Sunday, April 16, 2023

Lift Us to the Joy Divine

The Resurrection culminates the teachings and example Jesus demonstrated of a spiritual realm coexisting among all the world’s opposing forces. One approach to life promotes a culture of fear, violence, and authoritarianism. The other is a path toward love, peace, and freedom. One kind of society grows within the other like the bread leavened by yeast in Jesus’ parable about the Kingdom of God. One is timeless and eternal, extending even beyond death. The other is not. God’s goodness and love will eventually completely overcome every evil dominion in the universe. We choose which way of life we will resist and which we will nurture.

Violence, racism, and all forms of intolerance and discrimination are heralded by some as “good Christian values.”  Regulations against corporate fraud and pollution are decried as government overreaching while, often in the name of faith, the same people demand government regulation of women’s choices about their own bodies, parental decisions for their trans children, and loving relationships shared by LGBTQ couples. Individual and mass shootings seem to have become the norm rather than the exception. Autocratic nations, not content to dominate their own citizenry, reach across their borders to intimidate, start wars, commit war crimes and atrocities, and unlawfully detain citizens of other countries. And all that is just the tip of the iceberg of things going on this week!


Manuscript of the sermon preached on April 16, 2023, at Briensburg UMC
Bible Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

We live in a dual culture, characterized by Jesus in his Parable of the Wheat and Tares, and in other religions and philosophies by various similar imagery of good and evil in constant conflict. There are people of all different religious views who desire the good for the betterment of humanity through love, peace, harmony, spirituality, and cooperation. And then there are those who seek the opposite, often in the name of the same religions. The whole Bible narrative assures us that eventually, good will entirely overcome evil, and all sorrow will be displaced throughout Creation with perfect love and true happiness. We are invited to support this vision of Christ, individually and collectively, as we cultivate relationships and nurture faith. We pray as Henry Van Dyke wrote in “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,”

Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.


God invites us into eternal spiritual relationships of true happiness.

Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.     (Psalm 16:11 KJV)

The 17th-century friar, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, emphasized “The Practice of the Presence of God.” He invited us to cultivate increasing awareness of God’s presence through our ongoing natural conversation with God. At my Dad’s memorial service, a woman told me that years before, Dad had taught her about “conversational prayer” and said that her life had never been the same since. This kind of natural flow to our relationship with God is much like our relationships with the people we love. We share experiences and talk freely together.  We encourage each other, and it makes us happy just to know someone who loves us is around.

The more we think about God and the people we love, the more we feel spiritually connected. The more we intentionally engage God as a spiritual friend and companion, the more our fears of God subside and our love for God increases, and with that love comes true eternal happiness and endless joy. Cleland Boyd McAfee wrote,

There is a place of full release,
near to the heart of God,
a place where all is joy and peace,
near to the heart of God.

On the way to the Garden, Jesus told his disciples, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11 KJV). The invitations and teachings of Jesus, and of the whole Bible, are meant to offer us a vision of joy to accept and vanquish the visions of despair within and around us. Maybe that’s why “Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right,” as Cleavant Derricks wrote in his song.


How we understand God’s presence makes all the difference in how we understand our faith.

Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance.     (Acts 2:28 KJV)

You have shown me the paths that lead to life, and your presence will fill me with joy. (Acts 2:28 GNT)

The Bible presents two opposing realms of thought and addresses the conflict of choice for humanity.  This dichotomy comes from how people have historically understood God’s presence and speaks more to who we are than to who God is. Today as in Old Testament times, there are those who choose to invoke an irrational terror of the kind of God they present as enraged toward humanity, only reluctantly allowing the possibility of a few to escape eternal wrath. Others, now as then, have embraced the relationship with God described in the familiar imagery of Psalm 23, who “leadeth me beside the still waters… restoreth my soul… leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for [God’s] name sake” (Psalm 23:2-3 KJV). We choose which relationship we will accept. The Bible has plenty of material we can interpret to support our decision either way, so the actual choice is ours to make.    

Love resolves that choice. Consider the reconciling position of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God…” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor…” “love one another as I have loved you…”  “Perfect love casteth out all fear…”  (Matthew 22:36-40; John 13:34-35; 1 John 4:18).

