the same time, there are people who have great health, take political freedom for granted, and live stable and comfortable lives who report their sense of hopelessness and describe lives lived in despair . . . 

“What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect.”

“In Paraguay, a music teacher taught children to make musical instruments out of the glass and tin and steel in a landfill and life changed for those children.”  

I remember many a camping trip . . . where we didn’t have the money for fancy lodging or even eating out.  But we had incredible moments - surviving windstorms . . . seeing the sunrise over the mountains . . . Yellowstone National Park, where we forgot our sleeping bags . . . experiencing the beauty - and God’s abiding Presence - even without flush toilets!

“What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect.”

We begin another year confessing where we are - where we stand with the demons of hopelessness.  We confess we get overwhelmed with the evening news . . . We get angry . . . cynical . . . We feel let down by the circumstances of our lives. . . We often are full of regrets . . .We fail to remember the promise of John’s Gospel:  The Jesus we follow is the Word of God - the life of God - the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  

“We can never NOT be in God’s presence,” as Richard Rohr reminds us.  It is no small challenge to set aside our despair, our moments of hopelessness, our fears which awaken us in the night . . . and -

Remember that with Jesus we stand in Divine Light.  We must pursue the possible in the imperfect . . .

 The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Sermon notes for December 6, 2015

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 3: 1-6 “To Whose Voice Have I Been Listening?”

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness . . . “

I can well remember being 17 - almost 18 years old - growing up in a small rural community. I was a kid who liked school and imagined that I could go to college, even though my parents had no money for this. I started looking at all the ways I could figure this out. School counselor. Places that offered scholarships. Work study. Finding a job that would allow me to also pay for school. Once I embarked on this goal, I found out pretty quick that everyone in my life had an opinion. Study journalism. What about becoming a teacher? Church work . . . could you find a job working somewhere and maybe they would help you? Many voices. Many opinions.

All of us know this crossroads. More than ever we must contend with the myriad of voices in our lives - directing us, persuading us through advertising, shaming us on occasion with our faults, inspiring us with a new idea, scaring us with threats all around . . . Many voices. Always we are sorting and sifting.

Today’s Scripture takes us to a historical juncture where John the Baptist is introduced as a person who lived and preached in a very specific time. The first part of this passage tells us who were the rulers - both political and religious leaders of his time. It would be a bit like saying, “In the year 2015, 239 years after the founding of the United States of America, while Barack Obama was President of this Union, and Jay Nixon Governor of Missouri, and Dr. Bill Rose-Heim the Regional Director for the Kansas City Region of the Disciples of Christ . . . the word of God came to Randy Beale, citizen of Edgerton, Missouri. Randy went all around the region speaking to people about their faith and asking them to be baptized. He spoke to them about “a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He was like the one spoken of in the words of the prophet

Isaiah: “He will be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” Now we know that Randy is not John the Baptist, but we do know that he is a real person, situated in history and time. He is someone we know. He is not a fictional character. In today’s passage, John the Baptist is a real person . . . emerging from the sidelines: as one who is on the edge of things . . . Literally, we are told he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.

There are three words that keep jumping out at me in this passage:

wilderness . . . voice . . . way . . .

Let’s take a look at the places we call wilderness: This is not usually a term that brings us peace. It is a place where things are still wild. Wilderness may be a natural place - a place yet unspoiled by human conquest, but more often than not we think of wilderness as a place fraught with unseen dangers, no clear path. I think of the fairy tales where people, often children, are lost . . . Hansel and Gretel for example . . . or those brave souls who sought to get to the North Pole, long before airplanes or any of today’s technology . . . It was a battle, a struggle . . . to somehow move through the wilderness to reach a goal that was elusive, just around the bend, but perhaps never achieved by anyone before.

Wilderness. Advent brings us here. Not to the glory yet of the newborn babe - but as pilgrims on a journey - making our way through briars and thunderstorms. We are all out here and when we are honest, we know that all of us are seeking a way out - a way through. Wilderness looks like dysfunctional families. It looks like broken dreams. It looks a lot like every addiction we humans have ever dreamed up. It looks like illness. It looks like broken relationships. It looks like grief. It looks tangled. David Wagoner writes: “Stand still. The trees ahead and the 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 trese are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to 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.” Now let’s go back to this voice . . . this prophetic voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness.

He is calling for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins . . . This is a sacred voice - calling people back to the truth of who they really are - unobstructed by sin and failure - cleansed of this baggage in order to be who God has called them to be. We have a number of folks right now who are asking to be baptized. I have met with several of them and we have talked about one aspect of Baptism - very much the target of John the Baptist - Baptism as a repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But when Jesus is later baptized, we have a new element: the gift of the Holy Spirit - God’s own Spirit - which came to him. This is also the Baptism which we profess.

How difficult it is . . . to hear this voice of God’s Spirit. The voice which calls to us to remember. Remember who we are. Remember that God has a purpose - a design - and a dream for us. Everyone one of us. Instead these are a few of the voices we listen to instead: The voice of disappointment . . . which needles us . . . whispers that we have made too many mistakes . . . there is simply not enough time or energy to shift gears . . . we are finished. It may not even be our mistakes - but it is our perceived misfortune which depletes us. This is the choking voice of depression. It stops us so completely in our efforts to keep moving - to keep seeing possibilities in the murky places. . .

The voice of constant comparison . . . which imagines somehow that other people’s lives are so much better, richer, lovelier, healthier, easier . . . (fill in the blank). Advertisers play upon this voice. We need to look better, feel better, smell better, drive something better . . . this voice works on our insides - but it is about outside stuff - the things that are seen on the surface. . . When we look more closely, we know this is voice filled with empty promises.

