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Posts Tagged ‘future’

Welcome back! I see you have returned here to the Emmaus Road. No doubt you have noticed how busy this road gets in the spring as those pilgrims making their way to and from Jerusalem for the Passover Festival celebration travel on this short, but challenging road.

We are not more than one hundred sixty stadia, seven miles, as you would say, from Jerusalem however the journey along this road has really little to do with geographic distance. The journey along this road is a much different journey for it is a journey from blindness to sight, from brokenness to wholeness, from what is hidden to what is released, from doubt to faith.

Perhaps I should explain, or better yet, do you see those two men walking along the road ahead of us? Yes? Well, those two men are blind. They are broken. They are like a rough block of marble whose grain seems to be going in all the wrong directions and is capable of splitting in unpredictable ways whenever the sculptor’s chisel is applied to it.  Alas, they do not realize any of this. You see, they thought they knew what was happening in their lives. They thought it was all under control. They thought they were on the right path, they were on the cutting edge of something wonderful, but that all changed for them.

These two, Cleopas and the other man, were followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and buried and whose tomb was discovered empty on this day by the women who were also following Jesus. Many of the other disciples are still in Jerusalem, but not these two.

No, Cleopas and his companion decided to leave Jerusalem and walk to Emmaus. Perhaps they are giving up? Perhaps they are simply walking to clear their heads by discussing all that has happened, so they might comprehend it more clearly? Or, perhaps they have without realizing it are continuing the journey they began years ago when Jesus first invited them to follow him. How will we tell which is which?

By watching as this stranger who has been following them and listening to them talk. See the stranger approaches them. Listen…ah yes, he has asked them what they are talking about. At first, they can’t believe he has been Jerusalem and has no idea what has happened. Ah, now they’ve given themselves away. “We had hoped,” they say to the stranger, “that Jesus, who was a prophet mighty in deed and wonders before God and all the people, was the one to redeem Israel.” Can’t you just hear the “but, they crucified him and he died and was buried and now his tomb is empty and…” This is where they are blind. They had hoped Jesus was the redeemer, but now they don’t really believe he was the one to redeem Israel. All they saw earlier is a tomb of death. They failed to see that the empty tomb is where life has been born anew. They are blinded by what they expect because they are not open to the unexpected. They are blinded by their recitation of who they thought Jesus was because they did not see who Jesus really is. They heard Jesus teach the Kingdom of God is a place of hospitality because Jesus feeds all whom hunger and thirst. Indeed, Jesus’ mother Mary sang of this before Jesus was born while she was still visiting her cousin Elizabeth, “he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” They witnessed this truth when Jesus was sitting at table and sharing food with sinners and outcasts-people nobody else cared about or even wanted near them. They witnessed this truth when they saw Jesus serve food to the multitudes in the desert saving them from hunger. They listened as Jesus said the invited guests to the great messianic banquet are the poor, the lame, blind, and maimed. The ones who are discounted and shoved aside by those in the know, the celebrated, the wealthy, and the ones who own the gold, but who are the very ones whom God continually asks about as in “how are you treating the widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, the poor, and the sick.”

They heard Jesus say he came not to abolish the Torah and the prophets, but to fulfill them, but they were blinded by all they thought they knew of scripture without realizing all they knew was never woven together into a whole piece, so they could see how it all fit together. They are like Augustine who confesses to God that, “look you were within me and I was outside. You were with me and I was not with you.” Put another way, these two disciples are still centered upon themselves. They are still attached to themselves-their way of seeing, their expectations, their knowledge, their understanding of the way the world works. They have not become detached from themselves, so they cannot see and use all things in and for Jesus Christ, in and for God.

You see, that is why the stranger is saying to them, “how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets declared!” Now, the stranger starts with Moses and goes through all of the scriptures pointing to Jesus. From the Word that creates life in the beginning, the bread that gives life, the liberating of the Israelites from slavery for a new life, and the suffering servant Isaiah proclaims is coming, the suffering servant who preaches good news for the poor, sight for the blind, who suffers for our iniquities, even as he brings into being God’s kingdom of justice, righteousness, and new life for all. This stranger is patiently chiseling away at scripture revealing to them all that has been hidden by their little pieces of scattered knowledge, so he releases God’s Word of truth and light. He is weaving together for them this wonderful tapestry of God’s self- revealing presence, love, commitment and intention for humanity and creation that is ultimately expressed on the cross and in the resurrection of Jesus. Doing this as they walk along the Emmaus Road.

But, now they have come to the inn. Evening is approaching. Cleopas and his companion stop to go into the inn as the stranger continues to walk down the road. But, Cleopas and his companion turn and invite the stranger to share a meal with them. Can you see how the stranger sits at the table and picks up the bread? Now, he is blessing it, giving thanks to God for this bread that nourishes life. Ah, see he has broken the bread and hands to the disciples. Wait for it. See what happens just as their hands touch the bread. Their eyes are alight! They can now see! Seeing not only that the stranger is Jesus, but coming to the wisdom that the burning in their hearts is the Holy Spirit dwelling within them revealing to them all about God and the full meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus, the one crucified, the one raised to life that all of God’s scriptural promises for creation and humanity come to fruition in Jesus as the conqueror of sin and death. They now see through the grace of the eyes of faith-trust in Christ-that the kingdom of God comes not through political-military might of world powers, but comes from opening oneself to the unexpected and mysterious presence of Christ in the person of a stranger, the weaving together all of scripture into a whole tapestry of God’s steadfast love, mercy, and commitment ultimately expressed in Christ, by extending the open hand of hospitality to the person one meets along the road, and receiving God’s gift of grace given by way of a rough hewn cross and an empty tomb that gives life.

These two disciples are like the rough marble that was presented to Michelangelo one day. This marble had certain attractiveness, but it was not easy to carve. For this marble’s grain was going in all the wrong directions and was prone to splitting in unpredictable ways whenever the sculptor’s chisel was applied to it. Michelangelo patiently worked on the stone day after day. Passers-by would stop and ask, “Michelangelo, why are you wasting your time with such unpromising material?” Michelangelo simply replied, “I am releasing the angel imprisoned in this block of stone.”

Being the creative artist of life, Jesus was patiently chiseling away the rough marble hiding the angelic messengers within these two disciples by his presence, his word, and God’s truth and light burning within them, so he could release these two angels from the unpromising material of their lives so he could send them running back to the others with the message that the Kingdom of God has come, Christ is risen and alive. Sin and death are defeated. The Lord of life has prevailed and because he lives, so will all who answer his call. They are sent to witness about how they experienced Jesus in their burning hearts and in the broken bread.

All over the world today, there are people whose lives are shattered and broken, whose relationships have cracked in unpredictable ways and lie in pieces, whose best hopes have ended in tragedy, and whose life conflicts seem to have no resolution-and they are hearing Jesus’ call to take up the cross and to follow him, they are open to the unexpected presence of Christ in a person they meet walking along the road with them, their hearts are burning with Christ’s light illuminating scripture as the whole cloth of God’s truth and light, and every time bread is broken they see Christ and experience grace and they are the most remarkable angels released from the most unlikely of materials sent by Christ to proclaim Christ is risen, the kingdom of God has come. The Lord of life prevails. Perhaps one such angel is sitting next to you.

