july 12, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
Psalm 24
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

It has been a week. Busy. Full. Rich. For me, and for many if not all of you. There are many pieces and parts of your week, of our community’s collective week, that I don’t know. But I do know: we lost two saints of God, two pillars of this community. And we gathered together to mourn and celebrate and laugh and cry and offer these ones we love back to God. We have fed each other, and been fed—with sandwiches and bars and hugs and conversation around tables. We have had loved ones undergo surgeries and hospitalizations, and waited and prayed with others while tests were done, and held our breaths for results to come back. We have prepared for Relay for Life, and marked the love and loss that propelled us into this organization. We have left for vacation, and returned from vacation. We have welcomed family and friends, returning after months or years of being apart. We have gone to work. Cared for and played with kids, our own or others. We have struggled with sense of call, and vocation. We have looked for work. We have gathered for Bible study, and searched scripture, searched our hearts, finding meaning and questions and love. We have mown lawns and weeded gardens and cleaned houses and offered comfort and found ourselves in need of comfort. And this, I know, is only the tip of the iceberg. It has been a week. Busy. Full. Rich.

Our gospel text for this morning is perfect, it seems, for such a week. Although, I must confess, we are reading it this week by mistake. In the busyness of this week, I got my dates mixed up, and turned to this text, the text assigned for next week. We are reading this gospel text by mistake, but it is a mistake, I believe, filled with God’s grace.

This morning’s gospel story from Mark is about our need, Jesus’ need, for Sabbath. For retreat. For prayer. It is only when we find the quiet center, when we stop, when we accept Jesus’ invitation to “Come away, and rest awhile,” that we are able to be faithful, and act with compassion, and find healing, and be whole.

I almost missed the meaning of this parable entirely. For months, I have had plans for this weekend, plans I have looked forward to, anticipated with eagerness and joy. Two dear, dear friends whom I have not seen for far too long, so long I can’t even remember when, have planned to come visit with my parents. We would then go together to Decorah to hear Greg Brown play at Seed Savers, one of my favorite musicians, one who has long soothed my soul and offered rest and wonder through his songs. On Thursday, I thought we should cancel. I was tired. My house was a mess. My refrigerator broke sometime this week, leaving my food spoiled, and me unable to prepare food or feed them. The timing just wasn’t right, I thought. There was too much work to be done.

Thankfully, these friends knew otherwise, and convinced me we should still get together. They reminded me that dear friends are exactly the ones who don’t care if your porch isn’t swept, or your dog bathed, or a feast prepared. Like Jesus in this story, they extended, or re-extended an invitation: Come away…rest a while.

When Jesus invited his disciples to come away, to rest, he did not wait until they had completed all their work. He invited them to rest in the middle of their busyness, when they had no leisure, even to eat. He invited them to pray. One translation of the biblical phrase “to pray” is “to come to re st.” He knew their need. He felt it himself. To regroup. To take Sabbath.

Wayne Muller has written an invaluable book called Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives. I find I need to return to it again and again. When I am wise, I turn to it. When I am not, it seems to find me. He writes: Sabbath is a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity. Like a path through the forest, Sabbath creates a marker for ourselves so, if we are lost, we can find our way back to our center. “Remember the Sabbath” means “Remember that everything you have received is a blessing. Remember to delight in your life, in the fruits of your labor. Remember to stop and offer thanks for the wonder of it.” Remember, as if we would forget. Indeed, the assumption is that we will forget. And history has proven that, given enough time, we will. (6)

So. Another confession. The lectionary has us reading verses 30-34, and 53-56 of the 6th chapter of Mark. I know how important it is to read the surrounding verses of any biblical text. The context is often crucial to understanding the meaning. I have been teaching this during our Wednesday evening Bible study, and we have been discovering just how important this practice is. But, it was only Saturday morning that I read what was left out, verses 35-52. I’m going to read the story again. Here these words of good news from Mark 6: 30-56:

“The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But Jesus answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth (two hundred days of labor) of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to sat before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray alone. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was along on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

I almost missed one of my very favorite gospel stories. I almost missed the miracles. Where over five thousand were fed with five loaves, and two fish. Where Jesus reveals something of his power, and tells the fear-filled, hard-hearted disciples, “Do not be afraid. Take heart.” This is what happens when we rush. We miss the important parts. We fail to see the miracles. We forget that we already have what we need to feed others, and to be fed.

Turning back to Wayne Muller’s writing on Sabbath: “If you work all week and forget to rest, you will become brittle and hard, and lose precious nourishment and joy…If we forget to rest we will work too hard and forget our more tender mercies, forget those we love, forget our children and our natural wonder.” (32.)

Muller continues: “All Jesus’ teaching seems to hinge on this singular truth concerning the nature of life: It is all right. Do not worry about tomorrow. I have come that you might have life abundantly. Be not afraid. Over and over, in parable, story, and example, he insists that regardless of how it goes for us, we are cared for, loved, safe, all right. There is a light of the world, a kingdom of heaven inside us that will bear us up, regardless of our sorrow, fear, or loss…The reign of God is already here. It is within you, and among you.” (43)

The tricky part, the leap of faith, is stopping long enough to see it. Being still, so that we will know. Resting, that we might remember.

One of you left a wonderful message on my voicemail a few days ago. The joy-filled voice made me laugh in delight and filled me with gratitude. Left by someone who rarely misses church, who gives generously of time and energy and passion within this community, who works very hard throughout the week, this person apologized for not being in the pew for a couple of Sundays. “I just needed to take the time,” he said “to enjoy the wonder of God’s creation.” To be outside. To get away. To rest a while, and pray. “Have a most beautiful morning, and God bless you. I can’t wait to see you all on Sunday” the message ended. The blessing he received from this time away was passed on. A gift.

The prophet Isaiah offers these words of blessing: If you…call the Sabbath a delight…then you shall take delight in the Holy One…

Wayne Muller writes: “Sabbath implies a willingness to be surprised by unexpected grace, to partake of those potent moments when creation renews itself, when what is finished inevitably recedes, and the sacred forces of healing astonish us with the unending promise of love and life.” (37)

Surprised by unexpected grace…partaking in potent moments when creation renews itself…astonished by sacred forces of healing…receiving the unending promise of love and life…Remember the Sabbath…Delight…Stop…Pray…Walk…Listen to music…Make music…Share a meal…Come away…And rest awhile…May it be so. Amen, and amen.

july 5, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
July 5, 2009
Psalm 130
Mark 6:1-11

Whenever this morning’s gospel story is read in a group of United Methodist pastors, there are knowing nods, sometimes sighs, the kind of laughter that comes when something is funny because it’s true, which makes it not that funny at all. It is an unwritten but understood rule in our denomination that clergy are never to be appointed to the church where they grew up. When I first decided to pursue a call to ordained ministry, when I set off for seminary, members of my home church shared with me their hope that I might one day return, and be their pastor. That is very unlikely.

