Unity in the midst of division

June 2, 2019 (The Seventh Sunday of Easter)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

John 17:20-26

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

17:20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of boundless grace, you call us to drink freely of the well of life and to share your love. May the glory of your love, made known in the victory of Jesus Christ, our Savior, transform our lives and the world he lived and died to save. We ask this in his name and for his sake. Amen.

I believe one of the hardest concepts to achieve or feel will ever come to reality, is unity.  We live in a world that has so many different opinions and cultures and ever-changing points of view, that it is impossible to think that we would ever achieve or experience unity.

We are bombarded every day with countless examples of just how fractured our world, our nation, our city, the church and even our families truly are.  Red States, Blues States, Traditionalists, Progressives, Skyline, Gold Star, UC, Xavier and the list is never ending.  Division and opinions are not bad in and of themselves but considering Jesus prayer for unity that we read today it seems a long way from ever becoming reality.

Which begs the question, is unity – in our world, in our nation, in our community, in the church – a realistic goal anymore?   Let me begin by stating that unity in the sense that Jesus is praying for is not that everyone believes exactly the same thing or in the same way; living in lock step with one another.  Instead, Jesus is praying for oneness and unity as say a well working team or a healthy functioning body. Where all the parts work together for a common goal.  So, to reframe my question in a more positive way, how are we the church, the body of Christ, called to show unity to a world that is full of fractures and brokenness?

In our passage from John today, Jesus is keenly aware of how important unity is, both for his disciples’ faith at that time, as well as for the future faith of the church.

In this passage Jesus is praying for his disciples and he is also praying for each of us.  It is called the High Priestly Prayer.  Again, we are hopscotching our way through John’s Gospel and we are back in the Upper Room on what we know as Maundy Thursday and we overhear Jesus praying.  It is a prayer that looks to the future. Jesus was praying not only for the people seated around him at table that evening but also for his future followers, which thanks be to God, includes us.  And it is a prayer that focuses on unity, on all being one.

It seems to be an unanswered prayer.

Nearly 15 years ago a journalist, named Bill Bishop coined the term “the big sort.” He in collaboration with sociologist and statistician Robert Cushing co-authored a book of the same title, The Big Sort.[1]  It is the story of how America has become to be a country of cultural division, economic separation, and political polarization.  Bishop and Cushing used demographic data (2004), to show how Americans have been sorting ourselves into homogeneous communities— not only by region or by state, but by city and even neighborhood. Over the past three decades, we have been going far beyond the simplistic red state/blue state divide, we have sorted ourselves geographically, economically, politically and religiously into like-minded communities.

We (Americans) have been choosing the neighborhood, the church and the channel we get our news that are compatible with our lifestyle and our beliefs. Bishop and Cushing concluded that the result of this sorting is a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away.   And I add are not interested in learning more about our neighbors with other world views.

Our country — our culture, economy, neighborhoods, and churches— have been influenced by this social sorting that we have knowingly been part of for over the past thirty years. For example:

  • People with college degrees were relatively evenly spread across the nation’s cities in 1970. Fifty years later, college graduates had congregated cities, a phenomenon that decimated the economies in some places and caused other regions to flourish.
  • The generation of ministers who built sprawling mega-churches in the new suburbs learned to attract their stadium-sized congregations through the “homogenous unit principle,” (“a section of society in which all members have some characteristic in common.” Whether or not members of the group can readily articulate it, the common characteristic makes them feel at home with each other and aware of their identity as “we” in distinction to ‘they’).[2] The new churches were designed for cookie-cutter parishioners, what one church-growth proponent described as “people like us.”
  • Businesses learned to target their marketing to like-minded “image tribes,”[3] a technique that has been perfected by social media and used by political parties in their campaigns.

The authors went through dozens of calculations and discovered that following World War II, some communities around the Untied States were busy converging but all that began to change in the early 1970’s.  This cultural shift could have been fueled by the turbulent 1960’s, the Viet-Nam War, Watergate, Race and Gender battles or any number of culture changing movements.  The country began to sort and that caused certain places to boom and others to bust economically, socially and culturally.  The places where educated people moved were getting richer and others poorer.  The places where young people were moving were producing more patents and other areas were dying off.

