Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 22, 2018
Psalm 25:4-10; Ephesians 3:14-21
One wanted to be a doctor. Several others wanted to be police officers or soldiers. A couple wanted to be famous singers and at least three wanted to be teachers. Under normal circumstances these would be ordinary dreams for a group of first graders. These are the kinds of dreams we want all our children to have. And by children I don’t just mean our biological children. I mean, all children. We want all children to reach their fullest potential. Yet for these first graders these are audacious dreams. These are audacious dreams because these are the dreams of the children I tutor at Alcott Elementary School in Pontiac. They are audacious because most of these children live below the poverty line and in a district that has just a 46% graduation rate. These are audacious dreams because these children are trying to learn in overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded classrooms. So. what we might ask ourselves is just how realistic are the audacious dreams of these children?
This morning we could ask the same thing of the Apostle Paul’s audacious dreams for the church at Ephesus. His dream for this church, whose members he considers to be his children, is that they are “…able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine…” That is a remarkable dream; to be able to accomplish far more than even Paul can ask or imagine. It is remarkable because the church at Ephesus was not in a place to do much of anything. Let me explain. Ephesus was the second largest and most important city in the Roman Empire. It was technologically advanced with storm water and sewage drainage. It had stone streets and massive villas. It was also home to the Temple of Artemis or Diana. The temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. People came from across the empire to worship there. Silversmiths made their living by selling small statues of Artemis to tourists (yes, some things never change). The church, on the other hand was a small, and I mean small, group of people, who had no power and no influence. They had no grand temple and were telling a story about a Jewish carpenter who had been executed as a traitor to Rome. And their story that he had been raised from the dead, was for most Greeks, simply absurd. So why is it that Paul thought that this church could live out this audacious dream? The answer is because it was a supernatural, alleluia community that was rooted and grounded in the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Ephesus was a supernatural, alleluia community. What I mean by that is that Ephesus was not simply another social organization or business collective. In the Roman Empire there were a wide variety of social organizations. There were guilds which oversaw various trades such as silversmithing and tentmaking. There were secret religious societies that carried out rituals into which one had to be invited. But the church was neither of those. The church was an alleluia community called together by and empowered through the Holy Spirit. We see this when Paul prays that the church will be strengthened in its inner being with power through the Spirit. What this means is that the church is not solely dependent on its own inner resources to accomplish more than Paul can ask or imagine. The church is fueled by the very Spirit of God which not only confirms the faith of those alleluia people, but also pushes them out into the world with a message of hope, compassion and care. The Spirit grants them the courage to invite others to be part of the community and gives them the confidence they need to stand against those who would persecute them. They were a supernatural community.
Ephesus was also a community rooted and grounded in the love of God in Jesus Christ. We know that in this world there are forces that shape individuals and societies. Some shape them for the worse and some for the better. Hate, violence, anger and revenge shape society for the worse by tearing it apart. On the other hand, love is the power that can bind the world together into the creation God desires it to be. This is the love that is at the heart of the church at Ephesus. I love what Paul uses to describe this love. First, he uses the image of tree roots. I am not sure how many of you have been traveling in the forest and have seen a tree with shallow roots that has toppled over. This is not Paul’s image. He imagines roots reaching deep into the earth and drawing spiritual nutrients from Christ; nutrients that create a loving community. The second image he offers is that of being grounded on Christ’s love. This image is the image of Jesus’ love being a solid foundation for a large building. For those in Ephesus, this would be a powerful image because of the foundation for the Temple to Artemis. In a sense the church’s foundation is better and longer lasting. Thus for Paul, this love that fuels and supports the church is what changes hearts and builds communities in which individuals can live into their full, God-given potential. They are a community rooted and grounded in God’s love in Jesus Christ.
