READING: Luke 8:26-39
26Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
On the surface, the story of the Gerasene man possessed by demons seems pretty simple. The man, whose name is never told, has been possessed for years, not by just one demon, but many. He has been kept in chains, cast out from the community, lived in the wilds. When we read this description, it sounds like this person, this child of God, looked and acted—and was treated—more like an animal than a human being. And then, Jesus comes to town, and the man is released from the demons. A miracle has occurred, and everything has changed! After so many years of bondage, the man is free.
On the surface, the story of the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation also seems pretty simple. Millions of people, children of God, had been kept in chains, abused, worked and sold for profit, treated for generations more like animals than human beings. And then, January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and the slaves, at least legally speaking, were released from their chains. A miracle had occurred, and everything changed! After centuries of bondage, the people of African descent were free.
When we look closer, neither the story of the release of the Gerasene demoniac, nor the story of the freeing of millions of people who had lived in slavery, is as simple as it seems. Both stories warrant a little attention, especially this week, as we remember the 4th anniversary of the execution of 9 black people in Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina, by a young white supremacist who was born and raised in the ELCA. From both of these stories, we learn that freedom, healing, transformation, are not simple, one-time, individual events, but communal experiences of growth and change that can take years, generations, to be fully realized.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it certainly meant the legal end of slavery, but it was far from the end of the story. For those living in chains, AND for those whose whole lives had been formed in a world built on the institution of slavery, this declaration of freedom turned upside down the only world any of them every knew! It required transformation at almost every level—financial, social, practical, physical, political, for everyone in the nation.
The change would take generations. It certainly started with the signing of the Proclamation over 150 years ago, but what many of us don’t realize is that it would be two and a half years before the last of the slaves knew of its passing. On June 19, 1965, General Gordon Granger of the Union Army finally reached Galveston, Texas, where his first order of business was to read the Emancipation Proclamation to the slaves still being held there. In the midst of the wide ranging reactions to the news, celebrations broke out, which are continued today each June 19th in a celebration known as Juneteenth. On the website Juneteenth.com, it says, "Juneteenth is a day on which honor and respect is paid for the sufferings of slavery. It is a day on which we acknowledge the evils of slavery and its aftermath. On Juneteenth we talk about our history and realize because of it, there will forever be a bond between us. On Juneteenth we think about that moment in time when the enslaved in Galveston, Texas received word of their freedom. We imagine the depth of their emotions, their jubilant dance and their fear of the unknown."
The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was only the beginning. The bringing of the good news to Galveston on Juneteenth was another step in the process—in order for freedom to come, the word needed to be spread! And that transformation continues. When we consider that the events of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was only about 60 years ago, and when we remember the nine lives lost to white supremacy at Emanuel AME just 4 years ago June 17th, we know there is still work to do for all of us in our nation to fully live into and embrace the good news of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Gerasene demoniac and his neighbors also needed time to absorb the transformation once Jesus had sent the demons into the swine. The demoniac himself wasn’t sure how this was going to work out! Once cleaned up, and dressed, and fed, his first desire is to follow Jesus to other lands, leaving behind his home and his community. And his neighbors probably wouldn’t have minded if he had left—seeing this change in the person they only knew as possessed, seeing him free and in his right mind, did not bring them joy, but fear! They knew what to do when he was possessed, they had lived with him for as long as they could remember. What on earth are they to do with him now? I think of how often families who have lived with addiction for generations struggle when the alcoholic finally achieves sobriety. How easy it is to cling to what is familiar, even if we have dreamt and worked and fought our whole lives for something new!
Our story today ends with a Biblical proclamation. As much as the man healed of possession by many demons wanted to go with Jesus and leave everyone behind, he instead stays, Luke says, “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” Given that his neighbors wanted Jesus to leave because of the fear they felt about what had happened, I can’t imagine that this was an easy thing to do. It is one thing to be liberated from bondage. It is another thing entirely to tell boldly of freedom and grace and healing to those who might be more comfortable if nothing had changed! It is perhaps not at all a coincidence that the demoniac calls himself Legion—the same word used for the Roman army, the empire in power who in so many ways held the people captive. Transformation takes time, sometimes generations, and the first step, as Jesus tells us, is to spread the good news!
Who is routinely marginalized and cast out today? Who is looked at as “other?” Who is, in fact, demonized, in need of liberation and healing from whatever it is that holds them bound? Who, in our community, our neighborhood, our state, our country, needs to hear the good news of freedom?
