Abiding in the Dance of theTrinity

Abiding in the Dance of the TrinityA sermon preached For Easter 6 on John 15:9-15 and Acts 10:44-48 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas on May 6, 2018.

Last weekend at our Synod Assembly, we learned a new word from Bible study leader, the Rev. Dr. Mandy Brobst-Renaud: "interdividual" (instead of "individual"). It was coined by Russian Philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin and recognizes that our relationships shape our identity and who we are.

We live in a culture founded on “rugged individualism” and the self-made person. But of course, while a certain amount of independence and self-reliance is healthy and necessary—none of us can survive without others and without community. We never would have gotten out of childhood without parents, relatives or someone taking care of us. We couldn’t have learned to speak or read or write without someone teaching and talking with us. We wouldn’t know right from wrong without someone guiding us and enforcing consequences when we got it wrong. We wouldn’t experience love, forgiveness, humor, loyalty, or compassion without another person offering them to us.

We are "interdividuals"—relationships form our identity and who we are—every encounter has the potential to change us. When we have an encounter with someone else, we enter the threshold—the space in between us where we can be shaped through the relationship. In our children’s message, we just talked about friendship and why having good friends is important. A relationship with a good friend, family member, or work colleague means we are willing to step into the threshold between us and be open to something new. Without stepping into the threshold, we cannot experience the benefits of relationship—trust, loyalty, companionship, mutuality, love, forgiveness, shared interests, generosity and so on. We hope to have relationships that make us better people—better than who we are without them. This is often how we have chosen or will choose our spouse; when we enter the threshold of a more intimate relationship, we want to become a better person—to be more than who we can be alone.

And isn’t this why God became human? When God wanted a deeper more intimate relationship with all of us, God crossed the threshold—the barrier between Creator and creature—and became human in Jesus. With God in human form, we can more readily let down our guards and more willingly enter the threshold of our relationship with God—with an openness to being changed through our relationship with Jesus.

In our Gospel reading Jesus says, "I have called you friends." Jesus is no longer satisfied with the relationship of Master-servant, Rabbi-student, Leader-disciple. "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends." Jesus invites us to enter more deeply into this threshold and become his friend and companion, allowing our relationship with Jesus shape who we are.

Perhaps you have not spend much time with this idea of friendship with God. How is friendship with Jesus different from him being only our Savior and Lord? Jesus desires presence, enjoyment, companionship, attention, the pleasure of being together, and being with us! Do you hear the important message in this? God desires you; God desires to be close to you!

God was willing to be changed by entering a relationship with us as a human being—a relationship that’s not just about following his commandments (although that’s still important!). God is interested in a relationship that includes listening, enjoyment, humor, and time together. God desires to be with us, and for us to desire to be with God.

Jesus says, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love." Abide in me. Abide in my love. We can’t have a good relationship with our best friend or have a good marriage if we—talk to them 5 minutes a day and hang out for one hour a week. Jesus says, "hang out with me. Spend time with me. Come to the threshold of a relationship with me so I can love you and shape you into your best, God-created self." God has poured love into Jesus, who pours love into us—and we need to spend time at the threshold of this relationship for this love to change us and shape us into who God made us to be. Jesus invites us in to his relationship with God: "I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."

St. Andrei Rublev, a Russsian monk, painted this image of the Trinity in about 1410 and I offer this as a visual image for you to use as a prayer tool for abiding in God. Icons are religious art or images that hover between two worlds—the spiritual and the earthly—creating an image of a spiritual truth that cannot be grasped by reason alone. They try to make the invisible visible. On the left, we see the Creator, or God the Father. He wears a luminescent, transparent color that changes with the light, so that it holds all colors. The Creator’s hands are almost closed as a symbol of completeness. Jesus, in the middle, wears colors of the reddish brown earth and the blue of heaven symbolizing that the Incarnation connects heaven and earth, and in the red earth, that he endured suffering. The gold band on his shoulder shows that he carries divinity even in his earthly form. The tree behind him is a symbol of the crucifixion, but now, it is green with the new life of resurrection. The Holy Spirit wears the blue of the sky and the green of the earth as the Spirit hovered at creation and breathes life into heaven and earth. There’s a bowl in the middle— a shared meal, the sacrifice of a lamb, the Eucharist, a sign of community. 

