Saturday, May 31, 2014

No Greater Love

John 15: 10-17
Memorial Day is a transcendent moment in time where our past, our present, and our future converge.  It is a time when we mend together the pieces of our societal fabric that have been torn apart and frayed, into a quilt of hope that gathers us together as a union built upon freedom and liberty.

We call upon God to consecrate this moment for it is sacred.  We honor and remember America’s war dead within the collective memory of those who live.

To date, according to statistics gathered from the Revolutionary War and beyond, over 1.3 million men and women, named and unknown, dearly loved by their families, beloved to God, have laid down their lives so that we might live in a democratic society that values each and every human being as free and equal women and men.  They have fought battles for us and have shown strength and courage.  They have understood the benefits of a just society and have strived for a better way to live for all people both here and on foreign soil.  Freedom stretches far beyond our beaches and it, unfortunately comes at the cost of human life, for which we grieve.

It is from our Christian story that we can understand that cost and begin to  make sense of it all. 

No greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends and fellow travelers in the journey of life.  No greater love, not sacrifice – love – than to lay down your life.  To love in this way, for one’s own fellow humanity, and for God is a transformative act towards wholeness and healing.  To lay down one’s life is the ultimate expression of God’s commandment to love one another.  They have shown their love, their compassion for life, their determination towards justice, they have understood and obeyed the commandment to love.  Just as God has loved us, they have taken to heart, through their commitment to and actions for our nation, and for the lives of many, that there is absolutely no greater love than to lay down their very life so that others may live.

In the church we continually reconcile the living with the dead, and the grief that will eventually turn to hope for the future.  Death within the context of war is a sad reality of a nation with strong political and ethical values.

As one war memorial emphatically states… “They gave, we have…and their glory shall not be blotted out but their name shall live forevermore”.  We must not forget them.  And so we remember them today, Memorial Day.

When I was in seminary I developed an independent study of war memorials with Dr. William Everett, an ethics professor at Andover Newton Theological School.  The task was to study, read and view, and write about the ethics, aesthetics, and theological aspects of war memorials.  These granite stones, the monuments to those who have died from the necessity and destruction of war are indeed political markers of a country who has vigilantly fought so hard for liberty.  Their beauty and art reflect the time and ideals in which those men and women fought and the actions of those who carry on those ideals.

There are some who perish, and some who survive. This is inevitability when a society engages in war.  Whether there is victory or defeat in the war, suffering from the loss of life is great and there is an overwhelming need for a people to remember and pay tribute to the cause.  The commemoration of soldiers, through memorials and monuments, is the juncture at which the surviving must come, to reconcile the vestiges of political action and the loved one who perished.  Memorialization of war is a crossroad between public acknowledgment and personal intimate losses.

The process of memorialization is a time for people to work through feelings of shock, horror, anger, grief and loss, pride, reconciliation, and national identity.  Lives have been dismantled; our ethics, values and theological understanding have been tested, stretched, and for some even beyond repair.  At some point, both collectively and individually, we must begin the task of putting it all back together again.  We will invent and reinvent the significance of the war and revision our society for years to come.

We stand in reverence at a memorial not because it is a beautiful piece of art but because it is a moving and transformative experience. It brings death and life together, full circle, and invoke the respect for life and love of God.

But war memorials, monuments, markers mean nothing unless we, the living, tend to their meaning.  Unless we clean off, and cut down the weeds that might grow around them, unless we decorate and remember those graves as the original intention of Decoration Day or Memorial Day calls for, then their death was meaningless.

They gave, and as Pericles says in his funeral oration, “take them as your model, and judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom as valor, never decline the dangers of war.”  Do not shy away from what these men and women have chosen to do and do not shy away from the task that is before us now.

These men and women have challenged us; and we must respond.

No greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life.  What would laying down our lives look like in an absence of war context?  If we think together I’m sure that we can come up with some alternative ways in which we can lay down our lives for others while we are still living.  We already do some of that by our outreach efforts.  Preparing and serving meals at Columbus House allows us to lay down or put aside our own needs to help those with greater needs of the very basic sort.

Christ didn’t come into this world to serve himself, far from it, he came into this world to serve others. And he did so by healing the bleeding woman, by curing blind Bartemeaus, by feeding 5,000 people on a moments notice, by being a friend, a confidant and a mentor to his disciples.  Ultimately he did give of his life so that others, me and you could enjoy life.  So that we may see each day anew with all of the promises that his resurrection offers and then to help others.   

So too, we, the church must follow his example.  The church is not about itself but about serving others.  We don’t exist to make the green in Orange a prettier place (although we do) but we exist through the grace of God so that people might be free from that which keeps them from fulfilling the highest potential. Free from prejudice, from hunger, or societal restraints.  The church exists to show kindness in a world fraught with pain.  The Church begins with us.