This week, as we remember at once the experience of the slaves in Galveston Texas as they learned of their freedom over 150 year ago, and the tragedy of the death of 9 black people at the hands of white supremacist just 9 years ago, the message Jesus gives to the man healed of demons is for us to. A miracle has happened! We are free. All of God’s people are fully human, beloved, healed, free. Go, and declare how much God has done for you!
READING: John 16:12-15
[Jesus said,] 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” I remember very clearly events that took time for me to grasp. One that stands out for me happened many years ago. I was driving from LaCrescent in southern Minnesota up to the Twin Cities with a college friend, and another driver pulled in front of me and then hit their brakes. I immediately tried to slow down, but I knew it was no use. We hit the other car from behind, and came to an abrupt stop.
My first reaction was to apologize, profusely, to my friend for the colorful language that had come out of my mouth as I watched the accident unfold. As we got out of the car and began to assess the damage, the reality of what had happened began to slowly seep in. I looked at the front of the car, now pushed into itself, accordion-like. “This doesn’t look good.” I noted the broken head lights, the glass and plastic scattered on the ground. “No, not good at all.” Then I saw fluids seeping out from under the car, and the peculiar angle of the tires. “I’m not sure I can drive this home.” The liquid began to pool, the colors blending together. “No, I don’t think I can drive my car home.” Then, it dawned on me that we were two hours from home. And no cell phone. And no extra car in my pocket.
It sounds pretty quick laying it out like that, but the embarrassing truth is, to my recollection, it took nearly half an hour to figure all that out. I couldn’t bear the full picture of what had happened all at once! "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
We can probably all think of times when something happened that took a long time to “sink in.” Some of them may be painful or traumatic things, like accidents. Or diagnoses. Or losing a job. Or the death of a loved one. Painful things happen, and it can take a while to process and settle in to new realities that are not what we anticipated or hoped for.
Some of them may be joyful things. Like the birth of a healthy child. Falling in love, or getting married. Even times of joy can be overwhelming. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
On this Trinity Sunday, we understand in a profound way that we have a God who meets us where we are, who desires an ongoing and ever deepening relationship with us. In Romans, Paul writes that the grace of God is available to us through Jesus. God’s love is poured out on us, and relationship between us and God is built, through Jesus, God-in-flesh. And Jesus tells us that, although we cannot hear everything he has to tell us right now, the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, sharing with us, in time, all that we cannot yet bear.
In the Trinity, we know that God is all about relationship, all about love. God’s identity, three-in-one, is fully grounded in being a community of love. And God has given us one another as companions on this journey.
Revealed in the Trinity, our God is all things for us. God is majesty and power as shown in our psalm today—Lord of the Universe, deserving of glory, before whom none of us, truth be told, are quite ready to stand. The full majesty of God, the awesomeness of creation, makes us quake in our boots, at least a little bit. The power of God revealed in waves crashing on the ocean, in the flashes and crashes of powerful storms, in the silent formidable presence of enormous trees centuries old. God’s majesty surrounds us, overwhelms us, and although it touches us, we can’t quite bear to touch it.
Through Jesus, God is also fellow traveler and companion intimately acquainted with our human experience. God loves us enough to give us God’s very self, to be in relationship with us, to meet us where we are. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, our brokenness is redeemed, and our joy is made complete. God enters fully into our suffering, as well as our joy. God-in-flesh embraces our grief at the death of a loved one, and shows us through the resurrection that death will not be the final word. God enters our joy at the birth of a child, revels with us in the beauty of creation. God sits with us, eats with us, laughs with us, cries with us. Because God revealed Godself to us in Jesus, we know that God is not only majesty and splendor and power, but intimately involved in our everyday life. Because God became fully human, we know we are never alone. We have a God who understands what it is to be human!
And finally, the Holy Spirit, who continually reveals truth to us and empowers us to witness to the world. The Spirit is perhaps the most difficult to understand. It’s like trying to capture . . . well, the wind! The Spirit empowers us to recognize who we are as children of God, and it is only through the Spirit that we call God Abba, Father. The Spirit in breath brings life to dry bones in the desert, anoints and calls the apostles in fire at Pentecost, calls Jews and Gentiles alike to baptism in the days of the early church.
There are three persons in our one God. And when these persons come together in that one God, something happens that goes far beyond simple division of labor, each person fulfilling their appointed role. This reality cannot be adequately captured in any one metaphor, although it didn’t stop St Patrick from trying with his image of the clover leaf. And I am sure you can imagine that it doesn’t stop me from trying!
