2018-6-17 “Harvest Time”

“Harvest Time”

A meditation based on Mark 4:26-34

June 17, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   We, in the 21st century, tend to be people of production!  We focus on bottom lines in budget reports, we seek detailed evaluations of actual events, we wait for final scores in sports match-ups, etc. etc.  We like producing.  Accomplishing.  Finishing a project.  Long ago, my sister and I—she a school teacher and me a minister—mused that for two people who have such strong needs for closure, how in the world did we end up in work that has little actual completion?! 

                   Yet, the work of ministry, the work of the Gospel—the work all of you do on a daily basis—is much more about process than about production.  To be sure, the church light bill needs to be paid on time, and there are repeating monthly events (like the beautiful Women’s Fellowship Tea this past week) events that come and go on the calendar.  Projects.  Accomplishments.  Time-specific aspects of church life.  Yet, listen closely to how people around here talk about such aspects and you’ll notice that the primary interest is in how the relationships swirled through an event…in other words, when it comes to being church, the process seems more significant than the product. 

                   The same is true when Jesus teaches the crowds on the hillside in today’s story and he compares the reign of God with the way a seed grows; that growth is a hidden and mysterious process.  Jesus says—and you can almost see him pick up a handful of seeds for effect—“the kingdom of God,” he says, “is like a bunch of seeds scattered on the ground that take root and grow under the watchful eye of the landowner…”  Jesus goes on.  “The kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that is planted and grows into a bush big enough to provide shelter and home for the birds…”  These agricultural images are repeated in other places in scripture,

where Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, the reign of God as more process than product. 

                   The parables we read today, however, are more than just good stories, more than simple useful illustrations to make things clearer.  Parables make us think, and think hard.  In our day, we tend to think in logical and rational ways, perhaps using the left side of our brain more than the right.  In contrast, parables exercise our right brains more, inviting our imagination to engage with our spirituality.  As we seek a deeper understanding and experience of the reign of God about which Jesus speaks, wouldn’t it surprise us if that reign of God has much more to do with the right brain than we have previously understood?

                   I remember years ago, preaching a sermon on the kingdom of God.  And, as often happens, my gestures became more and more dramatic.  As I said the words, “Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is at hand”—my own arm flung out in front of me, and I stopped up short.  Words aligned with gesture.  And in that moment, my eyes were opened to the truth that the kingdom of God is not some destination vacation spot for the good and the upright to go at the end of their earthly lives.  That’s not what Jesus is talking about when he talks about the reign of God.  The kingdom of God is right here.  Right now.  At hand.  Literally.  The kingdom of God of which Jesus teaches in this reading from Mark is an ongoing discovery of God’s presence and of God’s purposes in each and every one of our lives.  And, spoiler alert: awareness of that reign of God “at hand” requires more of our imagination than our logic, although both are helpful! 

                   Now let’s bring this message out of the clouds of imagination and into the tangible grasp of our everyday lives.  Today is Fathers Day.  And this congregation is blessed with a father figure in the person of Pastor Jim Donahoo.  Patiently, Jim listens to our concerns.  Joyfully, he celebrates our accomplishments.  Prayerfully, he responds and directs both our joys and our concerns to the One being who can truly address them all, One God, One Father, One Mother of us all.  This is the kingdom of God in action, through Pastor Jim.  For the kingdom of God is not destination, it is discovery of your growing relationship with the Divine.  And in his quiet, kind, compassionate, consistent and faithful way, Pastor Jim lives that kingdom in his relationships with each one of us.  I delight in telling the story of Pastor Freeman asking Jim, then in his 80s, to come on staff to work with the elders!  Fast forward 20 years—Jim was then 100 years old—and he was telling his own doctor he had to be released from the hospital so he could get back to work!  With Jim as a model of the persistence and presence of the kingdom of God, we could make our own parable this morning: the kingdom of God is like Pastor Jim rising 5 days out of 7 and being present in and for this church. 

