Loosed on Earth

An Order of Worship for this reflection can be found here: Bulletin-05-28-2023 Pentecost YA

Scripture References: John 20:19-23; Acts 2:1-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

What can we learn from today’s passages from the dawn of the church’s new beginnings when the Holy Spirit was loosed upon the world?  Commentator David Gushee reminds us that “the early church…seems to have been remarkably open to a dynamic and fluid way of operating, based on its theology and experience of the Holy Spirit.”[1]

For us today, in a world already filled with the Holy Spirit loosed upon it, I wonder if our task is not so much to await it, as it was for those in the Upper Room so long ago, but for us to look for it, seek it, and find it in unexpected places. This kind of reframing challenges us to not be passive recipients of the Santo Espiritu or the Ruah Elohim but to be active partners with her in transforming ourselves and the world around us.

“This narrative challenges [us] to find the Spirit within … and to locate, claim, and utilize [our] authentic voices, gifts, and skills with which to love and serve. … This Spirit that swept through the house gifted more than those disciples at Pentecost and the disciples with whom we minister today. [Having] been loosed into the world, … its creative and life–giving power is now the gift of families and communities, of churches, and of nations. The relevant question becomes not just “How will I respond … but “How will we respond to these gifts?”[2]

In Friday’s electronic newsletter, I made reference to two fields that I have turned to for inspiration; the study of the cycles of religious church history and its reformations, and the field of generation theory. When both these fields are laid atop one another like a set of transparent blueprints, we begin to see the shape of something like a foundation for the exploration of potential crossroads for intergenerational formation and the future of the church.  It also reveals how the Holy Spirit has been constantly at work in the world through centuries of history.  So where is she now?  The wind blows and we see its effect but we cannot see it.

One of the greatest challenges facing the Church – not just this church but every mainline Protestant church in America is the tsunamic transition facing us right now: It includes a cultural shift, a religious shift, an ideological struggle and global repercussions for every act of industry we pursue. Our every act has ramifications rippling like wind across the globe for other peoples, other nations, and the balance of life in the greater Community of Creation.

But let’s focus on something here and now for a moment. One particular challenge and opportunity from within our faith perspective is passing on our faith to new generations not as open to what the last four generations have known and been comfortable with as traditional religious institutional Christianity.  Before we can ask the Holy Spirit for help, we need to know why.

Why is it such a challenge; and what makes it an opportunity? Part of it is informed by Strauss and Howe’s observations. Each generation type tends to relate to one another within and without their own agemate groupings in certain ways that have proven cyclical in nature through history. Another part of it is Phyllis Tickle’s and others’ observation of the movement of religious history.

How do we apply these insights in practical action within the life of the Church? Even more specifically, this church?  John Mabry, author of Faithful Generations, pulls together insights on specific factors relating to each of the generations alive today and how they understand the world, and offers some ideas on how best to communicate across the divides from one generation to another. It also leads me to ask: Do we have any examples from within our tradition of how to teach across generations that we can apply to this contemporary time in the Fourth Turning, as Howe and the late Strauss describe it?

Reviewing our gospel passage today, we find one of the last visitations of the risen Jesus to his disciples.  Putting on the lens of generation theory, we see a group of mostly older men, established in the Jewish faith, who had trades, religious, cultural, and familial positions within the institutional and ethnic milieu of first century Palestinian Judaism.  Within the honor/shame society at the time, Jesus, a religiously nontraditional Jewish young man, had challenged the establishment of his Elders, won his place as a Rabbi, yet alienated the socio-political rulers within both his ethnic culture and the foreign administrators outside of it. With his unorthodox yet practical ways of enacting the Kindom of God, he became a very beloved itinerate teacher, drawing people of all generations. He established himself as an authority despite not being a member of the generational cohort of his Elders, those who traditionally held the reigns of social and religious power.

Now putting on the lens of the cycles of religious transformation within the Abrahamic faiths, we also see his teachings taking place at the cusp of the tsunamic transition from a God-Creator-centric understanding of the previous two thousand years of religious development and the advent of the era where religious development gave rise to the split between Judaism and the Christian era.

Today, we have reached a double benchmark: First, the 2000 year mark where we might expect the Christocentric development of our faith has passed its peak and is now on the wane.  Second, the cusp of the 500 year mark of the cycle of great reformations, the last giving rise to the Protestant Reformation we know from church history. Through the lens of the cycle of religious history we can see this time we are in today is on the cusp of the next era. Phyllis Tickle has suggested it will be the Age of the Spirit. Our current faith – the faith most of us are familiar and comfortable with today, is the institutionalized version of what came out of that great uprising two thousand years ago with the dawn of God’s incarnation as Christ our Lord and the rise of Christianity, as well as the institutionalized version of Protestantism.  Institutionalized Judaism experienced Jesus and a new faith was born.  The curtain in the Temple was torn into from top to bottom and God became accessible to all – not sequestered away and guarded by one people, one faith.  With Martin Luther’s 92 thesis, the authority of the Western Roman Catholic Church was challenged and the Protestant Reformation was born. I wonder what that means for today’s moment of transition?

When Christ rose and set the Holy Spirit loose upon the earth, she was set loose upon the whole world; not just to the Jewish community of 2000 years ago. I wonder what happens when deep seekers of the spiritual life broaden their horizons beyond organized religious traditions and weave together nuggets of truth from all of the Holy Spirit’s revelations across the various world faith traditions.

