Sunday, July 15, 2012


Joshua J Sander
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Mark 6:14-29

John the Baptist had the kind of ministry that young seminarians dream of.  He threw all of himself into everything he did—he preached and taught and performed the ritual of baptism for the remission of sin.  John had the kind of sheer charisma that caused crowds of people to love him.  Even Herod, who probably disliked a good portion of what he was hearing, liked listening to John speak—even though whenever he heard John, Herod came away greatly perplexed.  John spoke God’s own truth as he saw fit and everyone knew that he was a righteous and holy man.

Um, guys? Guys? I'm trying to talk about John the Baptist over here...

Unfortunately, one of the things John was saying that perplexed Herod had to do with his wife, Herodias.  According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, Herodias divorced her husband in order to marry her husband’s half-brother.  While this would simply be a piece of juicy gossip in today’s day and age, according to Jewish law, it was a pretty big no-no.  The purity laws say that you shouldn’t have sex with your brother’s wife because it’s like having sex with your brother.  And John was saying so.  In public.  Where everyone could hear.

Well, Herodias didn’t like that.  She didn’t like that at all.  In fact, she wanted John dead.  But Herod was afraid to kill John, because John was—after all—a righteous and holy man.  So Herod had him tossed in jail instead.

So, Herod and Herodias had a daughter—who was also named Herodias, just to make things confusing.  On Herod’s birthday the daughter Herodias did a dance that Herod liked so much that he promised her anything she asked for.  In public.  Where everyone could hear.

Wow, look at the little guy go...

Herodias the daughter runs to Herodias the mother and asks her what she should ask for.  And Herodias the mother says, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.”  So Herodias the daughter goes back to her father, Herod, and says, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.  Right now.”  Herod doesn’t want to, but he did promise…  And so it is done.

So you have to be careful, right?  You have to watch what you say, hold back a little, or you could end up with your head on a platter.  Ok, not literally, but we do live in a society where it certainly feels that way sometimes.  I’m reminded of an animated series called The Boondocks.  In an episode dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. they imagined what it would be like if he hadn’t died when he’d been shot in Memphis on April 4th, 1968, but rather was in a coma until the fall of 2001.

In this fictional US, Martin Luther King Jr. is a guest on Politically Incorrect with Bill Mahr immediately following the September 11th attacks.  Mahr challenges him on his stance of non-violence


in the face of the terrorist attacks, and he responds by saying that “…as a Christian we are taught that you should love thy enemy and if attacked you should turn the other cheek.”

And the crowd was stunned.  Time magazine’s cover labeled him a traitor.


And the televised news referred to him as an Al-Qaeda lover who wants us to just roll over and let the terrorists win.  Because he hates America.  And is a Communist.

This is the world we live in.  You have to be careful what you say or else you’re an Al-Qaeda-loving-America-hating-Communist.


Because everyone around you will take an attack on their opinion as an attack on them personally and they will come out swinging.  And if they are on the internet, or worse, in the eye of the media, they can and will serve your head up on a platter.

What about David?

Well, what about David?

“David danced before the Lord with all his might…” --2 Samuel  6:14a

I guess that’s true, too.  Even though it embarrassed his wife to no end, David threw every ounce of his being into the celebration when the Arc of the Covenant first arrived in Jerusalem.  And maybe that’s what God wants.  Maybe God wants us to do everything whole-heartedly, because even though we run the risk of being hurt in the process, that’s how God’s work gets done.

Maybe… maybe God wants us to throw every ounce of our being into everything we do because it’s the only way to be honestly and truly down into the depths of your soul happy.  I don’t know about you, but even though it scares me, I think it might be worth the risk.  Maybe I’ll end up with my head on a platter.  But then again, maybe I’ll end up being the kind of happy that looks like dancing with all your might.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Joshua J Sander
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Mark 6:1-13

I’m not Jesus.


 Ok, that is me, but I’m still not Jesus. However, when I read the Gospel lesson for this week I couldn’t help thinking about how I grew up in North Stonington Congregational Church, UCC. This is a picture of the Junior Choir.


I'm in the first row, second from the right.

And here I am again, a little bit older—with a towel on my head. I think maybe having a towel on your head in worship is some kind of rite of passage that every child growing up in the church goes through at some point. At least I hope so, otherwise this picture might be embarrassing.


And here I am outside of the church with my Sunday School class—we’re showing off the banner we just made. I suspect that it’s still hanging up somewhere. Churches never get rid of those kinds of things, right? 


 Well, maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know what happened to this banner. I do know that this was my Confirmation Class.


There are still plenty of people in that church who were there back then. People who watched me grow from that child into who I am today. And that’s a wonderful thing. So I understand why, when I was looking for a new call and the church in North Stonington was looking for a new minister, my friend Robin (who also grew up in the church—she's the one on the right below) said, “Hey Josh, why don’t you come be our minister?”


And do you know what I said to her? I said, “There’s no way I’ll ever serve a church that’s seen me in diapers.”


You see, the thing is, as much as I love that place and those people, the fact is that the people who helped you to grow up don’t hear you the same way that other people do.

I was about to say that it’s not actually that bad, but today’s Gospel lesson implies that it is, in fact, exactly that bad.  Jesus has been out traveling, teaching and preaching and healing and driving out evil spirits both in the area surrounding Nazareth and across the Sea of Galilee in the gentile country of the Gerasenes.

Soon everywhere Jesus went a crowd followed.  And last week we heard that even one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came to Jesus to beg for a healing miracle.  That’s the story where a woman was healed of a malady that had been troubling her for twelve years by simply touching Jesus’ cloak.  It is also the story where Jesus raises a twelve year old girl from the dead.


