Monday, May 30, 2011

The Advocate (Cliché #1)

A sermon for Easter 6a, May 29, 2011

For a guy who grew up the son of immigrants in Brooklyn, didn’t learn how to drive until he joined the Navy and worked blue collar jobs including being a truck driver for a good portion of his life, my Dad was a softie when it came to his daughters. If not effusive, he was protective, and Mom would work around his obsessive desire to keep us from getting hurt by doing things like telling him we were on the youth ski trip after he looked around and noticed we weren’t there.

As he got older, his verbal skills caught up with what was in his heart and he gained a reputation for sitcom-esque monologues about the ways he loved and was proud of his daughters. When we would come back to visit after we moved out of the house, he would especially and I will admit, embarrassingly, go on and on about his 'two beautiful daughters - one the singer, one the preacher’ - blah, blah, blah until Mom or (my sister) or I would say, "Okay Dad, okay..."

"What? What-did-I-do? I can't tell my two daughters that I love them and support them?"

To which Mom or (my sister) or I would respond, "No."

Once he even tried to encapsulate all of these things onto a cake that he picked up at the grocery story. Now, the man was still frugal so he had found the smallest ice cream cake possible and then watched as they attempted to fit it all in on the cake: To life, love and prosperity.

He meant well, but it finally got to the point where we assigned numbers to his most repetive phrases. Cliché #1 is this: “Your mother and I love you and support you no matter what you do.”

(My sister) and I know we are two of the lucky ones who never had to wonder if our Dad loved and supported us – we get that. But the man sure did know how to drive home a point.

I didn't want to preach on love again. I just didn’t want to do it. How many different ways can the Gospel of John say it? And how much do we really need to hear it? Like a teenager shrugging off a parent's hug - we get it, right? Jesus. God. The Holy Spirit. They love us... now just drop us off at the mall by the far entrance and let us go on with our lives, ok?

I think my Dad may have learned how to belabor a point from Jesus in the Gospel of John.
Do we need to assign Jesus his own cliché numbers?

Cliché #3 - Do not be afraid, we are still with you.

Who’s we?
Well, it’s the Father, it’s the Son and it’s the Advocate – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, counselor, comforter, helper, mediator and ‘broker’. Parakletos is the Greek word and directly translated it means Advocate, like an advocate to a judge.

But instead of the Advocate going to God on your behalf, she is instead coming to you to plead God’s case: I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

Some of you may remember from last week that these words were spoken as the disciples shared their last meal with their friend and teacher, Jesus. Judas had already left the room called out for being the one who will betray. Following that Peter was told that he would deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. The very next words from Jesus are, Do not let your hearts be troubled

Our Scripture today continues that speech where Jesus is trying to assuage their fears. He knows they will feel left behind like orphans. He knows that it will be all the harder for them as they spread the Good News to those who did not see Jesus with their own eyes.

But he also knows that death will not have the final word. And that the love that will abide in them is not about the memory of a historical event, but is about a very present God who they will know through the Spirit. The Spirit, the Advocate, shows God’s love to us and in us.

Cliché #3 – Do not be afraid, we are still with you.

Cliché #2 - Remember my commandments.

What is it about these that we refuse to understand? The commandments are not in our lection passage for today but they are found earlier in this same speech: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (13:34-35).
That’s it.
That's the list.

Even if you look to the Synoptic Gospels and add: You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength it's still so simple you could fit it on a small cake with just 4 letters: l.o.v.e.

I know it’s crazy and ridiculous – but think for a moment what the world would be like if all of humanity erred on the side of love? Just go there with me for just a little bit – there would be no borders, no greed, no abuse, no hoarding, no gluttony or arrogance or shame. There would be no more thirsting, hungering, imprisoning.

I know, I know, it’s not reality so let’s bring it way down.
What would this community be like if everyone erred on the side of love?
What would this congregation be like?

What would your family be like if everyone erred on the side of love?

Immediate or extended - what would change if a commitment was made by all to err on the side of love. And what about you?
What would change about you if you chose to err on the side of love

Impossible? Or can we do all things through Christ who strengthens us?

Cliché #2 – Remember my commandments.

Cliché #1 - Your Father in heaven and I love you and support you no matter what you do.

