Let Love Overflow — Transition Sunday 2017

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It’s been a heckuva coupla months. I promised this post almost one month ago and have just today found space to sort it out and edit it for this space. I took a month off from my commitment at SheLoves and my next post there will go live on Saturday of this week — I’ll be back here to set up a linking post later in the week.

But I wanted to get this one done first because that crazy weekend in May was a rich and important one. We said farewell to my mother on that Saturday, with a service, a reception and a dinner at our home, which I wrote about here. The next morning, I led in worship and preached for the first time in a while, although the sermon was more of a homily due to the demands of that particular Sunday in the ongoing life of our community.

We call it Promotion Sunday now — it used to be called Confirmation Sunday, but we added in recognition of all children and young adults making transitions over the summer to a new grade/stage of life. It was rich and wonderful and L O N G, so the sermon, by necessity, was short. The picture above shows off our single confirmand this year, Tyler H, 3rd from the left. And that is our Director of Student Ministries, Anna Beebe on the far left. She has been a spectacular partner to Dick and me as we stepped in to teach 9 students this year. Such a joy that has been for us in a year of change and tumult; we are humbled and grateful to have had this opportunity.

Our Rite of Confirmation includes the reading of a paper by the confirmand(s) on any of the 26 “Building Blocks” in their workbooks. These are the traditional Q & A from the Luther Catechism and Tyler chose to respond to the question: Who is God? He did a wonderful job! Then the confirmand replies to three questions about their faith, kneels to receive a blessing as his family surrounds him. He/she is given a taste of salt and a lit candle as a reminder that they are called to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Then a very personal prayer is prayed over them before the charge/homily is given to the entire class. It has long been one of my favorite Sundays of the church year.

There is a video for the song I mention in the opening paragraph of this homily at the bottom of this inset and the lyrics are posted above it. It’s a wonderful and unusual hymn, absolutely perfect for this Sunday or for any baptism or infant dedication service.

“I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry”
— written by John Ylsvikar

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

I was there when you were but a child,
with a faith to suit you well;
In a blaze of light you wandered off
to find where demons dwell.

When you heard the wonder of the Word
I was there to cheer you on;
You were raised to praise the living Lord,
to whom you now belong.

If you find someone to share your time
and you join your hearts as one,
I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme
from dusk ’till rising sun.

In the middle ages of your life,
not too old, no longer young,
I’ll be there to guide you through the night,
complete what I’ve begun.

When the evening gently closes in,
and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been
with just one more surprise.

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

This video was produced by a fellow Covenant pastor and worship leader and reflects his mostly white congregation. It is beautifully done — I wish it were a bit more ethnically/racially balanced, but it is lovely, nonetheless.

Let Love Overflow
Philippians 1:1-11
A Homily for the Confirmation Class
May 20, 2017
Diana R.G. Trautwein
Montecito Covenant Church

That’s a really unusual song we’ve just sung, isn’t it? It’s one I happen to like a lot and so I requested it for this morning’s service. Why? Because this is a special day in the life of our community and somehow, the words of this song touch on some of the reasons why.

Promotion Sunday is a day when we celebrate who it is God is forming us to be — all of us, from little to young adult to mid-life to old age. We’re in this thing together and today is a day for remembering that and celebrating it! We belong to God and we belong to one another.

That’s one of the reasons we include the Rite of Confirmation in a Sunday morning service of worship rather than doing it in someone’s backyard after dinner – because it’s important for the community of faith to celebrate together. It’s a good thing for all of us to affirm the work these young people have done in beginning and in completing this two-year course, this intentional time of learning more about what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ.

Rituals, with set words and actions help us to mark out special events, to set them aside and say, “This is important and we want to remember it.” We mark lots of life’s important moments with rites and rituals, don’t we? Baptism, marriage, ordination, death.

Yesterday, we held a special service called A Witness to the Resurrection, a memorial service for a Christian who has died. This one was for my mother, who left this earth last month. These young people right here in front — there were 8 of them for most of the year — they have walked with me on this journey. They have prayed for her and for me, they have asked me how she was doing, how I am doing, they have shown me understanding and grace in so many ways. Teaching them in this class all year has turned out to be one of the greatest gifts during a difficult time in my own life and I am deeply grateful to each and every one of them.

So it is with joy and an extra measure of satisfaction that I offer a few words to them this morning. A charge, if you will, a brief homily that is directed primarily to this small band in the front of the center section. The rest of you are warmly invited to listen in, of course, but these words are for them.

Dylan read a passage for us just a few minutes ago, way back before we acknowledged the graduates and before Tyler was confirmed. It’s from a small letter in the New Testament called Philippians. Eleven verses only, but eleven verses that contain pretty much EXACTLY THE WORDS I would like to say to each of you today.

One of the loveliest things about this small letter is the overall spirit of it. Those of you who have done the New Testament year in Confirmation might remember that there are a bunch of letters in the that part of the Bible, many of them written by a man named Paul. Some of those letters sound a bit angry at times; some of them are intent on working through some of the more complicated parts of what the newly formed church was coming to understand about who Jesus really was and what he came to do on this earth.

But this letter is gentle, encouraging, marked by the deep love that Paul felt for these people who lived in a busy, very diverse city, in a place called Macedonia, which is now a part of the country of Greece in southern Europe. In this letter, Paul uses the word ‘joy’ more times than anywhere else in all his writing – 11 different times. He also uses the name of Jesus a whole lot, something you’ll hear as we walk through it. Joy and Jesus — they go together well and they’re at the heart of what Paul has to say and what I want to say, too.

We start with a word of greeting. Now letters written 2000 years ago sounded a bit more formal than the emails or texts you guys are used to these days. Listen and you’ll see what I mean:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons :

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 One sentence — a single L O N G sentence — tells us who’s writing the letter, who’s getting the letter and then offers a special word of blessing, a very specific greeting of grace and peace — and not just any grace and peace, but grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 Those of you who have been taking sermon notes here during your time as a confirmation student may remember that our former pastor — and your former teacher — Don Johnson, always began his sermons with exactly those words, didn’t he? “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a grand greeting, don’t you think?

Then Paul goes on to tell these friends how he really feels about them!

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

 I hope you have some people in your life for whom you thank God every time you think about them! I hope there are those for whom you pray with joy. As we’ve grown together this year, you have become those people for me. I thank God for each one of you and I pray for you with joy.

Paul calls his friends ‘partners in the gospel,’ because of how well they worked together, how tightly knit they were to one another, and how they were caring for one another. This was a church that was really clicking, and learning how to be generous. We know this because they sent money to help the big church in Jerusalem and they sent help to Paul when he was in jail.

But you know the line I really love in this part of the passage is the one that talks about confidence. Did you catch that? “. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

 Now this church in Philippi wasn’t perfect — no church is! God chooses human beings to be the church, right? And we humans have this tendency to mess things up from time to time, don’t we? And these folks were no exception to that rule.

But . . . BUT . . . Paul has confidence in them. More accurately, Paul has confidence in God, who is at work within them. Even when they make mistakes, even when they trip and stumble, God is alive in them, completing the work that the Holy Spirit began at the moment they first said ‘yes’ to the gospel of Jesus.

Paul believes in them because Paul believes in the God who is in them.

In his oh-so-good paper, Tyler talked about his experience of being saved at winter camp this year — that’s when Tyler said ‘yes’ to the gospel of Jesus.

Each of you already has or will soon, I hope and pray, say that ‘yes’ yourself. And like Paul, I believe in the God who hears the ‘yes’ you offer, so I believe in you.

The work that begins in you at that moment of ‘yes’ will continue your whole life long and it will be a beautiful thing to see someday. In fact, it already is.

Yesterday, I celebrated with my family and my friends the good work that God did in my mom over her long, long life. Even in her last years, when her mind was so very damaged and her body so frail . . . even then. God was completing the work that had begun in her when she was a teenager, just like you.

God is in the business of finishing what God starts, believe me when I tell you this. And I am confident that the good work God is doing in you, my young friends . . . that work will continue your whole life long, until that day when you see Jesus face to face. Which is exactly where my mom is now. 

Finally, we come to the last few verses of this scripture passage, which get to the heart of it all, and they offer the main point of my charge to each of you today.

Listen to Paul’s words:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound — may overflow — more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

 That is all one sentences, friends and it is a jam-packed one, too.

It all begins with LOVE. The kind of love that comes only from God, the kind of love that changes hearts and minds, the kind of love that changes churches and cities, the kind of love that can change the world, if we let it loose, if we live it, if we grab hold of it and hang on for dear life.

So the most important thing I can say to you this morning, the most important thing I can ever say to you is this:

GOD LOVES YOU.

Not in spite of all the ways you mess up, not even because you need God’s forgiveness and grace. God loves you because you are YOU, a totally unique person created in God’s image, gifted with the ability to choose to follow in God’s way and the basic equipment to receive the power of the Holy Spirit right now.

Yes, you need God’s forgiveness. We all do. But even more basic than that need in you is the truth that God loves you — first, last and always.

It is that love which will make it possible for you to make good choices going forward in your life. It is that love that will gradually — sometimes gently and sometimes not so much — begin to shape you more and more into the image of Jesus himself. It is that love that will work its wondrous way in you, helping you to really learn the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.

Paul prays for his friends that Love will help them to grow in knowledge and in depth of insight. That means head knowledge and heart knowledge, because both are so important if we are to be the kind of people we were designed to be in the first place.

Living life is a process of refinement, like precious metals are refined by fire, like gorgeous gems are carved out of rocks. And when we say yes to God’s love, yes to the gospel, yes to Jesus — that process of refinement leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of other people, it helps us to make good choices, it empowers us to extend grace and peace to the people we live with, those we sit in class with, even to those we work with, when you’re old enough to have jobs.

Love and knowledge and insight go together, but that order is crucial. Start with love. Always, always start with love.