So what happens next? Jesus goes home again. On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, but…


...yeah, that. The people said “Where’s he getting this from? Isn’t that just Jesus, the son of Mary?” They simply aren’t hearing him the way the rest of the world was. This is what Jesus meant when he told them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Then the scripture goes on to say that Jesus could do no deed of power there, and that he was amazed at their unbelief. And that just feels strange, doesn’t it? I mean, Jesus is still Jesus, right? Son of God? Immanuel? God in the flesh? Yes, of course he is. But the people weren’t buying into it, they refused to see it—whether they understood or not, they actually turned down the chance to have some miracles.  I've heard it described as if Jesus was a butane lighter and the woman with the hemorrhage was dry grass and kindling, Jairus was like firewood that’s been stacked in your basement, but the people of Nazareth… they were like wet hay—no matter how long you hold the flame to them, they just weren't going to catch. So the flame, Jesus, was just as strong as ever, you see?

So Jesus didn’t stand around Nazareth trying to force people who couldn’t hear and didn’t want to hear to accept what he was saying. He went out into the other villages and taught there, instead. And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.


He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. This message, I think, is particularly difficult for us as Americans. We love our stuff. Even the simplest among us would bring a change of clothes if they had a set to pack, right? In fact, grabbing an extra shirt just seems prudent, doesn’t it? So what’s the deal?

I think that Jesus, as is so often the case, is refocusing his disciples on God. Do not depend on yourself for your food—depend on God. Do not depend on the money you carry—depend on God. Do not depend on yourself for clothing—depend on God. Do not, in fact, depend on anything you could carry in a bag—depend on God.

This isn’t the same thing as going out with no plan. For one thing, Israeli culture comes from a nomadic desert existence. Most cultures where people range from place to place have a very strong sense of hospitality—nomadic cultures that come from places where having a good place to stay for the night is required for survival have even stronger hospitality. What I mean to say is, Jesus could send his disciples out into Israel with a reasonable expectation that strangers would give them food, drink, and a place to stay.

Israel still has a reputation for being amazingly hospitable, by the way. Michael J. Totten, a foreign correspondent and foreign-policy analyst who has reported from the Middle East, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union, once blogged about the subject of Israeli hospitality. He said that every time he publically announces that he’s about to make a trip to Israel, his “in-box fills with offers of generous assistance from Israelis who are total strangers. Most offered to buy him dinner. Some offered to let him sleep on their couch or in a spare bedroom. And a few even offered to show him around, introduce him to people—some even offered to set up appointments for him!

I do wonder, however, what Jesus would say to the Christian church in the US about all of this today? Would he send us out into the world with just a walking stick and the clothes on our backs? After all, if we’re honest with ourselves about the culture we live in, we have to admit that our sense of hospitality isn’t anything like it is in Israel. In America, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free ride.

On the other hand, there are plenty of 250-year-old congregations meeting in 200-year-old buildings struggling to make ends meet as they literally pour good money after bad into heating and maintaining those beautiful, huge old buildings that haven’t been filled since 1950-something. I’ve often wondered what would happen if one of those churches sold off their building, rented some office space, and put all the money that they’d been throwing at their building towards mission and outreach?

I recently got into a huge Facebook discussion about church vitality with a fellow Andover Newton Theological School alum. She’s part of an activist movement that I suspect is a little too leftward leaning for me to get whole-heartedly behind—but being a part of that movement has put in her in contact with non-Christian activists. These are good people, ethical, in many cases "spiritual," but—she says—the idea of church holds no appeal for them. Even though they see Christian activists and recognize that their activism comes out of their sense of what it means to be Christian and live out the Gospel, nobody has asked her, “Where can I find a church like that?”

She has come to the conclusion that the church “…needs to stop being inside and go out into the world and serve, because that is what people can relate to. It is the only thing that will touch them, engage them, and make our faith claims mean anything at all.” So she left me with this question: “…how can we move the church out into the world? What will the body of Christ look like tomorrow, when the forms have crumbled and the buildings have been sold?”

Although she might be a little… vigorous, she’s not wrong. We can’t keep doing church as if it were 1950 anymore. The world has moved on. The good news, though, is that this isn’t the first time in the history of Christianity that the world has moved on. It’s ok if the current forms crumble—with the wisdom taken from all of the previous forms, we’ll build new ones. As for buildings, well, in all honesty, I believe that our church buildings—in most cases, anyway—will continue to be useful tools. As long as we remember that they are tools and figure out together how best to use them.

I don’t have all the answers. But there seems to be something to my classmate’s thought: the church needs to stop being inside and go out into the world and serve. Jesus taught in the synagogue—then he went out to the villages—then he sent the disciples out into the world. They stopped being inside and went out into the world to serve.

I’d be a little scared by the thought of it if I thought we were unprepared. But we aren’t unprepared. The Bible is full of examples of people who felt unprepared who turned out to be world-changers. Moses told God that he wasn’t a good enough speaker to change the world. Isaiah told God that he was a man of unclean lips. Jeremiah told God that he I didn’t know how to speak because he was only a boy. And David—dear goodness, David was far from perfect, but the people anointed him king over Israel anyway. And—and this is the important part—and David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

So we have no excuse to hide here, in this building, to try to preserve something of the way the world used to be and let everything out there just go on changing without us. If we want to be disciples of Jesus we have to go out into the world and serve. It’s the only way to touch people, and engage them, and to have our faith mean anything at all.

Abiding God, Lord of hosts, be with us as we go out into the world. Help us to be greater and greater as we serve the world in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Joshua J Sander
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Mark 5:21-43

My Chemical Romance

Turn away
If you could get me a drink of water
‘Cause my lips are chapped and faded

Call my Aunt Marie
Help her gather all my things
And bury me in all my favorite colors
My sisters and my brothers


I will not kiss you
‘Cause the hardest part of this
Is leaving you

Now turn away
‘Cause I’m awful just to see
‘Cause all my hair’s
abandoned all my body

Oh my agony
Know that I will never marry
Baby, I’m just soggy from the chemo
But counting down the days to go

It just ain’t living
And I just hope you know
That if you say (if you say)
Goodbye today (Goodbye today)
I’d ask you to be true
(‘Cause I’d ask you to be true)

‘Cause the hardest part of this
Is leaving you

‘Cause the hardest part of this
Is leaving you

Did you feel that? Did that hit you right here, the way it does to me? Do you have a song that hits you really hard? Maybe it was one that was played at a specific funeral? Or maybe it’s a hymn that has been played at too many funerals by far. Some songs, like the one we just listened to, are directly about mourning and some come to be associated with mourning through our own experiences of loss. I have strong memories of listening to the song “Ordinary World” over and over again right after my grandmother died when I was a Freshman in high school. I know a whole group of people for whom “Freebird” does it because it was performed at the funeral of a young man associated with Silver Lake. So what songs do it to you? What songs hit you right here? Do you feel that?

Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." I don’t have any children of my own, let alone a 12 year old daughter, so I can’t imagine, not really, how distraught and fearful and desperate Jairus must have been in that moment.

Can you? Your 12 year old daughter laying on her death bed and your only hope lies with this popular itinerant faith healer. Not just any healer, either, but one who has been drawing huge crowds and causing all kinds of political problems for you and your fellow authorities. But in that moment none of that matters—it only matters that you be able to make it through the crowd, that you get to Jesus, that he come and lay his hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.

And just as you barely dared to hope, Jesus drops everything and follows you back to your house. But the crowd… oh the crowd rises up and presses in on all sides and, well, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but crowds go nowhere quickly. Your 12 year old daughter is laying on her death bed and your only hope lies with Jesus getting there on time. And time is short, and fleeting. Can’t you almost feel yourself trying to will the crowd along faster with your mind? Oh hurry… we must hurry… we really must go faster…

And then Jesus stops. He stops dead in the road. You probably take three steps before you can stop yourself because you’re hurrying so much. And Jesus says, “Who touched my clothes?” In the middle of that huge, jostling crowd! “Who touched my clothes?” Are you kidding me?

Then a woman comes out of the crowd, clearly terrified, and sinks to the ground in front of him, and told him that she’d been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; but it had only gotten worse. But she had heard about Jesus, an, she thought that if she could just touch his clothes, she would be made well. So she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak and immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

Then, while you stand there waiting, desperate to save your own daughter, Jesus says to this woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

“Daughter, your faith has made you well…” Jesus called this woman he didn’t know from Eve… Daughter. Even while you waited impatiently for him to go help your daughter. And suddenly it hits you for the first time that Jesus believes that we’re all equally important—and that he may be right.

Then the world comes crashing down. Some people from your house find you standing there, impatiently waiting for Jesus to finish talking to this woman he calls “Daughter,” and they tell you to stop bothering Jesus. Your daughter is dead.


Did you feel that? Did that hit you right here, the way it does to me? Your daughter is dead and just as soul-crushing grief rushes in through the shock like water tearing open a damn, Jesus turns to you and says, “Do not be afraid—only believe.” Then he takes three of his disciples and goes into your house. You can hear Jesus loudly say to the mourners you hired (as was the costume then and in that place) “Why are you weeping? This child is not dead, but merely sleeping.” And then he kicks them out of the house. Only then does he take you and your partner into the house.

It is clear to you that she really is dead. There’s no question in your heart that she is dead. But Jesus says, “Talitha cum,” little girl, get up. And she does! She’s alive! Alive! The two of you are so overwhelmed by your pure joy and happiness that Jesus must remind you to feed the poor girl. And then he warns you not to tell anyone what had happened there.

“Don’t fear. Believe.” That may be the world’s shortest sermon. And I believe that those words of Jesus are actually the most important part of the story. Personally, I think that line about “she’s only sleeping,” was for the benefit of the strangers in the house, and for the crowd outside, because for whatever mysterious reason, Jesus wants to keep this miracle on the down-low. After all, once the girl in question was up and walking around again, who would question it? Sleeping… yeah, that must be it. She couldn’t have been dead.

To Jairus, though, Jesus says “Don’t fear. Believe.” The woman who touched Jesus was brave, and believed, and she was healed. Jesus said, “Don’t fear. Believe.” And then he simply raised that little girl from the dead.

I don’t know about you, but the place where I always struggle with the healing miracles—and especially with this story—is when I stop to think about all those people who don’t heal. It is hard for me to hear these words of Jesus when I’ve known faithful people who love and trust God and suffered and died anyway. For time out of mind, theologians have wrestled with this question and none of them have come up with an answer that feels anything resembling right and good.

And yet, Mark tells us the story anyway. Jesus said, “Don’t fear. Believe.” And maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do whether our loved one gets up and walks again or not. Maybe Mark is telling us here what he told us in the story about the stilling of the storm. The point is that Jesus is with us, that God is with us, that the Holy Spirit is always with us, both in the storm and in the calm, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, and no—not even death can keep us apart.

Once again, David is a good example of what I’m talking about here. David always acted without fear and believed in the living God—so much so that it’s clear to me that the two things go hand in hand: Believe and you shall not fear. The story of how David killed Goliath, of course, is a good example of this fact, but this morning—well the lessons this morning are about grief. So let’s talk a little bit about David and Jonathan and Saul.

So, a couple weeks ago we heard about the prophet Samuel anointing David, and the last part of that lesson said that the Spirit of the Lord came strongly on David from that day forward. The very next part of the story says that the Spirit of the Lord left Saul and that God sent and evil spirit to torment Saul. I have heard it said that there is a very fine line between a prophet and a madman—I believe that Saul fell headfirst over that line. I mean to say that I believe Saul went mad.

So, basically, David got to hang around Saul’s court a lot because he was a great musician and good music seemed to calm Saul down a bit. That’s why he wasn’t out taking care of his family’s sheep when Goliath issued his challenge. Well, we all know how the whole Goliath thing turned out, but the part we don’t always get to hear is that the slaying of Goliath is how David met Jonathan.

Now, Jonathan was a true prince—a valiant and noble warrior—Saul’s eldest son. Once David had killed Goliath, Saul speaks with him, and then the scripture says, “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul…. David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him…”

Now David was so successful that he became more popular with the people of Israel than Saul was. And Saul was crazy-paranoid-delusional. So most of the rest of Saul’s story is about how Saul repeatedly tries to kill David while continuing to war with every nation within sight of Israel. For David’s part, he refuses several times to kill Saul, despite how crazy-paranoid-homicidal Saul is.

