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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sermon: The Mystery of the Trinity

by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
The Holy Trinity

One of the most difficult doctrines of the church to understand is the Trinity, that God is three persons, yet one. It is difficult for us to grasp because God is difficult for us to grasp in all of God's fullness.

There are different approaches to trying to grasp things we don't understand, I will look at two approaches the church has used to understand the Trinity.

The first approach is the intellectual approach through a statement of belief, called a creed. If we look at a little used creed, called the Athanasian Creed (which, by the way, didn't make it into the new hymnal), you see the work of this long creed to teach about the Trinity. I am just going to read half of this creed, by the way "catholic" used in this creed means "universal."

Whoever wants to be saved,
should above all cling to the catholic faith.
Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable
will doubtless perish eternally.
Now this is the catholic faith:
We worship one God in Trinity,
and the Trinity in unity,
neither confusing the persons,
nor dividing the divine being.
For the Father is one person,
the Son is another,
and the Spirit is still another.
But the deity of the Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit
is one, equal in glory,
co-eternal in majesty.
What the Father is,
the Son is,
and so is the Holy Spirit.
Uncreated is the Father;
uncreated is the Son;
uncreated is the Spirit.
The Father is infinite;
the Son is infinite;
the Holy Spirit is infinite.
Eternal is the Father;
eternal is the Son;
eternal is the Spirit.
And yet there are not three eternal beings,
but one who is eternal;
as there are not three uncreated
and unlimited beings,
but one who is uncreated and unlimited.
Almighty is the Father;
almighty is the Son;
almighty is the Spirit:
And yet they are not three almighty beings,
but one who is almighty.
Thus the Father is God;
the Son is God;
and the Holy Spirit is God:
And yet there are not three gods,
but one God.
Thus the Father is Lord;
the Son is Lord;
and the Holy Spirit is Lord:
And yet there are not three lords,
but one Lord.
As Christian truth compels us
to acknowledge each distinct person
as God and Lord,
so the catholic religion forbids us
to say that there are
three gods or lords.
The Father was neither made
nor created nor begotten;
The Son was neither made nor created,
but was alone begotten of the Father;
The Spirit was neither made nor created,
but is proceeding
from the Father and the Son.
Thus there is one Father,
not three fathers;
one Son, not three sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.
And in this Trinity
no one is before or after,
greater or less than the other;
but all three persons are in themselves
coeternal and coequal;
and so we must worship
the Trinity in unity
and the one God in three persons.
Whoever wants to be saved must thus think about the Trinity.

Notice the rhythm of the creed "Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son; uncreated is the Spirit." but they are not three they are one we hear three times. When we have tried explain the Trinity we use examples like water, ice, and steam, the image sort of holds but it can't be all at once and so our best efforts to understand the mystery of the Trinity break down. If you are trying to explain the Trinity to a confirmation class, inevitably you will have one astute confirmation student who will ask, "So if God shows up for dinner do you set three place settings or one?" The Athanaisan Creed is an intellectual approach to understand the Trinity.

The second approach the Eastern Orthodox church has used the understand the Trinity is a visual approach through the use of icons. An icon is a window through which we get a glimpse of the divine. On your bulletin cover for today this is Andrei Rublev's Icon often called the Old Testament Trinity, it was created around 1410.

St Nocone, head of the monastery of the Trinity at Zagorak in Russia, had asked Rublev "to represent the Trinity as source and exemplar of all unity." To get at this Rublev choose the story of the three visitors who came to Abraham near the Oaks of Mamre. These three visitors are God's presence to Abraham and Sarah as they receive hospitality from Abraham and Sarah and in return the visitors give them the gift of a son. So at the center of the icon is the table which represents hospitality, around the table on three sides are the visitors which are shown with wings to highlight that they are divine heavenly beings.

These three beings look as if they are the same person in three different positions. Each of the three holds in their hand the same sceptre, symbol of power, and has the same halo which is white, pure light; they have equal dignity and equal royalty.