                   Further, if we think about our own good good fathers—our own dads or, perhaps, other male figures from whom we’ve learned and grown—we can see more and more parables that show us the kingdom of God.  If you were creating your own parable about the kingdom of God—the reign of God as you see it—using your father or another father figure as the central character—what might you say?  Think about that for a moment.

                   But there is more…  Jesus may have been very intentional about using the little mustard seed as a model for the kingdom.  It seems that mustard is not only not a sweet little image, it’s not even a neutral image.  Jesus’ hearers would have been offended by his reference to mustard, because it was a ritual weed that they would never be caught planting.  Mustard was invasive, chaotic, uncontrollable and of no value in any respectable garden.  One scholar describes mustard as “an offense against Torah observance in a chaotic world.”  Yikes! 

The way Jesus talks about the shrub that grows from the tiny mustard seed may have reminded Jesus’ listeners of the great cedars of Lebanon in the Hebrew Scriptures: Ezekiel 17:22-24 speaks so beautifully of God taking a sprig from a mighty cedar, and planting it high on a

mountain so that it can produce fruit & become a home in its branches for birds of every kind. 

                   As Jesus uses these same words from the Hebrew scriptures describing majestic cedar trees, uses these words instead to talk about an invasive weed, it gives our imaginations pause. 

Maybe Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God appears in surprising, even shocking guises.  Maybe Jesus is teaching that the reign of God may be found in unlikely places and unexpected people.  Maybe Jesus is saying, jettison your expectations about the kingdom, clean the slate of your mind, so that you can receive the kingdom of God when it appears in whatever appearance.  Maybe Jesus is really saying, not only that the kingdom of God grows from small insignificant acts into life-altering events, but also that the reign of God is truly like a pesky plant in that it is tenacious.

                   And speaking of tenacious, we are coming to the end of the season of graduations, tenacious events for parents and graduates alike!  A few days ago, John and I attended the high school graduation of our honorary granddaughter Samantha.  She was in a graduating class of over 600 students, so as you can imagine, there were countless repetitions of “Pomp and Circumstance” and the large football stadium was filled to the brim with parents, grandparents, other family and friends.  We were alike: all waiting, anticipating, listening carefully for our special person’s name to be called.  With each name, came the explosion of hoorays, the confetti, the clapping and cheering, as together we all celebrated.  That spirit of celebration was contagious.  Such is the kingdom of God.  More process than product.  More discovery than destination.  And, in the case of the mustard seed…more out of control enthusiasm than contained!

                   Barbara Brown Taylor, a wonderful preacher and teacher in our day, talks about the “agricultural grace” we see in today’s biblical passage.  Gently, she reminds us of our anxiety amid uncertainty, as we live now “between the planting and the harvest.”  WE are in process, not yet produced.  Her sermon on this passage lists some of the symptoms of our anxiety, including perfectionism, driven-ness, moral outrage, restlessness, dread of being alone, and estrangement from God.  Barbara Brown Taylor claims that anxiety is “an occupational hazard of being a finite creature in a universe of infinite possibilities” and she suggests that we repent of our belief that we must work out our own salvation, on the one hand, and that, on the other hand, we are doomed to fail at that very task. 

                   You’ve seen that penchant in yourself.  The inner voice of it sounds something like this: “If only I take on one more church commitment, if only I help one more friend, if only I sign one more petition or march in one more protest or or or…and then the kingdom of God will be clearer to me.”  Sadly, we try to take on our own salvation, says Barbara Brown Taylor, then beat ourselves when we fail.  When that sort of anxiety is present, then what is absent “is faith…faith that God will be God, [faith] that the automatic earth will yield its fruit, [faith] that life can be trusted.”  Not people.  Not presidents or premiers or prime ministers.  But God.  Life.  These deserve our trust. 

