Sunday is coming! Holy Trinity Sunday “John 3:16 and the Engaging Relational Mystery”

 

 

 

John 3:16 is a famous verse that is not specifically about the Holy Trinity but reveals much about who God is and what God is doing.

The words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” come to us not as a faith statement or creedal formula but in the midst of a specific conversation between Jesus and the inquisitive Nicodemus who came to ask his questions of Jesus in the night.

So what does John 3:16 say?

God loves the world.” God does not forsake or abandon the world. Neither does God look begrudgingly at the world nor gaze fondly upon the world from a distance. God loves the world (the self-giving, other-focused kind of love), and through that love God gets involved in our mess, our sinfulness, our brokenness and our judgment of one another. God (gave, bestowed, presented, committed, granted) the Son through that self-giving, relational love. To receive that love (through the Spirit) is like being born again (or starting a new life).

This passage is not so much a definition of God as the Holy Trinity, but in it we can see the wholeness of God at work in the Father’s love given for us, the gift of Jesus made alive in us and a new life in the Spirit lived through us.

What this passage also reveals to us is Jesus’ willingness to meet us where we are and shine; even as we come with questions under the cover of darkness.

Could it be that the Holy Trinity is not so much an intellectual formula to comprehend as it is way to see God as an engaging relational mystery who is loving, approachable and life-giving?

How might we locate ourselves in that love?

What might it mean that Jesus came: “Not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him?

What might it mean to believe?

PGS

Sunday is Coming! Day of Pentecost. “Meeting Your Calling”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“When the day of Pentecost had come…” (Acts 2:1)


Pentecost has the potential to be the most interesting and empowering festival of the church year. We celebrate the Spirit being unleashed: like a mighty wind shaking things up; like fire set upon on our heads; like opening up closed doors to the world outside; because fear no longer holds power over us. Pentecost is a calling to take the message of Jesus to the streets.

When the Spirit comes, said the prophet Joel (and Peter preaching), your sons and daughters will prophesy; the young will see visions; the old will dream dreams; men, women, slaves, free – anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21 [my paraphrase]).

-What do you dream about for your community of faith?

-Does your church (or the church as a whole) have a vision for its purpose other than institutional survival? Worship Attendance? Buildings? Programs? Staff? Dollars? Busyness?

-What if what we we were actually called to do as Jesus people was to love the way he loved so we could make a lasting impact in people’s lives – and turned them loose to share that love too?

-What if we took action (and made plans for action) – not just to keep the ship in the water but set sail for new horizons?

-Would we go?

-How many of our churches just sit in the dry dock?

Pentecost can be a time, not just to hear the story – but to enter it anew. It can be a moment to wait and pray for the Spirit to shake things up in our lives and community, to set our hearts on fire with the passion of Jesus, and send us out beyond the safety of closed doors.

I have a quote on my office door from Frederick Buechner that reads, “The place God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (from his book, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993], 119.)

-What is your deep gladness?

-Where might that deep gladness meet those around you?

-What is keeping you from that calling?

-What doors do you keep locked in front of you?

-Why are you afraid of trying?

Pray with me:

Come, Holy Spirit come!

PGS

Sunday is coming! Ascension /Easter 7B “Far from abandoned”

 

 

 

 

 

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” (John 17:11a)

If one follows the church year, the Thursday before Easter 7 marks the Ascension (Luke 24:44-53), as the risen Jesus leaves his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Presumably, we are left in our own to wait without Jesus or the Spirit until Pentecost (next Sunday). Yikes!

This Sunday (Easter 7B) we read these words of Jesus offered as a prayer for those same disciples. The scene is the upper room after he has washed their feet but before Jesus is betrayed and arrested, before his trial and execution, before the glory of Easter and before the forty days he revealed himself again and again in the flesh.

While these words come to us out of sequence in the timeline after Easter, they help us remember what Jesus was revealing to his followers all along. He is the “word made flesh among us” (John 1:14). This is not just a promise for his earthly life, but the gift of hi presence among us always. The incarnation extends beyond our physical contact in the flesh. Jesus is with us wherever we are and through our witness is revealed to others.