If you look at the line of their shoulders you can see that it makes a circle—the circle of love between them—of pouring out love and receiving it, infilling and emptying love from one to the other. Fr. Richard Rohr says, it’s an unending flow of giving and receiving between Creator, Christ and Spirit which is the pattern of all reality and life which is love!" The last thing we will look at is the square at the bottom. Researchers have tested the residue and found that it was glue. Many scholars believe it was glue for a mirror, so that when you look at the icon, you see yourself as part of the circle of the Trinity. Abide with me. Jesus calls us to belong to the community of the Triune God. God has been waiting for you!

In his book, The Shack, William Paul Young says that we “are called to consciously participate in the divine dance of loving and being loved” in the community of God. "Abide in my love. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."

I invite you to enter the threshold of the Trinity in your prayer time. God has been waiting for you! This image may not work for you, so change the picture in your mind to whatever God the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit look like in your own imagination. Imagine yourself sitting with them. Ask God to open your heart to receive his love and enter the threshold so you can be shaped by the eternal dance of love. Deepen your relationship with God! Such intimacy with God enables us to more freely love others without fear—and willing to enter the threshold of relationships that you may not have entered before.

We’d love to just hang out in prayer, but there’s always a “so that” in the Gospel. God loves us so that we can love others. Jesus says, "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last." When we live within the threshold of the Trinity in our spiritualty and prayer life, we bring that healing, light, and love into other relationships. God can use us to enter the threshold with someone who is lonely, sick, rejected, or in need. We have more technology today, but people are more disconnected than ever. We can enter the threshold of interdividuality where God can use us to bear the fruit of love.

We have talked about the need for a strategic plan at St. Luke's, and this is the first step! It starts with each of us deepening our relationship individually with God and together as a church. When we live at the threshold of the Trinity, we become open to growth with whomever God calls us. We let go of our fear of new or different people, and we become less afraid of change because we’re right there with the whole company of God, who is changing and shaping us in our prayers every day. There are so many people who need a church like ours who will say, “we’ve been waiting for you!”

Our reading from Acts is a perfect example of this. Peter is at the home of Cornelius in Ceasarea. He’s a Gentile—that is, not Jewish and he had filled his house with family and friends to hear Peter preach the Gospel. Both Peter and Cornelius received dreams from God to welcome each other, even though Peter was a Jew who thought Jesus didn’t come to Gentiles, and Cornelius was a Gentile who didn’t think the Jewish faith was for him. But they each entered the threshold of a relationship with each other, and in that threshold, the Spirit swooped in and made evident that this dance of the Trinity, this circle of love, is for everyone. And both were changed—not as individuals, but because they were interdividuals!

God crossed the threshold to build a relationship with Peter, and with Cornelius in Jesus. Through Peter, Cornelius and his company heard God say, “We’ve been waiting for you!”
So enter the threshold of the divine dance with all of God in your prayers—God is waiting for you! Even if you start out with just 10 minutes a day when you abide with God, you will be filled with love, and together we can enter the threshold with others and say, “We’ve been waiting for you!”

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The Bible's Story and Our Story

The Bibles Story and Our StoryI love it when God makes the connection between the Biblical story and our stories so clear. On Sunday, April 22nd, I was blessed to be installed as the pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. There are many wonderful Christian attributes about this congregation and one of them is hospitality. They have partnered with the Dallas Oromo Congregation from Ethiopia, offering office and worship space. The Children's choir from the Oromo congregation, directed by Ursula Peters, a St. Luke's member, sang two songs during my Service of Installation, and their pastor, Sileshi Hinsarmu read the second lesson and helped serve Communion. Their faith and devotion ministered to St. Luke's and to me.