Let's look at the clothing of the three. All three individuals wear the color blue - symbol of the divine truth in which they dwell. The Father, the image on the left, seems to wear a fabric that changes with the light that seems transparent.

The Son, the image in the middle, has the deepest colors; a thick heavy garment of the reddish-brown earth speaks of his humanity and a cloak of blue speaks of his divinity, the gold stripe over his right shoulder speaks of the uniting of heaven and earth.

The Holy Spirit, the image on the right, has a garment of clear blue sky, wrapped over with a robe of green. So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth. All living things owe their freshness to her gift of new life.

Now let's look at the postures of the three. The Father looks forward, raising his hand in blessing to the Son. It is impossible to tell whether he looks up at the Son or down to the chalice on the table, but his gesture expresses a movement towards the Son. "This is my Son, listen to him…"The hand of the Son points on, around the circle, to the Spirit. In this simple array we see the movement of life towards us, The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit. The life flows clockwise around the circle. And we complete the circle. As the Father sends the Son, as the Son sends the Holy Spirit, so we are invited and sent to complete the circle of the God-head with our response. And we respond to the movement of the Spirit who points us to Jesus. And Jesus shows us the Father in whom all things come to fruition. This is the counter-clockwise movement of our lives, in response to the movement of God. And along the way are the three signs at the top of the picture which draw us into the Trinity: the mountain, the tree, the house.

The Spirit touches us, even though we do not know who it is that is touching us. She leads us by ways we may not be aware, up the mountain of prayer. In the scriptures mountains are often places where people encounter God. The Spirit leads us on a journey to the Father, it may be steep and rocky journey, but the Holy Spirit goes before us along the path.

The journey to the Father leads to Jesus, the Son of God, and it leads to a tree. This could be the oak tree at Mamre under which the three angelic visitors rested and received hospitality. It is a great tree which spreads its shade in the heat of the day. The tree represents a place of security, a place of peace, a place of hospitality, a place where we begin to find out the possibilities of who we can be. It is no ordinary tree. It stands above the Son in the picture, and stands above the altar-table where the lamb lies within the chalice. This tree could also signify the cross, because of the Christ's sacrifice this tree grows. The tree of death has been transformed into a tree of life for us.

The tree is on the way to the house. Over the head of the Father is the house of the Father. It is the goal of our journey. It is the beginning and end of our lives. Its roof is golden. Its door is always open for the traveler. It has a tower, and its window is always open so that the Father can incessantly scan the roads for a glimpse of a returning prodigal.

We return now to the table at the center of the icon. It is at once the place of Abraham's hospitality to the angels, and God's place of hospitality to us. That ambiguity lies at the heart of communion, at the heart of worship. As soon as we open a sacred place for God to enter, for God to be welcomed and adored, it becomes God's holy place. It is we who are welcomed, it is we who must 'take off our shoes' because of the holiness of the ground.

Contained in the centre of the circle is a sign of death. In the chalice is the sacrificial lamb. [Eastern Orthodox communion has the bread mixed in the chalice with the wine.] The holy meal brought to the table. All points to this space, this mystery: within it, everything about God is summed up and expressed, his power, his glory, and above all his love. And it is expressed in such a way that we can reach it. For the space at this table is on our side. We are invited to join the group at the table and receive the heart of their being for ourselves.

We are invited to complete the circle, to join the dance, to complete the movements of God in the world by our own response. Below the altar a rectangle marks the holy place where the relics of the martyrs were kept in a church. It lies before us. The icon invites us into the mystery of the Triune God to come into the depth and intimacy of all that is represented here.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Come follow the Spirit up the mountain of prayer. Come, live in the shadow of the Son of God, rest yourself beneath his tree of life. Come, journey to the home, prepared for you in the house of your Father. The table is spread, the door is open. Come.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sermon: Down and Out: The Spirit Comes Down and We Go Out

by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
Day of Pentecost
Affirmation of Baptism of Adam Michael Ruff
Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21

There once was a young boy who wanted to show his grandpa his school. They set out in the car, the grandpa drove and the boy gave directions. They drove a couple a blocks, turned, another couple of blocks, turned again, another couple of blocks, turned again, after 15 minutes or so of this twisting and turning through residential streets, they pulled up to the school. When they got out of the car the grandpa looked around and noticed that they were only about eight blocks from the boy’s house. He asked his grandson how it is that he took him on that route when they could have taken a more direct route. The boy responded that it was route his bus took every day and it was the only way he knew.