Pastors, even when they are beloved in their hometowns, aren’t always good fits for their home churches. Members receive them with a back log of memories. And, pastors view them, with the glory and gore of shared history. Sometimes there are old grudges, or broken relationships, or unhealed wounds. Sometimes, ministry requires confrontation. And challenge. And prophetic witness. And prophetic witness, we learn from scripture and history, ruffles feathers and raises eyebrows. More often, however, there is a kind of settledness, a familiarity that can be stifling to authentic, transformative ministry.

I know a powerful, prophetic preacher, with a pastor’s heart and a scholar’s brain, who preached a sermon in her home church. She preached about homosexuality. She challenged her parishioners to rethink some of their judgments and fears about gay and lesbian people. A gentleman walked by her after worship, refusing to shake her hand. “Why should I listen to anything you have to say,” he muttered. “After all, I was there when your mother changed your diapers. And you skipped Sunday school every chance you could get. And don’t think I forgot how you used to sneak cookies into church, and leave crumbs all over the pew.”

Knowing each other, and being known, can open powerful possibilities for ministry and witness and transformation. But, and, when we get stuck in seeing what we want to see, when we limit what we know to what we have always known, we shut out the power of God to surprise us, to startle us, to unsettle us with good news. For isn’t that what the Good News of Jesus does? Does it not surprise, and startle, and unsettle, until we see and feel and live something new? A surprising, amazing, astounding, or improbable event. The very definition of ‘miracle.’

David Ewart offers a note of caution about this story. “This is not just an easy, ‘good news,’ story. This is not dramatic or miraculous. This is a sobering reminder of how our own familiarity—our own comfort zone—with Jesus may blind us to the full reality of Jesus; and of how being in settled ministry with all its possessions and property keeps us from traveling lightly with our sole focus on our purpose for ministry.” Our purpose for ministry…To offer good news to the poor. To welcome the stranger, the other, the outcast. To proclaim release to prisoners. To loosen the silence and shame around addiction, and violence, and despair. To proclaim God’s reign of justice and peace, and to call for the repentance that is necessary if we are to live in justice and peace. To go where God sends us, not where we choose or where we want.

So. Back to the story. At first glance, it seems this is the kind of story that is made for places like Osage. Good communities, where people know each other. Where people gather together to celebrate the return of a prominent leader, a young person destined to do great things, and make the town proud. Where the community gathers to hear the stories of distant people and places, when one of their own returns home. There is the very real possibility of wonderful things happening.

In fact, I was reminded of this gospel story on Thursday afternoon, when I met John Walker for the first time. Here was a man returning to one of his homes, to his hometown, from his other home in Santiago, Chile. Within mere minutes of meeting, we were talking about music. We quickly agreed that Sam Crosser gifts this community with his music beyond words, and I got to learn more about Sam’s family’s musical history in this community. Perhaps being a bit pushy, I asked him if he might play in worship, and share this gift of music. Moved by his connection to this place, to this community, to you, he agreed. We started thinking of who might play with him, and soon we were running genealogies. Yes, yes. Kelli Miller is the organist this Sunday. I bet she could play piano, too. She can play anything! Right, she’s the daughter of Rozanne and John Mehmen. He asked if anyone played the flute. Madeline, does. Madeline, you know, Kelli’s oldest daughter. Olivia’s sister. How about trumpet? Well, both Alicia and Jeff Weber play. Yeah, Brenda and Bill Weber’s kids. Right, Bill is the son of Fern and John. Guitar? Well, Jake Felper, Amy's son, he plays guitar...It went on and on. It was connection at its best. Small town at its best. Homecoming at its best.

And yet, before we feel too warm and fuzzy, we must remember—This is how this morning’s gospel reading starts. When Jesus begins to teach in his hometown synagogue, the people start asking questions. Where did this man get all these ideas? And, what is this wisdom that has been given to him? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?

At first glance, it seems this is the kind of story that is made for places like Osage. The kind of story that lifts up returning home, being surrounded again by “your people.” But. When we stick with the story, we face the difficult question: Would this happen here? Could this happen in our hometowns?

Jesus has just returned from a very successful road trip. Now he is back in his hometown, with the people who have heard about the spectacular things he’s been doing. Healing the hemorrhaging woman. Raising the little girl to restored life. His return home follows right after these stories we read and shared last week. So now, Jesus is back, reunited with the community that raised him, reunited with his mom, and with his brothers James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and his unnamed sisters (does this surprise you? we don’t often talk about Jesus having siblings, in the church. In fact, some accounts say Jesus isn’t the oldest of his siblings. Which opens up a colossal can of worms…) But anyway. Jesus is back. Ready to show his stuff. But it does not go well.

As one preacher, Kate Huey puts it, “Of course, everyone wants to see miracles, but does everyone want to hear about the life-changing but perhaps unsettling good news that those miracles announce?”

Jesus is taken aback by the people’s lack of faith, their closed minds and closed hearts, and they, in turn, are offended by his teachings. While we are told they were astounded by the power of his teachings and actions, they are too convinced of his ordinariness to really believe. Of course, we have the benefit of knowing how the story ends, knowing who Jesus was, and is, knowing of his power, and persecution, and promise. But try to put yourself in the shoes of those living in Jesus’ hometown.

Beverly Link-Sawyer asks this question: “What would we think about a neighbor whom we believed to be just an ordinary, hardworking man, turning into a miraculous teacher, let alone the reputed Son of God? Would that be something we could wrap our mind, and hearts, around?” Oh, you know Jesus, he always was a little bit wild. Remember when he ran away from his parents, and hid out in the synagogue? I mean, Mary and Joseph weren’t even married when he was born. And he hasn’t been running with a very good crowd. Lepers. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. All those unclean, sinful people. I’m not trying to judge him, or anything, but most of his friends, well, they’re an abomination. I’m not saying this, it’s scripture that calls them sinful. And what’s with this command to sell all we have, and give it to the poor. I worked hard for what I have. Who does he think he is?

We all know how Jesus was rejected by the religious authorities. But this story is about how Jesus was rejected by the people who should have known him, and loved him, best.

