The Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 13, 2021
Genesis 2:1-3; Mark 2:1-13
It was the late 1800’s and the session of First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham was in a tizzy. They were in a tizzy because one of their members was caught doing something that he should not have been doing. And this was not the first time either. This member had been caught doing this same horrible thing the year before and was warned that there would be dire consequences should he ever transgress again. And yet he did. Someone had seen him and reported him. The session knew what they had to do. The vote was unanimous, this member would be expelled from the congregation. What was his crime? What was the horrible infraction that he had the audacity to engage in not once, but twice? He was caught…wait for it…harvesting his wheat on Sunday. Yes, that’s right, this man was caught harvesting his wheat on the Sabbath; the Sabbath, a holy day on which no work was to be done. I have to say this is one of my favorite stories from the church archives because it is such a great parallel to this morning’s story in which the Pharisees get upset when Jesus’ disciples do their own reaping on the Sabbath.
Just so we are clear on the similarities, let’s take a moment to review our story from Mark which we read a couple of minutes ago. Jesus and his disciples are on the road. It is the Sabbath. They are hungry so they pluck some wheat heads from a field and eat them. For most of us this would seem like a rather innocuous action. But for the Pharisees, who were a group of Jews who spent their lives trying to be faithful to God through strict adherence to the Torah, the disciples’ actions were appalling. The Pharisees found the disciples actions appalling because the disciples engaged in more than ten percent of the works prohibited on the Sabbath. Let me explain. Over the centuries, to ensure that Jews did not break the commandment to honor the sabbath, 39 types of work had become prohibited. Among these prohibited work actions were reaping, winnowing, threshing and preparing a meal. The disciples managed to engage in four of these prohibited work actions. In order to understand all of this, we would have to go into a wheat field and try to pluck and eat grains of wheat. To do so really is work. Needless to say, the Pharisees had the disciples dead-to-rights. The question was, what would Jesus do about it?
The short answer is that Jesus did what we hoped he would do. He chastises the Pharisees for being legalistic and makes it clear that he has authority over what happens on the Sabbath…more so than the 39 prohibited work rules of tradition. Chances are most of us are thinking something like, “Go Jesus, go. You show those legalists what’s what.” Which is fine, except for one thing…which is…that we have in many ways thrown out the Sabbath altogether. Since there are no more legalistic regulations we have simply let the Sabbath slide. The problem with letting the Sabbath slide is that the Sabbath is baked into God’s recipe for creation. Not having the Sabbath would be like baking bread but not letting it rise before putting it into the oven. I say this because the Sabbath is the seventh day of God’s creative act. The Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments in which God commands people to honor the Sabbath. The Sabbath is one of the great issues with which the prophets deal in their critique of God’s people, meaning God’s people failed to honor the Sabbath. It seems then that with the Sabbath occupying such an integral place in the life of God’s people, perhaps we need to spend a few minutes reminding ourselves about the purposes of the Sabbath; that the Sabbath is a gift of God to help us.
The first way the Sabbath helps us is to give us rest; to give people a day off. What is fascinating is that the Christian church took a day that was intended for rest and turned it into a day for worship. Let me be clear, I believe that worship matters; that attuning our hearts toward God in corporate worship is part of what we are called to do as Jesus’ followers. Yet, the sabbath was originally intended as a day in which men, women, children, animals, and even the earth were to be given a chance to rest and refresh. It was intended to be a day that reminds people that rest is important; that life is not about endless work and drudgery; that life is not about endless accumulation. For many of us this call to rest comes as a challenge and a relief. It comes as a challenge because there is an unwritten rule that we are what we accomplish. That if we are not accomplishing something then we are wasting time. So, we work hard. We play hard. Yet ultimately all that hard work and play takes a toll. It comes as a relief because it says down time is good time. Down time is meaningful time. Therefore, Jesus could say that the sabbath was made for human beings because rest is in fact part of God’s purpose for the world.
The second way in which the sabbath helps us is to give us an opportunity to enjoy God’s good creation. Let me ask, how many of you have ever finished a project, looked at it, declared it to be good, and then just sat back and enjoyed it? If you have, then you have an image of what God did after finishing creation. God took time to enjoy God’s own creation. We can see this by linking the end of Genesis chapter one and these opening verses of chapter two. At the end of chapter one we listen as God declares all of creation to be very good, meaning that creation is well suited for its purpose of bringing forth the fullness of life. Then in chapter two, we are told that God blessed and hallowed the seventh day, meaning God set aside this day for the sole purpose of rest so that God could enjoy and appreciate all that had been accomplished. What then we are invited to do is to stand with God on the Sabbath and enjoy this good creation as well. We are to stand with God and appreciate the beauty and complexity of creation and as we do so, to give thanks to God for creating a universe that can be depended upon.
One of the great joys of living as long as Cindy and I did in San Antonio was having our pick of a wide variety of Tex-Mex restaurants. Some were standalone eateries, others drive thrus and still others were chains. On a regular basis we would choose one of our favorites and we would indulge our craving for enchiladas and tamales. Occasionally we would do so on a Sunday after church or in the evening. What we knew though was that there was one chain to which we could not go. And that was Las Palapas. We couldn’t go there because they were closed. They were closed because their owners believed in Sabbath. A sabbath for their employees. And on the sign out front of all their stores were these words, “Sunday, closed for faith and family.” I always admired that because it said that they understood Sabbath as a time to set aside working and striving and to simply rest and enjoy God’s good creation. So this is the challenge that I am offering to us all on this Sunday, to ask ourselves, “How am I taking the time for sabbath, to rest, to enjoy and to simply be in God’s presence and creation so I can be refreshed for the week to come?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 6, 2021
Genesis 1:26-31; Galatians 3:23-29
It is considered one of the greatest aspirational sentences ever written. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." This sentence is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence of the American colonies and is perhaps one of the most quoted lines from any document in the history of our nation. But as I said, it is aspirational, meaning the desire for equality is one to which this nation has always aspired but never fully lived into. This is not a criticism of our nation. It is not a criticism because there is no nation, organization or culture that has made this kind of equality a reality. What I mean by this is that if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that even if it is an oxymoron, there are some people who are more equal than others. Some people are more equal because of the families into which they were born, or the nation in which they were born, or the schools they can attend, or the experiences they can have, or their gender, sexual orientation, abilities, or skin color. There are countless life circumstances that prevent the aspiration of equality from becoming a reality…not only in the nation but in the church.
I say not only in the nation but in the church because the church also has an aspirational statement about equality in its founding documents. This statement is not simply found in Paul’s words to the churches in Galatia but in some ways is hardwired into our faith through the words we read this morning in Genesis 1. I say hardwired because these words calling God’s people to equality cover all aspects of human life. Let’s take a few minutes and see how Genesis 1 calls us to three distinct aspects of equality: the aspects of personhood, purpose, and provision.
The first aspect of equality concerns personhood. Listen again to verse 26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” At the heart of this verse is the word “adama,” which is Hebrew for humankind. It is a genderless noun describing the totality of human beings. It does not describe a man or a woman. And even though the passage continues by differentiating man and woman, the initial act of creation is focused on reminding God’s people that all human beings are equal because they are made in God’s image. Thus, there is equality in personhood, meaning that even when the world wants to claim that some people are more equal than others, God’s word shouts from the rooftops that this is not so; that every person is created in the likeness and image of God and so is to be treated as such.
