Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash:  “I am the true vine” –  John 15:1-8

Branches bear fruit, they don’t make fruit, said Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash in her sermon on Sunday, February 21, 2016. So if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, we need to remember that we are empowered to do our good works only through Him. She explained other fascinating Biblical references to wine making on February 21, 2016, as below. 

th
www.harvest.org

I need to preface this sermon by saying, I know nothing about wine. Here we are this morning focused on a passage where Jesus compares himself to a vine, and biblical scholars agree that vine would have been a grapevine, and the grapes would have been used to make wine.

In my research for this sermon, I found out that one foundational principle that applies to both Old World and New World winemaking is that great wine is always a reflection of a particular vineyard. If you want to pick a good wine, in other words, you have to know the source.

th
littlebigwonders.blogspot.com

Jesus obviously knew a little about wine himself, we see him at social gatherings in the gospels and he knew exactly what kind of wine would impress the guests at the Cana wedding feast. So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that he used the metaphor of a vineyard to describe his relationship to his disciples. Jesus knew that the best way to tell what kind of product you were getting would be to look at the label and see from where in the world it came. In this case, the source isn’t a place but a person — Jesus himself.

Jesus is the Vine. Jesus begins by saying that he is the “true vine”, the source of growth and fruit-bearing, in a vineyard that is tended by God.

God is the Winemaker: The Creator God is the real winemaker, the one who tends the vineyard and assures its quality.

The Vineyard has a history: Turns out, that this vineyard has a long and storied history. The metaphor of the vineyard is used several times in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship with Israel. In Isaiah 5:1-7, for example, God plants and tends a vineyard but it yields “wild grapes” or inferior fruit — a metaphor for the apostasy of Israel and Judah. The same vineyard imagery is used in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea. In each of these cases, however, Israel is the “vine” and the ultimate source of poor “fruit.”

In the Old Testament, “fruitfulness” was another way of saying “faithfulness,” thus, a lack of good fruit meant that God’s people had failed to be the true, nourishing vine that would bolster God’s reputation in the world as the ultimate fine winemaker. That being the case, it was the winemaker’s job to do some pruning and replacing, which is what the prophets saw the exile as being all about.

Later, God would replant the vineyard with a new stock and that new vine, the “true vine,” would be Jesus himself who embodied the new Israel, God’s Chosen One, the One through whom the whole world would be saved and blessed.

th
catholiclane.com

The Branches are the focus: But while the vine is the source for good fruit, there’s a vital link between the vine and its fruit. The “branches” are thus the focus of Jesus’ teaching with his disciples. “I am the vine,” says Jesus to his followers, “you are the branches.” Notice that the disciples of Jesus aren’t the “fruit,” the end product, but the conduit for the vine’s nourishment. The quality of the fruit thus depends on the branches’ connectedness to the vine itself. What Jesus is describing here is the necessary interrelationship between himself and his disciples, us — a relationship characterized by mutuality and indwelling, but one that is also focused on bearing great growth for the whole world.

Look closely at a grapevine, though, and one of the first things you notice about its branches is that it’s very difficult to tell them apart individually. All the branches twist and curl around one another to the point that you can’t tell where one starts and another stops. Jesus’ use of branch imagery is a way of expressing that it’s not the achievement of an individual branch or its status that matters. The quality of branches and fruit depends solely on the quality of their connectedness to the vine. When it comes to discipleship, each “branch” or individual gives up his or her desire for individual achievement in order to become one of many encircling branches — a community that is rooted and nurtured by Christ and points to his reputation and quality, not their own.

With that understanding of branches in mind, there are a couple of things that we branches must remember in order to stay effectively and fruitfully connected to Jesus. First, we have to remember that branches are fruit bearing, and not fruit-making. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me … Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.”  We’ve heard these words of Jesus many times, but we also hear the call of a culture of workaholism, achievement and success that can lure disciples of Christ into thinking that we can be fruitful as a result of our own efforts. Many are the pastors, for example, who have built large churches and famous reputations only to crash and burn as a result of moral failure, which is frequently the result of a failure to stay intimately connected to Jesus. When a branch gets the idea that it can make fruit, make wine, on its own, it dries up, withers, and is no longer useful. The mission of a branch isn’t to look good or to call attention to itself, but to give all the glory to God, the one whose name is on the label.

