House United: The Family of God

 

Meditation on Mark 3:19b-35

June 10, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

“Then he went home, 20 and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to restrain him, for people were saying, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul! And by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.  26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.  27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” 30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.” 31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

***

The sky had grown dark and storm clouds were rolling in as Marilyn and I arrived at the Personalized Peach Creative Studio Friday night.

We didn’t see the little workshop in a Rockledge strip mall from the road. But we knew we were in the right place when we saw the pig on a license plate in the parking lot and knew Pam, the organizer of the women’s event, was there. Slide23

The first raindrops were falling as we entered the brightly lit room. Our friends turned to us with smiles. Although we were 10 minutes late because of me, Pam said, “You’re just in time. We were just getting ready to start.”

Billy, our leader, guided us through all the steps of the project we would be making together. The first thing, she said, was to sand our boards.

I felt a stab of alarm. “I didn’t know we were going to use power tools!” I said.  “I didn’t ask Jim if it was OK.”

I watched others before I tried it myself.

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Someone turned on the sander and put it in my hand. I smiled, thinking, “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t be doing this.” But it was fun, though my hand vibrated for hours after that.

We worked together, talking and laughing as we helped each other prepare our boards, stain, fan-dry,

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place our stencils with the sayings we chose, paint, and dry again before carefully pulling the stencils away.

Thunder crashed, lightning flashed. Rain began to pour down.

And I thought I had never felt more comfortable, more safe and cared for with people I had only known a few years.

Though I hadn’t heard it in years, I had a song in my head throughout the evening. “We are family” by Sisters Sledge.

We are sisters. We are brothers.

We are a house united: the family of God.

***

Jesus talks about family in a new way in our gospel reading today. He stuns his hearers, which include his family, when he redefines the word as something other than those who are blood relatives.

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Family is of the utmost importance to people in biblical times. Without family, many struggle to survive. Family is particularly important to Jewish people. While some people convert to Judaism from other faiths, the Jewish faith is traditionally passed on by blood. If your mother is Jewish, then you are Jewish, even if you aren’t very religious. Converting to another faith, if you are born Jewish, may be seen as rejecting your family and ancestry.

Today’s reading brings up the question of Jesus’ identity. What do people say about him? What does he reveal about himself?

He has, up to this point, performed many miracles of healing and has cast out demons. Whenever the “unclean spirits” see him, they know exactly who he is. They fall down before him in 3:11 and shout, “You are the Son of God!” But Jesus “sternly” orders them “not to make him known.” Multitudes of people are following him, seeking healing, when today’s passage begins with, “Then he went home. His family have heard about the crowds, so much so, that Jesus and his disciples “could not even eat.” So they come to “restrain him.” What does that mean? And what do they think of him? Do they think he is crazy?

We only know that they have heard people saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” This is one of the false narratives, possibly spread by the religious leaders, who hate and fear him, worried that they may be losing their power and control over the people. Now the scribes, the religious teachers, insult him in the worst possible way. Since they can’t say they that he doesn’t have the power to heal or that he hasn’t healed multitudes of people, they say that the source of his power is evil.

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“He has Beelzebul,” they say, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And this isn’t a misprint, if you are wondering if it should say, “Beelzebub.” Only the Latin translation of the Bible from the Middle Ages says, “Beelzebub” here, meaning “lord of the flies,” but this isn’t correct. Mark says “Beelzebul,” which possibly means “lord of the house,” and may refer to an old Canaanite deity. The phrase “house divided against itself” (remember the famous person who said this? Lincoln!) may be a pun on this name.

Jesus responds to the lies by speaking logically and rationally– not anything like a person who has “lost his mind.” He speaks in “parables”–and this is the first time Mark uses that word. “How could Satan cast out Satan?” he asks. In his talk of kingdoms and houses divided, he is saying that demons fighting against each other would be weakened by inner conflicts.

His words, spoken long ago, are meant for the Church in every day and age. For the Church is often plagued by conflicts from within. He is urging them to be a house united: a family of God.

His parable reveals his role in salvation. He compares himself to a thief, as he will in Matt 24:43 and Lk 12:39 when he talks about his Second Coming. Jesus is the one entering the “strong man’s house”–Satan’s territory– to “plunder his property”– to forgive and save sinners, and claim them for his own.

He provides the hard truth to those slandering him, saying he has an “unclean spirit.” They are blaspheming the Holy Spirit. They will not be forgiven or saved.

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Their response doesn’t immediately follow. Instead, Mark finishes the story he introduces at the beginning of this passage–when Jesus’s earthly family comes to “restrain him.” Are they concerned for his wellbeing, wanting to protect him from himself, the crowd pressing in and threatening to crush him, and those who are spreading lies about him? Or are they concerned about him hurting the family’s position in the community with his challenges and insults to the religious leaders? Mark doesn’t say.

The key point is that Jesus chooses to obey God rather than his family when their desires and actions interfere with what God wants him to do. Jesus provides a model for believers, especially in the Early Church, who will be severely persecuted for their beliefs by their own families and communities.

Jesus may be narrowing the traditional definition of “family” but he is also widening it to include the possibility of everyone–all who seek to be faithful to the Lord. This will, eventually, include his mother and brothers.

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For in Acts, they are among the believers gathered in a room in Jerusalem–with all of Christ’s sisters and brothers–waiting and praying for the Holy Spirit, as the risen Lord has told them to do.

***

     The day after I gathered with my sisters to make inspirational or humorous plaques, 4 slides my neck was really hurting. I probably shouldn’t have used the power sander! But I was still glad that I went for the fellowship. And the message I had chosen for my board,

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“My grace is enough for you,” reminded me to reach out to some of my sisters for encouragement and prayer. For this is what we do–the family that is Christ’s Church. We laugh together, share our sorrows and pain, and pray for one another when we are suffering or carrying heavy burdens. The Holy Spirit leads us, illumines God’s will to us, and empowers us to obey.