The authors state that people — especially Americans — abhor disagreement.  That’s why we choose to participate in churches, live in neighborhoods, and join clubs where we can easily find agreement, people like us.  It’s interesting, however, that when pollsters ask about compromise, most Democrats and Republicans believe their side has given enough and now it is time for the other side to see the error of their ways and change.  We all seem to think it’s the other side that’s causing the problems.  So, yes, there’s a lot of talk about the end of partisanship. We just don’t see anybody changing neighborhoods.

Living in politically like-minded groups has had its consequences. People living in homogenous communities grow both more extreme and more certain in their beliefs.  Local governments are becoming more and more extreme.  While, nationally, we see nothing but gridlock because Congress has lost most of its moderate members and compromise has been replaced with conflict.  Division rules the day.  Which begs the question, is there any hope for Jesus prayer in John 17:21 to be fulfilled?

John 17:21, that they may all be one is a familiar verse for us at the Indian Hill Episcopal Presbyterian Church, as we are one of the few dual denominational churches in the country.  We have been together for over 70 years now; we have demonstrated that there can be unity even in the midst of our denominational differences.  We can demonstrate a diversity of the strength of vision points beyond mere differences.

It was the hope of the founders of our church to create a place of worship in this affluent community where people would be challenged not to become conformists, but instead to be exposed to multiple perspectives. We honor our Episcopal and Presbyterian heritages in our different worship services, but we all come together to celebrate as children of God.  We also strive to contribute our time and our talents to reach out to the community at large.  We are challenged to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  We hope that we have an environment to explore social issues and provide opportunities to respond by encouraging each other participate in making the world a better place.

We affirm that there is more than one way to worship God and to love our neighbors.  It is a prayer for community.  Jesus prays that, “all may be one.”  To be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole.  According to Jesus there are to be no solitary Christians or spiritual “Lone Rangers.”

Within that community the prayer is for unity: “that all may be one.” Does that mean we all have to get along all the time?  Does that mean we all have to agree all the time?  We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not.  We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not.  To become a part of Christ is to become a part of the community; a part of the one.

Jesus’ prayer reminds us that our unity, our “oneness” is to be a sign to the world of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.  Oneness and unity are about love not homogeny.  And if you have been a part of a family, a member of a church, or a community, you know that within that love there can be disagreements and squabbling.  We are human.  But the mystery of faith is that God wanted to be in relationship with us so much that God became one of us.  And in that moment, we were drawn into oneness with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is with God’s help that we can live into that oneness and show it to our fractured and sorted world. May it be so, in your life and in mine.

Let us pray:

[1] (Houghton Mifflin, May 7, 2008)

[2] https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-1

[3] http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0597/turow.html

Abiding in Mission

No judgment, just love

May 19, 2019 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 11:1-18

Psalm 148

John 13:31-35

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

13:31 “When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:31-35, NRSV)

Let us pray: Dear God, you are the Alpha and Omega, First and Last, your glory outshines all the lights of heaven: we pray that you will pour out your Spirit of love and compassion upon us, so that we may rejoice in the splendor of your works while we wait in expectation for the new heaven and the new earth you promise when Christ shall come again. Amen.

It was a surreal Tuesday afternoon that spilled over into Wednesday morning.  The Indian Hill Rangers and other police departments set up a command center in our parking lot.  They were searching Red Bird Hollow for a missing young man. Unfortunately, it had a very tragic outcome.  They found his dead body on Wednesday around noon. George was very helpful in his role as a Police Chaplain in supporting the family and the search crews.  This tragic situation is another stark reminder of the seriousness of depression and despair. It is every parent’s nightmare, is my child that hopeless that they see no way out, no way forward, no hope that they would take their own life.  Despair, fear, grief, loss, anxiety all leads to the bottomless pit of darkness and depression. I couldn’t help but think of these men and women searching for this young man as shepherds looking for the lost sheep or motivated by love for one another…

Henri Nouwen, in his wonderful book Our Greatest Gift, writes:

We are fearful people. We are afraid of conflict, of war, of an uncertain future, of what the stock market might do today or tomorrow, of illness, and most of all death. And fear takes away our freedom. When we can reach beyond our fears to the one who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be after we die, oppression and illness, even death will not be able to take away our freedom once we have come to that deep inner knowledge— a knowledge more of heart than of mind— that we were born out of love and that we will die into love; that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love; and illness, evil, even death will lose its power over us. Jesus said, “I will not leave you alone. I will not abandon you. You are mine forever!”