                   The antidote to anxiety, then, is courage, courage that we choose over and over again, every day we awaken…and from that courage, because of that courage, with that courage, we scatter our seeds.  And we trust that some will actually root and grow!  Friends, that is what it means, in a nutshell, to be church in the 21st century.  There are no guarantees.  As there has always been, there are many things that may press down our spirits: there is war and hatred, prejudice and injustice, hunger and violence, 1500 children separated from their parents and held in despicable conditions throughout this nation.  Yes, there are many things each day that contrive to press our spirits into the ground.  And when these things do, and when because we are pressed to the ground and the only direction we can look is up, remember, little seeds, it is in the ground where God does some of God’s best work.  In the mysterious, often hidden process of growth, God is present with us and for us and through us.  Jesus teaches there is daily invitation to trust that God has this.  God has you.  God has all our backs and is always working for good. 


Amen and Blessed Be

2018-5-27 “Birth Parent”

“Birth Parent”

A meditation based on John 3:1-17

May 27, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   It was the dark of night, when Nicodemus stirred.  His questions plagued and skirted around the edges of his consciousness.  With a start, he arose and knew exactly what to do, where to go with these questions.  It was the dark of night, when none of his fellow Pharisees would see him.  It was the dark of night, when Nicodemus, a learned lawyer, pulled all his bodily courage into his sandals and let them carry him to the One who could give answers, but more importantly, his questions on that dark of night lured Nicodemus toward the One who could hear, really hear, his questions. 

                   It was the dark of night—safe, unseen, quiet, time out of time—night: when Nicodemus the lawyer sought out Jesus the Teacher—and together, they talked of life.  New life, that miraculous moment of birth we have each experienced, yet none of us remembers fully.  Our travel down the birth canal; that first glimpse of light outside the protective womb of our mother; that filling of the lungs with air for the first time and our visceral response—crying—our unique voice first being heard on earth.  Having each experienced this journey from protective womb to vulnerable life, Nicodemus and Jesus talked of what constitutes real life.  They spoke of some of the same questions that still plague followers of Jesus today…when does life begin?  How is life conceived?  What does it mean to be born a second time?  And is a second birth even possible or necessary? 

                   It is worth noticing that these are questions spoken often, only in the dark of night…in that space and time when one feels safe yet vulnerable, unseen, yet heard at the core of one’s being.  These are questions for what mystics call “liminal time”—that time when the clock on your phone seems to stop and Spirit’s clock takes over.  You know that time, yes?  I imagine that this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was this sort of open-hearted sharing, which deepened their relationship from that time on.  We are told, later in scripture, that Nicodemus was changed by this encounter with Jesus, and when Jesus was being ridiculed, Nicodemus stepped into an arguing cluster of his legal colleagues to defend Jesus, and later he even helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body.  Such was the impact that this encounter had on Nicodemus in that dark night.

                   Centuries later, a Spanish man by the name of St. John of the Cross, would also venture into that “dark night of the soul,” not once but many times.  Rather than viewing the dark night as a place and time of dread, however, St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Christian mystic, describes the soul’s dark night by using the metaphoric language of two lovers meeting unseen by others and safe in their love.  While we may have been schooled to think of the “dark night of the soul” as something to be dreaded, something unpleasant, St. John of the Cross spoke of the “dark night” as a time of deep closeness with God.

                   This passage I want to read to you today is from a modern-language translation of St. John’s famous work, and I invite you to listen for how a “dark night experience” is not to be dreaded, but rather sought out with great anticipation…

“The dark night of the soul is for the seeker so on fire with love for God that he or she will get to God by any means necessary.  This includes being willing to plunge into the abyss of the Unknown, of the Unknowable.  It is a path for the spiritually desperate…and yet it is a state over which the soul has absolutely no control.”  To enter the “dark night of the soul” is to be truly humble…“…to feel a tender acceptance of all reality just as it is, which includes compassion for ourselves just as we are.  This kind of humility is a surrender of our whole being to the simple truth of love…”

                   What if Lawyer Nicodemus was, like many of you, a spiritual seeker?  What if he sought out Jesus, not because his sleep was troubled by questions and doubts, but rather because his questions awakened in him a desire for more?  More answers, to be sure, but also more relationship…more closeness with the Divine…more connection with others…more courage…more compassion for self…in a word, more love…  Nicodemus is not unlike ourselves.  We seek for so much more in life, don’t we?  And, like Nicodemus, our many questions prompt our search.  Our questions, our doubts are, as one of my favorite theologians describes, “the ants in the pants of faith!”  They get us up and get us going.  They keep us from being too comfortable in one place. 

