Tuesday, April 8, 2014

?SERMON?: "Tears and Cheers"

"Tears and Cheers"
John 11:32-44

Another one of the PALS from our ALS support group passed away recently. She was diagnosed about the same time I was. She and her husband are one of the couples we've known the longest dealing with this reality of being one who is continually getting worse physically and the one providing the caregiving. They were such a positive and supportive couple - open about their situation and able to both laugh and cry in the group.

She stopped coming to group maybe about two years ago. He continued to come by himself for awhile. They began to use the help of hospice and their experience was probably one of the most influential reasons we decided to do the same last fall - a decision we haven't regretted. We have stayed in touch as Facebook friends. They are also the ones who recommended that we contact the Liberty Township Fire Department when we moved to the Powell area because of the special needs program they have. We did and it's a fabulous asset to the community and to our sense of comfort and security.

Her visitation was on Wednesday night and funeral on Thursday. One of the limitations of ALS is I tire and there's simply no way we can go to everything we want to. Especially frustrating is not being able to go to all the visitations and funerals for former church members, relatives of friends, etc. Because the visitation was in nearby Mt. Sterling and despite not having one of my best weeks physically or emotionally - perhaps partially because of her somewhat surprising death, perhaps partially because of having numerous health care visits, perhaps .... who knows - we decided we wanted to give it a go.

A side benefit was the opportunity to drive on out to Deer Creek State Park and spend a few hours in one of our favorite Ohio lodge lobbies. For two hours we sat next to each other (I still was in my wheelchair), sipping our Diet Cokes (no Diet Pepsi available!), and read books on our iPads. The Deer Creek State Park lobby is so warm, inviting, and comfortable. It doesn't provide the greatest water hole to look at, but the lobby makes up for it. It also brought back several memories of church workshops and family outings.

And then it was time to drive back into Mt. Sterling for the visitation. We saw numerous deer on the drive which added to a really nice afternoon. When we arrived at the funeral home just a few minutes after the start of visitation, there was no place to park. Sure it's what happens in small towns, but I think it also had a lot to do with the very special woman she was and that her family is. There were tears and there was laughter as family and friends came to comfort and remember. That's what communities do - communities of faith, family and friends - we cry together and we celebrate the well-lived lives of our loved ones.

The 11th chapter of the Gospel of John records the story of an episode in the life of Jesus and his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The three were siblings and close to one another as well as to Jesus. The only part of this lengthy and theologically inviting text I want to reference in this reflection is that verse often referenced in trivia games as the shortest verse in the Bible - "Jesus wept."

The two sisters had gone to Jesus to inform him that his friend and their brother, Lazarus, was not well. I guess Jesus didn't consider Lazarus' illness to be very serious because he took two more days finishing what he was doing. When they arrived in Bethany, the hometown of the trio, they were informed that Lazarus had been dead for four days and stunk. All of the siblings' friends were grieving with Mary and Martha - including Jesus. His grief was so great, he cried - wept.

It's what we do as a community of supporters/friends/caregivers - we grieve together - we shed tears about our loss, our common pain. And I'm not referencing here only communities of faith. It doesn't matter whether our community is made up of neighbors and friends, a bunch of people we worked with, people from the different towns we've lived in, family members, friends of our loved ones, past or present members of social or recreational groups we met with regularly, or even those who just knew of the deceased because of reputation in the community or world. I cried when Nelson Mandela died. I cried when members of my congregations died. I cried when parents of my high school or college friends died. I shed tears when I was informed of the sudden death of a classmate and then asked to do his memorial service. I mourn every time I hear of the death of another PALS, even if I only knew them as a fellow contributor on our "Living With ALS; for PALS Only" Facebook page.

"Jesus wept." This passage ordains tears as a proper response when we lose a friend or relative. The one who referred to himself as “the resurrection and the life” was sad about losing a friend. It is not a sign of a weak faith or a weak person to grieve. It simply is not true, as some of our faith seem determined to portray, that “real Christians” should only be joyous about everything that happens – that tears should never be shed, because pain is caused by God for our own good (Ugh! Sorry, just ugly untruth). We grieve – we are sad – we weep in the face of death because we are fully human just as our Savior Jesus was fully human. Healthy human beings grieve when painful things happen. Jesus cried because even if death does not speak the last word, it does speak a painful and hard word. The empty tomb is testimony that death is defeated, overcome, but not abolished.

“Jesus wept.” There’s nothing wrong with grief. There’s nothing wrong with shedding tears. It is a part of what it means to be human. It is expected of Christians as it is of all human beings. It’s one of the things we do with one another when someone important to us dies or even suffers.

But communities - all communities again - do something else very important with one another when someone dies. We hold funerals, more commonly and I happen to think appropriately referred to today as memorial services or services of celebration. We get together to remember and celebrate the life of the one who is no longer physically a part of our community. Sometimes we hold these events in funeral homes, sometimes in churches, sometimes in people's homes, sometimes in a favorite park or restaurant or bar, and sometimes in a school or a cemetery. And most of the time our tears are coupled with some cheers. Oh, not "Rah, rah" cheering, but laughter and hugs and words of encouragement and smiles and joy and hope as we remember the good times and the uniqueness of our loved ones - quirks and all. (True, it doesn't always happen. There are those occasions which are just too sad, too painful, too senseless. I don't want to ignore those realities even as I try to paint a picture of what is my most common experience. Please forgive me all those who've experienced such a tragedy in their life.)

When I think of the cheering role of our communities during the time after the death of a loved one, I cannot help but think of the passage in Hebrews (Hebrews 11 & 12) when the author provides this litany of folks who make up the "cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) cheering us, encouraging us on our life journeys. I've often described that cloud of witnesses as our cheering section - usually as those who've gone before and play this role in the heavenly realms, but today I'm thinking it's helpful to consider our physical, living, communities who surround us in our day-to-day living.

As a community, we are those who live in the tension of shedding tears and cheering – we live as those who are able to shed tears and cheer at one and the same time – we are those who grieve deeply while deep inside us percolates this joy for the life lived by the one we loved. I think that's what was going on in that funeral home on Wednesday night as those who loved our friend and her family gathered. There were plenty of tears flowing, but there were also some cheers being offered - words of encouragement and hugs and laughter. May we all be mindful of our shared ministry of crying and cheering as we continue on this path of life together.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

SERMON: "Bad Things Happen To Everyone"

"Bad Things Happen to Everyone"
John 9:1-41

I've forgotten the number of times people have sent me the interesting list of truths children have learned. While I’m sure many of you have already seen the  list, I want to introduce my sermon blog with it.

“No matter how hard you try you cannot baptize a cat.”
“When your mom is mad at your dad, don’t let her brush your hair.”
“Never ask your 3-year-old brother to hold a tomato…or an egg.”
“You can’t trust dogs to watch your food for you.”
“Don’t sneeze when somebody is cutting your hair.”
“School lunches stick to the wall.”
“You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.”
“Never wear polka-dot underwear under white shorts….no matter how cute the underwear is.”  (1)

I can't imagine the experiences these children had to have had in order to come to these “great truths.” Can’t you just picture a child attempting to baptize a cat? I think I remember learning the broccoli lesson myself – only it was a piece of tough steak. The point of my using this illustration today is that many new insights, new perceptions come to us as a result of such dramatic eye-popping experiences.

