Monday, July 8, 2019

Mine, Yours, Ours

This summer we have a tree in our sanctuary, and every week we are hanging a different fruit from the tree.  Every week we are exploring a different fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Preaching in series is something relatively new to me; I'm preaching some old scripture verses in a new context, and preaching some Bible stories I've never preached on before as well.

Last week our theme was joy.  The fruit of the Spirit is Joy.  And the text that I chose (usually read during Epiphany in my tradition) was from Nehemiah 8.  And of course the verse itself is so well-known, although most people don't know the story surrounding the verses.  "The Joy of the Lord is your strength."

I've seen it on plaques.
I've heard it in songs.

But not really thought much about it.

One of the things i do these days (that I never have done before) is find images for the sermon.  We have projection in my congregation, and I look for pictures and sometimes for words that I can put up on the screen.  And I was looking for this verse, "The Joy of the Lord is your strength", and what was interesting to me is that, for the most part, I found this verse on line:  "The Joy of the Lord is my strength."

It made me think.  Those pesky pronouns.  I thought, of COURSE when Ezra is speaking to the people, he is going to say, The Joy of the Lord is YOUR strength."  But what does he mean?  Does he mean that the joy of the Lord is your strength as an individual believer?  Or does he mean that the joy of the Lord is your strength as a part of a community of believers?

Does it even matter?

Those pesky pronouns.  I was recently reminded in a Bible study that faith is an individual matter.  No one can believe for someone else.  We each stand before God on our own.  No one else's good word can get us in.  (Okay, except Jesus'.  That one doesn't really work.)

It's true; no one else can believe for us.  Except that I catch myself thinking about the times when I went to worship, with all of my doubts, and said the creed along with all of the other believers.  Somehow their faith made me stronger.  Maybe we can believe for one another sometimes.

And maybe the joy of the Lord is not my possession or yours, but it is the gift of the Spirit to the community of faith.  it is the Spirit that doesn't just live in our hearts, but it is the Spirit that also lives in our community, where we share joy and sorrow, fruit both bitter and sweet, and good.

On Sunday morning, I took out a small bottle of bubbles to show joy.  But I wasn't very good at blowing bubbles, and the six year old girl sitting next to me said, 'You're doing it too fast!"  Then she showed me how to blow a bubble properly.

And the joy of the Lord was our strength.

The Fruit of the Spirit is Joy

“The Power of Joy”
Nehemiah 8:1-10

             The fruit of the Spirit is Joy.  

            And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

            Do you recognize that verse?  I have seen it on placques, heard it in songs, know it by heart.  “The Joy of the Lord is our strength.”  
            Just one verse – but have you ever thought about it?  How is joy a strength?  Is joy strong?  Is joy powerful?

            Sometimes we think just the opposite – that joy is a child’s virtue.  I know when I close my eyes and think about joy
             – I think about children – the children at the pre-school, who, when I come over to visit – just to check in – are so happy to see me – are so excited to show me their new shoes, or tell me about their baby brother, or their trip to the Coca Cola Factory in Atlanta!  Joy!  
            They are joyful. But then -- they don’t have to deal so much with life – at least – most of them don’t.

            Joy seems to be a luxury sometimes – for us adults – 
            it’s a serious world after all. 
             There are many wrongs to right, so much pain to heal, so much tragedy ….  A little bit of joy might be okay, but in moderation….too much seems wrong, and frivolous and even – naive …. 
            You know what they say about Pollyannas, and their annoying cheerfulness – their unrealistic idea that you can always find something to be GLAD about….

            Pollyanna…. I even rented that old movie this week –(Pollyanna) in an effort to understand Joy,   
            I remembered that this movie was one of my dad’s favorites – my goofy dad, who liked to tell the same joke over and over, and who made up his own words to songs.  
            Pollyanna was one of his favorite movies.  
            And I remembered again about the girl who played the “Glad Game” – who tried to find something to be glad about everywhere.  Her father taught her the game.
            They were missionaries, and they were poor, and they had to rely on charity.  One thing Pollyanna wanted more than anything else was a doll, but they didn’t have money for it.  
            So they waited for the charity boxes from the missionaries.  There was no doll – but there were a pair of crutches.  What was there to be glad about?  Pollyanna’s father told her that she could be glad – that she didn’t need the crutches…. That was the glad game.  To find something to be joyful about – even In a pair of crutches. 

