Saturday, April 28, 2018

Bearing Fruit with Love - John 15

Bearing Fruit with Love: How We Conquer Fear and Divisiveness
Tony E Dillon-Hansen
29 April 2018

A reflection based upon Psalm 22 • 1 John 4:7-21 • John 15: 1-8

As someone of fitness, I would like to exercise your hearts and minds today. You may agree with me with things and you may not. Just remember that some things, like exercise, might make you uncomfortable.  We know with Christ’s call to service, discomfort is part of the territory. Like Christ, exercise can help our hearts get stronger.  So let us witness Christ together with whole heart and mind.

Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock, Our Redeemer.  Amen.

The Issue: Fear and Divisiveness.
For our reflection, I am going to address a difficult issue that impact our everyday lives today and one that needs our attention.  I want to talk about rampant fear-based spiritual abuse and divisiveness. We see this in a bunch of places all around us. We see it on the news, in the halls of government, during the coffee hour, at the ballpark, and we see it in church: yes from people like you and me.

Why is this issue important and why today? The Gospel of John likes to talk community and how people belong to the community. Our Gospel today invokes the imagery of the vine, as interconnectedness, and growing of the community. Further, the epistle from John provides a way to “cure” the ills of division and abuse. So let us address the problem, look at the cure, and understand a path to the cure. Ultimately, that is God’s vision for us, and so, the question is how do we get there?

First, in order to correct an injustice or cure a disease (and disease it is), we must be willing to name it. For centuries, people would treat mental illness by throwing people into asylums which was the same as a prison cell. Otherwise, creative relatives might lock up one of their own so as to hide the issue in the closet, the attic or remote room that was left alone. People were given cute names (e.g. funny farm, looney bin, crazy house or worse) and people were warned to stay away like the illness was contagious. Yet, what was contagious was the fear that people perpetuated. Instead of helping people, society preferred to simply not deal with the issue and hid behind their own fears. People watching others in treatment saw how horrible the conditions were, but did nothing. They were paralyzed by irrationality. Some of the fears were real but focused upon the symptoms instead of the cause.

Then one day, some people decided, these were real people with real issues. They called it “depression”, “anxiety” or if you were from battle, “shell-shocked” (which almost sounds as bad as the explosions themselves.) They gave it a name decided asylums were in fact not solving the issue but rather hiding an ugly truth. We have ways to go with mental illness, but we have come far.

Divisive and Fear spiritual abuse is another illness. Like depression affects a person, this illness affects our (the whole) community and is making our community very sick for far too long. We have locked it away behinds closed doors of secret societies and hypocritical oaths sworn to defend a “right” to discriminate. We used cute phrases in order to normalize the sickness like “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” “it’s tradition,” or “they don’t live like us”, or even better “they deserve God’s wrath.” (and why was it deserved, I ask?) For doing nothing more than trying to make a peaceful home in this community – in God’s community.  What is important is that language is part of this because the use of “they and them” in opposition to “us or our” helps us articulate the illusions of division.

This is one reason why people have wondered about the Gospel truths when those that profess them want to demonize many around them. Even though people simply want an equal and fair part in the community of God, there have been people sitting in pews and standing in pulpits that say “not for you.” Where is the Gospel in such a message? How welcoming is that?

This is one reason why some people do not feel there is a church home for them. I mean why would anyone want to subject a spouse, let alone their beloved children, into a space that offers lofty words that all but hide a sign of hate in their work.  Regardless of writings on the walls or what was read in scriptures, what people do matters. When people don’t feel welcomed or when they feel conflicted by what they have heard or experienced, that is spiritual abuse and builds fear of Church and God.

Our challenge should you choose to accept it. How do we bring these people back to God? How do we as a community heal? How do we pass onto our children a church that bears the good fruit today and tomorrow?

A Cure

A Cure according to 1st John is love, specifically authentic love. How many of you knew I was going to say that? That means some of you were paying attention to the readings. This was meant for the times when it was written, and the cure is meant for our times today. A cure to divisiveness and spiritual abuse is love.