At the Ascension, we might ask, “Where did Jesus go?” “Are we left alone?”  “Is God far away?” “Am I Forgotten?”

Jesus told us last week (Easter 6B) to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12). These ten days between his Ascension and the day of Pentecost are NOT about Jesus leaving us behind by an absentee savior, but about our renewal to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those around us. This is our moment to reflect, wonder  and invite others into our ongoing connection to the eternal word who continues to live among us as we abide in him; his love; his grace and truth. This is our time to join his calling to make all things new among us and through us, remembering that the Spirit will indeed come to empower us.

Just as Mary was the first God-bearer (theotokos); we too are to bear Christ to those around us wherever we are.

When the Spirit comes at Pentecost to get us moving …look out!

How is Jesus calling you to bear Christ today?

PGS

Sunday is coming! Easter 6B, “What if there is no catch?”

 

 

 

 

The problem with grace (unmerited favor and blessing) is we often don’t believe it.

If we have learned anything from the world, it is that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There always seems to be a catch. We often pay more than promised.

Jesus says, “You did not choose me, I chose you.” (John 15:12)

But what if there is no catch?

What if instead of trying to prove why we are worthy of God by being spiritual-overachievers and busy-bodies, we simply took Jesus at his word: “You did not choose me, I chose you.”?

What if instead of judging others for not following Jesus like we do, we simply took Jesus at his word: “You did not choose me, I chose you.”?

What if instead of wallowing in doubt and despair because we could never do enough to get God to notice, we simply took Jesus at his word: “You did not choose me, I chose you.”?

What if we stopped looking for a catch that God or someone or some group always wants more of us than we could ever offer, we simply took Jesus at his word: “You did not choose me, I chose you.”?

What if instead of living as if none of it matters, so why bother? – we realized what Jesus was actually offering and took Jesus at his word: “You did not choose me, I chose you.”?

What if our lives were genuinely changed by the promise that Jesus has chosen us to dwell and abide in a love so true and genuine that it is willing to die so that we might live, far beyond anything we could choose for ourselves?

What if we knew with every fiber of our being how loved we are without any catches?

What if we believed grace was true?

What if Jesus called us to love other like that?

What kind of world could that be?

PGS

Easter is coming! Easter 5B “Sacred yet invasive vines”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and me in them bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5-6)

Jesus speaks of vines and fruit and connected-ness. It is all about life and growth. In light of Easter, we claim that we are connected to Christ’s resurrection and the new life he brings to be resurrection people in world full of destruction and death.

There is an invasive vine in our backyard that has been difficult to destroy. I’ve cut it, dug it up, pulled on it to find other extensions, and have used different weed killing options to keep it from coming back once and for all. I have even burned the branches I have cut off in my fire pit. Yet it grows. It returns. Even under attack and adversity…the vine thrives. New life finds a way.

We are branches connected to the vine of Christ. In him new life keeps finding a way.  Especially when it is attacked, we grow. It becomes easy for us to focus on our individual branch, and we get discouraged when we aren’t as fruitful as we know we can be. We focus on the forces that want to cut us off, dig us up, chop us down, and relentlessly uproot us.

Yet in Christ, we grow.

We are called to be invasively fruitful by staying connected to the source of life – Jesus himself. He warns that when we go off on our own or start to believe we are cut off from him we will wither and die. Yet to abide in him is life. Life the world so desperately needs.

When do you feel cut-off from the Vine?

Remember that connected to Jesus we are the branches that continue to grow, bear fruit and thrive.

PGS

Sunday is coming! Easter 4B “The ‘Good’ Shepherd”

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” (John 10:10-11)

A common image of Jesus depicts him holding a sheep. Often in these pictures, Jesus has a lamb draped across his shoulders. It is a sweet image – cute if not adorable. In many of these representations of Jesus, one can see the affection in his eyes. In others he looks to the distance assessing the danger at hand. Looking at such an image and thinking of Jesus as the “good ” shepherd can be a very pleasant, comforting, heart-warming experience.

The familiar psalm (23) echoes in our ears: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” We sing “Jesus loves me this I know” and it warms our hearts. We pray “now I lay me down to sleep” and think of ourselves as that cute little lamb sitting on his shoulders or carried in his arms.