Sometimes we get our directions wrong but it still works out. Other times we get our directions wrong and it doesn’t work out. Have you ever gotten so turned around following directions that the right turns became left turns and the left turns became right turns? Sometimes we get our directions wrong but it doesn’t work out.

The people in the city of Babel got their directions wrong and it didn’t work out. They looked into themselves and wanted to go up to be God. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). They wanted to make a name for themselves not for God. So, to show that they were not as great as they thought, the writer of Genesis says, “The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built” (Genesis 11:5). Note how they think they are going in the right direction, UP to the heavens, yet God comes down to see them, they got it wrong. And because they got their directions wrong the LORD God decides that they will cause all kinds of trouble so God goes down again and confuse their language so that they will be divided and go in different directions. They got their directions wrong, they look into themselves and wanted to go up and be God.

Pentecost reverses the direction, the spirit of God comes down to the people and the people go out to others. Now this idea of God coming down is not meant to be spatial that God is up there somewhere, because God is everywhere. So the idea of God coming down is more relational, God is above us in the universe organizational flow chart. The LORD God creator of the universe is over all of creation and instead of having substrata of managers, assistant managers, and grunts on different levels of the organizational flow chart all of creation is on the same level below the Creator.

God sends the Holy Spirit down to everyone on our level. Before this Pentecost day and the sending of the Holy Spirit to ALL people, only certain people were given the Holy Spirit: priests, prophets, judges, and kings. But now the Holy Spirit is sent down upon ordinary folks like you and I, young and old equally, even servants will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit then sends us out to others, out into the streets, to tell others about the Good News of Jesus Christ, of God’s love for the broken hearted, of forgiveness which transforms lives, of grace which washes over us again and again when we fall short, of the Holy Spirit which calls, gathers, enlightens and makes us holy. The Holy Spirit comes down and we go out to tell others.

Our confirmation program at Mount Olive includes three years of instruction followed by the rite of Affirmation of Baptism. Adam was carried to the baptismal font as an infant at that time his parents and sponsors made promises to raise him in the Christian faith. Now the Holy Spirit ahs come down and sent out Adam to live out his Christian faith.

Here is Adam’s statement of faith:

When I went to San Francisco for my school’s 8th grade trip, we did a service project. For the service project we cleaned a beach and weeded a garden. As much as I liked helping the environment I was kind of discouraged because we didn’t do anything for the people of San Francisco. Homelessness is a big problem in San Francisco and I think I would’ve gotten more out of helping the homeless. Jesus said “as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done unto me.” This reminds me that helping others is a way to live out my faith.

I believe that God made us and wants us to help others when they need help and when we need help people will return the favor. Doing the community meal here at Mount Olive is something I like to do because I am serving Jesus. It makes me feel good about myself because I helped someone out. When I see all those people with so much less than me makes me feel glad that have a house and a bed every night and they might not. After the community meal it makes me want to be less selfish and do more for the people less fortunate.

At my school we have the Olweus bullying program that targets what kinds of bullying happens and how us kids can stop it. At first I didn’t pay attention to it because it was at the end of the day and I just wanted to go home, but once I started listening I realized it’s really easy to intervene and stop someone from getting bullied. As a part of my faith stopping bullying is a way of serving God. So when I do something like stop someone from being bullied my beliefs are strengthened and I am serving Jesus.

The Holy Spirit sends us out to others and others to us. The spirit creates a community of care and caring, in which we experience God’s love and Jesus’ forgiveness. The Holy Spirit empowers us to do works in service to Jesus.

