It’s May. And many of us are wondering just how that happen? But the good news is that spring is in full bloom. My apple tree is coming out of hibernation. It’s green leaves and pink flowers are awakening. And it’s only a matter of time before we will be enjoying its fruit.
Over the years we’ve been very blessed by the bountiful harvests each one of our trees has produced with only the slightest bit of attention. With just a little water and fertilizer, along with some snipping and pruning here and there, we able to produce this thing called life.
This is sort of the gist of John’s gospel reading for today. Which just so happens to be one of the last lessons Jesus gives to his disciples before he is executed. It is also the last of his “I am” statements, allegories that speak to who he is so the disciples know who they are after he is gone.
It’s not uncommon for Jesus to use the landscape around him to teach ancient scriptures to his followers. Like this one found in John’s gospel about the vineyard and the vine - whose roots come from the prophecies of Isaiah. Last week, Jesus looked over the green pastures and drew from scripture to describe God as a trusted shepherd caring for his flock. Today, he describes God as a loving and attentive gardener – pruning and preparing us for unbounded glory.
Here's what John writes,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples.
As Jesus and his disciples leave the upper room to go pray in the Gethsemane garden, they most likely wandered past the vineyards of Kedron. There, among the leafy vines heavy with grapes and the warm glow of the fires burning in the distance, Jesus is inspired to teach his disciples, who are us, about their relationship with him and with God.
We don’t have to know much about vineyards to understand the point Jesus is making when he says, “I am the true vine. And God is the vine-grower.”
Scripturally speaking, Israel is described as the vine. By Jesus saying he is the true vine, he’s saying his God’s chosen, the one’s called to bear the fruit of God’s kingdom. But even Jesus understands that he does not do these things alone. God is with him, carefully attending to him and his needs, so the vine, like my apple tree, can bear fruit.
It’s safe to assume when Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the vine and you are the branches” he is saying the root, stem, leaves, tendrils and grapes are all one part of the vine. And any part of the vine that is that isn’t doing its job will be removed and thrown into the fire. Just the same, any part that is bearing fruit will be pruned and shaped to bear more.
Although we are free to rove and climb the trellises of life, we can never lose sight of the ever-attentive gardener in our midst. The one who is cutting and pruning to increase the yield of the vine. This tells me that we will all feel the stinging pinch of a sharp pair of pruning shears at some point in life. And even feel the searing heat of the fire.
Before you let your mind wander off to some dark and dismal place, I don’t think Jesus is speaking of some fiery eternal pit. He’s looking around and seeing literal fires burning in the distance. Fires that are providing light and heat. You see, even dead branches have some good use in God’s kingdom. After all, everything that God does is done to give life, and to increase the yield of all that is good in life.
Just think about that dead branch being tossed into the fire. What happens to it? Does it burn forever? No. Eventually it transforms into something new. Ash. Any avid gardener knows that wood ash is an excellent source of lime and potassium and other things that plants need to thrive.
Let’s not forget what God did with those two wooden branches hewn from a mighty tree and fashioned into Jesus’ cross. They were used by God to transform death into everlasting life.
So here we are with Jesus looking at his disciples (mind you, one has already gone off to betray him). Despite their lack of truly getting what he has been telling them about what is to come, he still is able to see their fruit. He tells his disciples, us, that we are part of Jesus, bearers of God’s redemptive fruit.
Today we have so many distractions that draw us away from allowing the fruit inside us to bloom. Sometimes the busyness of life keeps us from producing God’s goodness. Occasionally we will need to be trimmed and pruned if we are going to live into our calling. This means we have to let go of the things that are stopping us from thriving.
But how can we do this when we are still hurting from this pandemic? How can we do this when the news around us leaves us spiritually and emotionally drained? Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
This is an invitation to attach our lives to his. A life that God has carefully shaped to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Fruit which scripture describes as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. To abide in Jesus is to make his Spirit your greatest priority. The way to do that is to remain close to him - his love and faith.
Years ago, I visited a winery in Sonoma Valley up in Northern California. It was there I learned a few things about vineyards, and grape growing. For example, the soil, the climate and all the stress they put the vines through add to the grape’s unique character - which provides the distinctive notes found in a bottle of wine. These flavors are most prominent in the grapes produced closest to the central vine where the nutrients are the most concentrated.
Just as the life of a branch is sustained by being connected with the vine, our lives are sustained through a close relationship with our Lord. When we are connected to Jesus, when we make our home in him, we are able to draw from his spiritual abundance that helps us bear his fruit – God’s steadfast love.
This can be hard at times. Especially given the world and the issues we face today. There are so many other things there that draw us away from our source of life. But the branches and leaves and tendrils and fruit cannot survive without the vine. For this same reason we need to remain close to the one who feeds our soul and gives us life, if we are to truly live.
Lately, I’ve been struggling. I recently confessed to a friend that I am not really feeling the joy of my ministry anymore; my heart struggles to find words to preach; even my prayers seem empty. As I was naming these issues, I began to see where I have wandered away from my source of life.
I confess that I have allowed the pandemic, and politics, and other personal stuff to take my focus off abiding in Christ. This has made it impossible for me to bear any good fruit because I am not being nourished by a healthy source. Imagine what would happen to my apple tree without water or fertilizer. Not only would it not produce fruit, but it would shrivel up and die. We are not meant for death, but life. And Jesus is the way to living and thriving in this life and beyond.
I guess the moral of this story is this: The closer we are to Jesus the stronger our branches of faith become, the better yield of fruit we produce, and the greater the glory we bring to God.
Here Jesus is inviting us to take an inventory of our lives. He’s asking us to examine what is...and what isn’t...producing fruits of the Spirit in our lives. His is an invitation to give oneself, the good and the bad, over to God so that we can be shaped and transformed in God’s abiding love.
Our goal is not to remain a scrawny, twisted branch. We are called to be become one with the true vine so that we can his bear fruit, and nourish others so they can sprout faith and grow in love. So, I invite you to look within yourself and ask, “What is going on in my life that is stopping me from really bearing the best yield of my good fruit?”
Perhaps it’s a toxic relationship that needs to end. Maybe it’s some deep seeded anger you haven’t honestly dealt with; or resentment that you still hold on to. Maybe you’re jealous of a friend. Or envious of someone else’s life. It could be an addiction, or you’re just wandering along the trellis of life without any real meaning, because you don’t really understand what your purpose is. There are so many things that draw you away from becoming your best self.
Whatever you are dealing with, whatever is stopping you from truly thriving and abiding in God’s love, Jesus says ask God to take it away. And it will be done for you. To abide in Jesus is to abide in God. To abide in God, is to invite God into the fullness of your life – however messy that may be. It is to welcome and allow God to prune and shape you so that you can produce the sweetest, most heavenly fruit possible. To abide in God, is to be empowered to transform this world - loving others, living into the mission of the Church, restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
Jesus says, “I am the true vine… abide in me as I abide in you.” This is not a command, but a reminder of who we are and what we are called to be – beloved children of God, called to a new and wonderful way of living. A way that begins and ends with God’s steadfast and abiding love.
As the living embodiment of Christ’s body, we are called to bear the fruit of God’s love always. This is why we always have to show up. This is why we have to make love our highest goal. We do this by living into our Christlikeness by living out the love of God in all that we do.
For God’s love liberates us to live fully and faithfully. It opens our eyes to see the injustices around us and empowers us to act in ways that seek the well-being of all people. God’s love levels the playing field so that everyone can thrive and rejoice. It transforms all our messiness into goodness, so all of creation will bear good fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Therefore let us go and live into the blessedness of life, bearing the fruits that proclaim God’s glory, now and forever. Amen.
Let us pray:
God of mercy and grace, as we abide in your Son, Jesus Christ, we do so by giving our whole selves to you so that our hearts and minds might be healed and transformed to serve you and your Truth like he did. And to bear fruit of your kingdom in all that we say and do. Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Montes, Luz Cabrera. How to Love. (accessed May 1, 2021).
Readings: Psalm 23; John 10:11-18
Back in 2014 I had the pleasure of preaching to my entire family in at a special service in a very special place. It was in a little church on Colonsay, an island off Western Scotland where my ancestors had emigrated from.
I confess I was not very keen on the idea of having to write a sermon while on vacation. And I was even less excited about preaching one in front of my family who disregards pretty much anything I have to say. But my mom had her heart set on attending Sunday service. And unless another minister washed up on shore...well, the responsibility was all mine.
This is not to say I didn’t try to get out of doing it. I told my mother that it’s not very kosher to just wander into a church and use it like we owned the place. She reminded me that we are family here, and then pointed to the church sign that said, "welcome all.” When I pointed out the large heavy chain that locked the giant wrought iron gate blocking the front door of the church, my mom just calmly said, “That’s just to keep the sheep out.”
If you were to visit this island, you’d instantly notice the abundance of sheep that roam everywhere. Without any real threats of danger on the island, the folks of Colonsay have taken the concept of free-range to a whole new level.