Barbara Brown Taylor calls this an un-miracle story. It’s not like Jesus lost his power, or lost who he was, when he went home. Jesus was still Jesus, Taylor says, and “still had power to share with them, only he could not do anything with it because they would not let him.” She compares it to the experience of trying to light a match to a pile of wet sticks: “It does not matter how strong your flame is: what you need is something that will catch fire. [In this story,] Jesus held the match until it burned out in his hand, while his family and friends sat shaking their heads a safe distance away. Instead of working great wonders, he dropped the match when it burned his fingers and absolutely nothing caught fire in the synagogue that day…he left them to go shine his light somewhere else.”

Would we recognize Jesus if he appeared with us, here, today? Would we listen? Would we open our hearts? Would we turn away? Would we scoff or dismiss or be offended? Or rather, I should say, Do we recognize Christ when Christ appears with us? Do we listen, and believe, even when the good news challenges and unsettles our lives? Do we open our hearts, when we have every excuse to keep them closed?

Taylor writes, “[Often,] we are Jesus’ hometown kin, who do not always honor him. God is all around us, speaking to us through the most unlikely people. Sometimes it is a mysterious stranger, but more often, I suspect, it is people so familiar to us that we simply overlook them. If we refuse to listen, then we should not be surprised if Jesus leaves us to go shine his light somewhere else.”

When we see people only as we have always seen them…When we do only what we have always done…When we expect only what we have always expected…When we get stuck in seeing what we want to see…When we limit what we know to what we have always known…We shut out the transforming, redeeming, saving, if unsettling, power of God.

Let us pray: God of grace and powerful weakness, at times your prophets were and are ignored, belittled, and unwelcome. Trusting that we, too, are called to be prophets, fill us with your Spirit, and support us by your gentle, challenging love, that we may persevere in speaking your word and living our faith. Amen, and amen.

june 28, 2009

Anna Blaedel
June 28, 2009
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Many of you know, or have noticed, that I have been gone. First, at Annual Conference in Ames with Cal Nicklay and others from each of the 824 United Methodist congregations in Iowa. Then, I went on vacation. I am learning that those pastors who have been at this decades longer than I know to schedule vacation for after Annual Conference, when the need is great.

I travelled to Ocean Isle beach in North Carolina with my family, the beach where we have been finding rest, renewal, and reconnection for the last 25 years or so. It is, for each of us, a sacred place, a place of letting go—of obligations and expectations, of worry and stress and schedules and rushing. And it is a place of reconnecting, refueling—with the simple pleasure of play, the awe of a wide open, star-lit sky, the power of the waves to drown out all other sound, the simple relief of sweet tea in the summer sun, of washing off sweat and sand in the salty water. A thin place, as some have called it, where the distinctions between heaven and earth, mundane and miraculous, nearly disappear.

Year after year the ocean gives back to me the wisdom I have found, and often forgotten, in previous years. I am reminded that awe and mystery and amazement can be offered to God as prayer. That the earth is God’s body, and that we are intimately tied with this body we call home—what we dump in the water comes back to our shores, that climate change impacts which shells we see washed up, and which creatures are thriving, and which disappearing, that coal and farm chemicals and oil spills are leaving more and more fish toxic, inedible. That all of creation is sacred, and we are called to be good stewards. That each morning offers miracles, and each day opportunities to experience God’s healing power.

The beach is, for me and my family, a miraculous place. Finding healing. Restoring hope. Receiving new life. Turning away from fear. Standing on the weathered wooden pier gazing at a school of eight stingrays in the water beneath me; walking on the beach during the day or watching crabs scatter and flee in their funny sideways dance at night; writing prayers in the sand and watching the waves carry my prayers to sea, over and over I found myself breathless, speechless. In awe. Amazed. Bearing witness to the miracles of God, already all around me. Each year I vow to bring some of this wonder, this peace, this fearlessness, this care-free awe, this amazed gratitude back with me into my every day life. And each year, I find it is a struggle.

It is the struggle of recognizing traces of the miraculous in my everyday life, and acknowledging the grandeur of God in my everyday surroundings. It is the struggle of living out of and living into the peace of God which passes all understanding not just when I am away from it all, but when I am in the middle of it all. Do you recognize this struggle?

I believe this is something like the struggle we find in this morning’s gospel story from Mark. The miracle in these miracle stories is this, Frederick Beuchner writes: “Jesus gives life not only to the dead, but to those of us who are only partly alive…who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and the miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves.” The wild beauty and miracle of every day we live…the power of new life, new hope, new being…

In the gospel reading for this morning, we encounter two prominent healing stories, structured in a way that is typical for this particular gospel writer. One story is inserted into another, as though the writer wants to make their connection crystal clear.

These healing stories are found in the fifth chapter of Mark. The first four chapters have spent time sharing Jesus’ preaching with words. His parables of the sower, and of the mustard seed. His clarifying of ancient texts and teachings, inherited from Jewish tradition. Jesus has been preaching with words, proclaiming the reign of God on earth, instructing people in the ways of living that bring about this reign of justice, healing, and love. Now, in the fifth chapter of Mark, we find a significant shift. Now Jesus is preaching with his actions. Showing, in a sense, not just telling people what the reign of God looks like. This is where Jesus helps the people learn to experience the reign of God, not away from it all, not after retreating to heaven, or the beach, but in the middle of it all, the kingdom come on earth…

Even as the parables take form in concrete action, it is hard to know what to do with these miracle stories. It is hard to make sense of them, whether you are in the pulpit, or in the pew. As a disciple of Christ, I believe that the living God surprises us. That in and through the Holy One, the impossible becomes possible. That Jesus’s defiance of brokenness in any form coaxes new life and healing out of deepest despair and grief. That having bold, mature faith calls us to risk participating in the process of creating the unimaginable, believing in the unbelievable, and witnessing the impossible.

And, as a pastor, I know that linking faith with healing, belief with answered prayers, is dangerous. People with deep faith suffer. Fervent pray-ers face devastating diagnoses. Those who help others find hope are swallowed in their own despair. Faithful disciples put their trust in God, and still lose their jobs, or their loved ones. Fathers and mothers throughout time and space have fallen to their knees, begging the Resurrected One for healing touch, for their child’s cure. And still face the horror of their child’s very real death.

So. We turn to the gospel stories. A man, Jairus, is described as a leader of the synagogue. This tells us he is a man of great importance, power, and wealth. He is desperate for his daughter, who is dying. Please, please, he begs Jesus. Some scholars note that this act begins the miracle story, for it can be miraculous indeed for a wealthy, powerful, important man to find his way to his knees, admit his powerlessness, and beg for help. As Jairus and Jesus make their way back to Jairus’s house, they meet a woman with a bleeding disorder. A woman who has been hemorrhaging blood for twelve years. Try to imagine being in her shoes.

