Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Matthew 10:40-42

The Calling Right in Front of You

July 2, 2017

 

          This worship series is about God-Centered Wellbeing and Calling—what your purpose in life is, what God is calling you to do and how God is calling you to live.  We began by hearing three Maple Grove members tell about their individual, or particular, calling of God:  to love without needing to judge, to be a church youth group leader, to reinvent oneself after a season of grief and loss.  Last Sunday we heard about a calling that belongs to all Christians—to share God’s love to others and invite them to church. 

          Different as they are, one thing those two callings have in common is they both some involve some planning, or at least a little reflection.  God’s purpose for your life may smack you upside the head, but more likely you’ll need to spend some serious time in prayer and self-reflection to work it out.  And some people are just naturals at telling others about God’s love and inviting them to church, but most of us have to work up to those things.  These are callings you have to prepare for.  But the calling in today’s Gospel reading is different; it’s the calling that’s right in front of you.  Whoever welcomes someone in my name, Jesus says, will be rewarded.  Those who give so much as a cup of cold water to one of these littles ones—they will not lose their reward.  There’s nothing you really have to prepare for here.  No deep reflection is necessary.  Just basic hospitality, just be kind to the people in front of you, don't let anyone pass by without caring for them.  Sometimes the calling is right in front of you.

 

Earlier in chapter 10, as Jesus sent the disciples out to share God's love and to heal the sick, he warned them that they would meet opposition; they were entering a time of controversy and division, even division within their own families. (Sound familiar?)  Maybe that's why Jesus ended this chapter emphasizing hospitality and kindness.  For when is the need for hospitality and kindness greater than in a time of controversy?  In a divisive time, you don't have to seek out opportunities for hospitality and kindness.  No, in times like that, the calling is right in front of you.

 

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Taylor, tells of a week when she was busy preparing a sermon about the Good Samaritan, that story about being a neighbor by helping someone in need. She worked on that sermon every day--reading commentaries, praying about it, talking with other preachers.  One of the truths I got from the parable, she says, is that God comes to us daily in unexpected encounters with unexpected people, and if we're faithful, we won't ignore them.  Then, she says, on Thursday I was driving to church, when I saw a car with its hood up along the road.  This was in the 80s, before cell phones.  A large man stepped into the road, she says, holding up some jumper cables and looking me straight in the eye.  Several hundred thoughts went through her mind in about three seconds.  "The man needs help—you are a single woman alone in a car—the man needs help—you are a single woman alone in a car—the man needs help—never open your door to a stranger—go to the nearest gas station and send a mechanic—but the man needs help—what if he can't afford a mechanic—the man needs help—I'm sorry,” she decided, “I can't help—maybe the next person will.”  And I drove on to church, she says, to complete my research on the Good Samaritan.1 Sometimes the calling isn't at church; sometimes it's right in front of you. 

I think of this sometimes after worship, if I see a visitor, a newcomer, standing in a corner of the lobby by herself. It doesn't happen often, but I have seen it.  It's not that we're unfriendly or uncaring, of course.  It's just that we are called to so many places on Sunday—to TJs with friends or to football on TV or to deliver flowers to shut-ins.  Or here's my own calling—I'm always headed to a meeting.  And there stands that lonely person aching for someone to talk to or better yet, have lunch with.  If you welcome someone in my name, Jesus says, you're welcoming me.  Even a cup of cold water matters.  The calling is right in front of us.

Sometimes I see the people at the bus stop across Henderson Road. Especially in winter they look cold, lonely, miserable.  Several times I've asked someone to help me make coffee, get some paper cups, put some sugar and creamer on a cart, wheel it across the street, and start handing out coffee.  So far no one I've shared this with has thought it's a good idea, especially not in winter.  And I suppose everyone thinks the pastor has more important things to do than stand on a street corner handing out coffee.  Everyone, that is, except Jesus.  The gospel is as simple hospitality and kindness, and the calling is right in front of me.  You’ll know where to look for me this winter . . .

 

Now you might be wondering—welcoming a stranger, a cup of cold water, free coffee—I mean, these are nice things, but they're not very, well, religious.  Shouldn't the church stick to sacred things—Bible studies, funerals, organ music, and leave strangers to homeless shelters and leave cups of water to the Culligan Man?  But Jesus has a way of mixing up what's sacred and what's not.  In another place in Matthew, Jesus teaches that if you visit someone in prison, if you feed or clothe the needy, if you offer health care to the poor, you're doing it to none other than Jesus himself.  And here in Matthew 10, Jesus says that if you welcome someone, anyone, in my name, it's like welcoming me.  And suddenly hospitality seems a lot more religious.  And that cup of water, Jesus says, that's holy water--I've got my reward set on that water.  So what is sacred and what is secular?  Well with Jesus, it's hard to tell, so maybe we'd better just treat it all as holy.

 

When I was pastor at Maynard Avenue Church, there were two little tow-headed boys who lived just up the street. They were—how can I put this?—lightly supervised, and roamed the neighborhood from sunrise to sunset.  They played in the park, dumpster-dived in the alley, chatted up anyone who'd take the time.  They often came to church on Sundays—not always for worship or Sunday school, but always for the refreshments afterward.  One Friday afternoon I was laboring away in the church office on my sermon (probably on the Good Samaritan), when I heard the church doorbell.  I debated with myself.  It's surely just someone wanting a sandwich or a bus ticket, someone with a hard luck story.  And I've just got to finish this sermon.  But Strength Finders says that one of my Top 5 Strengths is "Responsibility."  So I got up and trudged to the door.  It was the two boys.  "Is there church today?" they asked.  What I thought was, "Does it look like there's church today?  Is it Sunday?"  But what I said was, "No, no church today, boys.  Sorry." 

"Well then, can we come in and get a drink?" I started to say no, to send them home for a drink.  Then I remembered—half the time they were locked out of their own home.  "All right," I said, "come on in and have a drink."  We went downstairs to the water fountain, but the water pressure was low and it was hard for them to drink.

"Can you get us some cups?" they asked. I thought to myself, "and how about a steak and baked potato while I'm at it.  But what I said was, "Sure, be right back."  In a kitchen closet found two red plastic cups, brought them back and filled them up, and handed them to the boys.

"Aren't you going to have some water too?" they asked. In for a penny, in for a pound.  I went back to the kitchen, found one more red plastic cup and filled it for myself.  I started to drink my water.

"Wait! Don't you want to sit down, Pastor?" they asked, as though I were their guest. "You know, that's exactly what I want," I said. "Where do you want to sit?"

We went out front and sat on the steps. We talked and we drank our water.  You know, one thing I'd said earlier turned out to be wrong.  We did have church that day, after all--two tow-headed boys, one reluctant pastor, and three red plastic cups of water.  All it takes to have church is a bit of hospitality and kindness.  And the calling is right in front of you.

 

 

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley, 1993), 115.  

Matthew 10:24-33

Do Not Be Afraid . . . Again

June 25, 2017

 

        We did a whole sermon series back in Lent—March and April—called Overcoming Fear with Faith. 

  • We heard Jesus say, “Don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or drink. God knows you need those things. But seek first God and God’s kingdom and everything else will take care of itself.

  • We may fear foreigners and strangers, but the Bible is clear we must welcome and care for them.

  • When Peter tries to walk on the water, he grows fearful of the wind and waves, but when he falls, what happens? Jesus scoops him up and sets him back in the boat.

