The Love Command

“The Love Command”

John 13:31-35 (13:34) – May 15, 2022

When I mention the word “love,” what do you think of? For me, it’s different things at different times. When I thought of the modern conception of love this time, what came to mind were the hearts and flowers of romantic love. You know the kinds of expressions I mean. Hearts, flowers, Valentine’s Day, frilly lace, and all the rest. This is not the kind of love our Lord had in mind.  Our modern ideas of love hardly scratch the surface of Jesus’ expression of love.

John shows us the extended conversation Jesus had with His friends on that last Thursday night, the night before He died on the Cross. Jesus said many poignant, important things to His disciples. Some of them were even commands! Like this one here, from John chapter 13.

            The disciples followed their Rabbi around Palestine for three years. Living together, rubbing shoulders and elbows together, those itinerant people got particularly close. That can happen when people travel and live in close quarters with one another! Now, at the culmination of all things, Jesus gives His disciples a new command. He even highlights it! “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Jesus made sure all of His friends knew it was a command!

            Shallow people comment, thinking about valentines, candy and chocolates, and champagne toasts of romantic love. Can’t you hear them already? “Oh, how wonderful of Jesus! I love everybody already. I’m a good Christian.”

Let’s take a closer look at what exactly Jesus was asking.

            Sure, the Gospel of John mentions the disciples loving one another. But – John’s Gospel also has passages about other kinds of people, too. Nicodemus was a respected member of the Jewish religious rulers, the Sanhedrin. By and large, the Jewish rulers were no friends of the Rabbi Jesus. What about the half-Jew, the Samaritan woman of chapter 4? She was also an outcast in her own town.  

Did Jesus show any hesitation in His interaction with either one? Wasn’t He caring, loving and honest with each of them, just as He was with everyone else?

            Jesus was the ultimate in being open, loving and honest to everyone. No matter who, no matter where, no matter what faith tradition, social strata, ethnicity, or any other designation.  Jesus is commanding us to love in the same way. Not only towards strangers, but towards friends, as well. That can be even more difficult sometimes.

            “Here in John chapter 13, Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.” [1]

            I get set back quite a lot when I realize the full ramifications of that Jesus-kind-of-love. Whoa, Lord! You don’t really expect me to be that way with people who insult me, or are mean to me, or disrespect me, do You? Umm. I kind of think that is exactly what Jesus means. Love them. No “but, what if…?” Love them.

I post on social media regularly, both for my personal media accounts as well as for St. Luke’s Church. This was a post I made for yesterday, Saturday, exactly mirroring this command of our Lord’s. “Confused about the Christian response to social issues? Here’s a handy reference: Male? Love them. Female? Love them. Unsure? Love them. Gay? Love them. Straight? Love them. Unsure? Love them. Addict? Love them. Sober? Love them. Unsure? Love them. Believer? Love them. Unbeliever? Love them. Unsure? Love them.”

And, this is not just a suggestion. Jesus makes it a command. If you and I want to follow Jesus, this is one of the requirements. Some well-meaning believers say that other people may not merit Jesus’ love, for whatever reason. Gosh, I don’t merit Jesus’ love a lot of the time! But, that makes no difference. Jesus still loves us, Unconditionally. No matter what. Plus, Jesus commands us to love others in the same way. The same ultimate, above-and-beyond, bottomless way.

“Jesus goes to the cross to demonstrate that, in fact, “God so loved the world.” Jesus went to the cross to show in word and deed that God is love and that we, as God’s children, are loved. So whether we succeed or fail in our attempts to love one another this week, yet God in Jesus loves us more than we can possibly imagine. And hearing of this love we are set free and sent forth, once again, to love another.[2]

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1331-35

Commentary, John 13:31-35, Elisabeth Johnson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-loving-and-not-loving-one-another

“On Loving – and Not Loving – One Another,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

Christmas Caroling – Uncertainly

“Christmas Caroling – Uncertainly”

John 1:1-5, 10-14 (1:10) – December 24, 2021

            Who here has gone Christmas caroling? With other friends or with fellow church members, going from house to house, standing outside singing carols in the chilly weather. That is quite a memorable experience! I have done it, a number of times. It is fun and cold and full of laughter and false starts and wrong notes. And then, next holiday season, we do it all over again.

            Except – what about this year? This is the second holiday season taking place during the pandemic. Holiday gatherings are again in short supply – except at a prudent distance. What about singing Christmas carols? Maybe, but with a good deal of uncertainty in our hearts.

            When John wrote the beginning of his Gospel, he was thinking of the cosmic Christ, the Word of God that existed from eternity past. Not the little Baby born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Except, that was there, too. We have the Word, the True Light, the Second Person of the Trinity putting aside all His God-ness to become a tiny little baby. Can you believe it? If you ask most people, it is pretty hard to believe. But, it’s true!

            This year of anxious, fearful living has been difficult on a lot of people, for a number of different reasons. With so many things all through 2021 that are and have been so challenging in all of our lives, can you – or I – really and truly believe the Second Person of the Trinity became a little baby, born in Bethlehem? It can be difficult to have faith, but believe me, it’s true.