There is a hidden message in this description, for this a not just a woman with a painful, chronic medical condition. According to Levitical law, the purity codes found in Leviticus, the constant flow of blood made this woman permanently unclean, an abomination to the purity of the community. Unclean. Untouchable. Irredeemable. It is perhaps worth noting that the very purity code condemning this woman is the one people turn to to find biblical backing for condemning same sex relationships, or calling gay and lesbian people abominations.

According to the scripture in Leviticus, this woman isn’t supposed to be in public, around people. Her otherness comes with forced isolation, which she defies when she reaches out her hand and touches Jesus. According to the purity code, her unclean touch threatens to make Jesus unclean—raising the level of daring, desperation, and hope we find reflected in this touch.

Instantly this forbidden touch brings her healing, and restores her to wholeness. The crowd, even the discipels, miss this scandalous miracle entirely, but Jesus knows the power of transformation, and recognizes at once that something big has taken place. “Who touched me,” he asks? Who was bold enough to do such a thing? The disciples try to brush him off, but Jesus persists. And the woman knows she is in trouble. She has broken the rules. She has reached out and defied the law in scripture.

Filled with fear and trembling she falls at Jesus’ feet and offers her confession. She expects to be rebuked. Condemned. Reprimanded, at least. Humiliated, dismissed, pushed aside. The consequences are clear. But instead, and think about what Jesus is teaching through these actions, instead: Jesus calls her “Daughter.” Puts himself in relationship with her. He doesn’t debate scriptural authority or question her status as sacred or sinful. Jesus calls her Daughter. And Jesus lifts up her bold, risky faith as an example. And Jesus blesses her, and after offering her a benediction, sends her off in peace.

All of this happens while Jairus is waiting to take Jesus to his daughter. I can’t help but wonder what desperate, frantic Jairus had to say about this detour. He is an important man. His daughter is near death, and Jesus stops to bless this one cast aside and condemned by the very synagogue where he is a leader? I wonder if he resents her. I wonder if he resents Jesus. I wonder if his suffering, his helplessness, his desperate hope, helps him see and connect with the unclean woman’s suffering, her helplessness, her desperate hope. I wonder if seeing Jesus bless her, call her Daughter, and praise her faith restores something in him, and deepens his faith. I wonder if my impatience, my fear, would keep me from recognizing the miracle taking place before my very eyes…

Then we hear it is too late. Jairus’s daughter has already died. Jesus tries to ease their fear, but they are held captive by it. Fear and worry and anxiety rarely do anything to bring healing, or restore hope. And yet, so often it seems they are the final threads we cling to when desperation sets in. He tells the gathered crowd of mourners that the girl isn’t dead, just sleeping. And they respond by laughing. Surely they think Jesus is a fool. Or na├»ve. Or out of touch. Perhaps a cruel trickster. Except, then the girl gets up. And seeing her hand in hand with Jesus, the crowd’s laughter turns to amazement. And then, as quickly as she is miraculously restored, Jesus shifts our focus from the miraculous to the mundane, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, from the divine to the daily. “Give her something to eat,” he says. Share what you have. Feed her. Demonstrate your care in community. Break bread together.

We are left without explanation, without guarantee that the same answer will be found through our prayers. We are simply invited, with the disciples and the gathered crowd, to stand amazed, witnessing the restoration made possible by the healing presence and tender touch of God.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

Barbara Brown Taylor believes Mark writes this particular account of the gospel story to establish Jesus’ identity. These stories of miraculous healing “Are not stories about how to get God to do what we want, which is just another way of trying to stay in control. Instead, they are stories about who God is, and how God acts, and what God is like. Jesus giving us a glimpse of the reign of God. Where no suffering goes ignored or remains overlooked. Where everything else takes a backseat to the priority of coaxing restoration. Where those who have been declared unclean are restored into community, and receive tender touch. Where we learn about faith from the very people we have condemned.

Frederick Buechner claims this story can bring the miraculous into our own lives. He invites us each to imagine ourselves in the place of the little girl. Fragile. Frightened. Barely alive. And now, Jesus speaks to us. Takes our hand. Tells us to rise up and live: You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could…Get up, he says. All of you. All of you! Jesus gives life not only to the dead, but to those of us who are “only partly alive…who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and the miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves.

And with that, Jesus shows us what he taught in the parables. The kingdom of God is among us. The reign of God is within us. Be amazed, and be healed.

Let us pray: Companion in life and death, your love is steadfast and never ending. Our weeping may linger with the night, but you have promised us joy in the morning. Touch us with your healing grace, that restored to wholeness, we may live into our calling as your resurrection-recognizing, kingdom-living people. Amen, and amen.

may 31, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
May 31, 2009
Pentecost Sunday
Romans 8:22-27
Acts 2:1-21

A little girl who was five years old was sent to her room after a morning of general naughtiness—you know the kind—poking at her baby brother, talking back to her mama, chasing the poor old dog around every time he thought he had found a safe place to nap. After a few minutes, this little girl’s mom went into her room to talk about what she had done wrong. Teary-eyed, the little girl asked, “Why do we do wrong things, Mommy?” The mom struggled to find an answer. She knew her daughter had been picking at her little brother because she was jealous of his attention. And that the little girl was going stir crazy inside on a rainy day. And, that she probably needed a nap. And that she was scared about starting her first day of kindergarten soon. “Well,” said the mom, “there are these little voices called Jealousy and Greed and Tiredness and Fear. Sometimes they tell us to do something naughty. But we need to listen to God instead.” The little girl thought about this for a moment, and then began to cry in earnest.
“But Mommy,” the little girl wailed, “God doesn’t talk loud enough!”

Sometimes, God doesn’t talk loud enough. Or, we make so much noise we can’t hear God. Or, surrounded by so much noise we stop listening for the still, small voice of God. The Spirit, who intercedes with sighs too deep for words when we can’t find our own voice. The Spirit, who comes to us when we, and when the whole of creation around us, are groaning in pain, birthing and bearing witness to the reign of God in the midst and mess of our daily lives.