It is the eve of history’s most tragic hour and the one who speaks these phrases knows his betrayal, abandonment, torture and death are merely hours away and this is what he says…
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
  • I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you… because I live, you also will live.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world give. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
  • As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
  • This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
If you are a person who prefers actions over words, this entire speech comes after he washes the disciples feet.
He washes the feet of Peter who will deny him.
He washes the feet of Judas who will betray him.

Cliché #1 – Your Father in heaven and I love you and support you no matter what you do.

Why is this so hard for us? Why the push back so hard against a commandment to give and receive love? What are we waiting for?

After my father had been sick for so very long the hard decision was made by him and my Mom that he would no longer be shuttled from the nursing home to the hospital, back to the nursing home, back to the hospital… he wasn’t going to get better. By then (my sister) was in town and we handled it the way each of us handles these things – she went into his room weeping, immediately emotionally available in the moment – something I have long envied.

I tend to be the more practical, stoic one and when I went in I spoke very clearly to him and asked him if he wanted to stop going to the hospital. Yes – he nodded.
“Dad, do you know what this means?”
Again he nodded yes.
I made myself say the words, “It means you’re going to die, do you understand me?”
And I was surprised to hear his voice, “It’s ok.”

He looked up to heaven and pointed and then he looked back at me and lowering his finger he said, “Cliché #1.”

How much more is our heavenly Father's love for us?

Cliché #1.


John 14:1, 18, 27, 15:9, 12.
John 13:1-11

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Left Behind

A sermon for Easter 5a, May 22, 2011

On the eve of his betrayal the disciples and Jesus have dinner together. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus pours water into a basin and washes the disciples' feet and dries them. It is after this ritual that Jesus begins to outline to his disciples what is to happen next and why it is happening. Bible interpreters call it the farewell discourse where Jesus is equipping the disciples with knowledge that will help them understand what has happened in the hopes they can remember it after his crucifixion and resurrection. He is helping to assuage their fears about being... left behind.

After he washes their feet he tells them he is to be betrayed. They all wonder by who and in the Gospel of John, Jesus takes a piece of bread and hands it to Judas saying, "It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread..." (13:26).

Judas takes the bread and immediately leaves.
Jesus continues to speak, Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' (remember that) I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (13:33-34).

Peter becomes incredulous that he cannot follow Jesus to wherever he is going and swears that he will lay down his life for Jesus to which he responds: Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.

I wonder how long the shocked silence lingered until Jesus spoke the words in today's Scripture reading, John 14:1-14:
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going."

(To which) Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do NOT know where you are going. How can we know the way?"

Jesus said to him
, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
The past few days the internet, television, the newspapers (even yesterday’s t-ball fields and scouting event) have been swirling with chatter about the rapture. I wish the plight of those in Vicksburg or Japan or Syria could get nearly as much attention and money.

It would be easier to ridicule if we didn’t have the same heritage – I flinched every time the word “Christian” was used to describe the group and the fear. But there it is and therefore crazy Uncle Harold Camping is considered part of our extended family.

As frustrated as I am by that, I found myself praying last night for those who had made life decisions based on their understanding that at 6:00pm they would no longer be here; their families and friends… left behind.

The cynics, realists, mainstreamers – whatever you want to call them – mocked them mercilessly.
Can’t think of a good rapture joke? Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world.
Even pastors who should know better couldn’t resist the siren song of our church sign on the busy corner and named their sermon, “Left Behind”.

My own conviction is that even if the rapture calculations were Biblical (which they are not), the message surrounding it was all wrong. Words like repent and judgment are meant to stir up fear and panic. But based on the words of Jesus at the end of the Gospel of John, this is not what God has in mind.

Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid… in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…

These are words of peace and calm,
grace and mercy,
hospitality and love.

What are the priorities of ones who trumpet doom and judgment and miss out on mercy and love? Even lifted up the concern:
If you thought you had less than three perfectly healthy months to live, what would you do? Would you travel? Spend time with loved ones? Appreciate the joy life has given you?
Or would you ditch your kids and grandkids, join strangers in a caravan of RVs and travel the country warning people about the end of the world?
Recognize instead, that on the eve of history’s most tragic hour, Jesus gathers in a room with those he trusts the most with his message. This is his moment, his time to impress upon them what the world HAS to know about… judgment? No.
Fear? No.

He tells them to trust. He tells them to love.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Trust me. Love one another. You know me. You know who I am. Trust me.

