Sunday, April 29, 2018

Raisin Capital of the World!

John 15:1-8  (NRSV)  
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

I go to a lot of events where I am expected to introduce myself by name and the church and/or city I come from.  I always say I am from Selma, California, the Raisin Capital of the World.   When I was interviewing with the search committee from First Christian, I was delighted to hear that my potential new home was the source of one of my favorite treats.   Although I grew up in a farming community and understood the rhythm of plowing, sowing, growing and harvesting, I had never lived anywhere with vineyards, so the rhythm of that particular fruit’s life was new to me.  Having now lived here for a couple of growing seasons, and having witnessed all the things that John describes in this passage, it came alive for me in a way that it never had before.   That was one of Jesus’ gifts, of course.  His stories and parables were based in the kind of reality his listeners understood - fishing and agriculture, household chores, and family life - so that his meaning could become clear in a way that was new and powerful to those hearing him.  

There’s something else about Selma, besides raisins, that is different from anyplace else I have lived, and even from most places I have heard about.  Here, all of the churches come together and work together for the healing of our city, regardless of differences in theology or practice.   Here, it is as if we are all bound together, the way vines twine around each other, to do God’s work in the world.  It is a blessing beyond expectation to live and work and serve God here. 

There are those who read this passage and believe it means that those who don’t believe or behave the way they think is right will be condemned to Hell. Those individuals, they believe, are the branches that are pruned and cut away and tossed onto the fire, because they do not bear fruit.   I used to think that - and that I was one of those fruitless branches.   I don’t believe that anymore, because my understanding of who God is has changed over time. Also, I have learned to read the Bible in context, reading what comes before and after, so that I can better understand what points Jesus was busy making at the time.   We need to remember when we read this passage that when Jesus said these words he was addressing his disciples - not a huge crowd, but only those who were gathered with him in the Upper Room, at that last meal they shared together.  He was speaking to the hearts of those who knew him best, who had shared his daily struggles, who had heard all of his preaching.  He was preparing them for his death, which would come in less than 24 hours, and he was preparing them for going out into the world to carry the Good News.  So he was speaking to specific individuals, and about their own lives.  He was inviting them to let God remove those parts of them that were not fruitful, not healthy, so that they could produce healthy fruit in his name.   He has already promised them that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit would come to them, and teach them all that they would need to go forward.    And his next words would be these, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  If you keep my commandments - to love one another - you will live in my love.  And if we live in Jesus’ love, we will become fruitful.  

Another thing we must remember when we read this passage is that the fruitfulness Jesus speaks of is not gaining a whole bunch of new church members, although that it what some folks preach.  Rather, it is each of us growing the fruit of the Spirits our lives change through living in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.   As Paul told the church in Galatia, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”   Living in Christ’s love, doing our best to love one another, will bring these things into our hearts, and our lives will change entirely.

Let me share with you just how drastically lives can change when God is allowed to reach into our hearts and prune away the lifeless, the diseased, branches from our lives.  I went on my first ride along with a Selma Police Officer on Wednesday afternoon.   Parts of that ride along were calm and informative, just kind of riding around seeing parts of the city I hadn’t seen before, learning things about how our Police Department works.  Parts of it were a little scary - like when I realized that people really don’t pay attention to lights and sirens.  I did my best to be silent and non-reactive so that my Officer could concentrate on avoiding all the cars who didn’t see her.   And parts of it filled me with gratitude.  Ok, it’s pretty well known that I write a gratitude list every morning - 10 things that bring me joy or that I really appreciate having in my life on any given morning.  But Thursday morning’s gratitude list was much deeper, much more intense than my usual gratitude for cats and coffee and faith. On Thursday morning I wrote (among other things):
I am grateful that no one is beating me today
No one is brandishing weapons around my house
No one is worried I will kill myself
I am helping people instead of hurting them
People call me when they have troubles
I take responsibility for myself today

