“Signs Of The Resurrection: Peace & Forgiveness” ~ April 12, 2015

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Sermon For April 12, 2015 ~ Baptism Sunday

John 20:19-23 ( http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=295839885 )

“Signs Of The Resurrection: Peace & Forgiveness”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

Over the next few weeks we will be exploring the period of scripture which describes the time after Jesus’ resurrection and prior to the birth of the new church on the day of Pentecost.  It is also the time between the transformation of Jesus with new life and the ascension of Jesus, thus effectively taking him, at least in bodily form, from their midst.  I want to spend time delving into the way in which Jesus worked with his disciples to prepare them both for his leave-taking but also, and much more importantly, for the birth of the new church that was to come.

Let’s not be coy about this.  Clearly there are parallels between what is happening in scripture and what is happening here at Franklin Circle Christian Church.  I have just received news which has – quite frankly – given me new life.  But it means that I will be leaving you for another position in ministry, this time as a Regional Minister.  I do think that there is much to be learned from how Jesus and the disciples handled their situation that will offer us great wisdom and guidance in the coming days so that we might live into and through this transition with faithfulness and hope.

But that is where the parallels end.  Let me be perfectly clear: I ain’t no Jesus, nor do I have any pretensions with this new position that I am any more holier than I was before.  I am 100% human, and I am reminded of that every day of my life.  I sin, I miss the mark, I fall short of the glory of God, and I need all that God has to offer to get through each moment of my life.  If, by the grace of God, you all have seen Jesus working through me – in spite of me – or even with me, then “Praise be to God!”  But let us be very, very clear.  You know Jesus, and I am no Jesus.

And let me also say that while I will be viewing these texts in the coming weeks through the lens of a congregation, all of these sermons will be just as much about who we are as individuals before God.  How we live in community is connected to how we live as individuals, and vice versa.

So with that caveat, let’s get to today’s text.  Today’s text is almost always read the first or second Sunday after Easter.  It is the famous (or infamous) text depending upon how you look at it, of Jesus greeting the disciples in the closed room and Thomas, who was not with them in the beginning, questioning the other disciples as to the validity of their claim that they had seen the resurrected Christ.  Christ reappears and asks Thomas to touch his wounds and discover for himself that he is alive again.  There is no doubt why this moment has become the focus of these verses, for it is one of the most dramatic and tangible scriptures in all of the New Testament.  But this is not what I want to focus upon and why I did not have Larisa read it to you.

No, what I want to focus on are those few verses that describe what Jesus says to the disciples in between their awe and amazement at seeing him alive again and the moment Thomas arrives.  What does Jesus do first?  He grants them his peace.  Not once, but twice.  Previously Jesus had told the disciples in John 14 that he would leave for them a peace that was unlike the kind that the world had to give.  This is critical to hear and remember.

I think the first blessing of peace was to calm their troubled hearts, both from the sorrow of him leaving and the shock of him still being alive.  But the second benediction of peace was more of a mandate to be at peace, for tied with it was the charge to go out and be as Jesus had been with them.  Matthew will make this “great commission” big and bold, on a mountaintop with lots of fanfare about baptizing and teaching.  John simply records a second “Peace be with you” and then tells them that just as he was sent by God, so they are sent by him.  Peace is inextricably tied to our calling to go and be in the world.  We must be agents of peace in a world that cannot imagine peace, much less live it out.

And the next thing that Jesus tells them is to forgive.  After calming the disciples down, giving them the mandate to go and offer the peace he gives to the world, he tells us to forgive.  One of the hardest actions for human beings to do, Jesus makes his second request to his followers after he comes back from the dead.

And he uses this wonderful phrase, which I like better from older translations and from the Matthew text:  “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Whatever sins you bind will be bound in heaven!  Whatever sins you loose, shall be loose in heaven.  WHAT POWER WE DISCIPLES HAVE!!!  And this is the power that will either save this church in the future or destroy it.  You, each of you, has the power to forgive or not forgive: how you use this power will determine your future and the future of this church.

That would be a cause for weeping and wailing if it were not for one thing.  In between the call to be at peace and be peacemakers, and the command to bind or forgive sins, is the giving of the Holy Spirit.  For Luke/Acts, this comes later, at the time of Pentecost.  But for John, it is in the quiet, dark, intimate, doubt and anxiety-ridden room with just Jesus and the disciples.

Jesus breathed on him, the ruach that formed creation and made the earth creature a human, the pneuma that came down from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, would be the very same breath that Jesus breaths onto the disciples immediately after Easter.  It is this breath that was breathed into each and every one of us upon our birth, at our baptism, and when we were called to participate in this church.  It is the very same breath that is given to every single leader in the church, from the child that lights the candles on Sunday morning as an acolyte, to the volunteer who sorts clothes for the clothing closet.

This Holy Spirit will be the very same Holy Spirit that will be breathed again into this church upon my departure that will allow you, A Chosen People, A Royal Priesthood, A Holy Nation, God’s Own Special People that will empower you to be both at peace and be the peacemakers God calls you to be, and to learn the art of forgiveness so that the work of God can and will continue through this congregation well into the future.

May it be so.

Amen

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“Anointing, Washing, Communing” ~ April 2, 2015 Maundy Thursday Meditation

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Maundy Thursday Meditation for April 2, 2015

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

Anointing.  Washing.  Communing.

Celebration.  Servanthood.  Grace.

Who says rituals aren’t important?  Not Jesus.  Jesus understood the powerful way in which involving yourself in the action and repeating that action embodies and sustains the meaning well beyond the life of the one around whom the rituals were formed.  Jesus was well aware that if the meaning of the events and actions were important enough, then creating a ceremony with which to observe that action again and again was critical, even a requirement, for the significance to be made real.

