Sermon for 5/26/19 John 14:23-29

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) It seems a strange thing that we have had the Easter story in all of its glory and for a few weeks now we seem to have been going backwards. This week is no exception. We continue to hear from Jesus during what is known as his farewell discourse. It is 3 long chapters of almost continuous speech from Jesus preparing the disciples and us for his ultimate death. Despite all of that, the disciples (and us, honestly) still seem woefully unprepared when the time actually comes. Maybe the reason why we get these texts after Easter is a gift of hindsight. We can look at what God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit are doing and also remember what Jesus told us would happen before, during, and after his death.

At the same time, what Jesus leaves us with isn’t easy. I remember when I was old enough to start staying home by myself (also serving as a babysitter at times for my brother and sister) I was left with a list of to-dos (and some not to-dos). Don’t answer the door! Don’t use the oven or the stove. Remember to start the washer! I have no idea what I would have done if my parents said to me “keep our words… peace we leave with you.” I would have been left with a lot of questions. So perhaps it’s understandable that the disciples don’t fully understand. But, let us not kid one another, my beloved, we don’t always understand either.

Jesus doesn’t play around or sugar coat things. He says “those who love me will keep my word.” For Jesus, there isn’t an option. There’s no gray area. We either keep his words or we don’t. And here’s the thing, we are inundated with the rhetoric that everything we hear is nothing but lies. Our administration loves to use the words “fake news.” It’s also possible that every news source, no matter if it is television or print, does have a bit of a slant. It’s also possible that, at times, we may only read and hear what we desire to absorb. With all of that in mind, what does it mean to keep Jesus’ word? What does it mean to keep Jesus’ word especially in a world that (1) isn’t familiar with Jesus and (2) may not want to hear Jesus’ word? Maybe the better question is what in the world is Jesus’ word anyway? How can we keep Jesus’ word if we don’t even know what it is. After all, there is an entire New Testament full of Jesus’ words, which ones do we keep?

I believe that the basis of all of Jesus’ words and commandments can come down to one simple word; the same one I touched on last week: love. Love one another. If we love Jesus as we say we do then we will love one another, we will love the world, we will love ourselves. That last part can be especially hard and tricky. I don’t know about you, but it is difficult, if not impossible at times, to keep this word that Jesus demands. I believe in truth telling. I think Jesus calls me to do that as well. The truth-teller side of me wants to tell the truth that I don’t want to love everyone and even if I tried, it feels like an impossible task. What about those people who wish to do me harm or who have harmed me in the past? Do you think I want to love those people?

There’s a saying that goes “speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.” I think about that a lot as I prepare to preach and as I pray about where God is leading me in this world. Keeping Jesus’ words means that we might have to say difficult things, encounter difficult people, step into difficult places, and, ultimately, find ourselves in the places we previously ignored. When your message is “God so loved the world” you’re not always the most popular person. God so loved the world? Fake news! This can feel especially true if you are the one that is experiencing some distance from God or you feel as if God has forgotten you. This can feel especially true if society tells you that you are unlovable. This can feel especially true if you just don’t believe that God’s love is for you too. It’s easier to chalk that up to fake news than to trust that God keeps God’s word and that the love God spoke of is for you. Perhaps, my beloved, the hardest part of keeping Jesus’ word is just keeping it (that is, believing it) for ourselves. After all, a hurting world isn’t going to believe our message of love if we don’t embrace it in its fullness for us.

While all of this love does seem an impossible task, Jesus assures us we will not be alone. Jesus is sending us a friend, a companion, an advocate: the Holy Spirit. And my goodness, is she tricky! That Holy Spirit will turn your life upside down in the most amazing ways. When your hearts are troubled or when you are afraid, there is the Holy Spirit to remind you of all the things Jesus said and did and to continue to teach us Jesus’ ways. The Holy Spirit, when we are open to her and willing to listen to her, will guide us in the ways that show the world that Jesus’ words are not fake news. Jesus’ words are not an idle tale. Jesus’ words are more than lip service. Jesus’ words are life giving, life changing, life enhancing words. And when the Holy Spirit stirs, and she will, and it takes us to places we couldn’t even dreamed of going, the message of love will be one that is so sorely needed.