The second aspect of equality concerns purpose. Genesis continues, “…and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” In essence what this portion of the verse tells us is that we all have the same purpose in life, and that is to care for and watch over God’s creation. I realize that the words “have dominion over” have been taken to mean domination, or the freedom to do whatever we want with God’s good creation. It has meant that humans have the ability to pollute the air and water, and to deforest the planet. The problem with that interpretation is that it forgets that to have dominion means to serve the one who created and owns creation. In other words, to have dominion means to steward this amazing world as if God were here personally overseeing everything. I like to think of having dominion as being a forest ranger, whose task it is to care for and nurture creation. Thus, every human being is equally responsible for acting on God’s behalf to care for the world and everyone and everything in it.
The third aspect of equality concerns provision. In verse 29 God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” What this means is that all of creation and the goods in it are given to all people and not only to a select few. Of the three declarations of equality this is perhaps the most difficult to attain because human beings have long lived with the sense that what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine if I can take it from you. From the dawn of creation, human beings have lived with a mentality of scarcity, meaning that enough is never enough and so I need to keep taking for myself, my family, my people, my nation even when that taking impoverished others. Consider that the wealthiest 16% of the world’s population consume 80% of the natural resources. Or in this moment of Covid19, our nation is at a place where there are more than enough doses for all, and other portions of the world don’t have enough to vaccinate more than a percentage or two of their population. What Genesis makes clear is that this is not the way the world is supposed to be. There is to be equality in provision because the goods of this world belong to all humankind.
Where then does the call to live into these three aspects of equality leave us? And by leave us, I mean where does it leave the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Michigan, Everybody’s Church? Where I believe it leaves us is that we are aspiring to be a community in which this Godly equality is not only aspired to but is being lived out. This equality can be found in our Inclusion Statement, “As Everybody's Church we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the full participation of all people of any ability, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.” This equality can be found in our attempts to make our building energy efficient so as to minimize our impact on creation. This equality can be found in our mission work of sharing our resources with others. We are aspiring and working toward equality. The challenge I want to offer you this morning is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I working to make this world a place of equality in all that I do?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 30, 2021
Genesis 1:1-5; Revelation 21:1-5a
Some people believe that it began in 1859. Others say it began in the early 1920s. Regardless of when it began, the debate between evolution and creationism has consumed churches, school boards and state legislatures for the last 100 years. This debate could have begun in 1859 with the publication of The Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin because the book introduced the concept that species evolve over time through a process of natural selection. Yet, initially, many Christians saw God’s hand in the process of natural selection and accepted that God could use evolution as a means of continuing creation. However by the 1920’s more conservative Christian churches rejected Darwin’s work. These churches insisted on a literal reading of the creation narrative, meaning that God created everything as it now exists in six, 24-hour days. This is what is called “Young Earth Creationism.” I mention this debate not because we will engage in it, but because I believe the entire debate between creationism and evolution misses the purpose of this opening chapter of Genesis. It misses the chapter’s purpose because this is a religious and not scientific text…meaning the chapter is intended to tell us some things about God and some things about us. It is not intended to tell us something about the physics of creation. And not only that, what we learn about God and ourselves from this chapter is essential to our understanding and living our faith. So, over the next few minutes we will look at four discoveries that this chapter contains that will assist us in our faith journey.
Discovery one is that life matters to God. Note I did not say that God is about creation. I said that life matters to God, which is what the first chapter of Genesis is about. It is about God bringing life into existence. If we were to have read the entire first chapter, this would have become clearer. Chapter One about the creation of plants of multiple kinds, of a wide variety of fish in the sea and birds of the air, of plants yielding seed so they can reproduce, of fruit trees of every kind, of swarms of living creatures in the sea and on the land, of birds, cattle, creeping things, and wild animals. And all of these are to multiply and cover the earth. And let’s be clear, God was not forced to create all of this. God was not under contract to create. God created life because life matters to God. This is why Jesus can later say that he came to bring life and life abundant. This is why Jesus can say that God is the God of the living and not the dead. This discovery is critical to our faith because it reminds us that all life, and not simply human life, matters to God.
Discovery two is that God is a risk taker. I realize that you might not have ever heard someone say that before. But if we take seriously that God creates life, then God is taking a risk in that act of creation. Let me explain. I have taken this poll before, but we will do so again, how many of you were children once? Ok, so most of you. When your parents gave you birth, or fostered you, or adopted you, they were taking a risk because sooner or later, you would learn the most powerful two-letter word in the English language, “no.” And as soon as a child learns that word and uses it, the child becomes a separate person, no longer attached to the one who created, fostered or adopted them. What this means in terms of God creating life, is that as soon as God created something, that something had the ability to say “no” to God. Rabbinic scholars like to point out that even before human beings said “no” to God, creation did the same. In verse 24 God says, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures…” Does earth do so? No, earth does not and so God must do it. In other words, like an intransient child, even creation was resistant to being directed by God. Even so, creation, creating life, was worth the risk to God. God cared about life so much that God was willing to risk hearing a “no.” This discovery matters to our faith because it says that God is willing to risk showering God’s love and compassion on all of us even if there are those moments we, too, say “no” to God.
Discovery three is that we are not God. I realize that for most of us this is not a new idea. In fact, few of us would probably think of ourselves as God or a god. But there is more to not seeing ourselves as God than merely comprehending the fact that we are part of creation and are not the creator. Even though we may not think of ourselves as gods, we often act like we are. What I mean by this is that we assume we know what is right and true in almost every circumstance. We think we know what the outcomes of all our actions and choices will be. We think that we can see into the future and that all our plans and dreams will come true. In other words, we act like we are God. Or if we do not do these things ourselves, we are more than willing to invest these god-like qualities in others. We are willing to give our allegiance to people and or organizations that claim to be able to save us. We are willing to treat others as if they are micro-gods rather than human beings. This is what happened with Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot and Jim Jones; meaning the outcome of such worship of creatures always ended and ends badly. This discovery is critical to our faith because it reminds us that our ultimate allegiance must be to God and God alone.
Discovery four is that we human beings are works in progress. This discovery is one that comes from the sixth day of creation, which is one of the two days of creation that is not said to be “good.” The other day not said to be “good” is day two, which is another matter. To say that something is good doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically good, or beautiful. It means that it is fit for its God given purpose. As we will discover, humanity’s purpose is to love God and neighbor, and to care for creation. By God not declaring human beings as being good, it is a sign that God is not sure that we will be able to fulfill our purposes. In other words, we are going to be works in progress. We are going to be willful creatures who may or may not ever fulfill our potential and purpose. We will always be somewhere on the learning curve of discovering who God desires us to be. Again, this is part of the risk God took in creating us in the first place; that we might not turn out as God intended and desired. This discovery is important to our faith because it reminds us that we are on a journey and that even when we fall short of what we expect of ourselves, or what we believe God expects of us, it is okay because God knows that we are works in progress. And so we are not to give up or be discouraged.
The question then becomes, how do we draw these discoveries together? How do we make sense of them for this day and all our days ahead? My response would be that we go to the very end of the scriptures, to Revelation 21:5 where we read God saying, “See, I am making all things new.” A better translation might be, “See I am constantly renewing all life.” In other words, God’s love for life, all life including human life, is so important that God does not sit back and simply observe what is going on, but that God is actively at work helping life reach its full potential. God is at work helping us reach our full human potential. The challenge then is for us to allow God to work in our lives. To allow God to be God and to renew and remake us with each passing day. Here then, is the question I would have you ask. “How am I allowing God to make me new with each passing day so that I might reach the full life God has planned for me?”
