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When the Spirit Comes – Sermon on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Pentecost B May 24, 2015 (Viewa video of this sermon here.)

What happens when Jesus leaves?  

When the one on whom all your hopes were pinned is gone, what then? Last Sunday, we celebrated the Ascension, and Luke’s version of that story has the disciples skipping off to Jerusalem with great joy. It’s a nice ending to the story that began with angels announcing “tidings of great joy” to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem. There’s sort of a “they lived happily ever after” sense that the story has come to a satisfying conclusion, at least for the moment.

But we know better, with our twenty-fifteen hindsight. We know that those disciples were about to experience hardships and persecution they couldn’t possibly imagine. We know that they would soon fall into disagreement, Continue reading

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Being God’s Kids – Sermon on 1 John 5:1-6 Easter 6B 

5/10/2015 (Mother’s Day)

It may seem that the heretics we read about in John’s letters are far removed from us. After all, they lived more than 2000 years ago, and a lot of theological water has gone under the bridge since then. We’ve had plenty of time to figure out what it means to be Christians.

Biblical scholars have written tons of books to explain the hard parts of scripture for us, and great leaders in the church have managed to refute most of the questionable beliefs that emerged during the early years of the faith. Those crazy ideas about Jesus being just a spirit who appeared to be human sound strange to us. It would never occur to us that Jesus was ever anything but fully God and fully human.

We live in a time when we don’t hear much about people standing their ground in theological debate. Our scholars and Christian leaders aren’t famous for hashing out the finer points of Christ’s identity as the Son of God. Instead of arguing about who God is and who Jesus is, we argue about who can be married in our churches or preach in our pulpits, or how we should respond to global warming, or what we should do about bigotry in all its forms.

That time seems far away, when Paul and John and Mark and Luke were still defining the very essence of Christian faith. And yet, the questions they faced were very much like the questions our culture asks today:
Who is God, anyway?
Why does Jesus matter?
What if I want to be “spiritual, but not religious?”
How can I know what lies beyond this life?
Who is going to love me, when I don’t love myself? Continue reading

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Abiding – Sermon on John 15:1-8 Easter 5B

Note: The devotional meditation on jelly making referred to throughout this sermon can be found here. You can view a video of this sermon here.

May 3, 2015

During Lent this year, our ecumenical noontime worship centered on the “I AM” statements of Jesus, that we find in the Gospel of John. The final week’s text was the gospel lesson we are going to hear today, from John 15. “I am the true vine,” Jesus told his disciples. As we gathered for lunch and worship, I shared some thoughts on this passage that came out of my first attempt to make grape jelly several years ago.

Some of you told me afterward that I had left you hanging – I never told you how the jelly turned out! Well, today, you get to hear the end of the story. But first, for those of you who weren’t there, I probably should give you the background.

Our neighbor’s grapevine straddled the fence between our yards. One year, I decided it was time to put those grapes on our side of the fence to good use. I read the complete article on jelly making from Joy of Cooking, and decided to try the “old-fashioned natural” method that didn’t require a thermometer or commercial pectin. I knew the jelly probably would be less stiff, but the cookbook promised “a far superior product, depending on the quality of the fruit.” Continue reading

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Good Grapes 

I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:5 

Our neighbor’s grapevine straddled the fence between our yards.  A few years ago, I decided it was time to put those grapes on our side of the fence to good use.  I read the complete article on jelly making from Joy of Cooking, and decided to try the “old-fashioned natural” method that didn’t require a thermometer or commercial pectin.  I knew the jelly probably would be less stiff, but the cookbook promised “a far superior product, depending on the quality of the fruit.”   As I mashed grapes, waited for them to cook, and strained the grapes and juice through a jelly bag, I kept thinking about that “quality of the fruit” phrase.  I had time to sit down with John 15 again, and think about Jesus’ vine metaphor.

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:1-17)

First, it’s important to remember that we are the branches, not the fruit.  We may be cut off from Christ, the vine, if we produce no fruit at all.  We may be pruned to produce more and better fruit, and we are admonished to abide in Christ, just as the branch abides in the vine.  Notice that we can only produce fruit if we abide in the vine.  That fruit is love, given freely.

