Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sermon for March 29, 2009

Grace Mercy and Peaceful given to you from God our Father, Amen
Once again, you have blessed me with the honor and privilege to stand before and try to bring illustration to today’s lessons.
Before I get started, there is something that I would like to ask of you first and foremost. Would you please join me in prayer? Please stand if you can and join hands, if you can’t, then would those nearby be certain to arrange yourselves so that no one is left alone and no one is left disconnected from the group. If you need to move around a little, that is OK. The key element is our connection to each other. The prayer that we are about to say is a prayer of silence, and although silent, this prayer is an active prayer. A prayer of preparation, a prayer to make room for the word of God, a prayer of listening, a prayer of hope and a prayer of expectation.
Close your eyes, silently ask God to be present with you. Ask Him to open your heart and open your mind to His word and His will. Cast aside your thoughts, release your fears into the hands of people you are connected with, silence your inner voice and listen for His words. As you pray, feel the energy that is being transferred into you through your connection with others. Feel it cross over into your body, gather in your mind, fill your heart and then pass back out to another through your hand. Can you feel the concerns, the needs, the pain, the joy and the hope of everyone in this room? Can you feel the life of others being alive in you? As we end this prayer, let us thank God for His presence with us and let us give thanks for the gift of the lives of those around us who are willing to share their time, giving of themselves so that we can be strengthen through the support they offer freely. You may sit down now.
Thanks you for sharing in this prayer. I hope that as your day continues that each of you will reflect back on this prayer to understand what God was saying to you and that you may have the confidence and courage to share your experience with someone else.
The Gospel lesson for today, the story of the death and transformation of a single grain of wheat and the glorious fruits it produces, illustrates the abundant and powerful love that God has and awaits us all in His kingdom. In review of available commentaries and discussions that I have had with a variety of people, I realized that in this passage, as with so many scripture lessons, there are a variety of points to ponder. The words of Jesus are so crafted that they can provide instruction in many ways. So, it is up to each of us to find for ourselves the message or messages that God has placed in the scripture, the message that awaits your discovery. In my preparation, I have found that my own attitude or state of mind had a direct impact on what I would find in this passage and at different times under different circumstances my vision changed. Even as I went back through and looked at verses that I underlined, I often had to remind myself as to why that particular part of the verse caught my attention. What I discovered and learned to accept, is that the Gospel reading for today reflects back at me in several ways, some of which have hit me straight between the eyes. God has made this scripture very personal for me this Sunday. Having said that, I need to emphasize, that this conversation that we are about to have, is not about me. I will share with you, personal experiences that have had an influence on me but I do so, only in the hope that it would help to illuminate the message that awaits you in today’s Gospel.
The subject of death is never an easy topic. Often, our questions overshadow available answers when we seek understanding and support following a time of loss. So here we are, facing Jesus, eye to eye and He leaves us with this instruction as recorded in John: 12, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in the world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
I know that I have made mention in past sermons of a play that my oldest son was in at Wheaton College in Illinois, Johnny Pye. The musical is based on the story of the “Fool Killer” The Fool Killer is a spiritual being that no one but Johnny Pye can see. This spiritual being is a messenger of sorts, maybe more of a “Go For”. His job, is as the song goes “collecting the lode”, gathering what is God’s and returning it home. In this case the lode is nothing physical like boxes, crates, or any other kind of tangible material but rather the spirit and soles of those whose physical body have been shed. Following the passing of Johnny Pye’s father, young Johnny runs away, so as not to get caught by the Fool Killer. In one encounter with death Johnny confronts the Fool Killer, who leaves him with this riddle. When is a man a human being and not a fool?
Throughout his life the fool killer continues to take the soles of people Johnny knew and loved, including his wife and oldest child. As the story concludes Johnny, having lost all who were close to him finally discovers the answer to the riddle.
When is a man a human being and not a fool? The answer, when he is dead and buried. Johnny realized the foolishness of a life spent being chased by the unknown. He also came to the conclusion that life as he had defined it, was not perfect and that control was not within his ability.
Having spent his entire lifetime trying to control his circumstances and searching for the answer, witnessing and grieving the passing of so many people, Johnny finally asks for the Fool Killer to take him. And so he goes, with the hope that he will find for himself that which never left him, the love of his family and friends.