“Jesus is about to be betrayed, abandoned, handed over, tried, insulted, beaten, and then crucified, nailed to a cross and hung there to die.” And yet his message is not one of punishment that we deserve, nor is he appeasing the anger of a just God nor is he showcasing what real faith looks like. “Jesus goes to the cross for one reason and one reason only: to show us God, to show us God's grace and mercy, to show just how much God loves us and how far God will go to communicate that love to us that we might believe and, believing, have life in his name.” (link)

Do not let your hearts be troubled…
Trust. Love.

A colleague wrote: “You could remove every evidence of Christianity from the world— destroy the churches, burn the Bibles, and silence the ministers; but the event that took place outside the walls of Jerusalem nineteen hundred years ago will abide forever as the sure testimony of God's work of love on man's behalf. It is a clarion call, loud and clear, announcing the vast mercies of God's matchless grace.”*

In I Peter we read:
“…taste that the Lord is good…”
“…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…”
“…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Those who have received mercy, are thereby charged to show mercy.
Those who have received God’s grace, are charged to show grace.
Those who have received God’s love, are charged to show love.

Do not let your hearts be troubled…
Trust God.
Love your neighbor.

Look to Jesus, “the one who preached God's mercy and taught God's love, the one who healed the sick, opened the
eyes of the blind, made the lame to walk, and then conquered death so that even the grave can no longer claim us. Because what (we) see in Jesus..., this is what God looks like, this is who and what God is: love, perfect love, for you, for them, for all of us and the whole world.” (link)

Love is what Jesus left behind.

* Ensley, Eugene C. "Eternity is now : a sermon on John 14:1-11." Interpretation 19.3 (1965): 295-298.ATLASerials, Religion Collection. EBSCO. Web. 21 May 2011. P. 297

Saturday, May 21, 2011

John 14:1-14 (kzjv)

John 14:1-14 - kzj version (with apologies to actual scholars)

"Chill.... calm down. Trust God. Trust me. The Eternal Kingdom is HUGE! There's no rush - plenty of room. I'm heading up there in order to assure you will come too. And I'll make sure you can join me. You know where, right?"

Thomas said, "Uh... no! How are we supposed to know that?"

Jesus said, "I'm it. I've got this. You know me, right? So you're in. Your guesses as to who I am are true."

Philip said, "Whatever... prove it. I want to see God."

Jesus responded, "Philip, you know me. You've seen what I've done, you've heard what I've said - you want to see God? You're looking at Him! You want proof? Think about the things you've seen me do. And if you trust me you will do them too - actually you'll do even more because I. am. outta here!"

"Trust me. I've got this. I'm here for you."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Follow the Leader

A sermon for Easter 4a, May 15, 2011, John 10:1-10; Acts 2:42-47
Occasion: Confirmation Class, Celebration of 50 year and 70 year members, Amendment 10-a

Sheepfold. Gate. Thief and bandit.
Shepherd. Gatekeeper. Sheep.

I’m confused. Is Jesus the shepherd or the gate?
Did the thieves and bandits climb over the fence or just shout?
Is the shepherd ahead of the sheep or with the thieves and the bandits?
Where’s Little Bo Peep?

We in the 21st century like answers not analogies and so we tend to arrive at pasages like this as if we’re part of CSI – Criminal Shepherd Investigators (duh).

How do we avoid the thieves and the bandits?
If even Jesus cannot decide if he is the voice, the shepherd or the gate, what chance do we have?
What are we supposed to hear?

One of my friend’s parishioners told her that she grew up on a farm and they had a pet lamb called “Baa baa”. This is what happens when you allow your 3 year old to name your pet lamb.
Another reason to not allow your 3 year old to name your lamb is because you no longer have the heart to make it dinner and instead it becomes a pet.

They soon moved from the farm and had to leave the sheep with a sheep farmer. When the little girl and her father would go to visit they would be looking out at hundreds of sheep, but her father would calmly call, “Baa, baa” and that one sheep came running to him. Over all of the chaos going on around her, the sheep knew the shepherd’s voice.

This week a rarity in our denomination ocurred in that in addition to all of the other voices clamoring to get our attention the secular media joined in, calling attention to our denomination by name. Was The New York Times trumpeting our disaster assistance teams already in place throughout Tennesse, Louisiana, and other areas hit by massive flooding? No.

