Sunday, June 25, 2017

St John's Closing - God is our Life, Life is not our God

Isaiah 43:1-7; 66:1-2; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 10:24-39

God is our life; Life is not our God

Dearly beloved in Christ, we are gathered here today for what is essentially the funeral service for St. John. Our Gospel reading for today is the assigned lectionary text for this Sunday, but the other readings were chosen specifically for this day, and you may have noticed that our reading from Romans is one that is often read at funerals––a fervent proclamation that death is not the end, because the God whom we worship raises us to new life.

This is the point of funeral services, indeed, of all worship services: to proclaim that our God is the God of life. In the midst of the sadness and grief we experience, we simultaneously cling to the truths of our faith: that God created the world full of life, to be a place of joy and fulfillment for all of Creation. That, when death entered and threatened us with despair, God renewed God’s commitment to life, walking with us through the waters that drown and the fires that burn, as the prophet Isaiah says. When it seemed that the community of God’s people was scattered, when the places of worship were crumbling and falling to pieces, when death appeared as a finality, our God promised to gather the people from every corner of the earth, to restore them to one another, and to give them new life. And, through Christ, God walked into death, and then through it to the other side, so that, as Paul says, all those who follow Christ into death will also be brought through to the other side, and to newness of life. This is our God, whom we worship even as we die. Our God is the God of life. Indeed, God is our life. We are nothing without God, and we can do nothing without God. It is God who gives life to communities, and builds up churches, and ensures that the body of Christ endures. God, not us, is the reason this congregation of St. John was built and endured for more than a hundred years. We praise God for every day of life that we have been given because God is our life.

It’s easy, though, to get God and life mixed up. In the beginning, when God gives us life, we embrace God and that life together. We see signs of growth as a sign of God’s presence with us. Because God is our life, we know that when we are healthy and thriving, it is because God is with us. In a church, baptisms, Sunday School, confirmations, weddings, a new building––these are all signs of life, and thus signs of God’s commitment to our life together. We celebrate these achievements, and praise God for them. Over time, though, the signs of life begin to overwhelm God’s presence with us. We spend more time looking at the signs and end up becoming more focused on what we have been given, and the one who gives is moved into the background. We begin to take credit for our own longevity, to think that our previous successes in life had something to do with us. We forget that it is God, and not ourselves or our actions, who gives us life. And when life fades, as it does, we begin to spend more and more of our energy on staying alive. We tighten our grip on those things that gave us life in the past as if they might continue to give us life in the future. We make decisions where the goal is to cling to life, rather than to God. We go from God being our life to life becoming our God.

But life is not our God; God is our life. And in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus calling us, quite strongly, to remember that. Jesus calls us to remember that the focus of our lives is not life itself, but God. And Jesus reminds us that sometimes, God offers us a life that requires us first to walk through death. “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus is very clear here––to follow Christ we must be willing to take up that instrument of death and walk all the way to Good Friday. Like Christ, we must hold our life loosely, ready to set it down and pick up the cross if God is calling us to do that––if letting go of our life is the means by which God will bring new life to others.

This is the sword that divides households. And congregations: That we are called to love Christ more than anything or anyone else, and that that love means taking up our cross and following him, and that following means giving up our own life and enduring our own Good Friday if it will benefit others. This decision, to die in the name of Christ so that others may have life, this decision can set son against father, daughter against mother, friend against friend. The proclamation that we do not exist simply for ourselves––that the purpose of a congregation is not simply to exist, but to exist only insofar as it gives new life to others––this is a sword. It cuts into our hearts; it is the reason we grieve today.

And yet, we know what happens after Good Friday. We know that the story of Christ, and thus our story, does not end with death. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And, as the letter to the Romans says, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Life is not our God, which is Good News for us. Because it means that we can hold life loosely, and we need not fear letting go of it. As odd as it sounds, life is not the source of our life. Life does not give us life. God gives us life. We hold tightly to God, not to life. And so we are brought back to the beginning, and the proclamation that God walks with us through all of our suffering and pain and grief, God walks with us through our dying even, all the way to the other side. As God was with Christ on the cross and in the tomb, God is with us. And as God raised Christ from the dead and brought him out of the tomb into new life, God raises us to new life. As we let go of those things that are so precious to us, God places in our empty hands the life of Christ, which endures for ever. As we turn away from life as our God, God becomes more truly our life.