In the vineyards of Jesus’ day, grapevines grew naturally along the ground instead of being propped up on poles or lattices as they are today. The vinedresser would come along to lift and “clean” the vine, pruning away the excess and dead growth. Jesus uses the same image to describe the way the disciples themselves had been “cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” That “word” was the teaching and commandment of Jesus and the disciples’ meditation on and obedience to that “word” would help them “remain” or stay connected to his “love” — the nourishing flow from the vine. This is how being connected to Jesus changes our lives.

Reading, meditating and praying through the Scriptures is one way in which disciples are “pruned.” The words of Jesus about the kingdom and the story of his life, death and resurrection focus us on what’s truly important for bearing the fruit of his grace and love to the world. When the writer of Hebrews says that Scripture is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), he might have as easily said that Scripture was the ultimate set of pruning shears, trimming us for the life of discipleship we were meant to live. Such pruning can be painful as God uses it to lop off old habits, but it’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to embrace our purpose as conduits of God’s grace. Again being changed by Jesus.

th
gracechurchcochin.wordpress.com

Great wine is the reflection of a particular vineyard, be it from an Old World tradition or an eclectic New World experiment. God wants to tend the finest vineyard ever, here and now. May we, as disciples of Jesus, the true vine, embrace our role as branches — channels for God’s grace, so that when the world samples the fine vintage of God’s love and grace, they will want to know the winemaker!

 

Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash: Healthy Spirituality: Inside Out – Joy and Sadness

Sunday, January 31, 2016

How can joy and sadness be spiritually healthy?

For many, joy and sadness would be an unlikely partnership. However, for Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash the exact opposite is the case. Happiness is healthy, so is sadness and both need to go together. She based her text on Psalm 139 and John 16:16-24 and concluded: “My prayer for us is that Joy and Sadness are woven together in such a way that we are spiritually healthy and that our joy is rooted. “

Inside-out-d150_13cs.sel16.101   Inside-Out-Joy-Sad

 There is a small part of me that is thankful for the blizzard last week. Let me explain. As I moved through the week preparing my sermon on Joy, I became more and more concerned that Joy and Sadness really needed to be together. In order to fully understand the healthy roles of these two emotions, they need to be brought together as a team. So because of the storm and canceling worship last week, I have been able to do just that. We will see how this unlikely partnership helps us as we seek to be spiritually healthy and whole.

A focus of Inside Out is the grounding of happiness. In a society that seeks joy in comfort, silliness, and diversion, Pixar presents a different picture of the full life. Being happy is not about eliminating or even minimizing emotions not named Joy. No one in history has ever succeeded with that approach. Inside Out refreshingly declares that the good life is not free from sadness or anger, but allows joy to live in a harmony with those other less comfortable emotions.

As we’ve mentioned previously the film enters the mind of a preteen, Riley, whose life has been disrupted by a cross-country move. The film’s brilliance is in embracing the brokenness we all face. We all experience it, and yet so few stories on TV and on the big screen help us process and endure it. In Inside Out, life is hard, but not hopeless. Grief and sadness are meaningful, even valuable experiences.

We see Joy as the irrepressible Pollyanna of the emotions at work within Riley—she flatly refuses to let life’s problems get her down and by extension, bring Riley down, so when Sadness comes on the scene during Riley’s infancy, Joy sees her as a problem to be overcome. As Riley grows, so do Joy’s frustrations with Sadness, particularly when she discovers that Sadness has the capacity to turn the glowing golden orbs of Riley’s happy memories sad by touching them. When Sadness causes herself and Joy—along with Riley’s core memories—to be sucked into the larger world of Riley’s mind, the two emotions must work together to make their way back to Headquarters and set things right.

It is on this journey through Riley’s mind that Joy begins to see the need for Sadness, and more importantly, comes to a deeper understanding of what joy really is. To this point, Joy has seen herself as a cheerleader—the one around whom the other emotions rally in order to help Riley make happy memories, leading (as Joy describes it) to perfect days, weeks, months, years, and ultimately, a perfect life.

