June 17, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
II Corinthians 5:6-21
Coming home after a week away from the news, I caught CBS This Morning’s interview with author and entrepreneur Jesse Itzler as he promoted his new book, titled “Living with the Monks: What Turning Off My Phone Taught Me about Gratitude, Happiness, and Focus.” You may know him better as the co-founder of Marquis Jet, or as owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, or as husband of Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. He describes himself as a “ready-fire-aim” kind of guy who found himself wanting a better routine, a different mindset, in a world full of distractions, so he goes to upstate New York to spend some time with the experts: monks. In his interview, he talks about what the experience did for him, and then John Dickerson made a most interesting observation, that the reason monks do what they do, devote themselves to these habits Itzler was promoting, is to strip themselves of everything for the glory of God. So…where was God in the picture? Itzler’s response was that God wasn’t a big deal for him; he just wanted to be alone and learn from people completely different than himself how their feet are always on the ground, then apply it to his life. Again, Dickerson countered with the reason their feet are on the ground is that God’s at the center of their lives, leaving Itzler to respond with “yeah, but’s.” He missed Dickerson’s point, he missed the point of the monastery, he missed the point of his whole experience. If you want to do more than just survive in a chaotic world it begins with a focus on God.
Focusing on God and God’s vision for the world seems to be the message as Jesus comes preaching that the time is fulfilled and we should have no doubt that come hell or high water (ponder that one) the Kingdom is coming. God’s reign is happening, Jesus says, as he spins out images, pictures of just what God’s Kingdom looks like. The Kingdom of God is as if someone scatters seed on the ground, then goes to bed. Does it strike anybody else that the farmer is either a dunce or lazy, or maybe he’s a townie who wants to be a gentleman farmer and just doesn’t know any better; who knows? He doesn’t water or fertilize, weed or prune. He’s, at best, incompetent as he plants a field and then quits, but in God’s mercy, in agricultural grace, the crop grows—the Kingdom comes with our participation or without it, but it’s here even as it’s coming. Then, as if to push his point, Jesus goes on: the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the most invasive and pervasive of plants. Blown by the wind, it brings color and life into desolated places, but it can’t be controlled by borders or walls. It peeks under the skirt at the pride and pretension of a good gardener like a burlesque show. The mustard seed’s about as welcome as skunk cabbage and about as durable as a milkweed—ask any gardener. But in the parable its whole purpose seems to be to shelter the birds of the air, not just so they can rest for a minute and catch their breath, but so they can build their nests and stay. Now, tell me something. Who here wants birds in their garden? Isn’t that why we have scarecrows? Birds peck at what’s growing, always taking the best for themselves, as if in some kind of mockery that insists that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, as if to say regardless of how it all shifts out, everybody should have something to eat, just like everybody gets a seat at the Table. If today’s parables are any indication of the Kingdom of God, then the Kingdom subverts everything we see around us. Yet, Jesus tells us in them are seeds of good news that need to be scattered if we’re to focus on God.
But self-focus, not God-focus, seems to be the way of the world. At least that’s my takeaway from Dickerson’s interview and most of the real news I’ve heard since coming home. I’ve spent a lot of time this week at St. Joe’s and St. Paul’s hearing TVs buzz with news of families being torn apart under the security blanket of protecting what’s ours that seems to be taking over the minds and morals of many in our country. Families whose greatest crime is crossing the border illegally. But I wonder what any of us would do differently if the shoe were on the other foot, if we were the ones so desperate to protect our kids that we would leave family and all we know to walk miles through jungles, over hills, and across valleys, facing hardships most of us can hardly imagine: like how to feed our kids on the journey, how to keep them safe while we sleep, where to wash out a diaper, or get clean water, when we maybe don’t speak the language or experience much hospitality as we travel. Wouldn’t we say that protecting our children is the job of a parent? On a day like Father’s Day when we celebrate the men in our lives who make sacrifices for kids, as I look around this sanctuary I’m not seeing many of you who wouldn’t walk through heaven or hell for your kids, taking the only chance there might be to save one of them. We all know there’s an immigration problem in this country and that something has to be done. Back in 2014, President Obama tried dealing with the problem by using family detention centers to house families, often fleeing the violence in their home countries, until they could be sent back, an action that met with some criticism.1 But rather than coming up with a better solution, we’ve now chosen to purposefully and intentionally tear families apart by criminally prosecuting parents, separating parents from their children and children from parents with no knowledge of how to be reunited in a foreign legal system, with no language skills. Happy Father’s Day, huh? So after the trauma of what these families have escaped we choose to add to the trauma of, at the very least, 2000 children. So I ask, what kind of people have we become? Is our focus on God’s vision for the world and our place in it, or is it based totally on our self-interest and God is neatly exorcised? I have to wonder because when challenged, the response is anointed in Biblical sanctity, citing Paul’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”2 Trouble is, there’s no such law. “Zero tolerance” is a policy, and how we carry it out is a choice. Actually, if we’re going to dress up policy with God, Paul’s words a couple of verses later about loving one another, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” seem to trump (no pun intended) his words about being subject to authorities.3 My grandmother used to say that even the devil can quote Scripture. That’s what conquering nations did as they annihilated native peoples. It’s what slave holders did as they also broke up families. It’s what Nazi Germany did with the Jews. And it’s what many white, southern preachers did during the civil rights movement, and it’s wrong. This issue isn’t about political sides, it’s not about Republicans or Democrats or Independents. It’s about right and wrong and soothing our conscience when our objective is self-focus, rather than God-focus.
It seems that every time and culture comes to such moments of crisis, and that’s when people of faith must stand for what is right. Unlike Jesse Itzler, we can’t leave God out of the equation. When we walk by faith we make it our aim to please God, the God before whom we will all someday stand, the God who invites us to live out God’s reign in the here and now, wherever we are. When we walk by faith, we try to see with the eyes of God and not by the sights placed before us, by humanity when it’s bent on creating fear, hate, and mistrust. Certainly, the Apostle Paul learned in a dramatic way how wrong that kind of human judgment can be when he persecuted followers of Jesus as heretics following a false Messiah. He believed them to be people deserving imprisonment or death (sound familiar?) but that changed when he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and God used Paul’s experience to transform not only his view of Jesus but folks who followed him, as well. We are ambassadors of Christ living out our lives in his name; his issues are our issues, including that one about protecting the vulnerable. We are a new creation, meaning that if we love God we need to love others—our neighbors, immigrants, even folks whose politics we disagree with, taking on their plight as our plight and their children as our children, working for the same fair treatment and justice for them that we want for ourselves. My guess is that what God really wants for Father’s Day is for us to realize that God loves them as much as God loves us, so that we might subvert the powers and principalities that harm, and scatter seeds of reconciliation and justice just like Jesus did, vigilant that God’s vision of sanctuary, hospitality, and renewal doesn’t end up in the periphery of our vision but remains our focus.
What kind of people are we? How shall we live? Faith is a matter of vision. Will we turn our eyes to see only from our own perspective and what benefits us, or try seeing the world from God’s perspective? It takes courage to subvert evil rather than rationalizing it, even in the institutions we love, making sure that all the birds in God’s garden have a bush to nest in and all God’s children have an opportunity to raise their children in peace as we think about how to live out the Kingdom, here and now.
What Brings Life
June 3, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
II Corinthians 4:5-12
If you grew up at my house when I was a kid, you’d find my folks napping if they had the chance after church. With a dad that worked three jobs and a stay-at- home mom with three kids within four years, it only strikes me now that I’ve been there and done that, that they were, maybe, exhausted. Not that there wasn’t a lot of controversy about letting them rest and some unhappy kids at our house. Clearly, we all have different ideas about what rest and a day of rest should look like. True now and true 2,000 years ago.
There’s nothing like somebody who thinks outside the box to make us consider what we believe and why. It’s the ones who don’t quite fit in that shed light. Reality is, most of us don’t get much practice thinking outside the box. We live at a time and most of us have the means to surround ourselves with people and thoughts pretty much like our own; often our neighbors, the news shows we watch, and sometimes even our church are pretty much in line with our lifestyle and beliefs. But every once in a while the Holy Spirit sends someone who disrupts our norm, whose very presence provokes a re-thinking. That’s what happens in Capernaum. From the grain field to a withered hand, Jesus comes disrupting the good folks’ Sabbath. The first week, his disciples literally “make a way” (according to the Greek) through the grain fields, not stealing but traveling and gleaning on the Sabbath, a day when most folks would have stayed put, with the religious prohibitions about distance walked observed and with lunches prepared the night before so no work needed to be done. To the Pharisees it looks like a deliberate flaunting of the Sabbath laws, a lack of any attempt to keep it holy. But Jesus takes another view, not that he disregards the Sabbath, he just sees it in another light, sees Sabbath rest differently, as an opportunity—the genesis of what gives life—as he uses scriptures to explain that King David’s need displaces the strict letter of the law, that with David ‘s hunger filled, God’s will for David can be achieved and the future of Israel secured. The following Sabbath, once again, Jesus creates a stir. Granted, it’s hardly scandalous, what Jesus does, and quite frankly, Jesus and the Pharisees probably don’t disagree about the protocols of the Sabbath. No one would have argued that saving a life and doing good was lawful and supersedes all other laws. Yes, they might have quibbled whether the man’s life was actually in danger, some saying no, he had lived with a withered hand for years and it need not be healed on the Sabbath. But Jesus takes another view, that by healing the man’s hand he’s honoring the purpose of the Sabbath commandment, that with the restoration of the hand comes the ability to work with it, the ability to provide for his family. Jesus isn’t just “fixing” a “problem,” he’s restoring the man’s wholeness and dignity, which is the purpose of the Sabbath—that folks who were once slaves should learn to take the time to rest for their own well-being, that they might live abundantly. Jesus comes to Capernaum, calls their interpretations into question, and makes everybody think.
