Sermons

DON’T BE AFRAID; TRUST IN THE LORD

The Gospel appointed for this Fifth Sunday after Easter sounds so sad.  One would wonder why is there portrayal or representation of death at the same time, when we are still celebrating the feast of Easter!! 

The narrative of the Gospel of John 14 1-14 starts with “Let not your hearts be troubled”.  Oh! Oh! These words are a set up for sorrow!  Is this a designated day of mourning?  No, no, no!  Before we get into the good news for today, let me first give you a brief historical account of John, the writer of this Gospel.

First, he is not John the Baptist who baptized Christ.  According to biblical scholars, John was a fisherman and was one of the original twelve apostles. He is thought to be the only one to have lived into old age and not be killed for his faith.  Matthews 4 21 tells us that John and his brother James, sons of Zebedee, were on their fishing boat with their father, mending their nets; when Jesus called out the two brothers to follow Him; and they followed Him. Of the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; John portrays Christ in His divinity to spark our believing faith.

The Gospel starts with what is called Jesus “Farewell Discourse” where He gives His most passionate and important instructions to His Disciples.  In John 13, we learn that Jesus is leaving and His Disciples need to know the Way.  He celebrated the Feast of the Passover with His disciples, and thereafter washed their feet. For Jesus, the clock was ticking.  He didn’t have much time left.  There was so much to tell the disciples before he was taken away: love one another; stay connected; God will be with you, and don’t be afraid. The clock has run out and after all the teaching, the disciples still don’t get it; they are still asking questions.  “Lord, where are you going; who is the Father”? Now I’m sure we are on the same page when I say none of us could be Jesus. We would be at our wits end and tell the disciples to get on with the program!!  Don’t you guys get it??  What a difference it would have made if just one woman was amongst the twelve!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The good news for today’s lesson is the call for us to “trust in God and not be afraid”.  This is a call to a personal relationship with Christ.  It is a command to step up to our faith and respond to the call of God with trust in Him through times of danger and fear, as this story displays:
A couple was returning home from their honeymoon.  They were crossing a lake in a boat, when suddenly a great storm arose. The man was a warrior, but the woman became very much afraid because it seemed almost hopeless. The boat was small and the storm was huge, and any moment they were going to be drowned. But the man sat silently, calm and quiet, as if nothing was happening.
The woman was trembling and she said, “Are you not afraid?” This may be our last moment of life! It doesn’t seem that we will be able to reach the other shore. Only some miracle can save us; otherwise death is certain. Are you not afraid? Are you mad or something? Are you a stone or something?
The man laughed and took out his sword. The woman was even more puzzled: What is he doing? Then he brought the sword close to the woman’s neck, so close that just a small gap was there, it was almost touching her neck.
He said,” Are you afraid?” She started to laugh and said, “If the sword is in your hands, why should I be afraid? I know you love me.”  He put the sword down and said, “this is my answer”. I know God loves me; the storm is in His hands and I’m not afraid because I Trust in the Lord.

Trust in the Lord. Jesus is not only preparing a place for us in Heaven, He is preparing us in our journey of faith in the here and now. 

Don’t be afraid.  The disciples had plenty to be afraid of: The Roman soldiers, the temple guards, and the fickle nature of the crowd.  Remember less than a week before; the people had waved palm branches to welcome Jesus into the holy city.  In another day or so, they would demand that he be crucified.

Don’t be afraid.  Don’t let the political and environmental challenges that we are experiencing shut us down.

Of course, there are fears that often keep us awake at night and seem trivial by comparison … like the little boy who was afraid of the dark.  One night, his mother asked him to go out to the barn and bring in a mop bucket.  He protested.  “Mom,” he said, “its pitch black out there.”  “Oh, honey,” she said, “Don’t be afraid.  Jesus is with you.  He’ll help you, if you ask.”  Reluctantly, the little boy ventured out into the dark night.  When he got to the barn door, he pushed it open just a tad and whispered, “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me the mop bucket? “

Seriously, the fears that cause us the greatest anxiety might seem insignificant to talk about, but they’re real and often debilitating.  Left unchecked, they can paralyze us and keep us from living the abundant life God has promised in Jesus Christ.  And so, I’d like to ask you what are you afraid of?

