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wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Pastor Nelson

Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 5, 2024


Acts 10:44-48

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

Last week’s first lesson had the Ethiopian asking Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer was nothing - not his “foreign” gentile ethnicity, not even his physical disability as an eunuch – stood in the way of full fellowship with God’s people. This week, Peter, basically asks the same question about Cornelius and others, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” The Greek word [kolyei] can mean, “prevent,” “withhold,” “hinder,” and a host of other similar words. Thus, the message is, no one can impede god’s outreach to all people across physical, social, or territorial boundaries. This inclusive theme extends to the end of acts and even then is ongoing, and open ended. Peter’s point is that “these people” – these uncircumcised gentiles, “have received the Holy Spirit just as we [Jews] have.” But we know, Peter, just like the church through the ages has never quite lived up to that teaching of openness.

Through the years we have hunkered down behind the catechism and/or something else to say who is in, or who is out. God is saying to all who live beyond the barrier of separation from God, I have come to life in Jesus the Christ and in the presence of the holy spirit, to break down all that separates you from me.

As with Cornelius,

• I/God have heard your prayers.

• I/God have come to visit your house.

• I/God pour my spirit of life upon you.

• I/God break down the barriers of sin, Satan, and death that have kept you from me. Very inclusive, eh?

Now let us take a look at our second lesson. 1st John is basically a sermon weaving together the message of love. A love that is from God, ss revealed through Jesus the Christ. That love then should exist between believers who experience that fellowship with each other, and with everyone else, and with God. The community to whom 1st John was written was facing a crisis. Not really much different from what a community of faith faces today. Was/is Jesus the Messiah? And more importantly, what do we do as followers of God?

1st John’s simple, confident, response is as relevant today as it was when the letter was first written. You know who you are, and you know what you have been told from the beginning.

• God shows us what is true.

• There is no need to panic or argue.

• Focus on living your faith.

God has the whole situation under control. Now I know unless you live in a vacuum, that is hard to believe. But that is the message. That is the good news. God loves us and if that is true, then we will love everyone, because how can we love a parent without loving the child whom the parent brought into being. Everyone becomes our brother and sister. Whoever loves the parent loves not just one of the parent’s children but all of them. The consequences of this conclusion are enormous.

• >every injustice done to a child of God echoes the injustice done to God.

• >every act of violence committed against a child of God recalls the violence committed against Jesus the Christ.

• >loving God, loving god’s children, and therefore keeping god’s commandments forms and inseparable link in a circular chain.

We hear the conversations that Jesus had with his disciples,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

“They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love, and those who love me will be loved by my father, and I will love them.”

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved, you.”

Now we often make all of this very burdensome. It seems to be our nature to make all this very heavy. But remember Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens – for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” First john is insisting that this is a call to love, “Not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Therefore, genuine faith is firmly connected with active love. Yes, I know, “it is easier said then done.” But I as a preacher have to say it.

That is my mission. True Christian faith conquers the world not by military might or doctrinal arguments and certainly not by coercion, but by love. Everyday I find it harder and harder to take in the full story of Jesus and his suffering and death. But everyday I also understand that this story is telling me/us that the faith that overcomes the world,

Is that god’s love brings life even out of brokenness and death.

This is the victory to which we are called, loving god’s children, and thereby living our faith in a loving god.

Now let us be honest, there are times in every relationship when people get discouraged and think of walking away. Every marriage, every close relationship, if it is real, will face crises on the way to deeper love. Most love stories begin with two people facing each other, enthralled by the beauty they see in their partner. There is a time of bonding in a honeymoon of friendship and commitment. That relationship is meant to grow toward a threshold of finding a shared purpose, often in parenting and or vocation. So rather than gazing at each other, we stand side by side and face the world and its challenges. The story of Jesus is one of inviting his disciples to accompany him on the difficult journey through the cross to new life.

All of them had their doubts and fears, but they endured the hard times to enter into the challenge of the gospel. They stood with Jesus, not as someone to gaze at but to follow and imitate. They grew as a community of purpose by being on the road with him, learning, struggling, and working for the realm of God that Jesus was announcing. Jesus’ love for them was constant, but he also challenged them to stay the course and endure the struggles life would give them.

