The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 26, 2019
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; Luke 19:1-10
It was early evening and they were walking along the dunes on one of the barrier islands off of the Georgia coast. Ed was looking for petrified sharks’ teeth and Barbara was looking out for sand burrs in order not to step on them. Then as Barbara Brown-Taylor tells the story, they were surprised as they stumbled over a large loggerhead turtle. It was barely alive. Its shell still hot from the days sun. The turtle was half buried in the sand. Barely alive. They both realized in an instant what had happened. The turtle had come ashore to lay its eggs, then searched the horizon for the light that would lead it back to water. But as the sun set and the city lights came on, the turtle mistook the bright city lights for the lights of the moon and the stars reflecting off the ocean. So, the turtle went the wrong way. It moved away from the water rather than towards it. Buried deeper and deeper into the sand, its strength wore out. It was lost and had no energy to continue.
Taylor’s story as she tells it in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark is for me the perfect metaphor for our struggle to walk in the way of Jesus, in the way of God. We know, that just as that turtle’s calling was to go on shore, lay her eggs and return to the sea, to keep her species alive, we know our calling. It is to live lives of loving God, neighbor and caring for creation. It is to live in imitation of Jesus, showing forgiveness, compassion and care for not just for friends but those on the margins of society. And like the turtle, we move forward, doing our best trying to follow Jesus, who as the Gospel of John declares, is the light of the world; the one whose life shines such that the darkness cannot overcome it. Yet in the opposite direction, there are other lights. There are the bright lights of appearance, accumulation, achievement and adoration. We see those lights and our lives turn toward them, believing that they are where we will find our life’s meaning and purpose; that they are where we will find real life. And the more we move toward those lights, the more we bog down. The more tired we become because they cannot give us life. They can only leave us tired and empty and lost.
If you want to see how this works, all you need do is look to the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a Jew who lived in Jericho. Jericho was a center of wealth and trade. Josephus described it as a “divine region” and the “fattest” in Palestine. It held legendary date palm groves and balsam wood used for perfume. It was also a crossroads of trade because of its location and its springs which still flow today. What this meant was that it was the perfect location for a tax collector to make his fortune. I would offer that Zacchaeus understood clearly what it meant to follow in the way of God. He knew what the Torah required. He could see the light. But there were brighter lights; wealth, power, acceptance by the ruling elites. That was the path he had chosen. Yet, it bogged him down. Like the sand around the turtle, all the taxes he collected and the cut he took, only moved him further and further away from his calling as a child of God. Luke describes his distance from God by telling us that Zacchaeus was such an outsider that he could only see Jesus by climbing a tree because no one would let him through the crowd. He was on the outside looking in. He was lost. But that all changed with a simple invitation; an invitation from Jesus.
Granted it was a strange invitation in several ways. First it was strange because Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry, I must stay at your house today.” Second it was a strange invitation because Zacchaeus was the most hated man in town. He was a thief and a traitor. Which is why the people grumbled about Jesus eating with a sinner. Finally, it was strange because of what happened at that dinner. Jesus says nothing and yet Zacchaeus is transformed. Notice, that as Luke tells the story, Jesus does not condemn him. Jesus does not lecture him on the Torah. Jesus does not tell him how he must change. Jesus says nothing, and yet suddenly Zacchaeus turns away from the bright lights of money and power and turns toward the light in Jesus; the light in the beloved community. We know he does because he declares that he will give half of his goods to the poor, when the Law only requires him to give ten-percent. We know he does because he promises to repay anyone he defrauded four times what he owes, when the Law only requires two times. Zacchaeus is suddenly no longer lost, but he is found. By being in the presence of Jesus, in the presence of the true light of the world, he rediscovers his bearings and finds life.
