Peace!

Mark 4:35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

When I was in my twenties and living in Atlanta, Georgia, I had a great group of friends.  We all were involved with a non-profit youth ministry and had similar passions.  One of those passions was backpacking and hiking.  Almost every other weekend, we would pile our gear into our trucks and SUV’s and head an hour or two north into the North Georgia mountains, usually right around the Appalachian trail.

One weekend, we were particularly looking forward to a hike we had not done and had a couple of new guys that wanted to go with us.   A couple of days before the trip, we got the news that a hurricane would be coming into Georgia and we’d feel it in Atlanta.  We figured that we would probably miss it by being in the mountains though.

So, we headed north that Friday.  Well, it started to rain, and rain more.  We got to the trailhead, and it was pounding.  Being young, and having lots of experience in the woods with crazy weather, we weren’t going to be deterred.  The new guys on the other hand.  Well, one guy got had on khaki’s and a golf shirt.  We thought he might change on the way, but he seemed to be dressed for a fraternity function, not a hiking trip.  When we got out of the vehicles, this guy pulled out an umbrella.  

After some joking around, he realized that we were serious about hiking and that the umbrella wasn’t going to work.

We started the hike, got to our campsite and set up.  The rain let up just long enough for us to set up our tents and one guy, Jay, set up a hammock with a tarp over it.  The rains came back though…with wind.  We all eventually hunkered in a tent.  We didn’t blow away, but the next morning we had some great stories, and we had a great time being together…even through a storm that we probably didn’t have any business being in.

The context of this morning’s gospel lesson has the disciples traveling together in a boat through a storm.  Jesus has been teaching on faith and the Kingdom of God being near.  We’ve been talking about this the past few weeks as well.  God is with us, near us, closer than we could imagine.  God’s kingdom is all around us and in us…moving us in new directions, shaping and reshaping us, bringing out things in our lives that we need to pay attention to, some things that are hard to bring up, things that we don’t want to confront, yet they are present with us and God is in the business of giving new life and redeeming even hard things.

This is the message that Jesus has been sharing and its recorded in the previous chapters of Mark.  Crowds of people are curious and drawn to Jesus.  The honesty, authenticity of Jesus was refreshing to a world worn out under a way of living that they’ve been used to.  Jesus’ words offered hope and people clamored towards.  Jesus’ words on faith that could move mountains were strong, appealing.  Yet, moving mountains, especially the mountains of doubt, fear, scarcity, and anxiety can be exhausting at times.  

The disciples and Jesus were tired. They had places to go and needed some time to unplug, be still, even while they moved on towards a different place.  So, Jesus says, let’s get in this boat together, and go to the other side of this lake.  Jesus falls asleep and a huge storm comes up and threatens to overcome the boat.  At least four of the disciples are seasoned fisherman, they’ve been through storms, yet this one must have been overwhelming as they disciples thought that they were done.  Yet, Jesus sleeps.  They wake him, they are anxious and filled with fear.  I can’t blame them!  They even ask Jesus if he even cares if they die.  Jesus doesn’t seem to be bothered much though…although, he does seem a bit annoyed.  

He wakes up, and says “be still”…in the Greek there’s a repetitive command or imperative.  Jesus commands the seas and wind to be still.  And, they do.  He then turns to his disciples, and says, where is your faith…actually calls them little faiths.  It’s as if he’s saying where have you been?  Remember the other miracles I’ve done?  Have you not been listening?  Don’t you trust me yet?  

The disciples may or may not have had a “come to Jesus” moment and sobered up a bit.  But, they were relieved, and they did ask in awe:  Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  I think they knew the answer, or it was dawning on them.  They were good Jews, steeped in an understanding that only God, the one true God, had power over the elements.  Their friend, Jesus, was not only like them in their humanity, but also, very unlike them in his divinity.  And, this Jesus is bridging the gap between humanity and divinity in himself.   

In both, Jesus is present with them, in life, in the boat, through the storms.

Tertullian, the 2nd century theologian believed that the boat in this story and in the other gospel narratives is figurative for the church.  The church does not save us, Jesus saves us.  We can’t put our faith in the church, but in the God who is present in the boat, the church, with us.  We may think that God is asleep, but whether asleep or awake, God is fully present with us.  

That’s comforting to me.  Just like my friends were with me in the hurricane fueled camping trip, we are together in the storms of life around us as the church and God is with us.  

