Sunday, May 17, 2015

Easter 7B/Ascension Sunday -- May 17, 2015

What Are You So Happy About?

 NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned. 

Luke 24:44-53
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The Ascension is one of those days we pretty much ignore in the Presbyterian Church.  Ascension Day is always on a Thursday, because it is observed 40 days after Easter.  While the Catholic Church considers Ascension Day to be a holy day of obligation, even the Vatican moved the observance to Sunday because it had become just too difficult to convince people to show up for mass on a Thursday. 

Which makes sense. People have to go to work.  Not even the most faithful Christian business owner shuts down on Ascension Day.  And I can’t help but think I’d get a raised eyebrow from David’s teachers if I sent a note saying, “Please excuse David’s absence on Thursday.  We were celebrating Ascension Day.”

It’s not like you can even buy a Ascension Day card.  And really, how can Ascension Day truly be considered a legitimate holiday if there’s no greeting card to accompany it? 

So, why do we even bother to mention the ascension of Jesus in a Presbyterian church? Unlike our Catholic brothers and sisters, it’s not a mortal sin for us to skip observing the ascension. Even at the presbytery meeting last week – which was scheduled, as it has been for the past few years on Ascension Day – the sermon during opening worship was NOT about the ascension for at least the third year in a row.

You and I have heard literally hundreds and hundreds of sermons about the incarnation, about Jesus’ trial, death and resurrection.  We celebrate Resurrection for 40 whole days, but we only get a couple verses in Luke and Acts about how Jesus leaves his earthly ministry.  The other gospels ignore ascension entirely and say nothing about how Jesus departs from earth.  Only Luke seems compelled to give Jesus’ story a tidy, definitive earthly ending.   Matthew, Mark and John are not interested in how the story ends at all.

Is it because ascension is just too strange to believe, let alone talk about?  I was telling Tom and Mark in the car the other day on the way back from presbytery that when it comes Jesus’ resurrection, I’m totally on board. But ascension is just so odd. 

Maybe it’s because, if we think about the ascension at all, we think about it as it is depicted in paintings – with Jesus rising up, up, up into the clouds, his feet hanging from mid-air.  Such pictures made complete sense to Christians who believed in the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy’s geocentric model.  Ptolemy said heaven was literally above us, the outermost region of whole universe.  And for centuries, people believed heaven to be a place up beyond the stars. 

Such a belief persists even today, right?  In fact, I read about a popular phone app named, “Jesus Jump” in which Jesus bounces from cloud to cloud on his way up to heaven.  The game is over when Jesus misses a cloud and falls back to earth.[1]  I’m not sure the game developers appreciate what terrible theology Jesus Jumps represents, but they certainly share most people’s vague understanding of heaven being somewhere up there.  And that getting there is a very, very difficult journey.

Probably all of us know and are willing to admit that heaven is probably not a far away place that exists somewhere way up there.  But knowing that Jesus isn’t floating above our heads still doesn’t answer the question about where Jesus has gone. All we know for sure is Jesus is right in front of the disciples one minute and, poof, he’s gone.  Sort of like Elvis.  Our understanding of the ascension is limited to this idea that Jesus has left the building and gone to heaven, whatever that means and wherever that is.

I have often thought of this whole scene in both Luke and Acts as sort of, well, sad. Jesus is gone. When he told Mary not to hold on to him in the garden, I guess he really meant it as a warning, because he was wasn’t planning on sticking around much longer. 

But notice there are some guys today in our text who are not the least bit sad when Jesus leaves.  Their voices of the disciples do not sound sad.  In fact, they sound glad. The last few verses of Luke sound a little like Who-ville on Christmas morning. The disciples aren’t boo-hooing, but are whooping it up out there on Bethany.  They are worshiping!  They are filled with great joy! They aren’t mad or sad or confused about Jesus leaving them.  In fact, look at them -- there they are in the “temple blessing God.”

What are they so happy about?
Is it possible the disciples are not fully grasping the situation here? 
Or, maybe it’s us – the modern, enlightened disciples – who don’t know what the heck is going on.

