Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sermon: That's It.

Sunday, April 24, 2016
The 5th Sunday of Easter, Year C
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse, Associate
That's It
Listen here. 

In 2007, Professor Randy Pausch gave a speech entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,”
at Carnegie Mellon University.  It became a best seller, “The Last Lecture.” The talk had been part of a series that invited professors to share reflections on their professional journey while encouraging a freedom to talk about their own interests.  This “Last Lecture” tradition endures even today.  The pervading question is, “what legacy would you like to leave?”  In this spirit, faculty members showcase their particular knowledge and encourage the intellectual curiosity of students and the community.

Today’s gospel text, which begins, “When Judas had gone out…” marks the beginning of the end. Jesus wraps up his conversations in a kind of Last Lecture, teaching the disciples of their distinctive mark. The intimacy of the conversation is striking: “Little children,” he says to the grown adults around the table, “listen to me now…I’m getting ready to go where you cannot come.  It’s important we have this time now.”
We all can relate to this kind of final, intimate, intense conversation that we all will have or have had with loved ones.  The moment lasts an eternity: it is at once a sacred, honorable time – and many of us would rather not have it. Yet, we are compelled into it. It is not easy.

Jesus lays it out clearly (not in his usual way of speaking in parables).  “Love one another.”

That’s it.

As one NT scholar[1] wrote, “[this] new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate and it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.”

“By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Honestly, how embarrassing it is for us Christians to remember that Jesus wanted us to focus on this one thing. It’s hard to put into practice, maybe because it is so radical, focusing on love within and among members of the faith community.

A friend of mine recalled a conversation she had with a brother of SSJE – Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican religious order. “Why do you say the confession every. single. day?” she asked the brother.  He replied, “Because we live in community. We need to say it.”

But, Jesus explained, the community’s love for one another was – and is – the distinctive mark of Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus was aware of the crippling divisions within the Christian community – then, and now.  A brief google search reveals that there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide. [2]  There is nothing easy here, Jesus reminds his disciples.

“Love one another,” he says, in the midst of their betrayal of him.
“Love one another,” he models, with servant love by washing feet.
“Love one another,” he insists, while giving away his life for God.

Love one another, and you will know grace and love and that deep peace which the world cannot give. And, it will be difficult.

There is a story[3] in Isak Dinesen’s book “Out of Africa” about a boy named Kitau. The author recounts Kitau’s arrival at her door one day to ask for a job as a domestic servant.  She hired him, but just after three months he surprised her: asking for a letter of recommendation to his new employer, Sheik Ali bin Salim.  The Sheik was a Muslim who lived in a nearby town.  Dinesen tried offering to raise Kitau’s pay in order to keep him, but money was not his interest.

Kitau was discerning whether to become a Christian or a Muslim and his purpose in working for Dinesen had been to see, up close, the way a Christian lived.  Now that he had worked for Dinesen and seen the ways of Christians, he would go and observe Sheik Ali to see how Muslims behave.  After this, he would decide.  The author remembers how she wished Kitau had told her that before he came to live with her.

The newness of this command is not that it had never before been taught (it is in Leviticus.)[4] The newness is found in the source of that love As one commentator said, “You are to love one another – not by copying my fruit, but by connecting to my vine. You don’t mainly imitate, you participate.  Your love for each other is not a simulation of mine, but a manifestation of mine… this is how all people know you are truly my disciples.”[5]

To love one another means to find a new relationship with our community – which is the wounded and the resurrected body of Christ. It means:
To trust one another with our vulnerability, and to risk loving recklessly
To accept our own and each others’ wounded and aging bodies, and to see each other with transformed eyes of boundless grace
To forgive one another for denying God’s goodness in us, and to see the face of Christ in the one sitting beside us

This coming week, I will attend a conference in Dio Tx called “Invite, Welcome, Connect,” which will teach both clergy and lay leaders how to encourage a culture of Love One Another.  We will share ideas and learn how to grow our congregations into flourishing, and vital communities who Love One Another.

See, our distinctive Christian mark is how we love one another.  When Christ’s love takes deep root within us, as at our baptism, we glorify God just for being. As one mystic[6] reminds us, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” When we love one another, especially in our mutual brokenness, God’s light heals enters our community and makes us whole, revealing God’s glory.

And lest we think that this commandment is only for those in our human community, on this Earth Day weekend,  I wonder what would it be like to understand Jesus as saying, "Love my creation with all your heart" and, "Love my world as you love yourself."  With that perspective, how might humanity treat the earth and all it holds?

