Rev. Joanne Blair
May, 22, 2016
Psalm 8, John 16.12-15
I’m going to tell you right up front what my goal is for today. My goal is that you leave here this morning still confused…but comforted, empowered, and grateful. For today is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the Triune God. That mysterious Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Equal, timeless, three distinct persons in one substance.
Some describe the Trinity as an actor wearing many masks. Others describe the Trinity in terms of roles and relationships…I am a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, etc. Still others explain the Trinity with the analogy of water. Depending on the condition, it can be a liquid, a solid, or steam. But it is still H2O, regardless of what form it takes.
Donald McKim, author of Presbyterian Questions/Presbyterian Answers, writes: “Early Christians worshipped the God who had been revealed to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. But early Christians also believed that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they encountered God in an altogether unique way. In the early centuries of the Christian church, the church confessed its belief that Jesus Christ was also God. Relatedly, earliest Christians after the day of Pentecost believed that God was present in the church and in their experience in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit also is God, just as is Jesus Christ, and the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God of Israel.” (1)
And so in the fourth century, the Nicene Creed was written, articulating that the God we worship is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons are at the same time one God. They are eternal and share the same substance.
So why would I want you to leave here still confused? Because it defies our human understanding. And anyone who thinks they fully understand or can clearly articulate the Trinity… just doesn’t get it! No pastor, lay person or schooled theologian can fully explain the unexplainable. There is a reason for the phrase “Mystery of Faith!” Not a one of us can adequately explain all that is God. But that does not mean that we don’t believe. It does not mean we cannot have faith and trust in that which we do not fully understand. Rather, we need to do just that! The Trinity helps us understand what God has shown us about God’s self thus far. For surely we do not know all there is to know about God! But we can know God.
God has shown us that God desires to be known. Over, and over, and over, God has chosen to have relationship with us in countless ways. The messiah and the Holy Spirit are not unique to the New Testament. They are described and referred to several times throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Today’s scripture lesson is but part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. Four other times in his discourse, Jesus has made mention of the Paraclete, which means advocate, helper, or counselor. He has promised the disciples that this Holy Spirit will abide within them and alongside them. As in the rest of his sermon, Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples for what is to come, and promising them that they will not be left alone, or abandoned.
There is a kind of joke among Bible students, in which they call the disciples the “duh-ciples”, because they just don’t get it. The disciples had walked, talked, eaten, and slept beside Jesus for three years…but they don’t really understand what he is saying. Would we? Do we?
In this part of John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking more to the community than to individuals. He is warning them that they are not able to comprehend or handle all that he could tell them. Aren’t we often in that same place-- individually and collectively? We often can’t handle the truth, or aren’t prepared to understand it. But Jesus assures us that with faith and trust, the Holy Spirit will guide us and lead us into truth. Our church has many committees/ministries, and before each meeting we pray. Those prayers are important, and we should not rush through them, for in them we are asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We gather to do God’s work as the Body of Christ, and we should always be asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The disciples were not prepared for the road ahead. Neither are we. If not now, then in the past we have, or in the future we will each face difficult, challenging, painful or uncertain times. We cannot fully be prepared for these times because we don’t what they are until they happen. And even if we know what’s coming, we don’t really know what it will be like for us to experience it, until we experience it. What we do know, if we have faith, is that God will be with us. And really, what more could we ask? What greater gift is there than the love and presence of God? Psalm 8, which we heard this morning, speaks of praise to the majesty of God. Praise that is not premeditated, but comes as naturally as the cry of a newborn.
Think about it. In all of creation, God chose us to have dominion…to be the caretakers. Why us? What makes us so special? That God loves us and chose us…that’s what makes us special. And rather than try to figure out “why us,” let us realize that once again we are in the midst of mystery … of things we cannot fully understand. James McTyre writes, “…it is quite fitting that Psalm 8 and the Trinity are bound together this Sunday. Two mysteries that evoke wonder instead of explanations harmonize well.” (2)
There are so many roads one could walk down when talking about today’s scriptures that it is hard to focus on a single point. But for me, today, what jumps out is the absolute incredible realization of how much God does to have relationship with us. How much God wants to be known. How available God is! And how unselfish! As Jesus speaks with his disciples in today’s lesson, he is not far from the time of his death. He knows what they do not. He understands what they cannot. But Jesus will not leave the disciples (or us) abandoned and empty handed. The Holy Spirit will encourage and guide the disciples in the ways of truth, in the ways of Jesus.
