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!
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.
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!!!
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Ever had something happen to you that was overwhelming?
Training for a marathon is hard work…lots of hard work… and it’s a bit overwhelming, but I know it takes one day at a time…each workout leads to something more…and, there’s change and growth in the process. When I first set out to train for a marathon with the goal of qualifying for Boston, it brought a lot of change in how I structured my day, what I ate and didn’t eat… it also brought change in my body….most of it welcome.
After getting to the Boston Marathon, running it while injured, finishing in that crowd, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to process it. I cried and called my daughter.
The Luke story of the Transfiguration comes days after a series of events where Jesus is going around sharing the good news of God’s Presence, a message that was about a different narrative or story that was being lived at the time. A narrative of God’s desire for us to be in deep relationship with one another.
At one point in previous stories, Jesus is asking what others were saying about him. Some said that he was Elijah, John the Baptist. Peter said that He was the Messiah though…he had also healed some folks, one story right before this was a healing from blindness. He’s also beginning to share some hard things about his own suffering that was soon to come, that he would experience deep pain, and that he would die and rise again. As more and more crowds were following him, I’m sure it was hard for them to understand, and even harder for Jesus to convey this message.
We see that Jesus is getting away from the crowds, as he often did. He went up to a mountain with three of his friends. These were good guys I’m sure, but not always on top of things, and they had some issues, like we all do…I guess that’s why we can relate to them so well. Peter seemed prone to making big statements that he couldn’t always back up. He denied even knowing Jesus during his darkest hour a short time later. James and John were concerned with greatness and arguing about who would sit where in eternity. They seemed to be way more concerned by another life other than the one they were living, which, to this day is unnecessary and unhealthy conversation in the church. They seemed consumed with theological discussions and fantasies on power rather than helping those around them.
Yet, through it all, through their anxieties, image issues, and failures, Jesus counted them as friends and believed in them. He invited them into events and life experiences with him that were transformative and meaningful, he extended grace and presence to them.
This event, this mountain top experience had a profound impact on Peter, James, and John. They saw before them Jesus, their friend, changed, transfigured, beautiful. In Jewish understanding from the Torah, when someone’s face or countenance changed, or there is comment about one’s clothes being radiant, that’s a statement about one’s relationship with God and others, it’s symbolic of where their heart is. The disciples are seeing Jesus for who Jesus is.
How did they react? Well, they were overwhelmed, but they were glad to be there, they knew they wanted to be there. Peter was so caught up in the moment, that he wanted to create three dwellings or set up tents for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. Somehow he wanted to contain that moment. He was terrified, as they all were. They didn’t know where to go or what to do, yet, they knew that things had changed.
It’s interesting that Elijah and Moses were the ones that Jesus was talking to…the author of this passage is making a statement about Jesus. Jesus, like Elijah, engages in prophetic ministry. Elijah’s ministry was marked by a passion for those on the outside of the “elect” or Israel, those on the margins, the poor, and how God had a purpose for them and loved them, and included them.
Moses gave us the law, our relational rules for how to treat one another and God. Jesus embodies the law and demonstrated to us how to live.
Moses also represents the exodus and Jesus’ exodus is representative of us, of everyone being released from bondage to whatever is holding us back from being the persons we were created to be.
Then, the clouds came. Maybe that’s to say that things aren’t always clear. Yet, God says, this is my son, part of me, I love him, LISTEN to him.
They left the mountain. But, notice that Jesus is with them. He’s not distant. Jesus told them not to tell anyone, they don’t have to validate themselves, just wait, there’s more to the story. Jesus would die, but he’d rise again.
I think that this story has a lot to say about us as persons and as a church. We are being changed, all of us. We experience change throughout our lives. It’s inevitable. Sometimes that change can be overwhelming. It can be confusing and also exciting. We know we want change and need it. When it comes, we’re not sure how to respond or the way for us may not be clear. But God says that we are not alone, that he’s with us, going through change with us, and to listen to his son. This Jesus is also rising up within us. He is alive and is working in and through us, calling us to have confidence in ourselves as his friends…to be made aware of ourselves, of God, and of others.