This is the promise Jesus gives his disciples in our Gospel reading for today. We have been hopscotching our way through John’s Gospel this Easter season, so here is some context.  The Gospel passage for today is a section of John’s farewell discourse, where he, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. In the passage he calls them “little children.”  The questions are what you would expect from a little child who has been told that a parent is going away: ”Where are you going?” “How long will you be away?” “Who is staying with me? Can I go with you?”

In response, Jesus gives a promise. His promise is clear and unequivocal: “I am not going to abandon you. I will not leave you orphaned.  The love made known to us in Jesus Christ will not abandon us.

His promise is not empty because he also issues a challenge to his disciples. They are gathered in the Upper Room for what we call the Last Supper:  “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus has already washed his disciples, and then Judas leaves the twelve to carry out his plot to betray Jesus, and the rest of the disciples are in a state of confusion.  At just this moment of drama and tension, Jesus’ offers this challenge, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Which seems so simple, but it is really not, is it?   Jesus is not talking about romantic love, and he is demanding more than simply being nice.  He is not saying love those who love you back. Think about it: when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, Judas was there.  Jesus washed his feet! See, it is hard. Love is hard because it is self-sacrificing. It means putting the good of the other first, even when it hurts.  

Jesus could have said to his disciples as he was preparing to leave, “Go out and die with me.” Or, “keep the faith.” Or, “when I am gone go out and teach and preach to all the world.” Or “Keep the ministry going and maintain it for me.”  But No, instead he offered this simple and challenging word, “love another.”

What is it about love? The love he is pointing to is the love that defines God and Jesus but also of the church.  As the old camp song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love,” not by our sermons or our sacraments or our festivals or our buildings or our crucifixes or our family values … but by our love.   That is, it! Our love!

First Jesus assures us that he will be with us.  There is a wonderful passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah where the prophet says that God will stay with us through difficulties as well as through joyful times, and then there is this poignant line where he says, “Even if others desert you, I will never leave you.” And that is so crucial for our lives.  That is so crucial for the fabric to that holds us together.

Do you remember when you were scared at night? You may have heard strange noises or had a bad dream and your mother or father came in to hold you and to assure you that they were there, and everything was going to be all right. It is that kind of comfort and assurance that are contained in this promise of love.

Have you ever noticed how over and over at crucial points in the Bible, God says, “Do not be afraid. Let not your hearts be troubled.”

A consistent theme, during this Easter Season is important for us to remember that the Risen Christ is with us.  In a moment we will celebrate his presence at this table. And what he says to us is not only that you will never be abandoned, but also that you do not have to be afraid “for I have claimed you. You are mine forever.”

“A new commandment I give you that you love one another.”  In other words, what enables us to live together in families, to deal with our differences in community, to work together in the body of Christ which is the Church; what transforms our relationships is the power of God’s love.  It is more powerful than any of the barriers that we put up. It can bring a family together and enable a family to deal with trials and tribulations. It can make a community, even a divided community learn to live together and work together.

“A new commandment I give you that you love one another.”  In other words, the God who created us and claimed us is not through with us yet.  He is continuing to work among us to build a community in our families and in this world, where all people dwell in God.

No judgment. Only love. Love one another, as Jesus has loved.

Our congregation is really good at caring relationships. Prayers, casseroles at funerals, concerned phone calls, handwritten notes — these seemingly small gestures are true extensions of this love that Jesus calls for.   “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Caring relationships can speak louder than words. Showing love for one another is the greatest gift we can give. May it be so, as Jesus’ new commandment bears fruit in all of us.

Let us pray:

Questions, everybody’s got them…

May 12, 2019 (The Fourth Sunday of Easter & Confirmation)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

John 10:22-30

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

10:22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.” (John 10:22-30, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of comfort and compassion, through Jesus, your Son, you lead us to the water of life and to the table of your bounty.  May we who have received the care and love of our Good Shepherd be strengthened by your grace to care for your flock. Amen.