These words were not only given to the disciples, they are given to us as well. John is telling us, promising us, that as a community, the Holy Spirit will guide us into truth. Will direct us in the ways of Jesus … if we but listen and follow.
But what we also need to recognize and remember on this Trinity Sunday, is that the Holy Spirit is within each one of us. God invites each one of us to share in the Triune Life of God. God invites us to participate in the very relationship that unites the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No matter how much we may be struggling in our personal or communal lives, how can we not be filled with gratitude and joy? It is so fitting to have the visual effects from last Sunday’s celebration of Pentecost still in the sanctuary today. For today we offer special devotion to the Godhead. Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three persons in one substance. And we are invited into relationship with this glorious mystery.
Mrs. Albert Einstein was once asked if she understood her husband’s theory of relativity. No, she said, but I know my husband. We do not have to fully understand God, to know God. Leave here still confused … but comforted, empowered, and grateful. Know God. Amen.
(1) Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers
(2) Feasting on the Word
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 15, 2016
Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
Poet Langston Hughes ponders this question in the context of 1950’s America, the Korean War, McCarthyism, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Hughes began writing during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of hope and creativity among black writers, musicians, and artists. But he was criticized by other black poets and authors for parading the unattractive aspects of African-American life before the white audiences of America.
Hughes’ critics wanted to utilize the opportunity of the Harlem Renaissance to mainstream African-Americans into American culture. They wanted to use their creative powers to show white audiences that blacks were equal in stature - respectable, intelligent, and gifted. Hughes, on the other hand, depicted people as he saw them – unique, individual portraits that did not always fit the image of an idealized American.
During the same time as the Harlem Renaissance, a white writer named James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “the American Dream,” a term that came to be synonymous with equal opportunity and upward mobility. What Langston Hughes saw and wrote about was all the ways this idea was bankrupt for people of color. The “American Dream” was a dream deferred. While the term “American Dream” wasn’t coined until 1931, our country has struggled since the beginning with this dream. When our founders asserted that “all men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they were giving these rights only to the white men with voting rights – not women, Native Americans, slaves, and many other immigrants and minorities. Even as the dream of this nation was born, many other dreams were deferred.
The struggle for the American Dream is the struggle of Babel. It is the struggle to be one people with one language. It is the struggle to unify for the purpose of power and achievement. Most of us feel positively about these values, because they have been our values for centuries. With unity comes power, which gives us security and prosperity. We can be autonomous and self-reliant and successful. Who wouldn’t desire these things? But God confused the languages of Babel for a reason. Because God knows the human temptation to act like God, to desire God’s power, to assert God’s authority. And God knows how devastating this can be for the whole creation.
It was this dream of Babel that drove human beings to genocide in the Ottoman Empire, Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda. The dream of a unified people – one race, one language, one central power. Building a tower to the heavens, becoming so powerful that nothing is impossible for them, not even the elimination of an entire people.
The Roman Empire had this Babel dream as well. The Pax Romana, or peace of Rome, had at its core the assimilation of conquered peoples. In the East, including Jerusalem, Greek was the language of Empire. With the exception of the Jews, all citizens were required to worship the Roman gods. Local customs, economic systems, and governments were supplanted by the Roman clothing, manners, coins, and rulers. The Babel dream was one Rome, united across many lands and powerful beyond measure.
But this unity came at a cost. Dreams deferred for conquered peoples.
