Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Me and You and Darkness in View

Though similar to the bronze serpent from Numbers 21, sometimes called "Nehustan," the Rod of Asclepius (left) comes from Greek mythology and has become a common symbol for medical arts. It is sometimes confused with the Caduceus (right) with two snakes and wings. It also comes from Greek mythology as the symbol of Mercury or Hermes the messenger of the gods. 

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Milwaukee Mennonite Church
March 4, 2018
© 2018

During Lent we typically look at our human need for God’s grace brought to us through Jesus’ death. We may say we agree with the theme for this Sunday, “Between Me and You, even in darkness, God’s promise and God’s love grow all around us.” But we struggle with our experiences of impenetrable darkness.
The daily news can overwhelm us with the sense of darkness around us, but more difficult and more important is when we are unable to navigate the darkness within us, when God seems silent, withdrawn, absent.
Just before what we read in Numbers 21, God had delivered the Israelites from some Canaanites who attacked them, and almost immediately they complained that God wasn’t with them. They even called the manna God gave them to eat “miserable food” (v. 5) So God sent poisonous serpents into the camp and people were dying painfully. At Moses’ appeal, God instructed him to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. Those who were bitten could look at and be healed. In order to live, they had to look at the very thing that plagued them.
What we read from John 3 compares Jesus being lifted up with the serpent in the wilderness. Scholars are not sure if Jesus said this to Nicodemus or if it is John’s commentary on their conversation. In any case, pointing ahead to Jesus’ crucifixion, we are called to look directly at the darkness of Jesus on the cross for the light of salvation. We love John 3:16 with its declaration of God’s love for the world, but we ask, “How can we believe God loves that world in which people love darkness rather than light? As we fix our gaze on the darkness of the crucified Jesus, we are drawn to come close to God’s light.
Perhaps you have heard of the “Dark Night of the Soul.” John of the Cross was a sixteenth century Spanish Carmelite friar, priest, and mystic who is best known for his book The Dark Night of the Soul. Though we don’t talk about it much, I would venture to say that anyone who has seriously journeyed with Jesus for an extended period of time has had at least one experience of the “Dark Night of the Soul.”
I had a dark night of the soul in 1977-80. I felt I was thriving in my part-time pastoral ministry and ready to move to full-time when dynamics in the congregation brought my part-time ministry to an end before I could seriously explore full-time. The way this happened brought my whole sense of calling into question. This was not about the circumstances but about crying out to God for leading and vision, and I was getting no response. My cries seemed to go into a dark hollow without an echo or glimmer of light. While I did feel down and desolate, it wasn’t the same as being depressed. My other part-time work became full-time in perfect sequence, but Christian education curriculum research, writing, and editing were not as satisfying as pastoral ministry. Yes, I was functioning using my skills and thankful to be able to provide for my family. I do believe my work helped people. But I could not sense God calling me forward or even personally present for almost three years. I kept up my daily spiritual disciplines and fellowship with the church, but felt as though God was hiding behind my daily scripture reading, absent from weekly worship, and my prayers seemed to be limp, punctured balloons littering the floor of my spirit. The breakthrough came when our small group was discussing Proverbs 17:22. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” For me this was not an admonition to “fake it until I could make it,” but more as a light in the distance of my darkness that I could follow to journey through the dark. That job change had me taking the Chicago-Northwestern train to the Chicago Loop every day for six months. I made this plaque of the ticket stubs, which I keep on the bookshelf in my office to remind me of that dark night and how God did guide me through it.