We are foolish to think that this world, we call earth, would be our refuge, our safe place, our place of comfort and a keeper of all that is good in our lives. As the Gospel lesson comes forward, Jesus gives us another parable our self exploration, and reflection, all to help us understand and remind us that, in fact, we are human beings. And in being human, we need to look beyond our manifest bodies and allow our sole to be free of the framework of living a life on earth. Our sinful nature, our humanness needs to be cast aside so that our spirit, our sole will have room to grow and accept God’s presence in our lives. We need to move beyond our ideas of who we think we are and clear a path for us to discover who God made us to be. That discovery can and will only take place if in fact we are prepared to lose ourselves lose ourselves in hope, faith and trust, that the seed God planted in us at our birth, will awaken to a new life. A life filled with abundant love, a life that is giving of itself just as Christ gave of Himself for our salvation. We must be willing to shed the self-directed life that we have been holding dear and embrace the life that God desires for us to live.
I believe that the riddle applies to our spiritual nature and that we can experience and be present with God the father by living a life that is modeled by and led by Jesus Christ. I believe that the Gospel is alive and is a personal guide to living a life that is both blessed and a blessing to others. I believe that this message is alive in the here and now. It is a lesson that provides a focal point for us to take aim and change the direction from life in a myopic prison of self satisfaction and self protection to a life of openness for caring and sharing. As Jesus puts forth this lesson, it is an opportunity and an invitation to walk with him in the here and now. For you see, Jesus is among us, He is alive and He is showing us the way to be present with him for he says; “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” He is giving us instruction to give up our own self directed lives and accept the eternal life given to us through His own acts of self giving and self sacrifice.
As I said earlier, God hit me between the eyes with the very personal delivery of His message. On January 31st, almost 2 months ago now, God had my life in his hand, it was His for the taking. By most accounts and by most people with any knowledge of medical care, when I recorded a blood sugar level in access of 1100 (norm 100), I should have been at very least in coma and or even dead from stroke or a heart attack. I felt His presence many times in the past but this, this was something unique and different. I realized that I was not in control and that I had to completely let go and that the outcome would be of His choosing. On a day when I was to assist at the funeral service of friend and fellow Stephen minister Judy Brooks, I found myself in God’s palm not knowing if He will take me to Him or bring me forward to do His will. God held me together while he called upon others to guide me through the next 8 hours. God never left me alone, He kept me calm through the love, care and comfort of Dawn, the paramedic team and the attendants in the emergency room. This allowed/forced me to empty myself of my pride, my vanity and my belief that I had control. I was completely and utterly useless to myself. Whatever God wanted to happen, would happen now that control had been removed from me and my view of being a self-sufficient, self-directed man was erased. I lay there that night in peace and filled with the blessings of His love as given to me through the people who would care for me through my stay in the hospital and beyond. It was at that time when God held out His hand and released me, saying there is more for you to do, you have work yet to be done. This was not the first time that God had made himself known to me, but certainly He made His presence an experience to remember. As I look back over the years, I can now see the connection to this and other events and situations of my life. Maybe its maturity, maybe it’s the shock of a near death experience but more likely, it is God at work within me, showing me the nature and strength of His kindness and love.
Earlier this week, Dawn and I were driving back home from a visit with her mother and father in Oklahoma and in the course of our drive to make the travel a little easier on us, we stopped for the night at a Holiday Inn Express, somewhere in Missouri. We attempted to stop a little bit sooner at a different Holiday Inn, but their computer was not functioning and they could not take any new registrations. So, onward we went. About 30 minutes later we decided to try again. It was now about 10pm or so, when I entered the lobby and inquired about room availability and the status of their computer system. After a brief back and forth with the young women about nothing in particular, she began to tell me her story. Why she felt compelled I will never know, but she told me that she was a recovering drug addict and that she had been clean for the past 18 months. She told me about the near fatal accident that her fiancé had recently experienced. She then continued to tell me that they recently became members of a church and that the congregation there loved them both and embraced them with their prayers and with their love. She told me that Jesus had saved her from a path leading to certain death and that she had to give up her old life and dedicate her future to a life walking with Jesus. She said it was the least that she could do for His sacrifice for her. I believe God placed me there in that second Holiday Inn, so that I may meet this young women and in doing she would help bring this Gospel message to life for me from the perspective of another human being.
