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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Larry Walters was thirty-three years old, living in Los Angeles, when he decided that he wanted to see his neighbourhood from a new perspective. He went to the local army surplus store one morning and bought forty-five used weather balloons. He strapped himself into a lawn chair. Several of his friends filed the balloons with helium and then tied them to his chair. Larry took along a six-pack of beer, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a BB gun. He figured he could shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.

Larry assumed that the balloons would lift him about one hundred feet into the air. He was caught off guard when the chair he was seated in soared more than fifteen thousand feet into the sky — smack into the middle of the air traffic at Los Angeles International Airport.

He shot a few of the balloons but then dropped the gun.  He stayed airborne for more than two hours, eventually landing in Long Beach neighbourhood.

Soon after he was safely grounded and cited by the police, reporters asked him three questions.

Were you scared? Yes.

Would you do it again? No.

Why did you do it? Because you can’t just sit there.

(http://www.markbarry.com/lawnchairman.html)

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew would have liked Larry’s answer. When God invades the world in Jesus Christ, Matthew says, “You can’t just sit there. You have to do something to respond to this amazing event.” Matthew tells the Christmas story differently from Luke. Luke’s story has  Mary receiving a visit from an angel. It has  a decree from Caesar Augustus  that sends Jews across the country. Shepherds hurry to a stable after receiving news from angels in the sky.

Matthew, on the other hand, tells us a great deal more about Joseph, Mary’s fiancé. For one thing, Joseph is a dreamer.

Three times, Joseph dreams a dream. Three times, in response to the dream, Joseph changes his plans and gets moving in a different direction.

Joseph is a devout Jew and so, when he finds out that Mary is pregnant, he is prepared to follow Jewish law. He makes arrangements to break the engagement. However, as a devout Jew, he also knows that mercy is to temper justice. Out of love or consideration for Mary, he decides he will break the engagement quietly. He will save her from public humiliation. Then, the dream changes his carefully made plans. In obedience to the word he receives in the dream, he marries her and calls the child his own.

After the baby Jesus is born, it appears that Mary and Joseph have settled into life in Bethlehem. Then, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, warning him of danger. He finds himself taking his young family on an unexpected trip to Egypt.

They settle into Egypt. Again, an angel in a dream sets him on the move again. This time, they are headed back to Israel. Even then, they do not go back to Bethlehem but to Nazareth in Galilee. All of this is done in obedience to a word from God.

When God comes onto the scene, says Matthew, nobody remains untouched. Nobody remains unchanged. Joseph finds his life turned upside down. Magi from Syria find themselves on the move to worship and bow down to a Jewish baby. Even Herod, ruler in Israel, cannot ignore what is going on. He is moved to murderous jealousy and resists God’s invasion with all the powers at his disposal.

In Jesus, people are confronted with the truth of God. You can trust and obey him or you can reject his rule but you cannot remain neutral.

This is a very hard word for us to hear. We are not accustomed to hearing truth talked about in this way. The prevailing myth is that all truth is subjective. Truth is relative. It is something we choose. You may choose differently from me and it does not really matter as long as we are tolerant of one another.

Matthew says truth is not a collection of statements to which we might give assent and others might not. Truth is not a group of convictions we choose according to our personal inclinations. Truth is a person we encounter. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We do not shape our truth. Truth shapes us and leads us where it will. We don’t ‘have’ the truth. The truth possesses us and transforms the direction of our lives.

When we encounter the truth that Jesus is, we can be rather like the officer in the navy who had always dreamed of commanding a battleship. He finally achieved his dream and was given command of the newest and best ship in the fleet.

One stormy night, as the ship plowed through the seas, the captain himself was on duty on the bridge. Suddenly, off to port, he spotted a strange light, rapidly closing with his own vessel. Immediately ordered the signalman to flash a message to the unidentified craft. The message read, “Alter your course 10 degrees to the south.”

Only a moment passed before the reply came, “Alter your course 10 degrees to the north.”

The captain was determined that his ship would not take a back seat to any other ship. He ordered a second message sent, “Alter your course 10 degrees. I am the captain.”

The message cam back, “Alter your course 10 degrees. I am Seaman third class Jones.”

Infuriated, the captain grabbled the signal light with his own hands and fired off, “Alter your course. I am a battleship.”