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
May 23, 2021
Habakkuk 2:1-4, John 14:15-17, Acts 2:1-4
I want us to try something before I begin. Ready?
[Silence - Count to 20]
Great Job! I wonder what that was like for you? Waiting is hard. Waiting when you don’t know what is coming next or how long you will be waiting is incredibly difficult. The Pentecost story largely depends on a time of waiting and yet we skip over that part every year. Heck, Acts basically skips over it too. Jesus tells the disciples he will send them the Holy Spirit; he ascends into heaven; the disciples get distracted trying to refill their committee of 12 people; and then boom, Spirit shows up.
It sounds like they all go down in one day. They got up that morning, had breakfast with Jesus and saw him ascend. Then over lunch, they decided who was going to take Judas’ spot and by the afternoon they had the Spirit. The timeline though is more likely that they waited for about 10 days for the Spirit. Scholars get to this length of time based on secular historical writings. The science is thin so we can’t know for sure, but the writings, some of them journals, talk about Jesus alongside descriptions of preparations for specific festivals. We know when Jewish and Roman festivals took place on a calendar so we can get a general idea of Jesus’ timeline too. Rumors of the resurrection are tied in closely with talk about the Festival of the First Fruits, and the Spirit shows up on the Festival of Pentecost which are 50 days apart. Acts 1:3 says Jesus was on earth after his resurrection for 40 days, 50-40 = our 10 days of waiting for the Spirit.
Like I said, all that is a flimsy case BUT I think the most compelling support for the Spirit showing up after a period of significant waiting is the fact that Jesus does not just hand the baton off to the Spirit.
It seems odd that Jesus wouldn’t make this important introduction himself if the Spirit was already nearly there. Like, “Hey guys, gotta go but I want you to meet this great friend of mine. We call her Spirit. She’s gonna take over for me. See you in heaven. Peace out.”
Quick detour to talk about why I use she/her pronouns for the Spirit. I know our English versions often use He pronouns when talking about the Spirit, but that was a choice translators made and I believe they chose wrong.
One, because there are two words that get translated into Spirit. One in Greek and one in Hebrew. The Hebrew word is “ruach” which is a feminine word. The Greek word is “Pneuma” which is gender neutral. SO anyplace in scripture that references the Spirit is either gender neutral or feminine and the only reason Greek speakers use “pneuma” is because that is the best word Greek speakers had to express the Hebrew understanding. They did not have a way to retain the feminine nature of the Spirit in their language. Much like we don’t have a perfect way to talk about gender neutral people in English. There is already a translation and a loss of specificity happening from Hebrew to Greek speakers.
Secondly, in the Greek there is a pronoun that gets used around the word “pneuma” which is “autos.” “Autos” can be translated as he, she, or it. When we make a translation of autos we need to look at who the word is referring to. When translators see it connected to pneuma they hit a dead end. There is no gender on pneuma there is no gender on autos. What do we do? Until 2004 when English translators chose to write he, they could have just as correctly chosen she or it. Bibles translated in the last 17 years have started making different choices but it is a hard thing to switch.
Thirdly, I see God being perfectly fine with feminine roles in scripture. Even a literal reading of Genesis clearly shows female is part of God’s image. PLUS there are tons of places in scripture that God is more than happy to be compared to female roles. Hens, bakers, breastfeeding, even Jesus says we must be born again in the Spirit, which is in Jesus’ context the work of a woman. I think Jesus understood the Spirit to be more feminine and that’s why he makes that metaphor about birth instead of using a metaphor connected to male work to describe the Spirit, for example, “one needs to be recarved in the Spirit.” Jesus knew the Spirit well and when Jesus talks about the Spirit and uses autos I think Jesus means “she.” So when I talk about the Spirit I use she/her pronouns.
There are lots of other reasons, but we need to get back to Pentecost and talk about waiting. Jesus does not choose to immediately pass the baton off to the Spirit. He ascends and forces the disciples into a period of waiting. We think this was about 10 days of not knowing when the Spirit would arrive, not knowing what it would look like for the Spirit to arrive, not knowing what would happen after that. They just had to wait.
The way you felt a few moments ago, as I slowly counted to 20, was probably similar to how the disciples felt waiting for the Spirit, and they had to endure it for 10 days. This forced waiting was an intentional choice that Jesus made. There must be something in waiting that Jesus wanted the disciples to experience first that made him choose to not make the introduction to the Spirit himself. Something that needed to be processed before they were ready for the Spirit to arrive.
While our little experiment at the beginning of this sermon gave us a reminder of what waiting is like, we know waiting better than we ever have. The past 14 months have been a crash course in waiting. The shared experience of waiting through this pandemic has given us a new understanding of the power in the wait and gives us an idea of what Jesus might have hoped would happen as the disciples waited for the Spirit.
The first thing we all did when we were forced to wait was dream. When we found ourselves with extra time, we dreamed about the possibilities. Posts about at home exercise were everywhere, we were dreaming of being healthier. People quickly found home projects they had always wanted to get to, they dreamed about unfulfilled potential. Hobbies were dusted off. We dreamed about who we wanted to be on the other side of the lockdown. We imagined coming out of the waiting a better version of ourselves.
For me that period of waiting lasted a month, maybe you did better than me, but the next stage was resting. What else did we have to do but rest. We vegged out on the couch watching whatever we could find on TV. Puzzles were suddenly sold out. Family conversations went long into the night. I even saw a video of a guy who spent all day doing whatever his dog did. When the dog looked out the window they looked out the window together. When the dog napped they napped. When the dog wanted to play they played. Resting while we waited for whatever was coming next took over our lives.
Then, and I believe largely where we are now, is analyzing. We first started analyzing how and why our lives had gotten to the place they were in February 2020. The packed schedules. The early mornings and late evenings. We looked at how normal had become normal and began asking should that be normal? Now as we see a light growing with every vaccine in an arm, we are analyzing what to allow back into our lives. Thinking deeply about what we have learned over these months and how to shape a life that includes the things we miss and the new things we love. How do we hold space in our schedules for the lessons we learned during rest? How do we make the dreams we dreamed a reality?
These three things, dreaming, resting, and analyzing are the power in waiting. We rush through waiting because it's difficult, because it makes us uncomfortable. I'm sure many of you were on the edge trying to anticipate when I would begin my sermon, getting anxious and maybe a little annoyed. When we talk about Pentecost we rush past the waiting that came before the Spirit because it’s not as exciting as flames hovering over someone’s head. We thought nothing was happening while we waited. There isn’t any story there. BUT there is.
There is so much in the wait. SO much that Jesus knew the disciples needed to wait before they were ready for the Spirit to arrive. While they waited they dreamed about how to get the message of Jesus out to the rest of the world. They dreamed about what a community fully committed to the teachings of Jesus would look like.
While the disciples waited, they rested. They no longer had to chase after Jesus and stay alert to the teachings.They could rest. And they could analyze the message. Really boil down the teachings to the core of what Jesus was saying. They probably retold their favorite parable, correcting one another, and had realizations about lessons they hadn’t quite gotten when it was first told.
Dreaming, resting, and analyzing made them ready to get to work the minute the Spirit arrived. They had the vision of the dream. They were well rested and ready to get to work. They knew the lessons and how to proclaim the gospel.
I want to try our waiting again. This time I want you to feel yourself going through each stage. I will give you a verbal prompt of when to switch to the next phase. Ready
Let’s dream: lean into the potentials we can only imagine (count of 10).
Rest: clear your mind, let your shoulders fall, unclench your jaw, relax your tongue (count to 10).
