For God So Loved …

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
October 25, 2015 – Daniel & Fern Imbody’s Farewell Service and New

Member Sunday

© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“For God So Loved …”

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Today we say farewell to Daniel & Fern Imbody, who have been active members of this congregation for many years. Many of you may not know that Daniel & Fern live in Fountain. Way down in Fountain—no kidding—a 40-minute drive on a good day. Daniel, a very young 90 years of age, and Fern, a very spunky 88. And that makes us appreciate all the more the fact that they chose this as their church that they faithfully attended, not to mention all of the amazing fellowship times they have prepared and provided for us.

I met with Daniel & Fern this week. We had a really nice visit—lots of laughs and lots of storytelling. They treated me to a lovely lunch at the Country Buffet and sent me on my way. I want to share with you a few things about Daniel & Fern’s life.

First of all, their favorite Bible verse is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who [or “whosoever”] believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 is the Christian faith in a nutshell. It just kind of takes us back to the basis of our faith—back to the beginning—back to why we became Christians in the first place.

Speaking of going back to the beginning … It was in 1720 that Daniel’s ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania from Switzerland. His great-great-grandfather served in General Washington’s army at Valley Forge. Another relative, named Daniel Imbody, served during the Civil War and is buried at Arlington Cemetery. Yes, the Imbodys go way back in U.S. history. And in UCC history. The congregation that Daniel grew up in was an Old German Reformed church—one of the predecessor denominations of the UCC—and it was founded in 1736. The services were held in German, and those who wanted a service in English had to build a new church across the street. Fern was confirmed Lutheran, but she joined Daniel’s church when they got married. For them, faith was a given, and church was an event. Daniel & Fern have eight children, and all of them always went to church in their Sunday best. It’s just how it was in Pennsylvania Dutch country. It’s just what you did. It’s how you honored the Lord. The girls wore matching dresses, purses, gloves and shoes; the boys wore suits and ties. You couldn’t receive the offering unless you were in a suit. It was a matter of respect. “For God so loved the world,” and this is one way God’s people reciprocated. …

Romans 8:38-39 is another of Daniel & Fern’s favorite Bible passages: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Speaking of angels … Daniel had a fascinating experience back in 1948. He had been assigned to patrol the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, and his job was to rescue refugees and escort them to safety. His Jeep could carry four refugees at a time, and it was a perilous 8-miles, one way, to get them to shelter. One night his Jeep was already full of refugees and he became aware of a large group—maybe 12 more people—who needed transport. He knew how long this would take and what the risks were if it didn’t happen quickly. He remembers saying aloud, “Good God, I need help,” and in the next instant, seeing headlights approaching. He ran toward the vehicle to wave it down, and saw that it was an empty stake-bed truck that would easily be able to haul all of the refugees. When the driver pulled over, Daniel slipped him the customary bribe—a pack of cigarettes, which were worth their weight in gold in that war zone—and asked him to take the refugees to safety. The driver agreed, loaded up, and followed Daniel to the station. When both trucks got to the safe zone, they unloaded their precious cargo, and Daniel turned back to thank the other driver. But just as suddenly as it had appeared, the truck had already vanished. Truck and driver both were gone!

Daniel remains convinced to this day that that driver was an angel who was sent in response to his plea for help. I wondered aloud with Daniel & Fern about two things: Was there something special that God had planned for at least one of those refugees? And, assuming the driver was an angel, what does it say about him that he accepted Daniel’s bribe of cigarettes? J Hmmm…

Daniel & Fern’s third favorite Bible verse is Galatians 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity [in some translations, goodness], faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Speaking of the Spirit … Have you ever had an out-of-body experience? Have you ever felt your spirit was in a place outside of your body? I did, when I was 17 and crashed my boyfriend’s old ’66 Ford on an icy bridge on the Mississippi River Road. I fishtailed right into an oncoming car and went into shock just before impact. Just for a moment, I saw the accident from above, and in the next instant, I was waking up inside the wreckage.

Daniel & Fern each had a similar experience that to this day they cannot explain. Once during a very complicated childbirth, Fern found herself walking in a field of indescribably beautiful flowers with her mother. The puzzling thing is that in most experiences like this that we hear about, the person who meets us “on the other side” has already passed on, but in Fern’s case, her mother was still living at the time. Maybe it was a sign from God that Fern was also to return to the living—that her days on earth were far from over, but she just needed a brief respite from her current physical trauma.

Daniel’s experience may have been for the same reason. His happened during basic training. It was during an extended march. He doesn’t remember feeling particularly fatigued, but who can argue with the Spirit? Daniel remembers, for several minutes, watching the march from above, seeing his legs moving, stepping in perfect time, marveling that someone else must be moving them because he certainly wasn’t. Then, after several minutes, all was normal again. Who knows? Maybe God saw that Daniel needed a little break too.

There’s a common thread through all of these verses. There’s a common thread through all of these stories—from things as mundane as dressing children each week in their Sunday best, to things as mysterious as stake-bed trucks appearing out of nowhere in the night, to things as enigmatic as the feeling of escaping the physical for a moment. And that thread is God’s enduring presence with us—every second of every day. The common thread is God’s love—love—“for God so loved”—“nothing can separate us from the love”—“the fruit of the Spirit is love.” Daniel & Fern, you are loved, by God and by us. And you will be missed. May God be with you till we meet again. Amen.

Afflicted But Not Crushed

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
October 4, 2015 – World Communion Sunday & Jo Wasson’s Birthday
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“Afflicted But Not Crushed”

2 Corinthians 4:8-10

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

I love these celebrations of people’s special days, don’t you? It started two weeks ago with Ruth Ann’s 90th birthday celebration. And last week, during Fellowship Time, when Fern Imbody said to Bev Turner, “Aren’t we doing something for Jo Wasson’s birthday?” and Bev came to me, and I went to Fern, and it was settled! Daniel and Fern signed up to provide food and decorations—thank you, Daniel and Fern and your family!—and a team went to work to get me Jo’s favorite hymns and favorite scripture, and here we are! Happy 86th birthday, Jo! It was your birthday on Thursday, and we’re all going to head downstairs after worship and help you celebrate your birthday week! Because your birthday week last year wasn’t quite so pleasant, was it? (We’re going to come back to that.)

But while we’re on the topic of people and events to honor, Bev and I also learned last Sunday that Daniel and Fern Imbody (our Fellowship hosts today) are moving back to Pennsylvania in early November. So we also decided to honor them, on the last Sunday of October—October 25—with a special service in their honor, and a potluck for fellowship afterward. I’ve got their favorite hymns and scripture from them already, and I’m sure we will all pitch in to provide a wonderful celebration that they don’t have to provide J to send them on their way.

(While I’m in “announcement mode”—October 25 is the day we will also be receiving new members into this congregation. Four people have approached me already about joining, and if you would like to be added to the group, please let me know.)