This transformative power of being in the presence of Jesus is why what we do here in this place, in this community, matters so much. I say that because we are more than the church, we are the living body of Christ. And as the living body of Christ, we encounter the true light whenever we come together. We encounter it in scripture, preaching, sacraments and music. We encounter it in service and community. We encounter it in friendships and inclusive welcomes. We also encounter it at home when we pray together and love one another. We encounter it with our friends when we care and forgive. We encounter it out in the world when we show the love of Jesus Christ. But, we are only able to encounter it because once upon a time, we were invited into the community. It is when we were invited in to experience the light and when we were invited in to be encouraged and to have our lives redirected. Some of us like Eve (who was baptized this morning), were invited in by our parents. Others of us were invited in by friends or strangers. Others of us were invited in by the Holy Spirit. But ultimately it was an invitation that allowed us to turn toward the light of Christ that offers us life and purpose and meaning.
What I would ask you to do for a moment is to close your eyes to do two things. First think about who invited you in. Then take a moment and give thanks for that person. Second, slowly think about your friends and family. Ask yourself who is looking for the light. Who is looking for some meaning in life. Who is seeking encouragement. Whose life might be changed by an invitation to come to the beloved community. Then pray that God might open a way for you to invite them; to invite them to encounter the life changing light of Christ that is here in our midst. Now open your eyes.
Before we close I want to be sure that we know what happened to the turtle. Ed left Barbara with the turtle while he went and sought help. Soon Ed and a park ranger returned and the three of them flipped the turtle on its back, carefully attached a chain to the turtle and ranger’s truck and dragged the turtle back to the water. Then as the waves slowly washed over the loggerhead it regained its life and swam away. Second, I want to be clear that this is where our story diverges from Barbara’s story. It diverges because we are not to forcefully drag people to church; or guilt them; or lecture them. Jesus did none of these things. Jesus simply invited. He left it up to Zacchaeus whether to accept. Whether to respond. That is our task. It is not to keep the encouragement of the light of God in Christ only for ourselves, but to invite others to share in it. So that they too can discover the joy and life that comes from following the way of Jesus.
My challenge to you then is this, to prayerfully ask God to give you an opportunity to invite one other person into the body of Christ so that they might find encouragement for living in he way of Jesus, the way of life.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
May 19, 2019
Genesis 2:15-23; John 15:12-17
Making friends is a basic life skill. We begin practicing before we can walk. But If I were to ask you “how does a person make a friend?” we would all have a hard time coming up with a solid answer. On my first day of kindergarten I was nervous about making friends. I don’t know how I had made the friends I already had but I was pretty sure my mom would remember and tell me how friending works. She told me all I had to do was walk up to someone and ask them to be my friend. Simple enough; at five I was unaware what rejection was and trusted my mom wouldn’t give me bad advice. Her advice actually served me well. I am still very close to two people I met that day.
But then 13 years later when I walked onto Michigan State University’s campus I panicked again. I had no idea how to make friends. Then it happened again when I walked off campus a few years later years later. If you put me in a new community today I would probably have the same panic attack. How have I gotten this far in life, with a lot of friends and friending experience, without a solid strategy on how to make friends?
There seems to be no wrong way to make a friend, thankfully. I have made friends during times of joy and times of grief. I have made friends because I was locked in buildings with them, aka school. Being an extrovert, I admit I have imposed my friendship on unsuspecting introverts. With so many different ways it is hard to give a straight answer to how to make a friend.
Carnegie tried to teach friend-making strategy in his book “How To Win friends and Influence People.” It did well in its time but today most people recognize his strategy as disingenuous at best and manipulative at worst.
As difficult as making friends can be it is essential to our happiness. A study from my alma matter found that friendships are more important than family relationships when it comes to our mental health. Psychologists think this is because we tend to do more leisurely activities with friends while family time can be more monotonous. The study does recognize that people do have deep friendships with family members so their conclusion was that the more support a person has the stronger their mental health tends to be.
The idea that humans need other humans is not a new revelation. It’s Biblical, a Genesis 2 fundamental. The first problem ever to exist in the world is not sin: it’s isolation. Adam is in the garden alone. God sends every animal to Adam to be named but God also hopes Adam will pick one to become a friend. Not even the dog wins the part. God has to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better creature than anything already made. At this point, God has a lot of creating experience, and the woman does not disappoint. Adam finally has a friend. He no longer has to be alone.
Isolation is a major problem in God’s eye. We are not meant to be separated, we are meant to be in relationships, we are meant to be in friendships.
