Too Much? — A Deeper Story

I am privileged to write each month at A Deeper Story. This month’s story comes from a seminary classroom experience a very long time ago. But somehow the issue lingers. See what you think:

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As I remember, it was somewhere between two and four in the afternoon, on a Monday. A lovely spring day, temperate California weather, a low simmer of chatter and anticipation in our small seminary classroom.

There were about 20 of us taking a course on Conflict Resolution, from a moderately well-known professor who had written on the topic and had always seemed to me to be kind and soft-spoken. Maybe that’s why his response startled me so.

We were divided into pairs and given a scenario to act out, to role-play. My partner was a nice young man, whom I did not know, and we were assigned the following:

You are a married couple shopping for furniture for your home. When you arrive at the store, the wife discovers that the husband has already purchased furniture without telling her about it. How does the discussion unfold between you?

There was no advance notice, no conversation between us ahead of time. “Just plunge in,” the teacher said. “Act it out.”

So I did.

I stated my disappointment clearly, firmly, with a moderately low level of emotion, at least to my ears. And to the ears of every other woman in the class, I later discovered.

As soon as I finished speaking, this well-respected professor very carefully and deliberately crossed his legs and placed his hands in his lap, as if to protect himself, and said, “Wow, Diana. Way to challenge his manhood!”

To say I was stunned would be a severe understatement.  I am a large person, this I know. I am a strong person. This I also know. I am also moderately articulate and quick on my feet. I expressed my disappointment with the ‘husband’ clearly, but not harshly.

Yet to this man, whose specialty was conflict, I was overbearing, aggressive, out for the kill — just plain too much. I was embarrassed to the point of humiliation. In addition, I was really, really confused.

If a woman states her case plainly, is she aggressive? Is she emasculating? Is she crossing some kind of invisible line in the sand? If the roles had been reversed, if the ‘husband’ had spoken similarly to the ‘wife,’ would that have elicited the same response?

Please join me over at ADS to continue this conversation. . .

 

How the Bible Reads Us

Most of you know that I an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination in the free church tradition, with many ties to both Lutheranism and Methodism. This is a paper submitted to a denominational committee in 2007. All of us were required to read Eugene Peterson’s fine book, “Eat This Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading,” before we met together. Four of us were assigned to be the writers for four related topics and then all four were to be compiled into one document. Somehow, one part never got written and so one of our NT professors took all the pieces that did get submitted and re-wrote them into one longer paper. I believe that exactly ONE line of my contribution ended up in the final product! (Here is a link to the entire paper, if you’re interested in reading it.) I loved doing the work for this assignment — looking at scripture and at our denominational heritage to re-state what we believe about the word of God. I am posting it here in conjunction with the final post in the Q & A Series. It is an extra resource.

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All scripture references in this portion of the paper are taken from the TNIV

How the Bible Reads Us:
Reading for Transformation
Part 4 of an ECC Resource Paper on
how the Covenant does biblical and theological reflection

written by Diana R.G. Trautwein

 ”Come here and listen to the words of the LORD your God.
This is how you will know that the living God is among you…” Joshua 3:9-10

“If you are sitting there dead in sin and shame, dear one, sit then where it rains…
It is always raining in the Word.  Sit there, and you will soon be drenched through and through.”
 August Pohl (1845-1913) Sermon in Missions-Vanne, September, 1878,

from Images in Covenant Beginnings, Eric G. Hawkinson (1968), pp. 65-67

From its earliest days, the Evangelical Covenant Church has proclaimed both a profound respect and an abiding passion for the written word of God.  Our respect for the Bible leads us to honor its contents with serious study, doing the difficult but rewarding work of textual, historical, linguistic, literary, and sociological analysis.  We train our pastors and encourage our laity to make use of good academic tools, and to read with minds engaged, as we seek to learn together about the biblical underpinnings of our shared faith. We desire to honor God’s word and to serve the church through rigorous scholarship, careful deliberation about interpretive differences and humble appreciation for this rich resource we share.  We stand in awe before the word of God and its complex ancient languages, its variety of historical details, covering thousands of years and dozens of cultures, and its beautiful mix of literary styles and types – all of it working together to tell the story of God’s redeeming work in the world.

Our passion for the Bible leads us to a slightly different perspective when we read God’s word, both personally and as a community of faith.  As a people of God committed to the Word, we firmly believe that in addition to standing in awe before the Bible, we also need to sit in obedience under it.  A foundational truth for the Covenant church is that the word of God is a living thing, a primary place where we go to meet the living God. “The Word of God is ‘spirit and life’ and always meets us as such, and therefore requires of us a spiritual and living response.”  (From Covenant Principles, 1960 and 1973) “We are a people of a Book.  We believe the Bible is the place where God is to be met, where his forgiveness is proclaimed, and where his will is made known…the Bible is for us a meeting place with God.” (From Covenant Committee on Freedom and Theology, Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom  (1963), pp. 6-7).