But David and Jonathan continue to be very close, in fact there comes a point where it becomes clear to Jonathan that his father, Saul, really is serious about killing David. So he goes to David in secret and warns him off. It really is a very touching scene—they embrace and weep before Jonathan goes back to the palace of his father and David escapes into the night.

And now the war has taken both David’s worst enemy and a man David loved with all his heart. David is not afraid. He believes in God. And David mourns. And David, musician and poet, puts his hurt into word and song. I’m going to leave you with those words, and since I don’t have David’s music I’m going to borrow a piece that feels right to me. But before I do that, please understand, and if you only remember one thing from this sermon, let it be this: Being unafraid and faithful does not mean that you will never mourn. It simply means that you know God mourns with you.

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.

You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.

From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty.

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.

O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.

How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Joshua J Sander
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Father’s Day

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Mark 4:26-34

I think I have always loved today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson. I don’t know about you, but I have always liked the moment when Jesse brings out his favorite sons and the eldest, Eliab, is standing before Samuel. Now in those days, in that place, being the eldest really meant something. It meant you were important. And Eliab has even more than his position as eldest going for him. He was a pretty big dude—and handsome, too. I always imagine Eliab as the stereotypical high school Captain of the Football Team and All-Star Quarterback—like Cory Monteith playing Finn Hudson in GLEE or Burt Reynolds in The Longest Yard or, you know, Joe Namath or Tom Brady in real life. Big, strong, handsome, charismatic—even Samuel takes one look at him and thinks, “Wow. This has got to be the guy.”

But he isn’t the guy. And I have to admit that I take a little pleasure in that fact. Because stereotypically the big, strong, handsome, charismatic guys always seem to have everything going for them—or at least a pretty girlfriend and a geek to do their homework. One of my seminary friends once admitted to me that she and her best friend in high school used to refer to the kids on the other end of the spectrum as trolls—you know, the smart but socially awkward and un-athletic ones, the stereotypical geeks doing the Football Captain’s homework. The Trolls. I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life that I’ve felt a little Troll-like.

But God says to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I suppose that news can be either disconcerting or hopeful, depending on whether or not you’re Eliab—I mean if you’re doing pretty well according to how the rest of the world measures things it would probably be a little hard to learn that God doesn’t measure things the same way.

On the other hand, if you aren’t the Captain of the Football team—and I suspect that most of us aren’t—there is hope in that knowledge. For what it’s worth, my friend went on to say that she wished she’d known then that Trolls tend to be the sweetest guys. In fact, if she could do high school over again, she’d eagerly date a Troll. I guess she learned to value the heart of a person over their physical or social status.

Can you imagine being Samuel, though? God sends you to do this job, and you think you know what you’re up to, but as soon as you say to yourself, “Aha! This has to be the guy.” You’re told, “No. I see something that you don’t. Try again.” I mean, it’s one thing to be told that it’s what’s on the inside that counts—but to be expected to pick someone out of a crowd on that basis is something else entirely.

Can you imagine staring at son, after son, after son, after son, after son, after son, after son… and just not seeing what God wants from you? Can you imagine living in the midst of that great mystery? Can you imagine wondering what it is that’s hidden inside of these people, that only God can see?

…and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these. Are all your sons here?" And Jesse tells Samuel that there is one more son. He’s the youngest and therefore lowest on the totem pole. In fact, he was forced to watch over the sheep while the rest of the men got to do the important religious ceremony with Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here."

And when David, the youngest and least important son, arrived, the Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. There’s something about God giving that kind of power to the smallest, the youngest, the least important that I’ve always loved.

I will also always have a soft spot in my heart for this scripture because it is directly related to the very beginning of my sense of being called to ordained ministry. I was a high school aged youth at Silver Lake Conference Center, which is the summer camp and conference center for the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. I was participating in a summer conference which is now known as the God Show—basically it involves 40-some-odd high school youth writing and producing a musical within a little less than a week.

Can you imagine what an intense experience it is? You come rolling into camp on Sunday afternoon with nothing even written, and by Friday night you’re performing for the rest of camp! And then on Saturday morning you go home. What a truly awesome experience. So once you get past the initial settling in questions—you know, questions like “Which bunk is mine?” and “Where are the bathrooms?” and “Why are the bathrooms called the ‘Freds’”—the first question concerning the show is, “What story are we going to tell?”

So we break into small groups and each group comes up with an idea for a story to tell. That particular summer, my group started talking about David. We all had heard the scripture lesson from this morning and we all knew the story of David and Goliath and we knew that David became the King of Israel… but we had no idea why God was upset with Saul or what kind of a King David turned out to be, or any of that—so we opened our Bibles and started reading.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever read all of David’s story, but if you have you know why our little teenage minds were completely blown. There was all kinds of political intrigue and war and enough sin to make daytime television blush. Honestly, I imagine that the adult leadership was glad when the group decided to tell a different story that summer, but I’m still glad that my small group was curious enough to go exploring like that. We learned that there’s a lot more going on in the Bible than we’d been taught in Sunday School.

So we picked a different story, wrote the lines, wrote the music, and performed it on Friday. And on Saturday we went home. And on Sunday I went to church and somebody asked me how Silver Lake was. And of course Silver Lake had been awesome. Very excited, I began to tell her about the whole experience, starting with how we broke up into small groups to find a story to tell and how my group had been looking at David… And seeing how excited I’d gotten over *stage whisper* Bible Study, she asked me, “Have you ever considered becoming a minister?”

“Uhhhh. No.”

But it was like a seed had been planted in me at Silver Lake without my even realizing it. And now that someone had named it, I couldn’t help noticing it. And the more I noticed it, the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it, the more it just felt right. I began to notice how the various gifts God has given me could be used in ordained pastoral ministry.