Perhaps you are one such angel.

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“To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”

Mark Nebo reminds us with these few words that we, who choose to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, are all pilgrims. We are sojourners on a transformative journey whose final destination is far off into an eternity that stretches well beyond these Lenten days and weeks to the foot of Christ’s cross where we will weep our hosannas and to the empty tomb of resurrection where we will shout or joyous hallelujahs.

Now, you may not feel you are sojourners after all we haven’t physically traveled away from Irondequoit toward some distant place, however the truth is we are all pilgrims in the same way that all Christians are pilgrims because the Greek word “paroika” means sojourner and is the root of the English word “parish” meaning a “congregation of pilgrims or sojourners” and second,  because the life of faith is a continuing journey with and to God that is not limited by geography, but rather is both an outward and an inward journey.

Indeed, you traveled outward this morning when you left your homes to come here to worship and in doing so you have continued your sojourning, your pilgrimage to deepen your inward spiritual journey. Even our sanctuary, like many other sanctuaries, is a place for traveling whether one walks up the aisles to find a place to sit and rest and to listen or one is invited to walk up the aisle to participate in the Lord’s Supper or to bring an offering to God’s table. Classic cathedrals have ambulatories, which are simply a rounded corridor at the very front of the church that is literally, “a place for walking.” I suppose we could make one here if we did some major renovations. Of course, that might be a risky thing to do.

Yet, risk is part of every pilgrim’s journey. My favorite psalm, Psalm 121 speaks to us of the risks of sojourning in its very first line, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” Here is the affirmation that every pilgrim knows, the world is a dangerous place. The psalmist wrote those words to describe the foreboding sense of danger from nomadic bands of bandits or armies as well as the wild beasts of the wilderness taking refuge in the crags and crevices of the hills. However, in our time the world is still a dangerous place shrouded in the darkness of seeking hidden answers to big and important questions such as, “how did life begin?” How do I find the purpose for my life? Where will I belong? Where can I be safe and find good food and safe shelter?

The world is, also, a place shrouded in the darkness of death from physical violence, emotional turmoil, unremitting and destructive chaotic change, disease, and fearful anxiousness leading to conflict. Think about how the survivors of an 8.9 earthquake and all the other 350 earthquakes, the tornadoes in Kansas, or the tsunami and the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan must have felt after more than a week of complete darkness and bitter cold with very little heat,  little water and food while saturated with grief and despair? How can they not be lifting their eyes to the hills and wondering, pleading, crying out, “from where will our help come?”

I imagine Abram asked that same question as he and Sarah and his nephew Lot began their journey from Haran to the place God would show them. Their sojourn comes as a response to God’s call, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” but this was not an easy call to hear because it meant leaving everything behind that was familiar, that was safe, that was secure, everything that defined who Abram and Sarah were at a time in their lives when life should have been settled. At a time when their lives had become routine and when the shape of their lives must have seemed complete. Instead, they leave all of this behind them to begin a journey solely based upon God’s promises. This is very much like what the Irish monk Columba did around 563 CE when he set out in a coracle, a circular dish boat without anchor or oars, praying God’s wind would carry him to a new life.

What makes this extraordinary journey possible is Abram and Sarah’s being like open cups ready to receive what God was offering them. And, they had to be open. As Joyce Rupp writes, “Most everything needs to be opened, so it serve its purpose. Clothes need to be opened before we can put them on and receive their warmth and protection. A book requires opening before the contents can be shared. A house has to have a door or window opened before we can enter inside of it for shelter.”

It is the same with a cup. If a cup is full to the brim, nothing more can be added to it. If a lid is placed over it, nothing can be poured into it. The same is true for the cup that is our being and our life. God needs an opening to get our attention, to have a conversation with us, to nourish us and to stretch us toward greater growth, to revitalize and renew us as Rupp has said. This means we need to let go of some of the stuff filling up and cluttering our lives. I must say this is very much on my mind because my wife and I are using this Lent to begin a 46-day decluttering project. Each day we give away something we own whether a bowl, a teapot, or some clothing we don’t wear any longer and don’t need any longer.  So, each day we must decide which of our possessions to let go.

Letting go, emptying ourselves of all that clutters our lives physically and spiritually is one of the demands sojourners with God need to do. We can’t take everything with us on our journey because if we try to hang onto everything we won’t get very far. We won’t be open to the new direction God may be calling us to go. As a matter of fact, we may not be able to hear God speaking to us for all the clanging and banging of the stuff we are trying to carry with us. In addition, we need to willingly take the lid off of our resistance to change and the new thing God is calling us to embrace, so we can be open to what God is offering to pour into us.

Certainly, that might have been part of Nicodemus’ problem that night when he couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying to him. “You mean I have to born a second time? How is that even possible?”

“No, Nicodemus, I said be born from above. Above! By water and the Spirit, Nicodemus. By God’s actions.” Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruling elder in the Sanhedrin, had a quite a bit of emptying out to do before he could finally be open to receive what God was offering him and all of humanity through Jesus, the Word of life. Nicodemus would have to let go of a lifetime of theology and learning about who God is and what God does and how God’s love is made manifest in the world. Not to mention a lifetime of learning what it means to be faithful to God because his spiritual life and physical life was cluttered up with well over 485 purity rules that dominated the way he lived every moment of his life and that dominated how he understood, who was right with God and who wasn’t, and who was his neighbor and who wasn’t.

While we look at Nicodemus and his need to empty out the clutter of his life, so he could be open to receiving what Jesus was trying to pour into him, we need to begin asking ourselves what clutter do we need to let go before we are open to receiving the future God is offering us?  What do we, as communities of faith, need to empty out to be ready to receive what God is offering us?  Are there ways things got done in the past, which are no longer working? Are we ready to welcome and receive new persons to become part of this community regardless of how old they are, how experienced in the Christian faith they are?  Are we ready to receive the persons’ gifts and abilities by valuing them intrinsically without comparing them to other people?

Answering these questions isn’t an academic exercise or simply a rhetorical device for a sermon because what God is offering is a new life. Not just an extension of the  same old life, but one that will be transformative for each person’s life, for this entire congregation’s life, for this entire community’s life and, for the life of all humanity and creation.

That is what is significant about the promises God makes to Abram and Sarah. Yes, God promises to show them the land that God intends to give them, but more importantly God intends to give them children and grandchildren who will be the foundation of a whole people who will be a blessing to the world. Abram and Sarah have no children. They have been barren for all of their married life and in their old age this translates into them not having much of a future. Indeed, this family’s barrenness had become a metaphor for human hopelessness because there is nothing Abram and Sarah can do to create their own future. Until God speaks a powerful word of life directly into their situation of barrenness with the promises for the blessing of new life through children, who are brought into being by the sheer grace they can only receive as a gift. Abram and Sarah did nothing to earn or deserve this grace, nor will they do anything on their journey to earn and deserve this grace. God does not depend upon the potentiality or actions of this family to bring the blessing of a new and transformed life into being because God’s word of life carries within itself all the power it needs to create life, to create a new people defined, shaped and molded like a clay cup by God’s summoning and life creating word. God’s Word on its own asserts the freedom and power of God to work God’s will to bring life out of death like situations or even death itself.