I wonder: what would it look like to rise up and offer our story to the greater stream of Spirit that is even now blowing across the earth seeking those souls who are yearning for something more, something deeper, some nugget of deep spiritual truth and recognition that we are all One.  I wonder what it looks like when all generations mutually pass on their faith stories, learning from one another across older and younger generations than our own.  I wonder if we are brave enough to find out.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, to offer us the Holy Spirit.  Amen?  May it be so.

[1] David P. Gushee, “Theological Perspective, Acts 2:1-21” Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[2] David M. Bender, “Pastoral Perspective, Acts 2:1-21” Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

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On the Wings of Glory

A bulletin/order of worship for this sermon can be found here: Bulletin-05-21-2023 Easter 7 YA

Scripture References: John 17: 1-11

Once again adapting the poetic prose of Ted Loder, let us pray:

“[Divine Love], we believe our lives are touched by you; that you want something for us and of us. Please give us ears to hear you, eyes to see the tracing of your finger, and a heart quickened by the motions of your Spirit.”[1] May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

“On this last Sunday of the Easter season, we look both backward and forward.”[2] While we didn’t follow the revised common lectionary too closely through our “Emerge!” Easter season curriculum, if we had, we would have heard more stories about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples as well as,

“…received hints of the coming of the promised Paraclete. Next week, we will celebrate the birth of the new church, exploding into mission with the gifts of the Spirit. Today, we pause for a moment to [reflect on] the prayer Jesus prayed for his disciples, a prayer we claim as his prayer for us.”[3]

Glory – what exactly does it mean to understand divine glory?  The word used here, doxason in Greek, is the verb form of the word, doxa, meaning glory – so as a verb it means ascribe glory to.  Jesus prays out loud, “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you….”  We are usually more familiar with the other noun form of this word, signifying a song we sing to some form of the Trinity after every offering – the Doxology; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” What, exactly, is glory?  How is glory ascribed? Let me try to bring it down to earth.

We might catch glimpses of glory now and again: when a newly emerged butterfly rests while fanning its wings into form.  When the full wings are unfolded, their new-found colors sparkle with new life and that is a moment of glory.

We might understand glory when we walk along the beach and watch the waves roll in with the sunset lowering into its horizon, painting color across the wide expanse of the sky.  That can be a moment of glory.

We may return home after a business trip or absence from family and be embraced into arms that have missed us and love us with an incredible aching love – that may feel like a moment of glory.

But how much beyond our own imaginings is this glory that Jesus is speaking of?  The Greek word, doxa, has almost the same meanings as the Hebrew word, kabod.  It can mean weight, repute, fame.  It can be transactional, for example when people and performer or leader together engender the phenomenon of heightened unity and mutual empowerment.  Glory can be signified more stately with ceremonies, vestments, forms of utterances – but all of these group experiences are also identified through the science of sociology as moments of “social effervescence.”[4]

None of that makes much sense to me when placed in context of this prayer and what is about to happen to Jesus.  In John’s gospel, if we attempt to put its events in time-line order, this prayer physically takes place before he ever gets to Jerusalem and his Passion, death, and resurrection.  So is Jesus speaking about “glory” as embodying all of those elements, too?  His rejection? His suffering?  His physical death on the cross?  The silence of the tomb?

One commentator put it this way:

“Glory…must be understood within the cruciform logic of “God is Love. …All relations, actions, and meditations find their norm and full extent in love.”[5]

Now for a pastoral confession: today’s passage in the Gospel of John has troubled me just a bit because of its placement.  Jesus says, in verse 11, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Abba, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (17:11), seems to me as if it would fit better as the blessing we find mentioned in Luke chapter 24, verses 50-53, just before Jesus’ Ascension, which says,

“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:50-53).

The question of glory – and glorification – in this context is about a major transition in the life of the early followers of Jesus. It marks the end of Jesus as they knew him and the beginning of what they will become as Christ’s hands and feet in the world without him.

Let us not forget that for this congregation, our contemporary context is also currently a time of transition; a time of discernment for who and what you are as a community of worship and practice. It is a time between pastors and a time to discern your future direction for ministry efforts in this specific community and identifying the pastoral leadership you want to come along side you as you move forward. Commentator Linda Lee Clader writes,

“When Jesus prays that his followers may be one as he and the Father are one, he is praying all of us into this mystery too. Not just that we should each become one with God, or one with Christ, but that we should become one with each other in the way Jesus and the Father are one.

In some ways, the first part of that mystery is the easy part. We all have our ways to grow in our oneness with God. We may ground our own growth in corporate worship. We may follow a spiritual discipline of private prayer, study, and service in God’s name. We may dedicate ourselves to a particular ministry in a cause of justice, or healing, or pastoral presence. No matter which path we follow toward oneness with God, the Holy Spirit can act in our lives to draw us closer, and to reveal to us the presence of God that is already nearer to us than our own heartbeats. We have only to open our eyes and our ears, and remain willing to receive and respond” (emphasis added).[6]

“It is just possible that this is what Christian unity looks like—a body, as Paul said, with many parts, a dance with many dancers, a song with many voices. … Yes, there is struggle, but there is also glory.”[7]

In this time of transition, it really is up to us to open our eyes to see, open our ears to hear, unfurl our wings to fly, and lift up the needs of this community as well as the community in which we live, becoming the hands and feet of Christ. How can we not? After all, Christ has already included us in his prayer.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ.  Amen?  May it be so.

