More Than Enough

Pastor Rick Danielson
August 3, 2014 
Community UCC, Boulder, CO

 

On Friday morning, an 18-wheel moving van arrived about ten days late at our new home here in Boulder.  Leroy and I were ready.  Standing up for meals and sitting on the floor to type out sermon notes was getting old.  We’d gotten used to the stark emptiness of our new home, though, and weren’t quite prepared for the intrusion of boxes and bookcases and linens and lamps and clothes and tools and everything else that was far more than we remembered packing up a month ago in New York.  As much as we welcomed our belongings, and as happy as we were for a table and chairs, we realized we not only had enough belongings for life in Colorado, but we had more than enough!

 

Today’s Gospel reading describes those who do not have enough, or at least that’s how it seems as the story unfolds.

Jesus was at the height of his popularity as crowds pursued him on his day off.  The physical and spiritual needs of the people evoked compassion as they and Jesus arrived together at a deserted place.  I’ve always pictured it as grassy, windswept hillside just like the open space above us.

 

It was late in the day, well beyond lunch and dinner, and people were hungry.  The disciples had a brilliant plan to send the people away to get food – and maybe just go home, but Jesus invited the crowd to sit down right there in the grass.  As he blessed the only food the disciples could find, five loaves of bread were broken and two fish were shared.  And no one went home hungry.  In fact, after blessing and breaking and passing that meager meal from person to person across the hillside, there were twelve baskets overflowing with leftovers.  It turned out that there was more than enough!

 

This story rather infamously exposes patriarchal assumptions.  There were five thousand men recorded, and the woman and children present are only mentioned as an afterthought.  They weren’t counted, since apparently they didn’t count to those recording the event.

 

But there is one child who became something of a hero in the story for sharing his lunch.  He doesn’t show up here in Matthew, though.  The feeding of the multitude is one of very few events in Jesus’ ministry that is recorded in all four gospels in the Christian canon.  Only in John, though, likely written later than the others and after numerous retellings, is the boy and his lunch mentioned.

 

I have a question: If mothers and fathers and children traveled to a remote area, why were they without food?  Why would parents put their children at risk like that?  One boy’s mother apparently packed a lunch for him before he headed out to explore the world that day.  But those parents are not mentioned in the story.  Was he there alone?  And was he in fact an unaccompanied child?

 

We have been hearing much about children at our southern border.   Mothers and fathers are sending children north to the United States with very little.  They are taking huge risks with vulnerable girls and boys, because the understood risks of staying are even greater.  These families don’t have enough.  Not enough resources.  Not enough safety.  Not enough peace.  Not enough justice.  Anywhere.

 

The multiplication of bread and fish is what makes the feeding of the multitude so interesting.  It’s one of the more fantastic stories in the gospels, and by the time it gets to John, it is actually presented as one of seven signs pointing to the divine nature of Jesus.

 

I’ve come to see this story as a prime example of why we who are progressive Christians take the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally.  And it makes me think of what is truly miraculous.

 

Again, why are people unprepared for a long trek out into the countryside?  The climate was not much different than the semi-arid countryside outside of Boulder.  If you have no water and no food, then you’re in serious trouble.  Assuming the children and women and men number 12,000 or more, what are the chances of that many being that unthinking or that irresponsible?

Was no one prepared except the small boy or whoever it was who provided those five loaves of bread and two fish?

 

It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s very likely.

 

One plausible possibility is that many did have food with them but that they carefully protected it.  Why should their family share their food with others who had given less forethought to the day or perhaps didn’t have adequate personal resources.

What if as Jesus preached and people absorbed his message, they had a change of heart?  Then, as one person shared the little they had, they considered their own bread and fish and began to pass it around.  Those who had plenty made sure that those with less had enough to eat, and the result was that there wasmore than enough for everyone: twelve whole baskets brimming over with what was gathered after everyone had eaten.

 

Someone could hear that possibility as a logical explanation that just sucks the miraculous out of an otherwise inspiring story.

But which is the greatest miracle: changing bread or changing hearts?  What is it that God is most interested in doing?

Last week, the president of a large, conservative Protestant denomination traveled to the border of Mexico to observe the plight of children fleeing atrocities in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  His denomination has gotten broad press coverage recently for its insistence on the submission for women within marriage and the church, for its rejection of LGBT rights and marriage equality, and for its opposition to reproductive choice.  Recently, many within the church have called for the immediate deportation of unaccompanied children crossing our border.

 

The denomination president, and other church official issued a report of their visit that shocked and scandalized many church members:

“It made it real to me.  It’s no longer about something I hear on the news.  Now I’ve seen real children who have real moms and dads, who have real grandparents, who have taken long treks across the country … all looking for a better life, all looking for hope, all looking for safety.  These children are not issues to be resolved but persons bearing dignity and needing care. The issues in this crisis are complex, but our first response should be one of compassion and justice, not fear.”

 

That is a miracle!  And what other miracles might happen in the future as others who need respect and justice and compassion are known as real human beings possessing dignity and worth?

 

Which is the greatest miracle: changing bread or changing hearts?

 

In a world where people suffer from lack of basic necessities, we are often the ones who can make a life-changing difference by holding our bread and our fish loosely.  Multiplication of needed resources is something we can do every day.  It’s miraculous whether it’s Jesus holding the bread and fish, or if it’s us.  In a similar way, Buddhism presents generosity as one of the Ten Perfections, and it teaches that sharing with others is an antidote to greed, which can poison our soul.  So we are enriched when we release from our hands what can serve the needs of another.

 

I am thrilled that you called me to be your pastor.  I am ecstatic to be part of a faith community that takes the words and actions of Jesus seriously.

 

Much of what makes this a uniquely vital congregation is to the credit of those who served in this position in the past.  I think about the story of the multiplication of bread and fish and I picture that unnamed boy on the shoulders of an adult, held up, watching and waiting for the moment to give what he had.

 

For my part, I recognize that I’m on the shoulders of others as I begin this work with you.  Those others include Jane Anne Ferguson for the past year and Pete Terpenning for many years prior, and others who gave pastoral leadership in this church’s 50 year history, including Karyrene Pearson here today.  I’m honored to be continuing their work as we do the work of God together here.