The voice of distraction: Here we are encouraged to “eat, drink and be merry!” whatever it takes to not look at our lives, our spiritual selves, our calling to be the one God chose from the beginning. This time of year it is not only a voice, it is a song, a melody we hear as the measure of Christmas: buy stuff, party, drink, buy more stuff, watch movies, play video games, drink, eat, distract yourself from yourself and from God. Every last one of us does this. Not all distraction is unhealthy. But when, I ask gently, do we listen to this voice from the edges of the wilderness calling us to something more? We will have to find some place which gets us to pay attention.

The voice of confusion: I have been thinking a great deal about a young woman I know with an eating disorder. She has been tunneling through this difficult phase of her life for many years. Another person close to her once remarked to me, “She is listening to the wrong voice. She is hearing a voice which is false and distorted. We need to pray that she will hear the voice of truth in her life. A voice which loves her without any judgment . . . a voice that will call her back to who she truly is. . . “

Let’s move now to the lines from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

How can this happen? How do we get to straight paths and valleys filled and mountains and hills made low? We get there when we recognize that so much of what we encounter is wilderness - tangled places - and voices which are not voices of truth. We have to plow a different field. We have to grab every scary and broken perspective and find God’s Spirit in the midst of what is often most troubling.

This past week I took my friend Ken to the KU Cancer Center for a blood treatment. It took a little over 3 hours. Most of the people getting treated there have some form of cancer. You can feel the tension, the worry, the doubts. . . (Ken’s situation is very treatable, but chronic . . . ) I noticed an older woman who was sitting right across from us. When she walked in,she was stooped over, her gray hair was cut short, and stuck out from the side of her head, as if it had not been combed. She walked with a limp. Her hands were gnarled and curled inward. When I looked her way, she smiled sweetly.And many of you know Ken. He doesn’t know a stranger. “Hi there, how are you doing today?” She brightened even more. “I am doing just fine,” she beamed. Ken didn’t ask her about her treatment, instead he asked her what she did for a living when she was younger. She beamed again, “I was an aquatics coach. And I was a teacher.” “Did you go to college?” Ken asked. “Oh yes, I went to Southern Methodist University and the University of Kansas.” She continued to beam. The color rose in her cheeks. She asked Ken about his life . . . and the two of them were off in a conversation about books and people and faith and finally . . . about illness. She told him that no one in her family came with her to these treatments. “Just as well,” she remarked, “they can’t handle it.And that’s ok . . . “ She was still beaming.I heard her tell Ken: “My life has been good. Really my life is still good. I just turned 80last week . . . “I listened with near reverence to her lilting voice. She was happy. She was grateful.She had faith. She had no real worries. And yet, I looked again. To outside eyes, those who hadn’t overhead this amazing exchange of life and hope and gratitude . . .she looked as close as anyone I’ve seen - to being haggard and very sick . . . worn down and worn out. But she was sailing through her wilderness. She was hearing avoice of truth within her being.

“Every valley . . . shall be exalted . . . and every hill made low . . . the crooked places will be made straight . . . and all shall know the salvation of the Lord. . . “

Amen.


Sermon notes for the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015

Scripture: Luke 21: 25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout their leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near. Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” 

Today’s Scripture seems to be a far cry from what we might be expecting at this time of 
year. For the church worldwide, this is the first Sunday of Advent - noting the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent is not considered the Christmas season - but it is opening us up to that expectation. So today we have a prediction about the ultimate return of Jesus in history - while we are anticipating his birth as an infant in Bethlehem. 

Today’s passage can be heard on at least three levels: 1) It is likely connected to the 
destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Scholars believe that Luke wrote his account of the life and teachings of Jesus somewhere after the year 80. These words have Jesus making a prophecy about immanent destruction and upheaval. Everyone alive at this time would have known - and Luke’s audience would be ones who had directly experienced such devastation. 2) This passage can be understood to be speaking to the end of all time - and especially about the return of Jesus “on a cloud” we are told - this cloud being symbolic in Jewish terms of the Presence of God. Since no one has ever been able to predict this event - though thousands have tried. . . I am not going to patch together the clues and signs either. During the time of Luke’s writing, this type of language about “end times” was extremely prevalent. Much like today, people were caught in the grip of enormous fears. The world was and is - full of great danger - great evil - unexpected and nearly unimagineable terror. It is no surprise that people sensed that life could not go on this way. Too much! 3) Finally, this passage can be understood to be speaking to us about the need to be prepared for such an event - to be attentive -and to be focused on what matters.

This Sunday is the beginning of the year for Christians worldwide. It is our starting point. It is our starting over point. We click a spiritual re-set button. I have begun reading a daily set of reflections called “Sacred Space” - written by a group of Irish Jesuits. It is a bit like a devotional: Scripture, thoughts for each day of   the year and a process for prayer. Here is what I found in the introduction:

“We are here for a project so audacious that something within us finds it hard to believe: we are here to transform ourselves and our world. If we cannot believe this, it is because we have downsized our beliefs.”

And here’s what William Sloane Coffin, former pastor at Riverside Church in New York wrote about this Advent theme of being on guard - “Be on the Watch”:

“One reason there is so little excitement in standard brand Protestant churches 
is that there is so little sense of expectation. The expecatation of something new has either died in skepticism or emigrated to some other movement . . . It is more than sad, it is a shame to state this, for the New Testament is nothing if not a testament of the new. . . In other words, unless you say, “There is hope,” you’re hopeless!”

Is it possible for us to get excited again about our Christian story? To marvel at what it means to profess a desire to follow the One who lived and died for the great dream of God the Creator? Jesus gave us the MOST HOPEFUL glimpse of what it means to be a human being! Not just a moral person . . . not just a generous and charitable person . . . but someone who is LIT UP from within about what it means to see beyond the catastrophes and violence of our time - into a new way! 

