Nic at Night; message for 05-31-15

Scripture: John 3:1-17

How many of you have memorized John 3:16 as a part of your religious upbringing? How many of you could have told us what else the 3rd chapter of John was about BEFORE you heard the scripture for this morning? I would say that John 3:16 is probably one of the most popular Bible verses. Too often, however, we neglect this marvelous story about Nicodemus; a man who comes to Jesus at night to try and get some answers about who he is and what Jesus is doing. In my mind, Nicodemus has probably tossed and turned part of the night away, because there is something bothering him. Now, if Nic is like me—and I think he is—because he takes extraordinary steps to remedy the situation—if Nic is like me, he wants to get to the bottom of this problem NOW, so he can get some sleep. I just hate it, when something interferes with my good night’s sleep—my ability to rest well. So…here comes Nic to Jesus. What do we know about Nic? Well, we know he is at least a little favorably inclined toward Jesus because he seeks Jesus out—which is one of the first acts of a disciple according to John. He also calls Jesus “Rabbi”, thus he acknowledges Jesus as a teacher. Additionally, Nicodemus uses the word “we” in his opening sentence. This implies that Nic is a leader in his community—he’s not just speaking for himself. That also may explain his visit being at night—he wants to cover up his inquiry and not appear uncertain or questioning to those whom he leads in the synagogue community.

There is also a bit of irony in this scene: Nicodemus comes to Jesus, who is the light of the world, in the midst of the darkness. He’s talking with the one who embodies the reality of God’s kingdom, but he can’t see that, because he’s “in the dark.”

In this scripture, Nicodemus seems to STAY in the dark, tossing and turning, even after his conversation with Jesus. The particular sticking point for Nic involves the idea conveyed by the Greek word Jesus uses to describe the attitude of one who does get the idea that Jesus has come to give believers a way into God’s reality, and presence, and love. Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born “anothen” in order to see God.

The word “anothen” has two meanings; it can mean “again” or it can mean “from above”. Folks from the first century, down through time until now, have been debating which use is the most appropriate.

Does “anothen” mean “again” or “from above”? The answer is YES! This word is used here intentionally because of its double meaning, John’s author intends for both meanings to be heard simultaneously. Thus Nicodemus’ question is “how can one be born both ‘again’—by the water of the human birth process, as well as by ‘the spirit’ which symbolizes a process that is enacted by divine energy. When Nicodemus responds, he is really asking for instructions so that he might begin to go about doing whatever it is that he needs to do in order to work through this mystery. The ensuing comments by Jesus try to get Nicodemus to understand that this process is not one that he can do. It is, in fact, something that is done to him…Just as natural births are events that happen TO each one of us, so is the birth that opens us up to God’s reign. This birth is the activity and work of God’s spirit and God’s son. All Nicodemus has to do; all WE have to do is recognize it and live into it.

Unfortunately that is precisely where we get caught, just like Nicodemus does here.

Nicodemus’ response to this awesome, wonderful, grace-filled work of God, which is so beautifully rendered in verse 16 of the third chapter of John “For God so loved the world that God gave the one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish-shall not be destroyed– but have eternal life.” –Nic’s response is “how can these things be?” What I often hear in conjunction with the use of this verse are similar questions like “Have you been born again” or “how can I get saved”? Putting all of the responsibility and burden for action upon the human who wants to “get right” with God.

When we look at this action of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit summarized here and enacted on the cross, is our response questions like “Why?” Or “How could that be?” If so, then we’re Nic at Night.

A more accurate, more reasoned response should be” WHOA! There is God! There is Love! There is the ultimate divine activity…”

Barbara Taylor Brown shares the following story in her comments on this part of the gospel of John”

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. First she read everything she could get her hands on–history, philosophy, psychology, religion. While she became a very smart person, nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for. She found other smart people and asked them about the meaning of life, but while their discussions were long and lively, no two of them agreed on the same thing and still she had no answer.

Finally she put all her belongings in storage and set off in search of the meaning of life. She went to South America. She went to India. Everywhere she went, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had heard of a man who did, only they were not sure where he lived. She asked about him in every country on earth until finally, deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house–a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain just below the tree line.

She climbed and climbed to reach his front door. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked.

“Yes?” said the kind-looking old man who opened it. She thought she would die of happiness.

“I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of life?”

“Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.

“No,” she said. “I mean, no thank you. I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?”

“We shall have tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.

She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.

“What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!”

“Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”…

Nicodemus was halfway there. He came by night to interview the new teacher in town. He knew he was good–he had checked his references–but he wanted more information. He wanted to see the accident reports, check out the insurance coverage. He wanted to handle the equipment, maybe try it on for size. He wanted the teacher to say something that would take away his doubts and make it easy for him to say yes, but the teacher would not cooperate.

Believe in me. That was Jesus’ dare to Nicodemus. Turn your cup upside down. Turn your mind inside out. Step into the air. Ride the wind. Be born anew, a live.

“How can this be?” Those are Nicodemus’s last words in this passage, which makes him a sort of patron saint for all of us who get stuck at the foot of the mountain, looking up, without the faintest idea of how to begin. Here is how, Jesus says. Watch me… Don’t think about it too hard. Just do as I do. Believe me. Believe in me, and when we get to the top, we will have some tea.

The Bible gives some hope for the possibility that Nicodemus did finally catch the wind of “anothen”—being born again from above:

In John 7:50-51 Nic is one who defends Jesus at his encounter with the temple police on the festival of Booths, and in John 19 it is he who helps to prepare Jesus’ body for burial after Jesus is crucified…

UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s comments provide an apt conclusion to our exploration of the truth of this passage:

Our lives are not within our hands. We do not always have to live responsibly. In fact, in our sin, we can’t. Our responsibility, our great conscientiousness is not the point. The point is God’s great grace. Our futures are not left up to us. Thanks be to God!

When a wise, spiritually competent, powerful man named Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, seeking what he had to do to earn what Jesus had, Jesus responded, “For God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but should have everlasting life.” God gave. It’s a gift. Amen.

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Can These Bones Live?

SO; I got infused with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost…Imagine that! Thus the manuscript below only partially reflects the message I brought on Sunday. If you are interested in getting a sense of what I offered that’s not written down, take a look at this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmweXyEeoBw

Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel was a prophet of the 6th century BC or BCE, at the time when Jerusalem was captured and destroyed by the Babylonians. Many of Jerusalem’s leading citizens, including Ezekiel were exiled—taken hostage and relocated to Babylon. The book of Ezekiel is made up of the prophet’s oracles and visions to the displaced people of God who have lost their land, their livelihood, their national identity, and most seriously of all; their faith. Yahweh had promised them this land and a good life as the fulfillment of the Exodus experience and their covenant with God. Now here they are again; a people in a land that is not their home; cut off, enslaved, detached from their God. The first part of this book contained judgments against God’s people that attempt to explain how this all could have happened. Israel and Judah have both acted wrongly and became involved in foreign alliances that led to their downfall.

In the vision of the prophet that we heard today, Ezekiel is placed by Yahweh—by God—in a valley full of dry bones that have long since lost all their flesh; bones that no longer remain together as a skeleton would. There is no life and no apparent hope for life. The prophet’s response to God’s opening question “Can these bones live?” reflects the obvious answer. These are dry, desiccated, dead remnants of what was. A logical, reasonable response would be “no”. However, this IS GOD asking. But even knowing that it is God, Ezekiel gives an evasive answer. “Only you—GOD—know.” Talk about hedging your bets. OF COURSE dried bones cannot come back to life, and as Thomas Dozeman says in his commentary: “Yet by attempting to avoid the obvious, the prophet does indeed place the answer to the question where it should be, and that is with God, rather that ourselves. The remainder of the story is God’s surprising answer to the question.”

As God orders Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones; to call them back to life; and then to the wind to infuse God’s spirit into these newly formed beings, it becomes clear that GOD CAN DO THE IMPOSSIBLE.

I want to invite those who are doing the readings to come forward….

REGINA: There are many in our world today who have felt like the Hebrew people did in exile—lifeless, abandoned, and with little sign of hope. Let’s hear from some of them now.

KAREN: I am a child, afraid to go to school. I am stupid, they say. I can’t do anything right, they say. Even when I try it’s never good enough. I feel like giving up.