 

A year ago, I visited the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel, by the Sea of Galilee.  It was a more peaceful time in that part of the world.  Many centuries ago, a cathedral was built to commemorate the feeding of the multitude, but it eventually fell into ruin and its location was forgotten for 1300 years.  In the 20th century, the location was excavated.  A beautiful fifth century mosaic was discovered which covered the entire floor of the ancient church. A new church was built in the 1980s over the original floor.  When I visited, a man was on his knees in the aisle, painstakingly cleaning and repairing the tiny tiles of the mosaic.  In front of the altar, the mosaic depicts two fish and a basket holding four loaves of bread.  The fifth loaf is always on the table above, ready to be shared through the Eucharist.

 

I have been looking forward all week to sharing in the Lord’s Supper with you.  We are one body, there is one loaf, and there isone world that we look to as we share the love of God freely with others.  Thanks be to God that there is more than enough to share.

 

Amen.

 

More Than Enough

Pastor Rick Danielson
August 3, 2014 
Community UCC, Boulder, CO

 

On Friday morning, an 18-wheel moving van arrived about ten days late at our new home here in Boulder.  Leroy and I were ready.  Standing up for meals and sitting on the floor to type out sermon notes was getting old.  We’d gotten used to the stark emptiness of our new home, though, and weren’t quite prepared for the intrusion of boxes and bookcases and linens and lamps and clothes and tools and everything else that was far more than we remembered packing up a month ago in New York.  As much as we welcomed our belongings, and as happy as we were for a table and chairs, we realized we not only had enough belongings for life in Colorado, but we had more than enough!

 

Today’s Gospel reading describes those who do not have enough, or at least that’s how it seems as the story unfolds.

Jesus was at the height of his popularity as crowds pursued him on his day off.  The physical and spiritual needs of the people evoked compassion as they and Jesus arrived together at a deserted place.  I’ve always pictured it as grassy, windswept hillside just like the open space above us.

 

It was late in the day, well beyond lunch and dinner, and people were hungry.  The disciples had a brilliant plan to send the people away to get food – and maybe just go home, but Jesus invited the crowd to sit down right there in the grass.  As he blessed the only food the disciples could find, five loaves of bread were broken and two fish were shared.  And no one went home hungry.  In fact, after blessing and breaking and passing that meager meal from person to person across the hillside, there were twelve baskets overflowing with leftovers.  It turned out that there was more than enough!

 

This story rather infamously exposes patriarchal assumptions.  There were five thousand men recorded, and the woman and children present are only mentioned as an afterthought.  They weren’t counted, since apparently they didn’t count to those recording the event.

 

But there is one child who became something of a hero in the story for sharing his lunch.  He doesn’t show up here in Matthew, though.  The feeding of the multitude is one of very few events in Jesus’ ministry that is recorded in all four gospels in the Christian canon.  Only in John, though, likely written later than the others and after numerous retellings, is the boy and his lunch mentioned.

 

I have a question: If mothers and fathers and children traveled to a remote area, why were they without food?  Why would parents put their children at risk like that?  One boy’s mother apparently packed a lunch for him before he headed out to explore the world that day.  But those parents are not mentioned in the story.  Was he there alone?  And was he in fact an unaccompanied child?

 

We have been hearing much about children at our southern border.   Mothers and fathers are sending children north to the United States with very little.  They are taking huge risks with vulnerable girls and boys, because the understood risks of staying are even greater.  These families don’t have enough.  Not enough resources.  Not enough safety.  Not enough peace.  Not enough justice.  Anywhere.

 

The multiplication of bread and fish is what makes the feeding of the multitude so interesting.  It’s one of the more fantastic stories in the gospels, and by the time it gets to John, it is actually presented as one of seven signs pointing to the divine nature of Jesus.

 

I’ve come to see this story as a prime example of why we who are progressive Christians take the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally.  And it makes me think of what is truly miraculous.

 

Again, why are people unprepared for a long trek out into the countryside?  The climate was not much different than the semi-arid countryside outside of Boulder.  If you have no water and no food, then you’re in serious trouble.  Assuming the children and women and men number 12,000 or more, what are the chances of that many being that unthinking or that irresponsible?

Was no one prepared except the small boy or whoever it was who provided those five loaves of bread and two fish?

 

It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s very likely.

 

One plausible possibility is that many did have food with them but that they carefully protected it.  Why should their family share their food with others who had given less forethought to the day or perhaps didn’t have adequate personal resources.

What if as Jesus preached and people absorbed his message, they had a change of heart?  Then, as one person shared the little they had, they considered their own bread and fish and began to pass it around.  Those who had plenty made sure that those with less had enough to eat, and the result was that there wasmore than enough for everyone: twelve whole baskets brimming over with what was gathered after everyone had eaten.

 

Someone could hear that possibility as a logical explanation that just sucks the miraculous out of an otherwise inspiring story.

But which is the greatest miracle: changing bread or changing hearts?  What is it that God is most interested in doing?

Last week, the president of a large, conservative Protestant denomination traveled to the border of Mexico to observe the plight of children fleeing atrocities in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  His denomination has gotten broad press coverage recently for its insistence on the submission for women within marriage and the church, for its rejection of LGBT rights and marriage equality, and for its opposition to reproductive choice.  Recently, many within the church have called for the immediate deportation of unaccompanied children crossing our border.

 

The denomination president, and other church official issued a report of their visit that shocked and scandalized many church members:

“It made it real to me.  It’s no longer about something I hear on the news.  Now I’ve seen real children who have real moms and dads, who have real grandparents, who have taken long treks across the country … all looking for a better life, all looking for hope, all looking for safety.  These children are not issues to be resolved but persons bearing dignity and needing care. The issues in this crisis are complex, but our first response should be one of compassion and justice, not fear.”

 

That is a miracle!  And what other miracles might happen in the future as others who need respect and justice and compassion are known as real human beings possessing dignity and worth?

 

Which is the greatest miracle: changing bread or changing hearts?