            Then, if we add on top of this miracle, the miracle of the birth of the Christ child, the other miracles concerning the birth of Jesus related to us in both the gospels of Luke and Matthew, it becomes more and more of a challenge. How could someone fulfill all of those miracles? Finally, we add the global and cosmic miracles from before the beginning of time from the Gospel of John. Could it be? Really and truly? Especially at such a mixed-up, uncertain time?  

            I can just imagine the uncertainty in the hearts of Mary and Joseph, as they count down the months and weeks of pregnancy, waiting for the birth of their blessed baby. Can you feel the discomfort of the other people in Bethlehem, at having the lowly shepherds, shunted aside, receive an extra special birth announcement?

Yet, I also feel the shepherds’ uncertain hearts, as they come into the unusual premises of a town to seek out a Baby. And, such a Baby! With such a stellar birth announcement, too.

Finally, such a roller coaster of emotions for Mary and Joseph. Enforced travel at such an uncertain time of the year. And then, Bethlehem is full, packed. Not a room to be had. Such uncertainty for this couple! And, to make things even more complicated, Mary goes into labor and bears her firstborn son.

Yes, she and Joseph name this blessed baby Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. (much later, after He grows up). However, we can see the cosmic, eternal element in this homey, rustic birth, with the baby laid in a feeding trough. The Light of the World, the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Eternal Father becomes a helpless, tiny babe.  

Even though you and I may be filled with uncertainty, fear, loss and anxiety at times, I still find myself face to face with this miraculous birth. How unbelievable! How wondrous, and how beyond words this miraculous birth is.

            I turn to my friend Pastor April Fiet’s words: “What I have re-learned more than anything is that my uncertain heart cannot stop the all-embracing love of God. It cannot quench the peace that passes understanding, nor can it stifle the hope that springs eternal. There is joy in this journey, even if there is also sorrow and heartache. And the day will come when joy is born anew in our hearts in a way that can never be silenced. We will cry out “Joy to the World the Lord is come,” and we will receive the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.” [1]

            We have counted off the weeks of Advent with Pastor April, as she has considered this season through the lens of an uncertain heart. We have welcomed hope into our hearts. Peace has returned into the world. Joy blooms amid the grief and loss. And, the overarching, undergirding love of the Christ child born in Bethlehem remains with us, no matter what.

It is good news indeed that a Savior was born. Each year, we who call ourselves Christ followers get to consider anew what it all means. May the candle of the Christ child shine in your heart this Christmas, and all year long.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/advent-for-uncertain-hearts-christmas-eve?fbclid=IwAR1gNtTG127hJ98yt8G1PUmLoZ7r4LGLL40GDiJJmR0l_xhAxA6FQ3wAKz4

God’s Constant Love and Goodness

“God’s Constant Love and Goodness”

Psalm 25:4-10 (25:7) – February 24, 2021 (Midweek Lenten Service, Week 1)

            I fondly remember a dear older pastor who died several years ago. Pastor Lou often used to spread his arms wide and say at the beginning of worship, “God is good, all the time!” And the congregation in his church would respond, “All the time, God is good!”

            Sometimes, the goodness of God can be difficult to experience. Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes, with all the falls and missteps, the sins and shortcomings that people commit, the goodness and faithfulness of God can be so distant. It even seems like that goodness and faithfulness is never to be reached, never to be felt, disappearing like smoke.

            Do you sometimes feel the lack of relationship in your life, just disappearing like smoke, too? Many of us feel lonely, closed in, even isolated. The missteps, sins and shortcomings can amplify those feelings, and cause further separation from God.  

            As we read this psalm over again, we can see the view “of the landscape of the soul that experiences pain and difficulty, even at times a sense of abandonment, yet which longs wholeheartedly for God. Waiting for God to draw near, for God to be felt and discovered is in the cry of the faithful who wish only to be remembered by God.” [1]

            Feeling especially lonely and isolated yet? I think that abandonment is what our psalm writer is reaching for here. Yet – all is not lost! This psalm is a deeply personal psalm about relationship – the relationship between the psalm writer and God. Even though our writer does talk about the sins and errors of his youth (and some of us are guilty of sins and errors when we get older, too), hope is certainly not lost!

            Yet, there is a bedrock of truth in what my friend Pastor Lou said: “God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!” We can see that repeated several times in this psalm. Our writer repeats the fabulous Hebrew word chesed, here translated steadfast or constant love. It has an even richer and fuller meaning than that, but that translation is a huge concept on its own!

“Remember, O Lord, your kindness and constant love which you have shown from long ago. Forgive the sins and errors of my youth. In your constant love and goodness, remember me, Lord!” This wonderful petition, “Remember me!” is coupled with the Lord remembering all the kindness and constant/steadfast love which has been abundantly shown, already!

The request is for relationship. And, we know God is in relationship with us, already! It does not matter that we do sin, for we know a forgiving, merciful God. The capper is the constant, steadfast love extended not once in a while, not sometimes, but all the time. For – that is exactly what “constant and steadfast” mean.

             Dr. Nancy Koestr has a superb illustration of this idea: “My dog has the right idea. She takes the leash in her mouth when I take her for a walk, so that she can lead me. It is an endearing gesture and always makes me laugh. If this give and take happens between animals and humans, surely it happens between us and God. And as we live in that relationship, we wait, and receive, and lift our souls.” [2]

            Praise God, we are offered a deep relationship with God. We are loved by God! And, this is a good God. Not sometimes, not most of the time, but all the time. I can indeed say with Pastor Lou, God is good, all the time! And, all the time, God is good. Amen, amen.