SHERRY: I am a young girl who lives in Thailand, My parents sent me to live in the city so I could make money to help support my family. But I am locked in a room, and I hardly ever get out, and I work 16 hours a day making toys for rich kids to play with. Sometimes I just with I could die.

MARK: I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess. I still have a job. But with the downsizing, I have to do the work of 3 people. I’m always tired. I hardly ever see my kids. I hate the job, but I’m afraid to leave it. I don’t know what else I could do.

TINA: I live in Kenya. Like other women here I work 18 hours a day, every day, cooking, getting water, caring for my children and our garden. I collect wood and feed the animals and mend clothes. Yet I am considered to be of no importance.

DENNIS: My people—the aboriginal people of this country—were promised lands in a treaty that was to last forever. Now some of those lands, and plants and animals, and the bones of our ancestors, are drowned under a lake for electric power to feed the big cities. Our rivers are polluted. Our fish are gone. We cannot wait for justice forever.

REBECCA: It’s so long ago, now. I was just a young Jewish child. My family herded into railway cars, separated forever, everyone I knew died in concentration camps. I don’t know how or why I was the one who survived. I have no family pictures to put on my walls. I only have memories of those I still miss.

LEADER: Where is God’s spirit in the midst of all this? How can God’s spirit breathe new life into these bones? God’s spirit DOES come…

KAREN: the Spirit is in my mother, who tells me every day she loves me and believes in me.

SHERRY: the Spirit is in the mission I hear about down the street. I know of 3 of us who have been rescued from this hard labor and are back with their families again.

MARK: The Spirit is in my wife and children. They keep my hopes up and tell me they’ll stick by me if I stay on this job, or if I do decide to leave it, or If I’m laid off. They love and support me no matter what.

TINA: The Spirit is in the women and elders around me who still find ways to laugh and sing together and create a feeling of community. It’s in the banker who gave a few of us a low interest loan to start our own business.

DENNIS: The Spirit is in every rock, tree, insect, bird, and animal. The Spirit cannot be contained or owned by anyone. The Spirit is everywhere, inside everyone, if only we could see.

REBECCA: The Spirit is in each lost soul, each hurt soul. The Spirit waits to be listened to and invited in. The Spirit breathes hope and healing and joy into all who seek God, the source of all life. The spirit speaks to me through the eyes of my grandchildren.

And; just so we all remember: Israel did go home! The temple was rebuilt, the city once again in the hands of the Hebrews. Babylon—the once victorious and strong and conquering nation was gone in 50 years.

AND, God’s spirit in these people came to full fruition at Pentecost, as another scared, uncertain, devastated Hebrew people faced impossible circumstances. While they had witnessed the miracle of the resurrection of the Messiah, they were a small, illiterate group of poor, overwhelmed outsiders. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was power and promise for their work and witness!

I WENT HOLY SPIRIT ROGUE HERE

God IS AT WORK here today—here AMONG us. Maybe our role is to sometimes be the prophet—empowering people with the hope and reality of God’s spirit; enabling dry dead beings to be turned into new people of God! Or maybe we are people who in some circumstance are tired, dry and brittle, overwhelmed, depressed frustrated or dead. Maybe WE OURSELVES are to respond to the seemingly impossible, the fresh wind of the spirit as is blows over us and in us, making us God’s OWN PEOPLE; empowered to be healed, reassured, renewed, resurrected. Knowing implicitly where we are to work and witness to the reign of God.

CAN THESE BONES LIVE?!

Let each of us go and live out our answers immersed, enlivened and redeemed by the Holy Spirit of God!

 

“We Are Witnesses” message from 05-17-15

Scripture: Acts 1:15-26

It’s interesting to note that the book of Acts starts out with the amazing account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven and then occupies itself with this more mundane story about the process by which the believers choose a new disciple. As I thought and read about it this week, it occurred to me; this is the occasion of the first church business meeting! In the midst of some pretty incredible events and ministry, SOMEBODY has to worry about the nuts and bolts of the operation. Anyone who sticks around for our monthly meetings for business knows that things haven’t changed much. No matter what happens in worship, or in our discussions and classes, we STILL NEED to gather to make sure our bills are paid and that our house is in order. This is important work, in spite of the fact that it IS a bit mundane.

Here in Acts.we readers should first realize that the symbolism of Jesus having 12 disciples is crucial. According to Luke, the emerging church was the symbol of the “NEW Israel”—God’s kingdom on earth—and the apostles represented the 12 tribes of that kingdom. As they consider their decision, the necessary qualifications for this person are determined. An apostle had to be somebody who had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, when he was baptized by John. They also had to be a WITNESS to the resurrection of Jesus. As this piece of narrative unwinds—with the description of “why, who and how”, three men play crucial roles. As we consider each of these three, we can gain insight into the nature of what OUR ROLE as disciples and the church today is all about.

First; notice who calls this meeting and takes charge as it begins…PETER. Peter has been reinstated among the twelve, AND has assumed a leadership role! Yes, this is THE SAME Peter who throughout the story of Jesus, appears as a buffoon who acts first and thinks later; who does—at least sometimes—possess insight into the message of Jesus’ ministry. It is THIS Peter who denies Christ three times on that last journey to the cross, but also the one who remains in the upper room and who sees for himself that Jesus has risen at the tomb. Peter here, has repented of his sins and been reinstated when Jesus intended; as the rock—the foundation of this fledgling group of believers.

Then, let’s consider Judas; the one who had “turned aside to go to his own place.” This man is the one, who down through time, has been blamed and scorned for his act of treachery and betrayal against Christ (and God!) Pastor and author John Killinger says “Years ago, when my wife and I saw the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar on a London stage, the cast came down and talked with the audience during intermission. We met the actor who played Jesus and the one who played Judas, and were told that they switched parts every few nights so other members of the cast wouldn’t get to hating them. ‘Before we did this’, they said, ‘everybody ostracized the one being Judas.’”

Here in Acts, Judas’ story ends in a particularly gory episode on a field he purchased with the money he acquired when he handed Jesus over to the authorities. It appears evident that the early church was quick to blame Judas; to make HIM the criminal and scapegoat. However biblical accounts are a little less certain. Matthew says that Judas repented—returning his 30 pieces of silver to the authorities, and that they bought a field with it in which they buried the poor. In scripture several reasons are given for Judas’ actions; John’s gospel says Judas was “doomed to destruction”, John and Luke also say that Judas’ activities “fulfilled scripture”. Additionally, the author of Luke and Acts understands Satan’s influence to be key in Judas’ betrayal.

I’ve done some reading recently that suggests that Judas did what he did to force Jesus into act decisively to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. Many commentators also deduct that Judas could have received God’s forgiveness—and that even scripture alludes to that. Of course, one of the more recent headlines in religious news, in the last few years is the publication of the gospel of Judas. It is a part of the Nag Hammadi find in 1945 which contained writings from the early church that weren’t included in the authorized collection of scripture. This Gospel of Judas is one of the most fragmented pieces of text, but experts have now authenticated and translated what they have. According to this text, Judas acted as he was directed by Jesus in order to bring about the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ other followers were jealous and killed Judas. A brief excerpt from this text reads: “Look, you have been told everything…The star that leads the way is your star.”

The reality is that we will never know the truth. However, our best speculation based on what we do have—including today’s scripture—is that Judas did not witness the resurrection of Christ or witness TO the resurrection of Christ.

Finally, we have Matthias—the one chosen by lots to be Judas’ replacement; returning the apostles’ number to 12. Although Matthias is said here to fulfill the requirements for being an apostle, this is the last we hear of him…he is never mentioned again in scripture; or outside of it, really. Just as quickly as he appears, so does he disappear into obscurity. Called through this boring business meeting, Matthias, we assume, continues to serve in ordinary, obscure ways—to help folks RECALL, RECOGNIZE, and REALIZE the resurrection of Jesus—to bear witness to what brings life to all who accept it. Matthias’ story is the story of millions of believers, who as they testify to the gospel, take their place in the obscurity and ordinary, but no less miraculous way of the cross.

SO; what can WE learn from these three?!