Now, at last, on to our scripture—the scripture Jo chose as the one that has meant the most to her. 2 Corinthians 4:8-10: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

We all know that around this time last year, Jo Wasson suffered a major stroke. I was the first one there at the hospital with her that day—grateful to have received the call—and glad that I was in town, especially because Kevin and Cathe and Dru were not. I was there with Jo when the doctors explained to her the procedure they could do—but they had to do it right away if they were going to do it at all!—that could possibly restore some of her physical capability. I was there when Jo said yes to that procedure. Of course Jo said yes to that procedure. Because Jo is a fighter. She is not a quitter. And she was not going to give up on life just because of a stroke. If there was something that could be done to keep her going, by all means she was going to have it done. And, to a large degree, it worked. Jo has full use of the left side of her body, full use of her mental capacity, partial use of the right side of her body, and some ability to express herself with her voice. And those who know her well would also tell you that she has pretty much retained the ability to fully express herself, even without the use of speech!

Take, for example, the day I visited her in her home about a week and a half ago. She knew I was coming, and so she had, sitting on her dining room table, the scrapbook she had made about a year or two after the death of her beloved husband Doug. She had pulled that out specifically to share it with me. And we spent the next hour and a half looking through the pages, Jo reminiscing and me living for the first time their many years together of faithful and selfless ministry to the body of Christ in several states, spanning several decades, in a variety of ministry settings and capacities. They were advocates for the Heifer Project, La Puente, and various hunger-relief causes. They were pastors at the Church at Woodmoor in Monument and other churches; they were leaders and teachers at Bible colleges. They were recognized for their true ecumenical spirit, their deep commitment to building up, not tearing down.

And there were the cards. From Doug to Jo, on birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day—sweet, tender, sentimental. Cards of commitment and love, and praise to God for bringing them together … and there was that one unsigned Valentine card that Doug had bought for Jo but had not had a chance to sign because his stroke occurred on Valentine’s Day, that year. Doug was with Jo for quite some after that, and she cherished those days—cherished them enough to spend many hours after he was gone compiling that great book in his honor, in his memory, as a tool of closure for her.

And Jo has chosen as her favorite Bible passage, the words of the Apostle Paul: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

Afflicted but not crushed. Perplexed but not despairing. Persecuted but not forsaken. Stricken but not destroyed. Why? Because even though we carry in our bodies, in our lives, experiences that sometimes feel like death, we must remember that death did not keep Jesus down! Even though we carry the marks (in Greek, the stigmata, source of our word “stigma”), of Jesus, we must remember that he overcame those marks; he rose again from that suffering; and in his power, with his help, so can we.

The Apostle Paul, of all people, had justification to get down in the dumps. Later in 2 Corinthians, he described what he had been through for the cause of Christ: “Five times I have received thirty-nine lashes. [That’s because it was illegal to give forty.] Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from [strangers], danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” The Apostle Paul clearly bore the death of Jesus in his body, amen?

Few, if any, of us will most likely be called upon to endure such things. Few, if any, of us will most likely be called upon to give our lives for Jesus. I can’t imagine the terror those courageous students felt when the shooter in Roseburg, Oregon, said to them this week, “Are you a Christian? Good, because you’re gonna see God in about a second,” just before he pulled the trigger. I pray to God that none of us will be called upon to go through something like that.

But that’s not to minimize the impact on our daily lives of the things we do go through. Any combination of factors in life can conspire to make us feel like the bottom is falling out. And we’re holding onto the sides but somebody smeared them with motor oil, so it’s impossible to get a grip. And below us is a giant porcelain bowl that’s making a deafening whooshing sound. Sometimes things just do not look promising for us. But in Jesus, we are overcomers. With Jesus, we can find that “peace that passes all understanding”—peace that surpasses anything we can understand or reason through. Peace that defies logic. With God’s help, the life of Jesus can shine through in the times we feel like we’re dying. We don’t have to go it alone. Because he already went there—for us. Jesus has been there, done that, and bought us the tee-shirt, amen?

Every day, in our Christian journey, we don’t have to go it alone. And that’s what’s so beautiful about the church. The Rev. Frank Schaefer writes about how 1st-century Christians were regarded as a “new race,” a “third race,” because of their intense love for one another. They truly were one, just as Jesus prayed (a phrase that I love, from this congregation’s Bylaws). The fact that this unity was observed in the early church—even from people on the outside who had never witnessed that kind of behavior before—is evident in a letter that is extant from the early 2nd century. The letter is titled The Mystery of the New People. We don’t know who wrote the letter, but it was addressed to Diognetus, a Roman official at that time. The author writes:

To His Excellency, Diognetus: I understand, sir, that you are really interested in learning about the religion of the Christians, and that you are making an accurate and careful investigation of the subject … You would also like to know the source of the loving affection that they have for each other.

         The author goes on to explain that that source, of course, is love, and that love, of course, is because of Jesus. Jesus, as we know from the Gospel of John, prayed to his heavenly father that his followers would all be one, and in the 1st century at least, they were living that out. They were holding each other up in prayer, in words of encouragement and exhortation, so that they, like Paul, would be, when afflicted, not crushed. When perplexed, not despairing. When persecuted, not forsaken. When stricken, not destroyed. … So that they would all be one.

Today is also World Communion Sunday. It’s the day each year that tens of thousands of Christian brothers and sisters around the world come to the Lord’s Table to remember our Lord, to celebrate his victory over death, and to proclaim his message of love, of unity, of inclusion: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes shall be saved!” Whosoever! Anyone who believes! That’s what it means to be the church!

Schaefer writes, “We are all children of God. We are to be one in Christ; we are to be the new race made up of a multitude of diverse people. We are one, and in our oneness lies our strength; in our oneness will the world see the difference in us; through our love will the world see the love and grace of Jesus Christ.”

Let us pray:

Almighty and Ever-Present God, on this World Communion Sunday, help us examine our hearts. We confess our sins to you. We are truly sorry for our wrongdoings and shortcomings, for sins of commission and sins of omission. Forgive us, we pray, in Christ’s name.

Empower us to serve you fully, to share the resources we have with those who have less, to weep with those who weep, and to laugh with those who laugh. Help us to be good stewards over the earth you have placed in our care; help us to unite in love and concern for one another, not just in our local community, but with brothers and sisters in all the world.

As we draw near to your holy table, we thank you, Lord, for providing the Bread of Life for us. As we partake, impart to us your grace and mercy, unite us with Christ, our Lord, and with one another. May your kingdom be established in all the earth. Amen.

Following Jesus

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
September 13, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“Following Jesus”

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Peter. Oh, Peter. These are tough truths you had to deal with. You hit the nail right on the head when you told Jesus that he was the Messiah—the savior, the anointed one—and not just a reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or another one of the prophets, as others were saying. You got it! You saw that this man is an original—the incarnation of God; not just a remake, a remix, a re-incarnation of someone else. This man is the genuine article. God broke the mold with this one. Threw away the key. Not to be improved upon. Peter, you got that eternal truth!

I guess it’s not too surprising then, when you couldn’t grasp that Jesus was going to die. You scolded him when he said that. Why? Maybe it didn’t fit your plans—your dreams of glory—your hopes for a military victory over the Roman oppressors? Maybe even though you said he was the Messiah—someone who would bring eternal victory—you still wanted to feel the surge of power that comes with revenge in this world? You scolded him when he told you he wasn’t going to do things your way. Oh, Peter.