[1] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/73719/21-February-1-of-Lent.pdf

Thanks to Rev. Marjorie McPherson, Edinburgh Presbytery Clerk, for her thoughts about the 1st week of Lent.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26/commentary-on-psalm-251-9-4

Commentary, Psalm 25:1-9, Nancy Koestr, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

The Least of These

“The Least of These”

Matthew 25:37-40 (25:37) – November 22, 2020

            As you and I have been living through these past months of upheaval, uncertainty and pandemic, it might seem like the end of the world is quickly approaching. Does it seem like that to you? Perhaps our Lord Jesus will come very soon, as a king on His throne. (If He does, amen!)

This parable is from the last sermon that Jesus preaches, in the middle of the Passion Week. Jesus knows His time is very short. I suspect He is really impatient with His followers. So, Jesus talks straight – as straight to His friends as ever He could. Many people think these words of Jesus are harsh. God is going to judge humanity like a mean taskmaster or stern overlord. At least, that is what we might think if we look at a surface view.

Let’s set the stage. In this parable, we have a king on his throne, at the end of all things. At the end of ages. Many people are powerfully fearful of the mighty king on his throne, and consider this the eternal judgement at the end of all things.

These words of Jesus do not tell us that the biggest thing in the world is to give away tens of thousands of dollars. Or, to make sure each of us writes our important name in the pages of history. No! Jesus tells us no such thing! What does Jesus really want us to do, anyhow?

Amazingly enough, Jesus does not demand His followers to do anything especially mighty, or courageous, or daring. No! Instead, Jesus mentions simple things. Helpful, straightforward things. Things just about anyone can do. Can you give a hungry person a meal, or a thirsty person a drink? Can you welcome the stranger – any stranger, no matter who? What about cheering the sick or visiting the prisoner in jail?

Jesus talks about giving simple help to the people we might meet every day. People on street corners, or shaking a cup downtown. Neighbors hiding in their cold, dark apartments or weary from searching for work. Friends suffering from food insecurity, living in food or medical deserts in the inner city, or a new refugee family settling here, from a war-torn country far away.

About 20 years ago, I attended a larger church in a nearby suburb. This church had a ministry to take children of incarcerated women to visit their moms in prison, downstate. Since I have a commercial driver’s license, I started driving the church bus to transport the children and their adult relatives. Grandmas, aunties, sometimes grandpas. These extended families had very little money, and it was almost impossible for these children to see their moms unless they had some help – like from this church, sending the church bus downstate nine or ten times a year.

I drove these children for many hours on Saturdays to see their moms. I considered it one of the most worthwhile ministries that I have ever been involved with. Ever.     

            Commentator David Lose asks the penetrating question: “in this time of isolation and division and unrest and wondering how we’re going to get by and whether there’s anything we can do… might we during all this remind our people of the promise – and it is a promise – that Jesus is really and truly available to us in the real and concrete needs of those around us and that God takes all of this so very seriously, blessing our efforts and meeting our deepest needs when we reach out to those who are struggling.[1]

“What our Gospel writer is proposing here should not be understood as some kind of works righteousness. These are works of neighbourly love done – or not done – not with the intention of putting oneself right with God, or earning God’s favour, but done – or not done – because of the person’s fundamental attitude towards the world. They are, in the language of Reformation theology, not works intended to earn justification, but the fruits of justification, the outpouring of the believer’s love of God.” [2]

            This is Jesus, telling us to do acts of neighborly love – often! And, reminding us that it is our internal attitude, the inside part, that is truly important before God.

To those with ears to hear, let them hear!

            May we join in the prayer of Teresa of Avila (1515-82):“Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

            No matter where they were born, no matter what faith tradition they follow, no matter what side of the tracks these friends happened to be born on, these diverse, multi-racial, multi-ethnic brothers and sisters have already been welcomed by God. Can we do any less?

            May we find joy in offering a cup of cold water to anyone who is thirsty, visiting those in prison, extending a hand to those who need it, always doing what we can for “the least of these,” our true brothers and sisters in Christ. Alleluia, amen!


[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2020/11/christ-the-king-a-the-third-sacrament/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

[2] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/71202/22-November_Christ-the-King-V2.pdf

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Sweeter than Honey

“Sweeter than Honey”

Psalm 19 (19:10) – October 4, 2020

            Happy New Year! L’Shana Tovah! We are starting the Jewish year 5781.

            The new year’s greeting that one person says to another, “A sweet new year to you!”  “L’Shana Tovah!” reminds me of this verse from Psalm 19: The Laws of the Lord “are more precious than gold; they are sweeter than honey.”

Psalm 19 has been a beloved reading of mine for years. Not only does King David get all excited about the heavens communicating the glories of God, but he also expressed his awe and praise about Scripture doing the same thing.

            Certainly, the law of the Lord, the statutes, the ordinances, the decrees of the Lord are not exactly warm bedtime stories. However, these words of the Lord are guideposts for us. How else are we to know and to understand how we are supposed to treat each other?

            David made it his life’s work to try to follow God, as best as he could. Psalm 19 definitely shows us how highly he thought of Scripture. What do you treasure most? Would you think of something valuable as “sweet?” King David obviously did.