[1] Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace (Philadelphia, Innisfree Press,1984) p. 29; quoted from Ruth Haley Barton’s third chapter closing prayer in Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice For Leadership Groups (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2012).

[2] Linda Lee Clader, “Homiletical Perspective, John 17:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Larry D. Bouchard, “Theological Perspective, John 17:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Linda Lee Clader, “Homiletical Perspective, John 17:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[7] Ibid.

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All We Need is Love

An order of worship bulletin for this reflection can be found here: Bulletin-05-14-2023 Easter 6 YA

Scripture References: Exodus 16; John 14:15-31

Adapting a poetic prayer of Ted Loder, Let us pray:

“[Divine Love], we believe our lives are touched by you; that you want something for us and of us. Please give us ears to hear you, eyes to see the tracing of your finger, and a heart quickened by the motions of your Spirit.”[1] Amen.

Even as the caterpillar cannot go back into its cocoon once its wings are unfurled, so Israel could not go back to Egypt once they were free.  But did you catch how long it took them to learn that lesson?  40 years of eating quail and manna in the desert. That’s plenty of time for a new generation of leaders to rise up among the newly freed people and consider their next step forward into community – and eventually independent nationhood.  That is also enough time to clean house – discarding much of what initially held them back along the way.  It was more than enough time to grieve the passing of the old way of being victims and doing slave work – and to begin to enact new ways of being God’s community and doing the work of God’s love. Like any true transformation, I imagine it must have been hard work.

First Pres is also in the midst of hard work in this time of transition. Thankfully, I suspect it won’t take 40 years for new pastoral leadership to emerge. It will require taking a look at what needs to be discarded from the old ways of being and doing – and what could be reimagined: how to become the Church in a very different world from only a few years – not to mention decades – ago. The question for us is how to live into our community of worship and practice in this time and place?

Maybe we can take a lesson from the butterfly; when the chrysalis is discarded for the freedom of the sky, the butterfly’s newly unfolded wings stretch and unfurl slowly with fluttering effort as blood seeps into the wings, preparing for flight. How do we know if our wings are ready? Like the butterfly, the time arrives with our own effort of preparations; then we can allow the Spirit Wind to bear us up and onward.  But what do we do?

John chapter 14:14-21 could be summarized into one word: Love. Love is the greatest power of all. Love is at the root of truth, honesty, integrity, mercy, compassion, and service.  In loving others, we live into the River of Love that is God. It flows deep and wide; to all, in all, and through all.  If we can sense our tributary in the one great river of Spirit and Life – if we can join in the one flow by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God, then perhaps indeed we are beginning to understand love.

Picking up from last week’s teaching, how does Christ’s final teaching from the table relate to the realities of relationships among us, within us, and between us? In an effort to find a few more clues, reading ahead through verses 22-31 provides some hints. In these last nine verses at the table, Jesus once again teaches: those who keep his commandments and love him are loved by God, and will have Jesus revealed to them.

Whoever loves Jesus and keeps his word, God and Jesus will come to dwell. Like the butterfly fluttering its wings to fill with strengthening life-blood, when we as believers allow God to seep into our own beings fully, then we can see the world through God’s eyes. In so seeing, we can become so moved by the impulse of Love that our own actions will be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield, Sr. Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro, NC, and past editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, once put it this way:

“This cycle of love from above and extended on earth grows as it is put into practice. It becomes a force aided and advocated by the Holy Spirit. This loving obedience to the love of God invites the presence and power of the Triune God within us, through us and around us. … God is not far from each of us, God abides not only with us, but in us.”[2]

Commentator Nancy Ramsay, among others, reminds us that the setting of this passage is in sharp contrast. She writes,

“John’s Gospel was written in an age of empire, for people surrounded by agents of the emperor, images of imposed dominion, and the weapons to enforce the imperial power. We find in John’s Gospel this strikingly different claim about the power and order that love brings to life and relationships.”[3]

It isn’t too hard to draw some uncomfortable parallels with contemporary events in the world. As such, Jesus speaks as clearly into our reality today as into the reality of John’s gospel. Ramsay goes on to point out,

“The love Jesus wants his hearers to embrace is not an abstract philosophical concept but the lived reality revealed in … life, relationships, and actions… He feeds the hungry, touches lepers, heals the sick, and speaks and acts toward women with care and regard. Love is seen in his life as service and compassion. It is also seen in his fierce protests against those who abuse this vision of the value of each person and the importance of an ethic of mutual regard and care.”

Our own adoption of this ethic of mutual regard and care is what being the Church is all about. When we reach out in love to our neighbors of all ages, regardless of who they are, we are living the reality Christ wants us to live, loving those whom Christ want us to love, proving that indeed, God’s indwelling continues to grow within us as we lean ever more into the loving embrace of God’s Holy Spirit guiding us in the world.  Through the One who loved us, we become love in the world. Thanks be to God!  Similarly, we also give thanks and celebrate this day with all those who have shown the way of Mothering Love to us, guiding and teaching us how to pass it on.  Amen?  May it be so.

[1] Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace (Philadelphia, Innisfree Press,1984) p. 29; quoted from Ruth Haley Barton’s third chapter closing prayer in Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice For Leadership Groups (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2012).

[2] Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary, May 11, 2020,” Looking into the Lectionary (blog), accessed May 13, 2020, http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1102135377571&ca=27fed407-4128-45ff-90c9-4613c09261ff.