Did you forget what Jesus taught? It wasn’t about military victory. It was about taking the little child upon your knee, welcoming the weak, the poor, the sick, the stranger, the refugee… Did you forget that Jesus said, in Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Did you forget that Jesus said this is what separated the sheep from the goats?

Jesus was a stranger. In the deepest sense of the word, Jesus was a stranger. He started his life as a refugee. Matthew 2:13 tells us that after the three wise men left Bethlehem, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him to take his family to Egypt—to Egypt, another country—to flee the wrath of Herod who was looking for Jesus to kill him. They stayed in Egypt until Herod died, and even when they returned to the land of their people, the Hebrew people, they couldn’t go back to Bethlehem because Herod’s son was ruling there, and Jesus would still be in danger. To flee the wrath of the ruling class—to save their very lives—they all had to remain refugees. They went to Nazareth in Galilee—still refugees. Still displaced. Is it any wonder that Jesus had a heart for the outcast?

Peter, you must have forgotten that, when you became angry with Jesus for saying he wasn’t going to avenge your people. You were striving to get to the top, and Jesus’ heart was with those who were at the bottom. You were going in opposite directions, and Jesus sensed that you were embarrassed by his lack of drive for power. That must be why he said, “If you’re ashamed of me—a refugee, a stranger, one of the powerless ones—then I’ll be ashamed of you.” …

Hearts around the world were broken on September 3rd when a photo was released of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old refugee boy from Syria, washed up on a Turkish beach after the boat he and 22 others were in capsized on the Aegean Sea. That photo took a situation that was halfway around the world and brought it right into our homes. How many here do not know a precious, sweet 3-year-old child? How many do not remember the delightful, funny things our sons, our daughters, our grandchildren (Happy Grandparents’ Day, by the way) used to say when they were three years old? … How many here could not look for very long at that photo?

After the wise men returned to Jerusalem and refused to tell Herod whether or where they had found Jesus, Herod was so angry that he sent out an order to have all Jewish boys age two and younger killed. And the edict was carried out. Matthew says it was as the prophet Jeremiah had foretold it: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” …

That is the kind of anguish the parents who pull up stakes and board a tiny boat to float to anywhere but home are trying to avoid. That is why they become refugees. To save their children. To save themselves.

Under both international and U.S. law, a refugee is an individual who has fled his or her country of origin because of a credible fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social group.[1] And since the war in Syria started in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have crossed—or attempted to cross—international borders as refugees. Another 7.5 million have not been fortunate enough to leave the country but are internally displaced from their homes. These numbers combined represent more than half of the population of Syria. There are now more refugees and displaced persons in the world than at any time in history.[2] That is staggering. Can you imagine how devastating (socially, financially, medically) it would be to have half of the population of the U.S.—or even of Colorado—displaced? It is beyond imagining.

… It makes our troubles seem a bit trivial, doesn’t it? …

It tugs at our heartstrings, but we don’t know what to do. We want to “follow Jesus” in his care for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the displaced, but we have so many questions.

For example: What is the difference between a refugee and an undocumented (“illegal”) immigrant? I know I’m touching a nerve here. I’ve seen the sign someone not a mile from here has painted on his fence supporting a candidate whose comments about immigrants from Mexico have offended many. But I hope I can help all of us move toward a new understanding on this issue. World Relief, a national voluntary agency that partners in refugee resettlement in the U.S., has initiated a campaign called We Welcome Refugees, and they are calling upon churches, today, September 13, 2015, to unite in the effort to help relieve the refugee crisis. This is not a political effort. This is humanitarian. This is Jesus. This is goodness. This is God.

Granted, we can’t open our borders to just anyone. No person gains refugee status without a thorough screening process conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the FBI, to ensure that the individual does not pose a safety or health risk to this country. World Relief says, “In the United States, anyone admitted as a refugee has legal status from the moment they enter. While these individuals could still face deportation if they committed serious crimes or otherwise violated U.S. immigration law, in the vast majority of cases they become lawful permanent residents and then become eligible after five years to apply for U.S. citizenship. … There are also processes to request asylum. Asylum-seekers arrive in a country either on a temporary visa or unlawfully, but claim that they meet the legal definition of a refugee described above. … If approved, in most situations they will be allowed to stay.”

In other words, we are talking about law-abiding individuals here. People who are in compliance with—or who are in the process of compliance with—the laws of the country in which they are seeking safety. And God would have us open our doors to these people.

The Hebrew word ger, translated into English as foreigner, sojourner, stranger, or immigrant—appears 92 times in the Old Testament, usually in the context of God commanding the people to love and welcome those who came as foreigners into their land. This is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament! But not just the Old; the New Testament, too, repeatedly commands us to “practice hospitality,” which literally means to practice loving strangers—with the hint that, by doing so, we may be welcoming angels. Welcoming refugees is a tangible way to love our neighbors, part of Jesus’ Great Commandment (love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself) and to practice the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you).

What would have happened if Egypt had closed its doors to Joseph, Mary and Jesus? What would have happened if Galilee had stopped them from settling in the town of Nazareth? Thank God they didn’t. “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Look into the eyes of little Aylan Kurdi, and see the eyes of Jesus. Look into the eyes of millions of others fleeing the homes they love, seeking safety in a strange land, and see the eyes of Jesus. And may they look into our eyes, and see the YES of Jesus. (I realize I didn’t stay as close to the text in this sermon as I usually do, but this issue of the refugee crisis has been calling to my spirit this week. And it’s at the heart of Jesus’ passion, too.)

I have prepared a handout that offers some suggestions of ways you might help in the Syrian refugee crisis, if you feel God tugging at your heart. Some of these are UCC-related; some are not. There is something every one of us can do. Let us not forget that Jesus was once a refugee. Let us take up our cross and follow him. Let us say yes to them. Amen.

What You Can Do to Help with the Syrian Refugee Crisis

September 13, 2015

UCC-Related:

  • Watch the Global Ministries web site for information on relief and advocacy efforts in the Middle East and Europe: globalministries.org/mee.
  • Also watch the UCC’s Middle East Initiative for opportunities to give financially to support Global Ministries’ refugee work: globalministries.org/mei_giving_opportunities; and to help with their advocacy efforts: www.globalministries.org/mei_advocacy_opportunities.
  • To financially contribute to these efforts without going online, you may mail your check (with “Refugees” in the memo line) to UCC Global Ministries, 700 Prospect Ave. E., Cleveland OH 44115; or call (216) 736-2100.

Ecumenical:

  • Go to World Relief’s “We Welcome Refugees” website at wewelcomerefugees.com for updates on ways you can help.
  • Talk with others about what they’ve seen on that website—suggestions for partnering church to church; using your voice in advocacy efforts; supporting refugee rescue work; supporting a refugee family for 3-6 months; welcoming refugees in our community; and last but definitely not least, prayer.
  • Write to World Relief at 7 East Baltimore Street, Baltimore MD 21202, or call (443) 451-1900 to give, or for more information on what you can do.