Jesus knew the importance of friendship. His first ministry act was to gather his support network and calls the disciples. In the Gospel of John, as Jesus prepares for the cross he talks to the disciples about friendship. He knows they are about to launch into a new chapter of life and he does not want them to panic about making friends after he is gone. He tells them to look for three markers of a good friend: imitation, information, and initiative.
Imitation is the first marker. Jesus says “You are my friends if you do what I command.” That’s some strong language, I wouldn’t say I command any of my friends although maybe my introverted friends would say that. Command does not feel right in the context of friendship. But what Jesus wants us to understand is that friends want to imitate one another. They have seen the value in another person’s thoughts and needs and want similar things. Jesus is commanding that the disciples love one another. No one in the room is protesting. No one is throwing their arms up and saying, “Ugh! Jesus, you ask too much.” No, because they are friends they all understand the context of the command and agree it’s a worthy thing to put into action.
Friending requires imitation. Body language specialists say if you are wondering if someone likes you watch their body posture. If you lean back and they lean back, or you cross your arms and then they do, it means they like you and want to appear similar enough to be your friend. When we are someone’s friend, we see something in them that we admire. They inspire us to be the best we can be and by obeying their commands we can become better people.
Of course, there are limits. Boundaries are important to friendships too. “NO” is a command we can use and obey.
Jesus also helps us find our boundaries with the next friend marker, information. Jesus explains that in a master-slave relationship a master makes commands on a slave and withholds information. One half of the relationship knows why a command is being made while the other is supposed to follow without question. If there is a question from the slave they won’t get an answer. This relationship is not a friendship.
Friends keep friends informed. If a command is made and someone asks why, the friend explains why. If someone is uncomfortable with the command, they are free to explain their feelings. Friendships have a free flow of information so that everyone in the relationship can set good boundaries and react autonomously.
The third marker is initiative. Remember the advice my mom gave me in kindergarten? “Ask someone to be your friend” is exactly what Jesus means. But as I read John’s Gospel this week it dawned on me that I have misunderstood when a friendship starts.
I have always thought friendship started when the other person gave their “yes” answer, but in truth, friending begins even before I ask the question. It begins when I decide to be a friend to someone else. It begins when I make the initiative.
In calling the disciples his friends Jesus says “You did not choose me but I chose you.” I chose you is enough, which means that “no” is not a bad thing. The effort made to be friendly is still worth making if we get a “no” response. Jesus simply wants people to be friendly and bear the fruit of love into the world. If we are so crippled by our fear of rejection, love doesn’t stand a chance. This holy work of friending is valuable no matter the other person’s response.
Friending is so important to faith! My personal ministry philosophy is centered on this spiritual practice. It’s controversial but my main goal in the youth group is to create a community. If a youth walks out of here knowing nothing about Jesus but has a friend, knows that these types of buildings are a place where you can make friends, I’m thrilled. Of course, I want them to learn about Jesus and grow in faith, but for some, high school will not be the time period for that kind of growth. Having friends ensures there is always a voice through which God can speak.
Each friend we make holds the potential to bring God’s love to us when we really need it. That’s why initiative is so important in a friendship. If we see a friend in need we should feel empowered to help. The only way we know what they need is by sharing openly about our feelings and needs. When we share that information it helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imitate their best qualities back to them, until they remember who they are and how much they are loved.
No one is perfect at friending, but the process of being a good friend is a spiritual practice just as much as praying or reading scripture. There will be times when it comes easy, and times when it seems impossible. But just like any other spiritual discipline, we need to keep pushing ourselves to become better friends.
May we be people worth imitating and surround ourselves with people who inspire us to be better. May we be open and honest with the people in our lives. May we find ways to take initiative to make a friend and bear the fruit of love into the world.
Rev. Joanne Blair
May 12, 2019
Luke 6: 12-16
Last week, Pastor John gave us the assignment of reading the book of Luke. For those of us who did, or those of us who are already familiar with the book, we may have thought today’s scripture seemed like an odd placement for Jesus to be forming his team. By now, he has been teaching, preaching, healing, and even challenging the authorities. And he already has quite a collection of disciples. So, before we move into our topic for today (that of prayer), I think it behooves us to unpack this a little bit.