No wonder they didn’t much like Jesus and are ready to off him. He makes them look at themselves honestly. He challenges the accuracy of their interpretations, confronts their righteousness, and exposes their hypocrisy. To be fair, it’s not that the Pharisees are bad guys. Actually, they are good guys, willing to make sacrifices and put a lot of time, money, and effort into being righteous people. Their convictions, traditions, commitments, their laws are noble and well-intentioned, living in such a way that gives order to life and creates an environment to encounter God. But in doing so they, like the rest of us, forget that such things are only a means to an end, not the end itself. They are tools in service of a greater purpose, which is to love God and each other, even the most vulnerable. So Jesus reminds them that, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” that the Sabbath is a tool to bring about the kingdom reality of the abundance of life for all. The Sabbath is for the sake of life. For any to flourish, all must flourish. The Pharisees’ response, choosing righteousness over what is good, following the law instead of doing what the law intends, demonstrates how even the most noble can fail to notice, to overlook folks whose lives need restoration. The man’s hand, his suffering, his plight seem incidental. If they really cared, they might have checked out the new rabbi in town with the power to heal and sent the man to Jesus for healing. But instead, they plot against the new guy who forces them to look in the mirror and think about what they see.
Perhaps, times really don’t change much. We, too, live in a complicated world and Jesus challenges us with the same conundrum with which he challenged the Pharisees. Do we bring life or death? Do our decisions and actions bring healing and wholeness or fear and hopelessness? Do we help or leave behind the most vulnerable? Jesus expects us to look honestly at our criteria for our political stances, our religious choices and our everyday decisions because we’re supposed to be, as Paul says, slaves for each other, carrying out Jesus’ priorities in very human vessels. None of us wants to cast ourselves as a Pharisee. We want to be on Jesus’ side. We can’t imagine choosing temple adherence over the relief of someone’s suffering. But do we allow a brother or sister to go without if it lets us keep our advantage? Do we prefer estrangement over engagement with folks with whom we disagree? Do we work to keep privilege within our own tribe, or realize Jesus has redefined who’s in our tribe? Not hypothetical questions when we look at the shape of Puerto Rico almost a year after hurricane Maria; when we think about children being separated and lost when their family’s great sin was wanting a different life and they tried to cross the border; when we sit on our hands and do nothing as Congress tolerates mass shootings with no sincere discussion on prevention even in sight. Too often, at the expense of healing and wholeness we fail to acknowledge how our actions handicap others, or maybe we see it and prefer we keep the upper hand, or maybe we just don’t know how to get past our own inertia and inactions as our choices and actions, our words and relationships, fail to align with Jesus’ vision for our world. On the other hand, we see glimpses of the Kingdom when a good person like a young woman named Rebecca donates part of her liver to someone who needs it,1 or when a large company like Starbucks loses a day of income to teach people what their families should have taught about how to treat others who may look differently than they do. Our choices between life and death are seldom easy and we need self-awareness, honesty, and courage because when we follow Jesus’ vision there will be times when folks around us won’t be happy with our decisions. Then, like Paul, we may find ourselves afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. Jesus was killed because he did God’s will, which was contrary to the will of the people in the power positions, but he was also raised because the God he served, the God we serve, is life oriented and life giving, even in the world where we must decide if our actions bring life or death.
Jesus challenges us (just like he challenged the Pharisees) in our fields of choice to examine our decisions and actions and ask ourselves honestly if our choices will bear the fruit of goodness, joy, and life.
1CBS This Morning, May 31, 2018, Rebecca donated her liver “to make the world a better place.”
And God Dances
May 27, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Frances
I probably shouldn’t admit it, but Trinity Sunday—not one of my favorites. Let’s face it, would anyone notice at the end of the year if we had just skipped it? Most of our “festival” days, white cloth Sundays, are for events of our faith. At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birth; Easter, his resurrection; last week’s Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. But what does Trinity Sunday celebrate other than a bit of dusty doctrine the church fought over for more than a hundred years? It’s so abstract, there’s nothing tangible to hold onto. You have to wonder, does it really make any difference to our lives in the here and now?
Just a few minutes ago, we sang about God in three persons, Blessed Trinity, but that’s a tough one to wrap our heads around. Sure, most of us grew up with explanations that God is like water: solid, liquid, and gas; or God is like an egg: shell, yolk, and white; or a tree: roots, trunk, and branches (all of which are technically considered heresies, but hey, it kinda works). That’s about as close as we usually get if we’re explaining it from a “one-as-three” perspective, but maybe that’s not the best place to start. Maybe, by flipping it new light can be shed on the whole concept—not explain it completely, but shed enough light that we can find some “take home” about the Trinity that just might make a difference in our lives. If we start, not with One, but with the Threes, we just might see in the plurality how three might dance together when we think about the character, the priorities, and realities, the very ground and essence of the God we think we know1. So, if God is three, then, maybe, there’s little sitting on a golden throne, but constant movement, like the wind Jesus speaks of to Nicodemus, with all the flow and flexibility of a God who can change and shift to meet our needs, respond to our decisions, sometimes working hard to create some good to come from them. Granted, that means there will be surprise, maybe discomfort by a God who refuses to be pinned down by our little finite minds. A God who comes with fluidity and flow will neither be pulled out like a ventriloquist’s dummy to put a “spiritual stamp” on our agenda nor put in a box, but refuse the boundaries we try ever so hard to place God in. If we start with the Three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we see such diversity, each with their own way of conveying goodness and beauty and love. Yes, we know God (as in Creator) loves us, made us and everything else to be enjoyed, but sometimes we need a God with skin on, to touch, to heal, to know he walked the earth as we do, and sometimes we just need the presence we feel in our hearts or through the care of a neighbor. More than one perspective is a good thing, not something to be feared. God is unity without uniformity with variety and shades that give contrast and depth. And that can only happen with the Three, not with a Lone Ranger. As a smart woman once said, “God is not a “me” God but a “we” God2.” At God’s very core, a relationship; God lives and dances in community. Not just values community or thinks community is good for God’s creatures, but actually is community, is relationship, three together, and only by being together can we experience the fullness of God.
A relationship within the Three Persons of God isn’t just the core of who God is but the core of what God does. All Three Persons of the Trinity are critical if we are to see their light, the Light that refuses any thought that Jesus or the Holy Spirit or the God of the Hebrew Scripture can be separated. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, he refers to all persons of the Trinity: the Father, the One who loves the cosmos, unwilling to let it perish; the Son, the One sent to rescue and restore; and the Spirit, the breath of God that gives life in Genesis, gives life, a rebirth, to believers. All are present and working together in unity, a unity that extends and invites all of us, the children of God—heirs, more, joint heirs with Christ—to join as well. A wise man once said, “In the incarnation, the Three show that there is always within God a space large enough for the whole world and even all its sin. The Word’s [Jesus’] distance from the One he calls Father is so great that no one falls outside of it, and the Spirit fills the space with Love”3. It’s like we are encircled in an outpouring of God. Some folks say that God’s desire for relationship is what caused God to create the world, drawing Adam from the dust and calling Abraham into covenant. But the idea of the Trinity takes that thought further, saying that from the beginning of time God was already in relationship, and that it’s the power of that relationship, the power of love, that creates a dance of giving, receiving, and sharing, that spills over and creates the whole universe, inviting us into it because the God who cannot NOT be in relationship opens up the circle, makes room at the Table, and invites us into the dance. Relationship is what God does.
