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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Corunna United Church on February 14, 2016.

 Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13

There is an ancient legend about John, Jesus’ disciple and the author of the gospel of John: When John was a very, very old man, he was carried into a gathering of the church for his final sermon. He said, “Little children, love one another.” Then, he said it again, “Little children, love one another.” He said it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, it was all he said. “Little children, love one another.”

Some people thought it was a shame that the silliness of a senile old man should be put on display in such a manner. But others understood: John’s sermon summed up a long life’s reflection on the core meaning of the gospel.

Jewish rabbis would sometimes test their students by asking them to summarize the Torah, the Law, in the time that they could stand on one foot. When religious scholars asked Jesus, “Which command in the Law is the most important of all?”, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

Churches can spend a lot of time developing mission statements but we already have a mission. Jesus gives it to us. “Love God with everything you’ve got and everything you are. Love God with the fullness of your life and, with the fullness of your life, love your neighbour as yourself.”

What is your mission? Why are you here? You’re here learning how to let God’s great love for you fill your whole life. You are here to get better and better at letting God’s great love for you fill your life to overflowing until it flows out into the world and into your neighbourhoods. That’s the mission.

If you push people on that — if you say to them, “Tell me what that love looks like”, many people will say, “It looks like the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s good advice for living in Jesus’s Way. It is the gold standard for our relationships with each other. Jesus gave it to us early in Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount. He gave it along with the Beatitudes and other words of wisdom for his Way.

Later in his journey to Jerusalem, though, as he was on his way to the cross, Jesus bumped it up a notch. In fact, he bumped it up several notches. He pushed beyond the gold standard, the Golden Rule, and he gave us his platinum rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” became “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13: 34) It is not enough just to love others as you yourself want to be loved, as challenging as that is. Jesus commands you to love one another as he has loved you. Jesus himself becomes the standard for our love.

Do you know how Jesus loves you? Jesus loves you with a glorious staggering love. Jesus loves you so deeply, so fully, that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from that great love. Nothing. Not the terrible suffering that life can throw at you. Not the wounds that scar you soul. Not the humiliating failures that haunt your sense of worth. Not the broken relationships that cripple your spirit. Nothing. Nothing in all creation could every come between you and the great love Jesus has for you. (Romans 8: 31-38)

Jesus’ love is a love that searches for you when you are lost and does not give up until he finds you. Jesus loves you with a love so fierce and strong that he would rather die than be without you. He will go to hell and back for you. Jesus loves you as you are and not as you should be because none of us is ever going to be as we should be. The essence of the Christian life is a love affair, allowing yourself to be the recipient of God’s great love.

Brennan Manning was a Catholic priest who said, “After thousands of hours spent in prayer and meditation, in silence and in solitude, I am now utterly convinced that on judgement day, the Lord Jesus will ask each of us one question and only one question: Did you believe that I loved you? that I desired you? that I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”

Do you believe that? do you trust it? Are you learning to trust it more and more deeply? more and more fully? with all that you are and all that you have?

None of us gets very far in this journey with Jesus before our trust in that love gets tested. The story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness comes right after the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus begins his public ministry by showing up at the River Jordan asking to be baptized by his cousin John. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him live a dove. A voice comes from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved — you are chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”

That same Spirit, having conveyed God’s blessing and love to Jesus, then led him into the wilderness. For forty days and forty nights, that love was tested:

“You think you are loved by God? Let God prove it to you. You’re hungry — turn these stones into bread.”

“You think you’re loved by God? Use God’s love for you to get what you want, to make your dreams come true.”

“You think you’re loved by God? Make God prove it. Make God rescue you. Make God keep you safe from getting hurt.”

What is it that makes you doubt that God loves you?

Is it when you hear those old voices in your heart that tell you that you’re not good enough? that you have to earn God’s good opinion of you?

Is it when life throws you a curve ball and all your carefully made plans and hopes and dreams lie scattered at your feed and your prayers seems to rise no further than the ceiling?

Is it when you have been deeply wounded by someone you trusted and you’re not certain about anything anymore, much less God’s great love for you?