Here in this beginning of Abram and Sarah’s journey with God is the resurrection paradigm of a call to sojourn to a transformed life by being open to receive, to be filled with God’s presence in the willingness to trust God alone in a journey away from the status quo, away from the predictable toward the mystery that we like Nicodemus will only comprehend in the light of hindsight after we taste the providential fruits of grace, which have been with us every step of the way. As the psalmist assures, our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth and it is the Lord who is with us always, in all our going out and all our coming in, today and for all our days.

Pray with me this prayer of Richard Chichester, “O Lord Jesus Christ, yourself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, grant to us who shall tread in your earthly footsteps a sense of awe, wonder and holiness. May our hearts burn within us as we come to know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly.” Amen.

 

 

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“My mother,” Bill Moyers said, “used to leave her freshly baked sugar cookies right in the middle of the table, warm and inviting but forbidden until supper was over. If she meant the temptation to be test of discipline, to build character, my brother and I often flunked. I think of this when I hear the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch, beyond the reach of innocence? Genesis confronts us with many tempting questions.”

Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch? Why did God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil right in the garden? And, why did God draw attention to it by telling the man not to eat the fruit because on the day that he did, he would die? Who was the serpent anyway? Why did the woman eat the fruit then give it to the man. Why did the man accept it so passively? Finally, is this a lesson about the choices we make and their consequences?

So many questions to ask. Seemingly, so few answers to receive. However, I think there is a fundamental lesson resting, simply and plainly in this scripture, which becomes clear only when we compare the man and woman’s story with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You recall, the man and the woman are in the garden God has created as part of the whole of creation. God created the man and the woman for a purpose- a vocation. They are to keep and till the garden. They are to be God’s stewards of creation and exercise care and concern in preserving creation as God created and ordered it. God, also, created them to be companions for each other. They were to live together in a relationship of mutuality; helping each other, caring for the other and working with the other person. They will be a community together. There is no hierarchy or relationship of superior to inferior. Neither is more important than the other. They stand together as one. This is the vision of community no matter how many people reside in the community. All are to be one. Now, God gave them gifts for this vocation- food for their physical nourishment. They could eat the fruit of any tree of the garden. And, pleasure in their work. God, also empowered them for this task with the freedom to carry it out, and with authority over the rest of creation.

But there was a limit to their freedom and authority. For God told the man, “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat because on the day you eat the fruit of that tree you will die.”

Well, one day as the woman and the man are busy working in the garden, the serpent comes to the woman. Now the serpent is characterized as the craftiest of wild animals God created. However, being crafty does not necessarily only mean being sneaky, conniving, or diabolical. It does mean those things, yet it also means skillful, ingenious, or dexterous. So, the serpent can be deceitful or the serpent can be ingenious depending upon how the serpent chooses to use its crafty character.

On this particular day, the serpent asks, “Did God really say, ’you shall not from any tree in the garden?” A simple question. No hint of untoward motive on the part of the serpent. Just asking what God’s word was regarding the fruit of the trees. Actually, the serpent is really wondering how much freedom God has given to humans. What choices do they get to make if indeed they get to make any choices at all. A clever question because a yes or no response is impossible. By the way, just for the record, the serpent is asking both the man and the woman the question. The “You” in Hebrew is a plural, so both of them are asked the question. The man remains silent while the woman answers the question.

“We, “said the woman, “can eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, except God said ‘you shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you will die.”

Fairly straightforward answer. She does add a prohibition God did not give the man earlier, but the man may have added that to God’s word when he re-told the command. “Nope, can’t eat it or you’ll die. As a matter of fact you can’t even touch it. Touch it and you’ll die too.” We really don’t know where the extra bit of the command comes from, but the woman is pretty sure about the command and what it means and the man is too, since he remains silent.

“Did God really say that to you?” the serpent asks. “C’mon, you want the truth. You won’t die. God just said that because God knows when you eat the fruit your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like God. You’ll know what God knows. You’ll know about good and evil.”

Well, the serpent’s response jolts the man and woman’s reality. The seeds of doubt are sown just by the serpent’s words. The serpent doesn’t “do” anything, but ask a question and offer a different version of why God doesn’t want them to eat the fruit of that tree. I can almost hear the questions going back and forth between them. “We won’t die if we eat it? Can the serpent be telling us the truth? Why would God say such a thing if it wasn’t true? And, what’s this stuff about being like God. It’d be good to be like God. Look, at all that God can do! Does it just come from knowing good and evil? Will we see the world and ourselves as God does?  Does God not want us to be like God? Is God holding us back from realizing our true potential?”

The serpent seems to be telling the truth. Yet, is he? Is death only about physical death or is there a broader definition of death that they don’t know about? Has the serpent held out the possibility of something more for them? Something that will enable them to transcend who they are, where they are, and their limitations. “The serpent calls God a liar,” says Leon Kass, a professor of ethics, “and the serpent undermines God’s authority and offers what seems to be an exciting new possibility.”

While the woman and the man do not voice their questions or their ponderings out loud, we get an inkling of their thinking as the woman judges the fruits beauty, its goodness as food, and its desirability to make one wise. All of which combine to tell us they have decided to trust the serpent and their own decision making abilities rather than trusting God’s word and the boundaries and limitations God placed upon them.

Compare the woman and the man’s actions with Jesus’ actions in the wilderness. Just as with the man and woman, God had a purpose for Jesus. Jesus came to save people from their sins and to be Emanuel, “God with us.” And, God empowered Jesus for this vocation with the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  Then, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit before he begins his ministry. For forty days and nights Jesus fasts- a real Lent- and he is famished. Can you imagine fasting for forty days and nights? It’s tough just to go a few hours without eating! But, Jesus does it for forty days and nights. He is famished and, perhaps, weak.

Enter the devil, in Greek the word is diabolos and comes from the verb to separate or to cause conflict. This is what diabolos, or Satan in Hebrew, is about doing. The goal is to separate human beings from God. So, here comes diabolos aka the Tempter with what Henri Nouwen calls the three compulsions of this world.

The first, to be relevant. “Hey, if you’re the Son of God turn these stones into loaves a bread. That’s what the people are expecting from the Messiah. C’mon, if you’re relay the Son of God it’ll be easy. C’mon, I dare ya. I double dog dare ya. C’mon turn the stones into loaves of bread. It’ll remind people about how God provided manna in the wilderness for the people. C’mon.”

Jesus simply says, “bread is not that important to life. One does not live only by eating bread and food, but has life by every word that comes from God’s mouth. God creates life by God’s word and I’m not here to do miracles for the sake of proving who I am. That’s not God’s purpose or plan for me.”