The disciples observed a man born blind and it dawned on them that this would be a good case study for them to learn from the master his perspective about such things – you know, what he believed about the relationship between sin and suffering. Personally, I find their question repulsive - I know that has to do with how we see things differently today, except I find a lot of the attitude the question represents still guiding the theology and comments by far too many people. Here’s a guy suffering and they want to connect it to someone’s sin – to something God intentionally did to the man as punishment for something. All I can say is WOW! What I wonder is, what kind of God do some people believe in?

Kathryn Lindskoog had MS, multiple sclerosis – a chronic disease that gradually weakens and paralyzes the body. Some of the things she reports people said to her in her life are utterly amazing. “You must really like to be sick; you bring so much of it on yourself.” The comment was made by a relative who never even sent her a get-well card.

Another relative once said to her: “the reason I have perfect health is that I think right; nobody gets sick unless he thinks wrong.”

And then there were these: “I know just how you feel about being crippled; I had a bad case of tennis elbow last month.” “Your present improvement is just wishful thinking.” “I know you fake your limp to try to get attention.” That one was from her pastor and he was serious. And then, perhaps the cruelest one of all: “God must cherish you to trust you with this burden." (2) Can you believe the kind of God some people believe in?

A country preacher visited his parishioners after a flood. One of his farming parishioners lost his crops and cows. The preacher tried to offer comfort by quoting: “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” The farmer just looked at him and drily replied, “Well, I believe he overdid it this time.”
Who among us can forget the comments made by TV evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell after the 9-1-1 bombings; when they claimed that it was God’s unhappiness with gays, feminists and People for the American Way? (3) Of course, we've had the unfortunate experience of having to continue to hear such irrational venom from Fred Phelps and his followers from the Westboro Baptist Church. They've gained a modest amount of notoriety for their picketing the funerals of American soldiers who gave their lives for their/our country but whose deaths Phelps claimed were God's punishment for our country's expanding acceptance of the rights of our homosexual brothers and sisters. (Fred Phelps passed away a few days ago and at least some who have opposed his message of hate have chosen to use his death as an occasion to reach out to his loved ones with messages of love and forgiveness. I am proud of those who have done so and hope the message is heard and accepted. There have been others, more personally hurt perhaps, who've felt the need to make more vengeful responses and I understand their reaction.)

"Who sinned?” the disciples asked Jesus. "What?" we exclaim hardly able to believe such a question could be asked. The truth of the matter is that it is one understanding of the relationship between sin and suffering that existed in those days and relatives of it still surface in our own day.

Well, whenever I come across something as confusing or questionable as this suggested concept, I usually turn to my good friend, William Barclay (famous Bible scholar of the last century), to see what he has discovered. And, again he did not fail to provide some background of the mindset of the day. He notes first that there was indeed a view among some of the Jewish theologians that pre-natal sin was a possibility. They believed that an embryo could somehow begin to sin while still in the womb. Perhaps they perceived the kicking of a baby as an example of inner and pre-birth sin (that was my aside, not Barclay's).

Another explanation Barclay offers is the belief in the pre-existence of souls, a notion of Plato and the Greeks. The idea was that these souls existed together someplace and took turns entering a human body. It was believed that these were inherently good and it was the entering of the human body that corrupted them. Now, some of the rabbis believed that these pre- existing souls were both good and bad and ... capable of sinning before the entry into a human body. (4) Yep, the question reflected belief in a God who caused suffering either by an embryo sinning or the parent even before conception. Really? What some people believe about God is really strange.

I don’t know about you but I can’t help but wonder also about how the blind man and his parents felt about being the object of such a theological discussion. I mean, here was a man born blind and the reaction of the disciples was to have a theoretical discussion with Jesus about the man’s suffering.

Have you ever had it happen to you? You have a health problem and share it with some folks and they proceed to give you their perspective on why your sick.

One preacher told of just such an experience in his life with these words: “I put myself in the place of this man (the blind man) the other day. I had awoken earlier with a wretched sore throat. At a meeting that morning I said to some participants, ‘I’ve got a horrible sore throat. I can hardly talk. Don’t know how much I’ll be able to contribute to this meeting.’

“With that the two people to whom I said this launched into an energetic conversation on the origins of sore throats: ‘I heard that if you don’t intake enough vitamin C you are a candidate for lots of sore throats.’ The other said, ‘People just don’t take good care of themselves anymore. At this time of year people ought to know that with the constant changes of weather a sore throat is always a possibility.’

“On and on they went – I turned away in disgust. What I wanted was a modicum of sympathy, not a debate on how I had failed to take good care of myself and how I had no one to blame but myself for my sore throat! If I felt that way about a theoretical debate over my sore throat, think of how this poor man born blind felt about the disciples’ theological discussion! You’re blind? Well now, let’s get out our Bibles and see if we can find good material on the issue of the moral origins of blindness.”  (5)

One of my pet peeves is those phone calls we pastors get from the media after a disaster, “Tell me pastor, what do you have to say about this terrible thing has happened?” You have to understand, they don’t call wondering about our opinions about the thousands of children who die every day because of hunger or the thousands who are being killed in wars. They want to know why God kills people with hurricanes or floods or earthquakes. They want us to defend God or explain God or … I don’t know, you tell me what they want.

Bishop Willimon tells of the phone calls he received after the Tsunami hit the day after Christmas in 2006. “At first I wanted to reply, ‘How do I explain it? Well, I’m not an oceanographer myself but I think that the earth’s crust cools, the plates shift, earthquake happens, and then the tremors set off huge waves out at sea. At least that’s what I picked up on the Learning Channel.” But, he resisted because he knew what they meant by their question was really, “You say that you believe in a good God, so how could a good God allow something like
this to happen?” (6)

I don't know if you caught it or not, but Jesus really never answered the question. What he said was: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (John 9:3) Frankly, that comment doesn't thrill me much either. It's important that we don't read the story too literally. There's no way the way I understand God that I can believe that God causes suffering (blindness) with the sole purpose of demonstrating something else or to make a point. There must be a deeper meaning to this text.

Bible scholars on the Gospel of John note that in this Fourth Gospel especially there is usually something more than what is written we are to think about. This healing miracle is one of the seven "signs" it is the author of John's  hope to highlight. It's remembered as an occasion when Jesus portrayed his reason for being as his being the light of the world - the light that disturbs the darkness and blindness of the religious establishment.
Friends, there are no easy answers here. Bad things happen to everyone - all of us. I have to admit to you that I mistrust almost all answers offered about why bad things happen to both good and bad people. I don’t think there are any good answers to the question.

In the British movie “Whistle in the Wind,” a pet kitten dies after the children had prayed that it would get well. They went to see their pastor. They found him in a teashop, taking a morning break. He was obviously enjoying his tea and reading a newspaper.  They asked him, “Why did God let our cat die?”

The pastor was a little annoyed at being disturbed during his tea about a dead cat, but he dutifully launched into this long, complex, theological response. The children stood there patiently and listened. He wished them well when he finished and went back to reading his newspaper.

