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Religious but not Spiritual

Children's sermon
For May 27, 2018:
  • Religious but not Spiritual by Dean Feldmeyer -- Try as we might, we all have “blind spots” that, if not treated, can block us from being the faithful Christians we aspire to be.
  • Whole emptiness by Tom Willadsen -- “Well I better learn how to starve the emptiness/and feed the hunger” from “Watershed” by the Indigo Girls
  • Sermon illustrations by Ron Love, Mary Austin and Mary Austin.
  • Worship resources by George Reed that focus on our blind spots versus God’s all knowing; God’s glory being experienced. 
  • Born Again Butterfly -- Children's sermon by Bethany Peerbolt -- The life cycle of a butterfly can be used to show how something already born can have a re-birth into a new creature.

Religious but not Spiritual
by Dean Feldmeyer
John 3: 1-17

Nicodemus should know.

He’s a Pharisee, for crying out loud.  “A leader of the Jews.”  A trustee. Chairman of the church council. He tithes. He’s the first one to arrive and the last one to leave any church meeting. Sits about halfway back, right in the middle, with his family, every Sunday.  Teaches a Sunday School class. Look at him, talk to him for even a moment and you just know he is, as my grandmother used to say, “good, church people.”

But, when it comes to theology, he’s got this one big blind spot. He thinks it’s all up to him.  He believes he can work hard enough and be good enough to claim a reserved, orchestra section seat the Kingdom of God.  He believes that he can earn the right to enter the kingdom and this belief makes him a man who is religious but not spiritual.

Jesus’ corrective is to give him something to do that is impossible – he must be reborn – which sends the Pharisee in to a paroxysm of questions.  Will the Jesus treatment work?  Will Nicodemus regain his theological sight?

We all have blind spots – social, political, theological – and the corrective treatment, the key to regaining our sight is Jesus.

In the News
Israel should know.

Of all the people in the world, the Israelis know better than most, the devastating, soul wrenching experience of being a people without a home or a hope. The word “diaspora” which is used to speak of the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world after 70CE, entered the English lexicon as a result of their experience.  They were people without a homeland.

By the 1930’s in Europe, antisemitism reached a zenith under the Nazis. 

As the Nazis gained power in Germany many Jews saw the handwriting on the wall of Europe and fled. Buy 1938 nearly 500,000 Jews had immigrated to Palestine, then a British protectorate. 

When World War II ended and the Holocaust was put on display for the whole world to see, hundreds of thousands of Jews were freed from ghettos, concentration camps, jails, and prisons. More came out of hiding to find their homes destroyed, their belongings looted, their valuables stolen.

And many, if not most of them were wondering where they would be able to live free with at least some measure of safety. In the years immediately following the war, about 300,000 more European Jews immigrated to Palestine in spite of British attempts to tighten immigration.  By 1948 European Jews made up one third of the population of Palestine.

But Palestine was still under British control and the Jews who moved their lived in the country at the pleasure of the Queen. It was not their home.  They had, in fact, no home at all.

After a long civil war, the British left Palestine and on May 14, 1948, the Jewish People's Council gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum and proclaimed the establishment of a Jewish state to be known as the State of Israel.

At long last, they had a homeland.

But what of the Palestinian people whose home that land was before the Jews claimed it as their own?

It would seem that the State of Israel has a blind spot where the Palestinian people are concerned.  The fact that these people live, by and large, in abject poverty with no nation to call home does not seem to register with the Israelis.

And until that blind spot is addressed, peace in the Middle East will continue to be a wish dream and a fantasy.

White people in America should know, but…

Say the phrase “White Privilege” in much of the United States and you are in for a serious quarrel. For many white people, those are fighting words.

They have had to work hard for the things they have and they can’t accept that their race made their lives even one ounce easier.  If they haven’t experienced white privilege, it must not exist.  After all, we all know some poor white people so don’t talk to me about white privilege, right?

Only, it does exist.  No one is saying that white people don’t work hard for what they have. But we are being asked to consider how much harder we might have had to work to accomplish the same thing if we were people of color.  Or would we have been able to accomplish those things at all? Many of us who enjoy the pale skin privilege have a big blind spot when it comes to this or any other discussion of race or racism in America. 

American feminist and Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women, Peggy McIntosh, puts it this way: “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”

Whether we are taught not to see, as McIntosh says, or whether we are not taught to see, the resulting blind spot is just as real and the damage it can do is just as severe.

Unless the blind spot is addressed, we cannot have the kind of relationships with our brothers and sisters that Jesus calls us to have.

Parents should know.

Let’s bring it down to the very local and very specific instance, shall we?

Certainly, we who are parents or grandparents have ever had a blind spot where our kids or grandkids are concerned, right?  But, boy, those other people.  Are you kidding me?

What? Why that’s impossible!  My child would never bite your child.  It’s just not in him to do such a thing. He’s never been violent at home.

What? Tease other children?  No way.  My daughter has been raised to not do such things.  She knows better.

