To Love And To Care For

Happy (belated) Memorial Day everyone! We were supposed to worship outdoors on our Ministerial Grounds, but actually got “rained in”. Because I thought we were going to be outside, I decided to sing more, preach less. 🙂 We read all four lectionary scriptures, sang a few extra hymns and I cut my sermon down. I was bummed that we had to come inside, but I knew it was for the best.

Enjoy!

UCC Memorial Day

***

Psalm 8
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

To Love And To Care For

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Mulhern Granholm once said, “Ceremonies are important. But our gratitude has to be more than visits to the troops, and once-a-year Memorial Day ceremonies. We honor the dead best by treating the living well.”

The passages that we just heard read from the Old Testament remind us of a sentiment similar to Governor Granholm’s. “[Lord] you have given [human beings] dominion over the works of your hands,” the Psalmist says to us, reminding that in creation we are called to care for the world that we live in. “You have made them a little lower than God,” the Psalmist writes, “and crowned them with glory and honor.”

God gave to human beings dominion over creation, but at the core of that dominion is also an obligation to care for that creation, to care for one another.

In this morning’s passage from the Book of Proverbs we are introduced to Wisdom, a feminine character that speaks as an individual entity. Wisdom often personifies an attribute of God – she cannot be separated God’s being.

Wisdom was a witness to creation; she delights in the glory of creation. “Then I was beside him” she speaks, “like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.’ Wisdom rejoices in creation, and also rejoices in who we are as humans. “[I rejoice] in his inhabited world and [delight] in the human race,” Wisdom says.

Wisdom reminds us that we, too, can be a witness to the glory of creation. We, too, can rejoice in the beauty that surrounds us, both in all of creation and within humanity. We, too, can stand in relationship with God and marvel at the world that God has created and that we are living in.

Wisdom invites us to join her in her enchantment; she is everywhere – “on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads … beside the gates … at the entrance of the portals” – beckoning us to come! Come – and rejoice with her!

We can come; we can come and respond to God’s call to first and foremost care for God’s creation. We can love the people around us, even when we may not like them. We can reach out our arms in compassion and in service, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We can embody Christ in our lives and in our ministries. We can, as Governor Granholm suggested, honor those who have come before us by treating those around us well.

This is not always easy. While Wisdom delights in what God has done to carefully create us, we know realistically that we, as human beings, part of this creation, do not always get along. We know that we are very different from one another; that sometimes we disagree, that we do not always like each other and that we often fight when we should seek peace.

As Christians we all know that we are called to be Christ-like in our words and in our actions. I think many of us, however, often want to go back in time and say to Jesus, “I know I should be more like you, but you never had to deal with [insert annoying person in my life here]!”

And this is where Jesus gives us a gift.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus says in our reading from this morning’s Gospel. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Jesus knew that his earthly life would eventually come to an end, but he promised us the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit within our lives. The Holy Spirit, Jesus assures us, will give us strength in those moments of weakness, love in those moments of hatred and compassion in those moments of frustration. The Holy Spirit will strengthen us as we strive to treat those around us well.

And in Paul’s letter to church in Rome he celebrates the arrival of this gift into our lives. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith,” Paul writes, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Close your eyes and imagine God’s love being poured into your heart. Do you feel stronger? Does your heart feel softer? Does your love feel greater?

Wisdom beckons us to come! Come and delight in creation; come and care for creation; and come and honor all creation, creation that has come before us, creation that lives today and creation that is still to come.

On this Memorial Day weekend, let us heed that call. Let us feel the Holy Spirit filling us with God’s love and truly honor those who have lost their lives by living lives that are worthy of that service. Let us feel the Holy Spirit working in our lives. Let us be the people Christ calls us to be. Let us come and be the creation that Wisdom delights in.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

God Speaks So That We Understand

Happy Memorial Day Weekend / Pentecost! We worship outside on the Sunday before Memorial Day every year – it was gorgeous out today! A great service.

We have an outdoor worship space down the street from the church that was (correct me if I’m wrong someone!) an Eagle Scout project.

The music was INCREDIBLE this morning!  Aaron had the pump organ, a barbershop quintet sang and one of our college students played taps at the end of the pastoral prayer.  I really didn’t need to preach – we could have just led the spirit move through the music. 🙂

I can’t seem to get the audio to upload – I think divshare is having issues.  I’ll keep trying – in the meantime, here is the sermon!