Remember – at this point in Luke, the disciples have just emerged from the crucifixion, shaken, confused and grieving.  And on Easter evening, just three days later, these sad, defeated disciples powerfully experience the Resurrected Christ – first on the Emmaus Road, and then later on in Jerusalem where Jesus reveals who he is in the breaking of bread and in showing them his hands and his feet.  Then, Luke tells us that Jesus opens the disciples’ minds so they can understand, finally, how his life, death and resurrection is a fulfillment of all Moses and the prophets foretold.   The disciples have gotten Jesus back, have just barely absorbed the reality of his resurrection, and before you know it, he’s getting ready to up and leave them.

And, at least in Luke’s rendering, the disciples aren’t sad in the least. 

Could it be that the disciples experience the ascension not as Jesus’ leaving or disappearing?  Could it be that what they experience is not the beginning of Jesus’ absence from them, but the assurance of Jesus’ continued presence with them and with all future disciples, in every time and place? 

The problem is that we think of heaven as another place.  We’re not sure where heaven is, but we’re pretty certain it isn’t here.  If Jesus has gone to heaven, then he must be in a different place. 

But in Luke, the kingdom of God, which many people assume to be heaven, is portrayed not so much as a reality in some distant future place, but rather a future that -- in Jesus’ death and resurrection -- has broken into the present.  The Kingdom of God is both already here, but not yet complete.

If we can let go of the notion of heaven being a completely different location, removed from earth, and think of it as the Kingdom of God breaking in every day, the ascension becomes very good news.  If we can think of the ascension as being the moment when Jesus joined God and he is with God, that means Christ is no longer bound by time and space, but available always and forever with all of us. If we can stop thinking about going to heaven, and begin thinking of our life being a progressive journey to the very heart of God, the good news about Jesus gets even better.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says:

27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  (John 14:27-28)

So Jesus does not leave us in the ascension.  He goes away, but becomes even more available and accessible, not just to a particular people in a certain time and place, but to everyone in every time and place. The Kingdom of God is very near to us.   And that makes the ascension very good news indeed.

I think this is why the disciples are able to rejoice even as the visible Christ leaves them.  Because, despite how unprepared and off-balance they may feel, they are equipped do the work of Jesus now. The work the Father had given Jesus to do has become the disciples’ work – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, wage peace and not war, love our enemy, be salt in the world, be light in the darkness.  Just as Jesus preached in his first sermon in the gospel of Luke:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’  (Lk 4:18-19)
The ascension affirms to us that Jesus’ work is now ours, and that people who have never seen Jesus will see him in us.   It is a beautifully blessed and somewhat overwhelming responsibility. 

Ascension is not about the mysterious disappearance of Jesus into heaven, but the eternal presence of Jesus with us, which equips us to do His kingdom building work as faithfully, fully, truly and gently as we are able.  And next week, on Pentecost, we receive the Holy Spirit, which gives us the strength to do the work. 

In Ephesians text today, Paul we can be certain of our ability to do the work Christ has called us to do:  “…with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

What is the hope to which Jesus has called you?  What power has God placed in you through the freedom of the risen and ascended Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit?

What is the hope to which Jesus has called this church?  What power has God placed in us?

We will be meeting again on Tuesday night as we look at the directions we can take as a congregation moving into the future as part of the Unglued Church work.  Each of the three teams will report on what they’ve discovered in what such a future may look like. 
And we will be meeting in the shadow of the most recent Pew report, released this week.  According to the survey, seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, representing a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007. Those numbers are huge, and losses cut across all Christian denominations. 

So Christianity as we’ve known it in our own context is shrinking.  You probably didn’t need a Pew report to tell you that.  But is Christianity dying?

It may seem Jesus has abandoned us, but is it not possible that precisely here, in our hour of greatest need, he is more fully present than we could dream? “If the gospel is to be trusted, we should never imagine that a season of struggle signals Jesus’ absence. The same is true for the church.   We should not assume that a season of difficulty signals that the church is dying.”[2]

The ascension tells us the relationship at the core of who we are as God’s people will not die, cannot die.  The relationship we have with the human Jesus, who walked on Palestinian mud and healed human flesh and ate fish and drank wine and was rejected by his religion and killed by the State and overcame death itself – that relationship is the core of who we are called to be and cannot be destroyed.  No matter how much we mess up in the church.  No matter how deeply we mess up our own lives.  Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus. 