My life is so different than it was before I learned that God loves us.  I am not afraid today, of what the next hours or even minutes will bring.  Today I am not praying, “Get me out of this one, Lord, and I swear I will never do it again.”   When I decided to welcome God into my life, when I decided to abide in Jesus’ love, my life changed and those things are no longer part of it.  I invited God to prune away those things that took me into those places, and asked God to help me grow in such a way as to produce the healthy fruit, the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  The greatest blessing of all was when I realized that my past was simply that, my past.  God had not rejected me permanently for my mistakes and transgressions.  Those things are forgiven because God loves me, and I have learned to love God, even when things aren’t going well.  I know today that God has thrown those parts of me that will not ever produce good fruit into that fire, destroying them.  And they will not grow back, so long as I remain in Jesus.

Today I know that, just as Jesus promises in this passage, I can ask for whatever I wish, and receive it, so long as I live in Jesus and in God’s Word.  Not a new car, or to have my student loan debt suddenly disappear, or to magically lose the weight that I put back on, although those things would be nice.  I don’t even ask for those sorts of things anymore.  Today I ask for those things that will help me serve God and God’s people better - usually, some of that fruit that I don’t quite have a handle on yet.  I ask for my life to be a blessing to others, and to be more forgiving, and to practice acceptance better.  

When we love God and our neighbors, as Jesus commanded us to do, our lives become filled with the fruit of the Spirit.  And that fruit, which is the result of love, when poured out upon others, produces more fruit.  Just as a smile begets a smile, so love poured out into the world will produce more love, more kindness, more generosity, more compassion.  When we are filled with God’s love, our lives can change all those we touch.   My brothers and sisters, the gift of God’s love is the greatest gift we can ever receive. When we go from this place, then, let us touch each person we meet with the love we receive from our Lord.  And now let us stand and sing about “The Gift of Love”  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Living in God's Will

1 John 3:16-24   (NRSV)

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Today is Earth Stewardship Sunday - the churchy version of Earth Day.  And there are tons of passages in the Bible that relate and refer to Creation, taking care of the earth, God’s bounty and how we are to use it, and so on.  I even have a Bible in which all of those sorts of passages are written in green, the way some Bibles have all of Jesus’ words written in red.  I could have used one of those Earth Day sort of passages.  But I had a preacher teacher in seminary who taught us that, if we use the lectionary, (which is a calendar of scriptures to use every day of the year, rotating through the Bible over a three year period) regardless of what the secular world is doing, several things will happen.  One - we will not subject our congregations to hearing the same dozen or so of our favorite passages preached on all year long.  Two - we will not be able to cherry pick a passage for the day that will perfectly reflect our personal feelings on what is going on in the world around us.  and Three - we will continually run up against passages that we have to struggle with, just as our congregations have to struggle in their understanding.  So - much as I would have loved to go to Genesis and the creation of the world for today’s message,  because I do use the lectionary almost every Sunday, I chose this passage on Love from 1st John.    

If you are like me, you may have looked at today’s scripture and thought, “Oh. John 3:16.  I know this one.”  Except, it’s not John 3:16.  It’s First John, a letter, possibly from the writer of John’s Gospel and/or the Book of the Revelation to John, to Christians who were dealing with the reality of some who had left the church and whose beliefs diverged from what John believed was the Truth about Jesus - that Jesus came into the world as a human to disclose the truth about God, to deal with the world’s sins and to provide an example of how we are to live.  Eternal life depends upon remaining in the knowledge of this truth.  John’s message revolves around two core beliefs - God is light, and God is love.   If God is light, we must reject sin and live according to Jesus’ example.  And if God is love, then we must love one another the way that Jesus loved, by laying down our lives for each other, and by living in truth and action.  

When I am choosing how to preach on any particular scripture reading on any given Sunday, I begin by reading the passage.  Not once, but several times.  And as I read I try to leave my mind open to the Spirit’s guidance, seeking the sentence or phrase that requires my attention on that particular day.  It’s a practice called Lectio Divina - divine reading - which is also a good way to practice daily meditations on Scripture.  Eventually, if I am paying attention, a phrase or word or sentence will almost seem highlighted, and I have my place to begin.  If that doesn’t happen . . .  well, let me just say I much prefer it when it does happen. I really prefer to follow the Spirit’s lead than my own thoughts on what I should preach.  