Yeah, right.

Until that blind spot is corrected, don’t look for many invitations from other parents.  Until we can see our children as who they really are or can be play dates are going to come few and far between.

It’s not so much the religious bigotry or racism or parental neglect that causes the separation and estrangement in these cases.  It’s the blindness we have that keeps us from seeing clearly.  And until that blindness is corrected, the estrangement can only continue to grow.

In the Bible
Nicodemus seems to get that.

He sees or hears in Jesus something special, some new slant on the old Jewish theology of the Law. What is it, he wonders, that gives Jesus his power, his ability to do the things he does – heal the sick, cast out demons, draw crowds numbering in the thousands? 

So, he comes to Jesus to meet with him face to face to find out.  Granted, he comes at night, sneaking and skulking around in the shadows so none of his friends can see him, but he comes, so give him that.

He starts with flattery: “Jesus, we know that you are the real deal.  No one could do what you do without the blessing of YHWH.”

 John doesn’t elaborate but there is a subtext, here.  There is an unspoken question that Nicodemus wants to ask Jesus and it’s the same question that was asked by the rich, young man.  “What must I do to enter the Kingdom of God?”  Only in Nicodemus’s case it would probably be more like: “Hey, you are powerfully blessed by God.  So how do I get me some of that?”

As we have said, Nicodemus has one tragic flaw and it comes out clearly in this unspoken question which Jesus doesn’t even wait for him to ask.  Nicodemus thinks he’s in charge.  He thinks there is something he can do, some law he can obey, some task he can perform, some committee he can chair, some charitable contribution he can make that will be so grand, so elegant, so marvelous that God will have no choice but to open the doors wide and welcome old Nicodemus into the Kingdom.

And that’s his blind spot.

He is so steeped in the theology and tradition of the Law that he can’t see past it. A concept like grace just isn’t on his mental map.  He wants and he needs to be in charge of his own salvation.  He wants to control God.  And this long standing need has turned him into a man who is religious but not spiritual.

Rather than subject Nicodemus to a long lecture on theology or a doctrinal treatise on the Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace, Jesus goes along.  Yeah, Nicodemus, he seems to say.  I guess there is one thing you can do and here it is:

You must be born anew.

Yeah, that’s one translation.  The American Standard Version and the Common English Bible.  There are others. 

New Revised Standard Version and The Message = born from above.

King James Version & New International Version = born again

Each has its own advantages and disadvantages but they all make the same point.  Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must do something that he can’t do.  No one can decide to be born the first time and no one can decide to be reborn whether we call it “anew” or “from above” or “again.”

When it comes to being born or reborn it happens or it doesn’t happen and there’s not much we can do about it.  It’s not up to us.

Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’s blind spot is to, in effect, tell him to stop being so in charge.  Stop trying to control your own salvation and accept the fact that you are accepted.  Accept the fact that your sins have already been forgiven and your guilt is taken away.  Accept the fact that you have already been reborn in God’s grace and all you have to do to reap the benefits is accept that grace with thanks and celebration.

In the Pulpit
I should have known…

Up until about a year ago I drove a Chrysler Town and Country van which I loved.  That is, I loved it all except for this one dent in the right, passenger side back door.

I got that dent in the door trying to back out of a tight parking place at night, in the rain, in a souvenir shop parking lot in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  (As you can imagine, it put kind of a damper on the vacation.) 

And I should have known.  I should have remembered that I had a blind spot on that side of the van that could not be compensated for with mirrors.  To honor it I had to shift my body, twist my shoulders, turn my head and actually look out the window and that took time and was really uncomfortable so I decided to rely on the mirrors instead.

And that’s how I got the dent in the door.  I ran into one of those parking posts that was painted yellow so it could be seen if I had shifted my body and twisted my shoulders and turned my head.  But I didn’t.  I didn’t address the blind spot. So I damaged the van.

Any time we don’t honor and address our blind spots, something, and sometimes, someone, gets damaged.

I didn’t get the dent fixed.  I don’t know why.  But I do know that for as long as I had that van, every time I looked at the passenger side I was reminded to remember my blind spot.

That was just a van.  A thing.  And the dent in the door did not significantly change or lessen my quality of life.

Other blind spots are not so insignificant or forgiving.  They can cause major damage to our lives, our relationships, our mental health if they are not honored and addressed.

They can cause or at least contribute to ongoing, chronic violence and war in the Middle East.

They can erect a wall of separation and estrangement between races with people on either side trying to out shout each other about whose lives matter.

They can deny us the companionship and friendships that might otherwise hold us up and support us when we are anxious or afraid or just a little bit lonely.

Today’s text offers us a way of treating our blind spot and that solution is Jesus Christ.  It is both as simple and as complicated as being born and the key is to be found in letting go of our need to control and allowing ourselves to be reborn as new, loving, trusting, vulnerable human beings.

If we can do that, then our blind spots may not vanish but we will have the strength and flexibility to make the shifts and changes necessarily to see through them and to avoid the dangers that inevitably await us.