That we serve a God who, through Christ, SERVES US well; AND that OUR lives—whether we are like Peter (with bold, dramatic leadership), or Matthias (ordinary and obscure) or even Judas (misguided, mistaken, sinful, desperate); ALL CAN BE SALVAGE; AND all of our lives might just—MOST CERTAINLY—have a place in God’s reign.

In places of awesome ministry, in the boredom of business; anything in between:

“The star that leads the way is our star.”

Our best; our ONLY response can and should be to testify as we are called.

We are witnesses to the resurrection!

Message from 04-12-15 : No “Ifs”, “Ands”, or “Buts” John 20:19-31

So here we are, hidden away in the upper room with the disciples, uncertain and fearful, as they try to make sense of their Easter experiences. According to the gospel of John, it has been quite a day for them, beginning with Mary’s discovery that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb where they’d left him. As Peter and the beloved disciple rush to go to see for themselves, they encounter the burial cloths, cast aside as if by someone who no longer needed them—who could not be held by linen bandages and who has overcome the confines of the grave. Peter doesn’t know what to think; you can almost hear the wheels turning in his head—“what has happened; how did this happen; now what will we do?” In contrast, the beloved disciple upon the discovery of the wrappings and empty tomb, instantly recognizes and believes that their friend has done what he said he was going to do. Mary left behind, as the two men make their way back to town, gives over to the grief of one who has experienced the loss of everything good in her life. While in tears, she meets a person who she thinks might know what has happened to Jesus’ body. As she relates her sad tale to this person, she is named and comforted by the very person she grieves. Mary’s realization of this amazing miracle spurs her to hurry back to the upper room to share and testify to the reality of the risen Jesus.

But, as our text for today opens, the disciples remain in that upper room, trying– it seems– to determine how they will return to business as usual…or more importantly what business as usual will be for them. In spite of Mary’s revelation, the disciples at this point are letting the world control their actions and attitudes, rather than the risen Christ. Jesus, however, breaks into their locked up fearful lives and bids them peace as fulfillment of his promises given to them before he is crucified. He then empowers them to receive the Holy Spirit and commissions them with the work of ones who have witnessed the risen Lord. As UCC pastor and Bible commentator Kate Huey says: “At creation, God breathed life into us humans, a tender, intimate, up-close and personal moment, and here we are again, with Jesus not holding his disciples at arm’s length but re-creating this sorry crew of weak disciples, giving them the gift of new life, the gift of grace, and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world. However, he does not give them the gift of a personal, “private” faith, a just-you-and-me-Jesus faith that has nothing to do with the world that God loves so well. Instead, these weak and overwhelmed disciples, now Spirit-gifted, are Jesus’ gift to the world.

One week later, even after having received this first hand experience that answers their every concern and question, as well as changing the direction and focus of their lives. Where are these guys? Read verse 26 –they’re back behind closed doors! They certainly haven’t changed much—it is in fact back to the old routine for them. Often when this scripture is used in worship, we choose to focus on Thomas who, not being present for that initial interaction with Risen Jesus makes a pretty strong statement. And what name has the church given to Thomas as a result of his demands? Doubting Thomas!

One of the gifts of the seminar I attended several years ago about the gospel of John was the correction of a wrongly translated and interpreted phrase is this passage. Most importantly, the Greek word for “doubt” never appears in this scripture from John.

In verse 27 where many translations say “do not doubt but believe” a more accurate rendering is “Be no longer unbelieving, but believe.” In other words Thomas doesn’t DOUBT anything; in fact what he says in response to the other disciples’ report of having seen the Lord up in verse 25 is a definite and emphatic conditional statement:

“If I do not see the mark of the nails, and put my hand in his side, then I will definitely NOT BELIEVE.” And, as the seminar speaker, Dr. Rick Carlson, put it, rather than “DOUBTING Thomas”, the text presents “Conditional Thomas”

And the 64, 000 dollar question is of course; “what does this all mean for us?!”

Well, I wasn’t merely using a illustrative technique at the beginning of this message when I said “Here we are in the upper room with those scared, uncertain disciples.”

We are, in truth and reality, in exactly that same place, at that same time. Here we are, one week after Easter day, back to trying to re-establish and re-enter our lives as “Business as usual.” The regular grind has started or will start tomorrow, if you’ve been on Spring break all week.

After a nice, well attended worship last week, it’s time to dig in and get back to the work of the church, and a large part of that work, we often perceive, is based on conditions: “If we come to worship, we’ll get the week started off right.” “When we give our time, money, and effort to our faith community, we will be a successful community.”

Dr. Carlson remarks: “How often do we approach our faith relationship as a legal contract in which we seek to establish the terms by which we will respond with faith? ”If I have historical proof…If I have a sign…If near-death experiences can verify…If God would do…If Jesus would cure…Then I will believe in Christ…Then I will know that God exists…Then I will know that there is life after death…Then I will make a commitment of faith.”
We replicate the folly of conditional Thomas each time we establish for Christ how Christ needs to operate in our lives and each time we ground our faith in what we demand from God, rather than in what God does in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.”

The beautiful truth of this passage from John is that Jesus knows what we need. AND Jesus gives us what we need before we even have to ask. Time and time again, just in chapter 20, Jesus appears, and re appears, and re-appears to those who are scared, uncertain, grieving, frustrated, or just trying to make it through another day…. “With no questions asked, Jesus offers himself and gives the repeated gift of his presence and his peace.”

I was caught by the following article one of my colleagues posted on Facebook earlier this week and I offer it as a way to illustrate living beyond a conditional response to our resurrected savior’s ongoing reality.

Denying and Affirming the Resurrection by Peter Rollins:

“At one point in the proceedings someone asked if my theoretical position led me to denying the Resurrection of Christ. This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the subject, which I repeat here.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”

SO, how will we live on this side of the Easter miracle? I would like to challenge and encourage us to act without pre-conditions, in contrast to our culture, our sense of purpose, and our egos… To do the simple, but hard work of living as Jesus’ gift to the world, speaking and enacting the Good News. To just try to see and receive Jesus present and active wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, no ifs, and or buts about it…

Eulogy for Linda Kay Elliott Christopher

I brought this obituary, eulogy and message at the memorial for my first cousin on March 5, 2015 in Sumter, SC

All human life is sacred; in its being born, in its living, and also in its dying. All human life is valuable. Thus, Linda Kay Elliott Christopher’s life was sacred and valuable, and lived in her own special way, with her own personality and qualities. The gifts and graces which she offered are never lost. The unique attributes which she brought to us in her life and relationships lies now within our own lives and travel into the future with us. Our lives have been changed because we knew and loved and lived with her.

Linda Kay Elliott Christopher was born March 20, 1954 in Coshocton, Ohio. She was the daughter of William Earl Elliott and Betty Lou Roof Elliott. Linda enjoyed sewing and was very active in the Girl Scouts as both a child and an adult. She loved camping and playing cards with her friends and family. Linda served as a lay leader and preacher in this church and at Santee Summer Ministry. Linda enjoyed music and was a talented singer and pianist. Her true joy in life was spending time with her grandchildren. Linda Kay Elliott Christopher died on Sunday, March 1, 2015, at her residence. She will be remembered as a loving daughter, mother, grandmother, sister and friend. She will be dearly missed by all that knew her.

Surviving in addition to her parents are: three daughters, Carrie Gulledge and her husband, William, Jessica Young and her husband, Terry, and Kimberly Christopher and her husband, Arthur,

two brothers, Kevin Elliott and his wife, Candice, and Kris Elliott and his wife, Carol; five grandchildren, Christian Gulledge, Daniel Davis Jr., Keyon (Kee-on) Young, Kamora (Kah-mar-a) Grice and Keyra (kear-ah) Grice;

five nieces: Michele Swanson, Chris Thyret, Jennifer Valdez, Megan Elliott and Dylan Elliott; Linda is also survived by her special friend, Henry Gregg.

Linda was preceded in death by a sister, Lori Sue Elliott, and brother, Kip Alan Elliott.