[3] Nancy Ramsay, “Pastoral Perspective, John 14:15-21” Feasting on the Word, Year A, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

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Lazarus: The Man with Two Lives

Bulletin for this Biblical Characterization Vignette: Bulletin-04-30-2023 Easter 4 YA

Author’s note:  Many years ago when I was a youth, I watched an immensely impactful video by a United Methodist Actor (I wish I had been in the audience!)  It was called “Witnesses” and was an old VHS we watched in youth group.  Thank you, Curt Cloninger, for your portrayal of Biblical characters in such a lively way that brought the stories to life.  I dedicate the following “adaptive recreative attempt” of one of those characters, “Lazarus” to you in thanksgiving for your far superior gift!  ~ Rev. Dr. Scott T. Crane, PC(USA) pastor

Scripture Reference: John 11:1-44. (Scripture will be read as lectio divina while artist paints a visio divina in situ of Lazarus coming out of the tomb).

Let us pray:

Open our eyes, O Resurrected One, that we may see, and unwrap our hearts that we may live anew each day. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Dead.  Four Days I was-a dead. It all started with a little bit of a tummy ache, you know, something down in my gall bladder; next thing I know, BAM, I was-a dead.  My sisters, they cried and cried at my funeral, and all our friends, they were crying, too.  I had a beautiful funeral, you know, lots of pretty flowers from my sisters’ garden. After the local Rabbi said some nice words, they put a bit of spices on me – like a good subway sandwich-huh! Then they wrapped me up, tucked the ends in and then off I go into the cave like a paddy-cake in the brick oven!  (Smile a mischievous smile) I did not-a know at the time I was a gong to rise again like a good loaf of barley bread!  Heh!  BOOM, they rolled the stone in place and all was dark.  Quiet dark.  I didn’t hear the crying anymore, and all was still.  No sound of singing in the kitchen, no sound of the customer’s bell at the counter, not even a smell of baking bread.  In fact, there was a bit of a musty smell in there. I did-a not like that part.  I must have fallen asleep.

Next thing I know, I hear my name being called, really really loud after all that silence.  It sounded like urm, “LAZARUS, COME OUTA THERE!”  You know who it was?  It was the voice of my friend Jesus! I was a little bit upset he didn’t come to my funeral, but oh it was good to hear his voice! And, boy, when you hear his voice, you get up and answer!  So I opened my eyes and sat up.  It was-a very strange.  I’m in a cave with a bunch of my dead family members – there’s-a. my grandmama, my grandpapa, my mother and father, my Aunti Louisa, and Uncle Antonio – oh, I owed him some-a money when he passed away, so it is a good thing Jesus was-a calling MY name!  Huh!  I got up.  You know, it’s-a kind of hard to walk all wrapped up, so I waddled – urm, like a penguin – out of the cave and there was Jesus!  My sisters and some of our other friends Jesus brought with him were there, too.  You should have seen the look on their faces!  Eyes as big as unleavened pita bread!  Some of them were white and scared looking and others were crying and smiling and incredulous.  It was pretty funny to see!

Some brave ones, they come and unwrap me and-a give me back-a some clothes.  Then I say, “Thank you, Jesus! Boy am I glad to get out-a that cave!  How long was I in there?” He tell me, four days!  Four days I was-a dead. Four days?!?  “Say, Jesus, I’m a bit hungry I think.  How about we go have-a something to eat, eh?”  So we go into the house and have a big old supper like we used to, with all our friends around all through the house and shop. They did keep looking at me funny, though.  Made me want to jump up and shout “Boo!” or something!

So that’s-a my story.  I was-a dead, Jesus made me alive, so we celebrated! – Oh, and by the way, since I’m back, I’ll see you in the bake shop next Monday for pastry and coffee.  Hmm, I’ll have to invent something to commemorate it for the shop.  Maybe a nice mini loaf shaped like the stone that was over the tomb.  I could drizzle a crossing of white frosting on it. Yes, yes that sounds good; I’ll call them – hmm – eh, “Hot Crossed Buns!”  I don’t know how well it will catch on, but you know they will be good if they come from my bake shop!

I’ll have to advertise…Maybe change the name of the shop to “Grateful Bread?” Posters-I’ll need some posters, maybe “Back from the Dead:  Half-baked and delicious!”  Hmmm, no, that sounds a bit strange… let’s see…oh, I know, I’ll hire some singers.  They can go through the town and cry out: “Hot-crossed buns, hot crossed buns, one-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot crossed buns!” Ah-ha!  It is good to be back alive again!

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Emmaus Again; April 23, 2023 Third Sunday of Easter

Order of Worship for this Reflection can be found here: Bulletin-04-23-2023 Easter 3 YA

Scripture Reference: Luke 24:13-35

Let us pray:

Open our eyes, O Resurrected One, that we may see, and in seeing, live and move and have our being in you, on behalf of others; may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Luke’s gospel portrays the journey of Jesus toward Jerusalem as constant movement: movement from heaven to earth, from hills to Bethlehem, from Judah to Egypt then to Nazareth in Galilee to Capernaum by the sea. Then to the Jordan river and the desert, then from Capernaum all through Israel through Samaria then on into Judea and then to the city of Jerusalem, his week of Passion, and subsequent resurrection. Jesus even continues to move through forty days of post-resurrection appearances to the day of Ascension,

“For Luke the journey of Jesus and of the church itself expresses the unfolding history of salvation that finds its origin in Israel and through the Spirit extends salvation to the ‘ends of the earth.’”[1]

At two particular moments in today’s passage, however, movement stops. (pause) Something important happens each time. (pause) What?  The first time, Jesus in Cognito intercepts the disciples along the road and asks them what they were discussing. Luke says, in verse 17, “They stood still.”  I wonder what this suggests.  Perhaps,

“…When God enters a conversation we think we are having with one another… we have surely come to a crossroad…not the miles before us [or the miles behind us] but the moment at hand [when] eternity…has…invaded time”[2] ([author ad.], Emphasis added).