But if relationship is at the core of the Triune God then shouldn’t it be at our core as well, since we are made in the image of God? If the Trinity insists that relationship is what truly matters, that each person in the Trinity is equal and participating, then that becomes the litmus test for what Trinitarian faith looks like as it is lived in the world. But let’s be honest, there are a lot of churches that act as if they are binitarians or Unitarians, as if Jesus could just be separated out, no longer part of the formula, or the Holy Spirit simply an underling taking direction from the other two as if some persons of the Trinity have less value or less authority than others, making it easy to transfer the same attitude to people. Without the Trinity, people can justify whole groups of folks as worthy of hatred and name calling. Without the Trinity, churches can excuse self-centered mission, that cares only for themselves or people like them. Without the Trinity, people can rationalize sitting back and simply accepting “just the way things are” as folks in power positions intimidate or sexually assault or manipulate without consequences. But being adopted into a Trinitarian faith changes our perspective, gives us a different world view. (Remember when you were adopted into a new family by marriage and suddenly realized there was a whole different set of norms out there than you were accustomed to?) The Trinity changes how we think and how we live our lives as God, the Triune God, moves in and through us, calling us to holiness and wholeness in the presence of the Kingdom, or better (if you were here last week) the Kin-dom of God in the world. Only when we remember our commitment to relationship, no matter our difference, can we live non-compliantly and uncooperatively, refusing to be part of the conflict and bitterness we see around us. Only when we stop pounding the table but instead gather around the Table can we be nourished and nurtured. Only when we dance together, responding, rather than reacting, to each other’s movements and rhythms can we break the habits and addictions to power and hate. Only then, do we notice that perhaps we are dancing within the larger circle of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and reflecting God’s own image.
What difference does it make that we worship the Triune God? Actually, quite a lot, as God invites us into a dance that is expansive and reciprocal and welcoming, and God dances, too.
1Rohr, Richard, “Dancing with the Divine.”
2Nadia Bolz Weber, as quoted in the online blog “Journey With Jesus,” Trinity 2018.
3 Placher, William C, ‘The Triune God.”
Welcome to the Kin-dom
May 20, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
The word “conspire” means to breathe together. The people with whom we choose to share air, share space together can launch a conspiracy. Which, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means to act in harmony towards a common end. When we’re filled with the same spirit and find life through the same wild wind—especially when that wind is of the Holy Spirit—we find ourselves moving in a way not towards a kingdom or government, but towards a kin-dom.
When the Holy Spirit comes, everything changes. No wonder the crowd outside the house where the disciples are staying is amazed and perplexed. First, the sound of wind, next, fire appears, then words bubble out of the disciples’ mouths. The Holy Spirit comes, not creating a common language, but speaking to outsiders in their mother-tongue with the words and expressions of home, as if to say that God speaks in all languages and that all languages are holy and equally worthy of God’s stories. Maybe, the deeds of God are best understood only through a variety of perspectives, a diverse telling that no single language can contain. And while the wind and flame are impressive and even the variety of languages is amazing, perhaps that the crowd can understand with such clarity that the God of Jesus offers them the kind of love that can change everything is truly the miracle. There’s no translation needed as God breaks down the most basic barrier that separates them, drawing together distinct languages and cultures in a conspiracy to change the world—God’s conspiracy, as if to say to the crowd, “Come on in, you’re not an outsider but one of us, part of the family. You are our kin. Welcome to the kin-dom.” A kin-dom, not so much a kingdom with top-down power, but a kin-dom where everyone is equally a beloved child of God. Not a kingdom that sees relationships as a sum-zero game, where if one is to succeed, another must fail, but a kin-dom where we cooperate, lifting each other up, advocating for the other, and everyone wins1. A kin-dom in the tradition of Jesus, who criticizes the power structures of his day and expands the meaning of family far beyond blood. The Holy Spirit gives form to that idea of family as she brings life to an embryonic, still forming church through words, just as “In the beginning” God spoke the world into being; just as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” as Christ takes on flesh. Of course, amazed and perplexed aren’t the only feelings in Jerusalem that day. There are always the haters, the naysayers who try to bring things down to their low level, folks who use judgment to create a toxic atmosphere of false divisions and suspicions. But the Holy Spirit moves and shy become bold, the timid gutsy, and Peter, the denier, finds his voice and reminds everybody of the prophet Joel’s promise, of a time when the Holy Spirit is let loose and diversity is a site of blessing. In such hope their community grows from 120 to 3000 that day, and as folks leave Jerusalem to go home from the festival of Pentecost, they take their experience with them to Athens, to Libya, to Alexandria, across the known world to be shared with the exotic syntax and nuances of each nation and country because people heard, “Come on in. Welcome to the Kin-dom” by the power of the Holy Spirit and were amazed.
But what happened? Look around. Where’s the poured-out Spirit with its new and better way of life? Something has certainly changed as Christianity accepts and even rewards all kinds of behaviors that are far outside of what was seen on that first (Christian) Pentecost. Somewhere along the line, our initial fervor and excitement got forgotten and we gave way to a yearning for the familiar, the clear divisions of kingdoms with some folks in and others out, people treated as inferior and superior. Diversity is now seen as something to fear, as our schools become re-segregated and reflect neighborhoods becoming filled with folks pretty much alike. The sounds of other languages are held in contempt. Maybe somewhere along the line the Spirit died, or just gave up, willing to become an insignificant part of the Trinity whose name we drag into sermons once or twice a year. If that’s the case, we, people of faith, can resign ourselves to becoming a people of hopelessness, growing silent as the power of language that brought the world into being just fades away. We can give up any thought of speaking across barriers of race or politics that might widen our circles. But maybe it’s more likely the change isn’t due to the Spirit, but to us. Maybe we have just grown fearful, banishing the Holy Spirit and accepting the status quo Jesus so opposed, preferring confining categories to actually doing the hard work of learning a whole new way of life. Instead, perhaps, we choose to barricade ourselves in the bathroom or basement safe from the gusts of the wind rather than riding it with the freedom of a kite. We live in a world where words have become toxic, our discussions are caustic, our rhetoric vicious, and any semblance of mercy and desire to show love is ridiculed. We see it in the debates over immigration, the contests as we grapple with death in our schools, and the arguments when our systems of policing and criminal justice are reviewed. We seem to passively accept it as just the way things are. But, it’s sure not the way to treat family; something has changed in the kin-dom.
But the Spirit still moves, and there is still hope for new life if we can rise on the wind of possibility. Just as Jesus prayed for his first disciples, he continues to pray for us, that the Spirit will give us wisdom and insight even as she reveals to us what to say and do. So the question becomes can we become more attentive to God’s forward movement, can we sing a new song and speak a new language, the language of the kin-dom? Pentecost is both a reminder and a wake-up call that when we commit to Jesus as the Christ our circles of concern are expanded and multiplied as the Holy Spirit’s wind blows down barriers and her flame burns down walls between people separated by geography, culture, class, race, or any other man-made category. To be different from the kingdoms of this world, to be part of God’s conspiracy, takes a lot of work: the hard, time-consuming work of building a new order, a new way of life. It requires creating a new vocabulary of shared experience. But learning a new language we haven’t yet mastered takes patience, and it takes the courage to step into wind and flame to be welded into a new people with new lives. Of course, new life means a change, but it’s a change that gives the vitality necessary for the intention, forgiveness, and grace it takes to create new relationships. Some of us witnessed the creation of such a new life yesterday as we watched England’s Prince Harry and America’s Meghan Markle marry in St. George’s Chapel at the grounds of Windsor Castle. Two people from different geographies, ethnicities, classes, cultures and on and on, intentionally choosing, as Bishop Michael Curry said in their wedding sermon “Love as a way of life.” In everyday life it would be great if love, and desire to break down barriers, and relationships were enough and the Holy Spirit could just make everything fall into place. But she doesn’t seem to work that way. Rather than solving our problems, she invites us to see possibilities we wouldn’t have otherwise seen; rather than removing our fears, she grants us courage to move forward; rather than promising safety, she enable us to keep our footing amid the tremors2. Maybe that’s what we need most in a new life with relationships that can change the world. If we have ears to hear, the Holy Spirit moves, whispering in our ears a new song.
It’s Pentecost, and God's Spirit blows where she will, through open doors and windows, calling in a new language and singing a new song, inviting us to connect with folks who may look, sound, and think differently, letting the wind and flame join us together even as she throws her arms wide and says with a laugh, “Come on in, you’re all family. Welcome to the Kin-dom!!”
1 the kin-dom vs. kingdom concept originally came from a Latin American theologian, Ada María Isasi-Díaz in her book In La Lucha / In the struggle: elaboration of a Mujerista theology.
2David Lose, “In the Meantime,” online blog, May 16, 2018
A Promise and a Prayer
May 13, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
On this last Sunday before Pentecost our lesson from Acts draws us into that window of time between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. A time when disciples are scrambling, when grief, fear and confusion reign as the followers of Jesus search for a new kind of normal, which is always elusive. A time before the church figures out that normal is just a cycle on the washing machine1 and we are always responding to a changing world.