So, what about us? What about Everybody’s Church? What does it mean for us to be a supernatural, alleluia community, that is rooted and grounded in love? I ask that because that is indeed what we are. We are not simply a group of people who happen to get together on Sunday mornings. We are an alleluia community that is chosen by God, empowered by the Spirit and rooted and grounded in love so that we can welcome all people. As such we too are to have our audacious dreams. We are to have our dreams of doing more than others can think or imagine. Over the years there have been dreams. Baldwin House, the first low income housing in Birmingham, a dream of Lois Poston. Another is the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care, a dream of Kate Thoresen that supports children, youth and families in the foster care system. A third, is our adoption of Alcott Elementary School. This was the dream of my predecessor L.P. Jones and Kathy Nyberg. And all of these dreams are worth continuing because they are an extension of our Spirit-driven loving community.
This morning then, I want to offer you a two-part challenge. The first is to share your audacious dreams with us. I say this because I know that many of you are involved in other audacious movements of the Spirit here and abroad. Share them with us so that we might share them with others. Second, choose a dream and engage. Choose to become engaged in Faith Communities for Foster Care, or Alcott, because, as I noted at the beginning of my sermon, there is a need for loving, alleluia people in both ministries in order that the audacious dreams of these children, youth and families, whether it is at Alcott or in Foster Care, become realities. So ask your yourselves this question, “How am I helping audacious dreams come true as a member of this supernatural alleluia community that is rooted and grounded in the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 15, 2018
Micah 4:1-5; Ephesians 2:11-22
It was one of those mornings. Brennan slept late and missed his bus. As a high school freshman, wanting to finish his school year well, he decided to walk to school. Never having walked before and trying to retrace the bus route, he worried that he might be lost. With no cell-phone handy he did what many of us would do. He chose to knock on a door and ask for directions. When the woman of the house came to the door she started screaming at him saying, “Why are you trying to break into my house.” Brennan tried to explain that he was a freshman at Rochester High School and only needed directions. The woman kept yelling and then her husband ran downstairs with his shotgun. Brennan ran as fast as he could and only because the husband forgot to take the safety off the first time he tried to fire, Brennan escaped unharmed. All of this was caught on a home security system, which also caught the woman at the door saying, “Why do those people choose my house.” These people. What did she mean by that? Probably we can guess, but what it shows is that she is infected with a bad case of “thosepeopleitis.”
Those people. We know who those people are, right? Those people are those people who should know better. Those people are those people who ought to think, act and believe like we do. Those people are the ones who, even if they don’t know any better, ought to straighten up and fly right. Those people are those people who are damaging society. Those people were those people who weren’t as good as we are. Those people were those people who were inferior. Those people were those people we ought to stay away from. In fact, let me ask, how many of you here this morning were taught, either directly or indirectly that there were those people? Let me ask again, and I am not asking you to raise your hands this time, how many of you know deep inside that when you look out at the world, even though you know you shouldn’t, you can name, those people? This is thosepeopleitis. It is one of the great diseases of the world. It allows us to feel superior, to be exclusive, to discriminate and to be tribal. And I hope you realize that thosepeopleitis is nothing new. It was in fact alive within the heart of the early church.
The churches that Paul founded and wrote to were churches infected with the “those people disease.” There were the Jews, who had chosen to follow Jesus. They believed in him as messiah and Lord. Yet when they looked at the Gentiles, the Greeks, and the Romans who had become part of the church, they saw them as, those people; those people who were not circumcised and who did not follow all of the dietary laws proscribed by Moses. Those people were those who felt no great allegiance to the Torah. Those people were those who refused to become Jewish. Then there were the Gentiles. For the Gentiles, the Jews were those people. They were those people who clung to outmoded ways of seeing the world and who insisted upon circumcision. Those people were those who had all of these strange rules about what you could or could not eat. Those people were those who needed to act more like Gentiles if they were going to truly follow Jesus. What we need to realize is that this particular outbreak of those people disease was a carryover from the larger outbreak that infected the larger Roman world. It is into this outbreak that Paul offers something completely new.
In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, he lets them know that there is a cure for the “thosepeopleitis”. That cure is Jesus Christ. That cure is what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Listen again to Paul’s words and hear the number of times he uses the term “one.” “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…” (Ephesians 2:13-19) For Paul there are no longer “those people.” There are only Alleluia People. There are no longer different humanities but one.
