Own the Mystery

Inspired by John 3:1-13

As you may have picked up by now, I love stories. Whether they be in the form of a movie or TV show or book or play or whatever. I love a good story. Now I can be pretty critical of stories. So what makes a good story in my mind? Well, lots of things: a good story has to have characters that make me care for them. In other words, if a character dies and it makes me want to cry, then the writer has done their job. I have stopped watching TV shows after realizing that if any of the characters died, it really wouldn’t have an impact on me. What else makes a good story, I’ve mentioned in a previous sermon that I love plot twists, especially ones that I can’t guess. I love it when a writer can surprise me!

I also have to admit that I love a good love story. Any story that has a good love story within it has my vote! I didn’t realize just how much I like love stories until I was ranking all the Star Wars books that I’ve read. Because that’s what your pastor does in his spare time. My pleasure reading is almost entirely made up of Star Wars novels, so I’ve read a lot of them. So one day I’m ranking them and when I got done I looked at the books at the top of the list and realized that my favorite ones, all had good love stories within them! Now don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of space battles and lightsaber duels but I was surprised at how big a factor a love story was to a good book for me.

So those are some of the things that make a good story for me, but one thing I don’t need for a story to be a good story, are all the questions answered. It drives my wife up the wall when we watch a movie and there are unanswered questions left at the end. And then she’ll ask me as if I wrote the screenplay and I don’t know what bothers her more, the unanswered questions or the fact that I’m ok with them! And there are so many great examples of this: What’s in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? Does Batman die at the end of The Dark Knight Rises? What was in the FedEx box in Cast Away? What’s the man with no name’s name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Why doesn’t Chewbacca get a medal at the end of A New Hope? Ok, now that one, that one is still stuck in my craw! I’d really like George Lucas to answer for that one!

Now, this is more than just liking a good mystery though. What I’m saying, is that not only do I like a good mystery, but that the mystery doesn’t need to be solved for it to somehow be complete. I don’t mind it when a writer, leaves me to do some of the work at the end of a story. I actually like it when a writer allows me to use my imagination at the end of a story, to fill in the blanks, or to answer the unanswered questions on my own. I like mystery for what it is—the unknown. Because once a mystery is solved, it’s over, it’s no longer mystery. There’s nowhere else to go with it after that. It then ceases to hold that magical power over you that it once did—that power that spurs your imagination, allowing the mystery to come alive.

Ok, by now I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m talking about unsolved mysteries, or maybe you’ve already guessed! Today is that weird day of the church called Holy Trinity Sunday. It’s always the Sunday after Pentecost Sunday and it’s the day when we celebrate the Holy Trinity, probably the most confusing church doctrine of all time! Actually, today should be called Holy Heresy Sunday! Because of all the bad theology that’s being spewed out by pastors today trying to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to their congregations! In our defense, our hearts are in the right place, but when we try to describe the unseen, we’re just going to mess things up. So I say, why even try. Now, in the past, I usually just ignored the fact that it was Trinity Sunday. I’d preach on one of the Bible passages provided for the occasion and call it a day. But this time, I thought it was high time to address it.

But rather than try to explain it and fall down some heretical rabbit hole, I say we just recognize the Trinity as one of the many mysteries of our faith, and proclaim it that way—be ok with it as mystery. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, our faith was stripped of much of its mystique. Led by a bunch of men that wanted to argue and debate that they were right about everything—surprise, surprise—they ended up boiling our faith down to a bunch of black and white, right and wrong, our way or the highway, doctrines that had a vague resemblance of its original beauty. Which, by the way, is where we get out creeds from. The Apostles and Nicene creeds were born out of those church fights, created not to express the basics of our faith like the church would like you to believe, but rather to keep people out that don’t believe exactly the way we do—to draw a line in the sand. But back to the Trinity.