Change happens, and it’s hard to figure out just what to do. Real life is often beyond our control, surprising us, and our only choices are to roll over and die, letting life carry our bodies wherever it will, or to come up with some way to respond that will allow us to live, and preferably, live abundantly. Not only is that true today, it’s always been so, since the Church’s very beginning. Sure, things were great the first days after the resurrection. Jesus was back, and the apostles and company devoted themselves to hanging out and learning all they could (kinda’ like, knowing there’s a final at the end of the semester, but suddenly realizing it’s crunch time). But now Jesus is gone, and it’s up to them, the Twelve, now Eleven, who are in the positions of leadership, to figure out a new normal that will allow them and all disciples to be about the business to which Jesus called them—living into the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in such a way as to proclaim him to all nations. So Peter, the rock Jesus appointed to build the church, takes charge and calls the first congregational meeting ever as the way forward for the fledgling community whose first order of business is filling an opening on the church board. They need a new apostle, someone with impeccable credentials and commitment, to counter the damage done to the identity and integrity of the community by Judas’ decisions. They need a new apostle to bring their number to twelve, mirroring the twelve tribes of Israel, whose promise of God’s covenant continues through the community that follows the way of Jesus. They need a new apostle to share in the “power and authority over demons, to cure diseases, to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to heal”2—the responsibilities Jesus gave the apostles, whose very name means to be an ambassador, an emissary (think: Mike Pompeo) with the authority to speak for the one who sends them. Into the void, Peter and the church step, making it up as they go with no instructions from Jesus about how to fill empty slots, no Book of Order with its collective wisdom and best practices, no guides for uncharted territory, but with intense devotion to prayer as two nominees are found. And while casting lots, drawing straws or any other “game of chance” might not be our way of determining the best candidate, through God’s providence, or luck or a bit of both, an apostle is named without contention or disagreement between the folks gathered as the new community begins to organize and take shape. A few chapters forward, Pentecost happens, and the Jesus Movement picks up speed: deacons are appointed, and followers will journey far and wide as God works through ordinary people in chaotic times when the Church has the courage to boldly choose a path forward.
Yet, in the midst of an ever changing world, Jesus prays for disciples in our struggle to figure it out. On the night he anticipates his betrayal, trial, beating and execution, knowing that he has fulfilled his ministry, Jesus prays for the disciples he loves, both the disciples at Table with him and disciples yet to be born. He knows the challenges we’ll face as we strive to fulfill the ministry he shares with us. That night, Jesus does the hardest thing a friend, a lover or a parent ever does: he sends the people he loves out into a dangerous world with nothing but a promise and a prayer, to go where he can no longer go, to face the dangers and hardships that come before them with no guarantee of material comfort, or immunity from illness or disappointment or brokenness or loss, only the promise that we are not alone, that God will be with us. Jesus doesn’t wrap us in bubble wrap from the world, but sends us into the world to continue his ministry as God sent him. In polarizing times when the right course of action may well be in doubt, there is security in knowing that we are encircled by God’s love, giving us confidence that even with the challenges, God is always seeking the best for us as we are drawn towards God’s vision. A vision not always popular, which is why Jesus prays so fervently that we’ll stay the course in a world where grace and mercy are hard sells; that God will protect us from evil that we might have the strength and courage to persevere where greed is glorified and retribution is celebrated; where going back on our word is becoming the norm and winning at any cost is acceptable. Disciples throughout the arc of time find ourselves facing the ridicule, fear and scapegoating when we take stances of integrity. Protect them, Jesus prays, and make them holy in a truth that is increasingly rejected. In a world deformed by evil, where chaos reigns, there is comfort in knowing Jesus prays for us.
Out of Jesus’ prayer and promise and our ongoing struggle, at a time when the form and structure of church and faith are rapidly changing, we find new ways to live out Jesus’ mission and tell his story. As did the early disciples, we find new normals to the challenges that surround us by connecting Jesus’ prayer for us with prayers of our own as we join into the deeper wisdom, power and insight of God. Opening ourselves to God’s guidance, we can respond to the needs of the community and the world in which we live with courage as we embody what lives made holy by God look like, whether that’s living out Jesus’ mission by leaving the country of our birth to make wheelchairs out of lawn chairs in Peru; or closer to home by insisting that our schools are safe, that there are resources for every child and that their teachers are well trained and well paid; or finding ways to support foster parents who care for kids whose biological families deal with opioid addiction; or taking a stand against the gerrymandering that has wreaked havoc on our elections; or a million other ways that testify to God’s truth and insist on God’s justice in ways long denied. If we look around, God shows us what needs to be done if we are willing to go out into the world, be aware of our neighbors, and engage with the good and bad of our communities, standing beside, speaking out, and saying yes to the needs before us3. Too often, we think we’re too tired, the work is too hard, or the goals are too impossible, but like the 1st century disciples, when we’re not sure, when we’re feeling our way, God gives us the courage and strength to testify what we have seen and what we know, whatever the cost and whatever the context, becoming the good news Jesus intends us to be as disciples have done since the beginning of the church. Just thumb through the book of Acts and find disciples breaking boundaries and adjusting to new norms, even as in the 21st century God nudges us to do the same while we share Jesus’ story in our daily lives and live into a new normal.
Every generation of followers listens and discerns God’s will as we work out a structure of community that responds to the changing needs of society—disciples who daily do their best to follow Jesus, gathering as a church reformed and always reforming as we put our trust into Jesus’ promise and prayer, and change the world.
1 Bourland, Len, NPR broadcaster and author of “Normal is Just a Cycle on the Washing Machine”
3Presbyterian Outlook, Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary, Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2018.
The Most Difficult Commandment
May 6, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I John 5:9-13
Today’s Scriptures sure talk a lot about love. We like to think love makes the world go round and most of us spend some time looking for love in all the right places. If we’re honest, we look in some wrong places, too. Yet love, the kind of love Jesus talks about, the kind of love the church is commanded to offer, appears to be hard to find.
There don’t’ seem to be many examples of the loving actions our Scriptures speak of when we look around. For sure, there aren’t many shared through the airwaves. While we may talk about love, other than two to three minute spots like CBS’s “A More Perfect Union” and additional “feel good” segments on other stations, any evidence of selflessness seems to be pretty slim. Last week’s correspondence dinner with its “mission statement” of a “commitment to a vigorous and free press honoring civility, great reporters, and scholarship winners”1 saw its comedic entertainment devolved from its barbed humor standard to a pretty low form of mean-spirited bullying. And while that kind of behavior is something we’ve, unfortunately, grown accustomed to seeing, it is yet another instance of how difficult and how divorced we are as a so-called Christian nation from the example and commandment given to us by Jesus. Certainly, what we witness from government leaders, on a multitude of levels, has leaned into a “my button’s bigger than your button” mentality that seeks outcomes of “my way” and “what’s good for me” rather than compromise and what’s good for us. What we see in business is more about short term stockholder benefits rather than long term integrity that takes the form of climate health, stewardship of the earth, or employment benefits. Such actions have long been part of our “dark underside,” and it’s behavior that trickles down to all of us. Most of you. not all, but most of you, have experienced co-workers, bosses, or supervisors who were more than willing to take all the credit if not the work load. And it’s common for families to have at least one member who chooses to further themselves at the cost of the rest when wills are read, if not before. At one time in our history, moral compasses—preachers like William Sloan Coffin and David Buttrick—stood against the tide. To be honest, in more recent history, about the only place there was much courage to take on the egos and self-interest of government, business, and our own worst selves was coming from comedy, poking fun and inviting us to laugh at ourselves, but even that seems to have disintegrated as of last week. It’s a romantic myth to think at one time society used to give some kind of direction, some gentle nudge. The reality is for every generation the challenge of Jesus to love one another as he loves us seems to go against the grain of our culture, our context, and our conditioning; but there it is, or maybe, here it isn’t, for it sure seems as if much of Jesus’ kind of love isn’t evident.