The reply came back, “Alter your course. I am a lighthouse.”

We live our lives, choosing its course, commanding it values and goals. Then, we encounter the Light that Jesus is and discover that he is truth which cannot be shaped for our own purposes. Rather, he is Truth that shapes us.

In baptism, you decide to adjust the course of your life to the lighthouse of Christ. He gives your life direction that it would not otherwise have. Then, you are no longer just sitting here, putting in time. You let his truth shape your life and the little story you call “my life” gets caught up in the great and holy work God is doing in human history. You become a part of God’s work, healing God’s world and bringing the lost home.

 

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A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday based on: 1 Peter 2: 1-10; Psalm 42; Luke 9: 28 -36

One of the abiding convictions of Christian faith is that God often works in hidden ways. God is alive and active in human history. God is working salvation in our world. We don’t always perceive it.

In fact, we can go for long periods of time largely unaware that God is present. Sometimes, our life is so filled with sorrow and suffering, that we cry out in anguish, “Where is God?” What is even worse, says the Psalmist, are the taunts of unbelievers who point to the suffering of the innocent, or to a horrific tragedy, and then jeer at God’s people, “Where is your God now?” In all of that, we are experiencing what someone called “God’s holy hiddenness.”

Those are not just poetic words that cover over the anguish. They give voice to the longing in the deepest part of our being for glimpse — just a glimpse — of God’s unmistakable presence in our midst. We thirst for a sign that God is healing the world’s brokenness; that God is healing our own brokenness.

The Bible does not answer the question, “Where is God?” directly. It asks the question often. Newly liberated Hebrew slaves find themselves in the middle of a large desert without food and drink. They ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Job loses his home and his family and his healthy in a cascade of tragedies. He asks, “Where is God? Let God show Himself and I will confront Him with the injustice of all that has happened to me!” The Psalmist cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” The question echoes from Jesus’ lips as he hangs on a Roman cross. The Bible asks the questions many times. It does not give a direct answer.

What the Bible does is tell stories. Those stories draw us into God’s presence in the world. In the stories of Israel, Jesus and the early Christian Church, we become participants in God’s actions — healing, saving, transforming, comforting. Even in situations where God seems most profoundly absent, we are drawn into the surprising actions of God.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the last Sunday of Epiphany’s light before we enter Lent’s shadowed time. Just before this morning’s scripture, Jesus has told his disciples that the Messiah — the one anointed by God to be Saviour of the world — was going to suffer and be put on trial and found guilty and killed and, on the third day, would be raised up alive. The one who had come to save the world was going to be destroyed by the powers he came to destroy.

The disciples are still reeling from this incomprehensible juxtaposition of “Saviour” and “suffering”, of “Lord” and “killed”, of “sacrifice” and “salvation”, when Jesus pushes them even further. Those who want to belong to him, who want to participate in God’s saving work in the world, he said, will be led into a life of suffering and sacrifice as well. You can imagine that the disciples had more than a few questions — fundamental, profound questions, not least of which would be, “Where is God in all of this?”

The reply Jesus gives is to take Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. Actually, Jesus prays. The disciples sleep. Jesus’ appearance becomes dazzling bright and two great figures of the faith — Moses and Elijah— join him. They talk about Jesus’ departure, Jesus’ exodus, that he was about to complete in Jerusalem. The disciples, jolted awake, find themselves in the midst of glory.

Peter, always the one to blurt out what everyone else is thinking, says, “Let’s build a shrine. Let’s mark this as a holy place of God’s presence.” Before the disciples can start a fund-raising campaign or call an architect, they are interrupted by a cloud (which in the First Testament is a sign of God ’s presence) and by a voice which says, “This is my Son, the Chosen. Listen to him.” There is divine confirmation that, in spite of all that is going to happen that will seem to deny God’s presence and saving power, Jesus is to be trusted and obeyed and adored.

Then, it is over. The glory fades. Jesus is standing there alone. The disciples are left speechless, not knowing what to make of what the have just seen and heard.