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Women's retreat

We welcome 3 more people today into the MIPC family–Tammy and Lloyd Lewis and Linda Whitten. We will embrace a fourth who couldn’t be here today– Jill Moore—at a later date. We are blessed by these precious children of God, seeking to walk in Christ’s ways.

Tammy, Lloyd and Linda, we hope to be a blessing to you and your families. We look forward to sharing this journey of faith together. Loving one another, as Christ loved us. Revealing our unity in Him and God’s grace to the world.

Welcome to the family!

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Heavenly Father, thank you for your love for us, for sending your Son to die for us so we may be forgiven for all our sins and live forever with you. Thank you that Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters–that we are all family–your followers in every time and place. Help us, Lord, to pray. Reveal your will to us every day and empower us to obey. May we be pleasing to you. And we ask a special blessing on our new members, Lord–our sisters and brother in the faith. We pray you will continue to grow us in Spirit and number as we seek to reach out with the gospel of love and grace to our families, community and world. In Christ we pray, Amen.

 

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Stretch out your hand

 

Meditation on Mark 2:23-3:6

June 3, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

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     23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.  24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?  26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 

The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

***

 

My husband and I have had more quality time together lately. Ever since I turned, twisted and lifted–and felt this sudden throbbing pain in my neck, shoulder and upper back.

We make small talk and listen to the radio when he drives me to and from my doctor’s appointments. Some weeks, I have had as many as 5 appointments! He drives me to church sometimes, too, and goes with me or waits while I visit members who are sick, in the hospital, rehab or nursing homes.

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After my doctor appointments or before my visits, we might go out for breakfast or lunch or a cup of frozen yogurt. One time, after my doctor’s appointment, we spontaneously went to a movie! We never used to do things like that!

We have had some adventures with wildlife going to and from my doctor appointments. On the way to physical therapy one day, a crane raced by us in the parking lot.

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 He or she was headed in the direction of a lawyer’s office, but then seemed to think better of it, turned and ran toward a pond. On the way home from the doctor Friday, Jim saw a turtle crossing the road, so he stopped the car and carried him to safety.

 

Later, I discovered that the turtle we rescued was a Florida softshell, a particularly aggressive breed that you probably shouldn’t pick up.

Every morning, Jim greets me with a smile, though he is tired after getting up to take care of the cat, who starts whining around 5:30 or 6 a.m. He lets me sleep in, if I can, because he knows I have trouble sleeping because of my neck.

“Good morning,” he says. “What can I bring you?”

He comes with ice packs; cold, fuzzy neck wraps; cold water, and hot tea with honey.

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When the pain was really bad, he would put his hand behind my neck and help me sit up.

One Monday about 2 weeks ago, I woke up not being able to talk! The doctor put me on Prednisone and “total voice rest.” Wow, that was hard! But Jim and I had more quality time–with me working from home. After sitting quietly next to me for a while reading, he said, “I’ve had such peace being home with you lately.”

I whispered, “It’s because I haven’t been talking.” We laughed.

I felt the same peace and knew that it was from God.  It was a gift of the Spirit– God letting us know, “I hear your prayers and I know you are hurting.  But you are healing. And I love you.  And I am still with you. My grace is all you need!”

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***

 

When I read our gospel lesson this week and thought about Jesus healing the man with the withered hand, I wondered, “Why did he pick him?” and “Why did he do it on the Sabbath, when he knew it would make the Pharisees mad?”

And then I realized…oh……  that was his intention.

This healing is different than when a leper came to him earlier in Mark, begging and kneeling, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus is “moved with pity” and he stretches out his hand and touches him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

The man with the withered hand didn’t ask to be healed.  We don’t know if he was in any pain. He doesn’t speak at all. But Jesus knows the man’s need; he would be poor and marginalized from his community, which would believe God had cursed the man with a withered hand because of his or his parents’ sins.

The main reason for the healing, though, is that Christ wants to confront wrong attitudes and beliefs about the Sabbath. He first challenges them when his disciples pluck heads of grain as they walk through a field, perhaps that same day, since the stories are back to back. They ask Jesus, “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

It’s not clear in Scripture that this isn’t lawful. Deuteronomy 23:25 says that one can pluck grain by hand, but not with a sickle. Jesus replies with an example from Scripture that isn’t entirely accurate or in the same context. He asks if the Pharisees have read about David entering the house of God when they were hungry and eating the bread of the Presence that only priests are allowed to eat, and giving it to his companions. David doesn’t actually enter the house of God; the priest is Ahimelech–not Abiathar; and David is alone; he has no companions with him.

Biblical scholars don’t know what to make of Jesus’ response, when he misquotes Scripture. The consensus is that Jesus is revealing to his readers how the Pharisees, who are so worried about everyone else keeping the law, are ignorant of what Scripture really says. They don’t know what they are talking about. And their hearts are not in the right place! Their lives fail to demonstrate their love for God and neighbor –which, Jesus will say to his disciples, is the sum of all the commandments.

Jesus says to the Pharisees who question his disciples plucking grain, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” He is asking God’s people to see the law as God’s gift to them for their spiritual, physical and emotional wellbeing, rather than a measuring stick to judge and condemn. Jesus stirs the wrath of the Pharisees even more when he claims a higher authority than them, saying, “so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Before he heals the man with the withered hand, Jesus asks those assembled, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” The room is silent. They know that saving the life of a human being or animal on the Sabbath is the exception to the rule of “rest.” But they are afraid of the Pharisees.

Notice this is one of the few times in the Bible that Jesus gets angry and is grieved “at the hardness of their hearts.” Both times that he is angry involves what is going on in the House of God–how God’s people are being taken advantage of or being persecuted. Remember when he cleanses the temple, turning over the tables of those selling animals to sacrifice?

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Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand,”—and he does! And is healed.

And the Pharisees conspire with the Herodians to kill him.