The Tempter comes back with the second compulsion, to be spectacular. “Okay! Well, lets see if you really trust God. Jump off the pinnacle here of the Temple and see if God sends down angels to catch you.  Remember scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you, on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

“Yes,” Jesus said, “But it is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Don’t see if God really will do what God promises to do. Realize that God’s promises are real promises and that God always does what God promises to do. That is what trusting God is about. And, God has given me a path to walk and I will be walking that path. I am to be obedient only to God’s will. Not mine. Not yours. Not anyone else’s. Only God’s.

Then, the Tempter retorts with the third compulsion, to be powerful. “Yeah, yeah. Look, I will give you all the power, wealth, and kingdoms on the entire earth. Everything you see here. All you have to do is bow down and worship me. That’s all. Do it and you get everything. Power. Wealth. Tower bildings made of gold. Kingdoms. Servants. The whole enchilada. Huh. Huh. Huh What d’ya say?”

“Away with you Satan!” Jesus says, “It is written, worship the Lord your God and serve only God.”

Jesus is tempted with the same temptation as the woman and the man, to be like God. “if you are the Son of God, “ says the devil, “then act like it. Use your power to create food, orchestrate a spectacular miracle, and rule over all the kingdoms of the world.” But, Jesus doesn’t give in to the temptations. Rather, he chooses to live as God has created him to live, doing what God has planned for him to do, and trusting God completely.  The man and the woman do not.

“You ask what did Adam and Eve do wrong in the garden, “said Marianne Thompson a professor of New Testament, “they fail to trust God-that what God says will happen, will happen, or that what God prohibits is for their own good.”

The man and woman try to reach beyond the limits of their creatureliness, to transcend creation, but they cannot. They have knowledge of good and evil, but it is knowledge limited by the contingency of human life. All we can know is the past and the present. We cannot accurately see into the future, nor do we completely comprehend the impact down the road for the choices we make today. The woman and the man didn’t know that their choice would lead to a death that is defined in Scripture as separation of persons from God. The breaking of their relationship with and their separation from God becomes a physical reality when they are expelled from the garden. Yet, they broke not only their relationship with God, but with each other as well. When God asks the man how he knows he is naked then tells him what he has done and God asks why he did it. The man blames the woman. “It’s not my fault, She gave it to me!” Then, the woman blames the serpent in turn. Both fail to take responsibility for their own choices and actions. As they blame each other, conflict ensues and their relationship is damaged. I doubt they saw all of these consequences coming from that one choice. But, how many of us do?

Test this out by any choice you have made at any point in your life. Look at the impact of choices you’ve made have had on your life. Look at the impact of choices made fifty years ago by chemical companies to dump waste into rivers and land such as at Love Canal in Niagara Falls or coal mining waste dumped into rivers and streams. We can’t know what God knows because we do not have God’s perspective on the entire created order. We can’t be like God, exercising God’s authority or claiming God’s wisdom because we are not God.

In resisting the temptation to be like God, Jesus countered every word of the tempter with a word of God. By doing this, he proved himself to be the Son of God and accepted the limitations of power and authority imposed upon him. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “though Jesus was in form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The good news is Jesus’ victory over temptation provides us with hope that we, too can resist if we trust God and God’s word. Jesus’ example shows us the power of God’s word. The woman and the man’s downfall was trusting the tempter’s word as the basis for their choice and, thus, not trusting God’s word. But we must rely on the truth, the faithfulness of the word of God no matter what other voices declare it absurd or invalid. No matter what experiences urges us to doubt or presume on it.

Jesus’ victory over temptation gives us life beyond our bondage to sin and death. Because Jesus, Son of God, resisted the temptation to be like God, because he accepted being a servant, taking on himself our full humanity including all the burden of our sin and guilt, we are saved.

We still experience temptations and we still may sin. But through Christ we have the strength and the courage to be the people God created us to be, the people who are truly ourselves when we live in an intimate relationship with God and as a community of mutuality with each other.

As John Calvin writes, “We are God’s people; let us therefore live for God. We are God’s people; let God’s wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s people; let all parts of our life strive toward God as our only goal.” We are God’s people let us find our life and rest in God alone.

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Bob Diehl was on his way up the corporate ladder in New York City. He knew where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there.

“I was determined,” he said, “to make a lot of money and be president of a corporation.” He saw his future clearly. Knew every step to take along the path he was walking. He clearly knew who he was, what he thought about himself and his family, his place in the world, and the way life was supposed to be.

Then, as that wonderful theologian John Lennon said, “real life got in the way while he was making other plans” because suddenly and unexpectedly he was caught by the challenge of the mysterious and uncertain call to “drop his nets and follow Jesus.”

“I was a good Catholic,” he said, “which meant I went to mass on Sunday mornings.” But as he got closer to the top of the corporate ladder, “the more I realized that to play the corporate game I had to play meant giving up my faith. It was then; I realized God was calling me to change the direction of my life.”

Calling he and his wife to leave their suburban lifestyle with all the trappings of big and expensive house, two cars, the technological gadgets and recreational toys to begin a journey like the one Peter, Andrew, James and John began one early morning on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The mist of the early morning had dissolved in the brightness of the early morning and Zebedee, a fisherman of no great importance, sat on the deck of his boat with his two sons James and John. The fishing was done for the day. The catch of fish had been taken to market. Now, they were sitting on the deck of the boat that was resting at ease on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and they were tending to the busyness of mending their nets, planning the next morning’s fishing when a voice from the shore calls.

“James! John! Sons of Zebedee! Come. Follow me! And, I will make you fishers of men and woman.”

Without a word, James and John drop their nets to join Jesus and Peter and Andrew.

Now, I wonder what Zebedee thought about this because when I finally realized God was calling me to pastoral ministry and I was about to enter seminary, I called my Dad, who was living in California. I said, “Dad, I am going to seminary to become a minister.” Silence. Absolute silence. It had taken me forty-six years, but I finally made the old man speechless. So, I wonder what Zebedee felt when his two sons dropped their nets. What did he think? What would he have said?

Might he have said, “You know, I heard the voice calling, “James! John!” but, I didn’t know who it was. I just saw a young man accompanied by two other men I recognized as the fishermen Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. I only later learned his name is Jesus. Well, John and James dropped their nets in mid-mend. Just like that. They drop their mending hooks, hemp strands, climb off the boat to join that young man. No good-bye. No, “Shalom, Poppa.” They do not even ask if they could leave. They just drop their work. I was stunned. Of course, my sons are known to be hot heads, the kind of men who act first and think later, but never had they just left in the middle of doing their work. Yet, this Jesus summons them to follow him and they obey immediately. I was stunned. They never obeyed me like that. Later, I heard Simon Peter and his brother Andrew were in the midst of fishing when this Jesus called them, “Come follow me. I will make you fishers of men and women.”

They, too, just dropped their nets and left their boat. They did not even stop to fold their nets or give their boat to someone for safekeeping. No! Jesus calls; they drop their nets, and go off to who knows where and doing who knows what. He just barges into their lives like with my sons. My sons were not thinking about following this Jesus. They were not thinking about changing their lives all around.  That was the farthest thing from their minds. We were talking about the fishing, the nets, our family, and when they would inherit the boat when Jesus intrudes into our lives, disrupting everything, and changing everything with his, “Come follow me.”