Sometimes we may have fear, anxiety, and doubts in the boat.  With each other and with God.  Those fears and doubts could lead us to turn on each other and even God.  We may have storms happening within us and around us that sometimes we create or that are created by others.  Either way, we feel like we’re going to drown at times.  We wonder if God even cares.  

Some of us get so frustrated and lonely that we think we may be better off jumping out of the boat.  A friend of mine, Bart Campolo, shared with me once when I was struggling that the grand ship of Christendom had sunk, but that there were lots of lifeboats floating around.  Some big, some small.  Some folks were jumping from boat to boat, some were swimming or sinking on their own.  Some folks were telling others to get out and some were helping others to get in.  Some boats were filled with folks who all had their own thoughts on rowing so they could never get going in the same direction…they just went around in circles because they couldn’t listen or hear each other.  It was interesting conversation with someone who doesn’t identify as a Christ follower anymore.

Either way, here we are, you and I, in this boat together called Fleming Road UCC.  I believe that we have had lots of storms in our lives.  How we continue to face them and grow in our faith will give us vision and identity.  As we are in this boat, we look to Jesus and we will grow in our self-awareness and confidence of who we are in this boat and how we not only need each other but that we can get to some beautiful locations together as we work and grow with each other…and, along the way, bring others on to the boat.  

The storms around us are real.  We have them brewing within us and outside of us.  One can look at several events this past week even and not see the storm inside of those inflicting violence on others, and the storms being created within us as we ache for the victims.   We are one with them in the storm they are facing and we will continue to raise questions of justice and reconciliation in a world that needs the calmness that God brings.

Calmness.  Stillness.  Peace.  We need that in the midst of the storms.  We need to take deep breaths and remember the stories of God and how they intersect in our lives.  Those stories are alive and breathing and being written in new ways within us here at Fleming Road UCC and in our neighborhoods and relationships.

Another story of being in a boat and a storm is Peter getting out and walking on the water. He left the safety of the boat, he walked towards Jesus and as long as he kept his eyes on him, he was good. But, you know the story, he let the waves define him and not Jesus. He started to sink. Yet, Jesus would not let go. Friends, Jesus has given us the boat, and he invites us to also get out of the boat and to know that we are not alone. Our fait can move mountains and God’s faith in us will empower us to be a part of an amazing new story here at Fleming Road UCC and in each of our lives as we live out our faith together.

Seeds.

Mark 4:26-34

The Parable of the Growing Seed

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

The Use of Parables

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

It’s been said around here at Fleming Road UCC, and at other places where I’ve been in ministry, that I have a lot of ideas.  Some are even good!  It is true, I have lots of thoughts and ideas.  I also come up with lots of thoughts and ideas in conversations with folks.  

It’s also true that many of those ideas that we come up with sometimes are good, sometimes not so good.  But, I believe that God’s Spirit acts within and outside of us, sparking us to have dreams and visions…to form processes for cultivating ideas even as we take some risks.  Ideas often start out small, need some time to grow and mature.  When the time is right, it’s good to plant those ideas and see what happens.  

That’s one of the reasons why I love the church.  We have processes and procedures, we have community, we have faith, we have all of the ingredients for imagination and to make things happen for the good of our communities.  

But, church, we need to be asking ourselves questions:   What are we passionate about, what makes us get up in the morning and face a day, what gives us hope?  I know I have a passion for running, I have a deeper passion for seeing relationships happen and for energy being driven from community for growth and change.

The parable of the sower has much to say to us.  Jesus spoke in parables oftentimes.  Parables are words for the audience that do not carry their meaning on the surface.  They are meant to be shared, chewed on, thought upon, and then their meaning grows within us.

Jesus had been encouraging his disciples with their being a part of his family, a part of God’s kingdom.  As we’ve said before, Kingdom of God talk is about God’s Presence in our lives and in the world.  God’s working out God’s purposes in all things, and for good.

Jesus was also sharing that the Kingdom of God is participatory.  It’s not idly watching or consuming something.  So often, we in the church have followed along with the idea that we need to create programs or services that we can consume or others can.  That’s not the idea that was planted in the church by God.  We have created a consumer based church that may give us a brief respite from the craziness of life from time to time, and maybe that’s good for a season, but God wants to plant within us a vision for church that is life-giving, energizing, and involves us in relationship with each other and with the world around us…and with a God who is very much present with us.  For example:  I love giving sermons, I love music…I like worship services.  There is a place for them, but if all we do is come and consume on Sunday morning, or produce a product, then we will all eventually come to a point of burn-out or hollowness.  We then may have that famous saying creep up:  “church (or pastor, or sermon, or youth group, or choir, or bible study, or whatever) is not meeting my needs”.   Well, the church was not set up to meet needs, but a place for relationships to flourish, and that requires full participation.  All of us, together.  