Jesus reassured Nicodemus in John chapter three that God’s presence is not one of scorn and condemnation but of love and merciful salvation.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17 KJV)


Our hope and joy come from believing in the loving presence of our Creator.

Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory:    (1 Peter 1:8 KJV)

In today’s Gospel reading from John, Thomas famously doubted the Resurrection until he saw Jesus for himself. Jesus told him, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29 KJV).  Peter repeated that idea in his letter, emphasizing that we love Christ even though we have not seen him, yet are filled with amazing happiness because of it.

Why might it be a greater joy to believe what we have not seen?

Perhaps because of the way we come to faith “having not seen.” It isn’t just blind faith without any reason, because that kind of faith does not produce the kind of love and joy Jesus and the Apostles described and demonstrated. This faith comes as a gift through love. We are being loved into believing, and through our love, others are coming to believe.

The kind of faith Jesus taught is reflected in his Parable of the Mustard Seed suggesting that the tiniest amount of faith will eventually grow into something remarkable. True faith is a contagious confidence that spreads not only throughout our own personal hearts and minds but throughout the hearts and minds of those around us. The seeds of faith Jesus planted in his day continue to spread from person to person, community to community, and generation to generation.   

We plant seeds of faith by uniting at points where our beliefs intersect with those of others. The Golden Rule… The Good Samaritan… Love thy neighbor… These are the kinds of seeds that take root and grow. These are the seeds that transcend religious differences. Many Christian faith seeds are shared concepts with other religions and even with people who profess no religion.

In his hymn, “Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory,” Barney Elliott Warren wrote this poetic imagery,

I have found that hope so bright and clear,
Living in the realm of grace.
O the Savior’s presence is so near;
I can see His smiling face. 


We believe in God because God believes in us.

But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.     (John 20:31 KJV).

We may have trouble believing what some people insist we must believe about various particulars and interpretations coming out of the Christian religion.  

People believe what they choose to believe, based on their own experiences and understanding. We understand that and respect that, just as Paul respected and affirmed everyone on Mars Hill with all their various beliefs. Then he told them about Jesus.

We share a variety of creeds in our worship services. Sometimes, someone will tell me they don’t believe this or that tenet in one of the creeds. My response is, “That’s fine, just don’t say that part.” Some people and some churches don’t believe in freedom of thought, but we do.  The personal and group affirmations of faith are not intended to be imposed on others, but only to share with others these particular opinions we find helpful as spiritual guideposts. Those who do agree with the statements made in a creed may also disagree as to what those statements mean.

To believe in Jesus is not just to believe facts about him, as James pointed out in his letter when he wrote, “the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19 KJV). To believe in Jesus is to believe in what he is doing. To believe in Jesus is to believe in what Christ is about -- his love, his compassion, and his vision for humanity. We believe in his goal of transforming everyone from sorrow to joy.

Talking to Nicodemus, Jesus illustrated what he meant by “whosoever believeth” with the story of the Serpent in the Wilderness. Everyone only needed to believe just barely enough to peek up at the symbol Moses had put on a pole, and they would be saved – they would be healed.

In her hymn, “Freely, Freely,” Carol Owens wrote, “Because you believe, others will know that I live.” 

Jesus provided several strong metaphors in his parables for the difference each person or group can make, no matter how small or inconsequential we may feel our contribution is. Light shining in the darkness… seeds planted in good soil… the tiniest of seeds growing into large plants… yeast spreading throughout the bread… all speak to us of love growing by the power of the Holy Spirit working within and among us to spread faith and happiness and unity.

Love may seem to grow slowly and tediously. Think about how Christianity began with a handful of people who were scattered at the Crucifixion and then reunited around the Resurrection. Little by little, over the years and centuries that followed, generations of people have encircled the globe with Jesus’ vision of love, right in the midst of all the opposing forces. Even today, even here, even now.

Love grows within us throughout our lifetimes and into eternity. Love grows among us in our congregation and spreads throughout our community and the world at large. Love “lifts us to the joy divine.”

In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Monday, April 10, 2023

The Spirit of Easter

Easter affirms that love works! There are no limits to God’s love!