 

In a world where people suffer from lack of basic necessities, we are often the ones who can make a life-changing difference by holding our bread and our fish loosely.  Multiplication of needed resources is something we can do every day.  It’s miraculous whether it’s Jesus holding the bread and fish, or if it’s us.  In a similar way, Buddhism presents generosity as one of the Ten Perfections, and it teaches that sharing with others is an antidote to greed, which can poison our soul.  So we are enriched when we release from our hands what can serve the needs of another.

 

I am thrilled that you called me to be your pastor.  I am ecstatic to be part of a faith community that takes the words and actions of Jesus seriously.

 

Much of what makes this a uniquely vital congregation is to the credit of those who served in this position in the past.  I think about the story of the multiplication of bread and fish and I picture that unnamed boy on the shoulders of an adult, held up, watching and waiting for the moment to give what he had.

 

For my part, I recognize that I’m on the shoulders of others as I begin this work with you.  Those others include Jane Anne Ferguson for the past year and Pete Terpenning for many years prior, and others who gave pastoral leadership in this church’s 50 year history, including Karyrene Pearson here today.  I’m honored to be continuing their work as we do the work of God together here.

 

A year ago, I visited the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel, by the Sea of Galilee.  It was a more peaceful time in that part of the world.  Many centuries ago, a cathedral was built to commemorate the feeding of the multitude, but it eventually fell into ruin and its location was forgotten for 1300 years.  In the 20th century, the location was excavated.  A beautiful fifth century mosaic was discovered which covered the entire floor of the ancient church. A new church was built in the 1980s over the original floor.  When I visited, a man was on his knees in the aisle, painstakingly cleaning and repairing the tiny tiles of the mosaic.  In front of the altar, the mosaic depicts two fish and a basket holding four loaves of bread.  The fifth loaf is always on the table above, ready to be shared through the Eucharist.

 

I have been looking forward all week to sharing in the Lord’s Supper with you.  We are one body, there is one loaf, and there isone world that we look to as we share the love of God freely with others.  Thanks be to God that there is more than enough to share.

 

Amen.

 

Sermon: “God’s Big Words” 1/19/14

 

Pastor Jane Anne Ferguson

1 John 4: 7-12, 18-21

Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

January 19, 2014

Community UCC, Boulder, CO

God’s Big Words

1 John 4: 7-12, 18-21

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent God’s Son into the world so that we might live through him.  10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that [God] loved us …  11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is perfected in us.

18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  19 We love because [God] first loved us.  20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  21 The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (NRSV)

“When Christianity says that God loves [humankind], it means that God loves [humankind]; not that [God] has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of God’s love.  You asked for a loving God:  you have one.  …  not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of [her] guests, but the consuming fire, [God’s Self,] the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’ love for [her] work, and despotic as a man’s love for his dog, provident and venerable as the father’s [or mother’s] love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between [two lovers].” [i]

from The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; or as I learned it as a child in the King James version…perfect love casteth out all fear.

I remember the first time I heard someone tell me, “The opposite of Love is Fear…not Hate, but Fear, Fear is the opposite of Love.”  Hmmmm…..I thought…interesting…didn’t connect it with the scripture from 1 John and didn’t think much ….

Until I encountered the movie “Conversations With God”, based on the New York Times bestselling book of that title by Neale Donald Walsch.  The story of the movie is Walsch’s descent into major mid-life crisis, loss of marriage(s) and relationship with his children, loss of job, car accident which breaks his neck, finally the loss of home.  He becomes homeless and lives in a tent in a park for several months.  After countless interviews he gets a job as a weekend DJ at a small radio station and he moves from his tent to a cabin in the park, to his own rented, furnished house.  He’s set!  And then the radio station goes bankrupt and he has no job.  At this, his lowest point, Walsch hears God say to him…”Have you had enough?  Do I have your attention now?”  And so began his conversations with God.  It was within the context of his conversations that I heard the statement again…”Fear is the opposite of Love, Not Hate, but Fear.”

I guess you could say that God finally got MY attention!  And I began to ponder what this might mean in my life, in the life of the church…The opposite of Love is Fear… perfect love casts out all fear says I John 4.  I began to see that hate flows from deep, deep fear and not vice versa.

And the human experience of life certainly gives us reasons to fear, doesn’t it?  Reasons to hunker down and live behind the walls of fear to protect ourselves from being hurt again. To protest our families from being hurt.   Each one of us can name personal experiences, not to mention the experiences we encounter from all over our world when we turn on the news, experiences that have taught us and tempt us to put up walls of fear.  To shut down and stop receiving love and stop giving love.  To stop being a channel, a vessel for God’s love.

©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2014. May be used only with permission.

I was in the midst of the discovery of my deepest fears in life….divorce, scary church politics in my job, issues with children…date rape, bi-polar, dropping out of school….then being downsized out of a job…unemployment…still looking for permanent ministry work…I discovered I had A LOT of Fear…it threatened (at times is still can) to overwhelm me.  I am then compelled to ask myself ,”Am I living in love or fear?”

A Community that knows Fear….Our scripture today from the First Letter of John was written out of the Johannine community. First, Second and Third John were written out of the same community of first century believers as the Gospel of John and Revelation. The writings of this community, the Johannine community, often give twenty-first century liberal and pluralistic Christians some pangs because of their insistence that Jesus the Christ is the only way to God.  I have begun to understand and listen to this insistence in the context of their situation.  During the last ten to twenty years of the first century, this little community of Jewish Christians were being persecuted and oppressed by their fellow Jews because of their exuberant faith in the Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah.  They were literally being thrown out of their synagogues because of their belief in God’s new revelation through Jesus.  This community did not know about any of the other great faiths of the world.  They had no exposure to the study of comparative religions.  What they did know was that they had experienced the Living God through the stories and teachings of Jesus and through the reports of his death and resurrection.  And this experience set their lives on fire with God’s love even in the midst of persecution and oppression.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke for a community who knew fear and he knew it himself…He was also on fire with God’s love as he led the Civil Rights Movement in its struggle against the on-going persecution and oppression of the African American people.  He kept this fire and passion because of his own relationship with the Living God through the life and teachings and person of Jesus the Christ.  Dr. King did study comparative religions and understood the heart of all the great religions of the world.  On April 4, 1967 in Riverside Church in New York City, he addressed a group called “Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam”. One year before his death to the day. Near the end of his speech he used the beginning verses of our scripture for this morning from I John, chapter 4, to express what he believed to be the Ultimate Reality of all the major world religions, the reality of Love, which is so badly needed in our world today. Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.   Out of all the big words of God…Dr. King knew that Love was/is the biggest.   “When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response” said Dr. King. [ii]   “Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”[iii]

God is love” and “Love is the key to the world’s problems.” And we all nod our heads and smile and feel warm inside. Making these lovely statements about Love here in this warm sanctuary is easy, with friends and family around, hopefully friendly faces if you are visiting.  We all had breakfast this morning. Lunch is waiting at home or at the restaurant of our choice.  Coffee and coffee hour snacks are waiting right outside after the service if we can’t wait till lunch!  We’ll go home, watch football, read a book, take a nap, be with our loved ones.

