Fire.

Acts 2:1-21

The Coming of the Holy Spirit

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I wrote this sermon early last week, after the events of the past few days. I have so many other thoughts. When I read verses 17-20, I cannot help to think that these are prophetic words for us today. We are living in apocalyptic times. Things are ending and new things are emerging. We are seeing literal images of things burning, of blood flowing, and of new dreams and visions out of the struggle that we are facing as a community and as a nation.

The tragic and senseless death of George Floyd has been yet another trigger point in our nation’s ugly history of racism. We are having to confront 400+ years of slavery and economic growth built on the backs of our fellow humans.

We are learning to listen and speak in new languages metaphorically. We are changing and the change has to start with us.

We may be scared, we may be angry, we may be fearing for our very lives and livelihoods, but God has given us God’s Spirit to bring us comfort and courage to face these times.

And, we have been in a process of being prepared for such a time as this.

These past few weeks, we’ve been talking about Jesus’ words in John chapters 14-17, the farewell discourse.  Jesus has been preparing his disciples for what was about to come.  Now, Jesus did not know all that was about to happen.  He did not have any certainty.  He didn’t know the outcome of the next day or the next season.   Sound familiar?  

Jesus is simply encouraging the disciples, letting them know that even when things get bad, seemingly out of control, that they won’t be alone.  They have an identity, they are not going to be orphaned.  Which, is an interesting word, in effect, Jesus is saying that they not only have an identity, but that they are still in relationship with a God who is all around them and even in them.  

If we have ever lost someone, we know that even after they are gone, that it often feels like they are still with us.  Maybe even more so.  Same, but even more with Jesus.  We’ve never met Jesus, yet it seems that Jesus is even more present within my body, within my friendships, and within the space between us.  Teilhard calls this the cosmic Christ, that Christ not only lived and walked the earth, but is with us, everywhere with everyone and everything, right now.  

There is a Presence, a sense of God’s love all around us and I pray for awareness of God’s Presence.  I believe that the greatest gift and struggle that we have as Jesus followers, as humans, is the work of becoming of self, others, and God aware…of being connected to ourselves, others, with the divine flow of God pushing us deeper.  The disciples, like us, were in a liminal space, a threshhold out of their control and they were being pushed deeper into Presence.  

During this pandemic, we have been listening and receiving God’s love through others, and deep within ourselves, long before the pandemic hit.  As we have gone through this season, many of us have commented on how our faith has come more alive even as we have struggled, we’ve taken some risks relationally, we’ve connected with ourselves and others as we’ve had our lives disrupted.  Much like the disciples, we’ve even been afraid to leave our houses for health reasons!  And, it’s interesting isn’t it, we have not been able to meet over food (and this church loves food), Sunday mornings in our sanctuary, use our church building, do our weekly events as planned, whatever we have “normally” done…yet, we still feel connected and present in many ways.  

And, we recognize that the master gardener, God’s action, is cultivating a deeper growth within us and around us.  

I strongly believe that, we, and all of humanity is being shaped and formed by God’s movement, that God is with all of us in the most intimate way.  God is closer than the air we breathe.  Yet, we don’t often recognize God, or sometimes we even deny that God could even exist.  The idea of a loving God can scare us.  Love transforms, it changes us.  

Relationships happen, love is the fuel for those relationships to flourish.  The juice if you will that burns within us and draws us out towards accepting others and ourselves in community.  

This concept of being “in” relationship with God and with others starts with an understanding that God’s very nature is communal relationship.  You can go through all sorts of head knowledge of God, but if we go deep within ourselves, whether we are extroverts or introverts, we are wired for relationship.   Science affirms this concept, at the very root of how we are formed, with atoms, protons, neutrons, quarks, etc., there is an understanding that energy is created for atoms to form through attraction, through relationship.  

Our understanding of God as three in one, as Trinity, gives witness to relationships.  God as parent, son, holy spirit are so close that they are one.  The outcome of their energy together is creating, saving, and sustaining relationship based on love.  It is not static, it is dynamic.  

That dynamic energy of three in one God, demonstrated by the outpouring of God’s energy, God’s Spirit on the disciples, gave them courage to face the unknown of going outside of their comfort and into a world that they literally did not understand.  They walked into a Jerusalem filled with folks from all over that had different customs, different ethnicities, and different languages.  

Yet, they went.  They knew that they were connected to God, one another, and wanted to share that connection with the world.  And, in so doing, they gave birth to a new movement, a new understanding, a new “realization” if you will, that we are all one humanity, God’s children.  That our diversity is beautiful, keeps us curious, AND, we can be united and connected in that diversity.  Fire was used to describe the Holy Spirit…and that flame, once kindled, proliferated wildly.  