Joy in comfort, in silliness, in sports can be happy for a time, but there are no roots, at least not strong ones. It’s fragile. One embarrassing moment in front of the class and it all comes crashing down. If life is about preserving that simple, child-like, playful happiness, then we’re all lost and helpless.

Eventually — and sometimes very early on — life removes its kid gloves — the unexpected move, betrayal, divorce, sickness, failure, loss. Life will steal a child’s happiness at age seven or seventeen or thirty-seven, and if we don’t have a plan for joy after sadness comes, we’ll be left frustrated, confused, and bitter. The film displays the futility of shortsighted, over-protective happiness.

The story begins with Joy frantically — though relentlessly cheerfully — micromanaging the team of emotions, striving to keep everything and everyone calm, predictable, and happy. The simplicity of a child’s life lends itself to lots of simple and repeatable pleasure. By the end, though, Joy cherishes and cooperates with the others, seeing their inevitable and even critical roles in Riley’s life.

Inside Out  grounds joy — which in and of itself sets it apart from so many other movies — but still leaves it rootless. The joy is real and even mature, but it’s not safe or reliable. It’s not made or even expected to last the stormy waves that will crash into our lives. When one island of personality falls — whether silliness or hockey or friendship — we’ll start building another.

The message of Inside Out says that joy in this life can be real even when mixed with darker, harder memories and experiences. The film creatively and effectively protects us from thinking life is meant to be easy, fun, and carefree. True joy, the kind that survives suffering and endures pain, is not cheap or easy. It’s laced — woven through and through — with sadness. So it is with Christ in an even more profound way. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” and our joy is all the deeper and more enduring because of the grief.

Joy is a frantic (albeit happy) character trying to run the show. She vigilantly guards against Sadness getting too much time at the control panel and from touching any of the memories and turning them blue/sad.

Check out this clip where Joy tries to keep sadness in her place.

To continue, click https://princetonumc.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Rev.pdf for full text.

 

Phoebe Quaynor: Joy and Wonder in Routine

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Phoebe-Quaynor

A day is like a thousand years in the eyes of the Lord!
Two days (or two thousand years) ago we were in the thick of things. Sitting in wonderland as spiritual mystery happened. A fairytale was weaving all around us. Two women, Mary and Elizabeth; their ordinary first century world had been interrupted by God. They had been drawn up into heaven’s activities and timetable. The narrative reads like an epic tale like Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy being drawn up into the whirlwind. This however was not fiction. It was historically true
Today, 12 years later we are with this family as they go on their usual yearly trip to the Temple.
The parents of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were devout Jews. The Old Testament commanded such a trip for three festivals a year But by the first century, God-fearing Jews made only one journey a year because of the distances involved.
Even though a long time has passed since Mary’s scandalous pregnancy I wonder if tongues are still wagging. Are the women still giving Mary and Joseph funny looks?
After the supernatural events surrounding her pregnancy i.e. the angels announcement, the visit from the wise men and shepherds then Simeon at the dedication…there had been some strange events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
After all these things, what must be going on in Mary’s mind? There was a lot for this young woman to process as the days become months and years and life had to go on…
How does one return to being normal?
How was the miracle baby growing up?
Was Jesus doing strange supernatural things at home or was he growing up as a normal boy? We don’t know. What we do know is that life was moving along as usual…
“Each Year, his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover” the text says.
We know that on this 12th year, they did it again, went to the Temple in Jerusalem
This was routine! This was something they did each year. Their lives were normal and ordinary in that sense. Each year, their faith required them to go to the temple and they did. Just as we routinely come to here to PUMC every Sunday.
However, this year was different! (I guess that’s why we get to read about it). Something happened this year. There was a problem. The problem was that the Boy Jesus went missing. Continue reading “Phoebe Quaynor: Joy and Wonder in Routine”