One of my favorite books to wrestle with the doctrine of the Trinity is The Shack by William Young. One of the main characters in the book is, you guessed it, the Holy Trinity, appearing mostly in the form of three people: a black middle-aged woman as the “Father” or Papa as she’s referred to in the book; a young Asian woman as the Holy Spirit; and a thirty-something Middle-Eastern man as Jesus. As you may already have guessed, it is not going to answer your questions about the Trinity, it may even leave you with more questions than you came with, but it’s a fun exercise in stretching your thinking about who and what the Trinity is. In the book, the topic of mystery comes up in a conversation between Papa and another character named Mackenzie or Mack for short, that I’d like to share with you now. At this point in the conversation, they are talking about the crucifixion.

“Don't ever think that what my Son chose to do didn't cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark," Papa stated softly and gently. "We were there together." Mack was surprised. "At the cross? Now wait. I thought you left him - you know - 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'" It was a Scripture that had often haunted Mack in The Great Sadness. "You misunderstand the mystery there. Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him." "How can you say that? You abandoned him just like you abandoned me!" "Mackenzie, I never left him, and I have never left you." "That makes no sense to me," he snapped. "I know it doesn't, at least not yet. Will you at least consider this: when all you can see is your pain, perhaps then you lose sight of me?”

Mack learns that things are not always what they seem, and that he should be careful with the assumptions that he makes. In our Gospel reading for today, Nicodemus learns the same lesson. One of my favorite characters in the Bible, it is difficult not to feel sorry for him. He wants so badly to understand what Jesus is talking about. But his academic, logical mind keeps getting in the way. Jesus speaks of being born anew and being born of the water and the spirit, and he immediately thinks of his mother’s womb. “How are these things possible?” he asks. He wants to know how this works, the nuts and bolts of it all. And notice that Jesus never really answers him. Almost as if to say, “You’re just gonna have to trust me Nicodemus.”

And I’d say a good deal of our faith lives revolve around trust. Wouldn’t you? That ability to say, “I don’t know how this works or even if it will work, but I’m still going to press forward, one step at a time.” Those three words, I don’t know, can be some of the hardest words for us to utter. I’m not sure if that’s pride, ego, our American sense of independence, or what, but I do know that it’s something that Eastern religions could teach us a thing or two about. For the most part, they do not have the same hang-ups that we do about the mysterious and the unknown. They embrace it. They “own” it, as our sending hymn for today puts it. The last verse reads, “Holy Father, holy Son, Holy Spirit, three we name you, though in essence only one; undivided God we claim you and, adoring, bend the knee while we own the mystery.”

I get it. It’s very human to want to know all the answers; to want to know how everything works; to want to be able to wrap our logical minds around everything. But there is so much about our faith that we don’t know, that is shrouded in beautiful mystery. Our job is not to try and rid the world of mystery. Our job is to own it, and proclaim it as something beautiful. I don’t know how the Holy Trinity works. I don’t know how to answer a question like, “If Jesus was God then who was he praying to?” I don’t’ know! But do we have to know? I kinda don’t want to know. In the same way I don’t want to know how a magic trick really works. Where’s the fun in that? Own the mystery my friends. Have fun with it. Because the one thing that’s not a mystery, is God’s unconditional love for the world. And that’s all that really matters. Thanks be to God. Amen.


In Any Other Story

Inspired by Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, and John15:26-27, 16:4-15

So I was teaching the kids on Wednesday night, and we were exploring the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. We read from a children’s Bible called The Jesus Storybook Bible, and I absolutely loved the way that the story “ended.” Allow me to share it with you now, this is how that story “ends”, “But before they left the garden, God made clothes for them, to cover them. God gently clothed them and then he sent them away on a long, long journey—out of the garden, out of their home. Well, in another story, it would all be over and that would have been…the end. But not in this story.”

In any other story this would be the end, but not this story. So much hope and promise in that one phrase! And it is that phrase that is going to carry us through this Pentecost. For those who may not know, Pentecost is the day of the church year that we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, hence the color red, symbolizing the fire in our story from Acts that we heard a moment ago. And of course, this is the day that preachers get to preach on something that we can’t see! As if preaching wasn’t hard enough as it is! But enough of my bellyaching!