  • There is no fear in love, 1 John says, but perfect love casts out fear.

  • On Good Friday Jesus prayed his way through fear in Gethsemane.

  • Even on Easter, the message comes two times: Don’t be afraid.

     

    So you might think we’d pretty well covered the topic of fear in the scriptures. But no, here is Jesus today telling his disciples not once, not twice, but three times: Have no fear of them (v. 26), Do not fear (v. 28), So do not be afraid (v. 31). And what are the disciples afraid of? Well, he’d just called them and sent them out to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom and healing power. And Jesus warned that some people would oppose them, maybe even persecute them for this message. Well, yeah. I might be afraid of that. How about you?

     

            We’re in this worship series now about God-Centered Wellbeing and calling, what God calls us to do, how God calls us to be in the world. Last Sunday we heard Maple Grove members tell about their individual calling of God—to love others without needing to judge, to be a church youth leader, to reinvent oneself after grief and loss. And over lunch today we’ll work on our own personal mission statements.

    But today’s scripture is not about this individual call of God to each one of us; it’s about a calling that belongs to all disciples, one common to every Christian—to go and share the good news of Jesus Christ. We worked on that common calling three Sundays ago—writing down why Jesus is important to you, what difference the church makes in your life, and who is that one person you can invite to church. Sure enough, we wrote all that down. And then the fear sets in, right? I mean have you actually invited that person? See what I mean about fear? That’s why Jesus said it not once, not twice, but three times: Have no fear of them, Do not fear, So do not be afraid.

     

            New Testament scholar, Susan Garrett, points out that one problem interpreting Matthew 10 for our own situation is that the specific hardships Jesus warns about aren’t likely to happen to us. Our very lives are not at risk for telling a neighbor about Jesus, and we won’t get thrown in prison for inviting family and friends to church. But even though we don’t face persecution of that sort, she says, we still face some real obstacles.1 When we think about telling others about God’s love and inviting them to church, we worry that people will think we’re nosy or meddling. We’re afraid they might think we’re criticizing them or suggesting there’s something wrong with them. We’re afraid of being labeled “that religious fanatic neighbor” or the “grandparents who only talks about church.” In today’s contentious climate, we’re afraid that even mentioning God or church might stir up anger or division. Maybe you’re afraid that the person you invite to church won’t come; or maybe you’re afraid they will come and you’ll feel responsible for them here.

    There’s no end of things to be afraid of . . . for the twelve disciples back then and for us today. But Professor Garrett also points out that while we might think the main obstacles to sharing our faith are human opposition or potential criticism, Jesus teaches that the chief obstacle (as Tommy Thompson has been telling me) is fear itself. Of course things may not turn out the way we want. Of course there’s risk in anything important you do. It’s not that there isn’t anything to be afraid of; it’s that Jesus calls us to share and invite anyway. That’s why he said it not once, not twice, but three times: Have no fear of them, Do not fear, So do not be afraid.

     

    In this gospel reading, Jesus does not promise to protect us from all harm. But he does give us two good reasons to face our fears of telling people about God’s love and inviting them to church:

  • First, we never do anything without God’s presence and care. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground, Jesus says, apart from our Father. That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen—sparrows do fall. But whether the person you tell about God’s love is delighted or offended, whether the person you invite comes to church or runs the other way, you are still in the shadow of God’s love. Do not be afraid.

  • Second, Jesus says, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before the Father in heaven.” I know Jesus loves us whether we’ve done well or failed miserably; forgiveness and mercy are his trademark. But isn’t your heart hungry to acknowledge him? Don’t you long for others to know the forgiveness and mercy that you know? Sharing and inviting is one of the things Jesus calls every disciples to do. Fearful or not, I want to say ‘yes’ to Jesus.

 

When Fred Craddock was a boy back in the 1930s his family lived near a railroad tracks. Fred remembers a number of mornings waking up and going into the kitchen for breakfast, and there’d be a strange, ill-kempt, poorly dressed man at the table eating.  He was scared of them.  So one morning when such a man left, he said, “Mom, who was that?”

She said, “Well, his name was Henry, and he said he was hungry.”

“Where’d he come from?”

“He came down the railroad tracks, honey,” she explained. Some people call them ‘hobos.’  They walk the tracks doing odd jobs, begging, whatever they can to stay alive.”

“But Mama,” Fred insisted, “weren’t you scared?”

She said, “Well, he’s hungry.”

“But I was scared!”

“Well, he’s hungry.”2

Fred remembered his mother’s lesson the rest of his life. What is our fear when one of God’s children is hungry?  What is our fear when a neighbor needs to know Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness?  What is our fear when a child needs Vacation Bible School, when someone is lonely or despairing and needs a church family, or has gifts and skills and nowhere to offer them?  That’s why Jesus said it not once, not twice, but three times: Have no fear of them, Do not fear, So do not be afraid.

 

1 Susan R. Garrett, “Matthew 10:24-33,” From Text to Sermon, Interpretation 47/2 (April 1993), 166-69.

2 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 109.

 

 

Acts 2:1-21

Made to Live with Authority

June 4, 2017            Maple Grove UMC

 

            The leader of Maple Grove’s “Invitation Team” is Don Ackerman.  He’s a husband and father of two young sons, he’s a seminary student up at Methesco, and he teaches military science at Capital University.  He’s in Kentucky for several weeks this summer training 600 cadets, but before he left he gave me some marching orders about the scriptures for today and next Sunday.  Acts 2 reports that on the day of Pentecost, 3000 welcomed the message about Jesus and were baptized.  A church Invitation Team has a natural interest in a story like that!

            On Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell upon Peter and the other disciples.  Note that the Spirit didn’t cause them to know Jesus—they already knew Jesus.  Neither did the Holy Spirit cause them to love Jesus—they already loved Jesus.  But even though they already knew and loved Jesus, they didn’t feel worthy or authorized to tell anyone about Jesus and his love.  After all, the last time we saw the disciples, they’d been busy deserting and denying Jesus.  And now they were stuck inside, keeping Jesus and his love to themselves. 

            On Pentecost, all that changed.  The Holy Spirit came and the fisherman Peter told about Jesus as if he’d been doing it all his life.  And all the believers went out and told about God’s deeds of power in ways that everyone could understand. 

            And once this sharing got started, there was no stopping it.  3000 people came to Jesus just that day and it went on from there.  The secret is in the sharing and inviting, and the Spirit authorizes believers to do exactly that. 

            So as the Holy Spirit falls on us this Pentecost day, what will we share about Jesus?  And with whom will we share?  You’ll find in your bulletin a card on which to write what you can share.  After all, you are the world’s leading expert in your own experience of Jesus and his church—that’s all you have to share.  The card is intentionally small.  You don’t have to write an essay—just share a sentence or two.

            And who is the best person for you to tell about Jesus and his love?  Your parents?  Your kids or grandkids?  Your hair dresser?  Neighbor?  Someone going through grief or loss?  A couple getting married or having a child?  Write down that person’s name and begin to pray for the right opportunity to share.  And by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are authorized to share and invite!