Was the Wall Street Journal touting the precentage of expendable income that members of the PCUSA give to non-profits? No.

The Associated Press was reporting on one of today’s hot button issues, namely that the PCUSA has voted to remove the ordination standard that was used to keep those who are in committed, same gender relationships from serving in the ordained positions of deacon, elder and Minister of the Word and Sacrament.

The official language that will be placed in the Book of Order is this:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G‐1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G‐ 14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W‐4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

Just hearing those words, it may seem hard to understand what all the noise is about. A lot of it sounds good:
Submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ,
Examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation and suitabilty for the responsibilities,
Guided by Scripture and the confessions.

But it is controversial, not for what it says but because of what it doesn’t say. Not included in this new amendment are some very particular words that were approved by the General Assembly in 1996 and then ratified by 55% of the presbyteries, “Those who are called to office in the church are… to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.”

“It made explicit what had been implicit for many years before, that being gay and ordained was not okay1.” There have been a lot of voices heard over it and this cacaphony of grassroots movements for and against has been going on since 1978 – almost my entire lifetime.

That’s a lot of yelling.

If only we could be more like the early church – the one in Acts:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sounds nice and calm and peaceful and… quiet, right?

Except that this is the glossy brochure version of the early church. It’s the picture with the sound turned down because as the Adult Sunday School class knows you don’t have to go too much farther in Acts to see the VH1 Behind the Music version of the early church.

Two of their members, a husband and wife team, Ananias and Sapphira sold property and then lied about how much money they made (5:1-11). That didn’t go well for them. Then food was being distributed unfairly and the office of deacon was created to make sure that didn’t happen again (6:1-7). And the big question that nearly divided the early church was over circumcision as Gentiles wanted to be baptized as Christians but did not want to be circumcised first (10). (You’d better believe the men let their voices be heard on that one!)

So you see, not only is disagreement nothing new, it is downright Biblical.

One of the symbols of the office of Moderator of the PCUSA is a cross. It’s uniqueness is noticeable right away as you realize it is actually three celtic crosses riveted together. The crosses were bought in Iona in 1949 and then given to the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in North America. These three branches represented a split over slavery and other issues. The schism those divided voices created took 145 years to heal when in 1983 the three crosses were handed over as one to the 1st Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I vaguely remember the celebrations over the reunification of the Presbyterian Church. What I really remember is that it never, ever ocurred to me that I could not be a Minister of the Word and Sacrament. I grew up with numerous associate pastors who were women, some who were men, a youth director who was a woman… the thought that some may have an issue with women in ministry never even entered my head.

But today we celebrate our 50 and 70 year members and they probably remember. They witnessed the angry voices surrounding the 1956 decision to ordain the first woman in the Presbyterian Church as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament; that moment came 124 years from the time an amendment was passed forbidding the leadership of women.

So actually we are a lot like the early church. There’s just more of us, covering a larger span and with over 30,000 Christian denominations we have gotten louder and even more divisive.

So why even try to find what unites us. Why bother?

Listen to the voice of the Shepherd: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). There are no disclaimers there. There are no conflicting voices. There are no divisive categories. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Gay and straight.
Strong and weak.
Sad and joyful.
Faithful and sinful.
Graced and searching.
Young and old.
Married, single, divorced and widowed…

The Voice calls us to what unites us and points us to what will strengthen us if we stop with the yelling… and listen.

My friend and lectionary group colleague Michael Kirby wrote earlier this week:
“A brighter morning dawns on a new day in our little part of the church...and the hungry still need to be fed, the refugees still long for a home, the flood victims are still undone by loss and shock, the lonely and wandering still need to experience love and hospitality, and the oppressed and addicted still long for freedom. So back to it…”

It is our faith in Him that unites us,
work in His kingdom that strengthens us,
and hope in His peace that sustains us.


50 year members, 70 year members, confirmation class and members of the congregation:
Who is your Lord and Savior?
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
I do.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
I do.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple obeying his Word and showing his love?
I will.

It is our faith in Him that unites us,
work in His kingdom that strengthens us,
and hope in His peace that sustains us.

These questions embody the voice of The Shepherd.
These answers embody the unity of the church.

The peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.


1. Anna Pinckney Straight. The Church of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. A sermon preached for University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC. May 15, 2011.