In Quest for the Living God, theologian Elizabeth Johnson describes the Trinity as three people in a dance that never ends. “The three circling around in a mutual dynamic movement of love, God is not a static being, but a plentitude of self-giving love, a saving mystery that overflows into the world of sin and death to heal, redeem, and liberate.” The Triune God is a God of constant movement, changing, circling, over-flowing. As hard as we may try to neatly define the persons in the Trinity and understand it, God will not be contained.
This is an image of God in relationship with Godself, equal, fully grounded in love. Love and joy are God’s core reason for being—and God created us to be in loving relationship with God and the rest of creation, and with one another. Today, we celebrate the God who is with us, forever, in ways we cannot begin to understand. We know a God who meets us where we are, and never gives up on us, no matter how long it might take us to understand. We are invited into relationship with a God of love, energy, creativity, who is constantly making things new. Through the Trinity, we are invited into partnership with God, and with one another, knowing that no matter where we go, as the Spirit guides us as people of God into truth, we will never be alone.
Thanks be to God!
READING: John 14:8-17
8Philip said to [Jesus,] “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus 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’? 10Do 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. 11Believe 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. 12Very 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. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in Tanzania, visiting the Lutheran church based in Arusha right at the tip of Lake Victoria. In Tanzania, as in many countries in Africa, children growing up in villages first learn the language of their tribe, the language spoken by the people they live with every day. If their parents came from different villages, they may learn two languages from the time they learn to speak.
Once they start school, they begin to learn Swahili, if they haven’t already learned it at home. And they not only learn Swahili, they learn IN Swahili. Swahili is the language that bridges all villages in Tanzania, the language that all Tanzanians learn to speak if they are going to communicate with people beyond their village. By the time a child is 10 or so, they already know at least two languages.
For those fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go on to high school, English becomes the language of instruction. Many students board at school, because their villages are simply too far to travel every day, and from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep, students are encouraged and rewarded for speaking English at all times, so they become as proficient as possible. English is the language that bridges Tanzania to other African countries, and the world at large. By the time they are 18, Tanzanians who have gone to high school and have a capacity for languages are trilingual.
As we travelled, we visited a music conservatory, a university of sorts that focused on music. Our guide and translator translated some of the songs, but not all, and after the concert, she explained why. Some of the songs were in Swahili, which of course she knew well. One of the songs was in a tribal language she had grown up with. And the rest were in languages she didn’t know, and couldn’t translate. She explained that many of the people, as they add language to language as they grow older, become immersed in Swahili and English, and often will lose some of their tribal language along the way. And as they lose the nuances of their tribal language, they also lose the music that is unique to their language, their culture. You lose your language, and you lose your culture.
In today’s reading from Acts, we enter a scene that, like the big cities of Tanzania, includes people from many different places, speaking many different languages. They may have had language in common, as the Tanzanian people do, but finding someone in Jerusalem who speaks YOUR language—the language you grew up with, the language of YOUR people—was probably very rare. You lose your language, you lose your culture.
And then, the Holy Spirit comes in. The apostles had been told—Jesus had said the Spirit would come to them and teach them all they needed to know—but I would guess that what happened was not at all how they might have pictured it. The wind blows. The flames appear. They are all touched by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. And, suddenly, all of those people from far off lands heard something they may not have heard for a long time: the apostles came out of the room, began to preach, and everyone heard them speaking THEIR LANGUAGE. The language of their lullabies. The language of their parents. The language of their prayers. The language of their hearts.
When we went to worship in Arusha, it was in Swahili, and although we didn’t know it, the service was familiar enough that, for the most part, we had a pretty good idea of what was happening. There was much, though, that we didn’t understand. We knew they were reading from the Bible, but what passage? Prayers were being offered, but what for? What was the pastor saying, as he preached? Fortunately for us, our two guides were there, like modern day apostles, to bridge the gap. One of them wrote notes on scraps of paper, summarizing what was happening—she would write a sentence, and pass it down our pew. Write another sentence, and pass it down. Another sentence, pass it down. Over and over, for the entire service. Our other guide was not so subtle—for those close enough to hear her, she just translated out loud what was being said. Everyone, they thought, should hear what was happening in their own language.
The story of Pentecost shows us that God agrees! The people gathered to hear the word of God didn’t magically learn a new language, or hear the apostles speaking just any language. They heard the promise of God in their language, the language of their heart. And the Spirit empowered the apostles to speak in languages they didn’t even know, so that could happen. Once again, the word of God meets us right where we are, speaking to us in the language of our hearts. And we are sent to meet others where they are, empowered to share the boundless love of God, in the language of their hearts.