                   But friends, though our questions and our doubts serve to propel us forward on the journey of faith, they are not the whole of the journey.  For Jesus makes clear that the destination is love…the pathway is love…the substance and the object of the journey of faith is love.  “God so loved the world, that God gave the world love incarnate…”  God so loved this church that God gave this church love embodied in thousands of conversations and millions of kind gestures…  God so loved you that God gave you one after another experience of love in action, love in human form, love in birth, love in life, love in the dark of countless nights, and love in the bright sunlight of your days.  God so loved you, that God gave you love.  That’s what the first part of that very familiar scripture at the end of today’s bible story means.  God personalized love incarnate for each and every one of us and continues to do for as long as we live.  The verse doesn’t end there, however. 

                   There is a response expected from us, as we awaken to the presence of God’s love in our own lives.  The passage reads, “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  As a budding universalist—one who believes that God saves everyone eventually—I confess that I’ve been troubled by this verse over the years.  Does it really mean that only Jesus-followers will get to heaven?  Does it really mean that God saves only Christians?  Many believe so, maybe many of you within this congregation.  And maybe Jesus does mean to describe a kind of particular faith journey that pleases God more than others.  Here’s another way to see this set of familiar words of Jesus, and it comes from contemporary Bible scholar Marcus Borg.  He writes, “Christian belief is not accepting Jesus into our hearts; Christian belief means having the same heart as did Jesus.”  Think about that for a moment…a long moment… 

                   Imagine your life lived as if the heart of Jesus was beating within your chest.  Imagine awakening to the power of God’s love in your life.  Imagine becoming an agent of healing, of truth-telling, an agent of change as was Jesus.  Imagine small: helping one person to see God’s love in action through you.  Imagine living into God’s call in your life to live love, to speak love, to act and react with love.  Imagine a world where that ideal becomes real because you choose to make it so.  In the story we’ve read today, Jesus seems not at all concerned with the text of Nicodemus’ creed, with what he believes and why.  Rather, step by step, Jesus is building a case for belief that is based solely in the love of God.  Reference after biblical reference, metaphor following metaphor—from birth itself to the wind of the Spirit to Moses raising the serpent in the wilderness as a sign that God would not abandon the desert wanderers to death—Jesus skillfully argues his case in the presence of one of Judaism’s finest lawyers: the case that God still—and always—is love…

                   That love, argues Jesus, is the only basis upon which his own life and ministry have meaning.  And that love of God for humanity, means that God will not abandon you to death, but will, again and again provide a pathway through the wilderness of any lonely and dark night of your soul.  The question of faith for us, some 20 centuries later, is of course, can God really be counted on to do the same on nights when we cannot sleep…when the chatter in our heads is filled with questions, doubts, wonderings and wanderings…when we shed a tear or two…when we are having a Nicodemus moment…can the love of God reach past the first century to embrace us in the twenty-first? 

                   If we are daring enough as was Nicodemus to venture out into the unknown shadows to grasp that, ultimately and foundationally, God is not at all interested in our beliefs, our creeds, our crutches of institutional religion upon which we lean for support.  God simply and purely wants to love us and wants desperately for us to love God back by loving our fellow creatures.  Through love, declares Jesus to Nicodemus…through love and only through love, are we led to our own salvation. 