But there is more…

Jesus goes on to say why he’s the “good” shepherd: he lays his life down for the sheep. Unlike those hired hands who are here today and gone tomorrow and wolves who trick and lead astray – Jesus loves his sheep to the point where he will sacrifice his own life for the sake of those he loves. That’s what makes him “good.”

In the context of John’s Gospel, Jesus calls out the religious leaders who are only concerned about their status, self-righteousness and making sure all the rules are followed. By their convictions they have lost their compassion for another person’s humanity. In the story that precedes these words (John 9), the religious leaders were more concerned about who had sinned, a man born blind or his parents, and ironically couldn’t see the restorative thing Jesus was doing by giving that man the gift of sight.

The warning here, of course, is for all religious people (both then and now) who miss what God is up to right in front of them. Too often we become too concerned about doing church right to notice real people in front of us. The promise of this passage is that Jesus will not only drape us on his shoulders in an affectionate way, but he will also both forgive us for running away as hired hands and will fight the wolves (and wolves in sheep’s clothing) who threaten us. He’s the “good” shepherd because Jesus dies for us. That we hear this story in the season of Easter expands the message to proclaim to us that Jesus not only dies – but is raised – lifting up our humanity, our dignity, our sense of calling to be see the humanity, dignity and calling in others as other sheep he loves.

There is another promise (and with it another warning too): Jesus is the “good” shepherd and we are not. Thanks be to God! Before we take on a messianic complex for ourselves or project it on others with Christlike expectations, let us remind each other that at our worst we can be the wolves that snatch up and scatter and at best we are hired hands that run away. Yet the dominant insight of Jesus being our “good” shepherd is that we are the sheep that Jesus has come to save. Most often we are that lost one of the flock – and it is Jesus (not anybody else) who comes to redeem us.

The Lord is my shepherd

The image the psalmist employs is not of a lamb on the Lord’s shoulders but of the shepherd who with a rod and staff leads us through the valley of the shadow of death to a feast in the midst of our enemies in the presence of God.

Jesus loves me this I know

Scripture proclaims that the love Jesus offers isn’t cute. It is agape – sacrificial love; the love that is shared with everything on the line as a matter of life and death; but with Jesus is a matter of death and life. It is the love only the “good ” shepherd gives.

Now I lay me down to sleep

In a world that is full of death and destruction (too often to the vulnerable) only Jesus offers a safety in his presence the world cannot offer through its ‘might makes right’, ‘you are with or against us’ and ‘get yours while you can’ predominant attitudes.

The question this passage leaves us with is this:

Who are you going to follow?

Yourself?

The hired hand?

A wolf who only seeks to devour you?

Or Jesus, who dies that you may have life?

PGS

Sunday is Coming! Easter 3B “Some thoughts about touch and the resurrection”

 

 

 

 

Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as I have.” (Luke 24:39)

 

Touch is an important part of human life.

Touch is such an important aspect of our development that infants who don’t receive enough human contact are at high risk for emotional, behavioral and social problems.  In some cases, babies can die out of neglect from a lack of touch. If you have ever held a baby you have likely experienced what an important connection that is.

Touch can be a good thing.

When we get hurt (which seems to happen to me too often…) an embrace is almost just as important emotionally to a healthy recovery as it is to medically treat the injury. We often greet one another with a handshake, high five, fist-bump (or a hug when appropriate) as a sign of greeting, welcome and connection with another person. We sit by our friends, hold hands with loved ones as a sign of affection, and lovers express their relationship to each other through other meaningful ways. Touch can lead to new life being born.

 

This of course can go wrong when touch is unwelcome.

When touch is used to to lash out, to display power, to intentionally hurt, dehumanize or to take advantage of someone, it can damage, scar, destroy and kill. When this touch like this happens, not only our flesh is damaged but our well-being is compromised and our humanity is violated. Touch can leave its violent mark upon us. Healing, when possible, takes time, patience and often a community of caring people who can help that person cope and recover.