The love of God is not limited to any particular language, or gender, or age, or social status, or culture, or place, or time. God’s Spirit flows through and in all of us, and as we hear in Acts today, it can sometimes look so different from what we expect that we don’t believe it at first glance. The Spirit blows into every corner, comforting and guiding and healing and inspiring each of us, as individuals, and all of us, as a community. Open the doors and windows, because here she
READING: John 14:23-29
23Jesus answered [Judas (not Iscariot),] “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”
It’s funny how the Spirit works sometimes! This week, as I was thinking about our readings for today, and reflecting on Memorial Day and honoring our vets this morning, I having trouble putting it all together, so I asked some text study friends if they had any thoughts. And one of the participants immediately shared a story about his dad. His father served in the navy, in active combat, and at one point his ship was destroyed. He and the survivors were left to swim two miles to land. As he swam across the ocean to safety, a hymn kept running through his mind: “When you pass through raging waters in the sea you shall not drown, when you walk amid the burning flames, you shall not be harmed, when you stand before the powers of hell, and death is at your side, know that I am with you, through it all!”
My friend said that these words gave his father a sense of peace that was completely unrelated to the situation he was in. All logic, all evidence he had as he slowly made his way through turbulent waters to safety, indicated that there was little or no peace to be found. The promise of God reflected in this hymn gave him a peace that came not from calm and safe surroundings or certain outcomes, but from the promises of God to be present in the storm.
Many of you may relate to this experience, one way or another. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said. “I do not give to you as the world gives.” The peace Jesus promises defies rational explanations, and shows up at seemingly the most unlikely times.
The peace of God can show up on the battlefield, or in a military aircraft, in camp as you are eating rations and waiting to find out your next orders, or as you make necessary and difficult decisions that impact the lives and families of those under your command.
God’s peace can show up while you are learning about a new diagnosis, or waiting for test results to come through.
The peace Jesus promises can show up at the graveside of a loved one, or in the treatment center after you or a family member has hit bottom in a struggle with addiction or mental illness.
The peace of God may come to rest on the parent fleeing for their life to a foreign land in the desperate hope that their children may survive.
You may experience God’s peace in the midst of extended unemployment, or a painful and wounding divorce.
God’s peace may come as you grapple with a pregnancy that ends in miscarriage, or comes with medical complications that require hard and even tragic decisions, or as you struggle with infertility and all of the grief and shame that can bring.
This promise of God can be incredibly challenging to accept at times. Because although the promise Jesus makes is absolutely steadfast, it is helpful to remember that it probably didn’t offer much comfort in the moment Jesus was talking with his disciples, who just simply wanted Jesus to step up and fix everything, RIGHT NOW. (I’m sure no one here can relate to that, right??) I have had experiences in my own life where, to be perfectly honest, I felt like saying, OK, God, you can just keep your peace-that-comes-in-the-storm, I just want this done already, give me the solution, the direction, an end to this chaos.
And I think Jesus understands this, because he told his disciples that he was saying all of this before it happened, so that they would know it when it happened. I don’t know about you, but I feel sometimes that my hindsight is 20/20, when my understanding of what is happening today can be near blind. So often, it is only in looking back that I can see how God has carried and guided me when things were at their worst. And having had experiences of seeing God at work in hindsight, has made it more possible, and a LITTLE easier, to see God at work in the messiness, confusion, and even pain of the present.
Most important, perhaps, is to note that Jesus is not giving this message to an individual, but to a community. And I have learned that when I am struggling the most to trust God, and keep swimming in turbulent waters, God’s peace will often reveal itself in the words and actions and love and support of my community.
We at Bethel continue on this journey together from where we are into our future, not knowing yet what it will look like, and now more than ever, we need one another. None of us can move forward on our own. We can remind each other of the promise Jesus gave us, and embody that promise as we offer grace, support, trust, energy and love to our fellow travelers.
We can take courage from the story of my friend’s father, the naval officer who found peace while literally navigating turbulent water. On this Memorial Day weekend, we are thankful for all of the military veterans and their families who have given so much, and have modelled for us what it means to face the unknown, and place their trust in something greater than themselves, for the cause of justice and peace. We witness and know that however we may be experiencing raging waters, or burning flames, or the fires of hell, or even death, in our own lives, God is with us even though we can’t see him. And God’s peace will be with, us, defying all the world’s logic. Thanks be to God!