 

***

I can honestly say I have learned a lot in these past few months. I will never again take for granted a pain-free existence. I am grateful for all of my good days, when I feel almost normal again and can lift my arms, nod my head, and turn my neck to the right and the left. I have learned the healing power of laughter and being present with people you love. And I am learning the importance of rest, especially Sabbath rest, a gift from a loving Lord.

I have learned to ask for help when I need it, and to receive it joyfully. I am still impatient with my body and get frustrated at times. But I am learning to persevere in hope, trusting the Lord will lead me in this journey to healing.

For the Lord knows our needs, just as he knew the needs of the man with the withered hand, without him saying a word.

God knows your hurts, even if you haven’t told Him. The Lord wants to carry your burdens, if only you would give them to him.

Christ’s peace lives inside you, a peace that surpasses human understanding, a peace that makes you whole and is meant to be shared with others.

God says, “I hear your prayers. I love you. I am still with you.”

And, “My grace is all you need.”

 

Let us pray.

 

Heavenly Father, thank you for loving us and for giving up your Son so that we would be reconciled with you and one another. Lord, we know you are listening now to our prayers and that you know our hurts, even the ones we haven’t told you about. We ask that heal us and make us whole. Give us your peace and strength when we encounter trials and suffering. Give us soft, loving hearts that desire to please you and obey your Word. Keep us from becoming legalistic and judgmental. Remind us that your Sabbath is a gift and that we need your Sabbath rest for the health of body, mind and spirit and the peace and wellbeing of the faith community. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here am I

 

Meditation on Isaiah 6:1-8

May 27, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.  Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”   4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

     6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

 

***

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Ruby was about 4 when her family moved from Tylertown, Mississippi, to New Orleans. Her dad, Abon Bridges, had lost his job picking crops when new farm machines made his job obsolete. In New Orleans, Abon found work at a gas station. They move into a small apartment where Ruby shares a room with her sister and 2 younger brothers. Ruby’s mother, after taking care of the house and the children all day, tucks her 4 little ones into bed at night, says their prayers with them, and then goes to her job scrubbing floors in a bank.

Every Sunday, the family goes to church. “We wanted our children to be near God’s Spirit,” said Lucille Bridges, Ruby’s mother, in the award winning children’s book, “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” by Robert Coles.  “We wanted them to start feeling close to Him from the very start.”

In 1957, black children weren’t permitted to attend school with white children in New Orleans, despite the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education three years earlier that effectively outlawed segregation, declaring “separate was not equal.” The New Orleans school board resisted integration and attempted to keep black children out of all-white schools by requiring an entrance exam for black children that was so hard, most children—white or black—couldn’t pass. But early in 1960, Ruby Bridges was one of six black children in New Orleans to pass the test. Her father was against her attending the all-white William Frantz Elementary school, at first, even though the school was closer to home than the all-black school she had attended for kindergarten the year before. But her mother persuaded him not to let this opportunity for Ruby—and for all African American children—pass by. She saw God’s hand in this. The other 3 children transferred 2 miles away from William Frantz– to McDonough No. 19 and became known as the McDonough Three. The remaining two of the six New Orleans children who passed the test stayed at their old school, fearing the violence of Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, when 9 African Americans attempted to attend the all-white Central High School.

Ruby’s first day was Nov. 14, 1960, the day Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered New Orleans’ schools to integrate. Four federal marshals escorted Ruby and her mother to her new school.

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They were met by a mob of angry white people, yelling, threatening violence, throwing tomatoes and carrying signs with messages such as, “Integration is a mortal sin” and “God demands segregation.”

Norman Rockwell would later commemorate that day in his 1963 painting, The Problem We All Live With.

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As Ruby entered, parents of the 500 students at William Frantz removed their children from their classrooms.

The little girl spent the first day of school sitting in the office. All the teachers had left. But on her second day, Barbara Henry, a new teacher from Boston, arrived. She taught Ruby for more than a year in an empty classroom, as if she were teaching an entire class.

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 Also on that second day, a 34-year-old Methodist minister, Lloyd Anderson Foreman, broke the white boycott. He walked his 5-year-old daughter, Pam, through the angry mob, saying, “I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school …” By the end of the first week, another white child, 6-year-old Yolanda Gabrielle, returned to the school that separated all 3 children in different classrooms, though these were the only children in the school for the rest of the year.

The angry mob continued to gather to taunt Ruby every day.

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Every morning, a woman would threaten to poison her, while another held up a little black baby doll in a coffin. Marshals escorted Ruby for the rest of the year, overseeing her safety, and allowing her to eat only the food she brought from home.

Former U.S. Deputy Marshal Charles Burks recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very, very proud of her.”

Ruby’s family suffered for their decision. Her father lost his job. The grocery store the family shopped at would no longer let them shop there. And her grandparents, sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land.

But at the same time, they saw God’s grace. Many in the community, both black and white, showed support. A neighbor provided her father with a new job; local people babysat, watched and protected their home, and walked behind the federal marshals on the trips to school. Their church and the NAACP offered some financial and moral support.

Lucille Bridges says in The Story of Ruby Bridges, “Our Ruby taught us all a lot. She became someone who helped change our country. … She led us away from hate, and she led us nearer to knowing each other, the white folks and the black folks.”

In the face of mob violence, Ruby responded with love. Every day, she stopped a few blocks away from school to say a prayer for the people who hated her.

“Please, God, try to forgive these people,” she prayed. “Because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing. So you could forgive them, just like you did those folks a long time ago when they said terrible things about you.”

 

***

Isaiah, like Ruby, had a prophetic calling, but doesn’t learn of it till he is an adult and sees a vision of the Lord on His throne, asking, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

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But Isaiah is all too aware of his sinfulness in God’s presence. None of us feel worthy of serving the Lord of Hosts, not if we are honest with ourselves. Isaiah sees the seraphim—burning snakes with 6 wings each—attending to the Lord, he hears them singing God’s praises, and he imagines he will die.