The Jewish dream of the Messiah, God’s chosen one, was one of those dreams deferred by the Roman dream of Babel. They had been waiting and hoping for the one who would inaugurate God’s supreme reign over all other earthly authorities. Numerous Jews with Messianic aspirations arose around the first century, and all of them were quickly snuffed out. Including a Galilean named Jesus. People had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel from her slavery to the Romans. They cheered him like a conquering hero and flocked to him in droves.
But as he gained the attention of Roman authorities, some of his own people criticized him. He didn’t follow the Roman custom of dining only with the most important people. He reminded them that their first allegiance was to God, not the Emperor. He taught with the authority of the prophets, not the submission of an assimilated Jew. In order to achieve the dream of Babel, their identity as God’s chosen people frequently had to give way to their Roman citizenship.
Finally, the Messianic dream was put to death on a cross.
But it was revived three days later with the news of the resurrection. This dream – of God’s kingdom on earth, of salvation for all humanity, and now the added element of life everlasting – was brought back to life. In the days between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus stoked the fires of this dream, promising a power greater than any earthly power, the power of the Holy Spirit.
And on the day of Pentecost, that dream deferred, that dream that has been pent up for so long, finally explodes. With a mighty wind and tongues as of fire, this dream explodes. And the dream of Babel is subverted. The disciples do not share the dream in Greek, the language of Empire, though that would have been the common tongue among all those gathered from the far reaches of Rome. The disciples and the crowd do not suddenly acquire a new language which could unite them all, though that would have been effective in communicating the good news.
The power of this dream is the power of the Holy Spirit, which allows each person to hear, in their own language, the message of Jesus Christ, God’s Messiah, the dream of God’s people. The diversity God created at Babel, the confusion of languages, stands. And God’s Spirit gives the disciples the power to communicate and cross boundaries without assimilation to the Roman Empire or Nazi propaganda or the American Dream.
The Jewish holiday of Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Torah, the formation of Jewish people. And so it is fitting that on this day, God once again formed a people out of the followers of Jesus Christ and all those who hear his message and place their trust in him.
And the truly miraculous thing, the thing that tells us this is God’s work and not ours, is that, on Pentecost, a people are made, are unified, not through a single language, race, or culture. They are powerful, but not successful. They are diverse, and become even more so. They are oppressed, and become even more so. And still, they are a people. And they grow. And God’s dream is dreamed all over the world today. Prophets and visionaries and dreamers from all walks of life live this dream of a Messiah named Jesus, of salvation for all humanity, of life eternal.
There is no doubt that, as a nation, we are still dreaming of Babel. We talk about wanting a united America, but united by assimilation to our values, our culture, our customs, however we each define them. We talk about bringing back the American Dream, so that we can be more powerful, more secure, more comfortable. But this comes at the cost of other dreams deferred. Oftentimes, our security is the result of someone else’s instability. Our power comes from disempowering others. Our comfort comes at the cost of another’s discomfort. This is the dream of Babel.
And this dream is not just about politics and business. We dream of Babel every time we demand assimilation from our peers, our neighbors, even those in our congregation. Everyone who’s lived through the 7th grade knows what I’m talking about. Dressing alike, using the popular slang words and catch phrases, sitting at the same table in the lunch room. It’s all a dream of Babel, it makes us feel more powerful, more safe, more comfortable. And most of us don’t grow out of it.
As Christians, this Babel dream is not our dream. We are those people born out of the Pentecost explosion, the people who dream of a Messiah who will inaugurate the reign of God over all earthly authorities. We are those people, unified not by sameness or power but by citizenship in the commonwealth of God, membership in the family of Jesus Christ, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And this means that we live differently. We are not governed by the expectations of corporate America. We cross borders and boundaries, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people of every tribe and nation. The Holy Spirit ignites us, again and again, to subvert that dream of Babel, to speak of the power of God, to relate to all of those gathered in this place – in this city, this state, this nation – from all over the globe, in all our diversity, beyond all our divisions.