No greater love than this, is to lay down one’s life for another.  Let us practice the love the Christ came into this world to show us. Let us thank those who have already laid down their life as we pick up the mantle of peace and walk forward confidently because of Christ’s ultimate love for us.


Troubled Hearts; Grateful Hearts

John 14: 1-14
Not too long after my father died suddenly in 1967 I had a ‘toll’ painted small plaque made for my mother with the words, “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled” John 14:1.  It was her favorite Bible verse.  The plaque I still remember but, as with many items from the past, has been gently laid aside, never to be seen again.  It was a Robin’s egg blue color with the words in a beautiful and serene typeface with some daisy’s painted around the words.  

I didn’t know back then that I would pray and read that passage often at the bedside of dying people and at memorial or funeral services as both chaplain and pastor.  I didn’t know back then that it would become a significant passage of comfort to me, “Let not your hearts be troubled….in my father’s house there are many mansions.”

 For mom is was a reminder of God’s love that calmed her from birth until her own death and that it would bring her closer to Daddy someday.  It brought it solace for her broken heart.  For me now it has become a sweet reminder of my parents and that God, too, has claimed me and has prepared a place for me too in the great beyond.  And isn’t that our most burning desire?  To know that there is a place for us, that this life that we live is not in vain?  We wonder, what does God have planned for me when I finally take my last breaths on this earth?

In the grand scheme of the Gospel of John our scripture reading today falls just after Jesus washes his disciples feet and foretells his betrayal, so this is a pre Easter passage.  The disciples have questions, they have fears, they have doubts about their own mortality and in this farewell discourse Jesus attempts to show them how to live once he is gone and to convince them that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Let us hear those comforting words in the Gospel….

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

The disciples hearts are very troubled.  They have come to the realization that their time on earth with Jesus is limited now. Thomas asks, ‘Lord, we just don’t understand where you are going, how can we know this?’  And then Philip also questions Jesus, ‘Lord, just show us the [father] meaning, God.  Just show us and then we can understand and be satisfied.  Their hearts were truly unsettled and troubled.  They know he is leaving but they don’t understand to where he is going.

Jesus tries to make it as pastorally compassionate and direct as possible for them.  It’s pretty clear that the disciples and his other followers were to believe in him and to live in his ways, that is to live into each day as a gift and blessing from God and to live into the truth of who we are as God’s beloved and named children.  He was preparing not only a home with many rooms, one for each but also showing them how to live after he dies because he knows that life and death, living and dying are intrinsically bound together.

Death has got to be the saddest reality of our living.  It makes me sad to think of losing my parents so very long ago, it horrifies and saddens me to think that I could loose one of my children and it saddens me to think about my own mortality because I love life, I love my life and what I choose to do with it.  So it is in sad and distressing times that the words of Jesus become powerful words of hope, “Let not your heart be troubled”. 

These words also encourage me to live boldly today and be grateful for the gift that today really is and for the wonderful blessings that are before me.  The only time that we have is right before us so it bids us to live, to cherish and dream, to be content and to be grateful in the moment, and to love deeply, dearly, and compassionately.  To enjoy the people around us as other children of God. 

I want to share some reflections of Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and author,

“Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die.  But love will remain.  Love is eternal.  Love comes from God and returns to God.  When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love.  The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us.  It is the divine, indestructible core of our being.  This love not only will remain but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.

When we approach our deaths let us say to those we leave behind, "Don't let your heart be troubled.  The love of God that dwells in my heart will come to you and offer you consolation and comfort."

We often wonder how death will occur for us.  Through illness, accident, war, or a natural disaster?  Will our deaths happen suddenly or gradually?  There are no answers for these questions, so we really should not spend time worrying about them.  We don't know how our lives will end, and this is a blessed ignorance!  But there is an important question that we should consider:  When our time to die comes, will we die in such a way that those we leave behind are not devastated by grief or left with feelings of shame or guilt?

How we leave others depends largely on how we prepare ourselves for death.  When we can die with grateful hearts, grateful to God and our families and friends, our deaths can become sources of life for others.

And so it is.  Our living can be a source of life for others just by looking and living today as an abundant blessing of God’s love.  Now don’t let you heart be troubled, there is way too much living to be had.  Let us be grateful for our very lives and live them as a blessing to others.

Rev. Suzanne Wagner
Orange Congregational Church

Monday, May 12, 2014

Gateways, God and the Great Life

John 10:1-10
My hometown, the city of St. Louis, Missouri, is known as the “Gateway to the West.” During the 1800s it was starting point for the westward movement of settlers in the United States and served as a travel stop for many pioneers, settlers, hunters and others who were ‘westward ho’.

