Sermon: “The Ocean of Memory”

“…nothing we own, nothing we value, nothing we think we control in this life, will last.  Once we are gone, we cannot enjoy any amount of wealth, cannot use anything we once had to return us into present life.  We remain there forever – lost in that ocean of memory with none of the riches we once treasured.  We will not even have control over our own memory: everything will be in the hands of those we leave behind.”

This weekend, of course, is Memorial Day weekend.  It started as a sort of groundswell movement all over the North and South during and shortly after the Civil War: a day to place flowers on the graves of those who died in battle; a day to remember those we’d lost because of that war: It has grown to become a day of Remembrance for all who died in any of the wars our nation has fought.

Now I am not going to speak about the Civil War, or how it is still being fought today in so many ways, nor even about war in general.  But, I think the themes of Memorial Day’s narrative are reflected in this morning’s scripture readings – the themes of loss, and of the Love of God; and how that shapes our relationships with others, and even within ourselves.

Every death, whether expected or understandable – such as from old age, or perhaps in battle; or not understandable – such as from COVID, or a shooting in a classroom; is a loss.  The uniqueness of those who died, and all the richness and beauty and potential of their lives dies with them.  They are lost from the present, never to return; living on only in our memories.  But, human memory inevitably fades with time, and it vanishes entirely when those who knew that person pass on themselves.  I visualize this as a sort of tide, a tide of memory slowly receding from the shores of the present.  Yet, in reality it is the present that is advancing.  We are leaving that tide behind.

I grieve even when those who have been a royal pain to me or to those I whom love pass away – although I’ll admit, perhaps I don’t grieve quite as much. 

Even so, our lack of fond memories of them does not mean they were not loved by others, nor that they did not have value as human beings.  If nothing else, they were loved and valued by God.  And if God loves and values them, how can we not do the same?  To me, the question seems to be not whether we should love those who are in our past, but how to do so in our present.

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Sermon: Peace Be With You All

I’ve been thinking about the symbolism of clerical robes, such as this one I’m wearing this morning. The founders of Protestantism replaced showy liturgical vestments with this rather boring scholar’s robe because they wanted the focus to be on the teaching of the Word – not on what they saw as vanity and spectacle.  They wanted their congregants to focus on the internals, not the externals, of our faith.

This emphasis on what is being preached vs who is doing the preaching (or what they looked like) is rooted in the early Church’s determination to not make an idol of the person of Christ.  This is why we do not know what Jesus the human being looked like.  Every image we have of him was created long after all who actually knew him were gone.

John makes this same point.  He tells us Jesus said to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  Everyone in that room believed because they saw Jesus alive again, in person.  But Jesus is warning them that his physical presence is actually an impediment to their ministry.  

He said those who came after them would believe without seeing, and would be blessed.  Jesus’ words, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive through Him, are what matters – not his physical form.

This morning I’m also reflecting on John’s beautiful summation of Jesus’ entire ministry: “Peace be with you all.”  …I also see it as the shortest complete sermon in the Christian Scriptures, so perhaps I should just stop right here.

Nah!

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A Meditation: Changing Perspectives

What to do when we find our Faith no longer matches up with the facts as we now know them?

For thousands of years people have found the bones of huge, weird animals – unlike any creature now on Earth – embedded in rock.  They are often very lizard-like, sometimes even have wings.  So, many of our ancestors believed they were dragons that lived in rock, and had perished in Noah’s flood.

A certain kind of these remains are easy to find, often eroding out of shale cliffs near seashores.  People thought they looked like a tongue, and so once called these fossils “Dragon’s Tongues.”

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The Most Pernicious Idol of All (IV)

We once invited several families with children my son’s age over for dinner. Once everyone arrived, we all went into the room where the kids were playing. But guess what, we dads saw our kids playing together with the cardboard blocks!

Well, as good fathers, we had to participate. Didn’t we?

While preparing this message, I remembered that when he was younger, my son would play with big cardboard blocks.  And, once he built something, he’d often knock it down and start over, and over, and over.

When you’re two, play is not about being the biggest, nor the best, nor any other measure of success or superiority.  It’s about playing, about imagination, about stacking blocks.  It was also about playing with someone.  Blocks were a favorite pastime with Mommy and Daddy, Grandparents, and friends.