Could this season of pandemic be another time of revelation, or realization, that releases the power of God’s love in new and creative ways?  

As we allow God’s love to pour into us and through us to others, we begin to understand that we are connected to an expansive and wild God.  We begin to see faith as not about certainty or having things figured out, but understanding that living in mystery and curiosity, living in a willingness to let go of our control, our vision, and letting God expand our horizons.  We are locally rooted in community, and globally connected in Chist…as we let that reality seep in, we begin to experience a deepening of ourselves, a joy in things unseen but lived out.

God’s Spirit, our advocate, is moving us out of our comfort zones…we are being moved out of ourselves and finding creative ways that God’s Spirit has been at work in and around us during this season, and we are adapting, embracing this new reality, not certain of where it will lead, but trusting that God’s Spirit will energize us, that God’s Son will be our friend, and that God’s relational flow will continue to give birth to new possibilities.  

As we continue to gather online, in parking lots, in parks, or wherever…as we serve our neighbors, read, journal, and contemplate on God’s movement in our lives, may we see God is in us, and we find our being in God.  This being will move us in ways we don’t always expect.  Look at the early disciples that are described in Acts.  They experience the Spirit, it’s like a flame that’s burning, uncontrollable, yet warms them and moves them to change the world.  May it be so for us.

Presence.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[a] any longer, because the servant[b] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. – John 15:9-17

Nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
It’s easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need

The Beatles sang this back in the 60’s.  We all know it, yet it’s hard for us to understand it.  Love is a word that gets thrown around a lot.  But, at its core, it’s a relational term that evokes emotions and commitments to each other.  I believe it is embodied fully in Jesus’ actions and attitudes with each of us.

What does Jesus’ love look like?  Oftentimes I’m asked at weddings to read the “love chapter” found in 1 Corinthians 13.  It has beautiful poetry, but it’s not really just about love between two persons…no one can love that way except for God.  It’s a chapter describing perfect love, sit back, close your eyes, soak in these words as if God is speaking directly to you:

13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[b] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Wow.  And, this is what Jesus is saying to us.  Live, or abide, remain in my love.  Jesus isn’t going anywhere, as a matter of fact, Jesus is present with us, right now…as we sit in our homes, wondering what’s going to happen next in this pandemic, what is the new “normal”, we are not alone.  Jesus is with us…and is chasing after us…won’t give up on us.

One of my best friends in my twenties was Jay.  I’ve talked about him before.  Jay was simply amazing.  Great athlete, musician, lots of charisma, looked like James Dean.  His family had owned the patent to frozen yeast and also owned several bakeries throughout the world.  He seemingly had it made.  Yet, underneath, he was deeply struggling with the death of his dad in his teenage years and his mom’s impending death during much of our 20’s through MS.  

He was a Young Life leader, but after a while, quit that, left the church, and went into a season of life trying to numb himself of the pain in as many ways that he could.

Jay and I still got together, he was one of my best friends.  But, there was a period of a few months where we weren’t around each other.  We got together for dinner with a friend and he leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “I’m back”.  He went on to say that he simply could not get away from God.  That God kept on chasing him even when he was so numb from whatever he was using and whoever he was using.  God’s love broke through.  I believe that God’s love was even more real and deeper during Jay’s season of numbness.  

Years later, Jay continues to cultivate an understanding of love and grace.  His legacy, friendship, and love for others bears so much fruit.  Honestly, I’m standing here the person that I am in many ways because of Jay. Jay’s presence and example…and his reception of God’s love and how that flowed through him, continues to shape me, even 25ish years later.

Jesus was and is present with each of us.  It’s hard, I know, especially in this season of disruption to recognize that…but when we begin to move towards understanding ourselves, asking the really hard questions and confronting the things in our lives that prevent us from experiencing the depth in knowing who we are and who God, we can begin to truly be present with ourselves, others, and God.  We begin to experience love.  

I had a different spiritual director for a long time, Todd Long, before my present spiritual director, Father Richard Bollmer. Both of them have been great reminders to me of what it means to practice being present with my stuff and with God and others.  Also, making sure that I take time to go and meditate, unplug, rest, and simply be either at home, in my office, or in special places like the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY.

One of the disciplines that they have encouraged me with is to cultivate loving presence through “obedience”.  Jesus, in this morning’s passage commands us to love God.  An act of obedience is to love, and to love well.  As we do that, we begin to understand deeply that Jesus is truly our friend and that leads to other friendships.

Friendship means a lot to me.  I married my best friend 22ish years ago, I have lots of friends in this city and around the world.  I am committed to folks and I want and need that commitment from them.  As your pastor, I have made a commitment in my vows to be your friend.  And, in your vows when you called me here, you committed to be my friend.  As I’ve stated before, church is not a business, and it’s not just a family, it’s a family business with deep roots.