As they walked away the little boy held his older sister’s hand. He looked up at her and said, “He doesn’t know, does he?”  (7)

For me, it’s not about providing an answer to the question about why, but understanding what’s going on with God when we suffer. For me, the most comforting thought is that God cries with me – that God hurts with me – that God is compassionate – that God resurrects out of the bad – that God heals – that God walks alongside  - that God breaks through the fog so that light can help clear things up.

One of the most helpful ways I have ever heard it put was reported in a newspaper interview  many years ago with Father Ron Wilker, then priest of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Coldwater, Ohio after the tragic deaths of several members of one family in his parish. He said: “The first tears shed were the tears of God. This was not God’s plan. This was another example of how fragile our lives are." (8)

Professor Lew Smedes says in his book, How Can It Be All Right When Everything is All Wrong: “God’s own answer to suffering is to join it, feel it, hurt with it. A sufferer screams to God in the all-wrongness of his life, ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ God answers by joining him in life’s most horrible wrongness. Jesus hangs on a cross and somehow, God hangs with him. God joins us and gets himself hung for his trouble.”(9)

In my opinion, the real miracle here is that Jesus stood with the blind man in the midst of his suffering and had compassion and tried to do something about his suffering, thus revealing the true nature of God, compassion. Jesus cared for the man in need more than he cared to enter into a theological debate with his followers about the man’s suffering or what day of the week it was (remember one of the things he did wrong that day was healed on the Sabbath thus earning the  view that he was a sinner).

Behind everything that happens to us, there is a loving God who will never leave us or forsake us. Suffering is not necessarily the result of human sin. Bad happens to everyone – both the good and the bad. Our statement of faith is “God is with us.”

James W. Moore, “Encounters With Christ I: Jesus & the Man Born Blind,” Encounters with Christ, 2001, 0-0000-0000-15.
Kathryn Lindskoog, “What Do You Say to Job?” Leadership (Spring, 1985), pp. 93-94. Quoted in Ron Lee Davis, Healing Life’s Hurts (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1986) and further quoted in King Duncan’s sermon: “What Kind of God Is That?” Collected Sermons (Dynamic Preaching, 2005), 0- 000-0000-20.
King Duncan, “What Kind of God Is That?” Collected Sermons (Dynamic Preaching, 2005), 0-000- 0000-20.
William Barclay, The New Daily Bible Study: The Gospel of John Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 2001), Kindle ebook p. 43/346
William H. Willimon, “The Glory of God,” Pulpit Resource, January – March, 2008, p. 38.
Dr. Bill Bouknight, “Why Did God Allow That to Happen?” Christ United Methodist Church, for  www.eSermons.com, Memphis, TN, 0-000-000-01.
The Lima News, 1978-1985.
Lewis Smedes, How Can Everything Be All Right When Everything is All Wrong? (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 68.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"A Saturday Night Happening!"

"A Saturday Night Happening!"

Now, I have a feeling this could end up reading like a description of a neighborhood party on the Social page of a small town newspaper (no criticism of such informative pieces intended), but that's a little like how it felt. To better introduce this blog post and review: Maple Grove United Methodist Church, the Folk Ramblers (Bill Cohen & Carl Yaffey), and Bill's Backers joined forces for a fundraising kick-off on behalf of the 2014 Walk to Defeat ALS organized by The ALS Association Central & Southern Ohio Chapter. This year's walk in Columbus will be held at a new location, the Columbus Commons, on Sunday, September 21.

So, around 250 supporters crowded into Maple Grove's fellowship hall for a Folk Music Sing-a-Long (a statistic not to be shared with the fire department!). What a hoot! Bill observed distinctly hearing on several occasions beautiful 85-part harmony! It was great - singing folk songs of old with family, friends, and folk music fans! I remembered singing most of them in the Ottawa UM church basement and fellowship hall; the family or living rooms of high school friends; the Camp Wesley paneled room; and various places on ONU's campus during college.

The Folk Ramblers warmed us up, beginning promptly at 7:00 pm, with three or four timeless pieces and then introduced me to share a few words. I have a feeling some thought I was going to preach and were relieved to find out I only had about three minutes worth typed into my Verbally app on my iPad (I'll end this blog post with it).

On my way to the center of the room I decided I had to at least try and mention a few of those who had gathered for the cause. My voice and energy limited how many I could note so my intention is to expand it a little bit for this piece. (This is the part that is going to sound a little like a report of a gathering in one of our backyards in Ottawa or Continental. I decided to write it this way because of a friend's comment at the event about appreciating seeing the names of the Cimbles in a recent piece.) First, I had the members of our family stand. There were about 15 of them including our children, Jeremy and Megan, and grandson, Evan, my two sisters, Nancy & Phyllis, Dorothy's sister, Susie, two brothers-in-law, Gary & Tim [Jefferson Award Winner!], a niece, Anji, and her family, a nephew, Peter, and his fiancee, Katie, and many others in spirit. We can never say enough about how fortunate we are to have the support and love of our families.

Others noted included: Marlin Seymour, Executive Director of the ALS Chapter; Clint Clouse and his son, Drew, from Tiffin - we met Clint last fall when we stopped to see him and his wife, Chris (Ruhe), a fellow PALS who passed away a few weeks after our visit and sister to two of my high school basketball teammates, Dave & Butch); Deb Jenkins Valentine, one of my YF "kids" from my first journey through Lima who came all the way from Atlanta; and then I ran out of steam and played the below recording.

If I hadn't tired, I would have also noted Bruce Hays and his wife, Mindy, who drove up for the evening from Celina. Bruce and I competed against each other in football and track in high school and were teammates in both sports at ONU. I would have mentioned the Continental schoolmates of Dorothy's, Randy & Linda Coble and Ken & Betty Kosch; our friends from Lima, Ben & Nancy Rose; the numerous members of Maple Grove, North Broadway, and Worthington UM churches; the retired UM clergy friends, Russ Clark, Jim (Mary Kay) Freshour and Keith (Laverne) Nash; and the still active neighboring sisters of the cloth, Rev. Cyndy Garn of Worthington and Deb (Gary)Stephens of North Broadway; a friend of Nancy's and mine, Barb (Dickinson) Tornatzky (Bob) who was part of the high school group that got together to sing those old songs in our homes; Randi Cohen, Bill's wife and a good friend from my active days in the neighborhood, who ran the sound controls; Jack & Maxine, our Aldrich neighbors who had to leave early to go watch the UD game; Eric Chivington and his little girls who stole the show with their dancing; the new PALS and his wife we met that night and look forward to meeting some more at our monthly ALS support group meetings;  and the numerous Folk Music enthusiasts and Bill Cohen loyalists.

Yes, it was a grand evening of music and laughter and trivia. Oh, and we raised close to $4,000!! Further thanks are included in the message from my iPad with the aide of the Verbally app below:

"Good evening! First, Dorothy and I want to thank Bill Cohen for suggesting tonight's Folk Music Sing-a-long. When he talked to pastor Glenn last fall about holding this event and then shared the idea with me, I enthusiastically thanked him but warned him that I was unsure how much self-promoting I would be able to do by then and even if it would be possible for me to still be going to things. Well, we are here and I think you are all probably a little tired of the amount of information you have had to read and see.