What I believe Paul is arguing here is that the death of Jesus changed the reality of the universe. It had taken all of “those people” and made them into a single humanity. His words are echoes of those of the Prophet Micah that we read this morning. That passage, probably written after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Babylonians, rather than seeking revenge and victory, offers a vision of the new humanity Paul is describing. People from many nations will come to God seeking to know the right way to live and to be. God will settle the differences between nations everywhere. Human beings will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. People will live peacefully in their own land. This is what the Lord who rules over all will do. And even when other nations still trust in their gods, the people of God are to trust that God will create this new humanity that lives in peace. In this world there will no longer be those people. There will be one people who live together in peace.
Six or seven years ago the session agreed to begin describing our church as Everybody’s Church. We did so because we believed in the vision offered in Ephesians and Micah, that every church ought to be Everybody’s Church because in Jesus Christ, there were no longer any of “those people”, but there was only one humanity. Thus, our doors were open to all. And this was not some sudden awakening. It was the culmination of a long, transformative journey encouraged and nurtured by members and staff over the years. You can hear this in our inclusion statement. “As Everybody’s Church, we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the participation of all people of any ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.” As we did so, I believe we understood the difficulty of being a “thosepeopleitis” free zone. It is difficult being this kind of church because of the Homogeneous Unite Principle, that states, “People become Christian fastest when the least change of race or clan is involved.” In other words, any church that wants to grow needs to be clear about who are our people and who are those people. By intentionally claiming our identity as Everybody’s Church we rejected this belief as unbiblical and claimed Paul’s vision instead.
To some degree of another, all of us are infected, both individually and corporately, with thosepeopleitis. The question is how do we live with it. Do we give into it and divide, or do we struggle with it and work toward God’s vision of a united humanity learning how to live together as God desires? My challenge to you then this morning is this, to ask yourselves, how am I allowing Christ to cure my thosepeopleitis such that I can see and treat everyone I meet as a beloved child of God, and not one of those people.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 8, 2018
Genesis 12:1-3; Ephesians 1:1-14
“You…you Americans. I choose you.” I can still hear the words echoing in my head. Cindy and I, along with another couple, had taken a spring break trip to Venice. One day we rented a car and headed to Verona. It was late in the day and we needed to eat. So, we were wandering a plaza filled with multiple outdoor dining spaces. I would like to say I was looking for the best place, but I wasn’t. I was looking for the cheapest. As we were examining the menus and their prices we heard, “You…you Americans. I choose you. You are always in a hurry to eat. Come here and I will give you the best meal of your life and show you how you should eat.” The person speaking was the smiling, pleasant looking, owner of one of the open-air cafes. I’m still not sure why we agreed but we did. In fact, not only did we agree to eat at his establishment, but we let him choose the menu…and I didn’t even look at the prices. In the end, we all thought it was one of the best, and most leisurely meals we had ever eaten…and still think so to this day. “You…you Americans I choose you.”
What I would like you to do for a moment is to close your eyes and imagine hearing those words, “You, you people I choose you.” But instead of imagining a wonderful café owner saying them, imagine for a moment, that it is God speaking. “You, you people, I choose you.” If you can do that, then you can understand the heart of the Letter to the Ephesians. You can begin to sense how it is that God chooses individuals to be Alleluia People. As a reminder, Alleluia People are those who through faith in Jesus Christ live lives filled with gratefulness, joyfulness and fearlessness. What Paul tells those folks in Ephesus, and tells us here this morning, is that we are Alleluia People, not because of luck or fate, but because we have been chosen by God to be so. Just as surely as Abram and Sarai were chosen by God, the Ephesians and we were chosen. In fact, he says we were chosen before the foundation of the world to be Alleluia People. And as those who have been chosen, in order that we live into our new Alleluia People lives, we are invited to an amazing five course spiritual meal that has been prepared for us that we might become capable of being the Alleluia People God desires us to be. If you are ready then, let us go to the table.