If ever there was a perfect text for Confirmation Sunday, this just may be it. One of the great gifts of working with the Confirmation Class each year are their questions.  We get all kinds of questions, serious, irreverent, sad, humorous, some I will be happy to share with you and some that are not safe for public consumption.  What is so much fun is the fact that they are not afraid to ask.  Anything, everything.  How did the Holy Spirit have relations with Mary?  Explain the Trinity?  Why does God let bad things happen to his people?   If Jesus is the only way to heaven then what about my friends who are Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic?  See they ask great questions. Deep probing questions.

The crowd asked Jesus a question as he was walking outside of the Temple in the portico of Solomon.  It’s a late December day in Jerusalem.  As usual, he’s drawing a crowd. This time, the people gathered around him have come to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication (better known to us as Hanukkah), a festival honoring the rededication of the Temple. This is a Hanukah story that celebrates the successful Maccabean revolt against the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, who contaminated the temple in Jerusalem by setting up a pagan idol. About 200 years before Jesus’ time, Judas Maccabeus had driven out the foreign oppressor and rededicated the temple; thus, the festival was both a commemoration of national independence, like our Fourth of July, and a religious holiday recalling the temple’s purification.

Some people in the crowd have come with a question.  Maybe they heard Jesus teaching or preaching. Maybe they witnessed one of his miracles.  Or maybe they want to trap him into saying something blasphemous.  Whatever their motive, they ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Most parents are used to the questions from your children. You know the typical kid questions. “Why?” “What does that mean?” “How do you know?” Children are asserting their need to question the world and better understand the reality around them. For some that need to question authority and to test the limits of perceived reality never stops, many of us continue to question everything in life and especially in faith.  This is a wonderful gift.  Maybe, that is the point of theology/ church/ confirmation not to resolve the tensions that come in the life of faith, but rather to help us to ask better questions.[1]

Jesus, like most every parent has learned avoids giving a direct answer and instead states, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” 

This is what is happening in this story.  Jesus has shown the people around him three years of examples of who he is.  He has taught, preached, healed, cast out demons, calmed storms and… He has had others question his identity repeatedly. Questioning who he is and what he is about is quite normal.  Prophets were often asked to give proof of their powers.  But the question that Jesus is asked goes much deeper than simply giving proof.  This goes to the heart of his identity.  The crowd doubts that he is the messiah.

I am reminded that doubt is a constant companion to faith.  It warmed my heart on Wednesday night to hear some of the Confirmation Class in their faith statements acknowledge that they had doubts, they had questions, they want to know more about God, faith and the Bible.  Doubt and questioning are normal parts of our lives as people and as followers of Jesus. To live in the tension of faith and doubt, of questions and answers, gives us room to hear the words of promise that Jesus offers: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

If you learn nothing else this year from confirmation, please learn this: that God will not abandon you, that Jesus will hold on to you through all things, that God will never, ever let you go.  There are so many times in life where we feel, inadequate, afraid, unsure, unworthy or unsafe, God will never ever let you go! No matter how crazy or difficulty or stressful or scary your life may seem, God chooses you, God loves you, God is with you, and God will hold onto you through all of life.  Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”[2]

So, keep asking questions.  Keep searching. And know that God is big enough to take it, and God will be with you every step of the way.

Let us pray:

[1] David Lose

[2] David Lose

Fishing Love

May 5, 2019 (The Third Sunday of Easter)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 9:1-6

Psalm 30

John 21:1-19

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

21:1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon 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.” 16 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.” 17 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. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:1-19, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of victory over death, your Son revealed himself again and again, and convinced his followers of his glorious resurrection. Grant that we may know his risen presence, in love obediently feed his sheep, and care for the lambs of his flock, until we join the hosts of heaven in worshiping you and praising him who is worthy of blessing and honor, glory and power, for ever and ever. Amen.

It happened one time and one time only.  My father and I went fishing.  My grandmother lived in an apartment that backed up to a waterway in St. Petersburgh. Florida. We walked out in the middle of the day and stood on the concrete retaining wall and I cast the line from my brand new Zebco fishing pole into the water.  My father was wearing a shirt and tie, that was his uniform, short sleeve shirt and tie.  Always, everywhere, even fishing.  The second we had just bought the fishing pole at K-mart earlier that day.  I don’t remember much except that we didn’t catch anything.  I can’t imagine we stayed very long.  Golf, Fishing, Hunting were not for my dad, they took too much time and patience.