Scripture:

Let us be assured by these words of Jesus from the 14th chapter of the gospel of John:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. ? If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place I am going. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. Peace I leave you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”

“I’ll Fly Away”

I want to begin by sharing that I wish I could stand before you and offer you unequivocal and certain responses to the question that probably occupies most of us in this place, Why did this have to happen?! But I can’t, because I don’t know what the answer is…What I can do is state the truth about Linda’s passing. It really stinks. This is not what God intended or intends for any person. God’s intentions are that each and every one of us would have long, happy, fulfilling lives. As a parent and a daughter, I can’t thing of anything else that is sadder or harder than facing the demise of a close, special loved one. As a family member, the pain of loss is close and real. I know how sad and frustrated you must be. I am too, and I stand with you in that dark unhappy place before God. It is my conviction that God honors and welcomes us with all these emotions, because God also grieves Linda’s loss to us. Additionally, it is my conviction that God offers each of us and will continue to offer for as long as it takes; that comforting, reassuring peace in which Linda now resides.

I want to help us remember together during this time the person Linda was and will continue to be for us all; for the gifts she gave will live on…

My memories of Linda are centered in the circumstance of our being first cousins. We were 2 of the group of 8 of us, who were the children of the three Roof sisters—Betty, Gerry, and Barbara. Linda was second in line, behind her brother Kip in age. Years of being together at our Grandmother’s on holidays, visiting each other’s homes have produced quite a collection of great reminiscences. We 8 spent many hours ensconced in the basement of Grandma’s little house playing games, terrorizing each other, and putting on programs for the adults. Linda’s musical abilities were always in great demand for these. I remember one specific program we did where we sang the songs from sound of music. Because uniformity was important to the two elder kids, the rest of us had to all change our last name to Elliott when we were introduced at the start of the show. Linda is also responsible for my introduction to the music scene of the 1970’s. Her collection of 45 records always seemed to come along when she visited our house. Through her, many popular artists like the Carpenters, Carly Simon, and in particular, the hit “In the Year 2525” made their way into my personal favorites.

It is a particularly bittersweet privilege to eulogize one of your childhood heroes.

Betty and Bill remember a quiet little girl 3 year old, who never cried about being brought into their home. Kip had so wanted a little sister and he was especially glad to meet her; he said he wanted to take her right to Sunday school to meet everybody there. At her first Sunday dinner, Linda was strongly encouraged to eat her lima beans. Not liking lima beans, she hid them in her panties. Uncle Bill remembers that Linda did grow into a young lady who had no problem whatsoever at sharing about how she felt about something or what in particular she wanted. Aunt Betty recollects that she loved to be given tasks to help with in the kitchen. Linda herself remembers some highlights of her growing up in the letter she wrote to Betty for her 80th birthday:

Linda’s daughters remember their mother as an excellent grandmother—“Memaw” or “Grandma Linda”—who delighted in all the grandchildren. They have fond memories of innumerable card games and being encouraged to participate in Girl Scouts where Linda served as a leader. Jessica shared the lyrics to those oldie but goodie girl scout songs at the kitchen table the other evening: Make New Friends, and I’ve Got a Smile in My Pocket.

The lyrics to “Wind Beneath My Wings”—some of which are in the bulletin today– have special meaning for Carrie after a conversation with Linda when Linda told Carrie that she in fact was the Wind to her mother’s wings. Kimberly has written the following letter…

Such rich memories, but certainly not enough. And I have to wonder—what do we have left besides the memories? What remains of Linda in our world to accompany and comfort us?

In I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says this about love:

If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. 3 If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.

4 Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 7 Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.

8 Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. 9 We know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become an adult, I’ve put an end to childish things. 12 Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. 13 Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.

While we often use this passage as a celebration of romantic love; it’s useful to remind ourselves here and now that the Greek word used in this passage for love is AGAPE ! It’s that special love that we recognize and understand as being a special gift of God and defines unselfish and sacrificial love. This is the love that is the very essence of the divine; the love that can influence and inspire of all of our relationships—human and divine! We see it in its truest form as we consider the sacrifice of God’s only child Jesus as he died for us all. We experience it as we truly and completely live and act for someone else. It is this love in which we know and have experienced the best of Linda’s being…

Love is one of the core eternal pieces of Linda which will persist: It was there when she was born, and as she lived as a daughter, a mother, a grandmother; it was there as she left the pain and limitations of this earth on Sunday morning. Linda’s best legacy is love. It is love that enables her –and us– to be eternal beings, with a destiny that unfolds on the “other side” of our earthly life. Her life and our lives are never-ending stories; birth, life, death-rebirth, eternal life. “Linda Love” continues to permeate and infuse each one of us as we walk with one another, as we live and work and play and rest. Love—and UNIQUE, WONDERFUL Linda—CONTINUES to energize and enliven our world: as we act individually to maintain loving relationships; and as we act together as a family and a community to show and share this love with anyone we meet, and finally—ultimately– as we each realize the coming of God’s eternal reign.

Thanks be to God for the life of Linda Kay Elliott Christopher, and thanks be to God for the blessings her life will continue to reveal in us and those that we love.

In conclusion, I would like to share a poem that once more offers the vision and expectation that Linda Christopher continues to love and influence each one of us forever:

I give you this one thought to keep—

I am with you still—I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sunlight on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night

Do not think of me as gone—

I am with you still-in each new dawn.

 

Let us look again to God in Prayer:

O God, You know the lives we live and the deaths we die- woven so strangely of purpose and chance, of reason and the irrational, of strength and of weakness, of happiness and pain, of laughter and tears.

Into your hands we commend the soul of Linda Kay Elliott Christopher. Through your grace, that can do far more than we can think or imagine, fulfill in Linda your purpose that reaches beyond time and death. Lead Linda home, and into her destiny as a beloved child of your kingdom. Continue to bring solace and support to Linda’s family and friends. Allow their memories and the love they share together to sustain and comfort them. Into your hands also, we commit our lives. Hold us in your keeping and enable us to live into the intentions you have for each of us. Guide and direct us through the power of the Holy Spirit and with the example of your son Jesus, who taught to his disciples this prayer, that we will now pray together:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and power and the glory forever and ever, AMEN

Message for 03-01-15 “The Scarlet Journey–week 1: Money and Sex”, scripture Mark 14:3-9

The schedule of Bible reading for this year—known as the Lectionary—does what I think is a strange thing…You’ve heard me say that the featured gospel is supposed to be Mark for 2015; well during Lent and Holy Week the powers that be decided to switch to primarily readings from the Gospel of John. I don’t really know why—except that Mark is the shortest of the four gospels and maybe they were afraid that there wouldn’t be enough Mark to last the whole year. Anyway, as you’ve probably noticed from the bulletin, I have decided to go ahead and be attentive to Mark’s story in spite of the Lectionary. I am doing this because I believe that Mark has a particular way of telling the story that is important. I am not alone in this; my friend Caspar Green has written a study book on the story of the passion in Mark for this very reason. I will be relying on his material—which he calls the Scarlet Journey– for our little adventure here at Adirondack Meeting. He uses the word “scarlet” to emphasize that his perspectives will not follow this year’s traditional journey to the cross. Our job on this journey is to pay special attention to what Mark—and only Mark—says. This shouldn’t be too onerous; the passion narrative is only about 3 chapters in Mark. Our job is also to notice where we get surprised or shocked by what we learn, for this may well lead us to new understandings about Jesus Christ; as well as influence or renew our faith in ways that help us live it out in today’s world.

Let’s start by hearing what Caspar says about the particular importance of the gospel of Mark: “it’s the earliest of the four gospels in the New Testament. As such, it reflects in many instances the stories about Jesus that are closest to the way they were originally told. As with any story told orally, over time details change, and the significance of events are rearranged. Written thirty-something years after Jesus’ crucifixion, even Mark’s accounts have already been retold to address the concerns of the second generation of Jesus followers. Still, so close people and events that touched off the Christian movement, they reflect a highly similar understanding of the circumstances in which Jesus and his original disciples lived. The first readers of Mark would have had the chance to see the Temple in Jerusalem with their own eyes, and would have experienced the competing claims of the same religious and political authorities Jesus experienced. In other words because this is the oldest version of the Jesus story, the similarities it has with the actual world in which Jesus lived, ministered, and died are very close. The culture, those in power, those NOT in power in Jesus’ life closely resemble what is depicted in Mark’s story and in Mark’s world.