This gift of God, this living book, is made alive for us and in us through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit who makes the word “alive and active.” (Hebrews 4:12)  “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”  Paul picks up similar imagery in his letter to the church at Ephesus when he describes God’s word as “the sword of the Spirit.” (6:17) This remarkable, double-edged sword of the Spirit – God’s sculpting, shaping word – does its work in us in order to transform us.  Through the guiding, probing, challenging power of the Holy Spirit, the word of God works within each of us as individuals, and within all of us as a community, to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ, who is the heart and center of our shared story.

For our story as a denomination, our stories as local congregations, and our individual and personal stories all find their meaning and purpose within the larger story of God, as it is told to us in scripture.  This is most especially true as God’s story is lived out in and through Jesus, who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”  (Hebrews 1:3)  When we come to this narrative in an attitude of openness, expecting to encounter the life-changing, powerful Word, we discover that we are there, participants in God’s story of love and rescue.  Even though this marvelous word was not written to us, it surely was written for us, and our fingerprints begin to emerge with every turn of the page.  We, too, have bitten into forbidden fruit and paid the price for it; we, too, have wandered through the wilderness, wondering where we’ll land; we, too, have been overwhelmed by a task, only to discover that God is able, that God is faithful; we, too, have been lost and then found.

These discoveries, made in the context of reflective, participatory reading and meditation on the word of God, also lead us into confrontation and challenge.  Not only do we recognize ourselves in the sly ambition of a Jacob or the sibling rivalry of his 12 sons or the chronic complaining of the newly freed Hebrew slaves, as they meander through 40 years of desert living, we also come face to face with the call of scripture to live differently. Sitting under the Bible in obedience means that we must do more than simply smile in recognition, and shake our heads at the vagaries of human willfulness.  Following the admonition of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, we learn to call ourselves blessed if we are “those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (11:28) Obedience to the word of God, which is possible only through the affirming, comforting and challenging presence of the Holy Spirit, leads to transformation in the life of the disciple and in the life of the church.  Conversion is necessary; repentance is required; change is inevitable. We are continual works in progress; we are ever pilgrims on the way; we are always “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

It is this process of conversion and change, wrought by the living word of God at work within us, “that has been at the heart of the Evangelical Covenant Church since its founding…This dynamic life-shaping power of the word leads us to affirm that both women and men are called to serve as ordained ministers.  It is the reason we intentionally pursue ethnic diversity.  It is the motivation behind every act of compassion and justice through the life of our shared ministry.”  (From Covenant Affirmations, 1976, 1996, 2005.)

Collectively and individually, we are encouraged to continually come to the word of God in a spirit of humility and gratitude, seeking to discover how we are to be changed, how we are to be transformed into the church and the persons that God intends us to be.  We come to the text not simply to ‘feel better,’ nor to find a magic ‘fix’ for a particularly vexing question or problem; not to earn ‘points’ for good behavior, nor for confirmation of a preconceived agenda.  We come to the word of God to wrestle with our own sinfulness, to acknowledge our own brokenness, to learn of God’s redeeming grace one more time.  We come to be changed.

It is only by purposefully placing ourselves, as individuals and as a community of faith, in a posture of submission, receptivity and expectation that the word of God can continue to convert us.  It is there, and only there, that we find ourselves in the best possible place to receive God’s gift of grace, over and over again. Many years ago, C.O.Rosenius wrote these words:  “Thus you see that the Word was the means through which God sustained your life in grace.  It is the same way with the church and with all Christians.  God’s Word is not called a means of grace in vain.  Without this word it is impossible to keep a life in grace.”Thanks be to God for the “life-shaping power,” and grace-sustaining winsomeness of the word.

* “On the Purpose and Necessity of Using God’s Word,”
from Images in Covenant Beginnings, Eric G. Hawkinson (1968), p. 113

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are You Listening? John 10:1-41

If you prefer to listen to sermons rather than read them, you can find a downloadable audio version here. It starts in the middle of a sentence, but you do hear the Readers’ Theater version of the scripture reading of the day.DSC00832
John 10:1-42
with Ezekiel 34:1-12, Psalm 23

A Sermon preached at Montecito Covenant Church
by Diana R.G.Trautwein
January 26, 2014

The reading of the passage from Ezekiel began this preaching time.

Thank you, Bruce, for reading what amounts to the bad news for this morning. That prophetic voice in Ezekiel, calling out the leaders of the Jewish people as ‘bad shepherds,’ downright lousy leaders. This is an important passage to bear in mind as we dig into the wonders of our passage from John’s gospel this morning.

For our second reading, we’re going to turn to the OT testament once again, this time to hear about the best kind of leader, the best kind of shepherd. But instead of reading it, we’re going to do something a little different: we’re going to sing it.

I first learned this call-and-response hymn at the memorial service for a dear friend and mentor about three years ago. My husband and I were both moved to tears by the way in which the composer took such familiar words and reworked them into poetry that was beautiful, both musically and literarily. The song is called, “Shepherd Me, O God,” and it’s a paraphrase of Psalm 23, perhaps the most well-known chunk of scripture anywhere in the world. In fact, this is the psalm that was read responsively last Sunday, so you’ve heard it recently.