 “Woe is me! I am lost!” he cries out, for he has “unclean lips” – a metaphor for sin —like “uncircumcised lips” in Exodus 6:12, 30. He confesses his own sin and declares the sin of his community, a people of “unclean lips” who have turned away from God and His Word.

“Woe to you who call evil good and good evil,” says Isaiah in chapter 5, “you who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! All you who are wise in your own eyes, shrewd in your own sight,… who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their rights!”

But God doesn’t give up on anyone. He is always beckoning sinners to return to Him and His ways of love and righteousness, peace and justice.

God removes Isaiah’s sin from him with a burning coal. None of us can take our own sin away or equip ourselves for God’s calling.

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We all need redemption through God’s Son and strength and guidance from the Spirit. Isaiah’s mission will mean suffering and hardship. God’s people don’t want to hear the truth just like our society today doesn’t want to admit to sins of racism, hatred, and prejudice, which are always hiding in the shadows, ready to rise up, without warning, and hurt and destroy.

God sends Isaiah out to go and tell people whose eyes are blind, hearts are hard, ears are deaf, and minds won’t comprehend to turn back to God and be healed.

Isaiah trusts the Lord.

“Here am I!” He says. “Send me!”

 

***

 

In one year of Ruby’s life, we see the important roles others played so she would fulfill her calling. Her parents, her teacher.

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The marshals. The child psychologist. The Methodist pastor who brought his daughter on the second day. Many other people—white and black—helped Ruby and her family, too, after the Supreme Court opened the way for change and Judge Wright did his part.

On Wednesday we honored our 13 VPK grads with a simple worship service. Many people—volunteers and staff– work behind the scenes to make this a powerful outreach to the preschool families every year.

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God is glorified as each 4 or 5 year old child is lifted up and encouraged for who they are—children of God, as we are, given the spirit of adoption, joint heirs with Jesus Christ… We all have a calling, unique to the gifts and plans God has for us. And our callings are connected. We share the same Spirit; we serve the same Lord.

Ruby accepted her calling when was just 6, without knowing what racism was or the suffering or trials ahead.

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She thought she was just going to school that first day—thought all the shouting in the streets was Mardi Gras. Her faith still compels 64-year-old Ruby Bridges Hall to confront the problems of poverty, racism, and unequal educational opportunities through her foundation.

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In 2001, she was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal. And in 2006, a California elementary school was named for her.

Like hundreds of thousands of others in the greater New Orleans area, she and her family lost their home in the catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the same storm brought new life to William Frantz Elementary School, which was on the school district’s list of closures before the storm. The school, under 5 feet of water after Katrina, was put on the National Register of Historic Places, renovated and now houses a public K-6th grade charter school, Akili Academy.  The school that is 89% black embraces 5 values: “Teamwork, Grit, Excellence, Enthusiasm and Kindness.”

Ruby’s story is told every year as part of the curriculum. A statue of her stands in the courtyard.

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 And Room 2306 is the “Ruby Bridges Room” to honor the little girl who spent a year alone in a classroom, shunned because of her skin color. A brave girl who answered God’s call. “Here am I.”

 

Let us pray.

Lord, we hear you calling to us now—to come and follow you. Here we are. Send us! Stir us to acts of bravery as we confront the problems of racism, prejudice, poverty, and other injustices in our society, rather than sweep them under the rug as past history. We ask for your healing to come to this land. Let us never be afraid to ask the hard questions and move forward, step by step, trusting your Spirit to guide and empower us to do your will. Thank you for the many gifts and blessings you have given us. May we use them for your glory and not be frustrated or discouraged by the darkness around us and if we don’t see immediate results and positive change. For Isaiah was called to preach to those without ears to hear, eyes to see and minds to comprehend. Keep us working to reveal and build up your Kingdom, which has no end. And teach us to pray every day—as Ruby did—for her enemies, that you would forgive them and lead us to love and forgive them, too. Through Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Breath of God

 

Meditation on Acts 2:1-21

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

May 20, 2018

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When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

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.”

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.’

 

Beginning at 11:20 a.m. England time yesterday, Rolls Royces carrying the British royal family and the wedding party pulled up at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor as the crowds cheered them on. Some people had camped out for days to claim their spots and get a good look at Prince Harry and his beautiful bride, Meghan Markle on their wedding day.

The wedding brought back memories of Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981. Did any of you see their wedding? More than 750 million people watched that royal wedding, taking in every detail, which at the time, were very important to some of us.

Slide31

How beautiful Diana was, wearing a dress worth more than $41,000 U.S. dollars today. I even remember some of the funny things that happened. Poor Diana was so nervous—with 3500 invited guests watching and listening in person; she got Charles’ name wrong during the vows, calling him “Philip Charles Arthur George” instead of “Charles Philip Arthur George.”

Her 25-foot train got wrinkled on the way to the wedding, and her young bridesmaids couldn’t shake the wrinkles out before she walked down the aisle. India Hicks, who was just 13 at the time, recalls Diana sympathetically whispering, “Just do your best” to her bridal party.

And Clementine Hambro, granddaughter of Winston Churchill was just 5 when she was in Diana’s wedding party. Clementine tripped and fell and began to cry, to which Diana asked her gently, “Did you bump your bottom?”

Slide34

There were some similarities to Harry’s parents’ wedding, including the Cinderella procession afterward with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex riding in a horse-drawn open carriage, flanked by royal regiments on horseback. But there were important differences– signs of hope and much needed change, not just for attitudes in Britain society, but for America and the whole world.

This was Charles and Diana’s son, Harry, marrying a beautiful, outspoken American actress named Meghan Markle, who is bi-racial.

Slide40

About her ancestry, Meghan has said, “My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African American. I’m half black and half white. … I have come to embrace this and say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident, mixed-race woman.”