Major life transitions are hard, and they come in all shapes and sizes. A death in the family can not only be sad but can also be a major life transition that then has to be navigated. Caring for an aging parent could be another one. Something seemingly simple as a schedule change can wreak havoc on a family’s equilibrium. Financial woes can be another source of transition. Relationship breakups of any kind are yet another kind of life transition. I could go on and give you more examples of major life transitions but the one thing that I wanted to point out is this, unlike a typical family who usually only has to deal with one maybe two of these at the same time, a church family, just like us here at Bethlehem, have to deal with all of them, not just all at once, but constantly.

When your family is as large as a church this size, life transitions are around every corner! When your family is this large, there’s just no escaping them! Think about it, financial woes, check! Schedule change, one worship service at 9:30, check! Death, we’ve had plenty of that, check! Aging members, check! Sick members, check! People leaving the church cuz they are unhappy about something, that’s been happening for 76 years here at Bethlehem, and 2000 years worldwide and it’s not going to stop any time soon, check!

Again, when your family is this large, life transitions are around every corner and they’re constant! It’s both the blessing and the curse of being in a large family. And life transitions may bring stress and discomfort. That sounds like a commercial for a new medication. Maybe that’s how we should market our church! We’ll start out with all the wonderful things you’ll get from being part of our community and then at the end will add a disclaimer, “May cause stress, discomfort, and irritation commonly found in most families only 30 times as bad!”

I mention this because when you are part of an organization, like a church family, and experience its constant life transitions, it can feel like something is wrong, because it is so much more amplified and constant than what we experience in our little families at home. But the truth it, there is nothing wrong, it’s just life in a big family. There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing wrong with me, there’s nothing wrong with us.

Well, other than the fact that we are imperfect beings but that’s what Jesus is for right? In spite of that however, we have this tendency, to not only feel like there’s something wrong, but to also be in this constant state of stress, discomfort, fear, and sometimes even a state of communal depression, if you will. When there’s really no need because this is just life in a big family. And I tell you that in the hopes of easing some of that distress that I know many of you are experiencing. And what could ease even more of that for you?

The Holy Spirit! So let’s talk about her! I noticed a common thread in all of our readings for today that I’m hoping will give you as much hope and positivity as it did me. Lord knows we could use some positivity around here. Amen? Many have said that the Day of Pentecost is like the Holy Spirit’s birthday. But that’s not very theologically accurate because she is a manifestation of God, and therefore, has always been.

So, the Day of Pentecost is more like her coming-out day. Think of it this way, up until that day, the Holy Spirit worked behind the scenes, under the radar. Her presence was felt, the results of her work could be seen, but then on the Day of Pentecost, it was time for her to burst onto the scene, flames and all, literally, to be seen and heard by the world. No longer relegated to the shadows, she could now do her work out in the open.

And she does this by giving a very peculiar gift in our story from Acts. She gives them the ability to speak in different languages and everyone could hear them in their own language. Now, the story that may come to your mind is the tower of Babel. That’s the story in the Hebrew scriptures where people tried to build a tower high enough to reach God, but God put a quick stop to that and just to be sure they didn’t try that again, God gave them all different languages.

That’s how the Bible explains the world’s different languages. Cute, I know? Anyway, fast forward a few thousand years and you have the Holy Spirit bringing people together by allowing everyone to understand what is being said in spite of a language barrier. But this barrier didn’t matter to the Holy Spirit! Why? Because she does whatever she wants to do! She is God! And nothing, not even a language barrier is going to get in her way! In any other story, speaking in other languages would have been the end, but not in this story! The Holy Spirit will not be stopped!

From Paul’s letter to the Roman church we read of the way the Holy Spirit works through our lives no matter the obstacles she may face: our groaning, our suffering, our pain, our weakness, our lack of prayer, our searching. Nothing! Maybe in some other story this would be the end! But in this story, nothing will get in the way of the Holy Spirit doing what she does best in the world, helping those in need of some help, assisting those who need some assistance, guiding those in need of some guidance. And isn’t that all of us? I mean, raise your hand if you don’t need God’s help! Y’all better keep your hands down!