Our hope is not in the survival of the church – this church, any church.  Our only hope is the power of the resurrected and ascended and living Christ that keeps us at work in the world. Paul tells us --  “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”  Jesus reigns above every denominational rule, every church authority, and every secular power. 

So maybe the ascension is about the freedom we have in Christ to follow him wherever he goes, fearlessly, joyfully, worshipping and whooping it up just like the disciples who, although they could no longer see his body, could experience the power of Jesus in one another.  And the disciples would go on to experience the living Christ in the people they had yet to meet – Gentiles, eunuchs, women, Jews, hustlers, gamblers, sinners, even in that rotten guy named Saul…all of whom we meet in the Book of Acts. 

It is in the mystery of the ascension that the Jesus movement began.  It is in the mystery of God’s working in the world that the Jesus movement continues today.  The manner in which the movement is expressed will look different in every future generation, just as it has been expressed differently over the history of Christianity.  What we have built over the past century in the mainline churches of North America is giving way to a different expression – nobody knows but God what it will look like. 

So how is this good news for us, you may ask? Why should we be happy about all of these changes in the church?  What have we got to smile about, Pastor Susan?  Why are you smiling, Susan, when it looks like everything is falling apart?

I am smiling because the more we let go of the structures we’ve built around the mystery that is the heart of our faith, the closer we will move to the heart of God.  It’s not that we do not need structures, or some order to temper our ardor.  We do. I am a Presbyterian after all, and doing things decently and in order is part of my pastoral DNA.  But when we worship our structures more than Jesus, or mistake our structures as the source of our faith, then it is time to rethink our priorities. 

Like the love of God we know in Jesus Christ, there is no ending to fear.  In fact, if you think about it, there is only one ending worth talking about, and it is the ending to which we look forward with great happiness – when God finally gathers all creation together and the kingdom of God, -- this heaven which we receive only glimpses of in this life -- becomes complete.

Jesus’ earthly ministry in the Gospel of Luke ends not with a bang or whimper, a curse or a judgment.  It does not end in tears or a final embrace or a conclusive goodbye.   It ends with the ceaseless blessing of Christ.[3]  And the effect of Christ’s ascension creates a holy space for disciples of every time and place to continue Christ’s mission. And that, brothers and sisters, is something to celebrate. 

Thanks be to God.

[2] Sheldon Sorge
[3] Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, Vol. 2 Year B,  (521-525)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Easter 6B -- May 10, 2015

Best Friends

Mark Shannon -- Guest Preacher

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

            The Bible is an amazing book.  When we read a novel or work of nonfiction, the events in that volume are typically confined to a specific time and place and relevant to a few pertinent characters or subjects.  But the Bible is unique in that even though the words of a text may apply to a narrative story in Scripture, or even directed to certain individuals in an epistle, the Holy Spirit’s words reach across the generations and speak to our own hearts and minds and engage us in the story of God’s plan for the world.

            So it is in today’s text from John.  In these verses Jesus is speaking to his disciples, those twelve men He has chosen to teach and to witness the events of His life and death.  For these are the people that have to carry on in His place after Easter and His subsequent ascension forty days later.

            Yet even though these words of our Lord were spoken shortly before His arrest and crucifixion to a group of confused and bleary-eyed followers more than two thousand years ago, I do not think any theologian would disagree that the words in this text can equally be said to be addressed to Christians and those who will become believers around the world today.  Such is the power of Scripture that the words Jesus spoke to His disciples can inspire and inform our walk with Him this morning.

            So what is Jesus saying to us in this passage?

            One thing He is saying is “Congratulations!”  Other spiritual leaders and worldly teachers regard their followers as servants.  In exchange for lessons that impart one person’s idea of the truth and how to live one’s life these leaders and teachers put themselves in positions of authority over their listeners and consign them to lower-class status.

