I am part of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon a group of churches cooperating together to seek, among other things, justice in our criminal justice system. As part of this effort I was asked to help put together a “Criminal Justice Sabbath” which would try to raise awareness and gain support at the congregational level. I’ve been involved in various kinds of jail ministry for about seven years, so I’m grateful for this chance to reflect on that experience.
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
Happy Easter! It is, in fact, still Easter. Easter is a season of fifty days, not just a single day. So when you go to the grocery store and all that Easter candy is in the bin at 50% – 75% - or 90% off, buy it. It’s a good deal and there are still weeks and weeks to keep celebrating the joyful good news of Christ’s resurrection.
As it is still the Easter season, we have our wonderful Easter vestments on, we are still singing the great Easter hymns, and are still adding in all those extra alleluias. And yet in the Gospel readings we have been hearing these past few weeks, we have not heard the same celebratory tone. From that very first Easter season, the disciples did not yet understand what Good News is. It is only with hindsight that we can so confidently enter into this season with that joy. But for the disciples, we hear weeping and confusion, fear and ignorance in these stories.
John is a highly metaphorical Gospel. Whoever wrote this Gospel liked to use images. One of the images he really liked to use is lightness and darkness. From the very beginning we hear him talk about that. In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through Him. Not one thing came into being that was not through Him. What came into being through Him was life, and that life was the light of the world to all people. And the darkness could not overcome it. It goes on to say that John the Baptist was a witness to the light; he was not the light, but was a witness to the light, that light that lights the world. Light, light, light. If you read the first chapter, the imagery keeps going on and on. And the light and the dark theme continues throughout the Gospel. It is not just in the words, lightness and darkness, but it is in the setting and the timing of things. So when Nicodemus is confused, he comes to Jesus in the night, a time of darkness. Whenever you hear those specifics of time, you have to think about what the sun is doing at that moment. Is it giving light or is it dark?
All of these Easter readings have taken place in the dark. We heard that Mary Magdalene went down to the tomb on that Easter morning while it was still dark. And there in the darkness of that moment she wept. Then last week we heard about the evening of the first Easter, at dark, at night. It doesn’t say it was dark, but you know what evening is all about—there is no light. And we heard the story about events a week later, again in the evening. The disciples are locked away in their fear, the darkness of their fear. Mary Magdalene is in the darkness of her sorrow, and the other disciples are in the darkness of their fear.
Today’s reading is the last of the resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel. It says that the disciples went fishing all night long, in darkness. So we have the darkness of sorrow, the darkness of fear, and now we have the darkness of ignorance. These disciples, who have encountered the risen Lord, still don’t get what this is all about. It is that common theme we hear throughout the Gospel readings of the disciples not understanding what Jesus is talking about. So even though they have met the risen Lord twice, and have heard from Mary Magdalene about Jesus coming back, they still act as if nothing has changed in their lives, as if this life transforming event—someone rising from the dead and coming to them—means nothing. They return to Galilee, and they return to their work as if nothing has changed.
Then Jesus shows up. What is interesting is that the other stories do not talk about the light. When Mary Magdalene is meeting Jesus in the garden while it is still dark, it does not say that Jesus appeared and that the day had broken or the sun had risen. We can assume that she is still in that darkness. But here it says just after daybreak. In this final story we begin to see that things are changing. Just after daybreak the light is beginning to enter in. Peter hears, finally, and this seems to change his life. He needs to do something in response to this Good News. He is sent to go and feed and tend and care for God’s children in this world. He is sent to be Christ’s body in this world, to be that light that John testified to in the very first chapter, the light that Jesus said he was. That light is now being passed along to Peter and the other disciples to take out into the world.
At the 9:30 service today we are going to baptize the newest member of the Body of Christ. After I have poured the water on, the Deacon will take a candle and will light it from the Pascal candle. The Pascal candle is the representation and symbol of the light of Christ in the midst of us. So the Deacon will take that candle, light it from the Pascal candle and hand it to the baptismal candidate and say, “Take this out into the world to the glory of God.” It is now your job, as a baptized member of the Body of Christ, to take this light of Christ and help this world that lives in such darkness to experience the day breaking, to experience the sun rising, that light of love Jesus asks Peter about: Do you love me? Then go share that love through care of others. Do you love me? Then go tend others. Do you love me? Then go feed others. Go express that love in concrete ways, go bring that light to this world to the glory of God.