This past Sunday, April 30th, the first reading appointed for the day was the story of the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8, who, upon hearing Phillip preach the good news of Jesus Christ, was immediately ready to be baptized and converted to Christianity. Today, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, is the fastest growing Lutheran church in the world with over eight million members. As St. Luke’s partners with the Dallas Oromo congregation, we have a wonderful opportunity to minister together as we learn about church growth and mission in today’s world.

God’s story is always on-going in the lives of faithful people who continue to dwell in God’s Word, worship and pray in community, reach out in hospitality and mission, and follow the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit. How is God’s story in and through the Biblical story being woven together with your story for the sake of growing the kingdom of peace, justice and love today? Some days we have to dig for the connections, and sometimes, living the Scripture story becomes as plain as a conversation with my friend and colleague whose office door is two feet away, and the Oromo congregation he serves.

Photo by Larry Wecsler

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From Sheep to Shepherd

From Sheep to ShepherdA sermon preached for Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday, on Psalm 23John 10:11-18 & Acts 4:5-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on April 22, 2017

The Children’s Message that took place before this sermon learned some new ways to understand Psalm 23 with gratitude for the commentary on Workingpreacher.org.

The Lord oversees and guides my journey, giving me rest and nourishment when I need it (a temporary repose!);
The Lord leads me in finding righteous grooves to travel or ruts in the ground to follow, so that I have right and healthy relationships with others that honor God.
The journey doesn’t go from green pastures to the house of the Lord, I will go through hard times (like Jesus did), and I get through them because God is with me.
I survive the hardest parts of my journey because God is with me to guide, protect, help, and comfort me.
God provides me with everything I need, and even when I think all is lost, You remind me I am your beloved child and you sustain me.
With God I know that only goodness and kindness will pursue and chase me every day I walk this journey.
I will continually return to God’s presence in thanksgiving my whole life long.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus calls himself the “good” shepherd in this Gospel reading from John? Why isn’t he the “Awesome” Shepherd, the “Most Excellent” Shepherd, the “Outstanding, Amazing” shepherd, or the “Greatest Shepherd the world has ever seen?” Surely Jesus fits all these descriptions. We do hear such lofty language in other passages of Scripture—In Isaiah 9 for example—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

We just affirmed in Psalm 23 with the children, that Jesus really is the “wonderful, mighty, incredible” shepherd of our lives. He provides for all we need: strength in our weakness, rest in our exhaustion, guidance in our confusion, hope in our fears, comfort in our sorrow. He gives us rest when we need it, and a prod in the behind when we want to linger too long beside still waters. Life is pretty good as sheep with Jesus as our Shepherd wouldn’t you agree? That’s why Psalm 23 is the most popular and beloved Psalm, and probably the best-known passage in all of Scripture. As the Shepherd, he even provides salvation from our sins. Jesus even says so in verse 15 of our John passage: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

So if he does all that, why does Jesus describe himself as just the “good” shepherd? I’m not sure we’re going to like the answer. Perhaps Jesus only refers to himself as “good” because Jesus is not the only shepherd he’s referring to. Our passage from John 10 foreshadows a later passage in John 21 when the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples at daybreak after their night of fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. They enjoy a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. And then Jesus begins to quiz Peter:

'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep.'  He said to him the third time, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'

Did you catch the shift? Who’s the shepherd now? Peter, and not just Peter, but all the disciples—who are called “apostles” after the resurrection. And not just the apostles back then, but all of us who follow Jesus today. Jesus calls all of us to follow in his footsteps and become a shepherd. It’s so easy to focus on how great it is to be the sheep, that we miss this part of the story. We love being sheep! We’d like to stay over there with the children’s message and remain sheep. They can stay sheep for now, but we adults, we apostles, we followers of Jesus the Shepherd—it’s time to step up and become a shepherd. Part of our experience as the sheep, is to prepare us to become a shepherd.