Through it all, Jesus’ message was the same, “Remain in my love.”

He knew their names, He knew their strengths and weaknesses, and even when they failed, those failures were teachable moments.

So it is for each of us. Knowing God loves us, gives us a strength to love others. It is the basic message for each of us, “Remain in god’s love.” Yes, the road of life is long and hard. We have to continually go back to our galilees, but we also know Jerusalem is just up the road.

Yes, there is a road out there that is long and narrow and winding but we still believe there will be a time when our joy will be complete.

Now I know that sounds like “pie in the sky,” theology.

[at the age of 23, after one year of seminary, I served two congregations for three summer months in 1963. The poor people.

I had been married two years, Julie was not with us yet, I had a BA and I had learned how to shoot a rifle and march and was ready to go to war if need be. Thank goodness, I did not have to go but many of my age group did die in the rice fields of Vietnam. The miracle is that I still believe in the over all message of the gospel.]

In the midst of the bible stories we find the truth. Is every “jot and tittle” in the bible true, of course not. The miracle of faith along with the miracle of the church is that we are still here. I remember 18 year olds in my first class on the bible in university claiming their faith was lost because the teacher told us the world was not created in six days. I think, I really began to get it together when John XXIII opened our eyes to a new way of looking at faith, church, and life. No, I am not RC but I am catholic. I believe, Francis is trying to do the same now.

We have to continue to walk, listen, and encounter one another on the real issues facing us today in our mission to the contemporary world we live in.

From the very beginning we have been called as a Christian community,

• to see beyond ourselves,

• to see god’s saving power for all the world,

• to see the humbling truth that the spirit of God does belong to every nation, tongue, denomination or religious tradition.

• god’s spirit blows in all directions,

• always leading towards a future that God has created for us.

Our part is to wonder at and appreciate how god’s saving power extends to “all of the earth.” Today’s story from acts gives us a story that incarnates the teaching of first john and today’s selection from Jesus’ last discourse. What we heard in the first two lessons can be taken as a commentary on today’s gospel message of love. Dwelling in god’s love calls us to live more deeply, more passionately, and to allow god’s love to activate everything we do. We have heard the call to love one another, perhaps too frequently. But god’s love is what these readings of the sixth Sunday of easter call forth from us. And yes, this call is likely to make us uncomfortable. Peter was uncomfortable eating unkosher food with gentiles. All of that seems pale in the light of divisions we know today. But the key to all of this is, “Remain in my love.” I am not sure how true the story of Mary and the angel is, but the truth is as Gabriel said, “For god, nothing is impossible.” The more profound things are, the simpler they seem to be. The essence of the gospel and this season of easter coalesces in today’s focus on god’s love for us and the commandment to love one another.

All of this may seem far too simple, and/or far too complicated, but the reality is amazing and also terrifying. If we are honest, we know both the impact and the cost of this kind of love from our own personal experiences.

Jesu, Jesu,

fill us with your love,

show us how to serve the neighbours

we have from you.

[ELW 708]

Amen

Updated: Jun 2

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Fifth Sunday of Easter

April 28, 2024


Acts 8:26-40

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

Every summer, a group of university students in my neighborhood head west for tree-planting. They travel to Alberta to live in a tent in the wilderness. Each day, they take their seedlings and bend down into the soil and plant them – they are paid per seedling. And to get paid, they have to do it rain or shine, or, as is happening too often now, even if the air is filled with smoke from wildfires. Planting trees helps grow back our forests. But it is hard work. The young people who last the season come back a little tougher, a little more resilient. They have endured. It’s a job that prunes you – cuts you down, so that you may build up again.

I have had jobs like this all my life. My brief and terrible stint catching chickens. The backbreaking work shovelling gravel from the corners of the lakers in Welland. Working as the chaplain at Centracare, the oldest psychiatric hospital in North America, where I saw consequences of human trauma and abuse. These were jobs that pruned me – they stripped down my expectations, my body, and my perceptions so that I might grow back stronger.

This is the metaphor of our gospel this morning: ‘I am the vine,” Jesus tells us. “You are the branches.” Those who grow rooted in the gospel bear much fruit. Indeed, we may be pruned by God to bear more fruit.