Rev. Catherine E. Williams: The Unopened Gift

Sunday, December 20, 2015

unopened gift

Today concludes the 4-part Advent sermon series exploring the theme of gifts. Hopefully, it has helped us think about gift giving as we plan for the approach of Christmas Day, arguably the biggest gift-giving day on the calendar. This morning I have here an unopened gift. I asked a few people over the past couple of weeks why they would not open a gift given to them; the answers I got were interesting. The first was – If I know what’s in there I won’t bother, especially if I don’t really care for it. Another answer was, If I don’t like the giver, I won’t be interested in anything that comes from them; it would be easy to set that gift aside…maybe even forget about it altogether. It was this third answer that hooked me, as I searched for a connection to Advent – this person ventured – well if the wrapping isn’t too promising and the occasion isn’t that a big of a deal, I really wouldn’t feel any need to open it.
Gift wrapping is an essential part of gift-giving they tell me. (Which is why I personally resort to bags; any talent I have for wrapping gifts remains undiscovered.) But the purpose of going through the trouble to wrap a gift is to create some kind of appeal, I would think. The wrapping, when done expertly, is itself an invitation. It invites the recipient to extend both hands and take the gift, it signals that there’s something important inside that will satisfy the receiver. So then what are we to make of the wrapping God chose for God’s most precious gift to humanity?
A seed of life sown into the body of a poor, insignificant teenager who wasn’t even married. A family lineage in an insignificant town of maybe 500 people. A birth announcement made out in fields, where the only people to hear it, were shepherds – those smelly, dirty, animal keepers at the bottom of the social heap. If wrappings are supposed to invite, then what do we make of this? There are enough unpleasant details about the records of Jesus birth that are neither pretty nor shiny. What is so appealing about an exhausted fully pregnant woman being refused basic hospitality? What’s so romantic about giving birth outdoors, in a stall surrounded by animals? And as much as we venerate the manger in pageantry and song, I, as a first-time mother, would not be flattered in the least by having to put my newborn to sleep in an animal feeding trough. And the unpleasantness continues, there is nothing tender about scores of children being murdered by a tyrant king who is hunting down one particular child, or about this child and his parents having to flee for their safety in the middle of the night to take refugee status in a foreign country. Would we call this wrapping inviting?
Then this Jesus, God’s most precious gift, grows up and the wrapping doesn’t improve much. What some see at face value is a rabbi whose ministry was heralded by the town prophet/baptizer who wore weird clothes, ate strange food, and said the most provocative things. Some see a teacher whose family thought he had mental health issues. This gift, while he lived a most remarkable life, still the majority of his endorsement and following came from the masses, particularly the outcasts and scum of society – what did they know anyway? Those who were in the know (the religious authorities) were baffled by this gift, unsettled by this gift, infuriated by this gift. They said of him who does he think he is, we know him since he was in diapers; we know the family he comes from. Where does he get off talking with such authority?
He came to his own people, writes John, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1:11) They were looking for a Messiah, a heroic figure, wise and powerful, who would rally them in retaliation against their oppressors, vindicate their status as the chosen people of God, and lead them into a future of peace and prosperity. What Messiah comes riding into the city on a donkey? What Messiah gets put on trial and refuses to open his mouth in defense. Tell me, what Messiah gets killed like a common criminal? Of course not…the wrapping alone would indicate the package is meaningless!
Which brings us to the holy wisdom of the apostle who warns the Corinthian believers against being deceived by wrappings. The Corinthians were not much different than us when it comes to judging people. They were impressed by certain standards of significance, wisdom and power being right up there at the top. But God, the apostle reminds them, chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:27-29.) Look past the surface, he says. God’s gifts to us, and to the world, almost always come in wrappings that are uninviting or unappealing.
For many people, this gift of God remains unopened because they think they know what’s inside and don’t care much for him. For many others, they simply don’t trust the giver. What they know about God doesn’t square up with what’s going on in the world, so why should they trust this Jesus? For others the wrapping is too much of a deterrent; it’s hard to get past the birth story and many of the improbabilities of his life and death. Two Saturdays ago at Pete Brower’s memorial service, his son Todd, reminisced about that time when as a teenager he was ready to chuck his faith because he just couldn’t wrap his mind around the miracles and other parts of Jesus’ life story. Todd spoke of that defining moment when his wise father Pete, rather than scold him for his unbelief, said to him that the most important thing lay past all those details, it was the message. For Todd – and for his daughter with whom he had almost the same conversation years later – that was the turning point of faith – getting past the wrappings, and getting to the heart of the message.