Analyze what lessons are within reach (count to 10).
Good job! This is just practice. We are still in the waiting period of this pandemic and so I challenge you to take the time to process through these stages of waiting. Do not rush through the gift of waiting and miss the power we can gain from it. So when this pandemic eases and life begins to spin again, we can be ready to live into the power that waiting has given us.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 16, 2021
Isaiah 5:1-7; John 15:1-17
Something was supposed to happen. When he flicked the switch something was supposed to happen but this time nothing happened. I can’t tell you what grade I was in in high school or what class it was, all I can remember is that it was one of those wonderful days when the AV guy brought in the projector and we got to see a movie instead of listening to a lecture. For those of us of a certain age we understand that we had movies in class. There were not videos or DVDs or things on the internet, but there were films. The AV guy would bring in this large projector, take the film out of the can, put the full reel on one spindle and an empty reel on the other. Then the projectionist would carefully wind the film into the projector, test the tension and hit the switch. The projector would whir to life and we would watch. But this time nothing happened. The AV guy asked for the lights to come back on. He checked and rechecked everything. But still nothing. One classmate behind me suggested that the projector wasn’t working because the electric cord had a knot in it. I just shook my head. Then a voice from the back of the class said, “Is this supposed to be plugged in?” We all turned and looked, and there in this person’s hand was the plug. “Yes,” was the reply from the AV guy. The person plugged in the cord and what was supposed to happen happened and we watched the movie.
Something is supposed to happen. This could also be said of us branches being connected to Jesus’ vine. Something is supposed to happen. The image that Jesus uses, that he is the vine, and we are the branches has rightly been understood to signify the mystical union between ourselves and Jesus; the mystical union that allows the Spirit to move from God, the vine planter, to Jesus the vine and then to us, the branches. It is the mystical connection that allows for the fruit of the Spirit to manifest itself in us, filling us with the love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and self-control. It is the mystical union that makes us all friends of Jesus. The image of the vine and the branches is also an ancient one that was used by the Psalmists and the prophets to describe God’s relationship with the people of Israel. God was the one who planted and cared for the vineyard; that cared for God’s people. But for both the Prophets and Jesus there was more to this connection than a mystical union. Something was supposed to happen. That something is that the branches are to bear fruit. And if we listen to Jesus and Isaiah, we learn that the branches are to bear three kinds of fruit, each in its own season. And so, over the next few minutes we will examine each of these seasonal fruits.
Season one bears the fruit of love. The fruit of love is at the center of Jesus’ message about the vine and the branches. Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Love is the foundational fruit from which the other fruits grow. It is foundational because the love Jesus describes is a love that turns human hearts outward. It causes human beings to see “the other” not as a stranger but as someone worthy of compassion and care. It is a love that says the needs of others are equal to, or perhaps even greater than my needs. This is the love that God demonstrated when God sent Jesus into the world. This is the love that Jesus will demonstrate on the cross when he gives his life for the world. This fruit of love is what first grows when we are the branches on Jesus’ vine.
Season two bears the fruit of righteousness. It may be that many of us are uncomfortable with the term righteousness. That may be because we have associated righteousness with moral or religious perfection, or we have tied it to the idea of being self-righteous, meaning those who think they are morally or religiously perfect but are not. But neither of those ideas gets at the heart of what righteousness means. Righteousness means acts of compassion and service. It means doing, what Judaism calls, “tzedakah” which means giving money or goods to those in need. While many of us might like to call this kind of giving charity, the fact is that charity is an optional giving for the sake of giving. Acts of righteousness are offered in response to the love that God has poured into us, that have turned our hearts outward toward others. Righteous acts are physical expressions of love. This idea is at the heart of Matthew 25 where Jesus says that we are to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked. This is what Isaiah means when he combines righteousness and cry. That where people do not reach out in righteous acts, people cry out in hunger and despair. The fruit of righteousness then are individual acts of compassion and kindness that grow from love.
The third season brings the fruit of justice. Justice is love that works to create the kingdom of God on earth. In other words, while righteousness is personal acts of love offered up, justice is understood to be communal love that creates the kind of world God desires. The fruit of justice has two elements. The first element is that all persons, regardless of class, wealth, nationality, or citizenship are treated equally before the law. This equal treatment is based in the very story of creation in which all human beings are created in the image of God and have the breath of God breathed into them. Thus, every human being is deserving of the same treatment as every other human being. The second aspect of justice is equity. Justice equity does not mean merely equal opportunity, but it means those who have greater need are to be given what it is that they need so that they have enough. This means that a just society is to be one in which there are not a few who have too much, and others who have too little. This is the reason that Isaiah combines justice with bloodshed, because where there is no justice there is no peace. This is so because where there is no justice, people crush and kill others in order to gain more and more, or those who have been unjustly treated rise up to take what is rightly theirs. Justice is fruit that grows from love and righteousness.
Before we close this morning, I want to offer you what I consider to be one of the most wonderful examples of how these fruits work. In 2007 the Rev. Dr. Kate Thoresen and her husband, Tom, were invited to a summit called Save the Children. The summit was to address the plight of the children in the Foster Care system. Because Tom chaired the missions committee that had helped to fund the event and Rev. Kate was a pastor, they were invited to speak about how congregations could support the kids caught in the foster care system. To learn more Kate and Tom began to listen to the stories of adoptive and foster families. The more they learned, the more they felt called to help. This is love at work. This is what happens when one is connected to the vine. This desire to help led to the Thoresens to create the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care in 2009 and to Rev. Kate becoming a Parish Associate here with her portfolio being Foster Care. That Coalition allowed many of you listening today to turn your fruit of love into fruits of righteousness. I say this because you and thousands like you turned your hearts outward to give money, clothing, prom dresses, baby supplies, computers, furniture and so much more. The branches were bearing great fruit. This past week, these acts of love and righteousness moved into the realm of justice. I say this because the foster care community became aware that the state of Michigan, because of a loophole in federal regulations, was confiscating social security and SSI money that was owed to foster children, whose parents had died or who had physical and mental disabilities. The state confiscated those funds in order to replace any funds the state spent on the children. The children can obtain some of the money if they request it, but foster families were never made aware of this. In addition, any excess money not used by the state was not given to the foster child when they turned 18 but was sent back to Social Security. It was to this injustice, children not getting what they are legally entitled to because they are poor, is what is leading many members of the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care to begin the hard work of trying to change the law. This is what happens when the branches are overloaded with the fruits of love, righteousness, and justice.
This morning my challenge to you is to ask yourselves, where am I bearing fruit? I ask this not to see who has born the most fruit, or to guilt people who feel as if they have not born enough fruit, because we are all in different seasons of fruit bearing. I ask this simply because something is supposed to happen.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 9, 2021
Genesis 1:26-31; John 11:17-27
It was a call of desperation. All the 911 operator could make out was that someone had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom somewhere in Houston. The caller had no idea where they were only that they needed help. The police leaped into action. First, they were able to narrow down the area in which the person was being held hostage by using cell tower data. Then the police and sheriff’s officers began scouring the neighborhood. Finally, they located the suspects hideout in a very stable, middle class neighborhood (a block and a half from our son’s house). When the raid finally took place, the officers were shocked. They found more than 90 people crammed into two small rooms. The people had not eaten or been given liquid in four days. All these immigrants had paid coyotes to move them across the border from Mexico into Texas, but now the coyotes were holding them hostage in order to extort more money from their families. Those held hostage had no idea what would happen to them if their families did not pay. Those held captive were grateful for the rescue and the kind treatment of the neighbors who brought them food and water, even though it meant being sent back across the border. They had put out a call for help and it had been heard.
