May 18, 2014 by Ken Dale
If you have one of those red letter editions of the Bible you can?t help but notice that our reading this morning from John?s gospel is the beginning of a long stretch of red ink. In fact it goes all the way to the end of chapter 17 ? four chapters of red letters! The very beginning of our reading this morning is very popular at memorial services and funerals. They are very comforting words if you?re dealing with the death of a family member or friend. Jesus says, ?Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father?s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?? Jesus continues saying that he will come again so that where he is we can be also. It is very comforting if you?ve lost someone close.
But imagine what it must have been like when Jesus first said those words. He is gathered at the table ? the Last Supper ? with his disciples. He has spoken of Judas who will betray him and sure enough Judas ends up leaving the table and heads off into the darkness of night. Then Jesus speaks of Peter?s upcoming denial to which Peter replies, I will lay down my life for you! We can only imagine the tension in the air.
Then Jesus says, Do not let your hearts be troubled. And as we hear he speaks of his being one with God ? that he is in God and God is in him. Does all that sound like it would be comforting for the disciples? One reflection I read on the passage that really spoke to me, was written by Shannon Michael Pater, a Congregational minister in Atlanta, Georgia. The image lifted in the reflection is that the disciples in this scene are both in need of and dispatched as simultaneously hospice chaplain and maternity midwife. They perhaps don?t even know it yet but not only is Jesus about to die, but so will their understanding of his mission and their understanding of themselves. They need a hospice chaplain. However, and again they probably don?t know it, something new is about to happen ? there is birth that will follow this death. We can read this passage through Easter eyes! There is so much more going on than they are aware of. This horrible and confusing time in which Jesus says, Do not let your hearts be troubled is a time of transition. Jesus says, I am the way, the truth, and the life ? and of course Thomas asks that question ? how can we know the way when we don?t even know where you are going? Pater says that birth and death ? and I would even add death and birth ? are bookends ? ?the bookends of a shelf full of stories of transformation?in the narrative of our lives. Visions of who we are and are becoming give us life, even as a previous sense of our self dies.?
Isn?t that the blessing of living life?s journey with faith? That whole image captured in the phrase ?please be patient with me, God isn?t finished with me yet!?? We are always in process ? in process of becoming and yes we are changed as we go through various transformations in the journey. In our aging, our learning, in so many ways. We keep going because God is with us ? that life-giving God who has come to us in Jesus the Christ is with us. And as disciples, yes ? we are hospice chaplain and yes ? we are maternity midwife and our job is to be fully present to one another and with one another.
The Christian Church is in a time of transition, which we considered in our Diana Butler Bass study during Lent. I recently read Barbara Brown Taylor?s latest book titled Learning to Walk in the Dark. In it she mentions this transition time of the Church and she made a statement that really intrigued me. Taylor is roughly my age ? I think I?m a year ahead of her. But in the book she says of this something new that is emerging as the Christian Church is something she probably won?t see in her life time. But what faith to affirm something unseen coming into being. Our job is the same ? to be fully present with and to one another.
Another verse that jumps out as powerful in this passage is down in verse 12. Do you believe it? Jesus says, (remember it?s in red letters!!) Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Next week our reading from John picks up where this one stops as Jesus speaks of what will follow ? the Advocate ? the Holy Spirit ? as we prepare to celebrate Pentecost early in June. The works that Jesus does we are empowered to do. So this faith is not just a matter of believing, it is also a matter of doing! As one commentator captured it ?Having said, down through the ages, ?I love you,? God turned love into action and showed up as the Son.? (Willimon). And so we too as followers are also to show up in this world bearing that love and peace of God.
We haven?t heard it but the epistle lesson this morning (from I Peter 2) is actually like a pep talk to that early Christian church. More wonderful images are lifted as he calls them ?newborn infants? longing for ?spiritual milk? so that they may grow in faith. Think of all the work that needs to be done early on between a mother and her breast feeding child. There is a lot of give and take between the two but they get there.?? So it is with us as we grow in faith and in our relationship with God. Peter says, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house and toward the end of the reading you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God?s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. We are not to be here in church just to get something out of it that will help us get through the week ? we are here to be transformed and transformed to do something and make a difference in the name of God by being a means by which God?s love continues to flow into the world. Again – think of who we are and are becoming ? transition – transformation ? birth and death ? death and birth — bookends and look at all that happens in between.
It is about the work of the Spirit ? God?s Spirit! This morning we do something new, yet something very old. We will affirm the ministry of the Deacons but it will include the laying on of hands. It?s interesting, it?s in the UCC book of worship and there?s a note just above it that reads ?If it is not the tradition of the local church to ordain elders or deacons?.the service continues with the prayer on the next page.? It is not the tradition of this church. Yes ? it?s true, ?we?ve never done it that way before? ? well, yes, we did once a few years back but it didn?t get much of a good reception. Did you know the deacons and council members of this church are all currently reading something I downloaded from the UCC website titled ?104 Ways to Grow Your Church? and the very first thing on the list – #1 on the first page says: ?If anyone says to you ?We?ve never done it that way before? smile and say, ?Thank you!??
The symbolic act of ordaining deacons goes back to the early church and like the ordaining of clergy it sets them apart but not above. It is simply a prayer that the Holy Spirit confer upon them the gifts of ministry. This time the idea did not come from the pastor it came from within the deacons. I love it and we?ll see what happens. The hope is for this to begin today with the current board and then each year that follows the Sunday after the annual meeting new deacons will receive the same during worship. We have long tossed the phrase around ?once a deacon always a deacon? but nothing ever happens that sets them aside. Again they are set aside ? not above. Having done this does not make them better or worse for that matter ? it is a prayer for God to do something. The Deacons are about the spiritual life of this church and so how fitting to call the Spirit to equip them ? to be at work in and through them in our life together as this church. What we do today is between bookends ? maybe the bookends of birth and death or maybe the bookends between death and birth. But what an exciting place to be when we lose ourselves in the midst of God at work in this church and in this world!???????? Amen.