I believe that Jesus is saying to his listeners, and to us now, that he wants us to grow into the people we were called to be, that we have been given opportunities to understand who we are and how we relate to one another.  Opportunities such as meeting together for worship, forums, podcasts, small group bible studies.  God has given us other opportunities like Tikkun Farm, Valley Interfaith, Finneytown Schools, Oasis/ECI, the archery program and other things, to not only serve, but to meet people and develop true friendships.  God has also placed this church in a physical location, surrounded by people who I think would love to get to know amazing folks like you!  These opportunities help us to grow in many ways, but the real work is in between the events, in between seeds being planted and coming to bear fruit.  The work is in cultivating an understanding of the ideas, imagination, and new creation being formed and reformed within us and in the quality of our relationships with each other and with God. 

Seeds are being planted within us and all around us, seeds that will bear fruit towards seeing the Kingdom emerge within us, God’s Presence within us, and around us.  Some of those seeds are being consumed, aren’t being given enough water, don’t have deep roots, but some are falling on good soil.  Can we hear what Jesus is whispering in our ears?  Can we see what God intends to do?

Friends, I believe that God has given us good soil here at Fleming Road UCC!  I believe that this soil does require tending, plowing, and cultivating.  But, I think that the seeds God is planting will grow.

I’m also grateful for the conversations we’ve had this past month around here and in the community that affirm that we have a lot of gardening to do, within us and in this church, but we are committed to seeing what God wants to grow through all of the many seasons that we will be walking and working together in.  

Then there’s the mustard seed.  The Kingdom of God is being planted within us, it may be the smallest seeds, yet it grows into becoming a large tree, so much so that the birds rest in them.  We may not be a large church, but we can be a seed planted in this community for much community goodness.  The smallest of seeds make the biggest difference.  Let’s love well this garden!

Outside-In.

Mark 3:20-35

20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

The True Kindred of Jesus

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Sermon:

When I was 22 years old, I made a decision.  I was about to graduate from the University of Kentucky with my bachelors in social work.  I had switched my major from telecommunications to social work in my sophomore year.  I enjoyed telecommunications, but I had one project where I had to create an entire season of programming for a new tv network.

I worked hard, produced a great line-up, and wanted to make sure that it would be both entertaining and also based on something that would be good and uplifting for a community.  My professor gave me a C and said that the biggest flaw is that it would never sell or make money.

At that point, I decided that I wanted to do something that was more than making money, but good for the world.  So, I switched to social work.  Which, in that profession, there is no chance of making money, as my dad would remind me of at the time.  

Now, my dad was a school principal, a good guy who also wanted to make a difference in his community.  And, truthfully, he just wanted me to do well and not struggle.

The kicker came though at 22 when I informed my dad that I was going to shift gears again, and instead of going into social work, I was going to go into youth ministry, where there is no money at all…and, even more, I was going to work for a non-profit youth ministry.  

Now, I thought my dad would be OK with it.  I had worked part-time in college with this non-profit, was involved with it in high school even, and my parents were even fairly significant financial supporters of this organization.

My dad’s response, literally, and I still remember this 31 years later, “I just paid for 4 years of college for you to do what?!!!”  

I said yep, and off I went…and, yes, I did struggle, mightily.  I had years of eating more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and 25 cent ramen noodles than I can remember.  

But, something happened 2 or 3 years into working for this non-profit.  My dad told me how proud he was of me and that I had grown more in the past few years than he could have imagined.  I was so grateful.  

I don’t know what it is though, but I left that job within a year or two of that conversation to work for a church in Atlanta, GA.  It was kind of like when I had long hair…when my dad said that it had grown on him (pun intended) and that he liked it…I cut it.  

Now, our lectionary text this morning is certainly interesting.  For any that don’t know what the lectionary is exactly, other than a word that those of us in the mainline as clergy throw around a lot, it is a yearly cycle that changes every three years with different passages from scripture attempting to give those reading or hearing it a picture of God’s story and our story together.  There are actual daily readings, google lectionary, you’ll come up with a lot of good stuff!