Along with his commentary and interpretation of this part of Mark, Caspar has also created his own translation from the Greek of the particular passages he considers. I will be sharing these as well each week, in hopes of allowing a fresh approach to the texts. You are invited to follow along from the back of your bulletin as I read again Mark 14:3-9 according to Caspar Green:

Jesus was at Bethany in Simon’s house. (Simon was a leper.) While they were eating diner, a woman came with a bottle of Clive Christian perfume. She smashed the jar and poured it all over his head. In anger, several of the company protested, “Why was this perfume wasted like that? We could have sold that for more than $200,000! Think how much we could have given to the poor with that!” And they excoriated her.

But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why are you berating her? She’s done me a great service! You’ll always have poor folk with you, and you can always be kind to them. But I’m not always going to be here for you. She’s just doing what she could to help. Now I’m ready to go to my grave. Seriously, wherever people tell this story all over the world, people will tell this part. And they’ll remember her.”

First, a little background information:

What kind of picture do you get in your mind when you think of Simon, “the Leper”? What does that even mean? Most of our Bibles suggest that leprosy is similar to what we know of today as Hanson’s disease or another skin disease…For all we know, Simon had a birthmark or a mole or a boil. He’s NOT sick; he’s unclean. Cleanliness has nothing to do with germs here; it’s all about whether someone is in conformity with the rules or laws. The important question is; are you behaving or appearing like the law indicates is “normal?” In addition, anything touched or possessed by Simon is ALSO UNCLEAN by association. Eating at his house would be like having dinner in a gas station restroom for us—REALLY ICKY. What’s more is that Jesus cannot “heal” Simon, because he isn’t sick. Purification requires going through the ritual at the temple that makes one “clean”, which includes the purchase of a specific animal sacrifice. It is very likely that Simon is not only “unclean”, he’s poor as well. What the heck is Jesus doing hanging around with him?

And then, there’s this woman with a jar of nard or perfume. When you look at the website for Clive Christian Perfume—which is used in Caspar’s transation, you’ll see that it claims to be the world’s most expensive perfume…She comes forward and anoints Jesus, breaking the expensive container as well as spilling out completely the costly oil. This sets up a number of crucial contrasts…

Here you have poor old unclean Simon on one hand, a social outcast who can’t afford the cost of purification, and on the other, a woman—of course ALSO an outcast—because she’s a woman, who has lavished in excess on Jesus a perfume used only by the wealthy.

On one hand you have the followers who are scandalized at the woman’s behavior, assuming that the expense of the perfume could have been used to feed the poor there’s the money issue—not seeing beyond the value of the money involved; on the other there’s Jesus who has just taught his followers about caring for the poor. But in this case he praises the actions of the woman, calling her a true disciple that everyone should remember and learn from; which is something that hasn’t been done over time; there’s the sex or gender issue—not seeing beyond the fact that a WOMAN is involved.

On one hand, you have a crowd who sees Jesus’ presence at Simon the Leper’s as an opportunity where they can capitalize on the difference between them and him to stroke their own egos, and on the other there’s Jesus who wants merely to eat with folks in an attempt for them to know Simon as an equal outside of the constraints of the social and religious mores.

What conclusions can we reach from this setting? First off and foremost: Jesus IS ALL ABOUT breaking down the barriers of class, and social oppression. He eats with, helps, and LOVES ALL. THAT IS THE GOOD NEWS OF GOD THAT JESUS BRINGS.

Secondly, Jesus here is offering his followers an opportunity to really SEE the situation and make a difference. It isn’t enough that they condescended to come into Simon’s presence. They COULD BE looking for ways to help solve his problem. The woman’s interruption with a sacrifice of such extravagance boggles the ordinary person’s mind and proves the poverty of the assembled company’s hearts. She had a lot and gave it without hesitation. It’s about one’s willingness to do what needs to be done with what is available in the moment. Unfortunately the only person who sees the extraordinary generosity of her act was Jesus. That’s why he says she should always be remembered for her actions. It’s too bad she was judged only by her gender and that her gift was misunderstood by the crowd.

AS I considered this story, I couldn’t help but think of the recent incident in Hudson Falls involving the effort to establish a recovery center for heroin addicts within a church building in a residential neighborhood. A local clergy person offered the facility from a place of really seeing and understanding the situation at hand; he himself is a recovering addict. Initially this seemed as if it was going to be an important initial step in combating the epidemic of addiction in our area. Unfortunately the neighbors to the church see this as a threat to their community. Their fear is that those visiting the center would put the locals “at risk” and create an undesirable environment for family living.

As I view this situation up against this passage in Mark, I can recognize some common issues. Those in recovery seem to be viewed as unclean; their circumstances are not really understood nor are they readily incorporated or welcomed into the status quo of normal community living. Most of those who live nearby claim to be in support of “somebody doing something” to counteract the heroin epidemic, but they don’t want it in their “backyard”—that would certainly be as over the top as throwing expensive perfume all over a revolutionary leader. If we open our eyes to the situation and really see the truth of drug addiction recovery and prevention work, we might see that there are most certainly already addicts in varying stages of recovery in that neighborhood; that the problem isn’t about THEM—it involves US ALL. Why throw any lip service or money at a problem that can be addressed with time and space and people who care and are equipped to help those that want help? What will it take for us to look deeper than the money and sex issues in this case that cover over the reality that exists beyond cultural assumptions and prejudice? Here, it IS NOT ABOUT just throwing money at “the poor” or “a problem”, or making assumptions due to gender or social class. These block and destroy a real effort to resolve or relieve the situation. It is about trying to use our abundance in ways that really see the problems and doing the best we can when we have the chance.

Where else in our lives are we being called by Mark’s Jesus to get beyond the assumptions made by our society in order to deal meaningfully and responsibly with an issue that threatens to destroy the gifts and opportunities of our common humanity?

Where or how do we see ourselves or our faith community acting in response to the status quo of our culture in order to allow Good News to flourish?

Message for 02-08-15: “On The Move!” Scripture: Mark 1:29-39

I heard a cute joke this week about a kindergarten teacher who gave her class a show and tell assignment. The students were instructed to bring in an object to share with the class that represented their religion. The first student got up in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin, and I am Jewish, and this is a Star of David.” The second student got up in front of the class and said, “MY name is Mary. I am a Catholic, and this is a rosary.” The third student got up in front of the class and said, “My name is Tommy, and l’m a Quaker, and this is a casserole.”…

While we don’t have as many fundraiser meals, carry-ins or potlucks as some faith communities do, sometimes it does seem like we could use a covered dish as a logo!
What I want to invite us to do this morning, is to hold that image of faith-related practice as we know it here in our meetinghouse today, over against the image of faithfulness that Jesus shows as depicted by the author of Mark in the scripture reading we have today from that first chapter of Mark.
We’ve already talked a bit about the story as Mark begins to tell it. lt moves quickly; it has a sense of urgency; Jesus is very active-doing and going all over the place. He bursts onto the scene, and as we noticed and in just a page or so: Jesus has been baptized, tested, taught in the synagogue, and exorcised a demon all in the space of about 30 verses. No time for a carry-in there.
ln the next ten verses which we’re focusing on for today, lf we step back and consider them, they give us an outline of what Jesus’ mission is going to be about, and where it will be aimed-who will be the recipients of the amazingly disruptive ministry of this amazing man.
Just as quickly as he leaves the synagogue, Jesus goes to the home of a couple of his new disciples. Here upon learning that Simon’s mother in law is ill, he heals her-just Iike that! OK-let’s think here a minute.
First off, this is the Sabbath. lt is against the law to heal on the Sabbath. Healing is also something that when it happens, happens according to the rules and ritual in the temple. Jesus’ focus is a woman…a person that has no status or real value in this culture. Nobody usually cares or takes time with those who are second class citizens.

Then as the afternoon progresses, Jesus continues to make himself available to all who come to be healed. He gives no regard to who people are-whether they’re good Jews or outsiders; folks who are clean or unclean. His power is great and effective,Jesus heals EVERYBODY!
Jesus is serving notice by his actions: His main goal is to bring healing to anybody who needs it. He is also guided by the in-breaking of the Good News, not by Jewish laws and conventional practices. When Jesus does slow down and regroup, he retreats back to the wilderness, to the place where God spoke most clearly to him, in order to ensure that he is in alignment with God’s intentions for him. He spends time in prayer, connecting to the source of his power and authority.