Easter is first and foremost a day of celebration. We join with all the various expressions of the Western Church in each successive time zone today, and with all the expressions of the Eastern church in their time zones next Sunday, in celebration of the Resurrection. For the next forty days, we will continue to celebrate the different forms by which our risen savior appeared to his disciples during the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. As part of that celebration, we will also explore some of his teachings about his vision for humanity from the perspective of the empty tomb.


Manuscript of the sermon preached on April 9, 2023, at Briensburg UMC   [Audio Podcast] 

Bible Readings for Easter Sunday, The Resurrection of the Lord:

Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6;  Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;  Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43;  John 20:1-18;  Matthew 28:1-10

[Video of readings by Briensburg UMC lectors


The Resurrection is not only an event in the life of Christ but stands as an eternal metaphor for universal new beginnings that are constantly happening in our lives and will be forever, even beyond the death of the body.  In our Service of Death and Resurrection at the passing of our loved ones, we reaffirm the resurrection promises of Jesus even as we “look to the resurrection of the dead in the last day and the life of the world to come.” (UMC Internment Liturgy). Hear what comfortable words the Scripture saith to all who truly believe.

I am the resurrection, and the life: [they] that believeth in me, though [they] were dead, yet shall [they] live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? (John 11:25-26 KJV).

Because I live, ye shall live also (John 14:19 KJV).

Prophetic voices of compassion such as those expelled from the Nashville legislature, ironically on Maundy Thursday, can never be silenced. The voices of the martyred Old Testament prophets still speak of mercy and justice. The voices of the martyred New Testament apostles still speak of hope and inclusion. The voice of the crucified Christ still speaks of unconditional, universal love. The Resurrection promises that such voices will resound from both sides of the grave.

The Resurrection paints a picture of a life – our life – that continues regardless of our body’s condition.  Jesus came from Heaven, was born as a baby, became a man, died on the cross, was raised from death, and ascended back to Heaven. He was the same person in all of these stages of life. Likewise, we are the same person in all the stages of our lives. We grow and mature spiritually even as our bodies age. Eventually, when we lay aside our earthly tabernacle as Peter described (2 Peter 1:14 KJV) we have another as Paul wrote, “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Corinthians 5:1 KJV).

Like the mystery of Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of Easter. The Nativity begins to unwrap the mystery of the life and teachings and vision of Jesus. The Resurrection begins to unfold the mystery of our own eternal lives as participants in the divine nature of Christ. The Resurrection finalizes the new and everlasting covenant in his blood and spiritualizes the Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Resurrection we celebrate at Easter is echoed each Sunday as we gather for worship and invites us to constant renewal every day and every week.

And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let [them] that heareth say, Come. And let [them] that [are] athirst come. And whosoever will, let  [them] take the water of life freely. (Revelation 22:17 KJV).

In Matthew’s account, Jesus sent women to men as the first preachers of the resurrection.

Then said Jesus unto [the women], Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me. (Matthew 28:10 KJV)

In the "Gospel According to St. John," Jesus sent Mary Magdelene to preach his resurrection instead of the two men who had already been right there at the empty tomb.

Jesus saith unto her… go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (John 20:17 KJV)

Jesus sent the women to proclaim the Resurrection. Last month was Women’s history month, and this appointment at the first Easter is a momentous historical affirmation for women in ministry. The only disciples not scattered at Jesus’ arrest were women. Women accompanied Jesus along the Way of the Cross. Women, except for John, were the ones who were present with Jesus at the Crucifixion.

Persons called and sent by God to minister any spiritual gift should not be discriminated against for any reason, especially for any issues related to gender. All persons should be encouraged in fulfilling God’s call on their / our lives. God promised to pour out God’s own “spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17) regardless of any age, gender, social economic position, or any other distinction used by some humans to divide and oppress others.

The Jesus who came out of the tomb is the same as the one who was placed in the tomb.

How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.     (Acts 10:38 KJV)

How can so many people portray Christ, “who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed” as being in any way capable of suddenly and wholly changing his entire divine nature to turn on the most vulnerable people and shower them with eternal wrath because they are unable to wrap their minds around some abstract theological concepts we have come to affirm from what Paul Tillich expressed as “the leap of faith”? (“The Leap of Faith by Paul Tillich).  Such a dramatically diametrical reversal of God’s nature from Love to Hate is not even remotely possible. God loves the world so much that God sent Jesus to be the savior of all. Any scriptures that may seem to suggest otherwise need to be reinterpreted.

