“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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“Recognizing Resurrection Through The Tears And The Fears” ~ April 5, 2015 Easter Sermontags social

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Sermon For April 5, 2015 ~ Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=295230253 )

“Recognizing Resurrection Through The Tears And The Fears”

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 this sermon on video, go online to: https://youtu.be/9yAlXojg9do

 

Alexander Ivanov (1806 - 1858) (Russian) (Painter,   Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection 1835 oil on canvas

Alexander Ivanov (1806 – 1858) (Russian) (Painter,
Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection
1835
oil on canvas

I love this version of the resurrection story, from John. It is such a beautiful look at this faithful woman, Mary Magdalene, so maligned by super simplistic misinterpretations of scripture, not to mention a long history of misogyny. Mary exquisitely comes to recognize the risen Christ as her beloved mentor. But even as much as I adore this scripture, I have to ask the question, “Why did Mary not recognize Jesus immediately?” Why did it take so much time before she realized this one standing before her was none other than the one for whom she had been mourning these past three days?

 

You can find this button, and many other wonderful and empowering items to inspire you, at https://www.syracuseculturalworkers.com/products/button-girls-can-do-anything

You can find this button, and many other wonderful and empowering items to inspire you, at https://www.syracuseculturalworkers.com/products/button-girls-can-do-anything

Well perhaps she doubted herself, questioned her own ability to know what was truth and what wasn’t. When Mary rushed back to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple, she might have been acting in the way we tend to train too many of our young girls to behave, to doubt themselves and always go to men as a higher authority. It may just be this Easter story is calling us to empower girls, as well as boys, women, and men, to have confidence in themselves and rely on what they hear, see, and observe.

 

Or maybe Mary’s inability to see the resurrected Christ right away was due toGardener her own prejudices and biases. The text says she “supposed him to be a gardener.” What about him made her think he was a worker in the cemetery? What if Jesus came back looking differently than she had seen him when alive, with a different accent, darker skin color, or dissimilar in some other human attribute? We humans have a tendency to make snap judgments about the reliability of information based on completely irrelevant factors. It may just be this Easter story is calling us to look for truth from persons we might otherwise have discounted or avoided completely.

 

Arnold Böcklin's Mary Magdalene Weeping Over the Dead Christ.

Arnold Böcklin’s Mary Magdalene Weeping Over the Dead Christ.

I also wonder if Mary had become so enraptured in her sorrow that she, quite literally, couldn’t see clearly through her tears or hear clearly because of her weeping. Surely she had every reason to be desolate, having witnessed the torturing crucifixion of her liberator and redeemer, and now finding the humiliation of his body removed from its tomb. But isn’t it true that sometimes we find ourselves in patterns of grief that become so familiar, so engrained, that they pull our attention away from the present, and we miss the life that is happening around us? It may just be this Easter story is calling us, not to avoid nor truncate our grief, but to seek an awareness through the tears of what is going on around us, so that we might not miss the life God offers beyond the sorrow, perhaps even because of the sorrow.

 

Jason Puccinelli's "The Shape of Sound" is an acrylic mural that adorns the free zone area of the Seattle Art Museum.

Jason Puccinelli’s “The Shape of Sound” is an acrylic mural that adorns the free zone area of the Seattle Art Museum.

Could it also be possible that Mary was fearful about the future, wondering how she and the other disciples could possibly go on without the one who had taught and healed and loved them through so much? She may have also been apprehensive about how this diverse and scrappy band of disciples were going to continue such important ministries beyond the one who seemed to keep them focused and mediated their disputes. It is such a risk to be beholden to one person to keep a community sustained and healthy, but if the leader has done his or her job of empowerment well, the followers will discover the abilities were always there within them, and the importance of the mission will ensure their success. It may just be this Easter story is calling us to not be overwhelmed by our fears, but to trust the wisdom, skill, and grace that is within us to carry on.

 

We don’t really know why Mary took so long to recognize her risen friend, the resurrected Christ. What we do know is that, eventually, she did. And what a moment that was! In fact, that recognition propelled her to go, and tell the good news: “I have seen the Lord!” Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”

 

Amen.

 

 

“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.