Our job, as branches, isn’t to focus on the fruit. Our job is to stay connected to the Vine. God will take care of the fruit. For jelly, it’s best to harvest the grapes when they are just barely ripe, and maybe a few are even a little green.  Branches don’t like to let go of their grapes, so the clusters have to be cut from the vine.  Likewise, we may enjoy feeling God’s love for us, but refrain from sharing it – it’s sweet to hold on and savor that goodness; it’s hard, sometimes, to make ourselves vulnerable to others, to give away the love God has made known to us.  But Jesus encourages us to let God the vine dresser distribute the fruit according to His plan.

Sometimes, that may mean that the fruit is a little green, not so sweet.   Mature fruit has its own purpose, however.  By definition, fruit holds seeds. Unless the fruit ripens, it will be impossible for those seeds to develop into something worth planting.  As followers of Jesus, our purpose is to make more disciples.  We need to allow our own seeds of faith, surrounded by the ripe fruit of God’s love, to develop into something worth planting in the hearts of others.

A couple more observations:  When you make jelly, draining the cooked grapes through a jelly bag strains out everything but the clear juice.  If you squeeze the bag to get more juice faster, all you accomplish is getting stuff in your jelly that belongs in the compost.  It’s important to let God refine us in His own good time, for the highest quality, for the clearest product.

And finally, sometimes things get messy.  Love isn’t always tidy.  Following Christ isn’t always neat and easy.  Grape juice stains easily.  But, depending on the quality of the fruit, God promises a far superior product to anything the world can offer.

May the gift of Christ’s Spirit bear much good fruit in our lives.  Let us allow God to take his time with us, as we share his love with others, planting seeds of faith in those around us.  May God prune us and tend us, that the fruit we bear for his Kingdom might be sweet and plentiful.

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“It’s That Simple” – Sermon on 1 John 3:16-24 

Easter 4B April 26, 2015
The young woman stood in the doorway, looking embarrassed. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. As I looked up her records from the last time she had come to ask for help, I hoped I had made some notes about her story that would jog my memory. When I found her papers in my Emergency Assistance file, my heart sank.

 A few months after I began this appointment, I set a limit on how many times a person could receive vouchers for food and gas, and she had already met that limit. 

At the time, setting a limit seemed the right thing to do. I had come to realize that several people had let the church become part of their monthly income stream. What we gave them couldn’t really be called “emergency assistance” anymore, because it had become part of their regular budget. They spent what income they received from other sources on entertainment instead of groceries, because they knew they could get groceries through the church.

Maybe I was being too judgmental, but I didn’t think it was good stewardship to use our emergency assistance fund to support poor lifestyle choices. So I set a limit. Three times, and you’re done. I figured someone who was really experiencing a temporary financial emergency would not need help for more than three months in a row. Ninety days ought to be enough time to get back on track. People who kept coming back time and again needed more than a voucher for groceries. They needed an entire life transformation. If they wanted to come talk with me about faith, my door was open. But my voucher file was closed.

And now, here this woman stood, near tears, desperate for whatever I could offer her. She’d tried everything she knew, and I was her last hope. It had been nearly a year since she’d been in my office. Couldn’t I do something?

When Jesus was teaching and healing during the early part of his ministry, there were times when the needs around him seemed overwhelming, too. In Matthew’s gospel we read, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The fourth Sunday of Eastertide is called Shepherd Sunday. We recite Psalm 23, and remember that Jesus is our good shepherd, willing to lay down his life for us, the sheep of his flock. 

This morning’s passage from First John echoes these words from the gospel, but John calls us to be more than simple sheep when we choose to follow Jesus.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. – 1 John 3:16-24

In these few verses, John touches on some themes we have already heard – God’s deep love for us, abiding in that love, believing that Jesus is the Son of God who died to save us from our sins, obeying Christ’s commands. As these themes weave themselves together, John moves toward the big point he wants to make clear, before his letter takes another direction. John’s big point is this: there’s only one thing you need to believe – Jesus is God’s Son, and you can tell that he loves you because he laid down his life for you. Now go show that kind of love to each other. It’s that simple.