"Second, we would like to thank Miriam Abbott for agreeing to play the role of event coordinator between the church and Bill. We also want to thank whoever else she successfully roped into helping with this ALS Benefit. I know Mozart's deserves to be thanked for their generous gift of cookies. What a combination Miriam and Anand are! Two people who do a lot to make Clintonville the special place it is.

"We would also like to thank Pastor Glenn and all of the Maple Grove staff for their going the second mile so many times these last few years to remind us that we are loved and cared about.

"We are most appreciative of Kevin Parks and the This Week newspaper for helping not only publicize tonight's event but continue to share the story of this journey with ALS we are on.

"And finally, thanks to all of you for coming tonight to add your voices and gifts to this new Bill's Backers sing-a-long fundraising event on behalf of the ALS Association. I believe a couple members of the staff are here tonight and I hope you get a chance to meet them.

"While I lament I can not share these words with my own voice, I know you are relieved because otherwise I'd say more than this. So, Bill and Carl, Let's sing!"

Saturday, March 22, 2014

SERMON: "Those People, Too, Lord?"

"Those People, Too, Lord?"
John 4:5-42

This is one of those scripture texts that births in my gut the tension between the need to create more than one sermon and the reality of time and space. There's just so much that begs for attention - interpretation. One is all I will share - whew!  

There was this woman – this Samaritan woman – who had been married five times and was currently living with a man who was not her husband. The townies considered her to be a loose woman – a slut. She was despised, talked about, and criticized wherever she went.

One day she went to the community drinking hole around noon to draw water. It is assumed that she went at that time to avoid the rest of the community who tended to draw their water in the coolness of the morning. At the community drinking well she ran into a Jewish man – John shares with us that it was Jesus. He was traveling through Samaria because he was in a hurry to get to Galilee and out of Judea and the route through Samaria was the shortest route.

Jews in that day tried not to travel through Samaria if they could help it. There wasn’t any love lost between the two sects. Most scholars believe it went back to the days when their country was invaded, almost 700 years earlier, and those who remained, the Samaritans, married those from other countries that moved in. They didn’t consider their intermarrying an issue because they believed their own people were never returning.

The Jewish people who moved away didn’t see it that way. They considered intermarriage to be an unforgivable sin and wouldn’t have anything to do with the Samaritans as a result. They considered the Samaritans social outcasts - untouchables, racially inferior, practicing a false religion - and would do everything possible to avoid coming into contact with them – even if it meant adding days to their journey by routing themselves around the territory of Samaria which lay between the northern part of Palestine known as Galilee and the southern territory of Judea.

The split was further widened when the Samaritans built a temple at Mt. Gerizim for their worship. The Jews held that the only true place of worship was the temple in Jerusalem. Both groups considered themselves the true descendants of the nation of Israel. So, you get a bit of the picture of why it was unusual for Jesus and his disciples to be passing through.

Now, the reason Jesus and his disciples were traveling from Judea to Galilee was because some controversy had apparently surfaced concerning Jesus’ disciples baptizing and they had to get out of Judea.

O.K., so Jesus stopped outside of Synchar at the well while his disciples went into the town to buy some lunch. And, while he was sitting by the well, this unnamed Samaritan woman approached to draw water. Oh my, the awkwardness – a woman – a Samaritan woman – and a Jewish man. It was taboo for a man to be seen in public with a woman and unthinkable for a rabbi to speak to a woman in public. Again, she probably went at that time of day so she wouldn’t have to put up with the sneers, looks, or comments of others. It was a lonely and rejected woman that approached the well at noon that day.

There’s another significant reason the author of the Gospel of John noted that the encounter happened around noon and that is to make sure we understand that it was a thirsty Jesus that was hanging around the well. He needed something to drink and had nothing with which to draw water from the well. The Samaritan woman had to have paused for a brief moment when she saw this Jewish man by the well, not only because he was a Jew but also because of her own unacceptability as a woman and as a Samaritan. But her own need for water apparently outweighed any concern she had with the chance encounter.

And Jesus said to her: “Give me something to drink.” It wasn’t a request: “Would you draw me some water?” It was almost an order – probably not in a demanding voice – but still with the expectation of having his need met.

The thoughts that had to have raced through her mind – the thoughts that had to have raced through the minds of anyone who heard the story in that day - had to have been ones of bewilderment. “What in the world was he doing?” – “Talking to a woman?” – “Talking to a Samaritan woman?” – “Talking to this kind of Samaritan woman?”

Now the woman also had to have observed that he had nothing with which to draw water from the 100’ well and that he was indeed thirsty. Yet again, probably because of the circumstances, her being a woman and a Samaritan and he, being a man, a Jewish one at that, she had to ask: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” Even with her overworked inferiority complex, there had to have been a snideness in her voice: “Oh, look at big Mr. Jew, asking me – lowly Samaritan that I am, woman that I am – for a drink.” Her first observation of Jesus – her first understanding of Jesus was as a Jew – as a man with a label. And she pigeon-holed him as someone who had to be really desperate not to deal with her with the same ethnic, gender tags that the rest of society used to determine whether persons should be approached given the time of day. The barriers which were normally in place seemed not to exist and she thought it strange enough to inquire about it.

And Jesus’ response was: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”  Can you imagine the feelings that rushed into her then? Here sat a man without a bucket – there was no stream close by from which to draw “living water” which was how they referred to water which flowed in a stream – and he referenced living water. It may have crossed her mind that scripture reference to the Lord being the source of living water but she wasn’t sure and so her retort was almost sarcastic, although perhaps with a beginning note of recognition: “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our Father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

And the conversation deepened and the conversion was on. Then followed the dialogue about her relationship with men and about worship. When the disciples returned from town they arrived just in time to see her rushing from the well toward the town and they probably started questioning what was going on between the two of them, although not out loud.  

The result of this woman’s encounter with Jesus at the well was that she became an evangelist. She went to her neighbors – those that had sat in judgment of her – those who knew all about her questionable past – the town gossips – the town pious – and invited them to “Come and see.” Oh, her faith wasn’t yet fully developed, but she knew that her encounter with this man meant that her attitude about herself could be different. He accepted her. He didn’t treat her as an object, a possession to be used to satisfy his own desires. He treated her as a person. She felt the living water flow through her, cleansing her, healing her even though she didn’t yet fully understand what was happening.        

Tom is a minister in a very large church. One of the things he does every month is he goes down to the homeless shelter in his city to work in their soup kitchen. After all the homeless have been fed, he invites them to the chapel at the shelter for a short communion service. He just thinks it’s appropriate after sharing soup together in the soup kitchen to share the bread and cup together at the altar.

One of those times, as he was walking down the rail serving the bread and juice, one of the men kneeling there looked like he had been out on the streets for a very long time. When Tom got to him, the man looked up at Tom and whispered: “Skip me.”

“What? Pardon me?” Tom asked.

In a somewhat louder voice, the man said again, “Skip me.” “Why?” asked Tom.

The man said, “Because I’m not worthy.”

Out of Tom’s mouth came, “Neither am I.” And then he added, “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to serve communion to these other people. Then, I’m going to come back and serve communion to you and then I would like you to serve it to me.”

The man blinked and said to Tom: “Father, is that legal?” “Yes, it’s legal and that’s what we’re going to do,” Tom answered.