Anointing His Feet #2 by Wayne Forte http://wayneforte.com/picture/anointing-his-feet-2/

Anointing His Feet #2
by Wayne Forte
http://wayneforte.com/picture/anointing-his-feet-2/

Mary anointed Jesus with precious ointments and her tears to celebrate her profound appreciation for his ministry of grace-filled love and abundant forgiveness.  From the earliest days of the New Testament church, anointing has been a symbol of love, grace, and forgiveness, whether in calling someone to service in the church, marking the reality of God’s mercy, or sending them on to their eternal home.  This act was a celebration of her humanity touching his humanity and a celebration of the divine in both of them.  We would do well to have more celebration in the church.  Let us keep anointing.

Jesus Washing Disciples FeetJesus knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples, much to their frustration and against their better judgement.  Taking on the form of a servant, he who was from God and was of God and was God gave himself up to the slavish indignity of cleaning other people’s dirty, dusty, smelly feet in order to physically embody the self-less life of a disciple.  Time and time again this one who was God’s most beloved, favorite child of the Most High God, was found kneeling over to pick up children, touch lepers, listen to the elderly, rescue those who the self-appointed religious elite were ready to kill, and pick up crosses.  We would do well to have more servanthood in the church.  Let us keep washing.

LastSupperJesus broke the bread and blessed the cup and communed with his followers.  Gathered around him were a band of wayward followers from the frazzled edges of society’s fringes, men and women who were constantly at each other’s throats, throwing suspicions and accusations around at each other like they were at war.  Somehow Jesus knew something about them more than the world could understand or would ever admit.  Jesus saw in them something different and far better than they could even see in themselves.  That is the definition of grace.  And so he took a risk, and gave them a most precious ritual that was simple enough for them to do again and again anywhere they were, and yet deep enough that it could transform their very lives.  We would do well to have more grace in the church.  Let us keep communing.

Rituals make real the important facets of human lives.  But ritual for ritual sake alone can become ceremonial pomp and irrelevant circumstance.  What make rituals truly life-giving and meaningful is the simple and yet scarce gift that Jesus had the most to offer: love.  Rituals, linked with love, transform churches… transform lives.

Anointing.  Washing.  Communing.

Celebration.  Servanthood.  Grace.

Love.  We would do well to have more love in the church.  Let us keep loving.

Amen.

“Die To Rise” ~ Sermon For March 22, 2015

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Sermon For March 22, 2015 ~ Fifth Sunday Of Lent

John 12:20-26 ( http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=294018792 )

“Die To Rise”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle

Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To watch a video of this sermon, go online to: http://youtu.be/tL9zkxz23YI

 

HappyTombstoneIs there such a thing as a good death? Now, I know there is such a thing as a noble death – which is how we often describe military heroes. Perhaps there exists even a timely death – as we might say of someone who has lived a really long and full life. But is there such a thing as a “good” death, a death that brings more good than bad, more justice, peace, hope, love into the world, a death that – dare I say it – bears much fruit? Jesus seemed to be saying this in today’s text, and it is hard to understand. Very difficult, indeed.

 

Now, we can spiritualize this and make it only about Jesus. Certainly John goes on to say later in this passage “He [Jesus, that is] said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” Most assuredly this conversation, filled with metaphor and poetry, was Jesus’ attempt to let his disciples know that he was going to die, and that this death would be the ultimate act that would bring him glory, the kind of glory God values.

 

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian (Bolognese), 1591 - 1666) Christ Preaching in the Temple, about 1625 - 1627, Pen and brown ink, brush with brown wash 26.8 x 42.4 cm (10 9/16 x 16 11/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian (Bolognese), 1591 – 1666)
Christ Preaching in the Temple, about 1625 – 1627, Pen and brown ink, brush with brown wash
26.8 x 42.4 cm (10 9/16 x 16 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

But we do a disservice to Jesus and John’s recounting of the gospel if we simply spiritualize this to be about Jesus. Does not Jesus say in the midst of this conversation, Those who love their live lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” as well as Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also?”  This sounds to me like a prescription for discipleship, even an outright invitation to a good death.

 

We don’t like hearing this kind of talk, especially from our savior, for it takes us to all those confusing, shadowy, and problematic places within our own head and within our society. It conjures up suicidal thoughts and Dr. Kevorkian’s assisted suicide. Surely Jesus’ call to be like a “grain of wheat [which] falls to the earth and dies… and bears much fruit,” wasn’t a call to actual death, even though it most assuredly sounds like it?

 

Well, let me be absolutely clear up front that I do not think this text, or any text in scripture, is a prescription for suicide – ours or the assistance of others in theirs. Let me tell you why it is not this, which will help me tell you what this challenging call to “fall into the earth and die” and “hate one’s life” might mean.

 

Suicide Crisis/Prevention Hotline for Cuyahoga County: 216-623-6888

 

My mother was a nurse for her entire working career. She took the Hippocratic Oath” seriously, which is essentially “do no harm.” She was there to relieve suffering, as best as possible, and to bring healing, if at all possible. There were frequently situations that tested her and the medical profession’s limits in how suffering could be relieved and healing could be enhanced.

 

The last few years of her career were as the director of a nursing home. It was while she served Casa Maria Health Care Center that I began to see her definition of a good death. Her definition of death had less to do with the patient, and more to do with those around the patient. I began to see that the value of a human’s life is not always defined by the ability of the patient to do and be everything that we modern citizens, especially those of us in the more technologically- and industrially-advanced parts of the world, think define self-worth. If she – or by extension we as a society – defined “life” and “living” as being a productive citizen of the world around us, then most of the people she served were “worth-less.”