[1] From wewelcomerefugees.com

[2] Email from James Moos, UCC Global Ministries, September 7, 2015

Bread of Life #5 of 5: Bread on the Waters

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
August 23, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“Bread of Life #5 of 5: Bread on the Waters”

John 6:60-71

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

Uncanny—isn’t it?—that last Sunday Sarah and David McHugh sang the song “Home,” which I interpreted as the words of Jesus, calling us to our eternal home, and this Sunday my husband Nathan is in Minnesota with his mother who has heard and is responding to that call. Some of the lyrics, again, are:

Now in the end it’s coming clear, you’re not alone.

‘Cause everyone you’ve ever loved is waiting here for you.

So don’t give up, no don’t give up.

Help will come. Yeah, you can come back home.

‘Cause help is on the way. Yeah, you can come back home.

So come back home.[1]

Jesus came to bring us the words of eternal life. He came to tell us that in the end, we’re not alone. And that really is “the moral of the story,” amen?

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This is the fifth and final sermon in our series on the Bread of Life, based on the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. The bread theme is in the background in today’s scripture; it’s not mentioned in this passage at all. It’s in the background as the “difficult teaching”; in other versions, the “hard teaching,” the “hard saying”—ultimately, the offensive thing Jesus just said—that he was the Bread of Life who had come down from heaven, and that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. Yes, that was a hard teaching, tough to swallow, tough to digest. And then he puts the icing on the cake by saying that not only did he come from heaven; he’s going back to heaven where he came from. And that he knows that some of them don’t believe him. And will turn away.

And many of them do. They leave. Submit their letters of withdrawal from membership, ask to be removed from the email distribution list and the church directory, turn in their keys and throw away their name tags. Done. Gone. Kaput. It was good while it lasted, but it’s no longer a fit for them.

Jesus lets them go. … Sends them on their way with his blessing. Sad, but out of his control. And he turns to those who stayed. He asks them, “Are you going to leave me too?” And Peter, often the impulsive mouthpiece of the group, says, in a moment of prophetic faith—“Where can we go? We know you now: you’re the Holy One of God. You have the words of eternal life!” So they stayed.

This makes me wonder about something though. Where did all the others go? Remember Ecclesiastes 11:1, which I mentioned during the Children’s Message at La Foret? “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.” It will return to you. It will return to you. I believe that in many for whom Jesus’ message may have seemed too “hard” at first, that bread—that seed of faith—took a little longer to germinate. I just can’t help thinking that later, when Peter and Paul had gone on to found churches, and the Holy Spirit fell upon those churches, and God’s love was being preached and miracles were being done in Jesus’ name, that many of those “waters” upon whom God had “cast his bread”—his Bread of Life, his son Jesus—I believe that many of those people returned to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Maybe the mom—one of thousands in the crowd that day on the hillside—thought the teaching was too difficult, but the daughter remembered having sat upon the knee of that mysteriously kind man. Maybe the uncle, whom Jesus had healed of leprosy, died, but the nephew remembered what a miracle the last several years of his uncle’s life had been. Maybe the boy who had the five loaves and three fishes walked away empty at first, not believing, but later found fellowship with a group of like-minded believers. … I find it difficult to accept that they just “went away,” having seen, having heard, having been touched by Jesus in that way.

John, the author of this Gospel, wrote, “For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.”

Jesus knew. He knew which ones were ready to hear his message. He knew which ones did not believe—yet—and he knew that Judas Iscariot was going to betray him. Jesus said, “Among you there are some who do not believe. … Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.”

Jesus called Judas a devil. After all, Judas betrayed Jesus, and Christianity has never forgiven him for that. We can’t forgive him, because human nature needs a Judas. We need a scapegoat. We need someone to hate, someone to blame. Someone who is so wrong that they are doomed to eternal punishment … We can’t imagine God forgiving Judas … can we?

Rev. Dr. Ray S. Anderson, senior professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary from 1976 until his death in 2009, saw in the early ’70s, some graffiti on a men’s room mirror. It said, simply: “Judas come home. All is forgiven.” In 1991, Anderson wrote a book titled The Gospel According to Judas: Is There a Limit to God’s Forgiveness? in which he sets up a series of dialogues between Judas—in the very place where he had taken his own life—and Jesus—fresh out of the tomb, resurrected and renewed with God’s glory, even before he appeared to Peter or any of his other disciples.

I want to share with you some excerpts from a couple of those dialogues. Cindy, will you come back up and help me with this? You can be Jesus. … J

Judas: Jesus, why have you come to torment me? Aren’t you satisfied that I perished from this earth by my own hands? Leave me alone! Let me go to the hell I deserve! I betrayed you; I delivered you over to your own death. I said I was sorry, but sorry isn’t enough. Sorrow doesn’t change anything.

Jesus: You are right, Judas Iscariot. There are things that do not change. Though I am not one who causes torment.

Judas: Yes, that’s true. I brought the torment on myself, and on you, by causing your death. Yet you do torment me. You will probably tell me that you still love me, but don’t you realize that for the betrayer, love is a cruel reminder of failure? Go away! I have enough pain without your love punishing me further.

Jesus: I tell you that you love me, and that is the cause of your pain and torment.

Judas: You’re talking nonsense. If I loved you I would not have betrayed you. After all, betrayal is not an act of love; it’s an act of treachery. You can’t deny the logic of that.

Jesus: Judas, betrayal is the sin of love against love. Betrayal uses love to try to destroy what is loved. Forgiveness seems impossible if betrayal is the final act. But betrayal is not final; it is not the end of love.

Judas: For me, betrayal was a single, final, and fatal act. I tried to deny the feelings of love I have for you. That’s why my betrayal of you hurts so much. But our relationship can never be the same again.

Jesus: True. We can never return to our innocence. But the love that has suffered loss is not a crippled love: it can be healed and made a stronger love.

Judas: You speak as though we’ve only had a lovers’ quarrel! I went beyond denial. I burned the bridge that made our relationship possible. I cut the cord that bound my heart to yours and my hand to heaven. There is no way back.

Jesus: That is true. But there never was a way back. There is only a way forward. The past can only be returned to us out of the future. Love is greater than faith and hope, because it can heal faithlessness and cure hopelessness.

Judas: In a way that I don’t understand, you place my act of betrayal, and even my death by my own hand, between us as something that can be forgiven.

Jesus: Do you still think that by betraying me, and by taking your own life, you sealed your fate and plunged into the realm that God has forsaken? I have been to that Godforsaken place, Judas. It was on the cross, not in the black hole in your own soul. God has not forsaken you!

Amen. Matthew 27:3 says Judas “was filled with remorse,” “repented,” and returned the thirty pieces of silver for which he had sold Jesus’ life. And God did not forsake him! God met him there in the black hole in his soul and forgave him. But Judas could not forgive himself. He was sure God could not forgive him, and he could not live with that. But Ray Anderson is right: Jesus is the only one who has been in a totally Godforsaken place. For a moment—just for a moment—God could not look upon the torment of his own son, hanging on that cross, and had to turn away. And Jesus, for the first time in his existence, felt the horror of God’s absence, and he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, and God will never, ever look away again! Not even from Judas.