Now, whenever you vacation in a place where the sheep out-number humans 25-to-1, there are some things you need to know. First, going barefoot really isn’t an option. Second, sheep are shy but not in the way we think. They don’t like humans walking up to them, but have no problem walking up you and taking whatever they want. I also learned that sheep have no sense of personal space. They will stick their nose into everything – they are forever curious to see what a Scotsman wears under his kilt. Another thing about sheep is they are not as dumb as we make them out to be.
Which brings me back to what my mom said about the giant chain wrapped around the heavy wrought-iron gate. Somewhere in the church’s 200-year history, the sheep had figured out how to unlatch the old wooden door that leads inside. So they put up a gate to keep them out.
Let that sink in. The sheep recognized the church as a sanctuary, a safe place to seek shelter from the heavy storms that frequently passed over the island. But for those who like to have a nice and pretty church, did whatever they could to keep them out.
The Bible offers so many allegories about shepherds and sheep. The most well-known is probably the 23rd Psalm. (Read: Psalm 23)
In John’s gospel, Jesus builds upon this poem to describe himself to his trusted disciples. (Read: John 10:11-18)
This reading is part of a series of seven "I Am" statements in John’s gospel that Jesus says to reveal his true self to his disciples. There’s the I am the true vine, I am the bread of life, I am light, I am the way, and today’s "I am the good shepherd."
Most of us live in cities and big towns. That means we are far removed from the rural pastures where sheep are often found. However, in 1st century Palestine, sheep and shepherds were a part of the landscape like billboards are today along our highways. Just as it is on Colonsay, it would have been impossible not to notice them. Even a blind person could tell they were there from their sounds and smells. Thanks to all the sheep, shepherding was a common occupation. A humble one at that. But it could prove to be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting work. It was certainly no 9-to-5 gig.
As John points out, it takes a to truly special person to fully commit to the duties of the position – to be away from home for weeks on end, to keep track of each animal, to chase after them and lead them away from unstable cliffs and dark ravines. And there was always wolves, thieves, and other threats that might require the shepherd to put his life in harms way to protect the flock. But apparently, not everyone is willing to do this. But Jesus says, “I Am.”
He says, “I am the good shepherd. I will lay down my life for my sheep.” Five weeks into the Easter season, we know what that means. But imagine hearing it for the first time, and then seeing it come into being on the cross. You see, Jesus was not only the good shepherd. He was also the sacrificial lamb.
How do Jesus’ words speak to you as a follower, a disciple? Perhaps you see yourself as a sheep. Or maybe as a shepherd. But do you see yourself as both?
Hold on to that thought as I tell you a few more things about sheep. They are nothing like cows. Physical differences aside, cows are herded from the rear; often with the ranch hand shouting and prodding them along. Sheep, on the other hand, prefer to be led. Unlike cows, they do not follow blindly as the old maxim suggests. They will only follow the voice of their shepherd.
The sheep will follow willingly because the shepherd has built a relationship of trust with them. The shepherd knows which sheep are cranky in the morning, which ones will occasionally bite, lag behind or wander off. He knows this because he’s chased after them; fallen in the mud with them; picked thorns from their hoofs. He has learned to love them in spite of their smell, and all their constant noisy bleating and baaing.
Many years ago, Pope John Paul II said, “God has thought of us from eternity and has loved us as unique individuals. He has called every one of us by name, as the Good Shepherd calls His sheep by name.”
When Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd" he is telling us that he cares for us like God has cared for him. We know that we can trust him and follow him, because we know what he is willing to do for us. He understands what we are going through because he has also gone through it himself.He knows what our dark valleys are like, because he has walked through them. He knows how easy it is for us to be scared and scattered by the wolves of this world, that even the most loyal sheep can stray and fall into dark ravines. Though we are not perfect, our Good Shepherd is always ready to come to our rescue at all costs.
But here’s the thing. Jesus is telling this to his disciples, not only to reveal who he is but to inform them of who they are being called to be. Those who follow Jesus’ voice are also called to be like him – to be both a sheep and a shepherd. To be loved and the one who loves. Like Jesus, we are called to lead others to God’s redemptive grace, and to do by abiding in the will of God. That is to say, to love others as God loves us.
To be like the Good Shepherd, we must be willing to set aside our self-interests and help others find quiet waters and green pastures. We must be willing to lay down our differences and lead our enemies to the table of peace. We must care for all of the sheep – feeding them, tending to their needs, and guiding them safely through the darkest valleys. Giving until their cup overflows. This is the life of sacrificial love, the starting point of our Christian identity. This is what it means to live Christ like, in imitation of the One who came to bring us home to God. Through him, goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Where there is love there is life.” Perhaps this is why being a sheep is often more attractive than being a shepherd. A sheep just has to love the shepherd enough to follow him. But the life of the shepherd requires one to love the sheep, no matter the cost. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” No one knows this better than Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
Everything Jesus has done for us is born from the love that he has for us. If we are to be like him, to truly follow him in all the ways of love, then we must resist the urge to live for ourselves, to set aside our own wants and desires in order to help one another; even if it means one must preach a sermon while on vacation. And so I did.
As I stood, facing my family sitting in the worn wooden pews of that beautiful old church, a summer storm blew over the island. Outside the window I saw a bunch of wet, smelly sheep moving towards the church...looking for shelter.
A strong wind blew hard against the building - causing that metal gate to slam shut. It sent a loud clang reverberating throughout the sanctuary. In it echoed my mother’s words “it’s there to keep the sheep out.” No church should keep the sheep out. Instead we are called to be out there with them. The church isn’t a building. It’s people loving one another.
Sometimes you are the sheep, on the receiving end of that love. Other times you are the shepherd - loving those around you. Just as God opened the Easter tomb, revealing to the world the real power of love, so too has Christ opened our hearts.
So as you leave here today, as you go out into the world, remember that you are more than just a sheep. You are resurrection people. And in us, and through us, Jesus lives. He lives every time love is manifested through us. And there are so many ways to do this.
He lives every time we mask up and help our neighbors struggling through the pandemic. He lives when we march on our streets, demanding justice and equality for all people. He lives when everyone of God’s sheep are valued no matter who they love, or who they vote for. He lives when we welcome the stranger among us, and whenever we care for those lost and frightened sheep we encounter along the way.
Whenever we make love come alive in the world, Jesus lives. And so do we. For that’s what happens when sheep and shepherd become one - one flock dwelling in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.
Let us pray:
Lord God, help us to hear your voice so we may follow you down the paths of righteousness and walk in the glory of your Son. By him and through him, we are truly alive. Amen.
I’d like to begin by thanking Rev Bob for filling in for me last Sunday. Not only is it nice to share this ministry with him, but it’s also nice to have a friend who’s got your back.
Last week Bob said something to the effect that now has Easter Day has come and gone, it’s easier for us fall right back into our old ways and habits than it is to truly live as Christ, as resurrected people. That’s a powerful and troublesome thought.
As more people are becoming vaccinated and restrictions are being lifted around the country, we might be tempted to go back to the way things used to be instead of taking what we’ve learned over these last 14 months to make the world a better, safer, healthier place where everyone can live and thrive.
After witnessing his death, many of Jesus’ disciples went back to their old jobs. But it’s only a matter of time before they will come to see what God has done. And what God is calling them to do - move the kingdom of heaven forward. So it is at the end of Luke’s gospel.
Read: Luke 24:36-49
If you are a lover of zombie movies this passage could have your head spinning in all sorts of directions.
The last time the disciples saw Jesus, he was dead on a Roman cross. Now he’s standing in the room with them. And they are freaking out. Who could blame them? They are us. Imagine going to the funeral of a loved one only to come home and find that person in your kitchen eating a bowl of cereal like nothing ever happened.
Now, the first thing we learn in this story is - nobody expects Jesus to be here. But all of a sudden, he is. Zombie narrative aside, this is a subtle but important point. As the old saying goes, “It’s best to be good because you never know when Jesus is going to show up.” And trust me, he will.
Next, Jesus greets them. “Shalom!” which is loosely translated into English as, “Peace be with you.” A bit ironic don’t you think? It’s hard to find peace when you’re freaking out because the dead one is no longer dead. But in Hebrew, the word “shalom” means much more than “peace.” According to Kirk Kubicik It’s a word used to convey that all is well with the world; all is fair, all is just; all is the way God means it to be.
But it’s not well. Not now. Not then. Up until this point, all the disciples know is the bad guys won. They, who are us, watched their teacher be unjustly condemned and wrongfully murdered. Their fear is legit. As far as they know they’re next. But here comes Jesus – showing up to let them know that all is right in the world. This is the way God wants it to go down.
Jesus comes bearing God’s shalom. But our fears and worries make it hard to see, even when it’s right in front of us – close enough to touch. Nevertheless, the disciples are happy to see their teacher again; to embrace him in the flesh. And after their strange reunion is out of the way, Jesus becomes one of us again. He wants to know, “What’s there to eat?”
Christ is not only alive. He’s also hungry. And wants us, the disciples, to feed him. The disciples, us, give him some leftover fish. I suspect this isn’t what Jesus is hankering for. Because after he eats, Luke says Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures.
Jesus isn’t hungry for food. He’s hungry for our well-being. He wants to make sure that we understand the word of God, what the laws and the prophets speak of, because it’s in there we find all the ways to make everything is right in the world - the way God means it to be. Jesus takes the fish but feeds us scripture so we will always hunger for what is just and right.