Our passage this morning, at first, can be somewhat unsettling for us in the 21st century.  What does it mean to have a house divided?  For Satan to turn on Satan?  A stronger man?  And the kicker, Jesus’ family coming to reprimand him and Jesus seemingly redefining who his family is?

Well, first of all, just like all scripture reading, we have to cultivate an openness to what God wants to share with us, while also understanding that this was probably written in first century where relationships and families were defined a bit different.  Yet, there’s still some amazing messages for us today.

Jesus’ family is concerned for him and for his safety.  He’s drawing large crowds in a restive time in history and in this place.  Revolution is in the air and a desire to live without the yoke of occupiers from Rome and a religious system that coddled the people while conspiring with the Roman authorities.  

And, folks are drawn to this Jesus who is expressing through his words and actions living a life as full humans not subject to a system or an ism, but in a deep abiding in God’s Presence, God’s reign that is based on deep relationship.

A movement is brewing a drawing in people and with that, the authorities are threatened and trying to pin things on Jesus, saying things, betraying relational integrity and trying to get Jesus out of the picture…and even scapegoating him for their own short givings and failures in living into the promises of God.  Promises that they knew from their religious training, but failed to live into because it would upset the social order that kept them comfortable.

So, his family comes to him, out of concern, but also with a desire to even forcibly take him back home if you will.  Jesus answers his family, his followers, and his detractors with a powerful conversation.  He tells them that if he’s doing all of his miracles because he’s in league with the devil, that doesn’t wash because the devil can’t cast out the devil.  That doesn’t make sense.  And, that a kingdom divided can’t stand, it falls.  Why would the devil want to fail like that?!  

And, no one can enter a strong man’s house and take his stuff unless he has a stronger man…in effect, Jesus is saying that he’s stronger than the devil.

So much in that alone!  One, it says how important it is for us to be reminded that we can’t be a church divided!  That we have to trust one another in order to live as Jesus followers in a world that desperately needs unity.

It also says that Jesus is enough, is with us, and our relational identity in Christ and as the body of Christ is stronger than any division that we experience or even cause intentionally or unintentionally.  

He goes on to say, that all of us will be forgiven for those times we blaspheme, or say false things about one another…but, when it comes to God’s spirit that flows and is active, that it’s a grave mistake.  God’s with us, God’s Spirit is flowing, trust it, even in deep doubt.  And, again, remember, eternal means something about quality rather than quantity.  In other words, blaspheme God, go ahead, but that will not increase your quality of life, you’ll simply continue to be in a place that is disconnected from who you are, who you are with others, and with God…in other words, alone…and not in a good way.

Oh friends, we have come through a time of forced isolation, now, more than ever, we need to recommit ourselves to one another and to the purposes of the church, which is to love our neighbors, each other, well and to trust that God is with us and has a purpose for us…and wants us to be fully human!

Jesus’ family, well they hear Jesus, they don’t forcibly take him.  When he’s told they are outside of the crowded house, he tells his disciples and this followers, that they are his family because of their commitment.  He is saying that they are demonstrating true friendship by listening and trusting.  And, that there is a deeper bond than even our blood relatives, that Jesus is our redeemer-kinsman, our brother, and this relationship is more important than any allegiance or belief or opinion…and this relationship calls us into deeper relationships with one another.

That’s church.  Our families are gifts that we should cherish and nurture and honor…that’s throughout Scripture and our nature.  Church though is a covenant that we enter into with one another, we say that we will work out things together, talk to one another, deeply listen, grow and mature together, be willing to live out what it means to follow Jesus and be God’s people.  Church that is “outside-in” focused.  Which means that we look at the people around us, God loves everyone around us…we find God in engaging the other and in the process inviting them from the outside into the inside of communion.  That’s what Jesus did and does!  

Now, last thing…Jesus’ family doesn’t seem to be offended too long by Jesus’ words.  His mother was one of the few that stayed with him at the cross at great peril to her own life.  She also knew early on the gift to the world that he was and is…and, his brother?  James becomes the leader of the church after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Carrying the message of Jesus’ life to the world.

So, church, graduates, family, know that you are loved and out of that love can love others.  Know that our commitment to one another is not defined by isms or belief systems, but abiding love that goes with us throughout our lives!  

Anew.

I’m going to ask you to do something a bit different this morning.  All of us, sit here for a moment, quietly with our eyes closed.  Just for a moment.  Now, as you sit, think about what’s going on in the air around you.  Atoms colliding, bouncing off of each other, air flowing.  Maybe you hear someone breathing.  Now, think about the space between you and the person sitting closest to you, or between you and me.  What’s filling that space, what makes space, space?  