I certainly can’t remember but I imagine the first few casts were exciting.  But with no results, I bet we both got frustrated and gave up and went back inside.   I have tried fishing a few times since then, but fishing is not my thing.   There is a lot of preparation, waiting, and disappointment when I have gone fishing. 

And this is exactly where we enter this story from the Gospel of John.  Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples as a group of disappointed disciples in their frustration and grief they want to go back to their normal lives as fishermen.  We join them in the boat on the Sea of Galilee.   We over hear them after a long night of fishing, and they have nothing to show for it.  They are tired and disappointed.  They just want to go home.   So, they head back to shore with empty nets.

Remember, they were professionals, they made their living as fishermen before Jesus came along, before he invited them to join him when he said, “Come, follow me.”  And they left their nets and followed.  What a trip it had been!  But now he was dead and gone so they tried to go back to normal, back to business as usual.  I imagine there was some relief getting back to the familiar – the predictable.  We all look for and enjoy our comfort zones, don’t we?  But they caught nothing.

Fishing may be the perfect metaphor for following Jesus, preparation, waiting, and disappointment.  It did not seem to them that they were very successful at following him either. Things had not turned out like they hoped.

So, there they are sitting in the dark, dejected, watching the sky change colors as the sun rises behind the hills.  Then they heard a voice. They could not see the person speaking but they certainly heard a voice.  Maybe it was the fog, maybe it was the darkness. They heard him first.  He tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat and they caught a lot of fish. 

It was, as Yogi Berra used to put it, Deja vu all over again. It is not the end after all, for the end has led them to a new beginning.

“It is the Lord!” said the beloved disciple.   A disappointing night of fishing suddenly becomes a glorious new day.

And the point of the story for us is, after the death of a loved one, often we find ourselves just “going through the motions” of life.  There is no rush to move on, but rather a space and time to dwell on what was. We too want to go back to our routines, when we have left the glorious Easter service, when we’re back at business as usual and maybe having a rough time of it, perhaps having a long dark night of the soul, it is precisely then that Jesus calls out to you and to me. 

We can see. “It is the Lord!” That is what the beloved disciples said. A dismal midnight scene becomes a glorious new day.

We teach our children these stories because these stories are full of clues for times when we are in the middle of the night and afraid, we struggle, when we are lost, alone and don’t know where to go.  It is precisely at that moment that the story says to us, “Pay attention. Listen to the voices around you. It is the Lord.”

We believe in a God who never gives up on us, who continually calls us, sometimes in the middle of the night or at the breaking of a new day, to new beginnings.

That moment of recognition. “It is the Lord!” A breakthrough moment when we know maybe for the first time or the hundredth time that God is in this with us, that we are not alone, that we do not have to face the difficulties of our life alone. We do not have to face death alone. God is with us.

Not only is God with us. God is calling us to something new, precisely when we thought it was all over.

Whatever else this strange story of fishing and naked fishermen, of the Risen Christ whose disciples at first don’t know him, of charcoal fires and a meal of bread and fish, whatever else this story is about I think it is really about what the Church does on the Sundays following Easter.  It is what those who are seeking to be disciples do every ordinary Sunday, when there are not a thousand Easter lilies and the Halleluiah Chorus, complete with brass and Easter finery.  It’s about worship, ordinary worship, when two or three or more gather in his name.

We pour water at the font that we might be reminded that, though we deny him – more than three times; let’s be honest now, three times a day perhaps is more truthful – though we deny him, he washes us clean in the waters of baptism; he forgives us; he keeps on offering the opportunity to reaffirm our love.

And we eat together.   In his name we take the bread and a common cup.   During the season of Easter, we do this almost every Sunday, except on those Sundays when we don’t.   We gather at the Table, so that he might feed us.  Not just with a little wafer of tasteless bread and a cup of wine, but with his presence, made available in the gathered community through the love and the compassion and the concern and the faith of our fellow worshipers.