And so, Tom proceeded down the line and served all the other people kneeling there … and then he went back to the man who was reluctant to receive the elements and he said: “What’s your name?”

And the man said, “Josh.”

And Tom placed the elements of the holy meal in front of him and said, “Josh, here is the Body of Christ and here is the Blood of Christ given for you. Eat this and drink this in remembrance that Christ came for you and Christ died for you.  Amen.”

Josh blinked back the tears in his eyes … and he received Holy Communion. Then, Tom knelt and handed Josh the trays of bread and wine and said: “Now, you serve me.”

Josh nervously took the trays and again asked: “Father, are you sure this is legal?”

“Yes, it’s legal. Just do it,” Tom answered.

“Josh’s eyes were darting from side to side as he looked over this shoulder and then the other … as if he expected (at any moment) the police, the FBI, the CIA or the Pope to come rushing in to arrest him.

“Finally, he held the trays before Tom and as Tom received the sacrament, Josh muttered: 'Body – Blood – for you, hang in there!'

Tom later said: “Of all the communion rituals I have ever heard, I don’t recall the words ‘Hang in there’ in any of them … but at that moment for me, Holy Communion had never been more ‘Holy.’”

And Josh walked out of the homeless shelter that day with an extra ‘spring in his step,’ and it is reported that he went everywhere saying: “You won’t believe what I did today.” In fact, the story became so widespread that from that day on Josh became known on the streets as ‘The Rev.’”1

The Samaritan woman so stirred up the people in her hometown that they rushed out to the well and when Jesus saw the throng coming he said to his disciples:
“You say that there are four months left until the harvest. I say to you lift up your eyes and see that the fields are white unto harvest.” Jesus was saying to those twelve and to us, “do not draw boundaries around the kingdom of God. Don’t limit its scope. No people, no race, no gender, no sinner is exempt from God’s grace. The time is now and the people are all around.”2  

“Those people, too, Lord?” Yes, even the Samaritan woman – even the slut on the corner – even the gossiping neighbor – even the racist coworker – even the rich neighbors with their multi-million dollar homes – even those standing on our street corners seeking a handout – even those who spend way too many hours in the local bar - even those who spend hours chatting or reading in the neighborhood coffee pouring joints that populate our area – even those anti-war and pro-war activists who stand on the corner on Saturday mornings – even those who hold different political views than the norm – even those vegetarians and meat-lovers – even those Presbyterians and those atheists and Catholics and fundamentalists – even those … “Those people, too, Lord?” we want to ask. And the Lord’s answer comes thundering back from the well outside of Synchar, “Yes, even those that make you the most uncomfortable, even those you hate, all are welcome at my table – all are invited to be part of the kingdom – all are given grace.”

James W. Moore, “Encounters With Christ IV: Jesus and the Woman at the Well,” Encounters with Christ (ChristianGlobe Network, Inc., 2001), 0-0000-0000-15.
Brett Blair and Staff, “Living Water for a Thirsty Soul,” Collected Sermons (ChristianGlobe Network, 2005), 0-000-000-001.

Friday, March 21, 2014

SERMON: "Quarreling With God"

"Quarreling With God"
Exodus 17:1-7  

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. Moses had successfully convinced them that they should leave their life of slavery in Egypt. He had successfully convinced the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses to let his people go. True, he had resisted the role God had been calling him to play, but he finally did what God wanted him to do.

Now, it wasn’t an easy trip. There was the problem with crossing the Red Sea - there was the lack of food in the wilderness. The account I am dealing with in this sermon post is of them being holed up in Rephidim and there being no water. And for the third time the Israelites start complaining about their situation. They even suggest that perhaps they were better off as slaves and should go back.

The target of their grumbling is Moses, practically accusing him of malfeasance. No question that Moses had made his share of mistakes. I mean, if he really did lead them zigzagging across the Sinai for almost 40 years, you do have to wonder about his capabilities as a tour guide. It wasn’t like they were trying to get to the other side of the then known world. The standard joke has been of course, that Moses, being a man, refused to ask for directions.

So, the Israelites do what they do best – they quarrel with Moses – they are verbally abusive and they wonder about God’s presence with them. Moses – “the man who had stood up to Pharaoh and stood down the whole of the Egyptian army now (feared) that his own people (would) stone him!” (1) Moses fearfully went to God and offered his own complaints about this yet another obstacle in the way of his people trusting him to lead them to the Promised Land.

And God again responds as God always seems to in the book of Exodus with (and I love the way William Ritter puts it in his sermon “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”) “(God responded) with just enough of an intervention to quiet things down and keep things moving. No express train to the Promised Land. No clear, flowing stream in the desert. No fleet of bottled water delivery trucks on the horizon (“Look, Aaron, it’s the Aquafina man.”) Just a rod and a rock … a couple of love taps … and (wonder of wonders) a drinking fountain.” (2)

If you have problems with the miraculous ways in which God seemingly intervenes in the Old Testament, you might find it helpful to remember that the stories are written after the events and their purpose is to convey something about God. This is a religious story. The scriptures are not an attempt to write a historical this happened here. It’s not required that the events unfolded exactly the way the story is told. Something significant happened – the people’s needs were met and they stopped complaining – and they attributed what happened to be a word or a demonstration from God about their relationship with God. It gave them hope for the future. It reassured them that God was with them. The intent of the story is to somehow convey the transformation in God's people as a result of some God-moment at this juncture of their journey, experience in the wilderness.

So, what might this story have to say to us in our day? The purpose of stories in the Bible are not simply so we can marvel at how amazing God’s intervention in the history of the Israelites was. It’s also to provide us a mirror which we can hold up to our lives – the situations that surround us. I think there are a couple of things with which this story should help us.

First, we need to take a careful look at the things in life we believe to be limitations – obstacles – initiative stoppers – and see if there’s something we’re missing. Everyone knows you can’t get water out of a rock anymore than you can get blood out of a turnip. Well, that’s true if all we see is the rock.

In today’s story Moses went to God and God told him to go to a certain spot and strike the rock with his staff. Moses did as he was told and water began to flow. Now, it’s not that there wasn’t any water there, it’s simply that they couldn’t see the water, didn’t have access to it, didn’t know how to tap into it. “The true miracle wasn’t water appearing where there was no water – the true miracle was they stopped seeing rock and finally saw water beneath.” (3)

In Richard Bach’s paperback Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah he writes: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” (4)

In Piero Ferrucci’s book Inevitable Grace he comments: “How often – even before we began – have we declared a task ‘impossible’? And how often have we constructed a picture of ourselves as being inadequate?  … A great deal depends upon the thought patterns we choose and on the persistence with which we affirm them.” (5)

Let me share with you an example of how this plays out in life – in the life, say, of a church. A Vermont Methodist church was experiencing some decline in the 1960s and ‘70s. The church’s membership rolls included over 800 members in 1963 but by 1982 they were down to an average of around 30 in worship on Sunday mornings. On the back of the church was attached a two-story education building, with a basement, that had been brimming with children and youth in the ‘60s. The attendance and membership of the church had declined so much they no longer held Sunday School. In order to save some money the thermostat was set at the bare minimum. There really weren’t too many signs of life except when they held worship. Some had come to refer to the education building as an albatross – a liability.