As I practice friendship, sometimes in beautifully messy ways!  I find that our friendships leads towards common good and growth.  Many of my friends in this city and around the world are all working towards seeing goodness happen in communities with the church being at the center of that…being a place of generosity and momentum towards others and each other.  

We trust each other, deeply.  Many of these friends speak for me and I for them.  That trust is also happening here and we’re seeing the fruit of it in many ways already.

Sometimes we may think that we’d like to simply shirk away from friendship, from being present.  Yet, as we read this morning, God says to us, you didn’t choose this friendship, I chose you.  I think that says so much about God…a practical takeaway from what I’m sharing is this…YOU are loved, God is present with you, cultivate that understanding, and know that God desires for the best for you…and for this church.

I think that’s why I’m so confident about what we are about at Fleming Road UCC.  I don’t know what the future holds, I don’t know what church will look like after this pandemic, but I know that we are here, present with one another and that we are together in this and will grow and change.  We will move towards a great story…Jesus says again in this week’s passage that he will give us whatever we ask for!  It’s interesting that Jesus said this in last week’s passage and now again this week…And, here we are, we are in this liminal space, this threshold in culture, and as a church, and as persons!  We live in “apocalyptic” times…folks often think that means the end of the world, all of it…no, it’s simply a term that says that some things are ending in order to make room for something new to emerge..over time.  And, in God, and in God’s love, we can place our faith in that it will be good for us and for others.  

Believe it…accept it.  Receive this love and bear fruit!

And, remember these words:

All you need is love (All together, now!)
All you need is love (Everybody!)
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need
Love is all you need (Love is all you need)

Jesus embodies this love, Jesus is here, present with you through his spirit the Holy Spirit, that connects all of us and all of this…and ultimately keeps us firmly in the Presence of Jesus even as Jesus is present with us.

May we love one another and our neighbors (which means everyone) well!

Believe.

Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. 15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever– 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:10-18 TNIV) 

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26 TNIV)

Here we are!  Another week of staying at home and doing all that we can to “suppress the curve”!  I’m so glad to be here and be a part of the conversation and journey of this pandemic season that is so crazy, unique, scary, and also full of potential growth with you and our church and neighborhood!  I believe that God’s agency, God’s Spirit is moving in and through this church and our neighborhoods, and it’s going to be good, great even, to listen with you to figure out what God is up to and to be moved in the direction that God has us going in.  

Folks in the UK showing their appreciation for the NHS!

At our basic level, we all of have dreams of what it means to be great don’t we.  If you are like me, then when you were a kid, you had some big dreams to someday be great…maybe to be an astronaut or president…So, today I’d like for you to remember back to when you were a child in elementary school.  What do you remember?  What were you dreams?  What did you believe in?  

I remember playing in my grandfather’s backyard, it felt safe and I could have some great adventures while I singlehandedly slayed dragons, won the Battle of the Bulge, defeated the bad guys.  Even in these very dangerous adventures, I believed I was safe and I had the power in my imagination to change the world.

Now, fast forward to middle school…what do you remember?  What were your dreams?  What did you believe in?  

I remember being bussed to an inner-city school.  My parents were both strong believers in public education as a school principal and teacher.  I was not going to be going the route of my friends who were pulled out of school and sent to private schools.  The Jones’ were “team players”.  In sixth grade, I had my eyes opened to a world that was very different from mine.  People stole things, people felt powerless and would want to pick a fight with me.  I had teachers who seemed to mean well, but were overwhelmed.  I saw national guardsmen on my bus with their guns.  Yet, I wasn’t bitter.  I thought it was simply part of my life.  I adapted, and years later, I realized that I received an amazing education that year that was more valuable than most academic endeavors. I saw the inequities in society and knew that I wanted to stand for something more: equality, inclusion, and working towards the common good.

Later, when I went back to my suburban school, going through pre-adolescence, my dreams simply became to survive and get to high school.  

Bono…and me (at 16).

What do you remember about high school?  What were your dreams then?  What did you believe in?

I remember thinking it would be great to be a rock star and somehow sing about God and the issues surrounding the world around us.  Then, in my sophomore or junior year of high school, I heard this band called U-2 and their charismatic singer, Bono.  He was set on changing the world (and still is!), and I wanted in on it and I wanted to be great like Bono.   

The disciples in today’s Scripture had similar aspirations, they wanted to do great things.  Their dreams, their beliefs, were tied up in wanting to make a difference and in following Jesus.  Well, Jesus had some GREAT news for them to hear, for them to believe. 