This is important because this had not been the case with most of the religious teachers in Jesus’ day. Like Kubicek points out Jesus was upset with the ways his religious contemporaries were using scripture to their advantage. “Instead of bringing God’s people, all people, together, the administration and understanding of God’s 638 rules, beginning with the First Ten, was being used to separate people more than bring them together.”
Let’s be honest. What ticked off Jesus then ticks off Jesus today. Think about all the times you’ve heard Christians slice up Scripture to validate why it’s okay for them to discriminate and exclude others from worshiping God? To borrow from Jesus, they notice the speck in someone else’s eyes but cannot see the log that’s in their own.
As we have come to see in recent years, such behavior pushes people away from the church and from receiving God’s unconditional love. This is not the way to bring about God’s shalom in the world, is it?
Christ is alive. And Christ is hungry. Hungry for justice, fairness, and equality for all people – not some people, not most people, not lots of people. But all people. As churches are battling it out over “who’s in and who’s out,” the world is starving, literally and figuratively, for the way God means it to be. The way of peace, the way of love.
In everything Jesus did, he did to open our eyes and hearts to the way of God’s never-ending love. And now he’s calling us to use this love to satisfy the hunger of the world. He made that perfectly clear when he said that the hungry were to be fed; the naked clothed; the prisoner visited; the sick made well; the stranger welcomed.
This Jesus, the one who identified himself as the foreigner mother pleading for her child’s life, the one who saw his reflection in the eyes of the cheating tax collector, the leper cast out from society, the war vet begging on the street, and the hardened prostitute crying out for hope.
This Jesus who we have come to worship and glorify today – the one who took our pain and suffering as his own, the one who sat with the dying and wept with the bereft – never turned away from people. He turned towards them. He made sure everyone had their fill of God’s loving grace. Even as they killed him.
You see this Jesus – who is hungry for something more than a piece of broiled fish – actually meant it when he said, “What you do to them, you do also to me”?
Earlier I said, “you never know when Jesus is going to show up.” But here’s the truth. Jesus doesn’t show up unexpected. He shows up in the other. He comes to us every day – alive and hungry. But who’s going to feed him?
How will we respond when we see him? Afraid, in disbelief? We can pretend Easter was something that has come and gone, as if it is no longer relevant. Or we can feast on the words of Jesus who says, “Repentance and the forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed …to all nations, all persons.”
Jesus tells the disciples, who are us, “You are a witnesses of these things.” But will we go out and feed the world as living witnesses to this Shalom he speaks of and died for? Or will we simply offer him a piece of leftover fish?
As you leave here today, I hope you will remember that Christ is here, offering you God’s shalom. This is not a greeting. It’s a call to participate in God’s kingdom. We are his church, a holy body broken for the world. He calls us to make our lives, our homes and churches, a place where all people are not only welcomed but fed, nourished, and satisfied with the redemptive love of God’s grace and mercy given to all through Christ Jesus.
St. Augustine said it like this. “You are the body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken; you are to be blessed, broken, and distributed; that you may be the means of grace and the vehicles of the eternal love.”
For some reason Christ has made us a partner in his ministry. So it’s my hope for you, his beloved, that you will go out from here, fearlessly and faithful, to be who God has called you to be. A holy and sacred feast for a very hungry world.
Let us pray:
God of new life and of new beginnings, we give you thanks for this new day, and for opening our eyes to see you in the beauty that is springing from the ground. With each new bud and bloom we are reminded that Christ is always risen, and we are resurrection people. Just as Christ has opened our hearts to receive you, our minds to understand your ways - we pray that we will remain open to your call to serve you. In a world hungry for your shalom, may we remain a constant source of what they are seeking. May we be a body broken for them, so that you can work through us; providing what we cannot on our own. And so we pray that you will guide those who make decisions, and protect those who live under their rule. We pray for those who live in fear of violence, and for those who make them feel afraid. We pray for those who live in mansions and those who live in the streets. For those who have too much and those who have too little. We pray for those who are sick and in pain, and those who bring them relief. We pray for those who have asked us to pray and for those who cannot pray for themselves: We pray for this church, and all who come seeking to know you better and for those who have rejected you. May we forever be an open door for all to come and experience your love. By your Holy Spirit, send us out into the world as vessels of your love, as imitations of your Son in whose name we offer you these prayers. Amen.
Kubicek, Kirk Alan. Jesus Is Hungry. (April 19, 2015).
Today is the day that Lord has made. Let us rejoice! Christ has risen.
Good morning and welcome to Easter – the most special day for Christian faith and a very special day for us here at New Church Sherman Oaks.
Easter is also our church birthday! Thanks to COVID, our service is a little different than it was four years ago. But not so different than that first easter morning, when the disciples were also at home to received the good news! The tomb was empty. Jesus is alive.
The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ was not a one-time event. What God did then, God does now. We are resurrected people. This does not mean we won’t suffer, feel pain or somehow escape a physical death. It just means God so loves us, that God was willing to take on our flesh and feel our pain with us.
Out of this divine solidarity comes our blessing, a new life. And a new understanding of God’s covenant promise kept. God is our God. And we are God’s children, beloved and alive thanks to Christ Jesus. It is in his name we gather. It’s his name we rejoice. It’s in his name we offer this prayer:
Almighty God, awakens us to your glory through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, who overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life. In the face of all that we are suffering from today, let there be joy in Jerusalem and peace among all nations. Let the sounds of weeping and the cries of distress turn to shouts of joy and laughter. Let infants grow and thrive. Let the old dance like children as we come together as a community, caring for one another and helping one another live into the glory of the Easter resurrection. By your Holy Spirit fill us with all goodness and grace, so that we might proclaim kindness, justice and love to our neighbors; living out this life by the example set for us by your resurrected Son, who taught us to pray saying:
Last week, Palm Sunday, we spoke of the people who lined the streets to celebrate Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem. But that celebration was short lived. Sometime after he shared a Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus’ enemies had him arrested. They hustled him through an unjust trial and convicted him of blasphemy - a crime punishable by death.
But because they were devout, law-abiding men, his enemies had to connive and convinced the Roman government do their dirty work. Before Pilate, Jesus was beaten and mocked, yet didn’t flinch before the emperor’s sword. Instead, he stood there silently as if to say, “What are you gonna do, kill me?” It was like Jesus knew God’s love and faithfulness was bigger than death. Still, Pilate gave him an insurrectionist’s cross. And well, you know the rest of the story.
Then, on the day Jerusalem observed the Sabbath, God got busy. And here’s what happens next. Read: Mark 16:1-8
Now Mark is considered to be the first of the four gospels. His is a quick and to the point account of Jesus’ ministry. Throughout the ages, people have found all sorts of creative ways to make Mark’s Easter story come to life. Around 400 A.D. John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, preached one such sermon. It was so good the Church argued it should be preached every year.
Given the divisive state of American Christianity these days, today seems like the perfect time to bring back this famous Easter message written by one of the early church fathers. Even though it’s over 1,800 years old, his words are still relevant and speak to every heart. He begins by asking:
Is there anyone here who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival.
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any now weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If they have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward.
If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!
And they that arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they shall have sustained no loss.
And if any have delayed until the ninth hour,
do not hesitate; but let them come too.
And they who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
be not afraid by reason of this delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those who toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the work as he greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors. And the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry; partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
for the death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hades when he descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar, because it was mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it was destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar because it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and it discovered God.
It took earth and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!
What an amazing gift John Chrysostom gave to the world. A simple invitation to everyone to come and feast on the glory of God! When we first gathered as a church, our invitation was simple. Come and see.
Come and see the church from a new perspective.
Come and see yourself through the eyes of God’s love for you.
Jesus often described God’s love as a banquet, a feast like no other. A feast that Jesus has invite you to attend. The table has been set. There is a seat waiting for you.
It doesn’t matter who you are or when you arrive, Jesus said you are welcome to this feast. Whether or not you believe a little, or a lot, or not at all it does not negate what God has done for you through Christ Jesus. Whether you are a sinner or a saint, God destroyed death, so that you might live and enjoy this everlasting feast.
Think about that for a moment. God destroyed death, so that you might live. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks of you, or how it tries to define you. It doesn’t matter how you see yourself! This is a day that the Lord has made. No longer will darkness overpower you. Jesus Christ is giving you the radiant light of Easter.
In this light, Jesus sees you as you really are – a beloved child of God. He is calling us all to the feast.
Today, as we gather to celebrate God know that God is here to celebrate you. Whether you see yourself as worthy or not, the table is set, the food is already cooked. There is enough for everyone to get more than their fair share. The celebration is on. The only one stopping you from attending … is you.
Every Easter for as long as I can remember, we have hosted a big Easter brunch. Kathleen would make all kinds of great dishes. And our friends and family bring their best. Mouth-watering aromas mingled with the electrifying joy in the house. Around our table one would find ham, quiches, soups, charcuterie boards with different meats, bread and cheeses. Not to mention salads and vegetables prepared a dozen different ways.