That Son lives in us and his Spirit is moving all around us. I sense that in this church and community.
I believe that Fleming Road UCC is going through a transfiguration. I also believe that each of one of us, together, are experiencing transfiguration in our relationships with one another and those we meet. We are being changed into something beautiful. We are inviting in conversation partners to help us see through the clouds of what that change will bring, we are practicing listening skills to each other, our community, and the word of God. I know I’m listening.
I want to see this church filled with people of all sorts of ages, color, economic backgrounds, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, orientations, etc.. Folks all being called to live life together in the way of Jesus and folks seeking out a Jesus who is pursuing them. I hope to see all of us living into Jesus, a Jesus who was changed before the eyes of his disciples where they could see him in even deeper ways. It will take time, hard work, and some suffering, overwhelming at times, but it will also be dazzling, encouraging, and wonderful.
I don’t know what is in store for the church that I pastor, Fleming Road UCC, but it will be beautiful, it will be good for you, for me, and for everyone in this neighborhood and in other neighborhoods, wherever we find ourselves in some way. We will be changed, and we will be glad to be on the mountaintop as that change happens. We won’t change overnight more than likely, and we will grow over time together. But, isn’t it so good to be together as we go to the mountaintop and hear God’s voice telling us, I love you, I’m with you, I am present.
As we approach Lent, may we use those 40 days as a time of repentance which simply means transformation, growth, of a changing of our minds and hearts and move towards renewal. Just as spring time will arrive, delivering us out of the death of winter, God wants to bring us into new life, deeper awareness, and to know that God has faith in us.
Jesus calls us friend, and invites us to be overwhelmed with something new, his love for us that transcends time and space and is present with us today and everyday. This love is demonstrated by Jesus’ pouring out his life for us and being broken for us and is symbolized in the Lord’s Supper which we participate in with remembrance of God’s action on our behalf and God’s invitation for us to come to the table of life that God shares with us, all of us.
27 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not with- hold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?
For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[a] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37 ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be con- demned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’
Is it easy to love one’s enemies? What happens when we do that? Has anyone ever given you something and not expected anything in return?
This gospel text is a continuation of the beatitudes. Jesus is sharing with his followers the marks of the alternative, beloved community that God wants for all of us.
This alternative community calls for a change in our worldview. We are to act and practice love differently. And, in so doing, we are participating in a new reality of what community means. It is marked by practicing love…it is not marked by tribal identity, political affiliation, the color of skin, orientation, social or economic standing. It is also not marked by holding on to long standing grievances. It is a community of forgiveness, grace, of second, third, fourth, etc. chances.
Some might say this is impossible, we cannot live in community like this…yet, Jesus is calling us to treat all people as if they were close relatives that we love deeply, and to do so without expectations of return.
This kind of community changes the world. It is not based on a patronage system like that of antiquity, and even today, a system that says “I’ll do this for you if you do that for me”, a system that can lend itself to a slow death by constantly checking the scoreboard. No, this is a life based on giving, knowing that all you need is all that you have, and working towards friendships where folks of all sorts of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and opinions can come together in unity through acts of lovingkindness.
A community of belief in one another and in a God who demonstrates faith in us…even when we mess up.
Jesus is addressing folks of a certain wealth in this passage also. They have cloaks, clothes, money to lend to others. Much like us in this room, these are followers of Jesus, or folks curious about Jesus, and all searching to live lives full of meaning and depth as they ask questions, seeking abundance in life, intentionally or unintentionally.
And, folks that may have experienced this sense of God’s practice of lovingkindness through others.
I know that I have had experiences that have been transformational because of this practicing what God has demonstrated to us throughout history and with Jesus.
Honestly, I could point to so many folks in my life who have demonstrated this…Debbie, is certainly someone who has been the kind of friend that has demonstrated God’s lovingkindness in so many ways.