Explorers Lewis and Clark started out from St. Louis in 1804 to explore and chart the Louisiana Territory that had been purchased from France.  Many followed the trail of Lewis and Clark from St. Louis to the new frontier.  St. Louis was the last big city that these pioneers encountered before they took to the west.  Here they could pick up supplies before headin’ out.  Many a merchant and entrepreneur made a fine living, even their fortune on the commerce and trade to these adventurers.
A page from the journal of Lewis and Clark
 So it’s no surprise, to me at least, a child of the great state of Missouri, when in the 1960’s they began construction on the St. Louis Gateway Arch.  We took rides downtown to the Mississippi riverfront to see how it was coming together; if the two legs would meet up at the top was the question of the day.  It was a grand day when the Arch was finished because truly now our history was validated and we really did become the “Gateway to the West”. 

In St. Louis you are neither east nor west, you are in a liminal place.  I’ve always been fascinated with liminal places, thresholds if you will and in today’s passage we find Jesus at a gate, and in fact he is the gate. 

From the Contemporary English Version….

Jesus said:  I tell you for certain that only thieves and robbers climb over the fence instead of going in through the gate to the sheep pen.  But the gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and he goes in through it. The sheep know their shepherd’s voice. He calls each of them by name and leads them out.

When he has led out all of his sheep, he walks in front of them, and they follow, because they know his voice.  The sheep will not follow strangers. They don’t recognize a stranger’s voice, and they run away.

Jesus told the people this story. But they did not understand what he was talking about.

[So] Jesus said:  I tell you for certain that I am the gate for the sheep.  Everyone who came before me was a thief or a robber, and the sheep did not listen to any of them.  I am the gate. All who come in through me will be saved. Through me they will come and go and find pasture.

A thief comes only to rob, kill, and destroy. I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest.

Shepherd, gatekeeper, gate!  Geesh it’s hard to tell just who Jesus is trying to portray himself as on first read of this passage.  And if it’s not confusing enough to us we see that the people were confused also, which is why there is repetition or sort of a retelling of the story.  Well to understand this passage we need to understand the tension in chapter 9 because this gives us some context with which to get a grip on what Jesus (or the author of John) is trying to tell us.

If you remember from a couple of weeks ago we heard the story of the man born blind that Jesus healed with mud.  The man was brought to the Pharisees and they refused to believe that he had been healed by Jesus.   On both sides, questions of exclusion and inclusion began to rage; who was in and who was out on all levels was topic of discussion and disagreement.

So by the time we get to chapter 10 Jesus’ discourse really targets at his opponents and his is pulling no punches with this metaphoric story.  And, if you remember the Christology in John is high and what that means is that Jesus already knows he is the Son of God and speaks of himself as the fully imbedded word incarnate.  He knows people by name, he ensures their safety, and he lays down his life so that their salvation is affected.

There are many ways to look at this passage with the different roles Jesus ascribes to himself in this pastoral setting but I want to stay with the image of gate because it is a provocative image for us to think about.   

Certainly gates are those liminal places where you cross from one place to the next.
Liminal places are those places where worlds come together, where you are betwixt and between.  The confirmation kids are now preparing to affirm the baptismal vows that their parents made for them long ago.  We look at them now as children of the church when in a few weeks, when they stand at the gate of confirmation we will look at them as full adult members of this church.  They are in a liminal place right now.

A gate gives us access to what is on the other side.  Sometimes we just have to walk through a gate, or doorway, or archway to get relief, find true happiness and acceptance, or feel protected and secure.  

A gate provides a way through a barrier and we all have certain barriers in life, don’t we?  Writers block, financial woes, threatening illness…haven’t you ever prayed for God to help you over or through the thickness of life’s blockades? That’s where a gate comes in handy.

It is true that a closed gate provides for us protection from the ‘bad guys’, the wolves and coyotes that are out to hunt us down.  But it is also true that a closed gate can be a mechanism for exclusivity and we must be ever vigilant that we practice inclusivity and not exclusivity because heaven knows that the church of the ages and still today has not been as open as they could have been to each person who walks this earth.  They have not affirmed each person as a beloved and adored child of God, which I believe we all are.   We probably never should use Jesus as ‘the gate’ to hide behind our own prejudice and hatred, not a good idea.   The gate should swing far and wide for anyone who wants to walk through it because we know what is on the other side.

Jesus shows us how to pass from a normal existence to a life of abundance by walking through the gate.  The key to unlocking the Johannine puzzle is verse 10.  Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  The gate is about abundance.  Jesus is about abundant living.

Abundant living in Jesus doesn’t mean that we will have jewels like King Tut or wealth like Warren Buffet.  Abundant living in Jesus means that we will find grace in our living, fortitude to walk through the darkest valleys, peace in our humble circumstances, joy even in the leaner times of life. 

Abundant living means nurturing your gifts and using them so that you can be happy and in turn make the world a happier place and isn’t that what we really all want?  Christ’s resurrection has given us a way to understand all of this.  The gates of righteousness, shaare zedek in Hebrew, gates of mercy, gates of abundance are open for you to walk through; so what are you waiting for?  You are not alone!