 

But even if we lowered that bar and said that the definition of a life worthy of living was pain free or, at the very least, being cognizant and conscious, then many of her residents were, by this societal definition, “worth-less.” Then why did my mother treat each and every one of her residents as if they were the most beautiful, important, worthy person on the planet?!? Because my mother chose to die “the good death,” herself. She died to what the world expected of her, she died to the value society had of her residents, and gave her self up so that others might have life. She brought dignity, grace, and even love to those the world would have given up on.

 

Me and my sis.

Me and my sis.

Now let me tell you about another very important woman in my life who I do not tend to talk a lot about: my sister, Lynda. My sister is very much like my mother, except that she went into education. For most of my young life I knew Sis, who was much older than me, to be a fantastic teacher, exceptionally good at what she did. I know this because over the years I would hear her students, when seeing her in the grocery store or at a community event, gush about how she had changed their life and about how she had given them courage and a sense of self-worth when no one else seemed to believe in them.

 

The critical part about my sister’s service as a teacher was that she not only served in the most racially diverse, the most economically depressed, and the most dangerous part of our town, but she served the kids that had the hardest time with the skills needed to further their education. I would often say that she taught the grade “in between first and second grade,” that class of kids whose parents wouldn’t hold them back even though they couldn’t do the work so that she could try and get them, some how some way, caught up with their classmates. My sister chose to die “the good death,” her self. She died to the honor, prestige, income, comfort, and even safety that she very well could have had so that her students might have life. She brought dignity, grace, and even love to those the world would have given up on.

 

Clearly Jesus is talking about an actual death, his death on a cross to the powers and principalities of the world. Throughout the gospel of John Jesus prefigures his death in so many ways. But Jesus knew very well that the reason for his death would be precisely because he called his disciples to a discipleship that shunned, even despised, the ways of the world that are hell-bent on glory, strength, prestige, beauty, success, and permanence. Jesus knew – as we all do – that the tendency we human beings have is to desire to be lifted up in honor and accolades. Like a star athlete lifted up on the shoulders of her or his teammates, we yearn to be lifted up on glory so the world will know just how important our life is.

 

But Jesus also knew – as those of us who seek to follow him must also come to know – that any “lifting up” that is done to us will have to be in service, humility, and possibly even death, for it to be considered “good.” And we will have to bear the slings and arrows of a world that does not understand why we do what we do. A good death, the one to which Jesus calls us, is a life given in love to a friend, a neighbor, even to a stranger, in service, humility, and love.

 

May it be so. Amen

“Preparing For The Journey” ~ February 22, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For February 22, 2015 ~ First Sunday Of Lent

Mark 1:9-15http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=291606349

“Preparing For The Journey”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

 

There’s nothing novel about the imagery of life as a journey. There’s certainly nothing original about interpreting the season of Lent as a journey. It’s a well-worn metaphor, and rightfully so. And each year the lectionary dispatches us off on our journey with one of the three biblical texts describing Jesus’ trek in the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry. What’s different about this year in the lectionary readings (and we are in Year B by the way) is that Mark’s gospel, in it’s all-too-familiar way, condenses a great deal of the story of Jesus into almost painfully too few words. In a mere seven verses we go from Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, through his wilderness excursion and the arrest of John, to Jesus proclaiming the good news! Whew! That’s a fast romp if I’ve ever read one!

 

A scene from Homer's epic tale, The Odyssey

A scene from Homer’s epic tale, The Odyssey

But as minimal as it is, we still understand that Jesus’ life journey began in a wilderness first and foremost. This is a recognizable aspect of life that we all know so well. It’s so endemic to the human condition that it has become the mainstay of literature and stories, from Homer’s epic The Odyssey to Jack Kerouac’s One The Road, from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to Hollywood’s The Wizard Of Oz and Finding Nemo! Scripture is no less interested in such roaming, from Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, to Abraham and Sarah’s leave-taking from their homeland of Ur, to the freed Hebrew slaves wandering in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. Later we will find Paul on the road to Damascus and the apostles trekking across the known world to share the gospel.

 

And, most noticeably, each and every one of these tales of travel have as a central component a period and/or place of struggle and strain, confrontation and

Jankel Adler No Man's Land 1943 Gallery, London, 1943, and later exchanged for another work); the artist; C.R. Churchill, Lower Chicksgrove, Wilts., 1946 or 1947, The Tate

Jankel Adler
No Man’s Land 1943
Gallery, London, 1943, and later exchanged for another work); the artist; C.R. Churchill, Lower Chicksgrove, Wilts., 1946 or 1947, The Tate

opposition, and deep and often life-changing transformation for the protagonist and intrepid traveler. This is what we are invited to embrace as we begin our Lenten journey. Life involves movement from point A, to point B, to point C, and beyond. This might be an inward journey within our own souls and psyches, or an outward journey, that involves new geographies and peoples. However it happens, all of us if we are on this planet for any time at all we will be travelers on a journey, and that journey will include at least one wilderness.

 

So journeys and the wilderness places that so often make up those travels are part and parcel to our lives. The question becomes, “Is this realization prescriptive or descriptive?” In other words, does it have to happen, or do we simply notice that it usually happens? In faith language, and this is where it gets really sticky: “Does God somehow make us, or urge us, or compel us to go into the wilderness, or does God simply know we will go into the wilderness and wants us to know that the presence of the divine is with us wherever we go.” Well… a careful reading of today’s scripture tells us… both!