One week ago today, I was returning to Osage on 218. I was somewhere north of Waverly, and it was late. I had pulled over in a cornfield a few hours earlier to look up at the stars. Summer was finally coming, and I felt myself beginning to remember how much I love Iowa in the summer. The whole expanse of sky above me, no big city lights to outshine the stars. In high school, I found sanctuary in Iowa’s cornfields, comforted by all the space. Away from people and traffic and houselights, I could find God more easily, and knew that God could easily find me.

The landscape of Iowa is especially Spirit-filled, to me. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for Spirit is the same as wind. Ruach. Pneuma. Spirit. Wind. The movement, of wind, of the Spirit, can be seen in Iowa. Snow drifts blown high in winter, the patterns of wind etches into the icy, snow covered earth. And in the summer, the rich earth, the green fields, alive and dancing as the wind sweeps across the fields. The whole landscape around us, bearing witness to the presence of God. Of the movement of the Spirit.

So anyway, last Sunday night I was celebrating being back in Iowa, and the changing season, driving along with the wind rushing through my open roof, the sound deafening. And suddenly. Suddenly. In a blur of time and sound my brakes were screeching and I was screaming and a deer’s head was shattering the window by my head and glass was flying all over and metal was crunching and then…and then…and then. Silence. I pulled off the highway onto the shoulder, and then, stillness. Not a sound to be heard. The calm, after the storm. And, as I sat, stunned and shaking, I heard a still, small voice, from somewhere within, or somewhere outside, saying, “You’re ok.” And my gratitude simply for being alive, being ok, filled every corner of my being. And I gave thanks to God, who was very near, indeed. God, who came to me in the whirlwind of chaos, and held me close, and whispered relief.

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, a tongue of fire resting on each of them. And every one was filled with the Holy Spirit, and began speaking about God’s power. Calling out prophesy and prayer and praise. Proclaiming the power of the Spirit to move and work among and within them. And then they started speaking in other languages. And at this, a crowd gathered, and people were amazed, and also bewildered. They started asking, “How are they all speaking to one another, and understanding it? How can this be?”
Imagine it. Imagine going to a gathering—a huge crowd of people, all gathered into one place. Most of you strangers, spread far and wide and now, gathered together. People from Osage, and Stacyville, and Little Cedar. From St. Ansgar and Charles City. From Minneapolis and Iowa City and Chicago. From Denver and San Francisco and New York and Miami. From Mexico and El Salvador and Germany and China and Russia. From the Congo and Egypt and Iraq and Sweden and Zimbabwe. And suddenly, the doors blow open, the windows shake, and a tremendous sound surrounds you. So loud you can feel it reverberating through your very bones. The rush of a violent wind. And then suddenly everyone is speaking at once. Speaking English and Spanish and Arabic and Japanese and Tagolog and French and different dialects—words you have never heard spoken before. But it’s the strangest thing, because you realize you can understand them. And you can understand that everyone is testifying. Telling of how God has touched their lives, each one. You can hear an older woman giving thanks for God carrying her through the death of her beloved, and the loneliness she thought would never leave her. A young man shares the pain that led to addiction, and then God’s promise of forgiveness and restoration that led him into recovery. Someone tells of being without work, without a place to stay or food to eat, and the kind strangers who took him in, and fed him, and gave him a place to stay. Another, of the horrors of war that tore her community apart, and the pain of working to reconcile bitter divisions. A small child, telling of not having enough food, and dreaming of one day going to school. People whose lives are torn apart by violence and fear and poverty and injustice and loneliness and need. Bodies and lives and communities, broken, and being made whole again.

Each one of them, a story of need. And for each story of need, a story of God’s power—the Spirit interceding, and stirring up seeds of peace, hope, and restoration. And you can hear, and understand, every single one.

Or maybe this retelling keeps the Pentecost story too nice and tidy and neat. The kind of experience we crave, if not work to create. It was anything but. Ok. Imagine walking into a crowded room. An overcrowded emergency room, perhaps. The room is crowded with foreigners, people traveling through. Which means they likely haven’t bathed for a couple of days, and are a bit dirty, and smelly. Suddenly a gust of wind, closer to a tornado really, sweeps through. And everyone starts screaming and shouting and calling out to each other and to no one in particular in every language under the sun. Pentecost is the kind of scenario we often shy away from. The kind of moment we try hard to avoid. Who would you least want to be with? What languages, or nationalities, or cultures, or lifestyles feel most foreign and different and strange to you? What groups or kinds of people do you want to NOT see sitting next to you in the pew? That’s how Pentecost began. But the Spirit intercedes. And draws us close. And invites connection. And helps us understand.

It was not the way the people were expecting to meet God. It was the last place they were looking. But in the chaos and confusion, God was at work, bursting into their lives.

The story of Pentecost is the story of a community created and claimed in covenant, communication, and confusion. And it is the story of a God, our God, whose Spirit is as close as our next breath, who is unleashed, moving and working in our lives. Pentecost bursts open ears, hearts, and souls to the Spirit that brings understanding out of many nations, languages, cultures.
At Pentecost, we celebrate the birthday of the Christian church. But before Pentecost became associated with the Christian church, it was a Jewish festival. Pentecost is a Greek word that means 50 days. 50 days after Passover, Jews from all over the Roman Empire came together in Jerusalem—celebrating both the Spring harvest and God’s gift of law and love, given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. From everywhere—you heard the listing of nations, tribes, and cultures—people came to worship and to bring the first fruits of their labor as an offering to God.

The earliest Christians would hear in this story another story they knew—Moses meeting God at Mt. Sinai. In both stories, God’s presence is made known with visible and audible manifestations. In both, the Spirit’s presence is made known to the gathered people in noise—the kind that gets and grabs attention. And, in both, it is what happens after the noise dies down that counts most. The Spirit, interceding, in sighs too deep for words. God, glimpsed, in a still, small voice that can be heard in and through the surrounding sounds. If we listen hard enough.

Of course, not everyone gets swept off their feet by the Spirit. Some stood back, sneering. “Look at these fools! They must be drunk!” As always, the good news of God’s powerful love is met with mixed response. Some are open, and believe. Others close themselves off to the message, or think it applies to them, but not to others. For some, the idea of a roomful of people, from different tribes and countries and cultures, all recognizing their common kinship, sharing their stories and listening to understand—this is too, well, unbelievable, to believe. Too good to be true. Or too foreign to fathom. Unlike anything they’ve ever seen. But for others, those who dare to hope for something they have never seen before, they open themselves to the Spirit, and the Spirit changes them.

Pentecost became known as the “birthday of the church” not just because those present became aware of the Spirit in a way they had never experienced before. Pentecost became known as the “birthday of the church” because it was the moment when Jesus’ followers really realized they still had work to do. That the Spirit wasn’t done with them yet.