Don’t be afraid of your tenderness, don’t be embarrassed by your concern for those who are on the edges, who are being bullied, who are left out. When you feel their pain, you are letting love win. When your heart is open to God, to yourself and to others, that’s when the ‘fruit of righteousness’ Paul talks about in this sentence becomes obvious.

That big word ‘righteousness’ actually means ‘right relationship’ as much as it does ‘right behavior.’ They go together, you see? When you live in a relationship of love with the God who made you, then you’ll find it easier and easier to do what is right and good to do. You won’t do it perfectly — because, once again — ain’t none of us perfect, right?? But you will do it more and more.

My prayer for you, dear Confirmation Class of 2017, is that one day, someone will say of you what I said of my mother yesterday afternoon:

“What rises to the top is her goodness. Her generosity. Her great good humor, her searching intelligence, her love for us. Give me the choice of all the mothers in this world, I’d choose the one I had. In a heartbeat.’”

Let love abound, my friends. Let it overflow.

Let’s pray together:

Gracious and loving God,

How I thank you for the gift of this morning. For each child and young adult moving forward in life. For each Confirmation student in this year’s class, and especially today, for Tyler, whose kindness and sweet spirit have made our Tuesday afternoons such a lovely experience for all of us.

Will you help these friends — and their parents, and fellow believers around this room — to really take in the power and beauty of Paul’s words this morning?

Open our hearts to receive your love anew, remind us when we step outside of that love, and point us again in the direction of righteousness, of right relationship and right behavior.

Help us to look to Jesus, the one who calls us, who names us as his own, who goes before us and who receives us when we pass from this life to the next.

Amen.

The Last Word . . . and the First — A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

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The Last Word . . . and the First
Colossians 1:11-20
November 20, 2016
Montecito Covenant Church
Diana R.G. Trautwein

So. Here we are. The last Sunday of the church year, standing on the threshold of the holidays, which are barreling toward us with alarming speed. We’ve just come through — some of us, just barely! — one of the most difficult and vitriolic election campaigns in our national history.

Our pastor of eleven years has left us, heading for parts east. Many of us are reeling from personal pain and loss — illness, injury, surgery, difficult medical treatment, looming divorce, death. Some of us are dealing with school projects that feel overwhelming, or tricky relationships with friends or dorm-mates. Some of us are entertaining friends and family this next week; some of us are traveling to gather with others; some of us wonder how we’ll celebrate at all. By and large, I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, of us in this room are carrying around multiple layers of sadness. Maybe even a sense of hopelessness,if we’re honest.

But . . . we’re here. Ready to worship, ready to listen, ready to sing, ready to pray. And, I think it is ALSO fair to say, very ready to hope.

The passage before us this morning is one that is assigned by the church lectionary, that revolving list of scriptures that takes us through most of the Bible over a 3-year span. It’s a text that beautifully expresses the theme of this day in our church calendar. And it is a passage that calls us to HOPE.

Many of the words in our sermon text today — the last six verses, in fact — actually come from what most scholars guess is an old song, a hymn of praise, something that was part of the liturgy used by the early community of Jesus followers when they gathered to worship God together.

It’s a song in two stanzas, with some lovely parallel lines and repeated words between them. And it’s a song that, in addition to its majestic, descriptive language, uses a long string of very small words. Small, but oh-so-important. Please listen for them as I read the passage for you this morning.Those little words are called prepositions. Remember those?

Hear the word of the Lord for this ‘Christ the King Sunday,’ as it comes to us from the letter to the Christians at Colossae, a smallish 1st century city which was moving steadily into the economic backwaters of its day. Somewhere in that town, a group of believers was learning what it means to live out the gospel in truth and love. This small letter was written to that small group sometime in the second half of the first century, so the words we have before us have been around for a long, long time.

They are beautiful and they are remarkable for how well they lay out a complex series of ideas about two central truths: who Jesus Christ is and who the church is. I will be reading from the New Revised Standard Version and I will actually begin with verse 11, which comes in the middle of an opening prayer for these believers.

These are the words of that continuing prayer:

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

 

And then, beginning with verse 15, we find that two stanza hymn — here it is:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

 Whether it was the apostle Paul himself or a devoted disciple of his who penned the words of this lovely little letter, no one seems to be completely certain. Whoever it was — and for ease in understanding, I’m going to call him ‘Paul’ –I’m grateful we have this letter in our Bible, and I’m deeply grateful for the powerful truths it contains.

This is a pastoral letter, written out of deep concern for the spiritual health and well-being of a beloved group of people, people who have been visited by some ‘new’ teachers who are introducing some interesting and quite wrong-headed ideas.

Most of the letters in our New Testament were written to try and help a particular congregation through one kind of troubling situation or other, and Colossians is no exception. After the passage before us today, the letter spells out those troubling ideas a bit more clearly. Some of them seem to have Jewish roots, some of them Greek. ALL of them carry the weight of, ‘what you’ve got is not enough.’

“Well, yes, of course,” these teachers are saying. “It’s good that you’re following in the way of Jesus. But you know that’s not enough, don’t you? You need to add a few things — there are some foods which should be avoided, there are some holidays which should be observed, you’re being much too contaminated by the things of this earth and you need to live a far more rigorous lifestyle, and you should definitely be worshipping and placating the angels and the powerful astral powers all around us. You see, Jesus just isn’t enough.”

“Oh yeah,” says Paul. “I don’t think so.”

And this hymn, these lovely, strong words about the supremacy and the sufficiency of Christ alone, they are the answer to all of the “Jesus AND” kind of teaching being thrown at the Colossian church. Christ is enough. Christ is MORE than enough. Christ is . . . Well . . . let’s look at what Christ is for a minute, shall we?

The piece of that pastoral prayer that we read at the beginning of our passage today tells us that because of Jesus Christ, we are transferred from darkness into light, that we have the strength we need to endure anything that life may throw at us because we now belong to that light-filled kingdom, where sins are forgiven and we are redeemed.

Then, stanza one of this exquisitely crafted hymn tells us that Christ is the very image of the invisible God, in whom, through whom, and for whom everything was created. Not only that, but Christ came first — before any of what we see around us ever came into being — and he still — right now, this instant — holds it all together.

Digging back into the opening words in the book of Genesis, picking up imagery from the book of Exodus, borrowing from the wisdom tradition in Proverbs and the Psalms, this bold hymn threads all of it together in ways that also resonate with the glorious prologue in the gospel of John. This song is about as powerful as a song could ever be, declaring that Jesus Christ is pre-existent, pre-eminent, and supreme over the entire created order.

So . . . what was that about Jesus and . . .?

As if that wasn’t enough, stanza two adds these ideas: in addition to being the ‘firstborn of all creation, ‘Christ is the firstborn from the dead,’ indicating that by his resurrection, Christ has now ushered in a new creation, called the church, of which he is head, by which he inaugurates a new Age of Redemption and Reconciliation.

As the hymn builds to its conclusion, it begins to answer this question: what is the instrument, the means by which this new creation is made available to us? Where is that place where Old and New meet, where the First Word and the Last Word come together in one weary, beat-up, itinerant preacher? Where is the throne for this grand Cosmic Christ, this King of ALL Creation, old and new?

It’s at the top of a hill, just outside the city gates of 1st Century Jerusalem where the One in whom, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” died the death of a criminal, uttering the words, “Father, forgive them.” “Father, forgive them.”  

That dying man on the tree is the very one that Paul is describing in this passage, the very one sung about in this ancient hymn from the early church. Christ, you see, is not the last name of a man named Jesus. Christ IS Jesus. Jesus IS Christ, the King of Creation, the Head of the Church, the one whose blood was shed for you and for me.

And Jesus Christ is more than enough, my friends. MORE than enough.

You know, the world we live in today — the world right here in Santa Barbara — our world no longer believes in astral powers. And it doesn’t put a lot of credence in angelology, either. Most of us aren’t bothered by anyone telling us we need to eat differently, or celebrate different religious holidays or practice some kind of strange ritual in order to be truly safe, truly saved.

But you know what? We all do battle with that same “Jesus and . . .” mentality. That scarcity mindset that subtly or not so subtly tells us we haven’t quite got it right, that there is more we need to do, more we need to know, more we need to become, more.

For some of us, that might mean that we put way too much of our trust and our hope in systems — political and economic systems. Maybe we try to maximize the benefits of those systems in some way. Maybe we believe that if we vote for one candidate or another, the world will change . . . or not change.

Maybe it’s right belief — if we just get a really good handle on this fine point of doctrine — and if we make sure that no one else deviates from it, not even a little bit, then everything will work out well, we will be safe and saved.

Maybe it’s knowledge — if we learn more, if we master this or that technique, if we put our trust in science or psychology or the arts, then we’ll know enough, we’ll understand enough to be okay.

Maybe it’s about spiritual practices and disciplines, adding another arrow to the quiver of techniques to make us holy. If we just add in a little of this or a little of that, then we’ll get it, then we’ll be really saved.

Now not one of these things is a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s what we believe about these possible add-ons that can bring us to the same kind of wrongheadedness that the Colossian Christians were battling. It’s what we believe about these things that can cause us to live as though it’s really about Jesus AND . . . something else, anything else.

And when we find ourselves in that place, there is somewhere else we need to go, somewhere else we need to sit for a while. We need to go back to our baptism. We need to remember that we are buried with Christ in that water, that we are raised up to new life in him as we emerge.

And we need a baptized view of reality, one in which we KNOW that Jesus Christ has redeemed creation and is always in the process of reconciliation — reconciling the world to God and us to our right and true selves.

And then, we need to remember that since the time of the ascension, since the day of Pentecost, WE are now the transforming power of God at work in this world. That is who we are, because that is who Christ calls and empowers us to be. Seven verses after the close of the passage before us this morning, we find these life-changing words: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

CHRIST IN US, THE HOPE OF GLORY.

There is nothing to add to that, my friends. Not one thing.