And then, just in case any reader is uncertain about what is going on and why, Jesus verbally declares his mission: “lt is for this reason that I came-to proclaim the message -to show and share God’s reign-with those in the neighboring towns. Jesus is here to proclaim through healing and exorcising that the Good News is for the whole world. He’s on the move!
Jesus’ mission is clear, and so is the mission of those who follow him and claim to be his disciples… “The gospel for today reminds us that the story of Jesus is always on the move and will not allow any of us hearers to remain who or where we are “
So, our job is to enter into this journey and continue the work. But are we doing our job?

AND, where do carry-ins with casseroles, and “fundraising dinners” fit into this model?
I DO think they’re there.
I am convinced that as we meet, and share a meal that God through Christ joins us, enabling and empowering our thoughts and discussions, so that good ideas, activities, energies emerge. But I think that we are not to be content with stopping there; with allowing our focus to be limited to those efforts which will just serve to keep our little meeting safe and secure and financially solvent. Let’s not limit our work to a mere intellectual exercise where we focus on getting the most bang for the buck. Let’s also allow the Spirit-which blows where it will-to excite, inspire, and to change our Iives!

God’s call through Jesus is to get on the move! To gather our resources and then to journey out where we exorcise the demons of a culture and world that says that people are a disposable commodity, and the meaning of life is limited to what you can produce or earn. We will truly succeed only as we catch God’s vision and then work to proclaim it to our neighbors-here locally and throughout the world.

ln the words of Jesus from Mark chapter 1: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news!”

Let’s allow that, friends, to guide and direct our mission and goals; to leas us to where WE TOO are bringing forth the reign of God in worship, words, and deeds.

Let’s get on the move!

message for 02-01-2015; “Who Speaks for God?” scripture–Deuteronomy 18:15-20

This week, I was introduced to a new online newsletter called “Common Grounds” that’s aimed at progressive, liberal religious workers and leaders. I read with particular interest the article contained within entitled “15 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2015”. (This article is available to be read in the back parlor.) While there was only one of these clergy whom I’d heard about before, I was gratified to notice that 7 of the 15 were women, and that not only Christian folk were named. The one person I knew of –Rev. Amy Butler, is the new senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City, who will continue to encourage this church’s political activism, emphasizing dialogue and open communication. Archbishop Blasé Joseph Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, who is Pope Francis’ first major appointee in the U.S. is destined to continue the work on issues he prioritized in his earlier posts—civilty and kindness, immigration reform, and income inequity, along with the local concerns of Chicago Catholics– education, hospitals, and charity. Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdal who is senior rabbi and cantor NYC’s Central Synagogue. She is the first woman who is ordained as both cantor and rabbi, as well as the first Asian American in either role. Her emphases include innovative worship, and justice in economic and social concerns. Finally, this article names clergy in Ferguson, MS as being the first to respond to the needs of the community after the death of Michael Brown. They continue to lead the growing interfaith movement to end violence and police brutality.

While the areas and interests are very diverse among these 15 clergy, all are well educated and verbally articulate; AND they’re all already making news. While I am in respect and admiration of each and every one with their unique and important roles and positions, I also noticed that these leaders are in direct contrast in some ways to the type of prophet that is described in the Deuteronomy passage we heard this morning; the prophets who will be raised by God’s self to be those who speak for God.

Scholar Beth Tanner describes the circumstances surrounding this scripture:

The literary setting for Deuteronomy is at the end of Moses’ life as the wandering Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. Moses is the only leader they have ever known, and his impending death puts the community in jeopardy. Deuteronomy represents Moses’ last words to Israel, both present and future. The style is one of a sermon. In other words, it is not simply information, but it encourages and cajoles, calling the people to belief and a life lived according to God’s instruction. It is the equivalent of Moses’ ancient life instruction book to the people of Israel… This passage begins with the reason why prophets are needed. It reaches back to the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20. When the people heard God speak they were so frightened, they begged Moses to speak with God and be their mediator. Prophets, then, are selected by God for the sake of the people. Prophets answer to God, not to the people, so they are free to speak the truth. Prophets also come “from among their own people” These speakers of truth are home grown. They know the ways and the hearts of the people they speak to and connect with them. They who speak for God must also be paid attention to, for to ignore their calls is the same as ignoring God.”[i]

The specific roles prophets fill include being God’s mouthpiece, and their proclamations come without the flashy acts that accompany the declarations made by the sorcerers, soothsayers, or oracle pronouncers present in this culture. Prophet are NOT foretellers; but FORTH tellers, the ones who speak the truth of God’s ongoing presence and activity. They were also seen to interpret the messages they give to the people. We encounter self-proclaimed modern day prophets on the streets, or on cable TV announcing to their listeners that “God loves them” or that “they are going to hell”.

My questions concern the validity of their messages, and how we can know for sure that these people are in fact speaking for God. WHO are the legitimate prophets among us these days and How DO we know that what they offer is truth? Here I must share my conviction that we DO STILL need help sometimes to hear God well, and I believe that God will DO ALMOST ANYTHING and USE ANYBODY to get us to listen and respond. But also, there are some key attributes that can be noticed in order to discern whether the person and the message are Truth.

Daniel Clendenin, author of the website “Journey With Jesus” strongly recommends we use what he calls our “sanctified common sense”[ii] – a kind of internal personal gut check—“do I think God is using this time and this person to speak to me?” I would say that this is made holy—or sanctified—by including God in the query. A “what would God say about this?” kind of supposition. Also, remember that speaking truth does not mean you never offend someone.

A “word of the Lord” can also be validated by noticing the demeanor of the person in the prophetic role:

“people who speak truly for God operate with a healthy sense of the audacity of what they are attempting. They are acutely aware of the presumption inherent in claiming to speak for God. Who in their right mind would hazard such a claim given the combination of human frailty and divine inscrutability?!… This “holy hesitancy” is well-founded, too; in the Deuteronomy passage,…the penalty for false prophecy was death.”[iii] Most prophets are going to shun attention and notoriety. Those who reveal truth want no attention beyond the communication of their message.

Secondly, we should notice what accompanies the prophesy. The early dessert monastics were certain that concrete acts of love accompany genuine claims of divine knowledge.

Clendenin notes “In Mark’s Gospel we read that people were amazed at Jesus’s authority and his “new teaching.” But in marked contrast to how the religious establishment operated, writes Mark, his was an authority that authenticated itself by fostering human healing and wholeness. [the dessert fathers]called this “integral wholeness,” and we wish it not only for ourselves but for every human being…

they counseled an unqualified compassion toward human weakness, a consideration for frailty, and heartfelt empathy for those who struggle. Christians truly close to the heart of God “never frighten with bleak despair those who are in trouble or unsettle them with harsh words.” They gladly, fully, and freely proclaimed that God alone was “the gracious arbiter of hidden strength and human infirmity.” They looked “with a kind of overwhelming wonder at his ineffable gentleness.”[iv]

Beth Tanner offers other attributes that accompany the authentic prophecy. These are gleaned from her research on the examples of Old Testament prophets:

–the true prophet seeks neither self-promotion nor riches

–the true prophet speaks God’s word; not his or her own. And they often speak words that are uncomfortable, to say the least.

–the true prophet bears a resemblance to what has come before. They remind us of Moses or Jeremiah or any other biblical prophet.

–the true prophet is known by her or his “fruits”. Does the prophet encourage others to follow themselves or Jesus? Do their messages lead to repentance and transformation?

The Quaker perspective on prophets and prophecy is somewhat unique and relates to what we understand about being faithful conduits for Truth. Anyone can come to know the reality and activity of God and then share it! As Friends worship, we allow time and space for the prophetic to come alive in us…Messages from out of silence can have a particularly prophetic impact, as the discovery of knowing God as Truth becomes the reality that shapes and guides the listeners’ lives. The guidelines for sharing these revelations verbally in meeting line up in synch with what we’ve already heard as attributes of legitimate prophecy…Many Friends speak of an almost overwhelming sense of hesitancy that comes after they discern that they might have a message to share. Some folks won’t speak unless they feel a shivering of the hairs on the back of their necks—a sort of “quaking”. The paragraph describing the process of speaking in worship from the online Quaker Information Center conveys the care and caution implicit within the activity:

“If you find yourself “prompted” to offer a message, the first step is to ask yourself whether it is a genuine leading of the Spirit. Does the urge to speak seem to arise from a deeply spiritual motion, rather than simply being a desire to share your own active thoughts? Does it seem that the message is intended to be given to the assembly, rather than being personal guidance just for you, or something you may feel called to say to an individual later? Is your inclination to speak free of personal motives or “hidden agendas”? Does it seem that now is the moment that you are called to speak? (These are not easy things to discern, and it takes practice, including trial and error, to become confident. Do not be afraid to be wrong!)”