            But Jesus will have none of that.  Instead of servants, He has declared us to be His friends.  He has elevated us—and not demeaned us—by sharing with us all that we need to know about Him and what He wants us to do in His strength.  We are not mindless servants who blindly obey without understanding.  We are friends of the Son of God and not because we claim to be but because He has announced that we are His friends.  So again “Congratulations! And rejoice!”

            Did you know that today the word “friend” is a verb?  On sites like Facebook you can approach someone online and ask them to “friend” you.  Then they can decide whether to include you on their list of followers or not.  And by the same token, you can be unfriended-another new verb, if you fall out of favor with that individual.  Well, here’s some more good news.  Once you become the friend of Jesus, and He becomes your friend through your acceptance of His saving work on the cross, He doesn’t have a button that He can push that renders you “unfriended”.  His promise of friendship is an ironclad guarantee that He will never desert you or turn away from you as long as you draw breath in this world.  And I know what you might be thinking.  What about after you die?  Fear not, the hand he extends in friendship will be the hand you see in Heaven, pitted with a hole where the nail to the cross has been pounded through it.  This promise of friendship includes an eternal lifetime guarantee.

            And the wonderful thing about this guarantee is that it is now in effect.  It is not just reserved for our Heavenly home.  Through His resurrection power Jesus is alive today.  It is He who lives in us and through us.  And only because He is alive in us are we able to carry out His commands. 

            So what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus?  It all sounds well and good….as long as I don’t  have to go share my faith with that guy that leaves his cigarette butts outside the back door of the apartment building.  And don’t count on me to be a friend in deed if it means I have to go someplace wet and hot with big hairy spiders coming at me with poison in their fangs.  Friendship with Jesus will probably cost us something—won’t it?  It’s not like hanging out with the neighbors over a cup of coffee and catching up with their family and comparing notes on who got kicked off “Dancing with the Stars”.  Is it?

            What does the Bible say about friendship?

            Right off the bat the verses that came to my mind are from the book of Proverbs.  There we read that a friend loveth at all times and that there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.  Sometimes we make the mistake of putting ourselves in place of the word “friend” in these verses.  Who among us can measure up when it comes to loving the other person at all times or being closer than a blood relative to someone else?

            Take heart friends.  It makes much more sense to say that Jesus Himself is the Friend that loveth at all times and it is indeed He who sticks closer than any relative.  Sometimes in the Old Testament we catch glimpses of the Savior before His incarnation—and so it is in these verses, I believe.

            So don’t be afraid to be considered one of Jesus’ friends.  You’ve heard it said in this church from many different people down through the years.  Jesus won’t send you somewhere that He hasn’t equipped you to go.  He will accompany you whether it is across the street or around the world.  And another adage that’s become familiar to members of this congregation is that Jesus hasn’t taken us all this way so far just to drop us abandoned and alone somewhere totally unfamiliar to us.  Make no mistake, Jesus doesn’t promise us that the path will be an easy one and that the journey will be pleasant all the time.  But His companionship means that He will walk along side you, surrounding you on every side, helping us to accomplish what He has for us to do.  I don’t want to jump the gun on next week’s message but as if the very Presence of Jesus with us was not enough, He also plants within us the Holy Spirit to remind us of the Word and the promises made in those pages.  There is no way He will abandon us to the world or take His Holy Spirit from our lives.  He is indeed a friend that is “stuck” with us.

            Now what about that line in today’s text that says:  “You are my friends if you do what I command”?  That sentence has always bothered me somewhat.  Those words sure sound like something a bully in the schoolyard would say.  “If you give me your lunch money I won’t beat you up…I’ll even say you’re a pal.”  Is this what Jesus is talking about?  What kind of friendship is that?

 I read the text again a few times.  What could that sentence mean?  What does Jesus command us to do?  Suddenly a light bulb gleamed just like in the comics.  The last verse of today’s text, verse 17, says it plainly.  “This is my command:  Love one another.” Could it be that simple?  By the same token Jesus couldn’t have said words much more difficult to obey.