Some of you know that a big part of my own journey these days is centered around my aging mother’s struggle with dementia. I’ve written about it quite a bit and have been stunned to discover just how many people are walking this difficult, confusing, sometimes frightening, and very lonely road. Those of you who are on our church email prayer chain will see at the bottom of each week’s prayer list an item called “Ongoing Concerns.” My mom is on that short list.

Her name is Ruth Gold.

She is now 95 years old, severely limited by macular degeneration, hearing loss and physical frailty, which too often results in falling down. About eight or nine years ago, she began to show some alarming signs of deep confusion and she herself wanted a neurological work-up. Those findings resulted in her move to assisted living a little over five years ago, in a sweet little 2-room unit across the street from her original apartment at the retirement community in which she lived in southern California. That move happened soon after we celebrated her 90th birthday in our backyard with about 40 of her friends and family. I am so glad we did that!

Almost four years ago, the director of that unit told me they could no longer manage her care, and my mother was able to agree that moving closer to us was a good idea. So my husband and I began to research different kinds of memory care facilities near us. She chose to go to Heritage Court at the Samarkand and it is a good, good place for her to be.

During that year before we moved her up here at the beginning of 2013, I was completing my training in spiritual direction under the teaching of some fine Benedictine Charismatic Catholics at the Mission Retreat center here in town. One of our lectures that year was on the doctrine of the Cosmic Christ — the very topic of our passage this morning. We did a theological reflection exercise using some teaching from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a priest who was also a scientist, and who lived and wrote in the middle of the 20th century. His background in the French Catholic church included an idea called the Sacred Heart of Christ, something that was totally foreign to me as a Protestant pastor!

But as I prayerfully tried to think about how the ideas of the Cosmic Christ and the Sacred Heart might have something to say to my own life, the image that God gave me was a picture, a mental picture, of my small, confused mama SAFE in the great, sacred heart of the Cosmic Christ. Safe though her memory is almost completely gone. Safe though she no longer knows who I am. Safe though she no longer knows who she is. She is SAFE.

And that picture, that image, has made all the difference these past four years.

Because here is what I have borne witness to in these years since she moved to Santa Barbara; here is the truth that she teaches me, every time we are together.

Even in the midst of her mental and physical debility, my mother gives evidence to the transforming power of God at work in this world. My mother lives the truth of Colossians 1. Let me tell you how.

She has known Jesus personally since she was a teenager. That’s a long time.When I lived in her home, she read deeply and widely in the Christian classics, and, among other acts of service, taught Sunday school to girls who were juniors in high school for over a decade. I remember seeing her in prayer for them and for our family every morning when I got up. She taught me everything I know about speaking in front of large groups of people, was one of the funniest women I ever met, and she loved her life. She was not perfect, of course, but she was good. And kind, probably one of the very best things any of us can ever be. Her faith in Jesus Christ is a part of her DNA and her relationship to our Triune God is the center of everything.

If you were to see her, you would think she is lovely. And she is. Why?

Because she smiles at everyone she sees. She reaches out and asks, “How are you today?” She says, “My, but you look lovely!” She laughs readily and often. She tells everyone that she loves them. Occasionally, she is even capable of making a wry remark, usually at her own expense. EVERYONE who works in Smith Health Center knows who she is. And they all light up with a huge smile whenever they see her coming in her walker as we go out to lunch twice each week. I even had an administrator tell me that she went by Heritage Court regularly to get her “Ruth fix,” something that helped her get through some of the more difficult parts of her job.

Mom literally sheds light wherever she goes.

My mother has been transferred to the kingdom of light, you see. She has been rescued from the powers of darkness, even when her mind seems dark to me. And she is an agent of light in this world. She is.

Am I?
Are you?

Because that is THE question we need to be asking ourselves as we take in the powerful words of Colossians, chapter one. What kind of a difference do these truths make in the way we choose to life our lives? If Christ is indeed supreme, if Christ is indeed sufficient, if Christ alone is all that we need, how shall we then live?

When our candidate loses the election, do we lament? Yes, of course, we do. When our spouse walks out on us, do we mourn? Oh, yes, we mourn. When we get a diagnosis that terrifies us, do we say so and weep? Yes, we weep and we worry. When we don’t get the grade we were hoping for, when a friend says an unkind thing, when we are misunderstood and feel undervalued, yes, we admit the pain that comes with all of those things. After all, the work of the kingdom is always a work in process, isn’t it?

So yes, we admit the struggle. Our text reminds us to ‘be prepared to endure everything with patience’ – so yes, there is going to be a whole lot of enduring in this life, that is for certain sure.

But then. But then, we live as the light we are.

We are to live as Jesus lived — we reach to the edges, we see those who are unseen, we speak up for those who are not heard, we bring dinner to the park, we write our representatives, we take care of the world that our Cosmic Christ created for us to enjoy and to steward, we work for inclusion, we call out racism, we refuse to tolerate bullying, we seek justice for all, we offer hope to the hopeless, beginning with ourselves.

WE SHED LIGHT WHEREVER WE GO.

And we do it because at the bottom of it all — whatever pain and sadness we are carrying, whatever fear we are battling, whatever difficult life situation may present itself — at the bottom of it all, we are people who hope. We are the new creation, Christ’s very body at work in this world. We are the CHURCH.

 And that is a good, good gift.

Are you ready to shed light, wherever you go? Are you willing to be the church?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling It Backwards and Forwards — a Sermon Preached at Pasadena Covenant Church

It was a privilege and a joy to rejoin our home church yesterday morning as the preacher for the day. This is the place where we raised our family, where we are known well. They find themselves in another interim period and there was one text among all four for yesterday that just seemed perfect for this time of transition they find themselves in. 

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“Telling It Backwards and Forwards”
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Preached at Pasadena Covenant Church
August 14, 2016
Diana R.G. Trautwein

Listening to the lectionary texts for this week, you might think that today’s sermon would be full of doom and gloom! Jim read for us some pretty discouraging words from the prophet Isaiah, words about God’s Vineyard. Even the gospel reading Melissa did for us sounds a bit harsh to our ears, those particular Jesus-words from the gospel of Luke.

The vineyard of ancient Israel, God’s hand-picked beacon of a people, was disgustingly low on fruit, and God has had it up-to-here with them. Pretty bad news.

And our gentle, peace-loving Savior — talking about bringing swords and fire and all kinds of muck and mayhem. I’m guessing this one is not anybody’s favorite gospel passage. Again, sounds a whole like bad news.

And then, there’s the bad news all around us, all the time, as we look at the world we live in today — which, in reality, is pretty much like any other ‘day’ in history you might choose, I suppose. We’re not likely to see a lot of good news out there either, are we?

It seems that we human creatures have this knack for messing things up, sometimes in spectacular ways. And if the Spirit had pushed me to consider any of the other three texts for this morning, I have a hunch the sermon you’re about to hear would be different from the one that came to me in pieces over the last couple of weeks.

Before my husband and I left on what turned out to be a strenuous (but incredibly beautiful) 18 days of vacation, which took us out of state for most of the month of July, I selected the New Testament epistle reading as the focus for this morning’s primary truth-telling time.

I chose it for a couple of reasons – first of all, I chose it because it is not radiating with what sounds like bad news, though it doesn’t shy away from the realities of life in any way. I don’t know about you all, but I, for one, am more than a little bit tired of the bad news we hear so much about, every minute of every day, in this negative campaign season we are slogging through. It seemed like the words of The Preacher to the Hebrews might provide a bit of a different worldview from what is being televised, broadcast, texted and tweeted on all sides these days.

So that’s one of the reasons for this choice today. But the primary reason I chose this text is because . . . I love it — it’s one of my favorite sections in all of scripture and it has been for a long time. So let’s dig into it, okay?

The book of Hebrews is a curious one. Folded in with the epistles at the back of our New Testament, it reads more like an extended sermon, one written for a congregation going through a tough time. This sermon-in-13-chapters was probably delivered in a pretty narrow time frame, with some scholars guessing at 64 to 70 A.D. The original readers were part of a church of Jesus located somewhere east of Jerusalem and they were experiencing a virulent wave of persecution, with no end in sight.

These Hebrew believers were wondering if it was worth it to hang in there, to ‘keep on believin.’ Maybe it was time to just fold their tents and quietly slip away into the gathering darkness. Maybe it was time to give up the faith.

NO, says the Preacher. No. Remember where you came from, concentrate on where you’re headed, and run the race.

 Run. The. Race.

Despite what some quarters of the church might wish us to believe, we here in the United States of America are not in any way, shape or form being tortured for our faith. Yes, indeed, there are some decisions, values and attitudes which can make us feel sidelined, maybe even occasionally discriminated against — but, in truth, compared to these 1st century believers, we are persecution-free.

Yet, we 21st century believers still struggle, don’t we? Sometimes we, too, wonder if it’s worth it to hang in there, to keep walkin’ the talk. Life can be challenging — and the journey is not guaranteed to be pain-free. In fact, all of us — every one of us in this room — knows what it feels like to be discouraged, to feel weighed down by the cares and concerns of this world, to wade through the morass of personal grief and loss, to wonder if we can actually put our foot out there again, the one that needs to take the next step in the road.

So, despite the differences in our settings, I think this congregation of believers in downtown Pasadena needs to hear these words every bit as much as those wonderers and strugglers somewhere in the ancient middle east.

We step into this written sermon very near the end of it. The Preacher has been doing some heavy-duty teaching about the connections between the Old Covenant and the New, pointing out the remarkable ways in which Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s plan to rescue humankind from our own brokenness and sin.

As the chapter which contains our reading begins, our Preacher gives us a beautiful definition of what the word ‘faith’ means. It’s found in verse one:

“What is faith?” he asks. “It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead.”

What follows from that definition is a veritable roll call of people from Jewish history. It’s a specific and fascinating list, containing both men and women, scoundrels and saints, almost all of them introduced by one word in the Greek: pistei – which means, ‘by faith . . .’