Meghan arrived at the church in a 1950 Rolls Royce custom made for Elizabeth’s coronation. She was 4 seconds late, the press pointed out. The bells were chiming the noon hour as she was helped from the car.

Two little boys held the tips of her enormous train as she walked up first 22 steps to the entrance and then down the aisle. Her little bridesmaids followed behind and passed by the bride, nearly forgetting to take the bridal bouquet.

Harry smiles at Meghan and goes off script, not caring that the whole world is watching. ”You look amazing,” he says to her. “I love you.”

The bride’s mother, Doris Ragland, came alone as she was the only one in her family to attend. Meghan’s father had heart surgery on Wednesday and wasn’t ready for travel. Doris wept openly throughout the service.

The archbishop of Canterbury read from 1 John: “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.” The congregation sings “Lord of All Hopefulness” to the tune of “Be Thou My Vision.” A passionate passage from Song of Solomon was read. The Kingdom Choir sang a very moving, “Stand By Me,” following the Rev. Michael Curry’s charismatic, social justice message.

Curry, the first African-American leader of the US Episcopal Church, quoted Martin Luther King, “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world.”

Slide50

Curry said, “There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalise. There is power, power in love….. I’m talking about some power. Real power. Power to change the world.”

***

 

It’s the power of love—REAL power—that comes to Christ’s followers gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost. This familiar story we read every year, and recall its fine details, such as Peter’s joke about not being drunk at 9 in the morning. This Spiritual baptism is not limited by gender, age or social position. Slave or free, men and boys, women and girls, “all flesh” receive the Spirit in a demonstration of radical social equality that is the Kingdom of God. But with hearing the story every year, I worry that the “violent wind” may be diminished to something less than the wild, out of our control force that breathed life into human beings formed from dust at Creation. It is also important to remember that the Spirit comes to those with faith, those who have prepared their hearts, gathering together in one place, waiting in hope and prayer, as Christ tells them to do.

The first to benefit from the Spirit’s work on Pentecost through Christ’s followers are the devout Jews and proselytes who have come from all over to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot. The word Pentecost is Greek for 50th as Shavuot falls on the 50th day from the first Sunday after Passover. It’s no coincidence that God has chosen this day to give His Spirit to dwell with His people. For on Shavuot, the faithful celebrate the giving of God’s Word—the Torah—on Mt. Sinai. The Spirit compels Christ’s followers to speak of God’s “deeds of power” in languages that everyone can understand, languages the uneducated Galileans couldn’t possibly know on their own. Many take Peter’s message to heart; about 3,000 people are added to the church in one day.

The Spirit continues to give gifts to Christ’s followers today–each in a special way, as Paul explains in 1 Cor. 12:7-11. We need to trust the Breath of God that is in us and take the message to our community, as Peter and the disciples do on Pentecost. But most of us don’t feel comfortable preaching to crowds. Most of us aren’t comfortable preaching at all. The thought of sharing the gospel with the world is surely terrifying to some. But I think the most effective preaching involves few if any words, like St. Francis of Assisi said. Your life proclaims God’s work in you through the fruits of the Spirit, Paul tells the Galatians in 5:22-23. People will know you are following Christ by your love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.

Remember you have the Breath of God living inside you. We have the Breath of God among us when we gather together in faith, waiting, praying and hoping in him. And you have the Power of Love. Real Power…  …Power to change the world.”

Let us pray.

Lord God, thank you for sending your Spirit at Pentecost so that believers would be strengthened to share your message of love and redemption–and that the church would grow by 3,000 that day. Thank you that we have your breath now, within us, and that you continue to breathe on us your Spirit, refreshing and renewing us as we seek to do your will. Grow us, Lord, by your Spirit. Build our faith and numbers in all our ministries, including the preschool. Stir us to gather together every Sunday to seek you in faith, hope and prayer here, in this place. Then send us out to care for people in need and show we are your followers by our acts of kindness. Transform us with your Power of Love and use us to break down barriers between people– and change the world. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

God is Love

Meditation on 1 John 4:7-21

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

May 6, 2018

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

     13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

       God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

 

***

We shared a bedroom, growing up. My sister and I were giggly girls, not wanting to go to sleep while it was still light out when our parents put us to bed. We threw pillows at each other and argued over whether the door and windows should be left open or closed. Open, I said, as we had no a/c and Maryland summers are hot and humid. She said closed, worried about burglars and fire. We compromised–the door left open a crack ; my window opened; hers closed.

Susan is 2 and a half years older than me and 14 months older than our brother. She was a premature baby weighing only 2.5 pounds at her birth in October 1962. She spent her first 2 months in an incubator, fighting for her life, losing 50 percent of her body weight before slowly regaining and growing. Finally, at Christmas, the doctors let Mom and Dad take their baby home. She continued to be fragile through our growing up years, weighing only 98 pounds when she graduated from high school. But she was smart and a conscientious, straight A student. She played violin, studied Latin, Spanish and French and made plans to go to college.

But one evening, when I was about 15, I came home and discovered the house strangely empty— partially cooked dinner still on the stove, turned off. I don’t know how I learned what happened—whether my parents left a note, called or just, eventually, came home from the hospital. My sister had tried to commit suicide and was fighting for her life-again. I was stunned. She never told me she was depressed. I felt angry, hurt, sad. Our lives changed drastically after that. Our family would never be the same.

Susan did recover physically, but never came home. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in a state institution that has since closed because it was so terrible. It would be the first of more than 20 hospitalizations.

But she found hope and help through an organization called St. Luke’s House, which began in 1971 as a ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, MD. The church wanted to address the needs of patients being released from state psychiatric hospitals with no place to go. Susan lived in their group housing (they have more than 30 units with 111 beds). She received counseling and help finding a job, assistance with medical care, food, clothing, household items and transportation until she could afford to buy her own car. One of the greatest blessings about St. Luke’s is that it provides opportunities for recreation and socialization, knowing that friendship–love– is a basic human need and that people with mental illness often have a difficult time cultivating loving, lasting relationships with others.