Jesus experienced the worst kind of touch at human hands. He was tortured and executed. In addition, he was touched with words that mocked and humiliated. When he needed his friends most to hold and reassure him, he was denied and abandoned. He was left to die, and buried once his lifeless body breathed its last. Yet he appeared – not as a ghost, but in the flesh -asking his friends to touch him; hoping for something to eat.

What do you think this invitation to touch him means?

Could it be that Jesus sought to heal those closest to him who betrayed him? In Jesus’ ministry it was often through the act of touching the untouchable and through eating with those not usually welcome at the table that his restorative work took hold of people. Now these same disciples that watched him touch and eat so many times with others offered his physical presence to be with them. In the same way he sits among us again and again each time he says, “take and eat, this is my body” and his restorative presence reaches us too.

At this table Jesus invites you into a whole new community and way of being. It is here that Jesus invites you to share his healing with a hurting world that often feels taken advantage of, violated, neglected and abandoned.

When our lives are touched by the resurrection – new life begins.

Lets eat!

P.S. If you or someone you know has been threatened or abused in any way – please talk to someone who can help. There is never a time where it is normal, appropriate or expected to be be treated this way. You are a beautiful human being created in the image of God, and it is our calling together to protect one another from harm; stop those who do; work diligently to prevent it from happening again; and help one another flourish.

PGS

Sunday is Coming! Easter 2B “Longing to see Jesus”

 

 

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

I find Thomas to be not only one of the most courageous disciples; but also the most honest.

Unlike his counterparts, Thomas went out into the streets of Jerusalem after Jesus was executed. The rest of them remained behind locked doors because they were too afraid to do anything else. When they shared with Thomas their experience of meeting the risen Jesus in his absence – He didn’t accept their testimony. Instead, he sought to experience it himself. Even in his doubts, Thomas was bold enough to demand Jesus to show up again.

Do we?

The letter of Hebrews asserts: “Faith is the assurance of things longed for; the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Thomas reveals the best kind of conviction is tested. It is scrutinized in order to see something new while challenging our previously held assertions. Assurance comes in our searching and longing.

We often place doubt as something antagonistic to faith, but too often the enemy of faith is not doubt but overblown certainty. We can become zealous about what we have been told or blindly accept. In our over-confidence we begin to dehumanize others who don’t share our viewpoint and blame them for the world’s ills if not also our own. Groups and Institutions on the defensive often narrow their definition of who is “in” and who is “out” without introspection. When we no longer tolerate questions or dissent, the way we see the world and others in it becomes something ugly.

Thomas inspires the opposite.

He invites us to honestly ask our questions. He includes our doubts and skepticism as we seek Jesus for ourselves, even when we are afraid. We need witnesses like him who expand our understandings, challenge our assumptions, and reveal to us different points of view. Then we can see what beautiful things God is doing all around us and appreciate what we might have missed before our search began.

Maybe we will say, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28) like Thomas did when we do see Jesus in our lives. But more likely we will come to our own conclusions, use our own voice, as we live in our own time by our own experience in having looked for him with courage, boldness and even uncertainty. The community of the church can then help us discern what it means in light of our shared witness.

Thomas encourages us to keep searching, questioning, and hoping we may one day stand with God face to face for ourselves.

That’s the kind of assurance I long for – how about you?

PGS

Sunday is Coming! Holy Week, Year B: “The ongoing echo from the cross”

 

 

 

Truly this is God’s son!” (Mark 15:39)

Listen for the echo of this promise throughout this Holy Week.

Truly this is God’s son!” This is quite the statement from an outsider. These words were spoken by the Roman Centurion at the foot of the cross of Jesus; who was likely supervising his execution. Yet, from this oppressor and outlier it becomes a rich proclamation – reminding us of who Jesus is, what he has come to do, and what this cross means for ourselves and the world. Are you listening?

Truly this is God’s son!” The echo of these words resonates as we pay attention to the story and see his friends betray, abandon and deny him. We hear these words personally as we contemplate how we have also betrayed, abandoned and denied Jesus ourselves. Yet even as these words call out our unfaithfulness, they proclaim God’s steadfast love with an even louder echo of hope.