Our text for the morning picks up at verse 29 and continues through the 2nd verse of chapter 12. If you have your Bible, please turn and follow along with me. I will be reading from the New Living Translation”

29 It was by faith that the people of Israel went right through the Red Sea as though they were on dry ground. But when the Egyptians chasing them tried it, they all were drowned.30 It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho seven days, and the walls came crashing down.31 It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute did not die with all the others in her city when they refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

32 Well, how much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak and Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and all the prophets. 33 By faith, these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight.35 Women received their loved ones back again from death. But others trusted God and were tortured, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free. They placed their hope in the resurrection to a better life. 36 Some were mocked and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in dungeons. 37-38 Some died by stoning and some were sawed in half; others were killed with the sword. Some went about in skins of sheep and goats, hungry and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world.39 They wandered over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. All of these people we have mentioned received God’s approval because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised.40 For God had far better things in mind for us that would also benefit them, for they can’t receive the prize at the end of the race until we finish the race.

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends, from start to finish. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God’s throne in heaven.”

The word of the Lord

 If I didn’t know better, I might suspect that this preacher had some training in the African American tradition. Did you hear the cadences? The rhythms? The litany, the roll call, starts slow, then picks up speed and finally just seems to cry out for a little call and response, don’t you think?

Verse 29 starts out with specific names and events — and I want you to notice a few things about those specific names. Do you recognize them all? Well, David, for sure. Probably Samuel, and if you have a Sunday School background, you’ve likely heard of Sampson and Gideon.

But Barak? In that particular story – at least as I remember it — the hero is a woman, a judge named Deborah. And Jephthah? That guy who made a foolish vow, one that God never asked him to make, and then had to put his gorgeous daughter to death as a result? Yeah, that’s the one.

And then there’s the prostitute on the list! Rahab is also listed in Matthew’s gospel as part of the genealogy of Jesus. No way does Matthew talk about her history of prostitution, however! Yet this preacher takes pains to remind us of that truth. Why do you suppose that is?

Well maybe it’s to remind his listeners that nobody’s family tree is perfect. We’ve all got some wacky cousins out there somewhere, don’t we? And we in the church are no exception. Truth be told, we’re all a little wacky, in our own, unique way, aren’t we? BUT no matter how wacky we may be, every one of us is given the same gifts of grace, every one of us is invited to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, every one of us has a part to play in the telling of this amazing story we cling to.

Dick and I were an active part of this body of believers for 21 years. We’ve been attached to some of you for another 20 years, always happy to read the list of prayer requests, coming to as many memorial services as we can manage, praying for you all regularly. And this last week, we began to make a list of all the wonderful and wacky saints whom we know from this community who are now a part of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ described in this passage. I know we’ve missed a lot of people on our list, so I want to invite you, right now, to help us fill in the gaps. I invite you to call out names of those who’ve moved from this life to the next, women and men who were a part of this family of faith. Let’s see how many we can come up with in a minute or two:

(Names rang out from all around the room and I very quickly read through our list.)

Now stop for just a minute.

Stop.

Hear those names ringing around this room. Close your eyes and see those whom you know and love, see them living their lives of faith, wacky and weird and wonderful as they each were. Breathe in deeply. And say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’ for the glorious truth that we — those of us in this room, at this moment in time and history — we had the privilege of watching each of these people live out their faith, imperfections, mistakes and all. These dear people are our witnesses, ones who tell us the story of faith from our past, ones we carry around with us every minute of every day until we are reunited with them in the New Creation. Thank you, God. Thank you!

 

I want to invite you back into the text now, and point out that after this specific list of witnesses from the past, this list of those who were faithful, the sermon shifts gears a bit and becomes much more generic — no more names, just situations from our shared history as followers of Israel’s God. And then, there is another dramatic shift, and this is an important one — there is a shift from positive outcomes of faith to negative ones. And the contrast is stark.

No more battles won, flames extinguished, the dead brought back to life. No. Now we hear of death and persecution, of torture and hunger and pilgrims wandering the world in abject poverty and disgrace.

Both outcomes are possible, friends. Both. There are no guarantees of a suffering-free life to be found anywhere in our gospel. In the reading from Luke, Jesus tells us that truth, too. As we heard, Isaiah the prophet warns Israel of bad times to come.

Even the psalmist in Psalm 80, which is also on today’s lectionary list, asks a heart-rending question, one that feels familiar to all of us on some days:

 “O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.”

There is no room here for health-and-wealth, prosperity-gospel, the power-of-positive-thinking. There is not. But, oh, friends. There is room for joy. There is room for purpose.There is even room for contentment, no matter what the particular circumstances of our lives may be at any given moment. And we find that room in the last transition of the passage before us today. Chapter 12 takes us there, with power and with hope. “Therefore,” the preacher cries out.

Oh, what a powerful word! Therefore, because we have this ‘cloud of witnesses,’ these people from our past who speak to us of faith and endurance, of commitment and completion, we ourselves can enter the arena of life and run the race that is set out before each and every one of us. He’s told us the backwards part of this race — the human foundation upon which we stand, the storyline that is uniquely ours.

Now, he says, enter the fray, secure in your unique place in the line-up of God.

Yes, life can be discouraging, even frightening. Suffering is real and pretty much guaranteed to every member of the human race, but . . . there is a hope which keeps us going. There is a scarlet thread, a bright cord — to borrow the image from the story of Rahab — there is a lifeline. We find it when we turn always and forever toward the future that awaits us. And the best way, indeed, the only way to make that turn is to turn our eyes upon Jesus.

The old gospel song got it right. It’s an oldie that I sometimes sing with my mom, who is 95 years old and suffers from severe dementia. She is nearly blind, almost deaf, hasn’t a clue who I am, beyond the fact that she loves me and enjoys going out to lunch when we load up her walker and head out twice each week. It’s been a tough thing to watch her disappear, and yet . . . there are such lovely pieces remaining. One of them is her deep faith in Jesus, and one of them is music. She remembers the 1st verse and chorus of lots and lots of old hymns! And this one is a favorite for both of us. Maybe you know it, too? Sing it with me . . .

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in his wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
in the light of his glory and grace.”

Pretty much exactly what the preacher is talking about in 12:2, don’t you think?

We need to tell one another the stories of our past, oh, yes, we do. But even more than that, we need always to turn our eyes forward, toward the Savior who beckons us, to look at the One who went before us on this journey. Jesus, who endured such suffering and shame, and yet who radiated the love of God everywhere he went.

Henri Nouwen’s words came into my inbox every day and this last week, these particular ones went right to the center of me:

“Jesus is the savior of the world.
We are not.
We are called to witness, always with our lives and sometimes with our words,
to the great things God has done for us.
But this witness must come from a heart that is willing to give
without getting anything in return.
The more we trust in God’s unconditional love for us,
the more able we will be to proclaim the love of Jesus
without any inner or outer conditions.”

 Something about that little paragraph makes me wonder if the ‘entangling sin’ the preacher talks about in that last verse of our text today might be something like this:

an unwillingness to believe that God loves us, exactly as we are, and to trust that God is continually at work within us to form us into whole, healthy, loving, giving people who bear a striking resemblance to our Elder Brother, whose name is Jesus.

We are admonished to ‘strip down’ in these last verses. And if you take all the extras away, that, for me, is the GOOD NEWS in a nutshell:

God loves us as we are, God is at work within us to form us into our truest selves, which will look more and more like Jesus himself. Now WE are called to be the love of God at work in the world.

We are called to live loved.

That’s it, the stripped down version, the ready-for-the-race truth of it all. The best news I know anything about.

It is Jesus himself who leads the way into that stadium, my friends. The ones we love who’ve gone before us are important parts of our story and it is oh-so-good to remember and celebrate them. But it is Jesus who is the pattern, Jesus who is the forerunner, Jesus who is the Savior.

And together — all those who’ve gone before us and all those who will come after us — together, we will be saved, we will be safe, in the best and most ultimate sense of that word.

Because Jesus’ entry into history marks the biggest transition ever recorded anywhere by anyone. Slashing through space and time, our Divine Visitor came to call us home, and with his life, with his death, with his resurrection, he showed us how to get there.

Don’t give up, the Preacher tells those 1st century believers! It’s gonna be scary, it’s gonna hurt, its gonna be hard. But don’t give up. “Look at Jesus,” he challenges them. Remember his life of love, remember how he endured such shame and torture for you, remember how he loves you. Remember that he prays for us, sitting now at the right hand of the Father. Remember that he roots for us as we run the race before us.

Keep telling the story, Hebrew believers.

Keep telling the story, Pasadena Covenant Church.

Yes, tell it backwards — remember who you are and where you’ve been. Celebrate all of it. Give thanks for all of it. And then, tell it forwards. Look to Jesus to lead you, to set the pace, to take you the distance. You find yourselves in an in-between time . . . again. And that’s a hard place to be. But it won’t be forever. The story is not over.

Look!

The crowds are cheering! There are hundreds of us, thousands of us, believing in Jesus and believing in you. God is not done with storytelling through this congregation, not by a long shot. And I can’t wait to see what the next chapter of that story looks like in this good place. Can I get an amen?

Amen!

 

 

 

 

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:

The Truest Disciple: Reflections on John 12:1-8

I’m nearing the end of a wonderful online writing class (offered through www.tweetspeakpoetry.com) and for one of our lessons, we were asked to write something in the style of one of our favorite authors. I chose Barbara Brown Taylor, whose sermons are perfection. This small meditation is a very feeble attempt to echo her insightful handing of familiar Bible passages.

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“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

 

It was a party, you know. A dinner party. Because that’s where all the really good things in life happen, right? Sharing a meal with people we love, laughing over a shared glass of wine, telling stories, building memories.

And they were all there, the whole motley crew. The Twelve that followed Jesus up the road and down again. And the three – the siblings, Martha, Mary, Lazarus – who loved Jesus and hosted him time and again.