That is the Good News that we are celebrating, that Good News that we have been invited into. Carry that light with Peter and the other disciples, and experience and bring forth the break of day.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD!
1 John: God’s commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
Whatever is Born of God Conquers the World
When my granddaughter Eva was born ten years ago, her parents decided they wanted her to bond with me in a particular way. When she was only a few hours old, still in the hospital, they had me lay down and they laid her on me, skin to skin, her little head tucked beneath my chin and her heart next to my heart.
We lay like that for what seemed an eternity. And you know what happened? Our hearts synchronized. Our breath became one breath. We breathed one another in and slowly, surely found a rhythm that was unique in all creation, her and me, me and her. We became one being, outside of time. Someone took a picture of us, and it’s a marvelous picture. Every time I look at it, I think: this is what I look like fully present. Fully conscious and connected. This is what I look like.
What’s more, this is now the normal way to connect for Eva and I. Whenever we have been apart for more than a few days, when we first get back together, we move into that same position. She comes right up to me and we look into one another’s eyes and smile, then she closes her eyes and tucks her head under my chin. I wrap myself around her, and we travel again to that holy place where we flow into one another, and soon we are breathing as one. Our hearts synchronize. We are two and we are one at the same time.
We all have a roadmap inside us for this, an ancient blueprint for this kind of connection, for bonding deeply. It’s part of being human.
This bonding experience is my way into Jesus, and into his relationship with God. This is how I resonate with Jesus, why he is so real for me. He was human. He had a human mother, who most certainly connected with him the way I connected with my sons when they were born, and my granddaughter.
Jesus says, in the translation of John’s gospel you heard this morning: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. I prefer another translation of the word “Father” that helps me relate to Jesus’s relationship with God more deeply. Jesus’s mother-tongue was Aramaic. In Aramaic, Father is “Abba” which is closer to papa.
So now the reading becomes: As Abba God has loved me, so I love you. Further, in Aramaic, “Amma” is mama. I borrow from the Circle Service theology when I call God Abba/Amma.
The reading now becomes: As Abba/Amma God has loved me, so I have loved you.
This rendition gives me a vision of two things that make me smile, the same deep, outside-of-time smile of my original bonding with my granddaughter, that special and deep knowing. Because here is how I see it in my mind’s eye: First I see and feel and smell how Jesus is related to God. Jesus is curled up on Abba/Amma God’s chest, his head tucked under God’s chin, and they are breathing as one, their hearts beating together. In some cosmic way, they are curled up together.
As Bishop Spong puts it: “Jesus was the place where the human and the divine flowed together as one.”
The opening of John’s gospel confirms this intimate connection between God and Jesus. John’s prologue says, “No one has ever seen God, it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart.” Or, translated from the Greek, close to the Father’s breast or bosom.
And the second thing I see in my mind’s eye is how Jesus loves me. He loves me like Abba/Amma God, like a grandmother. Jesus loves me like that, and you like that, and you and you. As Abba/Amma God has loved me, so I have loved you.
Jesus goes on to say in today’s gospel: This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. Commandment can be a scary word, all those “thou shalt nots.” But all the word command means is to say with authority, with confidence. Jesus says with full confidence, love one another as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command you. Love one another.
And the Epistle, First John, gives us further insight and instruction: God’s commandments are not burdensome. They are not difficult to carry out. For whatever is born of God conquers the world. Whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Here when we say the world, we are not talking about creation, which we do not want to conquer or dominate, but about the overculture. What Paul calls the powers and principalities, the spiritual forces of evil.
Whatever is born of God conquers the world. Love is born of God, connection, forgiveness, and courage. Our faith is the victory that conquers the world. Our love is bigger than the forces of evil.