            Like David, we stand in awe of God’s glory, whether we marvel at the vast heavens or the countless stars, or are amazed at the order and trustworthiness of God’s Word. 

As we consider the Bible, God’s Word, more closely, these words and ideas give us more specifics for what it means to love God and to love others. On several occasions during His ministry, our Lord Jesus talks about God’s Law. He gives a response to a devout Jew who wanted to know the most important command of any of those given in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ response? Love God, and love others. The rest of the Bible is commentary.

As David praises God’s Word in this psalm, I am also reminded of the Ten Commandments, another Lectionary Scripture reading for this morning. Talk about the law of God, the commands of God, the statutes of God, and the decrees of God! The Ten Commandments encapsulate the high points. These special commands list how people are supposed to love God and to treat each other.

Thinking about the whole Bible – the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – as guideposts or directions for living God’s way, the way set out for us gets very clear. It is not just a mental exercise, or an intellectual game we play in our heads. No! I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of our Psalm reading for today in The Message: “The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together. The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road. The life-maps of God are right, showing the way to joy.”

“The directions for living we find in the commandments and in Jesus’ teaching are intended to be put into practice in real life. And they are intended to make that life more whole, more peaceful, more joyful.” [1]

Best of all, when we live in this way, we are allowing the life and love of God to flow through us. Each of us does our part to heal the broken and wounded world around us.

If so, then you allow the life and love of God to flow through you. If so, our living in God’s way and walking God’s road surely is sweet. Sweeter than honey from the honeycomb!

Alleluia, amen.


[1] http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2012/03/non-virtual-faith-exod.html

“Non-Virtual Faith,” Alan Brehm, The Waking Dreamer, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Joy Through Difficulty

“Joy Through Difficulty” – August 9, 2020

Phil 1-12 advance Gospel

1:21-27 (1:21, 27)

When bad things happen to you, how do you react? What about when really unpleasant things continue to go wrong – what then? Do you feel down in the dumps? Depressed and anxious? What about your general attitude towards life – is that affected, too? Who am I kidding? Of course our whole lives are affected.

What about the apostle Paul and his attitude? The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the believers in Philippi as a thank you note, and a whole lot more. But, let’s take a look at Paul’s immediate situation? Where was he as he wrote this letter?

Let’s look more closely at verses 12 and 13: “12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” Wow! We can see, right here, that Paul was locked up, in prison.

That would be an awful situation for most people – in fact, for just about anybody! However, I know that Paul was repeatedly locked up, thrown in prison, put into stocks, beaten on a number of occasions with rods or with a whip – and I could go on. Paul himself tells us about many of these difficult situations that happened to him in 2 Corinthians, too.

During this sermon series, we will highlight Paul’s focus on joy! Again and again, Paul mentions either “joy” or “rejoice.” We know that Paul was considered a saint, and he traveled a great distance as a missionary. Plus, he certainly had perseverance. Even what some call stubbornness. And, he let his abundant joy shine through.

If we try to compare ourselves to Paul, some might say, “I’m no saint! At least, not like St. Paul! He was a real saint, and extraordinary missionary, and powerful pastor.”

Scripture – the Holy Spirit – couldn’t be talking to me through this verse…or, could it?

Sure, we see Paul in these verses, in prison, locked up. He is in chains, chained to a Roman soldier, and still, he’s joyful with the joy of Christ! What on earth…?

You and I may not be in as dire circumstances as Paul’s, but, surely there are some lessons to be learned from Paul. How can we imitate him, today? What can we do to show God’s joy to everyone, despite difficulties and big challenges in our own lives? I’m glad you asked.

Sometimes life does get particularly rough. You and I know that. Maybe really difficult times have hit my family or yours. Maybe we know friends or acquaintances who have dealt with similar challenging situations. You know these things as soon as I mention them. Serious accidents or horrifying diseases? What about when death hits close to home – repeatedly? What about natural disasters, fires, floods? Or, God forbid, armed conflict? And, what if our family has a member in the same place as the apostle Paul, in prison? What do we do then? How do we keep the joy of God front and center in our lives?

In case we haven’t noticed before, Christ is a big deal to the apostle Paul. Jesus Christ is the reason that Paul is now imprisoned. Christ is not just a sideline or an afterthought. Paul has not stopped talking about the claims of Christ even in prison. He has that deep of a relationship with Jesus Christ that he wants everyone to be similarly related to Him.

Do we – you and I – have that kind of deep, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ? And if not, why not?

I’d like everyone to imagine. And as I said last week, you can close your eyes here if it helps you to imagine. Think of your best friend. I mean, your best, best friend, whether you two are still in touch, or whether you haven’t seen each other for years and years. Is everyone thinking of that special relationship? That relationship is as close as the one with our Lord Jesus.

At least, Jesus dearly wants that very special relationship with each of us.

We know Paul already praised his friends for being partners in preaching the Good News of God. Moreover, “Paul writes from prison (Phil 1:7, 13-14, 17), uncertain whether he will die (verses 19-20), hoping only that “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (verse 20). The circumstances have not dampened Paul’s joy (see 1:18; 3:1a; 4:4, 10). Perhaps [the circumstances] have even clarified his focus.” [1]

How can we have that dearly close relationship with our Lord Jesus, too? What can clarify our focus?