Whole emptiness
by Tom Willadsen
Psalm 29, Isaiah 6:1-8

There’s an interesting contrast between being full and empty, in this week’s Old Testament lessons.

The call of Isaiah, 6:1-8, is obviously included as a Trinity Sunday reading because the seraphs call to each other “Holy, holy, holy” antiphonally in the temple.  This can only recall the hymn of the same name, which goes on to mention “seraphim and cherubim.”

Isaiah was most likely serving as a prophet in the temple when he had this experience.  His dating it from the year of the death of King Uzziah, establishes the authenticity of Isaiah’s experience in the presence of the Lord.  His call story shares features of other call stories in the Old Testament:  Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s calls contain

• An initial encounter with the Lord;
• A commission
• Resistance
• Reassurance (This feature is absent from the call of Ezekiel.)

Isaiah is in the temple and he sees the Lord enthroned above, and sees the seraphs flying and singing.  (The mention of the seraphs’ wings covering their “feet” may seem a little odd.  In the Hebrew scripture feet is often a euphemism for “nakedness,” as one source I used called it.  Nakedness itself is a euphemism for “naughty bits,”  which is itself a euphemism….)

The temple is full of the hem of the Lord’s robe, the seraphs are flying and singing, “The whole earth is full of your glory,” words that appear in many communion liturgies as the sanctus

The temple is also filled with smoke from sacrificial incense.  In this setting Isaiah realizes that he’s in peril. Not only is he in the presence of the Lord with impure lips; he’s also part of a people with unclean lips!  This is Isaiah’s resistance to his call as a prophet of the Lord. 

Isaiah is reassured when a seraph brings a live coal from the altar and touches it to the prophet’s lips, announcing that his guilt was gone and his sin erased.

Then Isaiah overhears the Lord wondering whom the Lord could send.  Isaiah volunteers, “Here I am, send me,” recalling the vocational hymn, “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky,” also known as “Here I Am, Lord.”

In this brief scene, the temple is filled with both the hem of the Lord’s robes and smoke. 

Psalm 29 speaks of a different kind of fullness, emptiness and divine presence.  It begins with three verses advising the heavenly beings to raise their voices to praise the Lord, but it goes well beyond that.

Verses 3 through 9 mention “the voice of the Lord” seven times.  Seven is the number associated with completion or perfection in biblical Hebrew. 

The voice first speaks from the heavenly waters, above the earth and sky, the origin of rain.  Next the psalm describes a thunderstorm, Here one might want to use local images for the breadth and power of a thunderstorm in one’s own area.  In my case it would be the silver maple trees that are split, shredded and denuded and the glacial moraine on the far side of Lake Winnebago that skips like a calf.

The geographical references in the psalm indicated that the whole region from the north of Lebanon to the wilderness of Kadesh in the distant south are filled and overwhelmed by voice of the Lord.  References to thunder recall “How Great Thou Art.”

While the Lord of the universe sits above Creation, above the heavenly waters that the surround the earth in Hebrew cosmology, “the Lord sits enthroned over the flood…”  The Mighty Lord whose power is manifest in the storm, imparts the Lord’s own strength to the people, and blesses them with shalom or peace.

The Lord even fills the distant wilderness to the south.  There is not a place on earth, or in heaven, where the Lord is not in control.  We see the same concept expressed in Psalm 139:7-10.

This mighty Creator, who sits above Creation, is not aloof from Creation.  The Lord is conscious of the needs of the people, sending a seraph to empower a prophet to speak on the Creator’s behalf.  This is the Lord Creator described in Ephesians 4:6 “Who is above all, and through all, and in all.”

Finally, the term “glory” is worth exploring.  The seraphs sing to one another, “the whole earth is full of his glory.  Each Sunday most churches sing “Glory be to the Father…” what exactly is “glory?”

The term can be rendered into English as “power,” “might,” “importance,” “weight” or “gravity.”  When ascribed to the Lord, what does glory mean?  As I have tried to define that word when it is applied to the Lord, it is important to emphasize the glory isn’t merely an impressive display of power; it is an awe-inspiring display of power.  One that takes one’s breath away, one that makes the one experiencing it to exclaim, “Glory!”

I find it best to describe the feeling, rather than define the word.  Thunderstorms are one of many ways God’s glory leads believers to look beyond Creation to its Creator.  Or perhaps as Ray Stevens sang in my youth:

Everything is beautiful in its own way

Like a starry summer night or a snow covered winter's day

Everybody's beautiful in their own way

Under God's heaven, the world's gonna find a way
Actually, Ray Stevens really conveys the whole psalm in those four lines.  The awe-filling beauty of Creation, with God’s tender care for each person individually.  Even the emptiness one might experience in the wilderness is filled, and complete by the Living God.  Glory indeed.