“Preparing For A Journey” ~ March 29, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For March 29, 2015 ~ Fifth Sunday Of Lent

Mark 11:1-11 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=294625912 )

“Preparing For A Journey”

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

To watch a video of this sermon, go online to: https://youtu.be/7JoH3EjrUgA

Eastern New Mexico State Fair Parade

Eastern New Mexico State Fair Parade

We are all on a journey, the question is which journey are we on.   Are we are always thinking about another excursion, one that is something different than the one we are on? When I was a child the county fair was a big deal, and school let out so that we could go to the parade and then head to the fairgrounds to ride on the amusement park rides and see the big squash, the brilliant dahlias, and fine fat pigs that people had brought to show.

 

But the fair was nothing without the parade. In my youngest years it seemed like the biggest and most beautiful parade I had ever seen! Marching bands and big clowns on miniature bikes, lots of cowboys on horses and pretty girls sitting atop glittering floats. But the older I got, and the more big city parades I saw on television, like the Rose Bowl Parade or the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade, the less glamorous and interesting the Southeastern New Mexico Fair Parade became.

 

Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 - 1561) The Entry into Jerusalem, about 1525 - 1530, Tempera colors, gold paint, and gold leaf on parchment Leaf: 16.8 x 11.4 cm (6 5/8 x 4 1/2 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 19, fol. 77v

Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 – 1561)
The Entry into Jerusalem, about 1525 – 1530, Tempera colors, gold paint, and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 16.8 x 11.4 cm (6 5/8 x 4 1/2 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 19, fol. 77v

It’s a natural human trait, it seems, to always think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Or the parade is grander somewhere else. But the parade we commemorate each year on Palm Sunday was not just a moment of festivity and therefore should not be scrutinized like it was entertainment. The parade in which Jesus participated, he being the only entry or float in the Palm Sunday Parade, was more of a moment on a journey, and a journey not to a fair or a football game or a party. It was a journey into the depths of meaning and honesty about who we are as human beings, and in which parade we are going to march.

 

Marcus Borg and John Domminic Crossan have explored the fact that this Palm Sunday moment cannot be understood apart from the fact that across the city of Jerusalem, at the beginning of the very same religious festival, another procession was taking place, this one by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the region, with his imperial cavalry and soldiers, bursting with pomp and circumstance. The intention of Pilate’s parade was to force the throngs of the devoted faithful to cower, to compel them into behaving or risk the strong retaliation of his mighty forces.

 

Jesus, by entering humbly on a colt, enjoyed the attention of the masses of the people, not their disdain. He saw them as companions on his journey, not enemies as did Pilate. In fact, as the meditation just made clear, Jesus knew the people because he had walked over the broken glass of their world, had touched them and healed them, had scoured the back streets and corners of the city to bring hope and dignity to them.

Today we are asked: which journey will we be on? In which parade will we march? The one that seeks dominance, glory, and success which ultimately breeds fear and anguish? Or are we preparing for a journey of love, that acknowledges the hard places of life and seeks solidarity, offers advocacy, and desires nothing but to heal the wounds of the world through love, humility, and sacrifice? Ride on! Ride on, ride on in majesty!

 

Amen.

An Ethic Of Life… And Death… And Life…

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April 2015 From The Pastor

An Ethic Of Life… And Death… And Life…

 

It is absolutely wonderful the way those of us who live in northern climes break out into joyous song the first day we have a really gorgeous day after months of cold cloudy snow-laden days. There is a funny meme (photo or illustration with a caption) that shows what 40-degree weather looks like in the south or pacific west parts of the U.S. e6806f1ddecdea279c40a64ee8b4b83eand what 40-degree weather looks like in Cleveland. The former showing people with heavy coats bordered with fur-lined hoods, wearing knee-high snow boots… the latter showing folks wearing shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and flip-flops! LOL! It’s all relative, right?!?

The ancients would often express this move from winter to spring as the earth coming back from the dead. Without really understanding the intricate understandings we have of the earth’s rotation around the sun, they could only make sense of it in bold and tangible terms they could comprehend. The earth doesn’t die, although many things like plants and insects and some animals do die in winter. Many things only look like they die – they become barren, brittle, and drab – but, in fact, are only in hibernation or are dormant, with their inner biological systems recalibrating for a new day, a new burst of energy.