But lets throw in the part about loving our brothers and sisters… commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  That can put a wrench in the works, can’t it…that makes things harder…because sometimes our brothers and sisters do not seem so loveable.  They are different from us…in culture, values, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, political persuasion, economic status.  It is hard to love different because subtly we are taught to fear different, fear the “other”, even in this enlightened age of the 21st century.  And moving closer to home…what happens when the people we do love, those who are not different from us, those whom we love, act unloving toward us, refuse our attempts at love?  Either way, suddenly we are afraid…we are afraid we will get hurt, physically or emotionally, … its those other people, those “different from us people”, those whom we may know well and yet still act unloving toward us, who are the problem! They are the real challenge to saying “God is Love and Love is the key to the problems of the world.”  If we could just fix them…Love would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

Or would it?  Perhaps, the issue goes deeper…

“God is love,” says the writer of I John. “We love because [God] first loved us.” I have heard this scripture quoted all my life…and I will tell you a secret…I am still struggling to get it!  God loves me first?…God is the initiator of love?…I keep getting it backward and seeking God’s love through my actions, my surrender to God’s will, through giving to others and doing unto them what I would have done unto me, through denying myself….but those are only responses to God’s love.  I am so busy seeking God that I avoid God’s love…so busy defending myself against disappointment in love, so busy hiding my fear of being unworthy of love …so busy being afraid, living in fear…that I actually shut God out!  Shut Love out!

“God is love. We love because [God] first loved us,” says the writer of 1 John.  My friends, we cannot woo God into loving us because, as we heard from C.S. Lewis, God is the wooer in this love affair called Life! We love because [God] first loved us. Perfect love, God’s love, casts out fear.

So my friends, it is not Love that hurts us! It is living in Fear, in the fear of not being loved that hurts! Living in the fear of not being worthy of love…Living in the fear of receiving the fullness of God’s Love.  It is not Love that hurts.  Perfect love, God’s love, casts out Fear!  And God’s Love is free and abundant and available before we even think to ask for it!  This is the ultimate Christian message, my friends, the message in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ!

What would life be like lived in the ultimate fullness of God’s love, free of all the fears of loving?   Would it be a perfectly safe life, insulated from cares and sorrows, easy…Absolutely Not!  I can guarantee you that.  Would it be a life full to the brim and overflowing with purpose, with laughter and tears, full of friendship, relationship and all the risks those involve, a life full of sharing in the transformation of our world, moving it from the bonds of fear into the freedom of Light and Love?  You bet your life it would!

A life lived in God’s perfect love is the legacy we are have been left by the writer of 1 John and by Martin Luther King, Jr.   So we can love ourselves and in turn our brothers and sisters. Almost 50 years ago he called the people in Riverside Church that evening, the whole of America, (and us, lo these many years later!) to embrace the ultimate reality of Love for the sake of the country and for the sake of the world, for the sake of ourselves.  “We can no longer afford,” he says, “to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation…We still have a choice today:  nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.[iv] … if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace.  If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, [sisterhood, human lovingkindness].  If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”[v]

Perfect love casts out fear and living in God’s love we will make that right choice!  Thanks Be to God! Amen.

 

 

[i] A Year With C.S. Lewis; Daily Readings from His Classic Works, ed. Patricia S. Klein, “January 12, Amazing Love, How Can It Be?” from The Problem of Pain, p 14, New York:  HarperSanFransico, c2003.

 

[ii] Martin’s Big Words, Doreen Rappaport, Hyperion Books, c2001.

 

[iii] A Call to Conscience; The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, “Beyond Vietnam”, p 161, New York:  Intellectual Properties Management in Association with Warner Books, c2001.

 

[iv] Ibid., p 161-162.

 

[v] A Call to Conscience[sound recording]; The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, “Beyond Vietnam”,, disc 6, New York : Intellectual Properties Management, Inc. in association with Warner Books, c2001.

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Sermon: “A Larger Mind” 1/12/14

Pastor Jane Anne Ferguson

Matthew 3:13-17

January 12, 2014

Community UCC, Boulder, CO

A Larger Mind

READINGS

Matthew 3:13-17

3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

3:14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

3:15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

3:16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

What made the baptism of Jesus so important? Over the centuries, Christian scholars have filled many pages arguing about just that question. Did it mean that Jesus was impure, and that he needed to “repent” and be cleansed? After all, “repent” was certainly the word John the baptizer used when calling people to baptism. This leads us to the word repent – metanoia in the Greek – and a very common Christian misconception of repentance. Rather than meaning “feeling sorry for doing bad things,” or regret, or confession, metanoia means “go beyond the mind” or “go into the larger mind.” Scholar Cynthia Bourgeault writes that this “‘high teaching’ was Jesus’ central message: the Kingdom of Heaven means reaching beyond black-and-white dualities, into the larger heart and mind of God.”  (From FusionCanada, a website supporting Christian community, fusioncanada.ca)

END OF READINGS

How many of you grew up with a bad taste in your soul when you heard the word “repentance?”  What a different perspective this definition of the Greek word, metanoia, opens on a familiar Christian concept and our English word for it! Rather than “Change your bad ways!” we now hear “Look! Look! God is inviting you to a new way of seeing! Come into the larger mind, see how God sees!”

Wow….what an invitation!  To see how God sees.