And lastly, we have our passage from the Gospel of John, and yet again, we have the Holy Spirit working in the world, this time, according to John, in spite of our sin, in spite of our wrongdoings, in spite of our mistakes, she will still speak to us, guide us, and help us make any necessary course corrections. This is a big one because we get so scared of making a mistake, that it paralyzes us into inaction. Too often we choose to do nothing, rather than risk making a mistake.

Just take a look at how long it took us to make the decision to go to one service! And odds are, there are some that think it’s a mistake, as if it’s the end of Bethlehem! The Holy Spirit must get the biggest kick out of that! I swear she must laugh her butt off over us! I can see her just shaking her head and saying to Jesus, “Look at ‘em. They think their mistakes are gonna to stop me. Aren’t they adorable! Look at how much power they think they have over me!” And they laugh!

There is nothing you can do or say that will get in the Holy Spirit’s way of working her magic on you, on this place, at this hour, on this community, in this city, in our hearts, in our minds, nothing will stop her, not even us! Maybe in some other story! But not in this story. So let us commit to God, and more importantly, to each other, that we will live like this is a beginning, and not an end! Let us pray.

God of all times and places, you are the source of all goodness and mercy. Thank you for gathering us here, all together, to hear your promises once again. Give us the courage and strength and whatever else you know we need to greet each day as if it was our first and not our last, filled with hope and expectation. Encourage us to be a source of positivity to each other, so that before we share a word of negativity or critique, we ask ourselves just how necessary it really is. Help us O God to relieve each other’s distress, not add to it, because living in a big family is challenging enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Prayerfully Sent

Inspired by John 17:6-19

If there was ever an example of why the Gospel of John is my least favorite Gospel, this passage that I just read is it. Aside from the wondering what John was on while he wrote this, I can’t tell if it is just so deep and philosophical that it goes right over my head, or, if it’s just John’s stream of thought kind of writing! I would love to have a conversation with John someday because I bet, he was a rambler. We all know a rambler. They could be the kind that repeats stories a lot to you.

Or those people that you could say anything to, anything, and they’ll have a story about, that leads to another story, that leads to another story. You could say, pineapple doorknobs, and they will have some kind of story that somehow connects to pineapple doorknobs! You all know the kind I’m talking about! And if you’re thinking right now, I don’t know anyone like that. Then it might be you! I’m just kidding with you! Not really.

Anyway, once I get past the frustration of dealing with John the rambler, there is some real beauty in today’s Gospel reading. This passage is at the end of Jesus’ farewell discourse, or his loooong goodbye to his closest friends, just before he was arrested, tortured, and executed. The last two Sunday’s Gospel readings have been from this same section of John. As I mentioned last week, Jesus uses these final moments with his closest friends, to deliver his final teachings, and to say goodbye.

Though, they did not fully understand the significance of this goodbye until after Jesus was arrested, tortured, and executed. But even more than some final lessons and goodbyes, Jesus is doing something else. Jesus is sending—sending them out—sending them out into a world that is about to kill him. And so, Jesus prays for them. That’s what this whole passage is, Jesus talking to God, on our behalf.

Let me pause there and share with you a story from my own life that came to mind as I was preparing for today. Picture it, the year is 1993, and I am about to start college, for the first time. I’m getting ready to make the drive from my hometown of Vacaville to Seattle, in my 82’ Nissan Stanza. My mom stops me at the door to give me a gift. I open it and it’s a new watch and I am perturbed. I am perturbed because I don’t wear watches, and my mother knew that, and I wasn’t sure why she would spend her money on something that I don’t use.

And so, I politely say thank you but no thank you; give her and Sara a hug and a kiss, and drive away. I probably didn’t get a minute down the road when the guilt set in, the guilt over rejecting my mom’s gift. And so, I turned around, drove back to my mom’s house, to get the watch. I think Sara was still outside when I drove up, so I asked her to tell my mom I changed my mind about the watch. And of course, my mom was elated.