For those of us who venture past the wrappings and open God’s precious holy gift, we find we have opened ourselves up to a Trinitarian God, revealed to us as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We open ourselves to a God who created in the beginning, but who continues to create so that we are not really hemmed in by our circumstances, our creator God continues to make something out of nothing, make a way out of no way. O Lord, my God, we sing, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands hath made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder; thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul…How great thou art! (“How Great Thou Art” v.1 UMH #77)
We open ourselves to God our Redeemer. The angel said to Joseph, You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins. Again, this redeeming and saving nature of God points to an action God has done in the past, AND that God continues to do in the present. So that when we sin, when we fall short daily, when we drop the ball, when we mess up and over reach, when we transgress the law of love, whatever our wrongs, there is a Redeemer. So we can sing, Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide; let us thy inner presence feel, thy grace and love in us reveal. (“Lift Up Your Heads” v.3, UMH #213)) He has not only saved, he continues to save his people from their sins.
We say Hallelujah for the gift of a creating and redeeming God! Hallelujah also for the gift of a Sustaining God. Where would we be without God’s Spirit, the manifest, abiding presence of God in our lives and in this world, the agency of God that imparts daily wisdom and strength? Our world needs this breath of God that blows through troubling circumstances bringing healing, wholeness, peace. We pray in the poetry of Yale professor Tom Troeger, Wind who makes all winds that blow, gusts that bend the sapling low, gales that heave the sea in waves, stirrings in the mind’s deep caves: aim your breath with steady power on your Church this day, this hour. Raise, renew the life we’ve lost, Spirit of God of Pentecost. (“Wind, Who Makes All Winds That Blow” v. 1, UMH #538)
Some of us refuse to open ourselves up to the gift of God because dreadful things happened to us. Some of us refuse to believe in the gift of God because of the hopelessness we feel as we read and watch the news. And yet the gift of God to us this morning is the promise, manifest in Jesus, that God does love this world, that God will never leave us, no matter what condition we find ourselves in. The same God who makes a road in the wilderness and streams in the desert continues to say to us today, when you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you, when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’ (Isaiah 43 and 41 – excerpts)
What would happen, I wonder, if we, and all who name the name of Christ, were to unwrap and open this gift of God to us in Jesus. What would happen if we were to fully open ourselves up to the creating, redeeming, and sustaining work and presence of God in our lives and in the world? What might redemption look like for refugees? What might God’s creating and sustaining presence mean in our approach to climate concerns? What might our openness to the powerful energy of God’s love do for our attitude to strangers?
What difference might it make if we believed that the wrapping was part of the gift? – That this gift reaches both the high and the lowly; that this gift satisfies both rich and poor, this gift that is foolishly wise and impotently powerful. The range and scope of this gift blow our human minds: Jesus – the Son of God’s love in who we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins. The one who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. The one by whom all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through him, and for him. The one who is before all things and in whom all things consist. The one who is the head of the body, the Church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. The one who said of himself I am. Before Abraham was I am. I am the way, I am the truth, I am the Resurrection and the Life. I am the Bread of Life. I am the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. I am the Alpha, the Omega, the first and the last the beginning and the end, the one who was, and who is, and who is to come! Jesus – God’s unspeakable, inexpressible, indescribable gift! ( excerpts from Colossians 1, John 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, Revelation 1)
I pray for me and for you, and for all God’s people at this time of frenetic gift giving. May God grant us the capacity to open and be open to this gift, the capacity to receive and believe this gift; the holy capacity to share this gift with others, especially at Christmas time. Amen.