Most of us do not often receive such a blinding vision of God’s glory. We do not often get such profound assurance of God’s guidance. We may long for it deeply, but most of the time, we are left with only our deep longings. I suspect that, most of us, if we were to be given such an epiphany, would be like Peter. We would want to capture the moment. We would want to memorialize it in some way. We would want something we could hold onto to so we could keep God’s presence near and certain. Then, in those long stretches when God seems absent, we could go back to it and find God there the way we did once.

Peter does get to build his shrine to the glory of God shining in Jesus’ face. He does get to build a temple; he just does not get to build it on Mount Tabor. He does not get to build it with bricks and mortar. After the mountain-top experience, Jesus leaves the place where God’s glory shone out so clearly, and takes Peter and James and John with him down to the valley below. There, they encounter a boy in the midst of a convulsion, his distraught parents and the prayer-less disciples who are unable to rescue or help him. The road from that place leads to Jerusalem and to suffering and to death on a cross, just as Jesus said it would. The road led to Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

That is the last time the question “Where is God?” is asked in the New Testament. It is asked over and over again in the First Testament. It is not asked in the New Testament. (thanks to Philip Yancey for this insight) It is not asked in the New Testament after the cross because Jesus is God’s answer to the question. Jesus, God-with-us, leaving the glories of heaven, entering into our suffering, experiencing our abandonment is God’s answer. Jesus, descending into the darkest place so that, when life takes you through the valley of the shadow of death, you will not be alone. Jesus has gone there ahead of you. He will meet you there. He will restore your soul with resurrection power.

Where is God? Not in some place you can point to. Not in a building we call the church. Where is God? The only answer we have is Jesus, crucified, risen and present with us through the Holy Spirit.

After the resurrection, God sends the Holy Spirit to the Church. Peter begins building a temple made out of people who want to belong to Jesus, who choose to worship and obey him with their lives. The cornerstone and foundation of this living temple is Jesus.

“Welcome to the living Stone,” he writes, “the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; but God set it in the place of honour. So, present yourselves as building stones for a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God.” (1 Peter 2, The Message)

You and I are the temple of God. In our life together: in our caring for one another and for the world; in our speaking out against injustice and brutality; in our creating a space where the small and the weak are cherished along with the great and the strong; in a community where the gifts that each person brings are treasured and nurtured, where souls are nurtured and restored and made new, and where we learn together to walk in the paths of righteousness that lead to abundant living. In our life together, we are the temple of God. In our life together, we host God’s presence in the world.

“You are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do God’s work and to witness to God’s goodness and to tell others of the night-and-day difference God makes for you — from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.”

It is hard to believe, isn’t it? There are times when we are not very good at hosting God’s presence. We hurt each other. We remain silent when we should shout out. We look for easier ways to follow Jesus on his way to the cross. We try to get by with cheap and comfortable discipleship. Yet, for all that, God does not abandon us. God’s Holy Spirit calls us into worship in the company of God’s people. The Spirit stands us under these stories that tell of God alive and active and present in the most unlikely of circumstances. These are stories of God who marvellously works salvation in places that we are certain are utterly profane. In places that we are certain are utterly bereft of God, God is surprisingly bringing resurrection power.

So, week after week, we confess that we have fallen short of the glory God intends for us. Week after week, Jesus meets us in the emptiness that we offer to Him and He fills it with grace. We become again what He has made us to be: a holy people, a temple of God made to shine the light of God’s glory seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We don’t deserve any of it. It is utterly a gift from our Holy God. When, in those moments when we do catch a glimpse of the glory of God, and in those stretches of time when we live by faith, we join with saints throughout the ages who, in awe and wonder, stammer out their praise. To God alone — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory and praise, age after age after age. Amen.

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“Resolutions Worth Keeping”

A sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Mark 1: 4-11

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? Did you resolve to lose weight? To get out of debt? To learning something new? Have you kept your resolution so far? What do you do when you fail to keep your resolution? Do you hit the restart button and start again?

I don’t know what time of year it was when John the Baptizer showed up in the wilderness but it sounds like he knows about the drive that pushes us to make New Year’s resolutions. He knows about the desire to improve our lives. Mark says that the John shows up in the wilderness places of our lives proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

“Repentance” and “forgiveness” are about making changes in our lives so that we can experience more life, a better life, a blessed life — life in all its fullness. John has something larger in mind than just losing a few pounds or exercising more. Mark says John’s message is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”. Before we are through Mark’s gospel, we shall have been caught up in a great adventure. We shall have experienced a life lived with such courage and passion and hope that the whole world is changed and transformed.