How many of you heard the interview last week of the French father and his young son? 
The father was trying to answer his son’s questions about the fear all around . . . fear of the bad guys with guns. The father said to his son: “We will light candles . . . and we have these flowers . . . “ (pointing to the makeshift memorials that sprang up all around Paris). The son seemed pretty doubtful. “But there’s bad guys, daddy,” the boy tells his father, in a plea to leave their home in France in an interview translated from French. “Yes, but there’s bad guys everywhere,” he tells his son. “But flowers don’t do anything, they’re for, they’re for...” the boy searches for the answer. “Of course they do, look, everyone is putting flowers,” the father tells him. “It’s to fight against the guns.” “It’s to protect?” the boy asks. “Exactly,” responds the father. “And the candles, too?” he asks again, in child-like wonder. “Yes.”

I am not claiming it is easy - to be watchful . . . AND hopeful at the same time. In this passage from Luke, we are told to “stand up and raise your heads. . . for your redemption is near . . . and to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness . . . and the worries of this life . . . Be alert and pray that you have the strength to stand before the Son of Man. . .

How are we waiting today? With fear and dread? Gandhi noted, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.” Are we waiting with faithful expectation? Even fierce expectation?

*I had lunch last week with a thoughtful woman . . . nearing retirement . . . who told me she had given up . . . given up on finding a new job that meant more to her . . . given up on the possibilities of a new relationship (she was divorced several years ago) . . . given up on healing old family wounds. . . I asked her, “What happens when we quit dreaming? When we quit expecting something new? What happens when we quit expecting God to show us a new way?” That afternoon, I “ran into” three different people I hadn’t seen in ages. Mind you, we were downtown at 9th and Main - eating lunch at a quiet deli surrounded by tall buildings. The last person was Charlie Sirridge, the groom from the wedding I presided over in August. He kept shaking his head, “ We have been thinking about you. Something’s been telling us to get a hold of you. . . “ I told him that his uncle, who I had met at their wedding in Chicago, is going to be my new oncologist. “Somehow, I think this was meant to be.” He just kept shaking his head. “Do you live like this all the time?” he asked me. “What do you mean Charlie?” “Do people and events just line up like this?” “Sometimes, Charle . . . Sometimes. . . I sense it is a sign that the God I know about is leading me somewhere new . . . somewhere very interesting!”

How are we waiting? Faithful - fierce expectation - or resignation . . . that the world is so broken that we can not make a dent . . . that God has abandoned us in our struggles and chaos. . .

I have long admired the fierce expectation of Nelson Mandela. He once said, “Always consider that your enemy could change . . .” (Here we might note that it is possible that anyone we have become estranged from . . . could be in the midst of a transformation!) If Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for over 20 years in S. Africa, can forgive - than anyone can forgive!

Again, how are we waiting? We have the most amazing story - our faith story - the life and death of Jesus which transformed for him - and for all of us - the meaning of this human experience.

Lawrence Ferlenghetti, the beat poet of the 60’s wrote: “I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder . . . “ Me too.

Finally, back to my book of reflections, “Sacred Space:” “What we wait for in Advent is not someone to fix us, but someone to reveal to us ourselves.”

Let us be on guard - let us pay attention with a fierce expectation that the God revealed in the infant Jesus will return to us - with power and presence and grace. Look up . . . and do not be afraid. God’s purpose for the world will yet be fulfilled. You’re still here.

The plan involves you.


Sermon for May 3, 2015

John 15: 1-8

“Branching Out.”

The man in the airport - who is having a terrible day - since long before sunrise. Everything is wrong. He hasn’t slept well. He doesn’t feel well. The flight is already delayed and he is in line. . . lots of children . . . “Oh great,” he thinks. And then he looks more closely. They all are wearing t-shirts with a logo and many are wearing ball caps with the same. They are on a trip for the Make a Wish Foundation. Young children with cancer and their siblings - headed off for a great adventure - maybe the last one they will be able to take together as a family.

He went from self centered despair . . . to an attitude of prayer for these kids and their families. “Perspective,” he kept telling himself. “How fortunate I am. How blessed I am to have children and they are all well.”  

Pruning.

One of the central activities of today’s Gospel passage.

Actually there are three main action verbs in today’s passage:  pruning, yes . . . and bearing fruit . . . and finally lots of abiding. . . .(8 times mentioned in these few short lines.)

This is an old and 
familiar image for the people of Jesus’ time. They knew they had been referred to as “God’s special vine - planted and watered and nurtured by God.” But today’s vine - the central vine is the grace and love of God. This, we are told, is what we are supposed to stay connected to . . . This is where the “abiding in” action takes place. How do we stay connected to the central vine - the grace and the love and the mercy of God? Because this is the key, once the other actions of this passage get going:  bearing fruit and oh my, getting pruned. Everything depends upon whether or not we can remain close to the vine - the heart of God.

Today, perhaps it is a little easier - because we have Aiden - who so sincerely - with great love and honor - chose to be baptized today. He is close to that vine - and we are closer too - because of his courage and his witness. This is a place where we feel joy and pride and anticipation for the future:  all positive.

More positive:  “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. . . “  Or the hymn, “We are standing, yes we are standing, on holy ground. . .” We are connected. We know it. 
But along come these other disturbing images from John’s passage today. Bearing fruit. Every branch is pruned in order for it to bear fruit. Even the branch that bears fruit, gets cut back in order to bear more.  Most of us know this.

Our experience with new grape vines - 2 years ago. We didn’t know how to do the pruning - so the first two years we had some beautiful tangled vines!

OK -so we unfortunately get this:  Bearing fruit requires pruning.

I would say that almost always this pruning is not our choice. We would all prefer to grow into a nice tangle of vines. We've all been there. But sometimes, our pruning comes in the form of someone near and dear to us - who has been harmed - or whose life is taken from us. The parents of John O’Leary - a 40 something man today - who as a 9 year old boy was burned over 98% of his body. Given less than a 1% chance of survival. His parents wrote a book called, “Against All Odds.” Their lives, fully wondrous, had been pruned to the core as a result of their child’s horrible accident.  