Textually, the reading for today is not very exciting. That is to say there are not a lot of interesting or controversial words or images. Except for two. And they are two very compelling points of interest. The first one is in verse ten when, in the NRSV, it reads, “he saw the heavens torn apart,” and in The Message, “he saw the sky split open.” The Greek word for what happened is schizein, which is a fairly violent word. It will be used again, most notably, at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross when the veil in the Temple is “torn open.” It is in this forceful and intense moment when the heavens are rent asunder, split wide open, that God’s Holy Spirit, and – in an odd juxtaposition of metaphors, “like a dove” – comes down upon Jesus. In this moment God says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (1)

 

Baptism of Jesus 1987 Lorenzo Scott Born: West Point, Georgia 1934 oil on canvas 48 1/8 x 48 1/8 in. (122.3 x 122.3 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Jane and Bert Hunecke 1994.52 Smithsonian American Art Museum Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor, 23A

Baptism of Jesus
1987
Lorenzo Scott
Born: West Point, Georgia 1934
oil on canvas
48 1/8 x 48 1/8 in. (122.3 x 122.3 cm.)
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of Jane and Bert Hunecke
1994.52
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor, 23A

This is why we offer the ritual of Baby and Child Dedications. This is why we choose to be baptized. This is why the Church is so very, very important in people’s lives because it is here, in a public and beautiful way, that we remind each other that, like Jesus, we, too, are God’s beloved, and it is our life-long hope to live into the blessing that God is likewise “well pleased” with us. Which is to say, getting back to our central image of journey-taking, God is with us every step, or roll, or hobble, or skip of the way!

 

And the second textual point of note is likewise fierce and furious, almost in an uncomfortable way. In verse 12 the NRSV reads, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” The Message interprets, “At once, the same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild.” In Greek the word is ekballein, which has the sense of the Spirit violently hurling, throwing, or ejecting Jesus into the wilderness. Commentator Scott Hoezee makes the comparison that this is the language we would use when a bouncer heaves an unwanted patron from a bar out onto the street. This is quite different from Matthew and Luke’s version, which uses the word we translate to “led” by the Spirit. (2) In this moment, if we take this scripture seriously, God tosses us into the wilderness.

 

And we feel this sometimes, don’t we? In the “dark night of the soul” we so often go into, in the “rough patches” of life or the “lonesome valley’s” we traverse, it feels as if God is the one doing this to us. If God is truly the God of all creation, then this divine one somehow, someway has to have had something instrumental to do with our being there! Now, I still maintain the fervent belief that God never does evil to us nor afflicts us. But what I do hear in this text is that God recognizes that when evil and hardship and difficult times happen, as they do in the natural course of a post-Eden life, then we will be compelled by God to go through them, for God, wise and wonderful God, knows that there really never is any successful way of getting around our problems, jumping over our adversities, nor pretending our wilderness places don’t exist. The only way to survive the wilderness is to go through it!

 

But here is where we have to hold these two textual notes together, in our backpack or luggage or picnic basket, as it were. Yes, God compels us, drives us, and tosses us on our keister to go into our wilderness places on the journey of life… BUT! But only after we have been blessed, only after we have been reminded in an equally forceful and passionate way that we are God’s beloved! The exquisite beauty of the simple and short gospel of Mark is that these two promises are jammed together side-by-side: “’You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Blessing and bouncing inextricably bound together. Now that is a combination that is both honest and life-giving.

 

And this, too, is why we need the Church and why we need to be in church!!!! It is so very easy to get mixed up and think that it is God who does evil to us, that it is God who is the author of all that is bad in our lives. We need a place of beauty and truth and righteousness and love to be reminded that God des not do these things to us, but, like the best parent we can imagine, God reminds us we will have to go through these things, and that there is a light, a divine light, on the other side of the wilderness. It is also so very easy to forget that we are blessed in a world of doubt, evil, and negativity. Because in the Church we receive the Word of God that forcefully reminds us that the ONLY way we can survive this hard journeying is because we know we are blessed by God, through Jesus Christ, as we go into, as we wander around, as we are tested in, and as we eventually leave the wilderness. The Church, at it’s best, is the place where we hear and remind one another that together, we are God’s beloved and we shall get through anything and everything with God’s help and the prayers of one another.

 

This is Good News for any and every wilderness journey we may be tossed into!

 

Amen

 

(1) Sermon Starters Of The Week, Mark 1:9-15, Lent 1B, Calvin Theological Seminary, Center For Excellence In Preaching, found online at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-1b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

(2) Ibid.

 

“Surprised By The Light” ~ January 4, 2015

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Sermon For January 4, 2015 ~ Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-5 & Matthew 2:1-12

“Surprised By The Light”

 

A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To watch a video of this sermon, go online to: http://youtu.be/zPvf-PUlNUE

 

EpiphanyThe liturgical season – that is, the church holiday – that technically begins this next Tuesday, January 6th, is Epiphany. If anyone is counting you’ve figured out that it will be the first day after the twelve days of Christmas. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” and the season highlights the “manifestation” of Christ as the Messiah. More exciting words can be found for “manifestation” (imagine that?!!!) such as “Eureka!!!,” “Gadzooks!!!,” and my favorite, “Duh!!!” And the first Sunday of Epiphany (in this case we’re tweaking things a bit and celebrating it slightly early) we commemorate the arrival of the magi to pay homage to the Christ Child.