 

John 17:1-11, 20-23

And Jesus, Still Up There Praying

May 28, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

A friend told me this story. In the church where he grew up a retired pastor, Rev. Johnson, from time to time would be called upon to deliver the pastoral prayer.  He'd always been known for his, uh, stamina when praying.  But the older Rev. Johnson got, the longer he prayed, until one time, he just didn't stop.  He prayed so long that people opened their eyes and checked their watches.  Those with lunch plans started to file out.  Everyone else looked at the pastor, wondering what to do.  Finally, the pastor motioned for everyone to move downstairs for coffee time, signaling them to be quiet so as not to disturb Rev. Johnson’s marathon praying.  As fellowship time was wrapping up, someone asked, "Hey, where's Rev. Johnson?"  Someone ran upstairs and reported, "He's still up there praying!"   To which the pastor, knowing of much trouble and many needs in his congregation, replied, "Oh, thank goodness!" 

 

John 17 is the end of what Bible scholars call this gospel’s "Farewell Discourse." In chapters 14, 15 and 16, Jesus teaches and prepares the disciples for his departure, and he concludes this Farewell Discourse by praying for them--for all of chapter 17 he prays for them.  We only read part of it here this morning.  And for all we know, John 17 may be just a summary of all that Jesus actually prayed; he may have gone on as long as Rev. Johnson.  The disciples may have eventually filtered out of the room, checked their phones, got a snack.  Until one of them thought to ask, "Hey, where's Jesus?"  Someone went back to the upper room to check:  "He still up there's praying."  To which the disciples, if they had any sense, must have replied, "Oh, thank goodness!" 

At a time of change and stress, when the disciples probably didn’t even know what to pray for, they got to overhear Jesus praying for them. And at a time of change and stress, when we may not know exactly how to pray, through John’s gospel we got to overhear Jesus praying for us.  In John 17 Jesus prays for three things:

  1. First he prays for his own glorification, which may sound like a selfish prayer, until you remember that in John’s gospel Jesus’ glorification refers to his death. He prays for the completion of what he came to do on the cross, which gave God glory and eternal life to those who believe.

  2. In verse 9 Jesus begins to pray for the disciples—for them to be protected and sanctified, for them to be sent out to the world even as Jesus had been sent to them. Whether they knew it yet or not, they would desperately need this prayer.

  3. And finally, starting in verse 20, Jesus prays for those who would believe in him because of the disciples’ ministry, that is, for future Christians—that is, even for us. And what he prays for future believers is that they—that we--might be one, even as he and the Father are one.

         Jesus finishes his prayer, and immediately soldiers arrive and his glorification begins. Yet in a way, Jesus never finishes that prayer. Romans 8:34 tells of Jesus “who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” In other words, where is Jesus now? Well, he’s still up there praying for us. To which we can only say, thank goodness!

     

         The four gospels each remember and tell different things about Jesus, depending on what was going on in the time and place where that gospel was written. One of the things going on when John was written was conflict.1 Three times John refers to believers being kicked out of their synagogues. Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus must have felt like the Christians had changed too much, gone too far. And Jews who did believe in Jesus must in turn have felt judged and excluded by the others. What’s more, it turns out that within the first couple of generations, even those who did believe in Jesus didn’t believe in him in quite the same way. What was in one sense all God’s people became in practice divided factions. And in the midst of that conflict, what John remembered was Jesus praying, asking God that they might all be one. “Where’s Jesus now?” John’s people wondered. And the answer is: “Still up there praying.” Thank goodness!

     

         Now we are in one of those times of conflict again. The United Methodist Church has formed a “Commission on a Way Forward,” to see if we can even stay together as one church. And in many ways it would be easier to come apart. I’m certainly ready to be part of a denomination that doesn’t try to tell me who can and can’t be members, or who can and can’t get married. But then I think of my friend, Rev. Robert Sieh from Liberia in Africa, who will be here at Maple Grove next Sunday. I suspect he and I are on different sides of most of the issues dividing our church. Yet I very much want to be part of the same church with him, and I know I can be one with him. Here’s what Jesus prayed, “that they may be completely one”—why? “so that the world[, Father,] may know that you have sent me.” More than our own convictions are at stake, as important as they are. Not our agreement, but our oneness is our witness to the world to the truth of Christ.

     

         And that conflict that is national and global is felt right here at Maple Grove. I hear from angry people on the left and from disgruntled people on the right. I hear from people who are discouraged that things haven’t changed faster and from others who can’t endure one more change. And in the midst of that, I’ve got my own thoughts and feelings.

         The temptation when conflict arises is to do something, quickly, decisively—to kick out those who make us uncomfortable, to create a policy against those we disagree with, or to just not talk about certain things. Not that there isn’t anything to do. At the invitation of one church member I’m reading a book about politics from a perspective not my own—it’s good to do that. Our young adults are having a “conversation circle” this Friday, not to argue or debate but just to listen to one another. Staff-Parish Relations chair, Lynne Matthaes, and I have strategized about ways to bring people together and overcome divisions.

         But the first thing to do about conflict is not to do anything at all. It is to step back and let Jesus do what he does. And where is Jesus? He’s still up there praying for us. Thank God!

     

         He’s saying:

  • Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

  • As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

  • The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.

     

         Where’s Jesus in these trying times? He’s still up there praying. Thank goodness. Thank goodness.

     

    1Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, i-xii, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), LXVII-LXXVI.

 

 

THE SPIRITUALITY OF A YOUNG MOTHER

BETH DONAHEY

When Pastor Glenn asked me to to speak today on the spirituality of being a mother, I was reminded of God’s timely sense of humor. That particular Friday was the end of a particularly rough week of parenting, with most days resulting in both my 2 year old son and I on the floor crying. Spiritual was the last word I would have used to describe motherhood.

 

When I was younger, I thought that motherhood was something that just came naturally - when a woman became a mom, she would gain these insights and instincts, knowing exactly what to do and when to do it. My own mother’s actions didn’t support my theory, however, and I grew up determined to prove to myself I was not like her. I would be a better mom than she was. I don’t recommend this being the basis for having a child, by the way. 

 

I did follow in my mother’s footsteps in certain areas of my life. As some of you may remember from the cardboard testimonies a few months back, I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. 3 and a half years ago, when I first began my journey of recovery, was when my heart was really first opened to the idea that a relationship with God was still possible, though I was hesitant to believe it. I felt that I had sinned so greatly, had fallen so far down that even God couldn’t reach me. Then, at 6 months of soberiety, I became pregnant and came to know, and fully believe that God still loved me. When Sterling was born, and really for the first year of his life, I could see God in him everyday. He radiated with God’s love and grace, his innocence and sweet demeanor reminded me daily of God’s presence in my life. 

 

Today, my son is 2…. Which brings me back to the fact that spiritual is not the first word that comes to mind when describing my role as his mother. Fearful, worrisome, guilty and shameful are the words I would choose to use. Every day I worry if I am doing all the right things as a mother, if I am doing more good than harm in his development, or if I am just grooming a future serial killer. I feel guilty for the days when all I have to give my son is love because I am too tired to chase him around or take him to the park. I feel shame for the moments that I lose my temper, and allow my frustrations to take over. 

 

Mothering is hard. And every day, I feel like I’m failing at it. But in those brief moments, in between the rushing around, cooking, cleaning, and tantrums, when I am able to sit back and just allow my son to be 2 years old, and witness the miracle of his existence, I am reminded of God’s love and grace. Despite my imperfections, despite my flaws and screw ups, God chose me to be Sterling’s mom.

 

If there are any mothers here today who have felt like I do, who most days are just praying to make it to bed time, you are not alone. You are a good mother! You are doing a wonderful job with your children, whether parenting books or "experts" agree with your style of parenting or not. We are human, we are not perfect. We make, and will continue to make mistakes in our roles as mothers. Despite all of this, God loves us anyway.

