Sunday, May 21st

Click here to read John 15:9-17.

On Friday I did something I should really do more often: I drove up to Claremont to visit some old friends. First I met Paula, my friend who just recently returned from Washington DC, where she studied the relationship between faith and public policy. Paula always amazes me; she is affable and authentic, and responds passionately and creatively to God’s desire for a just world. She’s learned to speak Spanish and Korean fluently in order to minister with immigrant communities. After we finished our lunch together, she pulled an empty water bottle out of a trash can so she could recycle it later. Paula’s conviction and enthusiasm are contagious.

After we said our goodbyes, I met up with Ellen, one of my seminary professors. Ellen began teaching at Claremont School of Theology the year I started my studies. I took more classes with Ellen than any other professor, and through the years we became good friends. She is a brilliant thinker, an engaging teacher, and a gentle person. Much of her life’s work is dedicated to discerning how Christians should live – how the scriptures, tradition, and experience of the Christian community inform our decisions and actions. I cannot hear the beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers” without thinking of Ellen, because so much of her work directs Christians into a deeper vocation as makers of peace in a violent world.

My last meeting of the day was with my dear friend and mentor, Julie. Julie is a pastor at First Christian Church of Pomona, the congregation that embraced me during my seminary studies. It’s hard to express how much she means to me. We have laughed together, cried together, and prayed together. I learned a lot in school, but she’s the one who taught and continues to teach me how to be a pastor. We only had an hour to spend together, but we filled the time with ice cream and a great talk.

One day, three friends. I may have emptied my gas tank on the excursion, but as I drove home, singing along with the radio at the top of my lungs, I felt as though my soul tank had been filled to the brim. I’d had a chance to delight in the fruits of their Christian discipleship— Paula’s fire for justice, Ellen’s hope for peace, Julie’s heart for ministry. But more importantly, I’d had an opportunity to simply enjoy their presence. In the hours we spent together, my friends and I freely shared our love and care for one another.

Friendship is truly one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind. We are created to be in relationship with one another. In a world where so many relationships are broken, the experience of genuine friendship is a witness to the transformative power of love. Through friendship, we learn to be trustworthy and forgiving, dependable and vulnerable. We learn that we can make mistakes, and that good friends will be there to love and support us anyway. The best friendships help us navigate the joys and sorrows of life, and enable us to laugh along the way.

Today we rehearse the scripture in which Jesus calls the disciples his friends, chosen and loved into a profound relationship with God. The challenge to become friends of Christ is extended to us as well, for we are people who endeavor to be his disciples in this time and in this place. We are called friends of Jesus if only we respond to his commandment to love our sisters and brothers as Christ first loved us.

The mere invitation to friendship with Jesus is a tremendous expression of God’s grace. Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, desires to befriend us. Despite our brokenness, our bad habits, our imperfections, Jesus loves us enough to lay his life down for us, the ultimate expression of love. When that love breaks through our defenses and into our hearts and minds, the only reasonable response is to love back, to entrust ourselves and our lives to the wellspring of that love. As our most Holy Friend, Christ is a source of strength and comfort. His arms are extended, inviting us to find respite and peace in his merciful embrace.

Just as we share our time with our dear friends, growing our relationship with Christ calls for time and effort. But that time and effort is no more burdensome than spending an afternoon with a friend. Through worship, prayer, and the sacrament of the bread and cup, we deepen our communion with a God who utterly delights in our presence. These practices may require our humble reverence, but given the jubilance with which God welcomes us into his Kingdom, we may also approach our spiritual journey with joy and thanksgiving.

Andrei Rublev, an Eastern Orthodox painter who lived at the turn of the fifteenth century, created an icon that masterfully illustrates Christ’s desire to befriend his disciples. It is a brightly colored depiction of three men who represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are seated around a table, their heads bowed to one another in veneration. They are clearly connected by a relationship marked by abiding love. They are friends. As you gaze at this icon, you quietly realize that the circle extends beyond the boundaries of the paint. An invitation to the table of fellowship is extended to each disciple of Christ. The circle is open, completed only when God’s beloved creation responds to the radical invitation to commune with our Creator.

The other dimension of Rublev’s icon is that the three characters also represent the men that appeared to Abraham and Sarah by the Oaks of Mamre, early in the history of the Israelite people. According to the book of Genesis, even though Abraham and Sarah did not know the men were angels of the Lord, they extended great hospitality to them. They treated the strangers as friends, offering them a feast despite their meager resources.