This passage is a part of John’s writings called the “Farewell Discourse” found in John, chapters 14-17.  I’d encourage you to read them all when you get home…not right now though…  Jesus is setting the stage for what is to come after he is crucified and resurrected.  The disciples are a bit confused, they’ve got some questions.  Where we take up this discourse in vs. 10, Jesus is asking them if they believe that he is in the Father.  This is a wonderful passage that points directly to Jesus being in the Father and vice versa.  It gives foundation to our understanding of the Triune nature of God, the Trinity.  Jesus is saying that he is one with the Father and he speaks, not with his authority, but with the Father’s authority who lives in him, and Jesus lives in the Father, they share space, they mutually indwell within each other.  Jesus also, in his humanity, shares space with us and in his humanity is showing us how we should live and the work we should be about as we participate in God’s actions, in obedience to the Father.  

That’s hard for me to completely understand.  Jesus has an intimate oneness in his relationship with the Father and Jesus is one with us in our humanity which allows us to share in God’s love for each other and the world around us.   We are one in Jesus as it says elsewhere in Scripture, because of this oneness, we are connected together by the very power of God.  

I have to believe that something is happening here at Fleming Road UCC, in our community, in me, in our relationships, something very good, and hard though, especially as we live into this season of disruption that seems will be with us for a while.  

I believe that my coming to Fleming Road UCC was such a unique calling.  It’s a church in my neighborhood wanting to be community engaged.  The timing of the conversations with our church started right before I left for India for three weeks.  While in India, I had a growing sense that my next call would be as pastor of this church.  I was filled with excitement, but also lots of questions and not knowing what to expect or what this church would be like.  Yet, I believed.  And, it’s proven to be a great call 2 1/2 years into it.  Filled with ups and downs, yes, but so good.  And, now, we are in the midst of a pandemic, which is a struggle for all of us, but so glad we are in this together.  

Jesus is asking in this passage:  Do you believe?  The Greek word in this text for believe is a great word πιστεύw it means  1. believe, believe in, be convinced of, give credence to; 2. believe (in), trust in a special sense, with God or Christ as object; Have confidence; 4. think, hold, or consider (possible).  It is used 3 times alone in vs. 10 & 11.  In vs. 11, the word “believe” is used as an imperative, giving it a sense of command and urgency.  The writer of John is trying to drive home a point, do you believe?

The writer goes on to say that if you believe, then you will do even greater works than me.  This is where we come to the word “great”.  What does that mean to do greater things than me?  The key here is to understand what Jesus means when he says “they will do even greater things than these..”  Jesus is communicating to his disciples, and to us, that we have a new identity that is wrapped up in him and our understanding of what it means to be truly human.  There is a new power at work that will enable his followers to do great things.  What are some of those works?  Taking care of those who are impoverished, healing disease, causing the lame to walk, preaching release to those held in bondage, being a true friend and good neighbor.  Jesus says that to be great, those are the types of things that we need to be about because that’s what he was about.  When read in that context, we begin to understand vs. 14, which says that anything we ask in Christ’s name, he’ll do it.  In other words, God’s purposes will always win out and those purposes are consistent with his character.  As humans, we share in those characteristics and purposes because we share in Christ’s humanity.  Our identity does not lie in what roles we play in life such as being a doctor, engineer, parent, pastor, runner, or whatever…our identity lies in Christ and it shapes our roles and actions.  Because of Jesus’ identity with us and our identity with him, we can be great and change the world…not only on global issues, but in our own communities, and even in the lives of those we see every day.  We can all be great to someone!

Now, we can’t do this on our own.  God’s Spirit is all around us, even living inside of us as it says in verse 17, animating us, prompting us, changing us.  The “world”, or the systems that tend to dominate this world that are based on the pursuit of fame, money, individualism, self-centeredness, narcism, etc. can’t understand truth, they can’t understand the reality of God’s Presence.  The writer of John makes it clear earlier in this book, in John 3:17, that Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it.  To turn those systems upside down with a new reality of God’s Presence with us and in us, transforming us all…and he wants us, the church, to reflect his Presence in our lives.    And we can have confidence that Jesus will not let go of us, ever.  He is with us and will not leave us orphans.  We are not alone.  

Jesus wants to teach us ALL things and reminds us of how he has carried us.  When I remember my past, I am reminded of God’s faithfulness.  God has kept God’s promises as demonstrated through Jesus and throughout our lives as the Spirit of God inside of us points us away from ourselves and to Jesus and the world around us.  That not only helps me to understand my past and to understand what it means to be my true Self…and it gives me confidence for the present and faith for the future.  