And what is the act of pruning, but the holding back of that natural growth that may stall the productivity of the rest of the vine? As any gardener knows, pruning is an act of care, to help the plant grow to its full potential, a cutting away of the edges so that the center may grow stronger. Sometimes, nearly the entire plant is cut down, and yet it returns the next spring stronger than ever.

We may not feel that way when it is happening. When I was shoveling gravel, I didn’t think: “Wow, the lessons I will learn!” And yet, now I know it taught me the experience of hard labour. By the time I got to Centercare, I went much more quickly from pruning to awareness.

But often we come to understand these difficult times – whatever they are for each of us – as more than time we survived. But as time where we grew back better, wiser, stronger.

However, we know that there are parts in us that also deserve to be pruned away – the parts that judge too quickly, act too harshly, forgive too slowly, and help too little. But God shows us how to prune those parts back, even though they are constantly growing, so that we can have restraint, so that we can be better, so that we might stretch even beyond ourselves and bear the fruit of the gospel.

Sometimes we may look for an answer from God and fail to hear it: it is given to us this morning in our second lesson: we are given love in its purest form by the God we trust. And, if we can accept that truth -- that we have value -- then we might also love more perfectly. We are told that when we love others – our brothers and our sisters – God lives in us. So, when we ask, “How can we be closer to God?” we are told how: by loving those around us. By loving ourselves. And where is the love, we ask? It’s ours to create. And not with fear and judgement, for that is not love.

The truth is, unlike the tree that stands stoically for its pruning, we do not like it. We complain about it; we fight it. We want life to be easy and ever the same. Being pruned asks much of us. To see the upside of bad experiences, to savour the hard tests in life, to accept our mistakes so that we might learn from them. If God prunes out branches, then it is in us, in our decision to love and trust, in God and one another, that allows us to grow into branches on the vine.

And what is the role of those branches, when rooted in the gospel? We become strong enough to stretch where love seems not to exist and take it there ourselves. That is how God comes to us. Not when we sit idly by, but when we find ourselves, as the second lesson tells us, doing acts of love for our brothers and sisters.

I suspect we all know someone who we think is different or weird. Who we don’t like. Who we’d rather not bother us. But it’s this very thinking that God tries to prune away. So that our lives are not only about the fruit that grows easily, but also about the kind we need to cultivate.

We can’t know the future or change the past. All we can do is consider the ways that our decisions affect others, how our society’s laws and values make outsiders of some, and what individual power we might have to change that. Down the road, we also need to ask ourselves what happened, and what might have been done to stop that. Perhaps as we ask, we will look around, and we will see, for the first time clearly, a lost sheep. And maybe we will reach out.


Amen.


Updated: Jun 2

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 21, 2024


Acts 4:5-12

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

For all the difficulty we seemingly have these days at incorporating the teachings of Jesus into society, Jesus as a leader is pretty hip. Forget what he said; let’s focus on what he did to get people to listen. You can go on the Internet and find out how Jesus was, in fact, the ideal CEO – among other things, you’ll learn that he remembered to say thank you. You could crack open a business book like The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus, and pore over chapters like “Cleanse Your Insides,” and “The Golden Rule and Beyond.” In Medium last year, Colin Shawger, MBA, wrote an essay with the headline: What Businessmen can learn from the Teachings of the Son of God. Those lessons include: ”Lead with Humility,” “Practice Empathy,” and “Set a Clear Vision.” In 2000, a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army penned a now famous essay on why Jesus would have been an effective military leader. There is even a complicated Venn diagram if you want to look it up. Key to the skills that Jesus had was that he trusted his team, talked to them straight, seemed like the kind of guy who enjoyed a good lunch, and got down in the trenches with the troops.

You don’t have to tell us: Jesus was one heck of a leader.

The thing is, whatever their agendas, all those writers are absolutely right. Jesus, born to a carpenter and a young mother, achieved something incredible in his 33 years on earth: in that short time, he managed to inspire people to see their society in a completely different way, and to create the foundation for a 2,000-year-old faith. That takes a special kind leadership, even if you do have the power of God behind you.

But what I would put to all those writers is the one question it often seems our leaders today forget to ask themselves: Why did Jesus want to lead in the first place?