As I mentioned, God made this a very message personal. I like many of you, I have had my share of living with the heartache and hardships of death and I had to learn to find faith and trust in God. Trust that He had taken members of my family away for reasons yet to be discovered. In some regards, I think that I will always be on the search. But, there have been times in my life, where God has given me a vision and an insight to His plan, just when I needed it most. One such occasion took place earlier this month when God presented another side to this scripture. A side that would help me come full circle with His abundant love and mercy. March 9th is the birthday of my brother Scott. It has been nearly 20 years since I have been able to celebrate his birth with him. He passed at the young age of 32. You can say any number of things about his death and the causes and circumstances that drew him to a life filled with sadness and sorrow. Like an unfortunate many, and like the young women in Missouri, he fell victim to the control that drugs and alcohol have over a person’s spirit, which led him to take a destructive path in the second half of his life. Although Scott’s life was cut short, the memory of his whole life, will live within me. So, this year I wanted to make sure that I remembered him on his birthday. As I sat at the dinner table that night and prepared to say grace and offer a prayer for Scott, I was overwhelmed with the presence of God and a vision that was so clear I began to breakdown. Tears filled my eyes and my voice was silenced as I gazed upon the image of Scott with a smile on his face standing alongside Jesus. It seemed as though time stood still while my body was immobilized. I could not utter a word, I could not even begin to say my prayer and offer my praise and my petitions. God was granting me an opportunity to view the full circle of life. As we all have, I have experienced death and have grieved and had to find faith in God’s plan. But never, never before, have I experience an emotion so powerful as seeing both death and salvation at the same time. The enormity of this emotion and the experience of pain and joy rushed through my heart and my mind with the power and strength of a bulldozer. Later that night, in reflection of what I experienced, I realized that God brought this vision to me so that I may see for myself what lies ahead for each of us. As with my brother, despite the all the issues surrounding his later life and the things done to him and those that he did to himself, all was erased, all had been cast aside and all had been made perfect once again. It’s appropriate and necessary at this time to again remember, that as we continue this discussion, although very personal, we need to keep our focus rooted in the Gospel lesson and in the words of Jesus. This lesson, is about God’s unifying mercy for His creation. It is about Jesus, who is providing a path for us to follow. It’s about Christ’s self-sacrifice. It is about His death and it is about His resurrection. It is a call for us all, to look at the cross and discover why, Jesus had to die and why He did die. He died for you, He died for me and He died for Scott. Today, Scott lives with Christ. Today, if we shed ourselves of our own desires, if we shed ourselves of our prejudices, if we shed ourselves of the walls we have built for self-protection, and if we shed all of the clutter that makes us comfortable in our lives and make room, make room to accept God’s will, then we too can live with Christ and we can do it in the here and now. We do not have to wait for death to come to free us from the bondage of our sins. We have only to look at ourselves and realize that we do not have control over our destiny. And that the destiny of each and every one of us has already been written and the seed, the seed of which had already been planted inside of us. Christ is with us, He is in each us and He is ready and waiting for us. He is waiting for us to unlock that which is His to begin with, our hearts and soles.
For a length time now I have been trying to understand when, how and where to share God’s love with others. I have walked a path through personal, emotional and spiritual challenges in preparation for things yet to come. My experiences over these last 2 months have worked to solidify the fact, that God is with me and Jesus is in me. I believe He blessed me with this vision of Scott, so that I may be strengthened with intimate knowledge that God’s love is real and that He keeps watch over us, even if we don’t feel or see Him. I believe that He saved me so that I may continue to serve Him and I have discovered that I need to walk with confidence and to proclaim the good news. The good news, that Christ lives and salvation is granted to those who believe.
So, when is a man a human being and not a fool? When he sheds himself of the self-directed life he is living and accepts a life of self giving. As Jesus reminds us in today’s scripture, fruit can only be born as a result of the death of the seed, and that the Kingdom of God will be glorified by the fruits born from our own self sacrifice. Together, with all who serve and believe in the salvation given through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, we will await the gift of an eternal life in heaven, Amen.

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