Acts 2:1-21

God Speaks So That We Understand

When I was in high school, my church in Connecticut sponsored a refugee family from Bosnia. We met them at the airport, had an apartment furnished and ready for their arrival and provided resources and support to them as they transitioned into life in the United States.

One of the biggest challenges throughout this entire process was the language barrier between the family and the people in our church that were helping them get settled. We did not speak Bosnian and they did not speak English. We brought a translator to the airport with us and when there were important decisions to be made or paperwork to be done, but for the most part we were on our own with English-Bosnian dictionaries, hand gestures and pointing. One afternoon I was at their apartment and I was trying to ask the mother a question. I looked up the word I needed in the dictionary and clumsily talked my way through the pronunciation. As soon as the word was out of my mouth, the mother’s face turned bright red, she nearly spit out her coffee and had to turn away from me laughing.

To this day, I still do not know what I said. But I know that I did not say what I was trying to say – and that whatever I did say was actually highly inappropriate.

Sometimes language complicates situations.

When I worked at the hospital in Atlanta, we faced language barriers every single day. There were translators available to us – both in person, through computer programs and on the phone – but in a pinch we also had to rely on dictionaries, hand gestures and pointing.

This morning we celebrate Pentecost, the “Birthday of the Church” or the celebration of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Pentecost is a festival that celebrates the giving of the law on the Mount of Sinai – its name was derived from the fifty days that separate it from Passover. During the festival after the resurrection, a crowd of about 120 people from various nations throughout the land had gathered and the Holy Spirit descended upon them, filling them with different tongues and causing them to speak in different languages. The languages people spoke were different, but what they said was the same – God is powerful and great and through Jesus Christ we are all redeemed.

While there were a few skeptics who thought everyone was just drunk and babbling, for the most part the people gathered were amazed by what had taken place. How could they all understand what was being said, they wondered. They all spoke different languages and yet in that moment they were united by the message of God’s love and grace.

I have had two Pentecost-like experiences in my life. The first happened the second time I went to Honduras. The last night we were there we worshipped at the mission with hundreds of people and families from Teupasenti and the surrounding villages.

Let me set the scene a little bit: When the “gringos” are in town, worship is always a little bit hectic at the mission. Mission leaders want to make sure everyone is having a meaningful worship experience, so it is common practice to bring translators in during the prayers and sermons so everything is being said back-to-back in both English and Spanish. When some of the most extemporaneous and fast-speaking preachers are behind the pulpit, the pace of the translation happens quickly and exhaustively.

The music, however, is only sung in Spanish – it is just easier that way. This particular worship service closed with a song that – despite its Spanish lyrics – sounded familiar to me. As I listened to the opening cords, I began to separate the language that I did not understand and just hear the music. And then it hit me – the song being sung was a song that we used almost weekly in our Wednesday night praise worship service. I knew the song – we all did. We just knew it in a different language.

I tapped everyone around me on the shoulder and told them that this was a song we knew. And so we all began to sing in English. The eyes of the worship leaders and those in the congregation positively lit up as they realized that we knew the song and the energy in the gazebo exploded as we sang together – some of us in English and some of us in Spanish. Despite the language barriers that had challenged us throughout the entire week, in a moment driven by the Holy Spirit, we were united with one another.

The second time I had a Pentecost-like experience, I was at the closing worship service for my seminary orientation. There were several international students matriculating with my class, so when we got to the point in the service where we were going to say the Lord’s Prayer, the worship leader invited everyone to say it in their native language. He began with “Our Father …” and then the sound of different languages filled the sanctuary as everyone began praying in their familiar language. Dozens of languages – one prayer.
This particular experience is why I tend to laugh every time the “debts vs. trespasses vs. sinners” debate surfaces here and at other churches. In the end I think we should pray both in words and in a language that is most comfortable to us. The goal of unison or group prayer, after all, is never to sound the same – it is to be united in prayer.

We are all different; we all communicate differently. But God speaks to each and every one of us so that we can understand. God speaks to us each and every one of us so that we can understand love, redemption and grace. God speaks to each and every one of us so that we can overcome diversity and find unity.