Now, think of the activity going on around you.  God is present, God is moving, God is still, God is all around you.  Even inside of you.  Now, think of your body, your breath, your heart pounding.  God is moving deep inside of you, flowing through your blood, flowing through your heart…think of your breath, you are breathing God in and out, God is everywhere.  

Now, think of the passage in Isaiah where he has a vision…Isaiah is in the vision.  He sees a world that he hardly ever notices, a world that is going on around him in even when he’s not having visions. It is a passage in the Bible where Isaiah is in the back of the room…there are seraphim, cherubim, angelic beings flowing around…and, at one end, there is God, the other end, Isaiah, hiding behind a pillar.  

In this vision, he experiences being in the presence of God.  If you are there, in this passage, in this room.  Where would you be standing, what would you be experiencing?  The voice of God calls out for someone to step forward and share God’s love…Isaiah gives that famous reply, “here I am, send me.”  Then, this angel comes and touches Isaiah with a burning coal.  It burns, yet it also purifies.  Change happens, Isaiah experiences a cleansing if you will, a purification.  He experiences an intense love that causes him to respond to God’s call to go anywhere.

Now, open your eyes.  This drama is happening every day, we catch glimpses of it, those are called moments of transcendency.  Yet, often we are in the dark, we can’t always see what’s happening around us.

New Testament Readings

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesusby night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘Youmust be born from above.’ The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Our new testament story happens in the dark.  It probably wasn’t pitch dark, but we think it was at night, or dusk. Nicodemus, a religious scholar who was interested in the words of Jesus came to Jesus at night time.  I’m not sure if there is much significance in the time of day that Nicodemus came, but he came and possibly the author had him come at night to symbolize Nicodemus was able to see some shadows, but he couldn’t see clearly, he was in the dark.

What Jesus shared with him was much like trying to explain what was happening with Isaiah.  There are things happening all around us, a deeper reality, that we only catch glimpses of…we are in the dark, yet, we have been given a light to see through Jesus and the inner and outer workings of God as being 3 in 1 persons, the Trinity.  

Jesus and Nicodemus had this conversation, and there were probably others around.  Jesus, as a rabbi and Nicodemus as a scholar, both had disciples, and those disciples were always around.  Jesus said everything out in the open, he was pretty transparent, yet, different folks maybe heard different things, even if they were around him.  One of the things that I’ve learned over the years as a leader and as a pastor, you can say things, a lot, even over-communicate, but folks are probably going to hear from their perspective.  I’m the same way.  We all are.  Jesus’ disciples were like that, they heard a lot, yet they had so many different ways of hearing what Jesus was saying.  It really is an amazing miracle, and a testimony to the power of God’s Presence that eventually led the disciples into a place of unity.

Nicodemus had some very good questions, he may have been timid in asking them, or afraid of what others thought, or simply curious and not sure how to ask them.  Yet, he came to Jesus and asked.  

He wanted to know how to enter the Kingdom of God, how to be in God’s Presence just as Isaiah was.  Jesus tells him that he has to be born again, or anew, or afresh.  That phrase “born again” used to get a lot of press, but really means a sense of seeing and experiencing things in a new way, with a new perspective or change of heart.  

The phrase “born again” literally translates into being “born from above”.  And Jesus goes on to say that this isn’t an action that humans can evoke, but that it’s a movement of God’s Spirit and Water.  Water in this case would be symbolic or a metaphor of a flow of love over us and through us, a cleansing, a making things new.  The Spirit is God’s action in our lives that gives us life and moves us towards a sense of God’s expansive love.  Nicodemus gets hung up on the idea of someone literally being born again, going back into the mother’s womb….but Jesus is using this phrase to literally say that there is a birthing, we have to go through a birth canal out of a protective mode of being and into the realities of life…and that God goes through the pains of childbirth along with humanity.

You know though, that’s a hard concept for us.  Birth is beautiful and filled with expectation and possibility.  But, we don’t want to leave the friendly confines of the womb.  We want to stay comfortable and in control, yet God moves us towards birth, towards maturity, towards a new way of living.