When John calls you to repent, he is not scolding you for bad behaviour. He is not talking about your moral failures and telling you to behave better. John calls you to repent, to turn around, because God is on the move in the world. God, the ruler of history, is about to do something new and, if you want to get in on it, you have to get ready.

You repent when you say, “I refuse to settle for merely holding on. I refuse to cling to a past that is familiar and comfortable but is now disappearing. There is no life in that.”

I have heard someone confess that kind of repentance. She did not use that language, but the action was there. She was ninety years old. In the past, when I had visited her, she talked about her church: how she liked the old hymns and the old liturgy and the dressing up for worship. She did not like all the new changes that were being made in other churches. Then, her church died. There were no young people. There were not enough people or money to keep it going. She joined with another congregation. The ushers wore jeans. Music was played on keyboards and rhythm instruments. The minister did not preach three-point sermons. It was not what she was used to. It was not what she liked in a worship service. However, this time, she said, “There are lots of young families. There are lots of activities going on.” She liked the ‘life’ that was present, even though she still missed the old familiar ways. She was glad that there was ‘life’. That’s repentance.

Repentance is saying, “I refuse to frame my life by despair.” Despair is a common response these days. We face huge challenges and there are no easy solutions in sight. Many people believe that the future is bleak. They feel that there is nothing to hope for, nothing to live for. Repentance says, “I refuse to give up expecting that God will do a new thing. I refuse to stop looking for signs that the risen Christ is on the premises, bringing new life where death seems to prevail.”

To repent is to go out to the world wasted by violence and greed and to turn your life consciously and intentionally toward hope. Mark’s gospel says that hope is not a concept or an ideal or some power of positive thinking. Hope is a person: the person of Jesus who shows up unexpectedly in the midst of your ordinary life with the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Whatever God is up to in Jesus, that is our hope.

The Church has now entered the season of Epiphany. Epiphany begins on January 6th, when the Church marks the visit of the magi to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. On the first Sunday of Epiphany, the church marks Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Epiphany begins with God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” (Mark 1:11, The Message)

The season of Epiphany will end on Transfiguration Sunday when the Church heads up a mountain with Jesus and again hears God say, “This is my Son, my Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 17:5) From that place, Jesus will head to the cross and the culmination of his ministry here on earth. Jesus’ life is framed by God’s word to him: You are my Beloved.  Jesus is beloved at the beginning. He is beloved at the end. Every moment in between is bathed in the love of God.

To repent is to turn, consciously and intentionally, day by day, towards the voice that also call you “My beloved.” It is to keep remembering that that is who you are. You belong to the One who calls you “My beloved child.”

That was the truth that was proclaimed at your baptism. It is the truth that undergirds every moment of your life. It is your most fundamental identity: “Beloved of God”. Nothing in all creation can separate you from that great love.

This is not a love that is tame or comfortable. It is a love that is powerful beyond our imagining. It plunges you into a life shaped by God’s grace. The psalmist tells us that the voice of the God who calls us Beloved shakes the mountains. It makes the desert shake. (Psalm 29)

Karl Barth once said that it is not God’s wrath that you should be afraid of, but God’s love. God’s love will change you. It will change your world. It is God’s love that will set you free from destructive habits that diminish your life. God’s love will lead you into developing the courage and commitment you need to become the kind of person who lives life to its fullest.

God’s love draws you into God’s new creation. God’s love plunges you into the great adventure of trusting radically in the living Christ so that you find your place in God’s salvation work in the world. The world is not without purpose. Our lives are not pointless. You and I can live in hope.

It all begins with soaking in God’s great love for you. It all begins with your receiving the grace of God that Jesus brings. It all begins as you surrender to the mystery of the Holy Spirit blessing your life.

Will you repent? Will you turn from anything that makes you disbelieve that God loves you with a deep, abiding love? Will you turn day by day toward the life-giving embrace of Jesus Christ? Will you receive the Holy Spirit’s work to claim your true identity as God’s beloved child?

Those are resolutions worth keeping.

