May 10, 2020

Prayer of the Day

Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to follow in the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Acts 7:55-60

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

1 In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. 2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. 3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, 4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. 5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. 16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

1 Peter 2:2-10

2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” 8 and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

John 14:1-14

1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove

The promise and good news in today’s gospel lesson is pretty life-giving and beautiful. We worship a God who truly loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. I know that many people in the world and maybe a few in our congregation are experiencing anxiety. That anxiety may have many sources. Whatever the source of your anxiety, know that Jesus can bear it, as is made clear in our reading from John Chapter 14.

“In my Father’s house are many dwellings,” Jesus says, using a word which means “resting place.” This passage has been misinterpreted a lot. Some readers argue that Jesus’ statement that he is going to “prepare a place for you” means that he is going away, to heaven, to get a place ready for those who will be “raptured” out of their cars or houses for seven years.  There is a more faithful way to hear Jesus’ words.

First, let us remember that this entire speech of Jesus’ is the testament of a leader on the eve of his death. Death is in the air. Jesus is not speaking about ascending up to heaven. He is speaking about dying.

Just as important, Jesus does not specify where the Father’s house is located. Is it in heaven? Not necessarily, certainly not exclusively. We know this because later on, Jesus will say that he and the Father will come and make their dwelling in the believing or trusting person: “We will come and make are dwelling with them.” This is about God’s mystical dwelling in Jesus’ followers. It is in this way that the Father also “dwells” in Jesus.

If there is one gospel that does not want us to get caught up or sidetracked by locations or chronologies, it is John’s gospel. What this most mystical gospel wants us to grasp is that this is a relational God. The Father and Jesus have an intimate relationship. Through Jesus, God desires deep relationships with the disciples, including you and me. As followers of Jesus have abiding-places in Christ, so Jesus and the Father have an abiding-place in each follower. God makes a home with us.

The “father’s house” is not so much heaven as God’s household or family on earth. We, reading scripture some 2000 years later, are already living in the mystical dwelling place in the Father’s household which Jesus has prepared for us. This passage is not about mansions in the sky, but about spiritual dwellings in Jesus.

One scholar tells a story about a four-year-old girl who is asked by her father while boarding a plane, “Where are we going?” “To Grandma’s” the girl shouts. Not “to Pocatello” or “Seattle,” but “to Grandma’s” she says. For her, Grandma’s is a person, not a place. We find our home in those who love us, in people more than places.

So, also, with Jesus’ words for us today. What matters is not where the rooms are geographically, but whose rooms they are. “We are going to God’s.” Our home is with God, we are told. Today we hear assurance that Jesus is preparing a place for us with God. We are going to God’s. That is all that matters in Jesus’ long address. We are going to God’s because God has already come to dwell with us in Jesus.

Sometimes it takes my breath away, that we can have a relationship with God through this Jesus. I want such a relationship for all of the people in my flock; really, I want it for every human being on the planet. One of the new young bishops in our larger church, Leila Ortiz of Metro D.C., wrote beautifully about this. Of her girlhood years, she wrote “One day it occurred to me that I needed some time alone with God. I purposefully used all my lunch money and bus fare so I wouldn’t be tempted take the bus home. The 2-mile walk would be my alone time with God. I met up with my friend Jesus and told him about my day and my dreams. It was such a delightful walk that I did the same thing the next day.”

Ortiz continues, “Jesus was awe-inspiring to me, and I couldn’t get enough of him. Eventually, this devotional time evolved into a love affair. I looked forward to our intentional time together, and I talked about him to anyone who would listen. I loved Jesus then, and this love overflowed into the rest of my life, through today.”

Oriz has experienced that dwelling and abiding with Jesus that we hope everyone experiences, whether or not they can write about it as beautifully and boldly as she does. It’s not that this love affair and dwelling gets rid of anxiety and fear, but it certainly makes it easier to bear. Conversations or prayer time with Jesus, which some of us might be making more time for during the pandemic, can be calming and restorative. Abiding with Jesus will lead to something else.

Prayer includes bringing your intercessions or concerns to Jesus. It also includes listening. Ortiz again, “Nothing drew me in more than God’s incarnation: how Jesus turned tables in the face of abuse and injustice; healed the woman facing the issues of blood and marginalization; spoke to the ostracized and lonely woman at the well; and taught his followers how to love as they had been loved by him.” A relationship with Jesus is not an end in itself. It has to lead to relationships with neighbors.

Jesus says as much in our gospel passage, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in my will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Greater, perhaps because although none of us can do what God did through Jesus’s death and resurrection, all of us together can bring a whole lot of love into our world as we care for our neighbors.