John O’Leary writes:

Dr. Vitale shared that my recovery was miraculous; he’d never seen anything like it in his entire career. He continued, saying that as difficult as the past four months had been, the journey forward would be equally as challenging. He added, “John, do you know that you can still do almost anything you want in your life?” I remember saying, “Yes.” Yet, after losing my fingers to amputation, covered from head to toes in bandages, tied down to a hospital bed and unable to walk, I didn’t really feel like I could do anything.
Dr. Vitale continued, “John, you may not be able to be a court reporter, but you can be a lawyer or a judge. You may not be able to play baseball again, but you can be a manager or own the team. You may not be able to be a carpenter, but you can be a general contractor and build incredible things. John, if you want to get married and raise kids and have an incredible life: you can! You are a remarkable little boy, you can still live an amazing life, and the best is yet to come for you.”



John’s story came to me via my dear friend Jan Fakoury who is a nurse at Children’s Mercy Hospital. She told me that John came recently to speak to their staff as a motivational speaker - sharing one good anecdote after another. He is happily married. They have four healthy children and he travels all around the world today - speaking to people about his experiences and how all this early tragedy shaped his life.  
He is not bitter about all this early pruning. Clearly, the tragedy of it all brought forth greater qualities within him - qualities that he suspects would have been untapped if not for the great challenge of figuring out how to live - after one’s young life had been reduced to the nubs.

He is a man of faith as well. . . noting that God’s grace and mercy accompanied him along the way. Every step. Hence the connection to the vine - the real vine - the source of life.  

Not a one of us wishes such tragedy upon ourselves or upon anyone close to us - but the point is clear: Pruning - even pruning down to the nubs - can bring us back to life: real life.  

So whatever deep wound we are nursing today - let us find the path back to the Source: the vine which is God’ deep and abiding love. Let us walk . . . or crawl . . . or even claw our way back to this Source. And no matter - we will find - to our surprise - that the pruning was exactly what we needed. 


Sermon for April 26, 2015

Scripture: John 10: 10-18

“Abundant Life: Reflections from the Pasture”


10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”


For those of us who follow the lectionary, the 4th Sunday of Easter is always “Good Shepherd Sunday,” annually reminding us of this very important metaphor of Jesus as shepherd. Jesus in this excerpt today begins by reminding those who are listening: “I came that they may have life - and have it abundantly.”

In the preceding verses of Chapter 10 - verses 1-9 - we hear of this metaphor extended by Jesus - referring to himself as the “gate” through which people enter into God’s salvation. This salvation includes: 1) abundant life just mentioned in verse 10, 2) physical wholeness (the man born blind who is healed by Jesus in chapter 9) 3) plentiful food (the feeding of the multitudes in chapter 6) 4) and intimate encounter with God (17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”)

In today’s extended metaphor of course we are the sheep. I found these observations from a professor at the University of Wyoming helpful. He wrote about his experiences with sheep and noted various characteristics:
You cannot make sheep do something contrary to their nature. Sheep are not sheepish. They either look you straight in the eye, or they turn around and run the other way. But they never act bashfully.

The sheeps’ most manifest instinct is to flock.

Except for just a few breeds such as those that live on the highest mountain tops, sheep like to be together. Most animals, if left free to roam, will scatter. But if sheep are left to themselves, they’ll stay together. They’re gregarious. This is helpful because they lack many of the natural defenses other animals have, such as speed or the personal protection a porcupine has. 

The protection of the flock comes from staying close together. To flock means to be in company together, to be a group.

The propensity of sheep is to follow other sheep. A lot of the bad rap that sheep get for not being thought particularly clever has to do with the fact that their herding instincts are stronger than a lot of other herd animals.


Out of all these various observations, this is the one that seems to stand out for me: sheep don’t like to go it alone. They are at their best - comfortable and happy - when they are with other sheep. They have strong instincts to remain a part of the group. They are not necessarily lacking in intelligence - but they prefer community - more than individuality. Hence - they like to flock - they like the stability of being a part of something larger. It even appears to give them a sense of safety.

One of the more painful post apocalyptic novels I have read in recent years was The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. In this book, a father and son have survived a nuclear war - and they traverse miles upon miles of landscape totally alone. It is their loneliness which afflicts me most - though the story is not without hope. The landscape is desolate - an ashen gray - and the only people they encounter are those few stragglers who are in competition with them over the last bits of available food . . . I could hardly make my way through the story with them - the pain of their alone-ness was so great - and so overpowering.

Contrast this today with the promise we hear: “I came to bring you life and to bring it to you abundantly.” And the “you” referred to here is not just an individual “you” - but it is addressed to all of us as followers of Jesus. And one of the strongest themes running through this passage today is the willingness of the shepherd to “give up his life” for this flock. Look at verses 11, 15, 17 and 18! 5 different times - in slightly different ways - Jesus speaks of the shepherd who willingly goes to his death for his flock. And yet the question remains: Why is he willing to do this?

So that we all can have life and have it in abundance! We see in the last two verses, 17 and 18, that this willingness comes from his relationship to God the Father. This is the Father’s command, yes, but it is also the love that he knows from the Father which has made him less afraid - more than willing to enter the mystery of death and to find that death is not the end.


Let’s strike out now on the path to abundance! What is this really about? It goes without saying, that in a spiritual sense, abundance does not have much to do with material wealth. At the same time, it is hard to feel that one is surrounded by abundance, when one does not have the basic necessities - or if one is suffering a terrible loss - or psychologically - or physically - one feels isolated or alone. 

Abundance creates connections - sees connections - rejoices in connections. It is the work of God, our faith tells us, precisely through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus - that draws us out of ourselves - in order to see and to experience this great love.

I am convinced that beauty - anything we call beautiful - is the intersection of holiness - the place where God is speaking. It does not have to be as impressive as the Grand Canyon - or even a sunset over the prairie. It can be the smallest of wild flowers, the surprise and delight of mushrooms, the elegance of a handful of chickens . . . grazing in the yard. Simple. Elegant. Abundant. 