And it is through the story of Jesus’ baptism that we are given this invitation.  Baptism….a human-made ritual…coming from the ancient practice of Jewish purity laws…cleansing one’s self so that you can worship at the temple, be an acceptable part of the community, be ready to receive God’s presence.

The process of metanoia, of accepting the invitation of God to open ourselves to a larger mind, to see how God sees is possible without the physical act of baptism…baptism is not a magic act that saves us from hell, or cleanses us from sin.  It is so very much more than that narrow meaning of the ritual.  In its deepest sense, it is a state of mind and heart even more than a ritual

In the UCC Baptism as a ritual is one of our two sacraments, communion being the other.  A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace (or action of the Holy.)  In my mind the act of baptism ….the visible element of being immersed in water or sprinkled with water is a sign of what happens when we agree and commit to accept the invitation to see as God sees.  Baptism makes tangible as we heard Cynthia Bourgeault say, Jesus’ central message: “that the Kingdom of Heaven means reaching beyond black-and-white dualities, into the larger heart and mind of God.”

In the UCC we can choose this sign for ourselves as an older child, at the time of confirmation or as an adult.  We can also choose it as parents for our infants and small children testifying to how we will raise and nurture them…in the larger heart and mind of the Kingdom of God that Jesus modeled and preached.  And in every instance the community that witnesses the baptism shares in the responsibility of that baptism, becoming the village that surrounds the baptized person as he or she grows in body, mind and spirit.

To “go beyond the mind” or “go into the larger mind” is no easy task, but the story of Jesus’ baptism offers us some clues to how we might take steps into  a new vision of “repentance.”  Let’s look at the story again….John has established and proclaimed his message of repentance,….turning back toward God based on the tradition of the Jewish people…becoming pure, cleansed, so that you can be an acceptable servant of God.  Jesus, whom John seems to recognize in the story as the One sent by God, comes for baptism.  Following the logic of the story, this seems ludicrous to John based on tradition.  How can the One sent from God be baptized by a mere prophet?  It should be reversed!

However, Jesus invites John to let go of the traditional, tried and true way of thinking about baptism and repentance and the purity laws of Judaism.  John is invited to trust the process of metanoia, seeing as God sees with a larger mind and heart.  John consents and baptizes Jesus even though we might imagine that it felt audacious and outrageous and completely irreverent to him.  And the heavens open, the presence of the Spirit is made tangible, “like a dove descending” and God speaks!   God shows up in the most unexpected way.  There is transformation.  God uses a traditional human ritual to turn tradition upside down and broaden the vision of the way God’s works in the world.

Through John’s surrender to the unknown process Jesus’ proposes God in Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is made known.  Jesus becomes one of us entering into surrender/repentance/committing to see as God sees, just as we are called to do, through the traditional ritual act of baptism.  Jesus embodies for himself and the world the seemingly upside-down way God longs to liberate humanity from the prison of small-thinking.  John is empowered because he has trusted in a new way, laying aside his agenda to see what God sees.

Transformation is made manifest for Jesus, for John, for us as the story listeners, by surrender to the unknown, the topsy-turvy, through faith in the larger heart and mind of God.  Not an easy task.  But a life-giving one!

There is a Sufi story traditionally entitled, “The Tale of the Sands.”  In this tale water in the form of a stream winding its way through a desert is the primary character.  The story unfolds as the stream finds its way blocked by a swamp in the desert.  No matter how forcefully the stream pushes against the swamp, it cannot make its way through but is only absorbed into the soggy sand.  The wind whispers to the stream that if it will allow itself to be carried by the wind over the swamp up into the mountains.  At first the stream resists, saying that if it is carried by the wind it will not be its unique self any longer.  It will lose it’s self.  The wind replies that in the mountains it will be reborn as rain. Either way the stream cannot stay the same.  It can be transformed or die.  The stream realizes that deep within its memory this has happened before and finally agrees to be carried by the wind.  The tale ends by noting that the way of the Stream of Life is written in the sands.

May we trust our deepest yearnings to become all we were created to be in God’s image.  May we trust despite our fearful misgivings that deepest yearning will be made manifest through surrender to the larger heart and mind of God.  Amen.

 

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Sermon: “Following Epiphany into Wisdom” 1/5/14

Guest, Elizabeth Robinson

January 5, 2014

Community UCC, Boulder, CO

“Following Epiphany into Wisdom”

 

Recently, in the place I have been living, a pipe burst.  Water everywhere.  Mud. Plaster.  The smell of rotten carpet.  Chaos.

Before I walked into the house to encounter this mess, my friend Wendy, one of the homeowners, stopped me on the street to warn me.  This mishap took place after a horrendous autumn: flooding, mudslide, the failure of the heating system during that very, very cold spell.  She was at her wit’s end, and who could blame her?

Wendy told me what was happening and then she paused.

“When you go in,” she said, “look at the edge of the bookshelf right by the bedroom.  Some of the water got between the paint and the wall and warped the paint in a very beautiful pattern.  It looks like a feather.” I will come back to this later, but I want to suggest that this attention to something beautiful, something worth pausing to absorb in the midst of total mess, was an epiphany.

So here we are on Epiphany Sunday.

What is an epiphany? Here is one definition:

An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance”) is an experience of sudden and striking realization. Generally the term is used to describe scientific breakthrough, religious or philosophical discoveries, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective.

In Christian understanding, it has a little bit more of a specific and historical significance: (Ancient GreekΘεοφάνεια, Τheophaneia meaning “vision of God”), “Epiphany” as an event traditionally falls on January 6, and is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. Western Christians commemorate it principally (but not solely) by the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles.

In the story we have, three magis, or wise men, have used some form of divination, probably astrology, to forecast the birth of a king, and they follow a star to locate this king.  Remember that this is during the time of the Roman empire, and the Jewish people did not have a trusting or very welcoming relationship with non-Jewish, or Gentile, people.  For example, consider that a lot of the Pauline scriptures deal with Paul trying to get Jewish people and Gentile people to even get to the point where they would share a meal together.  So these Gentile Magi come to Jerusalem, naturally enough, to Herod’s palace and say, “We are following a prophecy that a king is to be born in this part of the world at about this time.  Do you know anything of this?”  As Jane Anne’s sermon discussed last week, Herod did not know anything of this, and his response was not favorable.  He didn’t want any competitors for his power.

