Blessed to Be a Blessing | Blessed By the Word
I spent the better part the week in Kansas City with our Lay Leader, Cindy Huber, and 2500 United Methodists leaders - clergy and laity. We spent the week dreaming, hoping, and considering how our calling to bear witness to the redemptive Grace of Jesus Christ is shaped in the light of the current climate in the United Methodist Church. It should come as no surprise where there are two or three United Methodists gathered in the name of Jesus Christ there are differing opinions on everything from church music and how coffee is served to the nitty-gritty details of what we hold in common as a denomination.
There is a reason the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason) begins with Scripture. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, had a method to his madness. When we begin with Scripture we are beginning with the word of G-d revealed to Creation through those whom the Lord spoke to and the Holy Spirit who continues to breathe new life into those words today.
This stained-glass window is at the front of the sanctuary in the Church of the Resurrection. I’m not sure about the exact dimensions but I can tell you Jesus’ head is 5-feet tall to give you some perspective. The window is a depiction of three gardens.
Gardens are scattered throughout the Bible, including providing bookends.
Our story begins in a garden.
Genesis tells us G-d created the Heavens and the Earth, beasts of the sea, air, and ground, and then created us and placed us in a Garden.
The garden where Creation began to flourish is depicted on the left side of the image and as we move towards the center, you will see familiar images from the Sunday School stories you remember as children, the stories we now examine with the Tradition, Experience, and Reason we have gained over the course of our lives. Kids, you need to know this, and if you don’t want to listen to me after this point that’s is fine with me - please, I beg of you, do not stop reading these stories. These stories are just a part of who we are as a church and we cannot fully understand the Bible without them.
The Hebrew Bible, highlighted by our reading from the prophet Jeremiah, can be confusing, which is why we tend to not read it. Many of the stories lack clarity and application to 2019 and beyond, and still, these G-d is speaking to us through these Holy Words.
The story of the prophet Jeremiah occurred at a particular place at a particular time. Jerusalem was surrounded by their Babylonian enemies, the prophet was in prison after being accused of treason, and hope was looking slim for the chosen people of G-d. The Babylonians were going to destroy Israel by starving them to death and Jeremiah, after having a vision from the Lord, decided that was the time to buy land.
Purchasing land during this time was a complicated and messy business and being besieged by Babylon made this a terrible time to purchase land. This land was about to be taken from Jeremiah, so it seemed. Hope was lost and yet to Lord came to Jeremiah and told him that not all was lost. Hope you see, int he Bible, time and time again prevails over darkness. Beyond what we view as antiquated rules and customs the Hebrew Bible is a story of the hope of G-d’s chosen people as they navigated life together, life apart, and life in the complicated geopolitical structure of their day.
As we move to the center of the window we find Jesus - arms stretch out, inviting us into his grace.
Then we move further to the right to the saints who have gone before the Church (you probably recognize a few people), ending in the garden describe at the end of the Book of Revelation where Creation is back in the order it was created with.
There is peace among the nations.
The lion and the lamb are lying beside one another.
The pain of Sin is no more.
The pain we inflict upon one another is no more.
The words we use to cut one another down are replaced by words of Grace.
The greatest commandment given by Jesus is fully realized - all of creation loves G-d and we have finally figured out how to love our neighbors as ourselves.
This book is confusing. I have been reading it - off and on - since I received my third-grade bible with bonded leather with red letters. I have spent countless hours studying in the basement of a seminary, with friends and strangers, and around dining room tables and I can tell you this - I have not figured it out.
Rob Bell wrote that the Bible is a book of politics, economics, common stories, and inside jokes and we often find ourselves, at times, on the outside.
For those of you who have been doing this Church thing longer than I have, I know you feel the same way. Just about the time, we think we have this book figured out G-d has a way of breathing new life into the text, disrupting what we think we know, and we begin the process again.
Christians of all stripes - Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Baptists, and even those quirky Presbyterians - take these Holy Words seriously. Christians across the theological spectrum take this book seriously and still, three of us can read the same text and walk away with six different interpretations. It's just the nature of the book and how G-d speaks to each of us in ways that we need rather than the ways we want to read the text. Reading into the text what we want to be in the text makes the text more about us and less about the story of redemption and hope we find in its pages.
Karl Barth famous said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
Everything necessary for salvation - the saving of us and all of humanity - is found in this book. On face value, the stories are complicated, grotesque, beautiful, and full of hope.
We do not have to twist the words in this book to fit the agenda of the Church or our politics. Jesus’ teachings, while confusing at times, clearly outline what the garden in Revelation will look like and how we get there - the Great Commission given to the Church by Christ, is clear.
Jesus told a parable about a Rich Man who ignored a poor man named Lazarus. when they both die the Rich Man finds himself now on the outside and Lazarus dwelling with Abraham.
The division between rich and poor is no more. The Rich Man does not pass by Lazarus without having his heartbreak because he finally understands what loving G-d and neighbor means.
Jeremiah had received the word of the Lord had hope that what looked like the end would be made right by G-d. Israel would survive the siege of Babylon. Israel had hope in a time when it seemed all hope had been lost. The word of G-d given to Jeremiah promised prosperity over their oppressors and the Lord was faithful.
I told you there were three gardens in the image and there are. Jesus in the middle of the image, with his arms, stretched out inviting us into his arms revealing the powerful hope of G-d in a garden. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus died in a garden, was buried in a garden, and revealed the resurrection to Mary in a garden. The hope of G-d was confirmed to Creation in a garden.
Friends, this book is a book of Hope and because it is a book of Hope we then are a people of Hope.
This book is not meant to be a stumbling block towards faith with the complexities of cultures we do not understand in a time most of us will never study in depth.
This book of Hope builds up the body of Christ and all of Creation and does not tear down. This book is not a weapon to be used to convince someone to “get right with the Lord,” or to prove a talking point on your debate sheet.
This book is life-giving.
This book is an invitation to earnestly believe that when all seems lost there is Hope.
When the city gates are surrounded, and the Traditions of the past make no sense, what we are Experiencing and what we can Reason leave us feeling as though the darkness is closing in, this book gives us Hope because in it we have the revealed Truth of G-d’s unwavering Love for us, manifested to the fullest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today our third graders have received their first Bibles. To them, I say this, do not let this book collect dust on the bookshelf. In times of darkness, this book is a Light because in it we find the ultimate story of the redemptive promise of G-d.
As we give this book to our children let us recommit ourselves to it. Let us commit to being a community of people who take seriously Jesus, the Word of G-d and flesh. Jesus is our lens to this book.
We are blessed to be a blessing because we have been blessed by the word of G-d, written in these pages and revealed to us by our encounters with Christ.