Seeing this life as a gift . . . seeing this life as an intersection of God’s grace . . .and intention . . . seeing this life as a continuation into the next life as an experience of abundance - this is a spiritual discipline. This is why we invest time and prayer in blessing. It is why today we will have a simple blessing of the fields - we must remind ourselves constantly that this life - this earth - is God’s reaching out to us with the promise of abundance. Perhaps it is possible to call it “sin” when we do not see these connections - when we take the gift of life for granted. 

The life and death of Christ - in his words today - as the Good Shepherd - were given to us freely - across time and space - so that we might grasp this. And maybe you are thinking to yourself today, “Ah this is not so very had to do . . .” But let us also remember the context of today’s Scripture - we are the flock - we are in this together. Whenever we succumb to the temptation to go at this life alone - full of pride and arrogance that we know better than anyone else - this is surely our downfall. It has often been my downfall . . . 

Let us courageously submit today to being a part of God’s flock - knowing in our heart of hearts that we need one another. . . to see more clearly . . . to grasp more truly the abundance right in front of us.


 Sermon for April 19, 2015



Luke 24 “And He Opened Their Minds”

Lucky or blessed? My conversation with Aiden . . . Everything depends upon our ability to see the good . . . to acknowledge it . . . From that place of naming what is good, what is blessing, we also see how this small shift makes all the difference - especially in our lives of faith.

Grandma Chipps: “All your prayers must be positive. You must pray with all your heart - but you must always, always speak your prayers with gratitude, with the truth that the Creator is on your side . . . “


Today’s Scripture - Luke’s version of Jesus appearing in Jerusalem to the disciples. We remember that John also noted that they were afraid. Luke emphasizes that the resurrected Jesus is real. He is still a person - so human in fact that he asks them if they have anything to eat. He tells them he’s not a ghost - and shows them his wounds from his crucifixion. 

Luke also tells us that “he opened their minds - interpreting the Scriptures so they would now understand that God has been at work all along to bring about newness, wholeness, liberation . . . God first created the world. There was a plan. And beauty. God was at work in the lives of people - despite their failure to acknowledge or understand this . . . God chose them as His special people . . . liberating them from slavery . . . God was at work in the prophets - trying to bring about greater fidelity and justice. Finally, God promises to send a Messiah - His Son - to overcome the greatest of all our fears: the fear of death.

God is still at work. God is still in the business of calling out to us - inviting us with infinite patience - to a life that is transformed. The resurrection of Jesus meant that the powers of darkness - the powers of this world which are only interested in this world - did not prevail. Not then. Not now.

Shane Claiborne: “We see in Jesus - God with skin on. And we are looking for how to live . . . how to find our way through the places of darkness, the places of evil, the places which scare us . . . The resurrected Jesus shows us that it is though the path of descent that we find transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death and woundedness are our primary teachers.”

And yet we plod along - trying to do things in our own way - trying to win - trying to pretend we’re doing fine, even when we sense we are sinking. We want success according to the standads of our culture. We want material things. We want . . . We want . . . we want. . . But the appearance of Jesus today - fully human - reminds us that this path to transformation is through the path of descent. This means that every single time we think we have failed, every single time we feel wounded by life, every single time we face death, every single time we face a relapse back to sin . . . every single time we feel that the darkness will overcome us . . . all of this . . . all of this is the path to new life. 

Where’s the key to finding this truth? The key is to have our minds opened . . . to be able to give thanks for how God has worked in the midst of our turmoils - to see that the strength and the wisdom we have ever achieved has come at the price of pain and often times, humility. 

Let’s practice this for a moment: “I thank you God for the most challenging person I have come across this week. This person, in their negativity, reminded me that my life is not so bad - maybe I would even go so far as to say my life is mostly blessing - especially when I think about how negative and pessimistic this person appears to be. Thank you God for bringing this person to me. I have learned more about who I am - and I’m not taking my life for granted.”


Or for me, you’ve heard me say this before, my Mom has dementia - perhaps someday they will officially call it Alzheimer's - but she has zilch short term memory. This saddens me beyond words at times. It scares me too. What if this is genetic and this is where I am headed someday? But I’m practicing with you, an opened mind, a mind which sees the hand of God making all things new. Every time I see my Mom in the last many months, she is filled with gratitude for the smallest, smallest things: a bird outside the window, the feel of fresh air when we step outside, the color of winter wheat as it flares out bright green across the prairie. . . the taste of a chocolate chip cookie - somehow she remembers that I like to bake. . . Every moment is a moment of presence. There is not much left of the past - and the future can not even be imagined. But each moment can have its loveliness - and she has brought that to me again and again.


Much of this path of transformation involves re-framing - especially reframing the relationships in our lives. What about the loss of a friendship? A misunderstanding that could not be mended? A divorce - the ending of a marriage covenant which we intended with all our heart to stay committed . . . But there are times when a relationship has become so toxic - or two people have taken such widely divergent paths on the road - that the ending of a relationship - may actually bring relief - and the discovery of new skills, new internal coping skills, new life. I always hope and pray that couples can find their way to a new level together - but I have also witnessed the vibrancy and joy that one day takes wing - because this bond was released. 

So - maybe you could close your eyes right now - and imagine a difficult place you are walking right now - a difficult passageway. Know that God is doing something new within this place - this place which feels muddled. Allow your mind to be opened to the larger truth: God is constantly re-creating reality within you. The key is your openness. And we are at work with God. 


A Walk - Rainer Maria Rilke

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance––
and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave . . .
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.


We pray today to have our minds opened . . . We are meaning makers. We can go on if we can see there is a significance and a wisdom hiding just beneath the surface. Let us move forward in faith - a faith rooted in a risen Lord - confident that even death will not hold us back.

Easter Sunday, 2015 Sermon Notes

“The emptiness becomes presence.”