 

TRIBUTE TO A GRANDMOTHER

JEFF CORCORAN

 

My name is Jeff Corcoran, and to you, the 8:30 service, I am the person who stole Judy and Willard Becker from you.  For 63 years, they attended the 8:30 service.  In January 2015, when I wanted to return to church, I called up Grandma and asked what time she went to Maple Grove.  She responded 8:30am.  There was a pause.  I asked if there was a later service.  She informed me there was, and we’ve been attending the late service ever since.  

Grandma likes to tell everyone that she switches services every 63 years, so you can look forward to her return to this service at this ungodly hour in 2078. 

 

But in all seriousness, I’m here to talk about what led to that call in January 2015.  I wasn’t raised Methodist, so the question naturally arises, why would I call Grandma about attending her church, a church that wasn’t even particularly close to where I was living at the time.  The answer is rather simple: I was drawn to her inclusive, loving faith. 

 

You see, I was raised in an exceptionally devout Catholic family.  And although I have nothing but respect for the Catholic Church, if Catholicism were the only form of Christianity, I would probably still be wandering through a spiritual wilderness as either an atheist or an agnostic.  I have a hard time accepting that the bulk of the 5 billion unbaptized, non-Christian individuals in this world are destined to an eternity in hell.  This was always a sticking point for me, but it became even more of a sticking point when I married into a wonderful Hindu family.

 

Grandma Becker’s faith is different.  She believes that God speaks to different people in different ways.  In her view of the world, God is at the top of a mountain, and individuals from other faiths are just taking different paths to get there.  To Grandma, all we need to know about God can be summed up in three words: “God is love.”  These three words capture her entire belief system, and to her, to live as a Christian means to follow the law of love and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

There is no shortage of support for Grandma’s three-word philosophy in the Bible.  In Matthew 22:37-39, we’re told that Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God and your neighbor as yourself.  The other two synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, contain similar statements, and in John chapter 13, we’re told that Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: to love another as he loved them.  In Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:9, Paul tells us that the entire law is summed up in one commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.  

 

Furthermore, Grandma does not just recite her three-word principle; she lives it.   The love and peace of God permeate all of her relationships, and numerous people here at Maple Grove have told me that she’s touched their lives.  Because of the strength and simplicity of her faith, her life is all but free from the anxiety that burdens the rest of us.  Her house is blessed with an almost supernatural tranquility; it’s probably the best place in the world to take a nap. 

 

What is more, to Grandma, when you go too far beyond this basic three-word principle, you often create problems.  And I’m no church historian, but I think she might be right.  Over the last two centuries, the Church has been ripped apart over issues like whether the Holy Spirit proceeds for both the Father and the Son rather than just the Father and whether Christians should practice infant or adult baptism. 

 

Do these issues really matter?  My opinion is that they don’t.  Because I know what my Grandma taught me, which is that God is love.  And there really isn’t any reason to make it more complicated than that.  

 

THE MOTHER HEART OF GOD

SUSAN BOURQUARD

When asked if I would be willing to speak on Mother’s Day about the Mother heart of God, I immediately responded with a very affirmative yes. My entire spiritual foundation is built upon the kindness, gentleness, patience and grace of God’s tender heart. Most of my spiritual growth has evolved from the emotional deficits within me. How that connects to what I’ve experienced about God’s compassionate heart will be explained as my story continues. I will digress briefly before explaining my experience.

While preparing for today’s talk, I did some research concerning what others have to say about the character traits that constitute an emotionally healthy, responsible and caring mom. Of course the Internet is full of all sorts of ideas. They range from: She does not neglect her children’s needs, views herself as a role model for her kids, supports her kids simply by being there, but also by using words as a form of encouragement, to letting her kids know she will always be there for them even when they are older.

Then I wondered what folks who are known as “experts” on parenting had to say.

In his book, Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Siegel states, “The way we communicate with our children has a profound impact on how they develop. Our ability to have sensitive, reciprocal communication nurtures a child’s sense of security, and these trusting secure relationships help children do well in many areas of their lives. It is through the sharing of feelings that we create meaningful connections.” Virginia Satir, author and social worker who is known as “The Mother of Family Therapy” states, “Every word, facial expression, gesture or action on the part of a parent gives the child some message about self worth.” She also reiterates, “So much is asked of parents and so little is given.” In thinking through preparation for today’s talk, a childhood experience came to my mind that I hadn’t thought about in years. I call those moments small miracles. When I was around 13 years old, my mother and I were asked to give the toast to mothers and daughters at our church’s Mother Daughter Banquet. I remember a few lines from a poem I read that was a part of my toast: An ideal Mother is devotion in a starched apron, (that was the 50’s when women starched everything and actually wore aprons), Truth with a Bible in her hand, Wisdom with a smile on her face and Love with an unselfish heart.

My Mother, who passed in 1994, struggled emotionally. She did an amazing job of caring for her family while living with huge amounts of emotional pain. In addition to managing her own issues, she had the trial of being married to a functional emotionally disturbed alcoholic man who was unfaithful to the marriage. He died at the age of 51 when I was 18 years old. She was often sad and frustrated by all that life required of her. These struggles sometimes prevented her from unintentionally being emotionally available to her family. As I reflect on her pain, I believe she had difficulty being a loving and nurturing presence to herself. Consequently, it was understandably very difficult for her to be that to her children. I came out of my home uncertain about my own value and worth and feeling very insecure about my place in life. I am not casting blame for the struggles I battled. I realized it was and is up to me as an adult to pursue healing and to take responsibility for my mental and spiritual growth.

When I was in my early thirties, I began to question the meaning and purpose of everything. It was a pivotal time of emotional pain and spiritual seeking. God provided answers as well as solutions for the emotional deficits that plagued my spirit. I felt very alone and forgotten. I read in I Peter 5:7 something that to me, reflected the gentle Mother heart of God, “Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” This scripture helped me realize that God wanted to carry my heartache because I am loved by Him. Author Wm. Paul Young is often quoted as saying, “God is especially fond of you.” Life did not as a child and sometimes now as an adult feel emotionally safe. I have come to understand from wise counselors that a chaotic home can be at the heart of an individual not feeling safe emotionally. God’s gentle Mother heart promises safety in Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you, Be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” That verse convinces me of the soothing nurturing heart of God that basically says I hold every part of your life. It communicates I will give you all you need and I am here to make it all okay. Isn’t that what every child of any age needs to hear? Psalm 27:10 also gives me an insight into God’s compassionate heart. “When my father and my mother forsake me, Then the Lord will take care of me.” Psalm 31:7 is an example of God caring about feelings. King David said to God, “I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction, you have known the distress of my soul.” I love thinking about God creating me for himself. That is so unconditional, it is graceful and very opposite a performance based perspective. He loves me just because I was created. Sometimes I felt loved only if my behavior measured up to certain standards. There isn’t anything I want to do to intentionally displease God, knowing how unconditionally I am loved. My imperfection is covered in grace because He knows the motivation of my heart. Colossians 1:16 tells us, “Everything was created by him, everything in heaven and on earth, everything seen and unseen, including all forces and powers, and all rulers and authorities. All things were created by God’s Son, and everything was made for him.” Knowing God created me for himself gives me my true foundation and identity as a human being. Lastly, I will close with one of my favorite very meaningful Bible verses, Isaiah 49:14-16 – verses that were previously read this morning. I feel as though it beautifully depicts the tender and gentle Mother heart of God. Zion  says, “The Lord has abandoned me; the Lord has forgotten me!”  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the child of her womb?   Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you.  Look, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luke 24:13-35

Into My Heart

April 30, 2017               Maple Grove UMC

 

Into my heart, into my heart,

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

Come in today, come in to stay.