G. Lee Ramsey, Jr., who is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and a professor of Pastoral Theology and Homiletics at the Memphis Theological Seminary, had the following to say about this text and about what Pentecost means for us today:

The language event at Pentecost causes no divisiveness among the speakers or hearers, though it does stir some initial skepticism. The text states clearly that Jews from all parts of the Middle East are each able to hear in their own native languages. Like a gathered conference of the United Nations, each delegate hears the proceedings in his or her own tongue. What could be a more timely message for twenty-first-century Christians? The Word of God not only transcends cultural barriers, but it arrives in the particular language of each listener. Pentecost verifies Christmas. All wrapped up in human form, God comes to us in our very own bodies; God speaks to us our very own language(s). In an age of increasing pluralism, and the perpetual rubbing of shoulders across lines of nation, race, and class, God offers authentic human communion. Through ordinary human speech, the Holy Spirit establishes unity amid diversity, a fulfilled promise that even the most divided congregations and communities can take to heart. {Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, Page 5}

I think that sometimes we assume language can be a barrier put up, preventing people from communicating with one another effectively – but it is not. If we allow language – or even miscommunication – to be a barrier we may be missing out on a different and powerful way to connect with one another and with God. We are missing out on the opportunity to connect through touch, through song, through prayer. We are missing out on the chance to let the Holy Spirit fill our bodies and unite us with the people around us We are missing out on a moment where we can just listen and be present – even if we do not necessarily understand the words being spoken around us.

The celebration of Pentecost is not just a time to remember the birthday of the church and the coming of the Holy Spirit 2,000 years ago. It is a time to celebrate where the church is today and how the Holy Spirit is working through us and around right here, right now. It is a time to celebrate the diversity of who we are as a church and who we are as children of God. It is time not to turn our focus away from the differences that may divide us – but rather a time to turn on our focus on the ways that those differences may, too, unite us.

Pentecost is also a time to remember that God speaks to all of us so that we can understand him. No one is denied the message of God’s love, redemption and grace. God speaks so each and every one of us can understand him – and God speaks in different ways so that as unique and distinctive individuals, we can fully understand it.

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” How is God speaking to you today? What do you hear? What do you see? How do you understand?
May your ears be opened, may your eyes be widened, may your hearts be filled, may your minds be released and may your lives be forever changed as you hear God speak to you.

Amen.

More Than A Four Letter Word

Man – what a great service.

An opportunity to experience the Holy Spirit, to pay tribute to fallen soldiers, veterans and their families and to worship in awe of creation.

Just … Amazing.

(Thanks, Steve, for the photos!)

Here is this morning’s sermon.  The audio has been uploaded to my sermons tab if you’d like to listen instead of read!

***

John 14:15-21

More Than A Four Letter Word

I was on a conference call this past week and someone on the call asked me what my relationship with Jesus Christ was like.

I have to be honest – I was a little taken aback by the question. In all reality, in the United Church of Christ and in Congregational Churches in this part of the country we don’t often talk specifically about our relationship with Jesus Christ. We talk about community; we talk about building the foundation for strong churches; we talk about all of the wonderful things that our churches do; we talk about wanting to raise our children in a positive Christian environment; we talk our powerful worship services and we talk about the wonderful feelings of hope and peace that we feel when we experience fellowship with our congregations.

I stumbled over my answer, saying something about being inspired and empowered by the ministry of Jesus Christ; about striving to walk in the path that he set before me. I said that my relationship with the divine is more about the spirit than the literal person of Jesus Christ. In an effort to make it seem like I actually had a coherent answer to the question, I repeated myself a handful of times, said “um” more times than I care to admit and finally kind of trailed off and hoped that the person who asked the question would start talking.

I’m pretty sure the guy on the other end of the phone was probably fumbling through his papers and emails, thinking to himself, “She does WHAT for a living?”

I thought about our conversation all week; and I struggled with the fact that I was unable to eloquently articulate my answer to that question.

But here is the truth – I have always had a difficult time answering that question. And it is not because I am uncomfortable talking about my faith – you all know that, I do that every week! It is not because I don’t believe that Jesus walked and talked and lived as one of us. It is not because I do not believe in the resurrection. And it is not because I do not think that we should all strive to live a life of compassion and service like the one that Jesus lived. It is because I have always felt that in focusing solely on our relationship with Jesus Christ, we are missing out on a powerful part of the divine prescribed to us by Jesus before he died: The Holy Spirit.