It is easy for us to get our directions wrong, we serve self instead of serving God or others, we go into ourselves instead of out to others, we seek to raise ourselves to be God instead of seeing God coming down to us.

Dear Friends in Christ, the Holy Spirit comes down to send us out. As we go out we serve God by serving others and create a community of care and caring for all. That gets us going in the right direction.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sermon: Waiting for God to Act

by The Rev. Elizabeth Beissel
Seventh Sunday of Easter

Let us pray: Gracious God, you promise to be with us to the end of the age. May that promise bear in us love and hope visible for all to see.

At Augustana Lutheran Church where I served as pastor we always had lectionary studies before Sunday and preaching a sermon. They were held on a Wednesday and then after the study the preacher could muse and meditate and relish the working and preaching of the texts. And we almost always asked this silly question during those Wednesday morning studies. The question was, "Do you suppose the texts today are going to be a bit dull?" and in the midst of the study we’d say "NOOOOOOOOOOO - NOT THESE TESTS."

This happened every time we met, every Wednesday, and then on Sunday morning inevitably people would open their bulletins and look at the sermon title, eager to see our lectionary study in it.

And this Sunday is no exception for the texts are not dull. They are a full range from a slave-girl hosting a spirit of divination to the heavens proclaiming the Righteousness of God in Psalm 97 to an ancient seer promising that Jesus is coming soon to Jesus praying not only for us who are followers of the Christ of God but also for those who will yet believe in the Christ of God through our words and deeds.

And I hope that some of you, as you opened the bulletin and listened to the texts read, may have asked yourselves, "What's with the Title she has chosen for this sermon: WAITING FOR GOD TO ACT? What’s that about?"

I know how some of our friends at the condominium where Joe and I live would say to such a title. We have lived in this condominium for five years and over that time love and care has developed between unlikely friends. Some of us are Jews who have deep roots in Judaism but over time and all that happens in a life those roots have weakened. Some of us are Catholics raised in the heart of the faith and in the heart of the Catholic parochial school system and their faith has become cynical and certainly disaffected. Some are atheists who do not believe in God but whose love shines through in caring service and any are without roots in faith communities.
And I think most of them would scoff at such a title as Waiting for God to act. It is because of all these friends and my own life that the slave-girl hosting a spirit of divination has caught my attention.

The book of Acts records that the Apostle Paul is eager to share the discovery that was brought to him on the Damascus Road when in a blinding flashing light he discovered that the God of all, the God of the universe, the Center of all things knows us and loves us without end and Paul is eager to share this discovery and to proclaim it from the rooftops.

Thus he and his companion Silas enter Europe and the city of Philipi where, in today‘s first lesson from the Book of Acts, the 16th chapter, they encounter a slave girl who the text says had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.

Now I know that over the years this slave girl has been identified as evil or crazy or mentally ill or inhabited by an evil spirit. But I want to suggest another possibility for it's a possibility I know well. I suggest that she is none of these but rather she is bright and inquisitive and receptive and vulnerable for she’s hungry. She's not food hungry but spirit hungry, like so many of the people in this city today. I know her well for I was like her as a child and teenager and a beginning college student. Most likely she was not raised in a faith tradition just as I was not. but out of my own experience I believe she heard something calling her.

This was "something" for which she had no name or identity for that calling was strong and deep and rich and promised that there was a future and a reason for being and a purpose for living. What that "something" was she did not know but Paul did. Paul saw her owners, for she WAS a slave and Paul saw how they were using her. They had used the culture of the day, the pagan world of that day, and her hunger for spirit to support evil entering her so that they could make a buck.

"I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." That’s what Paul said in today’s first lesson and the text goes on to say And it came out that very hour. But I do not believe this text is about evil spirits invading a girl but it is about the Spirit of God eager to let her know who God is. I believe this text is about letting her know that that Something calling her for which she had no name or identity was in fact God Almighty, The God of the universe. And The Center of all things who knew and loved her.