We might imagine that Mary and Martha were holding onto the same sort of hope when they called IXII and sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was dying. They hoped Jesus would come quickly and save Lazarus from death. We are not sure why Lazarus was dying. We are not sure why Jesus, who considered Lazarus a friend, did not immediately leave what he was doing and make the short walk to Bethany. And it was a short walk, less than a day’s journey. But Jesus did not come on the first day, or the second, or even on the third day. It was not until four days after Lazarus had died and been entombed that Jesus arrived on the scene. And by then it was too late. There was no hope of raising him from the dead. There was no hope because all Jews knew that the spirit of the deceased only hovered around the body for three days. So, by day four, Lazarus was beyond hope, which Martha made clear to Jesus when he finally arrived. Her words were biting. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Jesus knew she was right. He knew that if he had come sooner Lazarus would still be alive and there would have been another miracle on Jesus’ resume. But since Lazarus was dead, Jesus knew what was expected of him. He was expected to stay for a week and mourn with the family. He was to show compassion and tender care to Mary and Martha. He was to try to comfort them and the friends who came to the wake. Jesus, however, does none of these things. In fact, Jesus seems to make an offhand, rude remark to Martha. “Your brother will rise again.” No offense to Jesus, but Martha knew that. Everyone knew that. They all knew that when God’s kingdom was launched that all the righteous would be raised to new life. They knew that there would be a general resurrection of the dead. This was the meaning of Daniel’s words that, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” And though this might be comforting, knowing that Lazarus will rise on the last day, it didn’t help ease the pain of the moment…the pain that if Jesus had been there, then Lazarus would still be alive. Jesus was late and he should simply acknowledge his failing.
What Jesus does next flips the script. Jesus flips the script because he makes it clear that he is not late but is instead, early. He is early because the resurrection that was supposed to have occurred at the end of time, at the final consummation of the world, was happening in and through him. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live. And those that believe in me and live, will never die.” This claim that Jesus is early with the resurrection has two components; resurrection and life which are intimately connected. This morning I would like to begin with the second, life, and then move on to resurrection. When Jesus speaks of himself as the Life, he is drawing on one of the great themes of the TANAK, the Jewish scriptures. This theme is that God is a God of life, rather than a God of death. God is the one who creates life out of nothing and then declares that life to be very good. God is the one who creates a flourishing creation fit for plants, animals, and human beings. This means that life is precious to God. Life is to be nurtured, protected, and appreciated. Unfortunately, this flourishing of all life was diminished by human beings’ tendency to war, violence, and abuse of the land...remembering that even the land is to be able to rest. So, when Jesus speaks of himself as the Life, he is not only drawing a connection between himself and the creator but is stating that the creator’s desire for full and flourishing life can be found in Jesus’ own being. Jesus is the one who makes the fullness of life possible.
This brings us then to the resurrection. A careful reading of the TANAK makes it clear that God’s desire was for the life to endure; for the life God created to last. Again, unfortunately, human pride, jealousy, arrogance, and idolatry brought death. Human sin destroys what God makes. This destruction then causes human beings to believe that death renders all life meaningless. Why bother being good if we are all going to die? Why bother thinking of anyone else if all we do is forgotten? Why worry about the future of the world when we will not live to see it? If death renders everything meaningless, why bother at all? What Jesus hopes people will see is that the resurrection alters the equation that death = meaninglessness. Instead, the equation is to be resurrection = meaning. It does so because we are building for a future that we will inherit as those who will be resurrected. We are creating life not only for those who follow us, but for ourselves. For you see, resurrection is not merely a spiritual resurrection, which is step one; but it is a physical resurrection, which is step two. Resurrection means that the life we create here and now will be part of the life we will one day inherit. Thus, the precious life God creates, becomes the precious life that God redeems.
This past week I received my usual number of robo-calls on my cell phone, none of which I answer. Most left no voicemail but one did…which I thought was worth sharing…even if the transcription was not entirely accurate. This was the transcription. “Hi, this is Bob. We sent you a letter in the mail this week regarding your death elimination. So, give us a call thank you.” My friends, what I hope we will remember this week is that long before Bob sent me a letter in the mail about my death elimination, the Gospel of John sent us a letter about our death elimination; our death elimination in and through Jesus of Nazareth, who is the resurrection and the life. The only question for us is the same one for Martha, do we believe it? Do we believe that in Jesus there is the fullness of life? Do we believe that in Jesus the resurrection gives meaning to our lives and casts out the fear of dying? I hope so because it has for me. It is what gives me the courage to speak here every week and at every memorial service. It is what gives me the courage to work with you all for a better future for this world. It is what gives me hope regardless of what the news brings. My challenge to you for this week is to simply ask yourselves, “Do I believe?” and if you do, to let this belief in Jesus as the resurrection and the life, give your life meaning and purpose for each day that passes.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
May 2, 2021
1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
“I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I would venture a guess that there is an interpretation of this passage you have all heard. It says that this passage affirms the theology that belief in Jesus is the only way to get IN to heaven. It is a wildly popular interpretation of this section of scripture. Even if you never heard a pastor preach that way, you know this interpretation exists because certain theologies have a way of finding us.
Just because it is the loudest proclaimed interpretation it is just one of many ways Christians have read these words. You see disagreeing is part of who we are as a religious family. Even the disciples disagreed about what Jesus was saying. Sometimes Jesus would clarify, and sometimes he wouldn't. Jesus was happy to let the differing opinions exist in the same space.
Throughout the growth of Christianity wildly different theologies develop side by side. Sometimes as direct oppositions to one another and sometimes as happy companions. This verse is a great example of how that happens. One church leader writes about this meaning Jesus is the ONLY way, and another rebuttals with their belief that Jesus is saying he is A way.
Unfortunately Christians do not have a great track record of holding the tension of disagreeing. In the past it has meant churches split and new denominations form. Today we see the scourge of Christians shaming other Christians. IF you don’t believe THIS way THEN you are not a Christian. Drawing boundaries around who is in and who is out based on what they believe about Jesus and his teachings.
There is a whole structural name for this way of thinking called “bounded set.” We can see how a bounded set looks here. [See image below] There is a boundary drawn to show who is in, who is a real Christian, and who is out. The kicker is that Christians even disagree about how one gets across this boundary. We can’t even agree on what the line represents! Catholics believe the way into the circle is through the sacraments. Pentecostals believe it is in receiving the Holy Spirit expressed through the gift of speaking in a heavenly language they call tongues.
Some even say there are state boundary lines and national boundary lines. Some Christians believe similarly enough that they can exist as different denominations but of the same faith and so are part of the same “country” but different “states.” However when you get to traditions like the Church of Latter Day Saints the beliefs are so different they are a whole different nation, no longer a Christian denomination, but a new religion all together.
Now I get why this is appealing. This looks nice and orderly. It looks like those on the inside can sit comfy knowing they are IN, no worries! However, we can’t even agree on where this line is, so in reality it looks like thousands of interlocking circles, some thick lines, some thin lines, including some and excluding others. It’s a mess. You think you are safe inside the circle but whose definition of the circle is the right one? And so we are left fighting over who is in the right circle.
This way of being depends on someone KNOWING, so anyone on their side of the boundary can also feel at ease. This way of being promotes one theology over another and can only survive if all competing voices are destroyed. This turns religion into a monopoly on access to God. You cannot have a relationship with God unless you are in the correct circle, God does not love the people on the inside the same way God loves those on the outside.