You’ve been given the gift of God’s presence in your life.  Allow yourself to not settle for simply looking at the gift or only bringing it out on special occasions, but allow yourself to get in a place to see Jesus at work in your life and in the lives of others.  As someone passionate about running, I tell folks all the time that they have the gift to run, but unless they exercise that gift, they’ll never know how good they can be.  Exercise your faith through prayer, finding a small group Bible Study, starting a neighborhood gathering or even a prayer group (virtually or outside 6′ apart…during this season), getting together with a spiritual director, serving others, being in worship with others, finding a small group of folks to pray with and hold you accountable.  Even if it’s online during this season, it’s still good!   The conversations that we’ve had online these past few months have been amazing!

When I was younger, I wanted to do something great.  Now I realize that doing something great is wrapped up to my identity in Christ.  It may not mean changing the entire world over night, it may mean being great for just one person or being a great neighbor.  We are his body as the church and called to build community with others and to be good neighbors by loving well ourselves, God, and those around us.  God’s power is living inside of us, reminding of us our identity it Christ, carrying us and changing us as we remember and focus on the amazing gift of his Spirit, and in the lives of those around us.   Live in Jesus and have confidence that his Spirit is living in you and wants to transform the world with his love through you!  Believe!  

Prayer.

I’m praying not only for them

But also for those who will believe in me

Because of them and their witness about me.

The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—

Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,

So they might be one heart and mind with us.

Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.

The same glory you gave me, I gave them,

So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—

I in them and you in me.

Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,

And give the godless world evidence

That you’ve sent me and loved them

In the same way you’ve loved me.

John 17:20-23, The Message

What a “wild” season of life this has been!  We are living through a pandemic that has killed thousands, infected millions, caused economic hardship, disruption, and disorienting for many of us.  

In many ways, it’s shown how deep the divide is in our world on so many levels, and it’s also shown that innumerable ways of how important our shared humanity is, and that we can work together for the common good.  And, I’m seeing the church, and especially our church, become even more unified.  

So, as I am writing this, we are in the midst of Ohio’s “stay at home” and “social distancing” restrictions that will give us an opportunity to “suppress the curve” of this pandemic.  We do not know how long this will last:  a few more weeks, months, or the rest of the year in some way.  I do hope that all of you reading this are safe and well.  And, if you are not, I pray that you find solace in knowing that we, as a church, are with you and that God is with you.  

This has also been a time of adjustment to new ways of being, not only in a (Lord willing) temporary way, but also in new ways of finding growth and faith in the midst of a season of lament.  

I found these passages on prayer because I believe this, as in every season, is a season of prayer.  Prayer is not something that we do just when we think about it.  Our entire lives are prayers.  We are constantly praying whether we realize it or now.  Life is prayer.  A communication between all peoples and the divine flow that is God moving in, through, and all around us.  In that flow, we find Jesus.  It may lead to deeper places in our lives and in the lives of others that we may not want to go. Jesus is in the depth and shadows of our lives, as well as in the joy and dancing of our lives.  As Paul says in Colossians, “Christ is all, and in all”.  

Friends, so many in our church and neighborhood have been in this season as best as they can be.  We have been finding appropriate ways to connect with one another through chats across residential lots (several feet apart), walks (again, several feet apart and wearing masks often), helping hand out food in the community (again, with every precautionary guideline), online through Zoom and FaceBook Live, YouTube, phone calls, and in other ways.  And, through it all, prayers deep inside, most of which we cannot even give words to.  

It has reinforced to me that we do not just have a “virtual” church, but an authentic church, and that our desires or prayers to be all that God intends for us to be are being made real in many ways, even during this time.  

It’s interesting to also hear how many folks have had vivid dreams, could this also be a form of prayer, of something deeper wanting to come out, spring forth?  

I recently read this and it holds so much wisdom:  

[St. Francis’] life indicates to us that if we persevere in prayer we will find God in the center of our lives and the bitter will become sweet [as when Francis kissed the leper]; however, if we stay on the plain of mediocrity then the bitter may remain bitter. To trust in the power of God’s grace through darkness, isolation, bitterness, and rejection is to be on the way to becoming prayer because it is the way to freedom in God. For prayer, that deep relationship of God breathing in us, requires change and conversion. And where there is change, there is the letting go of the old and the giving birth to the new. To pray is to be open to the new, to the future in God. The way to life passes through change and ultimately the change from death to life. Prayer is the way to life because in prayer we are invited to change and to grow in love.

Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio (From Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotions)

Friends, may it be so, may this be a season of mutual conversion, of mutual growth, for all of us.  May we let go of what we need to let go of, to let it die in order for new life to be birthed, resurrected.  This is the Easter story that we just remembered, let’s continue to live it together!  

Gardening.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples.