 

You may have noticed in the bulletin that I am using a theme for the season (again, imagine that?!), developed by my good friend and once-visiting-preacher here at Franklin Circle Church, Marc Blakesley. Marc took the essence of the season and translated it delightfully as “A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!” I like that framework, as it really gets at what I think those who shaped Epiphany were trying to portray: this innocent babe born in Bethlehem was no ordinary child, but the promised one who had come to save not just his own people, but to bring salvation to us all. “Wow!” is right!

 

The gospel writer Matthew, from whom comes the only account of the magi traveling to visit the baby Jesus, places this story very strategically in his account. The book of Matthew begins like no other gospel: “This is the family record of Jesus the Christ, descendent of David, descendent of Abraham…” and then proceeds to offer a list of “begets” intended to prove Jesus’ rightful place in the God-ordained history of his people. Professor Russell Pregeant makes an intriguing observation about this introduction:

“To say that Jesus is Son of Abraham is to say that he belongs to God’s covenant people; to say that he is the Son of David is to attest that he has the proper lineage to qualify for the title of Messiah. But a subtler note is also present in the reference to Abraham, because according to [the book of] Genesis 12:3 the promise God gave to Abraham would ultimately extend to all humankind.” (1)

 

scripturescrollAnd this will serve as the lens for Matthew’s entire take on the story of Jesus: he is thoroughly rooted in his own people’s tradition, and yet he has come to save all humanity, the world. And the story of the attentive astrologers from the east bringing gifts and paying homage to the child fits perfectly within that framework. You see, they had been scouring scripture – perhaps sacred scripture from many different faith traditions – and had come upon several passages in the holy writings of the Hebrew people that foretold the arrival of an anointed one whose birth would be revealed by a star in the sky. In the book of Micah 5:2 they read “’As for you, Bethlehem in Ephrathah,’ says YHWH, ‘small as you are among Judah’s clans, from you will come a ruler for me over Israel, one whose goings out are from times long past, from ancient days.’” From the book of Numbers 24:17 they gleaned “I behold it – but not close at hand: a star arises from Leah and Rachel and Jacob; a scepter arises from the nation of Israel;” So Jesus’ birth was seen as being prophesied in scripture, and yet the very ones to respond to these predictions are those far beyond that very faith!

 

Andrea Mantegna  Italian, about 1495 - 1505  Distemper on linen  Getty Museum Of Art

Andrea Mantegna
Italian, about 1495 – 1505
Distemper on linen
Getty Museum Of Art

And, of course, those who actually responded are far more fascinating in their gussied up modern incarnations than they were in scripture itself. Matthew only says “astrologers from the east.” No specific numbers, no reference to being kings themselves nor even wise men. Actually, no indication as to whether they were men or women! There is no mention from whence they came. And certainly we do not find the names of these astrologers in the Bible. What is crystal clear is that they came to worship the child, who, through the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they saw as nothing less than royalty. This becomes poignant given the murderous and deceitful response of the reigning king, Herod, following the magi’s elusive departure. This will set up the conflict that will take the story of the baby Jesus all the way through his crucifixion some thirty plus years later.

 

Christmas pageant starAnd so they beheld a star. They were surprised by the light. Now, when you see this moment recreated in Christmas pageants and nativity scenes on church lawns, you always see one clear star hanging above the stable (we won’t even go into the condensing of gospel stories and of time and place that happens at Christmas celebrations!) and that star consistently shines directly over where Jesus was. As I thought about that image I realized that what I typically have in mind about the star was more like my experience in so many fun houses at amusement parks. You know, you are in the electric car being taken around twists and turns and things pop out at you and noises blast to scare you… and then it gets really dark and quiet… when suddenly a huge bright light shines directly in your face and a truck horn blares while you scream for your life. That’s how I usually see the star of Bethlehem!

 

The Milky Way - CC By 2.0 Flickr

The Milky Way – CC By 2.0 Flickr

But if ever you have been outside on a clear night, and far enough away from the city lights that you can actually see most of the night sky, you know that even the brightest star in the sky, the North Star or Polaris is sometimes hard to find. And no mention is made of this being a particularly bright nor colorful star. Rather than that singular differently shaped well-defined star in the sky, I suspect these astrologers who had been examining the sky for years, simply noticed one new star out of the ordinary pattern of hundreds of thousands of stars. One pinprick of light in the midst of the dark night sky. (2)

 

Isn’t that more familiar to life. Oh, we want God’s light to shine so brightly in our face – and maybe even sometimes with a horn blaring so we really notice God’s presence! But, in fact, we so often have to be paying total attention to life in order to notice the little pinpricks of the divine light shining through.

 

And then they followed that little light. They didn’t just notice the light, they acted upon it’s meaning in their lives. Can you imagine packing up your belongings to travel afar with some of the most expensive hospitality gifts you could imagine – all based on a little dot of light. I can just imagine the conversation with their family before leaving home: “Yes, I will be gone for about a year, maybe more, because I feel compelled to follow that little dot of light right there. No over a bit… no, you’ve gone too far! Now up a bit… a bit more… there! Yes, I’m following that amazing, awesome, world-changing, history-shaping speck of light. Love you, see you next year!”

 

candle-in-the-darknessBut, you must understand, sometimes it’s not about the smallness of the light. Most of the time it’s about the overwhelming nature of the darkness, the shadows, the night. Now, let’s be clear, darkness is not always to be equated with bad things. In fact, it is in the dark of the womb that our bodies are formed, it is in the dark of the night that most of us get the best rest, and it is in the rich, dark earth that the seed has the necessary nourishment to sprout. But there is no doubting the power of light, especially when it shines in dark.