Many of us feel nourishing love when we connect with the natural world: the sun and moon and stars, the ocean and river, mountains and meadows, (all that is listed in Psalm 148) our connection to all beings, human or not.  Might “love one another” mean living lightly, spending our time on earth in healing the world? Might “love one another” mean cheerfully taking only what we need and allowing the rest to sustain other creatures? Might we see ‘every day as Earth Day,’ and love one another, humans and non-humans alike?

This is not easy work, being Jesus’ disciples.  Judas had gone out.  Jesus gave the simple, yet hard, commandment. No more parables or paradoxes.  He said, “little children, love one another.”
May God’s glory shine through God’s Love that is unbounded, through God’s forgiveness that is unending and through God’s acceptance that is unfettered.

Love one another.

[1] D.A. Carson, “The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: APOLLOS, 1991), 484, as offered in “Feasting On The Word: Pastoral Perspective: John 13: 31-35,” Fifth Sunday of Easter, p.468
[2] Cited at https://theway21stcentury.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/how-many-christian-de... on April 22, 2016
[3] Inspired by “Feasting On The Word: Pastoral Perspective: John 13: 31-35,” Fifth Sunday of Easter
[4] Leviticus 19:18
[5] Cited at http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/as-i-have-loved-you-love-one-another on April 22, 2016
[6] Quote from Rumi cited at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/103315-the-wound-is-the-place-where-the-...

Sermon: Up and At 'Em and Jump In!

A Sermon preached in 
photo CCO Public Domain
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse, Associate

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
10 April 2016
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Listen here.

“Up and at ‘em and jump into the pool!”

This was our family wake-up call during my childhood’s long, hot, California summers.  And so we did.  Get up and jump into the pool.  And sometimes we would don our bathing suits, even.  Or just jump in with our pajamas on.  Hearing today about Peter’s jump into the sea, with his clothes on, like the buffoon he played, got me thinking about how Peter just, “got up and at ‘em and jumped in.”

The presence of Jesus on the beach served as Peter’s wake-up call during his long and difficult sleep of grief – the grief that “going fishing” was supposed to relieve.  Jesus woke him from the grief Peter thought would go away by the familiar spray of the sea mist, the sway of the boat beneath his feet, and the weight and texture of the fishing nets.

Of course, Peter wanted the familiar – just like we all do when a family drama turns our life sideways. We yearn for the familiar, we long for our sense of “normalcy.” That’s why Peter went fishing in the first place.

And, the beloved disciple’s exclamation, “It is the Lord!” woke Peter out of his sleepy post-traumatic shock from the week’s previous events: Jesus’ passion, crucifixion, death, empty tomb and re-appearances. Seeing Jesus on the beach also brought back Peter’s guilt.  He had said he would follow Jesus all the way to the end, even to death. Yet, when tested, Peter succumbed to his own vulnerability, his own fear and so denied Jesus – not once, but three times, just as Jesus had predicted. 

That morning, hearing Jesus’ voice, “…cast the net to the right side of the boat!” triggered Peter’s heartache and angst. And in that micro-second, Peter wondered if he would ever be able to make it right with Jesus, to forgive himself.  Then, seeing the abundance of fish in the nets was the last straw. 

Peter got up and at ‘em; and as he jumped into the sea, the rush of water gushing past his ears rang out a memorial torrent of struggle, of vulnerability, and of Love:
·        the wedding party at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine
·        the way Jesus up-ended the tables in the temple
·        the meeting Jesus had with the Samaritan woman,
·        the hungry crowd Jesus fed with just the 2 fish and 2 loaves.

Once Peter and the disciples had hauled in their catch Jesus told them to bring some of the fish they had just caught, to add to what he offered. In this simple, yet, profound request, Jesus not only provided for the disciples, but he also invited them to contribute. To contribute what they had and, by extension, who they were.

In sharing a meal of food that each provided, Jesus drew them all back into mutual relationship.  In this way, Jesus informed the disciples: he needed them to partner with him as co-creators of God’s realm here on Earth.  And Jesus asks us to bring what we have – and who we are: our gifts and our gaps, our strengths and struggles, our love and our longings – to be part of the Jesus movement. 

In the meal we share, Jesus draws us into mutual relationship, to make, together, a world as God dreams it can be. After sharing that meal, Jesus and Peter sat together.  The charcoal fire must have reminded Peter of that other charcoal fire – where Peter stood, warming himself, on that awful night of Jesus’ arrest and torture, when Peter denied knowing Jesus. 