John 15:1-8

Aaron Klinefelter is a good friend.  We met a number of years ago at Fuller Seminary.  Aaron is also someone who I believe knows everyone in Cincinnati when he lived here.  He’s a networker and connector.  Together, we have been a part of a lot of gatherings and initiatives.  He’s also been a key encourager of getting Oasis started in Cincinnati.   

Something else about Aaron.  Just like he cultivates relationships, he also cultivates gardens.  He’s a master gardener and has lovely expressions springing up all around his house.  

Aaron’s full time gig was the young adult and family director at Redeemer Episcopal Church.  When he announced a call to become an Episcopal priest,  the Bishop here in Cincy said that he needed to go to an Episcopal seminary to get his Masters in Divinity, even though he has a theological degree from a reformed seminary.  Aaron embraced that decision and sold his house, but the new owner could not move in for a while.  So, he and his wife, kids, and dog moved in with us for several weeks before they moved to Berkley, CA.

It was a bit crowded, but we have the space.  And, it was a great season.  Aaron loved working in our garden and even rebuilding it.  Plus, Debbie and I love community and love having friends stay with us.  We had some hurdles, but we grew together as families in the process.  We continued to cultivate, if you will, deep friendships.  Deep friendships that are bound together because we abided with one another and God abided with us.  

In our passage this morning, the imagery of God as a master gardener speaks to us as a beautiful metaphor.  God has given us life and cultivates us to be the best versions of ourselves, beautiful creations.  God even plants God’s self into humanity.  Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.  Jesus is often called the “seed” of humanity, and that seed grows or works it’s way throughout humanity, producing much good and beauty in each of us. 

The metaphor of Jesus being the vine, the connection, the bridge if you will between humanity and God…really, is in Jesus’ entire being.  Jesus is the “word” that’s been given to us as mentioned in this passage, the expression of God.  The one that we are called to follow.  The one who’s vine we are the branches.

The master gardener prunes, works on us, takes away the things that make us dead.  Sometimes that pruning, or the literal Greek in this text is “taking away”, can hurt.  We don’t like it when we are told that we need to change, that we need to grow.  We create habits for getting by that may get us through the day, or even years, but really aren’t healthy or helpful to others around us.  We have pride, we have insecurities.   

That’s not only true of each of us, but it’s also true of us collectively as a community and as a church.  When I read or hear some of the things on Next Door Finneytown, or talk to other faith leaders across our neighborhood and the city, or listen to business owners or civic leaders, I hear a lot.  Sometimes, honestly,  there can be some who play something like middle school politics, but it’s more “grown up”.  I also see it within our churches and families.  We often get into places relationally with each other that simply don’t move us or others forward towards growth. 

We need to be loved on by a master gardener, and that love means pruning some of the things away that are ugly in order for us to see within ourselves, others, the church, and our neighbors that true beauty that we are.

It’s been pretty obvious for us as a church, community, country, and world, that this pandemic has been a time of pruning, even lament, yet it is producing growth.  

How do we cultivate this way of life where we can see the growth?  By remaining in Christ, connected to the vine.  This passage is an imperative in the Greek in verse 4.  Jesus is stating emphatically to remain in him.  Then he says that he will remain in us.  This is not a cause and effect statement, or a transactional statement.  Jesus is saying that he will remain in us, period.  His presence with us is not conditional.  He does say though to us, to remain in him.  To be connected, to be willing to grow and be beautiful for yourself and for others.   

If we remain in Jesus, if we follow the trajectory of his words and his life, we see a radical inclusion of all of our stuff inside of us and outside of us.  A radical inclusion that means that we are loved unconditionally, and those around us, no matter where they are in life, are also to be included. 

That can be messy.  You have seen it in our relationships, and if you haven’t, you will some day!!  I am a fairly solid and mostly competent pastor to Fleming Road UCC (most days), but I also make mistakes, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  And, our church has made tons of mistakes over the centuries of our mutual existence in the three churches merged into one.   None of us have all of the answers, that’s why it’s imperative that we remain in Christ, and remain connected to him and conversely with each other, we can be pruned, we can own our mistakes and lean in on grace, and grow together into a beautiful part of the vineyard here in Cincinnati.   

And, we will bear much fruit in the process…we already have!  Live into that, live into God, as God lives in you!!!   

Shepherd.

Jesus the Good Shepherd

10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

What a week we’ve had!  What week is it now in the pandemic?  I know that as we emerge from this particular phase of our “stay at home” guidelines and restrictions, that there is so much that we still have to adapt to, isn’t there?  We have to find new ways of being almost every week as this season continues!  And, I know that we have had to do that as a church community as well.   It’s been quite the ride, yet, every week has been full of life and deepening of friendships, both old and new! 

