All of my nieces and nephews are now college-aged or older, which I can't believe. Time just goes by so quickly. But I remember when they were little, and I remember once when my niece was just about three years old, she was so frightened by a storm that was happening outside -- all of the thunder and lightning was really scary to her. And her older brother, my nephew, who was around six or seven at the time, was making it even worse, trying to scare her even more. He was saying that the thunder was God's angry voice because she had been a bad girl, and that the rain was God's tears. God was so sad that she had been so bad, and the lightning bolts were meant to strike her -- you know, terrible things that our older siblings tell us.
Well, a couple of months ago, I was talking with you about how many Christian churches in America todaynow have signs in front of their churches that say things like, “All are welcome,” “Everyone welcome,” “Come as you are.” How odd, I thought, that a church, which by its very definition, means House of God, would have to proclaim with a sign that everyone's welcome. I mean, shouldn't everyone be welcome at church? But of course, we know that isn't true, that many people are not welcome at many churches in America today. And that's why those signs are needed and necessary. Now we have a sign in front of our church, which reads in part, “In this church, we believe that science is real.” And again, we're living at such a strange time where we would even need a sign to proclaim that.
Well, in the Gospel reading from today's lectionary, which I just read for you, we hear about two miracles, the healing of the deaf man, and the healing of the Syrophoenician woman's daughter. So today, we're going to put our focus on miracles.
Well, I want to begin by thanking church member Dick Lucier once again for those wonderful words about our Stephen Ministry program. It was seven years ago now that church member Paul Burdick and I went to Pittsburgh for a week-long Stephen Ministry training. And at that training, there were more than 300 people from more than 60 Christian denominations.
Well, as I mentioned at the top of the service today, the theme for our worship today is being at home with God. And so I've titled My homily this morning. “There is no place like home.”
There's no place like home! That’s the truth. And of course, we all know that quote from The Wizard of Oz. It's one of my favorite spiritual stories of all time. Now, I know that many of you think that the Wizard of Oz is merely a children's story, but it is actually a very profound and very powerful spiritual story. It's a story that has its roots right here in West Michigan.
Well, let me start off by saying that no, I did not make a mistake and read the Gospel reading from two Sundays ago. I promise it is not the same reading, although it sounds almost exactly the same. If you look at it, it's a continuation of that reading. And Jesus just repeats himself. He says the same exact thing he said in the earlier passage -- whoever eats of the bread of life will live forever.
After hearing that horrible story, I wonder if you paused even for a moment before responding, “Praise to you, Oh Christ.” It’s a hard passage to give praise for. It’s a horrendous story, full of debauchery, murder, corruption, lying, even stupidity.
Well, most of you know that I grew up Catholic. And when I was in Catholic elementary school, I served as an altar boy. Maybe some of you did, too. Now, back then, when people came up for communion on Sunday, they didn't receive the wafer in their hand, they received Communion on their tongue. And so we had a really important job. During communion, we held a gold plate, called a paten under people's chins. In case the wafer fell out of their mouths, we had to be sure to catch it. And if it ever hit the floor, boy, were we in trouble!
Well, I think I've shared with you before, a story about my late grandmother. My grandmother lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment above a carpet store in Queens, New York. And most Sunday afternoons, our entire extended family -- aunts, uncles, and cousins -- would cram into that little tiny apartment. And my grandmother would cook a big Italian feast for us. Although my grandmother was not a wealthy woman, there was always so much food, so much so that we all went home with leftovers. And my grandmother would say that Italian word "Abbondanza!", which means “abundance.”
Well, if you were with us last Sunday, you know that I mentioned that this past week, I was so honored and proud to serve as a delegate at the UCC National Synod. The National Synod is a biennial gathering of all the 5,000 UCC churches in the United States. This year, it was held virtually, but it was still so meaningful. And at this past week's Synod, we as a denomination passed several very important resolutions. In the coming weeks, I am looking forward to sharing those resolutions with you. But one of the resolutions that we passed this week was that we as a denomination, commit ourselves to becoming a “Church of Contemplatives in Action.”
Well as most of you know, our Director of Music, Peter Black, and our special musicians do such an amazing job every week at choosing and selecting songs that match and enhance our lectionary readings for each Sunday. But as we just heard, the Gospel reading from today's lectionary, which I just read for you, is all about the beheading of John the Baptist. And we really don't want to be singing songs about beheadings, do we?