With today’s passage, the focus came rather easily.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”    

Several of us were in Woodland, California the last few days for the Annual Gathering of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Northern California and Nevada.  Friday afternoon there was pre-event workshop on the Poor People’s Campaign, which is making a National Call for Moral Revival to end systemic racism, poverty, militarism & environmental destruction.  Not everyone involved in the Poor Peoples Campaign has the same political views or religious beliefs - but everyone involved can see the effects of poverty and hatred in their own communities, and wants to find ways to make the kind of changes that will be of substance.   At that Friday workshop I was invited to speak briefly on what we are doing in Selma - with Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life - which, for those of you who may not know, is a coalition of police, faith communities and help agencies to heal our city.  It is the belief of the Chief of Police and the rest of us who are involved that only by all of us working together - loving one another as Jesus taught us to  - can we effect the kind of change that will bring an end to the attraction of gangs to kids who can see nothing good in their own futures, and hope to the poor who see only that no one cares about them, to the homeless, the addicted, to undocumented children who are afraid even to play outdoors, to those with special needs who don’t know how or where to find help, to the sick who cannot afford to get medical care . . .  Here at First Christian this is just one of the ways we try to do more than just talk about loving one another, but act in truth and love.   Here at First Christian, and throughout Selma, we know that those of us who are blessed with enough are required to share what we have with those who do not.  

And what does any of this have to do with Earth Day?  Caring for the poor is more than simply feeding the hungry - which is very important and will always need to continue - but also in making sure there is enough food for everyone, which means making sure there is enough clean water to grow that food.  It is more than helping individuals get medical care for chronic asthma and allergies, but also in making sure that the air is clean so that we all can breathe.  It is more than finding temporary accommodations for the homeless - which we will always need - but also making sure there is affordable housing for all people, because as housing costs increase, so does the number of homeless families.  It is more than participating in a clean up day once a year in April, but making sure our poor neighborhoods receive the city services they need to keep alleyways and empty lots clean so trash buildup doesn’t contribute to major health issues.  It is more than planting a tree - which we all really should be doing! -  but also in making sure there is funding for the forest services so that our forests can keep producing the oxygen we need to survive and protecting the animals that are a critical part of our environment.  Earth Day is great, and all of the Earth Day activities, but if we are to love one another as God would have us do, we must pay attention to these things all year long.   I think that if we are to live in God’s will, the world will one day look again as it did when Adam and Eve were first placed in charge, before they disobeyed the will of God.  That’s why we chose this particular picture for the message slide.  

Jesus came to remind us, to disclose to us, what God’s will is for us and for the world.  Jesus came to remind us, to show us, what it means to live in God’s will.  The Book of Genesis tells us that God put us here to care for the earth, and for each other.  Jesus came to prove to us that God is love, and that if we are to love God as we are loved, then we must also love one another, we must love all of God’s creatures, just as God loves us.  We can see God’s love when we look at the world around us and see the beauty God placed us in the middle of.  I mean, have you driven on the roads around Selma lately? Have you seen the blossoms on the fruit trees, and the green of the grapevines, and the baby goats and sheep and cows and horses?  Have you heard the birds serenading you awake in the morning?  Have you smelled the roses in front of the church?  Have you recognized God’s love manifest in the world around you today?  