Paul tells us again and again that we are not to be focused inwardly, not to be focused on ourselves. Our call is to be focused in an outward direction. Think of others. Do things for others. Tell others about Christ, and how much a relationship with God can change their lives. Has that relationship changed your life? As we live out the Gospel – the Good News – in our lives, that is the absolute best invitation we could possibly have for others who have not heard about the close relationship our Lord Jesus wants to have with them.

There is an added bonus, too. “The Lord’s people who are discouraged will see our faith in God in the midst of trials and be encouraged to trust God and bear witness for Him.” [2]

Let’s all pray that we can have this incredibly close friendship with Jesus Christ, not only for the sake of others, but especially for us! As we are drawn closer to God, vertically, others around us see our lives shining like a bright light. Then, we can tell many about the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. Is there anything better than that? Paul doesn’t think so. God will be pleased, too! Go! Do! Think of others more than of yourselves, in the name of Christ. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3431

Commentary, Philippians 1:21-30, Troy Toftgruben, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.  

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-6-happiness-through-circumstances-or-christ-philippians-112-18

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

We Are Convinced

“We Are Convinced” – July 26, 2020

Rom 8-37 conquerors, water

Romans 8:33-39 (8:37-39)

Shel Silverstein wrote some wonderful poetry for children. (His poetry is enjoyed by all ages, in fact!) You may be familiar with two of his books of poetry called “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic.” This poem is called “Whatif.” I will read most of it:

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don’t grow taller?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!
[1]

 

Whatif? Many people are haunted by all kinds of fears that a school-age child might have. We can relate to some of them, perhaps even most of them! The commonality of these fears crosses borders, and connects us all in a powerful way. Does this remind you of our Scripture reading at all? Whatif? Whatif God is against us? Whatif God condemns us? Whatif the devil stands in front of us, telling God all the sins we have ever thought, said or done? And, then – Whatif God tells us we can’t get into heaven?

You need to understand something about the apostle Paul’s writing style. He wrote some really long sentences. Some of his sentences went on for a whole paragraph! Plus, it is typical of Paul to interrupt himself in the middle of a point he’s making, add some more details, and then pick up where he left off in the first place. What is more, every phrase in this 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans has marvelous information for our salvation!

We can watch as Paul assembles his argument. In verses 31 and 32, he asks, “who can be against us?” Paul’s answer: no one, not even God, who did not spare His own Son from death. In verse 33, who will bring a charge against us? Again, the answer is no one. God justifies – or makes it just-as-if we had not sinned. Then, in verse 34, Paul asks, “who will condemn?” The ringing answer is: no one! We are looking around for more accusers, but no one steps forward. Christ Jesus died for us, was raised for us, and intercedes for us. [2]

Did you hear? Jesus intercedes for us, too! Not just once or twice, but Jesus is continuing to intercede on our behalf! That is amazing. I almost cannot believe it, but Paul says so. In verse 35, Paul describes many physical hindrances that may separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. This rhetorical statement continues, piling up more and more bricks. You and I really need to listen to the apostle Paul when he tells us something so important, point blank.

I do need to remind us that Paul does describe here the kinds of sufferings that he and his fellow believers did go through. These were (and are today, too!) very real sufferings – danger, threat and struggle – of countless people throughout the world.

However, our salvation is NOT our doing. Bryan Findlayson tells us exactly what Paul is building here. Paul knows full well that “our standing before God is not dependent upon our love, obedience, perseverance or faithfulness, rather it rests on what Christ has done for us. At this moment we stand perfected before the throne of the Almighty God. We are eternally secure.” Do you hear that? Do we have any idea what fantastic news that is? You, I, all of us “are being daily renewed into the image we already possess in Christ. This is not our doing, but rather it is a gift of grace from a loving and merciful God.” [3]

As if all that is not enough, Paul adds the marvelous icing to the top of our salvation. It is almost as if he gets more and more outrageous with each pair of things he references. Sure, these strenuous pressures are powerful, sure to cause many people to stumble and fall. But – let us listen to them again: Paul says, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.” He continues to mention all of these threats, elements, and all of space and time spread out before us – and yet, nothing – NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

The love of God transcends all things. The love of God reaches into the depths of human despair, embraces those who live in the shadow of death, or the overbright light of present life. The love of God proclaims to the world that Jesus the Messiah is the world’s true Lord, and in Him and through Him, love has won the ultimate victory! [4]

Paul started out this chapter by telling us that “therefore there is no condemnation for those who are “in Christ” Jesus. He ends by telling us that therefore there can be no separation from the love of God for those who are “in Christ” Jesus.” [5] All this is Good News indeed.

Amen, alleluia!

[1] Silverstein, Shel, “Whatif,” from A Light in the Attic (Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1981), edited.

[2] Wright, N.T., “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. X (Abingdon: Nashville, TN, 2002), 613.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday18aee.html  “The Love of God,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources. Includes detailed textual notes.

[4] Wright, N.T., 619.

[5] Findlayson, “The Love of God,”

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming

“Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming”

Luke 15 prodigal son sketch, Rembrandt

Luke 15:20 – March 31, 2019

What do you think of when I mention the black sheep of the family? The kid who went astray? A really rough customer? A person you would not trust an inch with any amount of money? Someone who you wouldn’t want any children hanging around?