Right, we nod. It’s that simple. But as we ponder what John means here, we begin to wonder. How, exactly, are we supposed to lay down our lives for each other? Does he mean we need to die for one another, just as Jesus did? But wait, didn’t Jesus die for all of us? How will our dying for each other prove anything? Let’s take a look at these verses again, to see what John is telling us about love, faith, and obedience.

First, love. John writes, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (3:16)

When Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, he went all out. He held nothing back, but sacrificed his own life for our sakes. John’s point is that we need to be so committed to sharing God’s love that we are willing to give our entire being to that purpose. Our lives are to be “a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), with all the attention we would normally give to satisfying our own desires redirected toward loving each other. 
“Laying down our lives” may mean sacrificing busy schedules that keep us too occupied to notice another’s need. Laying down our lives might mean setting aside our own personal agenda, so that we can be part of someone else’s life, and invite them to be part of ours. Laying down our lives could be taking the time to listen to someone who is hurting. Laying down our lives isn’t so much about dying for someone else, as it is living for someone else, putting their needs ahead of our own as an act of love.

And then John gets real. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (3:17)

Loving in truth and action means sacrifice – but it isn’t always the kind of action or sacrifice you’d expect.

That woman who came to my door, looking for help, wasn’t unique. I see a dozen or so people just like her every month. They’ve reached the end of their rope, and the knot they tied in the end of it, so they’d have something to hang onto, has come unraveled. They are slipping. They are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Many times, I can’t help them. They need a place to live, or the utilities have been shut off. Their only car has broken down. The needs are overwhelming, and they are always urgent. Offering these people a voucher for $20 worth of groceries, knowing they will have to walk 20 blocks to redeem it, breaks my heart.

While I know that some of the people who come to me have made up a story they think will gain my sympathy, and some of those stories are so obviously untrue I have a hard time keeping a straight face as I listen to them, I also know that some of the heartbreaking stories I hear are very true. I know because I’ve already read about them in the newspaper. 

And while I know that many of the people who come to me for help are only there because they have made really poor choices, I also know that some of the people who come to me are truly victims of circumstance. They’ve been living by the skin of their teeth for so long, they don’t know any other way to live. When a catastrophe strikes, they have no reserves, no way to handle it without some help.

What’s the best way for those of us who have plenty to help others in need – not only material needs, but the deeper layers of need that cause brokenness and pain, that send people into a cycle of poverty? How can we invest ourselves in their lives, and share our lives with them to meet the deepest need of all: to know Christ and follow him?

Offering a voucher for groceries or gas does very little to solve the root problems of poverty and hunger. Poverty of spirit is a greater need than financial poverty, but sometimes the two are very closely related. Sometimes – hard as it may sound – the most sacrificial, loving thing we can do is refuse to settle for putting a band-aid on the problem. Sometimes saying “no” to a request is the most loving thing we can do.

As we listen for the underlying cause of a person’s poverty, we need to realize that it takes a long time to get past the layers of denial and  feeling victimized that often accompany deep need. These layers have built up over time, to protect the person from pain and shame. We can avoid shaming people who come to us for help, when we recognize them as our brothers and sisters.

Instead of seeing ourselves as the generous benefactor, and others as the poor recipient of our generosity, we can start seeing each person we meet as a beloved child of God, precious in God’s eyes, created in God’s likeness, just as we are. Recognizing that each person has something to offer to the community of faith, we begin to see everyone as a contributor in some way to our common good as the body of Christ.

Caring for one another is something we do within the community of faith. The danger here is that the church can become inwardly focused, taking care of ourselves more than the world we were put here to serve. But just as the airlines tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, and Jesus says to pull the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the splinter from someone else’s eye, so we need to make sure that we are taking good care of one another in this congregation, even as we reach out to others, drawing them into our fellowship.