And Have you heard a farmer worrying about the bees?  Have you worried when the reservoirs aren’t full, and there’s not enough water for the fruit and nuts?  Or too full and in danger of failing?  Have you felt helpless, listening to a child struggling for breath because the air quality is really bad today?   If we are to live in God’s will, we will do more than talk about these things, and about poverty, and about hatred.  If we are to love one another as God would have us do, we will act in truth, taking whatever action we can, to make the change we want to see in our world.  It might mean taking out your lawn, to make more water available to the farmers.  It might mean car pooling or putting in solar panels, to help keep the air a little cleaner.  It might mean giving money to the people who are researching to find out what is wrong with the bees.  Or voting for people who will work toward those things that you believe will make a difference in education, in housing, in health care . . .  We may not agree on specific ways to care for the earth and for each other, but we don’t have to.  What we must do, however, is live in the way we believe God wills for us to live.  

My brothers and sisters, we live in the world that our God made for us.  If we are to love God, then we will live in God’s will, and care for each other, for the world we have been given, and for all the creatures in it.  Let us stand and sing together, “This is my father’s world.” 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Are you kidding?

Scripture      John 20:1-18  NRSV

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a]into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

I think just about everybody here knows how excited I have been about Easter falling on April Fool’s Day this year.  Honestly, just about anybody who has ever met me knows how excited I have been about this.  I’ve been bouncing on my toes - like I used to be on Christmas morning, standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for my father to go down and turn on the lights and say the word that allowed the rest of us to walk into the space that somehow, overnight, had been transformed from ordinary living room into a Christmas wonderland!  Waiting for Easter has been harder this year than probably ever before!  

Easter is on April Fool’s Day!  How cool is that?  Oh, there are lots of congregations who celebrate Holy Hilarity the week after Easter, which I’ve actually never done or experienced, but apparently it’s all about jokes and such?  But for the most important day of the entire year - of the entire history of the earth! - to fall on a day dedicated to practical jokes and basic silliness - that  is awesome! Because, you see, although we will often talk about how Jesus kept doing things to turn the social order upside down, somehow we always do it so very seriously.   We take Jesus’ words and actions and suck all the life out of them, making them a subject for study and never one to just enjoy.  Consider, for example - “You have heard it said to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I tell you to love your enemy” (Matt 5:44) and . . . ”if your enemy is thirsty, give him a drink.”  (Romans 12:19) We get all serious preaching that, but really - Best joke ever!  It will make him crazy, waiting to figure out what you are going to do!  Waiting for revenge that isn’t coming.  

Another example, this one from a sermon by Kurt Vonnegut! - who was definitely not a minister, but who nonetheless preached by invitation in an Episcopal congregation on Palm Sunday, 1980.  When Judas, was fussing over the woman spending money on ointment to lavish on Jesus, Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.”  Preachers tend to get pretty heavy handed trying to parse out what this actually means, and how we should use it as an example for our lives.  Vonnegut suggests that Jesus wasn’t making a social statement, he was being more than a bit sarcastic, saying (according to Vonnegut) “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” This, Vonnegut says, is a “divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil, but to chide [Judas] about his hypocrisy just the same.”    This example comes from an article in Christian Century magazine by Miles Townes, an author and elder in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), posted online February 21 and titled “When Easter Sunday Falls on April Fool’s Day.”  (  

Among the many jokes in Scripture Townes points out is the mistaken identity joke in today’s scripture reading.  Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener!  And she thought that because there was no way she could believe anything other than that Jesus was, in fact, dead, and that his dead body was missing from the tomb.  And for Jesus it was like, “Psych!”  When he spoke her name, it wasn’t so much compassionately comforting her, but more like, “Mary, it’s me!” like you might say to someone who doesn’t recognize you in a Halloween costume.  The joke, here, Townes says, is about Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus while we, the readers, are totally able to recognize him - like a scene in a Three Stooges movie when you can see the disaster coming, a paint can is going to land upside down on Moe’s head, but Moe can’t see that coming, and it’s even funnier knowing that we know and he doesn’t.   So we get to laugh twice! 

What better joke could be played on the world that thought it was getting rid of Jesus than to have him come back from the grave?   Instead of merely a martyr, a martyr who laughs at death!  “Death, where is thy sting?” is a massive joke, because death is supposed to be final, and yet, it isn’t.  The death that was to have brought darkness and despair to his followers, that was intended to end their movement, instead, gave them hope and power to go forward and continue to preach his upside down version of reality - the way of God instead of the way of the world.  