Yes, a cure to these ills, I submit, is love and caring. That is God tells us to be love, to be love authentically and with whole-heart – no matter where they are on life’s journey, whether they are believers, what they say, or how they live their lives. We are love now and always. From a pastoral care perspective, this makes sense because people often come to me with a list of issues and many of the issues are about what other people are doing --as in what they are doing or not doing – or at least what they think is happening.  Just because you may not see someone pray might also mean they might be taking the Gospel of Matthew to heart about not praying in public or loud.

In that list of who and what, their focus is upon someone else and how those people irritate or offended them. To clarify, there are legitimate and real pains because of damage done. Jesus tells us that judgment coming, but that is not our call. We take care to correct our own paths and our response to injustice. Do we enact pain upon someone else because we are in pain? No. Do we allow people to continue injustice upon us? No.
Do we look with faith for the love of Jesus? Are we love?

The letter from John teaches us not just to be love but why it is so important. In the words of 1st John, love casts out fear and punishment. That is precisely because there is no reason to fear when you walk with love.

Isn’t that really the crux of the issue with spiritual abuse and divisiveness is fear? Instead of trying to understand another person or how they come to God, fear is used to mask and to avoid the opportunity to transform each of us. Essentially, we have allowed fear to paralyze our society into this sickness.

That fear is for us to prune away and toss away as withered and rejected branches because that will not bear the fruit our community needs.

Beloved: be love and love all brothers and sisters. Don’t let fear win.

We have called it by name and we have a cure.
Like any great journey, there is a path to the cure.

A Path:

A path is the challenge for us. As a gardener, I especially resonate with a Gospel story that talks about growing fruits and vines. Partially, I can enjoy the results as a snack or meal, but I know that growing a garden of flowers, herbs and fruit is hard work. It takes some discipline. Some days the discipline is great and some days, I am flat lazy. In those days, I have to pay more attention and really pull together the effort to keep going.

So yes, when the Gospel mentions growing gardens and vines, I am there! Hopefully, I can learn a tip or two along the way (like soil depths or proper shading). The tips from Jesus are kind of like the nuts and bolts of gardening, and that we have to tend all parts of the garden or the vine or else we risk losing parts of it. That is figuratively speaking how we have to tend to all parts of the community to be His Church.

(Even Paul’s letters to Corinth reminds us too that our Church requires all parts of the Body or the Church.) From my experience, it is nearly impossible to grow a fruit that is detached from its root or vine. Unlike the vine or grape, people can be reconnected and help the whole community grow together. Together, we help the whole grow because we know that poor conditions can impact the wider connectedness. How can we help those? We raise the conditions and give them attention. The answer is love!

Thus, despite the spiritual abuse from social media, news, or certain misguided ones, we have an opportunity to repair damage and grow our community again. As I said before (and in the Gospels, we do this through action, sharing and engaging our community with that cure.

The cure and path can be tricky because this does not come with instant gratification or allow for easy judgments. Our path may not seem easy to market or sell because it requires dedication to love, discipline to open ourselves, and willingness to invite people into our lives that we may not normally invite. 

Yes, we invite them with all of their brokenness so that we can learn from each other. As difficult as that may sound, the payoff can be immense and shines. When we show our love by engaging our community and supporting all of God’s Beloved children, we will see a community that rises, takes care of each other, shakes hands with each other, has coffee together, and sings praises together.

We don’t need division and hurt. We don’t need fear. We know what is making us sick, we know the cure and is our Church’s mission from Jesus to our community and our posterity that we pursue this path.

You don’t get to the cure by pointing fingers and trying to look superior. No one is perfect and no one is exempt from God’s love. We cannot start being the cure by being that which we are trying to cure. There is enough division in our world without us reinforcing our own.

We know the name, we have a cure and it is up to us to do the therapy to get better. So our path is to start today in the fellowship hall after worship because we are not just here for words; we are here for action as an action-oriented, mission-based Church. There are a couple action plans in mind, but let’s hear your action plan. A discussion series is being offered to discuss the issue in depth along with reviewing a book to initiate a healthy dialogue for those that want to study the issue more.  If you want to help in our community outreach efforts, you wont want to miss these chances.

There is so much that we can do and so much that we must do. It is up to us to live out the example we have been given by Jesus and teach the world (our community) as God’s community. Our community needs this and God wants this. We teach them what love looks like by being love and by welcoming all Beloved of God.