From team member Ron Love:

The documentary Notorious RBG in now in theaters. The film is a biographical presentation of Ruth Barber Ginsberg. It follows her life from childhood, her work as an advocate for Women’s Rights with the American Civil Liberties Union, and her appointment and work as a justice of the United States Supreme Court. The film is directed by Betsy West. West said the film is important because “we felt many of her millennial fans don’t know her full story.” West was impressed that when she approached Ginsberg about the project and her answer was “not yet.” West said. “We noticed that two words not in her email to us were ‘no’ and ‘never.’” Realizing that no and never weren’t an answer, West got started on the project anticipating Ginsberg would be involved in the future. Ginsberg was more than cooperative with the project.

Application: When we are summoned to a task for the church, we may say “not yet,” but we don’t say “no” or “never.”

* * *

The documentary Notorious GBG in now in theaters. The film is a biographical presentation of Ruth Barber Ginsberg. The movie is based on the book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Barber Ginsburg. The film tells the story that when Ginsburg was admitted to Harvard Law School, a dean famously asked her and the other eight women in the class why they deserved to take a place in the class that should have gone to a man. The answer can be found in that Ginsburg became a justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Application: Ginsburg had the stamina to say, “Here am I; Send me!”

* * *

Holy Spirit
Starbucks has always put forth a strong advocacy policy for equity between the races. This is why when two African American men were arrested at a Philadelphia store for wanting to use the bathroom, not having purchased anything while waiting for a business meeting, it became national news and a public embarrassment for Starbucks. The CEO of the company, Howard Schultz, said he wants all customers who come in “to feel welcome.” Until now, it was up to each individual store manager to set the restroom policy for their establishment. This has now changed as Starbucks will open their bathrooms to all individuals, regardless if they do or do not make a purchase. Schultz said he did not want people to feel “less than” if they were refused access. He went on to say, “We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision a hundred percent of the time and give people the key.”

Application: Paul says we are to live guided by the Holy Spirit.

* * *

Each year the Social Security Administration releases the 1,000 most popular names. The most popular name in 2017 was Emma for girls, and Liam for boys. For the fourth year in a row Emma was the top choice for girls, but this year Liam put last year's champ, Noah, into second place. Pamela Satran studies baby-naming. She said, “I think you see ethnic influences coming into play in a more indirect way. You see more parents looking back and looking for places in their lives that hold meaning that can be translated into names.” Liam reflects the large population of Irish people in the United States, who may not speak Irish but have ethnic pride.

Application: Nicodemus, when he came to Jesus, was looking for new stability in his life.

* * *

Holy Spirit
Michael Bloomberg is the former mayor of New York City. He is also, at the age of 76, a billionaire. He recently delivered the commencement address for Rice University in Houston. He said the “epidemic of dishonesty” in Washington is more dangerous than terrorism or communism. He said “lies” and “alternative realities” as national policy poses a dire threat to U.S. democracy. In his speech Bloomberg wondered how the nation’s first president, George Washington, who as a boy, said he could not tell a lie when asked if he cut down the cherry tree. Bloomberg then went on to say, “How did we go from a president who could not tell a lie to politicians who cannot tell the truth?”

Application: The Holy Spirit will guide us, as it guided Isaiah, to always tell the truth.

* * *

Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina is hardly a big-name school. The man who recently gave the commencement address, Robert Tide, who is the chief executive of Sonoco Products Company, is not a candidate for People magazine. Yet, as the local newspaper reprinted his speech, it was one of awesome wisdom. He told the graduates that they now think they are at the beginning, but life “is not so much the beginning, but the end.” Tide asked, “What will you see when you look back? What did you do along the way, as Steve Jobs said, put a dent in the universe?” Tide went on to say what you do does not have to big. He said, “Making a positive difference in someone else’s life puts a dent in the universe.” Tide later said in his address, “My humble advice to you is to first pursue a life of significance, not a life of success.” As he continued to discuss living a life of significance, he closed with a quote from Jesus and a follow-up comment, “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? I believe this is one of the most powerful lessons he gives us when it comes to leading a life of significance.”

Application: Nicodemus was looking for a life of significance.

* * *

Ian Rogers, 31, did nothing to stop her husband Jonathan Allen, 29, from torturing their ten children. Jonathan, who was a Satan worshiper, is being held on $5.2 million bail. The incidents occurred in Solano County, California. Veronica Juarez, who is the Deputy District Attorney, said when presenting the charges in court, “On a continuous basis the children were getting punched, strangled, bitten, shot with weapons such as crossbows and bb guns, hit with weapons such as sticks and bats, subjected to ‘waterboarding’ and having scalding water poured on them.” The children were 6 months to twelve years old.

Application: Some people will never understand what it means to be born again in Christ.

* * *

Israelite soldiers have shot and killed over a 100 Palestinians and wounded hundreds more at the Gaza strip. Israel said it needed to use lethal force to protect its border. A border that has been sealed off by Israel and Egypt that has left the two million people living in the region absent of sufficient food, sporadic electricity, undrinkable water and an unemployment rate of forty percent for adults and sixty-six percent for young adults. As scenes of the violence are seen on television it is reported that the cause is the move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and that Hamas is leading the protestors. This is partially true, but the real reason for the riots is desperation caused by the decades-long border blockade. Some young adults just go and stand to break the boredom of their lives.