But there was no way I could preach on John 10 this morning without somehow visiting this beautiful picture of the Good Shepherd, so today — this time –we’re going to sing it. We’ll learn the words to the chorus first, because that’s the part that we will sing. Then the worship team will sing the verses. And, at the end of each verse,  we’ll chime in with our sung response; it will be the same every time. Simple, right?

 Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
God is my shepherd, so nothing shall I want.
I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love.
I walk by the quiet waters of peace.
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul,
you lead me by pathways of righteousness and truth,
my spirit shall sing the music of your Name.
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
Though I should wander the valley of death,
I fear no evil, for you are at my side,
your rod and your staff, my comfort and my hope.
You have set me a banquet of love in the place of hatred.
Crowning me with love beyond my pow’r to hold.
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
Surely your kindness and mercy follow me
all the days of my life.
I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore.
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
— words & music by Marty Haugen

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Thank you, Bob and team, for learning this song and then teaching it to all of us.

And as we turn to our text from John’s gospel this morning, that is my prayer for all of us — that we would invite the Good Shepherd to carry us beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

We come to our text for today with two pictures in our minds – the Good Shepherd, whom we’ve just sung about, and the bad shepherds that Bruce read about earlier. In that passage, the prophet Ezekiel rips into the kings of Israel, who were given the task of shepherding the national flock. And God, the Holy, Righteous God, tells those shepherds, in no uncertain terms, that they have failed to do their jobs well, utterly failed. Therefore, they are out!

Instead, in a beautiful prophetic view of the future, we learn that the Lord Himself will ‘search for my sheep and look after them.’ God will be shepherd for his flock, his people.

So now, with both of those pictures in mind, we come to the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. Allow me to set the scene for you, before I invite some friends up to help me read this long passage.

First of all, the setting: Chapter 10 picks up right where chapter 9 leaves off – with lots of red letters. Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, the same Pharisees who have thrown the blind man out of the synagogue. You remember him from last week, right? The man, blind from birth, whom Jesus healed by mixing spit with mud and coating those eyes, eyes that had never seen anything, ever.

That remarkable miracle that got everyone jabbering. Remember? And the man at the center of all the buzzing, that blind man didn’t quite know what hit him. All he knows is that a man named Jesus made it possible for him to see – by offering mud and spit and a command to “go wash.” And the man who once was blind says that anyone who could do that is no magician, but a messenger straight from God.

And for that little statement, he gets thrown out. And Jesus, hearing this news, comes to the one he healed and asks a critical question in the closing verses of chapter 9: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

And yes, the blind man truly sees Jesus, and worships him. The Pharisees who were watching, however, do not get it. The ones who claim to see, to understand God and God’s ways, turn out to be the ones who are blind, indeed.

So that’s what has brought us to this big chapter, this turning point chapter numbered 10 in our Bibles. It contains the last set of public teachings in the entire gospel, the last time Jesus wanders through the streets of Jerusalem and the temple courtyards before the events of Holy Week.

This is a watershed moment, these 41 verses, and the work Jesus does here, the teaching and the arguing, and the accusing, and the claims he makes — these are pivotal and worth our careful attention today.

Greg and Janet Spencer have agreed to help me read for you John 10:1-41. I invite you to listen with your Bibles open in front of you, because we’re going to be going back to various parts of this long reading later in the sermon.

READING [This was a very fun Readers’ Theater for Three Voices that I suggested and my friends agreed to, with Greg re-working the verses into a much-appreciated dramatic format. 41 verses in 1 voice can be deadly. But 3 voices, reading dramatically? Everybody paid attention.]

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Thank you, Spencers, for your fine reading skills. I am grateful for your help.

There is a lot going on here, isn’t there? A lot of red letters in this chapter, a lot of Jesus-words. But also a lot of push-back, argument, anger, enough anger to threaten stoning. And all of it coming from a simple story about sheep and shepherds, about thieves, and hired hands and wolves and gates.

Well, maybe it’s not so simple after all. Our altar piece indicates this is far from a simple story with just these few pieces, doesn’t it? The staff, hat and cloak of a shepherd. And a handful of stones spread across the table. No, it’s not simple. But it is rich.

So to delve into that richness, I want to take just a few key phrases out of all these words and focus on those with you this morning. I want to try and distill the goodness for us, by reflecting for a few minutes on these ideas:

                                    He calls his sheep by name.

                                    My sheep listen to my voice.

                                    Believe the works.

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I think it is important for us to understand that this chapter is integrally connected to the healing of the blind man in the chapter before it. Why? Because healing is at the heart of all that Jesus came to do and all of who Jesus is, for us and for the world.

Whether we always recognize it or not, each one of us yearns to be healed, to be whole — to have our blindspots washed away, to have our hearts comforted, to know that we are seen, that we are heard, that we are loved. And, as he so often does, Jesus chooses to teach us about what our own healing looks like by telling us a story. Twice.

In the first telling, Jesus claims that he is ‘the gate,’ the place of entry into the safety of the sheepfold. And in the second, he says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Two strong statements about who he is, using terms and images that were familiar to his listeners. Everybody knew about shepherds. So many of the villages and towns that comprised ancient Palestine bordered that great wilderness area that covers thousands of miles across the Middle East, all of it populated by herds of sheep, each one with its own shepherd.