But, others have as well, here’s a couple of examples:
In 1989, after hearing Dr. Tony Campolo speak, I moved to the inner-city of Philadelphia for a summer. I lived in an Episcopal church at 5th and Reed for a summer. The church’s congregation was, at that time, maybe had 20 person. Yet, we had a team of folks from all over the world learning together what it means to share with one another, have disagreements, work through them, and build friendship. We were also surrounded by neighborhood folks that were black, white, Irish, Italian, middle-eastern, etc. you name it…and, yet, they practiced so much hospitality with us, that it changed me. I could never be the same. Out of that summer, I solidified a calling to be a minister and it set me on a path that led me to being a pastor and a community organizer of sorts.
In 1993, I was working with a non-profit youth ministry in Lexington, KY after graduation from UK in 1990.
I was at a point where I knew that I wanted to work for a church.
I was dating a Catholic youth worker, Melissa Berens, at the time and she encouraged me to become a church partner with Young Life and the Presbyterian Church through the Rev. Charlie Scott, someone that she had met at a conference. Charlie, and his wife Mary, had a great impact on my life. He eventually encouraged me to go to seminary and to become an ordained pastor. That also meant a move to Atlanta where the church partnership was located.
Working for this non-profit in Lexington was great, but it was also at a tremendous cost. It was only about $15,000 per year. It was a great experience, but I had accumulated some debt. My grandfather was still alive at the time. He was really into our Scottish heritage and was pretty excited that I had become a Presbyterian in college, and was going to work for the Presbyterian church.
He also believed in me. Throughout my life, he had poured into me. Building me up. His belief still gives me confidence to this day and has been foundational.
He also knew about my debt. One day he asked me to write down all of my debts, how much I owed and to what. I was pretty embarrassed to give him that list. Yet, he took it, did not condemn or lecture me, and simply pulled out his checkbook and wrote me a check for the entire debt. Then he said that he was proud of me and did not want me to start over in Atlanta worrying about debt. It was cancelled.
He was not a wealthy man or do I remember him being particularly religious, but he understood community and friendship. Everyone in his neighborhood knew Howard and respected him.
I also experienced so much friendship this past weekend on our church retreat.
Friends, we are all building up our church together and being the alternative community that this world desperately needs, even if it doesn’t recognize it yet.
The last verses in the gospel lesson remind us that God treats us all the same, and when we act in the way that our very loving God does, towards those on the inside and outside, that we will see more clearly God’s practice towards all of us.
When we do, when we live, or be the people God calls us to be, we will truly live and others will find life, and life to the full, with us.
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20 (TNIV)
Live (verb) [ζῶ (Gal 2:20 BGT)]
of natural life, of the conduct of life, be well, recover, as surely as I live, life—
of the life of the child of God.
What does it mean to “live”? It seems to me that our lives so often get filled with busyness, getting things done, achieving, performance, and so much more that we often do not have time to simply live, or we forget what it means to live. We may be breathing and blood may be pumping through our bodies, but when we pause for a moment, we ask ourselves, are we truly living?
It seems to me that we have become enslaved to the notions that have been presented to us through media, many relationships, and even institutions. We can resonate with the words of Jesus found in the first part of John 10:10:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
What is the thief stealing, killing, and destroying? Our lives.
Yet, Jesus goes on to say this in the second part of that verse:
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
How do we have this life to the full? By simply recognizing that our identities are wrapped up into a new Reality. The writer of the verse in Galatians, Paul, sums it up best when he states that we have been crucified with Christ. Jesus represents all of us in our shared humanity and was crucified for humanity out of the world’s thirst for power and violence. On that cross and throughout the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our old, enslaved, dead-end lives have been crucified and absorbed by Jesus. In its place, Jesus has given us himself and our identities are wrapped up in Christ and given the chance to live life to the full, to become, as Thomas Merton and others have said through the years, our “true selves”.