Abraham and Sarah, faithful to God centuries before the incarnation of his Son, honored the commandment to love God and to love one another. The loving hospitality and friendship they shared with the three strangers enabled them to encounter and to love God.

After all, this whole business of friendship with Christ rests on a word that seems very conditional. If. “If” looms large in Jesus’ message to the disciples. “You are my friends IF you do what I command you.” This commandment to love one another is clearly high on Christ’s list of priorities to teach his disciples. The matter of love comes up again and again in the gospel, and there is a lot riding on our ability to abide in love for one another. If we fail to love our friends and our enemies, we fail to love God. As Dorothy Day put it, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” I don’t know about you, but to me that is a frighteningly honest declaration.

Yet our ability to love at all has nothing to do with our own goodness or our own will. We are empowered to love because Christ first loved us. We only know and share love because God is love. And the gospel yesterday, today, and tomorrow is that God can and does transform us through the magnificent and eternal love embodied in his Son. If we abide in Christ’s love, God will find a way to cultivate an abundance of spiritual fruit in this community of believers. Shaped by our joyful friendship with one another and with our Redeemer, we will be an Easter people of hope, of peace, of justice, and, by the grace of God, we will be a people of love. Amen.

Sunday, May 14th - Happy Mothers Day!

Click here to read 1 John 4:7-21, and here to read John 15:1-8.

When I was a little girl, I always wanted to give my mother the perfect gift. No matter what the occasion, I wanted to make sure my offering would be just right. I’d ransack department stores for the perfect sweater, earrings, or perfume, wanting to present her with a suitable token of my love. And it was always a guessing game. It was no help to ask her what she wanted, for she always gave the same answer: for my sisters and me to be nice to one another, to refrain from arguing for one day. I don’t know why I didn’t take that request very seriously at the time. It seemed like a non-answer, just something nice to say instead of revealing what she really wanted. But as I’ve grown up, I realized that my mother’s perennial request was what she wanted more than anything in the world. For many years, my sisters and I couldn’t quite make it through the day without bickering. There was just enough difference and just enough similarity between us that squabbles and quarrels were a given. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other, but we didn’t always show it.

Now that we are adults, and my sisters have children of their own, we get along so well I nearly have to have the telephone surgically removed from my ear. I could talk to Elizabeth and Marie every day for hours, if time and circumstances allowed. I desperately want to be a part of their lives, and the lives of their daughters. We love each other fiercely, and even though the gift is made bittersweet by the many miles between us, we have been able to give my mother her heart’s desire for Mother’s day for years now.

“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

The first letter of John has a lot to say about love. It is this passage that gives us the transcendent doctrines that proclaim God is the source of all love, that we can love only because God has loved us, that God is love. We are reminded that God’s love is so profound that he sent Christ into the world that we might live through him. This love is wondrous, and, like God, much more vast than we can grasp, yet even if we comprehend a sliver of this great mystery, we are filled with the confidence of salvation. Fear is cast out by this perfect love. This is heady stuff. And even though John’s letter rivals the brainiest works of Greek philosophy, his head is far from the clouds. He knows that genuinely loving God includes the hard work of loving God’s creation, loving our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, even our enemies.

Just as I couldn’t fully love and honor my mother without loving and honoring my sisters, we cannot believe for a second that loving our brethren here on earth is not just as important as loving our Heavenly Father. Love of neighbor goes hand in hand with love of God. You just can’t cultivate one without the other.

And so we have a steep endeavor before us: abide in love. This is the path to the heart of God: to love one another, to live in love. Abiding is a tough word, and an even tougher action. Sometimes it is interpreted simply as waiting, resting. But that is only one dimension of the life we are called to live. Abide is related to the word abode, or dwelling. To abide in God is to make a home in God. This is a cozy enough image, but anyone who has spent anytime as a homemaker knows that it’s a lot of hard work. Floors must be swept, bathrooms scoured, meals cooked. Without daily upkeep, a home becomes unlivable. Abiding in love, abiding in God, requires the same daily work as maintaining a household, though the chores are more along the lines of prayer, scripture reading, fellowship, and service.

Living in love is something we cannot accomplish on our own; we can never pray or read or serve enough to earn our keep. We cannot earn our home in God by good works. We can, however, respond to the invitation to live in God by faithfully following the loving example of his Son. And that brings us full circle to this insurmountable yet indispensable responsibility to love our sisters and brothers, for no one loved more powerfully than the one who laid down his life.