But we still have to deal with the fact that Jesus called Judas a devil! A devil—in Greek, diabolos, from the words dia (through) and ballo (to throw). To throw through. It makes little sense in English. In Greek, when it’s used with the definite article—the devil—of course it refers to Satan. But when it’s used with the indefinite article—a devil—as it’s used here, it means something else. It means slanderer, accuser, malicious gossiper—someone who disregards, “throws through”/speaks right past, the truth. There are several examples in the New Testament of it being used this way. As in 1 Timothy 3:11, describing the behavior of the wives of deacons: “[they] must be serious, not slanderers (diabolos), but temperate, faithful in all things.” As in 2 Timothy 3:3, describing the behavior of people in the last days: “For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers (diabolos).” As in Titus 2:3, Paul instructing Titus in establishing churches, “Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance. Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers (diabolos) or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good.” Tell them not to be people who throw their words right through that good thing which God is trying to do. Judas was this kind of a diabolos. When Jesus called Judas a diabolos, he was calling him out for being a slanderer, an accuser, a gossiper; he was not condemning him to hell. He was throwing Judas a lifeline—casting the bread of life, of mercy, upon the waters of Judas’ confused existence!

“Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.” The bread has been cast—far and wide. What is our task—we who have received God’s unfailing love through Jesus? Our task is to cast the nets wider still, to gather as much “bread upon the waters” as we can. Crusts, crumbs, and everything in-between. If not to our net, then to some other net, amen? It’s still Jesus’ net… Our task is to share with all the message of the Bread of Life, the true bread from heaven, who promises that we will never be hungry, never be thirsty, and will never die. And here ends the series. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Writer: Casey Blue Crescenzo. Copyright: BMG Gold Songs.

Bread of Life #2 of 5: The Work God Wants

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
August 2, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“Bread of Life #2 of 5: The Work God Wants”

John 6:16-29

When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Last week, we started a five-week sermon series on the Bread of Life, based on the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.

In that first sermon, titled “Crusts and Crumbs,” we noticed that John—and only John among all the Gospel writers—tells us two things about the bread on that day when Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes and fed the multitude. John tells us that the bread that Jesus fed the crowd that day was made from what grain? <<barley>> And John alone tells us that it was whose idea to gather up the leftovers (the klasma, the fragments) so all could be saved? <<Jesus>> And what do you think? If Jesus feels that way about common, everyday barley bread, how does he feel about us? … That’s right. It’s good news, any way you slice it. J … It’s the best news since … sliced bread, amen? J Plain, sweet, simple, barley-ish, good news. Jesus loves me, as crusty as I get sometimes. Such a life-changing truth to cling to.

Today we move from “Crusts and Crumbs” to “The Work God Wants.”

What is “The Work God Wants”—t he work God wants us to do? In short, it’s the same simple message we saw over and over in Mark’s Gospel: Do not fear, but have faith. Fear not; only believe. John, though, takes the idea a step further than Mark. John says we don’t have to muster up that faith ourselves. John (here, and later in this chapter; and later Paul, in several of his writings) says that God will give us the faith to believe. And all we have to do is receive it. Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So “the work of God”—the work God wants us to do—is really the work that God wants to do for us. All we have to do is receive it.

And that just bends the 21st-century brain, doesn’t it? I was thinking about this yesterday evening when I attended the Tri-Lakes Relay for Life. Our church’s team did a great job of raising money to fight cancer—$2,370 when I checked online at 7:00 this morning—and I had the honor of presenting the invocation for the opening ceremony—altogether a wonderful opportunity for our church to be out there in the community and become more well-known and trusted.

But when Nathan and I were out there, walking the first lap with the team, it occurred to me that all of the money raised by all of the teams was money that had already been given. It was already a done deal. Yet all those people—200 altogether, maybe—were out there in the crazy windy weather to take turns walking that track for 12 hours. (I didn’t stay that long; I had a sermon to finish writing!)

The money had already been given. So why the walk? Because it’s in our nature: we have to be doing something. It’s difficult for us to just receive! Of course, there are other intrinsic benefits to walking a track all night long—like team building and making memories, and the Simonoff family did a great job of heading all of that up. (Rumor has it that they’re heading up the entire event next year.) But the possibly oversimplified truth is that the gifts had already been given. They just needed to be received. Kind of like faith. Kind of like God’s love.

Our Hymn of Response today expresses this same thought. “Eat this bread, drink this cup. Come to me and never be hungry. Eat this bread, drink this cup, trust in me and you will not thirst.”

The gift has already been given. All we have to do is receive. We receive the bread (a symbol of Jesus’ body), we receive the cup (a symbol of Jesus’ lifeblood)—and we receive the gift of no more hunger, no more thirst. Gift upon gift. Un-worked-for, undeserved. Spiritual food, spiritual drink. Food for eternity. Bread of life.

After Jesus fed the people that day, and later they got into the boats and followed him and his disciples to Capernaum, he chided them. He said, “So you’re hungry already, and looking for another meal, are you? Well, I could give you another meal—more bread from heaven to fill your bellies—that’s really small potatoes for me. You know I was there with the Father when he created the world, don’t you? And I was there when the Father fed your ancestors in the wilderness. But do you remember what happened to the manna if they didn’t eat it right away? That’s right. It spoiled. It was filled with worms. So I have a different kind of ‘bread’ to offer you—bread that doesn’t spoil—eternal bread—bread that feeds your soul. And all you have to do is receive it.”

And they answered pretty much like I’m sure most of us would: “But surely, Lord, there’s something I can do—some way I can earn it—some work you need done around the place. A picture hung, a hinge tightened, a window cleaned. Give me something to do!”

And Jesus replied, “Yes, come to think of it, there is some work for you to do. ‘The work God wants’ is for you to believe—in me, in God’s gift of grace that brings eternal life. That’s all: only believe. In fact, God will help you believe. How does that sound?” (Pretty good, I’d say!)

The bread and wine of Communion that we will receive in a few minutes is the same way. We come forward and freely receive the bread and “wine,” symbols and reminders of Jesus’ gift to us of eternal life. All we have to do is receive. That can be so difficult, can’t it? But Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. Believe in me! That’s all God asks of you.”

I know—this is starting to sound a little redundant. It’s so simple; there aren’t many ways to say it. And I can think of only two appropriate responses to such a generous offer: Accept the gift, and be grateful.

And there are a million ways to express gratitude. It is, after all, out of gratitude to God for the free gift of salvation that we do the millions of things we do to keep this church afloat. And those things may involve hanging a picture, tightening a hinge, and cleaning a window. It could be … well, it could be any of a number of things that we see people doing around here all the time, out of the goodness of their own hearts, out of gratitude for God’s free gift of love and acceptance and forgiveness and fellowship.