Application: As Isaiah and Paul and Jesus were led by the Holy Spirit to the people of the world, as disciples we must follow.

* * *

Holy Spirit
In the newspaper comic the Born Loser, Brutus is standing at the office water cooler with a coworker. In the course of the conversation the coworker asks, “How was your golf yesterday?” Brutus cheerfully replies, “Very good! I shot a 110!” The coworker, in a disparaging voice, says, “I hate to be a downer, but 110 is not a very good score.” Brutus, with a sad expression, replies, “It is for me.”

Application: Paul wrote that if we live by the Holy Spirit we will be guided to be kind, not disparaging.

* * *

It was the first news conference for the new head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Lloyd Pierce. He has many young players on his team. That was one of the reason he was hired, because of his ability to connect with young players. Pierce is also well known for his passion for defense as the winning element of any game. At the news conference, seated in the front row, were four of his new players. He looked down at the payers and then up to the journalists, Pierce then said, “If we weren’t doing this press conference right now, I’d probably have these guys doing some defensive drills. That’s who I am.”

Application: As the disciples of Jesus we have to know what our calling is.

From team member Mary Austin:

John 3:1-17
Old School, and New
Jesus and Nicodemus have trouble communicating when they meet in the night.  Jesus is speaking a language Nicodemus doesn’t understand – yet.  The same can happen with writing in cursive.  Learning to write cursive is no longer taught in many schools, and is not part of the Common Core curriculum, but eleven states have laws requiring it.   Kids struggle with cursive, in the same way some older adults struggle with texting.  In Texas, a school program is helping them learn to speak the same language. 

Students learning to read and write cursive are getting some help, thanks to Tim Mallad, the father of one of those students.  He had an idea to connect the students with members of a senior living community, and proposed that they become pen pals.  “He came up with the pen pal idea and shared it with the teacher, Karen Gunter, after he sent a letter in cursive to his daughter away at camp and she couldn't read a word he had written.  "She said she was mad at me. 'Well, why are you mad at me?' 'Well, your letter.' And I'm thinking I didn't say anything bad in the letter," Mallad said. "'No, you wrote it in that funny writing.'" 

As CEO of Presbyterian Communities and Services, Mallad oversees several retirement homes and knows a lot of people who still use that "funny writing." So he helped pair up students with several seniors like 75-year-old Sue Standlee.  "It's difficult for me to do text and emails, or text, anyway, because there's so many shortened, abbreviated things, that… I don't know what they are," Standlee said, laughing.  Standlee was matched up with 9-year-old Samantha Moseley, and the pair instantly hit it off on paper.  "I feel like I'm actually talking to her," Moseley said. "This has made me like -- like to write a lot more." 

Third grade teacher Karen Gunter said the cursive lesson also allows her to teach grammar along with the mechanics of writing. It's one of the only times she knows the students are paying attention.  "When we're writing the letters, they are quiet," Gunter said…Retired writer Nancy Miller, 80, was worried she wouldn't have anything to talk about with her 9-year-old pen pal Ahan Jain.

"And in the very first paragraph or two, he says, 'I'm a Dallas Cowboys fan and my favorite player's Dez Bryant.' And I thought, 'Wow, we have a connection right away,'" Miller said. Turns out, Miller and Jain both have strong opinions on their beloved Dallas Cowboys…In a world of constant emails, texts and direct messages, the kids say there's nothing like that "funny writing" to help keep friends connected.”   

Just like Jesus and Nicodemus, it turns out that we can learn to communicate across the divide.

* * *

John 3:1-17
Lifelong Learning
Part of Nicodemus’ confusion when he talks to Jesus is that Jesus is asking him to learn something new.  He already knows quite a lot – according to Jesus, he’s a “teacher of Israel,” but he’s required to learn something entirely different now.  All of us have the potential to keep learning, according to Barbara Oakley.  “People can often do more, change more, and learn more—often far more—than they’ve ever dreamed possible. Our potential is hidden in plain sight all around us,” Oakley writes.  “She should know: Throughout her early schooling, she flunked math and science classes and resisted family pressure to pursue a science degree. Today? She’s a professor of engineering at Oakland University, after many different jobs in between.” 

Barbara Oakley has a number of recommendations for learning after our school years are over.  She recommends “learning in “chunks”—bite-sized bits of information or skills, such as a passage in a song, one karate move, or the code for a particular technical command. Practicing these regularly allows them to become second nature, freeing up space in our conscious mind and working memory so we can continue building new knowledge. (If this doesn’t happen, you may have to select a smaller chunk.)  It also helps to practice in a variety of ways, at a variety of times. To understand information more deeply, Oakley recommends actively engaging with it by teaching ourselves aloud or creating mindmaps—web-like drawings connecting different concepts and ideas. We can also try practicing in our downtime (in line at Starbucks or in the car commuting, for example), and quickly reviewing the day’s lessons before going to sleep.”  Exercise helps, too, and she says the people who read books are less likely to die in any given week.  Just like with Nicodemus, we want to know how the story ends!

