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. 

One.

John 17:6-19

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Sermon:

I love rock climbing as many of you know.  I have missed it quite a bit lately.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that rock climbing is very relational.  I have a couple of friends I really trust that I climb with.  When we climb on a big rock, we are connected to each other literally.  When one is climbing, another is on the ground “belaying” or holding the rope the climber is on ready to break the climber’s fall if he loses his grip.  Our safety, our lives, depend on our equipment and each other.  The two of us have to communicate and work together in order to achieve our goal of getting to the top of that rock!

Today’s text says a lot about trust and working together, of striving towards friendship.  It’s filled with Jesus’ last prayers found in the Gospel of John.  I believe it was important to him and has great meaning for us.  

Our passage in John has much to say about unity.  Our unity starts with an understanding that all is from God.  God has created everything.  God has made God’s dwelling in us, with us, and around us.  This God is ever expanding around us and as we grow beyond ourselves, we can then begin to understand that our call is to be disciples of Jesus, following God’s Spirit into the world around us, where God is already filling, or has filled with his Presence.  

Jesus is praying for us, his disciples, those of us willing to grow, to change, to be impacted by our relationship with Jesus and Jesus’ love for the other in John 17.  We are called to carry on Jesus’ mission to be God’s living Presence in this world.  

Verse 11 calls us to remember that Jesus’ name is placed upon us, that we are marked by Jesus.  Because of this, we do have unity, but we don’t always live in that unity.  We are not always one.  Yet, we yearn for this oneness, this unity.  We are hardwired for it.  

A few years back, Bono, the lead singer for the band u2 wrote these words:

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
Sisters
Brothers
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to 
Carry each other
Carry each other
One…life

One

We are not the same, we are created as beautifully diverse in thoughts, opinions, shapes, sizes, color, preferences, etc.  Yet, we can still be one.  We can still live in unity as we are marked by a God who lives in perfect unity.  Jesus is the word, the expression of God.  Jesus lived this out and calls us towards maturity in faith, not grumbling, gossiping, or complaining, but to the deeper stuff of understanding, trust, patience, peace, self-control rather than “others control”, and love.  We have to carry each other.  I have to carry you, and there will be a time when YOU have to carry me.  

Friends, the folks in this community are waiting.  I’m listening, I’m hearing a lot.  So are others in our church.  We all want this church to be that place of diversity and unity and oneness loving the neighborhood well.

Yet, we know that a church, any church, can also not be places of unity.   It’s mostly not intentional, but we sometimes can’t seem to live in the unity that God’s given us. 

But, what I’m committed to and what I believe we are all committed to in this time and place.  We want to move towards a new story, living in a new promise rooted in the nature of Jesus, in the nature of what God intended for us as the church, as his disciples.

Listen to the next few verses in John.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

In this text, Jesus had just finished praying for his disciples and now he was praying for all of those who would believe in him because of his disciples’ message.  His prayer was for believers, for each of us in this room.  He wants us to be so together, that we are one.  Jesus was giving us a great picture of his relationship with God the Father.  They were intimate, together, of the same essence or being, so unified that they were one.  Jesus was giving us that picture of the relationship of God within the Trinity.  This text says to us today  that the core of God’s being is relational and that Jesus is calling us into a deep and intimate relationship with this God.

We cannot be a part of the Trinity, as we are not God, but we can be in relationship with God through Jesus’ giving to us his life.  Jesus is the one who was completely divine and completely human; he is the one who sacrificed his life for us so that we may be one with him.

Jesus prays his desire, his will, for us to be one so that the world may know that he was sent by God the Father.  By our being one with God and each other, the world may know and experience the love of God as they see our unity.  

When I was a kid in the 70’s, my dad was a volunteer youth director at our church, I remember hearing the youth group kids sing a song with the chorus, “they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love”.  

Friends, we have a God who loves us so much and has done everything to show us love, even becoming just like us.  Jesus breathed his Spirit upon us,  God gave us the power of God’s Spirit to unify us.  God’s power and love transforms us as it brings us into relationship with God, making us one with God and with each other.  This world needs to see that love, and they will through our unity, our oneness.  Yep, as I’ve said before, I’m stuck with you and you are stuck with me forever, and that’s a long time.  We might as well trust God and get on with letting him form our community, a community marked by grace and unity, a community known as the body of Christ, the church.  May we live into this prayer of Jesus of being one, just as he has demonstrated to us by being one with the Father and with us.