It feels strangely appropriate to me that my sense of call began with the anointing of David, with a story of God looking into the hidden recesses of a man for something invisible and good. Because my call was not like that of Elijah, or Jeremiah, it was not like the call of Isaiah or Paul. There were no strange voices or visions. There were no angles. There was no thunderbolt from on high. I was not struck blind. I did not change my name. There was just something little inside of me, growing, like a seed hidden in the earth.

He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how… He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

Speaking of Bible study, have you ever pondered the parable of the mustard seed? There’s so much more going on there than one might think at first glance. I mean, yes, Jesus is using a seed metaphor for the same reasons I just was: it’s a good way of talking about little things that are hidden and mysterious but turn out to be much bigger, powerful things in the long run. But why mustard?

I mean, at first glance, there would be better seeds to use to make that point: there are seeds that are smaller than the mustard seed. And there are seeds that grow into much bigger plants—a tree would be an obvious choice, wouldn’t you think? In fact, Ezekiel talks about God growing a little sprig into a mighty cedar tree capable of housing many birds in its branches… so, why mustard?

Well, there was a guy called Pliny the Elder, who lived between 23 and 79 C.E. He had the following to say about the mustard plant in his work entitled, "Natural History":
With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once. (Pliny, "Natural History" 19.170-171; Rackham et al. 5.528-529)
So, what Pliny is saying… well, here, let me show you. Photobucket
This is a mustard flower.
This leads to this. Photobucket
And this. Photobucket
And even, in some cases, this. Photobucket
Pliny says that it’s tasty and good for your health, but… well… it’s a wildflower.

No, worse, it’s a really pervasive weed that has a tendency to get in with other plants and go wild. In fact, Jewish tradition forbids you to plant mustard in your garden because, well, it behaves like a weed. A particularly pretty and useful weed… but still a weed. Jesus said that this is what the Kingdom of God is like. It’s like when this Photobucket
leads to this. Photobucket

I hope that you’ve been living a little bit of the mystery of small, hidden things this morning, in the form of these packets. You can tell that they’re mysterious because they have these question marks on them, right? I’ve intentionally left off telling you about them until the end of the sermon on purpose, so that you might get a little bit of the feeling Samuel must have had, waiting for God to tell him which son was the one he was looking for.

I’m willing to believe, though, that some of you have already guessed what’s inside. How many of you think you know? Just as I thought. And you’re probably right. These are packets of seeds. Do you want to know what will grow from these seeds? So do I. I mean, I know a little more than you do at this point: I know that these are wildflower seeds. I’m assuming that they aren’t as invasive as mustard, or Lowes probably wouldn’t have been selling them, but… I’m not really a gardener.

I don’t know what they’ll look like when they come up. And that’s kind of the point. They’re mystery seeds. Emmi and I are going to find someplace sunny to scatter these and just see what happens. I have faith that it’ll be something pretty, and good. Just like I have faith that there are little, secret parts of each of you that only God can see. Mysterious and good little things that are just looking to grow and bloom in you—and then spread like mustard.

Let us pray: Abba, Father, Daddy—you do not see as we do; you look upon our very hearts. You can see all of the little mysterious things in us that lay dormant like seeds sown in rich earth. Cultivate us, we pray. Give us sun, and water, and the nutrients we need to grow the those things that are right and good within us. And then help us to use those things to spread Your Kingdom far and wide. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Joshua J Sander
First Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8
John 3:1-17

Believe it or not, when I discovered the scripture lessons for this week, I immediately thought of Family Ties. How many of you remember the television program, Family Ties? Family Ties was a sit-com that ran from 1982 to 1989 and starred Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton. Alex was the oldest son of the family and a lot of the comedy revolved around the tension between his former hippie parents’ ideals and Alex’s kind of egotistical, over-achiever, big business, money-is-everything mindset.

But the piece of Alex P. Keaton that makes me think of Nicodemus is how very logical his actions frequently are. You see, Alex is the kind of person for whom numbers are stable and comforting and emotions are simply difficult.

For example, in one episode, he meets his girlfriend, Lauren’s, ex-boyfriend whose name is Eric. Alex, of course, immediately has both his relationship and his ego threatened: Eric graduated from the same college Alex attends, won all the same awards Alex won, and all but one of the scholarships Alex obtained—on the other hand, it wouldn’t have been appropriate for Eric to obtain that scholarship… after all, it was named after Eric. Eric has a Porsche, a job on Wall Street, an apartment in Manhattan… As Alex later puts it, “When we compare resumes he tops me in every category.”

Alex is sincerely worried, because in his mind, logically, Lauren should be dating Eric. Alex obsessively makes up lists of those things that he sees as marketable about himself and compares them to Eric. And then Alex begs his family to tell say why they love him. “I must be missing something,” says Alex, “there must be some good points that I have that Eric doesn’t have…”
Eventually, Alex is forced to discuss the situation with Lauren, saying, “I want you to have the best of everything, you know? And then when I met Eric, I couldn’t help but think that maybe he was the best.”

And Lauren simply replies, “Alex, I don’t love Eric.”

But Alex… he just can’t wrap his mind around that. After all, Eric is better in every category. Lauren tells a really cute story to illustrate why she loves Alex, but it’s just not a measurable thing that fits in his categories or on his list. And finally he’s forced to say, “Alright. Alright… You can’t come up with anything concrete. That’ll have to do.”

But Lauren says, “Alex, this isn’t something you have to define. You don’t have to clarify. It just is. And it’s wonderful!”

I think that Nicodemus is the same way. We don’t actually know how big his ego was, but we do know that he was a member of the elite—he was a Pharisee, so he was well educated, he was a leader, he had power and he was important.

The way John tells the story, Jesus goes directly from his first miracle—turning water to wine at the wedding in Cana—to overturning the money-changing tables and driving the people who were selling the sacrificial animals out of the temple. And many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but human beings seem to just naturally resist change. We want things to stay the same, to stay comfortable. We recognize that growth is change and we want to grow, but… we’d prefer for it to at least fit into our current understanding of how things work. We want to grow, but not if it means that what we know isn’t the whole picture—or even worse, simply wrong.