* * *

John 3:1-17
Learning from Unlikely People
Nicodemus, a leader of his people, wouldn’t seem to have much to learn from Jesus, a traveling rabbi who is always on the edge of the law.  And yet, he does.  Sometimes a seemingly insignificant person can teach us a lot.  A homeless drum teacher has changed two generations of lives.

“There was a guy named Ken, who was a homeless guy in Half Moon Bay, where we live. He'd lived under the bridge at Main Street. He lived in his car and he made woodcarvings. So he had all his wood carvings lined up over there under the bridge, and he would just be hanging out there during the day…One time, I was walking along Main Street with my son, Adam, who at that time was about 12 or 13 years old. He was just beginning to get interested in drums.  He said, "Dad, I want to show you one of my drum teachers."…So he takes me over, under the bridge, where Ken is. And he said, "I'm learning drumming from Ken."

I said, "What?! You're learning drumming from this homeless guy who lives under the bridge?"  He said, "Yeah, come on down and see."  I wasn't too happy about the whole thing, but I came down, and met Ken. And I learned his story.  Ken had been a high school teacher in Redwood City nearby, and life had thrown some problems at him. He lost his job, he lost his marriage, he lost his home, he lost everything. He didn't have anything.

But as I was sitting there under the bridge with Ken, I noticed he was very calm. He seemed like he was fine. Life was just beautiful.  I asked, "Ken, how come I'm feeling like I'm really not happy with my life? I have so much, and you don't have anything. What's going on? How can you be so happy with your life?"

Ken pulled out a drum, and he started beating it.

He said, "This is the heartbeat that's always present. The heartbeat of ourselves; the heartbeat of our lives."  And he started playing his drum.  Then Adam -- you know, at 12 years old -- sits down, and he starts playing a drum, too. He was present. And when he was present, how that showed up for him was the drumbeat -- that was the basic heartbeat.

So Adam became part of a group of kids who went down under the bridge every Tuesday night and played drums together with Ken…Adam and his friends learned about contacting that basic heartbeat.

Fast forward about 20 years.

What does Adam do now? He's a music teacher in San Francisco. He goes to schools in all different neighborhoods. He says sometimes it's very chaotic, especially in the poor neighborhoods. Some of the kids are homeless, or they're not sure where their parents are going to be; there is so much going on in those kids' lives. And the way he teaches kids how to play the drums is he walks into the room. Then, rather than stand up in front of the room and instruct them -- rather than say, "Here's what music is about. Here's the C scale. Here's the D scale." -- he just sits in the room and watches the kids run around and throw stuff at each other and do what they do.

Then, he starts beating the drum.

Eventually, the kids pick up on beating the drums. And they find the beat that holds them together. That's how he starts his music lessons.

He told me about this one girl, who actually is homeless and doesn't know where her father is and her mother has some problems. No one in their family has graduated high school. She started playing the violin and she's very excited. She wants to go to college and become a musician. And he's encouraging her.”

* * *

John 3:1-17
Learning New Things
It has often been said that women will never coach major professional sports teams, but Becky Hammond, an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs NBA team, recently interviewed for a head coaching job. 

Pau Gasol, a player for the Spurs, wrote recently about learning from her coaching.  “The argument that I see most often is thankfully the one that’s easiest to disprove: It’s this idea that, at the absolute highest level of basketball, a woman isn’t capable of coaching men. “Yeah, female coaches are fine coaching women’s college basketball, or the WNBA,” the argument goes. “But the NBA? The NBA is different.”  First, I’ve just gotta tell you: If you’re making that argument to anyone who’s actually played any high-level basketball, you’re going to seem really ignorant. But I also have a simple response to it — which is that I’ve been in the NBA for 17 years. I’ve won two championships … I’ve played with some of the best players of this generation … and I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.”  He recalls an ordinary practice when “Coach Hammon stopped us mid-motion…Becky says to Dejounte, “D.J., O.K. — your bounce pass? It’s too low. You’ve got to hit Pau exactly where he needs it. Run that again.” We then talk some more as a group…and pretty soon we’re flying through. But something about that moment has just always stuck with me…She noticed a small detail out of the corner of her eye — and then instantly located both the problem and the solution. And not only that, but we were also able to communicate with each other in such a way that we got the result that we needed. It’s a good reminder, I’d say, of the importance of communication between team members — especially at the NBA level.”

The players, like Nicodemus, have learned in a way they never expected.

From team member Chris Keating:

Social Trinity -- Loving relationships in the life of God
Trinity Sunday poses all sorts of problems for preachers—the least of which is not that it falls so close to the beginning of summer. Sermons about “The Trinity” can easily fall off the homiletical track and land in obscure doctrinal ruminations. People’s minds are on graduations, Memorial Day, picnics and water skiing—and not so much on hypostatic union, perichoresis, or coeternal consubstantial persons.