This is the kind of person we are going to meet today in the parable of Jesus we read from Luke 15. Some people call the parable “The Prodigal Son.” Remember the Rabbi Jesus was having dinner with some people the good, righteous synagogue-going people did not approve of? They were sniffing and clucking and making a big stink about Jesus and His dinner companions. So, as a response, Jesus tells three parables in Luke chapter 15, the last of which is the parable of the Prodigal—or the Lost Son.

The parable begins: “Then Jesus said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.”

This younger son was a brat. Or, worse, he was an ungrateful wretch. Do you know what he asked for? In that day, the son essentially told his father he wanted him to drop dead. That was the only way the younger son would have gotten his inheritance, in the normal order of things. What an ungrateful, selfish so-and-so! The father—amazingly—liquidates a third of his assets, giving the younger son his share of the father’s property. Perhaps you haven’t been as crass or unfeeling enough to walk up to one of your relatives and shout, “I wish you would drop dead!” and really mean it. But, that is exactly what Jesus begins this parable with.

Back to the parable: “It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.”

Going to a faraway, distant country. Sounds sort of romantic, doesn’t it? However, it does not take too long for this black sheep to run through all his money, lose all his fair-weather friends and end up on the streets as a homeless person. Plus, a famine struck the country he was living in. Consequences! What should he do now?

Let me step back from our parable for a moment—away from the younger son in the pigsty. I invite us to reflect on the church season we are presently in, Lent. Lent is a season where we are invited to reflect on our personal brokenness, and the need for God’s redemption.

This Lenten season we are also considering the different sentences of the Lord’s Prayer. This week, our sentence is “forgive us our debts (or, sins) as we forgive our debtors (or, those who sin against us).” I have a question: have you ever been so angry with someone that you have said (or thought) “I could never forgive him/her!” What is even worse is if you—or I—turn our backs, fold our arms across our chests and stubbornly insist, “I will never forgive her/him!”

What kind of unforgiving attitude is that? If we expect to be forgiven by God for all of the sins we commit daily, isn’t that unforgiving attitude a bit hypocritical? Rather a lot, really? What would God say about that ungodly attitude? What would you say about that attitude, now?

Back to the parable. “That brought him to his senses. The son said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.”

“The son’s repentance is implied, even if it is not clearly named by the ambiguous expression he came to himself (verse 17). After all, he hits rock bottom, longing to eat what unclean animals eat, once he is done in by a trio of calamities… As signs of contrition, he confesses sin and plans to ask his father to welcome him home as a slave instead of a son.” [1]

Now our parable shifts its point of view. We see the father: “When the son was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, the father ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

Remember, we are in the middle of Lent, a season when we are thinking of how much each of us sins against God and against others. We journey with Jesus towards the cross in Lent, but we also take the time to think about how much each of us need God’s forgiveness, grace and redeeming love.  What is more, “Lent helps us see when and how and where we think only of ourselves. Lent helps us see our true motivations for our actions and our true motivations for apology or repentance. Lent helps us see when we truly are in the depths of despair. Lent helps us see our deep longing for love.” [2]

Let’s look at the father’s response: “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.”

Almost any parent knows the feeling that if your kid really screws up, no matter what, the father (or mother) has the same love towards him, regardless of sin and unforgiveness. One might say any parent knows the feeling that even if the child goes off the rails and repeatedly misses the mark, the father is especially joyous to see the son who returns. But—the parable does not end there. Oh, no! We see the further unforgiving attitude of the elder son.

“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done, he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the servants, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’

The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’”

The elder son says “It’s not fair!” Well, guess what? The ways of God’s kingdom are NOT fair. True fairness leaves NO room for grace. Yes, God’s redeeming love for us is not fair. Would we really want it to be absolutely fair, all cold, legal rules with no grace and love at all?

The elder son is just as much as lost as his younger brother, isn’t he? Lost in his resentment, anger and alienation. “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”

Whoa! “No one bothered to call [the elder son] in to join the party! Accordingly, he does not enter the house. He does not address his father as “Father” and speaks to him about “this son of yours” instead of “my brother.” His refusal to celebrate stems from his deep resentment. Why is he resentful? He is taken for granted. No extravagance celebrates his reliable service. He accuses his father of showing preferential treatment.” [3] But, I ask again—do we really want God to be absolutely fair, in a cold, legalistic manner? With no grace or love at all?

Yes, “forgive as we wish to be forgiven” is a great lesson. But, I think the parable of the two Lost Sons has much more for us this week. Jesus told this parable to illustrate the boundless love of a parent for their children—the love of God the Father for His wayward sons and daughters. If you have really messed up, and you don’t think God could ever, ever forgive you, isn’t it wonderful to hear that the Prodigal’s father welcomed both His sons back home?

In this parable, Jesus tells us that God is patient, welcoming, and forgiving. God loves each one of us, forever and ever. Talk about good news! Isn’t this the best news in the world?

(Thanks to Eugene Peterson’s wonderful modern translation “The Message” for the use of this scripture reading. The parable of the two Lost Sons is from Luke 15:11-32.)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533

Matt Skinner  Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4553

“Perspective Matters,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533

Matt Skinner  Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

All Who Call on God’s Name

All Who Call on God’s Name

Acts 2-3 pentecost

Acts 2:1-21 (2:21) – May 20, 2018

Reporting to you live, down the street from Temple Square, scattered reports are streaming in to our news desk. The reports are all about the huge commotion affecting almost everyone: the local people in downtown Jerusalem as well as the yearly visitors in town for the Passover festival.