Jesus doesn’t mess around with Nicodemus, doesn’t play games, he goes straight to a hard saying…and then says that God’s Spirit is also like the wind.  The Hebrew word for spirit is the same for wind, Ruach…it’s also Pneuma in Greek.  It blows where it pleases.  The question for the readers of this passage, do we have our hearts, our bodies, our lives towards God’s Spirit?  Do we try to bundle ourselves up in scarves or jackets of anxiety, control, identity in something, even church to shield us from the wind, or are willing to turn into the wind and let it carry us where God’s Spirit intends?

Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it though, and begins to think linear, or binary.  He can’t see that there’s a metaphor being used of being born anew.  But, he stayed in the conversation.

Jesus goes on to say that entering the Kingdom, or recognizing that existence of a deeper reality of God’s presence required water and spirit.  That God is like a seed being planted in this world and that the Spirit is like water causing it to grow.  It’s also symbolic of an old life being buried in water and rising again to being something more than it was before.  

This is an ongoing process also.  I’ve been born “from above” or anew often…even in the 3 1/2 years that I’ve been here as your pastor.  I’ve asked a lot of questions, I’ve been curious, I’ve shared fully who I am as best as I can.  I’m amazed of so many of these discussions have shaped me and us together.  Our hopes and dreams here at Fleming Road UCC are starting to come into view by many of us, it’s still a bit fuzzy, but we all seem to be asking the same questions.  Yes, we’ve had to figure out some things and we are still in that process, but as we share and have conversations…sometimes even in the dark, many of us are experiencing what it means to be born anew, to have new life, new beginnings, and to dare to dream some awfully big dreams together as we work on relationships.

That’s the essence of what John is sharing in the third chapter.  God’s nature is relationship.  God’s desire and character is relationship.  The trinity is a relationship.  God the father honors the Son the Son honors the Spirit and vice versa…no particular order, they mutually indwell in each other.  Out of that relational force, the beautiful relational physics of it all, we, and the earth were created, we were saved, and we are sustained.  

This 3 in 1 God is one with us, we are not God, but God brings us up into the communion or relationship of the trinity through the Son.  Jesus is both divine and the one true human.  We related to Jesus, he is our brother…our redeemer kinsman who brings the full force of the relationship of the creation, death and resurrection, and rebirth and sustainment into our lives, into humanity.  

Then we come to the last two verses…we know John 3:16, we see it on the TV almost every time we watch a major sports event…someone is holding up a sign with those words on it.  That’s great, but I wonder if that person realizes the world that is unseen that’s at play.  We are called to  believe in something unseen, yet experienced deeply.  It’s also a message of Jesus not coming to condemn as it says in vs. 17, but to save!  The world!  All of us!  And it gives us the message of life, real life.  When the bible talks about eternal life, it’s talking more about the quality of life, not the quantity.  

Here’s what I know, I’m willing and I’m experiencing that same willingness in this church with you…and in this community.  It’s happening, we are all being born again.  God’s Spirit is moving, drawing us into the relational and loving character of God, while reshaping us and the world around us.  Let’s live into that eternal reality…which, in Christ, is not only quality, but it truly is forever. 

Advocate.

John 15:26-27

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

Acts 2:1-21 

The Coming of the Holy Spirit 

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 

Peter Addresses the Crowd 

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, 

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, 

and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, 

in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 

19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, 

blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness 

and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ 

These past few weeks, we’ve been talking about Jesus’ words in John chapters 14-17, the farewell discourse. Jesus has been preparing his disciples for what was about to come. Now, Jesus did not know all that was about to happen. He did not have any certainty. He didn’t know the outcome of the next day or the next season. Sound familiar? 

Jesus is simply encouraging the disciples, letting them know that even when things get bad, seemingly out of control, that they won’t be alone. They have an identity, they are not going to be orphaned. Which, is an interesting word, in effect, Jesus is saying that they not only have an identity, but that they are still in relationship with a God who is all around them and even in them. 

If we have ever lost someone, we know that even after they are gone, that it often feels like they are still with us. Maybe even more so. Same, but even more with Jesus. We’ve never met Jesus, yet it seems that Jesus is even more present within my body, within my friendships, and within the space between us. Teilhard calls this the cosmic Christ, that Christ not only lived and walked the earth, but is with us, everywhere with everyone and everything, right now. 

 

There is a Presence, a sense of God’s love all around us and I pray for awareness of God’s Presence. I believe that the greatest gift and struggle that we have as Jesus followers, as humans, is the work of becoming of self, others, and God aware…of being connected to ourselves, others, with the divine flow of God pushing us deeper. The disciples, like us, were in a liminal space, a threshhold out of their control and they were being pushed deeper into Presence. 