            A couple of weeks ago Mitzi and I were talking about the words found in verse 13.  “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  What prompted our discussion was something Susan said in her sermon.  She said that if her kids were awakened in the night by someone holding a gun to their heads and asking them if they were Christians or not, she hoped that they both would answer with a question:  “Which answer is going to keep me alive?”  So in our discussion we wondered if denying that we were Christians in order to stay alive meant that Jesus would deny us to His Father in heaven.  Because elsewhere in Scripture that is just what He does say.  We talked about stories we’ve heard about. In times of warfare one man throws himself on a live grenade in order to save his fellow soldiers—even if he knows he’s going to die.  We call those people that do commit such acts heroes and we know that they are the exception—not the rule.  Even in peacetime there are stories in the news about somebody jumping in front of a speeding subway car to rescue somebody else who has fallen onto the tracks.  They are just as much heroes as the sacrificial soldier.  One conclusion I made during our talk was that even if we fail to confess the truth about our faith in the event that someone’s holding a gun to our head, we don’t need to fear that we have denied Christ.  To be honest, if we think about it, we deny Jesus all the time.  When was the last time you reprimanded somebody for saying “Oh my God” by telling that person:  “Hey, watch your language that’s my Lord you’re talking about”?  When we fail to say grace at mealtimes, aren’t we failing to acknowledge that God is the one who provided the food and the money to purchase it?  Jesus won’t abandon us for failing to acknowledge Him to other people in circumstances like these.  Thanks be to God for that.

            Once again, I believe that Jesus is telling His disciples in this passage that the greatest example of love for one’s friends, laying down one’s life for them, is a foreshadow of what He is about to do on the cross for them—and for us as well.  He is giving them an example to aspire to, and a foretaste of what is about to happen.  You’ve heard it said that Jesus is the Pioneer and Perfector of our faith.  His life is recorded for us to learn from, not to duplicate.  We can never come close to doing the things He calls us to do with any degree of perfection.  This is because no matter our intentions, our motives are so beset with sin that the end result falls far short of perfection.  But His life is meant for us to be a model of how to live, a measuring rod to aim for, full in the knowledge that we can never equal much less surpass His accomplishments.

            If you think about it, in one respect the Lord’s command to love each other isn’t SO terribly difficult.  After all, it’s somewhat easier to love our friends, isn’t it?  Those people we’ve come to know over time get something of a pass when it comes to the things about them that would make strangers unappealing to us. It’s easy to overlook a character flaw or a sharp retort when we consider the time spent together with friends.

            Remember, it is only because Jesus is alive and living in us that we are able to carry out His command to love one another.  He loves people through us—it is not by our own doing.  We are completely reliant on Him to accomplish this.  What an amazing idea.  Jesus gives us a command and then only by His power can we carry it out.

            Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed knowing a number of friends.  Some of them I got to know through childhood activities.  Others were introduced to me through work experiences, and many of them worship here in this congregation I’m happy to say.

            One of my friends was a paratrooper in the Army.  Another friend thought that the best way to spend a vacation was to take two weeks and travel to Churchill, a little town in Canada where polar bears roam wild every year around Halloween.  And another friend was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as a blind woman in the movie “A Patch of Blue”.    All of these people and others besides them have a special place in my memory.

            But friends have a way of leaving us, don’t they?  They move away or get married and have kids.  And they also leave us by their death.

            Studies show that one of the keys to a healthy and long life is the quality of our social contacts.  If we have at least a few close ties to other people as we grow older, we will be more likely to enjoy good mental and physical health.  It is a concern of some scientists that men have a harder time cultivating close ties with other people in their senior years.  Men who haven’t bonded with teammates in sports activities when they were younger are at somewhat of a disadvantage, I think.  There is a lot to be said for the tight-knit relationships that athletes form in team sports.  These ties often are points of reference for reminiscing and for assessing the skills of the current crop of players.

            So I challenge myself, and I also challenge you, to keep making new friends at each stage of your lives.  Today’s text says we are called by the Lord to bear good fruit that lasts for the Kingdom.  If we are content to stop exploring the possibility of making new friends we may well be cutting ourselves off from what Christ is calling us to do. 