In his hymn, “Come O Thou Traveler Unknown” Charles Wesley wrote these words I use as the tagline for my emails:

Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy mercies move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The Bible says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 KJV).

Jesus turned out to be the most important stone in God’s whole spiritual building.

The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.     (Psalm 118:22 KJV)

The psalmist uses the cornerstone as a metaphor for the Messiah. Rejected by the religious leaders, the Messiah would become the most important part of human society. Paul continued this imagery in his letters, comparing us all to stones in the temple God is building. Each person has their place in the building with Christ as the chief cornerstone, built on the foundation Jesus has laid. We all fit together in this building of God, and until every stone is in place, the building is incomplete. Likewise, everything in our individual lives, everything in our relationships with others, and everything in our connections to all of Creation is built up around our centering friendship with Christ.

The resurrection affirms the everlasting and eternal nature of God’s love.

The Lord hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.      (Jeremiah 31:3 KJV)

What part of “everlasting love” do we not understand?

The spiritual concept of sacramental Israel is a sign that the whole of humanity is the family of God. God repeated in Revelation 21 the promise spoken through the prophet Jeremiah,

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with [people], and [God] will dwell with them, and they shall be [God’s] people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.


 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4 KJV)

My mother sent me a letter at a discouraging point in my life about a half-century ago, and she included this verse from Deuteronomy 33:27, “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” The voice of God through the voice of Moses through the voice of Mom still resonates through my soul to this hour, and will from everlasting to everlasting, through this life and the life of the world to come. God’s love has no time limits, no end, no conditions, no exclusionary clauses, and no death. God’s all-encompassing, universal love envelopes everyone everywhere; it always has and always will.

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 KJV).

Something of our nature has already been resurrected through our affirmation of the resurrection of Christ. Can you feel it?

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1 KJV)

Rather than trying to bring God’s nature down to our level, the Resurrection invites us to follow Jesus up to God’s level. We are invited to learn how to see humanity through God’s eyes.  We are invited to learn how to love everyone the way Christ loves everyone. As Paul phrased it, we are invited to “let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5 KJV).  Let God’s vision for humanity become our vision. Let us find ways to implement the teachings of Jesus in all our decision-making.


Let us take the resurrection spirit as we experience around this table in this room with this group of people, to the next table in the next room, and to the next people. Let us establish that as our pattern throughout this life and into the life of the world to come. Room to room, table to table, person to person.

 We believe in the resurrection as pertinent to Jesus, ourselves, our family and friends, and the world at large. We proclaim the risen Christ and God’s love for humanity as expressed and demonstrated in the person of Jesus. God is stretching our thoughts to ever-increasing expanses of heavenly possibilities for life and love and fellowship and unity

Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today,"

Soar we now where Christ has led,
Following our exalted head! 

May we each come alive in new and fresh ways today! May our congregation come alive in new and fresh ways today! May we bring our community and world to life in new fresh ways today!

This is the spirit of Easter.

In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Spirit of Holy Week

During Holy Week, we reflect on the events surrounding the crucifixion and face ourselves honestly in the presence of the Almighty. We compare ourselves in our frailty to Jesus in his perfection, like the proverbial plumbline set in the midst of Israel (Amos 7:8).  For the last six weeks of the Lenten season, we have been withdrawing from some of our normal activities to give more time and energy to focus on self-examination and spiritual renewal. Now is the time for us to start implementing the changes we have been thinking about, deciding what to add back in, what changes to make permanent, and what improvements we want to continue.

Holy Week invites us to internalize the love Jesus demonstrated as we prepare to express greater depths of love in all our relationships and encounters. Whatever spiritual exercises and devotional practices we may have intensified during Lent now begin to abate as we return to our normal activities and address the issues and concerns of the coming days and weeks.