READING: John 13:31-35
31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I feel like I talk a lot about how much God loves each one of us. How the love God has for us is transformational, as we realize that no matter what we might say, or do, or think, we are worthy of the love of the one who created us. In John today, as part of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he is arrested, Jesus talks again about love. We are to love one another, Jesus tells us, as God has loved us. But today’s texts seem to take this further, adding a surprising and challenging twist to what we know about God’s love.
In today’s passage from Acts, Peter is going about his business, going about God’s business, really, sharing the good news with those to whom he is sent. And Peter has been an advocate for allowing Gentiles to enter the church, become a part of the community of Jesus’ followers that is growing fast, and crossing the typical lines and borders they are used to observing.
Not everyone agreed with him. There were those among Peter’s fellow apostles who felt that if Gentiles were to be baptized, and admitted into the fellowship, they would need to be circumcised, follow Jewish dietary law, observe Jewish religious traditions—to in effect become Jewish. Allowing a non-Jewish person to be fully a part of this small community of Jewish people who were following Jesus just didn’t make sense to them. The only way to include them would be if “they” became part of “us” in a concrete way. Invite “them” to come in, to be a part of “us.”
Peter called the early church, and calls us today, to re-examine our ideas of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. But first, before he could do that, Peter had some things he had to wrestle with for himself. Peter’s vision is, of course, significant in his awakening to God’s inclusive love. We often talk about this vision as being the moment when Peter realizes Jewish dietary law doesn’t matter anymore, but is about so much more than food. And we know from so many other stories in Acts and Paul’s letters that God did not intend to erase or eliminate Jewish law. This is about Peter recognizing, bit by bit as he processes what he has seen and then spends time with Cornelius, that God’s love includes people that are very different from him. God’s love includes people seen as sinners. God’s love includes people who he had been taught to see as outsiders.
With the Spirit’s guidance and wisdom through the vision, Peter can justify going to Cornelius’ house when he is summoned, spending time with them, talking with them and teaching about the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus. Even though Cornelius and his family are Gentiles. Even though Cornelius himself is a soldier, and at that time soldiers were often feared and hated for the ways they participated in oppressing the people. And while he was there, following the lead of the vision he had received from God, something miraculous happened. The Spirit of God came upon Cornelius and his household, just the same way it had come upon the rest of the apostles and followers of Jesus since that first Pentecost.
Peter had a lot of explaining to do, when he returned to Jerusalem. Why had he eaten with Cornelius and his family, when their way of eating was seen as unclean? Why had he baptized them, when they were not circumcised, and did not follow Jewish tradition? What happened in Caesarea was confusing, and perhaps even offensive. Because here’s the thing—rather than bringing Cornelius and his household into the neatly drawn circle of Jewish life, Cornelius’ conversion and baptism pushed the circle out, broke its smooth, predictable line, and made the church bigger. And that changed everything.
We are no longer talking about bringing “them” in to be part of “us.” Because this story and experience shared, and the evidence of the extravagant abundance of the Spirit poured out, shows us that in God’s world, there is no “them” and “us.” We are all God’s children, in all of the beauty and messiness and joy and challenge of our infinite diversity.
God’s children speak all languages. God’s children eat meat, and abstain from meat. God’s children wear clothing from all nations and cultures and tribes. God’s children walk, and drive, and fly, and travel by horse and camel and canoe. God’s children study for degrees in ivy league universities, gain valuable trades and skills at community colleges, and learn farming or fishing or hunting or building at their parents’ side. God’s people travel to all corners of the world, and spend their lives living and loving and working and praying in the community in which they were born.
Perhaps the greatest miracle of the experience Peter had, and shared with his friends when he got back to Jerusalem, is that God didn’t wait to work in Cornelius’ life until Peter arrived to bring the good news. Cornelius, we are told, was already walking with God, serving others, loving his neighbors, listening for God’s guidance in his life. He was already listening, which is how he knew to invite Peter to come. Perhaps Peter’s visit to Cornelius, as much as it may have brought inspiration and encouragement to Cornelius’ household, was more transformational for Peter, and for us who hear the story today! As Peter says to those who question him, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
And so, Peter ate with them. And baptized them. Just as we baptize those who come to us. And each Sunday, we come to the table, God’s table which has no limitations. And today, we will welcome Aiden and Ryker to that table for the first time, as they receive their first communions.
Love one another as I have loved you. God loves us in our uniqueness, delights in who we are, and calls us to contribute the gifts we have been given to the beauty of this world. And we are called to love all those we encounter in their uniqueness, pushing out the circle until it disappears. Because the Spirit is coming, and where the Spirit is, there is no “them” and “us.” Thanks be to God!