But at another level, everyone also knew about the repeated use of shepherd imagery to describe leaders, both human and divine. Like our Ezekiel passage, like the 23rd psalm. That image of the strong, brave, selfless shepherd was used to describe ancient kings, religious leaders, even Almighty God.

It quickly becomes clear that in Jesus’ story, there is only one shepherd who truly cares for the sheep. And it ain’t the religious leaders, who were so quick to toss out a miraculously healed, blind-from-birth, gospel-witnessing recipient-of-grace back there in chapter 9. No. Jesus himself is the true shepherd, the one who knows each sheep by name.

There’s something special about hearing your name spoken out loud by a caring voice. I think that’s why those of us who own names that are closely related to other names make a big deal about others getting ours right.

My dad debated a long time before he put that ‘a’ on the end of my name. And, to tell you the truth, it took me a while to grow into it. I wasn’t so sure I liked it growing up. But as I listened to my dad, this man who loved me so well that I could understand all of the Father imagery for God in scripture without a moment’s hesitation — I began to appreciate the gift that this name is in my life: my dad picked it. And he put that ‘a’ on the end.

Diane is a fine name – I like it a lot. But it’s not my name, you know? So when you keep that ‘a’ in place when you talk to me or write to me, that tells me that you see me, you care enough about me to get my name right.

Jesus knows my name. All my names, the ones I’ve been given through birth and marriage, and the ones I sometimes call myself, too. And those are not so pretty. I’m betting that each of you knows something about those kind of names, too: “clumsy”  “stupid”  “foolish”  “lazy”  “ugly.”

But hear me when I tell you this: those are not your names, nor are they mine. If we look to Jesus as our Good Shepherd, these are our names: “safe”  “loved” “fed”  “rested”  “led to green pastures”  “anointed”  “blessed.”

The Good Shepherd knows our name. Our truest name. He calls his sheep by name. And. . .My sheep listen to my voice.

There are six different places in chapter 10 where Jesus makes reference to listening, more specifically, listening to his voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd, the voice that knows our names. Six times. That tells me that the whole idea of listening is central to everything that’s being taught here.

Listening is tough to do. And it’s getting tougher. There is so much noise in this world! And sifting through it to find that still, small voice . . . well, it’s not easy. It takes intentionality. And it takes time. Both of which are often in short supply. The Pharisees in this chapter are a case in point. They heard Jesus, but they weren’t listening. And there’s a difference.

My husband gets frustrated with me because I often don’t listen very well. I hear him, I hear a voice saying words, but I’m not listening. I’m distracted. I’m reading. I’m thinking about something else. I’m physically present, but aurally absent. I’m working on it, but sometimes it’s a tough go.

And listening to the voice of the Shepherd? If I’m not intentional, if I’m not quiet for at least a few minutes each day, if I’m not developing the habit of ‘praying without ceasing’ (which to me means keeping the channel deliberately open all day long, tossing up breath prayers in and around all of my thinking/reading/ writing/talking out loud) — if I’m not prayerful, then how can I possibly be listening?

As part of my training to become a spiritual director, I had to do several different listening exercises, the most excruciatingly difficult one was this. We were assigned to groups of six and each person was to bring a pre-written life story to read and share with the rest of the group. The rest of us were told to listen as carefully as possible and then. . .to simply reflect back what we heard.

Think about that! No asking questions. No giving advice. Nothing but evidence that we had indeed been listening to what was read.

Man, that was tough. But it was so important. What it did was to teach us to listen well to one another, but also, at the same time, to listen to the voice of the Spirit within. Which is, in sum, what the work of spiritual direction is all about: listening to the other, seated across from you, and listening the whispers of the Spirit at the same time.

Whether or not I’m ever able to facilitate anything of value in the life of those who meet with me, those exercises were in many ways life-changing for me. They helped me grow my inner listening skills. Like anything else, good listening takes practice.

And I’m guessing that my husband would probably appreciate it if I’d pull those skills out a little more frequently in our day-to-day life, too!

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Lastly, this phrase from the second half of long this chapter: Believe the works. It comes in the discussion late in the chapter, when everyone is in Jerusalem for a time of celebration, The Festival of Dedication, remembering the time when the temple was restored to the people of Israel 200 years earlier, when the foreign idols were thrown out, and the beauty of Jerusalem’s centerpiece was once again vibrant and real.

Into the midst of this celebrating, Jesus strides along Solomon’s porch, a covered portico with pillars 38 feet high, a place where Gentiles were welcome, where wintertime gatherings were a little more comfortable.

And, once again, He is immediately surrounded by angry Jewish religious leaders. “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they shouted. “Tell us now, tell us clear: are you the Messiah?”

The more times I read through this scene, the more I sense that these over-anxious Jewish leaders were baiting Jesus, snarling at him, pushing him to declare himself. And Jesus’ response? “I’ve already told you who I am. But you choose not to believe me. I’ve told you by what I do as much as by what I say.” And every one of them immediately picks up a stone, making ready to heave them at Jesus.