Course one is redemption. Paul tells us that in Christ we have been given the gift of redemption. Redemption is that process where a person is moved from a captivity to freedom; from being useless to useful. One of my vivid memories as a child was getting Green Stamps. Green Stamps were given away for purchases at grocery stores and gas stations. People saved them and put them in little books. My mother would always let my brothers and I lick the stamps and stick them in the books. When you had enough books, you visited the Redemption Center and exchanged them for things like toasters and waffle irons. In a sense then you were redeeming them. You were taking them out of captivity and into freedom where they could be useful and live into their toaster potential. This is the sense in which Paul used redemption. We were moved from captivity, perhaps captivity to our self-centered lives, and into a new freedom of Christ-centered lives in which we could live into our full potential as Alleluia People.
Course two is forgiveness. Paul tells us that we have been given the gift of forgiveness. What this means is that our past is our past. One of the great problems of life is that sin and sins, refuse to allow us to move forward in our lives of faith. They are like anchors, dug in, restricting our movement. Not allowing us to move forward and living into our potential as Alleluia People. Forgiveness is alike a pair of bolt cutters that snaps the anchor chain and allows us to move forward. To move more and more toward being Alleluia People.
Course three is wisdom and insight. What this means is that we can begin to see God’s purpose behind the work of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We can see in Jesus what an alleluia life ought to look like. We can see the path that we are to be taking as we live into our Alleluia Person potential. We can also see this path as an outpouring of God’s love for the world, intended to transform us.
Course four is inheritance. This is where our story connects with the ancient story of God’s people. The children of Abraham were chosen by God to be blessed so that they could be a blessing to the world; so that they could be God’s change agents working to make this an alleluia world. By our faith in Christ we have been adopted into that family of blessing and so we share in their inheritance of blessings and blessing. We become capable not only of being Alleluia People for ourselves and for our own journeys of faith, but we become those who can bless others that they might discover what it is to be Alleluia People as well.
Course five is the Holy Spirit. We have been given the very Spirit of God to live and move within us, insuring us that all that we have been given and promised in this spiritual meal will never be lost. I am not sure how many of you may remember or have seen the videos of some of the first space walks in the Gemini program. As the astronauts left the capsule, they would be tethered by a cable which provided them with life support and insured that they did not drift into space. This is what it is like to be sealed in the Holy Spirit. We are tethered to God and God’s blessings. We are insured that the life support we need to be Alleluia People will never be lost.
Even with all of that having been said, there is still one more gift we receive, and it is probably the greatest gift of all; that this meal is already paid for. Unlike in Italy where we had to pull out our plastic to pay for dinner, Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection, paid the full price so that we can come to the table and feast. In fact, there is nothing we have or could pay that would make this meal available to us. Our good works cannot buy this meal. Our prayers cannot buy this meal. Our failings cannot keep us from coming to this meal. All we can do is participate in this act of infinite love.
This morning then as the communion elements are passed I hope that you will ask yourselves this question, “How I am allowing this meal, this five-course meal, to empower to me to be an Alleluia Person and to be part of an Alleluia People?”
Sunday, April 1, 2018
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Isaiah 25:6-9; Luke 24:1-12
He stared at the columbarium plaque. At the age of 104 it was not something Fletcher had ever wanted to see; the plaque on his wife Bea’s niche. She had died a year earlier and at the memorial service he had refused to go outside and watch her ashes be interred. But a year later, on All Saints Sunday, Fletcher was willing to have his son wheel him outside to see her plaque. As his son tells the story, his father stared for a long time in silence, seemingly taking it the reality of his wife’s death. Then, slowly he looked up at this son and said, “I guess nobody gets out of here alive, do they?” Smiling, the son replied, “No dad, they don’t.” Less than two weeks later Fletcher died. After the memorial service and the placing of his father’s ashes in the niche beside his wife’s, the son turned to me and recounted that moment. Then with a wry smile, he said, “Yeah, I think my dad thought he would be the first one.”