I had already been into my discipline of praying through the Psalms each month for about six years at the time. I identified with certain lines as they encountered me each month. The NRSV translates Psalm 88:18 as “All my companions are in darkness,” but I really resonated with the NIV translation, “Darkness is my only friend.” I took some hope from Psalm 139:11-12. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’” I prayed that God could see me even if I couldn’t see God.
I finally came to accept the assurance of Psalm 139:17-18, that God was thinking about me. “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.” This is echoed in the words of Simone Weil, early 20th century French mystic. “It is not up to me to think of myself. It is up to me to think of God. And it is up to God to think of me.”
One of the challenges and benefits of Lent is that it prompts us to look closely at things we would prefer to avoid. I appreciate the approach suggested by our Leader materials for today. I certainly hope you are not overly distressed that I have asked you to gaze into the darkness. In fact, I hope that you are encouraged by acknowledging that it is a normal and even healthy part of the journey with Jesus. I want to share with you insights that I have found helpful from Cistercian monk Thomas Keating in his book Intimacy with God (1995, Crossroad Publishing, New York. pp. 87-88)
God, too, seems to withdraw, to our great consternation. Instead of being present during our time of prayer, God seems not to show up anymore; it feels as if God could not care less. This is especially painful if the former relationship was very satisfying, exciting, or consoling. The thought rises, “God has abandoned me!” When the dryness is extreme, [Bible reading] is like reading the telephone book and spiritual exercises are just a bore. We are irritable and discouraged because the light of our life has gone out. It took so many years to find God and now God has gone away. There is a constant temptation to think we have done something wrong, but we can’t figure out what it was. Our tendency is to project onto God the way we would feel in a similar deteriorating relationship with another human being, namely, hopeless. This judgment is most unfair to God. At this point a lot of people throw in the towel and decide, “The spiritual journey is not for me.” … If we are very quiet in the night of sense, St. John of the Cross writes, we may notice a delicate sense of peace and may even begin to enjoy the more substantial food of pure faith.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) wrote of the spiritual life as a rhythm of consolations and desolations. He offers some very practical guidance for the seasons of desolations. (tr. George E. Ganss, S.J., 1992, Loyola University Press, Chicago, pp. 122-123)
During a time of desolation one should never make a change. Instead, one should remain firm and constant in the resolutions and in the decision which one had on the day before the desolation, on in a decision in which one was during a previous time of consolation.
Although we ought not to change our former resolutions in a time of desolation, it is very profitable to make vigorous changes in ourselves against the desolation, for example by insisting more on prayer, meditation, earnest self-examination.
God’s help always remains available, even if we do not clearly perceive it. Indeed, even though the Lord has withdrawn from us his abundant fervor, augmented, love, and intensive grace, he still supplies sufficient grace for our eternal salvation.

We will be singing Brian Wren’s hymn Joyful Is the Dark as a way of personalizing our experiences of the darkness in view.
Joyful is the dark,
holy, hidden God,
rolling cloud of night beyond all naming:
Majesty in darkness,
Energy of love,
Word in Flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Joyful is the dark,
Spirit of the deep,
winging wildly o’er the world’s creation,
silken sheen of midnight,
plumage black and bright,
swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Joyful is the dark,
coolness of the tomb,
waiting for the wonder of the morning;
never was that midnight
touched by dread and gloom:
darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark,
depth of love divine,
roaring, looming thundercloud of glory,
holy, haunting beauty,
living, loving God.
Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

Joyful is the dark.
Joyful is the dark.
Joyful is the dark!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Conversation with Jesus about life’s persistent questions: How can I explore spiritual mysteries when physical reality scrambles my brain?

John 3:1-21
January 28, 2018
King of Glory Lutheran Church
Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
© 2018

Perhaps you remember “Guy Noir, Private Eye” from the more innocent days of A Prairie Home Companion. He was in pursuit of answers to life’s most persistent questions. In their conversation, Nicodemus and Jesus, they are pursuing this question. How can I explore spiritual mysteries when physical reality scrambles my brain? We may think we understand the wind better than Nicodemus did, but like him, pondering the material universe can boggle our minds and interfere with grasping more profound spiritual realities.

Considering the origins of the universe is both fascinating and incomprehensible. Everything from black holes to Higgs boson particles prompt pondering. What was there before the big bang? What is outside of the universe? We ask: How did we get here? How did I get here?

Everything from evolutionary theory to human genome study asks what it means to be human. Who are we? Who am I? Why are we here? Why am I here?

Everything from the expansion of space and the burn out of the sun to climate change anticipates the eventual demise of the universe. What is our destiny? Where are we headed? Where am I headed?

British preacher C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) is reputed to have said that John’s Gospel was “Shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant.” Spurgeon’s observation certainly applies to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus explained how being born from above is to live a reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe yet as simple as wind.

Sometimes Nicodemus is portrayed as timidly sneaking into see Jesus at night and not bright enough to understand Jesus’ spiritual basics. But Jesus called him “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10 – not “a teacher” as in some English translations). Certainly one of the leading teachers among the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin, he was probably checking Jesus out for them, but informally and not officially. I think he picked up from Jesus, this uneducated country rabbi, something deeper than more than a millennium of Hebrew scholarship could grasp. I think he wanted it for himself.