In 1983 a new pastor was appointed who was heard to remark: “An empty building?  Wonderful! I wonder how we could use this asset.”

Not too long after, the pastor noticed an advertisement in the local newspaper of a hospital bed that a family was willing to donate to anyone who would pick it up. The pastor arranged for this to be done and had it stored in the basement of the building thought of as an albatross.

The following week's bulletin announced that a bed was available to be loaned free to anyone who might need one. The next week a woman recovering from hip surgery called and asked to use it. That would have been fine except that a week later another person called in need of it also. When the pastor noted the need for an additional bed the following week during the announcements, a woman in the church stood up and said she had one in her attic that she would be willing to donate.  

Soon the word was out and canes, crutches, walkers, shower seats, wheelchairs filled the liability basement space in the education building. A ministry was born that became known as the Hospital Equipment Loan Program. A volunteer secretary started to work out of the church office every morning to keep the in/out log on the hospital equipment.

The success of the Hospital Equipment Loan Program caused the church to start a Second Hand Clothing Store on the main floor. It was followed with a special-needs pre-school ministry. Then followed an ecumenical Soup Kitchen. The old Educational Building was no longer seen as an albatross, but rather as an asset for the church’s Outreach Ministries.

You see, the church stopped seeing the rock and trusted God to let the water flow. Oh, did I mention that the average worship attendance a few years back had reached 150! (6) If we are to be all we can be – all God believes we can be – all God wants us to be - as individuals and as a church – a community of faith, then we must believe that our faithful God will provide for us abundantly – will reveal to us the water, the possible – when we only see the rock – or, the obstacles – or, the liabilities.

Now, there’s another piece of good news this story reminds us of. It is revealed in what happens to the Israelites’ question about whether God was with them. How many times in our lives have we faced situations that have caused us to wonder whether God is with us or not? You know, when things like a marriage breaks up or we lose a job or we become aware that we are facing some life-changing health concerns. Yep, I've succumbed to the lament a few times over the years, especially the last few.

It’s been my observation that many people believe – as the ancients before us did – that there are two ways to determine whether God is with us or not. Some suggest that if life is easy, is good, then God must be present and on our side. The other is that if life is tough, if it’s difficult, then God must not be around – must not be on our side – has forgotten about us. I think both are false and let me offer a few comments about why I think the way I do.

How often have we heard someone say: “I know this is God’s will for me because everything worked so smoothly. I didn’t have a single problem. It has to mean that God is supportive of what I’ve done – of what I’m doing.” Now, it may be true that at times when things go well God is present and is pleased, but it’s not a perfect gauge. Living the good life – having good health, a job, a home, plenty of friends, nice neighbors doesn’t always mean that God is pleased with us - supportive of our choices - present.

How many situations around us can we name where people are prospering and living seemingly carefree lives that we know to be wrong – evil? How often have we wondered the same as Jeremiah: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” And remember how Job struggled with God around this issue? Remember when he asked: “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” And, remember how he went on to complain about how easy it seemed for the wicked – living in safe houses, having healthy livestock, living prosperously, and then going to their graves in peace?  (Job 21:7-13)

God sends rain and sunshine on the just and the unjust. God waters the gardens of all of us. God doesn’t go through the world and have rain fall on one house and not on the house next door because someone in the house runs a bar or earns a living selling drugs to addicts or stayed out late last night or cheats on their income taxes. We simply cannot determine whether God approves of one person over another because things seem to be going one’s way – whether throughout a life or when one thing happens positively in a person’s life. Doing wrong and getting by with it doesn’t mean that God accepts or approves of the wrongdoing or the wrongdoer. (7)
Then there are those who choose to believe that whenever life gets difficult, well, it must mean that what you are doing is not OK with God – that God is absent, that God doesn’t care about you. I can't tell you how many people unintentionally hurt me when the ALS symptoms first surfaced - suggesting that it was God's way of slowing me down, God trying to tell me to improve my eating habits, wondering if the symptoms were somehow a result of a lacking in my spiritual life or I needed help psychologically. How often we’ve acted like the Israelites – something isn’t working out, we’re struggling (the Israelites were thirsty and they griped about it and then they began to wonder if God could be with them still if they were having such problems). Difficult times in life no more means God is not with us than everything running smoothly means God likes us and is present with us.

One preacher argues this point by offering a summary of some familiar bible stories. He reminds us of the time after Jesus held one of his open-air classroom sessions by the sea that he sent his disciples into a boat and told them to go to the other side. Now, despite the fact they obeyed, things got a little rough and they feared for their lives. They did what they were told and still faced some adversity.

Then there's the story of Joseph being thrown into prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Even though he spent two years in prison it didn’t meant that God wasn’t on his side. Remember that God later used him to save his nation from starvation.

Oh, and then there is again the story of Job – his wife trying to get him to curse God and kill himself because of all that went wrong in his life – his children being killed, his herds being destroyed, boils all over his body. Wow, if there ever was anyone who had a right to feel as if God had deserted him it had to have been Job. But in the end we learn, as Job did, that that wasn’t the case at all.

And remember Paul’s being shipwrecked after setting out to preach in Rome because he believed that’s what God wanted him to do? Fourteen days in a storm while doing something God wanted him to do?

And then there was Jesus’ own life here on earth. He hung on a cross and while dying for a crime he didn’t commit even cried out similar to the Israelites: “My God, My God! Why have you abandoned me?” According to the way some folks see things, Jesus’ crucifixion must mean that God was absent – that God abandoned Jesus.

We have to be careful trying to judge everything that happens in life by the apparent facts – by those things we see. We must be very careful not to wonder every time something bad happens to us whether God has left us – whether God cares for us – whether God is punishing us. (8)

Here’s where it’s at for me, folks: the good and the bad that happens in our lives and in the lives of those around us has nothing to do with whether we are good or bad people – whether God is present or absent. God is present whether good or bad is going on in our lives – not causing both to happen – that is, not causing both good and bad by some spin of a wheel of luck in heaven, but rather, simply present to help us deal with – cope with – make something out of whatever comes our way.

Some have heard me say something like this before: God does not sit in an easy chair in heaven and select who is going to die and who is not as a result of a senseless act on our part – God is not sitting on his throne pointing to this person as one in whom cancer cells are going to grow exponentially and toward another and benevolently, arbitrarily, determine the cancer will go into remission – God is not this power in the world choosing which one of us is going to mistakenly rush through a red light and suffer a terrible accident maiming or killing another person while allowing others of us to get away with it.

No, God is present with us – all of us – whenever the good or the bad happens to us – to help us with our guilt (perhaps) – to motivate us to make changes in our lives that might benefit others or ourselves (perhaps) – to help us to see water where we only know rocks to be (perhaps). God simply promises to be with us – that’s it – that’s what the story reveals to us – tells us – no matter what happens to us – no matter how alone we feel – no matter how rocky the way we walk through life is. We can manage because God is with us.

Has God left us when bad things happen to us? Of course not. God’s promise is to be with us in the valley of the shadow of death – that means in the presence of evil happening all around us and even to us.

Is God with us when good comes our way? Of course, but not somehow different or more remarkably or uniquely than with others not so fortunate or lucky or blessed. Quarrel with God all you want  - complain to God – argue with God – get mad at God - but never forget that God is still with you - still loves you – still cares about you.