Somehow, using their resources, the wise men found their way to Bethlehem.  And the “king”?  A baby born to some underage poor people (one source that I read estimated that Mary might have been as young as 14 years old), uneducated laborers, who were staying in the shabbiest accommodations for the census.  Having traveled so long and so far, the magi must have been exhausted and baffled.  First they had made a serious political gaffe with Herod, and then they found themselves with a bunch of shepherds looking at a baby who seemed unlikely to have any relation to royalty.  What a tangle!

And what must Mary and Joseph have thought?  Do you think that it reassured them to have these strange Gentiles showing up?  Many Jews of that time thought that the Messiah would be a political leader who would take the Jews out from under Roman repression and restore the glory of Israel.  So it was probably not encouraging to have these foreigners coming to them.  After all, the Gentile magi weren’t a part of the population that would be hoping for Jewish overthrow of Romans.  And with what gifts?  Food?  Blankets for the baby?  No: myrhh and frankincense.  Oh, thanks loads for your practicality, Mr. Wise Men.

Yes, this was a tangle of crossed hopes and prophecies.  If epiphany is a deep realization or manifestation, it’s hard to imagine what this situation meant.  Yet, if we have a knot and we start to pull all the various threads apart, we see that they come together in a center, and in that center lay this newborn child.

So I remind you of my story about Wendy, and her realization that in the midst of disruption and disorder, there was something that caused her to pause and find a different kind of order and beauty.

In this story, there is the mess of travel, and the mess of being a very young woman, probably a teenager, giving birth to her first child—in a stable.  There is the shame of the marriage—the premarital pregnancy, the confused but accepting husband, the strange visitations, the shepherds, and now, the magi—who must themselves have been confused at this encounter with a very different culture and a very socially lowly birth.  But somehow, all these snarled and criss-crossing threads insisted on knotting themselves around this child.

I want to suggest that epiphany is not about knowing for sure.  It is about the dawning of a realization or a recognition, a manifestation of something very important that may not completely reveal itself.  All of these mismatched people were jostling around a baby.  He was just a baby.  There have been millions of us.  Yes, we’ve all been babies. The very simplicity of that must have been one of the most confusing things of all.  Because miracles can be so very unremarkable.

*          *          *

 Referring to those times in his life when something became manifest, a deep realization, the Irish writer James Joyce would attempt to write this epiphany in a fragment. Or in short stories, he would create protagonists who came to sudden recognitions that changed their view of themselves or their social condition, often sparking a reversal or change of heart.  Isn’t it interesting that he wrote his epiphanies intofragments?  Each person in the biblical story of the epiphany carries forth their fragment, their little weft or warp in what weaves itself into the story of Jesus’s birth.  You might even say that it is the combined presence of all these parts, these witnesses, that truly makes this an incarnational event, a church-in-the-making.

But arriving at the incarnation, at the epiphany, was not a smooth process.  All the major participants experienced moments of doubt and fear and, in the case of the magi, wandering and misdirection.

Now I’m going to turn our attentions in a slightly different direction: in the lectionary reading from Sirach, we have Wisdom herself touting her glory and her importance:

“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,

and covered the earth like a mist.

I dwelt in the highest heavens,

and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.

Alone I compassed the vault of heaven

and traversed the depths of the abyss.

Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,

and over every people and nation

I have held sway.

Among all these I sought a resting-place;

in whose territory should I abide?”

 

Often, it is difficult to figure out how the lectionary readings relate to each other: how do they fuse together in their fragmentary way to create a bigger understanding?  I found myself attracted to this reading about wisdom and kept coming back to it.  What strikes me is that way the images are so geographic: Wisdom is moving through the universe, trying to find her way, trying to find a place to abide.  She is sure of her message, that wisdom will “hold sway” in the end over all people.  At the same time, there is a lot of ambiguity. Wisdom covers the earth like a mist, and is seated on a pillar of cloud.  These images don’t offer the clarity, the sharpness of vision that I personally would prefer in wisdom.  Can’t you just give me a definite and wise answer right now?  Why can’t wisdom be like putting on a pair of glasses and suddenly seeing the world with perfect focus?  And notice this, too: the passage ends with a question, “Among all these I sought a resting-place; in whose territory should I abide?”

It appears that wisdom, like our wise men, and, indeed, like Mary and Joseph for that matter, is on the move.  Wisdom doesn’t know in whose territory she will abide.  Our epiphanies, as with all wisdom and all of our most important realizations, are restless.  We are travelers within the revelation of God.  We are part of a moving, growing incarnation.

Within such disorder and disruption, God charges us to seek a pattern, a manifestation of God’s wisdom and presence.  I am reminded of what Tim Hansford told me last week.  He went out with his daughter Julia to walk the labyrinth and found it even harder than usual to trace because it was covered with snow.  I paraphrase, but he said, “It’s so easy to get lost in the labyrinth.  Just when you think you’ve got it, you are out at the farthest edge, nowhere near the middle. And then you round the curve and suddenly, there you are.  In the center.” Ahh.

But of course, no one stays long in the center of the labyrinth.  Its peace and balance are of short duration.  The incarnation is alive!  We must go with its pulse.   We follow our footsteps back out from the center into the moving, changing, perplexing world.  This baby, this Jesus, will grow up and confuse us and challenge us even more profoundly!  So our wisdom, as limited as it may be, impels us to follow.  Most often, we do not follow gracefully.  Snow or fog or burst pipes or any number of things may make the route difficult to discern.  And this is faith: piecemeal and restless.  Along its way, we are called sometimes to pause.

The journey requires us to pay attention to the small miracles, the epiphanies that bring us back to the center.

 

 

Sermon: “Real Living” 12/22/13

Pastor Jane Anne Ferguson

Matthew 1:18-25

December 22, 2013, Fourth Sunday in Advent

Community UCC, Boulder, CO

 

Real Living

 

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 

Albert Einstein, 20th century  ”True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.”