To be a follower of Jesus is to know that God loves you with fierce, unconditional, steadfast and faithful love. To be a follower of Jesus is to have your trust in that love tested over and over again. Journeying with Jesus into the heart of God’s love means that there will be times of wilderness testing. You will leave behind the safe and comfortable places. You will end up in a place where you are not in control. When that happens, the task before you is learning to trust more deeply in God’s great love for you. It is learning to trust more deeply that God is taking even your doubts and fears and feeble attempts to love others as Jesus has loved you and is gathering all of that into God’s own all-encompassing, redeeming, life-giving, creative love.

I don’t need to tell you that you folk are every blessed to have Blair as your minister. Last week I asked him, “What has been the theme of your ministry?” He replied, “God loves us passionately.” He tells you that over and over and over again. He tells you that over and over again because it is easy to forget; it is easy to doubt when so many voices in our culture tell you that you are on your own; that you have to hustle to be considered a success; that you have to earn God’s approval.

God loves you passionately. Nothing you could do could make God love you less. There is nothing you have to do to make God love you more.

God loves you passionately. Blair tells you that over and over again so that that deep truth lives deep within you. Trust God will all you have, with all your are, for that love is holding you fast and will never let you go.

This is a great mystery.

This is great grace.

Thanks be to God.

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God of time and eternity
through your Holy Spirit
you lead us to places
where the light of your presence is shining;
through your risen Christ
you off us the blessings of your Reign of Love in our midst.

Yet, we are a double-minded people:
we want the future you have promised
but there are times when we are afraid that you will lead us
where we do not want to go;
we delight in the new creation you offer
but there are times when we cannot see it clearly enough
to dispel our fears of the unknown.
We want to be held by your life-giving power,
but there are times when we are afraid to let you
get that close to us.

Ground us deep in your love–
so deep that our fears and doubts give way to
joy and excitement at what you are doing;
so deep that our freedom and courage grows
strong enough to join you in your new creation.

Move us to act in your world
with a hope that cannot be deflected or destroyed.

Form us and transform us
so that we become signs of your truth
wherever we live and work and play.

We ask in the name of Jesus
who did your will
even when the Way ahead
was dark
and difficult
and dangerous;
who offers us your Holy Spirit
so that we love you
by keeping your word;
so that we can know your peace.

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Great is your love

A prayer based on Psalm 57: 9-11.

I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations:
I will sing of you among the peoples.
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;

your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let your glory cover all the earth.”

All creation praises your name, Lord, God almighty,
for your faithful holiness permeates every moment of our lives.
Out of your great generosity
you brought the world into being and gave it life.
Then you gave it yourself
on the cross of human suffering.
You gave your Church your Holy Spirit.
And, even now, you draw us into your new future,
beyond our securities and comforts and protections,
beckoning us into the risks of love
and the demands of service.
Then, wonder upon wonders,
your Spirit grows in us the love which has been commanded,
the courage which is required,
the freedom which is our true inheritance in Christ.
Holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
we pour out our praise to you.

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You summon us

Lord Jesus,
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
you have gone into our villages and cities
summoning us to follow you;
gathering us into your new community of love.

We are following
even though we do not fully understand your Way.
We still look for glory in all the wrong places.
We still compete for positions of power.
We still ignore the people you want to include.

Have mercy on us.
Summon us over and over again
into your presence.

There, open our eyes to your strange, life-giving truth
You have welcomed us and
made us your own.
This is grace
that draws us beyond our fears
and failures
and doubts.

Give us freedom and courage
to follow you on your Way,
wherever you may lead,
knowing that we travel
only deeper into your love and grace.

 

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Draw me in

Life-giving God,
God of blessing and of joy,
you have come among us in Jesus of Nazareth
to draw us into the wide, expansive world
of your grace and love.

Long before we are aware of it,
your Holy Spirit is moving in us and through us,
Pulling us out of ourselves,
setting us in relationships
where we can learn the lessons of love.

Search my heart and mind.
Show me the ways
I resist your work.
Open me to the work of your Spirit,
tearing down that which diminishes Life;
building up that which makes me more fully
the person you have created me to be.

Set your holy truth within me
that I may live in the world
aware of your love,
open to your transforming grace,
dancing in your light.

I pray in the name of Jesus,
who is the the Way, the Truth, the Life.

Amen.

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This is the eighth in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous two posts and this one, I have been considering the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining.