            Where do we find potential friends?  Look around you as you leave the sanctuary today.  There are infinite possibilities to explore.  You may literally run into your next new friend at the grocery store or that person may be the parent of one of your children’s classmates.  And if it’s a romantic relationship you are pursuing, try making a date with a real- life Christian matchmaker.  It worked for me and my wife.  This is definitely an area where prayer would be beneficial.  Praying to meet a new friend seems like just the kind of prayer that God enjoys answering.

            The real challenge in following Jesus’ command is to love those people that are difficult to love.  Sometimes we are thrust together with people we would cross the street to avoid.  What do we do then?

            Once again it is good to consider Scripture.  Jesus says “Apart from Me you can do nothing.  Because He lives and is alive in us we can carry out this command.  Years ago the author Corrie Ten Boom, a survivor of the Holocaust, happened to see a guard she recognized in the hospital where she was visiting a friend.  As I recall, the man was very ill.  Despite all that he had done to her and the other Jewish prisoners in the camp, she felt a strong urge to say a word of forgiveness.  She noted in her account of the incident that she didn’t want to offer this man forgiveness.  But she did so knowing that it was only Christ that enabled her to say anything to him.  In her own strength she was paralyzed and kept from speech.  But Jesus worked through her and accomplished a great work in the process.

            It’s always a good idea to find common ground.  Shared interests and opinions can go a long way  toward overlooking those things that we find unappealing in another person.  It’s also wise to try to determine if the people you inwardly shy away from belong to Christ.  If that is the case then a world of common experiences and points of reference open up before you.  Through conversations with strangers who are Christians, we develop a keener awareness of how Jesus is at work in the world and what He has been doing in the lives of others.  Those kinds of conversations can form a strong basis for friendship.

            Notice that in today’s text the disciples have no idea what awaits them in the next few hours and days.  Despite some pretty explicit descriptions they fail to realize that very soon their friend Jesus will be taken away from them and put to death.  By the same token they also have almost no conception of His coming resurrection.

            We don’t know what will happen to our church in the days ahead.  We have some ideas and some strong indications about how things might proceed.  But we have something the disciples didn’t have during their final lessons with Jesus.  We have the assurance that no matter what happens the Triune God will be up to His elbows in the midst of events with us every moment along the way.  The building may crumble and the hymnals may fall apart and be forgotten.  But Jesus will abide.

            And finally what better way to end this sermon—and maybe every sermon—than to repeat the Lord’s command.  Friends:  love one another.

Florence Taylor Memorial Service -- May 9, 2015


Psalm 103:1-5

 Bless the Lord, O my soul,

   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
   and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
   who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live*
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

We’re here together today because Florence’s time to die had come.  We’ve lost someone we loved, loved a lot, for a very long time.  So we cry.  We grieve.  We embrace one another.  That is what we do when someone we love dies. 

But it’s not all about grief and sadness today.  Florence lived to a good old age.  She hit that sweet spot I think all of us would choose if we were able to write our own ending.  She did not die too soon and miss out on too much of life’s sweetness.  She did not live too long; despite her physical limitations, Florence had amazing light and life within her.  She looked forward to each day with joy.  Even her physical therapists were amazed at her sunny outlook and energy and stubborn determination to keep living as well as she could.   And, thanks be to God, her death was not drawn out.  Her last days were spent peacefully, without pain, surrounded by her children and her grandchildren.  Everyone got to say goodbye.  For that, I know Florence’s family is truly grateful. 

It’s not all about grief and sadness today because it is also a time to keep and laugh over all of the good memories we have of Florence.  For me, I will never forget the way her face lit up when Tom and I went to visit her.  She was always ready with cookies and candy and a good story about her grandchildren in whom she took so much delight and pride.  And I was so grateful for her prayers and her encouragement and the way she always made a point to ask me about my family, particularly my son whom she saw only once a year when we came at Christmas time to sing carols for her.  She was one of the folks that I would say formed me as a pastor in a very real way.  I am sad that I’ll no longer be able to sit and chat and laugh and pray with her in her cozy living room.  But I am happy that she’s completely safe now in the arms of Jesus. 

It’s not all about grief and sadness today because days like this provide a time for peace and love.  It’s a day to reacquaint ourselves with folks from whom we may have drifted away and touch base with one another as family and friends connected by this incredible lady we have come to celebrate.