If this message of love isn’t welcomed, which, if we’re honest, it probably won’t be, then there’s a chance we (and others who love Jesus) will be put out to the margins. We’ll be swept under the rug. We will be put in a corner until we can learn to behave and recite the company line that power and riches equal happiness. We will be kept out of populated places where our crazy ideas of love and mercy can’t taint the waters of discrimination, sexism, and classism. This message of love, my beloveds, has the chance of putting us in or at the margins. Lucky for us, we serve a God that does the best work on the margins.

We have story after story of God taking marginalized people, lifting them up, and then doing great things through them. Esther was a woman and should have never risen to power, yet there she was. Jonah avoided God and God sent him anyway. Peter was a fisherman and denied Jesus three times! John the Baptist was eccentric and ate locusts. Ruth was widowed. Elizabeth was said to be barren. Mary was an unwed teenager. God did amazing things through all of them. Even the psalmist today says that God’s ways will be “known upon the earth, your saving power among ALL nations” (emphasis mine). When we keep Jesus’ word, perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is “how big is our God?” Because “God will not be restricted to people who look like us. Anything less than the entire world is not worthy of the death, burial, resurrection [and ascension] of our Lord. God refused to be the private possession of one group of people in the New Testament, and God certainly cannot be contained or controlled by one group now. God is for all nations, then and now” (Feasting on the Word, p 483-485, Self).

We keep Jesus’ word not because it is easy, or even because it’s the right thing to do. We keep Jesus’ word because we love Jesus. Our love will never be enough for sacrifice Jesus paid. But we keep Jesus’ word because we love Jesus. We keep Jesus’ word because this world needs more than fake news. We keep Jesus’ word because the Holy Spirit continues to stir and we are co-instigators in the Holy uprising of love!

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Sermon for 5/19/19 John 13:31-35

If this text sounds familiar, it’s because we heard it not too long ago. This text is always used on Maundy Thursday. We aren’t that far removed from Jesus gathering his disciples around a table and eating one final meal with them. We aren’t that far removed from Jesus kneeling at the feet of his friends, washing them in humble service. We aren’t that far removed from Jesus explaining all of this love to those gathered, even Judas(!) the one who would betray him. We aren’t that far removed from his trial, the denial of Peter, the nails in his flesh, all of it. We aren’t that far removed from Joseph of Arimathea carrying the dead, lifeless, crucified body of Jesus away and laying him in the tomb. We’re not that far removed from a display of love so hauntingly beautiful and yet so unbelievably disturbing. We’re not that far removed from any of that. We’re also not that far removed from the empty tomb. We still have alleluia’s on our lips.

It’s difficult to hear this text during Lent and reflect on the commandment given. Especially as we start to gaze towards the cross. The display of love that will be nothing short of a state sanctioned execution leaves us mournful, confused, and maybe anything but loved. After all, if Jesus loves us, why would he leave us? If Jesus loved us, why would we have to watch him suffer? If Jesus loved us, why make us wait and wonder for three days? But now! Now we are resurrection people. We’re empty tomb people. We’re “we-know-the-end-of-the-story” people. We’re alleluia people. And once again Jesus tells us that we should love one another. Now, here’s where the rubber hits the road. Here’s where I am going to lay it on you and I can’t promise it’s going to be easy. What difference does the resurrection make? What difference does the empty tomb make?

If we can’t love one another during Lent, what makes us (or Jesus) believe that the resurrection is going to change our ways? If we are only going to be resurrection people one day a year, instead of all 365 days a year, then why even go to the empty tomb? Why declare that death has lost its victory and sting? What I mean is that if you’re going to wave hi, acknowledge me, invite me to coffee, and give me a hug on Sunday but you ignore me all the other 6 days of the week, then what difference does the resurrection make? Because here’s the thing: when Jesus said we should love one another, it was not an option. When Jesus said we should love one another, it didn’t have parameters. When Jesus said we should love one another, he didn’t say “only if you feel like it.” Jesus said love one another. Period. End of story. But oh how often we want to add to that story. “Love one another, but…” or maybe “love one another, if only….” What about “love one another, until…”  

I’ve heard it said that we shouldn’t place a period where God puts a comma. I’d like to propose that we not add qualifiers to Jesus’ commandments. If we take it seriously that God so loved the world, then we ought to see what that looks like played out through us, for us, because of us, and DESPITE us. See, before Jesus’ death, perhaps we might have been a little unsure about this love stuff. Perhaps it was hard to conceptualize such love because we hadn’t seen the cross. We hadn’t seen the thorns. We hadn’t seen the nails. We hadn’t heard the dice being rolled and his clothes ripped from his body. But now, now my beloved, we have seen and heard too much to go back to lukewarm love. We have seen and heard too much to go back to qualifier love. We have seen and heard too much to go back to thinking that the love Jesus spoke of was just for us, from him. No, see the empty tomb changes our story and we have seen too much.