 

Back in the 80’s my mom and dad traveled to the Holy Land.  Mom asked me what I wanted her to bring me and I said a crèche.  My first child was really young and I wanted to start our own family Christmas traditions.  Mom looked at crèche sets all through the trip and finally decided on a nice olive wood one in a gift shop in a hotel in Bethlehem.  She was given a box with a set supposedly just like the one displayed.  When we got it home and unwrapped the set lo and behold!  There was no Joseph!  There was a shepherd with a sheep over his shoulders.  But no Joseph!  I was so sad!  So the shepherd always stands in for Joseph in that crèche.  And I always try to remember Joseph at Christmas.  Sometimes I think he gets lost in the shuffle.  Upstaged by the Holy Spirit.

Each of the gospels tells the story of Jesus with a different slant and for differing first century audiences.  It is like having a wonderful prism to look through and see this mysterious Jesus guy in many lights.  In Matthew, Joseph is more important than the other gospels because according to writer of Matthew, Jesus was born to be the “king” of the people.  The Messiah, anointed one.  Matthew takes great pains to show that he was born of God, his earthly father was descended from King David….the people’s king…the shepherd boy who became such a wise, great and humble leader of the people.  Matthew wants Jesus to be known in this light from the very beginning of his life because it adds depth and meaning to the sacrificial giving of his life and the resurrection narrative at the end of the gospel.  Jesus was God’s anointed One who’s birth is foreshadowed in the prophecies of Isaiah….the child born of a virgin, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In this community we emphasize the historicity of the gospel narratives, seeking to understand them in light of their ancient cultural context.  There are many ancient narratives of gods and god-like leaders being born to women who are virgins and are impregnated in miraculous, supernatural ways.  Using this motif in telling the story of Jesus was the author’s way of saying, “This guy was really important…he changed the world…read on and you will find the power of God in his life and teachings.”

So what about Joseph?  The so-called earthly father of Jesus.  Is he just a prop?  Does he matter?  Do we really need him in the crèche? Putting aside our 21st century skepticism of virgin births and angels in dreams imagine the character of Joseph with me for a moment.

Joseph is a good man, a Godly man, a man who cared about and obeyed the laws of God which in the biblical context made him a righteous man.  And now he is in a predicament that is not of his own making….in fact its of God’s making!!  Thanks a lot, God!  Like his great, great – many greats – grandfather, Abraham, who was told by God in a counter-intuitive test of obedience to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Joseph is also told by God to do something totally counter-intuitive to keeping the laws of Torah, laws that God gave the people so they could live in right relationship to one and other and to God!

This is the way that often works its seems.  Just when we think we have this religion thing down pat…following the laws, the right practices, trying to be a really good person etc…God says,  “Sorry…I want you to think outside the box on this one.”   And lets not kid ourselves, even as Progressive Christians, liberal, interfaith thinkers, we find ways in our zeal for reform and justice to make our thinking and practices “law” at times and to look down on or exclude others who think differently.

Joseph is asked by God…told by the angel, God’s messenger in a dream…to think outside his religious box.  He is caught in the struggle of obeying the law that rightly orders communal living and facilitates peaceful relations and the imperative to love one another as God loves each of us.

And Joseph agrees to put aside the laws that order his religious life in order to follow and facilitate God’s shocking new way of bringing redemption, liberation, saving power to God’s people.  We can imagine all kinds of emotions Joseph could have felt….shock, reluctance, grudging acceptance, fear, disappointment – will I ever get to father my own child? Joyful willingness, wonder and awe and trust. No matter what emotions we assign to Joseph out of our own experiences, the fact of the story is that on the basis of a sacred dream message he agrees to think and act and love outside the bounds of his traditional religious box.

And this act of righteousness leads to mercy and compassion and courage.  It leads him to stand with the most vulnerable kind of outsider in his society….a pregnant, unwed mother and her unborn, seemingly  – at least in the eyes of the world – fatherless child.   His reputation as a righteous man could be ruined but he follows and trusts God’s dream message from the angel anyway.  He is not just, good old dutiful Joseph… a non-descript piece in the crèche.  In Matthew, Joseph is a pioneer in faith as much as Mary is in Luke.  He marries his disgraced fiance and agrees to father an amazing, out of the box son, whose name meant  – and still means – “the one who saves.”   We could wonder if the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree…perhaps the boy who grew in to the man, Jesus, learned some of his out of the box ways of compassion and mercy from his courageous dad.

Are we ever caught in Joseph’s struggle today?  Caught in the tension between following the common sense, tried and true laws of right and wrong and God’s call into what could be scandalous behavior following a new way God is working in the world?  I believe we are.  This is the call to radical inclusivity of those who are other, who are different from us because we know the child who was heralded as God-with-us.  We follow the ways of that child who grew into the man Jesus, whose name means one who saves.  This one calls us to see God even in our opponents, our enemies.  To See God in those whom society tells us have not followed the conventional, religious, right ways of living.  To see God in those who do not agree with our own progressive Christian values

“True religion is real living,” said Albert Einstein, living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.”   I wonder if we know about 21st century righteousness by paying attention to our dreams and hopes and maybe even wild ideas that lead us to out of the box places where God is at work in radical and intimate ways in the world?  Joseph was called by God to true religion.  And he answered the call.

Suddenly the sweet, sentimental nativity story of Jesus’ birth is not so safe, is it?  This birth story heralds a radical new way of being religious and righteous.  With Joseph as our model, God calls us to re-vision what it means to be righteous as followers of Jesus in our own time.  God calls us this Christmas to listen and pay attention to what may seem to be wacky dreams for making peace, hope, joy and love manifest in the world.  Joseph did…with fear and trembling but still steady faith.

Never forget that Joseph is in the crèche.  His was a scandalously courageous part in God’s new scheme of things.  May we learn from Father Joseph about true religion and true righteousness.  Amen.

©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2013.  May be used only with permission.