Some people are afraid of failure.  They avoid making serious commitments because they’re afraid of failing.  They refuse to take risks and become too vulnerable.  They’re afraid they might fall on their face and become the laughing stock of the community.  So, they play it safe.   Are you afraid of failure? 

Other people are afraid of losing control, and that’s related to the fear of change.  I got a taste of this back in 1990, when I had to relocate to this country.  Even though I had come here when I turned 18 to matriculate to university and spent the next 6 years earning my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I never realized the cost of living, because my parents took care of all my expenses.  When I returned home after completion of my studies, life was a bed of ease. It did not take me long to realize after I returned to the US, family in tow, that I could not maintain stability in the midst of a dwindling bank account, so I had to quickly seek employment  in the storm of grief I was experiencing.  Some people, like me at the time, have an inordinate fear of losing control.

Others are afraid of rejection and criticism.  They tend to be overly adaptive to the expectations of others.  Instead of being themselves, they mask who they are and overly try to copy and be like others.

The point of naming all these fears – and these are only the tip of the iceberg – is that, in the face of it all, Jesus says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.”

AMEN

ENID COLE

SERMON, MAY 14, 2017

TEXT: JOHN 14:1-14

A Light in the Darkness

In the Name of the Crucified and Risen One, Amen.

This is the night.  Jesus who was crucified is risen!  Don’t be afraid, he said he would do this.  Paul says, “You also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.”  This is the good news.

These past days we have been remembering Christ’s death and resurrection.  We have not been reenacting it, we’ve been remembering it.  It happened 2,000 years ago.  While we remembered the Last Supper and Christ being arrested, he is risen.  While we remember the crucifixion, he is risen.  Today, he is risen.  Christ was not risen today, he was risen a long time ago and we remember that.

So what do we do with this?  How does it affect us today?  Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story of visiting a parish and in discussing with the Rector what she was going to say, he told her, “we need to know what’s saving your life today?” (From: An Altar in the World”)

What is saving your life today?

Is it a friend.  Is it time alone.  Is it a meeting.  Is it hope.

Last year, when I was at the Vigil at St. Mary’s I sat next to a man who at the time I didn’t know very well.  We had had passing conversations, pleasant, but we didn’t know each other.  We’d been on some committees together.  After the service, he leaned over to me and said, Jason, for the last three years I thought to myself, “This is the last time I will be at this service”.

See, Paul, has cancer.  A very rare form of cancer, so rare that at one point Paul shared with me that they didn’t have treatment for this kind of cancer, so he was literally the guinea pig.  Paul, was diagnosed about 4 years ago and in the time was clear of his cancer twice.  Needless, to say it has been a difficult time.

Paul and I had lunch about a week later, I had to talk to him.  He shared with me at lunch that the diagnosis of his cancer was really when he started taking his spiritual journey seriously.  He had gone to church and considered himself a Christian, but it was not central in his life.  So, why now?  Paul, shared his philosophy of faith with me.  He said, at some point in your life you will get to a point where in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep and death is at your door, you are going to want someone, something to yell at, to cry to, to point at, you are going to want something bigger than yourself to rely on.

Living a Christian life, a life of salvation, is not a grand act, it’s not a life filled with dramatic expressions sacrificial giving.  Living a Christian life is a simple subtle choice to believe that there is hope, even in death, there is hope.  That there is good.  That there is love.  In your darkest hour, having hope is what a life of salvation is all about.

Paul will be the first tell you, he is no saint, (although I would contest that) but he is a Christ follower and in Christ there is life and hope and love.

Paul has a lot that he could be bitter and resentful about.  He could be cast into despair.  He is not.  Don’t read me wrong on this, Paul gets angry.  Angry at God, at the doctors, at his cancer, but he doesn’t hold on to that anger.  He lets it go.  Last year at the vigil, what I saw in Paul was gratitude for being able to worship at this service one more time.

Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Darkness takes on lots of forms.  Sometimes it is facing our own death, but mostly it is other things.  This Easter, we are alive in Christ, which is our freedom.

I want us to consider two things: 1) what death are you facing, today?  What is the thing that says to you there is no hope for you or anyone?  2)  In light of Christ, what does it look like for you to say I am alive?  In the face of that death, how do you live?  Amen.


Coming Out of the Tomb and Coming to Our Senses

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always pleasing in your sight, oh lord, our rock and our redeemer.

This gospel reading is so powerful, so deep, and leaves me with so many questions that my brain aches.

Did it really happen like this? Lazarus coming out of the tomb? Or was the gospel writer using the story to try to describe how people experienced jesus—as someone so empowered by god that he could bring life out of death. (just as god enabled ezekiel to do in the old testament reading).   Maybe both of those?

I have no answers.

But what strikes me is this:

The story of lazarus is a perfect metaphor for jesus’ entire life and ministry.

Because there is more than one way of being dead; in fact, there are lots of ways, and

Jesus was always calling people out of some kind of death and into life.  In another part of john’s gospel, jesus says, “i came so that they could have life, indeed so they could live life to the fullest.”

Jesus restored health and offered more aliveness to those around him in so many ways:  a life of sight in place of blindness, a life filled with sound, instead of deafness, the ability to walk in place of being lame, health instead of the pain and isolation of leprosy.

He was also a spiritual healer, casting out demons—which today we might call mental illness—and healing all kinds of emotional wounds.

As we all know, this is just a small taste of what jesus did.

Today, i’d like to look at our part in living our lives to the fullest, in order to see how we may inadvertantly, or sometimes even intentionally deaden ourselves.

The point isn’t to berate ourselves, but to open our eyes and see how we might accept the invitation of jesus to “come out” of tombs of our own making.

We all have our own ways of deadening ourselves

Some of it is built into our genes, some is part of our culture.  Some comes from our family upbringing.

I do believe that we were made for aliveness and for joy!

But my mother’s family going back for several generations, sure had a hard time finding it.

I think our family motto must have been “expect the worst, and when it doesn’t happen, you’ll feel better.”  Not “then you will rejoice” you just won’t feel so bad.  Now isn’t that a backwards, hope-dashing way to live your life!

We were not easter people, we were good friday folks, our eyes fixed on the cross with no sign of resurrection in sight.

It’s not just me and my family.  I think that we all pick up attitudes and ways of looking at life that leave us restricting our lives, entombing ourselves in small spaces and rolling a huge stone in front of it.  It’s a very human thing to do.

What might those be for you?

Whatever they are, we can all take hope in the fact that

The portion of the holy that each of us carries inside ourselves, keeps urging us to come out into a more spacious, spellbinding world, to come to life.

Sometimes i can imagine that part of me whispering, “barb, toss your ‘to do’ list into the trash and just look around you!”

Our automatic ways of living our lives (our own personalities) can also be deadening.

For instance, being in a hurry, can drain the life out of us.

I don’t know how often my partner kathy has said to me,

“we are retired.  We are in florida on vacation.  We don’t need to rush!”

And every time she says that—and brings me back to my senses–i realize that i’ve been scooting along on the surface of things, missing out on what really matters.

Rainer maria rilke, an austrian poet whose poems are deeply spiritual and mystical, forced me to stop “dead in my tracks” –pun intended—when i read this line of his:

“all this hurrying soon will be over.  Only when we tarry do we touch the holy.”  “tarry,” that old fashioned word for “just stay a while.”

“all this hurrying soon will be over” gives a sense of “don’t miss out!”  “learn to just stay a whle.”

So how do we move in that direction?

To stop and take in what is happening within us and around us?

I think we start by focusing on our senses: really seeing what is in front of us, hearing the sounds that surround us, touching and being touched, taste, smell, and our kinesthetic sense of how our bodies feel as we move through the world.