In fact, let’s take a few minutes right now and lift up some of those things. I’ve got the handheld mic here. Stand up or raise your hand, and I’ll bring it to you. Share something you’ve seen someone doing here at Black Forest Community Church—not because they had to, but because they wanted to, out of gratitude for God’s free gift—and feel free to mention their names! … … …

One other way we demonstrate our gratitude is, of course, giving of our finances in the offering. We do this after Communion for that very symbolism. We freely receive, and then, in gratitude, we freely give. You may have noticed in your bulletin that our offerings are nearly $10,000 below what we budgeted for by this time this year. You may be aware that in the last several months, a few people, for various reasons, have chosen to suspend their personal and financial involvement with this church. That is their choice, and we will welcome them back if they choose to return. Or, we wish them all the best as they seek a new church home that better meets their spiritual needs. We pray for them, and we ask God to bless them. What that means, though, is that the rest of us must step up just a little bit more to fill the gap. Out of gratitude for this church—for its past, for its present, and for its future.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the gospel, he instructed them, “Freely you have received; now freely give.” And they came back amazed, for through them God had done wonderful things!

Freely we have received, and freely we are about to receive again—the bread of life, the cup of blessing, and the faith to believe it. That’s the work God wants—the work God wants to do in us. And, in response, in gratitude, freely may we give. Amen.

Bread of Life #1 of 5: Crusts and Crumbs

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 26, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“Bread of Life #1 of 5: Crusts and Crumbs”

John 6:1-15

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

We’re starting a new five-week sermon series today. Please bear with me for a moment as I give you the context for it. We’ve been in the Gospel of Mark for several weeks, but now, for five weeks, the lectionary (the selection of scriptures that are recommended for each Sunday), moves to John. The lectionary is on a three-year cycle, and because John doesn’t follow lockstep with the other Gospels, there are pieces of it stuck in here and there, but it doesn’t get its own year as the three other Gospels—the synoptic Gospels—do. The word synoptic comes from two Greek words that mean “to see together.” And Matthew, Mark and Luke definitely do that. They have most of their stories in common, and if you read them back-to-back, it can almost feel a little redundant. In fact, most Bible scholars believe that Mark was written first, just a few years after Jesus was crucified, and then Matthew and Luke each used Mark’s Gospel as a source to write their own Gospels. And then along came John, some 20 or 30 years later, and his Gospel is unique—seen apart, as opposed to “seen together” (synoptic)—from the others.

There are a few stories that all four Gospels do contain, though, and Jesus feeding the multitude is one of them. In fact, Matthew and Mark each contain two multitude-feeding stories—one says the crowd was 4,000 and the other says it was 5,000. Interesting. We could spend a lot of time going over the theories of why the Gospels were written that way—and we do learn a lot about a story by understanding why it was written—but that’s not where I’m going today. We’re going to talk about bread. For the next five weeks, as we journey through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, there’s a recurring theme of “Bread of Life, so … we’re going to talk about bread.

The first thing to note is that John alone gives us an intereting detail about the bread that Jesus fed the crowd that day. John says it was barley. In fact, John’s is the only Gospel that contains any reference to barley—at all! I wonder why—don’t you? I do know one thing: What grain is most bread made from? … Wheat, that’s right. … And barley was worth about a third of what wheat was worth in Jesus’ day. It was a low-grade crop, looked down upon. Among royalty, to be reduced to eating barley would be something like our having to eat just ramen noodles for every meal because that’s all we could afford to have in the pantry. Or the proverbial beans and rice. It was the food of the common folk, those who were down on their luck or were reaping the consequence of poor life choices. Yet John tells us it was five barley loaves that Jesus took that day and transformed into bread from heaven—like manna—to feed a hungry multitude.

I love the plainness of that. That’s the plain old, good and true, rock-solid, down-home gospel. Sometimes we just need to hear it plain. Good old barley loaves. The good old message that Jesus loves you. God loves you. Period. Nothing fancy. Just that. Just love. We get up on Sunday morning and come to church so we can hear it again: Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. We are weak (oh, so weak sometimes), but he is strong.

Sometimes what we need is the barley-ness of hearing that Jesus is strong in the face of our weakness. Jesus loves us so much that he comes into our lives and fills our hungry spirits with bread and meat from heaven. Quenches our thirst. Heals our pain. Calms our fears. Gives us hope. The plain old good news of the gospel. We never get tired of hearing it, amen?

And that right there would be enough, but there’s another detail that John includes that the others don’t. Now, if scholars are right, and John’s Gospel was written 20 or 30 years later than the others, that detail may have been added as a bit of oral tradition elaborated on the original story. What I’m saying is, unless you believe that every single word of the Bible is absolutely literally true (and, in compliance with that, you refuse to eat shrimp because it’s a bottom-dwelling seafood, or wear cotton-poly clothing because it’s a mixture of fibers)—unless you believe that every single word of the Bible is absolutely literally and invariably true—then you may be able to wonder with me whether Jesus really said this next thing I’m going to talk about. Regardless, John had a reason for including it—a story behind the story—and I really love the fact that it’s there. Now, I choose to believe that Jesus really did say this, and that the other Gospel writers didn’t include it only because maybe the detail hadn’t surfaced yet as the story was told and retold in their hearing. I choose to believe that Jesus did say it, because I like what it says about Jesus. I like what it says about God. … I like that Jesus told the disciples to gather up the leftovers “so that nothing may be lost.” John calls them “fragments.” Klasma in the Greek, translated “pieces, broken pieces.” Crusts … and crumbs.

Do you ever feel like a broken piece? A crust? A crumb? Insignificant? Shattered? Broken? Even worse—a worthless barley crumb? That’s what, according to John, Jesus told the disciples to carefully gather up, place in baskets, and save! “So that nothing (so that none of them—not one of them) may be lost.” Isn’t that just the best part of the story?

It’s almost as if Jesus wanted to create a metaphor here. “Don’t let any of them fall to the ground; don’t let any of them be lost, or wasted, because every single one of them is precious to me. I took a few stale loaves of barley bread and I made out of them enough fresh, delicious bread to feed ten thousand people to bursting, with twelve basketfuls left over! Don’t let a single crust, not one tiny crumb, be lost!”

If only we could all know, every minute, how much we mean to God. We are the klasma, the fragments, the broken pieces, that he wants to save. There are so many details, so many distractions, so many debates that we can get caught up in—even in God’s family, even in the church—that would cause us to forget about God’s uncomplicated love for us, God’s unfathomable love for us. But the truth is, no disagreement is worth walking away from God. Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Holocaust survivor who wrote the book The Hiding Place, is famous for her quote, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.” God is there with us in the fragmented places of our lives. If only we could all know, every minute, how true this is.

This afternoon, after the party at Art & Mona Navaltas’, Nathan and Sammi and I are driving up to my sister’s home in Northern Colorado. We’re going to Livermore, outside of Fort Collins. My sister and her family are moving out, moving back to Wisconsin, and they’ll probably have pretty much everything loaded into the truck by the time we get there. So we’re not going up to help them move.[1] We’re going up for another reason, and that is this:

Almost two years ago—about the time I started interviewing for the position of pastor here—my other sister’s son Cody could have benefitted greatly from hearing the simple, sweet, barley-plain message that God loved him and did not want him to be lost—or wasted. Instead, both happened. Cody was found, in his home in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on September 15, 2013, having taken his life the day before. His obituary in the La Crosse Tribune said only that he “passed away unexpectedly.” But I don’t know. His mother and father, twice divorced, both struggle with substance abuse. Cody’s sister Cassie is the one for whom I have shared a prayer request with you because she suffers from scleroderma, a typically fatal condition that hardens the tissues to the point of paralysis. Cody’s marriage was unhappy at best, and it seems one day all of that just got the best of him. He must have felt that day like a worthless crumb, must have had no idea that he really was a cherished piece of heavenly bread that Jesus wanted to preserve, protect and nurture. If only he had known…

John’s Gospel says that after Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the people started to wonder if he was the prophet they were waiting for, the prophet who was to come and deliver them from the Romans. But this was not why he had come. He had come to spread the good news of God’s love. He had come to give his life for that message—the message that God did not want one single klasma, not one single piece, not one single fragment, of the big barley loaf we call humanity—to be lost. So Jesus escaped, alone, to his favorite mountain, to be with God.