During this pandemic, we have been listening and receiving God’s love through others, and deep within ourselves, long before the pandemic hit. As we have gone through this season, many of us have commented on how our faith has come more alive even as we have struggled, we’ve taken some risks relationally, we’ve connected with ourselves and others as we’ve had our lives disrupted. Much like the disciples, we’ve even been afraid to leave our houses for health reasons! And, it’s interesting isn’t it, we have not been able to do so much, but now, with vaccines rolling out and with all that we’ve done to get through this, we are able to do more.  The other night, at our church’s “dinner club”, it was so good to actually see people and to be together!  And, to see our “holy hookers” back in action at the church doing their knitting and chatting it up…so good!  

We can say with growing confidence, that we recognize that the master gardener, God’s action, is cultivating a deeper growth within us and around us.  Our display in the hallway gives testimony to that recognition as we share with others “God Spotting” in our everyday lives.  

I strongly believe that, we, and all of humanity is being shaped and formed by God’s movement, that God is with all of us in the most intimate way. God is closer than the air we breathe. Yet, we don’t often recognize God, or sometimes we even deny that God could even exist. The idea of a loving God can scare us. Love transforms, it changes us. Relationships happen, love is the fuel for those relationships to flourish. The juice if you will that burns within us and draws us out towards accepting others and ourselves in community. 

This concept of being “in” relationship with God and with others starts with an understanding that God’s very nature is communal relationship. You can go through all sorts of head knowledge of God, but if we go deep within ourselves, whether we are extroverts or introverts, we are wired for relationship. Science affirms this concept, at the very root of how we are formed, with atoms, protons, neutrons, quarks, etc., there is an understanding that energy is created for atoms to form through attraction, through relationship. 

Our understanding of God as three in one, as Trinity, gives witness to relationships. God as parent, son, holy spirit are so close that they are one. The outcome of their energy together is creating, saving, and sustaining relationship based on love. It is not static, it is dynamic. 

That dynamic energy of three in one God, demonstrated by the outpouring of God’s energy, God’s Spirit on the disciples, gave them courage to face the unknown of going outside of their comfort and into a world that they literally did not understand. They walked into a Jerusalem filled with folks from all over that had different customs, different ethnicities, and different languages.  This Spirit of God is often called the “Advocate”.  God’s Presence literally is advocating for us and is with us…and carried the disciples and us today!

The early disciples knew that they were connected to God, one another, and wanted to share that connection with the world. And, in so doing, they gave birth to a new movement, a new understanding, a new “realization” if you will, that we are all one humanity, God’s children. That our diversity is beautiful, keeps us curious, AND, we can be united and connected in that diversity. Fire was used to describe the Holy Spirit…and that flame, once kindled, proliferated wildly. 

Could this season of pandemic be another time of revelation, or realization, that releases the power of God’s love in new and creative ways?  It is an apocalyptic time as we have shared in Sundays past…a time of revealing, uncovering.  Not the end of the world, but an indicator that the world is changing.  And we have to find ways to embrace and adapt to the changes around us.  

As we allow God’s love to pour into us and through us to others, we begin to understand that we are connected to an expansive and wild God. We begin to see faith as not about certainty or having things figured out, but understanding that living in mystery and curiosity, living in a willingness to let go of our control, our vision, and letting God expand our horizons. We are locally rooted in community, and globally connected in Chist…as we let that reality seep in, we begin to experience a deepening of ourselves, a joy in things unseen but lived out. 

God’s Spirit, our advocate, is moving us out…no, not necessarily out in large crowds, not fully yet…maybe outside…who knows, it’s still a bit fuzzy!  But, we are being moved out of ourselves and finding creative ways that God’s Spirit has been at work in and around us during this season, and we are adapting, embracing this new reality, not certain of where it will lead, but trusting that God’s Spirit will energize us, that God’s Son will be our friend, and that God’s relational flow will continue to give birth to new possibilities. 

As we continue to gather in-person, online, in parking lots, in parks, or wherever…as we serve our neighbors, read, journal, and contemplate on God’s movement in our lives, may we see God is in us, and we find our being in God. This being will move us in ways we don’t always expect. Look at the early disciples that are described in Acts. They experienced the Advocate, the Spirit, it’s like a flame that’s burning, uncontrollable, yet warms them and moves them to change the world. May it be so for us.