***

Our passage in 1 John begins with, “Beloved.” This is an affectionate greeting, as some translations say “dear friends.” But there’s a deeper meaning, and John using this word twice in this passage and 6 times in this letter is making a point. This is the same John who uses the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” in his gospel, which many interpret as John writing himself and every believer into the story. We are all disciples whom Jesus loves. We are all God’s beloved.

John is telling us who God is in this letter and by omission who God is not. He isn’t like the psalmists who go on and on about God’s rescue and provision or God leading them to victory over their enemies. The psalmist would probably be disappointed with John’s definition–just as we want more from God in this world–healing for our loved ones, freedom from pain and suffering, and an easier life. John says, “God is LOVE.” And if you don’t love, then you don’t know God! And you know what love is? This is love– not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, so that we might have life through him. He took the punishment we deserved, revealing that love means self sacrifice, allowing oneself to be vulnerable, and being willing to suffer if it would save those you love.

And what happens when God’s love is poured into us? It is perfected–made complete–in us. God’s love empowers us to love others–if we choose to do what “we ought to do,” as John says.

I have always thought the reason we might choose not to love is because the person is hard to love or has hurt us and we cannot forgive them. But I never really thought about another reason that people might choose not to love–fear–until this week. John contrasts fear and love in this passage, saying they cannot co-exist. With this, John may be telling us to overcome our fear of being vulnerable and open our hearts to fully love and be loved.

“Love has no room for fear,” John says in some translations. “Perfect love drives out fear.” Fear can block the Spirit’s transforming work in our hearts. For the one who fears, John says, is not made perfect in love.

***

Susan called me a few weeks ago to tell me surprising news. My 55 year old sister was getting married for the first time. She had met John 10 years ago through St. Lukes. He was bi-polar and had just been diagnosed with kidney cancer. She was on her way to visit him. Would I pray for his healing? I said I would.

Then, a couple nights ago, she called again–crying. John had died suddenly, without her saying goodbye. We talked for a long time. At the end of our conversation, I encouraged her to write down her memories of John. She sent me her tribute the next morning, and asked if I might share it with you. She hopes that her story might help someone who might be afraid to love–or afraid to share their feelings.

“Don’t wait to tell your loved ones,” she says, “how you feel.”

John was interested in history, politics, economics, science. He read the Washington Post from cover to cover. He read biographies– JFK, MLK. “He could explain things to me I didn’t understand,“ she said. They talked on the phone often.

When they went out together, she would pick him up at a bus stop, and they would go to local historic sites and parks. A favorite place was Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. He had positive outlook, she said, and was tender with her when she had depressive episodes. He would say, “I feel great! It’s a wonderful day!” They ate at McDonalds, and he picked up her tray and emptied it for her. He was kind, gentle, considerate. Before she dropped him off at the metro station at the end of each date, he would say, Thank you, I had a good time with you today. And she would say, “I had a good time, too.”

She didn’t tell him how she felt about him because she was afraid it would push him away. But when he got sick a few months ago, she started spending Saturdays with him at the nursing home. Finally, she got up the courage to tell him that she cared about him and wanted to marry him. He paused for a second and said, “I accept. I will have to get you a ring.  We need to go to Paris.” He told her he was 66. She said, “Age doesn’t matter.”

For those few months, she was happy to have a boyfriend and to be engaged. “I am so glad I didn’t hold back my feelings,” she said. Her only regret is that she hadn’t shared her feelings years ago. How different her life would have been!

After talking to her on the phone and reading her letter, I could only marvel at the change in her. She had peace, despite her sadness and loss– a peace brought about by her love for another–and the love of God being perfected in her heart.

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for your love and for all the loved ones you have placed in our lives. Thank you that as we learn to love and open ourselves to love, your love is perfected in our hearts. Forgive us for our reluctance to be vulnerable and for not always feeling like loving. Help us to forgive those who have hurt us and bear witness to the loving Spirit that abides in us, transforming our hearts. We pray for my sister, Susan, and her healing and wholeness as she grieves the loss of her loved one. May we all feel your loving presence with us always and never be afraid to show our love for one another. In Jesus we pray. Amen.

 

Somebody’s Watching Over You

Meditation on John 10:11-18

April 29, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Slide14

 

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

***

 

I came to a decision last week about our preschool chapel service. It’s time to split the group! The group has gotten so big that I am not able to give each child as much individual attention as I would like.

We have thirty-six 3, 4 and 5 year olds all wanting to answer my questions about Jonah, Joseph or Jesus at the same time. All wanting to be helpers, such as carrying the basket of musical instruments and collecting the children’s maracas, tambourines, sticks and cymbals. They want to show me their shark tooth necklaces and tell me about going on a cruise, losing a tooth or having a birthday. I want to congratulate them when they show me their age on their fingers… And tell them how sorry I am to hear how their father “accidentally” stepped on their baby pet spider.

 

God has blessed us with 36 precious children popping up out of their seats when they want to touch an object or see a picture up close–or just get a hug. They love Jim, too. At one of the first chapels he brought his guitar about a year ago, little Jacob cried out, “Oooo! Pastor Jim! You’re a rockstar!” They have had a special relationship ever since.

What led me to decide to split the group now and not wait till fall was when we were singing our greeting song at the beginning of chapel a week or two ago. I call the children by name and help them choose an item of clothing they want us to sing about, such as “Jeffery is wearing a red shirt, red shirt, red shirt, Jeffery is wearing a red shirt all day long.” Then they choose the next person we sing about and so on. But after 20 minutes, we still weren’t done! And we had the Bible lesson and other songs still to do.

The children aren’t shy about singing or sharing their feelings and the intimate details of their lives. They know we are listening, that we care, and that what they say is important to us. They know the sound of my voice–when I speak, read, laugh, shush, and sing. They listen to me and follow as I teach new rhymes, fingerplays and songs. They echo simple prayers, without hesitation.