3rd Sunday of Advent: Is Fruitcake Really a Gift?

In her sermon, “Is Fruitcake Really a Gift?”, on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015, Pastor Jana Purkis-Brash compared John the Baptist to fruitcake.

GetAttachment.aspx

While fruitcake may be a gift for some, for others it is not, and indeed, some like it, others do not. At the suggestion that the Christmas fruitcake is some weird kind of cake, some would say the same about John the Baptist, that he was weird. He might even be called a fruitcake. He lived in the desert, ate locust and wild honey, had a long beard and dressed in camel hair. He preached a strange message about repentance and baptized people from their sins. On street corners, his message would have been: “Repent, Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near. Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!”

John the Baptist was the “appetizer” for God telling the people to flee the wrath that is to come. His message was prophetic: Repent! Repent! Repent! He promised repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In this regard, John the Baptist is a fruitcake that is loved. He baptized with water but also preached about the One who is to come – the Messiah – who will re-baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Luke 3: 7-18. He speaks not only to us but for us. He is the psychologist for us. He completely immersed those he baptized, holding them under water long enough. This way, they knew what death by drowning is like. They understood that the end was coming. At the same time, they received new life in Jesus Christ.

While some people liked John the Baptist, others – like the Pharisees and those who did not share John’s eagerness for the coming Messiah – not so much. His message of repentance, along with the good news was untenable to people who did not believe they were doing wrong. John the Baptist’s message is forever on the table: “Repent! Turn away from sin”.

Fruitcake is not most people’s favorite gift. John the Baptist, like the Christmas fruitcake, is not everyone’s favorite, appearing, making a few more appearances, disappearing during Advent and then fading away. However, during this holiday season we are called to share the gift of Christmas with one another.

Circle of Friends Christmas Luncheon at Rocky Hill Inn

The PUMC Circle of Friends had an enjoyable time at their annual Christmas Luncheon on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, with 13 women around the table at the Rocky Hill Inn, Central Jersey’s premier gastropub.

Rocky Hill Inn, with its awesome decor, is located in a building constructed in 1750 that was frequented by George Washington. It is owned by PUMC members Evan and Maria Blomgren, Evan being the chef/proprietor. Maria explained the history of the restaurant to the ladies and gave them a tour of the upstairs rooms, where they enjoyed viewing antique paintings on the walls, art pieces, family heirlooms – items collected and treasured over the years. The ancient wine bottles were magnificent.

The menu was not only enticing but the food was delicious and the presentation eye-catching, with a little gift put at each place. After prayers and a short speech, the friends tucked into their hamburgers, veggie burgers, lamb burgers, calamari, tuna sashimi, fries and salads. For starters, everyone got ‘devils on horseback” free of charge. Dessert was great, what with their signature bread pudding, and crème brûlée. Every meal was delicious!

IMG_1101The friends had a lot to talk about and there was much buzz around the tables creating a very lively atmosphere. This photograph is a testimony to the enjoyable time shared by the Circle of Friends, which welcomes all women of the church.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year ladies!

All church women are invited to join the Circle of Friends at their next meeting on Tuesday, February 9, 2016, in the Fellowship Hall at PUMC. For more information, please contact the church office at 609-924-2613 or visit www.princetonumc.org.

2nd Sunday of Advent: Regifting

In her sermon, “Regifting”, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2015, Pastor Kaleigh Corbett explores fundamental questions of Jesus’ love in a world filled with hatred.

While it may not be appropriate to re-gift our Christmas presents, it is OK to re-gift the greatest gift of all – the love of Jesus. Yes, we are called to share his love with others especially in light of recent acts of terrorism around the world.

In the second scripture lesson for that day, Luke 1: 68-79, God sends John the Baptist, (whose birth like Jesus’ was also foretold by the angel Gabriel), as the forerunner to go and prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of the Lord.

We see promises made by God to his people – a reminder of our hope in the birth to come, and that hope never leaves us. The story of Zachariah would not be complete without that hope, as is the story of Mary.

When we share stories of people in the Bible we are regifting. For example, the story of Jesus being refused a place in the inn mirrors that of refusing asylum in our country to Syrian refugees. And yet, we are called to regift the love that God has for us when he gives us his son.

In the first scripture lesson for that day, 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13, we are told that we gain nothing without love and that love conquers all.

Advent heralds the coming of Christ into this world. Yet, how much longer must we wait for the Messiah to come and to renew our faith? We must, therefore, ask ourselves what we can do to bring hope, joy, peace and love to this world.