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A Good Friday sermon based on John 18: 28 -38

About 80 years after Jesus had been crucified on a Roman cross, a man named Pliny was the governor of the Roman province of Bithinia. Bithinia was on the Black Sea, in what is now northern Turkey. There was in the province of Bithinia a small Christian community. Pliny was not quite sure what he should do about them so he wrote to Rome to get some directions. “There is a little group of religious fanatics,” he wrote, “who sing a hymn on the first day of the week to Christ as to a god.”

The emperor replied, “If these Christians leave it at that, what’s the harm? As long as they don’t cause a commotion, don’t trouble yourself; they are no threat to the empire.”

We know now that the emperor was mistaken. Within a couple hundred years, small communities of Christians had grown so strong and so powerful that they had taken over the Empire. They had done it without firing a single shot or deploying a single battalion, but they were the dominant force in the culture. The Emperor himself was a Christian.

You and I have gathered on this Friday morning to sing our hymns to Christ, whom we call “Lord and Saviour”, “fully human/fully divine”, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sing of the world”. We are relatively small gathering, really, considering that we have brought three congregations together for this service. We are few in number partly because Good Friday is a hard sell in our churches. Good Fridays services are not known for being the most upbeat experiences. The gathering is also small, I suspect, because much of the culture believes that our sining a few hymns and our telling some ancient stories is not accomplishing anything significant or important. “Let them be,” says the culture. “What’s the harm? The certainly pose no real threat to the world.”

Well, we shall see. The end of the story has not been written yet. We do not yet know what our God will make of our attempts to remain faithful in the dying days of Christendom. We do not know what God will do with the worship we offer as we seek to serve God in this time before God’s new thing bursts forth across the land.

We do not know, but we gather as a community of people who have staked our lives on the truth of God that the world thinks is foolishness. We hear Pilate ask, “What is truth?” and the answer we have to give is, simply, “Jesus”. Jesus is truth.

And, truthfully, the truth that Jesus is does often look like foolishness.

Jesus is truth that forgives not just once or twice but seventy times seven times. And we are invited to forgive with such extravagant abundance because that is how our Father in heaven deals with our sinfulness and brokenness.

Jesus is truth that welcomes strangers and shares meals with all the wrong people and turns the other cheek and travels the extra mile and loves even enemies because such wild, crazy love takes us to the mystery at the heart of our God.

Jesus is truth that refuses to abandon us even when we deny him and abandon him and betray him. Jesus comes looking for us when we wander away, even if he has to travel all the way to hell and back to find us, because that is how determined God is to get all God’s children home.

Jesus is truth that is cross-shaped and hurt-shaped and driven by vulnerability because such suffering love is the crucible of God’s life-giving newness.

Jesus is truth that invites us to live as communities of faith that are learning to forgive one another as Christ forgives us and welcome strangers as Christ has welcomed us and to offer all that we suffer up to God, believing that God will take even our suffering and redeem it for God’s good and holy purposes. We believe that God has that power even through those stretches when we cannot see it.

Today we remember that Pilate will always try to crucify such Truth. Such remembering is important because we do not know how long this time of being pushed to the margins of the culture is going to last. We do not how long we shall be mostly ‘small groups singing our subversive hymns to Christ” while the culture thinks we are harmless. We may be just at the beginning of a long stretch. Good Friday may be just beginning. Or, maybe we are near the end — that resurrection, God’s ‘new thing’ is just around the corner. Perhaps we are stuck in Holy Saturday and will be here for a while yet, waiting for God to raise the dead and break open the graves.

Wherever we are, we know that the Church — Christ’s Church — has been before. We hold on, in trust and in hope. We hold on because we are part of a community that believes that even in suffering and in vulnerability; even in those times when the glory of God is hidden from our sight; even when all we have to hold onto is the ache and the longing that God’s absence brings; even when the powers of this world have done their worst — even then, our God, the God of our crucified Saviour, this God can be trusted.

In Jesus, we come face-to-face with God’s truth. And so we stay close to the one who was crucified. He still works in surprising ways with people whom the world has dismissed as harmless and irrelevant and useless. His creative Holy Spirit still hovers over the chaos. In God’s own time, God does a new thing against all expectations. In God’s own time, God gives life to the dead.

Not until Sunday, but surely on Sunday. And so, on Good Friday, we sing our hymns and  say our prayers and trust. We stake our lives on this One who is the Truth. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada on July 28, 2013.