1.Leonard Sweet, “So You Want to Be in the Lead?” Collected Sermons, ChristianGlobe Networks, 2007, 0-000-1415.
William A. Ritter, “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” Collected Sermons, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 0-000-2005.
Steve Burt, “But You Can’t Get Water Out of a Rock!” What Do You Say to a Burning Bush, (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, 1995), 0-7880-0457-3.
Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of A Reluctant Messiah (New York: Dell, 1977), p. 100 as quoted in “But You Can’t Get Water Out of a Rock!”
Piero Ferrucci, Inevitable Grace (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1992), p. 177 as quoted in “But You Can’t Get Water Out of a Rock!”
“But You Can’t Get Water Out of a Rock!”
“Is God With You, Or Not?”, sermons.com, Lent 3 Cycle A, 0-89536-825-0.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Music Therapy Unleashes Memories"

''Music Therapy Unleashes Memories"

So, early in our stay on Ft. Myers Beach this past February, Denise, the Hope Hospice social worker, visited with us and shared some of the possible services we could utilize during our stay. One that I hadn't experienced before was a music therapist. I mean, I've heard of it, even recommended it, and maybe even self-treated with it on occasion, but experienced it with a trained professional? Well, no.

So, with a little unneeded encouragement by Denise I agreed to "let" her come out and see where it went. After all, I listen to a lot of music, had been the recipient of its magical/mystical/marvelous movement in my being for years. Over the years I have expanded the styles of music that I enjoy or appreciate. Where once (high school) it was exclusively pop/rock, the unfolding decades have allowed the music snob/bias/limited layers to be peeled away resulting in pleasant and surprising exposure to jazz, classical, hymns, folk, spirituals, disco, hip-hop, punk rock, Gospel, Celtic, blues, barbershop, praise, contemporary Christian, accappela, etc. (Admittedly, I allow more space on my internal karaoke machine for some types more than others, but I don't want to get into that in this post.)

Well, when Melissa, Hope's music therapist, arrived the first time with her folk guitar and her iPad she asked me what my favorite kind of music was - you know, what I'd like for her to play, I, of course said "I like about anything but I still most appreciate classic rock and roll, folk music and pop music from the late 60's." Then she smiled. I thought that was interesting so I observed: "that's what everybody says, right?"

"No, she said, most of the people I share with want 40's music. Classic rock and folk are probably my favorites as well and I don't get to play them much. So, what do you want to hear? Who are some of your favorite artists or songs." And so, I mentioned The Beach Boys, John Denver, Johnny Mathis, The Beatles, The Oakridge Boys, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Mommas and the Pappas, The Four Seasons, etc.

She started with one that she likes to sing for everyone and then came Little Deuce Coup, If I Had a Hammer, California Dreamin, She Loves You, and then we embarked on a little conversation about where enjoyment of that music came from - what memories it allowed to surface - why the tears - what I felt when I heard that music. I grinned and said "therapy time." She smiled as if to imply, "you know too much." But we talked about high school band, playing a clarinet, the friendships made, church and school choir .... and about one of the best memories of my high school days - being a  member of a high school rock band, a combo, The Cimbles!

Then I had to stop talking - loss of energy and surfacing of emotion. I just let her sing for awhile as I remembered Mike "Stack" Stackhouse (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Paul (Breasty) Quint (vocals, guitar, trumpet), "Butch" Gibson (vocals, guitar), Jim "Mouse" Heringhaus (drums), Bill "Krink" Kreinbrink (bass), Denny "Bones" Frey (trumpet), Bill Glassner (trombone), and me "Toots" (clarinet and later on sax). (My apologies if I forgot someone. I'm sure some of them will read this and maybe post some corrections.)

The songs flooded my mind and heart: "Lonely Bull", "Walk, Don't Run '64'" (I believe this one included a drum solo by Mouse), "Our Day Will Come", California Girls", "When I Fall In Love", "Stranger on the Shore", "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", "I Left My Heart in San Francisco", "Chug-a-lug", "Surfin' U.S.A.", "Da Doo Ron, Ron", "Fun, Fun, Fun", "Help Me, Rhonda", "I Saw Her Standing There", and on and on.

But it wasn't just the music I was remembering those afternoons Melissa played for me - it was the camaraderie - the gigs - the friendships - the discussions - the arguments - the friends who encouraged us and followed us - a late night drive between Findlay and the Grove Skating Rink (don't ask!) - dances in school gyms - political gatherings that tested our musicianship - the guys who've gone on and made a career with their music - the choosing the last song of the evening or before a break so we could dance with our girlfriends - I seem to remember getting stuck playing "Stranger on the Shore" a lot when everyone else wanted to get something to drink or eat or kiss a little! No hard feelings or anything though!

Music and memories - the stuff of therapy and the healing of one's spirit. Thanks, red sweater brothers. You were one of the best experiences of community I had in my life and I treasure the memories as I continue to listen to music as the healing agent of my soul it continues to be while dealing with the destruction of my physical body that ALS presents!

Music is on my mind this week as we prepare to kick-off the Bill's Backers fundraising efforts with a Folk Music Sing-a-Long this weekend in Columbus.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

SERMON: "The Answer Is Blowing In the Wind"

"The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind"
John 3:1-17

We often note how many of the people who hung around Jesus were people like us – just ordinary common folk.  The guy the author of John is referencing in this 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John doesn’t fit that mold. Nicodemus was a man of influence – an insider if you will. He was a Pharisee – a theological VIP. He knew what was happening around Jerusalem and the synagogue. He was a mover and a shaker. Late one night he went to visit the itinerant preacher Jesus.

I’m not going to spend any time in this sermon rehashing the various reasons Bible scholars have considered might have been why Nicodemus went to visit Jesus in the middle of the night. Suffice it to say, there are sermons galore that could be and have been preached on those topics alone. Whatever the reason was, this much we can be sure of – it wasn’t to engage in small talk. Despite the fact that is how Nicodemus began the conversation, it didn’t take long for Jesus to move it to a deeper level.

Jesus basically told Nicodemus that he wasn’t going to find relief for what was bothering him, concerning him, by adopting/adhering to some new set of rules – that it was going to take being born from above. True, the Hebrew words for “again” and “from above” sound a lot alike. True, they might have been whispering to one another. True, these might be explanations for why Nicodemus acted so shocked and confused by what Jesus said and essentially asked: “Are you saying that I’ve got to crawl back into my mommy’s belly?” (1)

Jesus immediately corrected Nicodemus’ faulty query and repeated his reference to the need to be born from above trusting that this learned Pharisee would recall what he had been taught about the prophetic references offered by Ezekiel and other prophets concerning the need for a new heart, a new spirit. I find it so interesting the way some of our faith choose to reference Nicodemus’ misunderstanding as the litmus test for whether someone’s truly on the journey with Jesus or not. One preacher observed: “Sometimes I wonder if these folks
feel like, since Jesus said in this very passage that he didn’t come to condemn the world, God must have appointed them to do it!” (2)

The fact that Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ questions suggests to me that he wasn’t concerned about what motivated Nicodemus’ questions – that he wasn’t the least bit disturbed by them. Rather, his primary interest was to make understandable this central teaching that guided his ministry. Basically, he was saying to Nicodemus, “Nick, this new birth, this entering the Kingdom of God, happens when you are born of water and the spirit. Your physical birth came by your mother - flesh like you, giving physical birth to you. Your spiritual birth comes by the Spirit.”

