Sunday, May 20, 2012

On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand

Pulpit Rock

This weekend is "Heritage/Pilgrim/Pulpit Rock" Sunday.  We will worship outside, surrounding the historic Methodist monument of Pulpit Rock (picture below).  In years past the preachers has ridden in on a horse and climbed to the top of the rock to preach.  I don't think I'll be on a horse and I have conveniently lost my bonnet. While I do appreciate history and all it has to teach us, I am more interested in where God is directing us.  So, this is a reflection on what do we do with our history and how can it propel us into God's future.  
Well, as the Minnesota intern who has only been in The Dalles a year, I definitely fit into the “only knowing the story a little bit category”. Fortunately, the very last class I was to take through Luther seminary was “Religious American History” and I just finished that class online about 2 weeks ago. The material for the course was filled with information on the movements of Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists and so many other sects of Christianity that made their way across the country east to west. The class came at a great time as I'm living here on the Oregon trail, preparing to worship next to the Historic Pulpit Rock. So, I've heard the stories of Jason Lee, the intersecting of European descendants and Native Americans encountering one another. I've walked with members of First United Methodist Church and we came right up to this rock and prayed – and I looked at this monument of history and just wonder what stories this piece of God's creation could tell us if only it could spill all the history it contains. And I've heard the phrase, “This is where it all began! Pulpit Rock is where it all began”.

Pulpit Rock -- then
Well, that's somewhat true – yet, it depends on how you define the “it” of it all. Where “it” all began. Do we mean the beginning of Christianity? The beginning of the western church? The beginning of true preaching? The beginning of God's story among humanity? Or – do we mean the formation of American Methodism on the western frontier? Yes – that is probably the most true definition we could give to that “it” – this is where the formation of Methodism as we know it on the west began. This rock certainly does mark “a” beginning, a movement, a presence, a church grew out of what began on this rock. 

 This rock marks a beginning among beginnings. This rock is a beginning of a chapter that lies within a much larger, wider, more encompassing story – this rock is a witness, a testimony to God's great, unfolding story. And the beginning of that story takes us much, much farther back, all the way back to “in the beginning God created...” That, my pioneering brothers and sisters is where God's story begins.

I hope that line I just quoted was familiar to some of you, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” – that is the first phrase from the Bible. And this is what we do, as Christians, as God's church – we look toward the future, sometimes confident, but more often than not we're sort of scratching our heads. We look towards this future and to find purpose, meaning, inspiration, direction, hope, anything – we look backwards. We go back to this book that is our history as God's people, this is where it all began and we study and read this book in order to have any idea where God may be leading us into the future.

And every story told in this holy book, every character we learn about, every war, every act of forgiveness, every miracle and healing and sermon and letter – they are all a beginning among beginnings, a story within a story, a chapter among chapters. This holy book is like our family scrap book – tell us tales about those that have gone before us, some good, some bad, all worth hearing and knowing and having them written on our hearts.

I have seen some of the stories of the Old Testament come to life in a whole new way this year. Confirmation students? These youth are masters of God's story. Not only do they read the Bible, just plain old Bible reading, but they are eager to bring the story to life – act it out, dig into the tough stuff, and really embrace the story that is told about our history, our families, our faith. And then, these kids take it to a whole other level – they enter the story. Without fail, every week, one of them will reflect on how the story of Job is like their life. Or how they can relate to the mistakes King David made. Or that recognize that if God is as faithful as God was to the Israelites, then maybe God is faithful to us to. Or if Esther can use her position of leadership to save a whole people, maybe God can use us to do great things to. And these confirmation students know how to ask really difficult questions – they do this by entering the story, not simply leaving it in the past and holding up a story as a nice piece of literature. But they hold up God's story as a narrative that say something about their lives – their teenage lives in Oregon in the year 2012 – they enter God's story with confidence because they know it is their story, too.

Jesus entered this story – certainly already in “THE” beginning, and then again in human flesh. Jesus entered God's story as he came to earth as a helpless, innocent baby and Jesus had his own beginning, middle and even end upon this earth. Today's Gospel lesson wasn't really so much a lesson – it was a prayer. It is a rare and delicate glimpse into Jesus' relationship with God. Have you ever wondered how Jesus prays for you or even if Jesus prays for you? Well, in the gospel of John we get to hear the words that Jesus prayed to God as he was about to leave his disciples. We can only imagine Jesus' emotions – rising anxiety and that feeling of “have I done enough?” as he is about to leave the disciples alone (physically) on the earth. Jesus wisely lays these cares in the hands of our loving God and prays these words for the disciples that had been following him, “

6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word...And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. ..I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (Jn 17)