Our passage this morning tells us to listen to the voice of the Shepherd.  During this time, we’ve had so many voices to listen to in our culture:  government voices ranging from the local to the federal, scientists, political leaders, clergy folk, neighbors, friends, family, news outlets…all sorts of folks often saying conflicting things…in the midst of those voices, it’s been interesting to see who we hear and what we hear.

Overall, I feel like we’ve been able to listen well, especially to one another, and hear a collective voice that speaks towards deepening friendship, safe practices, authenticity, and growth as persons and as a church.

Beyond the pandemic, before, during, and after, we still hear other voices that try to pull us in so many directions…it can give us whiplash!  But, in the midst of it all, we try to cultivate a deepening awareness of recognizing the voice of God and God’s love for us in the depths of ourselves, in others, and in the world around us.

Last Sunday, in our sermon conversations, so many folks commented on how they have seen and heard God’s beauty all around them during this time of staying at home, in simple things:  zoom calls, walks in their neighborhoods, phone calls, and in the slowing down.  

It can be hard to train our ears for the voice of the Shepherd, of God, in our lives, even in a time of pandemic.

One of the things that we have been doing is trying to train our dog, Leo, to listen to our voices.  He’s a smart dog, an Australian/Pointer mix.  We even have one of those dog collars that sends him signals when we give commands.  It’s been quite the journey!  And, it’s been hard for us to get everyone in our house on the same page in training him.  But, he’s learning.

Another thing about Leo, as a shepherd, he stays close to us…all of the time.  He wants to make sure that we are OK.  He knows us now.  

Our gospel lesson talks about sheep and shepherds.  Obviously, the metaphor worked well in an agrarian society like first century Palestine.  We are the sheep, Jesus is the shepherd.  Jesus is leading us through whatever walls that divide us or prevent us from pastures that give life and nutrients.  Sheep need lots of different fields, throughout a day, shepherds take their sheep to different fields in order for them to graze on fresh food, to have open spaces.  Jesus wants us all to have life, abundant life, and he wants to lead us to better fields.  

We may want to stay in worn out fields…we produce a lot of smelly and messiness as we consume so much in those old fields.  Our relationships with each other are filled with craziness at times, we don’t always follow or lead each other well.  There are also dangers around us and we need to be led to different fields.  Dangers that come as thieves to us such as deep and chronic depression, loneliness, selfishness, pride, or addictions, or folks not being the best version of themselves, or fully understanding themselves or others.  Those thieves can come in the middle of darkness as it says in John 10:10 that kill and destroy the lives that we were called to live.

Yet, Jesus tells us that he has come to give us life.  When we slow down, or get caught up in recognition of good things around us and the origin of that goodness, we can recognize the voice of the true shepherd, the voice of Jesus who has entered in the fields of our lives, who walks with us and towards us…walking through the messiness to call us towards new fields, new adventures.  

We often recognize the voice of Jesus through others.  Maybe we literally hear words from Jesus through others such as a speaker, or maybe even a preacher.  Or maybe we recognize the voice of God through something we read, or a song we hear.  Maybe it’s listening to our neighbors.  Or, maybe it’s seeing someone else practice charity through actions or giving themselves away.

We know it when we see it and hear it though, especially as we train our eyes and ears to see and recognize the true shepherd. 

Friends, we have said it before, we are living in a new place with church.  This pandemic has moved us into ways of being…there never is a true “normal” because life is always evolving,  life always teaches us something new, and this pandemic is no exception.  It has reminded us that some of the old forms simply don’t work anymore.  

The world is crying out for us, the church, to be an example of goodness, of the good shepherd, to be reflections of Jesus’ actions and to reflect and amplify the voice of the Shepherd who is calling us towards him, towards abundant life, towards being one flock.  This shepherd has laid down his life for us, yet in doing so, has overcome all things that steal abundance from our lives and is creating something new and beautiful as he leads us into new fields, filled with expansive pastures and relationship.

So, let’s listen to the voice of the Shepherd, let’s love each other well, and let’s play in the fields of Cincinnati, and the world and be the diverse, yet unified flock that God has marked us out to be…we can do this, we can believe in each other as God does with us, trusting each other, loving each other, and changing the world in the process.

Walking.

 Luke 24:13-36

The Walk to Emmaus

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 

22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Jesus Appears to His Disciples

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

In this time of pandemic, of “stay at home” orders, it seems like walking in the neighborhood has increased 10 fold!  I know it has in our neighborhood.  Folks want to get out, it’s good to process walking and getting some of that angst worked out from being cooped up.  I think our dogs have been walked 100 times!  It also releases some endorphins, makes us feel better, and is healthy.  And, on days when the sun is out, gives us vitamins!  