 

 

 

Sermon: “Growing Hope” 12/8/13

Pastor Jane Anne Ferguson

Isaiah 11:1-10

December 8, 2013

Community UCC, Boulder, CO

“Growing Hope”

 

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,  and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,  the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see,  or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,  and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,  and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,  the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together,  and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,  their young shall lie down together;  and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,  and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy  on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God  as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;    the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

 

Hope is the presentiment that the imagination is more real, and reality less real, than we had thought.  It is the sensation that the last word does not belong to the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression.  It is the suspicion that reality is far more complex than realism would have us believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present, and that miraculously and surprisingly, life is readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.  (Quote from Rubem Alves in An Advent Sourcebook, ed. By Thomas J. O’Gorman)  

 

Growing Hope….all week I have been considering how I might do this and how I could encourage growing hope here in this community.  I am blessed to be serving with CUCC because all in all you are a healthy and hopeful community.  Let’s just say, I have served in different situations.

Isaiah was speaking to a country whose hope was waning down to the last spark…down to the last dying embers.  Our scripture today comes out of the same context as the scripture last week.  Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah were  threatened by surrounding nations who were bullied by Assyria, the empire. Times were dark.  Very dark.  Chapter 10 is filled with Isaiah’s poetic vision of the destruction, of Judah and of Assyria, the bullying empire, as well.  God would level the playing field between warring all the nations like clear cutting a forest. The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down. Look, the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.

It is from this image that we begin our passage.  A shoot will grow out of the roots, the stump of Jesse….the father of King David.  A new leader in the tradition of David, a king anointed by God, is coming.  A leader with messianic/anointed vision, the spirit of wisdom and understand, counsel and might, is coming to lead the people into the peaceable kingdom.  A kingdom where the wolf shall live with the lamb,  the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together,  and a little child shall lead them. We have heard this scripture so many times in the Advent or pre-Christmas season that in this day and age we immediately think …”and the leader is Jesus!”

Isaiah was not prophesying the birth of Jesus specifically.  Still Christians in the earliest centuries, many who were, of course, Jewish, associated the prophesy with Jesus as they reflected on his life and ministry.  UCC scholar, Walter Bruggemann writes of the prophesies of Isaiah and their association with Jesus, saying, “Jesus was received, celebrated, and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of this vision of social possibility.”   The vision of the peaceable kingdom….that seems so very impossible and in Bruggemann’s words “abnormal” in relation to what we know in the world.  However, with continued reflection, Brueggemann concludes that what is truly normal is “peace and unity and healing.”   The strife and discord and suffering that surround us are “the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted.”[1]

In Isaiah’s vision the new leadership following in the footsteps of the anointed one, David, and coming from David’s own family results in the unbelievable, amazing new normal of the peaceable kingdom.  New leader …. Then peaceable kingdom?  Does it work like that?  Are we supposed to hope in the “perfect leader “ in order to bring about the new normal of peace and healing and unity rather than discord, suffering and strife?

This week we are remembering one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest leaders as we join the people of South Africa in mourning and celebrating Nelson Mandela. A man who devoted his life to the vision of the peaceable kingdom, put his life on the line for this vision, and led his people to a new level of peace and justice.  Mandela’s life inspires hope in our hearts.  I was captured by a comment made yesterday in an NPR report on the people’s response to Mandela and his death.  The reporter said “I talked to one young man, 26 years old from Soweto. He said he keeps thinking that Mandela is going to rise up again in three days. He’s that kind of figure in South Africa. At the same time, [because they have been saying goodbye for several years due to his illnesses], people [also] feel that they’re ready to take on a future, and as they say, take the bait, be the next Mandela. A lot of people talk like that.”

Be the next Mandela….that is talk of hope, isn’t it?  And it reminds us that many others helped Mandela achieve the turn around of apartheid in South Africa.  There have been many leaders of this kind throughout history.  We could all name our favorites.  Do we always need to hope in a charismatic leader in order to grow hope for the peaceable kingdom in our world?  To make it possible?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Once there was a Dervish who was traveling with his student.  As they walked along a road they saw coming towards them a grand carriage pulled by many fine horses.  It was traveling at an incredible speed. As it drew nearer the Dervish and his student realized it was not about to share the narrow road with them.  They were obliged to throw themselves unceremoniously into the ditch along the side of the road to avoid being trampled. 

The student was very angry at this injustice.  And was even more angered when he discovered his teacher had jumped out of the ditch and was running after the carriage shouting a blessing.  “May you receive your heart’s deepest desire a thousand times over!”, cried the Dervish.  “May Allah bless you!” 

“Why are you asking for Allah’s blessings on those fools?”, the student shouted after his teacher.  “They could have killed us!” 

His teacher returned, panting with his effort.  He said to the student, “ Do you think that if their deepest desires were satisfied they would go about treating people as they just treated us?”

I don’t know about you, but I usually react more like the student than the teacher.  It is a spiritual practice to remember the teacher’s question.  “Do you think that is their deepest desires were satisfied they would go about treating people as they just treated us?”  The teacher is not advocating becoming a doormat….instead he is advocating for becoming a leader in the peaceable kingdom.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In Advent we wait in hope for the birth of the Christ Child, the Prince of Peace who comes and grows into the man named Jesus, the leader who lived and proclaimed God’s vision of peace, healing and unity.  What would happen if Christian’s everywhere put aside our differences and united to bring to reality Jesus’ vision in our shared, public life?  What if we “took the bait” as they are saying in South Africa and we each sought to be a leader of God’s vision of peace, healing and unity?

How do we grow hope?  We ask what are the deepest desires of humanity that people create strife and discord and suffering to achieve. (Ask Congregation!)   Peace, healing, unity, enough for all, respect for each person’s essence and dignity, respect and care for creation.  How do we grow hope? We dare to trust that hope is created and dwells in our images of wolves living with lambs, calf and lion lying together and all led by a child.  We remember that the child in the manger a Christmas grew into the man Jesus and taught us that [in God’s vision of normality] life is [always] readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.  And that following the ways of the Christ, each of us is a leader in the vision of the God’s peaceable kingdom.  Will you take the bait with me?  Together we can grow hope in Advent and all year long.  Amen.

 

©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2013.  May be used or reprinted only by permission.

 

[1] Huey, Kate, “Weekly Seeds: Peace/Hope-Filled Vision”, Second Sunday of Advent, Year A, “Sermon Seeds”, ucc.org/worship/samuel/December-8-2013.html

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