These followers of Jesus, realized they needed to step it up. They had been followers, helpers, waiting for words from their teacher and leader. But now, decisions rested upon them. No longer could they follow Jesus in the flesh; now they were, we are, the Body of Christ for the world. Whatever happened next would depend upon their discernment, their understanding, their faith, and their commitment. To God, and to one another.

Summer is upon us. This time of stillness and chaos. Of ball games and sleeping in. Of vacation and catching up. Of winding down and gearing up. Of camping camps and sports camps and music camps. It is meant to be a time of reconnecting—with family and friends and God. Schedules are slowing down, and picking up. The time for bare feet and hot grills and eating outside and sleeping under stars will slip away all too soon. For these next few months, will we make time to consider our own rebirth in the Spirit, and discern the undone work and witness God is calling us into? Will we seek out the quiet center in the crowded lives we lead? Will we clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes so that we can see all the things that really matter, as Chip sang? Will we turn off tvs and open our windows and get out of our cars and get our bodies outside and listen, really listen, for the still, small voice of God whispering through the wind?

Next week Cal Nicklay and I will head to Ames for Annual Conference, the yearly gathering of United Methodists from all across Iowa. Sitting in Hilton Coliseum, surrounded by every United Methodist pastor, and at least one lay member from every United Methodist church in the state, I will try to imagine we are gearing up for a Pentecost experience. Feeling the Spirit in that place is not always easy. Many if not all share English as a spoken language, but it is often hard to understand one another. Even as Iowans, we come from such different places, hold such different experiences. The chaos and confusion sometimes seem more real, more clear, than does the movement and power of the Spirit. Part of my prayer in preparation, for myself, for Cal, for each person gathered in that one room, is that we might listen for and hear and testify to and respond to the work of the Spirit in and among and through us.

We will part ways for the next three Sundays, you all and I. After Annual Conference, I will be away on vacation. Seeking retreat, and renewal, and restoration. Part of my prayer in preparation, for myself, and for each of you, is that we might gather again, on the final Sunday of June, and each be able to give voice to the movement of the Spirit in our lives, calling us into creativity and connection, witness and work, prayer and play.

The story from Acts teaches us where and when we can experience the Spirit of Pentecost: here, and now. By showing up—offering first fruits, opening to God’s Spirit, diving into the confusion of community. The story of Pentecost also teaches us where and who are the spiritual leaders who will find the courage to speak bold visions and dream mighty dreams: here and now and you and me—elders and children and young adults. Look around you. God is as near as your neighbor, as your breath and the breath of God which fills and overflows this space, into our lives and world. May it be so. Amen, and Amen.

may 24, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
May 24, 2009
Isaiah 61:1-4
Luke 24:13-35

When the invitation arrives, Mack Phillips is lost. Angry and overwhelmed by the horrific loss of his younger brother, Mack receives and pursues this strange invitation to a shack. Like most sacred calls, this call comes with confusion and fear-filled resistance. In William Paul Young’s book The Shack, Mack meets God for 48 hours. In the shack, Mack meets God in three persons, the Trinity. Traditional language in the church names God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or we might say, Creator, Christ, and Spirit, or as Augustine put it, Love, Beloved, and the power of Love that Binds. In The Shack, this three person God is: a large, extravagant African American woman, a distinctly Asian woman, and a Middle Eastern man in a plaid shirt who would not stand out in a crowd.

Sometimes we see God, but don’t recognize the vision as sacred. Sometimes we meet God, and don’t realize we are communing with the holy. Sometimes God speaks, and we don’t hear the call as one of faith. Because we don’t want to see. Because our hearts aren’t open. Because the noise of the world drowns out the still, small voice. Because God shows up in our lives in ways and times and places we least expect to find God.

This book, this story, this ordinary, extraordinary encounter in a shack, invites us to re-think God and relationship—relationship in God, and with God.

The prophet Isaiah felt the Spirit of God upon him. The power of the Spirit, anointing him, so awe-inspiring and full of mystery and majesty, Isaiah couldn’t help but know the call was a sacred tasking. The call to ministry, from God, spoken through the prophet: “The spirit of God is upon me, because the Holy One has anointed me: God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captive, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of God’s favor, and the day of vengeance; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit…”

The faithful, those who hear and follow this call, will be called the oaks of righteousness, Isaiah proclaims. The planting of God, displaying God’s glory. The task is restoration, building up ancient ruins, raising up former devastation. Searching for and finding and tenderly mending broken cities and broken hearts.

Remember, the text we have from the prophet Isaiah is a Jewish text, part of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. Within Judaism, the call to God’s chosen ones is known as Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam—the mending of a broken world. In my pastoral care class in seminary, we used this text from Isaiah to ground and guide our learning. The careful and compassionate tending to and mending of broken hearts, broken lives, and a broken world—this is the call of a pastor’s care, and it is the call to all Christians to care. Each and every one of us, no exceptions, called by the waters of birth and baptism into ministry. No one is too young or too old, too rich or too poor, too lonely or too busy, too victorious or too defeated, too powerful or too powerless, to hear and follow this call. The spirit of God is upon us, and has anointed us. God sends us to bring good news to those who are oppressed, to bind up those with broken hearts, to proclaim liberty to those who have been held captive, release to those in prison, comfort to those in mourning.

God, reimagined. Our task, recalled. God as a verb, inviting us into anointed action, and real relationship. Faith as a verb, creating and changing us. Ministry as a verb, calling us to recreate and restore.

Last weekend my family celebrated my sister’s completion of her Master’s degree in Social Work. My sister is a hard worker, a kind and gentle soul, a dedicated learner, with a heart filled to overflowing with passion and compassion. The spirit of God is upon her, and she is responding. Ordering her life and her career around bringing good news of love and care to people in need of good news. Mending broken lives and broken relationships and broken homes. Restoring possibility and passion. Proclaiming liberty to people held captive by addiction, violence, systemic injustice.

My family arrived to my sister’s graduation ceremony early (no minor miracle in my family), and sat in the second row. As soon as I sat down, a woman I had never met sitting in the first row turned around and said, “Don’t you live in Osage? Aren’t you the pastor at the United Methodist Church?” And, with that, I met a first grade teacher here in Osage. Through this community’s Bridges Mentoring program, she began mentoring a sixth grade student who had struggled through her first grade class. This young woman was now graduating with her Bachelor’s degree in social work, committed to utilizing the challenges she faced in her own life to help her make a different in the lives of others. Her mentor, this teacher from Osage, was there to celebrate the power of restoration, make known in this life, nurtured in their relationship.