Of course, that’s how God calls people. He intrudes in people’s lives without asking their permission. He disrupts their neatly laid plans and the way they think the world works. Think about Abraham and Sarah. I doubt they were planning to leave Ur and everything including their family to wander around until God told them to stop. Moses wasn’t planning to return to Egypt. David was a child watching his father’s sheep. Every Prophet from Elisha to Malachi was just living their lives when God showed up to call them to prophetic ministry. Mary was doing household chores like the good Jewish girl she was when Gabriel showed up saying, “Greetings, favored one!” Even Joseph was simply sleeping when he received the call to name Jesus.

So, it really makes perfect sense for Jesus to just show up with his” come follow me” not as a question or a request, rather as an invitation to begin a journey without really knowing exactly the destination or all that will be required of a person. After all, Jesus is God with us. Why wouldn’t he do a very God kind of thing?

Now, Peter, Andrew, John and James had no idea where they were going or what exactly they were going to be doing by following Jesus. They probably didn’t know any better than we do what being a fisher of men really meant. However, they would soon learn what Jesus was calling them to do as they followed him throughout Galilee. Going to Capernaum by the sea then down to Mt. Carmel and then around Gilead. Tracing the outline of the ancient tribal lands of Zebulon and Naphtali, lands lost and people lost when Assyria conquered the land and scattered the people in exile like blades of grass blown far and wide by the wind, they would witness words of the prophet Isaiah coming true, “In the former times he brought into contempt the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. A people who lived in deep darkness on them light has shined.”  These first disciples of Jesus they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. They were part of those people who lived in darkness until the light of Christ came to shine upon them and that light was calling them to choose to change by following Jesus.

You see, as they witnessed with their eyes Jesus’ healing and witnessed with their ears Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, they were experiencing directly all of God’s promises that Isaiah prophesied, “You have multiplied the nation, and you have increased its joy. They rejoice before you with joy at the harvest, for the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. See, a child has been born to us, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

As they saw Jesus healing every disease, every sickness and every affliction what they were experiencing was a foretaste of the pouring out of God’s steadfast love and mercy that all people of the world would receive on the day of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross and the resurrection.

And, what they would learn on the journey with Jesus was that Jesus was calling them to not only drop their nets and be eye witnesses and ear witnesses to the coming reality of what Isaiah said, “Once a people walked in darkness, dwelled in a land of deep darkness, but the people have seen a great light;” the great light of God’s endless peace, justice and righteousness, but Jesus was calling them to participate in this new thing God was doing. Calling them to cast out their nets woven together of the good news of God’s grace and be part of God’s gathering all people of the world into the new life of God’s kingdom through Jesus the Christ because it is in God’s kingdom where the whole community of humanity’s life would be sustained, where every human community would discover its well-being. That’s what Jesus meant when he said and I’ll teach you to be fishers of men and women because God’s gathering of people into the community of God’s people would come through their discipleship and through actions as God’s servants. They left their nets behind them along with families and friends and their settled seemingly predictable lives to learn from Jesus how to serve God’s plans for humanity and not their own plans, their own ambitions, their own bias or their own desires.

As a matter of fact, one of the most important lessons they had to learn was to trust God and not to look back about all the changes that were happening to them. It was a little like climbing a mountain. One of the first things experienced mountain climbers tell people is” don’t look down” as Kari Myers writes it,” because when you have a long way to fall then your attention is focused on falling and fear grasps hold of you and all you can think about are all the problems and barriers to climbing the mountain. That happens to individuals and it happens to congregations. We can always come up with a list of substantial reasons why we cannot overcome the challenges God sets before us. Sometimes it’s too hard, too big, too complicated, too unmanageable, too new, and uncertain, unproven. Yet, it really isn’t about how high the mountain is or how weak the climber is. Rather, it is about God and it is about the disciples realizing that when they focus on God and going where Jesus is leading then they could do whatever God in Christ is calling them to do.

The second lesson they had to learn was that being God’s servant meant serving others and recognizing that, “as Barbara De Grote Sorenson and David Allen Sorenson tells us, “that servant hood is a gift of grace God gives to those who are givers to heal us of our sinfulness, our self-centeredness, our self-preoccupation, and selfishness” so we might sustain and promote the well-being of others without worrying about rewards or what we get out of it. Because, we know as lesson one reminds us that we trust God’s generosity. After all God is the one who gave us life in the first place.

Finally, the disciples had to learn that in every generation God is calling men, women, old and young alike to “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.

Indeed, Jesus called all of us. Oh, it may sound like a tiny voice calling you to get up out of bed  and go to worship or shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk after a snowfall or maybe it was a deep, unnamed feeling that told you that you needed to be focused on God’s agenda for humanity; or it may have been Jesus calling you through the voice of your mother, your father, your wife, your husband, your child, or simply the rhythm of life telling you today is the Sabbath, the resting time of God’s Kairos time, but it was Jesus calling you.

And, just to be clear, Jesus will be continuing to call all of you. Intruding into your life. Disrupting your neatly laid plans. Calling each of you to take a journey whose destination is not exactly known, to participate in a ministry that is the new thing God is doing now in your midst, which in this moment remains a mystery, somewhat uncertain and may when it is known make you or others speechless.

It might be as advocates for food justice or immigration justice for farm workers and farmers alike. It might be becoming a healing center for those suffering from moral injury and Post Traumatic Stress or being advocates for better access to mental health treatments.

It might be…. anything. But, it will be a ministry that will gather people together in community to sustain and promote the well being of this community and the whole community of God’s people around the world.

The only real question all of us need answer is, will we drop our nets and follow Christ?

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“I’ve heard your anguish, I’ve heard your hearts cry out,

’ we are tired, we are weary and we are torn out,’

set down your chains until only faith remains,

set down your chains and lend your voices only to the sounds of freedom,

no longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Fill your lives with love and bravery and we shall lead a life uncommon,” these song lyrics written by Jewell remind us God calls us to an expansive, deep, commitment in a life where humanity’s imagination is beckoned to embrace a vision of the possibilities for a vibrant, thriving community life far different than the fear based life so many people feel trapped within,

This life begins with the risen Christ coming to quicken, to bring alive, a festival of eternal springtime in the innermost heart of humanity,” Brother Roger of Taize wrote in 1970, “Christ is preparing for us a springtime of the Church-a Church devoid of the means of power, ready to share with all persons a place of visible communion. Christ is going to give us enough imagination and courage to open up a way of reconciliation, of unity. Christ is going to prepare us to give our lives so that one person will no longer be the victim of another person.”

A life uncommon is the vision Paul is writing the house churches of Corinth to embrace as God’s call filled with immense possibilities that go beyond the little, trivial status seeking, having arrived self assured, individualistic salvation sometimes articulated as ”I have my Jesus, my salvation, my ticket to heaven is punched, so don’t bother me about some commitment to the world, to other people.” This was, of course, part of the Corinthian church’s conflict fueled by spiritual arrogance, attachment to a charismatic-celebrity teacher, wanting everyone to be like minded, and the misconceptions about why they existed as a community of faith in the first place.