Now Peter faced his Beloved teacher and Lord.  Courageously, in his vulnerability, he met Jesus one-on-one and looked into the eyes of the one he deeply loved – and denied.  Jesus spoke first, “Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?”  Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.”  Three times he asked Peter to confess.  Three times he did, though by the third time he was disheartened, even hurt.  Three times he invited Peter to express his love, symbolically wiping away the three times Peter had denied him. 

Jesus got up and at ‘em and forgave Peter – and more. God was at work
through the Risen Christ restoring Peter back into the discipleship community and giving him meaningful work to do. The good news here is that forgiveness leads to mission, restoration to purpose, and inclusion to calling. 

A few years ago, I read a book called The Five Love Languages.[1]  The premise of the book is expressing love in a way that the other understands.  The five love languages are:

First, “words of affirmation.”  In this language, spoken praise and appreciation is like rain on parched soil.  “I forgive you”, “thank you” or “you are important” shows love and belonging for those who speak “verbal.”  

Second, “acts of service.” In this language, actions speak louder than words: preparing a casserole for someone in crisis, making meals at Crossroads, baby sitting for the neighbor, or planting trees & shrubs to beautify the Moross Greenway; serving means love and belonging for those who speak “show me.”

Third, “receiving gifts.”  In this language, love is symbolized. A cheerful Easter bouquet delivered to a friend who cannot get to church or a simple note card with a ribbon inside means the world for those who speak “gifted” love.

Fourth, “quality time.” In this language, undivided attention, such as sharing a cup of tea, sitting with someone in hospital, or even taking a walk around the block means so much for those who speak “be with me.”

Fifth, “physical touch.”  In this language, physical connection, such as a hand on a grieving friend’s shoulder or a simple handshake communicates love for those who speak “touch.”

Tell, serve, give, be, touch. Verbs of love.

Jesus asks us all, “do you love me?” and invites us to “tend my sheep,” to show our love, perhaps through words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time or physical touch.  And in so doing, we are restored. We have purpose.

God, through the Risen Christ, met and loved Peter right where he was. And that love inspired Peter to live his way into a new way of thinking, rather than think his way into a new way of living.[2] 

Today, Jesus gets up and at ‘em and forgives us– and more – he loves us, restores us and gives us purpose.  We the impetuous, clueless, head-strong ones who God entrusts to “feed my sheep,” to show God’s Love.

Jesus gets up and at ‘em and jumps into our pool – the pool of our life, individually and communally – our family, our work, our play, our callings, our worries, our quirks.  Today, Jesus’ love inspires us to get up & at ‘em and jump into the pool – the pool of God’s realm, the pool of the Jesus movement. 

May we all, today, jump in – whether in fishing clothes or pajamas – for the Love of God. 

[1] Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, (Northfield Publishing, Chicago, 1992)

[2] Richard Rohr, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking,” as quoted in several of his books, including Falling Upwards and Everything Belongs.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sermon: Lost and Found

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

The Fourth Sunday Of Lent, Year C

6 March 2016 

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Listen to this sermon here.

I did not know that I was lost. 
I did not know that I was lost. 
Not until I hit bottom
through a complicated season in my life –
at the confluence of
addictions, grief, transition,
and employment layoff. 
I must say,
sitting in that place in my life
that seemed to be a pigsty
was truly a deep low. 
I did not know that I was lost. 

Every time I hear today’s gospel story,
the parable of the prodigal son,
I relate closely with the son. 
The son, who rejected his father,
partied away his inheritance,
lost everything, and hit bottom. 
I relate to the son who realized,
as he was sitting with the pigs,
that he needed restoration and reconciliation.  I relate to the son who is welcomed,
despite what he did. 

The familiar parable of the prodigal son
begins with context:
the people crowding near Jesus were tax collectors and sinners. 
This bothered the Pharisees and scribes.
They discounted Jesus’ legitimacy as a teacher
by criticizing his relationships
with people who had sinned.

In response, Jesus tells 3 parables, revealing that the God of whom he speaks
is a God of compassion, joyously welcoming
repentant sinners into God’s house. 
Well, that is the simple and short version. 
We know it’s more complicated
when humans get involved. 

Rembrandt’s seventeenth-century painting provides rich depth to the story,
about which Henri Nouwen wrote during a particular struggle in his life.  

From the first viewing until six years later, Nouwen wrestled with God about his journey
of being lost and found.
He saw himself first in the son,
then in the brother and
finally in the father.

As we gaze on the image, we, too, can see ourselves in three ways
reflected in this profound painting.