In hindsight, I think to myself, why did I even do that to begin with? So what if I never planned on wearing it, why would I not accept a gift from my mom? Well, the easy answer is because I was a selfish teenage brat who didn’t always put others needs before my own. And as I look back on that moment as a parent myself, I recognize that she was saying goodbye to her baby boy, with fear and trembling, as any loving parent would. And she wanted to send me with something from her, something special. It may have been a simple watch to my 18-year-old self, but it represented much more than that. It represented all that she was sending me with in addition to that watch: her life lessons that she taught me, her hopes and dreams for me, her prayers, her heart, her love.

With this image of my mom sending me off to college, I hear this prayer of Jesus’ with new ears. Jesus, knowing both the blessings and evils that the world is capable of, sends his friends out into it, with his life lessons that he has taught them for three years, with his hopes and dreams for them, with his prayers, with his heart, with his love. And knowing Jesus, he was scared to death, not for himself, but for them. Though there were many that welcomed Jesus and his message of God’s love for the world, there were also those who did not welcome him, so many that it would cost him his life. And he knew those people would still be around, after he was gone, to make life hard for them, as they did for him. And so, he prays this prayer for them—a prayer of protection, of love, of companionship, a prayer of sending.

As you look back on your own lives, who has sent you out into the world with fear and trembling? Who has sent you out into the world with their hopes and dreams for you? Who has sent you out into the world with their prayers for you? Maybe a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or an older sibling perhaps? Maybe it’s not even a relative: a teacher, a church member, a coach, a friend? Maybe they’re sitting next to you right now! Who are the people in your life that have lost sleep over worry for you?

Who has prayed prayers of protection and safety for you over the years? Who has done everything they could to keep you from experiencing the tragedies that they have had to endure? I want you to take a moment and close your eyes. Picture these people, the ones who have sent you out with their prayers, picture their faces that come to mind. And I want you to say their names out loud. Right now, go ahead.

Whoever it was that you pictured in your mind’s eye, whosever names you said out loud, those are the people that Jesus sent into your life with this prayer. Imagine that, this prayer that Jesus prayed two thousand years ago, is still doing its work in the world today, in your lives today. When Jesus prayed for your protection, for your happiness, those people showed up in your life two thousand years later.

And what a beautiful way to set the stage for next Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the ultimate protector and companion, the Holy Spirit. But first, this prayer of Jesus allows us to recognize those whom God has sent to us, as an answer to that same prayer—which now has me thinking, I wonder who will see us, as an answer to that prayer? But that’s for another day and another sermon. Thanks be to God for all those whom God has sent into our lives, only to send us out, with a firm foundation, and a whole lotta praying. Amen.


Remain in My Death

Inspired by John 15:9-17

My aunt Ann has been on my mind a lot lately. I have no idea why though, all I know is that memories of her have been surfacing quite a bit lately. She died of cancer about 20 years ago. I was probably closer to her than any of my other aunts. I would even stay for a week or two with her every summer in the Bay Area. We fought like cats and dogs the whole time, mostly because I took every opportunity to get under skin. But every year she’d take me back, and I’d willing go, because I knew that she loved me in spite of my bad behavior. She left an impact on my life, taught me many lessons, and so her love for me continues to do its work on me, even to this day. That was her legacy that she left me, a legacy more precious than any inheritance could be.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus speaks of the Legacy that he will be leaving behind. But before we get into that let me first give you the context that this story falls in. This passage comes from what has come to be known as Jesus’ farewell discourse or farewell address or what I’ve called Jesus’ loooong goodbye. It’s four long chapters of Jesus’ last conversation with his closest friends before he is arrested, tortured, and executed. He shares with them his final teachings, and it’s also important to remember that this conversation takes place at the table, where he shared his last meal with them as they celebrated Passover. On top of that, he had just finished washing their feet as a sign of being a loving servant-leader. All of that, is the context in which he leaves his legacy with them when he said, “Remain in my love.”