Every Sunday after Easter as we go back to fishing, or whatever the normal and ordinary is for our lives, Jesus keeps on forgiving, restoring and feeding us.  And if we are attentive, if our ears are open as well as our hearts, every ordinary Sunday Jesus asks us his penetrating question: Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?

Let us pray: O Lord continue to remind us of our worthiness through your love. Equip us to share that love with the world. Amen.

Second Easter 2019

Why Mary Why?

April 21, 2019 (Easter)

The Resurrection of the Lord

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 10:34-43

Isaiah 65:17-25

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

John 20:1-18

Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

20: 1 “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” (John 20:1-18, NRSV)

Let us pray: Almighty God, who through your Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the way of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

It’s Easter, and Mary goes to the tomb.  I think we can all agree on that but maybe not much else.  But I wonder why Mary went to the tomb.[1] 

If I went around the sanctuary and asked some of you to tell the story of Easter, we all might tell it a little differently.  Some of us would tell of Mary Magdalene and others of us would tell of the disciples running back and forth.  Some of us might remark of how the stone had been rolled away and others still would tell how the gardener appeared and called Mary’s name.  We would all have our way of telling the Easter story. Apparently, eyewitness accounts are often not the most trustworthy.

The Gospel writers all had their own eyewitness accounts.  There are basically four different accounts of the resurrection, all with their own nuances and details and focus.  Matthew says there was an earthquake.  Mark ends so abruptly that we must fill in the details and provide our own ending.  Luke has a group of women that see the angels in dazzling clothes.  John has the gardener who ends up being Jesus.  Some accounts have Mary alone, some with other women.  Some have one angel, some two. It gets a bit confusing with all the differences and discrepancies.

But if you think about it, isn’t that confusion all part of the Easter story, all part of the Christian faith, our faith.  There are lots of differences, lots of running back and forth, there is skepticism, there is doubt, there is fear and there is faith.

So, why, Mary?  Why did you go?   What did you hope to find?  What did you think you would see?  Did you go Mary as we do when we go to such places?  To remember?  You go, knowing there’s nothing to do.  Nothing can be done.  You have buried your loved one, along with your fondest hopes.  All you can do is mourn all that has been lost.

Yet, knowing this, you go.  You go to the sealed tomb to weep for your friend. You go to mourn and to remember— to remember when he was still alive and the shining dream of all you wanted from him, all you hoped he would be and do. He and all that still lived in your heart.  You go hoping to experience again the days when Jesus was something special.  You go to remember when it was possible to still believe that he was a gift of God, of grace, of mercy, and the hope of the future.

You go to remember the way he reached out his hand to touch the heads of children and bless them.  You go to remember the great pleasure he took at seeing people as their lives were changed, their hearts lifted, and as they realized they were part of something holy, something wondrous, something that would lift them beyond the burden of their daily drudgeries.  You go to remember the tear in his eyes and the catch in his throat on that day when the man fell at his feet and begged him to come and heal his dying child.   You go, Mary, to remember the fire in his eyes, his anger at the money changers, the Pharisees, the religious leaders and all the senseless suffering.  You go for that precious moment to remember the day he stood outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus and wept.

Mary goes to look at the cold stone tomb and to imagine him lying there, still.  In many ways we are just like Mary on that first Easter morning.  Mary knew all about death, she knew that death was the end.  She knew that Jesus was gone, and life would never be the same.  With his death on the cross, her hope died too.  Mary had to face reality and reality told her:

Death is final

Some situations are hopeless

And now she is all alone

She went for a private time to let her tears flow and to mourn her loss. But, Mary, if that’s why you go, I understand that.  Yet what I don’t understand is what you actually find.  It turns out to be much more than a time to remember a time to cry because you miss him deeply.  You get something beyond my comprehension, you find something that changes everything. You get resurrection, you get life. 

Likewise, with us there is all kind of evidence that we are wrong about our belief in the Resurrection:  There are school shootings and drunk drivers killing innocent people, there is war and more war, there are divorces and depression and hopelessness.  There is all the evidence in the world that death is final, that some situations are hopeless and that we are all alone.

But here, we are gathered here at church on Easter Sunday because we believe otherwise, while we don’t understand it all and sometimes, we find ourselves running back and forth, but in the end, we say “life.” 