We’d load our plates. Then go back for seconds and thirds. The champagne was as plentiful as the laughter. We’d relax on the back porch, holding our stuffed bellies and watching the kids hunt for the remaining easter eggs. And then, desert would come. Cakes, pies, fruit, ice cream and chocolates and of course Easter candy.
It’s a marvelous feast to say the least. A little reminder of the sweetness of heaven here on earth. Because of the pandemic, this didn’t happen last year. This year won’t be any different. Many of us are still unable to be with our friends and family. Yet we all still have a reason to rejoice. The tomb is empty. Death no longer holds us captive or cripples us with fear.
Christ is Alive. And he’s calling us to the party. A never-ending feast of unlimited and boundless compassion. A banquet where we all delight in forgiveness and have our fill of mercy. It is here, with Christ, that God pours into the cups of our heart grace upon grace until it spills over and splashes on the tables and floors. Best of all...No one is turned away. Because no one is beyond the boundaries of God’s eternal love.
Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten this. Somewhere along the way, we tried to capture God in a box. But as the Easter tomb has shown us, God cannot be contained.
What God did then through Christ, God did once and for all. Through him we are free; given a new life. Today the Incarnate Christ is calling us to embrace this new life and the fullness of God’s faithfulness that broke through death on that first Easter morning.
From his empty tomb, the words of God still reverberate, “You are my beloved children. And my love is everlasting.” And so I invite you once again to come and see that God’s love is stronger than death. And anything that belongs to God will never go to waste.
Jesus calls out to you and me. Come and see. His is an invitation to receive God’s love that empowers you to take the Way that Jesus has taken before you: a way that gives you true joy and peace and enables you to make the love of God visible in this world.
Come and see what the Lord has made for you, out of great love for you. The table is set. The feast has begun. So come. The only one stopping you is you.
Let us pray:
We love you and adore you, Lord Christ. Because of your cross and resurrection, you have freed us to live into our belovedness. By your Holy Spirit, guide us always to walk in your footsteps as the visible presence of your light and love so that the world might see its place at the table and come to glorify you. Amen.
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
The end of Mark’s story seems to suggests that Jesus went to Jerusalem alone. While there was a parade of people following him, they only did for so far. They stopped at the city gates. Jesus goes by himself to the temple, not to occupy it, or to cleanse it, but just to look at it, to observe it. And then alone he leaves the temple and Jerusalem to retire with the Twelve who seem to be in Bethany.
How did Jesus end up alone? Where did all those people go who came out to cheer him on? One minute they’re waving leafy branches shouting Hosanna, then the next minute they’re gone.
And what about the Twelve? They left their families and businesses behind to follow Jesus. For the last couple of years, they’ve been by his side; clinging to every word and witnessing every miracle. Now, as Jesus’ days are coming to an end, they are missing in action. Or course they weren’t the only ones who followed Jesus. The sick and the demon possessed looked for him in order to be healed.
And then there’s the Pharisees and Sadducees. They followed Jesus hoping to entrap him. He was becoming a bit of a thorn in their side – questioning their motives and understanding of God’s will. They followed him to get ammunition to bring him down. And eventually they will succeed.
Of course, the Roman’s were always close by, guarding their empire. It was rumored that Jesus was a revolutionary leader, the one sent by God to overthrow Caesar and restore Israel back to its former glory. Though he had no armed militia, he was still seen as a threat to their way of life.
As Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the last time, all eyes were on him. People stopped whatever it was they were doing to follow him. And to cheer him on. They shouted “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
But for no reason given, they were gone as quickly as they showed up. And I can’t help but wonder why.
Is it because the stakes are higher now? Jesus is no longer in the villages and open country of his home province. This is the capital and the seat of religious and civil authority, where chief priests and elders have real power. Maybe the people are afraid of what might happen to them if they are seen with him. To what extent the crowds supported his ideals is not fully clear. But they did...up to a point. This makes me wonder why you’re following Jesus and how far are you willing to go to do so?
Is it to have your sins forgiven? If so, you might remember from last week God made a covenant that said, “I will be your God and you will be my people. I will remember you sins no more.”
Maybe you follow Jesus so you can get into heaven when you die? But Jesus made it abundantly clear that the Kingdom of Heaven has already come to us. This is why he said, “Repent.” Let go of your old ways. Be present and participate in the kingdom now. We do that by following the way of God like Jesus did.
When I asked Kathleen this question, she said, “I follow Jesus because he’s the source of the things that I believe are true and good in the world. Sources I can draw from to be who God has made me to be.”
Jesus is not just inviting us to participate in God’s kingdom, but to grow and thrive in it as well. Jesus is our savior in that saves us from ourselves. His is a new way that will require losing your life in order to save it. To be a follower of Jesus means you choose to be his student; applying his teachings to your life. It means imitating his way of love and self-giving for the sake of the other.
And this can be dangerous. People love to take advantage of our goodness. But that’s on them. We have our call. As Jesus put it, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
It will only be a matter of days that the 12 will understand the full extent of what this means.
They’ve spent much time with Jesus listening and observing. But it was always on the other side of the cross. Only after the resurrection will they fully understand what it means to follow Jesus. And follow they did – faithfully continuing his work of spreading the good news of God’s redemptive love and grace everywhere they went.
Imagine what that entails, especially today. There will be rejection and humiliation. The emotional toll of tireless giving over to the needs of others without a guarantee of receiving anything back. This was never supposed to be easy. Saints like Mother Teressa struggled to live up to the call. I barely touch the surface...but I try.
The Romans were right. The way of Jesus is revolutionary. It’s a threat to a way of life that builds empires on the backs of the weak and poor. It’s an assault on the systems that takes whatever it wants, often by force. It confronts those who twist the laws and bends the truth in their favor so they can keep their power.
To follow Jesus means the will of God will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. It means allegiance to God supersedes one’s allegiance to Caesar or country. It means standing up to injustice, opposing violence, and practicing equality. This is tough to do now, just as it was back then. The disciples faced opposition as strong as any Jesus himself had to endure. Still, they risked it all to follow him. But will we?
Eventually the people singing their sweet hosannas would slowly retreat; returning to their daily lives. One by one, they will drop away. Who could blame them? When Jesus rode through their neighborhoods without an army behind him, they gave up hope. They feared they didn’t have what it takes to stand up to a powerful empire. Like seeds planted on rocky or shallow soil, their faith never really took root.
By midweek, the numbers of followers will dwindle back down to 12. Then to 11. By the time the cock crowed three times the next morning, only Peter will be left – watching from afar as Jesus’ fate is sealed. By sunset of that day, Jesus will be alone, once again, only this time on a slab in a tomb.
We are blessed to know what comes next in the story. This tomb is only temporary. It’s nothing more than a gateway to show the world what God can do, and what God is willing to do, to be in relationship with us. We are blessed that God loves us so much that God is willing to take on death and defeat it for us.
But this blessing is also a burden. A burden of knowing what following Jesus entails. Just as he gave instructions to his disciples to continue this mission of love and redemption so too are we called to walk as he walked and to talk as he talked.
It means to show patience when people annoy us, to be kind when they reject us.
It means to help those who reach out to you, without judgment or shame.
It means to demand justice when the law is being twisted and abused.
It means to welcome people who are not of your tribe, or political party or religious affiliation to celebrate the fullness and diversity of life with them.
It means to love like it’s the only thing that makes your heart beat and come alive. So why would you risk your life to follow Jesus? I can’t really give you an answer, only my opinion based on what I’ve learned by struggling over the years.
In this final pilgrimage, Jesus began his walk to the cross. In doing so, Jesus will face for me our greatest fear – death. Through Jesus, God has freed me from death so that I can live – truly live - without fear. To live without fear is to live with God’s shalom – God’s perfect peace. Possessing this peace I can proclaim the good news by simply living into it for others to see.
I haven’t perfect this yet. But instead of getting down and giving up, I simply show up every morning and try. With God’s peace on my heart, I have hope. I have a purpose. I have a reason to get up in the morning do what Jesus did every day. Because day after day Jesus continues to live through me.
To follower Jesus is no small choice. But one we are called to make. It’s hard because you’re not just choosing him, you are also choosing to stake your life on living in imitation of him. To follow Jesus is to choose the steadfast, unyielding, courageous commitment to living eternal Will of God — no matter the cost. That means, to make God’s love the center and the standard of everything you do.
This is dangerous. This is revolutionary. This is life giving. But this is the way of God, who through Jesus Christ calls out to you, “Come, follow me.” The choice is up to you. To follow or to walk away.
But if you say you follow Jesus, you must ask yourself how far are you willing to go?
Let us pray:
Loving Lord of all life, you were willing to bear it all by becoming one of us, to lead us back to your heart. Through your Son, you have shown us the Way. And by our willingness you have opened our eyes to see it clearly. We are grateful to be given this chance to live into your light and love, and to partake in the mission of Christ - to bring new life and hope and peace into the world. By the power of your Holy Spirit fill us with all that we need to truly follow in the footsteps of Christ Jesus, so that your will be done...not for our glory but yours and yours alone.