Jesus told Nicodemus that no one can perceive the Kingdom of God without being born “from above.” Nicodemus’ responses indicated he understood Jesus to say “born again.” Jesus was speaking about the source of our birth and Nicodemus about the number of times we are born. The same Greek word can mean both, so here is a play on words. Jesus and Nicodemus were speaking Aramaic that would not have the same play on words as Greek, so whatever went on between them, John captured cleverly. Nicodemus was not so dense as to think Jesus meant physically going back through his mother’s womb, but thinking he was too old and set in his ways, making a spiritual rebirth seemed as impossible as a physical rebirth. He was sure that what he wanted was unavailable.

Nicodemus was a late bloomer or slow learner. When the Sanhedrin began its open opposition to Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up for just and fair due process for Jesus (7:50-52). Along with Joseph of Arimathea, (identified as a disciple in Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-53 and some women per Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55) Nicodemus assisted with Jesus’ burial, indicating a faith even at the point at which Jesus’ mission and message seemed to have failed. (19:39-40) Only being born from above could bring that insight.

To be born from above is to live a reality more profound than the most mind boggling concepts about the material universe. Scholars continue to debate what Jesus meant when he said that entering the Kingdom of God required being born of water and Spirit. I think the simplest answer is that they describe what is involved in being born from above.

Nicodemus was certainly familiar with the recent ministry of John the Baptist. He called people to show their repentance by being baptized, just as Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized. The religious leadership, of which Nicodemus was a prominent leader, was offended at the very idea they needed to repent and be baptized like an unclean Gentile. To be born of water (from above) is to turn from the life below and humbly begin anew in the life from above.

As the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus knew that in Ezekiel 36:25-28, God promised to sprinkle clean water to cleanse from sin and to put a new spirit within to follow God. Throughout Hebrew Scripture, water is associated with the Spirit of God. The promise of the prophets was that God’s Spirit would one day empower the righteousness that always seemed to elude them.

Spirit brings another word play that works in Greek and Hebrew, where the same word in each language means spirit, breath and wind. Jesus emphasized to Nicodemus the freedom of the wind and the Spirit. The Spirit of God is not limited to a pious or theological elite, or confined to established traditions. The most unexpected people, under unexpected circumstances are born from above by the life giving power of God’s Spirit.

When Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” (v. 9) he wasn’t expressing incredulity but a hunger to know how he could be born from above. Jesus responded with a story from Numbers 21. As punishment for revolting against Moses, poisonous serpents swarmed and bit. At God’s instruction, Moses made a bronze serpent and raised it as a sign for people to look at and be healed. Jesus compared himself to the bronze serpent, pointing ahead to the cross. God’s redemption was a great reversal. The object of punishment became the means of restoration. All that was required was to trust that a simple look brought wholeness. To be born from above, look at Jesus with faith. Those who are born from above find answers to life’s persistent questions.

Who am I? Where did I come from? I am created in the image of God. My life comes from the Spirit of God who lives in me.

Why am I here? What is my purpose? As Jesus gave himself for me, I give myself so others can receive his love too. Jesus did not come to condemn but to give eternal life. My purpose is to invite people to be included, not to decide who’s excluded. Martin Niemöller was one of the founders of the Confessing Church that opposed the Nazis in Germany. After World War II he said, “It took me a long time to realize that not only did God not hate my enemies, he didn’t even hate his enemies.”

What is our destiny? Where am I headed? I am on my way to the Kingdom of God, which Jesus calls eternal life in John’s Gospel. Having been born from above, I am already living eternal life as part of the Kingdom of God, the reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Good News: Your Time Has Come

Jonah 3:1-5,10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
January 21, 2018
Jackson Park Lutheran Church
Milwaukee, WI
© 2018

Good morning. I’m sure you are as surprised to see me here as I am to be here. My name is Norman Stolpe, and I am a retired pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I won’t try to trace all the steps that brought me to be with you today. Only yesterday afternoon was I asked to fill in for your pastor Fred Thomas-Breitfeld. I assure you, we have spoken on the phone, and he has invited me to help out in a sort of time crunch.

Perhaps you noticed, as I did, that each of the Scriptures for today make a reference to the urgency of time.

Jonah proclaimed, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The appointed time has grown short, for the present form of this world is passing away.”

After John the Baptizer was arrested, Jesus picked up with the same message, right where John left off, “The time is fulfilled, and this kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”

Each morning during my breakfast is use a Benedictine discipline known as lectio divina or holy reading with the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. So  every morning this week, without knowing I would be with you in worship today, I have been listening for God’s word about propitious timing, which has been a central aspect of our experience this past year plus.