There is yet another meaning to the word “abide”: to put up with. “I cannot abide by this,” someone will say in angry indignation. This makes for a slightly off-color interpretation of our beautiful text for the day, but it also reveals bit of truth we might miss otherwise, so hear me out. “God is love, and those who put up with love put up with God, and God puts up with them.” Maybe I’m just a cynic for appreciating this reading so very much. But isn’t there something to it? Love isn’t an easy thing.

When couples marry, they enter a covenant to love one another even through the turbulent times. They are reminded, even amid the glorious happiness of their wedding day, that a marriage binds them together in sickness and in health. There are times in every relationship in which loving someone means putting up with them for a spell. Mothers certainly know this. For every day they spend receiving roses and affirmations, they spend many more putting up with the various antics of their kids—whether their kids are two or fifty-two. My mother certainly put up with a lot, and I never doubted her love for my sisters and me.

Sometimes the people we are called to love – and, if we remember correctly, God expects us to make a good faith effort at loving anyone and everyone – aren’t terribly lovable. So we put up with them, even when they are unpleasant, unkempt, ungrateful. We abide in love for them.

We even have to put up with God, and I apologize if that sounds irreverent. Even the most faithful Christians tire sometimes of the hard work of Christian discipleship. God calls us into places and practices that stretch us and transform us. Sometimes we grumble even as we try to obey, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier if God didn’t love us quite so much as to challenge us to change.

We put up with one another, we abide in love for one another, for the sake of a God who manages to put up with the whole lot of us. God’s love for us is unconditional. As the Gospel of John proclaims, he is a vinegrower, pruning away our branches that cannot bear fruit. But every flash of his blade works for our benefit and for the building of God’s peaceable Kingdom. God’s grace continues to shape us, and his love continues to recreate us, as he makes his home in us. For we are God’s abode, the ones in whom God desires to live. And if it’s hard work to abide in God, just imagine what hard work it is to make a home in you and me. I think we have the better end of the deal.

We often follow the example of Jesus, calling God our Heavenly father. But God certainly loves us with the love of a mother, that love we celebrate today. Just as my mother wanted her household to be marked by peace and kindness, our scripture today reveals that one of God’s ultimate concern is that we live in love for one another. This is the acceptable sacrifice for our God: not simply tangible treasures, but patient, abiding love. Amen.

Sunday, May 7th

Click here to read John 10:11-18.

Progress is a strange concept. Sometimes we recognize progress, and see only the good it brings. Take a sheep, for instance. Sheep have a reputation for getting lost. How do they do it? By making progress. Now, everything I know about sheep I learned from sermons, so don’t argue this one with a biologist until you’ve checked the encyclopedia. But the great contemporary preacher, Jeremiah Wright, explains that “Their eyesight is so poor… that they can see no farther than six feet in front of them. They graze in the grass and see something greener up ahead, six feet. They see something greener yet, six feet. See another green patch, six feet. Six feet by six feet by six feet, the sheep get lost, straying from the flock and the shepherd.” Those first couple yards felt like progress. The poor little lamb is six feet closer to feeling full – and six feet further from the one who will protect him from predators and lead him to still waters. Soon the sheep is missing, helpless, and entirely unable to find his way back to the flock. All for a little progress.

The last century is full of cautionary tales about the siren call of progress. Exciting scientific discoveries were quickly transformed into tools of war. The earth’s resources continue to be plundered to keep up with the constant progression of civilization. We may like to believe we have more foresight than sheep, but the human race has created problems that cannot be undone. I read recently about a life-and-death crisis that began in the 20th century and will not conclude until ten thousand years from now. Scientists are frantically trying to develop ways to warn future generations about the massive quantities of radioactive materials buried deep beneath the soil of New Mexico. The article outlined the laundry list of factors that must be taken into consideration. The one that struck me was the very real probability that none of the countless languages spoken today will be relevant in 10,000 years. The world will be so different that the simple “danger” sign it would take today could have all the effect of a smiley face. It sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel, but it is just another consequence of 20th century progress.

We are living in an anxious age. Consequences are catching up to us, and in ways more profound than the price of gas. And for all the so-called progress humankind has made in the last few hundred years, our world is still plagued by wars and rumors of wars. The fall of the Berlin Wall may have warmed relations between some nations, but new hostilities quickly took their place. The horrors that unfolded on September 11th rattled us to the bone, and the years since, so replete with violence and disasters, have only continued to hammer our wounded hearts and nerves.