Fifth Week of Lent A New Heart
March 21, 2021 Jeremiah 31:31-34
I want to begin today by asking you a serious question. If you could get a do over on one part of your body, what would you chose? Straighter teeth? A smaller nose? Maybe longer legs to be a few inches taller. I’m torn between having hair or having better eyesight.
I ask this because I think if given the chance, most of us would go under the knife to change how we look before we’d do the hard work of changing something that actually matters. Because let’s be honest, it’s easier to change one’s outer appearance than it is to change what’s on the inside.
As we continue our look in the Old Testament at the covenants God made with Israel, we see again and again how God works to renew our hearts. Today’s words are from the prophet Jeremiah, who has spent most of his life warning God’s people that their idolatrous ways would only lead to judgment being heaped upon them. And when it came, it came with a vengeance.
The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and dragged their king and religious leaders off in chains. Everything they believed was important now laid in waste and God’s people are faced with a serious crisis. Not only had the lost their power and prestige, but they felt as if they had also lost their God. Or at least the assurance of God's faithfulness and security. Instead of shaking his head and saying, “I told you so,” Jeremiah offers his community these words of hope.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[a] says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:31-34
Despite the infidelity and idolatry, despite the corrupt kings and priest who twisted God’s laws to exploit and promote their own agenda, despite all the ways that people have broken faith with God, God does not break faith with them. This is the reoccurring theme we’ve been looking at throughout Lent. God remains faithful even when we aren’t. God is always there, even in our deepest despair, creating life out of death.
Although we are getting closer to our Easter celebration the good news seems still so far away. Thus, Jeremiah’s words offer us a sense of comfort and encouragement. He reminds us that God does not give up on us.
Whether we are worthy or not, God takes the initiative to pour out unmerited favor upon us. Because of God’s covenants of grace there is always hope when we have faith.
But even though we have the assurance of God’s grace, there is also the reality of what happens when we don’t live into what God is calling us to do. For example, when we choose to live in love we are more likely to receive love back. But the same is true when we choose to withhold justice or be inhospitable.
It’s safe to say the people of Judah faced the consequences of their actions. Now their hearts and faith are shattered like their beloved Temple. Again, Jeremiah could have stuck his nose in the air and said, “It sucks to be you.” Instead, he encourages God’s people by telling them hope is on the way. A new covenant is coming. One that is not engraved in stone for all can see but none to follow.
God is changing the game – engraving God’s law inside them. From the least to the greatest, everyone gets a new heart. And to celebrate this divine promise, God does the unthinkable. God wipes the slate clean and forgets their sins forever.
In his book Tattoo’s on the Heart, Greg Boyle shares stories about the many lives that have been transformed by God through his organization Homeboy Industries, which he created to give criminals and gang members a second chance at life. One such story is about a homeboy struggling to quit his life of violence. Boyle tells the young man that in trying to leave his gang, he was acting with far more courage than he’d ever shown shooting at enemies in his hood.
But what catches this young man off guard isn’t his courageousness but God’s willingness to wipe his slate clean and remake his heart. When Boyle told him that God loved him no matter what this homie blurts out, “Damn, G…I’m gonna tattoo that on my heart.”
Why does God do such crazy things like forgiving the unforgivable? Or loving the unlovable? Perhaps God knows that the only way we can truly live into God’s will is to have our hearts free of the anger, guilt and shame that traps us in the cycles of sin. The best way God can do this is by giving us a new heart one that is tagged with a tattoo gun filled with grace.
This is why I love these words from Jeremiah because I love the idea of a God tattooed heart. It’s like God wants to be a part of my life forever. And takes the initiative to make sure that our relationship happens. God has set up shop in everyone’s heart…no matter who you are or what you’ve done.
Why does this important for us? Because no longer are we defined by what society deems worthy, or by a particular religious affiliation or a set of rituals we practice. We are defined solely on the merits how we let God’s law of love shine from our hearts.
This is exactly what Jesus did. He made love his priority - touching the untouchables, eating with sinners, and raising the dead. When questioned about purity laws, Jesus’ response was, “It’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles them but what comes out.”
You see our words, our actions, our faith, all come from the same place – from a God-etched-tattooed heart. Not only is this the place where God’s grace flows into us. It’s also the place where it flows out.
Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that God comes to be with us in the center of life. What is surprising is God is willing to risk it all hoping our actions will reflect the best of what God requires of us – to act justly and kindly, promote love and peace, and to walk in sync for the building up of God’s kingdom.
As much as we say we love God, we still struggle with the notion of doing the will of God. Don’t let that get you down. The world has never made this easy. Just ask Jesus. As the world threw the worst at him, his heart remained true to the law of love placed in him. Jesus kept his heart free of revenge, hatred or anger despite having good reason to feel that way.
But I imagine if we made the effort to live out God’s love in the world like Jesus did, then maybe it might get easier. Maybe we wouldn’t need to steal, cheat, or lie. Or make our opinions more important than someone else’s needs. Maybe we’d take better care of creation and the health and wellbeing of all the people in our communities.
Imagine the impact on the world, or this pandemic, if we lived like Jesus did. There would be no reason to withhold resources out of fear of not having enough.
For the love that God has etched in Jesus is etched in you, and everyone else. In harming or denying someone else’s heart, you are also harming and denying God.
Pascal reminded us that, “God wants to motivate the will more than the mind.” That motivation is initiated by God’s grace given to us through Christ Jesus. In him, we are drawn into this new covenant that was signed with his blood.
But Jesus does more than save us. He shows us how to do the same for one another. He gives us real world examples on how to live – fully and faithfully – so our heart beats in perfect sync with God’s.
While our world is more concerned with outward appearances, Jesus directs our attention inward – to seek and find the divine heartbeat in every person you meet. Jesus said the way to do this is to love them as if you are loving him.
Whenever you feed the hungry, welcome a stranger, care for the sick and the poor, or help someone trapped in whatever prison they are in Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it also to me.”
God doesn’t care what you look like or how you are put together any more than God is concerned about what you’ve done in your past. You may not like the way your nose bends, the curls in your hair, or the way you have treated people in your life. But God loves you, nonetheless. You are perfect with your imperfections as my wife likes to say.
It doesn’t matter how much money you make, or how popular or famous you are. God is only interested in your heart. And what you do with your money and popularity. For its in our actions that people will come to know God and believe.
We know that God knows our heart because God is tattooed in it. God has done this so you can share God’s grace and love with a world that hungers and thirsts for it.
This can be a scary endeavor for some of you to do. But as you leave here today, remember that Jesus not only revealed his divine heart to us, but in doing so was able to reconcile us back to God.
He is our common example, the model from which we learn to live truly and rightly. Following in his footsteps, we can endure, we can triumph, and we can change the world. Reshaping and remaking it in God’s image. And not in our own.
Let us pray:
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year B Vol 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Fourth Week of Lent New Cure
March 14, 2021 Numbers 21:4-9
We are in our fourth week of Lent, and I hope by now you’ve figured out that this season is more than a time for self-reflection. It’s also a time where our faith can feel vulnerable or like it’s being put to the test.
And what a test it’s been. Yesterday was the one-year mark since COVID pretty much shut down the entire world. With nearly 530,000 American lives lost, it’s hard to think we’ve done well on this exam.
What I do know is God has been present through it all - delivering on the covenant promises not to destroy the entire earth again - be it a flood of water or disease.
We’ve spent the last three weeks in the Old Testament, looking at the covenants God has made. Today we’re going to examine at how the covenant plays out as we look at a passage from the Torah that Jesus quotes when he reveals something important about the covenant God made through him out of God’s love for the world.
It comes from the Numbers 21:4-9.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,[a] to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
As our Lenten journey moves closer to the High Holy week, this odd and down-right icky story reminds us to always watch our step. You never know where snakes will pop up.
This story reminds me of my least favorite scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is led to a dark tomb that holds a clue to the treasure he’s seeking. When he drops a torch down in the cavernous hole, Indi discovers thousands of slithering, slimy snakes!
I can’t tell you what happens after that because my eyes are always tightly closed. But over the hissing sounds, I hear him complain, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
I imagine the Israelites were saying the same thing during their great exodus from Egypt. I’m not sure exactly how long they had been searching for the land that God had promised them. But the longer they wander, the crankier they become. By this point in the story, they began to get restless and whinny. They’re tired walking and sick of camping. They k’vetched about the lack of food and water. And many wanted to go back to Egypt and be slaves again.
For a while, God remains steadfast, putting up with their incessant complaints; sending them food and water, and a fiery light to guide them. But when they griped about these gifts too, God just seems to snap. And sends them something to really complain about…deadly snakes!
You might be thinking, “Well that was a little harsh, God.” But I get it. I’ve taken many road trips with a minivan full of restless kids kicking the back of my seat screaming for snacks and asking over and over again, “Are we there yet?” If I didn’t hate snakes so much, I too might be tempted to let a few loose in the car.
But I too can be a bit whiny...so I too can sympathize with the Israelites. Their complaints seem legit. They’re stuck in the wilderness – with no clear direction or end in sight.
The only choices they have are to follow this God who pushes their faith by challenging everything they thought they knew about the way the world worked. Or return to the brutality of slavery in Egypt which offered some semblance of consistency and predictability even if it was sure to kill them.