Commentator Cynthia Jarvis notes, “When has God’s Word interrupted the church’s idle conversations and effectively called a halt to our frantic forward momentum?”[3] To which I can only reply, “When indeed?” Transitional ministry may not seem like a divine interruption; more like an interruption of our comfortable state; but I have to stand back and wonder, if we remain in serious conversation with this text, what might God be able to speak into this moment while it may feel uncomfortably like the church is “standing still?” Perhaps one answer lies in the second time movement ceases in today’s text.

The second time movement ceases is at Emmaus. The still unknown Jesus acts as if he is going on, but the disciples invite and urge him to be their guest; he comes in and sits at table with them. There, at the table, movement ceases for a moment. In that stillness, the tables are turned. Instead of the disciples offering the ritual table blessing as the hosts, Luke records, “When [Jesus] was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” (Vv. 30–31, emphases added)

I can only imagine they sat there, stunned for a moment in stillness and reflection of what had just happened before exclaiming, in verse 32, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” I am curious if some of you may feel like this congregation is in a point of collective stunned stillness. Yet, I also wonder: in that stillness is it easier to tune your hearts, minds, and spirits to God and what God may be doing among you? Can we treat this moment as if God is speaking to us right now?

If a prophetic voice were to tell us: now is our chance to examine earth, to minutely examine our own actions upon it and to it, and delve deeply into the mystery of sustainability for all life, would we listen?  Or, would we turn our backs, close our hearts, shut our minds to science and eat away at the safeguards generations have put in place to protect what cannot – must not – be wasted? During Earth Day yesterday, and indeed during each day this next week, how many of us invite Jesus to come in and sit at table with us?  Has he turned the tables on us and opened our eyes?

I would like to invite you into a bit of imaginative theological consideration: what if …

“…we [allowed ourselves to be] vulnerable enough to [put our name] in the place of Cleopas’s unnamed traveling companion,”[4] what then would we experience?  Could it be, “the stones sealing the tombs of our hearts will be rolled back too?”[5] Not only in matters of faith – faith in Jesus, but also of faith in what we are called to do in this moment when our world, in stillness, waits for our own resurrecting moments to emerge and grace the Earth with beauty and peace.  I can imagine God saying,

“Come, my little butterflies, do not crawl back into your cocoons.  Unfurl your new-found wings…and fly!”

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen?  May it be so.

[1] Donald Senior, “Exegetical Perspective, Luke 24:13-35,” Feasting on the Word Commentary Year A, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[2] Cynthia A. Jarvis, “Homiletical Perspective, Luke 24:13-35,” Feasting.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Shannon Michael Pater, “Pastoral Perspective, Luke 24:13-35,” Feasting.

[5] Ibid.

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Metamorphosis Moments – Easter, April 9, 2023

Bulletin/Order of Worship for this reflection can be found here: Bulletin-TL 04-9-2023 YA Easter

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness.  Take us to that place within You that heals, listens, and molds our longings and passions, our wounds and wanderings, and transforms us into a more holy human shape.  For it is in You that we live and move and have our being.[1]  Amen.

I wrote in the E-news this last Friday a little bit about what Dr. Marcia McFee calls a “metamorphosis moment.”  A timely reminder for Easter and for the place we find ourselves right now.  This congregation is in the midst of its own “metamorphosis moment” – or set of moments.  Specifically, I would apply the whole process of spinning a cocoon, changing in deep sleep, and emerging transformed to the transitional ministry context through which you are journeying.

In light of that, I would not be surprised if many of you are still feeling cocoon-ish. With the uncertainty, then ultimate loss of Pastor Matt over the last year and then Pastor Sharon only a month and a half ago, so much from “before” is now gone.  From my perspective, the image of chrysalis formation fits the last nine months of your congregational life together.

Yet here is a word of Good News, even in the midst of that: the time Jesus spent on earth with his disciples is similar. Taking simple fishermen, tradesmen, an accountant-tax collector, a Temple server, and other ordinary people and teaching them over his three years of active public ministry was both challengin them and changing them. In that time, they began to be transformed – that incredible growth up to the moment of “spinning” if you will – but not yet a full cocoon.

Then Jesus was crucified, and the movement and growth they had been experiencing was halted. That is the moment they entered into their cocoon-like existence.  For us, we might equate that with the grief and loss of the transitional ministry you have been experiencing the last nine months or so; – feelings of perhaps being zombies sleep-walking through each day trying to make meaning of what has happened.  But here again is a word of Good News: Even though Jesus himself entered the tomb – a very real death just like each of us will enter at some point in our journey of life – for him, it was a womb-like cocooning experience; with a three-day metamorphosis to new life.  He returned to life – real life – still a scientific mystery to us but one we believe in faith.