Scriptures: Colossians 2: 6-19

Christian life is always lived in community. When you are baptized, you are baptized into a community of faith. As you live out your faith, you live it out in a community with other Christians. Christianity is a way of life that affects your relationships with other Christians and with people outside the church.

The communal nature of Christianity is clear in the New Testament, although it is not always clear in English translations. In English, we have one word for both ‘you’ singular and ‘you’ plural. Most the ‘you’s in the New Testament are plural. If we were in the southern United States, we would read ‘y’all’ — ‘all of you’.

Over the 30 years that I have been studying the scriptures for the purpose of preaching sermons, I have noticed how the communities of faith in North America are looking more and more like the community of faith to which Paul wrote the letters that make up much of the New Testament.

These letters were often written to small congregations that were struggling to survive in the midst of the Roman Empire. They existed in a religious marketplace that was at least as divers and as pluralistic as our own. There were multiple claims to truth; there were multiple convictions about what it took to live a ‘good life’. The Christian churches were competing for people’s loyalty and commitment. In addition, the surrounding culture was often hostile toward Christianity. In short, there were enormous pressures working against people being followers of Jesus Christ. All that meant that many congregations were hanging on by their fingertips — not unlike many congregations today.

When churches experience such pressures, they sometimes go into ‘survival mode’. Churches that go into survival mode tend to develop certain characteristics. Often, they will turn in on themselves. They will feel that, in order to survive, they have to concentrate on taking care of themselves. They forget that the purpose of the church is to be on mission — to bless others. They become pre-occupied with internal issues, worried about maintaining the institution.

They not only turn in on themselves; they can also start to turn on each other. The usual gossip that is part of community life becomes filled with criticizing others, putting them down, quarreling and bickering and back-biting. As hard as it may be to believe, sometimes a favourite pastime becomes attacking the minister — blaming him or her for the church’s problems.

In a church struggling to survive, some people will look for a new programme that will ‘turn things around’. Alternatively, some people think, “If everyone would just work hard, this church would thrive.” Then, they set about to do just that, taking on more responsibilities and commitments than are good for them or for the community.

The apostle Paul addresses some of those issues in his letters. In Colossians, he writes, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.”

Elsewhere he writes, “Put away falsehood; let us speak truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up . . . so your words may give grace to those who hear . . . be kind to one another.”

Paul reminds the early church they are part of one body — the Body of Christ. If they attack one part of the body, the whole body suffers. They hurt themselves; they hurt the community.

Paul addresses some of the issues directly, but mostly what he does is talk about Jesus. He talks about what God is up to in Jesus Christ: “I want you woven into a tapestry of love, so . . . live your lives in Christ. Be deeply rooted in him; be carefully built up in him; be well-established in your trust in him.” (Colossians 2)

Read Paul and you realize that the church is not first of all something we create. It is not something we make work by our hard work or by our successful programmes. The church — this community of faith — is a gift from God. it is a gift from a creative, extravagant, gracious, living God.

Every time we forget that — every time we make the church about something we do, or something we achieve by our hard work, or about something someone else is doing or isn’t doing — every time we take God out of the centre, we lose touch with the source of our live, our strength, our energy and our purpose.

I was reminded of that several years ago when I read somewhere that, “Most ministers think that people come to worship to hear a good sermon. They don’t. They come to pray and to learn how to pray. They come to encounter God.” Sometimes, a good sermon will help them do that. Sometimes a ‘bad sermon’ will. There is a mystery at work here. There are times when I think I have a ‘good sermon’ but nobody else seems to think so. There are other times when I am not at all pleased with the sermon I have prepared for a Sunday morning; yet, it seems to touch people in deep and profound ways. The Holy Spirit is at work here in ways beyond our controlling.

It helps to keep that in mind. People don’t come to church because you and I are so wonderful. They don’t come because we have wonderful programmes. They come because the God who meets us in Jesus Christ is so wonderful and they are hoping to meet Christ here through us, through our relationships with each other, through the community that the Holy Spirit is crating among us.

In our relationships with each other, we carry a precious gift, a great treasure. In our relationships with each other, we carry the presence of Christ. The more deeply we have received that gift into our lives, the better able we shall be able to offer it to others.