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it explode? Yes, yes it does. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 8, 2016
Ezekiel 43:1-5, John 17:20-26
Every Sunday many of you pull one of these blue prayer slips from the pew holders, fill it out and by so doing ask us, as a community, to pray for someone special. Sometimes you ask us to pray for family or friends. Other times it is colleagues at work or strangers whose lives have been wracked by war or natural disasters. Sometimes we pray for people simply by name and at others it is for a particular issue; cancer, healing, safe travel or any number of other immediate concerns. But have you ever wondered what it is that Jesus might pray for if he were here in these pews; if he were to pull out blue slips, write something down, place it in the plate and then bow his head? I ask, not simply as an idle thought, but because that is where we find ourselves this morning in this passage from John. Jesus is sitting with his friends in the upper room, praying. As he does so he prays for himself, that he might be strong in the face of what is to come; for his disciples that they might not be lost; and for us. That’s right, Jesus prays for us. He prays for those who will not know him personally but will know him because of the witness of the church. So, the question is, what did Jesus pray for us. What did he put on the blue slips in the upper room?
The first thing Jesus prays for is that we would become new people, by experiencing the love of God within us. He writes, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” For the writer of the Gospel of John, love is the key. Love is the ground of everything. Later in his letters to the church he will in fact say that God is love. For John, love is not an emotion but the very life-changing power of God unleashed in people’s lives. Love will cast out all fear. Love will make us like Christ. Love will make us capable of loving others. Thus Jesus prays that God will take the love God has for Jesus and implant it in our hearts and lives. And by so doing, change us. By so doing make us new people, fit for new possibilities. Prayer slip number one then is that Jesus prays that we be intimately loved by God.
The second thing Jesus prays for is that we would become a new kind of community by seeing the Glory of God. He prays, “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” OK, I get it that this whole “glory” thing might seem to be a bit strange; and my interpretation of it, that Jesus is praying for us to become a new kind of community, might be a stretch. But hang in with me for a moment. The Glory of God, is a concept that is used in the Bible from the book of Exodus to the Book of Revelation. It means nothing more and nothing less than the presence of God in the midst of God’s people, changing them from one kind of people to another kind of people. In Exodus, changing them from a wandering bunch of slaves to the free people of God; in Ezekiel, from a bunch of refugees, to a new faithfully worshipping community. In the book of Revelation, changing them from a mortal people, to those who lived forever. So when Jesus prays for us that we see the glory of God in him, he is praying that the very presence of God will change our faith community from an ordinary church to an extraordinary community in which the love of God is constantly present. Prayer slip number two is that we would become a new kind of church.
The third thing Jesus prays for is that we would help to create a better world by being united one with another. He prays, “I ask not on behalf of these (meaning the disciples in the room with Jesus), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…and…the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, even as we are one.” Jesus prays for unity. And when he prays for unity he is not praying for us all to go to the same church, or worship in the same way, or hold the exact same doctrine. He is not telling us to be Stepford Christians, who look alike, dress alike and sound alike. Unity for Jesus means that we are to be intimately connected with God, and Jesus and one another. We are to be intimately connected in order that the Glory of God, which was given to Jesus, which is given to us, might shine forth brightly and change not only the church but the world. The image that I offer you is of a Christmas tree. Imagine for a moment if you had a Christmas tree with only one light. It would not really shine forth and touch people’s hearts. But with each light that is added, something happens. The light of Jesus’ birth expands into the world. This is the reason Jesus prays that all Christians be united, so that the Glory of God, which we are to see and take hold of, empowered by the love of God within us, will shine forth into the world, changing it into the kind of world God desires.
We have been given a great gift. Not only have we been prayed for by Christ, but through his death and resurrection, the possibilities of his prayer have been made real in our lives. The love of God has been poured into us. The glory of God is all around us empowering us to be a new kind of community. And every time we connect with other Christians here or around the world, we change the world more and more into what the Kingdom of God ought to look like. The task for us is to open ourselves to that love of God that is within us; to allow it, to feel it welling up within so that as we become new and different people we might see more clearly the glory of God and more intimately connect with others. In these ways we will be fulfilling the prayer that Jesus offered for us.