What facts we have been able to piece together give an incomplete picture. But, most reports agree that something significant happened today, involving several violent gusts of wind, some flames that appeared out of nowhere, and just as quickly disappeared, and a veritable Babel of tongues from the gathering crowd, as a result. We will keep you updated on this developing story as more information comes in.

What would the modern-day media have to say about the happenings on that first day of Pentecost? Might their stories have sounded a bit like this?

Of course, you and I have heard about this account from the first day of Pentecost over and over again. But—what if this news from the streets of Jerusalem was indeed new to us?

If reported by today’s news outlets, these accounts of strong wind, tongues of fire, and unfamiliar languages sound out of control. Wild, raging, unsettling, untamed. What kind of occurrence is happening in Jerusalem—and beyond? Something definitely out of control. Out of human control, at least.

Let’s go to the end of today’s scripture reading, and listen to what Peter preached: “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That is surely beyond human control, too.  Plus, this reading can have a great deal to say to us on this Mental Health Awareness Sunday, too.

 

“Let’s begin with the last part – all who call on the Lord are saved. Did you hear this? It says “all.” There’s no comment on who has “right” theology, “right” behavior, “right” thinking, or the “right way” of living. It also doesn’t say that those who struggle with physical or mental illness have no place in the Body of Christ. This strange story of the first Pentecost says clearly that salvation, the Love of God shown in Christ, is for all people.” [1]

Do you hear? Salvation is not only for some people, or even for most people. What about  salvation only for people with sight or with hearing? Or, only for those who are left-handed, or for those who are right-handed. What of those people who only can speak one language, instead of those who can speak several? Or, is salvation only for those who grow up on “the right side of the tracks?” What about the rest of the people who grew up elsewhere?

I have spoken from the pulpit and from the front of the church about God’s ideas of equality, any number of times. The kind of equality that the apostle Paul talks about in Galatians chapter 3: “28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But, what about people with mental health challenges? Is salvation also for these people? Are those with mental health challenges—and their families and loved ones—beloved children of God, too? The account of Pentecost in Acts indicates a whole different kind of truth.

“Imagine what we would say if somebody told us this story today. If someone came into our worship and said that they saw flames of fire above our heads, we might dismiss it as a hallucination. If they told us that they heard a sound of mighty and rushing wind, we might say the same thing. Then if they added that they heard us speaking in languages not our own, we would just shake our heads and turn away, if not back away in fear. How wrong we would be!

 

Maybe we can consider the Pentecost narrative as invitation to welcome, include, support, and engage persons who live with mental illness, and their loved ones. Let’s face it, those disciples don’t sound particularly well in this story. Yet, God did not abandon them. God didn’t turn them away. God included them in the building of the early church. They might have had some unusual experiences and some unique ways of being in the world, but God used them to create the Body of Christ that we are all a part of.

What if this story isn’t only a story about the mysteries of the Holy Spirit, but also a story of extravagant welcome? And if we add to this Paul’s account from Romans of the Holy Spirit’s care, concern and love for each of us, we get such a powerful promise of inclusion and new life.

No brokenness, no illness is beyond the reach of our loving God. The breath of the Holy Spirit gives all of us life. God transforms our bony, broken, despairing lives by knitting us all together into the Body of Christ. We can all find wholeness and hope when we come together in the name of the One who Loves us all…” [2]

Alleluia, amen.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways  Mental Health Sunday, Pentecost, May 20, 2018

[2] I have borrowed freely for my sermon today from the Sermon Starters in the Worship Ways of the United Church of Christ. Yes, today is Mental Health Awareness Sunday as well as Pentecost Sunday. May we all help to become more aware, more caring, and more welcoming of all people, including those with mental health challenges and their loved ones. #EraseTheStigma

http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways  Mental Health Sunday, Pentecost, May 20, 2018

Encourage, Nurture and Communicate

Luke 18:15-17 (18:16), Mark 10:13-16 – August 6, 2017

Luke 18-16 Jesus, children, stained glass

“Compassion: Encourage, Nurture and Communicate”

Encourage, nurture and communicate. These are three strong action words! Why on earth do I have these three verbs, or action words, as the title of my sermon today? Especially in the middle of a summer sermon series on compassion?

Our gospel reading is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18. This is a situation where the disciples are being really thick-headed. By forbidding young children and babies to get close to “their” Rabbi Jesus, the disciples are definitely not being compassionate. In fact, this is an unkind and unfeeling act. Sadly, we know this kind of unkind, unfeeling behavior is typical of the disciples on much more than one occasion. It might even be typical of followers of Jesus today—this behavior may be even typical of people we know in our own neighborhoods.

Encourage, nurture and communicate. Those are action words that sound like Jesus. What’s more, I suspect the disciples might chase us away from Jesus if we act in that way, too. Encouraging others; nurturing and communicating to others, in love and friendship, showing others the love of Jesus. Are the disciples really so thick-headed and dense that Jesus has to rebuke them? I am afraid so.