Several verses later, Jesus continues to say, “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. Believe the works.”

You know, this just slays me. It becomes pretty clear that all the talking in the world is not going to convince these dudes of anything. Jesus even does some pretty nifty biblical interpretation in there, and he talks about his unity with the Father. He consistently reminds them that HE is the Good Shepherd and they are not. He uses his words, over and over again.

And they will have none of it.

And yet. . . right here in Solomon’s Porch, Jesus still gives them every opportunity to step through the gate of the sheep, doesn’t he? “Believe the works. Even if you struggle with what I say, even if you can’t quite believe I am who I say I am, there is room for you with me, if you will look at what I do, and see that it can only be from God. Believe the works.”

Friends, when we find ourselves in places where we simply can’t take in the words, when we find it hard to believe that Jesus is all he claims to be, when we’re not sure what to believe, then it’s time to believe the works.

Do we see evidence of Jesus’ healing work in us and/or in others? Do we see people acting with love and concern? Do we experience unexplained urges to do something good and kind that we might not ever think to do in our own steam? Can we look around our world and see the occasional spark of beauty, the rare moment of understanding, the surprising acts of kindness?

Believe the works.

They may be few and far between. The ugly things may seem to be in the ascendency, the darkness may loom. But are there flashes of light? Do we see beauty in the face of someone who is suffering? Can we find examples of healing and grace and laughter and light?

THINK ON THESE THINGS
Believe the works.

But these angry men cannot hear, and they cannot see. In chapter 9, the false shepherds are blind, though they claim to see. And here in chapter 10, they are deaf, though they claim to hear. And once again, they circle round him, furious, trying to grasp him, seize him.

The time is not yet, however. The time for grasping Jesus will come, but not today. And he slips away.

So at the very end of chapter 10, we find Jesus back where he began. He went ‘down by the river to pray,’ right back to where John had baptized him when he began these years of preaching and teaching and healing.

And note this, too. The healing continues. Next week, we’ll read about the biggest miracle of all, the raising of Lazarus.

As we finish our reflection on John 10 today, I am wondering, where do you need to find healing, wholeness, safety today?

Do you need to remember that Jesus knows your name?

Do you need to find more space for listening to the Shepherd’s voice?

Do you need to look for and then believe the works?

As we sing that sweet chorus we sang in the opening set one more time, will you look inside and see what it is you’re longing for today?

I have a Maker
He formed my heart
Before even time began
My life was in his hands

I have a Father
He calls me His own
He’ll never leave me
No matter where I go

He knows my name
He knows my every thought
He sees each tear that falls
And He hears me when I call
—  music & lyrics by Tommy Walker

If you are unfamiliar with the songs that were woven into this sermon, here are a couple of decent YouTube versions for your listening and worship:

An Advent Journey, 2013: Looking for the Light – Day Eleven

 

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The words of Jesus:

“If you grow a healthy tree, you’ll pick healthy fruit. If you grow a diseased tree, you’ll pick worm-eaten fruit. The fruit tells you about the tree.

“You have minds like a snake pit! How do you suppose what you say is worth anything when you are so foul-minded? It’s your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words. A good person produces good deeds and words season after season. An evil person is a blight on the orchard. Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation.”

Matthew 12:33-37, The Message

Can you sense the rage in these words? The warning?

“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” has left the building in this passage. And if you read a few of the verses before these in the 12th chapter of Matthew’s gospel,  you get some idea why he’s feeling a mite bit testy.

They accused him of ‘black magic’ after he healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and deaf. And at their slanderous words, Jesus unloads one of the sharpest speeches recorded in any of the gospels.

And that speech is all about WORDS.

Such powerful things, these small sounds we make, these feeble scratches we write. According to Jesus, words = fruit. What comes out of our mouths, or out of the ends of our fingers, are words that are either rich, ripe and nourishing OR worm-ridden, malodorous and sickening.

Jesus makes it crystal clear that this is a heart matter, the center of who we are is the source of every word that spills out of us. And every single syllable is potentially explosive, hurtful, maybe even dangerous. As followers of this one who comes to us at Christmas, this one who knew the pain and confusion of accusations and lies — can we be especially prayerful and alert, aware of the power we’ve been given?

It was The Word, John says that formed the universe and all that is in it. Are my words creative, careful, directed toward building up rather than tearing down?

It is The Word who indwells and enlivens us as we inhabit this place that is our home. Are we listening, asking for wisdom-filled-words that invite and encourage rather than reject and discourage?

Are we ‘working out our own salvation’ with what we speak and preach and teach and write?

Are we inviting others to a place of warmth and welcome as we walk our way toward Christmas Day? Or are we too frazzled, over-scheduled, sleep-deprived, out-of-sorts to make the extra effort?

Strong and insightful Lord Jesus, we need a nudge or two right now, as we approach the halfway point on our journey. We want to leave enough space in the day for you, Jesus. Enough space in us. That’s the only way I know how to watch my words, you see: I need to watch you. And to do that, I’ve got to step aside for just a few minutes – in the car or in the laundry room or standing at the sink or checking my email – I need to just take those minutes wherever I can grab them and watch you again. And listen, too. Remind me, okay? Call me back to center so that the fruit of my lips will reflect a quiet heart. Thank you.