Now, private faith in a personal future is more comforting and marketable as so many television preachers from Tammy Faye Bakker to Joel Osteen have discovered, however such faith has little to do with the hope Jesus came to bring and doesn’t really spell good news for the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the left out. Not only that, but such individualism is unbiblical because God is not focused on saving one person, God aims to save all the people, to transform the whole of humanity. But more importantly, such a private faith is simply too small, too shallow to be the call of the God, who makes mountains rise up from the seas, who makes deserts into an oasis, who turns the cries of mourning into giggling laughter, whose way of creating human life is the image for how creation itself was created in the beginning and is being created even in this very moment.

Which is why, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians toward this life uncommon by beginning this letter with his call to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul asserts his call to this ministry is not by his choosing. This wasn’t his desire. Remember Paul was the Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was a persecutor of the church because his understanding of who God was, and is as well as how God intended the life of God’s people to be lived did not include Jesus as messiah. However, God had other plans for Paul, plans that began on the road to Damascus. Plans sending Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles and a church planter in places like Thessalonica and Corinth. This wasn’t Paul’s plan for his life, it was God’s plan for Paul’s life and, by the way, it wasn’t so Paul could be rich and famous, a celebrity of the church because if you sent Paul’s resume out to any church, including this one he’d never get called to be a pastor. Indeed, there is a story about a church that received Paul’s resume when they were searching for a pastor and they even rejected Paul. I know Paul is telling the truth because if you asked anyone I went to high school with if they thought I’d be a pastor; they’d be rolling on the floor laughing. Indeed, it took me years before I really thought God might be calling me to ministry.

The point is that Paul was called by God to be Christ’s apostle just as the house congregations of Corinth were gathered together by God and called by God to witness by their lives to God’s grace in Christ-together with ALL those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. The ALL are not simply those in Corinth, they are every Christian community from Jerusalem to Ethiopia to India to Pakistan to Rome to Spain to the Slavic tribes of Central Asia to China and Korea. God’s community of faith is not limited to any one congregation in any one place, rather God’s community stretches north, south, east, west and all the way to the ends of the earth and every community of faith has all the knowledge, the ability to speak and witness to the gospel, all the spiritual gifts it needs to be God’s people. It is by God’s acts in Jesus Christ that the Christian church exists at all.

Which is the reason, the church of Jesus Christ is so much larger than just one congregation in one city or town or village or denomination, which ought to make us more aware that American Christianity is growing in amazing, yet hidden ways. For decades, we have heard that Christian churches in America are declining, so we need to work to get stores to have Christmas sales, we need the ten commandments carved into the stones of our public buildings, and we need have government sanctioned prayer in schools otherwise we’ll stop being a predominately Christian nation-if we ever really were one in the first place. What nonsense!

Yes the mainline Protestant churches’ membership have been declining, however the truth is captured in this tidbit of information. There were 200 churches in the city of Boston in 1970, but thirty years later there were 412 churches. From 2001 to 2006, 98 new churches were planted in Boston. Does this sound like decline? Of course not, but here is the important part of the story. Most of these “new” churches were immigrant or multiethnic congregations of Asian, Haitian Creole, Hispanic and other immigrant peoples. It is true that mainline, ethnically northern European congregations declined, but God’s church, the church of Jesus Christ wasn’t declining. It was growing!!! It is becoming more diverse because it is reaching to the ends of the earth and ALL those who call on the name of Jesus are called to be Christ’s body because as Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote her Carmelite sisters, “Christ has no body now on earth, but yours, no hands, but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing well; yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless men and women now.”  This is what some call an incarnational theology-the idea we are to be Christ to the world by fully embracing  and embodying God’s love for the world, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies,” as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian churches.

This is the life uncommon God calls every person to embrace, yet it is a life that can at times make one feel tired and worn out as the prophet Isaiah speaks about. This servant experiences this call from God beginning when God was creating and forming this person in the womb to the moment when the servant was tired and worn out as though he has done everything he could do, everything God called him to do, and still his efforts have not borne the fruit he desired. This servant in whom God was to be glorified had momentarily forgotten one thing, it wasn’t up to him to make his efforts bear fruit, God would do that.

Quite honestly, this is a common mistake. It is made every time church folks say, “we’re bringing the kingdom of God to fulfillment or we’re bringing God to this city” as if God’s kingdom weren’t already here, as if God was late because JetBlue grounded the flight due to weather. However, it is a serious concern as one young, high school woman told Rodger Nishioka several years ago when the What Would Jesus Do campaign was at peak. She had been given a bracelet with the WWJD on it, as Rodger tells the story, and she fully understood it was to be reminder that we follow Jesus and that we are to be guided by Jesus’ actions in every facet of our lives. Her problem, she said, was that she didn’t see how it was possible to know what Jesus would actually do, let alone do it faithfully because as she said, somewhat exasperated by being reminded that we have scriptures and a wide community of believers to help us, “yeah, but don’t you see! I’m not Jesus I am fully human, but I am not fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to even assume that I could imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God.”

And, she has a point. None of us are God. None of us are Jesus and for sure, even those of us we have received Master of Divinity degrees are not really Masters of the Divine. Yes, what we are really to be doing is living lives that embody Christ and to love the world as God loves the world, but we must understand the world will not be saved by what I do or what you do.

Rather, it will be saved by what God has done, is doing and continues to do in the world around us and for the world through us by being present with us, strengthening us when we need the strength to, like the servant in Isaiah, keep on keeping on being those whose lives point other people to Christ like John the Baptist, who calls people to see Jesus Christ, to see God at work in the world by saying, “Hey look, God is alive, God is in our midst. Behold the Lamb of God .Behold, the Holy Spirit is weaving among us and within us, transforming circumstance and people,” for a life uncommon.

A life that is a festival of eternal springtime here and now lived in the visible communion of the whole humanity, whose voices sing songs of freedom and who lend their strength only to living into the expansive possibilities of God’s call setting them free to live lives filled with love and bravery.

 

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Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

All creation from the highest heaven to the deepest seas raises a chorus of praise for God. Brothers sun, wind and air, Sisters moon, stars, and water, rocks and the hills lift up a strong united voice singing praise to the Lord.  All you great diversity of people over the earth from the rich to the poor, the presidents and prime ministers to citizens who vote, farmers and factory workers to doctors and lawyers, men and women, adults and children raise your voices in songs of God’s praise.

The singer of this psalm invites, “All creation be partners in this song! Praise the Lord!” This invitation is an imperative cry. It is strong and exuberant and loud and demanding! It is a cry that cannot be ignored because there are more important things to do. It is a cry that demands not just a simple, “God is great. God is good.” singsong response or a whispering kind of “God is good.”

It is a cry demanding a strong, exuberant, joy filled, shouting, glad, demanding, happy, celebrating, clap your hands, stomp your feet, “God is good! All the time! God is good! All the time!” response. It is a cry to join in an act that is equally poetic and audacious as it is self-abandoning and subversive.