And this was a special party, truly special. Lazarus had been . . . well, there’s no other way but to put the bald truth out there — Lazarus had been dead.

And then he wasn’t, because Jesus said, ‘Come out.’

But like many parties often do, this one wound down to just three people, three people in the spotlight.

Jesus, because . . . well, he was Jesus, after all.

And Judas, because he asks hard questions and flings accusations.

And Mary.

Mary?

Right here, in the deeply misogynistic world of 1st century Palestine, the one in the fullest glare of the spotlight, the one truly faithful disciple turns out to be . . . a woman.

All the guys are there — the crusty fisherman, the bickering brothers, the tax collector, the one who sat under the fig tree. And they’ve all been there for the last three years, covered in dust, sprinkled with Galilean water, living the daily ins and outs of the Jesus life.

Yet somehow, they missed it. They missed the point of it all, the thrust of their mission, the terrifying end of the story they didn’t even know they were telling.

But Mary?

Mary gets it. She is so full of the glorious, heartbreaking truth that it literally pours forth from her body. She comes to the end of the dining couch, where Jesus is reclining by the table. She bends down, breaks open a wildly expensive vial of fragrant oil, and pours it over his feet, loosing her hair to rub it right into the cracks and crevices, scandalizing everyone in the room except the one she came to anoint.

Because, you see, she had been paying attention. Like that other Mary, she was ‘pondering these things in her heart,’ listening with care. As Judas snarled, Jesus calmed the storm: “Leave her alone . . . this perfume has been stashed away just for today, to prepare me for . . . my burial.”

Even here, on the eve of his own brutal death, Jesus insists on changing up the rules for acceptable behavior.  He shuts down what we might call the ‘churchy’ attitude, the self-righteous platitudes, and he elevates the simple but loving actions of a contemplative woman.

What we do and why and how we do it — that’s what counts. It’s not so much what we say or even what we believe — it’s what we do. Because the take-home truth is this: the surest sign of a true disciple is the delicious aroma that permeates every corner of the house.

Every corner.

 

In the midst of a hard and tiring week, I’m thankful tonight for 
the stories of scripture,
the gentle care of health aides where our moms live,
the sunshine sparkling on the water,
a 91 degree swimming pool for therapy on unhappy tendons,
CPK salads for dinner.

Joining this with Michelle and Jen, Ann & Jennifer this week:



31 Days of Giving Permission . . . TO IMAGINE

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Imagine you’re a 1st century Galilean.
And you’re proud of the hometown boy who made good
down there in Judea.
You’ve heard rumors that he’s got a real way with words,
that he puts on quite a magic show,
and that the crowds are eating it up.

Way to go, Jesus.

The thing is, though, Jesus can see right through you.
Yeah, he can.
He can see that you’re impressed by the bells and whistles,
but you haven’t a clue who he is,
what he’s really about.

Imagine next, an outsider comes along.
Someone who actually follows Jesus over hill and dale,
and begs him for help.
A ‘royal official,’ John’s gospel tell us.
Not only an outsider, but a leader of the band,
the band that has taken so much from Israel already.

And this guy, more than the hometown folks,
gets it.
He sees Jesus more clearly than
any of those who watched him grow up,
than any of those who are on the inside.
He has a sick boy,
and he’s not too proud to beg,
“Jesus, heal my boy. I know you can.”

Imagine that Jesus then turns to all those
round about,
all those old friends and family,
all those who maybe should have seen
and understood more than they did,
but who were, as Jesus himself remembered,
the very ones least likely to welcome
Jesus. . . the prophet.

Because that’s who he was, right?
Yeah, he was a great teacher,
yeah, he spoke with authority,
yeah, he made wine out of water,
and yeah, he did some cool healing tricks.
That Jesus, everybody wants to pat on the back 

But Jesus, the prophet?

Ain’t nobody wants a prophet around.
They get up in your business and they pontificate
and they tell it way too much like it is.

It’s to those very skeptics that Jesus says,
“Unless you people see signs and wonders,
you will never believe,”
with such sorrow and heaviness in his tone.

But to the one who came begging?
The guy on the outside?
Jesus has only one word:
“GO.”

Our pastor put it this way:
“He had to leave in order to believe.”

And you know what?
The guy did exactly what Jesus told him to do.
“He took Jesus at his word and departed.”

And sure enough, before he even sees the boy,
word comes that he is well!

And the timing of that wellness?
EXACTLY when Jesus had said,
“GO,
your son will live.”

 Imagine that!

Can you imagine that maybe you’re at such a point in your own journey?
A point where you just have to take that step,
trusting that somehow, you’ll see the work of Jesus when you get there? 
Maybe you, like I, have to let go of the Jesus picture we’ve cobbled together,
the one that suits our purposes,
that meets our definition of what a
healer, a savior, a friend should look like.
Maybe, just maybe, we have to embrace ALL the pieces
of this strange and wonderful person
and stop with the pats on the back, you know?

Maybe we need to turn into the unknown and say,
“I’m taking you at your word, Lord.
I’m trusting that you are out for my good,
even though all I can see is dark and hard and scary.”

Can you imagine that? 

 My thanks to Pastor Jon Lemmond for his thought-provoking sermon yesterday, entitled, “The Galilean in You, the Galilean in Me. . . ” It’s painful to recognize those Galilean traits in myself, but so important to do it, to let loose of my own carefully defined picture of Jesus and allow him to be someone beyond my comprehension, beyond my power to define. Joining with Michelle today and with Jen, too. 

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?

 

 

 

Midweek Service: Inside Out and Upside Down

This will be the final sermon in this 10-part series of oldies.
I preached it in the last year of my ministry
and began it with a Readers’ Theater reading of the text,
something I love to do from time to time,
just to encourage people to really listen to the words.
It’s from the Old Testament, which is a favorite place for me.
Because mixed up with the violence and the seeming primitiveness
of those long ago times, there is beautiful, lasting truth.
Truth about human nature
and truth about the story God is telling in the universe,
the story that centers on grace.
This sermon touches on a lot of things that are close to my heart,
and I think, if they should ever read it,
my grandchildren might find
something good here to hang onto.
I think maybe this is my favorite one.

Inside Out and Upside Down
2 Kings 5:1-17
A Sermon preached at
Montecito Covenant Church
July 4, 2010 (Communion Sunday) by Diana R.G. Trautwein

Independence Day is traditionally a day for family gatherings and for family story-sharing.  Well, have I got a story for you today.  Oh my, this is a good one – one of the best-crafted of so many well-told tales in the Old Testament.  This one takes place in about the 9th century before the birth of Christ – and it’s found in 2 Kings – chapter 5, to be exact.  And today, I want to encourage you to have your Bibles open, but to just listen to this story as we read it for you.

READERS’ THEATER FOR THREE VOICES – 2 KINGS 5:1-17

Reader 1:           Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram.
Reader 2:          He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded,
Reader 3:          because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier,
Reader 1:          but… he had leprosy.
Reader 3:         Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young  girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress,
Reader 1.         “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Reader 2:         Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said.
Reader 3:         “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
Reader 2:         So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing.  The letter that he took to the king of Israel read:
Reader 3:         “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
Reader 1:         As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said,
Reader 2:         “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does his fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
Reader 1:         When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message:
Reader 3:         “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Reader 1:         So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him,
Reader 2:         “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
Reader 1:         But Naaman went away angry and said,
Reader 3:         “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?”
Reader 1:         So he turned and went off in a rage.  Naaman’s servants went to him and said,
Reader 2:         “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
Reader 1:         So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of  God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.  Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said,
Reader 3:         “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.”
Reader 1:         The prophet answered,
Reader 2:         “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.”
Reader 1:         And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.
Reader 3:         “If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD.

 

Pretty good story, right?  Surprising people in surprising places, doing surprising things with surprising results.

A story filled with — the unexpected, the serendipitous, even a bit of the hilarious: curses that become blessings in disguise, important people who act like children, and children and servants who literally save the day. 

Here in this story, nearly 900 years before Jesus was even born, we have a pretty powerful illustration of the crazy mixed-up nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught his disciples about as they walked along the dusty roads of Palestine. 

In this story, as in so many of the stories of Jesus, the outsider is brought in, gentle words are more powerful than anger, the no-named ones make the difference, the high and mighty behave like the wild and wacky, the littlest, least likely one puts the whole thing in motion, and it all comes down to grace – pure and simple, free and fabulous, grace.

For that is the center of this story — and any story worthy of telling, it seems to me.  Grace is all around us, readily available to us, but…we must follow Naaman’s lead and step into it. 

We have to step into the water of grace.

What does that look like for you? for me? for us?  I think it looks like at least these three important truths:

  1. It looks like: Paying attention
  2. It looks like: Making space inside
  3. It looks like: Following through

Paying attention…to the people and the events and the space around us, and maybe most importantly, the space within us. 

Paying attention means listening carefully enough to our own hearts to discover the thing we want most in this world – not merely what we think we want. You know, those wishes and dreams that float to the surface pretty fast — like a new car or a better body or a perfect relationship or admission to just the right school or enough money to have whatever we want whenever we want it.  

And not even those things that we think we ought to want — like better habits, or a stronger character, or a more loving personality, or a deeper sense of compassion and a greater desire to help others. 

No. 

I’m talking about the thing that’s way the heck down deep in there, the thing that we take great pains to cover up with all kinds of other stuff just to distract us from the deepest yearning of our hearts. And that yearning goes by a lot of different names in our culture — names like…wholeness, fulfillment, completion, connection, even love. 

These are all fine things, good things – but they are not at the center of our most honest desire.  For the very truest thing about us, as human beings, and the truth that is foundational to all those fine things our culture thinks are at the top of the list – the very truest thing about us is that we were made to deeply desire the one true God – the God who made us, who calls us to be our best selves, who loves us even when we’re a long way from those best selves, who sees us and knows us and wants to share life and love and relationship with us.  That’s what we want.  That’s who we want.