Some of the reasons for declining participation are rooted in broader cultural trends. Some, however, are self-inflicted.  Some people have left because they were bored or frustrated. The worship and programming that were offered did not engage them at a level to inspire their commitment to the church or its gospel. The governance structures were cumbersome. People wanting to take bold new initiatives were discouraged from doing so. They were told that they might upset those who held the reins of power or supported the budget. The superficiality of the issues and projects with which the congregation was pre-occupied gave them no compelling reason to stay. They left because they were looking for something profoundly more challenging than maintaining a social club.

Particularly devastating to a congregation’s ability to keep or attract people are church fights. If you were to ask a group of mainline Christians, “What is the heart of the gospel?”, they will tell you “Love one another.” Ask them, “What do you value most about your church?”, a majority of them will say, “The friendships I have there.” Nevertheless, most congregations have not developed constructive ways of dealing with the conflicts that inevitably arise in human communities. As congregations get more anxious, they tend also to get more reactive. The results are often conflicts that turn very ugly. People stay away.

Recently, a group of people from different congregations were discussing ways in which they could get young people to participate in their churches. Some of them were singing new styles of music in their worship services. Others spoke about the different kinds of programmes they had tried in their efforts to attract the interest of younger generations. Finally, one woman said, “We can try all sorts of things, but the real issue we have to face is that our young people see how we treat one another and they don’t want any part of it.” The young people did not expect congregations to be perfect. However, they were not going to get involved in a community where they have seen conflict descend into viciousness.

From the beginning of the church, communities of faith have experienced conflict. Much of the New Testament was written to congregations in trouble because of profound disagreements. Those conflicts provide a congregation to move more deeply into God’s grace and the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Those are gifts that the world desperately needs as well. A church that understands itself to be participating in God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation can be a ‘demonstration project’ for others of the new life and the new kind of community that the Holy Spirit makes possible. As the church seeks to be an instrument of God’s peace, it will need to begin with learning what that means in its own relationships. Whatever training is provided for lay leaders will need to include ways of dealing constructively and responding creatively to the anxiety and the resulting conflict.

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A sermon based on: Jeremiah 17: 5-10 and John 15: 1-17

Christian faith is earthy, concrete. It is not about universal, timeless truth or generalized moral principles. It is about God invading time and place: being born in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in the village of Nazareth, walking the dusty roads of Galilee. It is about Jesus healing sick people, feeding hungry people, confronting greedy people, and dying on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.

Christian faith is trusting that God deals with us in the same way: God invades our  time and our place. It is trusting that the Holy Spirit is involved in the actual circumstances of our ordinary lives. The Spirit’s work changes the way we spend our time and our money, the way we treat our families and friends, the way we conduct ourselves at work. The Spirit pushes us to offer radical hospitality to strangers and enemies. God is at work, training us to live cross-shaped lives in the midst of this world.

It is unhealthy for communities of faith when activities like stewardship and mission get reduced merely to give money away. A healthy congregation needs some hands-on work for people to do. It needs to provide tangible ways for people to experience the blessings of serving others. The Iona Community in Scotland was founded by people who believed that part of what was wrong with the modern way of life was that our brains and our hands got separated too often. People who live there and those who visit spend time not only in creative thought and worship. Part of their day is also given to physical labour. Christian faith is earthy.

However, in the midst of our doing, we can forget that God is trying to do something in us. It is easy to forget that the things we do in serving God are the overflow and outward expression of the work God is doing in us. We love because God first loves us We serve because Jesus serves and saves us. We forgive because the Holy Spirit works God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace into our lives. We welcome the stranger because God has welcomed us. What we do flows out of God’s work in us.

What we do is also the means by which God continues God’s work in us. You show up to serve at the Inn of the Good Shepherd and God is forming you as much as you are feeding the hungry. You take a trip to Haiti and the service you render the poor pales in comparison to the way God is shaping your character, your priorities, and your heart.

That work of God is going on all the time. It is the easiest thing in the world to ignore it. There is always plenty to do. There are always lots of distractions. There is always enough resistance within ourselves that we shove the signs of God’s work to the edge of our consciousness. We do not attend to what God is doing. Worse, we do not respond to it. Eventually, we drift away from the source of our energy and our life.