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

 

          Today's gospel reading is about a journey. It’s presented as a journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  But hard as they’ve tried, scholars have never identified a place called ‘Emmaus.’  Which means, I think, that Luke is not reporting a literal journey, but a spiritual journey.  The journey to Emmaus is a journey from the head to the heart.                  

There’s a difference between hearing about the resurrection and experiencing it, a great difference between knowing about the resurrection and being changed by it. Before Jesus came and walked with them, the two disciples had already heard all about the resurrection.  The women had told them about angels who said Jesus was alive.  Other disciples had confirmed what the women described.  But this knowledge did not pull the two men out of their despair.  Resurrection comes not when the story is apprehended by the mind, but when it penetrates the heart.

          When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was in his mid-30s, he was already an ordained priest, he’d been a professor of New Testament, he’d served as a parish pastor and been a missionary to America. He knew more about the faith we ever will.  And yet he was restless, unhappy.  Until one evening in 1738 Wesley wrote in his journal, "I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”1 After years of preaching and teaching, the gospel had made its way from Wesley’s head to his heart.

 

          The two disciples had also heard the good news, but they too remained restless and unhappy. Not until they had walked with the risen Christ, not until he had opened the Scriptures to them, not until they had been at Table with him, did it sink in. Looking back, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us" while he was with us?  Burning hearts—that’s how you know that Jesus is real.  A burning heart--that’s how new life and hope are born.

          And yet we often guard our hearts for all we’re worth. Wesley kept Christ at arm’s length for 35 years.  It’s far easier for me to talk about Jesus than to place my own heart in his hands.  Don Ackerman attends Maple Grove with his young family.  He teaches ROTC at Capital University, and kind of like a chaplain he gathers ROTC students each week at his home for fellowship and Bible tudy.  "College students love Bible study," he told me."  But he went:  "Yeah, they're always up for studying the Bible with their minds.  What they don't want to do is engage their hearts.  They don't want to let God change their lives."  The longest journey in the world, they say, is the eighteen inches from the head to the heart. 

 

Yet even so those two disciples found themselves with burning hearts, the presence of Christ so real it couldn't be denied. We may guard against that, yet it's also what we most deeply long for.  And sometimes it happens--Christ comes crashing through and our hearts burn within us.  On the one hand, whenever this fire happens, it's always God's doing, not our own—we can't make it happen.  But on the other hand, there are ways of "stoking the fire."2 So if you, too, long to have a burning heart, to feel the life-changing presence of Christ, here are three ways of stoking the fire.

  1. Practice hospitality to strangers. The two disciples had arrived at their destination. This man they'd been traveling with was, they thought, a perfect stranger. And he seemed to have somewhere else to go. But to their credit, they said to this stranger, "Come on, stay with us. It's getting late." And so it was they came to eat with, to spend the evening with . . . none other than the risen Lord.

In this age of suspicion and fear, how reluctant we are to invite strangers in. How hard it is, after a certain age, to make new friends.  Yet what if the stranger we fear and suspect is none other than Jesus come to change our lives?  What if it takes a new friend to set our hearts on fire?  One way of stoking the fire is to practice hospitality.  You just never know which stranger may be Jesus.

  1. A second way of stoking the fire is to acknowledge your brokenness. When someone says, "How are you?", you're supposed to assume they don't really want to know. Right? You're supposed to smile and say, "Fine, thanks." But of course we're not fine, not always. So when Jesus met these two forlorn disciples and said, "How you doing?", they broke the rules. They told him how they were doing, at great length, all of it was sad. And their brokenness was Jesus' way in to their hearts. He was known to them, Luke says, not in toughness or strength, but in the breaking of bread. Our brokenness is Jesus' way into our hearts. Acknowledge it and he can heal it.

  2. One more: Jesus engages those two disciples in what we would call worship—he opens the Scriptures with them and joins them at Table in what amounts to Holy Communion. Word and Table—worship--are the ways we know come to know Christ. Oh, I'm painfully aware that worship doesn't always touch every heart. But one thing is for sure: wherever two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is there, and any road can be the Emmaus road, the road to an open heart.

There are words we say when we come to the Table:

"The Lord be with you," I say.

And you respond, "And also with you."

And then I say, "Lift up your hearts."

And you say, "We lift them up to the Lord."

So let's try it. Not only say it, but do it: My friends, lift up your hearts: We lift them up to the Lord. And again, My friends, lift up your hearts: We lift them up to the Lord.

 

If you long for the fire of Jesus, then you've got to take the journey from the head to the heart: practice hospitality to strangers, let him know your brokenness and pain, and lift up your heart.  I want to bring the screen down now, and suggest two other ways to stoke the fire of Christ.  Let's sing together the little prayer with which I started this sermon:  into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart Lord Jesus.  Come in today, come in to stay, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.  And then I want you to hear about a spiritual retreat, open to all, called The Walk to Emmaus.  Ready to sing?

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley, accessed 4/28/17.

2 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Heartfelt: Finding Our Way Back to God (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 148-53.

 

Matthew 28:1-10

Fear Not!

April 16, 2017     Easter Sunday     Maple Grove UMC

 

          Here are some words from today’s Gospel reading that you might not expect to be part of the Easter story:  Don’t be afraid.  I mean, if ever there was a time when you shouldn’t have to tell people not to be afraid, you’d think Easter morning would be that time.  But here’s the angel telling them, “Don’t be afraid.”  And five verses later, the risen Jesus himself appears to them, and he has to say it again: “Don’t be afraid.” 

          What does it mean that even an angel of good news, that even the risen Christ himself, have to tell people not to be afraid? Surely it says something about the depth, the persistence of fear in our lives.  Over the past several weeks at Maple Grove, we’ve been studying and pondering how to overcome fear with faith.  We heard Jesus tell us not to worry, to let each day’s trouble be enough for that day.  We heard the Bible insist that hospitality, not fear, guide our treatment of strangers and foreigners.  Perfect love, 1 John says, cast out fear—the goal is to be so filled with love that there’s just no room left in our hearts for fear.  And when afraid, we can always hang on to God, who’s got the whole world in his hands.  Yes, we have been learning, but so deep and persistent is our fear, that even in the presence of the risen Christ, the message has to be “Don’t be afraid!”

 

          I had a seminary professor who gave one entire lecture on things not to say to troubled souls.  I don’t remember them all, but one was, “Never say, ‘I know just how you feel.’”  No you don’t, he said.  You can be sympathetic, but don’t pretend your experience is the same as someone else’s.  Another was, “Don’t say, ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.’”  That may or may not be true, but it sure doesn’t help someone who feels overwhelmed.  And, he said, never ask someone, “What’s the worst that could happen?”  Because, he said, sometimes it does.

          What’s the worst that could happen? What if someone had asked that of the women who followed Jesus, a week before Easter?  I doubt they could even have imagined anything as bad as what actually happened.  Within days Jesus would be arrested, put on trial, brutally mocked, crucified and sealed in a tomb.  And for their part, the disciples would desert and deny him.  That’s the worst that could happen, and then some.