It is a cry that reminds creation that God took a deep, dark, formless void, a hajata tohu vohu, and brought order, light and shape to it. God took a place where life was not and was not possible, then created a place where life exists and where life not only flourishes, it is sustainable. God created by life by speaking life into being by God’s Word. Each day God spoke life, order, shape came into being. First light for day and dark for night. Second, oceans and sky. Third, dry land called earth. At the same time seas and oceans were given boundaries. Then, fruit trees and all other trees and green plants were brought to life. Fourth, sun in the sky for day and the moon and stars for night were given their reason for being. Together, their movements in the sky would be signs for days, weeks, years. For the changing seasons. Fifth, fish and all the other creatures living in the waters were given life. Then birds flying in the air receive life. Sixth, wild and domestic animals and all the creeping things receive life. Then, human kind, men and women, are created in God’s image and likeness and given their purpose. They are to be stewards of God’s creation by relating and exercising dominion of creation in the way God does; as a servant. Seventh, God rests. Creation is whole and complete, so God rests and by resting, God set within creation’s time God’s rhythm of work and rest.

Where there was only formlessness, God created a complex, highly textured, intricate woven tapestry of a dynamic, organic life containing within it the fingerprints of God’s creative touch from the largest mountains and deepest oceans to the minutest sub-atomic particles.

What also becomes clear in our remembrance of how God creates life is the relationship between humanity and land, people and place. Wendell Berry, poet and farmer, makes this point clear in his essay “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” when he writes, “we must not speak or think of the land alone or the people alone, but always and only both together. If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to.” Berry continues to point out how the destructiveness of driving or encouraging people to leave the land in favor of an industrialized life of being consumers instead of being producers, where one has a “Job,” but not a vocational calling or a vocational choice is destroying local communities and local economies. Because,  when a people move to find the “job” to earn the money to buy what one does not produce, they fail to live in a community of mutual usefulness. That place where small store owners know their patrons, skilled craftsman are known by the quality of their work and where farmers grow crops for subsistence and for sale locally because people live in their home counties where they not only know the people going back  generations, but also know the names of all the trees in the forests near them. People were rooted to the land and to the people. Industrialization in all of its forms creates “jobs,” but it also creates the destruction of mutually useful and mutually supportive communities by making people able to be exploited by corporations with wealth and power or to be discarded when the “job” the economy falters or when a machine can perform their jobs.

In our remembrance of how God creates life and how the industrialization of life prompts the need to save both people and the creation in order to save the fragile relationships of mutuality inherent in both, we hear the psalmist’s imperative cry to “Praise the Lord!” as more than a call to exclaim and celebrate our wonderment and awe at God’s creative act. Rather, his loud and demanding cry calls us to speak about God. To describe how our ancestors and we have experienced God’s presence as the key to living into our future.

We speak about God by telling what God has done. We speak about creation because it tells us that God seeks relationships of mutuality defined best by Martin Luther King, Jr. as ”I can never fully be who I ought to be unless you are fully who you are to be.”

We speak about God’s call to Abram, the giving of a child to Sarah and Abram in their old age, the deliverance of the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, the Hebrews being brought to the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they tell us that God keeps God’s promises and God’s promises are about life.

We speak about the Hebrews being fed manna and quail and water in the desert, God sending prophet after prophet to the people Israel, the bringing of Israel out of exile and back to the promised land, the promise of a Messiah bringing justice and peace because they tell us that God is faithful to the relationship with us despite our unfaithfulness.

We speak about God coming to be with us in the midst of creation as a child born in the humblest and unexpected of places, of the healing ministry of Jesus the Christ, of the self-giving love Jesus lived in his relationships with other persons and taught us was God’s way, of Jesus’ willingness to die on a cross for our sakes, of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope it brings into our lives because they tell us God is merciful and forgiving, seeking to reconcile our broken relationship with God by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves-namely bearing the burden and the consequences of the guilt and shame of our sins that break apart all our relationships. And doing this because God loves us with a love that is the full expression of mutuality. A love we can never be separated from no matter the place, time, or circumstance because not even death can separate us from God’s love.

We speak about how God spoke through an angel to Joseph telling him to get up and take his family to Egypt, so they will be safe and far away from Herod’s murder of thousands of innocent children, about how when we felt confused and lost the Holy Spirit led us out of our confusion to the place we belonged, about the time we were alone and weeping tears of grief and God sat beside us and rocked us in God’s loving embrace because in speaking about these times we witness that God is present to protect us, to lead us, to comfort us, to touch us, and to transform our lives by God’s grace and power.

Our exuberant, shouting, celebrating, songs of praise speak of God’s presence, God’s reliability, God’s steadfast and self-giving love, God’s mercy and faithfulness. Yet, these songs of praise also tell us about ourselves.

We use poetic words and metaphorical phrasings in these songs of praise that evoke for us images of God, that generate and suggest to us concrete ways of understanding who God is-the mother that rocks a crying child to sleep in her lap, a mighty fortress strong and able to keep us safe within protective walls, a confidante who walks and talks with us. Yet, these same poetic words and metaphorical phrasings always resist every closed meaning or attempt to put God in a box to be controlled or manipulated. These poetic words of praise are so open to many meanings and ambiguity they leave wide latitude for us, who sing these words to accept and affirm a different version of reality than the one popular culture affirms. For as Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and professor reminds us, “If we eventually become the way we talk, if reality sooner or later follows speech than our utterance of praise may eventually wean us from our memo-shaped mastery-our 30 second sound byte shaped world, so we may fully live in the world God created.

Just as our poetic words and metaphorical phrasings open us to the full reality of God’s kingdom, our act of praise is an audacious act because we seek to show how great and significant God is. How prominent God is in our lives. We dare to do this act of praise as though we are giving something to God that God needs or desires until we are met in moment of our praise with the surprising gift of illumination; our relationship with God is refined and deepened. We realize our praise arises out of an intimate communion with the One who is wholly reliable, who is so fully present with us, who loves us so dearly that in this moment of praise singing we give ourselves completely and unreservedly to God as an act of joyful gratitude for all the goodness of life.

We abandon ourselves to God in gratitude and gladly celebrate the Lord’s claim on our whole lives. Here our praise is subversive because we say there are no other gods, kings, or loyalties who can give us gifts, who have benefits to bestow, no summons to make, and no allegiance to claim. They are massively and forcefully dismissed. Every other loyalty that would put a hedge of vested interest between God and us is critiqued and dismissed in our song of praise.

There is only one Lord of the universe, we sing. God alone is sovereign of our lives. And, this sovereignty is embodied in the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh embodying the reign of God in the ministry of a suffering servant who creates and renews life for us and for the whole of creation just as God created life by God’s Word in the beginning.

Halleu Adonai! Praise Christ the Lord!

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Darkness falls fast in these autumn days and we know the darkness will continue to grow in the days ahead of us as we venture into the cold days and nights of winter. Yet, many people feel darkness has been falling upon them for longer than a season. Whether it is the news of the high infant mortality rate of Rochester, the continuing struggle to solve the education issues plaguing city schools, the rise in the suicide rate of middle age white males and veterans or the year-long election cycle that has been filled with hatred spewing forth on a daily basis with threats of jailing political opponents and deporting millions of people, scandal after scandal in a drip-drip-drip leaking of documents by a group caught in their own brand of self-righteousness or encouraging violence against people who are different as the answer to the frustration and despair of an economic prosperity that has become nearly unreachable for many people in this country regardless of skin color or ethnicity as has the myth of an American Dream created out of a model of unending consumerism fueled as Wendell Berry writes by a commerce of violence, or voter suppression by the government or public institutions being assailed as useless and cracked cisterns incapable of holding water let alone our society; all have contributed to the weariness and darkness many have experienced and may experience as fear of the future imprisons people.