Jesus said before he died, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Jesus knew that he would not be in the flesh forever. He knew he was going to die; he was ready to die. But he was not ready to be gone completely. He did not want the world to resort to a way of life similar to the one that existed before he was born. And so he asked God, the Creator, to send an Advocate on his behalf, the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is eternal. The Holy Spirit is ever present. The Holy Spirit exists in, within and through all things. The Holy Spirit is always with you – each one of you. In my pastoral prayer every week, I ask God to give comfort and support to those who cry out in pain; to wrap his arms around them. And in my mind – it is the Holy Spirit that acts on that request; it is the Holy Spirit that is always there to comfort someone when they are weak, to fill them with power and courage when they are scared and to hold them close when they tremble.

I have always said that God is always present in my life. Last summer when I was at the hospital, I said that God helped me get through every difficult case that I encountered. A few weeks ago, I talked about the fact that God was with me every step of the eight-year journey towards ordination. When people ask me how I stand up and preach every Sunday or hold it together during a funeral, I say that God gives me those words and poise. When I talk about finding balance in my life, I say that God helps me that find balance.

And I do not necessarily think that any of those statements are wrong. But after spending some time with this scripture this week, I think that when I talk about my day-to-day encounters with God, I am talking about the Holy Spirit. And I think that I struggled so much with the question about my relationship with Jesus because I understand those encounters as encounters with the Holy Spirit.

When I was writing my sermon this week, I had an ‘a-ha!’ moment. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit because he loved his disciples and his earliest followers and did not want to leave them alone – or ‘orphaned’ as the scripture says. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit because he cared so much about future generations that he wanted them to experience a constant divine presence in their lives. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit because, even without knowing them, he loved all of his followers – some who have come and gone, some who are alive today and some who have not even been born yet. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit because he loves every single one of you. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit because he loves me.

‘Jesus loves me this I know. For the bible tells me so.’ – It’s a simple song with a complex message. This passage is where the bible ‘tells us so’. Jesus loved and loves us so much that he made sure he could be present in our lives long after his life on earth ended.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. “I am coming to you. In a little while the world will not longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

The love shown to us by Jesus Christ in that one moment, in that one offering to us, is more than the four-letter word that we understand love to be today. It is a love that transcends all conflict and difference that exists in the world. It is a love that cuts through pain, hurt and suffering. It is a love that rejoices in truth and service. It is a love that we may never understand.

It is a love that transforms us all.

The passage that we read this morning was the passage that was part of the confirmation liturgy a few weeks ago – do you remember it? It was a perfect scriptural reference for that day! As the confirmands made their commitments to our church and to the greater Christian Church they were reminded that they are not alone in this journey.

Jesus gave us that greatest gift we could possibly be given by giving us the constant presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But the scripture does not end there.

Jesus also said in this passage, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Now Jesus gave us several commandments before he died. But there is one that has always stuck out to me. It is simple and yet it says so much. It was recorded in the Gospel of John that Jesus said before he died, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

It sounds so simple, right? But it’s not! History has proven time and time again that it is not easy to love one another.

But this is where Jesus’ final message to us all comes full circle. Because this is where the Holy Spirit comes back in.

The Holy Spirit is a divine presence that exists in us always. The Holy Spirit is what helps us to love when we want to hate. The Holy Spirit is what encourages us to use our hands to comfort someone rather than to strike them. The Holy Spirit is what breathes patience into us when we are at our wits end. The Holy Spirit is what whispers quietly into our ear when we are at our darkest hour, “Be still – and know that I am God.”

The Holy Spirit is what reminds us – even in our frailty and brokenness – that we, too, are beautiful in the eyes of God. The Holy Spirit is what gives us hope when our country is at war. The Holy Spirit is what gives us strength to support our soldiers and their families when we desperately just want peace on earth. The Holy Spirit is what reminds us of the beauty of God’s creation here on earth.

The Holy Spirit is what helps us to uphold the commandment to love one another.

It is not easy. It is not supposed to be. Jesus knew it was not going to be. That is why he sent us The Advocate. That is why he sent us the Holy Spirit.

Next time someone asks me about my relationship with Jesus Christ, I think I will proudly say that I love him for what he did hundreds and hundreds of years ago; that I love him for sending a Spirit that is with me and the people that I love every single day of our lives and that I love him for thinking beyond the realm of existence that he was living in. I will say that because of the love of Jesus Christ, a love that I will NEVER understand, but always recognize the value of, I am never alone.

We are not alone. We will never be alone. We are loved.

‘Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’ It does. Right here. Amen.