Applying that once again to the transitional ministry process we have been experiencing, three Star Words came to light this week that I believe were meant to rise to the surface at just this time: Draw Near and Patience.  Even as Jesus drew near to the bosom of God during his time in the tomb, it was also a womb time.  Just as the disciples had to experience the loss of Jesus, they also had to exercise patience before something miraculous emerged to guide them on.  As Mary and the other Mary drew near to the tomb – little did they know they were also drawing near to God’s mysteries once again.

“Come, see the place where he lay,” said the angelic messenger. “Then, go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him’” (28:7).

One verse later, we read,

“Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” (28:9).

Come, worship the Lord.  Draw near to him that together all of us may find the strength of purpose to emerge and live into a new renewed community of worship, discipleship, and practice.  Come, worship the Lord, for he is both calling you and waiting in patient love for you to respond. Amen?  May it be so!

[1] Adapted from a poem by Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004).

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Good Friday Reflection on “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani”

Matthew 27:45-46: 45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness.  Take us to that place within You that heals, listens, and molds our longings and passions, our wounds and wanderings, and transforms us into a more holy human shape.  For it is in You that we live and move and have our being.[1]  Amen.

Christian singer/songwriter Michael Card wrote a poignant song with these words of Jesus.  It begins in this way:

Eli, Eli
(My God, my God)
La ma sabach thani?
(Why have You forsaken me?)
Eli, Eli
La ma sabach thani?

Why are you so far from saving me?
So far from the words of my groaning?
By night and by day I cry out in pain
So why do you not answer?

It has been asked, “Isolated and helpless at the end, does Jesus succumb to despair and cry out in God-forsakenness? His cry in Aramaic (27:46) quotes Psalm 22.”[2]  Since it is from Psalm 22, we might wonder if Jesus is fully coherent enough at the end of his death throws to be thinking of the full 31 verses of the Psalm, which ends in spiritual peace and confidence; or whether the only line he is capable of in his pain is the line of utter desolation? What is he feeling here?  What is he thinking?  And, what would it mean for our faith either way?

Theologically it can be observed that, “After Jesus has done everything in his power and his enemies everything in theirs, one power alone remains to act. God declares the final judgment, reversing the status quo, raising Jesus from death, and vindicating the crucified one and his way of loving God and neighbor.”[3] In light of that observation, I could be persuaded to view these words of Christ from the cross as the only portion he could speak in his pain, but knowing in his heart and mind the rest of it being lived out in that moment. In verse 21 of the Psalm, the text shifts from lament about human evil to a litany of all that will be fulfilled with his sacrificial love:

21b From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. 22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him…. 27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. … 29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. 30Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, 31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”

Putting some thought into why Jesus was the sacrificial lamb – and who was doing the sacrificing – can lead us to greater understanding of what led him to feelings of abandonment in this moment.

“Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “Empires are never built nor are they maintained on the basis of compassion.”1 Roman rulers expected their citizens to remain silent in response to the human cost of war, to remain mute in the face of the human cost of greed. They kept their colonies in check by systemic terror. The price of prophetic witness was death. Jesus speaks up. He acts. He heals the sick and recovers the sight of the blind. He eats with the poor and the abandoned. By and through his compassion, he takes the first step in revealing the abnormality, as Brueggemann says, that has become business as usual. This leads him finally and inexorably to the cross, to the place where power and vulnerability intersect ….”[4]

And, to his cry of abandonment. To be abandoned, one has to know what it was like to be among friends, family, and loved ones, and then left by them.  It is utterly debilitating. Yet here he is, willingly subject to it, so that he might be with us.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ.  Amen?  May it be so.

[1] Adapted from a poem by Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004).

[2] James O. Duke, “Theological Perspective, Matthew 27:11-54” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nora Gallagher, “Homiletical Perspective, Psalm 22” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

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A Matthean Story

Bulletin/order of worship for the following reflection: Bulletin-04-02-2023 Palm YA

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness.  Take us to that place within You that heals, listens, and molds our longings and passions, our wounds and wanderings, and transforms us into a more holy human shape.  For it is in You that we live and move and have our being.[1]  Amen.

What kinds of reflections would those gathered along the way on that entry into Jerusalem have had when Jesus rode into town on a donkey?  That is one level of question.  A second level of question might be, what was the Gospel writer trying to evoke when retelling this story from fifty years after Jesus was gone?  Answering both of these questions brings us into the realm of exegesis, which, as defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary, means, “an explanation or critical interpretation of a text.”[2]  Then there is contemporary application of the text to us.

One set of interpretive lenses with which to view today’s Gospel includes literary criticism.  Viewed this way, one takes a look at the flow of the text in a larger pericope than today’s passage alone, and apply literary labels to parts for the point of teasing out a meaning. For example,

“The crowds” function as a character in Matthew, as disciples en masse. They appear at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, coming to him from all around the region (4:25). By the end of the Sermon on the Mount, they are listening to his teaching (7:28–29; cf. 13:2). They are repeatedly astounded at his authority (7:28–29; 9:8; 22:33) as they see his capacity to heal the sick (12:15; 14:14; 15:30; 19:2), and they are amazed when he casts out demons, noting that “never has anything like this been seen in Israel” (9:33). They begin to wonder whether Jesus might be the Son of David (12:23). Before the triumphal entry, the crowds have had their bellies filled—twice!—with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish (14:13–21 and 15:32–39). Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that they show such enthusiasm when Jesus rides into the city. Heightening the significance of the procession is the fact that it begins at the Mount of Olives (21:1), the traditional location whence the Messiah is expected to appear (see Zech. 14:1–11).”[3]

Another literary tool, witnessed both here and in one of the passages just referenced, is a doubling of an event or occurrence of narrative for emphasis. Matthew does this several times – for example, the two miraculous feedings and secondly, two donkeys instead of one.  Matthew somewhat surprisingly, even unrealistically portrays Jesus riding on both a donkey and a foal of a donkey (21:7) whereas Mark and Luke just indicate an unridden colt, the “foal of a donkey” that Jesus rode.