          Yet in spite of all of that, here’s the good news of the Easter story: On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life!

          On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Now, this doesn’t mean that life goes back to just the way it was before the worst happened.  That’s not how it was for the disciples and the women who followed Jesus.  They had amazing new life, but not the same old life. 

          On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.  It also doesn’t mean that this new life will be without stress or trouble.  In an article about the gospel for survivors of abuse and trauma, Shelly Rambo teaches that even after the resurrection, life can remain difficult.1 This also was true for the disciples and these women.  They would themselves face persecution and disbelief, the churches they founded would go through tension and division.  Life was new, but often difficult.  Maybe that's why, in verse 8, Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly, he says, with "fear and great joy."  Not either fear or great joy, but somehow both at the same time.

On the one hand, too many redemption stories are all joy and no fear. "My life was rotten," goes this kind of testimony, "full of sin and sorrow.  Then I found Jesus, and ever since all my troubles are gone!"  Pardon me if that just doesn't ring true.  Don't get me wrong.  I have new life in Christ—thank God, I do.  I've also still got my share of troubles.  How about you?  Resurrection isn’t an end to troubles; it’s new life in the midst of troubles.

On the other hand, too many people's stories are all fear and no joy. Yeah, life may always be difficult.  But if Christ is risen—and he is!--then fear and negativity don’t have to control our behavior.  A new power has been unleashed in our lives—the power of love, the power of forgiveness, and trust in the goodness of God.  After all, on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.

 

Here's another piece of the story: Jesus didn't just tell the women not to be afraid, he also gave them something to do.  He said, "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee—I’ll meet them there."  Having something to do makes us feel less afraid, like we're part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  And the mission hasn't really changed since that first Easter.  The mission Jesus gave the women, the mission Jesus gives the church today, is to go and tell, to bear witness that on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. 

But in some ways, I think those women had it easier than we do. All they had to say was, "Jesus is risen!" and everyone said, Really? He's alive again—that's amazing!  It was new news to them.  Try saying "Jesus is risen" to someone today--they'll probably yawn and mumble, "Uhh, yeah, I've heard that."  It's not that people haven't heard it before; you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's never heard that Jesus rose from the dead.  It's that they've never really heard it, haven't seen how it matters to them.  They haven't made the connection between Jesus being risen from the dead and not having to live such fearful lives. 

And what is that connection? What might we go and tell people that would change their lives, the way what the women had to say changed the disciples' lives?

  • Well, we could go and tell people Easter means that God has power over death. Not that we won't die—we all die, even Jesus died. But God still has power over death. Back in 2008 I had three funerals during Holy Week, one of them for a 27 year-old man who was murdered and one for a baby that lived just two hours. The following week I had the funeral of a 40 year-old wife and mother of two, one of my best friends in all the world. Since I've been pastor of Maple Grove, I have officiated at 76 more funerals. Death is, in many cases, the worst that can happen. If I did not believe in my heart that God has power over death, I couldn't do all those funerals. I'd give up. Maybe you, too, know someone who is surrounded by sorrow and death, weighed down by a grief that will not shake. Well, maybe you could tell them our news. It won't give them their same old life back, of course, and it won't mean a new life without trouble. But it is quite a piece of good news—that in raising Jesus from the dead, God has power over death. On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Fear not!

  • Or how about this: go tell people Easter means their story is never over. The women came that morning expecting only to tend to Jesus' body. They thought that with his death, his story, and their story with him, were over, that theirs had been a noble effort, but evil had won again. But their story was not over. In fact, he told them to go to Galilee to start a whole new chapter. Do you know anyone who thinks their story is over? When a spouse or child dies, it feels like your story is over. When you lose your job or don't get into the school you dreamed of, it feels like your story is over. When you have to move to a nursing home, or when friends turn again you, or things just change too much, it feels like your story is over. But Easter means that the story is never over. No, it won’t be the same old story you used to have. It may not be an easy story. But it isn't over. If God can raise Jesus from the dead, who knows what God can do for you? On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. So fear not!

  • One more: go and tell people that Jesus wants to meet up with his brothers. Did you hear that word, 'brothers,' in the story? The angel tells the women, "Go and tell his disciples." But Jesus says, "Go and tell my brothers . . ." Why is that important? Remember what just happened with the disciples. Despite Jesus pleading with them to stay awake in Gethsemane, they all fell asleep. Out of fear, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. And they all turned away and deserted him at the cross. Yet when he comes back, Jesus doesn't say, "Go and tell those dirty rats . . ." He doesn't say, "Go and tell those former friends of mine." He doesn't even say, "Go and tell my disciples . . ." He says, "Go and tell my brothers." As one writer has put it, Jesus didn't come back to judge anyone. He returned to gather his family.2

Do you know anyone who may feel guilty or like they’ve failed in some way? Do you know anyone who has trouble holding their head up or looking you in the eye?  Do you know anyone in desperate need of some family of one kind or another?  Well, go and tell them that in the Easter community, no one is turned away and all are more than welcome.  Because the risen Jesus comes back to gather his family.  On the other side of the worst that can happen—loneliness, failure, shame--God gives no life.  So fear not!

 

Never ask anyone, my professor warned, "What's the worst that can happen?" Because sometimes, he said, it does.  That's why I want so much for you to take this Easter message with you today:  On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives no life.  So fear not!

 

1 Shelly Rambo, “Spirit and Trauma,” Interpretation, 69/1 (January 2015), 7-19.

2 Frederick Niedner, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (March 11, 2008), 21.

 

Matthew 26:36-46

Praying Through Fear

April 14, 2017      Good Friday         Maple Grove UMC

 

          I grew up in a church where the big stained glass window was ofure of Jesus praying in Gethsemane.  His body was gray, his face had an anguished expression, and to my child’s eyes it always appeared that a sharp rock was poking him in the side as he prayed.  You’d think I’d have grown accustomed to this Bible story.  But I have not.  It’s a shock every time I hear about Jesus in Gethsemane—about Jesus throwing himself on the ground, about him repeatedly pleading with God to avoid the cup of death, about his friends not being able to stay awake with him even one hour, how Matthew says that Jesus was grieved, even unto death.  It’s still a shock to me.  It’s kind of like seeing your parents being afraid for the first time.  You mean, even you get scared, Jesus?  Yeah, even I get scared.

 

          I want to share two ways the story of Jesus in Gethsemane can help us address our fearfulness.  One is this:  not even Jesus tried to face his fear alone.  He took with him to Gethsemane all of the disciples and asked them to sit nearby while he prayed.  And he took three of them—Peter, James and John—a little ways apart and asked them to stay near him, to stay awake, while he prayed.  I know that they all fell asleep.  But they were there.  Not even Jesus tried to face his fear alone.

          After our daughter Rachel was born, Carolyn had emergency surgery for internal bleeding.  The surgeon came out just for a moment and I asked him, “Doctor, is she going to be all right?”  And he said, “If she makes it through tonight, she’ll probably be okay.”  And then I just sat there in a waiting room, no one else around, for hours.  I tried to pray but I couldn’t really.  I’d never been so scared.  Finally, I knew what to do.  I called Laurie Clark.  I don’t know where she was or what she was doing.  Maybe she was already in bed.  But she came to Riverside Hospital, and sat with me, and prayed for us, and after a while I began to feel like I could face it. 

          Whatever it is that you are afraid of, you do not have to face it alone.  Not even Jesus tried to face his fears alone.