We don’t need to run around looking for a better programme or a better minister or people who are more to our liking. Whatever the church is, it is first of all about God, about Jesus Christ, about the Holy Spirit gathering us and working in our lives, changing us, and flowing through us to others.

When you are reading Paul’s letters to the early church, pay attention to the way Paul is dazzled by Jesus Christ and by what God wants to do in and through us as we open our lives to him. “In Christ, the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily . . and you have come to that same fullness in him.” (Colossians 2). “God takes us to the high places of blessing in him . . . Saving is all God’s idea and God’s work. All we do is trust Christ enough to let him do it. It is God’s gift from start to finish — the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. “ (Ephesians  1 & 3).

I suspect that this notion that the church is a gift leads to a radically different way of being the church than most of us are used to. It means less focus on programmes and external solutions and more attention paid to becoming the kind of people who are capable of being open to receiving God’s gifts. It means becoming people who are open to God’s unexpected and often surprising presence among us; living with open hands and open arms. It means being people who are deeply rooted in prayer, including prayers in which we spend much time listening for God’s Word. It means letting Christ’s words sink deeply into our lives so that they become the lens through which we see the world. We would be willing to let God change us until we become more and more channels of Christ’s grace and love.

The most important thing happening in this congregation is whatever God is up to in Christ. The promise is that that work is full of glory and truth and beauty and love. May God grant us grace to open ourselves more and more to Jesus. May this community be a place through which Christ is present in the world. And to God be the glory. Amen.

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“An Opportunity to Meet Jesus”

 A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, on January 31, 2010.

Scriptures: Luke 4: 21-30

A minister asked the people in a study group that she was leading, “Who has been like Jesus in your life?” The members of the group each gave their answers in turn, telling stories of people who had helped them grow in faith. At the end, there was one woman who had not yet spoken. The leader asked her, “What’s the problem?” The woman answered, “I am just trying to think of someone who has told me a truth that is so difficult to hear that I wanted to kill them for it.”   (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Perfect Mirror”)

Today’s gospel story is the second half of Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Luke. Jesus had quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to preach the message of good news to the poor, to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, and to announce, ‘This is the year of the Lord’s favour’. Then, said Jesus, “This saying has come true in your hearing.

The congregation loved this part of their story. The ‘year of the Lord’s favour” was the promise that there would be time when God would right what was wrong with the world. People would be set free from unjust burdens. Every brokenness would be restored. They loved this promise. They hold onto it in hope. Here was Jesus saying, “This is the time. God is going to act here and now.”

If Jesus had finished his sermon right then and there, everything would have been all right. The people would have left worship, shaken his hand, and said, “Very nice sermon, Jesus.” But, he didn’t stop there. Today’s gospel reading is the rest of the story.

Jesus reminded them of two stories in their own heritage. He reminded them about Elijah, a great prophet during the time of King Ahab. There had been a drought for 3 1/2 years in Israel. Not a drop of rain. Everyone was suffering. Yet, God sent Elijah to a widow in Zarephath — outside of Israel. God miraculously provided food and drink for this foreigner every day until the end of a drought. To her! Not to any of God’s chosen people! To an outsider!

Then, Jesus told the story about Naaman. Naaman was not only a foreigner; he was also a general in the occupying army. When Naaman contracted leprosy, he went to Elisha. Even though there were plenty of lepers in Israel who needed to be healed, it was only to Naaman, the foreigner, the occupier, to whom Elisha offered the healing power of God.

These were not the congregation’s favourite Bible stories. The people got so angry that they drove Jesus out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off a cliff. This is a far more dramatic ending to a worship service than any I have ever attended. Let news of that kind of service get out and a congregation would have a hard time getting a guest preacher the next time it needed one.

Still, we can understand the congregation’s reaction. We are all immigrants to this county. All our ancestors came from somewhere else. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, this country adopted ‘multi-culturalism’ as our way of dealing with ethnic diversity. We did not want to be a melting pot. We wanted to celebrate our differences, our unique cultures. Together, those differences create a Canadian identity that is richer because it contains multiple cultures.