Do you know why Jesus leaves his disciples and us with this commandment that we should love one another? It’s more than just a nice thought. It’s more that something you might find embroidered on a fancy throw pillow. It’s more than just lip service. Jesus tells us that we should love one another because he will ascend into heaven. He will no longer physically be with us. Jesus tells us to love one another because the world needs love and we are the ones to give it. Jesus tells us to love one another because we are empty tomb, resurrection, on the road to Emmaus people in a world that is still bound and determined to stand at the tomb and bask in confusion and the pungent odor of death and defeat. Jesus tells us that we should love one another because we live in a world that believes death is the end of the story. Jesus tells you that we should love one another because so many LIVING people are already stuck in tombs of death and it is to us to roll that stone away.

We need to love one another because the noise is too loud and love is our mute button. We need to love one another because the world tells us our bodies aren’t loveable. We need to love one another because the world tells us our contributions aren’t enough. We need to love one another because hateful rhetoric is more commonplace than civil discourse. We need to love one another because too much blood has been spilled in the streets, on our college campuses, in our elementary schools, in our places of worship and religion all in the name of power and white supremacy and neither can be our God. We need to love one another because people are starting to believe the lie that hate can win. We need to love one another because we have seen too much, heard too much, felt too much, and the world needs to know a different story.

We need to love one another because we are resurrection people. We need to love one another because death will never have the final word. We need to love one another, my beloved, really, and maybe most importantly, because the alternative is just too damn dark and depressing. People don’t want to hear about our Jesus; this Jesus of love. Instead they want to hear about a Jesus that looks like them, talks like them, thinks like them, votes like them, legislates like them, worships like them, and loves like them. But Jesus loves like Jesus: without barriers, without exception, without even anticipation that love will be returned. Jesus loves with service, with humility, and with hospitality. Jesus loves like the cross mattered but the empty tomb is our glory song. And if we so “love to tell the story” but our actions show anything but love, our words are useless. Love one another. It is an action. Not an option.

Sermon for 5/12/19 John 10:22-30

I love that this text falls on this Sunday of all Sundays. The Sunday when we celebrate our graduates. The Sunday that reminds parents that soon you will send your own sheep out into the world, trusting that the shepherd will guide them. This is also the Sunday when the sheep (perhaps) are excited about the next step and can’t wait for the shepherd to fall asleep because there’s a ragin’ party happening in the next field over. Now I am sure parents of new or soon to be graduates won’t like what I’m about to share. When I graduated from high school, I wasn’t real sure what I wanted to do. Same with college. When I graduated from high school, I thought I wanted to be a dentist. No joke. One semester in and a review of all the math and science classes required quickly talked me out of that. When I graduated from college, I knew I was bound for further education, like a Masters degree, but I had no idea what I was going to do in the meantime. But, God knew. God always knows. Because God knew me, called me by name, and I followed. Maybe God had to repeat my name several times and point me in the right direction, but eventually, I followed.

Sometimes I feel like I say the same thing over and over again, but, to be honest, some things are worth repeating. Maybe you’ve heard me say this before, and if so, it’s good to hear it again. If not, this will come as good news, I hope. God knows you. And I don’t mean that in a “that’s cute…are we Facebook friends?” kind of way. I mean that God knows you. God knows all your highs, everything you brag about even when you’re trying to be humble. God knows all of your lows; the darkness, the secrets you try and even hide from yourself. God knows it all. And God calls you by name. This is a relationship, my beloved. This is a relationship of love and caring, and yes, abundance. There isn’t anything at all, not even death, that can come in between you and your relationship with God.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus has been in a mission since early on. We hear from the very beginning that God so loved the world (see John 3:16). Not only does God love the world, but God sends us Jesus so that we may have life and have it ABUNDANTLY! Not only that (!) but God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn us, but save us and grant us eternal life. That is Jesus’ mission: to love the world. And the world includes us. The call to discipleship also includes us. We are part of Jesus’ flock, we are Jesus’ sheep. So, how will we respond to the mission to love the world?