As the church, we are called to be the “body of Christ”, which is universal to the whole of humanity. We are called to live out this new Reality. We are called to have freedom from the things that enslave us and to boldly occupy our identity as Christ followers. A few years ago, I used a poker analogy with a group of students at Northminster Presbyterian where I was the Associate Pastor for students and families at the time, asking them if they’d be willing to go “all in” in pursuing this God who pursues us and binds us together. They did and the student ministry at Northminster took off.
Students, and adults, all of us, need to see this new Reality, especially in a world becoming increasingly isolated and yearning for authentic friendships. It is my hope during this upcoming season of Lent that we can empty ourselves and let God’s divine flow fill us. May we be “all in” as a church in building up Christ’s body to effectively be a part of the transformation the world around us and around the world! Together, all of us, with Christ living in and through us, let’s reach out to our neighbors and their families sharing with them abundant or full living!
17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disci- ples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Question: What does it mean to be “blessed”? In terms of God’s blessing, or the deeper things, is blessing about material things? More money? More status?
Seems like in this lesson that Jesus is making a dramatic proclamation, consistent with many of his other statements, as well as the trajectory of the words and actions of the Jewish prophets. Jesus is calling for a paradigm shift in the predominant world view at the time, and I would say is still prevalent today.
A paradigm is simply a pattern or an example of something, usually meaning that some- thing is going a certain away. The prevalent paradigm in antiquity, and today, is to secure or attain, or sustain, a certain way of living that allows you to consume, maybe even more than you produce.
That is, that the goal of life is to be rich, to have things, to be comfortable, and to main- tain your social status in society. Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be rich, have things, sometimes be comfortable, or maintain a sense of status, nor do I think Jesus is saying something that is an absolute here. I think what Jesus is saying to us that the pursuit of those things, that being our life’s aim, can lead to a slow death, a status that doesn’t lend itself to growth.
Jesus is saying that when one is hungry, one is poor, when one has fallen from status in society, that they are blessed, they will be filled, lifted up, given a place in community.
Jesus is calling for a paradigm shift towards honoring those on the margins. And, Jesus is calling us, as Jesus followers, to practice this deep sense of inclusion.
In our passage, the writer says that Jesus came down from a retreat, a time of reflection, ready to call into action a group of folks willing to be committed to a practice of inclusion and building community, willing to have a shift in their worldview, willing to be grow into becoming all that God intends for them.
A great crowd had assembled, some were followers, others were curious or had needs. It is interesting that Jesus cures all of them. No one was left out.
Which, I think is the point of this text, no one is left out. We are all made in God’s image, all of us. The believers, the non-believers, the rich, the poor, the hungry, the ones that are eating well. All of us, white, black, Hispanic, gay, straight, refugees, immigrants.
And, because of that sense of inclusion, we must practice how well we care, listen, and interact with one another.
When I was in India, this was driven home for me. I’ve seen the affects of poverty here in the States, and in other places like Mexico and Nicaragua. But, in India, one of the wealthiest countries in the world with an expanding economy, I saw more poverty, as well as pockets of extreme wealth. I never will forget riding the sleeper trains with folks from all walks of life, walking the streets and having kids beg from me outside of a store selling high end luxury cars.
I was reading an article this week that described the growing wealth disparity between the top 1% of the world and the rest of the 99% and how that’s fueling a growing threat to any sense of democracy that we have had.
Yet, I was also reminded by a gentleman from Nebraska who I was able to be on a conference call with that said that he’s excited for what’s happening in Nebraska as we move away from partisanship, and even bi-partisanship in how we deal with issues in our communities to a post-partisanship.
In other words, we are realizing that our worldview cannot stay static and based on anxiety, division, competition, or fear, but that we have to begin seeing one another in our shared humanity and that God’s flow, God’s spirit is calling us towards relationship with one another.
This is not only what Jesus is calling us towards, but it also is key for our growth. If you want to grow in your life with God and with others, then allowing yourself to be open to others, to invite conversations and new friends into our homes, our church, and our lives….as well as going out and seeking those on the margins and looking at them through a different lens leads to growth. We are never too old or set in our ways to not be invited into new ways of thinking, which actually causes a re-wiring in our brains that can lead to better health…maybe even has something to do with Jesus’ teachings on having a life of abundance, a full life.