Cody loved the mountains too. He loved eagles. He loved wolves. He loved Colorado. So we are going to northern Colorado to spread some of Cody’s ashes in the mountains he loved so much. Rest in peace, Cody Anderson. Know that you have always been loved. And may we all very simply know that we will all always be loved. Amen.

 

[1] As it turned out, we did have a large role in helping them load their huge moving truck. Thank God for strong backs!

Unstoppable

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 12, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“Unstoppable”

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Wow. That’s a discouraging passage. There is so much that is so wrong in this story. I’m glad the children have Sunday School today, because this is such a gruesome story; when they do eventually learn it, I trust their Sunday School teachers to nuance it and make it suitable for their young ears. … At the risk of turning this into a really depressing sermon, let’s take a look at it.

First: Herod married his brother’s wife. This is historically accurate, according to the first-century historian Josephus and other sources. Depending on the timing of the events, if this didn’t make him an adulterer, it at least made him incestuous, for this was not only his sister-in-law, but, according to other sources, Herodias was also his niece. That’s just wrong.

Second: Herod knew John to be a “righteous and holy man,” yet he had him imprisoned. Herod “liked to listen” to John’s teachings, and Matthew’s Gospel says he “did many things,” meaning he observed many of John’s teachings, but he just couldn’t quite bring himself to make a full commitment to John’s message. That’s just wrong.

Third: Herod’s daughter—technically his step-daughter, for she was Herodias’ daughter—and biologically his niece, for she was the daughter of his brother Philip during his marriage to Herodias—danced during his birthday party. Yes, it was that kind of dance. Historians affirm it. And Herod was so “pleased” with her dancing—Eeewwwww!—that he lost his senses and made a rash promise to her. Proper women in that day were kept covered, protected, honored—and this young woman’s mother and step-father had her dance at a prominent political event. That’s just wrong.

Fourth: Herod “solemnly swore to her” to give her up to half his kingdom. The implication in the original Greek—the type of oath he took—is that he invoked God as witness to this wicked, lascivious pledge. That’s just wrong.

Fifth: What did John the Baptist have to do with this event? Absolutely nothing. But there was a grudge, and an opportunity was found to bear it out in murderous violence against an untried innocent man. That’s just wrong.

And sixth: His head? On a platter? Brought before all the guests at the birthday party? That…is just horribly, disgustingly, nauseatingly wrong.

Now, for the record, I must point out that while Matthew’s Gospel follows Mark’s account of this event quite closely, the first-century historians (Josephus included) say nothing about the daughter’s dance or about the beheading being Herodias’ idea. Historians tend to lay all responsibility for John’s death on Herod himself—not the women. Make of that what you will.

But now—John is dead. John, who leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her cousin Mary, the mother of Jesus, came to her to tell her she was with child. John, a prophet himself, whose own coming had been foretold by ancient prophets. John, the forerunner of Jesus, who came to “prepare the way of the Lord, [to] make [a] path straight” for him. John, who wore clothing of camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. John, who preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and who baptized those who came—Jesus included—in the Jordan River.

John is dead, and his disciples are heartbroken. They bury his decapitated corpse and they go to Jesus and his disciples—to receive comfort, to seek direction, and to warn them. Because Herod, in his guilt over taking his brother’s wife and killing John the baptist, has now heard of the wonderful deeds of power that Jesus and his disciples are doing, and is now turning a suspicious eye on them. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised…” Herod said.

If Herod feared a living, breathing John enough to have him executed, then how much more must he have feared a resurrected or reincarnated John? And if John had come back in the form of Jesus—implausible, but what person, mad with guilt, is truly rational?—then would Herod not have to put Jesus away too? If Herod was going to put an end to all of this talk of repentance, of authority over bondage and sickness, of restoration, of God’s kingdom being here, now, he was going to have to stop this Jesus of Galilee too.

What Herod didn’t realize was that this message is unstoppable. Just like the song our kids sang during VBS—Unstoppable! Two thousand years later, the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ still prevails, still changes hearts, still heals souls, still topples systems of injustice, still brings peace, still creates order out of chaos.

This message—this message of God’s love—is unstoppable. This power that conquers all—love—is unstoppable. Herod didn’t know that.

It seems illogical, doesn’t it, that this is the message that got the religious and political powers of Jesus’ day up in arms? Love? Just love? Wasn’t God always love? Yes, but religion, in the days of Jesus and John, had devolved into an institution that survived by kowtowing to the Roman government, and civil religion had mingled with true religion to the point that it was unclear where one started and the other left off. The mores of Roman rule were infiltrating the faithful, and allegiance to one was being mistaken for allegiance to the other.

And along came Jesus—and John—preaching a different kingdom, a reign of love, a rule of peace, the kingdom of God, and that’s when Herod and his friends began to feel threatened. If this kingdom could be entered by repentance (literally “turning around”) into allegiance to love, then what would come of the power structure under which they had benefited so much? What would come of their cushy, familiar lifestyle? A rule of love? It must be stopped!

But this message of love is unstoppable!

PBS, in its series From Jesus to Christ, takes on the question, “Why Did Christianity Succeed?” In a nutshell, it’s because of its radical interpretation of the concept of love! Here are some excerpts from the manuscript of that PBS documentary:

One of the key words we find in [much] of the earliest Christian literature is the word “love” and, okay, people have always talked about love and that’s no surprise, but [the early Christians] talk about love in a very strange way. They talk about a God who loves, a God who loves enough that he would send his very son into the world. … [Christian doctrine says], “What a remarkable thing is this, that the Son of God comes not to conquer the Romans, not to establish a political state in Israel, but to demonstrate the love that the Creator of the universe has for all people?” This shaming act that Pontius Pilate used to try to wipe out this little group is turned about, in the Christian mentality, [into a demonstration of] God’s approach to us, and therefore sets a kind of model by which people ought to relate to one another.

So what set the early Christians apart was this concept that God’s love is a sacrificial love. This was a new concept among the Jews. Until then, it was the people who were doing the sacrificing, to gain God’s favor. And because God’s love is a sacrificial love, so is ours to be, toward one another. This, too, was a new thought in a culture that would not stop to help—to touch—a bleeding person because it would make them ritually unclean. The manuscript continues:

Love is [here] being re-defined as this “other-regarding” sacrificial act, [choosing] to put oneself on the line for the sake of the good of the other, and this is grounded in the claim about the way the ultimate power and structure of the universe [God!] manifests itself in human society.