Luke is making a distinction between disciples and apostles. A disciple is someone who is a follower or student, of a teacher or master. And what distinguishes a disciple from a typical student, is that a disciple completely redirects their life to the doctrine of the master. An apostle, on the other hand, is one who is sent or commissioned by someone else to represent them… to be their witness.
Later in chapter 10, Jesus says to his apostles, “whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me.” The twelve apostles will be called to particular missions, and will need to stand up to particular challenges. But what is crucial in the calling of the twelve, is our first verse: “Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” The twelve will play a crucial role in history, and so before Jesus chooses them, he withdraws to the mountain to pray.
Jesus’ life is filled with prayer. And he prays before every pivotal decision he makes. Even though he is God the Son, he humbles himself before God the Father, staying in tune with the Father’s will. Jesus didn’t make his choice first and then ask God’s blessing. Rather… he spent the night in prayer and then made his choice. Jesus is, indeed, the perfect model of prayer.
Jesus practiced prayer constantly and urged his followers to do the same. But what is prayer? Prayer is a conversation. It is an exchange of wishes or ideas. It is a conscious seeking to experience God’s presence, love, direction, and grace.
Last week, John mentioned that the Bible is the most purchased book … and the least read. Well, in our life of faith, prayer is the most talked about activity … and the least practiced. Yet prayer is a conduit of communication between God and God’s people. If Jesus felt the need to pray, surely we should.
Yet many of us are uncomfortable with prayer. We often say to each other: “I’ll pray for you” or “You’re in my prayers” … and then send a quick ‘arrow prayer’ to God. Our intentions are good, and while all prayers do matter … I repeat - all prayers do matter … prayer is so much more than quick arrow prayers. Prayer builds relationship. Prayer can design the framework of our lives. And prayer can encourage us along the way.
Yet prayer can be challenging. In the busyness of our lives, it’s hard to settle ourselves down enough to gather our thoughts and feelings … let alone express them. And it’s even harder to settle ourselves down and open ourselves up enough to listen to what God might be saying. Some of us already have a strong and consistent prayer life. Many of us don’t.
Since today is “Everybody’s Worship” I thought it would be meaningful if we all committed to praying for 10 minutes each day this week … practicing the same prayer style. In Crosswalks (our Sunday School for K-5th grade), the children have been doing a unit on prayer using finger prayers. While there are many styles of finger prayers, this week I encourage all of us to follow the pattern the children are using. How special, to realize during the coming week that this entire community of faith is praying together … yet each with their own unique offerings.
The Finger Prayer
Ten minutes can seem like a very long time. A few years ago, I realized that I felt sluggish most of the time, and I acknowledged that it was because I wasn’t moving my body enough. I made a very small commitment that I would walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes. Truth be told, it took me longer to get to the gym and put my things in the locker than it took me to walk for 15 minutes. But I kept doing it… and I limited myself to 15 minutes. Before I knew it, I just wasn’t ready to stop and needed to extend the time.
As the days and weeks went by… my walking time increased and increased, and it became a regular part of my life. I not only felt better … I was more connected to my body and my mind. Prayer connects us to God.
They say it takes 30 days to form a new habit. Any discipline needs to be practiced before it becomes a part of our natural routine. And so it is with prayer. What first seems like a forced, stilted activity soon becomes not only a part of our daily life … but something we miss when it’s not there. And if we pray often enough… through all the phases of our day… our conversation with God becomes natural and we better learn to listen and understand where, when, how, and through whom God has responded.
As we build a stronger relationship with God… as our communication skills with God become more practiced… as we learn to enter into conversation with God… then we will come to better understand God’s answers. For often, God answers in ways we never dreamed, expected, or asked for.
F. B. Meyer wrote in his book The Secret of Guidance, “The great tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” What could be greater than being in genuine conversation with God? As much as we speak … we must learn to listen. God continues to call people of faith together through whom God can bless all the peoples of the earth.
The more we remain in conversation with God and allow that conversation to direct our lives … the more our lives can become a living prayer.
May it be so.