                   Come, friends, the pathway awaits through any dark night our soul can imagine or will ever experience, and at its bleakest point with its most penetrating shadows and its most painful questions, that is the place where Nicodemus and Jesus stand, as parents of our second birth, to lovingly welcome us home.


Amen and Blessed Be


2018-5-20 “Fresh Winds of Spirit”

“Fresh Winds of Spirit”

A meditation based on Acts 2:1-21

May 20, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Today is Pentecost…the Birthday of the Church!  Think about your own birthdays.  They often are mile-markers, moments to reflect, celebrate, dream.  As with our own birthdays, this birthday of the Church is a time to look back over 2,000 years of the Christian story and to give thanks for what has brought us this far…That’s the “reflect part” of this birthday moment, and it is hopefully filled with gratitude. 

                   Pentecost also gives us a moment to look around us, with deeper clarity, to celebrate what is…  In fact, I’m going to ask you to stand up and do something a little different today; please stand, and holding the pews if you need to for support, turn slowly around, just pivot slowly in place all the way around and again; notice what your eyes see here in this moment; the colors of the windows; the sunlight streaming in; catch the eye of someone who is also turning to see; notice the smiles, the winking eyes, the familiar and unfamiliar faces of your sisters and brothers; see how good is this present moment, feel how loved you are here, notice what this church means to you.  And in response to all this goodness, we say, “Thank you, God!”  You may be seated. 

                   That, by the way, was a little exercise in mindfulness…being fully present in this present moment.  When life gets a little harried, you can take a pause, stand or sit, pivot around in place, notice what your eyes see and give thanks to God for it.  It only takes a moment, and it can really change your attitude.  Birthdays are moments like that, aren’t they?  Pauses, when we are surrounded by love and allow ourselves to be filled with gratitude.  But reflecting on the past and celebrating the present are not the only parts of birthdays. 

                   Like our own birthdays, Pentecost is also a time to look forward and to dream of what will be.  What sort of church are we becoming?  Not only here in Chula Vista, but in the bigger picture of the nation and the world.  To help us with that today, I’d like to tell you a story of another church.  It is a true story, one that is ongoing.  This is the story of The Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC.  I share with you, in their own words, from their current website:

“In 1946, Army Chaplain Gordon Cosby came home from WWII convinced that the Gospel message was more than platitudes and rules.  His call was to form a church to take seriously the teachings of Jesus.  Seven men and women responded immediately.  In 1950, with 19 members, they bought an old brown-stone building at 2025 Massachusetts Ave. where the church had its headquarters and a worship service until 2008, when Gordon retired from preaching.  In the 1960s, following the March on Selma, learning about the dire situation for children at Junior Village in DC., and a growing awareness of the poverty around the newly established Potter’s House in the Adams Morgan neighborhood (in DC), members of the church felt a strong call to be in community with the poor and disenfranchised people of DC.  Many of the ministries were formed in the 1970s and 1980s to respond to this call.  In 1976, with 120 core members, the church intentionally divided into 6 (now 8) worshiping communities, each with its own call, leadership, and cluster of mission groups.  The various ministries of Church of the Saviour have come out of these mission groups which are formed when two or more people are called to address a specific concern.  Many of these missions have become independent 501(c) (3) nonprofits with separate boards and staff in order to broaden their base of service. We estimate that the collective budgets of these independent ministries now total over $4 million.”

                   For those visual learners, like myself (!), imagine a bicycle wheel.  The hub is Jesus and his call to each person to be engaged in his ministries.  That’s the hub—the call of Jesus—and that’s the call that Gordon Cosby heard when he returned home from WWII.  That’s the same call hundreds of people in Washington, DC have heard over these past 72 years.  They’ve answered that call and, together with Spirit, formed and re-formed The Church of the Saviour into a sort of bicycle wheel.  From their responding to Spirit’s call, the spokes of that imaginary wheel have emerged.  One of their ministries is for homeless, another for advocacy in the nation’s capital, another for retreats and sacred silence, yet another for worship that embraces all genders and sexual orientations, yet another that works with newly-released prisoners to help them orient to life outside the cell.  All told, there are ten scattered yet connected ministries that currently form The Church of the Saviour.  Each of these ministries sprung forth from the same call of Jesus to be engaged in his work. 