During this Christmas season we must begin to act by regifting the Christmas story. We will let ourselves feel at least some of the pain of those we consider our enemies. We will do our best to show each other the courage to act in love and justice in our particular life.

Rev. Catherine E. Williams: Beyond Death

Jebutterfly (1)sus said: I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. We honor the lives of those who have died in the context of Christian faith and hope, says Rev. Catherine Williams, believing that the resurrection is central to our faith, and it is ultimately the words of Jesus Christ that sustain this hope of eternal life beyond death.

Beyond Death was the topic of Rev. Catherine Williams’ sermon commemorating  All Saints Sunday, November 1, 2015. Among her references: Psalm 16:11, Romans 8, 1 , 1 Peter 1 and the Book of Revelation. Her thoughts, she said, turned out to be more of an extended reflection than a sermon.  She began with an anecdote. 

I had barely begun here as an intern in the fall of 2008; I was standing in the Sanford Davis room after the first service, scanning the room at my eye level when I felt a tug at my robe. I looked down into the sad eyes of a 4th-grader who without any introduction or small talk asked me pointedly, “Where is Mrs. Fullman now?” I scrambled through my mental Rolodex and came up with a Mrs. Fullman who had recently passed away, and who had given outstanding, compassionate leadership to this congregation. I stooped down. My eyes came to the level of those misty pools of brown in that chubby face. “Mrs. Fullman is in heaven now; she is with God,” I said. “Where is heaven?” she shot back. “Well, I said, “some people say it’s up there or out there. We don’t really know where it is, but we know that wherever it is that’s God’s home.” Slight pause…then,“Is that where my dog is too?” There was no escaping the tinge of hope in her voice. I had no dog in my Rolodex, and to be honest, had never given much thought to a theology of animals. In times like these there are two voices in my ears – the rational theologian on my left shoulder and the compassionate pastor on my right. Sometimes they both help me respond well to unexpected questions, but this time my theologian was quiet for a little too long, so following the pastor’s voice I said, “Oh yes, God made the animals and wants them to be with him after they die too.” My inquirer gave me a brief, satisfied smile and disappeared as quickly as she had appeared, leaving me to marvel at the sacredness of that encounter.

When it comes to the subject of life after death we all have thoughts and questions, even if we entertain them only briefly. But like this child, we grapple with these questions mostly in the context of personal loss. When we are about to lose or have lost a loved one, or when we are confronted with our own mortality, it is natural for us to begin thinking about what happens after we die. People have asked questions such as, What do we do in heaven? It sounds boring! Do we spend eternity with those we love or is it one endless cocktail party with millions of souls? Do we have a form in heaven or are we just spirits? What age will I be in heaven? If my mother is there will I recognize her? How good do I have to be to get to heaven?

I remember being with of one of our members the day after the doctors had told her that her body would only continue functioning for another day or so. As I settled in a chair by her bedside she looked me in the eyes and matter-of-factly informed me that she was going to die. How do you feel about that? I asked. She shrugged, “I’m okay.” Pause. Then, ‘how will it happen?’ she wanted to know. The theologian on my left shoulder began her spiel about how no-one really knows, and I had to put her on mute so I could better hear the compassionate pastor on my right shoulder. “It will be beautiful,” I assured her. “Jesus is waiting to welcome you home with open arms.” She nodded and smiled. I’m not sure whether she was humoring me or my answer really resonated with her, but right then in that room I could sense the unmistakable presence of God. I have to tell you that one of the reasons lately I have come to believe heaven is beyond death is because I have sensed the presence of God at so many end of life horizons – anytime I’ve had the opportunity to be with someone just before, at the moment of, or just after their passing, I have witnessed God’s reassuring presence in ways that are humanly difficult to describe. As one of our favorite Affirmations of Faith ends – in life, in death, in life beyond death we are not alone.