On one hand, change is uncomfortable and undesirable, especially for those who are as powerful and important as Nicodemus is. On the other hand, Jesus is literally turning things on their heads while gaining believers through the signs that he was doing. Jesus doesn’t fit in his categories or on his list. So he goes to Jesus and starts with the one fact that he can pin down, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."

Jesus responds by telling Nicodemus that he cannot see the Kingdom of God without being born again and born from above. Nicodemus needs to change and to grow and to let go of what he thought he knew in order to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing. But that kind of change, that kind of growth, that kind of new learning isn’t easy.

Nicodemus questions Jesus, tries to wrestle the conversation back into familiar territory, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?”

Jesus pushes his boundaries, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

You can almost hear Nicodemus caving in when he says, “How can these things be?” This is all so new. It’s not at all what he’d learned was true. And it isn’t at all concrete—it isn’t something you have to define. You don’t have to clarify. It just is. And it’s wonderful!

It isn’t until Nicodemus finally gives up and gives in and is saying, “How can this be?” that Jesus gets to the good news: that the Son of Man will be lifted up in order that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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.

It is human to want to understand, well, everything. It is the nature of God to be a mystery. And because these things are both true, 400 some odd years after the life of Jesus—or about 16-hundred years before us, depending on how you look at it—theologians came up with idea of the Trinity.

There’s no place in the Bible that specifically states that God is both three and one, but in today’s scripture lesson Jesus uses Father language for God and Son language for himself, as well as speaking of the Spirit.

So, as a friend of mine once put it, in this lesson,
“…we understand the relationship of Christ to the Creator to be intimate, close, indwelling, along with the Spirit–a hint at the Trinity. While the Trinity is a concept never named in the Bible, we have inferred the triune relationship of God through scriptures such as these, knowing that we can never fully understand God, the Trinity helps us understand how God has been made known to us.”
On the other hand, I’ve known people who really dislike the idea of the Trinity, because it isn’t logical. The numbers don’t work. One plus one plus one does not equal one in most people’s math. The idea that Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are all the same God and their own selves doesn’t fit into their categories or onto their list. And that, actually, is half the point.

On Mother’s day I told you that God is bigger than you—that God is bigger than all of you and me put together. I told you that when it comes to figuring out who God is, we’re like blind people arguing over what an elephant is like.

One of us has the trunk and exclaims that an elephant is like a snake. Another of us wraps their arms around a leg and says, “You’re wrong! An elephant is very much like a tree!” Yet a third lays their hands on the tail and says “You’re both wrong, and elephant is clearly like a broom!” Each is accurately describing their experience of an elephant, but none of them has the whole picture. And that’s what it is always going to be like when we try to talk about God.

So it is quite appropriate, actually, to speak about God in terms that don’t quite make sense. Saying that God is both Three and One preserves the mystery of a God who is so much greater than us that we couldn’t possibly understand while still trying to describe the way God interacts with us.

And that’s the other half of the point. Even though God is so much bigger than us that we are actually incapable of wrapping our little minds around who God is, we can and should describe what our limited experiences of God are like.

I mean, that’s basically what the Bible is, isn’t it? A record of humanity’s experiences of God. Isaiah experiences God as the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Even the Seraphs, who’s voices literally shook the temple, even they covered their faces in God’s presence.

And yet, mighty as the God Isaiah is, he does not simply hand down instructions, but rather asks the question, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds, “Here I am, send me.” So we can describe our God as one who calls—and to whom we respond. And of course, this is just one more of many, many examples. I certainly encourage you to add as many examples as you can to your own understanding of who God is and what God does.

Luckily, Christianity in general has been doing the work of pulling together experiences of God for time out of mind—through the process of compiling the 66 books of the Bible and through countless statements of faith. In 1959, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ adopted its own Statement of Faith and it is widely regarded as one of the most significant Christian faith testimonies of the 20th century. I’d like to invite you to find the insert in your bulletin entitled “UCC Statement of Faith in the form of a Doxology,” and as we read it together in unison, I’d like for you to notice how it describes who God is by talking about what God has done. Please join me:
We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:  
You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death.  
You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.  
You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.  
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.  
You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.  
You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.  
You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.  

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Joshua J Sander
Pentecost Sunday
Memorial Day Weekend

Romans 8:22-27
Acts 2:1-21

Welcome back. Previously in the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then I said, “Amen.” We sang a hymn, I gave a benediction, and then we all went home and had lunch. But I hope that the challenge I gave us stayed with you throughout the week: The challenge for us, myself included, was and is to go out into the world and look in the right direction for the Kingdom of God—within ourselves and one another. And where we see that the Kingdom is not present, we should work to make it so. The challenge, in other words, was and is to participate in the reign of God now, that they may all be one.

But what of that cliffhanger? What about that Advocate that Jesus promised to send the disciples? What of the power Jesus promised? Well, Luke tells us about the arrival of the Advocate, I mean to say the Holy Spirit, in the scripture we just heard from the Book of Acts: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

When the day of Pentecost had come… Pentecost is the English translation of the Greek word for the Jewish holiday Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. Which is kind of funny considering… well, you’ll see. Shavuot traditionally occurs at the close of the grain harvest fifty days after Passover and it is a joyful “…feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise.” (Kathryn Matthews Huey and Mark J. Suriano) So it totally makes sense that they would all be together in one place.

And Shavuot also explains why there were so many visitors from places we can barely pronounce in Jerusalem—and the fact that we have such a hard time saying Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs is kind of funny because… well, I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll see.

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. You know, I think I could go on all day on the theme of wind! I could probably do half a sermon on the philosophy of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I could probably pull together a decent metaphor out of the way the comic book character, Storm, harnesses the wind to literally lift herself up and fly. But none of those fun things hold a candle to the reality of what wind can do in real life. And none of them have the deep meaning that wind has in the Biblical witness.