In the post-Christian world we live in, maybe the only example of the love Jesus speaks of can be found in his church. Granted, that’s certainly not a blanket statement. Church can be the meanest place there is, with the sorriest set of sinners this side of hell, but occasionally, it can also be the most heavenly. The early church father, Tertullian, supposedly remarked that even pagans would comment, “See how they love one another” when they spoke of the Christians at a time when Christianity was decidedly unpopular, considered unpatriotic to their governments and atheistic towards the pagan gods in an uncompromising loyalty to the God we worship. Isn’t it ironic, at a time when folks like to describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” claiming to be open to God’s Spirit, they want nothing to do with other children of God because they perceive a lack of love? The trouble is, God is never a strictly private experience, but communal. It’s not about my Jesus, my worship, my belief, not if it’s Biblical. God doesn’t call us into isolation, but into community, because in reality we need the challenge and support of each other. It takes all of us to keep each of us from going too far off the path, making up our own religion, just like it takes all of us to give an extra hand, because we all need an extra hand some time. That doesn’t make loving each other easy. Let’s face it, most of us have a few flaws and might be considered a little difficult to be around sometimes. As a wise man once wrote “The Christian ideal has never been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried”2. It would have been great if Jesus had just said “fake it, until you make it,” kinda’ like how we settle as we tell the kids to say they’re sorry when they aren’t, or ask them to use their nice word (which might last until we’re out of ear shot). But Jesus didn’t say act like you like each other. He said, “Love each other as I have loved you,” as in for real, the whole tamale, as in “authentic feeling, honest engagement, and generous actions”3 and that’s hard, really hard. It takes abiding in him, which is more than Jesus as our role model or example, but understanding Jesus as the source where love not only originates, but is replenished and deepens so that human love becomes possible when there’s nothing left to give4. It takes a lot of intentionality to grow a community based on love where we keep our roots connecting, dwelling in Jesus’ love and our lives entwining, caring for each other every twist, every day, until we’re woven strongly enough to bear the fruit of God’s love. So, look around. Right now, we might be the best shot God’s got, and to be honest we are the ones Jesus told to show the world what love can look like.
It sounds hard but do-able as long as Jesus’ kind of love is a thought in our hearts and heads, but love in action—how do we go about it? It sounds so simple but gets so complicated when it hits the ground, even in a small community. Sometimes it takes a lot of work and other times it takes a lot of laughter. It takes honesty, not rubber-stamping, and commitment, not running home and taking your marbles with you. I can’t help but think of a recent session meeting. Things came up, there was this and that and another thing, as sacred cows were brought into the room and barbequed. But at one point in the discussion, Jim Smith leaned back in his chair, as only he can, announcing in his booming voice how good it was to hear everybody laughing as each cow was paraded before us. And I happen to know a couple days later another session member was doing some checking, just to make sure there were no casualties from the discussion. That’s what love in action can look like. In a world that God loves, part of Jesus’ commandment, his invitation, is to take our small circles and enlarge them, living Jesus’ love as we make choices that affect people living in places we’ve never dreamed of living and consider the needs of people whose situations and perspectives are radically different than our own. Of course, there will be times when we fail to love as Christ loves; energies will run low and the powers of self-interest will mask ugliness with the loveliest of wrappings. But there will also be times when we will succeed as we wrestle with hard questions of who will our decisions benefit, will our choices build up the larger body, and will they lead us to be more truly who we’re called to be. The answers might cause our hearts to break as our own sacred cows are butchered with a hope that rises from actions informed by our faith and empowered by the Spirit, as we choose to love one another as Jesus loves us, through our actions again and again and again.
Commanded to love each other as Jesus loves us has got to be the most difficult commandment there is. It’s one thing to talk about it, but living it takes all we’ve got. In a world that continually sucks all the love out of us, Jesus gave us the commandment not that we exhaust ourselves trying to create it from our own depleted sources, but that we abide in him like branches abide in the vine—the place where love becomes possible. He didn’t give the commandment to the comedians or the politicians; he gave it to us disciples that we, not they, be the example of what can turn the world around.
1Twitter #WHCA Statement to members on Annual Dinner
3 Debi Thomas, “As I Have Loved You,” Journey with Jesus, online blog, 29 April 2018.
April 29, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Like the poet Robert Burns once said, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray. The book of Acts is full of such plans that go astray, and yet the church grows. There are times when we just seem to fall into where we’re going and who we’re going with as if by accident.
What are the chances a deacon named Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch working for the Candace, the queen of the Nubian people of Upper Egypt and the Sudan, would ever meet? It’s a story that should have never happened, but funny how God intervenes with prods, nudges, and the holy push. Two men from two different worlds. One man, Philip, an observant Hellenist Jew drawn to the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers, among the seven, along with Stephen, chosen to serve as deacons—to become the “Meals on Wheels” for the widows of the fast growing community. Not called to preaching or prayer, but serving, at least until Stephen is killed and persecution happens. Most folks scatter, leaving Jerusalem for parts unknown. The next we know, Philip’s in Samaria, preaching the good news, exorcising demons, and healing the paralyzed. Maybe it’s not the job he was commissioned for, but clearly he’s filled with the Spirit, and things are working well. Then he gets a nudge, a tap on the shoulder by an angel with a GPS who tells him it’s time to hit the road and head south. (Who among us would be so spontaneous?) With no idea of what he’s looking for, or what purpose he’s called to serve, he leaves what he’s doing and starts on his way. On the same road, there happens to be a chariot, and inside is the head of the treasury (read: an official, a politician fluent not only in his own language, but Hebrew as well; his wealth considerable since he owns the scroll he’s reading—not as prolific as paperbacks; probably a God-fearer having been to Jerusalem’s Temple, a Gentile who maybe worshipped or was at least interested in and respectful of the God of the Jews, but one as a sexual minority, who could never convert or worship in the inner courts of the Temple). What are the chances someone like that’s going to invite a hot and sweaty hitchhiker into his chariot unless he’s nudged by God? Yet, in the exchange, each is open to the other and off they go. What are the chances of a politician humble enough to recognize his own limitations of knowledge and ask for help? And what are the chances that Philip could use the verses the Ethiopian was studying as a springboard for telling about Jesus, the good news of the kingdom, and a different way of life? What are the chances their eyes would see a pool of water in the wilderness, that the politician would realize politics offers no salvation and recognize the need for God’s grace and that Philip, so acquainted with the traditional reading of the Law that excludes eunuchs1 would be willing to circumvent it and baptize him into full relationship in the community. By doing so, Philip brings to mind another passage that promises a time when eunuchs and foreigners embraced by God become a sign that God’s Kingdom is dawning.2 What are the chances? None, without a nudge from the Holy Spirit.
In their interaction the men point to the truth that different though they may be, they are meant to be tangled up together as each of them helps the other grow into who they’re called to be. In their conversation the Ethiopian is freed from the literal meaning of the scroll, understanding the words point towards Jesus, just as Philip is freed from his traditional understandings of a kind of righteousness that limits and excludes. Surely their actions show us how much we need each other, directing us towards the very thing Jesus teaches when he says “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Have you looked at many vines lately? Their branches are messy, curly things that spread and invade, going in all kinds of jumbled directions. It’s hard to tell where one starts and the other stops, all growing from a common vine. For us, that vine, Jesus, reflects the Vinegrower, God, whose very nature is love, a love that flows in us and through us, nudging us to nurture and care for each other. It’s not a matter of preference, but one of life and death, for we are bound to each other as children of the same God and our interactions affect not only others and ourselves, but futures yet unknown. There’s an old story about a woman who gave faithfully to a mission in a foreign land. Years later, someone from that very mission spoke in this country, many hearts in that congregation were moved to a strong faith that night, among them, the woman’s granddaughter. Yet, the reality is, most of us have heard a gazillion reasons meant to separate us from one another: the color of our skin, the shape of our eyes, because of who we love, how we vote, where we worship, or any other number of ridiculous and fear-filled designations. But when we choose to detach from the vine, we cause pain and loss, both to others and to ourselves, because the fate of each individual branch affects the vine as a whole. Jesus calls us to a binding relationship, severed only when we choose to walk away. God gives us a holy push to remain connected to Jesus and to each other.
God only knows, literally, who and what each of us, individually, and all of us, collectively, will be nudged towards as we go down our own “wilderness road.” The question is, are we open to the proddings of the Holy Spirit? Are we willing to stop and hear what the young woman with the tattoos all over her body has to say as she runs alongside our vehicles, looking vaguely like a Hellenist Christian deacon? Are we willing to get on board with the black man, whose face, in the shifting light, contains the lines of an Ethiopian, and struggle together with our different perspectives? Can we see them as folks created in the image of God, allowing them to shape our conversation of good news, listening to how best respond to their needs by reframing our story in terms of their questions and values, rather than offering some preplanned speech for their salvation or whatever we think they need. (Remember the Spirit was already at work in the Ethiopian long before Philip met him?) And are we open to the proddings of the Spirit for this community, here in Kinsman, interpreting possibilities shaped by the One we believe in as we find ourselves in conversations about the opioid crisis, the nature of a future park across the street, or the discussions that naturally occur in places like Times Square, willing to listen for why God has called us here and then responding to the possibilities before us? God may be the only One who knows why we’re here, but if we’re open to God’s nudges we’ll know before long.
The story in Acts ends much as it begins. No sooner has either man responded to the nudging of the Holy Spirit than they find themselves with new purposes and new chapters to attend to. Philip is lifted from that place and into another where he will continue to be about God’s work, preaching in Azotus and the other cities along the coast, just as the Ethiopian will continue on his way, and legend has it, take the church into Africa. God doesn’t wait for us to suddenly decide when we’re ready to share the Gospel, but sends the good news off in our hands even when we’re unsure what to do with it, nudging us when the time is right to look around for what we haven’t seen before, to include who’s not been included, to consider who might need our interpretation, and who can redirect us to the pools of possibility before our very eyes. And when it all seems so accidental, well, perhaps, God’s nudges aren’t accidents.