My wife, Candy, and I had been in Dallas, TX since 2000. I had served Central Christian Church as their pastor until I “retired” in 2011. Then I did five interim pastorates. During the last of those, in April 2016 my wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and we knew we needed to make some changes. Our Dallas house sold more quickly than we expected, so we came to Milwaukee in February and stayed with some friends of our son David and daughter-in-law Rachel until we could move into a duplex downstairs from Rachel and David and their children Sam and Elizabeth in August. David is an impact teacher at Lane Intermediate School in West Allis.

We left our youngest son, Erik, behind in Dallas. He is a musician, and he has blossomed now that we’re not there to hold him back. Our oldest son, Jon, is an engineer who lives north of Philadelphia, PA with his wife, Leanne, and their children Hannah and Isaac.

Now that we have gotten settled and are feeling at home, I have been looking for some ministry opportunities that work with making every day the best it can be for my wife. I have been telling God I’d like to do one thing a week after New Year’s. Well, last week I conducted a funeral for a family without a pastor. Today I here with you in worship, and next Sunday I’m preaching for the folk of Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church, just four blocks from our home. I’m feeling confirmed in the timing of our next steps.

Besides hoping this helps you know a bit about me, I think this gives you some idea of why we have been paying so much attention to timing this year, and why I resonated as I meditated on the urgency of timing in these passages this week.

Though Jonah preached to Nineveh in a spirit of judgment and hostility rising out of ethnic, cultural and religious prejudice and hatred, his message was God’s good news to the people of Nineveh. They recognized the urgency of timing, turned around, and God was merciful to them.

I don’t know about you, but Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about how to live given the urgency of their time makes me uncomfortable. Having said that, I found his tone remarkably appropriate this week as Congress failed to meet the deadline for keeping the government running. I don’t want to get overly political, especially with people who don’t know me, but just as this past year was a time of unprecedented transition to a new phase of life for our family, the past year since the last election has brought our country, and in some measure our world, into uncharted, uncertain territory with an urgency of timing.

John the Baptist introduced Jesus and his ministry, which Jesus kicked into high gear after John was arrested. This certainly shocked Herod Antipas who thought he had eliminated John’s troublesome preaching only to hear that Jesus preached the same message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Like the game Whack a Mole, Herod got caught in a game of Whack a Prophet.

Many sermons on this passage focus on the pairs of fisherman brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John. But it also affirms that this is just the time for God’s good news.

God’s good news is that “the time is fulfilled.” The start of Jesus’ ministry was the turning point in God’s plan to redeem humanity. Jesus’ preaching invited people to an unprecedented opportunity to participate in God’s redemptive plan. Whatever they might have been waiting for, the decisive moment had arrived. The rest of the New Testament extends the propitious moment to us.

All through Hebrew history God’s people had been waiting for the Kingdom of God to dawn. They saw a few brief glimmers such as the good years of David and Solomon, but from Moses to Nehemiah and Ezra they mostly experienced yearning and disappointment. Jesus preached that heaven had come to earth for those who would believe in and live in it. For us too, God’s good news is to live in the exuberant confidence of the Kingdom of God regardless of our circumstances.

Repent just means to turn around. Repentance is not about feeling miserable or wallowing in guilt, shame and regret. Repentance is God’s good news that we are no longer captives of our past but welcome home.

John the Baptist had introduced the four fishermen to Jesus so when Jesus called, they received and followed God’s good news! It was their time to embrace God’s new life of unlimited, exuberant confidence.

You may feel your life is in a holding pattern. That tug deep inside that wants more is the Holy Spirit saying, “Now is your time! The circumstances you think are hindrances are God’s opportunity.” The Kingdom of God may seem obscure, but Jesus wants you to know that it has come near, not at an exotic, unattainable distance but in your small daily details. So let go of your regrets and inhibitions, your uncertainties and inadequacies. God is welcoming you to exuberant confidence as a resident of the Kingdom of God, which while hidden from ordinary folk is your most enduring and substantial reality.

With the church I served in NJ, I lead a weekly lunch with worship for street people. Joe was a developmentally disabled man who helped set and clear the table and played a hymn on his harmonica as part of our worship. One day he said, “I’ve been working on something special for today,” and played Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. A dozen or so unlikely people got a taste of the Kingdom of God! If you pay attention, you will hear Jesus saying, “The time is fulfilled, and this kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Your time for unlimited, exuberant confidence is here.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Let It Be Whole

Isaiah 61:1-4; 1 Thessalonians  5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
December 17, 2017
© 2017