Many Christian churches, pastors, and Christians operate with this structure. Their whole goal is to be in and get other people in. And we have a bit of a chicken or the egg situation because they are also the ones who hold that “I am the way” means the ONLY way. It could be that their reading of scripture led to the formation of this structure AND it could be that their participation in this structure influences how they read Jesus’ words. The structure and the interpretation reinforce one another.
This structure and interpretation have become the popular way of being and believing because it offers a sense of security. It requires minimal effort and participation from us. Believe what is told to you from the pulpit, and the promise of being IN is yours, you have a place. The simplicity of that exchange has caused this structure and this interpretation to boom even though the origins of this belief has a parallel interpretation. I want to offer you another way to hear these words from Jesus.
John 14 begins with Jesus reassuring the disciples that they have a place with God. There are many dwelling places. Jesus says if that wasn’t real why would I say it? Jesus is saying you WILL be with me and with God, you are already IN. It’s a beautiful promise meant to ease the worries of the disciples.
Jesus then makes the assumption that since these men know him, know what he speaks out against and what he supports, and how he lives his life in general, they would connect the dots that being like Jesus is the goal for life. This, of course, goes completely over the disciples heads. Thomas asks, “How do we get IN?”
Jesus then plainly says “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.”
These words are the part that gets lifted out to support the popular belief that Jesus is saying the only way to get to heaven is to be a follower of Jesus. But if we suspend that interpretation bias for a moment and not let our bonded set mentality influence our hearing, Jesus could also be saying, “I am showing you the way to be closer to God. Copy my way of being, copy my way of speaking and supporting truth even when it is truth against the powerful. Copy my life. The things I do will bring you closer to God. SO you can be with God here as well as in the next life.” The verse says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (through this way of being that brings you closer to God). 7 If you know me (if you know this way of being), you will know my Father also.”
Notice, no where in there does Jesus say this is the only way, and no where in there does he say belief was necessary. The belief interpretation seeps in from the verses above. “Believe in God, Believe also in me.” BUT the thing Jesus is asking them to believe is that they will be with God and Jesus is making a place for them. Remember Jesus didn’t start this exchange to describe HOW to get to heaven. He was assuring them that they WOULD be there. The conversation was, “Believe me I am going to make a place for you with God.”
It’s only when Thomas gets antsy about KNOWING the way that the conversation shifts to HOW, and THEN Phillip gets freaked out. “Show us God.”
I imagine at this moment Jesus’ palm becomes planted on his forehead. He started with a comprehensive assurance that there is a place for everyone, they are IN. He wants to make sure their hearts will not be troubled. And that would have been the end of the story if Thomas and Philip hadn’t immediately let their hearts trouble them.
They want to be assured that we are included in this promise, that they are inside the circle. They want this. [see image below] Jesus wants this.
You see, as the bounded set structure developed, another structure developed alongside it. There was a time when this was the popular structure before bounded set voices overpowered them. This is called a centered set. At the center is God. As Christians we relate to God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, so for us, God is represented by a cross. Instead of a boundary telling us who is in, or right, and who is out, or wrong, the measurements here are in arrows. An individual is either moving towards the center or away from the center.
This is chaotic to our eyes. It is not easy to tell who is where nor can we tell easily where they will be tomorrow. The goal is no longer getting or keeping people inside, the focus is on which way are you heading. This allows for disagreements because what brings this person closer to God may not work for that person. And that is entirely okay because it doesn’t mean one of us is in or out as long as we are both heading towards the center.
I can hear your minds say, “How close do we have to be to the cross to get to heaven?” “What happens if I die and I’m in a bad place and I was heading away from the cross at that moment?” Do not let your hearts be troubled. Those thoughts are bounded set trauma fighting the tension. With this structure we do not need to let our hearts be troubled about who is in and who is out. There are many dwelling places, there is a spot for you. If it were not so, Jesus would not have promised that. Believe when Jesus says there is a place for you. Free your mind and heart to be secure and turn that worried energy to movement towards the center.
There is a solid case to say that Jesus endorses this structure in these verses too. Jesus even tells us how to point our arrows towards the center: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me (believes what I say about there being a place for everyone) will also do the works that I do.” When we accept the truth and believe Jesus at his word that we have a place we are free to do the work.
Jesus didn’t worry about who was in or out. He didn’t feel anxiety about getting his family to church or baptized. Jesus’ way rested in the assurance that everyone has a place with God already.
When we accept Jesus at his word, we are courageous enough to speak the truth as Jesus did. We don’t argue about who is in or out, or less of a sinner, but speak truth in love to those in power, and speak affirmations and assurances to those without power.
When we trust Jesus that there is a place for everyone, we can live a life that resembles the life of Jesus. Knowing we have a place takes our energy away from achieving something in the future. We will be with God; we don’t have to worry about that part. What is left is figuring out how to get closer to God now in this life, because we know being with God is amazing and we want that right now
We want to put our efforts towards getting our arrows aimed at the center and every ounce of energy we have can drive us towards God. If we have a moment of hardship and our arrows turn away, it’s okay. Even if we never turn our arrow back towards the center, it's okay, because there is no line that makes us too far gone. We cannot lose our place with God. What we do lose if we turn away from the center is the chance to be close to God now. I know for me I would rather be close to God now AND in the next life. I don’t want to lose a second of opportunity to be with God and so I will work to keep my arrow aimed at God.
So, siblings, do not let your hearts be troubled. There is a place for you and for everyone to be with God. Believe Jesus when he says he has made a place for you. And when you believe that, follow the way, speak the truth, and live the life that Jesus showed us so that our time with God is expanded beyond the next life into this one, even to this moment and forever more. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 25, 2021
Exodus 34:20-31; John 10:11-21
I want to begin this morning by reading from one of America’s greatest living theologians, Garrison Keillor. It is from his short piece called Earl Grey. “Earl Grey was a middle child, the third in a family of five, so he was accustomed to suffering. When he was small, his family often forgot to call him to the table for meals. He was a tall boy with size 12 shoes, a hard one to overlook, but they did, all the time. Sometimes, they called him 'Vern' by mistake, and when he corrected them, they said, 'Oh well. Whatever.' Pardon a digression here, but as a middle child himself, the author is moved to elaborate. In other cultures, middleness is not a losing position, perhaps because those cultures are less linear, more circular than ours. For example, in Sumatra a middle child is cherished as the bright jewel of the family and is referred to as 'our central child' … The middle child is the normal, friendly one. So the middle child is ignored: because he or she is so nice and requires no special attention. The middle child is a stranger to his parents. Earl Grey liked to bring a fresh pot of tea to his mom and dad as they sat in the Walnut Room of their spacious mansion in Chevy Chase and rested from the day's labours. 'Oh, thanks, Vern,' they said. 'Here's a quarter.'”(from The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor, Penguin Group, 1994)
Have any of you ever felt like a middle child? Have any of you ever walked into a room filled with people having a great time, talking, and chatting only to feel as if you are invisible? If you haven’t I have. Since I am not a party in a box, there have been many times in my life when I have been someplace new, where everyone seemed to know everyone else, and I felt as if, even at 6’3” and 200lbs, I was invisible. It is a disconcerting experience. And I believe it is a disconcerting experience because deep inside every human being is the fear of being invisible. It is the fear that we don’t really matter; that our existence in the universe is not noticed and so perhaps we never existed at all. I realize that this sort of reflection might seem a bit odd for looking at Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Yet, I believe in many ways they lie at the heart of this part of his identity. I say that because his audience didn’t just consist of some of the religious elite but of ordinary folks; men, women and children who wondered everyday if their heavenly parent had forgotten them. As if they were somehow no longer special but were middle children without a name. It is to that issue of being invisible that we turn. And to do so, this sermon will be like a series of building blocks that seeks to help us deal as well with our Middle Child Syndrome.