May 5, 2019
Dr. John Judson
Deuteronomy 4:1-8; Luke 4:16-21
It began with a few verses. Then it became a few chapters. Then it was most of the Old Testament. Then it was most of the New Testament. They cut them all out. In a slow and systematic manner, they examined the entirety of this book and took out all the passages that they considered to be inappropriate. When they were done they had a rather slim volume, but it would suit their purposes. Then, in 1808 slave owners in the British West Indies published the Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves. It quickly became known as the Slave’s Bible and was widely distributed. What the editors had eliminated was any reference to freedom. What the editors had kept were any references to slavery being an appropriate human experience. They didn’t want slaves reading about Jesus saying that he had been sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and that the oppressed should go free. If slaves read that they might revolt like the slaves on Haiti who won their independence. Even so, we might wonder why the slave owners were so afraid of the Bible?
I say this because the Bible has been an effective tool for the suppression and elimination of tens of millions of people. It has been used to justify the oppression and deaths of Jews, Muslims and other Christians…yes other Christians in which people slaughtered each other over Biblical interpretation and doctrine. It has been used to oppress women, the poor, people of color, the disabled and members of the LGBTQ community. It has been used to argue against teaching evolution in schools and for the recognition of marriage equality. It was the justification for segregation and Jim Crow laws. If you want to see this at work today, all you have to do is listen to Franklin Graham declare that the Bible makes it clear that there is no such thing as a gay Christian and go online to white nationalist web-sites where scripture is used to defend their beliefs and actions. With this sort of historic usage of scripture unedited, why then would the slave owners be afraid of it? The answer, I believe, is that they understood scripture better than most; that scripture was a story of love and liberation. It was a story of God’s love for and liberation of all people, and that that story might encourage slaves to desire to be free people.
One of the fascinating things about the Bible is that it is the most widely published and yet least read books in history. Let me ask, how many of you have a Bible you received at confirmation or some other time, and has barely been opened? If you do, you are not alone. Most of us, if we decide to read the Bible, get through Genesis and part of Exodus before we get bogged down in the minutia of that Law and give up. Or if we read the New Testament, we get a little lost in John, get mad at Paul and give up there as well. This is not criticism, it is a reality I faced when I first began trying to read the Bible. What is important this morning though, is that those slave owners understood the scriptures correctly. The scriptures were a story of God’s infinite love for all persons and God’s desire for all persons to be free. It is in these two realities that we ought to find encouragement. First we ought to find encouragement in the reality that scripture tells us that we are unconditionally loved. Regardless of our age, race, gender, language, income or sexual orientation, we are God’s children, created in God’s imaged and cherished by our creator.
Second, we ought to find encouragement in God’s liberating power. I want to pause here to challenge us to examine what this liberation means for those of us who are solidly middle-class people. What does it mean for those of us who are not oppressed? What does it mean for those of us who live privileged lives. And by privileged lives I mean we have been given the gift of education, advancement, homes to live in, food on our tables, clean water to drink, teachers and mentors to guide and direct us and a societal structure that rewarded all of that. What does liberation mean for us then? I believe it means removing our middle-class blinders so that we can see the world as Jesus did. What are middle-class blinders? They are those blinders that keep us from seeing and responding to the deep needs of the world around us. They only allow us to see the middle-class world in which we live, rather than the world on the margins. They are what lead us to say things like this, which is a quote from a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Nobody [in America] goes to sleep at night wondering if they’ll be able to feed their families.” It is what led me to assume that all the children I work with at Alcott school have someone at home to read with them. These blinders prevent us seeing those who live on the margins and from working to make a difference in their lives. What scripture will do, if we let it, is to remove those blinders so that we can see the world as it is; in need of our blessing. It will allow us to be agents of liberation for the oppressed, the hungry and the poor. I realize that this may not seem like an encouraging word…but it is. It is encouraging because Jesus lived a blinder free life. He ate with rich and poor, taught men, women and children, cared for Jews and Gentiles. In other words, there were no blinders, only love for those he encountered.
My challenge for you this morning then is this, to read the Gospel of Luke over this coming week, and then asking yourself these two questions: which was my favorite story and which story encouraged me the most? Then with those two questions answered, to practice lowering your blinders and asking, how I am seeing the world differently as I try to follow in the way of Jesus, a blinder free way?