A friend of mine, Peter Block, once said this, don’t ever call someone poor (or rich for that matter), because once you do, then you have labeled them and have a different relationship with them than possibly being a friend. Peter prefers the word “economically isolated” as opposed to poor. Many of you met Peter Block at my Installation service and have asked for him to come back, he is! March 17th. He’ll be sharing with us and leading a discussion after church at that day.
Another friend, Andy Matheson, reminds me often that God’s economy is based on relationships, not material wealth. May we live into the reality that we are wealthy in God’s economy. That we can grow these relationships with one another and with those that we meet…and, in so doing, we can be the body of Christ that does bring healing to all, just as Jesus did, the deep healing that involves the practice of friendship.
15 Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Alex Dingle is a good friend of mine. He was also in my student ministry when I was at Northminster Presbyterian Church many years ago. He was in middle school when I first met him. We clicked from the beginning. He loved adventure and was always doing crazy stunts like skateboard jumping off of extremely steep ramps that he’d build…or doing tricks on his bike. He also loved the outdoors.
In high school, we would take students on wilderness experiences. Our favorite was Pioneer Plunge. It’s a wilderness camp on the property of Young Life’s Windy Gap. It seems like many lifetimes ago that we were involved with Young Life, but we had some great memories with Young Life. Their Windy Gap is not a typical camp, it’s more like a Disney world in the mountains with all some extreme obstacle courses, slides, swings, go-carts, horseback riding, modern cabins that look more like large hotel rooms, Jacuzzi, things called blobs on the lake, zip lines, etc.
However, Pioneer Plunge was built in the middle of the woods with no running water, no electricity, and the bare minimum of luxuries or entertainment.
It was build for students to get away, to learn to be dependent on each other, and to have distractions at a minimum in order to foster relationships with each other and with God.
Alex went on several of these trips. Our last trip there when he was in high school was the best though. We had a great weekend filled with laughing, deep conversation, and really good community. On the way out of camp, in our van, we were listening to music in the van, singing at the top of our lungs, and I can remember thinking and then voicing this out loud to Alex, “there is no place else in the entire world that I’d rather be right now than here, in this van, after this weekend, with you”. I really meant it. It was a “now” moment filled with life, new life. A time when things slowed down, relationships were deepened by simply being fully present with each other.
I’ve had other moments in my life like that. I believe they happen most often when we come to a relational place of deep contentment within ourselves and with those around us…and with a sense of the holy or “other” being present around and in us holding it all together.
In 1989, I spent a summer working with a group called EAPE in Philadelphia before my senior year at the University of Kentucky.
The founder of this group was a man by the name of Dr. Tony Campolo. I heard him give a lot of speeches over the years, but one on Quantum Physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity captured my imagination. I wasn’t much of a physics student in high school, at all…we had a great teacher, and many of my friends were members of the All-Vector team as they deemed themselves. However, I was not. But, now I’m finding myself drawn to it. Dr. Campolo is a brilliant sociologist and who studied very briefly under Albert Einstein. In this talk, he gave a great picture of how time is suspended according to Einstein. Time isn’t always linear either.
Here are some words that Tony has shared over the years:
According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time is relative to motion.
The faster we travel, the more time is compressed. You know that, don’t you-from StarTrek?-from the movie Contact, right? You know that time is relative to motion. The faster you travel, according to Einstein, the more time is compressed. So, if we put you in a rocket, sent you into outer space traveling at 170,000 miles a second (relative to us); if you came back in ten years, you would be ten years older. All the rest of us would be twenty years older. Our twenty years would be compressed into ten years of your time. If we got you traveling at 180,000 miles a second, our twenty years would be compressed into one day of your time. If we got you traveling at the speed of light-(we can’t do that, because, as you approach the speed of light your physical mass increases outward in a geometric progression; your size and weight increases dramatically, as you approach the speed of light.) I tell you that-don’t let anybody ever say you’re fat. Just say, ‘I’m traveling too fast’. You know, just say that. But if I could get you traveling at the speed of light-186,000 miles a second-there would be no passage of time at all. Everything would occur simultaneously. You say, ‘Well, why did you do us that-why did you take us through Einstein?’