And then he created this mental picture with a little play on words made possible by the Greek language. The Greek word for spirit and wind is the same word. In effect he said to Nicodemus, “You can hear and see and feel the wind; but you do not know where the wind comes from and where it is going. You may not understand how and why the wind blows; but you can see what the wind does. It’s the same way with the spirit and those who are born from above by the Spirit.” Another preacher put it this way: “Don’t be afraid stupid. Instead, listen to the wind (which blows where it wants to … when it wants to … to the degree that it wants to ... for as long as it wants to). You can’t control it. You just receive it. You move with it. You go with it.”  (3)

I will never forget my first encounter with an approaching hurricane.  It was 1985 and we were camping at Myrtle Beach State Park. We had a tent top type camper – a Coleman Minuteman.  My parents were camping with us in their motor home.

Early one morning my dad and my son and I got up early to go fishing – they, because they loved to fish anywhere, anytime; I, because I liked to fish at the ocean and wanted to spend the day with them. We went fishing off one of those long piers that populate the coastal areas. Our first hint should have been that no one else was on the pier. We just assumed that we were more enthusiastic than others. The weather was terrible. The wind was blowing so hard we could only throw our lines off one side of the pier. And the waves, well, the waves were higher than anything we’d ever seen. We were novice ocean fishermen. We simply thought that was part of the thrill of fishing off a pier.

After a couple of hours of not catching anything, I walked back down the pier to the bait house to use the facilities and secretly get relief from the wind. It was then I noticed several folks in the bait house crowded around this little 9” television set watching and listening rather intently to the weatherman describe the situation. I began to catch phrases in their conversation. Things like: “Hurricane Bob,” “looks like the eye is going to hit pretty close to Myrtle Beach,” “should hit land overnight tonight,” “rumor has it we’re going to have to evacuate.”

Now, there’s a lot more to the story that would only make my dad and me look bad and stupid and stubborn and reveal which was which. The wind we encountered later that night, after leisurely packing up and eating at one more restaurant (want to guess where I received my love of seafood?), the wind we encountered trying to evacuate Myrtle Beach and get to Columbia, South Carolina was one kind of wind to be sure. It was even greater than the “high wind warning” we've experienced around here a few times the last couple of years.

Now, those of us who golf a little, or a lot, all have seen that golfer far better than me, bend over and pick up a few blades of grass and throw them into the air so as to discern which way the ever so gentle wind was blowing. That’s another kind of wind. (4)

Some of us fondly remember the line in Bob Dylan’s popular folk song of several decades ago that proclaimed the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. Dylan asked numerous questions in the song that reflected age-old questions and questions people were asking about social issues of that day: “How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?” “How many times must cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?" “How many years must some mountains exist before they are swept to the sea?” “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” And each verse was followed with the almost philosophical and for sure one of the more thought-provoking truths of all time: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

It’s how the spirit works – like the wind – entering us with it’s answers – it’s suggestions – it’s influence from where we do not know – often from unexpected sources and at unexpected times. There simply are those times when we know – just know – that the Spirit of God is speaking to us, is working inside our hearts and minds and souls. There are those times when we sense something happening from beyond ourselves and yet, within us, causing us to think new thoughts, to make new affirmations, to allow new decisions to take form within us.

Now folks, don’t miss the point of there being different kinds of winds. There is not just one way this being born of the Spirit – from above – happen. For some of us it truly does happen suddenly – the moment can be named it was so powerful or insightful or meaningful. But, for others of us there was no one night flashpoint – no one dramatic moment – no spiritual rush – just this gentle push here, little nudge there – but a movement in a direction you never dreamed of going, a leading you to do something you never thought you’d do. (5)

Another way to ponder the way the spirit moves into our lives is to think about the way love moves into our lives – you know, when you first became aware that someone else loves you and cares for you or you love them or care for them. Some of us can name the exact moment – where you were – what restaurant you were eating at – what movie you were watching – what the other was wearing - what bridge you were walking toward - who else was with you.

Others of us can’t pinpoint a moment at all. For us, it was just this experience here and another one over there and a deepening and gradual awareness that there might be something between us and this other.

While it’s tempting to tell our whole story,  since I've done it before on this blog I'll use the Reader’s Digest version this time. We were acquaintances for a year – had some of the same college friends, were from the same county, were both math majors, were with each other often when others were around – but that was it – we were just friends. And then one of the friends we had in common came to visit one of us during the summer and there was a night of dancing at "My Place" to the Orange Peels From Florida and a long walk to the bridge on West Main Street in Ottawa. One of us at least began to think “Huuuummmm? She really is someone pretty special. I wonder if this could lead to something more serious?" It took the other several more times together. At any rate, the point is, sooner or later we responded to something happening, growing between us – just at different times.

The answer is blowin’ in the wind – the spirit moves into our lives like the wind – like love – and has its way with us. Sometimes these moments have come for me when I have been in worship on a Sunday morning – sometimes they have come to me while I’ve been privately meditating – sometimes when I’ve been traveling in the car from one hospital to another or from one appointment to another – sometimes it has happened to me while I’ve been listening to a song on the radio – sometime when I’ve been sitting on the beach or up on a mountain – sometimes I’ve sensed God’s spirit in the voice of a child – sometimes when I’ve heard a friendly hello – sometimes I have sensed it in tears of sorrow and sometimes when there’s so much joy in the room the event seems bigger than life, like when a baby is born.  More recently it has been observed/experienced in the kind gestures of support from family and friends or while reading.

God’s spirit moves in this world like the wind – like love. We can’t see it moving, but we can feel it, we can sense it and we can see the results of its presence. We never know when the spirit is going to blow into our lives but we do know that the potential for it to influence us is present at all times and in all places.

Yes, “the answer, is blowin’ in the wind, my friends, the answer is blowin' in the world.” The Holy Spirit is among us. It is with us every moment of our lives. That should be a comforting thought – not a scary one. Sense it in you – sense it renewing you – sense it filling you with hope and love and peace and joy – sense it birthing you again – from above – be open to it and it will happen.

1.William A. Ritter, “Gales, Breezes and Lots of Hot Air,” Collected Sermons (ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2005 via www.esermons.com) 0-000-2005.
2.Johnny Dean, “The More I Understand, the Less I Know,” www.esermons.com, 06/02/09, 1998.
3.“Gales, Breezes and Lots of Hot Air.”

Prayer: O Lord, how we need to sense the wind within us every day. How we need to be born from above – to have our outlook on our lives and the world transformed – to be brought into a closer relationship with you. Breathe, O Lord, that the wind upon which the Spirit travels might enter our lives. Let your Spirit blow free and strong within us. Let the mystery of your Spirit blow like the wind through our hearts and souls. Let it blow a word of understanding that will enlarge our vision of your call on our lives. Let it blow a word of peace to calm our fears. Let it blow a word of hope to give us courage. Let it blow a word of love to give us joy. In Jesus Christ’s name we pray. Amen.