Playing with someone was fun.  Our participation – being with him in his play – was the point.  There was no goal, no purpose other than enjoy playing … together.  It was about relationship.

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Sermon: Not Alone (Pentecost)

…We are not alone, [and] we are called to live that reality out in meaningful ways. We are to bring the Good News to all. No one is alone: no matter who they are, what God they worship, what color their skin is, their politics, the size of their bank account, what language the speak, where they were born, how able their bodies or minds may be, what gender they identify with, and no matter whom they love. God loves us all unconditionally: no prerequisites, no expectations, no limits, and no end.

So, how do we live out the reality of this infinite Love of God when we can’t gather together in the ways that have been essential to the life of our church for so long?

Let us pray…  …   Lord God, may your peace and Holy Spirit fill us this morning.  Open your scriptures to us, and may I clearly communicate what you intend us to receive.  May your Word take root and flourish within each and every one of us, and through it may we be strengthened and transformed by your unconditional, living, and limitless love for each and every one of your children.  In Jesus Name, Amen.

As I read this morning’s scripture (Acts 2:1-19), I imagine the disciples huddled in that Upper Room.  They are no longer afraid, but Jesus’ last command is to remain there, to “shelter in place,” until they receive the promise of the Creator.  So they wait, separate from those who resumed their normal lives after the turmoil and death of that first Easter week.

I’m sure they mourned.  I’m sure they prayed and planned.  They must have wondered about Jesus’ promise and his commission to be witnesses there in Jerusalem, then in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of all the earth.  How would this Great Commission be fulfilled?  They waited.

And there our church sits.  All of us are gone.  We’re waiting.  Only Pastor Tom is there this morning, all alone.  We have quarantined ourselves from our neighbors and friends.  But like the disciples, we know we must soon move on to something new.  

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What is a Demon?

There is a reason why we say that those who are unfairly labelled are “Demonized…”

Let us pray…  …  Lord God, may your peace and Holy Spirit fill this place.  Open your scriptures to us, and may I clearly communicate what you intend us to receive. May your Word take root and flourish within each and every one of us, and through it may we be strengthened and transformed by your unconditional, living, and limitless love for each and every one of your children.  In Jesus Name, Amen.

This morning’s reading about the tormented Gerasene, a Gentile, is the second in an arc of three stories in Luke.  In the first story Jesus calms the waters: showing he is Master over Storms and Nature.  In the last story, Luke tells us of the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter, showing that Jesus is Master over Sickness and Death.

In this, the second story, Jesus is Master of Demons.  But, what are these demons?  Are they real? Or, are they a metaphor for something else?

In this story, the man is seen with no clothes, no home, not even his own will.  He is unclean by every measure of judging “uncleanness” the audience knows of. He doesn’t have any community or friends.  He’s alone, in a sort of living death, as outcast as any outcast can be.

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Sermon: It is Hard to Say Goodbye

Saying Goodbye is essential to our walk with Christ. It is essential in our relationships with each other. And, is essential in our own growth as living, loving, spirit-filled human beings.

We all say goodbye in many ways and in many different settings: the death of a loved one; the loss of a job or a retirement; College Graduation; the birth of our first child; the end of a relationship. All of these mark the end of one chapter in our lives and the start of another.

Saying “Goodbye” recognizes that something we value, something that is essential to who we are right now, is ending.

Most of us have had to say “Goodbye” to loved ones who died. And someday, those we love will say Goodbye to us when we die. With death, all that we are slips beyond human grasp. All that is left of us here in this world are the memories of those who knew us – good memories and bad; memories that those who love us will carry with them as they move forward into their own future.

Death means saying goodbye to those we love.

The loss of a job or a retirement is another way of saying goodbye: it marks the end of a way of life or a career. We must say goodbye to the friendships and the community and sense of self that are all wrapped up with that position. We are no longer a teacher, or a manager, or a police officer, or a writer – or a preacher. Part of our identity dies, and will never come back again in exactly the same way.

Leaving a career means saying goodbye to a big part of how we see ourselves, and what defines our place in this world.