First the painting draws us toward the son
at the moment of The Return.
But from what has the son returned? 
In one short sentence, the gospel tell us
that the son had asked from his father
his share of the inheritance
even before the father had died.

It is easy to gloss over what that meant,
which was hurtful, offensive, and
“tantamount to wishing his father was dead.”[1] 

Although Rembrandt did not paint
that precursor scene of the parable,
the depth of the pain and conviction of the son is palpable; it is reflected in
the depth of the compassion and conviction
the father expresses;
the depth of a father’s love shown
in the embrace. 

Rembrandt’s portrayal wonderfully captures
the extent of the son’s poverty.

His shaven head, as a prisoner.
His ragged clothes, barely covering his body. His torn shoes so worn,
exposing feet of suffering and misery.
The only shred of dignity is his sword –
the sword of truth that linked him
to the father during his Away –
and gave him permission to return.

God wants to restore us to our full dignity
so God plants this sword of truth
in our souls at our birth, at our baptism,
or even before we are born,
as we are knitted together in the womb. 

Second, the painting draws our eyes
toward the tall, stern elder who
dominates the right side of the painting. 
The brother and his father have a similar look:
both bearded, wearing large red cloaks,
light their faces. 

But what differences!
the brother’s facial expression
reflects his resentment for having lived his dutiful and obedient life without fanfare.

We all know many
elder sons and elder daughters
who are lost while still at home –
filled with judgment and condemnation,
anger and bitterness, where joy cannot exist. 
Although light reflects the joy of the house,
the elder son cannot accept it.
By his erect stance, we see how lost he is.
This portrayal of the elder is not lost on me;
my choice to compare, to be resentful,
to despair while desiring love
yet not able to let go of resentment.

How can the elder son also be found? 
Only by God who does not force love,
but goes out to the elder son.
“You are with me always.” 

We, too, have the choice
to stay in the darkness or
to step into the light and
invoke the spiritual disciplines
of trust and gratitude,
accepting God’s gift.
Without trust, we cannot be found. 
Without gratitude, we cannot walk in light.

Third, the painting
draws our eyes toward the father,
whom Rembrandt captured physically:
(half-blind, mustached & bearded,
dressed in gold-embroidered deep red cloak,
a cloak spread out like wings,
with large hands on the shoulders of the son.) 
And, whom Rembrandt captured spiritually:
With infinite compassion,
unconditional love and
everlasting forgiveness. 

At once, human and divine natures fuse.
At once, the wholeness of the father represents
the God that I want to believe in:
one who is present and tactile,
one who stretches out arms of blessing,
one who always waits and does not push,
one who keeps approaching us,
offering strong love and belonging.

Look closely at the hands of the father,
they are markedly different. [Nouwen writes [2] ]
“The father’s left hand is strong and muscular,
fingers spread out, covering a large part
of the son’s shoulder and back. 
The hand not only touches, but also it holds.
The right hand is refined, soft, and tender. 
The fingers are close to each other and elegant. 
This hand caresses, strokes, and offers consolation. This is a mother’s hand.

Rembrandt invites us, through these hands
to see God as both Father and Mother,
one who is strong and encouraging
as well as soft and caring. 
He confirms and she consoles.”

In this image, we are challenged:
Are we not called to be this father
to ourselves, our neighbors and our creation?  Are we not called
to accept, to welcome, and to love others
with trust and gratitude for the differences they bring into our lives? 

I did not know that I was lost,
but in my lostness, God found me. 
In my elder brother resentment and bitter heart, God softened me.
In the image of the father, I am confronted
as a mature person in faith and wisdom,
to be that person, too.

God calls us to welcome returning people
into our lives, in our community, in our world. 

It is a spiritual discipline to choose life and choose joy, not death and cynicism.
In the image of the father, God calls us
“To be not just the one who is forgiven,
but to forgive. 
Not just the one who is welcomed home,
but the one who welcomes home;
not just the one who receives compassion,
but the one who offers it as well.”[3]

Rembrandt’s painting offers so much.
The textures, the colors, the hues,
the message beneath the message –
all this invites us to see ourselves. 

Are you lost? 

Because today’s good news, captured by Rembrandt, is that
God’s love is greater than we can ever know. 

Our compassionate God
welcomes us home,
blesses us with strong and caressing hands,
comes out and calls us
to share in love
invites us, too,

to welcome, bless and love

just as God first loved us.

Welcome home.



[1] Henri Nouwen, Return of The Prodigal Son, (xxx,xxx, 1983), p. 35
[2] Nouwen, p. 99
[3] Nouwen, p. 122