If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that the only thing certain is how uncertain life can be. It’s a truth that makes us all uncomfortable. And only puts us on edge.
This uncertainty is too much for God’s people and they begin to crack. They want the way life used to be. They’d rather face the devil they know than to do the hard work of faith that God is requiring of them.
Who could blame them? How many times have you thought, “I can’t wait to go back to the way life used to be.” We want our churches open, our restaurants teeming with people, and our streets gridlocked with commuters. We want the old normal, the devil we know how to navigate.
While COVID has made us feel a bit lost in the wilderness, I believe God has given us this time not to test our faith but to show us a way to rely on it so that we might begin to see the world differently. Through God’s loving eyes.
This pandemic has also shown us how little control we have in life. We like to pretend we do. The problem with this is that when things don’t go as we want them to, we make sure God gets an earful. And in return, we get a bunch of snakes.
I’ll admit, it seems like an odd way to show love, but so too are the covenants God has made. But again and again, God is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain a relationship with us. God continues to come into our mess in the most unusual ways to rescue and redeem us.
There was something about being bitten repeatedly by venomous snakes that helped the Israelites see the error of their way. They beg Moses to intercede on their behalf. If there is one thing they’ve learned about their God – and we can take this to heart too – is when you cry out, God listens. And God reacts, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. “Everyone who looks upon it shall live.” Because of his faithfulness, Moses does what God asks. And immediately all the Israelites who died are given new life, and all who were bitten are instantly healed.
It makes me wonder if the American Medical Association adopted this image as their logo to reminds us that sometimes our flesh and bones have to be ripped open or broken before we can be made right again.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” He knew all too well, how hard life can be. Sometimes it feels like the snakes are getting the best of us. But this Jewish story reminds us that no matter how bleak life might seem there is always hope. Because out of great love for us God never gives up on us.
Which takes us to Jesus, who in the Gospel of John says: “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up.” You see, Jesus is God’s covenant promise, incarnate, meaning in the flesh.
By setting our eyes on him, we are healed and given new life. Like Moses, Jesus is one who intercedes for us...even when it feels like we don’t deserve it. And the reason for this is stated in the next verse when Jesus famously declared God so loved the world, that God was willing to give his only begotten Son to die for us, just so we can live. Again and again, God upholds this covenant, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
Think about it, from death comes life. From the cross of Christ we set our gaze on comes our healing and salvation. And boy do we need it now! It’s been a hard year of suffering around the world. From businesses to homes to schools, COVID has affected everyone. Compounded with the toxic and venomous attacks we’ve endure socially, politically, and even spiritually…it seems like the snakes have won.
But here’s the good news. God gave us the antidote in Christ Jesus. His cross is our assurance that the snakes don’t win. God does. For God so loved you and me that God was willing to risk it all on a cross to save us from the deadly venom of violence, self-doubt, jealousy, greed, addiction, and the deadliest of all venom – fear.
Fear of the unknown; fear of the other; fear of failure; fear of death – nothing causes spiritual and emotional paralysis more effectively than fear’s venom. It corrodes faith; cuts off our pathways for loving God and one another; and when left untreated, it hardens the heart and soul. Fear tempts us away from God’s promise and tries to return us to the devil we know.
As we continue on our Lenten journey, now is time to take inventory of all the ways fear afflicts how we live God’s love in the world. Ask yourself how fear is stopping you from loving others. Or standing up for justice and equality. How is it keeping you from forgiving a friend, or caring for someone who is unable to care for themselves?
In Christ, God casts out all fear and puts love on full display. Jesus taught us how to live God’s love faithfully and fearlessly; in a way that pushes us to see the world differently.
From death comes life. As we fix our eyes upon the cross of Jesus, may we never forget that the cure for the snake was a snake. And the cure for all of human life is the sacrifice of one man’s life. Again and again, God upholds this covenant, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
As you go out into the world, facing the uncertainty of life, remember this wherever God’s love is displayed, the snakes can’t win.
For God so loved the world...
Bartlett, David L., and eds. Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Helmer, Ben. Snakes. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2018/02/11/snakes-lent-4-b-february-18-2018/ (accessed 03.09.2018).
Jolly, Marshall A. https://modernmetanoia.org/2021/03/01/4th-sunday-in-lentb-god-so-loves-the-world/ (accessed on 03.11. 2018).
Third Sunday of Lent New Rules
March 7, 2021 Exodus 20:1-17
This week the Texas governor bucked the federal government’s guidelines to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus by lifting the mask mandate and has allowing businesses to run at 100% capacity.
He did acknowledge that wearing a mask in public is a good thing. But he’s left it up to individuals to police themselves, and not the government. This has made some people in his state very happy. And others very upset. Whether you like it or not, the mask mandate isn’t a federal law. So he’s not doing anything illegal. But his moral obligation might suggest otherwise.
As you know, laws are put in place to ensure order and to protect public safety. When followed they help the community thrive and move in the right direction.
We have federal laws that tell us what side of the street to drive on, or how fast we can go down them. But driving is more than simply obeying the speed limit. You must also be mindful of those around you. Being a considerate driver is an act of kindness. It’s a sacrifice that’s easy to make. Just because the law doesn’t force you to allow someone into your lane, you know that when the car next to you has its blinker on, you have to make a moral decision to let them in or not.
Many of us follow the law because we’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t. We might get fined or go to jail. But there are those out there who find ways to skirt around the law – especially if it benefits them.
I mention all this because we are continuing our look at God’s covenants. Agreements made by God that benefit us. As we learned in the stories of Noah and Abraham, we have God’s assurance that if we fail to perfectly obey the terms of the covenant, God is still bound to them. God’s word is good, even when we are not. But that doesn’t let us off the hook or free us to run amuck.
Like the lines on a basketball, we need things like laws and rules that will help guide us in this game of life. Today reading gives us a look at the terms of God’s covenant. And it’s up to us to determine how it applies to our relationship with God and with one another.
Read: Exodus 20:1-17
I have told the story many times before about when I decided to fast from the 10 commandments for Lent. It was a joke I made while I wasn’t very sober. Hey, it was Mardi Gras after all. But the next day, on Ash Wednesday, I decided to proceed as planned. But with a slight modification. Instead of giving up all ten, I would choose one to focus one. So I fasted from killing.
It seemed like an easy goal since I don’t have the stomach for murder. But it didn’t take me long to realize how guilty I was - killing people’s ideas, dreams, hopes, and desires. This exercise was truly eye-opening and rewarding for me, despite my failures I had along the way. By the time Lent was over, I noticed something had changed in me. I was more inclined to listen to other’s opinions and welcomed their ideas.
As silly as it sounds, not killing showed me how to live. It opened my heart and transformed my behavior for the better. By looking at this commandment not as law but as a way to live faithfully, I began to deepen my relationship with God and others. And isn’t that what these ten lessons are designed to do?
When they were given to Moses, the Israelites were newly liberated slaves wandering the wilderness without much direction. They needed more than Google maps to find the promised land. They needed a moral compass to guide them there.
Remember, they had spent the last 400+ years in Egypt. The only laws they knew were Pharaoh’s laws. The only gods they knew where his as well. So to help them understand who their God was and how they were to live accordingly as God’s chosen people, they were handed these 10 Teachings, as rabbinic traditions call them.
For some reason Christians like to call these words “commandments.” But I think this makes it harder for us to see them for what they really are: teachings; lessons for a good life. They have been passed down through the generations to guide into a real relationship with the One who hears our cries and comes to our rescue.
However, “these practices are not kindly suggestions,” as Barbara Brown Taylor warns. “They express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. [And] those who ignore them do so at their own peril – not because God is standing over them with a hammer, but because these teachings describe a way of life.”
This is not to say we won’t sneak in some work on the Sabbath or disobey our parents from time to time. Let’s face it we’ve all broken one, if not all, of these teachings at least once in our life. But just as God remains faithful to the covenant, the bible tells us that we too must be faithful to the Lord. If we are wise, we’ll use these Ten Teachings as a road map to move us in this direction.
That’s why it’s important to practice them daily, and not just during Lent. We will not always get it right, and that’s alright. These teachings aren’t meant to shame us or to be some kind of litmus test to find perfect Christians. They’re a gift from God – forged by a covenant and fashioned by grace. They are designed to help us understand who we are and were God wants us to be. That’s why we often make Lent to be a spiritual journey of sorts.
It’s why we are encouraged to practice certain spiritual “disciplines” that give us a better understanding of where God wants us to be - in God’s heart. Despite their stern-sounding name, spiritual disciplines are more about deepening our spiritual growth than performing some religious mandate. For example, when I was discerning my call to start to start this new church, I practiced the spiritual discipline of self-examination. This required sitting quietly with God and mediating on the places God had revealed my calling to me.
You might be searching your soul for answers to some big question, maybe you’re feeling lost or directionless, or you just want to get to know God better. I’d encourage you to try practicing a discipline like prayer, or meditation, or intentional reading God’s Word to see how the Holy Spirit moves you to act.
As you might already know, I like to encourage people to use Lent as a time to fast from something that is keeping them from feasting on the goodness of life. By fasting and feasting on these Ten Words, I now have a clearer picture of who I am. And who I’m called to be -the visible presence of God’s love in the world.