I.                Advent is a season of ambivalence  as Rachel and Peter made so clear with their creative, humorous approach last week. While our society rushes around in a frenzy, we wait for a hidden hope to be revealed.  Advent acknowledges our human pain and cries to God for intervention that brings wholeness to obvious brokenness.
A.           I understand the Eash-Scotts host a “longest night” service on the winter solstice. Building on that ancient Celtic tradition, for several years I have led the churches I have served in a service the first Sunday night of Advent that I called “Give God Your Holiday Blues.” It gave people opportunity to express their feelings that seemed at odds with the seasonal celebrations. Sometimes grieving a recent death or struggling with sickness or a personal crisis. One of the most memorable was when 35 year old Christopher Clifton, who had been struggling with brain cancer for several years, lit a candle and said “I have just been told I have six weeks left to breathe. Whether it is six days, six weeks, six months, or six years, I want them to be for Jesus.”
B.            Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 song Silent Night/7 O’clock News, captures this Advent incongruity. That it took so little creativity to do so speaks to what we all feel. Play CD. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8d5C8kPlJA
II.            We sang My Soul Cries Out (Sing the Story, 124) which each verse of anticipation is answered with the refrain in hopes that “the world is about to turn.” The scriptures we have been reading through Advent acknowledge our human pain and cry to God for intervention that brings wholeness to obvious brokenness.
A.           Isaiah 64:1 cries out to God “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
B.            Isaiah 61:2 proclaims “the day of vengeance of our God.”
C.            Quoting Isaiah 40:3,6-7, John 1:23 announces John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism for repentance as “making straight the way of the Lord.”
III.       When we sang My Soul Cries Out at the hymn sing a few weeks ago, repeating “the world is about to turn” evoked both longing and frustration in me. How could I believe that “the world is about to turn” toward peace and justice, righteousness and mercy with all that is happening right now? I was ready for Advent to acknowledge our human pain and cry to God for intervention that brings wholeness to obvious brokenness. But I still am having trouble getting hold of it.
A.           Since moving into our duplex, Candy and I have been listening to music from the 60s and 70s, the early days of our relationship: Peter, Paul and Mary; John Denver; Joan Baez; Simon and Garfunkel. We enjoy it, but I feel a deep sadness, that what so many of us worked for seems to have been washed away, and the world has regressed.
1.              I wasn’t a wild radical but did march and write hoping to end the war in Viet Nam, and I requested conscientious objector status from my draft board.
2.              I continued to support civil rights efforts, participating in an open housing process when we lived in Carol Stream, Illinois. I engaged with homeless people when we were in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, even standing in solidarity with homeless people who had pitched a tent city on the county courthouse lawn and attending the court proceedings.
3.              I won’t say much about this, but the recent flood of news of sexual misconduct by public figures has stirred up painful memories of having to deal with a number of cases of such cases involving clergy colleagues, some even good friends.
B.            Needless to say, the current news has me asking which way the world is about to turn: toward peace and justice, righteousness and mercy, or toward deeper corruption?
1.              Violence and war are ubiquitous: as though more violence will address the threats from North Korea, Iran, Isis; as though more guns will protect us from crime and mass murder.
2.              Regardless of the politics and economics of what emerges from tax and health care reform, the way it is playing out generates the anxiety of uncertainty for those who depend on things like Medicare, including Candy and me.
3.              Scandals of money, sex, and power are hardly new, but it feels like a dam has burst, and asking if there will be any men left in public roles seems reasonable.
IV.       So yes, Advent acknowledges our human pain and cries to God for intervention that brings wholeness to obvious brokenness. As discomforting as appearances may be, Advent doesn’t leave us in despair but offers some secure anchors that we can depend on to hold in this storm. Advent shifts our focus from the distresses we’d rather ignore during the holidays to a reliable hope for wholeness.
A.           The anchor has been a Christian symbol of hope for centuries. The small ships of ancient times needed a way to weather sudden violent storms. The anchor was not used in the harbor, but in open water it was lowered from the bow of the ship to keep the prow pointing directly into the wind of the storm. That way the ship could ride up and down with the waves without rolling and capsizing. But when the anchor was doing its job, it was unseen, deep below the water’s surface. The security of the Advent anchor keeps us facing directly into the storm.
B.            I don’t think Advent is a formula for easy comfort, but the scriptures we have been reading are like the unseen anchors that can keep us stable in the midst of our current turmoil, facing directly into the storm. They guide us to the wholeness we desperately crave and need.
1.              Isaiah 40:1 introduces the section that was apparently written for Judah when they were carried into captivity in Babylon. In the worst crisis of their history, God said, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”
2.              When we are impatient for the world to turn toward peace and justice, righteousness and mercy, 2 Peter 3:15 reminds us to regard God’s patience as salvation, not as permitting evil to thrive.
3.              Isaiah 61:1 pointed ahead to Jesus’ mission that has been passed on to us because, the Spirit of the Lord God is upon us, because the Lord has anointed us; he has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, and bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
4.              1 Thessalonians 5:23 assures us that the God of peace will sanctify us entirely, so we may be blameless.
5.              As we read in John 1:23, John the Baptist still calls us to “make straight the way of the Lord,” in our own time and place.