We stake our lives on the resurrection and that is enough to send us out into the world to live each day with hope, a hope that we don’t completely understand, but a hope, none the less a hope that we can trust, that we know that God is working, that life even comes out of death. 

William Slone Coffin, chaplain, social activist, preacher and prophet died in 2006.  He wrote a book before his death entitled “Credo” and the last chapter is “The End of Life.” Reflecting on his own impending death he wrote…

“As Job said, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  That does not mean that God is responsible for every death.  What that means is that before every birth and after every death there is still God.  The abyss of God’s love is deeper that the abyss of death.  Paul insists that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Even if we don’t know what is beyond the grave, we know who is beyond the grave.”[2]

Henri Nouwen wrote beautifully upon the occasion of his mother’s death:

“The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste.  What belongs to God will never get lost.  The resurrection doesn’t answer any of our common questions about life after death such as “How will it be?  How will it look?  But it does reveal to us that love is stronger than death.  God’s love for us, our love for each other, and our love for those who lived before and will live after us is not just a quickly passing experience, but a reality transcending all time and space.”[3] 

We all know the reality of this world.  Reality of pain and death and grief.  But now with Easter, with the empty tomb there is another reality.  There is reality that says this is not the end, death is not the final word, there is more, there is hope, there is the possibility for something new, there is hope for life and healing and wholeness.  With Easter eyes we know a reality that says you just never know what may happen, what the future may hold.

When we see these resurrections moments, when we see hope and life emerge from death, we may not completely understand it at the moment.  We may find ourselves confused just like those early followers.  We may find ourselves running back and forth not knowing whether to shout for joy or weep with grief.  We may find ourselves staring at the gardener and wondering if it might be Jesus.  And then we might find ourselves telling our version of the resurrection story.

We may find ourselves smiling and laughing and feeling hope again.  For Finally, ultimately, we are people of joy.  We are people of life.  We are people of faith.

The power of hope.  The power of life.  The power of resurrection.  It is enough to send us out from here to tell others that He is risen.  He is risen indeed.  On the other side of pain, on the other side of death there is always resurrection.  Across the darkness shadows of life, there shines a light that will never fail.  That is the truth of Easter.  Thanks be to God for it.  Alleluia. Christ is risen. Alleluia. He is risen, Indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Revered Dr. David Miller, http://day1.org/634-sermon_for_easter

[2] Reverend William Slone Coffin (Credo, p.167-171)

[3] Henri Nouwen, (Our greatest Gift)

Easter 2019

Palm Sunday 2019


April 7, 2019 (Lent 5)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

John 12:1-8

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

Let us pray: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe on us with the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, we pray. Amen.

43:16 “Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick. 18 Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” (Isaiah 43:16-21, NRSV)

Have you noticed any newness around you? This morning when the service is over, and you are walking to your car notice the daffodil’s coming up. In the midst of the cold and rainy weather we have had the last few weeks have you noticed that the trees are budding, the weeds in the yard are turning green?

As spring is trying to bloom on us.  Is it a coincidence that we read this from the Prophet Isaiah concerns newness?  The Israelites didn’t notice the newness that was breaking forth all around them because they were too concerned with their own struggles.  They were fearful and lost, overwhelmed by their circumstances.  In order to fully understand their predicament, we have to look at what happened prior to this passage.

          In chapter 39, the prophet Isaiah foretells of Judah’s exile in Babylon. Then the next two chapters 39 and 40, 150 years pass. It is during this 150-year period that Israel is led into captivity just as Isaiah, the prophet had predicted.  The temple and the whole city of Jerusalem were both destroyed.  The Israelites were living in exile, whose lives had become nothing but chaos and confusion.  The crisis the Israelites were living through would be a harsh test for the most secure, the strongest an the most faithful people of any time period. Chaos became the norm. The people lost their way.  The poet, William Butler Yeats describes so well, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”[1]

It is exactly into all of this chaos and destruction that God delivers the judgement on the people of Israel, because they were not living faithful lives.  God expresses divine anger.  Because of their sinfulness the people of Israel have lost favor in God’s eyes.  They wondered if this might be the sin that breaks the covenant?  These are people who have seen destruction, been in exile, afraid, lost and alone.  They lived with the humiliation of being held captive and over time they lost their understanding of God.  Now they were exiled from both the land and from the notion that God would protect and provide for them.[2]

Remember this as we move forward to Isaiah 43, the Prophet Isaiah spoke the word from the Lord.  He proclaims salvation to the people of God.  He tells of God’s promises that came from a particular past, Isaiah reminds them of the Red Sea, retelling Exodus event, what God once did for the slaves, God is doing for the exiles.  God is going to make a way where once there was no way.

