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.
Well, as I mentioned at the top of the service, today is the 5th Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and the beginning Holy Week leading up to Easter. Now, unlike Christmas, Easter is not a fixed date on the calendar. Christmas is always December 25, but the date of Easter changes from year to year.
One of our church’s most popular YouTube videos is a message I gave back in 2018, called “A Progressive Christian Look at John 3:16.” That video has received more than 18,000 views and over a thousand comments, most of them negative ones, accusing me of preaching heresy.
Well, I know that so many of us have been so impressed with the young people in our country who have been taking to the streets in recent years and making their voices heard on issues like climate change, gun control, and systemic racism. Throughout our nation’s rich history, it is the impassioned voices of young people that have brought about great change.
Well, if you take a look at the titles of the bestselling self-help books right now, you’ll see that they all have something to do with becoming your authentic self. Titles like: “The Authentic Life,” “The Art of Authenticity,” and “Excavating the Authentic Self.” It seems everyone nowadays who is seeking to improve their lives wants to get in touch with their authentic selves. But, what is the authentic self?
Well, some of you may have seen the very popular Netflix reality series, which is called “Tidying Up.” The show is all about a Japanese woman named Marie Kondo who comes into people’s homes to help them tidy up, to de-clutter, to get more organized. And, it truly is a spiritual process - a spiritual experience for them.
Recently, I had the honor of being interviewed by not one, but two national magazines: Slate Magazine and the National Catholic Reporter. Both magazines were interviewing me about my work with Mychal Judge.
Some of you may be familiar with Louise Hay, the best-selling spiritual writer and teacher, who made her transition in 2017. Louise published her very first book at the age of 60. That book, You Can Heal Your Life, went on to sell more than 50 million copies, making her the 4th best-selling female author of all time, after J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, and Barbara Cartland.
Well, when I was a little boy, the movie “The Exorcist” came out. Now, I was way too little to see that movie at the time, but I remember being so scared just seeing the TV commercial for it. Whenever that commercial came on, my brother and I would go running out of the room in fear.
You may remember a few months ago when I spoke with you about the Christian symbol of the cross, and how the ancient symbol of death was transformed into a symbol of resurrection, and new life.
In the Gospel reading from today's lectionary for the second Sunday after Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus calling Philip and Nathaniel to come join him with just two simple words, "Follow me." And they and the other first disciples immediately left everything behind and began to follow Jesus.
Well, like many of you, when I was a boy growing up in the church, I learned about heaven and hell, about how good people went to heaven, and bad people went to hell.