Well, in a couple of weeks, I'm so excited that I will be representing our church and our denomination at the UCC National Synod. The Synod is a biennial national gathering of all the 5,000 UCC churches in the United States. And I'm so honored that this year I have been selected as one of the synod delegates.
As I mentioned at the top of the service, today, we in the United Church of Christ are celebrating Open and Affirming Sunday, in which we celebrate our denomination's rich history of Inclusive Welcome to the LGBTQ community. And we are so proud that our little church here, Douglas UCC, was one of the very first Open and Affirming churches in the entire United States. That was more than 30 years ago.
Well, many of you know that during the pandemic, I led several weekly online centering prayer sessions for all of you, in which I joined you, virtually from the meditation room in my home. And if you joined us online for one or more of those sessions, you probably noticed that I have this beautiful painting hanging above my meditation altar at home. I brought it in for you today to show it to all of you. This beautiful painting is called "Walking on Water," by the artist Julius von klever. As you can see, it depicts the story of Jesus walking on the water. And I have this on such prominent display in the room where I pray, because it is a reminder for me that when I'm going through storms in my life, that the presence of the Christ walks with me.
I really loved our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning by Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, which Chris read so beautifully for us. How many of you have heard of Reverend Nadia before? Okay, quite a few of you! She's become very popular in the past few years. And if you haven't read any of her books, or watched any of her videos online, I highly encourage you to do so. This is probably her most famous book, it's called "Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint." You can see her there on the cover.
When I was a little boy growing up in New York, I would often hear stories from my parents and grandparents about hardships that they lived through in their lives. They would tell me about challenging periods in their lives -- living through the Great Depression, and World War II. I remember as a boy listening to their stories, and thinking, “How in the world did they live through such scary and uncertain times, times of great worry, and fear, and suffering, and death?”
In my office over at the Retreat House, I keep a copy of this old church bulletin. I’ve been the pastor here for 7 years now, but this bulletin is from 10 years ago, from all the way back in 2011. It was from the very first Sunday I ever stepped foot inside this church, and I’ve kept this bulletin all of these years now as a reminder of the day something extraordinary happened to me.
Well, as I mentioned at the top of the service, today we’re celebrating Jesus’s ascension into heaven. As we heard in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is enveloped in a cloud, and he’s lifted up into the heavens, as the apostles look up in astonishment.
In our gospel reading today for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” But, which commandments is Jesus talking about here? Is he talking about The 10 Commandments that Moses received from God back in the Old Testament, or is he talking about the new commandments that he gave us in the New Testament?
Well, today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches,” is one of my all-time favorites. I think that the symbol of “the vine” is the perfect metaphor to explain our connection with “the Di-vine.” But, before I get to that, I want to take a moment to briefly talk about another reading from today’s lectionary, from the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 8. Verses 26-40.
Well, many of you know that before I became a pastor, I was a high school English teacher, and to this day, I just love playing around with words. I especially love “mash-up” words, which is when you put two words together to create a new word.
Well, I’m not ashamed to admit that one of the TV shows we watch a lot in our house is “Judge Judy.” And, if you ever watched her show, you know that plaintiffs and defendants in the courtroom often bring witnesses with them to testify on their behalf.
Well, I recently watched a fascinating documentary series on Netflix called “Wild, Wild, Country,” which is about a religious cult in rural Oregon. And, it is so interesting to me that people who are so intelligent and kind and compassionate and so seemingly well-adjusted can be so easily caught up in the pull of a religious cult.
Well, I became the pastor here at Douglas UCC in March of 2014, nine months after my mother died. She never got to see me preach a service, but I feel her presence all the time. That first Easter Sunday service that I led here at Douglas UCC seven years ago, was the first Easter without my mother, and I wasn’t sure how I would get through it without her.
Well, of all the Sundays on the church calendar, the Palm Sunday service (which we’re celebrating today) is the worship service with the most dramatic shift in tone. If you recall from previous years, we normally begin the Palm Sunday service with great joy and celebration, waving our palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna in the Highest!” But, we end our Palm Sunday service each year in a dramatically different way… in complete silence and darkness.