Our gospel this morning may be our best – and our most comforting - description of how Jesus saw his role as our leader: the Good Shepherd. At this point in the gospel of John, Jesus has just healed a blind man, and he is now having to explain himself to the Pharisees, who refuse to believe that Jesus could have performed the miracle. To explain himself, Jesus uses the metaphor of the shepherd. He begins with a description of what he is not: he is not like the thief who sneaks in the back door to steal the sheep away; he is not like the stranger who is indifferent to the sheep. And he is not like the hired hand, who pretends to protect the sheep, but then abandons them when the wolves appear, or the work gets hard and his pay check doesn’t seem worth it.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The good shepherd does what is required to keep the sheep safe; he thinks not of himself, but of the best interests of the sheep. The good shepherd is motivated by love and not by greed. He becomes a shepherd to serve.

This is what Jesus tells the Pharisees, who have already proven themselves to a different kind of leader. Instead of celebrating the blind man’s lucky turn, they have driven him out of the synagogue for naming Jesus as his healer; they have turned his parents against him by interrogating them until they fearfully abandoned their son to his exile. The Pharisees – these supposed spiritual leaders – proved that what they were really worried about was their own power; they were worse than the thief who makes no bones about his motives; they are worse even than the hired hand who accepts a pay check with no plans to fulfill the job. They set themselves up as the good shepherds – but their altruism came second to their own desires.

We speak a lot these days about how our leadership, in so many areas of life, is in a deficit. We seem to live among thieves and hired hands – CEOs that will take their bonuses and run, and politicians who will do what they have to to get elected next time. And our complaints, endured in a democracy, are rather mild: consider how many nations have put their hopes on a leader who promised to free the people, only to end up with a dictator corrupted by power who enslaved them.

In this, Jesus stands apart; for all his power, which was greater than any on earth, he never lost sight of his motivation – the salvation of his sheep. So it is not the methods of Jesus that should fill books; it is his motives.

But let’s not forget the other players in this parable: the sheep. The sheep have a choice: they can rebel against the shepherd, or they can follow him; they can go to the shepherd who lured them with treats or stay with the shepherd who stands with them when it rains. We can lament our leaders; but we also created them. The parents we like to critique today are the product of families past, and of the dictates of society. The celebrities we disdain grew out of our own obsessions with beauty and wealth. The politicians we bemoan are the result of apathy or self-interest.

Sigmund Freud once weighed in on the reasons why we choose the leaders that we do. Freud saw the terrible consequences of the wrong choice first hand: he lived in Vienna when the Nazis arrived and Hitler inspired the cosmopolitan citizens of that city to betray, without much resistance, their Jewish neighbors and friends. What Hitler did, Freud argued, was make it easy for people: he dictated one simple, restrictive code of behaviour, and then provided an outlet for any of the restless tension that might result: by allowing them to act any way they wished toward a second group of people. We know the result all too well.

But we are predisposed to make those bad choices over and over again, Freud proposed – that is, to seek leaders who “simplify the world to explain our suffering, then identify enemies to focus our energies.” A healthier society – and, ultimately a happier society, Freud argued, lives in the tension of argument and difference, constantly balancing wants and needs with a moral code.

And this, I think, is where Freud inadvertently provides a deeper assessment of the leadership of Jesus, than some pop psychology against micro-managing. Jesus never resolves those tensions for us. He does not make our lives easier, by pointing out an enemy for us; he points the finger back at ourselves and tells us to get over our own suffering and look to our neighbor, and to befriend our enemy. His simple code - to love one another – is the hardest one for us to follow. He is the good shepherd: he sets the example by loving the sheep before himself. But what he asks of the sheep, in turn, is to do the very same thing.

Remember this parable, wherever you are a leader – at home, in the community, at work, at church. You can read a book on how to delegate. You can take a course on how to give a witty speech. But what Jesus hoped to teach the Pharisees that day, and what he hopes to instill in each of us, is that none of the style matters, if your motivation is not to serve others; when our own desires get in the way, our leadership falters. We risk becoming shepherds merely so the sheep will fawn all over us. Lead to Serve. And Serve with Love. That’s the most important lesson on leadership from Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Amen.


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