Truly this is God’s son!” This statement echoes across time and space from those who bear witness to Jesus and his cross around the world. Through many languages and cultures and across many centuries echoes cry out: “Jesus is Lord!” These words echo back toward us, who stand at the foot of his cross now. Will we listen to that echo, as we wonder how Christ continues to meet us, where this cross calls us to go, and how we might follow in his footsteps?

Truly this is God’s son!” Where might this echo reach the oppressors, outsiders and outliers around us who are also in need of good news? Are we listening for them? How can we help them hear it too?

Truly this is God’s son!” Can you hear the echo of these words in your own despair? We live in a world full of suffering, fear and anger. A sense of abandonment, blame and outrage continues to fill us as we see injustice towards others, bear our own burdens and face our inner hopelessness. Yet there is Jesus on the cross – beside us, before us, behind us every step of the way. He is there on the cross, for you. Keep listening for the echo.

Truly this is God’s son!” From the cross, Jesus calls us to be more human, more present, more fragile, more selfless in our treatment of others as he embodies God’s ultimate sacrificial love and undeserved mercy for us – when we feel like the outliers and outsiders and are confronted by the oppressive systems in which we all participate.

Truly this is God’s son!” Can we echo these words back towards ourselves? Cling to what they promise in the midst of turmoil and strife. Share them by how you live, act, speak, and interact with others. With strangers. With neighbors. With those you love most.

Truly this is God’s son!” We will soon gather Sunday morning as these words echo back to us yet again. As Mark tells the story (in Chapter 16:1-8) the women run away from the empty tomb in terror and amazement much like you and I do. Soon, they too will hear the echo to share all they have seen and heard with the others. As we wait in terror and amazement, what echo will you be listening for when they share their witness with us?

Truly this is God’s son!” Hearing these words echo; will you then believe?

PGS

Sunday is coming! Palm/Passion Sunday “Beyond Parades and Palm Branches”

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Mark 11:8-9)

If you have ever walked-in or been to a parade, when done with the right flair they are usually enjoyable affairs. People line the street and shout with joy as those in the parade walk by them. The crowd’s energy is contagious. Depending on the type of parade; uniforms, costumes, animals, floats and music distinguish the crowd from participants. The best parades I have ever attended hand out candy.

Jesus enters Jerusalem on a colt, with the celebration of the crowd and the waving of cut branches. They shout “Hosanna” which literally means “Please save us.” It is a parade – but of a different sort. It is not really a call for revolution or a military parade but it is the sign that God’s reign is upon them, and their long exile and occupation is over. The savior has come. Messiah, God’s anointed one, has come to establish the Kingdom.

What will the Empire of Rome say to this?

Or their puppet king, Herod?

Or this crowd shouting “save us” once the religious establishment gets involved?

Or any other powers of this world, including our own?

As the story unfolds, we shall soon see the powers of this world fight back against the sign of God’s kingdom. For those who read the Passion narrative this Sunday, we quickly move from Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade to the parade of his execution – as this condemned prophet, healer and rabbi must carry his cross as an enemy of the state through the city to the site of his impending cruel and humiliating death by the garbage heap.

We will see the charge written above him: “King of the Jews” alongside the mocking of the crowd, the soldiers and religious leaders.

We will witness the complete abandonment and betrayal of his followers and friends.

Was this parade a failure? Was this just another sad attempt at revolution gone wrong? Were these palms waved in vain? Most importantly, where is my candy?

Look closer.

Could it be – that the passion was the plan all along?

If so, what kind of Kingdom is this Jesus proclaiming and what kind of king is he? What kind of power is being asserted when it seems like the empty powers of this world have won or at the very least have the upper hand against anyone who opposes them?

All we can do is wait and watch and be caught up in the story ourselves; unlike his followers who run away in fear – or his enemies that act out of theirs; or the crowd that is too afraid to pay attention to see what is really going on.

-Who do you see entering Jerusalem on this donkey?

-What kind of parade is this?

-What kind of kingdom did this Jesus come to establish and how will you know when you see it?

-Do you see it?

Keep looking. Pay attention. The Kingdom is at hand.

PGS