College Graduation is another way of saying goodbye. …Yes! School is done! But what now? Get a job?? Be responsible?? Rent an apartment and get a car??? OMG, I have to “adult” now??!!  …Nah, I’ll just move back in with my parents!

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Sermon: Powerful Witness

We are called to witness, not to win. We are called to testify to the Gospel of Christ through our lives: our individual lives; and through our life together as a community of faith…. This is our powerful witness.

The Lectionary theme this week is “Powerful Witness”. And, our readings from both the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John both reflect on this in different ways.

In Acts 2, we see a community united under the guidance of the Apostles. They are enthusiastic about their newfound faith; and they share it in profound and moving ways. The boldness of their faith is a powerful witness that liberates their neighbors.

But in John 10 we see a community (from several decades later, actually). Here, they are metaphorically represented by the sheep huddled together under the care of the Shepherd. With the last of those who actually knew Jesus now gone. The people feel lost, exposed, and don’t know where to turn to find protection from the dangers that are all around them. They are looking inward. They are not looking outward any more. Their call to bear witness to the Gospel has been set aside.

But, at the end of this passage, Jesus says to them, “I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be liberated, will go in and go out, and will find pastures.   … I came to give life with joy and abundance.” They’re being reminded that because they have entered into the Shepherd’s flock, they are already liberated: They must go out, and they must find new pastures. The pasture is a place where they will find sustenance, and where they can be heard as the Gospel, which flourishes within them, breaks forth.

The community we see in John wants to sit passively under the protection of the Shepherd. But instead, they are told they aren’t going to be allowed to sit there in the sheepfold and be safe. They have to move, they have to leave and go forth. The Apostles may be gone, but the Gospel is still here; and will not allow them to be silent. And yes, the thief is coming to steal and slaughter and destroy (that is their intent). But Jesus is already here, and will instead give life with joy and abundance. The thieves were defeated before they ever got there.

Now, the Acts 2 church is young and open to radical change, to trying new things. But in John, we have a more mature community. The Acts 2 community is clearly a powerful witness to those around them; and we are told that the Johannine Community (the community in the book of John) will be as well. In both cases, the promises are there, and will be fulfilled. They shall both be powerful voices for liberation; perhaps (like in John) in spite of themselves; even with the Apostles now gone.

We see a movement between these two readings, from the enthusiasm of youth to a more mature, more cautious perspective, born of experience and the inevitable losses and disappointments that we all encounter in this life. With more maturity, we can better anticipate the struggles that lie ahead, but that also means we worry more, that those struggles will be too much for us.

A friend and fellow minister recently expressed his feelings about trying to make progress on the many social justice issues that he and all of us here, care about so deeply. I’ll summarize what he said…

“My experience has been that for most people it’s hard to stand up and publicly testify about issues such as gun violence, equal rights, war, poverty, etc. Most people lack the confidence, commitment or conviction it takes to stand up and speak out for justice on a regular basis. They don’t want to offend[. They don’t want to] come off as taking sides on an issue. It’s divisive and risky, even if you have the time. Still, there is always hope, and the struggle continues.”

His perspective is borne of hard experience, like that of the Community in John. They, and he, and we, all know how tough it is to be a witness at all, let alone a powerful one. You feel the resignation in my friend’s words: as he sees it, people just aren’t in it for the long haul, it’s too hard. It is hard.  It is a struggle. But, the hope never leaves.

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Sermon: Redeemed

…our flaws and our failures are not counted in God’s judgment of us. What counts is our willingness to do what is right, even if we don’t succeed. … It’s the Heart that matters, not the Head…. God judges our hearts.

gettyimages-660179780-1024x566This morning, I thought we should tie up some of the loose ends I’ve left from our last two sermons.

Two weeks ago, in the sermon “Very Good” we learned that God sees only the goodness that is an inescapable part of who we are; and which God deliberately put into us at the very beginning. All are just as loved by God as we are; and all anyone needs is a revelation of this Love; a love which heals us from all of our iniquities.

Last week, on Palm Sunday we remembered that we’ve all betrayed Jesus, even God betrayed him. And that we cannot help but muck things up, because muckiness is also a part of who we are.