Sometimes, when that happens, we say that we are suffering from ‘burn out’. It is a term that is borrowed from rocketry. A rocket, soaring upwards, runs out of fuel and falls back to earth. The problem with the metaphor is that it is too mechanical. It implies that there is something external to us that is missing: the problem is that there is not enough fuel; the solution is to add more fuel. Problem fixed. The rocket remains essentially unchanged. It nurtures in us the illusion that, if we could just find the right thing to change about our lives, we would manage well. We look for something external to fix what is wrong: we cut back on our commitments; we find a new time-management tool; we start a new physical fitness routine; we take more vitamins; we learn a new spiritual exercise that will restore our energy.

All those strategies may be helpful in appropriate circumstances. However, when God is at work, God does not merely change what is happening outside of us or what is happening to us. In fact, the external circumstances may not change at all. God’s Spirit works within us, changing our spirits. God’s Spirit forms us, shapes us, and creates within us the capacity to receive God’s life.

That is why the Bible uses organic images when it talks about the spiritual life. Jeremiah says that there are two kinds of people. There are the kind of people who depend on human resources to see them through. They might use God as a background or adjunct to their project, but the dominant context in which they operate is human knowledge, human skills, human resources. Such people, he says, are like those little shrubs you see in the desert: small, easily blown around, brown and dry. They are surviving but just barely, meagrely.

The world is teeming with the energies of God. We live in the midst of God’s extravagant, lavish creativity and redemption. Human resources makes up such a minuscule  portion of that richly alive world. If you only count on human resources, if human capacities shape the limits of what you attend to, you end up with a life that is shallow and thin. When the lean times come, you lack the support you need to survive.

Other people, says Jeremiah, live strenuously. They are like a tree by a river: large, green, abundantly watered, deep-rooted and fruitful. They are the ones who attend to what God is up to. They are developing minds and hearts and spirits that are capable of receiving God’s extravagant grace and life. Even when the lean times come, they keep growing and bearing fruit.

God is always at work in your life. The Holy Spirit is always trying to shape your spirit so that you love with an eternal love and live with the energies of eternity. There is no circumstance that God cannot use to accomplish that work in you. God is at work, whether you are soaring like an eagle or trudging through each day, barely getting the hours in.

God is at hand. Sometimes God is affirming you, strengthening and supporting you. Sometimes God is making you face up to a truth you have been trying to ignore — a truth you need to face if you are going to be set free. Sometimes God is pulling you away from some habit that is becoming destructive. Sometimes God is refining your character to make it stronger, cutting away idolatry, or selfishness, or laziness. There is much in us that distorts God’s image in our lives. Always, God’s aim is to fill us with true and abundant life and to fit us to spend eternity in God’s presence. God wants to bless us and fill us with joy and make our lives fruitful.

It is not always pleasant to be God’s work. You can help God or you can hinder God. If you do not spend some time intentionally attending to what God is doing in your life, you will probably miss it. Says Jeremiah, “The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” Given free reign, we will probably going to misunderstand what is going on.  Our hearts and our spirits need training and development so that we become capable of receiving God’s work in us and then capable of responding to it well.

“Abide in me,” said Jesus, “and you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing. You will become like a withered up old branch that gets thrown into the fire and burned.”

Whatever is taking up your energy, keep your eyes and heart and spirit open to the ways God is at work, teaching you to love more deeply. Let Christ’s great love permeate deeper and deeper into your life. Abide, make yourself at home in the love of the One who says, “I have called you by name. You are mine. I have cared for you from the time you were born. I am your God and will take care of you until you are old and your hair is gray.” (Isaiah 43: 1;  Isaiah 46:4)

Abide, makes yourself at home in the love of the One who knows all about you — your good moments and your bad ones; the times of glory and the times of which you are ashamed; the ways you try to live faithfully and the ways you have failed. God knows all that and loves you still.

Abide in the love of Jesus who left the glories of heaven and went to hell and back to prove that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from God’s love. Abide in Jesus’ love. “You will be like a tree, replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month. Never dropping a leaf, always in blossom.” (Psalm 1, The Message)

 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 fears that drive us to make our world small and manageable;

the selfishness that shuts down our hearts;

the arrogance that limits our reach toward the ones you love.

Immerse us again and again in your lavish grace.

Bathe us one more in the cleansing stream of your truth.

Send you 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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