John 20: 1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Intro: Yesterday my friend Max (Maxine) called and invited us over for a late Easter evening. She said to me, “Happy Easter Cindy.” And I quicikly responded: but today isn’t Easter . . .Just as quickly she added, “But aren’t we as Christians always Easter people? Isn’t Easter everyday for us?” Couldn’t have said it better. Easter is the day we celebrate the fact that we still encounter the risen Lord.

Today’s version of events begins with Mary Magdalene, returning to the burial tomb of Jesus, not to anoint his body, but simply to sit with her pain and grief. When she gets there, she sees that the stone in front of the tomb has been rolled away. Horrified, she runs to tell the others. Peter and the Disciple whom Jesus loved, come running. When they both confirm that his body is not in the tomb, they sadly return to where they had been staying. But Mary remains. . . still weeping . . . do doubt bereft even more, thinking that someone has taken his body away. She peeers into the tomb - and sees two angels sitting on the place where the body of Jesus had lain. They speak to her and ask her why she is crying. She tells them that they have taken away his body and she doesn’t know where . . . and then she hears another voice (thinking this time that it is the maintenance man - the gardener) He asks her also, “Why are you crying? and Who are you looking for?” She challenges him and says if he has taken the body away to please tell her and she will retrieve it. At this point he speaks to her again, “Mary.” She recognizes his voice and proclaims, “Rabboni,” (My teacher - in Hebrew) We suspect she tried to hug him then and there, because the next thing he says to her, “Don’t cling to me, I have not yet ascended to my Father, my God and your God. Go tell the others . . . “ We don’t know how much longer he stood there in front of her, but we can assume, it was not much more than a moment, because the story tells us that she then went to tell the others.

This is John’s version of events. All the Gospel writers tell a slight variation of these facts. The tomb is empty. Jesus is gone. They don’t yet know what it means. They have some sense that the Scriptures have been fulfilled. God has risen Jesus - from the dead.

Suzanne Guthrie, in the Christian Century wrote these words: “Mary comes into the thundering absence of the one she loves . . . Absence becomes a kind of presence . . . But during this particular hour and in this particular time, the emptiness becomes
real presence."

How does emptiness and absence become presence? Let’s bring this down to earth a bit. Can you remember the first time or so that as a young person you were away from home? Maybe it was camp. Maybe you went to stay with a relative in another state. I can remember at age 18 leaving my small town in southeastern Kansas to live for nearly a year in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. Homesick? Oh my. Called my mom often - and this was back in the day when long distance was a line item and the best time to call was after 11 p.m. or before 8 in the morning. The sound of her voice revived me. Over time I found that her voice was simply a part of me - making meals, sorting out a new life, friends, work. I got through this time because her absence from my life became a kind of presence. I felt her voice inside of me.

Another example: My dad’s younger sister is a person I count on a great deal these days: my Aunt Elsie. She is over a dozen years younger than my Dad - so I still see her as very youthful. Her husband, my uncle Nick died of lung cancer over a decade ago. They had a great relationship - working side by side - woodworking especially for a long, long time. When he died, she was beyond lost. The ringer on her phone is “Waltz Across Texas”, which I know was their song. I asked her one time, if she ever felt afraid being all on her own. She didn’t miss a beat: “I have always felt Nick nearby. He told me once, before he died that I should never be afraid. His prayers and his love would keep me safe.” His absence became for her a kind of presence.

I know these are only analogies - they are not the same reality as the risen Lord appearing today to Mary Magdalene. But you catch my meaning. She came to the place where she knew he was buried. She didn’t believe or understand yet, that God would resurrect him. And then to find that his body was gone too. Loss upon loss! But in that empty space, he came to her with reassurance.

We need more empty spaces. On Good Friday this past week we tried something a little different. I asked people if they would be willing to sign up for a 15 minute commitment to come into the quiet of our church and simply pray. We had a great turnout - with people coming in and staying for at least this 15 minute time - and often staying longer. I had a handout with the Scriptures for the passion of Jesus . . . and a few other thoughts - but mostly you were on your own - in the emptiness of time and space - to just sit with your thoughts - sit with yourself - for a short while. I find that unless we make the time to have these kind of “empty” moments - no agenda per se - just open hearted - we do not have an encounter with the risen Lord.

Another writer, whom I love - Barbara Brown Taylor - spoke also about the power of these appearances. Today’s Gospel is the first of four times that the risen Lord appears to others. Listen to what she says:

 “The risen one had people to see and things to do. Every time he came to his friends they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.”

Many of you will recall with me from our study of Acts, that the apostle Peter comes to mind here. Before the appearances of the risen Lord, he was a less than exemplary follower . . . but after his encounter - his own experience that Jesus was the promised Messiah - and all the evil that had conspired to kill him - was not the winner after all.

In the end, this is what all of us are seeking: an encounter with the risen Lord - some experience of this Spirit infused truth - which will help us overcome the places of emptiness - the places of darkness - the places of sin in our world. If we can muster our courage this morning - to accompany Mary Magdalene and the others - where we can wait with our sorrow and our longing - for such an encounter. It will require a kind of stillness for us - a place within ourselves that we do not fill up with busyness - or food - or the distractions of TV - or even good work. We need these empty, silent places - where we can listen to the hollowness - and welcome in the Spirit which will not die.

This is the Good News. God raised Jesus from the dead. The powers and principalities that sought to kill him - to silence the great love which embraced and honored all persons - those powers today are rendered futile. Can we remember this? Can we claim to be Easter people every day - so aware that the God we put our faith in can overcome the darkness? And here’s the deal - we need one another. We need the grace and strength of community to get there. To not be afraid. To remind one another that the sun will rise again in the morning. Let us then go together to the empty tomb - and let us rejoice that the One we know is not there. Rather, praise God, He is here among us.

Those appearances cinch the resurrection for me, not what happened in the tomb. What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, "Mary!" and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening -- not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.