Unlike actual shepherds, Jesus always has room for more in his flock. There is always more room for the lost and forsaken to be in his care. And should we be the ones to wander off, should we be the ones to become a lost sheep, Jesus’ voice will always be louder than anything else. No one and no thing can ever keep us from being in the care of Jesus. I think this needs to be heard loud and clear, my beloved. No one and no thing or event will ever snatch us out of Jesus’ hand. And my goodness, we have no shortage of things or forces in the world that desire to snatch us out of Jesus’ hand.

If we just take a cursory look at everything society tells us should keep us from church. Heck, sometimes the church tells us that these things should keep us from church. Divorced? I’m sure you’ve been told some things by the church. I have a mental illness. There are some who might believe that maybe I just haven’t prayed hard enough. That’s a nice thought but have you tried Zoloft or Prozac? Financial difficulties? Well, just pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Society (and at times, church) is so concerned that we only display and show our best selves that anything other than our best selves is considered a failure. If you think I’m wrong, consider this. Instagram (a photo-sharing social media website/platform) has 24 different filters. This does not include the additional abilities to edit, lighten/darken, or change the coloring on each picture. Snapchat (another social media tool) has 24 different filters that can turn your face into a dog or add a halo or whatever and an additional 21 different filters that change the look of your picture (without turning you into a dog or whatever). We always have to show our best selves, don’t we?

That feeling may exist with church too. We have to show our best selves. It’s like cleaning before the housekeeper shows up. It’s the same theory with the people who think they need to get in shape before they go to the gym. We feel like we must do something to ourselves before we are worthy to be in God’s company. “I can’t go to church, I’ve been divorced.” Or “I can’t go to church, I haven’t been clean long enough.” Maybe “I can’t go to church, they don’t know I’m out.” I think the one that breaks my heart the most is “I can’t go to church, the walls might fall down and I doubt God even knows who I am anymore.” Oh my beloved, none of this is true. God knows you. God knows you intimately. God knows you like you know your own children. God knows you like you know your most beloved loved one. God knows you in such a way that you will never be let go. The barriers we attempt to put between us and God are nothing but excuses for Christ to demolish. Jesus stood at a tomb, the stench of Lazarus’ dead body filling the air, and stood there and called. And Lazarus, knowing Jesus’ voice, rose from the dead and walked out of the tomb. Do you think Jesus is going to allow our excuses to stop him from searching us out, calling our name, claiming us, tightening his grip on us, and reminding us who we are and whose we are? No. Nothing will keep us from Jesus. And nothing will keep Jesus from us.

Parents, I’m talking to you now, parent to parent. It’s okay to worry. It’s okay to be concerned. Your child will never go where God is not. Your best defense against anything is prayer. And graduates, I’m talking to you now. This is a time when many wrestle with their faith. I know I did. I tried to do away with God for a while. It didn’t work out well. No matter how much wrestling you do, no matter how much space you try to put between God and yourself, God will never abandon you. God will never lead you astray. God will always love you no matter what.

Fellow sheep, listen up: we are in the grasp of God. We have a shepherd that calls us by name and we follow. There is room in this flock for many many more. So, if you see a stray sheep, wrangle that one in. There is enough love for all. God is our shepherd and provides. There is enough love for all.

Sermon for 5/5/19 John 21:1-19

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) In the second half of this reading, Jesus addresses Peter three times. And each time Jesus addresses him, he calls him “Simon, son of John.” There is something about that identity. This is the third and final time since the resurrection that the disciples have seen the risen Lord in the Gospel of John. Peter previously tried to deny Jesus three times. He has tried to go back to fishing. But, during breakfast, with the familiar smell of a charcoal fire wafting in the air, Jesus really gets to the heart of the matter: identity.

What is your identity? Maybe the better question is how many identities do you have? How many of those can you wear at one time? I have several: pastor, wife, mom, friend, daughter, sister, Bearcat, activist, and on and on. But, my most important identity, at least to me, is my baptismal identity. I am Jealaine Rae, child of God. As great as that sounds, I don’t always remember that my baptismal identity is my primary identity. But, it is my baptismal identity that allows me to respond to all of my other identities. It’s easy to forget that though. When I’ve gone from a day of visits, to a council meeting, to home in time to hopefully read stories and do bedtime, grab a late dinner, put a load in the laundry, I forget that in all of that God claims me. I forget in all of what I do that God knows me.