Manuscript of the sermon preached on April 2, 2023, at Briensburg UMC   [Audio Podcast] 

Bible Readings for Palm & Passion Sunday:

Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66 Matthew (26:14-27:1-30) 27:31-52 (53-66)

[Video of readings by Briensburg UMC lectors


Especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we unite our spirits with Christians from every faith tradition on Earth and in Heaven in remembrance of Jesus. We gather around all kinds of tables and crosses in all kinds of settings and places. We come together from all different theologies and ideologies, belief systems, and cultures to remember what Jesus has done and why he did it. 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.  (John 3:16-17 KJV).

Holy Week Events

Jesus joined friends and followers on Saturday before Palm Sunday in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha, and the recently resurrected Lazarus. The Triumphal Entry took place on Sunday as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt. People carpeted the road with articles of clothing and waved victor’s palm branches in celebration of his arrival. Monday, he cleansed the Temple. Tuesday, he reiterated the Great Commandment as the basis for interpreting everything about our faith as he was teaching in the Temple:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40 KJV)

Jesus again taught in the Temple on Wednesday and was confronted with a trick question about whether our foremost allegiance should be to God or to a political leader.  He held up a coin and famously asked whose picture was on the coin.  ”Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's,” he declared (Mark 12:17 KJV). This tension between spiritual and civil authority continues to this day in the arenas of free societies, while supporters of authoritarian societies continue to elevate their leaders inordinately.  

Thursday, Jesus gave himself up for us. The Twelve joined Jesus for the Passover Seder Supper. After the supper, Jesus consecrated the bread and wine as his body and blood, given for us and for all so that sins could be forgiven. He knelt on the floor to wash his disciples’ feet as a sign of servant leadership. The group sang and talked as they made their way to Gethsemane. Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit as Comforter, Guide, and Teacher. He said he was going to prepare a place for us in the “many mansions” as the King James Version puts it, or “many dwelling places” as worded in the New Revised Standard Version (John 14:2). Along the way, he gave this defining instruction that echoes through ages and strikes fresh chords in our hearts each time we hear it, each time we repeat it, each time we think about how to manifest it more effectively:

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all [people] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:34-35 KJV).

Betrayed by one of his best friends, Jesus was arrested in the Garden after he prayed, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42 KJV).  He endured mock trials and severe beatings throughout the night. On Friday he was led to Calvary where he was crucified. His body was placed in a sealed tomb.

Spoiler alert: on Sunday he was resurrected!

Through the Epistle reading for Palm Sunday

The Bible makes this all-Inclusive promise – never a threat -- only a promise:

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.     (Philippians 2:10-11 KJV)

What a wonderful, encouraging word of assurance Paul wrote in the Bible, that everyone will eventually come into a personal saving relationship with God in Christ!  Ironically, so many depictions of this promise are treated as an awful threat, that everyone will be forced to comply with the arbitrary narcissistic demands of a cosmic tyrant and worship in tears of sorrow against their will. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Everything about Holy Week, everything about the Cross, everything about the life and teachings of Christ, and everything about God's grace, mercy, and love tells us otherwise.  Everyone is being loved into the fellowship of believers. The saving relationship is a free gift, given before anyone ever came to faith in Christ. Everyone has been, is now, and will continue to be accepting this free gift in their own time and way, as they and we come to greater realizations of God’s all-embracing, unconditional, universal, infinite love for humanity.

We each have the free will to accept or reject God’s love. We should respect and honor the spirit of that free choice, trusting that everyone will gradually stop resisting God’s love and fully embrace God’s love according to the freedom and grace they experience. Nobody will “worship God in Spirit and truth” as Jesus described to the woman at the well because they are forced to under threat of eternal punishment. Everyone will “worship in spirit and truth” because they want to, by their own free will and accord. Together we are loving each other into the Reign of Christ as we cultivate the commandment Jesus gave on the night he offered himself up for us, that we love one another as Christ has loved us. By this, all people will know who has become a disciple and who is yet to be converted to the perfect law of love – converted not by fear but by the love of Christ working within and among us.

Holy Week begins with the Triumphal Entry and ends with the Crucifixion. This ending turns out to be the new and glorious beginning of the transformation of all Creation – a “new heaven and a new earth” so to speak. We are each personally included in that metamorphosis. As we implement the teachings and example of Jesus in our lives and relationships, we and the world around us experience what Charles Wesley described in his hymn,

Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love and praise.

This is the spirit of Holy Week.  In the Name of Jesus, Amen.