31 Days of Giving Permission to . . . REMEMBER

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Sometimes, it’s good to remember where we’ve been and to look for the connections
between there and here. I was searching for a completely different document on my hard drive (one that I did not find, unfortunately) and came across a sermon that I had written six years ago, a sermon that for some reason did not get filed in the folder marked ‘sermons.’ (Don’t ask about my document filing system. It’s a mess and I don’t really know how to fix it.)
I actually enjoyed reading it, something that doesn’t always happen.
And I remembered where I was back then — in the middle of a family tragedy, in the middle of a massive re-model, in the middle of my husband’s retirement planning.
It was good to see that some things have changed significantly.
It was a little hard to see that some things (mostly inside me!)
haven’t changed quite enough.

Do you have ways to look back on your life and reflect on where you were and where you are? Scripture admonishes us to remember. Over and over again, we’re encouraged to remember the good and build on it, and to remember the not-so-good and release it. Sometimes in the busyness of our over-full lives,
we don’t give ourselves permission to stop long enough
to be reflective about our own journey.
Maybe something in this sermon will help you to do that.

“Gone?”
Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:1-11
Preached as part of the “God’s Big Story” series
Montecito Covenant Church
April 29, 2007
By Diana R.G. Trautwein

It’s been quite a week for me. How about you? Three long car trips — miscellaneous family woes, including some really scary and sad health issues for people I dearly love; the constant noise, dust and confusion of the re-model from planet weird, which goes on and on and on . . . making me more than a little bit crazy and cranky; navigating some tricky interpersonal waterways in my work week – not always terribly successfully; meetings up the wazoo; trying to listen attentively as my husband thinks out loud about some of the complications and decisions associated with his retirement in five weeks.

And then there was this sermon to think about — on the Ascension, of all things. Not something I think about a whole lot, to tell you the truth. Oh, I occasionally refer to it when we recite the creed together: “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . Who ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead . . . “ But it’s not a topic I tend to think about a whole lot.

Doesn’t seem to impact my life much — not like the crucifixion or the resurrection or even the story of Jesus’ birth or the various details of his ministry Nope. Don’t think about the ascension too much. So, adding into an already heavy-duty week the thinking and study required to piece together 20 intelligible minutes on that very subject seemed a daunting and even frustrating task.

But here’s what I want you to hear from me today, before you hear anything else – maybe even if you don’t hear anything else, please hear this: After a week like the one I’ve had – and maybe after a week like the one you’ve had – the ascension is EXACTLY what I needed to ponder, EXACTLY what I needed to wrestle with a little, EXACTLY what I needed to hear from God about.

And, as always, that came as a big surprise to me. Because it never ceases to amaze me that the sermons I preach are always, and I do mean ALWAYS, preached to me first, preached to me and in me – right smack dab in the middle of this messy, ordinary, sometimes glorious, sometimes trouble-filled life I lead. Whatever the topic of the week may be – whether I’ve chosen the text or it’s been given to me – it seems as though the first work of the Spirit needs doing in me before I can even begin to contemplate unpacking the word for others.

And this week, despite my fears and rather listless energy for the topic at the beginning of the week, the same thing happened again. I was reminded one more time, of who I am and who I am not, of who we together are, and who we are not, and, most importantly, of who God is and how Jesus continues his salvation work in me, and in us, minute by minute, day by day, week by week.

Because there are just some weeks when I need a whole lot of saving, a whole lot of shaping and forming and learning and stretching. I need a whole lot of hearing and reading and reflecting and reveling in the story of God’s love, God’s mercy and God’s power. And this week’s scripture just knocked me upside the head and made me say, “Thank you, Jesus!”  and “Help me, Jesus!” and “Lord, have mercy.”  And “Amen!  Yes. Yes. Yes.”

Will you hear the word of the Lord as it is recorded for us by the person we know as Luke – the author of the gospel that bears his name and the author of the book that immediately follow the 4 gospel accounts, the Acts of the Apostles.

Reading first from Luke 24 and then from Acts 1:

Luke 24:50-53:

   When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Acts 1:1-11

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

    So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

    He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

    After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

    They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

This is indeed God’s word for us today.

We have been looking this whole year at the story of Jesus, beginning last fall with the birth narratives and moving through his teaching, healing, disciple-making ministry, his trial and crucifixion, his death and resurrection. Today we arrive at an important point of transition in our 3-year preaching series which Don has entitled, “God’s Big Story.”

Book one of Luke – the gospel, the good news, the snapshot story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in 1st century Palestine – book one is finished. And book two of Luke – the Acts of the Apostles – is beginning. And this strange little story that reads like watching Jesus sort of floating off into the ether is the monumentally important turning-point – transition point – transformation point –  between the two.