As I sat through the commencement ceremony, surrounded by new social workers and their support systems, I could not help but feel the power of the Holy Spirit at work. God’s name was not invoked, but the ceremony felt, to me, like worship. One student speaker quoted Gandhi—“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Another called the graduates to do their work in the world from their hearts, and build human connection. Another challenged them not to get lost in the endless tasks their jobs would entail, encouraged them not to forget who they are in the work, and to let who they are and are created to be shine through and guide them. I am sorry to say the whole event felt more sacred, more holy, more spirit-filled than many sessions of the Iowa Annual Conference where we squabble and name call and accuse one another and act out of fear rather than faith.

Sometimes we meet God where we least expect to find the sacred. Sometimes we hear God, calling through the voice of social workers, not pastors. Sometimes we see God, acting through the lives of teachers. Sometimes we find ministry happening outside the church because the church hasn’t made room inside. Sometimes we pray with our bodies, by showing up, by walking with each other, by supporting each other, by paying attention to the pain and beauty around us.

The two men in Luke’s gospel account are walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. As we walk with then, they, we learn about seeing the holy in the only place they we aren’t looking. As they walked, they were sharing stories about everything they had seen, how their lives had just been turned upside down.. Suddenly they met someone else on the road. A stranger. Someone who stood out, because he wasn’t one of them. And Jesus asked them, “What’s up? What are you guys talking about? What’s going on in your lives? Why do you look so sad?”

And one of them, Cleopas, answered, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” Of course, this is kind of funny to us, the readers already familiar with the end of the story. But the ones who are walking along are amazed. Do you really not know what’s been going on?

And then they start telling this stranger all about Jesus, about this prophet who had turned things upside down and inside out, who ate with and welcomed people the religious authorities called unclean and abominations, who went looking for the very people most people tried very hard to ignore, who guided and led the task of tikkun olam, mending the broken world around him, proclaiming good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, release to those enslaved and imprisoned, comforting all who mourn. This one, this prophet, we had high hopes for him, they say. He was The One, we thought, who would restore us, and restore this city. But the politicians and priests in power got scared, he threatened their wealth and the way “things had always been,” and they handed him over to be condemned to death, and crucified. Now, not only have we lost this friend and prophet, but his body is gone and we don’t know where to find him and we don’t know what to do or where to turn without him…

And Jesus, hearing their story and their pain and anguish and fear, walked with them, and told them a story, about Moses and prophets and God’s call to restoration and recreation and redemption, about the commandment to love God and neighbor, to offer hospitality to strangers, to bring and be the good news of love in a world in desperate need of love. And then they reached Emmaus, and these two men begged Jesus to stay with them, and share a meal. Of course, they didn’t know it was Jesus. But they did what Jesus had been teaching them to do. To offer an invitation. To share food. To gather together. To offer hospitality to the strange, and the stranger. And Jesus accepted their invitation. When he was at the table with them, he took break, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And you know the rest of the story.

With this, they see the Holy One. Their eyes were opened and they recognized who the stranger among them was. And like that, Jesus was gone. And they turned to each other and said, “Were not our hearts burning within us?” The sacred had been there, with them, all along. And something deep in them knew. Their hearts burned, set afire with the good news of love and compassion they heard and saw proclaimed. Their faith, restored. Their hope, renewed. Their call, remembered.
Scared about their future, consumed by the loss of the recent past, they couldn’t see, at first, the sacred presence there with them, with us, here and now. But doing what they were called to do restored them. Offering welcome to the stranger, breaking bread together, entertaining the Beloved without even knowing they were doing so—these ordinary, extraordinary acts of faith set their hearts afire with the restoring power of love. And then they knew. And they saw God. And they communed with God.

Mary Oliver is a poet whose poems speak to me as prayers. You have heard her poetry woven in other sermons I have shared. Listen for her sense of wonder and awe, hear how she encountered restoration, in this poem, “The Summer Day”:

“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Sometimes, Jesus is walking with us, and we don’t even notice. Sometimes, the spirit anoints us to do exactly what we are least prepared to do, and most fear doing. Sometimes we are called to go where we don’t know, and never, ever again be the same. Sometimes we don’t know how to pray, but we can find prayer by paying attention to the world around us, falling into it, and knowing we are blessed.

We receive our commissioning for ministry, from Romans 12:1,2: So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life; your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life; place it before God as an offering…fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.”

The spirit of God is upon us, because the Holy One is anointing us. God is calling to us. Are not our hearts burning within us?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Amen, and amen.

may 17, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
May 17, 2009
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

Today I want to begin and end this sermon with lists. To begin, a list of Christian one-liners sent to me by one of you. To end, the ABCs of Christian living, as written by a colleague of mine in ministry. In between, I invite us to search the scriptures together—to celebrate God’s living Word, offered to us in love. Love is, after all, the central theme of the Gospel, and our recent lectionary texts return us over and over again to God’s command to love.

Someone asked me this past week if I have been choosing “the love passages” to make a point about same-sex marriage, and the sacred worth and faithfulness of God’s gay and lesbian children. Know that I have been merely preaching from the lectionary. But it is true, the lectionary keeps bringing us back to love. Repeatedly. Almost obsessively. Like a broken record.
Recall the last few weeks: On May 3, we read from 1 John 3:16-24. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And then on May 10, from the 4th chapter of 1 John. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…if we love one another, God lives in us.” And then this morning, we leave 1 John and enter the gospel of John. “As the Creator has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. This is my commandment, that you love one another. I am giving you these other commands so that you may love one another.”

Let us pray: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us.

A few words of humor, mixed in with some subtle truth, to get us started:

Don’t let your worries get the best of you; Remember, Moses started out a basket case.

Some people are kind, polite, and sweet-spirited. Until you try to sit in their pews.

Many people want to serve God, but prefer to do so only as advisors.

People are funny; they want the front of the bus, the middle of the road, and the back of the church.

If a church wants a better pastor, it needs to start by praying for the one it has.

A lot of church folk singing “standing on the promises” are really just sitting on the premises.

God promises a safe landing, not a calm passage.

The task ahead of us is never as great as the Power behind us.

When you get to your wit’s end, you’ll find God lives there.

Don’t let your worries get the best of you. When we want something better, we need to start by praying. Sitting on the premises is a poor substitute for standing on the promises. A safe landing awaits, but sometimes the passage through is anything but calm. The task ahead is never too great for the Power of God surrounding us. And, when you get to your wit’s end, you’ll find God lives there.