It’s just that we have this bent place in us, a broken bit that pretty consistently calls us away from that deep truth and tells us to just go ahead and fill up that yearning, that space inside, with all kinds of other stuff – like those I listed out just a couple of minutes ago. 

We simply move one or more of those perfectly fine things into the space that was created for the one true God. And they do not fit. We work really, really hard to make them fit.  We even get addicted to them.  We even begin to act as though they are god and we convince ourselves that they can fill up that space just fine, thank you very much. 

And then we place layer upon layer of almost anything or anyone else we can think of right on top of that God-shaped space until there is no room to be found.  Very soon, our lives have become so filled with distraction that we simply cannot pay attention.  We haven’t the time or the energy or finally, even the ability to . . . stop. 

To slow down.  To peel back the layers a bit and look around in there.  But…and this is a lovely and grace-filled word for us human creatures… but…we can sometimes find a little help for our distracted busyness, help that comes from people and places that might surprise us.

Naaman needed help to pay attention, and it came from the most surprising people: a captured little girl with a message of hope and healing in the beginning of the story; and faithful, humble servants whose calming truth brought a little coolness into the heat of his temper tantrum near the end of the story. 

Sometimes we need a little help, too.  Maybe, just maybe, we can help one another to learn more about paying attention.  I know several of you have certainly helped me to do that at various times over the last 13 ½ years.  You’ve sent a sweet note, or written a provocative poem, or suggested a thoughtful book or website that helps me find my way back to center.  Because it’s at the center where paying attention becomes easier, more natural, more revealing.

And that brings us to the second truth for this morning – the importance of making – or perhaps more accurately – re-discovering that center, that space inside, that space that’s just the right size for grace, just the right size for God.

You know, I think Naaman was probably a pretty good guy.  We’re told three times in the first verse or two that actually, he was a great man, a recognized and famous man.  I imagine his life was full, busy, scheduled up the yin-yang.  If he wasn’t in the middle of one military campaign, he was probably at the map tables, busily laying out the next one.

We know he had servants and a household to run as well as an army.  We know he was part of the royal court of Aram.  We know he had immediate access to the king.  We can surmise that his servants thought pretty highly of him, which tells us that he probably was a pretty good guy, as well as a great military leader.

But all his fame, and all his great military prowess, and all his household possessions could not make up for the fact that he was a sick man.  He had a serious skin condition — not serious enough to keep him socially isolated — but serious enough for a little slave girl to be aware of it and concerned about her master’s overall well-being.  And that little girl brought something new to the table with her wide-eyed comment to the general’s wife — “Hey, I know a guy who could heal your husband.” 

This caused the busy, great man to stop.  To pay attention.  To seek the help he needed. 

But he still had a lot to learn, and discovering that space inside was at the top of the list.

Boy, he loaded up those donkeys, didn’t he?  He brought lots and lots of really cool stuff to the King of Israel, things that would look impressive, that would buy good favor, that would grease the wheels in the local power system. 

Sort of a picture of all the stuff that was likely piled up inside the man, too, don’t you think?

Now the king of Israel wasn’t exactly the sharpest pencil in the box – probably a bit of an editorial comment by the writer to let us know this king was a bad, idolatrous king and that the only help for Naaman, who was — let us not forget to notice this very important point — NOT an Israelite, but a Gentile, an outsider — in fact most of the time, an actual enemy of the state.  (So perhaps the king’s hissy fit is a little more understandable?) 

The only help for Naaman was not going to be found within the walls of the royal palace, but in the countryside abode of the man of God, the prophet whose name was Elisha.  So, Naaman lugs all his piled up stuff over the hill to the prophet’s house and waits to be greeted with the acclaim and admiration due a man of his stature.

Not gonna happen, Naaman, not gonna happen.

The countryside prophet wants to make it abundantly clear that he does not do magic, that he does not do parlor tricks, that he himself does not do anything to bring about the healing that will come.  And that healing can only happen if Naaman divests himself of some of those trappings and receives the healing as it is intended — a gift of grace.

Funny thing, though.  There doesn’t seem to be space in Naaman for anything except his aggrieved sense of entitlement and his unholy anger. 

Wow. 

What is it in us that makes us so prickly sometimes?  Why do we take offense if we feel like we’re not being treated ‘right,’ whatever that is?  Why do we so often hurl insults at the very things that will bring us hope and help and wholeness? 

A lot of the time, I do believe, it’s because we don’t have any room inside us to let the grace flow in.  We’re so full of ourselves, so full of self-righteousness, our own agendas, our own ideas of the way things should be done, so full of our own uncertainties and fears, that we have no space left to allow God to break through with healing love, with the help we need.

Once again, that help is on the way, however.  This time, it is the faithful servants who have accompanied Naaman on his journey.  They step into the heat of his anger, offering good and wise advice. 

(What was it Paul said in our Galatians passage?  “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.”  Ah yes — his servant-friends helped Naaman to make some room for grace.)

But ultimately, the decision to follow through had to be made by Naaman himself. 

With a little help, he was able to pay attention. 

With a little more help, he was able to open up some space inside. 

But . . .
All on his own, he went down to that riverside.
All on his own, he dipped his fevered skin into the Jordan River.
All on his own, he emerged from that seventh dip with the cleansed, restored skin of a young child. 

And see what happens!  This is not just a healed man that emerges from the Jordan.  This is a changed man, a converted man, a redeemed man.  The angry, entitled man of just moments before is transformed into a humble man, a deeply grateful man, a man filled with grace to the point of overflow. 

One of the first Gentile conversions recorded in scripture.  The only healed leper in all of the Elijah/Elisha sagas in the book of Kings.  One of the two Gentile believers noted by Jesus in the very first sermon of his ministry life. 

Naaman, the over-busy, easily-angered military leader becomes Naaman, the humble recipient of grace, eager to worship the one True God.  And he replaces some of his own stuff with Israelite dirt to form the base of an altar dedicated to Yahweh, the God of Israel, now the God of Naaman.

That’s what grace can do

It can wind its way into the tiniest available space and bring about wholesale transformation and change.  Grace will always seek us out, but it will not control our choices. 

It is there for us to receive, if we pay just a little bit of attention, if we open up just the smallest of spaces inside of us, and if we follow through on what we find. 

For it is the gift of grace that can bring healing and hope into the midst of sickness and despair. 

It is the gift of grace that can bring us into the inside out, upside down center of real life, where God is God, we are God’s loved children and Jesus is our elder brother and our Redeemer. 

It is grace that can change a small, torn piece of bread and a wee cup of grape juice into life and hope and promise. 

It is grace that can turn a roomful of strangers into the family of God. 

Praises be!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midweek Service: Coming Home

We’re nearing the end of this summertime series of oldies,
and this one is about 10 years old, I think.
In honor of our time away on Kauai
this window is from the beautiful historic church in Hanalei,
where we worshipped yesterday morning. 

Coming Home
Luke 15 – The Parable of the Prodigal Son
A Sermon Preached at
Montecito Covenant Church
by Diana R.G. Trautwein
sometime in 2003 is my best guess

What is home? Where is home? How do we get there? What does it mean to go home, to come home, to be at home? What are the ingredients required to make home home?? Can one be at home without ever having a house? On the other hand, is it possible to be at house without being at home?

The story before us today deals with questions like these.  Because it is, at its heart, a story about homecoming, a story about welcome, a story about celebration, a story about grace, uncommon grace – the kind of grace, the kind of mercy, that we don’t understand, the kind of grace that we sometimes find puzzling, uncomfortable, unreasonable, unfair.

Grace, unfair? Yup!

Grace, unfair.Totally, completely, unhesitatingly, undeniably unfair. Because that is, after all, what the word means: unmerited favor; undeserved goodness; unwarranted kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, welcome, at-home-ness.

And most of the time, we haven’t got a clue what to do with it! We just do not get it. We need help, we need open eyes, open minds, open hearts.

The gospel of Luke tells us a whole lot about this grace, this weird thing that God does, this remarkable, divine grace that God puts flesh around in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Luke tells us about the surprises of God’s grace, God’s mercy, from the very opening verses of his gospel story. He puts it in the mouths of those two great singers in chapter 1, Zechariah and Mary. “For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary sang out.  “God, the Mighty One, has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the powerful, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Surprise! Grace pays no-never-mind to wealth and power. What you have and who you control have no impact on the gifts God wishes to give. In fact, the less you have, the more you are likely to receive. Weird stuff, this grace.

And Zechariah, that strange old priest who fathered that strange young prophet – he gave melody to these words: “God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors. You, my child, will go before the Lord, to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people, by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Surprise!  God’s mercy and grace are nothing new. They’ve been a part of God’s story from the very beginning.  The mercies of God have been promised from the earliest tracings of God’s dealings with the human family. And those who sit in the darkest places will be the first to see the light of God’s promises fulfilled.

Amazing grace, surprising mercy, remarkable love.

That’s the heart of the gospel message. That’s the heart of Luke’s story. That’s the heart of Jesus, who came to show us the Father. And the One that we’re looking at in this sermon series entitled, “Introducing Jesus.”

And this story, this parable, this teaching tool from the lips of the Savior — these 21 verses located about 2/3 of the way into Luke’s larger gospel – and told only here in the New Testament – this story contains some of the most important truth that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, need to know.

Before we dive into it, let’s pray together:

 Lord God, Maker of heaven and earth.
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father,
what in the world can I say about this tiny gem of a story
that hasn’t already been said a thousand times?
The story is old, the story is wonderful,
the story is rich and thought-provoking,
weird and wonderful,
and we’ve all heard it about a million times before.
Help us all, O God, to hear it again.
To hear it with new ears, with hearts that are open
to hear old truths in new ways.
Your word is the truth, and our only hope for finding our way.
Will you use it today to help us receive you,
to help us see you?
Thank you, Lord, that you hear and answer prayer. Amen.