Our lectionary passages finds two of Jesus’ disciples walking on the road to Emmaus.  We can relate to them.  They want to get out, they need to get out.  They have been isolated, disrupted, and their expectations crushed.  They need to work it out and were walking to a destination.

Richard Rohr, the Catholic priest, writer, and speaker has some good insights on this walk to Emmaus:

“Not knowing what else to do, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple were now wandering home, trying to make sense of it all. 

They were suspended somewhere between loss and possible gain, grief and possible joy, profound human suffering and perhaps some kind of redemption, dashed hopes and maybe daring to hope again. They were wrung out—emotionally, spiritually and physically. They had been powerless to prevent the events of the last days, and they were powerless now to do anything to change their situation.

The road from Jerusalem to Emmaus was the road between the now and the not-yet.

Although they were probably not aware of it, these disciples were in what Richard Rohr calls “liminal space”—a particular spiritual position where human beings hate to be, but where the biblical God is always leading them. The Latin root limen literally means “threshold,” referring to that needed transition when we are moving from one place or one state of being to another.

Liminal space usually induces some sort of inner crisis: you have left the tried and true (or it has left you), and you have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.”

This passage is particularly helpful for us today.  Doesn’t it seem like we are in this “liminal space”.  We have been disrupted, some more than others.  Yet, God has been with us in this moment.  We may be disoriented, we may feel lost, we may want to go back to “normal”, but then we realize that we cannot.  We have crossed a threshold that was handed to us.  We must grow and move towards a new “normal”, and that new normal has to be good for everyone in some way.  

In this moment, I am so grateful to have our church as “walking partners”.  We are having some amazing conversations!  

Our early March church council meeting before “stay at home” restrictions and guidelines were announced.

Along comes another walking partner in our story.  At first the disciples don’t recognize him, but as they share, and as Jesus moves into sharing a meal with them, it dawns upon them, this is Jesus and they are filled with emotion.  

Friends, as we walk together, aren’t we often surprised that as we sit, as we listen, as we share life together, slowly, but then suredly, along the way, we see Jesus!

This past week, on a Zoom call with Ron and Trish, Trish said something that was beautiful.  As we shared about the Zoom calls, she said that it was so good to actually see folks face to face.  So often, in our sanctuary, because of the way it is set up, we have to look forward.  That’s not a knock on the building, it’s just the way it is…it’s a great building and we all look forward to being back in it.  But, in this season, we have the opportunity to “see” one another, and in the process, see God in each other…just like we sing every Sunday when we are in the Sanctuary.  

In our story, Jesus goes on to give them peace.  

It’s hard to be at peace with everyone.  Peace is a rare commodity, especially when we look at events in the world around us.  As I watched events unfold this past week again around protests and other things that are dividing us, I couldn’t help but to wonder if peace can be possible.   

Yet, we are called to peace.  I am amazed at folks like Martin Luther King who were able to work towards justice while rejecting violence and seeking peace.

We also experience a lack of peace within ourselves.  We are filled with self-doubt, insecurities, and a sense that something is simply not right.  We often look around in a state of discontent that can lead us to question who we are and to wonder if there is something more.  Sometimes that discontent can lead us towards growth if handled in loving community with God and others.  But, oftentimes that discontent left on its own leads us to despair.  

We live in a society that often values a certain rugged individualism.  When we look at each other as individuals, we can make ourselves and others isolated, rather, we should look at each as persons created for community.  This individualism often has a “me first” and has an attitude of getting ahead before the concerns of other.  Our lack of seeing others as persons can cause division within our families, even our churches.  And, we certainly see a lack of peace, and even civility, in our political discourse as a country.  Having said that, it’s remarkable to see in these past few weeks how this particular church enjoys a great deal of peace within its community, which was present way before this pandemic hit us!  This is something that we should cherish and make sure we take care of. 

As we embrace who we are in Jesus and identify with his example and live in obedience to him, we can experience true peace.  A peace that passes understanding.  We will also be able to extend that peace to others and work towards peace.  We may not be able to control what others do to us or to others or the circumstances around us, but we can live in Christ and strive to respond to others as Jesus would.  

After Jesus’ death and resurrection he appears to the frightened, lonely, desperate, insecure, and hopeless disciples, along the road, and in their hiding places.  They have just seen Jesus crucified, their hopes are dashed, their lives are threatened and they have locked themselves up in a room.  

Jesus came to the disciples and he comes to us today, having overcome everything, even death.  We can live into this season with expectation, or a hope for peace within ourselves, others, with God, and in the world.  Shalom.  God has made everything new desires for us to live in peace.  Not only does Jesus give us peace, Jesus is our peace as he is present with us. 

Friends, may we live in God’s peace and be peacemakers, may we live in God and abide in God as God lives in us.