They want to be loved–for everything they are and are gonna be.

They know I am watching them–and they are watching me.

Who are you watching over, in your life? Who is watching over you? For we are all called to be sheep. And we are also called to be shepherds, following in the footsteps of our loving Savior, who watches over us all.

***

 

Studying our gospel reading this week, I couldn’t help but think how much we who have been in the faith for many years have lots to learn from 3, 4 and 5 year olds. I can hear Jesus saying, as he does in Matthew 18:3, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

It’s easy to picture young children as the sheep that listen to Christ’s voice, lambs that Christ knows intimately–watches over and beckons to him by name before he leads them in right paths. Sheep do not have to pushed out of a sheepfold; they are not like cattle who are herded from behind. They are timid and follow their shepherd as he goes ahead of them; there is never a place we can go where Jesus has not yet been! They know his voice; they know him; that’s why they follow him. They won’t follow a stranger. They know he cares for them. He nourishes, disciplines, and protects them, helps them when they are sick or wounded. He stays with them and never abandons them–not like the “hired hand” that won’t risk his life for the flock . The point is not that the hired hand is bad but that belonging to Christ is everything. And He’s the one who chooses us and claims us as His own. His commitment to us is unconditional–based on what he has done for us. But his expectation is that we watch for him, listen to his voice–and only his voice– and obey.

Slide36

Jesus’ audience is both disciples and Pharisees in John 10. In chapter 9, Jesus heals a man who was blind since birth. The man responds to Christ, with, “Lord, I believe.” The Pharisees are not convinced.

So Jesus, in John 10, explains his mission to the Pharisees with the metaphor of a shepherd. He stirs their anger by declaring himself to be God, using OT language and imagery. The Psalmist in 100:3 says, “Know that the LORD is God.  It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” “He tends his flock like a shepherd:” says Isaiah 40:11, “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

Slide32

The Good Shepherd, who will lay down his life for the sheep, is proclaiming the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:16-17, “The LORD their God will rescue his people, just as a shepherd rescues his sheep. They will sparkle in his land like jewels in a crown.  How wonderful and beautiful they will be!”

The Pharisees are divided in their reaction to Christ’s teachings. Some say, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Others say, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

Jesus will answer those who call him demon possessed or insane. “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep,” he says, adding for emphasis, “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

 

***

A few weeks ago, we invited preschool and VPK families to attend a special chapel. We began like we usually do– singing “Good morning, good morning and how do you do?” and the song about the clothes we are wearing all day. I reviewed the Miracles of Jesus we had been learning — turning water into wine, calming a storm, walking on water, and feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fish. We prayed our simple echo prayer, and then, a bunch of volunteers and staff from the church and preschool led the children to do crafts and games on the theme of the Miracles of Jesus before eating lunch with their families.

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While they were eating, a grandma visiting from California, thanked me for the chapel and taking time to get to know the children, especially her granddaughter. Would I invite her parents to church? She hoped so–and that other preschool families would come to our church, too.

Starting this week, Jim and I will be leading 2 chapels, back to back, beginning at 9:30. Our lesson this Tuesday? We will tell them about the Good Shepherd –how Jesus will go after the one sheep that is lost, though he may still have 99 in the fold. That’s how much our Savior loves us!

He has claimed us as His own. He calls us by name. “My sheep listen to my voice,” he says. “I know them, and they follow me.”

As Christ loves, we must love. To me, this means learning all of the children’s names and the important stuff that really matters: shark tooth necklaces, birthdays, loose teeth, and baby pet spiders that “accidentally” get stepped on.

The children want to be loved– for everything they are and are gonna be.

Slide79

Who are you watching over? Who is watching over you?

For we are called to be sheep. And we are called to be shepherds, following in the footsteps of our loving Savior, who watches over us all.

 

Let us pray….

 

Dear Lord, thank you for being the Good Shepherd, who has laid down your life for us, your sheep, so we may have life and have it abundantly. Thank you for calling us by name and knowing us better than we know ourselves. Thank you for caring about what we care about–every little thing that children and adults worry about. Help us to be more like children, Lord, so that we may be obedient to you and trust your commands. Thank you that you speak so we can hear your voice and for leading us to follow you in the paths you want us to go. Thank you that you are always with us, watching over us still, using us to be shepherds like you–and nurture your sheep. And finally, thank you, for the children and families you have blessed us with at the preschool. Help us to share the love of our Good Shepherd with them and bring them into your Kingdom fold. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Lady with the Lamp

 

Meditation on John 21: 1-19

April 15, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Slide16

   21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him,  “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them,  “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him,  “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

***

Florence thought of herself as different as she grew up. She wants things that other girls don’t want. She is born in 1820 in Florence, Italy, to an extremely wealthy, cosmopolitan English couple on an extended European honeymoon.

Slide33

The Nightingales owned 2 large estates, Lea Hurst in Central England and Embley Park in South Central England. They move in social circles that include politicians, writers and poets, such as Tennyson. Flo’s father is a liberal humanitarian who fought for the reform of Parliament. Her maternal grandfather was an abolitionist. She is well-educated; her father teaches her to read French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek; she excels in math. But it is the Victorian Age. She is expected to marry well and have children. She turns suitors away.

Slide35

Flo further shocks her family when at 16 she announces that God is calling her to be a nurse. Paid nursing is a job for poor, uneducated and often elderly women, with a reputation for drunkenness, bad language, and loose morals.

Florence is headstrong. She persuades her parents to allow her to take a 3-month course in Lutheran Deaconess training in Germany. Within a year, she becomes the superintendent of the “Institution for Sick Gentlewomen (governesses) in Distressed Circumstances” in London.

In 1853, the Crimean War breaks out. British forces are seriously depleted after the October 1854 Battle of Balaclava and the ill-fated “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Slide37

 

Word of the horrible conditions for wounded British soldiers reaches the Minister of War, who is an acquaintance of Flo. He invites her to take 38 female nurses to work in a military hospital in Turkey on trial. She says yes. Her family doesn’t approve; it means being in close contact with men of all sorts, without a chaperone.