Isaiah’s confidence to speak so boldly is built on God’s ability to do a new thing that God has done before and will do again.   Isaiah talks about hope that is not manufactured but is actually rooted in the glories of Israel’s past.  Precisely because of what God did at the Red Sea and in the Exodus event, Israel can believe that God will act again.

When all of the sudden Isaiah makes a drastic change from talking about the glories of the past and abruptly, he says: Do not remember the former things or things of old.  This is where the passage gets tough.  Forgetting our past is not what our counselors and psychiatrists tell us to do.  They have a word for someone who refuses to deal with the past: the word is “denial.”  People in denial are like ostriches who stick their heads in the sand, or a person who pretends that everything is fine, normal, when an enormous elephant is sitting in the middle of the room.   Do not remember the former things?  That’s not what our teachers and religious leaders tell us.  That is not what Jesus even tells us: “Do this in remembrance of me…”[3]

Remember the famous quote of George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher, poet, and humanist: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[4]  One look at the newspaper tells us that is true.  And those of us who try to live as people of faith in this confusing world we have traditions, and sacred stories, and scriptures that we read, over and over and we hold on to them.  We aren’t in the business of forgetting tradition.  We work at remembering it, we try to keep it, and we try to live by it, honestly and faithfully. Do not remember the former things? 

How are we supposed to do that?[5]

Isaiah means don’t live in the past, don’t dwell on what was, don’t just sit around and wish for the good ole days.  Appreciate what God has done in the past but live in the present.  Be alive now, in this moment, for such a time like this.

In this passage from Isaiah, we are given words to live by.  God’s promise to Israel, and God’s promise to us, is that each day we live in this beautiful journey called life, God will do a new thing.  God will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

It’s a strange promise God makes, when you think about it.  God doesn’t promise to domesticate the wilderness; only to make a way through it.  God doesn’t promise to take away the desert, or take you out of it, only to find some water in it. God doesn’t promise to tame the wild animals; no, the only promise is to make a way and to find the water, so that even the wild animals and other people will stop and see the new thing and honor God.

I think that is the promise for us, for all of us.  God will do a new thing.  No matter how wonderful or how awful things seem to us today, God will do a new thing.  No matter how tired we may be tomorrow, God will do a new thing.  No matter how mundane the routine, or sleepless the night, or painful the argument, God will do a new thing.  And it isn’t clear what that will be; there is no promise to fix or mend or put more hours in the day.  There is only the promise to make a way in the wilderness, a river in the desert – if we will look for it. “I am about to do a new thing,” says God.

On this fifth Sunday of Lent, may each of us wake up each morning and say to ourselves and those we love,

“Today, God is about to do a new thing.  If and then, let us open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts and go out and look for it.  Don’t let your imagination be closed off by what has come before.  Remember what you have; the former things: seas that split open so that the people could pass through on dry land; pillars of fire in the night that led the people through the wilderness; rocks that rolled away from the tomb.  The dead raised; the lost found, the prodigal welcomed home, sin forgiven.  We have a memory of God at work in our lives.” 

It is a question we asked our Confirmation Class this weekend on the retreat, where have you seen God at work?  If you haven’t then maybe you haven’t been looking!

For this is the day that the Lord has made.  God is about to do a new thing.

Do you see the newness around you?

Let us pray:

[1] Dr. Paul Hanson, Interpterion Series, (Biblical Commentary series) page 5.

[2] Reverend Dr. Craig Barnes, “On the Wild Side Isaiah 43:16·21. National Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC.

[3] Reverend Dr. Anna Carter Florence, “A New Thing,” Isaiah 43:16-21. Program #5013 January 7, 2007.

[4] George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905: page 284.

[5] Reverend Dr. Anna Carter Florence, “A New Thing,” Isaiah 43:16-21. Program #5013 January 7, 2007.

We are all three