In the opening words of Acts, Luke writes to his friend Theophilus that his first volume, his gospel record, was, “about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven . . . “ certainly implying that book two is about what Jesus continues to do and to teach as the story of Jesus, of salvation, of revolution is carried to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

So, to summarize in a pithy way, the story of the ascension tells us these important things as we transition from one phase of God’s salvation story to another:

Jesus is moving on,

the church is being born,

the Spirit is soon to come.

And it’s all right here, in these words we’ve just heard.

First, Jesus is moving on:

“It is finished,” not “I am finished.” 40 days of ‘convincing proofs’ of his resurrection, 40 days of reminding them there was work ahead of them, important, life-changing, world-changing work for them to do. And how is that going to happen? Well, according to Acts 1, it will happen in two important ways: first by waiting, and then by witnessing.

And that order is so important – for those 11 gape-mouthed disciples on the hill near Bethany, and for all of us gape-mouthed disciples on this hill near Westmont. The first thing we must do – and the last thing we usually choose to do or even think to do – is to . . .

WAIT

Don’t go anywhere. Don’t do anything Just WAIT.

For what? For the gift, that’s what. Hmmm…pretty broad category there. Pretty general statement. So Jesus gets a little more specific. Wait for . . . The gift my father promised, the gift you’ve heard me talk about, the baptism I told you was coming. And don’t wait for it all by your lonesome, each of you in your own closet. No, wait for it together.

Now, in a couple of weeks, we’ll look more intensely at the particular form of the gift that Jesus promises here in chapter one of Acts.  At that time, we will remember and celebrate Pentecost – that wonderful, awesome, strange and even scary visitation of the Holy Spirit on the early church.  That promised baptism that would bring power and the skills and gifts that would make witnesses of all those gathered in the upper room.

But, the witnessing will come later, it is the waiting that begins now.

And while we wait, even as they waited those centuries ago, we need to remind ourselves and one another of what we know, of what the ascension so magnificently reminds us : that God is God, that God is on the throne, that Jesus is now there with him, still wearing our flesh, and that Jesus continues his work of kingdom-building by praying for us, by whispering into the Father’s ears on our behalf, and by releasing, again and again, the great, unfathomable gift of the Holy Spirit, who comes in power and in love to fill the church and to continue the work of the kingdom of God through the church.

For the church, despite its flaws and foibles, despite its foolishness and feebleness, despite the pettiness and the entitlement and the one-upsmanship that can so often rear its misshapen little head in even the most mature of Christian fellowships – the church is God’s chosen vehicle, the church is Christ’s body in the world, the church is the recipient of God’s Spirit of grace and of power and the church is where the kingdom is caught in glimpses while we’re still on this side of heaven.

And there are three important things that the church is given to do, all of them either explicit or implicit in Jesus words to his disciples as he ascended to the Father:

We are to wait,
We are to worship,
And we are to witness.

The waiting is clear in our Acts passage for the morning, but you’ll notice from the lighthearted sense of Luke’s closing words in the gospel reading today that the most natural response to the ascension of Jesus is the worship of Jesus – Luke 24:52 tells us that after Jesus was taken up into heaven, the disciples who watched him go, “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Probably the earliest recording of a distinctively Christian worship experience. And it happened while they were waiting, while they were waiting together.

Wait, worship, witness. All of those ‘w’s’ are important – they each continue to play important parts in the kingdom work that the Spirit of Jesus is doing today, in and through and sometimes, in spite of the church. They need to be remembered, and they need to be practiced, and they need to be kept in sequence.

Because here’s the heart of it all, the thing that we so often lose sight of, that we so easily stop tracking with, that we too often fail to remember, or that we simply choose to ignore – here it is, are you ready for it?

It’s not up to us.

Did you hear me?

It’s not up to us.

Do you see that crown back there? There’s only one crown on that table, and there’s only one person who wears that crown, and it sure as shootin’ ain’t me. And it ain’t any of you lot either.

Jesus Christ is now ascended. Jesus Christ is now exalted. Jesus Christ, still robed in our flesh, is now with the Father,

Ruling in majesty,
Working in mystery,
Loving in perpetuity,
Praying in sincerity.
For us. For you and for me and for this world.

That’s what the ascension is about.

That’s why I can come to the end of a rotten week and say,
“Thank you, Jesus,” and
“Help me, Jesus,” and
“Lord, have mercy,” and
“Amen. Yes! Yes! Yes!”

So…as we come to the close of our time together this morning, I am going to ask you to take just a couple of minutes to WAIT, to wait together on the Lord. And then we’re going to worship with the singing of the last hymn. And then we can leave this place better prepared for all the messy, ordinary, sometimes glorious, sometimes trouble-filled life that we each are called to live. And we can witness to the mysterious, and revolutionary presence  of the kingdom of God, right here, in the midst of it all.

Will you wait on the Lord?