This is the message of Psalm 98. Another psalm, praising God as the Creator of the universe. The psalmist, demonstrating God’s power to love, and God’s commitment to doing so. Psalm 98 is a happy psalm. The psalmist, as another pastor put it, is having a good day. She got up in the morning, the sun was shining, it was not too warm and not too cool, and the very “ends of the earth,” we read, “have seen the victory and glory of our God.” It is a good spring time psalm. On bright May mornings the grass here in Osage is green, the dandelions yellow and covering the landscapes, blue birds building their nests, gardens starting to emerge from rich, dark earth, the tulips offering their colorful praise, blue bells covering the fields at New Haven Potholes, wrens sing their scolding song. Good days for singing psalms of praise. “O sing to God a new song, for God has done marvelous things! Our Creator has remembered to show steadfast love and faithfulness. All the ends of the earth have seen the glory of our God. Make a joyful noise, all the earth! Break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Let the sea roar. Let the floods clap their hands. Let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of our God! Surely the presence of our God is in this place, is it not? New Creation.

Have you ever noticed that God doesn’t speak in the Psalms? In over 150 settings, God says nothing. The gospels give voice to a living, loving God. The psalms give voice to God’s people. Us. Sometimes the psalms cry in pain and sorrow, sometimes they cuss and fuss and condemn. Sometimes they cry out in praise and celebration. Like life, like us, it is all jumbled up together, one big, holy mess.

A cycle, as Walter Brueggeman writes, of New Creation, Dislocation, and Reorientation. New Creation. Dislocation. Reorientation. We wake up rested, the sun is shining, we give thanks to God for another new day. And then the phone rings, and there is bad news. Or the loss of a loved one creeps back in. Or our fears and insecurities get the best of us. And we become lost, dislocated. We stray away from this new creation in God and God’s love. But then, because God is God and God is good, because Moses too started off a basket case, and because God does promise a smooth landing, if not a calm passage, and because the task ahead is never too great for the power behind, and because when we get to our wit’s end we find God lives there, well, we find ourselves reorienting. Regrounding in God’s love. Remembering to stand on the promises of love and care and presence. New Creation. Dislocation. Reorientation.

Where are you this morning, in this sacred cycle? What new buds of possibility lay waiting in the fields of your heart? What new song are God calling you to sing? Wherever you are, whatever your song, whether sung in praise of new creation, in the struggle of dislocation, or the saving grace of reorientation, sing out your song to God. Sing a new song, for God is doing marvelous things…

And then, the Good News according to John brings us back to love. In John’s gospel, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. Recall the opening words of this gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word became flesh and dwells among us. Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection—this is the Word of God. The Bible seeks to point us toward it. The Living Word. Love incarnate. No longer do we have only a set of biblical writings to guide our life of faith. Now we have the Living Word. And it is a word of Love.

Jesus does not simply speak God’s words and do God’s works. Rather, Jesus does what he does, lives how he lives, and loves how he loves because he is God’s Word and Work of love in the world. And this passage from John helps us understand what love really is, and what it means to make our homes in, or to abide in, Jesus. In love.

John’s theme is obedience. To obey God is to love. The command is not, “I love you, but…” Or, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” The command from God is, “I love you. And I want you to love one another. I have loved you, so now you must love one another.” A song celebrating new creation. A promise we can stand on when we are experiencing dislocation. And the command that will carry us through, into the reorienting love of God.

This love is to bind us together in community, and bind us to God. This is the path. The process to joy. The kind of joy we can abide in.

To abide in perfect love means to ask, before we speak, before we act, before we judge: Is this rooted in love? Does this bear the fruit of love for the Kin-dom of God?

All of us are ministers of the Gospel. This is the call of our faith, the mark of our baptism. You are called by God to ministry.
Henri Nouwen writes of this call: “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own very limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” As the living body of Christ, we are Christ’s hands and feet and heart in the world. The love of Jesus flows through us, into the world. If we let it. If we love.
Not an easy call, all the time. Dislocating. How are we to be faithful to this call? The gospel implies we can do it one of two ways. As servant, or as friend.

A servant does what she or he is told, often without thought or commitment. Perhaps begrudgingly, or out of fear. The command is an imposition, placed on a servant without choice. Do this, or else. This is not the way God works, Jesus teaches. To act as servant does not lead to abiding in God’s love, or God’s joy.

But to act as a friend? Consider a dear friend of yours. A true friend. A friend responds out of love. Is concerned about the outcome, not just about putting in their time. Invested in cultivating joy, and showing love, and healing hurts, and binding up broken hearts. Jesus speaks to us in love, saying: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends. And I appoint you to go and bear fruit, so that you may love one another.”
Hear the good news! We are chosen to be friends of God! The call can be disorienting, can require us to change, can lead us into singing a new song we never thought we’d find on our lips. But it is not a call to grit our teeth and bear it. It is not meant to be a matter of grim-faced respectability or dour commandment-keeping. This call is meant to be a joy! Challenging, sure. But the call to love and be loved leads us, God promises, into a joy so deep, so abiding, that we cannot help but burst into song. Clap our hands and shout our praise! Make a joyful noise, and sing together for joy at the sure presence of our God!
And Jesus, God’s Word alive in the world and in our hearts, uses himself as the model for this love. It is anchored in daily life. Jesus is giving us a pep talk to end all pep talks, trying to encourage, convince, and convict those who claim to follow him. “You can do this! You can do this because I have done it, and I am here to show you how!”

Abide in love. Bind yourselves in love, to each other and to God. Sing praises for God’s love made known in new creation. Seek and receive God’s grounding, steadfast love when things are a mess and joy seems impossible and love feels far away.
And to guide us, to orient us, the ABCs of Christian living, shared by Sally Hoelsher.

Apologize - and mean it

Be a good example
Care for those in need
Do what you can
Extend an invitation
Generously share your time
Help build a house
Involve yourself in life
Join together with others to work toward common goals
Keep your heart and mind open
Learn about current events
Make someone laugh
Nurture relationships
Offer a word of encouragement
Pray for someone else
Quietly do good deeds
Read to a child
Take time to listen - really listen
Understand your limitations
[Visit someone who is lonely]
Write your congresspeople
eXpect to make mistakes
Yell less
Zealously work for justice [and love.]

And remember God’s promise and command. Jesus is the Word. And the Word says, “As the Creator has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
May we sing this song, and hear it resound, feel it reverberate throughout our lives and to the ends of the earth.
May it be so. Amen, and amen.