Jesus knows that this story we hold so dear, is not an easy one to tell and it certainly is not an easy one to live. Those that stood upon this rock and preached God's story knew that it was difficult to tell and even more so to live. So, what does Jesus ask for? What does Jesus know the disciples need to live God's story while on earth? Jesus asks that God will protect the disciples, because the disciples are in a world that is hostile and harsh. Jesus asks that the disciples will be one – as God and Jesus are one. Now, that kind of unity was difficult even in Jesus' time – when those who followed Jesus should have been so united – there were no denominations and sects breaking off one after another. Yet, Jesus prayed for a unity that went down to their very souls – being one as God and Jesus are one. Completely unified so that their telling of the story might be strong, effective and heard. And then Jesus says a peculiar thing in the middle of his heart-felt prayer, Jesus says,

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one.”
This is not a prayer for only those gathered in Jesus' day – not just for those disciples. Jesus knew that the story was going to keep unfolding, that there would be many beginnings, many chapters to write and live out. And so, Jesus prayed for us, too – Jesus prayed for those that would believe in Jesus through the telling of the story...and Jesus prayed that we would all be one.

My Methodists brother and sisters, my Lutheran sister and brothers, other denominations represented here, unbelievers, young and old, pioneers of faith or seekers on the way, or anyone else that doesn't fit into any sort of box I could list – Jesus prayed for every single one of us and Jesus' prayers was that we might hear the story, and that we might be one.

We are not to be defined as Lutherans or Methodists, first generation or twentieth generation, we are not to stand at this rock today and lift up the story of great history then stop there. No, this rock is a symbol of a beginning among beginnings – we have our own story of faith to engage and live and tell. We are live the story of great faith, enter the book, enter the narrative, enter God's mission which is for us, which is before us.

And the great Author and perfector of our faith, Jesus Christ has gone before us to write the story and Jesus continues to pray for us, for our unity and for our telling of the story so that more and more may come to believe in Jesus through our telling. And Jesus knows that this is not an easy to life of faith to live out – so Jesus prays for our protection, our unity and what else?

What else might you need to be cast into the loving hands of God this day? How might you remember the stories of the preachers that stood upon this rock, of Job, Esther, Moses, your parents, your pioneers, your children and the generations to follow you – what do you need to tell your great story of faith? Will you plant a huge rock in the backyard and start preaching your sermons? Maybe not.

But this story is yours, because of Jesus' death on the cross and rising again we get to enter God's story and live it. We look back to the past because we want to live into God's future.

May the Holy Spirit inspire you to write great chapters...
May God protect you so you have the strength to live in faith...
May we all be one, in Christ Jesus alone, so that our story is strong, effective and heard.
And may all people, here today and for the days to come, believe in Jesus through our telling of the word. Amen.

Pulpit Rock -- now.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Blossoming Beauties...

We spent an afternoon in the cherry orchards, which are in full bloom.  
A wonderful photographer snapped some great shots...these are a few of my favorites.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Growing in grace.

Cherry orchards and Mt. Adams

 from today's sermon: bearing fruit

Our Gospel reading for this week confirms something I have suspected all along with this Bible, there are parts of this good Word that I can only barely understand. Last week we talked all about sheep and heard the imagery of the good shepherd and the herding of sheep – and this may come as a surprise to you, but I know nothing about sheep! This week we hear about the vines and branches, about pruning and bearing fruit – and judging from the garden plot I tried to create last week in the backyard of the parsonage, this is also not my area of expertise. For the past three years I have been sitting in a library studying this theology stuff, yet the Bible is written by faithful people who have worked with their hands more than their heads – they held, tasted, touched and experienced the work and presence of God in their lives. So they write what they know and now we have a bible that is filled with vivid, living, 3D kind of material. This week belongs to the gardeners, the orchardists, the farmers, those among us that dare to get their hands dirty and dig in God's fruitful creation. This is the word of God that is for you, the promise of God's presence and miracles of creation that you have seen season after season in ways I can only admire from a safe distance.

[John 15:1-18]

Jesus says, “ I am the vine, you are the branches.” This image of vine and branches and being connected to such a life source as God, the life giver is a beautiful and hope filled image. Jesus quickly moves from places us on that vine of life, to talking about what it means to be a branch on the vine, and not just a branch, but a branch that bears fruit. Jesus has work for us to do while we grow out of the vine – so, what does that mean for us? When we start talking about how exactly the branch grows and bears fruit, the image starts to turn. Because in order for the vine to grow Jesus clearly lays out the necessity for pruning. Now, I am sure all of the gardeners and orchard workers can testify to the need for pruning, the trimming and cutting off of branches so that the tree or vine can be even more fruitful and healthier. However, who likes pruning? Its seems like an awfully violent act to do to a tree, to completely cut off a limb or branch from the tree, to lob off a part of itself. It is painful, harsh this pruning. Of course we know that the image of vine and branch illustrates who we are in God's garden, so we cannot exactly talk about pruning without letting it get a little the image turns, to us, the branch on God's vine. When we think about pruning let us not be too quick to think about the pruning of the world, governments, churches, our neighbors...let us wonder, honestly and painfully, what in us needs this pruning.