In other messages I’ve given here, we’ve talked about how – because we are conscious of ourselves, and have the freedom to choose right from wrong.  Then we must have the right to fail. This is also part of who we are. And, we not only can fail, we must. We must  have the freedom to fail, and will, even though we don’t want to.

These messages are somewhat at odds with each other. Two weeks ago, we talked about how we are all, in our heart of hearts, “Very Good” and that God sees the goodness in us, and is determined to save us for that reason.

But last week I said we are creatures of sin, we are always making choices that increase our separation from God. This seed of corruption is buried deep within us: and is a very necessary seed.  If we are to be worthy of Love, and not simply puppets of the Almighty, then God must allow us to be able to distance ourselves from God. We must have the right to fail. We must have the right and power to betray others, even betraying the Son of God himself.

So, how do we reconcile all this? Yes, we are, ultimately, Very Good: beloved children of God. And yet, we killed the Son of God through the sin that is part of who we are.

And, how does this all tie into our hope for redemption, for our salvation which is promised by virtue of Jesus’ Resurrection?

First, let’s begin by talking about sin.   When we refer to “sin”, what are we talking about?

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Sermon: Betrayed

In the end, everyone betrays Jesus the Son of God, even God. Why?

The_Flagellation_of_Christ_-_Rubens_-_1607
The Flagellation of Christ (Rubens, 1607)

There is a whole lot of betrayal going on in this morning’s dramatic reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s count the ways…

First is Judas, The Betrayer, who sells Jesus out to the Chief Priests for 30 pieces of silver. And then there are Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, who fail to stay awake while Jesus is praying; and then all the disciples desert him and flee. Caiaphas and the Council stage a trial, using false witnesses and evidence to condemn him to death. And, Peter betrays Jesus again – three more times, before the Cock crows; just as Jesus foretold.

And then, Pilate ignores the plea of his wife, betraying her. And, the Chief Priests betray Jesus again, inciting the crowd to ask for the release of Barabbas. – Which means all the people (and our pamphlet reading makes it clear we are among those people) betrayed Jesus, too, Matthew has us saying “let his Blood be upon us and on our children…!” They knew what they were doing. Even the bandits hanging on crosses on either side of Jesus taunted him.

And finally, Jesus calls out “Eli Eli Lema sabachthani!” meaning “My God My God, why have you betrayed me!?”

In the end, everyone betrays Jesus the Son of God, even God.

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Sermon: Very Good

There are no simple answers in this world. There is; simply, Love.

HeavenOrHellWe share with all Christians the understanding that all need the healing touch of God.  But, differences in how we understand our faith affects how we perceive the world, and how we interact with others.

I particularly remember one couple I knew years ago, who were among my most trusted and supportive friends at the time. Great people.

One day they were speaking of their second home in the mountains, where they planned to retire. It was completely “off the grid” – no connections to utilities of any sort, not even a mailing address. They never let anyone know exactly where it was.

They were also fairly conservative in their faith, and this sounded a lot like a refuge from the Apocalypse. But, they were such reasonable, balanced people! I knew that couldn’t be the case. So, I teased the wife, saying “Then I suppose the gas masks, concertina wire and machine gun nests are all just for show”?

Looking a little shocked, she said (dead serious), “How’d you know?”

“How did I know what?” I asked in surprise.

“How did you know we had gas masks?”

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Sermon: The Stranger

I wonder: who is the strangest stranger in this story? Who is the one who is most “other”? The woman? No. She is a Samaritan living in Samaria, in the town right there. Everyone knows her. Who, then?

Angelika_Kauffmann_-_Christus_und_die_Samariterin_am_Brunnen_-1796
Angelika Kauffmann; Christ and the Samaritan Woman: (1796)

I love the story of the Woman at the Well in John chapter 4. It’s a story rich in metaphor, allegory and symbolism. I could probably write a dozen sermons on it!

This morning, we’ll dig down on one specific aspect of the many meanings found in this story.

Because of its length, I’ll give a synopsis in place of our normal practice of reading the full passage.  We’ll then  watch a video that presents a modern reinterpretation of this passage, and conclude with a short meditation.

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