Even this turning away from life in order to walk the path of Christ is God’s own doing. That we are able to lose our life for the sake of Christ is God’s work, and not our own. It is the Holy Spirit working in our hearts, giving us the strength to endure the fear and pain of letting go, filling us with hope that new life is waiting, moving us to worship and give thanks to God for the opportunity to live out our Christian calling and die for others.

And indeed it is God’s own doing that the death of this congregation, of St. John, has brought and will bring new life to so many others: the congregation of Calvary Grace that will grow in this space, the Palestinian seniors who will be cared for at Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, the residents of the Bethany Care homes who will receive pastoral care and Holy Communion from these communion vessels and be strengthened in their own baptismal journeys at this font, the students on the university campuses who will encounter the unconditional grace and love of Christ through Campus Ministry, all those who will receive life-renewing care and support through the Mustard Seed, and the Women’s Shelter, and all of the various ministries to which St. John has given. I am not listing them to brag, but to help you to see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will be touched by the new life of Christ made possible through this death. Because you have allowed God to be your life, and not your life to be your God, God will be their life, too.

And so, as we come to this end, we loosen our hold on life and tighten our hold on God. Through our tears, we offer praise and worship to the One who gave us life, and gives it to us and to the world anew. And, for having the opportunity to see today and in the days to come, that though we lose our life for Christ’s sake, we will find it again in the cross and in the promise of resurrection through our Lord Jesus Christ, we say, as we always do, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost - June 4, 2017 - Water from a Rock

Acts 2:1-21
John 7:37-39

You can’t squeeze water from a rock. Do you know that saying? There are variations on it in several languages, and it’s easy to see why. No matter how hard you try, you will never manage to get a drop of water out of it, and it’s pointless to even try. Have you ever felt that way? Had a day, or a week, or maybe even a month or year, when you just have nothing left to give? It happens in life, that we expend all our energy trying to meet the demands of life––of work and church and family––until there is absolutely nothing left. Yes, even in the church this happens. We give it our all, and then find at the end, that we are done. Finished. Nothing left in the tank. No water left in the rock.

It’s frustrating to feel that way. To feel that you have finally reached your limit, and to see that there is work still to be done. We all want to live meaningful lives, and to contribute, and to make the world a better place. We want to be people who give water to the world, actually. Jesus’ words touch us today because we strongly desire to offer living water to others. We want to help others grow. We want to be there for the people in our lives. We yearn for it, actually. We thirst for it. To see those around us grow––grow up, grow into themselves––because of our presence in their lives, because of our watering, if you will, this is what makes our lives meaningful.

One of the challenges of life, though, is that we often don’t realize this until it seems like it’s too late. It’s usually only at the end that we realize that what makes our lives worth reflecting on, what makes our death bed more comfortable, is that we have helped others in their need. That we have given them water when they were thirsty. But what happens when you look back at your life and with you had done more? When you want to help the thirsty but you have nothing left? No time, no energy. You can’t squeeze water from a rock.
There is a rock hidden in our readings from today. It lies behind the words we hear from Jesus this morning. Our Gospel reading for today takes place during the Feast of Tabernacles, which is a time when the Jews celebrate the harvest, in the fall. They also commemorate the time when they were wandering in the desert, and they were thirsting for water, and God provided them water from a rock. Maybe you remember the story––they complained to Moses that they were dying of thirst, and Moses complained to God, and God told Moses to strike the rock at Horeb, and when he did, water flowed from the rock and the people were saved, which, clearly, was a miracle. So, as part of the festival, the Jews would bring water from the pool of Siloam in a grand procession to the Temple, where they would pour it into a bowl on one side of the altar, and pour wine on the other side, and two channels would carry the water and the wine down to the base of the altar, as a reminder that God provides the people with the most important thing in life––water. Indeed, the Jews believed that when the heavenly Temple came, in the end times, the water flowing from the altar would be so full of life that it would bring dead fish back to life.