The first block begins with understanding just what a good shepherd is. First the term good shepherd refers not to a good shepherd versus a better or best shepherd. It’s not like choosing your medical coverage, gold, silver or pot metal. The word good here refers to a shepherd who is filled with compassion and care for the sheep, he or she watches over. It means a shepherd who is filled with love. This is at the heart of Jesus' words comparing a good shepherd with a hired hand. The hired hand is only in shepherding for a paycheck. When trouble comes, a hired hand says, “I am not being paid to deal with this trouble,” and takes off. A good shepherd is in shepherding for the love of the sheep. So, when Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd, he is laying the foundation for the blocks that follow. He is laying a foundation of the good shepherd being the one who loves the sheep.
The second block is that a good shepherd knows their sheep. A good shepherd knows each sheep by name, personality, disposition, and place in the sheep hierarchy. The good shepherd knows which sheep can be easily frightened, which sheep will run away, which sheep will bully other sheep and which sheep will be sheepish. I must admit I find this rather amazing because when I look at a flock of sheep all I see is, well, sheep. They all look alike to me. But to a good shepherd the sheep are not just a means of production or income, they are instead an extended family, to be known, loved, and cared for. With that in mind, listen again to Jesus. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own.” What he is telling the crowd is that he knows those whom God has given to him. He knows us. He knows all of us. This means that Jesus knows us in more than a name-tag sort of way. Not only does he know us by name; he knows our fears and our failings. He knows our hopes and our dreams. He knows who we are at our very core…and he loves us, faults and all. The Good Shepherd knows us.
The next block is that the good shepherd knows what sheep need. If we can recall the 23rd Psalm, we will remember that the shepherd is the one who makes the sheep lie down in green pastures and leads them beside the still waters. The good shepherd understands that sheep, left to their own devices, will graze the land bare and starve to death. Or the sheep will fall into running water and drown. Ezekiel, writing about the good shepherd hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, puts it this way. “I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord… will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land…” Jesus as the good shepherd knows what we need. He knows that we need freedom from want, fear or failure. And so, Jesus leads us and teaches us. Jesus supports us and provides for us a community of support. Jesus forgives us and renews us. Jesus loved us enough to become one of us, so that we might follow him into the way of life. The Good Shepherd knows what we need.
The fourth block is that the good shepherd knows the cost of protecting the sheep. Sheep are fungible, meaning they can be stolen and sold. Sheep are also tasty. Both of these factors make sheep a target for rustlers and varmints. They are a target for rustlers because those thieves know that there is a market for sheep; a market in which buyers don’t ask for title to the sheep. Wolves, lions, and bears are all mentioned in scripture as seeking out sheep for a good meal. And in shepherding communities there are far too many stories of shepherds having to fight off both thieves and predators. The 23rd Psalm speaks of the shepherd’s rod and staff protecting. Ezekiel speaks of the good shepherd as the one who will not allow God’s people to be plunder for other nations, nor allow the animals of the land to devour them. Jesus implies the same thing not only by comparing himself to the hired hand who runs away at the first sign of danger but by stating that he will give his life to protect his flock. This good shepherd is willing to risk everything, including his own death for the flock.
The final block is that a good shepherd knows their flock. The good shepherd knows, even when flocks are thrown together at a well, which sheep belong to them and which belong to someone else. Jesus’s listeners would have assumed that his flock was limited to certain good people, or to Galileans, or perhaps just to the Jewish people because Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Ye,t Jesus makes it clear that his flock is larger than that. That in fact there was an entirely different flock for which he was responsible. The traditional way of interpreting these words is that God loves Gentiles just as much as Jews and that Jesus will be their good shepherd as well. What I would like us to hear in these words is something more expansive than this, that Jesus’ flock includes people of every age, race, language, income, educational level, gender and sexual orientation. This is the radically expansive nature of Jesus’ flock.
The bottom line for Christ’s kingdom is that there are no middle children. There is no person unseen, unknown, or unloved. Christ’s flock extends around the world and includes each and everyone of us. This week then, my challenge to you is this, that when you look into a mirror you stop and say…God sees me, God knows me, and God loves me.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 18, 2021
Isaiah 49:1-6; John 8:1-20
It was preposterous! It was outrageous! It was ridiculous! Here was this man sitting in front of them claiming to be the messiah. And who was he? He was a nobody. He was an untrained, uncredentialed carpenter from Galilee. Sure, maybe he performed some miracles. Sure, he had a large group of followers. But to be the Light of the World? No way. I would assume that for many of us, that when we hear Jesus speaking of himself as being the Light of the World, we assume that he is merely waxing metaphorically. He is speaking of himself as someone who illumines God’s way in the world. But his claim that he is the Light of the World is far more than that. It is Jesus staking his claim that he is indeed the long-awaited messiah sent by God to save the world. I say this because he is echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah who has God say to the messiah, “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.” Jesus’ claim was that he was that light…that messiah
What we need to understand about this claim from the perspective of those listening to Jesus was that it was not only suspect because of Jesus’ lack of credentials but that it was dangerous. It was dangerous because there had been and would be other would-be messiahs who had come and gone and would come and go during this period. And the result of all their claims and movements was always the same: bloodshed, disaster and death. Their claims and actions led to violence, oppression, and suffering. The last one of these messiahs who would live about a hundred years after Jesus, a man named Simon bar-Kokhba, would lead a revolt resulting in more than a million Jewish deaths and virtually drive the Jews from the Holy Land. In light of these pretenders, if Jesus was to claim the title of Light of the World and the position of messiah, he better be able to prove it. He better have some formidable evidence if he wanted to convince his listeners that he was the real deal. So, they put him on trial, just as they had the woman caught in adultery and asked him for witnesses to testify to his messianic credentials.
Jesus did not back down, yet the evidence he offered them was not convincing…to them. Essentially what he said was that he had two witnesses, the minimum needed in Jewish courts to prove one’s point. The first witness was himself. He could witness to his identity because he knew where he had come from and where he was going. The second witness was his father who would tell them exactly who Jesus was. Now for all of us here this morning who are familiar with the Gospel of John, we know to whom Jesus is referring. He is referring to the fact that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh and who came from heaven will return there. We also know that he is the only begotten son who was given to the world to save the world. Needless to say, this was all lost on those listening to Jesus in the Temple. They did not understand why having come from Galilee and then returning there attested to his messianic claims. And since they didn’t know his father, that claim was unclear as well. They were therefore not convinced and could not comprehend that he was indeed the messiah. So, had I been there and been Jesus’ attorney, I would have called several more witnesses. I would have called all of those involved in the “woman caught in adultery” episode.