“Remain in my love.” What does that mean though? Jesus could have just as easily said, I love you. But he doesn’t, he says, “Remain in my love.” So let’s break that down a bit. I think, for most of us, when we hear Jesus say, “Remain in my love”, we hear that in a warm fuzzy kind of way. Awwww, isn’t Jesus so sweet! But I’m not convinced that warm fuzzies are what Jesus was going for here, which is where the context that I spoke of earlier comes in, because in that context there are clues as to what kind of love Jesus is talking about. This command of Jesus’, comes during his last meal with them, while he gives them his final teachings, and after he washed their feet, including the feet of Judas, the one who he knew would turn him over to the authorities, leading to his arrest, torture, and execution. And on top of all that, just in case his friends couldn’t put two and two together, Jesus states it very plainly for them and for us, “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”

That’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about here. Not the Hallmark kind. No, the kind of love that Jesus is talking about here is the kind that costs you something, maybe everything. Jesus is about to demonstrate to the world what his kind of love looks like as soon as he is done with this last conversation with them. And Jesus is going to do so, on a cross, in one of the most gruesome deaths imaginable. That’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about when he said, “Remain in my love.” And when he says “my love”, it was as if he was saying, my kind of love. Remain in my kind of love. The kind of love that he had been demonstrating to them for the past three years, and ultimately the kind of love that he was about to show them, on the cross.

So, when Jesus said, “Remain in my love”, he could just as easily have said, remain in my death. Now, I know that sounds a bit morbid! It’s one thing to take away our warm fuzzies from this but come on pastor! I get it, but I’m really not saying anything new here. As followers of Christ, we are a people of death and resurrection. We are called to the constant pattern of death and resurrection, death and resurrection. We may love Easter, we may love celebrating the resurrection, but we also know that before we can get there, death must come first. And we are called to that pattern in our everyday lives—but maybe not quite as dramatic, or literal, as Jesus dying on the cross.

Following in the ways of Jesus means serving others, putting others needs before our own, sacrificing for others, dying to ourselves so that others can rise—death and resurrection, death and resurrection. Nothing new here, just another way of expressing this age-old pattern that we are called to as followers of Christ. A pattern that you are well familiar with, whether you would articulate it that way or not. You practice this all the time. Every time you sacrifice your time for someone else’s benefit, every time you sacrifice your money for the ministries of this church which are for someone else’s benefit, every time you stick your neck out for someone else, every time you defend someone, stand up for someone who can’t for themselves, every time you are kind to someone no matter how hard it may be. I know you do these things because I hear stores of the wonderful ways you bring new life to the world around you. And the stories I hear, I’m sure just skim the top.

So, that’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about, his kind of love, the kind that costs something, maybe everything. And Jesus says, remain in it—remain. In other words, don’t let Jesus’ kind of love die with him, but keep it going, make it a permanent fixture in your life. This is the legacy that Jesus has left us, and it’s a legacy that is meant to be used, every day, for the sake of the world, always for the sake of the world. It’s the only way that we are going to make this world a better place—by dying on behalf of others, by sacrificing on behalf of others, even if that dying and sacrificing is in seemingly little ways, like visiting a neighbor in need, or helping a relative fix their house, caring for an aging parent, or sending a text to someone to brighten their day. The examples are endless. All examples of putting others before ourselves.

Bethlehem does this through its various ministries, supported and carried out by you, from feeding the hungry to making quilts and prayer shawls for those in need. And we do these things with the help of some amazing ministry partners like Rise Against Hunger, Gathering Inn, and Operation Elf, just to name a few. All examples of the kind of love that Jesus first gave to us. We are merely reflections of that love first given to us. Our passage started with, “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you.” It all starts with God’s love for us, through Christ—through Christ’s kind of love, the kind of love that costs something. For Jesus, it cost everything. Thanks be to God. Amen.