In the end, that is the only evidence we have to offer those who ask us how we can possibly believe. Because we live, that is why. Because we have found, to our surprise, that we are not alone. Because we never know where he will turn up next. Here is one thing that helps: never get so focused on the empty tomb that you forget to speak to the gardener.

“We are going to succeed. Why? Because God wants us to succeed for the sake of God’s world. We will succeed despite ourselves, because we are such an unlikely bunch. Who could have thought we would ever be an example, except of awfulness; who could ever have thought we would be held up as a model to the rest of the world? God wants to say to the world, to Bosnia, to Northern Ireland, etc.: Look at them. They had a nightmare called apartheid. It has ended. Your nightmare too will end. They had what was called an intractable problem. They are solving it. No one anywhere can any longer say their problem is intractable.

We are a beacon of hope for God’s world and we will succeed.” ---Desmond Tutu - speaking aobut the Truth and Reconciliatin Commission in South Africa. . . --Pastor Cindy Molini
Palm Sunday: “What Kind of Kingdom”


John 12:12-16


12The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” 14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.


Palm Sunday is a doorway - a spiritual doorway into Holy Week: Our faith’s central mystery and truth - the mystery of dying and rising. When I say mystery, I do not mean that which is not comprehensible, but that which may take us a lifetime to know - internalize - accept. Today all the symbols and images from the Scriptures take us to a place of contradiction. 


There were two processions that day - according to the scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book, The Last Week. “One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. . . On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God, Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixation.” 


 “ . . . the meaning of Jesus’ procession is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion) “humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (9:9) The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king he will be:

“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” 9:10 

“This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land - no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace. Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast - between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar is central to the story of Jesus.” Two processions/parades . . . representing the choices we all have - and that we make - whether we are conscious of choosing or not. Think of how often we fall into a pattern of acting, behaving, doing . . . what we think is right in front of us - but it is a default choice - rather than a conscious living choice. Palm Sunday invites us to choose - to figure out if we are on the road with this Jesus - who will suffer and die for the cause of life - or if we are on the road with those who seek to control and keep out the uncomfortable riff raff of our lives.


I listened to the news this week about the astronauts, Scott and Mark Kelly. They are identical twins - and one of them, Scott is now in space, while his brother Mark is here on Earth. Scott will be gone for one year - and during this time they will observe and record what is happening to him physically and psychologically and compare that to his identical twin who will not be subject to the rigors of space travel. I have been thinking of these two brothers - one will now have a celestial view of the world - literally. . . and his brother will remain earthbound. Two perspectives - identical twins. 

For us it is a little different. We are all bound to the earth by our humanity. How do we find the path - the procession - the parade - where we find ourselves on the good road - the path of God’s Kingdom - both here on earth and in the life beyond this life?

* The Kingdom of God path - I suspect - would show us that comparing one’s self to others has
a limited value. It is a false road - a road brimming with constant competition, striving for outward appearances - A few months ago, our book club read Wonder, by R.J. Palacio - a story about a junior high boy who had been born with a serious facial deformity. He had been home schooled for years, but at some point the parents believed it might be good for him to learn how to deal with the outside world on his own. It is a story both heartbreaking and hopeful - because as you might expect, he was treated cruelly by some . . . and yet he does, in time, learn how to be a friend - and to be viewed by others for who he is on the inside - instead of his outward appearance. 


* The path to God’s Kingdom - especially as shown in the symbolism of Palm Sunday - would always involve humility. Humility is not a false sense of denying we have talents or beauty or worth - rather humility acknowledges that all of life - all that we are - comes from the grace of God. If we are born especially beautiful - or especially talented - or especially anything - it is in the end - God’s gift. And all of our gifts are to be used for the greater good - according to St. Paul.


* And today’s Scripture emphatically reminds us that the path to God’s reign is not a path of political or military might. Ultimately, itis a path of surrender. I think this has got to be the hardest one for most of us. Surrender. Put down our fists - our weapons - our righteousness - and surrender. So many levels here. Dying and rising. In God’s eyes we all have beauty . . . amazing, amazing beauty. We all have purpose - whether we live a few moments or many, many years. No matter our race or gender or ethnicity or whether we struggle with illness or whether we are robust and healthy . . . no matter if we are born with a physical or mental handicap . . . no matter . . . if we are born into the United States . . . or we are from Haiti or Somalia or France or the Soviet Union . . . no matter. 


Jesus went up to Jerusalem - on the back of a young donkey - as a counter procession - a symbolic gesture - to demonstrate that the Son of Man - the Messiah comes in peace - bringing the Good News of God’s reign to all. It is a mighty challenge for us to be on this road with him this week - knowing what we know . . . Knowing that our faith is based upon an upside down premise: that in everything we call a struggle, or trial or a death . . . Within this great mystery is life. 


It is my prayer today for each of you that you will find - within the deep challenges of your life - a path which leads to inner freedom - the path which knows how this story ends . . . and that in one hand you hold your pain - and in the other hand you can open your fist and let go. Dying and rising - the mystery we embrace. -- Pastor Cindy Molini
Sermon Notes for March 22, 2015

“God’s Decision to Forget”

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. -Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Intro: Key phrases today from Jeremiah: “New covenant,” ”I will put my law within them, and write it upon their hearts . . . “ “For they shall all know me . . . “ “ I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. . . “

 Let’s start with “new covenant.” God wants to start over, according to Jeremiah. The old agreements he had with the house of Israel were broken. The people were not faithful to the covenant on Mt. Sinai. So God says, “ I will put my law within them and write it upon their hearts . . .”