Today we commemorate All Saints Sunday. We honor the lives of those who have died, and we do so in the context of Christian hope. Hope has always been vital to the people of God. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah is filled with it. Thousands of years before Christ, God’s people learned how to hold on to hope in the midst of a pain-filled existence. Life on earth forced them to look for relief. One such relief was in their hope of a future day where God would vindicate them, deliver them permanently from their national enemies, and be their host around a rich feast of the finest bread and wine. Days of scarcity would be over as God’s abundance would overflow generously. The poetry speaks of God removing the shroud and sheet of death that had been cast over the people. A fitting image for many of our international neighbors today, particularly in the war-ravaged Middle East. The Old Testament Middle Easterners believed God would triumph over death, they declared God would feed them, wipe away all tears from their eyes, and bring them to a place of peace and wholeness in God’s presence. Hope has always been a cherished commodity of our faith.

And it is the writings of Scripture that have not only given birth to our hope down through the ages, Scripture has also fed and sustained this hope. In Psalm 16 the Psalmist sings that in the presence of God there is the fullness of joy. Romans 8 reminds us that it is not only humans who yearn for God’s ultimate salvation but the entire creation groans and waits to be liberated from its bondage to decay. In 1 Corinthians 15 there is a beautiful treatise on death that argues for the resurrection of our glorified bodies. In 1 Peter 1 the apostle fairly sings about this living hope of an ultimate salvation where there is even an inheritance kept in heaven for us. And the writer to the Hebrews puts another spin on this hope by reminding us that as we run this earthly race we are surrounded and encouraged by a heavenly cloud of witnesses that includes people who have died in faith centuries ago.

Then there’s the sublime poetry and prose in the book of Revelation. There the writer has a vision of the Holy City beautifully adorned. But even more than the splendor of the city – even more than streets of gold, walls of jasper, and gates of pearl, the most magnificent aspect of this vision is that it is the place where God dwells among mortals. And the place where mortals call home. When someone asks for my elevator response to the question where is heaven, I say, it is where God is, and where God welcomes the people of God who transition from this life to the next.

We really don’t have adequate language to describe eternal realities. But that doesn’t stop us from using the language we have – to dream, to sing, to reflect on an eternity with a God who loves, deeply, generously, and in whose presence we are forever moving towards wholeness and fulfillment. I prepared for this reflection with my Bible and my hymnal both open. It is no secret that the songs we sing from the base of our operational theology. When it comes to life beyond death we turn to such songs as Abide with Me, with its witness of God’s tenacious grasp on our lives, no matter what the circumstances of our death. We sing songs like When We All Get To Heaven, with its flat-footed assurance that heaven will be worth whatever it takes to get there. We lean on the Spirituals for their earthy yearning for that time when we can steal away to Jesus or be caught up in the heaven-bound chariot that’s swinging low. We might even turn to Natalie Sleeth’s Hymn of Promise that frames our hope in the cycles of death and life found within nature. Hymn of Promise is a hymn that identifies us as people of the resurrection when we sing “In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity, in our doubt there is believing, in our life eternity. In our death, a resurrection, at the last a victory unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” Yes! we are people of hope because we are people of the resurrection.

The theologian in my left ear and the pastor in my right are unified that this belief in the resurrection is central to our faith, and to our hope. And it is ultimately the words of Jesus, the Christ, the one whose followers we are, it is those words that sustain this hope of eternal life beyond death. When Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he had not yet been crucified. His raising of Lazarus from the dead was a precursor for what he was soon to demonstrate that life and death are a divine cycle where one yields to the other. Yes, there is much about this cycle that remains a mystery. Science has proved and keeps probing, making discoveries at a painfully slow rate. But what if the eternal realities are such that there are no instruments to measure them? We look through a glass dimly as we peer into eternity. Our finite human eyes don’t have the capacity to see into infinity. But our faith – our faith, given to us by God – our faith gives us the capacity to receive the words of Jesus who says, “do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many dwelling places, and I am going there to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me that where I am you will be there also.” Our God-given faith gives us the capacity to believe the witness of the biblical accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus who claimed I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. He asks us today as he asked Martha, Do you believe this?

May God grant us the faith of eternal proportions, faith to trust in a God who, in Jesus Christ, lived in death even as he died in life; faith to believe that in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone. Amen.