Tony goes on to say: For a very important reason: I believe that Jesus is not only very human of very human, I believe that Jesus is God. I believe he has this humanity and this divinity, simultaneously.…Let me say this: When Jesus hung on the cross, 2000 years ago-because Jesus is simultaneously God, he was, and he is contemporary with this very moment! You say, ‘But there’s 2000 years separating me from Jesus on the cross, back there. There’s 2000 years separating these two events.’ At the speed of light, these two events are occurring now.
Jesus is God, and experiences time in a different dimension. All things happen now with Jesus.
That’s why the very name of God is “I am that I am”. That’s why, when they asked Jesus, “Who are you?” he said, “Before Abraham was…I am”…Which means that, right now, Jesus is looking at you. Right now, Jesus, on the cross, has you in his consciousness. He sees you sitting here.
The lecture that Dr. Campolo gave talked about the events of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection as happening now…not something in the distant past. Since God is in a different dimension, not constrained to linear time, which science gives testimony to as well, that the drama of creation and redemption with God through Christ are happening all of the time with God, all of it, right now. He even went on to say that we are brought up into God’s newness when we die. When we die, we enter God’s now…therefore, we all arrive into the Presence of God at the same moment…into eternity, or God’s now. Crazy.
In the fullness of time, Christ gathered all things, all people to him. We have been drawn, are drawn, and are being drawn into Christ…right now. We are bound together by God’s Spirit, God’s Otherness to each other and to God. Because of that, God’s actions on our behalf are happening right now…and always.
Now, one thing we should ask, did Jesus die on the cross to appease God for our sins? Well, it’s interesting, there are multiple orthodox theories of atonement, or why Christ went to the cross. Penal Substitutionary atonement, or Jesus going to the cross to appease God the Fathers desire for sacrifice to pay for our sins, is one of many….personally, I don’t think it matches up with the trajectory of scripture and a loving God.
The scandal of the cross is that Jesus disrupted the system, some folks felt threatened. They made up charges, put him to death in a humiliating and violent way. BUT, the beauty of the cross is that God’s love for us overcame the humiliation and violence and that love resurrected Jesus.
The atonement is an “at-one-moment” when we see the sense of God’s now in a dynamic and dramatic union of the divine and human. We see Jesus and Jesus sees us. What’s more, that moment is happening right now, all of the time.
Corinthians was written to a group of Jewish believers with the intent of giving them a hope in a salvation that has already here. It was good news for them, and good news for us now.
This resurrection life, this overcoming the humiliation and violence of our lives, this conquering of death, is happening now, right now! We are being healed, now. Our job is to work on cultivating the reality that is God’s newness. To be still at times, to work towards a goal of loving our neighbors well, to seek a Kingdom that God has already established for us. It can be hard work, yes, discovery the beauty within and without takes time and effort…yet, it’s already there, waiting to be discovered and experienced. Someday, when linear time is complete, or full, we will have the opportunity to see things more clearly. But, now, we catch inklings of those transcendent moments of being in the now.
Fleming Road UCC, the church in my neighborhood that I pastor is growing in the confidence that all that we need is here, now. Yes, we will do lots of new things as well as some old things. We will continue to grow and learn to “be” ourselves in community with others and with God. We will experience the confidence of knowing that the entire drama or narrative of God’s work on our behalf, of God’s pursuit of us throughout history and in the future is happening NOW.
I believe, like that moment with Alex, that God is saying to us, right now, there’s no place I’d rather be than here, with you, now, in all of our struggles and triumphs, shedding awareness into the depths of who we are.
As we go into 2019, may we live in the Now of God and, as we go through the birthing, living, dying, and resurrection of things in our lives, know that the good news of life in Christ has been happening, is happening, and will continue to happen forever.