 

          Here is the other thing I want to say about how Jesus in Gethsemane can help us face our fears:  prayer is one of the ways God gets us through our fear.  You might even say that fear is the way God gets us through our fear.  Ann Lamott wrote:  “courage is fear that has said its prayers”1 One kind of prayer is asking God for things, telling God what we want and need.  Jesus did that: “Father,” he prayed, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”  Surely we all do that:  God, heal my mother’s cancer; God, keep my son sober; God, keep our family together. 

          But there is another kind of prayer—simply asking God to be with us if we don’t get what we want, praying for strength to do whatever we have to do.  Jesus prayed this prayer too: “yet not what I want, [God,]but what you want.”  This can be seen as submitting one’s will to God’s, and maybe it is—I know some people struggle with that idea.  But for sure, it is praying that the relationship with God go on, that God will continue to be our loving Father, even if the worst happens.  And that prayer is always granted.

          In our Lenten study book, Rabbi Kushner says:  “When I pray, I don’t think of myself as asking God to intervene and change things.  I pray because invoking God’s presence helps me to feel less alone.”  Martin Buber said, “When we pray, we don’t ask God for anything.  We ask God for God.”2 We don’t often get around what we’re afraid of; Jesus didn’t.  By we can get through what we’re afraid of--and we don’t have to do it alone, and we do it by praying.

          In one sense at the end of the story of Jesus in Gethsemane, nothing has changed:  Jesus is still going to die.  But in another sense, everything has changed:  Jesus is now prepared to die.  He had prayed his way through his fears. 

 

          Not even Jesus had to face his fears alone.

          And even Jesus had to pray his way through his fear.

          I expect those things apply to us as well.

 

 

1Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 239.

2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Book

John 12:12-15 / Psalm 46 / Psalm 27

When Afraid, Hold on to God

April 9, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

Here's what that first Palm Sunday was: a crowd of people, banding together to prepare for the week to come.  They didn't know it yet, but Jesus would soon be arrested and put on trial and hung on a cross to die.  They themselves would soon desert and deny him.  And the scripture John shares for Palm Sunday is this, from Zechariah: 

Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;

See, your king is coming.

 

Actually, the "do not be afraid" part is not in Zechariah, at least not the version we have today. Perhaps John added that, knowing it's what the disciples needed to hear, given all they were about to go through.

And here's what Palm Sunday is today: a crowd of people, banded together to prepare for the week to come.  And though, unlike the disciples, we do know how Holy Week will unfold, there is much that we don't know about this coming week, or any week—how that doctor's appointment will turn out, whether a loved one will stay sober, whether people will support us or turn against us.  And so we band together to prepare, we form a parade and wave palm branches, And we hear the scripture: "Do not be afraid!  See, your king is coming."

This banding together is so important. As hard as that next week was for the disciples, just think how it would have been if they hadn't had each other.  They did make it through that week, through Jesus' suffering and death and through their own failure, and together they became his powerful witnesses for Christ.  Scott Bader-Saye says that we "tend to lack courage just to the extent that we lack community.  As a community we can often bear risks together that we might be reticent to face alone."1 We all need someone to parade with, whether that's a literal or a metaphorical parade.  So here we are, the community of Christ, banding together to prepare for what lies ahead and to hear the message of the gospel:  "Do not be afraid."

 

At the end of his Palm Sunday story, John adds this: "At first his disciples did not understand all this.  Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him."  That's the way life is, isn't it?  As things are happening, it's hard to know what's going on—what you should and shouldn't do, what everything means, where God is in all of it.  Only later can we sometimes begin to piece all that together.  Which means that for the disciples on Palm Sunday, following Jesus required—here's a big word—TRUST.  They didn’t know where he would take them; they had to trust.  And for us today, courage and faith in this troubled word require—here's that big word again—TRUST.  Of course, it's one thing to trust Jesus on Palm Sunday when the crowds are cheering, the palm branches are waving and Jesus is right here.  It's another thing to trust him when the soldiers have come, and quite another when he's hanging on the cross.  The same is true for us.  It's one thing to trust God when there's money in the bank and everybody's healthy.  It's another thing to trust God when health fails and quite another when people you love fail and desert you.  I guess that's why they call it trust.

 

When it comes to trust, one of my go-to scriptures is Psalm 46, which we read together. I often read it for people as they prepare for surgery.  I share it at funerals.  I read it to myself when I'm afraid, and read it, and read it.  Psalm 46 expresses confidence and trust in the midst of various circumstances:  trouble (verse 1), change and natural disasters (verse 2), chaos (3) political upheaval (6) and even war (9).  Those may not be the only things there are to be afraid of.  But if we can have trust in the face of trouble, change, disaster, chaos, politics and war—we can probably have trust in almost any situation.

In the book we've been studying together this Lent, Rabbi Kushner names several other life situations where trust is hard to come by, but therefore all the more important:

  • Talking about a treatment plan with the oncologist

  • A congregation facing misfortune or division

  • Walking into your very first AA meeting

  • Your first day on a new job or at a new school.2

How do you find trust in God at times like that, when you need it most?  Well, turning to scripture, and especially to the psalms, is one great way to start.  Rabbi Kushner tells the story that on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Arab nations threatened to overrun Israel, one rabbi told his students, "This is a time of great danger.  Don't just sit there doing nothing.  Recite psams."3

In Psalm 27, the other psalm we read together this morning, the psalmist says three times in the first three verses that he is not afraid. I suspect the truth is that he was afraid, but was working on not being afraid.4 We tell ourselves, I am not afraid, not because it's already true; but in order to make it true.

In his commentary on Psalms, James Mays teaches that in ancient Israel Psalm 46 would have been sung responsively. A leader would have sung parts of the psalm, but the whole community would have sung together that "The Lord of hosts is with us!"  And again, a leader would have begun, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble," but the whole community would insist, "Therefore we will not fear!"  This psalm, in other words, is worship; it's liturgy by which worshipers learn to entrust our lives to the love and protection of God.5

So here today the liturgist said, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." And we responded "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change."  What I’m wondering is--was that really true, what we said?  That we will not fear.  Well, maybe not yet.  But keep saying it; give it time.  Worship is the way we learn to trust in God.

Here's something else James Mays says in his commentary, this time about Psalm 27: "Trust is nurtured and strengthened by the exercise and discipline of religion."  In other words, worship and singing together and daily devotions and praying for one another are the ways we learn to overcome fear with faith.  Trust in God, he says, "transforms mere anxiety [in]to prayer."  Let’s just keep saying it, so we can believe it more and more.

Rabbi Kushner says that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day in the Jewish year.7 It's a day for the faithful to articulate their most heartfelt hopes for the upcoming year and at the same time to acknowledge their deepest fears about what may be lurking in the future.  And Jews prepare for this Day of Atonement by adding a psalm to their daily morning and evening prayers—Psalm 27.  For forty days before Yom Kippur and for ten days after they recite twice a day,

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Now, is that really true for Jews preparing for Yom Kippur, that they’re not afraid? Well, maybe not, but they've got a hundred times to say it.  And if it doesn't quite become true this year, they'll say it again next year.  Trust is not something you have once and for all; it is something you learn, something you make true by liturgy, by repetition, by the discipline of turning anxiety into prayer.

 

Psalm 46 says, "Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult." It goes on, "God is in the midst[, in the center,] of the city; it shall not be moved."  In the midst of change and shaking, in the midst of roaring and trembling, there is something in the center that does not change, something solid to hold on to.  We call that something "God."   When afraid, you can hold on to God.