Now hang on a minute, Pastor Scott; please don’t shake my faith up any more!  When you point out where scripture doesn’t match, it’s a little uncomfortable. Aren’t we supposed to be learning something to help our faith grow?  It has been suggested that once we head down the road of comparing accounts and trying to puzzle out truth among inconsistencies, we might be missing the point.

As one commentator reminds us,

“Whichever explanation one accepts, it is important not to miss the point that the three [Gospel] authors are making. Jesus, who owns no mount, has to borrow an animal to make his final self-presentation to Jerusalem. That the untried mount submits to him (Mark and Luke) and [Zechariah’s] prophecy is fulfilled (Matthew) are part of the picture that each author paints. Yet the focus [in all three accounts] is on the cries of “Hosanna” and the acclamation of Jesus as the one “coming in the name of the Lord,” phrases which the authors clearly interpret as a royal acclamation. We must be careful not to miss the King in the details of his entourage.”[4]

That is what sets us up for Holy Week.  Put another way: an upstart native of the Israelites, supposedly descended from their ancient royal dynastic family, rides into Jerusalem, the once-capital city of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; during the Passover, which is the regularly observed ceremony marking liberation from Egypt’s slavery.  I see.

It should not surprise anyone that an inevitable showdown is about to take place.  Unless, of course, Jesus is not a Messiah-King coming to liberate the Jewish people back into political and military independence.  I can imagine those who wish this are disappointed – leaving some angst about what should be done at this auspicious moment in history.  Maybe Jesus needs a little help to the throne?  “Hosanna to the Son of David!” the crowds shout.  “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Let us turn to the Matthew specific quesiton.  Jesus was not the political king many wanted him to be.  Jesus was a radically different kind of teacher than the traditionalist pharisees from the establishment of temple leadership.  One might even go so far as to suggest this establishment had been drawn into the trap of power/empire of the religious sphere.  To them, Jesus has some choice words. To the populace they spiritually shepherded, Jesus teaches another way.  To the Roman occupiers, Jesus is mostly silent, as texts later this week will tell us.  His kingdom has nothing to do with Rome.  His kingdom does have to do with liberation, though.  It is thought that Matthew’s community was mostly Jewish “Followers of the Way.” As such, they were being turned out.  They had to navigate that time of change from Judaism to Christianity – while still being true to God’s salvation history.  Application, anyone?

“Our Holy Week liturgies are rooted in this strong Jewish sense of the present faith community being re-remembered ritually into God’s ongoing, liberating action. So begins the church’s annual reentry into the events of Holy Week by marking how the empire of God, whose nearness Jesus came to proclaim and embody, looks to welcome quite “a different kind of king” indeed.”[5]

[1] Adapted from a poem by Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004).

[2] Merriam-Webster Dictionary of the English Language, online version. Accessed March 29, 2023. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exegesis.

[3] Audrey West, “Exegetical Perspective, Matthew 21:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[4] Walter C. Kaiser, Peter H. Davids; F. F. Bruce; Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Saying of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Pres Academic, 1996).

[5] John Rollefson, “Homiletical Perspective, Matthew 21:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

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Seeing for the First Time (rerun)

Bulletin for this reflection: Bulletin-03-19-2023 L4 YA

Scripture: John 9:1-41

Let us pray:

Teach us something in this time of Lent, O God. In Christ we pray, Amen.

Part I: Remembering Lent: (Adapted from Lesson 31, Young Children and Worship[1] and Lesson 1, “The Mystery of Easter.”[2])

Feel the story forming in you. Patting the basket next to you, say:

I wonder what’s inside this today.

Lay out the story quilt. You remember my story quilt. My story quilt helps me remember stories from my life – and reminds me to tell stories from our faith. Today we are going to learn another sacred story for Lent. What color do we need for a Lenten story?

Lay out the purple cloth. Purple! Remember it is also a color from Advent, when we are getting ready for Christmas and Jesus’ birth. Why do we use it now? Are we getting g ready for something else?

Sit back and wonder for a minute. Pull out the purple bag of puzzle pieces. You  remember this purple bag. One…Two…Three…Four…Five…Six purple pieces.

Sit back and wonder again. Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. 

Touch the purple cloth, bag, and pieces. Lent is the time the church gets ready to celebrate the mystery of Easter. There are six Sundays for getting ready.

Touch the six pieces again. I wonder if these six pieces can tell us what Lent is about?

Put pieces together to form the cross. Yes, you remember they form a cross. The cross is where Jesus died when he was all grown up. Lent reminds us of his journey to the cross. Lent is sad. But it is also wonderful. Look what happens.

Turn the pieces over to make a completely white cross. Jesus dies on the cross, but somehow he is still with us. That is why Easter is not just sad.  It is also wonderful.

Show the purple side of a few pieces again. Lent is sad…

Turn them back to white again. Easter is pure celebration.

Reach inside the empty purple bag, take hold of the inside, and turn it inside out.

Easter turns everything inside out and upside down.  The color of getting ready becomes the color of pure celebration.  The sad seriousness and the happiness join together to make joy.