This is the unstoppable message of the gospel! Like Jesus, we are called to “put ourselves on the line for the sake of the good of the other,” because that’s what God has done in regard to us. Quite frankly, this is what makes us a church, and not a social club. The God factor—the G-Force—the difficult prophetic voice that is willing to sacrifice self for the good of the other.

If you were not here last week, you did not hear my sermon on the difficult challenge of bearing the prophetic voice in the world. I am going to email that out to all of you this week, because I feel it speaks to so many issues we’re dealing with in this church right now.

Another way to put it is in the second verse of the hymn we are going to sing in a moment:

Wider grows the holy realm, reign of love and light;

For it we must labor, till our faith is sight.

Prophets have proclaimed it, martyrs testified,

Poets sung its glory, heroes for it died.

I know that “putting ourselves on the line for the sake of the good of the other”—standing up for love, justice and peace, even when it’s not the popular view—is not an easy road. But it is a godly road. And if we stay on the godly road, Black Forest Community Church, we are unstoppable. Amen?

Shake It Off

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 5, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“Shake It Off”

Mark 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

 

There was a custom among the Jewish people of Jesus’ time. Pious Jews would “shake the dust off their feet” when they left a Gentile (non-Jewish) town—to demonstrate their separation from Gentile practices. Here, Jesus turns the tradition on its head—just like he does in so many of his teachings—and tells his disciples to “shake the dust” of Jewish towns “off their feet” if the people there don’t accept their message.

Jesus told them this because he expected their message to be rejected. He knew it was radical, unwelcome, controversial. Jesus knew the message he was sending his disciples out to preach—a message of repentance, of authority over bondage and sickness, of restoration, of God’s kingdom being here, now—was prophetic, and he knew that (as he had said) “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” He knew that he may well be sending his disciples out as sheep among wolves, and he wanted to encourage them not to give up when they got chewed on a little.

The prophetic voice is not an easy one. The people in Jesus’ hometown didn’t trust this homeboy; they knew him too well. They knew his brothers and his sisters. They knew his rough carpenter father, and his mother who had conceived him before she was married. Hmmm… And now, they wondered, where did he get all this nonsense about being the son of God? He was just a local boy who at some point had picked up a really big ego.

The prophets of the Old Testament had it rough too. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah and Amos all suffered martyrdom. They were all rejected for preaching unpopular messages. Difficult messages. Messages that called people out of their complacency and into repentance, calling them to work for justice in the world. …

This church was founded by prophets. Pioneers who had a prophetic voice. It wasn’t a typical, traditional, fundamentalist Christian voice. It was radical in its day. This church’s founders sought to create a worship space where all could meet God; not just those who believed the way they believed. And that philosophy is reflected in this church’s guiding documents.

The earliest copy of this church’s Bylaws that I could find is from 1963—six years after the merger that formed the United Church of Christ. Had I had more time, I know Bev Turner could have helped me find some founding documents that go back much further than that. J But even here, in these 1963 Bylaws, under the heading of Doctrine, it demonstrates that openness to difference. It says, “Each member shall have the undisturbed right to follow the Word of God according to the dictates of his own conscience, under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. … We are united in striving to know the will of God as taught in the Holy Scriptures and to walk in the ways of the Lord, made known or to be made known to us. … [d]epending, as did our fathers, upon the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth.”

Those are prophetic words! They say, in short, “We know that we don’t have all the answers, but we’re working together to spread Jesus’ good message of peace and justice in the world!” And do you know what? Most of those words are still in our Bylaws today! And those are still prophetic words!

No wonder we are persecuted. … In a cultural climate where Christians, for the most part, insist that they have it all figured out, there is little tolerance for a voice that says, “No, we don’t know it all. But we’re seeking God’s will, and we would love to walk the journey with you.”

That, my friends, is also the voice of our denomination. In the Bylaws of the United Church of Christ, it says, in part, “[The United Church of Christ] affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make the faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thoughts and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” “Each generation to make the faith its own”—I love that! In other words, “No, we don’t know it all. But we’re seeking God’s will, and we would love to walk the journey with you.” Those are prophetic words! No wonder the UCC comes under fire.

Our Pilgrim forebears had this same prophetic spirit. I quote often the Rev. John Robinson’s words to the Pilgrims as they departed for the New World from Holland in 1620: “The Lord has yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word.” We don’t know it all yet! The journey will not be easy, but we would love to travel it with you.

Most of you have been here much longer than I have. You have been Black Forest Community Church much longer than I have. What can you tell me about your journey? In what ways has Black Forest Community Church raised a prophetic voice in this community? By hosting in your worship space nearly every other church until it could get on its feet and build its own facility? Yes. By not closing your doors to those other faith groups just because they didn’t believe exactly as you did? Yes. What a legacy of radical inclusiveness that is! It makes me proud to be a part of this!

But church, where is our prophetic voice now? Have we become complacent, fearful of criticism, weary of coming under fire? What is our particular prophetic message now—today—in 2015 and beyond? What do we bring to this community that the other churches do not? Church, may I ask: who are we?

We’ve taken some hits. I know. People have talked. People have criticized. People have accused us of not preaching the Bible. People have left, and taken their offerings with them. I know. That’s why we have such a big budget deficit right now. But this isn’t the first time this church has struggled. We will get through this. We will shake it off. We will shake the dust off our feet and move forward. We will preach the prophetic word that God is calling us to, and God will bless our work.

A couple of years ago, a drunk driver ran into the chain-link fence in our back alley. She took out several trees, and we wanted to replace them, so I (with permission) went over to my daughter’s in-laws’ house and dug up one of the many small sumac trees they have growing in the front yard. I planted it next to our alley, but every time the little tree sprouted a fresh batch of sweet velvety leaves, the deer would come by and chew them down to stubs. My little sumac tree didn’t seem to have a chance. But this year, something different is happening. That sumac tree is determined to survive! It has sent runners underground and has sent up new shoots in places the deer can’t reach—impervious to destructive jaws, if you catch my drift. Where the original tree struggles to survive, the new thing it’s doing is vibrant and beautiful. It had to find a new strategy, a new prophetic voice, a new corner to fill.

May I ask it again? … Church, who are we? The prophetic message is not an easy one to bear. It brings rejection. It brings criticism. It brings ridicule. They’ll say things about us. Things like, “Where did these people get all this? What is this so-called wisdom they claim? What are these so-called deeds of power they’re doing? Aren’t these just the same old people we’ve known all our lives—the people who live next-door to us, down the road from us—the people who have had so much trouble in their past?”

And, you know, maybe their words will have a negative impact. Maybe our reputation will continue to be tarnished. After all, that’s what happened to Jesus in his hometown. The scripture says, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” But think of it—wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? If we could lay loving hands on even a few sick people—a few wounded people, a few hurt people—and help them become whole? If we could help even just a few people in this way, wouldn’t that be worth it?

Let’s shake it off. Let’s shake the dust off our feet and move on, church. Let’s see what truth and light God will shine forth from his holy word and find the unique ministry to which God is calling us. Black Forest Community Church, let’s shake it off and move on!

Amen!