It’s no surprise that Jesus would use these teachings as the moral compass of his ministry. Everything he did was based on these words which he boiled down for us: “love God and love each other.” Jesus knew the two cannot be separated. He risked his life, and broke a few laws, to show us how to make love a part of our everyday worship of God.
It’s like this: If you say you love God, then you can’t help but love everyone made in God’s image.
If you make God’s love your priority, then you won’t be tempted to worship an idol like a politician or a bank account. You won’t covet what others have. Or take that which isn’t yours.
If you refuse to use God’s love in vain, then you won’t cheat on your spouse or business partners, you won’t lie or bear false witness to cover up your wrongdoings. You’ll care for your mother and father.
If you remember to take a day of sabbath rest, you might discover the whole purpose of what a life in God’s love is all about – to enjoy the splendor of God’s glory sharing food and fun with family and friends.
These ten teachings are, as Joslyn Schaefer describes it, “like an umbilical cord, tethering us to what nourishes us, energizing us so that we can discern and accomplish God’s good purposes for our lives.”
While laws are important and need to be obeyed, they will always be, second to love. Jesus confirmed this when he touched the leper and healed the bleeding Syrophoenician woman. Again and again, Jesus broke purity laws to teach others of their moral responsibility to the wellbeing of God’s children.
If Jesus were among us today, I know he’d wear a mask. No doubt about it. He’d do it not out of fear of getting sick, but as a way to remind us that God's love puts other people’s needs before his own.
Jesus showed us how loving God and one another is the way to live a faithful life in the fullness of God’s righteousness and grace. When we use them as blueprints to shape our lives in the image of Christ, things change. The blind see, the hungry are fed, justice is restored. People and communities are redeemed and returned to the God who loves us enough to risk it all for us.
Lent is a time to shape and mold your heart in the image of Christ, so that you can bear witness to God’s unconditional love and grace as living witnesses of Christ’s church.
There’s an old joke about a Lutheran minister who, when bidding farewell to his rabbi counterpart says, “Keep the faith my friend.” And the rabbi reply back, “Thank you, now go and keep the commandments.” As you might imagine, the two go hand in hand.
Faith means we must trust God. When we trust God enough to follow God’s direction, practicing love becomes second nature. So we are called to keep these teachings close to our heart where God’s covenant with us was first made. As our love for God grows stronger, we overcome the fear that stops us from loving our neighbor.
When we love one another, we no longer judge people unfairly, or exclude others who are not like us. When we love one another, we no longer desire to kill or to cheat or horde our resources from those less fortunate. When we love one another as God first loved us, then we put the health and wellbeing of others above all else.
As Jesus showed us, when we come together in love, the hope and promise of God’s covenant comes alive. God is love. And love is life. So as you leave here today, I encourage you all to go and live that life abundantly.
Let us pray: God of covenant love and grace, we are thankful that you are ours and we are yours. We are grateful for the life and the direction you have given to us in these words, and more grateful for Jesus who showed us how to live them out with each other. It’s in his name we pray for his peace to be among us, and your Holy Spirit to be within us - shining through us in all that we do so that others may come to see your love and give you glory. Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Schaefer, Joslyn Ogden. The Law. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/the-law-lent-3-b- march-7-2021
Second Sunday of Lent A New Name
February 28, 2021 Genesis 17:1-7
Kathleen and I recently met a couple whose names we didn’t get. I do know they had just begun the second trimester of their first pregnancy. And they had a ton of questions. One being...how we came up with the names of our children. Normally when we are asked that question, we take the opportunity to be a little creative. In this case, however, we told the truth.
When our first child was due, whimsy storybook names like Ruby and Daisy were trending. But we wanted something that meant something, and that spoke to our heritage. In Gaelic, Fiona means “fair” – not as judicial but pail, like skin. And when she was born, we had no idea about the movie Shrek that had just come out. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have named her after an ogre.
For Colleen, we thought it through a little better. We wanted a strong name that would endure time. We knew we were having a girl so we named her Colleen which is an Irish name that means “girl.” It’s a great name in my opinion, but little did I realize it’s only a few letters different than her mother’s name; adding to the growing list of things that mess me up in life.
When Sean was born, we already had a long list of names we agreed on. But once we met him, none seem to fit. In a rush to get the paperwork filled out before leaving the hospital, we agreed to call him Sean – a Celtic variation of John, like Ian is in Gaelic. John mean’s God’s great gift. Enough said.
Our birth names aren’t the only names that define us. Sometimes we go by our relationships and titles. I’ve been called son, husband, padre, and of course reverend.
Since names are given to us at our birth, we don’t really have a say in the matter. So, it’s not uncommon for people to change their names. Some actors take a new stage name for practical reasons - it’s too long, or too hard to say, or someone else already has it. For others it’s to give them a new persona, like going from Norma Jean to Marilyn Monroe.
I had a friend Darrell who change his name. I have no idea why. He’s not a celebrity or famous for anything. All I know is one day everyone just starting calling him Rick. This might have made more sense if he was the pope or someone entering a religious order where it’s commonplace to take a new name to signify their new status and new purpose.
Which takes us to our reading today from Genesis 17:1-7.
This is just one of many stories in Genesis that describe the covenant between God and Abram. In each one the terms are graciously lopsided. Like we learned last week with Noah, God is the giver. All Abram has to do is be himself. After all, God’s covenants do not rely on our faithfulness, only God’s.
Now, the gist of this story is simple. God has big plans for reconciling the world. Plans that include some unlikely characters. Like the aging Abram who God promises to make the father of many nations.
When Abram hears this he doesn’t run away or come up with some excuses as to why he’s unsuitable for the task. I suspect there’s some snickering and eye-rolling though. Who could blame him? He and his wife are in their nineties. Not the ideal time to be having babies. This year my dad will turn 90. The idea of having a new brother or sister seems highly unlikely. But then again, what we think is a handicap God sees as an opportunity to show off what God can do.
To me, the most interesting aspect of this story is how everyone gets a new name; starting with God who is now called El Shaddai, which is often translated from the Hebrew as “God Almighty.” It’s not so much a name but a definition of God’s character. In using this word to describe God, the author speaks of God as the ultimate Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things. This is what God does.
Next is Abram, whose name means “exalted ancestor.” He becomes Abraham, “ancestor of a multitude.” It’s a subtle difference with huge implications. He will not just bear a son to carry on his name, but his name will be the DNA of God’s graciousness among the nations.
His wife, Sarai, is also the recipient of God’s blessing. She becomes Sarah, which means “princess.” She is the one who will carry the promise of this royal covenant to life. These changes sound subtle, but they are profound in the way they define God’s promise as their stories play out.
My dear friend Dowan taught me that when a baby is born in Korea, he or she is given a name that reflects not only the child’s character but destiny as well. This seems to be the case when God names Abraham and Sarah. Blessed by God in this naming, their destiny is guaranteed. Tied to God in this covenant, they are recipients of God’s steadfast love and grace. A promise which God passes down to their heirs who will be more numerous than the stars in the sky.
Just the other day I saw one of the first images taken on Mars by the rover Perseverance. While it was fascinating to see what the landscape was like, my attention was drawn to the vastness of the heavens and countless number of stars that surrounded the Red planet. Let’s just say there were too many to count. And that’s just in our galaxy. There are dozens if not hundreds more galaxies out there.
I imagine Abraham and Sarah looking up in the sky and just trying to imagine the possibility of giving birth to such a large clan. But with every silvery glimmer, each twinkling light, God’s promise is remembered as they cling to hope knowing God’s word is good. And God delivers.
They become the grandparents of a new generation blessed by God. From their lineal offspring will arise the Suffering Servant who will “bring forth justice to the nations” (Is 42:1). From this new family, Jesus will be born. He will be given a new name – a name above all others. Through him the covenant continues to bless us today.
Which brings us to why this is an important story to read during Lent as we walk with Jesus from the wilderness to the cross. Whether or not he knew of the great Easter promise, Jesus knew of this covenant. He lived and ministered with faithfulness knowing the power of God’s word, just as his ancestor Abraham had thousands of years before.
It was knowing God’s word is good that allowed the people of Israel to cling to hope when all seemed hopeless. It was knowing God’s word is good that the new church was able to survive the brutality of the Roman Empire. It was knowing God’s word is good that has allowed countless saints before us stand firm in their faith in the one who remains faithful no matter what humans try to do to change that. It’s knowing God’s word is good that allows us today to get through the challenges we face in life. What God said then, God means now. God’s word is good, even when we aren’t.
As we walk with Christ, let us remember that he too received a new name. And with it, his destiny was set. You might remember that when he arose from the waters of his baptism, the spirit of God declared: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
No longer was he Jesus of Nazareth, no longer was he the carpenter’s kid, he was now named and claimed by his God to be the Beloved. It was more than a name change, it was a calling, a direction by which Jesus’ entire ministry would be founded on. Being the Beloved. With his new name and new purpose, Jesus would become the visible presence of God’s heart in the world.