So here we are.  As the great mystic Julian of Norwich put it, we are feeling a “marvelous mixture of well-being and woe.”  Life is sort of always like that, but days like today make that more apparent. 

Florence did not miss out on life’s good stuff, but she didn’t miss out on life’s bad stuff either.  Nobody gets through life without a certain level of sorrow and disappointment. But what we most certainly know about Florence is that her deep faith sustained her.  She faced many challenges, yet emerged from those challenges renewed thanks to her reliance on God’s goodness and mercy and blessing.  

It is not surprising that one of Florence’s favorite scripture texts was from the Psalm you just heard read.  Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
   and do not forget all his benefits—
   who forgives all your iniquity,
   who heals all your diseases,
   who redeems your life from the Pit,
  who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
   who satisfies you with good as long as you live
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

 If I could think of a word to describe Florence it would be, “satisfied.” “Satisfied” is a funny word, isn’t it?  It’s probably a word many of us would want to avoid as a description of ourselves.  In fact, many of the people I know are never satisfied – they want more.  Better jobs.  More money.  More love.  A slimmer waistline.  A bigger car.   It seems in our modern understanding, being “satisfied” has become equated with settling for something less than we deserve. We don’t normally celebrate “satisfied” people.  We tend to lift up those who are strivers.

But in Biblical terms, being satisfied as the psalmist describes it means being deeply grateful.  Satisfied means being overwhelmed by the overflowing goodness of God.  Satisfied mean remembering all the good things God gives to us and trusting in God’s love and mercy.  Satisfied is a deep sense of thankfulness for all that is good in our lives.  And so much of Florence’s life was good because she chose to see life as sheer gift.  She lived from a position of great gratitude. 

When I arrived at the church a few years ago, I was astonished to meet the half dozen or so women who defied all of my pre-conceived notions of what a "little old lady" should act and look like. I have been trying to figure out how it is these women who live well into their 90’s manage to be so incredibly awesome.  I have learned so much from them.

Here’s a couple of things I’ve observed about Florence and all of the so-called "little old ladies" of this congregation…

They do not hold back from loving deeply.  Several of them have loved and lost, and some of those losses have been incredibly painful.  But they go on loving anyway.  Nancy told me that Florence said she’d gone through at least four sets of friends in her long lifetime.  When you live to be 95, I guess that’s inevitable.  Some of the friends died.  Some moved away.  But loss of people dear to her didn’t stop Florence from reaching out to new people, make new friends, and love them just as dearly. 

Second, they keep their priorities straight.  And for all of these long-lived women, their first priority is family.  They keep their focus on the people God entrusted to their care.  Florence loved her children and grandchildren, fiercely.  And those children and grandchildren responded to that love by flourishing in the way well-loved people usually do flourish.  And best of all, those children and grandchildren have grown up to become loving people themselves. 

Lastly, these are all women who are deeply faithful and thankful.  They are SATISFIED people, in the best sense of the word.  Florence knew who she was, and to whom she belonged, in life and in death.  When she was frightened, she trusted Jesus to keep her strong.  When she was sick, she trusted Jesus to be with her in her pain.  When she was with the people she loved, her youth was renewed like an eagle again and again by the Lord she loved deeply. 

Any questions that Florence might have had about life and about death have been answered for her.  She has entered into eternal life with her Savior. And when she met Jesus face to face, I have no doubt that his face lit up.  Florence had that in common with Jesus, I think.  His face lights up when he is with the people he loves.

The rest of us still living have plenty of questions still about life and death, love and loss.   We’re not satisfied.  We know we have work to do.

But we can live lives in the manner that Jesus taught us, and that Florence did her best to follow in this life:

To love deeply and unconditionally.
To love the people God has put in front of us, and all around us.  Our family, neighbors and friends.

To love God, trusting that God’s provision is certain and secure.  We can live satisfied lives, knowing we are God’s children.  And nothing can ever separate us from the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus.

When I think of Florence, I am reminded of the lyrics of the old Shaker hymn:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

'Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
'Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of "me",
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we'll all live together with a love that is real.