For we know how important it was to be found when we were lost, to be guided when we were confused, to be comforted when we were afraid, and to be helped when were in the valley of the shadow. We know that WE would be lost without Jesus as our Shepherd, so Jesus calls us to use the truth of our own experience, as the motivation to shepherd other lost and lonely sheep into the fold.

Maybe that’s why Jesus uses the word “good” shepherd. If he were the “extraordinary, out of this world, most awesome” shepherd, we would give up before we even tried to follow in his footsteps. We would come up with every excuse we could and say, “it’s not our job to seek and save the lost. I’m not extraordinarily awesome. I’m much happier just being a sheep, thank you very much!”

But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook—the shepherd’s hook so easily. With Peter, he says to us, “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” You see, this whole good shepherd discourse in John begins with Jesus healing the man born blind at the beginning of chapter 8. Jesus finds the blind man, this lost sheep, where he’s sat his entire life—begging for anything that might keep him alive. Then he tells the religious leaders that Jesus healed him, and they kick him out! Jesus goes and finds him again! Jesus finds the blind man in his lostness and brings him back into the fold of his love, not once but twice—he kept on trying until he stayed! 

That’s why in our passage today, in verse 16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them in also.” And Jesus looks at us and asks, “Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd and bring in the missing sheep? Will you seek out the lost sheep, and welcome them, love them? Will be the shepherd who finds the rejected, the downtrodden, the refugee, the hungry, the lonely, and the homeless begging on your street corners? Will you make sure that those who have been previously rejected—people who are mentally ill, or have special needs, or are lesbian, gay or transgendered—will you go out of your way to reach them with my love, so they can hear my voice, and come into my fold? Will you? Will keep trying until they stay?”

We don’t have to be the “most awesome, incredible, greatest shepherd the world has ever seen,” but Jesus does call us to be “good” shepherds who really do seek those outside the fold. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that the lost sheep that Jesus welcomed into the fold, were the ones the established religion hated the most—prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and blind people. It's the same issue in our passage from Acts. The apostles are in trouble  with the religious extablishment because they healed a crippled man--another outcast--and brought him into the fold. It’s why our inclusive welcome—on the altar and on the website—must be explicit. Because the people you don’t see among us have always heard that they are rejected, outcast, and should stay away.

To welcome lost into the fold is uncomfortable, challenging, and can cause disagreements. But of course, you know that because you’ve done the hard work of creating St. Luke’s welcome statement. I hope we can continue an intentional, inclusive, transparent process to consider becoming a Reconciled in Christ congregation—the official welcome of LGBTQ-friendly congregations. A faithful process and conversation does not guarantee nor manipulate an outcome, but because shepherds are in the “welcome and protection” business, it’s important to continue the conversation and discern to whom God calls us to give an explicit and generous welcome.

We need to have a similar conversation about welcoming homeless people—I met Kenneth at the corner of Belt Line and the North Dallas Tollway this week—and about how we will interact with our interfaith partners, and others to whom God sends us in this community. There will be times when we want to go back to being a sheep with other sheep who are just like us. And Jesus, our Good Shepherd will love us, and forgive us, and then prod us forward when we want to linger too long beside the still waters, and he will say, “try again.” Jesus will ask us if we love him and we will say, “yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that we love you.”

And Jesus will say to us, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, yet. I must bring them also. Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd here at St. Lukes?

“Will you tell the lost that I oversee and guide their journey and will give them rest and nourishment when they need it? Will you find the lost and tell them I have helped you find your righteous groove to follow so you can have healthy relationships that honor me? Will you? Will you find the rejected and the lonely and reassure them that I am with them through the darkest valley and that I will guide and help them as I have done for you? Will you, St. Luke’s? Will you tell the outcast that when think that all is lost and there’s no way forward, I will remind them they are my precious child and I will sustain them? Will you? And will you find the lost sheep and tell them that goodness and kindness are chasing after them, and I will keep chasing them until they’re found? Will you? Will you seek the lost and hungry and invite them to return with you here, to my presence so that I can love them as I have love you? Will you, St. Lukes?"