1 Deuteronomy 23:1
What Are You Full Of?
April 22, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I John 3:16-24
There’s a legend that John, the Evangelist, when he was very old would be brought into the community on a cot to share a word. He couldn’t muster the voice to say much so he would simply say, “Little children, love one another.” After some time of this same message, certain folks in the community asked if there wasn’t something more he’d like to share. His response was that it was the Lord’s commandment and if they could just do that it would be enough.
John’s letter tells us love is seen in actions, warning us of the misleading and deceptiveness found in words alone. How appropriate in such a time as ours when fake news and spin make talk cheap. It’s good to be reminded that by our fruits, by our actions, we will be known. They are the “proof” of who we truly are, what it is we really believe, and who or what it is we follow, no matter what religion, or lack thereof, we claim. Our beliefs shape our actions, so maybe it behooves us to look over our shoulders every once in a while and just see what we’ve been doing, to know what it is we really believe. There’s an old story that says hell is filled with a lot of folks with long handled spoons sitting around a pot of soup grumbling about how they can’t reach their mouths because the spoons are too long. It also says heaven is filled with a lot of folks with long handled spoons sitting around a pot of soup laughing and talking as they feed each other with long handled spoons. The writer of John seems to know the difference when he tells us to imitate Jesus, who spends an awful lot of time feeding hungry people and caring for folks who hurt, his heart open to embrace the stranger who’s never really part of the community because of faith or ethnicity; open to folks thrown out of the community for being different, whether due to illness or disability or who they love; and open to folks who are part of the community, but just not up to snuff in the hierarchy—more often losers than winners. John’s pretty clear: we can’t really claim to follow Jesus if we see suffering around us and refuse to reflect his actions in a world he loves. To give lip service about our faith does nothing to make whole places that are broken. Instead, it takes action, actions full of the kind of love Jesus shared.
It sounds so noble. The trouble is, loving-actions usually cost something. We know that: ask any couple, ask parents if there isn’t a cost, if sacrifice isn’t part of the formula when it comes to showing love. Trouble is, loving sacrifice is a hard sell in America, where sacrifice is equivalent to suffering in a culture bent on self-fulfillment. We expect two chickens in every pot, two cars in every garage (okay if you’re married to Dave Francis, make it 5), and stocks to supplement our income, not lose money. We want to live in an Ozzie and Harriet world where no one is hurt, our children don’t die, and any problem we have should find a solution within the time frame of a 30-minute sit-com. The amazing technology that’s available at the touch of a finger and the prosperity that most of us think as commonplace have allowed us to believe we should be immune to any kind of suffering or sacrifice. But John tells us that loving our neighbor (not just family, but neighbor, and not just the ones we know personally and like), means their problems are our problems and just might require us to do some sacrificing, sharing our hard earned money and goods to help relieve their suffering, which takes some hard marketing if we only believe in a sum-zero world. But the reality is if we do nothing to stop suffering of any kind, when we turn away and ignore it, we give it permission to spread. Not only that, at the same time we cut ourselves off from any sense of kinship with the folks experiencing it, isolating and being isolated from brothers and sisters who are also children of the God we claim. In doing so we not only hurt them, but we hurt ourselves as well by numbing the places where joy and sorrow live within us. As followers of Jesus he asks all of us who claim to love him, who claim to be part of the flock, to tend his sheep and feed his lambs as surely as he asks Peter in John’s Gospel1. We have a responsibility to confront suffering, and it doesn’t take much to look out the windows and see plenty, when the percentage of the populations in prison doesn’t match the percentage of the population outside of prison; when folks will travel long and dangerous journeys, leaving their homelands in the hopes of something better, but will never gain legal entry because of unfair quotas; and when the opiod crisis is rampant and killing our kids. And if in the confrontation there is sacrifice, then perhaps that’s part of the walk with Jesus to the cross, where we learn the truth that sacrifice doesn’t destroy us. It need not fill us with bitterness about what we don’t have, but can fill us with a richness and depth that has nothing to do with what we have, but everything to do with filling us with an abundance that gains more than we can possibly give.
Of course if we’re honest, even with the promise of abundant life most of us hesitate sometimes, and when the choices before us seem dicey, we have to rely on what Jesus has told us. Let’s face it, we count the cost pretty carefully and struggle sometimes with our choices, but that’s what Jesus does, too, when he wrestles before the crucifixion in the garden then willingly gives himself up to the soldiers and police—not a victim, but choosing to lay down his life like a good shepherd because of his relationship to God, the Father and his relationship to his disciples. It’s all about relationship with him and it’s all about relationship with us, as well. Maybe there’s something to the passage Charlie read this morning from John’s Gospel about sheep and shepherds and the relationship between them. Go to any country where there are more sheep than fenced pastures, places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Palestine, and watch flocks of sheep mix together like they’re at some kind of wooly convention. But when it’s time to go, all it takes is one whistle from the shepherd, for the sheep leave the rest of the crowd to follow him or her that they might eat from pastures of the shepherd’s priorities, and drink from the stream of the shepherd’s values. Sheep know who they belong to and what food they want. Granted, some days we’re as firm on that as the women at the cross and other times we are more like lost sheep, but we belong to Jesus’ flock not because we’re always certain about God, but because God, who feels our occasional confusion, is always certain about us, and refuses to allow even one of us to be snatched away, but promises that in our relationship we will be filled with wholeness in life and in death.
There are many things we can be full of. Our actions give us away every time. They are like clear glass, exposing what we believe and what we don’t believe, how shallow or deep is our compassion, who is included or excluded in our relationships and makes us who we are. They demonstrate who fills us, and if we’re just surviving or if we are filled to overflowing. Our actions show the world just what we’re full of.
Kinsman Presbyterian Church
Sunday, April 15, 2018
RE David Paulik, Pulpit Supply
The Revolutionary Church
by David Paulik
As Reformed Christians, certainly we recognize the importance of growth and change. The motto in which guides Reformed theology, “the church reformed and always being reformed,” speaks to the constant renewal the church experiences as we grow, being guided by the Holy Spirit as we journey to follow Christ.
Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer tells us as we grow and evolve as individuals and as the collective church, we should be mindful of God’s will. We are called to reflect, meditate, and pray about how God is calling us to move forward in God’s divine will.
Our Denominational Research Center puts out annual statistics on all of the parishes in our denomination. Recently, statistics have shown that membership and overall participation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been on a steady decrease over the past few decades. The denomination has witnessed a mass exodus of membership, whether it is in the form of death, or families withdrawing their membership, the pews of many of our churches are not seeing the same number of people as before.
Does this mean that God is no longer relevant to our society? Does this mean that God has no place in our culture and in our lives? Of course, there has been much published about how mainline denominations are experiencing decline and many have hypothesized the causes: many will claim that denomination churches are too top-heavy; that is, they spend so much time arguing over the things that do not matter that the things that do matter are not addressed and placed on the back-burner. It is my hope that as a denomination church, the people of this particular congregation recognize the vital importance of God to our society and the vital importance of God to our individual lives. Things may look different now than they did a few decades ago, but it is my hope that as we continue to journey in faith together we will recognize that that realize is okay.
The word “revolution” is synonymous with words such as “turn” and “change.” Change is probably the only constant we can be sure of in life. Change is inevitable in many situations, whether things seem to be going well or poorly, change seems to always be looming around the corner. I would like for us to spend some time today thinking about as Christians, how is God calling us to entertain change and what does it mean to change as the church? Is change the church folding to the pressures of the world? Or can change be viewed as God’s continued grace as we grow in ministering to the world God’s grace, mercy, and love.
As an institution, the church is certainly not exempt from any ordinary changes that other institutions experience. When you survey American history, you will learn of the various changes that the United States as a nation has experienced over the course of time. Likewise, if you study businesses, you will see that business models change over time depending on cultural and economic trends.
The church is currently amidst a spiritual and cultural shift. Christianity was once a commonplace practice to the extent where 25-30 years ago it was considered abnormal to not belong to a church or some form of faith community. The era in which “church-going” was the norm is referred to as Christendom. Under Christendom, people regularly attended worship, children were raised in the church and the church seemed to occupy many aspects of societal life.
Today, of course, as confirmed by the data collected by Presbyterian Research Services, people are not attending church as regularly nor does the church appear to play a central role in society as it once did. While the era of Christendom undoubtedly had its benefits, the problem I see with it is that it appears most people attended worship out of duty or social obligation rather than seeking to experience God in a meaningful way.
The walk of being Christian is certainly a lifestyle, and I think we can all agree that it is a lifestyle best not done under obligatory pressure. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his followers that he has come “so that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” Certainly, the abundant life does not have room to seek Christ amidst obligation. God desires that all will have a spiritually fulfilling, abundant life. Truly, this is the reason Jesus was sent into the world.