 

And these were dark and difficult times for the people from whom Mary, Joseph, and Jesus came. Their land had been overtaken by foreign invaders who were ruthless in their governance, unrelenting in their taxation, and violent in their supervision of the indigenous people. The books of the Bible that are called the Apocrypha, honored as holy scripture by our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers in the faith, tell stories of the uprisings against the totalitarian rule of the Roman Empire. They were desperate for liberation. And while we cannot say what the situation was for the magi, for we do not know their countries of origin, we might assume from their zeal to follow the pinprick spot of light that they, too, were struggling under oppression. At least after meeting mad Herod, perhaps they had a hint at the gloom and terror that burdened the land to which they arrived bearing gifts and looking for a messiah.

 

These times were not unlike others in the history of the people of Israel. From famine and slavery in Egypt, to domination and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, the ancestors of Jesus were no strangers to shadows and were frequent followers of the light. The prophet Isaiah pronounced one such moment of hope when singing:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come! The glory of YWHW is rising upon you! Though darkness still covers the earth and dense clouds enshroud the peoples, upon you YHWH now dawns, and God’s glory will be seen among you! The nations will come to your light and the leaders to your bright dawn!” (Isaiah 60:1-3)

 

What was so different about this dot of light was it wasn’t meant just for some people. This hope, this possibility for liberation, redemption, and salvation was intended for all people. And it would not come in the common ways of humanity, though an opposing force susceptible to similar patterns of domination, retribution, and violence. It would come through a wayfaring prophet who would teach and preach and heal and eventually offer his very own life as the means of confronting the principalities and powers of the world. This was no normal pinprick of light. This was pure light, the light of love. “In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light – a Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness has never overtaken.” (John 1:4-5)

 

My beloved, we all go through seasons of light, seasons of dark, and seasons of the shadows in between. As the earth spins on its axis, and as the twirling earth revolves around the sun, so our lives move from darkness, to gray shadows, to light, and back again. We have seasons of famine and death, and seasons of plenty and new birth. Throughout it all let us scour our world for the pinpricks of pure light that are God’s love shining through. Jesus has already come, so we are not so much awaiting a savior to be revealed to us, but we are searching for signs of that savior living and breathing and loving amongst us.

 

I vow to spend very little time giving my heart and soul over to those who want to spin their webs of negativity, suspicion, hatefulness, and division. The Herods of this world get far too much airtime for my comfort. I find no light in folks who are bound up by their own insistence that the sky is falling and there are enemies all around us. Instead, I want to live life like a magi. I desire toFindingLight spend my dark nights searching for goodness and truth and beauty and grace and pure love, even if I can only see it in the pinpricks of small stars around me, and then spend my days following those people who reflect the light of Christ in what they say, what they think, and what they do most especially. I want to look for, and then be joyfully surprised by the light, and then share these epiphanies with all whom I meet.

 

In invite you along this journey anticipating the surprises God has in store for us, in Christ’s name and by Christ’s grace… and through Christ’s light.

 

Amen.

 

(1) Russel Pregeant, Matthew: Chalice Commentaries For Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), p. 16

 

(2) For an interesting new movement to creation International Dark Sky Parks, go online to: http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/new-international-dark-sky-park-opens-in-michigan-only-nine-others-in-the-world.html

 

“Present In The Desert: Sacred Abundance In The Wilderness Of Our Lives” ~ November 2, 2014 Sermon

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Sermon For November 2, 2014

Mark 6:30-44

“Present In The Desert: Sacred Abundance In The Wilderness Of Our Lives”

A Sermon Series On “From Bread & Wine To Faith & Giving:

God gives to us at the table and, in turn, God’s giving inspires and empowers our own giving.”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

The Video for this sermon can be found at: http://youtu.be/m4oyytugxw0

 

Art Week TwoWhat are the wilderness places of your lives? And by wilderness, I do not mean the vacation you took to the Grand Canyon in Colorado or to White Sands National Park in New Mexico. I’m not talking about the time you roughed it in Hocking Hills for a weekend or when during your college years when you ate raman noodles and drank cheap beer. I’m talking about wilderness in a spiritual sense: the rocky crags of inner loneliness and deep depression, the barren landscapes of the betrayal of friends and the apathy of the soul. I’m speaking of the jungles of unimaginable brokenness and breath-sucking heartache. Such are the kinds of wilderness scripture describes, and that even Jesus, our sovereign and savior encountered. What are the wilds and wastelands of your life?

 

I know these harsh places all too well, as I suspect you do, too. I knew them as a child on the playground when I was painfully reminded by the structures of the school curriculum and the intimidation of my classmates on the playground that a gentle quiet boy who preferred to read books and make clubhouses with the girls deserved an upturned eyebrow at best, and ridicule and banishment at worst. I knew such wilderness places when I came out to myself as sensually and sexually attracted to men and yet still called to Christ’s ministry, as I stayed up late at night screaming my anger, drenched in tears, at a God who seemed to refuse to show the divine face to a broken and begging soul. I’ve know such deserts as I’ve become farther and farther removed from a family who sees the world in sharp contrast to my own values of compromise, conversation, and compassion. I knew a particularly harsh wilderness here in Cleveland as our home was being renovated and I felt like a stranger in my own life and my cherished values seemed to have no place to lay their collective head. But what about you… where are the wastelands of your life?