I think the real life story that puts the phrase “violent wind” most into perspective for me occurred on April 21st, 2001 in my mother’s hometown of Hoisington, Kansas. How many of you have heard of Hoisington? (How many of you know it because of the tornado?) If I have my information right, a funnel cloud touched down just a mile southwest of the city at 9:15 in the evening and quickly grew into a large tornado. Within three minutes, it had intensified to an F4 (that’s out of 5, folks), with winds of more than 200 miles an hour.

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado chewed up a path of “almost complete destruction” along a path two miles long and two blocks wide through northwest Hoisington. I have to tell you that I was in Hoisington later that summer, and nothing prepares you for the reality of a two block wide, two mile long swath of familiarity just—erased. And that was after most of the clean-up.

Can you imagine what it was like for the folk who were working at the Dairy Queen? When the sirens went off they climbed into the walk-in freezer. When everything calmed down they walked out of the walk-in freezer and what was left of the Dairy Queen was the freezer—and about a foot of foundation. Or 17 year old Heather Nye who went to her senior prom and came home to find her house gone. The good news was that she found her car. The bad news is that the car was in her basement. You can’t make this stuff up. This is the kind of change a violent wind can cause.

Many of you know by now that I’m a bit of a linguist, I mean to say that I’m a lover of words, and there’s something really cool about the way the word “wind” is in the Bible. The Jewish scriptures, of course, were written in an ancient form of Hebrew. And the New Testament was written in Koine, a form of Greek that is no longer spoken. In both the Hebrew, “ruah,” and the Greek, “pnuma,” the word not only means “wind” but also “air,” “breath,” and “spirit.”

So in Genesis “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” can also be read, “the breath of God swept over the face of the waters,” or “the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” Or when God makes Adam “from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being,” you could also say that “God blew into his nostrils the spirit of life.”

I could go on and on—and I invite you to get ahold of a Biblical concordance and look up the word “wind” and try replacing it with “breath” and “spirit,” you get a lot of cool insights that way. For today, though, it is enough for us to notice that the Breath of God, the Spirit of the Lord, filled the house with a sound that probably sounded an awful lot like a freight train going by.

And divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. I’m always struck by this image because it feels like an eye witness trying to describe something indescribable. “And then there was this… energy? It kind of was divided like… have you ever tried to look at a fire and see the individual flames? It was like that. Kinda. And it was on their heads!!”

The other reason I’m struck by the image of the tongues of fire is because the storyteller in me goes, “Aha! This is a reference to a much earlier part of the story…” After all, there is another place in the Bible where there is a description of something like a fire, but not like a fire. “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro… and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed… When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’"

Well… that was the beginning of one of the most important events in Jewish theology. And here we have more fire-that-isn’t-fire. The storyteller in me wants to assume that something equally important is happening here in Acts. But what is it? After all, as a reflection by Kathryn Matthews Huey and Mark J. Suriano points out, “There have been manifestations, remarkable displays of God's Spirit in the Bible before, of course, with sound and light and amazing ‘special effects,’ as we call them today.”

Where’s the real miracle here? “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’” (See, isn’t it kind of funny that we can’t even pronounce the names of their countries anymore, let alone speak their languages?)

The miracle is not in the first question, “Aren’t they all Galileans?” That question is actually based in a stereotype bordering on racism—calling them Galileans is kind of like calling someone a backwoods hick, or a redneck, or white trash—the crowd is initially astonished because of who the sign and the message is coming from, rather than what the sign and the message actually is.

Even at our best we’re all a little guilty of that at some point in our lives, right? And at our worst we simply cannot see past the messenger. At our very worst we actually refuse to acknowledge what’s right in front of us: others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

No, the core of the miracle can be found in the question, “How is it that each of us hears them speaking about God's deeds of power in our own languages?” The real miracle is interpreted, I mean to say it is explained by Peter when he answers the people, saying, “these are not drunk, as you suppose… No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"

Yes, there are other displays of God's Spirit in the Bible, complete with sound and light and amazing ‘special effects,’ but they were all for the select few: Moses on a mountaintop or Disciples in a locked room. Peter is telling us that God is pouring out the Spirit upon all flesh. Male and female, old and young, slave and free… All of us receiving the Holy Spirit and dreaming! Not only getting to dream but also being expected to prophesy—to hear what God is telling us, right here and now, and to communicate it to the world—to go out and tell somebody, everybody!

Do you remember last week when the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And Jesus didn’t really answer, saying, “It is not for you to know…” Well I think that Jesus was actually kind to give the disciples a non-answer, because the actual answer was, “You still don’t get it, do you? You just don’t get it.”

Now they get it. The Good News isn’t about restoring the Kingdom of Israel. The Kingdom of God is here now, within us. These are the days Joel was talking about—the days where God pours out the Spirit upon all flesh—the days when sons and daughters prophesy—the days when the young see visions—the days when the old dream dreams—the days where even the lowest among us hear the Word and proclaim it.

Do you feel it? Do you feel the Spirit being poured out on you? Do you hear what God is saying to you? Will you voice it? I’m telling you right now that our youth, our sons and daughters, our young people—they do prophesy. Are we listening? What I’m trying to ask you is, do we get it? Do we? Because these are the days, you know. God’s Spirit is poured out on all of us, male and female, old and young, rich and poor, foreign and domestic, familiar and unfamiliar. All. All. All.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Joshua J Sander
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11
John 17:6-19

Sometimes the storyteller in me gets a little frustrated with the Revised Common Lectionary, which is how we know what scripture lesson goes with which Sunday. For example, last Thursday was Ascension Day—the holiday where we celebrate the resurrected Jesus’ final words to the disciples before going up to heaven. Today’s Gospel lesson, as well as the Gospel lessons for the past couple of weeks, come from Jesus’ words to the disciples directly after the Lord’s Supper—before the Crucifixion, let alone the Resurrection. Add to that whole mess the fact that we’ve been spending the last few weeks with the Gospel of John and that the version of the Ascension we just heard comes from the book of Acts—which was written by Luke—and it gets even more difficult to put things in order. So yeah, the storyteller part of me is kind of screaming that things are all out of order today.