So this rock that sends rivers of water at Horeb is behind Jesus’ words that whoever is thirsty should come to him and drink, and that from the believer’s heart will flow living waters. Jesus is saying that he is the rock in the desert which will give people life, and that we, in turn, will become a channel of life for others. Even if we are rocks.

Which brings us to Pentecost. Pentecost in the Christian tradition is about the Holy Spirit coming upon the people. Being “being poured out” on them, to be more precise. And while we often think of fire as the element of the Holy Spirit, the image of water is here, too. The Holy Spirit is poured out, it flows from Christ, onto the believers gathered there, so that they, in turn, can pour it out on the world. 

They will prophesy––which means to tell the truth about God––so that the world might have life. In fact, early on in the Gospel of Luke, the prequel to the book of Acts, we hear exactly what the prophesying is. The priest Zechariah proclaims it, after the birth of his son, John whom we know as the baptist. The prophet of God will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins. Those who prophesy will speak and act on the words of God, so that the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, so that the rich are sent away empty and the hungry are filled with good things. The Holy Spirit flows from Christ onto the disciples at Pentecost, and onto all the people gathered there, so that they can speak and live out these words that bring life, that flow like rivers to water a thirsty world.

No matter who they are. This is the radical claim of Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit is poured upon, and then pours from, men and women, old and young, slaves and free. From children to seniors, from those who do not yet understand what it is to live a meaningful life to those who think they are out of time to do so. From little shoots just springing out of the ground to those who feel like fossils––plants that have ossified and turned into rock. 

The claim of Pentecost is that Christ’s living water will flow from all of Christ’s believers, even those who feel they have nothing left to give. Especially those who feel they have nothing left to give. Pentecost is that day when we celebrate that God continues to bring Christ’s new life to the world, even though Jesus no longer walks among us. Pentecost is when we realize that the work of Christ has been given to us, and more importantly, that the life that Christ shared with us has been given to us to share with others. So that they may have life. So that just as people went to Christ in their thirst for love and meaning, and he gave them life-giving water to drink, so we can, too. Pentecost is when we celebrate that though we may be rocks, Christ’s waters flow through us to give life to the world.

This water may be a spring, bubbling quietly from the ground. It may be a steady reliable stream. It may be a rushing river that floods the delta with new soil and then recedes again. The ways in which you share Christ’s life with others may be through quiet prayer on their behalf, or through steady help on a weekly basis, or it may be a flood of giving that brings new life to hundreds and then subsides. But I tell you, on this day of Pentecost, that you are not a rock from which no more water can be squeezed. You are not finished. Your work is not yet complete. Your life is not yet over. 

This is the last time that I will speak to you as just you, the people of St. John. Our final service will have more people than just you, possibly even more guests than members. So I want to take a moment just to tell you how thankful I am to God that you have allowed your hearts to be open to the Holy Spirit in these last few years. I believe that God has called you down this path, and it is never easy to follow where God calls. You have been courageous, and humble, and truly disciples of Christ. From your hearts have flowed rivers of living water, and it has given new life to many, and also to me. Pentecost is not something that happened two thousand years ago. It has been happening here, in this church, over the last few years. God’s Spirit has been poured out upon you, and you have seen visions and dreamed dreams of the possibilities of Christ’s new life for you and for those who are thirsty around you. As you go out from here to new places, just as the disciples went from Jerusalem to the world, the gifts the Holy Spirit has given you will continue to go with you, and God will provide opportunities for you to use them. You will find new life, and more importantly, be new life in the communities you will join. You are needed, each of you, as bearers of Christ’s Holy Spirit, to quench the thirst of the world. You have been and you will be a rock from which flow rivers of the living water of Christ, and so I say, without reservation, Thanks be to God. Amen.