The late, great Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie wisely observed that the Trinity is not a mathematical problem to be solved, but a mystery to be confessed. His classic work Christian Doctrine or the shorter Always Being Reformed are worth exploring, as is Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding. Writing from a feminist Catholic viewpoint, Catherine LaCugna’s God For Us helpfully points out the necessity of understanding how the Trinity describes God’s relational being. Richard Gaillardetz offers a concise summary which could help provide a contextual illustration for a Trinity Sunday sermon:

For LaCugna, the Trinity names how God is God for us. It reminds us that while we experience relationships as something that we are always either moving into or withdrawing from, God does not enter into relationships. Indeed, God does not have relationships at all; God is perfect relationship. "God is essentially relational," she wrote.

Moreover, if God is perfect relationship, and we are created in the image of God, then the doctrine of the Trinity is concerned with our life as well. We are called by divine grace to enter into that mode of loving relationship that defines God's very being.

* * *

Hello, Dalai!
The deep communion shared between the persons of God offers a model of friendship and relationship often overlooked in our world.  An example of this sort of deeply loving relationship is the friendship shared between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The story of their friendship is chronicled in a book written by the two of them, and co-author Douglas Carlton Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

Abrams provides a thick description of the two spiritual leaders friendship. It’s clear that these two men remain in their own distinct spiritual tradition, yet somehow experience deep and loving relationship, appreciation, participation, and support for each other that models the “Social” interaction of the Trinity:

The Dalai Lama may have been arguing against there being an essential Bishop Tutu, but at the same time there was a person, a friend that was special to him in a way that, despite his friendliness to all, was unique and clearly important to him. Jin Pa (the Dalai Lama’s personal translator) and I discussed what it was about this relationship that probably meant so much. For both of them, it was rare to have a true friend. There are, after all, not many members of the moral leaders club. Their lives are filled with people who relate to them as icons. It must be a relief to find someone who is not looking for a photo op. Certainly, they also share values at a place where the core of all religions meet,and of course they share a fantastic sense of humor. I was beginning to see how central friendship, and relationship more generally, was in our experience of joy. This was a theme that would arise many times in our week together. (The Book of Joy, p. 4, Kindle Edition, location 126.)

* * *
Isaiah 6:1-8
‘Snuff of that: a people of unclean Lips:
The nearly unending accusations of political corruption in America can be unsettling.  New York Times writer Concepcion De Leon offers three books that explore the history and consequences of corruption in the United States, including a text from Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout that traces the snail trail of American political corruption back from a diamond-studded snuff box presented to Benjamin Franklin when he was Ambassador to France to the 2010 Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision.

* * *

John 3:1-17
Nic at night: coming to grips with our blind spots
As pointed out in Dean Feldmeyer’s article this week, a critical aspect of the Nicodemus story is how he (and others) allowed their blindness to the work God was doing in Jesus occlude their ability to receive the revelation of the Word made flesh.

These sorts of personal blind spots are varied, of course, but many struggle with the discovering deep joy in life.  One example, to draw again from The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, is an individual’s understanding of where to find deep joy. Author Douglas Abrams quotes the Dalai Lama as saying:

“The ultimate source of happiness is within us. Not money, not power, not status. Some of my friends are billionaires, but they are very unhappy people. Power and money fail to bring inner peace. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside. “Sadly, many of the things that undermine our joy and happiness we create ourselves. Often it comes from the negative tendencies of the mind, emotional reactivity, or from our inability to appreciate and utilize the resources that exist within us. The suffering from a natural disaster we cannot control, but the suffering from our daily disasters we can. We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” (The Book of Joy, Kindle Edition, page 13 (location 204 of 4121.)

by George Reed

Call to Worship:
Leader: Ascribe to God glory and strength.
People: Worship God in holy splendor.
Leader: The voice of God flashes forth flames of fire.
People: The voice of God shakes the wilderness.
Leader:     May God give strength to the people!
People: May God bless all people with peace!


Leader: God calls us to experience the fullness of God’s presence.
People: We come in awe that God desires to be with us.   
Leader: God comes in love, grace and our community together.
People: We seek God in all of God’s manifest ways.
Leader: God seeks to open our eyes to divinity and to ourselves.
People: Trusting in God, we will look within at our hearts.