Which brings me to you and me, and anyone who takes the name Christian. Our mission is to continue Jesus’ mission - to go out into the world to teach and heal and welcome others into the family of God. No matter what name is written on your birth certificate, at your baptism God has named and claimed you for this purpose. We are beloved children of God, heirs to divine glory and everlasting life. Because of our faith in Christ, we share his name. And we share his glory.
Through Jesus, God calls us to be the Beloved. More than a name, it’s our destiny. This is what it means to make God our God, and to be God’s beloved people.
It is our job now to be little Christ in the world so that others may come to understand God’s glory in the way we live into our love for one another; sharing our gifts, building bridges and creating communities of peace in God’s name.
For most of us, faith is a hard journey. One that often causes us to stumble. But remember what God is able to do with people like us. The blessing and promise that God gives Abraham, are the same God has given to us so that we can be what we’re destined to be - God’s beloved children. We are heirs to the covenant of God’s grace which has been passed down through the ages, never altered or voided. God remains faithful to God’s own promise. It’s impossible for God to do anything less.
As we move through Lent, I would like to share the words of Barbara Brown Taylor who reminds us that “We don’t just move to Easter from the shopping malls and spa. We are given a gift of time, 40 days to be exact, to examine who we are in our own covenant with God.”
Lent is an invitation to take an honest look at what that relationship looks like, and what purpose it might signify as you move to bring God’s righteousness into a world hungry for love and justice. It’s a time to remember that God is calling you by your name – beloved.
As Jesus illustrated in all the ways he cared for people, this name is not just a personal noun. It’s a call to action. So as you leave here today, I invite you to go and be the love of God that was made known to us in Jesus.
Remembering always, that his name is your name. His purpose is your purpose. His glory is yours too, if you want it.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
As you were probably aware, a massive blanket of snow and ice still covers most of our country. And yet at the same time the latest NASA rover, Perseverance, has landed on Mars looking for snow, ice, or any form of water. I reckon one has to have it to live there. That’s because water is essential for life. Not enough of it and you die. Too much of it, you die. But with just the right amount you can thrive.
Water is also a powerful element in so many different ways. To think, the same thing that froze the power supply in Texas is being harnessed in Japan to generate power. From a simple pond to a wild flowing river water can give life, alter life, and even take life. Be it here on earth or on Mars.
This is the first Sunday in Lent, when the church historically remembers the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan river - a body of water that played in important role in Israel’s story.
But today I want to go a little further back in time, to a different baptism of sorts, that I hope will inspire us as we set out on our Lenten journey. It’s probably the most well-known story of water in the Bible. A story of God, some sinful people, and a great flood.
There are many elements in the story of Noah that make me scratch my head and say, “What?” Like, the unlikeliness that the entire world was completely submerged underwater. Given the heights of the mountain range just around Los Angeles would mean the water level would have to be nearly two miles deep...upward! That’s a lot of water. I’m sure the shear weight of it alone would have knocked the planet off its axis.
I know for a fact it would take longer than 40 days for all that water to evaporate. I’ve watched lakes shrivel up in droughts, but never that quick. So where did the water go? Was there a drain somewhere in the earth with a plug that God pulled?
It’s also hard for me to fathom that every single human, sans Noah, did something so rotten that God felt justified to kill everyone. Heck, we still have a lot of bad people in our world, but we also have a lot of good people doing some really good stuff for others. So why would God kill them all? And why were the animals killed while the fish were allowed to live?
Whether or not this story is true, it’s an amazing allegory that offers our 21st century sensibility a few good things to ponder especially in Lent as we think about our relationship with our Creator and all of creation.
Read: Genesis 9:8-17
... I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Just off the kitchen at my parent’s house is a small half bathroom. It's adorned with all sorts of Noah artwork (or should I say "ark" work). There are drawings, paintings and watercolors of the ark in various states. There are Noah hand towels, bathmats, soap dispenser, and a little statue with animals walking two-by-two up and down the mountain where a wooden ship perched like a nest. In each one, of course, there’s a rainbow in the sky.
Rumor has it that a small child exited this very bathroom one day and asked my mom if she had lived on Noah’s Ark. My mom was quick to reply, “Oh heavens, no.” Without missing a beat, the boy asked, “Then how did you survive the flood?”
It’s a great question, don’t you think? How did you survive the flood? In ancient times floods were often used as metaphors for chaos. So, as we look at this story, we need to keep that in the back of our heads. As we ask ourselves, “How do we survive the chaos in our lives?” I think the answer can be found in my mom’s Noah shrine.
On the wall opposite the toilet hangs a gigantic Noah-themed tapestry. Woven into the top and bottom are the words, “Promises kept.”
As we learned in our reading today, that promise is the one made not just to Noah, but to all of creation. As the story goes, God makes a covenant with us to never, ever let something like this happen again. Again and again, God has kept that promise.
As you move through the challenges of Lent, and struggle with your faith or lack thereof, this story reminds us to lean on God because we can count on God...even if God can’t count on us. God’s word is good, even if we are not. Think about that for a moment.
The flood shows God’s hurt. But the covenant shows God is willing to initiate an intervention. It’s as if God woke up and realized that punishing us isn’t the way to get us to change. Perhaps setting an example might be better. And so, it’s God who decides to change. Despite knowing we will continue to keep doing things that go against God’s will, a heavenly covenant is made.
Like William Allen said, it’s like “God places a restraining order against God’s self” and then sets a sign in the sky so God will always be held accountable the vow. Again and again, God continues to remain loyal to the disloyal. Promises kept.
Whether or not you believe the world was once a giant ball of water, God loves you. No matter what. As my old friend Tom Richard used to say, “No matter how far we stray from doing what God has called us to do, we are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love.” I can’t think of a better mantra to cling to as you move through the chaos of life, especially during Lent.
The story of this covenant also reveals something else about God. You see, God is more than our creator, God is also our protector, committed to never punish or destroy the world again. This tells me that God is inherently invested in our fate. God cannot simply sit back or check out. But must always be present and willing to act on our behalf.
“This investment introduces a new and distinct facet into the character of God. Along with power, justice, patience, and love, the ancient Hebrews also perceived that God was inherently self-giving, willing to enter into a relationship that puts limits on even God’s priorities.”
Again and again, Israel tested God’s covenant. And again and again God remained faithful. Promises kept.
To think God’s love for us was so great that God was willing to make a unilateral covenant - one that God was bound by it personally knowing humanity was not. That’s what makes this still relevant to us.
When this flood story was first written, God’s people yet again found themselves in a state of suffering. They had watched their powerful kingdom crumble, their beloved Temple pulverized, and their loved ones scattered like dust as they were sent into exile. When all seemed lost, they had hope. Because God’s promises are never broken. They knew that no matter what challenges they faced, they could rely on God because they knew God’s word is good.
We too can rely on God. No matter how much we put God to the test, promises kept. Today we face our own challenges – COVID, political turmoil, economic crisis that have left more people falling behind than lifted up. Yet, promises kept.
Maybe you are suffering a great loss from death, estrangement, or divorce. Maybe you are crumbling under the weight of resentment, anger, and pride. Maybe something has happened to you that has left you feeling hopeless.
Lent is a time to give in to our faith, to let go of fear knowing we can always rely on God, even if God cannot always rely on us. Promises kept.
As the ancient psalmist wrote, because God keeps his promise made to our ancestors, we can cry out in our pain and suffering, knowing God will hear our cries. When it feels like the world is ganging up us, we can turn to God knowing we will find refuge. When we find ourselves on shaky ground, we can stand on God, the rock of our foundation...knowing we are protected. Promises kept – no matter what.
As you struggle in the wilderness of faith, realizing what God is asking you to do, this passage reminds you of what God is willing to sacrifice for you, in order to save you from yourself. This is a divine act that will climax with Jesus on the cross. But as we will discover, death can’t stop God’s promise from being fulfilled.
Through Christ, God takes this risk because God's heart is touched by creation’s suffering. In him we see that God is willing to become one of us; fully embracing all of our human experiences, including death. Through the resurrection of Christ, we see just how much God wants to be in a relationship with us.
Christ is God’s greatest promise made and promised kept. He is proof that God’s unconditional love is faithful to the bitter end, and beyond to greater glory. This covenant of divine grace is the distinguishing mark of Christianity. It’s what Jesus was all about.
It requires nothing from us but our desire to be a recipient of this blessed gift. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love or to cause God to withhold it. I guess that’s why they call it the Good News. Promises kept.
As Jesus himself demonstrated, we are given this gift so that we might live it – fully and faithfully – in a way that showcases God’s glory and the loving relationship between Creator and all of creation.
During this season of Lent, I hope that you will set your heart upon this covenant of God’s grace knowing that God will never deny you, never turn away, reject or hurt you. God only wants to love you, protect you, and redeem you back to your rightful place in God’s heart.
Like a rainbow in the heavens, God’s love is made visible to all who choose to move towards God’s open heart. Christ has shown us the way.
From the baptismal font to the cross of chaos. Promises kept.
But don’t take my word for it. You have God’s word.
A word of promise God made just for you. And a promise God has kept just for you.
*based on a sermon Promises Kept originally given on January 3, 2016. https://www.jesusnotjesus.org/be-kind/sermon-promises-kept
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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