You have tremendous power given to you by God, through Jesus the Christ and through the Spirit. It was not just Jesus who had this power. Jesus showed us how to access it. He understood that he and God were one. But this is true of you as well. You have full access to Abba/Amma God, to your grandmother God. You have the power to love, you have the power to bless, you have the power to change everything that needs changing. You have the power to conquer the world with your faith, not with manipulation and domination, but with love.
So may it be for you, and so may it be for me. Amen
Imagine if you will a little girl who is 7 years old. She is the eldest of 4, a sister 5 years younger and twin brothers that are 7 years younger. With 3 babies under 2 years old there was no time for this little girl. She learned that she needed to place herself in the midst of caring for the babies is she wanted to be included, but it made no difference. She felt alone, played alone and felt she was outside of the family. She felt she had no worth and wanted deeply to have her mother’s approval.
Fast forward to Middle school. She is the new girl. She wanted to fit in with these new people and did things that got her in trouble with both the school and her parents. She felt that if she did what these kids said that she would have friends and acceptance. But they only got her in more trouble and made it clear to her that she did not fit in with kids who have been going to school together since kindergarten.
They really did not like her but had fun making her do things that were questionable.
In high school, she met a man and married him in the fall before her senior year. She got pregnant. Her pregnancy was hard, so she quit school to rest and take care of herself. She had the baby and her mom said she would never make anything of herself and that she ruined her life. The girl graduated from high school a year late and had another baby. She had gained a lot of weight and was told she looked bad. She went on fad diets to try to lose the weight, but she only yo-yoed. Her weight would go up and down and even when she was thin there was always criticisms. She graduated from college twice, with two degrees, one in medicine and one in criminal justice.
She was the first woman in her family to go to college and graduate, but all her mom could say was, “okay, well, what’s next?” This girl was devastated, she and cried and yelled and wondered what she had to do to be accepted, approved of and worthy in her mom’s eyes.
This cycle continued until I was 38 years old. You are probably wondering what changed? Well, I gave my life to the Lord! I prayed, I talked to God like an old friend and I started talking to a Christian councilor who gave me passages to read from the Bible. All these passages reinforced that God is love. That I did not need any human being’s opinion, approval, acceptance and that I was worthy.
We were created in God’s image.
God breathed life into each and every one of us.
Our names are tattooed on God’s hands. I don’t know about you but if I am going to tattoo someone’s name on my body then they better be extremely important to me.
I learned that God is Love and that means that we are accepted just the way we are. God knows us and our struggles as well as our shortcomings and successes, and God has given us the ultimate unconditional love. We are accepted right where we are. We are worthy of doing anything that glorifies God. When we do God’s work we become extraordinary even if we feel ordinary. When God puts a call on our hearts, we must listen. Don’t ask why, or how or think, I can’t do this, I’m not worthy. God doesn’t want us to be perfect because if God wanted perfection God would have made us perfect. We must remember that all things are possible through Christ. If you feel called to be a lay leader step up, God is love. If God is calling you to join a ministry way to go, God is love. Or if you are called to have input on how to make that ministry better then go for it. God is love. If you are called to start a new ministry, go forth and prosper. God is love.
The call may be tugging harder at you and God may want you to pursue an ordained call, such as to be a priest or deacon, follow the call to see where it leads. God is love. If this feels outside your comfort zone it may be that call from God because God loves putting you outside your comfort zone to do God’s work. Do not fear because God is Love.
God calls all of us into our Baptismal Covenant. Calls us to be like Jesus. Which means to open our hearts and love each other as He has loved us this means God does not care what we look like, how much we weigh, how much we think we are unworthy, God just wants us to remember that we are beautiful in God’s sight and to be confident for whatever God calls us to do because God is love. There is a saying out there, “We only accept the love we think we deserve…” Well we deserve much love because we are loved by God.
These folks that 1st John is concerned about may have been using the word love, but it does not mean what they seem to think it means. Nothing in how they live their lives actually embodies that love. They hoard their belongings, they seek security over relationship, they refuse to help. In that old adage, â€œactions speak louder than words, â€œ 1st John encouraged the people to whom he was writing to love fully and truly. Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.