                   Looking deeper at what sustains The Church of the Saviour, they describe four basic tenets.  So let’s erase that image of a bicycle wheel and now think about a chair with four legs.  Having visited there personally several years ago, and having read about and watched them from a distance for over a decade, I would call these four tenets the four legs of the chair upon which sits all of the ministries of Jesus through The Church of the Saviour…each one of the legs is necessary to the full functioning and the grace-filled effectiveness of these various ministries.  The four legs are:

  • “Call.” In their own words, they say, “We believe that everyone is called to do something in our world by using God’s gifts to us.  It is the church community’s job to help individuals find their calls and nurture them into being.”
  • “Gifts.” Again, in their own words, “We believe that everyone has gifts and no one has all the gifts.  The church community must help each person identify their gifts and help them find a place to use them.  Gifts range from preaching to hospitality to organizational skills to humor.  All gifts are welcome and needed.”

Now we go a bit deeper into what holds them up. 

  • “Inward/Outward Journey.” They describe this journey in this way: “Church of the Saviour ministries exist and are sustained because of a commitment to the inward/outward journey as an individual and as a called group.  Daily Bible study, meditation and prayer are essential.  Spiritual reports, weekly mission group meetings and working together make these mission groups the primary place where spiritual formation takes place.”  I would add that the inward/outward journey is like the waves of the sea…sometimes receding, sometimes approaching.  In the work of Jesus, balance between inward and outward is necessary to sustain our energies.  Looking inward through prayer and study gives strength for us to act outwardly in avenues of service and mission.  One complements the other.  Each is strengthened by the work of the other.  Inward, outward, like the waves.  Reflection, action, reflection, action, like Jesus did in his own ministry.  This is the inward/outward journey practiced by The Church of the Saviour.
  • The fourth tenet or leg of that chair is “Community.” And this is what their website says about the necessity of community: “Each worshiping community has its own flavor of music, word and sacrament, but all celebrate the inward/outward journey together as we claim our piece of God’s unfolding creation story.  We must have a group of people equally committed to the faith journey who will encourage and hold us accountable.  Although the missions may be hard, there is joy to be shared at the core.”

                   Call, Gifts, Inward/Outward Journey, Community… these are the four legs of the chair that holds The Church of the Saviour.  When I was honored to worship with them on a Sunday years ago, that joy they talk about was palpable.  Their utter commitment to the call of Jesus was obvious just walking through the door.  Pamphlets proclaimed various service-oriented events and individuals with hearty smiles engaged other worshipers in saying yes to act, to serve, to be present to the call of Jesus in their own lives.  It was truly a celebration, and one I hope to never forget!

                   Now, you may ask, why am I taking so much valuable time to tell you about a scattered assembly of Christians that live and work almost 2700 miles from here?  Because of what’s coming next…

                   Remember, a couple of weeks ago, when I shared with you about God’s every 500 year Rummage Sale?  Scholars who are studying this, and mystics who are paying deep attention, and historians who are offering their best wisdom agree: yes, we are now in another every 500 years or so season in which God has a massive Rummage Sale in the world of spirituality.  For a time, things appear chaotic with no end in sight.  Yet, time after time, for the past 2,500 years of recorded human history, God has helped we humans create order from the seeming and teeming chaos.  Just like in the Genesis creation story, God again breathes over the chaotic swirling darkness, and with a word here and a word there, new life springs to form.                   The experts who are noticing and remarking on this pattern agree on something else… something that I hope pulls you forward into your future.  They agree that we Christians are now entering The Age of Spirit.  While the Church of the Past was marked by the order of the Roman ways in which it was born, and then changed by the Protestant Reformation into the protesting and questioning Church it is today, the Church of the Future will be marked by Spirit’s movement and Spirit’s guidance; it will be marked by a commitment to listen for Spirit’s voice and be filled with Spirit’s breath.  Welcome to the beginnings of what I hope you will give birth to right here: the Age of the Spirit! 