Overcoming fear with faith is about holding on to the God who does not change or tremble. Overcoming fear with faith comes from holding on to the God who’s got you and me, who’s got the whole world in his hands.  On your way out today, we're going to give you something literally to hold on to, something to remind you of the God who is at the center of it all, strong and able.  When everything else shakes and comes apart, you can hang on to God.

 

1 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 65.

2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 162-65.

3 Kushner, 16.

4  See Kushner, 162.

5 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 183.

6 Mays, 13

 

1 John 4:16b-21

Love Casts Out Fear

April 2, 2017             Maple Grove UMC

 

Here's how the great preacher William Sloan Coffin put it: "I am sure the Bible is right: the opposite of love,” he said, is not hate but fear."1

And here's how 1 John puts it: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."  I believe that with all my heart.  That said, I want to acknowledge that there is a relationship between fear and love.  Scott Bader-Saye points out that there is a sense in which love is actually born of fear.  We love something and therefore fear losing it.  And the more we love, the more we have to lose, and therefore the more we are subject to fear.  But this does not mean that fear is love.  Rather, Bader-Saye concludes, "fear is the shadow side of love."2

 

Fear is at the root of our worst behavior; fear is what can divide and separate us from one another. "You know what jealousy is, don't you?" asks Fred Craddock.  "It is fear of the loss of love.  Why are people greedy and . . . get as much as they can?  It is a fear, a fear of insecurity.  Why do children cheat at school?  A fear of failure.  Why does anybody tell a life?  A fear of punishment."3 We could go on.  Why do people drink?  Fear of feeling painful feelings.  Why do we criticize people whose ideas are different from ours?  Fear that we're not as right as we like to think.  And why do we reject and push others away?  Fear of being rejected and pushed away ourselves.  Fear is at the root of what we call sin; fear causes so much of our worst and most destructive behavior. 

Fear is also a deeply spiritual problem. “Fear,” writes James Martin, “is dangerous because it turns us away from God.”4 We’ll talk more about this next Sunday.  If we don’t have a fundamental trust that God will hold us and love us come what may, then we are always unsettled, tempted to see a threat in every situation and to take every matter into our own hands. 

Over the years, when I have failed to love well, it's usually fear that's been in the way. You know, I may look confident up here, on a good Sunday.  But a lot of times I fear that if people knew what I’m really like, they might not want to have anything to do with me.  And that fear is not unfounded.  So sometimes I keep people at a distance—to make sure they can't see what I'm really like.  The trouble is, across all that distance, it's pretty hard to love and be loved.  Fear gets in the way.

And there's a part of me that's afraid I haven't measured up, haven’t proven myself. And if I can't accomplish enough to feel good about myself, then I'm tempted to try to make myself feel better by bringing someone else down—by criticizing someone, trying to show someone up.  But it turns out that for some reason other people don't like that very well.  They don't find it loving.  Go figure.  Fear gets in the way.

 

If you read 1 John, it’s clear that it was written to a church under threat, going through a crisis. Heresy, oppression and division are some of the things they were experiencing.5 Given how stressed and frightened that church must have been, Will Willimon points out, it is all the more impressive that 1 John urged them not, ‘Be on guard!’ or ‘Defend yourselves!’ but rather [simply], Love!”6 Love one another; love the way God loves.  The answer to division and distress is not to strike back, not even to protect yourself, but to love all the more.  You’ll remember that Jesus commanded us to love not just those who agree with us, and not just those who are can disagree without being disagreeable.  We are commanded to love even those who act like enemies to us.  That may not be the answer we’re looking for, but it’s the only answer Jesus has.

 

There is no fear in love, 1 John says, but perfect love casts out fear. Let me think with you about what that means.

  • One thing that means is that if there is fear in a relationship, something other than love is going. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any love in the relationship; but if there’s fear, love isn’t all that’s going on. If you’re afraid of someone, it’s not love, no matter what he says or how much he apologizes. And if every single thing you do as a parent is to protect your child from harm rather than to help them grow or give them joy, then you’re parenting not out of love but out of anxiety. The same is true of our relationship with God. The “fear of the Lord” means being in awe of God, not being afraid of God--there is no fear in love. If you find yourself fearful in a relationship, stop and ask yourself what’s going on there that isn’t love.

  • Love is not a form of grasping or of holding on ever tighter, but a form of letting go. In The Phantom Menace, one of the Star Wars movies, Anakin Skywalker is being examined by the Jedi Council:

    Yoda: How feel you?

    Anakin: Cold, sir.

    Yoda: Afraid are you?

    Anakin: No, sir.

    Yoda: See through you we can.

    Mace Windu: Be mindful of your feelings.

    Ki-Adi-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.

    Anakin: I miss her.

    Yoda: Afraid to lose her I think, hmm?

    Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?

    Yoda: Everything! Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”7 When there is fear in our love, one teacher says, we “find ourselves unable to rejoice in the presence of what we love, because we are too afraid of losing it.”8 There is no fear in love, the Bible says, but perfect love casts out fear. The answer is not to strike back, not to defend ourselves or to hang on ever tighter to what we’ve got, but to love, to let go.

  • John Wesley taught the doctrine of “Christian Perfection.” To this day, United Methodist clergy are asked at our ordination if we’re “going on to perfection.” And we are meant to answer, “Yes, by the grace of God.” (Some of us have a very long ways to go!) By this he did not mean that Christians could be free from error or weakness or temptation. Nor did he mean perfection in the sense that no further improvement is possible. What he meant was that a Christian’s heart could become so filled with Christ’s love that increasingly there’s no room for anything else—no room for pride or resentment, no room for selfishness or impatience. When it comes to fear, the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away. May I say that again: the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away.

  • As a pastor, I’m privileged to have sacred conversations with people at critical times in their lives: when they’re getting married, when they’ve lost a loved one, when they’ve had a near-death experience. And never once in any of these conversations has anyone looked back at their life and said, “You know, Pastor, I just wish I’d been more scared.” No one has ever looked ahead and said, “You know, Pastor, from now on I want fear to run my life.” Oh, there’s an appropriate caution in life, of course. ‘Foolhardy’ was not what 1 John had in mind. But yes, love is risky. Yes, love for those who mistreat us is hard. Yes, love leaves us open to being hurt and taken advantage of. And yes, love is what makes life matter. To be filled with love is the only way to get beyond fear.

              Sam Wells tells a legend about John the Evangelist, who by tradition is the author of John’s Gospel, the book of Revelation, and the three letters of John. One of his followers came and spoke to him, “Master, why is it that you always write about love? Why don’t you ever write about anything else?” St. John paused for a long time, waiting for *his disciple to work out the answer for himself. Finally he answered the question. “Because,” he said, “in the end, there isn’t anything else. There is only love.”9

              If there is only love, there is no place for panic, no space for anxiety, no room for fear. I want to love like that! Don’t you?

     

1 William Sloan Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 27.

2 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 40.  See also 39-40, 58.

3 Fred B. Craddock, "Faith and Fear," The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 34.

4James Martin, “From Fear to Calm: Spiritual Direction on Stormy Waters,” The Christian Century (April 16, 2014), 33.

5See D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 18-21.

6 William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 11.

7 Quoted in Bader-Saye, 47.

8 Bader-Saye, 58.

9Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 30.

 

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