I came to know this truth over many years but it started in a dormitory room at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio when I was a sophomore and my new freshman roommate was a girl raised and schooled from birth in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

And as a result of God working, we were roommates. One evening we were at our desks talking about what I don’t remember when in the course of conversation she said "LIKE JOHN 3:16." And I asked "What?" And she replied "like John 3:16" and I asked "What?" And again she replied "like John 3:16" and again I asked "What?" and she said in a very irritated tone "LIKE JOHN 3:16" and when I once more asked "What?" she was dumbfounded and at a loss for words. She had never met someone like me!

And that was the beginning of the answer to what that something which had been calling me was. It was the beginning of discovery of that something for which I had no name or identity - that something whose calling was strong and deep and rich and promised that there was a future and a reason for being and a purpose for living. For I believe that God is constantly at work bringing life out of death and God uses us - all of us - to bring God's will and love to bear.

Today that calling is to you, Mount Olive Lutheran Church. The final words of the Apostle John from today’s Gospel are spoken and prayed and called to each of us as Jesus prays these words: "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."

And so what do we do? What do we, who believe that God Almighty loves us, do? In today's second lesson from The Revelation to John the author writes this description to us about who Jesus is:

'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.' 'It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.'
The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.'
And let everyone who hears say, 'Come.'
And let everyone who is thirsty come.

And we who are followers of Jesus have a job to do for there are so many hungry for hope and spirit and joy. We are called to believe that God is at work and is already acting in our lives wherever we live and play and work and laugh and suffer. For wherever we are God will use us as we live our lives, just like God acted when a Freshman at Wittenberg University encountered a sophomore who did not know John 3:16.

God is using you even now for Jesus is God Almighty come to us in human form so that we and all those hungry for Spirit and hope might know the truth which is THAT GOD LOVES US BEYOND MEASURE.

That word "LOVE" is tricky for our definitions of love in today's culture are so terribly diluted that oftentimes this phrase GOD LOVES YOU has little meaning for many. The word I want to use is a word we rarely if ever use for God. And that word is adore. We use it in reference to humans in relationship to God - We adore God - but we humans almost never use this word in reference to how God sees us. We rarely, if ever, say God adores us. But According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary the first definition of Adore is To regard with the utmost esteem, love, and respect; honor.

What is the cross if it is not God regarding us humans with the utmost esteem, love and respect; honor? And if this is not true of God then the cross is a sham. But we believe that the cross is in fact life. We believe the cross is God showing us the depth of God’s love and power and presence.

Trust that God is acting right this minute and the moment you leave this sanctuary and every moment of your life. Trust that God is acting in the world and with us and in us even when we have no clue at all. For we believe that God is acting in the world and in our live in ways we often do not understand so that those we meet or see or with whom we have conversation will know that their hunger for Spirit and hope can be filled.

And so my dear friends waiting for God to act is not passively sitting around wondering when and where and if God acts but rather trusting it for God is acting this very minute!!!!


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sermon: Keep Both in Mind

Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
The Ascension of Our Lord
Acts 1:1-11

Growing up on a farm I learned to drive a tractor at a young age. I enjoyed driving the tractor. I drove the tractor while pulling the bailer (to bail hay), the disk (to prepare the fields for planting), and the mowing (to mow the sod field) for not only did we raise alpha, corn and beans but we also raised grass to be sold for sod. By the time I was twelve I was pretty good at my jobs. One day as we were driving to town, I noticed some of the neighboring farmers had disked their fields diagonally. I thought it looked really cool so I asked my dad how they did it. He told me that in order to do the diagonal you needed to pick a spot diagonally across the field, and drive toward it.

I was excited to use this new technique. Finally the day arrived, I positioned the tractor with the mower at one corner of the field, picked my spot, the tall corner fence post across the field, then I began driving toward it pulling the mower. I intently focused on that spot for a few minutes, then I noticed a blue heron fly out of the creek to my right. After watching it for a second or two my eyes returned to the tall corner fence post, then I noticed the Anderson’s were out in their field to my left, so I watched them for a second or two, once again my eyes returned to the tall corner fence post. When I finally reached the destination, I was eager to turn around and see the perfect diagonal I cut across the field. I turned to look and I saw the most crooked diagonal you ever did see, I was so bummed. It looked awful. I finished up mowing the field trying to correct that awful blunder but there wasn’t much I could do.