Count the white pieces. Look! You can’t keep Easter in just one Sunday!  It goes on for one, two, three, four five, six weeks!  All the way to Pentecost.

Sit back and thoughtfully consider the mystery.  Slowly turn the pieces back over to purple. We aren’t quite there yet.  We are still getting ready.

I wonder what Jesus did to get ready?

Sit back and ponder for a moment.


Part II: “Seeing for the First Time”

Look in the basket. Here is another story for Lent. You remember Jesus and his disciples were traveling to Jerusalem. They have been on a journey.

Pick up Nicodemus. First, Jesus met Nicodemus. They had a conversation about being born from above, or born of the Spirit. Pause, then put him back in the basket.

Pick up the woman. Then Jesus and some disciples began their long walk to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Pause, then put her back in the basket.

Pick up Jesus, some disciples, the blind man, and place them on the cross. Pick up the round light blue felt and place it on an edge of the story space far from Jesus and the disciples. Further along the road, Jesus 1… saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).

[Then he went and washed. Pick up the blind man, place him in the blue felt “pool” and bring him back to Jesus. He came back able to see!] 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash. ‘Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

Begin with “I wonder” questions, moving to the Art of Asking Questions categories (Informational, Analytical, Personal), putting story pieces away gradually:

Pick up the blind man. I wonder why the blind man never asked to see?

I wonder why his neighbors didn’t recognize him? I wonder, what did it feel like to have mud on his eyes? I wonder, what was it like to see for the first time? Put him back in the basket.

I wonder, who is blind? I wonder, what did the disciples feel when Jesus spit in the mud? I wonder, what did they feel once the blind man could see?

I wonder, where would you be in this story? Put the rest away one by one.

I wonder, have you ever felt blind? I wonder, have you ever felt like you saw for the first time?  I wonder, what about this story do you want to remember? I wonder what your grown-ups want to remember. Why don’t you share with them what you want to remember and ask them what they want to remember? Then we will all pray and sing together.

Put the rest of the materials away during discussion.

Let us pray: We have heard the story read, and seen the story played. Help us to learn what it is you want us to remember and how to apply it in our lives – and in this community. Amen.

[1] Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome W. Berryman, Young Children and Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 176.

[2] Jerome W. Berryman, The Complete guide to Godly Play, Volume 4: An Imaginative Method for presenting Scripture Stories to Children (New York, NY: Morehouse Publishing, 2003)

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A Matter of Testimony

Bulletin for this Wednesday Lenten Evening Prayer Reflection: Bulletin-03-15-2023 Lenten SeriesYA

Let us pray:

Living Water; fill our thirsty souls. In the divine silence of our souls, help us, O Spirit Wisdom, to discern the calling of our Lord’s voice, that, with you, we may follow and do God’s will.  Amen.

I have often wondered what it must have been like for the Apostle John to lean against Jesus at the last supper and, as we are told though Celtic imagination, hear the heartbeat of God.  We are encouraged this week to meditate on the word of God – day and night it says, in the second verse of Psalm 1.  Yet I find it incredibly difficult to do this.  One of my Lenten disciplines this year was to give up my beard.  Every time I renew my shave I look into the mirror and try to meditate on the passage coming up for the next Lord’s Day – hoping that inspiration will hit: “What should I preach on this next Sunday, Lord?”

To prepare for tonight, I had to ask, “What should I preach on for this ecumenical community?”  Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, says Proverbs 3:13 for today.  Similarly, in the daily lectionary our denomination uses for today, John’s Gospel provides us with the testimony of Jesus saying, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Yes, I have often wondered what it must have been like to hear the physical heartbeat of God, and how that would have colored my understanding of the meaning, presence, and message of the living Christ, Emmanuel among us.  Perhaps it is no wonder that John’s gospel is so unlike the synoptics.  It must have taken much longer for the Johannine community of faith to grapple with an interpretation over that first century – shifts in so many parts of the world.  Politically, spiritually for the disciples as their Rabbi is killed, spiritually for the Jewish people as the rumblings of revolution in all parts of the far-flung Roman Empire trickle back toward the center; including the revolution among the Jewish culture which culminated in 70 AD (ado domini “the year of our Lord”) – now known as CE (Common Era) – of the very center of their existence – the Temple in Jerusalem – being destroyed.

How, then, does one pass on the faith?  How do we make meaning of all of what we as later day Christians call Salvation History in light of the crossroads of faith, life, witness, stewardship, culture, and the ever-shifting winds of politics and power, presence and Spirit in this our precious earthen world?

I would suggest it is a matter of testimony.  What we believe gets passed on to the generations that follow us only as strongly as we connect relationally with real people from different and younger generations than ourselves.  Think about how you received the story of your faith.  Did it arise from your own study and interest apart from the generations before you?  Or, did someone older – perhaps wiser – maybe even someone whom you would consider filled with wisdom – share something of their story of faith, their journey to belief with you first to get you started?

In the end, it is the storytelling of our faith, within loving and trust-filled relationships, similar to what Jesus built with his disciples and by extension their families and communities, that will impact the lives of those that come after us. Let us pray the continued legacy of Rabbi Jeshua ben Joseph shines through each of us in all we do.  May our testimonies collectively be a Good Testimony, true to God’s love and God’s way in and through the world.

May all glory be unto the one who lived, died, and rose again for us; even Him who is the Christ. Amen?  May it be so.

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