                   Spirit’s work is seen most visibly, I think, in the past 72 years in The Church of the Saviour, which is why I shared with you today about them.  Their intentional inward/outward journey has birthed ministries helping countless numbers of people and transforming lives through Spirit’s breath.  As in the Pentecost story we read about today, the Age of Spirit is upon us again.  You’ve noticed it; it’s apparent in the sparkle in your eyes when you turned around to see more clearly the goodness of this present moment.

                   One of the many ministries of The Church of the Saviour is a daily meditation sent via email, usually, a quote from some spiritual writer.  Three days ago, just in time for this Pentecost, written by a man called Father Martin Laird, came this timely reminder.  I share it with you now in closing:

“Union with God is not something we acquire by a technique…God is the ground of our being; the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible.  God does not know how to be absent.”

My sisters and brothers in the faith, God is very present here, in this space and through you, God’s people.  Claim that Divine presence, let Spirit’s breath strengthen you, allow yourselves to dream big—VERY BIG!—as you boldly follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and you will do well and you will be well.  Happy Birthday, Church!


Amen and Blessed Be

2018-5-13 “When Direction is Required”

“When Direction is Required”

A meditation based on Matthew 28:8-20

May 13, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Happy Mothers Day!  Over the years, this holiday has enjoyed various incarnations: its beginnings in the late 1800s were as an anti-war protest led by women after the Civil War ended but while the wounds were still raw; the day quickly morphed into a deeply sentimental tribute to mothers; now it is the biggest flower-giving, phone-calling day in the entire calendar!                   This day is a day of action…where we get up and change love from a feeling into a verb.  That verb takes different forms for each of us, depending on many factors…including our relationship with our own mother.  I’d like you to think about your mother for a moment, or if your memory of her is not particularly pleasant or clear, choose someone else—male or female—someone who has mothered you at important times in your life.  When you think about that mother figure, what one word comes to mind? 

[share aloud]

                   I’m struck by how many of these qualities show up in the scripture story we’ve read today!  There is wonder and quick movement, as the women who have seen the empty tomb leave that tomb to go and tell the others.  There is fear and joy, mixed, as these same women run with their news.  There is enthusiasm, stopped short, as they literally run into the living breathing resurrected Jesus.  And there is a deep knowing in these women.  For unlike the other stories we’ve read this Easter season, in this one, the women see Jesus and recognize Jesus and take hold of him and worship him…no lagging at all in their perception.  They immediately see him for who he is.  This is not to say the men were slow or ignorant or anything like that.  It is simply to say that, sometimes, women’s way of knowing is a more effective way of actually seeing spiritual matters more clearly, for it is a more intuitive, visceral, even spiritual type of knowing.  And the great news is, this intuitive tool isn’t limited to only females. 

                   How many of you, when I asked you to think about someone who has mothered you, thought of a male?  Yeah!  We are so very fortunate to live in an age when gender identity is fluid, and gender categories are in flux, and no girl has to wear pink if she’d rather wear blue, and no boy has to play with tanks if he prefers legos or dolls.  Such open perspectives lead us to a place where we can accept mothering from males and females and trans and and and.  For mothering isn’t contained in one person or one gender.  Hallelujah! 

                   So these women in the scripture story, using intuitive ways of knowing, saw Jesus for who he really was.  In the other stories we’ve studied this Easter season, where the living breathing resurrected Jesus shows up, you may recall I’ve talked about the verb that Jesus employs which then shows the disciples who he is.  In one story, he takes bread and blesses it.  In another, he cooks breakfast.  In yet another, he breathes on them.  All verbs.  All actions showing his identity.  In these post-Easter stories, Jesus becomes the verb by which they see him in his resurrected form. 