My challenge to you then is this, take some time to experience the love of God; to allow the love that is within you to well up and change you, so that you might be one of those lights that begins to change the world.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 1, 2016
Leviticus 19:9-18, John 13:31-35
It was unnerving. They were screaming and yelling and I was totally unnerved by it. I was in the sixth grade and my family had moved to a new neighborhood and I had moved to a new school. I was fortunate enough to have made a couple of friends and was over visiting my friend Keith. I couldn’t tell you what we were doing but in the background I could hear two people’s voices beginning to rise. At first it was a mild annoyance and then it grew louder and louder until they were shouting. What made it even more unnerving was that it was Keith’s parents. They were arguing, yelling at each other at the top of their lungs. What you have to realize is that I came from a home where no one ever raised their voices. The only two times my father ever did so was when I did something that, well, deserved for him to speak sternly. So with great trepidation I asked something like, “Are they going to be OK?” Keith looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “Oh their fine. We’re Italian.”
This was my first lesson in that every family is different; that every family has their own traditions and their own relational DNA. And the same was true for Jesus and his disciples. As first century Jews they had grown up with their own family traditions and they had their own religious DNA. One piece of that tradition was the command to love neighbor as thyself. You could hear that concept in the reading from Leviticus this morning. And not only could you hear it but you could sense what that meant. One did not show partiality in administering justice. One shared what one had with the poor. One did not lie. This loving neighbor tradition was one that did not end in the Torah, but could be found in the writings and the prophets. It was a core strand of Jewish DNA. In the time of Jesus this could best be seen in that most communities had a social welfare organization that worked to insure that widows had enough to eat. So when in the Upper Room, Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another, he was not plowing new ground. He was however asking them to up their game. He was asking them to not only do the usual in loving neighbor, but within the community, they were to sacrificially serve one another…as he had when he washed their feet.
The amazing thing about this new commandment, was that the disciples actually listened. In fact, they listened so well that the early church became known as the Beloved Community. They shared what they had with one another. They made sure that everyone had enough. And this sense of being a sacrificially loving community was what drew people to the church. Folks in the Roman Empire were not used to people caring for anyone to whom they were not related. And so a community in which all persons were loved, regardless of gender or social standing was amazing. But as you might guess, this sense of the Beloved Community did not last long. Within a hundred years the church had moved away from being a sacrificially loving community and had become an organization; an organization complete with rules, regulations, practices and a hierarchy based on that of the Roman Empire. And over the ensuing centuries it only got worse. And in fact the one job I have currently with the Presbytery, the larger church, is not to head a committee intended to create a Beloved Community, but one that insures the Presbytery fulfills its goal and objectives.
What then are we supposed to do with this command that Jesus has given that we sacrificially love one another? My response is that we ought to try to reclaim it. We ought to try to reclaim it because it is part of our tradition, stretching back beyond Christ. We ought to try to reclaim it because it is part of our Jesus DNA. We ought to try to reclaim it because it is a command of Jesus. And we ought to try to reclaim it because it is part of the vision that we believe God has given us, that as Everybody’s Church we commit ourselves to serving Christ by cultivating mission (which we do well), inclusion (which we do very well) and community (which we don’t do well enough). How will we do this? I’m not sure. What will a 21st Century Beloved Community look like? I’m not sure. What I do know, what I believe, is that we are called to reclaim this part of our tradition and to allow our DNA to drive our community.
This coming weekend the session will begin to wrestle with this idea of Beloved Community; what is it? what does it look like? How should we strive to create it? What they and we need, is your help in this process. Two weeks ago many of you filled out a survey about your experience of community here at First Church. What we are asking you to do is to take a short more in-depth survey with several narrative questions. We are asking this because we believe that our vision for the Beloved Community is not something that I can discern alone, or the session can discern alone, but it is something that should be a vision arising from the entire congregation.
My challenge then to each of you is to go to the website, take the survey and help us discover God’s vision for what it means to be the Beloved Community in Birmingham in the 21st Century.
Pastors and Associate Pastors: Dr. John Judson, Rev. Joanne Blair, Dr. Kate Thoresen, Rev. Ted Thode