And we will answer, “yes.”




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Grieving A Spiritual Mentor; Sharing Her Wisdom

Grieving A Spiritual Mentor Sharing Her WisdomI have been so sad this week at the death of one of my spiritual mentors, Darlene Zoll. Darlene was my prayer companion when I went through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a nine month weekly program through The Bridges Foundation in St. Louis. I was struggling with severe chronic migraines, unable to work, and was so confused about God’s purpose and plan for me after having been so sure. I marvel at how much God loved me and cared for me through this wise, spiritual, Catholic laywoman! During the second week of the program she gave the lecture to our group about being created constantly by God. She was kind enough to give me a copy of her talk, and I share a few excerpts from it below. When you read this glimpse of the depth of her faith, you can imagine what a blessing she was to me during a time of crisis. She framed her talk within the story of the whole universe grounded in our scientfic knowledge of the big bang and that the human genetic structure closely parallels the DNA of all other creatures. For Darlene, this creates a "new intimacy with all of life."

Prayer: Be focused and centered on God’s loving and creating presence. As you relax, close your eyes and become of aware of your breathing, know that the breaths you draw in and release are an intimate sharing of the breath of life that our Creator God breathed into Adam and Eve. God breathes you into existence NOW, creating you every moment, every second. If God stopped thinking of you, breathing you, you would cease to exist. This idea doesn’t frighten. On the contrary, the thought of God constantly creating us makes us aware of God’s wondrous, wonderful, intimate, constant love. God loves ME. God's love holds ME in existence RIGHT NOW. And God's love continues to create me anew moment by moment, second by second, nano second, by nano second. Be aware of God's loving gaze, God's loving breath right now. In Paul’s words, ‘In God we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). The Jerusalem Bible says, ‘In God we live and move and exist.’ Thank you, God. Amen.

I am being constantly momently created by God. Our God, the God of the universe, creates all things because of love. Our God creates me constantly and momently because of his love. Our God loves me personally and wants an intimate relationship with me. Our God is not far from us, some place between the earth and the moon and beyond the planets and the stars. Our God is present to us and lets us experience that presence. Faith tells us that God exists both as transcendent to and immanent in this world. So, God is encountered. Whether we are aware of it or not, at every moment of our existence we are encountering God who is trying to catch our attention, trying to draw us into a reciprocal conscious relationship. God speaks us and all of creation and all of the universe into being constantly. God breathes us into being as he did Adam and Eve constantly, momently. Everything is of God.

If I am aware of God’s constant presence to me and if I am aware that God is creating me NOW, this moment this second, my response must be belief in God’s love for me, a trust in God’s love for me, that his personal love for me sustains me in all my life. I want to be aware that if God is breathing all into existence constantly, my breath, my very being is of God. I am not God, but just as God’s attributes are present in all of creation for me to see and experience, so God’s attributes are present in me for all creation to see and experience. I am not God. But what would life be like if I experience God’s loving presence in all of creation and all of creation experiences God’s loving presence in me—all the time? Jeremiah put is this way: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love and so I still maintain my faithful love for you’ (Jer. 31:3).

Think about it: God is creating me all through the night as I sleep. God is creating me, keeping me in existence all through the day as I go about my business, not even aware of God’s breathing life and existence into me, even as the universe continues to expand and to evolve. Wow.

"Wow" is right, Darlene. I did experience God’s qualities and characteristics in you over and over and over again. Thank you, thank you for your constant love, encouragement, patient listening, wise counsel, forbearance and extra time you spent me with when the Exercises were done—you expressed these gifts to me momently, constantly! You are pure gift. Enter into the joys of our eternal home with the love and peace of God that sustained you on your earthly journey. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.