However, it is one thing to think that multiculturalism is a good idea when you are part of the majority culture. It is a different story when people who are very different from you start to gain more power and influence than you have in your society. It is easy to feel threatened. It is easy to start banning burkhas and minnarets; to start defining tighter boundaries; to start talking about “our kind of people” and “those kind of people”.

It was in a similar context that Jesus reminded the worshipping community that the God we worship is big; that God’s love is expansive; that God is always reaching beyond the boundaries we put up between people. Our God is on mission to heal and reconcile the whole world to Godself. God very often accomplishes that mission by forcing us out of our comfort zones. The Spirit drives us out of places that feel safe and familiar and sets us into relationships with people who are different from us.

The promise of the gospel is that, in relationship with those who are different from us, we shall be met by Jesus and his reconciling power.

I heard once of a church that had decided to open its doors to the people in the neighbourhood around it. The neighbours were poor and homeless. Some were mentally ill. The church started programmes to feed their neighbours, to clothe them, to suppor them. Some problems and difficulties emerged. Finally, one prominent member of the congregation came to the minister and said, “This mission business is all right as far as it goes. Maybe it has gone far enough. It is time to pull back a bit.” The minister replied, ‘I understand your concerns, but I just think it is important to give everyone an opportunity to meet Jesus.” The man said, “Yes, I understand that those kind of people need Jesus too, but . . .” The minister interrupted and said, “I wasn’t talking about them. I was talking about us. I think it is important that we have an opportunity to meet Jesus.”  (I do not at this point know the source of this story)

Do you remember what Mother Teresa used to say about her work among the poorest of the poor?  “I get to meet Jesus when he comes to us in his most distressing disguise.”

For some reason, God has decided that we won’t often meet Jesus when we sit comfortably in familiar surroundings with people of the same socio-economic status as ourselves. When we are in relationship only with people who are like us, our vision of God begins to narrow down. It gets small, tight, closed up. Only when things get shaken up, rattled, broken open is there room for the Holy Spirit to move, to breathe fresh air into our lives and into our congregations.

Some time ago, when we were planning a mission trip to Alabama, I received an email from someone asking, “Why are you going to Alabama? Why are you not taking in one of the mission opportunities here in Ontario? Why are you not participating in a programme sponsored by the United Church of Canada?” I replied, “I have found that an important part of learning to follow Jesus is getting out of the setting that is familiar to us. We need to go some place that is different enough from what we are used to that our assumptions and our usual pre-conceived notions get questioned. We become open to being met by Jesus in a new way. The west end of Birmingham, Alabama is a start.”

It has been my experience that people like us often go on mission trips thinking that we are going to help people who have not been as fortunate as we have been. We are aware that we live enormously privileged lives. We have been blessed with prosperity beyond what most of the rest of the world will ever know. We go on mission to give back: to share our selves and our gifts. We always discover that we are the ones who have been helped. We live and work among people who do not have anywhere near the material goods that we have; yet, they have a depth of faith that is humbling. We experience among them a level of joy that surprises us. We are met by Jesus in the midst of people we thought we were going to help. God breaks down barriers we had put up between us and those who are different from us. We realize that God is far bigger than we had known before. We come back changed.

Going to the west end of Birmingham, Alabama is one way to experience that. However, God can work transformation in us even here in Sarnia. I keep saying to you, “Go out to a public place. Sit there for half an hour and pray, ‘God, what do you want me to see?’” I can understand if you have been reluctant to do that. If you let God open your eyes and your heart, you will see God at work in the most unexpected places, among people you may have written off as not worth noticing. You will be changed. So, the question is, “Are you willing to let Jesus change you without wanting to kill him for it?”

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Immerse Us Again

Love divine, all loves excelling,
love that creates us in your image,
love that meets us in our brokenness,
love that pulls us out of deadly traps
and sets us in the wide expanses of your salvation:

you we worship;
you we praise;
you we love.

You know the ways we wander from your love:
the fear that drives us to make our world small and manageable;
the selfishness that shuts down our hearts;
the arrogance that limits our reach towards the ones you love.

Immerse us again in your lavish grace.
Bathe us once more in the cleansing stream of
your truth.

Send your Spirit flowing through the dried-up, worn-out places.
Bring life — your life
your wondrous, abundant life,
for we pray in the name of Jesus,
the Way, the Truth, the Life,
your Word made flesh,
your Love.  Amen.

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