Benediction from 1 Thessalonians  5:23-25

May the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and will do this.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Seeing the Image of God in Disabled People

2 Timothy 1:1-14
preached for Milwaukee Mennonite Church
September 24, 2017
© 2017

I have noticed that a number of you open your worship messages with the prayer from Psalm 19:14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you our rock and our redeemer.” I feel the need to do a little more today. With the instability of our situation since leaving Dallas, I have not felt I had the spiritual equilibrium to speak in worship yet. A few of you have asked me when I would take a turn at preaching, and when I saw the plan of the worship team for this fall, I told myself I wasn’t ready to handle any of these. But in my morning meditation and prayer later that week, I was drawn to today’s concern for disabled people. With our experience in the L’Arche Daybreak community for mentally disabled adults 25 years ago, I began to feel I do have something to share with you. As I have been praying about and assembling today’s message, I have had a personal encounter that has tested my ability to live out what I am going to say today. I have no great triumph to report, but my praying for what I say and what you hear has been intense.
Michael Arnet was one of the “disabled” core members at Daybreak who lived at Stevenson House, which was our home base in the community, though we lived off campus.
In our first week or two there, a group of a dozen or more went for an outing at the lakefront in Toronto. Michael had already gravitated to me and wanted to hold hands as we walked by the lake. I’m not sure I would have used the word ashamed, but I felt some embarrassment holding hands with a grown man with an obvious disability in public. Not wanting to let on to Michael, I worked this through in my mind and grew more comfortable.
My relationship with Michael developed over our four months at Daybreak. Thursday nights I accompanied him on his bedtime routine. Make lunch and lay out clothes for his next day’s work in a sheltered workshop. Change into pajamas and put dirty clothes in the laundry. Wash up and brush teeth. Pray with Michael before tucking him into bed. He knelt by his bed and stared at a Latin American cross as he prayed usually for 15-20 minutes, sometimes a half hour. This man who could not read or write, whose speech was halting and slurred, whose movement were awkward, prayed for people and crises all over the world. He knew where all of the Daybreak members were from and who was travelling. I never heard him pray for himself but for people he knew were hurting.
At one afternoon worship, the community was commissioning one of the assistant members to move to the L’Arche community in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. About 30-40 of us gathered around her to lay on hands and pray. I was standing next to Michael as he seemed to restlessly lift his hand as though trying to find a place to make contact with someone. When the rhythm of the prayers subsided, with his hand raised over his head, Michael said with a firm, confident voice, “Go with God to Antigonish!” With that the prayers ended and hugs were shared all around. Michael could not have told you what an apostle was, yet he fulfilled the apostolic calling, and the whole community recognized it.
I learned from Michael Arnet how my contemplative aspiration to see God is available in the people with disabilities God brings across my path.
Just a few weeks ago my meditation on the Hebrew Scriptures brought me to Moses at the burning bush. Exodus 3:6 says that Moses was afraid to look at God. I never want to lose the awe, even terror, of seeing God.
In Matthew 5:8 Jesus said that the pure in heart would see God. So my contemplative ambition is not achieved by trying to become a spiritual elitist but through disabled people whom God brings to me.
In his book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Søren Kierkegaard explains that Jesus was not speaking so much of moral purity, though that is important, as having a single, pure desire uncontaminated by even good distractions. If the only thing you want is to see God, you will see God.
The 19th century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse wrote that “The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” That does not mean dropping out of life to gaze at God, but to intentionally live all of life aware of standing before God.
If you have ever looked at Eastern Orthodox icons, you know they are different than the religious art we are used to. They are not intended to be pictures to look at but windows to look through to see a deeper spiritual reality. Michael Arnet was just such a window, an icon, through which I learned to look for Christ for all the hurting people of the world when I encounter disabled people.
You may recall that in Matthew 25:37-40 Jesus said of those who reach out to people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, and sick, “as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story about Martin the Cobbler to illuminate this passage. Martin believed Christ had promised to visit him on Christmas Eve, and he cared for several needy, hurting people who passed by his shop, but didn’t think he had seen Christ until when reading the passage he heard Christ say he had come in all those folk.
As early as the 4th Century John Chrysostom wrote, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you will not find Him in the Chalice.”
In ­Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
In our time Mother Teresa looked for Christ in the faces of the people dying in the gutters of Calcutta.
So when you feel ashamed, embarrassed, or awkward with someone’s disability, even if it is your own, Jesus invites you to look through that person as an icon, a window to see him.
Disabilities come in many forms and should not be ranked against each other. Some folk don’t recognize in themselves what others consider a disability. Others plead for sympathy with their disability that people around them don’t acknowledge. Some disabilities are physiological, psychological, sociological, and still others spiritual.
Looking for Christ in our own disabilities may be most challenging of all. Candy and I have experienced this in the past year and a half since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Loss of autonomy and control looms large, as does anxiety about the pace of progression. In the current Christianity Today, Matthew Loftus reviewed John Dunlop’s book Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, which affirms the image of God even as our minds fail.
So the next time you feel ashamed, awkward, embarrassed about someone with a disability, whether you yourself, someone close to you, or someone you observe at a distance, pay attention and you may just catch a glimpse of Jesus.
I invite you to respond today by praying together the L’Arche Prayer that we prayed together after supper every evening at Daybreak.
O Father, we ask You to bless us, and keep us in Your love. May L’Arche be a true home, where the poor in Spirit may find life; A place where those who are suffering, may find comfort and peace. Lord, give us hearts that are open, hearts that are humble and gentle, so that we may welcome those You send, With tenderness and compassion.
Give us hearts full of mercy , that we may love and serve; And where discord is found, may we be able to heal and bring peace; And see in the one who is suffering, the living presence of Your son. Lord, through the hands of Your little ones, we ask You to bless us. Through the eyes of those who are rejected, we ask You to smile on us.
Lord, grant freedom and fellowship, and unity to all the world; And on the day of Your coming, Welcome all people into Your Kingdom.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Can You Imagine a Castle on a Cloud?