A challenge also arises when we desire to forget, leave behind, abandon, or even deny our identity. While Jesus was on trial and Peter was in the courtyard, warming himself by the fire, those gathered around asked Peter “you are not also one of this man’s disciples are you?” And Peter responded with “I am not.” (see John 18:17, 25) Talk about a denial. But when Jesus appears to Peter and the others after the resurrection, he does not desire to shame or guilt Peter. You notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter for an apology or ask him to repent; neither does Peter offer it. And it may be easy to think that Jesus asks this question of “do you love me” three times to remind Peter that he denied Jesus three times. But, this is not the case. Jesus is simply reaffirming who Peter really is, who Peter has always been, who Jesus needs Peter to be now.

I believe there are times when we all desire to deny our identity. Any parent will tell you that there have been days when you want to scream “my name is no longer mom” (or “dad”). The ladies who helped with Lucille’s funeral can attest that I came back from the burial, grabbed my lunch, and went to seclude myself into my office. I actually said “I can’t people anymore.” At the same time, there may be those times when we flex our identities a little more. My dad is a fan of the idea that whatever he says goes, because “I’m the papa!” For extra emphasis, he’ll sing like he’s in “Fiddler on the Roof.” There has been more than one occasion when I introduce myself I make sure that I emphasize that I am “PASTOR” Jealaine Marple.

But there are those times when we desire to deny our identity out of fear. There is the worry that we won’t meet expectations. There is the fear that we will meet expectations and then more will be expected of us. There is the fear of disappointment. There is the desire to deny our identity because we may be judged on that identity or even rejected. And that hurts. And if we’re going to be honest, sometimes we deny who we are because there is a fear that we won’t be liked or even loved for who we truly are. We don’t want to be alone. We don’t want to be without a community or support system. So sometimes, identities get denied. What happens when we wish to deny our identity of “child of God.” Moreover, why might we want to deny that identity?

Jesus lays it out for us in this conversation with Peter. Just in case you thought this conversation was just for Peter, it is for us too. The resurrection has happened and we are faced with the “now what.” If we profess and confess to love Jesus what is that going to look like on a practical level? If we believe that “God so loved the world” (see John 3:16) what will that look like as we encounter the world on a daily basis? Jesus is the good shepherd. We hear that in John 10. Jesus even says in John 10:16 that there are “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Meaning, there are sheep, people, who have not yet come to know Jesus but Jesus is going to make them part of his fold as well.

So we fast forward to this conversation and Jesus says to Peter, “feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.” For Peter and for us, this is our identity as disciples. This is our identity when we say we are children of God. This is our identity in Christ. We are to care for one another. We are to feed one another. We are to love one another. With an assignment like that, I can understand why Peter may not want to be a disciple. I can understand why going back to fishing, even on a bad day, looked a bit more appealing.

I can understand this because the world can be really hard to love. The problems of this world seem impossible to solve. Hate, violence, injustice, war, and power all seem to be the preferred language. If we’re going to be honest, our identity as children of God and as disciples has the power to just break our hearts over and over again. We are going to run into broken systems, people who feel broken, corruption, and what may feel like speed bump after speed bump. That much hurt has the power to not only make us deny our identity but leave it behind altogether. Sometimes, yes, it would be easier to operate in the world as someone who doesn’t know Christ. Sometimes it would be easier to turn and look the other way. It would be easier to not care.

But Christ calls us to something better and deeper. And yes, it’s going to break our hearts. And God is going to take those broken pieces and use them and keep us moving forward. We don’t do this discipleship thing on our own. While we may desire to leave behind our identity as children of God or identity as disciples, God has made a permanent mark on us. As much as we may try and ignore it, God’s love projects us forward into service to others in the world. The problem with our Christian identity is that we see the world as Christ sees it. The joy of our Christian identity is that we see the world as Christ see it. Our identity in Christ is secure. God has a firm grip on us, even on the days when we struggle. God has a firm grip on us even in the moments we’d rather have nothing to do with God. Peter has seen what life in Christ looks like: abundance upon abundance. We have seen it too. This is what discipleship is: to witness God’s abundance upon abundance and then make that happen for others.

It’s not an easy identity. It’s not a glamourous identity. But our identity in Christ is quite possibly the most rewarding identity we have. We may not see or experience that reward until we are in God’s kingdom, but the promise is there. We have seen the empty tomb. We have experienced the risen Lord. Soon we will be fed. Then Christ sends us out to feed the world. Our identity is love. Our identity is hope. Our identity is intertwined with the proclamation that alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)