This sanctuary is supposed to be just that—a sanctuary. A safe place, set apart from all that pain. As I prepared to preach this morning, I wondered whether we would really have the energy to face the valley of the shadow of death this morning. We could easily leave the anxiety in the parking lot, pretending for a precious hour that the world beyond these walls resembles the Kingdom of God. But then I looked at the pile of half-written sermons I’d attempted this week, and recognized the difference between this message and the ones I abandoned in frustration. The sermons that are in the trash bin rushed ahead to the good part, the part where we all gather in the House of the Lord, with our souls restored, our fears quieted, and our hearts comforted by the Good Shepherd. To rush ahead to the good part is to celebrate cheap grace, to engage in a superficial pretense that our lives are not rutted with dark valleys, and that wolves do not lurk in our blindspots.

Most of us are anxious. Anxious for the world, for the church, for our own families. For ourselves. And there is no better place than the safety of the sanctuary to admit that we are afraid.

The promises we encounter in the scriptures today are easily tamed, and taming scripture is always a dangerous habit. The image of the Shepherd is pleasant. If we read carelessly, we are likely to ignore that in both the beloved words of the 23rd Psalm and the gospel according to John, the metaphor of the Lord as our shepherd emerges from a context of very real danger. Even as the Psalmist claims his place in the House of the Lord, he points out the hazards he encounters on his journey. He is in the presence of his enemies. And it is when he is face to face with evil that he marvels at the wellspring of God’s goodness and mercy. Despite the evidence pressuring him to collapse with fear, the Psalmist entrusts himself to a God he knows will restore his soul.

Christ is the good shepherd who lays down his life for us. He becomes our salvation from all that seeks to harm God’s creation. And he does not accomplish the work of our salvation by whisking us away from the wolves and depositing us in a safe space. He lays his life down, absorbing the evil and the pain until it is time to take it up again. He lived, and died, and lived again in the same frightening, painful world in which we live.

The scriptures today present a way of life, a Christian spirituality that is deeply relevant, even if the language of sheep and wolves seems removed from our modern lives. The Psalm and the gospel invite us to trust in a time when nothing seems trustworthy. They challenge us to lean on God’s eternal shoulders in a world that cannot seem to hold our weight. They dare us to move beyond the fear that Christ is merely a hired hand.

With all due respect to the hired hands of this world, this is a crucial point. Just as Christ’s flock is not left under the care of someone who may or may not opt to take his responsibility seriously, neither is God’s creation left to make do without our Creator. Despite the evil that appears to maintain a firm grasp on humankind, we belong to God. We are such beloved members of his flock that Christ would give his life over for a chance to guide us back to the House of the Lord.

As Christian people, we cannot afford to act as though our lives are in the hands of hired help any more than we can afford to pretend that evil does not exist. We have to take that narrow, difficult way. Even if we can see only six feet ahead of us – especially if we can see only six feet ahead of us – we must listen for the call of Christ’s voice, and trust. Nothing could be harder, and yet nothing else will save us. When we recognize that we belong to God—that everything we have and everything we are rests within God’s loving care – then we are freed from fear. Then we are freed to bind ourselves to God and to one another, and to live in the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

If we have learned anything from the last century, we have learned that the wolves are ferocious. We have learned that the valleys are not only dark, but the land itself quakes and floods. We have learned that single-mindedly seeking greener pastures rarely works in our benefit. We have learned that one day the culture will celebrate church-going as an essential part of life, and the next day will pull the narthex rug out from under us. And by the grace of God, perhaps we have learned that no matter if we are in the valley or on the mountain, the voice of Christ still resounds, calling us into lives of compassion, generosity, and trust. The world changes, the voice persists. Follow the voice.


Sunday, April 30

Click here to read Luke 23:13-35.

I started reading a library book this week about churches. In my line of work, there’s a lot of reading about God, but there’s also a lot of reading about the Body of Christ, God’s beloved church. This book is about so-called “turn-around” churches. The author studies congregations that have on the brink of shutting their doors. Many were, at one time, large churches with extensive programming. But like many Protestant churches, the last thirty years or so were tough on these churches. People left. Children and grandchildren decided church wasn’t for them, or maybe joined another congregation down the street. The churches found themselves stuck in a rut of grief and bewilderment. They had no momentum for change, and very little comprehension of God’s movement within their bare bones congregations.

A woman named Muriel was a member of one of these congregations. I wonder if she still is, or if she finally gave up on her floundering community of faith. This is what Muriel said to the author of the book. “Sometimes I wake up on Sunday mornings and just lay there thinking I must be crazy to keep attending that church… why am I sticking with it? I don’t even know what hit us, or what happened to all the people. It just seemed like one day we were happy, singing, praying together, and the next day it was like a funeral parlor.”