That evening after dad got home from work I told him about my blunder and asked him what went wrong. He asked the appropriate questions, did you pick a spot? Yes, I told him. Did you follow toward it? Yes. Did you look at anything else? No, well yes there were a couple of things but I didn’t look away for that long I thought. “Well Hollie,” he said, “you have to keep both the end point and the surroundings in mind when you are doing this. The trick is to keep both in mind while moving forward.”

In the story of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts, Jesus gives one final instruction. He tells the disciples not to leave Jerusalem for they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. And when they receive the Holy Spirit they will be his witnesses from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth. When Jesus finishes saying these words, he was lifted up before the disciples eyes and than a cloud too him out of their sight. The disciples want to keep looking for Jesus in the sky. As they see him go they long for his presence. But two men in white robes appear beside them and ask them, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up form you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, “stop gazing up toward heaven your work is to wait for the Holy Spirit and then be Jesus’ witnesses on the earth.” Yes, it is important to look up to Jesus, but it is also important to look around you, you need to keep both in mind.

The writer of Ephesians states that Jesus is seated in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:20). Then in Ephesians 2:6 we learn that God has raised us up with Christ and we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. What does this mean for us to be seated with Christ in the heavenly places?

A greeting card at a Christian book store had these words on the outside, “Keep looking down.” That’s odd, we usually say, “Keep looking up?” Yes, that is the phrase but on that card the direction was changed, “Keep looking down.” On the inside of the card were the words, “You are seated with Christ in the heavenlies.”

Because of Jesus’ ascension we have a different perspective, we look at things not from our eyes or our perspective, but from the eyes of Christ Jesus whose grace, forgiveness, and love gives us new eyes for living and new eyes for others. We are not so heavenly minded we are no earthly good, nor are we so earthly minded that we are no heavenly good. We need to keep both in mind and keep moving forward. The heavenly perspective keeps engaging in earthly matters, the earthly perspective keeps reminding us to be Jesus’ witnesses.

What does it mean for us to be named after the place (the Mount of Olives) where Jesus ascended? I think it means we look to God in worship and to our neighbor in service, we keep both in mind. We need to keep both in mind while moving forward to be Christ’s witnesses in this place, in the street, in our homes, in our workplaces, and to the ends of the earth.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sermon: Open To All

by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
Sixth Sunday of Easter

When I was serving two rural congregations in my first call, seventeen years ago, the congregations had a tradition of a Children’s Sermon by the pastor, which was wildly popular with the youth. The reason for the popularity was that during the two year interim before I arrived, the interim pastor gave out candy at the end of the Children’s Sermon. Immediately I made friends with the parents and the mature members of the congregation when I did not hand out candy. The children, however, took a little while to get use to the idea of a Children’s Sermon without candy.

Something I did institute at the Children’s Sermon time was something called the “Sermon Bucket.” This was not an original idea. It was something I learned from a friend of mine who also served two rural churches. The idea was that the children would take turns putting something into the bucket which I would have to make up a sermon about on the spot. The Sermon Bucket was a regular 5 quart ice cream pail with a lid. On the lid were the rules, 1) it had to fit in the bucket, 2) it couldn’t be alive, and 3) it couldn’t stink. This became wildly popular during my time in that call. It was open to all of the children and it was something in which they could all participate, the adults engaged with it also. The children took it very seriously and would take thought and care into whatever they put in the bucket. The adults kept waiting for me to be stumped. I, of course, needed to be open to whatever might be in the bucket and run with it.

I don’t remember what children brought nor do I remember what I said about any of them during my time there. However I do remember the one time I was stumped. It was Mother’s Day 1996. The youngest of the Larson kids had the Sermon Bucket, she was about 4 years old. I don’t remember her name. It was her idea to purchase a purple little bear that said “Happy Mother’s Day” on it to place it is the bucket. She came forward, face beaming. When I opened the bucket and saw the bear, I began to think about Jesus as a mother bear who gathers her cubs in her arms to keep them safe, but then the little Larson girl said, “It’s for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” And all the words in my head melted away. When we are open to another we never know how that other might change us.