                   However, in this story, the verb is enacted by the women and the men, not by Jesus.  First the women see.  Then they run.  Then they worship.  Then they go and tell the others.  All verbs.  All actions.  Finally, the whole group of disciples, standing together on a hillside, see the living breathing resurrected Jesus, and together they worship and together they hear and together they receive and together they accept their direction from this Jesus.  “Go,” he says.  “Go where?” we can hear them ask in their whispers.  “Go into ALL the world.  Tell them what you have seen.  Tell them what I have taught.  You teach them what I’ve commanded you.  And don’t forget, I am with you…always.”

                   And that, my sisters and brothers, is where the verb gets murky over 2,000 years of Christian history.  For what did Jesus command?  He says to them in his direction, “Teach them what I’ve commanded you…”  What did he command?  Did he command that everyone had to become Jewish in order to follow him?  Did he command that all had to believe alike?  Did he command that only some people could preach his message, while others were left out?  No, no, and no.  In all of his teaching, Jesus made only two commands and you know them well: Love God; Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Love.  That is the only command.  Love.  “Take my love into the world…” Jesus says to those first followers.  It really is that simple.  “Take my love into your world…” Jesus says to us as well. 

                   So let’s think about that for a bit.  What does it look like to take love into this world today?  What does that look like?  Maybe think about it this way…where have you seen, recently, love taken into the world?

                   I saw it just the other day.  There is a family in this church’s preschool, whose father is battling a very aggressive type of cancer.  The other day, one of the preschool teachers shared with me that the man’s daughter—4 years old—asked for help with an art project.  She laid her hand flat on a piece of paper and directed the teacher, “Take the crayon and draw around my hand…do it again…and again…and again.”  She moved her hand a bit each time and soon the page was filled with handprints.  Looking at it together, the little girl told her teacher, “these are the angels that help my daddy when he gets sick and catch him when he falls…”  There is love, the love of God as a mother and as a father and beyond, there is love taken out into the world. 

                   What does it look like for you to take love into this world?  You know, over these two plus years of our interim season, I’ve seen some pretty incredible love-as-a-verb actions around here.  And after breathing your loving air, I’m even more sure that today’s scripture isn’t about Jesus giving direction to go out and force people into a relationship with him.  He was saying to his very first followers, do what you’ve seen me do.  Walk with the people.  Eat and drink with them.  Show them love and that will be enough. 

                   Friends, in all the changes coming to the church these days, it is so heartwarming to see and to know that love prevails.  And love is paving a way forward for the gospel to be seen and heard and accepted in this world.  Places and groups of people who commit to loving others as they love themselves, and loving God through it all, these are places and groups that are expanding and permeating their communities with little bits of love.  You can read about it every day.  Yes, you have to slog through some of the hate and fear and power games and the like.  But woven into that story is another.  It is a story of those who are daring enough and courageous enough and willing to go out into this sometimes fierce world with the simple practice of love. 

                   So I ask you again: what would it look like for you, this week, to commit yourself to the practice of love?  When an unkind thought arises, instead of reacting, take a moment and ask God to bless that person.  You see, putting love into action—meaningful and transforming action—really is that simple.  And, Jesus makes clear on that mountainside, love in action is what it means to be his church. 

                   This is the week before Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the birthday of Christ’s Church…that was the day the Spirit blew through those first followers of Jesus, with refreshing breath, and the church was born!  Some churches encourage worshippers to wear red on Pentecost to symbolize that movement of Spirit.  Let’s all commit, here, to do more than simply change our clothing.  Let’s commit to love.  The kind of directional love we sometimes saw in our mothers and mother figures.  The kind of compassionate love we experienced at various times in our lives.  The kind of healing love that Jesus made into a verb and passed on to those closest to him, including us.  Let’s receive that gift of love from Jesus and pass it on this week through choosing loving words, and embodying loving actions, and framing and reframing our thoughts with love.

Amen and Blessed Be