It won’t be easy because good fruit on the vine does not just happen because we say it does. That takes time, work, attention, and loving care. We do our part and be a great example. Remind ourselves to leave room for people to join us, for ideas and for God’s big love to embrace us all. We are going to do some wonderful work.

We do that by being the best UCC can be. 
That is how we bear fruit for generations and stay connected to our community.
We are love in thoughts, words and action because love wins.

Thanks Be to God.

Where Do You Belong? - John 10, Psalm 23

Where Do you Belong?
Tony E Dillon-Hansen
22 April 2018

An introduction and sermon based upon Psalm 23; John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16-24.

As someone of fitness, I would like to exercise your hearts and minds today. You may agree with me with things and you may not. Just remember that some things, like exercise, might make you uncomfortable.  We know with Christ’s call to service, discomfort is part of the territory. Like Christ, exercise can help our hearts get stronger.  So let us witness Christ together with whole heart and mind.

Will you pray with me?  Holy and gracious God, open our hearts and minds to receive the lesson given to us today. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock, Our Redeemer. Amen!

What does the shepherd do? –

The image of the shepherd and the flock is a great illustration of seeing and witnessing.  Let us get right to it. Let us consider what is the image of a shepherd and the flock mean to us here in our lives. What does the shepherd do? Who belongs in the flock? What does Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, call us to do?

First, a shepherd tends a flock.
Our society might think this strange given how we communicate to people through screens,
but a shepherd wants to see those in the flock.
The shepherd wants to see you and to recognize you.
The shepherd cares for you and calls to you.

In turn, the Good Shepherd wants the flock to recognize when they are called.
The Good Shepherd calls to us the flock so that we, the flock, respond. 
I am but a servant, and
Yes, I believe the Good Shepherd cares for you: Beloved child of God. 
Even more, the shepherd is looking out across the space
and wondering who is not here and why. 

What is the shepherd calling of us today, in this church and in the community?
Why is the shepherd wondering about who is not here? 
These are great questions and I am glad you asked.

Who belongs to the flock?

Again, the image of the shepherd infers a flock of sheep.
In terms of our story, that is us.
Who is part of that flock: the sheep?

It is interesting to note the word “sheep”
does not distinguish plural or singular
nor does it suggest a type of sheep.
When Jesus uses the image of the shepherd, that says something about us.
what does it say?
Are we farm animals roaming in pasture?
(Some might say that about me before I have my morning cup of coffee.)
Are we people in need of protection?

Instead, I submit the flock of the shepherd is an example
of how we are beloved of God
in the way that a shepherd loves the flock
and cares for each one in the flock.
When you look around, do we all look the same, talk the same or dress the same?
It would be boring if we did.

In our society, we must get beyond the tired school-aged beliefs that label people based upon what they wear, what they believe, how they live, how much money they make, whether they drive Chevy or Dodge pickup (we know who wins this one) or even if they have John Deere tractors. I don’t think God chooses brands or sports teams. Although if you know a good pitcher, the Kansas City Royals could use some help. I digress.

We must get beyond labeling and name calling because to God,
there is no distinction here.  
You are more than a label.
You are more than data or a touch screen.

What the shepherd’s flock reminds us is that we are people and
that we belong to each other.

We belong to the community as a people and as a church
because Jesus makes no distinction
between who is part of the flock and who is not.
Why does Jesus make no distinction?
That is another great question.

I believe the answer is:
Because you matter!
Not an image of you or the things you buy, but you –this person, this soul!
You, your life, your brokenness, and your dreams
You matter! You are precious to the shepherd.
You are beloved.
We are part of the flock (e.g. the community that has been called.)
You belong here because you are beloved!

Our commandment tells us to love God and to love neighbor,
whether they are here in this room or not.
Yes John 10:16 reminds us, that your neighbors belong here too
(regardless what disagreeable habits they may have).
If Jesus uses no distinctions, why should you?
You belong here and we belong to each other.

Further, the shepherd cares for us and calls us into community
but also prepares for us to respond to the call.
The shepherd doesn’t just talk to hear oneself talk.
(You can think that about me, but Jesus has different plans.)