When we endure suffering of any variety, there can be a desire to what some good to come out of suffering. And, because God is good and gracious to us, there is often, good that comes out of suffering. Yet, I want to be clear that not all suffering is pruning, we cannot simply look at all the pains of the world and give it the blanket label of “pruning”. Because this leads us down the dangerous path to say that someone is suffering because they needed pruning, and that kind of judgment is never, ever ours to name. God is certainly able and willing to take all moments of sorrow and bless and heal us. However, not all suffering and sorrow is pruning.

I have experienced deep and painful season of pruning. With the help of perspective I can look back at seasons of life that have offered pruning that did bring life and fruit – fruit that is from and of God. I have a life long bad habit, I have always struggled with overextending myself. I love to be involved, to try new things, to be around people – so, when I got to college it was like stepping up to an abundant buffet of involvement, new opportunities and great collaboration with amazing people. However, my junior year, at the first semester ended, I came down with a bad case of mono. Lack of sleep, lack of priorities, lack of self care all brought me to this pitiful state. I traveled home for Christmas and barely left the couch for weeks on end. I was too tired to learn much from this experience so Christmas break neared its end I started to pack up to head back to campus and did not have any plans on changing anything about my life. My father, however, had other plans. He sat down this stubborn and independent young woman and said that before I headed back to school I needed to print out my academic schedule. I did. He sat down with it and took his English teacher red pen to the schedule and started slashing – pruning, we could say. By the time I did actually get back to campus I had dropped a class, and a music ensemble and a music lesson. It felt painful, only with great reluctance did I admit that I was overwhelmed. I missed the things that were pruned from my life that semester very much. Yet, the pruning was for my own well being, and not just that, but the pruning was necessary so that what I could have my life restored, quit literally, and live life abundantly from there on out– bearing great fruit.

For most of our lives, we are unable to see what, in us, needs pruning. This is why it is always easier to look at who else or what else needs pruning, but never ourselves. God knows our nature, and this is why we are on a vine that grows only by the grace of God and is connected to Jesus. This is why we are called a branch among so many branches. This is why we have each other. We are growing branches that need the help of the gardener to see the places that have grown too wild, or the places that no longer bear fruit. God gifts us with pruning tools like the Bible, prayer and each other to acknowledge what has been choking our fruit bearing ability. It is not an easy discipline, this pruning business, there is a violent, harshness to it. And how can we separate out the pruning from the suffering? Because the pruning of God is always, always for the sake of fruit bearing – and the fruit of God is life and love for all. As I said before, I have endured many pruning seasons, seasons of my life that I can now look back on to say yes, there was life and love brought to me through that season of pruning and I am thankful. The fruit of God is always life and love for all people – so, where do you need pruning so that you may bear this fruit? What has been growing out of control, what branches do you cling to that hold no fruit? These are deeply personal and challenging questions – yet I do not know how we can encounter these words of Jesus and not be moved to ask them.

Another way to approach pruning is to start with the fruit itself. What areas of your life do you know bear fruit of life and love for all people? Beginning with the fruit that we do bear, we can identity the patterns and habits that got us into those places. Where do you experience love and life? Where do you bring love and life? What seasons of life do you now look back on and say “YES” there was some God fruit growing at that time?


The good news in all of this is that we are on the vine at all. When we run into a season of pruning we can trust that the God of life is still helping us to grow, still offering life after death, still pushing us into the light of the Sun so that we can thrive and continue on.

And when we bear fruit – we do something so outrageous as to love someone else or offer a gesture of love and life to another, we know that we do this because we know God and God knows us. That is good news for us, a branch among branches. Jesus says, “I am the vine and you the branches” we are connected to a Savior who plants us, teaches us to grown an then stays with us throughout all our lives so that will bear fruit – and not just a little – Jesus stays with us, offering pruning and grace so that we will bear A LOT of fruit.

Church, you have been planted, watch for pruning, feel the death of whatever hurts you and God's garden and know that you will grow and you will be loved and you will bear much fruit of life and love in Jesus' name. Amen.