Nobody gets out of here alive. It is the one reality with which human beings have been dealing with since, well since, there were human beings. And yet, for almost the same amount of time human beings have lived with this remote hope, that there is something on the other side of death. I say this because archeologists have found evidence of religious grave goods, meaning items that are placed in graves with the deceased, dating back at least 30,000 years. Some eastern religions talked about and believed in reincarnation, while others believed that their ancestors became ghosts. Egyptians talked about a person’s ka, or spirit moving to the Kingdom of the dead. Greeks and Romans talked about Hades. Jews talked about Sheol. Norse religion had Valhalla and other realms of the dead. Native Americans spoke of the dead going into the Spirit world or perhaps becoming stars. Though many civilizations didn’t believe in an afterlife, most had some remote hope that there was something on the other side of death.
It was into this living with this struggle between the reality that no one gets out of there alive and the remote hope that there is something more, that the prophet Isaiah’s words came pouring out and offering something completely new. He declared that a day would come when God would defeat death itself. Listen again. “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” It was a remarkable thought. Could it be true, the people wondered that this God of creation could indeed change the rules of the game and create a new reality in which death no longer ruled. Slowly out of this prophetic vision arose the idea of resurrection, meaning that even after death, people would be raised and live again. That’s when people said, “Alleluia” because death might lose. Time passed. People died. No resurrection. No one got out of here alive. All they had was a remote hope.
The hope though lived on. With each new generation there were those who hoped and prated that Isaiah’s words would become more than a remote hope. The people looked for the one messenger of God, the messiah who might make this possible. Who would usher in God’s kingdom in which the last enemy, death itself would be defeated. Jesus of Nazareth was one of those on whom many placed their remote hope. People flocked to hear him, to be healed by and hopefully to become part of that new kingdom over which death had no power. When he came into Jerusalem they cried out, “Alleluia” because they thought that the kingdom of God had come, death had lost and life has won. But all of that ended one Passover night. The authorities came for him. Arrested him. Tried him. Crucified him. And he died. And he was buried. All the remote hope remained nothing more than that, remote hope. One more time, the possibilities of Isaiah’s vision becoming a reality, faded away.
On the first day of the week the women who had followed Jesus came to his tomb. All they had was a remoter hope than when they had first begun. They were there to mourn their friend, their teacher and the loss of their hope once again. What they found however, stunned and frightened them. There was no body to be anointed. There was no body to mourn over. Instead there were two men in dazzling clothes standing beside them. Speaking to the two terrified women, the men asked why they were looking for the living among the dead? Jesus, they continued, was not dead but was alive, resurrected. In that moment the women began to make sense of so much of what Jesus had taught them, that he would have to die in order to be raised. That he would have to die in order to defeat death. The women ran to tell the other disciples saying to themselves, “Alleluia” death is defeated and life has won. Without expecting it, without realizing it, what these women had stumbled into was not a new hope to replace their remote hope. What they had stumbled into in that empty tomb was a new reality; the reality predicted by Isaiah, that death had been swallowed up forever. They had stumbled into an alleluia life.
This my friends, is the gift of Easter. It is a reminder to all of us that we no longer live simply with a remote hope. We live in a new reality. We live in an alleluia world in which we are alleluia people. What does that mean? As Alleluia people, we live with gratefulness. We live with the gratefulness that God keeps God’s promises and especially this promise to defeat death now and forever. We are grateful that death is no more; no more for ourselves and for all we love. As Alleluia people, we live with joyfulness. We live with joy because we know that we are loved; that we matter. We matter so much to God that God was willing to die and rise for us and for all whom we love. We have joy because we know that God’s love does not end at death, but gives us life eternal. Alleluia people live with fearlessness. We are fearless in the face of all that comes to us because we know that in life and death we belong to God; that God has given us a life that no one can take from us, and so we can live faithfully in every moment never fearing what might transpire.
Nobody gets out of here alive. That is what Fletcher saw. That is what we see. But that is not what we know. We know that we live in a new reality as alleluia people, living gratefully, joyfully and fearlessly because God has raised Jesus from the dead.
My challenge to you then is to ask yourself, how am I living each day as an alleluia person.