I’ve been turning these words around in my head, looking for even a little bit of hope beneath all that despair. And I have to tell you, I can’t find even a little bit of gospel in her words. If the Body of Christ is in a funeral parlor, no sign of resurrection in any direction, well, those folks might as well turn the keys over and go home.

That’s where the two men who were on the road to Emmaus are. Dejected. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel. They had cultivated so much trust, so much joy, so much anticipation for God’s glory in the person of Jesus Christ. But now it was all past tense. Their hope had been crucified on a cross, and now all they could do was walk and talk, sadly pondering the tragic turn of events. Yes, there were those strange rumors that the body of their supposed Lord was gone. Their sheer disappointment didn’t even begin to consider the possibility of the resurrection. I imagine that Cleopas and his friend are something like poor Muriel, wondering why they’d been crazy enough to stick it out with Jesus. They are walking away from the funeral of the one who was supposed to redeem them.

And then Jesus shows up. I love stories like this. We know all along that the stranger on the road is Jesus. We watch through Luke’s careful eye as the men make little fools of themselves, going on and on about the death of the Nazarene prophet, and the strange rumors of empty tombs and angels, when it is the living and breathing Christ Jesus who is listening and nodding at all the appropriate places to their heartfelt and heartbroken eulogy. Jesus manages to teach a whole Bible study as they walk, illuminating the heart of the scriptures to the men, and still they don’t recognize their fellow sojourner.

Once in Emmaus, the men convince the stranger to stay with them. Perhaps they take a liking to his unusually perceptive biblical interpretation. Perhaps they just don’t want to be alone. But Luke tells us that the men beg the man to let them host him in the village Emmaus.

But the men will not play host for the meal in Emmaus, for Jesus is always the host at every table. He takes their evening bread, and blesses it, and breaks it…and doesn’t this sound familiar?

And that’s when the men finally realize that they have been in the presence of Christ all along. They did not expect him. They expected a funeral, and instead they were blessed with an encounter with the One who redeems not only Israel, but the whole of God’s Creation.

Christ was made known to them through the breaking of the bread. Their blindness gave way to the beautiful sight of the Messiah, who had been beside them all along. Unlike Muriel’s eulogy for her dying congregation, there is a whole lot of gospel in the story that unfolded on the journey to Emmaus. Christ Jesus, the son of the Living God and the Lord and Savior of all, was made known to them through the breaking of the bread. They raced back to Jerusalem to proclaim the good news of their amazing encounter with God’s beloved son, who is risen indeed.

The book I’m reading about churches is pretty depressing. And I think it’s because I haven’t gotten to the part where the churches start turning around. All I’ve encountered in this book so far are the funeral stories, tales of congregations that are unconvinced of God’s glory, suspicious of the Holy Spirit, stuck with a Christ who hasn’t quite left the grave. These congregations are still trudging away from the City of God, joylessly recounting how their vitality had collapsed.

I wonder if Muriel’s church regained its recognition that Christ is risen, and among them in the breaking of the bread, or if their sight is still obscured by sorrow and grief. I’m willing to bet my library card that the only way for congregations to turn around is to turn to Christ, to allow their eyes to be opened to his steadfast presence.

Our purpose, as a congregation, is to worship God. Everything else— mission, evangelism, spiritual growth— emerges from that one radical purpose. We gather in this place because God has called us here, to revel in his presence, to delight in his glory, to offer praise and thanksgiving for his unconditional love. We gather around a table to share the communion meal because Jesus himself is made known to us through the breaking up the bread. And we sure do need to know him. Our joy, our hope, our lives depend upon the ability to recognize and celebrate Christ’s presence in our congregation and in our world.

Lately, people have made some comments that have led me to believe that some hearts are burning as we worship God in this place. The Spirit of the Living God is at work here, coaxing us into deeper prayer and more joyous song. We are being shaped as individuals and as a congregation into more faithful followers of the one who walks beside us.

We are not heading to Emmaus, but we are on an exciting journey. As we discern the direction of God’s call for this congregation, we must keep on turning toward the table of Communion, where Christ is made known to us week after week in the breaking of the bread. And like Cleopas and his friend, who ran back to Jerusalem by night, we must keep sharing the great news with our friends and neighbors, that here, in this place, we gather under the gentle shadow of the Holy Spirit.

We walk through the doors of this sanctuary expecting to encounter and to worship God, and despite our racing minds and tired bodies, we do. The Lord is risen, indeed.