What this reminded me of is that nature, and the Christian faith, very much have a place for death in the natural cycles of life. And I don’t simply mean death in the horrible, tragic, mournful way. I think there is a natural and good place in our world and faith for death. I get very confused when people talk about the Bible having an “ethic of life” when it contains so many examples of good deaths, necessary deaths, natural deaths.

EXPULSION FROM PARADISE, 1891 Franz von Stuck 19th Century German

EXPULSION FROM PARADISE, 1891
Franz von Stuck
19th Century
German

After our Mid-Week Bible Study on the Adam and Eve story, I am even more convinced that the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the declaration that humans would eventually die was not a curse, but an acknowledgement that we were finally allowed to mature, to grow up, to see life more from God’s vantage point, with all of the complexities, paradoxes, and unanswered questions that rest on the divine heart and mind. If death is always bad, why do bad people often live the longest and good people die young, whether it’s in the Bible, our experience, or Billy Joel songs?

Of course, the ultimate example of this is the death of Jesus, certainly a death offered for a very good cause, even if it might not be considered a “good death.” Jesus death at the hands of the principalities and powers of the world – political, social, religious – was a means for God to show how Ultimate Love responds to ultimate hate, how God understood the pain of our human existence so much that God was willing to die so that we would know that the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all didn’t just understand it intellectually, but experienced this life/death in its full-body totality.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and it never really ends with death ever, because God sees the larger picture, the bigger cycles, the greater good. Jesus resurrection on Easter declared that while death may have it’s rightful place in this existence, so does life, and both have meaning and purpose and divine presence. The Apostle Paul said it best, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

FlowersInSnowSo as we go through this world and death happens, as well as endings, completions, and conclusions, let us mourn them, surely, but let us never stop there nor think that they are always bad or negative. God is present in all things and infuses divine significance to even the saddest moments of our lives. We know this, because Good Friday was not the end of the story. Resurrection was right around the corner. When endings occur and death happens, let us put on our bright flower-laden shirts and blouses, dig up the sandals and flip flops, knowing full well new life will once again, and soon, be made real!

 

Pastor Allen

“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

“Love’s Pure Light” ~ March 15, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For March 15, 2015 ~ Fourth Sunday Of Lent

John 3:14-21 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=293414036 )

“Love’s Pure Light”

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

allknowingmotherHow many of us had a parent or grandparent with four eyes? Now, I’m not referring to the terrible taunt that many of us who wore glasses in school received at the hands of our classmates. I’m talking about those adults in our lives who had eyes in the back of their head. Now we are being metaphorical when we say this, of course, but this is a way to try to describe how some people just seem to have the knack for knowing when someone is doing something wrong – like sneaking cookies from the cookie jar or giving your brother a sucker punch in the back seat of the family car. But for such folks we just knew, for certain, that God had endowed them with superhuman powers and they could see anything and everything we did no matter where we were. They either had eyes in the back of their head, or x-ray vision, or both.

What frustrated us most was that they were usually spot-on. More often than not we were doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, things that they had specifically told us not to do. We use various terms for it: misbehave, act up, break the rules, or in theological terms, we sin. To sin is to break the covenant one has with God, and God knows when this happens. Whether it is through eyes in the back of the divine head, superpower x-ray vision, or some other means, God knows when we sin. And we all sin. In the Apostle Paul’s exquisite and beautiful summation in his definitive theological treatise to the church in Rome, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) To me, this means that sinning is a fundamental part of who we are as human beings, not a curse and nor a defect. It is how we were made as mature, thinking beings and part of the challenge of being human.

So here’s the decision we face: how will we respond when we do sin, when we “fall short of the glory of God.” And this is exactly the season when we are called to take most seriously this choice before us all, for Lent is a time of serious introspection and self-evaluation, and this is the perfect scripture text upon which to meditate when we are struggling with sin and our response to it.

As a gospel writer John is known for taking the broader and more metaphorical view of Jesus Christ, whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke look more specifically at the person and actions of Jesus. Both are needed and necessary, but it is helpful to know that John does not worry so much about the literalness of the details he includes as he does the meaning and interpretation of what Jesus does and says. And this scripture selection in chapter 3 is no different.