Hymns and Songs:
Be Thou My Vision
UMH: 451
H82: 488
PH: 339
NCH: 451
CH: 595
ELA: 793
W&P: 502
AMEC: 281
STLT: 20
Renew: 151

I Sing the Almighty Power of God
UMH: 152
H82: 398
PH: 288
NCH: 12
W&P: 31   
Renew: 54

Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
UMH: 103
H82: 423
PH: 263
NCH: 1
CH: 66
LBW: 526
ELA: 834
W&P: 48
AMEC: 71
STLT: 273
Renew: 46

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty
UMH: 64/65
H82: 362
PH: 138
AAHH: 329
NCH: 277
CH: 4
LBW: 165
ELA: 413
W&P: 136
AMEC: 25
STLT: 26
Renew: 204

Thine Be the Glory
UMH: 308     
PH: 122
NCH: 253
CH: 218
LBW: 145
ELA: 376
W&P: 310
AMEC: 157 

Sweet, Sweet Spirit
UMH: 334
AAHH: 326
NNBH: 127
NCH: 293
CH: 261
W&P: 134
AMEC: 196 

Pues Si Vivimos (When We Are Living)
UMH: 256
PH: 400
NCH: 499
CH: 536
ELA: 639
W&P: 415

O Come and Dwell in Me
UMH: 388 

Refiner’s Fire
CCB: 79   

All I Need Is You
CCB: 100

Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
AAHH: African American Heritage Hymnal
NNBH: The New National Baptist Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
W&P: Worship & Praise
AMEC: African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal
STLT: Singing the Living Tradition
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship

Prayer for the Day/Collect
O God who knows us better than we know ourselves:
Grant us the vision to see the truth deep within us
especially where we have developed blind spots;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


We praise you, O God, for you know us completely. We pray that by the power of your Spirit we may be willing to look deep within ourselves even to the depths of our blind spots. Amen.

Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins and especially how easily we ignore our own blind spots. 

People: We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We know your glory is all around us and seeks to enlighten our hearts. Yet we resist being shown where we are blind. There are ways in which we are not loving; there are many ways in which we do not reflect your glory, grace, and love. Forgive us and renew us in your Spirit that we may truly reflect you in our hearts and in our lives. Amen. 

Leader: God knows us and seeks us. Receive God’s grace and love and the strength to look deeply within. 

Prayers of the People
We praise you, O God, for your greatness. Your glory fills even the deepest void.

(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We know your glory is all around us and seeks to enlighten our hearts. Yet we resist being shown where we are blind. There are ways in which we are not loving; there are many ways in which we do not reflect your glory, grace, and love. Forgive us and renew us in your Spirit that we may truly reflect you in our hearts and in our lives.

We give you thanks for all the blessings you have bestowed upon us. You have shared your glory with us and with all creation. There is nowhere that we can avoid your glory and the wonder that is you.

(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)

We pray for one another in our need. We pray for those who remember loved ones lost in war and violence. We pray for those who find it so difficult to experience your presence and glory. We pray that we may be better reflections of your love and grace.

(Other intercessions may be offered.)

All these things we ask in the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together saying:

Our Father....Amen.

(Or if the Our Father is not used at this point in the service)

All this we ask in the Name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. Amen.

Children’s Sermon Starter
Talk to the children about the glory of God. Ask where God is. Remind them that God is everywhere. The psalmist tells us that the whole world is full of God’s glory. We can experience that love of God everywhere. There are special places where we may more easily experience God. It might be in church or when we read or are read a Bible story. It might be in the woods or at the ocean. We can experience God anywhere when we seek to find God.

Born Again Butterfly
by Bethany Peerbolte
John 3:1-17

Nicodemus and Jesus talk about the need to be born again in the Spirit. The life cycle of a butterfly can be used to show how something already born can have a re-birth into a new creature. There is also a great book by Jack Kent called “Caterpillar and Polliwog.” The story follows the title characters as they turn into “something else.” The book lends itself well to a discussion about how we turn into something else when we are born in the Spirit.

If you do not use the Jack Kent book say something like:

How many of you have seen butterfly’s flying around? Did you know they use to be something different? Butterflies start out in an egg, then they hatch as caterpillars! They live a little while as a caterpillar eating and eating then they make a cocoon. They stay in the cocoon for a few weeks and then are born again but this time as a butterfly! There are other animals that are born one thing but turn into another. Frogs are born as tadpoles and as they grow up the get legs and arms and lose their tails until they are adult frogs.

In our Bible story today, Nicodemus gets confused when Jesus says he has to be born again. What Jesus means is we are born again when we believe in Jesus. Jesus calls this being born of the Spirit. Being born of the spirit can happen at any time no matter how old or young you are. When we are born of the Spirit we get another parent, God, we get more siblings, each other, it’s a huge family!

When butterflies hatch out of their cocoon they act different than they did as caterpillars. They can fly! When we are born in the Spirit we act different too we are more loving, joyful, peaceful, patience, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and have more self-control. Don’t those things sound great? Let’s say a prayer for those things.

God of all creation, you have given the butterfly the gift to fly. We pray to be reborn into something new too. We want to be more like Jesus and be loving, kind, and gentle. Help us as we learn and grow. Amen.

Here are links to the book and a video of it being read. You can use the book in place of the opening paragraph above by reading through the story. You could also tell the story from memory after watching the video.

Youtube video

The book

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Immediate Word, May 27, 2018, issue.

Copyright 2018 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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