Everything about Jesus was of the “Hah! Fooled ya!” variety.  He was born of a poor family, not one of the rich and powerful.  He was a simple rabbi, a wandering preacher, not a great king or general or even a priest.  He wasn’t at all the kind of Messiah most people had been expecting.  Even his message was a backwards.  “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”  “You have heard it said, hate you enemies.  But I say, love your enemies.”  “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God.”  “Whoever wishes to be great must be first be servant to all.”   Instead of hanging out with the priests and scholars, he consorted with the outcast and unclean.  Everything about Jesus was backwards.  God planned it that way.

Sometimes I think that we don’t give God enough credit for having a sense of humor.  Yet all we have to do is look around to see that our sense of humor had to have its basis in our Creator.  I mean, kittens.  Puppies.  Hedgehogs.  These and so many other parts of creation make us laugh, bring smiles and joy to our hearts.  We are made in God’s image, and we have a sense of humor - some of us more than others, of course - so it seems to me that God also has a sense of humor.  I mean - camels!  For that matter, humans.   We be pretty funny, just being ourselves. 

The thing that separates us from God’s grace is sin.  And part of our sin is our determination to take everything way too seriously.  It is, perhaps, our Puritan heritage, in which anything that is thought to be worthwhile must be taken very seriously, and anything humorous is considered a waste of time, at best, something that might possibly help us relax, but which certainly has no place in the seriousness of life - or Bible study.  Yet, there are enough teachers and students among us who know that humor is an excellent teaching tool.  So perhaps Jesus, arguably the world’s greatest teacher, in order to bridge the gap between God and humanity, utilizes humor more than we realize.  Townes suggests that in order to really understand the Bible, we have to be able to find and appreciate the jokes found therein (and some of them are seriously for adults only!)  Come to think of it, we do recognize quite a few jokes in the New Testament, because we frequently laugh at the cluelessness of the disciples.  

God is good at jokes, but I still think that me just being here, doing this, is one of God’s sillier jokes.  Because God knows who I am, and who I was, and where I’ve been, and what I’ve done, and still called me to serve.  And for me, that’s all about resurrection, because I woke up one morning knowing I was dead inside.  I had reached the end of what I was able to bear and had to do something different.  And as I made the physical changes I needed to make, and started to learn about how to live and act differently than I had my whole life, I found that spiritual change was happening, too.  My soul, which had been dead and empty, was beginning to fill with a new life.   And in that new life I discovered that some things I had thought were normal - and which, in the eyes of the world, are normal - were no longer the right way to live.  So instead of always thinking that I had to get mine first, I learned to make sure others were cared for first - in as small a thing as to hold open a door for a person behind me instead of going through the door and letting it close in their face, or letting the person with 2 items go ahead of me in the check out line - little stuff that society says we don’t have to do because it’s all about me first and winning, don’t ya know.   Later, as I began to switch sins for virtues - worry for faith, greed for generosity, denial for acceptance, materialism for altruism, gossip/lying for truth, and so on - I discovered that my life was now filled with more light than darkness.  (This switching of sin for virtue, by the way, is more like cleaning the house than building a new one. Pretty much a constant effort, not a once and done kind of thing.)  And when God called me to the ministry, I had to ask “Are you kidding?” because I knew who I had been, but God knows who I am.  The joke, as usual, was on me.  

Townes ends his article saying this.  “We have no problem with the Jesus who wept. This Easter, let’s grapple with the Jesus who laughed.”  I like that.  I like that in our study of Jesus’ ministry, we should be looking for his laughter, his joy, his jokes.  I like that when we say, “He is Risen” we are proclaiming God’s greatest joke.   

So let us go forth, looking for that laughing Jesus in our Bibles, and in our lives.  Let us go forth knowing that He is Risen, indeed!  

Please stand and sing with me, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”