When the Spirit of God became open to all people after Pentecost many changes took place in people’s lives. It is odd to talk about the Holy Spirit getting loose when liturgically we have not yet celebrated Pentecost yet, however all of our readings from Acts this Easter season take place after the giving of the Holy Spirit. The main theme of the Acts of the Apostle’s comes from Acts 1:8, when Jesus, before he ascends (another liturgical day we celebrate this Thursday), says to the disciples, “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 the themes of these readings have been that the God’s Holy Spirit is open to all, the spirit is poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17).

We see that the Holy Spirit is open to all in today’s Acts reading. The Holy Spirit gives Paul a vision to go to Macedonia, this is new territory for Paul and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is in the city of Philippi where the first convert to Christianity in Europe is a woman.

Lydia was no ordinary woman it that day, she was a business woman, the head of her household, and a “worshipper of God.” Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth. In those days a purple cloth was associated with high social class and wealth. Apparently the purple dye was obtained from the shells of an ocean mollusk, which was difficult to get and produce therefore the dye and garments of that color was expensive.

Lydia was also the head of her household, which was more than a bit unusual, for it was men who were the head of the household. Now the household included both family and servants. We are not certain if she was married and widowed (divorced?) or never married.

Since Lydia was from Thyratira she was probably a Gentile, which is why she is referred to as a “worshipper of God.” Thyratira is located in a county named Lydia in the SW Asia Minor. Thyatira was famous for its dyeing. Some scholars think her name had originally be an adjective “a woman of Lydia,” which may be why Paul never refers to her, in his letter to Philippi. Paul does mention receiving gifts from the Philippians church (II Corinthians 11:8, Philippians 4:16). At some point she moved her household and business to Philippi in Macedonia. Philippi was on a major east-west trade route.

Lydia and some other women are worshipping God outside the gate by the river because the synagogue was not open to women. Paul speaks to the women and the spirit of God opened Lydia’s heart. After her heart is opened she and her entire household is baptized and then she opens her home to Paul (and Silas and Timothy who are traveling with Paul).

When the Holy Spirit opens the heart, people are changed. But sometimes when we try to change things and/or people it doesn’t work so well. There was a certain man who as a young adult set out to change the world, but became bitter with the results. Then in his middle years he set out to change the nation, once again with no results there too he became bitter. Later he set out to change his house, once again no result followed bitterness in his life. Finally in his old age he set out to change himself. Then he realized that if he would have changed himself first, maybe he would have changed his house, the nation, and the world.

A Chinese Proverb puts it this way:
If there is light in the soul,
there will be beauty in the person.
If there is beauty in the person,
there will be harmony in the house.
If there is harmony in the house,
there will be order in the nation.
If there is order in the nation,
there will be peace in the world.

Peace is open to all because of Christ Jesus. Because the Holy Spirit is living and acting and moving it is possible to experience the peace of which Jesus speaks.

We may look around us and hear of murders, traffic deaths, diagnosis of cancer, oil spills, economic and market uncertainty and say there is no peace in the world. We hear some people say the only way for peace is through war or in the case of the country of Iran, the only way for peace is to get rid of the current president. How well did that work in Iraq?

Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is the presence of God. Peace is not the absence of pain. Peace is the presence of Jesus Christ. Peace is not the absence of suffering. Peace is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit the Advocate, in Greek the paraklytos, who called to our side us in the midst of this world. Not only is the Holy Spirit called to our side, but the work of God is also communal and calls others to our side, like Lydia who open her home to care for and support Paul and his ministry. Or like the friend that calls at the right time, or the email or letter that arrives, or the acquaintance who listens, or the person who helps.

The peace of God may come from unlikely sources or circumstances which others may not see or recognize. The struggles may continue but the Holy Spirit will not leave you.