So for those of you who need to see the chronological order of things as much as I do, I’m going to try the best I can to put this in order for a minute. Jesus gave the disciples the metaphor of The Good Shepherd before he raised Lazarus from the dead, before the chief priests and the Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus, before the triumphal entry and the Lord’s Supper. After they had eaten, Judas left and Jesus foretold Peter’s betrayal. Then Jesus spoke for a long time the disciples. He told them that where he was going they could not follow and promised to send them the Advocate, by which I mean the Spirit of Truth, to be with them always. He gave the disciples the beautiful metaphor of The True Vine, asking them to live in his love, and then gave them the commandment to love one another. Jesus then warned the disciples that the world would hate them because he chose them to be separate from the world. And then he prayed the prayer we heard in today’s Gospel lesson.

Skip ahead through Easter and you get to the Emmaus walk and the appearance of Jesus to the disciples where they all got to poke him and watch him eat fish. And after he appeared to his followers and demonstrated that he was indeed alive, Jesus spoke to them one more time before ascending to heaven.

So why explore Jesus’ prayer from his last Passover meal on the same day as the story of the Ascension? Well, because there are more ways to organize ourselves than simply chronologically. We can also put things together that have similar themes. In both of these lessons, Jesus is preparing his followers—his disciples and friends—for his absence.

Can you imagine how shocking that last supper must have been for the Disciples? I mean, they were expecting to sit down to dinner with their closest friends and their beloved teacher—granted, it started out a little weird, with Jesus bathing their feet like the servants should have been doing—but then again, Jesus did stuff like that, you know? Just to make his point. But then Jesus just out and said that one of them was about to betray him. And then Jesus said:
Jesus: Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”

Pastor Josh: Aw man… this sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? I imagine that most of them had trouble listening from that point on. There’s Jesus saying,

Jesus: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Peter: Where are you going?

Pastor Josh: See what I mean about not listening?

Jesus: Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.

Peter: Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.

Jesus: Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.
Whoa. Poor Peter. Hearing Jesus say that must have been like a kick to the gut. As Philip and Thomas continue to question Jesus—*arm waving* where are you going? We don’t get it!!—poor Peter must have just sat there, dumbstruck. But Jesus goes on, saying “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… I will not leave you orphaned…”

Then Jesus goes back to what he was trying to tell them in the first place, only this time he gives them a parable, I mean he gives them a metaphor, he says that it’s like he’s the vine and they are the branches. That they should live in his love. And then he says it again, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Why is Jesus working so hard for the disciples to get it? Why is using different words to say the same thing over and over again? And still he goes on,
Jesus: you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.”
Pastor Josh: And on…  
Jesus: those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.  
Pastor Josh: And on…  
Jesus: I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me…
Until the disciples must have be thinking, “Oh dear God, why must he keep saying these horrible things?" And about the time things must have really been sinking in—just about the time when the disciples must have known deep in their souls that something big was about to happen and that it wasn’t at all going to be fun— then Jesus stops speaking directly to them and turns his attention to God, praying, “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name. But now I am coming to you…”

Jesus is praying to God that God will protect Jesus’ followers so they can be one with each other in the same way that Jesus and God are one. Why? Because Jesus is about to die and their world will be turned upside down.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Those who will believe in me through their word. That’s me! I believe in Jesus. And that’s you! You believe in Jesus! This prayer—it’s for us!! That we may all be one, just like God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God—so the world might also grow to believe…

You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this prayer for us. I hope that it isn’t the first time you’ve heard it either. I know that in recent history more folk are familiar with the UCC’s God Is Still Speaking campaign Photobucket—with the image of the Comma and the accompanying quote from Gracie Allen, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Not to mention the words of extravagant welcome, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

But the God is Still Speaking campaign and its message of extravagant welcome is only the most recent way the UCC has attempted to tell the world what it is about. Before the Comma there was the UCC logo.  Photobucket
No, not that one.
  Photobucket Closer.
There we go…
Photobucket The UCC itself formed from a merger between the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches in 1957.  I do not know when this version of the logo was adopted.  But I do know that the United Church of Christ website says that, “It is based on an ancient Christian symbol called the "Cross of Victory" or the "Cross Triumphant." The crown symbolizes the sovereignty of Christ. The cross recalls the suffering of Christ—his arms outstretched on the wood of the cross—for the salvation of humanity. The orb, divided into three parts, reminds us of Jesus' command to be his "witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth…" And I also know that the symbol of the Cross Triumphant was present at the 1957 merger.

To this ancient symbol, the UCC added two pieces of text to describe who we are as a community—the first, of course, is our name: United Church of Christ. The second is the prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples and all those who believe in Jesus: That They May All Be One. Including this piece of scripture “reflects our historic commitment to the restoration of unity among the separated churches of Jesus Christ.”

As for the words Jesus said to his friends and followers just before the Ascension, "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

And they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" But he didn’t really answer, saying, "It is not for you to know …” Honestly, though, this is another example of the disciples simply not listening and understanding. Remember that this word comes to us from the Book of Acts, which was written by Luke, and in Luke 17:21 Jesus clearly says that “…in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

The disciples, just like the rest of us, myself included, completely forgot that the Kingdom of God is within us. as the Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchel puts it, “Nonetheless, we still wait a day when Christ will come in a new way. As we waited in Advent, and waited in Lent, so now we continue to wait and watch for Christ to do something new, to enter the world and our lives in a new way. But as the disciples did, so we too often look in the wrong direction. We look for signs of the end of the world. We look for signs that things are getting better or getting worse. Rather, the reign of God is within us, and while we wait for Christ to do something new, we participate in the reign of God now.

And so I’d like to close with a challenge and a cliffhanger.

The challenge for us, myself included, this morning is to go out into the world and look in the right direction for the Kingdom of God—within ourselves and one another. And where we see that the Kingdom is not present, we should work to make it so. The challenge, in other words, is to participate in the reign of God now, that they may all be one.

And now the cliffhanger: Hear the words of Jesus.
Jesus: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Pastor Josh: Amen. And amen.  And tune in next week...