Friends also understand that speaking Truth can come anytime, any place, by anyone as a product of their conviction that the Divine works effectively in our ordinary and everyday lives—NOT only in a worship setting.

Here then are some specific examples of prophetic speech that I have encountered…

–First off and foremost the messages that have come in worship to a participant that seem spoken just to or for me in often unsettling and challenging, but also comforting ways

–the words of my son spoken just as I arrived back home from the experience of offering pastoral care to the victims of the Ethan Allen boating accident on Lake George. Andy declared that we –and I in particular –had been brought to this place in order to be available for ministry in this situation.

–The invitation and exhortation of Sara King Niccoli as she leads gatherings, offers information about social justice issues, and provides opportunities to participate as activists in response to inequality and oppression. I am attending the Moral Monday prayer vigil tomorrow at the state assembly, in response to the discomfort she has created within me about specific topics facing the state legislature and the proposed budget.

–And then there was the time that I “of all people” was given a prophetic message to share. During the farewell luncheon for the outgoing pastor of First Baptist Church in Glens Falls, I rose to give what I thought was an affirmation of that pastor’s ministry and the places I’d experienced it during his tenure. And then, a couple of sentences in, I found myself saying “A word of the Lord for you” and then offered reassurance and encouragement to the congregation there as they began to search for a new leader…nothing earthshattering really, but DEFINITELY from God. I said, somewhat hesitantly and tentatively “It’s going to be OK. Things will work out alright.” I then sat down to begin a process of asking myself what I thought I had been doing…I have no way of knowing if anyone actually heard what I was intimating to the congregation. But I continue to be clear that I was called by God to speak those words…

–There are tons of folks down through modern times who we identify as prophetic: Dietrich Bonheoffer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and more recently Malalah Yousafzai; the Muslim teenager shot in 2012—when she was 15– by terrorists; for advocating for education for girls…

On those scary nights when she double checked all the doors and windows, Malala also prayed. “At night I used to pray a lot. I’d pray to God, ‘Bless us. First our father and family, then our street, then our whole ‘mohalla’ (district), then all Swat.’ Then I’d say, ‘No, all Muslims.’ Then, ‘No, not just Muslims; bless all human brings.'”

           Today Malala is an outspoken critic of all forms of “detestable practices” done against all people, and in particular against women and girls. Stated positively, she’s an advocate for the inherent dignity of “all human beings.”[v]

Truly prophetic, I’d say…AND so would God, I’d expect.

So Friends as we continue to consider who speaks for God, let us be guided by what we know about prophets from the Bible and through our own experiences; and about how God works through them. It is my hope that all 15 of the clergy named in that article do actually give prophetic witness this year, AND that the world hears them.

Additionally, let us be ready to also become the prophet when called by God. I pray that as we are led, so might we recognize the opportunity, as well as speak the Truth given to us.

May we all be blessed by the witnessing and speaking and the acting out of the word of the Lord.

[i] Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20 by Beth Tanner, Preaching this Week on workingpreacher.org

[ii] Journey With Jesus, Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net; post on January 23, 2006

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] Journey With Jesus, Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net; for February 1, 2015

Message for 01-25-15: “LISTENING to the Call” Scripture: Mark 1:14-20

On Wednesday night, Jodi and I walked over to the middle school for a discussion on stress and how it affects tweens and teens. While much of what we heard was good, valid information, the one piece that really stuck with me was a comment made by one of the teen panelists. This young woman, a high school junior, remarked that one of the most important things parents and adults can do to help young people is to listen. To listen actively, openly, and without judgment is key to getting folks to really understand what is going on in the lives of young people; listening helps teens to open up authentically and to reveal entirely the various stressors and tough experiences that are a part of their world. To hear this reminded me again that even though my son is 22, I still have a parental responsibility to him, and that a major piece of living into that role is to listen.

For me, listening means going way deeper than just to hear something. To listen is to work to understand the meanings and experiences behind the words that are said; to attend to and heed what we hear. It is to earnestly and intentionally participate in the two way street of communication; to not just give a superficial or casual response when someone speaks to or with us.

Listening is also VITAL when considering the tools of faith; as we respond to the scripture read or the words offered in prayer or ministry; or for us as Friends as we listen in the holy silence. This is nowhere more evident than here and now as we consider the words of Mark 1:14-20. We’ve heard these words or others like them often. Anyone who attends worship regularly throughout their lifetime has heard these words many times. However, to fully realize the message contained in them, we must listen. We must make an effort to understand and internalize the meaning of this passage; for within it, we may discover the life-changing power of the person who speaks and the events or actions that his words provoke.

You’ve got to love the Gospel of Mark…it’s the oldest of the 4 accounts of the life of Jesus that we have. It’s the shortest. Its style is both simple and super concentrated. Scholars recognize that within it’s boundaries we can uncover the historical Jesus and the clearest expressions of the meaning of the cross to Jesus’ followers then and now.

That all is initiated with the reading we heard this morning; if we take care to really listen to the words, we begin to realize the importance of what Jesus came to do.

The words Jesus speaks here are his first ones in this gospel; “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

“the time is fulfilled…” WHAT time?! The Greek word used here for time is not the minutes, hours, and days of regular, ordinary chronos time. This is the serendipitous Kairos; a word used to express that “right or opportune moment”. It is the culminating instance that brings forth God’s purpose. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature. Kairos speaks to the crucial instance when God will be revealed. The phrase “kingdom of God” immediately suggests to the listener that God is in charge as ruler in contrast to the other kingdoms of the day who built huge palaces and towns to convey their power and authority. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was not bolstered by the construction of monumental buildings and great cities. God’s kingdom is manifest in the human embrace of God’s rule through repentance and faith.

The declaration concerning the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is followed by an imperative—or a command: “repent and believe in the good news”. This imperative to repent and believe, turning away from prior trusts and loyalties, is a response to the claim that the kingdom is at hand; that God is already graciously at work.

To repent does not mean to just change our ways, but rather to radically reorient our whole being so that we might receive and fully participate in the kingdom; which is the good news. Additionally Bible scholars Bartlett and Tayler say this about repenting:

We do not repent in order to usher in the time of redemption, but because that time is already at hand. We do not become fishers in order to meet the quota that will summon up the reign of God, but because that reign has already come near. And we do not follow Jesus with the hopes that one day we might find him, but because he has already come to us and called us. As Mark tells the time, God takes the initiative. The reign of God is not the product of discipleship, but the precondition of it. The Greek word translated good news—evangelion– is the one from which we get the word “evangelical”. In our culture, this term means “conservative” both with regard to politics and religion, or the emphasis of personal salvation by the instantaneous accepting of Jesus into one’s life. The present meaning of evangelical does not do justice to what Mark’s author was suggesting. In the words of Pope Benedict the 16th:

This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world.  The messages issued by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium, regardless of whether or not their content was particularly cheerful and pleasant.  The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a change of the world for the better.

When the [gospel writers] adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings, what they mean to tell us is this:  What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here — a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk, but reality… Mark speaks of the “Gospel of God,” the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God.  And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place.  For here it is the real Lord of the world — the living God — who goes into action.

Jesus’ first activity after proclaiming the presence of God’s kingdom and the power of this good news, imploring his listeners to get onboard with decisive, life-changing reorientation and new identities, is to gather some followers that exemplify and model what he’s talking about. You talk about radical reorientation; how’s walking away from a vocation and a lifestyle that is stable and secure in order to follow Jesus who knows where? In calling the Galilean fishermen to discipleship, Jesus does not just ask them to add one more task to their busy lives. He calls them into new ways of being… These disciples leave behind a whole matrix of work, family, and place—all the stuff of a new identity. The best translation of verse 17 will reflect this new identity. The NRSV has Jesus say, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” This makes it sound as if fishing for people were a task. The better translation receives fishing for people as a new identity. A literal translation might read, “Follow me, and I will make you to become fishers for people.” There is a world of difference between “I will make you fish” and “I will make you to become fishers.” “I will make you fish” gives us one more activity to work into our datebooks. (“Right, Jesus, fish for people. How about every fourth Monday? Can anyone else do fourth Mondays?”) But “I will make you to become fishers”? That promises a whole new life.  