Reflections for Easter Sunday
Isaiah 65:17-25; John 20:11-18
March 27, 2016
© 2016

If you had the power to fix whatever you think is wrong with the world, what would your new world look like? Artists often express these dreams with great eloquence.
Candy and I saw the Les Miserables movie at Christmas 2012, having seen the stage play years ago in Philadelphia. Young Cosette’s song Castle on a Cloud is her dream of escaping abusive servitude and drudgery. In the church I served in New Jersey, it was sung by the school choir at the funeral for a girl killed in an auto accident on her 13th birthday.
There is a castle on a cloud,
I like to go there in my sleep,
Aren't any floors for me to sweep,
Not in my castle on a cloud.
There is a room that's full of toys,
There are a hundred boys and girls,
Nobody shouts or talks too loud,
Not in my castle on a cloud.
There is a lady all in white,
Holds me and sings a lullaby,
She's nice to see and she's soft to touch,
She says “Cosette, I love you very much.”
I know a place where no one's lost,
I know a place where no one cries,
Crying at all is not allowed,
Not in my castle on a cloud.
John Lennon’s Imagine has become the anthem of a generation and identifies religion, nationalism, personal property and the expectation of life after death as the sources of injustice and suffering that need to be abolished. All of this is packaged as a winsome, lyrical invitation to dream.
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world
You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one
Isaiah 65:17-25 envisions God’s renewed world. This vision of hope answered the disappointments that came when the people of Judah returned from captivity in Babylon and realized that it did not inaugurate the ideal world. Through the prophet, God promised a new heaven and a new earth, which is echoed again in Revelation 21:1. In a time when life was short and any hint of personal, eternal life was vague at best, the defeat of death was longevity measured by centuries and the age of trees. No longer would people work to enrich others but would enjoy the fruits of their own labors. The end of suffering and weeping is also echoed in Revelation 7:17. God will not only protect but rejoice and delight in all who live on God’s holy mountain.