 

A truth that has become real to me is that one of the surest buffers for the winds of wilderness and the storms of the desert lies in safe, sacred community. As a child my life was saved when I was chosen to go to a special program for kids like me at another location where thoughtfulness was valued and gentleness was a virtue. In seminary I was surrounded by a cloud of living saints, both the friends that prayed for me to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in my living room and those who enfolded me by phone. I have developed a community of friends over the years who I count as chosen family, who redeem the concepts of kinship and remind me that love is thicker than blood. And I have this church, this wild and wooly, this queer and quirky, this vexing and beguiling group of transient souls who are just looking for bread… and acceptance… and fun… and a place to serve God and neighbor… and love. Community makes the wilderness treks of my life manageable.

 

But community is not just a bunch of people gathered in the same space for some purpose or another. That’s a crowd. Crowds can actually become wilderness if allowed to. Crowds become mobs and push people to lynch their neighbors, beat to death their friends, burn their neighborhoods, and destroy their own livelihood.

 

But community, when invited to recognize and celebrate the good in life, can become a healing, comforting, sharing, life-giving place that makes the wilderness places of our lives not just bearable, but sacred and powerfully restorative. How? How do we create community that is holy rather than mobs that are destructive? Well guidance is given in our scripture today.

 

In this text, told in all four gospels (which makes it extremely unique and thus incredibly significant) Jesus offers us a model of community-building… which, by the way, is also a model for stewardship, for the management of our resources. Some of the truths Jesus demonstrates that we would do well to learn when we are wandering in the wilderness places of our lives, individually and collectively, are:

  1. Jesus is not overwhelmed by the need. Whether it’s five or five thousand, Jesus is relaxed and focused. Perhaps this is why he said, “The poor you will always have with you.” He was going to address their need whether it was one poor beggar or throngs of unruly followers.
  2. Jesus never wavers in his understanding that those gathered will have enough to share and be fed. At no point does he doubt that the end of the story is people fed. This earth has and always has had enough food, enough clean water, enough fertile earth to sustain human life. The only question is will we share to make it so.
  3. In John’s gospel, the initial five loaves and two fish are from a young boy. Jesus does not discount the gifts of the least among them. In fact, these gifts inspire greater gifts. Jesus not only notices the child, but presumes the child has wealth that will generate giving, if the boy is willing to share, and he is.
  4. Jesus does not demand everyone gives the same gifts nor offers them in the same way. He does not insist the bread by rye with a light golden crust, or the fish be trout baked with lemon and capers. All gifts are used. A rich tapestry of gifts in fact is necessary to meet the diverse needs we have.
  5. Jesus does not do this miracle alone, but insists his disciples will be part of the resolution. They begin by seeing only the problem, the scarcity, and come up with unacceptable alternatives that do not address the real predicament. But even when recalcitrant, Jesus uses the disciples to unravel the mystery, expand the possibilities, solve the problem.

 

And something almost magical happens: all are fed… and there are leftovers. I don’t know if this was the case of a “stone soup” sort of meal, where folks were inspired to bring from their own resources to share together to make a meal for all… or if it was purely a miracle. Well, actually, when we inspire people to overcome their fears of neediness, overcome their insistence that there is not enough, overcome their instincts to discount the littlest and the least, overcome their requirements that only certain kinds of gifts be given, and overcome their inclination to leave it to the experts… then that truly is a miracle.

 

The table of Holy Communion is just such a feast. We bring to it our brokenness, our longings, our hurts and fears, our sin and our division, and Jesus, host at this table, ensures there is enough to go around for all. Enough hope, enough compassion, enough righteousness, enough faith, enough love… enough love. Surely this table abundance in the wilderness of our spiritual lives can transform the way we live into and through the wilds beyond the table. Surely this table abundance can transform the way we live into and through the wilds of this congregation’s future. It can, and will if we let it.

 

May this table:

– help us embrace the needs of our congregation’s future, no matter how large;

– help us have faith that the resources we need to do our unique mission and ministry are present, they just need to be discovered;

– help us honor the gifts of all who gather in our community, especially those who appear to have the least to offer;

– help us receive all gifts and be open to the resources of our diverse community;

– and help us to rely on each other, and not just the pastor and the treasurer to guide us through the wilderness to the place of abundance God has in store for this congregation.

 

Whatever wilderness you may encounter, my beloved congregation, let us be a table community at its best and believe all will be fed.

Amen.

“Present At The Table: God’s Unbounded Love, Our Faithful Response” – October 26, 2014 Sermon

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Sermon For October 26, 2014

Matthew 26:26-29

“Present At The Table: God’s Unbounded Love, Our Faithful Response”

A Sermon Series On “From Bread & Wine To Faith & Giving:

God gives to us at the table and, in turn, God’s giving inspires and empowers our own giving.”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

 

Art Week OneMany of us in the Protestant Christian tradition appreciate Holy Communion earnestly but get a little queasy with some of the language Jesus uses when offering up the bread and the cup. “This is my body…” and “This is my blood…” being first and foremost on the list of “uncomfortable things Jesus said.” Most traditions have historically come up with various doctrines and perspectives that try to make sense of it. I would like to invite us today, as we begin a four-week consideration of how and why we give to step back and take Jesus’ words not so much literally as spiritually.

 

“This is ME!” Jesus proclaims in essence. What would it mean for Jesus to be present fully in Communion? If you know me at all you know that I look at all of us as whole, complete persons: mind/body/spirit all as one and inextricably connected. Therefore I look at Jesus in the same way. If he said he was present in the bread and the cup, all of him was present, every aspect of Jesus was – and is – present in Communion, every time we share it.