            And the fruit of the Spirit is joy.  
            And the joy of the Lord is our strength.  But joy doesn’t seem to be that powerful.  It doesn’t even seem realistic, sometimes.  In our world.   In our time. And it probably didn’t seem to be realistic to the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s time either. 

            Nehemiah – the book where those words “the joy of the Lord is your strength” comes from.   

            Here’s the scene. It’s about the year 538 BC.  
            The Israelites have been in exile in Babylon and they have finally been allowed to come home. They came back to a temple in ruins and a city whose walls had been destroyed.  And in those days it was important for a city to be fortified to have walls.  So the exiles had a lot of work to do.  
            Under the guidance of the governor Nehemiah and the priest Ezra, they rebuilt the temple and they rebuilt the walls of the city – not easy tasks.  There were a lot of setbacks and arguments and it was hard to unify the people.  
            They were probably tempted to give up.  A lot of times.
            But finally, in today’s reading, the walls are finished, and the people are gathered by what is called the “Water Gate.”  You might call it a sort of resurrection – the resurrection of the city of Jerusalem –
            And while they are there they asked the priest Ezra to read to them from the scrolls of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.  And we don’t know exactly what he was reading from the Torah –
            Just that they hadn’t heard the Word of God for a long time –
            And that while he was reading, he was explaining so that they could understand, and that while he was reading, they fell on their faces and wept.
            And that is when Ezra told them to get up, and stop weeping -- for the Joy of the Lord is your strength.

             Why were they weeping?  They had reason to weep.  
            Some people speculate that they wept because they realized how they had failed their God, and strayed from him.  
            They heard the word of God, and the law of God, and they could not find anything to be glad about. Not just because of the way the world was – a dangerous place – but because of the way they were – turning their backs on God – forgetting his promises, and their responsibility to bless the world.  
            They wept because they realized all these things – and all of them were true –

            But the priest Ezra told them the truth – That Joy is more powerful than tears – and that the Joy of the Lord – is the most powerful of all.

            Get up and realize that despite everything – God is still with you.  Get up and rejoice in the voice of God.  Get up and feast – and share what you have with others who have less. Get up and realize that you are alive….

            It can be like this for many in our own day.  
            Sometimes it seems like our religious institutions are crumbling.  People are abandoning their practice of the faith, churches are closing, the situations in our society are leading to a lack of mercy and compassion for others.  
            When we see how far we are from the Word of God, we might want to weep.  The tasks we face as a church as a big as anything faced by the people of God in Nehemiah’s day.  
            But the joy of the Lord is our strength too.  And if we stand in that joy, the work we must do will be done.

            The joy of the Lord is resurrection Joy.  It is the fruit of the Spirit.  

            It is the city of Jerusalem come back to life. 
             It is the gift of the word of God, the God who is still speaking to you, the God who still has a mission for you.  It is the gift of life – and it is the gift of the community – standing TOGETHER as they listen to the word of God.

            The joy of the Lord is our strength – and it is resurrection joy – and it is a communal joy. –We can give it to one another.  Pollyanna gave it to her community – where she came to stay – and they gave it back to her when she lost joy and felt she couldn’t go on.  

            The fruit of the Spirit is joy.   Resurrection joy.  
            We give it to one another. 
            Where have you seen joy this week?  Where do you find joy?

            I have a friend who has had cancer – who I have prayed for – and kept in touch with – and this week – I saw on video – I saw that she has been raising monarch butterflies – and releasing them.   

            Go out and look for joy this week!   And then come back to witness to the power and presence of God in the world.



The Fruit of the Spirit is Love

 Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places

Ruth 1:1-21

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  

            I read an article the other day that might not seem to have anything to do with this verse – but it does.  Bear with me. 
            The article began with an odd experiment in what we notice.          People were asked to watch a basketball game.  
            Half of the players wore white shirts and half wore black shirts.  They were asked to pay attention to how often the ball was passed among the players wearing white shirts. 
             Shortly after the game began, a man in a gorilla suit came out and walked among the players.    
            And you know what? -- fully 50% of the observers did not notice the gorilla.  
            In fact, they would have sworn that there was NO gorilla.  They were looking for something else.
            In our modern world, we have been trained not to see something which was obvious to generations in the pass:  that a personal God is active and moving in the world.  
            We still believe it – or we say we do.  But our senses have been trained in other ways.
            So this summer, we are going to train our senses to see what we believe – that a personal God is active and moving in the world.
            Starting, today, with love.
            The first of the fruits of the Spirit.  
             It’s no accident, I think, that it’s first.  
            After all, Paul also writes that, “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three – but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is first.  
            And the other fruit is connected to love.   It is sort of a foundation fruit – and you will see that when you see love – you may see another one of the fruits as well.  