In our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus affirms that he is “…the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Immediately after making this assertion, the Pharisees, the religious zealots of the day fight back saying, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”
Essentially, in this rebuttal the religious of the day is saying “How can you speak of who you are? Where is your proof?”
The life of being Christian is that of a dual nature. Unlike most other faiths, Christianity exists both in the individual and in a collective unit. You and I are individuals and we each have our own identity. To that end, we each also have our own walk with God. Together, though, we gather and we seek to serve God by meshing our identities, and throwing out our differences, by serving others in the name of Jesus.
Christianity is certainly an intimate process. In order for our collective life as the church to be effective, we must continue to strive to grow in our individual relationship with God. The “proof” that the Pharisees wanted to see when they fought Jesus saying “Here you are, you are your own witness, therefore your argument is invalid,” can be translated “How can you call yourself the light? Have you transformed the lives of anybody else?”
While Jesus responded to the Pharisees that he is not the only witness to the truth of his divine light, but that is Father is witness of it, too, the Pharisees were perplexed and could not understand. Jesus said, “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.” The Pharisees, being confused, thought that Jesus might kill himself, but really Jesus was speaking of a spiritual life inaccessible to the Pharisees due to their lack of awareness. The proof they desired to see in the assertion that Jesus was indeed the Christ, they missed due to their sin.
Sin is an interesting topic, and I think that the church needs to spend more time discussing sin. Sin comes from the Greek word “hamartia” which means, “missing the mark.” All too often, I read and hear of churches professing in the name of Jesus that you will burn in hell unless your turn from your sin! This truly breaks my heart that the mission of the church has become to scare people into the pews. The sin Jesus spoke of was a “spiritual” missing of the mark. That is, we have a propensity to live our lives guided by our flesh and not of the spirit. When we are guided by the spirit, as Jesus was, we are given access to the immense grace and love of God. We are freed from fear, and given the hope and promise of new life.
This is indeed the “proof” the Pharisees sought when they said that the testimony of Jesus being the light was invalid because he spoke of it himself. They wanted to see results. They wanted to see change.
The tough question being begged here is, “Were the Pharisees correct in posing their rebuttal to Christ?” The church today is seeing a major withdrawal of people. How can we testify to the goodness of God and yet not see results. As Jesus told the Pharisees, they will die in their sin (that is sin of missing the mark or point of existence). The church is being called to reevaluate our existence, as well. Do we want to exist to see decline? To see our numbers continue to drop? Should this reality be the only discussion of our leadership meetings or topic of discussion? Or should we focus on what matters. Instead of missing the mark, hitting the mark, and showing others how lives are transformed in the grace of Christ; That no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are enough. God desires to be in relationship with you!
As individual Christians, it is my hope and prayer that we will continue to strive and grow in our relationship with God through Christ; that as we study the Bible, meditate on God’s will, and develop community with one another and those outside of our building, we will strengthen our collective identity in Christ. Our mission should be simple: We exist to see lives transformed in Christ through one another.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Scars of the Nails
April 8, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I John 3:1-7
Some of you have heard me talk about my friend and mentor, David Buttrick. He once told of a bulletin cover that came out for Easter Day many years ago. There was a lovely, young Natalie Wood-esque Mary Magdalene and an equally good looking, if somewhat demented, Kirk Douglass-like Jesus on the cover. It was an attractive bulletin. But there was something just not quite right. It wasn’t so much the style, but something seemed wrong. Still, no one could quite put their finger on it until the elderly janitor picked one up and figured it out in a heartbeat: no nail holes. Jesus’ hands were smooth as silk, and his brow—no crown of thorns had ever sat there. A great and glorious looking Jesus but no hint that he was a crucified Christ. In the Bible, the risen Lord is the crucified Lord. 1
There’s something different about Jesus, something has happened to his body during the resurrection. He keeps showing up, scaring the Be-Jesus into the folks who knew him the best. The couple from Emmaus had just spent the better part of the day talking with him and had no clue who they were talking to until he breaks the bread. Yet, just the time they get it, he’s gone. Now he suddenly pops into the Jerusalem group while the couple is telling their story—pretty troubling. Pre-crucifixion, Jesus wasn’t nearly so disconcerting. Of course, there was that walk across the water during a storm at sea when the disciples didn’t recognize him at first, but maybe that was just the lack of light and the possibility they were blinded by fear. But all the post-resurrection stories have him popping in and out, walking through walls, defying bodily limitations, doing things real human bodies don’t do, especially when they’re dead, and if we can’t count on the dead to stay dead, well? Granted, we could chalk up today’s event as some kind of group hallucination (maybe something was in the brownies at the funeral dinner). Or maybe there was some kind of extended resuscitation, as in bringing an already dead-for-three-days corpse back to life, but that has some weird “living dead-ghoul-zombie” connotations that really don’t lend themselves to the makings of a good Savior. Still, every resurrection story insists that his body is real, flesh and bone, just different. And as if to prove that, most of our stories have him eating. Of course, the dead don’t need to eat and who, here, wouldn’t be hungry after three days in a tomb? But maybe Jesus is hungry for more than the food, but to share a meal, gather with friends, and celebrate life? Maybe he’s hungry for them to trust the life-giving part of God? Maybe he’s hungry to share bread with and become bread for his friends and strangers alike until everybody is having such a good time at the table that nobody cares who’s who as they eat until they’re all full? 2 And while we may not have many details about what resurrected bodies are like, don’t know what we will be when it’s us, we are promised our new bodies will be like his. So, maybe all we can do is throw our hands in the air, bow our heads and stand in amazement when we think of resurrected bodies.
“Look at my hands and feet” he says, and they know it’s him. Any doubts they have disintegrate when they see the torn, gaping flesh, the nail holes. “Touch them,” Jesus offers. Funny how none of them seem to want to do that, come up close and personal with his hands and feet. It’s easy to want to overlook Jesus’ tattered flesh, to want to smooth it out. Let’s face it, we live in a world that likes winners. We, in the church, can’t help but hope that if Jesus is a winner, conquering death and everything else in his path, that maybe that winning spirit gets passed on to us, the body of Christ, as well. Then perhaps, the glory of the 50’s will return and we, too, can be tall steepled success stories, with sinners filling the pews until there’s standing room only. Torn and broken flesh doesn’t look much like a winner; a nailed-down, absolutely powerless and weakened Jesus crucified doesn’t seem much like a success story, and should make us wonder a few things about God. If Jesus is supposed to reveal the nature of God, then God looks like a God who dies in weakness for our sin. Not the all-knowing God who controls everyone and everything, moving us like chessman, but the all-knowing that only comes through the suffering and dying that’s the full depth of our human condition. Not the all-powerful God like we’d like, but power that’s defined by suffering, nonviolent, and self-giving love3, the kind of power that raises up Jesus and gives him God’s own stamp of approval so that the one who pardons is the one who was condemned, the one who justifies is the one rejected. The risen Christ is the crucified Jesus4. But even raised up, it’s the nail scars that define him.
If we’re honest, the scars are caused by our sin, ours as much now as 2000 years ago. Let’s face it, we all know how well that kind of Gospel message and kingdom really suits us. Two thousand years ago we did Jesus in, and just fifty years ago we made sure one of his disciples who preached a pretty similar gospel, Martin Luther King, Jr. died as well. The reality is the best intentions in the world put Jesus on the tree, by folks whose respect for the purity of their faith left no room for any interpretation outside a narrow view as they did their best to protect the God who didn’t and doesn’t need their protection. Add to that the desire to preserve the community from the brutality of Rome. Yep, we make sure Jesus is condemned nice and neat by state and religion—not us—we’re just following all the rules. Clearly, sin touches even the best and most noble of us, and to say it doesn’t affect each and every one of us, to say we have no sin, claims a certain righteousness that not one of us has. Sins of commission and sins of omission, what we do and what we don’t do, how we yell, “Crucify him,” at every turn by our actions, or just our failure to show up at the cross. It’s seldom clear what’s truly the right thing to do. We bumble our way through life causing damage and hurt as we go, complicit in the suffering of our neighbors and ourselves, yet, none too worried as long as we and our family are safe. Racism, the growing financial spread between the poor and the affluent, short term solutions that make the future more grim—we rub our hands together insisting there’s little we can do as evil crouches close. But it’s that kind of sin that puts Jesus on the cross.