This darkness seems to deepen with the images Jesus describes for his followers in this morning’s reading from Luke. The image of armies surrounding us, the need to become refugees to escape the violence of war, being hated because we are followers of Christ, the woe to women who are pregnant or who are new mothers, the enslavement of one people by another people, even creation will shake, rattle and roll as the Jerusalem Temple is destroyed.

Yet, all of us gathered in our own community of faith like gatherings of other communities of faith in Irondequoit, Rochester, New York State, America, The Northern Hemisphere and around the world know the darkness will be driven away by the light. Darkness, hate, despair, fear and hopelessness cannot overwhelm and imprison us because God’s light will not allow it to do so. This is the starting place of joy and hope that dispels fear because God promises to be doing an entirely and completely “new thing” that will not resemble the old or grow out from the old.

This is the promise uttered by the prophets and the psalmists, particularly during Israel’s exile when the promise from God was that even exile will be transformed into a viable place for life. This promise as Walter Brueggemann wrote in his book “Theology of the Old Testament  “which defies every logic, but which could not be devised by those who reiterated the oath, assures Israel that its life and eventually all of the historical process, is not a cold, hard enactment of power and brutality.” Rather, it is God’s powerful intention for well-being, abundance, justice and compassion to bring into reality a newness of life that cannot be extrapolated from the present, but is an utterly new life. The words of God the prophet Isaiah speaks tell of God’s promise to overcome all that is amiss whether caused by Israel’s disobedience or the untamed forces of fear and death. The newness of God’s new creation will touch every aspect and phase of life as every portion of life is re-created by the positive, life giving power of God’s love enacting wholeness, abundance and restorative justice for all human communities as hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. In this extraordinary new creation the light of God’s love will drive out fear and darkness.

Perhaps this is the reason doctors without borders and nurses without borders risk their lives to tend to the wounds and disease of patients in places where medical services and medicines themselves are in short supply, but too often where the violence of war is abundant. Perhaps this is the reason for the Red Cross to bring food, clothing, toiletries and blankets to places like Haiti and Syria and Louisiana. Perhaps this is the reason why Hope Fellowship travels to re-build homes and communities in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. Perhaps this is the reason why our mission team travels to communities to repair, re-build homes and lives each year. Perhaps this is the reason why the community garden has nearly doubled in size and may grow larger next year. Could it be they want to live in a world where babies are not born for sudden death, but live long full lives; where no more shall the sound of weeping or cry of distress be heard in the world because of hunger, disease or violence; where an adult lives a long full life filled with meaning and where people shall build houses to live within and will plant vineyards and vegetable gardens, whose produce the gardeners will eat and enjoy because no one will take it from them or force them to work for those who oppress them; where the shalom-the peace of predator prey living together in harmony and where violence no longer exists?

Could it be that the hope of God’s new heaven and new earth where peoples, habitations and nature are all woven into a complex relationship of wholeness has been heard as an invitation to take part in God’s creative transforming mission-Missio Dei- to the world? Could it be that when they have heard the prophet Isaiah proclaiming God’s intention to create an entirely new world where heaven and earth are to be one unified creation they were reminded of God’s creative capacity to create life anew because God’s creative word speaks a vision that comes to realization. This Missio Dei vision of a new heaven and new earth does not come out of nothing not does it come out of the ashes of a destroyed creation, rather it is the creation out of the chaos of human endeavors, of a spoiled and polluted nature and of everything in between. In this Mission Dei, God is transforming creation so thoroughly that the former things will not be remembered and will no longer influence or effect the present or the future.

Imagine a totally new beginning for Irondequoit and Rochester where everyone has a place to live in safe and decent homes, where everyone can freely move about without fear of violence or the fear of driving through dangerous neighborhoods, where a person isn’t stopped by police simply because of the color of their skin or because they fit a certain profile, where no one is a stranger and where everyone has meaningful work and a living wage. Imagine buying your home and knowing you can keep it forever – no one threatening to take it from you because they want it, or because you’ve been laid off, or made redundant, or had your job shipped overseas. People can breathe again – really breathe – without fear that life will be snatched away from them.

Last year, I asked you to imagine this congregation being a totally new congregation, designing and planning its organization in new ways, finding new ways of getting things done,  discerning new ways for us to worship God, designing a new way of welcoming visitors by first getting to know them as friends, and discerning the way we reach out into the wider community around us based solely on Missio Dei-God’s creative transforming vision of a new heaven and new earth. Letting the past be the past without any power to control, determine or define the future. Letting go of all the ways we compare ourselves to other congregations because we are focusing on being authentically who we are. Letting go of the old paradigms and schemes for growing the church by focusing our life together on God’s mission for this community and for the world.

I challenged you to join the Israelites who came back to Judah from Babylonian exile and respond to your situation the way they did as recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Their response was to rebuild the city and the Temple and to rebuild their community by once again committing themselves to centering their lives in God and God’s way of being a community where well-being, health, and growing and sustaining life was for every person. This is the hope contained within the promise of God’s new heaven and new earth, a hope inviting people to live today in God’s new heaven and new earth.

Interestingly enough,  this is the invitation to living the golden rule “do unto others as you would have them do to you” and being mindful that the yardstick by which we measure others will be yardstick by which we ourselves will be judged. Both of these are simply calls to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is the hope of the sacredness of life at every moment of life, of welcoming the stranger either the migrant or the refugee as sisters and brothers whose desire for a life of stability, of health and well-being and peace is the same as our own, of ending poverty and the immorality of homelessness, of encouraging all people to dream the vision of God’s new heaven and new earth then act on that vision.

We have made good beginnings in meeting this challenge of participating in God’s mission to the world through the continued support of the mission team, the Live Nativity teaching the real story of Christmas that is the birth of Christ coming as a gift to us of God’s love, the expansion of the community garden that grows community by growing relationships, the prayer windsocks and prayer shawls, the new opportunities of joining with other Presbyterian churches by using a $50,000 grant to change lives in metropolitan Rochester as well as the Love Thy Neighbor project.

While God will bring this new heaven and new earth to fullness as Jesus taught us that God will do, the call to be Christ’s body here in this place at this time challenges us to fully participate in Mission Dei- God’s creative transformation of the world, it challenges us to consider how to best use our increased financial and human resources in reaching out beyond ourselves into the community of Irondequoit and Rochester and the world, so whatever we do reflects God’s expansive and inclusive will for the world and not our limited vision of what is possible, challenges us to be an entirely new Summerville Presbyterian Church focused on creatively thriving knowing that as Paul reminds us that if God is for us, which God is, who can be against us, who can hold us back from living in God’s new heaven and new earth today? No one.

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