            How do we train our eyes to see love?  
            First of all, I think, by noticing the stories of love in the Bible – really looking at them – seeing the details, imagining the scenes. 
            Like this scene, in the first chapter of Ruth.   
            I think that if there is one thing that is famous in the book of Ruth – it is the verses spoken by Ruth – and we recognize them as words of love 
            – but most of us know them from popular weddings songs.   “Entreat me not to leave thee/for whither thou goest I will go…. Thy people shall be my people, thy God my God… and where thou diest I will die.”    
            We know that Ruth’s words are words of love –

            But they are spoken from a daughter in law to her mother in law – and they are spoken in bitter circumstances.  
            Naomi and her family had left Israel during a famine and moved to Moab – and their sons had married two Moabite women.   But both Naomi’s husband and her two sons have died.  
            She has lost everything. 
            She knows she needs to return home.  
            And her daughters in law – being foreigners – there is no reason to expect they would be welcome in Israel – and really – no reason for them to go to Israel.  
            There have no children with their husbands.  
            They have no ties any more to Naomi.  
            And yet – both of them – at first – tell her that they will go with her.   
            And I think it is an act of love on Naomi’s part – to tell them they don’t have to come – she doesn’t want to tie them down.  
            She doesn’t think there is anything for them in Israel.   
            Naomi isn’t going to get married and have more sons that will grow up and be husbands for them – and that’s what both of these women need – in that time and culture.  

            But for some reason – Ruth won’t leave.  
            She wants to go with her mother-in-law.  
            She is willing to go to a place where she might experience hostility – and do what she can to help Naomi.    
            Between a Moabite daughter-in-law and her Israelite mother-in-law.  
            Maybe it’s not where you would expect to see love.  But it’s there.

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  

            And what does this tell us about love – the fruit of love?

            First of all – it tells us that the fruit of love comes in unexpected places and in unexpected people – even the “wrong” person.  
            The fruit of loves comes in a Moabite woman willing to go the distance for the mother-in-law that she loves – to go with her to a country that she did not know – and where a welcome was not certain  -- Look for the fruit of love – even in the unexpected and the wrong places.

            And the fruit of love comes to us in places the places of grief and death – also unexpected places. 
            Naomi is living in a strange land – she has lost her husband and both of her sons.  
            She expects that her daughters in law will leave her too.  
            Why would they stay? She has nothing to offer them.  
            And yet Ruth clings to her.  
            For us too – the place of grieving and death is also a place of love – maybe especially so. 

            It was on the night in which he was betrayed that Jesus said these words to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  
             And then he washed their feet – and then he died for them.  
            He was preparing them for his death when he said these words – when he gave them these words – words about his deep commitment to them – a love that would never let them go 
            – and their commitment to one another, a love that would also show itself to be fierce in the time of death.    
            Not then – but later, after he died and rose.  

            In times of death – love is the evidence of life.  
             Love that holds hands at a bedside, comes out for the funeral, brings casseroles, listens.  
            They are sometimes little things, but they are big things.  
            Where have you seen the fruit of love in this world, in your life, in this community?  
            Because we believe that a personal God is active and moving in this world.  But we need to retrain our senses to notice it.

            For many years I saw the fruit of love – but I didn’t that’s what it was for a long time.  
            I used to know a man who walked permanently bent over.  I didn’t know why and I didn’t really think about it much.  
            He walked permanently bent over, sometimes straightening up just a little, to say hello.

            Sometime after his wife died, I realized it.  
            Is wife had had polio as a young mother, and developed something called post-polio syndrome later on. 
            She spent most of their marriage in a wheelchair.  
            He gave up a job he loved as a professor to take a higher paying job, and they remodeled the kitchen so that the appliances worked for her.

            Even though she was in a wheelchair, they still enjoyed going to the theatre and to concerts together. 
            But in order to get her into and out of the car, and into places, he needed to carry  her.  
            From the car to the wheelchair, from the wheelchair to her seat.  And so all of those years – in this bent over man – I was seeing the fruit of love.  
            Only I hadn’t trained my eyes to notice.

            A personal God is active and moving in this world…

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  Where have you seen it?   Where have you seen God?

            Go out and look for him this week…. 
            And then come back to witness to his power.