Brent has read for us this remarkable and very familiar story, this story of fathers and sons, of going away and coming home, of wasted potential, of earnest hard work, of pig slop and fatted calves and great rejoicing and bitter rejection. A study in contrasts, a series of lessons we have such a hard time learning.

Who are you in this story today? At various times in our lives, we are at least one of the main characters described here.

Are you the wastrel today, the younger child, demanding your inheritance, going your own way, determined to have a good time, the consequences be damned?

Are you the hard worker, the older child, staying at home, doing your duty, secretly  angry, angry, angry and resentful beyond belief?

Are you the parent, rich in resources, but lonely for the children you love?

Who are you today? Where are you today?

If you were there in the crowd that day, listening to Jesus tell this story, you might have found it hard to hear. “Something’s wrong here,” you might have thought. “Something’s not quite kosher. Clearly the father in this story is wealthy. He’s got hired hands and he’s got slaves. He’s got goats and he’s got fatted calves. He’s got robes and rings and fancy shoes. But right there, at the very beginning of the tale, he’s as good as dead, no matter how much stuff he’s got. He lets that younger kid break up the estate, run off with his third of the money, and he gives the ranch over to the older one before he has even died! The old guy is basically giving up everything that means ‘life’ and identity and substance and ‘being’ in our culture. What kind of a story is this, anyway?”

If you’re part of the crowd that was testing Jesus – those Pharisees and scribes who wondered what in the world Jesus was doing hanging out with such riff-raff –if you’re a part of that high-falutin’ crowd, you’d really wonder where Jesus is going with this story.

And if you’re part of the riff-raff, you’d know that this gentle rabbi, who loved a good laugh and a good glass of wine, was bound to be upsetting folks before long!

By now, most of you folks who’re listening to Jesus teach – no matter which crowd you’re a part of – by now, you’ve gotten used to his methods. He likes to tell stories, just like a lot of the rabbis of the day.  He likes to tell stories that make you listen, that make you think, that make you do a large part of the work. He likes you to have to wrestle the truth out, to wonder what the point is, to take some ownership in the whole learning process. And right away, you can see that this story is no exception. And as the story begins, it’s anybody’s guess just where Jesus is headed.

(Well, there are a couple of clues in those other two stories he told right before this one -the first one about the lost sheep and the other one about the lost coin. Some common threads are showing up: things that are lost and then found, great parties, great rejoicing.)

“But what,” you might wonder, “is the real point of the deal?  How is this story an answer to all that grumbling the Pharisees have been doing?”

If you’re paying attention to the story the rabbi is telling, certain words, certain phrases, certain ideas begin to leap out at you, to catch your ear, and then your mind. Sometimes those words cause you to question and to wonder, sometimes they give you an ‘a-ha’ kind of experience, sometimes, they leave you just plain speechless.

But a lot of that depends on who you are today as you listen to the rabbi tell his stories –are you an older sibling or a younger one? a Pharisee or a sinner? An insider or an outsider? And which is which in this story, anyhow?

The younger child’s story is filled with ear-catching lines like these: ‘Father, give me my share…” “So the father divided his property…” “When he had spent everything…” “…he hired himself out to a man who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs…” “But when he came to himself…” “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion…” “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again…”

If you are a part of the riff-raff today, standing with those whom the Pharisees resent, those the scribes look down on, if you’re a part of that crowd of listeners, you probably hear these words of Jesus with recognition and relief.  You hear the rabbi’s story and you think: “Surely, that young man’s journey is much like mine! I have wasted my potential in wild living, I have hired myself out to keepers of swine, (those Romans for whom I collect all these taxes are certainly swine-like!) I, too, have yearned for the bean pods and found no one to feed me, no one to help me. I have felt cut off from my home, my people, my God. I wonder, have I come to myself yet? Is that what this rabbi is calling me to do? To come to myself? To come to the father? Could it be that the God I have turned my back on is anything like the father in this story? Can I trust myself to such a God?”

Yes, I think if you are in the noisier, earthier section of Jesus’ listeners, you see yourself in that younger son today. And you might even feel hopeful about your situation, hopeful for the first time in years.

But what if you’re part of that team of questioners, quibblers, and leaders, those righteous rulers who grumble and gossip and complain about the company Jesus keeps? Where are you in this story? As you listen, you’re beginning to see where Jesus is headed with this whole thing, and you don’t like it at all. You know where righteousness and justice are found even as the story begins. Some of the very same phrases that catch the ears of those riff-raff over there are catching your ears as well.

But somehow, you are not hearing the same things at all. “Who in the world does that young whipper-snapper think he is?” you wonder. “Everyone knows you don’t ask your father for your inheritance ahead of time, it just isn’t done, it isn’t done! And imagine the frustration of that poor older brother! He gets to stay at home and work like a dog, for what? So that his doddering old dad can waste that calf they’ve  been fattening up!  Why, that noble man has probably been holding that calf in reserve to impress some important potential clients, buyers of their livestock and produce, perhaps – and that crazy old man is wasting such a great prize on that scamp of a brother! Why, I don’t blame that guy one bit for his anger! I’d be madder than blazes myself, that’s for sure! What is that old geezer thinking?? He’s got a righteous son, a dutiful, obedient son, a hardworking and industrious son, a loyal and subservient son – and is the thanks he gets??? What kind of a story is this, anyhow?”

Ah.

We seem to have a bit of a problem here, don’t we? The riff-raff can find themselves in the story. Those who have been broken by life, by their own poor choices, by their own sin – they can see themselves for who they are. They can acknowledge their own weakness, they can hear the words of the younger son and say them with him: “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” They have nothing left to lose, and they see their humble return to the father as the only road available to them.

But the righteous rulers can’t see themselves at all. Well, actually, they do see themselves, they just don’t see themselves as Jesus sees them, as God the Father sees them. And that is the core issue here, isn’t it? Grace and mercy can only be perceived,  can only be re>ceived by those who are willing to admit that they need it, that they have done absolutely nothing to deserve it, that they are hopeless and helpless without it.

The older brother begins the story as the one on the inside, the father gives him all that he has. But somehow, he cannot see it, he cannot receive it, he cannot appreciate it. He cannot receive this loving gift from his father because he has not been willing to relinquish his right to have it. He insists that he can earn it, that he deserves it, that he is in control at all times of what should be his by right. He ends the story on the outside, looking in with anger, jealousy, resentment, bitterness and a stubborn refusal to join the party.

The younger son, on the other hand, begins the story on the outside, breaking up the family and leaving for a far country to live in ways unworthy of his home. When he loses it all, he sees the truth of his situation. He ends the story on the inside, the recipient of the father’s uncommon grace, his loving compassion and mercy. He is warmly enfolded into the center of family life, forgiven, renewed, restored.

I ask you now, what is fair about that??

Absolutely nothing.

There is nothing fair about it. Jesus, as God’s word enfleshed, completely redefines the world’s ideas about justice, about fairness, about righteousness, about goodness and grace and mercy. The father in this story loves both of his children, he goes out to both of his children, he offers gracious gifts to both, he includes both in the celebration of homecoming.

The younger child enters in, gratefully receiving all that the father offers.

The older one remains outside the door, and we are left wondering, will this much-loved child let go of pride? Will this one let go of the need to win? Can those powerful, culturally ratified ideas about rights, fairness, righteousness, the requirements of duty be let go? Will this child join with the father, join the party, join in the rejoicing because the one who was dead, is alive, the one who was lost, has been found?

This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Recognizing our need, relinquishing our rights, rejoicing in finding the lost. This is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ: to seek and to save those who are lost, to rejoice when they are found, to rely completely upon the  uncommon grace, the welcoming, loving mercy of the Father.

It’s all about moving from the outside to the inside, it’s all about recognizing home, coming home, being home, celebrating home, offering home, and welcoming others home.

Home is where the Father is, and Jesus shows us the way.

Let’s pray together:

 We come to you this morning, Lord,
as those who are in need of home.
Help us to see our need,
to acknowledge our need to you,
to know that there is absolutely nothing
that we can do
or earn
or win,
that there is
no amount of hard work,
or dedication to duty,
or any self-made righteousness
that can bring us home.

It is only by your mercy that we can come in,
it is only by your grace that we can be saved.
Here and now, Lord, help us to let go of
our need to be right, our need to prove a point,
our need to keep score!
We want to give it all over to you, O God,
because we know from your word that you don’t keep score.
And what a blessing that is!
Thank you for your grace, for your love,
for your welcome home.
Because of Jesus we pray,
Amen.

 

Midweek Service: Written On Our Hearts

This summer series of long-ago sermons continues with one from Lent in the year 2003 – a full decade ago. We had a different Senior Pastor then and were facing into different life events as a congregation and as a nation. Yet, somehow, this message is not tied to a particular time in history, but an expression of one of the most powerful of God’s timeless truths.

Written on Our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34
April 6, 2003
5th Sunday in Lent
preached at Montecito Covenant Church by
Diana R.G. Trautwein

My husband and I have just returned from a week away – something we both needed and thoroughly enjoyed.  We traveled to the desert, and a primary motivating factor for this trip was to see if we could find some displays of famous California wildflowers.

Now both of us are native Californians and we have lived here almost all of our lives, yet we have never done the wildflower bit. People come from all over the world – as we quickly discovered – to see the wonders of the desert on fire with the colors of God’s palette – but we, like the cobbler’s children without any shoes – had never taken the time to see the beauty that God provides for us each and every spring.  So this year we did it.

We drove to beautiful, downtown Palmdale the first night out, with the intention of seeing the Poppy Reserve near Lancaster.  And we did see the Poppy Reserve, and we actually saw thousands of poppies strewn over the hills and fields.  Unfortunately, we didn’t truly see them in all of their splendor and glory because. . .these little flowers, which land where the breezes blow them –  and at one time, according to the conquering Spanish explorers, flowed like rivers of molten lava toward the sea with colors so vibrant they could be seen from the decks of their ships as they sailed into what would eventually be known as the Los Angeles harbor area – these little golden flowers are incredibly crafty.