I have said and written a lot during the past two months on self-love and self-care. I do believe that we are called to care for the bodies, minds, and souls God created. But all of that self-care is ultimately for the sake of the neighbor. To return to airplanes, it’s like the flight attendant’s instruction that if there is a loss of cabin pressure, please secure your own oxygen mask first, and then assist those around you. You cannot assist those around you if you pass-out. But unlike an airplane where you may be in a row of adults who are perfectly capable of putting on their own oxygen masks, down here on earth, there is always a neighbor who needs us.

Some people are loving their neighbors in extraordinary ways: paramedics, nurses, doctors, and therapists. Some of these professionals are caring for people in their hometowns. Others have flown to hotspots like New York City to lend their hands, literally. Are they all Christians, or people of other faiths? No. But they are instruments of God’s healing, nonetheless. All of them have somehow grasped Jesus’ mandate to love our neighbors with both our words and our actions.

We celebrate those acts of love. They may seem out of grasp for us, but loving the neighbor is never out of reach. That neighbor may need a phone call of encouragement. That neighbor may need you to pick up groceries for them. What our neighbors need is for us to put their needs ahead of our wants. Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.” We are freed, of course, but in that freedom is a call to be servant to our neighbors. And Jesus made it clear in his meals and healings and teachings that the neighbors who should receive preferential treatment are those who are most vulnerable.

If Jesus gives us the clear instruction, to love our neighbor by doing the works that Jesus’ does, then this morning’s passage from First Peter paints a picture for what that might look like for a church body. He writes to an early Christian community and addresses them as exiles. They may be actual exiles, or they may be experiencing abuse for the new faith.

It is of course impossible to put ourselves in their shoes. I hesitate to equate our time in quarantine with the plight of actual exiles or persecuted Christians. And yet, it is true that we have in a way been displaced. But like those early Christians, our ultimate identity is in relation to the priesthood of believers—the body of Christ.

The verse which precedes are reading tells us what behaviors and attitudes we should leave behind as we live into relationship with Jesus and our neighbors: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, all slander.” That’s some pretty clear ethics, and this is already beginning to sound just a little countercultural as insincerity and slander seem to be widely accepted.

Then First Peter weaves geological images into his message. Resurrection makes somebodies out of nobodies by making us into living stones—hewing us, shaping us, building us together into a home, into a community with others. I love that image of living stones; as living stones, who dwell with Jesus serve our neighbors.

We reside in a world dominated by greed, individualism and violence. We are not all experiencing the pandemic equally. The 2700 employees speaking 80 languages at the Smithfield meat packing plant in my home state of South Dakota do not have the choices and options I have. So, is there anything more radical than the way of life to which we are called? It is life overflowing with love, selflessness, mercy, and care for all those who society reject. Community, hope, a table where everyone is welcome: these continue to be counter cultural. And what of a God of love and mercy? These beliefs and way of living are not the norm. But First Peter’s imagery brings good news too, for the letter speaks of the chief corner stone.

A cornerstone is not only the stone set at the corner of two intersecting walls. It is one prepared and chosen for its exact 90-degree angle.  It is the basis for the construction of the whole building. Choosing the right corner is basic not only to the aesthetics of the building but also to its stability and longevity. I hear the chorus of the great hymn, “No storm can shake my inmost call while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

And in fact, First Peter declares, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The author takes language right out of the Prophet Hosea and the Book of Exodus, scripture of the Hebrew People, and grafts this Gentile community onto the royal priesthood. Through Jesus, dwelling with God is a gift available for all people, including you and me. But that dwelling, that relationship cannot be hoarded. Those who dwell with God are to “declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Prayers of Intercession   (Adapted from Sundays and Seasons by Di Seba)

Uplifted by the promised hope of healing and resurrection, we join the people of God in all times and places in praying for the church, the world, and all who are in need.

Build us up, supporting God, as living stones united in your spiritual house. Continually strengthen your church as it is sent forth to proclaim your love. We pray especially for our congregations as they adapt to new ways of serving. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Humble us, creator God, as part of your creation. Fill us with respect and awe for the world you have made, and bless all those who care for it, including farmers, gardeners, veterinarians, and zoologists. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Align our ways to your love, O God. We pray for countries, leaders, and organizations as they deal with the complicated problems relating to the pandemic. We pray for wisdom for our leaders and health professionals, and especially for the scientists seeking a cure for covid-19. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Nurturing God, help those whose hearts are heavy and weighed down by trouble. Ease the distress of those dealing with disease and death, and bring them your comfort. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Mothering God, we pray for mothers and all families, those who tend and teach young children, for the safe pregnancies of expectant parents, and for families who struggle with infertility and miscarriage. We give thanks for all who have shown mothering care, and we remember all for whom this day is difficult. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Generous God, you call into your brilliant light all who have died. Give us faith to take hold of the promise of your eternal life and to live in your grace day by day. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

With bold confidence in your love, almighty God, we place all for whom we pray into your eternal care; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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