For centuries people have concocted all sorts of silly speculations about Mary Magdalene, though what the New Testament tells us about her seems more than fascinating enough to me. She is the main character in the account of Jesus’ resurrection in John 20. She, probably with a few other women, was the first to arrive at the empty tomb at dawn. She ran to tell Peter and probably John that Jesus had been taken out of the tomb. Peter and John ran to the tomb but returned to the others without seeing Jesus. Verses 11-18 report that …
… Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means MY Teacher).17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Mary’s experience with the risen Jesus was intensely personal. Whether the other women were there at that moment, John focused on the personal encounter between Mary and Jesus. Mary recognized Jesus when he spoke her name, and she called him “my teacher.” Emotionally overwhelmed, she clung to him, not wanting to let him out of her grasp ever again. He said, “Don’t hold onto me.” Something bigger was coming. He said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God,” bringing together the personal and the cosmic.
Mary ran to proclaim, to preach to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” Thus, as the first eye witness to proclaim having seen the risen Jesus, she is called the first apostle and the apostle to the apostles. Legend has it that she once had an audience with the Emperor Tiberius and told how she met the risen Jesus. The Emperor replied that no one could come back to life after a Roman crucifixion any more that the egg on the table could turn red. The story is that the egg on the Emperor’s table instantly turned red, and so many Eastern orthodox icons of Mary Magdalene show her holding a red egg.
The risen Jesus invites us to join him in God’s future that is at once personal and cosmic, immediate and eternal.
I may have told you before of hearing Fr. Thomas Hopko speak on the spiritual life when he was Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He said that when he was a boy, his mother told him, “If you want to grow as a Christian, read your Bible, say your prayers, and go to church.” Then he said to us, “Now I am the dean of a seminary training people for a lifetime of ministry, and I tell them to read their Bibles, say their prayers and go to church.” As simplistic as it may seem, Jesus meets us in the pages of Scripture, in the quiet conversation of prayer and in the community of God’s people of faith.
Jesus also calls us out of ourselves to be his partners in his redemptive repair of this broken world. He invites us bringing join him in the world of struggling people he is loving and transforming, into his cosmic redemption of all humanity and all creation. Here in Albany, TX, I have observed this in those who volunteer with Vittles by Vehicle, Closet Angels, Neighbors in Need, the Food Pantry. By look into the faces of the hurting, wounded people around us, they do much more than extend the love of Jesus to them, they join Jesus in his redemptive mission for all people in all times and all places. Beyond that, they see Christ looking back at them and smiling at them through their tears.

What is in Your Heart Comes Out

A Good Friday Meditation
Psalm 22:1-15; Mark 15:33-41
March 23, 2016
© 2016

In over 40 years as a pastor, I have been with a lot of people while they were dying, sometimes even at the moment of their passing. Christopher was 35 years old and dying of brain cancer. He had agreed with his parents that when hospice told them his last day had come, they were to invite me and the young adult group from church to be with them. He had been a runner in his healthier years and asked his parent to play a song called “He Finished the Race” when they could tell he would be breathing his last, which they did. Sad? Of course! But this was a most holy moment. What was in his heart came out. Sometimes what comes out as someone dies is angry cursing, but sometimes sweet peace comes out even in pain. It all depends on what was already in the heart.
Mark 15:33-41 reports what came out of Jesus’ mouth from his heart as he breathed his last. It had different effects on those who were there to witness it.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
40There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
The bystanders misunderstood and thought Jesus was calling the prophet Elijah to rescue him. They mocked his words as foolish.
The centurion recognized Jesus was God’s Son in the loud cry of his last breath.
I believe we know a lot of what Jesus said from the cross because the women witnessed it and reported it. They recognized that even their presence couldn’t relieve the acute abandonment Jesus felt in those three dark hours.
We typically think of Psalm 22 as prophesying the details of Jesus’ crucifixion. That certainly makes sense, but I think that by Jesus’ quoting Psalm 22 from the cross we can see deep into his heart. This is not the only Scripture or Psalm Jesus quoted during his ordeal. Jesus’ heart was so full of Scripture that he could draw on it for spiritual sustenance each step of the way, even in the three hour darkness of being abandoned by his Heavenly Father.
Psalm 22 gave Jesus an honest, intense way to respond to the pain of his abandonment. He didn’t have to pretty it up with pious words. He could draw on Scripture to express his most excruciating pain. He didn’t have to struggle to compose appropriate words. He could draw on the words of Scripture already in his heart.
That same Psalm also gave him a way to hang onto trusting his Heavenly Father in the face of feeling total abandonment and alienation. It gave him a way to appeal to his Heavenly Father in his moment of extremity.
Sometimes when we are at the extremities of our lives, feeling abandoned by friends, family and even God, we are afraid to express our emotions honestly. If we will fill our hearts with Scripture, especially the Psalms, we can receive from God honest words to express our pain and struggle to trust, knowing that since they come from Scripture, they are acceptable to God. I would also say that by filling our hearts with Scripture, we supply the Holy Spirit with raw material to bring into our minds and out of our mouths for every circumstance of life from deepest grief to most exalted joy.