READING: John 10:22-30
Jesus responds to questions about his identity with the remarkable claim that he and the Father are one. Those who understand this are his sheep; they hear his voice, follow, and will never be snatched from his hand.
22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”
As I read these texts, all I see is new life, all over—Peter calls on God to raise Tabitha, Jesus promises to give his sheep eternal life, the faithful are brought through what Revelation calls “the ordeal,” and will have food, drink, and shelter from the heat—God will lead them to water. It is Easter, and Jesus is risen indeed!
Revelation is not usually my “go to” preaching text, but as I looked at the passages for this week, especially in light of what is happening in this season in the world all around us, I found myself really drawn to these words. There is so much promise here, and such a profound hope woven into this ancient vision. And what is particularly captivating to me is the nature of the promises.
This is not a promise of great wealth, or strength, or power, and it is not speaking specifically to those who HAVE great wealth and strength and power. It is speaking life and hope to those who have been through “the ordeal.”
Have you been hungry? Have you been thirsty? Have you had to comfort your children when you didn’t have enough to feed them?
Have you been imprisoned, or enslaved, trapped in a system designed to control you and keep you and “your people” in their place?
Have you been ill, your body impacted by a disease that is managed and treated but not cured, and been judged as weak and broken? Have you been financially devastated by medical costs because the treatment or cure you need is too expensive to afford in a health care system that doesn’t always seem to care about those who are ill and poor at the same time?
Have you been without a place to call home, exiled, perhaps even cast away from your own family? Have people told you that you do not have value, are outside the realm of God’s love?
Have you been told that your very existence is illegal, or that you and everyone like you are a threat to society? Have you been told that you don’t have a right to seek a better life in a new place, but must resign yourself to staying in a place of violence, deep chronic poverty, environmental devastation, or other horrors that make just staying alive almost impossible?
Have you been through the ordeal?
This word is for you! Among people, lines are drawn, borders established, norms and expectations set, and some are in and others are out. With God, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the lines are erased, borders eliminated, and norms and expectations ignored.
Multitudes come from all corners of the Earth. Language, tribe, nation, do not prevent anyone from coming before God. There are no barriers or restrictions. No minimum or maximum income, no work requirement, no fees, no judgement based on religion, no baseline of success that must be met. You will not find yourself excluded because others have found you unworthy. In fact, those who have been through the ordeal are particularly invited.
Jesus himself went through the ordeal. He was challenged, interrogated, tortured and put to death because he stood, with every fiber of his being, against the power of the systems that tried to write him off and cast him out. Who better to invite us in and lead us through, than the one who walked through the ordeal, and came out alive? Jesus, John tells us, is the Good Shepherd, one who does not ever abandon the sheep, no matter what happens. We can trust Jesus to guide us not just when things are clear and easy, but when they are at their most challenging, complicated, and even painful. The shepherd is with us for the long haul.
“For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This is the promise of God revealed in Jesus, the promise made to all those who have been through the ordeal. Whatever you have been through, whatever ordeal you have faced, this promise is for you.
Are you hungry? Come, and eat. Are you thirsty, drink! Does your body carry pain, illness, scars? Come, and find whatever will bring you and your body rest, care, and healing. Are you alone, abandoned, rejected? You are welcome, valued, and loved—come and be embraced by the God who will not ever cast you out.
Easter reveals hope that comes only after Good Friday, only after death, only on the other side of the ordeal. We read texts like these and know that in Christ, death will never be the end of the story, and that resurrection, healing, life, and hope come when we challenge injustice with faith. When we face the systems that marginalize, stand up against the powers and protocols that judge and oppress, name injustice, and reach our hands across the artificial lines that divide us, we are acting in the faith that God’s vision and promise for us, all of us, is an end to the ordeal.
It can be hard to believe this, can’t it, when the ordeal persists? When the challenges, the pain, the rejection, the failures, continue? Jesus invites us is to join him, to reach out for his hand. Reach out your hand for another who is walking through the ordeal, and is too tired to move. Ask someone to lift you up and carry you when you don’t have the energy to even stand anymore. And know that we may not see it yet, but we are coming closer with every step to the day when the ordeal will end, justice and the love of God will prevail, and John’s vision will come to pass. Thanks be to God!
Meagan McLaughlin, SAM at Bethel Lutheran Church
Meagan is our interim SAM. Please enjoy her blog on her sermons.