Sometimes, we will fail. Sometimes we just don’t do a very good job of paying attention to the needs of others, because our own needs are so great. When we doubt our own capacity to love, and beat ourselves up for not seeing the need around us, God is gracious. John writes that Christ “will reassure our hearts whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (v. 20) He knows our desire to follow him, even when we fail at it, and we can go to him in confidence that he will respond to our desire to do his will.

Our assurance that Christ abides in us and we in him is grounded in our obedience to his command: believe that Jesus is God’s Son, and love each other sacrificially. That’s a single command, by the way. Believing in Christ and loving each other is all one thing. It’s that simple. 

And it takes practice. New ways of thinking and living require lots of conscious repetition before they become habits. Laying down our lives to take up a life of love does not come naturally to us. We are self-centered human beings, after all. But John reminds us that the Holy Spirit is right there with us, to guide us toward this kind of living, this way of loving. 

This is how we make disciples for the transformation of the world: recognizing that every person we encounter is a beloved child of God who brings value to the world, taking the time and energy to draw attention to that person’s value, so he or she can see just how great the Father’s love really is. 

Jane Goodall, who has dedicated her life to studying chimpanzees, once said, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” Christ calls us to make a difference by being different. Loving others is not enough in itself, or everyone who showed love could claim to be a Christian. Loving others as an act of faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who laid down his life for all of us, transforms us into the people God created us to be. Laying down our lives brings us closer to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. 

The young woman sat next to my desk, and told me her story. She described everything that had happened in the months since I had seen her last. She knew coming to me was a long shot, that she had used up all her available options. “I know you probably can’t help me with groceries, but could you at least pray for me? When you did that the last time, it really seemed to help,” she said. So we prayed together for all the needs she had shared. And I broke my own rule, and wrote her out another voucher for groceries and gas. It seemed pretty small, given her circumstances, but she was grateful. I invited her to supper on Wednesday night. She hasn’t shown up yet, but that isn’t what matters. 

What matters is that she heard someone say, “You have value. You are God’s own beloved child.” 

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” – if only for a few minutes at a time, as we learn more and more how to live as followers of Jesus. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Here’s what’s happening at my church…

Each week, I post a Friday Five on our church website, and send out the same message to members of our congregation via e-mail. Once in a while, the church’s blog post dovetails with something I’ve posted here.2015-03-31 14.11.59.the open door Check out this week’s Friday Five for an update on the Opening of the Door I wrote about during Holy Week.

ClairesheepMay the Good Shepherd guide you in all your ways!

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“And That is What We Are!” Sermon on 1 John 3:1-7

April 19, 2015 Easter 3B

How many of us ever tried to talk our parents into letting us do something just because “everyone else is doing it”? If your parents were like mine, the answer sounded something like this: “’Everyone Else’ isn’t my child. You are. Now act like it.”

Did any of you grow up as a “PK” – a preacher’s kid? Or maybe you knew a preacher’s kid when you were growing up? I was a PK. I never thought that it was fair, being expected to behave better than other kids my age. Sometimes my friends would tease me, calling me “goody two-shoes” – and I didn’t even know what that meant. Go ahead, Google it.

Most of the PKs I knew found ways to rebel at some point. It was no fun living up to a standard of behavior that made sure we wouldn’t embarrass our parents, or get them into trouble with their churches. Sometimes the pressure was too much, and one of us – never me, you understand – would do something just to be ornery, just to prove that PKs could be human, too.

That’s when The Parent/Pastor would sit us down and give us “The Speech.” It went something like this: I know it doesn’t seem fair to you, and it probably isn’t, but the way you behave matters. People are watching, and when they see you behave badly, it reflects badly on their Pastor, and that reflects badly on the church. You represent our family, but even more, you represent our church. Whether you like it or not, you have to be good.
You’re a preacher’s kid. Now act like it.”

A highlight of the Covenant annual meeting I attended this week was listening to the personal faith stories of candidates for ordination. One young man described what it was like to grow up in an adoptive home. Continue reading