Somewhere written in their DNA is the helpful hint that neither shadow nor wind is good for them.  So. . . as the late afternoon sunshine casts longer and longer shadows over the landscape (as it did on the afternoon we arrived) – or as the wind picks up velocity greater than a gentle breeze (which it did the next morning, on our way out to Death Valley) these exceedingly well-bred, vibrantly colored cups of gold clamp their little heads tightly shut and hide themselves away from potential threat – and from poorly-educated flower-viewers like ourselves!

There is a law ‘written on their hearts’  – a law that says: “Darkness and high winds are dangerous to your future – protect yourself!”  And California’s golden poppies are totally obedient to that interior instruction. They don’t have to be taught to do this – they KNOW to do it, it’s become a part of their identity as poppies and it just comes naturally.

I wonder. . . what laws are written on our hearts this morning?  What do we at the core of our being, know so well that it has become part of our identity?  What beliefs/ideas/values/instructions/’laws’ do we hold so close to ourselves that they just come naturally. . .

Tuck those questions in the back of your mind and we’ll get back to them in a few minutes.  Because just now, I want to remind us all that for the past four weeks, we’ve been traveling through the Old Testament on our Lenten journey to the cross.  We’ve been examining the ways in which Almighty God reached out to his human creatures in order to engage them in relationship.  We looked at Noah, the flood and the rainbow promise; we looked at Abraham, a childless old man who was taken by God out into the desert, pointed toward the night sky and promised offspring as numerous as the sparkling canopy of stars above him; we looked at the 10 Commandments given to Moses on the mountain of God – the beautiful law of God that set out parameters in which God’s people could live rich and full lives.

Over these weeks, we began to get a picture of what God had in mind when he created a Covenant people for himself, a people who would belong to him in a particular way, enjoying his love, protection and blessing and, in return, worshipping him alone.  And then last week, Curt took us to a point in that covenant relationship that was painfully close to home, and we watched the grumbling, idolatrous, rebellious, cranky people of God decide to move away from the covenant relationship and go their own way, ultimately saved from dismay, despair and death only by the gracious deliverance of the God they had abandoned.  This wasn’t the first time God’s covenant people had turned away from the promise, and it most definitely was not the last.

Today, we come – in some ways, at least – to a very different place, in a very different time.  Yet some things never change.  The prophet Jeremiah has been warning the people of Judah that their days as landowners are numbered.  Why?  Because they have continued to be a grumbling, idolatrous, rebellious and cranky bunch.  They’ve worked their way through judges and kings and wars and alliances and misalliances, all the while ignoring God’s promises and disobeying God’s law.  In fact, the people of God are no more.  They are living in exile, scattered amongst their enemies, disheartened and disinherited.

And right there, in the midst of that kind of confusion, turmoil, dismay, anxiety. . .right there in the midst of it all, God decides to do a new thing, a radically new thing – a new thing that is based on an old idea – a familiar idea – a covenant idea.  And it comes in the form of a promise – a promise to the people of the land that was no more, the people of the divided kingdom, the exiled kingdom, the people whom God chose as his own special tribe, despite their disobedience, despite their failure to be all that he called them to be.  And the promise is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34:

“The day will come,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the LORD.  “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts.  I will be their God and they will be my people.  And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their family, saying, `You should know the LORD.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will already know me,” says the LORD. “And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.”

 

These beautiful words were given to a people living in exile, a people who had ruptured their relationship with their God so severely that something entirely new was required to salvage things.  These words were given to Israel and to Judah and they were words of hope and delight, words of encouragement and reconciliation.  And they were built on an entirely new concept.  No more rainbows in the sky, no more stars in the night, no more tablets of stone – no more externalsigns for the covenant people of God.  No.  The day is coming, says the Lord, when I will write my law on their <em >hearts, I will put it in their minds – and they will KNOW me, really, truly, know me –from the inside out>, rather than the other way around.  This is a new covenant, says the Lord — a new way of entering into agreement with one another, a new way of enjoying relationship together, a new way of being connected, committed, intertwined, covenanted together.

The old way had not done the job.  Coming at things from the outside in wasn’t cutting it.  Signs and promises – as wonderful as they are – aren’t powerful enough in and of themselves to change things from the inside out, God knew that, and Israel learned it – through painful and difficult experience.  And every one of us in this room can testify to this truth.  Tablets of stone, lists of rules, even very clearly laid out instructions for good behavior and wise choices do not make a heckuva lot of difference if we don’t find them inside us.  If they’re something outside of ourselves, they can’t effect change that is real and lasting on the inside.  They need to be written on our hearts, part of our identity, a natural and normal part of who we are.

Is it any wonder, then, that the early church read these words and saw Jesus in them?  Is it any wonder that Jesus himself borrowed this language to talk about his mission, his purpose in life, his work here on earth?  As he gathered his disciples in the upper room the night before he was betrayed and murdered, he offered his friends the traditional cup of Passover wine, the cup of blessing, with these very words:

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” he said.  “Do this in remembering me.”  And so they did, and so we do.  For this is how God writes his law, his love, on our hearts. . . through the blood of Jesus.

About seven or eight years ago, Alison Krauss sang an old, old gospel song on a highly successful album, a song that puts this marvelous truth into poetry that truly gets your toes to tappin’.  It’s called “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”

When God dips His pen of love in my heart,
And He writes my soul a message He wants me to know.
His spirit all divine, fills this sinful soul of mine.
When God dips His love in my heart.

He walked up every step of Calvary’s rugged way.
And He gave His life completely to bring a better day.
My life was steeped in sin, but in love He took me in.
His blood washed away every stain.

I said I wouldn’t tell it to a livin’ soul.
How He brought salvation and He made me whole.
But I found I couldn’t hide /such a love /as Jesus did impart.
Well. . .  He made me laugh and He made me cry.
Set my sinful soul on fire (hallelujah).
When God dips His love in my heart.

Hallelujah.
When God dips His love,
His sweet love,
In my heart.

There was only one way that God could change his people from the inside out – and that way was Jesus.  With the incarnation, when God became human and came to walk and talk and live among men and women, it truly became possible for God to dip his pen of love in our hearts.

For in Jesus, the glorious, transcendent creator of the universe comes within touching distance.

In Jesus, the character and the glory of God are fully revealed and realized.

In Jesus, we are able to see the real deal, not our imagined images of either terror or comfort, those pictures of God that we carry around in our heads and our hearts, those pictures that are shaped by our culture, our parents, our own psyches.

We meet Jesus in the pages of scripture and then we meet Jesus in a personal encounter, an experience that changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, an experience that calls us to ‘know’ God, starting at the center, starting on the inside, learning more and more about what it means to trust.

Brennan Manning’s book called Ruthless Trust has been enormously helpful to me in understanding what it means to know God in the way that Jeremiah is describing in these beautiful verses before us this morning, especially chapter seven of Manning’s book.  For the intimate way in which this verb ‘know’ is used by the prophet implies a relationship firmly built upon trust. “For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will already know me,” says the LORD. “And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.”  The door to intimacy with God is open wide and is totally inclusive – ‘everyone, from the least to the greatest’ – and Jesus is that door.

What exactly is trust and how does it help us know God?

Trust is that marvelous combination of faith and hope – faith that comes from a personal experience of the living God as encountered in Jesus – and hope in the promises of Jesus, with full expectation that the promises he makes will be kept.  We need both qualities – faith and hope – in order to grow in trust.  If we trust Jesus, we can begin to let him soften our hearts, to write his words of love in our very tender flesh, to rest and relax in that love and to be all of who we are without fear.  “I will forgive their wickedness,” the Lord tells us in Jeremiah, “and will never again remember their sins.”  Manning talks about it this way:

“Our trust in Jesus grows as we shift from making self-conscious efforts to be good to allowing ourselves to be as we are (not as we should be).  The Holy Spirit moves us from the head to the heart . . .”

And as that trust grows, we find ourselves understanding at deeper and deeper levels what it means to be in relationship with a covenant-making God.  There are most certainly no guarantees that life will be trouble-free.  On the contrary, Jesus himself warned that following him would involve suffering, possibly even rejection and death.  What is promised is love, what is promised is acceptance and forgiveness, what is promised is peace, what is promised is presence, even when the way seems overwhelmingly difficult, even when life seems way too complicated, even when tears are our constant companion.  And we could add this morning, even when we are a nation at war, even when our pastor is leaving, even when our loved ones are suffering.  Even then. . . he is worthy of our trust.

The rabbis of old noticed that in this passage in Jeremiah the word ‘on’ is used when describing our hearts rather than the word ‘in,’ and they wrestled with that word choice for years.  Why did God’s Word say ‘on’ our hearts?  Why not ‘in’?  The answer they came to was this:

The text reads ‘on’ so that when our hearts are broken (as they always will be in this life), then the love written there can fall ‘in’ and help us to heal.

So now I’m back to the beginning. . . and I’m wondering. . . what is written on our hearts?  Do we find ‘laws’ like:

“Success at all costs.”
“Things are more important than people.”
“You can never be too rich or too thin.”

Or perhaps like these:

“I’m basically a no-good, worthless pile of nothing.”
“If I let people come too close, they’ll see what I’m really like and hate me.”
“I’ve been hurt before and nobody’s gonna do that again.”
“If I smile and say ‘I’m fine,’ nobody will know how much pain I’m in.”

When your heart breaks – and believe me, it will – are those the kinds of ‘laws’ that you want to fall in?  What possible healing can those words bring?

Ah, but if you are growing in your trust, your knowledge of God, then perhaps you are beginning to find laws like these at the center of who you are, words of love written on your heart:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Because of Jesus, I know that Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, is also Abba,           Father.”
“I am his and he is mine.”
“Jesus loves me, this I know.”

May it be so – by the grace of God, may it be so.

 

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