 

 

 

Extravagant Giving

The text for this Sunday includes the story of the widow’s mite – the gift of everything that our observant Savior watched from his perch near the offering ‘trumpets’ in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem. This happened just days before his own arrest and crucifixion and it follows on the heels of some pretty strong words of warning about religious authorities and their hypocrisy. It’s a text that has been widely preached during November (when it falls into the lectionary calendar, as a matter of fact). November – the traditional month for stewardship sermons as year end approaches and new budgets are being formulated. ‘Give, give, give til it hurts’ – that’s often the interpretation used at such times. And I do think it is possible that this text can be used as a template for preaching the power of proportionate giving…except…it’s a bit troubling. Does Jesus really beckon the disciples to join him in his people-watching in order to show them the ‘right’ kind of giving, the kind that every ‘good’ disciple should strive to emulate? Should we all really give away all that we have to live on? Or is there something else going on in this text, something a bit more subversive, and perhaps a bit more in tune with the immediate and general context of the gospel of Mark.

Jesus enfleshes the focussed concern of God for the people on the margins, most especially the widows and orphans, in a society where neither is well-cared for and where both are usually invisible. Just before this small story, Jesus castigates the scribes – those interpreters of the law who oppose Jesus all through Mark’s gospel account – and he particularly rides them for ‘devouring the houses of widows.’ Probably he was making reference to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that these ‘unpaid’ religious professionals often used their positions of influence to extort funds from the most vulnerable, especially widows, who enjoyed no legal protection, and – if they produced no male children – no financial protection either. Though these scribes received no ‘official’ recompense for their scribal and interpretive work, they did know ways of getting funds. Somehow the picture of tv evangelists comes to mind here…perhaps with the promise of ‘increased blessing for increased giving??’

We cannot know, we can only surmise. But it does seem clear – from the harshness of Jesus’ tone and the pointedness of his words – that the behavior of those in religious leadership, those finding themselves in positions of power and authority, reflected both an abuse of that power and a misuse of that authority.

Jesus says strongly, “This will not do!” “Beware!” The disciples are instructed, in no uncertain terms, to watch out for these wolves in sheep’s clothing, to be especially careful of authorities who like the perks of the job – who wear fine clothes in an ostentatious manner; who want to be seen in the synagogue, choosing to sit up in front, on the bench that faces the congregation; who want the best couch at the banquet; who pray long, elaborate prayers at the same time they are fleecing the widows. Beware. Be careful. Watch out.

And then comes this small story of the widow’s gift. And her generous spirit is to be commended. Her admission of her complete dependence upon God and neighbor is to be emulated. Her digging deep to share with others is praiseworthy. But…I wonder. Could Jesus also be verbalizing a lament-of-sorts in this scene? Could he be calling his disciples’ attention to the very thing he has just been warning them about? Is he bewailing the religious system that encourages such destitution? I think there may be some of that in this text.

It certainly lines up with Jesus’ earlier teaching, in Mark 7, against religious authorities who shelter their money by calling it ‘devoted to God’ instead of taking care of their elderly parents. It certainly lines up with Jesus’ strong prophetic word in the verses which immediately follow this story, at the beginning of chapter 13. There, the disciples are praising the beauty of the temple building and inviting Jesus to do the same. Jesus, however, looks at that magnificent edifice and sees it in ruins, ‘no stone upon another,’ shocking his followers with his foreboding word. He sees a religious system that is rotten to the core. Where others see authority and power, Jesus sees seeping decay and imminent loss. And he will not be a party to it in any way, shape or form.

So he speaks his harshest words of criticism yet. Mark’s version is much briefer that Matthew’s entire chapter 23, but it is still powerful to read. He is on his way to the cross and he knows it. Throwing any vestige of caution to the winds, Jesus blasts away at the ‘authority’ of the religious superstructure, in essence inviting them to come after him. Jesus is preparing to give the most extravagant gift it is possible for any human being to give. And because he is the Son of God in human flesh, the extravagance level takes on untold layers of love. So I think, despite the lament that surely was there in Jesus’ words, there is a lovely way in which this small person, living on the margins of her culture, provides us with a window into the gift that is coming. Like the other widow in this week’s readings – the one at Zarepath who used her last flour and water to feed a hungry prophet named Elijah – this widow willingly gives all that she has to the service of God.

Jesus had no use for authority that was illegitimate and abusive. And Jesus spoke with true authority – with power and certainty and ability that exceeded anything the scribes could offer. Jesus called false authority what it was. He named the evil and he stepped strongly into the melee that resulted from his truth-telling words. And on the way, he noticed a poor widow, flinging her tiny coins into the offering box at the temple. At one and the same time, her story serves to condemn the insidious abuses of wrongly-used authority and to highlight the beauty of generosity and humility, the offering of oneself and one’s meager gifts with relinquishment and dependence.

How hard it is for us to do that! We’d much rather wear the flowing robes and get the best seats at the banquet, thank you. Admitting that we are totally dependent upon Another for our very breath is difficult to do. It is somehow even harder to acknowledge that we are also dependent upon that One for the money in our pocket, the roof over our heads and the abundance which we enjoy. Placing ourselves in a position of dependence – or more accurately, acknowledging the fact that we are already there – is tough for 21st century western Christians to do. I have known very few people in my life for whom that kind of humility, graciousness and generosity is a natural part of daily living. And one of my primary life examples died this past week, a person whose absence from this planet impoverishes me and everyone who ever knew him.

I’ll write about Thomps in a later edition…

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