But jump for joy! The resurrection refuses to let it end with sin. Jesus returns to the same folks who were involved in his death. He appears to the very people who denied him, who separated themselves from the cross, and who hid for the sake of their own skins. Even after sin has done its worst, Jesus shows up breaking bread and eating fish sandwiches with the folks he loves. Suddenly, they can see—we can see—that the resurrection is nothing if not a huge declaration of pardon by the God who is faithful to the covenant even when we are not. In the midst of sin, in the midst of what should be our judgment, God’s love for us absolves us. Perhaps, that’s a hint of the kind of character, the Christian character, that we, as God’s own children, are called to be growing into. Because, let’s face it, God’s forgiveness of our own sins should be a constant reminder and an inspiration to forgive and accept folks we feel sin against us. Perhaps it’s about as close as we can come to living out the love and welcome Christ shares with us. Which doesn’t mean dividing the world into good or bad, holy or unholy, personal or political, but relying on God’s grace to direct us to be part of the healing in the brokenness of our world even if it seems unpopular, is considered countercultural, or raises a few eyebrows. The love Jesus offers certainly was all the above. Yet, God’s mercy is certain, a mercy that comes not from an undamaged Christ but a Risen Lord who embraces us with his broken hands.
What would we do if Jesus should suddenly show up this morning in our midst, checking out what we might have to eat? Would we think ourselves crazy or see it as a chance to repent of sin that holds Jesus to the cross as sure as any nail? And when he reaches out to us with the scars of the nails still on his hands and feet, maybe then we can remember that as his community we are to bear the scars of the nails to everyone we meet, as well.
1Buttrick, David, The Mystery and the Passion
2Michael Coffey, "Jesus: Crucified. Died. Risen, Hungry,"
came up with the idea of why at every encounter Jesus was always eating.
3Buttrick, David, The Mystery and the Passion
Clearly, this sermon is indebted to and made much richer by David’s book, The Mystery and the Passion
April 1, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I Corinthians 1:18-25
This year an interesting coincidence occurs: Easter Sunday and April Fool’s share the same day. The last time such an event happened was in 1956, the next time will be 2029. One “explanation” for the spring time day of pranks is that it follows nature’s lead, sometimes “fooling” us with fickle weather1. This year seems no exception! That said, perhaps the ladies at the tomb can appreciate the day, for unlike the other Gospels, Mark’s version of the Resurrection offers no evidence of a risen Lord. No Jesus showing up, either at the tomb or in later appearances; there are no miraculous deeds or final instructions, just the confusion of women so palpable we’ve got to wonder if they feel they were just pranked.
The story goes, the three ladies are on their way to the tomb. They saw Jesus die. It was no joke. They had been there watching when he gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Jesus, the one they thought was the Christ was emphatically dead. They saw Joseph of Arimathea hurriedly wrap him in a linen sheet, no mention of the pounds of embalming spices found in another Gospel. It’s a hurried affair according to Mark. Time is short; what with Passover coming, things had to be done quickly. So now, now, they can take the time to anoint him. Better late than never, but it had to be a real act of love. Let’s face it, two days in the heat, the stench would be gag-worthy. Likely, they know what friends and family are saying: how foolish to throw their lot in with a crazy preacher like Jesus. Just look what happened. Everybody knows God punishes folks who play hard ball against the authorities God puts in place, how God blesses and protects the righteous and curses the sinners. Nobody in their right mind could think a convicted felon might be sent by God. That’s just too hard to believe. If anyone ever plays the fool, it’s Jesus. Their families think it scandalous that anyone might compare him with the majesty, the power, of King David, God’s anointed, before whom nations bowed. Even foreigners, like the Greeks who believe God is Ultimate Perfection, have no place for a crucified Jew in their definition. Yes, he may have had some good things to say, but really, their families say, capital punishment is reserved for the most disreputable, meant to degrade and humiliate. It is nothing short of a divine curse. If Jesus is of God, he is the foolishness of God. That’s what the ladies hear time and again as family and friends shake their heads and promise nothing good can come out of following the guy from Nazareth. But hey, that day, they have other things to worry about on their way to the tomb, like how to move that stone so they can get to work, and then get back home. No wonder they’re surprised to see it already rolled away, but that’s nothing to what they see when they walk inside and find a young man hanging out. If clothes make a man, this kid has some kind of heavenly authority, and they can’t help but notice where he sits: in the very place the guys in their group argued about earlier. There he sits, almost as if he’s waiting for them. No wonder they’re alarmed. Instead of a blocked entrance, they find the stone rolled away, instead of a corpse, they find a young man. But they know Jesus should be there; they watched him die. No wonder they’re alarmed.
That said, the young man assures them Jesus is no longer there. They’re welcome to check the place out, but he’s not there, he’s been raised. It sounds like some kind of cruel April Fool’s joke, but maybe, there’s something to the guy’s story. Let’s face it, the worst thing that could possibly happen has happened: Jesus, who the ladies care about enough to anoint, to embalm a beginning-to-decay corpse, has died. So just maybe, the worst thing that can happen, his death, isn’t the last thing to happen, but only the next-to-the-last-thing that will happen2. For the gospel has a funny way of turning all our expectations on their head, and maybe what the young man’s saying is no more ridiculous than when Jesus preached that out of losing can come winning, and that putting yourself out for others can be some kind of guiding light. Maybe, Jesus’ absence from the tomb, where they watched Joseph put the body, is no more ridiculous than that somebody nailed to a tree can be the Savior. Maybe, that’s no more ridiculous than the idea that God can transform torture into salvation, and that Jesus’ resurrection can be God’s sign that the life he lived, the kingdom he preached, the death he died are all part of understanding who and what God is for them and their world. If that isn’t enough to make their brains start to explode, then the young man says to them, “Go, tell…he’ll meet you in Galilee” and all of a sudden, the ladies remember all the old predictions and promises Jesus had said earlier. Not only the dinner conversation at the Last Supper, that he’d see them in Galilee, but the prophecies about the disciples’ abandonment, Peter’s denial that came to pass, and other promises he made about God’s resurrection powers. No wonder they were terrified and ran out of the tomb. They’d come looking for a past and what they discovered was a future. They had come to care for a corpse and found that their Risen Lord was on his way to Galilee. No wonder they’re speechless. Again and again in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been begging people to keep quiet about his activities, but now, at the empty tomb, the young man gives them the message that it’s time to share, and the ladies are so scared, they say nothing. Maybe it just takes some time to wrap their heads around the words of resurrection the young man shares.
But it doesn’t end there. It’s not the end of the story. It’s not even the end of the chapter. Mark knows no story about death and resurrection can be neat and tidy. He leaves us with no one willing to share the good news of resurrection. But God uses unlikely and unwilling witness all the time, and somewhere along the line the mystery of the cross and the stench of death is replaced with the cool breeze of a new morning when knees stop shaking and tongues begin to loosen. The tomb and the angel challenged the ladies to live boldly, as the God who is able to create something out of nothing starts resurrecting them on their way to Galilee and before they know it, they and their community find themselves changed. Disciples stop hiding and start seeking, they stop making excuses and start moving mountains. They share what they have and find they are quite comfortable defying the authorities who want to compromise them, and they never stop saying who gives them the courage to do such things. The failure of the cross to have the last word assures us there’s no cosmic, demonic, institutional, or personal evil that can’t be overcome by the power of God that has been let loose on the world, and that’s the good news of Jesus Christ. But still the story doesn’t stop. Generation after generation each adds to the tale; each picks up where the last leaves off, adding to Mark’s tale. Now it’s our turn, for Easter means nothing if the good news of Sunday doesn’t slop over into Monday. Jesus continues to go on ahead of us, preparing the way, and we can’t stop and rest in graves of complacency and compliance.3 It’s time for us, too, to be a resurrected people, to move mountains, banish fears, love our enemies, and change the world. Just this past Monday, some of us heard from folks at the AA Anniversary tell of how the power of God has given them the strength to turn their lives around, to make amends where they are able, and to live with a situation that is constantly drawing them towards death, but they work to resist. Just this week a popular TV anchorwoman, feeling quite comfortable taunting a survivor of the Parkland School shootings on Twitter finds herself on vacation when he responded by urging folks to boycott her advertisers, eleven of which have dropped her show4 in a present time David and Goliath response to bullying. Just this week, disciplinary actions were taken by the Baton Rouge police, the first serious consequences for the officers after both state and federal officials declined to bring criminal charges against them, even though the actions of one contributed to the death of another human being.5 Resurrection acts of grace. Resurrection acts of justice. But God’s not done yet. Jesus is still ahead of us and we are never without direction or purpose as long as we seek Christ’s way in the world. Jesus breaks through impassible boundaries, up from the grave, inviting us with him, and the story and our chapter continues.
The tale of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb; it’s only getting started. The last chapter in Mark’s book isn’t closed in silence; it’s chapter doesn’t end in fear, but in invitation to live resurrection lives that tell of the good news that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
1Encyclopedia of Religion and the Encyclopedia Britannica
2A thought from Frederick Buechner, but not sure which book
3”Graves of complacency and compliance” is a nice turn of phrase I found in an article by Karoline Lewis... although she uses it differently, the phrase is hers not mine