Dear Friends in Christ, may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sermon: Love One Another

by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 13:31-35

The first time I read through today’s gospel, I thought the message was simple; love one another. But as I thought more about love and what it really means to love one another, I realized that this is more complex.

Love is a word we hear bantered around carelessly. We love certain foods, fine wine, movies, stories, or events. In advertisements we hear that we will love this new product or feature or deal. Often in domestic abuse cases we hear of the abuser talking about how much they love the one who they abused, or we hear of the abused talking about how much they love the abuser and therefore cannot leave him/her. Love is also often confused with sexual intimacy and they are not the same, you can have one without the other.

When we enter the genre of love songs what do we learn about love? Listen to this list of love songs in which the title starts with the word love:
  • Love Can Move Mountains
  • Love Changes Everything
  • Love Comes without Warning
  • Love Don’t Cost a Thing
  • Love Gets Me Every Time
  • Love Is All
  • Love Is All Around
  • Love Is All We Need
  • Love Is In The Air
  • Love Me or Leave Me Alone
  • Love Me or Let Me Go
  • Love Me Tender
  • Love Will Always Win
  • Love Will Conquer All
  • Love Will Find a Way
  • Love Wouldn’t Count Me Out
  • Love Wouldn’t Lie To Me
Add to this “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” “Crazy in Love,” and “Love to Love you Baby,” what do we learn of love from these songs? We hear of effortless love. We hear that we “fall in love,” that there is love at first sight, and that we can live happily ever after with the one we love. While it makes a good story line for songs and movies this effortless love is far from the real love which I think Jesus was getting at in our gospel for today.

If we take a look at the broader context of this passage we will notice that it comes in the larger section of Jesus’ “Farewell Address” to his disciples in chapters 13, 14, & 15 of John’s gospel. The “very narrative in which this commandment is lodged suggests that there is nothing easy about keeping the commandment to love one another” (Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Luke/John, p. 734).

Chapter 13 of John’s gospel begins with Jesus washing the disciple’s feet, a passage which we recently heard on Maundy Thursday. Jesus is washing their feet to show that Jesus is not above the menial task of serving others so that they also ought to serve one another. “Servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:16-17). But the disciples do not quite understand this service of love, Peter thinks his whole body should be washed, and Judas goes off to betray Jesus before the passage for today. Then right after the passage for today Peter tells Jesus that he is ready to lay down his life for Jesus, but Jesus knows what will happen to Peter. Before the rooster crows Peter will deny Jesus three times (John 13:38).

There is nothing easy or effortless about keeping the commandment to love one another.

What do we learn from Jesus about love in this “Farewell Address” from John? I would like to highlight three things: Love requires effort, love is a choice, and love is a risk.

Love requires effort. Jesus says in John 13, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). Love requires effort. We have learned from John 3:16 that God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. God put forth the effort to love us through Jesus. God knows that our love is imperfect yet God still took the effort to come to us.

Love is a choice. Jesus says in John 15, “You did not choose me, I chose you” (John 15:16). Jesus has chosen to love us. This choice was made freely without coercion. God does not need us, God wants us. Jesus chose you as his own.

Love is a risk. Again in John 15 Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). And this is the greatest risk of all to give up one’s live for another. God risked his own son for us so that we may be his won. God risked for you and continues to risk loving you.

What does it mean to love one another? It requires effort to follow Jesus’ example as a servant. It is a choice to serve someone who is different. It is a risk to reach out to someone who may not be able to love us back, who may even take advantage of us or take us for granted.

In the gospel passage Jesus says three times love one another as I have loved you. I wonder if it is because Jesus knows that we are imperfect and prefer effortless love so he reminds us three times that he loves us. We need to hear the context of Jesus love for us as we are to love one another.

Beloved in Christ, Jesus call for us to love one another is a challenge which requires effort, is a choice, and is a risk, however it is a challenge we can take on because Jesus has loved us and has showed us the power of his love to work even in the hardest of hearts.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Reconciling in ChristRIC

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