From the Gospels and the Hebrew Scriptures,
we are commanded to love and to provide for our community.

We can be deserving of the good shepherd,
but when the shepherd calls, what are we called to do?

Our response is:
First, we recognize that we are called. Second, that we belong.
Third, when Jesus calls us, we are called to be examples (shepherds) to our communities. 

Our scripture from the epistle of 1 John 3:16,18 tells this.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
… Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

From John’s letter, we are called to be shepherds too.
This is quite like how I, as a taekwondo student, became a master.
Through my mentors, I had examples of skill
but even more, I had examples of great attitudes and great leadership.
Thus, it was natural that I teach in the example of my masters.
Yes, service is taught as part of the lessons.

It is in this way that Jesus, by example as a shepherd, teaches us how to be shepherds.
We are called into service and love, “not in word or speech, but in Truth and action.”
I can talk about forms or kata, but my actions and my students reveal the Truth of my words.

Of that verse, What is truth?
Be authentic in your love and compassion (not just rhetoric or empty slogans.)
Thus, our action is our revealed sincerity:
Action, as in Through service to the community,
Action, as in engaging the community,
and action, as in being stewards of the Creation gifted to us.
God is calling us to be examples of the Good Shepherd.

That is what the truth and action means for us.
The epistles and Gospels tell us is that our Church is one of action.
That is to say, we not only show up for church on Sunday,
but we are engaged in our community.
We not only want to welcome people into the sanctuary,
but we are a welcome face -- everywhere we are
-- regardless if they sit next to you in the pew or not. 

The shepherd represents
the compassion, the love and the welcoming spirit of God.
Yet, despite our commandments and Gospels,
For too long, people have felt excluded from church
and that exclusion perpetuates into the community.
For too long, people have used the sacred word to injure rather than to serve. 

When people try to use the Bible to hurt someone,
we remind them what Jesus and the Gospels call us to do for our community.

In fact, 1st John reminds us that the Church and community
are more than just words in a book or hymn. 
Our actions reveal the true mission of the Church given to us by Jesus:
to do service and to care, especially to those in need
-- Whether that person needs a simple smile (not a false one),
a conversation instead of being alone, or path to put food on the table.
We are to be the face of love and compassion in this world.

Sure, it is ok to admit that we have failed from time to time
because we are not perfect.
Yet, we get back up and try again --learn to be better.

There are people in our community just waiting for our welcoming and extended hand. 
Perhaps, there is someone is somewhere sitting in a room,
crying, needing a hand and wondering where they belong.
Will you be there?
What if you were that person needing help?
In our corner of the world, right here in our town,
we can be that comfort that heals and builds our community of Christ. 
Because we know what brokenness feels like and looks like,
We can see each other, reach out and help our brothers and sisters.

It is for us and our future
that we care for our community.
It is for us and our future as a Church to reach out on behalf of God.
It is for us and our future to say no to injustice
and to say yes to you-- beloved child of God. 
It is for us and our future as a church
that we say love with whole heart.
It is for us and our future as called by God
to go forth from this room to bring peace and love into the community. 

Most importantly,
It is for us and our future
that we recognize each other and say “you matter,
you are Beloved,
And you are with friends here.”

Thus, we “abide in the commandments” when we welcome and help all of God’s children - one person at a time. So what are you doing to “abide” and to serve?

When you do, then Jesus may guide you by the still waters and invite you at the gate. 
The image of the shepherd invokes the example of Jesus.
The example of caring, truth and action is your mission: should you choose to accept it.
We must be willing to be shepherds of our community not just follow. 
We do that by inviting people to share in service through love-filled action.

Let us hear and feel the caring shepherd in our lives.
Spring is here -- reminding us of rejuvenation and growing. 
Let us, through Christ, restore us and our community.
Even though we might walk in the darkest valley,
Let us grow in love and action together.
Let us be stewards of God’s creation and community. 

We don’t do this alone and we don’t exclude.
That is when our service is the example of Christ’s love.
Beloved remember that – you matter
Because you belong
– so too does your neighbor.
Beloved people of God: flock of Jesus,
Let us prepare a path for the shepherd.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us
all the days of our lives.”

Thanks Be to God.