StaffWithBronzeSnakeAnd we know this because the very first verse launches us immediately into an obscure and highly symbol-laden voyage back to the story of Moses and the Hebrew peoples wandering in the wilderness of Sinai, and specifically to the book of Numbers, chapter 21. Not to get too caught up in it, but to know what the reference is we have to be reminded that this is the part of the exodus story where the people were given food and drink in the wilderness – manna and the occasional quail – and for which they complained to Moses quite loudly. God, in response to what was seen as ungrateful complaining, sent poisonous serpents amongst the people and many died. Upon their confession for complaining and “speaking against the Lord,” God told Moses to craft a bronze serpent, wrapped on a pole or staff, and raise it up before the people. Those who had been bit by a snake, who would look up to the serpent staff, would live.

Now jumping over the pretty horrific implications of God’s wretched behavior, which is difficult for me to do, I’ll admit, John simply takes the image of the people looking upwards to a symbol to find healing, and transfers that symbolically to those who would look “upward” to Jesus crucified on a cross of wood, and find healing – even salvation – there.

It is then that John offers the words that would become the single most well-known verse in scripture, paired with the single least known but intricately connected verse in scripture. In the first, we are reminded of God’s great love for us in sending Jesus Christ to us and the call to have belief in him to be saved. In the second verse there sets a reminder that this love was never meant for condemnation but simply for salvation. The rest of today’s scripture selection then brings in the marvelous – and for John extraordinarily emblematic – symbolism of the love of light and the light of love, and our penchant for the darkness and the shadowy places of life.

So here is the rub. I think this scripture was never meant to be pulled apart and used piecemeal like and individual stick used to club whoever didn’t believe as I believed or you believed. Clearly John is sharing with us deeply and passionately about the paradoxical nature of sin and the equally if not more illogical nature of love, God’s love specifically. To dissect this scripture is to unravel John’s theological line of reasoning and miss completely his understanding of what Jesus was calling us to understand and to do when we sin, when we fall short of Christ’s glory, the glory of God.

It was meant to be held in balance, this paradox of sin and love. Richard Rohr, one of the greatest spiritual writers of our time, talks about this ability to hold paradoxical things in balance and learn from them as a gift of the “second half of live,” as he puts it. He writes,

To hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt. To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable.” (1)

Beam Of Light, by demo Found online at: http://demor.deviantart.com/art/Beam-of-light-302182433

Beam Of Light, by demo
Found online at: http://demor.deviantart.com/art/Beam-of-light-302182433

And this is the mystery of John 3:14-21: that God’s love is like a beam of light, love’s pure light, that allows for cleansing and healing. It is like a bright light that shines into the gloomy and shadowy places of our lives, when things are exposed so they can be dealt with. When love shines on our sin, it is not condemnation. That is a human response to being hurt or someone disappointing us. God’s love simply reveals and seeks to heal. I have described this phenomenon many times when I share the fact that when I did something wrong as a child my mother never ever hit me and rarely even scolded me or grounded me. She didn’t have to, for she knew that loving me – sometimes even more so when I had done wrong – was the most powerful way for me to know that I had fallen short, that I had missed the mark, that I had done something that had torn the fabric of our relationship and hurt her heart. Love’s pure light called me to accountability like no other punishment could, for it always saw me as the beautiful, gifted, capable person I was created to be, and that was powerful enough.

god-is-love-graffitiNow I know that this doesn’t always work as a parenting strategy, but it is the way God always works. Why, then, has the Church, which is supposed to be the Body of Christ, instead so often become condemning, rule-bound, even vengeful. What if we saw our job as followers of the way of Christ, who was the very Light of God, to teach people exactly who they – we – were created to be, a child of the living, loving, laughing God and made in God’s image. And then what if the only other thing we did was to love people so much that they always remembered in whose image they were created and whose glory they could hold up as the goal to become, the light to reflect, the love to pass on to others, their neighbors, their coworkers, their children. Now that would be a church that lived the pure light of God’s love and be a true John 3:16… and 14 and 15 and 17 and 18 and 19 and 20 and 21 church!

May it be so!

Amen.

(1) from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, Chapter 9: A Second Simplicity – Anxiety And Doubt. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) e-book page 135.

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