Florence and the 38 nurses arrive in November 1854 at Scutari Barracks in Constantinople, where wounded soldiers are shipped across the Black Sea. The conditions are horrifying; 2,000 men lying on mattresses 18 inches apart in 2 rows, with barely enough space to walk between. Food is scarce; there’s not enough running water, no way to keep patients clean, even if the importance of sanitation and the dangers of bacteria were known—and they weren’t. Vermin and disease are rampant—typhus, typhoid, cholera, dysentery.

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No one has told the doctors that the nurses are coming; they are shown to their quarters in a tower infested with rats and a dead Russian soldier on the floor. But soon thousands more wounded arrive; the nurses’ help is needed. Flo attempts to organize the hospital and the distribution of supplies, arguing with doctors and writing letters to government officials, trying to improve overall conditions.

But how she becomes a heroine to the British people is that she is devoted to the common soldier. She endears herself to them, walking the halls at night with her lantern, sitting up talking with them. The soldiers write about Florence in their letters home. She writes hundreds of letters to their families, expressing condolences when soldiers die, assuring them that their sons had “the best care” and passed “peacefully.” The soldiers affectionately call her “the Lady with the Lamp.”

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When the war ends in 1856, Flo goes home to her family, who, though disapproving of her work, embrace her celebrity status. But Flo is filled with anger about all the death she has witnessed. She is even more upset when she learns that more soldiers died at her hospital than any other. They died not from their wounds, but infectious diseases caused by unsanitary conditions. All pride in her war service evaporates. She is unable to forgive herself for not seeing the link between the conditions at the hospital and the alarming death rate.

 

***

In our gospel reading today, Peter is having trouble forgiving himself, too. He can’t move forward with what the Lord has called him to do. The passage starts with Peter declaring that he is going fishing—by himself. He doesn’t invite anyone; perhaps he’s running away from the leadership gifts that his community recognizes. The others immediately say, “We’ll go, too.” You can almost imagine him shrugging his shoulders,  “Whatever.”

The passage comes after the risen Christ has appeared a number of times to the disciples. Christ gives them his peace and His Spirit and sends them out to do a work of forgiveness. Then comes chapter 21 and the story of Peter’s commissioning to care for Christ’s “sheep”– the ragtag bunch of disciples that will grow into a great flock in Acts, when Peter preaches on Pentecost. In John 21, Jesus waits for the disciples to be exhausted from their fruitless fishing all night, so that he may bless them with another “sign.” Casting on the “right” yields more fish than they can haul in, bringing to mind 3 years earlier, in Luke 5, when the fishermen reluctantly cast empty nets at Christ’s insistence, and then leave their nets and miraculous catch to become fishers of people with Him.

I love the details in this passage, including the one about Simon Peter needing to put on his clothes. Does it remind you of Adam and Eve after they eat the forbidden fruit? They are “naked and ashamed” and attempt to cover themselves. I think Peter, too, feels vulnerable in Christ’s presence.

Now Jesus invites the disciples to bring their catch to a shared meal. He serves them, and we remember the Last Supper. Eating together affirms that the risen Jesus is no ghost; he is flesh and blood, but also divine, as revealed by the miraculous catch. Jesus calls Peter by his formal name, asking him if he loves him—“more than these.” The “more than these” could mean,  “do you love me more than you love the disciples?” or  “do you love me more than the other disciples love me?” Jesus asks 3 times, leaving no doubt in Peter’s and our minds that Christ remembers how Peter denied him 3 times before the cock crowed, just as Peter hasn’t forgotten or forgiven himself. Peter responds emotionally the third time, “You know I love you!”

Yes, Christ knows—and wants to use Peter, not despite his weakness, but with his weakness; for Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus wants to make sure Peter will be a humble, servant leader of the Church, reliant on the Spirit and motivated only by LOVE– for Christ and His Church.

And it is this way with us, friends. God wants to use us, not in spite of our weaknesses, but working through them to accomplish his purposes. His Spirit equips us with everything we need, including faith and the ability to forgive ourselves and one another. He wants our only motivation to serve Him and the Church to be LOVE.

The Good Shepherd is calling us now,  “Follow me.”

***

I don’t know if Florence ever forgave herself for what she saw as her great failure during the War. But God used her in a powerful way, with her weaknesses. From age 38 on, she was often confined to her bed with brucellosis, an infection caught during the war. In 1856, Queen Victoria rewarded her with $250,000 and an engraved brooch–the “Nightingale Jewel” for her war service.

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 She used the money to establish St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses.

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She wrote thousands of letters advocating for public sanitation and healthcare reform for the British army and civilian hospitals. She was consulted about field hospitals during the U.S. Civil War and on public sanitation issues in India.

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Among her honors, she receives the Order of Merit from King Edward in 1907 and a celebratory message from King George on her 90th birthday in May 1910.  She dies three months later.

       I have to think that her strength during the war and afterward, during her prolonged illness, came from the same One whose voice she heard at 16, calling her to be a nurse. Flo was laid to rest at her family plot, refusing burial at Westminster Abbey. Her marker bears a plain cross with only her initials and dates.

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She may never have realized the importance of her wartime service –when she showed comfort and compassion to thousands of wounded soldiers. When she wasn’t the rich heiress Florence Nightingale, but was only “the Lady with the Lamp.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for your love and forgiveness for us, when we feel we have failed you and ourselves. Help to us to fully accept ourselves in our weakness and to rejoice in your grace and mercy. Thank you for your plan to use our weakness for your work and your glory. Lead us to acts of bravery and humility, shining your light and never seeking worldly rewards, such as appreciation from other people. May we always seek to obey and please you. Let our motivation for our actions every day be LOVE. In Christ we pray. Amen.