Friends.

John 15:9-17 

9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servantsany longer, because the
servantdoes not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. 

What does Jesus’ love look like? Oftentimes I’m asked at weddings to read the “love chapter” found in 1 Corinthians 13. It has beautiful poetry, but it’s not about love between two persons…no one can love that way except for God. It’s a chapter describing perfect love, sit back, close your eyes, soak in these words as if God is speaking directly to you: 

13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. 

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an
end.
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 

Wow. And, this is what Jesus is saying to us. Live, or abide, remain in my love. Jesus isn’t going anywhere, as a matter of fact, Jesus is present with us, right now…as we sit in our homes or in these pews, wondering what’s going to happen next in this pandemic, what is the new “normal”, we are not alone. Jesus is with us…and is chasing after us…won’t give up on us. 

One of my best friends in my twenties was Jay. I’ve talked about him before. Jay was simply amazing. Great athlete, musician, lots of charisma, looked like James Dean. His family had owned the patent to frozen yeast and also owned several bakeries throughout the world. He seemingly had it made. Yet, underneath, he was deeply struggling with the death of his dad in his teenage years and his mom’s impending death during much of our 20’s through MS. 


He was a Young Life leader, but after a while, quit that, left the church, and went into a season of life trying to numb himself of the pain.

Jay and I still got together, he was one of my best friends. But, there was a period of a few months where we weren’t around each other. We got together for dinner with a friend and he leaned over to me and told me, “I’m back”. He went on to say that he simply could not get away from God. That God kept on chasing him even when he was so numb from whatever he was using and whoever he was using. God’s love broke through. I believe that God’s love was even more real and deeper during Jay’s season of numbness. 

Years later, Jay continues to cultivate an understanding of love and grace. His legacy, friendship, and love for others bears so much fruit. Honestly, I’m standing here the person that I am in many ways because of Jay. 

Jesus was and is present with each of us. It’s hard, I know, especially in this season of disruption to recognize that…but when we begin to move towards understanding ourselves, asking the really hard questions and confronting the things in our lives that prevent us from experiencing the depth in knowing who we are and who God, we can begin to truly be present with ourselves, others, and God. We begin to experience love. 

I had a different spiritual director for a long time, Todd Long, before my present spiritual director, Father Richard Bollmer. Both of them have been great reminders to me of what it means to practice being present with my stuff and with God and others. Also, making sure that I take time to go and meditate, unplug, rest, and simply be either at home, in my office, or in special places like the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY. 

One of the disciplines that they have encouraged me with is to cultivate loving presence through “obedience”. Jesus, in this morning’s passage commands us to love God. An act of obedience is to love, and to love well. As we do that, we begin to understand deeply that Jesus is truly our friend and that leads to other friendships. 

Friendship means a lot to me. I am committed to folks and I want and need that commitment from them. As your pastor, I have made a commitment in my vows to be your friend. And, in your vows when you called me here, you committed to be my friend. As I’ve stated before, church is not a business, and it’s not just a family, it’s a family business with deep roots. 

As I practice friendship, sometimes in beautifully messy ways! I find that our friendships leads towards common good and growth. Many of my friends in this city and around the world are all working towards seeing goodness happen in communities with the church being at the center of that…being a place of generosity and momentum towards others and each other. 

We trust each other, deeply. Many of these friends speak for me and I for them. That trust is also happening here and we’re seeing the fruit of it in many ways already. 

Sometimes we may think that we’d like to simply shirk away from friendship, from being present. Yet, as we read this morning, God says to us, you didn’t choose this friendship, I chose you. I think that says so much about God…a practical takeaway from what I’m sharing is this…YOU are loved, God is present with you, cultivate that understanding, and know that God desires for the best for you…and for this church. 

I think that’s why I’m so confident about what we are about at Fleming Road UCC. I don’t know what the future holds, I don’t know what church will look like after this pandemic, but I know that we are here, present with one another and that we are together in this and will grow and change. We will move towards a great story…Jesus says again in this week’s passage that he will give us whatever we ask for! It’s interesting that Jesus said this in last week’s passage and now again this week…And, here we are, we are in this liminal space, this threshold in culture, and as a church, and as persons! We live in “apocalyptic” times…folks often think that means the end of the world, all of it…no, it’s simply a term that says that some things are ending in order to make room for something new to emerge..over time. And, in God, and in God’s love, we can place our faith in that it will be good for us and for others. 