We are going to go back two months, to the middle of June. In the Wednesday midweek bible study, we took the opportunity to begin crafting a revised mission statement for St. Luke’s Church. Using the excellent book The Path by Laurie Beth Jones, the bible study members and I went through a series of exercises and steps to winnow through the different types of words and phrases which might often be listed in mission statements.

Our first puzzle piece in the revised mission statement was to find some action words, or strong verbs, that describe what we as a church have been doing among ourselves in the past, and what we wish to do in the present for those inside and outside the church, for outreach.

In other words, we focused on our church’s unique gifts and background, on our passion. What are we passionate about, as a church? If our mission holds no passion, we won’t go much of anywhere. The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek words “en” and “theos,” which mean “in God.” What are we enthusiastic or “in God” about? [1]

Let us take another look at our Gospel reading for today. What were the people in our Gospel text for today excited about? Reading from Luke 18: “15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them.” The parallel passage in Mark also mentions people bringing “young children” to Jesus.

Do you hear? Parents and even grandparents were excited to have the Rabbi Jesus place His hands on their children. They wanted Jesus to bless their children! That’s what they were passionate about! That’s what they were enthusiastic about!

How can we—as a family of faith—take what most excites us and use it to change things in our neighborhood—in the nation—in the world?

Every mission requires action. Action words are verbs. The bible study looked at a long list of action verbs. We kept our church and what we are good at in mind, and, what we wanted to see our church do in this neighborhood, too. We figured out the three most meaningful, purposeful and exciting verbs out of over 200 action words that referred specially to our particular church and what we are good at. That is puzzle piece number one.

And, yes. That is where encourage, nurture and communicate fit in. These action words are the words we chose as meaningful, purposeful and exciting words for St. Luke’s mission.

Turning back to our Gospel reading for today, we need to examine the thick-headed disciples and their hasty halt to the babies and children who wanted to come to Jesus. What were the mistakes the disciples made? How can we do better, today?

Let’s take our three action words. I would like to ask you: can we as a congregation encourage people to come to Jesus? Can we encourage children, young people, adults and seniors to come to Jesus? Our second action word is nurture. Can we nurture each other in the love of God within this church building? How about nurturing others who are not in this family of faith? And third, we can all communicate God’s love, every day. Not only within the church, but outside. On the street. In our homes. To everyone we meet.

To continue with the story of how we built the mission statement piece by piece, the bible study examined what we stand for, as a congregation—as a family of faith. What principle, cause, value or purpose would we be willing to defend…devote our lives to? For example, some people’s key phrase or value might be “joy” or “service” or “justice” or “family” or “creativity” or “freedom” or “equality” or “faith” or “excellence.” What is St. Luke’s Church’s CORE? What is the most fundamental value/purpose for St. Luke’s Church?

Again, we went through a whole list of meaningful and worthwhile phrases and values. The bible study talked about a few of the ones we found most important, and came up with three finalists: integrity, faith and welcome. This is puzzle piece number two in our mission statement.

What exciting possibilities are open to us, as a congregation?  Someone asked Laurie Beth “What if I come up with the wrong mission statement?” When she asked him what his current mission statement was, he didn’t have one. She told him, “Well, whatever you come up with will be 100 % more accurate than the one you have right now.” A good mission statement will be inspiring, exciting, clear, and engaging. It will be specific to our congregation and our particular enthusiasms, gifts, and talents. [2]

Let’s go back to the thick-headed disciples, who just did not get what Jesus was trying to get across to them. As Luke mentions, “15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.” Can you imagine a follower of Jesus kicking someone out of the youth group? Or telling someone they are not welcome in a bible study or a men’s breakfast? Or, at service on Sunday morning? Can you imagine someone at our church doing something like that?

This is one big reason why integrity, faith and welcome were so important to our mission statement. We considered integrity, faith and welcome to be St. Luke’s Church’s CORE, or the most fundamental value or purpose for St. Luke’s Church.

Which brings us to puzzle piece number three. Who is important to us, as a family of faith? Which group or cause excites us? Who do we want to come alongside? We in the bible study chose three groups that we most want to reach, or feel the most empathy for. We can impact these in a positive, meaningful way: children, families and individuals.

What was our Lord Jesus’s response to the disciples? “Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Jesus valued children and young people. Society as a whole did not think very much of children at all. Certainly not in His time, and not so much in ours, either. Worldwide, the position of children and young people is not high—especially of pre-teen and teenage girls, and women, too.

It is imperative that St. Luke’s Church reaches out with the Love of God to children, families and women, too.

How can we reach out in love, to those inside the church, and out?  Reach out with God’s Love, that overarching, undergirding base, the end-all and be-all to everything? We can reach out through loving words and actions, good works, food pantries and other service projects.

Jesus had a compassionate, one-sentence mission statement, which He states in Luke 19:10. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That is what He gave His entire life to. St. Luke’s Church’s compassionate mission statement is: to ENCOURAGE, NURTURE and COMMUNICATE in INTEGRITY, FAITH and WELCOME to children, families and individuals through loving words/actions, good works, food pantries and other service projects.

Are we serious about our mission? God willing, we shall be. Now, go and do likewise. Encourage, nurture and communicate God’s love in integrity, faith and welcome. To everyone we meet.

 

[1] The Path, Laurie Beth Jones, (New York, NY: Hachette Books), 49.

[2] The Path, Laurie Beth Jones, (New York, NY: Hachette Books), 64.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)