Let’s step back from these word meanings and consider their importance in our lives today.

By LISTENING to this passage we are invited to understand that Jesus is declaring HERE AND NOW AND FOREVER, the presence of God’s presence and power in a kingdom that should inspire us to radically reorient our lives by believing in the reality of the message that changes everything. The difference that this makes should alter our identities personally, professionally, and as members of this faith community. What could it mean that we have already exactly what we need to possess and prosper a meaningful life that shows and shares this way? What parts of our lives can we eliminate? What paths might we avoid or re-do in order to follow Jesus?

As we continue to explore the gospel of Mark this year; we will see that the author has some specific ideas about what it means to become fishers for people; as well as receive examples from Jesus’ life and ministry that illustrate it. Are we up for the journey? First– and then always– we MUST listen…

In my house, if I had 10 dollars for all the times Dennis and Andy and I said things like “what did you say?!” “I didn’t hear you say that!” or “WHEN did you say that?!” to one another, I could probably greatly reduce the meeting’s gap between what we have and what we need for this year. And, this condition is not mainly a result of hearing loss by the parents…

Friends; LET US LISTEN—LISTEN CAREFULLY AND CLOSELY to what is being offered here in scripture; to what God is calling us to do each and every day. To LISTEN and then take inside ourselves deeply these words of Jesus, will CHANGE OUR LIVES.    ALL WE NEED TO DO IS LISTEN.

Italicized quotes from:

Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-05-31). Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 10223-10226). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Message for 01-18-15 “Immerse Yourself!”, scriptures Genesis 1:1-4, Mark 1:4-11

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting Farmington Friends Meeting; the only other programmed meeting in the yearly meeting. I had been invited to officiate at the dedication of Pastor Margaret Webb’s two children—Teddy and Claire. It was a delightful experience! Both children are beautiful creations of God and their parents. A dedication among Friends is an opportunity to bless a new life, and for the faith community to officially recognize the role they play in supporting and nurturing the children in their midst. We are not the only denomination who dedicates babies and young children; however we are THE ONLY ONE that does not baptize people with water at any stage in their faith life….For many denominations the rite of Baptism signals membership into Christianity– in addition to that particular denomination, as well as a blessing. Many baptized Christians view their baptism as the initiation of their Christian journey…

As Quakers or Friends, we have a slightly different view of baptism and the use of water for that ritual. I’m quoting Wilmer Cooper who says: “For more than three centuries Friends have proclaimed the essentially spiritual nature of the believers’ relationship to God. For most this has lead to a testimony against the outward use of sacraments. . . .the inward way to the Spirit is not to be dependent upon rites, ceremonies, and liturgical aids, Friends maintain that “the presence of Christ in the midst” can be a living experience for all who open themselves to the Spirit of God.” So because we view the crucial experience of baptism to be inward, spiritual, and something that can happen anywhere-anytime, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about water and the way it can reflect or symbolize God and God’s qualities or aspects. I think that sometimes this is a detriment and impediment to our exploration of the reality of spiritual things….that we don’t often talk about water and its role in the relationship of God with God’s people. Obviously, based on our list, water has been a key concept or ingredient down through time according to scripture. So-let’s talk about and explore water as it pertains to our faith journeys a bit further today!

“What do you know about water? A lot. You drink it, you bathe in it, you swim in it, wash your clothes in it. lt is necessary for life. Water can be benign, as when we use it for washing, it’s use can be healthful, as when we use it for drinking, and it can be downright dangerous as when there is an undertow and one is pulled into the depths of the ocean.” Water is present in both scriptures read this morning…in very specific, useful, dangerous ways. They both invite, encourage, and challenge their readers to be immersed — which is what the literal meaning of the word baptism is-to be soaked and saturated in the presence, love, power of the divine, as the divine creates, interacts, influences, redeems humanity down through time to right here and now.

Let’s look a little closer at these scriptures. What exactly are we being called to immerse ourselves in?! Both the Genesis and the Mark readings contain the element of starting something new…ln Genesis we are at the beginning of everything as God creates the known world. In Mark, Jesus is called to begin his public ministry with a new awareness of what it means for him to be God’s child. We’re reminded that as God begins with creation there are dangerous, strong forces that must come under God’s control in order for there to be life. Also in Mark, if one lays aside the “Nice, tranquil scene of John dipping Jesus beneath the waters of the river and Jesus hearing God up above claiming him as God’s beloved son, and a sweet dove, the holy spirit, hovering above” and really reads this description it’s realized that the heavens are torn apart and the spirit of God enters INTO Jesus: THUNK. This too is a scene of much power, and a strong unsettling dynamic… lf God has torn open the heavens, then where is God?! GOD lS ON THE LOOSE!!! Right in our neighborhood….! These beginnings invite and challenge us to begin again, with new awareness, the journey– within which God is up close and personal, and the ruler of powers which can shake up our world! We certainly aren’t in control are we?! Are we ready to begin — immersed in this wonderful, dangerous, redeeming water of life?

Another presence in both our stories is God’s spirit… lt is the spirit of God that speaks to the waters and reigns them in “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”.
It is the spirit of God that forms and fashions all creation. ln Mark, God’ spirit descends, and then enters in, ready to accompany Jesus as he moves out from that river. This is where I really appreciate the Quaker interpretation of the baptism experience… The key element is God’s spirit, which can and will enter into each human’s being as a constant and continual guide and companion. Can you feel that? Do you connect with that presence here in worship during the silence? Or on the way to shop or to work? ls it that spirit which enables you to think and do during times of stress, fear, or joy? lt can be…

There were two readings I came upon this week that for me captured the essence of what we are called to in these waters of God from scripture, and I want to share them with you now:

First, this excerpt written by Rufus Jones from Britain Yearly Meeting’ Faith and Practice:

While I was too young to have any religion of my own, I had come to a home where religion kept its fires always burning. We had very few ‘things’, but we were rich in invisible wealth. I was not ‘christened’ in a church, but I was sprinkled from morning to night with the dew of religion. We never ate a meal which did not begin with a hush of thanksgiving; we never began a day without ‘a family gathering’ at which mother read a chapter of the Bible after which there would follow a weighty silence. These silences, during which all the children of our family were hushed with a kind of awe, were very important features of my spiritual development. There was work inside and outside the house waiting to be done, and yet we sat there hushed and quiet, doing nothing. I very quickly discovered that something real was taking place. We were feeling our way down to that place from which living words come, and very often they did come. Some one would bow and talk with God so simply and quietly that He never seemed far away. The words helped to explain the silence. We were now finding what we had been searching for. When I first began to think of God I did not think of Him as very far off. At meeting some of the Friends who prayed shouted loud and strong when they called upon Him, but at home He always heard easily and He seemed to be there with us in the living silence. My first steps in religion were thus acted. It was a religion which we did together. Almost nothing was said in the way of instructing me. We all joined together to listen for God, and then one of us talked to Him for the others. In these simple ways my religious disposition was being unconsciously formed and the roots of my faith in unseen realities were reaching down far below my crude and childish surface thinking.

And then this recent writing of Frank Yamada from Christian Century Magazine:

When I remember my baptism, I reach back to hear the voice that speaks to me out of the waters—the voice that proclaims to a world of conflict that we are all “very good” and claims us all as “Beloved”. The Spirit moves in and out of our busy lives, and there are times when I recognize the Spirit’s hovering presence beckoning all to a different otder, to a new creation. As I reach for the water, whether in a font or on the ocean’s edge, I find myself trying to connect to the chaotic, life-giving, and mysterious power that resides in its depths. One day I hope that I can say along with Langston Hughes: “I’ve known rivers; ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

So again, I query; are YOU ready to enter into the pool of God’s grace-filled and dangerous power and newness? To be swept up and held in the waves of God’s eternally near and abiding Spirit?

COME ON IN! The water’s fine!

Immerse yourself!