 

Jesus’ presence with me is my all and all. I am so convinced this simple and yet powerful prophet, teacher, storyteller, and healer from Galilee is so fundamental, so critical to my salvation that I yearn for – no, I crave – his presence with me all the time – every second of my waking day and sleeping night. I will do anything I can to experience that presence in my life, through my service to God, through the love I offer the people around me, through the efforts I make at building sustainable community, through my spiritual disciplines of prayer, exercise, study, and hospitality. But always, first and foremost, I can count on experiencing Jesus presence here in worship most particularly in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

 

Let me tell you why I feel Jesus’ presence in Communion. I believe that Jesus understood humanity so well he instinctively knew we needed rituals to maintain our focus on what is worthy in this world. But he also understood that these rituals had to be simple so that we could repeat them easily and often. Baptism requires only water. Communion requires only bread and juice. Both require only the presence of the gathered community to not simply witness the ritual, but share abundantly in it. Jesus gave us these gifts because he knew he would not be present with us in bodily form forever, and yet he knew it would be desperately hard for us to remember his teachings, his words, his stories, his example, his life without something to reenact to remember them.   But the purpose of baptism and communion are not simply to remember… but to experience the very real presence of Christ in our midst. That is why they are not simply words to be repeated, but actions in which to immerse ourselves.

 

This is why Jesus felt compelled to use such dramatic language: “This is my body…” “This is my blood.” Jesus knew that he could not be everywhere his followers would be, then and in the future, and so he gave us a gift to remember his gift. And like many gifts we receive from loved ones, they do not mean as much in the moment as they will in the future. After his crucifixion and resurrection, the gift of Jesus’ presence in bread and cup would mean all the world to future followers and would sustain them through difficulties unimagined, whether it would be the horrifying persecution of the Roman Empire, the commandeering of the faith by Constantine, the abuse of the faith by Medieval kings and popes; the wretched misuse of the faith through crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, slavery, and colonization; the commoditization of the faith through materialism and consumerism; or the disregarding of the faith through neglect and irrelevance… Jesus knew that he could not be present with us in the way the disciples had come to know him. So he gave us a gift that would keep on giving: Communion.

 

And this is why I give my money, time, and energy to the church: because I believe in Jesus and believe the work of Christ in this world through churches such as Franklin Circle Christian Church is critical to keeping Jesus presence alive. We have a calling in this congregation of humble service, rich hospitality, and radical inclusiveness that is all too rare and is precious beyond comparison! But I also know that this church cannot be present everywhere that our important work needs to be done. Oh I know we can take our show on the road to Regional Transformation Events and we can have our booth at Regional Assemblies and community festivals, but that reaches only a few, and is a quiet persuasion at best. And, I know there is a trend for churches to have various “campuses” that extend their mission and ministry to other communities or found institutes to train people in their particular way of doing mission. These are, indeed, great opportunities to share the gospel in creative ways, but at most they create only a handful of places where the church is extended. What we do when we put money in the offering plate is we make Jesus real here and now in the lives of people, so that they can go out into all the world. It is the difference between addition and multiplication. This is why I passionately support the first line of our Mission Statement: Our Mission is to empower disciples to serve and glorify God. Discipleship exponentially shares the presence of Christ to the world around us!

 

But discipleship doesn’t just happen. When we give money to the offering of this church we insure that we have a trained Christian Education Staff who will be reliable and accountable, so that they can make Jesus present with our babies, our children, and our youth at some of the most impressionable moments of their lives. We give money to our church so that there will be an Administrative Staff who offer a smiling face, a kind word, and a helping heart when folks come into this church on a daily basis for assistance, connections, information, or services and they make Jesus present with the community at our very doorstep. When we give money to the offering of our church we insure that we have a well qualified, dedicated, and very hard working custodian who guarantees that the building and grounds are always hospitable, clean, and in working order and that we have security to ensure the safety of our visitors and their belongings so that when any program takes place here, Jesus is fully present in their midst. We give money to our church so that there will be a music staff present so that every Sunday we can be assured of having the highest quality, consistently reliable, and faithful leadership that we all might more fully give glory to God and that Jesus can be made real in our very midst when we sing and meditate. We give money to our church so that there will be a pastor who is educated, who has the necessary experience, who is available to care for the congregation and the community with all its varied needs, from dedications, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries, funerals to guidance and discernment, evangelism and community development, to staff supervision and leadership training, to worship and education planning, to praying and preaching the gospel, so that Jesus’s very presence will be made real in tangible ways to those who are touched by this church’s ministry and presence in the community.

 

I know in some organizations salaries are considered in the category of “Administration,” but in the Church we simply cannot afford to discount or minimize the incredible ministries our staff are doing that make Jesus’ presence real to the world in this day and in this place. This is fundamental to discipleship and to the empowerment of the congregation so that the presence of Jesus can be multiplied exponentially by all of us!

 

There is a direct connection between the plate and cup of communion and the offering basket and plate. God has so graciously given us the presence of Jesus and Jesus has shared with us his amazing grace and immeasurable love. It is not required by God that we do anything about this grace and this love except to receive it, let it wash over us, be filled by it. But I tell you, these gifts are so incredible for me that I cannot help but respond! I shout out to God my praise and thanksgiving for the gift of Jesus Christ in my life, and I want to extend that grace to more and more people (2 Cor. 4:15). So I give. I give money to my church in the offering received each week. I do not give to try to pay God off for that would be impossible. I give so that the grace and love I received may be given to others who do not know, have not experienced God’s unbounded grace and transforming love. Time? Yes!!! Energy and passion? Yes!!! But money, the resources of my life, I give to make Jesus’ presence which is so real to me in Communion real in the lives of people in our church, our neighborhood, across our region, our continent, and around the entire world.

 

May it be so. Amen.

 

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