Believe it…accept it. Receive this love and bear fruit! And, remember these words:

Jesus embodies this love, Jesus is here, present with you through his spirit the Holy Spirit, that connects all of us and all of this…and ultimately keeps us firmly in friendship with God.  

May we love one another and our neighbors (which means everyone) well! 

Vineyard.

John 15:1-8 

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunesto make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and becomemy disciples. 

A few weeks ago, I was running by the church one morning.  It was the day that folks came to take down the tree in the front of the church.  It was quite the operation.  Neighbors of our church, a young family, were watching.  I stopped to talk to them as we have met a few times before.  They asked about the tree, I told them it was dead and that it needed to come down.  They asked what we would replace it with.  I told them I didn’t know.  As the conversation went on, I shared with them a vision from some members of our church of starting a community garden on our property somewhere…they responded with, “if y’all ever do that, we are in, we’d love to help as we love to garden!”  

Debbie, my amazing spouse, also loves to garden.  We have a small garden bed next to our house, as well as flower gardens around the house (which we try to keep our dogs out of!).  The other day, when I came back from my run, Debbie was working in the garden with a young neighbor friend of ours, Aniya.  This young girl simply loved getting her hands dirty and being with Debbie.  

It’s safe to say, that gardens are great metaphors and images.  

In our passage this morning, the imagery of God as a master gardener speaks to us as a beautiful metaphor. God has given us life and cultivates us to be the best versions of ourselves, beautiful creations. God even plants himself into humanity. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. Jesus is often called the “seed” of humanity, and that seed grows or works its way throughout humanity, producing much good and beauty in each of us. 

The metaphor of Jesus being the vine, the connection, the bridge if you will between humanity and God…really, is in Jesus’ entire being. Jesus is the “word” that’s been given to us as mentioned in this passage, the expression of God. The one that we are called to follow. The one who’s vine we are the branches. 

The master gardener prunes, works on us, takes away the things that make us dead. Sometimes that pruning, or the literal Greek in this text is “taking away”, can hurt. We don’t like it when we are told that we need to change, that we need to grow. We create habits for getting by that may get us through the day, or even years, but really aren’t healthy or helpful to others around us. We have pride, we have insecurities. 

That’s not only true of each of us, but it’s also true of us collectively as a community and as a church. When I read or hear some of the things on Next Door Finneytown, or talk to other faith leaders across our neighborhood and the city, or listen to business owners or civic leaders, I hear a lot. Sometimes, honestly, there can be some who play something like middle school politics, but it’s more “grown up”. I also see it within our churches and families. We often get into places relationally with each other that simply don’t move us or others forward towards growth. 

We need to be loved on by a master gardener, and cultivate a desire to be with the master gardener…and to be outside, with people, in this master Gardner’s garden…the world!   That love that the master gardner has for us also means pruning some of the things away that are ugly in order for us to see within ourselves, others, the church, and our neighbors that true beauty that we are. 

It’s been pretty obvious for us as a church, community, country, and world, that this pandemic has been a time of pruning, even lament, yet it is producing growth. 

How do we cultivate this way of life where we can see the growth? By remaining in Christ, connected to the vine. This passage is an imperative in the Greek in verse 4. Jesus is stating emphatically to remain in him. Then he says that he will remain in us. This is not a cause and effect statement, or a transactional statement. Jesus is saying that he will remain in us, period. His presence with us is not conditional. He does say though to us, to remain in him. To be connected, to be willing to grow and be beautiful for yourself and for others. I also like the translation, “abide”.  We are to abide with Christ and Christ abides with us. 

If we remain in Jesus, if we follow the trajectory of his words and his life, we seen a radical inclusion of all of our stuff inside of us and outside of us. A radical inclusion that means that we are loved unconditionally, and those around us, no matter where they are in life, are also to be included. 

That can be messy. You have seen it in our relationships, and if you haven’t, you will some day!! I am a fairly solid and mostly competent pastor to Fleming Road UCC (most days), but I also make mistakes, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers. And, our church has made tons of mistakes over the centuries of our mutual existence in the three churches merged into one. None of us have all of the answers, that’s why it’s imperative that we remain in Christ, and remain connected to him and conversely with each other, we can be pruned, we can own our mistakes and lean in on grace, and grow together into a beautiful part of the vineyard here in Cincinnati. 

And, we will bear much fruit in the process…we already have! Live into that, live into God, as God lives in you!!!