I have always loved these lines. Somehow, God will give to us the wisdom and the truth. It will literally be written on our hearts - rather than someplace outside of us. I can remember learning the 10 commandments in 2nd grade. We hadn’t started writing in cursive yet, but we printed them out one by one on our sheets of tablet paper. These were the important ideas - the rules! But, even then, I knew these were not rules that were inside of me. They didn’t make much sense . . . I hadn’t lived long enough yet. But we also started learning about a “conscience” - the voice inside of us - that when we prayed would help us to know what was right and what was wrong. Later we were told that this voice was the voice of the Holy Spirit. This was a little bit like “having the law written on one’s heart.” You knew - through prayer - what was real. So, this business of God establishing a new covenant . . . the real truth of God was now inside of us. We would know how to sort out our thoughts and our actions - our good deeds and our sins. And then comes this kicker: God says, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more!” What? God will not only forgive our sins - but will also forget them too?” How could God forget? Isn’t God all powerful and all knowing?

 I think this is an absolutely stunning line in Jeremiah. God has decided to forget our sins and give us a clean slate. Most of us have heard it over and over, “God forgives our sins . . . “ But how many of us have heard that “God will forget all about them too.” This is the new deal. The new covenant. A different way. The way of not keeping track.

* I heard this story recently: A man went to a family reunion. His cousin from across the country was there, but the cousin’s father, his uncle, was in a nursing facility, suffering from late stage dementia/Alzheimers. The cousin brought this greeting from his father, “Even though I can’t remember you . . . I still love you.”

What remains is love. In doing some research on these words of Jeremiah I was reminded by the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggeman, that this new covenant was not just a matter of individual hearts. The new covenant Jeremiah was talking about was a social contract between the peoples of Israel and Judah - the northern and southern kingdoms - which were sharply divided during the prophet’s lifetime. He wanted these people to return to a way of life based upon a consideration of those who were poor and needy. “Knowledge of God,” was gained by caring for one’s neighbor. (Jeremiah 22: 15-16)

15 “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord. Ok . . . so this new covenant will be about having knowledge of God . . . gained through “defending the cause of the poor and needy.” Wow . . . ! Let me repeat this: verse 16 of Jeremiah 22: “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me? declares the Lord.” 

In today’s polarized politics, we hear little about “defending the cause of the poor and the needy” as a definition of what it means to know the Lord. I am struck by the sharp rhetoric from both left and right - justifying their views against one another. But in recent years I ahve been heartened by the witness of Jim Wallis, who wrote a book called, God’s Politics, How the Right Gets it Wrong and How the Left Doesn’t Get it.” He argues for a centrist attitiude - where the demands of living the Gospel are front and center - but the tone of self righteousness is turned down. His conclusion is that as Christian people it is our mandate to work for the “common good,” - or as the prophet Jeremiah would proclaim: “to defend the cause of the poor and needy.”

I wondered this week, what this would look like, in relation to the new covenant that Jeremiah anticipates. We recall as well that this new covenant is based upon God’s initiative - God not remembering our sins - individually or collectively. In other words, the new covenant has as its basis - the forgiveness of sins - our sins yes - but also the sins of those who have harmed us.

* Forgiveness towards the religious zealots who are murdering innocent people in the name of Islam. A false name we might add - knowing that murder is not condoned by the spirit of the prophet Mohammed. ISIS did not arise in a vacuum - but at least in part as a result of those who suffered as victims of wars in the Middle East. . . A vicious cycle now in full gear. As followers of Christ, we are reminded that this new covenant - written on fleshy hearts - adheres to a God who died on a cross. The cross of Christ is our ultimate reminder of the cost of discipleship.

I listened to a sermon by Rev. Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri the other day. His entire point: We begin and end with forgiveness. And that forgiveness leads us to the Cross - not likely to a victory in this life - not retaliaton - only forgiveness. His words were in response to all the people who had asked him, “What should we be doing about ISIS?” I spotted this on his Facebook page last night:

 “Tonight we had dinner in the home of Ahmed El-Sherif. His wife Soha prepared a fabulous meal. Ahmed is a Muslim who has been criticized by fellow Muslims for speaking kindly and generously of Christians. I am a Christian who has been criticized by fellow Christians for speaking kindly and generously of Muslims. So it makes sense that we are friends. We have a camaraderie founded in peace, love, and understanding.”
 
Hmmmm . . . a new covenant perhaps. . . This is not politics - it is a way of life.

I recently have become friends with a former Southern Baptist pastor/missionary - now retired - living in Liberty: Rev. Leroy Seat. He also is a writer. We spoke about what he calls the “radiant center,” the ability to find that place within us - that godly place - where we listen and speak without rancor. This is a place where things get done - where compassion resides - where creativity abounds. It is not left or right - but it is humble and centered in relationship.

* Another issue - very much on the minds of people today: the natural world, the environment . . . I am not entering an argument with anyone about the pros and cons of climate change. But I am asking: If we can find our way to a radiant center, a place of respect and relationship, where might we begin? I think we begin today by picking up trash along the highway - in honor of our beloved Diane Good. We don’t have to agree on hugging trees or Al Gore - but we can agree that trash along our roadways is not a good thing . . . And we can agree - in the spirit of Diane - that all of us make a difference by doing what we can.

I suspect, on this issue as well, that we can consider the amount of trash we throw away here at church . . . often several large trash bags of cups and plates and plastic . . . a week! Recently, we started using real coffee cups as a start - less wasteful. We also have a dishwahsher, so that on occasion, we can use more real dishes and wash them! This is not a radical new direction, but it is a step that I sense we can agree upon. Could we eventually have a few recycling bins, where we didn’t throw away so much paper or plastic or aluminum? Something to consider.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors . . . I will write it upon their hearts . . . No longer shall they teach one another, or say to one another, “Know the Lord.” For they shall all know me, from least to the greatest. . . And I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”

Conclusion: Let us pray for this covenant to be written upon our hearts - especially that we know that God is not keeping track of our iniquity - but is challenging us to go forward in love. At the end of the day, this is all that remains. As the elderly uncle I referred to earlier stated, “I don’t remember any of you - but I know I love you . . . “ Let this be the freedom we inhale today. -- Pastor Cindy Molini
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