Most of us are probably familiar with the story of the woman. But in case not, let’s recap. Jesus has opponents who want to discredit him. To do so, his opponents catch a woman in the act of adultery and bring her to Jesus. It seems as if they are hoping he will either condemn her to death, which is the punishment required by the Torah, and thereby lose his followers who see him as compassionate; or he will let her off, thereby showing that he does not believe in Torah and is thus not a good Jew. What Jesus does however, and this is where he demonstrates that he is the messianic Light of the World come to offer God’s salvation to the ends of the earth, is that he not only saves and redeems this woman, but he saves and redeems those who were using her. Let me explain. Jesus assumes that the woman is guilty as charged. He does not dispute her crime. What he does though is, first, ask those who brought her to not only examine their consciences but their own guilt under the law. I say this because the Law says that if you see someone doing something wrong, you are to warn them long before condemning them. These people had not warned this woman and so would stand condemned for being as guilty as she if they stoned her. This is what the Light of the World does. The Light of the World saves people by holding them accountable and not condemning them but offering them a chance at redemption. This is also what Jesus does with the woman caught in adultery. He holds her accountable but does not condemn her. He saves her by offering her a second chance to live in God’s love and Law. This is what the Light of the World had been called to do, to offer God’s salvation to the ends of the earth.
I say this because the Light of the World is to reflect God’s light into the world and what God’s light does is hold people accountable, yet saves rather than condemns them. God’s light held Adam and Eve accountable when they followed the advice of the serpent and ate the fruit. Yet God saved and did not condemn them. God’s light held Cain accountable when he killed his brother Abel. Yet God did not condemn him but saved him by protecting and ultimately blessing Cain. God held King David accountable for the great Bathsheba adultery incident. Yet God did not condemn David by removing David as King but instead saved him by allowing David’s offspring to lead the nation. God held the nation of Judah accountable for its sins by sending them into exile. Yet God did not condemn them but saved them by bringing them home again. God has held the world accountable for its sins. Yet God did not condemn the world but saved it by sending his only son, Jesus, into the world to become one of us; that in believing we too might be saved and find our way to the fullness of life now and forever. This is what God’s light is all about: holding accountable, but then saving and not condemning, as the Gospel of John makes clear again, and again, and again.
I would like you to do something for me right now. I would like you to cup your hands as if you are trying to hold something in them. Now I would like you to look into your cupped hands and imagine a small light beginning to glow in them. And then imagine that light growing slowly brighter and brighter, and becoming warmer and warmer, becoming a ball of light. Allow yourself to bask in the light’s brightness and warmth. Then carefully take the light in one hand and place it in a pocket, or on your table, or any place where it is readily accessible. As you do that listen again to Jesus’ words. “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” You, my friends have been given the light of life. You have been given the love and grace of the light of the world that will never condemn you but will always save you. Regardless of what you have done, or said, or thought, you have the light. So the next time you feel the guilt, shame and pain because of something you have thought, said or done, pull out the light and remember: you are not condemned but saved and have a chance to begin again.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 11, 2021
Isaiah 55:1-5; John 6:25-40
What I have in my hands this morning is a nesting doll. Nesting dolls are a traditional Russian craft. They are called nesting dolls because inside each doll is another doll, nesting and waiting to be taken out. The dolls are hand painted and can be of anything or anyone. When Cindy and I were in Russia the last time, we even found a nesting doll with San Antonio Spurs players painted on them and, of course, had to buy it for our son who is a life-long Spurs fan. Usually though the dolls all look alike and are displayed, side by side, out of the nest. This doll was a gift from one of Cindy’s teachers, probably given to Cindy thirty years ago. The question that you may be asking then is, why am I holding this nesting doll here this morning? The answer is that it seemed to me to be the easiest way to help us understand what is in this morning’s passage from the Gospel of John. I say this because the passage is filled with Biblical allusions and metaphors. And the only way for us to get at the heart of what Jesus meant when he called himself the Bread of Life, is to unpack the story one layer, or one doll at a time. So, let’s begin.
The largest doll, or the container if you will, for our story this morning is the Exodus. I say this because all the Biblical allusions in this conversation between Jesus and the crowd point to the Exodus story from the Jewish scriptures. For those of you not completely familiar with the Exodus, it is the story of God freeing the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. It includes such stories as Moses and the burning bush; the plagues; the parting of the Red Sea; and importantly for this morning, the feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness with bread or manna. Recall that Jesus has just fed the five-thousand and now the people say to Jesus, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” What Jesus does then is tell a new exodus story; a new exodus story that frees people not from political captivity, but instead frees them from captivity to sin and death and leads them into life now and life eternal. Jesus wants those around him to think in Exodus imagery, but in a new and different way. So, we begin with a spiritual Exodus.
The second doll represents those who will be invited to go on this new Exodus. Again, going back to the original Exodus, God invited just the Hebrew people to be set free from their slavery, even though, as the end of the book of Genesis teaches us, all Egyptians were slaves to Pharaoh. God’s invitation to freedom was only for the Hebrew people, not because they were somehow better than everyone else, but because God had a task for them to accomplish. That task was to be a light to the world and to one day offer liberation to all creation. With that in mind, the question for this new liberation is, who will be invited this time? The answer in the Gospel of John is everyone. Jesus tells the people that he will not lose any of those whom God has given him, and God has given him the whole world. We know this because in John 3:16 we are told that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love is not for one nation, one race, one gender, one sexual orientation, but for the whole world. So, we have an invitation for all to come along on this new exodus adventure.
The third doll represents what people must do to join in this new Exodus march. Once again, let’s return to the Exodus story. When God prepared to liberate the people, the people had to agree to go. I realize that sounds like a “Captain Obvious” kind of statement, but the reality of human beings is that we often choose to remain where we are even when things are not well, even when things are dangerous and painful. Human beings often choose to stay put. And in fact, once the Israelites were in the wilderness, they said on more than one occasion, “We should have stayed home. At least there we had food to eat.” In other words, the people not only had to choose to go with Moses, but they actually had to get up and move. The same is true for those who have been invited to go on this new Exodus journey. If people want to be set free, they must follow Jesus. This is what Jesus means when he says, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.” And here, believe does not simply mean intellectual assent. Believe means to walk in the way of Jesus. Believe means to follow Jesus into a life of sacrificial love and compassion for neighbor. I say this because in the letters of John, the writer says, “Whoever says I abide in Jesus, ought to walk as he walked.” So, we learn that this Exodus calls on us to walk in the way of Jesus.
The final doll is about the bread of life. A significant part of the Exodus story is the “murmuring” or complaining of God’s people once their journey began. They complained when Pharaoh trapped them against the Red Sea. They complained when they were thirsty. They complained when they were hungry. We might think that God would have grown tired of all the complaining, just as we parents sometimes do when it seems all our children do is complain. Yet God never becomes angry with them. Instead, God supplies them with water and food. The food comes in the form of manna, a bread life substance that appears each morning in the wilderness. In other words, God sustains them on their journey. The question for the people who have joined Jesus on this new exodus adventure is, who will sustain us in this new Exodus? The answer is, Jesus will sustain us, because he is the bread of life. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In other words, not only will Jesus lead people in this new Exodus from sin and death, into freedom and life, but he will sustain them along the way. This is what the bread of life is all about, being sustained by Jesus even in the most difficult of times.
The reality of life is that we are all on a journey. It doesn’t matter how old or young we are. It doesn’t matter what stage of life we occupy, we are all on a journey. We make choices every day about how we will live and what kind of person we will be. We make choices about how we will treat others and how we will bless, or not bless, the world around us. The gift we are given in the risen, reigning Christ is that we are offered the support we need to follow in the way of Jesus. We are offered the bread of life that will sustain us day in and day out, even in the most difficult and demanding of times. Jesus will sustain us in sorrow and joy. Jesus will sustain us in life and in death. My challenge for each of us this coming week then is to begin each morning with these words, “Jesus, feed me on this day, as I strive to follow in your way.”