Because our senses have a way of holding us still in the present moment, connecting us with the world that is beyond our distracted, thinking selves.

You know, thinking isn’t always as great as we make it out to be!  It, too, can become one of the ways that we deaden ourselves.

Do you ever feel caught up in your thoughts?

The phrase “lost in thought” is really true!

We can lose ourselves in it:

We arrive at work without remembering how we drove there.

Or lie awake at night thinking, anticipating, worrying about the same old stuff.

Even more importantly, our thoughts about the world, our expectations, can actually determine how we feel and what we see and hear.

Sometimes it can even change reality for us.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience that shows how deeply ingrained my family’s gloomy negativity is in me.

I was visiting my parents when my mom’s alzheimer’s disease had suddenly progressed and she was temporarily hospitalized.  When i left the hospital, i went to mcdonald’s to grab a cup of coffee.  I looked up at the menu board overhead and saw the word “funmeal” but what i read was “funeral.”

My mom lived another three years, but some part of me was already anticipating her passing.  And my thoughts created what i saw.

It was a real eye opener for me, and i realized that i had a knack for turning “fun” into “funeral” a lot of the time!

It has been helpful for me to know that, because i can catch myself and choose another way.

Do you have patterns like that?  Ways of getting your sneakers stuck repeatedly on the same places along the path of your life?

Another source of entombing ourselves happens when our attachments to something become so tight fisted that our need for that thing shrinks our world: addiction to substances is one example, and it can truly make us numb.  But the same is true for the person who is driven to overwork or over exercise, it was in the dad i saw on the beach who was on his cell phone the whole time that his little boy was jumping the waves by himself.  He and his son both missing out.

Our focus on minor or maybe even not so minor things can lead us to miss the real meaning of the moment.

The poet in the parking lot

A couple of months ago, Kathy and  I were in the parking lot of a grocery store when a guy came up to us holding some sheets of paper.

He said he was a pastor, and that he had a poetry ministry.

He told us, in great detail, how many hundreds of poems he had written, and handed us one.

I’m interested in poetry myself, and told him i thought poetry had a way of showing us the things that really matter.

He agreed, and said he had that experience just the other day in walmart.  He was standing in line at the cash register, when the woman in front of him discovered that she didn’t have enough money on her walmart card to be able to pay for her groceries.  The woman was trying to decide which items to put back, the pastor said, “when it suddenly came over me in that moment.  You know what i did?”  He paused, and said, “i wrote an entire poem in 8 minutes!”

We were expecting him to say that he had paid for her groceries!

True story!

He was so caught up in his poetry that he missed that more important opportunity!

And you know what, i’m sure that i miss those opportunities too, more often than i can imagine!

I wonder what attachments you and i have that could use a little loosening up in order to make space for more important things.

Emerging from the tomb, being fully alive, means opening up, enlarging our personal world—making it spacious by building our connections with one another, with nature, and with the sacred, which i believe surrounds us, even though i may just catch glimpses of it from time to time.

We can’t do this alone—we need each other.

One of the downsides of spending most of our time with people who are like us and think like us is that we don’t get challenged, our vision is narrowed and we miss other ways of looking at things.

Congregations, communities and, i think, whole countries can share the same small, dark, tomblike space and need someone else to roll that stone aside and let the light in.

And so i invite each of us (myself included) in these last weeks of lent to take some time to explore how we might open ourselves to living more fully.

Singer and songwriter cris williamson addressed this “opening up” in her song “invocation.”

I would like to end by reading the lyrics (it’s better as a song, but i will spare you that!)

I say it as a prayer for all of us.

Invocation

When in dreaming sacred comes,
Let our eyes be opened.
Music frightens fear away,
Let our ears be opened.
Knowledge of the blood abounds,
Let our hearts be opened.
Hatred holds such fearful sway,
Let our minds be opened.
Wisdom be with us this day,
Let our souls be opened.
Living long where love abides,
Let our lives be opened.|
Let our lives be opened.

Amen

 

-Barbara Mansfield